Red Sea mission, Panorama boarded the ship Caio Duilio

«Red alert of air threat. Missile launch” says a clear and firm voice from the Caio Duilio ship's loudspeaker off the coast of Yemen. The sailors react automatically, without panic, taking out of the “anti flash kit”, a dark bag that everyone on board must carry with them, the balaclava to cover themselves from head to neck and gloves up to the elbow. Protections made of fireproof material to protect against the flames of a subsequent fire, in the event of a bomb hitting the ship. The pro-Iranian Houti militiamen launched a missile from the port stronghold of Hodeidah, towards the Red Sea, where they threaten merchant traffic along the “jugular” leading to the Suez Canal.

The multi-role destroyer with 230 men and women crew set sail on 27 January from La Spezia and has been at sea for a fortnight straight to escort commercial ships. Since March 2, the Navy unit has shot down three drones launched by the Houthis, the first offshore combat action, in self-defense, since the Second World War. On board, Rear Admiral Stefano Costantino is the tactical and operational commander of the European Aspides (shield) mission, which defends freedom of navigation, with three other units, the German Hessen, the French Alsace and the Greek Hydra. From November 19 to mid-March there were around 120 attacks from Yemen on military and merchant ships, in retaliation for the war in Gaza. The Houthis seized two ships and hit 23 units, forcing some to drift. The only one sunk, for now, is the English Rubymar. The bow emerges from the sea as a dramatic warning. The Houthi war against Israel, extended to the United States and England bombing missile and drone sites in northern Yemen, has halved traffic through Suez from 75 ships on average every week to 38 today.

«Green to the bridge» is the request for the pilot of the SH-90 helicopter to give the go-ahead for take-off from Djibouti airport, on the Duilio ship. For security reasons Panorama it does not report the surnames of the sailors, apart from the commanders, at the request of the Defense. The helicopter pilot, with four thousand hours of flying under his belt, is called Dario, like the legendary Persian leader. His father had come to study in Italy from Iran at the time of Shah Reza Palavi and put down roots. “I never tell him where I'm going on a mission, so he doesn't worry, as I did in Afghanistan where the Taliban shot at us,” he says. Below us looms the silhouette of Duilio, which takes its name from the Roman consul who defeated the Carthage fleet. A gray stronghold on the sea armed with “Davide” cannons, “Teseo and Aster” missiles, torpedoes and powerful radars that detect long-range threats.

“Target, detection, identified” they reply from the bridge after the report of a small boat six miles away from the Duilio sailing in the “red zone” at high risk of attacks off Yemen. Usually they are skiffsmall boats, or i dhow, Yemeni fishing boats, which often cross paths. «In addition to fishing activity, they could report information to those who want to harm merchant traffic in the area, in this case the Houthis» explains Andrea Quondamatteo, commander of the Duilio. All it takes is a satellite phone hidden among the networks to signal the passage of convoys and military ships.

Giorgia is the officer on watch on the bridge. A girl from '99 who comes from Veneto and since she was a teenager she loved the sea and dolphins. At 15 he entered the «Morosini», the Naval School of the Navy and on 12 March he experienced his baptism of fire. «When the last drone arrived I was about to get off the night shift watch on the bridge» he recalls. «From the combat operations center comes the report of “unknown target approaching the unit. Investigate, investigate, investigate.” And the alarm goes off.” On the bridge there are always marine infantrymen from the San Marco brigade, who monitor the horizon with special binoculars. Captain Quondamatteo, with the physique du rôle of an officer, showed strong nerves waiting for the Houti drones to arrive at the right shooting distance. The unmanned aircraft on March 12 was spotted a few kilometers away and at low altitude by one of the destroyer's three Oto Melara guns and, at that point, shot down. The order to fire lies with the commander, technology helps, but the human factor always makes the difference. Under the gray rotating turret of the gun is the loading compartment with dozens of 76 millimeter artillery shells, one meter high. The world of Davide, a true Calabrian: «This is the control panel. Once the system is activated I communicate: “Cannon ready to fire”».

On the glass of the bridge an artist sailor has drawn a missile Houti with the face of a shark fluttering on the edges of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In the engine control room there is «Vecienz', heart of the emergency», a red horn for good luck under the helmet of a firefighter. At 2 in the morning, Zulu time, with a dark and rough sea, the rendezvous is set for the escort of a convoy of three merchant ships coming from the north after crossing the Suez Canal. «We have already guaranteed close protection to 23 ships» confirms commander Quondamatteo. At eight in the morning he returns the long greeting whistle of the first ship in the convoy, a squat Italian cargo ship, white and yellow with the writing “Grimaldi lines” on the side. Two lions of the 2nd San Marco regiment, in combat gear, observe the convoy in a sort of position created with sandbags where a Browning machine gun is placed. «We increase the Duilio's self-defense and we are ready to counter asymmetric threats such as fast boats that could aim at us» explains Ernesto, an Afghanistan veteran. A radio message interrupts him, signaling yet another skiffbut it seems harmless.

«In addition to drones, there is the threat of cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 100 to 1,000 kilometers. The European mission is to safeguard freedom of navigation, which has no flag” underlines Rear Admiral Costantino. Romano, 52 years old, with a short moustache, had a grandfather from San Marco who was injured in Libya during the Second World War. The Houthis are not joking and have threatened to expand operations on the alternative route around Africa used by many companies.

The Italian destroyer keeps the Aster 15 and 30 missiles inside to stop those of the Houthis. One million and 600 thousand euros each, which can be launched from the four rows of white metal hatches in the bow. The beating “heart” of the ship is the Combat Operations Center, illuminated by the red tactical light. The specialists are surrounded by computers with models of Houti drones and electronic maps indicating the positions of the ships on the board. Below deck is a maze of corridors and steep stairways from one deck to the next. «A mini floating city» explains a sailor eating lunch in the mess. Fresh bread is baked every day with the help of Chiara, the youngest of the crew, 19 years old. Annalaura is only three older and is on her first mission. Giorgia, the same age as her, when asked if she fears the Houti drones admits “that the fear is there, but it must be controlled and we are trained for this”.

In the cabins with two or four berths there are photos of home and dolls given as gifts by boyfriends. To unwind you can play table football or train in the mini gym. A sailor explains that «when the threat continues we can call home. It is essential to say to our loved ones “bye, everything is fine”. It means a lot for us and for them who give us the strength to stay in these parts.” The convoy of three ships passes the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, a bottleneck of just 18 miles, preferred by the Houthis for ambushes, which divides the Arabian peninsula from Africa. The mountains in the north, from where drones and missiles are launched, can be seen with the naked eye. The helicopter takes off to approach the Italian ship escorted by the destroyer. A team from the San Marco and three divers from the Underwater Operations Group lowered themselves in mid-air onto the bridge, simulating a boarding to defuse an unexploded bomb launched by the Houthis. The crew numbers 19 Filipinos and seven Italians, who celebrate the soldiers. The captain, Alberto Scandurra, 43 years old, from Procida, has a lucky croissant around his neck given to him by his wife. The ship heads towards Shanghai and he says with emotion: «The Duilio is accompanying us like a mother protects her children. We are finally about to leave the red zone unscathed. Freedom of navigation is an international right that must be defended without retreating.”