The second battle of Sirte of 22 March 1942 saw a British force of light cruisers and destroyers prevent a powerful Italian fleet led by the battleship Littorio from attacking a convoy heading for Malta with vitally important supplies. Operation MG1 was mounted in an attempt to get Convoy MW10 to Malta. The convoy of four ships was to be guarded by a total of four light cruisers, eleven fleet destroyers and six “Hunt” class destroyers, under the command of Admiral Philip Vian. Most of the warships came from Alexandria, but the cruiser Penelope and a destroyer joined the fleet on the morning of 22 March from Malta.
Admiral Vian believed that there was a real danger that the Italian fleet would attack the convoy on 22 March, as it sailed to the north of Libya, across that part of the Mediterranean that was easily approached from the Italian naval base at Taranto. Just as expected, early on 22 March Vian news reached Vian that an Italian fleet had left harbour that morning (the news came from an Ultra decrypt of an Italian message and from a British submarine posted off Taranto). This Italian fleet contained the battleship Littorio, the two 8-inch heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, the 6-inch cruiser Giovanni Delle Bande Nere and ten destroyers, under the command of Admiral Iachino.
To oppose this powerful fleet Vian had four light cruisers, eleven fleet destroyers and six “Hunt” class destroyers, and a carefully worked out plan. If the Italian fleet appeared then the convoy with five of the “Hunt” class destroyers would be sent back, while the rest of his ships would form into six divisions and turn on the Italians. One of these divisions would be used to produce smoke, and the other five would use the cover of that smoke to harass the Italians.
At 14.10 the cruiser Euryalus reported seeing funnel smoke to the north, and fifteen minutes later she sighted four Italian warships, while the destroyer Legion reported sighting a single ship. At this point Vian put his plan in place. The convoy turned away to the south, while the remaining sixteen British ships turned towards the Italians. At 14.33 the British began to produce smoke. Over the next hour Vian’s ships fought a long range gunnery duel with the Italian ships, repeated coming in and out of the smoke. The Italian ships, which at this point did not include the Littorio, refused to close with Vian’s ships, and this first phase of the fighting was over by 15.35.
The second stage of the battle began soon after Vian rejoined the convoy. This time the Littorio and all three of the Italian cruisers were in the attacking force, but once again they were unable to close with the convoy. Vian credited this failure to Iachino’s determination to work his way around the western edge of the British smoke cloud, in an attempt to get between the convoy and Malta. As the smoke cloud was itself being blown to the west the Italians were never able to get into range. Once again Vian’s ships were able to fight from the edge of the smoke, using their torpedoes when the Italians came too close. The Littorio came under attack from 17.00. Vian’s cruisers were not really powerful enough to threaten the Italian battleship at any distance, but did manage to cause a fire behind her aft 15in turret.
After two and a half hours of this Iachino finally gave up, and his fleet withdrew to the north west. Vian’s cruisers had fired between 1,600 and 1,700 rounds, his destroyers 1,300, in three and a half hours of fighting. Most of the British ships suffered some damage – Vian’s flagship Cleopatra suffered a hit on the bridge, killing 15 and knocking the radio out for some time, while the destroyers Havock and Kingstonwere each hit by a 15-inch shell. The Kingston suffered the most serious damage, while the Havock had her speed reduced to 16 knots.
After the battle Vian continued to escort the convoy west until 19.40 on the evening of 22 March. At that point he turned back for Alexandria, while the Penelope and the Hunt class destroyers continued to escort the convoy. Although Vian’s actions had seen off the Italian fleet, the battle had fatally delayed the convoy. At dawn on 23 March all four merchant ships were still at sea. Only two of the ships reached Malta, where they came under heavy German air attack. Only 5,000 of the 26,000 tons of supplies intended for Malta actually reached the beleaguered island.
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