Under Stuka dive bomb attack in the Mediterranean

Bristol Beaufighter Mark VIC, X8035 'J', of No. 235 Squadron RAF Detachment, taking off from Luqa, Malta, during the Italian naval attack on the HARPOON
The old World war I battleship HMS Centurion had been reclassified as a convoy escort ship and was at the centre of Operation Vigorous.

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 Operation 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.

HMS LIVERPOOL, pictured in February 1942 , was torpedoed on 14th June during Operation Harpoon but made it back to Gibraltar.

Italian battle fleet attacks Malta convoy

HMS CLEOPATRA throws out smoke to shield the convoy as HMS EURYALUS elevates her forward 5.25 inch guns to shell the Italian Fleet.

On the 21st March a convoy of four merchant ships had set out from Alexandria to bring relief to Malta. Intelligence indicated that the Italian fleet would attempt to attack at some point. The heavy escort of Royal Navy ships was therefore somewhat prepared when on the afternoon of 22nd March 1942 ‘a thin wisp of smoke’ appeared on the horizon. Frank Gregory-Smith records that he felt curiously relaxed at this point, even though the next more detailed report suggested they faced three battleships. As a matter of routine they could also expect to come under air attack from both bombers and torpedo bombers.

Vice Admiral Vian had prepared a plan that involved shielding the convoy with some of his force of destroyers, whilst constantly threatening the Italian fleet with a torpedo attack from other destroyers – a plan that very largely succeeded.

Captain Frank Gregory-Smith was on HMS Eridge:

A series of flashes in the smoke followed by a dull, rumbling boom announced the opening of the surface engagement. As if this was a signal, a formation of torpedo bombers flew into sight, skimming just above the sea. Simultaneously an even larger group of high level bombers were briefly glimpsed through the smoke and clouds on the opposite side of the convoy. Escorts to port and astem of the convoy immediately engaged the high formation, leaving the torpedo bombers to HMS Southwold, HMS Dulverton and HMS Eridge.

The ship shuddered under the opening salvoes and high explosive started to burst around the low flying aircraft. Their crews, obviously surprised by such a heavy concentration from so few ships, promptly split into smaller groups and tried to penetrate the screen on a broader front. Even then gunfire continued to harass them, forcing them into individual units which dropped their torpedoes haphazardly and at such long range that all ships had time to tum towards their tracks, just as bombs from the high formation exploded in a compact mass well astern of the supply ships.

Meanwhile, the two surface forces, exchanging rapid fire as they rolled, twisted and plunged through the heavy seas, were closing at a relative speed of fifty knots. The British were already partially hidden by smoke, which the Italians would have to penetrate if they were to get within range of the supply ships. Just before reaching effective gun range, the Italian Admiral swung his ships to port. To prevent him stealing the weather gauge, the British followed his movements and stretched at high speed eastwards.

On this course, British smoke drifted rapidly to leeward and, when its outer fringes reached the Italians, their Admiral, fearing a torpedo attack, edged his ships further to port. But the smoke still thickened around his ships, harassing them until the Italian Admiral suddenly lost his nerve and swung his cruisers, followed by a division of destroyers which had unexpectedly appeared astem, in a broad sweep to the northward. Rear Admiral Vian held on until satisfied that the enemy
was definitely retiring and then turned towards the convoy; some twenty miles to the south-westward.

See Red Tobruk: Memoirs of a World War II Destroyer Commander

A bare chested ammunition supply party bringing up shells for the 5.25 inch guns, during a lull in the action, on board HMS EURYALUS, on convoy duty in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Italian battleship Littorio outranged and outgunned all of the Royal Navy ships but dared not penetrate the British smokescreen. When darkness fell, without radar, she was forced to withdraw.

It was not all over. A very short time later another force appeared. Captain Eric Bush was in command of HMS Euryalus:

The enemy, as we know now, was in two groups at this stage, the nearer, about nine miles away, consisting ofthe two eight-inch and one six-inch cruisers and four destroyers we had met before, and the second group, at a distance of fifteen miles, comprising the modern battleship Littorio and four destroyers. We were in for something now, all right! I knew that Admiral Vian would never leave the convoy to its fate, so if needs be we would be fighting to the end.

