|'I am in desperation about Malta-we shall lose it, I am afraid, past redemption.'|
|Nelson to Lieutenant-General Sir James Erskine, 26th October 1799.|
The year 1941 had ended with the fortunes of the Mediterranean Fleet at a very low ebb.1 The heavy losses suffered in the closing months, diversions to the Far East, and the strengthening of the German Air Force had forced us back on the defensive once again; and the events of the first six months Of 1942, after another false dawn on land, produced the greatest period of trial since Greece and Crete, and the greatest threat to our hold on the whole Middle East position.
Admiral Pound had no illusions regarding the dangers we were facing in the Mediterranean. At the end of 1941 he wrote to Admiral Cunningham that 'There is nothing I should like better than to send you a present of twenty or thirty destroyers and a dozen cruisers . . . You know, however, how terribly hard-pressed we are in every direction, and this will account for the smallness of our presents'. Early in the New Year he warned all the naval Commanders-in-Chief that 'the withdrawal of [the heavy ships] of the fleet from the Mediterranean meant that the control of those waters depended on our smaller warships supported by aircraft. The support of the Royal Air Force was essential if Malta was to be held. The fall of Malta would have incalculable results'. The period covered by this chapter thus became a protracted and critical struggle to control the Mediterranean sea routes sufficiently to prevent the fall of Malta, and to frustrate the enemy's purpose of building up his African army to decisive strength.
At the beginning of January the Army of the Nile was still on the offensive. Bardia fell on the 2nd and very soon afterwards the Inshore Squadron (now commanded by Captain A. L. Poland) prepared to escort stores and military equipment to Benghazi, which we had captured for the second time on Christmas Eve 1941.2 Very
heavy commitments were falling on the fleet not only to supply the army's needs through Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi, but to safeguard the heavy traffic between Port Said and Alexandria, the flow of oil from Haifa to the main bases, and also the essential convoys to Cyprus and ports on the Levant coast. Admiral Cunningham's resources in asdic-fitted flotilla vessels totalled only about sixty, including his few and precious fleet destroyers, and he warned the Admiralty that he could 'by no means guarantee the security of the Army's supply to Tripoli should we reach there'. Such circumstances were not, however, to arise for many months to come, because the enemy was so successful in passing supplies to Africa under cover of his greatly superior naval and air strength that Rommel was soon able to resume the offensive. In January two Italian 'battleship convoys' got through to Tripoli, the first completely unscathed and the second for the loss of one large ship sunk by air attack. Our surface forces in Malta were far too weak to accept action with such powerful enemy escorts, and although our submarines and aircraft (both Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force), working from Malta and from Cyrenaica, did all that they could, their numbers were inadequate to inflict decisive losses. Furthermore, we had to devote much of our available effort to the ever-acute problem of keeping Malta supplied. On the 8th of January the fast supply ship Glengyle was safely taken there, and the Breconshire was brought out. The double movement was covered and escorted by Rear-Admiral P. Vian in the light cruiser Naiad, with the Euryalus, Dido and some half-dozen destroyers. These new light cruisers, though of only 5,450 tons displacement, had good dual-purpose main armaments. They had perforce to be used as the main escorts, the 'battle force' on which the smaller vessels could depend for support in need, and they did remarkable service in that capacity.3 But it was in reality something of a bluff, forced on us by the simple fact that these were the most powerful ships on the station; and the enemy could, had he accepted the many challenges offered, have called the bluff by forcing close action. It was, without doubt, the determined and spirited leadership of the 15th Cruiser Squadron's Commander which prevented that ever happening.
In the middle of January another convoy, of four merchant ships, sailed from the east for Malta. The anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle and two divisions of destroyers left with the merchantmen, and Admiral Vian with his three light cruisers and six more destroyers left a day later to overtake the convoy and reinforce the escorts. The Penelope (Captain A. D. Nicholl) and five destroyers (Force K) meanwhile sailed from Malta to meet the main body. By the 18th all forces were
united. One of the four merchantmen (the Thermopylae) developed defects, and was detached to Benghazi. She was later badly damaged by bombing and had to be sunk. The other three ships arrived in Malta safely. Air attacks on the main convoy were successfully countered by fighters of No. 201 Naval Co-operation Group, sent out from the airfields in Cyrenaica, by the escorts' gunfire and by Malta-based Hurricanes, as soon as the convoy came within their range. Unhappily, the loss of the advanced airfields was soon to deprive our surface ships of such effective cover, and operations in the central basin then at once became far more difficult and, finally, impossible. The only warship lost on this occasion was the destroyer Gurkha, which was torpedoed by U-133 on the 17th.4 The Dutch ship Isaac Sweers gallantly towed her clear of burning oil fuel, and nearly all the crew were rescued. As soon as it was known that the Italian fleet had no intention of threatening his charges, Admiral Vian turned east again. On the 20th his forces were back in Alexandria. At Malta Admiral Sir Wilbraham Ford remained just long enough to see this convoy arrive. He had been there for almost exactly five years, and had contributed a great deal to remedying the early deficiencies in the defences of the island base, even though most of his bricks had to be made with little or no straw. His departure was widely regretted among the British services and the Maltese. Vice-Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham, who had formerly been Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, took over in Malta on the 19th of January.
Very soon after the convoy had arrived another operation was started to pass the Breconshire once more into Malta, and to bring out two empty ships of the last convoy. The escort and covering arrangements were similar to those which had recently proved so successful; all forces met east of the island on the 26th, the Malta and Alexandria escorts then exchanged their merchant ship charges, and all completed their journeys safely. That, however, was to be the last comparatively easy movement to and from the beleaguered island; for the land situation was meanwhile developing very unfavourably for us. On the 21st of January Rommel began his counter-offensive from El Agheila, and two days later Admiral Cunningham's War Diary noted that 'it began to appear dangerous'. Unloading of store ships at Benghazi had just begun to go smoothly, when preparations were once more made to abandon that very valuable advanced base. Two nights later naval vessels, lighters, tugs and all the paraphernalia needed to work the port, so recently and hopefully carried
there, started off to the east once again, sailing in three convoys and escorted by the hardworked Inshore Squadron's little ships.
To Admiral Cunningham the Axis successes on land were a heavy blow, and a note of deep anxiety can be detected in the letters he sent home at this time. Early in February he wrote to the First Sea Lord as follows: 'I am, as I am sure you are, bitterly disappointed at the turn the Libyan campaign has taken . . . I know it is not due to any naval shortcomings. We had just landed over 2,500 tons of petrol and over 3,000 tons of other stores at Benghazi, and had doubled the amount we had guaranteed to land daily at Tobruk . . . I have pressed on the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Forces, the necessity of holding a line as far forward as possible . . . I am alarmed about Malta's supplies . . . If we could hold as far forward as Derna I believe we could supply [the island] from here ... but we are already behind that line'. His apprehensions were soon to be proved only too well grounded.
There can be no period of the war in any theatre which illustrates more clearly the fundamental interdependence of the three services than this in the eastern Mediterranean-though similar examples were constantly being reproduced in all the other theatres. If the Army was driven back on land and the advanced airfields were lost, the Royal Air Force could no longer cover our Malta convoys, nor could our air striking forces attack the enemy's traffic to Tripoli. If Malta could not be supplied, the naval and air forces based there were bound gradually to become ineffective. If that happened the enemy's supply route was made much safer; and he could therefore reinforce the Afrika Korps quicker than we could build up the Army of the Nile. This in turn would make our condition on land more precarious. The circle was a complete one. The Navy depended on air cover, the R.A.F. on the soldiers holding the advanced airfields, and the Army on the other two services stopping the enemy convoys. And the circle of interdependence was now to be most grievously breached. In January, although it was true that, in the Commander-in-Chief's words, 'the magnificent efforts of our submarines, Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force aircraft' had been an outstanding feature, their successes had been inadequate to prevent the tide turning on land. Our submarines sank eight ships Of 22,131 tons during the month, and aircraft added two more totalling 18,839 tons.5 One of the latter was the valuable troop transport Victoria (13,098 tons) which was sunk by the combined efforts of the R.A.F. and of naval torpedo-bombers from Malta on the 23rd of January. But in spite of these successes 60,000 tons of Axis supplies were safely unloaded in North African ports. Moreover, although six more submarines
arrived on the station, such reinforcements were offset by the diversion of ships to the Eastern Fleet, which was occurring all the time. In particular the new fleet carrier ,i>Indomitable was being used to carry urgently needed fighters from Egypt to the Far East6, and a destroyer escort had to be provided for her. Preparations were also in hand to move large numbers of troops, including an armoured division, to Malaya; and Admiral Cunningham had to take emergency steps to convert twenty fast cargo ships to carry the troops. In the event the deterioration of our position in North Africa prevented the large scale reinforcement of Malaya at the expense of the Army of the Nile; but the need was long in the foreground of the Commanders-in-Chiefs' many problems.
As the German armies overran the Russian Black Sea ports it was natural that our Ally should try to save as much as possible of his shipping, which appeared likely to be trapped inside the Black Sea. After discussions in Ankara it was agreed that a number of ships, mostly tankers, should break out through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, and try to reach British ports. An icebreaker and three tankers made their attempts individually on various dates between December 1941 and February 1942. British 'conducting officers' were put on board in the Bosphorus, but the ships' crews were mostly Russian. The-enemy, as he was bound to do, learnt what was in the wind, and managed to sink one tanker south of the Dardanelles; but the others ultimately arrived in Cyprus safely, though not without some narrow escapes.7 The Russian authorities were warmly grateful for our help and cooperation in undertaking this daring and original venture.
