Monday, October 29, 2007
Because the available air strength on Malta had been greatly reduced, the primary air defense for the island came from anti-aircraft artillery. 31 Spitfires had been sent to Malta, but they were mostly gone by the middle of April 1942. The remaining Hurricanes assigned to No.185 and No.229 Squadrons were all that remained of the fighter defenses. Fortunately, Malta had received a strong anti-aircraft artillery armament. The island had a total of 112 heavy AA guns and many light AA guns. In the most important 6 mile by 9 mile area, there were 80 heavy AA and 144 light AA guns. Ammunition was rationed, but there were never really any shortages of AA ammunition. There were the 7th Light Anti-Aircraft Brigade and the 10th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Just as the air war in the Mediterranean intensified, Admiral Cunningham was relieved and sent to Washington to represent the First Sea Lord on a "Combined Chiefs of Staff Comittee". Admiral Cunningham had the reputation that would enable to effectively advise the committee on naval affairs. He had been the naval commander in the Mediterranean Sea for three years. His last operation had been the convoy to Malta that led to the Second Battle of Sirte. He would return to the Mediterranean later in 1943, with a changed strategic situation. Starting in April 1942, the battle for Malta intensified. The Italians now had four active battleships, nine cruisers, and 55 destoyes and torpedo boats (really small destroyers). The British Mediterranean Fleet had been reduced to only four cruisers and 15 destroyers. Gibraltar was reduced to a token force of the old aircraft carrier Argus and two or three destroyers. The Germans had 20 submarines and the Italians had 50 submarines. There were only 25 Allied submarines in the theater. The Axis air force consisted of about 290 German and 250 Italian bombers. The British had more than 400, but they were unable to provide fighter cover in the central and eastern Mediterranean. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Back in October 1941, the Germans had decided to build their air force in Sicily back to the level it had been earlier in 1941. By mid-March 1942, the strength was up to 335 bombers and fighters. This time, Malta was already in deep trouble, short on supplies and military strength. The possibility of invading Malta had been considered since March 1941, but after the losses at Crete, the Axis forces were very wary of such an attempt. Many studies were made to consider the options and by January 1942, the Italians started training for an attack. The Prince of Piedmont was appointed to command the invasion army, as commander of Army Group South. The German navy commander, Admiral Rader had promoted to Hitler the strategic importance of the Mediterranean Theater. Field Marshal Kesselring had decided that Malta could be neutralized by just a bombing campaign, although a final decision had not been made. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The situation in the Mediterranean Sea was such that the British submarines became the only effective force in the war against Axis shipping. Not only did they have successes against merchant shipping but they also sank the Italian cruiser Giovanni Della Bande Nere, one German and four Italian submarines. One more German submarine was mined and one was sunk by No.230 Squadron RAF. In the first three months of 1942, they sank 16 merchant ships of 75,000 tons. Four British submarines were lost: one bombed at Malta, two were mined, and an Italian torpedo boat (small destroyer) sank another. British submariners won three Victoria Crosses during this period. Two were from HMS Thrasher and one from HMS Torbay. Torbay had penetrated the Corfu Roads and torpedoed a 5,200 merchant ship. Torbay had been looking for four troopships, but they were not present at the time. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
A combination of events created a lack of forces to pursue an active campaign against Axis shipping. By the end of March 1942, the situation had reached a crisis. The blows came often and fast. After December 8, warships, troops, and aircraft had to be sent to the Far East to combat the Japanese attack. Then the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were damaged in Alexandria harbour by brave Italian under water demolition specialists. The increased German air and submarine presence further aggravated the British situation, as the British took heavy losses in surface warships to aircraft, mine, and submarine attack. We can't forget the loss of the Ark Royal, very close to Gibraltar. By the end of March, the Mediterranean Fleet was reduced to four cruisers and fifteen destroyers. The low point was reached with there were only six destroyers able to put to sea. The British had hoped that increased air power would compensate for the reduced surface force, but then Rommel retook western Cyrenaica, so they lost the airfields that would made the air forces more effective. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
British fortunes were near another low, after the Second Battle of Sirte. No British aircraft were able to strike the retiring Italian surface ships. The only success occurred on 1 April 1942 when the submarine Urge torpedoed and sank the Giovanni della Bande Nere, southeast of Stromboli. The situation on and near Malta was dire. The Breconshire was sunk, the Talabot was scuttled in port to prevent an ammunition explosion and the Pampas had heavy flooding from bomb damage. The destroyer Legion, which had been towed into port at Malta was sunk by air attack. Only 1,052 tons were unloaded from the Talabot, 3,970 tons from the Pampas. Contractors were able to retrieve a further 2,500 tons, in salvaging what could be taken off the wrecks. Until adequate air strength could be provided to Malta, all ships had to be removed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
After the Italians were seen to retire, Admiral Vian headed south to meet the convoy. The convoy commander had already ordered the merchant ships to disperse, to prevent them from being sunk, en mass. Admiral Vian's Force B headed back to Alexandria. On the way, his destroyers suffered from the heavy weather. The merchant ships were escorted by the Hunt class destroyers, the cruiser Penelope, the destroyer Legion, the damaged Havock, and the destroyer Kingston. The Talabot and Pampas actually arrived in the Grand Harbour at Malta. They received "a tremendous welcome". The Breconshire was disabled about 8 miles from the Grand Harbour. Three destroyers stood by her. The Clan Campbell was sunk by air attack about 20 miles from Malta. The destroyer Legion was damaged and was beached. On 24 March 1942, the Hunt class destroyer was mined and sunk while standing by the Breconshire. Admiral Vian's force arrived at Alexandria about midday on 24 March. On 25 March, the Breconshire sank in shallow water off Marsa Scirocco, after being towed there in good weather. A good amount of oil was salvaged from the wreck. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
