Home History Operation Retribution: The Royal Navy’s Attempt to Prevent a German Dunkirk

Operation Retribution: The Royal Navy’s Attempt to Prevent a German Dunkirk

by Enochadmin

On the afternoon of Could 11, 1943, the grey hulks of Sort II Hunt-class British Royal Navy destroyers sliced by the glistening Mediterranean waters within the slim Strait of Sicily, their officers scanning the close by Tunisian shoreline. 

Lieutenant Commander Richard Rycroft, the 31-year-old captain of HMS Tetcott, educated his binoculars on Kelibia, an idyllic Tunisian fishing city on the Cap Bon peninsula based by the Carthaginians within the fifth century bc because the fortified city of Aspis. Millennia after a Roman fleet besieged Aspis in 255 BC amid the First Punic Battle, warships had returned to Kelibia’s shoreline. Rycroft noticed his prey and directed Tetcott towards a small boat full of fleeing Germans. The few enemy troopers posed little menace, however the British destroyer, its bow surging by the azure water, confirmed no indicators of slowing. Because it sped previous the enemy vessel, the ship’s log famous, Tetcott “lobbed a depth cost near it, blowing it to bits.”

Rycroft’s chilly effectivity on the helm of Tetcott was not distinctive. A day earlier Lt. Cmdr. John Valentine Wilkinson, commanding HMS Zetland, had obtained orders to analyze enemy boats sighted within the Gulf of Tunis and located three rafts carrying 30 Axis troopers. The destroyer charged the small craft, and “the boats had been rammed or capsized and rendered unserviceable.” Wilkinson’s report, like Rycroft’s, made no point out of survivors plucked from the ocean.

But such actions weren’t random bloodlust on the a part of the British captains. This was their retribution.

Operation Retribution was the purposefully named Allied air and naval blockade supposed to thwart the evacuation of enemy troops from Tunisia to Sicily. The battle in North Africa was grinding to a detailed. Anglo-American forces that had come ashore throughout Operation Torch—the November 1942 landings in Vichy French–dominated Morocco and Algeria—had been closing in from the west, whereas British Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Military, the victors of El Alamein, approached from the south. Area Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox,” and his vaunted German-Italian panzer military had been trapped in an ever narrowing vise. Their solely technique of reinforcement or escape was the tantalizingly slim Strait of Sicily.

Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, the unwavering commander of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, understood each the emotional and strategic significance of the blockade. On Could 8, 1943, Cunningham formally launched Retribution with an order Nelsonic in its simplicity and unequivocality: “Sink, burn and destroy. Let nothing cross.”

Andrew Browne Cunningham
(Imperial Battle Museums)

Solely 5 days later, on Could 13, the operation was over. Regardless of its chilling title, nevertheless, its scorecard lacks distinction. Cunningham’s warships encountered few blockade-runners and no main evacuation effort. British sailors captured simply shy of 900 fleeing enemy troopers. The Allies suffered few casualties, and their ships got here underneath severe assault solely by accident from pleasant plane. The blockade did handle to bottle up greater than a quarter million Axis troops—exceeding the quantity taken after the pivotal battle of Stalingrad—however their give up was obtained by the advancing land armies. With few casualties and prisoners, Retribution pale from the story of World Battle II.

Nevertheless, such numbers and the official dates of Retribution fall woefully in need of relating the whole story of the blockade. From November 1942 onward the Axis desperately tried to resupply its beleaguered armies in Africa. In response Cunningham’s destroyers, motor torpedo boats and submarines fought for management of the ocean lanes to Sicily, leading to a bloody conflict of naval forces that stretched 5 months, till early Could 1943. As Cunningham famous in postwar correspondence, “Our foremost naval effort [in early 1943]…was towards the enemy’s strains of communication between Sicily and Tunisia…interrupting the enemy’s provides to North Africa.” It was these earlier efforts that had purchased the relative quiet throughout the 5 days of Retribution. For the battered sailors of the Mediterranean Fleet it was an emotional victory. On a grander scale, Retribution was the culminating victory for the Allies in North Africa. 

