On the night of December 19, 1941, a half dozen Italian frogmen slipped into the British naval anchorage at Alexandria, Egypt. Sitting astride human torpedos, the frogmen quietly went to work placing explosive charges under British warships including the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. Although all six of the frogmen were captured as they tried to make their escape, their charges successfully detonated around 0600. The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both settled quickly on the shallow bottom of Alexandria’s harbor while a Norwegian oiler, M/V Sagona and the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Jervis, she was refueling were also severely damaged.
Despite these successes, the raid was not nearly as successful as the Italians had hoped for two reasons. First, the original assault plan had called for the initial charges to sink the tankers in the harbor and spread fuel oil across the surface of the anchorage’s water. Secondary incendiary devices were then to ignite the fuel oil and turn the harbor into a blazing inferno. The Sagona’s oil tanks, though, miraculously failed to rupture and the incendiary devices, despite exploding as planned, had nothing to ignite. Second, because the two battleships sank on an even keel, post-raid aerial reconnaissance mistakenly thought the ships had not been damaged at all. As a result, the Italians failed to take advantage of a vastly changed strategic situation in the Mediterranean with the British battle fleet seriously weakened.
The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both underwent repairs in South Africa and the US respectively and returned to the war effort in 1943. Both served in the Pacific Theater before returning to the UK where the Valiant was scrapped in 1945 and the Queen Elizabeth in 1948. A new Queen Elizabeth is set to join the Royal Navy in 2017 for sea trials and the ship will mark the return of carrier borne fixed wing aviation to the Royal Navy.