Between June and October 1941 the Axis convoys to North Africa lost an estimated 220,000 tons of shipping, of which 115,000 tons were claimed by aircraft, and, more importantly, 90 per cent of that was on outbound – loaded – legs of the journey, denying supplies to the North African combat troops. Malta’s aircraft had played a major part. An AHB estimate showed that of 186,564 tons of stores were sent to North Africa in September–October, of which 24.4 per cent (45,437 tons) were sunk by Malta-based aircraft. Of the total delivered in those two months only 43,446 tons were destined for German forces – against a monthly requirement for 40,000–50,000 tons. As a direct result, Rommel’s planned attack on Tobruk was twice postponed, which led to Hitler’s decision to deploy Fliegerkorps II from Russia to Sicily.
The latter part of 1941 saw an increase in the number of Axis submarines operating in the Mediterranean, and it was estimated that there were seventy Italian and twenty German submarines operating in the eastern area, one of their main tasks being to intercept Allied coastal convoys that supported land operations, as well as intercepting any shipping out of Alexandria, including convoys to Malta. Between 20 December and 20 January, AS aircraft operating out of Egypt made seventeen submarine sightings and carried out twelve attacks. Squadron Leader Garside of 230 Squadron scored an early success in 1942, sinking U-568 on 9 January; in the space of a few weeks this experienced Sunderland captain made four more attacks on U-boats, although without any definite results. The 230 Squadron record book for January and February 1942 shows little operational activity in terms of U-boat sightings and attacks – other than the exceptional activities of Squadron Leader Garside and his crew. Between 9 January and 7 February this officer is recorded as having made attacks on six submarines, all while flying Sunderland W3987:
9 Jan: Dropped three DCs in first attack and threw out flame float, dropped four 250lb AS bombs in second attack. Huge bubble appeared and large patch of oil with bubbles continuing to come up; the ‘submarine was undoubtedly destroyed’.
27 Jan: In first attack dropped a single AS bomb, in second attack dropped three DCs set at 50ft followed by a third attack with three DCs set at 100ft.
29 Jan: In a dive attack dropped eight AS bombs in a stick from 600ft, straddled conning tower. After the spray had subsided the submarine had gone, a second or two later the stern rose vertically out of the water and slid under. An oil patch appeared and spread 400 by 200 yards.
6 Feb: Eight AS bombs were dropped in a straddle over the centre of the submarine, after the spray subsided the submarine was seen to have broken up and the disconnected sections were momentarily seen above the surface but the wreckage quickly sank.
7 Feb: At 0039 a submarine crash-dived before an attack could be made. The Sunderland loitered and at 0200 an ASV contact was picked up; eight AS bombs were dropped in a dive attack, the last bomb bursting near the stern of the submarine. The submarine turned and dived, leaving a yellow streak. ASV picked up another contact at 0307 and this was attacked with 750 rounds of machinegun fire. (228 Sqn ORB)
This fine record was recognized with a DFC to Wing Commander Kenneth Garside: ‘This officer has served with the Squadron for the past two and a half years. He has completed over 100 sorties, including attacks on enemy submarines at night. In one of these attacks his aircraft came under enemy machine-gun fire whilst flying at low level. Wing Commander Garside has performed much valuable work both operationally and in the training of new pilots.’ (AMB 7113). It could be argued that the DFC was not really enough and that a DSO would have been more appropriate,
Although the Sunderlands made numerous attacks in January, all of which helped keep the Axis submarine threat in check, the first confirmed sinking was by Swordfish of 815 Squadron, which surprised and sank U-577 on the 15th.
The increased scale of night attacks was also causing concern, and whilst the ‘cats eye’ Hurricanes had some success, it was clear that AI (radar) night fighters were needed. A signal of 25 February stated that: ‘In order to minimize the scale of German night attack on Malta it has been agreed that AI Beaufighters can be operated from the Island provided that most strict orders are issued to all concerned that they are not repeat not to operate more than 30 miles from Malta. Suggest you send four AI Beaufighters to Malta forthwith.’ (signal Air Ministry to HQ RAF Middle East, 25 February). The HQ signalled in early march that Malta could not yet accept them ‘until reorganization operational facilities completed’.
