EARLY ACTION IN THE MEDITERRANEAN
By 1942 the Mediterranean had become almost an Axis Lake, almost but not quite. Before the end of that year all had been changed and allied efforts to regain control of this sea were meeting with success. This vital sea, which has played such an important part in the history of the world, was in large measure the key to Germany's success or failure in World War II. In 1942 it seemed quite possible that the Germans would advance to Suez, fan out through the Near and Middle East to join the Japanese somewhere in the heart of Asia, and spread their domination through large parts of Africa. If such a junction had been made with the Japanese and if Africa had passed firmly under German control, it appears that the whole course of the war would have been greatly altered. Who can say that Russia would have been able to hold out? Who can say that the might of the New World would have been sufficient to defeat the vast resources of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This danger that Germany and her satellites might gain military control of three continents constituted the greatest single threat to the national existence of the United States that had ever been faced. The removal of this dire threat was at once the most pressing and most important military objective of the Allies. Upon the success or failure of an offensive in the Mediterranean hinged all other developments in the war.
As the Germans and their willing slaves, the Italians, ringed the Mediterranean with air bases and sent their legions toward Suez, Malta and the British Navy lent mighty support to the shaken British armies which were forced to fall back into Egypt. Malta became a symbol of the fighting spirit of the British and of their dogged determination to maintain their slender hold on the Mediterranean life line. The first Armed Guards to engage in the titanic struggle with land based air power in the Mediterranean were on ships for the relief of Malta. The Mediterranean became for the Armed Guards a theater of action almost as tough as the North Russia run. It was the scene of some of their most heroic deeds, of some of their worst suffering and defeats, but in the end of some of their most glorious victories. Here again, just as in North Russia, ships took the worst the Luftwaffe had to offer, came back for more, dealt out terrific losses to the enemy and in the end emerged triumphant. Just as the Mediterranean was the scene of our first great offensive action against the Germans, so it was also the scene of one of the most determined defensive actions by merchant ships which had to get through with the sinews of war. The Armed Guard, therefore, wrote a large chapter in the action which actually turned the tide of German aggression and placed the initiative in the hands of the Allies.
The first entry of the merchant ships with Armed Guards into the Mediterranean was most discouraging. Malta had to have supplies. A desperate effort, not completely successful, was made to send
some six merchant ships to Malta in June, 1942. United States Armed Guards were aboard the Dutch ship Tanimbar and the United States flag ship Chant which attempted this perilous voyage. Both ships were lost but they gave a good account of themselves before going down. It is interesting to note that the Armed Guards aboard these ships were never given permission to wear the Operation and Engagement star on their European theater ribbons, although the Armed Guard officers from both ships and one gunner's mate were awarded the Silver Star. The remaining members of the Armed Guard crews received commendations. Many Armed Guards who have been in heroic combat with the enemy, and some who have received decorations, still are not authorized to wear the engagement star on their ribbons.
The Tanimbar and the Chant Armed Guards knew something big and dangerous was being planned, for the armament was increased, the men were sent to D. E. M. S. schools [Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship School - HyperWar ed.], and British personnel were added to the gun crews. The destination of five merchant ships, including the Chant and Tanimbar, which left the Clyde, Scotland on June 4 was clothed in secrecy. Even the masters were told that there destination was Freetown. There was one slip, however, for a bill of lading indicated that medical supplies were destined for Malta. That great importance was attached to this supply of munitions, provisions, and medical supplies for Malta is indicated by the fact that the five ships were escorted by ten destroyers and two cruisers. Course was held around Northern Ireland to a meridian well west, then
south until parallel with Gibraltar. The ships entered the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of June 11. As dawn was breaking on June 12 an encouraging sight greeted the men on the ships in the convoy. On the horizon appeared a whole task force of war ships. This was to be the escort for six merchant ships, for a British tanker, the American-built Kentucky, joined the convoy. The convoy now had an escort of one battleship, two carriers, five cruisers, twenty-one destroyers, four mine sweepers, and six motor launches. The latter were to meet possible E boat attacks. They were towed part of the way in order to conserve fuel. Never have six merchant ships been so heavily defended. Rarely has so much air power been hurled at a convoy.
