Action of 27 February 1941
The Action of 27 February 1941 was a single ship action between a New Zealand cruiser and an Italian auxiliary cruiser. It began when HMNZS Leander ordered a flagless freighter to stop for an inspection. Instead of complying, the freighter, Ramb I, raised the Italian colours and engaged the cruiser, Leander sinking Ramb I shortly after. Most of the Italian crew were rescued and taken to Addu Atoll, then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Leander patrolled southwards, to investigate more reports of commerce raiders.
East African CampaignEdit
In January 1941, British forces simultaneously advanced from Sudan and Kenya into Eritrea, Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland, as the navy blockaded and bombarded Italian harbours. The port of Kismayu in Italian Somaliland was occupied on 14 February and sixteen Italian and German ships there were sunk or captured, except for one vessel. Merka and Mogadishu were occupied on 25 February and several hundred Allied merchant sailors were liberated. As Allied forces closed on Massawa, the Italian Red Sea Flotilla was ordered to break out and run for friendly ports. A group of Italian vessels consisting of the colonial ship Eritrea and the auxiliary cruisers Ramb I and Ramb II attempted to operate as commerce raiders while en route to Japan. The Italian squadron managed to evade the British blockade on 20 February and scattered into the Indian Ocean, Ramb I heading for the Dutch East Indies.
HMNZS Leander was the leader of the Leander class of cruisers, armed with eight 6 in (150 mm) guns, ten 4 in (100 mm) guns, twelve .50 in (12.7 mm) Vickers machine guns in quadruple mounts and eight 21 in (530 mm) torpedo tubes. Leander also had armour plating over her turrets, deck and magazines and a top speed of 32.5 kn (60.2 km/h; 37.4 mph).
Ramb I was an auxiliary cruiser, not a purpose-built warship and lacked armour protection. It was armed with two 120 mm (4.7 in) guns and eight 13.2 mm (0.52 in) anti-aircraft machine guns. Ramb I was slower than Leander, with a top speed of only 18.5 kn (34.3 km/h; 21.3 mph). The ship had departed Suez on 10 June 1940 for Massawa on the Red Sea coast, from where the ship made short cruises along the coast of Eritrea but was mainly used for anti-aircraft defence of the port. As the port was menaced by British and Allied troops, on 20 February 1941, Ramb I sailed and passed into the Gulf of Aden during the night. One ship was sighted near the island of Socotra off the Horn of Africa but it was considered too dangerous a location to attack.
Acting on reports of commerce raiders in the area, Leander sailed from Bombay on 22 February, passing west of the Laccadive and Maldive islands, to a patrol area west of One and a Half Degree Channel. At 7:00 a.m. on 27 February, Leander was steaming east, about 28 nmi (52 km; 32 mi) north of the Equator and 320 nmi (590 km; 370 mi) west of the Maldives. The captain, Robert Bevan altered course to the north to head for One and a Half Degree Channel, because news of the capture of Mogadishu had been received by radio on the previous day. Italian ships in the port might have sailed along that route for the Far East.
At 10:37 a.m., a ship was sighted ahead and Leander increased speed to 23 kn (43 km/h; 26 mph), gradually overhauling the vessel. As Leander closed, a gun was seen on the ship's forecastle and the silhouette of the ship resembled an Italian Ramb-class fruit carrier. Leander went to action stations at 11:15 a.m. and when ordered to identify itself ten minutes later, the vessel hoisted a British merchant flag. When ordered to give its signal letters, the ship hoisted four letters which were not listed in British signal books. Leander made the secret challenge but received no reply and the ship maintained its course and speed. A boarding party was standing by and at 11:45 a.m., the ship was ordered to stop instantly but no reply was received. A few minutes later, the ship hoisted the Italian merchant flag and trained its guns on Leander. The cruiser was broad on the beam of the Italian ship and at 3,000 yd (2,700 m) was an easy target for its guns and torpedoes. At 11:53 a.m., the Italian ship opened fire and thirty seconds later, Leander replied. The Italian fire was inaccurate and it was estimated that only about three shells were fired from each gun.
A few shell splinters hit Leander, which fired five salvoes in a minute, then ceased fire to observe results. Leander made the flag signal "Do you surrender?", the Merchant flag was seen to be lowered and the crew began to abandon ship. Leander had hit the ship several times in the forepart and a fire burned, visible through a large hole in the side. A boat was lowered from Leander with a boarding party to try to save the ship and two lifeboats were seen leaving the vessel as men jumped overboard or scrambled down the side. An Italian officer in the water called out that the boarding party should not approach the ship, as it was burning and laden with ammunition. The boarding party laid off and as the fire spread, a big explosion before the bridge shot flames and smoke high into the sky, the ship settling bows first. As the fire burned, there was another explosion and five minutes later the ship sank under a cloud of black smoke. Leander recovered the boarding party and the Italian lifeboats, while edging away.
The Italian captain, ten officers and 92 sailors were rescued, one was seriously wounded, four were slightly injured and one Italian sailor had been killed by shellfire. The seriously wounded man died in surgery during the afternoon and was buried at sunset. The prisoners said that Ramb I had been badly damaged by the shell hits and as Leander closed, the order to abandon ship had been given. Leander sailed eastward and arrived at Addu Atoll next morning. The Italian prisoners were transferred to the oiler Pearleaf with an armed guard of nineteen ratings and an officer; the ship made for Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Leander was sent to investigate wireless direction-finding indications that Axis ships were in the vicinity of the Saya de Malha Bank, several hundred miles south-east of the Seychelles Islands and north-east of Madagascar.
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