Chapter 16: Supremacy at Sea
THE SUCCESSFUL outcome of the operation in early September of sailing naval reinforcements right through the Mediterranean, with a call at Malta,1 gave rise to proposals for passing merchant vessels to Malta and the Eastern Mediterranean in the same way. The Commander-in-Chief and Admiral Somerville both agreed that this should be feasible, provided that the merchant ships could make at least 16 knots. It had accordingly been proposed to combine a movement of this sort with that of the passage of the Barham and other ships which took place early in November,2 but delays in the United Kingdom had prevented the merchant ships being ready. The next opportunity occurred during a complicated series of movements of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet which included the escorting of ships to and from Malta and the passage of the Ramillies, Berwick, and Newcastle out of the Mediterranean westwards.
The arrival of the Barham, coupled with the success at Taranto, had enabled Admiral Cunningham to report that he could do without the Ramillies, an offer which was welcomed by the Admiralty in view of the activity of raiders in the Atlantic. Indeed, the exploits of the Scheer prompted them to suggest that the Valiant might be released also. Admiral Cunningham represented, however, that the Valiant and Warspite were the only two battleships with the necessary fuel endurance and gun range for operating against the Italian fleet, and it was decided that instead of the Valiant he should part with the 8-inch cruiser Berwick, whose high freeboard and other qualities made her suitable for service in the Atlantic. The cruiser Newcastle, which had made an independent passage carrying airmen and stores to Malta, was also due to return to her duties in the Atlantic.
The plan was briefly as follows. Three fast merchant ships known as COLLAR convoy—two for Malta (Clan Forbes and Clan Fraser) and one for Alexandria (New Zealand Star)—would pass through the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of 24th/25th November, escorted by the 6-inch cruisers Manchester and Southampton, with Vice-Admiral L. E. Holland flying his flag in the former. In addition to a few soldiers each cruiser was to carry about 700 airmen, comprising the ground crews for air reinforcements being flown from Takoradi to
replace the squadrons sent to Greece. East of Gibraltar they would be joined by four minesweeping corvettes destined for the Eastern Mediterranean. The Renown, Ark Royal, two 6-inch cruisers, Sheffield and Despatch, and nine destroyers of Force H would provide general cover to the northward. On the morning of the 27th a rendezvous would be made south of Sardinia with Force D, consisting of the Ramillies, Newcastle and Berwick coming from the east supported by the Coventry and five of Admiral Cunningham’s destroyers. Force D would then turn and accompany Admiral Somerville to a position between Sicily and Cape Bon, which they would reach at dusk. Here Force H with the Ramillies, Newcastle and Berwick would part company for Gibraltar, while Admiral Holland, reinforced by the remainder of what had been Force D, would pass through the Sicilian Narrows with the convoy. Next day he would meet the Mediterranean Fleet; the ships for Malta would break off, and the remainder would be escorted to Alexandria.
The position of the cruisers in which troops were to travel required careful consideration. With 700 extra men on board it seemed to Admiral Holland that neither ship would be in a fit condition to fight, and in case of a hit the casualties among these important reinforcements might be heavy; it might be better, therefore, for the two cruisers to proceed independently and trust to their high speed. Admiral Somerville’s view was that, as the main units of the Italian fleet were now thought to be based on the west coast of Italy, having left Taranto on November 12th, the enemy might bring three battleships, seven 8-inch and several 6-inch cruisers against him; and the best deterrent to the Italians was to make as strong a show of force as possible. In addition to the safe passage of the troops he had also to consider that of the merchant ships and minesweeping corvettes; he concluded that these objects would be more likely to be achieved if he kept his own forces concentrated. But because of the possibility of an encounter later with the enemy he asked the Commander-in-Chief to say which should come first, the safety of the merchant ships or that of the troops in the cruisers. The reply was, the troops; and with this decision the Admiralty concurred, subject to the proviso that if enemy forces were in sight the action taken by warships carrying airmen and soldiers must be the same as if they were not on board.
