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Gibraltar


       URSA MAJOR







        During WWII the Italians devised a daring plan designed   He realised that with a base on Algeciras Bay underwater
        to threaten Allied Shipping in Gibraltar Bay off the shores   attacks on shipping at Gibraltar would be more effective.
        of neutral Spain. The operation was conducted with all the  A member of the Decima, Antonio Ramognino who had a
        panache associated with Italians.                   Spanish wife, rented the Villa Carmela which was situated
        Built in 1913, on Tyneside in the UK for a German   on a small hill alongside the Arroyo Cachon at Puente
        company, the tanker Osage was sold to the Standard Oil   Mayorga on the north side and overlooking Gibraltar Bay
        Co. in New York in 1914 and renamed Baton Rouge. In   and the western side of ‘The Rock’ including the harbour
        1925 she was again sold, this time to the European   and anchorages. The villa was ready by July 1942 and,
        Shipping Co. Ltd of London and renamed Olterra. As the   together with a forward observer on the still sunken
        Olterra she passed through the hands of the British Oil   Olterra, frogmen sank or damaged five merchant ships
        Shipping Co. Ltd and in 1930 was bought by Andrea   using limpet mines in just three months.
        Zanchi in Genoa. On the 10th June 1940, when Italy   At the same time as these missions were being planned
        declared war on France and Britain she found herself in   and executed another member of Decima MAS,
        Gibraltar Bay. The shipping records of the builders,   Lieutenant Licio Visintini was in charge of a team of
        Palmer’s Ship Building and Iron Co. Ltd, indicate that she   commandos disguised as Italian civilians. Under the
        was sabotaged and sunk by British commandos close to   pretext of repairing and selling the Olterra to a Spanish
        the Algeciras shore.                                buyer, they raised the ship and towed it into Algeciras
        The Olterra was taken over by a group of Italian    harbour.
        commandos. She was re-floated, taken to Algeciras docks   There the ship underwent a refit. An observation post was
        and used as the headquarters for the most audacious, and  created on the forecastle whilst inside the hull the holds
        successful, Italian undercover operation of the war,   were converted into workshops for the assembly and
        code-named Ursa Major.                              maintenance of the human torpedoes. The maiale were
        If there was one aspect of warfare that the Italians   smuggled onto the ship disguised as spare parts and
        excelled at it was underwater, particularly their use of   other pieces of nautical equipment. Finally, a hatch was
        human torpedoes and combat swimmers. Human          cut through the hull beneath the waterline so that the
        torpedoes were developed by the Italians to approach   torpedoes could be launched and recovered in secret.
        enemy ships underwater and unseen. They were a      By December 1942 the Olterra, her torpedoes and crews,
        torpedo shaped vessel that contained an electric motor   were ready for their first attack which turned out more
        and a detachable mine. One or two crew members,     ambitious than they could have dreamt. On the 6th
        equipped with diving gear, sat astride the machine to   December, after taking part in Operation Torch, the
        control it. The Italians called them maiale (pigs), because   landings in French Morocco and Algeria, elements of the
        they were difficult to control.                     British fleet, Force ‘H’, including the battleship HMS
        Shipping in the harbour at Gibraltar was an obvious target   Nelson, battlecruiser HMS Renown, aircraft carriers HMS
        for the Decima Flottiglia MAS, the Italian ’10th Assault   Furious and HMS Formidable together with support ships,
        Vehicle Flotilla’, an elite commando swimming unit of the   entered Gibraltar.
        Italian Royal Navy.                                 Visintini and his men set off on three maiale from Olterra
        Between September 1940 and 15th September 1942, the   on the night of the 8th December. Their targets were the
        Decima MAS carried out three attacks using maiale   Nelson, Formidable and Furious.
        launched          from a submarine. Meanwhile, the   Following the attacks earlier in the year the allies had
                            commander of the Decima MAS     implemented some measures to deter or foil attacks on
                             conceived a daring scheme.     shipping from beneath the waves. A Lieutenant Lionel
                                                            Crabb, the famous ‘Buster Crabb’, was in charge of an
                                                            underwater demolition team. Motorboats were deployed
                                                            to drop small depth charges every three minutes; the
                                                            charges were large enough to kill or injure a man and
                                                            damage a human torpedo but not large enough to
                                                            damage large ships.
                                                                                                     Right Top:
                                                                      Antonio Ramognino and his wife at the Villa Carmela
                                                                                          Lieutenant Lionel Crabb
                                                                                   Bottom: An Italian human torpedo
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