This was a British fast convoy operation in the Mediterranean to send three ships, all loaded with urgently needed supplies, to Piraeus and one ship to Malta (6/11 January 1941).
This marked the start of the 1941 convoy ‘season’, and was part of a complex series of operations undertaken from both Alexandria and Gibraltar, the former as ‘MC4’ involving the passage of a fast convoy to Malta, which one ship would enter while the others continued to the west, single fast and slow convoys from Malta to the east, and two Aegean convoys as ‘Excess’ for the first part of the passage.
The rationale behind this whole undertaking was the success of the British convoys to and from Malta in 1940, which seemed to indicate that a passage through the length of the Mediterranean was possible. However, a new factor had been introduced in the equation by the Axis forces, in the form of General Hans Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps, whose 500 anti-shipping and bomber aircraft were in the process of being moved from Norwegian to Sicilian bases specifically to tackle the British convoys in the Mediterranean.
While the British deemed ‘Excess’ to be a success, inasmuch as all of the merchant ships completed their passage undamaged, the cost to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet was high, and served notice that such operations should not be repeated until there was a major change of circumstances, such as British occupation of the North African coast and the securing of British air superiority in the central Mediterranean: such circumstances did not, in fact, come to be for another two years.
Italy’s declaration of war against France and the UK on 10 June 1940 brought World War II to the Mediterranean theatre, and placed the Italian air force astride the UK’s now-traditional sea route to the Indian Ocean via Gibraltar at the wester5n end of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal at the other end of this same sea to provide access to the Red Sea and thence the Indian Ocean. Another strategic consideration with which the UK (one its own after France’s capitulation on 25 June) had to contend was the fact that the Italian navy’s strength approximately tripled the numbers of battleships, cruisers and submarines available to the Axis powers to challenge British sea power. The Royal Navy had been prepared to defend the eastern basin of the Mediterranean so long as France could control the same sea’s western basin from its ports in southern France and French North Africa, but the armistice at Compiègne removed the French navy from the alliance only 15 days after Italy’s entry to the war.
From its primary bases at Gibraltar and Alexandria, the Royal Navy had henceforward to secure the convoys needed to deliver the supplies on which Malta was wholly reliant for survival as a centre of pro-British population and a central Mediterranean base from which to interdict Italian convoys across the Mediterranean between Italy and Libya. As Italy attacked Egypt from Libya in September 1940 and Greece from Albania in October 1940, the Royal Navy maintained most of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria, while Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force 'H' at Gibraltar was used for raids in the western basin of the Mediterranean.
Allied strategic successes early November 1940 including the halting of the Italian 'Emergenza 'G' offensive in Greece and the disabling of the Italian battleships Littorio, Conte di Cavour and Caio Duilio in 'Judgement', and these two successes provided both the incentive and the opportunity to resupply Malta and reinforce Greece.
Thus was set the scene for the complex of undertakings which included 'Excess'. Three convoys were involved. Waiting at Gibraltar for the start of the 'MC4' undertaking were the 7,264-ton British Clan Cumming, 9,653-ton British Clan MacDonald and 9,928-ton British Empire Song carrying matériel destined for Piraeus in Greece, and the 11,063-ton US Essex carrying 3,000 tons of seed potatoes, 4,000 tons of ammunition and 12 crated Hawker Hurricane fighters for Malta. There was to have been a fourth merchant vessel, the 10,917-ton British Northern Prince, but this was driven ashore in a gale on 1 January and suffered damage that prevented participation in 'MC4': it was the troops this vessel was carrying who were then transferred to Bonaventure.
At Alexandria was the MW.5 convoy with two British freighters, namely the 9,776-ton Breconshire and 10,492-ton Clan Macaulay, which were to deliver matériel to Malta.
At Malta was the ME.6 convoy with nine empty freighters awaiting passage to Alexandria.
Naval support for the whole undertaking was entrusted to six groups of British warships. Force 'A' was to sortie from Alexandria with the battleships Valiant and Warspite, fleet carrier Illustrious, and destroyers Dainty, Gallant, Greyhound, Griffin, Jervis, Nubian and Mohawk to cover 'MC4' and the MW.5 and ME.6 convoys to the east of the Skerki Banks.
Rear Admiral E. de F. Renouf’s Force 'B' comprised the light cruisers Gloucester and Southampton, and destroyers Ilex and Janus, and was to transport 500 soldiers and airmen from the Aegean to Malta, and then join 'MC4'.
Force 'C' was to screen the MW.5 convoy, and comprised the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta and the destroyers Defender and Diamond.
Vice Admiral H. D. Pridham-Wippell’s Force 'D' was to depart Alexandria with the heavy cruiser York, light cruiser Orion, corvettes Gloxinia, Hyacinth, Peony and Salvia, together with the oiler Brambleleaf, and was to be joined at sea by the the light cruisers Ajax and Australian Perth from Souda Bay in Crete.
Force 'F' was to screen the 'MC4' convoy with the light anti-aircraft cruiser Bonaventure (carrying 400 soldiers and airmen to Malta) and the destroyers Hasty, Hereward, Hero and Jaguar.
Force 'H' was to cover the 'MC4' convoy from Gibraltar to the Skerki Banks with the battleship Malaya, battle-cruiser Renown, fleet carrier Ark Royal carrying six Fairey Swordfish anti-shipping aircraft for Malta as well as hr own aircraft, light cruiser Sheffield, and destroyers Faulknor, Firedrake, Forester, Fortune and Fury.
The ‘Excess’ convoy was seen as being decisively important, and involved much of the Royal Navy’s strength in the Mediterranean. On 6 January ‘MC4’ began as its three merchant vessels departed Gibraltar toward the west, suggesting a destination such as the UK or West Africa, under escort of Force ‘F’. After dark the convoy and its escort reversed course back through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the western basin of the Mediterranean. On the following day from Gibraltar there emerged Somerville’s Force ‘H’. Bonaventure and her four destroyers remained with the convoy as its close escort for the first part of the operation. As the entire naval strength from both ends of the Mediterranean was to be engaged in ‘Excess’, Cunningham took the opportunity for the simultaneous passage of the MW.5 convoy (Breconshire and Clan Macaulay) from Alexandria to Malta under escort of Force 'C', joined later by the four corvettes of Force 'D', and of the empty ships of the 'ME.6' convoy in the opposite direction, while Renouf’s Force ‘B’ (cruisers Gloucester and Southampton, and destroyers Ilex and Janus) departed the Aegean Sea to sail ahead of the main fleet to deliver troops to the island.
Under Cunningham’s command, the main fleet sortied from Alexandria as Force ‘A’ (battleships Valiant and Warspite, fleet carrier Illustrious, and destroyers Dainty, Gallant, Greyhound, Griffin, Jervis, Mohawk, Nubian and, later, Juno. Another element of the British operation was Pridham-Wippell’s Force ‘D’, which waited in Souda Bay on the northern coast of Crete with the cruisers Ajax and Australian Perth to meet the arrival of the Mediterranean Fleet’s logistic back-up, which comprised the fleet oiler Brambleleaf escorted by the cruisers Orion and York, and corvettes Gloxinia, Hyacinth, Peony and Salvia.
The whole network of ship movements was complex, and required very careful attention to scheduling for all the forces to reach the Sicilian Narrows between Sicily and the Tunisian coast at the appropriate time, and thus be in position to pass on the task of escorting and protecting the main eastbound convoy.
Italian reconnaissance aircraft spotted Force ‘A’ during the afternoon of 7 January, but the nearest Italian submarines, Aradam and Arum, did not attempt any attack. On the following day the ships of Force ‘B’ landed their embarked troops in Malta and then departed to the west in order to meet the ‘Excess’ convoy. The cruiser Sydney set out with the destroyer Stuart to the east.
Vickers Wellington medium bombers of the RAF bombed Naples on 8 January, damaging the battleship Giulio Cesare with three near-misses and causing what was now the only operational Italian battleship, Vittorio Veneto, to retreat from the approaching convoys.
On 9 January Force ‘A’, Force ‘D’ and Sydney joined some 240 miles (385 km) to the south-east of Malta. By dawn on 9 January Force ‘H’ was ahead of the ‘Excess’ convoy and covering it from any Italian surface ship interference from the north-east. The convoy was soon joined by the cruisers Gloucester and Southampton, which had landed their troops in Malta on the previous day.
