R. Smg. Macallè

The Macallé was an Adua-class, 600 series, Bernardis type submarine. Laid down on March 1st, 1936, in the OTO shipyard in La Spezia, it was launched on October 29th, 1936, and delivered to the Regia Marina on March 1st, 1937.

The beautiful shape of hull of the 600 series. Here the Macallè still on the slip in La Spezia.

On April 20th, 1937, the Macallé was assigned to the 23rd Submarine Squadron based in Naples. After undergoing a brief training, from August 27th through September 3rd, 1937, the submarine carried a special secret mission in connection with the operations of the Spanish Civil War.

The Macallè leaving Mar Piccolo, Tranto
(Risolio Collection)

In 1938, the Macallè was reassigned to La Spezia first under the command of Lieutenant Commander Giuseppe Aicardi and then Lieutenant Commander Salvatore Todaro. Transferred to the submarine base of Mar Piccolo in Taranto, on November 14th, 1938 left for Leros (Italian Dodecanese) arriving on the 16th, and then staying there for a few months. The boat eventually left Leros on March 28th, 1939, and returned to Taranto on March 30th, 1939.

In early 1940, it was reassigned to Massawa, Italian Eritrea, to became part of the 82nd Squadron (VIII Submarine Group) of the Red Sea Flotilla. On June 10th, 1940, in the afternoon, she left Massawa under command of Lieutenant Commander Dante Morone to begin her first war patrol and operate in an area about eight miles east of the British Port Sudan.

During the patrol, the boat ran into many problems. First, due to an overcast sky, the crew couldn’t establish positioning based on celestial navigation. Second, it was difficult to clearly identify landmarks which made navigation in an area known for the many islets, outcropping rocks, shoals, and reefs quite perilous. The more serious problem started manifesting on the 12th when the crew began experiencing symptoms common to food poisoning without understanding that the real cause was methyl chloride leaking from the air conditioning system.

The itinerary

The primary target of methyl chloride (also known as chloromethane) is the central nervous system, with behavioral symptoms and neurologic effects. Overexposures can result in loss of equilibrium, dizziness, semiconsciousness, and delayed death; all the officers and almost all the crew were intoxicated, and there were some cases of madness and delirium.  Although discovered and commercialized since 1928, Freon was not used on Italian submarines until 1940 when boats, such as the Archimede, were refitted replacing chloromethane with freon,

On 14th June, at dawn, a lighthouse was sighted believed to be the Sanganeb Shallows (Sanganeb Reef Light), but it was indeed the Hindi Gider lighthouse, which was about 30 miles away from the assumed position.  This lighthouse is halfway between Port Sudan and Sawakin, about 35 nautical miles off the mainland coast. This mistake caused the loss of the Macallè because the navigation officer believed that the submarine had reached deeper waters, when in fact the unit was still in a danger zone. Quite off course, the Macallè ran aground on the rocks of the island Bar Mùsa Kebir (19°12′ N, 38°11′ E) in the early hours of June 15th. The boat ended up listed nearly 90° on one side, with the bow completely out of the water and the stern submerged.

The heavily intoxicated and non-essential personnel were disembarked on the nearby islet, Barra Musa Kebir, along with supplies and other items, while Captain Morone and some of the others tried to disentangle the submarine. It was not possible. At that point, the secret cyphers were destroyed, and scuttling maneuvers started to avoid the capture of the unit (which was close to territories controlled by the British). The Macallè, weighed down by the water taken aboard, dislodged itself and sank sliding on a seabed of 400 meters. According to other sources, however, the submarine did not sink intentionally, but was lost accidentally during the maneuvers to free it.

Captain Morone, however, forgot (probably due to the numbness produced by the intoxication), to send a distress signal to base (according to other sources the order was given before the sinking, but the radio room was already flooded). The crew of the submarine thus found themselves isolated on a minis ule desert island, with scarce supplies of food and without the base having any idea not only of where they were, but not even knowing that the Macallè had been lost.

Preparations were therefore made for a long stay. Shelters were prepared to avoid standing under the scorching sun and provisions were rationed. Since surviving on the islet for a long time would have been impossible, and the best prospect was capture by the British, it was decided that some volunteers would try to reach an Italian outpost on the coast of Eritrea to set rescue efforts in motion.

On the June 15th, in the evening, three men – Ensign Elio Sandroni, Helmsman Sergeant Reginaldo Torchia, and sailor Paolo Costagliola – boarded a small sailing boat equipped with two oars, with three bottles of water and small quantities of ham and crackers. On the 17th, they landed on the coast of Sudan, but, as it was British territory, they had to move on. On June 20th, they finally arrived at the Italian lighthouse at Taclai, Eritrea, and were able to alert the Navy command in Massawa.

A book (in Italia) dedicated to Elio Sandroni who continued in the Italian Navy to retire as a Rear-Admiral. He passed away in 2012. After saving the crew of the Macallè with a daring feat, he joined the crew of the submarine Perla. On the eve of the Italian defeat in East Africa, the Perla departed on March 1st arriving in Bordeaux on May 20th, 1941, after having circumnavigated the African continent.

An aircraft sent from Massawa parachuted on the islet food supplies and at the same time the submarine Guglielmotti set sail from that base. On June 22nd, the Guglielmotti rescued the crew of the Macallè. The survivors of the Macallè are in very poor conditions, especially as a result of methyl chloride poisoning. Many, as soon as they spotted the Guglielmotti approaching and putting a boat in the water, jumped into the sea and swam to it, not being able to wait any longer. With two or three trips of the boat, the Guglielmotti was able to recover all the survivors. It then moved away and dove (later it would resurface), just as two British planes had returned circling over the island (another aircraft had already done so before). Some of the survivors, mad or delirious from the combined effect of methyl chloride, sunstroke, and thirst, were tied up for the entire journey back to Massawa.

Sub-Chief Torpedoman Carlo Acefalo

One of the crew members, the sub-chief Carlo Acefalo, already heavily intoxicated by the methyl chloride, and debilitated by the trying experience, died on the islet on June 17th and was buried there: he was the only victim among 45 crewmen of the submarine. Ensign Sandroni received the Silver Medal for Military Valor for is valiant effort in seeking help. In 2014 a team was set up to find and recognize the remains of the fallen sailor. The remains of Carlo Acefalo returned to Rome on October 8th, 2018, and on November 23rd, to Savona. The same afternoon the box was transferred to the Town Hall of Castiglione Falletto, in the hall of the City Council. On Saturday, November 24th, in the morning, prayers and the blessing of the remains preceded the burial in the local cemetery, next to his mother Francesca. Carlo Acefalo had returned home after more than 78 years.

In that first and last was patrol the Macallè had traveled 450 miles, all on the surface.

Operational Records

TypePatrols (Med.)Patrols (Other)NM SurfaceNM Sub.Days at SeaNM/DayAverage Speed
Submarine – Coastal0145005 90.00 3.75

Crew Members Lost

Last NameFirst NameRankItalian RankDate
AcefaloCarloJunior Chief TorpedomanSottocapo6/?/1940