In the next two hours the fate of our whole force was in the balance. With the powerful ships at his disposal the Italian admiral could easily have wiped us out, but he could not bring himself to enter the smoke-screen knowing that we were waiting for him on the other side

See Captain Eric Bush: Bless Our Ship

The action became known as the Second Battle of Sirte.

‘Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships’

A heavy sea breaking over the bows of the battleship HMS RENOWN.

In an annex to the weekly Naval Military and Air Reports on the progress of the war, there was was a brief summary of the huge serviceability issues that arose from from warships being at sea for extended periods of time:

Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships.

Capital Ships.

Between the outbreak of war and 31st December, 1941, H.M.S. Renown was at sea 390 days and during this time she steamed 137,000 miles.

HMS RENOWN at anchor in Hvalfjord, Iceland (Photograph taken from the aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS) during the search for the TIRPITZ. The battleship aft of RENOWN is possibly USS TEXAS, which arrived in Iceland in late January to escort a convoy back to British waters.

Aircraft Carriers.

H.M.S. Victorious. Steamed 41,378 miles in the first 8 months of her service. 13,000 miles of this distance were steamed in the first 5 weeks of her service.

An aerial view of HMS VICTORIOUS at sea. Steam can be seen venting from the catapult towards the front of the flight deck.


H.M.S. Cumberland. Steamed 195,876 miles from the outbreak of war to 31st December, 1941. From 18th November, 1940, to 18th May, 1941, H.M.S. Cumberland was at sea for 206 days out of a total of 213.

HMS CUMBERLAND in Grand Harbour, Malta.


H.M.S. Forester. Steamed 172,000 miles during the war up to 31st December, 1941, and was at sea for 601 days during that period. One destroyer flotilla consisting of eight ships passed the million mile mark steaming during the war in June 1941.

The destroyer HMS Forester had a very busy war, she participated in sinking U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic and would soon move to escort duties with Arctic convoys.


One of our submarines covered a distance of 25,800 miles in five months, of which only 40 days were spent in harbour, and these mostly without a depot ship. During that time this submarine went from 660 N. latitude to 260 S. latitude. Another of our submarines spent 251 days at sea in one year of war.

The crew of HM Submarine THUNDERBOLT display their 'Jolly Roger' on the Submarine Depot Ship HMS FORTH in Holy Loch, Scotland, after a successful patrol in the Mediterranean, 27 March 1942.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet 19th March 1942, see TNA CAB66/23/9.

Rescued from the sea by the Japanese Navy

HMS Encounter sunk along with HMS Exeter and USS Pope on 1st March 1942, her crew were stranded in the waters of the Java Sea for almost 24 hours.

Sam Falle was an officer on HMS Encounter which fell victim to the Japanese Navy in the Second Battle of the Java Sea on the 1st March, just after HMS Exeter. He had a lucky escape as he abandoned ship as shells still struck the Encounter. He and others were about to lower the motor boat when it was smashed by a shell, and a shell splinter ‘took away’ his binoculars. Moments later he was in the sea. There was only one lifeboat serviceable – he and the remainder of the crew clung to floats and other wreckage. The surviving crew were still in good spirits – they raised three cheers for the Encounter’s commander, Captain Morgan.

A Japanese destroyer approached them in the water, trained its guns on them, and then made off. They were 150 miles from land, there were no Allied ships in the Java sea, there was no lifeboat in sight, they had no food or water. The Japanese had left them. ‘It took a little time for these fairly stark facts to sink in.’:

Dawn came on 2 March 1942, beautiful, clear and dead calm. We had been in the water for about 18 hours, and there was nothing to be seen. We waited in silence and watched the sun climb in the heavens.

Doc had his medical kit with him, complete with syringe and enough morphine to finish us all off. By that time, according to all logic, there was no hope at all, and yet only one of our number asked for a shot. Doc rightly refused and persuaded our shipmate to give it a bit longer. It grew hotter; the sea was calm and shimmered in the sunshine. We became drowsy; I recall that I felt neither hunger nor thirst.

It must have been about midday, for the sun was vertical and we were just south of the equator. About 200 yards away we thought we saw a Japanese destroyer. Was she a mirage? We all saw her, so perhaps she was real, but our first emotion was not joy or relief, for we expected to be machine-gunned.

