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October 12th, 1940
by Vince O'HaraOn October 8 the full weight of the Mediterranean fleet, four battleships, two carriers, a heavy cruiser, five light cruisers and sixteen destroyers, departed Alexandria to provide distant cover for a Malta bound convoy of four steamers. Hidden in part by heavy weather, the convoy made port on October 11 undetected by the Italians. That same day, however, an Italian civil aircraft flying to Libya reported elements of the Mediterranean fleet about 100 miles southeast of the island where they were loitering, waiting to escort three empty cargo vessels back to Alexandria that night. Supermarina had reservations about this sighting because no military aircraft confirmed it; nonetheless, they dispatched several groups of light units to patrol potential transit areas.
They ordered the largest group, 11th Destroyer Flotilla Artigliere, Aviere, Geniere and Camicia Nera, under Captain Carlo Margottini, supported by the 1st Torpedo Boat Flotilla Airone, Alcione and Ariel, under Commander Alberto Banfito to guard the waters east of Malta. Admiral Cunningham, sailing aboard his flag Warspite, established a scouting line of cruisers extending north from his force. The wing ship, light cruiser Ajax, Captain E. D. B. McCarthy, was zig-zagging at 17 knots about seventy miles north of the convoy and about the same distance east, northeast of Malta.
The weather was moderating from earlier thunderstorms. The moon was up and very bright, just four days short of full. The 1st Torpedo Boat Flotilla was proceeding at 17 knots in a long line of bearing with each ship about 5,000 meters or 5,400 yards apart. Alcione saw Ajax first at 0135 hours on October 12 from about 18,000 meters (19,600 yards). Undetected by the cruiser Alcione reported her contact, requested assistance and proceeded directly to the attack. At 0142 Airone, followed shortly thereafter by Ariel, sighted the cruiser and followed their flotilla mate in. Alcione approached Ajax undetected and fired two torpedoes at Ajax's port side from a range of just 1,750 meters (1,900 yards). She then turned away to attack from another direction.
Her half salvo missed its target. At 0155 Ajax finally spotted two strange vessels silhouetted against the bright moonlight, one on either side of her bow just several thousand yards off. These vessels were Airone and Ariel. One minute later Airone fired two torpedoes from a range of only 2,000 yards. Ariel followed at 0157 with two more. Ajax flashed a challenge, and, receiving an inappropriate reply, increased speed and altered course. The four torpedoes all ran wide, although at this point Ajax was still uncertain whether or not she was under attack.
Airone, closing rapidly, fired off another pair of torpedoes from 750 yards (also wide) and resolved Ajax's confusion by opening fire. She snapped off four quick salvos hitting Ajax twice on her bridgeworks and once six feet above her waterline, igniting a fire in a storeroom. The range was down to slightly more than 300 yards when Ajax finally returned fire. Her 112 pound shells smashed the Italian torpedo boat and left her dead in the water. The two antagonists were so close, Ajax's machine guns could sweep Airone's deck. Ajax reduced speed to 25 knots and shifted heading constantly to avoid torpedoes and gunfire. She fired two torpedoes of her own, one of which might have hit, adding to the misery of Airone's crew.
With Airone in a sinking condition, Ajax turned the attention of her main batteries to Ariel, returning her fire and quickly scoring one hit from 4,000 yards. This may have penetrated a magazine because Ariel blew up and sank within a few minutes, taking most of her crew with her. The time was 0214. When Alcione finally returned from her extended maneuver she found the British ship gone, Ariel sunk and Airone on fire and slowly following. She could do nothing but rescue survivors, saving 125, about half the complement of the two ships. Airone finally went under at 0235.
Meanwhile, the 11th Destroyer Flotilla, alerted by Alcione's original message of forty-five prior was hurrying to the battle in an extended column with Artigliere leading followed by Aviere, Camicia Nera and Geniere. Aviere found the British light cruiser first, but Ajax was fully alert and, at 0218, she hit Aviere lightly on her bow before the Italian could fire any torpedoes. Aviere turned and lost contact. Artigliere, the flotilla flagship, came in next. Maneuvering at high speed she fired a single torpedo at Ajax's starboard side, which missed, and began trading gunfire with the cruiser. Initially the Italian, steaming at a high speed and zig-zagging got the better of the exchange, hitting Ajax four times, putting out her radar and knocking out one of her 4" secondary battery.
