Convoy Battle on the Build-Up – the Tembien Convoy


The summer of 1941 was primarily spent trying to build up the Axis forces in North Africa to prepare for the assault on Tobruk and the subsequent invasion of Egypt. While the supply route overall was delivering, with the vast majority of supplies reaching their destination, losses were suffered on a regular basis. One such loss happened on 12 September 1941, when 830 Squadron F.A.A. had a good outing against the 44th convoy with Italian and German supplies, known to the Italians as the TEMBIEN convoy.

The 12th of September 1941 day saw substantial air/naval operations, with a total of 29 aircraft operating out of Malta according to the Malta War Diary, 7x Wellington of No. 38 Squadron, 8x Blenheim of No. 105 Squadron, and 7x Swordfish of No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. operating twice, with 3x Blenheims lost, those of S/Ldr Charney D.F.C. with Observer Sgt. Porteous and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Harris, Sgt. Mortimer with Observer Sgt. Reid and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Owen, and Sgt. Brandwood. The latter and his crew were rescued by HM/Sub Utmost on 14 September, and the former two crews were all killed. Two ships were sunk, SS Caffaro of the Tembien convoy, and SS Alfredo Oriano, a merchant with an identical name to the escort leader of the Tembien convoy, sunk off Benghasi following an air attack on the way to Benghasi, from Brindisi, on 11 September.

Official Accounts and Memories

The write up in the Malta war diary is below:

An Italian convoy of steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, BAINSIZZA, NICOLO ODERO, and GIULA departed Naples on the 10th, escorted by destroyers ORIANI and FULMINE and torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, ORSA, and CIRCE from Trapani, and OERSEO[1] which joined at 0600/13th.

Italian steamer CAFFARO (6476grt) was sunk by British Swordfish of 830 Squadron from Malta 105° northwest of Tripoli in 34-14N, 11-54E.

Italian steamer TEMBIEN (5584grt) was damaged by 830 Squadron attack.

Italian steamer NICOLO ODERO (6003grt) was damaged in the attack. She was sunk on the 14th by RAF bombing in 32-51N, 12-18E after the convoy arrived at Tripoli on the 13th.

One of the air crew of No 830 Squadron, Sub-Lt. Campbell describes the attack thus at this link:

12/13.9 – If my memory serves me right this was the night about which the Malta Daily Paper headlined as “Ducks and Drakes in the Med”. The Squadron took off at dusk to attack a large Convoy heavily escorted by Destroyers. We found the Convoy and attacked individualy, splitting it up completely. At least three ships were hit and Destroyers were racing about all over the place. We returned to base and my flight were sent out again to finish off the remaining ships. As we approached the scene of the previous engagement, I saw a Destroyer racing along at high speed. I decided to follow it to see if it would lead me to the remaining ships, this took some doing in a “Stringbag”, if there had been any wind against me I couldn’t have done it. After awhile I saw a large MV and attacked it. There was a bright flash and then it just blew up.

The British accounts are incorrect in several aspects, and need to be read with the Italian account of the battle. Fortunately, the Italian official history La Difesa del Trafico Vol. I has an account of this convoy battle as well, which would lead to the total loss of two of the six steamers with their important cargo.

An adventurous voyage, albeit marked by painful losses, was that of the TEMBIEN convoy, which left Naples the morning of the 10th for Tripoli. This was the second convoy of cargo vessels bound for Libya in the month of September and, since it was composed of slower vessels, it had orders to follow the route of the Marettimo Channel of Sicily to the Kerkennah Banks, the route called the Ponente [2].

The steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, NICOLO’ ODERO and BAINSIZZA were part of the convoy; the escort[3] consisted of the destroyers ORIANI[4] (Convoy Leader Commander Chinigò[5]) and FULMINE[6] and the torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, and ORSA[7], with which the torpedo boat CIRCE[8] united in the Sicily Channel.

During the night 11/12 November the convoy was discovered by a nighttime reconnaissance plane south of Pantelleria. Thus at 03.10 hours of the 12th an attack by torpedo bombers followed, avoided  by the maneuvering of the convoy, a smoke screen, and the anti-air reaction of various units.

