For many people Italian history begins with the Roman Empire and ends with the Renaissance. But we Italians have always been a creative bunch and Leonardo da Vinci was by no means the last to come up with ingenious devices to be employed in both peace and war.
At the beginning of World War 2, the Italian Navy (Regia Marina Italiana), although quiet substantial, lacked two important components: aircraft carriers, and Radar. By way of compensation the inventive Italians came up with the Human Torpedo.
Officially named the Siluro a Lenta Corsa (lit. slow running torpedo) or SLC it was quickly baptized the Maiale (pig) by its crews due to its poor handling qualities, especially in its early incarnation.
The SLC was in fact an electrically propelled torpedo ridden by a crew of two, the whole front end of which was a detachable warhead packed with up to 300kg of high explosive.
Transported as close as possible to the area of action by a conventional submarine in watertight cylinders attached to the deck, the SLC was mounted by its two brave crew members and guided towards its intended target, an enemy warship or cargo ship moored in a heavily defended harbor.
One can hardly begin to imagine the type of bravery needed to sit astride a torpedo on a dark moonless night, encased in a rubber suit and primitive breathing apparatus, whilst attempting to penetrate the enemy defenses, which usually included a steel anti-torpedo net enclosing the harbor mouth.
If the crew were able to overcome the various technical difficulties which could plague the “Maiale” and to creep past the enemy unobserved, they then had to detach the warhead from the front of their SLC and attach it to the keel of the unsuspecting vessel, thereafter making their getaway on what was left of their craft before the time delay fuse detonated the charge.
The first successful action took place on the night of 18th December 1941 when three SLC’s succeeded in entering the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt, and in sinking the battleships HMS Valliant and Queen Elizabeth.
The British Royal Navy, whilst not amused by their loss, were nevertheless sufficiently impressed by the means employed by the crafty Italians to initiate the development of their own human torpedoes.
According to legend the British crews that manned the counterpart of the “Maiale”, the “Chariot”, revered their Italian progenitors as heroes! In fact after Italy’s armistice with the Allies in September 1943 the two former adversaries worked together to perfect their methods and to destroy Nazi shipping.
But this is only part of the story, stay tuned for part two of this blog and find out just how ingenious we Italians can be!