Monday, August 30, 2010

How the British Navy and Air Force Saved Malta

Since I last wrote about the importance of saving the island of Malta from Axis occupation and it’s importance to the defeat of the German/Italian forces in North Africa it is important to know how this was done by getting just enough supplies to keep the civilians and military alive and able to fight.
Malta contained a considerable civilian population, a large garrison drawn from all three Services and served as a very active operational base throughout the siege, it may be assumed that only the use of a considerable number of large merchant ships could support the demands for food, fuel and other supplies. Indeed, the great maritime/air battles that ensued around the convoys from east and west are usually seen as the means of supply. It is true that the failure of anyone of these operations would have made inevitable the surrender of the island, there was always a predicted but always changing date by which the island must capitulate due to starvation. However, lack of ammunition for the defenses, fuel for them and the population, and loss of aircraft could also have forced such an act prior to starvation itself. The support of Malta therefore took a number of forms. Firstly the passage of heavily escorted convoys conveying bulk supplies of food, fuel and ammunition. Secondly, the provision of very scarce ("high value") items such as vital spares, ammunition, medical stores and concentrated food by fast warships. Thirdly, the delivery of similar items by submarines, either as part of an operational patrol or a dedicated supply trip by a partly converted vessel. Fourthly, the provision of fighter aircraft by using Fleet carriers to take them within flying range of the Island and, finally, by clandestine voyages by independent merchant ships. The failure of anyone of these would have proved fatal to Malta.

Malta could be supplied either from the east or the west so far as convoys were concerned, the decision was based on tactical considerations. From Gibraltar, the passage only became subject to air attack in the second half of the voyage where enemy forces were in strength. From the east, unless the North African desert was temporarily in British hands, air attack became probable very shortly after sailing and surface attack easier due to shorter distance. The eastern route, after the complete failure of one attempt, could only really be attempted when the enemy had been driven west of Benghazi. Both routes required very heavy escort, another factor that inhibited the eastern series due to the steady attrition of the Mediterranean Fleet. The Germans operated a logical series of attacks that was directed at the main component of the escorts for if they were to be eliminated first the destruction of the escorted ships became easier, the heaviest attacks after the departure from Malta was directed first at the main Fleet and then at a detached cruiser force. Unlike the earlier attacks which were conducted by the Italian Navy and Air Force, these later, and most destructive efforts, were mounted principally by German aircraft. Most of these attacks were against convoys from Alexandria to the East of Malta that were under attack by Axis forces almost immediately. As an example were the results of the last Eastern convoy.

The Admiral in charge of the escorts then received firm information that the Italian fleet was retiring and accordingly ordered the convoy to turn once again for Malta. Unfortunately, the order was received at the peak of a heavy air attacks and it was nearly 1900 before the situation could be assessed and fuel and ammunition reserves discovered. It became clear that, with NESTOR damaged in the latest raid, fuel in the destroyers low and under 30% ammunition remaining, to press on to Malta was impossible. The C-in-C concurred and the whole convoy headed back for Alexandria. During that night the cruiser HERMIONE was hit by U 205 and sank, the damaged NESTOR had also to be sunk and the bedraggled convoy and escort returned to Alexandria and Port Said on the evening of 17.6. AJAX and BULKOIL were escorted to Port Said by FORTUNE, GRIFFIN, INCONSTANT and PAKENHAM, the remaining merchant ships entering Alexandria. CENTURION, damaged and with a deep draft had to anchor outside the Great Pass. This concluded attempts to supply Malta by convoy from the east, until the Army succeeded in clearing North Africa thus giving the RAF the ability to provide air cover during the voyage.

