Operation Attack on the AN.14 Convoy

The 'Attack on the AN.14 Convoy' was a maritime engagement in Greek waters between a British naval force defending a convoy of merchant vessels on passage from Port Said and Alexandria to Piraeus and two Italian torpedo boats which intercepted them to the north of the island of Crete (31 January 1941).

The Italian vessels, Lupo and Libra, each launched two torpedoes. Those from Libra missed their target, but one of the weapons fired by Lupo struck the 8,120-ton British tanker Desmoulea, which had to be towed to Souda Bay on the northern coast of Crete and beached, where she remained disabled for the rest of the war. One other merchant vessel turned back, but the other eight vessels reached Piraeus.

When Italy launched its attack on Greece on 28 October 1940, the British began to send aircraft and stores through the Aegean Sea to support the Greek war effort. The Greek government provided the Allies with tugs, harbour vessels and a naval base for Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet at Souda Bay in Crete. Greece and the UK had concluded a co-operation agreement in January 1940, which secured commercial relations and made the Greek merchant fleet available for the transport of war supplies to the Allies.

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

The AN.14 convoy comprised seven British and three Greek merchant ships, escorted by the light cruiser Calcutta under Commander H. A. Packer, the destroyers Dainty and Jaguar, and the corvettes Peony and Gloxinia. Most of the convoy’s merchant vessels departed Port Said on 28 January with the corvette Gloxinia. Levernbank and the tanker Desmoulea, escorted by Calcutta and Peony, departed Alexandria on 29 January. The troop transport Ethiopia, carrying RAF personnel, left Alexandria some hours later with the destroyer Hasty. The light cruisers Ajax and Australian Perth were to provide distant cover, and Jaguar and Dainty swept the Kásos Strait ahead of the convoy.

On 31 January, the Italian torpedo boats departed Léros and, in the course of an anti-submarine search in the Kásos Strait, spotted an Allied convoy, escorted by one cruiser and three destroyers. The two Italian torpedo boats separated, Libra to distract the escort while Lupo attacked with 17.72-in (450-mm) torpedoes. The Italians reported that Lupo had hit a large steamer with two torpedoes, and Libra then launched another two torpedoes at the cruiser without effect. The Italians were engaged by the escorts but managed to steam away.

In the British account, only one torpedo hit the tanker Desmoulea, which was loaded with a cargo of petrol and white oils. Cunningham 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 tanker’s close escort, took the tanker in tow at 20.00, after she had been abandoned by her crew. Perth provided assistance, but Cunningham ordered Perth to resume her escort role. Desmoulea had been hit abreast the engine room and left sinking, but her crew re-boarded the tanker when it became clear that she was still 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 46 miles (74 km) from Crete, and the rest of the convoy reached Piraeus on 2 February.

Along with torpedo damage inflicted on the 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 made passage into the Aegean Sea through the more westerly Antikythera Strait to the west of Crete.

Desmoulea remained at Souda Bay for several weeks, resting on the harbour’s sandy bottom by the stern, with its after well deck awash, and her cargo was transferred to the tanker Eocene. Desmoulea was then towed by the armed boarding vessel Chakla and escorted to Port Said by the anti-submarine trawlers Lydiard and Amber. The tanker arrived on 6 May and was moored off the western beacon of Suez for use as a temporary storage vessel. While awaiting repairs, Desmoulea was torpedoed again, on 3 August 1941, by German bombers and then towed to Bombay in India, running aground twice during the passage. At Bombay, Desmoulea was converted into a stationary store ship and renamed Empire Thane. The ship remained in port at Cochin until 1947, when she was towed back to the UK. Desmoulea was rebuilt under her original name in 1949, was laid up in 1955 and scrapped in 1961.