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The Mediterranean Theatre


The Malta Convoys were a series of Allied supply convoys to sustain the besieged island of Malta during the Mediterranean Theatre of World War II. The convoys were strongly opposed by Fascist Italian and Nazi German naval and air forces during the Battle of the Mediterranean.

Background

Malta's geographical position, halfway between the strategic British bases at Gibraltarmarker and Alexandriamarker, close to the Sicilian Channel between Sicily and Tunismarker and on the sea route between Italy and its possessions in Libyamarker, made it a vital base for control of the Mediterranean Seamarker routes. For Britain this was the short route, via the Suez Canalmarker, to its colonies in India, East Africa and the Far East and also to the major oil producers, Iraqmarker and Iranmarker.

During the first year of the war, however, this region was a military backwater. Much of the coast was under Allied control – either French or British: the rest was neutral. Moreover, the British and French fleets dominated; the only other effective regional naval power was Italy, but at this time she was neutral. As a result, British defences on Malta were neglected.

Italy declares war

Italymarker at first held back from supporting Germanymarker; the outcome in northern Europe was uncertain and no decision was required. When the German blitzkrieg had crushed the French army and Britain had been weakened and isolated, Italy took its opportunity and declared war on the allies on 10 June 1940, expecting an easy and quick victory. Mussolini made the mistake to believe that Great Britain would accept peace agreements with the Axis, after France's surrender, and did not anticipate a long lasting war. Consequently, Italy entered the war inadequately prepared.

The opportunity was missed by the Italians to occupy poorly defended Malta in June 1940: Admiral Carlo Bergamini later claimed that he had proposed to send the "Taranto Naval Squadron" to occupy the island, but had been told to postpone the attack . He later regretted (in 1943) the lost opportunity to control the central Mediterranean and thus reduce the heavy losses suffered when supplying Italian forces in Libya.

Italy's entry into the war, and the defeat of France, radically altered the balance of power in the Mediterranean Seamarker. Britain controlled only Gibraltar in the west; Malta at the centre; and Cyprusmarker, Egyptmarker, and Palestine in the east. Vichy France was susceptible to Axis pressure. So the coast of North Africa from Moroccomarker to Tunisiamarker, the island of Corsicamarker, the coast of Syriamarker and Lebanonmarker, and the Mediterranean coast of France itself were closed to the British and possibly hostile. The French fleet itself also became a potential threat and had to be neutralised leading to Operation Catapultmarker. The destruction of the French fleet further hardened French antipathy towards Britain.

Spain was also a potential Axis partner. The Fascist and Nazi governments in Italy and Germany had enthusiastically supported General Franco in the Spanish Civil War and might expect support in return (see Spain in World War II).

Italy and its possessions dominated the central Mediterranean and Mussolini wanted some victories in North Africa against the British forces in Egypt. There was also the potential of linking with Italian possessions in East Africa: Abyssiniamarker, Somaliland, and Eritreamarker. But this did not occur. The Italian army in North Africa was poorly equipped and poorly commanded. In September 1940, the Italians invaded Egypt but did not advance far beyond the border. In December, during Operation Compass*, the Italian forces in Egypt and Cyrenaica were captured, routed, or destroyed.

Control of the sea routes remained vital. British naval and air forces based on Malta threatened and destroyed supplies for Italy's African army. Malta acted as a forward defence for the Suez Canalmarker. The Italians still thought the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) and the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) would quickly isolate the island and neutralise it.

Malta's supply line was crucial. Malta needed reinforcements. The garrison had to be sustained; and the air and naval forces needed fuel. The civilian population also had to be provided for. Everything had to come by sea, exposed to air and naval attack for long stretches. The Italians attempted to starve Malta and destroy its defences.

They failed. During 1940, without air cover from French territories, several supply convoys arrived safely at Malta, and other convoys passed directly between Gibraltar and Alexandriamarker. The attacks the Italian Navy attempted were repulsed without serious loss. Even worse for the Italians, Fleet Air Arm aircraft sank three Italian battleships in the harbour at Tarantomarker, negating one of the Italians' advantages.

German involvement

In January 1941, responding to the serious situation of Italian forces after the loss of Cyrenaica (Operation Compass), the Germans sent help. The Afrika Korps was formed and sent to Libyamarker in Operation Sonnenblume ("Operation Sunflower"), and X. Fliegerkorps of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) was moved to Sicily ("Operation Mediterranean", Operation Mittelmeer) to protect the Axis shipping lanes and to defeat the British forces in Malta.

