Operation H (ii)

'H' (ii) was an Italian convoy operation from Palermo in Sicily to Bizerte in North Africa (1/4 December 1942).

On 1 December, Force 'Q' departed port to locate and then to attack Axis shipping on the convoy route from Trapani in western Sicily to Tunis as the Axis forces attempted to establish and consolidate their 'Braun' (ii) lodgement in north-eastern Tunisia following the Allied 'Torch' landings in French North-West Africa and subsequent advance to the east. At this time there were four such convoys at sea, comprising 13 merchant vessels escorted by seven destroyers and 12 torpedo boats. Three convoys were ordered to return after being spotted by British reconnaissance aircraft, but 'H' (ii) continued toward Tunis and was then overflown by aircraft during the night of 1/2 December. Air-dropped flares marked the course of the ships, and at 00.30 Force 'Q' spotted the Italian ships on radar at a position some 69 miles (110 km) to the north-east of Bizerte.

The convoy comprised three Italian freighters, in the form of the 3,861-ton Aventino, 2,422-ton Puccini and 976-ton Aspromonte, as well as the German 850-ton military transport KT-1, and these were carrying 1,766 troops, 698 tons of cargo (mainly ammunition), four tanks, 32 other vehicles and 12 pieces of artillery. The importance of the convoy is attested by the fact that it had a strong escort in the form of the destroyers Nicoloso da Recco, Camicia Nera and Folgore as well as the torpedo boats Procione and Clio under the command of Capitano Aldo Cocchia.

Cocchia sent Procione ahead to sweep for mines. The Italian naval high command had emphasised the importance of the convoy keeping in close formation, but realising that there were British warships in the area, Cocchia ordered the convoy to make a 90 turn top the south-south-east at 00.01. At 00.17 Cocchia ordered a turn to the west-south-west, and thus the convoy should have dog-legged 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. KT-1 had no radio, failed to follow Puccini and thus strayed to the north-west.

On 2 December the British submarine Seraph torpedoed and damaged Puccini, and shortly after this Rear Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt’s Force 'Q' appeared on the scene with the light cruisers Aurora, Sirius and Argonaut and the destroyers Quentin and Australian Quiberon near the Skerki Bank.

At 00.27, Force 'Q', steaming at 20 kt, reached the convoy. da Recco was on a course to the west-south-west, ahead of Aventino, Clio and Aspromonte. Puccini and Folgore were side-by-side, some 6,000 yards (5500 m) astern of da Recco, heading to the south-south-west; Camicia Nera was 3,000 yards (2750 m) to the north of Puccini, and Procione was minesweeping 6,000 yards (5500 m) to the south of 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 British ships opened fire on KT-1, which exploded. Argonaut and Quiberon opened fire on Procione (or possibly da Recco) as Cocchia ordered the escorts to attack. Force 'Q' passed round the shattered KT-1, and Argonaut fired and launched a torpedo at KT-1 and then at 00.39 steamed to the north-east to what turned out to be a false contact. After a couple of minutes, Argonaut fired at Camicia Nera as the Italian ship advanced to the attack. Aurora also engaged the Italian destroyer under the impression that it was a merchant ship. Camicia Nera turned and launched six torpedoes in two minutes from 00.43 at a range of 2,200 yards (2000 m) and then turned to the north, amidst shell splashes. Aspromonte was 900 yards (825 m) to the left of Aurora and Aventino was at this time 4,000 yards (3650 m) distant. 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 (1375 m), and then turned away. Sirius caught a freighter in one of her searchlights and at 00.50 Folgore turned tightly to port and fired her last three torpedoes at the searchlight. The torpedoes missed, but two hits were claimed by mistake. Folgore made to the south-west at 27 kt, but at 00.52 was hit by nine 5.25-in (133-mm) shells from Argonaut: these caused severe flooding and a large fire. Folgore listed by 20 and 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 then headed toward the south-west. Clio began to make smoke, firing at searchlights and gun flashes, and da Recco tried to make a torpedo attack.

At 00.55 Quiberon broke formation to attack Clio, was bracketed by return fire. Sirius and Argonaut were engaging Puccini, and at 00.58 Argonaut launched a torpedo at Puccini then soon after this another torpedo to port at Aventino, which was on fire. At 01.12 Sirius also launched a torpedo at Aventino, which exploded and sank. At 01.16 Quiberon steamed through water full of survivors and attacked Puccini, and at 01.12 Quentin followed Quiberon, the fire of both the British destroyers setting Puccini on fire. Meanwhile Aurora was engaging Aspromonte, which started to sink. The British cruisers changed target to Clio, but after five minutes Clio escaped without damage. da Recco had approached to within 4,500 yards (4115 m) of Force 'Q' by 01.30 and launched torpedoes, all of which missed. Shell hits from Sirius, Quiberon and Quentin killed 118 members of the Italian destroyers' crew when there was an explosion in her forward 120-mm (4.72-in) ammunition handling room, and left da Recco stopped in the water, eventually to be towed to port by Pigafetta. The British ships completed their circuit round the Italian ships and set course for Bne.

Force 'Q' was attacked by Luftwaffe torpedo bombers at 06.30 on 3 December, sinking Quentin, probably with a torpedo or possible a 1,102-lb (500-kg) bomb, and damaging Quiberon.

The British ships also sank all three of the merchant vessels.

Some 200 men of the Italian navy and merchant marine had been killed, and 1,527 troops embarked on Aventino and Puccini had also lost their lives. The crew of Folgore suffered 126 casualties, that of da Recco 118, that of Aspromonte 39 and that of Procione three.

The Battle of the Skerki Bank battle was over, and was otherwise notable for the fact that Sirius emerged totally unscathed despite the fact that Camicia Nera engaged her a ranges as short as 2,190 yards (2000 m), evaded several torpedoes and was strongly involved in the sinking of several of the Axis ships.

As the British ships broke away from the destroyed Italian convoy, they came under level and torpedo bombing attack off Galita by Savoia-Marchetti bombers, which scored no hits but lost four of their own number when they came under attack from Supermarine Spitfire fighters, of which one was lost. German Junkers Ju 88 bombers also intervened, and Quentin was sunk by a 1,102-lb (500-kg) bomb or perhaps a torpedo from one of these machines.

The Italian submarines Asteria, Dandolo, Giada and Nichelio were on patrol in the area, but made no contact.

Force 'Q' had thus sunk 7,800 tons of shipping during the course of a wholly one-sided engagement for no damage but the impact of splinters to their own ships. Just after dawn, however, as Force 'Q' was on its passage back to Bne, Quentin was sunk by a torpedo bomber. The Battle of the Skerki Bank was a major 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 close range. The convoy had been attacked while disorganised and could not achieve anything in the way of a co-ordinated response. After more than two years of war, the Italian navy was still incapable of the accurate aiming of torpedoes at night, partly because the service had accepted claims of torpedo hits uncritically, which obscured the significance of the failing.

At 16.00 on 1 December, the 14th Destroyer Flotilla of Force 'K', comprising Jervis, Javelin, Nubian and Kelvin, departed Malta, untroubled by Axis aircraft, to attack the 'C' convoy, which comprised the merchant ships Veloce and Chisone as they passaged toward Tripoli, escorted by the torpedo boats Ardente, Aretusa and Lupo. Near the Kerkenah Banks, Fairey Albacore aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm torpedoed Veloce, which was carrying benzene and caught fire, burning brightly. Force 'K' sailed toward the illumination as Lupo prepared to take on survivors, and the rest of the convoy hugged the coast. Jervis illuminated Lupo with a searchlight and opened fire at a range of 2,000 yards (1850 m), surprising the Italian torpedo boat and destroying her bridge. The rest of the flotilla now entered the fray and Lupo was unable to reply, all but 12 of her crew being killed as the vessel sank; the blazing Veloce sank a few minutes after Lupo. The rest of the convoy stole away into the shallow water of the Kerkenah Banks.