Supreme Sacrifice – the loss of HMS Kandahar

Supreme Sacrifice – the loss of HMS Kandahar


HMS Kandahar, a K-class destroyer, was one of two ships lost on the night of 18/19 December 1941, when Force K ran into the Italian ’T’ minefield north of Tripoli, trying to intercept the M.42 convoy from Naples, carrying urgently needed tanks and supplies to Axis forces in North Africa. Having come to the aid of the stricken HMS Neptune, a light cruiser that first hit a mine at 0106 hours on 19 December, HMS Kandahar herself was mined at 0318 hours that same morning. The mine blew off her bow, and she drifted, without power or steering, slowly in an East-South-Easterly direction.

The light cruiser HMS Penelope and the destroyer HMS Jaguar had stayed with the stricken ships. HMS Jaguar then sought out the drifting HMS Kandahar, but it took until the next morning before she found her. The idea was to either attempt to take her in tow or take off survivors. Either was a perilous business, just about 15 miles off the North African coast, and with daylight coming up, but she managed to do this undetected. 

HMS Jaguar dropping depth charges 1940 IWM A868

HMS Jaguar Dropping Depth Charges, 1942. Wikipedia.


The superbly executed rescue work earned her captain, Lieutenant Commander  Lionel Rupert Knyvet Tyrwhitt D.S.C., the Distinguished Service Order, even though he disobeyed the order to return to Malta if he had not found HMS Kandahar by 0300. He found her at 0420 on 20 December 1941 and remained with her until 0620, when she was sunk by HMS Jaguar with a torpedo.

This officer was in command of H.M.S. Jaguar when she came to the assistance of H.M.S. Kandahar.

His instructions were that if he had not found Kandahar by 0300/20 he was to return to Malta. He had not found the ship by this time, but he was so certain that she was in the vicinity that he persevered and made contact at 0420. His ship handling when bringing Jaguar alongside in bad weather conditions was perfect. The weather, however, was too bad and Jaguar was ordered to lie off and pick survivors after Kandahar had abandoned ship, and to leave not later than 0530. Again Lieutenant Commander Tyrwhitt’s ship handling was excellent and expedited the recovery of survivors. Nevertheless this was not completed by 0530, and Jaguar remained till 0620 within 15 miles of the enemy coast until the job was completed.

Lieutenant Commander Tyrwhitt’s perseverance and determination was responsible for the recovery of so many survivors.

Lt.Cdr. Trywhitt died when HMS Jaguar was attacked by German submarine U-652 off Sidi Barrani on 26 March 1942. Two of four torpedoes struck her, setting her on fire and causing her to sink quickly, taking with her almost 200 men including her captain.

Apart from the DSO for the captain, the Admiralty recognized the service and sacrifice of both crews, by awarding a total of two OBEs, two Albert Medals, three British Empire Medals, one Posthumous Mention in Despatches, and six Mention in Despatches.

The two medals that stand out are the Albert Medals. Both were posthumous awards, and they are the highest award for gallantry displayed in saving lives at sea. Admiral Pridham-Wippell then ‘strongly recommended’ the award of the Albert Medal for both ratings.


Vice-Admiral Pridham Wippell, 2 i/c Mediterranean Fleet, May 1942, Alexandria. IWM A8850 

More detail is provided in the letter from the Admiralty to the Home Office, which requested the award of the Albert Medal.

We recommend the Posthumous Award of the Albert Medal to Acting Yeoman of Signals George Patrick McDowell, D/JX.143268 and Leading Seaman Cyril Hambly, D/JX.133146 for gallantry in saving life at sea.

When H.M.S. Jaguar succeeded in finding H.M.S. Kandahar, which had struck a mine and was sinking, the weather too bad for her to be able to take off survivors by going alongside, and she was ordered to lie off and pick up survivors after Kandahar had abandoned ship. Nets were hung over her side to help men who had swam over, or come over on rafts, to climb on board.

Acting Yeoman of Signals George Patrick McDowell, D/JX.143268 and Leading Seaman Cyril Hambly, D/JX.133146 both showed the most self-sacrificing gallantry.

They had swum over to Jaguar, but to climb the side of the ship plunging in the heavy seas was not easy, and though they could have climbed on board themselves, they stayed in the water helping others who could not, until they lost all strength and were drowned.

Both men were young, McDowell only 22, and Hambly 28. The request for an immediate award read as follows.

HMS Nile

This rating lost his life helping other men to board H.M.S. Jaguar.

