Operation Zuwarah

'Zuwarah' was the British destruction of a small Italian naval force off the coast of Libya as an Italian flotilla of small minesweepers and auxiliary vessels evacuating Tripoli was met by two destroyers (19/20 January 1943).

On 15 January 1943, the British destroyers Kelvin and Nubian, blockading the port of Tripoli in Libya, had forced the Italian torpedo boat Perseo to retire damaged and then sunk the 4,537-ton D’Annunzio, a merchant vessel attempting to escape from Tripoli as the Allied land forces closed on this city, on 15 January. On the night of 19/20 January, the British destroyers Kelvin and Javelin, under the command of Commander M. S. Townsend, were on patrol off Zuwarah in Libya to cut off the escape of the last Italian ships from Tripoli.

The Type 271 surface-search radar on Javelin detected ships heading toward the Tunisian coast from the direction of Tripoli. These vessels were Rank Tenente di Vascello Giuseppe di Bartolo’s Tripoli minesweeping flotilla, which had been instructed to depart the city for Tunisia and thence Italy in order to avoid capture. The flotilla comprising four small minesweeping tugs (RD 31, RD 36, RD 37 and RD 39, of which the last two were manned by Guardia di Finanza rather than naval crews), the trawler Scorfano that was the largest vessel in the convoy, the small tanker Irma, the auxiliary minesweepers DM 12, Guglielmo Marconi that was a requisitioned brigantine, R 26 (Angelo Musco) and R 224 (Cinzia) that were former fishing vessels, the auxiliary patrol vessel V 66 (Astrea) that was a motor sailing vessel, and the pump boat Santa Barbara that was being towed by Scorfano.

Javelin and Kelvin moved to intercept the Italian ships, which they illuminated with star shells but mistook for an Italian convoy. Under heavy fire, the Italians were able neither to fight back effectively (each of the minesweepers being armed with just one 76-mm/3-in gun and two 6.5-mm machine guns, while the other ships carried only machine guns) nor to escape as they were considerably slower than the destroyers. RD 36, the flotilla leader, tried to cover the retreat of the other ships but was soon sunk with the loss of all hands. The other vessels, fleeing toward the coast to allow their crews to escape, were picked off singly. RD 37 and Scorfano were sunk with no survivors; Marconi was set on fire but all of her crew escaped before she sank' and Irma was destroyed by a torpedo.

By the morning of 20 January, the flotilla had been wholly destroyed. Kelvin and Javelin had expended 300 and 500 4.7-in (119-mm) rounds respectively. The two British destroyers then headed for Malta, which they reached safely on the following day.

The Italians lost 180 men killed, and the survivors either swam ashore or were recovered by Italian vessels on the next day.