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Operation Harpoon
Part of the Mediterranean Theater of World War II
Eugenio Di Savoia aerial view.jpg
Light cruiser Eugenio di Savoia, Admiral Da Zara's flagship
Date 12 June – 15 June 1942
Location Western Mediterranean, towards Malta
Result Axis victory
Italian naval victory[1 ]
Only two Allied freighters reached Malta
Belligerents
 United Kingdom
Naval Ensign of Poland.svg Poland
Regia Marina Ensign Italy

War Ensign of Germany 1938-1945.svg Germany

Commanders
Alban Curteis
Cecil Campbell Hardy
Alberto da Zara
Strength
2 aircraft carriers
1 battleship
4 light cruisers
1 minelayer
17 destroyers
4 minesweepers
6 motor launches
6 merchant ships
Spitfire fighters
Beaufighter fighters
2 light cruisers
5 destroyers
Ju 87 dive-bombers
Ju 88 bombers
SM.79 torpedo-bombers
Casualties and losses
2 destroyers sunk
4 merchant ships sunk
2 light cruisers damaged
3 destroyers damaged
1 minesweeper damaged
1 merchant ship damaged
200+ prisoners
1 destroyer damaged

Operation Harpoon was one of two simultaneous Allied convoys sent to supply Malta in the Axis-dominated Mediterranean Sea in mid-June 1942, during World War II. One convoy, Operation Vigorous, left Alexandria. The other, Harpoon, travelled in the opposite direction from Gibraltar. Both convoys met with fierce Axis opposition and only two of Harpoon's six merchant ships completed the journey, at the cost of several Allied warships.

They were followed by Operation Pedestal.

Contents

Background

Until the French surrender and Italy's declaration of war, the Mediterranean had been an Allied "lake". The French Fleet and the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet dominated the only potential and credible adversary, Italy's Regia Marina.

The French surrender and its consequences changed that. The French Fleet became a potentially potent threat in Axis hands and so was, in part, destroyed, adding to French antipathy towards the British. French bases in North Africa ceased to offer protection to Allied shipping. The Regia Marina possessed potent modern warships, particularly battleships and heavy cruisers, and Italian and Libyan territory provided centrally located naval and air bases that could cut British supply routes. The fall of Greece and Crete in 1941 extended the reach of Axis forces which were consequently able to intercept Allied shipping from Alexandria and Suez by air.

Italian and German armies in Libyan territory also threatened Egypt and the control of the strategically important Suez Canal. A catastrophe in Egypt might in turn lead to destabilisation of Britain's control of Middle Eastern oil supplies, or even worse, to the Axis gaining control of them. This apocalyptic scenario depended upon Axis forces in North Africa receiving adequate supplies from Italy.

Malta threatened this Axis supply route, but itself needed regular resupply and reinforcement, in order to be effective and to resist Axis invasion.

The Italian Poeti class destroyer Oriani

By mid-June, 1942, Malta's supply situation had deteriorated. The Luftwaffe had joined the Regia Aeronautica to isolate and starve the island and it had become untenable as an offensive base. Axis armies had advanced into Egypt and Crete thereby acquiring their own advance bases and denying the British safety over much of the eastern Mediterranean.

Fresh aircraft were regularly flown in to Malta, but food and fuel were diminishing. In response, Britain invested large amounts of effort to ensure resupply. Two convoys, codenamed Harpoon and Vigorous, were gathered, sailing simultaneously to split Axis forces.

A series of British naval disasters[2] in the Mediterranean allowed the Regia Marina to gain naval supremacy in the central Mediterranean. The Italian Fleet took advantage of the situation and moved onto the offensive, blocking or decimating at least three large British convoys bound for Malta. This led to a number of naval engagements, such as the Second Battle of Sirte, the Battle of Mid-June or Operation Harpoon (plus Operation Vigorous) and finally to Operation Pedestal, all of them favourable to the Axis. The only real success of the Italian Fleet, however, was the attack on the Harpoon convoy.

The convoy

Harpoon left Gibraltar on the 12th June 1942, comprising six merchantmen (Troilus, Burdwan and Orari from Britain; Tanimbar from Holland and the Chant and the tanker Kentucky from the USA) carrying a total of 43,000 tons of cargo and oil. They were escorted by an anti-aircraft cruiser (HMS Cairo), nine destroyers, a fast mine-layer (HMS Welshman[3]) and smaller ships. Distant cover was provided by the battleship HMS Malaya, aircraft carriers HMS Argus and Eagle, cruisers HMS Kenya, Charybdis, Liverpool and destroyers.[4]

The operation

The first Italian air attacks, on the 14th, sunk one freighter, the Tanimbar, south of Sardinia (torpedo-bombers SM.79). The cruiser HMS Liverpool was damaged and towed back to Gibraltar by HMS Antelope, under aerial attacks, arriving there on the 17th. Later on the 14th June, the covering force also returned to Gibraltar, just before the Strait of Sicily.[5] On the same day, the fast minelayer HMS Welshman was detached and traveled to Malta alone, where she delivered some cargo, then sailed back to strengthen the convoy's escort on the 15th.

Italian Condottieri class Cruiser Montecuccoli

Next day, the 15th, the now lightly defended convoy was subjected to a coordinated attack, near Pantelleria, by Axis aircraft and the ships of the Italian 7th Division (cruisers Raimondo Montecuccoli, Eugenio di Savoia and destroyers Ascari, Oriani, Malocello, Premuda and Vivaldi), commanded by Vice-Admiral Alberto da Zara.