There was a great bustle aboard that ship, but the main armament was trained fore and aft and there was no sign of machine-guns. The ship’s sailors were lowering rope- ladders all along the side of the ship. They were smiling small brown men in their floppy white sun-hats and too-long khaki shorts.

The ship came closer. We caught hold of the rope-ladders and managed to clamber aboard. We were covered with oil and exhausted. The Japanese sailors surrounded us and regarded us with cheerful curiosity. They took cotton waste and spirit and cleaned the oil off us, firmly but gently. It was – extraordinary to relate – a friendly welcome.

I was given a green shirt, a pair of khaki shorts and a pair of gym shoes. Then we were escorted to a large space amidships and politely invited to sit down in comfortable cane chairs. We were served hot milk, bully beef and biscuits.

After a while the captain of the destroyer came down from the bridge, saluted us and addressed us in English: ‘You have fought bravely. Now you are the honoured guests of the Imperial Japanese Navy. I respect the English navy, but your government is very foolish to make war on Japan.’

That fine officer searched for survivors all day, stopping to pick up even single men, until his small ship was overflowing. An awning was spread over the fo’c’s’le to protect us from the sun; lavatories were rigged outboard; cigarettes were handed out; and by a biblical type of miracle, our hosts managed to give all 300 of us food and drink.

The only order we were given was not to smoke after dark lest ‘English submarine’ should see a lighted cigarette. The Japanese did not know, it seems, that there were no English submarines in the Java Sea. Yet they had continually stopped to rescue every survivor they could find.

Thanks to this destroyer and other Japanese ships, Encounter only lost seven men and Exeter a surprisingly small number also. The survivors from Pope were rescued by the Japanese two days later.

See Sam Falle: My Lucky Life: In War, Revolution, Peace and Diplomacy. George Cooper, also sunk on 1st March was picked up with the crew from HMS Exeter a good deal quicker than Sam Falle from HMS Encounter. He also has very positive comments about their treatment by the Japanese Navy, in marked contrast to his memories of subsequent treatment.

HMS Exeter’s final battle

HMS Exeter fighting off an aircraft attack in January 1942 during the Battle of the Banka Straits.

On the 27th a combined ABDA – American British Dutch Australian – task force of ships had sustained heavy damage whilst attacking the Japanese invasion fleet heading for Java, now known as the First Battle of the Java Sea. The fleet retired to the port of Tanjung Priok, in the Dutch East Indies (now part of Jakarta, Indonesia). Separate groups of ships left on the 28th February – the USS Houston and HMAS Perth (sister ship to [permalink id=14780 text=”HMAS Sydney”]) ran into the Japanese fleet again and were sunk in the early hours of 1st March in the Battle of the Sunda Strait.

The cruiser HMS Exeter, [permalink id=2370 text=”famed in Britain”] for her role in the Battle of the [permalink id=2364 text=”River Plate in 1939″], had sustained serious damage. On 28th she buried her 14 dead at sea and departed with the destroyers HMS Encounter and USS Pope. Between Java and Borneo they encountered eight Japanese warships – four heavy cruisers and four destroyers and the Second Battle of the Java Sea followed.

Lieutenant-Commander George Cooper was on board HMS Exeter:

For some unaccountable reason it was considered at headquarters that our best means of escape lay through the Sunda Strait to the westward, whereas the chances of doing this successfully were very remote in such enclosed waters. It would have seemed wiser to get away to the eastward towards Australia, as a chase in this direction would have drawn the enemy away from his fuelling bases, which he could not easily afford.

The following morning, Sunday, March lst, 1942, at 7.30, we sighted the topmasts of two Japanese heavy cruisers and turned south until they were out of sight, when we resumed our westward course. At 9.30, we sighted them again to starboard with a large destroyer, and shortly afterwards two smaller cruisers with five destroyers appeared on the port side. We turned to the eastward with our escorting destroyers, the British Encounter and the American Pope, to put the enemy astern.

For two hours we had a running fight with them. They straddled us many times but never hit us until at 11.30 one shell penetrated the boiler room. It was a shot in a million as it cut our one remaining main steam pipe.

