Operation Battle of the Tarigo Convoy

The 'Battle of the Tarigo Convoy', which is sometimes known as the 'Action off Sfax', was a battle fought between British and Italian naval forces off the eastern coast of Tunisia (16 April 1941).

The battle pitted four British and three Italian destroyers against each other in the area off the Kerkennah islands off Sfax, and is named after the Italian flagship, the destroyer Luca Tarigo.

Control of the narrowest part of the central Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Libya was heavily disputed as each side sought to safeguard its own convoys while interdicting those of its opponent. Axis north/south convoys to North Africa supplied the German and Italian armies there, and British attacks were based on Malta, itself dependent upon east/west convoys.

In the middle of April 1941, a five-ship Axis convoy departed Naples for Tripoli. The convoy comprised the German troop transport vessels Adana, Arta, Aegina and Iserlohn, and the Italian ammunition ship Sabaudia. The convoy was escorted by the 'Navigatori' class destroyer Luca Tarigo (flag) and the 'Folgore' class destroyers Baleno and Lampo under the command of Capitano di fregata Pietro de Cristofaro. The convoy was delayed by bad weather, and eventually sailed during the evening of 13 April.

The British had been alerted to the convoy’s passage by intercepted radio messages. On 15 April, a Martin Maryland twin-engined reconnaissance aeroplane of the Royal Air Force sighted and shadowed the convoy. Two Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 three-engined aircraft intended to provide air cover did not arrive as a result of the continuing bad weather. During the night of 15/16 April, the convoy was intercepted by the British 14th Destroyer Flotilla, comprising the flotilla leader Jervis and the destroyers Janus, Nubian and Mohawk under the command of Captain P. J. Mack. At least three of these destroyers were equipped with radar. The encounter took place as the Italian convoy manoeuvred around the shallow waters surrounding the Kerkennah islands.

Making use of radar, the British force ambushed the Axis convoy in the dark. As the convoy passed a buoy marking the presence of sand banks, the British opened fire at a range of 2,000 yards (1830 m) and closed to as close as 50 yards (46 m). Three of the Axis transports were sunk, and the other two beached on the sand banks and became total losses. Lampo was run aground and later salvaged, while Baleno sank in shallow water. de Cristofaro, on board Luca Tarigo, had his leg shot off and later died of his wounds. While listing to port and sinking, Luca Tarigo, now commanded by the sole surviving officer, Guardiamarina Ettore Bisagno, ordered he launch of two torpedoes, and these hit Mohawk amidships and near her stern. The British destroyer capsized with her stern touching the sea bed, and Jervis fired her main guns into Mohawk's bow to complete her sinking in 39 ft (12 m) of water.

The battle marked the end of the relatively unopposed period of Axis transport convoys to Libya since June 1940.

The Italian naval command in Libya immediately organised a rescue operation which involved the destroyers Lanzerotto Malocello, Antonio da Noli, Ugolino Vivaldi and Dardo, the torpedo boats Centauro, Clio, Partenope, Perseo and Giuseppe Sirtori, the rescue ship Orlando, the hospital ship Arno, and the merchant ships Antonietta Lauro and Capacitas. the rescue effort recovered some 1,271 survivors of about 3,000 men on board the convoy and its escorts.

Italian naval forces also found the wreckage of Mohawk, which had settled on her port side. During April, May and June 1941, Italian divers, disguised as local fishermen, retrieved documents and other material from the wreck.

The destroyer Lampo was salvaged after a four-month effort, and had been repaired by May 1942. She was sunk again on 30 April 1943. Adana sank several hours after the engagement, while the wreck of Arta was destroyed with explosive charges by the crew of the British submarine Upholder on the night of 26 April 1941.

Axis casualties are variously reported as 350, 700 or 1,800 men. The British losses were 43 men, all of them of Mohawk's crew.