“Following the launch of the attack of the 8th British Army on November 18,1941, the supply needs of Libya from Italy became even more acute, especially after the destruction of a large convoy [see: “The supply of Libya- Part I” ]. All kinds of ships were used to transport supplies; even cruisers transporting gasoline tanks placed on their deck, in spite of the great risks that this entailed in case of an enemy encounter.
On the night of November 20, 4 convoys left simultaneously for Libya, the 2 most important from Naples and the remaining from Navarino and Taranto, while a cruiser sailing independently transported fuel. The convoys that departed from Naples consisted of 4 large cargo ships under the protection of 5 cruisers and 7 escorts, while the other 2 consisted of 3 ships in total escorted by only 3 destroyers, as they were no other available.
The night of November 21, the 2 convoys that had been merged into one formation were detected by the enemy reconnaissance, violent night air bombings followed and air torpedoes critically hit the cruisers RN TRIESTE and RN DUCA DEGLI ABRUZZI.
In spite of the seriousness of the damages and the continuous attacks of the enemy Air force, the 2 ships sailing at low speed reached Messina.
In the meantime information was received that force “K” of Malta was on her way to the battlefield. As only 2 cruisers remained for the protection of the convoy – part of the force had been assigned to the support of the RN DUCA DEGLI ABRUZZI that was in danger – the Supermarina ordered the convoy to change course and head to Taranto.
The occupation of the British with the Naples convoys allowed the 3 ships of the other 2 convoys and the cruiser that was transporting fuel to reach Benghazi undisturbed. The most important part of the mission was however unable to reach its destination and the Italian Navy had to go without 2 cruisers for several months.
After these last destructions, the Italians decided to allocate the supply ships for Libya in even smaller convoys of 1 to 2 ships, sailing simultaneously but dispersed. In parallel, the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet decided, in spite of the intensive employment of his ships for the supply by sea of the armies fighting in Libya and the support of the operations with the ship guns, to assign cruisers and destroyers from Alexandria in attack missions against the Italian transports.
On November 24, 1941, several Italian convoys were sailing under such formations. These movements were detected by British reconnaissance and on the night of that same day force “K” left Malta to execute a sweep of the area. On the next day dawn an Italian submarine detected this force and all convoys were then ordered to change course. The order was not received by one of the convoys and suddenly came upon the cruiser HMS PENELOPE and one destroyer. The convoy consisted of 2 ships escorted by 2 small destroyers. The escorts attacked the British force with torpedoes, but their attack was unsuccessful. The British sunk the 2 cargo ships, while the escorts escaped. This operation however indirectly caused to the British a serious loss.
As soon as the above-mentioned convoys were detected, a force of cruisers and destroyers was sent to meet them. Finally, the force didn’t make any encounter.
In parallel, the main force with 3 battleships and 8 destroyers had sailed from Alexandria to cover the light forces in case of sortie of the enemy battle Fleet. On the evening of November 25, while the British battleships were patrolling between Crete and Libya, a German submarine launched successfully 3 torpedoes against the battleship HMS BARHAM. The ship sunk in a few minutes and with it 806 seamen, 55 officers and its commander. Among the 450 saved was Vice-Admiral Wippel. The submarine launched its torpedoes from a position of about 200 meters ahead the battleship HMS VALIANT that was following the HMS BARHAM. Admiral Cunningham rightly characterizes the submarine’s action as very bold and bright.
On November 29, 1941, an operation of simultaneous dispatch to Benghazi was repeated with 6 supply ships assigned to 5 groups. One sailed without escort and 1-2 destroyers escorted the rest. A force of 3 cruisers and 3 destroyers was patrolling in Central Mediterranean offering coverage, while another consisting of the battleship RN DUILIO, 1 cruiser and 6 destroyers had left Taranto as contingency. In spite of these measures, this operation also proved catastrophic.
Soon after its departure from Navarino, a tanker was detected by British reconnaissance, suffered damages from air bombing and was forced to reverse course. From the remaining 5, only 1 finally reached its destination. 2 were sunk and 1 was damaged and forced to seek refuge in the port of Argostoli, following enemy air attacks.
