RAF Flying Boat force on Malta I

The RAF effort comprised reconnaissance, a critical element in having offensive forces in the right place at the right time; anti-submarine patrols, in which the Sunderlands out of Malta, Alexandria and Gibraltar, were ever present and frequently effective; and, finally, anti-shipping operations. The latter started slow but, arguably, became the key factor in winning the war at sea and on land in this theatre.

Two Sunderlands of 228 Squadron left Pembroke Dock for Malta on 29 April 1939. The original plan was soon modified as on 3 May a Warning Order was received from 16 Group that the squadron would deploy to Alexandria, as part of 86 Wing, to augment RAF Near East. With the ground party boarding HMT Dumana on 9 May, the move went ahead, the intention being that this ship, along with the refueller SS Pass of Balmaha, would be stationed at Alexandria as the squadron’s base. During the early part of the summer the squadron visited a number of potential areas to check their suitability for either servicing or operations: Flying Officer Burnett took N6133 to the Sea of Galilee in July to ascertain the possibility of compass swinging by manhandling the aircraft in the shallow water, while N9070 flew to Lake Tiberias, this being one of the freshwater locations used for washing down the Sunderlands.

The strategic concept of offensive (bomber) air power controlling naval operations in the Med was well known; Air Commodore Slessor, Director of Plans at the Air Ministry, had recommended sending a force of six bomber squadrons to the Middle East by August 1939, even though Bomber Command was already short of squadrons; he saw this as one of the few hopes of really useful offensive action in the Mediterranean area. The general feeling expressed in naval reports in the late 1930s was that ‘the Navy was fairly certain that Malta would be untenable as a Fleet Base in a war with Italy’ and that evacuation of the fleet, and any air assets, would likely be necessary. Indeed, in 1934 Air Vice-Marshal Ludlow-Hewitt had stated that: ‘It is not a feasible operation, without effective support from other air bases, to defend the small island area within effective range of the main Metropolitan air force of a great Power.’ (RAF in the Maritime War Vol 6, AHB). One of the main weaknesses in Malta air defence, it was stated, was a lack of ‘depth’ with which to provide adequate warning of an enemy attack – Sicily was simply too close.

A joint RAF–Navy conference in April 1939 highlighted the differences of opinion. ‘Strong naval arguments were advanced for air reconnaissance in support of their plan for striking at Italy by operating light forces against communication with Libya.’ In essence, air was seen only as being the eyes of the surface vessels, which would be responsible for doing the actual damage. The eyes of the fleet were indeed to be a key part of overall strategy, but the Navy still had to learn the threat from, and use of, air striking forces in the Med. Air Vice-Marshal Peirse, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (DCAS), stated the Air Staff view that the Italians could cripple Malta if they wished, as it was not big enough for sustained fighter defence. The C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, disagreed, arguing that ‘military targets were too small to bomb accurately and that experience in the Spanish Civil War showed the Italians lacked courage.’ The debate continued and the best the RAF would commit to was the basing of Sunderlands for reconnaissance, it being considered that moorings would make them less vulnerable.

A joint RAF–Navy conference in April 1939 highlighted the differences of opinion. ‘Strong naval arguments were advanced for air reconnaissance in support of their plan for striking at Italy by operating light forces against communication with Libya.’ In essence, air was seen only as being the eyes of the surface vessels, which would be responsible for doing the actual damage. The eyes of the fleet were indeed to be a key part of overall strategy, but the Navy still had to learn the threat from, and use of, air striking forces in the Med. Air Vice-Marshal Peirse, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (DCAS), stated the Air Staff view that the Italians could cripple Malta if they wished, as it was not big enough for sustained fighter defence. The C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, disagreed, arguing that ‘military targets were too small to bomb accurately and that experience in the Spanish Civil War showed the Italians lacked courage.’ The debate continued and the best the RAF would commit to was the basing of Sunderlands for reconnaissance, it being considered that moorings would make them less vulnerable.

Gibraltar had also been ignored in the 1930s, in part because of the focus on naval strategy and needs, and a lack of appreciation of the increasing role of air power. As early as 1935 the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) had stated that: ‘Gibraltar is the key to the route [air reinforcement to Middle East], and therefore to the whole strategic conception of Imperial air defence. On the provision of an adequate intermediate air base at that port depends our ability to bridge the gap in our air communication for many years to come. An air base is also essential at Gibraltar for the operation of landplanes and seaplanes engaged on trade protection and air defence.’ (The RAF in Maritime War, ibid).

As we will see throughout this account, the role of Gibraltar was indeed crucial for Malta and the Mediterranean theatre. However, Admiral Cunningham’s main concern was the Eastern Basin (which later became defined as the eastern Mediterranean and central Mediterranean), and for an RAF General Reconnaissance (GR) force to provide a system of patrols and continuous coverage of:

•Malta to Cephalonia line (350 miles) from Malta

•Eastern entrance of Aegean from Egypt

•Western entrance to Aegean from Malta or Egypt

•Protection of advanced surface forces

•Offensive anti-submarine patrols

•Occasional sightings (recce) of enemy ports

•Long-range reconnaissance for the fleet

•Shadowing sighted enemy forces and investigation of reports.

