Chapter 11: The Italians Make a Move into Egypt
See Map 5
IN HIS review of the situation in Egypt General Wavell had explained to the Chiefs of Staff that although the operations on the frontier had been highly successful the wear and tear on his armoured troops had been severe. If the enemy were to bring up large forces, some withdrawal would be necessary. A forward trend on the part of the Italians was in fact soon noticed, and their enterprise in a rather clumsy form of reconnaissance increased. At the same time their defences were being improved. It was therefore decided to arrest the harassing operations on the part of the units of the British covering force before their fighting efficiency, especially that of the tracked vehicles, fell too low for them to play a full part in more extensive operations. In other words, in order to retain the capacity to defeat a determined thrust on Matruh it was necessary not to lose heavily in defending the intervening spaces. The bulk of the armoured units were accordingly withdrawn nearer to Matruh, and the Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division, under Brigadier W. H. E. Gott, took over the front on 13th August with orders to establish a line of observation from Sollum to Maddalena, and to keep in touch with the enemy and give early warning of any changes on his dispositions.1 If attacked, the Support Group was to impose delay without becoming seriously involved, and if necessary was to withdraw to successive lines of observation. The Support Group included three motor battalions; two 25-pdr batteries, each of twelve guns; two anti-tank batteries; a section of medium artillery; and detachments of engineers and machine-gunners. With these forces and one incomplete cruiser tank battalion the Support Group observed and patrolled its sixty miles of front and harassed the enemy as much as possible during the rest of August and early September. More distant reconnaissance on and beyond the frontier was carried out by the 11th Hussars.
The Royal Air Force, too, was feeling the strain. The problem facing the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief was how to allocate
enough forces to Aden and the Sudan to keep the Red Sea secure, and at the same time conserve his resources for the expected battle for the defence of Egypt. As early as 17th July he had warned Air Commodore Collishaw that reserves of all types of aircraft in the Middle East were being rapidly consumed and that as there was no immediate prospect of receiving replacements it was necessary to exercise still greater economy. A system was introduced of attacks at night by single Bombay aircraft of No. 216 Squadron against shipping and storage tanks at Tobruk, and there were signs that these caused the Italians no little concern. But within the strict limits dictated by the need to husband resources attacks were continued on airfields and lines of communication, while the Army was asked not to call for air action, other than reconnaissance, unless an enemy attack was clearly imminent.
The lack of detailed intelligence about the Italian land forces in Libya had made it difficult to estimate their true capabilities. It had to be assumed that they would not remain inactive while the East African Empire was virtually cut off, but it would be impossible, for logistic reasons alone, for Graziani to enter Egypt with more than a fraction of his total strength: the question was, how strong and how mobile would such a force be? General Wavell had confidence in the superiority of his troops over any they had met hitherto, in evidence of which the published Italian casualties in Libya between 11th June and 9th September amounted to 3,500, while the British losses had been 150. As the intelligence mosaic took shape it gave him no indication of Italian capacity to deliver and sustain a heavy blow, though he could not rule out the possibility that armoured and mechanized units in far greater strength than his own might be brought up for the invasion. The presence of Italian medium tanks (11 or 13 ton) had already been confirmed, but the numbers were not known with any accuracy. Of the total of 85 British cruiser tanks (12½ or 14 ton) 15 were in workshops at the beginning of September, and indeed the state of the British equipment generally was such that the appearance at this moment of German mechanized units would have been particularly disturbing. It was therefore unfortunate that the sea routes to Tripoli and Benghazi could not be seriously interfered with, nor could those ports be kept under observation. In the event there might be little or no warning of German intervention.
The Italian intelligence staff, on the other hand, had for a long time enjoyed exceptional facilities for obtaining timely information about the presence of British units in Egypt; in fact, they often knew about convoys on the way and roughly what they contained. They were less well informed about shortages of weapons and equipment and the state of training—factors which are much more difficult to
evaluate. Thus while they knew of the existence of the British 7th Armoured Division, and of an Indian and a New Zealand Division, they did not know how incomplete they all were. They persistently over-estimated the British strength in the Delta area, but they were well informed about the Egyptian forces and did not rate their fighting value very high.
The circumstances leading to the Italian advance across the Egyptian frontier were as follows. When Mussolini decided to enter the war there were no plans for invading Egypt and the Italian policy was to adopt a defensive attitude on both fronts in Libya. Even so, Marshal Balbo wanted the whole of June in which to build up the resources necessary for an ‘honourable resistance’. With the elimination of France, however, it became possible to strengthen Cyrenaica at the expense of Tripolitania, and when at the end of June Marshal Graziani was appointed to succeed Balbo he was immediately told to make preparations for invading Egypt.2 He lost no time in pointing out that he lacked many of the necessary resources, notably anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and medium artillery; medium tanks; and vehicles of all kinds. He awaited replacements for a number of aircraft and crews, and asked in addition for a new Stormo (Group) of fighters and a Reconnaissance Gruppo (Wing).
