This was a British naval operation by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet to pass a fuel-carrying ship to Malta and at the same time to intercept and destroy an Italian convoy believed to be assembling in the Gulf of Taranto before entering the Ionian Sea to make the passage to a North African port (13/18 December 1941).
This undertaking paved the way to the 1st Battle of Sirte, a generally inconclusive engagement in the area to the south-east of Malta in the Gulf of Sirte.
The strategic situation at this time was set by the battles being fought in the Western Desert, as a result of the ‘Crusader’ (i) operation, between Lieutenant General N. Ritchie’s British 8th Army and General Erwin Rommel’s Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’. ‘Crusader’ (i) had been designed to effect the relief of the British garrison besieged in Tobruk, and had been successful, and the Axis force were by this time the Axis forces were conducting a fighting retreat and by 13 December were holding a defensive line at Gazala, to the east of Benghazi.
The Axis command was desperate to resupply its forces and intended to ship stores to Tripoli, its main port in Libya, and Benghazi, the port closest to the front. At the same time the island garrison of Malta was under siege, and the British were equally desperate to ship the fuel and stores needed to maintain their defence.
The Italians therefore began to ready a major convoy of eight ships, designated ‘M.41’, for despatch to North Africa on 13 December 1941. On the morning of that day, the Italians’ previous resupply attempt, based on the use of two light cruisers to deliver fuel to Tripoli, had failed when Alberto da Giussano and Alberico da Barbiano were sunk in the Battle of Cape Bon by a force of four British destroyers en route to Alexandria under the command of Commander G. H. Stokes. The ‘M.41’ convoy comprised eight merchant ships in three groups, with a close escort of five destroyers and a distant covering force of the battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, four destroyers and two torpedo boats.
The British meanwhile planned to run supplies to Malta using the fast commissioned transport ship Breconshire, covered by a force of cruisers and destroyers, while the destroyers from the Cape Bon engagement, at Malta after the battle, would steam to Alexandria covered by the two Malta-based strike groups, Force ‘K’ and Force ‘B’. This operation was scheduled to begin on 15 December.
The passage of the ‘M.41’ convoy got off to a poor start when, soon after departing on 13 December, one group was attacked by the British submarine Upright and lost two of its number. Later in the same day two of the surviving six ships collided and had to turn back for repair, and the distant covering force was sighted by the submarine Urge, which torpedoed the battleship Vittorio Veneto, which also had to turn back for repair.
The Supermarina, as the Italian navy’s high command was designated, was shaken by these losses and also by a report that a British force of two battleships was at sea. It therefore ordered the ships of the ‘M.41’ convoy to return and await reinforcement before making another attempt to cross to North Africa. The supposed force of two British battleships was in fact a decoy mission carried out in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean by the cruiser minelayer Abdiel.
By 13 December Cunningham had come to the conclusion, on the basis of air reconnaissance revealing considerable naval activity in the Gulf of Taranto, that the Italians were in all probability about to send a major convoy to Libya, and issued his instructions for ‘ME9’. Rear Admiral P. L. Vian’s 15th Cruiser Squadron (light cruiser Galatea and light anti-aircraft cruisers Euryalus and Naiad, the last flying Vian’s flag) and the 14th Destroyer Flotilla (Decoy, Hasty, Havock, Jervis, Kimberley, Kingston, Kipling and Australian Nizam) departed Alexandria after the fall of night on 13 December with orders to intercept Italian warships escorting convoys through the Ionian Sea. The ships were ordered to maintain radio silence, and at the same time, as noted above, the cruiser minelayer Abdiel was sent to Haifa to create a radio traffic diversion intended to give the impression that the Mediterranean Fleet was at sea in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean. The warships of Force ‘B’ (light cruiser Neptune and destroyers Jaguar and Kandahar) and Captain W. G. Agnew’s Force ‘K’ (light cruisers Aurora and Penelope and destroyers Lance and Lively) were ordered to steam out of Valetta on the island of Malta during the night of 14/15 December, reinforced by Stokes’s additional destroyer group (Legion, Maori, Sikh and Free Dutch Isaac Sweers of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla), and co-operate with Vian’s force. All available submarines were despatched from Malta to patrol to patrol in the area to the south of Messina on the island of Sicily, in the Gulf of Taranto, and on the convoy route to the west of the island of Kefaloniá off the western end of the Gulf of Corinth in occupied Greece.
