The Complete History Of
The Rolex Submariner & SEA-DWELLER
Rolex's Conquest Of The Ocean
Chapter 3: Panerai & The Italian Royal Navy
The First Professional Rolex Diving Watch
[Part 3 of 4]
The Royal Italian Navy Frogmen Commandos
The First Professional Dive Watch In Action
We have examined the evolution of the Rolex made Panerai professional diving watches and now we will examine the story behind the watch. We will meet the first men who wore these professional dive watches. This piece of the historical puzzle is amazing.
Panerai came to Rolex somewhere around 1935 and told them they needed a watch for the Italian Navy Frogmen. They had three requirements for a professional diving watch. First and foremost it had to be waterproof, which was why them came to Rolex to begin with.
Secondly, the watch had to be visible in the darkest underwater environment. The Italian Navy Frogmen were underwater commando's who would typically dive at night and they could achieve their best cover on a moonless night. Since the Radiomir Panerai used Radium to light the dial, the watches were very visible in the dark.
The third criteria was the watch had to be as large as possible to optimize the visibility.
In the image below we see an Italian Navy Frogman wearing a re-breather suit in the center of the photo and we see the diver on the far right wearing the now trademark 47mm Panerai.
The Italian Royal Navy commando above and below are wearing Pirelli muti di gomma in rubber. Note the Italian diving suit has 2 oxygen bottles on it.
The Most Amazing Panerai Story!!!!!!!!!!
When I wrote the first draft of this story, I literally stumbled into the authors Ralf Ehlers and Volker Wiegmann. I actually included the photo below of Ralf & Volker in the first draft of this story because I wanted to show a photo of what an Italian Navy Frogman diving suit with the dual canister re-breather looked like. I also mentioned a book they had published named Vintage Panerai.
I was not familiar with their first book named, Vintage Panerai – Watches With History, and after I contacted them, I learned they had just come out with a second book named Vintage Panerai –The References. When Volker share the scope of the second book I was shocked!?!?!?!?!!!!
I ordered both books since they seemed so fascinating and I must tell you when they arrived my mind was completely blown!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I mean I was completely mind-boggled!!!!!!!!!!!! I was so impressed and fascinated with their books, I stopped working on this series and sat down and read their books!!!!!!!!!!!!
I am so stunned and impressed with their books, in the future, when I am done with this series, I am going to do detailed review as well as a two separate podcast interviews–One with Volker & one with Ralf.
Vintage Panerai Authors Ralf Ehlers & Volker Wiegmann
In the meantime, I am going to give you an overview of these MUST HAVE Books!!!! I am so blown away by their books it is almost hard to figure out where to begin!?!?!
Vintage Panerai–Watches With History
As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, Rolex and Panerai are thought by many as being distant cousins, but they are much more like close brothers. In my personal opinion, I would go so far as to say the vintage Panerai watches are essentially vintage Rolex watches. The vintage Panerai watches also have a unique history and simple tool-watch design ethos that is unmistakable and wonderful at the same time.
Ralf & Volker completed their first book, Vintage Panerai–Watches With History two years ago in 2007. Both this book and their new book they just came out with are written in German, Italian and English. In other words, each book has the trilingual German, Italian and English description and story on each page.
The back of their first book accurately describes the book as:
"This book comprehensively documents five historic Panerai watches and their pasts. Complete with rare information on their original Italian and German owners, the book details the training and assignments of combat swimmers as well as the extensive array of combat swimmer's equipment. So different are these five watches, that it is a truly fascinating journey to dive into the histories of these amazing timepieces. A book by collectors, for collectors."
This first book just completely blew my mind!!!! The stories are amazing and the level of research detail is extremely impressive. This book gives you such an incredible sense of history and the level of precise detail is stupefying!!!!
I recently mentioned to Volker in a phone conversation that as a Rolex historian I was stunned with how great their books are and I am not easy to impress!!! Beside being a Vintage Panerai fanatic, Volker is in the printing industry and it really shows. The two books are so well laid-out graphically, it makes them an absolute pleasure to read and own.
Vintage Panerai–The References
As I mentioned, when Volker first told me what the scope was of the second book they just came out with named Vintage Panerai–The References I almost didn't believe him.
He told me he and Ralf had been working on a database to document and chronicle every known vintage Panerai on earth!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is hard to perceive but in this incredible book they do just that!!!!! They go into great detail on 34 historic Panerai watches and they document in vivid and beautiful color photography a total of the 210 vintage Panerai watches they have been able to document.
I thought I knew a lot about vintage Panerai models, but I was wowed with how many vintage Panerai models I had never seen before!!!!!!
This book is an absolutely magnificent masterpiece in-and-of-itself. It is 365 pages long and weighs 2.5 Kilos or 5.5 Pounds!!!!! One of many reasons I very, very, very highly recommend these books for your collection is because if you invest in them, you will become an advanced expert on vintage Panerai!!!!!
