Heroes of the Italian Navy

Every man who dies doing his duty for his country in war and peace is a hero. Italian Navy had thousands of men lost during the wars and I consider all of them heroes, here are just some.

Nazario SAURO

 Nazario Sauro photographed by Austro-Hungarians just before his execution.

This man, martyr and patriot from Capodistria, Italian town under the Austro-Hungarian empire, joined the Italian Navy at the beginning of WW1 with the purpose of giving his contribution to free the Italian north-eastern territories still under the enemy Empire. He was a skilled captain who knew very well all the Dalmatian coastline where the Austro-Hungarian fleet used to hide. So his service in the Italian Navy as submarine officer was precious. But during an action with the submarine Giacinto Pullino in Fiume (now the Croatian town of Rijeka) he was captured by the enemy. He was discovered as a man coming from Capodistria and then condemned to death as a traitor. During the trial even his mother tried to save him not recognizing him as her son. On August 10th 1916 he died on the gallows shouting"Viva l'Italia!" (Long live Italy!). Today an Italian submarine class bears his immortal name.


 Rizzo and the crews that sunk Szent Istvan

"The sinker" and "The Milazzo's Corsair": so poet Gabriele d'Annunzio nicknamed Luigi Rizzo, the Mas Captain author of some of the most glorious deeds of Italian Navy during WW1. On December 9, 1917 he raided Trieste3 port, heart of enemy Navy, and sunk Battleship Wien. Again on February 10, 1918 he entered, with Costanzo Ciano and Gabriele d'Annunzio, into the Buccari bay regardless of the strong Austro-Hungarian surveillance sinking an enemy cargo and coming back safe. On June 10, 1918, the entire Austro-Hungarian fleet sailed to attack the Italian installation on the Otranto Channel, the squad was leaded by battleship Viribus Unitis and Tegethoff (their anchors now stand in the front of the main entrance of Navy palace in Rome). Rizzo with another Mas, commanded by Aonzo, attacked this huge formation and sunk the Szent Istvan battleship. His Mas rests into the Unknown Soldier Monument in Rome.


"An extraordinary example of courage and geniality" with these words Winston Churchill described an action of an enemy. This man and his comrades, Bianchi, Martellotta, Marino, Marceglia, Schergat, accomplished one of the most effective naval victories of the WW2 without killing anyone. During November 1941 the British Mediterranean Fleet was in a critical situation: only battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, based at Alexandria, were available. The Italian Navy studied carefully how to take advantage of that: if these two battleships would have been destroyed all the convoys to Lybia could sail safely with an extremely positive effect on the African war. The mission to destroy the British battleship was relied on X Flottiglia Mas. On December 18, submarine Scirè, commanded by Junio Valerio Borghese, approached stealthily Alexandria harbour after having overtaken a thousand of difficulties and obstacles. Then were released 3 "Maiali" (hogs) or Slc (Slow Run Torpedo) driven by Durand de La Penne and his men. Durand and Bianchi's target was the Valiant, Marceglia and Schergat's target was the Queen Elizabeth, Martellotta and Marino's was a 16.000 tons tanker. After having accomplished the mission, the crew would have met again the Scirè to come back home. But the British were not so unwise not to protect adequately their ports: there were everywhere protective metallic nets with explosive charges and sentries. So penetrating the harbour was even harder than expected for the Italian commando. Finally Durand de La Penne and Bianchi overcame the barriers and reached the Valiant, but at that moment their Maiale sunk to the depth of the port just under the battleship and Bianchi disappeared. Durand de La Penne managed to recuperate alone his maiale with a huge muscular effort and finally hooked it under the battleship's keel. Almost exhausted Durand de La Penne emerged from the depth, found his comrade (fainted for a failure of his scuba equipment), and tried to reach the pier but it was spotted by the sentries and captured. The commando was interrogated by the Valiant's officers but they answered only stating their rank and their number. Admiral Cunningham was woken up and informed about the facts: he immediately realized what could happen anytime. He ordered to jail Durand de La Penne and Bianchi into the Valiant, well below the floating line, hoping to scare the Italians and thus discovering if the battleships were in danger. Durand de La Penne told Bianchi (of course in Italian) that there was no hope for them but they could die happy because soon the mission would be accomplished (the charge would explode in 3 hours). Some time after a huge explosion was heard: Marceglia and Schergat destroyed tanker Sagona and damaged destroyer Jervis. After thrilling and long hours Durand de La Penne looked at his watch: 10 minutes to the explosion! He asked to talk to Valiant Captain Charles Morgan.
"Captain, I suggest you to evacuate your ship saving your crew's lives: Valiant is about to explode in few minutes." said Durand de La Penne.
Morgan asked where the charge was, Durand de La Penne did not answer and was taken again in his cell while the British crew was abandoning the ship. A terrific burst of might shook the Valiant but Durand de La Penne could get out (it must be said that the British once again were loyal and did not lock him). All the British crew stood up at his passage. Some minutes after a third huge bang: the Queen Elizabeth exploded as well! All the Italians were captured later. On one day of 1945 Bianchi and Durand de La Penne received the Gold Medal for Military Valour and it was appointed to their chests by Vice-admiral Charles Morgan, chief of Mediterranean Fleet and former Valiant's captain. Durand de La Penne died in 1992 and his name is now the one of the new Italian super-destroyer class.


