The Destruction of Force K – Mediterranean 1941

History - WW2
None noted.
RAN Ships
None noted.
June 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

ON 3RD JUNE 1941 the Italian 7th Division (Admiral Casardi) and the 4th Division (Admiral Giovanola) comprising five cruisers and seven destroyers, laid two deep minefields to the north-east of Tripoli, in an attempt to deter British coastal shelling. Six months later these fields were to deal a disastrous blow to the Malta Striking Force ‘K’, and leave the Royal Navy almost defenceless in the Mediterranean. It was one of the darkest periods of the Fleet’s history, for on the morning of 19th December 1941, Force ‘K’ ran into these fields and the light cruiser Neptune and the destroyer Kandahar were lost, the light cruisers Aurora and Penelope damaged, the former severely. The mines had not waited in vain.

The sinking of Neptune cost the Royal New Zealand Navy two officers and 148 ratings, the heaviest single casualty return in that Navy’s history. Not one of her New Zealand draft survived.

The events leading up to this tragedy were briefly as follows. Always hard pressed in the Mediterranean, Force ‘H’ had lost the carrier Ark Royal on 14th November, fourteen hours after she had been torpedoed by U-81 while returning to Gibraltar after delivering aircraft to Malta. She sank under tow within sight of the Rock with the loss of one rating. Tragedy upon tragedy was to follow.

At 1625 on 25th November the old battleship Barham, returning to Alexandria in company with the flagship Queen Elizabeth, and Valiant, was torpedoed by U-331 north of Sollum. She was struck by three torpedoes along her port side. Four minutes later, when on her beam ends, she blew up taking with her 862 officers and ratings, including Captain G. C. Cooke. There were 396 survivors including the Second-in- Command, Mediterranean, Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell, KCB, MVO. Two days later Australia lost the sloop Parramatta to U-559 in the Tobruk approaches while escorting an ammunition ship. Commander J. H. Walker, MVO, DSC, RAN and 137 of his ship’s company were lost. It was the second loss suffered by the RAN in just over a week, Sydney having been sunk with all hands by the German raider Kormoran on 19th November 1941 off Western Australia.

Meanwhile the Italians had commenced their new convoy operations to North Africa. One of the first was sailed for Benghazi and another for Tripoli. The two convoys were covered by a strong naval force consisting of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats. Both convoys were detected by air reconnaissance and the second was forced to return after pressed home air attacks. The first kept on, being reinforced by escorts from the second. On 30th November Force ‘K’ sailed Malta to intercept, and in an engagement that night and during the early morning of 1st December, sank the transport Adriatico. Later the tanker Mantovani was hit by aerial torpedoes and later sank. The Italian destroyer Da Mosto, while engaged in rescuing survivors from the tanker, came into action with Penelope and engaged her with gun and torpedo, but was overwhelmed by the superior gunfire of the British force.

The Italians continued their operations to reinforce and supply their forces in North Africa and during the first fortnight of December, using warships, especially cruisers, they were able to get a large amount of petrol through, despite attacks by British submarines which sank a number of supply ships and tankers. They suffered their worst loss in these operations when the cruisers Da Barbiano and Di Guissano attempted to transport petrol to Africa escorted by the torpedo boat Cigno. They were located by allied aircraft and turned back just after passing Cape Bon. On 13th December both were torpedoed and sunk by an Allied destroyer flotilla which included the Dutch Isaac Sweers. The flotilla was on passage from Gibraltar to Alexandria when the action occurred, and over 900 Italians lost their lives, including Admiral Toscano. Cigno escaped.

Soon disaster struck the Mediterranean Fleet again. On 14 December 1941 the 15th Cruiser Squadron was returning to Alexandria from a sweep to the west in search of enemy convoys. Just after entering the swept and searched channel Penelope’s sister Galatea was torpedoed by U-557 and sank in a few minutes with the loss of 472 lives, including Reuter’s Special War Correspondent Massey Anderson, whose report of the loss of the Barham on 25th November was kept secret until late February 1942, two months after his death.

