BRITISH NAVAL ESCORT AND CONVOY IN MEDITERRANEAN, SEPTEMBER 1941, ON BOARD HMS SHEFFIELD, ESCORTING A MALTA CONVOY IN THE MEDITERRANEAN (OPERATION HALBERD). THE CONVOY GOT THROUGH TO MALTA AFTER BEING ATTACKED BY THREE GROUPS OF ENEMY TORPEDO CARRYING AIRCRAFT HEAVILY ESCORTED BY FIGHTERS IN THE CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN. 14 ENEMY AIRCRAFT WERE DESTROYED AND HMS NELSON WAS DAMAGED BY AN AERIAL TORPEDO.
10th-15th August 1942 – Malta Convoy: Operation ‘Pedestal’ 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.
For 5,000 years, the Mediterranean has been the arena of great sea battles, and in World War Two that historic reputation did not change. When France collapsed in June 1940, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, decided that the time had come when he could, with impunity, join Hitler in the war against the sole remaining member of the Western Allies. From that moment on, the little island of Malta was a highly vulnerable, isolated outpost of the British Empire, and a vital one. Without Malta, the Mediterranean could have been closed to Britain, and her armies in North and East Africa—the only land forces at that time able to engage the enemy—could have been faced with another, and more disastrous, Dunkirk.
The island’s excellent harbour of Valetta, well-established airfield, and central position in the mid-east theatre, gave Malta a strategic importance out of all proportion to her size. The problem was that, even more than Britain, Malta needed a constant flow of imports to survive. She had no resources of oil or solid fuel, and very little grain. Even the forage for the goats which supplied the island’s milk had to be imported. It was essential for what was to become known as “the classic convoy” to be instituted, and for Malta’s reinforcement, codenamed Operation Jaguar, to continue for so long as it was needed.
The nearest British bases were Gibraltar, a thousand miles to the west, and Alexandria, almost as distant in the east. The shipping routes from either direction were threatened by the Axis powers’ air and sea bases in Sardinia and Tunisia to the west, and from Libya to the east, while Malta herself lay under direct threat from bombers based on Sicily, less than a hundred miles away. Malta’s towns and facilities were bombed almost as often as those in southeast England, as were the ships in transit and in harbour. The danger from submarines and torpedo boats in the channel between the island of Pantelleria and the Cape Bon peninsula was particularly great, and all the more so when, as sometimes happened, the major Royal Navy escort vessels—the battleships, aircraft carriers, and heavy cruisers—had to be diverted to fight another battle or meet another threat.
In September 1940, the British Mediterranean Fleet was reinforced by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, the battleship HMS Valiant and two anti-aircraft cruisers. Furthermore, a squadron of American Martin Maryland aircraft arrived on Malta to carry out reconnaissance flights over Italy. Two months later, Fairey Swordfish aircraft, flying off Illustrious, attacked Taranto harbour with bombs and torpedoes, sank three Italian battleships, damaged another, and destroyed the seaplane base. Then, the Germans took a hand. Fliegerkorps X were sent in from Norway with 300 aircraft—Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, Ju 88 bombers, Me 110 fighter-bombers and Me 109 fighters; ten U-boats were withdrawn from the Atlantic (to Admiral Dönitz’s displeasure) to join the powerful, if variably effective, Italian underwater fleet. On 10 January 1941, Stukas hit Illustrious with six 1,000-pound bombs, and put her out of action; a few days later they did the same to Furious. Both carriers had to be withdrawn to America, for repair in Norfolk, Virginia.
Nevertheless, up to the end of 1941, most merchant ships continued to reach Malta safely, but in 1942 the situation changed. Between February and August, of eighty five merchantmen leaving British ports for Malta, twenty-four were sunk. In June, only two ships out of six that had sailed from the Clyde reached the island, where they were subjected to incessant bombing for the next fifty-four days. Still, the troopers, cargo ships and tankers set out on what was becoming known, not so much as the “classic”, but as the “suicide” convoy.
