111 HMS Anson at Devonport, March 1945

HMS Anson at Devonport, March 1945

(Oct. 9, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the Regia Marina Italia engaged the Royal Navy, the first night engagement between the two Navies, in the Battle of Cape Passero in the southeast part of Sicily.

On Oct. 11, 1940, the Royal Navy completed its mission of escorting a convoy of four cargo ships in a re-supply operation from Alexandria to the British island colony of Malta.

Bad weather had prevented any attempt by the Regia Marina to intercept the convoy. Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham (known as “ABC”) was, and had been since June 5, 1939, commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, based in Alexandria, Egypt.

When the British ships were leaving Malta, an Italian civil aircraft, on its way to Libya, spotted them. On the return voyage, the light cruiser H.M.S. Ajax, commanded by Edward Desmond Bewley McCarthy, was detached from the rest of the fleet on a scouting mission. Capt. McCarthy later commanded the battleship H.M.S.

Anson and finished the war as rear-admiral. Adm. Sir Henry Daniel Pridham-Wippell, second-in-command, Mediterranean Fleet, later commented that Capt. McCarthy, “.. handled his ship with promptitude, ability and great determination.”

The Ajax had a top speed of 32.5 knots and carried eight 6-inch guns and four 4-inch guns. The Ajax, along with its sister ship, Achilles, and heavy cruiser Exeter, had, in December 1939, brought the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee to bay in the Battle of the Río de La Plata, off the coast of Uruguay.

Adm. Inigo Campioni ordered Eleventh Destroyer Flotilla, under the command of Capt. Carlo Margottini, and consisting of the destroyers Artigliere, Camicia Nera, Aviere and Geniere, to the Tunisian Peninsula of Cape Bon in the Gulf of Tunisia.

As with Italian warships of that era, the destroyers were built for speed. They had a top speed of 38 knots (44 mph+/-) and carried four 4.7-inch guns, and six torpedo tubes.

Accompanying the destroyers was the First Torpedo Boat Flotilla, commanded by Cdr. Alberto Banfi, consisting of three torpedo boats, Aerial, Alcione and Airone. These ships had a speed of 34 knots (39 mph+/) and carried four torpedo tubes.

Adm. Campioni would be executed, for treason, in May 1944, by the Reppublica Sociale Italiana, which had been formed by the Facsists after the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies. It, with German assistance, administered that part of Italy not occupied by the Allies, with Benito Mussolini as its titular head.

At 1:37 a.m., on Oct. 12, with a full moon, the Alcione sighted the Ajax 19,600 yards away. With the range down to 1,900 yards, the Alcione loosed two torpedoes, both of which missed. At 1:56 a.m., Airone fired two more from 2,000 yards, followed, a minute later, by two from Aerial, all of which missed.

Airone closed to within 750 yards and loosed two more torpedoes, which also missed, and began firing its 3.9-inch deck guns, hitting the larger ship twice on the bridge and once below the waterline, starting a fire in the British ship’s storeroom.

By this time, the range was down to 300 yards. The Ajax reacted like an aroused bear, quickly sinking both Airone and Aerial. About half of the crews, including Cdr. Banfi, survived to be rescued by Alcione. Aerial’s captain, Mario Ruto and his second-in-command were both killed. The Alcione rescued 125 survivors from the two ships.

A few minutes later, the Italian destroyers arrived and opened fire with their 4.7-inch guns. Attempting to move in for a torpedo attack, the Aviere, was hit by a broadside from the British cruiser, sustained heavy damage and was forced to withdraw.

From 2,800 yards, the flagship destroyer Artigliere fired a torpedo and three 4.7-inch salvos, before being hit and disabled at 2:30 a.m., killing Capt. Margottini. The torpedo missed, but four rounds struck two of Ajax’s secondary gun turrets and disabled its radar.

The Ajax then turned her attention to the Italian destroyer, Camicia Nera, (“Black Shirt”) without success. The two ships exchanged fire at a range of 5,500 yards. The Ajax, believing that it was facing two cruisers, then broke off the action, having suffered 13 dead and more than 20 wounded. She had fired 490 6-inch shells and launched four torpedoes. The Ajax was laid up for three weeks for repairs.

Meanwhile, the Camicia Nera took the disabled Artigliere under tow. At first light they were discovered by British reinforcements. The ships were attacked by three Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes from the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Illustrious, but all torpedoes missed.

The Camicia Nera was named after the fascist militia — “Black Shirt.” With the fall of the Fascist regime, the ship was renamed Artigliere. After the war, it was delivered to the USSR as reparations.

Responding to the information provided by the Illustrious, the Ajax, heavy cruiser H.M.S. York, under the command of Capt. Reginald H. Portal, and four destroyers arrived. The Camicia Nera slipped the tow line, leaving the Artigliere to be finished by torpedoes from the York at 9 a.m., after the crew had evacuated on rafts provided by the British.

One hundred were later rescued by an Italian hospital ship. The Ajax and Australian cruiser Sydney pursued the Camicia Nera but didn’t have the speed to catch it, returning to the main fleet later that morning.

The 3rd Cruiser Division, commanded by Vice-Adm. Luigi Sansonetti, with heavy cruisers Bolzano, Trieste and Trento, and destroyers Vivaldi, Danola and Tarigo of the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, were dispatched from the Sicilian port of Messina too late to participate.

As a result of the battle, instead of eschewing piecemeal attacks such as the ones mounted in this battle, the Italians decided that the problem lay with night attacks. Therefore, they determined that, in the future, they would decline to give battle after dark.

Each of the three Italian torpedo boats was equipped with two torpedo tubes on each side, so that, with three boats, 12 torpedoes could have been fired at once, instead of two here and two there. It would have been far more difficult for the Ajax to avoid 12 torpedoes than two. The same can be said of the destroyer attack.

In this battle, Italian gallantry cannot be faulted. However, their lack of coordination and poor tactics proved fatal.

On June 5, 2017, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and his research team, aboard the RV Petrel, discovered the last resting place of the Artigliere, two miles down, and took some photographs and videos. The site was not otherwise disturbed. The Italian government was notified, but the precise location will not be released.

Next week: FDR’s Third Campaign

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com

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