Battle of mid-August, 1942

(To Marina Militare)

The history of the operation baptized by the British Pedestal, in Italy gone down in history as Battle of Mid August, can be briefly summarized as one of the most violent air-naval clashes in history, fought with extreme determination by the Italian, German and British contenders, originating from the need for the Allies to supply the besieged island of Malta. 

In the summer of 1942, the situation of the British fleet had become so critical that, in the need to plan a refueling operation to Malta, the means available made it possible to organize only one large convoy, coming from the west through the Strait of Gibraltar.

The decimated Mediterranean Fleet, from its bases in Port Said and Haifa, on the occasion was involved for the sole purpose of setting up an owl convoy, intended as far as possible to divert at least part of the Italo-German forces from the central Mediterranean, and then return to safety in the own bases.

The convoy from the west was instead a repetition, on an even greater scale, of the one set up for the previous operation Harpoon, which in turn had given rise to the ensemble of clashes that went down in history as Battle of Mid-June, one of the most complete and undisputed Italian victories of the Second World War.

The British had assigned to the operation Pedestal three aircraft carriers, Victoriousindomitable e Eagle, two battleships, Nelson e Rodney, seven cruisers and twenty-four destroyers, all to protect 14 merchant ships. Two supply ships protected by 4 escort ships were also at sea, in support operations, as well as the aircraft carrier Furious, in turn escorted by 8 destroyers.

It was in practice the most massive operation fielded by the British armed forces at that point in the war, made possible, among other things, only by the simultaneous suspension of the Arctic convoys to Russia.

The Italian Navy had planned the intervention, if favorable opportunities arose, of two divisions of cruisers. Precisely to limit these risks, and avoid suffering a second one debacle, after that inflicted by the Italians two months earlier in the waters of Pantelleria, the Royal Navy had in turn reinforced the escort of cruisers assigned to the direct protection of the convoy.

The first part of the action saw, on 11 August, the sinking of the aircraft carrier Eagle by a German submarine, while the submarine was lost on the Italian side Dagabur.

On 12 August the British units were attacked by about a hundred Italian and German aircraft, coming from Sardinia and Sicily, which damaged the other two aircraft carriers, of which theindomitable seriously. An Italian torpedo bomber also sank the destroyer Foresight, in the face of the loss of the submarine Cobalt. One of the merchant ships was also hit and subsequently sunk.

For the convoy, however, it was only the beginning: it was in fact foreseen that the two battleships of the "heavy" escort, and with them half of the escort destroyers, would reverse their course before approaching the bottleneck of Banco Skerki, in the Canal of Sicily. This route was almost obligatory, to escape the numerous and deadly mine barriers laid by the Italian naval forces. The rest of the formation, once entered this dangerous passage, ended up in the trap set up by the Italian underwater forces. The submarine Axum, with a spectacular salvo of torpedoes, it hit three ships at the same time: the cruiser Nigeriaforced to return to Gibraltar due to serious damage; the cruiser Cairo, sunk, and the US tanker Ohio, who managed to continue despite everything. Two other merchant ships are in the meantime sunk by attack aircraft, while the Italian submarine Alagi in turn hit the light cruiser Kenya.

The worst came later in the night, when the ambush of Italian torpedo boats and Masters proved even more lethal, sinking the cruiser. Manchester, the greatest victory achieved by torpedo boats worldwide in that conflict (even in the First World War the primacy is Italian, thanks to the famous feat of Luigi Rizzo). Four merchant ships were also sunk, as well as a fifth damaged.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for a definitive intervention by the team of Italian cruisers was missing, the only ones usable at that time due to the chronic lack of fuel, which significantly limited the possibilities of intervention of the larger units. The action of the cruisers is in fact suspended due to an air reconnaissance report, which had mistakenly detected the presence in those waters of a superior British force. This movement will unfortunately cause serious damage to two cruisers, the Bolzano el 'Waiting for him, torpedoed by an English submarine. In particular the Bolzano, although severely damaged and at risk of sinking, it manages to reach the island of Panarea where, with an extraordinary and very rapid intervention by the technical services of the Navy, it is restored to seaworthiness and transferred to the base of La Spezia for repairs.

On the morning of August 13, further Italian and German air strikes inflict further damage. Ultimately, only five merchant ships of the fourteen originally departed manage to reach Malta.

La Battle of Mid August it was the Axis largest air-naval victory during the war in the Mediterranean. The German contribution was certainly important, but most of the forces involved were Italian, and it was these who inflicted most of the damage on the opposing fleet. The merchant ships that managed to reach Malta were certainly not enough to revive the fortunes of the island, but still allowed the besieged fortress to survive.

In the continuation of the conflict, the entry of US forces into the Mediterranean irreversibly changed the direction of events, making it impossible for Italy to continue the war sustained up to that moment, with alternating vicissitudes, against the British Empire.

Photo: Navy / Royal Navy