At dawn on July 26, 1941, the Italian Navy mounted a daring attempt to penetrate Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Creek in the first assault against Malta from the sea since the attack by the Turkish Ottomans in 1565.
The full story of this dramatic episode with innumerable illustrations and specially drawn maps and designs is the subject of the current issue of Malta at War, number 11 of volume 3.
The tense moments of the attacks are recalled from British and Italian sources. For the first time, the full report by Lt E.D. Woolley, the Mine Disposal Officer on the recovery and dismantling of the surviving craft is reproduced.
The attack on Valletta started when the X Flottiglia MAS sailed from its base at Augusta in Sicily, led by the sloop Diana - Mussolini's private yacht - which carried nine E-boats, called barchini, to a point some 20 miles north of Valletta.
Accompanying her were two motor launches, one of these with the leader of the expedition, Capitano di Fregata Vittorio Moccagatta. Two human torpedoes, known as SLCs, were embarked in another launch.
The plan was for the two SLCs to enter Marsamxett and attack the submarine base at Lazzaretto and the barchini to force their way through the breakwater and sink the ships in Grand Harbour.
The Italians had carried out reconnaissance off Malta and had decided to make the attempt on the night of July 25-26. By coincidence, two days previously, six merchantmen had reached Malta with troops and supplies.
But despite the care with which the operation had been planned, the Italians had no idea where the ships were berthed as their lone reconnaissance aircraft sent over the harbour on the eve of the attempt was shot down, as was one of the fighters that crashed in the courtyard of St Francis church in Valletta. There were only two submarines in Marsamxett.
The greatest setback for the Italians was that they did not know that Malta was equipped with radar which could detect vessels over 40 miles out at sea. Also, the defences had been put on the alert after it was learned through Ultra, the secret deciphering of the enemy's messages, that an assault was being contemplated against an unspecified British naval base.
The presence of the sloop Diana and her accompanying craft was picked up by radar at 10.30 p.m. and all the coastal defences at Fort St Elmo and Fort Ricasoli were manned to the teeth.
The attacking force met with a number of problems that delayed the assault. But at 4.45 a.m. the first barchino was hurled at the nets below the two spans of the iron bridge at the St Elmo side of the breakwater. The nets barred entrance to Grand Harbour.
The explosive charges failed to explode whereupon the pilot of a second craft decided to smash his barchino against the bridge, a manoeuvre he very well knew would lead to certain death.
The vessel hit the pedestal of the bridge and set off the explosives in the stationary first craft, demolishing one of the spans. The span fell astride the gap which the Italians hoped would give them access into the harbour but contrary to their plans completely blocked the passage.
This explosion alerted the 6 pdr twin guns in the two harbour forts and within two minutes all the attacking craft were either sunk or disabled by the gunners of the Royal Malta Artillery. One of the SLCs was sunk and the other abandoned. The headquarters boat, in a million to one chance, was hit by a shell that ricocheted over the sea thereby increasing its range, and it penetrated the cabin, killing Moccagatta and the other seven persons on board the motor launch.
In the meantime Hurricanes had taken off from Ta' Qali and sank the remaining craft - except one of the barchini and a motor launch, both of which were later towed to Malta. Only one launch managed to reach Sicily with eleven men on board. Sixteen had lost their lives in the attack and 18 were taken prisoner.
The story will be continued in the next issue of Malta at War with the updated account written by Major Henry Ferro who was in command of 3 Coast Regiment R.M.A. at Fort St Elmo.
The publication carries photographs and stories of the arrival of the Substance Convoy; the aircraft crash in Valletta; and on the Lancashire Fusiliers, one of the regiments that joined the defence troops in July 1941. Malta at War is published by Wise Owl Publications and sells at Lm1.85 an issue. It is printed by Progress Press. The next two issues will complete volume three.
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