- Storey, A.S, DSC, Commander, RAN (Rtd)
- WWII operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
DECEMBER 1941 WAS THE MONTH OF DISASTER for the Mediterranean Fleet, for within the space of twenty four hours, the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Andrew Cunningham, had lost the services of two battleships (Queen Elizabeth and Valiant), two cruisers from Force K, operating out of Malta (Neptune and Aurora), and a destroyer (Kandahar) also from Force K. Within the previous four days, he had also lost the cruiser HMS Galatea at the entrance to the swept channel off Alexandria.
Further afield the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour, invested Singapore, and caused the diversion from the Mediterranean Fleet of cruisers and destroyers so urgently needed if Malta was to survive.
And Malta must survive, for the miniscule air striking force, surface force and submarine arm operating from the battered island were destroying 37% of the war supplies being shipped to General Rommel.
Without this continual attrition, he could build up his potential to the point where the Afrika Korps could attain his prime objective – the vast oil resources of the Middle East – and as a by-product, the destruction of our Eighth Army.
But all the news was not grim. The United States was in, and on the local scene, a convoy had been fought through to Malta, despite the intervention of Italian heavy ships.
The convoy had sailed from Alexandria on 15th December, under the protection of the Fifteenth Cruiser Squadron, or the ‘Fighting Fifteenth’, as it was later to be nicknamed.
The 15th Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral P.L. Vian, consisted of his flagship, HMS Naiad (Captain Guy Grantham), HMS Dido (Captain H. McCall) and HMS Euryalus (Captain E.C. Bush). They displaced 5,500 tons; their speed was 33 knots and they had six torpedo tubes. Five turrets mounting twin 5.25 inch high angle guns were fitted.
Of the ten ships of the class that were eventually built, Naiad was the first to be completed. I was fortunate enough to be appointed her gunnery officer during her final months of fitting out, and she commissioned in June 1940.
Her gunnery control had an ingenious switching system which made it possible to engage a surface target and an aircraft target, or two aircraft targets, simultaneously.
Two shell outfits were of course carried; time fused HE shell for use against aircraft and impact fused semi-armour-piercing against ships. Variations of gun-drill were required to deal with the two different types of target, but they were not unduly complicated.
All three ships of the squadron were battle-hardened and well trained.
‘Coming events cast their shadows before’, it is said. It is certainly true that the experience we gained in the First Battle of Sirte was to stand us in good stead in the Second.
As mentioned above, the convoy consisting of the Naval auxiliary supply ship Breconshire, with an anti-aircraft screen of six Hunt Class AA destroyers and the AA cruiser Carlisle (first world war vintage), left Alexandria for Malta on 15th December. Later in the evening the 15th Cruiser Squadron with six fleet destroyers sailed to overtake and escort the convoy.
The plan was that Force K, (the cruisers Aurora and Penelope), operating from Malta, should meet us in the Gulf of Sirte at daylight on 17th. After dark of that day, Vian should turn over the convoy to Force K for the final few hours run to Grand Harbour at Malta.
Enemy bombing in the ‘alley’ between Crete and Cyrenaica on the 16th was ineffective, and after dark, Vian detached Carlisle and two destroyers to the eastward to ‘chatter’ on their wireless.
They were to simulate a battle squadron being rather careless about its radio silence! (The truth was that Cunningham was so desperately short of destroyers that his battleship could not put to sea for lack of an anti-submarine screen).
In the light of later events, it seems that this ruse may have succeeded in persuading Admiral Iachino that our battle squadron was in support.
Rendezvous was duly effected with Force K at daylight on the 17th, and heavy air attacks from German and Italian high level bombers and torpedo planes continued throughout the day.
During the morning we received indications that heavy enemy surface forces were at sea, but it was not until about 1500 that we sighted a single red flare, high in the sky, to the north-westward.