February had also reinforced the challenges of protecting coastal convoys, with two of the three MVs in Alexandria to Tobruk convoy (Operation Onset 20–22 February) being lost; air cover was provided but nevertheless the convoy suffered air attack. We have tended to focus, for space reasons, on the cross-Mediterranean convoys, but the coastal convoys – or single runners – were also key elements of the overall supply situation. Equally important were troop movements by sea, such as the two successful convoys run from Egypt to Cyprus under air cover: Operation Installation (12–17 March) and Operation Scalford (29 March–7 April).
The lack of naval cover had led to an increase in 201 (NC) strength, which by late February comprised two Beaufort squadrons (39, 47), two Blenheim squadrons (55/18, 203, which also had Hudsons, 13 Hellenic), two Beaufighter squadrons (252, 272), three FAA Swordfish squadrons (700, 815, 826, which also had Albacores), one Sunderland squadron (230), one Hudson squadron (459), one Fortress squadron (220), two Wellington squadrons (221, Sea Rescue Flight), and one Dornier squadron (2 Yugoslav). At around the same time, 235 Wing was created at Fuka to act as the command and control of units deployed to forward areas, such as Bu Amud. Increasingly, the group co-ordinated activity with Malta when major convoys were found; such was the case when on 20 February a Tripoli-bound convoy was located. Operational control was given to 235 Wing and it assembled a strike force that comprised North Africa and Malta elements. From North Africa came twenty Blenheims (18/55, 14, 203 squadrons), six Beauforts (39 Squadron), twenty-nine Wellingtons (one ASV from 221 Squadron, three torpedo of 38 Squadron and twenty-five bombers from 205 Group), plus two Fortresses of 221 Squadron and a single Liberator of 108 Squadron; the Malta force was boosted by detaching six Wellingtons of 37 Squadron.
The convoy, in two groups, was picked up by a Malta Wellington on the night of the 21st, but the planned shadowing aircraft, the sole Liberator, crashed on take-off. However, the convoy was picked up by a Maryland at 0725 on the 22nd, which reported eight MVs, two battleships, five cruisers, fifteen destroyers, and an escort of 109s. The first attack group, five Albacores from Malta, failed to find the target, as did one of two Fortresses sent out from LG05 to shadow the convoy; the other one made an attack with 500lb bombs but was heavily engaged by flak and fighters and had to abandon its shadowing task. Next up was a formation of Beauforts, which failed to find the target before reaching their fuel limit. Two formations of Blenheims left Bu Amud, the closest airfield to the target, but again had no luck in finding the target, and one aircraft went down in the sea. The afternoon attempt by 14 Squadron from Gambut started badly when four of the seven Blenheims returned early with engine problems and the remainder made no contact; so for twenty-nine aircraft sent out only one – the Fortress – actually made an attack.
A final attempt at a night attack by Malta Wellingtons also resulted in only one aircraft finding and attacking the target. Tedder attributed the failure by stating: ‘By one means or another Malta’s striking force was effectively neutralized and the convoy was routed just outside the effective range of our day air striking force from Cyrenaica.’ This reinforced the importance of Malta as a strike base, and how important it was for the Allies to keep it open and for the Axis to close it.
In the eastern Mediterranean, the anti-submarine war had heated up again, in part because of increased Allied coastal convoys supporting land operations. In February and March 1942 an average of five or six daily patrols were flown; this increased to an average of eleven the following month. On 22 March a Blenheim of 203 Squadron out of LG39 caught U-73 on the surface some 50 miles northwest of Derna and, although the U-boat crash-dived, Pilot Officer Beresford-Peirse dropped four 250lb anti-submarine bombs that were close enough to cause severe damage. Indeed, the U-boat was lucky; unable to dive, it made its way back to port, and was very vulnerable while doing so.
