HMS Scarab fighting in the Mediterranean, 1943.

In 1939 HMS Ladybird and HMS Aphis both had their BL 6″ Mk VII guns replaced with the longer BL 6″ Mk XIII guns. By WW2, this armament would receive another update. By the time of Operation Husky, HMS Cockchafer and HMS Scarab both replaced their 2 pounder Pom-Poms with 8 20mm Oerlikons. The Aphis acquired an Oerlikon and 2 20mm Bredas. 

The Mediterranean, 1940–4

The rapid victory won by Germany over Poland in 1939, followed by her stunning conquest of all Western Europe save the United Kingdom the following year, had left Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, feeling somewhat up-staged. On 10 June 1940, with the French Army already beaten to its knees and the British Expeditionary Force driven from the continental mainland, he declared war on France and Great Britain, commenting to his army chief of staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, that he ‘needed a few thousand dead so that he could sit at the conference table as a man who has fought’, and therefore share in the spoils. He did so against the advice of his service chiefs who warned him that in their present condition the Italian armed forces were only capable of fighting a short war, and that it would be 1942 at the earliest before they could be equipped on a scale suitable for a modern European conflict.

This did not trouble him unduly as he did not believe that Great Britain could possibly resist the might of Hitler’s Wehrmacht beyond September. Furthermore, within the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which was his own particular sphere of interest, the British were stretched so thinly that, on the basis of simple mathematics alone, an Italian victory seemed assured.

It was true that in the Middle East General Sir Archibald Wavell commanded some 50,000 British and Imperial troops, but these were deployed across a vast area stretching from the Syrian border to Somaliland. In Egypt itself, the very pivot of British power in the region, there were only 36,000 men, short of supporting armour and artillery, and it was difficult to see how this small force could possibly resist the 250,000-strong Italian Army in Libya. In Italian East Africa there were a further 200,000 men, poised to strike into the Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland, the largest of whose garrisons numbered only 9,000.

At sea the revitalised Royal Italian Navy not only enjoyed a wealth of bases in the central Mediterranean, but also outnumbered Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, although in capital ships the Royal Navy had a slight advantage, opposing six Italian battleships with seven of its own. In other classes of warship the Italian strength was as disproportionately overwhelming as it seemed on land, 21 cruisers being deployed against eight, 50 destroyers against 37, and 100 submarines against eight. It hardly seemed to matter that the Royal Navy had two aircraft carriers in the area, for it had been planned, a little optimistically, that the Italian fleet would receive massive support from the land-based Regia Aeronautica, which could put up about 2000 aircraft against the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s handful of more or less obsolete types. Thus, when Mussolini spoke of the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum, it seemed far from being an idle boast.

Unfortunately, the Royal Italian Navy, while containing some outstandingly courageous officers and men, did not relish the task it had been set. Psychologically, it was in awe of the Royal Navy and was further handicapped by limited fuel supplies; it also had to take into account British striking forces operating from the heavily fortified island of Malta, just 60 miles south of Sicily, which was to remain a permanent and very painful thorn in its side. When the two battlefleets clashed briefly on 9 July the Italians sustained some damage and retired. Although Mussolini claimed a victory, presumably because he still had a powerful fleet in being, his admirals thereafter remained shy of fighting a general engagement. On the night of 11/12 November Swordfish torpedo bombers, flying from the carrier Illustrious, crippled the Italian battlefleet in Taranto harbour.

