Cables that lay on the sea bed near Haifa Port for decades were part of a top secret British defense system set up in World War II to locate enemy submarines, according to a study recently published by the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
The study, published in the institute’s periodical Cathedra, sheds light on the British defense system’s role in sinking the Italian submarine Scire, which was the terror of British ships during World War II. The study was conducted by marine archaeologist Ehud Galili and Italian researcher Fabio Roberti, Richard Walding, Shahaf Galili and Baruch Rosen.
The cables, which few divers and fishermen knew of, were covered by several layers of rubber, jute, lead and steel. Peeling off the layers, at the request of an Australian marine defense expert, provided proof that the cables had been used by the British to protect the harbor. Under the layers the researchers found a strip of cloth inscribed Siemens London, 1940. Siemens, a German company, had a branch in London from before the war that produced defense equipment for the British army during the war.
The submarine’s sinking site, some 10 kilometers off the Haifa coast and 33 meters underwater, was known as a diving site since the ‘60s, long before it became an Italian commemoration site. At the beginning of the ‘80s Galili found an opening in the submarine body, entered it and found the remnants of the crew’s bones inside.
“It shocked me because as Israelis we know what it’s like to return fallen soldiers’ bodies home,” he says.
Galili told the Italian military consul of his finding, but the latter displayed no interest in the matter. Only in 1985, after the bones’ discovery was reported in Italy and raised a storm, did an Italian navy ship sail to the region and its diving crew collected the remnants from the sub. Since then the Italians hold an annual memorial ceremony for the submarine’s fallen soldiers. However, until recently it was not known how the British had sunk the submarine.
Scire was launched in 1938 and won acclaim for three daring assaults on Alexandria Port in 1940 and 1941. The sub’s combatants, riding manned torpedoes nicknamed Majale (Italian for “pig”), attached explosives to six British ships and tankers and sank them. They received decorations from Benito Mussolini for this. Some of the Italian combatants turned themselves in before bombing the British ships and told them about the explosives, thus enabling them to evacuate the ships and save their lives. The damage they caused was so heavy that for a while Britain lost its naval superiority in the Mediterranean Sea, enabling the Axis powers to transfer equipment and fighters to the German and Italian forces in Africa.
In August 1942 the Italians planned an attack on Haifa Port, which supplied fuel to the British Army. But by then the British had cracked the Enigma code used by the Italians and were intercepting the Italian and German transmissions.
On July 24 a transmission mentioned a “package” that was to be sent from the naval headquarters in Rome to Rhodes. Other transmissions said the package referred to a combatant team that was supposed to board the submarine. Later the British detected a German Air Force intelligence sortie over the Haifa Port and realized that this was the next attack target.
The British put the defense system they had laid out in the port into action. It was a primitive radar version consisting of electric underwater cables laid in long loops, through which a low tension electric current was transmitted. The passage of a large metal object over the cable caused a change in the current, which was picked up by the monitors of the observation stations on the coast. Such systems were deployed in Britain’s own ports and throughout the British Empire.
The researchers found documents indicating that the British did not see Haifa Port as a high priority and left it unprotected before the war. Despite this, a cable system had been prepared for it and stored in Malta ahead of time.
The underwater findings and observation stations on the beach left no doubt that the system had been deployed before Submarine Scire approached Haifa.
The study follows the submarine’s last hours, on August 10, 1942. At 15:09, after the submarine was apparently detected by the cable system, the coast command ordered the artillery squadron stationed at Stella Maris to prepare to fire. A boat dropped bombs in the water and five minutes later the submarine was reported to have been hit. Two artillery shells were fired at it and at 15:54 Scire was seen sinking. All 50 crew members perished.