3rd - Britain & France declare
war on Germany
Allied Maritime Responsibilities - These were based on the assumption Britain and France
actively allied against the
European Axis powers of Germany and Italy.
The Royal Navy would be responsible for the North Sea and
most of the Atlantic, although the French would
contribute some forces. In the Mediterranean,
defence would be shared between both Navies, but as it
happened, Benito Mussolini did not go to war for another
Sea - Strategic Situation
In the western
half of the Mediterranean, Britain and France between them controlled
Gibraltar at the narrow entrance from the
Atlantic, southern France, Corsica, Morocco,
Algeria and Tunisia. Malta at the centre was a
British colony. In the eastern half, Britain maintained a hold on Egypt
and the Suez Canal, Palestine and Cyprus. In the
Levant, Lebanon and Syria were French. Italy stood astride the central
basin, with Italy itself, Sardinia and Sicily to
the north and Libya with its provinces of
Tripolitania and Cyrenaica to the south. Albania
on the Adriatic Sea and the Dodecanese Islands in
the southern Aegean off Turkey were Italian. The
Neutral countries in the western Mediterranean
were Spain, and in the east, Greece and Crete,
Yugoslavia and Turkey.
Military and Maritime
Even allied to
France, Britain's position in the Mediterranean was
not guaranteed. Gibraltar may be
secure, assuming Spain's continued neutrality,
but Malta was considered indefensible in
the face of the Italian Air Force based in
Sicily. As it happened only the later arrival of
the German Luftwaffe turned this threat into a
near reality. However, Malta's well-equipped base
had to be abandoned by the Mediterranean Fleet
for the poorer facilities at Alexandria in
Egypt. A large Italian army in Libya (Tripolitania
and Cyrenaica) threatened Alexandria and the Suez
Canal, against which only a relatively small
British and Dominion force could be fielded.
Fortunately this had been reinforced earlier in
the year by Australian and New Zealand troops. These threats to
Malta and Suez depended on Italy taking and
holding the initiative. She did not.
a thorn in the side of Axis supply routes to
Libya, and Libya and Italian East Africa in fact
became endangered from the very Allied
territories they threatened. Over the next three
years, Malta above all became the pivot about
which the whole Mediterranean campaign revolved -
both the problems of its supply and its
effectiveness as an offensive base. Later Axis
plans to invade the island so invaluable to the
Allied cause came to nothing.
Major Naval Strengths
a small force of destroyers at Gibraltar,
largely for Atlantic convoy work, but the Western
Mediterranean was primarily the responsibility of
the French Navy - although British reinforcements
could soon be dispatched from the Home Fleet as
shortly happened. The Eastern Mediterranean was
in the hands of the Mediterranean Fleet and a
small French squadron based at Alexandria.
It was up to strength in major units but still
weak in cruisers, destroyers and submarines when
compared with the Italian Navy. This was partly
offset by the presence of carrier
Eagle to accompany battleships
Royal Sovereign and
Warspite. What the Mediterranean
in numbers was more than made up by the
aggressive fighting spirit of its
Commander-in-Chief, Adm Sir Andrew B. Cunningham,
his officers and men, and their training.
(a) Plus 10
British destroyers at Gibraltar.
(b) included 2 new battleships completing.
(c) Plus over 60 large torpedo boats.
Italy Declared War - Italy declared war on Britain and
France on the 10th. Two weeks later France was out of the
war. Still on the 10th, Australia, Canada, India, New
Zealand and South Africa declared war on Italy.
France - Later in
the month Italian forces invaded southern France but with
little success. A Franco-Italian Armistice was signed on
the 24th, and included provision for the demilitarisation
of French naval bases in the Mediterranean.
Malta - Italian
aircraft carried out the first of the many raids on Malta
on the 11th. Next day, the RAF made its first attacks on
Italian mainland targets.
Mediterranean Fleet with Warspite,
Malaya, Eagle, cruisers and
destroyers sailed from Alexandria for a sweep against
Italian shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. South of
Crete, light cruiser CALYPSO was
torpedoed and sunk by Italian
Mediterranean Fleet submarines operated out of Alexandria
on patrol off Italian bases and soon lost three of their
(1-3). At the
time mines were usually blamed, but it turned out Italian
anti-submarine forces were far more effective than
expected. The first loss was ODIN
(1) off the Italian coast in the Gulf
of Taranto, sunk by the guns and torpedoes of destroyer
16th - The second
British submarine GRAMPUS
(2), minelaying off Augusta, Sicily was
caught and sunk by large torpedo boats Circe
17th - Six Italian
were sunk in the Mediterranean, half by the Royal
Navy. However the first to go, PROVANA
and sunk off Oran, Algeria by French sloop La
Curieuse after attacking a French convoy, and just
a week before France was forced out of the war.
19th - Towards the
other end of the North African coast, the third British
loss ORPHEUS (3) was sent
to the bottom by Italian destroyer Turbine
north of the Cyrenaica port of Tobruk, soon to become a
household name .
