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CAMPAIGN SUMMARIES OF WORLD WAR 2

BRITISH NAVY IN THE MEDITERRANEAN, including Malta Convoys, Part 2 of 4

1941-42

HMS Cairo, AA cruiser, lost August 1942 (Navy Photos/Mark Teadham, click to enlarge)

on to RN in the Mediterranean, 1942-43

 
 

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)

 
 

 
 

1941

JUNE 1941

Malta - With German forces now in Greece and Crete the problems of supplying Malta were even greater. From airfields in Crete as well as Libya, the Luftwaffe and Italian Air force were as close to the eastern convoy routes from Alexandria, as Sardinia and Sicily were to the western ones through the Strait of Gibraltar. Nevertheless the men and material were fought through for the defence of Malta and its use as an offensive base. In the one month of June alone, carrier "Ark Royal" once on her own, at other times accompanied by "Furious" or "Victorious", flew off more than 140 aircraft for Malta. Meanwhile submarines carried in urgently needed fuel and stores.

North Africa - Another unsuccessful British offensive to relieve Tobruk started from Sollum on the 15th (Operation 'Battleaxe'). Within two days the operation was called off. A heavy price had to be paid for the supply of besieged Tobruk by the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy ships involved. All trips took place under continual threat of German and Italian aircraft attacked. 24th - Sloop "AUCKLAND" was lost off Tobruk. 30th - Australian destroyer "WATERHEN" was bombed and sunk off Bardia.

27th - Submarine "Triumph" on patrol off the Egyptian coast sank the Italian submarine "SALPA".

Monthly Loss Summary
3 British or Allied merchant ships of 9,000 tons

JULY 1941

5th - Submarine "Torbay" on patrol in the Aegean Sea sank Italian submarine "JANTINA".

11th - On the Tobruk Run, destroyer "DEFENDER" was bombed by German or Italian aircraft and went down off Sidi Barrani.

20th - Two more British submarines fell victim to Italian anti-submarine forces during convoy attacks in July - the first was "UNION" to torpedo boat "Circe" off Pantelleria.

21st-24th - Malta Convoy, Operation 'Substance' - 'Substance' set out from Gibraltar with six transports covered by Force H with "Ark Royal", battlecruiser "Renown", cruisers and destroyers. Battleship "Nelson", three cruisers and more destroyers reinforced Force H from the Home Fleet. On the 23rd, south of Sardinia, sustained Italian air attacks started. Cruiser "Manchester" was hit and destroyer "FEARLESS" sunk by aircraft torpedoes. Next day the transports reached Malta safely. On the 26th the Italians launched an attack on Grand Harbour with explosive motor-boats, human torpedoes and aircraft, but failed to reach the recently arrived ships. By the 27th, Force H and a return empty convoy were in Gibraltar. During this operation, Mediterranean Fleet carried out diversionary manoeuvres in the eastern basin.

30th - The second Royal Navy submarine loss to Italian anti-submarine forces during convoy attacks was "CACHALOT" while on passage from Malta to Alexandria, rammed by torpedo boat Papa.

Monthly Loss Summary
2 British or Allied merchant ships of 8,000 tons

AUGUST 1941

Malta Convoy - Operation 'Style' - Early in the month, two cruisers, cruiser-minelayer "Manxman" and two destroyers successfully carried reinforcements and supplies from Gibraltar to Malta. On the way, cruiser "Hermione" rammed and sank Italian submarine "TEMBIEN" southwest of Sicily on the 2nd.

18th - Submarine "P-32" was lost on mines off Tripoli as she attempted to attack a convoy entering the port. "P.33" was also lost around the same time in this area, possibly on mines.

26th - As an Italian battlefleet returned from a sortie against Force H, submarine “Triumph” torpedoed and damaged heavy cruiser "Bolzano" north of Sicily.

27th - Covering the transport of troops into and out of besieged Tobruk, cruiser “Phoebe” was hit by an aircraft torpedo.

Monthly Loss Summary
2 British or Allied merchant ships of 6,000 tons

SEPTEMBER 1941

Malta - Carriers "Ark Royal" and "Furious" between them flew off over 50 Hurricanes for Malta in two separate operations. The 10th Submarine Flotilla was formed at Malta with the smaller 'U' class boats which were more suited to Mediterranean conditions. On the 18th, Lt-Cdr Wanklyn in "Upholder" sank the 19,500-ton transports "Neptunia" and "Oceania". Between June and the end of September, submarines sank a total of 49 ships of 150,000 tons. Added to the losses inflicted by the RAF this represented a high proportion of Axis shipping bound for Libya.