For German-Italian forces in North Africa the closing weeks of 1942 marked a time of defiance. With quick provide strains from Sicily and a compact defensive place, Axis commanders deliberate to create an impregnable Tunisian stronghold. “Any hope for an Axis victory in Tunisia,” notes naval historian Barbara Brooks Tomblin, “relied on the quantity of males and provides that may very well be delivered by the Italian navy or Axis air forces.” Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, the German naval commander in chief, believed “the decisive key place within the Mediterranean has been and nonetheless is Tunisia.” Wehrmacht chief of workers Alfred Jodl concurred, writing, “North Africa completely have to be held as a forefield of Europe.” Having deemed Tunisia the “cornerstone of our conduct of the battle on the southern flank of Europe,” Adolf Hitler ordered its protection at any price. Thus supported by his advisers, the Führer, within the phrases of German historian Horst Boog, turned “Tunis into an existential query” and rushed reinforcements to the theater.

The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was equally defiant. Six months earlier than formally ordering Retribution, Cunningham despatched Power Q—a flotilla of three cruisers and two destroyers underneath Rear Adm. Cecil Harcourt—to the port of Bône, Algeria, with clear directions to chop off Tunisia. Foreshadowing the ruthlessness to be exhibited that spring, Power Q gave the enemy “each purpose to dread the evening assaults,” as Cunningham later wrote:

At about half an hour after midnight on December 1st–2nd these ships [Force Q] fell upon the convoy [Italian Convoy H] off the Gulf of Tunis, and for the enemy it was a holocaust. Engaged at point-blank vary, 4 provide ships or transports and three destroyers had been sunk or set on fireplace. It was a ghastly scene of ships exploding and bursting into flame amidst clouds of steam and smoke; of males throwing themselves overboard as their ships sank; and motor autos carried on deck sliding and splashing into the ocean as vessels capsized. What males the enemy misplaced, what portions of motor transport gasoline and navy provides had been destroyed, I have no idea; however not one ship of that convoy survived.

A number of Italian escort ships did survive, however Power Q sank all 4 troopships of the enemy convoy in what historical past information because the Battle of Skerki Financial institution.

Rommel consulting a map in North Africa
By the spring of 1943 Area Marshal Erwin Rommel’s mixed German-Italian panzer military was trapped between advancing American and British forces, their solely escape by sea to Sicily.
(Bundesarchiv)

Over the next weeks and months British torpedo boats out of Bône and Sousse, Tunisia (south of Cap Bon), “had been a relentless menace to the Axis transport,” Cunningham recalled. “Hardly an evening handed however they had been off Tunis and Bizerte, mining, harrying the patrols, attacking and sinking vessels carrying the shops, ammunition and petrol so badly wanted by Rommel’s military.” Becoming a member of within the fray, Allied submarines sank 14 service provider ships, two destroyers, one U-boat and two small vessels in November and December. Within the first three months of the brand new 12 months they added 57 merchantmen, a submarine, a torpedo boat and seven small vessels to their tally of kills.

Whereas relentless, the Allied vessels had been hardly untouchable. Working in circumstances of utmost hazard, the British submarines suffered particularly heavy losses, together with TigrisThunderbolt and Turbulent in February and March 1943. “[The] destroyers had been getting used to the restrict of their capability,” Cunningham wrote, and “didn’t escape unscathed.” Enemy assaults sank Lightning and Pakenham solely weeks aside in March and April.

The Axis maintained its air superiority. Enemy plane pounded the Power Q base at Bône, which sustained injury from greater than 2,000 German heavy bombs in December and January. The cruiser Ajax was severely broken by a 1,000-pound German bomb, whereas the minesweeper Alarm was knocked out of the battle by an air assault.

Cunningham hardened his coronary heart. In any case, such losses had been the value of a profitable blockade. These successes mounted shortly. “Liable to floor, submarine and air assaults all through the entire of their passage,” he famous, the Italian navy misplaced 485 ships from November to Could. Of the 314,000 tons of provides the Axis despatched to Tunisia between December and Could, Cunningham’s blockade managed to sink almost a 3rd. The 200,000-plus tons of provides that did get by had been removed from sufficient, as Axis forces in Tunisia expended that quantity in a single month. In the meantime, the Luftwaffe misplaced irreplaceable plane and pilots. Overwhelmed, the Axis convoys continued solely with what historian Donald Macintyre deemed “a dogged persistence and a fatalistic disregard of the details of the scenario.” Dealing with actually legion risks, Italian sailors referred to as the Straits of Sicily la rotta della morte (“the route of demise”).

