Hitler was now seeking to reinforce his troops in Libya and Tunisia as they were threatened by Allied forces coming from the west and east.
At the same time the Royal Navy was gradually re-asserting its presence in the Mediterranean. The small task force based at Malta – ‘Force K’ – had been withdrawn when the constant bombing made the port unsustainable. Its last patrol almost a year earlier had met with disaster.
Coastal Command aircraft were now an increasing threat to the Italian and German convoys of troops crossing the Mediterranean, alongside the submarines that had operated out of Malta throughout the crisis. But an attack from the Force K cruisers and destroyers could be devastating.
Frank Wade was a midshipman on the destroyer HMS Jervis which was on patrol with HMS Nubian, which picked up a radar contact, and HMS Javelin and HMS Kelvin:
The night attack by our aircraft had obviously been successful, because we could make out a ship on fire in the distance. As we closed very rapidly, the stricken ship loomed larger and larger and we could soon make out its funnels, superstructure and masts partially covered by smoke and flames. It seemed quite unaware of our approach.
Within minutes we were within gun range of the convoy, about five miles away. Suddenly, the silhouette of a destroyer became clearly visible to us as it passed between us and the burning ship. Very quickly it passed out of view, but not before we had got an accurate true bearing on her. All our gun turrets were rapidly directed in her direction. Then something extraordinary occurred. As Guns was orally preparing the turrets to open fire, we found ourselves steaming through hundreds of men in the water around us. They were so close that some of them could actually be identified as shadowy heads in the water. Farther away were boats full of more survivors. They called out for help in Italian and German, their voices echoing pitifully over the sea.
Our first shot was a star shell which illuminated the whole scene. All our ships directed their fire at the destroyer. We turned our searchlight on her and all the details of a small destroyer became starkly evident. Within three minutes, hot glowing circles appeared on her superstructure and hull from the hits that she was sustaining. Things were happening very fast.
The luckless destroyer, without radar, apparently was quite unaware of our presence before the attack. Within five minutres it was all over. Her mast soon collapsed and her superstructure all but disappeared from internal explosions. What a terrible sight to see a ship being so brutally destroyed with such heavy loss of life. We were soon past her and we put the grisly memory out of our minds as best we could.