We are, however, getting a little ahead of ourselves, for events on land had been almost as dramatic. Italy had obtained possession of Libya following her war with the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The establishment of a North African colony proved to be a difficult undertaking, largely because the Libyans themselves remained bitterly opposed to the idea. In Tripolitania, the western province, a degree of settlement had taken place, although it did not extend far inland. In Cyrenaica, the eastern province, a barren hinterland and Libyan intransigence meant that the Italians were even more confined to a coastal strip, where they had constructed elaborate defences around the ports of Bardia and Tobruk. It might, perhaps, be thought that in June 1940 the huge Italian army in Cyrenaica was brimming with self-confidence and looking forward to an easy victory. Such a mood, if it ever existed, was quickly dispelled when Wavell despatched his mechanised elements across the Egyptian frontier. During the next three months they beat up isolated garrisons, snapped up convoys, captured generals and made life very unpleasant for the Italians, inflicting some 3000 casualties in exchange for only 150 of their own. A visiting German officer was startled to be told that the Italian ‘will to resist’ remained unshaken and reported that ‘everyone seems scared stiff of the British’.

Despite his immense responsibilities, Admiral Cunningham was anxious to provide Wavell’s tiny army with as much gunfire support as possible. For the moment, all he could offer were three now elderly Insect class gunboats, of which he commented in his memoirs:

I had gladly accepted the offer of these little ships for service in the Mediterranean, as their small size and shallow draught made them difficult targets for bombs or torpedoes, while their two 6-inch guns, though old, were useful weapons. Of these the Ladybird, Aphis and Gnat, later joined by the monitor Terror with her pair of 15-inch guns, all gave grand service off the Libyan coast in 1940–41 on the sea flank of the army. Over long periods they bombarded every night, paying particular attention to Bardia and Tobruk as the battle on shore surged to and fro.

First into action was Ladybird, which, under Lieutenant Commander J. F. Blackburn, was ordered to proceed west from Mersa Matruh and, disguised as far as possible as a merchant vessel, penetrate Bardia harbour and destroy any shipping there. After dusk on 23 August the enemy’s coast defence gunners spotted her approaching and opened a heavy but inaccurate fire to which Ladybird replied with her 6- and 3-inch armament. She then slid into the harbour, a narrow inlet surrounded by cliffs, but found it deserted. For the next 25 minutes Blackburn pounded installations and buildings ashore, quickly destroying a solitary field gun which opened fire in return. Emerging into open water again, Ladybird once more became the target of the coastal artillery, the aim of which had improved considerably. As heavy shells threw up fountains of water all round her, the gunboat replied with her heavy weapons and pom-poms. Blackburn took sharp evasive action and laid smoke, making good his escape, covered by the Australian destroyer Waterhen. As Bardia was one of the most heavily fortified ports in North Africa, this astonishing piece of cheek could have done nothing for the morale of its Italian garrison.

Meanwhile, Mussolini had been nagging his commander-in-chief in North Africa, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, to invade Egypt or face the sack. To his credit, Graziani recognised that while he had by far the bigger army, it was insufficiently mechanised to fight a successful desert war. Nevertheless, on 13 September he began a ponderous advance which, four days later, brought him to Sidi Barrani, just 60 miles into Egyptian territory. There, having established an advance post at Maktila, he began digging himself in with a chain of fortified camps stretching south-west into the desert, refusing to budge further.

Near the Egyptian–Libyan frontier the escarpment between the desert plateau and the coastal plain can be crossed by two routes, one at Solium and the other at nearby Halfaya Pass. The Italian army had perforce to advance through these. On 14 September the Ladybird appeared off Sollum, battering the enemy’s transport and artillery at the very point where it was unable to escape off the road. Satisfied that he had caused damage, casualties, confusion and panic, Blackburn withdrew before any coherent response could be organised. On her return to Mersa Matruh, Ladybird was joined by Aphis under Lieutenant Commander J. O. Campbell. During the next few weeks the two Insects, now known collectively as Force W, carried out many similar harassing missions.

Wavell’s devastating counter-offensive, codenamed Operation Compass, began during the night of 8/9 December. Spearheaded by a regiment of Matilda II tanks, which at that stage were invulnerable to any gun the Italians possessed, the counter-attack force passed through a gap in the chain of fortified camps, isolated Sidi Barrani from the west, and proceeded to storm each camp in turn. On 10 December Sidi Barrani itself was taken and the routed Italian army was streaming back towards the frontier, leaving 38,000 of its men to be taken prisoner.