The Germans were already considering whether to help the Italians with equipment, and their Military Attaché in Rome. Major-General Enno von Rintelen, kept Berlin well informed of developments in Cyrenaica. He was personally acquainted with the ground, and viewed with great interest the prospect of a clash in the desert between two European Powers, each with up-to-date weapons and equipment. He understood that the Italian object was to drive the British out of Egypt and establish land communication with East Africa. Two conditions were essential to success: the safety of the sea routes and air superiority over northern Egypt. Artillery, ammunition, tanks, and aircraft were going to be more important than numbers of men. The problem of supply would loom even larger than it did in Europe, and would be greatly influenced by the available ports: if these were to drop too far behind the advance, the burden on the transport columns would become excessive: the deduction was that Matruh must be secured quickly. He reported that Graziani, as an experienced colonial fighter, well understood the need for making thorough preparations, which he was now doing with great energy.
During July Mussolini was persuaded that with more time for
preparations the results would be appreciably greater, but he insisted that, whether the preparations were ready or not, Graziani was to make a forward move on the day the first Germans set foot in England. To this Graziani made no objection, but he stuck to his opinion that otherwise it would be unwise to advance without the strength to carry the operations through, and gave effect to his views by postponing his date of readiness with great regularity.3 In particular, he complained of not having received the transport necessary for motorizing the two Libyan divisions, whose role in the advance was to have been to move south of the escarpment in company with a special mechanized group under General Maletti. On September 7th Mussolini issued a peremptory order for the advance to begin in two days time, whether the Germans had landed in England or not. Graziani was now obliged to adopt a new plan, for the Libyan divisions had not enough motor transport to enable them to operate with the mechanized group. They were accordingly detailed to carry out the first phase of the advance along the coast road, their place in the lead to be taken over in due course by the 1st Blackshirt (or 23rd March) Division which was sufficiently mobile for this purpose: the Maletti Group was to retain its independent role on the southern flank. Preliminary moves began on September 9th, but on the 11th the Maletti Group lost its way to its position of assembly at Sidi Omar. Graziani, who was already disturbed by reports of massive British armoured forces to the south of the escarpment, now changed the plan again by cancelling the flanking movement altogether and placing Maletti under the orders of General Berti, commanding the 10th Army, for more intimate co-operation with the coastal advance. Two other divisions, 62nd Marmarica and 63rd Cirene, were available for the operations, making five divisions in all, and a tank group of one medium, two mixed, and four light tank battalions. Two other divisions, the 4th Blackshirt and the 64th Catanzaro, were in reserve near Tobruk.
The 5th Squadra, under General Porro, had been specially made up in aircraft, pilots, vehicles, and airfield equipment to enable it to support the advance.4 Even so, its strength was much less than the British estimates of what was likely to be used for a major invasion of Egypt. It seems that there were about 300 serviceable bombers, fighters, and ground attack aircraft, apart from reconnaissance units, the Colonial Air Force, and a number of transport and air-sea rescue aircraft. The preliminary role of the air forces was to attack British
airfields, supply centres and command posts, and to cover the move to assembly positions. Subsequently they were to protect the advance, and attack enemy troops and vehicles, and objectives chosen by the High Command.
On September 9th the enemy’s air activity increased appreciably. Three bomber squadrons of the Royal Air Force, Nos. 55, 113 and 211, thereupon attacked airfields, concentrations of transport, and supply dumps, one of the operations being an attack by 21 aircraft on the town airfield of Tobruk, where much transport was assembled. The enemy retaliated on the same day by carrying out a sweep by 27 fighters over the Buq Buq area, which led to further operations against Italian airfields. Air reports indicated much movement about Bardia, Sidi Azeiz, Gabr Saleh and towards Sidi Omar from the west. Evidently the long-expected invasion was about to begin, though on 11th September von Rintelen wrote that it was clear to him by now that nothing more than a tactical success was expected; there was no immediate prospect of capturing Alexandria, the Delta, or the Canal, nor of opening up the route to East Africa.5
The British estimate of the Italian force available for the operation was substantially correct, but it was debatable whether Graziani would attempt a wide turning movement south of the escarpment. Reports from the air suggested that something of the sort might be intended, and dispositions had to be made to deal with it, but in estimating that the Italians would not confine themselves to the vicinity of the coast road the British were crediting them with a scale of transport and a degree of desert-worthiness that they did not possess. The Italian 10th Army’s intelligence summary for 19th October 1940, contained the statement: ‘As is well-known, the enemy has units more manoeuvrable in the desert than ours.’ The truth is that the Italians had not mastered the art of movement on a broad front. This may have been partly due to their liking for roads and their undoubted flair for making them, and partly to other causes—scanty wireless communications, for example.
