April 16th, 1941
Although in the overall economy of the war in the Mediterranean the action resulting in the destruction of the Tarigo convoy was of minor importance, it is fascinating how, through the years, different authors have given such different historical accounts of these events.
The Tarigo was one of the many convoys organized by the Axis forces in support of the renewed activities of the newly arrived D.A.K. in North Africa. It was named after the destroyer R.N. Tarigo, which was the lead escort. It was a relatively small convoy of four small German ships and one Italian ship escorted by three destroyers.
The destroyer R.N. Tarigo
Discrepancies between historians are to be expected, especially in regard to the war in the Mediterranean where, at times, it appears that they are telling completely different stories. Understandably some of these discrepancies have occurred because of the British government’s rule governing the release of confidential information. As documents were released through the years, more and more was learned, but still some very important folders are beyond the reach of historians.
On the other hand, most Italian documentation was made readily available. Italy had nothing to hide, and actually the search for the truth was part of the national healing process. Italians, perhaps less than the Germans, came out of the war with a general sense of shame, which could only be eradicated by understanding the facts and honoring the fallen. At times, Italy and Italian historians were inclined to write very apologetic accounts of the actions of the Regia Marina, without understanding that there was not much to be apologetic for; the navy had done its best and paid a very high price.
The decision to focus on the Tarigo was easy; the difference in reporting amongst the various authors goes beyond what could be described as personal interpretation and enters the area of fallacious reporting. It therefore makes a good case for comparative history.
The first published report on this action was the one by Captain Mack, the commander of the Malta-based British destroyer force, which decimated the convoy. His May 11th, 1948 report published by the “London Gazette” was later incorporated in Admiral A.B. Cunningham’s “A Sailor’s Odyssey”, published in England in 1951. This report is relatively accurate, but is strictly focused on the night engagement. A.B. Cunningham reveals that the Italian convoy had been sighted by British reconnaissance on April 15th. He continues by saying, “It was a fine clear night with a good moon”. This is the first discrepancy; according to the official Italian report, the weather was actually quite foul and the moon was slightly less than half full. Still, although Cunningham does not say it, British planes were able to fly, while the lone Italian S. 79 sent to defend the convoy had to return to base. Overall, the report is quite accurate, but some of the missing details can be easily explained; after all, it was only a few years after the end of WW II and the cold war was brewing.
Perhaps what was not said was that the sinking of the Mohawk was not just “greatly to be regretted” but it was a failure. Considering that the British forces had shadowed the convoy for over 20 minutes and that the position of all ships had been accurately charted by radar, its sinking was very fortuitous for the Axis forces. Another issue which, in later years, would stimulate the interest of several historians, was the acute difference in timing between the report of the Jervis and the Nubian.
The Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare published the beautifully detailed “La Difesa del Traffico con l’Africa Settentrionale” in 1958, later updated in 1973. This book’s section on the Tarigo is very accurate and exquisitely detailed. It incorporates some of the original British logs from the Jervis and the logs confirm the British use of the radar from the Nubian. This book should be used as the base of any re-writing of this story, though it must be kept under consideration that, even by the time of the second edition, news about ULTRA and British intelligence in general were still in the future.
From this book we learn new details. The German ships were laden with troops, while the Italian Sabaudia was carrying ammunitions. These ammunitions, as the Jervis report shows, were of German manufacture. The lead escort, R.N. Tarigo, was under the command of ap. Di freg. Piero De Cristofaro. The other two units were replacements of the originally scheduled Strale and Euro. These were the lighter destroyers R.N. Lampo under the command of cap. Di corv. E. Marano and the R.N. Baleno, under the command of cap. Di corv. Arnaud.