Early in February Admiral Cunningham prepared to send another convoy to Malta from the east. The island base was now being more heavily attacked from the air, but the bombing had not yet produced a critical situation. On the 12th the convoy sailed from Alexandria in two sections. The merchantmen were the Clan Chattan, Clan Campbell and Rowallan Castle, and the escorts for the first part of the journey were again the Carlisle and eight destroyers. It will be remarked how often the fast merchant ships of good lifting and carrying capacity, such as of the 'Clan', 'Glen', 'City' and 'Blue Star' Lines appear in operations of this nature. They were still for the most part manned by their Merchant Navy crews and were of inestimable value; but we never had enough of them.
Admiral Vian sailed some hours after the main convoy with the 15th Cruiser Squadron (two ships), and eight destroyers. On the 13th of February four empty ships, one of them the Breconshire,
sailed east from Malta, escorted by the Penelope and six Malta-based destroyers. Admiral Vian met the west-bound convoy early on the 14th, but the Clan Campbell had already been damaged by bombing and was sent to Tobruk. Next the Clan Chattan was hit, caught fire and had to be sunk. The Malta and Alexandria forces joined each other that afternoon, but the last ship of the loaded convoy, the Rowallan Castle, was near-missed and disabled. Efforts were made to tow her, but when it was plain that she could not reach Malta before dark, Admiral Cunningham ordered her to be sunk. It thus happened that Malta received no supplies at all from this substantial effort; and we had lost two fine merchantmen. It had been an ominous experience, and the consolation of the empty ships' safe passage to the east was a small one.
Concurrently with this unsuccessful attempt to revictual Malta the enemy was planning another 'battleship convoy' to Tripoli. By the 16th of February we had plain indications of what was in train, so four submarines were sent to patrol off the probable departure ports and five off Tripoli. On the 22nd reconnaissance aircraft located powerful enemy surface forces and two convoys of merchantmen in the central Ionian Sea, steaming towards Tripoli. Our submarines on patrol off the latter port were increased to eight, and the torpedo-bomber striking forces from Malta and the western desert set out to attack. But the convoys' route passed at the extreme range of our strike aircraft, and none of them managed to attack. Bad weather, which prevented the use of high speed, kept the Malta-based surface ships in harbour, and only one submarine got in an attack at long range; it, too, was unsuccessful. By the 24th we knew that the enemy convoys had arrived safely.
Towards the end of the month the anxieties caused by the disintegration of the Allied position in the Far East, and our precarious hold on the vital sea communications in the Indian Ocean, again impinged on our Mediterranean strategy. Six more destroyers were detached to the Eastern Fleet, and as a result Admiral Cunningham reorganised his meagre remaining strength into three flotillas. They were the 14th Flotilla led by the Jervis, the 22nd led by the Sikh (each of which consisted of eight fleet destroyers), and the 5th Flotilla, composed of about eight Hunt-class ships. On the 25th the Indomitable, flagship of Rear-Admiral D. W. Boyd, commanding the Eastern Fleet aircraft carriers, arrived at Port Sudan to pick up more fighter aircraft for the Far East, while the seaplane carrier Engadine carried out a similar service with cased naval fighters. The hurried attempt to reinforce our fighter strength against the sweeping tide of the Japanese advances was made too late to affect the situation8, and
the use once again of a fleet carrier on aircraft ferry trips inevitably deprived the operational fleets of the vital element of carrier-borne air power. It is easy to imagine how Sir Andrew Cunningham would have reacted to the Italians' 'battleship convoys' had the Indomitable and adequate heavy ship strength been available to him; and had those convoys been stopped Rommel's advance into Egypt could hardly have been carried out.
Yet another diversion of strength from the Mediterranean took place in the middle of February. When the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau began to show signs of activity in Brest9, the Admiralty became anxious about a break-out into the Atlantic and, in particular, for the safety of the big troop convoy WS 16 which consisted of twenty important ships, and was due to sail on the 16th. Force H, now commanded by Rear-Admiral E. N. Syfret, who had relieved Admiral Somerville in January on the latter's appointment to command the Eastern Fleet, was therefore recalled to the Clyde. Its ships did not return to their normal station until the 24th, by which time the enemy's Brest squadron had made the passage up-Channel to Germany. On the 27th Admiral Syfret sailed from Gibraltar to the east with his full strength to fly air reinforcements to Malta, but defects in the aircrafts' fuel tanks frustrated the attempt. It was repeated by the Malaya, Eagle, Argus, Hermione and destroyers on the 6th of March; seven Blenheims from Gibraltar and fifteen Spitfires from the carriers reached Malta safely on the 7th. These were the first Spitfires to join in the defence of the island.
Though we had not succeeded in interfering with the enemy's main convoys to North Africa, in February the Mediterranean submarines again took a satisfactory toll of Axis shipping (seven ships of 31,220 tons); but the Tempest was sunk by an Italian torpedoboat and P 38 by a mine.10 The Thrasher attacked a ship off Suda Bay on the 16th and in return was heavily engaged by enemy aircraft and anti-submarine forces. When she surfaced after dark two unexploded bombs were found inside her hull casing. They were safely removed at imminent risk to themselves by Lieutenant P. S. W. Roberts and Petty Officer T. W. Gould. Apart from the danger of the bombs exploding, the two volunteers had no possibility of escape
if the submarine had suddenly dived. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross.
Bombing raids on Malta were now increasing in weight, but had not yet seriously interfered with the submarine, surface ship and air offensives conducted from the fortress base. But such interference soon began, and as a foretaste of things to come the submarine base was heavily attacked early in March, and three of the 10th Flotilla's boats were damaged.
By the 9th of March the enemy was known again to be active in sending supply ships to Africa. Two convoys, one outward and one homeward bound, were sighted zoo miles east of Tripoli. The Malta air striking force could not reach them. Eight R.A.F. Beauforts of No. 39 Squadron from the Western Desert attacked, but did not achieve any success. In the early hours of the 10th Admiral Vian sailed from Alexandria to intercept the enemy with his three light cruisers and nine destroyers. The chance was seized to bring out from Malta the Cleopatra and the damaged destroyer Kingston. They were heavily attacked on the way, but got through safely. Again No. 201 Group's Beaufighters gave excellent protection to the ships, but late on the evening of the 11th the cruiser flagship, the Naiad, was torpedoed and sunk by U-565 about fifty miles off the north African shore between Mersa Matruh and Sollum. The Admiral and the great majority of her crew were picked up by the destroyers, the flag was transferred to the Dido and on the 12th Vian's depleted force was back in Alexandria. Admiral Cunningham felt this deeply. 'Such a loss, that little Naiad', he wrote to the First Sea Lord. 'A highly efficient weapon, and a ship's company with a grand spirit'.
German as well as Italian submarines were at the time very active both against the inshore shipping route used to carry the Army's supplies to Cyrenaican ports, and against our convoys which ran from the Canal up the Levant coast to Haifa and Beirut. It was always difficult to find enough escorts for this traffic, and the balance of success still lay with the U-boats. None the less two Germans (U-577 and U-374) and two Italians (the Ammiraglio Saint Bon and the Medusa) were sunk in January, and three more Italians (the Ammiraglio Millo, Guglielmotti and Tricheco) and one German U-boat were destroyed in March. What was especially remarkable was that six of these eight successes fell to our own submarines. The Unbeaten (Lieutenant-Commander E. A. Woodward) and the Upholder (Lieutenant-Commander M. D. Wanklyn) each sank two enemies, and the Thorn and Ultimatum accounted for the other two. In March our submarines sank a further six ships (17,298 tons), and the Torbay penetrated most daringly into Corfu harbour in search of enemy shipping. For this, the climax of many highly adventurous patrols, her Captain, Commander A. C. C. Miers, received the Victoria
Cross. The Royal Air Force added four enemy ships (13,192 tons) to the score for the month when, on 2nd-3rd of March, No. 37 Squadron's Wellingtons made a highly successful raid on Palermo Harbour.
At the beginning of this phase, out of a total operational strength of ninety-one German U-boats, twenty-one were working inside the Mediterranean.11 As the two sunk in January were replaced by new arrivals, their total remained fairly constant for the first three months of the year. Between March and June, however, we sank five of their number12, and as no more reinforcements arrived until the autumn their strength had declined to sixteen at the end of July. It will be told later how they caused us substantial losses.
Two days after Admiral Vian had returned to Alexandria in a different flagship from that in which he had left, his squadron was off to sea again - this time to bombard enemy installations on the island of Rhodes in the early hours of the 15th of March. Next day they were back in Alexandria, though not for long, because a new attempt to supply Malta from the east was in train. On the 20th the hard-worked naval supply ship Breconshire (Captain C. A. G. Hutchison) and the merchantmen Clan Campbell, Pampas and Talabot sailed in convoy, escorted by the Carlisle and six destroyers. Admiral Vian with the Cleopatra, Dido and Euryalus and four more destroyers left soon afterwards to overtake the convoy, while six Hunt-class destroyers of the 5th Flotilla joined up later from Tobruk.13 The Army meanwhile staged a threat to the enemy's shore airfields in order to divert his attention from the convoy. By daylight on the 21st all the naval forces were in company. Early next day they were joined by the Penelope and Legion from Malta. As our forces had already been reported by enemy aircraft, and the submarine P 36 had signalled that heavy units had left Taranto at about 1:30 a.m. Admiral Vian knew that a major surface encounter was likely to take place during the afternoon of the 22nd. Actually the battleship Littorio (nine 15-inch guns) and six destroyers (two of which soon turned back) had sailed from Taranto, and the cruisers Gorizia and Trento (8-inch) and Giovanni Delle Bande Nere (6-inch) and four more destroyers had left Messina in the early hours of that morning to intercept our convoy.
