Enemy Honor

The gold braid and stark white of Admiral Morgan’s crisp uniform contrasts sharply with the cracked and filthy, formerly white walls of the Taranto naval barracks. In front of these crumbling edifices that now house my team of Frogmen, we stand to await his passing at the side of Crown Prince Umberto. The Crown Prince is here to give my team medals for heroism and valor. The Admiral and I met four years ago under very different circumstances. He was Captain of the HMS Valiant when my team of Sea Devils was sent to sink his ship.

“Hello! Jack Tar, what a beautiful day!

We frogmen are coming to teach you to swim,

So we hope you’re all right, and we hope that you’re trim

We dive, but you go down to stay.”

The creed of the 10th Light Flotilla rings through the thin metal walls of Scirè, the submarine carrying our Pigs and my devilish team. At twenty-two feet long and twenty-one inches in diameter, each dark-painted Pig is propelled by silent electric motors enabling it to slide quietly through the water at a rate slower than the average swimmer. With a range of ten miles, we are not expecting to bring any Pigs back with us from this mission. Detachable warheads carry 660 pounds of explosives, just enough to blow a massive hole in any warship unlucky enough to be targeted by my motley crew.

We joined the Scirè on December 14 on the Greek island of Leros where it had been undergoing minor repairs. After removing and then repacking our Pigs in giant tubes mounted to the deck of the submarine (I don’t trust anyone else to pack my gear), we carried our rubber suits and breathing apparatus with us into the cramped and overcrowded submarine. There are no permanent quarters on the ship, so we sleep in shifts, along with the rest of the crew, in hammocks strung up in the aft torpedo room.

The Scirè requires more repairs than originally planned, so we have to wait an extra 24 hours before we can set off on our mission. This delay gives my team time to review our mission and check all of our gear. We repack the Pigs one more time to ensure that they are exactly how we want them when we are removing them under water within sight of our target.

The delay also provides time for me to write my mother three letters.

My Dear Mother: By the time you receive this letter I will be dead. I volunteered for a dangerous mission, which failed...

My Dear Mother: By the time you receive this letter, I will be back at my base. I volunteered for a dangerous mission, which was a success...

My Dear Mother: By the time you receive this letter, I will be a prisoner of war...

I give all three letters to the naval post officer, ordering him to mail only the appropriate one when the results of my mission are known.

At dawn on the 16th, we are finally able to slip away from Leros toward the Egyptian coast. My anxiety rises in transit when we receive notice that the sea conditions are unfavorable for our mission. Another 24-hour delay is imposed on us, grinding my nerves with the notion that I will have to wait one more day to find out if I am to die. The odds are slim that any of us will return, let alone be alive in a few days.

Before we left Taranto for Leros we were ordered to make wills and pack our belongings for shipment home in case we do not return. I had a difficult time deciding where to ship my things. As a naval officer, I am not supposed to be married, but I cannot fathom the idea of dying without leaving a son behind. My sweet Valeria will only expose our secret marriage in order to collect the insurance money if I don’t make it back. I could not, though, send her my belongings. She will have enough on her hands in a few months. Therefore, along with the letters, I addressed the shipment to my mother.

After sailing to the Egyptian coast, the Scirè advances slowly toward the port of Alexandria. When it is just outside of 12 miles, the Captain of the Scirè, Junio Valerio Borghese, decides to take the submarine under the surface and run it silent. His sincere fear of being spotted or encountering minefields does not deter us from achieving our proper positioning right outside the harbor gate after 23 hours of silent navigation.