Early on the following day, aerial reconnaissance revealed that there were Italian warships at sea and heading to the north in the direction of Taranto, a fact from which it was concluded that the ‘M.41’ convoys must have been recalled. At 12.00 on 14 December, therefore, Cunningham ordered Vian’s force to return to Alexandria and cancelled the sailing orders of Force ‘B’ and Force ‘K’.
From the Italian account it appears that the Axis high command had ordered a supreme effort to be made to ship supplies to Libya. On 13 December, eight laden merchant ships departed Taranto in the three convoys of the ‘M.41’ operation. Two of these convoys each had the close escort of one ‘Caio Duilio’ class battleship, two or three cruisers and three destroyers, while the third was supported only by two destroyers. The undertaking had more distant support in the form of both of the ‘Littorio’ class battleships, four destroyers and two torpedo boats. The poverty of the German and Italian air reconnaissance capability left the Italian navy without reliable information about the British naval forces at Alexandria, but just after the departure of the various Italian groupings on 13 December the Italians discovered, on the basis of intercepted and decrypted telegrams, that the whole of the Mediterranean Fleet had sortied. At this time the Italians had not learned of the sinking of the battleship Barham on 25 November, and believed that U-boat which had torpedoed her had in fact attacked a cruiser. Fearing that the continued passage of their convoys would precipitate a major fleet engagement with superior British forces, and with it the probability of the loss of the convoys and their invaluable cargoes, at 22.00 on 13 December the Italians recalled the convoys and their escorting naval forces.
During the return journey of the Italian fleet, off Capo dell’Armi (southern entrance to the Strait of Messina), the battleship Vittorio Veneto was torpedoed by the British submarine Urge, but managed to reach Taranto. In one of the convoys, two of the merchant vessels collided, the resulting damage rendering both inoperable for several months. Moreover, in the Gulf of Taranto two other merchant ships were torpedoed and sunk by the submarine Upright: these were Carlo del Greco and Fabio Filzi, each of 6,836 tons.
Not all the losses were those of the Italians, however, for while returning to Alexandria the light cruiser Galatea was sunk by Kapitänleutnant Ottokar Arnold Paulssen’s U-557, itself erroneously rammed and sunk by the Italian torpedo boat Orione on the following day.
When he created ‘ME9’, Cunningham had planned to sail the 9,776-ton commissioned supply ship Breconshire on December from Alexandria to Malta under the close escort of the light anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle and four destroyers. Then, after recalling the 15th Cruiser Squadron on 13 December, Cunningham postponed this convoy’s departure until the squadron had returned and refuelled. Malta was in dire need of fuel, so Breconshire’s departure with 5,000 tons of fuel could not be delayed longer than was absolutely necessary, and the risk of meeting the main strength of the Italian fleet with only light forces had therefore to be accepted.
No aircraft carrier had been available to the Mediterranean Fleet in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean since June 1941, and between that time and the launch of ‘Crusader’ (i) on 18 November the British also lacked airfields in the Western Desert in the region to the west of the Libyan/Egyptian frontier. By 15 December, however, fighters could use airfields as far to the west as the Gazala line, some 20 miles (32 km) to the west of Tobruk, a fact which allowed the provision of air cover for ships as far to the west as 20° E. There was still a gap of 200 miles (320 km) before fighters from Malta could take over, however, and in Breconshire’s case this meant that there could be no fighter protection on 17 December. For air reconnaissance, No. 201 Naval Co-operation Group, operating from Sidi Barrani, could provide aircraft on 16 December, and Martin Maryland aircraft from Malta could escort the ship on the following day.
At 22.00 on 15 December, the 15th Cruiser Squadron and 14th Destroyer Flotilla departed Alexandria to escort Breconshire as far as the ‘Benghazi bulge’, which would be reached by 09.00 on 17 December, when Malta-based ships would join the escort. After the advent of darkness on that day, the 15th Cruiser Squadron was to turn back to Alexandria leaving Breconshire to continued to Malta with Force ‘K’.
