Chapter 6: The Bombardment of Tripoli and the Passage of the TIGER convoy (April–May 1941)
See Map 3
The unexpectedly rapid advance of the Axis forces in Cyrenaica at the beginning of April had called for energetic measures by the British at a time when they were heavily involved in Greece. The most vulnerable link in General Rommel’s line of communication was the sea route between Italy and North Africa, and as has been seen in Chapter 3 the sinkings by British submarines and aircraft based on Malta had begun to increase. Nothing they could do at this time, however, would bring the Afrika Korps to a halt; nor, in the conditions prevailing at Malta—namely, lack of adequate reconnaissance and air defence—could anything more than occasional successes be expected of such surface forces as could be based there. In short, however good the chances might be of disrupting the enemy’s sea communications in the long run, the time had clearly come to consider whether anything could be done to produce results more quickly. Attention naturally centred upon the focal point of Tripoli, the port through which the bulk of the traffic passed.
As early as 4th April the Admiralty had suggested a heavy bombardment of Tripoli from the sea, and followed this up by asking Admiral Cunningham if it would be possible to block the harbour; if so, the old battleship Centurion which had long been used as a wireless-controlled target for gunnery practices, would be sent out for the purpose. There was not time to send her round the Cape, so she would have to venture the passage through the Mediterranean. Admiral Cunningham replied that bombardment was not likely to cause serious damage and that as his ships would be exposed to heavy air attack from Tripoli and Sicily he could not agree that the probable results would justify the risks. He would have welcomed the Centurion as a block ship had she been already in the Eastern Mediterranean; as it was, she would probably suffer damage passing through the Sicilian Narrows and, even if she did not, her speed was too low for her to make the final 180-mile passage from Malta to Tripoli undetected.
By 11th April General Rommel was outside Tobruk, and it looked like being a race against time. The Commanders-in-Chief were fully alive to the importance of interfering with the base port of Tripoli and called the attention of the Chiefs of Staff to the fact that it was now out of air range from the east. Six Wellingtons had therefore been sent back to Malta, where also the 14th Destroyer Flotilla was about to start operating as a night-raiding force. Admiral Cunningham was still opposed to the idea of bombarding from the sea, because it would not have a lasting effect. To the three Commanders-in-Chief it seemed that the only satisfactory solution would be for a squadron of long-range bombers to be sent out to Egypt immediately. To this the Chief of the Air Staff replied that no long-range bombers were available. Sir Arthur Longmore therefore made the six Wellingtons at Malta up to nine, and accepted the risk of their being destroyed on the ground, so important was the need to attack Tripoli.
It was still the view of the Admiralty that the efforts of the Royal Air Force should be supplemented in every possible way and they felt that circumstances demanded that both bombardment and blocking should be attempted. They suggested also that greater use might be made of Malta’s Swordfish to drop mines in Tripoli harbour and in the approaches. The Prime Minister stated the case for naval action with great force in a Directive issued on 14th April. The prime duty of the Mediterranean Fleet, he wrote, was to stop all sea-borne traffic between Italy and North Africa; for this all-important objective heavy losses in battleships, cruisers, and destroyers must if necessary be accepted. Tripoli harbour was to be rendered unusable by recurrent bombardment and by blocking, or mining, or both. The Mediterranean Fleet was to be strengthened so as to allow of two bombarding squadrons, to work in turns. The use of the Centurion as a block ship was to be further studied, but the effective blocking of Tripoli harbour would be well worth a battleship upon the active list. ‘Every convoy which gets through must be considered a serious naval failure. The reputation of the Royal Navy is engaged in stopping this traffic.’ The Directive went on to say that Malta was to receive as many fighters of the latest and best quality as the airfields could contain, in order to protect the naval forces to be based there. It also stressed the importance of landing Commandos and tanks to harass the coastal road between Tripoli and El Agheila. In all of this the urgency was extreme.
Before this Directive reached the Commanders-in-Chief the Admiralty had sent Admiral Cunningham a signal based upon it. Their Lordships had decided—so the message ran—upon a combined bombardment and blocking of Tripoli harbour. The battleship Barham and a ‘C’ class cruiser were to be used as block ships and were to bombard at point-blank range as they approached the harbour. The use of the Barham would no doubt fill Admiral Cunningham with
the deepest regret, but their Lordships thought it far better to sacrifice one ship entirely, with the chance of achieving something really worth while, than to have several ships damaged while carrying out a bombardment the result of which might be most disappointing.