Having swum over to “Jaguar” instead of heaving himself inboard, McDowell/Hambly stayed in the water helping others up the net until he lost strength and was drowned. 

I consider his conduct deserving of the highest award for gallantry and self sacrifice.

Captain (D) 14th Destroyer Flotilla

14 January 1942

Unfortunately I do not know who the officer signing the recommendation was, he appears to have been the Commander in charge of HMS Nile. Maybe someone can help?


The award was recommended to the King on 11 May 1942 by Home Secretary Morrison, and so approved, as can be seen below.



Adm 1/12294 H.M.S. Kandahar

German Antisubmarine Equipment on Italian Vessels

German Antisubmarine Equipment on Italian Vessels


In the files of the German naval command in Italy held at NARA, I found something completely new to me (as one does).  In autumn 1941 the German navy had started to equip Italian escort vessels withASDIC active sonar equipment (S-Geraet) and depth charge launchers (WBW).  The priority was apparently given to equipping escort units in the Aegean, where allied submarines had been active and successful for a while.  In December 1941, the Kriegsmarine established a sub-hunting flotilla at Piraeus to be able to contribute to the Regia Marina’s effort.  Italian vessels were equipped with the German sonar when they went into wharf in Italy for general maintenance, i.e. they were not pulled from service to have this equipment fitted. My guess is they were stretched so thin already that this would not have been possible.  Until the German sonar came along, the Italian vessels had to use passive listening devices to locate submarines.  One is tempted to conclude from the significant successes achieved by Allied submarines that these were not very good at fulfilling their purpose.

The sonar equipment on the Italian vessels was operated initially by German sailors, while Italian naval personnel was attending the Kriegsmarine anti-submarine school at Gotenhafen. One of the first Italian units to be outfitted with the German equipment was the older destroyer Alvise da Mosto. She was sunk in a surface engagement with the Royal Navy’s Force K from Malta on 1 December 1941, off Tripoli (see this older entry). It had only been outfitted at the Italian navy shipyard in Fiume two weeks beforehand, it appears.

Alvise Da Mosto5 da La difesa del traffico con l AS vol VII

Alvise da Mosto underway in the first months of the war, probably off Taranto. USMM.

Report for the Kriegsmarine

A report by the two surviving German sonar operators found its way into the files of the German naval command, and is preserved at NARA.  Both of these men were re-assigned to other Italian escort vessels and when on the Spica-class torpedo boat helped sink HM Submarine Tempest on 13 February 1942 (this article describes the incident). In this attack, Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff being credited with re-establishing her location when she was submerged.

The report must be from after March 1942, since it refers to the death of Commander del Anno who was lost when his destroyer went down in a gale  at the 2nd battle of Sirte. While probably not a completely accurate report, it is an interesting eye-witness statement. Below is a translation of the report.

Report about the Actions of the Destroyer “Da Mosto” from 18 November 1941 to 1 December 1941 based on the Statements of the two Rescuees Petty Officer Rublack and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff


German listening crew consisting of:

Petty Officer (Bootsmaat) Rublack

Able Seaman (Matrosengefreiter) Hartmann

Able Seaman Macar

Ordinary Seaman (Matrose) Maidenoff

Ordinary Seaman Retter

During the move from Fiume to Pola on 18 November a submerged Italian submarine located at 4200 [metres].  Echo remained good until the end. Speed 16 knots.

During the move Pola -Tarent on 24 November one steamer escorted. Defect on the motor cinema [screen of the sonar, I guess]. Mirror running too slow, therefore no correct distance.  Reason: strong variations in net. Turning the unit off leads to only slight improvement.

Around 0700 [hours] perfect echo ranged at 320 degrees. Distance could not be fixed. Boat [this refers to Da Mosto] zig-zags at high speed, steamer turns away.  This location was very probably an enemy submarine since a few hours later  an attack occured on another steamer in the same area (statement by the commander).

Enter Taranto on 25 November around 1500. With help from a German mechanic the cinema motor is changed against another one from the installation of another boat.  The work is completed shortly before the boat leaves harbour.

On 26 November 1500 left harbour with a tanker for Trapani.  In the Messina Straits submarine alarm raised by another boat. Search by Da Mosto without result.

At the southern tip of Sicily an unknown mine barrier was well located.  Proceeded according to guidance by S-Geraet.

28 November at 2000 entered Trapani with tanker.

30 November at 0300 left harbour with tanker on western route to Tripoli.  On the way location of a floating mine, a buoy, and a wreck.  Furthermore three French coastal vessels were located on 3,600 to 3,800 metres, which were only then recognised from the bridge.