20th - The second
Italian boat lost in the Mediterranean was DIAMANTE
 torpedoed by
submarine Parthian off Tobruk.
27th - The second
Italian submarine lost was the LIUZZI
 sunk by Med
Fleet destroyers Dainty, Ilex,
Decoy and the Australian Voyager
south of Crete.
28th - As the
Mediterranean Fleet 7th Cruiser Squadron covered convoy
movements in the Eastern Mediterranean, three Italian
destroyers carrying supplies between Taranto in southern
Italy and Tobruk were intercepted. In a running gun
was sunk by Australian cruiser
Sydney to the southwest of Cape Matapan at
the southern tip of Greece.
28th - The first of
two Italian submarines sunk by RAF Sunderlands of No. 230
Sqdn was ARGONAUTA  in the central Med as she was
believed to be returning from patrol off Tobruk
29th - The same Med
Fleet destroyers after sinking Liuzzi two
days earlier, were now southwest of Crete. They repeated
their success by sinking UEBI SCEBELI .
29th - A day after
their first success, the Sunderlands of No. 230 Sqdn sank
the Ionian Sea as she returned from the Alexandria area
British Force H -
By the end of the month, Force H had been assembled at
Gibraltar from units of the Home Fleet. Vice-Adm Sir
James Somerville flew his flag in battlecruiser
Hood and commanded battleships
Resolution and Valiant, carrier
Ark Royal and a few cruisers and destroyers.
He reported directly to the Admiralty and not to the
Commander, North Atlantic. From Gibraltar, Force H could
cover the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as
happened in the May 1941 hunt for the
Bismarck. Units could also quickly transfer
back to the Home Fleet and UK waters as shortly became
necessary at the height of the German invasion scare.
There could be no better example of the flexibility of
British naval power at this time.
Warship Loss Summary
- In a confusing month, the Royal Navy had lost one light
cruiser, one destroyer, three submarines and one sloop;
the Italian Navy one destroyer and ten submarines,
including four in the Red Sea.
Merchant Shipping War
- Losses in the Mediterranean throughout the war would
generally be low as most Allied shipping to and from the
Middle East was diverted around the Cape of Good Hope.
Monthly Loss Summary
British, Allied and neutral ships of 45,000 tons from all
Navy in the Mediterranean - 3rd - Action at
Oran (Operation 'Catapult') - Adm Somerville arrived with Force H off
the French Algerian base of Mers-el-Kebir near Oran.
French Adm Gensoul was offered a number of choices to
ensure his fleet with its four capital ships stayed out
of Axis hands. All were turned down and, at around 18.00,
Force H opened fire on the anchored ships. "BRETAGNE"
blew up and the "Dunkerque" and "Provence", together with other ships, were
badly damaged. Battlecruiser "Strasbourg" and
some destroyers managed to break out in spite of attacks
by aircraft from "Ark Royal", and reached
Toulon in the south of France. Three days later the
torpedoed at her moorings by Ark
Royal's Swordfish. The tragic and unhappy episode was
over as far as Oran was concerned. 4th - A more
peaceful solution to the French naval presence was found
at Alexandria. Adm Cunningham was able to reach
agreement with Adm Godfrey on the demilitarisation of
battleship "Lorraine", four cruisers and a
number of smaller ships. No action was taken against the
French warships at Algiers and Toulon. For
the Royal Navy an unhappy but in British eyes, necessary
duty had been carried out against our former French
allies. French anger and bitterness was understandably
considerable. 5th - Obsolescent torpedo-carrying
Swordfish from carrier "Eagle's" squadrons flew
from land bases on successful attacks against Tobruk and
area. On the 5th, aircraft of 813 Squadron sank Italian
destroyer "ZEFFIRO" and a freighter at Tobruk. The success was
repeated two weeks later.
9th - Action off Calabria or Battle of
Punto Stila (map above)
the 7th, Adm Cunningham sailed from Alexandria
with battleships "Warspite", Malaya",
Royal Sovereign", carrier "Eagle",
cruisers and destroyers to cover convoys from Malta to
Alexandria and to challenge the Italians to action. Next
day - the 8th - two Italian battleships, 14
cruisers and 32 destroyers were reported in the Ionian
Sea covering a convoy of their own to Benghazi in Libya.
Italian aircraft now started five days of accurate
high-level bombing (also against Force H out of
Gibraltar) and cruiser "Gloucester"
was hit and damaged. Mediterranean
Fleet headed for a position to cut off the Italians from
their base at Taranto. On the 9th, Eagles aircraft
failed to find the Italians and first contact was made by
a detached cruiser squadron which was soon under fire
from the heavier Italian ships. "Warspite" came
up and damaged "Giulio Cesare" with a 15in hit. As the Italian
battleships turned away, the British cruisers and
destroyers engaged, but with little effect. Mediterranean
Fleet pursued to within 50 miles of the south west
Italian coast off Calabria before withdrawing.
