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.