Denied its Tunisian stronghold, the Axis deserted its determined resupply efforts by early Could. Thus it was on Could 8 the Mediterranean Fleet’s weapons swiveled south to scan the North African coast. The mission was unchanged—thwart enemy use of the Strait of Sicily. However the time had come to take advantage of the victory received throughout the brutal months of defensive blockade. Operation Retribution, the offensive part of the trouble, would guarantee no enemy troops escaped, thus clinching the best doable victory ashore.

HMS Nubian returns to Malta
The destroyer HMS Nubian returns to Malta after patrolling off Tunis amid Operation Retribution.
(Imperial Battle Museums)

In Could 1943 the Mediterranean Fleet pivoted to forestall the Axis from finishing up its personal model of a Dunkirk-style evacuation. Allied intelligence reported enemy engineers had been establishing piers and jetties on Cape Bon. In response to his command’s battle diaries, Cunningham thought of an tried evacuation possible and anticipated that “an enemy who was nonetheless possessed of an awesome fleet, a considerable service provider navy and highly effective air forces wouldn’t abandon his trapped armies.”

But no rescuers got here. The beleaguered Axis veterans of Tobruk, Gazala and El Alamein had been left to their destiny. “The sight of these little grey ships of ours off the coast,” Cunningham argued, “prevented any organized try at evacuation.” In comparison with the Mediterranean maelstrom of the earlier months, the official launch of Retribution introduced relative quiet.

Appearing individually and in small teams, stranded Axis troopers sought to flee to Sicily aboard pitifully small motorboats and rafts. Cunningham’s orders referred to the Could blockade as “the offensive,” and the Mediterranean Fleet acted accordingly. “Seashores the place enemy exercise is noticed ought to be machine-gunned,” torpedo boat crewmen had been instructed. Ships’ logs present blow-by-blow accounts of the small actions. Noticing enemy troopers escaping to the small island of Zembra, on the mouth of the Gulf of Tunis, the destroyers Beaufort and Exmoor “circled the island in reverse instructions” and sighting “a number of boats on one seaside…shot them up.” Beaufort’s weapons then “demolished a number of likely-looking outhouses” till a white flag appeared.

No fleeing craft or variety of evacuating troopers was too small a prize. On Could 10 the destroyer Lauderdale “picked up 4 Germans from a small boat” and spent the ensuing days “amassing some extra Germans from open boats.” The destroyer Lamerton intercepted “a small fishing vessel…and 17 Italians.” The destroyer Dulverton pulled enemy troopers from “native fishing boats.” Exmoor stopped “one boat and two floats” from which just one German was recovered. The shortage of an organized, large-scale evacuation didn’t deter the Allied blockading power. As its commander had ordered, the Mediterranean Fleet let nothing cross. 

Captured German troops board a Royal Navy warship
Intercepted at sea, German troops clamber aboard a Royal Navy warship.
(Imperial Battle Museums )

Allied operation code names typically appear to lack that means. For instance, Dynamo was the impromptu evacuation from Dunkirk, Crusader was the 1941 reduction of Tobruk, and Dragoon was the August 1944 touchdown in southern France. Standing out for its emotional import and relevance, Retribution was totally different. Cunningham had intentionally named it thus. After years of wrestle and loss, Retribution was certainly intensely private.

On Cunningham’s thoughts specifically was the Mediterranean Fleet’s harrowing fights for Greece and Crete. In April 1941 its ships evacuated some 50,000 of the 53,000 British troopers trapped in Greece, however their rescue got here at a heavy value. The fleet misplaced 26 troop-carrying ships to enemy air assaults, together with the destroyers Diamond and Wryneck, each of which had been sunk, leaving fewer than 50 survivors of the 800-plus crewmen and troops aboard. Through the ensuing Battle of Crete the fleet commander relayed to the Admiralty that “in three days two cruisers and 4 destroyers had been sunk, one battleship is out of motion for a number of months, and two different cruisers and 4 destroyers sustained appreciable injury.

