|'If anyone wishes to know the history of this War, I will tell them it is our maritime superiority gives me the power of maintaining my army, while the enemy are unable to do so'.|
|Duke of Wellington to Rear-Admiral T. Byam Martin. (Quoted by the latter in his Report of Proceedings to Lord Keith dated 21st September 1803. Letters and Papers of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Thomas Byam Martin. Vol. II, page 409. Navy Records Society.)|
The failure of the June attempt to revictual Malta on a large scale from both ends of the Mediterranean was followed by reinforcement of the island's fighter defences by numerous ferry operations from the west. These were highly successful, and set the final seal on the substantial defeat suffered by the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica over Malta in the middle of May.1 Meanwhile emergency measures to run in essential supplies such as aviation spirit, anti-aircraft ammunition and torpedoes by submarines and by exceptionally fast surface ships were continued. These sufficed to keep the defences in action, but did little to ease the ever-tightening siege conditions which had to be imposed on the Maltese people. Another attempt to pass in a surface-ship convoy had to be made in August, and the British Cabinet decided that this requirement should take priority over the many other demands now arising in all the waters for which the Royal Navy was responsible, from the Arctic to the Far East.
The losses suffered for the slight relief gained by the June convoy had in no way weakened the British Government's determination that Malta should not fall. Mr. Churchill told the Admiralty that 'the fate of the island was at stake', and that he must be able to tell the Government that 'the Navy would never abandon Malta'. The First Lord and First Sea Lord fully shared Mr. Churchill's view that 'the loss [of Malta] would be a disaster of [the] first magnitude to the
British Empire, and probably [would be] fatal in the long run to the defence of the Nile Valley'2; and they were equally determined to accept the inevitably heavy risks in order to achieve a success 'worthy of the effort'. The new attempt was to be made from the west, and great strength was to be provided to fight the convoy through. This was made easier by the suspension of the Arctic convoys after the disaster to PQ 17 in July3, since a large part of the Home Fleet could thus take part.
The plan was basically the same as that which had governed the June convoy4, except that this time only a 'diversionary convoy' was sailed from Egypt. Indeed geographical conditions in the Mediterranean made it difficult to vary from a stereotyped plan in these operations. Until the strategic situation in Africa had once more moved in our favour, all we could do was to ring the changes on the various deceptive ruses which could be employed, conceal our actual intentions up to the last possible moment, and provide enough force to counter all the different threats which the enemy could so easily exert from his excellently placed air and naval bases in Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy and Tripolitania.
The chief change made for the August convoy, which was called operation 'PEDESTAL', was the increase in carrier-borne air strength by the inclusion of the Victorious (flagship of Rear-Admiral A. L. St. G. Lyster), Indomitable and Eagle. Between them they could put up seventy-two fighters. While the plans were being discussed the Chief of the Air Staff raised the need once again to reinforce Malta's fighter defences. There were, so he told Admiral Pound at the end of July, eighty effective Spitfires there; but losses were being incurred at the high rate of seventeen a week. The First Sea Lord at once agreed to make the Furious available for another ferry trip, and the plans were altered to include flying off thirty-eight more Spitfires from the carrier to Malta. In addition the only two ships of the June convoy which had got through safely were to be brought out from the besieged island during the operation.
The forces taking part were all to be commanded by Vice-Admiral E. N. Syfret, who had, in addition to the three carriers already mentioned, the battleships Nelson and Rodney, six cruisers, one anti-aircraft cruiser and two dozen destroyers. A proportion of his strength, namely the cruisers Nigeria, Kenya and Manchester, the anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo, and half the total of destroyers were to go right through to Malta under Rear-Admiral H. M. Burrough, who had already gained experience of the Malta run in 1941.5 Provision
was made for two oilers, with their own escort of four corvettes, to enter the Mediterranean with the main force, and then wait near the convoy route to refuel the escorts at need. Eight more destroyers were detailed to look after the Furious, and then to strengthen Admiral Syfret's main body while it was cruising to the west of 'the Narrows' between Sicily and Tunisia to await the return of Admiral Burrough's ships from Malta.6 Finally, among the warships taking part were eight submarines. Some were ordered to patrol off the Italian bases, while others were to form a screen in 'the Narrows' to the north of the convoy route, where they might be able to intercept enemy surface forces coming south to attack the convoy at that critical stage in its passage.
It will be seen how thoroughly the lessons of previous Malta convoys, and in particular those of the June attempt, were applied on this occasion. In particular Admiral Burrough's cruisers and the submarines would prevent the interference of the surface forces which had contributed a good deal to the last convoy's difficulties; and the Malta-based mine-sweepers, which had gone through in June, were to sweep channels and to take the merchantmen into the Grand Harbour, thus avoiding losses from mines such as had been suffered right at the end of the preceding convoy's journey.7 So determined was the War Cabinet that the Italian Fleet should not be allowed this time to interfere that they even discussed sending the battleships and carriers right through with the convoy.
Admiral Syfret and the main body of the escort met the convoy off the Clyde on the 3rd of August. The fourteen merchantmen, including two American ships and the tanker Ohio, were called convoy WS 21S. The Commodore of the convoy was Commander A. G. Venables, R.N. (Retired), in the Port Chalmers. All forces passed Gibraltar in dense fog in the small hours of the 10th. That same day Admiral Harwood sailed the dummy convoy already mentioned from Port Said, escorted by Admiral Vian's cruisers and destroyers. Next day they all turned back to the east, greatly to the disappointment of the merchantmen, who had been expecting to go on to Malta. Admiral Vian then went off to keep the enemy still more busy and guessing by bombarding Rhodes early on the 13th, and that was the end of the part played in the main operation 'PEDESTAL' by the Mediterranean Fleet.
It was the afternoon of the 10th before the enemy received definite warning of the big movement taking place in the west. Early next morning his aircraft gained touch and thereafter they shadowed the convoy more or less continuously, in spite of the attention devoted to them by the carrier-borne fighters. The Furious started to fly off
her Spitfires when 550 miles from Malta on the afternoon of the 11th, but at 1:15 p.m. the Eagle was struck by four torpedoes fired by U-73 which had successfully penetrated the screen.8 The faithful old carrier, which had made no less than nine aircraft ferry trips and had despatched 183 Spitfires to Malta in 1942, sank in eight minutes. If we had to lose her it was appropriate that her grave should be in the Mediterranean, whose waters she had known so well. Happily the destroyers rescued about 900 of her company of 1160, including Captain L. D. Mackintosh. That evening the Furious, her task completed, turned back for Gibraltar with a special destroyer screen. One of the latter, the Wolverine, rammed and sank the Italian submarine Dagabur on the way.
Late that evening, the 11th, the first air attacks on the main forces took place. About three dozen German bombers and torpedo-bombers came out of the dusk. Though they escaped our fighters in the failing light they scored no hits at all, and the escorts' guns destroyed several of their number.9 Next morning air attacks were renewed, but this time the carrier fighters intercepted at a good distance from the convoy, and few enemies got past them. Again no damage was done. These attacks were, however, only a preliminary tuning up by the Luftwaffe and its allies. Their big effort, made from the Sardinian airfields, started at noon, and was intended to be a combined attack by a total of some eighty torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers and fighter-bombers, using every conceivable air-borne weapon and one (called a 'motobomba', apparently a new sort of aerial torpedo) which we had not met before. Perfect timing was not achieved, but the enemy plan was in general carried out. The attacks lasted from 12:15 to 1:45 p.m.10 Though the Victorious had a narrow escape when a heavy bomb hit, but broke up on her armoured flight deck, the only ship seriously damaged was a merchantman, the Deucalion. She had to leave the convoy, and was finally destroyed by the enemy that evening close in to the Tunisian coast. The carrier fighters and ships' gunners did splendidly to defeat these skillfully made attacks.
That afternoon the convoy passed through the main enemy submarine concentration. There were innumerable contacts and attacks, and after several destroyers had hunted one contact the Italian submarine Cobalto came to the surface, and was rammed and sunk by the Ithuriel. Many torpedoes were fired at our ships but, thanks to the vigilance of the escort and the precision with which the merchantmen carried out numerous emergency turns, none found their
Map 30. Convoy To Malta. Operation 'PEDESTAL', 11th - 13th August 1942.
mark. At 6:35 p.m. air attacks were renewed in a dangerous synchronised effort by torpedo and dive-bombers. The destroyer Foresight was hit by a torpedo and disabled. She had to be sunk later by our own forces. A worse blow was that the Indomitable suffered three heavy bomb hits, which put her flight deck out of action; her aircraft had to land on the Victorious, now the only effective carrier remaining. It will be an appropriate moment to summarise the ship-borne fighters' achievement. Since the loss of the Eagle about sixty fighters had remained to Admiral Syfret, and by the evening of the 12th thirteen had been lost. Though it has even now proved very difficult to estimate accurately the losses inflicted by them on the enemy it appears that they and the ships' guns between them destroyed about thirty of all types during the entire operation.
The convoy had nearly reached the Skerki Channel by the time the evening air attacks were over, and Admiral Syfret hauled round to the west at 7 p.m.11 Admiral Burrough now took charge of the convoy. At 8 p.m. his flagship, the Nigeria, and the Cairo were both hit by torpedoes, fired we now know by the Italian submarine Axum. The Admiral transferred his flag to the destroyer Ashanti, and the Nigeria headed back for Gibraltar; but the Cairo had to be sunk. The tanker Ohio was hit at the same time, but remained with the convoy. The attacks took place just when the convoy was changing its formation from four columns into two, to pass through the Skerki Channel. This manoeuvre, and the subsequent alterations of course away from the submarine danger, caused the ships temporarily to lose their disciplined formation, and to become bunched up. At this dangerous moment enemy aircraft attacked out of the dusk. The two fighter-direction ships (the Nigeria and Cairo) had gone, the long-range fighters from Malta had just returned home, and the ships were thus caught at a grave disadvantage. Two merchantmen (the Empire Hope and Clan Ferguson) were lost. The Brisbane Star was also hit, but eventually reached Malta. Next the cruiser Kenya was hit by a torpedo fired by the Italian submarine Alagi. Luckily she was not seriously damaged and was able to carry on with the convoy.
After this setback the scattered ships gradually struggled back into formation, with the minesweeping destroyers ahead and the surviving cruisers and merchantmen following; but the latter had become somewhat strung out. Admiral Syfret had sent the Charybdis and two destroyers to replace the lost and damaged ships, but the reinforcements had not yet joined Admiral Burrough's force. The main body rounded Cape Bon at midnight, and turned south, keeping close to the Tunisian Coast.12 Soon afterwards our ships became aware that enemy E-boats (motor torpedo-boats) were on
the prowl. At 1:20 a.m. on the 13th the Manchester was hit by a torpedo fired at very close range by one of them, and was brought to a standstill with all her four propellor shafts temporarily out of action and three of the four permanently disabled. The destroyer Pathfinder took off some of her crew. When he learnt of the Manchester's predicament Admiral Burrough sent back two more destroyers, but they did not arrive in time to help save the ship. Meanwhile the Captain of the Manchester was faced with a very difficult situation. In July 1941 he had got the same ship back to Gibraltar on only one shaft after being hit by torpedo in an earlier Malta convoy13; but he thought it would prove far more difficult to extricate her from her present situation. By 5 a.m. the Manchester had not yet been able to move, and her Captain therefore ordered the ship to be sunk, and the crew to make their way to the Tunisian coast. The majority of them were there interned by the French until after the invasion of North Africa in the following November.14
The Manchester was not the only ship to suffer at this time. Five of the merchantmen which were following some distance behind the main body were also hit, and four of them (the Wairangi, the Almeria Lykes (U.S.), the Santa Elisa (U.S.) and probably the Glenorchy) were sunk between 3:15 and 4:30 a.m. There is little doubt that this succession of disasters was mainly caused by the loss of cohesion brought about by the cleverly organised and well executed enemy attacks of the previous evening. But the circumstances were singularly favourable to motor torpedo-boat attack, and it seems unlikely that, even had the convoy been able to maintain proper formation, its large ships could all have been successfully defended in such constricted waters on a dark night. But it was a cruel blow suddenly to suffer such heavy casualties, after the convoy had come so far with such success.
