“The ships seemed to make no effort to escape, and it was all too easy; they burst into flames as soon as we hit them.”
—Crewmember of HMS Penelope
Axis supply convoys steaming from Naples to either Tunis or Tripoli had to run the gauntlet of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy patrols staged from British bases on the island of Malta. The situation temporarily swung in the Axis’ favor when in the spring of 1941 the Royal Navy was forced to suspend surface operations from Malta following the British Army’s evacuation of Greece and Crete. The Malta-based surface threat was renewed on Oct. 21, Trafalgar Day, when Capt. William Gladstone Agnew arrived at Valetta harbor with Force K. Within three weeks Agnew’s command would achieve one of the Royal Navy’s greatest triumphs in World War II.
In early November, Ultra intercepts informed Adm. Andrew Cunningham, Commander in Chief Mediterranean, of a seven-ship supply convoy scheduled to leave Naples for Tripoli on November 7. The information was forwarded to Malta, and on the afternoon of Nov. 8 an RAF Martin Maryland reconnaissance plane spotted the convoy about 40 miles east of the Italian toe. At 5:30 p.m., Force K steamed out of Valetta harbor on an intercept course.
Agnew’s command consisted of the light cruisers Aurora and Penelope, each with a main battery of six 6-inch guns, and the destroyers Lance and Lively, each with a main battery of eight 4-inch guns and torpedoes. What Agnew didn’t know was the composition of the convoy’s escort; that it consisted of the Italian heavy cruisers Trieste and Trento, each mounting eight 8-inch guns, and ten destroyers mounting the larger 4.7-inch cannon as well as torpedoes.
Despite being ignorant of the odds against him, Agnew had an important advantage: his ships had radar and the Italian warships didn’t. And if he could achieve his goal of reaching the convoy undetected, surprise would work further in his favor.
The Italian naval command knew that the Royal Navy had again stationed warships at Malta. But during the nighttime transit period when the convoy was vulnerable to Malta-based attack, experience had revealed the greater risk was from air attack. As a result the configuration of the convoy and its escorts was designed for aerial defense. The transports were organized into two columns about a half-mile apart, with a close escort of six destroyers, under the command of Capt. Ugo Bisciani, arranged in a ring around the two columns. A second escort force, containing the two heavy cruisers and four destroyers under Adm. Bruno Brivonesi, the overall commander, was located three to five miles astern.
Agnew had as his flagship the Aurora, and its radar picked up the convoy at 12:39 a.m., Nov. 9. He quickly positioned his warships so that the moon silhouetted the convoy and escorts. At 12:57 a.m., the Aurora opened fire.
Confusion reigned among the escorts and convoy as shells from Force K crashed in and around them. Initially, Bisciani mistook the Force K vessels for ships from Brivonesi’s command and thought that he was being attacked on his port side and not his starboard side, where Force K was located.
Brivonesi’s ships were about three miles behind the convoy when Force K attacked. He ordered his escorts to close, and soon the Penelope was bracketed by shellfire from Brivonesi’s flagship, the Trieste. Mistaking the Trieste for a destroyer, Agnew ordered Penelope to charge her assailant. But smoke from the convoy’s burning cargo ships as well as a smokescreen laid by Bisciani’s destroyers served to blind the Trieste which, lacking radar, was unable to get a clear shot at Penelope. Penelope’s captain recognized his foe in time to break off action.
Incredibly, the merchant ship captains all thought they were being attacked by airplanes. As a result, they continued to steam in a straight line. Worse, throughout the engagement the convoy was caught in a cross fire, because the maneuvering of the two groups of combatants caused them to circle the convoy. Thus the convoy screened its escorts instead of the other way around. The results were predictable.
At 2:05 a.m., with ammunition running low, Agnew ordered Force K to break off action and return to Malta. Though outnumbered and outgunned, through a combination of superior doctrine, technology, courage, luck, and surprise, Force K had sunk all seven convoy ships and one destroyer, damaging three other destroyers, at a cost of some minor splinter damage to one of its own destroyers. The Battle of the Duisburg Convoy, named after the German steamer Duisburg, the largest ship in the convoy, was one of the most lopsided naval victories in World War II.
Agnew, known as the “scourge of the Mediterranean” by the Axis, was later promoted to rear admiral and eventually vice admiral on the retirement list. Both Brivonesi and Bisciani were relieved of their commands. Courts of inquiry later cleared them.