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Lieutenant Luigi Durand De la Penne wrote three letters on 10th December 1941: the first in case he was captured, the second if he succeeded, the third in case he died during the mission. His task was to lead a group of six men against the British naval forces to sink some large units stationed in Alexandria. The British fleet had taken refuge in the Egyptian port following the loss of an aircraft carrier and a battleship to Italian submarines.
De la Penne and his men were to attack the enemy ships from the backs of tiny 6.70-metre-long submarines – nicknamed “pigs” – with a detachable head loaded with 300 kilos of explosive. The explosive was to be attached to the hulls of British vessels.
On 18th December 1941, the three crews were on board the submarine Scirè outside the port of Alexandria. De la Penne and his second officer Emilio Bianchi were targeting the battleship Valiant, Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat, the battleship Queen Elizabeth and Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino, a 16,000-ton tanker. Naval units of the Italian Navy are now named – or soon will be – after all the men who took part in the undertaking.
Shortly before 9 p.m. the group sailed towards the Ras El Tin lighthouse and infiltrated the port. Once inside, the three crews separated and submerged. To verify the position of the Valiant, De la Penne momentarily moved away from the “pig”. But when he returned, Bianchi was no longer there, and the submarine was stuck. The lieutenant was therefore forced to carry the 300 kilos of explosives in his hands for thirty meters. Exhausted and almost fainting, De la Penne returned to the surface but was spotted by lookouts and captured along with Bianchi, who had collapsed due to an oxygen tank failure.
At 5:54 a.m. Martellotta’s group blew up the tanker. De la Penne was locked up in the Valiant’s galley after having warned Captain Charles Morgan of the time remaining until the second charge went off. At 6:06 a.m. the explosive detonated, and the lieutenant was thrown against a wall but managed to survive. At 6:15 a.m. the charge on Queen Elizabeth exploded.
The Italian Royal Navy had now supremacy in the Mediterranean. But the Italian cruisers never sailed because Mussolini did not allow them to, even though aerial reconnaissance photographs confirmed the serious damage to the two battleships.
De la Penne was released in 1943 after the armistice between Italy and the Allies. In 1945, Umberto di Savoia, then Crown Prince, was about to pin the Gold Medal for Military Valour on the lieutenant’s chest. But he turned to Sir Charles Morgan, head of the British Naval Forces in the Mediterranean and former commander of the Valiant, to invite him to take De La Penne’s place. Thanks to the warning of Lieutenant Luigi Durand De la Penne, none of the Valiant’s 1,700 men lost their lives that day.