During the course of 1 December attacks by English bombers occured in several waves. The tanker was hit in the stern and remained motionless. Attempts to take it in tow failed.  Air defense of tanker was weak.  Around 1730 English surface units came into view.  Da Mosto immediately went into the attack and achieved hits on a cruiser.[1]  After a short time Da Mosto was hit in the stern.  Ammunition and the Italian depth charges went off.  During the sinking the forward torpedoes were fired, but without a hit. Da Mosto sank around 1800. The crew gave cheers to its ship, the Duce and the Führer.  The English destroyers drove through the swimming crew without attempting to rescue someone, and shouted derisively “Good bye boys”.

Petty Officer Rublack swam to the tanker with two Italians to bring a still intact boat into the water and to sink the tanker. A destroyer opened fire however, so that the intent could not be carried out.  The tanker then also sank soon afterwards.  Another destroyer appears to have had the intent before that to take it into tow[2].

The S-Geraet was kept manned until the start of the engagement when the boat went to high speed.  The listening crews thereafter went to their battle stations on the guns.  Petty Officer Rublack and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff were on the bridge. Able Seaman Macher fell at the rear gun.  Nothing has been observed concerning the whereabouts of Able Seaman Hartmann and Ordinary Seaman Retter, who until the last moment manned the S-Geraet.

Around 2300 the torpedo boat Prestinari reached the site of the engagement and took the survivors on board.

The commander, Fregattenkapitaen (Commander) del Anno was very complimentary about the performance and the brave behaviour of the German listening crew. Petty Officer Rublack received the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Italian Bronze Medal of Valour, and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Italian War Merit Cross. The commander received the Gold Medal (later killed in action as commander of Scirocco).


Alvise da Mosto underway in the 1930s. The picture shows the unusual configuration of the B-turret very well. USMM via Wikipedia.


[1]This is not correct.

[2]This is wrong.

Further Reading
A very informative article on the anti-submarine warfare development of the Kriegsmarine can be found at this link (search the document for “magnetostrictive” to jump directly to the ASW section).

A very informative, but highly technical, article on German passive sonar can be found at this link.

Book Review – “Fighting Flotilla” by Peter C. Smith

Book Review – “Fighting Flotilla” by Peter C. Smith

Anyone who has looked at previous book reviews knows that I am a fan of Peter C. Smith’s work. That’s why I bought without hesitation Fighting Flotilla when it was recommended to me in the marvellous naval bookshop Maritime Books in Greenwich. 


Fighting Flotilla is the very aptly named history of the Royal Navy’s L-Class destroyers and their service in World War II. It does not just address the service however, but also contains a long and involved discussion on the design of the class, the various options that were considered in terms of size, armament and engine power, and the compromises that were made in their design.

The L-class, with its flottilla leader HMS Laforey, comprised eight vessels and I think it would be fair to say the class did not have a good war, since six of them were lost to enemy action, in some cases with heavy loss of life.  Three of them, HMS Lance, Lively and Ghurka, did not even manage a year’s service between their completion and their loss, such was the pressure on the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean at the time.

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The class is of particular interest to me since two of them, HMS Lance and HMS Lively* were part of Force K throughout the CRUSADER period, while HMS Legion participated in the sinking by 4th Destroyer Flotilla of the two light Italian cruisers di Giussano and da Barbiano and joined Force K afterwards.  It is interesting to note that all threee of these would be lost by April.  HMS Lively sunk by aircraft in the waters between Crete and Tobruk, while HMS Lance and Legion were sunk at their moorings in Grand Harbour in Malta while undergoing repairs, but not before Legion claims to have engaged the Italian battleship Littorio in a gun duel at point blank range (4,400 yards) during the 2nd Battle of Sirte in March 1942 (eyewitness accounts of this action are in the book)!

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta – from Wikimedia Commons


As usual with books by Peter C. Smith, this one is a good mix of document-based research and facts emanating from personal recollections.  The book is basically covering two parts, the development of the class, in the context of the constraints of the Naval Treaties at the time and the threat assessment, followed by the service history of the eight vessels of the class.  This is a good approach for a reader like me, since it gives me the context of how these vessels came to be, and then follows it by the very interesting stories of their lifes and ends.  In doing so the book does not only provide a deep insight into the world of Royal Navy ship procurement towards the very end of the inter-war period (the L-class was built as part of the 1937 Royal Navy estimate), but also provides a good technical overview of the various challenges and trade-offs involved in destroyer design during this period. This was a class that was planned before and built largely during the war, and it underwent many changes while on the stocks because of it, to accommodate experience from the war and the need to get ships out into the sea to fight the Axis. This is why half the class ended up with the advanced, fully enclosed 4.7″ turrets, while the remainder received open 4″ high-angle turrets, which made them very useful as AA defence vessels. The different turrets also had a visual impact – in my opinion the 4″-armed L-class vessels have a far more balanced look to them than the 4.7″-armed.  See e.g. this photo of HMS Lightning  (4.7″) versus this of HMS Legion (4″).

