Operation Espero

Hesperus

This was an Italian warship convoy from Italy to North Africa (28 June 1940).

Taking place a little more than two seeks after Italy declared war on he UK, the Battle of the Espero Convoy was the first surface engagement between Italian and Allied warships in World War II, and occurred when three modern Italian destroyers made a run from Taranto in southern Italy for Tobruk in Libya to deliver 'Blackshirt' (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) anti-tank units to the Italian colony in case the British attempted an armoured attack from Egypt into Libya.

By chance, Admiral Sir Admiral Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet was at sea as it undertook a destroyer anti-submarine sweep around the Greek island of Crete and at the same time provided cover for three British convoys to Egypt, one of them from Turkey and the other two from Malta. British warplanes operating from Malta spotted the Italian destroyers, which were hampered by their cargoes and adverse sea conditions, and the 7th Cruiser Squadron turned to intercept them. This led to a running fight in an area to the south-west of Crete.

At this early stage of the war in the Mediterranean theatre, deliveries of Italian men, equipment and other supplies to Libia Italiana were made by sea and landed mostly at the ports of Tripoli (2,000 tons per day), Benghazi (1,000 tons per day) and Tobruk (less than 1,000 tons per day), although smaller quantities could be delivered to Sirte, Agedabia, Derna, Bardia and Tobruk. Once landed, the deliveries were transported by truck or small coastal craft to their final destinations. Late in 1939, based on the Italian assumption of an overwhelming Anglo-French naval superiority over the Regia Marina, Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, the chief-of-staff of the Comando Supremo Italiano (Italian armed forces), established a policy of maintaining internal security and maintaining supplies sufficient for one year. On 9 April 1940, Badoglio met the three Italian service chiefs and ordered that the Regio Esercito (army) was to remain on the defensive while the Regia Marina (navy) and Regia Aeronautica (air force) undertook offensive operations, and on 30 May the chief-of-staff further ordered the service chiefs to be ready for hostilities by 5 June. The basic Italian war aims were to fight in parallel with Germany, dominate the Balkans, establish a land route to Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa) and maintain access to Spain to the west and the Black Sea to the east.

On 11 April, the naval chief-of-staff, Ammiraglio di Armata Domenico Cavagnari, reported that he had serious reservations about the feasibility of offensive naval action against opponents who could replace losses far more quickly than could Italy. Going to war with an essentially defensive strategy was unprecedented, and this meant that at the end of the war, Italy might have no territorial gains, no navy and no air force. The navy planned to keep its forces as concentrated as possible for the ability to launch major naval operations, and this made impossible the protection of merchant shipping except on limited occasions, and that with the French to the west and British to the east, the convoying of ships from Italy to Libya would be almost impossible. Benito Mussolini, the Italian leader, refused to entertain Cavagnari’s concerns as, he opined, the war would be of only three months' duration as a time when the forces in Libya had supplies for six months. Only on 10 June did Mussolini order that the Italian forces in Libya be reinforced for offensive operations and that the Regia Marina protect the supply routes across the central part of the Mediterranean Sea. On 13 June, there arrived from Libya the first request for the despatch of 'indispensable' supplies.

In the middle of 1940, the Regia Marina had two modernised battleships and 19 cruisers with which to challenge the Mediterranean fleets of France and the UK, which between them mustered three aircraft carriers, 11 battleships and 23 cruisers, a 4/1 superiority in tonnage and one which could readily be reinforced from outside the Mediterranean. The British ships were based at Gibraltar and Alexandria, with no ships based at Malta, and the French ships were at Toulon in the south of France and Bizerte in Tunisia. Italy’s main naval bases were Naples and Taranto, although a number of vessels were also based in Sicilian ports. The Italian forces could unite by sailing through the Strait of Messina, but this narrow strait was an obvious place for an ambush.