The convoy had only been formed for a few hours on June 12 when an enemy plane circled the formation. There was no longer any secrecy. The enemy knew that an effort was being made to relieve Malta. An engagement was inevitable. Emergency turns and depth charges announced to the anxious men on the merchant ships that already the battle had been joined. Aboard the Chant, the ammunition was laid out so that it could be used quickly. The entire day and night of June 13 found Armed Guards at general quarters. There could not be a moment of relaxation. An Italian reconnaissance bomber came over in the morning and dropped three bombs. This plane apparently escaped the curtain of anti-aircraft fire thrown up by the ships and got safely back to base.
The serious action began on June 14. First came a single reconnaissance plane at 1015. The Chant reports that this plane dropped three bombs. Five minutes later the men on the Tanimbar began wetting down the decks for the expected attack. They did not have long to wait. At 1110 fifty enemy aircraft approached the convoy from the north. Presumably they came from Sardinia. There were high and medium level bombers and torpedo planes. Three of these planes never got home. The Chant and the Tanimbar both fired at a torpedo plane. The plane was reported smoking when it passed the bow of the Chant. As the Tanimbar fired at this plane it burst into flame and fell into the sea. Thus far the luck of the convoy had been good. But there was no time for congratulations. A second enemy attack came ten minutes latter. A float torpedo plane made a run on the Tanimbar and launched its fish only 1,000 yards away. This plane was hit by the Chant but continued its flight until shot down by another ship. At the time its torpedo struck the Tanimbar two bombs also landed from medium bombers. The starboard side amidships was soon enveloped in flames. When the ship took a starboard list of 20ƒ the master gave the order to abandon ship. Two life boats capsized, but the life rafts had been released. The men dove over the side. Within five minutes the Tanimbar sank by the stern. All Armed Guards were saved. The motor launches and a British mine sweeper made the rescue of personnel. Twelve aircraft were shot down in this attack. The Chant was strafed and the
H. M. S. Liverpool was hit. The tired gunners ate at their gun, but nothing happened until late afternoon. About 1820 dive bombers made a light attack. Several ships suffered from near misses, but damage was minor. One dive bomber was shot down. After this attack a plane was seen circling from astern. No doubt this was part of the preparation for the next big attack which came almost four hours later. In this attack some forty dive bombers and torpedo planes did no damage. Two were shot down. About thirty minutes after this attack depth charges were dropped. About 2130 all of the escorts left the convoy except an anti-aircraft cruiser, eight destroyers, four mine sweepers, and six motor launches. The enemy tried one more attack at 2200 and later dropped flares. One bomber was shot down. Many fishing craft passed the convoy prior to midnight.
The convoy continued its rendezvous with destiny, passing Zemboa Island, Zembretta Island, and Cape Bon Light. About 0230 the coastal batteries at Pantalleria opened fire, but did no damage. Two Italian light cruisers and three destroyers attacked at dawn on June 15. A smoke screen effectively hid the convoy, but both sides opened fire and many shells fell near the Chant. The Italians had no stomach for a fight and refused to engage in a decisive encounter. At 0709 dive bombers began attacking the convoy and eleven minutes later the Chant was hit amidships on the starboard side. Part of her hull plating was blown off; her mainmast fell to port; her superstructure was badly twisted. The air was filled with coal dust, for she carried
coal on deck. When flames began spreading on the decks the men abandoned ship. The survivors had to swim through the choking fumes of the smoke screen before being picked up by escorts. No Armed Guards were lost. Apparently the aircraft which attacked the Chant was the one shot down. The tanker and another British merchant ship were disabled by near misses, and were sunk about noon by the escorts or scuttled. Thus, two thirds of the Malta bound merchant ships were lost. At 0845 the Italian cruisers and destroyers again approached the convoy, but not too close. A few minutes later a welcome sight appeared when a Malta based fighter flew over the convoy. Another air attack came in the morning and still others in the afternoon and evening, but Spitfires from Malta gave some protection and no ships were lost to enemy planes. An attack at 1310 was broken up by fighters. One dive bomber was shot down and two others were seen smoking. Within 15 minutes two enemy cruisers and two destroyers opened fire on the escort astern. When a British escort opened fire the Italian ships turned back. With their greater range the Italian cruisers could have destroyed the whole convoy. This action was followed by depth charges, and torpedo bombers. Late in the afternoon came dive bombers which were engaged by Spitfires. More enemy aircraft appeared later but did no damage.