Apart from the information in the text, the book also contains a raft of photographs and diagrams, e.g. cut-away and detailed technical drawings of the design of the two types of main gun turret (4.7″ and 4″) used on the L-class, and the ships as a whole, comparing design and as built.   The selection of photographs indicate that the author spent a lot of time going through the IWM’s photo archive, and some of them seem not to have been reproduced in many places, if at all elsewhere.

The eyewitness accounts of the actions are well placed in the general text, relevant, and add to the depth of the immersion.

Appendices cover the main weapons system, fire control, general fixtures and fittings and the crew compliments in peace and war.  At the end, all the ship’s badges are reproduced, with heraldic information, as well as pendant numbers and the names of commanding officers.  I seriously doubt that there is much else to know about the L-class after the reader finishes this book.

I can only highly recommend this book (like anything by Peter C. Smith, but I think I am repeating myself) to anyone interested in naval actions in the Mediterranean during World War II, or interested in inter-war destroyer design in the Royal Navy.  Unfortunately you’ll have to look for a used copy, since it is currently not in print.


You can also find a detailed account of the life and death of WW2’s HMS Lively at this link. She was the sixteenth and last of the name in the Royal Navy for now at least. I think somebody needs to start a campaign to get that name re-assigned to a vessel.

* HMS Lively has another appeal for me, since she was one of the ships commanded by fictional Royal Navy hero Jack Aubrey. By coincidence, Jack Aubrey’s HMS Lively of 1804, a 28-gun frigate, was in real life also lost while on convoy escort in 1810, wrecked  in the Mediterranean off Malta. 

Reports by HMS Aurora on actions of Force K, 1941

Reports by HMS Aurora on actions of Force K, 1941

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.

MN Adriatico1

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[1].  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)

[1]The ‘sharp-eyed sailor’ was almost certainly radar.

Alvise Da Mosto5 da La difesa del traffico con l AS vol VII

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.



Book Review – Battles of the Malta Striking Forces

The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces

by Peter C. Smith and Edwin Walker

5 Stars out of 5

This is the second book I have read by Peter C. Smith, and like the first (“Hold the Narrow Sea”), it was a delight, and is highly recommended.

“The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces” deals with the history of the Malta-based surface striking forces in 1941, a time during which they proved a veritable thorn in the side of the Axis, and contributed directly to the Commonwealth victory on land in Operation Crusader, which started in November 1941. The narrative describes in detail the key actions in which the striking forces were involved, most importantly the convoy battles on 16 April 41 and 8/9 November 41 and the destruction of the light cruisers da Barbiano and di Giussano by the Royal Navy’s 4th Destroyer Flotilla. The book ends with the first battle of Sirte, and the destruction of Force K on a minefield north of Tripoli on 18/19 December 1941. It also describes the strategic situation in the Mediterranean, and how these actions were linked into events in other parts of this theatre. Appendices describe the warships used and list them, the load of the Beta convoy (better known as Duisburg convoy) which was entirely sunk on 8/9 November, signals from and to HMS Penelope sent during the fateful night of 18/19 December, and an interesting list of gunnery effects during the Duisburg convoy battle. An index is also included, which is a great help. The numerous pictures and maps selected for inclusion are not only helping understanding the events, but add life to the book as a whole.

The authors have obviously gone to great lengths to research this short but important section of Malta’s history in the Mediterranean war, looking both at unit records on the Royal Navy side, and the official history of the Italian navy. While there are minor niggles (e.g. the consistent misspelling of the Duisburg as Duisberg), and some typos and date errors, I think this book shows clearly that history books do not need to be dry, heavy tomes that can double as weights in a fitness programme or door stops. It is packed with information, yet readable. At just 120 pages in a pocket-book format, this book contains all one might want to know about the actions of Malta-based strike forces in 1941. With one clear exception however – the book does not discuss the role of ULTRA intelligence in the actions of the Royal Navy forces. But this is clearly not the fault of the authors, who researched, wrote and published in 1974 before the role of ULTRA in the Mediterranean became known. For those interested in this aspect, I can only recommend Santoni’s “Il vero Tradittore”, or as a second-best for this specific aspect, Hinsley’s official history of British intelligence, Vol. II.

