Operation MW (ii)

This was the designation of Allied convoys (together with a numerical and sometimes a literal suffix) plying the route from Alexandria, Egypt, to Malta (November 1940/June 1943).

The sequence of 33 convoys was interrupted at the time of Malta’s siege by the Axis powers, and the convoys were resumed only in November 1942. The MW.3 convoy of 4/10 November 1940 was the first 'MW' convoy in the system that used 'MW' and 'ME' for convoys from Egypt to Malta and from Malta to Egypt respectively, pairs of convoys often passing on reciprocal tracks as empty ships from Malta passed loaded ships from Egypt.

The MW.3 convoy comprised the 6,054-ton British Devis, 5,916-ton Royal Fleet Auxiliary oiler Plumleaf, 3,338-ton British (ex-Italian) Rodi, 1,587-ton British Volo and 12,435-ton British Waiwera, and was escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Coventry, and the destroyers Diamond and Australian Vampire, Voyager and Waterhen. The old minesweeper Abingdon also accompanied the escort to join the local forces at Malta. The convoy reached Malta on 10 November.

In conjunction with convoys from the Middle East to Greece and Crete and the outward ME.3, this movement was known to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet as ‘MB8’ and was covered by the battleships Malaya, Ramillies, Valiant and Warspite, fleet carrier Illustrious, heavy cruiser York, light cruiser Gloucester, and destroyers Dainty, Decoy, Defender, Gallant, Hasty, Havock, Hereward, Hero, Hyperion, Ilex, Janus, Jervis, Juno, Mohawk, Nubian and Vendetta.

During the passage of the MW.3 convoy, the opportunity was also taken to pass further ships, with troops and stores for the Malta garrison onboard, through from Gibraltar as reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet. Accordingly the battleship Barham, heavy cruiser Berwick, light cruiser Glasgow, and destroyers Gallant, Greyhound and Griffin sailed from Gibraltar on 7 November to reach Malta on 10 November.

The MW.4 convoy was designed to pass ships to and from Malta at the same time as a convoy from Gibraltar in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea late in November 1940. In the eastern and western Mediterranean the operation was entitled ‘MB9’ and ‘Collar’ respectively. On 23 November the 9,776-ton British fast transport Breconshire (now a commissioned naval vessel) and the 7,347-ton British Clan Ferguson, 10,492-ton British Clan Macaulay and 7,506-ton British Memnon departed Alexandria to pass through to Malta, while the empty freighters Cornwall, Devis, Rodi, Volo and Waiwera left Malta bound for Alexandria. To cover this pair of convoys a close escort of the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Coventry, and the destroyers Greyhound, Vampire, Vendetta and Voyager also sailed from Alexandria.

Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet was also at sea to cover both this convoy operation and the complex British operations to reinforce the base at Souda Bay on the north coast of Crete and to make attacks on targets among the Italian-held Dodecanese islands group in the Aegean Sea.

The MW.5A convoy of 16/20 December 1940 convoy comprised the 9,816-ton British Lanarkshire and 12,435-ton British Waiwera, and these were escorted by the battleship Malaya and the destroyers Defender, Diamond, Nubian and Wryneck. The convoy departed Alexandria on 16 December and reached Malta on 20 December.

The MW.5B convoy from the north coast of Egypt to Malta on 15/20 December 1940 sailed in two sections. That which left Port Said on 15 December comprised the 8,319-ton British Pontfield, 3,338-ton Rodi and 1,587-ton British Volo, soon joined by the 3,791-ton commissioned ship Ulster Prince, while that which sailed from Alexandria on the next day comprised the 6,054-ton British Devis and 9,351-ton Norwegian Hoegh Hood, escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta and the destroyer Havock, with the submarine Parthian in company.

