Enemy Sighted – Clear for Action

Friday evening provided an opportunity to head to the Mediterranean for a WWII Naval encounter using 1/3000th miniatures and the Naval Thunder rules. As with many battles in the Mediterranean they were frequently a result of convoy movements. The Italians frequently moving north to south while the British east to west. This fictional action involves two convoy covering forces engaged south-east of Malta in November 1940.

The Italian covering force was under command of Vice Admiral Luigi Sansonetti and was centred around three heavy cruisers. Specifically the Trento, Bolzano and Trieste all from the 3rd Cruiser Division. The cruisers were supported by the four destroyers of 9th Destroyer Squadron, the Alfredo Oriano, Vincenzo Gioberti, Vittorio Alfieri and Giosue Carducci. In the afternoon of 13th of November Sansonetti’s force held a generally southern course with the destroyers and cruisers formed in two columns with the destroyers starboard of his heavy cruisers. Below the Italians moving south. This image is taken when the Trento has come under fire from three British cruisers.

To the south, and moving north, was Vice Admiral Algernon Melchett his flag on the only heavy cruiser currently in the Mediterranean, HMS York. Now, it must be said from the start that Melchett was something of an unknown quality. Without doubt his family connections influenced his appointments. Yet today his skills would be put to the test.

Alerted to the enemy to the north-west the Melchett prepared to engage the enemy. He had at his disposal four cruisers. These were the heavy cruiser HMS York, as previously mentioned, reinforced by the light cruisers HMS Gloucester, Achilles and Orion, all armed with 6″ guns. Melchett’s destroyer escort comprised three destroyers, HMS Jervis, Janus and Mohawk. Melchett’s genius was in overdrive and he determined to execute what can be only described as a “cunning plan”.

His force would be organised in three groups. The first group comprised the light cruisers. With Gloucester leading the three light cruisers would set a westerly course with the aim of concentrating their fire on Trento, the lead Italian cruiser, and ideally secure a position that limited the ability of the Italian cruisers from bringing their own full broadsides into action. Further, Melchett determined that in a close range engagement the mass of 6″ guns would overwhelm a single enemy 8″ cruiser. The second group comprised the British destroyers. These ships would press the enemy and likely engage the enemy destroyers. Finally, HMS York would hold her range and engage targets making the best use of her long range fire and British radar. As the British ships divided into their various groups Melchett was comfortable that his plan would bring success. It was after all his most cunning plan since his last game of bridge at the Officers Club in Alexandria four weeks ago.

Below, the three groups are visible with HMS York in the bottom right and the light cruisers on the left as the begin to move west.

No sooner had the ships begun to execute their orders the sea around HMS Gloucester, Orion and York erupted with splashes as the Italian heavy cruisers began to engage, with one Italian heavy cruisier engaging each. This in itself was not unexpected, however the Italian fire seemed today to be more effective than expected.

Despite this unnerving accuracy HMS Gloucester pressed forward concentrating her fire on Trento. Simultaneously, and as planned, Achilles and Orion tried to mass their own fire on Trento. However, increasingly this would become problematic – due to the speed of the Italians. Soon only the forward guns of all the light cruisers could engage Trento. The aft turrets, and starboard secondary weapons, were forced to target Bolzano and Trieste. Gloucester was now under heavy fire and would soon loose both her forward firing turrets.

Above, HMS Gloucester and HMS Achilles, part of the Royal Navy’s New Zealand Division, under fire. Gloucester has taken a hit to her bridge and Achilles is suffering fire, which she would soon bring under control.

When matters seemed like they could not get worse HMS York lost a forward turret reducing her small broadside from six 8″ guns to just four.

Melchett was by now becoming nervous and signalled to his destroyers “Engage enemy with all haste”. The three destroyers moved quickly west towards the Italian heavy cruisers, with HMS Jervis leading the destroyers forward. Once they had closed range they would turn to port and deliver a deadly torpedo attack.

Above, the British destroyers move forward. Below, a general view of the engagement. In this photo the splash markers denote ships under fire from enemy 8″ armed cruisers.

Below, Trento under fire from HMS York. As described previously the Italian cruisers were under fire by 6″ gunned cruisers but these are not denoted with splash markers.

With Gloucester now heavily damaged, and the Italians gaining the initiative, Gloucester’s captain signalled York – “Italian gunnery effective, taking heavy fire”. Melchett allegedly now signalled “Act independently, you can’t hash this up more than me”.

The wording of this signal was later to be denied by Melchett, who would state the signal was noted down incorrectly by a junior lieutenant. Whatever the intended signal HMS Achilles and Orion turned to starboard and formed a gun line while Gloucester fired her torpedoes in a last desperate attack before going down.

Elsewhere the Italian destroyers were finally were committed. Setting a course that would take them directly towards the British destroyers the line of Italian destroyers cut an impressive scene as the cut through the water at speed.

Above, the general situation with HMS Orion and Achilles exchanging fire with two Italian heavy cruisers. The crew of Achilles now is fighting a further fire, as denoted by the marker. Below, the view from the Italian perspective. The Bolzano is battling flooding and is under 8” fire from HMS York.

While the Italian cruisers engaged the British cruisers with their main armament the British destroyers were engaged with their secondary batteries. The Bolzano and Trieste each had three twin 3.9″ turrets and while some turrets were knocked out, especially on the Bolzano, those operational concentrated fire on the HMS Jervis and then Janus sinking both in short order.

However, Bolzano and Trieste were now struggling with a combination of fires and floods. The floods on Bolzano were becoming problematic and soon she was suffering a severe list and unable to make even half speed. Trieste’s flooding was more contained and while she could make good speed she was heavily damaged. One further salvo from York and she would likely sink, assuming the fires and floods did not. Yet Trieste guns remained operational. Soon her secondary weapons, now supported by the destroyer Oriani, dispatched a further British destroyer, HMS Mohawk. Around the same time HMS Achilles was lost.

Realising the engagement was over Melchett ordered his surviving vessels to break off. HMS Orion made smoke and both she and HMS York set a course to the east. Melchett of course knew he would soon have an appointment with the Royal Navy Board of Inquiry. It was without doubt a glorious day for the Regia Marina.

As noted above we are using 1/3000th miniatures which are all from Navwar’s range. They are from my own collection with the Italian heavy cruisers being only recent reinforcements. This game involved four players and was, for two of us, only our second game using “Naval Thunder Battleship Row”.

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