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In Passage Perilous: Malta and the Convoy Battles of June 1942

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By mid-1942 the Allies were losing the Mediterranean war: Malta was isolated and its civilian population faced starvation. In June 1942 the British Royal Navy made a stupendous effort to break the Axis stranglehold. The British dispatched armed convoys from Gibraltar and Egypt toward Malta. In a complex battle lasting more than a week, Italian and German forces defeated Operation Vigorous, the larger eastern effort, and ravaged the western convoy, Operation Harpoon, in a series of air, submarine, and surface attacks culminating in the Battle of Pantelleria. Just two of seventeen merchant ships that set out for Malta reached their destination. In Passage Perilous presents a detailed description of the operations and assesses the actual impact Malta had on the fight to deny supplies to Rommel’s army in North Africa. The book’s discussion of the battle’s operational aspects highlights the complex relationships between air and naval power and the influence of geography on littoral operations.

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1 The Vital Sea

ePub

We must look to the Mediterranean for Action.

Winston Churchill to First Sea Lord, 12 July 1940

 ON 29 JUNE 1940, as German armies gathered along the English Channel, the giant liners Aquitania, Mauretania, and Queen Mary departed the Clyde and Liverpool. These fast and valuable vessels carried eleven thousand troops bound for Egypt to bring British formations stationed there up to strength. They formed into convoy WS1 escorted by the heavy cruiser Cumberland and, for the first stage, four destroyers. The convoy arrived at Freetown, West Africa, on 8 July and Cape Town, South Africa, eight days later. From there WS1 crossed the Indian Ocean, picking up a second escort, the heavy cruiser Kent. Because the Admiralty considered the ships too valuable to expose them to Italian attack in the Red Sea, they docked at Trincomalee, Ceylon, on 29 July, and the men disembarked. The troops sailed up the Indian coast to Bombay. At Bombay they transferred to eight transports that formed a part of Convoy BN3: twenty merchant ships and eight escorts, including a light cruiser and two destroyers. BN3 departed Bombay on 10 August and arrived at Suez on 23 August.

 

2 Malta and the Mediterranean War to 1942

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What to do with the ice-cream vendors. Drown the
brutes is what I should like to do.

Alexander Cadogan, Diary 29 May 1940

When the Mediterranean conflict began on 10 June 1940, the Royal Navy and French Marine Nationale confronted the Regia Marina with twelve battleships and carriers against Italy’s two battleships. They had twenty-seven cruisers compared to Italy’s twenty-one and a destroyer advantage of seventy-four to fifty-two. The Allies planned to exploit their superiority by sweeping Italian coastal waters and bombarding ports, hoping to provoke a fleet action and stymie any move against Malta. Italy’s high command, with a large superiority in submarines and torpedo boats, intended to wage a low-risk, high-return “all out offensive” with these expendable light forces in cooperation with air force bombers.1

The Italian plan accorded with the rischio calcolato (calculated risk) strategy of naval warfare propounded by the Regia Marina’s influential chief of staff from the First World War, Grand Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel. Every action had to be considered in terms of the risk involved and the potential reward. Because Italy had a small industrial base compared to its foes and could not easily replace losses, any great risk had to be balanced by an even greater reward. In the beginning of the war, in the eyes of naval staff and the government, there was no reward that would offset a risk to the battle fleet because the war would conclude victoriously before the year’s end. This point of view was encapsulated by the Italian ambassador in Berlin to the American chargé d’affaires on 27 June 1940. “[The ambassador] remarked . . . that Churchill thought that resistance could be prolonged over a period of months . . . but by virtue of his position as Ambassador of an Allied Power he had been given insight into German plans and preparations and he was convinced no such possibility existed.”2

 

3 The Mediterranean War January to May 1942

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Although we could never prove it, we suspected that
the times of our convoy sailing were betrayed.

