Episodes & Studies Volume 2
CUTTING THE AXIS SUPPLY LINES
CUTTING THE AXIS SUPPLY LINES
THE STORY of the air war in Malta, once the air defence of the island had been established, was essentially one of naval co-operation. During the second half of 1941, as Malta enjoyed a respite from German air attack, this theme became dominant. By June the pendulum of Mediterranean land warfare had swung eastward; the Afrika Korps had by-passed Tobruk and recaptured Cyrenaica, and Greece and Crete had fallen. A British counter-offensive into Cyrenaica was being planned for the end of the year, and the next six months were to decide to what extent British sea and air attack, by cutting the Axis supply lines to North Africa, could support it.
There were two main enemy shipping routes, the new eastern route between Crete and Benghazi, where there was little more than 200 miles of open sea to cross, and the western route from Naples page 11 to Tripoli. Royal Navy submarines and light surface craft, and Swordfish torpedo-bombers of the Fleet Air Arm, whose pilots won a high reputation for the courage and accuracy with which they handled these obsolescent ‘Stringbags’, were responsible for most of Malta's shipping strikes. The Royal Air Force on the island was still not strong enough in numbers nor did it possess a satisfactory type of aircraft for anti-shipping attacks, and its main contribution was reconnaissance of enemy ports and convoy movements. Air reconnaissance was applied extensively whenever it was learned that a convoy was in preparation, and in this way the Air Officer Commanding and the Royal Naval authorities obtained a full picture of the port organisation at Naples and Brindisi on the Italian mainland, at the Sicilian and Greek intermediary ports, and at the North African ports of discharge. It was rarely that an enemy convoy sailed to North Africa without the knowledge of the Malta authorities, and rarely were its whereabouts at sea unknown for long. Flying-Officer J. R. Bloxam10 flew consistently in the Glenn-Martin Maryland aircraft* of No. 69 Squadron, which was Malta's chief means of sea reconnaissance. These aircraft were fast and reliable and carried a rear gunner, so that the squadron could make its sorties in the wide sea area bounded by Tripoli, Sardinia, Naples, and Greece, largely with impunity.
On 15 April Bloxam shadowed a convoy of five merchant vessels escorted by three destroyers off the island of Pantelleria, north-west of Malta. As a result of his reports, a destroyer force led by Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten was directed to the target; Bloxam later reported all the merchant vessels and two destroyers lying beached on the Kerkennah Banks off the Tunisian coast. On 25 June he tracked an important convoy of four merchant vessels, each of 15–20,000 tons, escorted by six destroyers, which was passing through the Straits of Messina. Following on his report, each aircraft of his squadron was promptly armed with two 500-lb. bombs and ordered to attack. The squadron lost one aircraft but achieved no definite results. The convoy eluded naval attack and crossed the Mediterranean. Three days later, however, Bloxam led a dusk patrol of three Marylands which found the convoy off the North African coast near Tripoli. In a dive-bombing attack at least one 15,000-ton Italian troopship was left on fire.
For its attacks on shipping the Royal Air Force relied in the main on a daylight offensive by pairs of Blenheim aircraft. This form of attack proved extremely hazardous, just as it had done over the North Sea and the English Channel. There was small hope of cloud cover, and the tactics employed were to fly low over the sea directly at the target ship. Over the ship, and at mast height, the Blenheims dropped a closely spaced stick of four 250-lb. bombs, which were fitted with eleven-second delay fuses to allow the aircraft to escape the blast. But the Axis soon armed their ships more heavily, and the Blenheims became an easy target. Their losses rose until they had to be largely withdrawn from this work and used only against enemy convoys of extreme importance—the average life of a Blenheim crew on this duty was one month. There was some relief with the formation of a Naval Co-operation Group in Middle East Command, and with Malta these additional Blenheim squadrons struggled to close the central gap through which Axis shipping was passing. This was becoming increasingly important, for in North Africa the long-awaited British offensive was due to begin in November.page 12
On 18 August Pilot-Officer J. Buckley11 attacked a 9000-ton merchant ship which had run aground off the island of Lampedusa as a result of an attack by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish aircraft. A swarm of destroyers, torpedo-boats, and lighters were salvaging the deck cargo of motor transport as the Blenheim made a lone attack through a curtain of anti-aircraft fire. Although wounded on his run-in, Buckley scored hits and set the ship on fire. Subsequent reconnaissance photographs showed that a 700-ton sloop, which was alongside, was also sunk.
