12 September 1941 – the Tembien Convoy

Added German Navy AA Report Information – 22 September 2018

Introduction

The summer of 1941 was primarily spent trying to build up the Axis forces in North Africa to prepare for the assault on Tobruk and the subsequent invasion of Egypt. While the supply route overall was delivering, with the vast majority of supplies reaching their destination, losses were suffered on a regular basis. I have previously written about the quite harrowing experience of the Malta Blenheim IVs of Nos. 105 and 107 Squadrons engaging the Axis supplies at this link.

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Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, V6014 ‘GB-J’, of No. 105 Squadron RAF Detachment in a dispersal at Luqa, Malta. Canvas covers protect the cockpit and glazed nose section from the sun. From July to September 1941, 105 Squadron was detached from the United Kingdom to Malta, to operate against targets in the Mediterranean and North Africa, losing 14 aircraft during the period. Note the modified gun mounting under the nose. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

Nevertheless, while the loss rate on daytime shipping strikes was brutal, the reward was high, when a fully laden merchant with vital supplies could be sent to the depths of the Mediterranean. This happened on 11-13 September 1941, when the Malta strike forces had a good outing against the 44th convoy with Italian and German supplies, known to the Italians as the TEMBIEN convoy, and also sank the single runner SS Alfredo Oriani. While the loss of three vessels in two days was a remarkable success, it came at a price.

Air/Sea Battle on the North Africa Route 11-13 September 1941

The period saw heavy anti-shipping operations by the Malta-based British aircraft, covering the 11-13 September, with substantial losses on both sides.

The 12th of September 1941 day saw the heaviest anti-shipping operations, with a total of 22-29 aircraft operating out of Malta according to the Malta War Diary, 7x Wellington of No. 38 Squadron in a night attack, 8x Blenheim of No. 105 Squadron in the afternoon, and 7x Swordfish of No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. operating possibly twice during the night and the afternoon.

Losses were heavy, with 3x Blenheims lost, those of S/Ldr Charney D.F.C. with Observer Sgt. Porteous and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Harris, Sgt. Mortimer with Observer Sgt. Reid and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Owen, and Sgt. Brandwood. The latter and his crew were rescued by HM/Sub Utmost on 14 September, and the former two crews were all killed. Another Blenheim belly-landed on Malta due to damage from the naval anti-air fire.

Two ships were sunk, SS Caffaro by No.105 and SS Nicoló Odero by No.38 Squadron, both out of the Tembien convoy. Furthermore, on the 13th the  Italian 3,059t steamer SS Alfredo Oriani, a merchant with an identical name to the escort leader of the Tembien convoy, sank halfway to Benghasi following an air attack while on the way to Benghasi, from Patras, on 11 September, probably again by No. 105 Squadron. Thus, the R.A.F. sent a total of over 15,500 tons of shipping carrying thousands of tons of supplies and hundreds of vehicles to the bottom of the sea.

Based on information from Lorenzo Colombo, who runs the excellent Con la Pelle appesa a un Chiodo blog detailing all Italian vessel losses, the butcher’s bill for the three days was amounted to 26 on the Axis side, to which need to be added six R.A.F. crew members in two of the lost Blenheims and the German army officer who died of wounds in Tripoli, for a total of 33 killed:

  • SS Caffaro carried 228 men, including 168 Germans; 224 survived and four were missing (two Italian crew members and two Germans)
  • SS Nicolò Odero had 285 survivors, the victims were about twenty including 4 crew members (the other being troops and AA crews)
  • SS Alfredo Oriani had 50 men aboard, two were missing and 48 survived.

There are substantial discrepancies between the British and the Italian accounts, which I am aiming to clear up below. A big gap is the lack of an operations record book for No.830 Squadron. I have inquired with the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, but to no avail. I will also add a bit more analysis on the issue of who sank SS Alfredo Oriani.

Official Accounts and Memories

The write up in the Malta war diary is below:

An Italian convoy of steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, BAINSIZZA, NICOLO ODERO, and GUILA[1] departed Naples on the 10th, escorted by destroyers ORIANI and FULMINE and torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, ORSA, and CIRCE from Trapani, and OERSEO[1] which joined at 0600/13th.

Italian steamer CAFFARO (6476grt) was sunk by British Swordfish of 830 Squadron from Malta 105° northwest of Tripoli in 34-14N, 11-54E.

Italian steamer TEMBIEN (5584grt) was damaged by 830 Squadron attack.

Italian steamer NICOLO ODERO (6003grt) was damaged in the attack. She was sunk on the 14th by RAF bombing in 32-51N, 12-18E after the convoy arrived at Tripoli on the 13th.

One of the air crew of No 830 Squadron, Sub-Lt. Campbell describes the attack thus at this link:

12/13.9 – If my memory serves me right this was the night about which the Malta Daily Paper headlined as “Ducks and Drakes in the Med”. The Squadron took off at dusk to attack a large Convoy heavily escorted by Destroyers. We found the Convoy and attacked individualy, splitting it up completely. At least three ships were hit and Destroyers were racing about all over the place. We returned to base and my flight were sent out again to finish off the remaining ships. As we approached the scene of the previous engagement, I saw a Destroyer racing along at high speed. I decided to follow it to see if it would lead me to the remaining ships, this took some doing in a “Stringbag”, if there had been any wind against me I couldn’t have done it. After awhile I saw a large MV and attacked it. There was a bright flash and then it just blew up.

The above two accounts are severely flawed. Fortunately though on the British side, a fairly detailed account by No.105 Squadron has survived, in AIR27/826, the Operations Record Book (ORB) of No. 105 Squadron, and a less detailed account in the ORB of No. 38 Squadron.

11 September

First, the attack that I believe claimed SS Alfredo Oriani on 11 September, even though the timing of the attack reports in the British and Italian accounts diverges by a day, and the British pilots reported another merchant present. Nevertheless, the description of the attack and the location of it and the sinking are so close that I believe No.105 Squadron was responsible for her loss, following a check in the Nos. 11, 14, 55 and 107 Squadron Operations Record Books. The Malta Admiralty War Diary describes the attack thus:

Italian steamer ALFREDO ORIANI (3059grt) was sunk by British Blenheim bombers in 35-05N, 20-16E.

The steamer which had departed Petrasso on the 11th was escorted by torpedo boat CANTORE.

Oriani

SS Alfredo Oriani in peacetime, from Wrecksite.eu

No. 105 Squadron ORB states that five Blenheim IV went out on a shipping sweep at 0645am on 11 September. The attacking aircraft returned at 1211pm, while two returned early at 0750am. Crews were S/Ldr Smithers with Sgts. Harford and Green, F/Lt. Duncan with Sgts. Smith and Lyndall, Sgt. Bendall, with Sgts. Hindle and Brown, Sgt. Mortimer, Sgt. Weston, with Sgts. Storey and Kindell.

Five crews were detailed for an offensive sweep of the Ionian Sea.

The aircraft departed in two waves, the first sighting two MERCHANT VESSELS and DESTROYER escort in position 35°33N. 20°35’E.

One aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER SMITHERS – attacked first dropping bombs from stern to bow and registered a hit amidships.

The other aircraft attacking the same ship claim one hit each but not confirmed.

The MERCHANT VESSEL when last see appeared to be settling in the water in a sinking condition.

The second wave – FLIGHT LIEUTENANT DUNCAN and SGT. MORTIMER – returned with engine trouble.

All aircraft landed safely at BASE.

In the Italian official history, her loss is described thus.

11 September 4am from Patras to Benghazi. Steamer A. Oriani. Escort Escort Destroyer Cantore then Altair (from 1700 hours on 13 September). Attacked  and repeatedly hit by bombers at 1400 hours on 12 September, 60 nautical off Cape Matapan, sinks at 1800 hours on the 13th.

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The position of SS Alfredo Oriani’s sinking is not 60nm, but over 100 nautical miles off Cape Matapan, and about .

