Chapter 13: More Reinforcements for the Middle East (October–December 1940)
IT HAD BEEN decided at the end of September that in addition to the anti-aircraft artillery the garrison of Malta required strengthening.1 The battalion which General Wavell had been instructed to provide had been sent instead to Crete, in circumstances which have already been described.2 It now remained to convey the troops, stores, and equipment that were being provided from England, and it was intended that their passage should form part of a co-ordinated operation in the Mediterranean during which Force H would cover the movement of certain ships proceeding as reinforcements to the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, and would also cover the fly-off of a number of Hurricanes to Malta from the carrier Argus. Delays to the Argus at home resulted in the operation being divided into two, the first being confined to the carriage of the troops to Malta in H.M. ships which were then to join Admiral Cunningham’s fleet (operation COAT). Accordingly, the men of one battalion, two 25-pdr field batteries, one tank troop, and one light and two heavy anti-aircraft batteries, in all 2,150, reached Gibraltar by liner on November 6th. They were transferred to H.M. ships after dark: 700 to the battleship Barham, 750 to the 8-inch cruiser Berwick, and 400 to the 6-inch cruiser Glasgow. Three destroyers carried 50 each, and three other destroyers of Force H, due to return to Gibraltar, embarked a further 150 between them. The guns, tanks and other vehicles were to follow by merchant ship later in the month.
The reinforcing ships were to be met in the neighbourhood of Malta by Admiral Cunningham’s fleet, and the whole operation, which involved other important shipping moves as well, together with subsidiary operations, was known as M.B.8. The moves from the east began on November 4th with the departure first of convoy A.N.6 with coal, essential stores, and aviation spirit for Greece and Crete, and then of a convoy of five store ships for Malta (M.W.3) to which two additional ships for Suda Bay, one with eight 3.7-inch
mobile anti-aircraft guns and the other with fuel and petrol, were attached for the first part of the voyage. This convoy, under the close escort of cruisers and destroyers, was routed north of Crete while the main Mediterranean Fleet, sailing two days later, provided cover in the central basin. Another movement, also part of the general operation, was that of the cruisers Ajax and Sydney with H.Q. 14th Infantry Brigade, one light and one heavy anti-aircraft battery and administrative troops from Port Said to Suda. After disembarking their troops and stores, they were to join the Commander-in-Chief. Other movements were to be associated with the return voyage.
The fleet under the Commander-in-Chief consisted of four battleships, the Illustrious, two cruisers and thirteen destroyers. The passage to Malta was uneventful, such air attacks as did occur being broken up by Fulmars. On 9th November convoy M.W.3 reached Malta together with the Ramillies and other ships which needed to refuel. The Commander-in-Chief, meanwhile, continued to the west in order to rendezvous with the reinforcing ships coming from Gibraltar. These had sailed on the 7th with Force H, whose strength had been reduced because the Renown had been ordered to take part in operations against the pocket battleship Scheer in the Atlantic On the morning of the 9th Admiral Somerville had directed an air attack on Cagliari by Swordfish of Nos. 810, 818 and 820 Squadrons from the Ark Royal. This caused damage to hangars and seaplanes, but no aircraft were observed on the ground; there was little opposition and no casualties were sustained in the British force.3 During the forenoon the enemy had made one heavy and determined air attack. The Fulmars were unable to break up the enemy formations, and bombs had fallen unpleasantly close to several ships, including the Barham. But that was all. The Ark Royal flew off three Fulmars to Malta, for transfer to the Illustrious, and that evening the reinforcing ships parted company. Force H returned to Gibraltar without further incident.
On joining the Mediterranean Fleet at 10.15 a.m. on November 10th the new reinforcements proceeded to Malta and disembarked their troops. Meanwhile a convoy of four empty store ships (M.E.3) had left the island under close escort together with the monitor Terror which was to perform the duties of guardship at Suda Bay. By dawn on November 11th the reinforced Mediterranean Fleet was steaming to the north-eastward, and late in the day the units concerned took up positions for the Fleet Air Arm’s attack on Taranto and for the cruiser raid into the Straits of Otranto which have been described in the previous chapter.
