9. The Italian Frogmen Who Struck Into the Heart of a British Port
Italy’s WWII military is often derided – usually for good reason. However, one group of Italian fighting men earned the respect of friend and foe alike: Italy’s naval special forces. They were gathered into the Decima Flottiglia MAS, or “10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla”, Italy’s surface and underwater commandos. Decima Flottiglia took part in numerous daring raids during the war. During the war, the adventurous unit participated in over a dozen operations, sank or damaged five warships totaling over 72,000 tons, plus 20 merchant ships totaling over 130,000 tons.
Their exploits included the use of speedboats to sink a British heavy cruiser, the use of frogmen to attack ships anchored in Gibraltar, and the use of manned torpedoes to raid Alexandria harbor. The last was the Italian naval commandos’ most successful feat of arms. It began on December 3rd, 1941, when an Italian submarine left La Spezia, Italy, carrying three manned torpedoes. It stopped at the island of Leros in the Aegean to pick up three two-man crews for the torpedoes, then headed to Alexandria, Egypt.
8, Italian Naval Commandos Went After One of WWII’s Most Heavily Defended Harbors
Alexandria harbor was the British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean headquarters and main base. That made it one of WWII’s most heavily protected sites. In 1941, Italy’s naval commandos transformed it into the site of one of the war’s most daring attacks, which was carried out with great skill and courage. The Decima Flottiglia’s manned torpedoes were 22-feet-long, battery-powered, and could do 2.5 miles per hour. They had a range of 10 miles, a submersible depth of about 100 feet, and a detachable 660-pound explosive charge.
On December 19th, 1941, an Italian submarine got to within a mile and a half of Alexandria’s harbor, and launched three manned torpedoes. From aerial reconnaissance and agents in Alexandria, the Italians had an accurate picture of the harbor’s defenses. They included shore artillery and machinegun emplacements, minefields, net barriers, and intense patrolling on the 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.
7. Italy’s Frogmen Gave the British Royal Navy a Black Eye
The Italian raiders of the Decima Flottigla lurked underwater near the entrance to Alexander harbor, and waited for the right moment. They snuck in when the barrier nets were temporarily removed to allow three British destroyers to enter. Quietly, the frogmen followed the destroyers in. Steering their manned torpedoes, the crews separated to their assigned targets. They were the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, and an aircraft carrier that turned out not to be present. So the crew assigned to attack the carrier went after the tanker Sagona, instead.
The raiders evaded the harbor’s extensive protections, and carefully maneuvered their vessels above or below torpedo nets. They dove beneath their targets’ ships, removed the warheads from their torpedoes, affixed them to the bottom of the hulls, set timers for the explosives to go off at 6 AM, and withdrew. One crew was spotted and captured as soon as they surfaced inside the harbor, but the other two crews swam ashore and made it into Alexandria. They 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. The tanker Sagona was destroyed, and a destroyer refueling from it at the time suffered significant damage.
Few people in history have led an existence as adventurous as that of Phanes of Halicarnassus (flourished 6th century BC). A Greek mercenary general of great renown, Phanes rose high in service to Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis II (570 – 524 BC). However, he turned on his employers, and during a war between Egypt and Persia, switched sides. He abandoned the Egyptians, joined the army of Persia’s King Cambyses II, and played an instrumental role in the defeat of his former employers and paymasters.
The conflict between a then-declining Ancient Egypt and a rising Persian Empire was reportedly instigated by a disgruntled Egyptian doctor in the Persian court. He was angry at Pharaoh Amasis for selecting him, out of all of Egypt’s physicians, to get dragged away from his family and sent to Persia when Cambyses wrote Amasis asking for an eye doctor. So the doctor got his payback by devising a scheme, that began with his advising the Persian king to ask for Amasis’ favorite daughter.
The disgruntled Egyptian doctor knew that a request from King Cambyses for the hand of Pharaoh Amasis’ daughter would put the Egyptian ruler in a bind. The pharaoh could accept and grow wretched at the loss of his daughter, or refuse, and offend Cambyses. Amasis did not want to send his beloved daughter to Persia, particularly because he knew that Cambyses intended her for a mere concubine, not a wife. However, he was also intimidated by Persia’s power. So he fudged, and sent the daughter of a former pharaoh, and falsely claimed that she was his.