This was the situation in Malta at this time. The arrival of two supply ships from HARPOON convoy from the the west extended the supplies available in Malta by eight weeks. This seemingly reasonable statement must be read in the context that the entire population was already on starvation rations, serious illness were already afflicting rising numbers including even aircrew, that water and fuel for cooking could only be obtained with great exertion from specified distribution points, and that the reserves of essential supplies for defense, principally aviation fuel and ammunition, were extremely low. It was therefore essential to repeat the HARPOON operation on a larger scale and with arrival before the end of 8.42. It is of interest to quote comment by the then commander of 10th Submarine Flotilla in the island on a conversation with the people who were responsible for food distribution in Malta: "They said that the present island-wide soup kitchen arrangements are fully organized and working well. The tinned and dehydrated ingredients are issued daily to the organizers, prepared on field kitchens and distributed from fixed points. These ingredients are the ideal for control and orderly administration but the last issue - the absolute last issue from island reserves - occurs in five days, on 15 August. After that we are down to the slaughter of horses and goats, once considered adequate for six months......The present census of animals in the island is estimated to last from five to ten days. If in fact I chop and change between tinned supplies and slaughter WITHOUT CAUSING PANIC we might last until 25 August." That was the measure of desperation on the island.

Then finally there was one last attempt to get the most needed supplies in to Malta with Operation Pedestal; a relief convoy from the west. This, the last heavily opposed supply convoy to Malta, was born of sheer necessity immediately following the arrival of HARPOON. The decision was hardly in doubt, any other would have been a total abandonment of the island, and very little time was wasted in commencing preparations. The chosen commander, Vice Admiral Syfret, was at sea on his way back to the UK from the invasion of Madagascar, he was ordered to land at Takoradi and was flown to London to commence planning on 13.7 together with Rear Admirals Burroughs and Lyster who were to be his deputies.

Basically, PEDESTAL was HARPOON without the eastern cooperation, and with greater resources, the Home Fleet being stripped for the operation. The plan followed the now familiar pattern the main force, Force Z, proceeding as far as the Narrows, Force X going through to the Malta approaches, a substantial mine sweeping force to sweep the ships in, a carrier operation to supply additional Spitfires to Malta (Operation BELLOWS), a refueling at sea force (Force R) and an adequate supply of spare destroyers to cover losses and any unexpected eventuality. The withdrawal of the two HARPOON merchant ships was also provided for, finally the Mediterranean Fleet was to carry out a dummy convoy deception in the eastern basin to divert attention and divide enemy resources. On 10.8 all ships having sailed and passed the Strait, the composition of the forces was as follows:

Force X cruisers CAIRO, KENYA, MANCHESTER and NIGERIA, destroyers ASHANTI, BICESTER, BRAMHAM, DERWENT, FORESIGHT, FURY, ICARUS, INTREPID, LEDBURY, PATHFINDER, PENN and WILTON and the tug JAUNTY. Force R oilers BROWN RANGER, DINGLEDALE and corvettes COLTSFOOT, GERANIUM, JONQUIL and SPIRAEA. Operation BELLOWS, referred to in the "Fighters to Malta" section, comprised the carrier FURIOUS and, when separated from the main body, destroyers from the "additional" force.
Additional destroyer force AMAZON, KEPPEL, MALCOLM, VENOMOUS, VIDETTE, WESTCOTT, WRESTLER and WOLVERINE. The mines weeping force which was to meet the convoy and sweep it into Malta would consist of four ships HEBE, HYTHE, RYE and SPEEDY and MLs 121, 126, 134, 135, 168, 459 and 462. Finally, Force Y, the merchant ships ORARI and TROILUS from Malta would be escorted by the destroyers BADSWORTH and MATCHLESS, all ships which had been detained at Malta after HARPOON. Three cruisers and 26 destroyers fueled from the oilers throughout 11.8 despite constant shadowing by enemy aircraft. FURIOUS left the main body at noon to commence Operation BELLOWS, half way through which EAGLE was torpedoed and sunk by U 73, 927 were rescued by LAFOREY and LOOKOUT and the tug JAUNTY. In the failing light a combined dive bombing and torpedo attack developed, but with no loss to the escort nor the convoy, which closed the events of 11.8. It was anticipated that 12.8 would be "busy" as from dawn onwards all forces would be well within range of enemy air bases from which it was estimated that some 600 operational aircraft could be launched, post war (conservative) figures indicate 334 bombers (90 of them torpedo bombers) and 273 fighters. Maximum operational strength at Malta was 36 Beaufighters (long range) and 100 Spitfires. The air defense of the convoy after the loss of EAGLE, comprised 34 Hurricane, 10 Martlet and 16 Fulmar fighters.
Air defense consisted of a constant air patrol of 12 fighters reinforced as needed, which commenced at 0600, the first air attack started shortly after 0900 and continued throughout the day finally scoring their first success after four hours when the freighter DEUCALION was hit and damaged. She was detached from the convoy escorted by BRAMHAM and routed towards Malta close to the Tunisian coast. Both ships were bombed during the afternoon without success but a torpedo attack shortly before dusk set DEUCALION on fire and she eventually blew up. During the afternoon the convoy was also subjected to submarine alarms and at 1600 a combined attack by PATHFINDER and ZETLAND resulted in ITHURIEL finally bring the Italian COBALTO to the surface and sinking her by ramming. A mass air attack, carefully co-ordinated, commenced at 1830 when almost 100 aircraft plus fighters approached from a number of directions. In the resultant desperate fighting the destroyer FORESIGHT was hit and disabled, later to sink, while INDOMITABLE was hit and her flight deck put out of action leaving VICTORIOUS as the only operational deck. When the attack ceased, the time had come for the main force to detach and Vice Admiral Syfret turned Force W westward at 1900 leaving Force X to continue to Malta.