The operations began on November 23rd with the departure from Alexandria of Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell in the Orion with the 7th Cruiser Squadron, the Malaya, Ramillies, Eagle, and nine destroyers, to refuel at Suda Bay. The Malta convoy (M.W.4) of four ships left Egyptian ports escorted by the Calcutta, Coventry, and four destroyers, routed north of Crete. Two days later the Commander-in-Chief in the Warspite, with the Valiant, Illustrious, and a further
nine destroyers put to sea, and that night fifteen Swordfish from the Illustrious made an attack on the seaplane base at Leros in the Dodecanese. Meanwhile, aircraft from the Eagle attacked Tripoli, where one large ship was set on fire. Early on the 26th convoy M.W.4 arrived safely at Malta, having been attacked only by three torpedo-bombers when north of Crete. At noon the Ramillies, Newcastle, Coventry, and five destroyers left Malta to be joined by the Berwick, the whole forming Force D which was to rendezvous with Admiral Somerville next day. The main Mediterranean Fleet provided general cover to the south and east of Malta, while cruisers swept to the northeast as convoy M.E.4 of five empty ships sailed from Malta for Alexandria.
At 8 a.m. on November 27th, which was half an hour before sunrise, Admiral Somerville was about 100 miles to the southwest of Cape Spartivento. Twenty-five miles to the west-south-west were the Manchester and Southampton with the merchant ships. The minesweeping corvettes, unable to keep up, were some 10 miles astern. No reports had been received from aircraft based on Malta to suggest any aggressive move by the Italian Fleet. The visibility was excellent and the sea calm. Further reconnaissance by aircraft flown off the Ark Royal produced a negative report, and Admiral Somerville concluded that the most likely form of interference by the enemy would be from the air; accordingly at 9 o’clock he altered course, intending to fall back upon the convoy so as to be able to give it more effective anti-aircraft defence.
Before this alteration of course was made, however, aircraft from the carrier had transmitted two alarm reports; enemy warships were in sight to the south of Cape Spartivento, steering south-west.3 These reports were not received by any British ship, so the Renown, with Force H, continued to steer away from the enemy until at 10.5 a report, made at 9.20 and transmitted from the Ark Royal, was received by Admiral Somerville indicating that five cruisers and five destroyers were sixty miles to the north-east of him. At first he imagined that this must refer to Force D coming from the eastward, but he nevertheless began to work up to full speed on a north-easterly course. By 10.15 further reports had indicated the presence of enemy battleships and heavy cruisers, and shadowing aircraft had been detected. Admiral Somerville’s first consideration now was to effect a concentration with Force D as quickly as possible. At this moment a Sunderland flying-boat, on reconnaissance from Malta, signalled the presence of Force D, and half an hour later the two British forces were in sight of each other.
The cruisers Manchester, Southampton and Sheffield were ordered to
concentrate with the destroyers in the van, where they were later joined by the Berwick, Newcastle and the five destroyers from Force D. The convoy was directed to steer inside Galita Island, escorted by the old cruiser Despatch and two destroyers, to be reinforced by the Coventry from Force D. The Ark Royal was ordered to prepare an air striking force and act independently. The situation was still far from clear as the reports from the air contained many discrepancies. It seemed that five or six enemy cruisers were present, but the number of battleships was in doubt. In the circumstances Admiral Somerville decided that the best course was to show a bold front and attack the enemy as soon as possible.
At 11.15 the enemy, who had originally been seen steering to the westward, was reported as having altered course to the eastward. Thus the action seemed likely to develop into a chase, and as soon as the Ramillies came into sight she was ordered, on account of her low speed, to alter to a course parallel to that of the Renown. Shortly after this the Ark Royal flew off the first striking force of eleven torpedo-bomber aircraft. Just before noon the Sunderland reported an enemy force of six cruisers and eight destroyers thirty miles to the north-northwest of the Renown. This was much farther to the west than those previously reported and suggested the possibility that this force might work round astern and attack the Ark Royal and the convoy. Unfortunately communication with the flying-boat was lost before the course of the enemy just reported could be ascertained, but the Admiral considered it prudent to alter the movement of the British forces to due north.
The cruisers were now spread in line abreast about eight miles ahead, with the destroyers concentrated in a favourable position between them and the Renown. The flagship had developed a hot bearing in one shaft and could do no more than 27 knots, but she soon overtook the Ramillies which then followed astern at her best speed of 20.7 knots. The situation was still obscure, though there seemed to be a good prospect of bringing the enemy to action. The British forces had effected their concentration apparently unknown to the enemy, for the shadowing aircraft had lost touch; the sun was to the south, giving Admiral Somerville the advantage of the light; and there seemed to be a fair chance that he would be able to deliver simultaneous torpedo-bomber and surface attacks.
