Mediterranean Theater Of War , November - December 1941 (most violent phase of campaign so far for eighteen months)


9th November 1941 - Action off Cape Spartivento, Southwest Italy - An RAF report of an Italian convoy in the Ionian Sea making for North Africa led to Force K (light cruisers HMS Aurora , HMS Penelope and destroyer HMS Kandahar , HMS Lance , HMS Lively) sailing from Malta. The Axis convoy consisted of seven transports escorted by six destroyers, with a distant cruiser covering force. Early in the morning every one of the Axis transports and destroyer “FULMINE” were sent to the bottom. Later, while rescuing survivors, destroyer “LIBECCIO” was sunk by Royal Navy submarine HMS Upholder. (Italian Foreign Minister and Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Ciano especially mentions this battle in in woeful terms :

“We had stopped sending convoys to Africa since late September. Each attempt was causing heavy losses for us. Tonight we made another attempt with seven transport ships. They had a heavy escort of six destroyers with two cruisers making distant support. All of our ships , and I mean each and every one of the transports were sunk ! After destroying us , British returned to their anchorage in Malta”

13th November 1941 - As Force H returned to Gibraltar after flying off more Hurricanes from HMS Ark Royal and HMS Argus for Malta, the famous and much ‘sunk’ HMS ARK ROYAL was hit by one torpedo from “U-81”. Next day she foundered in tow only a few miles from home. One man was killed. “U-81” was one of four U-boats that had just passed into the Mediterranean.

16th November - A second U-boat, “U-433” was sunk in the same area as HMS Ark Royal by corvette HMS Marigold. (this is the first U-Boat detected and attacked by using Type-271 centimetric radar ) Towards the end of the month, Dutch submarine “O-21” sank another German submarine “U-95”. Between late September and December, 26 U-boats broke through into the Mediterranean and for many months took a heavy toll of Royal Navy ships.

North Africa - A major British offensive (Operation 'Crusader) started on the 18th, again from the Sollum area and by January had reached El Agheila. Axis forces around Sollum and Bardia were by-passed in the drive on Tobruk. The first link-up with the besieged garrison was made by New Zealand troops on the 27th.

27th November - Australian sloop HMAS PARRAMATTA escorting an ammunition ship on the Tobruk Run was sunk by German submarine U-559 off the port. Since the siege started destroyers and other warships had been carrying in men and supplies almost nightly. As it came to an end the cost could be counted - 25 warships of all sizes and five merchantmen lost.

25th November - Force K hunted for Italian convoys to North Africa supported by the Mediterranean Fleet with battleships HMS Barham, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant. In the afternoon north of Sidi Barrani, HMS BARHAM (see previous thread) was hit by three torpedoes from U-331 and as she slowly turned over and capsized, split apart in an almighty explosion. Recorded on film her apparently calamitous end is often used in naval films and documentaries. Although over 800 men were lost with her, a remarkable number were saved. Just before this tragedy, Force K had sunk two more Axis supply ships west of Crete. At this stage 60 percent of Axis North African supplies were being lost to attacks by British aircraft, submarines and warships.

Monthly Loss Summary
4 British or Allied merchant ships of 19,000 tons


North Africa - As fighting continued around Tobruk, Gen Rommel decided to pull back German-Italian Panzer Army to Gazala. Besieged Tobruk was completely relieved on the 10th December. Under pressure, the German Afrika Korps withdrew to El Agheila and on the 25th, British forces entered Benghazi.

1st December - Malta-based Force K searching for Axis shipping encountered Italian destroyer “DA MOSTA” north of Tripoli. She was sunk by cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope and destroyer HMS Lively. Force K had now been reinforced by cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Neptune (soon lost) and two more destroyers.

6th December - Royal Navy submarine HMS PERSEUS on patrol off the west coast of Greece was mined and sunk off Zante Island. Just one man made an amazing escape to the surface and reached the distant shore.