Soon after daylight on the 13th German bombers reappeared. The Waimarama was hit and blew up, and other ships had narrow escapes. The Ohio, already damaged, was crashed into by an enemy aircraft which had just released its bomb. Beaufighters and long-range Spitfires from Malta were now patrolling overhead; but still more damage was to be suffered. At 10:50 the Ohio was disabled, the Rochester Castle set on fire and the Dorset hit and stopped. Destroyers went back to look after the cripples, while the survivors, now only three strong, struggled on to the east. Soon they came within reach of the short-range Malta Spitfires, whose protecting wings held off subsequent attacks. At 2:30 p.m. the Malta minesweepers and motor-launches
met the main convoy. It consisted only of the Port Chalmers, the Melbourne Star and the damaged Rochester Castle. They entered Grand Harbour two hours later. Three damaged ships the Dorset, Ohio and Brisbane Star were still astern, and a great effort was being made to get them in. The Ohio and the Dorset were hit yet again in dusk attacks, and the latter sank. The destroyer Penn and the minesweepers Rye and Ledbury, supported by the splendid determination of the Master and crew of the Ohio, towed in turn and fought off air attacks from about 11 a.m. on the 13th until the morning of the 15th. Their efforts were finally crowned with success, when the grievously wounded, almost unmanageable but still indomitable Ohio entered harbour. The fuel which she carried enabled air strikes to be restarted from Malta just when Rommel was preparing for the offensive intended to drive the Allies finally out of Egypt. The enemy's shipping losses to air attacks at once increased15, and the offensive had to be postponed because of shortage of supplies. The Ohio's Master, Captain D. W. Mason, was awarded the George Cross. The Brisbane Star survived the unhelpful attentions of French boarding officers during her unpremeditated stay in Tunisian waters, and reached Malta safely shortly before the Ohio. Thus did five ships out of fourteen reach their destination, and two of them were so much damaged that they very nearly sank. Admiral Syfret said in his report that he and all officers and men of the Royal Navy who saw 'the steadfast manner in which [the merchantmen] pressed on their way to Malta through all attacks . . . will desire to give first place to the conduct, courage and determination of their Masters, officers and men'. In addition to the nine merchant ships lost, the Eagle, Manchester, Cairo and Foresight had. gone to swell the long tale of warships sunk in the many attempts to supply Malta; and the Indomitable, Nigeria and Kenya had all been damaged.
The only form of attack not made on the convoy was by enemy surface ships. Yet cruisers and destroyers from Cagliari, Messina and Naples had put to sea on the 11th and 12th.16 The R.A.F. in Malta conducted a skilful and convincing bluff, to deceive them into the belief that strong air striking forces were on the way to deal with them. No enemy surface ships actually ventured south of Sicily, and the submarine Unbroken (Lieutenant A. C. G. Mars) scored a success on the 13th by hitting both the heavy cruiser Bolzano and the light cruiser Muzio Attendolo with torpedoes.17 The former was taken to Spezia for repairs and fell into German hands at the Italian surrender. In June 1944 she was finally destroyed in that harbour by one of the
two British 'human torpedo' crews carried to Spezia in an Italian M.T.B.18
By the 22nd of August 32,000 tons of cargo had been unloaded from the five surviving ships of the convoy, and removed to comparative safety. This duty, which chiefly fell to the soldiers of the Malta garrison, was called operation 'Ceres'. Unhappily the goddess of harvest had not proved nearly as bountiful as had been hoped, and it was a sadly dwindled cornucopia which she emptied into Malta's hungry storehouses. The enemy made no attempt to interfere with the unloading. Thus ended what was to prove the last of the many major operations undertaken to save Malta. The First Sea Lord summed up the results in a letter to Admiral Cunningham. 'We paid a heavy price' he wrote, 'but personally I think we got out of it lightly considering the risks we had to run, and the tremendous concentration of everything . . . which we had to face'. Taken together, the Malta convoys of 1941-42 succeeded in their purpose; for the island held out, as it certainly could not have done without them. Yet the cost had been very heavy, especially to the British maritime services, and to the people of Malta. If ever in the centuries to come students should seek an example of the costliness in war of failure by a maritime nation properly to defend its overseas bases in time of peace, surely the story of Malta's ordeal in 1941-42 will provide the classic case.
It remains to mention that, on the 17th of August, just after the completion of operation 'PEDESTAL', the Furious flew another batch of Spitfires to Malta. All but three of the thirty-two arrived safely. The carrier and her escort were safely back at Gibraltar on the 19th.
While Operation 'PEDESTAL' was in progress in the west, three more submarines (the Otus, Rorqual and Clyde) carried urgently needed ammunition, torpedoes and aviation spirit to Malta. Fuel for the Spitfires had become the island's most urgent need, and it could only be taken there by submarines. There was too small a chance of survival to send a surface ship loaded with such a cargo, until the Army had regained possession of the advanced airfields in Libya. The supply trips by submarines had therefore to be continued in September and October.
The early days of August brought two successes to our antisubmarine forces. On the 4th U-372, which had sunk the Medway in June19, was herself destroyed off the coast of Palestine after a combined hunt by a radar-fitted Wellington and several destroyers. This reduced the number of German U-boats in the Mediterranean to fifteen. Six days later the Italian submarine Scire was sunk by the trawler Islay in the approaches to Haifa. There were indications
that both these enemies had intended to attack our shipping in Haifa, or the valuable oil installations near that base; but the Levant escort forces, which now included one all-Greek and one all - Free-French group of ships, had proved too alert. The First Submarine Flotilla's new base at Beirut was now in working order; but the flotilla's strength was low, and the need to make storing trips to Malta reduced its capacity for offensive patrols. The surface forces remaining to Admiral Harwood were still divided between Haifa and Port Said, but a few Hunt-class destroyers and an M.T.B. flotilla had returned to Alexandria. On the 8th of August the Commander-in-Chief and his operation staff moved back to that base from the Canal Zone. The opportunity afforded by this comparatively quiet period in the eastern Mediterranean was used to dock the ships of the 15th Cruiser Squadron at Massawa in Eritrea. The Italian floating dock there had been raised after scuttling, and was now put to our own use. Once again the value of our control of the Suez Canal and of the rearward bases, at a time of acute difficulty inside the Mediterranean, is to be remarked.20
Early in August the Commanders-in-Chief, Middle East, considered ways and means of relieving the pressure on the Army, and forcing Rommel to divert a proportion of his strength from the front near El Alamein. General Auchinleck had signalled from his headquarters in the desert that he considered 'any and every means' of accomplishing that purpose was justified. It was indeed a most anxious period for the Army. The plans discussed in Cairo included an attack from the sea on Tobruk, then some way behind the German lines. On the 13th of August General Montgomery assumed command of the Eighth Army, and two days later General Alexander replaced General Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. On the 21st the three Commanders-in-Chief approved the plan finally presented to them. It is therefore plain that the genesis of operation 'Agreement' was an urgent request for help from the Army, that the intentions remained unaltered after the changes in command had taken place, and that the plan was accepted by all three services. Copies of the plan were certainly sent to the Eighth Army Commander, and although he was critical of the operation after it had failed, he does not appear to have expressed any disagreement with it while it was in process of preparation. Admiral Harwood described it later as 'a desperate gamble', which could only be justified by the perilous situation prevailing on land at the time.
The planning and preparation were not completed until early in September. The assault on Tobruk from the sea was to be synchronised with a sudden lunge by a mobile land column from the desert.
On the 13th the Sikh (Captain St. J. A. Micklethwait) and Zulu, with 350 marines embarked, sailed from Alexandria to meet the antiaircraft cruiser Coventry and the Hunt-class destroyers of the 5th Flotilla at sea. Another force comprising eighteen M.T.Bs and three motor launches had left a day earlier with 150 troops on board. The intention was to land the marines on the north side of Tobruk harbour, while the troops carried by the coastal craft landed on the south side in support of the land column already mentioned. Having gained possession of the coast defences the destroyers were to enter the harbour 'covered by the enemy gun positions manned by us', destroy shipping and port facilities and then re-embark the marines and soldiers. A frontal assault on a heavily defended base with such very slender forces certainly now appears unduly hazardous. The results were disastrous. The Royal Air Force made heavy air attacks to cover the landings on the night of the 13th-14th of September and, as soon as it was known that the mobile column had gained possession of the gun positions to the south of the harbour, the landing of the marines was attempted. Only two of the twenty-one coastal craft got their troops ashore; and the assault craft from the destroyers never returned after landing, or trying to land, the first flight of marines. The Sikh moved close inshore to find the assault craft; at 5:30 a.m. on the 14th she was disabled by gunfire from the shore batteries. The Zulu tried to tow her to seaward, but the accurate enemy fire made it impossible. Captain Micklethwait therefore told the Zulu to leave him. The Sikh sank close inshore, and many of her crew as well as the surviving marines were made prisoners. At 9 a.m. the Coventry and the 'Hunts' were ordered west again to support the Zulu. The anti-aircraft ship was hit by a bomb, caught fire and had to be abandoned. At 4:15 p.m. the Zulu was hit by the last bomb dropped in the last attack, and sank after dark. Six of the coastal craft were also lost. When the report on this expensive failure reached London the Prime Minister, for all his admiration of offensive intentions, was gravely disturbed. Today one cannot but feel that, even making full allowance for the circumstances which caused it to be carried out, the operation was rash in conception, and that an assault from the sea on a strongly fortified port must require far stronger forces and far more specialised equipment and training than were available on this occasion. Coming so soon after the loss of three other valuable fleet destroyers in circumstances which some felt had been avoidable21, the operation aroused serious misgivings in London.
September 1942, which marked for the British people the start of the fourth year of the war, brought some easement of the acute anxieties which, particularly since July, had beset all three services
fighting in the Middle East. In the first place the Army held all the attacks made on their position at El Alamein. The continuous night air attacks, for which two naval Albacore squadrons (Nos. 821 and 826) were lent to the Royal Air Force, were, in the opinion of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder), 'one of the decisive factors' in holding Rommel's assaults; and he foretold that this accomplishment 'may well prove to be a turning point in the war in Africa'. While British eyes were focused chiefly on the Army's battle front at El Alamein, the Navy could only contribute by ensuring that the flow of men and supplies continued without interruption up the Red Sea, and that the Levant convoys came through with their precious cargoes of fuel. Early in the month enemy submarines had appeared in the Gulf of Aden, for the first time since the Italians had been eliminated in 1941.22 They were probably Japanese boats from Penang.23 They sank two ships, and anti-submarine reinforcements had to be sent south through the Canal. These sinkings, and attacks by German aircraft on the exposed anchorages at the head of the Red Sea, caused us some anxiety; but neither became seriously troublesome. In the Levant our surface escorts, which often had the benefit of co-operation from the Royal Air Force, took a steady toll of the U-boats. August had been a particularly successful month, especially against the Italian submarines, three more of which were sunk. On the 14th of September a Royal Air Force Sunderland from Gibraltar added the Alabastro to the score on the same day that, as a portent of happier times, the headquarters of No. 201 Naval Co-operation Group moved back to Alexandria. Our submarines meanwhile slowly increased in numbers, and steadily continued their pressure against the Axis supply lines to Africa. The 10th Flotilla was now able to keep about nine boats on patrol in the central basin; and its strength was still increasing. On the night of the 19th-20th of October five of them worked together against a valuable convoy, from which two ships and an escort were sunk. A few days later sustained attacks were made by R.A.F. Beauforts against another convoy of a tanker and two merchant ships making for Tobruk. The tanker was left ablaze. The month of October marked a climax in the relentless pressure exerted by all arms, but especially by our submarines and aircraft, against the enemy's supply line to Africa. Axis shipping losses rose steeply, and it is now known that Rommel was thereby deprived of precious fuel and supplies at a critical juncture.24
Then, at 10 p.m. on the 23rd of October, the Eighth Army launched its assault at El Alamein. In hopeful expectation the fleet
had for some time been preparing the staff, ships and equipment needed to re-open the Cyrenaican ports, and the Inshore Squadron (now commanded by Captain C. Wauchope) had been strengthened to prepare for its great task of keeping the advancing Army supplied. After the battle had been won General Montgomery signalled his gratitude 'for the valuable assistance afforded by the naval operations on D night', which, so he considered, 'had influence on our main objective'.