As Adm Cunningham covered
the by now delayed convoys to Alexandria,
"Eagle's" Swordfish attacked Augusta harbour,
Sicily on the 10th. Destroyer
but later re-floated and re-commissioned. 11th -
Force H, which had put to sea on receiving reports of the
Italian fleet, was now returning to Gibraltar, when
screening destroyer "ESCORT"
was sunk by the Italian submarine
16th - Submarine "PHOENIX" attacked an escorted tanker off
Augusta and was lost to depth charges from Italian
torpedo boat "Albatros".
Action off Cape Spada (see map below) - Australian cruiser "Sydney" and
destroyers "Hasty", "Havock",
"Hero", "Hyperion" and
"llex" on a sweep into the Aegean Sea were sent
to intercept two reported Italian cruisers. Off Cape
Spada at the north west tip of Crete, "BARTOLOMEO
by Sydney's gunfire and finished off with torpedoes from
the destroyers. "Bande Nere" managed to escape.
20th - Carrier
"Eagle's" Swordfish continued their strikes
against Italian targets around Tobruk. In the nearby Gulf
of Bomba, 824 Squadron was responsible for sinking
destroyers "NEMBO" and "OSTRO" and another freighter.
Monthly Loss Summary
British, Allied and neutral ships of 7,000 tons
STRATEGIC & MARITIME SITUATION -
With the fall of France, Italy
continued to dominate the central Mediterranean. The
situation in the western basin became difficult, as
shipping between Gibraltar and Malta could no longer look
to Algeria and Tunis for protection. At the eastern end,
Lebanon and Syria went over to Vichy France and in time
endangered Britain's position in the Middle East. At the
present, Greece and Crete remained neutral,
otherwise enemy aircraft would dominate the Mediterranean
Fleet as soon as it left Egyptian waters. This happened
when they were occupied by the Germans. The comparatively
healthy naval position also changed for the worse.
In all except capital ships seven British to six
Italian - the Royal Navy was distinctly inferior in
numbers to the Italians, but had its two near-priceless
fleet carriers Ark Royal based on
Gibraltar, and Eagle, later joined by
Illustrious operating out of Alexandria. They
dominated the Mediterranean over the next six months.
Fortunately the situation was also helped by the French
Fleet staying neutral and out of Axis hands - that
is, until its sovereignty was under attack when the
French Navy fought back fiercely. The arrival of Force
H at Gibraltar went some way to offsetting the loss of French naval
power in the Western Mediterranean.
1st - Submarine "OSWALD" on patrol south of the Strait of
Messina reported Italian Navy movements. She was
detected, and later rammed and sunk by destroyer
Malta - The
decision was taken to reinforce Malta and in Operation
'Hurry', carrier "Argus" flew off 12 Hurricanes
from a position southwest of Sardinia. This was the first
of many reinforcement and supply operations, often
bitterly fought to keep Malta alive and in the fight
against Axis supply routes to their armies in North
Africa. Now, as in the future, cover from the west was
provided by Force H. The opportunity was taken for
"Ark Royal's" aircraft to hit Sardinian
targets. In the middle of the month, Mediterranean Fleet
battleships "Warspite", "Malaya" and
"Ramillies" bombarded Italian positions around
Bardia in Libya, just over the border from Egypt.
22nd - Land-based
Swordfish from "Eagle's" 824 Squadron repeated
their July success with another torpedo strike in the
Gulf of Bomba near Tobruk. Just as she prepared for a
human torpedo attack on Alexandria, submarine "IRIDE" and a depot ship were sunk.
23rd - Heavy mining
in the Strait of Sicily by Italian surface ships led to
the loss of destroyer "HOSTILE" on passage from Malta to
Gibraltar. Extensive Italian fields in the 'Sicilian
Narrows' sank and damaged many Royal Navy ships over the
next three years.
Monthly Loss Summary
of 1,000 tons
Royal Navy in the
Mediterranean - Reinforcements were sent to the
Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria right through until the
end of the year. They were covered from Gibraltar by Adm
Somerville's Force H, then met in the central basin by
Adm Cunningham and escorted the rest of the way. The
opportunity was usually taken to carry in supplies of men
and material to Malta. Early in September new fleet
carrier "Illustrious" with its armoured flight
deck, battleship "Valiant" and two cruisers
were transferred in this way in Operation 'Hats'. On
passage with the new arrivals, aircraft from Force H's
"Ark Royal" attacked Sardinian targets. After
joining up with carrier "Eagle" and now in the
eastern Mad, "Illustrious" sent aircraft
against Rhodes. The Italian Fleet sortied during these
operations, but failed to make contact. The arrival of
"Illustrious" allowed Adm Cunningham to go
ahead with his plans to attack the Italian battlefleet at
Vichy France -
Three French cruisers with accompanying destroyers sailed
from Toulon and, on the 11th, passed through the Strait
of Gibraltar bound for French West Africa. All but one of
the cruisers arrived at Dakar just as Operation 'Menace'
was about to get underway. Adm Sir Dudley North, Flag
Officer, North Atlantic, at Gibraltar was somewhat
unfairly held responsible for allowing their passage. He
was relieved of his command and never officially cleared.
North Africa - From
bases in Libya, Italy invaded Egypt on the 13th.
