Chapter 12: Operations in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean
During the course of the war six anti-aircraft sloops and several fleet minesweepers were built in the United Kingdom for the RIN After commissioning, many of these ships joined various escort groups operating in the northern approaches to the British Isles. HMISs Sutlej and Jumna, each armed with six-high angle 4” guns, were present during the Clyde “Blitz” of 1941 and assisted the defence of this area by providing anti-aircraft cover. For the next six months these two ships joined the Clyde Escort Force, operating in the Atlantic and later the Irish Sea Escort Force where they acted as the senior ships of the groups. While engaged on these duties, numerous attacks against U-boats were carried out and attacks by hostile aircraft repelled. At the time of action in which the Bismarck was involved, the Sutlej left Scapa Flow, with all despatch as the senior member of a group, to take over a convoy from the destroyers which were finally engaged in the sinking of the Bismarck.
Later HMISs Cauvery, Kistna, Narbada and Godavari, also antiaircraft sloops, completed similar periods in the U.K. waters escorting convoys in the Atlantic and dealing with attacks from hostile U-boats, aircraft and glider bombs. These six ships and the minesweepers all eventually proceeded to India carrying out various duties in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Cape stations en route. The fleet minesweepers were HMISs Kathiawar, Kumaon, Baluchistan, Karnatic, Khyber, Konkan, Orissa, Rajputana and Rohilkhand.
The following Royal Indian Navy ships built in the United Kingdom served in the Mediterranean.
Sutlej Jumna (Built in 1940). Came out to India via the Cape. But later served in the Mediterranean between May and September 1943 escorting convoys, and took part in operation “HUSKY”.
Cauvery Kistna Narbada Godavari (Built in 1942). Game out to India via the Mediterranean. Convoy escort duties en route. (Built respectively in 1942 and 1943). Game out via the Mediterranean. Convoy escort duties en route.
Kathiawar Kumaon (Built in 1942). Came out via the Cape. But did convoy escort duties and minesweeping in Western Mediterranean in February 1943.
Operational Headquarters at Malta:–
As a preliminary to the invasion of Sicily, the Commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, transferred his operational headquarters from Algiers to Malta on 5 July. The main administration of the fleet remained at Algiers.
After months of preparation Operation “Husky” was about to be launched. It was the largest amphibious operation yet undertaken. “D” day was fixed for 10 July 1943. The Commander-in-Chief’s signal ordering all ships and authorities to carry out the operation was timed 0950 on 4 July.
Strategic surprise was achieved in a large measure in the routing of assault convoys. Hostile air reconnaissance was deceived by well-planned feints. On 9 July the majority of ships appeared apparently heading eastward towards Greece.
Plans for the Landings
The two sectors chosen for the landings were separate but adjoining and lay on the south-eastern and southern coasts of Sicily. Together they stretched for about 100 miles from Syracuse to Licata. The attack in the south-east was launched by the Eastern Task Force (British), that on the South by the Western Task Force (American).
The Eastern Task Force was allotted landings as follows:–
North of Avola, by the 5th and 50th Divisions from the Middle East (beaches ACID NORTH and ACID SOUTH) with the object of capturing Syracuse.
North of Pachino, by the 231st Brigade from the Middle East (BARK EAST).
North-east and south-west of Porto Palo, by the 51st Division from Tunisia (BARK SOUTH).
South-west of Pachino, by the 1st Canadian Division from the United Kingdom (BARK WEST).
The Western Task Force was allotted landings as follows:–
Scoglitti, by the 45th U.S. Division, from the United States (CENT).
Gela, by two regimental combat terms and two ranger battalions of the 1st U.S. Division from North Africa (DIME).
Licata, by three regimental combat terms and one ranger battalion of the 3rd U.S. Division, from North Africa (JOSS).