11th December - Royal Navy submarine HMS Truant sank Italian torpedo boat “ALCIONE” north of Crete. On the same day Royal Navy escort destroyer HMS Farndale on passage sighted and sank Italian submarine “CARACCIOLA” on a supply trip from Bardia on the Libyan side of the border with Egypt

11th December 1941 - As more German U-boats transferred to the Mediterranean, two were lost. The first was on the 11th when Royal Navy corvette HMS Bluebell sank “U-208 as she left her Atlantic patrol area to the west of Gibraltar. The second sinking came ten days later.

13th December 1941 - Action off Cape Bon, Tunisia - Destroyers HMS Legion , HMS Maori , HMS Sikh and Dutch “lsaac Sweers” under the command of Cdr G. H. Stokes sailed from Gibraltar to join the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. Off Cape Bon, Tunisia they sighted two Italian 6in cruisers, “DA BARBIANO” and “DI GIUSSANO” returning from an aborted mission to carry a deck cargo of petrol to Tripoli. In a short night action and without being seen, the destroyers quickly sank both Italian cruisers with gunfire and torpedoes. Italian loss of life was heavy.

13th-20th December - First Battle of Sirte and related actions - Italian convoy operations to Libya led to major Royal Navy losses over just a few days. A first Axis convoy bound for Benghazi set out on the 13th , covered by an Italian battlefleet. On receiving the news, Rear-Adm Vian left Alexandria with a cruiser force to join up with Force K from Malta. On the evening of the 14th December , submarine HMS Urge torpedoed and damaged battleship “Vittorio Veneto” off the Sicilian Strait of Messina and the Italians cancelled that operation. The cruiser forces returned to their bases but as they did, Adm Vian’s light cruiser HMS GALATEA was hit by three torpedoes from German submarine U-557 and went down off Alexandria that night. Adm Vian was out again late on the 15th December to escort fast supply ship HMS Breconshire from Alexandria to Malta. On the 17th December they met Force K off the Gulf of Sirte, and shortly encountered Italian battleships covering a second convoy, this time to Tripoli. The two cruiser forces attacked and the Italians withdrew in what became known as the First Battle of Sirte . HMS Breconshire reached Malta on the 18th December and Force K left harbour to search for the second convoy still making for Tripoli. Early on the December 19th off Tripoli, the British force ran into an Italian minefield. Cruiser HMS NEPTUNE hit three or four mines and sank with only one man surviving. Light cruiser HMS Aurora was badly damaged and HMS Penelope slightly. Trying to assist HMS Neptune, destroyer HMS KANDAHAR was mined and had to be scuttled the following day. Out of a three cruiser and four destroyer force, only three destroyers escaped damage.

19th December - That morning as Force K struggled to survive, three Italian human torpedoes launched from submarine “Scire” (Cdr Borghese) penetrated Alexandria harbour. Their charges badly damaged battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth with Adm Cunningham on board and HMS Valiant. They both settled to the bottom and the Mediterranean Fleet battle squadron ceased to exist. News of the sinking was kept from the Italians.

21st December 1941 - The second U-boat sinking of the month in the Strait of Gibraltar was by Swordfish of 812 Squadron flying from Gibraltar which accounted for U-457. (first submarine sunk by airborne radar) The Swordfish managed to get away from the sinking HMS Ark Royal a month earlier and now played an important part patrolling the waters in which the carrier went down.

23rd December - A sizeable number of German U-boats were now operating off the coasts of Egypt and Libya and attacking convoys with losses to both sides. On the 23rd, escorting destroyers HMS Hasty and HMS Hotspur sank U-79 off Tobruk on the Libyan coast.

24th December - The day after the sinking of U-79 but further east off the Egyptian port of Mersa Matruh, corvette HMS SALVIA was lost to U-568.

28th December - Four days later, Royal Navy destroyer HMS Kipling sank German submarine U-75 in the same area

Monthly Loss Summary
9 British or Allied merchant ships of 37,000 tons