Force K ambushes an Italian convoy

The cruiser HMS Penelope in Malta harbour, the base from which Force K departed for the devastating attack on the Italian convoy, sometimes known as the 'Battle of the Duisberg convoy' - the name of the largest merchantship sunk.

The sea war in the Mediterranean was becoming ever more intense. Almost all supplies for Egypt now came around Africa and up through the Suez canal, a route that was comparatively safe, but not without hazard .

Meanwhile every effort was being made to attack the seaborne supply of Rommel’s Afrika Korps from Italy. The island of Malta played a crucial role as a base for aircraft, submarines and for a short time from 21st October, a small force of surface ships, Force K. These two cruisers and two destroyers struck on the night of 8th-9th November when they met two Italian cruisers and ten Italian destroyers escorting a convoy:

The methods to be employed in attacking a convoy had often been discussed between the captains of our four ships of Force K: after the first general alarm bearing, Senior Officer K had only to make two more signals during the whole action – one to reduce speed, and one to warn against wasting ammunition.

Everyone knew what to do, and it only remained for them to do it. The first thing that was done – an example of brilliant judgement by Captain Agnew – was to ‘stalk’ the enemy. Aurora led round to the northward to silhouette the enemy against the moon. Light conditions were ideal; and our light camouflage (we had spent the previous week painting ship to the accompaniment of the usual growls about ‘peacetime’ routine) was so effective that we got to within 6,000 yards of the enemy, apparently without having been sighted, before Aurora opened fire on the left-hand destroyer astern of the convoy.

We opened fire thirty seconds later on the right-hand destroyer, and continued to shoot her up for four minutes. Aurora then led round and passed up the western side of the convoy, and the ‘party’ started, as the merchant ships were deliberately and in turn engaged by the whole force.

The ships seemed to make no effort to escape, and it was all too easy; they burst into flames as soon as we hit them. A large tanker was like a wall of flame, and an ammunition ship gave a superb display of fireworks before she blew up with a tremendous explosion. We could soon see about eight burning ships, and a great pall of smoke where the ammunition ship had been.

One destroyer was a bit of a nuisance firing at us from astern, and she straddled us several times. We engaged her with our starboard four-inch guns, and saw what looked like an enormous Christmas tree of sparks in the position from which she had been. Anyway, she gave us no more trouble.

See Our Penelope, the Story Of H.M.S.Penelope., a collective memoir produced by the ship’s company, published in 1943, now a very rare volume.

H.M. Cruisers Aurora and Penelope and the Destroyers Lance and Lively, acting on the report of a Maryland aircraft, proceeded on the evening of 8th to intercept a southbound convoy in the Ionian Sea.

It was a bright moonlight night and, after the first sighting, our force was able to work round so as to have the enemy silhouetted against the moon. As the range closed the convoy was found to consist of four destroyers and eight merchant ships, with a second convoy of two destroyers and two merchant ships joining them. Fire was opened at just under 6,000 yards range, and the first salvo hit a destroyer.

Two destroyers were sunk in a few minutes and a third was badly damaged. An ammunition ship was hit and blew up. At least twelve torpedoes were fired by the enemy and of four fired by H.M. ships three scored hits. A total of nine merchant ships was sunk and a 10,000-ton tanker was set on fire and is considered a total loss. Our ships suffered no damage or casualties, and took no prisoners. They were ineffectually attacked by torpedo bombers during the morning.

H.M. Submarine Upholder after the engagement sighted two Trento class cruisers (8-inch guns), which had apparently been covering the convoys, and six destroyers escorting a damaged one. She sank one destroyer and hit another, which was last seen in tow with the stern under and the fore part out of water.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/19/43

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Jeremy Bray December 6, 2016 at 5:07 pm

My father was a gunnery w/o on HMS Aurora and involved in this action (gunner T) He was also in the incident off the African coast later when the force ran into a minefield which was not charted with some heavy losses. Aurora was damaged but returned to her port in Valetta. Years later Dad returned to Malta as a degaussing officer at Kalafrana point and we attended a great school for RN and service children including some Americans from the air base at Hal-Far. It was a great time for a young lad who also got to sail with the RN as a cabin boy to Sicily with the duty free stores for the fleet Mediterranean Fleet Regata.

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