Come what might, Admiral Vian was determined that the convoy should go on to Malta. He had already decided what his tactics would be in the event of an encounter such as now appeared imminent, and his squadron had rehearsed the manoeuvres before sailing. This foresight was magnificently rewarded by the unhesitating way
in which the cruisers and destroyers carried out the Admiral's intentions, as soon as a prearranged signal to 'carry out diversionary tactics, using smoke to cover the escape of the convoy' was made. The Admiral's orders had been sent by air to the Penelope in Malta, but she had not received them by the time she sailed. Captain Nicholl thus found himself fighting in a long series of fast-moving, intricate actions without having received one word of written or spoken instructions from his Admiral. Yet so decisive was Vian's leadership that the Penelope's Captain was never in any doubt regarding what was required of him.
At 12:30 p.m. the Admiral ordered the necessary preparatory moves. His forces were organised in six divisions.14 On the approach of the enemy the first five were to stand out from the convoy, and concentrate in their several divisions as a striking force. The sixth would prepare to lay smoke across the wake of the convoy, while the remaining five Hunt-class destroyers re-formed as its close escort. The Euryalus was the first ship to sight the enemy, at 2:27 p.m. The Admiral at once made the pre-arranged signal, and the striking forces began to move out to the north towards the Italian squadron of two 8-inch and one 6-inch cruiser and four destroyers. The wind was blowing strongly (twenty-five knots) from the south-east, and the sea was rough. The strength and direction of the wind were ideal to shroud the convoy with the smoke screen now laid by all the warships except the convoy's close escort.15 The convoy meanwhile turned to the south-west, and was soon engaged in a heavy air battle of its own.
As soon as he recognized the enemy to be cruisers and not, as he had first thought, battleships, Admiral Vian led off with the Cleopatra and Euryalus to attack them. The enemy, however, turned right away, and in the long-range gun duel which followed no damage was done to either side. At 3:35 p.m. Vian told his Commander-in-Chief that the enemy had been driven off, and an hour later he himself had nearly overtaken the convoy. So ended the first phase of the battle. The convoy had meanwhile been splendidly defended by the little Hunts' 4-inch guns, and the air attacks had done no damage.
No sooner had the Admiral again taken the convoy under his personal protection than an even graver threat developed. The Italian battleship Littorio and also the three enemy cruisers were sighted to the north-east. The Littorio's force and the cruisers joined
company at about 4:40 p.m., just when the British striking forces started to repeat their tactics of standing towards the enemy and laying smoke.16 From now until 7 p.m. there took place a series of actions, with the British ships plunging in and out of 'the enormous area of smoke', and the enemy trying to work round to the west of the zone of obscurity which we had created, and so close the convoy. As the smoke was drifting fast to leeward, and the Italians refused to enter it for fear of the destroyers' torpedoes, for a time they were kept well away from their quarry. None the less, and in spite of the convoy having turned to a south-westerly course, the enemy's greatly superior speed was bound ultimately to bring him within striking range - if he held on long enough. Hence the vital need for our light forces to threaten him, and to force him to turn away.
It was probably the first time since the days of sail when to hold the 'weather gauge' was decisively important. Vian expected the enemy to try and wrest it from him by working to the east of the smoke, and at 5:30 he steered in that direction to head him off. This nearly gave the Italians their chance, for their main force was sighted ten minutes later at only eight miles' range by the 5th division of destroyers - the Sikh (Captain St. J. A. Micklethwait), Lively and Hero. The fourth ship, the Havock, had just been hit by a 15-inch shell and sent to join the convoy. The three destroyers engaged with guns and torpedoes, and tried to extend the smoke screen further west to shield the now seriously threatened merchantmen. With seas sweeping over them, rolling and pitching violently, blinded by smoke and spray, and under heavy fire they struggled south, fighting their guns under most difficult conditions. By 6 p.m. the enemy was none the less drawing slowly ahead; but what Micklethwait described with characteristic understatement as the 'somewhat unequal contest' still continued.17
Meanwhile, the British cruisers had turned back to the west. At almost exactly 6 p.m., just at the critical time, the Cleopatra suddenly came clear of the smoke, and she and the Euryalus engaged the Littorio at about 13,000 yards. The British flagship fired torpedoes, and the enemy turned away. A respite, though quickly to be proved only a temporary one, had been gained. With the range down to only 6,000 yards Captain Micklethwait's destroyers hauled round to the north to lay a new smoke screen. They had played their part most successfully, and had saved a situation which at one time looked desperate. As soon as he knew that these enemies had borne away from the direction of the convoy, Admiral Vian steered east once again to prevent the Italian cruisers, for whom he could not at the time account, from working round to windward of the smoke.
He held to an easterly course till 6.17 p.m. When he could see that there were no enemies in that direction, he at once turned back again to relieve the pressure on the destroyers.
It was now the turn of the 1st division of destroyers (Jervis, Kipling, Kelvin and Kingston under Captain A. L. Poland). They had received Micklethwait's report of the nearness of the enemy, and at 6:08 they steered to close him. At 6:34 the Littorio was sighted 12,000 yards away. In line abreast, at twenty-eight knots, their forward guns firing and they themselves under heavy but erratic fire, Captain Poland's ships moved in to attack with torpedoes.18 At 6:41, when the range was only three miles, they turned and fired twenty-five torpedoes. The Kingston received a 15-inch-shell hit at the time and was crippled; but she got her torpedoes away. None of the torpedoes hit, but their threat caused the Italian Admiral again to turn away. Admiral Vian's cruisers came back in time to support Poland's destroyers with their guns as the torpedo attack was being made. Between 6:30 and 6:40 p.m. the little cruisers fought another gun action with the giant Littorio and the Italian cruisers. It ended soon after the 1st division's attack was completed. Finally, Micklethwait's three surviving ships came into action once more. At 6.55 they also turned to fire torpedoes, but smoke obscured the target at the critical moment and only the Lively got hers off. She, like the Kingston, received damage from a 15-inch shell as she turned to fire. Again none of the torpedoes hit, but the enemy was now resolutely retiring to the north-west, and the battle was over. True, our ships had expended a great deal of ammunition without causing appreciable injury to the far more heavily protected Italian ships; but they had defeated their purpose of attacking the convoy. It was indeed a classic example of the ability of a weaker force, handled with skill and determination, to parry the intentions of a far stronger enemy; and, apart from the deeds of his destroyer, the Cossack19, Admiral Vian's name will always be associated with the First and Second Battles of Sirte, fought on the 17th of December 1941 and the 22nd of March 1942.20 The tactics which he employed were, it is interesting to remember, similar to those which Kempenfeldt had proposed over 160 years previously to the great First Lord Sir Charles Middleton (later Lord Barham).21
At dusk, and in face of a rising gale, Admiral Vian turned east with those of his ships which were fit to make the passage back to Alexandria. The damaged Havock and Kingston could not do so, and had to struggle on to Malta. At about 7 p.m. Captain Hutchison of the Breconshire dispersed the convoy on slightly diverging courses for Malta. Each ship had a few destroyers as escort. Unfortunately the delays caused by the recent battle prevented the convoy making harbour early on the 23rd, and this gave the German bombers another chance. They renewed their attacks at daylight, and the escorts were handicapped by being desperately short of ammunition. None the less the Pampas and Talabot entered the Grand Harbour at about 9.3o a.m. 'to the cheers of the populace'. The Breconshire was not so lucky. She was hit and disabled only eight miles from her destination. The Penelope tried to tow her, but in the prevailing heavy sea it proved impossible. She was finally taken to Marsaxlokk harbour, on the south side of Malta, on the 25th; but two days later she was there sunk by more bombing attacks. Some of her cargo of fuel was later salved, but her hull remained until after the war on the rocks of the island which she had so often fought to supply. Lastly, the Clan Campbell was hit at 10.20 on the 23rd, twenty miles from Malta, and sank quickly. The welcoming cheers of the Maltese for the arrival of the Pampas and Talabot were, unhappily, soon proved premature. For in the savage air attacks which the Luftwaffe again turned on to the island fortress they were both hit. Only about a fifth of the 26,000 tons of cargo loaded in the convoy for Malta was safely landed. It was plain that the crisis of supply had not, for all the gallantry of the effort, been surmounted; and that the time of greatest trial for the Maltese, and for the soldiers, sailors and airmen defending their island, was close at hand.
