August 21, 1984: "Operation Red Sea"


The laying of mines in the Suez Canal and in the Red Sea had created a specific problem of international security which, although not immediately evident to the general public, had a direct and recognizable relationship also with the national security needs. For this reason, Italy could not remain aloof in the face of an event which, in addition to having the character of serious and irresponsible act of terrorism, in fact also intended to materialize a precise impediment to the freedom of navigation to and from the Mediterranean, a fundamental element for a nation like Italy, with a maritime industrial and economic system.

In addition to the importance of the mission on a strictly technical-military level, its political significance cannot certainly be overlooked, in correlation with the missions of the Armed Forces. Italians in Lebanon and with the role of presence played by naval units in Sinai. These are three events that underlined the need and legitimacy that a political line, even strictly and coherently defensive like the Italian one, cannot and should not be translated on the level of military presence into a simple frontier activity, forced within the narrow limits of territorial waters.

On the other hand, Defense policy had since then fully implemented this need, identifying a specific joint mission which also envisaged for the Armed Forces possible tasks of international security, armistice interposition, guarantee of the human rights of minority groups, protection of our fellow citizens abroad, as Italy's contribution to the maintenance of peace throughout the Mediterranean area.

Irresponsible actions such as those of the mining of the Red Sea, with all the ambiguities and mysteries that surrounded them, making any prediction impossible and endorsing the fear that they could repeat themselves, had dramatically confirmed the importance that instead since peacetime must be related to mine warfare and its importance in the broader context of sea defence.

A war that of mines, which even in the conception of the most advanced and modern Navies often finds it difficult to receive full recognition of the strategic scope that it can have, on a par with that fought by the most important surface units or submarines, and the need to constantly have up-to-date and effective means of countermeasures to face the threat of modern generation mines.

In its evolutionary cycle, the "mine" weapon has taken on various aspects which have determined, from time to time, completely different uses, in relation to the different characteristics and performances offered.

The real mine, in its modern meaning of underwater weapon, only appeared in 1810 and was created by the American Robert Fulton. Despite its very simple conception, it had characteristics and possibilities similar to those of the moored mines that some Navies still have.

The first conspicuous losses, due to mining techniques, began to be recorded during the American Civil War: the sinking of 22 warships and the serious damage to at least double of them suffered by the Northerners, determined the need for an in-depth study of all possible forms of use of the mine and of course countermeasures.

In the First World War the results of the mining operations exceeded all expectations: the overall losses, ascribed to these weapons, amounted to 150 military and merchant units, of which about 35 submarines, for the Central Powers; and the sinking of a hundred warships and about 600 merchant ships by the Allies.

The weapons used were mostly anchored mines with contact activation systems, which although very simple in concept, were capable of truly surprising results.

While, up until the end of the 30s, only so-called "shock" or "contact" mines existed, i.e. with an activation device that required direct impact with the target ship and submarine, at the beginning of the Second World War the first flu mines, made by the Germans, appeared in the world. 

Their activation system was based on the weapon's ability to "warn" the presence or passage of a hull, by measuring the variations it induced on the pre-existing conditions of the surrounding environment; conditions that can be the intensity and direction of the earth's magnetic field, influenced by the presence of metallic bodies, or of the acoustic and baric field that always accompany to some extent every dynamic solicitation of the solid water.

The magnetic influence mine was the first of the new generation weapons to appear in the last conflict, causing such widespread concern with the devastating effects it proved capable of, as to unleash a frenetic research activity on possible countermeasures.

The greatest danger was represented by the possibility of hidden mining, with submarines and aircraft that the new weapon, destined to land on the bottom, allowed; to this must be added the considerable difficulties involved in the discovery of these devices, to the point that sometimes one did not have the slightest perception of the laying of entire fields carried out at night, except through their destructive effects on the units passing through them.

It was then that there was a measure of the importance that this weapon could have not only in a purely defensive context, but also in the context of a long-range and long-term strategic attack plan.

The impression was confirmed by the facts a little later, during the Pacific campaign, which saw an intense and dynamic aerial mining activity by the United States with over 12.000 mines deposited near the Japanese coasts, along the main access routes to ports; they caused the sinking of 1.000.000 tons of shipping, as well as forcing part of the Japanese fleet to remain idle at their moorings for long periods of time.

Obviously, many other examples could be cited of how this type of weapon has taken on a decisively important role in the context of modern warfare at sea, also as an instrument of attack, highly effective and flexible in use, such as to justify the ongoing current research towards a more and more refinement.

