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First Battle of Sirte
Part of World War II
Duilio 1948.jpg
Italian battleship Caio Duilio
Date 17 December 1941
Location Gulf of Sirte, Mediterranean Sea
Result Tactically inconclusive
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Australia Australia
Netherlands Netherlands
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Italy
United Kingdom Andrew Cunningham Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Angelo Iachino
5 light cruisers
14 destroyers
4 battleships
2 heavy cruisers
3 light cruisers
13 destroyers
Casualties and losses
2 destroyers lightly damaged None

The First Battle of Sirte was a naval battle between the Royal Navy and the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina Italiana) during the Mediterranean campaign of World War II. The engagement took place on 17 December 1941, east of Malta, in the Gulf of Sirte. The battle itself was relatively uneventful, but has come to describe a week of clashes which illustrate well the cut and thrust of naval warfare in the Mediterranean at the time.



The period started on 13 December 1941. The British Eighth Army and the Axis PanzerArmee Afrika were engaged in battles resulting from Operation Crusader.

Crusader had been fought between 18 November and 4 December, to defeat the Afrika Korps and relieve the siege of Tobruk.This had been achieved, and the Axis forces were conducting a fighting retreat; by 13 December they were holding a defensive line at Gazala, east of Benghazi.

The Axis were desperate to re-supply their forces, intending to run supplies to Tripoli, their main port in Libya, and Benghazi, the port closest to the front line.

Meanwhile the island garrison of Malta was under siege, and the British were keen to run in supplies to restore their forces there.


On 13 December 1941 the Italians were preparing to send a major convoy, of eight ships, designated M41, to Africa. That morning their previous re-supply attempt, two fast cruisers carrying fuel to Tripoli, had failed when both ships were sunk at the Battle of Cape Bon by a force of destroyers en route to Alexandria.

Convoy M41 consisted of eight merchant ships in three groups, with a close escort of five destroyers, and a Distant Cover Force of two battleships, Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, four destroyers and two torpedo boats.

Meanwhile the British planned to run supplies to Malta using the fast merchant ship Breconshire, covered by a force of cruisers and destroyers, while the destroyers from the Cape Bon engagement, at Malta after the battle, would proceed to Alexandria covered by the Malta Strike Force groups, Force K and Force B. This operation would commence on 15 December.

M41’s passage started badly; soon after sailing on 13th, one group was attacked by the British submarine Upright, and two ships were sunk; later that day two other ships collided and had to return to base, while the Distant Cover Force was sighted by submarine Urge. The battleship Vittorio Veneto was torpedoed, and forced to return.

The Italian Navy's High Command (Supermarina), rattled by these losses and a report that a British force of two battleships was abroad ordered the ships to return to await reinforcement. In fact, the "force of two battleships" was a decoy mission carried out by the minelayer Abdiel.

The British were also preparing their operation, but their force was depleted when the cruiser Galatea was torpedoed and sunk by U-557, just before midnight on the 14th. Ironically, U-557 was accidentally sunk less than 48 hours later, by the Italian Torpedo Boat Orione.

On 15 December, Breconshire sailed from Alexandria; with her as escort were the three cruisers, and eight destroyers, under Rear Admiral Philip Vian (in Naiad). On the 16th , the four destroyers of 4th Flotilla, under Cdr G Stokes (in Sikh), left Malta, covered by Force K, two cruisers and two destroyers under Capt. W G "Bill" Agnew (in Aurora).

On 16 December, the four-ship Italian convoy, re-designated M42, left Taranto, picking up escorts along the way. the close escort was provided by seven destroyers and a torpedo boat, giving direct protection over the merchant ships. By the time they reached Sicily they were also accompanied by a "Close Cover Force", comprising the battleship Caio Duilio, three light cruisers and three destroyers.

A third group, the "Distant Covering Force", also formed up for detached support, consisting of the battleships Littorio, Andrea Doria and Giulio Cesare, two cruisers and ten destroyers.

Some measure of the importance of the mission can be seen in the fact that thirty Italian warships were escorting four cargo ships.

The two British groups were also at sea and steaming towards each other; the opposing forces were destined to cross each other's tracks east of Malta on the 18th.

The battle of Sirte

On the 17th, an Italian reconnaissance plane spotted the British west-bound formation near Sidi Barrani, apparently proceeding from Alexandria in order to intercept the Italian convoy. Thereafter the British convoy was shadowed by Axis planes and attacked during the afternoon, though no hits were scored. Also during the day, Agnew and Stokes met the west-bound convoy. By late afternoon the Italian fleet was close by, and spotter planes from the battleships had made contact with the British convoy.

At 1742 the fleets sighted each other, and Adm Iachino, commander of the Italian forces, moved to intercept in order to cover his convoy.

Vian also wished to avoid combat, so with the British giving ground and the Italians pursuing with caution, the British were able easily to avoid an engagement.