Barely an hour later the first serious damage was inflicted on the convoy when the Italian submarine AXUM fired four torpedoes damaging the cruisers CAIRO and NIGERIA and the tanker OHIO. NIGERIA had to withdraw to Gibraltar and CAIRO had to be sunk thus depriving the escort of the only ships fitted for fighter direction. In consequence, with the convoy thrown into some disarray by the sinkings, when an air attack commenced about 30 minutes later the six Beaufighters overhead were powerless to intervene in the dusk. During this attack EMPIRE HOPE was bombed and abandoned, her survivors being picked up by PENN, CLAN FERGUSON was torpedoed and blew up, she was loaded with 2000 tons of aviation petrol and 1500 tons of explosives amongst other items, however 96 survivors reached the Tunisian coast to be interned by the French. The BRISBANE STAR was torpedoed and fell out from the convoy, she will be referred to later. Finally, to complete the evening's chaos the Italian submarine ALAGI fired four torpedoes at KENYA just after 2100, the cruiser almost avoided all of them, only one striking her on the forefoot so that she was able to remain with the convoy capable of 25 knots. Hearing of the loss of two thirds of the cruiser force, Vice Admiral Syfret ordered CHARYBDIS, ESKIMO and SOMALI to rejoin the convoy but they were unable to do so until 0330 the following day.
At midnight, MTBs lying in wait off Cape Bon commenced their attacks and just after 0100 on 13.8 two Italian boats torpedoed the cruiser MANCHESTER. Stopped, it was subsequently decided that she should be scuttled which was done at 0500, most of her survivors reaching the Tunisian coast and internment. Within an hour, the scattered merchant ships of the convoy, a number of which were straggling and trying to rejoin, were picked off by the small, fast MTBs ALMERIA LYKES, GLENORCHY, SANTA ELISA and WAIRANGI being sunk. Only ROCHESTER CASTLE, hit right forward, survived rejoining the convoy making 13 knots. The situation at dawn on 13.8 was therefore that the convoy had as an escort the cruisers CHARYBDIS and KENYA, destroyers ASHANTI, ESKIMO, FURY, ICARUS, INTREPID, PATHFINDER and SOMALI with MELBOURNE STAR, ROCHESTER CASTLE and WAIMARAMA in company. The tanker OHIO escorted by LEDBURY could be seen astern overtaking the convoy, DORSET was afloat but unescorted somewhere astern, PORT CHALMERS with BRAMHAM and PENN was some ten miles off and BRISBANE STAR was hugging the Tunisian coast.
Meanwhile the surface threat from Italian cruisers had greatly diminished; lack of fighter cover (precedence being given to the bomber force) resulted in its withdrawal eastward and being harassed by reconnaissance aircraft from Malta. The final blow for the cruisers came when submarine UNBROKEN (Lieutenant Alastair Mars) damaged the heavy cruiser BOLZANO and blew the bows of the light cruiser MUZIO ATTENDOLO. No further threat was posed by Italian surface warships.
Events on 13.8 for the convoy commenced with air attacks just after 0800 when a bomb hit WAIMARAMA causing such an explosion that it destroyed not only the ship but the bomber responsible, LEDBURY rescued no fewer than 45 men from her. This was followed ninety minutes later by a most determined dive bombing attack by Stukas directed principally at the tanker OHIO now back with the convoy. She was near missed several times and actually struck by a Ju 87 which she shot down, her steering gear being disabled, an hour later more attacks further damaged and stopped her. At the same time DORSET was hit and stopped and PORT