Gulf of Sirte
Date: 13 July 1940 Time: 0400 hours Squalls: None Sea Haze: None
Wind: Force 5 Speed: 20 knots Direction: N Sky: Overcast
Max Visibility: 24,000 yards Dawn Reduction: 6,000 yards
British Mediterranean Fleet-Force B: Vice Admiral Tovey (2 I/C)
1st Battle Squadron (1st Div.): Rear Admiral Pridham-Whipple
BB HMS Warspite SF
BB HMS Malaya
Carriers: Rear Admiral Lyster
CV HMS Eagle 6 Swordfish & 1 Sea Gladiator
7th Cruiser Squadron: Vice Admiral Tovey
CL HMS Orion FF
CL HMS Neptune
CL HMAS Sydney
DesDiv 27 DesDiv 28
DD HMS Jervis DD HMS Nubian
DD HMS Janus DD HMS Mohawk
DD HMS Juno DD HMS Garland
RN Heading: 270 degrees Speed: 15 knots
Regia Marina-1st Fleet: Vice Admiral Campioni
5th Battle Squadron: Vice Admiral Campioni
BB RMS Giulio Cesare FF
BB RMS Conte di Cavour
1st Cruiser Squadron: Rear Admiral Matteucci
CA RMS Zara SF
CA RMS Goriza
CA RMS Fiume
4th Cruiser Squadron: Rear Admiral Marenco
CL RMS Alberico da Barbiano SF
CL RMS Amberto di Giussano
CL RMS Luigi Cardorna
CL RMS Armando Diaz
DesRon 7 DesRon 8 DesRon 9 DesRon 10
DD RMS Freccia DD RMS Folgore DD RMS Alfieri DD RMS Vivaldi
DD RMS Dardo DD RMS Fulmine DD RMS Oriani DD RMS da Noli
DD RMS Saetta DD RMS Baleno DD RMS Carducci DD RMS Pancaldo
DD RMS Strale DD RMS Lampo DD RMS Gioberti DD RMS Pigafetta
RM Heading: North Speed: 20 knots Relative Bearing: 4 points to starboard
Rear Admiral Pridham-Whipple looked at dawn breaking under a very overcast sky and muttered to himself something about the Itie fly boys deserving crappie weather for a change. His steward brought him a cup of tea as he gazed at Force B spread out before him. Vice Admiral Tovey’s 7th Cruiser Squadron was 3,000 yards ahead in line abreast, the HMS Orion, his flagship on the port end of the line. HMS Malaya trailed Warspite in line astern with HMS Eagle a 1,000 yards behind Malaya. The 27th and 28th Destroyer Divisions of DesFlot 14 were deployed in line astern to port and starboard respectively of the Bats as an anti-sub screen. They were still in night sailing formation at night time spacing. Pridham-Whipple expected Tovey to do something about that shortly.
Signal flags broke out from Orion’s masthead, but they were not directions for a daylight sailing formation. Instead they signaled enemy in sight, bearing 205 degrees, 2 point course change to starboard and to increase speed to 18 knots.
Pridham-Whipple ordered the signal acknowledged and signaled HMS Eagle to take station to starboard escorted by the 28th DesDiv for now.
At that moment, Tovey was ordering a squadron speed increase to 30 knots. He would run the contact down and see what kind of a mess he had steered himself into. He was very glad to have the two best dreadnaughts in the Mediterranean Fleet backing him up. He might not have Renown, but who wanted repair and refit anyway; No, he would seek acclaim instead.
Vice Admiral Campioni stared ahead to the north. He had searched all day and all night in vain for a convoy from Alexandria bound for Malta. He had received no ariel reconnaissance reports at all. He was not sure if the Regia Aeronautica was blind or had not even bothered to take off; he uncharitably suspected the later. No; he was convinced the convoy had cut behind him somehow and had reversed course to see if he could bump into it on the way back Taranto. The 1st Fleet was still in its night sailing formation with the DesRon 7 leading, followed by the 5th Battle Squadron, 1st and 4th Cruiser Divisions and the 8th, 9th and 14th DesRons. He would have to something about that, but wait. DesRon 7 was signaling enemy in sight, bearing 45 degrees. He signaled DesRon 7 to investigate and ordered a speed increase to 25 knots.
Tovey could just make out what appeared to be 4 single funneled destroyers. Tovey knew where his 3 J class destroyers were; nope these had to be Italian. Tovey gave a sigh of satisfaction. He had asked Sir John (Cunningham) what his instructions were and received the typical Cunningham reply of; “Go forth and sink ships”. Well, he intended to do just that.
DesRon 7 now signaled; “Have identified 3 light cruisers. 2 are single stack and 1 is a twin stack, believe them to be British. Campioni snapped, “Well”. At his flag lieutenant, who was rapidly thumbing through his recognition book, exclaimed; “Leander class for the single funnels and probably an Apollo class for the two stacker”. DesRon 7 signaled that the cruisers had turned to starboard as they opened their broadsides towards DesRon 7.
Orion, Neptune and Sydney all opened fire at 18,000 yards, but the destroyers were being evasive and they failed to straddle at first. Tovey now began a series of 2 point turns to port with the intent to keep the destroyers in his broadside arcs while closing the range. Tovey ordered spotters up from his cruisers and his battleships.
At the same time Campioni had DesRon 7 turn a bit way from Tovey’s cruisers while continuing evasive action to draw the cruisers closer to Campioni’s battleships. Camioni also ordered spotters up from his battleships and cruisers.
Orion, Neptune and Sydney fired on Freccia, Dardo and Saetta respectively. The combination of spotters and not being engaged improved the cruisers gunnery situation and they opened with rapid fire. Orion and Sydney missed, but Neptune hit Dardo three times. Dardo lost both her gun mounts and suffered hull damage slowing her to 29 knots. Dardo staggered under the impact of Neptune’s gunnery, but continued bravely in line (she made her morale).
Campioni signaled DesRon 7 to cover itself with smoke while he angled towards the cruisers. Campioni ordered a speed increase to 27 knots.
0418 hours; up to this point the spotters of both sides had kept their distance because of the extremely low ceiling to avoid being shot at point blank range. The smoke now blinded both sides’ ships and they then used their spotters to see (over the smoke as it were). The fly boys of both sides approached the smoke screen that DesRon 7 was laying enough to see beyond.
Now for the first time both sides knew what they were faced with. Tovey, relying on his Queen Elizabeth class battleships pressed on; although he reigned his cruisers in a bit. Campioni ordered his cruisers to full speed and sent them ahead while he turned his bats to port to open up their broadside arcs as DesRon 7 withdrew under smoke towards him at 29 knots. His intent was to try and engage the British cruisers while remaining outside of the British battleships’ visibility.
Over the next hour, the Regia Marina danced around trying to stay beyond the British battleships’ visibility while trying to close enough to pummel the British cruisers. But Tovey due to his spotter planes and smoke when needed was able to stay out of trouble while he tried to get Warspite in range. At 0500 hours the visibility opened up to 24,000 yards, but the Italians made smoke as needed to keep Warspite blinded. Tovey having tired of chasing a faster force launched an air strike at the Italian battleships with 5 flights of Swordfish torpedo bombers. The Swordfish targeted Giulio Cesare, whose AA fire coupled with that of Conte di Cavour destroyed 1 Swordfish and damaged another. The Giulio Cesare barely evaded a torpedo, but was not hit never the less.
Eventually, Campioni realized that he was not going to be able to get the fight that he wanted and used his speed advantage to break contact.