The loss of MFP148, 15 January 1942

The loss of MFP148, 15 January 1942

In late 1941 the Kriegsmarine introduced a new type of vessel into the Mediterranean theatre, the Marinefaehrprahm (MFP, or simply ‘Prahm’), of ‘F-Lighter’ as it was known by the Royal Navy. I have previously written about the early history of these vessels at this link.

DSC 0247 copy

One of the first series of MFPs on the move from Palermo to Tripoli, late November 1941. In the background a Spica class torpedo boat, probably Perseo. (Author’s Collection)

F148, of the first series, was mined and lost on 15 January 1942, while proceeding to the forward area from Tripoli. At this stage, the Axis forces were in the Marada – Mersa el Brega position, having retreated from Agedabia on 6 January 1942. It was the furthest east they would move until after their defeat at El Alamein in October and November 1942. 

Supply to this area was not possible by normal ships, but could be carried out by the MFPs with their much shallower draft. The British on the other hand were well aware of the importance of coastal traffic to the Axis forces, and made persistent efforts to interdict it, both through direct attacks and through a mining campaign. Mines were dropped regularly by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish and Albacores operating out of Malta and Cyrenaica, on what the Malta forces called ‘cucumber’ raids. 

One such raid took place on 4 January, with two Swordfish from No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. and one Albacore from No. 828 Squadron F.A.A.  setting out from Malta to mine the approaches to Tripoli harbour, at this stage the only main harbour left to the Axis in North Africa. The raid is noted here. While it cannot be said whether this mining raid led to the loss of F148, it is the last one before she was mined. The location of the mining indicates that this was an air-dropped mine.

Report on the Loss of F148

15. January

18.00:

82 tons of fuel in canisters loaded.

18:30

About 4 nautical miles east of Tripolis, at a distance of about 800-1,000 metres from the coast, detonation under the rear of the vessel. Probably English E-Mine. Ship slowly slips down aft. Emergency signals. All rescue boats and one man blown overboard. Two man on fireship, three below deck, the others on the poop. 11 men are wounded, some of them severely. Try to bring floats closer again to recover the wounded. Attempts are broken off since Italian 34th AA Battery and one Arab come alongside with three boats to take off the crew. Emergency signals seen from the coast. Admin Officer grips an Italian motor boat with some men and takes it to the site of the incident, but doesn’t find any crew on board. Boat continues to float.

Flotilla CO leaves port with Italian rescue tug, touring in the ship if possible. Because of the draft of the tug the site of the incident can only be reached at 22.00 hours. Life boat is hoisted out. Lighter has however already capsized, poop has sunk, prow sticks out of the water keel up. Nobody left on board. On return to port English air attack on Tripoli, therefore only tied up alongside at 24.00 hours. Crew was moved to hospital Tripoli by Battery.

Thus ended one of the small dramas of the desert war. Nobody was killed, but a valuable supply vessel with 82 tons of fuel was lost.

For the wargamers, you can play with these vessels here.

Mansplaining Submarines to the Regia Marina – German-Italian Cooperation September 1941

Mansplaining Submarines to the Regia Marina – German-Italian Cooperation September 1941

It doesn’t often happen that I come across a text in my files that makes me roll my eyes. But this is clearly one of them, as it shows some breath-taking, and probably subconscious arrogance by the Germans towards their Italian allies. I can only imagine the Italian ASW specialists fuming when reading the entry section. It was helpfully translated into Italian. The translation below is mine, and the German original is from the NARA files of the Chief of the Naval Liaison Staff at the Italian Navy High Command, the ranking German navy officer in the Mediterranean.

As outlined in older posts (here, here, and here), the German Kriegsmarine  and the Italian Royal Navy, the Regia Marina, had a close technological co-operation when it came to matters of mutual interest, such as preventing Royal Navy submarines from wreaking havoc on the supply lines to North Africa.

Large 000000  1

The Commanding Officer, Lieut Cdr R D Cayley, DSO, RN, (centre) with his officers and men on board the UTMOST beneath their Jolly Roger success flag. (Courtesy IWM Photo Collection)

The document in question is a memorandum about the current state of anti-submarine warfare on the Axis and the Royal Navy side, with a reasonably amount of detail. It is part of an exchange of information that ultimately led to the installation of German active sonar (S-Geraet) and depth charge launchers on Italian vessels, to help protect supply convoys in the Adriatic, Aegean, and Central Mediterranean. Royal Navy submarines had become a clear part of the menace to the supply lines, together with airborne interdiction, primarily from Malta, and the occasional surface action, although by early September the last one was almost five months ago, when Force K intercepted and destroyed the Tarigo convoy off Kerkennah buoy in a night action on 16 April 1941 (see here for background).

