Operation Tiger (ii)

This was a British fast merchant convoy operation from Gibraltar to Egypt carrying tanks and aircraft (5/12 May 1941).

In the ‘Demon’ (i) evacuation of British and Allied forces from Greece and Crete in the closing stages of 'Marita', the British army had recovered many personnel through the efforts of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, almost all if the army’s heavy equipment and weapons had been lost. Despite previous experience of heavy losses in such enterprises, the British government ordered the passage of a fast merchant vessel convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria with large quantities of heavy weapons, although the opportunity so offered for a significant reinforcement and resupply of Malta at the same time was ignored: the arrival of just one freighter to Malta would have made a major contribution to the island’s supply situation.

The Royal Navy had grave doubts about the wisdom of running a vital convoy through the full length of the Mediterranean, especially as the Italian air force had recently been reinforced by a specialist Luftwaffe anti-shipping formation, in the form of General Hans Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps, but the British political and military leadership insisted that reinforcement of British forces in Egypt was vital if Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel’s forces (recently reinforced by the arrival by sea of Generalmajor Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck’s 15th Panzerdivision to raise German tank strength in North Africa to 488, including 122 medium tanks) were to be halted and repulsed in ‘Battleaxe’ (i).

General Sir Archibald Wavell had available to his command in Egypt sufficient trained personnel to man another six armoured regiments, and the plan was thus to send through the Mediterranean five fast merchant vessels loaded with 295 Matilda infantry and Crusader cruiser tanks as well as 50 Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft, escorted by Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’, reinforced for the occasion with ships destined for delivery to the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. These latter were the battleship Queen Elizabeth and light anti-aircraft cruisers Naiad and Phoebe from Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet.

The 7,255-ton Clan Campbell, 7,262-ton Clan Chattan, 7,250-ton Clan Lamont, 9,228 Empire Song and 12,436-ton New Zealand Star of the ‘Tiger’ (ii) convoy were all capable of 15 kt and departed the Clyde river on 28 April with the WS.8A troop convoy bound for Cape Town, and parted company with the main convoy on 2 May, under escort by the battle-cruiser Repulse, light anti-aircraft cruiser Naiad and destroyers Harvester, Havelock and Hesperus to proceed through the Strait of Gibraltar to Malta and beyond. Naiad was sent on ahead to report on the state of the convoy as Clan Campbell had suffered defects of a severity sufficient to suggest that the ship would not be able to proceed beyond Gibraltar, but in the event this proved not to be the case.

In addition to the ships of the convoy, certain naval units were also to pass through to the east to reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet, the principal ship being Queen Elizabeth, which reached Gibraltar from Freetown in West Africa on 30 April. Queen Elizabeth, Fearless, Foresight, Fortune and Velox departed Gibraltar to the west at 16.00 on 4 May to relieve Repulse and her destroyers with the five-ship convoy, whereupon the destroyers made for Gibraltar to refuel. Force ‘H’, in the form of the battle-cruiser Renown and the light cruisers Fiji and Sheffield, departed at a later time to meet the incoming convoy, while the destroyers Kashmir and Kipling carried out anti-submarine sweeps in the Strait of Gibraltar.

The ‘Tiger’ (ii) convoy passed through the Strait of Gibraltar at 01.30 on 6 May, and the main body of warships followed at 04.30 on the same day. The convoy comprised the five merchant ships escorted by the destroyers Fearless, Foresight, Fortune, Kashmir and Kipling, while the Force ‘H’ elements comprised the battle-cruiser Renown, fleet carrier Ark Royal, light cruiser Sheffield and destroyers Harvester, Havelock and Hesperus. The reinforcement for the Mediterranean Fleet comprised the battleship Queen Elizabeth and the light cruisers Fiji and Gloucester screened by the destroyers Faulknor, Forester and Fury. The destroyers Velox and Wrestler provided local escort from Gibraltar.

Gloucester, Kashmir and Kipling had been waiting off Malta and should have joined the operation there, but on Malta the harbour and adjacent anchorage had been rendered temporarily unusable by mining, so the three ships were ordered to Gibraltar. Gloucester was hit en route by a bomb which failed to detonate but merely made holes in the quarterdeck and the ship’s bottom; a mine also exploded in the cruiser’s paravane, and caused some flooding of the oil fuel tanks. Reaching Gibraltar on 4 May, Gloucester was immediately docked and repaired so that she could join the operation.