German involvement was not only more vigorous than the Italian, but because of the occupation of Greecemarker and Cretemarker, it had a greater reach into the eastern Mediterranean. British forces came under increased threat. The pressure built and, in early 1942, Malta ceased to be an effective anti-convoy base. Several warships were sunk in harbour and others were withdrawn. Supplies dwindled with the loss of convoys .

In August 1942, when Malta was near capitulation, the Italians and Germans planned the invasion of Malta (Operazione C3 and Operation Herkules). But it was not made because Rommel (after the conquest of Tobrukmarker) preferred to attack Alexandriamarker in Egypt.

1940

July 1940

The inconclusive Battle of Calabriamarker took place between the Royal Navy (the battleships Warspite, Malaya and Royal Sovereign, the aircraft carrier Eaglemarker with cruisers and destroyers) covering convoys from Malta to Alexandria and the Regia Marina escorts (two battleships, 14 cruisers and 32 destroyers) of an Italian convoy.

August 1940 – Operation Hurry

Twelve Hurricane fighter aircraft were flown off Argus to reinforce Malta.

September 1940 – Operation Hats

The Mediterranean Fleet escorted a fast convoy of three transports from Alexandria and collected another convoy from Gibraltar. En route, Italian airbases were raided. The Regia Marina had superior forces at sea, but avoided the opportunity to exploit their advantage.

October 1940

A heavily escorted convoy from Alexandria (MB6) reached Malta safely. The escort included four battleships and two aircraft carriers. An Italian attempt against the returning escort employing destroyers and torpedo boats ended in the Battle of Cape Passeromarker.

November 1940 – Operations Judgement, White and Collar

A supply convoy from Alexandria arrived safely, coinciding with a troop convoy from Gibraltar and the air attack on the Italian battlefleet at Taranto (Operation Judgementmarker).

Twelve Hurricanes were flown off Argus to reinforce Malta (Operation White). But the threat of the Italian fleet prompted a premature fly-off from Argus and its return to Gibraltar. Eight of the planes ran out of fuel and ditched at sea. Seven airmen were lost.

A fast convoy sailed from Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria (Operation Collar). It was attacked by the Italian fleet at Cape Spartivento. All transports arrived safely.

1941

January 1941-Operation Excess

Operation Excess took place – a sequence of simultaneous supply convoys from Gibraltar and Alexandria. The transports arrived safely but the Royal Navy lost two cruisers and a destroyer. This was the first action to involve the German Air Force (Luftwaffe).

March

A small convoy arrived at Malta from Alexandria.

April

In two separate operations, the British reinforced Malta's air defences. Twenty-four Hurricanes were flown off Ark Royal, sailing from Gibraltar (Operation Dunlop). Blenheim bombers and Beaufighter were also flown in. Three battleships and an aircraft carrier covered the fast transport HMS Breconshire from Alexandria to Malta.

Malta's importance as a base was emphasised by the complete destruction of an Afrika Korps convoy and its Italian escortmarker near the Kerkennah Islands.

May – Operation Tiger

An urgent supply convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria coincided with reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet, two small convoys from Egypt to Malta, and 48 more Hurricanes flown off Ark Royal and Furious. The only loss was the 9200 tn transport Empire Song, which hit a mine and sank with a cargo of 57 tanks, 10 aircraft and several trucks.

The Luftwaffe transferred much of its strength from Sicily to prepare for the invasion of the USSR, relieving some of the pressure on Malta.

The Malta-based submarine Upholder attacked and sank the large Italian troop transport SS Conte Rosso.

June – Operation Tracer

Supply convoys became very difficult, with Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica bases in Crete and Libya attacking convoys from Alexandria, while convoys from Gibraltar were attacked from Sardinia and Sicily.

Submarines brought in urgent supplies. Ark Royal, Furious and Illustrious flew off 48 aircraft to Malta (Operation Tracer).

July – Operation Substance

Six transports ran from Gibraltar to Malta, escorted by six destroyers and covered by Ark Royal, Renown, Nelson, cruisers, and destroyers (Operation Substance). On 23 July, south of Sardinia, there were sustained Italian air attacks. One cruiser was hit and a destroyer sunk. The 11,000 tn steamer Sydney Star was torpedoed by an Italian MAS boat and crippled, but the destroyer HMAS Nestor assisted her safe arrival to harbour. Eventually, all the transports reached Malta and an Italian raid to sink the transports in Grand Harbour failed.

August – Operation Style

A naval convoy from Gibraltar successfully carried in reinforcements and supplies, sinking an Italian submarine en route.

