The major operations from Malta were reconnaissance, with more than 1,320 hours flown on local sorties (thirty-one anti-submarine and three search) and extended reconnaissance (104 visual for shipping, seven photographic, two search, two leaflet dropping, and one to deposit a French officer on the Tunisian coast … one wonders what the last one was all about!) The recce sorties were flown by Sunderlands (228 and 230 Squadrons), Swordfish (830 Sqn FAA and 3 AACU), and Marylands (431 Flight). Malta also received and passed on thirty Blenheims, eleven Wellingtons and three Hurricanes.
Despite the focus on reconnaissance, the Navy remained unhappy with the coverage, although some senior RAF officers saw this more as a ‘turf war’ about who controlled assets. The Chief of the Naval Staff (CONS) wrote: ‘The Admiralty feel that there is a reasonable chance that we could so defend Malta as to make it usable as a Fleet base, and the advantages of getting the Fleet back there are so enormous that they consider an experiment must be tried … the first requirement is to get adequate air reconnaissance established so that we can establish the facts as to where Italian shipping is moving.’ (Memo dated 8 Oct 1940).
The Navy was establishing a reputation for night action, something the Italians tried to avoid as they had no radar, and on the night of 11 October the cruiser Ajax came across a number of Italian destroyers, which she engaged promptly. Two were sunk, one damaged, and two escaped. The following day a Sunderland spotted the damaged Artigliere in tow, reported the position and shadowed the ships. The cruiser York was duly homed in, by which time the towing destroyer had sped off. The cruiser dropped rafts for the Italian crew and sank the Artigliere. Sunderlands subsequently homed an Italian hospital ship to the position of the rafts. It was not all one-way traffic and in a moonlight attack on the 14th, Italian torpedo-bombers damaged the cruiser Liverpool, which turned out to be the first of two occasions on which the cruiser was hit by torpedoes from the air. On 12 October, Flight Lieutenant McCall (Sunderland L2164) having been diverted from his patrol to search for a Fairey Fulmar downed by a Cant, located the sinking aircraft and landed to pick up three survivors. The FAA crew was given a hot meal and a change of clothes, the Sunderland completed its patrol and then landed at Kalafrana Bay.
On 1 November 1940, Flight Lieutenant Ware (Sunderland L5806) was attacked by two Italian fighters, two of his crew being wounded. ‘Mattresses and clothing in the aircraft were set on fire, burning articles were thrown out of the rear door. Flame floats and practice bombs were set off by explosive bullets and caused the aircraft to fill with smoke. The rear turret was put partially out of action by having the starboard control handle shot away. The Sunderland was badly holed below the waterline and was taken up the slip immediately on return to Kalafrana.’ (228 Squadron ORB).
An Italian report of May 1941 summarized what they classified as the First Period of operations against Malta – June 1940 to 10 January 1941. ‘At the outbreak of hostilities with Italy, Malta was not given any clearly defined duties. The enemy was probably waiting for the development of operations in order to use the Island to the best advantage. It was difficult to ascertain the strength of the air force because of camouflage and concealment. From the outbreak of hostilities until the 10th Jan 1941, reconnaissance revealed that there were between 10 and 35 aircraft on Malta, with a daily average of 10 bombers, 12 fighters and 3 various types.’ (‘Air and Naval Bases on Malta Situation Report’ May 1942 translated by AHB as VII/43.
‘From chance remarks dropped by prisoners of war there are indications that a full scale attack employing German troops on Malta may be contemplated in the immediate future.’ This signal of 3 January elicited an immediate response: ‘Although full-scale attack on Malta may be contemplated, there is little likelihood that it is planned in the near future. There is no evidence to confirm this report and it is reasonable to assume that we shall obtain some weeks’ warning before an attack of this nature. The necessary German troops are not available in Italy and it is not considered that they can be made available until early in March.’ (signal C-in-C Mediterranean 4 January 1941).
By early December General Wavell was ready to launch his offensive, and part of the RAF’s task was to prevent supplies reaching the Italians. On 2 December 1940, Operation X was put into effect, the intention being to intercept fast Italian convoys running from Italy to Benghazi. The role of 228 Squadron’s Sunderlands was to locate these convoys ‘with the aid of moonlight and ASV. On the captain’s discretion the convoy could then be attacked, but a special force of FAA torpedo-bombers was held at readiness for such attacks. The Sunderland carried four SAP and four A/S bombs to drop in sticks of four – A/S, SAP, SAP, A/S.’ (228 Squadron ORB, December 1940).
