“At the beginning of June 1942, the Malta supplies shortages were very important because of the naval blockade of the island, despite the fact that air bombings had been reduced to a minimum.
Rommel had launched his large scale attack on May 26 and his advance was rapid. At that pace he wouldn’t be long reaching the Suez Canal.
While Hitler with his continental mentality considered that if Egypt was seized Malta would be useless for the British and would be abandoned, the later reasoned quite differently. The British leadership was realizing that the loss of this strategic base would signal the definite loss of the war in the Mediterranean. Besides, they were preparing for landing in North Africa and for the success of this operation Malta was precious.
Thus, in mid-June the British launched a new supply operation of the island with two large convoys, one from Gibraltar and one from Alexandria. Because of the importance of this operation the naval forces of Alexandria and Gibraltar were reinforced, all available air forces in the Mediterranean – reinforced in the meantime with American ones- were used, as well as an important number of submarines was being deployed in the Ionian sea and the Central Mediterranean.
Similar measures were taken by the opponent, as soon as he perceived the British plan. The Italians decided to confront the Alexandria convoy with a mighty naval force and the Gibraltar convoy with light forces in the Strait of Sicily. In the areas through which the convoys were expected to sail, about 30 Italian and German submarines were deployed. Italian torpedo boats were patrolling around Cape Bon, Tunisia, and German torpedo boats from Crete were ready to attack the convoy from Alexandria. At the same time important Italo-German air forces were getting ready to attack.
The Alexandria convoy consisting of 10 large ships under the protection of a force of 8 cruisers and about 20 destroyers under Rear Admiral Vian left Alexandria the morning of June 13, 1942. To mislead the enemy the old target-ship HMS CENTURION –camouflaged by the addition of various wooden structures to make-it look like a battleship- joined the force. The Italians however insist that they were not deceived, as they were certain that the British didn’t dispose any battleship for the Fleet of Alexandria. On the other hand the Germans were fooled and bombed the pseudo-battleship.
The Alexandria convoy was detected by enemy reconnaissance as soon as it left port and was air attacked. One cargo ship sunk and another one suffered damages and was forced to sail to Tobruk, Libya. On the evening of June 14, 1942 the Italian fleet left Taranto divided into 2 groups.
The first was formed by the battleships RN LITTORIO and RN VENETO and 6 destroyers and the second by 4 cruisers and 4 destroyers. These forces were also detected as soon as they left port and were subjected to day-time and night-time air raids until they returned to their base.
Admiral Vian reversed course when he was informed of the presence of the Italian Fleet, while at the same time the British were executing violent air attacks against the Italian ships. At dawn of June 15, the cruiser RN TRENTO was hit and was immobilized. It was later torpedoed by a submarine and sunk. The battleship RN LITTORIO was also hit twice from the air with bombs and a torpedo, but damages weren’t serious.
The British Admiral after the RN TRENTO was hit, considering that the advance of the Italian forces was stopped changed again course heading to Malta, while on the contrary Admiral Iachino continued his course to encounter the convoy.
On the British side, 1 cruiser had suffered damages at night after being attacked by a German torpedo boat and at dawn of June 15 a German submarine sunk the destroyer HMS HASTY.
At around 10:30 of June 15, Admiral Vian reversed course again and in the evening of June 16 arrived at Alexandria, when reconnaissance informed him that the Italian Fleet was sailing to meet him. The British ships however continued suffering damages during the whole day of June 15. 2 destroyers were sunk and 2 cruisers suffered damages. In addition, that night, one more cruiser was sunk by a German submarine.
The Malta supply operation from Alexandria had completely failed and British losses were heavy. 1 cruiser, 3 destroyers and 1 cargo ship sunk and 3 cruisers and 2 supply ships damaged. Italian losses were 1 cruiser sunk and RN LITTORIO damaged.
The British Admiral’s decision to return to his base was wise and imposed, given that the air force hadn’t succeeded to neutralize the 2 powerful Italian battleships.