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More puzzlingly, at the time of the attack, she would have steamed about 190nm. A solid 17 hours of steaming at 11knots, her top speed. Pretty much impossible in the ten hours since she left port according to the Italian OH. Furthermore, the timing of the No. 105 Squadron operations on that day and the attack timing do not line up. Nevertheless, there is no record of another Blenheim unit attacking a vessel in the Ionian Sea on 11 September 1941.

A possibility would be that the Italian OH is wrong here. It is clearly wrong giving the position of Oriani being attacked as 60nm off Cape Matapan (the actual position of the attack is almost on a  straight line from Patras to Benghazi, while 60nm would be too far east), and is also wrong in giving the position of her sinking as 80nm north of Benghazi. It is therefore not impossible that the time or date of her departure and the actual time of the attack are also wrong. For example, an average speed of 7 knots would have put her almost straight into the attack position around 0800 hours on the morning of the 11th, had she departed Patras on 10 September at 0400 hours in the morning, instead of the 11 September. The location is about an hour and a halfs’ flying time in a Blenheim IV from Malta. Given that No. 105’s Blenheim’s left at 0645 hours, they could have been there at 0815 hours.

RN Cantore5

RN Generale Alfredo Cantore, an obsolete destroyer, downgraded to Escort Destroyer. She was lost on a mine in 1942. Courtesy Wikipedia.

SS Alfredo Oriani sank two days later on 13 September at 35°05’N 20°16’E, about 80 nautical miles north of Benghazi according to the Italian official history, although this position is more like 180 miles north of Benghazi. That position is 19 nautical miles west and 28 nautical miles south  of the attack position given in the No. 105 ORB, indicating that the vessel drifted about 33 nautical miles, or a speed of less than a knot after the attack. It is also physically impossible for Oriani to have made it to the position of the attack if her departure date is correct even if steaming at maximum speed of 11.5 knots. Patras is about 14 hours of steaming as the crow flies, given Oriani’s speed, from the location of the attack. My guess is that the Italian official history is not correct when it comes to the time/day of her departure.

12 September

The first to attack were No. 830 Squadron with their Swordfish, without success.

In the afternoon of the 12th, eight Blenheim IV were despatched by No. 105 Squadron. This time, it did not go so well for them. The crews were S/Ld Smithers with Sgts. Harbord and Fisher, Sd/Ld. Charney with Sgts. Portous and Harris, F/Lt. Ballands, F/O Greenhill, Sgt. Brandwood with Sgts. Miller and See, Sgt. Weston with Sgts. Storey and Kindell, Sgt. Bendall with Sgts. Hindle and Brown, and Sgt. Mortimer with Sgt. Reid and F/O Owen.

Eight crews were detailed to attack a CONVOY attacked by SWORDFISH aircraft the previous night.

The CONVOY was estimated to consist of six MERCHANT VESSELS of 6000 – 12000 tons and six escorting DESTROYERS and was attacked at 1415 hours.

Two aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER SMITHERS and SGT. WESTON – claimed two hits each with 250lb and 500lb bombs respectively. This MERCHANT VESSEL was left a mass of flames and a later reconnaissance report indicated that it had probably sunk.

One aircraft – SGT. BENDALL – attacked a 10000 ton MERCHANT VESSEL and scored two direct hits with 500lb bombs causing a large fire.

Two aircraft – FLIGHT LIEUTENANT BALLANDS and FLYING OFFICER GREENHILL – did not bomb as their approach was obstructed by other aircraft. Anti-aircraft opposition was intense from the DESTROYERS and three MACCHI 200 FIGHTERS and three C.R.42’s were reported diving out of the clouds though no attacks were witnessed.

One aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER CHARNEY – was shot down in flames near the CONVOY with little hope of survivors. One aircraft – SGT. MORTIMER – failed to return and nothing further was heard of the crew.

Another aircraft – SGT. BRANDWOOD – came down into the sea about 12 miles from the convoy but the crew were rescued the next day by a submarine.

Five aircraft landed safely at BASE, one of these – SGT. BENDALL – was forced to execute a belly landing owing to damage to the hydraulic system. The observer – SGT. HINDLE – was slightly wounded.

The British accounts are incorrect in several aspects, and need to be read with the Italian account of the battle. Fortunately, the Italian official history La Difesa del Trafico Vol. I has an account of this convoy battle as well, which would lead to the total loss of two of the five steamers with their important cargo. For example, while there were six merchants and six escorts, none of the merchants came in at 12,000 tons.

An adventurous voyage, albeit marked by painful losses, was that of the TEMBIEN convoy, which left Naples the morning of the 10th for Tripoli. This was the second convoy of cargo vessels bound for Libya in the month of September and, since it was composed of slower vessels, it had orders to follow the route of the Marettimo Channel of Sicily to the Kerkennah Banks, the route called the Ponente [2].

The steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, NICOLO’ ODERO and BAINSIZZA were part of the convoy; the escort[3] consisted of the destroyers ORIANI[4] (Convoy Leader Commander Chinigò[5]) and FULMINE[6] and the torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, and ORSA[7], with which the torpedo boat CIRCE[8] united in the Sicily Channel.

During the night 11/12 November the convoy was discovered by a nighttime reconnaissance plane south of Pantelleria. Thus at 03.10 hours of the 12th an attack by torpedo bombers followed, avoided  by the maneuvering of the convoy, a smoke screen, and the anti-air reaction of various units.

The following morning the formation navigated without incident or alarm along the Kerkennah following diverse routes. But at 14.00 hours, while under escort of Italian planes, it was again attacked by airplanes, this time by bombers. This was the second air attack during the crossing. Not the last one however, since two more times, between Zuara and Tripoli, during the nights of the 12th and 13th, the convoy was attacked from the air.

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RN Alfredo Oriani underway. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the daytime attack of the 12th, and the two following nights, the Escort Commander, Commander Chinigo, referred thus in his report:

The 12th

14.00 hours – Eight enemy planes are sighted[9], coming from the west at low height towards the formation. The escorting units and the steamers open targeted and barrage fire. Numerous water columns are seen close to the escort units and the steamers. Three of the attacking planes hit by the anti-aircraft fire crash in flames.

14.10 hours – The CAFFARO, hit by a bomb, takes fire. I am ordering CIRCE and ORSA and then FULMINE to come to the aid of the unfortunate steamer. I send the standard signal of having been discovered.

15.00 hours – Continued observation of flames from the fire in the direction of CAFFARO, and more and more explosions can be heard.

15.55 hours – I inform Supermarina[10] and Marina Tripoli[11] of the air attack with the reservation that further information cannot be provided yet.

16.05 hours – I observe a strong explosion in the direction of CAFFARO. Immediately after CIRCE signals that the steamer has sunk.

16.50 hours – CIRCE, FULMINE, ORSA report that they have on board 110, 35, and 79 shipwrecked, respectively. CIRCE and ORSA also that they have no-one particularly badly hurt.

18.40 hours – Notify Supermarina and Marina Tripoli of the sinking of CAFFARO and the number of shipwrecked rescued. Communicate furthermore that FULMINE is navigating for Tripoli with one severely wounded.

23.54 hours – At point C of the safe route to Tripoli. Steamers proceed in line astern.

It is worth noting that the German documentation on the downed Blenheims is somewhat more precise. German navy AA crews were on board of at least the steamer Nirvo. They reported that all three Blenheims were downed at 14.35 hours, one directly by the Kriegsmarine AA embarked on Nirvo, one by AA from a destroyer, with support from the Kriegsmarine AA on board Nirvo, and the other downed by AA weapons of embarked troops on Nirvo. Ammunition use was 23, 13, and 62 rounds of 2cm AA, respectively. The weather is described as clear and sunny, with medium visibility.

