Merchant ship supply lines stretched on all fronts

The battleship HMS DUKE OF YORK in heavy seas on a convoy escort operation to Russia, March 1942.

The Royal Navy was devoting enormous resources to the protection of convoys. In the Mediterranean they were paying a heavy price. Despite fighting off the Italian battle fleet on the 22nd March in the Second Battle of Sirte, only two of the four merchant ships made it to Malta.

Air attacks were resumed the next morning [ the 23rd] when the convoy was about 45 miles south of Malta, with an easterly gale blowing. The s.s. Clan Campbell (7,255 tons) was sunk, H.M. Auxiliary Supply Ship Breconshire (9,776 tons) was disabled and H.M. Destroyer Legion was damaged. The remaining two ships of the convoy, the s.s. Pampas (5,415 tons) and the Norwegian s.s. Talabot (6,798 tons), entered the Grand Harbour. The heavy weather made it impossible to bring in the Breconshire and, after lying at anchor off the Island, she was towed into Marsaxlokk, south-east of Malta, on the 25th. H.M.S. Southwold, one of the destroyers screening her while she was at anchor on the 24th, struck a mine and sank some hours later.

Elsewhere the main battle was being fought off the coast of the USA where the U-boats were having what they described as their ‘happy time’, able to sink ships almost at will. The United States had yet to introduce a convoy system. Operation Drumbeat was unrelenting.

Protection of Sea-borne Trade

During the week ending the 25th March 897 ships, including 245 Allied and 22 neutral, were convoyed. Seven cruisers and anti-aircraft ships, two armed merchant cruisers, 68 destroyers (including 17 American and two Russian destroyers) and 114 sloops and corvettes were employed on escort duties.

Imports into Great Britain by ships in convoy during the week ending the 21st March totalled 541,000 tons, compared with an average of 601,900 tons for the past ten weeks. Of the week’s imports, 71,000 tons were oil of various grades.

Enemy Attack on Trade

During the week U-boats are known to have torpedoed 14 ships, including ten tankers. Seven of these attacks were off the Atlantic coasts of America and Canada, four in the Bermuda area, one north-west of Aruba, one off Sollum and one off Cape Palmas (Liberia).

Aircraft sank two ships and damaged three others. One ship was sunk and one damaged off Malta. One ship was sunk and another damaged in Channel convoys and one ship was damaged at Murmansk.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/23/16

A convoy escorted by HMS ATHERSTONE approaches Falmouth, England, March 1942. Transatlantic convoys fared rather better at this time because U-boats were targeted at ships not in convoy off the coast of the USA.

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