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 asU-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.
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.
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.