At sea as cover for the entire operation was a major part of Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet in the form of the battleships Valiant and Warspite, the fleet carrier Illustrious, the heavy cruiser York, light cruiser Gloucester, and the destroyers Dainty, Greyhound, Hasty, Hereward, Hero, Hyperion, Ilex, Janus, Jervis, Juno and Mohawk from Alexandria, while the light cruisers Orion was at Piraeus and the light cruisers Ajax and Australian Sydney were en route thence to Souda Bay.

The two sections of MW.5B met at 08.00 on 17 December, Hoegh Hood then being detached to proceed independently of the convoy, with Havock as escort, as a result of the merchant vessel’s low speed. Both MW.5A and MW.5B and the independent Hoegh Hood arrived safely at Malta, the convoys on 20 December.

The MW.5½ convoy from Alexandria to Malta on 7/10 January 1941 was one of the operations considered a component of the series of British maritime and naval undertakings generally regarded as ‘Excess’ in the widest sense of the undertaking as this was one of the convoy operations of the eastern rather than western part of the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore involving Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet rather than Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’. The light cruisers Gloucester and Southampton, together with the destroyers Ilex and Janus, had departed Alexandria on 6 January for Malta loaded with army and RAF personnel. After disembarking these men and refuelling, all four warships sailed on 8 January and met the eastbound ‘Excess’ convoy.

The main body of the Mediterranean Fleet sailed from Alexandria before dawn on 7 January, the battleships Valiant and Warspite, the fleet carrier Illustrious, and the destroyers Dainty, Gallant, Greyhound, Griffin, Jervis, Mohawk and Nubian setting their course to Souda Bay on the north coast of Crete, which they reached at 12.30 on 8 January. Here the destroyers refuelled. Sailing again at 14.00, accompanied by the Australian light cruiser Sydney and destroyer Stuart, which were detached to Alexandria at 12.00 on 9 January, the main body of the Mediterranean Fleet steamed to a rendezvous with the ‘Excess’ convoy and the two eastbound Malta convoys.

The MW.5½ convoy had departed Alexandria at 14.00 on 7 January escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta and the destroyers Defender and Diamond. The convoy comprised the 9,776-ton British commissioned fast transport Breconshire and the 10,492-ton British freighter Clan Macaulay. The convoy was not attacked, and reached Malta at 08.00 on 10 January. Cover was provided by the complex movements of the Mediterranean Fleet throughout the convoy’s passage.

The MW.6 convoy made the passage from Haifa and Alexandria to Malta on 19/23 March 1941. The passage of the convoy’s four freighters was supported by the ‘MC9’ operation of Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. The 8,917-ton British City of Manchester, 7,347-ton British Clan Ferguson and 10,496-ton British Perthshire sailed from Haifa in Palestine on 19 March under escort of the destroyers Griffin and Hotspur, and the 8,039-ton British City of Lincoln departed Alexandria under escort of the destroyer Greyhound. The two groups made rendezvous to the north of Alexandria and proceeded close to western end of the island of Crete to take advantage of the fighter cover which could be provided by the British squadrons based on Máleme airfield on the north coast of Crete.

The main strength of the Mediterranean Fleet, comprising the battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite, the fleet carrier Formidable, and the destroyers Havock, Hero, Ilex, Jaguar, Janus, Jervis, Juno, Mohawk and Nubian, departed Alexandria to cover the convoy. The two elements met at 12.00 on 21 March just as an air attack started. The light anti-aircraft cruiser Bonaventure had already joined the convoy from Souda Bay. At 16.00 the heavy cruiser York, light cruisers Ajax, Gloucester, Orion and Perth, and the destroyers Hasty, Hereward and Stuart joined the main force, and later the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta, Carlisle and Coventry, together with the destroyer Havock, strengthened the escort.

During the night, the main force steamed to the north of the convoy with the cruiser force to the north of the main force. All the ships remained in contact throughout 22 March, the main force then departing at sunset after detaching Mohawk and Nubian to the convoy escort as replacements for Carlisle and Coventry. The undamaged convoy and its escort reached Malta at 07.00 on 23 March.

Air attacks on Malta began almost at the time of the convoy’s arrival, and City of Lincoln received minor damage while Perthshire was hit forward and set on fire.

