The situation on Malta was becoming increasingly desperate. While it had been possible to re-inforce the islands air defences by flying a number of Spitfires into the island, what was really needed was a significant improvement in the supplies reaching the island. The Royal Navy sought to address this by sending two convoys simultaneously to the island in an attempt to divide the attentions of the enemy. Operation Harpoon left Gibraltar and headed east on the 12th June. This convoy came under attack on the morning of 14th June, when the cruiser HMS Liverpool was torpedoed. For more on HMS Liverpool see Harpoon.
On the 14th June heading west from Alexandria was another convoy, with a full Royal Navy complement of 7 cruisers and 26 destroyers in escort plus HMS Centurion, whose main armament was now anti-aircraft guns, codenamed Operation Vigorous. Amongst these was the war weary crew of HMS Eridge, under the command of Frank Gregory-Smith. They had been under air attack so often that it seemed only a matter of time before they were hit. There was mounting tension as they reached the point nearest the the Libyan coast where they could expect the attentions of the Luftwaffe. It was from here that “a seemingly endless procession of tiny black specks” was now seen:
First ten, then twenty thirty forty fifty Stukas took shape, advancing remorselessly towards the convoy. Fire was opened immediately and the deep boom of heavy gunfire mingled with the continuous smack of shell bursts. Smoke and fumes slowly drew a dark screen across the sky through which the rays of the sun, penetrating with difficulty twitched eerie, dancing shadows across the sea.
Two bombers, reeling drunkenly away from their companions, spiralled lazily seawards in a series of huge loops; the rest of the air fleet advanced steadily towards their diving positions, accompanied by an extending line of shell bursts. At a signal, the bombers peeled out of formation and dived onto the convoy.
The sharp snap, snap of close range weapons immediately joined the bedlam of the heavier guns and accelerating aero engines. Then the bombs began to burst in and around the supply ships, blotting them from view as wave after wave dived to the attack.
A frightening pillar of flame followed by a heavy detonation suddenly flared up amongst this upheaval. An agonizing few seconds was ended when the supply ship Bhutan, turning helplessly in a wide semi circle with her hull rent by internal explosions, drifted into sight. Leaving a rescue ship to pick up survivors, the convoy pressed steadily westwards under constant air attack which continued throughout the forenoon and aftemoon.
The enemy was obviously using every available aircraft in a determined effort to claim as many victims as possible before nightfall restricted aerial activity. But, in spite of the number of bombers engaged, they obtained no more hits. As the day slowly advanced, weary cursing, sweating gunners, firing as fast as their ammunition could be loaded, cast many an apprehensive glance at the sun. They dreaded the coming twilight but hoped that the following darkness would bring them a little respite.
As a blood red sun sank into the sea, a flotilla of E-boats was sighted ten miles north of the convoy. Destroyers on the outer screen immediately turned towards them at high speed, hoping to fire a few salvoes before the faster craft slipped out of range. That, to everyone’s relief, was the only twilight activity.
Once HMS Eridge had become actively engaged, the earlier reluctance to face another Malta run was replaced by a determination to defend the convoy. Now that men had time to think again, their main emotion was a mixture of thankfulness and optimism. The convoy had endured a night and day of heavy bombing but had lost only one ship within the gunnery zone. Malta lay two nights and a day ahead but, so long as our resolute defence was maintained, most of the supply ships should reach their destination.
It was only at midnight that they learnt that the Italians had put two battleships to sea, expected to cross their path in about eight hours time. For the full story see Red Tobruk: Memoirs of a World War II Destroyer Commander.