But let's go back for a moment briefly to the hints made on the development of landmines and the consequent equal search for the means to counter it. As mentioned, the real genetic mutation of this weapon occurred at the end of the 30s with the creation of the first magnetic bottom mine.

The technique then used against shock mines had to be urgently revised.

The countermeasure devised, and which required quite a bit of time given the complexity of the problem, consisted in the end in the creation of various types of electrical equipment, installed on dredging units built in non-magnetic material, and capable of generating a field remotely from the dredging vehicle magnetic with characteristics similar to that generated by a metal hull.

It was a significant evolution of the dredging technique, but soon the pressure of events required new research.

In fact, the magnetic induction mines were quickly followed by those with acoustic influence and subsequently the appearance of weapons sensitive to the depression created on the bottom, by the "Venturi" effect, by the transit of a naval unit. The latter in particular, revealed themselves at the moment practically undragable if not with the use of "guinea pig" ships, with all the obvious contraindications from the point of view of the cost/effectiveness of the operation.

The contrast to this type of weapon, gradually perfected with the addition of timed devices, oriented the study, in the mid-50s, towards a new countermeasure technique, directed to the search and identification of the devices on the seabed, and therefore to their destruction with various systems, rather than to the creation of the environmental conditions for their spontaneous activation.

In practice, by developing knowledge in the field of ecogoniometers for anti-submarine research, electro-acoustic devices were created which, working on appropriate frequencies, were able to locate the mine chest both moored and those laid on the bottom.

This new technique, called "minesweeper" and considerably perfected in the following years, is the one that has given rise to the most significant and most effective achievements in the field of countermeasures.

Currently it is in fact possible to overcome a large part of the difficulties created also by mines of more advanced conception, so-called "intelligent", i.e. capable of distinguishing signals belonging to a given type of vessel through automatic analysis and comparison systems, and therefore remaining insensitive to those produced by means of countermeasures.

Although some Navies, in particular the US Navy, believe that the sweeping of influence mines implemented with other techniques, such as helicopters, is still an effective and convenient procedure, among the Western Navies there is a general consensus that the best and most reliable system is that of "hunting".

This concept implies that mines must be located, identified as such and finally naturalized one at a time.

The Italian Navy has addressed the solution well in advance of other Western navies minesweepers, in the belief that the availability of a few certainly effective means was at a premium compared to that of many cheaper means whose effectiveness is however conditioned by the statistical nature of the procedure adopted, as occurs in the case of conventional dredging.

In the 70s, MMI decided to acquire a minesweeper component, deriving it from the transformation of coastal minesweepers, to narrow the gap between the new weapons and the means of countermeasures then available in the shortest possible time and compatibly with resources.

The line reached the consistency of 7 minesweepers derived from the transformation of as many minesweepers, which represent the natural link between the conventional CMM systems (Mine Countermeasures) and the new minesweeper techniques now extensively adopted on the new generation units.

The initial 4 "Lerici" class minesweepers were then followed in the space of about five years by another 8 slightly modified units ("Gaeta" class) for a total line that, while still far from the optimal objectives, still constitutes a rate of sufficient means to ensure the fulfillment of the essential tasks in the sector.

The small size of the ship, the high resistance to shock, due to the construction of the hull in reinforced fiberglass together with technical solutions that allow maximum isolation of the machinery, the provision of high-precision navigation systems, the general operating characteristics, make it a means of notable effectiveness, and which has aroused, as is known, also the interest of numerous foreign Navies.

With the new units (scheduled, ed) the Italian Navy will have one of the most advanced conception vessels currently in existence, and equipped with technical solutions capable of coping not only with the threat posed by most of the new generation mines but also with the new needs for surveillance and support to the insurgents various new underwater activities such as for example the surveillance of gas pipelines.

Summary of the activities carried out

After this quick overview aimed at framing the most important aspects of the problem, a summary of the Red Sea operation now follows.

There are no doubts about the particular importance of this mission, there are reasons of an operational nature, particularly as far as it has made it possible to detect and improve on the level of professional preparation, men's abilities, suitability and the objective possibilities of the means; then there are reasons, as mentioned in the introduction, which are linked to the problem of guidelines and the very conception of defense, which the mission has re-proposed by calling for very significant determinations in terms of more general principles.