At this stage a reference to the report of the Italian Commander-in-Chief will make the subsequent action clear.
On November 25th Admiral Angelo Campioni, the Italian Commander-in-Chief afloat, got news that British forces had left Gibraltar. The available ships were the two battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare, seven 8-inch cruisers and sixteen destroyers; these left Naples and Messina at noon on the 26th, met, and steamed
to the westward. The Admiral was also aware that the British Fleet had left A1exandria and shortly after midnight he received from a torpedo boat a report of seven British warships off Cape Bon steering to the westward. This was Force D, and Campioni correctly assumed that it was on the way to join Force H. At 10.15 a.m. on the 27th, just after Admiral Somerville first became aware of the enemy, the Italian Commander-in-Chief received a report from an aircraft catapulted off one of his cruisers that one battleship, two light cruisers, and four destroyers were some 135 miles to the south-west of Cape Spartivento, steering east. This report undoubtedly referred to the Renown and the ships in company with Somerville, although the position given was well to the west of the real one, and no report had been made of the Ark Royal.
Having had this report confirmed, Admiral Campioni led his squadron round to the south-east at 11.28, and the cruisers conformed. He expected an encounter between the whole of his force and the Renown, with possibly two cruisers and a few destroyers, and he wished to bring this about in waters nearer to Sicily than to Sardinia. At a few minutes before noon he was suddenly presented with a very different picture, for a new report not only placed the Renown’s group twenty miles nearer than was supposed, but it disclosed the presence of the aircraft carrier and showed that junction had already been made with Force D.
A state of affairs’, wrote Admiral Campioni in his official report, ‘was thus created which at best was unfavourable to us both in numbers and quality’. In reality there were two capital ships on each side; seven Italian 8-inch cruisers against one 8-inch and four 6-inch British; sixteen Italian destroyers against ten. But the Italian Admiral attached particular significance to the presence of the Ark Royal, whose aircraft might cause much damage if their action was synchronized with that of the surface ships. He had been warned by the Minister of Marine that it was particularly important to avoid damage now that half the Italian battlefleet had been put out of action at Taranto. In view of these instructions Admiral Campioni considered that it was his duty not to become involved in battle in the existing circumstances. He admits that he ought to have been able to count on the effective intervention of shore-based aircraft, but his previous experience discouraged him from setting too much store by this. Accordingly, at 12.15 p.m. he hoisted the signal to alter course to due east, and ordered: ‘Do not join action’.
But the cruisers were already in action. From the Renown smoke had been sighted to the northward at 12.15, and eight minutes later the Italian cruisers opened fire. The British cruisers and the Renown replied—the latter at 27,000 yards—and even the Ramillies fired a couple of salvoes. All shots from the capital ships fell short, and after six salvoes the Renown’s target was lost in smoke. A running fight now took place between the cruisers on an east-north-east course, with the Italians gaining in distance all the time. From one of the first enemy salvoes the Berwick had her after turret put out of action, and fifteen minutes later she received another hit. Indeed, Admiral Holland recorded that he was very much impressed by the accuracy of the Italians’ opening salvoes, compared with that of his own cruisers, and ascribed it to the superiority of their range-finding instruments.
At 12.44 the eleven aircraft from the Ark Royal found the two Italian battleships 25 to 30 miles to the eastward, screened by eight destroyers. The Vittorio Veneto was selected as the target, and all the torpedoes were dropped within the destroyer screen at distances from 700 to 800 yards. Admiral Somerville reported that one hit was
observed just abaft the after funnel, but Admiral Campioni records that although the attack was carried out with resolution it was effectively countered by manoeuvring and gunfire. In his turn he claimed that two British aircraft were brought down, whereas in fact they all returned safely to the carrier.
Meanwhile the action between the cruisers continued. No more hits were obtained on any British ship, but the Manchester was straddled several times. Smoke from the enemy made observation difficult for the British, but it was believed that, at the least, one cruiser and two destroyers were hit. According to Admiral Campioni, however, one destroyer—the Lanciere—was put out of action, and this was all the damage suffered by the Italians throughout the engagement. About 1 o’clock the two Italian battleships were sighted from the British cruisers, and as large projectiles began to fall round his ships Admiral Holland altered course to the south-east in order to draw the enemy towards the Renown. As the enemy did not conform he altered back and continued the chase. The enemy were now rapidly running out of range, and at 1.18 the action ceased.
