26 July 1941, attack on Malta: the sacrifice of Theseus Tesei

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)

The island of Malta - in the post-war narration of the Second World War - represents a sort of impregnable stronghold, capable of frustrating the Afrika Korps' attempts at naval supply, engaged in a deadly struggle against Commonwealth forces in North Africa.

Yet, at least until the spring of 1941, Malta poses no threat to the communication routes between Italy and Libya. The situation changes radically following the displacement of Italian-German air forces on the Greek front, which would have spread, then, to the whole Balkan peninsula. Furthermore, the X Luftwaffe Air Corps was mobilizing for the impending invasion of the Soviet Union (22 June 1941), so it had to significantly decrease its presence in the southern Mediterranean.

Given the easing of the threat of the Axis air forces, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, decides to displace four destroyers in Malta. After the first successes against the Italian fleet, Cunningham is convinced to send to the island a light division composed of cruisers and fighters (using radar), to attack the convoys loaded with supplies destined for the Italian-German troops in Libya.

Subsequently, an entire division of light cruisers and a destroyer flotilla is allocated in Malta: a serious threat to the ships used to supply the Axis forces in North Africa.

This threat worries not a little Supermarina, and the strategic change in the southern Mediterranean emerges in all its drama on the night between the 15 and the 16 April 1941, when 4 destroyers of the Royal Navy attack the convoy Tarigo completely destroying it.

After this tragic event, Supermarina analysts are convinced that Malta would become the starting point for fast surface units that would systematically attack direct convoys in North Africa. Symptomatic the reminder n.65 S / RRP issued by Supermarina: ...it is necessary to increase the ambushes of our submarines in the waters surrounding the island and also, minefields allowing it, within those closest to its port entrances, the same where our insidious vehicles should operate with greater and more constant frequency .

After a few days the release of the memo, Admiral Raffaele De Courten, responsible for the assault vehicles, contacted the commander of the X Flottiglia MAS, Vittorio Moccagatta, to order him to plan a raid of assault vehicles against Malta.

The island is an extremely difficult target, especially for overcoming obstructions and defensive systems on the coast.

Moccagatta, on 26 April 1941, sends De Courten a confidential communication explaining the operational possibilities for carrying out the attack on Malta. In the report, Moccagatta identifies in MT (Motoscafo Turismo) the only means able to elude the defensive system deployed in La Valletta, specifying, however, the impossibility of a surprise action, given the size of the port entrance. Therefore, warming up the hypothesis a force action, with the use of at least eight MT, of which three or four sacrificed for the destruction of obstructions.

Despite the concerns about the mission, expressed by the Supermarina environments, the X Flottiglia is authorized to proceed with planning.

To appropriately verify the system of barriers that defend the objective, Moccagatta sends, the 25 and the 28 May, two MAS in exploratory exploration of the Maltese coasts, without however acquiring elements able to facilitate the mission. Given the limited information acquired, Supermarina decides to postpone the attack.

The 26 June the MAS 451 and 452 reconnoitre, reaching up to about a mile and a half from the Maltese coast. From the information obtained it is decided to proceed with the implementation of the operation. The 30 June, from the base of Augusta, sails a naval formation: a series of failures of the means forces Supermarina to cancel the mission.

In July, however, preparations are restarted with a new attack plan. At this point the major of the Naval Genio Teseo Tesei, the father of the SLC (Siluri in Lenta Corsa) enters the scene. He succeeds in convincing Moccagatta to include the SLC in the operation, alongside the MTs.

Thus, a combined operation would be carried out against Malta, thereby making it even more complex and risky. Why does Moccagatta agree to modify the plan (in the original one the SLCs had been discarded for the impossibility of insertion with the submarines because of the scarce knowledge of the location of the enemy mines) and accepts Tesei's requests?

I believe that in this regard the words of Admiral Virgilio Spigai are illuminating: Theseus Tesei succeeded in also welcoming his idea of ​​participating in the expedition with self-propelled divers who had been excluded from the primitive projects, contemplating only the use of explosive boats: Frighteningly proved in the physical by the tests passed in the drama of the Iris and the second expedition of the Scirè against Gibraltar, declared fit for six months as a diver for severe cardiac defect, he wanted to burn it, that remnant of heart he had left, in a memorable heroic feat ... He was no more master than the rest of his original mighty health. The superiors did not dare to prevent him from spending it in a worthy way. So it was decided that two self-propelled vehicles also participated in the expedition, which turned out to be terribly complex.

Spigai's explanation throws light on a raid that represents, without a shadow of doubt, a clear tactical failure.

The 23 July, the aerial survey of the Regia Aeronautica signals a strong presence of enemy ships in Malta: it is the opportunity expected to launch the attack.

Day X is set for 26 July 1941. On the evening of 25 July, naval training leaves Augusta heading for Malta. Obviously, neither Supermarina nor at the command of the X Flottiglia are aware of the presence of radars, which nullified the surprise effect of the attack and put the British in a position to ambush some Italian means.

Leaving aside the vicissitudes of the other members of the mission, we will focus on the collapse of the Sant'Elmo bridge which is directly linked to the disappearance of Tesei and his second, Alcide Pedretti.

From the report of the vessel Lieutenant Costa, pilot of one of the SLC: to the exact 4,30 the network had to jump because this was foreseen in the whole operations, combined also with a contemporary aerial attack that would have had to mask the explosion of the network.

Tesei, in that circumstance, told me the following words that are worth testifying, through my deposition, the faith and courage of this officer, brought to the point of sacrifice [I presume that I will do nothing in time other than to bring my SLC. At 4,30 the network will have to jump and jump. If it is late I will go to the minimum]. He left at about 3,45. He could not have time to go to the net to carry out the cleaning operations with a convenient advance to move away from the explosion zone. At the 4,45 I heard the explosion. Major Tesei deliberately sacrificed his life for the success of the action, with that of his second man who wanted to carry out the mission with him until the end, spraying to a minimum and jumping with his bomb.

On the end of Tesei, and of his second, serious doubts remain, given that the stripping of the pigs it was generally set to 30 minutes, so as to allow the attackers to move away from the explosion site. Therefore, a voluntary explosion of the explosive cargo should be excluded.

In the 50 years of the last century - by the naval expert Joseph Caruana - the wreckage of an SLC, still equipped with the explosive head, was unearthed, then brought unfortunately to sink in high bottoms, together with other remnants of war found near the coast .

The most truthful conclusions seem to be Spigai's once again: it turns out ... technically verified that the minimum adjustment of the luminaires was 30 minutes. Even when adjusting to the minimum, the operation should have had enough time to escape the effect of the explosion. So? Since the appliance is certainly destroyed, should one think that the pilot has been seized by an obstruction or killed for the outbreak of charges other than that of his appliance? Mystery.

I think it is useless to investigate too much about how the facts took place. Tesei is a hero called by the destiny of his vocation to human glory and to the peace of Heaven.

Photo: web