A particularly welcome aspect of this book is the positive and respectful attitude the authors show towards the performance of the Regia Marina, the Royal Navy of Italy, which has been slandered far too often in the memoirs and papers particularly by German officers. The brave and determined actions of commanders and ships companies, such as Capitano di Fregata Mimbelli of the Lupo and Capitano di Fregata dell’Anno of the Antonio da Mosto, both of whom conducted hopeless defenses of their charges in the face of a vastly superior force in November and December 1941, or of the destroyer Luca Tarigo, which sank the destroyer HMS Mohawk with a torpedo fired by a junior officer while she herself was disabled and on fire, are recorded in detail, and with the respect they deserve. Reading this book it is clear that the Regia Marina was no push-over, and that the successes in the Mediterranean had to be fought for by the Royal Navy, and did not come for free.

I do not think that any serious student of the sea war in the Mediterranean can do without this book, and those looking at the land war in North Africa should also get themselves a copy. I would hope that Mr. Smith would find the time to update the book, or maybe expand it to include the role of the British submarines, and the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force units operating from Malta.

This review refers to the 1974 Ian Allan hardcover edition, published in the Sea Battles in Close-Up series as Vol. 11

Italian Navy Reports on Surface Engagements with Force K

Italian Navy Reports on Surface Engagements with Force K

This post should be read together with this post showing the action from the Royal Navy’s side, at this link
These are translations of reports from the Italian Navy’s official history “La Difesa Del Trafico con L’Africa Settentrionale” (The Defense of the Traffic with North Africa – Volume II), which was published in the early 1960s as part of the 8-volume complete history of the Regia Marina in World War II. The translation was done by me – apologies for the possible errors. My Italian is far from perfect.
Torpedo Boat Lupo 1024x540
Spica-class Torpedo Boat Lupo, May 1941, on entering Taranto after her night action off Crete. USMM.
1. Report by the Head of Escort Section Procida and Maritza convoy, Commander (Capitano di Fregata) Francesco Mimbelli

Extract from the report of Captain of Frigate Mimbelli regarding the engagement of Destroyer Escort Lupo on 24 November 1941


b) The fire of the two Destroyer Escorts, considering the particularly difficult conditions under which it was conducted (frequent change of approach to avoid bracketing by the enemy; reduced visibility by smoke-screen; impossibility for Lupo to measure range etc.etc.), had a fairly satisfying result. As was already told, an Arethusa class cruiser was hit once or twice by Lupo. Previously, this same cruiser had already been hit by Cassiopea shortly before. In total 304 rounds of 100/47 [main armament of the torpedo boats] were expended: 116 by Lupo and 188 by Cassiopea. Perfect in every regard the performance of the munitions and guns: not one dud round. Less well however was the performance of the smoke generators on the two Destroyer Escorts, which generated smoke alright, but not of the density and opaqueness that could have been wished for.

c) After sighting, the enemy tried to disturb our radio communications on the naval frequency (m.55) by emitting a constant signal for several minutes. This probably aimed to stop or blanket our signal of discovery, and to prevent indirectly the assembly of naval or air forces in our support. Despite the efforts by the enemy, our signal of discovery was promptly received by the radio station of Naval Command South East.

d) The tactical conduct of combat by the English was in my view based on not running risks. Instead of aiming for the complete destruction of the enemy forces, which would not have been difficult to achieve given the great disparity in forces and the measurable distance in speed, they contented themselves with only sinking the steamers in the care of the Destroyer Escorts, in a way that could not cause significant damage to their own units The enemy destroyers remained all the time rigidly close to the cruisers and did never attempt a gamble, even though their higher speed would have allowed them to. When the two Destroyer Escorts had to leave the field of action, they renounced to pursue, or at the least pursue as far as possible. The fire of the English was as always heavy, but I can not say I was favourably impressed by the precision and the speed. It must of course be said that a Destroyer Escort taking high-speed evasive actions is anything but a simple target.

