The operation was successfully carried out is due in no small measure to the behaviour of the merchant ships in the convoy. I had complete confidence that orders given to them by me would be understood and promptly carried out. Their steadfast and resolute behaviour during air and E-Boat attacks was most impressive and encouraging to us all. Particular credit is due to S.S. MELBOURNE STAR’S Master Capt. D.R MacFarlane, Commodore of the convoy, who set a high standard and never failed to appreciate directly what he should do. – Vice Admiral JF Somerville Flag Officer Commanding ‘Operation Substance’
Vital convoys kept isolated places like Gibraltar and Malta alive. In the Mediterranean, there were increasing clashes at points where the Axis and the Allied convoy routes crossed. In February 1941, Rommel’s Afrika Korps had arrived in Libya to stiffen the Italian backbone, which meant the Italian and German supply lines now ran north–south between Italy and North Africa, protected by the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica Italiana. The British Empire supply lines ran east–west through the Mediterranean, a thousand miles from Gibraltar to Malta and eight hundred miles from Malta to Egypt.
When the Germans finally captured Crete they stationed swarms of aircraft at Maleme and Heraklion, which imperilled all convoys from Alexandria to Malta. This meant more provisions for the beleaguered island would now have to come from the west, via Gibraltar. But after decryption of German air force signals at Bletchley Park revealed that many Luftwaffe squadrons had been withdrawn from Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy in order to support the invasion of Russia, a window of opportunity opened, and in July 1941 a major British convoy was sent to reinforce and resupply Malta.
The aim of Operation Substance was to ship two infantry battalions, two anti-aircraft units and a battery of thirty field guns, plus masses of ammunition, fuel, food, stores and spares to depleted Malta. If ever the Germans tried an airborne invasion of Malta like the one that took Crete, these forces would stop it.
The heavily laden store ships City of Pretoria, Deucalion, Durham, Melbourne Star, Port Chalmers and Sydney Star, together with two troopships, Leinster and Louis Pasteur, made up the ‘Winston Special’ convoy WSC9, escorted from the UK to Gibraltar by Force X from the Home Fleet. Force X comprised the battleship HMS Nelson, the cruisers Edinburgh, Manchester and Arethusa, eight destroyers and the fast mine-layer HMS Manxman. From Gibraltar onwards, the convoy became GM1 (1st convoy Gibraltar–Malta) with additional protection from Force H: the battle cruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, carrying twenty-four Fulmars and thirty Swordfish, the light cruiser Hermione and eight destroyers. Submarines, six from Gibraltar, two from Malta, were stationed to intercept any moves by the Italian fleet. In addition, Cunningham’s ships were staging an elaborate diversion in the eastern Mediterranean. Three days into GM1’s journey from Gibraltar to Malta, convoy MG1 (1st from Malta to Gibraltar) would set off in the opposite direction, westward, ‘bringing back the empties’, the fleet supply ship Breconshire, a destroyer and six unloaded cargo ships.
Among the hundreds of soldiers being transported in Operation Substance to join the Central Infantry Brigade on Malta was my own maternal grandfather. In the spring of 1941, at Duns in Scotland, Lieutenant Colonel G. F. Page DSO had taken command of the thirty-two officers and 742 other ranks of 11th Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, an enthusiastic but very new battalion raised in Rochdale in October 1940. They arrived in Gibraltar from Gourock aboard HM Troopship Louis Pasteur, a new French liner which had carried two hundred tons of gold from Brest to Nova Scotia and then been commandeered by the British government to carry troops.
The soldiers had not been informed they were to transship in Gibraltar and most of their kit was locked behind watertight doors that could not be opened en voyage. They saw nothing of the Rock, but did set foot on its detached mole. In three and a half hours, using two lighters, the battalion moved itself and all its baggage, plus twenty tons of ammunition, along the mole and into the cruiser HMS Edinburgh. ‘Some 5 tons of phosphorus bombs for mortars were carried as deck cargo and did not conduce to the safety of the ship,’ Lieutenant Colonel Page wrote in his report. ‘Once aboard, I cannot speak too highly of the arrangements made for the accommodation of the troops. I doubt if another man could have been carried but every man had somewhere to sleep and meals were regular and ample.’