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Vickers Wellington Mark IC of No. 38 Squadron RAF Detachment, taxying at Luqa, Malta. Seven aircraft of the Squadron were detached to Malta from Shallufa, Egypt, between August and October 1941 for operations over the Mediterranean and Italy. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

13 September

While the ORB of No. 38 Squadron places this attack on the 12th, I am certain it actually happened in the night 12/13 September, from 0340am to 0455am, seven Wellingtons of No. 38 Squadron bombed the convoy. They suffered no losses. Crews were led by Sgts. Robotham, Brine, Earl, Pottis, Secomb and Hawes, and F/Lt. Davis.

Target – Convoy – proceeding to Tripoli. Convoy was located 25 miles N.W. of Tripoli and was attacked from 03.40 to 04.55 hours.

Bombs dropped 24,500.lbs.

Results: four ships were hit, fires starting on two of them.

Opposition: light flack from escorting destroyers.

The timing of the attack fits exactly with the timing of the aircraft noise report by Tp Circe. The hits reported were then on SS Nicoló Odero. The earlier attack was almost certainly again a torpedo attack, with the standard attack pattern.

The 13th

01.05 hours – Four or five airplanes are seen on a course of 240 degrees with landing lights illuminated. Issue the air alarm signal to all units.

01.20 hours – Numerous flares light up to the left of the formation. Order the escort units to make smoke. The units and the steamers fire targeted and barrage. A total of 18 flares are counted.[12]

02.30 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is reordered, and normal navigation proceeds.

03.33 hours – Marina Tripoli informs me that the PERSEO leaves Zuara and will join the convoy to strengthen the escort. Further informs that at sunrise a MAS will be the pilot for the safe route.

03.45 hours – CIRCE signals aircraft noises to the rear.

03.55 hours – A flare light is seen on the right of the convoy. I issue the standard signal of having been discovered. Escort units and steamers open barrage fire. Smoke is made.

04.00 hours – An explosion on one of the steamers is observed.

04.04 hours – CIRCE signals that the steamer ODERO was hit.

04.24 hours – A bomb hits in our wake at about 100 meters from the stern. Fire is opened with the machine guns.

04.30 hours – CIRCE signals that there are men in the water and requests that another escort is sent. I order ORSA and PERSEO, which during the attack rejoined the formation, to get close to CIRCE and cooperate in the assistance of the hit steamer and to the rescue of the  shipwrecked.

05.00 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is taken up again, and we proceed on the safe route.

05.05 hours – CIRCE signals that the ODERO has fire on board, but that she is not sinking, and requests sending a tug.

The steamer NICOLO’ ODERO, even though in flames, remains afloat for many hours, with the support of the torpedo boats ORSA, CIRCE, and PERSEO which, in the first instance, are engaged in saving the men embarked on the merchant.

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Torpedo boat RN Perseo, lead of her sub-class of Spica torpedo boats.

In support of the steamer, the tugs PRONTA and PORTO PALO leave Tripoli at sunrise,  seeking with any means to extinguish the fire which is still raging on the merchant. The PORTO PALO even goes alongside the ODERO, sending men to fight the fire.

Only when it is clear that the flames cannot be doused do the two tugs take the burning steamer in tow, first trying to reach Tripoli, and then to beach it on the coast. During the whole night, the two tugs and two motor trawlers, also coming from Tripoli, remain close to the steamer with the hope to ultimately save it, but during the afternoon of the 14th September a hold with ammunition blows up, causing the destruction of the NICOLO’ ODERO.

No. 38 Squadron then ‘visited’ Tripoli on the 13th, again I believe this was the night of 13/14, probably to attack during the unloading of the convoy.  The report of Odero having been beached, which only happened on the 14th, is a give-away in this regard.

Numerous bombs on the harbour edge are reported and six  Italian soldiers killed in a direct hit on their MG position near the lighthouse. Seven Wellingtons went out, with the crews of Flight Officer Pascall, Pilot Officer Ridgway, and Sgts. Cooper, Fell, McManus, and Nankivell. None were lost.

Target – Tripoli – shipping alongside Spanish Quay. Attack lasted from 03.00 to 04.35 hours.

Bombs dropped 27,500. lbs.

Bombs fell on or near the Quay.

Aircraft reported a large ship aground 30 miles W. of Tripoli. This M/V presumed to be one of those set on fire during previous night’s attack on convoy.

Opposition: effective smoke-screen. Heavy A.A. aimed at aircraft, not barrage fire. Light A.A. as usual. Eleven searchlights operated.

Assessment

It is clear from the Italian account that the British accounts were severely mistaken about the impact of their attacks. No ships had been hit in the night attack by No. 830 Squadron on 11/12 September. In the afternoon attack by No. 105 Squadron, only one merchant had been hit, not two. The second attack by the Swordfish is not mentioned at all.

What is also interesting is that the Italian air escort is not mentioned by the Italian report.

Sub-Lt. Campbell of No. 830 Squadron seems to overstate the case of his attack somewhat regarding his hit on what must have been Caffaro.  At this stage I am doubtful regarding his claim, and what could be surmised is that the explosion leading to the end of Caffaro was actually caused by a torpedo hit. But overall his story does not stack up, while the time of the Blenheim attack, the description by the escort commander, and the losses all seem to fit.

The official Italian history claims she was hit by a bomb, which appears the likely reason. The Italian report of eight attacking planes, of which three were shot down, is therefore to be considered an accurate account of the loss of Caffaro.

As for No. 105 Squadron, this was to be one of the last operations it flew in the Mediterranean. It suffered two more losses. Sgt. Bendall and crew on 17 September when attacking a small convoy, and Wing Commander Sciviers and his crew on 22 September, when his plane collided with that of Sgt. Williams during an attack on the barracks at Homs in Libya. The attack on the small convoy on 17 September is again well documented.

First the British side:

Three aircraft took off to attack one small MERCHANT VESSEL, one TUG and two SCHOONERS. One SCHOONER was left a mass of flames and the other was seen to blow up and disintegrate. One aircraft failed to return from this OPERATION. The crew were – SGT. BENDALL – Pilot: Sgt. HILL – Observer. SGT BROWN – W/OP/A.G.

PILOT OFFICER ROBINSON of No. 107 Squadron also proceeded on this operation and failed to return.

From the Italian side:

14 September 2200 hours from Trapani to Tripoli. Steamer Ascianghi, Steam Tug Mirabello del Parco with Minesweeper Pietrino in tow; Motor Schooner Filuccio. Escort Escort Destroyer Clio. At 1600 hours of 17 September, 15 miles north of Zuara, the convoy is attacked by bombers. Three are shot down and one of these crashes on Mv Filuccio, provoking a fire and her sinking. The Ascianghi rescues 10 out of 13 members of the crew. On the 18th at 0900 hours at Tripoli without Mv Filuccio.

The sections show again how easy it was to get things wrong.

In October No. 105 Squadron was withdrawn back to the UK, to convert to Mosquitos. It did maintain a Blenheim I as a ‘hack’ plane. No. 107 Squadron took over operations on Malta, with similarly tragic performance.

Impact

According to the German loading lists, Nicoló Odero did not carry any German supplies on this voyage. Caffaro however did. She went down with substantial numbers of vehicles, rations, and ammunition, losses that the German forces could ill afford, and that further delayed the build up to the attack on Tobruk, which in turn enabled the Allied forces to attack first. The full list of her German load is given below. She almost certainly also carried Italian cargo, but I have not been able to find the manifest for this. While Caffaro carried a substantial number of soldiers, primarily drivers for the vehicles of 7./Flak 25, Heeresfunkstelle XVIII and Stab Panzergruppe, most of these are likely to have been rescued, with 224 men being picked up.