24th-28th - Malta Convoy: Operation 'Halberd' - 'Halberd' sailed from Gibraltar with nine transports. Force H (Adm Somerville), reinforced from the Home Fleet, included "Nelson", "Rodney" and "Prince of Wales" and the usual air cover from "Ark Royal". On the 26th the Italians sailed to intercept but returned to base next day. South of Sardinia on the 27th, "Nelson" was damaged by an Italian aircraft torpedo, and at the end of the day Force H turned back for Gibraltar. Convoy and escort (Rear-Adm H. M. Burrough) went on to reach Malta on the 28th minus one transport lost to air attack. As Force H returned, screening destroyers "Gurkha" and "Legion" sank Italian submarine "ADUA" off the coast of Algeria on the 30th. By now in 1941, three major convoys had reached Malta - 'Excess' in January, 'Substance' in July and now 'Halberd'. Nearly 40 merchantmen had got through with only one sunk. The cost to the Royal Navy had been one cruiser and a destroyer sunk, and a battleship, carrier and two cruisers damaged.

27th - Submarine "Upright" sank Italian torpedo boat "ALBATROS" off Messina, northeast Sicily.

28th - Corvette "Hyacinth" on patrol off Jaffa, Palestine, sank Italian submarine "FISALIA".

Monthly Loss Summary
4 British or Allied merchant ships of 16,000 tons

OCTOBER 1941

Malta - Force K was formed at Malta as a Strike Force to add to the offensive against Axis shipping by submarines and aircraft. Under the command of Capt W. G. Agnew were cruisers "Aurora" and "Penelope", destroyers "Lance" and "Lively".

20th - Mines previously laid by submarine "Rorqual" in the Gulf of Athens sank Italian torpedo boats "ALDEBARAN" and "ALTAIR".

25th - Over a period of 10 days, cruiser-minelayers "Abdiel" and "Latona" transported troops and supplies to besieged Tobruk and carried out Australian units. On the last mission "LATONA" was bombed and sunk north of Bardia by Ju87s Stuka divebombers.

Late October - Submarine "TETRARCH" sailed from Malta for Gibraltar but failed to arrive, presumed lost on mines in the Strait of Sicily.

Monthly Loss Summary
6 British or Allied merchant ships of 22,000 tons

NOVEMBER 1941

9th - Action off Cape Spartivento, Southwest Italy - An RAF report of an Italian convoy in the Ionian Sea making for North Africa led to Force K sailing from Malta. The convoy consisted of seven transports escorted by six destroyers, with a distant cruiser covering force. Early in the morning every one of the transports and destroyer "FULMINE" were sent to the bottom. Later, while rescuing survivors, destroyer "LIBECCIO" was sunk by submarine "Upholder".

13th - As Force H returned to Gibraltar after flying off more Hurricanes from "Ark Royal" and "Argus" for Malta, the famous and much 'sunk' "ARK ROYAL" was hit by one torpedo from "U-81". Next day she foundered in tow only a few miles from home. One man was killed. "U-81" was one of four U-boats that had just passed into the Mediterranean.

16th - A second U-boat, "U-433" was sunk in the same area as "Ark Royal" by corvette "Marigold". Towards the end of the month, Dutch submarine "0-21" sank "U-95". Between late September and December, 26 U-boats broke through into the Mediterranean and for many months took a heavy toll of Royal Navy ships.

North Africa -  A major British offensive (Operation 'Crusader) started on the 18th, again from the Sollum area and by January had reached El Agheila. Axis forces around Sollum and Bardia were by-passed in the drive on Tobruk. The first link-up with the besieged garrison was made by New Zealand troops on the 27th. 27th - Australian sloop "PARRAMATTA" escorting an ammunition ship on the Tobruk Run was sunk by "U-559" off the port. Since the siege started destroyers and other warships had been carrying in men and supplies almost nightly. As it came to an end the cost could be counted - 25 warships of all sizes and five merchantmen lost.

25th - Force K hunted for Italian convoys to North Africa supported by the Mediterranean Fleet with battleships "Barham", "Queen Elizabeth" and "Valiant". In the afternoon north of Sidi Barrani, "BARHAM" (above) was hit by three torpedoes from "U-331" and as she slowly turned over and capsized, split apart in an almighty explosion. Recorded on film her apparently calamitous end is often used in naval films and documentaries. Although over 800 men were lost with her, a remarkable number were saved. Just before this tragedy, Force K had sunk two more Axis supply ships west of Crete. At this stage 60 percent of Axis North African supplies were being lost to attacks by British aircraft, submarines and warships.

Monthly Loss Summary
4 British or Allied merchant ships of 19,000 tons

DECEMBER 1941

North Africa - As fighting continued around Tobruk, Gen Rommel decided to pull back to Gazala. Besieged Tobruk was completely relieved on the 10th December. Under pressure, the German Afrika Korps withdrew to El Agheila and on the 25th, British forces entered Benghazi.  

1st - Malta-based Force K searching for Axis shipping encountered Italian destroyer “DA MOSTA” north of Tripoli. She was sunk by cruisers “Aurora” and “Penelope” and destroyer “Lively”. Force K had now been reinforced by cruisers “Ajax” and “Neptune” (soon lost) and two more destroyers.