This signal was received just as the possibility of having to bring the Army away from Greece was beginning to loom up. It disturbed Admiral Cunningham profoundly. He realized the careful thought which must have been given to the matter before such a sacrifice was decided upon, but he nevertheless saw fit to question the order. Such a price, he submitted, was only justified if success was reasonably assured and if the result would be efficacious. Neither condition, in his opinion, would be fulfilled. He doubted if there was one chance in ten of getting this large ship into the right position. Even if the harbour were blocked it would still be possible to unload by lighter. The loss of the Barham would give an inestimable fillip to Italian naval morale, and the very effort would show the enemy how desperate we considered the Cyrenaican situation to be.
Being of the opinion that the proposed action would not achieve the desired results Admiral Cunningham was deeply concerned by the human aspect of the problem. For unusually hazardous ventures it was customary to call for volunteers; in the present instance secrecy and shortage of time would not allow of this. And because the block-ships were also to be required to bombard, the numbers of officers and men on board would be large—much larger than the reduced ships’ companies which a purely blocking operation would require. The prospect of getting any of them away would be very small. These considerations prompted Admiral Cunningham to go so far as to say to the First Sea Lord that to send in the men unprepared on this operation, involving certain capture and heavy casualties, would seriously jeopardize, if it did not destroy, the whole confidence of the Fleet in the Higher Command, not only in the Mediterranean but at home also. Rather than send in the Barham without support, and with such slender chances of success, he would prefer to bombard with the whole battlefleet and accept the risks. In making this suggestion Admiral Cunningham was accepting what seemed to him the lesser of two evils, for he had already expressed the opinion that a bombardment would expose the battlefleet to unjustifiable risks and would be unlikely to achieve its purpose.
Meanwhile he had been planning an operation of a type that is already familiar: it included the escorting of three empty merchant vessels away from Malta, which had to be done before running in another convoy. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, asked whether this operation, if delayed a few days, could be combined with the bombardment of Tripoli on the assumption that the blocking operation would be deferred. This was followed by a sympathetic
personal message from Admiral Pound, and the note of irritation which had crept into the previous exchanges now disappeared. Perhaps the destruction of a whole convoy by Captain Mack earlier that morning off Sfax had helped to lessen the strain under which both Admirals were working. The Prime Minister also stepped in with a congratulatory telegram.
Admiral Cunningham replied that he hoped to arrange for the bombardment of Tripoli to take place as part of the convoy operations on 20th or 21st April. This met the wishes of the Admiralty who were now inclined to look upon the bombardment as being of more immediate importance than the blocking. Captain Mack’s success was likely to result in convoys being stopped for the time being, in which case it was more appropriate to destroy the stores already at Tripoli than to block the arrival of others. Immediate action was necessary for it was already clear that the Fleet would soon be fully absorbed in withdrawing the British forces from Greece.
Tripoli was the only fully equipped Italian port on the North African coast. It has a harbour roughly a square mile in area enclosed by breakwaters. The town stands on a rocky promontory which forms part of the western and northern perimeter of the harbour. The northern breakwater is an extension of this promontory and carries the principal harbour works and shipping berths. There was a seaplane station in the south-eastern corner of the harbour, and fifteen miles inland was the important Italian airfield of Castel Benito.
Admiral Cunningham decided that during daylight he must have his aircraft carrier close to the battlefleet to counter the heavy air attacks which were to be expected. He was not prepared, however, to risk her close inshore where her movements might be restricted in shallow waters and where she might come within the range of the shore batteries. He therefore decided to bombard Tripoli by night with the help of flares dropped by aircraft. Zero time was to be 5 a.m. on 21st April, on which date moonrise was at 4.36, dawn at 6.50 and sunrise at 7.30. To help the bombarding ships to reach their positions for opening fire the submarine Truant was to act as a lighthouse and asdic beacon.