We arrive just a mile outside of the harbor of Alexandria on the 18th. My 10th Light Flotilla team is only thinking of the mission. We have prepared for this attack for over six years. Our training and previous success at Suda Bay bring us the courage to engage in this moment. The latest naval intelligence reports from our Command in Athens confirm that the battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth are in the harbor. These are what remain of the main elements of British naval power in the Mediterranean since our German submarines sank the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battleship HMS Barham in November. If these two battleships could be taken out, the Italian and German convoys supplying Rommel’s forces in Libya could sail safely. We could capture Cairo, drive the British out of North Africa, and cut the British Empire in two by taking of the Suez Canal. The British know and fear such an outcome. Therefore, they placed their remaining battleships in what they believe to be the safety of the well-guarded harbor of Alexandria. My devilish band is here to belie that belief.

At twenty-seven, I am the old man of the team, but not the only officer to have come out of the Academy at Livorno. Assigned to attack the Valiant with me is Petty Officer Emilo Bianchi. Targeting the Queen Elizabeth, Lieutenants Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat are donning their rubber suits on my left. Lieutenants Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino, who are to direct their attack at the 16,000-ton fleet tanker Sagona, are directly behind me. We are teams 1, 2, and 3 respectively.

We have planned the attack well. Each team knows the primary mission by heart. Once in position under the enemy ship, we are gingerly to detach the 660-pound explosive from the Pig’s nose, secure it to the ship’s keel, and set the timer. Then, still mounted on the Pig, we are to start the motor, glide away from the ship, and surface.

The time fuses are already set. The Sagona will explode at about 5.55 a.m., the Valiant at 6.05, the Elizabeth at 6.15. We are also carrying floating incendiary bombs to scatter in the tanker’s spilled oil to ignite a fire across the whole harbor. What we have not practiced well is what occurs after our attack. There are vague plans to steal a fishing boat and rendezvous with the Scirè on the 24th, but those details have yet to be worked out. After all, it is only after achieving our primary and secondary missions that we can really begin to think about escape. We know full well that none of us will probably make it that far.

I slide my six-foot frame into the rubber suit, an action my muscles are so used to I no longer catch my left foot on the odd angle of the knee as I slip my leg into the dark inflexible material. Pulling up the suit so that my body is covered is a two-person job. The rubber resists every attempt to change its shape. Emilo helps me place my breathing device and my watch, which is synchronized with the team and the submarine. It is now 9:21 p.m., and we are set to exit the Scirè.

The air hatch is unsealed so that each man can exit the submarine in turn. The Scirè is sitting just above the floor of the ocean, one mile from Alexandria harbor. As each of us escapes the confines of the metal tube for the compressing pressure of the ocean, we feel relieved that we are finally starting what we have been trained to do.

As we unpack the Pigs from the tubes on the deck of the submarine, the hatch on Pig 3fails to open. Marino is not one to accept failure, particularly before the mission even starts, so he attempts to pry the hatch open with his knife. The knife slips, slashing across his arm. The rubber suit is compromised, his arm is cut, and he looks to be in quite a bit of pain.

Because we cannot talk to each other under water, I tap Marino on the shoulder and point to the submarine’s air hatch. I am offering him a chance to go back into the Scirè to get patched up and sit this mission out. He waves me off and starts again on the stuck hatch.

Martellotta brings over a bandage, and they fix Marino up.

We are able to open the hatch on Pig 3 by prying it open with the handle of a wrench.

I look at Marino’s arm and his suit. He gives me thumbs up.

I wave to each man before signaling to move out.

Sitting astride the Pig, my head protrudes above the water. Our little craft move slowly toward the harbor lighthouse as we sing to ourselves.

“Hello! Jack Tar, what a beautiful day!

We frogmen are coming to teach you to swim,

So we hope you’re all right and we hope that you’re trim

We dive, but you go down to stay.”

We make slow progress toward the harbor. When we are about a quarter of a mile from the steel net protecting the harbor entrance, I order the teams to stop. This is the best chance we have of eating before we are too busy to think about food. It is now almost midnight, and the growl of my stomach would betray me to any guards with a keen sense of hearing.

As a group, floating on our bomb-laden Pigs that we have brought to a line side by side, we eat what could be our last meal. I pry open a sealed canister of cold chicken. Emilo shares the bread he is carrying. Antonio produces small bottles of champagne given to him by Captain Borghese.

