Operation Collar (ii)

This was the British sequel to 'Coat' in the form of the first attempt to pass a convoy straight from Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria with vitally needed supplies (25/28 November 1940).

Three fast merchant vessels, namely the 7,529-ton Clan Forbes, 7,529-ton Clan Fraser and 12,436-ton New Zealand Star, departed the UK on 12 November and passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on 24 November as they entered the Mediterranean. Here the first two ships were to make for Malta and the third for Souda Bay on the north coast of Crete, and thence Alexandria on the north coast of Egypt. The merchant ships were escorted by Vice Admiral L. E. Holland’s Force 'F' comprising the light cruisers Manchester and Southampton, which were carrying 1,370 RAF technicians delivered to Gibraltar by the Franconia, and reinforced by the destroyers Duncan, Hotspur, Velox, Vidette and Wrestler, of which Velox and Wrestler covered only the convoy’s passage through the Strait of Gibraltar. The escort was later supplemented by the corvettes Peony, Salvia, Gloxinia and Hyacinth, although it soon became clear that the corvettes were incapable of maintaining the convoy’s speed.

The convoy also benefited from the more distant cover, to the north, of elements of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force 'H', this Force 'B' comprising the battle-cruiser Renown, fleet carrier Ark Royal, cruisers Sheffield and Despatch, and destroyers Duncan, Encounter, Faulknor, Firedrake, Forester, Fury, Jaguar, Kelvin and Wishart.

Despatched from Alexandria toward Gibraltar, the battleship Ramillies, the heavy cruiser Berwick and the light cruiser Coventry constituted Force 'D', a third element in the overall British plan, and a fourth element took the form of the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry and the destroyers Defender, Gallant, Greyhound, Griffin and Hereward, which also left Alexandria to meet the eastward-bound convoy at a point to the south of Sardinia.

A fifth British element, directed from Alexandria to a point near Malta to support Coventry and her destroyers, was Force 'C' comprising the battleships Barham and Malaya and the fleet carrier Eagle, which launched an air attack on Tripoli on 26 November. The sixth and last British element in this complex undertaking was Force 'A' of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, which departed Alexandria on 25 November to cover a convoy to Souda Bay with the battleships Valiant and Warspite, fleet carrier Illustrious which launched an air attack on Italian targets on Rhodes during 26 November, light cruisers Ajax, Orion and Australian Sydney (7th Cruiser Squadron), and a number of destroyers.

In addition a supply convoy was sent to Malta covered by Force 'E', which comprised the heavy cruiser York and light cruisers Glasgow and Gloucester (3rd Cruiser Squadron).

Once aware of this operation, having been advised by agents (based in Spain) of the sailing of Force 'B' and by an Italian civil transport aeroplane of the location of Force 'D' to the south of Malta on 25 November, the Italians made ready powerful naval forces. The outer wave comprised the submarines Alagi, Aradam, Axum and Diaspro oin patrol to the south of Sardinia, and the submarines Dessiè and Tembien off Malta. On 26 November the Italian fleet commander, Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni, sortied from Naples with the battleships Giulio Cesare and Vittorio Veneto, and the destroyers Granatiere, Fuciliere, Bersagliere and Alpino (13a Flottiglia Contratorpediniere) and Freccia, Saetta and Dardo (13a Flottiglia Contratorpediniere).

At the same time Ammiraglio di Squadra Angelo Iachino also sortied, in this instance from Naples, with the heavy cruisers Pola, Fiume and Gorizia (1a Divisione Incrociatori) and the destroyers Alfieri, Carducci, Gioberti and Oriani (9a Flottiglia Contratorpediniere).

Ammiraglio di Divisione Luigi Sansonetti sortied from Messina with the heavy cruisers Trieste, Trento and Bolzano (3a Divisione Incrociatori) and the destroyers Lanciere, Ascari and Carabiniere (12a Flottiglia Contratorpediniere) to intercept the forces coming from the west.

The torpedo boats Alcione, Vega, Sagittario and Sirio (10a Flottiglia Torpediniere) were despatched into the Sicilian Channel from Trapani, and Sirio launched a number of torpedoes, which went unnoticed, at the ships of Force 'D' during the night of 26/27 November.

The British intention was for the convoy, its ships masquerading as neutral vessels, to proceed to the east close to the Algerian coast, and thus as far as possible from the Italian air bases on Sicily.

The intervention of the Italian fleet caused changes in the original plans, but the Italian ships were themselves met by Force 'H', and there followed the Battle of Cape Spartivento, known in Italy as the Battle of Cape Teulada.

Realising that he was heavily outnumbered and outgunned, Somerville decided that his best course was nonetheless to engage the Italian force and so give the merchantmen a chance to get away.

The battle was a tactical draw, but served to convince the Italians to continue attacks of this nature, which ended disastrously a few months later during the Battle of Cape Matapan.