Admiral Vian's force received a heart-warming welcome from all the ships in the port when they reached Alexandria on the 24th. The Commander-in-Chief signalled 'Well done 15th Cruiser Squadron and destroyers,' and the Prime Minister sent his congratulations. But however well deserved were the reception and the messages, the cruel facts were that the object of the operation had not been fully accomplished, and that the Mediterranean Fleet had again been grievously weakened, especially in destroyers. Nine fleet destroyers at Alexandria and four more at Malta, as well as one Hunt-class ship, were all damaged in greater or less degree. On the 24th the Southwold was mined and sunk off the Grand Harbour while helping to shield the Breconshire. Two days later the Legion and the submarine P-39 were sunk in Malta, and as if that was not enough the Jaguar and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary oiler were torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat off the African coast. By way of recompense, on the 1st of April the submarine Urge (Lieutenant-Commander E. P. Tomkinson) sank
the Italian cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere north of Sicily. Admiral Cunningham told the London authorities the bare truth when, on the 28th of this very difficult month, he signalled that to run another convoy to Malta he must have more destroyers, and that there must be greater fighter strength at the receiving end; some means, he said, had also to be found to divert the attention of the enemy air and surface forces from the next convoy.
But it was actually Admiral Cunningham's successor who had to deal with these acute problems; for on the 1st of April Admiral Pridham-Wippell hoisted his flag in the Valiant in temporary succession to his former Commander-in-Chief, whose next appointment was to Washington as head of the British naval mission and as Admiral Pound's representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee. But Admiral Cunningham's departure made a break in the Mediterranean Fleet's life which could never be healed. Though he returned to the same command later in the year, and then saw the tide turn to victory in the theatre with which his name will always be associated, it is for the first, long period of his command from the 1st of June 1939 to the 1st of April 1942 that he will mainly be remembered. For he then led his famous fleet both in great victories like Taranto and Matapan and through grave trials like Greece and Crete. Through all those many months it was his ardent, determined spirit, his relentless seeking for a chance to strike offensive blows, which fired and inspired the officers and men of his fleet, and which won their unstinted admiration and affection. Only rarely, but always when he is most needed, does Britain find a leader of Cunningham's great qualities; and all who served under him in the Mediterranean will remember him, and will pass on to generations still to come how 'A.B.C.' led them, demanded all from them - and received all that they could give in return. Perhaps an anecdote, told to the author of this history by one of the Admiral's staff officers, epitomises Admiral Cunningham's strength of character and indomitable determination better than many pages recounting all his battles. At the time of Crete, when the fleet was suffering heavy losses every day, the staff officer said to his Commander-in-Chief that the Navy could not go on fighting the Luftwaffe single-handed.22 It was, he considered, merely butting one's head against a brick wall. To that opinion the Admiral replied: 'What you have forgotten, you miserable undertaker, is that you may be loosening a brick'. Yet all who knew their Commander realised how deeply he felt then, and at all times of tragedy, the loss of so many of his fine ships and of their irreplaceable officers and men. 'I look forward to the day', he said in his farewell message, 'when the Mediterranean Fleet will sweep
the sea clear and re-establish our age-old control of this waterway so vital to the British Empire'. Happily, he was to be there again when that day arrived, for in August it was decided that he should be Naval Commander-in-Chief for the invasion of North Africa, and in October he returned to London to give his whole attention to the planning and launching of the first Allied offensive.
And so we come to the month of April 1942, and to the supreme trial of Malta. The savage raids, which had started with the arrival of the last convoy at the end of March, now took place almost daily. On the 1st, two more of the 10th Flotilla's submarines were sunk, and several others were damaged. The German bombers concentrated mainly on Captain Nicholl's Penelope and on the destroyer Lance, which were in dock, and on the island's airfields. The dockyard staff under Admiral Leatham was doing its utmost to make every possible ship fit to sail, but in four heavy raids made on the 5th the Lance was sunk in dock, the Kingston was hit, and the Gallant, which had been crippled in January 1941 and had been in Malta ever since, received such further damage that she had to be beached. Enormous destruction was done in the dockyard, and on the airfields no less than 126 aircraft were destroyed or damaged in April. Twenty more were lost in air combats, and the total losses suffered by the Malta-based R.A.F. amounted to the virtual extinction of the island's air strength.
The Admiralty now proposed that the 10th Submarine Flotilla should be transferred to Alexandria, but Admirals Cunningham and Leatham and the flotilla's own Commanding Officer (Captain G. W. G. Simpson) all wished to hold on at Malta, even though the submarines had now to submerge by day to avoid damage in the incessant air raids. None the less the transfer of the flotilla to Alexandria had to be made before the end of the month. The reasons were that the failure to preserve the Spitfires flown in during the Wasp's first ferry trip (to be recounted shortly) had convinced the flotilla's commander that enemy minelaying, by aircraft as well as surface vessels, would continue; and secondly that heavy losses to our minesweepers had prevented the approach channels being swept clear of mines. When Captain Simpson reviewed the many trials of the flotilla which he had commanded for the previous two years, and which had lost no less than half its officers and men during that period, he left on record his opinion that the pre-war failure to build submarine shelters in the easily-quarried rock of the Malta cliffs was one of our most expensive negligences.
In 1936 the submarine service had proposed that this should be done, and the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, (Admiral Sir Dudley
Pound) supported the suggestion. The Governor of Malta forwarded the proposal as first priority in a list of 'items which are desirable if sound strategy is to be observed in the problem of holding Malta'; but it was rejected under a Cabinet decision of July 1937 which debarred any strengthening of Mediterranean and Red Sea bases 'involving formidable expenditure'. It may be remarked that the estimated cost of the shelters was £300,000, which was about the same as the cost of one submarine.
The Havock was the first of the damaged ships to leave Malta for Gibraltar. By a sad error of judgment, understandable after so long a strain, she ran aground on the Tunisian coast on the 6th and had to be destroyed. Her crew and the many passengers she was carrying were interned by the French; but it was a tragic end to another fleet destroyer and, moreover, one whose fighting record extended from the 1st Battle of Narvik and the operations off the Dutch coast in 1940 to the action off Cape Spada and the battles of Cape Matapan, Crete and second Sirte in the Mediterranean.23
Desperate efforts were made to get the Penelope undocked and away. On the 7th, 300 enemy aircraft attacked, but did not hit her; next morning she was damaged by a near-miss. The manner in which the many holes in her hull had been temporarily plugged caused her company to nickname their ship 'H.M.S. Pepperpot'. Yet on the 8th she was undocked, just before a bomb fell right in the middle of her berth. By the evening she had to replenish with antiaircraft ammunition, of which she had fired huge quantities; and she shifted alongside a wharf to do so. Her Captain was wounded at that time, but insisted on staying with his ship, whose 'spirit and gunnery' were described by Admiral Leatham as 'an inspiration'. At 9:55 p.m. on the 8th, after 'a desperate but stirring final day at Malta', she sailed. Though attacked many times on her westward passage she reached Gibraltar safely on the 10th - but with her magazines once more almost empty.
Still the attacks on Malta continued with sustained fury. The Kingston was sunk in dock, the Pampas was hit again, and loss of sweepers was rapidly producing a new crisis, with the harbour entrances closed by mines. By the 12th Malta dockyard was, except for the underground workshops, virtually out of action. The enemy seized the opportunity to run two more convoys to Africa; and this time dared to route them quite close to the east of Malta. They were located by Beauforts from Egypt, but the loss of five out of eight of the attacking aircraft almost extinguished our air striking power from that direction. On the 18th of April, when heavy air attacks were resumed after a brief lull, there was more bad news. The Chiefs
of Staff had decided that 'in view of the general naval situation' to run a convoy from Gibraltar to Malta in May would be impossible. It cannot be doubted that the anxieties caused by the heavy shipping losses then being suffered in the western Atlantic24, the arrival of powerful German surface forces, including the Tirpitz, in Norway to threaten our Arctic convoys25, and the Japanese carrier raid into the Indian Ocean, which caused us yet more naval and merchant shipping losses26, all contributed to the decision. But although Malta would have to tighten its belt still further, the Chiefs of Staff and War Cabinet were very far from abandoning the island to its fate. Mr Churchill has told how he obtained from President Roosevelt the services of the U.S.S. Wasp (Captain J. W. Reeves Jr., U.S.N.), which was already in British waters, to fly in Spitfire reinforcements.27 She embarked the fighters at Glasgow on the 13th of April and sailed on the following day, escorted by the Renown (Commodore C. S. Daniel), Charybdis, Cairo and American as well as British destroyers. The force passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in the very early hours of the 19th to avoid recognition from the shore, and on the 20th forty-seven Spitfires were flown off. All but one reached Malta safely, and a week later the Wasp was back in Scapa Flow.28
Heavy attacks were at once turned on to the island's airfields, and many of the fighter reinforcements fought their first battles over Malta that same day. They suffered severely, both in the air and on the ground, and within a few days it was plain that the Luftwaffe had drawn the Wasp's sting, and that more reinforcements and better arrangements to receive them were essential if Malta was to be saved. None the less this gesture by our Ally, made at a critical time for her own forces in the Pacific, was the brightest feature in a dark month for the Mediterranean. Though our submarines continued their unremitting offensive against the enemy supply ships, and the Urge, Thrasher, Turbulent and Torbay did particularly well, no less than four of their number were sunk in April; and included in the casualties was the famous Upholder of Lieutenant-Commander M. D. Wanklyn, V.C., whose loss was felt throughout the whole Mediterranean Fleet. It is probable that she was sunk by an Italian torpedo boat when trying to attack a convoy off Tripoli on the 14th of April.
