Operation Action off Cape Bougaroun

The 'Action off Cape Bougaroun', otherwise known as the 'Attack on Convoy KMF.25A', was a German air attack on an Allied naval convoy off the coast of Algeria (6 November 1943).

The convoy of US, British, Greek and Dutch ships was attacked by 25 German land-based aircraft, and lost six of its number sunk or damaged in exchange for the German loss of six aircraft were destroyed.

The KMF.25A convoy comprised 26 transport vessels escorted by 15 warships, and was bound from Liverpool to Naples with about 28,000 US, British and Canadian soldiers together with war supplies and nurses. Most if not all of the vessels were armed with a modest number of medium- and small-calibre anti-ship and anti-aircraft guns manned, in the US and Dutch ships, by armed guards. The convoy was designated Task Group 60.2 and its commander was an officer of the US Navy, Captain Charles C. Hartman, in the US destroyer Mervine. Task Group 60.2 included the British light anti-aircraft cruiser Colombo, the US destroyers Mervine, Davison, Parker, Laub, Beatty, Tillman and McLanahan and three British small destroyers (Haydon, Croome and Tetcott. There were also four destroyer escorts in the form of the US Frederick C. Davis and Herbert C. Jones, and the Free Greek Kanaris and Themistokles.

On 27 October 1943, the convoy departed the UK for Algeria and ultimately Italy. After passing Gibraltar, the ships received air support from the Royal Air Force, but these aircraft squadrons could offer only sporadic support as there was a constant rotation which left the convoy bereft of air cover for several minutes at a time while the RAF sent new aircraft. It was during one of these periods that a force of nine Luftwaffe torpedo bombers and 16 level bombers intercepted the convoy.

The convoy sailed in parallel columns of seven to nine ships while on passage from Mers el Kébir in Algeria to Naples in Italy. Laub was alone some 6 miles (9.7 km) ahead of the rest of the convoy to provide a radar early warning capability. Mervine led the warships in a circular pattern round the three columns of merchant ships. Beatty and Tillman were astern in the rear and Mervine was 2,000 yards (1830 m) ahead. Just after sunset on 6 November, at about 17.45, the convoy was sailing in overcast weather, 50 miles (65 km) from Philippeville off Cape Bougaroun, when Laub detected six German aircraft attacking from the north. Laub's commander informed Hartman, who signalled the destroyers to make smoke and prepare for action. The thousands of soldiers and civilians were also ordered to go below deck and remain there until the threat had passed. A moment later, Tillman picked up an German aeroplane and opened fire at a range of 8,000 yards (7315 m), a range too great for accuracy, but the shots served as a warning to the other nearby escorts.

The German force included Heinkel He 111 bombers armed with F5b torpedoes, Dornier Do 217 bombers with Henschel Hs 293 radio-guided missiles and Junkers Ju 88 bombers with torpedoes. The bombers were flying in small groups, and attacked at a height of about 985 ft (300 m). First, the Americans sent out friend or foe signals to the approaching enemy, but when one of the aircraft was identified as German, Hartman was informed and he ordered the escorts to open fire. As the German aircraft came within range, both the escorts and the transports opened fire with a hail of machine gun, anti-aircraft and naval gun fire. Seconds later, the Germans began firing their missiles and launching torpedoes. The battle last under 30 minutes but in that time thousands of pounds of ordnance were expended. Beatty, under the command of Commander William Outerson, first observed machine gun fire at 18.03 and picked up five incoming aircraft followed by a bomb explosion at 18.04. At 18.05, the US destroyer opened fire on two more incoming Ju 88 torpedo bombers at a range of 16,000 yards (14630 m).

