Emilio Bianchi, who has died aged 102, was the last survivor of one of the most audacious coups of the Second World War – the sinking by “human torpedoes” of two British battleships in Alexandria harbour; Winston Churchill described the feat as demonstrating “extraordinary courage and ingenuity” and it won Bianchi Italy’s equivalent of the VC. On the night of December 18 1941, the Italian submarine Scirè came up to periscope depth off the coast of Egypt. It was commanded by the British-educated Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, who a few days earlier had picked up a six-man team of naval commandos on the Greek island of Leros.
“coccodrillo” dal The Telegraph del 20 agosto 2015
While Italy’s armed forces did not always give a good account of themselves during the conflict, there was one sphere of operations in which they led the world – underwater raiding. In 1918 two Italians riding a primitive submersible armed with a limpet mine had made the first successful attack of its kind . The development in the Mediterranean between the wars of breathing apparatus for spear fishing had subsequently prompted the formation by Italy of an elite frogman unit, the Decima Mas.
Bianchi had joined this as a navy sergeant in 1937. He later recalled that the training regime was gruelling, and that even in the depths of winter he had often spent all night submerged in icy water . Much of the unit’s equipment was experimental and unreliable, notably the two-man “chariots” which the commandos used. Essentially no more than electrically driven torpedoes, they were commonly known by the men as maiali or pigs because of their irksome unwieldiness.
Several attacks with these had already been attempted against the British fleet in Gibraltar before the Italians’ focus switched to the Royal Navy’s last two battleships in the Mediterranean, the First World War-vintage Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. These lay at anchor in the inner harbour of Alexandria, heavily defended by nets which could not be penetrated by a submarine, but which the Italians thought could be overcome by a small group of swimmers.
Borghese dropped three maiali about a mile and a half out from the port. The mission was commanded by the aristocrat Luigi Durand de la Penne, whose second man aboard his craft was Bianchi. Just before he boarded his chariot, Bianchi learnt that his wife had given birth to their first child, a girl.
The maximum speed of the machines was just 3 knots. Yet after two hours of travelling on the surface of the waves the teams were well ahead of schedule and stopped to revive themselves with figs and cognac. As they approached the main boom, by a stroke of luck it opened to admit three destroyers. At once they followed directly in their wake, with only the head of the man at the prow of the maiale showing above the water. Those seated behind, such as Bianchi, breathed a mix of oxygen and helium.
Having located Valiant, de la Penne found it encircled by a net, but Bianchi hauled down on this and they were able to lug their craft – and its heavy warhead – over it. It is at this point that the two men’s accounts differ.
According to the official version, the propeller of the maiale became fouled by a cable and cut out, while Bianchi’s rebreather failed and he was forced to surface. De la Penne was therefore left to haul the chariot yard by yard until it lay beneath the keel of the warship – a task which took him 45 minutes – before setting the timer on the explosive charge.
In an interview in 2004, after de la Penne’s death, Bianchi contested this, pointing out that the former would have found it nearly impossible to move the craft on his own. He said that he remembered feeling his way with his hands along the bottom of the ship as they both searched for the best place to place the mine. At most, he had surfaced a minute and a half before de la Penne.
What is certain is that when both men came up they were promptly spotted and captured. They were interrogated separately by officers who, Bianchi recalled, “spoke Italian better than us”, this being a time when many Italians’ first language was their regional dialect. There was a pistol on the table and Bianchi was threatened with being shot, but he realised this was merely intimidation and refused to compromise the mission by answering questions.
Knowing that they had probably placed a charge, Valiant’s captain Charles Morgan had the pair confined in separate cabins below the waterline in an effort to make them talk. By chance, they were placed directly above the mine. Half an hour before it was due to go off, de la Penne made Morgan aware by gestures that this would happen, in order that he might evacuate the ship’s company. This was done – but Morgan continued to keep the Italians below.
At 6am, the charge exploded. Bianchi recalled that it was “like an earthquake”, but he and de la Penne were largely unscathed and realised as they made their way on deck that the battleship was sinking. They then saw the mines placed by the other squads go up under Queen Elizabeth and a tanker, severely damaging a destroyer moored beside her. In one blow, the balance of sea-power in the Mediterranean had been wrested from the Royal Navy.
The ships sank in only a few feet of water on even keels and for many months the British denied any intelligence to the enemy by carrying on as though the ships were still afloat. So sensitive was their loss that it was not until four months later that Churchill, praising the men’s courage, revealed it to Parliament, and then only in a secret session. The Italian exploit also prompted the British to press on with their own development of midget craft, later used against Tirpitz.
Post-war the attack was the subject of an Italian film, I sette dell’Orsa maggiore (1953), and an Anglo-Italian production scripted by Keith Waterhouse, The Valiant (1961), starring John Mills as Morgan. Morgan had been so impressed by the Italians’ endeavour that he attempted to secure a British decoration for de la Penne, and at a ceremony at Taranto in 1945 he pinned Italy’s supreme medal for valour, the Medaglia d’Oro, on him.
Bianchi received the same recognition when he returned from the South African PoW camp in which he was held until the end of the war. He had made two attempts to escape by digging tunnels, and after the armistice with Italy in 1943 had feigned ill health rather than choose whether to fight with the Allies or not. When he did get home, it was the first time he had seen his daughter – who was four by then.
Emilio Bianchi was born on October 22 1912 at Sondalo, a mountain town midway between Trento and the Swiss frontier. His father died when he was young and he was inspired in his choice of career by the seafaring novels of Robert Louis Stevenson. He joined the Regia Marina at the age of 19 and quickly specialised as a diver.
In October 1940, he and de la Penne took part in an attack against ships at Gibraltar. Soon after they had got under way, their craft sank to the bottom, far below the supposed 100ft-depth limit of their oxygen equipment. De la Penne abandoned the maiale but Bianchi struggled to restart it, almost blacking out in the process. The pair then had to swim for two-and-a-half hours to the coast of Spain, where they were picked up by waiting Italian agents.
A modest, straightforward man, with what Italians thought an English sense of humour, Bianchi retired from the navy in the equivalent rank of lieutenant-commander after a final posting at the academy at Livorno. Working in a naval shipyard, he settled near Viareggio, and at the age of 68 entered a burning building to save the life of a woman. He published a memoir in 1996.
He is survived by his wife Aurora, whom he married in 1940, and by their two daughters.
Emilio Bianchi, born October 22 1912, died August 15 2015