When I asked to Jacob’s to build me a strap for call it “Olterra” the maker asked me for info and data to make it; Colors, sizes, qualities, etc … He did not know what the name “Olterra” meant, so I proceeded to explain the history and why the reason of this strap.
The geographic position of Gibraltar and its rock are strategic. To access the Mediterranean from the Atlantic you have to pass in front of this rock.
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on France and Great Britain in the face of the inevitable defeat of the French army before the German Wehrmacht, which radically changed the war landscape in the Mediterranean for England. The On the 22nd of the same month the armistice between Germany and France was signed in Compiegne and, although under the conditions they signed Hitler did not demand the surrender of the French fleet, the naval units were under the command of the puppet state with capital in Vichy.
Given this perspective, the British Admiralty decided to separate the units based in Gibraltar, which were normally assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, creating a new unit designated Force H (according to document of the Admiralty of date June 27, 1940 registration number ADM 199/391), which had as an extraordinary characteristic that its command depended directly on the First Lord of the Sea, unlike the other bases of the Royal Navy outside the metropolis that they responded to a flag admiral. This is an evident proof of the very important importance that the British They hoped for this naval force based on the Rock and that, together with Malta and Alexandria,they completed the triad of bases in the that the British war strategy in the Mediterranean was based.
The first ships assigned were the battleships Nelson, Valiant and Resolution; the Ark Royal aircraft carrier; Cruises Arethusa, Enterprise and Delhi; and a flotilla of ten destroyers that added to the nine destroyers of the 13th fleet They already had their base in Gibraltar.
A fateful Monday June 10, 1940, was an oil tanker of Italian nationality in the beautiful Bay of Algeciras. It was the “Olterra”, of 4,995 tons of registration, belonging to a Genoese shipbuilder who was waiting to unload. Faced with the possibility that it fell into the hands of the British warships in Gibraltar, his captain receives from Italy the order to disable him since at the time he tried to rig and go to the open sea he would surely be sunk or captured by the enemy . Thus, it was stranded in front of the enemy naval base, in Spanish waters, and partially flown but not destroyed. His crew returned to the country leaving on the ship a catch of five men to prevent it from being confiscated by abandonment according to the laws of the sea.
For a year and a half, until January 1942, the ship remained immobilized and stranded without being paid much attention. But the Regia Marina realized that the situation of the ship constituted an excellent observatory of the enemy base of Gibraltar, from which the enemy naval movement could be observed without any effort, hardly any binoculars were necessary. Thus, Supermarina, the Navy’s High Staff, decided that a new military crew belonging to the 10th Flotilla M.A.S. (Mezzi Asalto Sottomarine) whose members were officers and non-commissioned specialists in attacks with the so-called subtle means (manned torpedoes, explosive boats, pocket submarines, etc.), secretly replaced the checkpoint of civilian sailors.
Arriving in Algeciras through Spain, as innocent tourists, they initiated the appropriate legal steps to move the ship to a discreet place where the necessary work could be done to adapt it to its new role. The repair of the ship was initiated under the pretext that it had been sold to a Spanish shipowner, Axis sympathizer, who wanted, logically, to sail the ship again. Towed a boardwalk of little movement, repairs were made under the watchful eye of the British agents in the area alarmed by the movements of the “Olterra” in which, even if only by routine, they had repaired. The presence of the battered enemy ship was extremely uncomfortable for the British although they did not suspect anything.
The Italian military concluded that, with a little imagination, in addition to an observation point, the ship could very well be used directly for warlike purposes as a hidden base of manned torpedoes to attack Gibraltar. This was the real goal of the men of the 10th Flotilla.
Under the pretext of the tuning that every boat needs after a long period of inactivity to take to the sea, tools, torches and other materials necessary for the work were shipped. Secretly an opening was made in the hull below the waterline, that is to say in the living work, so that the artifacts could enter and leave without being observed. A complete and complex workshop for the maintenance, assembly and repair of the torpedoes was mounted little by little in the bowels of the ship.
The necessary materials and tools were sent to Spain as industrial equipment or through the diplomatic bag. The direct command of the whole operation was held by Lieutenant Visintini who will develop a great efficiency in the performance of his work. This officer had already penetrated diving in Gibraltar months before and sunk a tanker, then calmly escaping through Spanish lands. The British, despite their efforts, did not discover anything abnormal in the work of the ship that they subjected to permanent vigilance.
Since the adaptation of the “Olterra” to his new warrior role took time, the impatient officers of the “Tenth” devised a less sophisticated way of attacking the enemy base until the torpedoes were available. The “Olterra” was not yet operational to accommodate the manned fish, but the opening of the hull is perfectly usable by the divers. A man by his own means is unable to transport the necessary quantity of explosives to sink a warship, no matter how armored, but he can place small mines weighing only half a kilo that are final for a merchant or a ship passengers.
From the beginning of July 1942, by the most disparate means, to keep the secret of the operation, some young and athletic Italians begin to arrive in Algeciras apparently as pioneer tourists, but who discreetly end up recalling the “Olterra”. Naturally, it is the combat divers who concentrated to deliver the blow to the British.
Newborn on Sunday, July 14, the divers swim out stealthily on the open side of the “Olterra”. The Italians hope that on Saturday night to Sunday the surveillance will be somewhat more relaxed, as it always happens. Near already at dawn Gibraltar is convulsed by the almost simultaneous explosion of four merchants anchored in the roadstead of the base. At the same moment in the “Olterra”, where the attacking divers are already back, the feat is celebrated with good Spanish wines.
