Chapter 8: Malta’s Greatest Trial
See Map 24
THE passage of the convoy to Malta at the end of March, which had brought about the second battle of Sirte, was the last important event in Admiral Cunningham’s present tenure of the post of Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean.1 A Combined Chiefs of Staff’s Committee had been set up in Washington, and on this he was wanted to represent the First Sea Lord. His achievements in the Mediterranean were known to the world, and no one had had so much experience of the latest conditions of fighting on and over the sea. Moreover, having been one of a triumvirate of Commanders-in-Chief in an intensely active theatre he was ideally fitted to advise on the combined operations which were clearly going to loom so large in the Allies’ future plans. There was no sailor to whom the Americans would be likely to listen with greater respect at this early and vital stage in Anglo-American co-operation.
It goes without saying that to leave his Mediterranean Command caused Admiral Cunningham much distress, the more so because times were particularly hard. The sea, the handling of ships, and the training and command of men were what he loved; they appealed to him much more than the niceties of the conference table. Like many another great British sailor he had served much of his time with the Mediterranean Fleet; he had held important commands in it and for the past three years had been its Commander-in-Chief. After Italy entered the war—now nearly two crowded years ago—the issue at sea, as between ships, did not remain long in doubt. Nevertheless there were trials in plenty for all to bear, and especially for the Commander-in-Chief—the early loss of France as an ally, and all that this entailed, and, as time went on, the loss of many a fine ship and many fine officers and men. Fighters and gunfire had not always been able to counter the enemy’s great preponderance in the air, and Admiral Cunningham had more than once been obliged to sacrifice his ships. Now, as he handed over command, the British still lacked air forces sufficiently strong and experienced to make up for the ships that had
been lost or withdrawn. On 1st April 1942 the Italian Fleet comprised 4 serviceable battleships, 9 cruisers, and 55 destroyers and torpedo boats, while the British Mediterranean Fleet had only 4 cruisers and 15 destroyers. At Gibraltar there remained fit for service only the small aircraft carrier Argus and two or three destroyers. There were 50 Italian and 20 German submarines in the Mediterranean, but the Allies had only 25. Based in Western Cyrenaica, Sicily, Greece, Crete, and the Dodecanese were some 290 German and 250 Italian bombers; in Eastern Cyrenaica, Egypt, and Malta were more than 400 British bombers, but over a large part of the Central and Eastern Basins the Mediterranean Fleet could be given no fighter cover. Thus the mastery that Admiral Cunningham had won was now in jeopardy.
Until the arrival of the new Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, the Mediterranean Command was taken over by Admiral Pridham-Wippell. Admiral Cunningham left by air on 3rd April, but he was ordered to keep his going secret from the enemy—so great was his prestige. And so, instead of saying goodbye to his officers and men in person, he could only leave behind messages of farewell and gratitude—one to the Fleet, one to the Merchant Navy and one to Malta. His message to Malta, so typical of him, stressed the island’s offensive role against the enemy’s shipping. It was the great success of this offensive, he wrote, which had led to the ceaseless battering of the fortress. In enduring this battering, which absorbed so much of the enemy’s air effort, Malta was rendering yet another service to the Empire.
Instead of abating after the Breconshire, Pampas, and Talabot had been sunk with most of their cargoes still unloaded, the battering to which Admiral Cunningham had referred grew more violent. The 7th and 8th April were two of the worst days, on each of which the enemy made well over 250 sorties over the island. Between 24th March and 12th April over 2,000 sorties were made against the Grand Harbour, and the estimated weight of bombs dropped was 1,870 tons. The dockyard received the heaviest pounding of all, and work was virtually stopped except in the underground shops. To reduce congestion in the shelters, workers under eighteen were given leave with pay; some of the casual labour was discharged, and skilled tradesmen were lent to the other Services. Neither electric light nor power remained, except close to the underground generating station. Telephones were out of action most of the time, and for water the dockyard depended mainly on tanks refilled from barrels carried in hand carts. All the dry docks were damaged and soon only one was fit for use. In the dockyard and in the towns around the Grand Harbour it was difficult to keep a passage for even light traffic through the mounting rubble.
The other targets on which the enemy made concentrated attacks were the three airfields. Parties of soldiers and of Maltese civil labour, with a sprinkling of Royal Navy and Maltese Police, strove to clear away wreckage, fill craters, roll runways, and rebuild pens. This gave some relief to the understaffed ground crews of the Royal Air Force, and it kept the airfields open, so that fighters and the aircraft which arrived nightly on their way to Egypt and India were able to land and take off—though often at much hazard. Cables linking radar stations with control rooms and airfields were repeatedly cut, and fighters had often to be ordered into the air by light-signal fired from the nearest telephone terminal that was still working. By mid-April most of the 31 Spitfires which had arrived in March had been destroyed, and the Hurricanes of Nos. 185 and 229 Squadrons then bore the brunt of the air fighting. The bravery of the British pilots drew the admiration of the enemy, but in spite of all the hard work and ingenuity of the ground crews the number of serviceable fighters dwindled until there were only six, and sometimes even fewer.
