Operation Portcullis

This was a British convoy from Egypt for the delivery of supplies to Malta (1/9 December 1942).

Once General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army had achieved its initial object of moving in 'Guillotine' (ii) from Egypt far to the west in Libya, it was now possible for the British to use the port of Benghazi and, more importantly, the port of Tripoli to supply the 8th Army from Alexandria. These convoys were also used to give protection to ships for Malta, the Maltese section being met by a heavy escort from Malta off Benghazi where the Tripoli ships turned south.

Supported by the ‘MH1’ naval undertaking, ‘Portcullis’ was undertaken after the success of ‘Stoneage’ in November, and in this MW.14 convoy the 6,679-ton US Agwimonte, 6,796-ton US Alcoa Prospector, 9,795-ton British Glenartney and 13,890-ton British Suffolk departed Port Said on 1 December under escort of the destroyers Pakenham, Petard and Free Greek Vasilissa Olga, and the escort destroyers Belvoir and Hursley, being joined off Alexandria on the following day by the light cruiser Orion and escort destroyers Alderton, Dulverton, Exmoor, Hurworth (soon detached back to Alexandria with mechanical problems), Paladin and Free Greek Pindos, and off Benghazi, at 17.00 on 3 December, by the 6,900-ton Panamanian tanker Yorba Linda ferrying fuel for the naval surface forces based in Malta and escorted by the Alexandria-based escort destroyers Croome and Tetcott.

The escort was therefore provided by four cruisers of Rear Admiral A. J. Power’s 15th Cruiser Squadron and 10 destroyers.

Additional protection was later provided by the light anti-aircraft cruisers Cleopatra, Dido and Euryalus, the destroyers Jervis, Kelvin and Nubian, and the fast minelayer Welshman carrying additional stores. The convoy reached Malta on 5 December without encountering any Axis interference, and the ships had been unloaded by 9 December.

‘Portcullis’ was followed by a succession of ships in pairs, which arrived on 11, 13 and 21 December 1942 and on 2 January 1943, and among these arrivals were two tankers. This arrangement had several advantages, including the fact that each pair of ships could accompany one of the military supply convoys as far as Benghazi and then be picked up in that locale by escorts from Malta. This method was less conspicuous and also more economical in the use of warships, which were consequently available in greater numbers to bolster the surface striking force at Malta.

As a result of these efforts the governor of Malta, Field Marshal the Lord Gort, was able to signal on 1 January 1943 that to complete the island’s reserves to seven months’ stock and two months’ working margin would need the delivery of another 112,000 tons, which could be accepted during January at the rate of four ships per week. However, the commanders-in-chief in the Middle East replied that it would be impossible to build up at this rate ‘without detriment to 8th Army supplies which are vital at this stage. Nor is shipping readily available.’

In the middle of December, there being no immediate prospect of sending a convoy from the west, the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee agreed to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s proposal that the ships still waiting at Gibraltar should be unloaded either there or in French North African ports. Until further notice Malta would have to rely solely upon supply from the east, but certain important items, such as seed potatoes, unloaded from the ships at Gibraltar, were retained for later shipment. In the event 175 tons of such potatoes reached Malta on 4 January in the cruiser minelayer Welshman.

With the raising of the siege and the virtual disappearance of any likelihood of invasion, the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee had accepted on 1 December a suggestion by Gort that the commanders-in-chief Middle East should once again assume responsibility for offensive operations by forces based on Malta. It had already become clear that the 'Braun' (ii) build-up of the Axis forces in Tunisia was proceeding more rapidly than the opposing reinforcement of the Allied forces, so if Tunis and Bizerte were to be captured quickly the ‘Torch’ and Middle East Commands would have to combine in finding more effective means of stopping Axis ships and aircraft carrying men and stores across the Sicilian Narrows.

Gort’s suggestion was therefore timely, for it was from Malta that much of the increased effort soon came.