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Footnotes

[1] Should be MV Giulia. Orseo should be Perseo, Spica class boat, the staple Regia Marina escort. Displacing 1,020 tons at full load, they were armed with 3x10cm guns, four 450mm torpedo tubes, and a reasonable set of AA and ASW weaponry, running 34 knots top speed.
[2] Western
[3] This was a powerful escort with substantial AA capabilities. Strangely, the report omits to mention the MV Giulia, which was definitely part of the convoy,.
[4] The Orianis were a class of four modern, large destroyers. An improved repeat of the Maestrale class, with 2,470t at full displacement, 4x120mm main guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and a claimed top speed of 38 knots. They carried improved anti-air guns compared to the Maestrales. Oriani survived the war and served in the French navy until 1954.
[5]Commander Chinigò survived the war and after the war rose to the rank of Captain and commanded the Littorio, being her last captain.
[6] A Folgore class destroyer, an older ship, she was sunk in the Duisburg/Beta convoy battle on 9 November 1941 with the loss of 141 men including her commander, Lt.Cdr. Mario Milano. The Folgores were not a lucky class, with all four ships lost during the war. They displaced 2,096 tons at full load, carried 4x120mm guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and had a claimed top speed of 38 knots. A repeat of the Freccia class they had less stability and range than her predecessor due to a reduction in their beam.
[7] Orsa-class torpedo boats, an enlarged version of the Spicas (see below). At 1,575 tons full displacement, they traded one 10cm gun for improved AA and ASW equipment, carrying also 4x 450mm torpedo tubes and only running at up to 28 knots. Pegaso claimed four Royal Navy submarines, which if confirmed would make her one of the top submarine hunters of the Regia Marina. There are however doubts over this record. Pegaso and Procione scuttled on the armistice, while Orsa survived the war and continued to serve until 1964.
[8] Circe was also a Spica-class boat. Circe destroyed four confirmed Royal Navy submarines during the war, making her one of the most successful sub-hunters of the Regia Marina.
[9] This are likely to have been the eight Blenheims of No. 105 Squadron out of Luqa, Malta, on their attack run.
[10] Regia Marina High Command
[11] Naval Command Tripoli
[12] This was standard attacking practice for the torpedo bombers. The lead aircraft which carried radar instead of a torpedo would drop flares behind the convoy, to silhouette it, and enable the attacking planes to approach from the dark.

Sources

British

Operations record books of Nos. 11, 14, 38, 55, 105, 107, and 272 Squadrons R.A.F..
Admiralty War Diary, Malta

Italian

Official history: La Difesa del Trafico con l’Africa Settentrionale Vol. I

German

War diaries Naval Transport Offices Benghazi, Tripolis.

Cargo Manifests, Naval Transport Office Naples

Websites:

Malta War Diary

Royal Navy Day by Day

Wrecksite

HM/Sub Urge (N17) may have been located off Libya

It appears from various news media that a missing submarine from the famous 10th Submarine Flotilla on Malta may have been located off Libya. There are some doubts around it, but I thought it worth mentioning in any case.

Telegraph Article

Argunners Article – includes a sonar picture.

HM/Sub Urge was, as the name indicates, a U-Class submarine, and a highly decorated one at that. Her wartime history is very well set out on U-Boat Net at this link

HMS Urge

HM/Sub Urge underway – official Admiralty picture from the IWM Website

Hopefully it is really her, and the relatives will then have some more knowledge on what happened to the crew. Also, hopefully the situation in Libya will calm down at some point, and enable further investigation of the wreck, to confirm that it is HM/Sub Urge, and maybe confirm the reason for her loss. Urge was lost with 42 men on board, carrying a number of passengers apart from her complement. The crew and passengers were very highly decorated, between them accounting for:

1x D.S.O. and bar

1x D.S.C. and bar

2x D.S.C.

1x D.S.M. and bar, twice Mentioned in Despatches

10x D.S.M.

4x Mentioned in Despatches 

Ras el Hilal

Location of Sonar Contact, showing how close it is to the straight line course from Malta to Alexandria. Click on the picture for a smaller scale satellite image of the area.

Based on the history on U-Boat Net, and the location, which seems to confirm that the fatal attack was delivered by Fiat CR.42s of this may well be one of the last (if not only) times that a double-decker plane sunk a submarine. Contrary to the entry on U-Boat Net however, it appears that the CR.42 in the ground assault variant, which was the main role it played in North Africa in 1942, could carry up to 2x100kg bombs, which may well be fatal to a surfaced submarine.

It is most likely that the planes of 153 Squadriglia which are now likely to have sunk HM/Sub Urge were flying escort or maritime surveillance to cover the coastal convoys between Benghazi and Derna. The parent unit of 153 Squadriglia, 3 Gruppo C.T. (3rd Fighter Group) was based on airfields around Benghazi (K2, K3) in early 1942 (see this link).

Fiat CR 42 Benina Lybia 2

“Fiat CR.42 – Benina Lybia” by Unknown – . Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Urge conducted four patrols during Operation CRUSADER, damaging the modern Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto in an attack that led to the cancellation of convoy operation M.40 in mid-December 1941. While this was quite a success, it appears that the Admiralty was not too happy that Urge’s commander did not try to sink her, even if it would have been suicidal to do so.

Urge’s most famous victim was the Italian light cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere, a Condottieri-class light cruiser from 1930. She was lost with about half her crew when Urge put a torpedo into her just off the island of Stromboli on 1 April 1942. She was the last survivor of her sub-class (Giussano) of four light cruisers. Somewhat confirming that the class was very vulnerable, she broke in two after being hit by one torpedo, and quickly sank. The exact location of her sinking and two pictures can be found at this link.

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Giovanni delle Bande Nere at anchor, probably pre-war.

Lost with HM/Sub Urge

ROWLEY JOHN KENNETH 27 D S M 06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/SSX 21371’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 56, 1. SON OF HARVEY SWANN ROWLEY AND SYBIL MARY ROWLEY, OF HALL GREEN, BIRMINGHAM.

 

DAY FREDERICK 21   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/SSX 20578’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 53, 3. SON OF ANNIE DAY.

 

PARKINSON JOHN LESLIE 24   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 204152’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 66, Column 2. SON OF JOSEPH AND EDITH PARKINSON, OF COPPULL, LANCASHIRE; HUSBAND OF ADA PARKINSON, OF COPPULL.

 

DAVISON ROBERT 21   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 190316’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 64, Column 3. SON OF ROBERT JAMES DAVISON AND AGNES DAVISON, OF NORTH WALSHAM, NORFOLK.

 

GOSS RONALD HENRY 22   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/SSX 20989’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 65, Column 1. SON OF SAMUEL AND DAISY GOSS, OF CWMBRAN MONMOUTHSHIRE.

 

WILDMAN RICHARD 22   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 204322’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 67. Column 1. SON OF RICHARD JOHN AND MARY ALICE WILDMAN, OF LANCASTER.

 

O’NEILL JOHN 22 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/JX 217252’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 64, Column 3. SON OF WILLIAM JOHN AND ANNIE O’NEILL, OF HUCKNALL, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.

 

TOMS CHARLES HERBERT 38 D S M 06-05-42   Chief Engine Room Artificer Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/M 35358’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 3. SON OF HERBERT AND ALICE TOMS; HUSBAND OF VERA MURIEL TOMS, OF GOSPORT, HAMPSHIRE.

 

JACKMAN CHARLEY JOHN 33 D S M and Bar, Twice Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42  Chief Petty Officer  Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/J 110919’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 2. SON OF GLOSTER AND CATHERINE ARABELLA JACKMAN; HUSBAND OF ELSIE ROSALIE JACKMAN, OF BROCKENHURST, HAMPSHIRE.

 

RUTTER RONALD FREDERICK 24   06-05-42   Electrical Artificer 4th Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 59915’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 63, 3. SON OF WILLIAM THOMAS AND ELLEN LOUISA RUTTER, OF UXBRIDGE, MIDDLESEX.

 

HELLYER REGINALD 28 D S M 06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 2nd Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 47775’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 2. SON OF ERNEST AND OLIVE HELLYER; HUSBAND OF VERONICA ANN HELLYER.