Officers in Command
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, eight months earlier, had conducted the landings in North Africa and had since commanded the Allied Forces there, was again entrusted with the Supreme Command. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham was the Naval Commander-in-Chief. The Army Commander-in-Chief was General Sir Harold Alexander, and the Air Commander-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder.
The following were the Naval Sector Commanders:–
ACID NORTH and SOUTH, Rear-Admiral T. H. Troubridge (HMS Bulolo)
BARK EAST, Captain Lord Ashbourne, RN (HMS Keren)
BARK SOUTH, Rear-Admiral R. R. Mc Grigor (HMS Largs)
BARK WEST, Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian (HMS Hilary)
CENT, Rear-Admiral Kirk, USN (USS Ancon)
DIME, Rear-Admiral Hall, USN (USS Samuel Chase)
JOSS, Rear-Admiral Conolly, USN (USS Biscayne).
Covering and Supporting Forces
To cover the assaults against interference from the Italian fleet, Force “H” was specially strengthened and was stationed in the Ionian Sea, where it served incidentally to suggest that the expedition might be directed against Greece. It was organised in three divisions, each consisting of battleships, an aircraft carrier (except in the third division) and destroyers. The first division consisted of the battleships Nelson (Flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Algernon Willis) and
Rodney and the aircraft-carrier Indomitable (Flagship of Rear-Admiral Moody).
The sea-borne invasion of Sicily began at 245 on 10 July 1943 after a preliminary descent of parachute and glider-borne troops about four hours earlier. Landings were made at seven places; on the east coast by the British Eighth Army (a) north of Avola by the XIII Corps, (b) at points north of Cape Pachino by the Corps, (c) at points near Porto Palo, near Cape Passero, by the 51st Highland Division, (d) south-west of Pachino by a Canadian Division and further to the west by the United States Seventh Army (e) at Scoglitti, (/) at Gela and (g) at Licata. The invading force was convoyed and covered by 2,755 ships and landing craft of all sorts.
Sutlej & Jumna
The Sutlej (Capt. J. E. N. Coope, RIN) and Jumna (Cdr. I. B. W. Heanley, RIN), which arrived at Alexandria in May and June 1943, were attached respectively to the First and Second Levant Escort Groups. In June they were employed in escort duties between Alexandria, Tripoli ad Malta. In the beginning of July, they were on escort duties with the Convoy MWS 36 from Alexandria to Sicily. On 6 July, SS Shahjehan of this convoy was torpedoed. They arrived at “ACID NORTH” beaches and provided anti-submarine screen during the landing operations. Describing the part of the Sutlej in these operations Captain Coope stated:–
“The Sutlej was senior officer of A/S patrol and as such had a roving commission as general ‘Whipper in’ to the patrol ships and managed to make quick dashes inshore to have a ‘decco’ at the landings at close quarters. The sight was amazing. Landing Craft of all descriptions pouring their loads ashore with very little congestion on the beaches as the troops and vehicles very rapidly pushed inland to capture their objectives.
“By 1100, five hours after initial assault, Admiral Troubridge was . able to signal to the Supreme Naval Commander – Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham ‘Landings at Acid Beaches successfully carried out, bridgehead secured.’ Landings on the southern and western coasts of Sicily were also successfully accomplished.
“All these landings, which covered a front of nearly one hundred miles, were supported by Naval Craft of all descriptions Cruisers, Destroyers, Monitors, Sloops, Corvettes, Mine-Sweepers, Gunboats, Motor Torpedo Boats, Motor Gun Boats and in the air by Bombers and Fighters of the RAF.”
HMIS Sutlej between August and December 1943
Captain H. Watt, RIN took over command of HMIS Sutlej in August 1943 when the ship operated in the eastern area of the Mediterranean from August until 1 December 1943, before she was ordered to rejoin the Eastern Fleet. His first week in the Sutlej was spent at Alexandria completing a boiler clean.
The Sutlej was once ordered to search a hostile submarine reported to be operating off the Libyan coast. It had not carried out any successful attacks and the information available was scanty. After an unsuccessful search of 36 hours the Corvette and the Sutlej returned to harbour.
