A Tribute to an Italian War Hero – Luigi Durand De La Penne

In the autumn of 1969 I was a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and the long-serving navigator of the first, all-British nuclear submarine, HMS Valiant (SSN 02) at that time on a courtesy visit and berthed in the inner basin of la Spezia Harbour on Italy's west coast. HMS Valiant was the second nuclear vessel in the Royal Navy, the first being the submarine HMS Dreadnought (SSN01) which had an American S5N reactor. Due to some misunderstanding with Vice-Admiral Herman Rickover, America refused further to supply submarine pressurised water reactors to Britain and so we had to build our own. HMS Valiant was therefore all British and was given a very advanced and silent 80 megawatt reactor and turbine propulsion unit, elements of the design of which were, paradoxically, later copied by the US Navy for their submarines.

After three weeks of strenuous exercises with NATO warships in the Mediterranean, all keen to gain valuable and rare experience in tracking a nuclear submarine, we docked in the inner basin of the port of La Spezia. As was the custom during courtesy visits, the local dignitaries and senior Italian naval officers were invited to an official wardroom party. That night I was doing 'meet and greet' duty on the casing of the submarine for the party being held in the control room. A somewhat grizzled Italian Vice Admiral came up the brow, saluted the quarterdeck and approached me as I stood in my best uniform (with sword) next to the hatchway down to the party.

"Good evening sir," I greeted him, saluting, "welcome to HMS Valiant."

"I sank the last HMS Valiant!" he growled, returning my salute.

"Well sir, try not to sink this one please," was all I could think of in reply; for it was Vice Admiral de la Penne. He much enjoyed the subsequent party, took me out to a big lunch in town the next day and told me, in his own words, how he sank the previous HMS Valiant in 1941. This is his story.

On December 19th 1941 when he was a Lieutenant-Commander in the Italian Regia Marina, he led three teams of two Italian frogmen into Alexandra Harbour riding on two-man chariots. On December 3rd 1941 the Italian submarine Scire left La Spezia with three torpedo chariots secured to her upper casing and en-route, embarked Commander de la Penne with his five trained frogmen from the Island of Leros in the Aegean Sea.

The Serce proceeded to a position just over a mile off the entrance to Alexandra harbour, came up to periscope depth and released the chariots. The three chariots proceeded into the harbour when the boom protecting the entrance was opened to let three British destroyers out. Most of the British Mediterranean fleet was at anchor inside including the WW1 battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant. De la Penne's companion, Lieutenant Emilio Bianchi lost his Oxygen supply and had to surface for a few minutes. De la Penne proceeded towards HMS Valiant alone. When he was a few yards short, the chariot's motor ceased to function and he had to push it under the battleship which had about four feet clearance from the flat, sandy bottom of the harbour.

After placing their charge both de la Penne and Bianchi had to surface near the stern of HMS Valiant and were captured. Bianchi had broken his arm and was taken to the sick bay, treated, and then, after questioning which elicited no more than name, rank and serial number from each of them, they were locked in a lower deck compartment, coincidentally only just over the charge that they had placed under the battleship. With fifteen minutes to the intended time of the explosion, de la Penne warned HMS Valiant's captain Charles Morgan in time for all the ship's personnel to be cleared from the lower decks. Both de la Penne and Bianchi were slightly injured when their charge went off but were evacuated to the upper deck in time to witness the charges placed by the other two maiales going off under HMS Queen Elizabeth, the British Destroyer HMS Jervis and the Norwegian tanker Sagona . After all the charges detonated, both battleships sank onto the sand and remained immobile for some months until temporary repairs could be completed and the ships refloated. Full ceremonial colours, sunset with bugle calls, parades on the upper decks and gun drills were carried out in the interim while the battleships were resting on the bottom of the harbour, so that it appeared from the shore that they were still afloat and fully operational , if somewhat heavily laden.

Aftermath

Italy agreed an armistice with the Allies on September 8th 1943 and de la Penne was released from his prisoner of war confinement. He agreed to assist the Royal Navy with their underwater weapons and frogman programme.

He was involved in the planning and execution of the raid by Royal Naval frogman on the German fortifications at La Spezia when a mixed team of Italian and British frogmen sank the cruisers Gorizia and Bolzano in the harbour.

Admiral Charles Morgan, who had been the Captain of HMS Valiant when Luigi Durand de la Penne sank her back in 1941, never forgot de la Penne's chivalry in warning him of the danger to the British personnel in the lower decks of HMS Valiant and thus saving many lives when those decks were evacuated. He had tried to get de la Penne a British medal, but failed as Italy was not officially allied to Great Britain. In March 1945 Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, with Admiral Sir Charles Morgan, now commanding the British Naval forces in the Adriatic, was inspecting the Italian naval barracks at Taranto and awarding medals to personnel for bravery in service. Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, who knew of Admiral Morgan's attempts to obtain a British medal for de la Penne, asked him to present de la Penne with Italy's highest medal for valour, the 'Valor Militare' on the Prince's behalf.

Vice-Admiral Luigi Durand de la Penne died on January 17th 1992. He was a very brave man and I am honoured to have met him and heard his story of the sinking of the battleship HMS Valiant from his own lips.

Source by David John Arnold

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