The battles in North Africa continued and there was a desperate need for the Italians to resupply their aircraft with fuel. Two fast Light Cruisers were despatched with barrels of fuel on their decks, with the expectation that they could outrun any Royal Navy force. It was a misplaced hope:
Before dawn on the 13th, when off Cape Bon, H.M. Destroyers Sikh, Legion and Maori and the Dutch Destroyer Isaac Sweers made contact with the Italian cruisers Alberto di Giussano and Alberico da Barbiano (5,069 tons, 8—6-inch guns) and two torpedo boats, on a southerly course. A Wellington aircraft also sighted the force and the enemy hearing her engines turned back, thereby placing our destroyers in a most favourable position for attack. The allied ships had the initiative and opened fire with guns and torpedoes. The two cruisers were set on fire and sunk; one of the torpedo boats was sunk and the other severely damaged. Our ships suffered no casualties or damage.
From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/20/24.
It was the second worst disaster for the Italian Navy after Cape Matapan and came shortly after a very similar success by 'Force K', operating out of Malta. In this case ‘Force B’, consisting of just destroyers, was en route from Gibraltar to Malta were able to approach the Italian force and open fire before they were detected. What the Situation Report did not reveal was that it was an Ultra decrypt that had given away the route of the Italian ships, which had been pursued at top speed by the Royal Navy and then located using radar – enabling the surprise attack.
The action lasted less than ten minutes, with all of the four ships scoring hits. Over 900 Italians were lost.