Convoy GM1 sailed on 20 July 1941, at night, in fog. The smaller troopship Leinster, carrying a thousand men including RAF personnel from Gibraltar, ran aground in the strait and took no further part in Operation Substance. Spain had the right to intern all the uniformed passengers stranded on its territory, but chose to turn a blind eye to the Leinster. British destroyers took the shipwrecked soldiers and airmen back to the Rock after their bizarrely brief excursion. At the hospital, the stranded medic Reg Gill met a monocled British RAMC colonel who was wearing his German medal given by Hitler for helping the Deutschland wounded in 1937 and who was now only too eager to demonstrate an enormous fly-trap he had invented.
Substance proceeded eastward. On board the fast cruiser HMS Edinburgh, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Neville Syfret, 18th Cruiser Squadron, the captain’s day cabin became the Lancashire Fusiliers’ orderly room and the battalion was organised into working parties to keep the men busy on their way to Malta. Soldiers and sailors would fight side by side. The keenest-eyed soldiers were assigned to the pom-pom guns and the bridge as extra lookouts for enemy aircraft and submarines. From first light to last light, under the direction of the ship’s gunnery officer, the Lancashire Fusiliers deployed sixteen Bren light machine guns, each with a team of six (two men per gun and one NCO per team on duty at a time, working two hours on and four hours off), to supplement Edinburgh’s already formidable anti-aircraft defences: a dozen four-inch AA guns, two eight-barrelled two-pounder pom-poms and sixteen Vickers .50 machine guns. The Mortar Bomb Disposal Party was tasked with throwing overboard any phosphorus smoke bombs ignited by enemy action before they caused excessive damage. The Gun Crew Action Ration Party was to keep ship’s gun crews supplied with food and drink when they were unable to leave their posts during ‘action stations’. The Shell Supply Magazine Parties were to help naval personnel get the cordite charges and semi-armour-piercing shells to the turrets of the twelve six-inch guns, and to shift the 55 lb fixed rounds from the four-inch magazine.
All ranks detailed for ship duties were told they were under the command of the navy (or their own officers liaising with the navy) in order to achieve their objective of disembarking at Malta. Admiral Somerville had sent out a mission statement to all ships, ending: ‘THE CONVOY MUST GO THROUGH.’ As for the German and Italian enemy, the Lancashire Fusiliers were told there were ‘the normal routine hazards of submarines and mines’ but ‘attacks by aircraft from high level and torpedo- or dive-bombing are almost certain’. Everyone was ordered to keep their field dressing in the front pocket of their KD (khaki drill) shorts and carry a gas mask. Those above deck during action were to wear steel helmets.
Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Page was a regular soldier with a neat moustache, a good regimental officer now in charge of a green if keen battalion. He was a firm disciplinarian, not unkind to young soldiers, but they did have to ‘keep steady’ and follow orders. There were few bad soldiers, he thought, just poor officers. His own mode was studied imperturbability; his 1916 DSO in Macedonia was for calmness and good leadership under heavy fire. He was an impatient man, so that required some will-power. Now he took up his position on the bridge with the captain.
At 9.20 a.m. on the third day, Wednesday 23 July, hands went to action stations. The convoy was in the gap between Sardinia and Algeria when the Regia Aeronautica Italiana flying from Cagliari pounced. Firing began at 9.45. The attack was well synchronised: while the nine CANT Z.1007 high-level bombers drew eyes upwards, the seven Savoia-Marchetti SM.79s flew in low, carrying deadly torpedoes. The Force H destroyer HMS Fearless was hit by one such ‘kipper’ or torpedo at 9.54 and caught fire. Thirty-five men were killed and the rest of the crew abandoned ship, rescued by the Dakar veteran HMS Forester, which then sank the burning Fearless by gunfire.
