An Italian Fascist Founded the Unit which Attacked the Freedom Flotilla By Miguel Martínez

3 Jun 2010 — Palestine Think

Wikipedia has this to say to about Shayetet 13, the unit which carried out the Freedom Flotilla massacre:


Some of the first members of Shayetet 13

“Shayetet 13…is an elite Israel Defense Forces naval Special forces unit. The unit (S’13) is considered one of the three main Israeli Special Forces units (along with Sayeret Matkal – the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit – and Shaldag Unit – the Air Force commando unit). S’13 is the unit that specializes in sea-to-land incursions, assassinations, counter-terrorism, sabotage, maritime intelligence gathering and maritime hostage rescue. Only a handful of Shayetet 13 missions have been publicized or otherwise missions publicly attributed to the unit.”

Wikipedia tells us that the team was “formed in 1949 by Yohai Ben-Nun”.

Wikipedia fails to tell us that Yohai Ben-Nun’s instructor, and the mind behind the team, was an Italian (non Jewish) Fascist by the name of Fiorenzo Capriotti, a former member of the Italian Decima Mas unit.

The story is told in a detailed essay on the relations between the nascent Israeli state and veterans of Mussolini’s Social Republic, by historian Gianni Scipione Rossi.[1]


Fiorenzo Capriotti (the first on the right)

In 1992, Fiorenzo Capriotti was appointed “honorary commander” of Shayetet 13 by Ami Ayalon, then commander of the Israeli navy, with a special mention of the “glorious” Decima Mas. Capriotti died last year, at the age of 99, a revered figure among Italian neo-Fascists, who would go in pilgrimage to visit him.

A volunteer in Mussolini’s elite Decima Flottiglia Mas (“10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla”), specialized in maritime raids, Fiorenzo Capriotti won an important medal in the attack on Malta, where he was however taken prisoner by the British.


Symbol of the Decima Flottiglia MAS

The Decima Mas was especially famous for its so-called “pigs” or “human torpedoes”, tiny but powerful underwater sabotage craft, which the pilot would ride astride of and which would become a crucial element in neo-Fascist mythology; and the MTM, small, fast boats filled with explosives from which the pilot would leap at the last moment after pointing them towards the enemy ship.

Both kinds of craft were almost suicidally risky for those who used them.

When Mussolini’s regime fell in 1943, Italian POW’s were offered the opportunity to become “cooperators” of the Allies. Fiorenzo Capriotti claimed that it was then he decided to become a true Fascist, rejecting the offer and accepting the hard fate of “non cooperating” prisoners.

After the war, one of Italy’s concerns was to free itself from the burden of hosting thousands of Jewish refugees, which led to a secret alliance between Alcide De Gasperi’s Christian Democrat government and the Zionist movement, even before Israel was born.

The fledgling Israeli state later turned to Italy to ask for help with military training, which the government was not willing to supply officially. The Italian government therefore got in touch with veterans of Mussolini’s short-lived Italian Social Republic (RSI): young men who had the technical skills required, but did not belong in the new political system.

The veterans – including people like Capriotti who would have joined the RSI if they could have – had no qualms about helping the Zionists, with whom they shared a deep hostility towards the British.[2]

A personal note: I grew up in Rome next to a large park, closed off by high walls: peeping through the gates, I could see the vegetation growing wild. It had been the site of the  British embassy,  blown up by members of the Irgun in 1946.

It was a special surprise for me therefore when Alfredo Mantica, a member of the former neo-Fascist party and vicepresident of foreign affairs commission, recently revealed that the Irgun commando got its explosives from a group of RSI veterans belonging to the FAR or “Fasces of Revolutionary Action”, led by Pino Romualdi and Nino Buttazzoni. Two men who would later found a political party called MSI, which years later would turn into Alleanza Nazionale, a key member of the current coalition governing Italy.

Nino Buttazzoni was the head of the Battaglioni NP (Swimmer and Parachutist battalions), dedicated to carrying out sabotage operations. In 1943, he joined the the Decima Mas, now become a land force mainly employed in ruthless fighting against Yugoslav and Italian resistance fighters.

