Operation Halberd

Operation Halberd
Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of World War II

An Italian torpedo bomber on fire and crashing during Operation Halberd, just beyond is HMS Ark Royal
Date27 September 1941
LocationMediterranean Sea, southwest of Calabria
Result British victory
 United Kingdom
Netherlands Netherlands
Poland Poland
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom James Somerville Kingdom of Italy Angelo Iachino
Units involved
Force H Regia Marina
Regia Aeronautica
1 aircraft carrier
12 bombers
54 fighters
3 battleships
5 cruisers
18 destroyers
8 submarines
9 transport ships
62 bombers
68 fighters
2 battleships
5 cruisers
14 destroyers
11 submarines
8 torpedo boats
Casualties and losses
1 merchant scuttled
4 aircraft
1 submarine
21 aircraft

Operation Halberd was a British naval operation that took place on 27 September 1941, during the Second World War. The British were attempting to deliver a convoy from Gibraltar to Malta. The convoy was escorted by several battleships and an aircraft carrier, to deter interference from the Italian surface fleet, while a close escort of cruisers and destroyers provided an anti-aircraft screen.

The Italian fleet sortied after the convoy was detected, but turned back after learning the strength of the escorting force. Air attacks by Italian bombers and fighters damaged several ships, and forced one of the merchant vessels to be scuttled. The rest of the convoy arrived at Malta and discharged their cargo.

The convoy

Operation Halberd was at the time the largest Malta resupply effort of the war.[1] Nine merchant ships carrying 81,000 tons of military equipment and supplies sailed from Liverpool on 16 September and from the Clyde on 17 September as part of convoy WS (Winston Specials) 11X, passing Gibraltar on 24 September 1941, with a close escort under the command of Rear-Admiral Harold Burrough.[2] The nine ships were:[3]

British forces

Force H, under the command of Admiral James Somerville, accompanied the convoy as defense against Italian surface ships. Force H consisted of the battleships HMS Nelson, Rodney and Prince of Wales with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal operating 12 Fairey Swordfish and 27 Fairey Fulmars of 807 and 808 Naval Air Squadrons. Force H included cruisers HMS Kenya, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Euryalus and Hermione, and was screened by destroyers HNLMS Isaac Sweers, ORP Garland and ORP Piorun, and HMS Duncan, Farndale, Foresight, Forester, Fury, Heythrop, Laforey, Lance, Legion, Lightning, Lively, Oribi, Cossack, Gurkha and Zulu. Submarines HMS Ursula and Unbeaten patrolled south of the Strait of Messina while HMS Upright and Utmost patrolled north of the Strait. The Polish submarine ORP Sokół patrolled north of Sicily with HMS Urge and Upholder while the Dutch submarine HNLMS O 21 patrolled south of Sardinia. Malta had recently received 27 long-range fighters (22 Bristol Beaufighters and 5 Bristol Blenheims), which had been bombing and strafing Italian airfields on Sicily and Sardinia, and would provide air cover for the convoy after Force H retired before reaching the Sicilian narrows.[4]

Italian forces

Italian submarines deployed to ambush the British battleships thought to be planning a bombardment raid against the Italian coast. Dandolo, Adua and Turchese patrolled south of Ibiza while Axum, Serpente, Aradam and Diaspro patrolled east of the Balearic Islands. Squalo, Bandiera and Delfino patrolled Southwest of Sardinia and Narvalo was off the African shore of the Sicilian narrows. Light cruisers Muzio Attendolo and Duca delgi Abruzzi of the 8th cruiser division sailed from Palermo with Maestrale-class destroyers Maestrale, Grecale and Scirocco of the 10th destroyer flotilla to take position off La Maddalena. Battleships Vittorio Veneto and Littorio were prepared to sortie from Naples with Granatiere, Fuciliere, Bersagliere and Gioberti of the 13th flotilla, and Nicoloso da Recco, Pessagno and Folgore of the 16th flotilla while cruisers Trieste, Trento and Gorizia from Taranto with Corazziere, Carabiniere, Ascari and Lanciere of the 12th flotilla prepared to join them. Sardinia deployed thirty Macchi C.200, twenty Fiat CR.42 and twenty-six Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and SM.84 torpedo bombers against the convoy while Sicily deployed fifteen C.200, three Reggiane Re.2000, and nine Junkers Ju 87 with twenty-four Fiat BR.20, SM.79 and SM.84 as high-level bombers and plus three with torpedoes. More Italian aircraft were operational, but were assigned other missions including bombing Malta.[4]