Meanwhile Admiral Somerville was faced with the choice of continuing the chase or of falling back towards the convoy. The enemy had drawn out of range; heavy smoke had prevented accurate fire, and as far as he knew no serious damage had been inflicted that was likely to reduce the enemy’s speed. To his question to Holland, ‘Is there any hope of catching cruisers?’ he had received the answer ‘No’. He was being led towards a dense smoke screen close to the enemy’s air, submarine, and light force bases at Cagliari. One of the main objects of the whole operation was the safe passage of the convoy, and it was important to give the merchant ships as much protection as possible against torpedo-bomber attacks at dusk. In addition to this, he was still without any further information of the enemy cruisers which had been reported farther to the westward by the flying-boat shortly before noon. There was the possibility that this force had worked round and would attack the Ark Royal, 45 miles away to the south-west, and the convoy. (As it happened, the flying-boat’s report referred to the Italian cruisers which were almost due north of the Renown at noon, and were about to turn to the eastward.) Lastly, there were the troops in the Manchester and Southampton to be taken into account; so far both ships had escaped damage. At 1.15 p.m. he decided to abandon the chase and rejoin the convoy.
At the same time he considered the question of sending another air striking force against the Italian battleships, but decided not to do so because the attack could not take place before 3.30 or 4 p.m. by which time the enemy fleet would be well under cover of the shore defences of Cagliari. Instead, he ordered an attack to be made on an enemy cruiser which had been reported stopped and damaged some
thirty miles to the north of the Renown. The Captain of the Ark Royal, correctly appreciating that Admiral Somerville had not received the report of the first air striking force, in which a certain hit had been claimed on the Vittorio Veneto, decided to send his nine torpedo-bombers against the enemy’s main forces and seven Skuas to bomb the damaged vessel. The leader of the torpedo-bombers was given the Vittorio Veneto as his objective, with full liberty to change it. When he found the Italian battle squadron so well screened that an unobserved approach was impossible, he decided to attack one of the cruiser squadrons instead. All torpedoes missed. Meanwhile the Skuas, unable to find the damaged vessel (which was in fact the Lanciere, then being towed to Cagliari), bombed three other cruisers, but without success.
It was now the enemy’s turn to attack from the air. The first formation was driven off by Fulmar fighters, but two more attacks were delivered shortly before 5 p.m. They were made from a high altitude, but were accurate nevertheless. The Ark Royal was straddled by about thirty bombs, two of which fell within ten yards of the ship, and many others were unpleasantly close.4 Admiral Somerville remarked that neither fighter aircraft nor gunfire succeeded in breaking up the formations of the Italian air squadrons, and it was fortunate that these attacks were not repeated. As soon as the convoy was in sight the whole force proceeded eastward until dusk; then, led by the Manchester, with the Southampton, Coventry, and six destroyers, the merchant ships passed through the Narrows with the corvettes a few miles astern. Force H with the Ramillies, Berwick, and Newcastle, altered course for Gibraltar.
While the action off Cape Spartivento was taking place the Commander-in-Chief was some 150 miles to the east of Malta in readiness to meet any sortie of the Italian fleet in that direction. When he heard that the enemy had been sighted south of Sardinia he ordered the 3rd Cruiser Squadron to proceed to the west in order to cover the COLLAR convoy. He himself followed later and by 8 a.m. next morning this important convoy came under the direct protection of the Mediterranean Fleet. The ships for Malta were detached under special escort; the New Zealand Star went on to Alexandria, and the corvettes to Suda Bay. By 30th November the fleet was back at Alexandria. There had been a little bombing to the west of Malta, but to the east not a single enemy aircraft was sighted and there was no sign of any shadowing.
Although the action off Cape Spartivento had been indecisive, the objects of the whole operation had been achieved. Convoy, troops, airmen, and minesweepers had all arrived safely at their destinations. It came therefore as a great surprise to Admiral Somerville to learn
on his return to Gibraltar that the Admiralty had ordered an enquiry to be held into the discontinuance of the chase on November 27th and the failure of the second air striking force to attack the Italian battleships. It was remarkable that the enquiry was ordered without waiting for the Admiral’s own detailed report. The Board of Enquiry was presided over by Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery, and its findings completely upheld the actions of Admiral Somerville and of the leader of the air striking force.
