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|First Battle of Sirte|
|Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of World War II|
Italian battleship Andrea Doria
|Commanders and leaders|
|Sir Andrew Cunningham||Angelo Iachino|
5 light cruisers|
2 heavy cruisers
3 light cruisers
|Casualties and losses|
2 destroyers lightly damaged
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, largely uneventful, took place on 17 December 1941, south-east of Malta, in the Gulf of Sirte.
In the following days, two Royal Navy forces based at Malta ran into an Italian minefield off Tripoli and two British battleships were disabled by Italian manned torpedoes at Alexandria. By the end of December, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had shifted in favour of the Italian Fleet.
The British Eighth Army and the Axis armies in North Africa 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 and 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 supply their forces, intending to transport stores to Tripoli, their main port in Libya and Benghazi, the port closest to the front line. The island garrison of Malta was under siege and the British wanted to supply their forces on the island.
The Italians were preparing to send M41, a convoy of eight ships, to Africa on 13 December 1941. That morning, their previous 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.
Soon after sailing on 13 December, a group of M41 was attacked by the British submarine HMS Upright and two ships were sunk; later that day two ships collided and had to return to base, while the distant cover force was sighted by the submarine HMS Urge and Vittorio Veneto was torpedoed and forced to return to port.
Supermarina the Italian navy high command, rattled by these losses and a report that a British force of two battleships was at sea, ordered the ships to return to await reinforcement but the "force of two battleships" was a decoy operation by the minelayer HMS Abdiel.
On 16 December, the four-ship Italian convoy, renamed M42, left Taranto, picking up escorts along the way. The close escort was provided by seven destroyers and a torpedo boat; 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. The distant covering force consisted of the battleships Littorio, Andrea Doria and Giulio Cesare, two cruisers and 10 destroyers.
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, would proceed to Alexandria from Malta covered by Force K and Force B from Malta on 15 December.
The British 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 escorted by three cruisers and eight destroyers under Rear-Admiral Philip Vian in HMS Naiad. On 16 December, the four destroyers of 4th Flotilla (Commander G. Stokes in HMS Sikh) left Malta, covered by Force K (Captain W. G. "Bill" Agnew in HMS Aurora), two cruisers and two destroyers. Thirty Italian warships were escorting four cargo ships. The two British groups were also at sea and steaming toward each other; the opposing forces were likely to cross each other's tracks east of Malta on 18 December.
On 17 December, an Italian reconnaissance aircraft spotted the British west-bound formation near Sidi Barrani, apparently proceeding from Alexandria to intercept the Italian convoy. The British convoy was shadowed by Axis aeroplanes and attacked during the afternoon but no hits were scored and Agnew and Stokes met the west-bound convoy. By late afternoon the Italian fleet was close by and spotter planes from the battleships had made contact with the British convoy, but the planes misidentified Breconshire as a battleship. At 17:42, the fleets sighted each other; Admiral Angelo Iachino—commander of the Italian forces—moved to intercept to cover his 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. 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 HMS Havock.
Lacking radar and mindful of their defeat in the night action at the Battle of Cape Matapan, the Italians wished to avoid night combat. Expecting an attack, the Italians fired for only 15 minutes before disengaging and returning westward to convoy M42. HMS Kipling suffered the loss of one seaman and some damage due to a near-miss from an 8 in (200 mm) shell, possibly fired by the Italian cruiser Gorizia or by 13 in (320 mm) shell splinters fired by Andrea Doria and Giulio Cesare, knocking down wireless aerials and holing the hull, superstructure and ship's boats. According to Italian sources, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) destroyer HMAS Nizam was also damaged by near-misses from the Italian destroyer Maestrale. British reports tell of other warships punctured by splinters.
After dark, Vian to return with Stokes to Alexandria, leaving Agnew to bring Breconshire to Malta, 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 and three ships headed for Tripoli, accompanied by the close cover force, while 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 realised 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; a cruiser and two destroyers of Force B and two cruisers and two destroyers of Force K (Captain O'Conor, on the cruiser HMS Neptune) sortied at 18:00 to intercept. 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 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. 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 and was later forced to withdraw to Gibraltar.
While steaming back to Alexandria along with Vian's force, destroyer HMS Jervis reported an apparently successful depth-charge attack on an unidentified submarine. The only axis submarine off Alexandria was the Italian Sciré, which was carrying a group of Luigi Durand De La Penne (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. Jervis was damaged, a large Norwegian tanker disabled and the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth were severely damaged. This was a strategic change of fortune against the Allies whose effects were felt in the Mediterranean for several months.
Both sides achieved their strategic objectives; the British got supplies through to Malta and the Axis got their ships through to Tripoli and Benghazi, although Benghazi fell to the Eighth Army five days later, on 24 December.
Forces present 17 December 1941
Admiral Angelo Iachino (on Littorio)