The situation in which the men and vehicles were called to work was not exactly the one in which training missions generally take place which, although carried out in very demanding conditions, inevitably suffer from the limits of simulation and artifice.

The objective conditions of employment were particularly difficult, for many reasons:

  • the distance of the assigned areas from a base capable of ensuring adequate technical and logistic support and the consequent need to provide it with a support unit not expressly equipped for the purpose;
  • climatic and environmental conditions very different from those in which diving operators and crews are used to operating;
  • the necessarily very intense work rhythms due to the urgency of the task, which finally materialized in 42 uninterrupted days of research, from the first light of dawn to sunset.
  • Not to be overlooked is the fact that for the first time in many years men were called to operate in a situation that was actually risky as well as technically difficult, and to respond to a decisive commitment for the safety of navigation, a commitment assumed towards a nation foreign and which took place under the watchful eyes of a large part of the world.

The Red Sea operation was therefore for the MMI a very useful test bed, which allowed the precise verification, in a real context, of the excellent level of technical and professional preparation of the men, also offering an opportunity for the concrete assessment of the validity and effectiveness of the means, ultimately demonstrating their total suitability to confirm the validity of the choices made.

Some considerations concern the indications of defense policy that emerge from the mission.

In the last 50 years, the Mediterranean has seen the growth of newly independent countries of not negligible political weight, with respect to which Italy has constantly committed itself to a desire for friendship and cooperation, for aid and economic exchanges, peaceful coexistence in situations of equality and respect.

There is therefore no other direct interest of Italy in the Mediterranean than that of guaranteeing a condition of stability necessary to sustain its economic life, closely linked, as is known, to the possibility of receiving the indispensable flow of raw materials by sea.

For this reason, freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean and along its access routes, as well as the principle of absolute value, is a fundamental requirement, which leads to having to exclude a priori the admissibility of any attempt to limit it.

On this occasion, the MMI was called upon to deal with this eventuality as one of its institutional tasks.

In fact, it is not possible to ignore the immediate danger that events such as the Red Sea pose to Italy, and the threat deriving from situations of crisis or local conflicts in the Mediterranean; this is why a possible decision not to participate in peaceful containment operations, intended to prevent a simple local dispute from triggering the spiral of a larger confrontation, could result in stark contrast with national interests.

It is under this thrust that the Red Sea mission was born and carried out, a mission to which the Government rightly wanted to attribute an exclusive bilateral character, as a matter of national security and Italy's support for a friendly nation; this intention would not have emerged with the same evidence had recourse had been had to a solution in partnership with other countries, or to the establishment of multilateral military consultations, which could have furthermore fueled the suspicion, aired by some parties, that the reclamation operation could disguise different purposes attributable to this or that power.

The Italian minesweepers have therefore not constituted an integrated force with the means of the other nations, but have operated under direct national control, reporting, only for operational coordination in the area, to the Egyptian command of Adabya.

The mission saw the CMM units engaged for 59 days, 42 of which spent in the operational areas.

A total area of ​​124 square miles (about 285 km2) was explored.

483 contacts were located, of which 236 were investigated and classified as "non-mine"

To fulfill the mission, the units performed a total of 2.485 hours of motion and covered 15.644 miles (about 30 km).

The units fully responded to the assigned task.

Although these are old hulls, operating in severe environmental conditions, only very minor damages occurred, however promptly repaired with the means on board and which did not affect the performance of the mission.

The crews were heavily involved in the conduct of the operations, which lasted practically without interruption for 42 days in unusual climatic conditions.

A total of 305 men were involved, including 32 officers, 128 NCOs, 140 sailors and 5 civilians.


During the description of the mission, the assumptions of the operation will be briefly examined with reference to the various phases of the preliminary negotiations with the Egyptian Government.

After a brief description of the characteristics of the participating units, the carrying out of the operations in the three assigned areas will be illustrated, Suez Bay, Suez Gulf and Bitter Lakes, sensibly differentiated from each other in terms of environmental conditions and therefore also from an operational point of view .

At the end, a summary of the activity carried out and an examination of the lessons learned and an analysis of the mission.

Preliminary actions

Following the series of underwater explosions that occurred in the Red Sea starting from the beginning of July and the consequent Egyptian request for an intervention by mine countermeasures units of the MMI, on 13 August a commission of experts was sent to Cairo made up of representatives of the SMM to acquire the elements necessary for the planning of any Italian intervention and to define the executive methods.