On the other side, the Italian Fleet could have overtaken the convoy the morning of June 16, but in an area very close to Egypt in which the Supreme Command of the Navy didn’t wish to risk. Thus, at 14:00 of June 15, he was ordered to interrupt the chase and remain patrolling near the Greek coasts until it could be definitely determined that the British wouldn’t try again to sail towards Malta.
The other convoy that sailed from west crossed Gibraltar straits on June 12. It consisted of 6 supply ships with as close escort the anti aircraft cruiser HMS CAIRO, 9 destroyers and other smaller units and covering force 1 battleship, 2 aircraft carriers, 3 cruisers and 8 destroyers.
The fast minelayer HMS WELSHMAN used for transports had joined the force and in the last part of the trip sailed alone towards Malta.
On the night of June 13-14 the convoy was attacked by 2 Italian submarines that reported that they had damaged 2 ships. On June 14, a large number of torpedo planes and bombers attacked the convoy and sunk one cargo ship and caused damages to the cruiser HMS LIVERPOOL that was forced to return to Gibraltar.
On the night of June 14, the 7th Italian squadron sailed from Palermo where she was standing-by with 2 light cruisers and 5 destroyers with instructions to be south of Pantelleria, Italy at dawn of June 15. On that same night, as in similar situations, the force covering the convoy changed course towards Gibraltar when she reached Bizerta, while the convoy continued its course towards Malta with its close escort.
It seems that the British were informed about the Italian squadron that had sailed from Palermo, two hours after her departure and it is surprising that they haven’t reinforced the close escort with the covering force in order to neutralize the weaponry superiority of the Italian squadron. According to a version, the British were excluding any probability that the Italians would risk their ships in daylight in an area receiving air plane attacks from Malta.
Thus, as scheduled, at dawn of June 15, the Italian squadron came in sight of the convoy and opened fire. Narrations from sources of the two opponents are confusing and quite contradictory concerning the various episodes of the battle that followed and lasted several hours and at which the air force of the two sides intervened. In addition, as far as the great losses of the British convoy and its escort are concerned, it is not clear whether some of them were due to the Italian Navy and some to the Axis Air force. They must rather be considered as result of combined actions of the two Weapons.
The Commander of the escort of the convoy, when he faced the Italian formation, took the indicated action: He dispersed the convoy and the small ships (minesweepers and patrol boats) towards the Tunisian coast with 4 destroyers for escort, that were protecting her with a smoke screen. He, with HMS CAIRO and the remaining 5 destroyers took position between the Italian force and the convoy.
The Italian Admiral Da Zara on the other hand, detached 2 of his destroyers to attack the convoy and went to battle with the remaining against the HMS CAIRO squadron. The fight between the two main forces was uneven. The British cruiser with 4″ guns had to confront the 6″ guns of the two enemy cruisers. The British destroyers executed a bold torpedo attack from near distance, but were repelled with heavy damages in two of them. They were finally forced to withdraw under the protection of a smoke screen, while the HMS CAIRO was repeatedly hit. On the Italian side, one cruiser suffered light damages.
However, the struggle between the 2 Italian destroyers that attacked the convoy ships and the 4 British that protected them was equally uneven. One of the Italian was critically hit, but avoided the danger of sinking because the British destroyers were asked to rush to reinforce the HMS CAIRO that was in a difficult position.
In the meantime the Italian squadron Commander had sent the 3 destroyers that were escorting him to reinforce the 2 that had been sent to attack the convoy and had thus remained with only the cruisers. On that precise moment, an attack by the British destroyer that had gathered would have had many chances of success. The British however opted to remain provisionally under the protection of the smoke screen, waiting for the execution of an air attack from Malta against the Italian cruisers.
With the recall of the British destroyers that were protecting it, the convoy remained unprotected. It was not only exposed to Italian ship attacks, but not before long it was attacked by the enemy air force and one of the ships of the convoy sunk and another was damaged.
When the British escort Commander was informed accordingly, he gathered all his force and hurried to protect the convoy ships. On the other hand, the Italian Admiral having no information on the moves of the enemy that had disappeared behind the smoke screen assumed that the British had again taken up their course towards Malta and sailed north, towards the opposite direction. The British Commander finding thus his way free from enemy cruisers he indeed sailed towards his destination.