Just after sunset an air attack on the British ships caused them to return fire with their anti-aircraft guns, allowing the Italian naval force to spot them at last. Iachino took in the Distant Covering Force and opened fire at about 32,000 metres from the British, well out of range of the British guns. Admiral Vian immediately laid smoke and moved to attack while Breconshire moved away, escorted by destroyers Decoy and Havock.

Lacking radar, and mindful of the disastrous night action at Matapan, the Italians wished to avoid night combat. Expecting an attack, Iachino fired for only fifteen minutes before disengaging and returning westward to protect his convoy. Only two British destroyers suffered the effects of Italian gunfire. HMS Kipling suffered the loss of one seaman to a near-miss from a 8" round, presumably fired by the Italian cruiser Gorizia. HMAS Nizam was also damaged by near-misses from the Italian destroyer Maestrale.




After dark Vian and Agnew parted company, Vian to return with Stokes to Alexandria, Agnew to bring Breconshire to Malta. In this he was joined by Force B, one cruiser (the other was under repair) and two destroyers. Breconshire and her escorts arrived in Malta at 1500 on the 18th.

At midday on the 18th the Italian force also split up; three ships headed for Tripoli, accompanied by the Close Cover Force, while the other merchant ship, the German supply ship Ankara, headed for Benghazi.

The Distant Cover Force remained on station in the Gulf of Sirte until evening, before heading back to base.

The British had now realized that the Italians had a convoy in the area; Vian searched for it without success as he returned to Alexandria.

On the afternoon of the 18th the position of the Tripoli group was established, and the Malta Strike Force, one cruiser and two destroyers of Force B, and two cruisers and two Destroyers of Force K under the command of Capt O’Conor,on board Neptune, sortied at 1800 to intercept.

However, the force ran into a minefield 20 miles off Tripoli, in the early hours of 19 December. The minefield took the British by surprise as the depth was 100 fathoms, which they had thought was too deep for a minefield.

The cruiser Neptune struck four mines and sank and the destroyer Kandahar also struck a mine and was scuttled the following day. The cruisers Aurora and Penelope were heavily damaged but were able to return to Malta. Overall, about 830 Allied seamen, many of them New Zealanders from the Neptune, lost their lives in the disaster.

The Malta Strike Force which had been such an active threat to Axis shipping to Libya during most of 1941 was much reduced in its effectiveness, and was later forced to withdraw to Gibraltar.


As Vian’s force returned to Alexandria, HMS Jervis, one of his destroyers, encountered a submarine, which was attacked and presumed sunk. However, this was not confirmed, as no submarine in the area was reported lost, or having been attacked.


The submarine was not the Scire, although she was in the vicinity with a group of Italian frogmen equipped with manned torpedoes. Shortly after Vian's force arrived in Alexandria, on the night of 18/19 December, the Italian force penetrated the harbour and attacked the fleet there. Jervis was damaged in the attack, which crippled the two British battleships, HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth. This was a strategic change of fortune against the Allies in the central Mediterranean whose effects were felt for several months.


It is hard to describe this series of actions as anything other than inconclusive. Both sides achieved their strategic objectives; the British got supplies through to Malta, which was restored, at least for a while; the Axis got their ships through to Tripoli and Benghazi, though Benghazi fell to the Eighth army five days later, on 24 December.

Tactically, of the nine actions described here, four were British, and three were Axis successes, while two of them, including the eponymous First Battle of Sirte, were inconclusive.

Order of battle



Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg

Vice Admiral Angelo Iachino (on Littorio)

  • Distant covering force - Rear Admiral Angelo Parona (on Gorizia):
    • 3 battleships: Andrea Doria, Giulio Cesare, and Littorio;
    • 2 heavy cruisers: Gorizia, and Trento;
    • 10 destroyers: Vincenzo Gioberti, Alfredo Oriani (9a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); Maestrale (10a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); Carabiniere, Corazziere (12a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere, Granatiere (13a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); Antoniotto Usodimare (16a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere).
  • Close escort:
    • 6 destroyers: Saetta (7a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); Antonio da Noli, Ugolino Vivaldi (14a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); Lanzerotto Malocello, Nicolò Zeno (15a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere); Emanuele Pessagno (16a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere);
    • 1 torpedo boat: Pegaso.


Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Flag of the Netherlands.svg


  • Eric Groves : Sea Battles in Close-Up Vol II ( 1993) . ISBN 0 7110 2118 X
  • Bragadin, Marc'Antonio: The Italian Navy in World War II, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, 1957. ISBN 0405130317
  • Stephen Roskill : The War at Sea 1939-1945 Vol I (1954)  : ISBN (none)
  • G.G.Connell, Mediterranean Maelstrom: HMS Jervis and the 14th Flotilla (1987): ISBN

External links


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