Obituary: Emilio Bianchi, navy diver

Bianchi was a Royal Navy diver, last survivor of a six-man 'human torpedo' team during WWII. Picture: Stock/TSPL

Bianchi was a Royal Navy diver, last survivor of a six-man 'human torpedo' team during WWII. Picture: Stock/TSPL

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Born: 22 October, 1912, in Sondalo, Lombardy, Italy. Died: 15 August, 2015, in Torre del Lago, Viareggio, aged 103.

Emilio Bianchi was the last survivor of a six-man “human torpedo” commando team which carried out one of the Second World War’s most audacious covert attacks – the sinking of two British battleships and severely damaging a fuel tanker and a destroyer anchored in the heavily defended inner harbour of Alexandria.

In a secret session of Parliament, on 23 April, 1942, four months after the attack, Prime Minister Winston Churchill reluctantly praised the divers’ bravery, describing their feat as demonstrating “extraordinary courage and ingenuity”. For his involvement, Bianchi was awarded the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare, Italy’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Scottish educated Admiral Andrew Cunningham, commander in chief Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet, wrote: “We are having shock after shock out here. The damage to the battleships at this time is a disaster… One cannot but admire the cold-blooded bravery and enterprise of these Italians.”

The daring attack represented a dramatic change of fortunes for the Italians against the Allies from the strategic point of view over the next six months, and left the Alexandria Fleet without any battleships. Consequently, the Italian Regia Marina (Navy) had temporarily wrested naval supremacy in the central Mediterranean from the Royal Navy. This, however, was not capitalised upon by the senior Axis power leaders.

Born in 1912 in the small mountain town of Sondalo, Bianchi lost his father at an early age and was brought up by his mother and grandparents. After reading the seafaring novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, he was inspired to follow a nautical career and joined the Regia Marina, specialising in diving.

Italy had emerged from the First World War ahead of the world in clandestine underwater raids following the successful destruction of the battleship Viribus Unitis with a limpet mine; two Italian officers had used a modified torpedo boat to enter the Austro-Hungarian navy harbour on the Adriatic Sea.

In the inter-war years, Italy developed better breathing apparatus and formed an elite frogman unit, the Decima Mas, commanded by the British-educated Junio Valerio Borghese. Bianchi joined the unit as a navy sergeant in 1937. Training was gruelling with the divers often spending a whole night submerged in freezing water during the winter months, trialling new equipment; this included the two-man chariots, nicknamed “Maiale” or “pig” due to its desperate lack of manoeuvrability.

Between September 1940 and September 1941, the Italians conducted four raids on the strategic British base of Gibraltar with minimal success. The first was aborted, the next two failed, but the fourth, in September 1941, resulted in three merchant ships being damaged. Bianchi was involved in two of the raids with Commander Durand de La Penne.

In one raid, their “Maiale” sank but Bianchi pursued it far below the 100ft-depth limit of his oxygen tanks. He struggled to restart it and, nearly blacking out, was forced to surface. They evaded capture by swimming for more than two hours in the cold, night waters that were swarming with British ships. They reached the Spanish coast where they were aided by Italian agents.

Italy then turned towards the Royal Navy’s primary operating base at Alexandria, seeing the opportunity to swing the balance of power in their favour. With a target date set, Commander Ernesto Forza called for volunteers for a hazardous mission. All volunteered and Borghese hand-picked his six-man team.

Training began at their base in La Spezia, on the west coast of northern Italy. Unbeknown to the soldiers guarding the base, in complete secrecy, Bianchi and the team would endeavour to breach the base’s own tight security but with the real possibility of being shot by their own troops. Upon attaching a charge to the “friendly” ship, they then had to simulate an “escape” from the base.

Bianchi later said: “The most difficult aspect was the fact that we had to operate at a depth of 45 feet in a very dark night, and therefore we were practically blind and had to be in perfect sync with our teammate.”

Alexandria was heavily fortified against underwater attacks, having already experienced two failed attempts, but through reports from agents in the area and aerial reconnaissance flights, the Regia Marina had an accurate and detailed picture of harbour’s defences; it had a formidable combination of minefields, net barriers, shore-based artillery, anti-aircraft and machine gun defences, and constant patrols both on shore and sea. Its only opening was at the southern end, which was protected by an anti-submarine net that was only opened for authorised vessels.

On 14 December 1941, the Italian submarine Scirè, captained by Borghese, left the Greek island of Leros heading towards Alexandria. To remain undetected, it travelled at maximum depth, only surfacing at night to charge its batteries and replenish the air. Despite a heavy storm, which nearly forced Borghese to abort the mission, the Scirè reached its launch point on the night of 18 December and discovered perfect weather conditions.

Before the assault, coded messages from Athens revealed that among the ships in the harbour were the two British battleships. One message also congratulated Bianchi on becoming a new father, which crews viewed as good omen.

With the British battleships and the tanker Sagona targeted, the three teams climbed aboard their battery-powered “Maiales” and headed for the surface towards the harbour’s entrance. Upon arrival, they took some rations of figs and cognac, while deciding how to breach the anti-submarine net. Three British destroyers arrived unexpectedly and the net opened. Seizing the opportunity, they tucked in behind the last destroyer and entered the harbour. The crews soon separated and headed toward their targets.

Bianchi and de la Penne soon located Valiant, only to discover it encircled with a protective net. Unperturbed, Bianchi hauled down on it and they were able to pull their craft, with its 300kg warhead, over it. The torpedo started to sink. Bianchi’s rebreather then failed and he was forced to surface before composing himself to return to help de la Penne lift the torpedo into position.

Upon surfacing the pair were spotted and captured. They were briefly interrogated aboard the Valiant before being taken ashore for further interrogation. Despite being threatened at gunpoint, Bianchi stood fast. They were returned to the Valiant and, realising there were probably charges attached to the ship, Captain Charles Morgan placed them in separate cabins below the water line, in the hope that they would reveal where the bomb was. With the charges set for 6.15am, ten minutes before detonation, de la Penne made Morgan aware. The ship’s company was evacuated but the two divers remained locked up.

The charge exploded and Valiant shuddered, but miraculously Bianchi and de la Penne were largely unscathed. Moments later the torpedoes beneath the Queen Elizabeth and Sagona detonated too, damaging HMS Jervis. As they were taken ashore they realised that both battleships had sunk in just a few feet of water. The other divers were all eventually captured.

Admiral Cunningham, who had been aboard the Queen Elizabeth, imposed a news blackout in an attempt to mislead the Axis into thinking the mission had failed. Churchill concluded: “Both ships were sunk on an even keel; they looked all right from the air. The enemy were for some time unaware of the success of their attack.”

The two battleships were eventually raised, but were out of action for more than a year.

Bianchi was then sent briefly to Palestine before being sent to a prisoner of war camp in South Africa where he made two unsuccessful escape attempts but saw out the war. Following the Armistice with Italy in 1943, Bianchi feigned ill health rather than choose whether to fight with the Allies or not.

Post-war the attack was immortalised in the 1953 Italian film, I sette dell’Orsa maggiore, with an Anglo-Italian production, The Valiant (1962), starring Sir John Mills as Morgan.

Described as a self-deprecating man with a dry sense of humour, Bianchi remained in the navy until retiring with the rank of lieutenant-commander following a final posting to the academy at Livorno. His memoir was published in 1996.

Bianchi died peacefully at home. He is survived by his wife Aurora, whom he married in 1940, and their two daughters.

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