 

VARLEY ERIC 28 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/MX 52497’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 69, Column 1. SON OF JOHN AND HANNAH EDDEN VARLEY, OF HORDEN, CO. DURHAM.

 

WHITE WILLIAM PETER 21   06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 76840’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 2. SON OF GEORGE VICTOR AND CHARLOTTE LEASK WHITE, OF EAST HAM, ESSEX.

 

HARMAN STANLEY GORDON     06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 76070’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 2.  

 

NORRIS JESSE   D S M 06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 142500’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 52, 2. SON OF JESSE AND MINNIE NORRIS, OF ROCHESTER, KENT.

 

OSBORN HERBERT GEORGE ARTHUR 27 D S M 06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 134094’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 52, 2. SON OF HERBERT CHARTER OSBORN AND ROSE EMILY OSBORN; HUSBAND OF VIOLET MAY OSBORN, OF CAMBRIDGE.

 

GROVES LAURENCE FRANK 36 D S M 06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/J 101563’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 52, 2. SON OF FRANK AND ROSE GROVES; HUSBAND OF GLADYS WINIFRED GROVES, OF FLEETWOOD, LANCASHIRE.

 

MORRIS FREDERICK HAROLD 22   06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/JX 145545’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 63, Column 1.

 

LAW ERIC CHARLES 22 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Leading Signalman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 145120’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 58, 2. SON OF CHARLES FREDERICK AND LOUISA ALICE LAW.

 

WILKES SAMUEL CORNELIUS     06-05-42   Leading Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/KX 81223’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 61, 3.  

 

WOOLRICH JOHN EDWARD 24   06-05-42   Leading Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/KX 90716’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2. SON OF WILLIAM AND EDITH WOOLRICH, OF CHELL, STAFFORDSHIRE.

 

ASHFORD HAROLD GEORGE 32   06-05-42   Leading Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 127562’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF GEORGE AND ESTHER D. ASHFORD, OF FROME, SOMERSET.

 

ROGERS ROY WILLIAM GEORGE 22 D S M 06-05-42   Leading Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/SS 26082’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF GEORGE WILLIAM AND EDITH LOUISA ROGERS, OF WHITSTABLE,

 

KENT. TOMKINSON EDWARD PHILIP 30 D S O and Bar 06-05-42  Lieut-Commander Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 61. Column 3. SON OF ROBERT EDWARD AND BEATRICE LUCY TOMKINSON; HUSBAND OF MYRTLE ALICE TOMKINSON, OF LANGHAM, SUFFOLK.

 

ALLEN DAVID BENNETT   D S C 06-05-42   Lieutenant Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 61, Column 3.

 

RANSOME JOHN SANDEMAN DEANE 26 D S C 06-05-42   Lieutenant Royal Naval Reserve H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 71, Column 1. SON OF CAPTAIN FRANK DEANE RANSOME AND CELIA NOEL RANSOME.

 

POOLE JAMES MALCOLM STUART 23 D S C and Bar 06-05-42 Lieutenant Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 1. SON OF JAMES AND FLORENCE MAY POOLE; HUSBAND OF LILIAN ELIZABETH ANNE POOLE, OF STREATHAM HILL, LONDON.

 

BOTTING HENRY JOHN     06-05-42   Petty Officer Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 137747’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 51, 3.  

 

WATTS HENRY RONALD JOSEPH 31 D S M, Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Petty Officer Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/JX 129967’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 3. SON OF JOSEPH EVANS WATTS AND EDITH CLARA WATTS, OF ARBORFIELD, BERKSHIRE. HIS BROTHER STANLEY HORACE WATTS ALSO FELL.

 

ASHFORD WILLIAM GEORGE 28 D S M 06-05-42   Petty Officer Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/KX 82966’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 3. SON OF HENRY GEORGE AND ALICE M. ASHFORD; HUSBAND OF VIOLET FRANCES ASHFORD, OF MERTON, SURREY.

 

WISEMAN PETER DUGDALE 27 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Petty Officer Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 134000’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF THOMAS AND JANE WISEMAN, OF BLYTH, NORTHUMBERLAND.

 

STANGER MARCUS 26   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/KX 90258’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 70, Column 3. HUSBAND OF GEORGINA ALEXANDRA STANGER, OF PLYMOUTH.

 

McMILLAN JOSEPH CRESSWELL DIXON 21   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/SSX. 32970’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 70, Column 2. SON OF ROBERT AND MARY A. MCMILLAN, OF FAULDHOUSE, WEST LOTHIAN.

 

TWIST HENRY ERNEST   D S M 06-05-42   Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 225829’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2.

 

BAXTER LESLIE GORDON     06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘C/LD/X 3971’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 66, 2.  

 

McDIARMID FRED 21   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/SSX 32644’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 64, Column 2. SON OF GEORGE AND ELIZABETH B. MCDIARMID, OF GLOSSOP, DERBYSHIRE.

 

CHAMBERLAIN SIDNEY WILLIAM 22   06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/SSX 22878’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 3. SON OF ERNEST WILLIAM AND EMILY CHAMBERLAIN, OF BRIGHTON.

 

LEEKE RONALD WILLIAM 20   06-05-42   Leading Signalman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/JX 154364’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 66, Column 2. SON OF THOMAS WILLIAM AND ADA DOROTHY LEEKE, OF SCOTTER, LINCOLNSHIRE.

 

LAMB JAMES WILFRED 24   06-05-42   Leading Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/KX 94635’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF CLARENCE LAMB, AND OF JANE A. LAMB, OF YORK.

 

MAIDMENT JOHN 22   06-05-42   Leading Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/SSX 22031’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 66, Column 3. SON OF JOHN AND ETHEL MARY MAIDMENT, OF DORCHESTER, DORSETSHIRE.

 

BRYANT ALBERT EDWARD 38   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/K 61633’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2. SON OF ALBERT AND ROSE BRYANT; HUSBAND OF ETHEL MARY BRYANT.

 

BROWN CYRIL 28   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/KX 84490’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2. SON OF RUFUS AND HILDA ELIZA BROWN, OF COAL ASTON, DERBYSHIRE.

 

A costly Strike– No 107 Squadron 11 October 1941

No. 107 Squadron was one of two Bristol Blenheim Mk. IV equipped light bomber squadrons on Malta during the time of Operation CRUSADER. It carried out anti-shipping strikes throughout the central Mediterranean, as well as ground strafing of traffic on the coastal road in Libya, and bomb attacks on fixed installations. The squadron was commanded until his death in action by Wing Commander Harte, a South African, followed Flight Sergeant (later Air Marshal Sir) Ivor Broom, and then from December 1941 by W/Cdr Dunlevie, a Canadian. In January 1942 the squadron was disbanded and the remnants moved back to the UK, where they reformed and converted to Douglas Bostons.

Operating light bombers from Malta was not a task which would have been appreciated by a life insurance underwriter. The picture below shows the daring of the pilots quite well, and repeatedly there is talk of ‘attack at mast height’ in the ORB. But many of the crews paid for this with their lives.

Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 18 Squadron RAF head back for Luqa, Malta, at low level after bombing a target in the port of Locri, Italy. Photograph taken from the mid-upper turret of the leading aircraft. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

11 October 1941 was a bad day for the squadron. Two Blenheims were lost on operations on the day. The squadron ORB has a good account of this, and the Italian official naval history has a full account of the attack on the small convoy undertaken by No. 107 Squadron. Both are given below. The relevant references are AIR27/842, held at Kew, and La Marina Italiana Nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale Vol. VII – LA DIFESA DEL TRAFICO CON L’AFRICA SETTENTRIONALE Dal 1 Ottobre 1941 Al 30 Settembre 1942.

The convoy consisted of the following vessels:

Steamer Priaruggia, 1,196 GRT, built in 1925. Finally sunk 28 November 41 in Benghazi harbour, when she was hit and blew up during a night raid, still carrying the cargo of ammunition she carried on 11 October.