At Malta the fighters had defeated the renewed enemy air attacks, aimed especially at our own airfields. At the end of the month twenty-nine more Spitfires were flown off the Furious, all of which arrived safely. Thus, while the Navy kept our land forces supplied and, with the Royal Air Force, hammered at the enemy's sea communications, the Army launched itself with renewed vigour and determination in the offensive which was to drive Rommel finally out of Egypt, regain to us the Libyan airfields, and so restore our command of the central basin. On the night of the 4th-5th of November General Montgomery's men, after twelve days and nights of gruelling fighting, made a complete break in the Axis defences.
One serious anxiety remained inside the Mediterranean. Malta was desperately short of aviation fuel, food and ammunition. Though an attempt was made to get a disguised merchant ship through early in November, it failed. Once again the submarines and fast minelayers had to fill the breach. The Parthian, Clyde, Traveller and Thrasher all contributed, and the Welshman dashed in from Gibraltar with a vital cargo of concentrated food and torpedoes. Between them they saved the situation, and enabled Malta to play its part in operation 'TORCH'.
For the story of the protracted discussions between the British and American authorities regarding the opening of a new front in Europe or in Africa in 1942 the reader must be referred to other volumes of this series.25 Here it is only necessary to state that the final decision to invade French North Africa was taken at a meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff held in London on the 25th of July. Detailed planning by a joint British and American staff began forthwith in Norfolk House, London. On the 14th of August General Eisenhower was appointed Allied Commander-in-Chief, and Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham 'Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force' for operation 'TORCH', the first major Allied overseas offensive. The plans were approved by the American and British Chiefs of Staff on the 29th of September and the 2nd of October respectively, and the orders were issued on the 8th of October.
Map 31. The Mediterranean Theatre
Admiral Cunningham, whose connection with operation 'TORCH' had been kept a closely-guarded secret, sailed from Plymouth in the cruiser Scylla at the end of October, and arrived at Gibraltar on the 1st of November.26 There he hoisted his flag as Commander of the whole naval side of the immense undertaking. His deputy, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, whose name will always be connected with the Dunkirk evacuation of 194027, remained in London and acted as Admiral Cunningham's direct link with the home authorities. When General Eisenhower reached Gibraltar by air from England on the 5th of November, the preliminary movements from both sides of the Atlantic were in full swing.
On Admiral Cunningham's return to the Mediterranean, that theatre was divided into two commands. Admiral Harwood's responsibility was restricted to the waters east of a line drawn from Cape Bon in Africa to the island of Marittimo off Sicily and thence up the west coast of Italy28, while the 'TORCH' Commander took over the whole of the western Mediterranean, in addition to his responsibility for the safety, supply and support of all three landings. The Naval Staff insisted that there should be no possibility of confusion arising through divisions of responsibility, or vagueness regarding the chain of command. 'Only by placing the whole naval side of the entire undertaking under Admiral Cunningham', they said, 'can one force be speedily reinforced by another'. The consequences of divided command earlier in the war had not been forgotten.29
We are not concerned here with the detailed planning of this great expedition, nor with the fortunes of the British and American forces after they had been landed. It is, however, essential to describe how our maritime control was exploited to carry the armies and their multifarious equipment and supplies to their destinations, and how they were supported after the landings; and to enable the reader fully to understand that vital accomplishment it is necessary to give the Allied plan in outline.
There were to be three landings, at Algiers and Oran inside the Mediterranean, and at Casablanca on the Moroccan coast. About 70,000 assault troops were to be used to capture the three ports. The landing at Algiers by a mixed British and American force under American command was to be followed up by the British First Army; Oran was to be assaulted by American troops, who would be followed up by more of their own countrymen; while the Casablanca landing was planned in and executed from the United States, and was entirely carried out by American troops. At Algiers and Oran the naval
forces for escorting, and supporting the troops were British, and were commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Burrough (Eastern Task Force) and Commodore T. H. Troubridge (Central Task Force) respectively; at Casablanca they were composed entirely of the American ships of the Western Task Force, commanded by Rear-Admiral R. K. Hewitt, U.S.N. Responsibility for air support for the landings was divided between the Eastern Air Command under Air Marshal Sir William Welsh, with headquarters at Gibraltar, who looked after the assault on Algiers, and the Western Air Command under Major General Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Force, who was responsible for Oran and Casablanca.30
The Admiralty was, as was natural, anxious about possible repercussions in France and Spain. It would indeed have been rash to assume that the Germans would not take violent action in the unoccupied zone of France and in the Iberian Peninsula, as soon as they realised that we had invaded French Morocco and Algeria. We could not look to Vichy to resist the Germans, and the attitude of the Spanish Government if their country were invaded was doubtful. It was therefore essential both to watch the French Toulon fleet and to cover the expedition against interference from that base and from Dakar, where the Richelieu and several cruisers still lay. If the Germans invaded Spain, the safety of Gibraltar and our control of the Straits might ultimately be imperilled. It was estimated that, if Spain did not resist, the Germans could station three or four hundred aircraft in the south of that country within three months. The only possible counter to such a move would have been for us to enter Spanish Morocco.
The original date for the assaults had been the 30th of October. Various causes contributed to postponement, in mid-September, until the 4th of November, and on the 21St of September it was postponed until the 8th-principally because the U.S. Army could not be ready in time for the earlier date. Then, on the 26th of September, a Catalina crashed off the Spanish coast, and the body of an officer carrying a letter in which the date of the assault was given as the 4th of November, was washed ashore near Cadiz. The succeeding days were anxious, for it was realised that our plan might have been compromised. When, however, no signs of a leakage became apparent it was decided that the date of the assault should remain unaltered. Although it is known that on a later occasion information derived from such a source reached Germany31, no trace of this earlier incident has been found in enemy records. The high degree of success obtained from the strict secrecy in which the assembly and loading of the great convoys was shrouded, and from
our various deceptive ruses, is indicated by a German 'appreciation' dated as late as the 4th of November. In it their Naval Staff remarked that 'the relatively small number of landing craft, and the fact that only two passenger ships are in this assembly at Gibraltar, do not indicate any immediate landing in the Mediterranean area or on the north-west African coast'. There can be few more revealing examples of the German failure to realise the possibilities of what was earlier described as 'the use of maritime power suddenly to descend on widely separated parts of the enemy-held coastline'.32
The British warships needed for the operation, about 160 in all, could only be provided by removing a substantial part of the Home Fleet's strength, by stopping the Russian convoys, by reducing our Atlantic escort forces and by temporarily suspending the mercantile convoys running between Britain and the south Atlantic.33 Force H, under Vice-Admiral Sir Neville Syfret, which was to be specially reinforced from the Home Fleet, was responsible for covering the Algiers and Oran landings against the French and Italian fleets, while a small squadron of British cruisers and destroyers covered the American landing at Casablanca against the possibility of surface ship interference from the Atlantic. In addition to these a special fuelling force was organised to replenish ships inside the Mediterranean, and to save them from having to return to Gibraltar. It will easily be realised how complex a matter was the organisation of the numerous convoys and assault forces required to carry the invasion troops, and their great quantities of vehicles and supplies, to the one centrally placed base available until such time as the ports of entry had been captured-namely Gibraltar. It is no exaggeration to say that the rock fortress itself, its airfield, its dockyard, its storage and communication facilities and the anchorage available for the great assembly of ships in the adjacent Bay of Algeciras, formed the hub around which the wheel of the whole enterprise revolved.
The plan provided for sailing from Britain to Gibraltar in October a number of Advance Convoys (KX), in which were included the colliers, tankers, ammunition ships, tugs and auxiliary craft needed by the warships and the assault forces which would follow. Later in October and early in November four large Assault Convoys (KMF and KMS) sailed southward34, carrying the troops and landing craft for the initial landings. On approaching Gibraltar these were to divide into the sections destined for Algiers (KMF.A) and for Oran (KMF.O). Meanwhile the American Assault Convoy UGF 1 and its escort (together called Task Force 34) had started out from the United States on the long haul across the Atlantic to Casablanca,
and was followed by supply and reinforcement convoys (UGF and UGS). The slowest convoys had, of course, to be sailed the earliest, and this meant that the collection and loading of the necessary shipping had to be started long before the operation was launched. The organisation of the Advance and Assault convoys is shown in the table below.
Table 24. Operation 'TORCH', Advance and Assault Convoys NOTE: Suffix F and S in convoy designations, means Fast and Slow respectively.
Suffix A and B in convoy designations indicates division into two sections.
Suffix (A) and (0) in convoy designations means Algiers and Oran destinations.
I. BRITISH ADVANCE CONVOYS Convoy Composition
Remarks KX 1 5 ships
7-1/2 knots 2/10/42 Clyde 14/10/42 Included 3 colliers and an A/S Trawler Group. KX 2 18 ships
7 knots 18/10/42 Clyde 31/10/42 Included 5 Ammunition ships, 3 with cased aircraft, and 4 tankers. KX 3 1 ships
13 knots 19/10/42 Clyde 27/10/42 Personnel for Gibraltar only. KX 4A 20 ships
7-1/2 knots 21/10/42 Clyde 4/11/42 Included 3 Landing Ships Tank. KX 4B 8 ships
6-1/2 knots 25/10/42 Milford-Haven 3/11/42 Included tugs, trawlers, 4 fueling coasters and cased petrol ships. KX 5 32 ships
7 knots 30/10/42 Clyde 10/11/42 Included 15 Coasters, 3 tankers, 5 colliers and 7 cased petrol ships.
II. BRITISH ASSAULT CONVOYS
Remarks KMS(A) 1
8 knots 22/10/42 Loch Ewe and Clyde 5/11/42
Included 39 MT/Store ships. Algiers and Oran sections divide west of Gibraltar. KMS 2 52 ships
7 knots 25/10/42 Loch Ewe and Clyde 10/11/42 Included 46 MT/Store ships. KMF(A) 1
11-1/2 knots 26/10/42 Clyde 6/11/42
Included 2 H.Q. Ships and 31 L.S.Is. Algiers and Oran sections divide west of Gibraltar. KMF 2 18 ships
13 knots 1/11/42 Clyde 10/11/42 Included 13 Personnel ships for Oran and Algiers.
Subsequent to the above, KMF and KMS convoys both sailed at approximately 15 day intervals from Britain. KX convoys continued for a time at irregular intervals of between 15 and 35 days.
Map 32. Operation TORCH - Outward movements of assault and advance convoys
III. AMERICAN CONVOYS Convoy Composition Designation Date Due
Remarks UGF 1
Task Force 34 8/11/42 The main western invasion force. UGF 2 24 ships
Task Force 38 13/11/42 Entered Casablanca 18/11/42 UGS 2* 45 ships
Task Force 37
29 Miscellaneous ships and small craft Task Force 39 25/11/42
* No convoy UGS 1 was run.
Subsequent to the above, the UGF convoys of 15-20 ships (13 1/2 knots) and UGS convoys of about 45 ships (9 knots) both sailed from the U.S.A. at approximately 25 day intervals.
The British 'TORCH' convoys were operated by the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, in a similar manner to WS convoys, until such time as they entered the area of responsibility of the expeditionary force commander. The necessary air co-operation was arranged between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry. It included reconnaissance of enemy harbours, protection of the convoys against air and U-boat attacks, and strikes at any enemy surface ships which might intervene. The slow convoys were routed down the meridian of 18° West and so kept within range of No. 19 Group's normal patrols; but the fast convoys were kept further out in the Atlantic, along 26° West, and were thus out of range from British air bases for a large part of their journeys. Air escorts were therefore provided by carriers. The Biter sailed with KMF 1 and the Avenger with KMS 1.35
The possibility of a heavy U-boat concentration attacking the convoys was the cause of great anxiety to the Admiralty. The Naval Staff estimated that, if the enemy got wind of our intentions, fifty U-boats could be deployed against the expedition by the end of October, and another twenty-five by the 6th of November. The First Sea Lord told the Prime Minister that the U-boats 'might well prove exceedingly menacing' . . . to 'the most valuable convoys ever to leave these shores', and asked for more long-range aircraft for the Bay of Biscay patrols. All possible escort vessels, in all about a hundred, were allocated to the convoys, without regard to the risks accepted on other routes. It will be told later how it came to pass that the U-boat menace proved much smaller than was anticipated.
