Plan for operations against enemy submarines and shipping in the Aegean.
On 18 July 1940, four destroyers departed Alexandria for an anti-submarine hunt towards the Kaso Strait and then along the north coast of Crete. These destroyers were; HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN) and HMS Ilex (Lt.Cdr. P.L. Saumarez, DSC, RN).
The same day the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, RAN) departed Alexandria with the destroyer HMS Havock (Cdr. R.E. Courage, DSO, DSC, RN) for an anti-shipping raid into the Gulf of Athens.
Two more destroyers left Alexandria for Port Said, these were HMS Hereward and HMS Imperial. They were to escort a convoy towards the Aegean and then to bring back a convoy from the Aegean to Egypt.
Proceeding of the sweeping forces up to the time of the sighting of two enemy cruisers, 18 – 19 July 1940.
The destroyers which were to perform the A/S sweep sailed from Alexandria at 0015/18 carrying out an A/S sweep towards the Kaso Strait. After passing through the Strait at 2130 hours they kept well over towards the Cretan shore to avoid being sighted from Kaso Island. They then steered towards the westward at 18 knots between Ovo Island and the Cretan mainland. At 0600/19 course was altered to 240° to pass through the Anti-Kithera Channel. At 0722 hours two Italian cruisers were sighted ahead by HMS Hero.
Meanwhile HMAS Sydney and HMS Havock had sailed from Alexandria at 0430/18. After passing through the Kaso Strait at 2345 hours they steered 295° at 18 knots. At 0733/19 they were in position 010°, Cape Spada, 40 nautical miles when HMAS Sydney received the enemy report from HMS Hyperion of two enemy cruisers steering 160°, bearing 255°, distant 10 nautical miles. HMS Hyperion gave her position as 340°, Agria Grabusa lighthouse, 3 nautical miles. Acting on this information, Captain Collins of HMAS Sydney altered course at 0736 hours to 240° to close the destroyers.
When an amplifying report from HMS Hyperion gave her course as 060°, and the enemy course as 360°, HMAS Sydney altered course to 190° and commenced to work up to full speed. At 0800 hours another alteration of course was made to 150°. Shortly afterwards signals were received from the Commander-in-Chief directing the destroyers to join up with HMAS Sydney and the latter to support them.
When Commander Nicolson continued from time to time to inform HMAS Sydney of his movements of his division and of the enemy, Captain Collins preserved W/T silence to avoid disclosing the presence of HMAS Sydney. In this he was entirely successful. Further alterations of course by HMAS Sydney were; at 0815 hours to 160°, at 0820 hours to 120°.
At 0826 hours the enemy cruisers were sighted. They were steering 090°, bearing 188°, range 23000 yards. They were about 20° before the starboard beam.
Until 0722 hours the destroyer division had been spread in line abreast 1.5 nautical miles apart, carrying out an A/S sweep at 18 knots. After sighting the enemy Commander Nicholson turned his division to starboard together to course 060°, and, in accordance with previous instructions, the destroyers concentrated in sub-divisions on the Hyperion.
It was estimated that HMAS Sydney at 0900 hours would be in a position 010°, Cape Spada, 55 nautical miles, and while steering towards this position Commander Nicholson endeavoured to work round to the northward. At 0725 hours, when speed was increased to 25 knots, the enemy was seen to have altered course to 360°.
Destroyer engagement with the enemy cruisers.
At 0726/19 one of the enemy cruisers opened fire on HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex an the latter returned fire. With their engines working up fast the speed of the destroyers was increased to 31 knots by 0735 hours. HMS Hyperion now opened fire with her after guns at maximum range, but ceased firing very soon as all her shots fell short. The enemy’s shooting was erratic, probably because he was firing against the sun. His salvoes fell short.
Although the range was opening rapidly, the enemy instead of heading in chase of the destroyers held on their course due north. Possibly he was uncertain of the strength of the force opposing him, but whatever the reason his neglect to close lost him a favourable chance of utilising his superior gun power. At 0738 hours the enemy bore 270°, range was 11 nautical miles, and HMS Hyperion at 0740 hours, ordered her division to cease firing as the enemy was out of range. Five minutes later the enemy also ceased fire.
