Orion

June 30th, 1943 - Iskenderun - Turkey. The man swims on his back towards the ship, but keeps his arms hanging loosely along his sides, motionless, and advances using only his outstretched legs, alternately, just as in competitive backstroke. The thrust of his legs, aided by the pair of rubber fins he is wearing on his feet, compensates for the loss of arm traction. These fins were a secret device. They are heavy enough to hold the swimmer's feet under the water surface to avoid splashes or any suspicious noises. Utter silence and absolute invisibility are an essential part of the equipment and armament of any man enrolled in the “Gamma” Group.

Men belonging to the Gamma Group, in the Decima Flottiglia MAS of the Italian Royal Navy, have many problems to contend with. They are not allowed to emit a single sound and know only one colour: black. Black like the rubber fins, black like the dive suit covering the entire body of the commando, black like the ragged veil concealing his face, the thick woollen Phrygian cap supporting the greenish veil. A dive mask would be inconceivable, the front glass could reflect any insignificant glimmer of light and the invisible enemy would no longer be so.

The ship is still far out, there is no noise to be heard, not a voice. No light can be seen, not even a glimmer, which would help him to stay on course. Yet it is too close for the Gamma to be able to afford the luxury of a single cough, or exhaling like a whale to expel all the salt water entering his nose. Someone, on board, might be able to hear that faint noise and become suspicious, raise the alarm, direct floodlight beams against the black surface of the sea, then get the machine gun to aim at  the floodlit puddles - the commando would have no escape. Of course, if they aimed a burst of machine gun fire at him and a couple of shots hit one, or even both explosive limpet mines the attacker carries with him, the mission of the Gamma would fail. He would die in vane and the operations his fellow soldiers are preparing elsewhere in the Mediterranean would be uncovered and stopped in time by the enemy.

He slices through the water, kicking the secret weapon, his fins, and drags the limpet mines he has to apply towards the target. He keeps them at his sides, well packed with explosives, his arms resting on them so he can control them with his hands and be more comfortable. They are kept in place by two cords passing through the same number of rings, which, in turn, are fixed to the swimmer's shoulders with two braces. These, combined with the tight belt around the waist, form a strong harness. Supported by appropriate floats, he also uses the two devices for support and to catch his breath now and again.
Sometimes he swims on his side. Now on the right, now on the left. In this way, he can look around without ever losing sight of his target, while following the shortest route.

Finally, only a few dozen metres of dark water lay between him and his goal. The Gamma Man deflates the limpet mines' floats a little, with extreme care. The devices disappear under the surface but do not sink, they just remain there, hanging just below the water surface. He has only enough strength left to kick his fins and advance at an almost imperceptible speed, like that of a dead body adrift. His head tilted backwards, under the veil his eyes remain wide open in the darkness of the water. He is fully immersed, helped by the limpet mines, which are now slightly heavy. Only his nostrils and mouth show above the water. He expels the water from his mouth without any problems. But not from his nose. The Gamma knows that if he blew it out, the salty liquid would stimulate the mucous lining and he would inevitably cough. He makes up for it by swallowing. There is no other solution. He knows it will leave him burning with thirst, and that he will have to stand it, as he will have to stand the cold, the nervous tension, the fear. Minor troubles.

There is no sign to be seen or sound revealing his presence below the merchant ship loaded with chrome. Using the bare fingertips of his black-smeared hands, the commando feels the iron underside of the ship until he recognises the typical bulge of the welding; an unquestionable indication of the edges of two superimposed metal sheets. All he has left to do now is to tell, by touch, the long joints of the metal sheets indicating the hull's longitudinal axis from the short ones that run along the transverse axis.
By feeling, tapping and stroking the hull, the Gamma Man reaches what he believes is the centre of the ship and, from here, locates the bilge keel on the right side. His moves are confident and brisk, like a blind man since birth. The limpet mine is in place, a cylinder casing containing twelve kilograms of an explosive that is more powerful than trinitrotoluene (TNT), designed exactly for this purpose. The commando fixes it to one extremity of the keel with two clamps, tightening them firmly. His practised hands also serve as torque wrenches. He extracts the pointed knife from its sheath which he carries on his belt, and tears the limpet mine's float. Now he moves on to the second one, on the other extremity of the same keel. Because if the ship is equipped with a longitudinal watertight bulkhead, the section damaged by the mines would remain balanced and the ship would not sink. Instead, by generating two leaks on the same side of the hull, one at the front, one at the rear, the ship will tilt, then capsize and sink. Everything has been studied and calculated, each gesture is the product of careful thought and planning.

Should all go well, he knows there will be no letters of commendation or articles in the newspapers. He also knows that should it all go wrong, he could end up in a concentration camp with  POW imprinted on his coat (Prisoner of War). Should he get nailed ... he will not be held prisoner but shot at once. They would take him for a spy, a saboteur. Yes. But a civilian nonetheless. Someone to be executed without trial.

Now the second charge is in place. They will explode and the ship will sink outside territorial waters. The enemy will think it was hit by a submarine, as it incorporates a time and distance measuring device to set off the explosive. A small propeller that will only start spinning once the ship has reached the speed of five knots, releasing the catch of the clock. This, in turn, will trigger the detonator after a certain number of hours.

Mission complete.

But it’s too soon to say that; he has to return to the beach, his secret base, without letting anyone spot him. Now he beats his fins in silence in the direction of the beach, a good mile and a half away from the anchored ship that will sink in less than a few hours.

Finally he reaches land, in a wet, ragged silence. He is no longer carrying the limpet mines and advances, swift and invisible, in his black dive suit, the veil still concealing his face. It is three o' clock in the morning and, at last, there is not a soul in sight.

The Gamma Man dries himself off with the bath robe he left in the cabin, puts his clothes back on and heads to the Royal Italian Consulate. Giovanni Roccardi, D65 SIS agent who helps him out and who is the only person aware of Ferraro's true identity, anxiously awaits him. Mission complete. Now he can say it. The consul is also waiting for him. The secret agent has only just informed him of the true identity of this bizarre employee of his and on the nature of his assignment. Now that the consul is aware of it, he can stay here for the night. It is almost four in the morning. It is not worth walking all the way to his accommodation at the Carmelite Convent, where the secret service official from the Italian Navy placed him, as it was safer than a hotel room. And the monks know that he is a civil servant at the Italian Consulate in Iskenderun and would certainly not impose their time schedules upon him. Besides, what harm could someone like him do? Luigi Ferraro, a young man from Genoa who cannot even swim. Who, instead of going to war, managed to skulk behind a typewriter in a remote consulate, in a neutral country town. "A person with connections" the father guardian thought to himself, the moment he first laid eyes on him." (1)

IMAGES

click to enlarge
The fin employed in the wartime actions
The fin employed in the wartime actions
The woollen cap supporting the greenish veil for face concealing
The woollen cap supporting the greenish veil for face concealing
Original limpet mine floats with limpet mine mock up
Original limpet mine floats with limpet mine mock up
The eight fuse safety catches used in the wartime actions
The eight fuse safety catches used in the wartime actions
The original Panerai watch utilised by Ferraro
The original Panerai watch utilised by Ferraro
A sample of oxygen rebreather used by Gamma commandos
A sample of oxygen rebreather used by Gamma commandos
Panerai Compass and Nose clip donated by Ferraro to Comsubin who preserves them in the Historical Room with other relics
Panerai Compass and Nose clip donated by Ferraro to Comsubin who preserves them in the Historical Room with other relics





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