Early on 13th September a spectacular artillery barrage opened on Musaid, which the enemy then proceeded to occupy. This was followed by the heavy shelling of the airfield and empty barracks at Sollum, and when the dust had cleared the enemy was disclosed to the westward with his motor-cycles, light tanks, and other vehicles drawn up as if on parade awaiting the order to advance. Opposing them in the coastal sector was a force under the command of Lieut. Colonel J. Moubray, commanding 3rd Coldstream Guards, consisting of that battalion, C Battery and, later, part of F Battery RHA,
a section of 25/26th Medium Battery R.A., one company 1st K.R.R.C., and one machine-gun company 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The enemy’s close formation presented excellent targets to the artillery and the air, but it was not long before the 1st Libyan Division was in possession of the barracks and was beginning to trickle down the escarpment towards Sollum.
A simultaneous movement along the plateau towards the head of the Halfaya Pass was held up by a troop of C Battery RHA, a company of 3rd Coldstream Guards and a platoon of the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, but this detachment became threatened by increasing infantry and tank forces and in the early afternoon began to withdraw eastward. By the evening two large columns of the enemy were converging on Halfaya Pass—they were 2nd Libyan and 63rd Cirene Divisions and the Maletti Group, all from Musaid, and the 62nd Marmarica Division from the direction of Sidi Omar—but not until next morning did any appreciable movement take place down the pass to add to the stream of vehicles coming from Sollum. In fact the Italians on the plateau above the escarpment seemed hesitant, and they were successfully harassed by C Squadron 11th Hussars, by 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade, and by the cruiser squadrons of 1st Royal Tank Regiment, under the control of Brigadier Gott.
Soon after noon on the 14th the commander of the coastal sector withdrew his force to a selected position just east of Buq Buq, where he was reinforced by B Squadron 11th Hussars and a French Motor Marine Company, which enabled him to keep touch with the enemy. The pattern of the ground operations along the coast road during the next two days was similar, with successive withdrawals to rearguard positions at Alam Hamid on the 15th and Alam el Dab on the 16th, during which the force inflicted as much loss as it could without becoming seriously committed. Shortly after noon on the 16th a force of some fifty Italian tanks and lorried infantry, showing more enterprise, were seen to be moving round the left flank of the Alam el Dab position, and the rearguard was withdrawn to the east of Sidi Barrani to avoid being cut off. The enemy was rapidly and successfully engaged by C and F Batteries RHA and displayed no further aggressive intentions; indeed it seemed that the Italians had little idea of making use of such armoured troops as they had. However by nightfall Sidi Barrani was in the hands of the 1st Blackshirt Division.
Meanwhile there had been nothing to prevent the British force on the plateau adjusting its movements in conformity with those in the coastal sector, and it was soon clear that no particular threat was likely to develop from the southern flank. All this time the Air Force was keeping the enemy under constant observation and finding
many opportunities for attacking ground concentrations. The Italian Air Force showed unusual activity; fighters in formations of up to 100 aircraft were reported operating over their advancing troops, while bombers directed their attention to the British forward airfields and troop positions.
It was believed that in occupying Sidi Barrani and Sofafi the Italians had reached their immediate objectives, and the task of observing the front passed once again to the 11th Hussars. The Support Group was withdrawn to rest, and 7th Armoured Division took up dispositions in readiness to deal with a further advance on Matruh. At first it seemed likely that this would not be long delayed: the Italian broadcasts had claimed the capture of the key to Egypt and of half the British war material, and announced that the way to the Canal was now open. The dispositions and attitude of the Italian forces, however, were soon seen to be more consistent with a policy of temporary consolidation than with any intention of maintaining their momentum. Graziani had in fact begun the laborious process of administrative development at the head of a long and difficult line of communication, and the Air Force did their best to interfere with the process by making day and night attacks on camps and transport columns. Sixty sorties were devoted to these tasks between 16th and 21st September.6
The rough road between the frontier and Sidi Barrani had been destroyed by demolitions and by the heavy traffic, and the water at Sidi Barrani had been rendered undrinkable. The ruling factors in the Italian time-table were the construction of a motorable road and of a water pipeline forward from the frontier. These works were only partly finished when the Duce again began to apply the spur; this time it was because he wished to attack Greece and wanted to be in possession of Matruh before doing so, thus, he thought, effectively preventing any appreciable movement of British forces to help the Greeks. But Graziani was not to be hurried, and senior German officers visiting the front reported that unless Mussolini gave a definite order there would be no resumption of the advance before mid-December. Even then it would be to Matruh and no farther.