On the night of 17 November an Italian force including Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare, together with a number of lighter warships, had just missed the opportunity to intercept British ships on their way to deliver aircraft to Malta in 'White'. The British convoy was warned of the Italian force’s approach and immediately turned about and returned to Gibraltar, although not before flying off toward Malta a total of 12 Hawker Hurricane fighters and two Blackburn Skua dive-bomber/fighters as the Hurricanes' navigational motherplanes: one Skua and eight Hurricanes were lost when they ran out of fuel and had to ditch in the sea. This episode was a close encounter which seriously upset British plans for a further convoy to supply the island.

The convoy was then re-run as 'Collar' (ii) with much greater naval support, including Force 'H' from Gibraltar and Force 'D' from Alexandria as noted above. The convoy from Gibraltar was spotted by the Italians, who once again set out to intercept it. Aware of the Italian fleet’s movements, Somerville moved his ships to the north to intercept the Italians before they could come anywhere near the merchant ships.

At 11.45 on 27 November the British were informed that the Italians were only 50 miles (80 km) distant and closing. At this point Force 'D' had not yet arrived from Alexandria and the British were outgunned, but only 15 minutes later Force 'D' made its appearance and the tables were turned. The two forces were fairly even: although the Italian ships had better range and heavier firepower, the British had an aircraft carrier, a type of warship which had recently proved itself the equal of a battleship during the 'Judgement' operation at Taranto. The Italians had a crippling limitation, however, inasmuch as Campioni had been ordered to avoid combat unless the balance was decidedly in the Italians' favour, so a decisive battle was out of the question.

Somerville deployed his forces into two main groups, with five cruisers under Holland in front and two battleships and seven destroyers in a second group to the south. Much farther to the south, Ark Royal was preparing to launch a force of Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers.

The Italians were organised into three groups, two of them comprising six heavy cruisers (Bolzano, Fiume, Gorizia, Pola, Trieste and Trento) and seven destroyers (Ascari, Carabiniere, Lanciere, Alfredo Oriani, Vittorio Alfieri, Giosué Carducci and Vincenzo Gioberti), and the third two battleships (Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare) and seven destroyers (Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere, Granatiere, Dardo, Freccia and Saetta).

At 12.07 it was clear a battle was about to start with evenly matched forces, so the Italian commander ordered the cruiser groups to re-form on the battleships and prepare to depart. However by this point the lead cruiser formation had already angled toward the British and was committed. At 12.22 the lead groups of both cruiser forces had come within range of each other and Fiume opened fire at 25,700 yards (23500 m). Rapid fire between the two forces continued as the distance between them closed, but of the two groups the Italian forces outgunned the British. The battleship Ramillies evened the firepower odds, but was an old ship too slow to maintain formation, and dropped out of battle after a few salvoes at 12.26.

Four minutes later Iachino, leading the Italian cruiser group, received order to disengage although at this point the battle was slightly in their Italians' favour. Iachino ordered an increase in speed to 30 kt, laid smoke and started to withdraw. During this time the Italian destroyer Lanciere was hit by a salvo from the cruiser Manchester and seriously damaged, although she was towed to port after the battle.

The British heavy cruiser Berwick was hit at 12.22 by a single 8-in (203-mm) shell on her 'Y' turret, which was knocked out, but a second hit at 12.35 inflicted little damage. For the next few minutes the balance swung in favour of the British when the battle-cruiser Renown closed the distance on the Italian cruisers. This advantage was soon negated when Vittorio Veneto opened fire at a range of 28,980 yards (26500 m) at 13.00. Vittorio Veneto fired 19 shells in seven salvoes at long range, which was more than enough for the now outgunned British cruisers.

Both forces withdrew, the battle having lasted 54 minutes and causing little damage to either side. The Italian tactical withdrawal was made in the face of 'superior' numbers.

After learning the details of the battle, Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded Somerville’s removal, having questioned the admiral’s offensive spirit ever since his objections to the 'Catapult' attack on the French naval forces at Mers el Kébir. A board of inquiry exonerated Somerville, who enjoyed the strong support of several fellow admirals.

Although he had been directed to operate conservatively, Campioni had presided over the loss of Italy’s best opportunity to deal the British a sharp setback in a fleet action, so his days of command at sea were numbered.

After the Battle of Cape Spartivento, Force 'H' continued toward Malta until late in the afternoon of 27 November when, just before the line of Cap Bon on the north-eastern tip of Tunisia, it turned back to Gibraltar.

At midnight on 28 November, the convoy passed Cap Bon and set course to rendezvous with the battleship Ramillies, cruisers Newcastle, Berwick and Coventry, and five destroyers of Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet.

Shortly after this the convoy divided: Clan Fraser and Clan Forbes proceeded to Malta, which they reached on 26 November, and New Zealand Star, escorted by the destroyers Defender and Hereward and drifters Fellowship and Lanner, continued to Souda Bay and thence Alexandria.