As the battered convoy prepared to enter Valetta Harbor enemy mines claimed their toll. A Polish destroyer was sunk at 0115 on
June 16. The Tanimbar report also indicated that a minesweeper was sunk.
The tired Armed Guards found refuge in the damp but safe rock shelters on Malta. They left Malta on a British submarine on July 30; went from Gibraltar to London on a British ship, and arrived in New York on September 5 aboard the West Point. The Chant was credited with destroying two enemy planes and the Tanimbar with shooting down one plane.
Early in August twelve cargo ships and two tankers left the hospitable waters of Scotland for another attempt to supply Malta. This convoy sailed around northern Ireland, headed west in the Atlantic for about 300 miles and then turned south. As it entered the Mediterranean about two hours past midnight on August 10, this convoy constituted a veritable task force. The fourteen merchant ships were escorted by two battleships, five carriers, eight cruisers, and more than twenty destroyers. British submarines were also present. August 10 witnessed no damage to the convoy. But next day the attacks began in earnest. Junkers 88's began hitting the ships at 0900. The first ship to be sunk was a merchantman. Then at 1030 the British carrier H. M. S. Eagle took three torpedoes and sank within seven minutes. Axis submarines had been lying in wait for the convoy, but two submarines were sent to the bottom. During the evening a destroyer was hit and two more merchant ships were sunk by dive bombers. Aerial mines attached to parachutes were dropped but did no damage. E boats
were reported during the night. On August 12 the Armed Guards on the Almeria Lykes and the Santa Elisa, the only two United States ships in the convoy, remained at their battle stations. They were assisted by British personnel which had been placed aboard prior to leaving Scotland. At 1145 the Santa Elisa scored hits on one of four Junkers 88's and saw the plane crash into the sea. In the afternoon another British carrier was hit, this time by bombs. Most of the escort left the convoy to stand by the stricken carrier and later to go to the westward to meet the Italian fleet. The evening of August 12 witnessed the heaviest attacks by submarines and bombers. Italian torpedo planes were also present. At least four merchant ships were sunk, escorts were also heavily attacked and sustained losses. The Santa Elisa was twice straddled by bombs. Her second mate shot down a plane with a 20 mm gun. The attack reached its greatest intensity at about 2100. During this big engagement all the merchant ships and escorts spread out.
The Almeria Lykes had joined with two destroyers when she was hit at her No. 1 hatch at 0330 on August 13. She carried ammunition in all holds and a considerable amount of general cargo as well. The ship was abandoned and later re-boarded in order to set off an explosive charge. There were no casualties. She accounted for from two to four planes and perhaps for an E boat. Prior to the torpedo hit, E boats and the shore batteries at Pantalleria had attacked the ship.
The Santa Elisa fired on an E boat in the early morning of August 13 and then was hit at about 0505. Fore spread rapidly and the ship was abandoned. Dive bombers sank her more than two hours later. The Armed Guard officer and some of his men were picked up by a British destroyer which towed the damaged tanker Ohio into Malta. Some of the gun crew from the Santa Elisa volunteered for duty on the Ohio.
Only five out of fourteen merchant ships entered Malta. This number includes the damaged Ohio. As the battered remains of the convoy entered Valetta, the people of Malta and the gun crews stationed high up on the fortifications cheered. A band played "God save the King" and the "Star Bangled Banner".
Not an Armed Guard was lost, but three members of the Santa Elisa gun crew received burns from burning gasoline when they jumped overboard. Part of the cargo of the ship had been aviation gasoline for the fighters on Malta.
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