The ship just came to a stop in all departments. The main engines stopped through lack of steam. The dynamos stopped. The turrets were motionless on different bearings. The steering failed. The inside became full of smoke as escaping oil fuel in the forward boiler room burst into flames. There was nothing we could do except sink her.

So the magazine valves were opened. The condenser inlets were allowed to flood the engine room, and watertight doors usually kept closed were opened. A pretty good inferno was going on down below as the fire spread. She started to list slightly to port, pouring black smoke out of her funnels. I thought she looked defiant, like a stag at bay. Men were cutting down carley floats and flotanets, casting timber adrift, turning out boats.

The Japanese were starting to hit us now as the range closed in. The after superstructure caught fire and the whine of projectiles sounded like the Ride of the Valkyries. She was getting lower in the water and heeling more. The inside had been completely evacuated; no one could live down there. At the bottom of the ladder leading to the upper deck were a lot of people, all quite cahn. She was very nearly stopped, and men were leaving in dribs and drabs. As they went they drifted away astern. Then I climbed over the side and
jumped into the water.

A little later, a destroyer closing on the starboard beam fired a torpedo. It was a good shot as it hit her right amidships. The old dear shuddered a bit. She seemed to shake herself from bow to stern. She must have had very little positive buoyancy left as she went right over to starboard until her fumiels and masts were horizontal. Then, heaving herself up in a final act of defiance, she disappeared in a swirl of water, smoke and steam.

I had never seen a ship sink in day time before. I had seen twelve ships sunk in a convoy in the Atlantic one wild night in October 1940. One of these I saw break in half and the two halves rear up in the air and disappear in twenty seconds. But darkness had spared me the most terrible sight for any sailor – a ship’s final lurch below the waves when the ocean floods inside and gets her down forever.

So I shall never forgot the sight of Exeter going. It did not seem real. We had lived in that ship for a year. We had our cabins and messdecks there, all our private belongings and treasures, mementos of home, books, photographs.I remember throwing my large Barr and Stroud binoculars on the deck before I went over the side. What a waste, I thought, yet a bagatelle compared to the loss of a fine 8-inch cruiser with a score that included the Graf Spee off the River Plate.

Anyhow, we all gave her three cheers as she went. You could hear the faint cheers rippling over the water.

George T. Cooper was to survive the war but his experiences at the hands of the Japanese are reflected in the title of his memoir: George T. Cooper: Never Forget, Nor Forgive. He was awarded the OBE for services to other PoWs and later became a Captain in the Royal Navy.

A captured Japanese aerial photograph of HMS Exeter sinking in the Second Battle of the Java Sea.

Britain at War has the full despatch on the action made by the commander of HMS Exeter, Captain O.L.Gordon in 1945, written when he was being repatriated on board USS Gosper after release from PoW camp.

HMS Encounter was sunk shortly after HMS Exeter and about an hour later USS Pope was sunk when attacked by dive bombers.

By dusk of 1st March 1942 the survivors from all three ships, spread out miles apart, were clinging to wreckage in the waters of the Java Sea

In 2016 came the sad news that HMS Exeter and other ships which constituted War Graves had been illegally salvaged. The Guardian has the full report.

The U.S. Navy Clemson-class destroyer USS Pope (DD-225) in January 1924, sunk by Japanese dive bombers on the 1st March 1942.

Italian Navy ambushed again, off Cap Bon

HMS Maori, one of the Tribal class destroyers, sister ship to HMS Sikh which led the attack.

The battles in North Africa continued and there was a desperate need for the Italians to resupply their aircraft with fuel. Two fast Light Cruisers were despatched with barrels of fuel on their decks, with the expectation that they could outrun any Royal Navy force. It was a misplaced hope:

Before dawn on the 13th, when off Cape Bon, H.M. Destroyers Sikh, Legion and Maori and the Dutch Destroyer Isaac Sweers made contact with the Italian cruisers Alberto di Giussano and Alberico da Barbiano (5,069 tons, 8—6-inch guns) and two torpedo boats, on a southerly course. A Wellington aircraft also sighted the force and the enemy hearing her engines turned back, thereby placing our destroyers in a most favourable position for attack. The allied ships had the initiative and opened fire with guns and torpedoes. The two cruisers were set on fire and sunk; one of the torpedo boats was sunk and the other severely damaged. Our ships suffered no casualties or damage.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/20/24.