 Carlo Fecia di Cossato on the left and Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia on the right. (Mondadori)

He was the captain of submarine Tazzoli, and he was soon aware of the technical inferiority of the Italian means compared to the German ones. So he tried hardly to study procedures and techniques to compensate this inferiority. The Tazzoli and his Captain became a thorn in the allied merchant traffic's side always escaping to the restless hunt the enemy did. 18 merchant ships equal to 100.000 tons were sunk by him. To be remembered also Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia, the second among Italian submarine aces with a score of 11 ships (around 90.200 tons). After the Italian surrender, he was commanding a torpedo boat, the Aliseo, and had a sudden fight with the German forces. He and his ship sunk 10 minor German units and succeeded in reaching Malta and the Allied. But Fecia di Cossato mind was oppressed by the thought of his seamen died in action during long months of war. On August 27th 1944, Fecia di Cossato shot himself leaving a letter to his mother: "I've been thinking for months about my Sailors who rest under the ocean and I believe my place is with them."

Junio Valerio BORGHESE

Today in Italy is not easy to talk about Borghese. After the armistice of september 8th 1943 Borghese was among those Italians who decided to continue the war side by side with the Germans against the Allies. This fact had a negative effect on his image after the war but it did not erase the gallantry and skill he demonstrated continuously during the whole conflict. Especially in stealth navigation into the enemy waters. He was the captain of legendary submarine Scirè which carried the men of the Alexandria mission and many dangerous others, then he was promoted to commander of X Flottiglia Mas. He guided the X Flottiglia Mas reconstitution in the Mussolini's Repubblica Sociale Italiana, and had a major role in fighting the Northern Italy Resistance. For this reason now in Italy the name X-Mas is erroneously and ignorantly often associated with fascist forces.


"I wish, if my corpse will be found, that it would be carried with no military or civil ceremony at all, and with no funeral, to the Marina di Campo cemetery and there it would be buried in a common grave." This was the testament that Tesei left to his relatives before departing for his last mission attempting to raid the Malta's harbour, where he will die bravely. He was a naval engineering corps officer of the X-Flottiglia Mas and was one of the authors, together with Elios Toschi, of the improvement to the "Maiali" or Slow Run Torpedoes (man-driven torpedoes equipped with a timed explosive charge), and the techniques of Gamma-Men (scuba diving commandoes with timed mines). He spent his short life in developing the techniques of harbour assaulting, but he was terribly unlucky when accomplishing the missions. But the successes of other Italian commandoes like Durand de La Penne's are most due to Tesei's silent and constant work. The British could never feel secure in their Mediterranean ports because of X Flottiglia Mas and his men. Today the ComSubIn, the Italian Navy special operations command, is named after Teseo Tesei in his honour.

Francesco MIMBELLI

He was the Captain of torpedo-boat Lupo (wolf) and he and his crew went twice well beyond the call of duty. On may 22, 1941, Lupo was escorting a convoy from Italy to Lybia while the cargoes were sighted by a British group of 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers. There was no match at all, but Mimbelli in order to disorientate the opponent and thus give time to the cargoes to escape decided to charge the British with his tiny boat , attacking them with torpedoes. The Lupo, shooting with her small guns, penetrated in the middle of the formation; the British chased Mimbelli, but he managed to come back safely in a friend base with the Lupo badly damaged but saved. Again, on November 24, 1941 Mimbelli and his Lupo found themselves in the same situation: they were escorting two cargoes with the aid of Cassiopea, another torpedo boat, when they were surprised by 2 cruisers and 2 destroyers (Aurora, Penelope, Lance and Lively). Mimbelli ordered the Cassiopea to cover with smoke the escape of the cargoes and attacked once again the British. Lupo was hit soon and the British could fire on the cargoes sinking them. The Lupo tried to point again the British but this time was too late, she and the Cassiopea could only flee. The Lupo was sunk (under the command of Giuseppe Folli) on November 30, 1942, while escorting two cargoes, by K force (cruisers and destroyers, under the command of vice admiral Power) during an uneven battle. Mimbelli and Lupo are not forgotten today: Mimbelli is the name of a new super-destroyer and Lupo's a class of frigates.

Salvatore PELOSI

He was the captain of submarine Torricelli and he accomplished one of the most corageous feats of the war in the Red Sea. Pelosi engaged an uneven fight against three British destroyers and one gunship. The submarine had been previously damaged by a Raf attack and it could not stay under water too much. Thus Pelosi ordered to emerge and fight with the gun and the left torpedoes. After an epic and desperate struggle, the Torricelli was hit several times but managed to sink HMS Karthoum destroyer and to damage HMS Shoreham gunship. Pelosi ordered his crew to sink the Torricelli in order not the enemy take it and was eventually captured by the British. He was awarded with the Gold Medal for Military valour.