Operation Battle of the Cigno Convoy

The 'Battle of the Cigno Convoy' was a naval engagement between two British destroyers and two Italian torpedo boats in the area to the south-east of Marettimo island to the west of Sicily (16 April 1943).

The Italian warships were escorting the 4,200-ton transport ship Belluno (ex-French Fort de France) to Tunisia; the torpedo boat Tifone was also carrying aviation fuel. The British force was fought off by the Italian ships for the loss of one of the two torpedo boats, while a British destroyer, disabled by Italian gunfire, had to be scuttled after the action when it was clear that she could not make port before dawn and the arrival of Axis warplanes.

After 'Torch', the Allied invasion of French North-West Africa on 8 November 1942, the Allies began a campaign to achieve naval and air supremacy around North Africa and Sicily to interdict the Axis supply route from Italy. In February 1943, the Allied air and sea campaign inflicted a one-fifth loss on Axis merchant shipping. In March the rate of loss reached 50% and by April, Axis merchant ship sinkings averaged of 3.3 per day. The supply route for the Regia Marina from Italian ports to Tunisia was shorter than the previous route to Tripoli in Libya, but Allied air supremacy and the attrition of Axis merchant shipping since 1940 made it almost impossible to assemble large convoys, despite the superior port facilities in Tunisia.

A chronic lack of fuel also limited the sailings of Italian escort vessels and led the Regia Marina and its Kriegsmarine German allies to make use of smaller ships and barges, escorted by fast destroyers and torpedo boats. The smaller craft were harder to find when sailing dispersed and could be unloaded more quickly. As a result of the loss of many faster cargo ships earlier in the war, convoys were capable of only 8 to 10 kt. A huge extension of minefields planted by both sides had limited the scope for Allied surface ships based at Bne in Algeria to attack Axis shipping to a far greater extent than during the Libyan campaign, and Malta-based warships also had little success. Allied aircraft had by this time become a greater threat than warships to Axis sea traffic.

On 15 April, the freighter Belluno departed Naples for Trapani in Sicily, carrying ammunition for the Axis forces of the [Heeresgruppe 'Afrika' (known to the Italians as the Gruppo d’Armate Africa) in Tunisia. Belluno was escorted by the torpedo boats Tifone and Climene. At Trapani, Cigno (flagship of Capitano di fregata Carlo Maccaferri) and Cassiopea (Capitano di corvetta Virginio Nasta) made rendezvous with the convoy to scout for British motor torpedo boats, of which a force had disabled two ships of a convoy off Cani Rocks on 1 April.

During the afternoon of 15 April, the British destroyers Pakenham and Paladin were on an exercise off Malta when they received a signal from the commander-in-chief on Malta that ships had been sighted off the island of Pantelleria, and that they ere to investigate. The two destroyers moved off at 17.45 and, after eight hours, passed Pantelleria at a speed of 20 kt with Pakenham in the lead and Paladin 600 yards (550 m) astern. On 16 April the convoy departed Trapani at 01.00.

At 02.42 Pakenham obtained a radar contact at a range of 7,200 yards (6585 m), lost it as the ship turned, and regained it at 02.45. The contact was seen to be two torpedo boats in line ahead, on a reciprocal course at a range of 6,000 yards (5485 m). The British destroyers turned to starboard to get down-moon of their targets, silhouetting the Italian ships. At 02.38 Cigno spotted shapes in the dark at a range of 8,970 yards (8200 m), turned toward the shapes, switched on her fighting lights and sent recognition signals. Pakenham also showed fighting lights and turned to starboard toward the Italian ships as Paladin carried on to the north around the flank of the Italian convoy. Cigno and Pakenham closed quickly and Maccaferri saw that the shapes were British destroyers.

At 02.48, after illuminating the leading Italian ship, Pakenham opened fire at a range of 2,700 yards (2470 m). When the range was estimated by Cigno at 2,500 yards (2285 m) it also opened fire and hit Pakenham's stern with a 100-mm (3.94-in) shell, starting a fire and disabling its aft torpedo tubes. Having steered to the north north-west to confront Paladin, Cassiopea opened fire at a range of 4,500 yards (2470 m). As soon as the firing was heard, Belluno and her escorts turned back toward Trapani on Sicily’s extreme western tip. At 02.50, Pakenham received a second hit, which exploded in the lower deck and caused a much larger fire, leading her captain to order the flooding of the after magazine.

