In the early 1950s, Italian film-makers paid tribute to the pioneering exploits of the famous Decima Flottiglia MAS surface and underwater units in a series of movies. Done with the help of the Italian Navy, these films recount the most important operations of World War 2. An interesting feature of these movies is that their main characters can be seen wearing real Rolex-Panerai watches in many important scenes and even close-ups. Just recently, my friend Pierre-Jean Manfréo (IG: @the_rolexrialist) discovered yet another Italian movie that featured a Rolex-Panerai Ref. 3646. Pierre-Jean’s amazing find led to the idea for the following overview of all these films that watch enthusiasts will hopefully enjoy.
Hell Raiders of the Deep (1953)
Original title: I sette dell’Orsa maggiore – Released on January 16, 1953 (Italian production)
‘Hell Raiders of the Deep’ was the very first movie about Decima Flottiglia MAS divers. After a short introduction on how the unit trained, the story turns to the secret manned torpedo base hidden in a scuttled Italian tanker named Olterra in the port of Algeciras, Spain from where manned torpedoes and groups of Gamma frogmen attacked the nearby British Naval Base of Gibraltar. The main part of the film revolves around the sinking of two British battleships, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Valiant, in the British Naval Base of Alexandria, Egypt.
The main character named Commander Silvani was played by French actor Pierre Cressoy. Silvani is an adaptation of the real Navy diver Luigi Durand de la Penne. Besides Rolex-Panerai Ref. 3646 watches, the divers are also seen wearing massive 1950s Panerai compasses.
Many of the divers seen in the movie were real Marina Militare personnel. It is interesting to note that when ‘Hell Raidesr of the Deep’ was produced, the so-called Radiomir 1940 case (Ref. 6152/6154) did not yet exist. The divers were still using their old watches from WW2 but with new dials and hands. More on this later. In the scene below we see a diver checking his compass before entering the British Naval Base in Alexandria.
Commander Silvani’s manned torpedo breaks down and needs to be dragged across the seabed to be placed under the battleship.
After activating the warhead timer, Silvani surfaces completely exhausted and is immediately spotted by sentries. He is captured and after a fruitless interrogation, placed in confinement deep within the battleship. Visibly worried, Silvani checks his watch often in the scenes that follow which leads to fantastic shots like the one below.
And here is the money shot, a super close-up of the watch with readable text on the dial. 06:20 am, the explosion is imminent.
An interesting observation is that the hour hand is not divided as would normally be the case with Ref. 3646. It can be assumed this watch was updated with a new dial and new hands after the war. Radium lume consisted mainly of radium-226 (energy source) and zinc sulfide (light source). Due to the deterioration of the zinc sulfide by the strong radioctivity, radium lume lasted only between three to five year depending on the mixture and had to be replaced periodically. For this reason, none of the Ref. 3646 watches that remained in service after the war retained their original dials and hands.
The next picture shows such an example. This watch belonged to pioneering Decima Flottiglia MAS member Ernesto Notari who after the war commanded the special units. It is exhibited in the Naval Museum of La Spezia. The watch features a 1950s Radiomir dial and updated hands.
Full movie: I sette dell’orsa maggiore (Italian, Youtube)
Original title: Mizar – Sabotaggio in mare – Released on January 22, 1954 (Italian production)
‘Frogwoman’ is loosely based on the exploits of secret agent and Gamma frogman Luigi Ferraro, who disguised as civil servant of the Italian consulate of Alexandretta (Iskenderum, Turkey), sunk three Allied ships transporting chromium ore. The main character of the movie, a certain Luigi Ferri, is seen wearing a Rolex-Panerai 3646 in most of the diving scenes.
The next picture shows a German advertisement.
A close-up of the watch while the main character is trying to grab a notebook with secret British codes.
Besides the watch, the main character can also be seen wearing a 1940s Panerai compass.
That this movie featured a Rolex-Panerai 3646 was discovered by my friend Pierre-Jean Manfréo, who goes by the handle of @the_rolexrialist on Instagram. Well done!
