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Battle of Cape Teulada
by Cristiano D'Adamo
At this point a French convoy named "F" created great confusion amongst the British ships. When Sansonetti ships laid a smoke screen, two French passenger ships were entering the area. Once the smoke dissipated, the battle cruiser thought that the Italian battleships were entering the scene. Her big guns were quickly aimed at the two ships, but before opening fire Sommerville recognized the two ships which were desperately trying to move away from the combat zone. A single hit from one of the British guns would have been devastating; the ships were fully loaded with French civilians and troops
The situation was critical; Iachino was engaging the enemy, but soon the heavy guns of the Renown could have quickly tilted the balance. Fortunately, at around 13.00 the Italian battleship V. Veneto was finally within range. The V. Veneto fired 19 shots in seven salvos. As soon as the British cruisers (18 Division) realized that the 381 mm guns of the battleship Vittorio Veneto had entered the fray, they quickly withdrew under the protection of the Renown. At this point Sommerville and Campioni both broke contact, Campioni by virtue of the course of his ships, Sommerville by changing course.
In all, the battle had lasted 54 minutes; the cruiser of the 2nd Sq. had fired 666, the Pola 118, Gorizia 123, Fiume 218, Trieste 96, Bolzano 26, Trento 92. For most of its duration, the Italian units were in tactical and numerical minority.
At 12:22 the heavy cruiser Berwick was hit by one of 203mm shots from the Italian cruisers. Turret Y (upper read turret) was hit, seven men killed and the weapon disabled. Her commander, C.V. Guy L. Warren, continued on. At 12.35, the Berwick received another hit, this time in the officer quarters, but there were no victims. The two hits did not diminish the Berwick's fighting power; as a matter of fact, she was engaged in a ferocious exchange with one of the Polas for the duration of the engagement.
In expectation of British activity in the Sicilian Narrow, Supermarina had issued several orders to the local commander C.V. Mario Toscano, who was warned of possible British raids against Sicilian naval bases. The Italian plan did not contemplate the utilization of heavy ships and all offensive activities were organized around torpedo boats and MAS units. Specifically, the 10th Flotilla (Vega, Sirio, Calliope, Sagittario) would leave Trapani and MAS 516, 517, 518, 526, 527 and 528 Augusta, MAS 509, 520, 547 Mazara del Vallo, MAS 530 and 533 Trapani, while a single MAS, unit 531 would be dispatched from Pantelleria. Of all the units ordered to sea, two (MAS 516 and 530) had to return to base due to mechanical failure, while the others reached their assigned position.
The Sagittario (C.C. Eduardo Greppi) was in his assigned patrol area when, at around 23:34 of the 27th, it sighted some vessels believed to be part of the British convoy. A few minutes later, the Sirio (C.C. Giovanni Dessy) confirmed the same sighting. During this phase, the Italian commanders erroneously believed to have been discovered by the enemy and fled. Although the Italian commanders reported a British torpedo attack, British records report that the presence of the small Italian units was never detected.
Similar circumstances followed the sighting by the Vega at 00.28 of the 28th. Once again, the commanding officer (C.C. Giuseppe Fontana) left without attacking. The Calliope, the last unit of the flotilla, reveived the alert from the Vega and sought contact with the enemy, but her commander, C.C. Ludovico Puleo, decided to desist after the unsuccessful launch of two torpedoes. The explosion of one of these weapons was the only evidence to the British of Italian presence. It is not quite known what caused the explosion since the Italian weapons should not have been equipped with end-of-run fuses.
The behavior of the four Italian torpedo boat commanders was the object of great dissatisfaction within the Naval High command. Correctly, it was assumed that a great opportunity had been given away. There could be several explanations for this failure and they could all be quite plausible; we tend to agree with the local naval commander (Sicilian sector) who wrote, ”A more prompt decision making could have determined a more effective use of the torpedo boats”; An elegant way of saying that the action was not well thought out. It should be noted that throughout the war the effectiveness of the Italian torpedo boats was poor and that an attack would not have guaranteed success. Still, perfectly functioning torpedoes were returned unexpended to base.
The failure of the Calliope was similar to other nocturnal actions conducted by Italian forces. Most probably, these failures were caused by erroneous estimation of the velocity of the target, while distance was usually quite accurate.
Two Italian submarines, the Dessiè and Tembien, were in the area of operations between Pantelleria and Malta and conducted independent attacks.
T.V. Guido Gozzi of the Tembien fired four torpedoes around 23.34 of the 27th, while T.V. Adriano Prini of the Dessiè launched three at 03.05 of the 28th. None of the weapons found its target and the British ships were never alerted of the danger.
MAS 526 identified enemy vessels near the southern tip of Malta, but after a quick approach the vessels could no longer be located. The other units returned to base empty-handed.
The night was over and so was the threat of Italian insidious weapons. A large number of British forces had been able to force the Sicilian Narrow without a single shot being fired, or a single enemy vessel detected.
On the 27th of November the Regia Aeronautica conducted a few reconnaissance missions, promptly sighting the British ships, but foul weather conditions did not allow any offensive action. The following day, Italian aerial activity focused mainly on or around Malta where some ships were already at anchor and others were fast approaching.
The various raids, dogfights, bombings, and often alleged downings took place throughout the day. Ultimately, after a day of activity, the Regia Aeronautica did not have much to show for and British forces had been able to safely reach port. The gallantry of both attackers and defenders was noted, and usually inflated Italian claims did not diminish the fact that this had been a superlative British victory.
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