Steam tanker Alberto Fassio, 2,298 GRT, built in the US in 1914. Finally sunk on 26 July 1943 when it hit a mine off Preveza, Greece.

Escorted by Torpediniera (Spica class corvette, Alcione sub-series) Partenope under the command of Capitano di Corvetta B. de Moratti. Finally lost when she was captured by German troops in dry dock after the Italian surrender, while under repair, and broken up 1945.


Partenope in wartime colour scheme. Courtesy of the U.S.M.M. Italian Corvettes 1881 – 1964, 2nd Volume 1974.

The Royal Air Force view.

11 October

Six Blenheims captained by F/O. Greenhill, Sgt. Routh, Sgt. Broome, Sgt. Level, Sg.t Baker, and Sgt. Hopkinson were ordered to attack shipping in the GULF OF SIRTE. 3,000 lb of bombs were dropped. Total flying time was 20 hrs. 50 mins. At 14.04 hours they located one m/v 3 – 5,000 tons, one Cargo boat 1 – 1,500 tons and one corvette in a position 31.53′ N 15.43′ E. They were escorted by ONE twin-engined monoplane. F/O Greenhill hit the large m/v forward and his aircraft was then seen by Sgt. Harrison to be hit in the belly and crash in the sea as he climbed over the ship. The vessel held fire until the aircraft was 50 yards away. Sgt. Broome attacked the same vessel and hit it aft and left the vessel in flames with grey smoke pouring from it. He was chased by the escort plane which did not get within firing range. Sgt. Harrison saw Sgt. Routh attack the small Cargo boat, set it on fire and then crash into the sea having been hit by guns from the large m/v. Sgt. Leven, Sgt. Baker and Sgt. Hopkinson did not make an attack and brought back their bombs. Four aircraft returned safely, but it is not thought that there could be any survivors from the two aircraft shot down. The crews of the aircraft were as follows:

F/O Greenhill, Sgt. Smith, Sgt. Whidden

Sgt. Routh, Sgt. Parker, Sgt. McLeod.

What is noticeable is the reasonably good identification of the size of the vessels (even though they got the type of propulsion and size of A Fassio wrong), the description of the attack, which claimed serious hits on both vessels even though only one was hit, and that three aircraft chose not to press the attack, presumably because of a mixture of respect for the anti-air defense, and the believe that both vessels might have been finished.

The Italian side – the Italian history uses this case as an example of the strong defense put up by the coastal convoys:

From a practical perspective however, the coastal vessels were anything but easy targets, and not only because of their small size, but because they always reacted very lively, together with the escorting corvette, sometimes inflicting severe losses on the attacker. Many episodes could be cited in evidence, but it is sufficient to give just one as an example; that of the attack suffered on the afternoon of 11 October by a convoy consisting of the steamer Priaruggia, the tanker A Fassio, escorted by the corvette Partenope under Lieutenant-Commander B. de Moratti.

The convoy, which left Tripoli at 1600 hours on 10 October, was attacked by three Bristol Blenheim in low-level flight, about 24 hours later. Regarding this the commander of the escort writes the following in his report:

    At 15.02 the left vessel advised of three enemy bombers which approached the convoy in low-level flight. The formation at that moment was as follows: Partenope in front, zig-zagging, steamer Priaruggia and tanker A Fassio in line abreast (Fassio to the right), with Priaruggia slightly behind. The escorting plane was far off, ahead of the formation. The three Bristol Blenheim planes formed in an offset formation on the left of the convoy, coming roughly from the north-east. Partenope immediately opened fire with its central 20mm gun at a distance of about 800 metres. While turning and climbing the planes dropped a series of small bombs and strafed the convoy with machine guns. Of the bombs, one hit Priaruggia at the base of the funnel, the others drop to the left and right of the steamer, as well as between Partenope and the steamer. Almost at the same time, two planes appear to be hit by the precise fire of Partenope, one in a staggering turn trying to touch down on the water, hitting hard, and then dives into the sea breaking up. The other, on fire, still manages a half turn, then dives into the sea head first, vanishing completely. The third plane carries out a wide turn, then continues to remain cruising for some minutes. During this time three German transport plane pass on the horizon on the westerly route.

I am turning around, and order Fassio to remain in the area, zig-zagging. I am moving towards the life boats and rescue floats of the Priaruggia which, after emitting abundant black smoke and steam, now appears intact everywhere apart from the centre, where it shows damage to the base of the funnel, the masts, and the loading equipment. I am ordering to put the wounded on board of Partenope, and the able to return on board the steamer to prepare the tow. In the meantime I move to the area where the remains of one of the shot-down planes are and where a wounded airman reacts to calls. I set the whaler into the sea to recover the airman and a yellow bag, which contained emergency signalling equipment. The wounded airman is tended to together with the wounded of the Priaruggia. He shows splinter wounds on the right knee and leg, and other wounds on the forehead, the right hand, and the front of his body.

16.00 – 17.58 Fassio extends a tow and commences the turn to move to Ras Cara, in line with my orders. During the maneuver the tow breaks. With a new tow, Fassio moves towards Ras Cara. During the move to Misurata, the tow breaks again. Taking up the tow again to move to Misurata where, by order of Marilibia, the Priaruggia and the wounded have to be brought.

During the last five miles I pull slightly ahead of Fassio, to disembark the personnel.

23.16 – 00.25 Arrival at Misurata. Drop anchor. The Fassio, coming closer, communicates that it has broken the tow for a fourth time, and that neither it nor the Priaruggia have any more cables. It therefore left Priaruggia behind, about five miles off Misurata.

00.25 – 01.28 Leave Misurata and move towards the steamer Priaruggia which I find about four miles at 95 degrees off Misurata with a part of the crew in the launch, about to pull away from the ship.

Communicate to that part of the crew that a tug will soon arrive. At 01.28, with all the crew on board, Priaruggia drops anchor.

I should mention the act of a torpedo operator who threw himself into the sea to rescue the enemy airman while waiting for the launch.

Priaruggia is then towed to Tripoli by the tug Ciclope with the escort of the corvette Cascino, and reaches the port without problems on the 13 November. In the overall account on the positive side are two shot-down enemy planes – one of which, prior to crashing, hits the foremast of the Piaruggia, bursting into flames, and breaking off the mast; – on the negative side the not heavy damage of the steamer which remains immobilised only for a few days.

From the Italian account it is clear that Priaruggia must have appeared very badly hit, but it is also clear that Fassio was neither hit nor attacked. The episode shows very clearly the dangers the pilots on Malta exposed themselves to, and the brutal and very quick end that awaited most of them. Fassio arrived in Benghasi on 13 October.

The lost planes were Z7618 and Z9663. While Sergeant Whidden survived the crash, he died of his wounds in hospital shortly after. (Many thanks to Brian for this information, provided in this thread.) Their loss was not completely in vain however. As is pointed out in this threadPriaruggia was badly enough damaged that she had to return in tow to Tripoli after an initial stay at Misurata. When she arrived (still with the same cargo, including ammunition) in Benghazi six weeks later, after the conclusion of repairs, she was bombed on the night of her arrival, and all her cargo was lost when she blew up.

The statistics below show the activity and losses of No. 107 Squadron during October 1941.