There were long periods when the enemy’s raids were met by gunfire alone, and during April the anti-aircraft gun positions, especially those round the airfields, were heavily and repeatedly attacked. It was indeed a strenuous time, for in this month there were 284 alerts—or more than nine a day, each often lasting several hours—during which the heavy guns fired 72,053 rounds and the light guns 88,176. Of the 35 German and 2 Italian aircraft recorded by the enemy as having been lost over Malta during April, 13 are shown as having fallen to the guns and 11 to the fighters. The concentration of guns was tremendous: over the most important parts of the island there was a density of at least 80 heavy guns, while the 141 light guns were deployed in an area nine miles by six.2 As a precaution ammunition was rationed, but this never prevented a raid from being vigorously opposed and there was no real shortage. The anti-aircraft artillery comprised the 7th Light Anti-Aircraft Brigade and the 10th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Brigade.3 The CRA was Brigadier C. T. Beckett (later Major-General RA and Commandant, Anti-Aircraft Defences). The services of the Royal Malta Artillery were specially recognized by His Majesty the King who honoured the Regiment by becoming its Colonel-in-Chief.
It was related in the previous chapter that all surface warships fit
to put to sea, other than local defence craft, had been sailed from Malta as soon as possible after the arrival of the convoy at the end of March. There remained the cruiser Penelope, badly damaged by near misses on the 26th, the destroyers Havock and Kingston damaged in Admiral Vian’s battle, and the destroyer Gallant mined in January 1941 and still unrepaired. Of these only the Penelope was to survive. The Havock sailed for Gibraltar on 5th April but ran aground on the Tunisian coast when keeping close inshore to avoid minefields, and had to be destroyed by her company who were subsequently interned by the French.
The escape of the Penelope is a stirring instance of the will to win through. Damaged on 26th March, she was docked to be made seaworthy and quickly became the bull’s-eye for many of the heaviest raids. Shipwrights and artificers of the ship’s staff and five volunteer welders from the Royal Engineers joined the dockyard craftsmen in the race to complete her repairs before she should receive further and perhaps irreparable damage. On 4th April the caisson which closed the dock was damaged, the dock pump was put out of action, and Penelope herself was hit again. Water leaking through the damaged caisson stopped work on the ship’s bottom, but the pump was mended and shipwrights standing in water up to their chests were able to begin work again. On the 5th many near misses made craters round the dock, and the decks were littered with blocks of masonry which interfered with the feeding of ammunition to the guns. During the next few days there were many more narrow escapes. Although her gun barrels had been renewed towards the end of March, the Penelope fired so much anti-aircraft ammunition that by 6th April her 4-inch guns were nearly worn out again; indeed, her Gunnery Officer was killed by a premature explosion at one of them. The ship’s company were just about exhausted, and their ship was almost uninhabitable, but it was decided to make a final spurt to enable her to sail at nightfall on the 8th. The air attacks became fiercer than ever, and some hours before she was due to sail the 4-inch ammunition began to run out. Parties of soldiers and dockyard officials and men from other damaged ships helped to embark some last-minute supplies. In two weeks the Penelope had fired 6,500 rounds of 4-inch ammunition and 63,000 rounds of smaller calibre. In spite of the untiring efforts of the fighters and the anti-aircraft artillery, the Penelope felt that her own guns had saved her.
At 9.15 p.m. she passed the breakwater. Captain A. D. Nicholl, although wounded, was still in command. Bomb splinters had riddled her sides that morning, and the hundreds of holes plugged with wood made her look like a porcupine. At 27 knots her foremost mess decks became flooded and all possible top weight had to be jettisoned. Steering was very difficult, but Cape Bon was passed shortly before
dawn next day. Along the coasts of Tunisia and Algeria there were frequent attacks by torpedo-bombers and by high- and low-level bombers. None, however, caused any more damage, although there were some near misses and again the 4-inch ammunition nearly ran out. On the afternoon of the 10th HMS Penelope reached Gibraltar.
On 12th and 13th April Sir Walter Monckton (acting Minister of State) and Air Marshal Tedder visited Malta and reported to London what they had learned from the Governor, General Dobbie, and the members of the Malta Defence Committee. The salient points were as follows. The enemy was estimated to be operating some 160 fighters and 250 bombers from six airfields in Sicily, and could easily sustain 70 fighters in the air. He was making concentrated attacks probably because he was uncertain of the true strength of the defending fighters; this caused less dislocation than when the island was under warning for the whole day. But the British fighters had been worn down, and in order to conserve enough of them to cover the arrival of further Spitfires it had been necessary to allow many raids to take place unopposed in the air. Although Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd had been forced to send away the Blenheims and Wellingtons, he intended to call back eight Wellingtons to attack the enemy’s airfields as soon as he had enough fighters ‘to put up an umbrella’.4
The report went on to say that the enemy’s object appeared to be to neutralize Malta, for there were no signs of impending invasion—just as well, because the garrison, with all its extraneous tasks (there were, for instance, 400 soldiers on each airfield), was in need of at least two months’ training. The people of Malta were bearing up well, though they were suffering real hardship and were anxious about food. They knew what had happened to the last convoy, and the enemy’s complete command of the air was plain for all to see. There was 34 days’ supply of flour, apart from some stocks of wheat and maize which had to be milled, but the mills were all near the Grand Harbour and had been damaged. They were being brought into action again, but even if working at full capacity they could not keep pace with the daily requirements of flour and they might well be damaged again. It was vitally important to receive a convoy in May, but there must first be many more fighters and more ammunition. There were many other shortages. Only three out of ten tugs were serviceable, and the available berths had been reduced by sunken ships. There were only enough lighters to unload one ship at a time; more should be brought by the first convoy coming from the west, and minesweepers must come too. Finally, a tanker must come with black oil, and to reduce
the risk from fire it should be discharged in Marsamuscetto rather than in the Grand Harbour. White oils should come in drums in the other merchant ships. Stocks of aviation spirit would last well into August.
