Operation Battle of the Skerki Bank

The 'Battle of the Skerki Bank' was an engagement fought between British-led and Axis naval forces off the coast of North Africa (2 December 1942).

In this undertaking, the Royal Navy’s Force 'Q' of light cruisers and destroyers attacked the German and Italian 'H' (ii) convoy, which was escorted by Italian destroyers and torpedo boats. Force 'Q' sank the four merchant ships and one of the escorting destroyers in exchange for minor splinter damage. Force 'Q' was attacked by German torpedo bombers at 06.30 on 3 December, losing the destroyer Quentin to one torpedo hit and suffering damage to the destroyer Quiberon. The battle was the first and most significant success for Force 'Q'.

Soon after the beginning of 'Torch', the Allied landing in French North-West Africa, the Allied commanders began to make arrangements to intensify the offensive against the Axis supply route from Italy to the ports of Tunis and Bizerta in Tunisia. On 30 November, once Allied fighter cover could give sufficient protection, Force 'Q' was based at Bne on the north-eastern coast of Algeria, not far from the Tunisian border. Commanded by Rear Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt, Force 'Q' comprised the British light cruisers Aurora (flag), Argonaut and Sirius, the British destroyer Quentin and the Australian destroyer Quiberon.

The 'H' (ii) convoy comprised the 850-ton German transport KT-1, the 3,794-ton Italian Aventino, the 2,422-ton Italian Puccini and the 976-ton Italian converted ferry Aspromonte. The ships were carrying reinforcements to North Africa, these including 1,766 troops, 698 tons of cargo (mainly ammunition), four tanks, 32 other vehicles and 12 pieces of artillery. The escort was commanded by Capitano Aldo Cocchia and comprised the destroyers Nicoloso da Recco (flag),Camicia Nera and Folgore, and the torpedo boats Clio and Procione.

On 1 December, Force 'Q' sallied to locate and attack Axis shipping on the convoy route linking the Sicilian port of Trapani with Tunis. There were currently four Italian convoys at sea, these totalling 13 merchant vessels escorted by seven destroyers and 19 torpedo boats. Three convoys were ordered to return after the Italian naval command learned that they had been spotted by British reconnaissance aircraft, but the 'H' (ii) convoy was permitted to continue toward Tunis. The convoy was overflown by aircraft during the night of 1/2 December and flares marked its course, and at 01.30 Force 'Q' picked up the Italian ships on radar, some 70 miles (113 km) to the north-east of Bizerte. Cocchia sent Procione ahead to sweep for mines. The Supermarina had emphasised the importance of the convoy keeping in close formation but, realising that hostile ships were in the area, Cocchia ordered the convoy to make a 90 turn to the south-south-east at 00.01. At 00.17 Cocchia ordered a turn to the west-south-west: the convoy should have doglegged 3.5 miles (5.6 km) to the south, which was close as was prudent to unmarked minefields. The convoy lost formation because Puccini missed the turn order and rammed Aspromonte, and lacking radio KT-1 failed to follow Puccini and strayed to the north-west.

At 00.27, Force 'Q', which was steaming at 20 kt, reached the convoy. Nicoloso da Recco was on a west-south-westerly course, ahead of Aventino, Clio and Aspromonte. Puccini and Folgore were side-by-side, 6,000 yards (5485 m) behind Nicoloso da Recco, heading to the south-south-west; Camicia Nera was 3,000 yards (2745 m) to the north of Puccini, and Procione was minesweeping 6,000 yards (5485 km) to the south of Nicoloso da Recco, all heading to the west-south-west.

Force 'Q' approached with Aurora in the lead followed by Sirius, Argonaut, Quiberon and Quentin. At 00.38, at a range of 1,800 yards (1645 m), the leading ships fired on KT-1, which exploded. Argonaut and Quiberon opened fire on Procione, or possibly Nicoloso da Recco, even as Cocchia ordered the escorts to attack. Force 'Q' passed round the hulk of KT-1, and Argonaut fired on and launched a torpedo at KT-1, then at 00.39 Argonaut steamed to the north-east toward what turned out to be a false contact. After a couple of minutes, Argonaut fired at Camicia Nera as she advanced to the attack, Aurora also firing at the destroyer under the impression that she was one of the merchant ships. Camicia Nera turned and launched six torpedoes in two minutes from 00.43 at a range of 2,200 yards (2010 m) and then turned to the north amid shell splashes. Aspromonte was 900 yards (825 m) to the left of Aurora, and Aventino 4,000 yards (3660 m) away. Argonaut was also preparing to fire on Aventino as Sirius fired on Folgore and Clio.