It was the second worst disaster for the Italian Navy after [permalink id=10897 text=”Cape Matapan”] and came shortly after a very similar success by [permalink id=14468 text=”‘Force K’,”] operating out of Malta. In this case ‘Force B’, consisting of just destroyers, was en route from Gibraltar to Malta were able to approach the Italian force and open fire before they were detected. What the Situation Report did not reveal was that it was an Ultra decrypt that had given away the route of the Italian ships, which had been pursued at top speed by the Royal Navy and then located using radar – enabling the surprise attack.

The action lasted less than ten minutes, with all of the four ships scoring hits. Over 900 Italians were lost.

Force K ambushes an Italian convoy

The cruiser HMS Penelope in Malta harbour, the base from which Force K departed for the devastating attack on the Italian convoy, sometimes known as the 'Battle of the Duisberg convoy' - the name of the largest merchantship sunk.

The sea war in the Mediterranean was becoming ever more intense. Almost all supplies for Egypt now came around Africa and up through the Suez canal, a route that was comparatively safe, but [permalink id=14067 text=”not without hazard”] .

Meanwhile every effort was being made to attack the seaborne supply of Rommel’s Afrika Korps from Italy. The island of Malta played a crucial role as a base [permalink id=14462 text=”for aircraft”], submarines and for a short time from 21st October, a small force of surface ships, Force K. These two cruisers and two destroyers struck on the night of 8th-9th November when they met two Italian cruisers and ten Italian destroyers escorting a convoy:

The methods to be employed in attacking a convoy had often been discussed between the captains of our four ships of Force K: after the first general alarm bearing, Senior Officer K had only to make two more signals during the whole action – one to reduce speed, and one to warn against wasting ammunition.

Everyone knew what to do, and it only remained for them to do it. The first thing that was done – an example of brilliant judgement by Captain Agnew – was to ‘stalk’ the enemy. Aurora led round to the northward to silhouette the enemy against the moon. Light conditions were ideal; and our light camouflage (we had spent the previous week painting ship to the accompaniment of the usual growls about ‘peacetime’ routine) was so effective that we got to within 6,000 yards of the enemy, apparently without having been sighted, before Aurora opened fire on the left-hand destroyer astern of the convoy.

We opened fire thirty seconds later on the right-hand destroyer, and continued to shoot her up for four minutes. Aurora then led round and passed up the western side of the convoy, and the ‘party’ started, as the merchant ships were deliberately and in turn engaged by the whole force.

The ships seemed to make no effort to escape, and it was all too easy; they burst into flames as soon as we hit them. A large tanker was like a wall of flame, and an ammunition ship gave a superb display of fireworks before she blew up with a tremendous explosion. We could soon see about eight burning ships, and a great pall of smoke where the ammunition ship had been.

One destroyer was a bit of a nuisance firing at us from astern, and she straddled us several times. We engaged her with our starboard four-inch guns, and saw what looked like an enormous Christmas tree of sparks in the position from which she had been. Anyway, she gave us no more trouble.

See Our Penelope, the Story Of H.M.S.Penelope., a collective memoir produced by the ship’s company, published in 1943, now a very rare volume.

H.M. Cruisers Aurora and Penelope and the Destroyers Lance and Lively, acting on the report of a Maryland aircraft, proceeded on the evening of 8th to intercept a southbound convoy in the Ionian Sea.

It was a bright moonlight night and, after the first sighting, our force was able to work round so as to have the enemy silhouetted against the moon. As the range closed the convoy was found to consist of four destroyers and eight merchant ships, with a second convoy of two destroyers and two merchant ships joining them. Fire was opened at just under 6,000 yards range, and the first salvo hit a destroyer.

Two destroyers were sunk in a few minutes and a third was badly damaged. An ammunition ship was hit and blew up. At least twelve torpedoes were fired by the enemy and of four fired by H.M. ships three scored hits. A total of nine merchant ships was sunk and a 10,000-ton tanker was set on fire and is considered a total loss. Our ships suffered no damage or casualties, and took no prisoners. They were ineffectually attacked by torpedo bombers during the morning.