Food, even canned food, brings forth an extreme pleasure when consumed atop a bomb-laden torpedo bobbing in the ocean outside of a well-guarded harbor housing ones target of destruction and potential resting place. I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted a more satisfying meal.

We finish our food, packing the debris into a sack that we weigh down with an incendiary bomb before letting it fall to the bottom of the ocean floor.

The moment has arrived to approach the steel net and make our way into the harbor. Each of the Pigs carries pneumatic cutting shears we could use to make a hole in the net, but they are so noisy I would prefer not to use them if I can avoid it. I quieted my stomach so there is no sense in giving myself away with a pneumatic device in the still of the night. Not to mention, in our failed attack on Gibraltar, we learned the hard way that the British plant explosives on their net to kill anyone attempting to sabotage it.

I waive my hand to order a halt. The teams stop.

I need to decide exactly how to tackle the net.

A moment goes by, then two.

As I am questing using the pneumatic cutters the lighthouse and the harbor suddenly light up before us. The whole area is awash in light.

They could not have seen my team yet!

The anti-submarine net begins moving.

They’re opening the net!

Three British destroyers appear out of the darkness, heading for the harbor entrance.

I wave my team forward. We slip through the ever-widening opening in the net.

I cannot believe they opened the net for us.

The frothy wakes of the three destroyers toss our little Pigs as we use them for cover for our entrance into the harbor. The enthusiasm for our stroke of luck is tempered by the wild ride we endure following so close to the ships. Every moment, I look up at the ships, half-expecting to see a searchlight illuminate my team, exposing us to deadly attack in this open and highly vulnerable position.

Only my eyes and ears are above the water. Yet, even at night, under blackout conditions, it is still easy to single out a ship for destruction. There may be the gleam of a match to be seen or a line of singing heard. These marks remind me that what I am seeking to destroy is alive.

Pulling out of the wake of the destroyer, I am able to calm the motion of our Pig. Using this moment of relative peace, I take a compass bearing. I should be only a short distance from the Valiant. Turning to my left, I can make out the grey outline of her majestic scale in the dark haze of the night. I begin maneuvering my little Pig toward the great ship and its ultimate demise.

About 300 meters away from the ship, Emilo and I run into a protective net. This is not worth cutting with a pneumatic device at all. We are close enough to the ship that everyone on board would hear us.

I turn around to Emilo and raise my hand. To myself I say, “Let’s lift the net.”

Emilo and I strain, but the net will not budget. The mesh wire leaves a lead feeling in my hand for about thirty seconds after we let go.

We cannot be foiled so close to our target.

Emilo raises his hand before letting it fall again.

“Good idea!” I reply, knowing full well my words never made it out of my mouth.

We pull the Pig up so that it is horizontal to the net. Then, putting our arms under it, we lift it out of the water, gingerly rolling it over the net, so that it does not splash on the way down. The whole time my heart and mind are racing. Don’t make a sound! Don’t make a sound! Don’t make a sound!

No sound is made. We did it. We are inside the torpedo net!

I get back on top of the Pig and immediately flood the diving tank. The water closes over my head.

Everything is cold, dark, and silent.

While we were training for this mission, we researched the design specifications of the Valiant. We came to the conclusion that the best place to attach the warhead is below the Number 1 turret. Unfortunately, I did not look at where we were in relation to that turret before diving under the water.

I need to see where that turret is.

Emilo stays with the Pig as I surface to see where we are in relation to the mountain of a ship towering above us.

In order not to lose contact with the Pig, I unreal a coil of cord that I can follow back when I am done.

I surface just enough for my eyes to make out the massive outline of the Valiant. We are about 30 meters out of position, so we will have to adjust. Returning to the Pig, I assume my position behind the steering console where I turn the grip to propel the sloth-like beast forward.

