Melpomene 80m - 82m

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1st of November 1944 action – sinking of Melpomene, Audace and Springarda. 

Sub-Lieutenant Heinz Trautwein, commander of UJ 202 was smoking a cigarette and looking at the port of Rijeka disappearing slowly in the darkness as his ship headed south. It was few minutes after 16:00 on 1st of November 1944. He had really bad feelings about this operation. He and his 110-people crew had a task to escort the Wikinger II convoy, while the German Army tried to pull out the resources from the Sibenik and Zadar area to Rijeka in the north of Adriatic. It was a matter of days when Sibenik would be captured by Yugoslavian Partisans and hence all the military assets had to be evacuated north to Rijeka as fast as possible. Part A of the Wikinger II convoy consisted of four large landing crafts: MFP 522, 554, 484 and 354 and the part B was 13 landing barges and 2 large assault landing boats. Few days earlier, the attack of British bombers destroyed one of the fast attack boat and damaged the other, reducing the power of the whole 3rd E-Boot Flottilla, so since the rendezvous with the convoy at “Punkt 118” south of Pag, the escort duties were handed over to 2nd Escort Flotilla, or rather what had left from this flotilla, thought Commander Trautwein. The only ships able to protect the convoy were only two former Italian Gabbiano class corvettes: his UJ 202, UJ 208 which were just sailing side by side, fast minesweeper R187 which should have left half an hour after them and old destroyer TA-20. What was even worse, the latter was still in the port refueling, because the fuel she loaded previously was contaminated, and she was not able to leave the port in at least next three hours. Although the UJ 202, former Italian corvette “Melpomene”, was enforced with bunch of 20-mm and 37-mm guns recently, suitable for anti-aircraft protection, she had only one big 100 mm cannon. Her sister ship, UJ 208, former Italian “Springarda”, was carrying even lighter armament, which was enough for previous months of escort service and submarine hunting in Mediterranean but for sure not enough to fight modern British destroyers. TA-20, former Italian destroyer “Audace”, was supposed to provide additional main firepower to protect the convoy with her two 102 mm guns and anti-aircraft weapon, but she was not ready to depart yet from Rjieka. It was definitely not a good situation, especially that British Royal Navy became more and more active these days, thought Commander Trautwein. They had to find the convoy at “Punkt 118” and escort it by themselves while TA-20 joins. However, he didn’t know that at the same time flotilla of Royal Navy ships left the base on the Ist island starting the operation “Exterminate”. The operation had one specific goal: to destroy both German corvettes and the TA-20 destroyer. 

Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Morgan-Giles was standing at the commanding bridge of the Hunt-class destroyer, HMS Wheatland when the flotilla was leaving navy base at the small deserted island of Ist. He was proudly looking at the other destroyer of the same type, HMS Avon Vale and the rest of the flotilla: 3 motor torpedo boats, 3 motor gun boats and a motor launch. Both British destroyers were armed (among other guns) with deadly 3 pairs of 101 mm quick firing cannons that could fire up to 20 rounds per minute – a masterpiece of British artillery. Based on the information passed by Yugoslavian Partisans, torpedo boats were to patrol the west of island Rab and the destroyers were supposed to disembark a group of South African coastal scouts in the northern part of Pag and then stay west of the island. 

“We have visual contact with enemy destroyers, west of Rab island” – the radio message from motor boats came at 19:50 to the commanding bridge of HMS Wheatland. The Royal Navy destroyers headed towards this direction with the full speed. Morgan-Giles knew that they have the advantage of speed, radar contact and the sudden attack could succeed. 25 minutes later, at a position due west of Lun island, German got contact with the British units, “all hands to the battle stations!” commanded briefly Trautwein. UJ 202 fired two star shells to illuminate battlefield and to see the enemy ships better, what was immediately spotted by R187 which was following the corvettes. Unfortunately, what appeared 

to the Commander Trautwein as small motor boats now was clearly visible as the pair of British destroyers which immediately engaged with accurate artillery fire. Trautwein knew at this moment that this battle was lost before it even started. It was only 2 big German cannons versus twelve British. 

The first British salvo poured both corvettes with the rain 101-millimetre shells, from a distance of 3,700 meters. UJ 202 was hit directly by several shots. “Sail back towards the Rab island and carry on the returning fire” was the last command of Commander Trautwein before the new series of hits completely destroyed the commanding bridge killing all the officers inside. British shells demolished also antennas and the radio room but the gun crew continued to fire back when she was taking the heading to Rab island. Her fate was sealed by a shell that exploded in the stern munition chamber causing great opening in the superstructure and quick sinking. 

UJ 208 was also hit hard, and most of her artillery stations including 100-millimetre and bow-mounted 20-millimetre guns were quickly out of action. Her crew managed to put out fire on her stern, but another fire that blazed amidships blocked all communications between the bow and stern sections of the vessel. By 20:30, she rolled to the port and began sinking. R187 was late at the battlefield and after witnessing fast sinking of both UJs she maintained radio silence and sailed east undetected. She meet the German convoy at 23:45 and escorted it farther towards north. 

After rapid sinking of both German corvettes, British units started pulling the German sailors out of the cold waters of Adriatic, but at 22:30 the rescue action was stopped, as a new target appeared at the British radars. It was German TA-20 destroyer, which sailed out late from the Sibenik port and now was heading full speed to join the corvettes. Unfortunately, it was far too late. The first salvo from both British destroyers was deadly: the shells destroyed the bridge immediately killing all the commanding officers including the Commander of the 2nd Escort Flotilla, Lieutenant Commander Thorwest and the captain, Sub-Lieutenant Heinz Guhrke and disabling all the fire control systems and radio. It was just minutes later when the ship sank. Neither of the German ships was able to send the radio message about the fire contact with the British before their radio rooms and antennas were fully destroyed, so the Command of German Navy had no clue what happened until R187 reached the rest of the Vikinger II convoy around midnight. 

As the weather conditions started to worsen, the British ships had to stop rescue action. They saved 90 German sailors altogether. Some others were saved in the following days by the German rescue group, some of them survived on the islands nearby and were saved by the crew of a lighthouse. Over 200 German sailors lost their lives that evening. 

All the three wrecks were identified during the Italian GUE divers expeditions in 1999 and 2000. The goal was to search for different wrecks and after careful historical studies, interviews with the witnesses and extensive sonar scans they were able to locate not only TA-20, Melpomene and Springarda, but also the wrecks of two steamers from the I WW: Euterpe and Albanien. 

Fragments of the German Navy war diary, mentioning the Wikinger convoy setting off to meet its escort in “Punkt 118”, information that only R187 was present in the meeting point and final report stating that after hard battle German units were sank and only some sailors saved. 

TA 20, former Italian destroyer “Audace” 

Uj 202, former Italian Gabbiano class corvette “Melpomene” 

Uj 206, ex Italian Gabbiano class corvette “Bombarda”, Uj 208 (ex. “Springarda”) must have looked pretty much the same. At the stern “Gatteschi”depth charges launcher is visible. 

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Avon Vale 

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Wheatland