The following morning the formation navigated without incident or alarm along the Kerkennah following diverse routes. But at 14.00 hours, while under escort of Italian planes, it was again attacked by airplanes, this time by bombers. This was the second air attack during the crossing. Not the last one however, since two more times, between Zuara and Tripoli, during the nights of the 12th and 13th, the convoy was attacked from the air.


IMG 1394

RN Alfredo Oriani underway. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the daytime attack of the 12th, and the two following nights, the Escort Commander, Commander Chinigo, referred thus in his report:

The 12th

14.00 hours – Eight enemy planes are sighted[9], coming from the west at low height towards the formation. The escorting units and the steamers open targeted and barrage fire. Numerous water columns are seen close to the escort units and the steamers. Three of the attacking planes hit by the anti-aircraft fire crash in flames.

14.10 hours – The CAFFARO, hit by a bomb, takes fire. I am ordering CIRCE and ORSA and then FULMINE to come to the aid of the unfortunate steamer. I send the standard signal of having been discovered.

15.00 hours – Continued observation of flames from the fire in the direction of CAFFARO, and more and more explosions can be heard.

15.55 hours – I inform Supermarina[10] and Marina Tripoli[11] of the air attack with the reservation that further information cannot be provided yet.

16.05 hours – I observe a strong explosion in the direction of CAFFARO. Immediately after CIRCE signals that the steamer has sunk.

16.50 hours – CIRCE, FULMINE, ORSA report that they have on board 110, 35, and 79 shipwrecked, respectively. CIRCE and ORSA also that they have no-one particularly badly hurt.

18.40 hours – Notify Supermarina and Marina Tripoli of the sinking of CAFFARO and the number of shipwrecked rescued. Communicate furthermore that FULMINE is navigating for Tripoli with one severely wounded.

23.54 hours – At point C of the safe route to Tripoli. Steamers proceed in line astern.

The 13th

01.05 hours – Four or five airplanes are seen on a course of 240 degrees with landing lights illuminated. Issue the air alarm signal to all units.

01.20 hours – Numerous flares light up to the left of the formation. Order the escort units to make smoke. The units and the steamers fire targeted and barrage. A total of 18 flares are counted.[12]

02.30 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is reordered, and normal navigation proceeds.

03.33 hours – Marina Tripoli informs me that the PERSEO leaves Zuara and will join the convoy to strengthen the escort. Further informs that at sunrise a MAS will be the pilot for the safe route.

03.45 hours – CIRCE signals aircraft noises to the rear.

03.55 hours – A flare light is seen on the right of the convoy. I issue the standard signal of having been discovered. Escort units and steamers open barrage fire. Smoke is made.

04.00 hours – An explosion on one of the steamers is observed.

04.04 hours – CIRCE signals that the steamer ODERO was hit.

04.24 hours A bomb hits in our wake at about 100 meters from the stern. Fire is opened with the machine guns.

04.30 hours – CIRCE signals that there are men in the water and requests that another escort is sent. I order ORSA and PERSEO, which during the attack rejoined the formation, to get close to CIRCE and cooperate in the assistance of the hit steamer and to the rescue of the  shipwrecked.

05.00 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is taken up again, and we proceed on the safe route.

05.05 hours – CIRCE signals that the ODERO has fire on board, but that she is not sinking, and requests sending a tug.

The steamer NICOLO’ ODERO, even though in flames, remains afloat for many hours, with the support of the torpedo boats ORSA, CIRCE, and PERSEO which, in the first instance, are engaged in saving the men embarked on the merchant.

In support of the steamer, the tugs PRONTA and PORTO PALO leave Tripoli at sunrise,  seeking with any means to extinguish the fire which is still raging on the merchant. The PORTO PALO even goes alongside the ODERO, sending men to fight the fire.