The Italians had been alerted to the British convoy by two submarines and a German Ju-52 flying overhead on 21 March 1942. The battleship Littorio and four destroyers sortied from Taranto at about 12:30am on 22 March. They met the heavy cruisers Trento and Gorizia, escorted by four destroyers that had sailed from Messina. Two other destroyers from Taranto sailed late and one of the four with the Littorio suffered a breakdown and had to leave the fleet. Both German and Italian air reinforcements were sent to Sicily, in preparation for attacks on the convoy. An Italian aircraft sighted the British at 10am on 22 March. The Italian fleet headed west to block the way to Malta. The battle had lasted until dark, when both Admiral Iachino and the commanders in Rome ordered the fleet to break off the action. The Italian warships encountered a heavy gale on their return courses to Taranto and Messina, causing the destroyers Sirocco and Lanciere to founder. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Friday, October 12, 2007
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Admiral Vian's ships fired at long range at the Italian ships, and then he turned his ships to get a clear view. About 5:40pm, on 22 March 1942, they fired at the Italian battleship at extreme range. They soon saw the battleship Littorio at a range of 8 miles, heading towards them at high speed. The British fleet destroyers saw the battleship and started firing, but the seas were rough, and they were not able to spot their fall of shot. The Sikh was soon straddled. Her captain fired two torpedoes see if he could cause the Italians to fall back. Admiral Iachino commanded the Italian fleet in the Second Battle of Sirte. He could not see the British convoy and had to depend on aerial reconnaissance reports. By 6pm, he was down to about 10-1/2 miles from the convoy and could have hit the ships with his 15in guns. He had no reports about the convoy's location so the Littorio did not fire at it. At about 6pm, Admiral Vian decided to fire torpedoes at the Italians. At 6:03pm, he saw the Littorio, at 6-1/2 miles, and opened fire. At 6:06pm, the cruiser Cleopatra turned and fired three torpedoes. The Littorio then turned away into smoke. The British First Division closed the action. They saw the Littorio at 6:34pm and closed from six to three miles for a torpedo attack. At 6:41pm, the destroyer Kingston took a large caliber hit, although was able to fire three torpedoes before withdrawing. The other destroyers in the First Division fired another 22 torpedoes. The fighting ended at 6:50pm, when the Italians turned away. The Cleopatra had taken a 6in from the Giovanni della Bande Nere. The destroyer Havock had also taken a large caliber hit. The cruiser Euryalus and destroyer Lively had taken splinter damage. The Littorio had taken only one light shell hit at 6:51pm. No British torpedoes found their mark. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
In the late afternoon, as Admiral Vian's force closed with the convoy, they spotted the Italians in the distance. There was on modern battleship, two cruisers armed with 8in guns, one light cruiser armed with 6in guns, and four smaller ships. The Italian fleet included the battleship Littorio, the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, the light cruiser Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, and seven destroyers, including the Sirocco and Lanciere. The British were fortunate to be upwind, so their smoke drifted towards the Italians, who were reluctant to enter the smoke for fear of torpedo attack. In fact, at 6:06pm, the cruiser Cleopatra turned and fired three torpedoes. At this point, the Italians put up a smoke screen as an anti-torpedo measure. The four J and K class destroyers came up, presently, as they had received a garbled message from Admiral Vian and saw the Italians on the horizon. The division commander, Captain Poland, led a torpedo attack on the Littorio. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Friday, October 05, 2007
The Italian fleet had closed with the Malta convoy a couple of hours before they were expected. Very soon after the Italians were sighted, Admiral Vian invoked the special plan, where his striking force headed northward "while the convoy and its close escort turned away south-west". The Italians closed in line abreast, initially. This allowed all ships to quickly close the range. At 2:42pm, the Italians turned and formed a battle line. The ships in sight were now recognized as cruisers, so Admiral Vian turned towards the Italians. The Italians turned away, rather than fight. Admiral Vian turned back to the convoy, which had been under heavy air attack from Ju-88's. The escort had fired off much of their ammunition, so Admiral Vian dispatched the Jervis, Kipling, Kelvin, and Kingston to their aid. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
At 12:30pm on 22 March 1942, Admiral Vian's cruisers and fleet destroyers formed a screen between the approaching Italian fleet and the convoy. The old AA cruiser Carlisle and the Hunt class destroyer Avon Vale were to lay smoke to obscure the convoy. The other five Hunt class destroyers provided close cover to the ships in the convoy. Admiral Vian had planned a trick maneuver to be used to allow the convoy to escape. The striking force would attack the Italians with torpedoes as they approached the line of smoke. Simultaneously, the convoy would turn away. The British spotted the first Italian ships at 2pm, when they saw two 8-inch gunned cruisers, one six-inch gunned cruiser, and four destroyers. They had thought that there were three battleships, but were mistaken. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
On the night of 21-22 March 1942, the convoy to Malta had been overflown by German transports and was seen. At 5am on 22 March, the submarine P36 reported seeing the Italian fleet sortie from Taranto. They had actually sailed about 1am. That would mean that the British could expect to see the Italian fleet by the afternoon. The convoy lost its fighter cover by 9am, as they sailed out of range of fighter aircraft based in Cyrenaica. They had experienced a few desultory attacks by SM79 trimotor torpedo bombers but they had not inflicted any damage. The escorts under Admiral Vian's command prepared for surface action against a much stronger Italian force. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.