During all these operations the Italian Fleet showed no inclination to challenge the movements of the British forces. Air observation from November 6th onwards had confirmed that the six enemy battleships were still in Taranto, together with numerous cruisers and destroyers. The Italians were therefore in a favourable position to intercept Admiral Cunningham with a superiority of six to four in battleships, seven to one in 8-inch cruisers, ten to five in 6-inch cruisers and at least two to one in destroyers. Although no enemy aircraft seems to have reported British forces moving west until noon on 8th November, the Italians, as always, were in a position to know that the fleet had left Alexandria and in what strength. They failed, however, to make any use of their knowledge, and as a result of the raid on Taranto the numerical advantage in capital ships which they had possessed and hoped, by doing nothing rash, to retain, was lost to them for several months to come.
As the weather had prevented a repetition of the attack, Admiral Cunningham set course for Alexandria, where the fleet arrived on 14th November. The same day, at the other end of the Mediterranean, the Argus reached Gibraltar with twelve Hurricanes for Malta. The operation of flying them off was intended to be similar to HURRY, which had been so successful in August, but the result was very different. Force H, rejoined by the Renown, sailed early on 15th November. It was intended that the aircraft should be flown off from a suitable position south of Sardinia, but reports from Malta indicating that a force of one battleship, seven cruisers, and a number of destroyers was concentrating south of Naples decided Admiral Somerville to fly off the Hurricanes as far to the westward as the safe operational range of the aircraft would permit.
In the semi-darkness just before dawn on November 17th the aircraft took off in two flights. Each flight was led by a Skua of the Fleet Air Arm from a position between 30 and 40 miles to the west of those used for operation HURRY, making the distance to be flown about 400 sea miles. The Ark Royal provided anti-submarine patrols and fighters to cover the fly-off. Arrangements had been made for a Sunderland to meet the first flight five miles north of Galita Island; a Glenn Martin was to meet the second flight in the same position. But although it waited for over an hour at the rendezvous, the Glenn Martin failed to make contact with the second flight, none of whose aircraft reached their destination. Of the first flight two Hurricanes ran out of fuel when within 25 and 34 miles of Malta respectively, the pilot of one being rescued by the Sunderland. Four Hurricanes and one Skua succeeded in reaching Malta, with their petrol tanks almost empty when they landed. The loss of the nine aircraft was ascribed partly to faulty navigation and partly to the fact that, although the distance to be covered was well within the endurance
of the aircraft, there was reason to suppose that the flights were not all made at the most economical cruising speed. The net result was that the fighter strength at Malta received only a small increase—a very disappointing result for the lives and effort expended.
The return journey of Force H to Gibraltar partly covered the movement of the cruiser Newcastle which had left the Straits at noon on the 17th with airmen and stores for Malta.4 Enemy minelaying had so delayed her departure from the United Kingdom that she had been prevented from joining the Argus as originally intended. After a comparatively uneventful trip the Newcastle reached Malta safely on 19th November.
The decision taken in August 1940 to strengthen the forces in the Middle East from the United Kingdom led to the immediate despatch of one small but very important convoy.5 This marked the beginning of a flow of men, stores, and equipment round the Cape from the United Kingdom in what were known as the ‘W.S.’ convoys, for which a large number of ocean-going liners were required, as distinct from the smaller or cross-channel ships which had been taken up and adapted for military service in the early stages of the war. Convoys from New Zealand and Australia—the ‘U.S.’ series—had already been instituted, and have been referred to in connexion with the move of the second and third contingents of troops from those countries.6 There were also sailings from Bombay of British and Indian troops and of quantities of stores and materials provided by India; this was the ‘B.N.’ series, which dealt also with the large numbers of men disembarked at Bombay from the ‘Monsters’, as these ships could not be risked at Aden or in the Red Sea.7 The strain on British shipping was all the greater because the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden had been declared a ‘Combat Zone’ by President Roosevelt, and in consequence no American ships were allowed to enter it. A complication in the ‘W.S.’ series was caused by the need for keeping the fastest ships on the Atlantic portion of the route, where the submarine menace was greatest; this made it necessary to disembark large numbers of men at Cape Town and Durban for onward passage in slower ships. The average time for the whole voyage was six weeks.
