Operation ME

This was the designation of Allied convoys (together with a numerical and sometimes a literal suffix) plying the route from Malta to Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt, and inaugurated in July 1940, interrupted during the period in which Malta was besieged, and resumed in November 1942 to end on 1/2 June 1943 with ME.28, and as such reciprocals of the 'MW' series (July 1940/June 1943).

This 'Malta Eastward' or 'Malta to Egypt' series, which was the reciprocal of the MW series, began in July 1940 with ME.1, which was a repeat of MF.1 and MS.1, and the series then came to include a number of important undertakings.

The ME.4 convoy of 26/29 November 1940 was the reciprocal of the MW.4 undertaking and comprised five British merchant vessels (10,605-ton Cornwall, 6,054-ton Devis, 3,338-ton Rodi, 1,587-ton Volo and 12,435-ton Waiwera). These departed Malta on 26 November under escort of the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta and destroyers Vampire, Vendetta and Voyager, and the convoy reached Alexandria 29 November, Cornwall, Rodi and Volo meanwhile detaching to Port Said. During the later stages of this operation, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet carried out attacks on Tripoli, and also covered the movements between Greece, Souda Bay and Egypt. In addition to the warships already mentioned, the battleship Malaya, fleet carrier Eagle, light cruiser Ajax, and destroyers Hasty, Havock, Hero, Hyperion and Ilex were also involved.

The ME.5A convoy of 20/23 December 1940 comprised some of the unladen ships currently lying at Malta. The 9,776-ton commissioned transport Breconshire, 7,347-ton Clan Ferguson, 10,492-ton Clan Macaulay and 7,731-ton Memnon departed Malta in the afternoon of 20 December under escort of the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta, destroyer Wryneck and corvettes Hyacinth, Peony and Salvia, with a more distant screen provided during the night by the main body of the Mediterranean Fleet. The convoy arrived safely at Alexandria during the morning of 23 December.

The ME.5½ or ME.5B convoy of 10/12 January 1941 was a component of the complex of British operations generally considered as ‘Excess’, and comprised two empty British freighters Lanarkshire and Waiwera, of 9,816 and 12,435 tons respectively, escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta and destroyer Diamond. The convoy departed Malta immediately after the arrival of the MW.5½ inward convoy. Calcutta was detached almost immediately to join the ‘Excess’ convoy somewhat ahead of ME.5½, and after this the convoy joined the ‘Excess’ convoy later in the day and remained with it until the morning of 12 January, when it detached to pass to the south of Crete and reach Alexandria on 13 January.

The ME.6 convoy of 10/13 January 1941was another component of the complex of British operations generally considered as ‘Excess’. This convoy comprised vessels which had discharged their loads in Malta, namely five slow freighters (6,054-ton Devis, 9,351-ton Hoegh Hood, 3,338-ton Rodi, 7,406-ton Trocas and 1,587-ton Volo) and two tanker/oilers (5,916-ton Plumleaf and 8,319-ton Pontfield). Like the slightly faster ME.5½, the ME.6 convoy departed Malta on 10 January under escort of the corvettes Hyacinth, Peony and Salvia. It had been intended that the light cruisers Gloucester and Southampton, and the destroyer Diamond should also join this convoy, but other matters intervened before this could take place. In the event, the heavy cruiser York and the light cruisers Ajax, Orion and Australian Perth joined the convoy from Souda Bay on the north coast of Crete during the morning of 10 January, Ajax detaching again at 12.00. At dusk Orion and Perth also detached leaving the York as the escort, the corvettes also having detached to Souda Bay. The destroyer Nubian joined at 08.00 on 12 January, York left at 10.00, and the convoy arrived unscathed at Alexandria on 13 January.

Over this same period, in which the main force of the Mediterranean Fleet provided more distant cover, the Axis forces concentrated their efforts on the major British warships, probably as a result of the Axis leadership’s perception that the severe handling of the primary British naval strength would lead to the easier destruction of the convoy’s vessels. Thus the main weight of the Axis attacks was directed first at the main body of the Mediterranean Fleet and second at a detached cruiser force. Unlike the earlier Axis attacks, which had been undertaken by the Italian navy and air force, these later and very effective attacks were undertaken largely by German aircraft of General Hans Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps.

The battle started just after 12.00 with an attack by Italian torpedo bombers, whose efforts were evaded, but very shortly after this a large formation of German dive-bombers arrived to start determined and highly skilled attacks aimed solely at the fleet carrier Illustrious. The carrier took six direct hits and also suffered the effects of three near misses, this disabling the carrier, starting serious fires, rendering the flight deck unusable, putting half the armament out of action and damaging the ship’s steering. Out of control and later steering with her main engines, the carrier left the Mediterranean Fleet and headed for Malta escorted by the destroyers Hasty and Jaguar, suffering another air attack and again being hit en route. The carrier finally berthed at Malta shortly after 22.00 on 10 January. The fires were not extinguished until 03.00 on the following day. The carrier suffered the loss of 126 men killed and 91 wounded.

Another dive-bombing attack was made on the Mediterranean Fleet at 17.00, this time concentrated on the battleship Valiant, but to no major effect.

