Substantial updated this post 24-11-2019
Captain W G Agnew, CB, RN (in centre) with his officers and ship’s company on board HMS AURORA. This picture was taken in November 1941 in Malta. IWM A6291
Force K was a striking force based out of Malta, tasked with interrupting Axis naval supplies between Italy and North Africa consisting of Leander-class cruisers HMS Aurora (flag), HMS Penelope, and the L-class destroyers HMS Lance and HMS Lively.
Following an initial success on the night 8/9 November, when the force destroyed the so-called Duisburg, or BETA Convoy on the march to Tripoli, also sinking one of the escorting destroyers, it went on to sortie several times in pursuit of Axis shipping.
The force was informed about the sailing dates, hours, and likely tracks of Axis merchants through ULTRA, and struck Axis supplies hard, three times, with a material impact on the land battle being fought in North Africa at the same time, Operation CRUSADER.
Sinking of Maritza and Procida
These two German merchants had moved from Italy to Piraeus where they took on additional freight, and were known to move north of Crete to Benghazi. Their moving sailing date had been followed through ULTRA. Force K received the instruction of where the convoy would be verbally from Flag Officer Malta (who had received it from ULTRA).
The convoy was considered crucial to the British success in CRUSADER, not just by the British, but also by the Luftwaffe, and Churchill took a personal interest in the destruction of these two vessels. It was known that they were critical to the Axis supply situation, in particular the Luftwaffe, carrying large volumes of B4 aero fuel, as well as bombs. At a time when stocks in North Africa had deteriorated to 730 tons B4, the vessels were to bring 2,300 tons of this fuel. The daily consumption rate stood at about 120-150 tonnes of B4 during the battle, so this would have been sufficient for 15-20 days of air support.
Captain Mimbelli, one of the most highly decorated Italian sailors of the war acted as commander in his Spica-class torpedo boat Lupo. His report on this particular disaster is in this post linked above. From the report of Captain Agnew, additional detail is available. In Captain Agnew’s report he points out that Force K was shadowed for most of the approach by Axis planes, but that HMS Lively used an ‘amusing’ way of jamming. In Lively’s report, this is explained – apparently the radio room on Lively identified the call signs for one ground station and one or two planes, and simply ordered radio silence, using the correct radio protocol. This was promptly observed for 30 minutes. When radio transmissions started again they were partially jammed, and the trick then repeated. Force K also observed aerial supply traffic from Crete to North Africa and in two cases engaged a He 111 bomber and a Ju 52 transport with no effect.
When closing in on the convoy, Ju 88 bombers engaged Force K, but were deterred by the heavy volume of AA fire and their bombs fell away from the ships causing no damage. This must have happened outside the range of notice of Commander Mimbelli of Lupo, who was waiting for the intervention of the Luftwaffe to rescue his convoy.
HMS Penelope’s log describes the action in the terse terms of a naval log book.
1524 sighted smoke bearing 347 degrees set course towards.
1536 Make out 2 MVs and 2 DRs
1540 Opened fire on enemy a/c
1545 Opened fire on DRs
1631 Cease fire both MVs sunk
1647 Set course 275 degrees speed 29 knots
1659 Smoke bearing 318 degrees
1700 Commence 2/2 No. 10.
1702 Second column of smoke bearing 333 degrees. Reported by aircraft to be 2 DRs.
1730 Speed 25 knots.
1740 Passed floating mine
Captain Agnew is also dismissive of the effort by the Italian escort, describing their action as ‘making off to the north and abandoning the freighters to their fate’. The fire by the Italian vessels was also ineffectual, causing nothing more then splinter damage above the waterline of HMS Penelope. This is quite a contrast to the claims of 2-3 observed hits on a cruiser, and makes one wonder where the 304 rounds of 10cm fired by Lupo and Cassiopeia actually went.
After the engagement the destroyers were left with only 36 hours of fuel, which led Captain Agnew to order a return to Malta instead of a pursuit or further operations.
While an immediate rescue operation was mounted by the Germans and Italians, including the despatch of a hospital ship, no survivors were found of either vessel.