6th - Submarine “PERSEUS” on patrol off the west coast of Greece was mined and sunk off Zante Island. Just one man made an amazing escape to the surface and reached the distant shore.

11th - Submarine “Truant” sank Italian torpedo boat “ALCIONE” north of Crete. On the same day escort destroyer “Farndale” on passage sighted and sank Italian submarine “CARACCIOLA” on a supply trip from Bardia on the Libyan side of the border with Egypt

11th - As more German U-boats transferred to the Mediterranean, two were lost. The first was on the 11th when corvette “Bluebell” sank “U-208” as she left her Atlantic patrol area to the west of Gibraltar. The second sinking came ten days later.

13th - Action off Cape Bon, Tunisia - Destroyers “Legion”, “Maori”, “Sikh” and Dutch “lsaac Sweers” under the command of Cdr G. H. Stokes sailed from Gibraltar to join the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. Off Cape Bon, Tunisia they sighted two Italian 6in cruisers, “DA BARBIANO” and “DI GIUSSANO” returning from an aborted mission to carry a deck cargo of petrol to Tripoli. In a short night action and without being seen, the destroyers quickly sank both cruisers with gunfire and torpedoes. Italian loss of life was heavy.

13th-20th - First Battle of Sirte and related actions - Italian convoy operations to Libya led to major Royal Navy losses over just a few days. A first Axis convoy bound for Benghazi set out on the 13th, covered by an Italian battlefleet. On receiving the news, Rear-Adm Vian left Alexandria with a cruiser force to join up with Force K from Malta. On the evening of the 14th, submarine “Urge” torpedoed and damaged battleship “Vittorio Veneto” off the Sicilian Strait of Messina and the Italians cancelled that operation. The cruiser forces returned to their bases but as they did, Adm Vian's “GALATEA” was hit by three torpedoes from “U-557” and went down off Alexandria that night. Adm Vian was out again late on the 15th to escort fast supply ship “Breconshire” from Alexandria to Malta. On the 17th they met Force K off the Gulf of Sirte, and shortly encountered Italian battleships covering a second convoy, this time to Tripoli. The two cruiser forces attacked and the Italians withdrew in what became known as the First Battle of Sirte. “Breconshire” reached Malta on the 18th and Force K left harbour to search for the second convoy still making for Tripoli. Early on the 19th off Tripoli, the British force ran into an Italian minefield. Cruiser “NEPTUNE” hit three or four mines and sank with only one man surviving. “Aurora” was badly damaged and “Penelope” slightly. Trying to assist “Neptune”, destroyer “KANDAHAR” was mined and had to be scuttled the following day. Out of a three cruiser and four destroyer force, only three destroyers escaped damage.

19th - That morning as Force K struggled to survive, three Italian human torpedoes launched from submarine “Scire” (Cdr Borghese) penetrated Alexandria harbour. Their charges badly damaged battleships “Queen Elizabeth” with Adm Cunningham on board and “Valiant”. They both settled to the bottom and the Mediterranean Fleet battle squadron ceased to exist. News of the sinking was kept from the Italians.

21st - The second U-boat sinking of the month in the Strait of Gibraltar was by Swordfish of 812 Squadron flying from Gibraltar which accounted for “U-457”. The Swordfish managed to get away from the sinking ”Ark Royal” a month earlier and now played an important part patrolling the waters in which the carrier went down.

23rd - A sizeable number of German U-boats were now operating off the coasts of Egypt and Libya and attacking convoys with losses to both sides. On the 23rd, escorting destroyers “Hasty” and “Hotspur” sank “U-79” off Tobruk on the Libyan coast.  

24th - The day after the sinking of “U-79” but further east off the Egyptian port of Mersa Matruh, corvette “SALVIA” was lost to “U-568”.

28th - Four days later, destroyer “Kipling” sank “U-75” in the same area

Monthly Loss Summary
9 British or Allied merchant ships of 37,000 tons

 

1942

JANUARY 1942

Early January - Submarine "TRIUMPH" sailed from Alexandria on 26th December for a cloak-and-dagger landing near Athens before patrolling in the Aegean. She reported the landing on the 30th, but failed to rendezvous back there on the 9th and was presumed mined off the island of Milo, southeast of the Greek mainland.

5th - Three Axis submarines fell victim to their RN counterparts in different patrol areas in January. The first was Italian "SAINT-BON" north of Sicily to Lt-Cdr Wanklyn's "Upholder".

12th - The second Axis submarine loss was German "U-374" off the east coast of Sicily to "Unbeaten" (Lt-Cdr E. A. Woodward).