The arrival of the Assault Convoys at their destinations was, of
course, the beginning rather than the end of the responsibility of the Navy for supporting the other services and keeping them supplied. In our first volume it was explained that in a combined operation the maritime services' functions differ from those which they bear for normal mercantile convoys since, after the disembarkation of the troops, they have to remain to support and supply the Army, and to guard its seaward flank.36 Admiral Cunningham expressed this ancient requirement forcibly when, as soon as the initial assaults had succeeded, he told all his forces that 'Our task is not finished. We must assist the Allied armies to keep up the momentum of the assault'.
In the case of operation 'TORCH' not only was this essential, but a long series of Follow-up Convoys (KMF, KMS and KX) had to be taken out from Britain to Gibraltar or the newly captured ports, local Mediterranean Follow-up Convoys (TF and TE) had to be run from Gibraltar to the same destinations, and a series of local (ET, FT and CG) and ocean (MKF and MKS) homeward convoys had to be started to bring empty ships back again; and escorts had, of course, to be provided for every one of these commitments. The Americans did much the same with Follow-up Convoys from their own continent (UGF and UGS), and with their homeward counterparts to the United States (GUF and GUS).
The Eastern and Centre Naval Task Forces were, as has been said, responsible for the landings at Algiers and Oran respectively, and for providing the necessary cover and support. The two attacks were to take place simultaneously at 1 a.m. on the 8th of November, and the Task Force Commanders were ordered to mislead the enemy by acting as though they were carrying out a large operation for the relief of Malta. The composition of the naval forces involved in the whole operation is summarised in Table 25.37
The southward movement of the warships began on the 20th of October with the departure of the Furious and three destroyers from the Clyde. Three days later the Rodney and her escort left Scapa; on the 27th two carriers, two cruisers and four more destroyers left the Clyde.38 On the 30th they were followed by the main British support and covering forces of two battleships, one battle cruiser, two carriers, one cruiser and thirteen destroyers from Scapa and the Clyde. No. 15 Group of Coastal Command escorted all convoys and warship squadrons as far west as possible, while No. 19 Group reinforced its Bay offensive with loans of long-range aircraft from Bomber Command. Only one U-boat was sighted by the convoy air escorts and she, U-599, was sunk by a Liberator of No. 224 Squadron
on the 24th of October. Another, U-216, was destroyed by a Bay air patrol on the 20th. We now know that enemy aircraft and U-boats made several chance sightings of our various forces and convoys. The Rodney was reported by one U-boat (as an American battleship) on the 26th, the carrier force was sighted by a FockeWulf west of Finisterre on the 31st, and a convoy, which was probably KMS.2, was reported by another U-boat on the 2nd of November. Finally a large body of ships, which undoubtedly must have been the vital assault convoy KMF 1, was reported by yet other U-boats in 38° North 22° West on the 2nd and again in the small hours of the next morning, when it was steering east for Gibraltar.39 But in spite of all these reports of exceptionally heavy southward movements between the 26th of October and the 3rd of November the enemy did not guess what was in train.
Table 25. Operation 'TORCH" - Maritime Forces Engaged
Force H and fueling force
Centre Task Forces
Eastern Task Forces
Western Task Forces
(Admiral Hewitt, U.S.N.)
H.Q. Ships -- 1 1 -- Battleships and Battlecruisers 3 -- -- 3 Aircraft Carriers 3 1 1 1 Escort Carriers -- 1 1 4 Cruisers 3 3 3 7 Monitors -- 1 1 -- A.A. Ships -- 3 3 -- Destroyers 17 13 13 38 Cutters -- -- -- -- Fleet Minesweepers -- 7 7 8 Sloops -- 3 3 -- Corvettes 1 6 6 -- Trawlers (A/S-M/S) 4 8 8 -- Minelayers -- -- -- 3 Seaplane Tender -- -- -- 1 Motor Launches -- 8 8 -- Submarines -- 3 3 4 Landing Ships Infantry -- 11 11 -- Combat Loaders -- 4 4 23 Landing Ships Tank -- -- -- -- Landing Ships Gantry -- 2 2 -- Mechanical Transport and other ships -- 16 16 8 Tankers 2 -- -- 5
Ships which were to take part in the actual landings were allocated to the special 'Inshore Groups', from which the assaults were to be mounted. Each of these groups was given a particular beach on to
which its troops, tanks, guns and equipment were to be landed. Air support was to be provided in the first instance by the carriers; but special arrangements were made to seize shore airfields as quickly as possible, in certain cases with paratroops flown from Britain. As soon as that had been accomplished shore-based fighters were to be flown in from Gibraltar. Early fighter support was, of course, more important in the case of the Algiers landing than for the two more westerly ones, which were considerably further from German and Italian air bases.
The British maritime forces comprised in all about 340 ships, and each unit had to approach Gibraltar in the correct sequence and then pass on to the east, most of them between 7:30 p.m. on the 5th of November and 4 a.m. on the 7th. The ocean passages were made in almost complete safety, not least because the only U-boat group in the approaches to Gibraltar had been fortuitously attracted to a Sierra Leone convoy, which was passing east and north of the invasion fleet between the 27th and 30th of October.40 Though the merchantmen suffered severe losses, it was then that the three great troop and supply convoys KMS 1 and 2 and KMF 1, slipped through unscathed. The Commodore of SL 125 (Rear-Admiral C. N. Reyne, Ret'd.) later remarked to the author that it was the only time he had been congratulated for losing ships. One American 'Combat Loader', was torpedoed after entering the Mediterranean; but she ultimately reached harbour safely.41 Her assault troops showed such indomitable determination not to miss the landings that they set off in their landing craft when their parent ship was damaged, although they were about 200 miles from Algiers at the time. The troops were finally picked up by escort vessels, and landed on the day following the assault.
The success of the whole operation depended, after the ocean passages had been safely made, on exact timing of the arrival of each convoy, ship or group of ships at Gibraltar, on the efficiency of the fuelling arrangements in that base, and on the punctuality with which every unit set out again on its eastward journey. This was the responsibility of Vice-Admiral Sir F. Edward-Collins, the Flag Officer, North Atlantic Station, and his special assistant Commodore G. N. Oliver.
As darkness descended on the Rock on the evening of the 5th of November the invasion fleet approached the Straits.
No waters in all the wide oceans of the world, not even those which wash the shores of Britain herself, have played a greater part in her history, or seen more of her maritime renown than these, where the rolling waves of the Atlantic approach the constricting passage of
Convoy to Malta. Operation 'PEDESTAL', August 1942. Aircraft carriers Eagle (nearest camera), Victorious, Indomitable and cruisers of the escort. Convoy in the background. (See pp. 302-308).
Convoy to Malta. Operation 'PEDESTAL', H.M.S. Eagle sinking after being torpedoed by U-73, 11th August 1942. (See p. 304).
Convoy to Malta. Operation PEDESTAL, August 1942. H.M.S. Indomitable on fire after receiving three bomb hits. (See p. 305).
The merchant ship Dorset under heavy air attack in Malta Convoy, Operation 'PEDESTAL', 12th August 1942. She was disabled, and sunk in a later attack. (See p. 307).
The tanker Ohio hit by torpedo in Malta Convoy, Operation 'PEDESTAL', 12th August 1942. She finally reached Malta safely. (See pp. 306-307).
Merchantmen in Malta Convoy, Operation 'PEDESTAL', under heavy air attack. (See pp. 302-308).
the Pillars of Hercules. Here it was that in 1587 Sir Francis Drake raided Cadiz and 'singed the King of Spain's beard'; through these waters sailed the ships of Sir George Rooke to the capture of Gibraltar itself in 1704, those of Admiral Rodney which fought the Moonlight Battle and relieved the Rock in 1780, and Lord Howe's fleet which finally raised the three-year siege in 1782. Over there Boscawen led his battleships into Lagos Bay and, by destroying de la Clue's squadron, added one more laurel to those gathered all over the world by British seamen in 1759-the 'annus mirabilis'. It was here that on St. Valentine's day 1797 John Jervis, 'old heart of oak', to whom England owed so much in an earlier crisis which had shaken her maritime power to its foundations, gained the victory by which his name is still chiefly remembered-the victory which, as he said, was 'very essential to England at this moment'.
It was in these narrows that a young Captain Nelson, for once pursued instead of pursuing, backed his topsails in the face of a superior enemy to pick up his friend and Lieutenant, with the remark 'by God, I'll not lose Hardy'. Through these straits passed Nelson's ships which finally ran Brueys to ground in Aboukir Bay, and those which chased Villeneuve to the West Indies and back again; and it was here that, on a calm and misty morning in October 1805, he and Collingwood led their two lines of battleships down towards the widely-stretched crescent of the combined French and Spanish fleets. It was in that bay near Cape Trafalgar, on that same afternoon, that a dying admiral urged that his victorious but shattered ships should be anchored at once, to meet the storm he felt approaching from the Atlantic.
'Nobly, nobly Cape St. Vincent to the North-West died away;
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red reeking into Cadiz Bay;
Bluish mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay;
In the dimmest North-East distance dawned Gibraltar grand and grey;
'Here and here did England help me: how can I help England?' -say.42
For the last two years and more Cunningham's, Somerville's and Syfret's ships had passed and re-passed through these same waters, escorting supplies for Egypt or Malta, holding off a superior enemy and harassing his own sea communications; and, throughout the defensive phase, they had again and again at Taranto, Matapan, Sirte, Crete, Spartivento and in a hundred lesser fights, won fresh renown on the station where Nelson hoped for, and found, 'a bed of laurels'. It was they who had kept the torch burning, albeit sometimes dimly, through all the desperate days of 1940 and 1941. Now that same torch was to be fanned into full flame by the men of the troopships, landing craft, escort vessels and covering warships,
commanded once again by Cunningham and sailing through those same historic waters on Operation 'TORCH'. And, although none of them probably thought of the poet's rhetorical question, all of them now combined to answer it. For what they did marked the passing of the Defensive Phase.
At Gibraltar the programme was carried out without any serious hitches and, by daylight on the 7th of November, the Central and Eastern Task Forces, with the assault convoys and the covering warships of Force H, were all well inside the Mediterranean, steering towards the rendezvous at which their various components would assemble and from which they would, at their allotted times, steam inshore to the assault areas. The Task Force Commanders took over complete responsibility on passing the meridian of 3° West.
Meanwhile our submarines of the 10th (Malta) Flotilla were patrolling off Italian naval bases, while three of the 8th (Gibraltar) Flotilla waited off Toulon for any movement by the French fleet.43 Another British submarine, the Seraph, had already landed General Mark Clark west of Algiers with the object of getting into touch with the French military authorities. On the 6th of November the same submarine embarked General Giraud from a beach near Toulon, and transferred him to a Catalina which brought him to Gibraltar, while another, the Sibyl, collected his staff on the 7th and 8th. But these hazardous crepuscular undertakings actually had little influence on the launching and progress of operation 'TORCH'.
It will perhaps make it easier for the reader to understand the account which follows, if a brief digression is first made to explain the method of mounting such operations, as practised by the British services in 1942. One of the main lessons derived from the Dieppe raid was the need to create special naval assault forces under their own senior naval officers.44 These comprised the landing ships and craft required by a specific Army formation, at this time a Division; and the naval force commander, the military commander and a representative of the air command were jointly responsible for planning their operation and for carrying out the necessary training.
A Headquarters Ship, usually a converted passenger liner, was allocated to each assault force. The commanders and their staffs were embarked in these ships, and directed the assault from them. The final composition of the assault force depended, of course, on the plan to be carried out, and additional ships or craft might be added to meet special circumstances. There was not, and could not
Map 34. Operation TORCH - The Assault on Algiers
be, exact standardisation in operations of such infinite variability; but the principles outlined above applied to all of them.
