Operation Harpoon (1942)
Operation Harpoon was one of two simultaneous Allied convoys sent to supply Malta in the Axis-dominated Mediterranean Sea in mid-June 1942, during the Second World War. One convoy, Operation Vigorous, left Alexandria. The other, Operation Harpoon, travelled in the opposite direction from Gibraltar. Both convoys met with fierce Axis opposition and only two of Harpoon′s six merchant ships completed the journey, at the cost of several Allied warships. Vigorous convoy, meanwhile, was driven back by the Italian fleet, after being the target of intense Axis airstrikes.
Until the French surrender and Italy's declaration of war, the Mediterranean had been an Allied "lake". The French Navy and the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet dominated the only potential and credible adversary, Italy's Regia Marina.
The French surrender and its consequences changed that. The French fleet became a potential threat in Axis hands and so was attacked in Operation Catapult, adding to French antipathy toward the British. French bases in North Africa ceased to offer protection to Allied shipping. The Regia Marina possessed potent modern warships, particularly battleships and heavy cruisers and Italian and Libyan territory provided central Mediterranean naval and air bases that could cut British supply routes. The fall of Greece and Crete in 1941, extended the reach of Axis forces, which became able to intercept Allied shipping from Alexandria and Suez by air.
Italian and German armies in Libyan territory also threatened Egypt and control of the strategically important Suez Canal. A catastrophe for the Allies in Egypt might in turn lead to destabilisation of Britain's control of Middle Eastern oil supplies or their capture by the Axis but this depended upon Axis forces in North Africa receiving adequate supplies from Italy.
Malta threatened this Axis supply route but needed regular supply and reinforcement, to be effective and to resist Axis invasion. By mid-June, 1942, Malta's supply situation had deteriorated. The Luftwaffe had joined the Regia Aeronautica to isolate the island and starve its population and it had become untenable as an offensive base. Axis armies had advanced into Egypt, acquiring advanced bases and denying the British safety over much of the eastern Mediterranean.
Aircraft were regularly flown to Malta but food and fuel supplies were diminishing. In response, Britain made great efforts to supply the island. Two convoys, codenamed Harpoon and Vigorous, were gathered, sailing simultaneously to split Axis forces. To contest the two Malta convoys, the Axis air forces had a total of 347 Italian and 128 German aircraft in the western Mediterranean, of which 175 Italian aircraft were based in Sardinia, with the rest in Sicily while 53 Italian and 122 German aircraft were based in the eastern Mediterranean; a total of 650 aircraft, although not all were operational.
A series of naval air-sea battles led to the attrition of British naval strength, allowing the Regia Marina to gain naval supremacy in the east-central Mediterranean. The Italian Fleet and Axis air forces took advantage of the situation and moved onto the offensive, blocking or sinking many ships in at least three large British convoys bound for Malta. This led to a number of air-sea and naval engagements, such as the Second Battle of Sirte, the Battle of Mid-June or Operation Harpoon (plus Operation Vigorous) and finally to Operation Pedestal, all of them at least tactically favourable to the Axis but ultimately leading to Allied strategic success with the survival of the Malta base.
Harpoon left Gibraltar on 12 June 1942, comprising six merchantmen (the British Troilus, Burdwan and Orari, the Dutch Tanimbar and the American Chant and the tanker Kentucky) carrying a total of 43,000 short tons (39,000 t) of cargo and oil. They were escorted by the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo, nine destroyers, the fast minelayer HMS Welshman and smaller ships. Distant cover was provided by the battleship HMS Malaya, the aircraft carriers HMS Argus and Eagle, the cruisers HMS Kenya, Charybdis and Liverpool and a number of destroyers. The two aircraft carriers embarked 16 Sea Hurricanes, six Fairey Fulmars and 18 Fairey Swordfish.
The first Italian air attacks were made by Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo bombers on 14 June and the Italians sank one freighter, the Tanimbar, south of Sardinia. The cruiser HMS Liverpool was damaged and towed back to Gibraltar by HMS Antelope, under aerial attack (arriving on 17 June). Later on 14 June, the covering force also returned to Gibraltar, just before the Strait of Sicily. On the same day, the fast minelayer HMS Welshman was detached and travelled to Malta alone, where she delivered some cargo, then sailed back to strengthen the convoy escort the next day.
At dawn of 15 June, the lightly defended convoy was subjected to a coordinated attack near Pantelleria, by Axis aircraft and the ships of the Italian 7th Cruiser Division (cruisers Raimondo Montecuccoli, Eugenio di Savoia and destroyers Ascari, Oriani, Malocello, Premuda and Vivaldi), commanded by Vice-Admiral (it:Ammiraglio di divisione) Alberto Da Zara.
The five fleet destroyers in the convoy escort made a smokescreen and attacked the Italian squadron but the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Bedouin and the P-class destroyer HMS Partridge were hit by gunfire from both Italian cruisers and disabled. In return, the Italian destroyer Vivaldi was struck by her British counterparts and caught fire but was taken in tow and saved by Malocello and Premuda. Italian reports claim that their destroyers closed to within 6,000 yards (5,500 m) of the merchantmen and that they scored a hit on one of the freighters. Then both fleets broke off the engagement at approximately 8:00 a.m. and the Italians lost track of their foe.
Three merchantmen of the convoy, the 10,000-long-ton (10,000 t) tanker Kentucky, Chant and the freighter Burdwan, already disabled by air attack, were abandoned by their escorts when the Italian cruisers steamed back to the scene of the battle shortly before noon. Burdwan and Kentucky were eventually sunk by gunfire from Raimondo Montecuccoli and the destroyers Ascari and Oriani. Kentucky was also struck by a torpedo launched by the Oriani. Chant had already been sent to the bottom by aerial bombs when the Italian squadron found her smouldering wreckage site. The cruiser HMS Cairo and the minesweeper HMS Hebe also received hits from Italian gunfire. The bulk of the British units and two cargo ships limped to Malta.
After this attack the two remaining merchant ships including Troilus were ordered to "scatter" by the escorts. Troilus headed at maximum speed of 16 knots towards Algiers which at that time was held by the Vichy French and would have meant capture and internment for the rest of the war. However after steaming for several hours they were ordered to turn about and attempt to reach Malta without their escort. After steaming throughout the night these last two ship reached Malta, passing the burning tanker on the way. The other ship hit a mine close to the harbour and had to be towed in. Troilus was therefore the only ship to reach Malta completely unscathed. They arrived in the moring to cheering crowds lining the harbour dockside. Troilus remained in Valletta for two months surviving almost daily air raids and left in August with an escorting destroyer.
Partridge was recovered and even tried to tow Bedouin but then the Italian cruisers with two destroyers reappeared; the tow was cast off, leaving Bedouin adrift. At 2:30 p.m., Partridge managed to withdraw and head back for Gibraltar, but Bedouin had already been hit by at least twelve 152 mm (6.0 in) shells plus several near misses and listed heavily. Bedouin was sunk by an aerial torpedo from a Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bomber that was shot down by the Bedouin as it sank. Twenty-eight of her crew died and more than 200 were taken prisoners of war. The majority of the survivors were rounded up by the small hospital ship Meta.
In the evening, the surviving ships ran into a minefield off Malta. The destroyers HMS Badsworth and Matchless and the freighter Orari struck mines and were damaged, while the Polish destroyer ORP Kujawiak sank after midnight, with 13 crew lost. Two of the original six merchantmen reached Malta, Orari and Troilus, the former losing some of her cargo due to the mine explosion. HMS Hebe also struck a mine and suffered further damage but a month in dry dock made her seaworthy.
This was the only undisputed squadron-sized victory for the surface forces of the Italian Navy in World War II. Captain Hardy, in his official report of the battle, acknowledges that Kentucky and Burdwan "were, I believe, not touched but disabled by near misses. But for the enemy surface force, both of these ships might have been brought in." Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm fighters shot down 13 Axis aircraft while ship's gunners destroyed 16 more, for a total of 29 Axis aircraft shot down during the battle.
Giorgio Giorgerini said that the "battle of Pantelleria" (as it is often referred to in Italian sources), while not a complete strategic success (with two merchantmen managing to reach their objective), was a satisfying tactical success (and one of the few instances in which Italian ships fought aggressively enough against their opponents), even though somewhat exaggerated beyond its own merits in later historiography.
On 1 September 1942, the award of various decorations for participants in the operation were announced in the London Gazette, there were six appointments to the Distinguished Service Order, and one bar, two Distinguished Service Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals and nine officers were Mentioned in Despatches.