“We can not afford one other such expertise and retain sea management within the japanese Mediterranean,” Cunningham added. “Our mild craft, officers, males and equipment alike are nearing exhaustion.…They’ve saved working nearly to the restrict of endurance.”

A nonetheless larger pressure adopted in late Could because the Royal Navy rushed to evacuate troops within the wake of the Allied defeat on Crete. “Our losses are very heavy,” Cunningham reported. “[The battleship] Warspite, [battleship] Barham and [aircraft carrier] Formidable out of motion for some months, [the cruisers] Orion and Dido in a horrible mess, and I’ve simply heard that [the cruiser] Perth has been hit as we speak. Eight destroyers misplaced outright and a number of other badly broken. All this not counting [the lost cruisers] Gloucester and Fiji. I worry the casualties are over 2,000 useless.” Enemy air assaults had been incessant. The admiral expressed anxiousness “in regards to the mind-set of the sailors after seven days’ fixed bombing assault” For 5 hours the destroyer Kandahar alone was “subjected to 22 separate air assaults” whereas rescuing survivors. A lamenting Cunningham was justly pleased with his fleet:

It’s not simple to convey how heavy was the pressure that males and ships sustained.…They’d began the evacuation already over-tired, they usually needed to carry it by underneath circumstances of savage air assault similar to had solely just lately induced grievous losses within the fleet.…I really feel that the spirit of tenacity proven by those that took half ought to not go unrecorded. Greater than as soon as I felt the stage had been reached the place no extra may very well be requested of officers and males bodily and mentally exhausted by their efforts and by the occasions of those fateful weeks. It’s maybe even not realized how almost the breaking level was reached. However that these males struggled by is the measure of their achievement.

By the tip of the evacuation on June 1 the Mediterranean Fleet’s losses had been staggering. Three cruisers and 6 destroyers had been sunk; two battleships, a significant plane provider, two cruisers, two destroyers and a submarine had been broken past simple restore; and three cruisers and 6 destroyers had been broken. One other 32 transport and auxiliary ships had been misplaced. Cunningham’s fleet had suffered tremendously. “The military couldn’t be left to its destiny,” the admiral dutifully affirmed. “The navy should keep it up.”

Supply ships burn during evacuation of Crete
Provide ships burn throughout the 1941 Allied evacuation of Crete—certainly one of a number of Axis victories within the Mediterranean for which the British Royal Navy sought retribution.
(Smith Archive (Alamy Inventory Photograph))

Cunningham seethed on the battering his ships and males took off Crete. “The Huns amused themselves for an hour or so machine-gunning the lads within the water,” he recalled. “I hope I shall get my palms on a number of of them.” In 1943 he bought his likelihood.

“We hoped,” he later wrote of his command, “that these of the enemy who essayed the perilous passage residence by sea ought to be taught a lesson they might always remember.” When one destroyer commander apologized that it had been “too harmful to cease and decide up one boatload [of enemy soldiers], so he ran over them,” Cunningham “shook him warmly by the hand and left him with out enquiring additional.” Retribution was Cunningham’s obligation, nevertheless it was additionally a satisfying rating to accept earlier losses.

“There is no such thing as a doubt that the blood of the Mediterranean Fleet was up,” remarked Capt. Angus Nicholl of the cruiser Penelope, “and that even the smallest makes an attempt at a ‘Dunkirk evacuation’ had been effectively and ruthlessly handled.” When a half dozen German torpedo boats opened fireplace on the Power Q destroyers Laforey and Tartar, the previous rammed one of many enemy vessels, slicing it in half. The deadly resolve of the British fleet was all too obvious to its Axis foe. Lamerton’s radiomen, listening to enemy chatter, overheard, “Destroyer overtaking…all is misplaced.”

