Operation Childhood

This was a British coastal forces operation, undertaken by motor torpedo boats operating from Malta, to attack the mole in the harbour of Tripoli in Italian North Africa (20 January 1943).

During the third week of January the bombing of Tripoli by aircraft of units based in North Africa and Malta had been intensified in the hope of hindering Axis efforts to block the entrance to the harbour and demolish the port’s facilities, thereby further reducing the flow of supplies and fuel to Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee as it fell back to the west along the coast of North Africa after its defeat in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.

Several Royal Navy operations were launched from Malta for the same purpose. On the night of 18/19 January 1943, for example two ‘chariot’ human torpedoes were launched from the submarine Thunderbolt with the object of sinking or damaging ships that could be scuttled to block the harbour entrance. One ‘chariot’ succeeded in reaching the harbour entrance, but only in time to hear the scuttling charges in the blockships being blown. The crew became prisoners of war. The other chariot had to be destroyed because of damage to its hydroplanes. Its crew was also captured but later escaped and reached General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s advancing British 8th Army.

A second enterprise two nights later was ‘Childhood’, an attack on the mole by motor torpedo boats. During this the coastal craft met and torpedoed the Italian submarine Santarosa, which tugs were trying to rescue from a point of land on which she had grounded five days earlier. In the next few nights British surface warships, sweeping along the coast, sank numerous small craft attempting to escape to Zuara, farther to the west along the coast of Tripolitania, and also to Tunisian ports.

On 10 January the Naval Base Party destined for Tripoli moved forward from Benghazi to join the 8th Army and, on 23 January the naval officer-in-charge designate, with a small Royal Navy party, entered Tripoli five hours after the leading troops. The entrance to the harbour was found to be completely blocked by six merchant ships, a sheerlegs, a rock-crusher and several barges filled with concrete blocks. Demolition on both moles had been thorough and effective and warehouses and installations had been heavily damaged as a result of the Allied air attacks. Several wrecks and burned-out ships littered the harbour but four tugs and about 50 lighters were fit for use. On the same day specially equipped Vickers Wellington aircraft swept the harbour and its approaches and exploded one magnetic mine.