Operation Raid on Soudha Bay

The 'Raid on Soudha Bay' was an assault by Italian explosive-filled motor boats of the Regia Marina on the Allied ships in Soudha Bay on the northern coast of the island of Crete (26 March 1941).

The motor boats were launched from the destroyers Francesco Crispi and Quintino Sella in the approaches to the bay and, after negotiating the boom defences, the small craft attacked the British heavy cruiser York and the Free Norwegian tanker Pericles. Both of the Allied vessels sank in shallow water and were eventually deemed lost.

Soudha Bay is a naturally protected harbour on the north-western coast of the island of Crete, and had been selected as a target by the 10a Flottiglia MAS months before on the basis of the almost continuous Allied naval activity there. Air reconnaissance had spotted a number of naval and auxiliary vessels at anchor in Soudha Bay.

On the night of 25 March 1941, the destroyers Francesco Crispi and Quintino Sella departed Léros island in the Italian-held Dodecanese islands group of the Aegean Sea, each destroyer carrying three 2-ton Motoscafo da Turismo motor assault boats of the 10a Flottiglia MAS. Each of the little boats, known familiarly as barchini (little boats), carried a 300-kg (660-lb) explosive charge inside its bow, and the MTs were specially equipped to make their way through obstacles such as torpedo nets. Each pilot then steered his boat onto a collision course at his target ship, and then jumped overboard before impact and warhead detonation.

At 23.30, the MTs were released by the destroyers 10 miles (16 km) off Soudha bay. Once inside the bay, the six boats, under the command of Tenente Luigi Faggioni, identified their targets: the heavy cruiser York, the 8,300-ton Norwegian tanker Pericles, another tanker and a cargo ship. At 04.46, two MTs hit York amidships, the resulting detonations flooding her aft boiler rooms and magazines, and the ship was beached by her own crew to avoid capsizing. Two seamen were killed by the explosions. Pericles was severely damaged and settled on the bottom, while the other tanker and the cargo ship were sunk, according to Italian sources, although British reports suggest that the other barchini missed their intended targets, and one of them ended stranded on the beach. The base’s anti-aircraft guns opened fire randomly in the belief that the base was under air attack. All six of the Italian seamen were taken prisoner.

York was disabled and grounded, though her anti-aircraft guns were still operable and provided air defence for the harbour. On 21 March two divers assessing damage were killed by a near miss during an air attack. A salvage operation involving the submarine Rover, despatched from Alexandria to assist York with electrical power, was abandoned as a resul of the intensity of the air attacks, which damaged the submarine and forced her return to Egypt. The cruiser was evacuated and her main guns were wrecked with demolition charges by her crew before the German victory in the 'Battle of Crete'. Pericles was taken in tow by destroyers, but broke in two and sank on 14 April 1941 on passage to Alexandria during a storm.

The sinking of York became a matter of controversy between the Regia Marina and the Luftwaffe over credit for her sinking. The matter was resolved by British war records and by the ship’s own war log, captured by Italian naval officers who boarded the half-sunk cruiser. After the war, York's hull was raised and towed to Bari in south-eastern Italy for scrapping in March 1952.