An Italian manned torpedo

An Italian manned torpedo
Dear Readers,
My mailbag has been the source of many Italian Connections through the years. “Grazie” to Signor J.M. (John Mancini, Executive Director of the Italic Institute of America, PO Box 818, Floral Park, NY 11002) and other Readers who take the time to type on the old Olivetti or take pen in hand to enlighten me on a variety of subjects, I can share the following with you:
Recently I wrote that when Prince Philip proposed to Elizabeth she accepted, but the engagement was not made public until a nationality and name makeover could be created... Prince Philip was the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg...and with memories of WWII bombing raids over London still fresh in the minds of the British public, it was thought best to obscure any hints of Prince Philip’s Germanic heritage.
I also wrote that Prince Philip, whom Queen Elizabeth wed in 1947, was born in 1921, across from the Golfo di Taranto, at the Royal Palace on the Greek island of Corfu.
During WWII, he served on a British warship, the Valiant. Prince Philip’s most exciting moment at sea came on March 28, 1941, when his battle squadron sank several Italian warships in the Mediterranean. In the weeks that followed, several ships in his squadron were bombed by German planes, and his vessel, the Valiant, narrowly escaped destruction.
Reminding us to avoid selective or “abbreviated” Anglo-Saxon versions of history, Signor J.M. wrote “Unfortunately, you only gave half the story of the Valiant, the part where it “sank several Italian warships”. Was Prince Philip aboard when Italian Frogmen sank the Valiant in Alexandria Harbor in December 1941?
He also enclosed the story of that attack, a remarkable feat of precision and courage by Italy’s Frogmen so that Readers would not be left with only half a story.
The Raid on Alexandria was carried out in December 1941 by Italian Navy divers, members of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, who attacked and disabled two Royal Navy battleships in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt, using manned torpedoes.
On 3 December, the submarine Sciré of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) left the naval base of La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes, called maiali (pigs) by the Italians. At the island of Leros in the Aegean Sea, the submarine secretly picked up six crewmen for them: Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi (maiale no. 221), Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino (maiale no. 222), and Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat (maiale no. 223).
On 19 December, Sciré, at a depth of 49 feet, released the manned torpedoes 1.3 miles from Alexandria commercial harbor, and the frogmen entered the naval base when the British opened their defenses to let three of their destroyers pass.
     There were many difficulties for de la Penne and his crew mate Emilio Bianchi. First, the engine of the torpedo stopped and the two frogmen had to manually push it; then Bianchi had to surface due to problems with the oxygen provider so de la Penne had to push the Maiale alone to where HMS Valiant lay. There he successfully placed the limpet mine, just under the hull of the battleship. However, as both had to surface, as Bianchi was hurt,  they were discovered and captured.
Questioned, both of them kept silent, and they were confined in a compartment aboard Valiant, under the sea level, and coincidentally just over the place where the mine had been placed. Fifteen minutes before the explosion, de la Penne asked to meet with Valiant’s captain Charles Morgan and then told him of the imminent explosion but refused to give further information, so he was returned to the compartment. Fortunately for the Italians, when the mine exploded just before them, neither he nor Bianchi were severely injured by the blast, while de la Penne only received a minor injury to the head by a ship chain.
Meanwhile, Marceglia and Schergat had attached their device five feet beneath the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth’s keel as scheduled. They successfully left the harbour area at 4:30 am, and slipped through Alexandria posing as French sailors. They were captured two days later at Rosetta by the Egyptian police while awaiting rescue by the Sciré and handed over to the British. Martellotta and Marino searched in vain for an aircraft carrier purportedly moored at Alexandria, but after some time they decided to attack a larger tanker, the 7554 gross register ton Norwegian Sagona. Marino fixed the mine under the tank’s stern at 2:55am. Both divers managed to land unmolested, but were eventually arrested at an Egyptian checkpoint.
In the end all the divers were made prisoners, but not before their mines exploded, severely damaging both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant, disabling them for nine months and six months respectively. The Sagona lost her stern section and the destroyer HMS Jervis, one of four alongside her refueling, was badly damaged. Although the two capital ships sank only in a few feet of water and were eventually raised, they were out of action for over one year and the Italian fleet temporarily wrested naval supremacy in the east- central Mediterranean from the Royal Navy.
In films, the attack is dramatized at the beginning for The Silent Enemy (1958). Another movie, The Valiant (1962), is about the sinking of HMS Valiant in Alexandria harbour. There is also a 1953 Italian movie (I sette dell’Orsa Maggiore) about the attack, including some real members of Decima Flottiglia MAS as support actors in the cast.
Grazie to Signor K.B. (Ken Borelli, president of the Italian American Heritage Foundation, 425 North 4th Street, San Jose, Calif. 95112), I can excerpt and paraphrase a bit from his I.A.H.F. message to remind you that although the Columbus Day Bill was defeated (State Assembly Bill AB55, drafted by Roger Hernandez, would have eliminated Columbus Day as a State holiday, replacing it with Native American Day), we Italo-Americans cannot let down our guard, because this anti-Columbus rhetoric has been with us for over three decades and has included many overt disruptions of our Columbus Day Parades and Celebrations throughout the U.S.A.
Signor K.B. points out that this anti-Columbus rhetoric, which may also be thinly disguised anti-Italian rhetoric, is also mean-spirited and unfair.
This type-casting is one of the reasons a state legislator would think that by removing Columbus Day as a state holiday, an event that Italian Americans identify with, you can exonerate what happened to Native American people by the hands of the dominant culture of the times. It is ironic too that the vast majority of Italians immigrated to the United States in the 1880’s, well after the destruction of Native American society by the majority culture of those times.
He also wonders why we are such easy targets for these accusations.
The same state legislator and those who are so concerned with honoring the Indians could have asked that our 7th U.S. President (1829-1837) Andrew Jackson’s picture be removed from a $20.00 bill for his horrific role in the removal of Native Americans West of the Mississippi River, known as the “Trail of Tears”. Today we call that “ethnic cleansing”. Obviously he did not. The would have required more courage than he could muster, rather he chose Columbus’s explorations which occurred 300 years before that!
One wonders, too, why Italian American heritage is on the block? In the past many Italian Americans have asked that U.S. and California history books give some mention of the Italian American contribution to American life. These requests were turned down as not relevant. And there lies part of the problem. Our American history is invisible to mainstream America. Very few of us really know about our role in the history of the USA; which incidentally is a plug for our Italian American Heritage Foundation and other Italo-American organizations’ need to exist and why they deserve our generous support!

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