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Old 19-12-2010, 18:51
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emason emason is offline
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Default The Fate of the Italian Submarine Iride

The fate of the Italian submarine Iride

After declaring war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, Italy planned attacks on the British Mediterranean Fleet at its main naval bases in the Mediterranean, namely Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria. The first attack planned was to be on Alexandria on the night of 25-26 August 1940.

The Italian plan

The attack was to be made by the 10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla (X MAS) of the Regia Marina which was a frogman commando unit, specially formed to attack enemy shipping in harbour. They planned to use Slow Running Torpedoes (SLC), commonly called Maiali (Pigs) because they were difficult to steer. These were electrically driven, two-man human torpedoes with a detachable warhead used as a limpet mine.

The plan was to approach Alexandria by submerged submarine which had been adapted to carry three Maiali in special containers on deck. Under cover of darkness, it would surface several miles from the target, the commandos would ride the Maiali to the target, attach the mines and ride the Maiali back to the waiting submarine and escape before the mines detonated.

The submarine chosen for the operation was the Iride which would take four crews of commandos from the naval base at La Spezia, to the Gulf of Bomba, Libya about 50 miles west of Tobruk and 400 miles west of Alexandria. There, they were to rendezvous with the waiting submarine supply ship Monte Gargano and the torpedo boat Calipso which was transporting the Maiali separately. The Calipso brought four Maiali although only three were to be used. This was done as the specially converted Iride could only carry three Maiali, and a spare Maiale and crew was needed, also to prevent damage to them should the submarine be forced into deep water.

The British reaction

The presence of enemy vessels in Bomba Bay had not gone unnoticed. A reconnaissance flight had spotted the supply ship Monte Gargano waiting in Bomba Bay on the 21 August, and preparations were made to attack it the following morning.

A sub flight of three Swordfish torpedo bombers of 824 squadron, on detachment ashore from the aircraft carrier Eagle, were prepared for the task at Maaten Bagush, where they were fitted with extra fuel tanks and armed with torpedoes. The flight was led by Captain Oliver Patch, a Royal Marine airman based at RNAS Dekheila. The other two aircraft were flown by Lieutenant Cheesman RN and Lieutenant Wenham RN.

On 22 August at 07.00, they flew to Sidi Barani and refuelled, waiting until a dawn reconnaissance flight confirmed that enemy vessels were still present in Bomba Bay. At 10.30 the Swordfish took off and headed out to sea flying low, 30 miles from the coast to avoid enemy fighters. At 12.30 they turned inshore into Bomba Bay and opened out to about 200 yards apart.

The attack

That morning the Italians transferred their Maiali from the Calipso to the Iride, which had refuelled from the Monte Gargano. They were carrying out a test dive, about four miles off shore when the Swordfish approached. The Iride was sighted on the surface by Captain Patch who immediately attacked, dropping his torpedo from a height of 30 feet at a range of 300 yards which hit the Iride amidships and sank the submarine in about fifty feet of water. This was an unexpected bonus as its presence had been unknown.

The flight of Swordfish then flew on into the bay to locate the Monte Gargano, their original target, and the other vessels, which were the Calipso and another unknown submarine, tied up alongside. The ships opened fire on the Swordfish, damaging Lt. Wellham’s and injuring him in the foot. But the attack by the two with torpedoes was pressed home and both pilots dropped their torpedoes which hit their targets causing a fire. This reached the magazine of Monte Gargano which blew up and sank, apparently taking the Calipso and the submarine with her. Thus it was claimed that "four ships had been sunk with three torpedoes".

The rescue attempt

The Calipso immediately sailed to where Iride had sunk. They found that some of frogmen and some of the crew had escaped from the wreck. Although most of the crew had escaped, nine remained trapped in part of the hull that had broken off.

Without oxygen equipment (it was inside the submarine) the frogmen dived down to the submarine and connected a buoy to it. A message was sent to Tobruk asking for help, and after some time a diver arrived with diving equipment. The divers were then able to make a rescue attempt. Five were eventually recovered alive.

One of the divers, Gino Birindelli (the commander of the Fifth MAS) repeatedly dived down, initially without oxygen, to communicate with the stricken sailors, and was awarded the Silver Medal for Valour, Italy’s second-highest military decoration.

The rewards

Admiral Cunningham wrote of this action as a "phenomenal result" and the attack as "brilliantly conceived and gallantly executed". For this exploit Captain Patch was awarded the DSO, and the other aircrews were also decorated.

But the true reward, although they did not know it until much later, was that an attack on the British Fleet in Alexandria had been fortuitously thwarted. Had it been successful, the Fleet would have been seriously weakened at a time it was most needed.

A year later, the Italians resurrected the plan and successfully carried it out on 3 December 1941, when the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth were sunk in Alexandria Harbour by them.

The myth

The claim that "four ships had been sunk with three torpedoes" was initially treated with scepticism, but apparently verified when reconnaissance photos showed Bomba Bay empty of vessels. Also Italian radio reported "the loss of four warships by an overwhelming force of torpedo bombers and torpedo boats".

Although an official booklet issued by the Ministry of Information in 1945, and at least five histories written by competent authors, all make the same claim, recent research suggests that the submarine and Calipso were only lightly damaged and were able to put to sea.

The identity of the submarine remains unknown, but the fate of the Calipso is known. She struck a mine on 5 December 1940 and sank 6 miles off Cape Misurata, Libya in a minefield previously laid by the submarine HMS Roqual on 9 November.
Regards, Bill

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?" - Cicero.
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Old 28-06-2013, 15:03
frigate frigate is offline
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Default Re: The Fate of the Italian Submarine Iride

A remarkable rescue. The last man to leave was initially too panic-stricken to attempt to get out. Finally, Luigi Durand de la Penne went down with a spare respirator and managed to enter the aft compartment. The man took the respirator but was in such a state that he used up all the oxygen. At this point, de la Penne gave him his own respirator, guided him to the hatch, returned alone to the air pocket to fill his lungs again and then swam out.
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Old 29-06-2013, 00:53
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patroclus patroclus is offline
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Default Re: The Fate of the Italian Submarine Iride

It seems that there was no second submarine present, only the torpedo boat CALIPSO alongside the MONTE GAGANO. The IRIDE was underway and saw the Swordfish approaching but was unable to dive because of only 10 fathoms of water.
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