To protect against air attack, the AA defense of the merchants was thickened with naval AA guns from the German Marinebordflakkompanie Sued, as outlined in this older post. It wasn’t perfect, but between this, and the AA defense by the escort units, attacking convoys became a more risky endeavor, with high loss rates for the Malta-based Blenheim day bombers, as outlined here. Other co-operation measures included the transfer of Kriegsmarine DeTe shipborne radar to be installed on Italian major units, the transfer of Italian aerial torpedoes in exchange for German 2-cm AA guns and ammunition from the Italian air force to the Luftwaffe.

By September, that left the submarine threat. It was clear that Italian technology was behind German in this regard, and because the Malta-based submarines threatened German and Italian supplies indiscriminately, something had to be done. So the Germans proceeded to explain the nature of the submarine to their allies, as below. The memo is quite long, and mostly very sensible. It covers location devices including passive and active sonar, radar, radio detection, and buoyed nets, as well as anti-submarine weapons such as depth charges (ship- and air-launched), submarine nets. It interestingly also covers some experimental or research-stage Kriegsmarine detection measures, such as a fotografic device to locate a submarine that is stationary on the bottom of the sea, an electromagnetic device that showed when a sub-hunter was in a circle of 70m on top of a sub, a magnet that would attach itself to a sub and transmit sounds from it to the sub-hunter, and mentions the Flettner helicopter, which was expected to come into ASW service in the next two years.

C o p y

Re: B.Nr. Skl.U III 3030/41 Gkdos. 

Berlin 3 September 1941

SECRET COMMAND AFFAIR

Overview of Current Status of Anti-Submarine Warfare of the Opponent and the Kriegsmarine

1. General

The specialty of the submarine is that it can make itself invisible, by day through diving, by night through its small silhouette. All means of submarine defense aim to negate this special characteristic of the submarine by using specialized means, and to locate the submarine despite its invisibility.

As soon as a submarine has been located it can be engaged, which is again made more difficult when the submarine is submerged because it can evade in three dimensions. Engagement of a surfaced and located submarine by night at first is attempted by gaining visual perception through the use of search lights. If this succeeds, the submarine is forced to dive, and the engagement of the submarine happens in the same form as it would against a submerged submarine during the day, just with the added use of search lights.

 

Screen Shot 2018 12 18 at 10 28 57 AM

12 September 1941 – the Tembien Convoy

Update 03-08-2019 – added further info on who attacked and ultimately sank SS Alfredo Oriani off Cape Matapan

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.

Large 000000

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 merchant vessels in two days was a remarkable success to the Royal Air Force, it came at a price.

The article below also sets the historic record straight, by providing clarity on who sank what, and addressing the claims made by the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish operating out of Malta.

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. This is confirmed by Shores, Cull, and Malizia in Malta: The Hurricane Years, which records that No. 105 Squadron under Smithers went out on 10 September (sic) to attack two vessels off the Greek coast, leaving one in what they believed a sinking condition, although this also utilises the squadron ORB transcribed below. We still need Italian records to be certain what happened and when.

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.

Screenshot 2018 04 08 22 44 08

The position of SS Alfredo Oriani’s sinking is not 60nm, but over 100 nautical miles off Cape Matapan. (Map done by me using Google Maps)

Screenshot 2018 04 08 22 48 17

The position is about 186nm out of Patrassos, or about 17 hours steaming at full speed. (Map done by me using Google Maps)

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 strong 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 as given by the Italian official history, 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

This day was the big one. 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.

IMG 1394

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.

Large 0000001

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.

IMG 1395

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.

Screen Shot 2018 04 07 at 4 05 08 PM

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 Italian battleship Littorio, being her last captain.
[6] A Folgore class destroyer, an older ship, she was sunk less than two months later 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 the preceding class 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 were scuttled at the armistice in September 1943, 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

Superb site about the Inshore Squadron

Thanks to Robert’s inquiry on the About page, I did a quick Google regarding the Royal Navy’s Inshore Squadron, which ran a variety of vessels for close-in work along the North African coast. Quite a few of these were provided by the Royal Australian Navy. The page below has a lot of information on them.

Happy reading!

http://www.gunplot.net/matapan/scrapironflott12.html

A Most Sombre Assessment

The item below is a note from a meeting at Comando Supremo concerning the disconcerting situation with the naval supply at the end of November 1941. It’s from the supply section of the war diary of German Naval Command South, and most likely originated from the German liaison officer at Comando Supremo, General Rintelen.

The discussion and assessment outline very clearly the dire situation that the Italian naval and air forces faced in the Central Mediterrenean at this point in time, where every convoy was subject to a relentless set of attacks by surface, submarine, and air forces, based on Malta, while at the same time, fuel supplies were rapidly depleting. Since even the use of a battleship had not prevented the loss of Adriatico to surface vessels from Malta, it can be presumed that the Italian naval command must have been quite frustrated, with no ability to up the ante any further.