The moon had just set; reducing the general illumination and depriving Ajax of the backlight that made the Italian ships, stand out. Not equipped with flashless gunpowder, the repeated flashes from Ajax's guns blinded her crew with every salvo. Nonetheless, at 0230 Ajax's gunners finally hit the elusive Artigliere and hit her hard, killing the flotilla commander, Captain Margottini and bringing her to a halt. By 0232 Artigliere was dead in the water and her guns silent. The other two destroyers of the flotilla remained in the offing. Camicia Nera and Ajax exchanged ineffective salvos from about 5,500 yards. Ajax believed she was facing two cruisers, so when Nera disappeared into a smoke screen of her own devise, Ajax used the opportunity to break contact and turn toward the fleet. Geniere, following at some distance, never entered action.
The remainder of Ajax's squadron concentrated on Ajax's position, but arrived to late to see any action. Ajax suffered 13 killed and 22 wounded in this action. She expended 490 6" shells and 4 torpedoes. Ajax's damage was patched up in a couple of weeks and she was back in action by November 5. Camicia Nere took Artigliere in tow, but she was forced to abandon the damaged ship the next morning when two British cruisers and four destroyers approached. The British heavy cruiser York finished off Artigliere at 0905 with torpedoes. Italian reinforcements of three heavy cruisers and three destroyers sailing from Messina arrived too late to save Artigliere or to engage the York group.
This action is worthy of analysis on several levels. English historians almost universally describe how the British Navy established a moral ascendancy or superiority over their Italian counterparts as a result of Calabria. This action, however, the first night action fought between the Italian and British navies, was more important in defining a relationship between the two navies. After Calabria, the Italian Navy never hesitated to deploy their battlefleet (fuel and opportunity permitting) or to seek battle with the British under favorable conditions. Indeed, one reason why Cunningham had four battleships at sea at the time of this action was because: "as four Italian battleships had been sighted at sea on the previous occasion, this time our whole fleet went out to cover the operation."(1) Whereas Supermarina could consider Calabria a draw, the action of October 12 permitted no such conclusion.
In fact, Supermarina must have been severely depressed by the results. The Italian destroyers and torpedo boats were supposed to be highly trained, almost elite units. In their attack on the Ajax they enjoyed every possible advantage. They achieved surprise and aggressively pressed their attacks to close range, but accomplished nothing with their principle weapon, the torpedo. The analysis of Marc' Bragadin rings true of the conclusions Supermarina must have drawn at the time and is worth quoting at length: "The reports about the battle gave reason for much reflection. The enemy had escaped with only a few hits scored by the guns of the Airone and the Ariel, damage about equal in all to that suffered by the Aviere alone. The Italians, on the other had, had lost a destroyer and two destroyer escorts; yet the Italian ships were among the more efficient in the Navy, and their commanders were outstanding
Each ship that had come into contact with the enemy had conducted herself gallantly in every respect, even to the point of gaining the enemy's admiration. But it had to be admitted that the Italians were technically inferior to the British, at least as far as carrying out night encounters at sea was concerned." (not aware of radar) "the outcome of the encounter with the Ajax was most disconcerting." (2) Bragadin, with postwar hindsight, concludes that the Type 279 air search radar possessed by Ajax at the beginning of the battle was responsible for the ultimate outcome. "In reality this inferiority was probably to be explained solely by the fact that the Ajax was equipped with radar." (3) However, the impact played by radar on this action has been downplayed by most historians. James Sadkovich: "The Ajax fired visually because its Type 279 radar could not lay guns, but the Italians were silhouetted against the moon, and radar seems initially to have warned the cruiser of their presence." (4) Bernard Ireland flatly asserts: "Ajax had not benefited from her radar, which was designed to detect and range aircraft and which, in any case, had been damaged by the shock of gunfire." (5) At the time the facts of the battle were similar to both sides. From the Italian point of view, two flotillas, one after the other, had attacked a solitary British cruiser aggressively and from close range, and had been roundly defeated, inflicting little damage in return. From the British point of view they had repelled the attacks of four destroyers and two cruisers with "resolution and skill," (6) inflicting heavy damage on the enemy.