Nothing happens.

I turn the grip again.

Again, nothing happens.

The cord must have gotten caught in the propeller.

Turning to point Emilo toward the propeller, I am shocked to find that he is not there.

“Shit!” I blurt out to no one in particular.

Where in the hell could he have gone?

I’ve to do this myself now.

Damn it!

I reach for the propeller, but I cannot budge the cord.

Instead of messing with the propulsion system to move the last 30 meters, I decide to just remove the warhead and take it to the ship myself.

Removing my insulated rubber gloves to allow myself to manipulate the warhead, I am reminded of why we wear rubber suits. The water is freezing and my hands begin to go numb very quickly.

Initially, I am able to move the 660-pound warhead just a few centimeters through the mud floor of the harbor. I keep pushing. I take a break to put my hands in the gloves again. I push more to achieve a couple more centimeters. I take another break.

After several rounds of pushing and resting to warm my hands, I develop a rhythm of a few centimeters, a short break, a few centimeters, and another short break. It takes me almost an hour to move the warhead alone. I am exhausted, my muscles are screaming, and my hands have no feeling left in them.

By the time the warhead is below turret 1 of the Valiant, I lack the strength to lift it in order to attach it to the hull. Our mission calls for the warhead to be attached to the ship. It also calls for two men to be here to lift it into place. Because the floor of the harbor is only about five feet below the keel of the ship, I think the 660 pounds of explosives will still do severe damage.

Maybe I am rationalizing. Maybe I am right. Either way, I can’t lift it.

It is now 3a.m., which means that there is still about three hours to go until this bomb goes off.

I’ve to get out of here!

Close to collapsing from exhaustion, I use the last of my energy to surface. I don’t put any energy toward silence, for I’ve none left to spare. A small splash occurs as my head breaks the water.

I just don’t care anymore, I am so tired.

A searchlight from the Valiant flares to life before I’ve a chance to move. The brilliant white beam sheds its ominous light directly at me.

Shit, Shit!

A hail of bullets comes whizzing toward me.

Shit, Shit!

I gather what remaining energy adrenaline has produced in my body to flail out toward an anchor buoy I see out of the corner of my eye. It is not much, but it can provide some small amount of protection. As I approach the buoy, I see Emilo with his mask off, holding on the other side of it.

I rip my mask off so I can yell out “What the hell are you doing here?”

“My air tank broke. I fainted. When I woke up, I was bobbing on the surface. I swam here to hide,” he replies.

“Well, thanks a lot for all of your help down there!”

“I would not have been any help. My left arm is broken.” Emilo retorts.

A small boat enters the water from the Valiant’s side. It takes only a few brief moments for its crew of five to find our position.

They throw a line to Emilo first. With his broken left arm dangling at his side, he uses his right arm, mouth, and feet to claw his way aboard. Then they throw the line to me. The strength in my arms is so sapped all I can do is hold on to the line. I let the boat’s crew pull me aboard. We are brought alongside the battleship and told to climb aboard. Emilo climbs the ladder using his right arm and both legs. Assessing what energy I’ve left, I look up at the length of the ladder. I know if I refuse they will probably just shoot me. I don’t know where I obtain the strength, but somehow I am able to climb the ladder, slowly rising up to the quarterdeck of the Valiant, where I collapse.

I cannot go any further.

I am now on the very ship that I set to explode in less than three hours.

An officer approaches us. Emilo is sitting. I am sprawled out, lying on the deck. The officer orders us to stand up. Emilo and I stumble to our feet.

What a dejected lot we look to be.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” the officer barks.

We provide our ranks and serial numbers, but nothing more.

Without wasting time to ask more questions, the officer orders us away. Emilo is taken somewhere away from me. I am walked to a storeroom on what appears to be a deck below the water line of the ship. An orderly comes in with a glass of rum and a packet of cigarettes. I down the drink in one gulp, shivering from the slight shock to my system. Lighting one of the cigarettes, I sit down in the only chair in the otherwise crowded room of junk. The orderly leaves me there. I guess to think about what I’ve done.