The assault convoys were divided into fast and slow groups and one or more groups of major landing craft, each with its own escort. The Headquarters Ship and Landing Ships Infantry (L.S.Is.) would be in the fast group, which would overtake the slower groups, perhaps on the evening before the assault. The fast group, supported and covered by warships, would lead the assault. A submarine was usually stationed off the landing beach to serve as a navigational mark.45 After passing it the L.S.Is. would disperse to their 'lowering positions', about seven miles off shore. There they would stop or anchor, and lower the assault craft (L.C.As) with the first wave of troops embarked in them. These would then form up in flotillas, and move inshore so as to 'touch down' exactly at Zero Hour. The assault craft would then return to the ships to embark the subsequent waves of troops.
Map 33. Diagram Of Typical Amphibious Assault
It was the British practice generally to make the first assault by night, accepting the navigational risks involved in order to achieve surprise. There would probably be no preliminary bombardment, but small support ships might move close inshore just before the 'touch down' to give fire support.
If possible the L.S.Is would move closer inshore after the first wave had left, in order to speed up the arrival of later waves on the beaches. Meanwhile a small number of the most urgently needed vehicles would be landed in such craft as L.C.Ms (Landing Craft Mechanised).
After daylight the various groups carrying guns, tanks, vehicles and supplies of all kinds would be sent inshore. Landing Ships Tank (L.S.Ts) and Landing Craft Tank (L.C.Ts) were specially designed to disembark their loads direct on to the beaches. This called for considerable skill, judgement and training. Various devices were introduced later to make this difficult task easier and safer; in particular vehicles were water-proofed, so that they could negotiate shallow water under their own power.
Though favourable weather must always be a cardinal necessity in a combined operation, meticulously careful planning, accurate timing and thorough training were essential to success. The risks were always great, and success in the actual assault landing was by no means a guarantee of final success; for the Army remained highly vulnerable to counter-attack for some hours, even days, after the assault. The speed with which its strength was built up was therefore as important as the successful execution of the first landings.
Off Algiers the ninety-three warships and merchantmen in Admiral Burrough's Task Force passed through the successive rendezvous, at which they divided and then re-divided to arrive finally at the 'lowering positions' of the landing craft.46 The landings were to be made in three sectors, one to the east and two to the west of Algiers; and within each sector the assault units from various ships were allotted to different beaches. Three submarines marked the release positions of the landing craft, and specially trained pilots went inshore by boat to mark the several beaches in each sector.
The landings in the westernmost sector at Algiers took place punctually. In the central sector matters did not go so well. There was a considerable westerly set, which soon caused the landing ships and their craft to get out of position. This and a pilotage failure combined to cause a breakdown of the procedure for locating the various beaches, and many troops landed in the wrong place. Happily serious resistance was only encountered at one beach in this sector; had it proved otherwise the results might have been unfortunate. In the eastern sector as well there was some confusion and delay; but in spite of these mishaps good progress was made as soon as the assault parties got ashore.
Map 35. Operation 'TORCH' - The Assault on Oran
At 6:40 a.m. on the 8th of November a U.S. Regimental Combat Team captured the Maison Blanche airfield - the more important of the two near Algiers - and R.A.F. fighters from Gibraltar landed there soon after 9 o'clock. Fuel was available, and they immediately established patrols over the Algiers landing beaches. The second airfield, near Blida, was captured at about 8:30 a.m. by Martlet fighters of the Fleet Air Arm, a handful of which under Lieutenant B. H. C. Nation of the Victorious held it until the Commandos arrived. Probably this was the first time in history that naval aircraft captured a shore airfield.
Meanwhile a frontal attack on Algiers harbour by the destroyers Broke and Malcolm, whose object was to prevent the French scuttling their ships and demolishing the port installations, had not gone according to plan. They failed to find the entrance in the darkness, and came under heavy fire. The Malcolm was badly hit and withdrew, but at 5:20 a.m., at her fourth attempt, the Broke charged the boom and broke through. She berthed successfully and the American troops on board her were disembarked; but she was soon forced by heavy and accurate fire to leave the harbour. The Broke suffered much damage, and sank the next day. It was perhaps appropriate that a gallant old veteran, who bore a name made famous by her predecessor in close action in the Straits of Dover in the 1914-18 war47, should find a grave in the Mediterranean after having broken into a hostile harbour in the second.
By the afternoon the forts guarding the harbour had been silenced by bombardment and bombing; but enemy aircraft had made a first appearance, and attacked our warships and transports off the coast. Damage was not, however, serious. At 7 p.m. French resistance ceased, and we were soon in control of the harbour. At dawn next day, the 9th, Admiral Burrough's flagship the Bulolo entered harbour. Her arrival was, perhaps, rather more sensational than intended, because a near-miss bomb threw off her electrical engine-room telegraphs at a critical moment. In consequence, when the order to go astern was given nothing happened, and she overshot her intended berth. She ultimately brought up undamaged on a convenient mud bank. The transports and store ships soon followed her in. The speed with which possession of the harbour was gained was fortunate, since the freshening wind had caused unloading delays and heavy losses of landing craft on the beaches, especially in the eastern sector.
The general plan which the Centre Task Force under Commodore Troubridge was to carry out against Oran was similar to that executed at Algiers. The fast and slow convoys KMF(O) 2 and KMS(O) 1 met at 4 p.m. on the 7th of November, and then divided
into the seven groups detailed for the three assault areas. Again there was to be one assault to the east and two to the west of the port.48 All groups continued together towards Malta until, at appropriate moments after darkness had fallen, they broke off individually and turned south towards their real objectives. Cruisers were ordered to provide supporting fire at the beaches, and to patrol off Oran to intercept any ships which attempted to escape. The Rodney, which was to protect the transports against surface ship attack, three aircraft carriers and the anti-aircraft cruiser Delhi met at 5:30 a.m. twenty-five miles to seaward of Oran, and thereafter operated in support of the expedition. The position through which the assault ships had to pass, to approach the points where their landing craft would be lowered, were again marked by submarines, and the beaches themselves were marked by pilots. By midnight on the 7th-8th all the great fleet of over seventy warships and thirty-two transports was moving silently inshore. The night was calm and dark, but, as at Algiers, a westerly set was experienced, and again this had disconcerting results for the landing craft, some of which missed their proper beaches. In the western sector a chance encounter with a small French convoy further delayed the assault, and produced indirectly 'no little confusion'. One may compare this incident and its consequences with the equally fortuitous encounter made by the expedition to Dieppe with the German Channel convoy.49 Both showed how easily a slight mischance could upset the intricate timing essential to success in night assaults from the sea. Luckily off Oran there were no very dire consequences, though the western assault did not take place until thirty-five minutes after its appointed time. None the less by the 11th over 3,000 men, 458 tanks and vehicles, and more than 1,100 tons of stores had been landed in the western sector, a large proportion of them in a small well-sheltered cove which had not been intended to take such heavy traffic.
In the centre sector, unlike the western one, the landings took place on the correct beaches, though not without unforeseen troubles. Chief among these was a sand bar which extended over the whole length of the sector a few yards off shore, and had not been revealed by photographs or preliminary reconnaissances. Many of the forty-five landing craft were damaged on it and some were lost, while vehicles disappeared under water as they tried to drive ashore from landing craft grounded on the bar. The assault was late and, understandably, ill coordinated. It was fortunate that there was no opposition.
The eastern landings were by far the biggest of the three made against Oran. In that sector 29,000 men, 2,400 vehicles and 14,000
tons of stores were to be put ashore from thirty-four ships. The total of landing craft involved was eighty-five, of which sixty-eight were for the initial assault (L.C.As). The landings were made unopposed, and in general on time, though the armoured vehicles were very late in reaching the shore-an error which would probably have proved expensive had there been serious resistance.
To prevent the French scuttling ships and destroying the port, a frontal assault by two ex-American coastguard cutters, the Walney and the Hartland under the command of Captain F. T. Peters, had been included in the plan. Their job was similar to that of the Broke and Malcolm at Algiers. Two motor launches were included in the force to provide smoke cover, while the light cruiser Aurora was detailed to support them with her guns. American troops were to be put ashore by the cutters to seize key points and prevent sabotage. This attack had originally been timed for 1 a.m., simultaneously with the assault landings; but the Task Force Commander had been given discretion over sending the cutters in, and he did not do so until two hours later. By that time the harbour defences had, of course, been thoroughly aroused. Just after 3 a.m. on the 8th the Walney, followed closely by her consort, charged the boom and broke into the harbour. She at once came under withering fire from ships and shore, was totally disabled, had most of her company killed and finally sank. The Hartland fared no better; she too was soon disabled, caught fire and suffered very heavy casualties. At about 6 a.m. she blew up. Captain Peters and Lieutenant-Commander Billot, R.N.R., the Captain of the Hartland, were among the very few survivors from the two ships. The former survived the assault but, by a tragic piece of irony, was killed a few days later in an aircraft accident. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
While this gallant but unsuccessful attack was taking place the Aurora (Captain W. G. Agnew), which had made her name as leader of Force K from Malta in 194150, and several of our destroyers fought a hot action outside the harbour with French destroyers, which had come out of Oran and appeared intent on attacking our transports. One Frenchman was sunk, one driven ashore, and the third retired back to harbour. Admiral Cunningham remarked in his despatch that 'the Aurora polished off her opponents with practised ease'.
By 9 a.m. the tanks were landing on the Oran beaches, and naval aircraft from the three carriers had done good work in putting the nearest shore airfield (La Senia) out of action; but the paratroop operation to capture the main airfield at Tafaroui, fifteen miles south of Oran, went badly awry.51 Not until noon were our land forces in possession of it. In the afternoon Spitfires from Gibraltar
landed there. Meanwhile the French coastal guns had opened on our transports, damaged two of them and forced others further away from the coast. The Rodney bombarded with her 16-inch guns in reply.
Throughout the 8th the landing of troops, vehicles and stores went on, though not without difficulties and losses caused by an increasing swell. Fighting continued on land and sea all the next day, which was marked by another engagement with French destroyers. The troops were by that time closing in on Oran from both sides, but resistance was still stubborn. By the evening of the 9th we had a firm hold on the airfield at La Senia, and were preparing for a final assault on the town of Oran next morning. The attack was launched at 7:30, and by 11 a.m. armoured units had penetrated into the city. At noon the French capitulated, and thus, fifty-nine hours after the first assault, a base which had been a source of trouble and anxiety to us ever since June 1940 passed into Allied hands.52
While these important successes were being won on land, Admiral Syfret's main covering force was patrolling to and fro further north. When it was plain that no interference by the Italian Fleet was likely, he took most of his ships back to Gibraltar. They arrived on the 15th, and the Duke of York and Victorious promptly returned to the Home Fleet, to which they properly belonged. The only important incident during Force H's patrol occurred when the submarine Unruffled (Lieutenant J. S. Stevens) hit and severely damaged the Italian cruiser Attilio Regolo. A detachment of Admiral Syfret's original force had meanwhile proceeded under Rear-Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt in the Sheffield to take part in the assault on Bougie, the next important port to the east on the road to the final Allied objective at Tunis.53 We shall return to that operation, and to the still more easterly one against Bone, later, for it is time to take the reader outside the Straits of Gibraltar to see how the concurrent American assault on Casablanca had fared.54
For the landings on the Moroccan coast Admiral Hewitt's forces were divided into a Covering Group, composed of a battleship, two heavy cruisers and four destroyers, an Air Group of four carriers with a cruiser for support and flotilla vessels for screening purposes, and three Attack Groups. The latter each comprised a battleship and a cruiser, or two of the latter, and numerous transports, auxiliaries and escort vessels. To each Attack Group were also allocated beacon submarines, to mark the approach to the landing beaches, minesweepers and tankers. It will be observed that the American Western Naval Task Force took its attack transports along with it,
Map 36. Operation 'TORCH' - The Western Assaults, French Morocco
whereas our own Centre and Eastern Task Forces met their assault convoys, which had sailed separately from Britain, off Gibraltar, and then joined up with them for the passages to their destinations.
Admiral Hewitt's flag was flown in the cruiser Augusta. By the 24th and 25th of October his various groups were at sea and heading east. The Air Group left Bermuda on the 26th, and two days later all the ships of the American expedition, in all some sixty warships and forty transports and tankers, had concentrated in 40° North 51° West. Fuelling was carried out twice at sea, and on the 7th of November all forces were approaching the African coast. Not a ship was lost on the way.