This, for the most part, confirmed what was already well known. The Admiralty had informed Admiral Pridham-Wippell on 4th April that it would not be possible to run another convoy to Malta either from cast or west until the island’s fighters had been strongly reinforced. Steps were being taken, with American help, to fly in Spitfires about the third week in April. Of the British carriers now in the Atlantic and Home Commands the Eagle was in dock and would not be ready for a month, the Victorious could not take Spitfires in her lifts, and the Argus was altogether too small and too slow. The Prime Minister had therefore appealed to President Roosevelt: would he lend USS Wasp, a carrier recently attached to the Home Fleet? President Roosevelt at once agreed and on the 14th the Wasp (Captain J. W. Reeves, Jr) sailed from Greenock with 47 Spitfires, escorted by HMS Renown (Commodore C. S. Daniel) and four British and two American destroyers. This force—Force W—entered the Mediterranean on the night 18th/19th and was joined by the cruisers Charybdis and Cairo. It should be explained that many of the ships of Force H had left Gibraltar on 1st April to take part in the operation to occupy Diego Suarez, the large land-locked anchorage in the north of Madagascar, and were not expected back until June. Meanwhile Force W was to take the place of Force H, under the direct command of the Flag Officer Commanding North Atlantic at Gibraltar. At 5.30 in the morning of 20th April the 47 Spitfires were flown off from forty-five miles north-east of Algiers. On this occasion there were no larger aircraft to act as leaders, but 46 landed safely at Malta. Force W was shadowed from time to time by aircraft which made no attack, and the Wasp passed westward through the Straits without declaring her presence by calling at Gibraltar.
Fliegerkorps II in Sicily learned from its radar of the flight of the Spitfires, and ninety minutes after the first one had landed the Germans began to make heavy attacks. Only a few of the new arrivals had been serviced and fuelled in readiness to take the air. During the next three days nearly 500 tons of bombs were dropped on Luqa and Takali airfields and on 23rd April General Dobbie reported that since the arrival of the new Spitfires 17 British fighters had been destroyed on the ground and 29 had been damaged. Many others had been lost in combat, and once again the serviceable fighters were reduced to six. This was indeed tragic: it strengthened the Commanders-in-Chief in their view that fighters alone could not gain enough air superiority at Malta for ships to be unloaded successfully. But without supplies the island could not live. The remedy was to
smash the airfields in Sicily, and on 15th April the Commanders-in-Chief asked the Chiefs of Staff to send out a strong force of heavy bombers which could do this, and attack Tripoli and the Italian ports as well. At the end of the month the Governor made a similar request, but was told in reply that the provision of a force large enough to be effective was quite out of the question at the time. As Germany was now being heavily attacked from the United Kingdom, this naturally raises the whole issue of the strategic allocation of British bombers, which is outside the scope of this book.5
Meanwhile ideas and decisions about the next convoy were passing between London, Egypt, and Malta. It had been hoped to run one from each end of the Mediterranean in May, but on 18th April the Chiefs of Staff announced that no attempt would be made from the Gibraltar end. In the existing world-wide naval situation we could not afford to have capital ships or aircraft carriers damaged; these ships must not therefore be exposed to attack from the powerful air forces based in Sardinia and Sicily. Moreover, if the west-to-east convoy were dropped, reinforcements of heavy ships could reach the Indian Ocean at least three weeks sooner, and a May convoy to Northern Russia could be run.
General Dobbie naturally demurred. Too much, he thought, would now depend on the success of the convoy from Alexandria. The decision materially reduced Malta’s chances of survival, not from any failure of morale or fighting efficiency but because it would be impossible to carry on without food and ammunition.
But worse was to follow. On 23rd April the Chiefs of Staff announced that in view of the general world situation and our immediate naval commitments outside the Mediterranean the Defence Committee had decided that no convoy could be run to Malta in May, either from west or east. They had already given their reasons for the former decision. Now the attempt from Alexandria had also to be postponed, because experience had shown that the Italian Fleet would challenge it in strength and it was unlikely that ‘the providential escape of the March convoy, which was mainly due to weather,’ would be repeated.6 It would therefore be necessary to provide both capital ships and carriers in the escort, and these were not available. However, another big batch of Spitfires would be flown in, and anti-aircraft ammunition would be brought in by fast minelayer and possibly by submarine also. With this slight relief Malta must hold out until mid-June. Early in June the progress of General Auchinleck’s offensive in the Desert
would be known.7 If he had captured Martuba or Benghazi the chances of getting a convoy through to Malta from the east without capital ship escort would be much greater. By then, too, it would be known how much of the German Air Force had been drawn away to South Russia. The situation in the Indian Ocean could be judged in the light of the capital ships now on their way: if it was favourable, Admiral Somerville could come through the Suez Canal with the three carriers and the Warspite to escort a convoy from Alexandria. It was hoped that this would consist of at least twelve 15-knot supply ships.
