“As we have already explained, the situation at sea and air in the Mediterranean was very critical for the British at the beginning of 1942, given that the Axis disposed clear supremacy in weaponry. Malta was being continuously hit and soon any operation of the naval forces stationed there became impossible.
On the other hand, on land, the attack of the 8th British Army was developing satisfactorily. The British had seized in December 1941, the Libyan ports of Derna and Benghazi. However the continuation of the advance was dependant upon the sea transport of large quantities of ammunition and supplies, especially fuel, from Alexandria. On this route enemy submarines were extremely active causing important losses, even at the expense of some own losses.
At the same time, it was necessary to obstruct as much as possible the supply of the Axis forces. The Fleet of Alexandria was now unable to successfully execute such mission and the Airforce was also missing sufficient forces.
Thus, 2 Italian convoys that departed on January 3, 1942, arrived safe in Tripoli, without harassment from the British. As a matter a fact the Italians had disposed a large coverage force including 3 battleships, as they didn’t dispose yet clear information about the results of the attack of the port of Alexandria [see: “The Italian attack against the port of Alexandria” ] and were not aware of the sinking of the battleship HMS BARHAM . The German submarine that had sunk the British battleship had reported the sinking of a cruiser.
These convoys had not been detected by the British reconnaissance, as at that time there was just one reconnaissance plane in operation stationed in Malta.
While the Italians were busy with the above operation, the British succeeded to safely escort a tanker to Malta and another empty-one from there to Alexandria. Towards the middle January 1942, another convoy of 4 ships was dispatched with an escort of light forces, of which 3 arrived safely at their destination. A German airplane sunk one and a German submarine sunk one of the destroyers of the escort. The majority of the supply ships arrived safely because, this time, air reconnaissance and fighter planes from Cyrenaica and Malta had successfully operated.
However, the supply of Malta became extremely difficult when the Axis forces started their counter attack on January 21, 1942 and the advanced airfields of the British were seized by the enemy.
The continuation of the supply of Malta being an absolute must, an operation took place on February 12, 1942, in spite of the dangers that such operation entailed. On that date, a convoy of 3 ships escorted by 7 destroyers and an anti aircraft cruiser, were covered by a force of 3 cruisers and 8 destroyers, left the port of Alexandria. None of the supply ships reached its destination. One that was hit by an airplane on February 13 was sent to Tobruk and the other 2 were later sunk from air raids. The British only succeeded to safely escort 4 empty cargoes from Malta to Alexandria.
For Italians, on the other hand, from the middle of January 1942 the route to Libya was open and remained open till the end of April 1942, when the German Air force started again to withdraw to the Russian front. During that period, large quantities of supplies were transported with very few losses. Thus, in January about 66,000 tons of supplies and fuel were transported without losses and in the following two months 107,000 in total with only 9% losses, mainly due to submarines. In April, when Malta was practically neutralized, convoys were being dispatched with an escort of only 1-2 destroyers and were able to cross undisturbed at a distance of only 50 miles from the island. On that month, 150,000 tons were transported with losses on 1% only. However, from May 1942, when Malta had started to be reinforced, quantities transported were reduced to 86,000 tons and losses reached 7.2%.
In March 1942, during a sortie of the naval forces of Alexandria aiming to attack Italian convoys, an enemy submarine sunk the cruiser HMS NAIAD.
During the first quarter of 1942, British submarines had several successes. They sunk 6 enemy submarines, 1 destroyer and 16 cargo ships and caused damages to several others. These successes were made possible with important sacrifices. In the period from the day Italy declared war till the end of March 1942, 20 British submarines were lost in the Mediterranean.”