The three attack groups were to make their assaults in separate places. By far the most important of the three was the landing of 18,700 men at Fedala, some fifteen miles north of Casablanca.55 This was the responsibility of the Centre Attack Group, and the outcome of the whole Moroccan operation depended on its success. The Northern Attack Group was to land 9,000 men near Port Lyautey, about sixty-five miles north-east of Casablanca, and bore the important responsibility for quickly capturing the adjacent airfield, which was the best in Morocco. The Southern Attack Group was to land at Safi where the expedition's Sherman tanks were to be disembarked. If serious resistance were encountered at Casablanca the tanks were to come north and master it.
By midnight on the 6th-7th of November Admiral Hewitt had to take a difficult decision. The weather forecasts from Britain and America had been consistently pessimistic regarding the practicability of a landing in Morocco on the 8th. The plans had provided for the Western Task Force to make alternative landings inside the Mediterranean should the surf-bound Moroccan coast prove unapproachable; but this alternative was strategically unattractive, for it eliminated the possibility of winning Morocco and Algeria simultaneously. After crossing the 'Chop Line'56, Admiral Hewitt came under the control of the Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force, and there is no doubt that Admiral Cunningham and General Eisenhower considered whether, in view of the unfavourable weather, the Moroccan landings should be cancelled. The matter was, however, left in Admiral Hewitt's hands and, as the forecasts of his Task Force meteorologist predicted moderating winds, he decided to adhere to his original plan. His decision was to be abundantly justified.
We will first follow the fortunes of the Southern Attack Group at Safi. The assault was based on the use of two old American destroyers, the Bernadou and the Cole, to land small bodies of troops (about
400 in all) inside the harbour and seize the port facilities, so that the ship in which the Sherman tanks were embarked could at once enter and unload. Simultaneously beach landings were to be made to the north and south of the harbour. The approach of the attack group passed without incident. Zero hours for all the landings in Morocco was 4 a.m. on the 8th of November, three hours later than those at Oran and Algiers; but all three of the Western Task Force's assaults were, for various reasons, somewhat delayed. The Bernadou opened the ball at Safi by entering the harbour at about 4:30, and quickly came under heavy fire. The Cole got temporarily lost in the darkness outside, but she and a wave of assault craft followed in, about forty minutes later. Meanwhile the heavy ships of the covering force smothered the shore defences with their gunfire, and this, by diverting French attention from the harbour, undoubtedly helped the destroyers to land their troops with surprisingly few casualties. In very little time all the harbour works had been secured.
The southernmost beach landing was badly delayed, chiefly by an accidental explosion among landing craft, and it was nearly 9:30 before the first assault wave got ashore. They met no resistance, and were soon moving north against the town. The naval bombardment was successful beyond expectations in silencing the coast defences, the other landings went well, and by 2:30 p.m. Safi was in American hands. The Lakehurst, with the Sherman tanks on board, entered harbour soon afterwards. The speed with which success was achieved had been remarkable, and there is no doubt that it owed much to the daring and skill of the two old destroyers whose small landing parties caught the French entirely by surprise. The discharge of cargo inside the harbour continued uninterruptedly during the succeeding days. By the 13th the operation was completed, and a homeward-bound convoy of empty ships sailed for the United States. Safi had been captured for the loss of an insignificant number of landing craft and, which was even more astonishing, at a cost of only about ten men killed and seventy-five wounded. But the slowness of the French reaction from the air, from Marrakesh airfield, was very fortunate, because only here did the American carrier-borne air co-operation prove inadequate to the task placed upon it.
To turn now to the much stronger and all-important central attack in the neighbourhood of Casablanca itself, at midnight on 7th-8th of November the transports had reached the position where the landing craft were to be lowered; but slow work in getting the craft away delayed the assault until just after 5 o'clock. For a time the fate of the whole expedition hung in the balance. Although the night was fine and calm, a heavy surf was breaking on the beaches exposed to the Atlantic rollers. Nearly half the landing craft used in the initial assault were wrecked; some missed their allotted
beaches and ended up on the rocky coast several miles away. Fortunately most of the men managed to scramble ashore, and in the first hour 3,500 were landed. There was little resistance until, at daylight, the shore batteries opened fire on the ships. Then French aircraft, warships from Casablanca and the shore guns all attacked the transports, the beaches and the landing craft. The American covering warships fought two sharp actions during the forenoon with the French cruiser Primauguet and seven destroyers, and handled them very roughly. No less than six destroyers were sunk, or disabled and driven ashore, and the cruiser was reduced to a wreck. Eight French submarines also left harbour early in the forenoon to attack the invasion fleet; but only one of them returned to her berth undamaged. Two reached Dakar, and one made Cadiz; of the other four, one was bombed and beached and three were never heard of again. No did they do any damage to American ships, though the battleship Massachusetts and the cruiser Brooklyn narrowly avoided torpedoes fired at them. There were moments of anxiety over the possibility of the powerful French squadron in Dakar intervening; but the Richelieu, Gloire and Montcalm did not attempt to reach the scene of the landings.
Thus was the threat from the sea countered by the covering forces, and in no uncertain manner; but there was an element of high tragedy in the French Navy's sacrifice, at Algiers and Oran as well as at Casablanca, of so many good ships and lives in attacking those whom most Frenchmen must in their hearts have known to be their best friends and, moreover, the only people who could liberate their enslaved homeland. None the less it must be counted to the credit of the French Navy that its ships went out to fight overwhelmingly superior strength with great gallantry.
On the same forenoon that the covering force was dealing with the French warships which had put to sea, the American carrier aircraft and the heavy guns of the bombarding ships did severe execution among those which had remained in harbour. The 16-inch shells of the Massachusetts put the Jean Bart out of action, while three submarines and many merchantmen and auxiliaries were destroyed within the confines of the port. Only against the French shore batteries was the warships' gunfire comparatively ineffective, and the old lesson of the doubtful ability of ships to deal effectively with such defences was once again demonstrated; but on this occasion it did not influence the outcome of the operation.
Meanwhile the heavy surf continued to cause serious difficulties in landing reinforcements of men and supplies over the beaches at Fedala. Happily the situation was eased by the capture of its small port at 2:30 in the afternoon. By nightfall 7,750 men had landed, and unloading in the harbour had begun to replace the use of the
beaches. About two thirds of the 140 landing craft used in this operation were wrecked or out of action by that time.
On the 10th American air attacks finally eliminated the French air force, and did more damage to the French ships. The Army had meanwhile encircled Casablanca, and was awaiting the arrival of the Sherman tanks from Safi. But it was on that day that Admiral Darlan broadcast an order to all French forces in North Africa to cease resistance. At a conference held in Casablanca that afternoon it was agreed that hostilities should be suspended.
Well before that happened the Northern Attack Group had landed its assault forces on either side of the mouth of the winding river which led to Port Lyautey. This group, commanded by Rear-Admiral Monroe Kelly, U.S.N., had remained in company with the Centre Group until 3 p.m. on the 7th of November, when the two forces parted and steered for their respective assault areas.57 By about 11:30 p.m. the northern group and its transports had arrived off the town of Mehedia at the river entrance, but difficulty was experienced in fixing the ships' position relative to the landing beaches. Then, soon after midnight, an unlucky encounter with a coastal convoy revealed the presence of Admiral Monroe's force to the French defences. Zero hour for the landings was 4 a.m., but the trouble experienced in making contact with the beach-marking boats, and slow disembarkation from the transports, delayed the assaults by more than an hour.
The main defence of the approaches to Port Lyautey was a battery of six 5.5-inch coastal guns sited near the river entrance, and it had been intended that it should be captured immediately the troops got ashore. This was not, however, accomplished; nor was good use at first made of the ample naval supporting fire available. Not for forty-eight hours was the battery put out of action. The trouble experienced in fixing the transports' position and contacting the mark boats, the delays in manning the assault craft, and the heavy swell on the beaches combined to make the landings what the American general called 'a hit-or-miss affair that would have spelled disaster against a well-armed enemy intent upon resistance'.58 Soon after daylight on the 8th French aircraft attacked the beaches, the coastal battery opened fire on the transport area, and French reinforcements with tanks and artillery arrived from Port Lyautey. Furthermore the plan to send the destroyer Dallas quickly up the river with a raider detachment to capture the airfield went awry. On the 8th and 9th stubborn resistance was encountered by the American troops. Not until early on the 10th was the dash up-river by the Dallas successful. The airfield was then seized, and by 11
a.m. that morning the first American aircraft had landed on it. At about the same time the troublesome coast defence battery at the river mouth was captured. The transports could then move close inshore and land the urgently-needed reinforcements, vehicles, and supplies. At midnight on the 10th-11th the French defenders received Darlan's order to stop fighting, and thereafter no difficulty was experienced in taking full control of the whole district. The Northern Attack Group had to overcome the stiffest resistance of any of the Moroccan assault forces.
The reactions of the German Naval Staff and U-boat Command to the launching of Operation 'TORCH' were, to say the least, somewhat tardy. The first firm intelligence did not reach U-boat headquarters until 6:30 a.m. on the 8th of November. A total of fifteen boats was then ordered to steer for the Moroccan coast at high speed. Later all those on convoy operations west of Ireland were ordered to the approaches to Gibraltar; but the enemy realised that he was probably already too late to interfere with the actual landings. His purpose therefore became the interruption of the stream of supplies and reinforcements. One U-boat arrived off Morocco on the 9th, but accomplished nothing. Not until two days later, by which time the defences were well organised, did others appear on the scene; and it was the evening of the 11th before one of them (U-173) accomplished the first success by sinking a transport off Fedala. She herself was, however, sunk by American escort vessels off Casablanca on the 16th. Next day, the 12th, U-130 destroyed three more transports, but thereafter, although nine U-boats were present, the increasing use of the ports for unloading reduced the enemy's chances of success, and no more sinkings were achieved offshore. The intervention of the U-boats had come too late to threaten the invasion fleet at its most critical time.
By the middle of November about a dozen German U-boats had concentrated to the west of Gibraltar, and another group of seven had penetrated the Straits while our escorts were fully employed guarding the Algiers and Oran convoys. This temporarily raised the number of German U-boats inside the Mediterranean to twenty-five, the highest total ever reached by them. But in this same month we sank no less than five of their number so that, at the end of November, their strength was reduced again to twenty.59 In the following month three out of five more U-boats ordered into the Mediterranean by Dönitz succeeded in getting through the Straits. At the end of the year there were thus twenty-three working in the narrow sea, out of a total operational strength of 212. In addition to the arrival of German reinforcements, ten Italian submarines left
Cagliari for the North African coast as soon as they learnt of the invasion. We will return to them later. To the west of Gibraltar a few successes were obtained by the Germans but, considering the great flow of traffic passing in both directions through those waters, they were surprisingly small. On the 12th U-515 sank the destroyer depot ship Hecla and damaged the destroyer Marne. Three days later the escort carrier Avenger and the transport Ettrick (11,279 tons) fell victims to U-155, while a chance encounter with a north-bound convoy off Lisbon on the 14th led to the loss of the valuable troopship Warwick Castle (20,107 tons). In general, however, the rapid strengthening of our anti-submarine defences off the Straits after the invasion had been launched made that great focus highly dangerous to the enemy, and the U-boats were soon forced further west. Three U-boats were sunk and six others seriously damaged in those waters in November, and for comparatively small accomplishments. In December the Germans therefore tried instead to catch the supply convoys from the United States (UGF and UGS). On the 6th the troopship Ceramic and three other independent ships were sunk west of the Azores; but the convoys were actually routed further south than the enemy believed, and he failed to find them. The great stream of shipping from America to Casablanca continued to pass on its way unhindered.
But with the Americans firmly installed in Morocco it is time to return inside the Mediterranean, where greater difficulties were meanwhile being encountered.
