- 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)
On our return to Alexandria on 12th March, a hurried conference was held to decide how best to organise the next convoy, due to sail at the dark of the moon, in about a week’s time.
Vian decided to transfer his flag, together with key personnel, to Cleopatra, the least experienced ship. With him he took his brilliant Flag Captain and CSO, Captain Guy Grantham, his Squadron Navigating Officer, Robin Maurice, his Flag Lieutenant, Peter Hankey and me as Squadron Gunnery Officer.
To my delight, Dermot Garde, a superlative Air Defence Officer and George Hill, a ‘dagger’ Gunner of the first magnitude, volunteered to come with me from Naiad.
To anyone who remembers Vian’s meticulous standards of dress, there will be a certain wry humour in hearing of the Admiral and Staff joining his new flagships in white shirts and grey flannels, pending our uniforms being replaced. We were however properly dressed in uniform caps! The next few days were filled with intensive drills, for Cleopatra had much to learn. The Chiefs of Staff in London had signalled: ‘Malta is of such importance . . . that the most drastic steps are justified to sustain it. No consideration of risk to ships need deter you’.
On 20th March, the convoy, consisting of that heroic veteran of so many previous runs, Breconshire (Captain C. Hutchison), Clan Campbell (another veteran), Pampas and Talabot sailed with its anti-aircraft screen of Carlisle and six small Hunt Class destroyers.
The escort, inevitably, was formed by the 15th Cruiser Squadron, now composed of Cleopatra, Dido and Euryalus, together with the eleven Fleet destroyers available from the 14th Destroyer Flotilla (Captain A.L. Poland) and the 22nd Destroyer Flotilla (Captain St. J.A. Micklethwait).
The only ships available from Malta, the 6 inch Cruiser Penelope (Captain A.D. Nicholl) and the destroyer Legion, were to rendezvous with us in the Gulf of Sirte at 0800 on March 22nd.
The advance of the Eighth Army had made it possible to provide us with the luxury of a fighter escort of two Beaufighters for the first two days, and as a result, bombing attacks were sporadic and harmless.
However on 21st March, our position, course and speed were reported by two Italian submarines, Onice and Platino and the Italian Admiralty ordered two forces to sea to intercept us.
The first at Messina under Divisional Admiral Parona consisted of two eight inch cruisers, Trento, Gorizia, one six inch cruiser, Giovanni Della Bande Nere, and four destroyers. The second force, under Admiral Iachino, comprising the battleship Littorio and six destroyers, was to sail from Taranto and rendezvous north of the Gulf of Sirte, where Iachino was to assume overall command.
Meanwhile, the bombers and torpedo carrying aircraft of the German II Fleiger Korps and the Italian 4th Air Fleet, were to maintain air attacks on the convoy and escort throughout the daylight hours of 22nd March.
With us, things began to happen at 0530 on 22nd, when Vian received a report from our submarine (P36) watching off Taranto. The report, timed at 0130, was that heavy units accompanied by destroyers were leaving harbour, and the delay in transmission was due to the submarine having been forced to dive.
No report was received from our submarines off Messina, so it looked to us, on the bridge of Cleopatra, as if the enemy could not make surface contact with us before 1600 at the earliest.
Though the C-in-C had written into his operation orders that the convoy should be turned back to Alexandria if surface contact was made by the Italian fleet during daylight hours, Vian was determined to fight the convoy through to Malta if at all possible. The probability of contact occurring only late in the afternoon justified the risk of continuing on.
Course and speed were therefore maintained and junction made with Penelope and Legion as arranged at 0800. Half an hour later, our last long-range fighter reached the limit of its endurance, and had to withdraw.