Malta could not fall—and that meant Malta had to be resupplied.
During World War II, the tiny British-controlled archipelago situated only 55 miles southeast of Sicily lay directly athwart the Axis supply lines. Malta-based submarines and warplanes reaped a fearsome toll on shipping, keeping General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps supplied and equipped.
Axis forces were too thinly spread and Malta too fortified for a direct assault. Instead, Germans and Italian warplanes relentlessly blasted the island and every convoy that sought to resupply its beleaguered garrison.
As the Afrika Korps rolled towards Cairo in the summer of 1942, the bombing strategy seemed to be working. When two heavily escorted Allied convoys were dispatched in June from Gibraltar and Alexandria (Operation Julius), Axis bombers and submarines sank six Allied merchant ships, five destroyers and a light cruiser. Only two transports made it to Malta.
By early August the garrison and 250,000 Maltese were reduced to starvation rations. Royal Air Force Spitfire squadrons had only two weeks of aviation fuel—too little to maintain pressure on Axis shipping. Air Marshal Keith Park warned Malta’s garrison would soon have to choose between surrender or starvation.
And if Malta fell, reinforcements and supplies would flow unimpeded to the Desert Fox’s troops in North Africa.
In July, the Royal Navy began organizing Malta-bound convoy WS21S consisting of fourteen merchant ships bearing 85,000 tons of supplies. By far the most important was Texas Oil Company tanker SS Ohio, commandeered by the British in July, and gassed full with 11,500 tons of kerosene and diesel fuel.
Thanks to her 9,000 horsepower Westinghouse turbines, Ohio could maintain a relatively high speed of 16 to 19 knots as the convoy dashed over hundreds of miles of water interdicted by Axis submarines, bombers and warships.
WS21S left Scotland late on August 2/3 and joined the covering force called Force Z under Admiral Sir Neville Syfret with two Nelson-class battleships armed with three triple 16” gun turrets (Nelson and Rodney), three light cruisers and fifteen destroyers.
Three aircraft carriers (Victorious, Eagle and the larger Indomitable) provided air cover with seventy-four Sea Hurricane, Fairey Fulmar, and Martlet (British-operated F4F Wildcat) fighters embarked between them. A fourth carrier, Furious, joined the convoy and launched thirty-eight Spitfires for delivery to Malta on August 11 but didn’t engage Axis forces.
Smoke and Mirrors and Submarines
The Royal Navy sortied submarines, merchant ships and warships on diversionary missions across the Mediterranean to draw Axis attention while Force Z threaded through the Strait of Gibraltar on the night of August 9/10 and refueled at dawn.
But shadowing submarine and reconnaissance aircraft nonetheless alerted the Germans and Italians that something big was approaching via Gibraltar. However, the destination remained unclear, with Axis commanders fearing an amphibious landing at Crete or Tobruk.
In response, the Italian Regia Aeronautica (Royal Airforce) and German Fliegerkorps II amassed 784 combat aircraft on Italy, Sicily and Sardinia: 353 gull-winged Stuka and speedy twin-engine Ju 88 dive bombers, 94 medium bombers, 90 Italian torpedo bombers, and 247 fighters.
The Italian Regia Marina also began maneuvering nine cruisers and seventeen destroyers to intercept the convoy. But when Luftwaffe Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring told the Italians he couldn’t spare fighter cover for the fleet, Marshall Ugo Cavallero withheld the surface forces.
Finally, on August 13 British decoy convoy MG3 launched from Port Said, Egypt lured three Italian cruisers eastward. But the Italian warships bumped into British submarine Unbroken under Lt. Alstair Mars. He had waited in ambush by the Capo Milazzo lighthouse for three days.
Though Italian ships detected and opened fire on Unbroken, the little sub launched a four-torpedo volley in return, blowing a chunk off the light cruiser Muzio Attendolo’s bow and setting the heavy cruiser Bolzano’s magazine ablaze—forcing the crew to flood and beach the stricken vessel.
Dodging a vigorous Italian counterattack, Unbroken laid low underwater for ten hours before slipping back to base at Malta.
Characteristically, the Axis acted more aggressively with undersea forces. On the afternoon of August 11 German U-Boat U-73 under Captain Helmut Rosenbaum crept into the middle of Force Z and slammed four torpedoes into Eagle from only 370 meters away. The 22,000-ton carrier sank in a few minutes with sixteen of her twenty Sea Hurricanes. Nearby destroyers managed to rescue 929 of her 1060 crew while U-73 made its escape.