As soon as the Eastern and Centre Task Forces had secured Algiers and Oran harbours and sufficient troops had been landed, the race for Tunis began. Both sides realised that command of 'The Narrows' of the Mediterranean, and so the ultimate fate of the armies in North Africa, depended on holding the northward - jutting promontory on which stand Tunis and the important French naval base of Bizerta.60 In Algeria the land communications were not nearly good enough to enable the First Army to make a rapid advance, so long as it had to be supplied from Algiers. Hence arose the need to seize and bring into use as quickly as possible the more easterly harbours of Bougie and Bone. Those two ports had to perform for the First Army the functions that Tobruk and Benghazi had often fulfilled for the Eighth Army; and the need to seize them quickly had always taken an important place in the 'TORCH' plans.
The assault on Bougie had originally been planned for the 9th of November, but bad weather caused its postponement for two days. At dawn on the 11th Rear-Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt, flying his flag in the cruiser Sheffield, safely escorted three transports there,
and the troops landed unopposed. It had been intended to make another landing further east to seize Djidjelli airfield simultaneously, but it was frustrated by a heavy swell on the beach. The airfield was actually captured by paratroops, but the petrol for the aircraft was in the assault convoy, which had returned to Bougie. This seriously delayed getting our own fighters, one squadron of which arrived there early on the 12th, into service. It thus came to pass that for two days the ships in Bougie had no air cover, and they were subjected to heavy bombing. The monitor Roberts was hit and badly damaged; and serious losses were suffered by the exposed troopships. The Cathay, Awatea, and Karanja were all sunk by air attacks, and the anti-aircraft ship Tynwald was torpedoed or mined, and lost. 'The essential importance of establishing properly directed fighter protection at the earliest moment was', said Admiral Cunningham, 'a lesson well learnt in the Western Desert campaigns, which now had to be demonstrated again by bitter experience in a new theatre'. By the 13th R.A.F. Spitfires were operating from Djidjelli, and thereafter the port of Bougie was worked in comparative immunity. At Bone, 230 miles east of Algiers, the initial landings were made by Commandos carried there in two destroyers. The port and nearby airfield was quickly seized, but again there were heavy bombing attacks. 'The tide of our advance reached little beyond the port' of Bone, remarked Admiral Cunningham; and the chief reason was that our air forces in Algeria were not yet fully established. As soon as fighter protection could be given, Bone proved a valuable advanced base for use by our light forces in attacking the enemy's supply traffic to Africa. But at the end of November the First Army was still building up strength about forty miles west of Bizerta, and it was plain that Axis reinforcements and supplies were reaching Tunisia by sea and air in sufficient quantities to deprive us of first place in the race for Tunis.61
Admiral Cunningham regretted this deeply. He considered that had the French in Tunisia offered even weak resistance between the 9th and 15th of November 'Our gamble would have succeeded'. 'The timidity and vacillation of the French in Tunisia' in his view 'cost the Allies much time and effort'. He has also left on record his opinion that, in spite of the serious risks involved, a bold lunge by a part of our invasion forces straight for Bizerta would have succeeded in forestalling the enemy at that crucial point.'62
While we were thus building up our land forces and reaching out to the east, the enemy's bombers were ranging up and down the African coast seeking suitable targets; and his U-boats were closing
in on the concentration of shipping passing in and out of the expedition's bases, much of it sailing independently. Though we lost some valuable ships, including the transports Viceroy of India and Nieuw Zeeland (Dutch) on the 11th of November to U-boat attacks, and the Narkunda from bombing, such losses among big ships employed in advanced waters where our maritime control was not complete were inevitable. They continued in the following month when the Strathallan (23,772 tons), a splendid ship and the last pre-war addition to the P. and O. Company's fleet, was torpedoed in Convoy KMF 5 when she had 5,000 troops on board. She sank on the 22nd of December, the day after she was hit. Happily the loss of life was small. The Cameronia, in the same convoy, was hit by an aircraft torpedo, but survived. Regrettable though the loss of such fine ships was, it did not influence the campaign.63
The U-boats also took a toll of the escort vessels protecting the 'TORCH' convoys. The destroyer Martin and the Dutch destroyer Isaac Sweers, which had given long and distinguished service on this station, fell victims to them in November; but they were amply avenged, since no less than seven German and a like number of Italian submarines were destroyed in the Mediterranean or off Gibraltar between the 7th of November and mid-December.64 Special mention must be made of a few of these successes. The trawler Lord Nuffield, which had been ignored by the Italian submarine Emo as too small fry to engage her attention, sank her disdainful adversary and rescued most of the crew. U-331, commanded by Tiesenhausen, who had sunk the Barham a year earlier65, was dealt with entirely by aircraft. She was sighted and damaged by Hudsons of No. 500 Squadron, and surrendered. Naval aircraft from the Formidable which, unfortunately, had not seen the surrender signals, then torpedoed and sank her. Survivors were finally picked up by a
The heavy ships of the covering force in Operation 'TORCH', November 1942. H. M. Ss Duke of York, Nelson, Renown, Formidable, Argonaut. (See pp. 314-328).
The assault convoy KMF 1 for Operation 'TORCH' on passage to Gibraltar, November 1942.
Operation 'TORCH'. Landing craft leaving for the beaches off Algiers, 9th November 1942. (See pp. 324-325).
Algiers harbour in use as the main Allied base, April 1943. The ships shown include H.M.Ss Formidable, Dido, Maidstone, Carlisle, Oakley, Vienna and Ashanti.
Walrus amphibian. No. 500 Squadron, which had achieved two other successes against U-boats in the preceding days received a signal of congratulations from the Admiralty. The corvettes Lotus and Starwort disposed of U-660 on the 12th of November. Next day the Lotus had a different companion, the Poppy, when they attacked another promising contact off Algiers. After several depth charge attacks the Lotus used her 'hedgehog'.66 There were no visible effects, but the Captain of the corvette found himself best able to describe the resulting underwater noises by quoting an onomatopoeic line from Aristophanes in his Report of Proceedings. That his anti-submarine tactics were as good as his knowledge of the classics is shown by the fact that enemy records confirm the destruction of U-605 in that position on that day. The Naval Staff evidently appreciated receiving so erudite a report, for they reproduced it, with suitable translation and explanations for those less well educated than the corvette's officers.67
On the 11th of November Admiral Darlan sent a message to Admiral de Laborde, who was in command of the French fleet at Toulon, urging that his ships should come to North Africa immediately68; but in his conversations with Admiral Cunningham Darlan admitted that he was doubtful whether his suggestion would be adopted. In the first place de Laborde was known to be fanatically anti-British, and in the second place he was able to argue that Darlan's proposal had no backing from the Vichy government to which he (de Laborde) was responsible. Subsequent events were to prove that Darlan's estimate of his countrymen's reactions was accurate. Although Admiral Auphan, the Minister of Marine at Vichy, supported Darlan, de Laborde's attitude made it impossible
for the ships to move until it was too late. On the 14th of November, German and Italian forces entered 'unoccupied France', and on the 27th the French Navy destroyed and scuttled its ships in Toulon harbour.69 Though it is true that Admiral Darlan's 1940 promise that his country's ships should not fall into Axis hands was thus in the main part carried out, and that the act relieved us of a serious anxiety, there was stark tragedy in the self-immolation of so many fine ships without having struck a blow for the cause of their country's freedom. The Royal Navy had known many of those same ships and their crews, as comrades-in-arms in the early days of the war, and had always looked forward to the time when they would again work together as Allies. It had been the harsh realities of our own danger which had forced us at Oran, at Dakar, at Madagascar, and often on the high seas to treat the French Navy as enemies; and we well understood how our acts of violence had aroused passionate hatred in the breasts of many patriotic French officers. Yet, if one looks back today at those tragic events, it will surely be agreed that the basic cause lay in the terms of the French surrender of 1940, and in the refusal of the government which succeeded to M. Reynaud's to continue the fight against Germany from its African possessions. Had that amount of faith been shown in the justice of our cause, and in our ultimate victory, the succession of tragedies which reached their climax in Toulon harbour on the 27th of November 1942 might all have been avoided.
In Alexandria the destruction of the Toulon Fleet had no immediate effect on Admiral Godfroy's reconsideration of the position of his squadron. In spite of pressure from British and American officers and visits by those of his own service from Algiers, he continued to vacillate over the issue of joining forces with Admiral Harwood. The Prime Minister, who had for some time shown discontent over what he considered to be the inactivity of the Eastern Fleet, wished to bring the Warspite and Valiant through the canal to add the force of their presence to the persuasions of Godfroy's visitors. But the First Sea Lord demurred, and pointed out that our control of the Indian Ocean depended on the presence of the fleet rather than on the violence of its activities. To have jeopardised that control for the sake of getting Godfroy's squadron on to our side was not, in Admiral Pound's view, a profitable proposition.
A minor but happy result of the successful invasion of North Africa
was the release from internment of a large number of British servicemen, including the crews of the Havock and Manchester.70 In spite of our having repatriated many thousands of French soldiers and sailors from England in 1940 and from Syria in the following year, these unfortunate men had been held in very bad conditions in a desert camp ever since falling into the hands of our former Allies.
So ended the assault phase of 'TORCH'. Its success had been remarkably complete, even allowing for the weak French resistance offered at some, though not at all of the points of disembarkation. The First Sea Lord sent Admiral Cunningham his very warm congratulations, and one can sense from that letter his relief that all had gone well. 'I am sure' he wrote 'that you had as anxious a time as we did here. I had visions of large convoys waltzing up and down inside as well as outside the Mediterranean, with the weather too bad to land, and the U-boats buzzing around. We really did have remarkable luck'.
Admiral Cunningham in his despatch attributed the success to many causes. Secrecy was well maintained, and so surprise was achieved; the planning had proved sound, and inter-service cooperation had been as good in execution as in preparation; the great base at Gibraltar had fulfilled its vital functions excellently, and the officers and men of the fleet had shown 'a high standard of seamanship and technical efficiency'. He paid warm tribute to 'the courage, determination and adaptability of the Merchant Navy' ; but it was to the 'spirit of comradeship and understanding . . . exemplified in our Commander-in-Chief, General Eisenhower', that he attributed the greatest share of the credit. 'We counted it', modestly concluded Admiral Cunningham, 'a privilege to follow in his train' ; and although the Naval Commander's tribute was certainly echoed throughout the expeditionary force as sincerely as he expressed it, history must surely record the immense share due to Admiral Cunningham's own leadership and determination.
At the end of November the First Lord summarised the strategic gains from the success of Operation 'TORCH' in a letter to the Prime Minister. Airfields for flying boats and shore-based aircraft were now available to our use in West Africa, and a sorely needed naval air base for escort carriers' aircrews could be provided at Dakar. The same port could be used as advanced base by the escorts of OS and SL convoys, instead of Freetown, which had always suffered from many disadvantages.71 Continuous air cover for our convoys was now practicable all the way from Gibraltar to Freetown, and it might be possible to combine the Sierra Leone and Gibraltar convoys. Many French warships had fallen into our hands, and although most of
them had to be refitted and modernised they would ultimately join Allied fleets and squadrons.72 Finally in Dakar and French ports to the south of it, which came into Allied hands when Darlan ordered resistance to cease, we had seized fifty-one merchant ships of 169,954 tons. These were substantial gains; but the greatest benefits of all lay in the additional security of our Atlantic shipping, and in the prospect that the Mediterranean would soon be opened to our use.
While these great events were taking place in the western Mediterranean, Admiral Harwood's principal concerns were to keep the Eighth Army supplied during its rapid advance, and to relieve Malta. Mersa Matruh was retaken on the day of the 'TORCH' landings, and the first convoy was at once sailed there from Alexandria. On the 11th of November the fast minelayer Manxman and six destroyers left for Malta with urgently needed stores. Her sister-ship the Welshman had just made a similar dash from the west under cover of the 'TORCH' landings.73 Both got in safely, but two disguised merchantmen routed through French territorial waters just before the invasion were less fortunate, and both were interned at Bizerta. On the 20th of November, the minelayer Adventure sailed from Plymouth with an urgently needed cargo of 2,000 aircraft depth charges, which she landed at Gibraltar for onward passage to Malta. She made a second trip in the following month. These measures sufficed to tide over Malta's most urgent military needs until such time as regular convoys could again be sent there.