17th - During the month, Malta was resupplied by three small convoys coming from the east. In the second, four fast transports left Alexandria covered by Adm Vian's Mediterranean Fleet cruiser force. On the 17th one of the close escorting destroyers, "GURKHA (2)", was torpedoed north of Sidi Barrani by "U-133" and scuttled. Next day the surviving ships were met by "Penelope" of Force K from Malta, and got there on the 19th. During this period the Italian Navy had escorted two substantial convoys to North Africa in time for Rommel's next offensive. Malta continued to be heavily bombed for many months by the German and Italian Air Forces.

30th - The third Axis loss was Italian submarine "MEDUSA" torpedoed by "Thorn" in the Gulf of Venice, in the far north of the Adriatic.

North Africa - By the 6th the British advance had reached the German and Italian lines at El Agheila. Just two weeks later on the 21st, Rommel started his second campaign. The first of two phases took him as far as Gazala just to the west of Tobruk. El Agheila soon fell and Benghazi was occupied before the month was out. On 1st February Eighth Army withdrew to Gazala and within a week Rommel had come up. There he stayed until May 1942.

Monthly Loss Summary
1 British or Allied merchant ship of 7,000 tons

FEBRUARY 1942

12th - Heavy air attacks continued on Malta. Destroyer "MAORI" based on the island and at anchor in Grand Harbour, was bombed and sunk by German aircraft.

Malta - Three escorted merchantmen covered by cruisers and destroyers left Alexandria on the 12th for Malta. One was disabled and the other two sunk by aircraft. There was little relief for the island.

13th - Two Royal Navy submarines were lost. The first was "TEMPEST" which torpedoed a supply ship off the Gulf of Taranto but was depth-charged by the escorts including Italian torpedo boat "Circe", brought to the surface and soon sank.

16th - A third submarine was saved by the gallantry of her crew. "Thresher" was also counter-attacked by the escorts of a convoy, off northern Crete. Two unexploded bombs lodged between the casing and hull, and with the likelihood of drowning should she be forced to submerge, two of the boat's crew managed to remove them. Lt Peter Roberts RN and Petty Officer Thomas Gould were awarded the Victoria Cross.

23rd - Ten days later "P-38" attacked a heavily defended convoy off Tripoli and was also lost to the escorts' counter-attack which again included Italian torpedo boat "Circe".

Monthly Loss Summary
4 British or Allied merchant ships of 19,000 tons

MARCH 1942

RN Submarine Operations - Another submariner won the Victoria Cross. Shortly after, Royal Navy submarines sank three more Axis submarines, all Italian, in the space of four days. HM Submarine Torbay (Cdr Miers) carried out a difficult attack on shipping off Corfu on the 4th and torpedoed two merchantmen. This was only the latest of a number of successful patrols. Cdr Anthony Miers RN was awarded the Victoria Cross. 14th - The first Italian submarine sinking was "MILLO" off Calabria in the Ionian Sea by "Ultimatum". 17th - The second was "GUGLIELMOTTI" also off Calabria, by "Unbeaten" (Lt-Cdr Woodward). 18th - Finally "TRICHECO" went down off Brindisi in the southern Adriatic torpedoed by "Upholder" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn).

11th - Adm Vian's cruiser force returned to Alexandria after searching for Axis shipping and covering the passage of cruiser "Cleopatra" from Malta. North of Sidi Barrani, flagship "NAIAD" was torpedoed by "U-565" and went down.

Malta - Carriers "Eagle" and "Argus" flew off the first Spitfires for Malta from a position south of the Balearic Islands.

22nd - (Second) Battle of Sirte (map below)  - Adm Vian sailed on the 20th from Alexandria with four fast supply ships for Malta escorted by cruisers "Cleopatra", "Dido", "Euryalus" and "Carlisle" plus destroyers. Seven 'Hunt' class escort destroyers came from Tobruk and as they carried out anti-submarine sweeps ahead of the convoy, "HEYTHROP" was sunk off Sidi Barrani by "U-652". The remaining six joined the convoy to bring the total number of destroyers to 16. Early on the 22nd, Italian battleship "Littorio" with two heavy and one light cruiser plus destroyers headed for the British force. In the early afternoon the Italians were sighted to the north, just off the Gulf of Sirte. Now joined by "Penelope" and destroyer "Legion" from Malta, Adm Vian had prepared for their arrival. The supply ships with an escort of five 'Hunts' were to stand off to the south, protected by smoke laid by "Carlisle" and the sixth 'Hunt'. The remaining ships would split into five divisions and hold off the Italians with guns, torpedoes and smoke.