At 0747 hours, the enemy, who bore 270°, range 14 nautical miles, was still steering north. With the object of gaining ground and of identifying the class of the enemy cruisers, the destroyer division altered course to 360°. At 0753 hours, when the enemy turned to close, course was altered back to 060°. The Commander-in-Chief’s signal to join HMAS Sydney was received by HMS Hyperion at 0800 hours, and four minutes later course was altered to 030°, with the enemy then bearing 265°, range 17 nautical miles. The enemy’s course at that moment was 090°. These positions were signaled to HMAS Sydney at 0805 hours, and course was altered to 060° one minute later. At about this time a Greek steamer was sighted ahead but it wisely turned north quickly.
Still trying to work to the northward, the destroyer’s course was altered to 040° at 0814 hours and to 030° at 0821 hours. The enemy re-opened fire at 0825 hours, but again his shooting was very short and erratic. After five minutes the enemy ceased fire and was then seen to be altering course to the southward.
HMAS Sydney and HMS Havock sighted by the destroyer division.
At 0819/19 gun flashes were seen away on the port beam of HMS Hyperion and a minute later the destroyers enjoyed the welcome sight of HMAS Sydney and HMS Havock bearing 290°, range 10 nautical miles. Commander Nicolson immediately altered course, first to 020° and at 0832 hours to 240°. Finally at 0835 hours he formed the division in line ahead and altered course to 260°. The enemy cruisers, now 17400 yards distant, were steaming fast to the southward, making heavy black smoke. At 0838 hours, the destroyer division, now steering 170°, opened fire in divisional concentration at extreme range on the left hand cruiser but the enemy was drawing out of range and the destroyers ceased fire at 0843 hours as their salvoes were falling short.
At 0844 hours, HMAS Sydney ordered the destroyers to ‘close and attack the enemy with torpedoes’. Course was altered together to 215°, and the Hyperion signalling the division to form on a line bearing 350°, at 0846 hours fired a ranging salvo. One minute later the enemy altered course to starboard.
HMAS Sydney engaged enemy cruisers.
The action now had become a stern chase, whose main interest lies in the movements of HMAS Sydney from the moment of her sighting the enemy. Her unexpected arrival together with HMS Havock seems to have taken the Italians completely by surprise. They were then engaged with the destroyers on the other side, and, in fact, their first impression was that they had to deal with two Allied cruisers.
At 0829 hours, when HMAS Sydney opened fire on the leading enemy cruiser at a range of 20000 yards. The fall of her salvoes were the first intimation of her presence to the enemy. The destroyer division was at that time still out of sight.
When the enemy recovered from their surprise at 0832 hours, he returned a concentrated fire on the Sydney, while the latter continued on a south-easterly course to intercept the destroyer division at and at the same time to close the enemy. The enemy salvoes fell short at first, then over, with an occasional straddle. At 0835 hours, the Sydney’s fire appeared to be effective, and the enemy was seen to be turning away. When the destroyer division was sighted at 0838 hours, steering south, about 6 nautical miles off, HMS Havock hauled over to join the other destroyers. Captain Collins signalled the destroyer division to attack with torpedoes, but a further alteration off course by the enemy, to the south-westward at 0840 hours prevented any possibility of a torpedo attack. HMAS Sydney turned to course 215° in pursuit of the now rapidly retreating enemy, and an alteration which brought her on the beam of the destroyers, who, at 0846 hours, were practically in line abreast in close order chasing at full speed.
In the early stages of the action there was some difficulty of identifying the class of the enemy cruisers but by now they had been identified as being of the ‘Bande Nere’ class. In fact they were the Giovanni delle Bande Nere herself and the Bartolomeo Colleoni which had left Tripoli on 17 July for Leros.
Chase of the enemy cruisers.
About 0846/19 the Sydney’s original target was so obscured by smoke that fire was shifted to the rear cruiser (the Colleoni), which was engaged by ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets on bearing 203° at a range of 18000 yards. The destroyer division at 0848 hours also renewed its fire at extreme range for a couple of minutes.
