Chapter 13: Malta and the War at Sea
IN spite of the tremendous importance of replenishing Malta, the hard decision had been taken in April that the island would have to hold out without a convoy until mid-June.1 It was eventually decided to run two convoys, one from each end, so as to encourage the enemy to spread his naval and air forces in opposing them.
Ever since the severe losses suffered by the Royal Navy at the end of 1941 the Commanders-in-Chief had been pressing for shore-based aircraft to make up for the absence of battleships and carriers in the Mediterranean Fleet—bombers and torpedo-bombers to replace the battleships, and long-range fighters to give the cover that had previously been provided from carriers. The Chiefs of Staff had agreed, but so far these aims had not been achieved and the Italian Fleet had now gained confidence. British aircraft of all types were too few and the crews had not the necessary experience in attacking warships, nor were their weapons all that could be desired—for instance, they needed an armour-piercing bomb heavier than 500-lb. and a more effective torpedo. Worst of all, instead of the Army advancing, as had been hoped, and capturing the airfields in the bulge of Cyrenaica, the enemy had struck first, and the passage of the June convoys coincided with the height of a land battle which was going badly for the British. Thus it happened that, instead of a starving Malta being saved by a victory in the Desert, it required all that the island base could do to help to save Egypt. The interplay of cause and effect in the battle for supplies has been remarked upon before; it reached its climax in the summer and autumn of 1942.
Plans for the two convoys (operation HARPOON from the west and VIGOROUS from the east) differed only in matters of detail from previous ones. Reconnaissance and striking force aircraft were more numerous than before. At Malta there were six Baltimores, four Wellingtons fitted with ASV and three PRU Spitfires for reconnaissance;2 and six torpedo Wellingtons and one squadron of Beauforts as striking force with one squadron of Albacores for anti-submarine patrols. In
Egypt there were one squadron of Marylands, one of ASV Wellingtons and one of Hudsons for reconnaissance; and one squadron of Beauforts and, it was hoped, one of Liberators as striking force. In addition there were two squadrons of Albacores, one of ASV Swordfish, one of Sunderlands and various Blenheims and Wellesleys available to maintain continuous anti-submarine patrols.3 The sailing of the convoys was to be preceded by the bombing of enemy ports and airfields in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa and Crete, and over Cyrenaica these attacks were to be continued during their passage. To simplify problems of giving fighter cover from Malta and of berthing and unloading after arrival, HARPOON was to arrive at Malta one day before VIGOROUS, but if conflicting demands for either striking forces or cover arose, VIGOROUS was to have the prior claim. Over Malta itself the superiority which had been won after the second Wasp trip on 9th May had got to be maintained, and on 3rd June and again on the 9th more Spitfires—fifty-nine in all—were flown in from HMS Eagle. This brought the total number available on the island to ninety-five.4 There was a night-flying Beaufighter flight, and a squadron of the coastal type was added for long-range cover and escort duties.5 So far as anti-aircraft ammunition was concerned, daily expenditure had been getting less since 10th May when the fast minelayer Welshman had arrived with fresh stocks; to make sure, however, that there should be plenty, the Welshman with a further load of ammunition was to accompany the HARPOON convoy as far as the Narrows and then go on alone at 28 knots to reach Malta at first light on the day the convoy was due. The only recent replenishment of aviation spirit had come to Malta early in May in the submarine Olympus but there was enough to cover immediate requirements.
See Map 32
The six ships of the HARPOON convoy were to be covered as far as the Skerki Channel by the main covering force—the battleship Malaya, the Eagle and Argus, carrying only twenty-two fighters between them, the cruisers Kenya, Liverpool and Charybdis and eight destroyers.6 From there only the anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo (Captain C. C. Hardy) and five Fleet and four Hunt class destroyers, known, as had become the custom, as Force X, were to continue to Malta. Until it came within range of those Spitfires equipped with long-range tanks, Force X would depend for fighter cover on the very few available Beaufighters. Four fleet minesweepers and six minesweeping motor launches were also to accompany the convoy to sweep it into harbour and subsequently reinforce the seriously depleted minesweeping flotilla at Malta. The tanker Brown Ranger, with her own escort, not accompanying the convoy but cruising independently along its route, was to refuel the smaller warships, particularly those of Force X, so that they might turn back on reaching Malta without drawing on the island’s precious stock of oil. Finally, four submarines were stationed on a line between Cagliari in Sardinia and the western end of Sicily to report and attack the enemy if sighted. Vice-Admiral A. T. B. Curteis was to command the operation, flying his flag in HMS Kenya. His forces were weak in comparison with those of the previous July and September, but, even so, they had been assembled with difficulty, for since the closing months of 1941 the Royal Navy had lost many ships and had shouldered heavy new responsibilities. However, there were grounds for hoping that the escort would be strong enough. The main units of the Italian Fleet, which were at Taranto, were more likely to dispute the passage of the convoy from the east, and the enemy’s air effort would be divided between the two convoys and the battle in the desert.
Five of the merchantmen, the British Troilus, Burdwan and Orari , the American Chant and the Dutch Tanimbar, left the Clyde on the 5th June and entered the Mediterranean during the night of the 11th/12th. The sixth ship, the American tanker Kentucky, joined from Gibraltar, and by the morning of the 12th convoy and escort were at full strength and steaming east at 12 to 13 knots. Shadowing by German and Italian aircraft began early on the 13th and the convoy was reported by at least one submarine. During that day the Cairo and eleven destroyers were refuelled from the Brown Ranger, and three destroyers from the Liverpool. By dawn on the 14th the convoy was approaching the area in which attacks by the enemy’s twenty bombers and fifty torpedo-bombers based in Sardinia would begin. The morning was
bright and clear. Such wind as there was came from astern and in order to operate their aircraft the Eagle and Argus would have to expose themselves outside the shelter of the main screen.
Attacks began at 10.30 with shallow dive-bombing by two groups of Italian fighter-bombers. These did no harm, but half an hour later twenty-eight Savoia torpedo-bombers, escorted by twenty Macchi fighters, and ten Cant high-level bombers came in simultaneously. They torpedoed the Liverpool and the Dutch ship Tanimbar, and the merchantman sank within a few minutes. The Liverpool, hit in the engine room and reduced in speed to 3 or 4 knots, was ordered back to Gibraltar. Towed by one destroyer and screened by a second she seems to have drawn attention away from the convoy, and was fortunate indeed not to be hit from the air again. Meanwhile the main body went east undisturbed, until at 6.20 p.m., when still 150 miles from Sicily, it was attacked from that island by ten German Ju.88s. They were difficult to see, but the Fleet Air Arm fighters worried them, and although both carriers had narrow escapes no ship was damaged. Next came a heavy combined attack at 8 p.m. The torpedo-bombers were again Italian, but the bombers were German Ju.88s and there were some Ju.87 dive-bombers too. In the middle of all this a periscope was sighted, first ahead of the convoy and then close to the Malaya, and the explosion of depth charges was added to that of bombs and anti-aircraft shell. The Argus escaped several torpedoes from the Savoias only by her handiness under helm, but, although the timing of the attacks was better than it had been during the forenoon, the enemy had no further success. The Fleet Air Arm fighters were doing valiantly, but during the combined attacks they had been busy with the much more numerous enemy fighters and had little time left for the bombers. During daylight on the 14th seven British fighters were lost from the Eagle and Argus. The enemy’s recorded losses for the day amounted to seventeen aircraft.
At 9 p.m. four Beaufighters from Malta arrived to take over from the hard worked naval airmen and at 9.30, as the Skerki Channel was reached, Admiral Curteis hauled round to the west with the main covering force while the convoy (now of five ships) and Force X, the Cairo, nine destroyers, four minesweepers and six minesweeping motor launches stood on under Captain Hardy. Around 10 o’clock one more shallow dive-bombing attack came out of the dusk ahead, but had no success. This ended the fighting on the 14th.
In the previous September the route chosen for the convoy had passed close to Sicily to avoid minefields; this time it was thought better to hug the African shore. Captain Hardy accordingly altered course to pass inside Zembra island. Attacks by enemy aircraft and submarines were to be expected again next day; but now, during darkness and in narrow waters, motor torpedo boats were more to be
feared. As it happened, the sea was too rough for these craft and the night passed quietly.
The threat from heavy surface ships did not seem great; the enemy had never yet sent any south of the Narrows to dispute the passage of a convoy, and perhaps it was too readily assumed that he never would. In point of fact the Italian VII Division, the 6-inch cruisers Eugenio di Savoia (Flag of Admiral A. da Zara) and Montecuccoli and three destroyers had left Cagliari on the evening of the 13th with orders to intercept fast enemy ships which might be sent on to Malta in advance of the main British force. None was reported and the VII Division was told to enter Palermo and await orders. British submarines had seen the Italian ships between Sardinia and Sicily, and Wellingtons from Malta were sent to attack them. Unfortunately the Wellington carrying the main supply of flares crashed on taking off and the others had to return without attacking. Having spent daylight of the 14th in Palermo the Italian ships (now two cruisers and seven destroyers) were spotted as they put to sea at dusk, but their subsequent course could not be determined. At Malta, Admiral Leatham judged they would pass through the Straits of Messina and join the Italian main Fleet which had left Taranto at 2.30 that afternoon. A Fleet Air Arm patrol was therefore stationed above the Straits and a striking force of Albacores held in readiness. That was all that Malta could do, for its Wellingtons and Beauforts were about to be launched against the Italian battleships which were clearly steering to intercept the convoy coming from Alexandria.