e) For the part concerning the conduct of the action on our side, I maybe allowed to observe that I missed the information from aerial reconnaissance about the approach of the enemy forces. If I had known of the approach of the English division towards me just a few hours before, I could most likely have evaded contact until sunset, and then return quickly to the Morea coast. When sighting the enemy forces I quickly understood that the steamers were practically condemned: we missed two hours to sunset; there was no support group nearby; the coast was too far. Only one hope remained for me: that of an intervention by German bombers. It was above all that hope which made me look for delaying, for as long as possible, the approach march of the enemy units and the destructive effect of their fire on the steamers. I had to renounce twice to conduct the attack to the finish with Lupo because the enemy, free of any restriction to maneuver, by turning bow to me, immediately conducted the counter-maneuver that is at the same time easiest and most effective. When at 16.30 hours I saw that nothing could be done to rescue the Maritza and the Procida, and that remaining close to them would lead only to the loss of the two Destroyer Escorts, I decided to abandon the two steamers with their precious cargo and their brave crews. Never before have I had to take such a painful decision which is in such contrast, at least apparently, to that which should be the creed of every torpedo commander: aggressiveness. I had to shut up the sentiment and obey the cold reasoning which ordered me to save Lupo and Cassiopea for other endeavours.




Francesco mimbelli e48f4499 fa5f 44b0 910b d6d412427b9 resize 750

Commander (later Admiral) Francesco Maria Mimbelli, MOVM. USMM

Commander Mimbelli survived the war, and rose to the rank of Admiral, ultimately (in a supremely ironic twist) becoming the Italian representative of the NATO forces in the Mediterranean, based in Malta. In 1961 he took command of the Italian fleet for one year, before retiring due to illness. In 1993 the Italian navy named a guided missile destroyer after him.

Mimbelli D561

The Italian guided-missile destroyer Francesco Mimbell (D 561) at La Valletta, Malta.

2. Exchange of letters between Supermarina and Naval Command Trapani on the loss of tanker Iridio Montavani


Trapani, 21 December 1941/XX Office O.A.


Re: Mission report escort battle with enemy and sinking of Royal Destroyer Da Mosto

In conjunction with dispatch no. 28861 dated 16th of the current month relating to the same affair.

While returning the mission report of the commander of Royal destroyer Da Mosto I would like to allow myself to present the following:
The losses we have suffered in the channel of Sicily in the last six month because of increased activity of enemy air forces are in my view due to imperfect air-sea co-operation. Leaving aside the reasons why this co-operation has thus far not been effective, it is a fact that the convoys, in particular those of one or two units with a naval escort, do not have aerial escorts for the whole daylight time, or don’t have it at all. This allows enemy air reconnaissance a lot of liberty and following that deadly attacks. It can also be observed that often the attacks happen when fighters are absent. Reiterating that the convoys, against which Malta is an effective air base, which can be seen at the moment, should not venture south of Pantelleria without aerial escort during the day, and can therefore not leave the final port of call in Italy before that escort is available and assured. 1. In the case we are looking at here, the attack at 13.00 hours, the fighters which were present from 10.40 hours, did not intervene. In the second attack at 16.50 hours, with the aerial escort absent, the attack could develop with only board weapons against it. 2. Finally the sighting of the two cruisers and the accompanying destroyer occurred just when, by fatal coincidence, the Da Mosto expected the Malocello and the Prestinari. Even this uncertainty could have been avoided had the aerial reconnaissance worked, and rapidly signaled the discovery. This would have allowed Da Mosto to be informed of the presence of enemy warships, and enabled her to make for Tripoli, only 60 miles away, avoiding a day-time battle without hope of success while having shipwrecked on board. Because of the situation created by the uncertainty, a retreat would almost certainly not have allowed to prevent the destruction of Da Mosto by the enemy force, and her commander therefore decided to take on the battle, leading his ship with determination and bold daring to her glorious end.


Commander of the Naval Station



Re: Mission report escort battle with enemy and sinking of Royal Destroyer Da Mosto


Referring to sheet 3/1716 S.R.P. dated 21 December 1941 – XX

Regarding the aerial escort of the Da Mosto convoy, this was assured for the whole duration of daylight. During the first attack of 13.00 hours the fighters, while present, did not intervene because they were not aware of the presence of enemy aircraft. While this is inconvenient, this has already been verified on other occasions, and continues to be verified until it is possible to have an adequate system of communication between ships and planes, since the visibility from the planes is limited, and the first spotting is always effected by the naval unit. During the second attack at 16.50 hours the fighters, while in flight, were not in the sky above the ships because the attacks happened during the change of escort, when the first patrol, at the limit of fuel, had turned away to return to base, while the second patrol had not yet arrived above the convoy.