For this operation the Fleet was organized in two forces: the bombarding force, composed of the battleships Warspite (flag of the Commander-in-Chief), Barham, and Valiant, the cruiser Gloucester and nine destroyers, and the carrier force, under the command of the Vice-Admiral, Light Forces, (Vice-Admiral H. D. Pridham-Wippell) consisting of the Formidable and an escort of three cruisers and four destroyers. The plan was for the Fleet to approach Malta as though covering the convoys in the usual way, and after dusk on 20th April
to steam south at high speed so as to be in position off Tripoli before dawn next morning.
The Royal Air Force was to carry out a number of special reconnaissances and was to attack the harbour works of Tripoli with high-explosive and incendiary bombs between 3.30 and 4.15 a.m. on 21st April. Between 4.15 and 4.30 the Fleet Air Arm was to follow this with another bombing attack. All these aircraft were to be clear to the westward by 4.40 a.m. Then from the Formidable were to come four flare-dropping aircraft, whose task was to illuminate the target area from 4.45 to 5.40 a.m. It was hoped to start oil fires on the water with incendiary devices. The Formidable would also send up three spotting aircraft.
The Fleet left Alexandria on the morning of 18th April and passed through the Kaso Strait. Next afternoon the destroyers refuelled at Suda Bay and early on the 20th a rendezvous was made about half way between Malta and Crete with the ships of the Vice-Admiral, Light Forces (Orion, Ajax, Gloucester, and two destroyers), which had been operating in the Aegean. The Breconshire, carrying petrol and munitions, had come direct from Alexandria; she and her escort joined at the same time. Three hours later the convoy of empty ships from Malta was sighted on its way to Alexandria. After dark the Breconshire, escorted by one destroyer, was detached to proceed to Malta. The bombarding force (Force B) and the carrier force (Force C) parted company: Force B steered for Tripoli and Force C for a point about sixty miles to the northward. Various enemy aircraft had been seen and engaged during the passage, but no serious attempt seems to have been made to shadow the Fleet and no attack had been made on any of the ships.
The air attacks which preceded the bombardment were made by eight Wellingtons of No. 148 Squadron RAF and by the Swordfish of 830 Squadron FAA, all based at Malta. Several large fires were started around the harbour and in the town. At 4.45 a.m., after rounding HMS Truant, whose flashing light had been sighted half an hour earlier, Force B steadied on the firing course and at 5.02 opened fire at a range of about seven miles. The three battleships, the cruiser Gloucester and the screening destroyers had been allotted specific targets; the Gloucester’s primary duty was counter-battery work in which she was to be assisted if necessary by the destroyers and by the secondary armament of the battleships. The explosions of the bombs, the flares, and the enemy’s anti-aircraft gunfire had all made it easy to distinguish the harbour, but when the shelling began a vast cloud of dust and smoke, thickened by shell bursts, made it difficult for the spotting aircraft and practically impossible for the ships to observe the fall of shot—and this in spite of the brilliance of the flares. The antiaircraft batteries, apparently under the impression that they were still
being attacked from the air, continued to pump ammunition into the sky. The coastal batteries made no reply until the Fleet had begun to turn eastward for its second bombarding run, fully twenty minutes after the start. The shooting from these batteries was wild and did no harm.
The bombardment lasted about forty minutes. Having ceased fire, Force B altered course to the north-eastward at maximum speed and shortly after 7 a.m. was joined by Force C. Two enemy aircraft were driven off by the Formidable’s Fulmars during the day, but no attacks followed. That evening the 14th Destroyer Flotilla was detached to return to Malta. During the forenoon of the 22nd enemy shadowers were overheard reporting that they had seen the Fleet, and one enemy formation was detected by radar and driven off. Again no attacks followed, and next morning the Fleet entered Alexandria harbour.