Most of the attacking aircraft seemed to be concentrating on Tillman, which avoided being hit thanks to the ship’s expert handling. The first aircraft sighted by Tillman was a Do 217, which dropped a glider bomb about 1,000 yards (915 m) off the beam while under heavy fire from the 5-in (127-mm) guns of the destroyer’s main battery. When the projectile was 600 yards (550 m) from the ship, machine gun fire from Tillman struck the bomb, which fell into a steep dive and crashed into the sea about 150 yards (140 m) off the port side. The bomber was then struck and blown up by Tillman's main guns while another bomb exploded 500 yards (460 m) off the starboard beam. Though Tillman escaped being hit, concussion damaged the destroyer’s fire-control radar and aft plates. At 18.13, one of the German bombers launched a torpedo at Beatty from a range of 500 yards (460 m), and 30 seconds the torpedo struck the destroyer’s hull outside the after engine room. The resulting explosion blew a relatively small hole in Beatty, which lost 11 men killed in action; another man died later of his wounds and a third sailor was blown overboard along with a K-gun and a depth charge, which did not explode. One officer and six men were wounded and Beatty slowly began to sink. Damage-control parties were immediately sent out to patch the hole in the hull and to extinguish fires, while others jettisoned topside weight, ammunition and even the tow cable among other things. The engine room had meanwhile flooded, which put all onboard electronics out of service. One of the magazines also filled with water, and this left Beatty with a 12° list to port. The destroyer remained afloat for more than four hours before her crew abandoned ship at 19.00, and with her keel damaged she then broke in two and sank at about 23.00. The wounded were transferred to Parker.

The 18,017-ton Monterey, a War Shipping Administration-allocated Matson Line ocean liner operated as a troopship, was in the convoy under the command of Captain Elis R. Johanson and armed with 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon. One torpedo bomber came in for an attack on Monterey, but her gunners downed the aeroplane before it had dropped its torpedo. The aeroplane began to lose altitude and, as it passed over the ship, it struck and ripped off some of Monterey's radio equipment. The 9,135-ton Santa Elena, a WSA-allocated Grace Line liner converted to a troopship, commanded by Captain William C. Renaut, was hit twice and sank hours later while under tow into Philippeville harbour. Santa Elena was carrying 1,848 Canadian troops and 101 nurses: four members of the crew were killed and the US armed guard freed several men who had been trapped below. Two Dutch armed transports were hit. The 19,355-ton Marnix van St Aldegonde, with 2,900 troops on board, was heavily damaged but suffered no deaths, and survived long enough to make it to shore, where she grounded and sank in Philippeville’s outer harbour as her commander was trying to beach her. Thousands of soldiers, merchant sailors and regular navy sailors became stranded in the water. The other damaged Dutch ship was the 14,155-ton steamer Ruysz, which lost one man killed but made it to port.

At around 18.30, a German bomber close to the 15,551-ton British Almanzora, was hit by concentrated fire form the armed transport, and hit the port side of the ship abreast no. hatch. Part of the wing landed on the bow, and the pilot’s log book and other cockpit items were later found and handed to military intelligence after the ship had made port.

Both of the transports which had been sunk were not damaged very severely, but sufficiently to cause the ships to sink. The Germans dropped dozens of missiles and torpedoes but most of these found no further targets. At least four hits were made on the Allied force, which in return destroyed six aircraft, and it is estimated that 10 Germans killed. The British and Free Greek forces sustained no damage or casualties. Colombo steamed ahead of the centre column of merchant ships and provided accurate anti-aircraft fire, shooting down at least one German aeroplane. The US Davison destroyed also destroyed one German aeroplane. By 18.20, all of the bombers were out of the convoy’s sight and returning to base. Some 17 US and Dutch personnel had been killed and at least nine others wounded. Hartman reported that the German aircraft had concentrated on the escorts so they could then attack the transport ships unopposed, but because the Allies returned fire accurately the Germans suffered heavy losses and ultimately only six of the convoy’s 41 vessels were damaged.

Operations to rescue drifting survivors began while bombs were still falling. US destroyers came alongside the damaged transports and helped evacuate their crews while British policy dictated that no survivors were to be rescued until after the fighting had ceased. This protocol proved deadly a few weeks later, however, when off Algeria the same German squadron attacked and sank the 8,802-ton British Rohna. Because the British escorts made no immediate attempt to rescue survivors, 1,016 US soldiers drowned along with 122 crewmen.

Beatty's crew was rescued at about 20.00 by Laub and Parker. Meanwhile four more US destroyers, together with tugs from Philippeville and Algiers, had been despatched to help. The US minesweeper Pioneer rescued men from Santa Elena. Other survivors were saved by Ruys and by Marnix van St Aldegonde before she grounded.

In all, 6,228 persons were rescued without further loss of life. During the 'Action off Cape Bougaroun', one unknown sailor on board Beatty dropped over the side a message in a bottle: 'Our ship is sinking. SOS didn’t do any good. Think it’s the end. Maybe this message will get to the U.S. some day.' In 1944 the bottle was found on the beaches of Maine in the north-eastern USA after floating thousands of miles across both the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic before reaching the USA.