Operation AN.14

This was a British convoy operation whose designation is usually used for the action against a small Italian force in which it was involved on passage through the Aegean Sea (31 January 1941).

As relations between Italy and Greece deteriorated, the British began to send supplies of aircraft and matériel across the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt in an effort to support the Greek war effort, and the Greeks provided the British with tugs, harbour vessels and permission to establish a naval base at Souda Bay in northern Crete. Greece and the UK signed a co-operation agreement in January 1940, this securing commercial relations and making the Greek merchant marine available for the transport of war supplies to the British, before the Italians launched their 'Emergenza G' invasion of Italy in October 1940.

The AN.14 convoy from Port Said to Piraeus comprised seven British and three Greek merchant ships escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta under the command of Commander H. A. Packer, the destroyers Dainty and Jaguar, and the corvettes Gloxinia and Peony. The main part of the convoy departed Port Said on 28 January with Gloxinia. The 5,150-ton British cargo vessel Levernbank and 8,120-ton British tanker Desmoulea, escorted by Calcutta and Peony, departed Alexandria on the following day, and the 5,574-ton British troop transport Ethiopia, carrying RAF personnel, departed Alexandria some hours later with destroyer Hasty. The light cruiser Ajax and the Australian Perth provided more distant cover, and Dainty and Jaguar swept the Kaso Strait ahead of the convoy.

The Italian naval forces based in in the Dodecanese islands group had possessed only limited capacity to supply the islands' Italian garrisons since the beginning of the war with the UK in June 1940. Most of the supplies were delivered by submarine and aircraft, but this was an expedient insufficient for the island garrisons' requirements, so the Italians began to use coastal ships for the task. The ships ferried 4,500 tons of supplies to the Dodecanese islands group after the closing of the Corinth Channel to Italian vessels at the start of 'Emergenza G'. A flotilla of torpedo boats was deployed into the area by the Italian navy during December 1940, under the command of Capitano do Vascello Francesco Mimbelli, to reinforce the ships around Rhodes and Léros, whose naval base at Porto Lago was the main Italian naval base in the Aegean Sea.

On 31 January 1941, the Italian torpedo boats departed Léros on an anti-submarine search in the Kaso Strait, and here sighted the British convoy escorted by one cruiser and three destroyers. The two Italian vessels separated, the Italian plan being for Libra to distract the escort and thereby facilitate Lupo's attack on the convoy with her 17.7-in (450-mm) torpedoes. The Italians reported that Lupo hit a large steamer with two torpedoes, and Libra launched another two torpedoes at the cruiser without effect. The Italians were engaged by the escorts but managed to make their escape.

In the British account, however, only one torpedo hit the tanker Desmoulea, which was carrying petrol and white oils. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, later recorded that the tanker had been detached to Souda Bay from the Alexandria section of the convoy and was torpedoed at 18.00 on 31 January. Dainty of the close escort took the tankers in tow at 20.00 after she had been abandoned by her crew. Perth steamed to assist, but was ordered by Cunningham to resume her essential escort role. Desmoulea had been hit abreast the engine room and left in what was believed to be sinking condition, but her crew reboarded the tanker when it became clear that she would remain afloat. Desmoulea reached Souda Bay under tow at 08.00 on 1 February and was beached with her cargo intact.Peony survived an attack by bombers some 45 miles (75 km) from Crete, and the rest of the convoy reached Piraeus on 2 February.

Desmoulea remained at Souda Bay for several weeks with her after well deck awash, and her cargo was transferred to the tanker Eocene. Together with the torpedo attack on the cargo ship Clan Cumming by the Italian submarine Neghelli on 19 January, this was the only Italian naval success against British convoys in the Aegean Sea.Desmoulea was finally taken in tow by the armed boarding vessel Chakla, and was escorted to Port Said by the anti-submarine trawlers Amber and Lydiard, arriving on 6 May and mooring off Suez’s western beacon. The tanker was torpedoed again on 3 August 1941, while waiting for repair, by German bombers, was towed to Bombay in India, and during this protracted passage ran aground two more times.

After this AN.14 action, British convoys entered and exited the Aegean Sea by means of the Antikithera Strait rather than Kaso Strait.