Raid on Alexandria
On December 3, 1941, an Italian submarine left La Spezia, Italy, carrying three manned torpedoes. Stopping at the island of Leros in the Aegean, the submarine picked up three crews of two men each to man the torpedoes, then set course for the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt – the British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean headquarters and main base – to conduct one of WWII’s most daring attacks, carried out with great skill and courage.
The raiders were members of the Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS, or “10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla” – an Italian navy unit of commando frogmen. Their manned torpedoes were 22 feet long, battery-powered, with a speed of 2.5 miles, and a range of 10 miles, a submersible depth of about 100 feet, and a detachable 660-pound explosive charge. On December 19th, 1941, the submarine carrying them got to within a mile and a half of Alexandria’s harbor then launched torpedoes and frogmen on their way.
Through aerial reconnaissance and agents in Alexandria, the Italians had an accurate picture of the harbor’s defenses, which included shore artillery and machinegun emplacements, minefields, net barriers, and intense patrolling on water as well as ashore. The sole entrance was sealed with an antisubmarine net that was only removed to allow authorized vessels to enter or exit the harbor.
The raiders lurked underwater near the entrance to the harbor and snuck in when the barrier nets were temporarily removed to allow three British destroyers to enter. The frogmen quickly followed the destroyers in. Steering their manned torpedoes, the crews separated, each to their assigned target – the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, and an aircraft carrier that turned out not to be present, so the crew assigned to attack it settled on the tanker Sagona, instead.
The raiders evaded the extensive protections within the harbor, maneuvering their vessels above or below torpedo nets until they reached their targets. Diving beneath their ships, the frogmen removed the warheads from their torpedoes, affixed them to the bottom of the enemy hulls, set timers for the explosives to go off at 6 am, and beat a retreat. One crew was spotted and captured as soon as they surfaced inside the harbor, while the other two crews swam ashore and made it into Alexandria, but were captured by Egyptian police within a few days.
The explosives went off on time, and both battleships suffered extensive damage that kept them out of action for a year, while the tanker was destroyed, and a destroyer refueling from it at the time suffered significant damage.