Operation MSM

Action off Calabria (Battle of Punta Stilo)

This was the designation of a British convoy whose passage from Malta and Alexandria, only about one month after Italy’s entry into World War II, occasioned major British and Italian fleet movements leading to the Action off Calabria, which was known to the Italians as the Battle of Punta Stilo (10/14 July 1940).

More specifically, the convoy was MS.1M based on the use of 9-kt merchant vessels while the essentially concurrent MF.1 used 13-kt vessels (10/14 July 1940). The ships for MS.1M were the 1,361-ton British Kirkland, 6,578-ton British Masirah, 3,204-ton Norwegian Novasli, 2,697-ton British Tweed and 2,726-ton British Zealand, which were loaded with supplies which were abundant in Malta but in acutely short supply in Alexandria.

The escort for the MF.1 and MS.1M convoys was provided by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet in the form of the battleships Malaya, Ramillies, Royal Sovereign and Warspite, fleet carrier Eagle, light cruisers Caledon, Capetown, Gloucester, Liverpool, Neptune, Orion and Australian Sydney, and destroyers Dainty, Decoy, Defender, Diamond, Hasty, Havock, Hereward, Hero, Hostile, Hyperion, Ilex, Imperial, Janus, Jervis, Juno, Mohawk, Nubian, and Australian Stuart, Vampire, Voyager and Waterhen.

And again as with MF.1, the operation was known by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet as ‘MA5’.

Early in July the British authorities decided to evacuate more civilians from Malta to Egypt. The ships remaining at Malta consisted of the passenger/cargo liners El Nil (7,775 tons), Knight of Malta (1,553 tons) and Rodi (3,338 tons), and these were to constitute the faster MF.1 convoy. Another five slower cargo vessels, loaded with naval stores stockpiled at Malta and badly needed at Alexandria, would make up the slower MS.1M convoy.

Greater importance was attached to MF.1 as its ships would be carrying passengers, and essentially the whole of the Mediterranean Fleet was to be used to cover the two convoys in ‘MA5’. Cunningham departed Alexandria in Warspite during the evening of 7 July, and by 24.00 Malaya and Royal Sovereign, the carrier Eagle, Vice Admiral J. C. Tovey’s light cruisers Orion, Liverpool, Gloucester, Neptune and Sydney, and numerous destroyers had also sailed. The fleet’s cruiser strength constituted Tovey’s Force ‘A’ (7th Cruiser Squadron with Orion, Gloucester, Liverpool, Neptune and Australian Sydney, together with the Australian destroyer Stuart); Cunningham’s Force ‘B’ comprised Warspite with the destroyers Decoy, Hereward, Hero, Mohawk and Nubian; Force ‘C’ under Vice Admiral H. D. Pridham-Wippell comprised Malaya, Royal Sovereign and Eagle together with the destroyers Dainty, Defender, Hyperion, Hostile, Hasty, Ilex, Janus, Juno and the Australian Vampire and Voyager; and another group of four destroyers, which were to escort MS.1M and MF.1, constituted Force ‘D’. At Malta were three more destroyers, including Jervis, that were to join Force ‘D’.

Cunningham informed Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, whose Force ‘H’ had just returned to Gibraltar after ‘Catapult’, that he also intended using the sortie to carry out an air attack and possibly a bombardment of Augusta on the east coast of Sicily.

One day earlier, an Italian military convoy of five ships carrying 16,000 tons of stores, 300 armoured vehicles and 2,200 troops had departed Naples for Benghazi. It comprised the 11,398-ton passenger liner Esperia, and three freighters in the form of the 4,013-ton Calitea, 6,342-ton Marco Foscarini and 6,339-ton Vettor Pisani. Next day the 6,430-ton Francesco Barbero joined, arriving from Catania under escort of the torpedo boats Giuseppe Cesare Abba and Rosolino Pilo. These reinforced the convoy’s escort of four large torpedo boats, namely Orione, Orsa, Pegaso and Procione (4a Divisione Torpediniere) with cover provided by Ammiraglio di Divisione Ferdinando Casardi’s light cruisers Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni (2a Divisione Incrociatori) and destroyers Maestrale, Libeccio, Grecale and Scirocco (10th Divisione Cacciatorpediniere).