478 rounds of 15-inch shell and 1,500 of lesser calibre—about 530 tons in all—were fired at Tripoli harbour but the results of the bombardment were disappointing. The difficulty of seeing where the shots were falling has already been mentioned. Correction of fire on to the targets was further complicated because the target areas for each ship were too close together, so that even when the fall of shot could be seen it was difficult to distinguish one ship’s salvoes from those of another. After the air photographs had been studied, an estimate of the damage was made which proved to be not much greater than what has been subsequently confirmed from Italian and German sources. Admiral Bernotti states that one cargo steamer loaded with fuel and bombs was sunk, and that one torpedo boat—the Partenope—was damaged.1 According to him the port and city suffered heavily although many 15-inch shells failed to burst. He admits that the British obtained complete surprise, and that the Italian and German Air Forces entirely failed to intervene. Other Italian sources give the casualties among civilians as about 100 dead and 300 wounded; the moral effect is known to have been considerable and to have lasted some time. Nevertheless the movements of Axis shipping were suspended for only one day. It happened that much greater damage was done on 3rd May by an explosion on board an Italian merchant ship in the harbour, believed by the Italians to have been caused by the spontaneous ignition of German Air Force bombs. It resulted in the loss of two large merchant ships with valuable cargoes and did serious damage to the quays.
In making his report to the Admiralty the Commander-in-Chief expressed his astonishment that the Fleet had not been attacked, but
took care to point out that he still thought such a use of the battlefleet in mineable waters, exposed to heavy air attack, and at a great distance from its own base, was not justified by the probable results. Moreover it had been at a time when other commitments were heavy and pressing. Mr. Churchill, in commenting on the exchanges between the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief which preceded the Tripoli operation, has expressed the view that the Admiralty, with his cordial agreement, may have forced Admiral Cunningham to run an unnecessary risk. On the other hand, only those at home could measure the proportion of world events, and the final responsibility rested with them.2
There can be no doubt that the enemy had been taken completely by surprise, but it is remarkable that no air attacks were made upon the Fleet during daylight on 21st or 22nd April while it was returning to Alexandria. It was naturally expected that these would be made in strength from North Africa, and probably from Sicily also. It is inconceivable that the communications with Tripoli were so bad, or so disorganized, that news of the bombardment was not received by somebody who could have taken action before it was too late. By coincidence or by design Fliegerkorps X did in fact attack Malta heavily on these two days, which gives the impression that they wished to do something rather than nothing. It has been seen in Chapter 3 that at about this time Fliegerkorps X reported that its proportion of serviceable aircraft was very low and that wastage had been particularly heavy among crews experienced in operating at a distance over the sea. As for the detachments under Fliegerführer Afrika, it may be that they were too busy supporting General Rommel’s operations to pay attention to the sea. The fact remains that the main purpose of Fliegerkorps X was to make the Mediterranean too hot for the British Fleet, and on this occasion it had allowed a most tempting target to escape unchallenged. It certainly looks as if the operational control of the enemy’s air forces was much too rigid, but it may be that the Mediterranean Fleet was just lucky.
For the next week or so the Fleet was fully occupied in the withdrawal of the Army from Greece, as described in the previous chapter. This did not mean that the enemy’s sea lines to Libya had lost any of their importance; indeed the Admiralty continued to urge that they should be attacked by every possible means. Even the idea of blocking had not been given up, but was being further examined. The Admiralty thought that the 14th Destroyer Flotilla’s success would cause the Italians to add cruisers to the escorts of their convoys, and that the timings would be altered so that convoys would pass the Kerkenah Banks by day.
If Admiral Cunningham was to be able to station cruisers as well as destroyers at Malta he would need additional cruisers; what was more, the Italians could always reinforce their escorts more easily than the British could reinforce their attacking forces, and the Admiralty therefore suggested to Admiral Cunningham that it might be necessary for him to base a battleship at Malta. Admiral Cunningham agreed that this should be done as soon as the island’s defences had two squadrons of fighters with 150 per cent spare aircraft in safe storage. He pointed out that much more oil fuel would be required, and that the fast tanker for which he had already asked would be more than ever necessary.
Before anything came of these proposals the situation at Malta became complicated by the enemy’s increasing use of mines. Until this difficulty could be overcome it would not be practicable to keep either battleships or cruisers there, and on 8th May Admiral Cunningham reported his intention of maintaining a force permanently at sea in the Central Mediterranean for which purpose he would divide his Fleet in two. This force, protected from air attack as far as possible either by the Formidable’s Fulmars or by long-range shore-based fighters, would operate against the enemy’s supply lines. In order to keep constant watch on the Italian Fleet more reconnaissance aircraft would be required. This proposal in turn was overtaken by events, for before it could be acted upon the Mediterranean Fleet became heavily engaged in the struggle for Crete.
