Operation Battle of the Ligurian Sea

The 'Battle of the Ligurian Sea' was a night surface action in the Gulf of Genoa between British and German naval forces (18 March 1945).

At this time, a Kriegsmarine flotilla of two torpedo boats and one destroyer was undertaking an offensive minelaying operation when it was intercepted by two Royal Navy destroyers, Lookout and Meteor. The British destroyers sank two of the German ships and severely damaged the third in what was the last German naval surface action of World War II.

At the 'Argonaut/Cricket' conference held in Malta between President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the UK between 30 January and 3 February 1945, it was decided to transfer air force and army units from Italy to the Western Front in France and Belgium in 'Goldflake'. In February and March 1945, therefore, Lieutenant General C. Foulkes’s Canadian I Corps was moved by sea from Italy to the southern French port of Marseilles for disembarkation and subsequent overland movement to the northern end of the Western Front. Escorts for the troopships were provided by Vice-Admiral d’Escadre Robert Jaujard’s 'Flank' Force of British, French and US warships, with air cover by from Air Vice Marshal H. P. Lloyd’s Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force.

On the night of 17/18 March 1945, the last three operational ships of Korvettenkapitän Franz Burkart’s 10th Torpedobootsflottille undertook an offensive minelaying operation to the north-east of Corsica. After departing Genoa, the 'Ariete' class torpedo boats TA-24 (ex-Italian Arturo) and TA-29 (ex-Italian Eridano) laid 56 mines in an area to the south of Gorgona island, while the destroyer TA-32 (ex-Yugoslav Dubrovnik) placed 76 mines in an area to the north of Cap Corse. The flotilla then made rendezvous for the return to Genoa and was about 23 miles (37 km) to the north of Cap Corse when it was detected by Allied shore-based radar at Livorno on the western coast of Italy. Four Allied destroyers of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla were patrolling in the area: these ships were the French 'L’Adroit' class destroyer Basque and 'Bourrasque' class destroyer Tempête, and the British 'L' and 'M' class destroyers Lookout and Meteor.

In the early hours of 18 March, all but Meteor received the radar report from Livorno. Capitaine de Frégate André Léon Jean Marie Morazzani, the senior officer aboard Tempête, ordered the British ships to intercept the intruders, while he led the older and slower French destroyers to the south-east in case the Germans doubled back to attempt the interception of a convoy near Cap Corse. Lookout's captain, Lieutenant Commander D. H. F. Hetherington, co-ordinated with Meteor via 'talk between ships' radio, and the British ships went on separate courses to the north-east at full speed. By the time Morazzani was sure that the German ships were no threat to the convoy, he was too far away to join the action.

Lookout established radar contact with the German force at 03.00 on 18 March, sailing at 20 kt just to the west of north. The British destroyer approached at high speed from ahead and opened fire at a range of about 5,000 yards (4570 m). Minutes later she swung around, moving parallel to the German ships, and launched torpedoes. The Germans were taken by surprise and Lookout's radar-directed guns quickly scored hits on TA-24 and TA-29. The latter dropped out of formation as the other two ships retreated to the north. Lookout let them go in order to concentrate on the crippled TA-29 and circled her, firing continuously with her six 4.7-in (119.4-mm) guns from ranges as short as 2,000 yards (1830 m). TA-29 replied, her gunners almost hitting Lookout several times: one burst of 20-mm cannon fire hit some smoke floats and started a small fire, but this was quickly extinguished.

Lookout continued to fire at TA-29 until just after 04.00 and, after having received more than 40 hits, the German-manned ship caught fire and sank. She lost only 20 men despite Lookout's intense and accurate salvoes.

Meteor altered course to intercept the other German ships and, at about the time that Lookout engaged TA-29, gained radar contact at 12,300 yards (10975 m) with the two German ships retreating to the north. Meteor opened fire at a range of 8,000 yards (7315 m) and hit TA-24 almost immediately. Seeing the hit in the dark, Meteor launched a salvo of torpedoes a few minutes later, and one of these weapons struck TA-24. Meteor's captain, Lieutenant Commander R. D. H. S. Pankhurst, saw a 'geyser of flame and metal' and TA-24 sank just after 04.00, losing 30 men in 13 minutes.

The 'Battle of the Ligurian Sea' was the last surface action fought by Kriegsmarine in World War II. The British destroyers thus ended any possibility of German deep-water offensive operations in the Ligurian Sea, let alone anywhere else in the Mediterranean. The engagement was also the last surface naval action the British fought in the western theatre and the last substantial surface action fought on the Mediterranean Sea.

TA-32 was damaged but managed to escape, and was scuttled by her crew in Genoa on 25 April 1945. The British destroyers rescued 244 survivors, including Burkart, in rafts and boats from TA-24 and TA-29.