The four main phases of the battle lasted for a total of four hours. For much of this time the convoy was heavily attacked from the air. Starting around 15.00: (1) The three Italian cruisers were driven off in a long-range gunnery duel with the Royal Navy's 5.25in "Dido" class cruisers. (2) The Italian cruisers returned, this time with "Littorio". A series of attacks out of the smoke by cruisers and destroyers held them off. (3) Contrary to Adm Vian's expectations, the Italians worked around the smokescreen to the west, suddenly appearing only eight miles away. Torpedo attacks by four destroyers were unsuccessful, and "Havock" was disabled by a 15in shell. Then "Cleopatra" and "Euryalus" came out of the smoke firing their 5.25s and launched more torpedoes. (4) The Italian force continued trying to get round the smoke and, in another destroyer torpedo attack, it was "Kingston's" turn to receive a 15in hit. As the Italians turned north and away, the British cruisers went in one last time. By 19.00 the battle was over. The supply ships escorted by 'Hunts' made their separate ways to Malta, followed by damaged "Havock" and "Kingston". Adm Vian's force returned to Alexandria. Just after the battle, severe storms damaged ships of both sides and on the 23rd two of the returning Italian destroyers foundered east of Sicily. As for the convoy, all four transports including the renowned "Breconshire" were lost to air attack, two off Malta and two in harbour before much of their cargo could be off-loaded. As the Hunt class "SOUTHWOLD" stood by "Breconshire" on the 24th, she hit a mine and sank off the island. And on the 26th the returned destroyer "LEGION" and submarine "P-39" were lost in air-raids.

26th - Destroyer "JAGUAR" and the tanker she was escorting to Tobruk were both sunk by "U-652" off Sidi Barrani.

Loss Summary
4 British or Allied merchant ships of 20,000 tons

APRIL 1942

Mediterranean Fleet - Adm Cunningham relinquished command of his beloved Mediterranean Fleet, and Adm Sir Henry Harwood shortly took over. Adm Cunningham became the Royal Navy's permanent representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee in Washington DC. He returned to his old post in February 1943 after commanding the naval forces for Operation 'Torch', the invasion of French North Africa

1st - Submarine "Urge" sank Italian cruiser "BANDE NERE" north of Sicily. This was a welcome success in a month that saw heavy Royal Navy losses including "Urge" herself.

Malta - By now Malta had almost ceased to be of any value as a base for attacking Rommel's supply lines, and most of his transports were getting through. The German and Italian bombing led to the loss, directly and indirectly, of numerous ships including four destroyers and four submarines. They concentrated on cruiser "Penelope" in dry dock and destroyers "Havock" and "Kingston" both damaged in the Battle of Sirte. 1st - Submarines "P-36" and "PANDORA" were sunk in Malta and others of the 10th Flotilla damaged. "Pandora" had only recently arrived from Gibraltar on a supply trip. 4th - Greek submarine "GLAVKOS" was sunk in Malta. 5th - Destroyer "GALLANT" wrecked in Malta. She was badly damaged in January 1941 and not repaired. 6th - A number of ships managed to escape. "HAVOCK" tried to reach Gibraltar but ran aground and was wrecked near Cape Bon, Tunisia. She was later torpedoed by an Italian submarine. Light cruiser "Penelope", by now nicknamed HMS 'Pepperpot', got away on the 8th and reached Gibraltar two days later. 9th - Destroyer "LANCE" in dry dock in Malta was badly damaged and never repaired. 11th - Destroyer "KINGSTON" was bombed and sunk in harbour. 14th - 10th Flotilla lost its most famous boat when "UPHOLDER" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn VC) was lost. She attacked a convoy northeast of Tripoli and was presumed sunk in the counter-attack by destroyer escort "Pegaso".

Malta continued - As the bombing reached a peak, King George VI awarded the island a unique George Cross on the 16th April. President Roosevelt lent US carrier "Wasp" to ferry nearly 50 Spitfires to the Island. Escort was provided by battlecruiser "Renown", cruisers "Cairo" and "Charybdis" and six destroyers including two American. Sadly most of the aircraft were destroyed by bombing attacks soon after landing on the 20th. 27th - By this time the 10th Submarine Flotilla had been ordered to left Malta. "URGE" sailed for Alexandria on the 27th, but failed to arrive.

Monthly Loss Summary
6 British or Allied merchant ships of 13,000 tons

MAY 1942

2nd - Two U-boats were lost to the Royal Navy at opposite ends of the Med. On the 2nd, east of Gibraltar, "U-74" was sunk by destroyers "Wishart" and "Wrestler" and RAF aircraft of No 202 Squadron.

8th - Submarine "OLYMPUS" sailed from Malta for Gibraltar with many passengers including the crews of bombed boats "P-36" and "P-39". Just off Grand Harbour she hit a mine laid by German E-boats and went down with heavy loss of life.

Malta - USS Wasp and the "Eagle" flew off a further 60 Spitfires to Malta on the 9th. More were ferried in by "Eagle" and "Argus" a week or so later. This time they were kept safe on arrival.

11th/12th - Destroyers "Jackal", "Jervis", "Kipling" and "Lively" left Alexandria to search for reported Axis shipping bound for Benghazi. There was no fighter cover. On being sighted they turned back, but north of Sidi Barrani (yet again) were attacked by a specially trained anti-ship group of German Ju88s. "KIPLING" and "LIVELY" were sent to the bottom that evening, and "JACKAL" was scuttled on the 12th. Only "Jervis" with 630 survivors reached Alexandria.

