Operation H (ii)

This was an Italian convoy operation from Palermo in Sicily to Bizerte in North Africa (1/4 December 1942).

Of the four Italian convoys currently at sea (totalling 13 transports escorted by seven destroyers and 12 torpedo boats) as the Axis forces were seeking to establish and consolidate their 'Braun' (ii) lodgement in north-eastern Tunisia following the Allied 'Torch' landings in French North-West Africa and subsequent advance to the east, three were recalled after being located by British air reconnaissance, leaving only the ‘H’ (ii) convoy to proceed as planned.

The convoy comprised three Italian freighters, in the form of the 3,861-ton Aventino, 2,422-ton Puccini and 976-ton Aspromonte, as well as the German 850-ton military transport KT-1, and these were carrying 1,766 troops, 698 tons of cargo (mainly ammunition), four tanks, 32 other vehicles and 12 pieces of artillery. The importance of the convoy is attested by the fact that it had a strong escort in the form of the destroyers Nicoloso da Recco, Camicia Nera and Folgore as well as the torpedo boats Procione and Clio under the command of Capitano Aldo Cocchia.

On 21 December the British submarine Seraph torpedoed and damaged Puccini, and shortly after this Rear Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt’s Force ‘Q’ appeared on the scene with the light cruisers Aurora, Sirius and Argonaut and destroyers Quentin and Australian Quiberon near the Skerki Bank.

The British ships attacked and destroyed, one after the other, all four of the transports. The escort was also hit. Folgore was fatally damaged by nine 5.25-in (133.4-mm) shells from the cruisers and later sank with 120 dead, and Nicoloso da Recco was badly damaged when there was an explosion in her forward 120-mm (4.72-in) ammunition handling room and half her crew became casualties (118 dead), and was out of commission until June 1943. Camicia Nera launched all six of her torpedoes, but missed her targets, of which the most threatening was Sirius. This savage short-range engagement at dawn was a clear British victory, while the Axis lost no fewer than 2,000 men, but probably 2,037 or even 2,200 men, as well as five ships. Puccini was still afloat, but sank later.

This battle was over, and was otherwise notable for the fact that Sirius emerged totally unscathed despite the fact that Camicia Nera engaged her a ranges as short as 2,190 yards (2000 m), evaded several torpedoes and was strongly involved in the sinking of several of the Axis ships.

As the British ships broke away from the destroyed Italian convoy, they came under level and torpedo bombing attack off Galita by Savoia-Marchetti bombers, which scored no hits but lost four of their own number when they came under attack from Supermarine Spitfire fighters, of which one was lost. German Junkers Ju 88 bombers also intervened, and Quentin was sunk by a 1,102-lb (500-kg) bomb or perhaps a torpedo from one of these machines.

The Italian human losses were 124 in Folgore, 118 in Nicoloso da Recco, 39 in Aspromonte, three in Procione, about 200 in the transport ships, and 1,527 troops in Aventino and Puccini.

The Italian submarines Asteria, Dandolo, Giada and Nichelio were on patrol in the area, but made no contact.