On hearing that the Italians had left Palermo Admiral Curteis had a difficult decision to make. Should he send either or both of his remaining cruisers to reinforce Captain Hardy or keep them to defend his carriers against tomorrow’s air attacks from Sardinia? It was a gamble either way. He was short of fighters and the Eagle, Argus and Malaya had pitifully weak anti-aircraft armaments. Admiral Curteis judged that the Italian ships were unlikely to enter an area in which they might expect to come under heavy air attack from Malta, but he considered that even if they took this risk the existing escort was strong enough to prevent them from doing harm. He therefore decided against sending either ship, and his decision was subsequently upheld by the Admiralty. Thus, Captain Hardy, with five Fleet destroyers, four Hunts, and one rearmed old cruiser with guns no bigger than the Hunts’, was to find himself, while hampered by five merchantmen, facing two modern 6-inch cruisers and five Fleet destroyers.7
The VII Division had, in fact, been ordered to attack the British force to the south of Pantelleria at first light on the 15th, and it was at daybreak that Captain Hardy, then thirty miles south of the island, received his first news of the enemy from one of five Beaufighters on
their way to patrol above his ships. A few minutes later, just before 6.30, the Italian ships could be seen hull down against the brightening sky to the cast. At once the Bedouin led out the other four Fleet destroyers to engage and hold them off, while the Cairo and the rest of the escort made smoke to cover the convoy which was ordered to alter course towards the Tunisian coast. If time could be gained an air striking force from Malta might turn the scale.
See Map 33
At 6.40 on 15th June the Italian cruisers opened accurate fire at over eleven miles, and five minutes later some of the Fleets replied, although they could as yet scarcely reach the enemy. The Cairo and the Hunts, as soon as they had screened the convoy with smoke, followed to join in the battle which for an hour took a southerly course with the faster Italians altering gradually round to the southwest, presumably to try to get a glimpse of the convoy. It was to their advantage to keep at a range at which the smaller but more numerous British guns could not all reach them, and, although the range from the Fleets was down for a time to five miles or less, the Cairo and the Hunts, who were farther to the west, cutting corners so as to keep between the enemy and the convoy, were never able to engage the Italian cruisers.
Soon after 7 o’clock the two leading Fleets, the Bedouin and Partridge, were hit and stopped and the fight passed them by. The Italian destroyers Vivaldi and Malocello, who had been having difficulty in keeping up, had been detached to harass the convoy; under fire from the British destroyers the Vivaldi had also been brought to a standstill. At 7.20 Admiral da Zara sent his remaining three destroyers to help the Vivaldi and continued the action with his two cruisers alone. These ships appear to have split their armament much of the time, each using two turrets to engage the Fleets and two to engage the Cairo. Twenty minutes later Captain Hardy, ordering his destroyers to concentrate on the Cairo, turned back towards the convoy followed by the Italian cruisers. At about this time the convoy had resumed its south-easterly course but as Captain Hardy approached, with the enemy following warily, he ordered the convoy to reverse its course once more, and at 8.30 the Cairo and destroyers again laid a smoke screen to hide the convoy’s movements. Admiral da Zara at first tried to work round to the west, but he was now in the position of having to follow rather than to lead the enemy. He probably feared torpedo attack if he pressed too hard and at 8.40 he hauled right round to the east and stood away. Ordering the Hunts to stay with the convoy, Captain Hardy followed with the Cairo and the three remaining Fleets, but by 9.30 the enemy cruisers were out of sight and he turned back
to the convoy. During the engagement the Cairo had received two 6-inch hits and the Italian cruisers had also been hit, but only the damage to the Bedouin, Partridge and Vivaldi was of any consequence.
Although the Italian ships had been held off, they had delayed the convoy for three hours from reaching the comparative safety of the short-range fighter cover from Malta, and by drawing away the main anti-aircraft defence they had exposed the convoy to air attack and thus to still further delay. Captain Hardy had felt it necessary to use the Cairo and all his destroyers to meet the immediate threat from a superior surface force, but scarcely had he left the convoy when eight Ju.87s arrived. The Beaufighters which had originally reported the enemy had returned to Malta and no other fighters made contact until 9.30. The convoy had thus no defence except its own guns and those of the minesweepers, and the dive-bombers had little difficulty in sinking the Chant and disabling the Kentucky. In the circumstances it was fortunate that this was all. One of the sweepers, the Hebe, took the Kentucky in tow and the convoy proceeded with its speed thus reduced to about 6 knots.
An hour after the enemy cruisers had disappeared the convoy was once again steering south-east with the escort at full strength except for the Bedouin and Partridge. Long-range Spitfires were overhead, though nearly at the limit of their range, and after successfully driving off some German bombers at 10.40 they had to go back before the relief flight arrived. At 11.20, when the next attack came in, the convoy was again without cover and another merchantman, the Burdwan, was disabled. Malta was still 150 miles away, further air attacks were likely, and the Italian ships might come back at any moment. Captain Hardy decided to push on with the remaining two merchant ships—the Troilus and Orari—at their best speed, and sacrifice the Kentucky and Burdwan. It was a bitter decision to have to make. He left the Hebe to sink the Kentucky and the Hunt destroyer, Badsworth, to sink the Burdwan. There was one more, happily unsuccessful, dive-bombing attack before the Malta umbrella was reached.
It is not quite clear why Admiral da Zara broke off action when he did: perhaps he wished his destroyers to rejoin before continuing the engagement. Indeed in detaching his destroyers at all he seems to have shown more concern for the damaged Vivaldi than for concentrating on the destruction of the British, who had, he believed, a second cruiser present, possibly a heavy one. He mentions in his report on the battle that a mined area, of which he thought the British would he aware, lay between the convoy and Malta. He judged that the British would aim to pass north of this minefield, between it and Pantelleria. By standing to the east himself he would be in a position to renew the action at will and perhaps draw the enemy over the mines. Be that as it may, shortly after 9 o’clock he recalled his destroyers, except the
Premuda which was towing the Vivaldi into Pantelleria, and by 11.15 the Oriani and Ascari had rejoined. These destroyers had been attacked at 10.35 by four Fleet Air Arm Albacores, and at about the same time the cruisers had been attacked by two Beauforts escorted by sixteen Spitfires. Although a large number of Me.109s were covering the Italian ships they did not succeed in interfering with the attacks; these, however, did no harm. This was all that Malta could manage to send at the time, the Wellingtons and the remainder of the Beauforts having just landed after attacking the Italian main Fleet.
Admiral da Zara now steered south over much the same water as during the morning’s engagement. Here, soon after 1 p.m., he found the Hebe trying to overtake the convoy after her unsuccessful attempts to sink the Kentucky, and she was presently hit. Receiving a report from the Hebe at 1.41, Captain Hardy left the convoy, which was now some twenty-five miles south of the Italian ships, and with the Cairo and his three large destroyers stood towards the enemy. Hardly had the Italian ships come in sight when, at 1.55, they turned away to engage a target to the westward. This could only be the Bedouin and Partridge, but Captain Hardy now felt bound to turn back to his convoy, already more than ten miles off, though it meant leaving the damaged destroyers to their fate.
The Partridge had been ready to steam again by 7.45 and by 10 o’clock, in spite of interruptions by two Italian destroyers, she had the more seriously damaged Bedouin in tow. Progress was so slow that the Captain of the Bedouin decided to make for the Tunisian coast. When at 1.20 the Italian cruisers had been sighted again, the Partridge had slipped her tow, laid smoke around the Bedouin and then stood away in the hope of drawing the enemy’s fire. This gallant intention was frustrated when at 2.25 an Italian aircraft torpedoed and sank the Bedouin; the coup de grâce to the Kentucky and perhaps to the Burdwan also came from the air about this time. The Italian cruisers, themselves under air attack from what must have been German or Italian aircraft, did not pursue the Partridge for long. She was next attacked by German bombers; her rudder was jammed hard over by near misses and took more than an hour to clear. She arrived at Gibraltar on the 17th—the same day as the Liverpool—miraculously enough without further incident. Survivors from the Bedouin were picked up by an Italian hospital ship after dark on the 15th.