Force W had now been joined by the monitor Terror. During Operation Compass the enemy’s advance post at Maktila had been pounded by Terror, standing well offshore, and by Aphis, which closed in to a point-blank 3000 yards; badly shaken, the Italians tried to escape westwards to Sidi Barrani, which had been simultaneously bombarded by Ladybird, only to find that it was already in British hands. For the next few days the two Insects harried the retreating army without mercy while Terror pounded targets within the Bardia perimeter with her 15-inch guns. Sometimes the enemy responded with an air attack on the ships and sometimes with MAS (motor torpedo) boats, all attacks being beaten off without casualties or damage.

On the night of 16/17 December the Aphis crept stealthily along the coast towards Bardia. By 06:30 she had reached the harbour entrance undetected and glided inside. Within, she found three supply ships at anchor, using just six rounds of 6-inch to reduce them to blazing wrecks. During the next hour Campbell’s main armament fired a further 100 rounds, turning a fuel depot into an enormous fireball and engaging every likely target within sight. Each time the guns fired, the cliffs sent back a quadruple echo, so that the cumulative noise level was deafening. Out at sea, those aboard the watching Terror could also see dense black smoke clouds boiling up out of the enclosed harbour.

‘Seems to be having a good time!’ mused Commander Hayes, her captain.

At length, with his gun crews exhausted and the Aphis coming under increasingly heavy machine gun and mortar fire, Campbell decided to head for open water. This was the moment that the outraged coast defence artillerymen had been waiting for. For ten miles they pursued the little gunboat with their heavy shells, but her sudden twists and turns left them baffled and the covering fire provided by the Terror’s 15-inch guns cannot have helped. There can be little doubt that the battery commanders received a furious tongue lashing from the fortress commander, General Bergonzoli, better remembered by his nickname of ‘Electric Whiskers’, for when Aphis reappeared off the port the following day they were much quicker off the mark and Campbell wisely decided not to press his advantage. Both he and Blackburn were awarded the DSO for their forays into Bardia.

By the New Year Wavell’s troops, under the operational command of Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, had caught up with the fleeing Italians and were ready to mount an assault on Bardia. The devastating preliminary bombardment was delivered not just by O’Connor’s artillery, but also by the battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite and their escorting warships, supplemented inshore by Force W, which had been joined by a third Insect, the Gnat.

It was enough to stretch the resolve of even good troops to breaking point, and that of the Italians was already shaky. When the assault went in on 3 January, the combination of Matildas and aggressive Australian infantry proved unstoppable. By the evening of 5 January all of Bardia was in British hands. Immense quantities of equipment were captured and another 38,000 men began their weary trudge into the prisoner of war cages. ‘Electric Whiskers’ Bergonzoli was not among them, having successfully evaded capture and made his way to Tobruk. British casualties amounted to 500, of whom only 150 were killed.

As Force W had retired from the bombardment phase it had come under air attack. Aboard Aphis several men were killed or wounded when the gunboat was strafed. With two of his loaders dead and another man wounded, Petty Officer Leslie Poore served B gun alone until he was joined by a stoker and a cook. Simultaneously, Able Seaman Bennett Chapman, though seriously wounded, continued to man the 2-pounder pom-pom until he collapsed. Both were awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Immediately after the fall of Bardia, Force W became the Inshore Squadron under the command of Captain H. Hickling and was joined by three minesweepers, four anti-submarine trawlers and a variety of smaller vessels including schooners, lighters and store ships. On land the advance continued and Tobruk was invested. Once again Terror, Ladybird and Gnat took part in a preliminary bombardment against selected target areas within the defences. The same careful preparation went into the assault on Tobruk as had gone into that on Bardia. At 06:30 on 21 January the Matildas and Australians broke into the perimeter and by the afternoon of the following day all resistance had ended. Yet more guns, tanks and supplies were captured and another 25,000 prisoners were taken.