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Battle of the Strait of Otranto

12 NOV 1940: World War II and HMAS Sydney [II] is in action at the Strait of Otranto in a diversion for the British attack on Taranto. The Australian cruiser became the most celebrated ship in the RAN after its performance in the Mediterranean against the Italian navy in 1940.

The battle occurred when an Allied squadron entered the Adriatic Sea looking for Italian naval targets. Although they did not know it at the time the squadron’s real purpose was to help draw enemy attention from a major action against the main Italian fleet base at Taranto. The Allied squadron was commanded by Vice Admiral Henry Pridham-Whippel in the light cruiser HMS Orion, and included the light cruisers HMAS Sydney and HMS Ajax and the destroyers HMS Nubian and Mohawk.

On 12 November, an Italian Navy (Regia Marina) convoy of four merchant ships—Antonio Locatelli, Premuda, Capo Vado and Catalani—were on their way back from Valona, Albania to Brindisi, Italy while escorted by the World War I-era torpedo boat Fabrizi, commanded by T.V.c. Giovanni Barbini and the auxiliary cruiser Ramb III commanded by C.F. Francesco De Angelis. The ships were travelling darkened without navigational lights.

The Allied ships proceeded north during the night of 11 November, and upon reaching a notional line between Bari and Durazzo by 01:00 without incident, they turned to run southward. Twenty minutes later, the raiders encountered six darkened enemy ships, including what they thought were two destroyers and four merchantmen. The enemy vessels passed across their front and were making for the Italian mainland. HMS Mohawk opened fire at 01:27, and action became general.

In a confused night time action, HMAS Sydney attacked the leading freighter at a range of 11 km (5.9 nmi; 6.8 mi), setting it on fire. Over the next 23 minutes, the other three merchantmen were either sunk or damaged and left burning. Fabrizi was hit and heavily damaged and retired toward Valona with 11 dead and 17 wounded. Ramb III after an initial exchange of 19 salvoes broke off the action unscathed.

All four merchant ships were sunk, and the destroyers were driven off. When Sydney rejoined the Mediterranean Fleet, the C-in-C, ADML A. B. Cunningham, signalled:- ‘Did you have a wild Australian night?’

The Allies suffered no damage or casualties, although a torpedo narrowly missed Sydney’s stern at 01:40. The Regia Marina suffered casualties totalled 36 dead and 42 wounded.

The Italians retaliated by sending aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica to locate the British naval squadron; however, the flying boats which eventually located the naval squadron were shot down. The Regia Marina sent motor torpedo boats located north of Valona, Cruiser Squadron 7, consisting of light cruisers Muzio Attendolo, Eugenio di Savoia, Emanuele Filiberto Duca d’Aosta, the 15th Destroyer Division from Brindisi, Cruiser Squadron 8, consisting of light cruisers Duca degli Abruzzi and Giuseppe Garibaldi, with the 7th and 8th Destroyer Divisions from Taranto sailed to intercept the British naval squadron in the Otranto Straits, but they failed to make contact.

The day after the battle, two Italian torpedo boats—Curtatone and Solferino—rescued a total of 140 sailors. Photo: Aerial starboard bow view of the cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) (ex HMS Phaeton). Note the spar projecting forward of the bridge and single 4-inch AA guns amidships, which distinguished the Sydney from her two sisters. Her Seagull Amphibian is embarked.

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