“As the re-supply of Libya was getting more and more difficult, the Italians were very pre-occupied with the continuous reinforcement of Malta that their naval and air forces could not constrain. Thus, Mussolini – in discomfort – was forced to ask by towards the end of December 1940 for the help of the German Air force. Hitler agreed and the 10th air Corps with 400 airplanes – single engine J.U. 87, double engine J.U. 88 and Heinkel III, fast and well armed Me 110 and some reconnaissance planes- moved to Sicily.
JUNKERS 87 – STUKA
In theory, that Corps was placed under the orders of the Superaereo, the Supreme Command of the Italian Air force. In reality, the commander of this Corps acted according on his own initiative. The German Air force’s mission was to cooperate with the Italian in attacks against Malta and to protect the transports to Libya.
The importance of this serious reinforcement of the Italian forces was soon to appear. The German Air force attacks against Malta started on January 16,1941 and soon reached 70 to 80 missions per day. These attacks succeeded repeated hits against the British Fleet of the Mediterranean.
On January 7, 1941, the British Fleet left Alexandria with main objective to cover an important convoy that had crossed Gibraltar and had as destination Malta and Piraeus. This operation of the Fleet was combined with the covering of other convoys to and from Malta and to Suda. As usual, the Gibraltar force escorted the convoy till the Sicily Straits and exceptionally in this case 2 cruisers, the HMS GLOUCESTER and HMS SOUTHAMPTON, and 2 destroyers were sent to protect it while crossing the straits and until it was placed under the protection of the main force of the Fleet of Alexandria.
At dawn of January 10,1941, 2 British cruisers encountered off Pantelaria 2 Italian escort destroyers which, in spite of the superiority of the enemy force, executed a torpedo attack against the British. One succeeded to escape with light damages but the other was sunk. It is worthwhile noting that in order to bring that result one of the cruisers, HMS BONAVENTURE, used 75% of her ammunitions. Soon after this encounter HMS GALLANT, a British destroyer, hit a mine that cut-off her prow; She was successfully towed to Malta escorted by cruisers.
Then, while a force of the Alexandria Fleet that included the battleships HMS WARSPITE and HMS VALIANT and the aircraft carrier HMS ILLUSTRIOUS was sailing to meet the convoy, at about 12:30 hours, was unsuccessfully attacked by 2 Italian torpedo boats. Immediately after, 3 German Stuka squadrons appeared and mainly attacked the aircraft carrier, under the heavy antiaircraft fire of the British ships.
The fighters were launched, but they didn’t succeed to gain enough altitude to be to much of a bother.
The British Fleet of the Mediterranean was facing for the first time this form of attack and, as Admiral Cunningham narrates, the excellent experience and the exactitude with which the attack was conducted was causing admiration. In 10 minutes HMS ILLUSTRIOUS had received 6 bombs and was suffering of important human losses and of very serious damages. A bomb also hit HMS WARSPITE, but it didn’t cause serious damage. The aircraft carrier at about 15:30 hours succeeded to sail towards Malta at reduced speed, escorted by the battleships. However, an hour later the attack was repeated with 20 aircrafts but this time the fighters that where in the air shot down 6-7 Stukas and the Fleet had no other damage.
The next day the German air force succeeded more hits against the British Fleet. While the 2 cruisers that had escorted HMS GALLANT were sailing to meet the main force of the Fleet, they were attacked by 12 dive bombers and both were hit. HMS GLOUCESTER suffered heavy damages but was able to continue her course, but HMS SOUTHAMPTON had to be finally abandoned in flames and was sunk with a torpedo.
With the first heavy bombing of Malta on January 16, 1941, HMS ILLUSTRIOUS suffered again some damages. One cruiser and one cargo ship were also hit. New damages were inflicted on the aircraft carrier again during the bombings of the following days. With superhuman efforts she was roughly repaired and sailed at 24 knots towards Alexandria, where she arrived on January 25.
The deprivation of the aircraft carrier’s fighters was a serious blow for the Mediterranean Fleet. As its C.I.C. narrates, the supremacy of the Mediterranean was threatened by a new weapon that was much more dangerous and efficient from all that the British had faced till then. The Italian Air force efforts were insignificant compared to the German Stuka attacks.
However, in spite of the courage and the abilities of the German pilots, they were lacking experience in naval cooperation and were facing difficulties in reconnaissance and detection of naval targets. Thus, when on January 24, a general attack with 113 aircrafts was ordered against the British ships that had been reported off Benghazi, they were unable to find their target. Another group of 25 aircrafts executed an attack, but without serious results. These latter ones lost contact between them and finally 12 reached Benghazi and 4 other were lost in the open sea.
In the meantime, because of the unsuitability of the reconnaissance planes of the Italian Navy, the Italian and German Air Commands decide jointly to redistribute duties. The Navy’s aircrafts was decided to limit their operation to coastal and short distance reconnaissance, while the Italian Air force would take over reconnaissance flights in West Mediterranean and over the supply routes to Libya and the German Air force the Central and East Mediterranean. It was also decided that whenever possible during day light hours both Air forces would provide air protection to the most important convoys. It was however quite difficult for pilots that had no relative training to get used in reconnaissance of naval targets and to use the naval telecommunications system. As it results from later developments of operations, many mistakes and misunderstandings were due to such inexperience.
Another lost opportunity for the Italians in February 1941 is also attributed to the lack of exact intelligence and to the bad organization of the cooperation between the Navy and the Air force.”