Informed that a British ‘cruiser force’ had arrived in Malta on 7 July, the Supermarina ordered a reinforcement in the form of Ammiraglio di Squadra Riccardo Paladini’s 2a Squadra (heavy cruiser Pola and destroyers Ascari, Carabiniere, Corazziere and Lanciere of the 12a Divisione Contratorpediniere) leading Ammiraglio di Divisione Pellegrino Matteuci’s 1a Divisione Incrociatori (heavy cruisers Fiume, Gorizia and Zara) with the 14a Divisione Cacciatorpediniere (Vittorio Alfieri, Giosué Carducci, Vincenzo Gioberti and Alfredo Oriani), Ammiraglio di Divisione Carlo Cattaneo’s 3a Divisione Incrociatori (heavy cruisers Bolzano and Trento) with the 11a Divisione Contratorpediniere (Artigliere, Aviere, Camicia Nera and Geniere), and Ammiraglio di Divisione Luigi Sansonetti’s 7a Divisione Incrociatori (light cruisers Eugenio di Savoia, Emanuele Filiberto Duca d’Aosta, Muzio Attendolo and Raimondo Montecuccoli) and the 8a Divisione Contratorpediniere (Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere and Granatiere).

Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni, the Italian fleet commander, sortied to provide cover for the entire operation with the 1a Squadra, which comprised Ammiraglio di Divisione Bruto Brivonesi’s 5a Divisione Navi di Battaglia (battleships Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare) accompanied by the 7a Divisione Contratorpediniere (destroyers Dardo, Freccia, Saetta and Strale), Ammiraglio di Divisione Antonio Legnani’s 8a Divisione Incrociatori (light cruisers Giuseppe Garibaldi and Luigi di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi) and the destroyers Baleno, Folgore, Fulmine and Lampo, Ammiraglio di Divisione Alberto Marenco di Moriondo’s 4a Divisione Incrociatori (light cruisers Alberigo da Barbiano, Alberto di Giussano, Luigi Cadorna and Armando Diaz) and the 14a Divisione Cacciatorpediniere (Ugolino Vivaldi, Antonio da Noli and Leone Pancaldo), 15a Divisione Cacciatorpediniere (Antonio Pigafetta and Nicolo Zeno) and 16a Divisione Cacciatorpediniere (Nicoloso da Recco, Emanuele Pessagno and Antoniotto Usodimare).

Italian submarines were also ordered to patrol in the areas to the east of Gibraltar (Barbarigo, Dandolo, Emo and Guglielmo Marconi), to the north-west of Sardinia (Argo, Diaspro, Iride and Scirè), to the south of Sardinia (Ascianghi, Axum, Glauco, Luciano Manara, Ciro Menotti and Turchese), in the Sicilian Channel (Santorre Santarosa), off Malta (Pier Capponi and Durbo), in the Ionian Sea (Brin, Antonio Sciesa, Luigi Settembrini and Ruggiero Settimo) and between Derna and Gavdos island (Beilul, Lafole, Smeraldo and Tricheco).

On 8 July the Italian fleet assembled in the Ionian Sea to attack the Mediterranean Fleet after the latter, it was hoped, had been weakened by Italian air attacks.

The Italian entrusted to task of preventing any intervention by Force ‘H’ to their submarine arm and air force. Even so, the Supermarina ordered a concentration of submarines near the Italian coast to prevent its primary naval bases from being blockaded and therefore denied to the returning fleet, which was indeed one of Cunningham’s objectives.

The Italian submarine Beilul, patrolling to the north of Derna, spotted and reported the Mediterranean Fleet as it headed west during the night of 7/8 July, and at 08.00 in the morning of the next day the British submarine Phoenix, paroling about 200 miles (320 km) to the east of Malta, spotted and reported the presence of two Italian ‘battleships’ and four destroyers steering south, which Cunningham correctly interpreted as the warship cover for a convoy to Libya.