To achieve this, the Navy suggested it needed thirty-six GR aircraft at Malta and ten at Alexandria, in addition to its own Fleet Air Arm (FAA) aircraft. At the time, the RAF had no such aircraft in the Med. When pressed, it stated the Malta–Cephalonia line was the highest priority. A late 1939 recommendation by the Chiefs of Staff proposed eight GR squadrons to co-operate with the Navy in the Med ‘as soon as resources will permit’. It also stated that the FAA should have two carriers, each with three squadrons. Carrier-based aircraft were also to prove essential in the Mediterranean War. A February 1940 conference listed the eight squadrons as:

•Malta: 2 GR flying boat and one TB/GR squadrons

•Gibraltar: one GR flying boat squadron

•Egypt: two GR landplane squadrons

•Gozo (Malta) or Tunisia: one GR landplane squadron – this is interesting as there was no discussion of building an airfield on Gozo

•Morocco: one GR landplane squadron.

As with most plans in the early part of the war, this one came to nothing! Indeed, when war broke out with Germany, GR assets were moved out of the Med, with the exception of Gibraltar, which looked to the Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean.

The RAF thus provided squadrons assigned for naval co-operation, and under HQ RAF Middle East this meant 200 (GR) Group at Gibraltar and 201 Group at Alexandria. Operating from Alexandria, 101 Wing had the Sunderlands of 230 Squadron, while the Gibraltar command comprised Saro Londons of 202 Squadron, plus a detachment of 3 Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit (AACU), and also responsibility for the main part of the Swordfish-equipped 3 AACU at Hal Far, Malta. A singularly unimpressive order of battle.

Sunderland in ‘hangar’ at Kalafrana.

The outbreak of war saw five aircraft of 230 Squadron at Alexandria and three at Malta – all the Sunderlands serviceable and fully bombed up. Having spent a year becoming familiar with the needs of the Mediterranean theatre, the squadron had mixed feelings when it was ordered back to the UK, four more aircraft moving to Malta on 9 September. The following day, four Sunderlands flew back to Pembroke Dock via Marignane.

The European Phoney War of 1939 into 1940 came to end in May when Germany invaded France, but in the Mediterranean theatre the only change was the move of the Navy and its HQ to Alexandria on 30 April – the threat now being considered too great and the defences having made no real progress. Some guns had arrived, and there was an Air Ministry Experimental Station (AMES) (radar station) operating at Dingli, but without fighters to direct or sufficient guns to warn there was little they could contribute. The new Air Officer Commanding (AOC) had arrived in January, Air Commodore Forster H.M. Maynard RNZAF. He had originally joined the RNAS in 1915 and in the inter-war period had undertaken two tours in the Middle East. He was AOC for sixteen months during perhaps the most trying period of Malta’s defence – starting with having to convince some that it was worth defending and could be defended. Promoted to air vice-marshal in February 1941, he was also created CB (Companion of the Order of the Bath) in recognition of his defence of Malta (AMB 4017, May 1941).

Shortly after the outbreak of war, 202 Squadron had moved to Gibraltar. The squadron had been a long-term resident at Malta, having been based at Kalafrana from January 1929. It moved its London flying boats to Gibraltar in September 1939 and was to remain the primary Gibraltar flying boat unit until late 1944. Kalafrana was the oldest base on Malta, having been used in the First World War, and now had good workshops and storage facilities, as well as moorings for flying boats at Cala Mistra and a landing ground at Hal Far. The squadron flew its first operational patrol on 11 September, two London flying boats flying reconnaissance and ASP (anti-submarine patrols). This was the first ‘combat operation’ (uneventful) in the Mediterranean theatre and the start of thousands of hours of such patrols by the GR aircraft. From that point on, the squadron flew regular ASP and convoy patrols, as did the Swordfish detachment of 3 AACU. The majority of patrols saw nothing but occasional attacks were made on ‘suspicious patches of oil’, which revealed that a large number of the anti-submarine bombs failed to explode; indeed, tests showed that about 50 per cent of bombs failed to detonate. Additionally, there were no proper maintenance facilities at Gibraltar and the Londons had to fly to Malta for overhaul.

The first operational sorties were flown by the Sunderlands out of Alexandria on 10 June 1940 – the strong Italian submarine force being seen as a high threat. Two aircraft carried out anti-submarine patrols (ASPs) ahead of an eight-destroyer force sweeping for submarines to the west of Alexandria. The patrol operated from dawn to shortly before dusk, the first pair of aircraft being relieved by a second pair at midday. This task continued the following day, with other aircraft tasked on recce sorties looking for minefields. If an air raid warning were received at Alexandria, the Sunderlands were ‘dispersed’ by being taxied around the bay, with all guns manned! The Sunderlands were based at Alexandria, using HMT Dumana as a base ship, with offices and stores at the nearby Imperial Airways depot. At this stage the Sunderlands were the only aircraft capable of long-rang/long duration patrols and as such were kept busy.