It has already been mentioned that our torpedo-bomber striking forces, working from Egypt as well as from Malta, had been almost extinguished by the end of the month. It was plain that if the enemy
was not to drive us out of Egypt our submarines and torpedo carrying aircraft must be reinforced at once. The strategic significance of the neutralisation of Malta is well emphasised by the fact that in April Axis supplies reached North Africa practically unimpeded, and this enabled Rommel to open his new offensive on the 26th of May. The Eighth Army was soon driven out of Cyrenaica, and by the end of June the Afrika Korps was within sixty miles of Alexandria. Luckily the Germans transferred a large proportion of the Luftwaffe's strength to other theatres towards the end of April, leaving the Italian Air Force to continue the offensive against the island base. This, combined with the timely arrival of more Spitfire reinforcements (to be recounted shortly) enabled the R.A.F. to recover air supremacy over the island.
Though morale remained wonderfully high in Malta, and the whole free world joined in the congratulations showered upon the islanders when H.M. the King, on the 16th of April made them the unique award of the George Cross29, it was plain that the emergency measures, such as running essential stores in by submarine or single fast warships, could not be enough. The island could survive without a convoy in May; but in June one would have to go through. On the 22nd of April the matter was discussed by the Defence Committee. The Prime Minister was firmly determined that the May convoy to Russia (PQ 16) should be run30; nor was he prepared to abandon the assault on Madagascar, which was soon to be launched. Later chapters will tell how both these commitments were successfully met.31 By the end of June the Eastern Fleet might possess four capital ships, besides those of the R-class, and three modern carriers. To bring a substantial proportion of Admiral Somerville's strength through the Suez Canal and use it to succour Malta might lead to 'paying forfeits' in the Indian Ocean, but Mr. Churchill was prepared to accept the risk; for, as he soon told General Auchinleck, 'we are determined that Malta should not be allowed to fall'.32 The Prime Minister's outline plan was approved by the Defence Committee, and although it was not actually carried out it is none the less important historically, because it shows the lengths to which the British Government was prepared to go to save Malta.
The heavy losses suffered by the recent Spitfire reinforcements made it essential for the April operation to be repeated as quickly as possible. President Roosevelt made the Wasp available once more,
and she brought out her second installment of fighters from Britain. On the night of the 7th-8th of May she was joined off Gibraltar by the Eagle, with her quota of seventeen Spitfires, and by Commodore Daniel's force. On the 9th the fighters took off from the carriers, and all but three of the sixty-four reached Malta. Greatly improved arrangements had been made to receive, refuel and rearm them quickly. The new arrivals were thus ready when the enemy bombers attacked, and in the fierce air fighting which followed they inflicted heavy losses on the Luftwaffe. It was the turning point in the Battle for Malta. The fast minelayer Welshman sailed east with the carriers, and went right through with a special cargo of stores and ammunition. 'We are quite likely to lose this ship', wrote the First Sea Lord to Mr Churchill, 'but in view of the urgency . . . there appears to be no alternative'. In fact she not only reached Malta intact, but disembarked her cargo and sailed on the return journey all within seven hours. Nor did the Wasp and her escort suffer any losses. On the 15th of May the American carrier was back at Scapa. Soon afterwards she sailed for her own country and the Pacific, leaving behind her deep British gratitude for her achievement, and admiration for her efficiency. Mr. Churchill typically remembered that insects of her family were unlike other hymenoptera, and signalled 'Who said a wasp couldn't sting twice?'33
On the 10th, the day after the Wasp's second reinforcements had reached Malta, a superior British fighter force met the enemy attackers for the first time. We had traveled a long way since the three Gladiators, nicknamed 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity', had been Malta's sole fighter defences in June 1940. The gun barrage had also been made far heavier and more effective, and smoke could now be used to shield the harbours and the docks. In fact, after two and a half years of war, that vital naval and air base was at last properly defended34; and the long-overdue correction of our pre-war neglect was soon to make itself felt in the realm of Allied strategy.
While the great air battles brought on by the arrival of the last fighter reinforcements were being fought over Malta, the Mediterranean submarines suffered two more losses. On the 8th of May the Olympus was mined outside Malta and, as she had on board as passengers many of the crews of the boats previously sunk in harbour, the casualty list was exceptionally heavy. Next day it was known that the Urge, another of the outstandingly successful boats of the 10th Flotilla, was overdue. She, too, probably struck a mine when on passage from Malta to Alexandria.
In the middle of May seventeen more Spitfires flown off from the
Eagle arrived safely, bringing the total delivered to the island in four weeks to 123; but six Albacore torpedo-bombers, which would have been a valuable contribution towards rebuilding our air striking power, had to return to the carriers because of engine trouble. The Eagle, Argus, Charybdis and destroyers were safely back at Gibraltar by the 20th. Early in June the gallant old Eagle, which was approaching her silver jubilee, made two more ferrying trips, which added fifty-five new Spitfires to Malta's defenders. It is hard to see how the island could have survived without the repeated reinforcements carried there by the Eagle, which, as long ago as the attack on Taranto, Admiral Cunningham had described as 'this obsolescent aircraft carrier'35, and the two big contributions by the Wasp. Although the problem of defending the island fortress seemed, thanks to all these brilliantly executed emergency measures, now to be near solution, that of supplying it was becoming more acute as each week passed. But before telling the story of the next attempt to run in convoys we must return briefly to the eastern Mediterranean.
While the Wasp and other ships were reinforcing Malta from the west the receipt of intelligence regarding an enemy convoy bound for Benghazi led to the despatch of the Jervis (Captain A. L. Poland), Kipling, Lively and Jackal to intercept it. On the 11th of May they were sighted by enemy aircraft and turned back in accordance with their orders. Heavy and exceptionally accurate air attacks followed. We now know that they were carried out by a specially trained and highly efficient unit of the German Air Force stationed at Heraklion in Crete. The thirty-one JU-88 dive-bombers which took part had just completed a special course of training in attacks on ships. It is indeed interesting to remark how the Germans, like ourselves, had by this time come to realise that success could only be achieved in highly specialised tasks such as maritime air operations by thorough instruction and constant practice. In the present instance the enemy quickly reaped a substantial reward for his trouble.
The Lively was the first to be sunk; then at 8 p.m. the Kipling and Jackal were both hit, and the former went down. The Jervis tried to tow the Jackal, which was badly on fire; but early on the 12th she, too, had to be sunk. The Jervis alone returned to Alexandria, but she had on board 630 survivors from the lost ships. It had been a tragic experience, reminiscent of Crete, and a stern reminder of the consequences of sailing surface ships to operate in waters where the enemy held command of the air. Admiral Pound felt deeply this recurrence of a disaster, the type of which had grown all too familiar during the preceding two years, but which ought, so he considered, by this time to have become avoidable. When next he was under
pressure from the Prime Minister to send ships to stop the enemy's convoys to the ports of the Western Desert, he spoke up with unusual force. 'May I suggest', he wrote, 'that it is upon the Air Force that pressure regarding these convoys should be directed? The enemy's ... aircraft make these waters prohibitively dangerous to us by day; the latest example . . . is the sinking of the Kipling, Jackal and Lively. We have considerable air forces in the Middle East capable of working over the sea, and I cannot see why they should not make these waters prohibitively dangerous to enemy surface ships'. It was certainly true that our air striking power in the Mediterranean had recently been increased; but there were many demands arising, and the R.A.F. was greatly handicapped by the recent loss of the advanced desert airfields when the Army was driven out of Cyrenaica. It was also true that, as one member of the Board of Admiralty said at this time, our heavy casualties were often suffered through trying to help the Army without 'efficient fighter cover'. By way of slight recompense, on the 27th and 28th three destroyers hunted a U-boat for no less than fifteen hours off the African shore, and were finally rewarded for their persistence by the destruction of U-568.
Acting-Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, the victor of the River Plate Battle of 13th December 193936, had meanwhile arrived to take over command of the Mediterranean Fleet. He hoisted his flag in the Queen Elizabeth on the 20th of May. Very soon reinforcements for the June Malta convoy began to reach him from the Eastern Fleet. The Birmingham and four destroyers were the first, and arrived at Alexandria on the 6th and 7th of June; the Newcastle, Hermione, Arethusa and six more destroyers were meanwhile coming up the Red Sea towards Suez. By the 9th of June all forces were assembled at Alexandria. One may well ponder on the impossibility of making this typically rapid switch of our maritime power had we not had control of the Suez Canal.
The plan for operation 'Vigorous', to revictual Malta in June, was to send eleven supply ships there from the east, while six more sailed simultaneously from the west in operation HARPOON. The two convoys were to reach the island on successive days. We will first follow the fortunes of the western one, which was conducted on similar lines to the three convoy operations successfully carried out during 1941.37 The HARPOON convoy sailed from Britain with an escort of Home Fleet ships on the 5th of June, and passed the Straits on the night of the 11th-12th. As not all the ships of Force H had yet returned from the assault on Diego Suarez, Madagascar38, and the
Eastern Fleet had recently been heavily reinforced, escorts for the Malta convoy had to be specially collected from several stations. The battleship Malaya, the carriers Eagle and Argus, the cruisers Kenya (flag of Vice-Admiral A. T. B. Curteis, who commanded the whole operation), Liverpool and Charybdis, and eight destroyers formed the main escort and covering force. They were to take the convoy as far as 'the Narrows' between Sicily and Tunisia.39 The close escort to go right through to Malta comprised the anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo (Acting-Captain C. C. Hardy), nine more destroyers and four fleet minesweepers. Six minesweeping motor-launches were included in the convoy. They and the fleet minesweepers were not only to sweep the convoy through the dense enemy minefields recently laid off Malta, but were to stay there to solve the island's acute minesweeping problems. The fast minelayer Welshman was to go through ahead of the convoy with another cargo of ammunition and special stores; a fleet oiler with her own escort was to cruise independently near the convoy route to fuel the escorts at need, while four submarines patrolled off the enemy's main bases. The merchant ships taking part were the Troilus, Burdwan and Orari (all British), the Dutch Tanimbar, and the Chant and Kentucky (American). Their combined capacity was about 43,000 tons of cargo.
