On the 21st March a convoy of four merchant ships had set out from Alexandria to bring relief to Malta. Intelligence indicated that the Italian fleet would attempt to attack at some point. The heavy escort of Royal Navy ships was therefore somewhat prepared when on the afternoon of 22nd March 1942 ‘a thin wisp of smoke’ appeared on the horizon. Frank Gregory-Smith records that he felt curiously relaxed at this point, even though the next more detailed report suggested they faced three battleships. As a matter of routine they could also expect to come under air attack from both bombers and torpedo bombers.
Vice Admiral Vian had prepared a plan that involved shielding the convoy with some of his force of destroyers, whilst constantly threatening the Italian fleet with a torpedo attack from other destroyers – a plan that very largely succeeded.
Captain Frank Gregory-Smith was on HMS Eridge:
A series of flashes in the smoke followed by a dull, rumbling boom announced the opening of the surface engagement. As if this was a signal, a formation of torpedo bombers flew into sight, skimming just above the sea. Simultaneously an even larger group of high level bombers were briefly glimpsed through the smoke and clouds on the opposite side of the convoy. Escorts to port and astem of the convoy immediately engaged the high formation, leaving the torpedo bombers to HMS Southwold, HMS Dulverton and HMS Eridge.
The ship shuddered under the opening salvoes and high explosive started to burst around the low flying aircraft. Their crews, obviously surprised by such a heavy concentration from so few ships, promptly split into smaller groups and tried to penetrate the screen on a broader front. Even then gunfire continued to harass them, forcing them into individual units which dropped their torpedoes haphazardly and at such long range that all ships had time to tum towards their tracks, just as bombs from the high formation exploded in a compact mass well astern of the supply ships.
Meanwhile, the two surface forces, exchanging rapid fire as they rolled, twisted and plunged through the heavy seas, were closing at a relative speed of fifty knots. The British were already partially hidden by smoke, which the Italians would have to penetrate if they were to get within range of the supply ships. Just before reaching effective gun range, the Italian Admiral swung his ships to port. To prevent him stealing the weather gauge, the British followed his movements and stretched at high speed eastwards.
On this course, British smoke drifted rapidly to leeward and, when its outer fringes reached the Italians, their Admiral, fearing a torpedo attack, edged his ships further to port. But the smoke still thickened around his ships, harassing them until the Italian Admiral suddenly lost his nerve and swung his cruisers, followed by a division of destroyers which had unexpectedly appeared astem, in a broad sweep to the northward. Rear Admiral Vian held on until satisfied that the enemy
was definitely retiring and then turned towards the convoy; some twenty miles to the south-westward.
It was not all over. A very short time later another force appeared. Captain Eric Bush was in command of HMS Euryalus:
The enemy, as we know now, was in two groups at this stage, the nearer, about nine miles away, consisting ofthe two eight-inch and one six-inch cruisers and four destroyers we had met before, and the second group, at a distance of fifteen miles, comprising the modern battleship Littorio and four destroyers. We were in for something now, all right! I knew that Admiral Vian would never leave the convoy to its fate, so if needs be we would be fighting to the end.
In the next two hours the fate of our whole force was in the balance. With the powerful ships at his disposal the Italian admiral could easily have wiped us out, but he could not bring himself to enter the smoke-screen knowing that we were waiting for him on the other side
The action became known as the Second Battle of Sirte.