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.

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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.

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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

German Sonar on Italian Vessels – Pt. 3

In the third and, for the moment, final part of this mini series on the use of German S-Geraet sonar on Italian vessels, here is a list of the vessels which had it installed, or were scheduled for installation, as of 28 February 1942. The list excludes Antonio da Mosto, which had been sunk by that date (see this link and this link and this link).

The list is fairly self-explanatory. I am using the Italian abbreviations, so ‘Ct’ stands for Cacciatorpediniere – Destroyer, and ‘Tp’ for Torpediniere, Escort Destroyer or Torpedo Boat. The destroyers listed are an interesting mix, and five were going to be assigned to the Italian fleet following the installation of the S-Geraet. They included the older Navigatori class, of the late 1920s, and the most modern fleet destroyers of the Soldati class.

The Torpediniere are also a bit of a mix, primarily Spica class, but with two older vessels included, the San Martino and the Calatafimi, both of which dated back to WW I destroyer designs and had only recently been downgraded to Torpediniere status. Unlike the destroyers, most of the Torpediniere were going to be assigned to specific stations, Sicily (4), Libya (3), Greece (2), Rhodes (2), Naples (1), and the escort group (1).

A number of destroyers and Torpediniere have no destination allocated to them.

In the table, ‘DC’ stands for depth charge. For Italian depth charges installed, where it reads ‘0 16/50 12/100’, this means ‘no depth charge launcher, 16x50kg depth charges and 12x 100kg depth charges’. For background on the Italian depth charges, please see this link. I am not certain the information in the report is fully correct, but it is given as is.

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Destroyers Usodimare and da Noli in port, late 1930s. The picture shows well the range finder, rounded bridge house, and the twin-turret with its 4.75” (12cm) guns. Courtesy Wikipedia.


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San Martino entering a port. Courtesy Wikipedia

Apart from the naval vessels, some auxiliaries were also equipped with the S-Geraet, for harbour defense in La Spezia and Taranto, and two motor sailing vessels (Motoveliere) for serving with the submarine defense school at La Spezia, to train new personnel. The only vessel where the future port of service isn’t given is the Cyprus.

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Use of German Sonar on Italian vessels – Pt. 2

In a previous post (at this link) I had written about the use of German sonar (S-Geraet) and depth charges by the Italian navy, the Regia Marina. This commenced at the end of 1941, and gave the Regia Marina an important new capability in providing convoy defense on the North Africa route, which led to some quick successes, such as the sinking of HMS P-38 (see also this link). A technical description of the history and functioning of the S-Geraet can be found at this link.

In the post below, I have translated a report of the Special Command of the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, which was charged with the task of overseeing the operation of the German equipment on the Italian vessels. The document is from the war diary of the German Liaison Staff at the Admiralty of the Royal Italian Navy, and can be found in NARA under T-1022 Roll 2481.

Overview of the Activity Carried Out Thus Far by the Special Command for the Installation and Deployment of German S-Geraete on Units of the Royal Italian Navy

(Commenced 17 November 1941)

1.) Introduction followed proposals made by Chief Naval Liaison Command to Italian Navy during July 1941.

2.) Exectution

a) Personnel:

1 Officer (Commander Ahrens)

1 Chief Petty Officer[1]

3 Non-Commissioned Officers from the Submarine Defense School Gotenhafen[2]

Furthermore listening crew (from destroyer Lody, strength 1/4[3] from beginning November to mid-December on Torpedo Boat (Torpediniera) Castore, and
listening crew strength 1/4 on destroyer Da Mosto from beginning November to 1 December. 3 other ranks were killed when the boat was sunk. The NCO and one man remain at the disposal of the Special Command.

b) Activity:

At the start of the activity:

Clearance of specific questions of detail concerning submarine defense with the relevant Italian offices, especially Admirals Strazzari and Da Zara. Determination of equipping Italian vessels with S-Geraet installed with German depth charges and depth charge throwers.

Instruction of Italian crew and shore personnel in various naval stations about installation and maintenance of the German depth charges.

Schooling of listening and depth charge crews on the units with S-Geraet installed. Carried out trials.

Instruction of all captains in all questions relating to submarine defense, especially about the method of attack. Participation in combat missions.

c) Successes of Italian vessels equipped with S-Geraet up to 28 February 1942.

1.) Torpedo boat Castore near Gaeta on 24 November 1941: based on S-Geraet location report evaded two torpedo trails. Carried out attack with 36 depth charges. Destruction of submarine possible.[4]
German listening crew.

2.) Destroyer Da Mosto, southern tip of Sicily, 27 November 1941: location of an unknown minefield.
German listening crew.

3.) Torpedo boat Lince, Gulf of Taranto, early December, attack on located submarine with Italian depth charges. Success questionable.
Italian listening crew and Construction Advisor Morgenstern.[5]

4.) Torpedo Boat Orsa, 115 Degrees, 63 nautical miles off Sfax on 7 January 1942. Attack on located submarine with 30 German depth charges. Success: initially strong aural location ceases; location continues to show in large oil slick. Location of attack had to be left early to ensure protection of the escorted steamer.[6]
Italian and German listening crew, directed by Commander Ahrens.

