23 April 2014

Book Review: The Black Prince and the Sea Devils

"...tells the story of both one man and the many men who followed him through World War II, and from there into the political wars of peacetime."

Published on 30 APR 2004 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. world war ii, military leadership, military training

Men are by nature prone to fix responsibility in certain directions, though events are often merely dependent upon caprices of destiny. - Borghese

The Black Prince and the Sea Devils

The Black Prince and the Sea Devils tells the story of both one man and the many men who followed him through World War II, and from there into the political wars of peacetime. The unit of the Italian Navy this man came to lead was the most successful and resourceful special forces unit in the world at the time. Despite the doubts about the ability Italian fighting men that have been raised by many, there are always exceptions, and the Decimas was a definite exception: they were respected by both the Allies and Germans.

Prince Junio Valerio Borghese was born into a family that could trace their lineage back to popes and cardinals as far back as the 16th century. He grew up in fascist Italy under Mussolini, and was to be an adherent to far right wing politics all his life. As a young man he joined the Italian Navy with the aim of becoming a submariner. During these early years he become interested in unconventional warfare, and earned an underwater diving certificate. Special Italian assault units had been developed during World War I which were to prove skilled at the use of MAS or Motoscafi Anti Sommergibili (anti submarine motorboats). These were fast motorboats armed with torpedoes, later known as the famous PT boats of World War II. 

Borghese's early naval career was to have its high and low points as he moved from being a junior officer on a submarine to a commander. He quickly became a combat veteran, having participated in action during the Ethiopian campaign and the Spanish Civil War. Following the Munich crisis in September 1938, the Italian navy established the 1st Flotilla MAS. The Black Prince and the Sea Devils covers the weapons development of the boats, and how they were to be used following the establishment of the MAS. Borghese and his submarine Scire were assigned to the 1st Flotilla MAS in late 1940. His first missions were against the British at Gibraltar, launching a failed torpedo attack. However, Borghese proved his worth as a submarine commander by successfully breaching the anti- submarine defenses. On March 15, 1941, the flotilla was split to form the Decima Flottiglia MAS or X MAS (The 10th Flotilla MAS). Lt. Borghese was chosen to head this new underwater unit. 

At this stage, the Italians were facing disaster, and Borghese was in much the same boat (no pun intended). Finally, an attack on merchant shipping was successful and four ships were sunk or damaged and Borghese was promoted to Commander. The next attack, on Alexandria, was even more successful with the sinking of the battleship Queen Elizabeth and the damaging of the battleship Valentine, plus the sinking of some additional merchant vessels. Even Winston Churchill took notice, and was quick to ask his government why the British didn't have the same type of special assault force as the Italians. The book describes further actions, which placed the Allies on the defensive. In May 1943 Borghese was given command of the entire flotilla. 

The announcement of the Italian Armistice in 8 September, 1943, led to a long period of disorganization for the Italian Armed Forces. Borghese reached an agreement with the Germans to maintain the X MAS as an independent unit with him in command. He felt that anti-German feeling would keep Italian nationalism riding high where "Anglo American influences were likely to be disruptive." His men were given the option of joining him or going home. The X MAS leader was to be a condottiero (captain of fortune, mercenary). The special forces were used against Italian partisans and against Yugoslav incursions in the north as well. When Mussolini established the Republica Sociale Italiana, Borghese's forces would not answer to his staff and he was arrested by Mussolini, but subsequently released. 

The period up to the end of the war, and Borghese's arrest and trial, is covered in detail in the book. The Machiavellian web of intrigue and political machinations are a wonder to behold and a bit difficult to understand. Italian politics have always been complex, but the decades following World War II were the most chaotic. The Cold War was at its height and America was funding anti-communist rightists, one of them being Borghese. Many of the world's intelligence forces were using Italy as an area of operations. Borghese and his adherents, including parts of the Italian Army, attempted to stage a coup in 1970. It ended in failure. Borghese went into exile in Fascist Spain and died a mysterious death in 1974.

This book condensed a large story into a small book, and in doing so, left out detail which would have made some of the history easier to understand, especially the latter part of the book concerned with Cold War events. Also, the period where the X MAS fought against the partisans is very lightly covered. The title gave me the impression that a large amount of the book would have focused on Borghese personally, but what the reader gets are just snap shots and not the full picture. The most a reader could probably figure out about him is the he was married with four children, and he was obviously a man of courage who stuck to his beliefs. His men followed him proudly. These men were not sheepish, either. They had to possess great courage to operate two-man torpedoes, or drag explosive mines underwater through enemy harbors, so he must have been a good leader. But all the reader can do is guess. 

If you are interested in the development of special forces tactics or Italian history during or after World War II, this book may partially satisfy you.

Additional Reading

War in Italy 1943 -45: A Brutal Story by Richard Lamb

About the Author

Neil lives in the sub tropical capital of Australia, Brisbane. He is an omnivorous reader of anything that is in print but has a special fondness for military history. He played his first wargame decades ago, chess, and it is still his favorite. Neil has worked as a writer and designer for Wild Bill's Raiders for many years. Games he has worked on include the Steel Panthers series, HPS Squad Battles series and Wild Bill's Design Group's SPWAW Megacampaigns.