Operation Tarigo

'Tarigo' was an Italian convoy operation leading to an action between British and Italian destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea (13/16 April 1941).

Known to the British as the Action off Sfax, the episode pitted four British destroyers under the command of Captain P. J. Mack against three Italian destroyers under the command of Capitano Pietro de Cristofaro, and is known to the Italians as the Battle of the Tarigo Convoy after the Italian flagship, the destroyer Luca Tarigo.

The action was fought near the Kerkennah islands off the coast of Tunisia, and took place within the context of the fact that southbound Axis convoys between Italy and North Africa were vital to the resupply, re-equipment and reinforcement of the German and Italian armies in North Africa, and British naval and air attacks on these convoys were launched most often from Malta, which was itself dependent upon east/west convoys.

In the middle of April 1941 an Axis convoy comprising four German troopships, carrying some 3,000 men, and one Italian ammunition ship (4,205-ton Adana, 2,447-ton Aegina, 2,452-ton Arta, 3,704-ton Iserlohn and 1,590-ton Sabaudia) departed Naples for Tripoli under escort of the destroyers Luca Tarigo, Baleno and Lampo. The convoy was delayed by bad weather.

The British had been forewarned of the convoy’s passage by 'Ultra' intelligence and, on 15 April, the convoy was sighted and shadowed by a British reconnaissance aeroplane. The Italians ordered two Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero bombers to provide air cover, but these did not arrive as a result of the continuing adverse weather.

On the night of 16 April the convoy was intercepted by the 14th Destroyer Flotilla comprising Jervis, Janus, Nubian and Mohawk as it manoeuvred around the shallow waters surrounding the Kerkennah islands. The Italian convoy was ambushed by the British force after passing one of the buoys marking the nearby sandbanks. The British destroyers' radar enabled them to surprise the Italians in a night attack and destroy the convoy, sinking all the transports and the three destroyers, although Lampo was run aground and later salvaged after an effort lasting four months. While sinking, Tarigo torpedoed the Mohawk, which was subsequently scuttled. The Axis casualties are variously reported as 350, 700 and 1,800 men, while the British lost 43 men.

On the day after the action, the Italian naval headquarters in Libya despatched the destroyers Ugolino Vivaldi, Antonio da Noli, Lanzerotto Malocello and Dardo, the torpedo boats Cigno, Clio, Centauro, Giuseppe Missori, Generale Achille Papa, Partenope and Perseo, and the hospital ships Arno and Giuseppe Orlando, together with a significant force of aircraft, in an effort to locate and recover survivors, of whom 1,271 were rescued.

Italian naval forces also located the wreckage of Mohawk, lying on her port side in shallow water, and between April and June 1941 Italian divers, disguised as local fishermen, retrieved documents and other material from the British destroyer’s wreck.

In a four-month effort, the Italians also salvaged Lampo from the shallow water in which she lay, and by May 1942 the vessel had been repaired. She was sunk once again on 30 April 1943. Adana sank several hours after the engagement, while the wreck of Arta was destroyed with explosive charges by the crew of the British submarine Upholder on the night of 26/27 April 1941.