At 0851 hours, as the enemy altered course to port, the Sydney made a similar movement, which had the effect of opening her ‘A’ arcs. The enemy, making vast quantities of smoke, next altered course at 0853 hours to starboard. The purpose of these manoeuvres are not clear. Perhaps they were trying to throw of the pursuit to the eastward under the cover of smoke. If so it failed, for the Sydney, observing the enemy steading on course 230° at 0856 hours, resumed the chase in a south-westerly direction.
For a minute, at 0901 hours, the Sydney checked fire while she shifted target again to the leading cruiser (Bande Nere). When this ship at 0908 hours again became obscured by smoke fire was shifted back to the rear cruiser (Colleoni) then bearing 210° at a range of 18500 yards. At 0915 hours, HMAS Sydney altered course 30° to starboard to open her ‘A’ arcs, and it was soon evident that her fire had considerable effect. With the range down to 17500 yards at 0919 hours the Sydney also came under an accurate fire, receiving her only hit at 0921 hours. This projectile, bursting on the foremost funnel, blew a hole about 3 feet square in the casings, causing minor damage to three boats and some fittings but only one slight casualty.
The Bartolomeo Colleoni disabled.
The range now began to close rapidly, and at 0923/19 the Colleoni was seen to be stopped, apparently out of action, in position 250° , Cape Spada, 5 nautical miles. According to the evidence of prisoners, she was brought to by a shot in the engine or boiler room. All her lights went out and the electrical machinery ceased functioning, including the turret power hoists and steering gear. The Colleoni was now left to her fate by the Bande Nere, which, after making a tentative turn towards made off at high speed, and, steering 205°, rounded Agria Grabusa Island at a distance of about a mile.
During the 40 minutes chase described above, the destroyer division, at 32 knots, had made every effort to reduce the range, altering course as necessary from time to time. At 0909 hours, fire was renewed for a minute to test the range, and at 0911 hours the division formed on a line of bearing 350° . At 0918 hours, the range of the rear cruiser (Colleoni) was down to 17000 yards and closing rapidly. Course was altered to 240° at 0923 hours and fire opened in a divisional concentration on the Colleoni from 14500 yards. At 0928 hours the Colleoni was seen to be stopped and silent. For some minutes she had been hit repeatedly. Her whole bridge structure was soon in flames.
The Bartolomeo Colleoni torpedoed.
The Hyperion and the Ilex prepared to attack with torpedoes and the Hero was ordered by Commander Nicholson to take charge of the other two destroyers. At 0935/19, HMS Hyperion fired four and HMS Ilex two torpedoes from a range of 1400 yards. One torpedo from the Ilex hit the Colleoni forward, blowing away about 100 feet of her bows and her aircraft. The Hyperion’s torpedoes, however, owning to too great a spread, passed two ahead and two astern of the Colleoni and ran on to explode on the shore of Agria Grabusa Island.
According to survivors accounts, the men of the Colleoni started to jump overboard as soon as the ship stopped, and many of them were in the sea before to torpedo from the Ilex struck the ship. She had suffered many casualties forward, round the bridge and on the upper deck. Her Captain (Captain U. Navaro) was seriously wounded and died from his wounds at Alexandria on 23 July 1940. The Italians were much impressed by the rate and accuracy of the gunfire from the Allied ships and their tactical superiority.
During the chase the destroyers were never within satisfactory range, the last distance being 14000 yards until after the Colleoni started to drop back. The shooting from HMAS Sydney as seen from HMS Hyperion had been excellent except for a short spell when a large spread was noted.
When Captain Collins, at 0933 hours, ordered Commander Nicholson to torpedo the Colleoni the range was 7500 yards. The Colleoni was then on fire amidships, and a heavy explosion was seen to occur forward. Captain Collins signaled to HMS Hyperion to leave one destroyer to deal with the disabled enemy and to resume the chase of the other cruiser in which HMAS Sydney, HMS Hero and HMS Hasty were pressing on at full speed.
Sinking of the Bartolomeo Colleoni.