September

Ark Royal and Furious flew off over 50 Hurricanes to Malta in two separate operations.

Two large Axis transports were sunk by the submarine Upholder.

September 1941 – Operation Halberd

Nine transports ran from Gibraltar to Malta, escorted by Nelson, Rodney, Prince of Wales and Ark Royal (Operation Halberd). The Italians sailed to intercept but aborted and returned home. The British capital ships returned to Gibraltar, with Nelson damaged by a torpedo. One transport was sunk, but the rest reached Malta.

October

Force K was formed at Malta to strike at Axis shipping. It consisted of two cruisers (Aurora and Penelope) and two destroyers (Lance and Lively).

November

Force K intercepted an Italian convoy off Cape Spartivento and sank all seven transports. Two Italian destroyers were also sunk.

More Hurricanes were flown off from Ark Royal and Argus, sailing from Gibraltar (Operation Perpetual, 10-12 November 1941). On the return leg, Ark Royal was torpedoed by U-81marker and sank next day.

December – First Battle of Sirte

Force K sank an Italian destroyer. An Italian battlefleet covered a convoy bound for Benghazimarker . A flotilla from Alexandria planned to link with Force K from Malta, but the submarine Urge torpedoed and damaged the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto and the Italians retired.

The Breconshire was escorted from Malta by Force B to rendezvous with Force K near the Gulf of Sirtemarker. Soon after, the British came across Italian battleships escorting a convoy to Tripolimarker. The ensuing engagement is known as the First Battle of Sirte.

After seeing Breconshire safely into Malta, Force K sailed again to search for the Tripoli convoy. While off Tripoli, they ran into a minefield. Neptune and Kandahar were sunk, and Aurora and Penelope were damaged.

1942

January 1942

Three small convoys arrived at Malta from Alexandria. One escorting destroyer, Gurkha was torpedoed by German submarine U-133 and sank.

Two large Italian convoys got through to North Africa to resupply the Afrika Korps

February 1942

During the continuing heavy German air raids, Maorimarker was sunk in Malta's Grand Harbour.

Three transports from Alexandria (Operation MF5) failed to reach Malta. Clan Chattan was sunk by Axis aircraft, Clan Campbell was bombed and forced to seek shelter in Tobruk, and Rowallan Castle was disabled. Rowallan Castle was scuttled by HMS Lively after the escort was warned that the Italian battleship Caio Duilio had sailed from Taranto to intercept the convoy.

March 1942 – Operation Spotter

Eaglemarker and Argus successfully flew off the first Spitfire reinforcements for Malta. An earlier attempt had been abandoned due to technical problems.

March 1942 – Operation MG1 and the Second Battle of Sirte

A Malta convoy in the Gulf of Sirte


Four fast transports sailed from Alexandria, escorted by cruisers Cleopatra, Dido, Euryalus, and Carlisle, and destroyers. Other destroyers sailed from Tobruk, sweeping for submarines before joining the convoy; one was sunk. In all, there were 16 destroyers.

The convoy was intercepted and effectively scattered by the Italian fleet, despite a spirited and successful defense against the battleship Littorio. Two transports reached Malta, but all four were sunk at sea or at anchor by German aircraft before unloading had been completed.

April 1942 – Operation Calendar

The island had ceased to be an effective offensive base, and Axis convoys were mostly untroubled. Several submarines and destroyers were bombed and sunk in harbour, and naval units were ordered to leave for Gibraltar or Alexandria. Not all arrived safely.

Forty seven Spitfires were flown off to Malta from the US carrier Waspmarker (Operation Calendar), escorted by battlecruiser Renown, cruisers Cairo and Charybdis, and six British and US destroyers. Most of these aircraft were destroyed on the ground by bombing.

May 1942 – Operations Bowery and LB

The submarine Olympus struck a mine and sank while leaving Malta.

64 more Spitfires were flown off to Malta from USS Wasp and HMS Eagle (Operation Bowery). A second batch of 16 were flown in from Eagle (Operation LB).

June 1942 – Operations Harpoon and Vigorous

The arrival of more Spitfires from Eagle and the transfer of German aircraft to the Russian Front eased the pressure on Malta, but supplies were needed.

Two convoys sailed simultaneously: one of 11 transports from Haifamarker and Port Saidmarker (Operation Vigorous), and one of six transports from Gibraltar (Operation Harpoonmarker). Both had strong naval escorts. Strong Axis naval and air forces attacked both convoys. Two of Harpoon's transports reached Malta for the loss of four transports and two destroyers (Bedouin and Kujawiak).

Vigorous was heavily attacked by aircraft, torpedo boats and submarines over four days, threatened by a strong Italian battlefleet, and eventually returned to Alexandria. No transports reached Malta, and a cruiser (Hermionemarker), three destroyers (Hasty, Airedale and Nestor), and two transports were sunk. The Italian battleship Littorio and cruiser Trento were damaged by air attacks, and Trento was later sunk by submarine HMS Umbra.

July 1942

More Spitfires were flown off to Malta from Eagle.

August 1942 – Operation Pedestal

The supply situation had become critical, particularly aviation fuel. The largest convoy to date was assembled at Gibraltar (Operation Pedestal). It consisted of 14 transports, including the large oil tanker Ohio. These were protected by powerful escort and covering forces: 44 warships, including three aircraft carriers (Eagle, Indomitable, and Victorious) and two battleships (Nelson and Rodney). A diversionary operation was staged from Alexandria.

The convoy was attacked fiercely. Three transports reached Malta on 13 August and another on 14 August. Ohio arrived on 15 August, heavily damaged by air attacks, and under tow by destroyers Penn and Ledbury. The rest were sunk. Ohio later broke in two in Valetta Harbour, but not before much of her cargo had been unloaded. An aircraft carrier (Eagle), two cruisers (Cairo and Manchester) and a destroyer (Foresight) were sunk, and there was serious damage to other warships. The Italian losses were two submarines and damage to two cruisers.

This convoy, especially the arrival of the Ohio, was seen as Divine intervention by the people of Malta. The 15th of August is celebrated as the feast of St. Mary's Assumption and many Maltese attributed the entrance of the Ohio into Grand Harbor as answer to their many prayers. It had been agreed by military commanders at the time that if supplies became any lower, they would surrender the islands. At that time to extend the supply of bread they used to mix flour with potato peels and make a kind of brown bread. The situation was so dire that bread became white again as there where no more potato peels to add to flour. Many sources say that supplies left where for only 10 days.

The supplies eased the situation, but did not solve it, and more were brought in by submarines. More Spitfires were flown off from Furious.

September 1942

The submarine Talisman was lost on a supply run from Gibraltar.

October 1942

Furious flew off more Spitfires for Malta. Essential supplies were still needed. Deliveries were made by submarines or fast Abdiel class minelayers.

The Second Battle of El Alameinmarker began, and the Malta-based air and sea forces significantly reduced critical supplies reaching Axis forces in North Africa.

November 1942 – Operation Stoneage

Minelayers Welshman and Manxman made successful supply runs. Later that month, a convoy of four transports escorted by three cruisers and ten destroyers reached Malta from Alexandria (Operation Stoneage). The cruiser Arethusa was seriously damaged and returned to Alexandria. This successful operation is seen as the "Relief of Malta".

December 1942 – Operation Portcullis

Four transports arrived from Port Saidmarker, without loss.

Aftermath

There were 35 major supply operations to Malta from 1940 through 1942. Axis forces frustrated or inflicted losses on eight of these: Operations White, Tiger, Halberd, MF5, MG1, Harpoon, Vigorous, and Pedestal. There were long periods when no convoy runs were even attempted, and only a trickle of supplies reached Malta by submarine, or by a fast warship running the gauntlet.

The worst period for Malta was from December 1941 to October 1942, when Axis forces had the upper hand, achieving complete air and naval supremacy in the central Mediterranean (called the Italian Mare Nostrum by Benito Mussolini).

At the end of 1942, the relative success of Operation Pedestal, and Allied land operations in North Africa changed the balance decisively in favour of the Allies.Axis forces in North Africa were being squeezed between the British Eighth Army, advancing from Egypt, and the Anglo-American First Army advancing from Algeria. Convoys henceforth had protection from North Africa airstrips. Malta regained its role as a forward offensive base. Axis convoys were attacked day after day. The later invasions of Sicily and Italy were supported from Malta.

Notes and references

  1. Di Cirella, Arturo. Per l'onore dei Savoia. 1943-1944: da un superstite della corazzata Roma. Mursia Editore. Milano, 2003
  2. Operations
  3. red-duster.co.uk Homepage for the red duster merchant navy maritime information archive
  4. http://www.naval-history.net/xAH-MaltaSupply01b.htm
  5. Kurowski, Franz: Panzer Aces II: Battle Stories of German Tank Commanders in World War II. Translated by David Johnston. Stackpole Books, 2004, page 211. ISBN 0811731758
  6. Woodman, Richard: Malta Convoys:1940-1943. John Murray Ltd., 2000, pp. 285-286. ISBN 0719557534


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