Force ‘H’ and the ‘Excess’ convoy were found by Italian reconnaissance aircraft at a point about 115 miles (185 km) to the south-west of Cape Spartivento, but an Italian air attack by 10 Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers was beaten off by Ark Royal’s fighters and the anti-aircraft gunfire of the British warships during the afternoon, although the battleship Valiant suffered a near-miss. At dusk, Somerville passed responsibility for the convoy to Renouf’s Force ‘B’ which, with three cruisers and five destroyers, escorted it through the Sicilian Narrows and, with Force ‘B’, passed into the central Mediterranean.
The Italian submarines Fratelli Bandiera and Santorre Santarosa did not attempt to intervene. At dawn on 10 January the Italian torpedo boats Circe and Vega made a torpedo attack on the ‘Excess’ convoy of Pantelleria island, but were driven off. Vega was damaged by the gunfire of the cruiser Bonaventure before being sunk by a torpedo from the destroyer Hereward. The Italian submarine Settimo missed the British ships with a torpedo salvo. A short while later Cunningham arrived with Force ‘A’.
So far all had gone well, the only unfortunate episode being the mining of the Force ‘A’ destroyer Gallant. The damaged destroyer was towed by the destroyer Mohawk to Malta, where it was later bombed and had to be run aground, the wreck being cannibalised for spares.
But Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps, an experienced anti-shipping formation now operating from air bases in Sicily, was now operational in the Mediterranean. Force ‘A’ had been shadowed continuously since sailing from Alexandria and, during the afternoon of 10 January there developed heavy dive-bombing attacks by German aircraft, in the form of Junkers Ju 87 and Ju 88 machines, assisted by Italian low-level torpedo attackers and high-level bombers. It was only the Germans who were effective: they concentrated on the carrier Illustrious, which quickly received six hits from heavy bombs and three very near misses. It is probable that only her armoured flight deck saved the carrier from destruction, but the ship was nonetheless severely damaged and limped into Malta after dark only with great difficulty.
The Axis air forces then made a concerted effort to destroy Illustrious before she could be repaired. Illustrious and Essex were hit on 16 January in a raid by 44 Ju 87 dive-bombers, which were escorted by 10 Macchi C.202 and 10 Fiat CR.42 single-seat fighters and 20 Messerschmitt Bf 110 two-seat fighters. Bombs exploding in Grand Harbour killed numerous fish, which were collected after the raid and eaten by the besieged Maltese. Illustrious was not damaged to any further extent, but a bomb exploded in Essex's engine room, killing 15 men and wounding 23 more. There was another heavy air raid on 17 January, and Illustrious was again hit by an air raid on the following day. Illustrious was not damaged by the final major attack on 19 January and, after the completion temporary repairs, departed Malta on 23 January, leaving its Fairey Fulmar fighters for the defence of the island. Illustrious was able to complete additional repairs after reaching Alexandria on 25 January, but restoration of full combat effectiveness required passage to the USA for extensive dockyard repairs.
The attack on Illustrious also saw the Axis air forces score one bomb hit on the battleship Warspite.
Departing Malta on 11 January, Force ‘B’ was met by more air attacks. The Ju 87 dive-bombers of the II/Stukageschwader 2 landed one bomb, which failed to detonate, on the cruiser Gloucester, but damaged the cruiser Southampton so severely that it had to be abandoned during the evening before being sunk by a pair of torpedoes from the cruiser Orion. On 12 January the cruisers Gloucester, Orion and Perth, with their destroyers, meet Force’ A’ west of Crete together with Rear Admiral H. B. Rawlings’s force, comprising the battleship Barham, fleet carrier Eagle, cruiser Ajax and a number of destroyers, which had sailed from Alexandria for a planned raid on Italian targets in the Dodecanese islands group. This plan now had to be abandoned as a result of bad weather.
Between 14 and 18 January the elements of the Mediterranean Fleet returned to Alexandria. Though the object of the operation had been accomplished, as all four of the merchant ships reached their destinations safely, the cost had been heavy and the setback to the Mediterranean Fleet’s control of the central Mediterranean was plain. Cunningham at once reported that the key requirement had now become the defeat of the Luftwaffe rather than the checking of the Italian navy. More fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns were therefore needed in Malta, and more radar-fitted ships in his fleet, and heavy attacks on the Sicilian airfields used by the German and Italian aircraft were also essential.