Meanwhile, as well as the attacks, the weather in January 1941 was also causing trouble for the Sunderlands of 228 Squadron operating out of Malta. The danger from big swells was such that a skeleton crew of one pilot, one rigger and one wireless operator slept on each aircraft. On 21 January, two aircraft were moved to the more sheltered waters of St Paul’s Bay. Operations against Italian merchant ships and warships remained a top priority into 1941. In its record for 26 January the squadron noted: ‘Modified C3 patrol [Flight Lieutenant Glover, L5807], sighted one small MV and seven self-propelled barges just east of Kerkennah [Gulf of Gabes, Tunisia]. Reported to base and shadowed for two hours. No striking force sent out and Sunderland was ordered to continue patrol, but nothing sighted. Until the position has been clarified by the Admiralty it was laid down that aircraft may not attack either unescorted merchant ships or unescorted merchant convoys as this infringes International Law. Any ship within 30 miles of any Italian territory in the Mediterranean may however be sunk on sight. During this patrol one Cant 501 was observed to be shadowing the Sunderland but when chased by the latter it made off towards Tripoli first jettisoning two or three bombs.’
The following day the Modified C3 patrol flown by Flying Officer Lamond (T9048) was more productive: ‘Early in the patrol one Italian MV sighted and reported to base, ordered to continue patrol. Sighted aircraft, identified as Ju.52. Sighted one EV and two MV north-east of Kerkennah Bank on southerly course. Reported them to base and shadowed for three hours. ASF of seven Swordfish, escorted by two Fulmars, then arrived and carried out attack. One MV sunk and one hit. Followed ASF back to base. One Swordfish having petrol trouble asked for Sunderland to escort but Sunderland also had engine trouble and had to return to St Paul’s Bay. Message from Admiralty: “The combined RAF and Naval Aircraft Operations which resulted in successful attack on the convoy at a distance of 160 miles from Malta was well planned and executed. Those concerned are to be congratulated. This provides an excellent illustration of the correct employment of air search and striking forces.”’
This was one of the first successes for the recce-attack concept, the attack part comprising Swordfish of 806 and 830 Squadrons. The MV that was sunk was the German 3,950-ton Inigo. This basic tactical concept of recce to find targets and then calling in a strike force was the principle of most successful anti-shipping operations over the next two years. February also brought an extension of the ‘sink at sight’ policy to the central Mediterranean, which was also extended to the eastern Mediterranean in April. One of the main problems was that, while the Sunderlands were able to find targets, many of them were outside the range of the Swordfish.
Reconnaissance missions were once again extensive, with 1,449 hours and 25 minutes flown on 268 sorties, of which 170 were ‘extended reconnaissances for ships, including Ionian Sea, Eastern Tunisian coast, and area between Sardinia, Sicily and Tunis’. There were also 77 photographic reconnaissances and 21 visual reconnaissances, the remainder being searches and local antisubmarine patrols. The effort was made up of:
•228 Squadron Sunderlands: 562 hours 40 minutes
•69 Squadron Marylands and Blenheims attached to 69 Squadron: 747 hours 40 minutes
•830 Squadron Swordfish: 43 hours
•PRU Spitfire: 6 hours and 15 minutes
•FAA Skuas: 48 hours and 30 minutes
•French Latécoère seaplane: 41 hours 20 minutes.
For this effort, thirteen aircrew were missing and three aircraft were lost in the air (one each of Maryland, Spitfire and Sunderland). The PRU Spitfire had been acquired when it had force-landed, short of fuel, on Malta after a recce of Genoa (from the UK). In typical Malta fashion, it was ‘retained’ and used for a number of special missions, before being lost over Italy on 2 February.
On 7 March, L2164 of 228 Squadron was attacked at its Kalafrana moorings by two Bf 109s; Sergeant Jones, acting as boatguard, managed to get his gun into action before being fatally hit. The Sunderland was badly damaged – it was in trouble again a few days later. Three days later (11th) two of the squadron’s aircraft were attacked by 109s. ‘T9046 was damaged and L2164 caught fire … a party boarded this aircraft and fought the fire which was apparently got under control, but after an interval blazed up again. The machine was taxied inshore and beached but had to be abandoned, and ultimately sank. T9046 was flown from St Paul’s Bay to Kalafrana and taken up the slip for inspection.’
This loss took place when a fighter sweep of eleven aircraft appeared at midday; in addition to the Sunderland they claimed to have shot down one Hurricane and one Blenheim. The main assault was another Stuka attack on the port installations and surrounding area. Eleven Stukas dropped 6,500kg of bombs and claimed: ‘Direct hit on a torpedo store, followed by heavy fire, and an explosion in the State Wharf in Cospicua.’
For the Malta reconnaissance aircraft, ‘the hazards were increased when the Luftwaffe attacks developed, for part of the enemy tactics was to put a ring of fighters round the island to hem in reconnaissance aircraft. Evading the enemy cordon became part of the Marylands’ [and Sunderlands’] routine.’ (The RAF in Maritime War, ibid). On 7 March a Maryland on a recce of Taormina exchanged shots with a fighter; on the way back it damaged a Cant Z.506 but ‘on reaching Malta was intercepted by Me.109s, which set it on fire and shot down a Hurricane which tried to give protection.’ Only one of the Maryland’s crew was able to bail out. Later the same day a Maryland flown by Adrian Warburton was ‘chased from Taranto across the Adriatic by four Macchi 200s. The pursuers were shaken off, but on heading home the Maryland was intercepted off Cape St Maria di Leuca by two Macchi 200s. A chase continued for 100 miles during which shots were exchanged. When the Maryland finally escaped, it was short of petrol, but made a safe landing at Menidi, Greece, and returned the next day.’ Warburton had more than his share of fighter encounters, and he and his crew were successful in shooting down a number of their tormenters.
