Convoys were vital to the survival of Malta during World War Two. Malta needed supplies brought in by convoys on a regular basis if it was to survive and provide the Royal Navy with the base it needed in the mid-Mediterranean. There were two convoy routes to Malta. One was from the British base at the port of Alexandria in Egypt. The second was from Gibraltar. Both were very dangerous routes as U-boats patrolled the Mediterranean Sea as did Axis aircraft. The fall of Crete in 1941 had provided the Germans were another place to set up airfields. The sea route between Crete and Alexandria was nicknamed ‘Bomb Alley’ by those who sailed there. When Axis forces retook Libya, the airfields there could also be brought back into play.
On February 12th 1942, a convoy of three freighters left Alexandria bound for Malta. Two cruisers, eight destroyers and one anti-aircraft ship, the ‘Carlisle’, guarded the three freighters ‘Clan Campbell’, ‘Rowallan Castle’ and ‘Clan Chattan’. These eleven ships provided a great amount of anti-aircraft fire between them. However, none of the three freighters made it to Malta. The damage to ‘Clan Chattan’ and ‘Rowallan Castle’ was such that both were scuttled while ‘Clan Campbell’ limped into Tobruk harbour. The Axis aerial attacks occurred when the convoys were too far from Malta for the island’s small Hurricane force to give help – and aerial support was just what the convoys needed. On March 20th another convoy of three freighters left Alexandria bound for Malta. This time Beaufighters escorted the freighters. They got through ‘Bomb Alley’ by the following day. However, the Beaufighters only had a limited range. Once the convoy had got through ‘Bomb Alley’, it had to face an Italian fleet based around the battleship ‘Littorio’, three cruisers and four destroyers. The convoy’s naval escort blanketed the freighters with a smokescreen and were assisted in this by an unexpected gale that made the smokescreen more effective. The Italians were also wary of the torpedoes carried by the British destroyers. However, in the confusion, the Italians did succeed in splitting the convoy. The four freighters were separated but each had a destroyer escort. They were ordered to make to Malta at full speed so that they would arrive at night and under the cover of darkness. However, they arrived at first light on March 23rd just as an air attack on the island was starting. Two of the freighters were sunk – the newly repaired ‘Clan Campbell’ and ‘Breconshire’ – but two did make it into harbour (the ‘Talabot’ and ‘Pampas’) and the crews were given a delirious welcome by the people of Valetta who were in desperate need of the supplies being carried.
Convoys to Malta from Gibraltar were equally as dangerous as they had to face the might of Field Marshal’s Kesselring’s Fliegerkorps II based in Italy as well as U-boats.
However, by June 1942, Malta was desperately short of food and fuel. A decision was taken to send two convoys to Malta – one from Gibraltar and one from Alexandria – at the same time so that Axis forces would be split when they attacked. Five freighters and a tanker sailed from Gibraltar on June 11th in ‘Operation Harpoon’. At the same time eleven freighters sailed from Port Said in ‘Operation Vigorous’. The Royal Navy heavily escorted both freighter convoys. However, facing both were Axis aircraft, U-boats, Italian submarines, MTB’s and in the eastern Mediterranean, the Italian fleet based around the battleship ‘Littorio’. An unexpected complication for ‘Harpoon’ was a report – that proved to be correct – that two Italian cruisers and five Italian destroyers were in the western Mediterranean.
‘Operation Harpoon’ never had the air cover that it needed and had to face almost incessant attacks by German and Italian aircraft. The Stuka’s were especially effective. By the time the convoy got to Malta, only two freighters had survived but they brought with them 15,000 tons of desperately needed supplies.
‘Operation Vigorous’ fared much worse. None of the freighters got to Malta and the Royal Navy lost or had damaged a number of ships such as the cruisers ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Newcastle’. The real damage was done in ‘Bomb Alley’ where once again the Stuka proved very effective.
Out of a total of seventeen freighters that set out for Malta, only two arrived. The loss rate was huge both in terms of freighters and manpower. However, the tide of events was turning in the Mediterranean. The arrival of Mark V Spitfires gave the RAF and Fleet Air Arm a much-needed boost. While these fighters had a limited time in the air and could not help in ‘Bomb Alley’, they could give vital air cover to convoys as they approached Malta. The arrival of Beaufighters, which had a greater range, was also a great boost.
One convoy named ‘Operation Pedestal’ (August 1942) ended with the fuel tanker ‘Ohio’ reaching the Grand Harbour. However, losses on this convoy were also high as the aircraft carrier ‘Eagle’ was lost along with two cruisers and one destroyer. Nine merchant ships were also destroyed or sufficiently damaged that they could not continue the journey. 400 men lost their lives. However, the fuel that ‘Ohio’ carried allowed the island to continue for another three months and in that time Rommel’s power in North Africa declined due to lack of supplies and fuel.