On September 17th the Navy joined in the task of harassing Graziani’s communications. Aircraft from the Illustrious laid mines at Benghazi and sank with torpedoes the destroyer Borea and the merchant vessels Gloria Stella and Maria Eugenia, both of about 5,000 tons. On the same day a second destroyer, the Aquilone, struck one of the mines and sank. Meanwhile Blenheims of the Royal Air Force attacked Benina airfield and destroyed three bombers on the ground.7
The gunboat Ladybird shelled from close range the escarpment road
above Sollum, and destroyers engaged targets in the Sidi Barrani area. These bombardments appeared to be effective, causing fires and explosions, and this was confirmed by prisoners who spoke of the casualties, damage, and effect upon morale. A bombardment of Bardia by the cruiser Kent and destroyers was unfortunately prevented by an attack on the cruiser by torpedo-bombers just as she was taking up her position. One hit with a torpedo was scored in her stern. Protected by the Royal Air Force she was brought into harbour two days later so badly damaged that she was unfit for further service in the Mediterranean. This was a serious matter, as only one other 8-inch cruiser, the York, had been assigned to Admiral Cunningham and she was not due to reach Suez for another week. The incident marked the beginning of a new phase in the encounter between the British Fleet and the Italian Air Force; from now until the arrival of the Luftwaffe the torpedo-bomber was to be the principal cause of anxiety and damage.
Other bombardments of shore targets from the sea took place during the weeks of waiting, which helped to discourage the enemy from siting his camps and depots within reach of naval guns. In addition, the Ladybird and Aphis engaged any targets that presented themselves.8 Meanwhile on land a policy of harassing the enemy by small mobile columns was successfully adopted. Working in conjunction with the armoured car patrols they penetrated right up to the enemy’s defended localities, obtaining much valuable information and establishing a local ascendancy later to be turned to good account.
The loss of the advanced landing grounds at Sidi Barrani had adverse effects on all three Services. The distance to which fighters could give protection to bombers or to which tactical reconnaissance sorties could penetrate was reduced by nearly one hundred miles, while the bombers themselves were deprived of a very useful refuelling base. Blenheims were forced to operate at extreme range to reach Benghazi. Hurricanes which could hitherto have reached Malta in emergency with the aid of extra fuel tanks could no longer be expected to do so; henceforth any reinforcing Hurricanes for Malta would have to be flown from a carrier or sent by ship in convoy. Ships engaged in bombarding the Libyan coast had formerly had fighter protection as far as Bardia; now this did not extend even to Sidi Barrani. Derna was too far for aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm to attack. The enemy, on the other hand, could give fighter escort to his bombers for attacks on the British advanced base at Matruh.
This naturally made the Commanders-in-Chief more conscious than ever of the weakness of the air defence all over the Middle East. In September they set up an inter-Service body to keep the problem constantly under review and to ensure the best use being made of the available resources, but the fact remained that there were not enough fighter aircraft, or guns, or searchlights, or radar sets for all the tasks. The efforts of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief to build up his fighter strength have already been mentioned. As regards guns, the minimum requirements for the air defence of the ports, the base in Egypt, the Western Desert, Palestine, the Sudan, and Crete, were estimated early in November to be 174 heavy and 356 light antiaircraft guns; the numbers available were about one-half of the heavy and less than one-third of the light. The anti-aircraft searchlight situation was worse still; apart from batteries at Aden and Malta there were no searchlights other than those manned by the Egyptian Army. General Wavell regarded this as so unsatisfactory that in October he suggested that the cargo space allotted in one of the next convoys to a heavy A.A. battery should be used instead for 24 searchlights.
An efficient warning system was of course essential if the defences were to operate successfully, but in Egypt it still consisted mainly of observer posts in the Western Desert, now of necessity deployed in new locations, and along blue coast road to Alexandria and in the Nile Valley. Similar organizations existed in the Sudan, in Kenya and at Aden. At the beginning of October there were still no completed fixed radar stations anywhere in the Middle East, but there were a few mobile sets in Egypt and at Haifa, Port Sudan, Aden, and Mombasa. These were capable of giving only local warning, and in Egypt they were too far apart and too limited in performance to give much more than an indication of approach. The communications too were tenuous and uncertain, so that it is not surprising that the number of interceptions was very low.
The air defence of the fleet base caused Admiral Cunningham particular anxiety, primarily on account of the mixed nature of the organization which the Rear-Admiral commanding the fortress had to control. The guns on shore were maimed by British, Maltese, and Egyptian gunners, while all the searchlights were manned by Egyptians. Low-flying aircraft armed with mines or torpedoes constituted a great threat to ships in harbour because the radar could not detect them, which meant that they were most unlikely to be intercepted before delivering their attacks. This was countered to some extent by the rigging and flying of various obstructions, but it was clearly essential for all the guns and searchlights to be most efficiently operated. During November the Italians made a number of night attacks and showed more persistence and determination
than hitherto, and this, coupled with the lack of success on the part of the anti-aircraft defences at night, caused Admiral Cunningham to press strongly for the standard to be improved. Accordingly an Anti-Aircraft Defence Commander was appointed to help the Fortress Commander with the training, supervision and co-ordination of the anti-aircraft defences; eight of the searchlight positions were taken over by the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, who had recently been trained in this work; and British liaison officers were placed with the Egyptian units. It was decided to strengthen and extend the searchlight layout as soon as more equipment and trained men were available.