After this her duty was to convoy ships between Alexandria, Port Said, Haifa, Beirut, Tripoli, Alexandretta, Famagusta and Limassol. The convoys she escorted were numerous but the voyages were of short duration. No convoy was even attacked and over a hundred ships were safely taken from port to port. It was rather surprising that the Axis navy or air force made no serious effort to damage the Allied shipping in this theatre during the period August-December, 1943. The bulk of the shipping involved was tanker tonnage, ships of great value. Ostensibly the collapse of Italy had affected the German submarines in this area and restricted their movements. In September when part of the Italian Fleet was steaming out of Italian waters pursued by the Luftwaffe and the battleship Roma was sunk by bombs near Corsica, the Sutlej was ordered to proceed to Haifa with despatch. Her job was to rush companies of veteran British troops into the Aegean area. The Greek destroyer Kondoriotis and the French destroyers La Moqueuse and Domine were to do the same and form one Force coming under Sutlej as Senior Officer. With troops embarked she sailed in company that night.
The troops on board the Sutlej were a detachment of the Royal West Kents from a regular battalion. They had been rushed across by lorries from Iraq and had a rough time of it. The soldiers had been on field rations and welcomed ship’s food and cigarettes. The ships pushed along through the night at their best speed. Their destination was the Italian island of Kostelorizo off the coast of Turkey on the perimeter of the Aegean Sea not far from Rhodes. Before sailing information was very scanty. The state in the Aegean islands was one of flux. Some islands had surrendered to the Germans, some were fighting against them, and others were watching the developments. All that the Sutlej had to do was to go to Kostelorizo, land the force and return for more troops. The plan of
the island and harbour from a Greek survey of 1860 was her guide. The reception she expected was favourable and by the time she arrived, it was hoped that a British representative would have arrived from Alexandria in a fast launch. She was not given any information about port facilities or the existence of mined areas. Before she left, there was a meeting between the Captains of the four ships to co-ordinate the landing procedure. One of the French Captains had some barrels of oil on board and he was terribly anxious as to how he should land them. He tried to get the Sutlej to let him take a short cut between some small islands and rocks off their destination so that he might roll out the barrels to drift on shore. Luckily they had taken the longer and more orthodox way and kept to deep water because later they heard that most shallow channels in the island had been mined.
The Sutlej had an uneventful voyage and all she saw was a fleet often small island vessels on their way to Beirut escorted by two RN motor launches. It was evening as the Sutlej approached Kostelorizo with the mountain ranges of Turkey in the background. The whole region looked barren. The ship had orders not to anchor before dark for fear of air attack from Rhodes. At dusk she edged slowly in to a rock cove where the houses and dwellings of the town on the shore came down to the water’s edge. She and one of the other ships got right in and anchored close in to the quay and the other two ships lay not far off. As soon as the Sutlej had anchored, two British officers came on board. It was good news to be told that the Italian garrison were willing to help the British if help arrived. Being only a few yards from the dock wall, it took only four hours to disembark troops and stores and at midnight the Sutlej sailed for Beirut together with the other ships. On the way back the Greek ship Kondoriotis depth-charged a suspected submarine.
Later in October, Sutlej again set out for Kostelorizo, this time escorting the Italian ship Eolo carrying British reinforcements. Within five hours of her arrival the order to return to Beirut was signalled to her by wireless. The Allied stronghold of Leros was attacked by superior Axis forces and consequently the Sutlej had to leave the Aegean waters.
After visiting Famagusta in Cyprus and Haifa, Beirut and Tripoli, the Sutlej sailed in December for Indian waters. Her sojourn in the Mediterranean had not been very long. After passing through the Suez Canal she made for Massawa where she spent a few days in dry dock. Her next port of call was Aden. Then she reached Bombay where the ship underwent a refit during which time many ratings were granted leave.