- 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)
Vian’s detailed operation orders, covering the several alternative organisations and plans envisaged, had been flown to Malta several days earlier, but unfortunately had never reached either of our new arrivals.
Fortunately, however, they had both been assigned to the 2nd Division, led by Dido, whose captain was thoroughly conversant with, and practised in, the various schemes which had been developed.
Vian’s confidence, that such experience and battle-hardened officers as the captains of Penelope and Legion would be able to improvise where necessary, as well as ‘following Father’, was fully justified. All that was necessary was to signal them a brief summary of the various organisations that might be adopted.
Air attacks, which were to continue until dusk started at about 0930 and employed some one hundred and fifty aircraft of differing types.
The wind, which was from the south-east, gradually increased during the morning until by midday it was blowing at about 25 knots.
This was perfect for Vian’s Plan B, which predicated the use of smoke laid by separated divisions, enjoying the advantage of the ‘weather gauge’. Indeed, never since the days of sail, had the weather gauge been so important.
Our greatest lack was of reconnaissance reports, which had been denied to Vian by the heavy and continuous bombings of the Malta airfields. But under the prevailing conditions, and despite his ignorance of the enemy’s composition, he had no hesitation in signalling ‘Form Organisation B at 1245’.
This called for the formation of six divisions made up as follows:
- 1st Division – 4 Destroyers; Jervis, Kipling, Kelvin, Kingston.
- 2nd Division – 2 Cruisers, 1 Destroyer; Dido, Penelope, Legion
- 3rd Division – 2 Destroyers; Zulu, Hasty
- 4th Division – Cruisers: Cleopatra (Flag), Euryalus
- 5th Division – 4 Destroyers; Sikh, Lively, Hero, Havock
- 6th Division – 1 AA Cruiser, 1 Hunt Class Destroyer; Carlisle, Avon Vale.
Three quarters of an hour later, we saw to the northward, the red flares in the sky, which had heralded the First Battle of Sirte.
Vian altered course towards and signalled ‘Carry out Plan B’. It had always been envisaged that communications, whether visual or by wireless, might go awry under action conditions, and accordingly all our prior exercises had been designed to reduce the necessity of signals to a minimum.
Nevertheless, the ‘first night’ always seems to produce ‘jitters’, and it was with some trepidation that, from the bridge of Cleopatra, we watched the curtain go up.
Vian, of course, was vitally concerned to see how the ‘new boys’ from Malta would perform, for they had been unable to attend any of the rehearsals. But he need not have worried.
Smoothly the destroyers of the 5th and 3rd Divisions moved out to our engaged bow and beam while the 1st Division formed up on our disengaged bow. The 2nd Division of cruisers prolonged the line astern and the 6th Division took up its station in between the convoy and ourselves.
At 1427, Captain Bush of Euryalus, who, though an ardent nudist, was never one to be caught with his pants down, reported the enemy in sight to the northward and distant about 15 miles. (Incidentally one hundred and thirty seven years before, it was the frigate Euryalus, also in the weather gauge, who first sighted the enemy at Trafalgar).
Vian turned the convoy to the south-west and increased the speed of the striking force to 27 knots.