Operation MF (i)

'MF' (i) was the designation of Allied convoys (together with a numerical suffix) plying the route between the island of Malta and Alexandria on the Egyptian coast of North Africa (July/October 1940).

The first of these four convoys was MF.1 of 9/13 July 1940 from Malta to Alexandria, and involved the 7,775-ton El Nil, 1,553-ton requisitioned Knight of Malta and 3,338-ton Rodi.

The second was MF.2 of 29 August/2 September 1940 and involved four British ships in the form of the 10,605-ton refrigerated cargo ship Cornwall, 9,919-ton commissioned transport Glengyle, 5,916-ton Royal Fleet Auxiliary oiler Plumleaf and 1,587-ton freighter Volo. Escort was provided by the heavy cruiser Kent, light cruisers Gloucester and Liverpool, and destroyers Dainty, Diamond, Jervis and Juno. Only the destroyers accompanied the merchant vessels into Malta, the cruisers returning to Alexandria.

During the passage of this convoy, reinforcements for Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet were passed through from Gibraltar to Alexandria, thereby acting as a diversion of attention from the convoy, and also as a cover had surface attack materialised. In all, there were therefore at sea from Alexandria, in addition to the ships mentioned above, the battleships Malaya and Warspite, the older fleet carrier Eagle, the light cruisers Orion and Sydney, and the destroyers Decoy, Defender, Garland, Hasty, Hereward, Hyperion, Ilex, Imperial, Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta and Voyager.

From Gibraltar there sailed the battleship Valiant, the battle-cruiser Renown, the fleet carrier Illustrious, the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Coventry, and the destroyers Gallant, Greyhound, Griffin, Hotspur, Janus, Mohawk and Nubian all bound for Alexandria, as well as the light cruiser Sheffield and the destroyers Encounter, Faulknor, Firedrake, Forester, Foresight, Fortune, Fury, Hero, Velox and Wishart which returned to Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force 'H' at Gibraltar.

The two operations are frequently referred to as 'Hats/MB', 'Hats' being the operation for the ships from Gibraltar, and 'MB' that for the Mediterranean Fleet operation. The convoy was attacked from the air on 31 August and the Cornwall was hit and set on fire but, steering on her main engines, controlled the fire and duly arrived at Malta.

The third convoy was MF.3 on 8/11 October 1940 as a troopship operation from Alexandria to Malta, and involved the 7,347-ton Clan Ferguson, 10,492-ton Clan Macaulay, 9,816-ton Lanarkshire and 7,506-ton Memnon, which were escorted by the light cruisers Calcutta and Coventry, and destroyers Stuart, Voyager, Waterhen and Wryneck.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham;s Mediterranean Fleet was already at sea and acted as additional escort with the battleships Malaya, Ramillies, Valiant and Warspite, the fleet carriers Eagle and Illustrious, the heavy cruiser York, the light cruisers Ajax, Gloucester, Liverpool, Orion and Australian Sydney, and the destroyers Dainty, Decoy, Defender, Diamond, Hasty, Havock, Hereward, Hero, Hyperion, Ilex, Imperial, Janus, Jervis, Juno, Nubian, Vampire and Vendetta. In addition, the destroyer Mohawk sortied from Malta to join the fleet.

During the operation Imperial struck a mine and had to be towed to Malta.

The fourth convoy was MF.4 of 11/16 October 1940 from Malta to Alexandria, and began after the arrival of the MF.3 convoy in Malta to pass a convoy (10,605-ton Cornwall, 5,916-ton Royal Fleet Auxiliary oiler Plumleaf and 1,587-ton Volo, together with the river gunboat Aphis) escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Coventry and destroyers Waterhen and Wryneck, from Malta. The ships all arrived safely.

While not affecting the passage of this convoy, mention should be made of a night action, the Battle of Cape Passero, on 12 October, in which the cruiser Ajax engaged three Italian warships and sank two of them, and later engaged two others without result.