Sollum just over the border was occupied and Sidi Barrani
reached on the 16th. There the Italian advance stopped.
Neither side made a move until December.
17th - Units of the
Mediterranean Fleet including battleship
"Valiant" sailed with "Illustrious"
for a raid on Benghazi. Swordfish biplanes torpedoed
destroyer "BOREA" and mines laid by them off the port sank "AQUILONE". On the return to Alexandria,
heavy cruiser "Kent"
was detached to bombard Bardia, but
torpedoed and badly damaged by Italian aircraft.
22nd - British
submarine "Osiris" on patrol in the southern
Adriatic attacked a convoy and sank Italian torpedo boat "PALESTRO".
30th - As Italian
submarine "GONDAR" approached Alexandria carrying human
torpedoes for an attack on the base, she was found by a
RAF Sunderland of No 230 Squadron and sunk by Australian
Monthly Loss Summary
ships of 6,000 tons
2nd - Mediterranean
Fleet destroyers "Havock" and "Hasty"
sank Italian submarine "BERILLO" off Sollum the border town between
Libya and Egypt.
- Attacks on Malta Convoy - From Alexandria a convoy safely reached
Malta covered by the Mediterranean Fleet with four
battleships and carriers "Illustrious" and
"Eagle". As the Fleet returned on the 12th,
attacks were made by Italian light forces southeast of
Sicily. Cruiser "Ajax" sank Italian torpedo
boats "AIRONE" and "ARIEL" and badly damaged destroyer "ARTIGLIERE" which was finished off by heavy
cruiser "York". Later heading back east, the
carriers launched air strikes against Leros island in the
Dodecanese. On the 14th as the Med Fleet headed
for Alexandria, cruiser "Liverpool"
was badly damaged
by a torpedo hit from Italian aircraft.
15th - On patrol
off Calabria, south west Italy in the Ionian Sea,
in a gun action with the Italian
submarine "Enrico Toti". At about this time "TRIAD"
probably mined off the Gulf of
18th - Air and sea
patrols accounted for two Italian submarines to the east
of Gibraltar. On the 18th "DURBO"
went down to attacks by destroyers
"Firedrake" and "Wrestler" working
with RAF London flying boats of No 202 Squadron.
20th - Two days
after "Durbo's" sinking, Gibraltar-based
destroyers "Gallant", "Griffin" and
"Hotspur" accounted for the "LAFOLE".
Balkans - On the
28th, the Italians invaded Greece from points in
Albania, but were soon driven back. Fighting continued on
Albanian soil until April 1941.
Monthly Loss Summary
of 3,000 tons
11th - Fleet Air Arm Attack on Taranto,
Operation 'Judgement' - Early in the month a complex series of
reinforcement and supply moves (1-5, map above) mounted from both ends of the
Mediterranean led to the classic air attack on the
Italian battlefleet at Taranto (6).
(1) From Alexandria, Adm
Cunningham, with battleships "Malaya",
"Ramillies", Valiant" and
"Warspite", carrier "Illustrious",
cruisers and destroyers, sailed to cover west-bound
convoys to Crete and Malta. Aircraft carrier
"Eagle" had to be left behind because of
defects caused by earlier bombing.
(2) From Gibraltar, Force H in a
separate operation called "Coat" supported the
east-bound passage of battleship "Barham", two cruisers
and three destroyers to reinforce the Mediterranean
(3) Troop reinforcements were also
carried to Malta at this time from Gibraltar.
(4) Still in the eastern half of the
Med, Adm Cunningham's Fleet met its new members and
covered the return of an empty ship convoy from Malta.
(5) On the
11th a cruiser force
was detached for a successful attack on Italian shipping
in the Strait of Otranto at the entrance to the Adriatic
(6) "Illustrious" meanwhile,
escorted by cruisers and destroyers, headed for a
position in the Ionian Sea 170 miles to the southeast of
Taranto. All six battleships of the Italian Navy were at
anchor there. That night she launched two waves of
Swordfish biplanes, some belonging to "Eagle".
Under the command of Lt-Cdrs K. Williamson and J. W.
Hale, the total of no more than 20 aircraft of Number
813, 815, 819 and 824 Squadrons hit "CONTE DI
CAVOUR" and "CAIO
DIULIO" with one
torpedo each and the brand new "LITTORIA" with three. All three
battleships sank at their moorings and "Cavour"
was never recommissioned, all for the loss of just two Swordfish.
The Japanese Navy
studied the attack carefully, as Pearl Harbor learnt
to its cost just a year later.
27th - Action off Cape Spartivento,
Southern Sardinia - A fast convoy under the codename Operation
'Collar' sailed eastward from Gibraltar with ships for
Malta and Alexandria. Cover as usual was provided by
Force H with battlecruiser "Renown", carrier
"Ark Royal", cruisers "Despatch" and
"Sheffield". Meanwhile, units of the
Mediterranean Fleet including "Ramillies" and
cruisers "Newcastle", "Berwick" and
"Coventry" headed west for a position south of
Sardinia to meet them. Other ships accompanied the two
Mediterranean Fleet carriers in separate attacks on
Italian targets - "Eagle" on Tripoli, Libya and
"Illustrious" on Rhodes off the southwest
Turkish coast. These moves took place on the 26th.