From Alexandria the ships concerned were the light anti-aircraft cruisers Carlisle, Euryalus and Naiad, and eight destroyers of the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, and from Malta the light cruiser Neptune and destroyers Jaguar and Kandahar of Force ‘B’, the light cruisers Aurora and Penelope and destroyers Lance and Lively of Force ‘K’, and stokes’s four destroyers.
The fighter cover on 16 December was adequate to prevent the Germans and Italians from undertaking effective bombing attacks and to deny the Axis air forces the opportunity to shadow the movement on any continuous basis, but could not prevent an occasional sighting report. During the evening of this day Cunningham advised Vian that the Italian fleet might be at sea on 17 December in order to escorting convoys to Libya, that Force ‘K’ and Malta-based destroyers would join at 08.00 on 17 December, and that the naval command on Malta was arranging for the maximum possible air reconnaissance.
At 09.00 on 17 December the combined British forces were making 16 kt on a course of 265° deployed with the destroyers Jervis, Kipling and Australian Nizam in the van on the port side, destroyers Kimberley, Havock and Decoy in the van on the starboard side; Breconshire in the centre with Naiad ahead of her and Euryalus abaft her; and bringing up the rear were the other British warships with Aurora and Penelope to port, Sikh, Legion and Lance in the centre, and Maori, Isaac Sweers and Lively to starboard. The formation had been planned to provide Breconshire with the greatest possible level of protection against attack by submarines and/or torpedo aircraft, to provide the greatest possible volume of anti-aircraft fire against bombers attacking from any direction, and to make it possible for the individual units to move out quickly if Italian surface forces made contact in daylight. Should an engagement with the Italians become imminent, Vian intended to detach Breconshire, escorted by Decoy and Havock, to Malta while he deployed his other warships to engage the Italians.
At 09.00 on 17 December, two Axis aircraft started to shadow the British ships and continued to do so throughout the day: at one time during the afternoon of this day there were at least six reconnaissance aircraft overhead, for the British ships were out of range of air support from either the Western Desert or Malta. The position of the British ships at 09.00 on 17 December was accurately reported by the shadowing Italian aircraft, and this information was received at 10.24 by the Supermarina. Just one minute later the British received a report that there was an Italian force of three battleships, two cruisers and seven destroyers steering to the south at slow speed in a position 175 miles (280 km) to the north-north-west of Vian’s force. These were, in fact, the elements of Ammiraglio Angelo Parona’s distant covering force, which actually comprised the battleships Littorio flying the flag of Ammiraglio di Squadra Angelo Iachino in overall command, Andrea Doria and Giulio Cesare, the heavy cruisers Gorizia (flying Parona’s flag) and Trento, and the destroyers Vincenzo Gioberti and Alfredo Oriani of the 9a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere, Maestrale of the 10a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere, Carabiniere and Corazziere of the 12a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere, Alpino, Bersagliere, Fusiliere and Granatiere of the 13a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere, and Antoniotto Usodimare of the 16a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere.
The ‘M.42’ convoy (Italian Monginevro, Napoli and Vettor Pisani, and the German Ankara) had the close escort of the destroyers Saetta of the 7a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere, Antonio da Noli and Ugolino Vivaldi of the 14a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere, Lanzerotto Malocello and Nicolò Zeno of the 15a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere and Emanuele Pessagno of the 16a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere as well as the torpedo boat Pegaso; and the close covering force of the battleship Caio Duilio, the light cruisers Emanuele Filiberto Duca d’Aosta (flying the flag of Ammiraglio di Divisione Raffaele Conte de Courten), Muzio Attendolo and Raimondo Montecuccoli of the 7a Divisione Incrociatori, and the destroyers Ascari, Aviere and Camicia Nera.
By 14.00 Vian had received only two air reconnaissance reports, one at 10.22 indicating that the Italian force was 175 miles (280 km) to the north-north-west of his position and the other at 11.22 that the same force was 160 miles (255 km) to the north of his position. At 14.00 Vian ordered a change of course to 240° and awaited further information.
