During a perilous passage across the Mediterranean to deliver supplies to their hardpressed forces in Tunisia, Italian torpedo boats engaged in a Davidand-Goliath confrontation with the Royal Navy.

Fifteen miles southwest of Sicily’s Cape Lilibeo, Italian torpedo boats and British destroyers fought a sharp and deadly sea battle on the night of April 16, 1943. Although each side lost a ship, and more than 100 men lost their lives, this action on the Tunisian convoy route has never even been named. Such neglect is curious, especially on the part of the Italians, considering it was one of the few successful night surface actions fought by the Regia Marina during the war. But the final months of the campaign for North Africa were filled with hard-fought but little-remembered naval battles. Even today the story of the vicissitudes suffered by the Italian and German convoys along the so-called Rotta della morte (Route of Death) to Tunisia is overlooked by many. Those who fought there deserve better.

On January 23, 1943, the British Eighth Army finally entered Tripoli, effectively completing the conquest of Italian Libya in a campaign that had lasted more than two years. This did not end the battle for North Africa, however. German and Italian armies had occupied French Tunisia in November 1942 and now continued the struggle from there. To maintain that force, the Axis powers had to supply it with ammunition, fuel and heavy weapons. Troops could be brought in by air, but everything else necessary to sustain a modern military operation had to come by ship, crossing the seas between Sicily and Tunis. Determined to choke off this Axis bridgehead once and for all, Allied fleets attacked those convoys relentlessly.

Just as resolved to continue the fight in North Africa, Benito Mussolini ordered that his navy devote much of its strength to protecting the vulnerable convoys along the Route of Death. Considering Allied advantages such as air superiority, radar and Ultra intelligence, it was an order that all but ensured heavy casualties among his sailors.

In spite of the odds stacked against it, the often-denigrated Regia Marina performed well. In 21⁄2 years, Italian warships escorted 993 convoys to Libya, an average of 7.35 a week. Between November 1942 and early May 1943, 276 convoys sailed to Tunisia, an average of 10.6 a week. Although there were reverses, it is a testament to the bravery and skill of the convoy crews that 71 percent of the oil, arms and materiel shipped to the front arrived safely.

Such logistical victories did come at a terrible cost, however. Casualties among the Italian naval crews were heavy and constant. Italian Commander Marc Bragadin remembered: “[One sailor] had survived two sinkings in the Sicilian Channel yet…faced a third sailing with serenity. Off he went on the Menes, a ship loaded with munitions. On the ‘Route of Death,’ Liberators scored a direct hit on it and it blew up immediately. When the smoke cleared away, there was nothing to be seen— ship and men had literally disappeared in the air.”

Despite the bravery of Axis soldiers and and sailors, by the middle of April 1943 the Allies were beginning to gain the upper hand in the Mediterranean. It now seemed clear to everyone except Mussolini and Adolf Hitler that North Africa was lost. The two Axis leaders believed that once victory had been secured in Russia, they could refocus their energies in the Mediterranean. It was therefore imperative that a bridgehead be maintained in the theater. Mussolini openly declared to his ministers that all they had to do was hold on until autumn, certain that the anticipated triumph over the Soviet Union would bring the European hostilities to an end.

Condemned to fight a losing battle, the tired sailors of the Regia Marina were faced with the grim need to redouble their efforts—to continue to endure the gantlet of air, surface and subsurface attacks that greeted them each night. As willing to fight for their country as their opponents were, that is exactly what they did. One captain who later lost his life wrote at the time: “There was no formality even when there were noticeable differences of age or rank. We were all living the same life and running the same risks; and almost all of us were inspired by the same enthusiasm.”

On April 14, German and Italian forces fell back to their final defensive positions in Tunisia, occupying the hills outside Tunis and Bizerte from Cape Serrat to Enfidaville. With their backs to the sea, the battle of maneuver was over, but the need for munitions was greater than ever.

At 0100 hours on April 16, the 4,279- ton Italian steamship Belluno sailed from the Sicilian port of Trapani bound for Tunisia. In its hold was a critical cargo of artillery and small-arms ammunition. The floating magazine was escorted by the torpedo boats Tifone and Cimene.

As a further safeguard, the Italian naval high command assigned the torpedo boats Cigno and Cassiopea to protect the steamship. The two additional vessels were commanded by Cigno’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Carlo Maccaferri, who was to sail five miles ahead of Belluno to intercept any Allied warships that might attempt to interrupt the passage.

