Malta's Mostly Forgotten Story Of How The Italians Blew Up St. Elmo's Bridge
The red replacement is a hit with tourists
It's been 5 years since the unveiling of a new bridge linking Valletta's breakwater to Fort Saint Elmo. But look close enough at the present crimson red cantilevered bridge, and you’ll spot a weathered pillar of the old structure that spanned the gap prior to 1942.
While some people might remember that the bridge was destroyed ‘in the war’, only a handful know the exact specifics of the daring Italian raid by an elite unit that is widely acknowledged to be the precursor to the US Navy SEALs.
Valletta harbour, with its considerable Royal Navy presence, had long been a thorn in the Axis’s side, and by 1941 the Kindgom of Italy decided to do something about it. The task first fell on the Regia Aeronautica to disable the port, its facilities and ships through an intensive bombing campaign.
But the Royal Air Force’s fierce air war against Italian and later Luftwaffe aircraft, combined with a determined though costly effort to resupply the islands prevented the Axis from reaching their objectives.
As its desperation to cripple the Royal Navy mounted, the Kingdom of Italy resorted to its navy, the Regia Marina. A direct naval engagement however was quickly ruled out – even if Italy would win, the cost would probably have of been too great. Instead, the decision was made to task the mission to Decima Flottiglia MAS, an elite new commando frogman unit that was often simply known only as La Decima.
La Decima's frogmen wore rebreathers, which scrubbed the CO2 out of their oxygen, allowing them to operate quietly under the surface of the water for over thirty minutes – often to attach magnetic limpet mines to the hulls of ships. The unit also pioneered the use of human torpedoes; miniature rideable submarines that would be navigated to the target.
Italy's toying with manned torpedoes was largely the result of one man: Teseo Tesei. Born in Elba, and a graduate of the Livorno Naval Academy, Tesei earned a reputation as early on as an inventive and determined officer. In the years prior to the war he'd begun working on the world’s first human torpedo, which he nicknamed the Maiale or pig. Electrically propelled, the craft could accommodate two men. Tesei fitted a larger rebreather unit housed in the torpedo itself, increasing the underwater endurance up to two hours. The maiale's front section was comprised of a detachable warhead. This was attached to the target ship before the crew rode the rest of the torpedo away. The maiale were however relatively slow, and had a limited range, so they often relied on faster motor boats to launch them near to their target.
On July 25th, 1941, 33 commandos, with ten surface ships and two maiale departed from Augusta, Sicily onboard a Regia Marina warship. The plan was relatively simple: one of the maiale would destroy the nets around St. Elmo’s bridge that the British deployed to close the harbour. The 10 fast ships would then rush in and the deliver commandos. They'd subsequently try to attach limpet mines to the sides of as much of the Royal Navy’s fleet at anchor as they could, before jetting out. The second maiale was tasked with finding and destroying at least one of the Royal Navy submarines somewhere in the harbour. The entire operation was planned to take place at night, further cloaking the attackers in what was envisioned to be a stealthy raid.
However, unbeknownst to them the British through their acoustic mirror at Maghtab had managed to detect the ships from as far out as 14 miles, giving the defenders plenty of time to organise a counter assault. Major Henry Ferro, in command of the defence regiment at Fort St Elmo ordered his men to hold fire until the frogmen had begun their attack, determined not to alert his adversary in time for an escape. The men of La Decima also ran into bad luck as they arrived at the harbour: the first maiale's warhead malfunctioned and didn't detonate and destroy the nets as planned. The entire unit was stuck outside of the harbour with no way in.
At four in the morning, with dawn fast approaching, Major Tesei, as commander of the unit, decided to boldly attempt to ram the warhead already in place with his own maiale. He surfaced his craft, aimed it, and attempted to jump clear a few seconds before impact. The resulting explosion demolished the bridge but killed Tesei instantly.
To his men’s horror however, the bridge fell straight down and jammed itself across the gap, completely blocking their way into the harbour. At that point, the copiously manned and long waiting British defences opened fire on the men. Several the commandos attempted to enter the harbour over land and accomplish part of their objective, but these were soon captured. The rest of the unit sailed back out on their motorboats, but they too were soon intercepted and strafed by the Royal Air Force, which had launched Hawker Hurricanes at first light.
The operation was a complete failure: 15 Italian commandos lay dead, 18 were captured, and all 8 of their fast motorboats were destroyed. Despite this setback however, La Decima continued to be a threat to the Royal Navy across the Mediterranean. In December of the same year, the unit raided Alexandria, Egypt, damaging 8 navy ships. Over the span of two years of operations from 1941 to 1943, the unit sunk close to 30 allied ships.
But the Italian commandos’ greatest legacy lives on in the countless frogman units that came after them; while the execution of their missions at times left something to be desired, almost every nation’s navy understood just how lethal amphibious assault teams in the shape envisioned by the Italians – and Teseo Tesei – could be.
In 1942, the United States, no doubt because of Decima MAS’s exploits, ordered its Office of Strategic Services to begin investigating and developing technology for underwater combat. The OSS turned to the Navy, which formed the basis of what today have become the US Navy SEALs.