This is part 2 of an article on the Axis powers’ huge tonnage losses by units operating from Malta between May and November 1941. Read part one.

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The preoccupation of Ciano

Seven days after this episode (September 25), the Italian foreign minister and the son-in-law of Il Duce Benito Mussolini, Count Galeazzo Ciano, wrote in his diary about the heavy losses sustained by Italy in terms of merchant shipping in the Mediterranean, probably referring to the above episode. He wrote: 

Count Galeazzo CianoCount Galeazzo Ciano

“…. Actually, the Mediterranean situation is dark and will become even more because of the continued loss of merchant ships. Commander Bigliardi, who is in the know and is a reliable person, says that in responsible naval circles, they are seriously beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t decide to give up Libya, rather than wait until we are forced to do so by the complete lack of freighters….”

On October 1, he continued:

“A conference with Admiral Ferreri. He is concerned about the fate of Libya, especially if the sinkings of our merchant ships continue to be as heavy as in September. While, in the past the percentage of ships lost had reached a maximum of five per cent, in September it jumped to 18 per cent…”

The strategic importance of Malta for Churchill

In his six-volume memoir, British prime minister Winston S. Churchill also mentioned the heavy losses suffered by the Axis during this period. He clearly shows the importance of Malta for the Allied cause, where “during the three months ending with September, 43 Axis ships, of 150,000 tons, besides 64 smaller craft, were sunk on the African route by British aircraft, submarines and destroyers, acting from Malta. In October, over 60 per cent of Rommel’s supplies were sunk in passage”. 

British prime minister Winston Churchill. Photo: IWMBritish prime minister Winston Churchill. Photo: IWM

Churchill stated also that, during this time, the German admiral serving with the Italian High Command reported that “… now, as ever, the British Fleet dominates the Mediterranean… The Italian Fleet had been unable to prevent operations by the enemy’s naval forces but, in co-operation with the Italian Air Force, it did prevent the Mediterranean route being used for regular British convoy traffic… The most dangerous British weapon is the submarine, especially those operating from Malta. In the period covered, there were 36 submarine attacks; of these 19 were successful…. Owing to the weakness of the Italian Air Force in Sicily, the threat from Malta to the German-Italian sea route to North Africa has increased in the last few weeks…”

It is said that the losses of tonnage sustained by the Axis from June to October 1941 had exceeded production. In the whole Mediterranean, this amounted to some 270,000 tons. On the Italy-North Africa supply route alone, 40 vessels totalling 178,577 tons had been lost, mainly in the period August to October 1941.

Churchill knew that Malta was the focus for the final Allied victory in the Mediterranean. Apart from that, the geographic position of the island was vital in intercepting Axis convoys to Libya, which was indispensable for the British and Commonwealth armies to win the war in North Africa. 

Churchill stressed that “… for us, the replenishment of Malta was vital. The loss of Crete deprived Admiral Cunningham’s fleet of a fuelling base near enough to bring our protecting sea-power into action. The possibilities of a seaborne assault on Malta from Italy or Sicily grew though, as we now know, it was not until 1942 that Hitler and Mussolini approved such a plan. Enemy air bases both in Crete and Cyrenaica menaced the convoy route from Alexandria to Malta so seriously that we had to depend entirely on the West for the passage of supplies…”

Map of the Central Mediterranean showing the range of Malta’s bombers, torpedo bombers and submarines attacking Italo-German convoys. PHOTO: Malta At War Vol IVMap of the Central Mediterranean showing the range of Malta’s bombers, torpedo bombers and submarines attacking Italo-German convoys. PHOTO: Malta At War Vol IV

In his book Engage the Enemy More Closely, English military historian Correlli Barnett commented: “… Until then the task of attacking Italian convoys had fallen to the Royal Navy’s submarines and the RAF. From June to October, the RAF sank 24 merchant ships totalling 74,694 tons and the submarines 14 merchant and troopships of 74,694 tons. In the clear ultramarine waters of the Mediterranean was played out between submarines and escorts the same game of hunt and be hunted as in the Battle of the Atlantic, but with the roles reversed – British submarines enacting those scenes of peering into periscopes or silently listening to the thunder of enemy depth-charges….”

Arrival of Force K

By the summer of 1941, the British and Axis armies were locked in a stalemate east of Tobruk and the British were very keen to interdict Italian convoys from Italy to Libya. This could best be done from Malta, from where submarines and aircraft were already assaulting Italian convoys. On August 25, upon the insistence of Churchill, the British Admiralty decided to send a small force to Malta consisting of cruisers and destroyers. This squadron, known as Force K, arrived in Malta from Gibraltar on October 21, 1941. It consisted of the cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope and the destroyers HMS Lance and HMS Lively. The mere presence of Force K at Malta immediately caused difficulties to the Italian war machine because on October 22, all sea traffic across the central Mediterranean was temporarily postponed pending the organising of adequate cruiser protection to the convoys. 

HMS Hood, left, and HMS Barham, leaving Grand Harbour. Photo: NWM Archives)HMS Hood, left, and HMS Barham, leaving Grand Harbour. Photo: NWM Archives)

The largest victory for Force K

The convoy included two German vessels, Duisburg and San Marco and three Italian, the Maria, Sagitta and Rina Corrado. Between them, these cargo vessels were carrying 389 vehicles, 34,473 tons of munitions, fuel in barrels and their associated crew and troops for the Italian and German forces in Libya. Carrying 17,281 tons of fuel, including gasoline for German aircraft, were the Conte di Misurata and Minatitlan. The convoy was protected by a close escort and a distant escort.

During the night of November 8 and 9, the British discovered through ‘Ultra’ intelligence that the Axis were about to send a large convoy to Libya. The presence of the convoy was confirmed by a Martin Maryland on air reconnaissance from Malta. Force K left Malta to intercept the convoy. The encounter became known as the Battle of the Duisburg Convoy.

HMS Aurora entering Grand Harbour. Photo: NWM ArchivesHMS Aurora entering Grand Harbour. Photo: NWM Archives

The British gunnery was directed by radar and they fired from no more than 5,500 yards. Grecale was hit by HMS Aurora’s first three salvos and was left dead in the water, with a fire aboard. Fulmine attacked the British force but was hit by both HMS Lance and HMS Penelope and, as a result, capsized and sank. 

In the course of the battle, the British closed with the convoy which took no evasive action and finished them off with guns and torpedoes. After the destruction of the whole convoy, Force K retired to Malta at high speed with ineffective pursuit by the covering force. In all, Force K sank some 39,800 tons of Axis shipping.

German U-Boats come to the rescue

Kalcidon Balzan killed on HMS Barham on November 25, 1941. Photo: NWM ArchivesKalcidon Balzan killed on HMS Barham on November 25, 1941. Photo: NWM Archives

However, the presence of the German U-Boats started to leave its impact. Two heavy losses occurred on November 13, when U-81 torpedoed the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, However, the heaviest naval loss was the sinking of HMS Barham in the Eastern Mediterranean on November 25, by U-331. The battleship was sunk and the escorting destroyers picked up 450 survivors. However, 55 officers and 806 men were lost, including 19 Maltese ratings out of the 36 on board serving as cooks and stewards.

HMS Barham exploding when it was nearly sunk. Photo: NWM ArchivesHMS Barham exploding when it was nearly sunk. Photo: NWM Archives

Concluded. The first part of this feature was published on November 8.

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