Before the operations to cover the COLLAR convoy were completed the Admiralty informed Admiral Cunningham of the intention to send another convoy (EXCESS) through the Mediterranean towards the end of the year. On this occasion five fast merchant vessels would leave the United Kingdom in a ‘W.S.’ convoy, and break away from it when they reached the latitude of Gibraltar.5 Once more there were delays, and it was not until the second week in January that convoy EXCESS reached the Mediterranean; its adventures there are described in the next chapter.
Admiral Cunningham fully agreed with the proposal, but drew attention once more to the danger of operating in the Central Mediterranean when air reconnaissance from Malta could not be provided on a scale commensurate with the many tasks. The Greek campaign had led to many additional calls upon the limited resources; even so, as long as the Italian Fleet was based on Taranto and Brindisi it had been possible for reconnaissance aircraft from Malta to observe it daily. But after the dispersal of the fleet along the west coast of Italy the number of reconnaissance aircraft was insufficient for keeping it under observation. Sunderland flying-boats, invaluable for reconnaissance over the sea, were very vulnerable in the vicinity of ports defended by enemy fighters. The Glenn Martins were very short of spares, and it was difficult to keep them serviceable. In addition, the weather had been bad. The net result was that the only information about the three Italian battleships which had left Taranto was that one was seen off Capri on 16th November and one at Spezia on the 20th.
In reply the Admiralty assured Admiral Cunningham that the Air Ministry was overcoming the difficulties which were holding up the Glenn Martins, and that more of these aircraft would soon be available. They also disclosed to him the intention to send three assault landing ships with convoy EXCESS. These were converted Glen liners capable of eighteen and a half knots, which would carry about 2,000 Special Service (Commando type) troops who were to capture Pantelleria, a defended rock about 120 miles to the west of Malta.
A plan for this purpose had been put forward by the Director of Combined Operations, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, and was strongly supported by the Prime Minister. It would be a welcome and exhilarating example of the offensive spirit; the airfield on Pantelleria would be of great service as a staging point for aircraft arriving as reinforcements; fighters could be based upon it to give protection to our ships in the Sicilian Narrows; and bombers could attack targets in Sicily and Sardinia, as well as the Italian shipping bound for North Africa. The island was believed to be held in only moderate strength, and the idea was that, having captured it, the highly trained Special Service troops would be quickly relieved by troops from Malta. They would then proceed with their special equipment in the assault ships to the Middle East for whatever duties the Commanders-in-Chief might choose. The operation—known as WORKSHOP—would be commanded by Sir Roger Keyes in person.
The Commanders-in-Chief had long been aware that there would be scope in the Mediterranean for troops trained in landing operations and had arranged for a simple type of landing craft to be built in India. These took a long time to deliver but were eventually invaluable for port working. After Dunkirk the development of special landing equipment received great impetus in the United Kingdom, and in September 1940 the Middle East was told to expect five special ships with a full complement of landing craft and a nucleus of specially trained troops by about the middle of February 1941. A Combined Operations School was accordingly set up at Kabrit, on the shore of the Great Bitter Lake, at which the experience gained at home would be passed on.
The WORKSHOP proposal thus held out the prospect of an earlier arrival of special troops and equipment in the Middle East than had been expected, always supposing that they survived the action at Pantelleria. The Chiefs of Staff did not share the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for the project and at the end of November they asked Admiral Cunningham, alone of the three Commanders-in-Chief, for his remarks on it. Admiral Cunningham could not help admiring the spirit of adventure implicit in the plan, and had no reason to doubt that it was feasible. On the other hand he felt strongly that the Fleet had already very heavy responsibilities in the Mediterranean; it was by no means easy to keep Malta supplied, and to attempt to supply Pantelleria as well would involve an unjustified diversion of effort from the Eastern Mediterranean. There were not yet enough aircraft or anti-aircraft guns at Malta; how could it be right to spread our resources still wider? Pantelleria in the hands of the Italians had been no source of annoyance to us; it seemed very doubtful if we possessed the means of making it a source of annoyance to them. A much better plan would be to send the assaulting force direct to the
Eastern Mediterranean where it would be used for the early capture of some of the Dodecanese Islands, beginning with Stampalia and Scarpanto.