My watch now says 5:30; there is a little over a half hour until the bomb goes off. I sit, nervously, my eyes glued to my watch. The cigarettes burn so fast I am through a quarter of the pack by 5:40.
At 5:43, Emilo, flanked by a guard, joins me in the storeroom.

“They took me to the sick bay and questioned me more,” he says.

“How are you feeling?” I reply.

“Rum helps,” is his rejoinder.

Another chair is brought in for Emilo. I hand him a cigarette as we stare at each other and our watches.

After a minute, I offer, “There was no hope for us, but we can soon die happy knowing that our mission will be accomplished.”

Emilo grins, but says nothing.

At 5:54 am, a loud rumble can be heard in the distance.

Martellotta’s team must have been successful against the tanker ship.

“I’ve to warn the captain.” I exclaim as I maneuver toward the door. Emilo nods in agreement.

Pounding on the door, I demand to see the captain.

To my surprise, the guard outside of the door quickly takes me to the captain’s office. I see that his name is Morgan.

“So you want to tal. . . ” Is the greeting I receive from the captain, but I don’t wait for him to finish.

I interrupt him, bellowing, “Your ship will blow up in less than ten minutes. I’ve no desire to kill men unnecessarily. I suggest you get all hands on deck.”

“Where is the charge placed?” Morgan asks patiently.

I pause.

“If you refuse to answer, I will send you back below”

If he knows the charge is lying on the bottom of the harbor below the ship, he can move the ship.

“Get him back below then” the captain orders.

As the guard is taking me back down to the storeroom, I hear an announcement on the ship’s loudspeaker.

“All hands to the upper decks. All hands to leave the lower decks immediately.”

The guard violently throws me into the storage room, slams the door, and then runs off.

I look at Emilo. He looks at me. We both light a new cigarette. There are only three left in the pack now.

My watch says that it is 6:04 a.m. I feel my life literally ticking away with each second passing on the watch.

6:04 and 32 seconds, 33, 34, 35. . . 57, 58, 59



Emilo eyes me.

I look back.

Did I set the fuse properly? Of course, I did. How could I not? I could not set it to the exact second, but it has to be . . .


A violent explosion convulses the entire battleship. I am launched out of my chair and thrown against the wall of the storeroom. Darkness envelops me. I stir, but nothing moves. My eyes open to acrid dark smoke filling the room. Emilo is impossible to see, but I can make out the lines where the door was closed. Light is entering the room through there. The blast must have opened the door.

Remembering the route the guard had taken me to the storeroom from the deck, I retrace those same steps. I am surprised that I am not stopped along the way. In fact, as I go by, British personnel stand up to make way for me.

They must know I saved their lives.

When I make it on deck, there is so much confusion and disorder I am able to stand there looking out over the beginning of daybreak at the sulfuric smoke emanating from the tanker and from the Valiant. The hustle of crew running in every direction fades to the background while I take in a deep breath and lean against a bulkhead.

From where I am standing, only feet away from the stairwell I used to come on deck, I can see the stern of the ship and the third target for my Sea Devils, the battleship Queen Elizabeth. Right at 6:15 a terrific explosion rocks that ship too.

Marceglia has done it! All three teams were successful!

I must have missed the Valiant settle after the explosion as I was making my way above deck, but watching the Queen Elizabeth, I realize that the shallow harbor is a blessing for the British. All three ships my Devils attacked simply seem to have descended 4-5 feet to sit upright on the muddy harbor floor.

My Sea Devils did it. At this moment, the Regia Marina is the dominant force in the Mediterranean. We sank their two battleships!

I am still alive!

I belt out:

“Hello! Jack Tar, what a beautiful day!

We frogmen are coming to teach you to swim,

So we hope you’re all right and we hope that you’re trim

We dive, but you go down to stay.”

