The first battle of Sirte of 17 December 1941 was the result of an accidental clash between British and Italian naval forces each escorting a convoy through the Mediterranean. The Italian convoy was being escorted by two modern battleships and their supporting ships, under the command of Admiral Iachino. The British force consisted of the fast fleet auxiliary Breconshire, making a run to Malta, escorted by three cruisers and fourteen destroyers under Admiral Vian.
The two forces ran into each other at 5.45pm on 17 December. Iachino had by far the stronger fleet, and this chance collision presented him with a chance to win a major naval victory, but Vian seized the initiative. His attack on the Italian fleet was so aggressive that Iachino assumed that a British battleship had to be close by, and withdrew to the north. The fighting lasted for about an hour.
This minor British success was followed by a far more serious setback. On 18 December news reached Malta that a major Axis convoy was heading for Tripoli. The cruisers Neptune, Aurora and Penelope, accompanied by four destroyers, left Malta to intercept this convoy, but instead all they found was a new minefield. Early on the morning of 19 December all three cruisers hit mines. The Aurora and the Penelope were able to escape from the minefield, but the Neptunehad hit two mines and was immobilised. The destroyer Kandaharattempted to go to the aid of the Neptune, but also hit a mine, which blew off her stern. Meanwhile the Neptunehad drifted onto a third mine, and at 4 am hit a fourth mine. After this final blow the Neptunecapsized with the loss of all but one of her crew of over 700. The crew of the Kandaharwas rescued by the Jaguar after drifting out of the minefield, but the ship herself had to be torpedoed.
The same period saw the loss of the Ark Royal (12 November), and the Barham (25 November), the loss of the cruiser Galatea (14-15 December) and the daring Italian raid on Alexandria that saw the Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant badly damaged in Alexandria harbour. In the space of a month the Royal Navy had lost one aircraft carrier, three battleships and two cruisers, and with them, at least for the moment, went control of the eastern Mediterranean.
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