The cruiser HMS Manchester managed to dodge three torpedoes, but in avoiding a collision with Port Chalmers was caught port aft by another 45 cm torpedo, whose explosion killed and wounded another forty-four men. The damaged cruiser, carrying 750 soldiers from the 8th Battalion, King’s Own Royal Regiment, could still make nine knots, but because that would slow everyone else down, Admiral Somerville ordered Manchester with its soldiers back to Gibraltar, escorted by the destroyer HMS Avon Vale. Convoys could not afford to dawdle. Manchester herself had signalled the day before: ‘S stands for Straggler and Sunk.’
Meanwhile, battle raged in the air. The barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire from the ships brought down three of the SM.79 Sparviero torpedo bombers, and the Fairey Fulmars from the Ark Royal shot down two more, plus a brace of high-level bombers, for a loss of three of their own. When a soldier from the Cheshire Regiment aimed his rifle purposefully at some downed Italian fliers in their rubber dinghy, his officer tapped him on the shoulder: ‘We don’t do that in the British army.’
Now the convoy was reaching an even more dangerous stretch, the Sicilian Narrows between Cape Bon in Tunisia and Sicily, the passage known to the sailors as ‘Bomb Alley’. At around 5.30 p.m., the big ships of Force H turned back to cover the damaged Manchester, leaving Hermione and two destroyers with the convoy, as well as the Ark’s fighters, flying top cover until Beaufighters from Malta could take over. Rear Admiral Syfret in Edinburgh was now in command of Substance. They endured two more bombing attacks on the 23rd, at 7.00 and 7.45 p.m. People under hatches on Edinburgh knew what was happening because the ship’s Air Defence Officer on the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Talbot, ‘piped’ information over the ship’s broadcasting system. ‘Torpedo bomber attacking starboard’ would be followed by the din of the guns: the booms of the four-inch, the bang-bang-bang-bang of the pom-poms, the hammering chatter of the machine guns, the squirts of Bren, then ‘Cease firing’ and ‘Friendly fighter coming down portside’, followed by ‘Lancashire Fusiliers four-inch guns emergency supply party fall in on flight deck’ and so on. The running commentary ‘was much appreciated and greatly assisted morale’, Lieutenant Colonel Page wrote. The convoy was running in two lines, each led by a destroyer with its minesweeping paravanes out and streaming. Firedrake, the destroyer heading the port column, was holed in the second bombing attack and had to be towed back to Gibraltar by Eridge.
Admiral Syfret took the convoy northeast to avoid mines and an air attack at dusk. Enemy aircraft were searching for them along the original line of advance and around midnight the sailors on watch could see parachute flares being dropped by planes twenty miles to the south. Syfret ordered the convoy to change course south again to pass close by the island of Pantellaria.
In the darkest hour of the night, just before 3 a.m. on Thursday 24 July, there was a roar of engines over the sea and the convoy was attacked three times by Regia Marina speedboats. The Italian torpedo-armed motor boat – motoscafo armato silurante or MAS – carried two torpedoes and a machine gun and was the fastest thing afloat, capable of forty-five knots. The British warships, rapidly at action stations, turned on their searchlights and soon red tracer was stitching the blackness.
When Edinburgh illuminated a fast Italian craft eight hundred yards away, a splashing broadside from the four-inchers, the multiple pom-poms and the machine guns seemed to blow the thing to pieces. However, another Italian speedboat – MAS 532 – got through and put a torpedo into the largest cargo ship, the eleven-thousand-ton MV Sydney Star. Soon the Sydney Star had thirty foot of water in the hold and although Captain T. S. Horn stayed on board to nurse the ship home, HM Australian Ship Nestor came alongside to take off all the soldiers from a light anti-aircraft unit.
This operation took fifty minutes, in the darkness, three miles off enemy-held Pantellaria. Hermione stood by to help with cover and, sure enough, as the sun came up, a flight of Ju 87 Stukas attacked the three ships from the east. It was the first of four air attacks that day. The action log of the Fusiliers on HMS Edinburgh recorded:
0734 Enemy aircraft approaching. Range 10 miles.
0740 Firing commenced.
0743 Friendly Beaufighters passing down port side.
0747 ‘This is the Captain speaking. We are now on the last part of our journey. Have opened up speed to 26 knots. Making straight for Malta. Expect to arrive 1130 hrs.’
