Operation Collar of 24-30 November 1940 was a British naval operation launched from both ends of the Mediterranean, with the intention of combining the movement of two small convoys with the redistribution of British naval forces. The Italian entry into the Second World War had split the British presence in the Mediterranean in half. The main Mediterranean fleet, under Admiral Andrew Cunningham, was based at Alexandria, at the eastern end of the sea, while the smaller Force H, under Admiral James Somerville, was based at Gibraltar, from where it could operate in either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. The only British base in the central Mediterranean was the besieged island of Malta.
Operation Collar had three main objectives. First, six merchant ships (two from the west and four from the east) were to take supplies to Malta. Second the elderly battleship Ramillies and the cruisers Berwick and Newcastle were moving from the Mediterranean fleet into the Atlantic, where they were to take part in the campaign against German surface raiders. Thirdly the cruisers Manchester and Southampton, with four minesweeping corvettes, were to join Admiral Cunningham. The most dangerous part of this journey would be the Sicilian Narrows, the relatively narrow gap between Cape Bon in North Africa and the south western tip of Sicily.
The west-bound convoy consisted of the Ramillies, the cruisers Berwick, Newcastle and Coventry, five destroyers and four merchant ships, supported to the east of Malta by the rest of the Mediterranean fleet. It reached Malta early on 27 November. Ramillies and her escorting cruisers then continued on to the north west to join Admiral Somerville and Force H. The intention was for this combined force to travel together to the Sicilian Narrows. Somerville would then turn back and return to Gibraltar, while the Manchesterand Southampton, together with the three east-bound merchant ships, would continue on to Malta, then would join the rest of the Mediterranean fleet on the following day.
Admiral Somerville had a rather more eventful journey. During the planning for Operation Collar Somerville had expressed a concern that Force H was not strong enough to deal with a full scale sortie by the Italian fleet. He had the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the battlecruiser Renown, the cruisers Sheffield and Despatch and nine destroyers, along with the cruisers Manchester and Southampton and the four mine-sweeping corvettes intended for Alexandria. The Manchester and the Southampton each held 700 soldiers and airmen, which reduced their fighting efficiency, while the crews of the Ark Royal’s Swordfish were inexperienced.
The Italians did indeed make a sortie in strength from their bases at Naples and Messina. This fleet contained the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare, seven 8-inch cruisers and sixteen destroyers, under the command of Admiral Campioni. This force did indeed outgun Somerville’s Force H, but despite this at 11.30am on 27 November 1940 Somerville turned north to tackle the Italians head-on. He had met up with the westward bound merchant ships on 25 November, and headed east for two days without interference, but at 6.30am on 27 November a Sunderland flying boat based on Malta discovered the Italian fleet south of Cape Spartivento, the southern tip of Sardinia.
The resulting action off Cape Spartivento was disappointed for both sides. Although there was a brief clash between the British and Italian cruisers, the Italian battleships turned away rather than risk a clash with the British. Somerville soon realised that there was no point attempting to pursue the faster Italian ships, especially as they were rapidly approaching the Italian coast. Instead Somerville turned back to rejoin the convoy, which reached Malta safely.
Operation Collar achieved all of its original objectives, but there was some disquiet in London about Somerville’s decision to turn back. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, dispatched Admiral Lord Cork to run a board of enquiry at Gibraltar. Lord Cork arrived on the rock before Somerville had even returned from the operation, but any tension as to the result must have disappeared when Somerville received Lord Cork’s congratulations on his successful action. The board of enquiry supported all of Somerville’s decisions during the fighting, and his career continued uninterrupted.
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