It is fitting here to recall the naval situation outside the Mediterranean when this decision was made. Losses from U-boats in the Atlantic were rising. (They reached their peak for the war in June.) Arctic convoys to Russia and Atlantic convoys were alike threatened by the presence in Norwegian waters of the Tirpitz and other powerful German warships. Some recent Russian convoys had been in trouble, and a backlog of cargoes was piling up on both sides of the Atlantic at a time when encouragement to Russia was paramount. It is true that the Home Fleet had just welcomed the arrival of a United States contingent, but HM ships thus released were urgently needed in the Indian Ocean where Admiral Somerville’s Fleet was withdrawing from Ceylon to Kilindini to await reinforcements. The expedition to occupy Diego Suarez was just rounding the Cape of Good Hope. In the Far East the full extent of the Japanese intentions was still in doubt. There is no need to explain further why no convoys to Malta could be run in May 1942.
As April drew to a close the enemy had good reason for believing that he had dealt effectively with ships and dockyard, aircraft and airfields, and turned his attention more to Malta’s camps, barracks, store depots and road centres. Hospitals, though clearly marked, were hit several times. But after 28th April there was a sudden falling off of German activity; instead, Italian bombers appeared more regularly, though only in small numbers. This marked the end of Malta’s worst period. During April more than 9,500 sorties had been flown against the island, whereas Malta’s had been reduced to 388, of which all but 30 were flown by her fighters. 20 of the 50 British aircraft lost were destroyed in the air, against a total for the enemy of 37. Over 6,700 tons of bombs were dropped, which is more than three times the figure for March. 3,000 of these fell in the dockyard area, and 2,600 on the airfields. (The estimated weight of bombs on Coventry on 14th November 1940 was 520 tons.) 11,450 buildings were destroyed or
damaged which was more than twice as many as in the whole of 1941. 300 civilians were killed and 330 seriously injured; fortunately there were now good shelters for all, but some of the casualties were from delay-action bombs. Three destroyers, three submarines, three minesweepers, five tugs, a water carrier and the floating crane had been sunk in harbour, and other ships had been damaged.
The truth is that by this time Malta was almost neutralized. As a staging post for aircraft reinforcements it continued to work—indeed more aircraft passed through in March, April and May than in the previous three months. But as a base from which to strike at the enemy’s shipping it could be discounted. As early as 3rd April the Admiralty suggested that the 10th Submarine Flotilla should move to Alexandria. Two boats had just been sunk and two damaged in harbour, and the remainder, when not on patrol, had to spend the daylight hours submerged. The proposal was opposed mainly because shipping to the west of Malta could not be attacked effectively from Alexandria, and for the time being the 10th Flotilla remained at Malta, the crews being relieved in harbour by the crews of submarines which had been sunk. On the 26th, however, it was agreed to withdraw the flotilla, and during the next two weeks this was done. The determining factor had been not bombs but mines, for the enemy had been using fast surface craft almost nightly to mine the approaches. Radar did not detect them and their engines could not be heard above the prevailing din. The few minesweepers which remained could not keep the channels adequately swept, and, as will be seen, this led to disaster.
The air striking force at Malta had become almost impotent. Reconnaissance aircraft were down to three. During April the Royal Air Force bombers made only twenty-two sorties. The Fleet Air Arm made eleven, and by the end of the month only two Albacores and two Swordfish remained.
April 1942 will be remembered in Malta as the time of the island’s greatest trial, but also as the month in which the fortitude of the people was rewarded in a way that was almost unique.8 On 15th April the following message was received from His Majesty the King: ‘To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’ This high honour was a sign that their sufferings were understood and was an encouragement to them in their resolve to bear whatever hardships might be yet to come. And further hardships were to come very soon.
Because there would be no convoy until June it was necessary to place the people on the lowest possible scale of rations. The issues of preserved meat, fats and sugar rations were already very small, and on 5th May the bread ration was cut by one quarter to NA ounces a day. This would eke out the stocks until the end of July, provided that all the wheat and maize could be milled, which depended on keeping the mills in action. This reduction of the bread ration was the sternest restrictive measure yet attempted by the Government of Malta. Coinciding as it did with a stoppage of ‘pasta’ and a shortage of potatoes caused by the partial failure of the winter crop, General Dobbie had fears of its effects on morale. As a slight compensation the price of bread was reduced.
Two days later the people received another shock. To the surprise of the Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff, Sir Walter Monckton had reported after his visit in April that the Governor, that most gallant Christian gentleman Sir William Dobbie, was worn out. Air Marshal Tedder had agreed with this view, which was also confirmed by Mr. Casey, who called at Malta early in May on his way out to Cairo to take up his appointment as Minister of State. General the Viscount Gort, VC, who had been Governor of Gibraltar for the past twelve months, was chosen to succeed General Dobbie, and on 7th May he arrived. He was by the King’s wish the bearer of the George Cross to the island. General Dobbie left the following day, carrying with him the devotion and admiration of the whole population, whom he had served and inspired through nearly two years of siege.