On the very day when Admiral Cunningham was attacking Tripoli in order to interfere with the flow of supplies and reinforcements to the Afrika Korps, the Defence Committee in London was considering a disturbing message from General Wavell. Its burden was that the British in the Western Desert were gravely inferior to the enemy in armoured strength and, what was more serious still, the disparity seemed likely to be greater towards the end of the month.3 Mr. Churchill had seen this message on the previous day, 20th April, and had immediately resolved to send a convoy of tanks through the Mediterranean.4
The plan for operation TIGER was soon made. A convoy containing large armoured reinforcements was about to leave the United Kingdom for Egypt. Instead of going round the Cape the fast tank-carrying ships of this convoy would turn off at Gibraltar on 5th May and take the short cut, with a saving of nearly forty days. This would be the first attempt to run a convoy through the Mediterranean since January,
when the Luftwaffe had made its dramatic appearance. On that occasion the cruiser Southampton had been sunk and the aircraft carrier Illustrious seriously damaged. What the risks were now, nearly four months later, was difficult to assess, but Admiral Cunningham agreed that for such a purpose they should be accepted.
The operation was to follow the usual pattern, in which advantage was taken of the movements of the Fleet to carry out various enterprises. Two convoys—one fast, one slow—would be run from Alexandria to Malta, and the opportunity would be taken for light forces to bombard Benghazi both on the outward and return journeys of the Fleet. Cover for the TIGER convoy from Gibraltar to the Narrows would be provided by Force H, and the entire Mediterranean Fleet would meet it south of Malta and cover it for the rest of the passage. Certain reinforcements coming out for the Fleet would accompany the convoy throughout. The whole operation would be controlled by Admiral Cunningham.
The western half of the operation was to be under the direct command of Admiral Somerville. The warships taking part were the Renown, Ark Royal, Sheffield, and nine destroyers all attached to Force H; the reinforcements for the Fleet, namely the battleship Queen Elizabeth and the cruisers Naiad (Flag of Rear-Admiral E. L. S. King) and Fiji ; and from Malta the Gloucester and 5th Destroyer Flotilla. The Gloucester and two destroyers of this flotilla, the Kipling and Kashmir, left Malta for Gibraltar on 2nd May after being shut out of the harbour by mining. The remainder of the 5th Flotilla was to leave Malta in time to join the TIGER convoy before it reached the Narrows. Force H would as usual turn back when south of Sardinia, but on this occasion six destroyers from this force were to accompany Admiral King and the convoy until relieved near Malta by six from the Mediterranean Fleet. The passage of the Narrows would be made by night, and early next morning the Beaufighters of No. 252 Squadron, now made up to fifteen, were to meet the convoy and cover it to the limit of their range to the eastward of Malta.5
From Alexandria would come the Warspite (Flag of the Commander-in-Chief), Barham and Valiant, the carrier Formidable, the cruisers Orion, Ajax and Perth, the minelayer Abdiel and all available destroyers. The Breconshire carrying oil fuel and munitions for Malta was attached to this force; she and all the larger warships were to be ready to refuel the destroyers at sea. The slow convoy for Malta, consisting of two tankers, was to be escorted by two anti-aircraft cruisers, three destroyers and two corvettes. The faster convoy, consisting of four supply ships, was to have three cruisers and three destroyers as escort. The cruisers from these two escorts were to leave their convoys the evening before these
arrived at Malta, and as soon after daylight as possible next day were to reinforce Admiral King who, with the TIGER convoy, should just have passed Pantelleria.
The TIGER convoy consisted of five 15-knot merchant ships: Clan Chattan, Clan Lamont, Clan Campbell, Empire Song and New Zealand Star. Covered and escorted by Admiral Somerville’s forces, which had sailed westward to meet them, the convoy passed through the Straits of Gibraltar during the night 5th/6th May. On the 7th evasive tactics were carried out in order to mislead any reconnaissances by the enemy. On the 8th the covering force took position in close support of the convoy and escort so as to provide fighter patrols and additional antiaircraft gunfire. The air attacks from Sardinia and Sicily were on a smaller scale than was expected and were driven off without doing any damage. This was due to effective interception by the Fulmars from the Ark Royal, and to the low cloud which had favoured evasion, hampered the enemy’s reconnaissance, and forced his bombers down closer to the guns.
