|'Sink, burn and destroy.
Let nothing pass'.
|Admiral Cunningham to the ships on patrol in the Sicilian Channel, 8th May 1943.|
In the preceding phase the maritime problems involved in transporting overseas the great armies for the invasion of North Africa, and in landing them on time at their various points of assault, had been the overriding requirement of Allied strategy. Now that the initial assaults and the hazardous period of the first building-up were things of the past, and the armies were fighting their way forward towards their goal of driving the Axis out of Africa, priorities had completely changed. The needs of the land forces now took first place, and the maritime services' duty was to see that they were adequately supplied and reinforced, that their seaward flanks were guarded, and that the use of the sea to succour his own troops was denied the enemy. All the naval and maritime air forces in the eastern and western Mediterranean toiled unceasingly throughout the first five months of 194.3 to satisfy these needs. It was hard and generally unspectacular work; but to fulfill it was a traditional function of the Navy, and all arms working on or below the surface of the sea, or in the air above it, threw themselves wholeheartedly into their new, if subordinate, role.
This phase was not many days old when, on the 14th of January, the Casablanca Conference opened. Of the many subjects there discussed by the Combined Chiefs of Staff we are here principally concerned with the decision that, after the Axis had been driven out of Africa, the next Allied objective was to be Sicily.1 This required early revision of the Mediterranean naval command areas. It was certain that Admiral Cunningham, to whose 'profound contribution . . . to the Allied cause in North Africa2 warm tribute was paid at Casablanca, would remain in supreme command of the maritime
side of the next Allied assault. It was therefore logical that his authority should be extended to include the bases from which the expedition would be launched, and all the waters across which it would pass. Accordingly on the 20th of February Cunningham relinquished his title of Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force, and resumed his former, and perhaps more famous position as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean. His jurisdiction now extended not only over the whole of the western basin, but over the greater part of the former North Atlantic Command. Admiral Harwood became Commander-in-Chief, Levant instead of Mediterranean, and the boundary between Cunningham's and Harwood's commands was shifted further east. It now ran from the Tunis-Tripoli frontier to 35° North 16° East, and thence to Cape Spartivento on the 'toe' of Italy.3 Admiral Cunningham thus became responsible for the whole Tunisian coast, in whose ports part of the expedition against Sicily was to be prepared and trained, for the key position of Malta and for the waters around Sicily itself. All the naval forces based on Malta, including the famous 10th Submarine Flotilla and the hard hitting surface striking forces, came under him once more; and he was also given powers to arrange the distribution of naval forces between the Levant and Mediterranean commands to suit his requirements. It was a happy augury for the next combined offensive that the great naval Commander, who had led his fleet so brilliantly in these waters in the early days, should command the Allied fleets which were soon to regain complete control over them. A minor change in naval organisation was made at the same time on the west African coast where, subject to Cunningham's general authority, a French command was established between Sierra Leone and the frontier of French Guinea.
These digressions have, however, taken us ahead of the hard fighting still in progress early in 1943, and it is to the beginning of the year and the two commands as they were then organised that we must return.
In the western Mediterranean the fast troop convoys (KMF) were arriving at Algiers about every three weeks, and one or two slower supply convoys (KMS) generally came in a few days after the fast ships. The reinforcing troops were quickly sent forward to the more advanced bases such as Bone by Landing Ships Infantry (L.S.Is), which ran a constant ferry service for the purpose. The three Landing Ships Tank (L.S.Ts) which were all that Admiral Cunningham possessed of this invaluable class, were used to carry American tanks and guns forward from Oran to Philippeville, while smaller landing craft plied between Bone and the little ports near to the front line
with urgent supplies of petrol and ammunition. Commodore G. N. Oliver, who had latterly been in charge of all the flotilla vessels working with the 'TORCH' convoys, was appointed Senior Naval Officer, Inshore Squadron, to serve the First Army in the same way as the similarly named squadron in the Eastern Mediterranean had for so long served the Eighth Army. His headquarters were initially at Bone, and his orders were to move forward as the army advanced. Bases for the landing craft had meanwhile been established at Bougie and Djidjelli.4
The enemy's reaction to the constant flow of ships along the north African seaboard was to attack the convoys with aircraft and U-boats, and to bomb the ports which they were using. Neither Algiers nor Bougie suffered very heavily from air bombardment, but in the more forward base of Bone a good deal of damage was done. Being the chief terminal of the troop ferry service already mentioned, it was a very busy port; and several casualties occurred among the crowded shipping using it. The Italians generally kept about a dozen submarines on patrol in the western Mediterranean; but they did us little harm and, as in earlier phases, suffered heavy losses themselves. In the first five months of 1943 eight Italian submarines were sunk inside the Mediterranean by all our varied counter-measures.5 The German U-boats proved, as before, to be far more dangerous enemies. Some of the losses which they caused us will be mentioned later in this chapter. Here it will be convenient to summarise their fortunes. At the start of this phase there were twenty-three German U-boats inside the Mediterranean. Several attempts were made to reinforce them, but our air and sea patrols had now made the passage of the Straits much more dangerous. One got through in January, two in April and three more in May; but several were sunk on passage, or damaged and forced to turn back. Furthermore the losses we inflicted steadily outstripped the reinforcements. Seven German U-boats were sunk in the Mediterranean in the first three months of the year, and three more in May6 - the month which marked the great victories of our escorts and patrols in the Atlantic.7 At the end of this phase there were eighteen left in the Mediterranean, but thereafter their strength declined still more rapidly. Between June and September six were sunk, and no more reinforcements arrived. By the autumn of 1943 their numbers were down to twelve. The defeat of the U-boats in the Mediterranean thus took place slightly later than the decisive victory gained over them on the Atlantic convoy routes.