On 15th May a change was made in the Governor’s status, and Lord Gort was appointed ‘Supreme Commander of the Fighting Services and of the Civil Administration’. He had represented that this was necessary now that Malta was fighting for survival, and as there were no longer any striking forces based there the main reason for placing the Service Commanders under their respective Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East no longer applied. It was an obviously wise step if invasion should be imminent.
And indeed it seemed to the Malta Defence Committee that invasion might be threatening. It was true that there had been a lull in the air attacks since 28th April, but several new airstrips had been observed in the Vale of Catania in Sicily, with railway sidings and sheds apparently under construction nearby. These might well be preparations for using gliders on a large scale. The lull might mean that aircraft were being reconditioned for an airborne invasion of Malta.
With this local view the Chiefs of Staff did not agree. They said that they had no evidence of preparations for an invasion either by land, air or sea: on the contrary, they had reliable information that one German bomber and one fighter group had been withdrawn from Sicily and that more were to follow. This, in their
opinion, was the cause of the lull. It will be referred to again later.
The promised big batch of Spitfires was now to arrive on 9th May. President Roosevelt had again agreed to the use of USS Wasp, and HMS Eagle had completed her refit and was available also. The fast minelayer Welshman, carrying 340 tons of stores, mostly ammunition, was to arrive on the day after the new Spitfires, and these, it was hoped, would ensure her safe unloading. To avoid another disaster like that of 20th April, when the newly arrived fighters had been caught on the ground, everything possible was to be done before the Spitfires left the carriers to ensure that they would be able to go into action as soon as they had been refuelled. While awaiting their turn to land they were to orbit Takali airfield at a very low height, under the protection of the light AA guns. Men and materials for keeping the runways in repair were to be much increased. On landing, each aircraft would be met and directed by its own numbered runner to a self-contained dispersal pen, where it would be refuelled and serviced and have its long-range tank removed. So far as numbers permitted, a Malta pilot would then take over. In this manner it was hoped to cut down to about ten minutes the time before each Spitfire was ready to take off again. All ammunition restrictions were to be lifted during the arrival and servicing of the new aircraft and while the Welshman was in harbour.
Other measures to protect the Welshman would be the most intense anti-aircraft barrage yet fired, and, for the first time, a smoke screen over the harbour. The Welshman herself was bringing smoke containers to add to the generators already in position, which were manned by the 12th Field Regiment, RA. To give the ship’s company of the Welshman some rest while in harbour, working parties from each of the Services were ready to relieve them of the task of unloading the stores.
The Wasp, with her Spitfires, entered the Mediterranean during the night 7th/8th May and was joined by the Eagle who had embarked her aircraft at Gibraltar. Escorted once again by the Renown (Commodore C. S. Daniel), the cruiser Charybdis and British and American destroyers, the two carriers flew off 64 Spitfires between 6.30 and 7.30 in the morning of 9th May from a position about sixty miles north of Algiers. The enemy seems to have made no attempt to interfere, and by 15th May the Wasp was back at Scapa Flow, pleased by Mr. Churchill’s congratulatory signal: ‘Who said a Wasp couldn’t sting twice?’
At Malta the arrival of the Spitfires was anxiously awaited. The first batch landed at 10.30 a.m. and by the time the enemy came over an hour later about half the new fighters were in the air again. There were still some anxious moments; but the 60 new arrivals soon gave a good account of themselves and the heavy bombing attacks expected
at dusk did not come.9 The reception arrangements had worked splendidly: some of the Spitfires were ready within six minutes of landing, and together they crowded in seventy-four sorties before the end of the day.
Meanwhile the Welshman, whose speed and accessible stowage made her very suitable for risking a dash with supplies to Malta, was drawing nearer. She had left Gibraltar early on 8th May disguised as a large French destroyer and had to pass within range of dive-bombers from Sardinia for a few hours of daylight on the 9th. She was examined twice by Ju.88s, once by a Catalina from Gibraltar, and once by a French float-plane. As she approached Malta next morning she witnessed a brisk night action between minesweepers and enemy motor boats, and her paravanes cut two mines just before she passed the breakwater. By 6.45 a.m. unloading was in full swing and by 1.30 p.m. it was completed. Bombing attacks had begun in earnest at 10 a.m., and tons of masonry from six near misses were scattered over the ship, without doing any but superficial damage. The fighters and antiaircraft guns continued their good work of the previous day, and for the loss of three Spitfires several enemy aircraft were destroyed and damaged. At 8.40 p.m., having been allowed to take 300 tons from Malta’s precious stock of oil fuel, the Welshman sailed, loudly cheered from every vantage point round the Grand Harbour. Her return passage to Gibraltar was uneventful.
