- 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)
The distant masts were at first thought to be those of the battleships, or heavy units reported by P36 as leaving Taranto, and we were puzzled as to how they could have arrived on the scene so early.
But as the range closed we could identify them as heavy cruisers. They were in fact, Parona’s force from Messina, whose presence had been unreported.
While still outside our maximum range, they opened fire with their 8 inch and 6 inch guns, but the smoke screen which we had started to lay made their fire ineffective.
But our smoke screen caused one contretemps which had not been foreseen! The sudden appearance of bomb splashes in our vicinity, (which at first we mistook for shell splashes), came as more than a surprise.
It took us some little time to realise that our smoke was lying low, and that our masts protruding about it, were providing perfect aiming points for a little unopposed aerial bombing practice.
So we very quickly stopped making smoke, and switched the after groups of guns from Low Angle into High Angle to drive the flies away.
Fortunately these well-synchronised bombing attacks did not persist, though for a time, we really appreciated the versatility of our armament. It allowed us to engage our surface targets with A, B and Q turrets, while X and Y turrets took on the aircraft, and altogether made a satisfying and reassuring noise.
Meanwhile the 6th Division, Carlisle and Avondale, made smoke to screen the convoy from the enemy ships, and the little Hunts performed valiantly against the repeated bombing attacks on the merchant ships.
At 1500 when we had closed the range to about 16,000 yards, the enemy cruisers and destroyers, to our surprise, suddenly turned away to the north.
Changing our gun controls back to High Angle we turned to support the convoy and the Hunts, for they were expending ammunition at a prodigious rate.
Convoy course was altered back to the west for Malta and at 1535, (prematurely, as it turned out), Vian signalled the C-in-C ‘Enemy driven off’.
However at 1640 the enemy force reappeared, this time with a battleship and more destroyers in company. The Messina and Taranto Forces had linked up, and Admiral Iachino had assumed overall command. He was steering south west at high speed to position himself between the convoy and Malta.
Turning his striking force of five divisions towards the enemy, and the convoy to the southward, Vian repeated his Plan B.
Each division followed the same tactics – to emerge from the smoke, threaten the enemy with closer engagement and feint torpedo attacks, and then retire into the smoke again as the enemy’s fire became too accurate.
It was during the first of these forays that Cleopatra’s lack of a full ‘working up’ period showed up. I have mentioned earlier that the procedure at the guns in low-angle fire, was a little different from high angle, and we discovered to our chagrin, that this change had not been mastered in Cleopatra.
My language from the bridge, I am told, was loud enough and descriptive enough to be heard and understood by the Italians 16,000 yards away. We withdrew into the smoke to carry out some much needed gun-drill.
In a later sortie, when we were heading directly for the enemy, a shell from one of their cruisers passed over our heads on the Compass Platform, and exploded in the Air Defence Position at the after end of the bridge. That gallant officer, Dermot Garde, to whom I have previously paid tribute, was killed instantly, together with fourteen of his crew.
At this stage there were some two hours of daylight remaining, and though the destroyers on both sides were approximately equal in numbers and armament, the superiority of the enemy in cruisers and heavier ships was, as Damon Runyon might have said, ‘more than somewhat’.