Except for the biggest and fastest liners, more than six months usually elapsed between the sailings of a particular ship in these Middle East convoys. This long turn-round not only limited the
shipping available for carrying men and stores to the Middle East but it seriously affected imports into the United Kingdom, which by the end of 1940 were falling off very dangerously. Moreover, to avoid sending ships back in ballast after disembarking their military cargoes it was necessary to route them to, say, India or Australia to pick up cargo. Thus the need to supply the Middle East determined to a great extent the areas from which imports to the United Kingdom had to be found and reduced the total amounts imported.
Responsibility for providing and loading the ships rested with the home authorities. Decisions on priorities were made by an inter-Service committee, who referred when necessary to the Chiefs of Staff. Each Service in the Middle East had the chance to give its views on the urgency of the items that were offered for despatch, and the decision between conflicting bids for the available shipping space was often a matter of some difficulty. Apart from this, the technical problems involved in trying to use the ships as economically as possible were considerable. For instance, some of the very varied types of loads could only be taken by certain ships; some could only be handled quickly at certain ports; some had to be accessible for unloading at an intermediate port; some were rated as top priority by the Middle East but could only be stowed for later unloading; some would best be loaded together but were too precious to risk all in one basket. There was no satisfying everybody, but the Middle East had every reason to be grateful to the Movements, Shipping, and Transportation authorities at home and elsewhere for the efficiency with which the intricate and vital convoy problems were handled.
As the threat of invasion of the United Kingdom receded and it became possible to spare more forces and equipment for the Middle East, the W.S. convoys settled down into a regular cycle of one convoy about every six weeks. Some idea of the magnitude of the flow may be gathered from the figures for arrivals in Egypt from the last week of August 1940, to the end of the year. This includes the last convoy to sail before the opening of the British offensive in the Western Desert, the contents of which were therefore known to the Commanders-in-Chief before the fighting began. The figures are given in round numbers and for simplicity are collected into a few broad categories :–
[Table consolidated onto next page]
From the United Kingdom
|In complete British combatant units||28,000 all ranks|
|In administrative units (e.g. hospitals; workshops; depots; engineer, supply, ordnance and transportation units; and installations of various kinds)||15,500 all ranks|
|Drafts, details and reinforcements for units of all kinds (to bring them up to war strength and for wastage)||19,300 all ranks|
|Ditto for the Royal Air Force||7,500 all ranks|
|Australians||5,000 all ranks|
|New Zealanders||700 all ranks|
|Total about||76,000 all ranks|
From Bombay and beyond
|Australians, in combatant units, drafts and reinforcements||24,500 all ranks|
|Australians, administrative||3,500 all ranks|
|New Zealanders, in combatant units, drafts and reinforcements||4,700 all ranks|
|New Zealanders, administrative||2,600 all ranks|
|Indian troops, in combatant units, drafts and reinforcements||8,400 all ranks|
|Indian troops, administrative||3,000 all ranks|
|British troops from India, in units||1,000 all ranks|
|Other British troops (1,000), Royal Navy (700)||1,700 all ranks|
|Total about||49,400 all ranks|
Grand total nearly 126,000, which represents an average rate of more than 1,000 men a day over the 17 weeks.
