HMS Bedouin charges the Italian fleet

The ‘Tribal class’ destroyer HMS Bedouin at anchor in Iceland when she was waiting to join an Arctic convoy earlier in 1942.

In the Mediterranean the battle continued to get supplies through to Malta. Commander B. G. Scurfield, Captain of the destroyer HMS Bedouin, knew his moment had come when the Italian fleet were spotted approaching the convoy he was protecting as part of Operation Harpoon. As planned the convoy changed direction accompanied by part of their escort. The remainder of the escort ships headed straight towards the guns of the Italian battleships:

I was in a fortunate position in many ways. I knew what we had to do and that the cost was not to be counted – the Italians must be driven off. It was no time for fancy manoeuvres – it was to my mind merely a question of going bald-headed for the enemy and trying to do him as much harm as possible by gun and torpedo. Otherwise it was within his power to destroy us and then the convoy at his pleasure.

I knew, too, that the other destroyers would follow me and know what I was about, whether they had signals from me or no. Finally, I knew that the ship was as ready for the test as we had been able to make her, and the result of our labours was now to be shown. I could do no more about it, except give Manners a target and do my best to avoid punishment for as long as possible.

The cruisers opened fire almost at once and the first salvos fell astern of the Bedouin. Their spread was good – too good perhaps at that range – and the shooting seemed to be unpleasantly accurate. Perhaps this is always the impression when one is the target!

My attention was taken up by the time-honoured dodge of steering for the last splash. I had often heard of it being done and found it exhilarating. It worked, too, for some time. A little before 0630, Manners reckoned we were within range, so I told him to engage the leading destroyer, and we opened fire at 17,400 yards. Ten minutes later the enemy altered another twenty degrees away and we shifted our fire to the leading cruiser at 12,400 yards.

By this time we were starting to get hit. Tinny crashes succeeded one another to such a tune that I began to wonder how much the ship could stand. Though I did not realise it at the time, one of the first things to go was the mast, and with it the wireless.

I knew the bridge had been hit; the compass repeater was shaken out of its gimbals and I had had water and paint flakes dashed at me, but the splendid Bedouin was forging ahead and closing the gap minute by minute, Montgomery was passing news to the plot and Moller was standing by to fire torpedoes – wounded himself and with his assistant lying dead beside him. Skinner, though I didn’t know it, was lying at the back of the bridge mortally wounded in the throat; Yeoman Archer and most of the signalmen and ‘rudolf’ men on the flag-deck were either dead or wounded.

All I knew was that the coxswain was calmly doing his job at the wheel and that the ship was responding splendidly. We appeared to be straddling the enemy and must have been hitting, but observation of fall of shot was difficult and it was not possible to allocate targets. That was the only signal I might with advantage have made.

At about 0650 the director was hit. The layer was killed outright and Parker, who was keeping the rate, mortally wounded; Manners and the sight-setter escaped unscathed and so did the cross-leveller, though he was blown clean out ofthe tower.

The ship had received more punishment than I knew, and I felt in my bones that she would not be able to go much farther. So I told Moller to go down and fire the torpedoes from the tubes and when the range had come down to 5,000 yards – tracer was being fired at us by the enemy’s close-range weapons – turned the ship to starboard. During the turn we were hit several times, but the torpedoes were fired when the sights came on. After swinging past the firing course the ship came to a standstill.

The Bedouin was sunk and Commander B. G. Scurfield DSO OBE AM spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. His account comes from a letter he wrote to his wife. He was to die in the closing stages of the war when a column of Prisoners of War being escorted by Germans was bombed by Allied planes.

Later that day the Italian Fleet were bombed by a combination of RAF and USAAF planes, forcing them to return to port. They did not emerge again while Italy remained in the war.

This was just the second mission for the B-24 Liberators of ‘Halpro Force’ – which had been en route to China. It was decided to keep them in the Middle East and they were now flying out of Fayid in Egypt. Their first mission on the 12th June had been to the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania – a target that many USAAF men would later become familiar with.

Airmen ground crew, assisted by soldiers and sailors, load a Mark XII aerial torpedo into the bomb bay of a Bristol Beaufort Mark I at Luqa, Malta, in preparation for a sortie against the Italian naval force threatening the ‘HARPOON’ Convoy.

Aircrews of No. 39 Squadron RAF gather round Flying Officer A O S Jepson in front of his Bristol Beaufort Mark II as he recounts his part in the Squadron’s attack on the Italian Battle Fleet on 15 June 1942, for the benefit of the press cameras at Fayid, Egypt. A force of 12 Beauforts set out from LG 05 near Sidi Barrani to attack the Fleet, but was soon reduced to five following an attack off Derna by German fighters. The remainder attacked two battleships, and a further three aircraft were badly damaged in the process before the survivors flew on to Malta. Although strikes on the warships were claimed, the Italian Fleet was undamaged, except for one hit on the battleship LITTORIO with a 500-lb bomb dropped by aircraft of the USAAF ‘Halpro’ Detachment which also participated in the attacks. Jepson and the survivors flew to Fayid four days later to attend a press day with members of the ‘Halpro’ Force.

The USAAF had arrived in the Middle East. Seven B-24 Liberators from ‘Halpro Force’ took part in the attack on the Italian Fleet on 15th June 1942.
B-24s during one of the USAAF attacks on the oil refineries at Ploesti made in 1943.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Katharine Harris January 28, 2014 at 12:47 pm

My grandfather, Henry Mercer was on the Bedouin when it was sunk. He was a POW for the rest of the War and survived. I was lucky enough to know him, but he rarely ever spoke about this part of his life.

Sarah croxon January 20, 2013 at 9:16 pm

My grandfathers brother so my great uncle was in the engine room of the Bedouin when she went down 15 June 1945 his name Maurice Desmond Paul Croxon. I never meet you – I was robbed of this.

John Jay January 7, 2013 at 9:33 am

My father was Lt Commander (E) on Bedouin when she was sunk in the Med. He was awarded DSC for his part in the action. He too was a POW with Commander Scurfield and luckily survived.

Clive Cartwright June 18, 2012 at 7:08 am

What an amazing account by Commander B. G. Scurfield. I’m left speechless.

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