Instructing Vice Admiral W. T. R. Ford (from 11 July Sir Wibraham Ford) on Malta to despatch a Short Sunderland flying boat to locate and shadow the Italian ships, Cunningham continued on a north-westerly course at 20 kt. At much the same time Somerville left Gibraltar, somewhat against his will given the current state of Force ‘H’, in response to Cunningham’s instructions to operate simultaneously in support of the Mediterranean Fleet, with the battle-cruiser Hood, battleships Valiant and Resolution, fleet carrier Ark Royal, light cruisers Arethusa, Delhi and Enterprise, and destroyers Douglas, Escort, Faulknor, Fearless, Forester, Foresight, Foxhound, Keppel, Vortigern, Watchman and Wishart.

Although he possessed a measure of tactical discretion as to the manner in which he was to effect the required diversion, Somerville had received an Admiralty suggestion that Ark Royal’s torpedo bombers should be employed in an attack on Italian warships at Taranto or Augusta. Knowing that Cunningham planned to carry out a raid on the latter and having his own misgivings about attacking the former in an area where a strong Italian air effort would surely be mounted against his ships, Somerville opted more cautiously for an attack on Cagliari, on the south coast of Sardinia.

Italian air reconnaissance soon located Force ‘H’, and for three hours during the afternoon of 8 July the ships of Force ‘H’ were attacked by Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 level bombers. The Mediterranean Fleet also came in for similar treatment as the British ships steamed toward the ‘toe’ of Italy in their effort to locate and tackle the Italian fleet. Somerville’s ships escaped any direct hits, but Somerville was concerned about the damage which could be caused by the concussion of near-misses from aircraft flying at between 3000 and 4000 m (9,845 and 13,125 ft), and therefore decided at 22.15 that Force ‘H’ should withdraw at its highest speed of 20 kt.

But Force ‘H’ was not yet safe for, in anticipation of an attack from the west, the Supermarina had deployed several submarines in the western Mediterranean as noted above, and early on 11 July Guglielmo Marconi, lying on the surface, torpedoed the destroyer Escort, and then escaped Forester’s counterattack with a crash-dive. Attempts to tow Escort into Gibraltar failed, and the destroyer sank at 11.15 on 11 July, by which time Force ‘H’ was back at Gibraltar.

Meanwhile, far off to the east, matters had developed along a different line. Although the five merchant vessels of the Italian convoy reached Benghazi unmolested, in the next few hours Campioni’s fleet was spread out in some disorder. SM.79 bombers from bases in the Dodecanese islands group had hit Gloucester, and a bomb exploding on her compass platform instantly killed 18 men including the captain and first lieutenant.

As the Mediterranean Fleet steamed north-west toward the Strait of Messina, Campioni attempted to concentrate his fleet. At 15.15 a Malta-based Sunderland flying boat reported ‘three battleships, six cruisers and seven destroyers’ about 100 miles (160 km) to the north-west of Benghazi. They were heading north, having completed their mission. Cunningham continued to steer north and west with the intention of cutting the Italian line of retirement to Taranto.

At dawn on 9 July, Eagle launched three Fairey Fulmar aircraft for a reconnaissance, and during the following hours these and Malta-based flying boats informed Cunningham that two battleships, 12 cruisers and many destroyers were about 50 miles (80 km) to the south of Cape Spartivento on the ‘toe’ of Calabria, some 90 miles (145 km) to the west of the Mediterranean Fleet.

At the same time Campioni learned of the location of the British by an Italian aeroplane. It was now about 12.00 and Cunningham steered to intercept the Italian fleet, hampered by the slow speed of the ageing Royal Sovereign and the limited capability of the damaged Gloucester, which could be steered from her wheelhouse, but had been forced to have her gun-control reduced to the auxiliary position aft. Despite the fact that he did not know the exact strength of the Italian force and was apprehensive about the power of his cruisers’ 6-in (152-mm) guns against the more numerous Italian cruisers, several of them with 8-in (203-mm) guns, Cunningham was still determined to bring the Italians to battle.