At 3.30 Captain Hardy rejoined the convoy and two hours later, when south of Linosa, he was reinforced by the Welshman (six dual-purpose 4-inch guns) who had reached Malta that morning and had been sent out as soon as her stores were unloaded. By this time, unknown to Captain Hardy, the Italian ships were well on their way home. They had used a great deal of ammunition; the British convoy was entering the zone allocated to Italian submarines; and the danger
of air attack from Malta was increasing. The Italian Admiralty decided that further action against the convoy should be left to submarines and aircraft, and recalled Admiral da Zara. German bombers made two further attacks before dark without doing damage. There still remained the danger from mines. It had been intended that the minesweepers should sweep ahead of the convoy as it approached the harbour. It was not now possible for the Cairo and destroyers to return westward without more fuel and ammunition and they too had to make for harbour. After the day’s happenings it was perhaps not surprising that misunderstandings should arise as to the precise channel to be swept and the order in which ships should arrive. The Badsworth and the Polish Kujawiak (both Hunt class) and the Orari, Matchless and Hebe all struck mines. The Kujawiak sank, but the others were only slightly damaged and were able to reach the Grand Harbour.
Next evening, the 16th, the Cairo and the four undamaged destroyers—two Fleets and two Hunts—sailed for Gibraltar. They were repeatedly bombed the following day while passing along the North African coast but received no serious damage. That evening they joined Admiral Curteis who was waiting for them with the Kenya and Charybdis. The Malaya and the two carriers had gone on to Gibraltar.
The 15,000 tons of stores which reached Malta in the two merchantmen were quickly unloaded. Four merchantmen had been lost—two sunk by air attack and two disabled by air attack and subsequently sunk. Of the escort, the Bedouin had been disabled by gunfire and sunk by a torpedo-bomber, and the Kujawiak had been sunk by a mine. A cruiser had been damaged by a torpedo-bomber, one destroyer by gunfire, and two others and a sweeper by mines. The Italians had one destroyer damaged by gunfire. The Royal Air Force had lost five aircraft, the Fleet Air Arm seven, and the enemy at least twenty-two. It was a disappointing affair in which one British 6-inch cruiser might have turned the scale. For one 6-inch cruiser and the five Fleet destroyers should have been able to drive off Admiral de Zara’s ships while the Cairo and the Hunts remained with the convoy and might perhaps have saved it from some, if not all, of its losses from air attack.
In the Eastern Mediterranean the complementary operation VIGOROUS had been taking place, conducted from the headquarters of No. 201 Naval Co-operation Group RAF by Admiral Harwood and Air Marshal Tedder. Once again Rear-Admiral Vian was in command afloat. Three months earlier, in March, in a gale of wind from the right quarter, his light cruisers and destroyers had held off a much
heavier enemy force for two and a half hours.8 In the long days of midsummer the conditions could hardly be so favourable, but if a superior force was met his intentions were again:
‘To use smoke to cover the convoy and, when practicable, for the protection of our ships’
‘To drive off the enemy by torpedoes, or by the threat of torpedoes, and to inflict early casualties by gunfire on two selected enemy ships.’
His plan was an elaboration of the March plan, but this time much would depend on whether the Italian Fleet could be damaged or discouraged by air striking forces and submarines, while the convoy and its escort were still at a safe distance. A suggestion that Admiral Somerville should bring the Warspite and two or three carriers from the Eastern Fleet through the Canal to strengthen the escort had been rejected as exposing these valuable ships to too great a risk from the air.
Nevertheless both convoy and escort were larger than in March. Admiral Vian again flew his flag in the Cleopatra, which with the Dido and Euryalus, and the Hermione from the Eastern Fleet, made four light cruisers armed with the dual-purpose 5.25 inch low- and high-angle gun. Three 6-inch cruisers, the Newcastle (Flag of Rear-Admiral W. G. Tennant), Birmingham, and the smaller Arethusa, had come from the Eastern Fleet, making seven cruisers in all and one anti-aircraft cruiser, the Coventry. Of the twenty-six destroyers, ten were from the Eastern Fleet. To the main escort were added four corvettes, two minesweepers to sweep ahead of the convoy entering Malta, four MTBs and two unarmed rescue ships. The former battleship Centurion, unarmed except against air attack, was to masquerade as a fully armed capital ship.
See Map 34
In earlier operations submarines had been stationed in the approaches to Taranto and Messina, from where they made some valuable reports but had little opportunity to attack. This time the nine available boats from the 1st and 10th Flotillas were to act as a moving screen parallel to the convoy’s route on the critical day while it was passing through the Central Mediterranean; on the preceding and following days they were to patrol in the areas through which the Italian Fleet was most likely to pass.
Some forty aircraft were available as a striking force, Wellingtons and Beauforts at Malta, and Beauforts at a landing-ground in Egypt near the Libyan border, all armed with torpedoes; in addition there were the United States Liberator bombers at their temporary base at
Fayid. These were the Halverson Detachment, which had attacked the Rumanian oilfields on 12th June and which the US Chiefs of Staff had allowed to be used against the Italian Fleet if it should leave harbour while the convoys were at sea. These striking forces were not, in the opinion of the Commanders-in-Chief, numerous enough to ensure that the Italian Fleet would be turned from its purpose, but no more aircraft could be provided. Fighter cover for the convoy would be given at first by short-range fighters and then by Beaufighters and long-range Kittyhawks, to the limit of their endurance.9 Success would depend more than ever on frequent and accurate reporting of the Italian Fleet, without which it could be neither attacked nor evaded.
To disguise for as long as possible from the enemy that a convoy was being got ready, the eleven ships were loaded at various ports between Beirut and Alexandria. A part of the convoy was to sail from Port Said some thirty-six hours ahead of the main body; these ships were to go almost as far west as Tobruk before turning back to meet the rest. It was hoped by this means to draw the Italian Fleet to sea prematurely, expose it to attack, and make it run short of fuel.
The decoy convoy, escorted by the Coventry and eight destroyers, sailed on the 11th June as arranged. On the evening of the 12th, when about to turn east to rendezvous with the main body, one of the merchant ships (the City of Calcutta) was damaged in an attack by Ju.87s and 88s and had to be sent in to Tobruk. The main body was met off Alexandria on the afternoon of the 13th. The Norwegian Elizabeth Bakke had been unable to keep up and so the convoy was already reduced to nine. During the night enemy aircraft dropped flares continually, but the bombing that followed did no harm. By the morning of the 14th the escort was complete except for the motor torpedo boats, sent back because the weather was too rough. During that forenoon, two of the corvettes had to part company by reason of defects, and the Dutch Aagtekirk proved too slow and was also detached. She and her escort were later attacked by forty German Ju.87s and 88s twelve miles off Tobruk and the Aagtekirk was sunk.
Although the convoy was well inside ‘Bomb Alley’ between Crete and Cyrenaica, there were few signs of enemy aircraft between daybreak and 4.30 p.m., thanks largely to the British fighters. Some of these had been detached at short notice from the land battle to intercept enemy striking forces on their way out from Cyrenaican airfields to attack the convoy.10 The convoy was now passing out of range of the British short-range fighters and between 4.30 and 9.15 there were seven attacks in which some 60 or 70 Ju.87s and 88s in all took part. Some of the enemy were intercepted by long-range Kittyhawks and
Beaufighters, but around 6 p.m. the Bhutan was sunk; another merchantman, the Potaro, was hit and damaged but was able to stay with the convoy. The two rescue ships picked up the Bhutan’s survivors and were sent in to Tobruk.
Shortly before sunset a submarine nearly torpedoed the destroyer Pakenham, and a few minutes later the fighter patrol reported six MTBs to the north-westward. Presently the Euryalus could discern them hull down on the starboard bow. Four British fighters directed to attack were held off by the MTBs’ own escort of German fighters. As darkness fell the dropping of flares began again, evidently to help submarines and MTBs as well as the bombers which were still making sporadic attacks.
Various sightings on the 13th had confirmed the departure of a large British convoy from eastern Mediterranean ports, and by that evening the Italian Admiralty were confident that its destination was Malta. The convoy from Gibraltar had already been reported, and it was deduced that the British intention was to split the Axis opposition between the two, but the Italians decided to use the principal ships of their Fleet against the convoy from the east. At 2.30 p.m. on the 14th, the battleships Littorio (Flag of Admiral Iachino) and Vittorio Veneto, the 8-inch cruisers Gorizia and Trento, the 6-inch cruisers Garibaldi and Duca D’Aosta and twelve destroyers left Taranto with orders to intercept the British convoy. If the convoy maintained the course and speed reported, this could happen at about 9 a.m. next morning.
First news of the Italian ships came from a Baltimore from Malta searching for the cruisers from Palermo which subsequently attacked Captain Hardy. It sighted the main force at 6.45 p.m. clearing the Gulf of Taranto, and made an accurate report except that it identified the battleships as Cavour class. This signal reached Admiral Harwood at 10.27 p.m. The results of a photographic reconnaissance of Taranto at 8 p.m., which showed that it was not the Cavours but the faster and more powerful Littorios which had left harbour, did not reach him until after 8 o’clock next morning.