The five fleet destroyers in the convoy escort made a smokescreen and attacked the Italian squadron but the Tribal class destroyer HMS Bedouin and the P class destroyer HMS Partridge were hit by gunfire from both Italian cruisers and disabled. In return, the Italian destroyer Vivaldi was struck by her British counterparts and caught fire, but was taken in tow and saved by the Malocello and the Premuda.[6] Then both fleets broke the engagement.

The end of SS Kentucky, in flames after being hit by a 6 inch salvo from Italian Cruiser Montecuccoli. Later she was torpedoed and sunk by the destroyer Oriani.

Three more merchantmen (the 10,000 ton tanker Kentucky, Chant and the freighter Burdwan) were disabled by air attack, abandoned and later sunk by gunfire and torpedoes from the Montecuccoli and the destroyers Ascari and Oriani. The Chant had already been sent to the bottom by aerial bombs when the Italian squadron found her still smoldering wreckage site.[7][8][9] The cruiser HMS Cairo and the minesweeper HMS Hebe also received hits from Italian gunfire.[9]

Partridge was recovered and even tried to tow Bedouin, but then the Italian cruisers with two destroyers reappeared; the tow was cast off, leaving the Bedouin adrift.

Partridge managed to withdraw and head back for Gibraltar, but Bedouin, already shattered by at least twelve 6" shells plus several near misses and listing heavily, was finally sunk by aerial torpedoes. Twenty-eight of her crew died and more than 200 were taken POWs.[10]

Another Regia Marina 7th Division victim: The crippled destroyer HMS Bedouin was finished off by an aerial torpedo from a Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bomber.

In the evening of the 15th, the surviving ships ran into a minefield off Malta. Two destroyers HMS Badsworth and Matchless and another freighter (Orari) struck mines there and were damaged, while the Polish destroyer (ORP Kujawiak) sank after midnight.[11]

Just two of the original six merchantmen reached Malta, the Orari and Troilus, the former losing some of her cargo due to the mine explosion. HMS Hebe also struck a mine and suffered further damaged, but after a month in dry dock she was seaworthy again.[12]

Aftermath

This was the only undisputed squadron-sized victory for the surface forces of the Italian navy in World War II.[1 ] However, it should be remembered that, at this stage, any supplies reaching Malta were an Allied success. Furthermore, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm fighters shot down 13 Axis aircraft while ship's gunners destroyed 16 more, for a total of 29 Axis aircraft shot down during the battle.[13] But the supplies delivered by Harpoon were insufficient and fuel for the Malta's RAF contingent was running low, in great part due to the sinking of the Kentucky.[14]

On 1 September 1942 the award of various decorations for participants in the operation were announced in the London Gazette, there were six appointments to the Distinguished Service Order, and one bar, two Distinguished Service Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals and nine officers were Mentioned in Despatches.[15]

The next, and critical, convoy was Operation Pedestal: it would decide the fate of Malta.

Order of battle

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Allies

Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom

Naval Ensign of Poland.svg Poland

  • Force X - convoy escort - Capt. Cecil Campbell Hardy
  • Convoy WS-19:
    • transports: Burdwan†, Chant†, Orari ##, Tanimbar†, Troilus
    • tanker: Kentucky
  • Force W - cover force - Vice Admiral Alban Curteis
  • Force Y - replenishment force
    • fleet tanker: Brown Ranger
    • corvettes: HMS Coltsfoot, Geranium

Italy

Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg

  • † - ships sunk
  • # - ships damaged, ## - heavily damaged

See also

Footnotes

  1. ^ a b "Clearly this was an Axis victory and a tactical victory for the Italian Navy. Part of the convoy did get through to Malta, but the British suffered far heavier losses than did the Italians and Mussolini would later personally present medals to Da Zara and some of his men for their efforts. It would be the only squadron-sized surface naval victory of the war for Italy." Greene & Massignani, page 238
  2. ^ See First Battle of Sirte and Luigi Durand De La Penne articles
  3. ^ Arnold Hague: THE SUPPLY OF MALTA 1940-1942, Part 1 of 3
  4. ^ Woodman, pp. 329-330
  5. ^ Thomas, page 158
  6. ^ Bragadin, page 181
  7. ^ Bragadin, page 184
  8. ^ Woodman, page 339
  9. ^ a b Ireland, page 133
  10. ^ Greene & Massignani, page 238
  11. ^ Arnold Hague: THE SUPPLY OF MALTA 1940-1942, Part 1 of 3. 13 men of the Kujawiak complement loss their lives
  12. ^ Bragadin, page 185
  13. ^ Naval Staff History, The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, p67.
  14. ^ "But as the all-important US tanker Kentucky had been sunk the oil and kerosene situation became desperate." Smyth, page 132
  15. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35687, p. 3818, 28 August 1942. Retrieved on 29 July 2009.

External links

Sources

  • Bragadin, Marc'Antonio: The Italian Navy in World War II, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, 1957. ISBN 0405130317.
  • Green, Jack & Massignani, Alessandro: The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940-1943, Chatam Publishing, London, 1998. ISBN 1885119615.
  • Ireland, Bernard: The War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943. Leo Cooper, 2004. ISBN 184415047X.
  • Smyth, John George: The Valiant .A. R. Mowbray, 1970. ISBN 0264645103.
  • Woodman, Richard: Malta Convoys, 1940-1943, Jack Murray Ltd., London, 2000. ISBN 0719557534.
  • Thomas, David A.: Malta Convoys, Leo Cooper Ed., South Yorkshire, 1999. ISBN 0850526639.

Coordinates: 36°12′0″N 11°38′0″E / 36.2°N 11.633333°E / 36.2; 11.633333


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