For: OKW/L/Wolfsschanze, OKH General Staff of the Army, Operations Dept., Attaché Department.

For information: German Naval Command Italy, General of the German Air Force at the Italian Air Force Command

SECRET COMMAND AFFAIR

Instigated by me a meeting was held during lunch time at Comando Supremo, concerning the Africa transports. The deputy commanders of the three armed forces elements and Admiral Weichold took part. The purpose of the discussion was to see how far it would be possible to ship, apart from the most urgent supplies, additional formations and replacements for weapons and equipment for the battle in Marmarica.

Following a detailed examination it became clear that it is not possible, with the current naval situation, to bring reinforcements other than the most urgently required supply into Cyrenaica. Apart from the shipment of fuel and rations by destroyer and submarine, it has only been possible to put a convoy of four vessels into action, covered by one battleship and a cruiser division, of which only one vessel, the Veniero[1], arrived in Benghazi, while two vessels (Capo Faro and Adriatico) were sunk, while the fourth vessel (Iseo) had to seek refuge in a Greek port.

In the same way it will be tried to cross the vessels Ankara and Monginevro, loaded with German supplies, to Benghazi, when the harbour is capable again of receiving a larger vessel after the discharging of the Veniero (4-5 days)[2]. Additional formations, such as the German tank companies, will be crossed to Tripoli in the fast vessels Del Greco and Filzi[3].

Although desirable, the crossing of the tank companies to Benghazi, either with naval vessels or with fast freighters, would block the harbour of Benghazi temporarily for the unloading of the absolutely required supplies.[4]

Concerning the current naval situation, the Deputy Chief of the Admiralty, Admiral Sansonetti, outlined that the situation has worsened further because since yesterday four cruisers and four destroyers are in Malta[5], while apparently also bombers with extended range have arrived.

The situation is furthermore made more difficult because it is at present not possible to gain air superiority over the Central Mediterranean, as well as the limited possibilities for the use of the Italian fleet due to the lack of fuel oil. During the month of November only about 13,000 tons fuel oil arrived, while consumption ran at about 78,000 tons.

The point was further made that at present the transfer ports of Navarino and Suda Bay are very badly protected against air strikes, and a shipment of AA guns was requested. Apart from Italian AA, there are available two batteries of 2 cm and one batter of heavy AA, which are currently ready in Italy for transfer to Africa.

As a result of the meeting it has to be noted that it is not possible to ship any formation in time for the battle in Marmarica, but only the most urgent supplies. Instead it will be attempted to bring these reinforcements to Tripoli.

At the end it was noted by the Italian side that a sufficient supply of Libya to replace the losses is only possible by using the port of Tunis.

The German General at the High Command of the Italian Armed Forces. Nr. 3599/41 GKDOS

[1] Veniero was in turn sunk on the return leg, with a large number of Empire troops POW on board. See at this link.

[2] See at this link for the issues with harbour capacity of Benghazi. While the theoretical capacity was quite good, the actual capacity had been reduced by sunk ships in harbour, as well as other considerations, and Benghazi was only fit for smaller vessels at this stage of the war.

[3] Both of them sunk with all their cargo off Taranto in one of the luckiest submarine attacks in the Mediterranean on 13 December 1941.

[4] This is a bit of a strange statement, given than Ankara also carried a whole tank company and unloaded this successfully in Benghazi.

[5] This was the reinforcement of Force K with cruisers HMS Ajax (Flag), HMS Neptune, destroyers HMS Kandahar and HMS Kimberley, and the destroyer squadron of HMS Sikh, HMS Maori, HMS Legion, and HNMS Isaac Sweers.

German AA Armament of Axis Merchant Vessels – 26 Nov. 1941

The table below gives some information on how the German navy equipped merchants on the North Africa run with AA capability, in order to protect them from the roving Blenheims and Swordfish or Albacores operating from Malta. The memo of which the table was part was sent on 26 November 1941. Of note that three of the vessels in the memo had been sunk by then, two of them with all hands, including the AA crews. Also of note that army (Heer) AA guns were shipped in a few cases, in particular on high-value merchants such as Ankara and Monginevro. Why they were put on the old and rather small steamer Procida is a mystery to me though.

In any case, I hope this is of interest to some, and I would be interested to see how this compared to e.g. the armament on British merchants.

No

Ship Name

Weapons

 

2 cm AA

AA MG[2]

Notes

Single

(Navy crews)[1]

Quad

(Army Crews)

C/30

C/38

C/38

C/13

C/34

 

1

Ankara

2

1

1

 

 

 

2

Almena

 

2

 

 

 

 

3

Brook

 

2

 

 

 

 

4

Bellona

 

2

 

2

 

 

5

Maritza

 

2

 

2

 

Sunk 24-11-41

6

Max Berendt

 

2

 

 

 

Salvage Tug

7

Monginevro

 

 

1

 

 

No Naval AA Crews, Italian vessel which was being loaded with substantial German cargo at the time.