Full movie: Mizar – Sabotaggio in mare (Italian, Youtube)
Human Topedoes (1954)
Original title: Siluri Umani – Released on December 29, 1954 (Italian/French production)
‘Human Torpedoes’ tells the story of the explosive boat unit of the Decima Flottiglia MAS and their first operation against several British Royal Navy warships anchored at Suda Bay, Greece on March 25, 1941. Explosive boats (Barchini esplosivi/MTM) were small, fast motor boats (33 knots) loaded with a 300 kg explosive device. The pilot set course on the target and ejected in safe distance (around 100 m). The backrest of the pilot seat was a safety raft.
Although no Rolex Oyster watches with Panerai dials can be seen in the movie, the real explosive boat pilots were equipped with the very same watches as the divers. The picture below shows the head of the surface units of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, Giorgio Giobbe. Clearly visible on his wrist is a Rolex-Oyster-Panerai 3646.
Silent Enemy (1958)
Released on March 4, 1958 (British production)
“Silent Enemy’ recounts the story of the Olterra from the British perspective with Lionel Crabb as the main character. When Crabb was sent to Gibraltar, he was not a yet diver. His job was to disarm limpet mines that were removed from Allied ships by navy divers. Eventually, he learned to dive himself. After the two Italian divers Visintini and Magro died during an attempt to enter the British Naval Base with a manned torpedo, Crabb bought a wreath, acquired two Italian flags and buried the two men at sea in presence of a priest, gaining so the respect of the Italian crews still on the Olterra. At the end of the film, Crabb blows up the Olterra, something that in reality never happened.
An interesting detail of this movie is that Crabb is seen wearing a Rolex Submariner Ref. 6538 ‘Big Crown’, a watch which of course did not exist in the 1940s when the real events took place.
Towards the end of the movie, the Rolex Submariner is shown for a few seconds in a super close-up.
Full movie: The Silent Enemy (English, PBS.org)
The Valiant (1962)
Released on March 2, 1962 (British/Italian production)
‘The Valiant’ recounts the most successfull operation of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, the attack on the British Naval Base of Alexandria, Egypt. On the night of December 18, 1941, three manned torpedoes managed to enter the heavily protected port and disable two British battleships which altered the balance of power in the Mediterranean Sea for more than a year.
The two main characters Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi played by Italian actors Ettore Manni and Roberto Risso can be seen wearing Rolex-Panerai watches. The interesting thing about de la Penne’s watch is that it is an extremely rare, updated version of Ref. 3646 with straight lugs. This becomes evident in the following profile view.
The special middle case with lugs carved out of the same block of steel is quite distinct.
After placing the damaged manned torpedo underneath the HMS Valiant, both men are captured and interrogated. Since none is willing to talk, the captain orders them to be brought to the anchor chain locker.
In the following scene, the special middle case with straight lugs is perfectly visible.
A weakness of Ref. 3646, especially of the early models that remained in service after WW2, were the soldered wire lugs which in many cases were completely torn out as seen below.
To salvage some of these damaged watches, G. Panerai & Figlio produced a special middle case featuring lugs carved from the same block of steel as the case itself. The next picture belonging to the G. Panerai & Figlio archive from the 1950/60s shows this model in detail.
Inside the chain locker of the mighty battleship. Captain Morgan, played by John Mills, trying to pressure the two captured Italians in a last ditch effort to save his ship.
Full movie: L’affondamento della Valiant (Italian, Youtube)
That’s it. I hope you enjoyed this little excursion. Thank you for your interest.
The Panerai Time Machine
Ref. 3646 watches took part in important historical events and are crucial pieces of the Panerai puzzle. The timeline below represents the current state of research into vintage Rolex-Panerai watches. Click to zoom in.
This timeline is available as a high quality print in two sizes:
- 120 x 68 cm (47 x 26 inch): EUR 95.00 (plus shipping)
- 150 x 85 cm (59 x 33 inch): EUR 135.00 (plus shipping)
Printed with HD Inkjet on photo paper and laminated.
Limited edition: 50 pieces, numbered and signed by Maria Teresa Panerai in Giuseppe Panerai’s very own laboratory at the historical site of the Villino Panerai (Panerai Villa) in Florence: Sold out
To order shoot me a DM on Instagram: @perezcope