Operation AN (i)

'AN' (i) was the designation of Allied 'Aegean Northbound' convoys (together with a numerical suffix) plying the route from Alexandria or Port Said, Egypt, to Piraeus or Souda Bay, Greece, with military equipment and troops, and as such reciprocals of the 'AS' series (September 1940/May 1941).

The series was a response to an Anglo-Greek agreement for British support of the Greek war effort against the Italian 'Emergenza G' invasion and the later threat of the German 'Marita' attack on Greece. An early example was AN.3 of 11/15 September 1940 from Port Said to Piraeus with the 4,267-ton British Eastlea that was unable to maintain the required speed and was therefore detached, 2,797-ton British Palermo and 2,878-ton British Vasco, and the last was AN.30 of 6/9 May 1941 from Port Said to Souda Bay with the 5,643-ton British Cape Horn, 8,331-ton British City of Canterbury, 5,627-ton British Lossiebank and 4,998-ton British Rawnsley.

The AN.14 convoy was one of the most interesting of the series, for its passage involved a naval engagement between a British naval force defending the convoy, whose merchant ships had departed Port Said and Alexandria for Piraeus, and two Italian torpedo boats which intercepted them to the north of Crete on 31 January 1941.

When hostilities between Italy and Greece began on 28 October 1940, the British started to send supplies of aircraft and stores through the Aegean Sea in an undertaking to support the Greek war effort, and the Greeks provided the UK with tugs, harbour vessels and a naval base at Souda on the north coast of Crete. This was the result of the Greek and British agreement in January 1940, which secured commercial relations and made the Greek merchant fleet available for the transport of war supplies to the Allies even before the start of the Greco-Italian war.

The AN.14 convoy comprised seven British and three Greek merchant vessels, which were escorted by the light cruiser Calcutta, under the command of Commander H. A. Packer, the destroyers Dainty and Jaguar, and the corvettes Peony and Gloxinia. The main part of the convoy sailed from Port Said on 28 January, with the corvette Gloxinia. Levernbank and the large tanker Desmoulea, escorted by Calcutta and Peony, departed Alexandria on the following day. The troop transport Ethiopia, carrying RAF personnel, left Alexandria some hours later with the destroyer Hasty. The light cruisers Ajax and Australian Perth provided distant cover, and Jaguar and Dainty swept the Kásos strait, to the east of Crete, ahead of the convoy.

Since Italy’s declaration of war on the UK in June 1940, Italian naval forces in the Italian-occupied Dodecanese islands group had possessed only a limited capacity to supply island garrisons. Most stores were carried by submarine and aircraft, but this expedient was insufficient and the Italians began to use coastal shipping. The ships ferried 4,500 tons of supplies to the Dodecanese islands group, even after the closing of the Corinth Canal at the beginning of the Greco-Italian war. A flotilla of torpedo boats was deployed in the area in December 1940, under the command of Capitano di Fregata Francesco Mimbelli, to reinforce the ships around Rhodes and Léros, whose naval base of Porto Lago (Lakki in Greek) was the primary Italian naval base in the Aegean.

On 31 January, the Italian torpedo boats departed Léros and, while undertaking an anti-submarine search in the Kásos Strait, sighted the AN.14 convoy and its escort of one light cruiser and three destroyers. The two Italian warships separated for Libra to distract the escort while Lupo attacked with its 450-mm (18-in) torpedoes. The Italians reported that Lupo hit a large steamer with two torpedoes, and Libra then launched another two such weapons at the cruiser without success. The Italians were engaged by the escorts but managed to get away.

In the British account, only one torpedo hit the 8,120-ton British tanker Desmoulea, which was loaded with petrol and white oils. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, 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, the close escort, took the tanker in tow two hours later after the vessel had been abandoned by the crew. Perth moved to assist but Cunningham instructed Perth to continue with her escort role. Desmoulea had been hit abreast the engine room and left sinking, but the crew then reboarded the tanker when it became clear that she was still afloat. Desmoulea reached Souda Bay under tow at 08.00 on 1 February and beached with her cargo intact. Peony survived an attack by bombers 45 miles (72.5 km) off Crete, and the rest of the convoy reached Piraeus on 2 February.

Desmoulea remained at Souda Bay for several weeks, her stern resting on the sandy bottom and with her after well deck awash. Her cargo was transferred to the 4,216-ton British tanker Eocene. Along with the torpedo damage inflicted on the 7,264-ton British cargo ship Clan Cumming on 19 January by the Italian submarine Neghelli, which was eventually destroyed by the escorts, this was the only Italian success against British convoys in the Aegean Sea. After the action, Allied shipping steamed into the Aegean through the more westerly Antikythera Strait. Desmoulea was finally taken in tow by the armed boarding vessel Chakla and escorted to Port Said by the anti-submarine trawlers Lydiard and Amber. After arriving on 6 May, the ship was moored off the western beacon of Suez and used as a temporary storage vessel. She was torpedoed again on 3 August 1941 while awaiting repairs by German bombers. The tanker was towed to Bombay on the west coast of India, and ran aground twice during the passage. At Bombay, Desmoulea was converted into a stationary store ship, named Empire Thane, and remained in port at Cochin until 1947, whence she was towed back to the UK. She was rebuilt under hers original name in 1949, before being laid up in 1955 and scrapped in 1961.