Local air superiority was now with the British, and was further assured by 17 more Spitfires flown in from the Eagle on 18th May, which made a total of 123 fresh Spitfires received in just over four weeks.10 It is now known that the serviceable strength of Fliegerkorps 11 in Sicily fell during the last three weeks of May from 52 bombers to 42, from 88 fighters to 36, and from 14 reconnaissance aircraft to 13. The Germans and Italians together lost some 40 aircraft over Malta in May, against a British loss in combat of 25. Only six RAF aircraft were destroyed on the ground, as against thirty in April.
The enemy’s daylight attacks continued on a reduced scale, and his night attacks were more numerous but not very effective; several night raiders fell to the Beaufighters of No. 1435 Flight. The estimated weight of bombs dropped in May was 520 tons, a big reduction from the April figure, but as high as the peak month of 1941. A further 570 buildings had been hit—one twentieth of the number for April. Mine-laying had become as serious a matter as bombing: from the beginning of February fast German motor-boats laid nearly 600 mines and more than 400 anti-sweep devices in the approaches to Malta mostly in
April and May. As will be seen, certainly one British submarine, and possibly two, were lost on these minefields. During May a tug and a drifter were also sunk by mines and a motor launch was lost in action with enemy minelayers. The minefields were, of course, a serious danger to any convoy.
Malta was still in grave peril. The Welshman had eased the ammunition shortage, and three submarines had brought in small quantities of aviation spirit, kerosene, and ammunition. Yet all these stores, welcome though they were, did not alter the fact that if the June convoy failed Malta would fall without any further effort on the enemy’s part. If this were to happen the enemy would be relieved of most of the danger to his own supply line; and not only would he be able to build up and sustain his forces in Cyrenaica but his air forces now in use against Malta would be free to attack British forces and base installations in Egypt. Thus the fall of Malta would be likely to have important and far-reaching effects.
Even the neutralization of Malta had gone a long way towards winning for the enemy—at least temporarily—the battle for supplies. The Italian Official Naval Historian records that ships supplying North Africa sailed in greater safety during April and the first half of May than at any other time in the war. Convoys could he routed within fifty miles of Malta, escorted by only one or two torpedo aircraft. The figures for cargo disembarked in North Africa are as follows:11
|General military cargo, other than fuel, tons||102,000||67,500|
|Total percentage lost||under 1||7|
During April and May only 13 Italian and German merchant ships, totalling some 40,000 tons, and a few small coasting vessels were sunk in the whole of the Mediterranean. All these sinkings were the work of submarines, except for one ship of 6,800 tons which was shared with No. 221 Squadron RAF. With Malta neutralized, and the airfields of Western Cyrenaica in enemy hands, British aircraft could play only an occasional part in finding and attacking ships at sea; even so, the Royal Air Force flew about 750 anti-shipping sorties in April and May
—an even higher average than that for the previous three months. Wellingtons had recently been fitted to carry torpedoes, and pilots were being trained in their use, but even Wellingtons could have little endurance left for searching for and attacking ships as far west as the longitude of Benghazi. On 14th April there was a particularly gallant attack on a convoy eighty-five miles south-east of Malta, in which five Beauforts and one Blenheim were lost, but no enemy ships were sunk. From Egypt the Royal Air Force bombers had also been hammering away at Benghazi, making 241 sorties in April and 230 in May, but in spite of this considerable effort the enemy’s records show that the cargo landed at Benghazi rose steadily and that by the middle of May the unloading capacity reached 2,500 tons a day. Throughout May there was a big increase in the quantities shipped forward to Sirte and ports in Cyrenaica from Tripoli, which took some of the strain off General Rommel’s land transport.
With this situation no doubt in mind, Admiral Harwood, who had arrived on 20th May, lost no time in repeating the request for long-range bombers made on 15th April by the three Commanders-in-Chief. In this they had been concerned primarily with the bombing of Sicilian airfields, which could no longer be done from Malta. Admiral Harwood wished for aircraft with sufficient endurance to search for, find, and shadow enemy convoys long enough to guide submarines on to them. Between 1st April and 13th May twenty-six convoys were known to have passed east of Malta: in every case submarines had been available at sea to intercept, but on only five occasions did reconnaissance aircraft direct them on to a target. British submarines had consequently been forced to operate off enemy ports, which were more dangerous and less fruitful hunting grounds than those which they would otherwise have chosen. To this the Admiralty replied on 27th July that there was no immediate prospect of providing the twelve Liberators that Admiral Harwood had in mind.
An attempt by destroyers from Alexandria to interfere with the Axis supply line met with disaster. On 10th May information was received of three merchant vessels escorted by three destroyers sailing from Taranto for North Africa. The destroyers Jervis (Captain A. L. Poland), Jackal, Kipling and Lively left Alexandria on the evening of the 10th in order to intercept this convoy about dawn on the 12th off Benghazi. The air striking force available consisted of five Beauforts, which could not reach the convoy except close to Benghazi in full daylight. The convoy would almost certainly be turned back if the British destroyers were seen by aircraft or submarines, and Captain Poland’s force was therefore routed midway between Cyrenaica and Crete, although this was further for the protecting Beaufighters and out of range of single-engine fighters. As evasion was the policy, and as it was known that fighters on passage were detected and plotted
by the enemy’s radar, a standing patrol was not to be maintained over the destroyers during daylight on the 11th. Beaufighters were to be ready, however, to take off if enemy aircraft were sighted, and it was estimated that they could be over the destroyers before an attack could begin. Captain Poland was told that he was to abandon the operation if his force was sighted by the enemy during daylight on the 11th or if he was unable to reach a position some ninety miles north-west of Benghazi by 6 o’clock on the morning of the 12th.