By 11 p.m. it was evident to Admiral Vian that the enemy might be met with early next morning. In the fine weather and light breeze which prevailed, he could not hope to hold off such a force all day, and he therefore asked Admiral Harwood if he wished him to retire. Admiral Harwood’s intention was for the convoy to make as much ground to the west as possible while leaving sea-room for the submarines and aircraft to attack the Italian Fleet, and he replied that the convoy should continue west till 2 a.m. on the 15th and then turn back along the same track. This intricate manoeuvre had only just been completed when Admiral Tennant’s flagship, the Newcastle, was torpedoed by a MTB, but after the damaged compartments had
been shored she was still capable of 24 knots. An hour and a half later the destroyer Hasty was also torpedoed by a MTB and had to be sunk.
No further news of the Italian ships reached Admiral Harwood until 2.24 next morning, when the air reported only one battleship, two cruisers and two destroyers. It placed the enemy some 220 miles north-west of the convoy at 2 a.m., which except for the longitude was not far wrong. By 5.25 the Commander-in-Chief had decided that the risks of a return to ‘Bomb Alley’ outweighed those of an advance towards the Italian Fleet. He therefore ordered the convoy to turn to the west again and at 6.55 Admiral Vian complied. Admiral Harwood was, of course, hoping that the Italian Fleet would presently suffer losses from air and submarine attack, if indeed it had not already done so. For at midnight four Wellingtons of No. 38 Squadron, the night torpedo-bombers, had been despatched from Malta, followed three hours later by nine Beauforts of No. 217 Squadron. The Wellingtons found the Italian battleships at 3.40 but the enemy’s smoke screen was so effective that only one Wellington was able to attack and both its torpedoes missed. At dawn, which was around 6 o’clock, the Beauforts took up the attack and drove it home with great determination. On return to Malta they claimed hits on both Italian battleships, but in fact it was the 8-inch cruiser Trento which they had torpedoed and stopped.
P.31, P.34 and P.35 of the 10th Submarine Flotilla had all sighted the Italian Fleet between 5.45 and 7 a.m. Only P.35 was near enough to attack, but just as she was about to fire she was baulked of almost certain success when her battleship target altered course to avoid the Beauforts’ torpedoes. P.35 had a second chance, but it was at long range and her torpedoes missed. However, her luck was not entirely out, for all three submarines closed the damaged Trento as soon as the main body of the Fleet had passed, and shortly after 10 a.m. P.35 hit her with two torpedoes causing the fore magazine to explode before she sank.
At 9 a.m. eight Liberators—seven USAAF and one RAF—after a flight of more than five hours scored one bomb hit on the Littorio, the Italian flagship, but it did not seriously inconvenience her. The Americans, however, believed that both battleships had been heavily hit. Meanwhile twelve Beauforts of No. 39 Squadron had been sent out from Sidi Barrani to synchronise their attacks with those of the Liberators and then proceed to Malta as they would have insufficient fuel to return. Unfortunately they were intercepted by Me.109s on the way; two were shot down and five were forced to abandon the operation. The remaining five attacked the Italian ships as the Liberators were leaving the scene—their timing had been nearly perfect. They too reported hitting a battleship but in fact they scored
no hits, and the Italian Fleet less the Trento and two destroyers stood on.
Learning from an air report timed 8.28 a.m. that the enemy fleet, still apparently intact, was within 150 miles of the convoy and steering towards it, Admiral Harwood decided to turn the convoy east once more until he knew the results of the air and submarine attacks. At 9.40 this was done. Then came the claim of the Malta Beauforts to have hit both Italian battleships at 6 a.m. and at 11.51 Admiral Harwood ordered the convoy to resume its course for Malta. He informed Admiral Vian of the supposed damage to the Italians and added that a further air attack was intended in the afternoon. He repeated an earlier signal ‘Avoid contact until aircraft have attacked, which should be by 10.30. If air attack fails, every effort must be made to get convoy through to Malta by adopting offensive attitude. Should this fail, and convoy be cornered, it is to be sacrificed, and you are to extricate your forces, proceeding to the eastward or the westward.’ But no further reports about the enemy came through and the Commander-in-Chief began to suspect that the Trento might be the only Italian ship damaged. He did not know what damage our own ships had suffered nor how they stood for fuel and ammunition, and at 12.45 he signalled Admiral Vian giving him discretion either to comply with his order to turn west again, or to continue eastward in the hope of carrying out a night destroyer attack should the enemy stand on.
By 1.45 p.m., when Admiral Vian received the signal ordering him to turn again for Malta, he already knew from a recent air report that the Italian Fleet was standing on with both battleships intact, whereas his own two biggest ships were damaged, the Birmingham only two hours earlier by a near miss and the Newcastle by MTB attack the previous night. He decided to continue eastward and await his Commander-in-Chief’s reaction to this latest information. At 2.20 p.m. he received Admiral Harwood’s signal freeing his hands and he held on to the east. An hour later in a further air attack the destroyer Airedale was disabled and had to be sunk.
Meanwhile, at 3 p.m., the Italian Fleet, rather more than loo miles astern, had hauled round to the north-west. The Italian Admiralty had ordered that, if no opportunity of an engagement before 4 p.m. existed, Admiral Iachino was to take his ships to Navarino in readiness to challenge a fresh attempt by the British next day to break through to Malta.
To Admiral Harwood, on receiving air reports of this change of course, it seemed probable that the Italians were returning to Taranto and at 4.25 p.m. he signalled to Admiral Vian that now was the golden opportunity to get the convoy to Malta. He inquired whether the Hunts, Coventry, minesweepers and corvettes had enough fuel and
ammunition for the one-way trip. If so he wished the convoy to turn at once, and the cruisers and Fleet destroyers to part company after dark and return to Alexandria. When Admiral Vian received this signal he was busily engaged with some of the heaviest air attacks of the passage. A general reversal of course was out of the question, and it was 6.30 before he could collect the information on which he reported that the Hunts had less than 30% of ammunition left and were using that up fast. He considered that they had not enough for the passage to Malta. In the meantime Admiral Harwood had modified the plan, intending to send to Malta only the four fastest from the seven remaining merchant ships and adding the Arethusa and two Fleet destroyers to the escort, but when he received Admiral Vian’s reply he ordered him to return to Alexandria with his whole force. That night the escort suffered its heaviest casualty when the cruiser Hermione was hit by two torpedoes from the U.205 and sank in twenty minutes with the loss of 88 officers and men. Next morning the Australian destroyer Nestor, which had been damaged in air attacks, had to be scuttled. In the evening of the 16th Admiral Vian arrived at Alexandria and sent on part of the convoy to Port Said.
Meanwhile the Italian Fleet on its north-westerly course had narrowly escaped attack by submarines of the 1st Flotilla on the evening of the 15th, and shortly after midnight had been attacked by five Wellingtons of No. 38 Squadron from Malta. One of them scored a hit with a torpedo on the Littorio, which put her out of action for more than two months. On learning of this damage the Italian Admiralty recalled their Fleet to Taranto, where it arrived a few hours before Admiral Vian reached Alexandria.
There is little to be said in summing up this disappointing operation. The convoy had first been turned back not because of any damage that the enemy’s aircraft, submarines or MTBs had been able to inflict, but because, as had been feared, the small British and American air striking force had been unable to do serious damage to the Italian Fleet.11 While this Fleet remained intact the British surface escort had little hope of fighting the convoy through. When, at length, the Italian Fleet seemed no longer to bar the way to Malta, anti-aircraft ammunition was running short and seven Beaufighters had been lost;
the means of defending the convoy against further air attacks outside the reach of short-range fighters were therefore insufficient. The conduct of the whole operation had been hampered by meagre information, and some important signals had taken a long time to get through. It is doubtful, however, whether even a continuous flow of speedy and
accurate reports would have radically affected the action taken, for without the use of the airfields in Western Cyrenaica the British were too heavily handicapped.
Out of seventeen merchantmen in the two convoys only two had arrived at Malta; six had been sunk and nine turned back. The 15,000 tons of cargo unloaded from these two ships would enable the island, given a good harvest, to last out so far as food was concerned until the end of September, but in Lord Gort’s opinion the stocks of aviation spirit were being used up too quickly. The instructions he had received were to prolong the island’s resistance as much as possible. For this adequate fighter defence was essential and, until future supplies of aviation spirit were assured, existing stocks must be preserved for the fighters at the expense of the striking force. The Commanders-in-Chief, while seeing Lord Gort’s point, felt that everything depended on the land battle and that Malta must continue to strike against enemy shipping even at some risk to the island’s stock of fuel. The Chiefs of Staff agreed with Lord Gort to the extent of ordering strikes to be restricted to those giving extremely good chances at close ranges. Except for Beauforts, the passage of aircraft to Egypt via Malta was to be suspended. To maintain stocks for fighters, a more regular supply by submarine was to be encouraged.