Ships of the Mediterranean Fleet operating from Alexandria began making heavy radio traffic in the hope of diverting Luftwaffe attention to possible preparations for a major operation in the eastern Mediterranean. On 24 September Admiral Somerville shifted his flag from Nelson to Rodney and Nelson sailed west into the Atlantic at 18:15 escorted by Garland, Piorun and Isaac Sweers to give the impression the strength of Force H was being reduced. Nelson turned back after dusk to join the merchant ships from convoy WS 11X, now redesignated convoy GM 2 as the second convoy from Gibraltar to Malta. Force H separated from the merchant ships in the early hours of 25 September so Axis aerial reconnaissance might think only Force H was at sea. Fulmars from Ark Royal provided air cover over the convoy.[4]

Italian aircraft found Force H on the afternoon of 25 September, and assumed the battleships were on a bombardment raid against the Italian coast. A CANT Z.506 seaplane observing Force H at 09:32 on 26 September reported a single battleship with an aircraft carrier incorrectly identified as HMS Furious. Since Ark Royal had been seen leaving Gibraltar, the Italians assumed Furious might be flying off aircraft to reinforce Malta while Ark Royal attacked Genoa. The Italian fleet sailed from Naples to take a defensive position with the 8th cruiser division off northern Sardinia, but was ordered not to engage the British fleet unless the Italians held a decisive superiority of forces.[4]

Battle of 27 September

Force H rejoined the convoy at 07:10 27 September. Sixteen destroyers formed a bent line screen ahead of two columns of merchant ships. The port column was led by the cruiser Kenya, followed by Ajax, Clan MacDonald, Imperial Star, Rowallan Castle and City of Calcutta. The starboard column was led by the cruiser Edinburgh followed by Clan Ferguson, MV Dunedin Star, HMS Breconshire and City of Lincoln. Rodney took position behind the port wing of the screen followed by Prince of Wales. Nelson took position behind the starboard wing of the screen followed by Ark Royal in formation with the anti-aircraft cruisers Euryalus and Hermione. The cruiser Sheffield took position astern of the merchant ships, while the destroyers Piorun and Legion assumed plane guard positions astern of Ark Royal.[5]

Italian aircraft correctly identified Ark Royal at 08:10, and at 10:45 reported the convoy speed of 16 knots (30 km/h), which indicated that merchant ships were with the convoy. The battleships from Naples rendezvoused with the cruisers from Taranto at 10:40, and were joined by the 8th cruiser division at 11:48. The Italian fleet was faster than the battleships of Force H, but was inferior to the British firepower. Regia Aeronautica gave priority to fighter defense of bomber strikes; and the six fighters providing air cover over the Italian fleet could not travel more than 100 kilometres (62 mi) from their base. Since Italian aircraft had reported only a single British battleship, the Italian fleet received authorization at noon to engage the British formation. Regia Aeronautica was requested to provide increased air cover for the Italian fleet by 14:00.[6]

Regia Aeronautica launched a strike of 28 SM.79 and SM.84 torpedo planes with 20 Cr.42 fighters. The convoy came under air attack at 13:00. The strike was met by defending Fulmars and heavy anti-aircraft fire. Three bombers pressed through the barrage of starboard wing destroyers to launch torpedoes at Nelson. Nelson turned to comb the torpedo tracks, and inadvertently steadied on the reciprocal course of a torpedo which struck the port side of the forecastle.[7] Nelson slowed to 15 knots, but maintained position in the convoy. The Italian plane had released the torpedo at a range of only 450 yards (410 m) and endured concentrated anti-aircraft fire from Prince of Wales before being shot down by one of the Fulmars. Six more torpedo planes and 1 fighter failed to return from the strike. Friendly fire from Rodney and Prince of Wales shot down two Fulmars, and a patrolling Swordfish had been shot down by the Italian fighters before the strike ended at 13:30.[6]

