In mid-1942, the war was going badly for the Allies. During the first six months U-Boats sank 3,250,000 tons of shipping in the Atlantic (an average freighter was 7,000 tons). Rommel rolled through Northern Africa, threatening the Suez Canal, but stopped 35 miles short of Alexandria, Egypt, because of a shortage of supplies. The Nazi war machine reached Stalingrad, with plans to head through the Caucasus for the Middle East oil fields. The Allies had Gibraltar, Malta, and Egypt. The Axis controlled France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, and most of northern Africa. A few countries were neutral Turkey, Spain, and Switzerland.
A British Spitfire taking off from USS Wasp during an operation to supply Malta with aircraft in May 1942. These planes where on most times destroyed at the moment of landing on the Island by imminent German bombing on the airfields
Malta's strategic airfield was key to holding the Mediterranean, but food and oil had to get through past German and Italian bombers. The 250,000 Maltese and 20,000 British defenders were dependent on imported food and oil.
The presence in northern Africa of both Italian and British colonies and protectorates guaranteed that there would be fighting there from the moment Italy threw in its lot with the Axis. The contest swung back and forth for over two years, but by early 1942 the Africa Korps were driving up to the Egyptian border. The dazzling prospect of seizing the Nile delta and linking up with German forces in the Ukraine was once more in sight for Axis strategists. The ability of the Afrika Korps to do this, and indeed the ability of the British to stop them, depended ultimately on the timely arrival to the desert armies of adequate supplies of troops, equipment, and above all fuel. The British were able to deny all three because of Malta, but by the middle of May 1942 the island was in dire straits with all supplies getting lower by the day. In fact the Governor of Malta at that time General Lord Gort used a bicycle for his personal transport to save fuels. If Malta was to be sustained, it was essential that supplies be convoyed in, whatever the difficulties. Thus was born Operation Harpoon.
Operation Harpoon June 11th– 16th, 1942.
Once again the British attempt to supply the besieged island of Malta, which is close to starvation. This time the strategy calls for two simultaneous convoy to sail to the island, one from Alexandria, and one from Gibraltar.
Two convoys set sail for Malta, from Gibraltar being the first. This force features five freighters, an American tanker, Kentucky, an AA cruiser, nine destroyers, and four minesweepers, all British. The covering fore to the Sicilian Channel consists of two carriers Argus and Eagle, a battleship, four cruisers Cairo, Kenya, Liverpool and Charibdis, and ten destroyers.
The second convoy, leaving from Port Said, has 11 merchant ships, escorted by 8 light cruisers and 26 destroyers reinforced by the already strained Royal Navy Eastern Fleet.The two convoys face German and Italian aircraft, E-boats, and submarines, not to mention the Italian Navy, with its 15-inch gun battleships.
The main aim of the convoy was to supply the island with fuel oil. The capital ships withdrew before the narrow channel between Sicily and Africa, leaving the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo and 13 escorts.
On the 14th Italian aircraft launched from Sardinia bounces on the Malta convoy "Harpoon" 120 miles southwest of Sardinia, hammering it with 8 Fiat CR.42s, 14 Savoia SM.84s, 18 Savoia S.79s, 18 Cant Z.1007 bis, escorted by 19 Fiat CR.42s and 20 Macchi 200s. The British have only 16 Sea Hurricanes and four outdated Fulmars to throw at the Germans. They shoot down 17 enemy planes for a loss of seven, but the Germans sink the freighter Taminbar and cripple the cruiser Liverpool, which is towed back to destroyer. That evening the convoy enters the narrow Skerki Channel, known as "Bomb Alley," passing through it by night.
The other convoy coming from Egypt also meets the Luftwaffe, which damages the Dutch ship Aagtekirk which has to be sent home. The convoy loses the freighter Bhutan. Late in the day comes word that the Italian battlefleet has put to sea. That evening German E-boats attack and torpedo the destroyer Hasty and cruiser Newcastle. The former is sunk, the latter stays in the game.
RAF Wellingtons chase down the Italian Navy, joined by torpedo-laden Beaufighters and British submarines. The cruiser Trento is hit in the melee and finished off by the submarine Umbra.
On June 16th - The convoy from Egypt still marching and countermarching towards Malta, gets hammered by Ju 87s, who sink the destroyer Airedale and damage the cruiser Birmingham. American and British planes attack the Italian fleet, which runs away. Unfortunately it's practically out of anti-aircraft ammunition and following an order by Captain Vian “Avoiding Action” which resulted in full retreat. At 6:30 p.m., it turns around and goes home. No ships reached Malta.
Convoy from Alexandria retreated following an order by
Captain Vian “avoiding action” after being attacked by the Axis
The other meets up with two Italian cruisers, Montecuccoli and Eugenio di Savoia, and five destroyers at 6:30 a.m. The Italian cruisers outrange the British, and open fire.
Five British destroyers sprint into battle while four destroyers and the AA cruiser Cairo hang back with the merchant ships. HMS Cairo takes two hits, and two British destroyers (Bedouin and Partridge are disabled), while the Italian Vivaldi is set on fire. The Italians decide to retreat at 8:40 a.m. to lie in wait for the slower-moving convoy off Pantelleria.
On 14th June the Italians sighted the convoy near Pantelleria
and attacked the British ships heavily.
The Luftwaffe arrives after that, and Ju 88s sink the destroyer Chant, disable the tanker Kentucky and freighter Burdwan. Captain C.C. Hardy, commanding the convoy orders his two cripples sunk, and cracks on top speed.
The Italian ships show up again and find only the destroyer Hebe trying to sink Kentucky. The Italians scare off Hebe and sink the two cripples, then run into Bedouin and Partridge, sinking the former. Although the most important supply - fuel oil - didn't got trough Hardy manages to get 2 ships Troilius and Orari carrying 15,000 tons of supplies to Malta and gave a breath to the near surrender garrison till another convoy - Operation Pedestal - is prepared.
Workers unloading cargo from the 2 ships
and Orari that survived the way to Malta.
See something about Operation Pedestal and those 1000 people who gave their life to help Malta fight for liberty of itself and the Mediterranean