Among the losses we suffered at this time, the cruiser Ajax was severely damaged by air attack in Bone on New Year's Day 1943, She was replaced by the Penelope, which had repaired in America the damage suffered earlier in Malta8, and had now returned to the station on which she had served many years with distinction. On the 1st of February the fast minelayer Welshman was torpedoed and sunk on passage from Malta to Alexandria by U-617. She was a valuable ship, and had done good service for Malta at its time of crisis.9 Next month, on the 13th, the liner Empress of Canada (21,517 tons) was sunk by U-boat off Sierra Leone, and the Windsor Castle (19,141 tons) in convoy KMF 11 was sunk by aircraft torpedo inside the Straits on the 23rd. But, considering the density of traffic passing Gibraltar and flowing thence to the east, the losses were astonishingly small; and our salvage organisation was now so efficient that a large proportion of torpedoed ships - in March eight out of twelve - reached harbour. During the two months following the initial landings in Africa (8th November 1942 to 8th January 1943) the whole 'TORCH' area received 437,200 Allied fighting men and 42,420 vehicles. By the beginning of February four-and-a-half million tons of shipping had entered ports inside the Mediterranean, and our total losses were only 229,500 tons. Only one 'TORCH' convoy was seriously mauled by the enemy, and that was the tanker convoy TM 1 which fell foul of a pack of U-boats off the Azores, and lost seven of its nine ships.10 Rarely if ever in history can maritime power have been so successfully exploited to prosecute an offensive on such a scale at such great distances from the armies' home bases.
To turn now to our counter-offensive against the Axis supply lines, the New Year saw a great intensification of the blockade by our aircraft, submarines, surface forces and coastal craft. The Royal Air Force now had in Malta a big offensive force composed of Wellington torpedo-bombers, Beauforts and Beaufighters, eight squadrons in all. These were additional to the five squadrons of day and night fighters.11 There were also three squadrons (Nos. 821, 828 and 830) of naval Swordfish and Albacores, which did very good work-particularly in night torpedo attacks on enemy convoys. A fourth naval squadron (No. 826) soon moved to Bone to work under the Coastal Air Force command. On the 8th of January the Chiefs of Staff stressed to the Supreme Commander the need to devote powerful shore-based air forces to the disruption of the enemy's sea borne supplies. Of our surface forces, the 15th Cruiser Squadron (the Cleopatra, Orion and Euryalus) and about four destroyers (Force K)
worked from Malta, while the 12th Cruiser Squadron (the Aurora, Penelope, Dido and Sirius) and another four destroyers (Force Q) were generally stationed at Bone. In addition to the cruiser and destroyer striking forces, the Coastal Force flotillas of motor torpedo boats and motor gunboats were also gaining strength. They too worked from Malta and from Bone, and often went right into the entrances to the enemy's supply ports to find their targets. While all these ships worked close up to the front, in the background, to ensure that the main Italian fleet made no attempt to interfere with our convoys, lay Force H, which now consisted of the Nelson, Rodney, Formidable and about a dozen destroyers. Though a close watch was kept on all the Italian bases, their fleet never showed signs of serious activity. It was seriously handicapped by shortage of fuel. In January Force H came to Algiers for a time, after covering the approach of the troop convoy KMF 6. For the rest of the month Admiral Syfret's ships stayed in Oran, chiefly to impress the local population by the sight of such a powerful Allied fleet. At the end of the month Admiral Syfret fell ill, and Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Burrough, who had gained much experience in previous operations in these waters, temporarily relieved him in command of Force H.
Of our own Mediterranean submarine flotillas, the 1st was still working from Beirut, the 8th had moved from Gibraltar to Algiers, and the 10th flotilla, now commanded by Captain G. C. Philips, was still based on Malta. As with our air forces, the Chiefs of Staff now stressed the need to allocate the greatest possible submarine strength to the Mediterranean. Early in the year the Admiralty told the Prime Minister that there were thirty-two operational boats, - about two-thirds of our total strength - in the three flotillas. As the year advanced reinforcements were received, but they generally only balanced the losses suffered. Included in the new arrivals were several boats manned by Greek, Dutch, Free French and Polish crews. The great contribution of the submarines to cutting the Axis supply lines to Africa has been emphasised earlier in our story.12 It was continued unremittingly throughout the present phase, but in these shallow and narrow waters it was inevitable that a heavy price would be paid by the submarine service. Between January and May 1943 we lost seven boats in the Mediterranean. Among them was the Turbulent, commanded by Commander J. W. Linton who had held submarine commands since the beginning of the war and was one of the Royal Navy's most successful exponents of that type of warfare. Only a man of exceptional strength of character could have stood the strain of patrol after patrol, especially in the dangerously confined waters of the central Mediterranean. He was to have taken the Turbulent home to refit after this, his ninth patrol in command of her.