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring

Despite America’s entry into the conflict, Great Britain remained the true foe in the mind of most Italians. On 27 December Mussolini spoke to his Council of Ministers and admitted that the war would continue three or four more years. “Russia will be liquidated as an opponent. To win the war, Great Britain must be defeated; either by invasion or the capture of her world bases. The key is the Suez Canal.” From Rome’s perspective the United States seemed fully occupied by Japan’s “amazing victories,” and even better, the Far Eastern war was siphoning off British strength. Conditions seemed ripe for an Axis victory in the Mediterranean.1

In January, Italian convoys began docking in Tripoli regularly following the successes at Sirte, at Alexandria, and off Tripoli. The Italo-German army was holding the El Agheila line on the border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the high-water mark of the last British offensive in the winter of 1940–41. Churchill was anxious for his desert army to regroup and capture Tripoli, but an assessment by the Chiefs of Staff Committee dated 10 January recognized that supply difficulties might “retard or even prevent” the occupation of Tripoli and recommended a deeper study of operation “Super-Gymnast.”2

 

4 Global Snapshot—June 1942

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But even a nation which loves to hail its disasters as triumphs could hardly
look back on the campaign of the first half of 1942 with satisfaction

J. R. M. Butler

ON 10 MARCH 1942 Supermarina issued a strategic assessment. It correctly noted that “above all other considerations the enemy coalition has enormous economic opportunities for sustaining a war of long duration. . . . Their vulnerability lies in the length and complexity of the maritime communications necessary for exploiting their strategic and economic opportunities and the relative inferiority of their ground forces.” It concluded that while the Russian front was the most important, a vigorous continuation and even intensification of the war against maritime traffic would be the best way to defeat the enemy and indeed was the only way the three Axis powers could effectively cooperate in their separate theaters of operation.1

This assessment demonstrated the Regia Marina’s appreciation of the war’s economic foundations and worldwide nature. It did not address political issues. Great Britain’s mid-June operation to restore Malta’s offensive capacity had global ramifications, but a review of the world situation at the beginning of June 1942 suggests that London’s objectives were as much political as military in light of more serious threats faced elsewhere.

 

5 Operation Vigorous

ePub

Perhaps we should [have been] grateful that it was the Italians and the
Germans with their equal lack of understanding of how to operate naval
air power that we faced in those waters and not the Japanese.

Commander A. J. Pugsley, HMS Paladin

ON 18 APRIL the Chiefs of Staff Committee concluded that it would be impossible to send a convoy to Malta in May. Instead they decided to mount a massive operation during the June dark period—a simultaneous double convoy from Alexandria and Gibraltar. The western operation, dubbed Harpoon, planned and commanded by personnel from the Home Fleet, would include five transports and a tanker. The convoy from the east, which was a production of the Mediterranean Fleet’s new commander in chief, (acting) Admiral Harry Harwood, and was code-named Vigorous, would have ten merchant ships and a tanker. Because they were independent operations, these convoys will be considered sequentially.

The Mediterranean Fleet lacked capital ships, which the experiences of the December 1941, February 1942, and March 1942 convoys suggested would be needed to protect the operation against the Italian battleships. However, at the time the convoy was conceived, London anticipated that a desert offensive would have secured airfields near Benghazi, increasing the effectiveness of the land-based airpower that Admiral Harwood considered a potential offset. He envisioned “bombers and torpedo bombers to provide the heavy hitting power, and long-range fighters to give the cover that had previously been provided by battleships and carriers.” London also recognized that Malta’s fighter squadrons needed to be reinforced if they were to protect two convoys and cover their unloading.1

 

6 Operation Harpoon

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It is regretted that owing to the fact that Ithuriel was so busily employed, no accurate records or estimation of numbers can be given.

Lieutenant Commander D. H. Maitland-Makgill-Crichton, HMS Ithuriel

THE WESTERN CONVOY operation, Harpoon, followed the template established by operations Substance and Halberd. Aircraft carriers would provide fighter cover over the transports during the passage from Gibraltar past the Axis air bases on Sardinia and Sicily. The convoy would reach the entrance to the Sicilian narrows at dusk. There the escort’s heavy ships would turn back and leave the transports protected by cruisers and destroyers. Daylight would find the convoy through the narrows and off Pantelleria, poised to make the final run to Malta under the cover of the island’s fighter squadrons.