My whole team survived the attacks against Alexandria harbor. We were all captured and found out that despite our complete success, we took no lives. We sank every ship assigned to us, but killed no one in the process. We were interred for the remainder of Italy’s alliance with Germany. Winston Churchill even commented on my team, calling us “An extraordinary example of courage and ingenuity.”

I was initially sent to Cairo and then to Palestine before escaping to Syria. In Syria, I was caught and put aboard a ship heading to India, where I again escaped. During my time in custody as a prisoner of war, I would occasionally receive a letter from Valeria. Every now and then, she would mention the clever things Renzo had done. Renzo is my little brother’s name, but I did not realize at the time, it is also the name of my year-old son.

When Italy declared war on Germany in October 1943, becoming a co-belligerent with Britain, I volunteered to help the British Royal Navy with its underwater weapons program and volunteered to help plan and carry out an important mission to thwart German plans to block the harbor of La Spezia. As a mixed team of Italian and British frogmen, we slipped in and sank the cruisers Gorizia and Bolzano before they could be maneuvered into the harbor entrance and scuttled. Our raid secured the utility of La Spezia as an allied port to supply future offensives against the turncoat Germans in Italy.

Gold braid on Admiral Morgan’s crisp uniform contrasts sharply with the cracked and filthy formerly white walls of the Taranto naval barracks. In front of these crumbling edifices that now, contain my existence, my team of frogmen stands to await his passing at the side of Crown Prince Umberto. The Crown Prince is here to give my team medals for heroism and valor. The Admiral and I met four years ago under very different circumstances. He was Captain of the HMS Valiant when my team of Sea Devils was sent to sink his ship.

It turns out that now Admiral Morgan never forgot how I gave him time to evacuate the Valiant’s lower decks, thereby saving the lives of his 1,700-man crew. He had tried to give me a British medal for my role in the La Spezia raid, but was stopped from doing so because Italy was merely a co-belligerent against Germany, rather than an Ally and member of The United Nations.

Today, Admiral Morgan stands at the side of Crown Prince Umberto, who knows of the Admiral’s appreciation for what I had done.

As I step forward to receive the Valor Militare, Italy’s highest decoration, for leading the raid on Alexandria, the Crown Prince turns to the admiral and exclaims, “Come on Morgan, this is your show.”

The Admiral steps forward, takes the medal from the Crown Prince, and places it upon my chest. I was thus decorated by Admiral Morgan for what he called a very courageous and gallant attack on his ship.







Luigi Durand de la Penne

In the aftermath of the attack on Alexandria Harbor, the Italian Navy could have been unchallenged in the Mediterranean. With the protection its cruisers could offer, there was nothing standing in the way of Italian dominance of the Sea. Italy could have sent almost unmolested convoys to Axis troops fighting in North Africa, supplying them with everything they could need for victory, but those cruisers never sallied forth. Air reconnaissance pictures taken the very next day were correctly interpreted by Italian intelligence officers to show that both the Valiant and the Queen Elizabeth heavily damaged and would be out of action for several months at least. Mussolini demanded to see the pictures himself, and as an untrained aerial photo reconnaissance neophyte, he only saw that the ships were upright. He overruled his experts. The ships, he decreed, were unharmed. Because his word could not be challenged, the Italian fleet remained in port. They missed their golden opportunity to help the Axis seize the Suez Canal and cut off the British from its empire and oil supply.

The British did everything possible to encourage Mussolini's belief that he was smarter than his experts were. While high-paced underwater work was done to repair the holes ripped in the bottoms of the two battleships, above the water everything was made to look like normal routine. Both ships kept up steam.

Band concerts and receptions were held on their decks. Full ceremonial colors, sunset bugle calls, and parades took place on the upper decks. Even gun drills were carried out. More than a year went by before either ship was again ready for action, a year in which the Axis lost the battle for North Africa