During the first meeting, held on August 14, the Egyptian authorities illustrated the criteria for subdividing the work areas, in principle already agreed with the representatives of the nations concerned for the CMM forces of the United States, Great Britain and France. These zones were arranged along the transit routes of the Gulf of Suez and for their demining it was foreseen the use of forces of Great Britain in the north, the United States in the center and France in the south.

An area of ​​the Gulf between the British and the United States was proposed to the Italian delegation for the operations of our units.

The choice of the area did not seem very appropriate and the delegation expressed its perplexities based essentially on the irrelevant probability that mines were present in the assigned area, considering the absence of accidents that had occurred up to then in the face of a significant number of transits of merchant vessels moreover, the high depths of the assigned stretch of gulf (between 55 and 70 metres) would have greatly limited the danger even in the unlikely event of the presence of mines.

Finally, it was observed that the distance of the area from the nearest port (at least thirty miles) would have led to considerable loss of time for transfers and logistical difficulties.

The delegation therefore presented the Egyptian authorities with the opportunity to concentrate all CMM efforts in the areas already affected by the explosions (Suez Bay, Jubal Strait) and to examine the possibility of assigning one of these areas close to Suez to the Italian minesweeper units.

In the light of these arguments, during a second meeting held on August 16, the Egyptian authorities reconsidered the assignments made and accepted the proposals, inquiring about the suggested criterion of intervening primarily in the areas where the explosions had occurred and subsequently in the others.

In this new perspective, the assignments of the original areas to the USA and France were confirmed, the area assigned to Great Britain was slightly modified and the areas of the Great Bitter Lake and the Bay of Suez were assigned to Italy as first priority, and, in second priority , an area of ​​about 18 mg. X 3,5 mg. between the English zone and the US zone

The Egyptians finally reserved the waters of the Mediterranean in front of Port Said for their own forces.

The delegation, taking note of what was proposed, at the same time presented to the Egyptian authorities the criteria to which the Italian intervention would be based, and more precisely:

  • autonomy of command and control and coordination of the activity by the Egyptian authorities on the basis of bilateral contacts e
  • full national discretion regarding the ways and times of employment of the forces with particular regard to the possible interventions of underwater operators for countermining operations.

With regard to the progress of the talks, it should be noted that during both meetings a broad willingness to accept suggestions and proposals from the "experts" of other nations regarding possible solutions to the problem of demining the Gulf of Suez emerged on the Egyptian side and the Red Sea.

This situation had obviously favored foreign interlocutors who were the first to have had the opportunity to discuss the methods of their interventions with the Egyptian authorities.

Nonetheless, the Suez Bay area proposed during the last meeting for carrying out mine countermeasure operations of the Italian units, offered numerous advantages such as:

  • the proximity to the Adabiya naval base
  • shallow waters
  • the political/strategic importance associated with its impact on the southern access to the Canal

The second priority area, despite being about 50 miles from Suez, most probably not mined and with depths of 50-60 metres, offered the advantage of its limited size with the consequent foreseeable modest time commitment for its exploration.

Participating forces

Following the results of the aforementioned talks, the Italian Government decided to provide the requested assistance for the demining of the Red Sea, and consequently on 21 August the 14th Naval Group formed by the support vessel Caveat and coastal minesweepers Ash, Chestnut e Lotto, and assigned to the direct reports of the Navy General Staff.

As regards the characteristics of the three minesweepers, they are small wooden units of about 400 tons of displacement, 40 meters long, with a standard crew of 41 units, increased to 45 for specific needs.

The units built around 1955 served for a long time as Coastal Minesweepers until their transformation into minesweepers was decided in the 70s

MMI was at that time having to deal with a significant evolution of the threat deriving from developments in the field of sea mines and against which only new mine hunting techniques could provide an adequate response.

To acquire indispensable experience in the sector and as a necessary transition phase towards the new "Lerici" type fiberglass minesweepers, the SMM decided to proceed with the transformation of seven minesweepers, three of which were involved in the mission in the Red Sea.

After disembarking all the equipment for influence dredging, the minesweepers were equipped with an auxiliary propulsion unit consisting of a ducted, adjustable and retractable propeller, located in the centre/stern area, capable of ensuring the necessary silence and maneuverability of the unit in near the mines.

The system for mine hunting was then installed, headed by an operations center and intended to perform the functions of localization, identification and neutralization of mines.