At 0952/19 the Hyperion closed in and, observing the Colleoni more or less abandoned but not sinking or too heavily on fire, Commander Nicholson’s first intention, as he passed down her starboard side, was to go alongside and salve everything possible. Barely two minutes elapsed, however, before a large fire, breaking out in the forward superstructure, was followed by an explosion which blew the whole bridge away in a cloud of smoke. The Hyperion then fired another torpedo at short range, which hit the doomed ship amidships. At 0959 hours the Colleoni heeled over and sank bottom up, in position 029° , Agria Grabusa lighthouse, 4.6 nautical miles. HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex immediately began to rescue survivors in which they were soon joined by HMS Havock.
Chase of the Giovanni delle Bande Nere.
At 0945/19 the Bande Nere, after passing between the island of Pondiko Nisi and the Cretan mainlan, bore 192° at a range of 20000 yards. As on board the Sydney ammunition in the ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets was running low she had to check fire. The Bande Nere however, continued firing from her after guns but the shots consistently fell 300 yards away on the Sydney’s quarter. Captain Collins at 0955 hours repeated his signal to the destroyers to finish off the Colleoni and three minutes later he re-opened fire on the Bande Nere from 20000 yards. With the range increasing and the visibility of the target and fall of shot becoming more and more indistinct HMAS Sydney checked fire again at 1011 hours. The haze combined with the enemy’s smoke now rendered spotting conditions impossible. The result from a final couple of salvoes at 1022 hours from 21000 yards could not be observed. By that time the Sydney had remaining only four rounds per gun in ‘A’ turret and only one round per gun in ‘B’ turret. Shortly afterwards the Bande Nere, now 11 nautical miles off, was completely lost from sight in the haze. She was last seen to do 32 knots on course 200°.
HMS Hero and HMS Hasty had continued the chase at 31 knots, firing ranging salvoes at intervals, which all fell short. At 1028 hours, HMS Hero informed HMAS Sydney that she was unable to close the enemy and broke off the chase. She formed, with HMS Hasty a close screen on HMAS Sydney. When last seen from the destroyers at 1044 hours, the Bande Nere bore 177°, 15 nautical miles. At 1037 hours, HMAS Sydney finally abandoned the chase and altered course for Alexandria, reducing speed to 25 knots to allow HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex to come up.
Rescue of the survivors from the Bartolomeo Colleoni.
At 1024/19, leaving HMS Havock to continue picking up survivors of the Colleoni, HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex had proceeded at high speed to join HMAS Sydney. HMS Ilex had 230 prisoners on board of which about 30 were seriously wounded and 3 subsequently died the same night.
HMS Havock, as mentioned earlier, had been ahead of HMAS Sydney, but had proceeded to join the other destroyers when the action commenced. Taking up station on the starboard wing when she got within range at 0911 hours and joined in with the concentration fire. The shooting, even at longer range, appeared to be effective, several hits being observed.
HMS Havock then joined HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex and closed in on the Colleoni after that ship had come to a halt.
When the HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex left the scene of the sinking HMS Havock carried on rescuing the survivors. By 1237 hours she had picked up some 260 survivors. Six Italian bombers were then seen approaching from the southward. HMS Havock was forced to abandon her humane task and left the scene at full speed for Alexandria.
HMS Havock damaged in air attack.
At 1245/19 the enemy aircraft attacked in two formations of three aircraft each but without success. At 1455 hours nine more aircraft attacked in flights of three, the second flight scoring a near miss which penetrated and flooded no.2 boiler room. These attacks, which were made from levels between 3000 and 4000 feet were countered with effective gunfire, which in two instances broke up the formations. Two ratings in the boiler room received minor injuries. The bomb that caused the damage appeared to be 250lb, which burst 6 feet under water, about 10 feet from the ships side. After loosing way for about 5 minutes, the Havock picked up speed again and proceeded at 24 knots.
On receiving the Havock’s signals around 1500 hours, reporting her damage, HMAS Sydney turned back to support her. HMS Hero and HMS Hasty were ordered to continue to Alexandria. Shorty afterwards a heavy bombing attack was made on HMAS Sydney but without success. Realising the possible danger of submarine attack, Captain Collins, ordered HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex to join him. At 1540 hours, HMS Havock was sighted and HMAS Sydney took station one nautical mile astern of her.