Next day, on the 27th, south of Sardinia, aircraft
of Force H's "Ark Royal" sighted an Italian
force with two battleships and seven heavy cruisers.
Force H, now joined by the Med Fleet's
"Ramillies", sailed to meet them. In an
hour-long exchange of gunfire "Renown" and the
cruisers were in action, during which time "Berwick"
damaged and an Italian destroyer
badly hit. The slower "Ramillies" had not come
up by the time the Italians had turned back for home. Adm
Somerville pursued, but as he approached Italian shores
had to turn back himself. The convoys arrived safely. Adm
Somerville was later subjected to a board of enquiry for
not continuing the pursuit of the Italian force, but was
Balkans - As the
Greek Army pushed back the Italians into Albania,
RAF squadrons were sent from Egypt to Greece and
the Royal Navy carried over the first Australian, British
and New Zealand troops by cruiser. Mediterranean Fleet
established an advance base at Suda Bay on the north
coast of Crete.
Monthly Loss Summary
were no British or Allied shipping losses in November
December - Submarines "REGULUS" and "TRITON"
were lost in late November or early
December, possibly mined in the Strait of Otranto area at
the southern end of the Adriatic Sea. Alternatively
"Regulus" may have been sunk by Italian
aircraft on 26th November.
3rd - At anchor in
the poorly defended Suda Bay, cruiser "Glasgow"
was hit by two torpedoes from Italian
aircraft and badly damaged.
North Africa - Gen
Wavell launched the first British offensive on the 9th
against the Italian forces in Egypt. Sidi Barrani was
captured on the 10th and by the end of the month British
and Dominion troops had entered Libya for the first time.
The offensive continued until February by which time El
Agheila, half way across Libya and well on the way to
Tripoli, had been reached. Italian losses in men and
material were considerable. Units of the Mediterranean
Fleet including the small ship Inshore Squadron
and the Australian Destroyer Flotilla played an important
part in supporting and supplying the North African land
campaign. On the 13th, cruiser "Coventry"
was torpedoed by Italian submarine
"Neghelli", but remained operational.
14th - Also
operating in support of the land campaign, destroyers
"Hereward" and "Hyperion" sank
Italian submarine "NAIADE" off Bardia, Libya just over the Egyptian
Operations - Another series of convoy and offensive
operations were carried out by the Mediterranean Fleet
with battleships "Warspite", "Valiant
"and carrier "Illustrious". On the 17th
carrier aircraft attacked Rhodes and on the night of the 18th/19th
the two battleships bombarded Valona, Albania. At the
same time, battleship "Malaya" passed through
to the west for Gibraltar. On the way, escorting
destroyer "HYPERION" hit a nine near Cape Bon, northeast tip of
Tunisia on the 22nd and had to be scuttled.
"Malaya" carried on to meet up with Force H.
The German Luftwaffe's X Fliegerkorps - including Ju87
Stuka dive-bombers - was ordered to Sicily and southern
Italy to bolster the Italian Air Force.
Theatre after Seven Months - A total of nine Royal Navy
been lost since June in the Mediterranean, a poor
exchange for the sinking of 10 Italian
merchantmen of 45,000 tons. Most of the
submarines were the large, older boats
transferred from the Far East and unsuited to the
waters of the Mediterranean. In the same time the
Italians had lost 18 submarines from all causes
throughout the Mediterranean and Red Sea areas.
Mussolini's claimed domination of the
Mediterranean had not been apparent. In spite of
the loss of French naval power, Force H and the Mediterranean
Fleet had more
than held the Italian Navy in check. Malta had
been supplied and reinforced, and the British
offensive in North Africa was underway.
Elsewhere, the Greeks were driving the Italians
back into Albania and away to the south the
Italian East African Empire was about to be wound
up. However, it was now only a matter of months
and even weeks before the Luftwaffe appeared in Sicily, Gen Rommel in North Africa and the German Army in Greece, followed by Paratroops in Crete
were no British or Allied shipping losses in December.
North Africa - As
the British advance continued into Libya, Bardia was
taken on the 5th. Australian troops captured Tobruk on
the 22nd and Derna, further west by the end of the month.
The Royal Navy's Inshore Squadron played an
important part in the campaign - bombarding shore
targets, carrying fuel, water and supplies, and
evacuating wounded and prisoners of war.
Air War - Hurricane
fighters, transported to Takoradi in West Africa, started
to arrive in Egypt after flying across the continent.
They too played their part in the North African
offensive. RAF Wellingtons raided Naples and damaged
Italian battleship "Giulio Cesare".