He sailed from Algiers on the 24th of February. We now know that he unsuccessfully attacked an Italian ship off Bastia in Corsica on the 11th of March, and that his ship was sunk by counter-attacking Italian anti-submarine vessels. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his many successful patrols in the Turbulent, but the award was not gazetted until after his death.13
Table 38. Enemy Merchant Shipping Losses, 1st January - 31st May 1943
(1) Italian (including losses outside the Mediterranean)
Number of ships : Tonnage
(See Note 2)
(See Note 3)
Jan. 9 : 5,825 16 : 19,246 13 : 27,223 1 : 5,186 33 : 42,651 72 : 100,131 Feb. 18 : 42,636 26 : 32,223 4 : 7,668 12 : 808 60 : 83,335 March 15 : 21,976 36 : 41,845 3 : 2,218 10 : 13,847 64 : 79,886 April 5 : 939 17 : 35,530 55 : 52,668 3 : 1,641 24 : 6,268 104 : 97,046 May 1 : 3,566 12 : 12,469 101 : 58,482 --- 30 : 20,548 144 : 95,065 TOTAL 15 : 10,330 78 : 131,857 231 : 212,441 11 : 16,713 109 : 84,122 444 : 455,463
(2) German and German Controlled (Mediterranean only)
(See Note 1)
2 : 2,173 11 : 29,546 28 : 57,700 6 : 10,442 15 : 11,206 62 : 111,067
The considerable increase in German and German-controlled shipping losses compared with earlier phases is attributable to the acquisition by the Germans of a substantial tonnage of shipping after the occupation of 'Unoccupied' France in November 1942. The great increase in shipping sunk or destroyed by air attack is attributable to the much heavier effort devoted to shipping in enemy ports. Of the total tonnage sunk by air attack in this phase 41 ships of 111,088 tons were sunk at sea, and 2I8 ships of 159,053 tons in port. Of the 506 ships sunk in this phase, 170 were of more than 500 tons and 336 of less than 500 tons.
Having considered the many-sided offensive launched against the enemy's supply traffic early in 1943 we may analyse the losses which he suffered throughout the whole of this phase. It will be seen from the table above that in these five months the Axis powers lost over
five hundred ships of more than half a million tons in the Mediterranean. True, many of them were small (336 were of less than five hundred tons), but they were none the less valuable for inshore supply purposes. Air attacks accounted for more than half of this total, but a great proportion of the ships sunk by that means was destroyed in enemy ports. It is certain that the combined result achieved by all arms was the severance of the Afrika Korp's sea communications, and that this contributed greatly to the collapse in Africa shortly to be recounted.
In the eastern Mediterranean the phase opened with loaded convoys running to Malta, Tobruk and Benghazi, and also between Port Said and Alexandria. Though they still had to be heavily escorted, the Malta and Benghazi convoys now ran in both directions with almost monotonous regularity. U-boats were still working off the African Coast, but the losses they caused were not serious; and the air threat to our supply traffic had declined almost to insignificance. The Malta-based cruisers and destroyers met the convoys to the east of the island to reinforce the escorts. Royal Air Force Beaufighters watched overhead, and dealt decisively with any attackers which might approach, while anti-submarine Beauforts swept ahead of the ships. It was a Beaufort which on the 14th of January sighted and attacked the Italian submarine Narvalo ahead of convoy ME 1514. Two destroyers of the escort finished her off, and once again effective air-sea co-operation was shown to be deadly to the U-boats.
The Red Sea was still a part of Admiral Harwood's command, but it was now unusual for him to experience any anxiety regarding our control over the very important routes running up and down it. The appearance of Japanese submarines in the Indian Ocean15 and the sinking of a few ships off Aden caused him to send the Teviot Bank to lay a defensive minefield in the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb early in the New Year. But the Japanese never attempted seriously to interfere with our heavy traffic through that vital corridor. In January the 9th Australian Division had to be sent back to their own country, and four 'monster' liners (the Queen Mary, Aquitania, Ile de France and Nieuw Amsterdam) arrived at Red Sea ports to embark them. The cruiser Devonshire and an armed merchant cruiser went with the troopships as ocean escorts, while Mediterranean destroyers were sent south to escort the troopships clear of the narrow waters where submarines might be lurking. In the event this large movement took place without any untoward incidents.
On the 15th of January the Eighth Army, which had been held up in front of strong enemy positions east of Tripoli, attacked again and with complete success. Eight days later Tripoli was captured, and
the westward advance continued rapidly.16 On the 29th our troops crossed the frontier into Tunisia for the first time. For this offensive the Navy had poured supplies in through Benghazi, and had also employed a mobile party to carry urgently needed stores right on to the beaches behind the front line. This small party moved west as the army advanced, and its services won a warm tribute from the Eighth Army Commander.
