On the 27th September 1941 the destroyer HMS Lightning was one of the ships escorting convoy WS11 from Gibraltar to Malta. Convoys on this route needed extensive protection and each one was a significant commitment for the Royal Navy – this convoy was ‘Operation Halberd’. The base at Malta was essential to continuation of the Mediterranean war and every effort was being made by the Germans and Italians to prevent its re-supply. George Gilroy was manning a four inch gun on the destroyer:
The air attacks were a combination of high altitude bombing, dive bombing and low level torpedo bombing. There was also the threat of attack from German submarines, E boats and the Italian Navy. The sky was often black with our anti aircraft fire and the enemy gave us little rest between attacks. They were obviously well coordinated and prepared for us.
On 27 September at 1340 we were very nearly hit – a torpedo from an aircraft missed us by only 20 yards. Attack by torpedo bombers was frightening. They would single you out and fly straight for you at masthead height before dropping their torpedo at very close range. They presented an impossibly small target and were below the depression of most of our guns.
My four inch gun was not controlled by the director, and hence I had to aim by sight. The way in which the ship dealt with torpedo attacks was to steer straight for the aircraft at full speed, this would present as small a target as possible and comb the track of the incoming torpedo. Although the safest thing to do, this resulted in only the for’ard 4.7 inch guns being able to bare on the attacker leaving the anti aircraft pom pom, my four inch and the various machine guns helpless.
Unfortunately, the aircraft were wise to this tactic and they often came in simultaneously at different angles – life then became interesting. I can clearly remember seeing the white wakes that the torpedoes trailed behind them. We all knew that a single hit from a torpedo could kill a destroyer – the ship’s steel skin was only a few millimetres thick and had no armour plating like the larger ships. I felt very sorry for the poor merchantmen, all they could do was to chug along at seven knots – many would be full of aviation spirit for the aircraft that were based on Malta and must have been like floating bombs.
During the air raids Lightning would be rushing at full speed between the beleaguered merchantmen trying to draw the fire from the aircraft. My four inch gun was captained by PO ‘Slinger’ Woods. We had no protection whatsoever from the weather or shrapnel – not even a gun shield.
Live, ready to use, ammunition would be stacked all around us – we would not have stood a chance if this had been hit. To this day, I shall never know how we never got hit by shrapnel from all of the bombs that near missed us.
I remember at one stage during an attack a Fiat fighter performing stunts over the convoy, some said that it was trying to divert attention from the incoming torpedo bombers. However, we shot him down.
The full account is on The story of HMS Lightning.
British Pathe has footage of the convoy action: