Sea-Air Battle in the Mediterranean 10 – 13 September 1941

Sea-Air Battle in the Mediterranean 10 – 13 September 1941

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.

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 twice on 11/12 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 submarine HM/Sub Thunderbolt sank another German merchant on her way to Benghazi. While the loss of four merchant vessels in two days was a remarkable success to the Royal Air Force, it came at a price.

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.  The article below sets the historic record straight, by providing clarity on who sank what, addressing the claims made by the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish operating out of Malta, and correcting the Italian Official History regarding the sinking of SS Alfredo Oriani on 13 September.

The outcome of the battle, other than the losses of ships, men, and material, was also the replacement of the commanding officer of the Regia Aeronauticas commander in North Africa, General Ajmone Cat.

Many thanks go to Enrico Cernuschi and Lorenzo Colombo for their help.

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Convoy Information – ULTRA Intercept 8 September 1941. TNA DEFE3/832

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RN Alfredo Oriani underway. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Air/Sea Battle on the North Africa Route 10-13 September 1941

These four days saw heavy anti-shipping operations by the Malta-based British aircraft with substantial losses on both sides. The 10th and 11th of September saw No. 105 Squadron strikes against a reported convoy off Greece. Then 12th September 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 IV 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, all against the same convoy.

Losses in this operation were heavy, with three Blenheims lost. These were the planes 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, meaning that No. 105 Squadron had suffered a loss of 50% of aircraft despatched on mission that day.

Two Axis merchant ships were sunk in these attacks, SS Caffaro by No.105 and SS Nicoló Odero by No.38 Squadron, both part 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 by No. 105 Squadron on 11 September while on the way to Benghasi from Patras. 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, and the war diary of Naval Transport Office Benghazi, the butcher’s bill for the four days amounted to 38 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 45 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.
  • SS Livorno, 46 crew and German AA gunners, 12 lost and 34 survived.

10-11 September

Off North Africa, at 0230 hours on 10 September HM/Sub Thunderbolt sinks Motor Schooner Svan I with gun fire. Svan I was at the time trying to fix an engine problem.

On the same day, following a sighting report by a reconnaissance sortie of No. 69 Squadron, No. 105 Squadron was despatched from Malta to search for a small convoy off Cape Spartivento. It returned empty-handed, not having located the target, and instead attacked a small schooner of the Regia Marinas auxiliary force, the V213 Anital L, claiming to have sunk it. Instead however she was merely damaged.

The next day, 11 September, the Squadron went out again, and claimed SS Alfredo OrianiThe steamer which had departed Petrasso on the 11th was escorted by torpedo boat CANTORE. While the timing of the attack reports in the British and Italian accounts diverges by a day, and the British pilots reported another merchant present, it is nevertheless certain that this was the successful attack on Oriani. The description of the attack and its location and the sinking are so close that only No.105 Squadron could have been responsible for her loss. This assessment follows a review in the Operation Record Books of Nos. 11, 14, 55 and 107 Squadron. 

One reason for the high number of survivors seems to have been that Livorno carried boats as deck cargo, enabling crew members to utilize them to abandon ship. The German report on the sinking notes:

Following the torpedo hit and the start of a substantial fire, the ship and the area of petrol burning on the water surface had to be abandoned as quickly as possible. There were no opportunities for participation in rescue or recovery work since every man had to concentrate on saving their bare life.

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.


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SS Alfredo Oriani in peacetime, from Wrecksite.eu

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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.

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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.

No. 105 Squadron ORB states that five Blenheim IV went out on a shipping sweep at 0645am on 11 September. The four attacking aircraft returned at 1211pm, while two planes returned early with engine trouble, 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 by Escort Destroyers 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.

The war diary of Supermarina has different information instead and it is difficult to understand why the Official History is not picking this up.

10 September

At 1200 hours the steamer Oriani, escorted by escort destroyer Cantore leaves Patras for Kalamata.

11 September (interceptions/notfications)

Escort destroyer Cantore notifies at 1000 hours 11 September to have seen enemy planes which are attacking it in 36°10N. 20°10’E (about 75 miles off Cape Matapan). Requests intervention by fighters.

11 September (damaged/lost)

Steamer Oriani, navigating from Patras to Benghazi escorted by Escort Destroyer Cantore was attacked by enemy bombers at 35°50N. 20°30’E (about 60 miles off Cape Matapan) and hit in the engine and steering gear. Cantore takes off the crew and makes for Kalamata, abandoning the steamer which she could not take under tow due to the condition of the sea. 

At 1500 hours a reconnaissance plane reports the steamer in 35°50N. 20°00’E lying to with a list. 

Marimorea Patras ordered the despatch of the tug Bagnoli from Zante and of the escort destroyer Altair which during the 12th would be replaced by Cantore..

At 1755 hours on 13 September Altair reports that Oriani has sunk.

The war diary confirms the following facts:

  • the departure time of the convoy was 16 hours earlier than given in the Italian Official History. 
  • the convoy was on a direct routing from Patras to Benghazi, and not via Brindisi
  • the location of the engagement was close to where the ORB of No. 105 Squadron places it
  • at the time of the attack, the convoy had been on its way for 22 hours
  • the time of the engagement was during the morning of 11 September, during the time for the mission given in the No. 105 Squadron ORB 

The Italian Official History is therefore considerably off the facts here, and the account of Supermarinas war diary together with the ORB of No. 105 Squadron confirms the actual events.

 

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The position of SS Alfredo Oriani’s sinking reported in the Supermarina war diary is not 75nm, but over 100 nautical miles off Cape Matapan. (Rommelsriposte.com using Google Maps)

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The position is about 175nm out of Patrassos, or about 16 hours steaming at full speed. (Rommelsriposte.com using Google Maps)

Also on 11 September at 1050 hours Tunderbolt sinks the German steamer Livorno out of a direct convoy from Naples to Benghazi with two torpedoes into the forward section, 24 miles at 327˚ off Benghazi. Hit between holds 1 and 2, she caught fire immediately and sank at 1120 hours. Of the crew of 46, including seven Italians, 14 members of Marinebordflak Kompanie Süd and 25 German sailors, 34 are rescued by the escort destroyers Polluce and Centauro. Of these 10 are wounded, including four severely. An escorting Cant Z 507 float plane attacks the submarine without effect.

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Attack Report on HM/Sub Thunderbolt – ULTRA Intercept. TNA DEFE3/832[1]

12/13 September

This day was the big one, and would lead to the total loss of two of the five steamers with their important cargo out of the important Naples – Tripoli convoy that departed on the 10th. It was attacked several times, first during the early morning hours by No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. with their Swordfish, without success. In the afternoon of the 12th, eight Blenheim IV were despatched by No. 105 Squadron. This time, the attack cost the Squadron severe losses, but it sank the steamer Caffaro. The final attacks came during the night 12/13 September, first another unsuccessful attack by the Swordfish, followed by high-level bombing from Malta-based Wellingtons, which struck and disabled Nicolo Odero, leading to her sinking later.

Official Accounts and Memories

The reconnaissance report from No. 69 Squadron notes that the convoy was first located on 11 September, by an ASV-equipped Swordfish. It was then relocated on 12 September by a Blenheim flown by Sgt. Bridge, and misidentified as consisting of none merchants with four destroyers. No. 105 Squadron later corrected this. The convoy was located at an unknown time, while steering 155˚ at 7-10 knots, at a distance of 37’ at 205˚ from Cape Lampion.  

The Italian official history La Difesa del Trafico Vol. I leads into the narrative of the battle.

 

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 write up in the Malta war diary is below:

 

An Italian convoy of steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, BAINSIZZA, NICOLO ODERO, and GUILA[9] departed Naples on the 10th, escorted by destroyers ORIANI and FULMINE and torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, ORSA, and CIRCE from Trapani, and OERSEO[10] 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 F.A.A., 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.

The Swordfish attack happened the night of 11/12 September, it was carried out by an ASV Swordfish as ‘Searcher’ another ASV Swordfish as strike leader, and five strike planes. The Searcher left at 1925 hours and reported the convoy at 2145 hours. The strike force left Hal Far at 2225 hours, located the convoy 10 miles off Kuriat Island at 0105 hours, and gave signal to attack at 0110 hours. Results claimed were two certain and two probable hits, with one merchant as probably sunk and two more probably damaged. It noted heavy anti-aircraft fire, and aircraft ‘G’ was damaged at the tail. While the armament of the merchants in this convoy is not known, a few weeks later, merchant Bainsizza was reported to carry two quadruple 2cm guns fore and aft, two Italian 2cm guns, one Italian 13.2mm machine gun, and about half a dozen jury-rigged machine guns owned and operated by the troops it carried. In other words, this merchant ship it had a better light AA armament than some pre-war light cruisers. 

The seven aircraft despatched by No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. were ‘V’ (Searcher), S/Lt. Coxon, S/Lt. Robertson (Obs); ‘F’ (Strike lead) Lt. Whitworth, S/Lt. Parrich (Obs), Sgt. Parker (AG); ‘G’ (Torpedo) Lt. Garthwhite, S/Lt. Stokes (Obs); ‘K’ S/Lt. Nottingham, S/Lt. Wellington (Obs); ‘H’ S/Lt. Taylor, L/A/ Brown (AG); ‘M’ Lt. Lamb, S/Lt. Griffiths (Obs); ’S’ S/Lt. Cotton, L/A. Brewer (AG). The attack was reviewed in November 1941 by training authorities of the Fleet Air Arm, and considered ‘yet another good operation by 830 Squadron’. Questions were however raised over who attacked what, and suspected torpedo failures of the Mark VIII torpedo. It also attracted praise at command level. Despite the optimistic claims however, it is clear that no success or hits were achieved. It is puzzling how air crew could get results observation this wrong.

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Swordfish Attack Report No. 830 Squadron, night 11/12 September 1941. TNA ADM199/108

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. The crews were S/Ld Smithers again 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. The crews had severe misgivings about a daylight attack on such a heavily defended convoy, rightly so as it turned out. Newly arrived squadron CO W/Cdr Scivier agreed, and it was suggested that night attacks by Swordfish and Wellingtons were the best way forward. The station CO, Group Captain Cahill, disagreed, and Air Marshal Lloyd who was called on to make the final decision, sided with him. The Blenheims left at 1245 hours.

The Squadron ORB has the following entry:

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.

While the ORB entry is much better than the entry in the Malta war diary, the British accounts are nevertheless incorrect in several aspects, and need to be read with the Italian account of the battle.  For example, while there were six merchants and six escorts, none of the merchants came in at 12,000 tons, and only one vessel, Caffaro, was hit. Nevertheless, in the chaotic melee it is understandable that reporting of hits was flawed. The Blenheims were going into attack at 210 miles per hour, with tracer flying all around them.

The Italian official history La Difesa del Trafico Vol. I continues with the actual story:

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.

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[11], 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[12] and Marina Tripoli[13] 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.

The attack at 0310 hours was reported by convoy leader Oriani as an unknown number of planes at 0320 hours, when the convoy was reported about 20 miles at 120˚ off Eurist.

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, again supported by the embarked Flak. Ammunition use was 23, 13, and 62 rounds of 2cm AA, respectively. The weather is described as clear and sunny, with medium visibility.

During the late afternoon, No. 69 Squadron sends out Blenheim L.9875 with P/O Geech, F/O Crockett, and Sgts/ Preece and Raff on a reconnaissance from 1545 to 1855 hours. This relocates the convoy, in 33˚56’ N 11˚52’ E on course 150˚ at speed 10 knots, and notes 30˚ nord of the convoy a large oil patch, four empty life boats, five rafts, and wreckage. It also sees a yellow dinghy which it considers may have contained the missing Blenheim crew.

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A 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

Two attack strikes were launched on the convoy, the first being No. 830 Squadron Swordfish again, and the second No. 38 Squadron Wellingtons. 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.

The Swordfish attack was similarly structured to that of the preceding night. One Searcher, one strike leader, and this time six strike planes in two flights of three. The Searcher left Malta at 1955, followed by the Strike Force at 2055 hours. At 2250 the ASV radar picked up the convoy, and at 2315 hours the strike force sighted the convoy. At 2320 hours the signal to attack was given. The force claimed two certain and one probable hits, and one motor vessel and one tanker ball damaged. Opposition was described as intense light and heavy AA fire from the escort, the merchants, and shore batteries.