The Italian fleet was shadowed by British aircraft from Malta beginning at 13:07. At 14:30 the Italian fleet was about 40 miles from the convoy, but "...decided to return home around 14:30 on the 27th when..." it "... learned that the British had two battleships, a carrier and six cruisers at sea."[8] Aircraft from Ark Royal shadowed the Italian fleet from 15:15 to 17:50. Cr.42 fighters arrived at 15:30 to provide air cover, but the squadron leader of the first flight was shot down by friendly fire from an Italian destroyer. Two more Italian pilots were lost when another flight of ten C.200s ran out of fuel and ditched at sea. At 14:46 Prince of Wales, Rodney, Sheffield, Edinburgh, and six destroyers steamed toward the Italian fleet; but were recalled at 17:00 before making contact, and rejoined the convoy at 18:30.[9] Nelson, Rodney, Prince of Wales and Ark Royal turned west to return to Gibraltar escorted by Duncan, Fury, Gurkha, Lance, Legion, Lively. Garland, Piorun, and Isaac Sweers. Euryalus fell in astern of the port column of merchant ships while Sheffield and Hermione joined the starboard column as the remaining destroyers closed into a night steaming formation. The night steaming formation was attacked by a few torpedo bombers, and Imperial Star was struck by a single torpedo. Oribi took the damaged freighter in tow. Italian Motoscafo armato silurante (MAS torpedo boats) deployed through the Strait of Messina, but failed to find the convoy.[6]

Extract from an Italian Report[10]

At 08:18 on 27 September 1941 an Italian reconnaissance aircraft spotted a carrier and seven unidentified ships west of La Galite. Towards noon, the Comando Aeronautica della Sardegna received the following message from a Cant Z.506 (triple-engine float-plane) of 287a Squadriglia (Sottotente Giovanni Del Vento in MM45252):"At 37°43' – 8°55' - route 90° - speed 12 nm per hour: 1 battleship, 1 carrier, 4 cruiser, unspecified number of destroyers and steamboats. At 37°55' - 8°45' - route 90° - speed 18 nm per hours: 3 cruisers"

At 13.20 the S.79s (torpedo-bombers) of the 130 Gruppo, escorted by twelve fighters, had spotted the enemy. The formation split up to perform an attack from various directions: the 280 and the 282 Squadriglia from north, the 283 Squadriglia from south, the 278 Squadriglia and Tenente Deslex from west. Before they could attack, they were chased by six Fulmars. The 280 Squadriglia’s Melley and Setti believed to have shared a hit on a light cruiser, actually (HMS Lightning), which had a narrow miss.

HMS Edinburgh, HMS Hermione and HMS Euryalus escorting the convoy

At 13.58 the north-coming torpedo-bombers, partially covered by bad weather, surprised the enemy. Tenente Deslex tried to attack HMS Ark Royal at sea level, but was shot down by AA fire before having released the torpedo. Then Venturini and Bucceri attacked HMS Ark Royal and HMS Cossack missing both. Soon after they were chased for 20 minutes by Ark Royal's Fairey Fulmars, which killed Venturini's radio operator.

At 13.59 in an attempt to distract the anti-aircraft gunners, Sergente Maggiore Luigi Valotti, flying a Fiat CR.42 of 354 Squadriglia, started performing aerobatics over the heads of the astounded ships gunners, who after a while started to shoot at him. He lasted six minutes before he was shot down and killed. Further attacks were unable to get through the anti-aircraft barrage and the Italian aircraft flew back to base, landing at 15.50 pursued by the Ark Royal's Fulmars, which strafed the airfield at Cagliari (Sardinia), damaging ten seaplanes and causing three casualties.

