Loss of HM S/M Tempest, 13 Feb 1942

Loss of HM S/M Tempest, 13 Feb 1942

Background

In early 1942, the only means of naval offensive left to Malta were the submarines of the 10th Submarine Flotilla. Most of these were U-class boats, but some were P- and T-class, such as HM S/M Tempest.

The flotilla suffered a steady drip of losses to anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and mines. Starting in late 1941, German Sonar sets (S-Gerät) appeared on Italian escort vessels, and made them a far more deadly enemy.

Torpediniere Circe Marina Militare

Torpedo Boat Circe, after 1941. Marina Militare Photo Archive.

Tempest in the Mediterranean

Tempest was a large boat at 1,327 tons, and thus not considered for joining 10th Flotilla. Instead she was assigned to 1st Flotilla in Alexandria, whence she was supposed to travel at the end of the patrol in the Gulf of Taranto. This was her second combat patrol, not counting the transfer from the UK to Gibraltar. It appears that she carried spare parts for the flotilla in Alexandria on her mission as well.

Her Captain, Lt. Cdr. Cavaye, was an Australian career Royal Navy officer, unlike many other submariners at the time, and well experienced in submarines. 

Sinking of Tempest

HM S/M Tempest had the misfortune of encountering Capitano di Corvetta (Lt.Cdr.) Stefanino Palmas and his torpedo boat Circe on 13 February 1942. Palmas had been to the Kriegsmarine ASW course, and had received further training in Italy. On this mission, Circe was accompanying the German merchant Bosforo on her way to Taranto, and had also been ordered to patrol a specific area, where the day before HM S/M Una had illegally sunk the Italian tanker Lucania, which was traveling under safe passage from the Royal Navy to refuel a repatriation ship with civilians from East Africa. Two experienced commanders were thus set up against each other.

Both vessels noted each other about the same time, and Lt.Cdr. Cavaye made the fatal mistake of opting for a surface attack, probably trusting the night as protection. He would almost certainly not have been aware of the presence of advanced German anti-submarine equipment, including a German operator section, on Italian navy vessels. Cavaye ordered a crash dive when Tempest was about to be rammed, and received a first set of German depth charges while dropping down into the depths. Circe continued to patrol, and commenced attacking with daylight returning. She never lost contact with the submarine, and following a 6.5 hour hunt starting with the attack at 03.22am, using his last depth charges, Palmas finally managed to damage Tempest sufficiently to force her to surface, only 1,000m of Circe, where her crew abandoned ship. Some Royal Navy sailors appeared to be moving towards the boat’s gun were engaged with light AA guns from Circe, and nine rounds of the 10cm main gun.

As this account makes clear however, Tempest was almost mortally wounded by the first attack, and she was lucky not to succumb to it, unlike HM S/M P.38 ten days later. The final attack had led to flooding and chlorine gas building up, making it impossible to remain in the stricken submarine. At a water depth of 1,600 m at the site of the engagement, there was also no possibility for the boat to escape downwards and wait out matters on the sea floor or close to it.

Following this success, Palmas spent time trying to rescue as many of the men as possible, rather than trying to take the submarine under tow, although a small boarding command was sent over, including some German sailors who took code tables and other materials. After a short while, and a failed attempt to tow her to Crotone harbour 30 nm away, she slipped under the waves. 23 survivors out of the crew of 62 were then delivered to the Italian mainland. Many of the remainder were either killed by Circe’s gunfire or the very cold winter Mediterranean.

Palmas notes that the recovered Royal Navy sailors comported themselves very well, and remained calm throughout. He supplied them with food, hot drinks, and clothes. Palmas’ German crew members were not impressed by his actions, but it doesn’t appear there was anything to fault him.

The attack was covered in the Italian War Bulletin No. 631, and Lt.Cdr. Palmas received the Silver Medal for Military Valour.

 

 

Tempest

HM /SM Tempest on the surface during the attempt to take her in tow. Marina Militare Photo Archive.

DSC 0382

Success Report from Italy to German Navy High Command. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Further Reading

Survivor of HM S/M Tempest

German ASW Equipment Pt. 1

German ASW Equipment Pt. 2

German ASW Equipment Pt. 3

Sinking of HM S/M P.38

Difesa.it on the sinking of Tempest

Book review – Italian Torpedo Boat against British Submarine

Oral history of Charles G. N. Anscomb who survived the sinking.