The principal combatant units and formations included in the above figures were as follows:–
[Table consolidated onto next page]
|British units from the United Kingdom||2nd Armoured Division.|
|One light, one cruiser and one ‘I’ tank regiment.|
|Three field artillery regiments. Two medium artillery regiments. One field survey regiment. One coast defence battery. Eight heavy and eleven light anti-aircraft batteries.|
|Divisional engineers for 7th Armoured Division. Two field companies. One army troops company.|
|A large number of signal units.|
|British units from India||Two field artillery regiments.|
|Australian units from Australia||Two brigade groups of 7th Australian Division.|
|Australian units from the United Kingdom||
One brigade group.8
|New Zealand units from New Zealand||One brigade group of the New Zealand Division.|
|Indian units from India||
One cavalry regiment. Four battalions.9
|From India direct to Port Sudan:|
|British units||Two field artillery regiments.|
|Indian units||5th Indian Division.|
|From South Africa to Mombasa:|
|South African units||1st South African Division.|
1st South African Anti-Aircraft Brigade.10 Two Armoured Car Companies.
Even bigger than the problem of dealing with all these arrivals was that of receiving and distributing the vast tonnages of unit equipment, wheeled and tracked vehicles of many types, guns, cased aircraft and spares, locomotives, ammunition, bombs, explosives, engineering plant and materials, transportation equipment, and
stores and supplies of every kind. In addition to the resulting rail and road moves from the ports there was of course a large volume of internal movement due to changes in the location of troops; from Palestine to Egypt, for instance, and from the Delta to the Western Desert, to say nothing of the assembly and despatch of expeditions for Crete and Greece. The Nile Valley route took a good deal of the traffic involved in the measures to strengthen the Sudan, while the main flow into Kenya was from, or via, South Africa.11 Outward bound ships, mainly from Suez, were used to remove prisoners of war to India and to take evacuated British families to South Africa. They also carried various import cargoes to the United Kingdom and could sometimes be used for the long internal moves from Egypt to Port Sudan, Aden, Berbera and Mombasa.
The provision of escorts for such a large volume of shipping was a big problem for the Royal Navy. It was at this time the biggest of the problems facing the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, whose responsibility extended as far north as the port of Suez. The early convoys in July had made the Red Sea passage without interference from Italian surface forces and the only bombing to which they were subjected was from high-level and did no damage. Thereafter the numbers of ships traversing the Red Sea steadily increased: in August there were four convoys in each direction; in September, five; in October, seven, comprising no less than 86 ships northbound and 72 southbound.
During the night of October 20th/21st Italian destroyers made their first and only attack on a convoy. B.N.7, consisting of 32 ships escorted by one cruiser, one destroyer, and five sloops, was about 150 miles to the east of Massawa when four Italian destroyers came in to attack. On being chased by the escort they quickly withdrew. At dawn action was joined, and one of the Italian destroyers, the Francesco Nullo, was driven ashore on an island near Massawa, where she was subsequently bombed and destroyed by three Blenheims of No. 45 Squadron. During the action the Kimberley came under fire from a shore battery and received a hit in the engine room which made it necessary to tow her to Port Sudan.
This encounter seems to have made the Italian surface forces less inclined than ever to take vigorous action against the stream of shipping that was bearing men and munitions to Egypt for use against their comrades—and this in spite of the fact that they could obtain exact information of every northbound convoy as it passed Jibuti. Their air attacks were few and ineffective. During October there were only six, and after November 4th they ceased altogether.
Between June and December the Royal Air Force escorted 54 convoys in the Red Sea, of which only one ship was sunk by air action and one damaged.
But there was no guarantee that the Italian surface forces would not suddenly be stimulated into some form of activity, so that the vigilance of the escorts had to be unceasing. The very monotony, relieved only rarely by moments of excitement, served to accentuate the discomforts of service in His Majesty’s ships of the Red Sea Force. So few were the escort vessels for their many and urgent duties that it was a common occurrence for one of them, after a gruelling passage, to be ordered to turn round before reaching port and do the whole trip again. Ships were relentlessly overdriven, and it was a source of pride that the men and engines stood up as they did to the extra strain. The heat and high humidity, coupled with the difficulty of providing a suitable diet, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, led to a high incidence of prickly heat and other skin troubles. Fresh water, too, was limited. Conditions which could be made just tolerable in peace time were greatly aggravated by the need for darkening ship at night and by the constant steaming. Sleep was difficult at the best of times, and men were often called to action stations six or seven times during a night. Sometimes there was no living space in a ship at a temperature of less than 100° F., while in the engine rooms it might be as high as 170°. There were several deaths from heat stroke.