H.M. Submarine Upholder after the engagement sighted two Trento class cruisers (8-inch guns), which had apparently been covering the convoys, and six destroyers escorting a damaged one. She sank one destroyer and hit another, which was last seen in tow with the stern under and the fore part out of water.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/19/43

Moonlight run to Tobruk ends in disaster

HMS Latona, sunk off Tobruk on the 25th October was the same class of minelayer as HMS Welshman, pictured.

Sam Falle was an officer on board the destroyer HMS Encounter, operating out of Alexandria in October 1941. Their principal role was to do the overnight ‘beef and spuds’ run along the coast to the besieged garrison of Tobruk. Apart from resupply, the Australian troops were being withdrawn during these operations, being replaced with Polish and English units:

Three destroyers and a minelayer carried fresh troops, supplies and ammunition under cover of darkness. We made two successful trips and it was a great joy to take 350 gallant Aussies on board each time, fill them with beer and take them back to Alex.

This was fine as long as it was dark, but then some crass idiot decided we should make the trip by moonlight. Crazy, we were spitting distance away from the German North African airbases. We were lucky they had not spotted us in the dark – it is never completely dark – but to try in moonlight… one wonders at the idiocy of man.

As we approached Tobruk the Germans spotted us and launched a fiendish dive-bombing’attack. They quickly scored direct hits on the minelayer Latona, which was carrying ammunition. She was soon a blazing inferno, with ammunition exploding all over her. The ship’s company either jumped overboard or ran to the fo’c’s’le, which was the only part of the ship not blazing.

Rattler Morgan [HMS Encounter], an unsung hero if ever there was one, decided that we were going to rescue Latona’s survivors.

Under furious bombing, he took Encounter alongside Latona’s fo’c’s’le, our starboard to their port side, and we lowered ladders down our port side. We got most of Latona’s crew and returned safely to Alex. Morgan received no recognition at all for this extraordinary achievement, but somebody up there loved us.

See Sam Falle: My Lucky Life – In War, Revolution, Peace and Diplomacy

It had been a busy day in Tobruk:

The garrison of Tobruk have continued their offensive patrolling and have inflicted considerable casualties on the enemy. Enemy shelling was continuous throughout the week and was particularly heavy on the 25th October, when 267 rounds were fired in the western sector, 187 in the southern sector and 181 in the eastern sector. The damage has, however, been slight, and there is evidence that our counter battery-fire has been effective.

From the Military Situation Report for the week, as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/19/25.

The USS Kearney torpedoed in mid Atlantic

Eleven men died when the USS Kearny was torpedoed by U-568 whilst assisting with convoy duties .

The United States was not yet at war with Germany even though it’s Navy was escorting convoys in the Atlantic. A [permalink id=13625 text=”series of incidents”] had showed that they were increasingly coming up against the German U-boats but until the 17th none had fallen victim to a torpedo:

With full left rudder, to avoid British corvette, commenced swinging ship to port in circling area on port quarter of convoy as this appeared to be a submarine area. It is probable that the KEARNY was silhouetted by the burning freighter to submarine to Northwest which was thus in a favorable attack position and not seen by KEARNY.

About 0010 torpedo struck the ship on starboard side at about the turn of the bilge between frames seventy and seventy four, in latitude 57-04 North, 23-00 West. At this time a second torpedo ran past the starboard side of ship on slightly converging coure and a third was noted crossing astern close abroad from starboard to port.

From the Action Report of LCDR. A.L. DANIS, Commanding Officer U.S.S. KEARNY DD-432, which can be found, along with much more about the ship at USS Kearney.

Eleven men died in the attack, it was one more incident hardening the attitude of the American people. Ten days later President Roosevelt was to address the nation:

America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a Navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation.

Illinois, Alabama, California, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, New York, Virginia — those are the home States of the honored dead and wounded of the Kearny. Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American, whether he lives on our seacoasts or in the innermost part of the Nation, far from the seas and far from the guns and tanks of the marching hordes of would-be conquerors of the world.

The purpose of Hitler’s attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas — to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused.

German newsreel footage of U Boat operations released on 17th October 1941:

Malta convoy under attack

The last moments of a German torpedo bomber as it comes under fierce anti aircraft fire during an attack on Royal Navy forces in the Mediterranean.

On the 27th September 1941 the destroyer HMS Lightning was one of the [permalink id=13892 text=”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: