Battle of Mid-June – Operation Harpoon

June 2nd-16th, 1942

Once again the British attempt to supply the besieged island of Malta, which is close to starvation. This time the strategy calls for two simultaneous convoy to sail to the island, one from Alexandria and one from Gibraltar. The Alexandria convoy (west bound) departed on June 13. A naval group of 8 cruisers and 27 destroyers was deployed to protect a convoy of 10 cargo ships. Having lost all of their battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean, the British try to fool the axis forces by sending along the old target ship Centurion fully armed with wooden turrets and fake guns.

R.N. Vittorio Veneto

Unusually for the British, axis air forces are immediately able to detect the convoy. Soon after, axis air forces damaged a cargo ships and sunk another one. Meantime, the Italian fleet is alerted and ordered to sea. On the 14th, a large Italian squadron left Sicily and a second one Taranto. The battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, along with the cruisers Gorizia, Trento, Garibaldi and Aosta, were escorted by only 10 destroyers. The shortage of destroyers, at this point in the war, was already dramatic. The Taranto group was quickly sighted by a British submarine, and British aerial forces conducted several attacks. During one of these incursions, the cruiser Trento was hit by a torpedo which left it immobilized.

Later, the Italian squadron was the target of more attacks, including the first appearance of American B-24 Liberators. The only score was a direct hit on one of the Littorio’s turrets which easily withstood the blast. On the British side, a combined axis attack accomplished the sinking of the destroyer Hasty (U-boat) and the damaging of the cruiser Newcastle (e-Boat). After having mistakenly thought the Italians in retreat, the British officer in command, Admiral Vian, quickly realized the situation and ordered an “avoiding action”. To all effects, this action amounted to a full retreat.

H.M.S. Newcastle

On the 16th, the cruiser Trento, powerless in the water, was sunk by a British submarine with a great loss of lives. Axis air forces sank the destroyers Airedole and Nestar and damaged the cruiser Arethusa and Birmingham, while a U-boat sank the cruiser Hermione.

The Battle of Pantelleria

Due the British retreat, the Italian squadron sailed back to Italy with the Littorio receiving a hit from an aerial torpedo. The damage was very limited, and the ship did not loose speed. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in what is often referred to as the “Battle of Pantelleria”, the British left Gibraltar in full force with 2 aircraft carriers, , Argus and Eagle, 4 cruisers, Cairo, Kenya, Liverpool and Charibdis and 10 destroyers, plus minor escort vessels in defense of 6 cargo ships.

R.N. Littorio

On the 14th the first cargo ship was sunk by axis planes, while the cruiser Liverpool was damaged. As usual, near Tunisia, the British forces split with the heavier forces returning to Gibraltar. Meantime, Supermarina had dispatched the 7th division based in Palermo. The cruiser Eugenio di Savoia and Montecuccoli, along with 5 destroyer went to the attack. On the 15th the Italian formation sighted the British just South of Pantelleria.

The 10,843 ton Cruiser Eugenio di Savoia

There is disagreement between the official Italian and British reports, especially regarding the cause and seriousness of the damage. Nevertheless, British naval units, and especially the destroyer HMS Bedouin and HSM Partridge received numerous hits from the Italian cruisers. An Italian S 79 later sank the Bedouin. The vast majority of damage to the merchant vessels was the result of Axis aerial attacks, which damaged the American ship Kentucky and sunk the Chant. On the 16th only the Welshman, the Cairo and 4 destroyers made it to Malta along with the only surviving cargo the Trailis, with many losses caused by minefield. Undoubtedly, the Battle of Mid-June was an Italian success, though the Italian fleet spent the very last supplies of fuel oil left bringing about a virtual paralysis. The shortage of fuel, mostly due to the erratic German supply, would become so dramatic that this battle is the last one which sow the Italian battleships in action.

Edited by Cristiano D’Adamo & Marc De Angelis