In order to achieve this, Cunningham appreciated that he had to slow the Italian fleet, and therefore ordered to launch her Swordfish bombers. These were frustrated by the thin cloud, which caused the spotting aircraft to lose sight of the Italians at a critical moment, but Tovey’s cruisers were now drawing some 10 miles (16 km) or more ahead of the heavier warships. The sea-level visibility was in the order of 20 miles (32 km), and a few minutes before 15.00 Orion and Neptune reported Italian destroyers and cruisers.

Gloucester was ordered to fall back to join Eagle and her screen. Then, at 15.08, Neptune saw and reported the Italian battleships. At 15.14 the first Italian 8-in (203-mm) shells plunged into the water among the ships of the 7th Cruiser Squadron, and then subjected the British cruisers to heavy fire as the latter attempted to get in range and reply. The Italian heavy cruisers were now, at 26,400 yards (24140 m), just within range of Warspite, which opened fire with her 15-in (381-mm) guns.

Italian decrypts of British signals traffic had betrayed Cunningham’s intentions, and Campioni had been ordered to avoid battle until 12.00, by which time the British would have been lured well within range of Italian air force units from Calabrian bases.

Four divisions of the Italian fleet had concentrated in four columns, heading north-north-east. The two nearest the Mediterranean Fleet, approaching from the east, comprised heavy cruisers, the third comprised light cruisers and the battleships Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare, and the fourth comprised cruisers: each column was screened by destroyers. Warspite’s shells induced the cruisers of the two columns nearest the British ships to turn sharply away onto a north-westerly heading, afterwards turning south-west. The two farthest columns also swung to port, though less far, maintaining a course west of north for some time. The battleships stood on as the cruisers retired behind them, and the Italian destroyers swung toward the British and started to make smoke.

Meanwhile Eagle’s Swordfish aircraft took off once more and flew a steady stream of sorties in this first instance of carrierborne aircraft operating with a fleet in battle. The aircraft scored no torpedo hits, but Warspite’s Supermarine Walrus flying boat was catapulted from the battleship to maintain contact with the Italian battleships and indeed to fly over the Italian battleships and act as artillery spotter.

Seeing the Italian retrograde movement and fearing that the turning cruisers would head back to the east at high speed and attack Eagle, Cunningham checked Warspite’s fire at 15.30, and circled once at 24.5 kt to allow Malaya, which had been accompanying Royal Sovereign, to come up and support Warspite. Then, with Malaya on Warspite’s port quarter and Royal Sovereign directly astern of Warspite, all three battleships headed north-west.

At 15.53 Warspite resumed fire at a range in the order of 26,000 yards (23775 m), receiving fire from Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare. The Italian battleships shot well and straddled Warspite. Meanwhile Tovey’s cruisers had turned under Warspite’s stern, giving her a clear field of fire, and the 7th Cruiser Squadron, with the destroyers from Tovey’s and Cunningham’s screens, now moved forward to counterattack. Even as the destroyers and cruisers engaged the Italian light forces as they laid smoke, the decisive moment of this Action off Calabria (known to the Italians as the Battle of Punta Stilo) arrived as Warspite hit Giulio Cesare, the Italian fleet flagship. The two Italian battleships immediately turned away, and at 16.04 Warspite ceased fire.

Tovey’s cruisers continued in action, and the destroyers endured fire from the Italian cruisers while manoeuvring against their Italian counterparts. Campioni ordered five destroyer flotillas to cover the withdrawal of the damaged Giulio Cesare, and the destroyers launched torpedoes and then quickly retired behind the growing smokescreen. The Walrus reported a degree of confusion in the Italian fleet, which had by now entirely swung away to the south-west to enter the Strait of Messina.