Why is this so profound!?! Because with Rolex, the history and models are so vast, but with vintage Panerai Rolex made what appears to be less than 1000 watches (total) and with these books you get an idea of the scope that Ralf and Volker make fathomable. [Despite the fact I have poured my heart & soul into this chapter in this series, there in very little overlapping information in their books, but I must admit that in my opinion if you read both you develop a complete understanding of vintage Panerai.]
I highly recommend you purchase both of these books to complete your vintage Panerai and Rolex collection. The books are only available directly from www.Vintage-Panerai.de, and they ship internationally and accept Paypal.
All I can say is Volker and Ralf are in a class by themselves and I am so grateful for the research they have completed. I think the coolest thing about owning these two books is that it makes me feel like I have owned all the great vintage Panerai watches.
Think about it for a second...If you purchase just one nice vintage Rolex-made Panerai watch it will set you back around $150,000.00 in U.S. dollars. For the small price of these two magnificent masterpiece books you can have your own Rolex-made Vintage Panerai Museum on your coffee table.
I look forward to writing my detailed review of these books and recording the podcast interviews once I complete this series. I can't wait!!!!!
The way I originally came across Volker and Ralf was when I found these photos of Ralf's Small Egiziano which is probably my favorite vintage Panerai watch.
Nicolas who is the JLC Moderator on the Purist S Pro forums wrote a great review on Ralph's Small Egiziano which you can read by clicking here.
Ralf's Small Egiziano has a perfectly faded patina and this next shot is some kind of wonderful!!!
The Panerai company of today goes officially by Officine Panerai. Officine Panerai has a very interesting history. In many, many ways it plays on the legacy of the Italian Royal Navy commando frogmen from World War II, despite the fact it is today a Swiss company. After we examine a little more of the World War II history we take a deeper look at the modern Panerai. I included this Officine Panerai artwork because it looks cool and shows a frogman/commando in his WWII diving gear. Strangely, the person who created this artwork used a World War II British Royal Navy diver underwater suit for this illustration.
World War II & The Italian Royal Navy
The Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina Italiana) was formed on March 17, 1861 when the Kingdom of Italy (Regno d'Italia) was founded after Italian unification (il Risorgimento). Prior to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy, the area consisted of many small states including Sardinia and Naples.
On June 10, 1940 the Kingdom of Italy declared war on the United Kingdom and French Republic. At the time the Royal Italian Navy was the fourth largest Navy on earth.
Fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini whose nickname was Il Duce believed if the Kingdom of Italy controlled the Mediterranean Sea he could significantly expand his New Roman Empire into Tunis, the Balkans as well as Nice and Corsica. As a matter of fact, Benito Mussolini once declared the Mediterranean Sea as "Mare Nostrum" which when translated to English means "Our Sea." Ironically Panerai would later name one of its watches the "Mare Nostrum" model.
So let's go back to World War II. Toward the beginning of World War II before the American's showed up to straighten things out, the British Empire was at war with the Italian's and the German's. Egypt was part of the British empire at the time. [Think Lawrence Of Arabia].
The Italian Navy, under Mussolini had a strong and innovative program with their Frogmen who were professional divers. Panerai of course had Rolex make the watches for the Italian Navy before World War II broke out.
In November of 1941 the British Mediterranean Fleet which was headquartered in Alexandria, Egypt was in a very vulnerable and weak military position. The British fleet only had two battleships available: the Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant. The Italian Royal Navy was desperate to try and figure out how to sink the two British battleships.
The balance of power in the African war was dependent upon the two British battleships to stop the Italians from being able to sail their convoys to the Italian colony of Libya.
The Italian Royal Navy had an elite naval sabotage unit of the Royal Italian Navy (Regia Marina Italiana). The Regia Marina Italiana developed a new secret weapon that was a two man underwater assault vehicle that was typically launched from a submarine. It had many nicknames including Pig, Hog, Chariot, Human Torpedo, Slow Speed Torpedo and Maiali. The nicknames pig, hog and maiali were because of its poor maneuverability.
The two men who would pilot the Maiali or Pig would wear a specially designed breathing apparatus that was essentially a re-breather.
This closed circuit breathing device was fueled on pure oxygen, as apposed to compressed air. This method was chosen to ovoid creating bubbles which could potentially alert the presence of a diver on top of the water. These devices named ARO were made by Pirelli and utilized a sealed system.
The Pig was essentially a Slow Moving Torpedo (SLC) and was an assault weapon of the Regia Marina during the World War II period. The Maiale SLC was equipped with ballast tanks, diving planes as well as compressed air for releasing ballast. Essentially the hog was a two man submarine that was ridden like a tandem motorcycle.
The Maiale were built in the Officine San Bartolomeo La Spezia Shipyard starting in 1935. They were 6.7 meters long and 533mm wide. They had a maximum safe depth rating of 15 meters but were regularly taken down to 30 meters. They had a range of 75 miles if they traveled at an operational speed of 2.3 knots. The range dropped significantly down to 4 miles if they went full speed at 4.5 knots.
