HMS Ajax strikes again

Italian destroyer Artigliere blows up after being torpedoed by HMS York

The crippled Artigliere is finished off by a torpedo from HMS York which hits her magazine causing a massive explosion.

The light Cruiser HMS Ajax had won fame during the Battle of the River Plate, the first major naval engagement of the war. Now she was in the Mediterranean, leading the attack on the Italian Navy:

A small convoy for Alexandria left Malta on the evening of the 11th October, and to cover them cruisers searched to the north and east.

H.M.S. Ajax encountered three destroyers early on the 12th October and sank two of the Arione class (679 tons, built 1937-38). Later she sighted a large cruiser and four destroyers, one of which she damaged before the ships escaped in the darkness.

At dawn air reconnaissance located the damaged destroyer in tow of another one, but no other ships were seen. The towing destroyer, on the approach of our forces, at once slipped her tow and escaped under cover of smoke, and the crew of the damaged destroyer, the Artigliere (1,620 tons, completed 1937), abandoned ship.

H.M.S. York dropped Carley floats in the vicinity for the use of survivors and sank the Artigliere by torpedo. In view of the fact that the ships were in submarine waters about 90 miles south-east of Sicily, and the previous experience of H.M. Ships being bombed whilst picking up the survivors of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, it was not considered advisable to stop and pick up the survivors.

A few survivors were, however, rescued some distance away by H.M. Ships Nubian and Vampire. Casualties in H.M.S. Ajax were 2 officers and 10 ratings killed, and 1 officer and 2 ratings seriously wounded. She suffered slight damage.

See TNA Cab/66/13/3

These were some of the best Italian ships and there was much speculation within the Italian Navy as to how HMS Ajax had overcome the larger force which had attacked her first. She had sunk the Italian destroyer support ships ARIEL and ARIONE and seriously damaged the destroyers AVIERE and ARTIGLIERE. At first this was attributed to excellent Royal Naval gunnery and astute use of Starshell during the night time action.

In fact HMS Ajax was making history, using Radar for the first time in a naval combat engagement, and using it to good effect. The action contributed to the continuing celebrity of HMS Ajax but no mention was made in any of the publicity of the role of Radar.

HMS Ajax seen before the Second World War

HMS Ajax, seen here before the war, had been hit several times and suffered 12 dead and more injured. She took over a month to repair.

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