The eight aircraft despatched by No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. were ‘F’ (Searcher), Lt. Bibby, S/Lt. Kinghorn (Obs), L/A Clark (AG); ‘P’ (Strike lead) Lt. Lamb, S/Lt. Willett (Obs), Sgt. Parker (AG); ‘O’ (Torpedo) Lt. Osborn, Lt. Stevenson (Obs); ‘M’ S/Lt. Nottingham, S/Lt. Davies (Obs); ’S’ S/Lt. Williams, S/Lt Gordon-Smith (Obs); ‘G’ S/Lt. Campbell, L/A Fallon (AG); ’K’ S/Lt. Cotton, L/A. Salisbury (AG); ’A’ S/Lt. Coxon, L/A. Watson (AG)


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Swordfish Attack Report No. 830 Squadron, night 12/13 September 1941. TNA ADM199/108

Following the Swordfish attack, 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 those on SS Nicoló Odero, and no other hits were achieved. The earlier attack reported at 0105 hours was almost certainly the torpedo attack by Fleet Air Arm planes out of Malta, using 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.[14]

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.

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.

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

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.

Overall, it is clear from the Italian accounts that the British accounts were severely mistaken about the impact of their attacks. Contrary to the very optimistic claims, again no ships had been hit in the attack by No. 830 Squadron on 12/13 September. In the afternoon attack by No. 105 Squadron, only one merchant had been hit, not two. It is noticeable that both Swordfish attacks claim substantial damage to the convoy when in fact no hits were achieved at all, describing fire and smoke where there can have been none, while the attacks by RAF bombers overstated the number of vessels hit. If all claims had been correct, this convoy would have been wiped out.

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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The Aftermath

On 13 September Hitler requested that the X. Fliegerkorps should ensure surveillance over all Mediterranean convoys. After an intervention by Göring this was reduced to the route from Greece to Cyrenaica, and the coastal defense of Cyrenaica and Marmarica, which meant in practice no change to the existing arrangement. Following further negotiations between Göring and Gen. Pricolo, Chief of Staff of Superaereo, the command of the Regia Aeronautica, this was confirmed in a letter by Hitler to Mussolini on 29 October, with the line of Cape Matapan signifying the division of responsibility.

For No. 105 Squadron, this was to be one of the last operations it flew in the Mediterranean. It suffered two more losses before returning home in October to convert to Mosquitos. It did however maintain a Blenheim I as a ‘hack’ plane. No. 107 Squadron then took over operations on Malta, following the pattern of success bought at a high price. 

The last losses of No. 105 Squadron in the Med were 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 during which Sgt. Bendall and his crew were lost 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. Escorted by 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.

  Footnotes

[1] The sinking of Livorno as well as the other events of the preceding days, with many vessels sank close to ports, arose the ire of Rommel himself who wrote an aggressive letter to the commanding officer of 5a Squadraarrogantly lecturing the Regia Aeronautica commander on how to do his job. General Ajmone Cat was not having any of it and wrote a clear response. This probably contributed to him being relieved in early November. General Cat was then appointed commander of the Air Force School, and from the armistice became Head of the General Staff of the Regia Aeronautica, a position he held until 1951.

[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 (4.7”) 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 Dardo II class destroyer (also known as Folgore class), 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 Dardo II 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. An almost identical 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] Should be MV Giulia.

[10] Orseo should be Perseo, a 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.

[11] This are likely to have been the eight Blenheims of No. 105 Squadron out of Luqa, Malta, on their attack run.

[12] Regia Marina High Command

[13] Naval Command Tripoli

[14] 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
  • Battle Axe Blenheims – unit history of No. 105 Squadron
  • ADM199/108 – Night operations from Malta

Italian

Official history:

  • La Difesa del Trafico con l’Africa Settentrionale Vol. I
  • La Difesa del Trafico con l’Albania e la Grecia
  • War Diaries of Supermarina, September 1941

German

  • War diaries Naval Transport Offices Benghazi, Tripolis.
  • Cargo Manifests, Naval Transport Office Naples
  • Combat reports Marinebordflak Kompanie Süd

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