2nd Battle of the Sirte

March 22nd, 1942

While the Axis blockade of Malta was ripening its fruits, on March 20, 1942 the British sent a convoy of four cargo ships escorted by the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle and six destroyers from Alexandria to the besieged island. Later in the day, a second formation of three cruisers and four destroyers strong, commanded by Admiral Vian, also left the British base. Seven additional destroyers were also dispatched from Tobruk.

R.N. Littorio
(La Spezia in summer 1943)

On the 21st, the British land forces launched an attack intended to divert Axis reconnaissance schedule. Also, the Royal Navy had small units patrolling the waters outside Tunis, and a formation, including an aircraft carrier, just off the Balearic Islands. The smaller units off Tunis were later intercepted off Cape Bon with one torpedo boat sunk by airplanes and a second one captured, after having surrendered, in Bone. The cruiser Cleopatra, part of Vian’s force, was sighted by Italian submarines on the 21st, and Supermarina sounded the alarm. The 3rd division, including the cruisers Gorizia, Trento and Bande Nere, along with four destroyers were joined by the battleship Littorio and its escort of four destroyers.

On the 22nd, the cruiser Penelope and a destroyer left Malta heading east. At this point, all British forces were at sea. The Littorio group was sighted by a British submarine patrolling off Taranto, giving the British forces an early warning. Due to fierce weather, the Italian formation could not achieve more than 22 knots, and one of the escorts left due to an engine breakdown. In the afternoon, the 3rd Division sighted the British who wrongly identified the cruisers as battleships. The Italian formation then maneuvered to draw the British towards the Littorio. For more than an hour the two formations chased each other while the wind grew even stronger. Past 4:00 PM, the Littorio joined the fighting, causing the British to quickly withdraw behind thick smoke. British destroyers made several desperate runs against the Littorio, but the battleship’s 15″ guns inflicted serious damage. The Littorio itself received a smaller caliber shell which did not inflict any damage.

The 5,450 tons cruiser Cleopatra of the Dido Class

With darkness approaching, Admiral Iachino in command of the Italian forces broke off the engagement. According to British reports, the Cleopatra had its after turret demolished by the Bande Nere. The destroyer Havock was, for a time, left dead in the water by a direct hit. The destroyer Sikh was also hit, along with the Lively, Legion, Lance and Kingston. Also the cruisers Euryalus and Penelope were considerably damaged. The Italian force, along with the minor damage to the Littorio, lost on the way back to port the destroyers Scirocco and Lanciere to the incredibly violent sea.

Damage to the Battleship Littorio

The following days, the German and Italian Air Forces started a series of raids which brought about the sinking of the Clan Campbell, and the near sinking of the Breconshire. Also, while attempting to salvage the Breconshire, the destroyer Southworld entered an Italian minefield and sunk to the bottom. The following days, due the continuing air bombardments, the destroyer Legion, the cargo Breconshire, Pampas and Talbot were sunk. Of the almost 26,000 tons of cargo intended for Malta, only about 5,000 made it to port.

The debate is still on whether Admiral Iachino could have achieved a more striking success. In his defense, sea conditions were such that any naval artillery hit was more due to luck than marksmanship; still the British were able to reach Malta. Ultimately, the combined naval and air axis forces were able to impede the refurbishing of Malta, thus continuing its isolation.