June 23, 1940. An enemy submarine arrives off the coast of modern-day UAE to cause havoc in the Gulf of Oman.
The Luigi Galvani aims to disrupt tanker traffic around the Strait of Hormuz to resupply the British war effort.
The conditions in the Italian submarine were harsh and the sweltering summer heat tough.
The waters of the Gulf were eerily quiet that day with not a tanker in sight. It was an ominous sign.
“We always read about submarine warfare in the Atlantic,” said Ali Iqbal, a UAE-based historian who has researched Luigi Galvani’s story. “But that kind of history also exists off the waters of the UAE.”
June 1940 had seen a grim new front open in the Second World War. France fell to the Germans and Italy joined the Nazi side. On June 10 Italy sent several submarines from Eritrea – then one of its colonies – to the Arabian Sea. Luigi Galvani was one of these. The 72.5-metre Brin class was named after the famed Italian scientist and built in 1938 by the Franco Tosi company in its Taranto shipyards.
But British forces in the Gulf had learned of its plan, warned tankers of the danger and dispatched HMS Falmouth to track it down. On the evening of June 23 the ship spotted a “darkened object” in the water. It was the Galvani. HMS Falmouth approached to within 548 metres and opened fire. The submarine commander ordered a dive but the sloop fired three depth charges.
“I had the strong feeling the boat was lost,” wrote submarine Lieutenant Commander Renato Spano. “I decided to emerge. The submarine responded with great difficulty, emerging [on the surface] only in part.”
But the damage was so severe it sank in the early hours of June 24. According to a British assessment of the clash, it was felt a poor lookout allowed the HMS Falmouth to approach so close undetected. Twenty six of the 57 crew died.
“The prisoners were taken to India and then back to Italy after the war. They were treated well,” said Mr Iqbal.
Eighty-one years on from the sinking, the forgotten story of the Italian submarine challenges assumptions that nothing much happened here during that war. But the threat was real and people died.
By 1943 Allied aircraft were stopping off to refuel in Sharjah as part of a huge resupply effort in the East. The war led to food shortages in the region yet, despite this, Bedouins still helped survivors of Allied air accidents. Thousands of people thronged the streets and danced until sunset when news of the Allied victory in 1945 was heard in Dubai and Sharjah, while a memorial to a fallen British airman in Fujairah draws annual remembrance services.
Among the Galvani dead was Pietro Venuti, who was awarded a posthumous gold medal of military valour for locking himself in the torpedo room to stop water entering other compartments. His actions saved lives and the Italian navy in 2014 launched a submarine after him in tribute.
The stricken submarine sank 80 metres to the sea floor about 40 nautical miles northeast of Dibba. There it has lain for more than eight decades, untouched in a silent world.
“The Galvani was perhaps the first time Axis [German, Italy and Japanese] forces threatened Allied forces in the area and this was the first submarine we know of to sink,” said Mr Iqbal, who co-authored a paper with UAE cultural historian, Peter Hellyer, about Axis submarine activity for the Emirates National History Group journal, Tribulus. “The British realised these submarines endangered shipping.”
Increased Axis submarine activity forced Britain’s Royal Air Force in 1942 to base a squadron of Blenheim bombers at Sharjah to confront the threat. Aircraft operating from the base sank German U-boat 533 off the coast of Fujairah in 1943. Japanese submarines were also active in the Arabian sea and inflicted damage on Allied shipping before escaping.
The wreck of the Galvani, meanwhile, lies on the sea floor close to Iranian territorial waters. Several reports over the years detailed how UAE-based dive teams were trying to reach it, but these have never been confirmed.
“I’ve lived in the UAE for the past 30 years and being able to research and publish these little known events and add to a little part of the UAE's wonderful history is a matter of great honour,” said Mr Iqbal.
“Not only because this lesser known history is being told but also because individuals - Emiratis and others - are being remembered.”