The main equipment associated with the three functions are (for searching and locating):

a precision radio navigation and automatic tracking system and a precision radar also associated with the automatic tracking system

a variable depth echogoniometer for the identification and neutralization functions

a core of 6 divers with pneumatic boats equipped for the transport and release of explosive countermining charges

a self-propelled and wire-controlled underwater television.

Particular attention should be paid to the logistical preparation of the mission.

The minesweepers are in fact configured to operate in metropolitan coastal waters and therefore, with the prospect of a location of uncertain duration, in an operational area very distant from their bases of adequate technical-logistical support, it became necessary to implement some measures which would guarantee the units the possibility of continuously express their operational potential.

Within the modest time limits allowed for the preparation of the units, extraordinary maintenance was carried out on the engines and on-board equipment; the stocks of spare parts were increased and the crew integrated with some specialist officers and non-commissioned officers.

But above all, it was decided to include the support ship in the operational group Caveat with command and support unit duties.

This unit had already performed similar tasks during NATO exercises, when CMM units were deployed in Turkey, Greece and the western Mediterranean, and therefore the philosophy of the CMM tactical task group was well known.

Sul Caveat the command and staff of the 14th Naval Group, a nucleus of CMM equipment specialist technicians, additional stocks of material and, where possible, entire spare equipment, additional diving personnel and medical personnel; in short everything that was deemed necessary to give complete technical and logistic autonomy to the units.


Summary of events

The units of the 14th Naval Group they left La Spezia on the morning of 22 August arriving in Porto Said on the evening of 28 August.

The transfer was not characterized by significant events; the weather remained good on average, except for a couple of days of very rough seas and strong headwinds which made it advisable to slow down the navigation of the minesweepers, as there was, however, enough time to arrive in Port Said in time to join up on the second of the two trains scheduled to cross the Channel during the night.

However, the modest delay alarmed our journalists, who had been waiting since the early afternoon in Port Said and impatient to send their reports.

The fact, given the natural tendency of the press to hunt for sensational events, had generated a series of rather dramatic hypotheses.

To satisfy the attention that the media reserved for the mission, a press conference was arranged on board the Caveat at anchor in a waiting area before the formation of the convoy.

However, due to customs problems, the journalists were not allowed to embark, with the consequences that could be guessed on their mood. A quick press conference was therefore organized on the ground at three in the morning, taking advantage of the few hours available before the formation and departure of the convoy, to reassure spirits and dispel any possible doubts and perplexities about the efficiency of the ships.

Having overcome the difficult obstacle of "public relations", the units passed the Suez Canal as scheduled on 29 August and arrived at the naval base of Adabiya in the evening of the same day.

On the basis of the initial contacts with the Egyptian naval command responsible for the entire operation, the activity program was prepared taking into account the different environmental conditions present in the three assigned operational areas.

More specifically, the elements taken into consideration for planning were:

- orography and accessibility to the coast facing the area of ​​operations to ascertain the possibility of using the primary navigation system which uses, as mentioned, three transponders located on the coast, or the secondary system consisting of the radar and particular signaling buoys supplied to minesweepers,

- trend of the seabed and visibility on the bottom to determine the most suitable means of contact investigation (diver or wire-guided TV),

- prevailing weather conditions to determine the best search technique,

- trend of merchant traffic and consequent availability of areas to explore, to determine the rate of use of the units and their consequent maintenance cycle.

On the morning of August 31, operations began in the area of ​​greatest priority, the Bay of Suez.

The bay is circumscribed by coasts easily accessible by sea and by land with easily detectable geographical coordinate points and this made it possible to use the main radio navigation system.

The depths, of a fairly consistent nature, vary between 8 and 35 meters with a visibility on the bottom between 1 and 5 meters. In these conditions, contact investigation operations can be carried out both by underwater operators and with the use of wire-guided TV.

The weather conditions were statistically favourable.

The intense merchant traffic with entry and exit of the ships from the bay distributed over the course of 24 hours and with the need for special routings for movements in the anchorage areas of the waiting areas, entailed difficulties in keeping large areas clear for our operations and limited the utilization rate of the CMM units.

Based in Adabiya, the units conducted CMM operations in Suez Bay from 31 August to 17 September.

On average, two units were employed daily from 0800 to 1.800, while the third was in port for maintenance.

The only problems arose in coordinating the activity of the CMM units with the intense merchant traffic.

Overall, an area of ​​about 30 square miles was explored, achieving a 96% recovery rate, and 205 contacts were investigated.