Adriatico in Peacetime. Courtesy Wikipedia
Sinking of M/N Adriatico
In the night 30 Nov to 1 Dec 41 at about 3.30 am Force K sank the Italian naval auxiliary Adriatico. Until I requested the reports from the 6″ cruiser HMS Aurora at Kew today I thought she was just a merchant vessel, and wondered why she tried the run from Argostoli (Greece) to Tripoli unescorted. Turns out that she was under command of a Capitano di Corvette (Lieutenant Commander) of the Regia Marina, and armed with two 102 or 120mm guns (identified as 3″ guns by Captain Agnew during the engagement), two 20mm AA guns and 4 12mm heavy machine guns. Her crew seems to have been fairly heavy at 90, 40 of which were naval ratings and officers. Below is a condensed excerpt from the report Captain Agnew of HMS Aurora failed after his return to Malta.
Adriatico was picked up at 12 nautical miles distance by a very sharp-eyed sailor. Agnew decided to close to 6,000 yards before engaging her. At 0304 hours he ordered a broadside fired and signalled to Adriatico to abandon ship. Adriatico steamed on, ignoring the signal.
HMS Aurora fired a second broadside, claiming one hit. Adriatico stopped, and the signal to abandon ship was repeated, but no reaction observed. Instead, at 0315 hours Adriatico opened fire on HMS Aurora. (This was a very brave, or maybe foolish thing to do, depending on how you look at it).
Aurora immediately engaged with 6″ guns, and Adriatico was on fire all over very quickly.
Adriatico’s crew now abandoned ship, and a number of explosions were observed. One of the destroyers was ordered to sink her before leaving the scene.
A number of Adriatico’s crew were rescued and subsequently interrogated. According to the surviving crew, this was the first trip of Adriatico to North Africa. Until then, she had worked around Italy and in the Adriatic, mostly as escort vessel. I am beginning to suspect that her trip was part of the emergency supply programme (see also this older post).
The interrogation reports in HMS Aurora’s files are interesting reading. It appears that the commander of Adriatico considered her a naval vessel, and therefore felt he had to engage the far superior force pursuing him. It is also possible he believed that an engagement would attract attention by a superior Italian force including battleships which he had been advised were in the vicinity. Force K had been alerted to Adriatico’s voyage and course by ULTRA intercepts.
Adriatico was completed in 1931 as a mixed passenger/freighter of 1,976 tons at Riuniti Adriatico, and before being taken over by the Regia Marina was owned by Puglia S.A. di Navi, Bari . (see Miramar ship index)
The ‘sharp-eyed sailor’ was almost certainly radar.
Navigatori-class destroyer Alvise da Mosto at sea during the initial months of the war. Courtesy Wikipedia, USMM Photo.
Sinking of Motocisterna Iridio Mantovani and RM Alvise da Mosto
There is already quite a bit of information on this particular disaster in this post linked above. From the HMS Aurora report it appears that an ASV Wellington (a Wellington bomber equipped with air-to-sea surface radar) led Force K to the general vicinity of the two-ship convoy, but then transmitted erroneous bearings. In this case however, the standing air patrol arranged over the stricken tanker was its undoing. Lookouts on HMS Aurora spotted planes circling, and Captain Agnew correctly deduced that they would not circle over nothing, so pointed his force towards them. After a short time masts were spotted, and the fate of Mantovani was sealed. The air escort went to have a look at Force K,but when engaged left the scene quickly, presumably giving rise to the complaint by da Mosto’s commanding officer outlined in the older post.
In the report, da Mosto is correctly identified as a Navigatori class destroyer. Captain Agnew is dismissive of her efforts to protect her charge, calling her fire ineffectual. After a short engagement she was on fire and finally blew up. The tanker was then engaged quite quickly and left on fire with explosions going off on her in intervals (presumed to be when the fire reached a new tank). When Force K was about 30 nautical miles away, a large explosion was observed, which must have been her end.
HMS LIVELY, BRITISH L CLASS DESTROYER, AT SPEED. JULY 1941.IWM A4654