First Battle of Sirte
|First Battle of Sirte|
|Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of World War II|
Italian battleship Andrea Doria
|Commanders and leaders|
|Sir Andrew Cunningham||Angelo Iachino|
5 light cruisers|
2 heavy cruisers
3 light cruisers
|Casualties and losses|
2 destroyers lightly damaged|
The First Battle of Sirte was fought between the British Royal Navy and the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) during the Mediterranean campaign of the Second World War. The engagement, largely uneventful, took place on 17 December 1941, southeast of Malta, in the Gulf of Sirte.
In the following days, however, two Royal Navy's task forces based at Malta were decimated after running into an Italian minefield off Tripoli, and two British battleships were disabled by Italian manned torpedoes at Alexandria. By the end of December, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had shifted in favour of the Italian Fleet.
The British 8th Army and the Axis armies were engaged in battles resulting from Operation Crusader, which had been fought between 18 November and 4 December. Its aim was to defeat the Afrika Korps and relieve the siege of Tobruk. This had been achieved, and Axis forces were conducting a fighting retreat; by 13 December, they were holding a defensive line at Gazala, east of Benghazi.
Axis convoy M41
The Italians were preparing to send a major convoy of eight ships, designated M41, to Africa on 13 December 1941. That morning, their previous re-supply attempt, two fast cruisers carrying fuel to Tripoli, had failed when both ships were sunk at the Battle of Cape Bon by a force of destroyers en route to Alexandria.
Convoy M41 consisted of eight merchant ships in three groups, with a close escort of five destroyers and a Distant Cover Force of the battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, four destroyers and two torpedo boats.
Meanwhile, the British planned to run supplies to Malta using the fast merchant ship Breconshire, covered by a force of cruisers and destroyers, while the destroyers from the Cape Bon engagement, at Malta after the battle, would proceed to Alexandria covered by the Malta Strike Force groups, Force K and Force B. This operation would commence on 15 December.
M41's passage started badly; soon after sailing on 13 December, one group was attacked by the British submarine HMS Upright, two ships were sunk; later that day two other ships collided and had to return to base, while the Distant Cover Force was sighted by the submarine HMS Urge. The battleship Vittorio Veneto was torpedoed, and forced to return.
The Italian Navy's High Command (Supermarina), rattled by these losses and a report that a British force of two battleships was abroad, ordered the ships to return to await reinforcement. In fact, the "force of two battleships" was a decoy mission carried out by the minelayer HMS Abdiel.
Sinking of Galatea
The British were also preparing their operation, but their force was depleted when the light cruiser HMS Galatea was torpedoed and sunk by U-557, just before midnight on 14 December. (U-557 was accidentally sunk less than 48 hours later, by the Italian torpedo boat Orione).
On 15 December, Breconshire sailed from Alexandria; with her as escort were three cruisers and eight destroyers under Rear-Admiral Philip Vian (in HMS Naiad). On 16 December, the four destroyers of 4th Flotilla, under Commander G. Stokes (in HMS Sikh), left Malta, covered by Force K, which consisted of two cruisers and two destroyers under Captain W.G. "Bill" Agnew (in HMS Aurora).
Axis convoy M42
On 16 December, the four-ship Italian convoy, re-designated M42, left Taranto, picking up escorts along the way. The close escort was provided by seven destroyers and a torpedo boat, giving direct protection to the merchant ships. By the time they reached Sicily they were also accompanied by a "Close Cover Force", comprising the battleship Caio Duilio, three light cruisers and three destroyers.
Some measure of the importance of the mission can be seen in the fact that 30 Italian warships were escorting four cargo ships.
The two British groups were also at sea and steaming toward each other; the opposing forces were destined to cross each other's tracks east of Malta on 18 December.
On 17 December, an Italian reconnaissance plane spotted the British west-bound formation near Sidi Barrani, apparently proceeding from Alexandria to intercept the Italian convoy. Thereafter, the British convoy was shadowed by Axis planes and attacked during the afternoon, although no hits were scored. Also during the day, Agnew and Stokes met the west-bound convoy. By late afternoon the Italian fleet was close by, and spotter planes from the battleships had made contact with the British convoy.
At 17:42, the fleets sighted each other; Admiral Angelo Iachino—commander of the Italian forces—moved to intercept to cover his convoy.
Vian also wished to avoid combat, so with the British giving ground and the Italians pursuing with caution, the British were easily able to avoid an engagement. Just after sunset, an air attack on the British ships caused them to return fire with their anti-aircraft guns, allowing the Italian naval force to spot them at last. Iachino took in the distant covering force and opened fire at about 32,000 m (35,000 yd), well out of range of the British guns. Vian immediately laid smoke and moved to the attack while Breconshire moved away, escorted by the destroyers HMS Decoy and Havock.