But the flow of shipping went steadily on, and on land the staffs in the Middle East responsible for Movements, Sea Transport, and Transportation were stretched to the utmost in coping with all these problems, partly because they were themselves only in the process of being built up when the big increase over normal traffic began, and partly because they did not possess complete authority over the various agencies, which were in any case not adequately equipped for the task. When the war with Italy began, the only transportation unit in Egypt was the 10th Railway Construction and Operating Company, R.E. The Egyptian State Railways were short of locomotives and rolling stock and, although co-operative, had not the flexibility to meet unusual and rapidly changing traffic problems. Not being under British control they continued to operate the whole of their system themselves, except in some of the depots where, out of the eye of the public, British troops were allowed to work, and on the Western Desert line, which in November was taken over by a New Zealand Operating Group in order to lessen the delays and interruptions due to enemy bombing. This unit, together with a Construction and Maintenance Group, had been offered by the New Zealand Government and their presence at a comparatively early date was invaluable.
It was the docks problem that grew to be the most serious of all.
There were no military docks units of any kind, and there was, unfortunately, no special branch of the Egyptian State Railways to deal with dock running. Every port had its small British contingent to watch the Forces’ interests ashore, but the working was entirely in the hands of the civil authorities, who had also the commerce of the country to consider. Transports had either to be discharged by contract or by the Shipping Companies’ agents. Lighters were privately owned and had to be hired as needed. Dock labourers could be hired but they could not be enlisted and put under British military discipline, and therefore were not entirely to be depended upon. In addition, the ports were neither laid out nor adequately equipped for dealing with the volume and variety of traffic that was now coming to them, so that the difficulties in securing the rapid unloading and turn-round of ships were very great. In peace time the trade of the country passed mostly through Alexandria—now under intermittent air attack; at Port Said, primarily a transhipment port, all cargoes were handled by lighters and the rail clearance facilities were poor; while Suez was hardly developed for general cargo and little used. Nevertheless, these three ports, and also Kantara and Haifa, could all be used for the early convoys, and ships were sometimes unloaded at all five of them simultaneously. Matters would have been improved by the early arrival of some docks units and of more transportation equipment, but these could only be allotted shipping space in the convoys in competition with units and store tonnages of a more combatant nature. Certain measures were, however, already in hand; lighterage wharves were being built at points along the Canal; a railway marshalling yard was under construction at Port Said; the rail facilities and the number of wharf cranes at Alexandria were being increased. But the only way of insuring against the risk of a breakdown due to the bombing of the Canal was by increasing the capacity to berth and clear ships at places accessible without entering the Canal. For this purpose work had begun in August on reconditioning three additional deep-water berths and two lighter jetties at Suez, and by the end of the year they were in use.
It was fortunate indeed that the Germans refrained for as long as they did from sending the Luftwaffe to the Mediterranean with the object of making it impossible for the British Fleet to remain there. The attempts which were made later to block the Suez Canal by aerial mining added greatly to the congestion of the port of Suez, which was already becoming a problem of the first importance.
A start had been made in August 1940 with the measures for strengthening the Air Force in the Middle East. The aim was to
rearm with modern aircraft three of the four fighter squadrons, five of the twelve medium bomber squadrons, and one of the two bomber transport squadrons. It was hoped to achieve this during August and September, but it was not long before the programme received its first check. On September 5th the heavy losses during the Battle of Britain made it necessary to suspend shipment of Hurricanes indefinitely, while shipping difficulties, the weather, and the shortage of aircrews so retarded the flow of Blenheim IVs that by the end of September the only aircraft that had arrived according to programme were the Wellingtons.
