Category Archive 'Luigi Durand de la Penne'

16 Dec 2018

“The Secret Code of Watches”

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Panerai Radiomir.

Michael Brendan Dougherty explains why he wants a hideously expensive huge wristwatch, historically associated with the Italian Navy.

If my children someday ask me about a certain personal extravagance, I will blame the Axis Powers.

On December 18, 1941, Luigi Durand de la Penne and five of his comrades were ahead of schedule. They stopped to eat figs and drink cognac, when, to their great fortune, they saw two British battleships and a British destroyer entering the harbor of Alex­andria, Egypt. These men were part of Italy’s elite frogman unit, the Decima Flottiglia MAS. They had launched from the Italian submarine Scirè, driving their two-man sea chariots toward the British fleet. These chariots were manned torpedoes, with a maximum speed of 3 knots, and so unwieldy and unreliable that their riders referred to them as maiali, or pigs. The frogmen used rebreathing units invented for spear fishers during interwar years to operate undetected under the surface of the water. From there, they could navigate their explosives around nets and set up other forms of protection for their ships. That night, these six men would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

Leaving behind figs and cognac, de la Penne and his crewmate approached the HMS Valiant. Their equipment began to fail — this was the Italian navy, after all — with de la Penne’s wetsuit and mask letting in water. He swallowed it to clear his vision. After a mighty struggle with his pig, he managed to place the limpet mine on the keel of the Valiant. But almost immediately afterward, he and his partner had to surface for air. They were spotted and captured.

Refusing to talk, de la Penne was placed below deck, right above his charge. Ten minutes before it was set to explode, he alerted the captain that in a few minutes the Valiant would sink and all he could do was evacuate his men. De la Penne reached the deck unscathed after the bomb went off, and he witnessed similar mines exploding beneath the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the HMS Jervis, and the oil tanker Sagona.

Six men had disabled the bulk of the British fleet in the Mediterranean. The world wouldn’t discover it for months, since the ships sank in shallow water on flat bottoms. Winston Churchill would praise the ingenuity and courage of the Italian frogmen when he relayed the news in a secret session of Parliament. After the war, the captain of the Valiant, Admiral Charles Morgan, even lobbied for a British decoration for de la Penne.

How did the frogmen know that they were ahead of schedule? Or determine that there were ten minutes left before the explosion? They had another piece of equipment, issued to them by the Italian navy: a hulking, 47-millimeter, plexiglass-domed, submersible wristwatch. Its guts were made by Rolex, but the Italian watch firm Panerai modified the cases, soldered on wire lugs, and added a sandwich-style dial. The bottom half was a disk painted with glowing radioactive material; the top half was a black disk with cutouts to make the indices. This was the Panerai Radiomir.

And I really want to spend an exorbitant amount of money to get a watch that looks like the ones that de la Penne and his comrades wore.

Well, not exactly like it. The modern versions are no longer made with radium, so they don’t give their makers and wearers cancer. Also they have better components and much shinier and more polished cases than the originals. You get them not from military contractors but from luxury boutiques, where the staff wear white gloves to handle them and speak to you in hushed tones.

It makes no sense, really. Cheapo battery-powered watches keep better time than expensive modern Panerai. An even more accurate time is available on my smartphone. But you can’t get better advertising than de la Penne’s physical courage and sportsmanlike conduct in one of the most daring feats of World War II. He wore it. It’s cool. And I want one so bad.

RTWT


Luigi Durand de la Penne.


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