The Weapons systems on the original Mark 1 held 220 kilograms of explosive charge and the Mark 2 version got up to 250 kilograms of explosive charge. The final version achieved a 300 kilogram capacity of explosive charge.
The Maiale was invented by SLC Lieutenant Teseo Tesei and the first prototype was made in 1936. The Pig utilized an electric motor and that could output up to 1.6 horsepower from 150 Amp batteries. The Pig's were equipped with a explosive charges located in their front compartments.
As you can see in the photo below, the Italian submarine Gongar il La Spezia was equipped with two Maiale tubes from which the Pigs could be launched to go to their ultimate target.
On the night of December 18, 1941, three, 2-men human torpedoes (hogs) were launched from the Italian Submarine Scrie, commanded by Liutenant Borhese off the shore of the port of Alexandria, Egypt. And you guessed it, the Italian Frogmen were of course, wearing their Rolex made Panerai wrist watches. The port of Alexandria had been sealed off by the British Royal Navy with large metal nets that were designed to stop incoming torpedoes.
The Italian crews on the three hogs had to cut through the metal nets that contained explosive charges and had to get by sentries to get into the port of Alexandria in Egypt. If the Italian Frogmen could get through and blow up the two British battleships, as well as a destroyer and tanker it would be a tremendous victory since the British would no longer be able to maintain a force strong enough to stop the Italian fleet.
The Italian commando frogmen rode their hogs into the highly protected harbor at Alexandria, Egypt and successfully attached their-delayed-action charges on three unsuspecting British ships: the Queen Elizabeth, The Valiant and the tanker Saratoga.
The Italian frogmen experienced tremendous difficulty and were exhausted after having placed the delayed action explosive mines on the three British ships.
The three teams of Italian frogmen were captured by the British, and in a bizarre twist of fate, were interrogated on one of the ships they just wired to explode. A few minutes before the bombs were to explode, Italian Lieutenant De La Penne told the commanding British officer to save his crew.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth battleship (pictured above below) was blown up. Italian Lieutenant De La Penne was able to successfully escape during the ensuing chaos.
The tanker Saratogo sustained terrible damage and the Jervis which was refueling next to it also got hit badly along with the Valiant. The battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth was hit badly and actually sank in the shallow water of the harbor. The Queen Elizabeth was raised and restored but she was out of action for the next 17 months.
As we see in the photographic analysis from the U.S. Office Of Naval Intelligence, the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were almost identical ships.
Winston Churchill later commented on the incidence in the port of Alexandria by saying "It was an extraordinary example of courage and geniality."
Churchill was referring to the cunning stealth the Italian frogmen achieved when he used the word courage and when he used the word geniality he was referring to the fact no soldiers died since Italian Lieutenant De La Penne told the commanding British officer to save his crew. In 1945, the British high command the Mediterranean awarded Italian Lieutenant De La Penne a gold medal of valor for having saved the British sailors.
The British Fleet captured the Italian Human Torpedos (Pig's) used in the attack on the port of Alexandria, Egypt in 1941 and started making their own because they were so impressed at how effective they could be.
Art Deco Returns To Egypt
As a side note, it is kind of ironic–if you think about it–that the original Rolex Oyster cushion case has a definite art deco shape, and the worldwide art deco design influence from the 1920s came from the discovery of King Tut's tomb which was discovered in Egypt in 1922.
So if you think about it, in 1941 the Italian frogmen traveled into the harbor of Alexandria wearing their art deco Panerai watches that derived their design language from ancient Egyptian design. Then, in 1954, the last Panerai watches made by Rolex were purchased by the Egyptian army. It just goes to show how interconnected the world really is!!!
German Kampfschwimmer's Wearing Panerai
This is another bit of mystery. In the six photos below we see Kampfschwimmer's (Combat Swimmer's) wearing Panerai watches. In the first photo notice the two Kampfschwimmer's on on the right side of the photo are wearing Panerai watches.
Nobody knows for certain how the Kampfschwimmer's got ahold of the Panerai watches, but it is believed the they somehow extracted them from the Italian Royal Navy in 1944.
This next photo is a of the two Kampfschwimmer divers on the right in the photo above that are wearing Panerai watches.
The Kampfschwimmer frogmen have diving suits that are distinctively different than the Italian Pirelli suits. The German suits have laces on the arms and legs. Notice the German diver pictured on the far right is wearing a 47mm Panerai watch on his left wrist.
Don't the German Kampfschwimmer divers in the photo above and below look like they are from one of those original black and white Flash Gordon movies!?! ;-) The dudes below actually look kind of spooky, and they are all wearing 47mm Panerai dive watches.
Another way you can tell the difference between the German Kampfschwimmer's and the Italian Royal Navy frogmen commando's is the German's only had one oxygen bottle on their suits, as apposed to the Italian's having two oxygen bottles.
Once again, it is not clear to me how the Kampfschwimmer's got ahold of the Rolex made Panerai watches, but it appears as if they might have taken them from them. As soon as I find out for sure, I will update this section.