The position then was that one bomber transport squadron (No. 70) had been rearmed with Wellingtons; one fighter squadron (No. 33) with Hurricanes, and one medium bomber squadron (No. 113) with Blenheim IVs. Early in October Sir Arthur Longmore took the opportunity, in a telegram of congratulation to Sir Charles Portal on his appointment as Chief of the Air Staff, to urge him to review the air situation in the Middle East Command as soon as possible. He thought it likely that the Germans would abandon their invasion plans for 1940 and turn their attention to the Middle East, and if the Luftwaffe were to support the Italians in a land offensive against Egypt the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief did not feel that with his present strength he would be able to give the army all the support it would need.
At the same time Mr Eden, the Secretary of State for War and Chairman of the Ministerial Committee on military policy in the Middle East, was expressing the concern of the War Office and of his committee at the general weakness of the air situation throughout the Middle East, especially in view of the likelihood that the Italian Air Force would soon be reinforced by Germans. Fighting might break out at any moment in the Western Desert and the Sudan, and the most important weapons would be tanks, field and anti-aircraft artillery, and aircraft. Steps were being taken to increase our numbers of guns and tanks, and he represented very strongly that fresh efforts should be made to strengthen the air force also. He recalled how great, perhaps even decisive, had been the part played by the German air force against the French army during the Battle of France in May. In the desert, where concealment and cover were so much more difficult to obtain, he believed that dive-bombing attacks would be even more effective.
Although by mid-October the air situation at home could not be regarded with any complacency, the victories in the Battle of Britain combined with the approach of winter had undoubtedly reduced the likelihood of an attempt at invasion. The centre of strategic interest was now recognized to be moving south-eastwards, so that new dangers might soon appear in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The
Chiefs of Staff agreed that the time had come to increase the strength of the air forces in the Middle East as quickly as possible. There were two immediate methods by which this could be done. The first was by speeding up the rearmament of the existing squadrons with modern and more powerful types. The second was by expanding the first line strength of the two heavy and twelve medium bomber squadrons from twelve to sixteen aircraft, thus saving on the overhead establishments and reducing the delays inevitable in sending out complete units. If similar action were taken for the three South African Air Force bomber squadrons in East Africa the total first line strength in the Middle East Command would be increased by 68 bombers, or the equivalent of four squadrons. At the same time the first line strength of both Sunderland flying-boat squadrons would be raised to six.
This, in the opinion of the Air Ministry, represented the practical limit of what could be done immediately. Aircraft were to be despatched as fast as supplies, packing, shipping, and the limitations of air passage permitted;, for the time being the aim would be to keep up a steady flow of replacements for aircraft and crews rather than to increase the number of squadrons.
To put these decisions into effect there was to be a monthly quota of 48 Blenheim IVs and 24 Hurricanes. Of the heavy bombers, 23 Wellingtons were to be flown out during October to rearm the second Bombay squadron and to provide a small reserve. The Air Ministry allotted to the Middle East 227 Mohawk fighters from previous French orders in the United States of America and increased from 75 to 149 the allotment of Glenn Martin bombers. A monthly flow was intended to start in October, but for various reasons the first Glenn Martin was not erected at Takoradi until December 12th ; it was not until the New Year that any numbers reached the Middle East. The first four Mohawks were landed on December 17th, but a serious engine defect held up further deliveries for some months. In the meantime the performance of the Mohawks had been found to be so inferior to that of the Axis fighters that it was decided to divert them to India and to the South African Air Force for use as advanced training aircraft.
Air Chief Marshal Longmore admitted that these proposals were the quickest and most practical method of strengthening his command, but insisted that he would require three additional fighter squadrons in Egypt to meet a renewed Italian offensive in the Western Desert, which would be strongly supported by Italian—and possibly also by German—air action. By expanding the existing fighter units at Aden and in the Sudan he could produce only one additional squadron available for the Western Desert and he therefore pressed strongly for the formation of the two new ones. To this the Air Ministry
agreed, and promised to increase the flow of aircraft, men, equipment, and transport accordingly, in addition to the other measures of expansion already approved.