The fighter aircraft allotted to the defence of the base, the Delta area, and the Canal were controlled by No. 252 (Fighter) Wing at Mex, with Sector Headquarters at Amiriya and Helwan. They included two Royal Egyptian Air Force squadrons and a variable number of Royal Air Force squadrons depending on conditions elsewhere. Indeed, on one occasion just before the British offensive in the Western Desert in December 1940, the fighter defence of the fleet base was reduced to two Sea Gladiators of the Fleet Air Arm. At each of the busy terminal ports on the Canal there was one heavy and one light battery, while there was no anti-aircraft defence other than small arms along the Canal, which meant that a big risk of damage was being taken. The situation in the whole Delta, except at Alexandria, was made worse by the unhelpful attitude of the Egyptian authorities over the air raid precautions. Had the enemy made any serious attacks on the Delta towns, especially with incendiary bombs, the Commanders-in-Chief might have had a very ugly situation to face.
The port of Haifa was attacked four times in September; some damage was done to the oil refinery, and one storage tank was set on fire. The defences consisted of one heavy battery and a few Breda light guns, with a mobile radar set of very limited performance. Early in October the observer screen was extended to give cover from north and east, and a detachment of three Blenheim fighter bombers was sent to Haifa, so that the enemy should not be entirely unopposed.
For Cyprus it had not been possible to spare any air defences at all, and up to September there were no coast defence guns either. Apart from the likelihood of air attack from the Dodecanese, the increasing importance of the exports of copper pyrites and agricultural produce made the port of Famagusta liable to be raided by light craft or bombarded from submarines; two naval 4-inch guns were accordingly installed by the Army, from equipment intended for Turkey.
In summing up the air defence position at this time it may be said that the various shortages were such as to cause grave anxiety in
view of the scale of attacks which the Italians appeared to be capable of making on a number of important and widely separated objectives. As it happened, the results fell below expectation. Even so, it was not long before the situation was further complicated by the need to spread the existing resources over a still wider field, as will be described in the next chapter.
It is not to be wondered at that the Turkish Government were watching the situation with renewed interest. They had been given to expect no direct assistance from British forces until the Italian threat to British interests should have been dealt with, so they could hardly be blamed for wanting to know how matters stood now that the Italians had entered Egypt and the war was being carried to the Levant. Towards the end of September the Turkish Government asked if they might send an inter-Service delegation of senior officers to visit the British forces in Egypt. The Chiefs of Staff agreed with the Commanders-in-Chief that the suggestion should be welcomed and that the British attitude should be one of complete frankness. The declared purpose of the mission was to study air defence, but there is little doubt that they really wished to estimate the ability of the British to defend Egypt. In view of the timing of the request it was inferred—no doubt correctly—that the impression gained by the mission would have a considerable influence upon the subsequent Turkish attitude towards the Alliance. The visit took place during October; there was every reason to believe that it was a success, and that on their return the Turkish officers expressed their confidence in the eventual outcome of the war.
The fact that the Italians had made an advance into Egypt which had all the appearance of being only a first step, likely to be followed by a second and probably much more ambitious one, made it all the more important that their lines of communication should be attacked. The most suitable direct naval action was by means of destroyers and submarines, but a successful encounter with the Italian battlefleet would greatly add to the freedom of action of the light forces.
Admiral Cunningham had intended to take the whole fleet to sea on September 25th in order to pass army and air reinforcements to Malta and to engage the enemy fleet if the opportunity occurred. He was prevented from sailing by the course of events elsewhere. On the 23rd an abortive attempt was made to land Free French forces at Dakar, and for some days it was uncertain whether this would not lead to open hostilities with Vichy. Instead, the French contented themselves with bombing Gibraltar on September 24th and 25th as a reprisal. All this naturally provoked a certain restlessness in the French naval squadron at Alexandria. Admiral Cunningham’s agreement with Admiral Godfroy held good unless war was
declared, but if it came to the point the French ships could no doubt be seized, though in the shallow water of the harbour they might be scuttled, and bloodshed would probably result. The Commander-in-Chief was most anxious to avoid any such outcome, but for the time being he felt obliged to stand guard at Alexandria with a substantial part of his fleet.