Lacking radar and mindful of their defeat in the night action at Matapan, the Italians wished to avoid night combat. Expecting an attack, Iachino's forces fired for only 15 minutes before disengaging and returning westward to protect his convoy. Only two British destroyers suffered the effects of Italian gunfire. HMS Kipling suffered the loss of one seaman and some damage due to a near-miss from a 8 in (203 mm) shell, presumably fired by the Italian cruiser Gorizia. British assessments concluded that Kipling was actually hit by splinters from 305 mm shells fired by the battleships Andrea Doria and Giulio Cesare. Her wireless aerials were knocked down and her hull, structures and ship's boats holed. According to Italian sources, the Australian destroyer HMAS Nizam was also damaged by near-misses from the Italian destroyer Maestrale. British reports tell of other warships punctured by splinters, without elaborating.
After dark, Vian and Agnew parted company, Vian to return with Stokes to Alexandria, Agnew to bring Breconshire to Malta. In this, he was joined by Force B, one cruiser (the other was under repair) and two destroyers. Breconshire and her escorts arrived in Malta at 15:00 on 18 December.
At midday, the Italian force also split up; three ships headed for Tripoli, accompanied by the close cover force, while the other merchantman, the German supply ship Ankara, headed for Benghazi.
The distant cover force remained on station in the Gulf of Sidra until evening, before heading back to base. The British had now realised that the Italians had a convoy in the area; Vian searched for it without success as he returned to Alexandria.
In the afternoon, the position of the Tripoli group was established. The Malta Strike Force of one cruiser and two destroyers of Force B, and two cruisers and two destroyers of Force K—under the command of Captain O'Conor, on board the cruiser HMS Neptune—sortied at 18:00 to intercept. However, the force ran into a minefield 20 mi (17 nmi; 32 km) off Tripoli, in the early hours of 19 December. The minefield took the British by surprise as the water-depth was 600 ft (180 m), which they had thought was too deep for mines. Neptune struck four mines and sank; the destroyer HMS Kandahar also struck a mine and was scuttled the following day. The cruisers HMS Aurora and Penelope were badly damaged but were able to return to Malta. Overall, about 830 Allied seamen, many of them New Zealanders from Neptune, lost their lives in the disaster.
The attack on Alexandria
While steaming back to Alexandria along with Vian's force, destroyer HMS Jervis reported an apparently successful depth-charge attack on an unidentified submarine. The only axis submarine off Alexandria was the Italian Sciré, which was carrying a group of Italian frogmen equipped with manned torpedoes. Shortly after Vian's force arrived in Alexandria, on the night of 18 December, the Italians penetrated the harbour and attacked the fleet there. Jervis was damaged, a large Norwegian tanker disabled, and two British battleships were crippled, HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. This was a strategic change of fortune against the Allies whose effects were felt in the Mediterranean for several months.
Both sides achieved their strategic objectives; the British got supplies through to Malta, which was restored, at least for a while; the Axis got their ships through to Tripoli and Benghazi, although Benghazi fell to the Eighth army five days later, on 24 December.
Tactically, of the nine actions described here, four were British and three were Axis successes; two of them, including the eponymous First Battle of Sirte, were inconclusive.
Order of battle
Admiral Angelo Iachino (on Littorio)
- Close covering force – Vice Admiral Raffaele de Courten (on Duca d'Aosta):
- Distant covering force – Vice Admiral Angelo Parona (on Gorizia):
- Maestrale (10a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
- Carabiniere, Corazziere (12a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
- Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere, Granatiere (13a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
- Antoniotto Usodimare (16a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere).
- Close escort:
- Six destroyers: Saetta (7a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
- Antonio da Noli, Ugolino Vivaldi (14a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
- Lanzerotto Malocello, Nicolò Zeno (15a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
- Emanuele Pessagno (16a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
- One torpedo boat: Pegaso.
- M42 convoy:
- Convoy Escort – Rear-Admiral Philip Vian (on Naiad)
- One fast merchantman: Breconshire
- Force K
- Force B
- One cruiser: HMS Neptune
- Two destroyers: HMS Jaguar, Kandahar
- 4th Destroyer Flotilla
- Greene & Massignani pp.196–204
- Grove pp.72–74
- Brown pp.54&55
- Blair pp.400&736
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- Bragadin, p. 149
- O´Hara (2009), p. 158
- Bartimeus p.195
- Bartimeus p.190
- Order of Battle -First Battle of Sirte by Dan Muir
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