Each side drew the opposite conclusion. For the Italians night actions were to be avoided. For the British night actions were to be courted. In a way, both Supermarina and the Admiralty used the results of this action to endorse and confirm prewar decisions they had made regarding nighttime operations. Although the Italian Navy conducted night practices during the twenties, in the next decade "a decision was made for the battle fleet to decline night engagements." (7) And guns of 8" and above were not supplied with flashless powder. The Royal Navies, on the other hand trained to fight at night and their doctrine endorsed seeking out and engaging the enemy at night (although, they did not supply even their light forces with flashless powder). These were the lessons drawn from the Action of October 12. But were they the right lessons?
Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani ask the proper question and propose at least a partial answer. "Both British and Italian accounts speak of the 'great gallantry' of the destroyers' crews. But how could at least seven torpedoes, fired from several different directions, fail to hit? Part of the reason was surely the brilliant conduct of McCarthy during the action. Vice-Admiral Pridham Wippell would later say he handled his ship with promptitude, ability and great determination." (8) McCarthy, without doubt fought a good fight, but the tactics employed by the Italian forces surely had something to do with his success. In brief, the Italians squandered the advantage of surprise, they attacked piecemeal, and they greatly assisted Ajax's shooting by fighting the battle at far too close a range.
In terms of the many other nighttime torpedo actions fought during World War II, particularly the successful ones, the following analysis is relevant: "Commenting on this incident after the war, the German Admiral, Eberhard Weichold, who was liaison officer with Italian HQ in Rome in 1941 and subsequently German C-in-C Mediterranean . . . "attributed the Italian losses without accompanying success to the clearness of the night, and the insufficient number of the boats employed in the tactical execution of the attack." (9) The 1st Torpedo Boat Flotilla made no effort to concentrate and attack as a unit. Moreover, each of the three Italian torpedo boats had four tubes mounted on the centerline and so were capable of firing full salvos of four torpedoes each. Instead, when each boat attacked, she fired a half salvo. Twelve torpedoes launched simultaneously were always more deadly than penny packets of two launched independently.
All the hits scored by Ajax were made at very close ranges, 4,000 yards and below. In fact, much of the damaged suffered by the light cruiser was self inflicted from firing her guns at a low depression for extended periods of time. Although Ajax was hit seven times in return, the damage a shell from a 3.9" or 4.7" gun could inflict on a lightly armored vessel was far less, all things being equal, than the shell from a 6" gun could inflict on an unarmored vessel. When the destroyers attacked, they merely repeated the mistakes of the torpedoes boats without enjoying the benefits of launching a surprise torpedo attack.
Moreover, with the exception of the unfortunate Artigliere, their attack was not pressed very vigorously. In retrospect, the results of this action, at least from the Italian point of view, indicated the need for more training and a re-thinking of their doctrine. Gallantry was not the primary quality required by the situation. Control and coordination would have served the Italians far better. As it was, Ajax found herself rather like the shooter in a target gallery knocking down the ducks as they appeared in order, one after the other. A far better tactic would have been to attack in masse, using weapons in masse. The results could have, and should have been far different. The tragedy for the Italian Navy was that they drew the wrong conclusion from the results of this action and, in effect, conceded the night to the British.
Bragadin, The Italian Navy in World War II Greene & Massignani, The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 Ireland, The War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 Sadkovich, The Italian Navy in World War II Cunningham, A Sailor's Odyssey Brown, Warship Losses of World War II Rohwer & Hummelchen, Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945 Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 Macintyre, The Battle for the Mediterranean Footnotes: 1. Cunningham 278 2. Bragadin 39-40 3. Bragadin 40 4. Sadkovich 88fn 5. Ireland 48 6. Cunningham 278 7. Greene and Massignani 39 8. Greene and Massignani 98 9. Gill 225
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