Early in the afternoon of the 11th the destroyers were in fact sighted by an enemy aircraft. They turned back for Alexandria in accordance with their orders, and requested fighter cover. Shortly after 4.30 two Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron arrived and established communication with the Jervis and Lively. Almost immediately the Lively’s radar picked up an aircraft, but too late for the fighters to intercept eight Ju.88s which, diving down to 3,000 feet, hit and ‘near missed’ the Lively with two salvoes. She sank in three minutes. Between 6 o’clock and 6.30 four Heinkels and nine Ju.88s made further attacks, which though accurate, did no damage. The first Beaufighter patrol had to leave before the heaviest attack: four more arrived at about 6.45, and at first communication with two of them was reasonably good, but it was lost and not regained after one of them left for home at about 7.40. Just before 8 o’clock the Jervis detected a large group of aircraft approaching. Before the remaining fighters could reach a position to intercept, ten Ju.88s, coming in with the setting sun almost directly behind them, dived to make a determined attack at 1,500 feet. The Kipling and Jackal were both hit, and the Kipling sank ten minutes later in a position some ninety miles north-west of Matruh. After dark the Jervis took the Jackal in tow, but an oil fire in one boiler room could not be controlled and shortly before 5 a.m. on the 12th the Jervis sank her with torpedoes. Escorted by other destroyers and Beaufighters the Jervis returned to Alexandria with survivors from the three sunken ships.
It had of course been realized that unusual risks were being run in this operation, particularly as any fighter cover off Benghazi would be at the extreme limit of its range. Fighter sweeps had been made over the enemy’s forward areas in Cyrenaica, but these had not affected the issue as the German bombers had come from Greece or Crete. The preventive bombing of airfields had been discarded as impracticable, since there were fifteen of these in Cyrenaica, Greece, Crete and Rhodes, and only two squadrons of bombers in Egypt suitable for the task. It is now known that the Ju.88s (which came from Heraklion) had just completed an anti-shipping course in Italy; certainly their bombing was exceptionally accurate and determined. The British destroyers’ radar had been slow in detecting the enemy’s approach and communication between the ships and the Beaufighters had not
been satisfactory. These two failures undoubtedly tilted the scales in the enemy’s favour.
No other operations of importance were carried out from Alexandria in May. Convoys continued to run steadily to Tobruk, with only slight losses in spite of considerable air and U-boat activity. The change of Commanders-in-Chief had made it necessary to renew the agreement with Admiral Godfroy concerning the French squadron, all the more so because French opinion might easily have been inflamed by the coming British occupation of part of Madagascar.12
On the night of 14th/15th May the Italians made an attempt to repeat their spectacular attack of the previous December at Alexandria. The submarine Ambra succeeded in launching three human torpedoes, but these were dazzled by searchlights and worried by depth charges and patrol boats and failed to find the harbour entrance. An unexpected westerly set had not made their task easier. Four of the six Italians were captured immediately; the two others were at liberty in Alexandria for about a month before they were caught. The target for two of the human torpedoes had been the floating dock, in which the damaged Queen Elizabeth was being made seaworthy for passage to the United States. The Valiant, which had preceded her in dock, had left for Durban on 3rd April. The third human torpedo was to have attacked the submarine depot ship Medway.
Three British, three German, but no Italian submarines were lost at sea during April and May. On 1st May Hudson aircraft of No. 233 Squadron attacked U.573 two hundred miles east of Gibraltar and damaged her so badly that she took refuge in Cartagena and was interned. The next day U.74 was sunk some fifty miles to the east of that port by the combined efforts of a Catalina of No. 202 Squadron and the destroyers Wishart and Wrestler. On 28th May a Sunderland of the same squadron seriously damaged a submarine midway between the Balearic Islands and the North African coast, and sixty miles north-east of Tobruk the destroyers Eridge, Hero and Hurworth sank U.568 after a tenacious hunt of over fifteen hours. This submarine had first been sighted by a Blenheim of No. 203 Squadron.
The first of the three British submarines to be lost was the gallant Upholder. The Upholder, Urge, and Thrasher had been ordered to establish a patrol line to the north-east of Tripoli on 15th April in order to intercept an important convoy bound for that port.13 On the 14th, when on the way to take up their positions, both the Urge and the Thrasher heard distant explosions of depth charges from early morning until dusk. The Thrasher subsequently failed to establish communication with the Upholder, and a few days later the Italians announced
that a torpedo-boat had sunk a British submarine in the Central Mediterranean on the 14th April. During her service with the 10th Flotilla the Upholder was credited with sinking two submarines, two destroyers, and 94,900 tons of merchant shipping, and her commanding officer, Lieut.-Commander M. D. Wanklyn, had been awarded the Victoria Cross and the DSO. She was on her twenty-fifth patrol in the Mediterranean and would afterwards have returned to the United Kingdom to pay off.
