Operation Scylla (Italian: Operazione Scilla) was a successful Italian Navy attempt to transfer the light cruiser Scipione Africano from their bases in the Tyrrhenian Sea to Taranto, in the Ionian Sea, during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, in the course of World War II. The operation is notable for the night engagement between the Italian cruiser and four British motor torpedo boats during the passage of the strait of Messina, in the early hours of 17 July 1943. The action also marked the only time that an Italian warship made an effective combat use of surface radar in World War II.
After the Allied landings in Sicily, and in anticipation of an eventual blockade of the strait of Messina by American and British naval forces, the light cruiser Scipione Africano was ordered to Taranto to supply the lack of fast cruisers in the Ionian Sea. The codename of the mission was "Operation Scylla". The Italian cruiser departed from La Spezia on 15 July 1943 bound for Naples, which she reached the same evening, shadowed by a British seaplane. At Naples, Scipione Africano embarked an air liaison team and Metox equipment. She sailed again at 18:15 on 16 July and entered the Messina straits at 2:00 on 17 July, with a full moon rising from the south.
Some days before, on the night of 12 July, British motor torpedo boat MTB 81 had sunk the German submarine U-561 in the northern approaches of the straits.
At the same time she reached the straits, Scipione Africano, which had installed an EC-3 ter Gufo search radar, spotted four small vessels lying 10,000 mt ahead, between Reggio di Calabria and Cape Pellaro, initially misidentified by the Italian commander, captain Ernesto Pellegrini, as friendly motor barges. A closer look to the maneuvers of the leading vessel at 2:13 convinced Pellegrino that the craft were actually hostile motor torpedo boats, and the captain ordered to increase speed from 24 to 30 knots.
The motor boats were four British Elco motor torpedo boats from the 10th MTB flotilla based on Augusta: MTB 260, MTB 313, MTB 315 and MTB 316. According to the flotilla's commander, lieutenant Dennis Jermain, who was onboard MTB 315: "I was caught completely napping. We were lying with engines stopped two miles south of Messina, in a flat calm with a full moon silhoutting us nicely. (...) We never dream that a cruiser wil be able to get down there unseen through our patrols." Jermain gave the alarm and ordered the other boats to start up and scatter. Jermain's mission was to intercept Axis landing craft and E-boats. With no time to make signals, Jermain moved MTB 315 to the east, leaving two boats for each side of the Scipione Africano. Jermain plans were to make a feint with MTB 315 to attract the attention of the cruiser and leave the other boats in a better position for attack.
Meanwhile, captain Pellegrini had turned his ship to 200 degrees, heading to a point between the second and the third motor boats, namely MTB 313 and MTB 316. Scipione Africano's speed surprised the British, who were not fully prepared to fire their torpedoes until the Italian cruiser was just 1,500 yards away. The Italian warship started to fire all her armament in anger, with a precision that, in Pellegrini's own words, "left him amazed". The Italian report claims that the engagement lasted no more than three minutes, and that the first enemy craft to be hit by 135 mm rounds was the closest boat to starboard, which was left in a "sinking condition". The British unit was actually MTB 313, only 300 yards away from the Italian warship. The small vessel was ready to launch their torpedoes, when incoming fire injured her commander officer Alec Forster in a leg and mortally wounded the spare officer of the flotilla, sub-lieutenant John McKim. One of the torpedoes passed just ahead of its intended target. After this action, the damaged boat limped away. The other motor torpedo boat on the cruiser's starboard side was MTB 260, which thought to have scored a torpedo hit on the cruiser. After being engaged by gunfire from Scipione Africano, MTB 260 got away with minor damage. The Italian report says that she was set on fire.
The next boat to receive the Italian attention was MTB 316, only 50 yards away from Scipione Africano's port side. The motor torpedo vessel caught fire and blew up just a few seconds after the cruiser's salvos struck home. The craft, commanded by lieutenant Richard Adams and with a crew of eleven, sank with all hands. The explosion took place so close to the cruiser that pieces from MTB 316's machinery and hull fell aboard Scipione Africano. The analysis of these remains produced some controversy, when Italian sources claimed to have sunk MTB 305, not at the Mediterranean theatre at the time, on the basis of an inscription from a recovered wooden panel.
Scipione Africano was checked down the strait by MTB 315 and MTB 260 until she turned to port for Taranto. The Italian commander reported that one of the craft on the port side sent two torpedoes which were successfully dodged by the Italian unit. The British motorboat was in fact MTB 315, which became the target of the cruiser's heavy machine guns. During the last phase of the action, the Italian cruiser endured the shelling of friendly German and Italian coastal artillery, which resulted in splinter damage and two seamen injured. British sources recorded an air strike on Scipione Africano by Axis aircraft, not mentioned by Pellegrino's release.
After her eventful passage into the Ionian Sea, Scipione Africano reached Taranto the same day at 9:46. From 4 to 17 August, she laid four defensive minefields in the Gulfs of Taranto and Squillace along with the old light cruiser Luigi Cadorna. The day after the Cassibile armistice was made public, Scipione Africano escorted the corvette Baionetta in her task of transporting the new head of government General Pietro Badoglio, his cabinet and the Italian Royal Family from Brindisi to Malta. During the embarkment, she had to fight off a number of hostile aircraft.
The morning after the action, the remains of sub-lieutenant McKim were buried at sea off Augusta. No traces of MTB 316 and her crew were ever found by friendly forces. The following night, another motor torpedo boat, MTB 75, was hit and seriously damaged by shore batteries in the straits of Messina, while on the evening of 19 July, an unidentified U-boat was depth-charged by British small units and had a narrow escape off Reggio di Calabria.
- Preston, Anthony (1978). Warship nº 5. Conway Maritime Press. p. 155.
The only ocasion when Italian radar was used effectively by the units was on the night of 17 July 1943, when Scipione Africano encountered four English motor torpedo boats.
- Andò, Edoardo (1994) Incrociatori leggeri classe "Capitani Romani". Albertelli, pp. 80-81. ISBN 978-88-85909-45-8 (Italian)
- Greene & Massignani (1998), p.290
- Ricordi di battaglia e di vita vissuta a bordo di Scipione by Ludovica Monarca. Il Tirreno, 23 July 2011 (Italian)
- Greene & Massignani (1998), p. 291
- Baroni (2007), p. 187
- "Scipione: posto di combattimento" by Maurizio De Pellegrini Dai Coi (Italian)
- Pope, Dudley: Flag 4: The Battle of Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean 1939-1945. Chatham Publishing, 1998, pp. 121-123. ISBN 1-86176-067-1
- Reynolds, L. C. and Cooper, h. F. (1999) MTBs at War. Sutton Publishing, pp. 71-72. ISBN 9780750922746
- "Royal Navy casualties, killed and died, July 1943". www.naval-history.net. Retrieved 2016-07-09.
- Cocchia, Aldo (1966). La Marina italiana nella seconda guerra mondiale: La guerra di mine. Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare, p. 397 (Italian)
- Baroni, Piero (2007). La guerra dei radar: il suicidio dell'Italia : 1935/1943. Greco & Greco, p. 193. ISBN 8879804316 (Italian)
- Greene, Jack; Massignani, Alessandro (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943. London: Chatham. ISBN 1-885119-61-5.