The first battle of the Sirte Gulf was a brief encounter between the Regia Marina and the Royal Navy that had non-negligible strategic consequences in the Mediterranean/North African theatre
In November 1941, Operation Crusader began in North Africa. This was the latest British offensive against the Axis forces entrenched near the Libyan-Egyptian border. The operation aimed to drive out the Italians and the Germans from Cyrenaica and to relieving the besieged Commonwealth forces at Tobruk.
Supplies were constantly transported to Libyan ports by small convoys of the Regia Marina. However, in the last months of 1941, losses increased due to the renewed Allied efforts at preventing any axis reinforcements in preparation for Crusader. In October, the Royal Navy formed Force K, a squadron of light cruisers and destroyers. In early November, this formation scored a major victory by destroying a convoy of 7 transport ships (Duisburg convoy) carrying equipment and supplies needed for the final axis assault on Tobruk.
This loss, together with the mounting British offensive and the urgent need for supplies, led the Regia Marina to deploy more consistently its cruisers and battleships in the escort of vital convoys destined to Libya.
Operation M41 and M4
A new complex operation (M41) was scheduled for the 13-14 December 1941 with three convoys departing from Italy and Greece. The indirect escort consisted of battleships Littiorio, Vittorio Veneto, Caio Duilio and Andrea Doria. Led by Admiral Iachino, the Italian ships departed in the morning of the 13th, while the British, aware of the operation thanks to ULTRA, dispatched light forces from Malta and Alexandria to harass the enemy convoy. In the early afternoon, Italian aeroplanes spotted the formation coming from Alexandria but identified three of the cruisers as three battleships. This information ultimately led Supermarina to call off M41 and ordered the ships to return to the base at 20:00. Although superior in terms of battleships, the Italian high command considered insufficient the number of destroyers and torpedo boats, able to escort the battleships and the transport ships at the same time. Finally, Supermarina feared the possibility of a night encounter, an unspeakable nightmare after the disaster at Matapan.
During the return, the Vittorio Veneto received a torpedo hit from the submarine HMS Urge. The ships safely made it to Taranto and headed for repairs. Already on 16 December, a new operation (M42) was put in motion to supply the Panzerarmee Afrika as soon as possible. The convoy was split into two sections: the first consisting of the fast transport Ankara and two destroyers, the second consisting of the transport ships Napoli, Monginevro and Pisani accompanied by six destroyers. Battleship Duilio was assigned to the close escort of the convoy, together with the cruisers Montecuccoli, Muzio Attendolo and Duca d’Aosta accompanied by three destroyers. The indirect escort consisted of battleship Littorio (Iachino’s flagship), Andrea Doria, Giulio Cesare, the cruisers Trento and Gorizia and ten destroyers. The convoy departed at 14:00 on the 16th, unaware that the evening before, the British had dispatched the tanker Breconshire from Alexandria to Malta, escorted by two cruisers and a destroyer flotilla led by rear Admiral P. Vian.
The encounter at sea
Vian was aware of the enemy presence, thanks to the precise information coming from ULTRA. He was committed to attacking the enemy convoy once the Breconshire was safe. In the morning of the 17th, he linked up with Force K and they headed together for Mala. That same morning, the Italian air reconnaissance spotted the British formations, once again they committed an identification error, misleading the Breconshire for a battleship. However, Iachino was confident in his relative superiority and pushed forward. Around 17:30 of the 17th, the Littorio spotted the enemy cruisers and destroyers approaching from the east, Iachino steamed in their direction to close distances and open fire. Once reached a 32.000 m distance, the Littorio turned southwards to present a full broadside and at 17:53 fired on the British ships together with the Andrea Doria, Trento and Gorizia. Vian was outraged by the larger Italian guns and ordered the Breconshire to head south while he attempted a diversion action by steaming north and laying smoke screens. No hits landed on his ships, except for the fragments of a 203 mm shell that damaged the destroyer HMS Kipling. With darkness approaching, Iachino decided to disengage and at 18:06 pulled off the line with his ships to reunite with the convoy and its escort.
The Italian formations sailed north until 22:00 and then reversed to the south-west, risking a night voyage. In the morning of the 18th, the formation entered the Sirte Gulf. The transport ships sailed towards Benghazi and Tripoli while Iachino and the Duilio group headed back for Taranto.
Things went less smoothly for the Royal Navy. While Vian returned to Alexandria, the Breconshire managed to arrive in Malta in the afternoon of the 18th together with the escorting Force K. On the same evening, once refuel operations were completed, Force K left port to hunt down the enemy convoy directed to Tripoli. During the night of the 19th, they ended up on a minefield laid down by Italian cruisers some months before. The result was that the light cruiser Neptune and the destroyer Kandahar were sunk. The light cruisers Penelope and Aurora were also damaged. This event caused the end of Force K, until its reconstitution in late 1942.
The clash of the 17th showed once again the nature of the Mediterranean war, a war for the control of maritime supply lines and the disruption of the enemy ones. As for most other naval engagements in the Mediterranean waters, the first battle of the Sirte Gulf was a clash resulting from the encounter of opposing formations while escorting their respective convoys to their destination. It would be unfair to treat it like a battle since it lasted for barely 15 minutes, however, its consequences are worthy of attention. As mentioned before, Force K run into a minefield while trying to search for the Italian convoy directed to Tripoli while on the other side, tanks, fuel and supplies disembarked from the convoy (14.000 tons) were instrumental for Rommel to halt the allies on the El Agheila line and quickly counterattack at the beginning of 1942.
Erminio Bagnasco, A. D. (2008). Le corazzate delle classi “Conte di Cavour” e “Duilio” (1911-1956). Edizioni Storia Militare.
Erminio Bagnasco, A. D. (2020). Le navi da battaglia classe “Littorio” 1937-1948. Roma: Ufficio storico della Marina Militare.
Giorgernini, G. (2001). La Guerra Italiana sul mare, La marina tra vittoria e sconfitta 1940-1943.