Malta’s force “K”, that had been reinforced with the cruisers HMS AJAX and HMS NEPTUNE and with 2 destroyers and now disposed 4 cruisers, sunk one of the cargo ships and the destroyer RN DA MOSTO, while it was busy with saving shipwrecked seamen of one of the cargo ships sunk by the air force. That destroyer, for which Admiral Cunningham expresses his admiration, had to face far superior forces, but resisted courageously and after having launched all his torpedoes continued firing with its guns until it disappeared under the water.
Then, the British ships passed slowly in a production line over the area it had sunk, thus awarding military honors to an enemy whose attitude they had appreciated.
November 1941, proved to be a very critical month for the Italians. As previously noted, from the supplies dispatched to Libya 62% were lost. In the course of 20 days 13 cargo ships and 3 destroyers sunk and 2 cruisers and various other ships suffered damages.
It had become apparent to the Italians that it wouldn’t be possible to secure the supply of Libya, unless the air force of Malta was disabled, because especially at night Italian ships were powerless to confront her. Mussolini was thus forced once more to appeal to Hitler and ask for the help of the German Air force that re-appeared in the Mediterranean in December 1941. The results of its presence soon became noticeable. 175 air attacks were executed in December and more than 275 in January 1942, against only 50 in October 1941. In parallel, British attacks against the supply lines of the Axis in North Africa started to decrease.
After the beginning of the westward retreat of the Axis forces of Libya, Tobruk was freed. It’s supply from the sea for 8 months had caused many losses for the British Fleet of the Mediterranean. During these missions, 27 small war ships had sunk, out of which 2 destroyers, and 27 more, out of which 7 destroyers had suffered damages.
On the night of December 13-14, the Italians lost the cruisers RN DA BARBIANO and RN DA GIUSSANO that were transporting fuel to Libya. They were loaded with gasoline tanks that had been placed in every available space. Suddenly, while they were sailing near Cape Bon, they came upon 4 enemy destroyers, which sailing in the opposite direction in a production line hit with 3 torpedoes each cruiser from close range. The gasoline ignited and the battle lasted just 2 minutes. In spite of the dispatch of ships to save the living, losses exceeded 900 men, including the Admiral onboard.
RN DA GIUSSANO
On the same night, the Italians had undertaken another supply operation. It was to have an equally disastrous ending. 5 supply ships had been assigned to 3 convoys, escorted by a total of 8 destroyers. For each of the 2 more important 1 battleship and 2 cruisers had been assigned for protection. The 2 large battleships RN LITTORIO and RN VITTORIO VENETO were providing strategic coverage with a screen of only 4 destroyers, as they were no more available.
On that same day, a force of cruisers and destroyers had sailed for Alexandria with instruction to rendezvous on the night of December 14-15, with Malta’s “K” force. The Supermarina had been informed of this mission by decryption of enemy radiograms, but was not aware of the types of ships. Thus, on the simple assumption that the main force of the Alexandria Fleet had departed – while she was in her harbor- all the convoys and the forces at sea were ordered to reverse course, until the situation was cleared. The result was, that not only the supply was canceled but Italian ships were also damaged. 2 of the supply ships on their way back to Argostoli collided and were provisionally placed out of service. The battleship RN VITTORIO VENETO, which was hit by a submarine torpedo near a powder magazine, succeeded to sail to Taranto, but suffered damages that required many months of repairs and had large personnel losses. In addition, enemy submarines in the Gulf of Taranto sank 2 cargo ships sailing to meet the following convoy.
It is quite doubtful whether the actions of the Supreme Command of the Italian Navy were appropriate in this case. The order given all ships to reverse course was eventually correct, given that the Italian forces were dispersed and ignored the actions of the enemy battle Fleet. The Italians knew however from previous experience that getting exact information on enemy movements from air reconnaissance was quite improbable and there was therefore the risk one of the groups – into which the Italian Fleet had been distributed- to suddenly encounter a superior firepower force. It would have been preferable, all the ships to merge in a single convoy with very powerful coverage from all the disposable forces. In such a case, even if they were to encounter the Alexandria Fleet they would have disposed superior firepower.
During that operation the British had also a loss. When the force that had sailed from Alexandria was heading back to base, a German submarine sank the cruiser HMS GALATEA.