On the 27th, two Sunderlands of 230 Squadron made separate attacks on a submarine near Bardia; the first attack by 250lb bomb and DC claimed no hits, but the second aircraft dropped eight bombs and claimed the submarine destroyed, although this was later reclassified as ‘probably damaged’. Swordfish were also active in the role in March, with an 815 Squadron aircraft claiming on 11 March that an attack near Mersa Matruh with DC caused the submarine to stop and submerge slowly; this was only classified as ‘probably slightly damaged’. March also saw the operational debut of another Wellington unit in the Middle East; 221 Squadron had arrived at LG39 in January (although a detachment remained at Luqa for some time) equipped with Wellington VIIIs carrying ASV.
March and April were somewhat quieter for the previously very successful 230 Squadron Sunderland crew of Squadron Leader Garside, he recorded two attacks on 27 March; other members of the squadron were busy in this period, six attacks and three other sightings being recorded. The attacks were made by Flight Lieutenant Milligan (27 March, 23 April and 26 April), Flight Lieutenant Squires (19 April), Flight Lieutenant Brown (22 April) and Flight Lieutenant Frame (28 April).
The hectic period for the Sunderlands in the eastern Mediterranean continued into May, four attacks and a number of other sightings being reported. Pilot Officer Howell (L5806) attacked a submarine on 1 May with bombs and DCs, the latter falling along the starboard side and causing the U-boat to ‘slowly sink with no forward speed’. Flight Lieutenant Frame (W4022) was back in action on 11 May, dropping four AS bombs in an attack that appeared to damage the target. On 26 May it was Wing Commander Garside’s turn again: ‘At 1927 hours an ASV plot was obtained four miles on starboard beam and found on investigation to be a submarine on the surface. Attack was carried out with four 250lb AS bombs (set at one second delay) with flash bombs attached, and four 250lb depth charges set at 50ft with Mk X pistols. Bombs were observed to hit conning tower of U-boat. After smoke and spray had subsided no further trace of the submarine was seen. It is to be noticed that the flash bombs fitted to the AS bombs assisted greatly in observing result of attack. It is considered that the U-boat was destroyed. Three separate ASV plots of aircraft in close vicinity of attack were picked up immediately attack was completed. General impression being that these aircraft were circling submarine, on protective patrol, for they closed position of attack immediately after flash bombs was seen. Own aircraft continued to take evasive action.’ (230 Squadron ORB, May 1942).
Although 202 Squadron operating from Gibraltar was still primarily a Catalina squadron, it did have a number of Sunderlands on strength for much of 1942, these flying ASPs in the Mediterranean and out into the Atlantic. Operational capability was increased by the detachments from other Sunderland squadrons, 10 Squadron RAAF deploying a number of aircraft to Gibraltar, and the occasional attachment of aircraft from other units. These increases were normally connected with specific operations, usually a particular convoy.
On 28 May, Flying Officer Pockley of 10 Squadron RAAF, flying W3983/R, was tasked to search for a submarine that had been attacked the previous day by a Catalina: ‘Sighted oil patch with streak running ENE; saw U-boat at head of streak. Aircraft dived to attack from 1000ft up stern as U-boat turned sharply to port but was forced to take evading action owing to heavy gunfire, circled U-boat which remained surfaced. At 1415 dived to attack and raked U-boat with machine-gun fire, most of which struck conning tower. No depth charges dropped as run unsatisfactory – large quantity of light and medium flak put up by U-boat. At 1427 attacked from astern and large quantity of flak. As U-boat turned to port four depth charges released from 40ft, overshot and detonated 20–30 yards on starboard bow. Aircraft port bomb circuit unserviceable throughout so port depth charges manhandled to starboard bow racks for second attack. U-boat continually opened fire with large calibre gun when approached within 3 miles. At 1642 aircraft attacked up U-boat track as she turned to port, released four depth charges from 30ft which straddled U-boat from port to starboard across conning tower. U-boat completely lost to sight in spray, speed immediately reduced to 3–4kts and course became erratic. Subsequent observations showed large apparent dent on port side just forward of conning tower near waterline. Aircraft sustained several hits, considerable trouble experienced with aircraft machine-guns during action, three of the four tail guns being u/s. Nose gun went u/s during first attack. Great need was felt throughout entire action for forward-firing cannon as extremely heavy damage could have been inflicted on U-boat during and after above attacks. At 1825 aircraft led a Hudson to the U-boat.’ The submarine made it back to port two days later.