Date

Planes Sorties

Planes Lost

Share

Type of mission

3 October 8 0 Bombing
4 October 8 1 16% Shipping
5 October 2+2 0 Recce/Bombing
6 October 4 0 Shipping/Strafing
7 October 1 0 Armed Recce
8 October 6 0 Strafing
9 October 2+4 2 33% Strafing/Shipping
10 October 2 0 Recce
11 October 6 2 33% Shipping
13 October 4 0 Strafing
17 October 6 0 Strafing/Bombing
21 October 6 0 Shipping
23 October 4 0 Shipping
25 October 6 0 Strafing/Bombing
28 October 4 0 Bombing
29 October 2 0 Bombing
29 October 4 0 Bombing
30 October 4+3 0 Bombing/Shipping

Missions were flown on 18 days, and a total of 21 missions was flown. Total sorties were 88, and losses were 5 planes (a loss rate of 5.7%), all on shipping strikes. What is of importance to note however is that all losses occurred on shipping strikes (2 planes were lost by collision, one of them flown by the squadron commander, the other 3 due to enemy action). So for shipping strikes alone, the loss rate was 14.3%, or rather meaning 1 in 7 planes would not return – quite sobering.

4 Battle Sorties

Having purchased some of the RAF Squadron ORBs, I thought it might be interesting to type up what life at the sharp end was like for members of RAF Aircrew. The quotes below are from the ‘Record of Events for:

  • No. 80 Squadron (Hurribombers, Nov.41);
  • No. 107 Squadron which operated over Libya, Italy, and against Axis shipping from Malta (Blenheim Light Bombers, Dec. 41);
  • No. 108 Squadron (Medium/Heavy Bombers, Jan. 42); and
  • No. 208 Squadron (Tactical Recce Hurricanes, Jan.42);

They refer to typical missions. I hope this is of interest.

Fighter Bomber

No. 80 Squadron – this unit was equipped with Hurricanes converted to carry 8x40lb bombs under the wings. They had only converted to ground attack in November 41, and this was the first instance that an RAF Squadron in the desert had been issued this kind of plane. No.402 Squadron at Manston had been converted to the bomber role in October 1941, but carried 250lb bombs, instead of the much lighter bombs carried on the Hurricane Is of No. 80 Squadron. The aim was to be able to have two ‘gos’ at the enemy, first to bomb, and then to ground strafe.

128 L.G. 21.11.41 Weather:- Sun and cloud intermittently, wind cold.

First operation in the morning was acting as close escort to formation of Blenheims which were bombing M.T. and dumps near Bir Hacheim. From 80 Squadrons’ point of view the trip was uneventful, no enemy aircraft being seen. The squadron set off on a bombing and strafing sortie against a semi-permanent camp on the coastal road N.W. of Gambut. The bombing was much more accurate and all bombs fell in the target area. Huts were seen to be wrecked. Pilots then strafed this camp and other tents in this area. The success of the sortie was completely marred by the fact that the Commanding Officer, S/Ldr. T.M. Horger, D.F.C., failed to return. His machine was hit by A/A fire; he was seen to belly land and then walk away from his machine. Hopes were held for his safety as British troops were supposed to be in the area where he crashed. Several other machines were damaged by light A/A fire of which much was encountered. Again it must be repeated that ground strafing will be an expensive business. F/Sgt. Wintersdorff and Sgt. Swire landed in the late afternoon. They had force-landed 30 miles S. of Maddalena; pilots were unhurt and machines undamaged. 6 aircraft of No. 73 Squadron, stationed at Barrani, arrived to operate with 80 Squadron. Nobody seemed to know why or by whom they had been sent.

Comments:

M.T. = motor transport; A/A = anti-aircraft. D.F.C. = Distinguished Flying Cross; Ranks: F/Sgt. = Flight Sergeant; S/Ldr = Squadron Leader.

This was the second bombing sortie, and the first one was not seen as a success in terms of accuracy, and disillusionment about the life expectancy at ground strafing sorties had already set in at the first sortie. It appears to me that the target, a semi-permanent installation (in fact, probably a pretty permanent workshop or supply installation of Panzergruppe) was a proper target more for the light bombers, or even the mediums, rather than the fighter bombers.


Pilots of No. 80 Squadron RAF gather in front of one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at a landing ground in the Western Desert, during Operation CRUSADER. In the middle of the group, wearing a white flying overall and smoking a pipe, is Squadron Leader M M Stephens, who commanded the Squadron from November until 9 December 1941 when he was shot down and wounded. During CRUSADER, 80 Squadron acted in close support of the Army, their Hurricane fighters being fitted with bomb racks to carry four 40 lb GP bombs, as seen here. Their first effective sorties as fighter-bombers were conducted against enemy vehicles south of Bir el Baheira on 20 November. (From IWM Collection)

Light Bombers

No. 12 Squadron S.A.A.F. – Please see this link for an older post.

No. 107 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with Blenheim light bombers and was based at Luqa on Malta, whence it undertook a range of missions over Italy, Libya, Greece, and the Mediaterranean. These included ground attack against Axis truck columns and railways, shipping attacks, level bombing, and reconnaissance.

Luqa, Malta, 24 Dec. 41

Three Blenheims captained by Sgt. Fuller, P/O. Mockridge and Sgt. Crossley were dispatched to attack a m/v in ZUARA HARBOUR.

The three aircraft flying in formation made their landfall exactly off ZUARA so that the defences were warned and opened fire before the Blenheims had crossed the coast. Sgt. Crossley leading the formation passed East of ZUARA, making a tight turn over land and then attacking a large schooner moored against the Western Mole. Altogether there were two schooners, a Hospital Ship and two smaller vessels in harbour.

Sgt. Crossley was seen to hit a stay of the smaller schooner with his wing tip. The aircraft turned over on it’s back and presumably crashed. His bombs fell so close to the schooner that they probably pierced it under the water-line. Sgt. Fuller machinegunned the schooners but his bombs fell short. His aircraft had bullet holes in the fuselage and wings, but was not seriously damaged.

P/O/ Mockridge dropped out of position in the steep turn and attacked the same target from dead astern of the other aircraft. The observer, P/O. Paul was killed by a cannon shell, another went through his tail. The aircraft bombed the larger of the two schooners, results were not observed, but bombs thought to undershoot.

Comments: As No. 80 Squadron had found out, and as can be seen here, low-level attacks were an expensive business for the RAF to engage in. In the seven days from 17-24 December, the squadron lost three planes, piloted by P/O. Keen (17 Dec, attack on transport between SORMAN and ZUARA, unknown cause); Sgt. Hanley (22 Dec, attack on transport 50 miles west of SIRTE, crashed into sea, presumed hit by return fire from an armoured car), and Sgt. Crossley (see above). On the 22 Dec Sgt. Crossley also attacked transport west of SIRTE and carried away some telegraph wire, which indicates how low the Blenheims went in. These raids on minor harbours and on transport on the Via Balbia at random places along the coast must have placed a very heavy load on the Axis defences, necessitating placing AA guns along the harbours, and providing escorts to truck columns far in the rear areas.

While the picture below does not show No. 107 Squadron, it illustrates the nature of the low-level raids very well.


Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 18 Squadron RAF head back for Luqa, Malta, at low level after bombing a target in the port of Locri, Italy. Photograph taken from the mid-upper turret of the leading aircraft. (From IWM Collection)

Medium Bombers

No. 108 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with Wellington medium bombers and saw a lot of action on the run to Tripoli. In December it began conversion to heavy bombers, Consolidated B-24 Liberators, but this project was never completed.

Fayid 4/1/42.

Seven aircraft proceeded to A.L.G. El Adem to operate against the enemy. Five operated, the other two returning to base. Captain’s were (“G”) P/O Waddington, (“D”) P/O R.J. Alexander, (“F”) P/O Smith, (“L”) P/O Hill, and (“H”) P/O Duplex. The primary target was a convoy in the Mediterranean, but owing to 10/10th cloud alternative targets were attacked. Aircraft “D”, “G” and “H” bombed Buerat El Haun dropping 12 500lb. tail fused H.E., two 250lb. nose fused H.E., and one 250lb. extension red – only burst were seen. After bombing “D” and “G” came down low and machine gunned tents and M.T. between target and Sirte. Aircraft “F”, owing to 10/10th cloud down to 1,000ft. returned to base with bombs. The cloud was also too thick for aircraft “L” to locate primary target, and so attacked Ras el Ali M.T. dropping four 500lb. tail-fused H.E. and one 250lb. extension red at foot of jetty – bursts were seen 50 yards off M.T. “L” then came down to 2,000ft. and machine-gunned a barge alongside the jetty – this seemed to be hit and returned fire with two machine guns. Quite a lot of A.A. from Sollum was encountered by this aircraft – this was flown over as the Captain thought it was in our hands. All aircraft returned safely to base.