By the morning of the 12th of June all forces were well inside the Mediterranean. Next day they were shadowed from the air and reported by submarine. The short-endurance ships fuelled from the oiler Brown Ranger or from the Liverpool. By the morning of the z 4th, which was fine and calm, they were within range of the enemy air bases in Sardinia. The two carriers, both of them old and slow, were handicapped in working their aircraft, because what little wind was blowing was from astern. If they hauled right round into the wind to fly their fighters on and off quickly, they would have to leave the safety of the destroyer screen; and after flying operations it was bound to be a slow business for them to overtake the convoy. Air attacks began at 10:30, firstly by dive-bombers and a little later by a strong force of high-level bombers and torpedo-bombers. All were Italian. The Liverpool was hit in the engine room, and practically disabled; the merchantman Tanimbar was sunk. The carriers could not put up more than half a score of fighters at a time, and they were inadequate to drive off so many attackers. The Liverpool eventually reached Gibraltar safely on the 17th, having been towed most of the way by the destroyer Antelope, and having survived several more air attacks. By the evening of the 14th the convoy was within range of the Sicilian airfields; nor were German bombers slow in appearing. This time, after a preliminary attack by Ju-88s, a mixed force of
German and Italian dive- and torpedo-bombers came in. Many ships, but especially the carriers, had narrow escapes; but none was hit. In the middle of the air attack the destroyers found time to force down and harry a U-boat whose periscope had been sighted. The carriers' fighters claimed eleven enemies destroyed;40 but seven of their own small number were lost.
At 9 p.m. that evening 'the Narrows' were reached; Admiral Curteis and the heavy ships then hauled round to the west for the position in which they were to wait for the return of the light forces from Malta. Captain Hardy of the Cairo took over command of the convoy and its escort. A dusk air attack, made while they were steering south-east to keep close to the Tunisian coast, did no damage. So far all had gone pretty well. The determined and heavy air attacks of the last two days had not caused heavier losses than had to be expected on such an operation. But the next day, the 15th, told a different story. In previous Malta convoys we had sent cruisers right through with the merchantmen41, and the Italians had never dared to send their surface ships to attack them closely. Now we had no cruisers to spare for such a duty. Admiral Curteis needed his last two, the Kenya and Charybdis, to cover and support his carriers; but he has stated that had the Liverpool still been with him he would have sent a cruiser back to support the destroyers as soon as he learnt that enemy cruisers were leaving Palermo.
At 6.30 a.m. on the 15th the convoy was about thirty miles south of Pantelleria.42 One of our Beaufighters from Malta had just reported to Captain Hardy that two enemy 6-inch cruisers and four (actually five) destroyers were only fifteen miles to the north of him. They had sailed from Palermo the previous evening. Ten minutes later the enemy was in sight and the Bedouin (Commander B. G. Scurfield) at once, and in complete character with the tradition of her class, led out the fleet destroyers to attack the superior enemy. The Cairo and the smaller escorts meanwhile covered the convoy with smoke. The gun action between the Italian cruisers and the British destroyers opened outside the range of the latter's 17-inch and 4-inch guns. The Bedouin and Partridge were soon hit and disabled; but the other three pressed on and managed to hit one enemy destroyer. As soon as the convoy was well shielded by smoke the Cairo and the four 'Hunts' joined in the surface action. The convoy thus had no air protection when, at about 7 a.m., it was dive-bombed. The Chant was sunk and the tanker Kentucky hit, but taken in tow. The Commodore
turned the surviving ships from their southerly course towards Malta, but the Italian squadron, which had gained greatly on the convoy, now closed to threaten them from ahead. The Cairo and destroyers laid another smoke screen, and soon the enemy stood away to the north-east.
Except for the damaged Bedouin and Partridge, which had to be left behind, and for the effects of the luckily-timed bombing attack made while the convoy was unescorted, matters had so far not gone too badly. But at about 11:20 another air attack, made while the convoy was still at the extreme range of the Malta Spitfires, disabled the Burdwan. Captain Hardy decided that to sacrifice her and the lame Kentucky gave the best hope of getting the last two ships in. Orders were therefore given to sink them. Then the Italian squadron came back to try to pick up our detached ships and stragglers. The Cairo and destroyers covered the return of the ships which had stayed behind to sink the damaged merchantmen, but could not go back as far as the Bedouin and Partridge without endangering the convoy. The Partridge had managed to get under way again, and she was towing the wholly crippled Bedouin. At about 1:30 p.m. the Italian squadron again came on the scene, at a moment when many enemy aircraft were about. The Partridge slipped her tow, made smoke round her consort and engaged the enemy single-handed. But it was of no avail. A torpedo-bomber finally despatched the Bedouin at 2:25 p.m. The Partridge received yet more damage in an air attack, but miraculously survived all these dangers and got back to Gibraltar on the 17th, the same day as the damaged Liverpool.
The Captain of the Bedouin and many of his company were picked up by the Italians. While a prisoner of war Scurfield sent an account of his ship's last fight to his wife. In it he said: 'This was what I had been training for, for twenty-two years, and I led my five destroyers up towards the enemy. I was in a fortunate position in many ways, and I knew what we had to do. The cost was not to be counted. The ship was as ready for the test as we had been able to make her. I could do no more about it.'43 One is reminded of Nelson's words when he heard the cheering with which his fleet greeted his famous signal on the 21st of October 1805- 'Now I can do no more. We must put our trust in the great Disposer of Events, and in the justice of our cause'. Unhappily the story of the Bedouin had a tragic ending. When Italy surrendered, Scurfield and most of his men were in a camp in the north, and they fell into German hands. In 1945, when our advancing armies were approaching the camp where he was then held, the Germans marched the prisoners elsewhere. While on the
road the column was machine-gunned by our own aircraft, and Scurfield was among those killed. His spirit was, it is true, only typical of the British destroyer service throughout the war. Again and again did their Captains and ships' companies unhesitatingly sacrifice themselves to defend their charges against hopeless odds; and the stories of some of their last fights have appeared in these pages. But the Bedouin's name and her Captain should be remembered with those of the Glowworm, Acasta, Ardent44 and the many, many destroyers lost in the Arctic, at Dunkirk, off Crete and in a hundred other fights.
The Cairo and the rest of the escort rejoined the convoy at 3:30 p.m. Two hours later the Welshman, which had meanwhile arrived at Malta, unloaded her cargo and sailed again, joined up with them. Several more air attacks were foiled by the Malta Spitfires and the escorts' guns. After all these perilous adventures it was, perhaps, understandable that the organisation to receive the convoy did not work as intended. The route used for the final approach had not been fully swept. Three destroyers, a fleet minesweeper and the Orari struck mines; luckily four of the five made harbour, but the Polish destroyer Kujawiak was sunk. The Cairo and the four remaining destroyers sailed again late on the 16th, and met Admiral Curteis the next evening, after surviving yet more air attacks. The Malaya and the carriers had already been sent back to Gibraltar, and the Kenya, Charybdis and the survivors of Captain Hardy's force also made that base in safety. Thus ended operation HARPOON. Two out of six merchant ships had arrived; but we had lost two destroyers, while a cruiser, three more destroyers and a minesweeper had been seriously damaged.
In Malta Admiral Leatham ordered an enquiry into certain aspects of the operation. When the full report of the HARPOON convoy reached London the Admiralty reviewed the question whether one of Admiral Curteis' two surviving cruisers should have been sent to reinforce Captain Hardy's light forces. The feeling was that had the Charybdis been sent the Burdwan and Kentucky might have been saved and the loss of the Bedouin avoided; but that in the very difficult circumstances prevailing at the time, and in view of the widely divergent responsibilities which had to be met, criticism of the Admiral's action could not be sustained.