The Regio Marina had called for the retention of its naval air arm after World War I, but after the creation of the Regia Aeronautica in 1923, the navy lost control of all naval aviation. The proponents of land-based air power denigrated the naval preference for aircraft carriers and specialist aircraft in favour of land-based aircraft which, they claimed, would fulfil all naval air requirements but reconnaissance by the Aviation for the Navy, of which the navy had operational control. The Regia Aeronautica followed the theory of independent air operations and, like the Royal Air Force in the UK, and paid inadequate attention to the specialised needs of the navy. The promise of experiments in 1918/22 into the deployment of air-launched torpedoes was ignored by the new independent air force, and even after the example of the British Fleet Air Arm’s experiments with torpedo-bombers, in 1938 attempts by the Regio Marina to gain control of a naval torpedo-bomber force failed.

When Italy declared war on France and the UK, Badoglio expected an armour-led British advance into the Cyrenaican province of eastern Libya. On 11 June, the cruisers of the 3a Divisione Incrociatori and ]e]7a Divisione Incrociatori undertook a fruitless patrol along Sicily’s east coast, and during the morning of the following dat, two British cruisers were sighted to the south of Crete on a westerly course. The 3a Divisione Incrociatori and two squadrons of destroyers were sent to patrol the route to Malta. The 1a Divisione Incrociatori and 7a Divisione Incrociatori patrolled the Ionian Sea and two destroyer squadrons sailed between Sicily and Malta. On 12 June, an Italian naval trawler was sunk off Tobruk by a British force comprising two cruisers and four destroyers, and the Italian submarine Alpino Attilio Bagnolini sank the British light cruiser Calypso to the south of Crete. From 11 June to 16 August, the specialist Gruppo 'Orata' dredged up from the seabed near Malta the seven British telegraph cables and carried away thousands of yards of cable to prevent the British from reconnecting the cables.

The difficulty of escorting merchant ships to Tobruk led to an Italian decision to use warships and submarines for the delivery of men and supplies. On 19 June, the submarine Zoea sailed for Tobruk carrying ammunition, and on the following day, a destroyer squadron led by Artigliere departed Augusta for Benghazi, with troops and anti-tank guns. On 25 June a convoy with escorts departed Naples for Tripoli with 1,727 troops and supplies, and the submarine Bragadin departed with equipment for the airfield at Tobruk. The destroyers of the 2a Divisione Cacciatorpediniere ( Espero, the flagship of Capitano di Vascello Enrico Baroni, Zeffiro and Ostro were chosen for their great speed and cargo-carrying capacity for the task of delivering units. Two smaller World War I-era escort vessels, Pilo and Giuseppe Missori made independent departures from Taranto with 52 troops and supplies, for Tobruk.

On 27 June, five British destroyers were scheduled to depart Alexandria on an anti-submarine sweep near Kythira, an island of the Ionian Sea, and steam to Malta as the close escort for the MF.1 and MS.2 convoys to Alexandria. Intelligence about Italian submarines led to the sweep’s diversion through the Kásos Strait to the east of Crete, then to the north of the island and past Kythira to Malta. Short Sunderland flying boats of the RAF’s No. 201 Group, based on Malta, were to co-operate with the naval operations in the Ionian Sea. On the Italian declaration of war the passenger liners El Nil on her way from Marseille to Egypt, Knight of Malta and interned Italian ship Rodi were in Malta, and in the 'MA3' operation these ships formed the 13-kt MF.1 fast convoy. Five slower ships, Zeeland, Kirkland, Masirah, Novasli and Tweed carrying naval stores for Alexandria formed the 9-kt MS.1 slow convoy also bound for Alexandria. MF.1 carried civilians being evacuated from Malta, and the whole Mediterranean Fleet was to sortie to protect them in the MA5 operation. The AS.1 convoy of seven ships was to sail from the Dardanelles to Egypt, four ships joining from Thessaloníki, Piraeus and Smyrna, escorted by the light cruisers Capetown and Caledon of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron and the destroyers Garland, Nubian, Mohawk and Vampire, due to depart from Cape Helles early on 28 June.

