Operations and frictions

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

Various operations and frictions between the British Admiralty and the C.I.C. of the Mediterranean Fleet

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

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

 

"To counterbalance their losses of the night of March 28, 1941, besides the blow against the British cruiser HMS YORK in Suda bay that I have already mentioned, the Italians had one more success at the end of that same month.  On the night of March 30, an Italian submarine patrolling South of Crete sunk the British cruiser HMS BONAVENTURE.

 

In April 1941, the difficulties that the British Fleet of the Mediterranean was facing were greatly increased.  The German attack against Greece had started and the British troops were withdrawing from the Cyrenaika peninsula.  An effort was made to retain Tobruk that had been encircled from land and the Navy had undertaken the supplying from sea and this had caused vast losses of ships.  On the other hand, the development of land operations imposed the obstruction –at any price- of Italian transports towards the Cyrenaika peninsula, while disposable means were far from sufficient to cover all needs.

 

In spite of the unavailability of sufficient destroyers, 4 ships used as escorts to the British battleships were dispatched from Alexandria to Malta.

 

As soon as they arrived to Malta, these 4 destroyers had an unexpected success. On the night of April 15 towards April 16, they encountered near the Kermennah islands – following their detection by air reconnaissance – an Italian convoy of 5 commercial ships carrying troops escorted by 3 destroyers.  The escorts put up a vigorous defense, but after about an hour one of them, the RN TARIGO, and 3 of the commercial ships were sunk.  The remaining 3 escorts and 2 commercial ships, although suffering from damages, succeeded to escape and προσάραξαν in the Gulf of Syrte.  One of the escorts was suddenly sunk two days later.  The other one, following repair work done locally that lasted 4 months, was finally towed to Italy.  The British on the other hand lost the destroyer HMS MOHAWK that was torpedoed by RN TARIGO, just before the later disappeared under the sea.  Italian ships and hydroplanes sent from Tripoli saved about 1,300 Italian shipwrecked men.  An Italian destroyer on its way to Tripoli, carrying the shipwrecked seamen, was unsuccessfully bombed by 15 German airplanes.

 

However, in spite of all the efforts of the British Fleet, the above mentioned losses were the only serious during the transport of the German expeditionary Corps and the necessary supplies for the scheduled attacks that it had undertaken.   In the period from February to June 1941, the Italians had transported to Libya about 48,000 tons of supplies and ammunitions with losses estimated at 1.5% in February, 9% in March, 8% in April and May and 6% in June.  During that same period, about 82,000 men were transported, with losses estimated at 4.8%, mainly due to the above mentioned attack of a convoy on the night of April 15, 1941.

 

The British Navy had decided to seal the port of Tripoli by sinking in its entrance the battleship HMS BARHAM and a cruiser, in order to make more difficult for the Italians the re-supply of Libya.  Admiral Cunningham strongly opposed this idea, advancing the argument that, while the Alexandria Fleet will thus be losing one of its three battleships, there was thin probability that the port of Tripoli will be sealed.  He added that human losses will be about 1,000 men and that –according to tradition- such missions were undertaken by volunteers only.  Finally, the opinion of the Commander in Chief prevailed and instead of sealing the port it was decided to bomb it with the battleships from close range.

 

This operation took place at dawn of April 21, 1941, after a night of heavy air bombing.  To mislead the enemy, the Fleet left early Alexandria and initially escorted a convoy to Malta and after reaching the island on April 20 at dusk, he sailed south at high speed.  For 45 minutes, 3 battleships and 1 cruiser bombed the port of Tripoli.  The Italians were completely taken by surprise and their gun batteries reacted only about 20 minutes later.  In addition, while heavy air attack was expected by the British when the ships were returning to their base, the naval force returned to Alexandria unobstructed.  British reconnaissance reported heave damages and the sinking of 5-6 ships, but damages to the port were not serious and its operation wasn’t interrupted.

 

Quite rightfully though, when the Admiralty asked for the repetition of this operation, the Commander in Chief of the Fleet expressed his disagreement, considering that that kind of operations presented high risks for the Fleet, while the same results could be achieved in a few hours by heavy air bombing from Egypt.

 

The Admiralty made then a new recommendation, proposing sending to Malta 1 battleship escorted by a number of fighters to protect it during the whole trip.  This new interference to his responsibilities infuriated again Admiral Cunningham, because those serving at the Center didn't realize the difficulties he had to face with the forthcoming withdrawal fro Greece.  They also ignored the shortage of fuel in Malta that would become more critical with the arrival of a battleship.

 

In case the Italian ships decided to venture off their bases, the Admiral wished to dispose his 3 battleships.  He considered that the whole issue depended on the existence in Malta of a sufficient air force to secure reconnaissance, attack enemy convoys and offer air protection to the base and the ships.  Malta was of course a recommended base for the Fleet, but its air defense had never reached a suitable degree to secure the naval base.

 

There were additional difficulties: with the destroyers busy to evacuate troops from Greece, the battle Fleet without escorts remained immobilized in the port of Alexandria.  However, on April 27 – on the day the Germans entered Athens – the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet received a message from the British Prime Minister stressing that the main duty of the Fleet was the interruption of the Italian transports with Africa.

 

It is characteristic that both opponents were attributing the great difficulties they were facing in succeeding their missions to insufficient air co-operation.  The difference however was that the British Navy disposed in the Mediterranean a Chief characterized by an attack spirit that knew how to assume his responsibilities and vigorously oppose the suggestions of the Center that could, in his view, develop to the detriment of the war effort."