We must retrace our steps for a few days to see how Operation VIGOROUS had meanwhile been faring in the eastern basin. It has already been mentioned that the escorting force, once again commanded by Rear-Admiral Vian, had been substantially reinforced from the Eastern Fleet. He had in all seven cruisers, one anti-aircraft
cruiser and twenty-six destroyers, in addition to corvettes, minesweepers and rescue ships. But there was no heavy-ship covering force capable of dealing with the Italian fleet, should it show fight; nor were there any fleet carriers to carry the convoy's fighter protection along with it, and to strike at the enemy main forces if they came within range. The Illustrious and Indomitable had only recently completed the Madagascar operations45, the Victorious was with the Home Fleet and the Formidable was in the Indian Ocean. It will be remembered that in April consideration had been given to bringing the Eastern Fleet carriers through the Canal to help fight the convoy through46; but when the need actually arose none could be made available. There being thus no proper battle fleet to support the operation, the old Centurion, which had been the fleet's pre-war wireless-controlled target ship, was sent to masquerade as a battleship. As she was ancient (launched 1911) and virtually unarmed, it was not very likely that the enemy would be taken in by her presence. The real hope was that our air striking forces, and to some extent our submarines, would act as sufficient substitutes for a battle fleet. Admiral Cunningham had long ago declared that, if heavy ships could not be spared for the Mediterranean, our only hope lay in providing 'really adequate air forces'47; and many naval and R.A.F. bombers and torpedo-bombers had been sent out to the Middle East and to Malta. But the calls on them had been so varied and so numerous, and the wastage so heavy, that our air striking forces had in reality never yet been able to build up decisive strength. On the present occasion we employed torpedo-carrying Wellingtons and Beauforts from Malta, Beauforts from Egypt and a small force of American Liberators from the Suez Canal-some forty aircraft in all. The sum of their accomplishments was one torpedo hit on the heavy cruiser Trento, which damaged her severely and led to her being sunk by the submarine Umbra (Lieutenant S. L. C. Maydon) on the 15th of June, and one bomb and one torpedo hit on the battleship Littorio. In addition to the lack of heavy ships and the inadequacy of the air striking forces, there were other weaknesses which vitiated the reliance placed on this occasion on air power. To hold off the enemy surface forces and defeat their intentions, good reconnaissance was essential. Neither the submarines nor the air striking forces could carry out their tasks unless the enemy's movements were accurately reported; but we did not possess enough reconnaissance aircraft to watch the enemy continuously. Secondly, fighter protection had, after the first day of the operation, become
far more difficult because the Axis army's advance into Libya had deprived us of the use of the advanced airfields. Hurricanes from Egypt, and then Beaufighters and Kittyhawks, flew many sorties right out to the limit of their endurance; but strategic considerations, including the heavy demands of the land battle, prevented their cover being really effective. To try to reduce the enemy's air potential, sabotage parties landed in Crete from submarines just before the surface forces finally sailed west. Though some of the raiders seem not to have found their targets, and contemporary claims of losses inflicted were certainly too high, the enemy's records do show that damage was done to Ju-88 bombers on Heraklion airfield during the night of 13th - 14th of June; but it was not enough to tip the scales in our favour during the convoy operation.
As regards our submarines, it had been intended that nine of them should form a screen to the north of the convoy's route, moving westwards as the convoy steamed towards Malta. In the event this proved impracticable, chiefly because the Italian fleet sailed earlier than we had expected. Only one submarine got in an attack as the main Italian force came south. It thus came to pass that the only safeguards provided against heavy-ship attack-namely air striking forces and submarines-both proved illusory. Admiral Vian very well knew that in the long days and calm, clear weather of the summer months he could not hope to bluff and mislead the enemy as he had done so successfully in March.48 Admiral Harwood and Air Marshal Tedder moved into a special 'combined operations room' in the headquarters of No. 201 Naval Co-operation Group, in order to conduct the intricate movements in intimate collaboration.
The first ships to sail left Port Said on the 11th of June in a 'diversionary convoy' of four merchantmen, escorted by the Coventry and seven Hunt-class destroyers. They were to go west as far as the meridian of Tobruk, and then turn back and meet the main convoy. It was hoped that this deception would bring the enemy fleet south prematurely; but events did not work out that way.
The main convoy had assembled in two parts at Haifa and Port Said, and they and their escorts were sailed to rendezvous with the returning 'diversionary convoy' off Alexandria on the 13th. Admiral Vian and the rest of the warships (seven cruisers and seventeen destroyers) left Alexandria that same evening to overtake the merchantmen off Tobruk. Enemy aircraft quickly found the real convoy, one of whose number was damaged and sent to Tobruk on the 12th. Another could not keep up, and was sent back to Alexandria; but she never got there. About forty German bombers found and sank her on the 14th.
Throughout the night of the 13th - 14th enemy aircraft kept touch with the convoy, and dropped flares continuously around it. When daylight came, fighters from the Western Desert broke up at least one strong formation of enemy bombers. That afternoon, the 14th, one merchantman was sunk and another damaged by bombs. A new threat developed at sunset when enemy motor torpedo-boats approached from the north. By 11:15 p.m. Vian knew that Italian heavy warships had left Taranto, and that they could make contact with him at about 7 a.m. next morning. To hold them off throughout a long summer day was an impossible proposition, so he asked the Commander-in-Chief whether he was to retire. Admiral Harwood, hoping first to make as much distance as possible towards the west, told Vian to hold on until 2 a.m. and then reverse course. That difficult manoeuvre - for there were about fifty ships involved - was safely executed, but it gave the E-boats their chance.49 Shortly before 4 a.m. one of them torpedoed the Newcastle. Not long afterwards the destroyer Hasty was struck by a torpedo, and had to be sunk by a consort.50
At dawn on the 15th the Italian fleet, consisting of their two newest battleships, the Vittorio Veneto and the Littorio, two heavy and two light cruisers and about a dozen destroyers, was some 200 miles north-west of the retiring convoy. Shortly before 7 a.m., on the Commander-in-Chief 's instructions, the convoy turned again to the west. At about the same time the Malta-based torpedo-bombers attacked the enemy and, as already mentioned, hit and disabled the 8-inch cruiser Trento. Our submarines were meanwhile making strenuous, though vain, endeavours to get into position to attack the Italian battleships. Next, between 9 and 10 o'clock the Liberators and torpedo-bombers from Egypt attacked; although both striking forces reported several hits, in fact the only one scored was a bomb hit on the Littorio's forward turret, which did her no serious injury. The Italian battleships still held on to the south. At 9:40, with the enemy only 150 miles away, Admiral Harwood ordered the convoy to turn east for the second time; then, just before noon, after hearing the Beauforts' claim to have hit both battleships, he ordered it to resume the course for Malta. Finally, at 12:45 p.m., realising that the air reports might have been incorrect, that our reconnaissance aircraft were not in touch and that he could not assess the true
situation, Admiral Harwood signalled that he must leave it to the cruiser Admiral's discretion whether to hold on or retire. Vian received this message at 2:20 p.m. The Birmingham had meanwhile been damaged by a bomb hit, and a little later the destroyer Airedale suffered severely in a heavy dive-bombing attack. She had to be sunk by our own forces. Though no more of the convoy had been damaged, the detachment of another ship which could not keep up had reduced its numbers from the original eleven to six.
Our reconnaissance aircraft had meanwhile regained touch, and the enemy fleet, having reached a point only about 100 miles from the convoy, was reported at 4:15 to have set course for Taranto. As soon as this was clear the Commander-in-Chief signalled 'Now is the chance to get [the] convoy to Malta', and asked what was the state of the escorts' fuel and ammunition supplies. This message arrived during a heavy air attack, and the information requested was difficult to collect. 'All known forms of attack' were, in Admiral Vian's words, being made on the convoy and escorts. They lasted from 5:20 until about 7:30 p.m. and, although fighter cover was but intermittent, only the Australian destroyer Nestor was seriously damaged. When Vian reported that less than one-third of his ships' ammunition remained, and that what was left was going fast, the Commander-in-Chief recalled all ships to Alexandria.
That, unfortunately, was not quite the end, since in the early hours of the 16th U-205 torpedoed and sank the cruiser Hermione, and the damaged Nestor had to be scuttled. The other ships were back in Alexandria on the evening of the 16th. On the enemy's side, a Malta-based Wellington scored a torpedo hit right forward on the Littorio in a night attack made at about the same time as the Hermione was sunk. But she was not seriously hurt and was able to maintain her speed. All the Italian ships returned safely to Taranto on the afternoon of the 16th, at about the same time that Admiral Vian's force reached Alexandria.
Apart from the failure to revictual Malta we had lost a cruiser, three destroyers and two merchant ships. The Italians lost the Trento and had the Littorio damaged. The enemy's success was undeniable, and no further attempt was made to run a convoy to Malta from Egypt until the Army had driven the Axis forces out of Libya.
As we look back today it seems that a primary cause of the failure was the unfavourable strategic situation on land. That by itself made any fleet operations in the central basin very hazardous. While the convoy was actually at sea the Army had to make a further withdrawal, involving loss of one of the vital desert airfields. Secondly, in the words of Admiral Harwood's report, 'our air striking force had nothing like the weight required to stop a fast and powerful enemy force, and in no way compensated for our lack of heavy ships'. In the
March convoy, for all the brilliance of Admiral Vian's action, it was the lack of heavy cover which delayed the arrival of the merchantmen and gave the Luftwaffe the chance to destroy the Breconshire and Clan Campbell close off Malta.51 In the June operation the lack of the same element of maritime power was decisive. Finally, it must be remarked how forcibly these operations drove home the fact that, with enemy shore-based aircraft established in strength close off the flanks of a convoy route, success or failure was to a very large extent decided in the air.
It remains to mention the influence of these operations on the Eighth Army's struggle with Rommel, which was proceeding at the same time. The German Air Commander's War Diary makes it plain that almost the whole of his bomber strength was directed against the convoys, and it seems probable that the successes he achieved at sea were purchased at the price of easing the pressure on the Eighth Army at a critical time during its retreat to El Alamein. It is, of course, conjectural whether, had the enemy not diverted his air strength, it would have been decisive on land; but it is certain that the trials endured and the losses suffered by the two convoys helped the successful withdrawal and subsequent stand of the Army.