North Africa - From Gazala, Gen Rommel started the second phase of his advance towards Egypt on the 26th with a main attack around Bir Hakeim. Shortly afterwards, heavy fighting broke out between there and Gazala around the areas known as the 'Cauldron' and 'Knightsbridge'.

28th - In the second U-boat loss, "U-568" attacked Tobruk supply traffic, was hunted down and sunk by destroyer "Hero", and escort destroyers "Eridge" and "Hurworth".

29th - In a series of attacks on convoys bound for North Africa, submarine "Turbulent" (Cdr Linton) sank three transports in May and on the 29th torpedoed and sank escorting Italian destroyer "PESSAGNO" northwest of Benghazi.

Monthly Loss Summary
6 British or Allied merchant ships of 21,000 tons

JUNE 1942

Malta - Early in the month carrier "Eagle" ferried over 50 Spitfires to Malta in two operations. By now the Germans had transferred many of their aircraft to Russia. This, together with the arrival of yet more RAF fighters, eased the terrible burden Malta had suffered for so long.

North Africa - After more than two weeks of fierce attack and counter-attack, British forces pulled out of 'Knightsbridge'. Tobruk was surrounded by the 18th and three days later surrendered. Another two days and the Axis forces were back in Egypt. Mersa Matruh fell on the 28th and Eighth Army prepared to make its last stand at El Alamein, just 60 miles from Alexandria and behind there the vital Suez Canal. With this threat to Suez and the Mediterranean Fleet's main base, warships and supplies started to withdraw from the immediate danger area.

2nd - Attacks on Allied shipping making for Tobruk before its fall brought further losses to both sides. Aircraft of FAA 815 Squadron and RAF No 203 Squadron damaged "U-652" off Sollum on the Egyptian/Libyan border. She was scuttled by a torpedo fired from "U-81".

12th - Ten days after the loss of "U-652" and further east off Sidi Barrani, escort destroyer GROVE was sunk by "U-77" as she returned to Alexandria from escorting supply ships to Tobruk.

12th-16th - Malta Convoys 'Harpoon' from Gibraltar, 'Vigorous' from Alexandria - Six escorted merchantmen passed through the Strait of Gibraltar covered by battleship "Malaya", carriers "Argus" and "Eagle", cruisers "Kenya", "Charybdis", "Liverpool" and destroyers - this force comprised Operation 'Harpoon'. Attacks by Italian aircraft on the 14th led to the first merchant ship going down south of Sardinia. "Liverpool" was also damaged and had to return. Later that day at the entrance to the Strait of Sicily, the big ship cover force turned back. In the morning of the 15th, south of Pantelleria, an Italian two-cruiser squadron in conjunction with Italian and German aircraft attacked the by now lightly defended convoy. The five escorting fleet destroyers headed for the Italians, but "Bedouin" and "Partridge" were disabled by gunfire. Three more merchantmen were lost to bombing attacks and Italian torpedo aircraft finished off BEDOUIN. Later that evening, as the seriously depleted convoy approached Malta, it ran into a minefield. Two destroyers and the fifth supply ship were damaged, but Polish escort destroyer KUJAWIAK was sunk. Just two of 'Harpoon's' six ships reached Malta for the loss of two destroyers and serious damage to three more and a cruiser.

Meanwhile the Operation 'Vigorous' force of 11 ships and their escorts sailed from Haifa and Port Said, and were met on the 13th off Tobruk by Adm Vian with seven light cruisers and 17 destroyers. By the 14th, two ships had been lost to air attack and two more damaged. That evening Vian learnt an Italian battlefleet with two battleships, two heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers had sailed south from Taranto. The chances of driving them off were slim. Early on the 15th the first of five (1-5) course reversals were made as 'Vigorous' tried to break through to Malta. As the convoy now headed back (1), German E-boats from Derna launched torpedo strikes. Cruiser "Newcastle" was damaged by "S-56" and destroyer HASTY sunk by "S-55". Around 07.00, when the Italian fleet was 200 miles to the northwest, the convoy turned back for Malta (2). Attacks by Malta-based aircraft were made on the main Italian fleet without serious effect, although they disabled heavy cruiser "TRENTO" which was finished off by submarine "Umbra". Between 09.40 and noon on the 15th, two more course reversals (3 & 4) were made so that once again the convoy was bound for Malta. All afternoon air attacks were mounted; and south of Crete, cruiser "Birmingham" was damaged and escort destroyer AIREDALE sunk by Ju87 Stukas. The convoy was now down to six ships when Australian destroyer "Nestor" was badly damaged. That evening 'Vigorous' finally turned back for Alexandria (course reversal 5). Now into the early hours of the 16th, cruiser HERMIONE was torpedoed and sunk by "U-205", and NESTOR had to be scuttled. At this time, as the Italian fleet headed back for Taranto, a RAF Wellington from Malta torpedoed and damaged battleship "Littorio". None of the 'Vigorous' ships reached Malta. One cruiser, three destroyers and two merchant ships had been lost in the attempt.