On 8 May all the British forces concentrated on their convoys as they approached the area of maximum threat. The first German and Italian reconnaissance aircraft soon arrived and reported the ships just before 12.00, and starting at 13.45 several attacks by Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 aircraft operating in the level bomber and torpedo bomber roles, escorted by Fiat CR.42 fighters, were unsuccessful as Renown and Ark Royal evaded torpedoes. Attacks by German Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers, with Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter protection, were intercepted by Fairey Fulmar fighters from Ark Royal, and in the east there was air combat between Formidable's fighters and attacking Italian and German aircraft. No damage was inflicted on any of the British ships.

At 20.15 Renown, Ark Royal, Sheffield, Harvester, Havelock and Hesperus turned back for Gibraltar. As they did so another Italian torpedo attack started: this was pressed home with great determination but again achieved no success. During this action Renown suffered damage when one of her port-side 4.5-in (114.3-mm) gun mountings suffered a control failure and fired into the rear of another such mounting, killing six and wounding 26 of the guns’ crew.

At this stage responsibility for the ‘Tiger’ (ii) convoy passed from Force ‘H’ to the Mediterranean Fleet, which designated its effort ‘MD4’ as the second half of its undertaking to escort the MW.7 convoy from Egypt to Malta. It was on 6 May that this two-part convoy, comprising the MW.7B slow section with two Norwegian tankers and the MW.7A fast section with two British and two Norwegian transport vessels, departed Alexandria for Malta under escort of the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta, Carlisle, Coventry, Dido and Phoebe as well as three destroyers and two corvettes. The operation was covered by the main strength of the Mediterranean Fleet, comprising the battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite, fleet carrier Formidable, light cruisers of Vice Admiral H. D. Pridham-Wippell’s 7th Cruiser Squadron (Ajax, Orion and Australian Perth), cruiser minelayer Abdiel, commissioned transport Breconshire and remaining operational destroyers of the Mediterranean Fleet, namely Greyhound, Griffin, Hasty, Havock, Hereward, Hero, Hotspur, Ilex, Imperial, Isis, Jaguar, Janus, Jervis, Juno, Kandahar, Kimberley, Kingston, Nubian and Australian Nizam. During the night of 7/8 May the cruiser Ajax and destroyers Havock, Hotspur, Imperial were detached to shell the harbour at Benghazi and, to the south, sink two merchant vessels totalling 3,463 tons.

The deployment from Palermo of an Italian light cruiser force, comprising Luigi di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giovanni delle Bande Nere and [e[Luigi Cadorna, together with five destroyers, was too late to play any part on proceedings.

In the meantime Force 'H' and the convoy with its covering force (Queen Elizabeth, Fiji, Gloucester and Naiad, and Faulknor, Fearless, Foresight Forester, Fortune, Fury, Kashmir and Kipling) had separated near the Skerki Bank and proceeded to Malta. In spite of the 'F' class destroyers' use of minesweeping equipment, the transport Empire Song succumbed two the effects of two mines on 9 May, and New Zealand Star was damaged. Queen Elizabeth was just able to avoid a torpedo attack.

In the morning of 9 May the corvette Gloxinia, which had cleared a mine-free channel using depth charges, escorted the two convoys from the east into the harbour at Valletta. The destroyers of Captain the Lord Louis Mountbatten’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla (Jackal, Kelly and Kelvin, which had been stuck in harbour up to this time) were able to sortie to the 'Tiger' (ii) convoy and met it with the cruisers Ajax, Dido, Orion, Perth and Phoebe before escorting it to the rendezvous with the ships of the Mediterranean Fleet, while the destroyers Faulknor, Kashmir and Kipling of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla refuelled in Malta and followed Force 'H'. Bad visibility impeded German and Italian air attacks.

The Italian submarines Santore Santarosa and Rugiero Settimo, operating in the area to the west of Malta, and Corallo, patrolling off the Tunisian coast, were not able to engage with their torpedoes.

On 10 May poor visibility again prevented any attacks by German and Italian aircraft until the afternoon, but then Fortune, of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla, which was closing up on Force 'H', was badly hit. However, no losses were sustained by the Mediterranean Fleet or by the convoy. During the night 10/11 May the destroyers Kashmir, Kelly, Kelvin, Kipling and Jackal of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla again shelled Benghazi. An night attack by Ju 87 dive-bombers of a squadron of the II/Stukageschwader 2 was unsuccessful.

On 12 May the British forces reach Gibraltar and Alexandria, that latter after the loss of only 57 of 295 tanks and 10 of 53 Hurricane fighters.