8

Nirvo

 

1

 

2

 

 

9

Procida

 

 

2

2

 

Sunk 24-11-41

10

Tinos

2

 

 

2

 

Sunk 22-11-41 in Benghazi harbour

11

Trapani

2

 

 

 

 

 

12

Santa Fe

 

2

 

 

 

 

13

Savona

 

2

 

2

 

 

14

Spezia

2

 

 

2

 

 

15

Achaia

          Not re-armed yet

16

Cuma

          Not armed yet

17

Menes

          Not re-armed yet

18

Ossag

          Not re-armed yet

19

Reichenfels

          Not re-armed yet

20

Wachtfels

          Not re-armed yet

21

Sturla

          Not armed yet

22

Cagliari

          Not armed yet

Source: NARA, Documents of Marineoberkommando Sued PG45144

[1] C/30 = Standard 20mm light AA gun of the German navy, superseded by the C/38 20 mm gun which was copied from the German army 2cm Flak 38. C/38 = Standard 20mm light AA gun of the German army, adopted by the navy due to its higher reliability. A quadruple mount was available, but not in service with the German navy.

[2] C/13 = Naval version of the MG13 light machine gun, introduced in 1930, and superseded by the MG34. Calibre 7.9mm. C/34 = Naval version of the standard light machine gun of the early war years. High rate of fire. Calibre 7.9mm.

Convoluted Supply

Below a short ULTRA message that shows how complicated life got in terms of keeping the Axis forces in North Africa able to fight, after about three weeks of the CRUSADER battle. This was a period when shipments by merchants were reduced due to the heavy losses which had been suffered recently, and destroyers were employed as a costly expedient.

Dept. for AFRICA Transport has arranged for the delivery of most important supplies for AFRICA to PATRAS and SUDA BAY: from there, they will be sent on, partly on destroyers, and partly by air. Dept. for AFRICA Transport will direct freighters and destroyers to PATRAS, or SUDA BAY (as the case may be): ALBATROS is available for the journey to PATRAS. AMSEL for SUDA BAY: arrival probably not before 5/12.

Cargo of AMSEL:
G.A.F.: 353 cubic metres B4
Army: 90 tons M/T fuel, 400 tons ammunition (of which part has been unloaded at ARGOSTOLI).

Cargo of ALBATROS:
G.A.F.: 1,396 cubic metres B4, 96 cubic metres Rotring, 334 tons Flak ammunition, 271 tons equipment, including 25 (illegible), 100 auxiliary tanks, 43 cases Flak gun barrels (2 cm), 6 cases Flak gun barrels (3.7cm), 19 bottles accumulator acid, 40 a/c tyres, 130 tons canteen supplies, 69 tons bombs.

S.S. Sturla is to move to and fro between ALBATROS and AMSEL, to make up the AMSEL’s cargo. Further freighters are intended to be sent: times of departure and cargo lists will be issued in due course.

Air transport for G.A.F. supplies is required only for B4, a/c engines and Flak gun barrels. Of the army cargo, the Panzer ammunition is urgent. We request list of amounts of supplies sent by air or transhipped on to destroyer, so that supplies can be sent forward punctually.

Should destroyer arrive in SUDA BAY before the BELLONA, then they will (in accordance with orders of Dept. for AFRICA Transport, and SULTAN) be specially available for supplies of B4 to AFRICA.

Note:
ALBATROS = Wachtfels
AMSEL now thought to be BELLONA

A few days later further items were decoded, stating that Wachtfels had moved to Patras from Brindisi, and that it was now to transship directly onto destroyers (presumably at Patras). While saving time, by cancelling the transfer via S.S. Sturla, and by allowing the higher speed of the destroyers to come into play for the whole stretch from Patras to Benghazi, rather than have a slow merchant go to Suda from Patras, this was very costly in terms of fuel. Furthermore, it was now stipulated that the AA gun barrels were to be sent by air.

Patras at the time was also an important transshipment location for fuel to be loaded from ships to airplanes operating from close-by Araxos airport. This was more efficient, since the distance Araxos – Derna was only 394 miles, while a trip via Maleme would have brought the total distance to about 450 miles, and required another landing/take-off (thanks to Great Circle Mapper for this data). While I have no certain information on this, I would presume that the Ju 52 could easily carry its maximum payload over this distance, and might even be able (depending on wind) to return without refueling, as long as the return flight was empty, saving even more fuel in Africa.

G.A.F. = German Air Force
B4 = type of aircraft fuel with lower Octane rating.
M/T = motor transport
Rotring = not known, probably lubricant?
a/c = aircraft