This was a British naval undertaking to ensure the safe passage of three transport ships in the MW.9A and MW.9B convoys from Alexandria in Egypt to Malta in the Mediterranean Sea with urgently needed supplies, and to recover four empty ships in the ME.10 convoy for further use (12/16 February 1942).
The operation was planned and controlled by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet headquarters in Alexandria within the context of the fact that Malta was currently under extreme pressure as a result of German and Italian air attacks, though this bombing had as yet failed to render the island’s position critical.
The possibility of success in this supply convoy undertaking was much lower than in previous operations, however, as the Axis forces had managed largely to neutralise the British fighter force based on Malta and driven the British 8th Army from western Cyrenaica. Thus control of the air over the central part of the Mediterranean Sea now rested with the Axis air forces.
The MW.9 convoys departed Alexandria on 12 February as MW.9A comprising the 7,255-ton British Clan Campbell and 7,262-ton British Clan Chattan carrying 6,500 tons of supplies and 230 troops, supported by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle, the destroyer Lance and the escort destroyers Avon Vale, Eridge and Heythrop, and MW.9B comprising the 7,998-ton British Rowallan Castle carrying 5,778 tons of supplies and ammunition as well as 29 passengers, supported by the escort destroyers Beaufort, Dulverton, Hurworth and Southwold.
The two sections of the MW.9 convoy headed to the area off Tobruk, where they were to combine and steam to the north during the night to Malta.
Cover was provided by Rear Admiral P. L. Vian’s Force ‘B’ with the light anti-aircraft cruisers Dido, Euryalus and Naiad of Vian’s own 15th Cruiser Squadron, and the destroyers Arrow, Griffin, Hasty, Havock, Jaguar, Jervis, Kelvin and Kipling, which departed Alexandria on 13 February.
The MW.9A convoy was attacked late on 13 February as the two sections were making contact, and Clan Campbell received serious damage. As her speed was impaired she was ordered in to Tobruk escorted by Avon Vale and Eridge, leaving the remaining two freighters to press forward.
The covering force joined the combined convoy at dawn on 14 February, and during this day there were sporadic Axis air attacks. Just before dusk a single aeroplane obtained a hit on Clan Chattan, starting a fire in a hold containing ammunition. Southwold went alongside and took off 285 crew and passengers, while Avon Vale (now returned from Benghazi), Beaufort and Dulverton rescued those in the water.
In Malta an air attack hit the destroyer Maori, which sank after an explosion which slightly damaged the nearby destroyer Decoy on 12 February. However, Captain W. G. Agnew’s Force ‘K’ (the light cruiser Penelope and the destroyers Decoy, Fortune, Legion, Lively, Sikh and Zulu) and the ME.10 convoy (Ajax, Breconshire, Clan Ferguson and City of Calcutta) from Malta approached the outward convoy as Clan Chattan was burning, having itself escaped attack so far.
The two escort forces transferred Rowallan Castle, Lance joined the Malta ships, Decoy and Fortune joined the Alexandria ships, and both forces went their separate ways.
Force ‘K’ came under further attack 15.00, and Rowallan Castle, now the sole surviving merchant ship, was hit and stopped. The ship’s captain hoped to get his vessel under way again, and she was towed by Zulu while attempts were made, but this effort had to be abandoned shortly after 19.00 and all passengers were taken off by Lance. After the wreck had been sunk, Lively, Sikh and Zulu were ordered to join the Alexandria squadron, the remainder of Force ‘K’ returning to Malta at the break of day on 15 February.
The ME.10 convoy was attacked frequently throughout 14 and 15 February, albeit in a somewhat unco-ordinated manner, and escaped damage. At 10.30 on 15 February Beaufort, Dulverton, Hurworth and Southwold were detached to Tobruk, Decoy, Lively, Sikh and Zulu were sent on at high speed to Alexandria at 20.00, and Carlisle was sent to join Clan Campbell at 24.00.
During the morning of 16 February Fortune, Jaguar, Jervis, Kelvin and Kipling took Ajax, City of Calcutta and Clan Ferguson on to Port Said while the remainder of the force and Breconshire entered Alexandria.
At Tobruk the four ‘Hunt’ class escort destroyers distributed the survivors among themselves and then escorted the damaged Clan Campbell toward Alexandria. The escort destroyers were joined by Carlisle early on 16 February, and the freighter and five warships reached safety later on the same day.
Thus Malta received no supplies at all from this major effort, in which two large merchant vessels were lost.
The Italian navy had attempted an interception, but failed to find the British convoys and their escorting warships. Ammiraglio di Squadra Carlo Bergamini’s force from Taranto comprised the battleship Caio Duilio, the light cruisers Emanuele Filiberto Duca d’Aosta and Raimondo Montecuccoli, and the destroyers Folgore, Fulmine, Saetta, Alpino, Carabiniere, Fusiliere and Bersagliere, while Ammiraglio di Divisione Angelo Parona’s force from Messina comprised the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, and the destroyers Aviere, Geniere, Camicia Nera and Ascari. As she returned to port, Carabiniere was torpedoed and damaged by the British submarine P 36.