A Mediterranean Naval Battle Report by Mike Proudlock
Rear Admiral I. R. PROUDLOCK,
Admiral A. B. CUNNINGHAM KCB, DSO
14 Apr 1940
Task Force HERCULES, acting in conjunction with Task Force ACHILLIES (Rear Admiral TUCKER), was tasked with intercepting and destroying Italian convoy codenamed HECTOR en-route to North Africa, and luring any covering Italian forces into action and destroying them. At 0924 a brief squall lifted revealing convoy HECTOR approximately 13nm ahead of HERCULES. The convoy's escort consisted of two ZARA class armoured cruisers, two BANDA NERE light cruisers and four small destroyers. The enemy were caught off guard, allowing HERCULES a relatively free hand in the initial engagement.
DORSETSHIRE engaged and destroyed an Italian merchant vessel, the explosion of the vessel indicating it was carrying either fuel or ammunition. ARETHUSA and VANOC engaged and destroyed an Italian destroyer before the enemy task force was able to effectively respond. KENYA and DIDO engaged a ZARA class cruiser with minimal effect due to the range and the target's armour. The enemy were able to rapidly range ARETHUSA, once they opened fire, from one of the ZARA and one of the BANDA NERE cruisers. She suffered severe damage, losing her rear main turret and all starboard side secondary turrets, and fell back from the main fleet line. The Italian fleet then switched to new targets, saving ARETHUSA.
With KENYA and DIDO now coming under attack by the Italian heavy cruisers, the decision was taken to launch a full scale torpedo attack from WATCHMAN, VANOC, VIMY, WALRUS and LOYAL with the cruisers DORSETSHIRE, DIDO and KENYA moving up in support, sinking an enemy destroyer with gunfire as they moved forwards. Torpedoes were launched from WATCHMAN, WALRUS and VANOC towards the westerly ZARA class cruiser. One torpedo struck the vessel amidships. Unexpectedly at least four of the torpedoes that missed the primary target struck a supporting BANDA NERE cruiser and sank her immediately. The destroyers then proceeded through the Italian vessels, engaging the enemy destroyers in passing, to attack the merchant vessels. DORSETSHIRE and KENYA launched further torpedo attacks that struck the first ZARA three times.
Having closed, HERCULES was able to engage the enemy vessels effectively with main armament. Gunnery sank a further enemy destroyer and caused significant damage to the ZARA class cruisers. Return fire from the enemy caused significant damage among our vessels, DORSETSHIRE coming under particularly effective fire from the remaining BANDA NERE cruiser, which rapidly disabled most of the turrets. The Italian ability to rapidly acquire targets could indicate an improved targeting radar or director being used by their fleet.
At this point, TASK FORCE ACHILLIES arrived and immediately began to engage the remaining BANDA NERE cruiser. QUEEN ELIZABETH caused significant damage with her main armament. Soon afterwards a heavy Italian task force of two battleships, at least one of which was a LITTORIO class, arrived in the action. KENYA's Captain, A. L. WILLIAMSON, was killed by enemy fire whilst closing on the westerly ZARA class cruiser to perform a torpedo attack in conjunction with DORSETSHIRE, ARETHUSA and DIDO. This torpedo attack scored two hits which caused the vessel to capsize and sink. A further torpedo attack and gunnery sank the remaining ZARA class cruiser almost immediately afterwards. Captain N.F. MITCHELL Royal Navy of the DORSETSHIRE was killed by fire from the BANDA NERE before she was sunk by Task Force ACHILLIES. VIMY and WATCHMAN had closed with an Italian merchant vessel and engaged it with short range gunnery, resulting in the vessel exploding, indicating she was probably carrying ammunition for Italian forces in North Africa.
With heavy damage having been sustained by ARETHUSA, DORSETSHIRE, VANOC and VIMY, while the enemy convoy had lost 50% of its vessels and turned back towards Sicily or Taranto with all but one of its escorts destroyed, it was decided that Task Forces ACHILLIES and HERCULES would withdraw. The Italian heavy force also withdrew under the cover of a smokescreen while fire was directed, unsuccessfully, against the remaining merchant vessels. The location of the force was transmitted to FLEET COMMAND and RAF MEDITERRENEAN COMMAND for follow up attacks.
To summarise, 7 enemy warships, including two heavy and two light cruisers, were sunk, and two out of 4 merchant vessels destroyed with no RN vessels lost. Heavy damage was, however, sustained by two cruisers and two destroyers. I recommend immediate promotion for Commander C. IRVING Royal Navy of HMS KENYA to Captain for his exemplary leadership in the aftermath of the death of Captain WILLIAMSON. Further, I recommend both Captain D. C. JENNINGS Royal Navy of WATCHMAN and Captain W.W. EDGEHAM Royal Navy of WALRUS for the DSO for their actions sinking the BANDA NERE and damaging the ZARA class cruiser during the torpedo attack that ensured our success in this action.
I. R. PROUDLOCK
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