“Following the failure of the Malta supply attempt of June 1942, in July only the minelayer HMS WELSHMAN succeeded to escape from the watch of the enemy aeronautical forces and execute a single trip and transport a few hundred tons of supplies. Thus, given the absolute need to send supplies to the island nad in spite the catastrophic results of the June operation [see: “The Malta supply operation of June 1942” ], the British decided to repeat it in August 1942.
However, because they ignored that the main force of the Italian Fleet was almost immobilized because of lack of fuel, they abandoned the idea to supply from East and concentrated all available naval and air forces to escort a convoy from England, through the Gibraltar Strait.
The convoy was formed by 14 cargo ships and was protected by 2 battleships, 4 aircraft carriers, 7 cruisers and 25 destroyers. These ships crossed Gibraltar in groups between August 9 and 10 and at dawn of August 11, the various groups reunited south of the Balearides and headed towards Cape Bon of Tunisia.
The Italians were informed in time of the presence of the convoy and because of the power of the protecting force, it was necessary to use against her the entire main force of the Italian Fleet. This was however impossible because of shortage of fuel. They therefore decided to organize an attack with all available light naval units and a few cruisers, on one hand and with air forces, on the other. They took the following measures:
Italian and German submarines were deployed between the Balearides and Tunisia, while another group of submarines gathered NW of Cape Bon where they would operate in cooperation with bombers. A series of provisional mine fields was laid near Cape Bon. Torpedo boats would converge along the length of the course of the convoy, between Cape Bon and Pantelleria. Finally, a force of 6 cruisers (3 heavy and 3 light) and 11 destroyers would be standing by to intervene south of Pantelleria, to complete the destruction that all the other measures were to bring. However, as we will see later, this last force was strangely recalled for reasons that even if they can be considered well-founded, could have in any case been foreseen. As far as the rest of the Italian measures are concerned, they have proved very successful.
At dawn of August 11, 1942, a first attack of an Italian submarine against an aircraft carrier was executed with unknown results. In the afternoon, a German submarine had a bright success sinking the aircraft carrier HMS EAGLE.
On the night of the same day, an Italian submarine attacked with unknown results the aircraft carrier HMS FURIOUS that after her aircrafts had flown to Malta was returning to Gibraltar. The destroyer that was escorting the aircraft carrier sunk the submarine with all hands on board.
Air attacks against the convoy started the morning of August 12, south of Sardinia. During these attacks, the aircraft carrier HMS INDOMITABLE,
the supply ship Deucalion and 1 destroyer that was hit by a torpedo plane suffered damages. The destroyer was abandoned the following day and sunk by its crew. The submarines that were patrolling NW of Cape Bon unsuccessfully attacked the convoy in the afternoon. A British destroyer sunk one of the submarines.
At around 19:00 of August 12, as usual, the main part of the British force reversed course towards Gibraltar, while the remaining convoy continued its course towards Cape Bon. This time however the near escort was more powerful than usual, consisting of 3 cruisers, 1 small antiaircraft cruiser and 10 destroyers. Until that moment from the 14 supply ships, 13 were unharmed and only Deucalion that had been bombed was following at a distance escorted by a destroyer.
After a while, 2 Italian submarines attacked the convoy near Cape Bon, launching 4 torpedoes each. The attack was extremely successful: the cruiser HMS NIGERIA, the antiaircraft cruiser and 2 cargos –the Ohio and the Brisbane Star – were hit. The HMS CAIRO sunk and the HMS NIGERIA sailed at low speed towards Gibraltar escorted by 2 destroyers.
The 2 cargo ships were immobilized and were abandoned by their escort, but later after light repairs sailed by their own. These simultaneous hit had however a more general repercussion on the cohesion of the convoy. For quite a while, half of the escorts were busy dispensing help to the ships that were hit. The HMS NIGERIA and HMS CAIRO were the only units that disposed a control center for friendly fighters. Finally, the HMS NIGERIA being the flag ship disposed of communications means that didn’t the destroyer on which the Admiral commanding the convoy boarded, after she sunk.
Not much later, at around 20:30 an air attack followed of bombers and torpedo planes. 2 cargo ships were hit, the one by submarines and the other by a torpedo boat. Then, a submarine torpedoed the cruiser HMS KENYA, but the later succeeded to continue its course. At around 21:30, torpedo planes sunk the cargo ship Deucalion that was lagging behind the convoy, because of the damages that the previous bombing had caused.
