“The Italian and German leaderships had realized that in order to ensure victory in North Africa and seize the Suez Canal they had to neutralize Malta, especially as Air force basis. Intensive air raids where the prelude of an operation to seize the island, an operation that –as we will see later- was finally abandoned.
The relative preparations started in January 1942. Italian and German armies transported by air and sea were scheduled to be used. Landing was planned to take place under the coverage of the Italian Fleet and the Italian navy undertook the fast construction of about 100 landing crafts, as well as training the naval and army units of attack. At the same time, the Axis sea and air forces undertook a tight blockade of the island, in order to render its supply impossible.
On the other hand, Great Britain was also considering this strategic basis as very important and because it was running out of supplies, it was decided in March 1942 to send again a large convoy. The Council of the Chiefs of Staff in London had decided that this operation had to be undertaken at any cost, as they considered that the supply of Malta was a main mission for the Mediterranean Fleet.
To secure that convoy, every possible measure was taken by the Army, the Navy and the Air force. The Army pretended an attack in order to keep the enemy Air force busy. R.A.F attacked the Cyrenaica peninsula and Crete airports, covered with fighters the longest possible distance and proceeded to air reconnaissance from Libya and Malta.
The convoy consisted of 4 supply ships with a near escort of 1 antiaircraft cruiser and 6 destroyers. It left Alexandria the morning of March 20, followed in the afternoon of the same day by a force of 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers under Rear-Admiral Vian.
6 type ‘Hunt’ destroyers, that the previous night had executed an antisubmarine sweep between Tobruk and Alexandria, joined the force the morning of March 21. During that mission a seventh destroyer of the same type was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk. These escorts of a recent type disposed six 4″ antiaircraft guns and formed a good reinforcement for the antiaircraft protection of convoys.
The morning of March 22, finally, the cruiser HMS PENELOPE and one destroyer from Malta joined the convoy. Until that moment – when the convoy had passed through the especially dangerous area between the Cyrenaica and Crete and was at a distance of about 250 miles from Malta – no attack had taken place against it.
On the evening of March 21, however, Vian’s force was detected by an Italian submarine and immediately 3 cruisers (2 heavy and 1 light) with 4 destroyers were ordered to leave Messina and from Taranto the battleship RN LITTORIO –under the C.I.C. of the Fleet – with 4 destroyers. The RN LITTORIO force was detected by a British submarine patrolling south of Taranto but, because of the critical situation in Malta, the local reconnaissance couldn’t follow its movements.
Starting the morning of March 22, and after the last fighter had left, the British formation was intensively and repeatedly bombed by enemy air forces. During the morning, the British formation’s mighty anti-aircraft guns relatively easily repelled Italian torpedo planes attacking from a long distance. Later however, when the German Air force arrived, the protection of the convoy became difficult.
Admiral Vian was determined, even if he was to face mighty surface forces, to pursue his course towards his destination applying the following plan:
4 cruisers and 11 Fleet destroyers organized in 5 teams acting independently would create a smoke screen between the convoy and the enemy and in case the later would try to cross it he would attack him with torpedoes. The anti-aircraft cruiser with a type ‘Hunt’ escort would be protecting the convoy with a smoke screen, while the remaining 5 escorts were to remain close-by to offer anti-aircraft protection.
At around 14:30, the British force observed northward and at a distance of about 12 miles the Italian cruiser squadron, first considered by the British as battleships. A very strong southeast wind was blowing. Vian applied his above mentioned plan and turned northward, while the convoy with its close-range escorts turned south. As soon as the Vian forces took their distance from the convoy they turned east and produced a smoke screen. The enemy ships opened fire at 14:36 from a long distance, while at the same time trying to drag the British towards the RN VITTORIO. Admiral Vian, when he realized that they were cruisers, sailed towards them still producing a smoke screen. At 14:56 it was the turn of the British cruisers to open fire against the enemy, but the later sailed northward and was soon out of range. Next Vian sailed to join the convoy.
During that time the German Air force had concentrated its attacks against the convoy, from both high and low altitude, but the only result was a high ammunition usage by the escorts.
In the meantime, the RN LITTORIO had joined the Italian cruisers and that was later also noticed by the British. Admiral Vian kept protecting the convoy by smoke screen, which because of the strong southeast wind was extended northwestward. The C.I.C. of the Italian Fleet could have bypassed the smokescreen and contact the convoy, if he had sailed eastward towards the direction of the wind. In addition, he could have sailed in that direction with the RN LITTORIO and send the cruisers in the opposite and thus place the convoy between two Italian forces. He chose to sail full speed westward to interpose between the convoy and Malta because, if he sailed in the direction of the wind with the prevailing strong wave undulation, he would had to reduce speed and lose time. However, with that movement he didn’t succeed his objective, the destruction of the convoy.