Only when it is clear that the flames cannot be doused do the two tugs take the burning steamer in tow, first trying to reach Tripoli, and then to beach it on the coast. During the whole night, the two tugs and two motor trawlers, also coming from Tripoli, remain close to the steamer with the hope to ultimately save it, but during the afternoon of the 14th September a hold with ammunition blows up, causing the destruction of the NICOLO’ ODERO.

IMG 1395

Torpedo boat RN Perseo, lead of her sub-class of Spica torpedo boats.


It is clear from the Italian account that the British accounts were severely mistaken about the impact of their attacks. No ships had been hit in the night attack on 12 September. Sub-Lt. Campbell overstates the case somewhat regarding his hit on Caffaro. She may have burst in flames quickly, but it took her almost two hours to blow up, and it is unlikely that he hung around to see it happen. Nevertheless, I would presume it reasonably certain that he did indeed hit and thereby destroy her. On the other hand, the official Italian history claims she was hit by a bomb, which is likely given the confusion of being attacked by both Blenheims and Swordfish at the same time. If the Swordfish attacked at the same time, the most likely explanation, then it appears that the Swordfish in this attack may not even have been noticed by the escort, which would explain the report that a bomb caused the loss of SS Caffaro. The Italian report of eight attacking planes, of which three were shot down, is therefore to be considered quite accurate. 


According to the German loading lists, Nicolo Odero did not carry any German supplies on this voyage. Caffaro however did. She went down with substantial numbers of vehicles, rations, and ammunition, losses that the German forces could ill afford, and that further delayed the build up to the attack on Tobruk, which in turn enabled the Allied forces to attack first. The full list of her German load is given below. She almost certainly also carried Italian cargo, but I have not been able to find the manifest for this. While Caffaro carried a substantial number of soldiers, primarily drivers for the vehicles of 7./Flak 25, Heeresfunkstelle XVIII and Stab Panzergruppe, most of these are likely to have been rescued, with 224 men being picked up. 

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[1] Should be Perseo, Spica class boat, the staple Regia Marina escort. Displacing 1,020 tons at full load, they were armed with 3x10cm guns, four 450mm torpedo tubes, and a reasonable set of AA and ASW weaponry, running 34 knots top speed.
[2] Western
[3] This was a powerful escort with substantial AA capabilities
[4] The Orianis were a class of four modern, large destroyers. An improved repeat of the Maestrale class, with 2,470t at full displacement, 4x120mm main guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and a claimed top speed of 38 knots. They carried improved anti-air guns compared to the Maestrales. Oriani survived the war and served in the French navy until 1954. 
[5]Commander Chinigò survived the war and after the war rose to the rank of Captain and commanded the Littorio, being her last captain.
[6] A Folgore class destroyer, an older ship, she was sunk in the Duisburg/Beta convoy battle on 9 November 1941 with the loss of 141 men including her commander, Lt.Cdr. Mario Milano. The Folgores were not a lucky class, with all four ships lost during the war. They displaced 2,096 tons at full load, carried 4x120mm guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and had a claimed top speed of 38 knots. A repeat of the Freccia class they had less stability and range than her predecessor due to a reduction in their beam. 
[7] Orsa-class torpedo boats, an enlarged version of the Spicas (see below). At 1,575 tons full displacement, they traded one 10cm gun for improved AA and ASW equipment, carrying also 4x 450mm torpedo tubes and only running at up to 28 knots. Pegaso sank four Royal Navy submarines, making her one of the top submarine hunters of the Regia MarinaPegaso and Procione scuttled on the armistice, while Orsa survived the war and continued to serve until 1964.
[8] Circe was also a Spica-class boat. Circe destroyed four Royal Navy submarines during the war, making her one of the most successful sub-hunters of the Regia Marina.
[9] This are likely to have been the eight Blenheims of No. 105 Squadron out of Luqa, Malta, on their attack run. 
[10] Regia Marina High Command
[11] Naval Command Tripoli
[12] This was standard attacking practice for the torpedo bombers. The lead aircraft which carried radar instead of a torpedo would drop flares behind the convoy, to silhouette it, and enable the attacking planes to approach from the dark.