This inauspicious start was assuaged at dusk when an initial Luftwaffe attack by 30 bombers failed to inflict damage and suffered two losses. Then after midnight, the destroyer Wolverine detected a surfaced submarine on radar. Accelerating to flank speed, she successfully rammed and sank the Italian submarine Dagabur.
British Sunderland flying boats harried the lurking Italian submarine Giada that morning. Though it managed to shoot down one of its assailants, Giada sustained damage forcing it to return to base.
Air War Over the Mediterranean
German recon aircraft were back to shadowing the convoy at 6 AM, flying too high and fast for interception. However, radar picked up the first attack by nineteen Ju-88 Schnell bombers. Flak and fighters sent seven bombers plummeting into the sea before they could inflict damage.
The Regia Aeronautica followed up at noon with a two-wave strike approaching northwest from Sardinia counting 50 deadly SM.84 and SM.79 triple-engine torpedo bombers, covered by eight dated CR.42 biplanes and 38 advanced MC.202 and Re.2001 fighters. The Luftwaffe joined in with 37 Ju-88s and 21 Me-109F fighter escorts, managing to damage the merchant ship Deucalion.
Dive bombers had to fly high above their targets before nosing down in near-vertical dive to release their bombs. Torpedo bombers, by contrast, flew low above the water on a steady course, waiting for the right moment to release their unguided torpedo. Too close or too low and the torpedo wouldn’t arm—too far, and its target had time to evade.
Both methods were terrifyingly difficult as British warships spat huge air-bursting shells from large dual-purpose guns from miles away, while dozens of rapid-firing Bofors and Oerlikon pom-pom cannons stitched streamers of high-explosives shells at closer ranges.
However, carrier-based Sea Fulmars, Sea Hurricanes and Martlets defending the convoy also were endangered by friendly flak, and had to divide efforts between high-flying dive bombers and sea-skimming torpedo bombers. Though reliable, the Fleet Air Arm fighters were out-matched by land-based Me-109 and MC.202s, particularly the ponderous two-seat Sea Fulmars.
But the naval aviators had one key advantage: radar-directed fighter direction capabilities on larger British warships allowed slower British carrier fighters to get the drop on approaching bomber formations, disrupting many attacks in advance.
One elite Special Assault attempted an exotic attack using a remote-controlled SM.79 stuffed full of explosives to kamikaze into a British carrier. But the radio command system failed and the drone crashed into Algeria instead. However, two accompanying Re.2001 fighter-bombers managed to blast the carrier Victorious with fragmentation bombs, killing six crew. All told, though, the massive air strike inflicted only minor damage as flak and defending fighters caused Axis pilots to release bombs and torpedoes too early.
Meanwhile, the convoy cruised into the path of four more Italian submarines waiting in ambush—one that went disastrously off-script. First, at 4 PM, Granito was detected and chased away by the destroyer Pathfinder. A half-hour later, the Emo launched four torpedoes and fled. The convoy’s evasive maneuvers then forced Italian submarine Avorio to abort its attack run.
Finally, the destroyer Ithuriel spotted the submarine Cobalto and blasted it with depth charges until it was forced to surface. The I-class destroyer shelled and rammed the unfortunate submarine—damaging itself in the process—and then rescued most of the Italian crew.
Indomitable versus Stukas
At 6 PM three more waves of Italian torpedo bombers swept in at low altitude, while German and Italian Ju-87 Stukas attacked from on high. This time, Me-109 and MC.202 fighters pinned down the carrier air patrols. By the end of the day, seven British fighters and eighteen Axis warplanes had gone spinning into the Mediterranean.
A dozen SM.79s braved British flak to launch a torpedo from two miles away—striking the destroyer Foresight in the stern. Two attempts to tow the crippled destroyer failed and she was scuttled the following morning.
Meanwhile, German Stuka squadrons howling down from 9,000 feet bounced a bomb off the turret of the battleship Rodney and landed two direct hits and three near misses on the carrier Indomitable.
Stuka pilot Heinz Migeod later recalled in an interview that his squadron disregarded “stiff orders” to focus on the freighters in favor of the carrier. Huge 2,200-pound bombs annihilated a pilot wardroom and several gun turrets, causing a massive fire and killing fifty crewmembers. “[Indomitable] leaned on its side and the aircraft on deck were falling into the sea,” Migeod recalled.
Though able to withdraw under her own steam, Indomitable’s flight deck was out of action, leaving only the Victorious and 21 surviving fighters for air cover. But by 7 PM the hour had come to withdraw the valuable capital ships of Force Z, leaving only Force X (four light cruisers and eleven destroyers) to shepherd the 14 merchant ships on the final, most dangerous leg of their journey.