Vice Admiral Alban T. B. Curteis, the Home Fleet’s second in command, began planning Operation Harpoon on 23 May. He and a small staff completed drafting the orders on 2 June and met with the captains assigned to the operation on 4 June. The British planners estimated Italian naval strength and deployments as being one 15-inch and three 12.6-inch battleships at Taranto along with two 8-inch and three 6-inch cruisers and fifteen destroyers. They believed that Naples had one light cruiser and seven destroyers, Cagliari two light cruisers, Messina three destroyers, and Palermo four destroyers. They estimated German air strength at fifty-four bombers and thirty-nine fighters at Sicily and Sardinia and Italian air forces as having fifteen bombers, thirty-five torpedo-bombers, and thirty fighters at Sardinia and fifty bombers, twenty torpedo-bombers, and ninety fighters at Sicily. The assessment considered that one-third of the aircraft would be unserviceable, leaving thirty-six German and seventy-six Italian bombers available to attack the convoy. The planners believed that three degrees east longitude was the farthest enemy torpedo-bombers could strike and 105 miles was the extreme range of enemy fighters.1 The principal assumption, however, was that the Italians would respond to the operation as they had in the past. Thus, practices that served before were used again with little innovation—in fact, Curteis judged the risk of a surface encounter so negligible that the largest ship he assigned to accompany the convoy after the heavy escort turned back was an old antiaircraft cruiser, and he gave this force to an acting captain who had no experience of independent command.

 

7 The Battle of Pantelleria

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It was an exciting month for my young warriors who drained
to the bottom the intoxicating cup of success.

Division Admiral Alberto Da Zara

AT 0620 THE EASTERN sky was beginning to brighten. A light northwest breeze rippled the surface of the sea. Force X bore twenty-five miles southwest of Pantelleria, steaming toward Malta at a steady twelve knots. The merchant ships sailed in two columns with Cairo leading. The destroyers screened the formation—the 11th Flotilla with Bedouin (Commander B. G. Scurfield), Partridge, Ithuriel, Marne, and Matchless was to starboard, while the 12th Flotilla’s Blankney (Lieutenant Commander P. F. Powlett), Badsworth, Middleton, and Kujawiak sailed to port. The minesweepers Speedy (Lieutenant Commander A. E. Doran), Hythe, Hebe, Rye, and the six motor launches brought up the rear. At 0620 Cairo received a radio report that at 0600 a Beaufighter, one of five that had departed Malta before dawn to cover Force X, had spotted two enemy cruisers and four destroyers fifteen miles off the convoy’s port beam. Cairo had fighter direction facilities, but they did not work in this instance as the pilot reported to Malta and Malta forwarded the information to Hardy, thus delaying the British captain’s receipt of this vital news.

 

8 The August Convoy

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The enemy will no doubt proclaim this as a great victory at sea, and so it
would be but for the strategic significance of Malta in view of future plans.

Winston S. Churchill to Joseph Stalin, 14 August 1942

LONDON APPRECIATED the need for another Malta convoy even before Admiral Curteis sighted Gibraltar’s rock. On 17 June, Churchill, on his way to Washington to meet with Roosevelt, wrote to the deputy prime minister, “I am relying upon you to treat the whole question of the relief of Malta as vitally urgent, and to keep at it with the Admiralty till a solution is reached.” The same document revealed his continued hope of restoring the situation by means of a decisive naval victory. “Now that the Italians have shown a readiness to bring their battlefleet down to arrest a convoy . . . an opportunity of bringing them to battle might be found, which would have far-reaching effects.” Meanwhile, the Admiralty appraisal concluded that the mid-June operations failed because the escorts were too weak. “Next time [the convoys] would have to be given priority over all other demands, for on the success or failure of [the next operation] . . . would hang the fate of Malta and hence in all probability of the Nile valley.”1

 

9 Torch to the End of the War

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It was clear from the start that the landing of American forces in the Mediterranean was an event of great strategic significance, destined to modify and, in fact, to reverse the balance of military power in this sector, an event which was in Italian opinion if not decisive, certainly very important.

Benito Mussolini

EVEN AFTER OPERATION Pedestal there was still insufficient food to adequately feed Malta’s population, but there was enough, supplemented by the harvest, to defer starvation. Shortages of fuel, ammunition, and torpedoes still limited the island’s usefulness as a base against Axis traffic. A contemporary account related that “Owing to the necessity for conserving aircraft fuel, the bombing of land targets was almost nonexistent between the middle of June and the middle of November. All available fuel was needed for keeping fighters and reconnaissance aircraft flying and for attacks on shipping.” In this context postponing the capture of Malta did not seem crucial to the Axis leaders. Hitler and Mussolini correctly believed that the war would be won or lost in Russia, and in August 1942 reports from the east were good. In an assessment made on 4 August Comando Supremo anticipated a separate peace with the Soviet Union that would oblige the western allies to accept terms with the Axis.1

 

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