Service history of HM S/M Tempest

Lt.Cdr. Cavaye

Torpedoing of M/N Nino Bixio, 17 August 1942

Torpedoing of M/N Nino Bixio, 17 August 1942

Background

While this is not related to CRUSADER, as a public service below is the translation from Aldo Cocchia‘s memoir Convogli (Convoys)[1]. Thanks to Lorenzo Colombo for providing the text. This post follows on from an earlier post on the same topic at this link, and provides some insight into the brutality of the war at sea. Nino Bixio was unmarked, and the attack was carried out by HM/Sub Turbulent, which was herself lost with all hands in March 1943. You can read a first-hand account of the attack from a surviving Australian POW at this link.

p.262ff

[…]At Benghazi a convoy was formed with the MVs Bixio and Sestriere[2], the destroyers Da Recco and Saetta[3], and the torpedo boats Orione and Castore[4]. On the large motor vessel Bixio 3,000 British POWs destined for Italy were embarked. While sailing just south of Navarino, my sonar[5] picked up a submarine. I give chase while the convoy proceeds, but have barely begun the maneuvers when I see two enormous water columns rise on the side of Bixio. I interrupt the chase and move towards the convoy to carry out the necessary measures, luckily evading a torpedo aimed at Da ReccoBixio has been hit by two torpedoes, but is keeping well afloat, and I do not dispair regarding being able to salvage her. Some POWs have ended up in the sea, and for them swimming wests and rafts are being thrown from the vessel, while Saetta, under the command of Lt.Cdr. Picchio[6], without even waiting for my orders, is getting ready to take her in tow. I order Orione to stay with Saetta and, together with Castore and Sestriere proceed to Brindisi.

a638755h

Nino Bixio.
Image is from the collections of the State Library of NSW. Used by permission.

Saetta, in a masterly executed operation, succeeds to tow the stricken vessel to Navarino, despite the enormous difference in displacement between the towing vessel, which is exacerbated by the towed vessel having taken onboard water in two holds. It is necessary to state that Lt. Cdr. Enea Picchio shows, on this occasion, proof of naval competence that is well above expectations. He really was one of the bravest, most intelligent and intrepid destroyer commanders who I have ever known. It was never necessary to give him orders or explanations, he always knew what he had to do, which position he had to take, where to move to, and the maneuver he had to execute. It was with a lot of pain that I heard the news, while recovering in hospital in Trapani, that he was lost at sea with his Saetta after having carried out numerous convoy escort missions.

rct_saetta_usmm

Saetta. Official picture, taken pre-war I suspect. From Wikipedia.

How many brave and valorous commanders and officers of the navy were lost in that sea which they all profoundly loved and which they fought the enemy for with all their vigour! Your memory will always be honoured, dear comrades fallen while carrying out your duties earnestly, without hesitation, like heroes!

The Bixio, towed to Navarino by Saetta with a lot of care, was left for a month on the lightly defended Navarino roads, but finally she was sunk by an enemy bombing attack. Orione and other destroyers from Navarino recovered most of the men who had ended up in the sea, but some of them who had ended up on raftsescaped, who knows how, detection. By a strange combination they were later found, in circumstances I will briefly outline, by Da Recco, 15 days later at a point 150 miles from the zone where Bixio was torpedoed.

[…]Description of the action during which merchant vessel Camperio was lost.[…]

Just before sunset, when I had almost reunited with my convoy, the escorting airplanes started to signal an abnormality about 7-8 miles ahead of us: they dive down on the sea, fire flares, and continously rotate around the same point[7]. Evidently there was something to see or do. I send Climene[8] towards the location indicated by the planes and, shortly after, there is a signal that they have rafts with shipwrecked in sight. Moving ahead at faster speed, I also discover the rafts, and while Climene closes in on one, I move towards the other. On both of them two shipwrecked were still alive.  Only skin and bones, burnt by the August sun, shattered to the point that they could not rise to their feet, but alive. We take them on board. Two more inflatables of the same group are empty.

climene_mimetica

Climene with her wartime dazzle camouflage.
Picture from Wikipedia.