As soon as the attack on land started, the Malta destroyers and motor torpedo-boats intensified their nightly sweeps in the Sicilian channel, to frustrate enemy attempts to run reinforcements across. The Nubian and Kelvin sank one supply ship on the night of the 15th - 16th, and the Pakenkam and javelin another the following night. At the same time the submarine Thunderbolt was sent with two 'chariots'17 to destroy the blockships with which the enemy was preparing to obstruct the port of Tripoli; but the operation was unsuccessful.18 Meanwhile Wellingtons from Malta bombed the port heavily, while naval Albacores and R.A.F. Beauforts mined the approaches, and motor torpedo-boats went in 'to interfere with demolitions and blocking'. On the night of the 19th-20th the Malta destroyers swept along the coast of Tripolitania and sank a torpedo boat and ten small ships. The Albacores were out again at the same time and added two supply ships to the score. This combined sea and air offensive effectively cut the enemy's supply line at a critical juncture.
To stop a determined enemy from destroying and obstructing a port which one wishes to use oneself as soon as possible after its capture is bound to be difficult. In the case of Tripoli none of the various measures adopted produced much result. In spite of all we could do the enemy managed to destroy the port facilities very thoroughly, and to block the entrance completely with six merchantmen, a sheer-legs19, a rock crusher and many barges filled with concrete. To give the enemy his due it was, in Admiral Harwood's words, 'the successful delaying actions [fought on land which] gave him time to carry out most effective and thorough demolitions of the harbour and port'. The problems facing the Navy were, therefore two-to clear the harbour and to get supplies in through it as quickly as possible. The naval parties, under the commander of the Inshore Squadron (Captain C. Wauchope), moved in hard on the heels of the Army. Mine clearance, diving operations and blowing
up of the blockships started at once. The first supply convoy, composed of landing craft, had left Benghazi two days before Tripoli fell, and the first merchant ship convoy sailed simultaneously from Alexandria. By the 25th a small passage had been cleared to enable landing craft to enter; next day the first proper convoy arrived, but had to anchor outside. On the 26th a beginning was made by getting 370 tons of cargo discharged, and thereafter matters improved rapidly. Then a violent storm caused damage among the landing craft, and delayed clearance and salvage work. The same storm struck Benghazi and damaged the moles so badly that it was 'reduced to a fair weather port'. None the less by the 29th the gap in the blockships in Tripoli was wide enough for L.C.Ts to enter, and 1,000 tons of cargo were discharged next day. The first supply ship entered on the 2nd of February, in spite of having only six inches of water beneath her as she passed through the gap in the blockships, and a foot or so clearance on either side. On the same day the port received its first enemy air raid. In spite of all difficulties the rate of discharge improved so rapidly that on the 14th 2,700 tons were unloaded. 'By accepting risks', wrote Admiral Harwood, 'we were able to meet the Eighth Army's requirements'. Meanwhile regular convoys (XT-TX) had started to run between Alexandria and Tripoli. The U-boats at once tried to attack them, but with unhappy results to themselves. U-205 was sunk by the destroyer and air escorts of convoy TX 1 on the 17th of February, and U-562 suffered a similar fate two days later when she tried to approach XT 3. In addition to the U-boats enemy aircraft, chiefly Ju 88s, also sometimes attacked the Malta and Tripoli convoys, but they rarely accomplished much result. MW 22 and XT 4 had two ships damaged by them at the beginning of March.
Early in February General Alexander (the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East) and the Prime Minister both visited Tripoli, and saw for themselves its condition and the difficulties involved in clearing and reopening the port. Mr. Churchill sent his congratulations on the large amount of stores landed on the 14th.
The story of the blocking and reopening of Tripoli has been told in some detail, because complaints were made by the Eighth Army Commander about the way the Navy tackled the job. These reached Cairo while the Prime Minister was there. At about the same time Mr. Casey, the Minister of State, gave it as his view that the Navy's representation on the Commanders-in- Chief, Middle East, Committee was not as strong as that of the other services. On his return to London Mr. Churchill took the matter up with the First Sea Lord, who decided that Admiral Harwood should be relieved. In his letter to the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Pound said that 'the arrangements for the clearance of Tripoli harbour are largely responsible
for this'. It cannot be doubted that the failure of the attack on Tobruk in September 1942 had aroused questioning anxieties in London20, nor that by the following February Admiral Harwood was in bad health. On the particular issue of the measures taken to reopen Tripoli harbour, an impartial examination of the facts at this distance of time does appear to indicate that at Naval Headquarters, where the urgency of the matter to the Army must have been realised, the capabilities of the salvage ships allocated to the task were not studied sufficiently thoroughly, nor far enough in advance. Equally it appears that, as we had several days' warning that the enemy was taking exceptional steps to block the harbour, more could have been done to send adequate quantities of explosives forward quickly. Finally there is no doubt that, when clearance operations were started, a technical mistake was made by using too heavy charges in an attempt completely to disintegrate the blockships, rather than smaller charges to eat away the obstructions gradually. But it must be remembered that we had not previously encountered concrete filled blockships on anything like the scale used by the Germans at Tripoli. The First Sea Lord summed the matter up in a letter to Admiral Cunningham in which he said 'The actual work of the salvage party at Tripoli was very good and they were commended, but the staff arrangements left too much to chance, which was quite unacceptable when one takes into consideration what the clearing of Tripoli meant to the Army'.