For more than 2 hours and until dusk the opponent forces were hiding one from the other behind the smoke screen and were firing intermittently, when spotting an enemy ship. Admiral Iachino didn’t risk his ships by entering in the smokescreen. The British destroyers, on the other hand, executed repeated torpedo attacks coming close up to a distance of 6,000 meters, but with the prevailing sea conditions and the confusion of the smoke screen these attacks were not successful. The British ships suffered several damages, 2 cruisers and some destroyers were hit.
At nightfall the battle was interrupted and at around 19:00 the Italian force withdrew northward. Then, because the destroyers were being damaged by the storm and were unable to remain patrolling during the night, Supermarina ordered the Fleet to return to its bases.
When the Italians withdrew and because it was quite improbable that they would undertake a night attack, Admiral Vian sent the convoy to Malta with the escort of an antiaircraft cruiser and the 6 ‘Hunt’ type destroyers that were joined by 2 ships from Mlata, the cruiser HMS PENELOPE and 1 destroyer, as well as by 2 other damaged destroyers, while himself with the remaining force sailed towards Alexandria. After taking this decision, he received a signal from the C.I.C. of the Fleet saying that “he evidently would consider dispersing the convoy and let it continue its course (with its close escort only) towards Malta”. As Admiral Cunningham narrates, by sending that signal he wanted to take on him part of Vian’s responsibilities.
The convoy Commander ordered the dispersion of its ships, so that each could sail to Malta at top speed, escorted by 1-2 destroyers. The initial forecast was that the convoy would arrive to Malta in the morning of March 23, but sailing southward during the previous day brought a delay and this gave the opportunity to the enemy Air force to attack.
The convoy was protected by fighters, but the escort ammunitions were dangerously depleted and were forced to fire only in case of imminent danger. The ships that Admiral Vian had so skillfully and under such adverse weather conditions protected the previous day were to have a bad end either at the approaches of Malta or inside its port.
The naval tanker BRECONSHIRE (5,000 tons), while sailing at only 8 miles from Malta, was hit by a bomb in the engine room and was immobilized. Then, during the following night it was towed to the port but on March 27 was again hit and sunk. However, an important part of its cargo was saved.
Another ship of the convoy was sunk by the enemy Air force that also caused damages to the escort destroyer, while sailing at a distance of 50 miles from Malta.
Finally, the remaining 2 supply ships were attacked on March 26 from the air inside the port and one of them and a destroyer sunk, while the other suffered important damages. Thus, with the exception of the part of the tanker’s fuel that was saved, from the 26,000 tons of supplies that Malta was expecting in agony, just 5,000 tons were saved. Such was the situation that even if supply ships succeeded with superhuman efforts to reach Malta enough time wasn’t given to them to unload their cargo before being destroyed inside the port.
These damages weren’t the only suffered by the British in that operation. The Vian force ships while returning to Alexandria were not hit by the enemy air attacks, thanks to the fighter planes sent to protect them, but because of rough seas many destroyers suffered damages. As a result, on March 26, 142, the Alexandria Fleet disposed only 2 Fleet destroyers usable, all the remaining being under repairs.
Italian ships suffered even more serious damages, as a result of weather conditions. Two destroyers sunk almost with all hands on and most of the remaining were in need of long overhauls. The fact that weather damages to the Italian ships were much more important is not strange. As it was also noticed by the Hellenic Navy that disposed destroyers of both type, the Italian was inferior to the British in naval capabilities.
The March 22 encounter was the subject of international analyses.
The decisions taken by Admiral Vian cannot be criticized and he was rightfully honored for them. He successfully faced heavy ships with light under heavy air attacks, he absolutely protected the convoy he was escorting, independently of the final outcome for which he is not responsible.
On the contrary, Admiral Iachino’s maneuvers were not the most indicated to succeed his objective, the destruction of the enemy convoy. Maybe he wasn’t totally wrong not wanting to cross the smokescreen with RN LITTORIO, since he didn’t dispose enough destroyers. However, as we have previously mentioned, there were other ways to act that could give many probabilities to destroy the convoy without placing the battleship in excessive danger. It is also worth noting that Admiral Cunningham mentions that the Italian ships’ fire against the attacking British destroyers was exact and that it was by pure chance that their damages were not more serious.
It seems that the Italian Navy failure in that operation had an additional result. The German Air force that in the past was showing little willingness to sincerely cooperate with the Italian Navy, after that encounter was showing even less.”