Raid on Alexandria
Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of the Second World War

An Italian human torpedo
Date19 December 1941 (1941-12-19)
Result Italian victory
 United Kingdom  Italy
Commanders and leaders
Charles Morgan
Mediterranean Fleet
Casualties and losses
  • 2 battleships disabled
  • 1 destroyer damaged
  • 1 tanker damaged
  • 8 casualties
6 crewmen captured

The Raid on Alexandria (Operazione EA 3) was carried out on 19 December 1941 by Italian Navy (Regia Marina) divers of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, who attacked and sank two Royal Navy battleships at their moorings and damaged an oil tanker and a destroyer in the harbour of Alexandria, Egypt, using manned torpedoes.

The attacks came at a difficult time for the Mediterranean Fleet, after the loss of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and battleship Barham to U-boats, the loss of ships during the Battle of Crete and the sinking of much of Force K on an Italian minefield, the day before the human torpedo attack on Alexandria. Ships also had to be sent to the Eastern Fleet.


Main article: Ultra (cryptography)

The British code-breakers of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS) alerted Admiral Andrew Cunningham the commander in chief of the Mediterranean Fleet before 17 December 1942, that its decodes of Italian messages encyphered on the Italian C 38m machine, showed that Supermarina, the Italian naval staff, had some interest in the port of Alexandria but without details.[1] Torpedo nets were set up around the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth and other precautions were taken.[2] On the day, Cunningham was told that an Italian reconnaissance aircraft had reported that Valiant and Queen Elizabeth were at their moorings and that the sea was calm, an unusual item to report. On 18 December GC & CS reported that the reconnaissance was urgent; Cunningham and his staff issued an alert at 10:25 a.m. that

Attacks on Alexandria by air, boat or human torpedo may be expected when calm weather prevails. Look-outs and patrols should be warned accordingly.[1]


On 3 December, the submarine Scirè (Lieutenant Junio Valerio Borghese) of the Italian Regia Marina left the naval base of La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes, nicknamed maiali (pigs). At the island of Leros in the Aegean Sea, the submarine secretly picked up six men of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, Lieutenant Commander Luigi Durand de la Penne and Sergeant-Major Emilio Bianchi (maiale nº 221), Captain Vincenzo Martellotta and Sergeant-Major Mario Marino (maiale nº 222) and Captain Antonio Marceglia and Lance Corporal Spartaco Schergat (maiale nº 223).[3][4]

Operazione EA 3

On the night of 18/19 December, 1.3 mi (1.1 nmi; 2.1 km) from Alexandria commercial (eastern) harbour, Scirè released the maiali at a depth of 15 m (49 ft) about 5 nmi (9.3 km; 5.8 mi) from the naval anchorage. The maiali reached the harbour and entered the naval base when the British opened the boom gate to let in three destroyers. The frogmen were shaken by the explosive charges being dropped in the harbour by patrol craft. The maiali crews found it comparatively easy to get over the torpedo nets around the battleships but attaching a charge to Valiant from its bilge keels and the crew dropped the explosive onto the sea bed about 15 ft (4.6 m) below the ship. Marceglia and Schergat planted their bomb 5 ft (1.5 m) beneath the keel of Queen Elizabeth, found it much easier and suspended the charge from the bilge keels as planned. The maiali crew who attacked Valiant were discovered holding on to the mooring buoy but gave nothing away when questioned.[5]

The prisoners were assumed to have already planted a bomb and were detained in a room near the bottom of the ship. At 5:47 a.m. an explosion under the rear of the tanker Sagona (7,554 GRT) did severe damage to the ship and to the destroyer Jervis oiling alongside. At 5:50 a.m. one of the prisoners on Valiant asked to see the captain and told him that the ship was going to blow up and fifteen minutes later there was an explosion under Valiant's fore turrets. Four minutes after the explosion under Valiant there was another explosion, this time under Queen Elizabeth, near its boiler rooms. There were eight casualties and the battleships were put out of action. The crews of the other two maiali got ashore and tried to reach the submarine Zaffiro, due to meet them off Rosetta but were captured over the next 48 hours.[6][a]



Where the Italian fleet had failed, six sailors had succeeded.[8][b] In 1957 the Italian historian and retired admiral Marcantonio Bragadin wrote,

Consequently, the Alexandria Fleet remained for many months without any battleships, and it was forced to abandon any further open activity. In fact, Admiral Cunningham wrote that his Fleet now ′should have to leave it to the Royal Air Force to try if they could dispute the control of the Central Mediterranean with the enemy's fleet.′ .... In fact, it opened a period of clear Italian naval supremacy in the east-central Mediterranean.[8]

Cunningham reported to Dudley Pound, the First Lord of the Admiralty, that the result was a disaster. It was fortunate that a junior officer suggested that ships should keep their propellers turning slowly in reverse, creating a strong enough current to frustrate a swimmer. The idea was adopted, Cunningham remarking, "It is a pity we did not think of it before". To maintain appearances, Cunningham remained on board Queen Elizabeth keeping the usual routines going, marine bands parading, the ceremonies of the morning colours and sunset continuing.[10]