At around midnight of August 12 to 13, the remaining ships of the convoy that had been dispersed passed by Cape Bon and entered the area in which 18 torpedo boats were patrolling. It was then demonstrated how successful these small units can become in areas such as the Sicily Straits, weather conditions allowing of course their use. 2 Italian torpedo boats sunk the cruiser HMS MANCHESTER and then torpedo boats executed about 15 attacks against isolated ships and succeeded to sink 4 cargo ships.
When at dawn of August 13, the British Admiral assembled the ships that remained, from the 14 supply ships only 3 were on sight. 8 were sunk, the Dorset had strayed northward and out of the two ships that had been hit by submarine torpedoes –but not sunk- the previous night, the Ohio was lagging well behind the convoy and the Brisbane Star had sailed independently towards Malta, having followed a quite different course from the convoy.
Thanks to this clever action the Brisbane Star succeeded to reach its destination unobserved and without further damages, twenty four hours after the other ships. From the escort ships of the convoy, out of the 4 cruisers only the HMS KENYA remained (damaged by a torpedo), as well as 5 destroyers, the remaining having been sent to Gibraltar with the survivors of the ships that had been sunk.
In the meantime the escort was reinforced from Gibraltar, with the light cruiser HMS CHARYBDIS and 2 destroyers and thus consisted of 2 cruisers and 7 destroyers.
In the morning of August 13, the convoy was again air-attacked; the cargo ship Dorset -sailing at a distance northward of the convoy- sunk and the tanker Ohio was hit and had to be towed to Malta. At 14:30, when the convoy was approaching Malta and was under powerful fighter coverage, the escorts withdrew and the convoy was taken over by minesweepers that led her to the base. The escorts returned to Gibraltar with no further damages, in spite being attacked during their course by air and naval forces.
Thus, 3 supply ships reached unharmed Malta and the next day the 2 that had been damaged, the Ohio and the Brisbane Star.
For just one third of the supply ships to reach their destination, the British lost 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, 1 destroyer and 9 cargo ships. In addition 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers and 2 cargo ships suffered damages. The price paid was heavy, but with only the part of supplies that reached Malta the island resisted and the air forces were re-supplied with fuel, until a radical change of the situation in the Mediterranean in November allowed ease of supply.
During that intermediate period that especially expensive operation didn’t have to be repeated; only small quantities of supplies were sent with submarines and fast minelayers. In addition, from September 1942 it became possible for surface forces –cruisers and destroyers- to use again the base.
The small naval units that were used during the operation acted very well and had bright successes. Italian submarines sunk 1 cruiser and 2 cargo ships and caused damages to 2 cruisers and 2 cargo ships, while a German submarine sunk an aircraft carrier. Torpedo boats sunk 1 cruiser and 5 cargo ships. In addition, the Air force sunk 1 destroyer and 2 cargo ships and caused damages to 1 aircraft carrier and 3 cargo ships. The naval losses of the Axis were, on the other hand, just 2 Italian submarines.
The aero-naval forces of the Axis however, didn’t succeed to complete the destruction of the supply ships and in this case it would have had a very important impact on the whole development of the war in the Mediterranean. In all probability, the destruction would have been completed if, as planned, after the disintegration of the convoy with other means, large naval units were used against the ships that were escaping.
Indeed, in accordance with what was planned, 2 Italian cruiser squadrons and 11 destroyers had left their base at around 19:00 of August 12 and were sailing in the Center Tyrrhenian Sea with instructions to be at dawn of next day in the Pantelleria area. The Italian ships were detected before dark by the enemy air force that kept contact with them. The force continued sailing until midnight of August 12 -13, when it was suddenly ordered by the Supermarina to return to its base. The following explanations are supplied concerning that order:
Because of the important reinforcement of the air forces of Malta, it was necessary to dispose efficient air protection of the cruisers, while at the same time it was necessary to escort the bombers assigned to the operation with fighters. The available fighters however were not sufficient for both objectives and the question was put to deliberation whether the completion of the destruction of the enemy convoy should be assigned to the Navy or to the Air force, each one claiming that honor.
Thus, while the evening of August 12, the naval force was heading to execute her orders, in Rome discussions were going on between the various Italian and German services. As they weren’t reaching any agreement the mater was presented to Mussolini who decided in favor of the Air force and the mission of the ships was cancelled.
