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CAMPAIGN SUMMARIES OF WORLD WAR 2

BRITISH NAVY IN THE MEDITERRANEAN, including Malta Convoys, Part 1 of 4

1940-41

HMS Warspite, Mediterranean Battle Honours were CALABRIA 1940, MEDITERRANEAN 1940-43, MATAPAN 1941, CRETE 1941, MALTA CONVOYS 1941, SICILY 1943, SALERNO 1943 (Maritime Quest, click to enlarge)

on to RN in the Mediterranean, 1941-42

 
 

Each Summary is complete in its own right. The same information may therefore be found in a number of related summaries

(for more ship information,  go to Naval History Homepage and type name in Site Search)

 
 

 
 

September 1939

3rd - Britain & France declare war on Germany

Allied Maritime Responsibilities - These were based on the assumption Britain and France were 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 nine months.

 

1940

JUNE 1940

Mediterranean 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 Circumstances

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.

Malta became 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

The Royal Navy maintained 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 “Malaya”, “Ramillies”, “Royal Sovereign” and “Warspite”. What the Mediterranean Fleet lacked 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.

Major Warship types

Western Med
FRENCH NAVY

Mediterranean
ITALIAN NAVY

Eastern Med
ROYAL NAVY

Eastern Med
FRENCH NAVY

Mediterranean
ALLIED TOTAL

Battleships

4

6 (b)

4

1

9

Carriers

-

-

1

-

1

Cruisers

10

21

9

4

23

Destroyers

37(a)

52(c)

25

3

65

Submarines

36

106

10

-

46

TOTALS

87

185

49

8

144

 

Notes:

(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.

12th -The 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 submarine “Bagnolini”.

13th - Mediterranean Fleet submarines operated out of Alexandria on patrol off Italian bases and soon lost three of their number (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 “Strale”.

16th - The second British submarine “GRAMPUS” (2), minelaying off Augusta, Sicily was caught and sunk by large torpedo boats “Circe” and “Clio”.

17th - Six Italian submarines [1-6] were sunk in the Mediterranean, half by the Royal Navy. However the first to go, “PROVANA” [1] was rammed 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” [2] torpedoed by submarine “Parthian” off Tobruk.

27th - The second Italian submarine lost was the “LIUZZI” [3] 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 battle, “ESPERO” 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” [4] 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” [5].

29th - A day after their first success, the Sunderlands of No. 230 Sqdn sank “RUBINO” [6] in 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
6 British, Allied and neutral ships of 45,000 tons from all causes.

JULY 1940

French 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 damaged "Dunkerque" was 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) - On 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 "Pancaldo" was torpedoed, 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 "Marconi".

16th - Submarine "PHOENIX" attacked an escorted tanker off Augusta and was lost to depth charges from Italian torpedo boat "Albatros".

19th - 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 COLLEONI" was stopped 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
2 British, Allied and neutral ships of 7,000 tons

STRATEGIC & MARITIME SITUATION - MEDITERRANEAN

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.

AUGUST 1940

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 "Vivaldi".

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
1 ship of 1,000 tons

SEPTEMBER 1940

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 Taranto.

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 destroyer "Stuart".

Monthly Loss Summary
2 ships of 6,000 tons

OCTOBER 1940

2nd - Mediterranean Fleet destroyers "Havock" and "Hasty" sank Italian submarine "BERILLO" off Sollum the border town between Libya and Egypt.

12th/14th - 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, submarine "RAINBOW" was lost in a gun action with the Italian submarine "Enrico Toti". At about this time "TRIAD" was probably mined off the Gulf of Taranto.

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
1 ship of 3,000 tons

NOVEMBER 1940

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 Fleet. (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 Sea.

(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" was 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 soon exonerated.

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
There were no British or Allied shipping losses in November 1940.

DECEMBER 1940

Late November/early 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 border

Mediterranean 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.

Mediterranean Theatre after Seven Months - A total of nine Royal Navy submarines had 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

Monthly Loss Summary
There were no British or Allied shipping losses in December.

 

1941

JANUARY 1941

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 "Excess" - 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 and (3) bring out empty ones. (4) Mediterranean Fleet 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" was 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 launched. "Illustrious" 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" was bombed and sunk, "Gloucester" damaged. All 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
No British, Allied or neutral merchant ships were lost in the Mediterranean.

FEBRUARY 1941

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 Royal," "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 Ju87 Stukas.

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
2 British or Allied merchant ships of 8,000 tons.

MARCH 1941

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 "Greyhound".

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", "ZARA" and 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 29th, "POLA" was 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 submarine Ambra.

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 Libya.

Monthly Loss Summary
2 British or Allied merchant ships of 12,000 tons.

APRIL 1941

Yugoslavia 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 27th.

North 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
105 British, Allied and neutral ships of 293,000 tons from all causes

MAY 1941

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 enemy aircraft.

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 "Warspite" 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" was 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. 29th - Early in the morning, 4,000 men were lifted off from Heraklion on the north coast. As they did the damaged "IMPERIAL" had 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" were 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. 1st June - 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:

Warship types

Sunk

Badly damaged

Total

Battleships

-

2

2

Carriers

-

1

1

Cruisers

3

5

8

Destroyers

6

5

11

Totals

9

13

22

Royal 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 of "Upholder".

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.

 

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revised 9/7/11


 

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