The taking of a decision in London, however, was a very different matter from producing an aircraft in the Middle East, ready to operate, whether it went by sea round the Cape, or to Takoradi, or by air via Malta. The interval of time extended to many weeks, being dependent upon such factors as the available shipping space, the length of the voyage, the capacity of Takoradi, the extent of interference by the enemy, and the weather; thus, although the prospect of building up a stronger air force appeared much brighter, the new programme had not had any appreciable effect upon the trickle of arrivals before it became necessary to send squadrons to Greece. Towards the end of November a fresh anxiety arose. It was still possible that Graziani intended to renew his advance into Egypt, but it was hoped that the intended British operation in the Western Desert would forestall him. Great importance was attached by the Prime Minister to the launching of this operation (COMPASS) early in December. The question was whether there would be sufficient air support for the army and, in particular, whether there would be enough fighters. In view of the estimated arrival in Egypt in the first week of December of 34 Hurricanes and pilots, to be landed at Takoradi from the Furious, General Wavell decided that he would go ahead with his plans.
Operation COMPASS began on December 9th and is described in the next chapter. Casualties to aircraft were relatively light, but the rate of unserviceability was very high, due to the intensity of the air operations, to the climatic conditions in the desert, and to the enemy’s use of explosive bullets. For example, during an attack on Bardia on December 14th, nine Blenheims of No. 55 Squadron encountered a patrol of some 50 enemy fighters and, although only one aircraft was lost, no less than seven were severely damaged by these explosive bullets. Meanwhile in Greece there were steady losses of both Gladiators and Blenheims, which the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief was finding difficulty in replacing from his dwindling reserves in Egypt. It was obvious that, unless the flow of replacement aircraft was increased, it would be impossible to keep pace with the needs of rearmament, the offensive in Libya, the operations in Greece, and the forthcoming operations in the Sudan. The situation had in fact been appreciated in London, and on December 17th Longmore was told that the Furious would sail yet again for Takoradi with forty Hurricanes and pilots, arriving there early in January. Everything possible was being done to hasten the despatch of aircraft so as to complete the present programme by the end of March 1941. But even if this was achieved it was impossible
to say, so far ahead, when any further expansion would begin. But as a preliminary step about 1,200 airmen were to be sent out to the Middle East by sea, so that squadrons could be flown out as reinforcements at short notice and find on arrival a nucleus of maintenance staff.
A great deal of attention was naturally directed at about this time to Takoradi, the focal point on the West African reinforcement route. It was obviously of prime importance that the flow of aircraft through this Station should be as smooth and rapid as possible, and some doubts were felt about its capacity to deal with the increasing numbers. As it happened, Air Marshal A. W. Tedder arrived at Takoradi on December 2nd on his way to Cairo to take up the recently created appointment of Deputy Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief.12 He was able to report that he was very much impressed by Air Commodore Thorold’s ‘first class improvisation’—from the devices for off-loading and erecting the crated aircraft to the accommodation for the airmen. There was evident determination to overcome difficulties and to send aircraft on their way along the route as quickly as possible.
By the end of the year the following aircraft had arrived in the Middle East (exclusive of Malta) since the beginning of September: 41 Wellingtons, 87 Hurricanes, and 85 Blenheim IVs. The heavy bomber situation was better than that of the medium bombers or fighters, whose rearmament had been greatly delayed by casualties and wastage. One squadron had been rearmed with Wellingtons, and, in addition, two complete squadrons had arrived in Egypt and one in Malta, all from England. Two fighter squadrons had been rearmed with Hurricanes, one new squadron had arrived from home and one had formed at Malta. Of the medium bombers three squadrons had been rearmed with Blenheim IVs, and there were nineteen aircraft in reserve, of which only six were serviceable. The two remaining Wellesley squadrons in the Sudan had been reduced to ten aircraft each and their reserves were exhausted. The seven Blenheim I squadrons were still armed with aircraft received before September 1939; reserves amounted to 26, of which all except two were undergoing overhaul. Far from being able to increase the first line strength of the Blenheim squadrons to sixteen, it had become difficult to maintain it at twelve.
