Operation Souda Bay Raid

The 'Souda Bay Raid' was an Italian attack with explosive-laden motor boats on British ships in Souda Bay on the north coast of the Greek island of Crete (26 March 1941).

The motor boats were launched by the destroyers Francesco Crispi and Quintino Sella on the approaches to the bay and, after negotiating the boom defences, these small craft attacked the British heavy cruiser York and the 8,300-ton Norwegian tanker Pericles. Both of these Allied vessels were sunk in shallow water by the explosive charges, and were eventually lost.

Souda Bay is a naturally protected harbour on Crete’s north-west coast, and was selected as a target by the 10a Flottiglia MAS months before as it was used steadily by the almost continuous Allied naval activity. Late in March 19412, Italian air reconnaissance had seen that there were a number of naval and auxiliary steamers at anchor in the bay.

On 25 March, the Italian destroyers Francesco Crispi and Quintino Sella departed their base on Lėros in the Aegean Sea’s Italian-occupied Dodecanese islands group. Each of the destroyers was carrying three Motoscafi da Turismo, each carrying a 661-lb (300-kg) explosive charge in its bow. The MTs were specially equipped to make their way through obstacles such as torpedo nets, and were adapted sp that the 'pilot' could steer his craft onto a collision course with his target and then jump overboard before it hit its target and the warhead detonated.

At 23.30, the MTs were released by the destroyers some 8.7 10 miles (16 km) off Souda Bay. Once inside the bay, the six boats, under the command of Tenente di Vascello Luigi Faggioni, identified their targets: the heavy cruiser York, the tanker Pericles, another tanker and a cargo ship. At 04.46, two MTs hit York amidships, blowing open her hull and allowing the flooding her aft boilers and magazines. The ship was beached by her crew to avoid capsizing. Two British 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. According to British reports, the other barchini (little boats) apparently missed their intended targets, and one of them was stranded on the beach. The base’s anti-aircraft guns opened fire randomly, believing that the base was under air attack.

All six of the Italian sailors survived and were taken prisoner.

York was disabled and grounded, though her anti-aircraft guns still provided air defence for the harbour. On 21 March two divers assessing damage were killed by the near miss of a bomb during an air attack. A salvage operation involving the submarine Rover, was was despatched from Alexandria to assist York with electrical power, was abandoned because 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 'Merkur' capture of Crete. Pericles was taken in tow by destroyers, but broke in two and sank on 14 April 1941 during a storm while she was en route to Alexandria.

The sinking of York was the source of a controversy between the Regia Marina and the Luftwaffe, both of which claimed the credit for sinking her. 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-sunken cruiser. After the war, York's hull York was raised and towed to Bari for scrapping in March 1952.