As this was the last attempt made during the present phase to revictual Malta on a large scale, it will be a convenient moment to summarise the results achieved and the losses suffered. Compared with the three convoys run from the west in 1941, the degree of success achieved in the first half of the following year was very meagre. In 1941 thirty-one supply ships sailed for Malta from Alexandria or Gibraltar, and all but one arrived safely.52 In the first seven months of 1942 twenty-one ships sailed in major convoy operations and another nine took part in the smaller attempts from the east made in January and February. Of these thirty ships ten were sunk at sea (seven of them in the major convoys), ten turned back because of damage, or for other reasons such as inability to keep up with their convoys; and of the ten which reached Malta three were sunk after arrival. Thus only seven of the original thirty survived intact with the whole of their cargoes. Moreover, in this period the naval losses had been heavy. Quite apart from the large number of ships damaged we lost a cruiser, eight destroyers and a submarine. The seriousness of these losses can best be realised by mentioning that the whole evacuation of the B.E.F. from Dunkirk in 1941 cost the Royal Navy two less destroyers than were lost in these Malta convoy operations.53
Table 2. Malta Convoys, 1st January-31st July, 1942
(Major operations only)
Naval Forces Employed From East.
'MW 10' (March)
No. Sunk Dmgd. No. Sunk Dmgd. No. Sunk Dmgd. Capital Ships Nil -- -- 1 -- -- -- -- -- Aircraft Carriers Nil -- -- 2 -- -- -- -- -- Cruisers 4 -- 3 3 -- 1 7 1 2 A.A. Ships 1 -- -- 1 -- 1 1 -- -- Destroyers 18 3 2 18 2 3 26 3 -- Minesweepers and Corvettes -- -- -- 4 -- ` 6 -- 1 Submarines 5 1 -- 4 -- -- 9 -- -- Transports and Merchant Ships 4 1 -- 6 4 -- 11 2 2 No. of Transports and Merchant Ships which arrived in Malta 3
(All sunk after arrival)
While the double attempt to supply Malta was actually in progress, things were going badly for us on land in Africa, and preparations were in train to evacuate Tobruk. On the 17th of June all merchant vessels were ordered to leave the port. Three days later enemy tanks suddenly broke through and reached the harbour. Demolitions were not completed, and some small ships did not sail in time to avoid capture or destruction. By the 21st the enemy was in full possession of the base which had been so stubbornly held throughout the long siege of 1940-41.54 For the Mediterranean Fleet the implications were most serious. The Naval Staff warned the First Sea Lord that 'in view of the news that Tobruk has fallen we must prepare for the worst' - namely the loss of Alexandria. Preparations were put in hand to move some of the fleet to Haifa and others south of the Suez Canal. After the passage of the latter the Canal was to be blocked. Once before, in April 194155, we had prepared to face these dire consequences of defeat on land, but this time the threat was far more serious.
On the 24th Sollum was evacuated and the Army of the Nile fell back to Mersa Matruh56; possession by the enemy of the frontier airfields endangered the naval base at Alexandria, which could now be attacked by fighter-escorted bombers. Admiral Harwood therefore sent all unessential warships and merchant ships south of the
Suez Canal. On the 27th the battleship Queen Elizabeth was undocked and sailed for Port Sudan. Her temporary repairs had been successfully finished by the dockyard staff under most difficult conditions.57 By the middle of July she was well on her way to America for permanent repairs. The destroyer depot ship Woolwich, the fleet repair ship Resource and six destroyers also moved south of the Canal. The rest of the fleet was divided between Haifa and Port Said, except for the 1st Submarine Flotilla which moved to Beirut. It should here be remarked that, had we not possessed the use of the rearward bases in Egypt, Palestine and Syria at this difficult juncture, there could have been no alternative but to withdraw the whole fleet through the Canal. Possession of these bases gave us room, albeit very little room, in which to maintain our tenuous hold on the eastern basin. When the ships sailed east, movement of the shore staffs to the Canal Zone was started, and preparations to demolish stores and facilities at Alexandria and to block the harbour were put in hand. By the last day of June the Eighth Army had withdrawn to the defence lines at El Alamein, only sixty miles from Alexandria. On that same day, which marked the nadir of our fortunes in the Middle East, the very valuable submarine depot ship Medway was sunk by U-372, who believed she had hit a transport, off Port Said. Many of our reserve torpedoes, weapons of which we had never had an adequate supply, were lost in her.
One of the many serious difficulties which now had to be faced was the future of Admiral Godfroy's squadron of French warships, which had been immobilised in Alexandria since June 194058, in the event of our having to evacuate the base. The agreement governing the future of the ships had been a personal one made by Admiral Cunningham with his French colleague, and Godfroy was entitled to be consulted regarding its renewal with Cunningham's successor. A new agreement was negotiated on instructions from London, and signed in June by Admirals Harwood and Godfroy; but discussions regarding the removal of the French ships from Alexandria, should the need arise, proved fruitless. Fortunately the turn of events on land made it unnecessary for the issue to be pursued.
The Eighth Army having held Rommel's first attacks on our position at El Alamein early in July, the rest of the month passed in comparative quiet at sea. A happy augury for the future was that, on the 5th, Admiral Leatham reported that the 10th Submarine Flotilla could now profitably return to Malta. Air attacks had died down, and the approach channels were at last clear of mines. No less than 206 had been cut or exploded off the harbour entrances
since the clearance work was started early in May. Meanwhile our aircraft and surface ships continued to take a steady toll of the U-boats. On the 1st of May U-573 was sunk by a Hudson of No. 233 Squadron. Next day an aircraft of No. 202 Squadron and the destroyers Wishart and Wrestler together accounted for U-74; and on the 9th a pleasant success was the capture of the Italian submarine Perla by the corvette Hyacinth off Beirut. After the fall of Massawa in March 1941 she had escaped back to Italy by way of the Cape of Good Hope - a journey for which her crew must be given full credit. Two days after this success the Italian submarine Ondina was sunk by two South African A/S Whalers aided by a naval Walrus amphibian aircraft. However critical our strategic situation might be, the little ships and the air escorts could still hit hard any U-boat which threatened their convoys. On the 10th of July a daring and original attack was made by ten naval Albacores on an enemy supply convoy between Crete and Tobruk. They first flew to a landing ground well inside the enemy's lines, some forty miles south of Sollum. There they were refuelled by R.A.F. transport aircraft, before taking off for the attack. No enemy ships were actually sunk, but the arrival of the torpedo-bombers must have been something of a surprise to the enemy. Next, by way of showing that our offensive spirit had not been dimmed by recent disasters, Admiral Vian's cruisers and destroyers made a daylight bombardment of Mersa Matruh.
The onslaught on the enemy's supply traffic continued even while most of the fleet's attention was being devoted to the Malta convoys, but it was to be expected that, while Malta was under heavy attack and after the 10th Flotilla had to leave, our submarines' successes would diminish; on the other hand, with the re-establishment of the Malta-based striking forces, sinkings by aircraft rose substantially in July. The total results of all our offensive measures against Axis controlled shipping in this phase are shown in the next table.
For Malta the phase ended with the reassuring arrival of two more fighter reinforcements, of thirty-one and twenty-eight Spitfires, flown off yet again by the Eagle; and the Welshman arrived on the 16th with certain key men for the defences, and a cargo of concentrated foodstuffs and 'edible oils'. Then came the submarine Unbroken, to signalise the return of the famous Flotilla to its proper home, and to warn the enemy that, even if he thought he had effectively neutralised the island, it had made a remarkably sharp recovery.59 The erstwhile seriously injured patient was quickly to show a remarkable capacity to harm those who had inflicted the injuries. By way of underlining the point an Italian flying boat landed in one of Malta's bays just before the end of the month. It had
been seized by the crew of an R.A.F. Beaufort, who were being taken in it as prisoners from Greece to Italy. Incidents such as these, though trivial in themselves, must surely have appeared as the writing on the wall to an enemy who knew that he was, strategically speaking, stretched too far; saying once again, 'God hath numbered thy Kingdom and finished it'.60 Nor were Hitler and Mussolini to escape the fate of Belshazzar, King of the Chaldeans.
Table 3. Enemy Merchant Shipping Losses, 1st January to 31st July, 1942
These tables are mainly derived from 'La Marina Italiana nella Segonda Guerra Mondiale', the Italian Admiralty's published statistics. A close scrutiny of these tables and comparison with other sources have, however, revealed a few small errors in the Italian statistics and these have been corrected in this and subsequent tables.
1. Italian (Includes losses outside Mediterranean)
Number of ships: Tonnage
See Note 2
TOTAL January -- 8: 22,131 2: 18,839 -- 1: 25 11: 40,995 February 2: 810 7: 31,220 1: 319 1: 1,334 4: 1,571 15: 35,254 March -- 6: 17,298 1: 1,086 2: 6,008 4: 151 13: 24,543 April -- 6: 14,229 -- 2: 1,157 3: 384 11: 15,770 May -- 6: 12,211 1: 6,836 -- 6: 5,305 13: 24,352 June -- 2: 2,565 1: 6,837 1: 750 4: 1,216 8: 11,368 July -- 1: 792 7: 9,841 -- 1: 54 9: 10,687 TOTAL 2: 810 36: 100,446 13: 43,758 6: 9,249 23: 8,706 80: 162,969 2. German and German-controlled (Mediterranean only)
Number of ships: Tonnage
TOTAL January to July 1: 1,397 2: 3,594 5: 18,934 1: 1,778 1: 2,140 10: 27,843 Notes: (1) Of the ninety ships sunk in this phase, 51 were more than 500 tons and 39 were of less than 500 tons.
(2) Of the total tonnage sunk by air attack in this phase, 7 ships of 46,924 tons were sunk at sea, and 11 ships of 15,768 tons in port.
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