In fact, during July, the submarines Parthian and Clyde arrived from Gibraltar with aviation spirit, ammunition and special stores, and fifty-nine more Spitfires were flown in from the Eagle in two ferrying trips on the 15th and 21st. Making her third trip with special stores, HMS Welshman came in under cover of the first ferry trip, arriving at Malta on 16th July. Italian cruisers which might have disputed her passage had been heavily bombed in Cagliari and had just been transferred to Naples. Towards the end of the month Admiral Harwood felt able to send the 10th Submarine Flotilla back to Malta. Not only had the bombing lessened but the minesweepers which had arrived with the HARPOON convoy had been able to make the approaches safer. As will be seen, these submarines soon began to make their presence felt again.
Fearing just such a recovery of Malta’s power to strike, with aircraft as well as with submarines, the enemy had increased the severity of his bombing attacks during the first half of July, concentrating chiefly on the island’s airfields, where 17 aircraft were destroyed on the ground and many more damaged.12 In the fortnight the defending fighters flew nearly 1,000 sorties; 36 Spitfires (out of 135) were lost in combat, but the enemy lost 65 aircraft from all causes and had been forced first to increase the ratio of escort fighters to bombers and later to fall back on tip-and-run attacks by fighter-bombers. This was a notable success for the island’s air defences.
On the 15th, just as the enemy air attacks had again died down, Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd handed over as AOC Malta to
Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park. Lloyd had arrived in Malta in June 1941, just as the heavy attacks of the year were waning. He had been in command throughout the much heavier attacks of 1942, when his example of personal courage and tenacity of purpose had been a source of inspiration to the hard-pressed squadrons of the Royal Air Force. His services were not to be lost to the Middle East, however, for he was to join Air Marshal Tedder’s staff.
Towards the end of July the British fighters at Malta changed their tactics, and began to fly out to intercept the enemy over the sea as a regular routine. This may seem an obvious thing to do, but before strong German air reinforcements arrived in Sicily in December 1941 the fighters had gone even farther than this by attacking the enemy on his own airfields. Gradually, however, the British had been forced out of the sky over Sicily, and the time came when, greatly outnumbered, it was all they could do to survive over Malta. Now, as July 1942 drew to a close, there were again enough fighters to go out to meet the enemy, and these tactics Park was to employ with great success.
Before carrying the story of Malta further it is necessary to see how the maritime war in the Mediterranean had been affected by what was happening in North Africa. As has already been described, the British withdrawal from the Gazala position was taking place at the same time as operations HARPOON and VIGOROUS; five days after these had ended Tobruk fell, and by 28th June the enemy was at Matruh in possession of airfields within 160 miles of Alexandria. Faced with the possibility of fighter-escorted bomber attacks and with the danger that Alexandria itself might be captured, Admiral Harwood dispersed the Fleet to Haifa, Port Said and Beirut, and moved merchant shipping and warships not required for active operations, such as the repair ship Resource, south of the Canal. A wonderful job was done in completing the temporary repairs to the Queen Elizabeth so that she could be undocked and sent to the comparative safety of Port Sudan, where she stayed a few weeks before leaving for permanent repairs in America. At Alexandria arrangements were made to block the harbour and destroy stores and the facilities of the port. Admiral Harwood and his operations staff moved to Ismailia on 2nd July. On the 30th June the submarine depot ship Medway, on her way to Haifa where it was intended to base the Submarine Flotillas, was torpedoed and sunk by U.372. Happily only thirty lives were lost, but the Medway herself was a serious loss and with her went nearly ninety spare torpedoes. Forty-seven of these were later recovered.
Circumstances had relieved the Royal Navy of the duty of supplying Tobruk but it could still lend its support to the Army along the coast with its gunfire, and between the 12th and 20th July a number of
bombardments, referred to again in Chapter XIV, were carried out by cruisers and destroyers against the area around Mersa Matruh with varying success. Towards the end of the month, as the front stabilized, the danger to Alexandria receded, and on 8th August Admiral Harwood returned there with his staff. The harbour, however, was still within easy range of fighter-escorted bombers, and the Fleet continued to be based on Levant and Canal ports.
A delicate situation arose over Admiral Godfroy’s squadron when it became necessary to evacuate Alexandria. The British were naturally anxious lest these French ships should fall into German hands. Admiral Godfroy was confident that he could always avoid this, if necessary by scuttling, and he refused to sail for any of the ports suggested either by the British Government or by President Roosevelt, who did his best to mediate. Fortunately the march of events resolved the difficulty.
See Map 35
The failure of the June convoys had led, of course, to immediate planning for a further attempt to supply Malta; indeed, before Admiral Vian’s ships were back in Alexandria the Prime Minister had minuted to the First Lord and Admiral Pound that Lord Gort must be able to tell the Maltese that the Navy would never abandon Malta.
Neither in VIGOROUS nor in HARPOON had the sea and air forces been strong enough. Next time they would have to be given priority over all other demands, for on the success or failure of PEDESTAL (as it was to be called) would hang the fate of Malta and hence in all probability of the Nile valley. The enemy’s advance into Egypt had made air support in the Eastern Mediterranean more difficult than ever, so that the next convoy would be run from the west only. The escort would have to be powerful enough to brush off the main Italian Fleet, if this should venture into the western basin, and it was realized that the portion of the escort continuing on to Malta should be much stronger than it was in HARPOON. Fighters, at first from carriers and later from Malta, should be numerous enough to match the opposing fighters and still leave others to deal with bombers and torpedo-bombers. The air striking force at Malta should be able to attack enemy airfields in addition to ships. It was known that the enemy was increasing his air forces in Sicily and Sardinia in anticipation of a further British attempt. Both sides, indeed, had realized that the issue was of great consequence, and were bracing themselves for a trial of strength.
The carriers Victorious (Flag of Rear-Admiral A. L. St. G. Lyster), Indomitable and Eagle and the battleships Nelson and Rodney formed the
main strength of the escort.13 The suspension of North Russian convoys after the disaster to convoy PQ17 in July made it easier to spare ships from the Home Fleet, and the American victory at the battle of Midway Island had made it less urgent to reinforce the Eastern Fleet. The sailing of the Nelson and Rodney to join the Eastern Fleet was postponed and the Indomitable was brought back all the way round the Cape. Between them the carriers had embarked 72 fighters—Hurricanes, Fulmars and Martlets—and 28 Albacores. Three modern light cruisers with dual-purpose guns (Sirius, Phoebe and Charybdis) were to have the special duty of defending the carriers from air attack. Together with 12 destroyers this powerful fleet would form Force Z, which was to turn back at the Skerki Channel. Force X, which was to continue on to Malta, comprised the 6-inch cruisers Nigeria (Flag of Rear-Admiral H. M. Burrough), Kenya and Manchester, the antiaircraft cruiser Cairo and a further 12 destroyers. Vice-Admiral E. N. Syfret, his flag in the Nelson, was to command the whole operation. It will be noticed that both in ships and in aircraft this escort was much stronger than in HARPOON; it was in fact the most powerful force ever to accompany a Malta convoy.
At the end of July there were 80 serviceable fighters at Malta, but as the weekly wastage averaged 17 it was planned to give them a last minute fillip, and HMS Furious was to fly off another batch of Spitfires under cover of the main operation. Two fleet oilers and a tug escorted by four corvettes were provided for refuelling ships on passage, and a further eight destroyers would be available for incidental duties, such as escorting the Furious back to Gibraltar. Another ocean tug was to be attached to Force X—an innovation following the experience of operation HARPOON. Two submarines were to patrol, one off Palermo and the other off Milazzo, while six others to the south of Pantelleria were to provide a screen to the convoy. It was expressly intended that they should be seen on the surface and reported by enemy aircraft in order to deter enemy surface ships from attacking the convoy.
The air forces at Malta were strongly reinforced from the United Kingdom and Egypt, and the maximum numbers of aircraft serviceable at any one time during the operation were loo Spitfires, 36 Beaufighters, 30 Beauforts, 3 Wellingtons, 2 Liberators, 2 Baltimores, 3 FAA Albacores and Swordfish. This does not include reconnaissance aircraft, of which there were 5 Baltimores, 6 PRU Spitfires and 5 Wellington VIIIs.
While the main convoy was coming cast, the two merchantmen which had arrived at Malta in operation HARPOON were to return to Gibraltar escorted by two destroyers. In the Eastern Mediterranean the Fleet would stage a diversion with a dummy convoy and station submarines in suitable positions in case the Italians put to sea.