The lighter destroyers R.N. Lampo
On April 13th, the Axis was already aware of the arrival of four new destroyers at Malta and in the evening of the same day, the CAT was asked to intervene. Early on the 15th, the convoy had been scattered by bad weather and was about 4 hours behind schedule. Around 1:00 PM a British plane bearing the marking OHSF was sighted by the convoy which gave the alarm to Supermarina. The British plane follows the convoy and around 2:00 PM sends a new signal to base which is intercepted by Supermarina. The Naval high command requests assistance from Superaereo, the Air Force High Command. Of the two S 79’s dispatched by Superaereo only one takes off and at 6:45 PM, Supermarina is informed that, due to the weather conditions, the aircraft had to return to base. Wind is reported at about 80 Km/h. Supermarina then instructs the convoy to change route and, passing buoy 4 of the Kerkenah, to follow the coast line. The convoy will never reach buoy 4 because the British force will reach and destroy it between buoy 2 and 3.
The official Italian report says that on April 27 and May 7, Italian forces under the command of cap. di feg. Eliseo Porta will rescue some important documents from the sunken Mohawk. These rescue attempts were also repeated on June 22nd and 23rd. According to the official Italian report, the only document of value rescued was the “Mediterranean Stationary Order Book”. Other authors contradict this assertion; they actually affirm that documents rescued from the Mohawk were essential to the success of the Xa MAS attach against the port of Alexandria.
The official war records were preceeded, in 1957, by Marc’Antonio Bragadin’s “The Italian Navy in WW II” originally published in Italian in 1948. Bragadin’s relatively long discourse on the Tarigo is full of errors and makes us wonder if his book is not in desperate need of updating, a proposition which the publisher should consider since the work is a milestone. Bragadin reports that the British force was never sighted by the Italo-German reconnaissance, but the official Italian report shows that the CAT (Italian denomination for the Luftwaffe in Sicily) had requested direct intervention.
According to Bragadin, the Italian convoy was attacked from both air and sea, but we have no other confirmation of this fact. Most authors, in addition to the official reports, agree that the convoy was shadowed by British reconnaissance planes, but never attacked from the air. Bragadin also assumes that, in addition to the sunken Mohawk, some other British vessels might have received damage, but there is no other report to corroborate such an assumption. Finally, Bragadin does not mention the use of radar, but on the other hand it describes the rescue operation quite accurately.
In 1964, Donald Macintyre, an author at times forgotten, dedicated several paragraphs to the episode in hib book “The Battle for the Mediterranean”. Macintyre is disingenuous when he says that the British lacked radar. Derek House’s Radar at Sea” published in 1993 clearly shows that three out of the four British destroyers involved in the action were indeed equipped with the latest radar sets. By the time Macintyre wrote his book, it was common knowledge that many nocturnal naval engagements were sought and won by the British, mostly due to their overwhelming technical superiority. Another inaccuracy, later picked up by other authors, was the number of Axis casualties which, although reported at 350, were actually over 700.
In 1976, the famous Italian historian Arrigo Petacco, who specializes in WW II Italian history, wrote in his “Le Battaglie nel Mediterraneo” a quite terse report, which was indeed accurate. Surprisingly, he mentions the name of Lieutenant Ettore Bisagno, the junior officer who, while his ship was sinking, trained the torpedo tube launcher on the enemy, managing to hit and sink the Mohawk. This detail had been previously published by Antonio Trizzino.
What followed is in engaging book written by a Spaniard Naval officer, Louis de la Sierra. His report is long, and in essence accurate, even though he also makes the mistake of reporting that the British did not have radar.. De La Sierra blames the delay of the convoy on bad weather in Naples, while the Italian report refers to foul weather while crossing the Channel of Sicily. He also reports that no Italian plane was sent in support of the convoy, a statement while not literally accurate, fully explains reality. Suddenly, in De La Sierra’s report the weather improves, while the last entry in the Italian report still refers to fog and squalls. De La Sierra continues his misled narration by reporting the accurate time of the first sighting (note, accurate if we refer to the log of the Jervis) as 1:58 AM of April 16th, but referring to it as a “visual” sighting and not as a radar one. What De La Sierra is saying is quite absurd. The moon was from South–SouthEast, which happens to be the same position of the British force and they can see the convoy, but the convoy cannot see them. The opposite would instead be true. The British would move behind the convoy so that the moon would hide them and illuminate the Axis ships.