The report which Iachino, the commander of the Italian main battle force, received at 10.24 indicated one battleship (actually Breconshire), two cruisers and 12 destroyers, steering 270° at 20 kt. At 11.00 Iachino altered his force’s course to 220° and increased speed to 22 kt, and at 11.45 to 24 kt, which was the maximum which Giulio Cesare and Andrea Doria could achieve and maintain. At 12.53, one of his aircraft made an erroneous report of one British battleship steering 245° at 20 kt, but this was later recognised as an Italian hospital ship. At 14.08, just after Vian had turned his force to 240°, Iachino received a report that the British force was 85 miles (135 km) due south of Littorio and steering 300° at 22 kt. A few minutes later the same Meridionali Ro.43 floatplane, launched from Littorio three hours earlier, reported the British force as steering 270°: this suggested that while the British force could not reach the Italian ‘M.42’ convoy of four merchant ships, whose importance was attested by the provision of escort and covering forces totalling 30 warships, without first encountering the Italian force, the Italian force might not reach the British force before the fall of night. The Italians therefore continued on their 220° course at 24 kt, placing the heavy cruisers 20,250 yards (18500 m) at 180° from Littorio. By the middle of the afternoon both admirals realised that there was a very real possibility of contact before the fall of darkness.
There were several air attacks on the British force during the afternoon of 17 December. Between 12.15 and 18.19 more than 20 attacks were launched by 25 torpedo aircraft and 50 bombers, at least 10 torpedoes being dropped and requiring six British changes of course. Only one torpedo aircraft penetrated the anti-aircraft screen, and then this was shot down. No ship received a direct hit, but Kipling had one near miss from a bomb.
By 17.00 Vian had received three further reports (15.25, 16.25 and 16.30) from a pair of reconnaissance aircraft. These reports suggested that it was unlikely that any of the Italian forces would be within 70 miles (115 km) of the British by the fall of night at 18.30, but he did not and could not know that the positions reported by both of the aircraft were some 57.5 miles (92.5 km) too far to the north.
Just before 17.30 there was a bombing attack by 11 Junkers Ju 88 aircraft, and the shadowing aircraft released signal flares. Almost simultaneously five torpedo aircraft attacked, one torpedo narrowly missing Naiad and others passing close to Sikh. To Vian this seemed part of a pre-planned Axis tactic, therefore that an Italian surface force was closer than the reconnaissance aircraft had reported. Vian’s analysis was correct. At 17.40, a few minutes before sunset, masts were sighted at a bearing of 300° and range of 34,500 yards (31545 m) from Naiad. The Italians seemed to be deployed in five columns with their heavy ships in the centre. At a range of about 35,000 yards (32000 m), still at least 8,000 yards (7300 m) outside the maximum range of the British cruisers’ much lighter guns, the Italian battleships opened fire. Breconshire, Decoy and Havock were immediately detached to the south as previously decided, while Vian turned toward the Italians with his four cruisers and 10 destroyers. He steered well to the north and opened fire at extreme range, laying a smoke screen to divert Italian attention from Breconshire.
Vian had, of course, decided not to offer battle at close range under conditions which so greatly favourable the Italians, and at 17.57 recalled the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, which had moved out to ready itself for the launch of a torpedo attack: such an attack, in Vian’s tactical thinking, should only be undertaken if the British cruisers had failed to divert Italian attentions from Breconshire. By the advent of dark at 18.30, Vian’s force had lost touch with the Italian ships, which had turned away at 18.06, believing that the British destroyers had fired torpedoes and unwilling to commit themselves to a night action such as that which had cost them so dearly in the Battle of Cape Matapan. This ended the 1st Battle of Sirte, in which only two British destroyers suffered the effects of Italian gunfire. Kipling lost one man and suffered some damage from a near miss from an 8-in (203-mm) shell, probably fired by Gorizia: British assessments concluded that Kipling was actually hit by splinters of 12.6-in (320-mm) shells from the battleships Andrea Doria and Giulio Cesare. The destroyer’s radio antennae were shot away and her hull, structure and ship’s boats were holed. According to Italian sources, the Australian destroyer Nizam was also damaged by near misses from the Italian destroyer Maestrale. British reports record that others of their warships were punctured by splinters.
