Operation Battle off Zuwarah

The 'Battle off Zuwarah' was a night encounter in the waters off Libya between British and Italian naval forces (19/20 January 1943).

On 15 January 1943, the British destroyers Kelvin and Nubian, blockading the port of Tripoli in Libya, had forced the Italian torpedo boat Perseo to retire damaged and then sunk the 4,537-ton D’Annunzio, a merchant vessel trying to escape from Tripoli. On the night of 19/20 January, two British destroyers, Kelvin and Javelin, were on patrol off Zuwarah on the Libya coast to cut off the escape of the last Italian ships from Tripoli.

Javelin's Type 271 radar detected ships heading from the direction of Tripoli toward the Tunisian coast. These vessels were the Tripoli minesweeping flotilla commanded by Tenente Giuseppe di Bartolo, which had been ordered to leave the city for Tunisia and thence for Italy, to avoid capture. The flotilla comprised four small minesweeping tugs (RD-31, RD-36, RD-37 and RD-39, of which RD-36 and RD-37 had Guardia di Finanza rather than naval crews); the trawler Scorfano, which was largest ship in the convoy; the small tanker Irma; the auxiliary minesweepers DM-12 Guglielmo Marconi, which was a requisitioned brigantine; R-26 Angelo Musco and R-224 Cinzia, which were former fishing vessels; the auxiliary patrol vessel V-66 Astrea, which was a motor sailing vessel; and the pump boat Santa Barbara, which was being towed by Scorfano.

Javelin and Kelvin moved to intercept the Italian ships, which they illuminated with star shells but mistook for an Italian convoy. Taken under heavy fire, the Italian vessels were able neither to fight back effectively (the RD minesweepers were each armed with one 76-mm/3-in gun and two 6.5-mm machine guns, while the other ships carried only machine guns) nor to escape as they were all considerably slower than the destroyers). RD-36, the flotilla leader, tried to cover the retreat of the other ships but was soon sunk with all hands. The other vessels, fleeing toward the coast to allow their crews to escape, were steadily picked off by the destroyers. RD-37 and Scorfano were sunk with no survivors, Marconi was set on fire but all her crew escaped before she sank, and Irma was finished with a torpedo.

By the morning of 20 January, the flotilla had been annihilated. Kelvin had expended 300 4.7-in (119.4-mm) rounds from her main armament guns, and Javelin 500 rounds. The two destroyers then headed for Malta, which they reached on the following day.

The Italians lost 180 men killed, and the survivors either swam ashore or were picked up by Italian vessels on the following day.