At 11.30 a.m. on 24 July, the first three ships of convoy GM1, HMS Arethusa, Edinburgh and Manxman, steamed into the Grand Harbour of Valletta, four hours ahead of the transports. The old walls were black with Maltese people: what looked like the whole populace had turned out to welcome them in, and the Royal Navy intended to make a show of it. The ship’s company and the Lancashire Fusiliers were all standing to attention, lining the port and starboard guardrails of HMS Edinburgh, while on the turret of the aft six-inch gun the band of the Royal Marines was pumping out ‘The British Grenadiers’ and other patriotic marches. Lieutenant Colin Kitching RNVR, one of the Edinburgh boarding party who had ‘pinched’ Enigma papers off the German weather-ship München, was on deck when they arrived in Valletta with all the people cheering them in. ‘The emotion of the moment was so great that I found tears were rolling down my cheeks, a reaction which seemed to apply to everyone around me.’
An order went out over the ship’s tannoy: ‘Lancashire Fusiliers. Adjutant calling. The Navy is returning the way we came. Clean the mess decks. Leave lifebelts on board. Don’t forget your haversack rations.’
At 12.25 p.m., the Lancashire Fusiliers started disembarking on Malta, where they would stay for the next three lean years. Personnel and baggage were all unloaded in two hours, and at 3.30 HMS Edinburgh departed, heading back to Gibraltar.
Their troubles were not over. The arrival of the Substance convoy in Malta prompted the Italian navy to order its small craft and submarine assault unit, Decima Flottiglia MAS, the 10th Light Flotilla, to attack Valletta Harbour.
The British made many jokes about ‘the Eyeties’, ‘the Macaronis’, ‘the Ice-creamers’, like the one about more reverse than forward gears on their tanks, but no one could doubt the bravery of the Italian sailors who made this assault. There was a narrow channel under the three-pillared steel bridge between the Sant’Elmo mole and the Maltese mainland that in peacetime used to allow small vessels into the main harbour. A wartime anti-torpedo net of interlocking steel rings now blocked this gap, but the Italians planned to blow the net open with a two-man piloted torpedo, known as a maiale or ‘hog’, letting eight fast speedboats into the harbour to attack the cargo ships. Another two-man maiale would enter the western bay nearby, Marsamxett, the wintering harbour where British submarines were moored side by side, and attach its explosive charge to a hull to try and sink one or two of the ‘boats’.
The night of 25 July was moonless, and the sea calm. British radar spotted the raiders. All the guns and searchlights waited. Both the Italian torpedo ‘hogs’ got engine trouble and missed their deadline, so it was the explosive speedboats that set out to breach the steel net. The MT (Motoscafo Turismo) was essentially a torpedo embedded in the shell of a carvel-built, mahogany-hulled seacraft, powered by a six-cylinder, ninety-five-horsepower Alfa Romeo engine. The single operator sat at the back in a wooden seat that was ejected from the boat at the pull of a lever. He aimed his craft at the target and, about a hundred metres away, he was supposed to lock the steering and throw himself off. When the craft hit the target at speed, the hull would split open and the fuse (set for impact) would trigger the 330 kg explosive torpedo.
The two leading MT speedboats aimed for the net at around 4.45 a.m. Sub-lieutenant Roberto Frassetto threw himself off about fifty metres from the net but his boat was not going fast enough to split open and detonate. Sub-lieutenant Aristide Carabelli saw what had happened, set his own fuse to ‘impact’ and drove straight at the net at full speed, heroically, suicidally. His detonation set off Frassetto’s boat too and the double explosion not only shredded Carabelli but brought down the bridge overhead, completely blocking the way in.
None of the other MT speedboats would have made it anyway. Valletta’s searchlights blazed on and a two-minute hail of gunfire from six-pounders, Bofors guns and machine guns annihilated the Regia Marina flotilla. As the sun rose, British Hurricane fighter planes attacked their support ships. Only eleven Italian sailors made it back home. Twenty of their unit were killed, including some of the leading commanders, and eighteen others were captured. Two maiali, eight MT boats and three other vessels were lost. But Decima Flottiglia MAS would keep trying, and their next attack would be on Gibraltar.