In the following days the British will rave their brains trying to find out the system of laying the mines. They multiplied their security measures but without having the slightest idea of how the disaster had happened. The naval base had already been attacked several times by divers transported to the vicinity of the port by the submarine “Scire”.
On Sunday, September 21, 1941, the Italians achieved great success by sinking two oil tankers, the “Fionia Shell” (2,444 t) and the “Demby Dale” (15,900 t), and a motorboat, the “Durban” (10,900). t) that were there at anchor. It was called Operation BG4, in which Visintini intervened, the Italians escaped through Spain.
Two months left the Italians breathing their enemies. In September 1942, this time on the 15th at night, another British freighter flies again. Intolerable! The new security measures do not seem effective. Huge consternation in Gibraltar and new spree in the “Olterra”.
At last the manned torpedoes are operational in the first days of December 1942. Now it is no longer a matter of sinking harmless merchants at anchor in the outer harbor, but of attacking real monsters of steel, at the bottom of the naval base and protected by the most sophisticated security measures available.
On Monday, December 7, Italians argue inside the “Olterra”. They know that large units are docked in Gibraltar, including two appetizing aircraft carriers, the “Formidable” and the “Victorious”. You can not wait for the enemy ships to leave unexpectedly, the attack will take place that same night. Already in the dark three manned torpedoes, commanded by the head of the detachment Visintini, leave the belly of the “Olterra” and glide silently towards the rock. The crews are made up of Lieutenant Visintini and Petty Officer Magro, the second the Marine Guard Manisco and the Petty Officer Varini, and the third the Second Lieutenant Cella and the Petty Officer Sergio Leone.
But that day Mars was not with the Italians. When they tried to overcome in depth anti-submarine networks, they collapsed suddenly, to make way for friendly ships, falling on the artifact of Visintini and his companion, the sub-officer Magro. Both die instantly and their torpedo, along with the corpses of the valiant Italians will be recovered by the British days later.
The second torpedo is discovered and after being subjected to a large enemy fire sinks and its crew are taken prisoner. The alarm at the base causes dozens of small armed ships to sail to repel the attack of the intruders. Before the dangerous panorama the crew of the third torpedo, wisely, decide to sink it and return as they can to the “Olterra” but only one gets it.
The serious failure is the object of analysis, three dead and two prisoners of a total of six men is a very high price in exchange for nothing. At the moment the attacks must be suspended, courage is not enough. We will have to wait for the British to confide again, the activity in the “Olterra” is not suspended. New “tourists” and more diplomatic bags arrive in Algeciras. The enemy agents still do not know anything.
The benign Andalusian winter passes peacefully in the “Olterra”. The eager work of the supposed sailors did not manage to put the ship sufficiently to sail after almost a year and a half of working on it. Interestingly, this does not surprise anyone.
Lieutenant Commander Ernesto Notari takes charge of the group, seconded by the diver Ariolazzari, also counting with Lieutenant Victorio Cella and the diver Eusebio Montalenti.
Already in spring the Italians are ready to attack again because they believe they find favorable conditions. But they no longer intend to sink warships, they are too protected and they are not suicidal, no matter how much risk they run. They will attack merchant ships anchored abroad. It will be enough to put the enemy back into tension for a long time. Although it is certainly not understood why use the manned torpedoes to sink freighters that were already vulnerable to a single diver with a small mine as had already been demonstrated.
On May 8, 1943, an unpleasant night, another trio of torpedoes manned by six men (by Notari, Todini and Cella), is quietly delivered by the “Olterra”. A few hours later the crew and the deadly fish are back. Almost at dawn three enemy merchants, totaling 20,000 gross tons, sink. But this time there is no celebration, the march of the war is fatal for the Axis. Within four days, on May 12, 250,000 Italian and German soldiers will be surrendered in Tunisia, not to mention Stalingrad.
On August 3, 1943, under the command of Notari, two torpedoes leave the “Olterra” in fulfillment of another mission. But the second device, in charge of Giannoli, has technical difficulties, separating from Notari. He decides to return to “Olterra”, while Giannoli, after struggling with the torpedo for two hours, is forced to surrender.
And here ends the immobile military career of the “Olterra” which, with its own means and without moving, has sunk more than 50,000 tons of enemy ships. Probably a unique case in history. Soon the allies would disembark in Sicily. Mussolini is practically deposed by his faithful assumptions on July 24. Badoglio will take power and agree with the allies, he could not do otherwise. Italy surrenders in September of 1943.
Until after the armistice, when the Italians themselves revealed the mystery to their former enemies, the matter of Olterra remained in the most absolute secrecy.
With all this history in my head, I wanted a strap that would remember that ship and the missions of the soldiers of the Marina Militare. I did not want to focus on ideology or politics, I just wanted to base myself on the brave soldiers and the watches they wore at that time manufactured by the Panerai family.
An old, half-destroyed boat gave the idea of a worn brown vintage strap.
Jacobo took care to age the belt with patina. For the sewing thread, I ordered Jacobo to do it with old cotton thread from the area of Gibraltar, and I bought a special thread that had to be braided so that it had the texture of the threads of the time.
At the same time, we looked for a color that made a combo with the Panerai dial PAM00372, the reference that I decided to use for this strap.
As expected, Jacob’s did an extraordinary job and after several friends saw my atrap monted in my Pam, they asked him to do more. Jacobo in deference to me, create a model based on my strap but with most commercial size and with more current measures called “Neron” and that is available. My strp is unique and exist only one. I’m sorry for those who have fallen in love with her! It’s part of my personal collection and I love it.
Fonts: Erwan Grey / Panerai / Jacob´s Straps / La Marina, Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, Milán, 1978