The German aircraft returned to the attack on the following day, this time concentrating their efforts on the cruiser force. Gloucester was hit by a bomb which failed to explode, but Southampton took three major hits, which started large fires. Although fought with some initial success, the battle was in vain and the ship was abandoned late that evening and sunk by torpedoes from the cruisers Gloucester and Orion. Gloucester lost nine dead and 14 wounded, while Southampton lost 80 dead and 87 wounded.

Illustrious remained at Malta until 23 January, and received the repairs required to put out to sea. During this time there were a number of Axis air attacks. The first of these, on 13 January, was ineffective. Two major dive-bombing attacks were mounted on 16 January, during which the ship was hit aft, where most of the previous damage had been concentrated, and a further attack on 19 January resulted in near misses which caused underwater damage and flooding. The carrier was thought to be incapable of working up to any great speed as she left Malta at 18.36 on 23 January, and steered to the south to put as much distance as possible between herself and the Sicilian air bases on which the German dive-bombers were then located. Speed was then worked up to 25 kt for six hours, then dropped to 21 kt but restored to 23 kt later on 24 January, and the ship proceeded at this speed for the rest of her transit to Alexandria, which she reached at 13.00 on 25 January with only a few tons of fuel oil remaining.

The carrier was screened from Malta by the destroyers Greyhound, Janus, Jervis and Juno, which had been despatched from Souda Bay on the north coast of Crete. For the final leg of the passage to Alexandria, the battered fleet carrier was covered by the battleships Barham and Valiant, Australian light cruiser Perth and destroyers Diamond, Griffin, Hasty, Mohawk, Nubian and Australian Stuart. A cruiser force also at sea failed to find the carrier as her speed was considerably greater than had been expected.

The transports Breconshire and Clan Macaulay, which had reached Malta as part of the MW.5½ convoy, were now ready to return. Accordingly, during the transfer of troops to Malta both freighters sailed from Malta at dusk on 20 February, Breconshire being escorted by the destroyer Havock and Clan Macaulay by the destroyer Hotspur. Breconshire and her escort joined the covering force of the Mediterranean Fleet during 21 February, detaching later on that same day to reach Alexandria on 22 February. Clan Macaulay and her escort were reinforced by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry on 21 February and were attacked during the afternoon by German aircraft. Despite the passage of a bomb through her funnel, Clan Macaulay was otherwise undamaged, and she and her escorts also arrived at Alexandria on 22 February.

The ME.7 convoy of 19/30 April 1941 was protected by the ‘MC3’ operation, otherwise known as ‘Salient’, of the Mediterranean Fleet.

It was at dusk on 19 April that the ME.9 convoy departed Malta with four empty British merchant vessels in the form of the 8,039-ton City of Lincoln, 8,917-ton City of Manchester, 7,347-ton Clan Ferguson and 10,496-ton Perthshire escorted by the destroyers Diamond, Janus, Jervis and Nubian. The main force of the Mediterranean Fleet was supplemented by the light cruisers Ajax, Gloucester and Orion, and the destroyers Hasty and Hero, at 08.00 on 20 April, at which time Breconshire and her escort, bound for Malta, also met the main force. At 12.00 on the same day the eastbound ME.7 was met, Janus and Jervis joined the main force, and the ME.7 convoy continued safely to Alexandria escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Phoebe, and the destroyers Diamond and Nubian.

The main force meanwhile continued to the west without incident, detached Breconshire and the escorting destroyer Encounter to Malta at dusk, and then turned to the south in order to undertake a gunfire bombardment of the port of Tripoli at 05.00 on 21 April. After this the main force withdrew having encountered no opposition other than shadowing aircraft throughout the operation. Janus and Jervis were detached at dusk to return to Malta. Finally, after a rapid unloading, Breconshire was sailed from Malta on 28 April under the escort of the light anti-aircraft cruiser Dido, cruiser minelayer Abdiel, and destroyers Imperial, Jaguar, Jervis and Juno. After an uneventful passage all of the ships reached Alexandria on 30 April.

The ME.8 convoy of 26/29 December 1941 reflected the fact that there were currently several British merchant vessels lying empty in Malta after arrival in laden condition in previous convoys, and the opportunity was taken of the eastward passage of the cruiser Dido and attendant destroyers to clear the harbour. On 26 December, therefore, the 7,540-ton Ajax, 8,063-ton City of Calcutta, 7,347-ton Clan Ferguson and 12,696-ton Sydney Star departed under escort of the cruisers Ajax and Dido, and destroyers Arrow, Foxhound, Gurkha, Lance, Lively and Nestor. At the same time the cruiser Carlisle and destroyers Maori, Napier, Nizam and Free Dutch Isaac Sweers departed Alexandria. Isaac Sweers suffered damage in a storm and had to be detached back to Alexandria later the first day, the remaining ships met the convoy at dawn on 28 December, at which point Lance and Lively turned back to Malta. The convoy was attacked from the air right through 28 December, but there was only minor splinter damage to some of the ships, and the whole convoy reached Alexandria on 29 December, Sydney Star being sent on to Port Said escorted by Nizam.

This was the last British convoy in the Mediterranean in 1941, and the only empty merchant ships left in Malta were Breconshire and Rowallan Castle.

The ME convoys series continued through 1942, and ended on 2 June 1943 with the arrival in Egypt of the ME.28 convoy which had departed Malta on the previous day with three ships in the form of the 7,177-ton US Savid Stone, 4,944-ton British Dunkeld and 5,853-ton British Greystoke Castle.