In September and October 1941, Malta, which had by then become a prime target for Italian and German bombers, continued to be reinforced by air and sea: fighter aircraft for the defence of the island and also another convoy to strengthen the garrison. Although air raid alarms had decreased in September, they became more frequent in the following month. At the same time, Axis convoys to North Africa were still being intercepted by air and sea from Malta.
Early in September, fighter aircraft were delivered to Malta. HMS Ark Royal sailed from Gibraltar on September 9, where during Operation Status I it flew 14 Hurricanes to Malta, and later proceeded to Egypt. Twelve Hurricanes remained aboard the aircraft-carrier. The only two Bristol Blenheims that left Gibraltar guided the 14 Hurricanes to Malta.
Then on September 13, during Operation Status II, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Furious flew off a further 46 Hurricanes to Malta. During this delivery one Hurricane crashed while taking off from Furious; it caught fire and was catapulted into the sea, but the rest reached the island safely. After their arrival, 23 of them flew on to Egypt.
In mid-September the submarines of the 10th Flotilla operating from Malta registered one of their biggest successes against the Axis convoys sent to reinforce the German Afrika Korps, led by General Erwin Rommel, in Libya. On September 17, a large Italian convoy was reported to have left Taranto; it comprised the troopships Oceania, Neptunia and Vulcania. The Royal Navy submarines Unbeaten, Upholder, Upright and Ursula were ordered to sail.
In the early morning of September 18, Upholder (Lt Cdr David Wanklyn) spotted the convoy and fired four torpedoes. Two hit the19,475-ton Neptunia and one hit the 19,507-ton Oceania. The submarine dived but later resurfaced firing two torpedoes against the stricken Neptunia, which sank in eight minutes. Two of the troopships were sunk, while Vulcania, although damaged, succeeded in reaching Tripoli. 400 out of a total of 6,900 troops perished.
Seven days later, Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister and Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law, recorded in his diary the heavy losses sustained by Italy in terms of merchant shipping in the Mediterranean, probably referring to this episode: “Actually, the Mediterranean situation is dark, and will become even more so because of the continued loss of merchant ships. Commander Bigliardi, who is in the know and is a reliable person, says that in responsible naval circles they are seriously beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t decide to give up Libya, rather than wait until we are forced to do so by the complete lack of freighters…”
On October 1, he continued: “A conference with Admiral Ferreri. He is concerned about the fate of Libya, especially if the sinking of our merchant ships continues to be as heavy as in September. While in the past the percentage of ships lost had reached a maximum of five per cent, in September it jumped to 18 per cent…”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in his six-volume memoir ‘The Second World War’, also mentioned the heavy losses suffered by the Axis during this period. He clearly shows the importance of Malta for the Allied cause: “…during the three months ending in September, 43 Axis ships, of 150,000 tons, besides 64 smaller craft, were sunk on the African route by British aircraft, submarines and destroyers, acting from Malta. In October, over 60 per cent of Rommel’s supplies were sunk in passage…”
Churchill also said that during this time, the German admiral serving with the Italian High Command reported that “now, as ever, the British fleet dominates the Mediterranean. The Italian fleet had been unable to prevent operations by the enemy’s naval forces, but, in co-operation with the Italian air force, it did prevent the Mediterranean route being used for regular British convoy traffic…
“The most dangerous British weapon is the submarine, especially those operating from Malta. In the period covered there were 36 submarine attacks; of these, 19 were successful… Owing to the weakness of the Italian air force in Sicily, the threat from Malta to the German-Italian sea route to North Africa has increased in the last few weeks…”
Due to these heavy losses, Hitler decided to send U-boats to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. Two submarine bases were set up at La Spezia, Italy, and at Salamis in Greece for submarines in the eastern Mediterranean. The first U-boat to arrive in the Mediterranean was U-371 on September 21, followed by U-97 and U-559 on September 26, and U-331 on September 29. In October two others arrived: U-75 on October 3 and U-79 two days later.
Meanwhile, Malta received more reinforcements when the British Admiralty decided to send the convoy Operation Halberd, which consisted of nine merchant ships: HMS Breconshire, Ajax, Clan MacDonald, Clan Ferguson, Imperial Star, City of Lincoln, City of Calcutta, Dunedin Star and Rowallan Castle. The convoy sailed on September 24, 1941, from Gibraltar, with a close escort under the command of Rear Admiral Harold Martin Burrough. It was also accompanied by Force H, under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville. This consisted of the aircraft-carrier Ark Royal, the battleships Nelson, Rodney and Prince of Wales, five cruisers and 18 destroyers.
The Italian fleet attempted to intercept the convoy on September 26, north of Cape Ferrol, but it had already passed. When the convoy was approaching Sardinia, Italian torpedo bombers succeeded in hitting the bows of HMS Nelson which was seriously damaged on September 27. In the evening, Somerville’s Force H turned back and sailed for Gibraltar and Burrough in HMS Kenya was left to escort the convoy through the Skerki Bank.
During the night, the Imperial Star was hit by Italian torpedo bombers from Pantelleria, but after an attempt to tow the merchant ship, it was sunk by HMS Oribi. The convoy reached Malta on September 28, 1941, delivering 60,000 tons of supplies. The ships between them carried 2,600 service personnel.
During the late summer and early autumn of 1941 the Regia Aeronautica stepped up its attacks on Malta following the heavy losses sustained by Italian merchant ships.
The Axis, especially the Germans, knew this could seriously hamper their chances of winning the war in North Africa. From September 1941, there were 31 air raid alerts over Malta, and they nearly doubled to 57 in the following month.
According to Royal Artillery statistics, during September 1941, 78 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta, mostly during nocturnal air raids. However, in October this went up to 96 tons. It is interesting to note that during this time the Italian air force employed a new fighter aircraft, the Macchi MC202 Folgore, which appeared over Malta for the first time on October 1, 1941.
To strengthen the naval forces operating from Malta against Axis convoys, the British Admiralty, at Churchill’s insistence, decided to send a small force to Malta consisting of cruisers and destroyers. This squadron, known as Force K, arrived in Malta from Gibraltar on October 21, 1941. It consisted of the cruisers Aurora and Penelope and the destroyers Lance and Lively.
The presence of Force K immediately caused problems to the Italians and, in fact, on October 22, all sea traffic across the central Mediterranean was temporarily suspended until adequate cruiser protection for their convoys could be organised.
Mr Debono is the curator of the National War Museum, Valletta.
This article first appeared on The Sunday Times of Malta, 25th October, 2012