Although it is right to admit, therefore, that certain mistakes were made on the naval side of the clearance work, it none the less seems doubtful whether in the sum they caused appreciable delay to the unloading of the Army's supplies. The harbour quays had been so thoroughly wrecked that no berths were ready until some weeks after the first merchantman entered. Though it is true that once the ships could enter the harbour lighterage was less delayed by sea and swell, it would in any case have been necessary to use lighters. Furthermore, whatever may have gone wrong at Tripoli, the accomplishments of the Inshore Squadron throughout the campaign remain most impressive. Between the start of the Army's advance in November r942 and the capture of Tripoli on the 23rd of January 1943, the squadron's little ships landed 157,070 tons of supplies in the various ports used, or over the beaches. In February alone 115,137 tons were put ashore at Tripoli, Buerat and Benghazi. That the Army's next advance was not in fact held up by any failure of supply by sea appears to be indicated by the fact that in April General Montgomery signalled his appreciation of the Navy's efforts to the Commander-in-Chief, Levant, in these terms - 'Without the safe conduct of tanks, petrol and other munitions of war to
Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli, the Eighth Army would have been unable to launch the offensive'; and in his own account of these events, after describing the state of the port on our entry, General Montgomery writes 'All our energies were concentrated on getting it [the port] working again, and indeed this was achieved with remarkable speed and reflected very great credit on the Royal Navy and Army Staff and units concerned'.21 Finally Mr. Churchill has left it on record that the efforts to keep the Eighth Army supplied were 'crowned by the rapid opening up of Tripoli'.22
The change in the Levant Command did not actually take place until the 27th of March, by which time Admiral Harwood's health had broken down. He was temporarily succeeded by Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham, who had been in command at Malta during most of 1942, and on the 5th of June Admiral Sir John Cunningham took over permanently.
After the capture of Tripoli the policy for supplying the Eighth Army was reviewed by the Commanders-in-Chief. It was decided to continue to land stores at Benghazi up to its full capacity of about 2,000 tons a day, to work up the small port of Buerat to take as much as it could, and to restore the capacity of Tripoli so that it could handle 4,000 tons daily. The last was an ambitious proposal, and it threw very heavy escort commitments on the Navy. For example on the 6th of February a convoy of seven ships for Tripoli (XT 2) and five for Malta (MW 20) sailed from Alexandria escorted by twelve destroyers. The Euryalus and two more destroyers came east from Malta to meet the convoy, all of which arrived safely. Admiral Harwood next reorganised the thirty-five escort vessels available to him into four groups. Two would look after the Alexandria-Tripoli convoys, which would run on a twenty-two day cycle, one group would run on a shuttle service to and fro between Tobruk and Benghazi, while the fourth group would be responsible for Levant convoys and those sailing between Port Said and Alexandria.
We had not been in possession of Tripoli for long before the Luftwaffe turned its attention to the port. But the weight of its attacks could not be compared with those which Malta had suffered a year earlier. By day our fighter defences held the upper hand, and the arrival of barrage balloons, the installation of smoke producing apparatus, and the deployment of a big concentration of antiaircraft guns soon made dusk or night attacks difficult and hazardous. On the 19th of March enemy aircraft used a new weapon, a circling torpedo. It was a promising development for use against a harbour crowded with shipping, since the longer the torpedoes
circled the more likely they were to hit something. On this occasion thirteen were dropped and two merchantmen were sunk. The same weapons were used later against Algiers, but there no appreciable success was obtained. We had by that time learnt that small arms fire was an effective way of sinking them, or blowing them up prematurely.
In March Admiral Harwood reported that 'the discharge figures for Tripoli [had] met the Eighth Army's requirements'. Three large supply convoys and one troop convoy were sailed direct from Alexandria, and only one ship from all of them was lost. On the 27th of March over 5,000 tons were unloaded in the port, and by the end of April the daily average exceeded that figure. The original aim of 4,000 tons daily had been easily surpassed. Tripoli remained the principal supply port for the Eighth Army right to the end of the campaign. Malta was now also receiving its needs almost unhindered. In March 40,000 tons of cargo were unloaded there.
On the 20th of March the Eighth Army launched its new attack against the powerful defences known as the Mareth Line. Nine days later they were in our hands, and our troops occupied the port of Gabes. Once again the mobile naval parties moved right up to the front to land urgent supplies over beaches or through the small ports.