The scheduling of the departures was arranged so that on 30 June the three convoys would be at Position K, to the south of Cape Matapan, about halfway between Malta and Alexandria. Five cruisers of the 7th Cruiser Squadron (also known as Force 'C' and commanded by Vice Admiral J. C. T. Tovey, the second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet) with the 1st Cruiser Division (light cruisers Orion [flagship], Neptune and Australian Sydney) and the 2nd Cruiser Division (light cruisers Gloucester) and Liverpool) were to steam in the area to the west of Crete near Position K. Rear Admiral H. D. Pridham-Whippell’s 1st Battle Squadron (battleships Royal Sovereign and Ramillies, aircraft carrier Eagle and the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla) was to be to the south-west of Crete, also near Position K, and be ready to intervene according to circumstances. At 18.00 on 26 June, Caledon, Garland and Vampire sailed from Alexandria to rendezvous with Capetown, Nubian and Mohawk on the following while heading for the Dardanelles. At dawn on 27 June, five ships of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla departed Alexandria, and at 11.00 the 7th Cruiser Squadron left for Position K.

At dusk on 27 June, the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (Voyager, Dainty, Decoy, Defender and Ilex) was 230 miles (370 km) to the north of Alexandria. At 18.28, while 115 miles (185 km) to the south-east of Crete, the flotilla sighted the submarine Console Generale Liuzzi, which quickly dived. Four of the destroyers made depth-charge attacks and after the fifth an oil slick was seen and trailed by Dainty. The submarine had been badly damaged and was eventually forced to the surface. After a hunt of 90 minutes the submarine was seen again at a range of 2,500 yards (2285 m), and two destroyers fired on the submarines until a white light was taken to indicate a surrender. Dainty moved close to start taking on survivors, along with other destroyers which lowered boats to pick up the Italians who had jumped into the water. According to one British source, a time of 3 hours 15 minutes elapsed before the last two of the submarine’s crew were taken off and the boat sunk with depth charges: according to Italian sources, Console Generale Liuzzi was scuttled by its crew; 10 men were killed in the engagement, and the commander, Capitano di Corvetta Lorenzo Bezzi, went down with his boat.

At 12.10 on 28 June, the Italian destroyers were spotted by a Short Sunderland flying boat of the Malta-based No. 208 Squadron in an area some 58 miles (93 km) to the west of the island of Zákynthos in the Ionian Sea, to the west of mainland Greece and about 173 miles (278 km) from Position K. No course was given by the Sunderland’s crew and the Italian ships were thought to be heading for Kythira. At 16.10, the 7th Cruiser squadron turned to the north to intercept the Italian ships. At 16.40, a sighting by a different Sunderland indicated that the Italian ships were still steaming to the south, about 40 miles (65 km) from Orion. Tovey ordered a turn to the south-west and an increase in speed to 25 kt. The British ships steamed due south in an effort to overhaul the Italians with the 1st Cruiser Division to starboard and, about 6 miles (9 km) distant, the 2nd Cruiser Division to port.

The Italian destroyers were steaming to the south-east at high speed when they were spotted by Liverpool at 18.30 at a location about 120 miles (190 km) to the north of Tobruk. The cruiser opened fire three minutes later at a range of 18,000 yards (16460 m). In theory, the Italian destroyers possessed the speed to outrun the British cruisers but the combination of their age, heavy loads and the sea state meant that the British ships slowly overhauled them. The Italians had been taken by surprise and could not launch torpedoes because of their deck cargoes, on the other hand were difficult to hit as they made smoke, darkness gathered and the ships sailed toward the afterglow of the setting sun. At 19.05 Neptune reported torpedoes, and the British ships changed course to comb the spread. The 2nd Cruiser Division concentrated on Espero and by 19.20 had closed the range to 14,000 yards (12800 m), and the ships of the 1st Cruiser Division turned 50° to starboard to bring all their turrets to bear, but Espero was not hit until the fifteenth salvo. Baroni realised that his ships were doomed and decided to sacrifice Espero to enable the other two to escape, laid smoke and manoeuvred evasively as Zeffiro and Ostro raced away to the south-west. At 20.00, Espero was hit and brought to a stop.

