Malta supply operation

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The Malta supply operation of September 1941

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,"The Conclusions of

the Naval War of the Mediterranean 1939-1945", Athens 1961)

 

Malta was reinforced in September 1941 with fighter airplanes that were sent from aircraft carriers, from the West.  Towards the end of the month the supply operation of the island from Gibraltar was repeated, with the coverage of force “H”.  To mislead the enemy, the Fleet of Alexandria sailed again reinforced by the battleship HMS BARHAM that had been repaired in the meantime.

 

The convoy consisted of 8 large cargo ships and the Navy’s tanker HMS BRECONSHIRE. This time force “H” was very reinforced and consisted of the battleships HMS NELSON, HMS RODNEY και HMS PRINCE OF WALES (the later entering for the first time in the Mediterranean),  the aircraft carrier HMS ARK ROYAL, 5 cruisers and 18 destroyers.  To mislead the Italian reconnaissance the ships had split into groups.

 

On September 26, the Italian Air force detected south of the Valearides Islands one of the above groups consisting of the HMS NELSON, HMS ARK ROYAL, 2 cruisers and about 12 destroyers.  On the other hand, a French airplane spotted a British convoy off Algeria’s coast.  The repairs of the Italian battleships that were damaged had been completed and thus a force consisting of the battleships RN LITTORIO and RN VENETO, 4 cruisers and 9 destroyers was sent to meet the British group that had been detected.  The 3 smaller battleships that were also in active duty and most of the cruisers were not sent for lack of fuel but also because the Italian force was believed to dispose superior firepower against the British, as they were not aware of the presence in the area of the remaining British battleships.

 

The orders given to the Italian force were to engage in battle only if they disposed clear firepower superiority and were situated inside an area that could be protected by fighter planes based in Sardinia.  An order was given in parallel to the Italian Air force to attack the British force before noon of September 27, when the Italian Fleet was expected to reach the battlefield.

 

However, as it had also happened in other cases, the air cooperation of the Italians wasn’t efficient.  Until noon of September 27, air reconnaissance information was incomplete and air attacks didn’t start before 13:00.   Because of the lack of information and to avoid loosing the convoy, the Commander in Chief of the Italian Fleet Admiral Iachino sailed at 12:30 towards the probable course of the enemy.  Until 14:30 no clear information was given concerning the movements and the formation of the enemy forces, the results of the air attacks were not known and the fighters that were expected hadn’t showed up.

 

In the meantime the British groups had merged and at around 15:30 the Italians were getting the information that a British force that included 3 battleships was at a distance of 20 miles from the Italian force.  At the same time from decrypting a radiogram it turned up that the aircrafts of the HMS ARK ROYAL had been sent to attack, while there was not yet air coverage of the Italian ships.

 

Thus, following the instructions that had been given to him, Admiral Iachino continued the course that was leading him away from the enemy.

 

The Italian Air force created, however, one more confusion.  At 15:00 it was reported that the British force include only 1 battleship and that the airplanes had sunk 1 cruiser and caused damages to another 2 and possibly to the battleship.  The Italian Admiral, after this information, changed immediately course and sailed south to take advantage of this excellent opportunity.

 

As far as the British are concerned, their reconnaissance had not detected the Italian Fleet until 13:30, when it was at a distance of 70miles from the British force and sailing south.  It was just then that Italian torpedo planes attacked and hit with a torpedo the HMS NELSON, the speed of which was thus reduced to 15 knots.  Admiral Sommerville, the Commander of the British force, ordered the HMS NELSON to join the convoy that was sailing along the coast of Tunisia and with the rest of the force rushed to meet the Italian formation.

 

At around 15:00 he was informed that the Italian force had changed course and was sailing north. Next the British airplanes lost contact.  Then, he took up a position of wait, between the Italian force and the convoy he was covering and at 17:00, lacking of additional information, he also changed course and sailed south, just when the Italian Fleet was also taking up the same course.

 

Thus, for several hours the two Fleets were ignoring the presence of each other and were following parallel courses with the distance between them remaining unchanged.  At around 18:00 the Supermarina ordered Admiral Iachino to proceed east of Sardinia and remain there till the following morning.  At sun set the British force took course towards Gibraltar, while the convoy escorted by 3 cruisers and around 10 destroyers continued its course towards its destination. As it was getting dark, Italian torpedo planes attacked and sunk one of the cargo ships. The remaining safely reached Malta.

 

The Italian Fleet remained off Sardinia until the evening of September 28 and then returned to its base. The force “H” in his way back to Gibraltar was attacked by 3 Italian submarines. The result was that one of them was sunk by the British.

 

Because of lack of sufficient air reconnaissance information, the two Fleets did not meet, but the British succeeded in their main endeavor.  8 out of 9 supply ships successfully reached Malta through that dangerous route.  The attack force of the Italian Air force had some significant successes, but from every other aspect her cooperation with the Fleet was again unsuccessful.  In addition, that operation had the unpleasant consequence for the Italian Navy that large quantity of fuel was consumed without any result, in a period when stocks were extremely limited.

 

In this case, in spite of the very strong coverage of the convoy by the force “H”, if the Italians had sent all the available forces of their Fleet and if their Air force had acted as required, the Italians would have been able to enter in combat with quite favorable for them conditions.

 

The British did not undertake any other important naval operation in the Mediterranean until the middle of March 1942.”