Following the British advance in Libya in December 1941, conditions become even more difficult for the Italian Navy. After evacuating by sea the naval installations and personnel serving in the ports that had been seized, they had to secure at any price the supply of the forces of the Axis using the ports that had remained. A new mission thus started in which all available naval forces and the German and Italian air forces were used.
On December 16, a convoy of 4 large ships sailed from Naples, escorted by 8 destroyers. South of the Straits of Messina there was a second line of support with the battleship RN DUILIO, 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers and even further out a strategic coverage with the battleships RN LITTORIO, RN DORIA, and RN CESARE, 2 cruisers and 10 destroyers. At the same time a British force of 3 cruisers and 7 destroyers was at sea, under Rear-Admiral Vian, escorting a tanker to Malta. On the night of December 16, 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers sailed out of Malta to meet Vian’s force and accompany the tanker to its destination.
On the morning of December 17, a German airplane detected the Vian force, took the tanker for a battleship and reported the presence of a formation consisting of 1 battleship, 2-3 cruisers and about 12 destroyers on a westward course. The Italians concluded from this report that the British force was heading to attack the Italian convoy. They were reinforced in this opinion when air reconnaissance also reported the departure of the Malta force.
The commander in Chief of the British Fleet had been informed from submarine reports on the night of December 16, of the presence of the main force of the Italian Fleet in the Gulf of Taranto. When he received this information he ordered the dispatch from Malta of all available ships to reinforce Vian’s force and set to the Admiral as main objective until the night of December 17, the safety of the tanker. Then would detach the tanker for Malta and would sail to execute a torpedo attack against the enemy force. The British battleships of Alexandria couldn’t participate in the operation, as there was no destroyer screen available for them.
The two British forces merged at dawn of December 17, and all the formation including the tanker continued its westward course under continuous but unsuccessful air bombings. The British reconnaissance had detected the main enemy force, but the information given about enemy movements wasn’t exact and suddenly Admiral Vian at 17:45 came upon the RN LITTORIO group that was sailing between his force and his destination.
Admiral Iachino who was aboard the RN LITTORIO as soon as he was informed of the report about the British formation he rushed to meet it. The Italian ships opened fire from a distance of 32,000 meters at around 17:53, when it started getting dark. Having to confront the Italian Fleet with light forces, Admiral Vian followed the only recommended course of action. He ordered the tanker to sail at full speed southwards, escorted by 2 destroyers, and at the same time approached to execute a torpedo attack. The Italian ships counterattacked with no results for both sides. According to the Italian side 2 British destroyers suffered important damages, however the British report nothing of the sort.
Next, Admiral Vian took course towards Alexandria, while the tanker escorted by 1 cruiser and by destroyers safely arrived to Malta.
In the meantime, it became dark and the Italian ships stopped fire. It had only lasted about 10 minutes. Admiral Iachino didn’t pursue the chase of the British formation, but continued to patrol in the area in order to offer coverage to the Italian convoy that was at sea.
The Italians had superiority of firepower in this case also. RN LITTORIO’s group disposed of 3 battleships, 2 cruisers and 10 destroyers, against 5 cruisers and 13 destroyers of the British.
The Italian convoy reached safely its destination, although attacked by the enemy air force
off Tripoli port. Thus, both opponents succeeded in their main objective, the ships they were escorting safely reaching their destination. However, the Italians didn’t take advantage of the superiority of their forces to give a serious blow to the British and the later didn’t continue their torpedo attacks. This attitude is not in line with the usual attack spirit of the British Navy and the British don’t give sufficient explanation. Assumingly, because of the limited number of destroyers available in the Mediterranean that didn’t allow the disposal of sufficient screen for the battle Fleet, they didn’t wish to risk them beyond a certain degree.
Towards the end of the operation, however, the British had important losses. Air reconnaissance had reported on the 18th that the Italian battleships remained in an area between Malta and Benghazi and the British assumed that the enemy convoys had reversed course and were aiming at arriving to Tripoli and Benghazi during the night. 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers therefore resupplied and left Malta for Tripoli. On the night of December 18-19, at about 20 miles east of that port they entered a minesfield. The cruiser HMS NEPTUNE and 1 destroyer sunk and the cruiser HMS AURORA suffered serious damages. As the HMS AJAX was undergoing repairs, only one cruiser, the HMS PENELOPE, remained in service in Malta”