My two shipwrecked were a New Zealander and a South African; those of Climene two Indians, all British POWs who had fallen or thrown themselves into the sea from the Bixio 15 days before, when our vessel was torpedoed outside Navarino. It had been 15 days that they found themselves at sea, without food, and what is worse, anything to drink. They asked for nothing but water. We administer it to them drop by drop with some sugar, and during the whole night seek to bring some life back into those who had been reduced to extremes. The next day it is possible for me to get some words out of one of them. Originally there were about 25 men on each of the rafts, about 100 all told; they did not manage to make themselves known to the escorts which after the sinking [sic!] of the Bixio did search the zone, and by and by the currents pushed them further out to sea from the coast, from which they originally were only twenty miles away. Every day that passed the number of shipwrecked reduced, every day someone died of starvation, others went mad and threw themselves into the sea; which teemed with sharks. One day the man I talked to managed to kill a fish with a blow by an oar, he drank its blood, ate it like that, and this gave him a certain strength. The strange thing is that in an area intensely traversed by planes, merchants, naval escorts, and submarines, nobody in those 15 days came across these four drifting rafts.

At Bengasi I received the report from Climene. The account by the two Indians which she took on board coincided with that I had received. One of the two Indians however could not eat swallow anything because on the raft, taken by despair, he had eaten the kapok lining of this swimming vest. He died a few hours after our arrival in port. The others recovered in the hospital of Benghazi.

[…]

Below is the excerpt on HM/Sub Turbulent’s patrol, presumably from the staff history. Many thanks to Peter Clare on ww2talk for providing this:

ATTACKS ON AXIS SUPPLY LINES ( HM Submarine Turbulent August 1942)
 
To the eastward of Malta both the 1st and 10th Flotillas kept up their pressure on the North African convoys running down from the west coast of Greece to Benghazi. Turbulent (Commander J. W. Linton)[9] left Beirut on 5th August, recovered an agent from the south-west corner of Crete on the 8th and landed two others near Navarin on the night of the 1lth/12th. After operating off Argostoli and Zante, Turbulent proceeded to the Anti-Kithera channel on the 16th, but turned back on receipt of intelligence that a convoy was expected off the Greek coast[10]. The following day the northbound convoy of two large ships with destroyer and air escort was successfully intercepted and attacked, the 7,000-ton ship Nino Bixio being hit with two torpedoes; in spite of this the vessel was successfully towed into Navarin. Patrol off the south-west corner of Crete from the 19th to the 27th yielded no targets, Turbulent leaving patrol on the latter date to arrive at Beirut on 1st September.
 

Notes

[1]Captain (D) Aldo Cocchia served in convoy duty during the war, commanding a destroyer flottilla with his flag in da Recco, and as such was severely injured in the Battle of Skerki Bank. After the war he rose to Admiral and became Head of the Historical Office of the Italian navy. Under his authority the multi-volume history of the Italian navy’s war was written.
[2]Both of recent construction. These were fast vessels (15 knots) with about 6,000 tons displacement. Pictures of Sestriere can be found at this link. Pictures of all vessels engaged here can be found at this link.
[3]Navigatori and Freccia class, respectively.
[4]Orsa and Spica class, respectively. Orione was again part of the escort in the attack which sank HM/Sub Turbulent on 6 March 1943, although the actual sinking appears to have been carried out by the Ciclone-class Destroyer Escort Ardito.

rn_ardito

Ardito at launch.
From Wikipedia.

[5]This was German S-Geraet sonar, which had been installed on Da Recco earlier in 1942 – see this older post.
[6]Lt.Cdr. Picchio was highly decorated, receiving the Gold and two Bronze medals for valour. He died on 3 February 1943, 36 years old, when Saetta hit a mine on an escort mission from Bizerte to Naples. She broke in two and sank in less than a minute.
[7]This would indicate that there was still no radio contact between planes and vessels even when they were on the same escort mission. [8]Spica class, Climene sub-class destroyer escort.
[9]Cdr. Linton was a highly decorated officer already, and would receive the Victoria Cross after his death.
[10]This would indicate that depending on the content of the intercepted messages, this might have been a preventable tragedy, since the intelligence could have included information that this was a POW transport.

Further Reading

See also at this link.