Flying-Officer V. Allport12 of No. 18 Squadron sank a large Italian merchant vessel, and on 26 November Flight-Lieutenant E. G. Edmunds13 led six Blenheims of the same squadron on a shipping sweep east of Tripoli. Because of very bad weather only one aircraft was able to stay in formation, but Edmunds, ably assisted by his navigator, flew on with this one accompanying aircraft and covered the 200 miles of sea to the target area. In very bad visibility he located and scored hits on a troopship and an escorting destroyer. On the following day the troopship was seen stationary two miles outside Tripoli. Two days later Flight-Lieutenant Edmunds and the same navigator led another low-level attack on shipping at Navarino Bay in Greece, despite intense fire from the shore and from destroyers at their moorings. A 6000-ton tanker was hit at least six times and left on fire. On 11 December, a week after his immediate award of the DFC, Flight-Lieutenant Edmunds was killed in action. The Blenheims persisted with these hazardous sorties, since the land offensive in North Africa was in a critical stage and every effort had to be made.
As a result of combined air and naval action from Malta, enemy shipping losses in the summer and autumn months between July and October 1941, which were vital to the approaching British offensive, increased considerably. The minimum assessment of North African shipping sunk or damaged by our air and naval forces was 16 per cent for July; by October it was 63 per cent, and approximately half this total was claimed by aircraft. In all, 165,000 tons of shipping was definitely sunk in this period, with a further 75,000 tons added by the end of the year. Vice- Admiral Weichold, the German liaison officer with the Italian Navy, noted that if this rate of loss should continue, the African campaign was bound to die a natural death. Once more the Luftwaffe moved quickly. Field-Marshal Kesselring, an officer with an extremely successful record in Poland and Russia, was transferred with a complete air force, Luftflotte II, from the Moscow area and appointed Commander-in-Chief, South, a position which he was to hold for two years. The bulk of the reinforcement went to Sicily, for the German intention was to dispose finally of Malta, a commitment which the Italian Air Force had again failed to fulfil. The German High Command assessed that ‘from the enemy's (i.e., British) point of view, Malta is the centre of Mediterranean strategy, their aim being to paralyse the German and Italian traffic to Africa, to keep open the sea route from west to east for their ships, and to make possible an attack on Italy’. The period of purely Italian direction of sea warfare in the Mediterranean, which had been governed by Italian defensive strategy and had resulted in the loss of Cyrenaica a second time, came to an end. With the coming of the new year, Malta was to face its longest and sternest test. As early as 22 December 1941, when the victorious Eighth Army was racing to Benghazi and even looking expectantly towards Tripoli, heavy German air attacks on the island's airfields were beginning.page 13
Air Vice-Marshal F. H. M. MAYNARD, CB, AFC, AIR OFFICER COMMANDING, MALTA, 1940–41
‘FAITH’, THE LAST OF MAYNARD'S GLADIATORS, IS PRESENTED BY THE ROYAL AIR FORCE to the people of Malta in September 1943
ACTION OFF NORTH AFRICA
Flight-Lieutenant S. W. R. Hughes (right) was pilot of the Sunderland whose forced-landing on the sea is described on page 8
WRECKED ON THE COAST
The whole party swam or were dragged ashore (page 9)
PRISONERS OF WAR Watched by Italian soldiers the British party tend their casualties on the beach (page 9)
THE ITALIANS CHANGED THEIR MINDS and followed cheerfully towards Eighth Army's lines (page 10)
AXIS AIRCRAFT AT CASTELVETRANO, SICILY, January 1942
The tattered [gap — reason: unclear] flag over the [gap — reason: unclear] at Luqa airfield, [gap — reason: unclear]
General Eisenhower welcomed to Malta by Air Vice-Marshal Park, August 1943
* The twin-engined Maryland aircraft from the United States were a welcome addition at a time when the whole Middle East Command was suffering from a lack of modern types.