- 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)
A crisis occurred at about 1700 when Vian suspected that some of the enemy ships, which could no longer be seen, might be working their way eastward to windward of the smoke so as to get at the convoy. He therefore turned his cruisers, the 2nd and 4th Divisions, eastward to cut them off.
In fact, Littorio and the three cruisers had remained concentrated, and were steaming south-westward at full speed to try and pass to leeward of our smoke screen.
The destroyers of the 5th and 1st Divisions saved the day. By determined gun and simulated torpedo attacks, they held off the enemy for nearly half an hour, while the cruisers were hurrying back to their support. During this phase, the destroyer Havock was near missed by a 15 inch shell, which reduced her speed to 16 knots.
By 1730 our cruiser force was back in action, and an attempted torpedo attack by Italian destroyers was beaten off.
Our ‘hit and run’ gun engagements continued until at 1830 the enemy made his most determined attempt to get at the convoy. On a course slightly east of south, they approached within 10,000 yards of us and the situation looked grave.
Vian ordered cruisers and destroyers to attack with all their remaining torpedoes, and this was done by all divisions independently. I know that Cleopatra’s were fired at 9,000 yards, but Captain Poland with his 1st Division of destroyers pressed home his attack to 6,000 yards before firing his twenty five torpedoes.
Under this dire threat, Iachino turned his force violently away to the north, being speeded on his way by the few remaining torpedoes of the 5th Division under Captain Micklethwait.
During this phase, the destroyer Kingston was damaged by a 15 inch hit and Euryalus suffered splinter damage.
Vian was concerned, as darkness fell, that the Italian fleet was still in being; for although we had scored several hits during the Italian destroyer attack, only one hit had been observed for certain on Littorio.
Though the Italian appetite for night encounters had probably been bated by the action off Cape Matapan, it was possible that they might attack the convoy under cover of darkness, and Vian had neither the fuel nor the ammunition to allow for an extra day on the return journey.
At 1940 therefore, after darkness had fallen, Vian ordered the convoy to disperse and make for Malta, while his force turned eastwards for Alexandria.
Due to the necessary diversion southward, no ship of the convoy could reach Malta before daylight, and heavy attacks by Stukas started at dawn. One ship was sunk, one was beached at Malta and two arrived safely at 0915 on 23rd March.
It is sad to report that in spite of three of the four supply ships reaching Malta only 5,000 tons out of 26,000 tons of stores were actually unloaded due to the ships being bombed in harbour. Fortunately much of the oil fuel from Breconshire, which capsized in harbour after being bombed near Malta, was afterwards saved by fitting valves to the exposed bottom.
Our passage eastward through the night was uneventful, and at Dawn Action Stations on 23rd, the Admiral wished me a happy birthday. I forbore to tell him that I knew better ways of spending a birthday, but I did remark that the main brace was looking a little ragged and needed splicing. The Admiral did not approve.
The enemy air must have been feeling tired, too, for we were not badly beset on our passage through ‘bomb alley’, between Crete and Cyrenaica, during the day. Certainly no damage was sustained.
At 1230 on 24th March we entered harbour, to be given a most memorable and heart-warming reception by every allied warship and merchant vessel in harbour.
The C-in-C waited in his barge to visit us, and a signal of congratulations came from Winston Churchill. Admiral Vian was knighted and various other awards for gallantry were made by the King.
At 1800, in the Wardroom – and this time WITH the Admiral’s approval – we retarded the clock twenty four hours, and ‘thriced the main brace’.
Lord Cunningham in his book A Sailors Odyssey says:
‘I shall always consider the Battle of Sirte, on March 22nd 1942, as one of the most brilliant Naval actions of the War, if not the most brilliant. As told here it sounds easy; but it is against all the canons of Naval Warfare for a squadron of small cruisers, and a handful of destroyers to hold off a force of heavy ships . . . had the roles been reversed, it is unthinkable that the convoy, or much of its escort would not have been destroyed.’