However, because the ships that had been damaged were being towed and if he was to take them the convoy speed would be very slow, he decided to abandon them under the protection of 1 destroyer and 2 minesweepers and to escort to Malta only the 2 ships that hadn’t suffered any damage.
After the recall of the British destroyers that were protecting the convoy, the Italian that had suffered serious damages succeeded to arrive to Pantelleria escorted by 2 destroyers, while the other 2 joined the cruisers. An attack by British torpedo planes against the Italian cruisers was unsuccessful.
When the Commander of the Italian squadron that was sailing north didn’t encounter any enemy ship, he changed again course and sailed southwest towards the position were the convoy ships were dispersed. There he came upon 3 ships that were burning and remained in the area patrolling, hoping that he will encounter more that had been damaged. In reality, those that had been abandoned with their escorts were not far away, but just beyond the southeast horizon. The escort Commander when informed that the Italians were in the area of the damaged ships, he ordered the ships that had remained behind to sail as fast as possible towards Malta. He on the other hand hurried to join them with the HMS CAIRO and 3 destroyers.
The Italian Admiral sunk the 3 burning ships and then interrupted the chase of the remaining and took course towards his base early in the afternoon. He avoided approaching more Malta because he was receiving continuous air attacks, had no air coverage and his ammunitions were starting to deplete.
Air raids against the convoy continued in the afternoon of June 15, but with no results, as the ships were then being protected by fighters from Malta. The British ships suffered more accidents. Because of the battle that had occurred, their arrival didn’t occur with daylight, as planned, but at night and as a result they hit an Italian minefield. One destroyer sunk and 4 other suffered damages, as well as one of the cargo ships that part of his cargo was destroyed. Just one of the supply ships safely reached Malta and the HMS WELSHMAN. From the escorts, the HMS CAIRO and 4 destroyers were still able to sail; they left with the HMS WELSHMAN for Gibraltar where they arrived with no further damages, in spite of being air raided.
This aeronautic battle, even if it concerned relatively small forces, is very characteristic. Many actions of the opponents were successful, but there are points that can be criticized.
Unquestionably, the Commander of the British force was in a very difficult position. Although his force was far weaker than the enemy’s, he had to dispose part of it for the protection of the convoy that he dispersed and to confront the main enemy force with the remaining. It is however questionable if his decision to recall all the destroyers that were protecting the supply ships – thus remaining unprotected against air and sea dangers- was correct. On the other hand however, if the HMS CAIRO team wasn’t reinforced the critical moment and was destroyed, the enemy force would next attack the escorted ships and the result could be even worse. Eventually a good opportunity had arisen during the period that the Italian cruisers remained without destroyer escort, which the British Commander missed as he was waiting for the uncertain results of an air attack against them.
As far as the actions of the Italian Admiral are concerned, at first sight it can be observed that although he disposed power supremacy he failed to destroy all the convoy ships, his main objective. When after the first successful attack against the HMS CAIRO team the later withdrew under the protection of a smoke screen and contact was interrupted, all his forces could have dealt with the convoy ships. By sailing north in the last phase of the battle, he gave the chance to the British to continue their course towards their destination. However, the absence of intelligence on the movements makes it difficult to decide the right actions. It is however strange that although the Air force was executing continuous air attacks against the British ships, they were not informing the naval force on the position of the enemy ships.
At any rate, the result of the whole operation from Alexandria and Gibraltar was catastrophic for the British. Out of the 16 supply ships that had departed from the two ends of the Mediterranean, only 2 reached Malta and one of them with damages. To reach this poor result 1 cruiser, 5 destroyers and 5 supply ships were lost and 5 cruisers, about 10 destroyers and 3 cargo ships suffered damages of various degrees.
This great effort shows exactly the importance that the British placed on retaining Malta, which they finally succeeded. Even that small percentage of supplies that reached its destination was priceless at that time.”