The convoy of 14 large ships—It British and 3 American, including the 15-knot tanker Ohio (on loan to the Ministry of War Transport) carrying 12,000 tons of oil—passed through the Straits of Gibraltar early on 10th August. Admiral Syfret with the bulk of the escorting men-of-war had accompanied it from the Clyde. Enemy aircraft started shadowing soon after daylight on the 11th, and thereafter the convoy was under continuous observation in spite of the British fighters. The Furious began flying off her Spitfires for Malta shortly after noon, but this was interrupted when at 1.15 the Eagle was torpedoed. The German submarine U.73 had dived undetected through the port screen and convoy columns to attack the carrier which was on the starboard quarter of the convoy. Four torpedoes hit her on the port side and she sank in eight minutes, happily without heavy loss of life; many of her survivors were picked up by the tug attached to Force X. The Eagle, it will be recalled, had played a prominent part in the Mediterranean Fleet’s opening moves against the Italians, in the course of which she had been severely shaken by numerous near misses. After repairs she had joined Force H early in 1942 to replace the much more modern Ark Royal (which was also torpedoed by a German submarine), and since then 182 Spitfires had successfully reached Malta off her flying deck. Together with the Wasp the Eagle had sustained Malta during the island’s greatest need and when she was sunk she was with the last Malta convoy to be seriously opposed. The Furious resumed her task of flying off Spitfires to Malta-37 arrived safely—and then went back to Gibraltar; on the way one of her destroyer escort, HMS Wolverine, rammed and sank the Italian submarine Dagabur.
Sardinia was still nearly 200 miles away when, at 8.45, just as the sun was setting, the first air attack on the convoy began. The 36 German bombers and torpedo-bombers were difficult for the FAA fighters to see in the failing light, but the guns did good work and no ships were damaged. That night Liberators and Beaufighters attacked airfields in Sardinia, destroying and damaging several aircraft and setting a hangar on fire. Next morning, the 12th, German attacks began at 9.15. This time FAA fighters intercepted them twenty-five miles clear of the convoy, and those of the enemy that succeeded in getting through did no harm. The main effort from Sardinia came at midday—an elaborate combined attack by some 70 aircraft strongly escorted by fighters. First came to Italian torpedo-bombers carrying, as it turned out, a new type of circling torpedo known as a motobomba.
They were followed by a few German fighter-bombers. The main force of Italian torpedo-bombers was intended to come in about five minutes after these earlier attacks had upset the formation of the ships and drawn their fire, but they were late and dropped their torpedoes at long range having been seriously upset by the FAA fighters on the way. The ships of the convoy had been given plenty of practice since leaving the Clyde and were manoeuvring together like a squadron of warships; they turned to avoid these various attacks, none of which was successful. The Italian torpedo-bombers were followed at about 1.15 by some 20 German dive-bombers and, although this attack too was broken up by fighters, one merchantman, the Deucalion, was damaged, and as she could not keep up she was ordered to follow an inshore route along the Tunisian coast. Here, in the evening, after she and her escort had repelled one attack, she was hit by torpedo-bombers and blew up. The last of this series of attacks which had begun at midday was made on the Victorious; at 1.45 an Italian aircraft dropped a heavy armour-piercing bomb which broke up on the flight deck without exploding.
The convoy passed some twenty miles north of Galita Island and spent the rest of the afternoon successfully avoiding submarines. Admiral Syfret was well content with the vigilance of the anti-submarine screen, which, although it had failed to detect the submarine which sank the Eagle, had foiled many another attack; moreover during the afternoon the Italian submarine Cobalt° was sunk by the destroyer Ithuriel.
At 6.30 that evening the attacks from Sicily began about 120 miles from the island. Again the bombers and torpedo-bombers were escorted by fighters, but, as before, the Savoias dropped their torpedoes at long range and once again the convoy was turned away to avoid them. This time however the destroyer Foresight was hit and later had to be sunk. The bombers made the Indomitable their main target, some of the Ju.87s coming down to 1,000 feet. The carrier received three hits, her flight deck was put out of action, and her fighters had to return to the Victorious. (See photo 38).
At 7 p.m., when this big attack from Sicily was over and the convoy was approaching the Skerki Channel, Admiral Syfret turned his ships of Force Z away and left Admiral Burrough with Force X to take the convoy on. An hour later, while the convoy was changing its formation from four columns to two for easier manoeuvring in narrow waters, the Nigeria, the Cairo and the tanker Ohio, one of the most important ships in the convoy, all received underwater damage—now known to have been caused by torpedoes fired by the Italian submarine Axum. The .Nigeria turned back for Gibraltar with an escort, and Admiral Burrough shifted his flag to the destroyer Ashanti: the Cairo had to be sunk; the Ohio struggled on. The convoy had been turned away to the
south to avoid the danger, and in the process became bunched up. Many of the destroyers were busy with damaged ships. In this state, while trying to form two columns in the gathering dusk, the convoy was attacked by 20 German bombers and torpedo-bombers. The convoy had lost its two fighter-direction ships, Nigeria and Cairo. The long-range fighters from Malta were being fired on by their own ships, and the enemy’s task was easy. The Empire Hope was hit by a bomb and had to be sunk. The Clan Ferguson was torpedoed and blew up. The Brisbane Star, also hit by a torpedo, was able to hold on and eventually reached Malta. Soon after this attack the Kenya was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Alagi but fortunately she was able to remain with the convoy.
But worse was to come. To avoid the minefields in the Sicilian Narrows the route lay south of Zembra Island and then hugged the coast as far south as Kelibia. The ships were now badly strung out. Three destroyers were minesweeping ahead followed by the Kenya, Manchester and two merchant ships. This, the main body, was fast being overhauled by Admiral Burrough in the Ashanti. Another three destroyers were rounding up the remaining nine merchantmen. The destroyer Bramham was rejoining after the Deucalion had been sunk, and the cruiser Charybdis and the destroyers Eskimo and Somali had been sent by Admiral Syfret to replace the warships lost, but would not overtake for some hours. The main body passed Cape Bon at midnight. Forty minutes later MTB attacks began and lasted until the convoy was well past Kelihia and on course for Malta. The Manchester was the first ship to be torpedoed. The other ships hit were all stragglers, the Wairangi, Rochester Castle, Almeria Lykes, Santa Elisa and Glenorchy. They were attacked between 3.15 and 4.30 about fifteen miles southeast of Kelibia while taking a short cut to overhaul the main body. Only the Rochester Castle survived and she, ‘merrily doing 13 knots’, caught up with the main body at 5.30, two hours after being torpedoed. By then the Charybdis, Eskimo and Somali had joined Admiral Burrough, making the main force up to two cruisers and seven destroyers with the Rochester Castle, Waimarama and Melbourne Star. The Ohio escorted by one destroyer was slowly catching up. Further astern was the Port Chalmers with two destroyers. The Dorset was following alone and lastly the torpedoed Brisbane Star was still hugging the Tunisian coast intending to make for Malta at nightfall. At 7.30 a.m. Admiral Burrough sent back the Eskimo and Somali to help the Manchester. It was just a year since the Captain of the Manchester had succeeded in bringing his ship to Gibraltar after being torpedoed during convoy operation ‘Substance’; this time, however, he decided that the Manchester was too badly crippled and scuttled her. The two destroyers were able to rescue those of her company who had not reached shore, and took them to Gibraltar.
Daylight relieved the merchantmen and their escort from further attack by motor torpedo boats, but opened the way again for air attacks. To Admiral Burrough, at that time, there seemed to be a grave risk of attack by surface warships also. Air reconnaissance on the previous evening had found one 8-inch and three 6-inch cruisers and eight destroyers some eighty miles north of the western end of Sicily steering south. This looked dangerous, for they could easily have reached the convoy by dawn next day; in fact at 1.30 a.m. they had turned east along the north coast of Sicily, and further reports had shown them holding on to the east. They had been attacked, but not heavily, by aircraft from Malta, where the main striking force was being held back in case the battleships at Taranto put to sea.
At 8 a.m. air attacks on the main body started again, and although Beaufighters and long-range Spitfires from Malta were patrolling over the convoy the Waimarama was hit and blew up. The destroyer Ledbury, skilfully handled, saved some of her crew out of a blazing sea. In further attacks an enemy bomber crashed on board the Ohio, and the Ohio’s engines were disabled by four or five near misses; the Dorset was hit and stopped, and the Rochester Castle was set on fire but was able to continue with the convoy. Two destroyers were left with the cripples. There was one more attack about 11.30 which did no harm. Malta was now within eighty miles, and further attacks on the main body were held off by short-range Spitfires. At 4 p.m. Admiral Burrough handed over his remaining three merchant ships to the minesweeping force from Malta and turned westward on his return passage to Gibraltar with two cruisers and five destroyers. Two hours later the Port Chalmers, Melbourne Star and Rochester Castle, the last very low in the water, entered the Grand Harbour.
There were still the Dorset, Ohio and Brisbane Star. The two first were lying helpless, the two destroyers with them having found them unmanageable in tow. Air attacks were frequent and at 7 p.m. both ships were hit again and the Dorset sunk. With the help of the minesweepers the Ohio was at last taken in tow, but the tow parted again after a further attack and fresh wires were passed, while the Ohio became even more unwieldy. But at length persistence won, and on the morning of the 15th the vital tanker entered harbour with destroyers lashed alongside to steer her and push her ahead. (See Photo 39.) The Brisbane Star had already arrived. After some difficulty with unhelpful French Boarding Officers she had left the Tunisian coast as planned at nightfall on the 13th and reached Malta next afternoon in spite of air attacks on the way.