On reaching the entrance to the Skerki Channel at dusk on the 8th the main portion of Force H withdrew to the westward leaving the Queen Elizabeth and Admiral King’s cruisers and destroyers to protect the convoy on its night passage of the Narrows. The remaining four destroyers of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla had been prevented by mines from leaving Malta in time to make their rendezvous west of the Narrows.
The chief danger to the TIGER convoy during the night was expected to be from mines in the Narrows, but the brilliant moonlight favoured attacks by torpedo-bomber aircraft and motor torpedo boats, and—clear of the enemy minefields—by submarines as well. The remaining warships therefore formed in close support around the convoy. At midnight a mine exploded in the paravane of the New Zealand Star. This was followed by two mine explosions in rapid succession close to the Empire Song. Damage to the New Zealand Star was slight, but after half an hour the Empire Song reported that she had a fire in the ammunition hold. She began to drop astern and at 4 a.m. blew up and sank, but not before a destroyer had taken off her crew. With her went 57 of the 295 tanks and 10 of the 53 Hurricanes.
During the night there was one attack from a torpedo-bomber aircraft on the Queen Elizabeth and she only narrowly avoided the torpedo. There were no other signs of the enemy. The five cruisers from the Malta-bound convoys joined Admiral King soon after daylight on the 9th. Good communication was established with the Beaufighters which had come out from Malta to give air cover. No air attacks took place, although enemy aircraft were frequently seen on the radar screen. The exchange of destroyers took place as arranged.
On the return passage to Gibraltar the destroyers of Force H which
had refuelled at Malta were repeatedly attacked from the air. On the afternoon of the 10th the Fortune was hit and her speed reduced to eight knots. The heavy ships of Force H which had awaited their destroyers some way to the westward closed in support. The whole force, including the Fortune, arrived at Gibraltar on the evening of 12th May.
The slow convoy for Malta left Alexandria on the afternoon of 5th May followed by the fast convoy and the Fleet next morning. A dust storm which had hidden the departures continued into the night of the 6th. 7th May passed without incident. During the morning the cruiser Ajax (Captain E. D. B. McCarthy) and three destroyers were detached to carry out the first of the bombardments of Benghazi, with orders to rejoin next day. In the evening the Vice-Admiral, Malta, reported his harbour completely closed by mines. This was an awkward moment for Admiral Cunningham but he decided that both the convoys for Malta should go on.
Next day, 8th May, visibility was poor and there was occasional rain. Many reports were received of enemy aircraft and it was known that they had observed and reported the position of the Fleet. There was considerable fighting in the air. The thick weather was greatly to the Fleet’s advantage though it added to the difficulties of the carrier-borne aircraft; two Albacores failed to find the way back to the Formidable and the crew of only one of them was picked up. At 5 p.m. Ajax’s force rejoined. They had not found Benghazi an easy target as the shipping alongside the outer breakwater was protected from seaward by the mole. Dust had again made spotting difficult. Captain McCarthy had, however, encountered and sunk two merchant vessels while making a sweep to the southward after the bombardment.
At 8 a.m. on the 9th the Mediterranean Fleet was some 120 miles to the south and the TIGER convoy some 90 miles to the west of Malta. The convoys for Malta were approaching the Grand Harbour. The weather was uncertain; there were many patches of fog and the visibility was something less than two miles. At 2 p.m. Vice-Admiral Ford reported that both the Malta convoys had arrived safely, a passage having been successfully cleared by counter-mining with depth charges and by mine-sweeping ahead of the convoy. The 5th Destroyer Flotilla had sailed to join the TIGER convoy, which with its escort met the Fleet at 3.15 p.m. some forty miles south of Malta and continued in company to the eastward.