This proposal found no favour with the Prime Minister. If any of the Dodecanese Islands were attacked, it must be the big ones; this would need from ten to twenty thousand men, and the result would be to excite rivalry between the Turks and the Greeks, which was to be avoided. So in spite of the views of Admiral Cunningham and the doubts of the Chiefs of Staff the Defence Committee in London decided to proceed with WORKSHOP. In the middle of December, however, they had reason to believe that the Germans had in mind some form of action in the Western Mediterranean, and decided to keep a force in hand ready for instant action. WORKSHOP force was the most suitable, so that convoy EXCESS had to sail without it. At the end of December the Chiefs of Staff wished to send the force to the Middle East round the Cape, but the Prime Minister preferred that it should carry out the Pantelleria operation on the way; this would be early in March.
The probability that the Italian battleships were now more of a threat in the western basin than elsewhere led Admiral Cunningham to propose on 6th December that before the passage of convoy EXCESS the battleship Malaya should be sent to reinforce Force H. (The very next day air reconnaissance discovered two battleships at Naples, with five cruisers and many destroyers.) Once more there would be a series of interlocking operations: two empty merchant ships to be passed from Malta to Gibraltar; convoys to be taken into and out of Malta, and up and down the Aegean; a sweep by the main fleet into the Adriatic to bombard Valona; and carrier-borne air attacks on the Dodecanese and on the Tripoli supply route.
These operations began on December 16th. Leaving the Rear-Admiral, First Battle Squadron, in the Barham in operational control of the naval forces off the Libyan coast (including the Inshore Squadron, about to open Sollum) the Commander-in-Chief proceeded to sea in the Warspite, with the Valiant, Illustrious, Gloucester, York, and eleven destroyers, to be joined by the Vice-Admiral, Light Forces, with the cruisers already operating in the Aegean. The Malaya with three destroyers formed the close escort for the four ships comprising the Malta convoy (M.W.5). This convoy was routed south of Crete, but the main fleet went through the Kaso Strait in order to give the Illustrious an opportunity to strike at Stampalia and Rhodes. The weather was bad, however, and only a few aircraft could find their targets.
The fleet called at Suda Bay to refuel on the 17th and by noon the next day was off the island of Zante, steering north. That evening
the 7th Cruiser Squadron parted company to sweep ahead as far as the line Bari–Durazzo while the battlefleet moved up to a position from which to bombard Valona, the principal sea-head for the Italian forces operating against the Greeks. Fire was opened shortly after 1 a.m. on the 19th and in eight minutes 100 rounds of 15-inch shell were fired, mostly at the airfield. On account of bad weather during the previous afternoon it had been decided that aircraft from the Illustrious would not take part, and the results of the bombardment were therefore not observed. It has since been learned that damage was done to the runways, which was soon repaired, and that twenty aircraft were damaged, nine of them badly. The enemy did not interfere, and there is no doubt that they were completely surprised.
On the following day, December 20th, Admiral Cunningham took the Warspite into Malta for the first time since May and received an enthusiastic welcome. The island was in great heart. The air attacks, which had started with some severity in June, had dwindled almost to nothing; which partly obscured the fact that the air defences were still far below strength. The successes at sea, the visible arrival of convoys, and the good news from the Western Desert all had an inspiring effect upon the population, and the dockyard was practically back to normal as regards repair work. Indeed, it was having a busy time: a convoy from Alexandria to be received; empty ships to be sailed to the east; and the Malaya to be fuelled and sailed for Gibraltar together with the two ships of the COLLAR convoy. While the Commander-in-Chief was inspecting the naval establishments at Malta, aircraft of Nos. 815 and 819 Squadrons from the Illustrious sank two out of three Italian merchant ships in convoy on their way to Tripoli and attacked other shipping and the port installations at that place, while Swordfish of No. 830 Squadron from Malta laid mines in the harbour entrance. There was no reaction from Italian air or surface forces, and on Christmas Eve the fleet was safely back at Alexandria.
It was intended that Force H should co-operate in the passage of the Malaya and the merchant ships, but on December 14th Admiral Somerville was suddenly ordered to proceed to the Azores and prevent an expected attempt at landing by the Germans. The information proved false; he was back in Gibraltar on the 19th and able to sail eastwards next day with the Renown, Ark Royal and six destroyers. The exact dispositions of the Italian naval forces were then in doubt, but on December 21st, when the Malaya and the merchant ships were passing through the Sicilian Narrows, air reconnaissance from Malta found the main units of the Italian fleet at Naples and Spezia. The enemy took no action to interfere with the passage and the only mishap was that the destroyer Hyperion was torpedoed by a submarine off Pantelleria and had to be sunk. The
next day, after Force H had joined, some shadowing aircraft were driven off by fighters of No. 808 Squadron; otherwise there was no sign of the enemy.