It was also decided to move 228 Squadron’s Sunderlands – very tempting targets for German strafing – out of Malta, and in the middle of March their Kalafrana detachment rejoined the squadron at Alexandria, ‘a small maintenance party remaining at Kalafrana to complete work on Sunderland L5807 and to service Sunderland aircraft operating from Malta subsequent to the departure of the main party. An advance party, together with certain stores, were moved from Malta by air, the remaining personnel embarking at Valetta on HMS Bonaventure, Calcutta and Greyhound en route to Alexandria. On arrival at Alexandria the aircraft and crews and members of the advance party were accommodated at No. 201 Group but owing to the limited space available, personnel, other than aircrews, were transferred to Aboukir. There was little available accommodation at Aboukir and the Squadron offices were situated in a Beach Hut with workshops in Blenheim cases and outbuildings – the Squadron NCOs had to find a mess of their own.’ (228 Squadron ORB).
This also meant that the 230 Squadron detachment in Greece was even busier, as C-in-C Med had, on 26 March, requested dawn to dusk patrols in patrol areas Q , R and S (see map) ‘to within visibility distance of the west coast of Greece’; he suspected the Italians were about to attempt a major action against Allied convoys. This is also a good point to mention that the Allies relied heavily on the intercepts provided by Ultra, and that it was common for additional recce to be tasked to provide a plausible reason for Allied action that would persuade the enemy that the intelligence was from normal sources and not from code-breaking. Nevertheless, on 27 March, six hours into its patrol a Sunderland out of Scaramanga picked up an Italian cruiser force.
As the eastern Mediterranean remained fairly calm for shipping other than the submarine threat, the activities from Cyprus are not covered in this account. On 1 August, the changing nature of the strategic scene saw 228 Squadron depart the Mediterranean theatre en route to West Africa, leaving 230 Squadron at Aboukir as the sole Sunderland unit in the eastern Mediterranean.
June had brought renewed ‘debate’ between naval (Cunningham) and air (Tedder and Longmore) commanders as to the creation of a ‘Coastal Command for the Mediterranean’. The crux of the debate was around the importance of a dedicated and capable force that could contribute to the airsea war. Cunningham summarized his thoughts: ‘It is my considered opinion that an Air Command (called a Coastal Command or any name if that one is unacceptable) is at once needed, designed to operate against sea-borne enemy forces; that this force should be controlled and operated by the Royal Air Force but in closest collaboration with myself, and that it must have its own units which will not be removed for other duties without prior consultation. To this Command would be attached all disembarked Fleet Air Arm units which could be organized and handled by a Naval Officer working with the Air Force Commander of the Command.’
Tedder replied that in essence he agreed and was building 201 Group to serve this role, but that, unlike in the UK, naval operations could not be ‘properly considered as a self-contained activity separate from the main air and land operations in the Middle East.’ He was more inclined to an ‘all arms’ command but stated that: ‘We will spare no effort to meet the Navy’s requirements, but specifically to segregate air forces for special duties and thereby preclude concentration of air effort is at the present time playing into German hands.’ (The RAF in Maritime War, ibid).
That did not end the exchange, which continued for some months, but with Tedder holding fast to his position. It eventually went to Admiralty and Air Staff level, but the only result was that 201 Group became 201 (Naval Co-operation) Group, albeit with a more focused definition of its tasks: ‘The primary functions of No. 201 (NC) Group were to be the conduct of operations at sea and co-operation with the Mediterranean Fleet as required by C-in-C Mediterranean [although operational control rested with AOC-in-C Middle East – Tedder]. If necessary one or more units of the Group might have to be employed on tasks other than those of their primary functions, but except in emergency this would not be done without prior reference to the C-in-C Mediterranean or his representative.’ (The RAF in Maritime War, ibid). The strength of the group was:
•Three GR squadrons (39 Squadron Maryland/Beaufort; 203 Squadron Blenheim; 13 Hellenic Squadron Anson)
•Two flying boat squadrons (230 Squadron Sunderland; 2 Yugoslav Squadron Dornier)
•Two long-range fighter squadrons (252 and 272 squadrons Beaufighter)
•Operational control of the RN Fulmar Flight.
By the end of October 39 Squadron had moved on, but 73 Squadron (Hurricanes) and 700 Squadron FAA (Fulmar, Walrus) had been added, along with a newly-formed Sea Rescue Flight. In addition to its role in the Med, the group also covered Alexandria, and the Delta area, and the Suez Canal. Again, space precludes our account going into details of Axis operations against Alexandria or the canal.