At 19.05 Vian ordered the 15th Cruiser Squadron, the 14th Destroyer Flotilla and Stokes’s four-ship division of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla to concentrate and adopt a course of 040°. At about the same time, Force ‘K’ joined Breconshire and shaped course for Malta, arriving there at 15.00 on 18 December. Neptune, Jaguar and Kandahar had rejoined Force ‘K’ at 07.00 on this day after failing to locate and attack the ‘M.42’ convoy.
Between 23.00 on 17 December and 02.30 on 18 December, after concentrating his scattered ships Vian patrolled the parallel of 34° N for 17.5 miles (28 km) to each side of 19° 30' E in the hope of intercepting a convoy approaching Benghazi, but no such convoy was sighted. At 02.30 on 18 December the British ships departed at high speed for Alexandria, which was reached at 01.00 on 19 December just at the moment when, unknown to him or anyone else, Italian assault craft were waiting to break into the harbour.
After turning away at 18.06 and losing sight of the British ships, Iachino appreciated that he had completed part of his task, namely the prevention of an attack by surface forces on the ‘M.42’ convoy in daylight. There remained the prospect of a night attack, and also the needed to shepherd the convoy of fully-laden merchant ships, on the following day. Thee arrival of these ships, the three Italian ships with the close covering force in Tripoli and the single German ship in Benghazi, with badly needed supplies was especially necessary after the failure of the ‘M.41’ convoy on 13/14 December. At the conclusion of the action, the ‘M.42’ convoy and its close escort and close covering force were about 70 miles (115 km) to the north of the distant covering force which had fought the 1st Battle of Sirte, and were now instructed to steer to the north and await further orders.
Iachino now reasoned that movement to the north all night would only make his problem more acute, and that he must either resume course for Tripoli at the earliest possible moment or return to Taranto and acknowledge failure. The immediate problem of the nocturnal defence of the convoy was made more difficult by a report from the submarine Squalo indicating that at 18.45 two cruisers had departed Malta during the afternoon of 17 December on a course of 140° at 28 kt. Iachino believed that sufficient protection against an attack from the west was provided by the close escort and close covering force, and that the greater threat was from the east as he did not know whether the force that he had engaged was returning to Alexandria or planning to circle round and attack the ‘M.42’ convoy. To guard against this latter, he formed the three battleships and two heavy cruisers of his distant covering force in single line ahead, steering alternately 040° and 220° between 20.00 on 17 December and 02.00 on 18 December with his destroyers to the south-west and south-east of the heavy ships, 2,185 yards (2000 m) off and in line ahead on parallel courses. At 02.00, the distant covering force altered to 20° and continued on this course until 08.00, when Iachino re-formed the squadron and turned to 260° to sight the convoy. The latter was sighted at 08.25 and kept in company until 13.00, when the close covering force joined the distant covering force and departed toward Taranto. The three light cruisers of the 7a Divisione Incrociatori and the six destroyers of the close escort remained with the convoy as it made for Tripoli, the light cruisers breaking away to the north at about 20.00 on 18 December at a point some 70 miles (115 km) from Tripoli. As noted above, one of the convoy’s ships was diverted to Benghazi, and the other three ships steamed separately to the west along the North African coast, each escorted by two destroyers.
During the night of 18/19 December, the convoy’s ships came under attack by aircraft from Malta: one ship was hit by torpedo but, not sinking, was later taken in tow. At the same time Tripoli was heavily attacked by bombers. This and the fear of recently laid mines prevented the three supply ships entering harbour on the night of 18/19 December, and they anchored 11.5 miles (18.5 km) to the east of the harbour in a location shielded from surface and underwater attack by Italian minefields. The ships entered Tripoli harbour during the afternoon of 19 December.
By this time the British had realised that there was an Italian convoy in the area, and Vian searched for it without success before returning to Alexandria. Once the position of the three merchant ships making for Tripoli had been established during the afternoon of 18 December, the three light cruisers and four destroyers of Force ‘B’ and Force ‘K’, under the command of Captain R. C. O’Conor on board Neptune, sortied from Malta at 18.00 in an attempt to effect an interception. The British forces entered an Italian minefield some 20 miles (32 km) off Tripoli, however, during the early hours of 19 December. The minefield took the British by surprise as the depth of the water was 600 ft (185 m), which they had thought too deep for mines. Neptune struck four mines and sank, and the destroyer Kandahar also struck a mine and had to be scuttled during the following day. The cruisers Aurora and Penelope each suffered major damage but were able to return to Malta. Overall, about 830 Allied seamen, many of them New Zealanders from Neptune, lost their lives. The Malta striking force, which had been such an active threat to Axis shipping between Italy and Libya for most of 1941, was thereby much reduced in capability, and was later forced to withdraw to Gibraltar.
