Operation Harpoon (ii)

This was a British supply convoy to Malta, a costly undertaking in terms of the merchant vessels and warships lost but important in the survival of the island as a British 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' and offensive naval base (5/15 June 1942).

Until the Italian declaration on war on the Allies on 10 June 1940 and the implementation of France’s surrender on 25 June, the Mediterranean had been an Allied 'lake' inasmuch as the French Mediterranean fleet and Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s British Mediterranean Fleet dominated the only potential and credible adversary in the theatre, the Italian Regia Marina. The French fleet was concerned largely with the security of the Mediterranean Sea’s western basin, which was transited by shipping operating between metropolitan France and the French North African territories, while the Mediterranean Fleet was concerned primarily with the eastern basin to protect Malta, Egypt, Palestine and the Suez Canal, which were all essential to the continued mercantile and military traffic between Europe, the Near and Middle Easts, the Far East and Australasia.

The French surrender completely changed the strategic and operational balance in the Mediterranean theatre. So far as the British were concerned, the French fleet based at Toulon and in North African ports, was now a potential threat, and should it fall into Axis hands would become a real threat. Thus the French fleet was, in part, destroyed in 'Catapult', adding to Vichy French antipathy toward the British. French bases in North Africa ceased to offer protection to Allied shipping.

The Regia Marina possessed several first-class modern warships, especially battleships and heavy cruisers, and Italian and Libyan territory provided centrally located naval and air bases from which efforts could be made to interdict and sever the British supply routes. The 1941 fall of Greece in 'Marita' and Crete in 'Merkur' extended the reach of Axis forces which were were now able to operate warplanes into the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea to intercept Allied shipping from Alexandria and Suez, and also to attack the Suez Canal directly.

Italian and German land forces in Libya also threatened Egypt and British control of the strategically important Suez Canal. A catastrophe in Egypt might in turn lead to destabilisation of the UK’s control of Middle Eastern oil supplies, or still more threatening, Axis control of these. This was an apocalyptic nightmare for the British, but was wholly dependent on the Axis forces in North Africa receiving adequate supplies from Italy.

The UK’s island fortress of Malta, lying in the Sicilian Narrows between Italy and Libya, was a direct threat to this Axis supply route, but itself needed regular resupply and reinforcement from one end of the Mediterranean Sea or the other, in order to survive, maintain a naval and air threat to the Axis lines of communication cross the Mediterranean Sea, and resist Axis any invasion designed to remove this British threat.

By the middle of June 1942, Malta’s supply situation had undergone a sharp deterioration. A major component of the Luftwaffe had joined the Regia Aeronautica to isolate and starve the island, which had therefore ceased to be an effective offensive base. Axis armies had also advanced into Egypt and taken Crete, thereby acquiring their own advanced bases and denying the British safety over much of the Mediterranean Sea’s eastern basin.

New supplies of aircraft were flown into Malta on a semi-regular and limited basis, but food and fuel for the island’s military and civil populations were diminishing. In response, therefore, the UK made considerable effort to ensure the delivery of supplies. Two convoys were gathered as the core of the 'Harpoon' (ii) and 'Vigorous' convoys, and sailed simultaneously from Gibraltar and Alexandria respectively in order to split the Axis forces which would inevitably be launched against them.

To attempt the effective destruction of these two Malta convoys, the Axis air forces could muster 347 Italian and 128 German aircraft in the western Mediterranean: of the Italian aircraft, 175 were based in Sardinia and the other 172 in Sicily, while 53 Italian and 122 German aircraft were based in the eastern Mediterranean. The Axis powers therefore had a total of 650 aircraft, although not all of these were operational.

A series of British naval setbacks, including the 1st Battle of Sirte and Italian manned torpedo attacks on warships at anchor, allowed the Regia Marina to gain naval supremacy in the central and eastern parts of the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian Fleet took advantage of this and went over to the offensive, blocking or decimating at least three large British convoys bound for Malta. This led to a number of naval engagements, such as the 2nd Battle of Sirte, the 'Battle of Mid-June', otherwise 'Harpoon' (ii) and 'Vigorous', and finally 'Pedestal', all of them ending in favour of the Axis powers.

The 'Harpoon' (ii) operation was schemed in conjunction with ‘Vigorous’, the latter being designed to move 11 ships from the east at the same time that ‘Harpoon’ (ii) delivered six ships of the GM.4 convoy from the west in what was in essence a repeat of ‘Halberd’. The ‘Harpoon’ (ii) convoy comprised the 7,422-ton British Troilus, 6,069-ton British Burdwan, 10,350-ton British Orari, 8,169-ton Dutch Tanimbar and 5,601-ton US Chant, which between them carried 43,000 tons of cargo. The merchant ships departed the UK on 5 June as the WS.19Z convoy.

Cutting corners as some of the freighters could not make the scheduled speed of 14 kt, the convoy was on time passing through the Strait of Gibraltar on 11/12 June, the escorts having fuelled at Gibraltar in relays. The sixth merchant vessel, the 9,308-ton US tanker Kentucky II, had arrived at Gibraltar on 2 June and, after being outfitted with additional armament and scuttling charges, joined the convoy as it passed through the Strait of Gibraltar.

Support was provided by Force 'Y', comprising the oiler Brown Ranger, which was escorted by the corvettes Coltsfoot and Geranium. Brown Ranger and the two corvettes departed Gibraltar after the fall of night on 11 June to reach the Mediterranean point designated as the refuelling rendezvous. Although the basic tactical plan was a copy of that which had successfully delivered to Malta three convoys (‘Excess’, ‘Substance’ and ‘Halberd’) during 1941, modifications had to be made as a result of the fact that a large portion of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force ‘H’ was absent from Gibraltar for the ‘Ironclad’ combined assault on Diégo Suarez at the northern tip of the Vichy French island of Madagascar in the western part of the Indian Ocean.

The operation was commanded by Vice Admiral A. T. B. Curteis with the extemporised Force ‘W’ based on ships from a number of stations, including the battleship Malaya, carriers Eagle and Argus carrying 16 Hawker Sea Hurricane single-seat fighters, six Fairey Fulmar two-seat fighters and 18 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers between them, light cruisers Kenya and Liverpool, light anti-aircraft cruiser Charybdis, and destroyers Antelope, Escapade, Icarus, Onslow, Vidette, Westcott, Wishart and Wrestler.

The six merchantmen had the close escort of Captain C. C. Hardy’s Force 'X' comprising the light anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo, destroyers Badsworth, Bedouin, Blankney, Ithuriel, Marne, Matchless, Partridge and Free Polish Kujawiak, minesweepers Hebe, Hythe, Rye and Speedy, and motor launches ML-121, ML-134, ML-168, ML-489 and ML-462. The plan was that these last five, outfitted for minesweeping, would be towed by the merchant ships to conserve fuel before being slipped to undertake their primary task. Unfortunately this clever scheme proved impractical at the convoy speed of 13 kt, despite continued efforts throughout the first two days, as a result of the inadequate strength of launches’ towing gear and the unsuitability of the tow lines. six motor gun boats. The cruiser minelayer Welshman also operated with Force 'X', but was loaded with supplies for Malta.

The other British warships provided more distant cover. The convoy was to be escorted by Curteis’s forces as far to the east as the Sicilian Narrows, from where it was to dash through to Malta with the close escort. Ahead of the convoy proper, Welshman was to make a solo run for Malta with ammunition and other special stores, unload these, and then return to strengthen the convoy’s escort.

The Germans and Italians believed that such an undertaking was inevitable, and deployed four groups of submarines to locate and deliver the first attacks on the convoy. For any sign of the British operation off the Algerian coast there were two groups of Italian submarines with Malachite, Velella, Bronzo, Emo, Giada, Acciaio, Otaria and Alagi off Lampedusa, and Corallo, Dessiè, Onice, Ascianghi and Aradam off Malta. At the same time Axum, Platino, Micca, Zoea and Atropo were operating in the Ionian Sea, and Galatea, Sirena and six German boats (U-77, U-81, U-205, U-431, U-453 and U-559) were operating farther to the east.