In his autobiography[3], Nino Buttazzoni explains how he got in touch with the Zionist movement, though he hides the role of the Italian secret service. Buttazzoni had a long meeting with Ada Sereni, head of the Haganah secret services in Italy, as he tells in his memoirs:

“She was looking for an expert  willing to take on the job of organizing and training – in the use of weapons and guerrilla warfare – the many Jews coming from the territories of Eastern Europe who wanted to reach the Middle East to establish their nation. I was attracted by the offer, also because it meant fighting the English who were determined on opposing the landing of the Jews in Palestine.” [4]

Buttazzoni, though unwilling for personal reasons to leave Italy, was glad to pass on his contacts with other veterans of the Decima Mas and the Battaglioni NP. Who had exactly the skills the founders of Israel were looking for.

We know the names of only a few of those who took up the job, such as Geo Calderoni, a former member of the Decima Mas, who took part in various secret operations, and was later quite active in the Decima Mas’ veterans association.


Book cover of Fiorenzo Capriotti's autobiography

The only one we know much about was Fiorenzo Capriotti, who actually wrote a book about his experiences, with the title of “Diary of a Fascist at the Court of Jerusalem”.[5]

He tells how he was approached by a man from the SIS, as the Italian secret service was then called.

“He told me, ‘there is a little job for you… something you know how to do very well!”

“The idea was to send to Israel two operators of assault craft. One of them, for submarine craft, was the naval vessel sub-lieutenant, Nicola Conte, who had worked with the British, and another one for the surface work, who would be me.”

They pay being good, Capriotti accepted. There was no reason on either side to reject the alliance. Later, one day, in Israel,

“Ben Gurion was supposed to come on a visit. Abraham Zaccai was worried about how I would have answered a question about my political ideas. I had no such doubts. Of course, I’ll say I’m a Fascist! But don’t worry, I told him, because he, Ben Gurion, is a Fascist just like me: for Israel, he wants what I want and always wanted for Italy, and which can be defined quite simply: everything for Italy, nothing against Italy, everything for an ever greater and more majestic Italy”.

Such enthusiasm for Israel would often be found on the Italian far right. Writing in the MSI magazine, Il Principe (November 1970), Ugo Bonasi summed up this Fascist vision of Israel:

“Israel represents the most modern, vital and youthful expression of a militaristic, hierarchically organized Nation, thrilling with nationalist and patriotic enthusiasm […]. Israel is expanding since it is the History of Man which is summoning it to fulfil the task of civilization and war which other nations […] refuse to perform. Israel is also our future.”[6]

Capriotti took on the identity of Mr Katz, supposedly a Romanian refugee on his way to Palestine, and went to Milan in 1948, to meet Ephraim Ilin.

Ephraim Ilin, a Russian-born businessman and a militant right-winger (unlike Ada Sereni, who belonged to the Labour Party), had bought six of the MTM craft, which were tested out by Capriotti at Milan’s artificial lake; they were then packaged and sent to Israel. [7]

Capriotti too went to Israel a few months later. Capriotti found himself in the midst of the Fascism he had always dreamed of. Despite the war,

“the people were happy, singing, dancing, joyous. This was the world I had always dreamed of in vain for Italy. And the worse I felt in this country of ours, the happier I felt among those simple people. Right from the very first moment, I felt I loved that land and right from the very first meeting, I truly felt I was one of them.”

Capriotti’s disciples were Yohay Fisher (Ben Nun), later head of the Israeli navy, and Yossele Dror.

“They were enthusiastic fighters, with a marvellous spirit, ready for any sacrifice and discomfort which the war and the situation put them through. Only I could understand, feel and share in the joy that came to them from this complete devotion to the Fatherland”.

In summer, Capriotti trained the young Israelis in the Sea of Galilee.

The outcome was extraordinary, and left a deep mark in Israel’s national mythology. What is curious is that the first operation was a remake of an event any Italian neo-Fascist remembers with reverential awe: when six human torpedoes sank the great British ships, The Valiant and The Queen Elizabeth, in the port of Alexandria, in 1941.


Fiorenzo Capriotti surrounded by his admirers

Capriotti’s disciples destroyed the admiral ship of the Egyptian fleet, Emir Farouk, anchored in the port of Gaza and sank it, using the same techniques that Capriotti’s comrades had used seven years before. Capriotti was not allowed to take part in the operation – if he had been captured, Israel would have found it embarrassing to explain his presence.