6th-11th - Malta Convoy
- Another complex series of convoy and ship
movements (1-6) revolving around Malta led to carrier
"Illustrious" being badly damaged and the Royal
Navy losing its comparative freedom of operation in the
Eastern Mediterranean. This followed the arrival in
Sicily of the German Luftwaffe's X Fliegerkorps. (1) On the 6th, convoy 'Excess'
left Gibraltar for Malta and Greece covered
by Gibraltar-based Force H. (2) At the same time the Mediterranean Fleet
from Alexandria prepared to cover supply ships to Malta
(3) bring out empty
cruisers "Gloucester" and
"Southampton" carried troop reinforcements to Malta
and then (5)
carried on west to meet 'Excess'. (6) Force H returned to Gibraltar.
By the 10th,
'Excess' had reached the Strait of Sicily and was
attacked by Italian torpedo boats. "VEGA"
sunk by escorting cruiser
"Bonaventure" and destroyer
"Hereward". As the Mediterranean Fleet
including "Illustrious" met the convoy off the
Italian-held island of Pantelleria, screening destroyers "GALLANT" hit a mine. Towed back to Malta,
she was not re-commissioned and finally wrecked by
bombing over a year later in April 1942. Still west of
Malta, heavy attacks by German and Italian aircraft were
was singled out and hit six times by
Ju87 and Ju88 bombers. Only the armoured flight deck
saved her from total destruction as she struggled into
Malta with 200 casualties. There, under continual attack,
she was repaired temporarily and left on the 23rd for
Alexandria. Sister-ship "Formidable" was sent
out to replace her via the Cape of Good Hope, but it was
some weeks before she reached the Eastern Mediterranean.
On the 11th, the empty return Malta/Alexandria
convoy was proceeding eastwards, with cruisers
"Gloucester" and "Southampton"
sailing from Malta to join up when they were attacked by
German aircraft to the east of Malta. "SOUTHAMPTON"
bombed and sunk, "Gloucester"
merchantmen reached their destinations safely, but at a
cost of a cruiser and destroyer, and the loss of
"Illustrious'" vital air power.
19th - Destroyer
Greyhound, escorting a convoy to Greece, sank Italian
submarine "NEGHELLI" in the Aegean Sea
Monthly Loss Summary
British, Allied or neutral merchant ships were lost in
North Africa - Benghazi
and British armoured forces crossed the Libyan desert to
a point south of cut off the retreating Italians. The
resulting Battle of Beda Fomm starting on the 5th
inflicted heavy losses. Australian troops captured the
major port of Benghazi at the same time, and by the 9th
El Agheila was reached. There the advance stopped. Large
numbers of British and Dominion troops were now withdrawn
for transfer to Greece, just as the first units of the
Afrika Korps under Gen Rommel arrived in Tripoli.
9th - Force H Attack in the Gulf of Genoa - "Ark
"Renown" and "Malaya" sailed right up
into the Gulf of Genoa, northwest Italy. The big ships
bombarded the city of Genoa while "Ark Royal's"
aircraft bombed Leghorn and laid mines off Spezia, all on
the 9th. An Italian battlefleet sortied but failed
to make contact.
24th - Destroyer "DAINTY" escorting supplies to Tobruk with
the Inshore Squadron, was sunk off the port by German
25th - On patrol
off the east coast of Tunisia, submarine
"Upright" torpedoed and sank Italian cruiser "ARMANDO
DIAZ" covering a
convoy from Naples to Tripoli.
Monthly Loss Summary
British or Allied merchant ships of 8,000 tons.
Greece - In the
space of three weeks in March, 60,000 British and
Dominion troops were carried from North Africa to Greece,
escorted by the Royal Navy (Operation 'Lustre').
6th - Italian
submarine "ANFITRITE" attacked a troop convoy east of Crete and
was sunk by escorting destroyer
26th - At anchor in
Suda Bay, northern Crete, heavy cruiser "YORK" was badly damaged by Italian explosive
motor boats and beached. She was later wrecked by bombing
and abandoned when Crete was evacuated in May.
28th - Mines laid
by submarine "Rorqual" west of Sicily on the
25th, sank two Italian supply ships the next day and
torpedo boat "CHINOTTO" on the 28th.
28th - Battle of Cape Matapan (map above) - As ships of the Mediterranean Fleet covered
troop movements to Greece, 'Ultra' intelligence was
received reporting the sailing of an Italian battlefleet
with one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers
plus destroyers to attack the convoy routes. On the 27th,
Vice-Adm Pridham-Wippell with cruisers "Ajax",
"Gloucester", "Orion" and the
Australian "Perth" and destroyers sailed from
Greek waters for a position south of Crete. Adm
Cunningham with carrier "Formidable" and
battleships "Warspite", "Barham" and
"Valiant "left Alexandria on the same day to
meet the cruisers. Around 08.30 on the 28th,
south of Crete, Adm Pridham-Wippell was in action with an
Italian cruiser squadron. Just before noon he found
himself between them and the battleship "Vittorio
Veneto" which had now come up. An attack by
Swordfish from "Formidable" failed to hit the
Italian battleship, but enabled the British cruisers to
extricate themselves. Mediterranean Fleet heavy units
arrived, but their only chance of action was to slow down
the Italians before they could reach Italy.