Fully expecting to encounter opposition of some sort, Maccaferri’s crews were alert as they proceeded at 12 knots through a calm sea. Visibility was limited, with the moon in the first quarter. The men peering into the darkness were all well-trained veterans of the convoy run.

Only two hours into their voyage, sharp-eyed lookouts sighted suspicious shadows heading north approximately 8,700 yards to the southwest, at 0238. Maccaferri quickly turned Cigno toward the contact, switched on his fighting lights and used the ship’s small searchlight to transmit recognition signals to the other ships in the convoy. Rather than being drawn into the battle, as soon as Belluno and its escort received that signal they turned about and returned to safer waters at Trapani.

The timeliness of the sighting was critical. Not only had Maccaferri’s sailors probably saved Belluno and its cargo, but they also gave their captain the edge he needed to initiate an attack. The shadows they had seen were the Royal Navy destroyers HMS Pakenham, flagship of Captain J.S. Stevens, and Paladin, skippered by a Lt. Cmdr. Rich, which were proceeding at 20 knots in search of the convoy.

Even though he had been alerted, Maccaferri was still in a difficult situation. His opponents were well equipped. In addition to their heavier guns, the two Royal Navy destroyers were outfitted with Type-285 radar, which had an effective range of five miles and made the ship deadlier during nighttime operations.

Four minutes after Maccaferri’s sighting, Stevens was alerted to the presence of the Italian convoy. The Royal Navy officer ordered his own fighting lights illuminated and then turned Pakenham to the northeast to engage the leading enemy unit while Paladin continued north in an attempt to flank the Italians. Maccaferri reacted to this maneuver by having Cassiopea circle around to face Paladin, as Cigno charged ahead to confront Pakenham.

Maccaferri believed that he was facing a pair of destroyers of the Jervis class, which meant he was going into battle with the understanding that the enemy had 12 4.7-inch guns compared to the six 3.9-inch guns on his own ships. In fact, his opponents were examples of the more lightly armed P class, which were equipped with four 4.7-inch guns apiece. Even with that miscalculation, the Italian captain was outgunned. Despite this disheartening disparity, Cigno initiated the engagement, firing just 10 minutes after the first sighting. That salvo was immediately followed by one from Cassiopea.

The Italians’ aim was good. Cigno’s first shots struck Pakenham in the stern. A shell hit the aft depth charge and exploded in the superstructure. The blast and splinters devastated the stern deckhouse, disabled the after torpedo mounting and ignited a fire that the crew had to work quickly to contain.

With the battle now joined, the British destroyers turned toward the Italians, rigidly applying the new night combat doctrine developed by the Admiralty in 1942. This standing battle order called for ships in combat to determine the range with their radars, only switching on searchlights to spot the fall of shot.

As the two combatants drew closer, Cigno continued to fire. Its next salvo scored a second hit that demolished a cabin on Pakenham’s port side and disabled the second wireless transmitting station. A large fire broke out that forced the crew to flood the aft magazine as a precaution.

Finally, at 0253 Pakenham got a measure of revenge. One of its shells exploded in the area of Cigno’s forward boiler, just behind the bridge. A great cloud of smoke and vapor enveloped the central portion of the ship, blocking visibility and forcing Maccaferri to climb to the upper bridge to direct the battle.

The range between the two combatants had dropped to less than 2,000 yards and the rattle of machine guns now joined the heavier crack of the main guns. Hit by shells and small arms, Cigno drifted to a stop, its rudder jammed. Dead in the water, Maccaferri refused to quit the fight. He ordered his guns to continue to fire and launched his torpedoes, which all missed. Five minutes after scoring its first hit, Pakenham fired four torpedoes of its own with better results. At 0300 Captain Stevens’ torpedoes hit Cigno, causing an explosion that broke the Italian boat in two.

Cigno’s stern rapidly sank, dragging 103 of the vessel’s 150-man crew with it. The forward section floated for another three or four minutes, during which time Chief Petty Officer Tullio Botteon personally directed the small warship’s forward 3.9-inch gun crew as it continued to fire at Pakenham over open sights. Only when water flooded the deck of the bow did the gun finally fall silent. Maccaferri and his surviving crew members then entered the water and waited for rescue, their part in the battle now over.