As night was falling and his ships were short of ammunition, Tovey abandoned the chase 10 minutes later and changed course for Malta. Tovey ordered Sydney to sink Espero, but at a range of 6,000 yards (5485 m) was struck by two shells from Espero and replied with four salvoes, scoring hits. Espero began to burn from the bow to midships and at 20.35 Sydney closed to 2,000 yards (1830 m) astern of the destroyer. Men were jumping into the sea from the burning ship, and there was an explosion near the bridge. At 20.40, when listing almost 90°, Espero sank. Sydney lowered both of her boats to rescue survivors, and used Jacob’s ladders and bosun’s chairs to bring them aboard. The glare of the fires raging through Espero before she sank and the presence of Italian submarines led to the ending of the rescue effort at 22.19. when all 47 survivors in sight had been collected. Sydney left behind one of the cutters with oars, sails, food, water and rifles, illuminated with a signal projector so that any remaining survivors could spot and board it. Three of the rescued survivors died before Sydney reached Alexandria and six others were found alive on a raft by the Italian submarine Topazio some 14 days later.

Some of the prisoners on Sydney disclosed the purpose of the Italian operation, that Espero had a complement of 225 men, that there had been embarked passengers, and that Baroni had been killed in the explosion near the bridge. Other survivors, who included two officers, were later questioned by an Italian enquiry commission, and stated that Baroni had survived the explosion with only minor wounds but had decided to go down with his ship.

The engagement had lasted for about 2 hours 10 minutes, and in time time the warships of the 7th Cruiser Division had fired about 5,000 shells. An Italian 120-mm (4.7 in) shell had hit Liverpool about 3 ft (0.9 m) above the waterline but caused little damage. The ammunition consumption of the British cruisers worsened the existing ammunition shortage at Alexandria, where only 800 6-in (152-mm) shells were in stock, and the general conclusion was that the Battle of the Espero Convoy had fully demonstrated the fact that a daylight naval action at long range was likely to be both indecisive and wasteful of ammunition.

The 2nd Cruiser Division was so short of ammunition that it returned to Alexandria, while the 1st Cruiser Division reached Alexandria on 1 July, having also been bombed ineffectually. The AS.1 convoy from the Aegean Sea was attacked from 29 June to 1 July by Italian aircraft based in the Dodecanese islands group but reached Alexandria and Port Said undamaged on 2 and 3 July.

Ammunition shortage and the danger of Italian submarines led to the two-week postponement of the MF.1 and MS.1 convoys from Malta, and there followed the 'MF5' operation that led to the Battle of Calabria , known to the Italians as the Battle of Punta Stilo, on 9 July.

At dawn on 29 June, the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla caught the submarine Uebi Scebeli on the surface some 184 miles (296 km) to the west of Crete. The submarine dived and was depth charged by three of the destroyers, which forced the boat to the surface, where its survivors were rescued. Dainty sank the submarine with gunfire at 08.20. The destroyers then made for Alexandria, arriving at about 07.00 on 30 June. Italian prisoners spoke of a submarine patrol line between Crete and the African coast and two destroyers were therefore despatched from Alexandria to Derna on an anti-submarine sortie. The ships detected a submerged submarine on 1 July, attacked and claimed its sinking, but when the ships returned on 2 July the claim was disallowed. Zeffiro and Ostro had reached Benghazi on 29 June and arrived at Tobruk shortly after that. The smaller Pilo and Missori also reached Libya after being diverted to Tripoli.

On 5 July, nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers of the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 813 Squadron flew from Sidi Barrani, in the north-western region of Egypt, to attack the ships in Tobruk harbour. The Swordfish attack aircraft were escorted by 12 fighters of the RAF’s Nos 33 and 211 Squadrons, which also strafed the airfield, where they damaged eight Fiat CR.42 fighters. The Swordfish aircraft dropped seven torpedoes in the harbour and sank the destroyer Zeffiro, the merchantmen Manzoni and Serenitas. The destroyer Euro and the liner Liguria were damaged. On the evening after the attack, Aircraft of the FAA’s No 830 Squadron from Malta bombed the airfield at Catania in Sicily. Capetown and Caledon of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, together with four destroyers, bombarded the port of Bardia from 9,000 yards (8230 m) at dawn on 6 July and hit two ships, before standing by to assist the crews of any aircraft damaged in the course of the raid on Tobruk, and Italian aircraft attacked the ships to no effect. Zeffiro's guns were later salvaged from the harbour and sent to Bardia to augment the coastal defences protecting that port.