Monthly Loss Summary
16 British or Allied merchant ships of 60,000 tons

JULY 1942

North Africa - In the First Battle of El Alamein, Rommel's German and Italian army started its assault on the British defences on the 1st. In three weeks of tough fighting, British, Australian, New Zealand, South African and other units of Eighth Army managed to hold on. Both sides then dug in.

9th - Two Italian submarines were lost on patrol against Allied shipping off Beirut, Lebanon. On the 9th, "PERLA" was captured by corvette "Hyacinth", the second time an Italian boat had ended up in British hands.

11th - Two days after the capture of "Perla", "ONDINA" was sunk by South African armed trawlers "Protea" and "Southern Maid" working with a Fleet Air Arm Walrus flying boat of 700 Squadron.

Malta - Carrier "Eagle" again flew off Spitfires for Malta. Shortly after, "Unbroken" was the first 10th Flotilla submarine to return to the Island.

Monthly Loss Summary
3 British or Allied merchant ships of 6,000 tons

AUGUST 1942

4th - Two more Axis submarines were lost at the far east end of the Mediterranean, this time off Palestine. The first was "U-372" was sunk near Jaffa on the 4th by destroyers "Sikh" and "Zulu", 'Hunts' "Croome" and "Tetcott" and a RAF Wellington of No 203 Squadron. Back in June, "U-372" had sunk the valuable submarine depot ship "Medway" off Alexandria.

6th - Submarine "THORN" attacked a tanker off southwest Crete and was presumed sunk in the counter-attack by Italian escort destroyer "Pegaso".

10th - The second Axis submarine loss was Italian. They continued to mount special forces underwater operations and submarine "SCIRE" prepared to launch human torpedoes against Haifa in Palestine. On the 10th armed trawler "Islay" found and sank her.

10th-15th - Malta Convoy: Operation 'Pedestal' (map below) - For Malta to survive another convoy had to be fought through. The biggest operation ever was mounted from the Gibraltar end. A total of fourteen merchantmen, including two American and the British-manned tanker "Ohio" (Capt D. W. Mason) had a massive escort. Close in under Rear-Adm Harold Burrough were cruisers "Nigeria", "Kenya", "Manchester" and "Cairo" and 12 destroyers. Covering were the three fleet carriers "Eagle", "Indomitable" and "Victorious" each with their accompanying cruisers "Charybdis", "Phoebe" and "Sirius", battleships "Nelson" and "Rodney", and another 12 destroyers. Eight more destroyers sailed with the force - to give a total of 44 major warships. The opportunity would be taken for carrier "Furious" to fly off 38 Spitfires for Malta. The Mediterranean Fleet would try to distract the enemy at the other end of the Mediterranean. In overall command of 'Pedestal' was Vice-Adm E. N. Syfret. The convoy passed Gibraltar on the 10th and from the next day was subjected to increasingly intense attacks by submarines, aircraft and later coastal forces. Early on the afternoon of the 11th, "Furious" sent off her Spitfires and later that day headed back for Gibraltar. On the 12th one of her escorting destroyers "Wolverine", rammed and sank Italian submarine "DAGABUR" off Algiers. Still on the 11th and now north of Algiers, "EAGLE" was torpedoed four times by "U-73" and went down. Air attacks took place later that day and early on the 12th, but not until noon, south of Sardinia, did they gain their first success. Italian and German aircraft slightly damaged "Victorious" and hit a merchantman which later sank. More submarines then appearred and the Italian "COBALTO" was rammed by destroyer "Ithuriel". Once the convoy was north of Bizerta, Tunisia, submarine, aircraft and Italian MTB (mas) attacks came fast and furiously.

 

 

At 18.30, still on the 12th, aircraft badly damaged "Indomitable" putting her out of action and destroyer "FORESIGHT" was torpedoed by an Italian bomber and scuttled next day. The main Royal Navy cover force next turned back at the entrance to the 100 mile wide Strait of Sicily. The convoy carried on, still with 13 of the original 14 merchantmen afloat and its close escort of four cruisers and 12 destroyers. Disaster struck soon after 20.00 to the northwest of Cape Bon. Three out of the four cruisers were put out of action by Italian submarines. "Axum" and "Dessie" hit cruisers "Nigeria" and "Cairo" and the vital tanker "Ohio". "Alagi" torpedoed the "Kenya". "CAIRO" was scuttled and "Nigeria" headed back to Gibraltar. Around this time aircraft sank two transports. Cruiser "Charybdis" and two destroyers left the the main cover force and returned east to replace the lost ships. In the early hours of the 13th, the convoy was hugging the coast south of Cape Bon when Italian MTBs struck. Four merchantmen were sent to the bottom and the last of the original close escort cruisers, "MANCHESTER" was hit and scuttled. Air attacks later that morning accounted for one more merchantman and disabled another which was finished off in the evening. And to add to the torpedo hit, "Ohio" loaded with its highly inflammable cargo was now damaged by bombs and a crashing Ju87 Stuka. Including her, just five ships were left. Now into the afternoon of the 13th, three reached Malta. The fourth struggled in next day, but the crippled "Ohio", lashed to destroyer "Penn", only made port on the 15th. (Capt Mason was awarded the George Cross.) By now the close escort had just returned to Gibraltar.