In addition to the serious casualties to ships there had been a heavy loss of aircraft, the Fleet Air Arm having lost thirteen in addition to the sixteen that went down with the Eagle. The Royal Air Force had lost five and the enemy thirty-five, including those shot down over Malta.
The two empty merchant ships from Malta had an undisturbed run to Gibraltar, but the return passage of Admiral Burrough’s ships was very different. They had to run the gauntlet again of motor torpedo boats, submarines and aircraft. Several ships were nearly hit, but they rejoined Admiral Syfret without suffering damage and the combined force reached Gibraltar on the 15th. In the Eastern Mediterranean the diversion passed without incident; ‘the only point of interest,’ reported Admiral Harwood, ‘was that considerable disappointment was expressed by the merchant ships taking part when they found they were not going through to Malta.’
In paying tribute to the men who had fought the convoy through, on the sea and in the air, Admiral Syfret felt that all would desire to give first place to the courage and determination of the masters, officers and men of the merchant ships. ‘The memory of their conduct will remain an inspiration to all who were privileged to sail with them.’ This was echoed by Admiral Leatham in reporting on the five merchant ships which arrived at Malta. He made special mention of the Ohio, the destroyers Penn, Bramham and Ledbury, who, with the minesweeper Rye, had brought her at long last into harbour, and the Brisbane Star who had played a lone hand after being damaged and had come triumphantly through. There was particular satisfaction when Captain D. W. Mason, Master of the Ohio, received the George Cross for his outstanding services.
To oppose the passage of the PEDESTAL convoy the enemy had assembled more than 600 aircraft in Sardinia and Sicily. Of these some 200 were German, many being reinforcements sent for the occasion from Crete and North Africa. Six Italian and three German submarines had been stationed between the Balearics and the Algerian coast, eleven Italian submarines in the approaches to the Skerki Channel, and one near Malta lying in wait for stragglers. A new minefield was laid off Cape Bon the day before the convoy was expected, and south of Cape Bon twenty-three MTBs were on patrol, four of which were German. In spite of the British attempt to assemble a formidable force, the enemy fighters usually appeared in considerably greater strength than those which the carriers or Malta could put up, and it is a measure of the quality of the British fighters and of the gunfire and asdic training of the ships that the convoy reached the approaches to the Skerki Channel with only one merchantman damaged. After that it was a disappointment that only five of the fourteen merchantmen arrived at Malta. It was the skilful attack by the Italian submarine Axum and her luck in picking two fighter-direction ships as targets which started things going wrong. This success opened the way for further successes in the air attack at dusk. Thereafter the
convoy became strung out and presented many easy targets to MTBs during darkness and to aircraft the following day. The results are therefore not surprising. Indeed, the Italians seem to have missed an opportunity of doing even more damage. The ships which had been reported in the Tyrrhenian sea the previous evening had in fact comprised three 8-inch and three 6-inch cruisers and eleven destroyers—a formidable enough force even if the British escort had not been reduced to the damaged Kenya, the Charybdis, and ten destroyers. The Italian orders were to attack the British convoy early on the 13th to the south of Pantelleria. Powerful air forces, however, had been reported assembled on Malta’s airfields and it was considered essential that the Italian warships should be well protected by fighters. But the bombers and torpedo-bombers from Sicily also needed fighter protection, and there were not enough fighters for both duties. Eventually Mussolini was called upon to arbitrate between the rival claims of the Italian Naval Staff and Field-Marshal Kesselring, and he decided that the fighters should protect the bombers. The orders for the warships were then altered. Some of the Italian warships were ordered to return to harbour; others were directed through the Messina Straits to reinforce three 6-inch cruisers at Navarino Bay which had been ordered to attack the British force reported at sea with a convoy in the Eastern Mediterranean.14 In the course of their passage along the north coast of Sicily, these reinforcements were attacked by the British submarine P.42, which torpedoed the 8-inch cruiser Bolzano and the 6-inch cruiser Attendolo. Both cruisers eventually reached harbour but neither came into service again. In conclusion, it should be mentioned that the Italian battleships, for which the main air striking force at Malta had been held back, could not put to sea because they had no fuel. After the Italian operations against the two Malta convoys in June, Mussolini had warned Hitler that stocks of fuel were exhausted and that further British attempts to supply Malta could be opposed only by submarines and aircraft.
The PEDESTAL convoy was the last of the Malta convoys to be seriously opposed and it is appropriate here to summarize what these convoys had achieved.15 In the six and a half months from Italy’s entry into the war to the end of 1940, twenty-one ships carrying 160,000 tons of cargo were discharged at Malta without loss, and stocks were
built up to a reserve of seven months. The arrival of the Luftwaffe then prevented the intended figure of eight months’ reserve being reached. During the twenty months from January 1941 to August 1942 forty-six merchant ships discharged 320,000 tons. The following table shows in more detail what arrived at Malta in this period and at what cost in ships. Not that the price paid was confined to sunk and damaged ships and aircraft destroyed; the Malta convoys tied up, for weeks on end, fast and valuable merchant ships and diverted appreciable naval and
The Supply of Malta, January 1941 to August 1942
|Date of arrival||Convoy or Ship||Started||Arrived||Sunk at Sea (T Torpedo bombing; B Bombs)||Cargo unloaded in thousands of tons|
|10 Jan.||During Op. ‘Excess’||3||3||–|
|10 May||During Op. ‘Tiger’||7||7||—||40†|
|21 July||Op. ‘Substance’||6||6||—||40†|
|19 Sept.||Empire Guillemot||1||1||—||6†|
|24 Sept.||Op. HALBERD||g||8||1 (T)||50|
Empire Pelican, Empire Defender
|18 Jan.||MF3||4||3||1 (B)||21|
|15 June||Op. HARPOON||6||2||4 (B & T)||15|
|( June)||Op. VIGOROUS||11||—||2 (B)||0|
|14 Aug.||Op. PEDESTAL||14||5||9 (B, T & MTB)||47|
During this period there were also 31 supply trips by submarine.
* One ship from Convoy ‘Excess’ seriously damaged and three ships from Convoy MG1 sunk by bombing after arrival.
† Approximate tonnage
air forces to their defence. Moreover, many other operations had to be staged, in the desert as well as at sea, to help to sustain Malta and enable it to make its vital contribution to the campaign in the Middle East. Among these operations, the most important had been the air ferrying from Gibraltar which had made heavy demands on the aircraft carriers. Between August 1940 and the last of this type of operation at the end of August 1942, 670 Hurricanes and Spitfires were flown in to Malta from the decks of carriers in the Western Mediterranean in nineteen separate operations.
After PEDESTAL Malta had still several months of extreme hardship and anxiety to endure before the long ordeal was over. Of the 47,000 tons unloaded from the convoy, 15,000 were black and white oils and 32,000 general supplies. On these the island could hold out until early December, but on rations so meagre that the health of the people was bound to suffer. In August the fortnightly individual sugar ration stood at 14 oz., fats at 7 oz., and corned beef at 14 oz.. Early in September the daily ration of bread for men between 16 and 60 years was raised to 14 oz., while the normal remained at to+ oz. At this time the daily calorific value of the diet, including the meal from the Victory Kitchens, was 1,690 for adult male workers and 1,500 for women and children. A properly balanced diet of 1,500 calories will support life for some months but only at the cost of rapid loss of weight and physical powers. The pre-war figure for Maltese not engaged in manual labour was assessed at 2,500; manual workers had eaten substantially more. (In the United Kingdom the calorific value of the available daily ration did not fall below 2,800 throughout the war.) In August it was at length decided to begin the slaughter of Malta’s livestock on a large scale. This would make it unnecessary to import fodder and would free grazing and fodder-growing land for producing food for human consumption; the fresh meat thus provided was bought by the Government for the Victory Kitchens.
Stocks of aviation spirit were still too low to permit the build-up of much larger air striking forces at Malta. Supply by submarine or by the Welshman, which was being fitted to carry this dangerous cargo, was intended to ensure that at all events the fighters would have enough. The wastage of fighters had to be made good and on 17th August a further 29 Spitfires were flown in from HMS Furious.