Bardia was recaptured on the 12th and Tobruk on the following day, and again the most energetic steps were taken to bring the ports into use for our own purposes. The enemy's retreat was so rapid that he had no time to carry out effective demolitions; but our own bombing had done a good deal of damage, and it was no easy matter to restore the ports sufficiently to unload the Army's requirements. The first convoy reached Tobruk on the 19th, and on that day 1,000 tons of stores were unloaded. Our land forces once again entered Benghazi on the 20th of November, and were quickly
followed by the naval parties needed to clear and work the port. The entrance channel had been swept clear of mines by the 26th, and the first two merchant ships entered that same day. Early in December, Admiral Harwood was able to report that 'Benghazi was getting well into its stride', and the unloading rate had reached 2,000 tons a day by the 10th. Enemy air attacks on both Tobruk and Benghazi were fairly frequent, but no serious damage was caused. Meanwhile our still-advancing armies needed more supplies yet further ahead, and a start was made with unloading stores over the beaches in the Gulf of Sirte. Thus did the Navy carry out its traditional function of guarding and supporting the Army's seaward flank, and of carrying its supplies ever further forward on the line of advance. The Eighth Army's gratitude was nicely expressed by its commander's message: 'We send to the Navy our thanks for the part they have played . . . in safeguarding the passage of troops and supplies, without which the offensive would not have been possible'.
Meanwhile a convoy for Malta (called operation 'STONEAGE') was being organised. On the 17th of November four ships (two American, one Dutch and one British) arrived off Alexandria from the Canal. The 15th Cruiser Squadron (Rear-Admiral A. J. Power) and seven destroyers sailed from Alexandria to overtake the convoy on the 18th, and then escorted it to the west. That morning enemy air attacks started. None of the convoy were damaged, but at 6 p.m. the light cruiser Arethusa was torpedoed. After a very long stern-first tow, and a battle with serious fires and a rising gale of wind, she was got back safely to Alexandria on the evening of the 21st; but she had 155 men killed. It is pleasant to record that this was the last serious casualty suffered by the sorely-tried little cruisers of the 15th Cruiser Squadron during their long and tenacious fight to hold the eastern Mediterranean, and also the last of the tragically heavy list of naval casualties suffered during the struggle to keep Malta supplied.
In spite of heavy weather and air attacks, most of which were broken up by the excellent fighter cover sent from the desert airfields, the 'STONEAGE' convoy reached Malta safely in the small hours of the 20th. Admiral Power and most of the escort had already returned to the east, but the Euryalus and ten Hunt-class destroyers berthed alongside the battered wharves of the Grand Harbour. By the 25th the merchantmen were unloaded, and Malta was at last adequately supplied with aviation spirit. Supply trips by submarines were now discontinued, for the arrival of the 'STONEAGE' convoy marked the final and effective relief of Malta. But the margin had been very narrow. Quite apart from the serious danger of the island being neutralised militarily for lack of petrol, ammunition and torpedoes, even the siege scale of food rations forced on its people could not have been continued after the middle of December.
The offensive consequences of the relief of Malta were immediately reaped. More submarines were available to work against the Axis supply lines; at the end of the month, No. 821 Squadron of naval Albacores moved there; the famous Force K, the Malta-based surface-ship striking force, was at the same time reconstituted by the arrival of Admiral Power with the Dido, Euryalus and four fleet destroyers, and finally a motor torpedo-boat flotilla was sent to work from the island. Taken together with the rising tempo of the Royal Air Force's attacks, and the stationing of another surface-ship striking force at Bone, the outlook for Axis convoys attempting the short passages to Tunis or Tripoli had suddenly become grim indeed. The submarines had a very profitable month in October, but in the following month their collective results showed a decline, and the Utmost and the Greek Triton were lost. The air offensive was now taking a heavier toll of enemy shipping. Indeed it is interesting to see how, just as the surface ships' weakness had proved 'the submarines' opportunity'74, the re-born air and surface ship offensives had, by the last month of the year, drawn level with the submarines' accomplishments. But it should never be forgotten that, throughout the whole of the long twelve months of our grave maritime weakness in the Mediterranean theatre, it had been the submarines of the 1st, 8th and 10th Flotillas which, at times almost alone, had played the chief part in prosecuting the offensive against the Axis supply routes. The Admiralty's message at the end of the year expressing 'admiration for the Mediterranean submarines' tenacity and ingenuity in maintaining their offensive' was certainly well merited.
By the last month of the year, the 10th Flotilla had been reinforced to a strength of twelve boats, and there were in all twenty-two in the Mediterranean (including four Greek and one Yugoslav boat). Their sinkings rose to the high figure of nineteen Axis ships of 43,868 tons. It was now that the Safari (Commander B. Bryant) added to her already formidable reputation; but three boats, the Traveller, P-222 and P-48, were lost in December. The same month saw the start of another form of under-water offensive when British human torpedoes, or 'Chariots', arrived at Malta under another distinguished submarine officer, Commander G. M. S. Sladen, who had been in charge of training the volunteers for this extremely hazardous work at a base in Scotland. They sailed from Malta to strike their first blows at Palermo and Maddalena just before the end of the year. Though P-311 and her two 'chariots' were lost with all hands, others carried by the Trooper and Thunderbolt penetrated into Palermo harbour. The new light cruiser Ulpio Traiano (3,362 tons) was sunk in the port and a large liner damaged on the night of the 2nd-3rd
January 1943; but none of the 'chariot' crews reached the rendezvous with the rescue submarine. Attacks of this nature had so far been something of an Italian speciality. Motor boats carrying explosives had achieved a success when they penetrated Suda Bay and damaged the heavy cruiser York in March 194175; and Italian human torpedoes had damaged the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in Alexandria later that year.76 Similar attempts had several times been made on our shipping at Gibraltar in 1940 and 1941, though only on one occasion (in September 1941) had they achieved any success. In 1942 the human torpedo attacks on Gibraltar were replaced by swimmers specially trained in under-water sabotage. A party of these was sent overland through Spain to Algeciras. There they boarded an Italian steamer, the Olterra, and from her they made no less than four assaults on our shipping in Gibraltar Bay between July 1942 and September 1943. Out of the total of ten merchant ships attacked, four were sunk and six damaged. In the small hours of the 12th of December the Italians used human torpedoes against our shipping in Algiers Bay, and they sank two merchantmen. Though the successes they achieved in this form of assault had no influence on the progress of the African campaigns, it is right that the Italian crews should be given credit for the gallantry and persistence with which they undertook such operations.77
The first offensive sweep by the new British striking force of cruisers and destroyers based on Bone took place on the night of the 1st-2nd December, with deadly effect. A convoy was attacked about forty miles north of Cape Bon; all its four ships and one of the escort were destroyed; but the destroyer Quentin was sunk by an aircraft torpedo on the way back to harbour. On the following night the new Malta-based striking force was at sea searching for a convoy which had already been severely handled by the Malta air forces and the submarine Umbra. Our various forces sank four more merchant ships and a destroyer. To increase the pressure the Admiralty next ordered the Dido to join the Bone squadron, thus giving it sufficient strength to send out a force of two cruisers and several destroyers on successive nights. The Aurora and Argonaut worked in one group from Bone, and the Sirius and Dido in another, while the Cleopatra, Euryalus, Orion and about four destroyers continued to strike from Malta. In December sweeps were repeatedly carried out against enemy convoys, and it was rare for them to yield no results. Though the striking forces did not have matters all their own way, and the Argonaut was badly damaged by aircraft
torpedoes in the middle of the month, the combined effect of their work and that of the submarines and aircraft was decisive. The next table shows the results achieved in terms of shipping losses suffered by the enemy, and it will be seen that the year ended on a note of high accomplishment by all British arms.
Table 26. Enemy Merchant Shipping Losses.
1st August - 31st December, 1942
(1) Italian (includes losses outside Mediterranean)
Number of ships : Tonnage
Month By Surface Ship By Submarine By Air Attack
By Mine By Other Cause TOTAL August -- 7 : 31,794 4 : 20,346 1 : 4,894 2 : 382 14 : 57,416 September -- 8 : 10,209 8 : 22,262 -- 4 : 1,099 20 : 33,570 October -- 14 : 35,698 11 : 20,142 -- 4 : 329 29 : 56,169 November -- 3 : 1,968 21 : 41,061 2 : 5,540 20 : 3,906 46 : 52,475 December -- 15 : 33,400 14 : 23,669 3 : 1,755 4 : 4,040 41 : 76,143 TOTAL 5 : 13,279 47 : 113,069 58 : 127,480 6 : 12,189 34 : 9,756 150 : 275,773
(2) German and German-Controlled (Mediterranean only)
Number of ships : Tonnage
Month By Surface Ship By Submarine By Air Attack By Mine By Other Cause TOTAL August to December 1 : 548 9 : 25,818 5 : 9,937 3 : 7,389 6 : 738 24 : 44,430
NOTES: (1) Of the 174 ships sunk in this phase, 91 were of over 500 tons and 83 of less than 500 tons. (2) Of the ships sunk or destroyed by air attack, 33 ships of 100,762 tons were sunk at sea and 30 ships of 36,665 tons in port.
The successful arrival of the 'STONEAGE' convoy in Malta was quickly followed by others. On the 1st of December four more merchantmen sailed from Port Said, and a tanker was added from Benghazi to meet Malta's urgent need for furnace fuel for the surface forces. They all arrived safely, escorted by the 15th Cruiser Squadron and no less than seventeen destroyers. The enemy did not interfere at all with this convoy, either at sea or while it was unloading. By the 9th its ships had all been cleared of their cargoes. As a result of this convoy's easy passage it was decided to sail merchantmen in pairs with the normal western desert convoys to a point off Benghazi, where they would be met by escorts from Malta. The 15th
Cruiser Squadron covered the latter part of the journey against Italian forces from Taranto, but the precaution proved unnecessary. In December and January four pairs of merchantmen were thus successfully passed into Malta, and at the same time empty ships from earlier convoys, including four survivors of the 'PEDESTAL' operation of the previous August78, were safely brought out to the east. During December Malta received 58,500 tons of general cargo and over 18,000 tons of fuel oil. 'The supply situation', noted Admiral Harwood, 'from being most precarious became . . . established on a firm basis'. And, in addition, convoys kept running steadily to Tobruk and Benghazi, where over 3,000 tons were unloaded daily before the end of the month, and also to the Levant. Our maritime control over 'this ancient waterway', as Admiral Cunningham had called it, had been completely reasserted; and the ever-precarious dependence of the enemy's African armies on the routes across the central basin had been made correspondingly more precarious. The balance had come central in this theatre with astonishing rapidity. The extent to which this was attributable to the Army's advance in Cyrenaica, and to the relief of Malta thereby made possible, is well illustrated by the next table, showing the effort made and the losses suffered in supplying Malta in August, compared with the results of the last two months of 1942. Before the end of the year it was decided that Malta was to be supplied solely from the east, and the ships held loaded and ready in the west were placed at Admiral Cunningham's disposal.
Table 27. Malta Convoys, 1st August - 31st December, 1942. The Last Phase and the Relief of Malta
Naval Forces Employed From West
(November - see Note 2)
'A', 'B', 'C', and 'D'
(December 1942-January 1943)
No. Sunk Damaged No. Sunk Damaged No. Sunk Damaged No. Sunk Damaged Capital Ships 2 0 0 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Aircraft Carriers 3 1 1 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Cruisers 6 1 2 4 0 1 4 0 0 1 -- -- A.A. Ships 1 1 0 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Destroyers 31 1 0 17 0 0 10 0 0 5 -- -- Minesweepers and Corvettes 8 0 0 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Submarines 8 0 0 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Transports and Merchant Ships 14 9 3 4 0 0 5 0 0 8 0 0 Number of Transports and Merchant ships which arrived Malta 5 4
The Relief of Malta
NOTES: (1) Operation 'PORTCULLIS' was the last convoy to be sent straight through from Egypt. For Operations 'QUADRANGLE', 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' the merchantmen sailed with the normal western desert convoys, and were met at sea by Malta-based escorts of Force 'K'. The strength of these escorts varied for the three operations, but was approximately as shown in the table. (2) Tobruk recaptured 13th November, Bengazi 20th November.
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