South African Military History Society

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It was business as usual for the Society when the chairman, Ivor Little, opened the monthly meeting with the usual notices of coming events. He informed or reminded the approximately 60 members present of the forthcoming conference on concentration camps, to be held at Fort Schanskop on 20 October, and the Hell's Angels National Poppy Day Bike run.

He then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker, who was Mr Quentin Kirkby, a naval lieutenant in the Citizen Force. "Quent" is a practicing mechanical and consulting engineer who is a keen member of the Society and the subject of his talk was "My Personal Experiences in the SA Navy". Commencing with his early school years and varsity training, Quentin recounted how he volunteered for the SA Navy when called up for National Service and found himself doing basic training at SAS Simonsberg. On completion of this training he was selected for an officers' training course and thereafter for engineer officer training. During this training period he was impressed by the quality of his instructors and recounted a number of incidents surrounding their backgrounds. Training over, it was off to sea as an engine-room rating in the SAS President Steyn for a voyage to the then Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). The trip also involved a call at Durban where Quentin was privileged to hear "The Lady in White" singing to the ship as it cleared the harbour. He was also aboard the Steyn for a gunnery exercise which involved the sinking of the boom defence vessel SAS Fleur.

His commission as an Engineer Officer (Sub Lieutenant) came through and he was transferred to the SAS President Kruger. A short spell at SAS Donkin in Port Elizabeth followed and then back to sea in the President Kruger.

After a hair-raising open boat transfer in False Bay, Quentin found himself aboard the minesweeper SAS Mosselbaai for a minesweeping course. Then it was back to the President Kruger for exercises with HMS Lynx and transport to his base at SAS Donkin. His spell at Donkin included a sea-going break in SAS Kimberley to Luanda and the acceptance trials of SAS Oosterland on that ship's transfer to Donkin's control. Quentin was then promoted to Lieutenant.

Throughout his talk Quentin interspersed it with historical anecdotes and evocative slides of ships long since turned into razor blades.

Ivor then introduced the next speaker - the well-known Colin Dean - a former Chairman of the Society and a frequent speaker at the meetings. The subject of Colin's talk was "Human Torpedoes" and, using a brilliant PowerPoint display, Colin introduced the meeting to the initial development of the concept of the human torpedo. He went back to the opening stages of World War I when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire possessed a powerful navy which could play a dramatic part in the control of the Mediterranean. This massive fighting force was never really used as the prevailing naval thought was to preserve "the fleet in being" i.e. keep the fleet intact and free from damage as a deterrent. In this case the Austrian fleet was based at Pola in Croatia, across the Adriatic from Italy.

In 1915 Italy entered the war against Austria and was immediately faced with the Austrian fleet across the Adriatic. This fleet launched a series of raids on the Italian coast, until the Austrian dreadnought Szent Istvan was torpedoed and sunk by an Italian torpedo boat, after which the Austrian fleet retired to Pola, a virtually impregnable harbour. This led to a naval stalemate, broken only by an abortive attack on the ships in Pola by the French submarine Curie, which was sunk in the attempt.

In June 1915 an Italian Chief Petty Officer, Luigi Martignoni, a senior engineering rating, approached Engineer Lieutenant Commander Raffaele Rossetti and asked him whether a torpedo could be driven and steered by human hands, i.e. a human torpedo. This spiked Rossetti's interest and he and Surgeon Lieutenant Raffaele Paolucci discussed the idea of using such an idea to get at the Austrian ships in Pola.

Colin then went through the vicissitudes of trying to get this idea through the Italian naval bureaucracy and, more importantly, figuring out how to turn the idea into a reality. Rosetti and Paolucci persevered and slowly but surely, working in their spare time, developed a capable weapon. By 1918 they had a workable human torpedo, had perfected its handling and had developed appropriate diving suits. With the cooperation of the officer commanding the naval air station at La Spezia, they were able to test their ideas and prove that it was a feasible weapon. They called it the "Mignatta" (Italian for leech) and then submitted the design to the authorities, with a request to be able to use it against the Austrians at Pola. This request was granted and two Mignatti, christened S1 and S2, were transferred to Venice.

The operation that followed would make the basis for a good novel or film and Colin, in his inimitable style, went through Rosetti and Paolucci's almost unbelievable raid on Pola. They encountered obstacle after obstacle as they entered the harbour. Booms, chains, gates, walls - all were negotiated by brute strength, luck and courage until eventually the two and their craft, S2, arrived within the confines of the harbour, only to encounter an Austrian patrol boat which they were able to evade. It was 31 October 1918 and Austria-Hungary had collapsed. The Empire was dissolved and the fleet was now in the hands of the South Slav National Council. Thus it was also in complete confusion as the jubilant Slavs celebrated their newly acquired independence. The ships were fully illuminated and in a completely unprepared state of readiness.

Rosetti and Paolucci found these brightly lit targets and selected the battleship Viribus Unitis as a target. They placed the torpedo's warhead in position on the ship's hull and then sped off, being spotted and captured. They were interrogated aboard the Viribus Unitis and, after a bit of a fiasco of false alarms, the charges exploded, sinking the 21 000 ton battleship. In the meantime, S2, which had been left to its own devices when the Italian abandoned it under threat of capture, had come to rest under the submarine depot ship Wien where it's remaining bit of explosive warhead detonated, sinking that ship as well!

Rosetti and Paolucci survived as prisoners of war and were released after the Armistice. They were both awarded the Cross of the Military Order of Savoy and a considerable monetary award, which they later arranged to be distributed among the widows of those men killed in the Viribus Unitis. A remarkably chivalrous act after a particularly daring feat.

This episode remained in the Italian naval store of memories and the concept of the human torpedo was later exploited by them to great effect in World War II.

At the conclusion of these two excellent talks, Ivor asked past Chairman Bob Smith to thank both speakers and to close the meeting, which he did.

Ivor Little
Chairman and Scribe.

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