While the Eighth Army was preparing for its next drive forward Allied plans for the offensive against Sicily were being prepared. They included movements designed to mislead the enemy into expecting attack either against Crete and the Aegean Islands as stepping stones to Greece, or against Sardinia. To further this design troops were moved from Beirut into Cyprus on a considerable scale. Over 4,000 were taken there in January, mainly by the fast minelayer Welshman. In addition Marauders and Beaufighters of No. 201 Naval Co-operation Group of the R.A.F. started to attack enemy bases in the Aegean from Egypt, while submarines of the 1st Flotilla patrolled and attacked supply vessels in those same waters, and also moved up the Adriatic as far as Split.
In Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham's command the month of March saw a great intensification of the offensive against the enemy's sea communications. The Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm squadrons made daily sweeps from Malta, the surface forces from that same base or from Bone were out on most nights, while the submarines 'continued to drain the supply lines to the Axis forces in Tunisia', and the Coastal Force craft swept along the diminishing coastline held by the enemy. Lastly mines were laid by the Abdiel on the enemy's routes between Sicily and Tunis, while the submarine Rorqual, motor-launches and British and American M.T.Bs infested the approaches to his African supply ports. Continuous operations in
such confined waters were bound to lead to losses. Those suffered by our submarines have already been mentioned23, but new arrivals, including three French and two Polish boats, kept the 1st and 10th Flotillas at full strength. As we now had plentiful surface and air forces to look after the dangerous shallow waters off Tunis, the submarines were no longer sent into them. Instead they patrolled west and north of Sicily and off the ports of the Italian mainland. In addition to our submarine losses, the destroyer Lightning of Force Q was sunk by E-boats during a sweep in the Sicilian Channel on the night of the 12th-13th. She was at once replaced by the Polish Blyskawica, one of the destroyers which had escaped to Britain in 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, and had since rendered splendid service in many operations.24
Meanwhile in the west the troop and supply convoys continued to arrive steadily from Britain and the U.S.A., and the reinforcements were at once ferried forward to the advanced bases. Force H, now commanded by Vice-Admiral A. U. Willis, generally covered the big convoys inside the Mediterranean, but was ordered to Gibraltar early in March because there were indications that the German capital ships now concentrated in north Norway might be intending a foray into the Atlantic.25 On the 14th the Admiralty reported that a large warship had passed through the Kattegat north-bound a week earlier, and ordered Force H to remain at Gibraltar. The reader will remember that the Scharnhorst, after two unsuccessful attempts in January, succeeded at this time in joining the other major German warships in north Norway.26 Even at a time when the climax of victory in north Africa was plainly approaching the Admiralty kept a watchful eye open, to detect any threat against the vital North Atlantic routes. But in this case it was the Russian convoys that the enemy intended to attack; and the Home Fleet was ready to look after them. As to the security of our own African bases, Bone was still the chief target of the Axis bombers, but they did no serious damage in March. Oran was attacked by Italian 'limpeteers' on the 23rd-24th, while Algiers twice experienced the circling torpedoes already used against Tripoli. The limpet attack failed completely, and the circling torpedoes only damaged one ship.
On the 10th of April the Eighth Army occupied Sfax, and the Inshore Squadron at once moved in.27 The harbour was blocked, and a good deal of damage had been done to the quays; but three berths were available next day, and by the 13th a channel sixty feet
wide and eighteen deep had been cleared. The first convoy from Tripoli arrived on the 4th, and four days later over 1,500 tons of cargo was unloaded. By the end of April 20,000 tons had been discharged there. Sfax was the sixth major port to be cleared and reopened by the Navy during the Eighth Army's advance. Meanwhile Sousse had also been captured. There little damage had been done, and shipping could be berthed at once. The mobile beach party took over the port, mines were swept, and on the 22nd of April the first motor torpedo-boats arrived from Malta to use it as their forward base during the final operations. Measures were also put in hand at once to develop both Sfax and Sousse as landing craft bases for the invasion of Sicily, and to improve their port facilities to receive the large number of ships needed for the next offensive.
As the climax approached, our strangle-hold on the Sicilian Channel was tightened. Almost every night the destroyers and M.T.Bs from Malta or Bone were out seeking targets. Their only complaint was that too few could by this time be found. In spite of Italian opposition Hitler insisted that the endeavour to run supplies and reinforcements to Tunisia by sea should be continued to the end. In April out of twenty-six Axis ships which sailed on that route fifteen were sunk and four were damaged, most of them by air attacks; but 27,000 tons of supplies and 2,500 troops reached Africa. By the beginning of May our blockade was almost complete. In that month eight supply ships and fifteen small craft carrying some 7,000 tons were sunk and only 2,163 tons of cargo were safely landed. The enemy tried to compensate for his loss of maritime control by using supply and troop-carrying aircraft on a large scale, but they too suffered heavy losses. None the less he managed to fly in 18,000 men and 5,000 tons of supplies during April, but at a cost of 117 transport aircraft. When day trips became too dangerous flights were made by night, but by the end of the month the rate of supply by air was also falling drastically.