A first hand account by George Gilroy of HMS Lightning describes the loss of Valotti: "I remember at one stage during an attack a Fiat fighter performing stunts over the convoy; some said that it was trying to divert attention from the incoming torpedo bombers. However, we shot him down".[11]

At 08:18 on 27 September 1941 an Italian reconnaissance aircraft spotted a carrier and seven unidentified ships west of La Galite. Towards noon, the Comando Aeronautica della Sardegna received the following message from a Cant Z.506 of 287a Squadriglia (Sottotente Giovanni Del Vento in MM45252):

"At 37o43' – 8o55' - route 90o - speed 12 nm per hour: 1 battleship, 1 carrier, 4 cruiser, unspecified number of destroyers and steamboats. At 37o55' - 8o45' - route 90o - speed 18 nm per hours: 3 cruisers" It was the convoy of Operation Halberd which included the carrier HMS Ark Royal, three battleships (HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson), five cruisers (HMS Kenya, HMS Edinburgh, HMS Sheffield, HMS Hermione and HMS Euryalus), eighteen destroyers (Lance, Isaac Sweers, Gurkha, Duncan, Garland, Livery, Heytrop, Fury, Zulu, Cossack, Foresight, Forester, Laforey, Farndale, Lightning, Oribi, Piorun and Legion) and nine cargos (Ajax, Clan MacDonald, Imperial Star, Rowallan Castle, City of Calcutta, Clan Ferguson, Dunedin Star, Breconshire and City of Lincoln). At 11:50, eleven S.79 torpedo-bombers of the 280a Squadriglia, 130o Gruppo (Capitano Franco Melley (CO), Tenente Alessandro Setti, Tenente Mario Giacopinelli and Tenente Carlo Deslex), 283a Squadriglia, 130o Gruppo (Capitano Giorgio Grossi (CO), Tenente Roberto Cipriani, Tenente Guido Focacci, Tenente Francesco Di Bella and Tenente Camillo Barioglio) and 278a Squadriglia Autonoma (Tenente Leonardo Venturini (actually belonging to the 280a Squadriglia) and Sottotenente Gaetano Bucceri) together with three S.84s of the 282a Squadriglia Autonoma (Capitano Marino Marini (CO), Tenente Antonio Cristiani and Sottotenente Saverio Mayer) scrambled from Cagliari-Elmas. They were escorted by two formations of CR.42s of the 24o Gruppo Autonomo which took off from Monserrato at 12:20. The first formation of twelve aircraft was led by the Gruppo CO, Tenente Colonnello Vincenzo Dequal while the rear formation of eight aircraft was led by Capitano Corrado Santoro. In the rainy weather Santoro’s rear formation lost contact with the S.79s after a few minutes, so he decided to lead his aircraft directly to La Galite. At 12:15 eleven S.84s of the 36o Stormo took off from Decimomannu. This was the Stormo’s first operative mission on this tour of operations. The 109o Gruppo (Capitano Bartolomeo Tomasino (CO) and Sottotenente Pier Vincenzo Morelli from the 258a Squadriglia and Maggiore Goffredo Gastaldi (Gruppo CO), Capitano Giusellino Verna (CO) and Tenente Mario Paccarié of the 259a Squadriglia) was led by the Stormo's CO, Colonnello Riccardo Helmuth Seidl (258-?/MM22845) while the 108o Gruppo (Tenente Remo Rossi of the 256a Squadriglia and Capitano Alfonso Rotolo (CO), Tenente Piercarlo Amante and Tenente Danilo Barro of the 257a Squadriglia) was led by Maggiore Arduino Buri (Gruppo CO) in "256-9". These aircraft, being faster than the S.79s, passed them. During the course, Tenente Morelli, who possibly had engine troubles, was slightly late and joined the 108o Gruppo, which was in the rear. The 108o Gruppo was also met by Santoro's Fiat CR.42s and S.84s of the 282a Squadriglia. At 12:59 they were attacked by eight Fulmars of 808 Squadron from HMS Ark Royal. They were intercepted by the CR.42s, which miss-identified them as 12 Hurricanes and claimed one of them destroyed and two probables. Actually, a Fulmar was damaged, and by mistake shot down by HMS Prince of Wales' AA fire while returning to the carrier (29-year-old Lieutenant Malcom William Watson and 20-year-old Sub Lieutenant Paul Wilfrid Noel Couch both KIA). Sottotenente Morelli (MM22460) still lagging, was shot down jointly by the Fulmars of Lieutenant Lewin and Lieutenant Medland. According to Santoro’s own logbook he claimed three Hurricanes shot down and three more as probables (according to other sources he claimed two Hurricanes) when he returned to base after 80 minutes. The 108o Gruppo and the 282a Squadriglia were the first to spot the enemy, north of La Galite. Maggiore Buri split the formation and dived, covered by the fighters at 2500 meters, to attack the ships from both port and starboard. Before they could release the torpedoes, Capitano Rotolo (MM22476) was hit by AA fire and, out of control, collided with his right wingman, Tenente Barro (MM22486). Both S.84s crashed into the sea. At 13:00 Maggiore Buri and Tenente Amante attacked HMS Rodney (Buri thought it was HMS Nelson) but their torpedoes narrowly missed the battleship. The same happened to Tenente Rossi who attacked a destroyer. At 13:03 Marini, Cristiani and Mayer attacked another destroyer and claimed to have hit it. These two