Sea Devils


Book Review by Willard Manus

"The stereotype of the Italian navy in World War II is that it was commanded by admirals dominated by fear of losing ships and manned by incompetent and cowardly 'greasy Eyeties,'" writes Paolo Coletta in his introduction to SEA DEVILS--ITALIAN NAVY COMMANDOS IN WORLD WAR II (Naval Institute Press).

A popular joke expresses the same sentiment in another way. Question: what's the smallest book in the world? Answer: the book of Italian war heroes.

As SEA DEVILS proves, stereotypes and bad jokes have little in common with reality. The Italian navy fared well during the war, succeeding in its all-important task of assuring the flow of supplies to North Africa. More than that, one wing of Regina Marina, the navy commandos, performed with astounding bravery and skill in battle, carrying out underwater attacks that bedeviled the Allied navy in Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt and Crete.

The story of how the Italian Navy's Tenth Light Flotilla managed to infiltrate mini-subs and frogmen--"human torpedos"-- into enemy waters and wreak havoc is told skilfully in SEA DEVILS by one of its wartime commanders, J. Valerio Borghese. The book was first published in Italy; it has been translated by James Cleugh and adapted by the author for the American edition.

"The Italian navy was the first to practice special operations," Coletta explains, "two pioneer frogmen having ridden a slow-speed torpedo with a detachable warhead into the Austrian naval base at Pula on the Adriatic, to sink the 20,000-ton dreadnought Viribus Unitis in the closing days of World War I. But interest in such undertakings evaporated upon the return of peace. It was not until the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 briefly raised the spectre of war with Britain that two young submariners took the initiative to begin work on an improved version of the device that had sunk the Viribus Unitis."

By the time World War II broke out, the Italian navy commandos were well trained in underwater special operations. The Tenth Light Flotilla wrote the book on this particular kind of warfare. The U.S. Navy Seals followed in the Sea Devils' footsteps and, in fact, were originally trained by them. After Italy surrendered in 1944, the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) arranged for many of Italy's crack divers and explosive experts to be brought to the Bahamas to teach the first American frogmen.

Borghese came from an aristocratic Italian family and seemed to have no qualms about serving in a fascist regime. He felt Italy was justified in attacking Ethiopia and later faithfully took orders from the likes of Mussolini and the German high command. He was a black shirt himself--one historian called him "one of the damned souls of Italian history"--but at the same time he was "a bright, stealthy and audacious commander" (Poletta) whose exploits should not be dismissed because of political correctness.

A typical exploit was the 1941 attack on Suda Bay, a deep harbor on Crete which Britain used as a base for its war in North Africa. Several teams of Italian divers manning two-man "bugs," tiny subs armed with torpedos, were dropped at sea by a destroyer and in darkness worked their way into the harbor, diving to escape protective nets, passing under the nose of heavily armed sentries, creeping up on their target, the cruiser York. Up close, the divers revved up their engines, jammed the rudder and leapt overboard while the bug raced at the York's waterline.

When the torpedos struck and exploded, the divers had to swim ashore, ditch their wet suits and air tanks, and hide in the countryside until they could rendezvous with the destroyer. In similar raids on Gibraltar, Alexandria and Malta, the Italian commandos caused equally major damage, suffering at the same time grievous casualties and losses themselves.

But no matter how many comrades they lost, morale among the Italian navy commandos remained high; patriotism and courage never wavered. In fact, several Italian frogmen chose to remain at the controls of their mini-subs to insure hitting a specific target, becoming in effect a suicide squad, underwater kamikazes.

As a British admiral noted at the time, "The enterprise required displays of personal courage of the highest order."

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