It was not surprising, therefore, that Air Chief Marshal Longmore viewed the new year with some misgiving. The operations in Libya
could be expected to continue on a major scale, and those in the Sudan were shortly to begin. Five of his squadrons were already in Greece, and there were signs that the Greeks would soon be pressing for more air support. Over and above these commitments he had been told that it would be his responsibility to rearm, train, and maintain the Greek Air Force.
Nor was this all, for with the possibility in mind that the main sphere of activity might move from Africa to the Balkans the Chiefs of Staff had warned the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief to be ready for an extension of his operations in Greece and possibly in Turkey by the spring of 1941. Sufficient airfields would have to be built to enable him to operate a total force of ten fighter, ten medium bomber, and three heavy bomber squadrons in Turkey and Greece by April. The Chiefs of Staff had been tentatively considering sending him from home during the winter six fighter and six medium bomber squadrons in addition to the foregoing reinforcement programme. In the first week of January, however, he was told that circumstances at home made it unlikely that these squadrons would be sent and he must therefore make his plans to suit the forces he already had. Even this involved a large and immediate increase in the programme of airfield construction, with all the telecommunications, technical buildings, approach roads, and other necessary services. In Turkey, where construction work on airfields had been in progress during the past year, it had been beyond the capacity of the Turkish Government to undertake the whole work themselves. The same was certainly true of the Greek Government, for whom substantial aid with money and equipment would have to be provided—the latter from the already strained resources of the Middle East.
To make matters worse a political difficulty now arose. The Greek Government were prepared to allow the Air Force to survey possible airfield sites to the south of a line from Mount Olympus to the Gulf of Arta, but they were most reluctant to allow any reconnaissance farther north. The President of the Council was determined to avoid any action that might make the Germans think that the British were being given facilities for bombing the Rumanian oilfields. This attitude was perfectly understandable, but the truth is that as early as November 4th Hitler had decided that the reported British occupation of Lemnos constituted a threat to the Rumanian oilfields and a week later he had ordered preparations to be made for the occupation of northern Greece by German forces. It was obvious that if the Germans intended to attack Greece one of their earliest objectives would be Salonika; it was within easy reach by air from Bulgaria and, unless the necessary airfield sites were examined and work on them begun, it would be impossible for fighters to operate in its defence. An additional and even more urgent
reason for developing airfields in northern Greece was that from here the distance to Durazzo and Valona, the base ports of the Italian forces in Albania, was shorter than from the airfields which the Royal Air Force was then using. Moreover, the northern route would avoid the worst of the mountains between Albania and Greece, an important consideration in view of the appalling flying conditions over these mountains in winter. It was emphasized that time was short and that the measure of assistance that the Greeks could expect would depend to a great extent on airfield facilities; but the Greek Government remained obdurate and refused to permit any squadrons to be based near Salonika. They allowed some very limited reconnaissance to be done, and there, for the time being, the matter rested.
As regards Turkey, the War Cabinet remained firmly determined to do everything possible to encourage her to resist aggression. War material was already being supplied to her, and there was still every intention of giving her active support if she found herself at war. The extent of this support, when the time came, would naturally depend upon the situation in the war against Italy and the progress made with the creation of a strategic reserve of land and air forces. Already the situation was very different from what it had been at the time of the conversations at Beirut in May, and the Turks agreed that the time had come to reopen discussions between the staffs. On 22nd December the Commanders-in-Chief were instructed accordingly; they were to use as their representatives the members of the British mission then in Cairo. The discussions were to cover the different circumstances in which Turkey might enter the war; Turkish plans to meet such situations; the extent of British support, particularly in the air, and the preparatory arrangements to be made to receive it; and the combined action necessary to secure communications through Syria. The Commanders-in-Chief were warned not to promise any support beyond what they could provide from their own resources. They were to impress upon the Turks that help could only be effective if it arrived quickly; to ensure this the preparations must be made well in advance. Existing airfields must be improved and new ones made; road, rail and port facilities must be developed, and fuel and munitions must be stocked at suitable points. On January 15th the talks began at Ankara.