The next task should have been to receive convoy EXCESS, the ships of which had sailed with the large convoy W.S.5. Plans were completely upset, however, when this convoy was attacked on December 25th by the German 8-inch cruiser Hipper, out in the Atlantic a thousand miles from Gibraltar. In a short engagement with the Berwick hits were scored on either side, and the enemy was driven off, but not before one transport had been damaged and the convoy had been obliged to scatter. The Christmas festivities of Force H were interrupted and it was ordered to sea to round up the scattered ships and give them extra protection, and if possible to bring the Hipper to action. The first of these objects took longer than was expected, and in the bad weather the Renown suffered damage which reduced her speed to 20 knots and made it necessary for her to go into dock at Gibraltar. The EXCESS ships, together with the additional escort to help them through the Narrows, were held at Gibraltar, and the operation was postponed until 6th January.
This was a very unfortunate turn of events. The various naval operations in the Mediterranean were so closely linked that a delay of this sort to one of them had its effects upon them all. As Admiral Cunningham, put it ‘the trail of dislocation was progressive’; but, as will be seen, the worst effects were eventually felt during the passage of convoy EXCESS itself.
The month of December showed clearly what a large measure of control the British Navy was able to exercise in the Mediterranean. Warships and important convoys had completed the through passage in both directions; other convoys had passed freely up and down the Aegean; places as far apart as Rhodes and Tripoli had been attacked; and the fleet had even swept into the Adriatic. Fifty-five ships (totalling over 235,000 tons) had been escorted during the month—all without damage. And yet the Italians had ample naval forces and shore-based aircraft with which to score a success against almost any of these enterprises, had they been minded to try, and they had the advantage of being well informed about the movements of shipping at Gibraltar and the Egyptian ports. Their policy, however, had given the surface ships little opportunity of coming to grips. The British Mediterranean Fleet, on the other hand, had snatched such chances as had presented themselves and had sunk one cruiser and four destroyers by gunfire. Italian gunfire had only caused minor damage to two British cruisers.
The relative strengths of the fleets were of course very different from what they had been on the outbreak of war. In particular, the
arrival of the Illustrious, with her effective low-angle radar and her Fulmar fighters, had greatly increased the freedom of action of the fleet and had given it a high degree of local command of the air. The activities of the Fleet Air Arm were, however, not entirely confined to its primary function of operating from the carriers, for No. 830 Squadron (Swordfish) was used from Malta for attacking enemy shipping, and Swordfish of No. 813 Squadron had been operating with the Royal Air Force in the Western Desert, in attacks upon coastal shipping. Others had attacked targets in the Dodecanese from Crete.
The Italian Air Force had made repeated attacks on British ships, mostly from high-level, sometimes with great accuracy but on the whole with surprisingly little success. The chief threat to the British ships was from torpedo-bomber attacks, a type of action which the Italians had not fully developed when they came into the war, and which therefore did not figure very largely for some time. But in addition to their successes against the Kent and the Liverpool, already mentioned,6 torpedo-bombers scored two hits on the cruiser Glasgow in Suda Bay early in December; all three cruisers had to leave the Mediterranean for repairs.
For reconnaissance and long-range bombing attacks the Royal Air Force had far less convenient bases than the Italian Air Force, but it was nevertheless able to make a considerable contribution. For example, the Wellington bombers of No 148 Squadron at Malta, which had followed up the Fleet Air Arm’s attack on Taranto two nights later, continued during November to bomb ports in southern Italy—Brindisi, Bari, and Taranto—in order to interfere with Italian rail and sea communications carrying traffic for Albania. Naples also received attention in order to give the Italian battlefleet no respite. In December some of the effort was diverted to objectives in North Africa, notably Tripoli, in connexion with the British offensive in the Western Desert, but southern Italy also suffered. In these two months 94 sorties were flown against Italian ports.
