- 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)
When it was followed by further flares in the same general direction, we realised that they were being dropped by reconnaissance aircraft, to indicate to the Italian Admiral the position of his target.
At about 1745, in the midst of a heavy air attack, we had our first sighting of the enemy, about 20 miles away. The force consisted of three battleships, a similar number of heavy cruisers, and attendant destroyers.
Detaching the convoy and anti-aircraft screen to the southward, Vian formed his cruisers into line ahead, and with the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, closed the enemy at high speed.
The change over of our armament from High Angle to Low Angle took only a few moments, but it was not until 1815 that we were able to bring the enemy within range of our 5.25 inch guns.
Meanwhile we had been under 15 inch and 8 inch gun fire, but suffered only splinter damage. At 1828, as darkness was falling, and the range becoming decisive, the enemy suddenly turned to the northward and retired at high speed.
Moving back to Breconshire, we changed our armament control back to High Angle, in readiness for the inevitable dusk attack by torpedo aircraft.
Again our force suffered no damage; Breconshire had an uneventful night passage to Malta, and we returned to Alexandria.
At midnight on the 18/19th December, the harbour boom was opened to admit, not only us, but also unfortunately six very brave Italians mounted on their ‘human torpedoes’. Their score the next morning – two battleships and one fleet tanker!
Except for the light cruiser Penelope at Malta, the only ships larger than a destroyer between Gibraltar and Suez were now the three 5.25 inch cruisers of the 15th Cruiser Squadron, and it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the enemy battle fleet disputed our passage to Malta.
Plans and exercises were developed and practised assiduously, the emphasis being placed on the formation of several divisions, which could operate independently yet coherently, against enemy groups of heavy ships.
For now, if ever, was Mussolini’s chance to use his six battleships, his overwhelming preponderance of 8 inch and 6 inch cruisers, and his fresh destroyer flotillas to establish his vaunted mare nostrum.
So great was the urgency for more cruisers that it was decided to cut short the ‘working up’ period of the newly-commissioned Cleopatra, and to let her run the gauntlet of the Mediterranean to reinforce us.
On 9th March Naiad and the 15th Cruiser Squadron, with nine fleet destroyers, set out to rendezvous with her off Malta, and escort her back to Alexandria.
Bombing was heavy and continuous after junction was effected on 11th March, but we suffered no serious damage. Since U-boats were expected to be stationed along our intended track, Vian, as soon as darkness had fallen, ordered a forty degree alteration of course to port.
But as luck would have it, this took us straight over the position of U-565 and at about 2000, Naiad was torpedoed and sunk.
Eighty two were lost, but the rest of us were picked up by destroyers after a few hours in the water.
In a letter to the First Sea Lord, Cunningham paid a glowing tribute to Naiad, and indeed she had led a busy, if rather short life of less than two years.
During this time we had worn out and replaced all gun barrels twice, and we were well into the life of the third set at the time of sinking.