On 13 June the Italian light cruisers Eugenio di Savoia and Raimondo Montecuccoli departed Cagliari in Sardinia with the destroyers Ascari, Vincenzo Gioberti and Alfredo Oriani to attack the GM.4 convoy off Cap Bon in Tunisia. The Italian force then diverted to Palermo in northern Sicily after spotting two British submarines in the area.

Cairo and the destroyers refuelled on 13 June after some delay as Brown Ranger was out of position, but the operation was completed, if only with some difficulty. The oiler then remained on station to refuel the warships on their return passage, a decision fraught with danger given the submarine and aircraft menace, but this vital asset was not molested.

Welshman was detached at 20.00 on 14 June and reached Malta, where she discharged her cargo with all possible speed and then departed to rejoin the convoy and thus provide additional anti-aircraft cover.

The convoy was well into the Mediterranean by 14 June, when Axis air attacks began on a force which could not adequately provide its own air defence as the two elderly and thus slow carriers were unable to leave their escorting destroyers and were therefore unable to turn into the wind, which was from dead astern. Tanimbar was sunk, and Liverpool was hit in the engine room and had to detach for Gibraltar, where she arrived on 17 June after being towed most of the way by the destroyer Antelope and screened by Westcott. In the course of this undertaking, several more torpedo attacks were made on the stricken cruiser and her escort on 14 and 15 June: all of the attacks were frustrated by the fire of the three ships. During the afternoon of 15 June the tug Salvonia arrived and took over the tow at dusk, releasing Antelope to join the screen, which was joined on 16 June by the destroyer Panther, corvettes Jonquil and Spiraea, trawler Lady Hogarth and motor launch ML-458. The entire group reached Gibraltar at 17.30 on 17 June.

Heavy but unsuccessful air attacks continued until the convoy reached the Sicilian Narrows during the evening of 14 June and the main escort turned back for Gibraltar. Bereft of proper cruiser escort (unlike the situation in the three 1941 convoys), the GM.4 convoy was now to undergo severe tribulations off the island of Pantelleria as it came under attack by Axis aircraft and the light cruisers of the 7a Divisione Incrociatori (Raimondo Montecuccoli and Eugenio di Savoia) supported by the destroyers Ascari, Alfredo Oriani, Lanzerotto Malocello, Premuda and Ugolini Vivaldi under the command of Ammiraglio di Squadra Alberto da Zara.

The Italian force was first sighted from Cairo at 06.20 on 15 June, and an effort was made screen the convoy with smoke. The five fleet destroyers of the convoy escort changed course to attack the Italian squadron, but both Bedouin and Partridge were hit by the fire of the two Italian light cruisers and disabled. Partridge was recovered and managed to make back for Gibraltar, but Bedouin, already shattered by at least 12 6-in (152-mm) shells and several near misses, was finally sunk by air-launched torpedoes, 28 of her crew being lost and more than 200 others being rescued by the small Italian hospital ship Meta and taken prisoner.

As noted above, Cairo and the smaller destroyers covered the convoy with smoke and then set off to aid the fleet destroyers, so leaving the convoy entirely unprotected against a severe air attack, which sank Chant at 06.30 and severely damaged Kentucky II, which nonetheless managed to remain with the convoy.

The Italian surface force then broke off its action with Cairo and her destroyers at 09.30 and moved off to intercept the merchant vessels just as another air attack developed. From 09.30 British fighter aircraft from Malta were overhead, but there were problems in gaining radio contact as a result of equipment incompatibilities. Even so, the fighters were successful in driving off a dive-bomber attack at 10.40. Unfortunately, a defensive gap resulting from the change of air cover from Bristol Beaufighter heavy fighters to Supermarine Spitfire fighters at 11.20 coincided with a dual high-level and dive-bomber attack, which crippled Burdwan. Soon after this, Curteis made the reluctant decision to scuttle Burdwan and Kentucky II, and thereby increase the convoy’s chances of covering the last 150 miles (240 km) to Malta at the maximum possible speed.

The cruiser Cairo and minesweeper Hebe had also received hits from Italian gunfire, while the Italian destroyer Ugolino Vivaldi had been struck by her British counterparts and caught fire, but was taken in tow and saved by Lanzerotto Malocello and Premuda.