In April, as in March, our light forces working against the Axis supply traffic did not escape unscathed. In the early hours of the 16th the destroyers Pakenham and Paladin from Malta encountered two Italian destroyers off Pantelleria. One enemy, the Cigno, was sunk, but the Pakenham received an unlucky hit in the engine room. She was taken in tow by her consort, but after enemy aircraft had attacked them Admiral Bonham-Carter, who was now in command in Malta, ordered the damaged ship to be sunk. The Pakenham was however soon avenged. On the 4th of May three of her flotilla from Malta (the Nubian, Paladin and Petard) found and sank a large merchantman bound for Tunis with munitions, and also the Italian destroyer Perseo which was escorting her.
At the end of April there was a significant event at the other
extremity of the Levant command. The Combined Operations Headquarters ships Bulolo and Largs and a number of large landing ships arrived at Aden on the 30th. They were the advance section of the new Overseas Assault Force for the invasion of Sicily. Rear Admiral T. H. Troubridge hoisted his flag in the Bulolo and Rear-Admiral R. R. McGrigor his in the Largs. Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian later hoisted his flag at home in a third Headquarters ship, the Hilary. As April drew to a close the situation on land moved steadily in our favour. The First Army attacked on the 22nd from the west, but met stubborn resistance. The Eighth Army was also held up near Enfidaville. General Alexander therefore switched powerful forces from the Eighth to the First Army, and on the 6th of May the culminating blows were struck towards Tunis and Bizerta from the west. Both were entered by Allied troops on the 7th, and next day the naval Commander-in-Chief made the executive signal for the operation 'RETRIBUTION', the destruction of all Axis forces which might attempt to escape by sea. Admiral Cunningham has stated that he made the signal which heads this chapter in no spirit of vengefulness28; nor would anyone who knew him ever suspect that he could have been actuated by such motives. Yet he and his fleet could but remember our experiences off Dunkirk's beaches, Grecian harbours and Cretan cliffs. Such memories justified the expectation that an enemy who was still possessed of a great fleet, a substantial merchant navy and powerful air forces would not abandon his trapped armies to their fate. Not only would such timidity have been unthinkable in our own Services, had the roles been reversed, but it was realised that the Tunisian ports were much nearer to his home bases than Greece or Crete had been to Alexandria. A determined and resourceful enemy could reasonably expect to get at least some of his soldiers home; and since the war was obviously far from ended, to allow his north African armies to get away and fight against us once again on European battlefields would have been an act of folly. Hence the need to 'let nothing pass'.
The coastal and Malta convoys had been temporarily stopped to release their escorts to the blockading flotillas, and Cunningham had under his control eighteen destroyers of all classes to patrol in the Sicilian Channel, west of Marittimo and off the north African coast each side of Cape Bon.29 Inshore of the destroyers cruised the coastal flotillas, while Allied aircraft swept the skies. The only casualties on our side came from attacks by friendly aircraft, and after three such incidents Admiral Cunningham ordered the destroyers to paint their upper works an unmistakable British red. Two enemy merchant vessels were caught off Skerki Bank and sunk in the early hours of
the 9th, and a number of small craft were also destroyed. About 800 prisoners were captured at sea, but the attempt at evacuation had been very half-hearted. The German account tells us that 'only a few hundred men succeeded in reaching Sicily by adventurous means'. On the 13th resistance ceased on land, and hordes of enemy troops marched or drove themselves into the Allied prisoner-of-war cages. On conclusion of the campaign King George VI signalled that 'the debt of Dunkirk [was] repaid', and Admiral Cunningham gave warm tribute to his light forces.
Meanwhile immediately after the capture of Bizerta the naval parties arrived. Commodore Oliver, the senior officer, Inshore Squadron, actually entered rather prematurely in an M.T.B., which was heavily fired on and suffered casualties. He was compelled to submit to the indignity of arriving instead by road. The enemy had sunk about fourteen vessels at the seaward entrance to the Bizerta Canal, and the naval dockyard at Ferryville had been badly damaged. None the less on the 10th, three days before the surrender of the Axis armies, Bizerta was ready to receive the first L.C.T. convoy from Bone. Four days later over 1,000 tons were discharged there. The clearance of Bizerta was carried out as a combined British-American operation. In spite of the poverty of their resources, the constructor officer on Admiral Cunningham's staff (Captain I. E. King) and American salvage experts rapidly blasted a channel through the obstructions.
It was at Bizerta that the senior officers of the two hard-worked Inshore Squadrons, Commodore G. N. Oliver from the west and Captain C. Wauchope from the east, finally met and knew that their tasks were completed. They had travelled far, to and fro along the African coast, and they and their predecessors had opened many ports, and carried in through them thousands of tons of supplies. Rarely had the work of their little ships caught the limelight, but all who fought on land to drive the Axis out of Africa knew how greatly they were indebted to the Inshore Squadrons. The Senior Officers' appointments now lapsed, and they and their men turned to other duties. On the 20th of March Rear-Admiral (Admiral, retired) Sir Gerald Dickens hoisted his flag in command of the ports of Bizerta and Tunis.
