|First Battle of Sirte|
|Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of World War II|
Italian battleship Caio Duilio
|Kingdom of Italy|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Sir Andrew Cunningham||Angelo Iachino|
5 light cruisers|
2 heavy cruisers
3 light cruisers
|Casualties and losses|
|2 destroyers lightly damaged||None|
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 took place on 17 December 1941, southeast of Malta, in the Gulf of Sirte. The battle itself was relatively uneventful, but has come to describe a week of clashes and naval operations which well illustrate the cut and thrust of naval warfare in the Mediterranean at the time.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 The battle of Sirte
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Conclusions
- 6 Order of battle
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
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, the Axis forces were conducting a fighting retreat; by 13 December, they were holding a defensive line at Gazala, east of Benghazi.
The Axis were desperate to re-supply their forces, intending to transport stores to Tripoli, their main port in Libya, and Benghazi, the port closest to the front line.
Meanwhile, the island garrison of Malta was under siege, the British were keen to run-in stores to resupply their forces there.
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.
The battle of Sirte
On 17 December, an Italian reconnaissance plane spotted the British west-bound formation near Sidi Barrani, apparently proceeding from Alexandria in order to intercept the Italian convoy. Thereafter, the British convoy was shadowed by Axis planes and attacked during the afternoon, 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, spotter planes from the battleships had made contact with the British 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 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 to a near-miss from a 8 in (200 mm) shell, presumably fired by the Italian cruiser Gorizia. The Australian destroyer HMAS Nizam was also damaged by near-misses from the Italian destroyer Maestrale.
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 realized 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 Malta Strike Force which had been such an active threat to Axis shipping to Libya during most of 1941 was much reduced in its effectiveness. It was later forced to withdraw to Gibraltar.
Jervis antisubmarine chase
As Vian’s force returned to Alexandria, HMS Jervis—one of his destroyers—encountered a submarine, which she attacked and thought she had sunk. However, this was not confirmed, as no submarine in the area was reported lost or having been attacked.
The attack in Alexandria
The submarine reportedly sunk was not Sciré, although she was in the vicinity with 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, two British battleships were crippled, HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. This was a strategic change of fortune against the Allies whose effects were felt for several months.
It is hard to describe this series of actions as anything other than inconclusive.
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
Vice Admiral Angelo Iachino (on Littorio)
- Close covering force - Rear Admiral Raffaele de Courten (on Duca d'Aosta):
- Distant covering force - Rear Admiral Angelo Parona (on Gorizia):
- Three battleships: Andrea Doria, Giulio Cesare, and Littorio;
- Two heavy cruisers: Gorizia, and Trento;
- 10 destroyers: Vincenzo Gioberti, Alfredo Oriani (9a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); 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:
- Three motorships: Monginevro, Napoli, Vettor Pisani;
- One freighter: Ankara (German).
- Convoy Escort - Rear-Admiral Philip Vian (on Naiad)
- One fast merchantman: Breconshire
- Force K
- Force B
- One cruiser: HMS Neptune (lost in a minefield after the battle);
- Two destroyers: HMS Jaguar, Kandahar (lost in a minefield after the battle);
- 4th Destroyer Flotilla
- Greene & Massignani pp.196-204
- Grove pp.72-74
- Brown pp.54&55
- Blair pp.400&736
- Bragadin, p. 149
- Bartimeus p.195
- Bartimeus p.190
- Order of Battle -First Battle of Sirte by Dan Muir
- Bartimeus: East of Malta, West of Suez, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1944.
- Blair, Clay (1996). Hitler's U-Boat War:The Hunters 1939-1942. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-58839-8.
- Bragadin, Marc'Antonio: The Italian Navy in World War II, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, 1957. ISBN 0-405-13031-7
- Brown, David: Warship Losses of World War Two, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1995. ISBN 1-55750-914-X
- G.G.Connell, Mediterranean Maelstrom: HMS Jervis and the 14th Flotilla (1987): ISBN
- Greene, Jack; Massignani, Alessandro (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943. London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-885119-61-5.
- Eric Groves : Sea Battles in Close-Up Vol II (1993): ISBN 0-7110-2118-X
- Stephen Roskill : The War at Sea 1939-1945 Vol I (1954): ISBN (none)
- Rohwer, Jürgen; Hummelchen, Gerhard (1992). Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-105-X.
- La I Battaglia della Sirte (Italian)
- Plancia di Commando (Italian)
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