This was a British naval undertaking associated with the passage of the ME.8 convoy and reinforcements for Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet from Malta to Egypt (26/29 December 1941).
The German reinforcement of the Mediterranean front with additional U-boats and warplanes, as a result of a personal request from Benito Mussolini to Adolf Hitler, combined with British air, sea and land losses to lead to a revival of the Axis supply-delivery capability by a time early in 1942, and enabled General (from 24 January Generaloberst) Erwin Rommel to halt the retreat of his Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’ (soon to become the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’), along the Libyan frontier between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, there to rebuild his resources and prepare to launch a major counter-attack to the east. One of the immediate effects of this resurgence of German capability was to persuade General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief, Middle East, to abandon his plan for Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s British 8th Army to attack to the west of El Agheila, and the ‘Acrobat’ naval support undertaking in support of this was therefore cancelled.
Toward the end of December the Mediterranean Fleet received a small but welcome reinforcement. On 22 December the light anti-aircraft cruiser Dido, together with the destroyers Arrow, Foxhound, Gurkha and Nestor, departed Gibraltar for Malta en route to join the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. The warships reached Malta on 24 December and prepared for involvement in the ‘MF1’ operation, which was scheduled to start two days later. This operation was the sailing of the ME.8 14-kt convoy, comprising four empty British merchant ships (7,347-ton Clan Ferguson, 12,696-ton Sydney Star, 7,540-ton Ajax and 8,063-ton City of Calcutta) from Malta to Alexandria. The convoy was to be escorted by Force ‘B’ (the light cruiser Ajax and destroyers Lance and Lively, and Force ‘C’ (the newly arrived Dido and the four destroyers).
The ME.8 convoy and its escorts departed Malta after the fall of night on 26 December. A few hours earlier Force ‘D’, comprising five destroyers, of which four had fought the action off Cape Bon, departed Alexandria with orders to rendezvous with the convoy in 21° E, mid-way between Malta and Alexandria. At 22.00 on 26 December, the Free Dutch destroyer Isaac Sweers reported damage to her breakwater as a result of heavy seas crashing over her bow, and was sent back to Alexandria, while the other destroyers reduced speed and linked with the convoy at 06.30 on 28 December. Rear Admiral H. B. Rawlings, commander of the 7th Cruiser Squadron and flying his flag in the cruiser Ajax, then detached Lance and Lively to return to Malta. During the morning of 28 December the British warships established several anti-submarine contacts, and destroyers attacked these without visible result. Two attacks by single Junkers Ju 88 high-level bombers were made, but were prevented from being effective by Hawker Hurricane aircraft of the Royal Navy Fighter Squadron. This was a composite unit drawn from the personnel of the Fleet Air Arm’s Nos 803 and 806 Squadrons equipped with Hurricane and Fairey Fulmar fighters, and No. 805 Squadron equipped with Grumman Martlet (better known as Wildcat) fighters. From 11 December this squadron operated from Tobruk airfield under the general control of the RAF’s No. 201 Naval Co-operational Group.
At about 15.00 in the afternoon of 28 December, the British sighted four Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo aircraft ahead of the convoy. An escorting Martlet was directed on to them, and fire from the screening destroyers forced the Italian warplanes to divide into pairs, of which one waited to port while the other passed astern and attacked from the starboard quarter. The destroyers were ordered to cease their barrage fire while the Martlet attacked the rearmost SM.79 which, after jettisoning its torpedo, crashed astern of the convoy. The second starboard-side SM.79, pursued by the Martlet, turned to attack Clan Ferguson. The Martlet passed over the convoy and crashed astern of it, apparently shot down by the SM.79, from which pieces were also seen to fall. The port pair of SM.79 aircraft were engaged by the escorts’ barrage fire and retired after jettisoning their torpedoes. The Martlet’s pilot was found to be dead when recovered by Maori.
During the rest of the afternoon attacks by Ju 88 warplanes were repulsed by Fleet Air Arm fighters, and at 17.23 four Axis formations, totalling some 20 aircraft, were chased away and forced to jettison their bombs. The destroyer Maori suffered minor damage from a near miss and had one fatal casualty.
At 07.21 on 29 December, Sydney Star and the escorting Nizam were detached to make for Port Said, and the rest of the convoy reached Alexandria in the morning of 29 December.