The ships were very close and both fired with every weapon that could be brought to bear, filling the air with multi-coloured tracer ammunition. Pakenham hit Cigno in the forward boiler room, just to the rear of the bridge, at 02.53, releasing a large cloud of smoke and steam over the ship as she came to a stop. While drifting, Cigno fired torpedoes at Pakenham to no effect and Pakenham replied from her undamaged torpedo tubes and struck Cigno amidships, breaking the ship in two. The stern section quickly sank but the forward section of the ship remained afloat, its 100-mm (3.94-in) gun crew continuing to fire.

Pakenham turned to the north in the direction of Cassiopea, but just after 03.00, one or two shells, fired from the forward half of Cigno as she was sinking or from Cassiopea, hit on the waterline, cutting the boiler tubes and causing the engine room to flood; the released steam forced the engine-room crew to evacuate the engine room. Pakenham listed 15 to port, lost electrical power and stopped in the water, fires burning. Cassiopea and Paladin had not been hit until Paladin raked Cassiopea with a burst of 2-pdr pom-pom fire, which jammed the Italian ship’s rudder and started a large fire forward and a smaller fire aft. The crews of the two 100-mm (3.94-in) guns to the rear remained in action, and at 03.06 Cassiopea fired a torpedo at a range of 1,200 yards (1100 m), but this missed.

At 03.08 Paladin doused her lights and ceased fire, which misled the crew of Cassiopea into claiming a hit. Paladin was taking evasive action and broke away to the south-east, after her captain mistook Cassiopea for a 'Capitani Romani' class light cruiser, because Italian shells exploding in the water caused unusually large splashes. By this time Pakenham had regained power and now continued to the north, achieving a hit on Cassiopea at a range of 4,000 yards (3660 m) with one of her 4-in (101.6-mm) guns; Cassiopea returned fire from with her after guns and scored two hits on her stern pom-pom mounting and searchlight at 03.13. Pakenham ceased fire and turned to follow Paladin. Cassiopea was badly damaged, with two large fires on board, and did not pursue.

In 2009, a historian wrote that the 'Battle of the Cigno Convoy' was a rare occasion when Italian naval escorts defeated a night attack by British ships. The British thought that they had been engaged by two fleet destroyers and believed that they had sunk them, attributing the loss of Pakenham to an unlucky hit and both British crews' lack of experience as their ships had only recently been transferred from the Indian Ocean. The two Italian crews were veterans and spotted the British ships before the British opened fire, but for the Italians to call the engagement a success when one ship was saved for the loss of one escort and another seriously damaged showed the extent of the British ascendancy in night fighting.

Cigno suffered the loss of her 103 crew, while Pakenham suffered nine crew killed and 15 wounded, of whom one died on 18 April.

Cassiopea was towed back to Trapani by Climene, and was later towed to Taranto for repairs. Belluno and Tifone sailed from Trapani at 05.45 and reached Tunis, though Tifone unloaded her cargo of aviation fuel at Bizerte. Pakenham and Paladin made for Malta at 25 kt but high-pressure steam leaking into Pakenham's engine room made it impossible for the crew to remain. The steam could be shut off and the engine room given time to cool before repairs could be made, but this would take two hours or keep going until the boiler feed-water ran out and the ship stopped in the water. With Axis airfields so close, Commander B. Jones continued and made another 15 miles (24 km) before his vessel lost all power and came to a halt at 03.50. Paladin was able to tow Pakenham at 4 to 5 kt. At 06.00, as the sun rose, two aircraft were spotted. The ships dropped the tow as they engaged the Axis aircraft, which were followed by two more, but these aircraft failed to damage the ships. The tow was resumed at 06.20 but the cable broke after a few minutes. The ships were too far from Malta for Allied fighters to mount a standing patrol over them, when they could make only 5 kt at best. Orders were received from Malta at 06.30 to sink Pakenham, and as a dogfight went on overhead, the order was given for the destroyer to be scuttled. Paladin took off the crew and returned to Malta at 32 kt.