Earlier, an Italian cruiser force set out to add to the convoy's miseries, but turned for home. North of Sicily on the 13th it was sighted by submarine "Unbroken" (Lt A. C. G. Mars) and heavy cruiser "Bolzano" and light cruiser "Attendolo" torpedoed and damaged. Only five out of fourteen transports had got through to Malta for the loss of one aircraft carrier, two cruisers and a destroyer sunk, and a carrier and two cruisers badly damaged. But the supplies delivered - and especially "Ohio's" oil - were enough to sustain Malta as an offensive base at a time critical to the coming Battle of El Alamein. More was still needed however, and only two days after "Ohio's" arrival, "Furious" flew off more Spitfires while submarines continued to make supply trips.

22nd - Italian torpedo boat "CANTORE" was lost on mines laid by submarine "Porpoise" northeast of Tobruk.

North Africa - Just as Gen Montgomery assumed command of Eighth Army, Rommel made his last attempt to get round the El Alamein defences. In the Battle of Alam Halfa, the German-Italian attack broke on the ridge of that name 15 miles behind the main lines. By early September he was back to his starting position. 29th - As escort destroyer "ERIDGE" returned from bombarding Axis positions west of El Alamein, she was torpedoed and badly damaged by a German E-boat. Back in port, she was declared a constructive total loss.

Monthly Loss Summary
13 British or Allied merchant ships of 110,000 tons

SEPTEMBER 1942

13th/I4th - Raid on Tobruk: Operation 'Agreement' - To help relieve the pressure on Eighth Army in the Alamein area, a combined operations raid was planned on Tobruk to destroy installations and shipping. An attack would be launched from the landward side by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) while simultaneously destroyers "Sikh" and "Zulu", together with coastal forces craft would land Royal Marine and Army units from the sea. AA cruiser "Coventry" and 'Hunts' provided cover. In the night of the 13th/14th, a few troops got ashore but "SIKH" was soon disabled by shore batteries. She went down off Tobruk early in the morning of the 14th. As the other ships withdrew, heavy attacks by German and Italian aircraft sank cruiser "COVENTRY" and destroyer "ZULU" to the northwest of Alexandria. The land attack also failed.

Mid-September - Submarine "TALISMAN" left Gibraltar on the 10th with stores for Malta. She reported a U-boat off Philippeville, eastern Algeria on the 15th, but was not heard from again - presumed mined in the Strait of Sicily.

Monthly Loss Summary
4 British or Allied merchant ships of 800 tons

OCTOBER 1942

French North Africa - In preparation for Operation 'Torch', US Gen Mark Clark landed in Algeria from submarine "Seraph" to help persuade the Vichy French authorities to support the coming Allied landings. Gen Giraud was to be smuggled from unoccupied France, again in "Seraph", to head pro-Allied Frenchmen.

19th - South of Pantelleria, submarine "Unbending" attacked an Axis convoy bound for Tripoli, sinking a transport and Italian destroyer "DA VERAZZANO".

North Africa - With the Second Battle of El Alamein, Gen Montgomery started the last and decisive British campaign against Axis forces in Egypt. On the night of the 23rd a massive bombardment preceded the advance of first infantry and then armour through the German and Italian lines in the centre. Progress was at first slow and the battle became a straight slogging match. Australian troops played an important part with a thrust in the north near the sea. In the build-up to the battle, Royal Navy submarines and RAF aircraft, especially those based in Malta, were sinking more than a third of Axis supplies setting out for North Africa. As the offensive got underway, the Inshore Squadron continued to support and supply Eighth Army along its right, seaward flank.

Malta - At the end of the month, carrier "Furious" flew off Spitfires to Malta. The island was even now short of supplies and the little getting through was carried by submarines and cruiser-minelayers.

30th - Destroyers "Pakenham", "Petard" and "Hero", escort destroyers "Dulverton" and "Hurworth" and RAF aircraft of No 47 Squadron sank "U-559" north of Port Said.

Monthly Loss Summary
No Allied merchant ships were lost in October 1942

NOVEMBER 1942

Battle of El Alamein won - Anglo-US forces landed in French North Africa, Operation "Torch"

 

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