At this point the damaged Bedouin, still under tow, rejoined the convoy and reported that she expected to get under way on one shaft very shortly. Accordingly, she and Partridge remained together under orders to rejoin as soon as possible, and the convoy drew away at 14 kt for Malta. When it became clear that Bedouin would be unable to achieve steam even on one shaft, the two destroyers then turned westward to head for Gibraltar, while Badsworth, Hebe and Hythe endeavoured to sink the two crippled merchant ships.

The Italian cruisers reappeared at this juncture and concentrated their fire on Bedouin, though also seriously worrying the minesweepers and Badsworth, which were trying to sink the two crippled merchant vessels. The problems were conveniently solved when simultaneous torpedo attacks by the cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli and the destroyers Ascari and Alfredo Oriani on Bedouin and the two merchant vessels sank all three ships, although the Italian ships concentrated on Bedouin. Partridge was unable to rescue her survivors, but reported that two Italian destroyers were on the scene and were recovering men from the water: thus most of Bedouin’s crew was rescued. The total included the Italian pilot whose torpedo caused the sinking: his aeroplane had been shot down by Bedouin, and he had been picked out of the water only to be compelled abandon his erstwhile target when she sank, to be rescued by an Italian ship.

Partridge was meanwhile ordered back to Gibraltar, and Badsworth and the minesweepers headed back for the convoy, which was now also supported by Welshman on her return from Malta. The convoy and escort reunited in the afternoon of 15 June and pushed on to Malta.

The ships reached the entrance to the swept-channel approach to Malta at dusk, but the day’s events had badly disrupted the original plans, which were that the minesweepers were to ensure that the channel was in fact clear, and that Cairo and destroyers should not enter harbour but instead return to Gibraltar. However, their large expenditure of ammunition in fighting off air and surface attacks meant that the ships had to enter Malta to replenish their magazines, and time did not permit night minesweeping to delay getting the surviving merchant ships alongside under cover of the Malta barrage. Accordingly, the ships were ordered to proceed inshore led by the motor launches.

On approaching the entrance Cairo stopped and ordered Orari and Troilus to proceed, but the latter struck a mine only 400 yards (365 m) from the breakwater. Fortunately the damage was confined to a single hold, containing mostly coal, and the merchant vessel was able to complete her entrance and go to her berth. Of the warships, Badsworth and Kujawiak struck mines and were damaged, the latter sinking, while Hebe and Matchless were also mined in the final approach with Orari.

Cairo, Blankney, Ithuriel, Marne and Middleton departed for Gibraltar during the evening of 16 June and, despite air attack, met Charybdis and Kenya on the evening of 17 June. All these ships reached Gibraltar safely at a time late in the following day.

At Malta major efforts had been made to prevent any repetition of the loss of ships after arrival in the island’s main harbour and, give the fact that as many as 18 vessels could be involved, very careful planning had been undertaken. The unloading berths were at once screened by smoke, the dockyard had spent many weeks repairing lighters and concealing them from the persistent air attacks, and all possible Maltese labour had been mobilised into stevedore gangs to work 12-hour shifts around the clock. To supplement the Maltese work force, considerable numbers of army personnel had also been organised for stevedore work.

As only two ships in fact arrived, work on the simultaneous unloading of both vessels’ holds began, the only exception being the Orari’s flooded hold, whose unloading had to wait until the ship could be dry-docked. Such was the degree of planning that, when it was realised that an unexpected shortage of experienced winchmen was delaying unloading, additional specialists were flown in that night from Alexandria. The unloading rate, even by the inexperienced army personnel, was greater than 3,500 tons per day, and within five days the entire cargo had been unloaded and dispersed or stored in rock shelters. Hebe spent a month in dry dock before being declared seaworthy once more.

The ‘Harpoon’ (ii) operation had led to the only undisputed squadron-size victory for Italian naval surface forces in World War II, but at this stage of the central Mediterranean campaign the arrival of any supplies in Malta was an Allied success of sorts. What cannot be denied, however, is the fact that these supplies were in themselves insufficient to sustain the island and its forces for long, and fuel for the RAF’s defensive and offensive warplanes on the island was running very low. Thus the next planned convoy operation, ‘Pedestal’, was critical to Malta’s continued survival.