On 18 September, after completing operations in the Suez Bay, the units moved from Adabiya to the Great Bitter Lake, an area circumscribed by coasts accessible both by sea and by land with conspicuous points of easily detectable coordinates.

The main navigation system could therefore also be used here.

The depths varying between 8 and 18 meters lent themselves very well to the use of divers, a little less than that of wire-guided TV due to the poor visibility on the bottom (0-2 metres). Investigative operations were also facilitated by the persistence of excellent weather conditions.

Merchant traffic, which was particularly intense, was however regulated with great precision; this significantly reduced coordination problems and it was possible to operate daily over very large areas, increasing the employment rate of the units.

Operations in the Great Bitter Lake, which began on 19 September, were interrupted on the evening of the 20th, after 45% of the area had been explored, following the Egyptian request for urgent intervention in the second priority area in the Gulf of Suez. In fact, a further explosion had been recorded in the central part of the Gulf, assigned to the British and the fact had rekindled general concerns and particularly alarmed the Egyptian authorities.

The naval group then moved south on 21 September to the new area characterized by completely different environmental conditions from those hitherto encountered.

The Gulf of Suez is flanked by coastlines remote from the area of ​​operations, difficult to access or even inaccessible due to the still existing land minefields of the Yom Kippur War, with few conspicuous points of geographical coordinates difficult to detect.

This made it necessary to use the secondary navigation system, the radar, which however was associated with wider margins of error.

Furthermore, it was not possible to employ divers to investigate contacts due to the high depths and the particularly adverse weather conditions made search operations difficult and very often also prevented the use of wire-guided TV.

Merchant traffic was not particularly intense, or rather it was rather sparse both in time and space, and did not place any restrictions on the use of minesweepers who were therefore able to operate with a high utilization rate.

Symptomatic of the particular and prolonged adverse meteorological conditions is the fact that in order to be able to investigate only two contacts (those with the highest "confidence") the minesweeper units had to stop at anchor waiting for an improvement in the weather conditions for a good 5 days, having previously already operated for another 5 days with sea force 3/4 and wind 25/30 knots.

In this area, as already mentioned, the movements of merchant units did not in any way interfere with the regularity of CMM operations as the paths of the minesweepers in the assigned areas were parallel to the traffic currents.

Operations in this area lasted from 23 September to 3 October, employing all units daily from sunrise to sunset.

An area of ​​75 square miles was explored with an 84% recovery rate, locating a total of 100 contacts. Their classification was hampered by the deep waters, greater than 54 meters, which did not allow the use of underwater operators and by the adverse weather conditions, which significantly limited the use of television systems.

Consequently, as already mentioned, only the two contacts considered most dangerous were identified.

All remaining contacts were marked on nautical charts delivered to the Egyptian authorities at the end of the operations.

Once operations were completed, the units left the area on 3 October heading for Adabiya for supplies and crew rest.

On 5 October the units moved from Adabiya to the Great Lake to complete the previously interrupted operations.

The particularly favorable environmental conditions, shallow waters and calm seas, allowed for an easy and rapid completion of the task, which was completed on 7 October.

A total of 40 contacts were investigated in this ark.

From the Great Amaro Lake the units moved to Ismalia where they made a technical stopover until the morning of 10 October, when they began the transfer to Italy which ended in La Spezia on the morning of 19 October.


Before starting the examination of the facts, a further clarification on the multiform possibilities of use of the "mine" weapon is appropriate.

It is essential to reaffirm the concept of its extreme flexibility and the ability of this weapon to be used, better than any other, as an easily graduated pressure instrument and to be able to be used in this form even by those who possess only a limited number and not is equipped with installation means specifically dedicated to this purpose.

This actually happened in the Red Sea, where Libya, to increase its continuous pressure exercised in the most diverse forms on the Egyptian government, using a merchant ship (the RoRo Ghat), on which he had embarked military personnel, carried out the laying of an unspecified number of mines in the Gulf of Suez.

The weapons used, as it was possible to ascertain later after the discovery and recovery of one of them, were of Soviet construction, modern and equipped with sophisticated devices but armed only with a part of the expected explosive charge (100 kg instead of 600 kg ).

The most reliable hypothesis on the purpose of that operation is to consider it a first heavy warning on the possibility of achieving a total blockade of traffic through Suez with the obvious immediate consequences on the economy of the area, of which the Compagnia del Canale is one of the pillars, and , in the short and medium term, on the economy of European and Western countries in general.