5.)  Torpedo boat Sagittario at Cape Ducato on 8 February 1942. Evaded torpedo. Enemy submarine rammed, has to be considered destroyed. Torpedo boat heavy damage on the bow.
German and Italian listening crew.[7]

6.) Torpedo boat Circe on 13 February 1942: located enemy submarine was fixed for six hours. Submarine surfaces after 3 attacks with German depth charges; 23 prisoners made. Attempt to bring her in fails, boat sinks. English submarine “Tempest”.
German and Italian listening crew.

7.) Torpedo boat Pallade at Capo dell’Armi on 16 November 1942. Located submarine attacked in three runs with 45 German depth charges. At water depth of 1,600m signal ceases after final attack. Oil slick of 1,000 x 2,000 m.
German and Italian listening crew, directed by Commander Ahrens.

8.) Torpedo boat Circe at Ras Hallab on 23 February 1942. During escort of convoy attacking submarine is located and periscope is sighted. 10 depth charges dropped on diving location. Submarine surfaces briefly, twice, and finally sinks. Bag with flags, parts of interior (door of cupboard, tabletop), cans of biscuits and cigarettes as well as human body parts come up. Large oil slick. Continuous rising of air bubbles.
German and Italian listening crew.

d) Intended equipping of Italian naval and merchant units

Delivered:

1.) 29 S-Geraete of which one fixed in Spezia. One further S-Geraet lost when destroyer da Mosto was sunk.

2.) 40 depth charge throwers, 72 reloading installations, 20 depth charge rails, 60 single depth charge holders.

3.) 4,000 depth charges Type Dora

2,000 depth charges Type Fritz

1,500 stamps and cartridges for depth charges WB D60m and WB F40m.

By 28 February 1942, 10 Italian torpedo boats and 1 destroyer as well as 9 auxiliary vessels have been equipped with the S-Geraet.

For equipping further Italian naval units with S-Geraet, see attached list, Appendix 17.[8]

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R.N. Pallade, a Spica-class, Alcione sub-class Torpedo Boat, photographed pre-war. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

[1] Oberfeldwebel

[2] Ubootabwehrschule (UAS)

[3]1 NCO, 4 other ranks

[4] There is no submarine loss recorded for this day, and no attack in the region of Gaeta either. I used the ASA database at this link for checks.

[5] Baurat, a German civil servant grade. I have not verified this attack.

[6] This was not actually a successful attack – see this link, in particular comments below.

[7] The submarine was HM/Sub Proteus (N29), and while she was damaged, it appears she came off better than Sagittario. Details from the crew of HM/Sub Proteus can be found at this link.

[8] This will follow in another post.

Emilio Bianchi – Alexandria Frogman, died at 103 years old

Emilio Bianchi, who on 19 Dec 41 placed a mine under HMS Valiant together with Durant de la Penne, disabling her for eight months, died on August 15th. He and his comrades who carried out the attack on the British battleships in Alexandria achieved an amazing feat, putting the final act in place in a drama which had played out since mid-November, and which saw a sudden changing of the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean in just four weeks.

On 14 November, aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is sunk by German submarine U-81 in the western Mediterranean.

On 25 November, battleship HMS Barham was sunk by German submarine U-331 while returning to Alexandria, with a dramatic video showing her demise, which caused substantial loss of life:

On the night 14/15 December, light cruiser HMS Galatea is sunk by German submarine U-557 on her return to Alexandria.

On the night 18/19 November Force K, consisting of light cruisers HMS Neptune, HMS Aurora, and HMS Penelope, supported by destroyers Havock, Kandahar, Lance, and Lively, runs into a deep sea minefield off Tripoli. HMS Neptune capsizes, again with substantial loss of life, leaving only one survivor. HMS Kandahar also strikes a mine and is sunk the next day by destroyer HMS Jaguar. HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope both strike mines, with HMS Aurora damaged so badly that she has to return to the UK where she is repaired until the end of August 1942, while HMS Penelope can be repaired in Malta and re-enters battle after one month.

The attack by Bianchi and its colleagues was the final chapter of this chain of events, disabling two battleships and one destroyer.

Together they removed one carrier, three battleships, and four light cruisers, as well as several destroyers from the order of battle of the British navy in the Mediterranean, at the height of the battle for supremacy in the central Mediterranean.

Daily Telegraph Obituary

Interview with Emilio Bianchi

History of HMS Valiant

May this very brave man rest in peace.

More Warship Pictures

This blog (in true Ronseal tradition named: “Vintage photographs of battleships, battlecruisers and cruisers”) features a lot of very nicely reworked pictures of warships from all over the world and a lot of different times. Some stuff I did not even know existed once upon a time. Most importantly however, it contains very nice pictures of Regia Marina vessels.

http://dennilfloss.blogspot.ru/2013/03/italian-cruiser-raimondo-montecuccoli.html

Worth checking out.

Pencil Drawings of Italian Naval Vessels

This is an absolutely fantastic site I came across by accident today. It looks as if it has thousands of pencil drawings of Italian ships, including several hundred of the Italian navy including auxiliaries. The drawings seem to be based on photos

http://www.cherini.eu/mmi/index.html

Unfortunately in Italian only, but it should be easy enough to manoeuvre for ship lovers. Below a drawing from the site and the corresponding photo of Sagittarius, from the Italian Wikipedia. 

Sagittarius was a 600 ton escort of the Spica-class, sub-class Perseo. Sagittarius survived the war and soldiered on until 1964, before being stricken from the naval list.

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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.