In July 1942, a typical single cargo unloaded in the Grand Harbour of Valetta, during what was classified as Operation Tiger, consisted of guns and ammunition, cars and lorries, aviation fuel and spare parts for aircraft, wheat, flour and maize, cement, corned beef, and bales of cloth. The ship which carried that particular cargo was one of nine escorted by the battleship HMS Nelson, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and other warships. Each master in the convoy, before sailing, had received this signal from the escort commander, Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville: “For over twelve months Malta has resisted all attacks by the enemy. The gallantry displayed by her garrison and people has aroused admiration throughout the world. To enable this defence to continue it is essential that your ships, with their valuable cargoes, should arrive safely at the Grand Harbour … Remember, everyone, that the watchword is THE CONVOY MUST GO THROUGH.”
As usual, the merchant skippers were told that they must not make smoke, that they must not show lights at night, and that, even in daylight, they must only use the dimmest lamps. If their ships were damaged, they must continue sailing at the best speed they could make. On the way to Gibraltar, they had practised evasive action, turning in unison, for two hours at a time, and every gunner had been given the chance to test his armament.
The Rock was blanketed in a fog when the convoy navigated the Straits of Gibraltar, and it was hard for the masters to maintain formation. The navigation lights of the Port Chalmers, carrying 2,000 tons of aviation petrol in four-gallon cans, were switched on at full power, and the Deucalion, sailing ahead, showed a cluster of cargo landing lights astern. Two days later, at nine-fifteen in the morning, nine aircraft, thought to be Italian, attacked, but no ship was hit. That evening, however, Nelson, Ark Royal and Renown sped away to the northeast, leaving the cruiser Edinburgh and the destroyers to escort the convoy.
Next day before the sun was up, a fleet of enemy torpedo boats attacked, and the escorting warships’ searchlights lit the scene. “We saw an E-boat,” said a merchant skipper, “and the cruiser let go with a broadside. When the spray subsided, the E-boat wasn’t there.” The attacks continued, on and off for thirty-six hours, during which time the seamen slept with their clothes on, if they slept at all, and subsisted on sandwiches and coffee. When they steamed into Valetta, they received the usual enthusiastic welcome from the islanders, crowded on the rocks and ramparts which made the harbour a natural arena, and General Sir William Dobbie, the governor of Malta, boarded every ship to shake the master’s hand. In the fifteen-days it took to unload the cargoes into lighters, the harbour was often under air attack, but the seamen stayed aboard their ships. They had brought in 58,000 tons of supplies, without a vessel lost, and were interested to learn, on the radio from Rome, that Mussolini’s navy and air force claimed to have sunk a total of 70,000 tons.
That convoy may have been the last to reach Malta more or less intact—at least until May 1943, when the Allied armies drove the enemy out of North Africa. Between February and August 1942, of eighty-five merchantmen to set out for Malta, twenty-four were sunk and eleven had to abort the voyage and return to port. In terms of cargo, 43% of 314,690 tons from Britain, and 34% of 296,000 tons from Egypt, were lost. Few oil tankers got through in those months and most of the gasoline was carried by the cargo ships in drums and cans, and once it reached the island it was rapidly dispersed to maximise its survivability.
It was the islanders’ steadfastness throughout the summer of 1942, when they were truly under siege, which earned Malta the George Cross—the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Some of the sharpest action came in August with Operation Pedestal, when a convoy of fourteen ships was two days’ sailing eastward from Gibraltar. It included the Port Chalmers, Deucalion, and the Melbourne Star, all of which had sailed the route in the previous July, and the tanker Ohio carrying 11,000 tons of oil. The convoy’s escort was of a strength which a merchant skipper on the North Atlantic route would only ever see in dreams. It consisted of the battleships Nelson and Rodney, the carriers Victorious, Eagle, Indomitable and Furious (loaded with Spitfires for Malta’s defences), down. It blew me to the other end of the hangar, then the lift at that end copped it and I was thrown all the way back again. I was wearing steel helmet, flash gear and overalls, and I never had a scratch. That was that. Our combat air patrols had put up a terrific fight all day and shot down a lot of enemy aircraft, but now the black balls were out in the signals area, to show we couldn’t fly, and we proceeded to damage control and fire-fighting as we turned for Gibraltar. All the way, this great lump that the bombs had torn out of the carrier’s side from the bow back 120 feet, was stretching out at right angles and making a terrible noise like an aboriginal ‘Didgery-doo’. That was all we could hear until we came into the Straits, and then it was the prisoners-of-war, Italian and German, who were filling up the holds of ships tied alongside, greeting us with shouts of ‘Stuka, Stuka, Stuka.’ We spent a while putting our casualties on board a trawler for an honourable burial at sea.”