destroyers, both missed, were HMS Lance and Dutch Isaac Sweers. While retreating from the attack the Italian aircraft were attacked for 15 minutes by Fulmars, two of which were believed shot down: one of them was credited to Mayer's gunner 1o Aviere armiere Domenico Mignosa, although the latter was mortally wounded. Lieutenant Firth and Sub Lieutenant Wardrop claimed a "BR 20" destroyed (i.e. Mayer's S.84, which landed safely), while Pilot Officer Leggott and Sub Lieutenant Magwood claimed another as damaged. The 109o Gruppo, which had run into bad weather and been forced to fly around a storm, spotted the fleet at 13:15. They were forced to do a 270o turn ahead of the fleet to attack it from the starboard side. They surprised the ships at 13:30 and Colonnello Seidl and Tenente Tomasino (MM22444) attacked HMS Nelson, which was hit by a torpedo (probably Seidl's) on the portside prow, making a hole of 3,5 x 5 meters, while the second torpedo missed the target. HMS Nelson was out of commission for six months due to the damages suffered. Soon after this however, Seidl and Tomasino were shot down by AA fire from HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Sheffield. Of the second group, Capitano Verna (MM22458) was shot down by Fulmars before he could release his torpedo, while Maggiore Gastaldi and Tenente Paccarié attacked a destroyer or a cruiser (possibly HMS Euryalus. During this action, another Fulmar was shot down by "friendly fire" of HMS Rodney, but luckily this time the crew (Sub Lieutenant Percy Guy and Leading Airman Jones) was rescued. The S.79s of the 130o Gruppo, escorted by Dequal’s twelve fighters, had spotted the enemy at 13:20. The formation split up to perform an attack from various directions: the 280 and the 282a Squadriglie from north, the 283a Squadriglia from south, the 278a Squadriglia and Tenente Deslex from west. Before they could attack, they were chased by six Fulmars, but the CR.42s managed to claim one of them shot down; actually a reconnaissance Swordfish was severely damaged, but managed to make an emergency landing on the carrier. The north-coming torpedo-bombers, partially covered by bad weather, surprised the enemy. Tenente Deslex (MM24077) tried to attack HMS Ark Royal at sea level, but was shot down by AA fire before having released the torpedo. Venturini and Bucceri attacked HMS Ark Royal and HMS Cossack at 13:58, missing both (even if both claimed hits on a cruiser each). Soon after they were chased for 20 minutes by a "Beaufighter" (actually Fulmars), which killed Venturini's radio operator, 1o Aviere marconista Antonio Cilla. The 280a Squadriglia’s Melley and Setti believed to have shared a hit on a light cruiser (probably HMS Lightning, which had a narrow miss), as did Giacopinelli, whose S.79 was riddled by bullets. The 283a Squadriglia, due to the good weather by its side, was soon discovered by the ships. Intense AA fire and the attack by some Fulmars prevented them to aim at the ships. At this point (13:59), Sergente Maggiore Luigi Valiotti of the 354a Squadriglia, in an attempt to divert the AA from the torpedo-bombers, began to perform aerobatic manoeuvres over the heads of the astounded gunners, which after a while started to shoot at him. Valiotti avoided the shells for six minutes before being killed when his CR.42 (MM7195) crashed into the sea. Notwithstanding Valiotti's sacrifice, Capitano Grossi, after several unsuccessful attempts, realized he could never pass such a barrage and deciided to return to base. They landed at 15:50, still attacked by Fulmars, which in addition strafed the airport, damaging ten seaplanes and injuring three of the ground personnel. Italian Intelligence stated that, apart from HMS Nelson, also HMS Ark Royal and a destroyer was damaged, and another destroyer, a cargo ship (Imperial Star) and a cruiser did not enter in Valletta harbour. The British admitted that HMS Nelson was damaged and that Imperial Star was sunk (damaged in a later attack by two S.79s of the 278a Squadriglia from Pantelleria at 21:10, and then scuttled) and the loss of three aircraft (the two Fulmars erroneously shot down respectively by HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Rodney and (possibly) the Swordfish) while claiming three torpedo-bombers and a CR.42 destroyed by AA fire, and two torpedo-bombers (identified as BR.20s), one CR 42 and two Z.506 shot down by fighters. Seidl (currently the 36o Stormo of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana is entitled after him), Tomasino and Verna were posthumously awarded with the Medaglia d'oro al valor militare. Of all of the crew of the seven torpedo-bombers shot down, only one surely survived; Aviere marconista Guerrino Soravia, Capitano Tomasino's radio operator, who was rescued by HMS Forester with a broken leg and becoming a POW. According to some sources also 1o Aviere motorista Pietro Panettieri and Aviere Sc. Ugo Vernacotola, of the same aircraft, also survived.


