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E - 54 : Predecessors of Navy Seals

Updated: May 21, 2021

Was working on a Blog on Jean-Parisot de Valette, the Grand Master of the Knights of St John during the siege of Malta in 1565, when I came across an interesting paper on Italian naval attacks on Malta's port in 1941. I guess the blog on Jean-Parisot has to wait for a week.

The St Elmo Bridge - blown up in 1941 - was finally repaired and re-opened in 2012


The ones of you who were with us in in 2019 in Vlore (Albania) or Pula (Croatia) or last year in La Spezia (Italy) may remember us crossing monuments and empty barracks of a now disbanded Italian special force unit, the Regia Marina’s MAS. The MAS acronym stands for Motoscaffo Armato Silurante or Torpedo-armed Motorboats. This was the force which on 26 July 1941 attacked the port of La Valletta but only managed to blow up St. Elmo bridge.

The sinking Austrian Battleship Szent Istvan in 1918 in the Straits of Otranto


We not only find stories of this unit in Malta but encounter it again at the end of our third week when crossing the straits of Otranto. In the night of 19th June 1918, two Italian MAS sank the giant Austrian battleship Szent Istvan with torpedoes. It was such a big blow to the Austrian Navy that it never ventured out of Pula again. Being a sitting duck in the port, a second Austrian battleship, the Viribus Unitis, was lost on 1st of November 1918 to an Italian attack with manned torpedoes.


The success of these small MAS units lingered in the minds of the Italian naval strategist when Mussolini asked them to build a powerful Regia Marina. To achieve Mussolini's dream of a "Mare Nostrum" and a new Roman Empire, the Italian Fleet should remove the Royal Navy from the Mediterranean and break its supremacy. At the beginning of WWII, the Italian Royal Navy had grown to six capital ships (large battle ships), 19 cruisers, 59 destroyers, 67 torpedo boats, and 116 submarines. It was an impressive, modern force.

One of the manned torpedoes which the 10th MAS Fleet used in the Mediterranean


Analysing the torpedo boats actions in the First World War, the Regia Marina wanted to repeat the successes of 1918 and established “10a Flottiglia MAS” in 1939. The new unit was 238 men strong, consisted mostly of highly qualified officers and trained in the harbor of La Spezia - right where we anchored the AFAET last year before visiting Porto Venere, the castle of the Doria family. Thanks to Italy’s obsession with seaside vacations, googles, fins and snorkels were easily available. The Regia Marina’s research unit provided the first SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) equipment – developed to escape from trapped submarines. The unit followed a rigorous training schedule and had an esprit de Corps seldom seen before.

The Royal Navy's heavily damaged Queen Elizabeth in Alexandria needed 18 months repair


From summer 1940 to the end of 1943, the 10th MAS Fleet saw a lot of action. It attacked with manned torpedos or fast speed boats several times the ports of Gibraltar, Alexandria, Suda Bay, Algiers, and Haifa. During these years, the 10th MAS Fleet sank 5 battleships of the Royal Navy and 22 commercial liners at the loss of only 20 killed and 38 imprisoned. In terms of effectiveness, it was the Italian Navy’s most effective unit. And also a considerable headache for the Royal Navy who had to put much effort into the defence of its key ports.

The Norwegian Tanker Thorshøvdi was cut in half by one of the Italian torpedo attacks


The Royal Navy was very keen learning from the 10th MAS Fleet after the war and the Royal Marine’s Special Boat Service conducted extensive after-action briefings. Much of what the Italians had developed became standard operating procedures for the Special Boat Service of the Royal Navy. In 1962, the United States Navy followed by establishing the Navy Seals as their own special forces and SBS equivalent. As special forces, Navy Seals are today well known whilst the men of the 10th MAS Fleet are mostly forgotten.

JV Borghese, "Black Prince", one of the Commanders

of the 10th MAS Fleet (see his arm patch) - he was also

a hardline fascist and continued his politial activities in

Italy in the post-war years


Maybe this is good so. The men of the 10th MAS Fleet revolutionised naval warfare with their concept of special forces. But half of them were also fanatical fascists and did not hesitate to commit atrocities. Some of them continued fighting with Mussolini after Italy surrendered and fought under the command of German SS General Karl Wolff who waged a savage war on Italian partisans in 1944/45. I think it is better to remember. A strong Esprit de Corps is vital for every combat unit. But when it transcends into political fanaticism, a unit needs to be dissolved and the fanatics locked up.

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