On his return to Italy, Capriotti reported to the Italian secret service, and moved on to Lugano where he worked for four years exporting arms to Israel. At the same time, he was active in the MSI, becoming one of the members of the Central Committee of the party.

Years later, describing an ageing but upright man, Scipione Rossi wrote:

“He now goes with his regular passport to Israel. As a tourist as well. His special permit number 00020 issued on October 26 1948 to a certain Fiorenzo Capriotti born in Jerusalem is just a yellowing card now.

On October 22, 1992, on the anniversary of the Gaza operation, the former marò [Decima Mas veteran] was at Atlit. The admiral Ami Ayalon, commander in chief of the Israeli navy, delivered him a parchment: “Fiorenzo Capriotti, who fought in the glorious vanguard unit “Decima Flottiglia MAS” of the Italian Navy during the Second World War; who was of such great help to us in founding and training the Commando unit of our navy, during the War of Independence, totally identifying himself with it, with devotion and spirit of sacrifice, at his own risk and peril. In acknowledgement of this contribution to the rebirth of the state of Israel, we offer him in homage the title of: Commander ad honorem of the Thirteenth Fleet”.”

What is perhaps most surprising is the honour reserved in this text to Mussolini’s Decima Flottiglia MAS.

In April 1998, commander Capriotti was one of the Friends of Israel invited to the special gala dinner in Rome for the fiftieth anniversary of Israel.


[1] The article, titled “Un ‘fascista’ ingaggiato dal Mossad. Con l’ok di De Gasperi”, was first published in Storia in Rete, December 2005, but is only available on the website of the  Fondazione Ugo Spirito. All unidentified quotes in my article are taken from this text.
[2] Though Mussolini at a late stage copied Hitler’s antisemitism, envy of the British empire was a far more important and lasting theme in Fascist propaganda.
[3] Nino Buttazzoni, Solo per la bandiera. I nuotatori paracadutisti della marina, Mursia, Milano  2002, p. 125.
[4] Ada Ascarelli Sereni (1905-1998) was a rich Roman lady who emigrated early on to Palestine, and who helped thousands of Jewish refugees to resettle. It is sadly ironic that she herself was appointed in 1968 by Levi Eshkol to “persuade” the natives of Gaza to emigrate. The stick was an organized effort to keep living conditions in Gaza low, the carrot the promise of papers, work abroad and money. The whole operation basically failed because of the Israeli government refusing to spend the money Sereni asked for.

“At their first meeting, which was also attended by Meir Amit, head of the Mossad, and by Yosef Hermelin, head of the Shabak, Eshkol told her that “I want them all to go, even if they go to the moon.””

“After Sereni began her assignment, she and Eshkol met frequently. “What’s the situation? Is there a chance? Is there any hope of anything?” he would ask. And sometimes, “How many Arabs have you driven out so far?”

She discussed sending people to South America and the United States, at a cost of $1,000 per family. When she asked what to do about a man who had $300 to get to America but needed three hundred liras more, Eshkol decreed: “First let the people go who have the means to go.” On another occasion he said, “Perhaps we should have stolen their money on their way out of here, like they’ve always done to Jews around the world.”

Upon departing the country, the emigrants had to leave behind the identification cards they had received from the military government. They also had to sign a form declaring, in Hebrew and Arabic, that they were leaving willingly and understood that they would not be able to return without a special permit. They signed with thumbprints; if they could, they added their names in writing. Men signed for their wives. The form was occasionally modified, as was the custom in the occupation bureaucracy.” 
[5] Fiorenzo Capriotti, Diario di un fascista alla corte di Gerusalemme 1948-2002, privately published, 2002).
[6] Quoted in Gianni Scipione Rossi, La destra e gli ebrei. Una storia italiana, p. 116, Rubbettino 2003. It should also be remembered that at the time, the Holocaust was deliberately underplayed in Israeli culture, and hence contact with and respect for Axis veterans was probably much less difficult than it would be today.

Even outright antisemites such as Julius Evola waxed enthusiastic about this new warrior people.
[7] With the spelling Kaprioty – clearly a transcript from the Hebrew – Fiorenzo Capriotti appears in a sermon by a rabbi, who tells the story of the sinking of the Emir Farouk, but also confirms Capriotti’s version of the purchase of the first MTM boats.

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