It has been seen that the lack of reconnaissance aircraft at Malta resulted in uncertainty about the dispositions of the Italian main fleet units at the time when British convoys were to pass through the Central Mediterranean. The aircraft of all types at Malta on 31st December were as follows:
|No. 830 Sqn. F.A.A. 12 Swordfish||(torpedo-bomber)|
|No. 261 Sqn. RAF 16 Hurricanes||(and 4 in reserve)|
|No. 148 Sqn. RAF 16 Wellingtons||(and 4 in reserve)|
|No. 228 Sqn. RAF 4 Sunderlands||(flying-boats; and 2 in reserve)|
|No. 431 Flight RAF 4 Glenn Martins (later No. 69 Sqn.)||(for reconnaissance: 1 in reserve)|
Thus not only were the fighters well short of the figure aimed at, namely, four squadrons, but the number of reconnaissance aircraft was clearly much too low to keep the movements of Italian merchant ships under proper observation; opportunities for attacking them were consequently being lost. This was especially serious at a time when it was clearly necessary to harass the routes by which reinforcements would reach Graziani, and the three Commanders-in-Chief expressed to the Chiefs of Staff their grave concern over this weakness and reiterated the request of Air Chief Marshal Longmore for a Glenn Martin squadron and a long-range torpedo-bomber squadron of the Beaufort type to be stationed at Malta. In reply, the Chiefs of Staff pointed out that demands for aircraft, not only in the Mediterranean, were taxing their resources to the utmost, and could only be met at the expense of Bomber Command whose expansion was vitally important. They could make no promises about Beauforts, but hoped to send a few Glenn Martins to Malta very shortly.
This is not to say that the only shortages were in the air. The Greek campaign had thrown many extra burdens on the Fleet, and especially on the destroyers, although this was partly offset by the use of Greek destroyers as escorts for convoys and by the use of Suda Bay as a refuelling base. But there had been a great increase in tasks requiring small craft generally, and the shortage of destroyers in particular was preventing the fleet from exploiting to the full the otherwise favourable naval situation. There were not enough destroyers to enable the whole fleet to be used simultaneously on offensive operations; the same applied to Force H, whose light forces had frequently to be diverted to the interruption of inward-bound French merchant shipping suspected of trying to break the blockade. Admiral Cunningham therefore felt that, just when a highly aggressive policy against the Italians was clearly called for, the operations of the Fleet were being restricted to comparatively minor enterprises often of a defensive kind. The Admiralty was fully alive to the shortage, but the need to concentrate anti-submarine craft in the Western Approaches of the United Kingdom was vital for the country’s existence and had to come first. It was hoped that it would be possible to release more destroyers for the Mediterranean by the end of February.
The difficulties under which British submarines were working have already been referred to, and the results continued to be disappointing.7 On the outbreak of war between Italy and Greece the Adriatic was allocated at first to the Greek submarines. In the course of their first patrols they sank at least two Italian transports. It was in these waters that two British submarines—Regulus and Triton—were lost during December. In December also the Free French submarine Narval failed to return from patrol off the African coast. By the end of
the year ten submarines had been lost, or nearly half the total number that had operated since the war began. Over the same period the Italians had lost twenty. In November and December only three Italian supply ships—amounting to 15,400 tons—were sunk by submarines, and the Italian naval figures for troops and supplies landed in North Africa and Albania show how trivial was this result. In North Africa between June 1940 and January 1941 47,000 troops had been landed without loss; and nearly 350,000 tons of equipment and supplies, with a loss of 2.3%. In Albania, between October 1940 and April 1941, the figures were: troops, 623,000 with a loss of 0.05%; supplies, 704,000 tons with a loss of 0.2%.
Nevertheless, the outlook was improving, for the first three of the new ‘U’ class of submarine arrived at Malta in December to replace three of the larger boats which then left the Mediterranean; it was confidently expected that the submarines would soon begin to achieve results. Not that the Italian submarines had done any better, though there were many more of them and they had more targets in the open sea. Since the war began they had sunk an old British cruiser, two destroyers, and one submarine. Only four merchant ships totalling 16,000 tons had been sunk; of these three were neutral and the fourth was a Norwegian tanker.
Broadly, then, the naval outlook at the end of 1940 was distinctly encouraging and the Commander-in-Chief could justly claim to be in a fair way towards achieving his first object—the control of the Mediterranean. Indeed we had taken the measure of the Italians by sea, land, and air, and the moment had come for the stronger partner of the Axis to take some of the strain off the weaker.