Meanwhile, the Sunderlands from Alexandria were flying a variety of operations, including reconnaissance of Tobruk and searches for the Italian fleet. The first U-boat attack was carried out on 28 June, Wing Commander Nicholetts (L5806) of 228 Squadron dropping three bombs on a large submarine. The bombs overshot the target, although it appears from subsequent revelations that his attack damaged the Anfitrite, causing the Italian submarine to return to base for repairs. The following day he attacked a small submarine, dropping four bombs in his first attack, all of which failed to explode; two more bombs were dropped in a second attack, these falling 20 yards ahead of the submarine track but with no apparent effect. The squadron also deployed Sunderlands to Malta as required to give added protection to eastbound convoys. The first success for 230 Squadron came in late June, Flight Lieutenant Campbell, airborne from Aboukir in L5804, finding and sinking the Argonauta. The following day the same crew were successful again. The aircraft was on a recce to the west of Zante when it picked up a submarine; this vessel was sunk in the attack and the Sunderland then landed and picked up four survivors. An Italian report stated that two bombs had hit the stern and conning tower, causing the boat to sink very rapidly. The crew, out of bombs, machine-gunned another submarine found on the return journey. The following day this same pilot was involved in a dive-bomb attack on a destroyer in Augusta harbour, the elevator fabric of L5803 being damaged by the high-speed dive! Another bombing attack was made on 1 July when L5803 was en route to Egypt from Malta, the target being a destroyer near Tobruk. The four bombs missed but the aggressive intent of 230 Squadron and Flight Lieutenant Campbell was certainly evident. Taking on a destroyer with a Sunderland was a bold act!

Meanwhile, at the western end of the Med; 228 Squadron had detached two Sunderlands to join 202 Squadron at Gibraltar, one of their main tasks being reconnaissance of French naval bases such as Oran, Mers-el-Kébir and Algiers. The first reconnaissance of these bases was made on 1 July, two sorties confirming the presence of major French warships. On 4 July Flight Lieutenant Brooks in P9621 was on a recce of Oran and Algiers when attacked by three French Curtiss 75As; the Sunderland claimed to have shot down one fighter and damaged another, although in return it had been badly damaged and one crew member was injured. The aircraft had to return to Pembroke Dock for repairs. British warships, having failed to negotiate the surrender of the French warships at Oran, opened fire and destroyed or seriously damaged most of the major vessels, with heavy loss of life among the French sailors. This attack has caused controversy ever since, but it was seen at the time, by the Royal Navy, as essential in order to maintain naval dominance in the Mediterranean. A Sunderland reconnaissance sortie on 5 July confirmed the result of the bombardment.

The squadron also deployed aircraft to Malta; on 9 July Flight Lieutenant McKinley (L5807) took off from Malta on a search for the Italian fleet – and eventually located approximately forty ships, which it then shadowed for nine hours. A second 228 Squadron Sunderland (N9020, Squadron Leader Menzies) took over and flew a further nine-hour shadow, during which time the crew had an inconclusive engagement with an He 115. Three days later Squadron Leader Menzies was flying a Malta patrol when he came across a U-boat: ‘In the first stick three 250lb A/S bombs were dropped and fell close to the stern. Two bombs were dropped in the second attack whilst the U-boat was submerging and these fell abaft the conning tower. A single bomb was then dropped ahead of the submarine. Excessive quantities of air were observed to come up a short distance from the last observed position and this was taken as a final indication of the U-boat’s end.’ (228 Squadron ORB, July 1940). It is likely that this was the 954-ton Settimo, this submarine reporting an air attack on July 13 in which it suffered light damage.

Most of July’s reconnaissance effort by the Sunderland was spent keeping tabs on the Italian fleet, both squadrons flying similar patrols from Egypt and Malta. Flight Lieutenant Woodward of 230 Squadron claimed to have attacked and sunk an Italian submarine on 7 July, but there appears to be no confirmation of this. The Italian fleet was found on the 8th, having been spotted initially by a submarine but subsequently shadowed by aircraft of 228 and 230 Squadrons. Cunningham was steaming in the general direction aboard his flagship HMS Warspite and with the carrier Eagle, with Swordfish for attack and a small number of Sea Gladiators for defence, and in company with two other battleships, five cruisers and an assortment of destroyers, he was expecting to catch a number of major warships and a merchant convoy.

The Sunderlands continued to range far and wide on reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrols, and they encountered Italian fighters from time to time; Flight Lieutenant Garside encountering three Macchi 200s on 28 July, the crew claiming one shot down and one damaged in a fifteen-minute combat. The same day, another 230 Squadron crew (Squadron Leader Ryley, L5804) tangled with four Macchis, shooting down one in a fiftyseven-minute combat. The Sunderland was badly damaged and three gunners wounded. ‘Much credit went to LAC Campbell, a fitter, who remained in the wing of the aircraft plugging holes in the tanks until rendered unconscious by petrol fumes. The aircraft landed at 1215 and was beached in a sinking condition.’ (230 Squadron ORB). A number of such combats had been reported by Sunderlands of both squadrons during recce flights of Italian ports.

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