That backfired. Soon as she reached Persia, the former princess told Cambyses that Amasis had tried to fob him off with somebody else’s daughter. That greatly upset Cambyses – who was itching for an excuse to conquer Egypt, anyhow. So he declared war and prepared to invade Amasis’ kingdom. As Amasis gathered his forces and prepared Egypt’s defenses, he managed to offend Phanes. The disgruntled Greek general decided to switch sides, and set out to join the Persians and their king. Getting there turned out to be more adventurous than he had thought it would be.
Pharaoh Amasis sent assassins to kill or capture Phanes before he reached Persia’s King Cambyses. However, after an adventurous flight that included an escape from captivity by getting his guards drunk, Phanes reached the Persians. Cambyses was trying to figure out the best invasion route into Egypt. Phanes recommended a route through Arab tribal lands. He advised the Persian king to seek safe passage from their rulers and to sweeten the request with generous gifts. Cambyses heeded Phanes’ advice, and the Arabs gladly granted him and his armies safe conduct through their territory.
By then, Amasis had died. He was succeeded as pharaoh by his son, Psamtik III. Enraged at Phanes, Psamtik tricked the Greek general’s sons into meeting with him, took them captive, and had them executed. He then had their blood drained and mixed with wine, which he quaffed down and made his subordinates drink as well. Phanes got his revenge by leading the Persian army into Egypt, acting as Cambyses’ guide and military advisor. The Persians defeated Psamtik, and forced him to retreat to his capital, where they besieged and eventually captured him. Phanes then engineered the execution of his sons’ murderer by uncovering and informing Cambyses of a plot by the captive pharaoh to stir up a revolt.
The life of a pirate is more adventurous than most, but even amongst pirates, few have led a career as adventurous as that of Edward Teach. Better known as Blackbeard (circa 1680 – 1718), he is probably the best-known pirate of all time. Blackbeard’s early life is shrouded in mystery. What is known is that he started his seafaring career as a privateer – private citizens issued letters of marque by their sovereigns, authorizing them to prey on enemy shipping.
In 1716, Blackbeard joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, who mentored Blackbeard and taught him the ropes of piracy. The protégé showed himself capable and rose rapidly to become the older pirate’s first mate. Soon, he rose even further, and became second in command, entrusted with his own sloop to operate in conjunction with Hornigold’s main ship. Before long, Hornigold’s fleet had grown to four ships. Operating out of the Bahamas, the pirates fell upon and terrorized the sea lanes.
2. Centuries Before Modern Advertising, Edward Teach Knew How to Build and Maintain a Brand
Blackbeard’s collaboration with Hornigold lasted until late 1717 when Hornigold retired from piracy. By then, Blackbeard had established his reputation as a fearsome pirate in his own right. In no small because Blackbeard paid great attention to establishing and maintaining his brand. He went out of his way to ensure that his appearance was both noticeable and terrifying to his opponents. His greatest defining feature, and the source of the name by which he became famous or infamous, was a thick and long black beard. Blackbeard was in the habit of plaiting his beard into braids, and decorating each braid with colorful ribbons.
His already ferocious appearance was made even more intimidating by the plethora of weapons he carried around. Blackbeard slung six pistols across his chest, thrust a variety of knives and daggers into his belt and boots, and wielded a wicked looking cutlass. To top it off, he attached slow burning matches to his beard, which sputtered and emitted clouds of thick smoke, and made him appear even more demonic. It was a psychologically effective display, and many ships surrendered as soon as they caught sight of the ferocious, crazy looking, and smoke spewing pirate.
1. Edward Teach’s End Was Worthy of His Adventurous Life
Blackbeard continued his piratical career after his mentor Benjamin Hornigold retired from piracy in 1717. Soon thereafter, he seized a French ship, which he remodeled. Equipped with 40 cannons, Blackbeard renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge, and made her his flagship. He then formed a pirate alliance, and used it to commit his most notorious act: a successful blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. He held the city hostage, and wreaked havoc on the seaborne trade and commerce upon which its economy depended until he was paid a ransom. Blackbeard accepted a royal pardon in 1718. However, earning an honest living did not agree with him, so he reneged on the pardon and went back to piracy.
As a result, Virginia’s governor ordered an expedition, led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy, to hunt Blackbeard down. Maynard, commanding two sloops, tracked the infamous pirate and found him on November 22nd, 1718, at anchor on the inner side of Ocracoke Island, off North Carolina. Most of Blackbeard’s men were ashore, so he found himself severely outnumbered when Lieutenant Maynard’s expedition hove into view. Nonetheless, the notorious pirate refused to surrender and met an end worthy of his adventurous life. Blackbeard put up a ferocious before he finally went down on the deck of his ship after taking five bullets and over twenty sword cuts.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading