“The evolution of the military operations in Libya forced Mussolini to accept Hitler’s offer to send a German Army Corps, the famous Africa Korps, to North Africa. The transportation of this Corps and then its re-supply has burdened the Italian Navy with new serious duties.
The transportation started in the beginning of February 1941, and ended at the end of March, practically without losses. Enemy reaction was limited and consisted of airplane and submarine attacks from Malta, constantly under air raids. As the British were successfully reinforcing Malta, it became apparent that this base could play a strategic role relatively to the transports to Libya.
Romel realized the importance of Malta and in July 1941 proposed the seizure of Malta and Tunisia, while simultaneously stressed the need for a strong German air force presence in the Mediterranean, considering that the Italian aircrafts were insufficient, old and not suitable. According to Romel, the Italian Navy successfully escorts the convoys, but lacks sufficient air protection.
The German air force started in February 1941, laying mines in the Suez Canal and whenever ships were sunk the Canal was closed for large ships for several days. It is for that reason that the aircraft carrier HMS FORMIDABLE that was urgently expected to replace HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, had to remain about a month in the Red Sea before finally arriving in Alexandria on March 10, 1941.
The transport to Greece of the British expeditionary Corps started at the beginning of March 1941. Every 3 days a convoy was sent, while for the troops transports cruisers were used. The British Fleet of the Mediterranean was practically completely engaged in escort and coverage duties, during the whole period these transports lasted.
The Commander in Chief of the British Fleet was very preoccupied with this situation and on March 11, when the Germans re-occupied Benghazi, he wrote to the Admiralty that in his opinion the policy of giving help to Greece was correct but doubted that the earmarked resources– especially the air and naval – were sufficient for the specific mission.
There were important ship losses along the North Africa coast. Between Alexandria and Benghazi the British disposed only 16 heavy anti-aircraft guns concentrated in Tobruk, the remaining had been sent to Greece. In total, 30 fighters were available in North Africa against 200 Italian and German. In Malta the situation was critical. A large number of German fighters were flying over the island machine gunning the population in the streets and continuously laying mines in the harbors.
In spite of these difficulties, no loss was recorded during the transportation to Greece of around 68,000 British troops with their transport means, their equipment and supplies. Only small damages were inflicted to ships returning empty or to convoys that were not heading to Greece. It was a noteworthy success that was largely due to the absence of serious enemy reaction. The Italian air force bombed repeatedly the convoys, but the escorts’ fire obliged the bombers to remain in high altitude and thus their attacks were always unsuccessful.
When the HMS FORMIDABLE arrived in the Mediterranean towards the middle of March, it became possible to send to Malta a 4 ships convoy with supplies under the coverage of the Alexandria Fleet. The convoy arrived undistracted, the enemy air force having failed to detect her. However, while in harbor, 2 ships were hit from the air and at the same time 1 cruiser and 1 destroyer were damaged.
Until the end of March 1941, Suda bay hadn’t yet been protected with suitable anti-submarine nets and as a result the British cruiser HMS YORK that was anchored there was hit by 6 Italian explosive motorboats that had been transported by 2 torpedo boats. The cruiser suffered such extensive damages that she remained there half sunk till the end of the war.
Admiral Cunningham referring to that Italian operation writes that while the Italians as a whole showed very little attack spirit and initiative at sea, they disposed men capable for the most daring exploits.”