On 26th September the Admiralty informed him that as the Dakar operation had been broken off it was unlikely that general hostilities would begin. Two days later Cunningham was able to report that Godfroy had told him that if Vichy declared war he had no personal intention of taking offensive action, but would scuttle his ships if any attempt were made to seize them. On the 27th Radio Lyons announced that as the British squadron had ceased to attack Dakar the French Admiralty had ordered reprisals against Gibraltar to be suspended, and similar information came from American sources. Thereafter the situation gradually eased and Admiral Cunningham was able to resume his postponed operation on September 29th, though on a much reduced scale. Not for another ten days did he feel justified in taking all four battleships to sea.
As regards direct naval attack on the supply lines to Libya the position in respect of both destroyers and submarines was far from satisfactory. Of destroyers there were—as an example—only twelve available for operations of all kinds on 15th September. Admiral Cunningham urged that escort vessels should be provided so that his destroyers could be released from convoy duties for more offensive operations, but escort vessels were in great demand at this time for the Battle of the Atlantic, and none could be spared for the Mediterranean.
The results of the British submarine effort had so far been disappointing. The submarines themselves had carried out their duties with courage and determination, and the lack of targets was not their fault. The main Italian supply route to Libya ran to the west of Sicily, then along the shallow waters of the Kerkenah Bank to Tripoli, and coastwise to Benghazi. The boats available in the Mediterranean up to the middle of October were too big and unhandy to operate in the confined and shallow waters of this route. Their operations had therefore been confined to the southern approaches to the Straits of Messina, the Gulf of Taranto, and the coast of North Africa as far west as Benghazi, and none of these areas covered the main route. The consequence was that submarines were led to seek targets in the highly defended areas off the south coast of Italy, and suffered casualties accordingly, while the distance from the base at Alexandria meant that even these areas could only be thinly patrolled. From the end of September some boats used Malta for refuelling by night, but this made little difference
to their time on patrol, which depended mainly upon human endurance.
During October four of the more suitable ‘T’ class submarines arrived in the Mediterranean, but by the 23rd there was only a total of ten boats on patrol; four were refitting, and two had, unknown to the Commander-in-Chief, been sunk. One of these, the Rainbow, had been surprised on the surface shortly after midnight on October 12th/13th by the Italian submarine Enrico Toti, with a heavier gun armament; the other, the Triad, had been lost for an unknown reason. British losses since the outbreak of war with Italy had in fact been severe; seven boats had been destroyed in the Mediterranean, which was one-third of the number operating. Against this, the damage caused to the enemy by British submarines up to the end of October had been slight, amounting only to one submarine and six supply ships totalling 21,500 tons. Clearly there was a need for more submarines of a suitable type, and it was highly desirable to be able not only to base them at Malta, but also to provide them with enough operational intelligence from the air to increase very greatly their chances of intercepting the enemy.
The fact was that only from Malta could effective attacks of any sort be made on the sea communications to Libya. Unfortunately not only were there not enough air forces there to carry out the necessary reconnaissances and attacks but the island’s defences were still too weak for naval forces to be based there. The urgency of the matter prompted the Admiralty on October 2nd to ask Admiral Cunningham what he regarded as the minimum essential requirements to justify the operation of light naval forces from Malta. He replied that he would want five additional cruisers (four 6-inch and one 8-inch) and four Tribal class destroyers, but that more important still was the torpedo-bomber squadron already asked for by Sir Arthur Longmore: he also supported the latter’s request for a complete general reconnaissance squadron and the bringing up to strength of the two flying-boat squadrons at Alexandria. As regards air defence, he urged that the full approved scale should be provided at the earliest possible moment, but if results justified the risk he would be prepared to operate some light forces from Malta before the full scale was reached.
The Chiefs of Staff decided on October 9th to bring the Hurricanes at Malta up to a strength of one squadron and the Glenn Martins up to a total of 12 aircraft, and to accelerate the despatch of antiaircraft guns as much as possible. Having in mind the British experience in Norway of trying to deploy and maintain forces through a port under constant air attack, they laid great stress on the need for sustained attacks on Benghazi, the enemy’s only major port in Cyrenaica, particularly as they had reason to believe that
German mechanized forces were in the act of moving southwards through Italy.9 Their further decision to increase and accelerate the supply of Wellingtons was very welcome to the Commanders-in-Chief, who had long been fully aware of the importance of Benghazi to the enemy. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief was already doing his utmost to attack it, but it was now only with difficulty that his Blenheims could reach there at all, while there were many calls on No. 216 Bomber Transport Squadron for its primary role of transport. In order to attack all the Cyrenaican ports as strongly as possible he was refraining from making any attacks on the Dodecanese.
A fortnight later the Admiralty was able to inform Admiral Cunningham that the additional aircraft for Malta would arrive during the next reinforcing operation in November and that two cruisers and four destroyers would accompany the battleship Barham as reinforcements for the fleet. No striking force of torpedo-bombers was yet available, and although the naval and air forces to be supplied were less than had been asked for it was hoped that they would enable Admiral Cunningham to operate some light forces from Malta, if only for short periods.