The stage was now being set for the final act in which the main performers still swayed gently, and sometimes violently, in the wings, north-east of Tripoli.

The Italians had by now decided to throw everything into their efforts to succour the armies in Africa and every effort was to be made to achieve this objective. M41, the enemy designation for this operation, entailed the sailing of three convoys comprising eight transports and supply ships with a close escort of seven destroyers and two torpedo boats to Benghazi. The operation was to be covered by the Italian fleet comprising four battleships, five cruisers and eighteen destroyers. British submarines Unbeaten, Utmost and Upright sank a number of ships while stationed in the Gulf of Taranto. These vessels were on their way to convoy assembly points.

Force ‘B’, under Admiral Vian, put to sea from Alexandria on 13th December with Euryalus, Galatea and Naiad, screened by destroyers, to rendezvous with Force ‘K’ which consisted of our three friends already mentioned. Nothing came of the operation except a few sightings by British submarines of which one, Urge, succeeded in torpedoing the Italian flagship Vittorio Venetto, who returned to Taranto safe, but damaged. It was during her return to Alexandria from this operation that Galatea was lost.

Meanwhile, the British were doing their utmost to relieve Malta and, on 15th December, Force ‘B’, having returned from the previous sortie, set out to escort the fast transport Breconshire to Malta. Force ‘K’ was ordered to join up with these ships and at the same time, the Italians sailed their second major convoy, M42. The result of these operations by both sides was the battle named First Sirte. The warships (the British under Vian and the Italians under Iachino) engaged one another under conditions of failing light and poor visibility to protect their charges without knowing what the prize was beyond.

On 18th December Vian returned to Alexandria after these operations and Breconshire arrived Malta under escort of Force ‘K’. The Italian convoy continued its passage to Tripoli and Force ‘K’ was ordered to intercept.

The Italians still had a trump card up their sleeve.

When Vian entered through the boom that night, he was followed. Three human torpedo teams led by Lieutenant- Commander Durand de la Penne, followed Vian’s ships in and succeeded in attaching or laying their charges on or near the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant and the Norwegian tanker Sagona, which had the destroyer Jervis laying alongside. The story of this exploit is too well known to repeat here, but when it was over the battleships and the tanker had settled to the muddy bottom with their hulls torn open and the destroyer was damaged. With Barham’s wreckage strewn over the sea floor off Sollum and the Fleet Flagship and her consorts settling on their own wrecked bottoms, the Mediterranean Battle Fleet had ceased to exist.

While this trauma was occurring in Alexandria, Force ‘K’ was about to pass over the 100 fathom line off Tripoli. The mute, but deadly enemies, lay in wait only a short distance ahead. Iachino had turned both portions of his convoy, altering away to the east, after the brief encounter of the 17th, and during the night Vian’s combined force had searched with no success for the Benghazi portion of the convoy and he returned to Alexandria, while Force ‘K’ pushed on to Malta with Breconshire. The Tripoli convoy had meanwhile altered to the south again. It was estimated in Malta that it would arrive off its destination at about 0200 on the 19th. All ships available to Force ‘K’ were therefore ordered to intercept. At 1800 Neptune led Aurora, Penelope and the destroyers Lance, Lively, Kandahar and Havock to sea, clearing the breakwater at 1830 with paravanes streamed and speed increasing to 19 knots. This was increased to 22, 28 and finally at 1925 to 30, when the Force settled down to a steady course for the convoy’s last reported position. The course was 196 degrees speed 30 knots. The weather was blowing hard from the south-west with intermittent rain and the sea was beginning to rise.

Neptune was under the command of Captain Rory Chambers O’Conor RN, who had entered Osborne as a cadet in September 1911, and had gone straight to sea from Dartmouth on the outbreak of WWI. In 1937 he attended the Imperial Defence College and later was appointed Assistant Director of Plans Admiralty, and then Neptune, in command.

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