To even the most casual observer of global events in World War II, it was obvious the strategic situation during the first two weeks of December 1941 heavily favored the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy.
“We are having shock after shock out here. The damage to the battleships at this time is a disaster… One cannot but admire the cold-blooded bravery and enterprise of these Italians.”
-Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander in chief Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet
Having conquered western continental Europe in 1940, in 1941 the armies of Adolf Hitler’s Germany turned east. The conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, necessitated by a botched invasion of Greece by Italy, was followed by the invasion of the Soviet Union. In early December Hitler’s armies were approaching the outskirts of Moscow.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, because victories were happening so rapidly, Japanese success was even more breathtaking. The surprise and devastating Dec. 7 attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on American military facilities in and around the U.S. Navy port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was followed up with successful Japanese attacks and invasions ranging from Indochina and the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) in the east and south to the Philippines in the north.
Only in the Mediterranean were the Allies, primarily in the form of the British Royal Navy under the command of Adm. Sir Arthur Browne Cunningham, holding their own – barely, and not without cost. Yet, through an inspiring combination of courage, leadership, and tenacity, the intrepid Scotsman, affectionately nicknamed “ABC” because of his initials, had managed to cow the larger and more powerful Italian Regia Marina. But despite the obvious threat posed by the Italian surface fleet, a much smaller unit of the Italian Navy would prove to be the greater – and more deadly – threat to the Royal Navy: Decima Flottiglia MAS (10th Light Flotilla), one of the most effective units in the history of special operations.
Italian naval commando operations had their origin in the final days of World War I, when two Italian naval officers in a modified torpedo boat successfully entered the Austro-Hungarian navy harbor at Pola on the Adriatic Sea in what is now Croatia and sank the battleship Viribus Unitis. In the interwar years, Italian Navy Majs. Teseo Tesei and Elios Toschi developed a manned torpedo they nicknamed “maiale,” (Italian for “pig”), and officially designated Siluro a Lenta Corsa (SLC – “slow running torpedo”). The Italian Navy high command was impressed and gave its approval. Specially designed motor torpedo boats were soon added, and a special operations unit, designated the 1st Light Flotilla, was formed in 1939. In 1941, it was reorganized into Decima Flottiglia MAS and split into two parts, with one sub-unit specializing in surface operations and the second sub-unit specializing in underwater operations.
In August 1940, Junio Valerio Borghese, a submarine commander, joined the 1st Light Flottiglia. Borghese’s first mission was a raid on the strategic British base of Gibraltar, located at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. Between September 1940 and September 1941, he conducted four raids on the base. The first was aborted, the next two failed, but the fourth, in September 1941, resulted in three merchant ships being damaged. For this action, he was promoted to lieutenant commander and put in command of the sub-surface unit of what was now Decima MAS.
The name of the mission was Operazione EA3 (Operation EA3), the “3” designating this as the third attack on Alexandria.
At the same time Borghese was planning his first Gibraltar mission, another underwater commando team was conducting its first raid on the Royal Navy’s primary operating base in the eastern Mediterranean at Alexandria. That raid, and a follow-up attempt, ended in failure. But the Italians were determined to return. Their chance to do so, with the potential of swinging the balance of power back to the Italian Navy, finally presented itself in the fall of 1941.
Through reports from agents in Alexandria and aerial reconnaissance flights, the Regia Marina had an accurate and detailed picture of harbor defenses at Alexandria, a formidable combination of minefields, net barriers, shore-based artillery and machine gun defenses, and constant patrols both on shore and water. A long sea wall extending from the peninsula at the north end of the harbor almost fully enclosed its protected waters. Its only opening was at the southern end, which was protected by an antisubmarine net that was only opened when authorized vessels entered. Passive defenses outside the harbor included a minefield 20 miles northwest of the harbor containing contact mines. Closer to the harbor were lines and rings of “lobster pots” – smaller mines that could be detonated manually via a radio signal.
Shortly after the successful Gibraltar mission, Cmdr. Ernesto Forza, who would be in overall command of the Alexandria raid from his base in Athens, called together a dozen of the most senior and experienced members of the underwater commandos and delivered what Borghese recalled was a brief speech: “[W]e want three crews for an operation in the very near future; all I can tell you about it is that it is differs from the Gibraltar operations in the fact that return from it is extremely problematical. Is there anyone who would like to take part in it?” To a man, they all volunteered. From that group, three maiale crews were selected: Lt. Luigi Durand de la Penne and Petty Officer/diver Emilio Bianchi (operating SLC 221); Engineer Capt. Antonio Marceglia and Petty Officer/diver Spartaco Schergat (operating SLC 222); and Gunner Capt. Vincenzo Martellotta and Petty Officer/diver Mario Marino (operating SLC 223). A backup crew, composed of Surgeon Sub-Lt. Spaccarelli and Engineer Feltrinelli, was added in the event that something happened to one of the primary crews. The name of the mission was Operazione EA3 (Operation EA3), the “3” designating this as the third attack on Alexandria.