During the first half of October there was only one air attack on Malta, and the Hurricanes were consequently able to maintain a high rate of serviceability. This was encouraging, as was the fact that the material damage, though considerable, had not so far been serious. The Governor’s chief concern was to prepare for worse to come by pressing on with all possible measures calculated to keep up civilian morale, which involved the pooling of many resources for the general good. This was achieved by the Governor, who was also Commander-in-Chief, presiding over meetings with the three Service heads and the Lieutenant-Governor, who represented the civil population. The Vice-Admiral, Malta, and the Air Officer Commanding were at the same time professionally responsible to the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, and the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief respectively, although until March 1942, the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, had no direct responsibility for the army garrison of Malta. The position might perhaps have been open to criticism on the ground of divided allegiance, but in practice the Governor and the local Service heads were well aware of the part it was hoped that Malta would play as an offensive base; they knew that this was the reason for keeping the island secure, and that an essential step towards doing so was to maintain the morale of the population. The Services were able to help the civil
administration in several ways: for example, the supervisory posts in the new civil Department of Shelter Construction were filled by officials of the Dockyard, and much of the general pool of structural materials had been originally ordered by the army for its own purposes.
At the end of August it was agreed with the British Government that the stocks of essential commodities in Malta should be built up to eight months, and that convoys should thereafter be run at two-monthly intervals, thus maintaining at least six months reserve. In the meantime the shipping programme was to be so planned as to build up the eight months reserve by 1st April 1941. The establishment at Alexandria of the Malta Shipping Committee has already been referred to; its task was to arrange for the despatch of the stores demanded by the Co-ordinating Committee for Supplies (COSUP) in Malta. This was not an easy matter, for Admiral Cunningham had been obliged to insist that the lowest speed he could accept for any ship in convoy to Malta was 12½ knots, and there were very few ships suitable for the carriage of coal, cased petrol, and kerosene, capable of this speed. Kerosene was of particular importance to the civilians because the absence of trees or coal on the island had resulted in the general adoption of oil-cooking.
Towards the end of September the Chiefs of Staff reconsidered the strength of the island’s army garrison. There was a grave lack of field artillery, and after allowing for the minimum scale of defence of the beaches, airfields, and vulnerable points there was virtually no infantry reserve. This was a serious matter because, as the Prime Minister wrote, the Navy did not possess command of the sea around Malta. One battalion and a field battery were accordingly put under orders to be sent to Malta from England via Gibraltar at the earliest opportunity, which would not be before the end of October. At the same time General Wavell was ordered to allot a battalion and hold it in readiness to go to Malta direct from Egypt. Meanwhile a large number of army drafts for units in Malta had arrived in Egypt and were awaiting onward passage.
It will be recalled that not until September 29th did Admiral Cunningham feel able to leave Alexandria with part of his fleet, owing to uncertainty about French reactions to the affair at Dakar. There was then nothing in the local military situation to detain him, so he resumed the operation (M.B.5) under cover of which army and air force reinforcements were to be passed to Malta, the opportunity being taken to sail an Aegean convoy also. But, as has been seen, he felt obliged to leave two battleships behind, which meant that if the Italian Fleet were to put to sea the conditions might well be unfavourable for seeking an engagement with it.
Shortly after midnight on September 28th/29th Admiral Cunningham in the Warspite with the Valiant, Illustrious, Orion, Sydney, York
and eleven destroyers was clear of Alexandria harbour, to be joined later by the cruisers Liverpool and Gloucester which had embarked 1,200 troops and some airmen and air force stores for Malta. Numerous air attacks were made on the fleet during the afternoon of the 29th, but as a result of the activities of Fulmars of No. 806 Squadron they were all abortive. In fact the only loss was suffered by the Italians, for while the Australian flotilla leader Stuart was returning to harbour with a burst steam pipe she encountered the Italian submarine Gondar about 60 miles north-west of the Great Pass. After a series of depth-charge attacks during the night it was forced to the surface, where on the morning of the 30th it was bombed and sunk by a flying-boat. The Stuart rescued 47 of the crew of 49.
Meanwhile, unknown to Admiral Cunningham, the entire Italian battlefleet with numerous cruisers and destroyers was at sea in the Central Mediterranean. The first information he received was from a reconnaissance aircraft from the Illustrious shortly after noon, which reported five battleships, eleven cruisers and up to twenty-five destroyers only 80 miles to the N.N.W. of the British Fleet. They were now steering north-west, so that the only hope of forcing an engagement would have been by employing an air striking force to inflict damage. But as only nine aircraft were available for this purpose, and as the Italian Fleet had some forty ship-borne fighter-reconnaissance aircraft, apart from the powerful anti-aircraft armament of such a concentration of ships, the odds against success in daylight were so great that Admiral Cunningham decided not to launch a striking force. For the rest of the day the enemy were shadowed and, towards evening, they were reported entering Taranto and Messina. In view of the great preponderance of the Italian Fleet their behaviour on this occasion is difficult to understand. Their own shadowing aircraft had correctly reported the composition of the British Fleet, both before and after noon, as two battleships, one aircraft carrier, five cruisers and ten destroyers; yet action was refused.