While returning to Alexandria as part of Vian’s force, the destroyer Jervis reported an apparently successful depth charge attack on an unidentified submarine. The only Axis submarine off Alexandria was the Italian Sciré, which was carrying a group of Italian frogmen of the 10a Flottiglia MAS and their manned torpedo equipments under the command of Junio Valerio Borghese.
On 3 December, Scirè had departed the naval base of La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes, known colloquially to the Italians as maiali (pigs). Reaching the island of Léros in the Aegean Sea, the submarine embarked the crews of the human torpedoes: Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi for maiale no. 221, Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino for maiale no. 222, and Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat for maiale no. 223. The submarine then headed to the south and Alexandria, and on 19 December and at a depth of 50 ft (15 m), released the manned torpedoes at a distance of 1.3 miles (2.1 km) from Alexandria’s commercial harbour. The human torpedoes then entered the naval base when the British opened their defences for three destroyers to pass.
de la Penne and Bianchi encountered several problems: firstly, the engine of their torpedo stopped and the two frogmen had to push it; secondly, Bianchi had to surface as a result of difficulties with his breathing system; and thirdly, de la Penne then had to push the maiale on his own to the location of Valiant. There he successfully placed the mine just under the battleship’s hull. Both men then had to surface, however, and as Bianchi was hurt the two men were discovered and captured. Both men kept silent was they were interrogated, and were confined in a compartment aboard Valiant below the waterline, and coincidentally just above the place where the mine had been placed. Some 15 minutes before the explosion, de la Penne asked to see Valiant’s commanding officer, Captain C. E. Morgan, and then told the British officer of the imminent explosion but refused to give further information, so that he was returned to the compartment. Fortunately for the Italians, when the mine exploded, neither was severely injured by the blast, while de la Penne only received a minor injury to the head from a flying chain.
Meanwhile, Marceglia and Schergat had attached their device 5 ft (1.5) beneath the keel of the battleship Queen Elizabeth, as had been planned. They departed the harbour area at 04.30 and slipped through Alexandria posing as French sailors before being captured two days later at Rosetta by Egyptian police officers while awaiting rescue by Scirè, and were handed to the British.
Martellotta and Marino searched in vain for an aircraft carrier which they had been informed was moored at Alexandria, but after sometime they decided to attack a large Norwegian tanker, the 7,554-ton Sagona. Marino fixed the mine under the tanker’s stern at 02.55, and both divers then managed to come ashore without detection, but were eventually arrested at an Egyptian checkpoint.
Thus all the divers were taken prisoner, but their mines all exploded, severely damaging both Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, disabling them for nine and six months respectively. Sagona lost her stern, and Jervis, one of the four destroyers alongside the tanker for refuelling, was badly damaged.
The disabled Valiant was towed to Admiralty Floating Dock No. 5 on 21 December for temporary repairs and was under repair at Alexandria until April 1942, when she sailed to Durban and more permanent repairs. By August, she was operating off East Africa in exercises for the defence of the area and ‘Ironclad’ against Madagascar. Queen Elizabeth was in dry dock at Alexandria for temporary repairs until a time late in June, when she sailed for the USA for repair and the first part of a refit, which were completed by June 1942 so that the ship could return to the UK for the completion of her refit. Jervis was repaired and operational again by the end of January 1942.
The success of the Italian attack brought about a strategic change for the worse in the fortunes of the Allies, and its effects were felt in the Mediterranean for several months.
In this part of the naval war in the Mediterranean during the middle days of December 1941, each side achieved its strategic objectives: the British got supplies through to Malta, which was nourished with fuel sufficient at least for a time, and the Axis powers pushed their ships through to Tripoli and Benghazi, although Benghazi fell to the 8th Army five days later on 24 December.