Cunningham was not prepared to take his ships into the smokescreen, and ordered them to work to the north of it. But though some of the destroyers had cleared the Italian smoke by 17.00, such was the speed superiority of the Italian ships, including the damaged Giulio Cesare and Bolzano, which had been hit by Tovey’s cruisers, that the Italians were out of sight.

Cunningham was now concerned about the possibility of an Italian submarine trap as his fleet closed to within 25 miles (40 km) of the Calabrian coast, and soon broke off the chase as Italian aircraft started to appear overhead, some four hours later than Campioni had been informed to expect them.

As he recalled the Walrus, Cunningham learned that the Italian bombers were attacking their own fleet in the mistaken belief that it was the British fleet. Cunningham was allowed little time to enjoy this intelligence, for from 16.40 onward his own ships were again heavily bombed. While the bombers scored no direct hits, the accuracy of their attacks was enough to occasion some concern, and near-misses shook Warspite as she swung south. About 100 bombers made nine attacks, concentrating on Warspite and Eagle, but also targeting other ships.

The air attacks ended after the fall of night at 19.25 as the British fleet steamed south, altering course at 21.15 for Malta, where during the following morning Cunningham sent Royal Sovereign and the destroyers to refuel. Meanwhile, on Malta, Ford had decided to ignore his orders not to sail the merchant ships of the two convoys.

As soon as he knew the outcome of the Action off Calabria, Ford ordered the MF.1 fast convoy to sail at 21.00 on 9 July. The escort was composed of the two ‘Malta group’ destroyers from Alexandria, as well as the new Jervis which had been at Malta since 2 July. With the Mediterranean Fleet Cunningham cruised to the south of Malta until 08.00 on 11 July, when the refuelled Royal Sovereign and the destroyers rejoined. He then ordered Pridham-Wippell in Royal Sovereign, with Malaya, Eagle, Gloucester and their destroyers, to cover the MS.1M slow convoy.

Cunningham was scheduled to attend a conference in Cairo, so Warspite and her four screening destroyers headed for Alexandria at 19 kt, shaping a southerly route to avoid attack by aircraft from the Dodecanese island bases. However, by hugging the North African coast he attracted the attention of bombers from Libyan airfields, which attacked on 11 July but failed to achieve any hit.

On 12 July Tovey’s force was divided: Orion and Neptune pushed on ahead to join and cover the MF.1 convoy, and Liverpool and Sydney joined Warspite. There were more bombing attacks, and splinter damage from near-misses caused casualties aboard Liverpool.

Cunningham’s ships overtook the MF.1 fast convoy and steamed into Alexandria at 06.00 on 13 July, just three hours before the arrival of the MF.1 convoy. This had departed Malta late in the evening of 9 July under the escort of the destroyers Diamond, Jervis and Australian Vendetta.

Despite the fact that this was supposed to be a 13-kt fast convoy, Knight of Malta was capable of only 10.5 kt or, when zigzagging, 9.5 kt. The three merchantmen steamed in line abreast with the destroyers deployed to port, starboard and astern, zigzagging independently at 15 kt. The escort was supplemented at 05.00 on 11 July by Havock, Imperial and Australian Stuart from Tovey’s force, and the convoy reached Alexandria without any real Italian interference.

While waiting for the departure of the MS.1M slow convoy his ships were to escort, Pridham-Wippell remained active. On 10 July Eagle launched a force of Swordfish torpedo bombers to attack Augusta roads, and one of the torpedoes sank the destroyer Leone Pancaldo, which was later salvaged.

After the MS.1M convoy had sailed, it was located by Italian air reconnaissance, resulting in attacks on the merchant ships and warships, of which the latter came in for the heavier attention. Although she carried no fighters as official elements of her air strength, Eagle had embarked three spare Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter at Alexandria and, as they could not be struck blow, these were parked on the flight deck. Eagle’s two embarked air units, the FAA’s Nos 813 and 824 Squadrons, had no fighter pilots, but three pilots volunteered to fly the Gladiator aircraft and managed to shoot down three Italian aircraft.

The MS.1M convoy reached Alexandria on 15 July.