The retreat on land and the move of the Fleet from Alexandria greatly increased the distances which the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force had to cover in attacking Axis shipping. Benghazi could be reached with worth-while bombloads only by Liberators, and even Tobruk, which was now being used by the enemy for his smaller supply ships, was farther from British bases than Benghazi had been
before the retreat. Moreover, in June and again in August nearly all the submarines had been diverted from their anti-shipping patrols to
take part in convoy operations; others had been employed in supplying Malta. After the loss of the Medway it was decided to base the 1st Submarine Flotilla on Beirut, where there had previously been a French submarine base. At the end of July the Commanders-in-Chief asked for more submarines for the Central and Eastern Mediterranean, and during August and September these arrived, many of them from the 8th Flotilla at Gibraltar. A request for more destroyers from which to build up again a surface striking force at Malta could not be met, owing to the general shortage. Although the enemy was routeing many of his ships via Greece and Crete direct to Derna and Tobruk, the Fleet Air Arm Albacores could not reach even the Crete-Tobruk traffic. Not to be denied, the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force together devised a plan to refuel Albacores behind the enemy’s lines far to the west of the main battle area. On 9th/10th July six Bombays from No. 216 Squadron carried 1,500 gallons of petrol and 60 gallons of oil to a landing-ground near Fort Maddalena from where, after refuelling, ten Albacores of No. 826 Squadron took off to attack a convoy to the south-west of Crete. That no enemy ships were sunk was certainly not due to any lack of enterprise. It was in July also that a Beaufort’s crew, which had been made prisoner after a forced landing, overpowered the Italian crew of the seaplane in which they were being flown to Italy and brought it safely to Malta where it was later used in the British service.
From June to September Malta’s aircraft and those of No. 201 Group operating from Egypt flew close on 1,000 sorties in searching for enemy shipping; and more than 3,300 were flown on anti-shipping strikes. Taken all in all, August was the most profitable month of the four, and a few typical exploits may be mentioned to enliven the bare figures given in the following tables. On the 17th the Rosolino Pilo, of 8,326 tons, when thirty-five miles off Lampedusa, blew up and sank as a result of the combined action of six Beauforts of No. 86 Squadron and submarine P.44. On the 27th Beauforts of No. 39 Squadron and Beaufighters of No. 227 Squadron (some carrying bombs) attacked the Istria of 5,400 tons, which also blew up and sank. These same squadrons sank the Sanandrea, a tanker of 5,077 tons, on the 30th. One of the most successful submarine patrols of this period was that of HMS Porpoise. She sank the Ogaden, of 4553 tons, on the 12th August, and, four days later, damaged the Lerici, of 6,070 tons, so severely that she had to be sunk by her escort; on the 22nd the Italian torpedo boat Cantore blew up on one of the mines laid by Porpoise in the Gulf of Sollum at the commencement of her patrol. Earlier in the month, on the 7th, Porpoise had sunk the German merchant vessel Wachtfels, of 8,467 tons, ten miles north-west of Milos Island in the Aegean.
Number and tonnage of Italian and German merchant ships of over 500 tons sunk at sea or in port in the Mediterranean, June–September 1942
(Compiled from Italian post-war and German war records)
|Month||By surface ships||By submarine||By aircraft||By mine||By combined Naval and Air action||Total|
Over the same period 17 vessels of less than 500 tons, totalling some 2,500 tons, were also sunk.
The tonnage of general military cargoes and fuel unloaded in North Africa over the same period, and the percentage lost on the way, are shown in the table following:
Cargoes disembarked in North Africa and Percentage lost on passage
(From figures given by the Italian Official Naval Historian)*
|Month 1942||Type||Cargo disembarked in North Africa (tons)||Percentage lost on the way|
|June||General Military Cargo||26,759||23|
|July||General Military Cargo||67,590||6|
|August||General Military Cargo||29,155||25|
|Sept.||General Military Cargo||46,165||20|
* M. A. Bragadin: Che ha fatto la Marina?
As usual Allied submarines found many things to do on patrol besides attacking shipping. Coastal railways in Sicily and southern Italy were a favourite target. Gunfire could be used against the trains themselves, and guns or raiding parties could destroy bridges. Mine-laying submarines were busy along the North African coast and in the channels between Greek islands. To lessen the weight of enemy air attack from Crete during operation VIGOROUS, British and French parties had been landed from two Greek submarines to raid airfields and succeeded in destroying several aircraft and some bombs and petrol. A similar attempt was made from the submarine Una to raid Catania airfield on the night of the 11th/12th August, before the arrival of the PEDESTAL convoy, but it was unsuccessful. Two British submarines were lost during the four months covered by this chapter. On 11th August HMS Thorn was sunk to the south-west of Crete by two Italian torpedo boats. During September HMS Talisman was lost on passage from Gibraltar to Malta—probably early on the 17th when the Italians claimed that a torpedo boat had sunk a submarine off the Tunisian coast.
Surface warships of the Mediterranean Fleet made frequent anti-shipping sweeps along the coast during August and September but without success. Bombardments in the El Daba area were carried out on 29th August and 14th September. (A raid on Tobruk on 13th September is described in Volume IV.) In the second half of August transport and protection for a further movement of about 12,000 troops in and out of Cyprus had to be provided; the transport Princess Marguerite was sunk by a German U-boat, but the casualties were fortunately light.
The ships of the 15th Cruiser Squadron had taken the opportunity during these two months for a quick docking at Massawa where a floating dock was now working. On 12th September their commander, Sir Philip Vian, had been succeeded by Rear-Admiral A. J. Power, and next day Rear-Admiral I. G. Glennie was succeeded in command of the Mediterranean destroyer flotillas by Commodore P. Todd. Towards the end of the month Commodore J. G. L. Dundas replaced Rear-Admiral J. H. Edelsten as Chief of Staff.
During the period covered by this chapter the enemy lost ten submarines. On 2nd June U.652 was sunk by aircraft north of Sollum. The Veniero was sunk on 7th June and the Zaffiro on the 9th, both to the south of Majorca and both by aircraft from Gibraltar—the first by a Sunderland and the second by a Catalina. On 9th July another Italian, the Perla, surrendered after depth charge attacks to the corvette Hyacinth which towed her proudly into Beirut. The Perla was one of the four Italian submarines in the Red Sea in the spring of 1941 which had made a successful passage from Massawa to Bordeaux. She was now taken into British service and later lent to the Greek
Navy. Two days after the capture of the Perla, South African antisubmarine whalers helped by a Walrus aircraft destroyed the Ondina, and on 4th August another combined effort, this time between destroyers and aircraft off Haifa, sank the U.372 which just five weeks earlier had sunk HMS Medway. In the same area, on 10th August, the trawler Islay sank the Scire, the Italian submarine which had long been used for the transport of human torpedoes and was notable for the successful attacks on the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. Next came the destruction of the Cobalto and Dagabur during operation PEDESTAL, and finally the Albastro was sunk by a Sunderland flying boat on 14th September off Algiers.
Down in the Gulf of Aden, enemy submarines, presumably Japanese, had made their appearance again in September, but had sunk only two ships. At the opposite extreme, just outside the limits of Admiral Harwood’s command, the Italian ‘Sea Devils’ had been making trouble again at Gibraltar. On 14th July explosions occurred in three British merchant ships in the commercial anchorage, and on 15th September, in spite of a further tightening of precautions against this form of attack, the British Ravenspoint was damaged and settled on the bottom in thirty feet of water. These attacks were suspected, correctly, to be the work of divers wearing a form of shallow-water diving dress who fixed small explosive charges, known as limpets, to the hulls of their targets. It is now known that the Italians used an interned merchant ship, the Folgore, at Cadiz as the secret base for their work against Gibraltar. Before making these two attacks, they had rented a villa on the seashore near La Linea in Spanish territory at the head of Gibraltar Bay, and had adapted to their purpose another interned Italian merchant ship, the Olterra, which was moored off Algeciras.
Although this chapter has run concurrently with the critical period of the fighting in the Desert, it has been devoted almost exclusively to the story of three Malta convoys. It is therefore appropriate to recall that the supply of Malta was only an episode—although a most important one—in the long struggle to keep the rival forces in North Africa supplied.
The problems facing the two sides in this struggle were totally different. On the Axis side, the sea passage across the Mediterranean was at most 600 miles. This gave the Axis Powers the chance to send over any urgent requirements at short notice, and on occasion they did so with great effect. The whole length of the route, however, was in danger of attack by British submarines, aircraft, and surface warships, and, as has been seen, the Italian and German losses were considerable. When Italy entered the war her merchant fleet was at once reduced by more than one-third through the loss by internment of
those of her ships then outside the Mediterranean.16 By September 1942 she had lost about half the remainder, and with them much of the flexibility which the short sea passage to Africa conferred upon her.17
The problem confronting the British was on a much larger scale, partly because their forces in the Middle East had to be self-dependent, and therefore much bigger, and partly because the distances were so vast. Almost every man and thing had to be brought across the oceans, from Australasia, India, or South Africa, but mostly from the United Kingdom or North America round the Cape—a distance of some 14,000 miles. Yet if this route was long, and subject to tedious delays, it proved at least to be sure. Indeed, in the ‘WS’ series of military convoys (UK to Suez), which carried nearly all the men, only one ship was lost on passage.18 Among the numerous cargo ships plying to the Middle East, the losses, though not negligible, amounted to no more than three per cent of the cargoes embarked. According to the Italian Official Naval Historian the comparable figure for Axis losses in supplying North Africa between June 1940 and May 1943 was over sixteen per cent.19