Cigno’s last aggressive act has often been considered only a courageous gesture, unquestionably worthy to figure in the annals of any navy. Careful analysis of damage assessment reports, however, indicates that Botteon’s bravery had a much greater significance.

After Pakenham torpedoed Cigno, one and maybe two more shells struck the British ship at the waterline. Splinters perforated the pipes and punctured the destroyer’s main steam lines. The engine room flooded to the waterline, and the stricken ship took a 10-degree list to port, which increased to 15 degrees within a few minutes. The escaping steam drove the engine room crew from its station. Steam also made the main switchboard untenable, and the ship lost electricity. The searchlight immediately went out leaving Pakenham immobilized, illuminated only by the flickering reflections from the fires blazing aboard.

Meanwhile, as the two flagships waged their mutually destructive battle, Cassiopea, under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Virginio Nasta, was in action against Rich’s Paladin. Approaching rapidly, Nasta’s crew opened fire with cannons and machine guns at 0248.

For 10 intense minutes, Cassiopea traded salvos with the larger British destroyer, not suffering any more than modest splinter damage. Such recklessness did not go unpunished for long. At 0302 a flurry of 40mm shells, each nearly two pounds in weight, tore through the unarmored vessel, riddling the ship’s guns, torpedo tubes and the dynamo that generated electricity. The rudder was also damaged, and Cassiopea began flooding to starboard as a small fire broke out astern and another, more serious conflagration was ignited at the bow.

Even though they had been busy fighting their own battle, two minutes before Cassiopea was hit, some of its crew was distracted by the flash of the explosion that destroyed Cigno. Soon thereafter, Pakenham’s guns were turned on the torpedo boat, doubling the volume of fire on the surviving Italian ship. Cassiopea shot back at Paladin with two stern guns, and then, at 0306, it launched a torpedo from approximately 1,200 yards against this enemy. Two minutes later Paladin’s searchlight went black and Cassiopea’s crewmen believed they had scored a hit.

In truth, they had missed, but rather than finish off his opponent, Rich, following Admiralty orders, had dowsed his fighting lights after ceasing fire. The British captain had been spooked by his encounter with Cassiopea. When columns of water began springing up close beside his ship, they seemed too tall to be coming from a torpedo boat’s light guns, and Rich incorrectly assumed that he was engaging a light cruiser of the Regolo class, which was armed with eight 5.3-inch guns. Consequently, Paladin’s captain skulked away from his stricken opponent, moving to succor Pakenham, whose guns had by now gone silent as well. Just as Paladin neared Pakenham, however, the latter’s crew completed emergency repairs that got its engines fired up again and their ship moving. Eager to finish what Paladin had started, Pakenham immediately turned its machine guns on Cassiopea.

Nasta took advantage of the respite offered by Paladin’s timidity to get Cassiopea’s outer rudder back in service and make a run for safety. As he moved away, he ordered his stern guns to fire on the British in an exchange that lasted until 0313. Then Pakenham’s searchlights suddenly went dark and the British destroyer disappeared into the night murk. Two shells from Cassiopea had exploded on Pakenham’s 40mm anti-aircraft mount and searchlight. Having already suffered at the hands of the accurate Italian gunnery, Stevens now ordered Pakenham to turn away and join Paladin a half hour later.

Cassiopea was in no condition to follow. The torpedo boat remained adrift, listing sharply to starboard, its crew busy fighting a fire on the bow that did not burn itself out until 5 that morning.

Cassiopea limped along until it was reached by Cimene and Tifone, which had returned to the scene of the engagement after escorting the steamship to safety. As soon as it arrived, Cimene took the gallant Cassiopea in tow while Tifone stayed close by. Battered but not beaten, the torpedo boat was returned to Trapani. Meanwhile, Belluno’s crew caught its breath and prepared to set out once again. The steamship set sail at 0545 that morning and reached Tunisia late in the afternoon.

Like Nasta, after the battle Stevens was kept busy trying to save his ship. By 0400 a lack of water for the boilers and the loss of electricity had again immobilized Pakenham. Fortunately for its crew, Paladin reached Pakenham and took the destroyer under tow at 0430. The pair then inched along to the southeast at five knots. Two hours into their journey and the sun now well above the horizon, some Italian fighters flew over the two destroyers approximately 12 miles south of Sicily’s Cape Granitola.

