Malta was the key to land and sea operations in the Mediterranean. By late spring 1942, supply from the west was deemed impossible and retreats in Africa and the loss of Libyan airbases made it increasingly difficult from the east. The bombing campaign by the Axis was causing problems and opposition to the convoys was causing shortages. On 21 March 1942 a fuel and food convoy was sent to Malta from Alexandria.
Penelope and the destroyer Legion sailed from Malta to bring in the convoy composed of Breconshire, Clan Campbell, Pampas and Talabot. The escort [from Alexandria] under Rear-Admiral Philip Vian consisted of 15th Cruiser Squadron, Cleopatra, Euryalus and Dido, the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle and fourteen destroyers.
British submarines off Italy had reported strong enemy forces leaving Taranto and Messina the previous night: the battleship Littorio with two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and ten destroyers.
Vian, expecting an attack on a Malta convoy, had already rehearsed manoeuvres with the Alexandria forces. The cruisers were to engage the enemy while making smoke to hide the convoy; the AA cruiser and half the destroyers were to stay with the convoy to beat off air attacks; and the remaining destroyers were to make torpedo attacks on the enemy.
The following pictures were all taken from the bridge of Euryalus.
nice pic of the bridge and A and B turrets taken during the second Sirte battle, on the horizon from the left are Breconshire, Penelope and Cleopatra.
At 2.30 in the afternoon, Euryalus sighted smoke to the northeast, and hoisted the signal: 'Enemy in sight.'
The Italian fleet would not close, despite their 15-inch, 8-inch and 6-inch armament far outgunning and outranging the 6-inch guns of the British light cruisers, and 4.7-inch and 4-inch of the destroyers.
the cruisers lay smoke at the beginning of the battle. Note the bomb or shell splashes on the starboard side of Cleopatra. The flagship still appears to be engaging enemy aircraft with her after turrets.
following Cleopatra who is laying a smoke screen
firing her 5.25 inch guns, Cleopatra ahead making smoke
Vian led his force towards the enemy at high speed, all ships making smoke. The enemy turned out to be heavy cruisers. Cleopatra and Euryalus began a long-range battle and as the smoke carried by a rising southeasterly wind was lying perfectly, completely screening the convoy from the enemy who turned away. Vian returned to the convoy.
The convoy meanwhile had been under heavy air attack, but no ship had been hit. Once more the enemy came in sight to the north-west, this time led by the battleship Littorio, barring the way to Malta. Once more Vian steered straight at the enemy. Cleopatra was now firing her forward three turrets against the Italian ships, and her rear two turrets at the aircraft attacking her and the convoy.
Captain McCall of the Dido later recalled;
Outside the smoke screen visibility was good. Time and again we dashed out to sight the enemy and fire a few salvoes. When the enemy shells got too close, we retreated under the blanket, altering course as soon as we were unobserved, to mislead the enemy.
For the next two and a half hours there was some very brisk fighting. One cruiser after the other, darted out of the smoke, fired a few rounds at the enemy, or perhaps a torpedo, and dodged back into the smoke again whenever the enemy seemed to be getting our range. Littorio held well away from the smoke, and the shortest range was over six miles.
engaging the Italian battlefleet
At about 18.15 destroyers were ordered to attack the enemy with torpedoes, using smoke screen as cover. They were about eight miles from the enemy on parallel tracks. At 18.30 Sikh made a complete turn to lay a new smokescreen. Jervis, Kipling, Kingston and Legion turned to line abreast. Speed was increased to 28 knots, and all destroyers opened fire together.
The destroyers Havoc and Kingston were hit by 15-inch shells as they closed the enemy, but survived and fired their torpedoes. Littorio had been hit by the cruisers' shellfire and one of the enemy cruisers was on fire aft. None of the destroyers' torpedoes hit, but Littorio was still far from doing any damage to the convoy and turned away. By 7.0 p.m. the enemy hauled away to the northeast.
Vian's tactics, at what became known as the Second Battle of Sirte, saved the convoy. By their timidity the Italians had missed an opportunity to destroy it, which they could have done. The bold attack by the destroyers had probably been the move that tipped the scales. By then darkness was approaching, and the Italians, lacking radar, were aware of the risks of night fighting.Vian took his escort force back to Alexandria; for he could not re-fuel or re-ammunition in Malta. The damaged destroyers and the convoy were sent on to Malta, with Carlisle, Penelope and Legion. The next day they were subjected to continuous air attacks. Talabot and Pampas reached Grand Harbour to the cheers of thousands of the populace standing on the battlements. Clan Campbell was sunk twenty miles out. The oil tanker Breconshire was damaged and anchored outside Grand Harbour. Eventually, after many set-backs, she was towed to Marsaxlokk, a bay at the southern end of the island.
Penelope tries to take Breconshire in tow
The next day, enemy dive-bombers found her, and the ship was holed by near misses. She rolled over on her side in the shallow water of the bay and lay with about fifteen feet of her hull out of the water:
A hole was cut in her side and into one of her oil tanks. All activities were confined to the hours of darkness. Before daybreak lighters full of oil pumped from her were towed back to Grand Harbour. The operation was repeated night after night, and hundreds of tons of fuel oil were salvaged. Two weeks later some of this precious oil was supplied to Penelope for her dash to Gibraltar.
By then both Talabot and Pampas had been sunk at their berths in Grand Harbour. Talabot had been carrying bombs for the Royal Air Force, and was set on fire.
Talabot on fire, Grand Harbour Malta
The only course was to sink her before the fire reached the bombs, and blew up causing massive damage in Floriana and Valetta.
Only about one fifth of the 26,000 tons of cargo that left Egypt was unloaded.