Meanwhile HMS Hyperion and HMS Ilex were proceeding towards Alexandria being unable to make rendez-vous. When the report of HMS Havock was received stating that she was damaged in an air attack, Commander Nicholson turned back and at 1840 hours they made rendez-vous with the Sydney and Havock. One more air attack was made between 1845 and 1848 hours but no damage was done.
At 2100 hours, HMAS Sydney parted company to join the 7th Cruiser Squadron. The destroyers continued on towards Alexandria where they arrived at 0845/20.
Fleet movements 19-20 July 1940.
Acting on the possibility that other enemy forces might be at sea, the Commander-in-Chief, immediately after he received information that enemy ships had been sighted off Cape Spada, took the following measures;
Air reconnaissance by flying boats of 201 Group was to be sent out to search for the Bande Nere.
The movements of Convoy Aegean North 2 were postponed and the ships which had sailed from Port Said were ordered to return.
An oiler convoy from Alexandria to Port Said was ordered to proceed unescorted.
The Fleet was ordered to proceed to sea.
At 0915/19, HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN) with HMS Neptune (Capt. R.C. O’Conor, RN) put to sea to sweep to the north-westward.
At 1100/19, HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, OBE, RN, flying the flag of A/Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham, KCB, DSO and 2 Bars, RN) with a destroyer screen (these appeared to have been HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN) and HMS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, RAN)) sailed for a sweep in the same direction.
At 1230/19, HMS Malaya (Capt. Sir A.F.E. Palliser, DSC, RN), HMS Ramillies (Capt. H.T. Baillie-Grohman, OBE, DSO, RN), HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN), HMS Liverpool (Capt. P.A. Read, RN) and a destroyer screen (seems to be made up of HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr. P.A. Cartwright, RN), HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN), HMS Imperial (Lt.Cdr. C.A.deW. Kitcat, RN), HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades RAN) and HMS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, RAN)) sailed for a sweep to the westward.
From the Sydney’s last enemy report at 1016/19, indicating that the Bande Nere was steaming south-westwards at high speed it was evident that she could reach Tobruk without being intercepted if she was making for that port. HMS Eagle was therefore ordered to prepare a striking force to attack Tobruk harbour and 201 Group was requested to make a dusk reconnaissance. HMS Liverpool was detached to join HMAS Sydney as additional escort for the damaged HMS Havock. HMS Liverpool joined HMAS Sydney at 0500/20.
As there was no further information of the Bande Nere during the afternoon, the Commander-in-Chief decided that at 2100 hours all forces should return to Alexandria. The aircraft from HMS Warspite which was catapulted at 1700/19 to make a search of the Tobruk area made a forced lading to the eastward of that port. The destroyer HMS Jervis was detached to search the area for the missing aircraft but failed to find it. Search for the aircraft continued on the 20th by aircraft from 201 Group but again they failed to find the missing aircraft. An Italian report on 25 July 1940 stated that the crew had been rescued.
Aircraft of No. 55 and 211 Squadrons carried out bombing attacks on shipping in Tobruk harbour and claimed several hits. At 0240/20 six aircraft from No. 844 Squadron FAA from HMS Eagle made a successful moonlight torpedo attack on shipping at Tobruk, encountering heavy barrage fire from all sides of the harbour, which damaged three aircraft, seriously wounded one observer and slightly wounded a pilot. Hits were claimed on three ships, and a sheet of flame from an oiler indicated that she was carrying petrol. During this attack the Italian destroyers Nembo and Ostro were sunk as was the merchant vessel Sereno (2333 GRT, built 1918).
The Fleet returned to Alexandria on the morning of the 20th where all ships cheered HMAS Sydney and the destroyers when they entered harbour. The total number of Italian prisoners disembarked was 545 officers and men from a complement of the Bartolomeo Colleoni of about 630 officers and men. The Bande Nere eventually returned to Tripoli and was reported there on 26 July.