British divers Chris Joy (36) from London and Ivan Markovic (39) from Stratford-Upon-Avon recently joined a diving expedition, lead by Argentine-Italian filmmaker Ricardo Preve, to search for the Macalle – an Italian World War II submarine that sunk off the coast of Sudan in 1940 while hunting for British ships. As the 75th anniversary of its disappearance on the night of 14th/15th June approaches, the divers now believe they know where the Macalle rests – and what became of the only submariner to die before being rescued – and Italian authorities and media are excited by the discoveries.
The Macalle sank after hitting a coral reef close to the island of Barra Musa Kebir in the Red Sea, 65 miles from Port Sudan. It took a day to go under, giving plenty of time for its 45–strong crew to escape and take refuge on the tiny island. The crew members were documented as being delirious, due to methyl chloride poisoning on the submarine and the 10-day wait for rescue (after three went in search of help), without food and water in 60c degree heat, did little to help. One, Carlo Acefalo, died and was buried on the island under a few centimetres of sand.
And now, nearly 75 years on, expedition leader Preve is confident that his team has located both the Macalle and Acefalo’s grave, aided by researching archives from the Historical Office of the Italian Navy and by reading the diary of crewmember Adriano Tovo, which Preve had traced to Durham.
The first hints to the whereabouts of the submarine came when the team found a long metal piece, thought to be an antenna mast, encrusted in the coral at a depth of 55 metres. And then there was a massive break in the coral reef itself, creating a canyon six-metres wide and 30-metres in length. The canyon measurements are consistent with a submarine crashing through it and it is in precisely the location suggested by the Italian Navy commission, which originally investigated the Macalle’s disappearance. Further pieces of bent and twisted metal were found close by and will be tested by Italian laboratories of both the Navy and the shipyard at Fincantieri, where the Macalle was built.
Ivan Markovic comments: “After a few days and many dives we were all absolutely thrilled to find the antenna and the disturbed coral, knowing that the Macalle was hundreds of metres below us. Its whereabouts has eluded many dive teams over the decades and it was an incredible experience to be part of the team that has finally solved this mystery from World War II.”
All the evidence points to a deep sea final resting place for the Macalle, too deep to reach with the equipment this dive team had at the time, but Ricardo Preve has plans for a return expedition in the autumn with suitable equipment – and the logistical support of the Italian Navy – to reach the Macalle at expected depths of 400 metres.
While preparing for the expedition, Preve had found a letter from a priest based in Port Sudan who in the 1960s had written to Italian authorities to say that British forces had landed on the island and found the personal diary of one of the Macalle’s crew members. The priest was convinced that the diary contained information about the location of the grave of the only submariner who died on the island, as the rest of the crew was rescued by another Italian submarine. His letter was ignored for more than half a century until Preve finally located a translated copy of the diary in the Archives and Special Collections of Palace Green Library at Durham University. It had been given as a gift to the Library by the widow of the last British harbourmaster in Port Sudan.
Based on the information in the diary, Preve’s team found a simple grave located near the beach where the Macalle’s crew is thought to have awaited rescue. This grave is completely different from those of local fishermen who are also buried on the island. And located right next to the stones marking the grave, Preve’s team found a metal object with curved surfaces and something resembling a valve, perhaps a metal cylinder such as those used in submarine evacuation equipment. The expedition refrained from disturbing the grave and has formally notified Italy’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the discovery.
“Finding what could be the grave of this young Italian sailor was a very emotional moment for us”, says Ricardo Preve. “To think that someone had been left behind for 75 years and was only now beginning a journey home to Italy was very moving. It all matched: the different structure of the grave than others found on the island, the metal cylinder… we noticed that the grave was placed facing Italy. We left a small Italian naval flag to commemorate the discovery, and it is still flying on that empty and wind-swept island”.
Chris Joy added: “So much focus had been on organising and conducting the search, both underwater and on land, that I think the actual story of the Macalle and her crew may have slipped to the back of my mind. Finding the grave, undoubtedly of Carlo Acefalo, of course brought the reality jarringly to the fore, right in front of my eyes. The area was treated with the utmost respect and as the Italian flag was planted, I felt suddenly quite emotional, and could see the rest of the team was equally moved.”
While searching for relatives of Carlo Acefalo in Italy, Preve found that a number of the Macalle’s survivors had sought help in the 1980s to find the wreck and the grave of their friend – they did not however, get any support. It is thought these survivors have all died since – but their memory and wishes are now being honoured as a result of this expedition. The Italian and Sudanese governments are liaising about testing the bones from the grave for final confirmation and Ricardo Preve is hoping to film the story of Carlo Acefalo’s repatriation later this year.
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Note to Editors:
Ricardo Preve is an established, international film and television director and producer. He was the co-producer of “Mondovino”, an Official Selection at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and of the Emmy-nominated “Child Mummy Sacrifice”, an episode of the ‘Explorer” series on the National Geographic Channel (2010). He produced and directed “Chagas / A Silent Killer” for “Witness” on Al Jazeera English, and “The Ghosts of Machu Picchu”, an episode of NOVA on the Public Broadcasting Service of the United States. More information on www.prevefilms.com