Meanwhile, the three manned torpedoes had arrived near the harbor’s entrance. The crews decided to take a brief break and eat some rations as they decided how they were going to breach the antisubmarine net stretching across the entrance. Then, to their surprise, they saw the net being pulled aside — the barrier was being opened to allow three arriving British destroyers into the harbor. Quickly the crews got into position behind the last destroyer and entered the harbor before the net closed. The crews soon separated and headed toward their respective targets.
The crews soon separated and headed toward their respective targets.
Because his dry suit had been leaking ever since he had left the submarine and the cold water was sapping his strength, de la Penne decided to take their torpedo over the netting surrounding the Valiant instead of submerging and cutting an entrance from the bottom. The maneuver was successful, and soon the torpedo was beside the hull of the battleship. Suddenly, the torpedo began sinking for some unaccountable reason. The divers rode the submarine to the bottom, 17 meters (about 55 feet) below the surface. The divers then struggled to get the torpedo into position under the battleship. The effort proved too much for Bianchi, whose breathing apparatus was not working properly. Feeling faint, he returned to the surface to get some fresh air. But, shortly after he surfaced, he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he got rid of his malfunctioning breathing apparatus and swam to a nearby buoy to await capture.
When he discovered that Bianchi was gone, de la Penne went to the surface to find him. Failing to do so, de la Penne returned to the torpedo. Over the next 40 minutes, with agonizing slowness, he managed to get the torpedo directly below the middle of the battleship, and set the timers before swimming to the surface. He was soon discovered and, together with Bianchi, captured. The two frogmen were first taken aboard the Valiant, and briefly interrogated. They were then taken to a security hut ashore for a short time before being returned to the Valiant, where they were put in a cabin on the lowest deck of the ship.
Marceglia and Schergat reached their target, Queen Elizabeth, positioned their torpedo below its hull, and set the timers without experiencing any of the problems that de la Penne and Bianchi did. Marceglia and Schergat successfully evaded a shore patrol and got into Alexandria. The overall plan called for any commando who wasn’t captured to try and find a boat and rendezvous with the submarine Zaffro that had been dispatched for this purpose. But the two were captured three days later by Egyptian police for suspicious behavior.
By the time Martellotta and Marino reached their target, the tanker Sagona, Martellotta had become sick and was vomiting, the result of exposure and the inhaling of pure oxygen from his breathing apparatus. Martellotta had to remain on the surface while Marino positioned the torpedo beneath the tanker and set the timers. After Marino had done so, the two commandos reached shore and, like Marceglia and Schergat, were apprehended by the Egyptian police.
“The enemy were for some time unaware of the success of their attack. …”
The explosives of all three torpedoes had been set to detonate at 0600. At 0550, de la Penne asked to see the captain of the Valiant. He told the captain that his ship would shortly be blown up. De la Penne refused the captain’s demand for details, and for this refusal, was returned to his cabin. At 0600 the charge beneath the Valiant exploded, propelling Cunningham, standing on the quarterdeck, 5 feet into the air. De la Penne and Bianchi survived and were later taken to a prisoner of war camp. A few moments later the torpedoes beneath the Queen Elizabeth and Sagona blew up.
Cunningham imposed a complete news blackout in an attempt to mislead the Axis into thinking that the mission had failed. In a secret session of the House of Commons on April 23, 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed parliament of the attack and the Italian frogmen’s success. He concluded by saying, “Both [the Valiant and Queen Elizabeth were sunk] on an even keel, they looked all right from the air. The enemy were for some time unaware of the success of their attack. …”
But Churchill was wrong. On Jan. 8 and 9, the Italian high command issued two bulletins identifying that the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant had been heavily damaged. Naval power had now swung in the Regia Marina’s favor. Axis forces under German Gen. Erwin Rommel could now be easily supplied, and Italy was in a position to win the war in the Mediterranean. Yet, to Borghese’s disgust, it didn’t happen. He accused the German high command of refusing to allot enough fuel to the Italian air force and navy so it could exploit the opportunity. By the end of 1942, with Operation Torch in the west and the British 8th Army’s offensive in the east, the Allies had regained the initiative.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition.