This was a British naval undertaking by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet to support the operation to resupply Malta from Alexandria by means of the MW.10 convoy, and which resulted in the 2nd Battle of Sirte (21/24 March 1942).
Sometimes referenced as ‘Salvation’, the operation was planned by Cunningham as his last major convoy undertaking before leaving the Mediterranean theatre to become First Sea Lord and being succeeded on 22 April 1942 by Admiral Sir Henry Harwood. The result was a modest tactical victory for the Italian navy, which nonetheless could not exploit its gun advantage and therefore failed to sink or even cripple even one of the convoy’s merchantmen. Nevertheless, the Italian force did inflict some damage on the escorting British warships without any casualties of its own. The Italian success also disrupted the British plan for the MW.10 convoy to reach Malta before dawn with a substantial escort in order to allow the unloading of cargo by night and therefore relatively unscathed by Axis air attack. In consequence, Italian and German air attacks on the convoy during the next two days destroyed most of the ships before they could reach Malta and deliver their supplies.
By 1942, sea and air operations in the Mediterranean had increased considerably in tempo over the levels of 1941, with both the Italian and German air forces trying to check British attempts to run east/west supply convoys to the British and commonwealth forces in North Africa, and the British sea and air forces based in Malta and also in North Africa similarly attempting to sever the Axis north/south convoy link across the Sicilian Narrows between Italy and North Africa.
Malta had long been a major factor in the success of the Royal Navy and the RAF against similar missions by the Italian navy and air force, and was receiving increasing Axis attention by the early spring of 1942. As Malta was running short of aircraft, fuel and ammunition, the MW.10 convoy of four merchantmen (9,776-ton commissioned Breconshire, 7,255-ton Clan Campbell, 5,415-ton Pampas and 6,798-ton Talabot), departed Alexandria on the morning of 20 March to deliver supplies to the island in an undertaking against which the British expected opposition from German and Italian aircraft as well as Italian surface units.
However, the British deemed the Italian surface threat less serious than that from the air because a succession of British naval successes in the Mediterranean in 1941 had convinced them that the Regia Marina had become timid. It was therefore believed that a close escort of the light anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle and the six ‘Hunt’ class escort destroyers of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla (Avon Vale, Beaufort, Dulverton, Eridge, Hurworth and Southwold joining the operation from Tobruk) would constitute sufficient strength to handle Italian air and submarine threats, with a distant escort of three light cruisers and escorting destroyers more than adequate to deal with any probable Italian surface threat; Heythrop was torpedoed and damaged by Oberleutnant Georg-Werner Fraatz’s U-652 on 20 March, however, and though taken in tow by Eridge sank off Bardia.
The distant escort comprised Rear Admiral P. L. Vian’s 15th Cruiser Squadron (light anti-aircraft cruisers Cleopatra, Dido and Euryalus), the 14th Destroyer Flotilla (Jervis, Kelvin, Kingston and Kipling) and the 22nd Destroyer Flotilla (Hasty, Havock, Hero, Lance, Lively, Sikh and Zulu). Additional capability was supplied by the forces on Malta, in the form of the light cruiser Penelope, destroyer Legion, and submarines P 34, Unbeaten and Upholder.
In the event of an Italian surface attack, the British planned to divide their strength, with the light cruisers and half of the destroyers hanging back to lay smoke and delay the Italians, while Carlisle and the remaining destroyers proceeded with the transport vessels to Malta.
At 14.10 on 22 March the convoy’s look-outs spotted smoke on the horizon. The British now learned to their surprise that the opposition was not the expected small force of high-speed warships, but rather cruisers and escorting destroyers, in the form of Ammiraglio di Divisione Angelo Parona’s 2a Divisione Incrociatori (heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, light cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere) and the destroyers Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere and Lanciere. Nonetheless, Vian immediately implemented the pre-arranged plan: the transport vessels and their escorts headed straight toward Malta, while the light cruisers and remaining destroyers laid smoke in an effort to hide the departing convoy and then charged the Italians.
After an exchange of fire, the two Italian heavy cruisers backed off, but soon returned with reinforcements, in the form of Ammiraglio di Squadra Angelo Iachino’s battleship Littorio and destroyers Alfredo Oriani, Ascari, Aviere, Geniere, Grecale and Scirocco.
There followed a 150-minute engagement in which the British ships darted out of the their large smoke screen, fired a few salvoes and turned back into the smoke when the Italian fire started to come too close. At 18.30 the British decided to force the issue and launched their destroyers to deliver torpedo attacks from about 11,000 yards (10060 m), the closest the Italians would allow the British to approach. None of the torpedoes hit their targets, but Havock and Kingston were each hit by 15-in (381-mm) shells from Littorio. Meanwhile Littorio had been hit but suffered only superficial damage, while a cruiser was on fire but not severely damaged.
As darkness fell, the Italians turned for home at about 19.00 as their ships were not equipped with radar and would therefore have been at a significant disadvantage in a night action. Though the Italians outgunned their British counterparts and could have easily charged the convoy with either of their two groups, they appeared unwilling to close for a decisive blow, perhaps for fear of torpedoes from the numerically superior British destroyer force. The cruiser Cleopatra had one of her turrets destroyed by the fire of Giovanni delle Bande Nere, with the loss of 16 men, and the cruisers Euryalus and Penelope were also damaged. A direct hit on Havock killed at least 12 men and left the destroyer dead in the water for a time, although she was later able to get under way. Kingston was also badly damaged amidships and lost 13 men killed. Lively was forced to retreat to Tobruk for repairs. Three other destroyers, Sikh, Legion and Lance, suffered lesser damage.
Most of the escort force, now short of fuel and ammunition, turned back toward Alexandria.
The damaged destroyers and the convoy were sent on to Malta with Carlisle, Penelope and Legion, and on 23 March they came under continuous air attacks. The merchantman Clan Campbell was sunk 20 miles (32 km) from harbour, the 9,776-ton fast transport Breconshire was damaged and anchored outside the harbour and the merchantman Pampas was hit by two bombs which failed to exploded, so only the merchantman Talabot reached Grand Harbour intact. Breconshire was later towed to a protected bay.
On 24 March German dive-bombers appeared, hitting all three of the remaining ships. Breconshire rolled over in the bay, but much of her oil was salvaged through the hole in her hull, and Talabot and Pampas were sunk in the harbour. By this point only unloading had removed only some 5,000 tons of the 26,000 tons of cargo which had been loaded in Alexandria.
The slow speed at which the unloading had been taking place before the German air attack led to a great scandal between the military and civil dockyard authorities of the island, and as a result the planning and implementation of a much better effort for the next convoy.
The Italians were no more lucky than the British after the battle. After failing to destroy the convoy, they were caught en route back to Italy by a severe storm, which sank the destroyers Scirocco and Lanciere.