Communications between the Italian air force central command and naval high command later reported that after flying over the British ships for some minutes, the pilots observed a large explosion on the side of one of the ships, which caused it to capsize and quickly sink. A persistent black cloud marked the spot.

What the Italian pilots had seen was the deliberate sinking of Pakenham by Paladin. After taking off Stevens and his shipmates—less the nine who had died—Rich sent a torpedo into the side of the destroyer, which was beyond repair. Paladin then took off alone at high speed for Malta’s Grand Harbor, from whence both ships had sailed the day before.

In a navy that prided itself on the skill, daring and professionalism of its officers, the sinking of Pakenham under such circumstances could not go unnoticed. As was customary following the loss of a ship, shortly after reaching Malta, a board of inquiry was formed to investigate the circumstances of the sinking. The board’s findings give an interesting insight into contemporary British appraisals of their Italian foes.

The admirals who sat on the board noted that Pakenham’s crew lacked battle experience, having served two quiet deployments in the Indian Ocean apart from a tour in the Mediterranean. They correctly questioned the wisdom of assigning destroyers armed with just four 4-inch guns dating from 1914 to a surface strike mission. The same officers, moreover, recognized that the efficiency of the Royal Navy destroyer flotillas had, by this time, been degraded by nearly four years of war, and that little consideration had been given to the intended role of this class of destroyer, planned in 1939 as simple anti-aircraft ships to operate along the British coasts.

Based on the captains’ after-action reports, and seemingly unwilling to admit that they had been outfought by a more lightly armed opponent, the board declared that the “Ps” had clashed with two Italian fleet destroyers and sank them both. The subsequent announcement on Radio Rome that the action had been fought by two torpedo boats was ignored.

Clearly the board’s conclusion was a little disingenuous. In truth the British captains could not definitively identify the ships they faced because the enemy vessels seemed to have been painted gray with varnish polish. In the dark their camouflage gave them a general likeness to several classes of larger Italian destroyers. A careful survey of the officers and men, in particular the gunnery directors and gun crews, did not provide a consensus of the events of that evening. All agreed, however, that seen from 6,000 yards in the light of the moon, the approximate dimensions and shape of the opposing ships were too large to be Italian torpedo boats. Finally, technicians measured Paladin’s shell holes and incorrectly came to the conclusion that they were caused by a destroyer with 4.7-inch (or larger) guns.

The board of inquiry considered Rich’s opinion that he had, in fact, been facing an enemy cruiser significant. While the admirals did not accept this as possible, it did lend credence to their own belief that the large water columns Paladin’s captain had observed were the result of destroyer shells. They also noted that Italian projectiles were known to explode when hitting the surface of the water, sending out a shower of splinters that could penetrate the bulwarks of a ship.

Rather than coming to the conclusion that on this occasion they had been outfought, the admirals who sat on the board asserted that during this offensive incursion, which they mistakingly dubbed the “15 April 1943 headache,” their ships had sunk two modern Italian destroyers. This assertion seemed to make the loss of Pakenham due to damage from the “ill-fated circumstance” of an opposing shell exploding in its engine palatable. The fact that the destroyer was subsequently torpedoed by a British ship, however, forced the board to officially attribute Pakenham’s loss to friendly action.

Unfortunately, the findings of the board have confused subsequent historians of the naval war in the Mediterranean. For example, in The War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943, Bernard Ireland wrote Pakenham was lost “being immobilized in the Sicilian Channel and having to be scuttled.”

For their part, the Italian navy took a more realistic view of the battle. Supermarina was satisfied with the results. Although more than 100 additional experienced seamen had been lost, a torpedo boat sunk and a second badly damaged, they had succeeded in their mission of getting one more ship loaded with badly needed supplies to Tunisia.

In the end, however, the bravery of men like Maccaferri, Nasta, Botteon and countless others mattered little. Less than a month after the battle with no name, Axis ground forces in North Africa surrendered and 168,000 Germans and Italians passed into captivity.

 

Vincent P. O’Hara is the author of The German Fleet at War, 1939-1945. Enrico Cernuschi has written more than 150 articles on naval history and is the co-author, with Erminio Bagnasco, of Le navi da Guerra italiane. For further reading, see The Italian Navy in World War II, by James J. Sadkovich.

Originally published in the March 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here