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The Origins

by Cristiano D'Adamo

The origin of the Xa Flottiglia MAS can be traced back to the last days of World War I when two young Italian officers, Raffaele Rossetti and Raffaele Paolucci, sank the Austrian battleship (dreadnought-class) Viribus Unitis in the port of Pula. The two gallant officers, who were captured by the enemy after the attack to be released a few days later after the armistice, used a device called the "mignatta". This modified torpedo was placed under the enemy battleship and then blown up using a timed fuse. After the war, most work in this field was suspended.

While on assignment at the naval base of La Spezia, a naturally protected harbor one hour east of Genoa, two officers, Elios Toschi and Teseo Tesei, decided to continue improving the original attack devices developed during WW I. The work was done after the regular work assignments and progress was slow. Italy was dealing with the economic crisis created by the war and the need for this kind of weapon did not exist until 1935. During this period of crisis between Italy and England, following Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, the Naval High Command decided to give the necessary resources to the two officers.

The two officers presented a plan to the Navy high command and Admiral Cavagnari approved the project. The new device, nicknamed "Maiale", Italian for pig, was a modified electric torpedo. It was presented to a secret naval review board, which was easily impressed by the device's high maneuverability. The Maiale was quite ingenious. It used a modified torpedo with two saddles to accommodate two scuba divers, then known as frog men, who would wear their own individual breathing apparatuses.

Following a second successful demonstration for the benefit of Admiral Falangola, Tesei and Toschi were assigned to a new secret unit. The group was assembled in a private property belonging to the Duke of Salviati near the estuary of the river Serchio, not too far from the seaside town of Viareggio (Tuscany). This unit would often be referred to as the "Men of Serchio". In 1935, C.F. Paolo Aloisi was assigned to the command of the Ia Flottiglia MAS with C. G.N. Teseo Tesei and C.C. Carlo Teppati in charge of training and technical development. During this period, the submarine H1 (known as vector) was assigned to the unit to provide for the necessary transport.

During the same period, the Navy was experimenting with new scuba equipment at the naval base of La Spezia. Several techniques were studied and improved. One called for the scuba-equipped men, later to be named the "gamma", to leave a submerged submarine and attack enemy vessels. Also, a "marching" version of the same technique was studied, with the "gamma" actually walking the bottom of the sea up to the keel of the enemy vessels. Naturally, these actions were to take place in the proximity of an enemy port.

After the necessary engineering work, the first four SLC (Slow Moving Torpedoes) were ordered from the San Benedetto works of La Spezia. These first units were used to train the new personnel. Supposedly, during one of these training sessions, Teseo Tesei told his operator (the SLC had a crew of two) to fasten the "maiale" (pig) to an obstruction; thus was born the SLC’s famous nickname.
Meantime, the Ethiopian crisis escalated the need for additional insidious weapons. In 1936, Admiral Aimone di Savoia was able to get funding for a new assault weapon, the "barchino" This wooden boat had one pilot placed on an ejectable seat astern. The boat, equipped with a 330Kg charge, was to be pointed toward the target and then abandoned. Followed rigorous testing, the "barchini" were officially classified as MTM (Motoscafi da Turismo) and placed into service. Later, other models, the MTR (ridotta) and MTL (lento), were produced. Afterward, a new model, the MTSM, was produced. This was a larger boat armed with a torpedo and two depth charges. In 1943 an even larger model, the MTSMA later called SMA, was also introduced.

With the Ethiopian crisis over, interest in the insidious weapons diminished and training and development ceased. Not until 1939, with the European crisis brewing, did the Navy decide to provide for the necessary personnel. Due to this unwise decision, at the outbreak of WW II the Xa would not be ready for any kind of operation.
When war was near, even though avoidable, the R.M. re-assembled a team of dedicated experts who would work on several new weapons, from the human torpedo to a 30-ton mini submarine, to small limpet mines and super fast attack boats. C.G.N. Elios Toschi, C.G.N. Gustavo Stefanini, T.V Vesco, Del Pin, Costa, Gherardelli, Pampaloni e Mordelli were assigned to the unit. Later, Birindelli, De Giacomo, Della Canonica, Fraternale, Di Domenico, Catalano, Battisti, Lenzi, Dodaro, Raimondo, Franzini e Manca joined the group. The total equipment available to the Ia MAS was eleven SLCs and seven MTM.

The submarine H1, too old for war assignments, was replaced by the Ametista of the "Perla" class. This vessel was commanded by Junio Valerio Borghese who was to become the heart and soul of what the Ia Flottiglia MAS evolved into: the Xa Flottiglia MAS. Later on, three more submarines were assigned to the unit: Iride, Gondar and the legendary Scirè.

On February 24, 1940 the command of the Ia Flottiglia MAS was transferred to C.F. Mario Giorgini and the unit was declared operational.

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