Operation Scilla


'Scilla' was the Italian transfer of the light cruiser Scipione Africano from a base in the Tyrrhenian Sea to Taranto in the Ionian Sea during the Allied 'Husky' (i) invasion of Sicily (17 July 1943).

The operation resulted in a night engagement between the Italian cruiser and four British motor torpedo boats during the cruiser’s transit of the Strait of Messina in the early hours of 17 July 1943, and was the only time that an Italian warship made an effective combat use of surface radar in World War II.

After the Allied landings in Sicily, the Italians expected that the Allies would soon seek to establish a naval blockade of the Strait of Messina, and ordered the movement of Scipione Africano to Taranto in the 'instep' of the Italian 'foot' to offset its shortage of fast cruisers in the Ionian Sea. In 'Scilla', therefore, the Italian cruiser departed the great naval base at La Spezia in north-western Italian on 15 July 1943 bound for Naples, which she reached the same evening, shadowed by a British seaplane. At Naples, Scipione Africano embarked an air liaison team and 'Metox' radar detection equipment. The cruiser sailed again at 18.15 on 16 July and entered the Strait of Messina at 02.00 in the early hours of the following day, with a full moon rising from the south.

Several days earlier, during the night of 12 July, the British motor torpedo boat MTB-81 had torpedoed and sunk Oberleutnant Fritz Henning’s U-561 in the northern approaches of this strait.

As she reached the strait, Scipione Africano, which had EC-3 ter Gufo search radar installed, spotted four small craft some 10,935 yards (10000 m) ahead of her, between Reggio di Calabria and Cape Pellaro. Capitano di Vascello Ernesto Pellegrini initially misidentified these as Axis motor ferry barges, but then at 02.13 Pellegrino decided that the agility of the leading unit meant that the craft were Allied motor torpedo boats. At this point Pellegrini ordered an increase in speed from 24 to 30 kt.

The motor torpedo boats were four Elco craft (MTB-260, MTB-313, MTB-315 and MTB-316) of the British 10th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla, currently based in the Sicilian port city of Augusta. The boats' mission was to locate and intercept Axis landing craft and S-boote, and the flotilla was commanded by Lieutenant D. Jermain, who was on board MTB-315 on this occasion and later reported that he and the other men of the 10th Motor Boat Flotilla had been taken completely by surprise with the boats' engines stopped some 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of Messina, in a flat calm with a full moon silhouetting the boats. As soon as the British did see Scipione Africano, Jermain ordered all the boats to start their engines and scatter. Without the time to make any signal, Jermain moved MTB-315 to the east, thus placing two boats on each side of Scipione Africano. Jermain’s plan was to make a feint with MTB-315, thereby attracting the attention of the cruiser, and thus facilitate an attack by his other boats.

Meanwhile, Pellegrini had altered course to 200 in order to pass between the second and third of he British boats, namely MTB-313 and MTB-316. The speed of the Italian cruiser took the British by surprise, so they were not ready to fire their torpedoes until Scipione Africano was only 1,500 yards (1370 m) distant from them. The Italian ship now started to fire all her guns with an accuracy that amazed even Pellegrini. The subsequent Italian report suggests that the engagement lasted no more than three minutes, and that the first British boat to be hit by rounds from the cruiser’s 5.3-in (135-mm) main gun was that closest to starboard, which was left in what the Italians believed sinking condition.This was MTB-313, which was only 300 yards (275 m) from the Italian warship. At this moment, MTB-313 was just launching its torpedoes as the Italian fire injured her commander officer in a leg and inflicted a mortal wound on a supernumerary officer: one of the boat’s torpedoes passed just ahead of its intended target. The boat then managed to limp away. The other motor torpedo boat on the cruiser’s starboard side was MTB-260, which is believed to have scored a torpedo hit on the cruiser. After being engaged Scipione Africano, MTB-260 escaped with only minor damage: the Italian report stated that the boat had been set on fire.

The next of the boats to receive Italian attention was MTB-316, which was a mere 50 yards (46 m) off Scipione Africano's port side. The boat caught fire and blew up just a few seconds after the cruiser’s salvoes struck it, and was lost with all 12 men on board. The explosion took place so close to the cruiser that pieces of MTB-316's machinery and hull fell aboard Scipione Africano.

Scipione Africano was followed down the Strait of Messina by MTB-315 and MTB-260 until she turned to port for Taranto. Pellegrini reported that one of the boats on the cruiser’s port side launched two torpedoes, which were evaded, and this MTB-315 was then taken under fire by the cruiser’s 20-mm cannon. During the last phase of the action, the Italian cruiser endured the 'friendly fire' shelling of German and Italian coastal artillery, which resulted in splinter damage and injuries to two men. British sources recorded an air attack on Scipione Africano by Axis aircraft, but this was not mentioned in Pellegrino’s report.

On the night of 18/19 July another British boat, MTB-75, was hit and seriously damaged by shore batteries in the Strait of Messina, while on the evening of 19 July, an unidentified U-boat was depth-charged by British small craft but just managed to escape off Reggio di Calabria.

After her passage into the Ionian Sea, Scipione Africano reached Taranto at 09.46 on the the same day. From 4 to 17 August the cruiser worked with the older cruiser Luigi Cadorna to lay four minefields in the Gulf of Taranto and Gulf of Squillace. On 9 September, the day after the Cassibile armistice between Italy and the Allied powers was made public, Scipione Africano escorted the corvette Baionetta as the latter delivered the head of the new Italian government, Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, his cabinet and the Italian royal family from Brindisi to Malta, first fighting off a number of air attacks.