A second Swordfish strike
at around 15.00 hit and slowed down "Vittorio
Veneto", but only
for a short while. At 19.30 a third strike
southwest of Cape Matapan stopped heavy cruiser
"Pola". All this time, RAF aircraft were
attacking but without success. Later that evening
(still on the 28th), two more heavy cruisers -
"Fiume" and "Zara with four destroyers
were detached to help "Pola". Before reaching
her, Adm Cunningham's ships detected them by radar and "FIUME",
destroyers "ALFIERI" and "CARDUCCI"
were crippled by the close range gunfire
of "Barham", "Valiant" and
"Warspite". All four Italians were finished off
by four destroyers led by the Australian
"Stuart". Early next morning on the
found, partly abandoned. After
taking off the remaining crew, destroyers
"Jervis" and "Nubian" sank her with
torpedoes. The Royal Navy lost one aircraft.
31st - Continuing
her successes, "Rorqual" torpedoed and sank
submarine "CAPPONI" off northeast Sicily.
31st - Cruiser "BONAVENTURE" with a Mediterranean Fleet cruiser
force escorting a convoy from Greece to Egypt, was
torpedoed and sunk to the southeast of Crete by Italian
Yugoslavia - On the
25th Yugoslavia joined the Tripartite Pact, but two days
later an anti-Nazi coup toppled the Government.
North Africa - In
command of German and Italian troops, Gen Rommel started
his first offensive with the capture of El Agheila on the
24th. Within three weeks the British and Dominion forces
were back in Sollum on the Egyptian side of the border.
Malta - Late in the
month a small Malta convoy sailed from the east covered
by the Mediterranean Fleet. These were the first supplies
to arrive since the January 'Excess' operation. In the
intervening two months Malta had been heavily attacked by
the Axis air forces hoping to neutralise the island as a
base for air and sea attacks against the supply routes to
Monthly Loss Summary
British or Allied merchant ships of 12,000 tons.
and Greece - Germany
invaded both countries on the 6th. By the 12th they
entered Belgrade and within another five days the
Yugoslav Army had surrendered. Greek forces in Albania
and Greece suffered the same fate. Starting on the 24th
over a period of five days, 50,000 British, Australian
and New Zealand troops were
evacuated to Crete and Egypt in
Operation 'Demon'. The Germans occupied Athens on the
Africa - Germans
entered Benghazi on the 4th and by mid-month had
surrounded Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border.
Attacks on the British and Australian troops defending
Tobruk were unsuccessful, and an eight-month siege began.
16th - Action of Sfax, Tunisia - Capt P.
J. Mack with
destroyers "Janus", "Jervis",
"Mohawk" and "Nubian" sailing from
Malta intercepted a German Afrika Korps convoy of five
transports escorted by three Italian destroyers off
Kerkennah Islands, east of Tunisia. All Axis ships were
sunk including the destroyers "BALENO" (foundered next day), "LAMPO" (later salvaged) and "TARIGO". In the fighting "MOHAWK"
was torpedoed by "Tarigo" and
had to be scuttled.
Malta - In the
first week of April, "Ark Royal" escorted by
Force H sailed from Gibraltar and flew off 12
Hurricanes for Malta. Three weeks later the operation was
repeated with 20 more aircraft. From the other end of the
Mediterranean, Alexandria-based battleships
"Barham", "Valiant" and
"Warspite" together with carrier
"Formidable" covered the movement of fast
transport "Breconshire" to Malta. On the 21st
they bombarded Tripoli on their return.
27th - As units of
the Mediterranean Fleet carry out the Greek evacuation,
destroyers "DIAMOND" and "WRYNECK" rescued troops from the bombed
transport "Slamat", but were then sunk by more
German bombers off Cape Malea at the southeast tip of
Greece. There were few survivors from the three ships.
Monthly Loss Summary
British, Allied and neutral ships of 293,000 tons from
Late April/early May
- Two submarines operating out of Malta were lost,
possibly due to mines - "USK" in the Strait of Sicily area and "UNDAUNTED" off Tripoli. "Usk" may
have been sunk by Italian destroyers west of Sicily while
attacking a convoy.
2nd - Returning to
Malta with cruiser "Gloucester" and other
destroyers from a search for Axis convoys, "JERSEY"
was mined and sunk in the entrance to
Valletta's Grand Harbour.
Royal Navy Operations
in the Mediterranean - Early in the month, Force H
and the Mediterranean Fleet carried out another series of
complicated supply, reinforcement and offensive
operations. (1) Five fast transports sailed from Gibraltar
with tanks and supplies urgently needed for the Army of
the Nile (Operation 'Tiger'). Four arrived safely.
(2) On passage they were accompanied
by battleship "Oueen Elizabeth" and two
cruisers sailing to join the Mediterranean Fleet.
(3) Two small convoys were escorted
westward from Egypt to Malta.
(4) Other units of the Mediterranean
Fleet shelled Benghazi, Libya on the night of the
7th/8th. (5) After covering the 'Tiger' convoy,
"Ark Royal" joined by carrier
"Furious", was once again south of Sardinia and
flying off a further 48 Hurricanes to Malta on the 21st.