That evening the Liverpool and Gloucester were detached and proceeded to Malta to disembark their troops. They rejoined the fleet in the late afternoon of October 1st, and course was then shaped to the eastward. On the return passage another Italian submarine, the Berillo, was surprised on the surface, surrendered and was sunk, and the cruisers Orion and Sydney carried out a sweep in the Aegean which included a bombardment of Stampalia.
A week later Admiral Cunningham staged another major operation (M.B.6) which he again hoped would entice the Italian Fleet to give battle. A store convoy (M.F.3) of four ships with supplies of all kinds was to be sailed for Malta under cover of the fleet, which
was then to bring back some empty ships to Alexandria. The movement began on October 8th, and this time the Admiral was able to concentrate four battleships (Warspite, Valiant, Malaya, Ramillies) and two aircraft carriers, six cruisers and sixteen destroyers. Two anti-aircraft cruisers and four more destroyers provided close escort for the convoy.
The passage to Malta was uneventful: air reports indicated that the enemy fleet had not moved from Taranto; no air attacks developed, and only one or two contacts were made with submarines. During the afternoon of the 11th the convoy reached Malta; a destroyer received severe damage in the approaches in what was evidently a newly laid enemy minefield. Later in the evening three empty ships left Malta under close escort while the fleet cruised to the south and west of the island, still apparently undetected by the Italians, owing, it was believed, to the bad weather.
But this inference was wrong. A small destroyer force from Augusta had put to sea with the intention of attacking outlying units of the fleet. At 2.0 a.m. on October 12th, in position about 110 miles to the east of Malta and some 70 miles north-east of the Commander-in-Chief, the cruiser Ajax (Captain E. D. B. McCarthy), while proceeding to cover the eastbound convoy, reported herself in action with enemy destroyers. One, the Ariel, had been sighted on the starboard bow, down moon, on an opposite course. Fire was immediately opened at 4,000 yards and the destroyer blew up. At the same time a second destroyer, the Airone, was observed on the port bow at 2,000 yards. She was also despatched, but not before the Ajax had been hit twice on the bridge structure and once amidships, where a fire was started. While the Ajax was turning to engage the Airone a third destroyer, the leader Artigliere, came in from the starboard bow. She was also engaged at 3,000 yards, set on fire and her guns silenced, but the Ajax received four more hits which put one gun and her radar out of action. Torpedoes had been fired by all three destroyers, but all missed. Two more destroyers were then sighted to the north, the second of which turned to engage but after a few rounds retired behind smoke. Further touch with the enemy was then lost.
On learning of this engagement Admiral Cunningham gave orders for the 3rd Cruiser Squadron to proceed in support and for an air search to be made at dawn. Shortly after 7.0 a.m. a report was received of two destroyers, one burning and in tow of the other. As the cruisers closed, the tow was cast off and the undamaged destroyer escaped to the north-west, having been unsuccessfully attacked by a small air striking force. The other destroyer, which was the Artigliere, surrendered. Half an hour was given for the crew to abandon ship, and the Artigliere was then sunk. As Sicily was only 90 miles distant, and as submarines were believed to be in the vicinity, rescue work
was restricted to throwing carley floats overboard and broadcasting the position in Italian, though some survivors were later picked up by two British destroyers. About noon a report from a flying-boat indicated three 8-inch cruisers and three destroyers in position 60 miles to the north-west of the fleet and steering north-west, but aircraft of No. 830 Squadron from Malta subsequently failed to locate them.
The Commander-in-Chief had every reason to be satisfied with the performance of the Ajax in her first night shoot after being newly commissioned. It happened that the enemy encountered the only British cruiser fitted with radar, but on this occasion the credit for the sightings must go to the human look-outs; the state of the moon was four days before full. The Italian destroyers had shown great gallantry, and inflicted damage on the cruiser: two British officers and ten ratings were killed and twenty wounded.
Air attacks with bombs and torpedoes developed as the fleet proceeded to Alexandria, and on the evening of October 14th the cruiser Liverpool was hit by a torpedo and severely damaged. With part of her bow torn off she was eventually towed safely into harbour. Meanwhile the convoy from Malta had been joined by the southbound Aegean convoy, and on the 13th the Illustrious with cruisers and destroyers carried out a successful night attack on Leros.
These operations enabled the immediate needs of Malta to be met. They were shortly to be followed by co-ordinated movements from east and west to introduce reinforcements of all kinds; these are described in Chapter 13.