CHALMERS set on fire though she continued with the convoy. The final air attack came at 1130, with no further effect on the convoy; at 1230 the convoy came under short range air protection and proceeded without further problems. BRAMHAM and PENN remained with the two crippled ships, LEDBURY was sent to search for MANCHESTER which was thought still to be afloat, while Force X went on toward Malta meeting the Malta minesweepers who had swept their way out and met the rump of the convoy at 1430 and took over MELBOURNE STAR, PORT CHALMERS and ROCHESTER CASTLE to bring them in to Grand Harbour at about 1800 on 13.8. Meantime, RYE and two MLs went out to search for OHIO while BRAMHAM, LEDBURY and PENN were ordered to join Force X at a rendezvous at 2030 while the force turned westward and commenced the passage back to Gibraltar.
One further air attack was carried out before dark in which DORSET was sunk and OHIO hit yet again. BRAMHAM, PENN and RYE, ordered back to the convoy, spent the rest of the night in futile efforts to tow the OHIO and were joined by LEDBURY at dawn. Efforts to tow were resumed on the hulk of the slowly sinking tanker with slightly more success, and the cortege (for one can call it little less considering its slow speed and the state of OHIO) was joined later in the forenoon by SPEEDY and two MLs. After a traumatic twenty four hours under the direction of Commander M/S Malta, OHIO was berthed in shallow water inside the Malta breakwater, and settled on the bottom with the majority of her fuel cargo intact and available. BRISBANE STAR meanwhile had also arrived at Malta, hugging the Tunisian coast during 13.8 the Master intended to make a night dash for Malta. During the day, while not attacked he had to cope with intervention by French shore signal stations, a boarding by French officers who tried to persuade him to go into port and surrender, and a good deal of pressure on board from survivors and his Medical Officer who also wished to enter port due to the condition of the wounded. Nevertheless the Master stuck firmly to his intentions, and brought his ship into Malta during the afternoon of 14.8. The ships which arrived in Malta landed 32,000 tons of cargo and 15,000 tons of fuel, sufficient to supply Malta until 12.42 other than for aviation fuel. Force X meanwhile continued its journey back to Gibraltar, suffering submarine attack in the early morning of 14.8 and two air attacks during the day. No damage was caused and the Force met Force Z at 1800 and arrived at Gibraltar at 1800 on 15.8. The damaged ships of Force Z, sent home earlier in the operation, also all reached Gibraltar safely except the destroyer FORESIGHT which had to be sunk by TARTAR who had tried to tow her in. Force R also returned safely to Gibraltar on 16.8, final arrivals were the three Hunts BRAMHAM, LEDBURY and PENN who had stopped briefly at Malta after their triumphal entry towing the OHIO. And the main reason for this success on the ground in North Africa was through the efforts of the RAF attacks from Malta on the German re-supply efforts to their forces in North Africa. Helped in large part by the Ultra secret readings of the German codes the British knew where and when to look for German ship and/or air supply efforts.
No further operations from the west were attempted in 1942, the sudden clearance of Egypt and Cyrenaica of the enemy by the Army rendered the eastern passage much the safest option after the end of October, and the siege of Malta was effectively over.

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