In the first part of June Malta was still not part of the anti-shipping effort, this role falling to aircraft based in Egypt and North Africa, although eastern Med patrols were flown from other bases as well.
The main anti-submarine effort remained with the Sunderlands. The 6th June saw the Australian Sunderlands in action again when Flight Lieutenant Marks dropped eight depth charges on a U-boat, probably the Italian submarine Brin; although no damage was inflicted to the submarine it did manage to hit the Sunderland in the starboard engine and float. The following day it was 202 Squadron’s turn to find and attack a U-boat, the crew dropping a perfect straddle on their first run. Another four DCs were dropped as the U-boat submerged. The most likely victim was the Veniero as Italian records show that this submarine went missing at around this time.
The 13th June saw another attack by a 10 Squadron crew, Squadron Leader Burrage dropping depth charges on a surfaced submarine (both the Bronzo and the Otario claimed to have been subjected to air attack this day; most records credit the aircraft with damaging the latter). An account of this attack was included in the Coastal Command Review: ‘At 0832, Sunderland O/202, from Gibraltar, flying at 4000ft sighted a submarine 9 miles ahead, making 12 kts. The aircraft dived and attacked on the beam, releasing seven Depth Charges, set to 25ft, one hung up. They straddled the submarine forward, and the explosion obscured it completely. When seen again, it appeared to be listing heavily to starboard and slightly up by the stern, but righted itself immediately. A thick stream of brown smoke poured out behind the conning tower for the next half-hour. As the aircraft circled, the submarine kept its bows always turned toward it and fired the forward gun. At 0950 the remaining Depth Charge had been changed to a serviceable rack and the aircraft was turning to make another attack when the submarine was suddenly lost to sight.’
Pilot Officer Egerton of 10 Squadron RAAF was engaged by a Ju 88 on 14 July, during which combat the Sunderland’s gunners scored a number of hits leaving the Axis bomber diving towards the sea emitting white smoke. The following day, Pilot Officer Lawrence was on an ASP when he saw a Cant Z.501 land on the water and burst into flames, the crew of six jumping into the sea. The Sunderland landed and picked up the crew, and after returning to Gibraltar the Italians were entertained in the mess until the early evening, when they were taken to the Spanish frontier. Following Rommel’s advance and the British retreat back to the El Alamein position, Axis submarines were able to shift more of their focus to the eastern Mediterranean and Levant coast, which thus became a focus of activity in the second half of the year.
The latter part of August was a poor one for 202 Squadron with the loss of a number of aircraft; W6003 capsized and sank after landing at Gibraltar on 12 August, all the crew escaping without injury. On 28 August, Sunderland W4029 landed after an escort sortie and burst into flames; two of the depth charges exploded and only one of the pilots survived the incident. Two days later, all four engines cut-out on ‘R’ due to an air lock in the fuel; however, the aircraft landed safely and was taken in tow. Another U-boat was attacked by Flying Officer Walshe (W6002) on 14 September and two of the five depth charges exploded against the port bow and two by the conning tower, lifting the submarine out of the water. While the Sunderland circled the scene, the submarine crew abandoned the stricken vessel, the Alabastro. This was 202 Squadron’s one and only U-boat victory with the type, the squadron bade farewell to its Sunderland element in October.