The MW.7A convoy from Alexandria to Malta was timed to coincide with ‘Tiger’ on 6/9 May 1941, and comprised four 14-kt freighters (10,218-ton British Amerika, 6,202-ton British Settler, 6,655-ton Norwegian Thermopylae and 6,798-ton Norwegian Talabot) escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta, Dido and Phoebe and the destroyers Hereward, Hero, Ilex and Isis. The convoy departed Alexandria on 6 May and was due at Malta on 10 May as the ‘Tiger’ convoy passed the island.

The MW.7B convoy from Alexandria to Malta was also timed to coincide with the ‘Tiger’ undertaking on 5/9 May 1941, and comprised two 10-kt Norwegian tankers (9,351-ton Hoegh Hood and 7,616-ton Svennor) escorted by the light anti-aircraft cruisers Carlisle and Coventry, the destroyers Decoy, Defender and Greyhound, the corvette Gloxinia equipped for magnetic minesweeping, and the minesweeper Swona. The convoy departed Alexandria on 5 May and was due at Malta on 10 May as the ‘Tiger’ Convoy passed the island.

Both MW.7 convoys were covered by the main force of Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, comprising the battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite, the fleet carrier Formidable, the light cruisers Ajax, Orion and Australian Perth, and the destroyers Griffin, Havock, Hotspur, Imperial, Jaguar, Jervis, Juno, Kandahar, Kimberley, Kingston, Napier and Nizam. Accompanying the main force were the cruiser minelayer Abdiel loaded with contact mines and the 9,776-ton British commissioned transport Breconshire loaded with stores and fuels for Malta.

The main force departed Alexandria on 6 May. Shortly after sailing, Defender had to leave MW.7B as a result of mechanical problems and returned to Alexandria. At 11.30 on 7 May Ajax, Havock, Hotspur and Imperial were detached to carry out a bombardment of Benghazi during that night, the object being both to inflict damage and to create a diversion. The destroyers carried out their task and rejoined the main force at 17.00 on 8 May, reporting the probable destruction of two freighters off the port. After dusk on 8 May the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta, Carlisle, Coventry, Dido and Phoebe were detached and sent ahead to join the ‘Tiger’ convoy, while Breconshire, escorted by Havock, Hotspur and Imperial (all fitted with minesweeping gear) proceeded direct to Malta. Both the MW.7 convoys reached Malta by 12.00 on 9 May, and at 15.15 the main force of the Mediterranean Fleet met the ‘Tiger’ convoy.

The most celebrated of the MW convoys was MW.10 of four fast supply ships (7,255-ton Clan Campbell, 9,776-ton Breconshire, 5,415-ton Pampas and 6,798-ton Talabot) from Alexandria, the primary base of Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, to Malta and leading on 22 March 1942 as a result of 'MG1' to the 2nd Battle of Sirte, which was an Italian tactical victory, although the timidity of the Italian naval command in pressing home its advantage limited the effect of this British reverse. Follow-up actions by German and Italian maritime attack aircraft during the succeeding two days were considerably more effective.

By 1942 operations in the Mediterranean had developed in speed and intensity, both the German and Italian air forces seeking to halt the Royal Navy’s efforts to cover reinforcement and resupply convoys for the British forces in North Africa, and also to prevent the British sea and air forces from interdicting the Italian convoys carrying men, weapon, ammunition and other supplies from Italy to North Africa. Malta had long been a major factor in the success of the Royal Navy and the RAF in this latter task, and had therefore come in for a much greater degree of attention from the Axis air forces during the early spring of 1942. The island’s forces now badly needed more aircraft, fuel and ammunition, and at Alexandria a convoy was arranged for departure on 21 March with some of the most urgently needed supplies. The British were aware that any such attempt would attract the attentions of German and Italian aircraft, and possibly also of major elements of the Italian navy. However, the surface threat to the convoy was deemed less than that of the Axis aircraft as the surfaces engagements between British and Italian naval forces in the Mediterranean during 1941 had left the Italian fleet somewhat ‘gun shy’.