Furthermore, to better evaluate the results achieved by the forces intervening for the reclamation, it is essential to highlight how the demining operations or better Mine Countermeasures (CMM), essentially have the purpose of ensuring free transit for military and merchant vessels along the lines of maritime communications and along the access routes to ports and achieve the pre-established result when at the end of the activity it can be ensured that there are no mines in the affected areas either because those laid have all been neutralized or because it has been ascertained that, in fact, no there is none.

This second possibility, which should never be underestimated, is directly connected to the aforementioned flexibility of the mine which allows it to be used also and above all as a psychological weapon.

The mere declaration of having laid a minefield by a nation that has the presumed capacity to do so constitutes in fact a real threat, and therefore to be eliminated.

Having said this, it is appropriate to examine some of the elements of interest never analyzed in detail in the period in which the "mass media" gave greater prominence to the events in question and, more specifically:

  • the presumable reasons that prompted the four governments consulted by the Egyptian authorities to decide the intervention of their CMM forces in the Red Sea;
  • the different times and the different methods of intervention;
  • the criteria for assigning the areas of operation by the Egyptian authorities to the intervening Navies.

The three elements mentioned above are obviously strictly interdependent, affecting the reasons for the speed of intervention and the methods of execution; the ability to intervene promptly, as well as the means chosen for the intervention, on the criteria for assigning the areas of operation.

Knowing even only superficially the attitudes and behaviors of the various political classes of the countries concerned, it is almost consequential to hypothesize the presumable motivations for intervention:

is preferably used for France it was a question of not missing out on a "great power" demonstration and above all of supporting its promotional activity in the field of military shipbuilding in an area of ​​notable commercial interest;

is preferably used for Britain, which already had its CMM units stationed in the Mediterranean with an eye to possible mine threats in the Strait of Ormuz, it was a pure and simple military operation;

for the United States it was an obligation fulfilled in the spirit of an operational readiness exercise (called "Quick Look"); using, inter alia, means, such as helicopters, certainly suitable for a rapid redeployment in any area (even if serious logistical problems arose during the executive phase which were resolved thanks to the enormous availability of the USN) but equally certainly not suitable for carrying out an effective reclamation operation considering that their capabilities allow only a rapid search at the expense of an effective and systematic investigation of the assigned area;

for the 'Italy it was a troubled political choice, on the one hand hindered by the criticisms in good and bad faith from those who generally did not know the operational factors of the problem in real terms, and on the other prompted by the new "broad scope" given to the Mediterranean and Middle East of Italy and the veiled hope of repeating internally the "journalistic glories" of the mission in Lebanon.

From a technical-operational point of view, the operation has instead constituted a commendable organizational effort by the Italian Navy (MMI), not so much for the distance of the intervention from the metropolitan bases as for all the unknowns linked to the uncertainty of its duration at the scarce knowledge of the environmental situation and the reliability of the means, never proven in such a prolonged commitment.

With regard to this last aspect, it should also be noted that, due to the farcical diatribe of the opening of the bridge over the river Magra, also essentially of a political nature, the MMI instead of being able to use the new minesweepers Lerici was obliged to send 3 old minesweepers built in 1955 and transform them into minesweepers in the 70s which, to the credit of their crews, performed more than excellently.

As a result of the reaction times mentioned above, the British minesweepers and US helicopters were the first to intervene, followed quickly by the French and, therefore, by the Italians.

More than the date of arrival in the area of ​​operation for Italy it was crucial to be the last to decide on the intervention and therefore to start negotiations with the Egyptian government after all the others.

Arriving at the negotiating table for the division of tasks and the assignment of areas of responsibility to things in practice already agreed with the other participants, some of whom among other things at sea with their operating forces, meant for the Italian delegation face the arduous task of stealing part of the most significant areas from others both from the point of view of the real need for demining (for example, in the Gulf of Suez there are stretches of sea where the presence of mines would not constitute a real danger for the depth of backdrops) and, more generally, from a political and strategic point of view (for example, not all areas constituted obligatory passages or had significant relevance).

The alternative would otherwise have been to limit Italian participation to a formal presence only "to show the flag" among other things, thus making some of the criticisms of the eve valid.