Two weeks later the Urge was lost without trace. She had left Malta for Alexandria on 27th April and nothing was heard of her again and no claim was made by the enemy. It may well be that she struck a mine shortly after sailing. It has already been mentioned that the few local patrol craft and minesweepers remaining at Malta were quite unable either to interfere seriously with the minelaying by German motorboats which was being done almost nightly, or to keep the channels properly swept. There is no doubt that it was by striking a mine on the 8th May that the Olympus, bound for Gibraltar, was sunk only three miles from the Grand Harbour. She was carrying passengers from other submarines recently sunk or damaged in Malta harbour, and had 99 officers and men on board. Dawn was breaking as all those who had not been killed or trapped by the explosion began a forlorn swim. The land was just visible in the morning haze, but there was an easterly set, and air raids over Malta lessened the chances of the swimmers being sighted. No officers and only nine ratings reached the shore.
The Chiefs of Staff had been correct in believing that German aircraft were moving away from Sicily at the end of April, and that this was why the air attacks on Malta were waning. One bomber and one fighter group were moved to Russia, and 40 dive-bombers and 45 fighters were sent to reinforce Fliegerführer Afrika. These withdrawals and the losses which followed the arrival of the Spitfire reinforcements on 9th May greatly reduced the German effort from Sicily. However, the object had been achieved, at least for the time being, for Axis supplies were reaching North Africa with no interference from Malta and practically none from Egypt. Luftflotte 2 had certainly done much to help General Rommel with his preparations.
It seems that as late as March Rommel had favoured the idea of capturing Malta early because he would not be in a position to attack Tobruk himself until the summer. Kesselring also was in favour of this, as he expected many German aircraft to be withdrawn from the Mediterranean before long. The Italians, however, did not think they could be ready before July. In April Rommel changed his mind, because he judged that the British in the Desert would be much stronger after May and decided that he could not defer his own attack
until after the assault on Malta. Kesselring agreed with this view because of the good results of his air attacks, and on 13th April he reported that convoys or ships sailing independently could now pass close east or west of the island with little danger of being attacked. The British surface ships and submarines had been withdrawn, and the destruction of docks and storehouses had resulted in the elimination of Malta as a naval base, though not entirely as an air base. However, no British attacks had been made for some weeks on Tripoli, Sicily, or southern Italy by aircraft from Malta. From now on the plans for the attack on Tobruk took precedence over those for the assault on Malta, and although there was talk from time to time about a coup-de-main it came to nothing because preparations and training were not sufficiently far advanced. Kesselring was confident that the supplies for Rommel’s offensive could be assured, and a point in favour of capturing Tobruk first was that the British air forces in Cyrenaica would be pushed farther east before the assault on Malta was to begin.
Although operation HERKULES as it was called, was now postponed, planning and training went ahead. By mid-April the Germans had begun to take a more practical interest, and a joint German-Italian staff was set up. New plans jostled one another, but certain firm agreements were gradually reached. Valletta was to be the main objective; the attack was to be made against the southern part of the island; and the main point of disembarkation was to be in Marsa Scirocco. The south and east coasts were chosen in preference to the north because although they were rocky and steep they were believed to be less well defended, and Valletta could be reached without storming the Victoria Lines. Paratroops were to land first to secure the beach-heads for the main assault from the sea, which would be made by night. As the Italian paratroops were not trained to land in the dark the jump would be made in the afternoon. Because stone walls abounded over all but the craggiest parts of the island it would be necessary to seize landing strips before any troops could be flown in by aircraft or gliders. (See Photo 5.)
Crete had been captured without the help of sea-borne troops, but the defences of Malta were much stronger. The Italian Navy was to lift a first wave of 8,300 men with tanks and artillery in self-propelled lighters and other powered craft, to be followed by transports and supply ships. The Fleet would be ready to oppose any attempts by the British to intervene by sea, either from east or west. The German Navy was to provide a flotilla of submarines, and a most essential item was a special allowance to Italy of 40,000 tons of oil fuel and 12,000 tons of aviation spirit.
The proposed order of battle included an Airborne Corps of one Italian and one German parachute division, and one Italian airborne
division; one Corps of two Italian divisions and one of three. There were in addition six Italian battalions, two tank battalions, some armoured cars, self-propelled artillery, motor-cyclists and ancillary units and a few German tanks; which indicates that there was no intention that the assault should fail through lack of troops.
Both Germans and Italians were well aware that German help in the air would be essential, and Field-Marshal Kesselring promised that the bulk of Fliegerkorps X and additional units from Fliegerführer Afrika would join Fliegerkorps II in Sicily. Eight to fourteen days after the fighting at Tobruk was over he would resume systematic attacks on Malta. The parachute and airborne divisions would be carried by German Ju.52s and Italian Savoia 82s. Altogether there would be between 370 and 470 transport aircraft, of which 155 would be Italian.
On 1st May a meeting took place at Berchtesgaden at which both Führer and Duce were present. The senior partner made it clear that the attack in the Desert should take place at the end of May or early in June, and the assault on Malta in the middle of July—a programme which probably suited the Italian preparations quite well. Thus everything depended upon General Rommel’s ability to forestall the British in the Desert and to capture Tobruk. He did both.