Supply of Libya

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The supply of Libya becomes more difficult and

Italians suffer consecutive disasters - Part I

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

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

 

“In the course of the second half of 1941, the situation in Eastern Mediterranean started improving significantly for the British.  Their air forces were reinforced and the withdrawal of most of the German airplanes from Sicily, initially sent to Greece and later to the Russian front, became very noticeable.

 

In October, following pressing requests of the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean, several naval cooperation aircrafts joined the Fleet and started offering precious services, as soon as they arrived to Alexandria.

 

In that same month, because submarines and airplanes operating out of Malta weren’t sufficient to disrupt Italian transports towards Libya, the British dispatched from England to Malta the cruisers HMS AURORA and HMS PENELOPE and 2 destroyers that formed force “K”.  The use of the base was thus becoming possible because, on one hand, during the last months antiaircraft defense had been significantly reinforced with fighters and with the reduction of German air forces in the Mediterranean, on the other, air attacks against the Island became less intensive.

 

The reinforcement of Malta’s air and naval forces significantly obstructed the Italian Navy operations.  The new type of British reconnaissance planes was equipped with radar and at night they could cooperate with night torpedo planes, as surface ships were lighting the target.  This allowed applying new methods of attack, against which the Italian ships couldn’t defend themselves effectively.  As soon as the German Air force left, the Axis stopped having firepower superiority in the air over Sicily Straits and their air reconnaissance became much more difficult.  While before, at least once a day they were executing air reconnaissance over Malta, reconnaissance planes were now being shot down well before reaching the Island.

 

Missing exact information on enemy naval forces movements, Italians were obliged to always escort convoys with cruiser squadrons, in order to avoid surprise attacks.  During one such mission on July 28, the cruiser RN GARIBALDI was torpedoed by a submarine and placed out of service for 4 months.

 

Since the British were now applying a system of simultaneous attack from high and low altitude, disposal of a large number of fighters was needed for the air protection of convoys, while Italians disposed a limited number and no night fighters.  In addition, the operation radius of Italian fighters was also limited and therefore for the air coverage of convoys heading to Libya during daylight with just 2 fighters, 56 fighters in total operating in couples were needed. 

 

The reinforcement of the Malta air forces allowed the execution of intensive bombings of Italian ports, while Tripoli and Benghazi were bombed on a daily basis.

 

The shortcomings of air cooperation and fuel shortages obliged the Italian Navy to abandon any idea of attack operations and concentrate in defense operations in the second half of 1941.  Various measures were taken in an attempt to insure the supply of Libya. Thus, in spite of the important lengthening of the voyages and the increased fuel consumption, convoys followed routes in Central Mediterranean, situated as far away from Malta as possible.  They were disposing more escorts, even Fleet destroyers and were reinforcing the antiaircraft guns of the ships and their escorts.  In addition they were dispatching unescorted small cargo ships that only sailed at night and had to remain in ports during the day.

 

To transport some special supplies, in areas close to the land front in Libya, they were using some small but very fast ships and submarines, from which 2 were lost and 1 suffered serious damages in executing such a mission.  As the British had done during the operations in Greece, for the transport troops they were using destroyers sailing only at night and at high speed.

 

Italians also applied the system of simultaneous dispatch of 2 convoys, one important and one of lesser importance, in parallel routes in order to mislead the enemy. The less important would sail between the important and Malta.  In several cases an attack took lace against the less important, while the other sailed unobstructed.

 

In spite of all these measures, Italian transports became much more difficult after July 1941 and losses were very important.  While in June 125,000 tons were transported, in July only half of that quantity was moved, with 41% losses for fuel and 12% for other supplies.  In August, about 47,000 tons of supplies were transported with 20% losses and about 37,000 tons of fuel with losses of only 1%.  In September, on 54,000 tons of supplies and 13,500 tons of fuel transported, losses reached 29% for supplies and 24% for fuel.  In October, on 62,000 tons of supplies and 12,000 tons of fuel transported, losses were 20% and 21% respectively.  In November finally, losses reached 62%, and 30,000 tons of supplies were only transported, of which 2,500 tons of fuel.

 

The installation of force “K” in Malta increased the Italian transport difficulties. As soon as “K” force arrived, she had an important success.  On November 7, 1941, 2 Italian convoys were sailing towards Libya, one from Brindisi to Benghazi and the other from Naples to Tripoli.

 

The first was discovered by British reconnaissance in the morning of November 9 and was repeatedly attacked by the Air force.  The second, the most important, comprised 7 cargo ships escorted by 6 destroyers under coverage of a force of 2 heavy cruisers and 4 destroyers. This last one was detected by the enemy reconnaissance on the evening of November 8 and suffered a surprise attack by force “K”, while sailing about 135 miles east of Syracuse.  The British force had been lead by night reconnaissance planes and when she approached the convoy the radars detected the Italian ships and started firing, without being detected.

 

As soon as the British opened fire, the 3 Italian escort destroyers that were conveniently situated counterattacked and soon 2 of them were critically hit.  The third, approached at a distance of 2,000 meters without damage but didn’t launch it’s torpedoes, because when it came upon 2 cruisers it thought that they were Italian but immediately received intensive enemy fire.

 

As far as the 2 Italian cruisers are concerned, they were situated at a distance of about 5,000 meters from the convoy and were cruising towards the side of Malta.  When they realized the attack they rushed to intervene but in the meantime the british ships had disappeared, after having sunk all the cargo ships and 1 destroyer and having caused serious damages to the other 2.    The destruction was completed early in the morning with the sinking of one more destroyer by a British submarine, while it was busy with saving shipwrecked sailors.

 

The result of this encounter was quite amazing because the Italians disposed superior fire power.  Italians admit that and note that, except some cases of personal courage, the actions of the Italian ships were uncoordinated and in some cases wrong.  They admit that confusion prevailed due to the surprise attack, the melee of the ships and the speed of enemy’s maneuvering.  For once more the supremacy of the British in night fighting was proved. Undoubtedly however, the technical perfections that Italians lacked – radars and night air reconnaissance – contributed significantly to that great British success.

 

On November 13, 1941 however, the British suffered an important setback.  The “H” force aircraft carrier HMS ARK ROYAL, on his way back to Gibraltar and after its fighters had taken off for Malta, was hit by a German submarine and sunk.”