However the conduct of the operation didn’t mirror mere brutality. Like their commander, the officers and sailors of Cunningham’s fleet considered Retribution as each their obligation and simply vengeance. One younger lieutenant recalled that when he requested permission to fireside on an enemy vessel, his senior officer assented, saying, “It’s your retribution.” A sailor aboard the cruiser Aurora proudly wrote residence to his mom: “I’ve at all times needed to get even with the Jerries for the hell they used to offer us each evening.…I felt fairly proud myself…and didn’t the lads stick their chests out.”

The Mediterranean Fleet savored its victory. Captain Tony Pugsley of the destroyer Jervis whimsically reported the seizure of 96 “entrants” from the “Kelibia Regatta,” whereas Capt. John Eaton of the destroyer Eskimo crowed how the fleet had “strongly discouraged enemy yachtsmen.” Even Cunningham revealed his pleasure, writing, “I belief the boating exercise is being firmly stopped.” Others’ urge for food for vengeance went unsated. An officer of the seventh Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla was “dissatisfied that the enemy did not try a mass evacuation.” Rear Adm. Arthur Energy agreed. “The whole absence of any Axis males of battle or transport,” he wrote from Malta, “was very disappointing.”


this text first appeared in Army Historical past journal

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Though disappointing to some, the quiet consummation of Retribution in Could 1943 represented final victory for the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. From the outset of the battle the fleet’s precedence had been to ascertain management of the ocean. As pioneering British naval historian and geostrategist Sir Julian Corbett wrote, “The thing of naval warfare should at all times be instantly or not directly both to safe the command of the ocean or to forestall the enemy from securing it.” His American counterpart Alfred Thayer Mahan equally argued sea energy was “the possession of that overbearing energy on the ocean which drives the enemy’s flag from it.” Within the spirit of those two titans of naval thought, Retribution closed the Mediterranean to the enemy. 

Even because the Mediterranean Fleet endured the Battles of Greece and Crete, Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined the Admiralty in reminding Cunningham, “Above all, we look to you to chop off seaborne provides from the Cyrenaican ports and to beat them as much as the utmost.” Although the fleet was stretched skinny, dropping ships and males, its precedence remained the blockade of North Africa.

By Could 1943 the Axis navies had been wholly unable to maneuver something throughout the Strait of Sicily, neither supplying nor evacuating their troopers and gear stranded in Tunisia. The vengeance-seeking ships of the Mediterranean Fleet diligently hunted down even the smallest rafts and boats. As Tetcott and Zetland proved off Kelibia, nothing would cross.

For his illustrious half century profession Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham earned a spot in London’s Trafalgar Sq., the symbolic coronary heart of the British empire. It’s Retribution that largely justifies the proximity of the admiral’s bust to Nelson’s Column. At Aboukir Bay in 1798 legendary Rear Adm. Horatio Nelson didn’t obtain the give up of an enemy military; French forces had been already ashore in Egypt. But Nelson’s naval victory secured management of the Mediterranean, thus making certain the final word defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition. Likewise, Cunningham didn’t obtain the Axis give up in 1943, however his choking blockade enabled victory on land. Retribution, like Lord Nelson’s Battle of the Nile, projected sea energy far inland. Fulfilling Churchill’s perception that “a lot if not most of the navy’s work goes on unseen,” when the German-Italian military in North Africa surrendered, the reward of the Mediterranean Fleet’s tireless efforts was collected within the desert.

As commander of Allied forces in North Africa, Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized the 1943 operation. “The full enemy transport and craft which supplied themselves as targets for the [Royal] Navy appeared a poor reward for its ability and untiring vigilance,” he wrote. “Retribution, the truth is, developed right into a scenario the place solely remoted small events of stragglers sought security by sea, to seek out that the sea was not theirs.” By then the ocean belonged to Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. 

Washington, D.C.–primarily based Peter Kentz holds history levels from Georgetown College and King’s School London. For additional studying he recommends With Utmost Spirit: Allied Naval Operations within the Mediterranean, 1942–1945, by Barbara Brooks Tomblin; The Battle for the Mediterranean, by Donald Macintyre; and A Sailor’s Odyssey, by Andrew Browne Cunningham.

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