Folgore had attacked before receiving Cocchia’s order and at 00.47 fired three torpedoes to port at Aurora at a range underestimated at 1,500 yards (1370 m) and then turned away. Sirius caught a freighter in one of her searchlights and at 00.50 Folgore turned sharply to port and fired her last three torpedoes at the searchlight; the torpedoes missed but two hits were claimed by mistake. Folgore now made to the south-west at 27 kt, but at 00.52 was hit by nine shells from Argonaut, which caused severe flooding and a large fire. Folgore took on a 20 list and then capsized at 01.16. When the British attack began, Procione tangled her paravane and failed to sight Sirius until the range had closed to 2,000 yards (1830 m) on the starboard side and opened fire at 00.53. The shells killed the forward gun crew and the captain took evasive action before heading to the south-west. Clio began to make smoke, firing at searchlights and gun flashes, and Nicoloso da Recco tried to make a torpedo attack.

At 00.55 Quiberon broke formation to attack Clio, and was bracketed by return fire. Sirius and Argonaut were firing on Puccini, and at 00.58 Argonaut fired a torpedo at Puccini and then one to port soon after that at Aventino, which was on fire. At 01.12 Sirius also launched a torpedo at Aventino which exploded and sank. At 01.16 Quiberon sailed through water full of survivors and attacked Puccini, and at 01.12 Quentin followed Quiberon, both destroyers setting Puccini on fire. Aurora was engaging Aspromonte from 8,000 yards (7315 m), and the Italian ship started to sink. The British cruisers sifted target to Clio but after five minutes Clio escaped without damage. Nicoloso da Recco had got within 4,500 yards (4115 m) of Force 'Q' by 01.30 and launched torpedoes, which missed. Shells from Sirius, Quiberon and Quentin killed 118 members of the crew and left Nicoloso da Recco stopped in the water, eventually to be towed to port by Pigafetta. The British ships completed their circuit around the Italian ships and then set course for Bne.
Force 'Q' was attacked at 06.30 on 3 December by German torpedo bombers, which sank Quentin with one torpedo and damaged Quiberon.

In 1966 a British official historian wrote that Force 'Q' had gained a 'spectacular success': in one hour, the ships of this force had sunk 7,800 tons of shipping during a 'one-sided engagement', and sustained no damage. In 2009, another historian wrote that the battle was a serious Italian defeat, in which a large escort force had failed to prevent the four supply ships from being sunk. The minor damage inflicted by the Italian ships on their opponents stood in stark contrast, despite the convoy escorts managing launch so many torpedoes at such short range. The convoy had been attacked while disorganised and could not achieve a co-ordinated reply. After more than two years of war, the Regia Marina was still incapable of accurately aiming torpedoes at night, partly because the Supermarina accepted claims of torpedo hits uncritically, and this obscured the significance of the failing.

Of the four freighters of the 'H' (ii) convoy, three were sunk and one scuttled, and the escort Folgore was also sunk. Some 200 men of the Italian merchant marine and Regia Marina, together with 1,527 troops, embarked on Aventino and Puccini were killed. Folgore suffered 126 casualties, Nicoloso da Recco 118, Aspromonte 39, and Procione three. The British ships had minor splinter damage but, as noted above, lost Quentin to a torpedo bomber on the return passage to Bne.

At 16.00. the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, from Force 'K', comprising the British destroyers Jervis, Javelin, Nubian and Kelvin departed Malta, untroubled by Axis aircraft, to attack the 'C' (iv), convoy, comprising the merchant vessels Veloce and Chisone as they travelled toward Tripoli, escorted by the torpedo boats Ardente, Aretusa and Lupo. Near the Kerkena Bank, Fairey Albacore single-engined torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm torpedoed Veloce, which was carrying benzene and now caught fire, burning brightly. Force 'K' sailed towards the illumination as Lupo prepared to save the survivors and as the rest of the convoy hugged the coast. Jervis illuminated Lupo with a searchlight and opened fire at a range of 2,000 yards (1840 m), taking the Italian torpedo boat by surprise and destroying her bridge. The rest of the British flotilla joined the action and Lupo was unable to reply, all but 12 of her crew being killed. The rest of the convoy stole away into the shallow water of the Kerkena Bank.

The 'B' (iv) convoy, a simultaneous Axis shipping movement, comprised the Italian freighters Arlesiana, Achille Lauro and Campania and the German Menes and Lisboa. This convoy was sailing that night from Naples to Tunis with an escort comprising the torpedo boats Groppo, Sirio, Pallade and Orione. After the convoy had been overflown by Allied reconnaissance aircraft in the afternoon of 30 November, the escort was reinforced with the destroyers Maestrale, Ascari and Grecale, joined later by the torpedo boat Uragano. The convoy was recalled to Trapani when the presence of Force 'Q' in the area was discovered by German air reconnaissance at 23.30. While sailing back, the 'B' (iv) convoy witnessed the destruction of the 'H' (ii) convoy. Numerous flares were sighted to the south, in the direction of the Axis force. At 01.00, the commander of Maestrale, the leading escort, ordered the convoy to change course to Palermo, a route farther to the north, to avoid detection by Force 'Q'.