It now remained for our maritime services to carry out two essential operations. The first was to sweep the Sicilian Channel clear of the innumerable mines which had obstructed it for the last three years. Convoy escorts were reduced in order to release as many minesweepers as possible. The 12th, 13th and 14th Minesweeping Flotillas from Malta, two groups of minesweeping trawlers, motor-launches and motor-minesweepers all took a hand. By the 15th of May a channel two miles wide and 200 miles long had been swept from the
Galita Channel to Sousse, and thence on to Tripoli.30 Nearly 200 moored mines were cut. That day Cunningham signalled that 'the passage through the Mediterranean was clear', and that convoys from Gibraltar to Alexandria could be started at once. The Admiralty sent its congratulations. The Navy thereupon took up the second of the two new duties mentioned - that of escorting these ships safely through the waters which had for so long been closed to our shipping.
The first convoy consisted of four fast merchant ships. Escorted by the A.A. cruiser Carlisle and four destroyers they reached Tripoli on the 22nd. Four more merchantmen joined up there, and the Malta destroyers strengthened the escort for the second part of the journey. All ships arrived safely at Alexandria on the 26th. It was the first through-Mediterranean convoy to run since operation 'TIGER' in May 1941 .31 After this special convoy a regular series (called GTX and TXG) was started between Gibraltar and Alexandria. The saving of shipping achieved by the reopening of the Mediterranean was enormous. Before operation 'TORCH' was launched the Naval Staff estimated that it would bring us at least a fifty per cent saving of shipping bound for the Middle East, and about a twenty per cent saving of ships sailing to and from India. In addition more than half of the eighty-five ships permanently employed on the WS convoy route could, so they expected, be released. At the end of 1942 the prospective gain was assessed at about a million tons of shipping; and a further half million tons in French ports had come into our use. On the other hand we lost over a quarter of a million tons of shipping during the North African campaign; delays and postponements of Atlantic convoys had deprived Britain of a million tons of imports, and the enemy gained to his use some 875,000 tons seized in the Mediterranean ports of metropolitan France. Although therefore in terms of statistics the saving of tonnage to the Allies was not very much greater than the losses suffered and the gains received by the enemy, in terms of strategy the advantages to our cause were immense. Quite apart from merchant shipping, our warships and maritime aircraft could now be more economically employed, and more advantageously disposed. To give but one example, flotilla vessels were now released to strengthen local Mediterranean convoys and, still more important, to work with the newly-forming combined assault forces.
With the fall of Tunis and Bizerta the supply ports to the west, such as Bougie and Bone, were much reduced in importance, as was Benghazi to the east. Bone had played a big part in keeping the First Army supplied, and Benghazi and Tripoli had done the same for the Eighth Army. Now supplies and reinforcements could be
carried direct to the ports on the Tunisian 'hump', and a vast amount of transhipment and ferry work was saved. While the sweeping of the Sicilian channel was in progress the small island of Galita was 'liberated' by coastal craft from Bone. The senior officer of the flotilla reported that 'the ceremony was interrupted by the need to salvage firstly the delegates' hats, which they kept throwing into the air and the wind blew into the sea, and secondly the Mayor, who fell overboard'. Though the people of that small island were among the first to give a tumultuous welcome to those who freed them from the Axis yoke, all over Europe oppressed peoples were now awaiting the day when they too could release their pent-up feelings; and the success of operation 'TORCH' had made it plain that, even though a long and painful road still had to be traversed, that day would come to them as well. Other islands off the North African coast were occupied soon afterwards and, as the next step towards Sicily, the fortified island of Pantelleria was now blockaded, and bombarded from the sea and air. On the 11th of June it surrendered. Another development was that the French Admiral Godfroy at last ended his long period of vacillation. On the 17th of May the Commander-in-Chief, Levant, received a letter from him expressing the desire 'to join the French Navy in North Africa'. Docking of his ships was at once started at Alexandria, and the Mediterranean Fleet was rid of another tiresome responsibility.
Meanwhile far away in the west landing ships and craft, built in American yards, were crossing the Atlantic by way of Bermuda, generally in UGS convoys. The crews of British warships repairing damage in America were extensively used to man the Tank Landing Ships (L.S.Ts) and Infantry Landing Craft (L.C.Is), and the former carried across the invaluable Tank Landing Craft (L.C.Ts) as deck cargo. The L.C.Is came over in flotillas under their own power, small though they were to undertake the Atlantic crossing. Other ships earmarked for the next combined operations, and many thousands of the fresh troops who were to take part in it, had already sailed from Britain to Egypt in WS convoys. At home, at the head of the Red Sea, and at the new landing craft bases recently established inside the Mediterranean at Bizerta, Sousse and Sfax, the ships and vessels were training and exercising under the watchful eyes of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay and of three of our most brilliant young Flag Officers - Rear-Admirals Vian, Troubridge and McGrigor. It was plain that, at long last, after nearly four years of war, we were to reap the benefits of 'the patient pursuit of a maritime strategy'32, and that throughout the Middle East theatre the balance had come central. The phase ended with the skies aglow with hope on the European horizon.
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