Hermione detached from the convoy to bombard Pantellaria so that airfield would be out of action when the convoy arrived in Malta. The damaged Imperial Star was scuttled without loss of life to maintain convoy speed of advance; and the convoy arrived in Malta on 28 September. Retiring Force H was attacked by three submarines; and Axum was sunk by Gurkha and Legion. Another Ark Royal Fulmar fell to friendly fire from Prince of Wales, raising British aircraft losses to three Fulmars from friendly fire and one Swordfish from enemy action.[6] Italian aircraft losses were 21 including seven bombers and one fighter from enemy action, one fighter from friendly fire, and ten fighters from fuel exhaustion.[12]

Admiral Somerville was knighted in recognition of his successful command of Force H during Operation Halberd. It was the second time Somerville had received that honour; and occasioned this memorable congratulatory message from Admiral Cunningham: "Fancy, twice a knight at your age."[13]

See also


  1. Greene & Massignani, p.181
  2. Hague, p.195
  3. WS CONVOYS - July to December 1941 SAILINGS, including two DM Convoys, WS 10 to 14B
  4. 1 2 3 4 Greene & Massignani, pp.182-187
  5. Greene & Massignani, p.186
  6. 1 2 3 4 Greene & Massignani, pp.187-191
  7. The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, p.21. This account states that the torpedo attacks were carried out by SM-79 and BR-20 torpedo bombers.
  8. The Italian Navy in WW2, Sadkovich, p.181: "He therefore decided to return home around 14:30 on the 27th when he learned that the British had two battleships, a carrier and six cruisers at sea."
  9. The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, p.28
  10. Biplane fighter aces, Italy, Generale di Divisione Corrado Santoro
  11. Operation Halberd Malta Convoy WS 11 X
  12. The Italian Navy in WW2, Sadkovich, p.182
  13. Greene & Massignani, p.191


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