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Italian Chariot

Ref: HLSS/008

History and Layout

In 1935 two Italian Naval officers developed a two-man underwater chariot or ‘human torpedo’. The vessel was 14 feet long and 2.5 feet wide and contained a bank of batteries which supplied an electric motor to run the small propeller at the rear. Two frogmen (as they were referred to), equipped with oxygen re-breathers, sat astride the chariot, one as pilot and the other as diver. A ballast tank allowed the vessel to operate at the surface or at shallow depths, and the nose of the chariot was a detachable charge which could be clamped to the hull of an enemy vessel.

The chariot weighed 3,500lbs including the 700lb warhead and had an operational duration of 6 hours and a top speed of 3 knots. Special units were formed to operate these vessels, and they were used to great effect against allied shipping in the Mediterranean.

In Gibraltar, the first attacks were one-way missions by teams of three chariots, dispatched from a mother submarine, the Scire, in the Bay of Gibraltar. The chariots not only attacked shipping moored in the Bay, but were also able to penetrate the anti-submarine defences which protected the harbour. Later attacks were carried out from the vessel Olterra. This Italian steamer was scuttled on Italy’s entry to the war in 1940 but was later salvaged and towed into Algeciras Harbour. Under the guise of extensive repairs, the vessel was converted to an operating base for the chariots. A four-foot square hole was cut into the hull underneath the waterline, and the forepeak partly flooded. Chariots were shipped in bits, ostensibly as boiler spares and were assembled inside. They were sent out to attack Allied shipping, which they did very successfully, then return back to the Olterra.

On Italy’s surrender to the Allies in 1943, attempts were made to destroy the evidence of the Olterra’s true role, but the neutral Spanish authorities allowed the Royal Navy to tow the vessel to Gibraltar. Here, Lt. ‘Buster’ Crabb, one of the navy’s mine disposal officers, was able to make one working model, which he christened ‘Emily’.

Buster Crabb had himself first arrived in 1942 as a Lieutenant to take up position as mine and disposal officer of Gibraltar, although he had only recently completed his training as demolitions officer. In a very short space of time he found himself hard at work disposing mines brought up by naval divers. However, he soon decided that if he was able to do his job properly he needed to become a diver himself, and took to the task. In those days, navy divers had no specialized equipment and Crabb had to use overalls and plimsolls, together with a Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus. With this rudimentary set-up Crabb soon became part of the shipping defence strategy of Gibraltar.

He did a number of trials using the Emily, but on his 15th trial it suddenly nose-dived to the bottom out from Detached Mole.

A chariot believed to be Emily was found in 33m by divers around 1975, but unfortunately it was blown to pieces by naval clearance divers in the mistaken impression that it still carried a live warhead.

Diving the Chariot

Unfortunately, the damage from the explosion was so great that all that now remains are a few batteries and bits of wiring. You could easily miss this if you didn’t know what to look for. Some bits of the chariot were found and raised by divers during an RAF expedition in 1980. The following photographs were kindly sent to us by Chief Technician Steve Evans. Regrettably, these items went missing when 317/S club moved its premises in the mid 1980’s.

The reason we have included this site is that according to records, at least twelve other chariots were abandoned in the Bay by their crews. The sandy slopes of western side of the Bay change frequently due to storm action, etc., and the possibility does exist that you might come across one of these chariots uncovered. If you should find anything that looks like a chariot DO NOT TOUCH. Take transits and inform your find to the Gibraltar Museum.

Extract courtesy of D. Fa.  & P. Smith: Underwater Gibraltar - A Guide to the Rocks Submerged Sites.

Divers with wreckage from the Chariot site. The nose cone, with its hoop, is clearly visible (Courtesy P. Smith, D. Fa).

The ballast tank from the Italian Chariot (Courtesy P. Smith, D. Fa).

Italian Chariot Image