Comment:

A.L.G. = advanced landing ground; Ranks: P/O = Pilot Officer

The failed attack on the convoy was a major failure, in that it presented the last chance to do some damage at least to the very important M.43 convoy that brought the reinforcements and supplies enabling the Axis counter offensive later in January. It is of interest to note the bombs of choice for shipping attack, tail-fused, heavy H.E. bombs. I don’t know what extension red means. I think it is very impressive (and brave) to take a large aircraft such as a Wellington down to ground-strafing levels. Sollum was not actually in Commonwealth hands, the pilot probably misread the capture of Bardia to mean that the whole of the border had been cleared out.


Vickers Wellington B Mark ICs, formerly of No. 15 Operational Training Unit, parked at North Front, Gibraltar, while staging through the Mediterranean to join operational units in Egypt. BB459 ‘K’ (right) went to No. 108 Squadron RAF at Fayid, while Z8960 ‘P’ (left) joined 70 Squadron RAF at LG 104/Qotafiyah II. (From IWM Collection)

Photo Recce

No. 208 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with tactical reconnaissance Hurricanes with a fixed camera installation. In a pinch it functioned as a fighter squadron too. It was broken up in a number of smaller flights stationed at various airfields.

Detached Flight. Antelat. 17/1.

“RECONAISSANCE” (Contd.) Despite heavy showers throughout the date a medium Tactical Reconnaissance of the MARADA Oasis and the track north to (X) B. 2218 was carried out. The Pilot reported a small garrison and confirmed previous reports of enemy positions and movement on the track running North. The aircraft encountered severe small arms fire over MARADA, a shell bursting in his outer starboard tank, fortunately this tank was already empty and no loss of fuel or fire resulted and the Pilot was able to continue with his reconnaissance.

Comment: Marada was the southern end of the Axis position, running north to the Med at Mersa el Brega. 13 Corps was concerned that the Axis might have troops there to turn the Commonwealth position in front of the Axis line. The garrison was a small German detachment with Italian armoured car support at this time which had only arrived in Africa a few weeks before, and obviously was quite willing to ‘have a go’.

Click this link to see a No.208 Squadron PR Hurricane. (From IWM Collection)

An expensive visit to Castelvetrano

On the night 4/5 January 1942 the RAF bombers (Blenheims and Wellingtons) from Malta paid a visit to Castelvetrano (I have also seen Castel Vetrano and Castelveltrano as spelling) airfield on Sicily.  At the time, the airfield was stuffed with Axis transport planes which gathered in the Med, either to resupply Africa, or to transport in units and supplies belonging to the Luftwaffe’s 2nd Air Fleet which had just started its camapign against Malta.

This aerial reconnaissance picture below shows the airfield and the Axis planes parked on it on the day before the successful attack, and it was probably the reason for the attack.

Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. © IWM (C 4183)

Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. © IWM (C 4183)

The after action report (AAR) of the Wellington attack makes interesting reading.  11 Wellington sorties were flown that night, with four a/c making the trip twice.  One of the Wellingtons carried a 4,000 lb (1,800kg) “blockbuster” bomb, and appears to have managed to drop it right into the parked planes.

From the individual plane narratives:

Plane M […]He saw that most aircraft had been parked near the runway directly on the east of the aerodrome and that they looked like JU 52’s. […]

Plane Z dropped his 4,000lb [Blockbuster] bomb from 8,000 feet which landed just east of runway about two thirds of the way down from North-South.  A terrific explosion resulted throwing up debris and dust.  The target was visible when aircraft crossed the coast and showed up well.

Plane P No fires were burning when the aircraft arrived on the target at 0357 hours (Approximately 4.5 hours later than aircraft Z).

The attack went in in two waves, first four aircraft  between 2041 and 2200.   Then a single aircraft with the blockbuster bomb. A second wave from 0357 to 0525. Total bombs dropped were:

21 x 250lb GP

28 x 500lb GP

1 x 4,000lb GP

3,360lb incendiaries.

One aircraft failed to return, with the crew of Sgts. Lewthwaite, Pick, Chalmers, Bryan, and James. The Axis air forces lost six S.82s (one of which was used by the Germans), four Z1007bis, a CR42 and a Ju52, all of which were destroyed; in addition 42 more aircraft were damaged to various degrees: 22 S.82s, 15 Z1007bis, 2 FN305s, 2 CR42s and a MC200 (Thanks to Jon G. on AHF for the info). The S.82 were the biggest transport planes available in the Med at this stage, and losing 28 of them even if some were only out of service temporarily must have been a very big drain on overall Axis air transport capacity at a critical juncture.

(see also this prior post)

The Fleet Air Arm

Fleet Air Arm squadrons were quite involved in the Mediterranean battles during Operation Crusader. While no carrier was active in the Med following the sinking of HMS Ark Royal on 13/14 November 1941, FAA squadrons such as No. 828 Squadron FAA (see also Thomas Barker’s diary) operated from Malta against Italian shipping, and several squadrons operated from the western desert in support of ground operations.

In the western desert, the following FAA squadrons were active in supporting naval operations, according to the official history:

Nos. 803, 805, 806 Squadron FAA formed the Western Desert RN Fighter squadron, consisting of 24 Hurricanes in 803 and 806 Squadrons  (taken over from the RAF, presumably Hurricane I) and 12 Grumman Martlets (Wildcats for Americans) in 805 Squadron for 36 fighters in total. This was operating from August 41 from Mersa Matruh for shipping protection between Alexandria and Benghazi (once captured).  They moved to Fort Maddalena on the frontier on 22 November and to Tobruk on 11 December. A short section in the official wartime account of the Fleet Air Arm published by the Ministry of Information in 1943 deals with the desert squadrons of the FAA  (see also here). The Squadron operated under RAF Wings 264, 269 and 234 until disbanded in February 1942.

No. 815 Squadron FAA with 6 Fairey Albacores and 6 A.S.V. Fairey Swordfish (according to the official history A.S.V. was fitted in early December – this was an early form of air-ground radar used to detect ships).  The squadron operated from Sidi Barrani on A/S (anti-submarine) patrols and A/S escort duties for convoys.

No. 826 Squadron FAA with 12 Albacores which could carry out anti-shipping strikes when released from army cooperation duties.  On army cooperation these carried out flare dropping and night bombing of vehicle and tank concentrations. To illuminate targets for night bombardment was a specialty function carried out by the Albacores, which were very well suited for this task, it appears. They also carried out spotting duties for naval bombardments such as occurred at Bardia and Derna during CRUSADER.

805, 806 and 815 Squadrons were disembarked from HMS Illustrious, while 803 and 826 Squadrons were disembarked from HMS Formidable after she was damaged during the evacuation of Crete.

RAF torpedo squadrons did not become active until very late in the battle. As I understand it, No.39 Squadron, operating Bristol Beauforts out of Malta and Cyrenaica, contributed to the sinking of MS Vittoria of the T.18 convoy on 23 January 1942 (she was finished off by Albacores from No.826 Squadron FAA operating out of Malta).

Corrections and additions on this would be very welcome.

The Mediterranean Fleet – Greece to Tripoli

This is another of the official books published by the Ministry of Information, this time in 1944. The same caveats apply as in “The Tiger Kills”, but so do the same reasons for recommending it. There are very good accounts of naval operations off Crete during the evacuation, of the Tobruk Run, the effort to keep the garrison of besieged Tobruk supplied in 1941, and of the Malta convoys.

Recommended reading.