Enemy aircraft searched all through the day of the 9th, but visibility was poor and it was not until about 4 p.m. that they found the Fleet. An accurate report of its position, course and speed was then made, but to the general surprise no attacks followed. That night the battlefleet maintained its position north-east of the convoy, with the cruiser
force farther to northward. During the forenoon of the 10th the visibility was variable. The Beaufighters from Malta were out on offensive patrols, and in the afternoon enemy aircraft were frequently heard making reports, but they evidently found it difficult to keep touch and the defending fighters found it equally difficult to intercept them. Because of the congestion at Malta it had not been possible to make bombing attacks on the airfields at Catania and Comiso in Sicily, but at dusk on 10th May nine Beaufighters attacked them with machine-guns.
At about 9 p.m. air attacks on the Fleet began, and lasted for an hour and a half. The attackers tried to come down moon but were turned away by the heavy barrage from the anti-aircraft weapons. The convoy was also attacked without success; to divert attention from it the Commander-in-Chief placed the Fleet down moon and then altered course to the northward hoping that the enemy aircraft would follow. This ruse appeared to succeed, for no further attacks were made on the convoy. Patches of fog persisted throughout the night. On the 11th hostile aircraft continued to threaten attack but the bad visibility hampered them and Fulmars drove them off.
The second bombardment of Benghazi was carried out by five destroyers of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla (Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten) shortly after midnight on 10th/11th May. A merchant ship lying at the northern breakwater was severely damaged, but the remaining ships that could be seen appeared to be already wrecks. Shortly after ceasing fire the flotilla was attacked by dive-bombers. Captain Mountbatten was able to divert the bombers to some extent by dropping smoke floats, but he could not shake them off entirely and gunfire was difficult because the aircraft could not be seen until they opened fire with machine-guns at the bottom of their dive. In the circumstances he decided to cancel the sweep to the southward and return to Malta. This was the first dive-bombing by moonlight experienced in the Mediterranean.
During the forenoon of the 12th the Fleet and the TIGER convoy arrived at Alexandria. On the same day the Prime Minister, in a message pointed by an apt reference to Scripture, asked General Wavell to ensure that the convoy’s precious contents should reach the troops at the earliest moment.6
The Mediterranean Fleet had had a busy three weeks indeed. It was 18th April when it began the long passage from Alexandria to Tripoli to carry out a deliberate bombardment within a few miles of the
biggest Italian air base in North Africa. The enemy, taken by surprise, failed to react. The Fleet returned just in time to rescue the Army on the shores of Greece. No sooner was this done than the Fleet was off again, once more right into the Central Mediterranean within easy reach of the Luftwaffe. The passage of the TIGER convoy bearing much needed weapons and munitions for the Army and Royal Air Force was fairly described in the Admiralty’s message of congratulation as a memorable achievement. The losses were amazingly small. One merchant ship had been lost and another damaged by mines; and one destroyer, the Fortune, had been damaged by a bomb on her way back to Gibraltar. 238 out of 295 tanks and 43 out of 53 cased Hurricanes had been brought safely to Egypt through the Mediterranean.
In explaining the absence of any attack by Italian surface forces the official Italian naval historian, Captain Bragadin, claims that the departure of naval forces westward from Gibraltar was reported on 5th May, but it was supposed that they were bound for some operation in the Atlantic. The movement of the TIGER convoy eastward through the Mediterranean was spotted too late for surface ships to intercept it in the Narrows. A force of cruisers did put out from Trapani but found no opportunity to attack. Of the Italian battleships only the Doria and Cesare were available, so that in any subsequent attempt to join action to the eastward of Malta the Italians would have been at a serious disadvantage.7
Good work by the British fighters and the heavy anti-aircraft fire from warships had done much to protect the Fleet and the convoy from air reconnaissance and attack. Both aircraft and guns were helped by the fact that more ships were now fitted with radar; the sets themselves had been improved and there was more experience in using them. But there can be no doubt that the immunity of the ships from serious attack had been chiefly due to the thick and cloudy weather which at that time of year was most unusual—indeed almost unheard of. Neither the Commander-in-Chief, nor anyone else in full knowledge of the circumstances, believed that the Fleet’s experience at Tripoli and the safe passage of the TIGER convoy afforded proof that the threat from the air had been exaggerated, but rather that good fortune had attended both operations.