Thus the convoy’s escort in the naval ‘MG1’ undertaking was centred on six destroyers and the light anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle to provide heavy anti-aircraft capability, and more distant cover was provided by Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian’s 15th Cruiser Squadron with the light anti-aircraft cruisers Cleopatra, Dido and Euryalus, as well as four destroyers. Additional support from Malta was to comprise the light cruiser Penelope and one destroyer. The British destroyers involved in the operation were Hasty, Havock, Hero, Jervis, Kelvin, Kingston, Kipling, Lance, Legion, Lively, Sikh and Zulu.

The British concept was that Carlisle and half the destroyers should remain with the cargo vessels under all circumstances, while the rest of the warships would lay smoke and delay the approach of Italian surface units if these made any appearance.

At 14.30 on 22 March smoke was spotted on the horizon. The British were surprised to learn that they now faced not a small high-speed force, which was all that they had feared, but a force of heavy cruisers and escorting destroyers, in fact Ammiraglio di Squadra Parona’s 2a Divisione Incrociatori comprising the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, light cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere, and destroyers Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere and Lanciere.

Nevertheless, the British immediately put their prearranged plan into action, with the convoy and escorts turning away for Malta while the cruisers and destroyers laid smoke and charged the Italians. After an exchange of fire the Italian cruisers backed off, but soon returned with reinforcement in the form of Ammiraglio di Armata Angelo Iachino’s squadron of the battleship Littorio and the destroyers Alfredo Oriani, Ascari, Aviere, Geniere, Grecale and Scirocco. The battle lasted for two and a half hours, with the British ships exiting their huge smoke screen to fire a few volleys, and then turning back into the smoke when the Italian fire got too close. At 18.30 the British decided to force the issue and despatched their destroyers to make torpedo attacks from about 17,500 yards (16000 m), which was about the shortest range to which the Italians would allow the British ships to approach. None of the torpedoes hit their targets, but Havock and Kingston were both hit by shells from Littorio. Meanwhile the Italian battleship herself had been hit but received only minimal damage, and a cruiser was on fire but not badly damaged.

As darkness fell the Italians turned for home at about 19.00 for, in the absence of surface search radar, they would be at a significant disadvantage if the battle continued into the night. Throughout the battle the Italians outgunned their British counterparts and could have easily charged the convoy with either of their two groups of ships. However, they appeared unwilling to close for a decisive blow, perhaps in fear of torpedo attacks from the numerically superior British destroyer force. Cleopatra had one turret destroyed by fire from Giovanni delle Bande Nere, and lost 16 men, while Euryalus and Penelope were also damaged. The destroyer Havock was dead in the water after receiving a direct hit which killed at least 12 men, although she was later able to get under way, and the destroyers Sikh, Lively, Legion, Lance and Kingston had all sustained damage.

Most of the escort force, now short of fuel, turned back for Alexandria, while the damaged destroyers and convoy continued toward Malta with Carlisle, Penelope and Legion. On the next day the ships were subjected to continuous air attacks. The merchantman Clan Campbell was sunk some 20 miles (32 km) from Malta, Breconshire was damaged and anchored outside Valetta’s Grand Harbour, and only Talabot and Pampas entered Grand Harbour intact. Breconshire was later towed to a protected bay.

On the next day German dive-bombers appeared, hitting all three of the remaining ships. Breconshire rolled over in the bay, but much of her oil was salvaged through the hole in her hull. Talabot and Pampas were both sunk in Grand Harbour. By this point only about 5,000 tons of the 26,000 tons of cargo which had been loaded in Alexandria, had been unloaded.

The Italians had no better luck in the aftermath of the 2nd Battle of Sirte. After failing to make any serious attacks, they were caught en route to their bases by a severe storm which sank Scirocco and Lanciere.

The last convoy of the MW series was MW.32 of 18/23 June 1943.