Five days later, "Ark Royal's" Swordfish were
crippling the "Bismarck" in the North Atlantic!
Malta - The
transfer of many German aircraft from Sicily for the
attack on Russia brought some relief to Malta.
North Africa - A
British offensive started from the Sollum area on the
15th in an attempt to relieve Tobruk (Operation
'Brevity'). Two weeks later both sides were back to their
original positions. The first of many supply trips to
besieged Tobruk were made by Australian destroyers
"Voyager" and "Waterhen" and other
ships of the Inshore Squadron.
18th - On patrol
south of Crete, AA cruiser "Coventry" was heavily attacked from the air. +
Petty Officer Alfred Sephton continued to carry out his
duties in the director after being mortally wounded. He
was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
21st May-1st June - Battle for Crete - On the
21st, in the opening stages of the
attack on Crete, cruiser minelayer "Abdiel"
laid mines off the west coast of Greece sinking Italian
destroyer "MIRABELLO" and two transports. Most of the
Mediterranean Fleet with four battleships, one carrier,
10 cruisers and 30 destroyers fought the Battle for
Crete. For the Navy there were two phases,
both of which took place under intense air attack, mainly
German, from which all losses resulted. Phase One was from the German airborne invasion on the 20th until
the decision was taken on the 27th to evacuate the
island. During this time the Mediterranean Fleet managed
to prevent the sea-borne reinforcement of the German
paratroops fighting on Crete, but at heavy cost. Most of
these losses happened as the ships tried to withdraw from
night-time patrols north of the island out of range of
Phase Two was from
27th May to 1st June when over 15,000 British and
Dominion troops were evacuated. Ten thousand had to be
left behind - and again the naval losses were heavy. 21st
- In the morning, destroyer "JUNO" was sunk and cruiser "Ajax" slightly damaged as they withdrew
southeast of Crete. Later that evening "Ajax",
with "Dido", "Orion" and four
destroyers, savaged a German troop convoy of small craft.
More such vessels were sunk over the next few days off
the north coast. 22nd - Early that morning another
force of four cruisers and three destroyers swept to the
north and was attacked on their return. Cruisers "Naiad" and "Carlisle" were damaged, and as they reached their
support force to the northwest, battleship
was badly hit. Later, destroyer "GREYHOUND" was caught on her own in the same area
and soon sent to the bottom. Other destroyers went to
rescue her survivors, covered by cruisers
"Gloucester" and "Fiji". As the
cruisers withdrew, first "GLOUCESTER"
was sunk northwest of Crete by Ju87s and
Ju88s. Three hours later "FIJI"
surprised by a single Me109
fighter-bomber and sank to the southwest. All ships were
very short of AA ammunition by this stage.
23rd - Withdrawing
from the usual night-time patrols led to the loss of two
more destroyers. Capt Lord Louis Mountbatten's five ship
flotilla was attacked to the south and "KASHMIR" and "KELLY" sunk. Over the next few days the
north coast sweeps continued, and supplies and
reinforcements were brought into Crete. 26th -
Carrier "Formidable", accompanied by
battleships "Barham" and "Queen
Elizabeth", flew off aircraft from a position well
to the south for an attack on the Scarpanto Island
airfields. In the counter-attack "Formidable" and destroyer "Nubian"
were damaged. 27th - As "Barham" covered a supply mission, she was
hit to the northwest of Alexandria. 28th - The
decision to evacuate was made, and cruisers and
destroyers prepared to lift off the troops. As they
approached Crete, cruiser "Aiax" and destroyer "Imperial"
were damaged to the southeast.
- Early in the morning, 4,000 men were lifted off from
Heraklion on the north coast. As they did the damaged "IMPERIAL"
to be scuttled, and "HEREWARD"
was hit and left behind to go down off
the eastern tip of Crete. Shortly after, cruisers "Dido" and "Orion"
badly damaged to the southeast. 30th
- Early in the day, more troops were lifted from the
southern port of Sphakia/Sphaxia by another cruiser
force. Well to the south the Australian cruiser "Perth"
was bombed and damaged.
- As the last men were carried from Crete, cruisers
"Calcutta" and "Coventry" sailed from
Alexandria to provide AA cover. "CALCUTTA"
was sunk north of the Egyptian coast. Some 15,000 troops
were saved but at a cost to the Royal Navy of 2,000 men killed. Total
warship casualties, all from German and some Italian bombing were:
Navy Submarine Operations - "Upholder"
(Lt-Cdr Wanklyn) attacked a strongly escorted troop
convoy off the coast of Sicily on the 24th May and sank
18,000-ton liner "Conte Rosso". + Lt-Cdr
Malcolm Wanklyn RN was subsequently awarded the Victoria
Cross for this and other successful patrols as commander
25th - Sloop "GRIMSBY" and the supply ship she was
escorting on the Tobruk run were sunk by bombers
northeast of the port.
Monthly Loss Summary
19 British or Allied merchant ships of 71,000 tons.