Order of battle
- Force X - convoy escort - Capt. Cecil Campbell Hardy
- light cruiser (AA) HMS Cairo # (flag)
- minelayer HMS Welshman
- destroyers: HMS Bedouin†, Marne, Matchless ##, Ithuriel, Partridge #
- escort destroyers: HMS Blankney, Badsworth ##, Middleton, ORP Kujawiak†
- minesweepers: HMS Hebe ##, Speedy, Rye, Hythe
- minesweeping motor launches: ML-121, 134, 135, 168, 459, 462
- Convoy WS-19:
- transports: Burdwan†, Chant†, Orari ##, Tanimbar†, Troilus
- tanker: Kentucky†
- Force W - cover force - Vice-Admiral Alban Curteis
- Force Y - replenishment force
- fleet tanker: Brown Ranger
- corvettes: HMS Coltsfoot, Geranium
- light cruisers
- † - ships sunk
- # - ships damaged
- ## - ships heavily damaged
The Italian Poeti-class destroyer Oriani
The Italian Condottieri-class cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli
- "Clearly this was an Axis victory and a tactical victory for the Italian Navy. Part of the convoy did get through to Malta, but the British suffered far heavier losses than did the Italians and Mussolini would later personally present medals to Da Zara and some of his men for their efforts. It would be the only squadron-sized surface naval victory of the war for Italy." Greene & Massignani, page 238
- 28 killed on HMS Bedouin, 15 on HMS Liverpool, 13 on ORP Kujawiak, 9 on HMS Badsworth, 2 on HMS Cairo, 1 on HMS Partridge, 3 on the auxiliary minesweeper Justified, 23 on Tanimbar, 4 on Chant, 3 on Burdwan. Sources www.naval-history.net and www.wrecksite.eu
- 213 from HMS Bedouin and 3 from Chant.
- 10 on Ugolino Vivaldi and 2 on Eugenio di Savoia, in addition to air crews.
- Sadkovitch, The Italian Navy in World War II, p257
- See First Battle of Sirte and Luigi Durand De La Penne.
- Arnold Hague: The supply of Malta 1940-1942, Part 1 of 3
- Woodman, pp. 329–330
- Naval Staff History, The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, Appendix J
- Thomas, page 158
- Bragadin, page 181
- Cocchia, p. 131
- Bragadin, page 184
- Woodman, page 339
- Ireland, page 133
- HMS BEDOUIN (L 67) - Tribal-class Destroyer Bedouin, in return shot down the aircraft that inflicted the fatal damage.
- Greene & Massignani, page 238
- Cernuschi, Emilio, Brescia, Maurizio (2010). Le navi ospedale italiane 1935–1945. Albertelli, p. 42. ISBN 8887372861 (Spanish)
- Arnold Hague: The supply of Malta 1940–1942, Part 1 of 3. 13 men of the Kujawiak complement lost their lives
- Bragadin, p. 185
- Bragadin, page 186
- Grehan and Mace, page 153
- Naval Staff History, The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, p. 67
- Giorgerini, p. 374
- "But as the all-important US tanker Kentucky had been sunk the oil and kerosene situation became desperate." Smyth, page 132
- The London Gazette: . 28 August 1942. Retrieved 29 July 2009.
- Bragadin, Marc'Antonio (1957). The Italian Navy in World War II, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis. ISBN 0-405-13031-7.
- Cocchia, Aldo (1980). The Hunters and the Hunted: Adventures of Italian Naval Forces. Ayer Publishing. ISBN 040513035X.
- Giorgerini, Giorgio (2001). La guerra italiana sul mare. La marina tra vittoria e sconfitta 1940–1943, Mondadori, ISBN 9788804501503.
- Green, Jack & Massignani, Alessandro (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943, Chatham Publishing, London. ISBN 1-885119-61-5.
- Grehan, John; Mace, Martin (2013). The War at Sea in the Mediterranean 1940–1944. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. ISBN 1-47383-736-7.
- Ireland, Bernard (2004). The War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943. Leo Cooper. ISBN 1-84415-047-X.
- Smyth, John George (1970) The Valiant. A. R. Mowbray. ISBN 0-264-64510-3.
- Woodman, Richard (2000). Malta Convoys, 1940–1943, Jack Murray, London. ISBN 0-7195-5753-4.
- Thomas, David A. (1999) Malta Convoys, Leo Cooper Ed., South Yorkshire. ISBN 0-85052-663-9.