The recent loss of HMS Ark Royal and Barham to U-boats, the sinking of much of Force K on an Italian minefield, on top of the losses during the Battle of Crete and having to send ships to reinforce the Eastern Fleet reduced the Mediterranean Fleet to a force of light cruisers and destroyers.[11] Decodes from the Italian C 38m made it practical for the Admiralty to keep the extent of the damage to Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, which was not apparent to air reconnaissance, along with the loss of Barham until late January 1942 when a prisoner mentioned the success at Alexandria, leading to the Italians making the most of this by sailing more convoys.[12] The coup at Alexandria neutralised the main remaining capital ships of the Mediterranean Fleet at a stroke. Along with transfers to the Eastern Fleet, it meant that the only ships left at Alexandria larger than a destroyer were the cruisers HMS Naiad, Dido and Euryalus. The Italian battle fleet had four battleships operational and grounds for confidence in the future; the deception to conceal the extent of the damage of Valiant and Queen Elizabeth could not last for long.[11]

HMS Valiant

The explosive charge under Valiant was under the port torpedo bulge near A turret, holing the lower bulge and blowing the hole upwards over 60 ft × 30 ft (18.3 m × 9.1 m). The internal damage was spread from the keel to the lower bulge compartments, with flooding in the double-bottom bulge, A shell room and magazine and the compartments next to it up to the lower deck. Shock caused some damage to electrical equipment and the traversing mechanism for A turret was distorted. The main and auxiliary machinery were undamaged and the ship could to put to sea if necessary. As many items as possible were taken off the ship to lighten it and then it was moved to Admiralty Floating Dock No. 5 on 21 December for temporary repairs; on 3 April 1942 she sailed to Durban for permanent repairs from 15 April to 7 July 1942.[13]

HMS Queen Elizabeth

The explosion that disabled Queen Elizabeth was under B boiler room, damaging the double bottom and anti-torpedo bulges over 190 ft × 60 ft (58 m × 18 m). The floor of B boiler room and those of A and X boiler rooms, to a limited extent, were forced upwards. The boiler rooms, the forward 4.5-inch magazines, Y boiler room and many other compartments were flooded up to the main deck, damaging boilers, machinery and other electrical equipment. The main and secondary armament remained operational but hydraulic power was lost. Queen Elizabeth took electrical current from submarines moored on either side.[10] The ship was put into a floating dock for temporary repairs and then during the panic after the defeat at the Battle of Gazala (26 May – 21 June 1942) Queen Elizabeth sailed to Port Sudan in the Red Sea on 5 May The fuel tanks were repaired and fuel taken on for a journey to the US and in mid-July Queen Elizabeth sailed for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia. Queen Elizabeth underwent permanent repairs from 6 September to 1 June 1943, a period of nearly eighteen months.[13]

Sagona and HMS Jervis

Sagona was towed back to England and repairs took until 1946 to be completed. Jervis required a month in dock to make repairs.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Queen Elizabeth had a draught of 33ft 5in forward and 32ft 7in aft, after the explosion its draught was 41ft 10in forward, 33ft 10in aft. Queen Elizabeth was moored in approximately 48ft (8 fathoms) of water.[7]
  2. ^ After the war, when the frogmen were released from British captivity, the former captain of Valiant, now Admiral Charles Morgan, Chief of the Allied Naval Mission in Italy, asked for the privilege of giving the Gold Medal of Military Valor (Medaglia d'oro al valor militare) to Durand de la Penne.[9]



  • Bragadin, Marc'Antonio (1957). Italian Navy in World War II (1st ed.). Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute. ISBN 978-0-87021-327-4 – via Archive Foundation.
  • Brown, David (2002). The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean: November 1940 – December 1941. Vol. II. Frank Cass Publishers. ISBN 0-7146-5205-9.
  • Greene, J.; Massignani, A. (2002) [1998]. The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943 (repr. pbk. ed.). Rochester: Chatham. ISBN 978-1-86176-190-3.
  • Hinsley, Harry; Thomas, E. E.; Ransom, C. F. G.; Knight, R. C. (1981). British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations. History of the Second World War. Vol. II. London: HMSO. ISBN 0-521-242908.
  • O'Hara, Vincent P.; Cernuschi, Enrico (Summer 2015). "Frogmen against a Fleet: The Italian Attack on Alexandria 18/19 December 1941". Naval War College Review. 68 (3): 119–137. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
  • Playfair, I. S. O.; Flynn, F. C.; Molony, C. J. C.; Gleave, T. P. (2004) [1960]. Butler, Sir James (ed.). The Mediterranean and Middle East: British Fortunes Reach Their Lowest Ebb (September 1941 to September 1942). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Vol. III (facs. pbk. Naval & Military Press, Uckfield ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 978-1-84574-067-2.
  • Raven, Alan; Roberts, John (1975). "Queen Elizabeth class battleships". Ensign 4. London: Bivouac Books. ISBN 978-0-85680-005-4.
  • Rohwer, Jürgen; Hümmelchen, Gerhard (2005) [1972]. Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939–1945: The Naval History of World War Two (3rd rev. ed.). London: Chatham. ISBN 1-86176-257-7.
  • Sadkovich, James (1994). The Italian Navy in World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-28797-X.
  • Woodman, Richard (2003). Malta Convoys 1940–1943. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6408-5.

Further reading

31°10′43.71″N 29°51′44.89″E / 31.1788083°N 29.8624694°E / 31.1788083; 29.8624694