On 8 October Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet had started the MF.3 resupply convoy operation to Malta from Alexandria with the convoy’s four ships supported by the 'MB6' naval operation. The convoy had four cargo ships escorted by two anti-aircraft cruisers and four destroyers. The screening force was leading by Cunningham’s flagship, the battleship Warspite, and comprised three other battleships, two carriers, six cruisers and 16 destroyers. As noted above, the operation’s only incident was the damage to the destroyer Imperial when she ran into a minefield, and the merchant vessels reached their destination on 11 October. Until then, bad weather had prevented the intervention of the Italian fleet.

At this stage an Italian airliner spotted the returning formation shortly after it departed Malta. The light cruiser Ajax had meanwhile been detached along the other cruisers on a scouting mission, at a speed of 15 kt. The Italian fleet commander, Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni, ordered a force of destroyers to steam out to Cape Bon in the hope of intercepting the British warships in the event they were heading toward Gibraltar. Campioni had already decided that it was too late for Italians heavy units to operate against the convoy. A flotilla of four destroyers and three torpedo boats were at the same time scouting in line abreast some 3 miles (4.8 km) apart in conditions of full moonlight. The Italian destroyers were Artigliere, Camicia Nera, Aviere and Geniere, and the torpedo boats were Ariel, Alcione and Airone.

At 01.37 Ajax was sighted, steaming east at a range of 19,600 yards (17925 m) to port of the Italian ships, by look-outs on Alcione. At 01.48 the three torpedo boats were closing on the unsuspecting British cruiser at full speed. At 01.57 Alcione fired two torpedoes at a range of only 1,900 yards (1740 m). Capitano di Vascello Banfi, leading the Italian force, ordered Airone to open fire with her 100-mm (3.94-in) guns, followed by her sister ships. Three rounds hit home, two on the bridge and the another 6 ft (1.5 m) below the waterline. Meanwhile, at 01.55, Ajax had realised she was under attack and opened fire on the nearest torpedo boat, Ariel, which was shattered by the salvoes of 6-in (152-mm) shells and sank 20 minutes later. It is believed that she was able to fire one of her torpedoes. Capitano di Fregatta Mario Ruta, his first lieutenant and most of the crew were killed.

Airone was the next Italian ship to be hit, but not before she had launched two torpedoes. The torpedo boat was disabled and caught fire almost immediately, her bridge and upper deck machine taking a mass of small-calibre fire from Ajax at short range. Airone sank a few hours later, Banfi being among the survivors.

Alcione, the only Italian warship now undamaged, broke off contact at 02.03. Meanwhile Ajax, after changing course during the fighting, had reversed coursed once more, back to the east. At 02.15, her fire-control radar began to track two Italian destroyers, whose senior officer, Capitano di Vascello Carlo Margottini, had sighted the firing from the south. A radio mishap prevented Margottini from making any attack at full strength, when three of his destroyers headed to the north-west, rather than to the north as ordered. Aviere was battered by a sudden broadside from the British cruiser, and was forced to pull out to the south, heavily damaged and unable to launch torpedoes. At 02.30 Marginotti sighted Ajax, and was about to launch torpedoes when his ship was engaged by the cruiser’s 6-in (152-mm) main guns. Artigliere managed to fire one torpedo and three full salvoes from her four 120-mm (4.72-in) guns at 2,800 yards (2560 m) before being hit and crippled. The torpedo missed, but four 120-mm (4.72-in) shells struck two 4-in (101.6-mm) secondary armament turrets in Ajax and disabled her radar.

After firing at Camicia Nera without results, Ajax, with 13 dead and more than 20 wounded, broke off the action having fired 490 shells and four torpedoes. The cruiser required almost a full month of repairs before she was back in service.

The disabled Artigliere, with her commander and most of the officers killed, was taken in tow by Camicia Nera, but the two ships were surprised at first light by the heavy cruiser York, which scared off Camicia Nera and finished Artigliere. The survivors were rescued the next day by the Italian navy.

The Regia Marina now realised, for first time, the superior skills and equipment of the British warship in night operations. The extensive use of star shells, searchlights and incendiary rounds by the Royal Navy had to be countered if the Italians were to close the technical gap. They also suspected the British use of radar. They concluded that the flawed air surveillance hampered the quick reaction of the Italian heavy units, giving the British the opportunity to avoid contact where conditions did not favour them.