To complete the picture of the situation, it should be underlined that Italian procrastination attitudes, on the one hand, were matched, on the other, by declarations of willingness, from the onset of the emergency, by the Dutch government to send their own CMM units to Red Sea and simultaneous pressure on the Egyptian government to be invited to participate in the mission together with the other four nations (or in place of any of them).

From an examination of the data disclosed by the nations participating in the mission in the Red Sea, two different categories of results emerge linked, among other things, to the characteristics of the areas of operation.

The first concerns the British and Italian minesweepers who have completed a systematic reclamation operation, effectively creating something very similar to a map of the seabed with the indication of all the objects present (several hundreds) of the most varied nature.

In this type of operation the Italian minesweepers ascertained the absence of mines from the area assigned to them while the English minesweepers had the good fortune (!) to identify the only mine correlated to the laying carried out by the Ghat (photo).

On the other hand, in the area assigned to the British minesweepers, in the southernmost part not yet reclaimed, the only explosion that took place in the entire operation took place.

These two events mean that the two areas, Italian and English, immediately south of the port of Suez were in fact, as well as strategically important, the two most significant areas from an operational point of view and thus confirming the correct intuition of the delegation Italian who demanded more than agreeing on the assignment of that stretch of sea.

The second category of achievements concerns:

the US helicopters which effectively carried out a rapid exploration of a large sea area along the two traffic routes in the southern part of the Gulf of Suez without achieving significant results;

the French minesweepers who, near the Gubal Strait in front of the port of Hurgada, among other things outside the main traffic routes, found a certain number of old mines dating back to one of the Arab-Israeli confrontations.

The spirit with which the mission in the Red Sea was tackled was therefore different. both the results achieved by the individual participating forces, the overall result was in any case fundamental.

Perhaps for the first time there has been a prompt, effective and coordinated response of Western nations in the face of a sudden crisis.

France, England, Italy and the United States, even if directly involved in the event, were able to participate exclusively as support to a friendly nation which, among other things, was assigned the coordination of the entire operation thus strengthening already existing ties and above all by consolidating Egypt's confidence in a possible further timely support in case of future emergencies.

In conclusion, at the end of the entire operation, instead of suffering economic damage, Egypt achieved considerable political success by strengthening not only its image as leader of the moderate Arab world, but also the prestige of its military structure which was able to manage and brilliantly coordinate the activity of forces of different nations without any problems whatsoever.

This overall result should have, on a national level, allayed all the specious controversies that arose at the time, especially since looking at even the minor, or rather less well-known, results, the undertaking was certainly worth Italy's undertaking for the unrepeatable opportunity to realistically test the performance and capabilities of one's own CMM means, and confirm the validity of the choices made for their future development.

Without underestimating the gratitude of the highest Egyptian authorities for the quality and seriousness of the work carried out by the Italian minesweepers in a context of direct comparison with the British units against which they did not disfigure at all.

As proof of the mission's success, the Egyptian Defense Minister, General Abu Gazala, awarded the mission commander with the highest civilian decoration conferable to a foreigner.


The mission entrusted to the 14th Naval Group has been fully accomplished.

The first priority areas (Suez Bay and Great Bitter Lakes) were cleared without any mines being found.

In the second priority area (Gulf of Suez) all contacts were reported and marked and those whose characteristics were closest to those of a mine were investigated.

The logistical arrangements, mentioned at the outset, have proved to be adequate and sufficient. Practically all the maintenance and interventions for the elimination of a limited series of breakdowns, deriving from the intensive and prolonged use of all the on-board systems and equipment, were possible by using the spare material embarked upon departure.

Lessons learnt

The lessons learned are in practice confirmations of things already known:

  1. Crews when they are motivated, when the sacrifices required have a clear purpose for all, they provide a performance that goes well beyond any expectation and they also make easy and smooth operations that at the beginning might appear full of difficulties and unknowns.
  2. L'reliability highlighted from the equipment of the minesweeper system and the effectiveness/efficiency of the same as a whole confirmed the validity of the choices made by MMI in 1970 when the transformation of 7 minesweepers into minesweepers was decided and implemented. The good results of all the exercises carried out since then have been largely surpassed by those achieved during the mission in the Red Sea.
  3. Long duration operations away from metropolitan territory are feasible for CMM units only with the support of a support unit able to insure, as did the Caveat, both logistic supplies and above all the technical interventions that can be carried out with machinery and personnel that cannot be installed on a small unit such as minesweepers.

cv(r) Fernando Cinelli (commander Comgrupnav 14)

Photo: author / web