On 11 August, a German U-boat, U73, hit the aging Eagle with four torpedoes, and she heeled over, tipping her equally elderly aircraft overboard. One gallant pilot tried to take off on the sloping deck, but his aircraft slipped into the sea. Within seven minutes Eagle had turned over and gone down. Next day it was the turn of Indomitable, from whose deck the Hurricane pilots, waiting to be launched, had watched Eagle’s end. Indomitable was hit by bombs, and could no longer launch nor land her aircraft, but those already airborne landed on the flight deck of Victorious and continued operating. One merchant vessel had been hit, but she was still afloat.
On that day, 12 August, shortly before the battleships, the cruisers and Indomitable had turned back for Gibraltar, torpedoes from Italian submarines damaged two cruisers and sank an anti-aircraft cruiser. The convoy, with the destroyers and remaining cruisers, keeping close to the coast of Tunisia, sailed on to the southeast, and straight into the sights of the German E-boats. Four merchant ships and a cruiser went down. The Luftwaffe bombers, arriving with the dawn on 13 August, sank another merchant ship and damaged three more, including the Deucalion, which later sank. In the course of the day, the tanker Ohio was hit by a torpedo and three times by bombs, the third of which stopped her engines.
The Melbourne Star, meanwhile, with 4,000 tons of petrol, oil and lubricant aboard, plus 1,450 tons of high explosive, had narrowly avoided a collision during the mélée when the Ohio was first hit. Her master, Captain D.R. MacFarlane, found himself leading the convoy as it passed the lighthouse on Cape Bon. Then, he was overtaken by a destroyer, which led him through the minefields before forging on ahead. Having zig-zagged through a bright shower of shells and tracer bullets, MacFarlane regrouped with the convoy astern of Waiwarama, which was hit by a stick of bombs next morning and blew up. The Melbourne Star was showered with debris, and passed through what MacFarlane described as “a sea that was a sheet of fire”. Her paintwork was burned away, and the bottoms of her lifeboats were reduced to charcoal. Thirty-six of her crew, seeing death by drowning as a better option than being burned alive, threw themselves into the sea (twenty-two were later rescued by a destroyer and the limping Ohio). It was not until she had docked in Valetta that a live six-inch shell was discovered, lodged between the deck planks and the steel ceiling of MacFarlane’s day-room. (Sadly, on 2 April 1943, the Melbourne Star was sunk 500 miles southeast of Bermuda by torpedoes from U129 while carrying a load of ammunition from Australia to Britain via the Panama Canal, and there were only four survivors).
On board the Ohio, the crew had somehow got the engines going, and she had rejoined the convoy, steaming at two knots, only to have the tail of a shot-down Stuka fall onto her poop deck. Throughout that morning, bombs exploded all around her; she was hit again, a fire broke out, and her engines stopped for good. The fire was partially extinguished, and she was taken in tow by HMS Rye with HMS Penn and HMS Ledbury on either side. With a great hole in her side, her forecastle awash, and fires breaking out from time to time, she was somehow tugged, pushed, and jostled for the last twenty miles into Valetta harbour. The Royal Navy had lost one cruiser, an anti-aircraft ship and a destroyer, with another cruiser and a carrier damaged. Nine merchantmen were down, five the victims of aircraft, four of E-boats, and 350 merchant seamen had been killed. But the cargoes of the four surviving vessels, and Ohio’s 11,000 tons of oil, marked the end of the siege of Malta, leading to the breaking of the Axis powers in Africa. Like the island, Captain D.W. Mason, master of the Ohio, was awarded the George Cross.
On 19 November 1943, the first convoy reached the Grand Harbour unopposed.