In relation to the above, one could argue that at that time the complete obstruction of supplying that strategic base was of such importance that it was justified to undertake any risk, as the British didn’t hesitate in front of any sacrifice to succeed their objective of supplying Malta. Besides, as the cruisers were already sailing in the open sea and during their trip back to their base were exposed to dangers, as it was proved in reality.
In the morning of August 13, near the Aeolian Islands, a British submarine hit with torpedoes the cruiser RN BOLZANO and 1 destroyer. A fire broke up on the cruiser and because one of her powder-magazines was threatened it had to be flooded and the cruiser was grounded on an islet, from where only a month later it was towed to Naples. The destroyer also suffered damages, but succeeded to return to her base by her own means.
Independently of the above opinion, since the basic condition to undertake the operation with the cruisers was securing their air coverage, it is puzzling why the relative discussions between the various services didn’t take place before sending out the naval force and not when she was ready to act. In such a case they have depleted for nothing fuel that was in such scarce supply in the Italian Navy. This case offers one more example of the coordination of operations problems of the Navy and the Air force, when the Navy doesn’t dispose a special naval Air force.
Further, its worth noting that because the British ships disposed a powerful air coverage, although the Axis used about 800 air planes (bombers, torpedo planes and fighters), the results they succeeded weren’t proportional to the size of that force.
If the British were meeting such serious difficulties in supplying Malta, supply conditions of the Axis armies in Libya were becoming more and more difficult, because of increased action of the enemy submarines and airplanes. Their attacks were mainly directed against tankers. In August 1942, none arrived safely to destination. For that reason intensive use was made of destroyers, submarines and other small units –even landing crafts- for the transport of fuel and ammunitions.
In spite of these difficulties, 20,000 tons of supplies and 22,500 tons of fuel reached Libya in August 1942, with important losses however of 25% and 41% respectively. In September, results were better, 77,000 tons of supplies and fuel being transported with 20% losses. In October, 44% supplies loaded for Libya were lost, 46,000 tons reaching their destination. As we previously reported, supplies reaching the rear were late to reach the front and were suffering significant losses during their land transport.
In spite of these difficulties, Rommel undertook an attack on September 1, 1942, but was held in check in four days. Explaining his failure, he once more reported as causes – in order – the new antitank guns and the new tanks of the enemy, the important enemy supremacy in the air and fuel and ammunition shortages. Thus, it appears that the opinion expressed by Admiral Doenitz, that the only responsible for the failure of the Axis in North Africa was the Italian Navy, is not justified.
It is worthwhile noting that Rommel had realized, finally, how different the situation would have been if Malta was seized and passing from Rome at the end of September, recommended the undertaking of a seizure of the island operation. It was however too late and the only that could still be done was a retreat in North Africa to a fortified position; but this also was not done.
Towards the middle of September 1942, the British undertook a complicated amphibian operation aiming at becoming for a while masters of the two more important ports of the Cyrenaica – Benghazi and Tobruk – and destroy their port facilities, fortifications, supply warehouses, airports, etc. If this operation were to develop as planned, results would have been catastrophic for the Axis, because for a short period at least the armies at the front would have been isolated. In this operation various kinds of forces participated: naval, air, landing, commandos, desert units, etc. The main combined operation took place against the port of Tobruk, while desert units advanced from the interior towards both ports. From these units, the one that had as destination Tobruk succeeded to invade by surprise the night of September 13, and seize a gun battery. Thus, allowed a commando unit to land with patrol boats, while other units were landing further away from 2 destroyers. The other land battery resisted and the naval guard of the base succeeded to repel the invaders and oblige them to withdraw early in the morning, without inflicting any damages to the installations. The small Italian ships mooring in the port opened fire against the patrol ships and caused damages to them. Finally, during the withdrawal of the naval forces towards Alexandria, the German Air force sunk the antiaircraft cruiser HMS COVENTRY and caused damages to a destroyer.
The operation against Benghazi had finally to be abandoned, because the force from the interior heading against it met powerful resistance.
It was a bold operation that, even if well planned in all its details, completely failed with several losses. To succeed, absolute surprise that was very difficult to achieve was needed, unless the enemy had neglected any vigilance. The British were of course aware of that, but results could have been so important if the operation succeeded, that they decided to risk.”