The Lampo is reported rescued after four months of work, while the Italian report refers to “a couple of months.” Either way, this vessel re-entered service. Also it appears that only the hospital ship Arno was part of the rescuing group and what De La Sierra reports as a second Hospital ship was just a merchant ship. He also reports only 350 casualties. These mistakes probably originate from Macintyre’s bookNevertheless, this book should be taken into consideration because at times it has the interesting interpretation of a sailor who has sailed the same sea, watched the same stars and dreamed the same dreams. His description of naval tactics is also quite enlightening.
What followed is to be considered a milestone of revisionist history. James Sadkovitch’s “The Italian Navy of WW II”, although accused by Green and Massignani of being too apologetic of the Italian navy, provides new, well documented, and revealing facts which had been lost to the general public. He correctly reports the interception of Axis signals by the British. This was not quite the work of ULTRA, but it falls within the general area of intelligence warfare so skillfully fought by the British. This specific aspect of the war was so diligently covered by professor Santoni’s “ULTRA il vero traditore”. There is no apology by Sadkovich, the facts are clearly explained and documented. What is indeed revealing is the description of the effect the destruction of the convoy had on the Italian military and government, especially in terms of access to the Tunisian ports. Not a single detail in Sadkovitch’s report is arguable and it creates a new, and higher, standard for historical reporting.
In 1993, the widely published author Bernard Ireland summarizes these events in less than a long paragraph managing to squeeze in a few mistakes, such as the Italian vessel which launched torpedoes at the Jervis; it was the Lampo and not the Tarigo. He also reports the Lampo and Baleno as torpedo boats, even though at 1,220 tons they were full-fledged destroyers. Once again the interception is due to “hard steaming” and there is no mention of the radar
In 1998 Green and Massignani wrote another milestone and perhaps the ultimate book about the naval war in the Mediterranean and an expanded report on the loss of the Tarigo convoy. The book, “The Naval War in the Mediterranean”, has an excellent summary of the events and it expands on the Italian attempts to rescue the cipher book left on the sinking Mohawk. According to the authors, documents rescued from the Mohawk (Eliseo Porta was part of the Xa MAS) helped with the attack on the Alexandria, soon to be conducted by the Xa MAS. The book offers additional details such as the plane intercepting the Italian convoy (it was a Maryland). The authors are accurate in reporting that ULTRA did not directly effect the action, and as Sadkowich has done before, they report that the British had indeed intercepted Axis signals.
Should we disregard all previously written books and focus only on the very latest literature? Should we, as Green and Massignani might suggest, disregard Borghese’s book about the Xa MAS? We do not think so. It would be a great tragedy if all the published and unpublished literature on this period were to be disregarded. The understanding of the evolution and interpretation of these historic events is as important as history itself. Ultimately, the continuously evolving historical evaluation of these events keeps them alive today as they were almost 60 years ago.
Unfortunately, badly written books like Bernard Ireland’s “War in the Mediterranean” are still published and sold. Authors like Ireland replaced well-researched history with fallacious narrative at a price of a few guineas. Readers should experience all books, and at the same time be always open minded to the idea that interpretation of historical facts can be less a science than one might expect. Ultimately, the Tarigo action brought about the loss of a few dozen ……….and hundreds of German and British lives and to those soldiers and sailors we owe the respect which can be offered by keeping history alive. In doing so, we celebrate authors like Green and Massignani who strive so much for historical accuracy.
Ultimately, when newer war records are released by the British government, a new generation of historians will update our current understanding of the facts, thus giving us a yet more accurate interpretation of these events and their meaning in history.