Operation Harpoon (1942)
Operation Harpoon (Battle of Pantelleria) was one of two simultaneous Allied convoys sent to supply Malta in the Axis-dominated central Mediterranean Sea in mid-June 1942, during the Second World War. Operation Vigorous was a westward convoy from Alexandria and the convoy of Operation Harpoon travelled east from Gibraltar. Two of the six ships in the Harpoon convoy completed the journey, at the cost of several Allied warships. The convoy of Operation Vigorous was driven back by the Italian fleet after many air attacks.
In 1942, Axis bombing smashed the docks, ships, aircraft and airfields by the end of April 1942 and the bombing was switched to targets preliminary to invasion, camps, barracks, warehouses and road junctions. After 18 April, German bombing suddenly stopped and Italian bombers took over, regularly bombing with small formations of aircraft. During the month, Axis aircraft flew more than 9,500 sorties against 388 by the Royal Air Force (RAF) all but 30 of which were fighter sorties. The British had lost 50 aircraft, 20 shot down in combat against 37 Axis losses incurred during the dropping of 6,700 long tons (6,800 t) of bombs, three times the March figure, 3,000 long tons (3,000 t) on the docks, 2,600 long tons (2,600 t) on airfields. The bombing demolished or damaged 11,450 buildings, 300 civilians were killed and 350 seriously wounded. Good shelters existed but some casualties were caused by delayed-action bombs.
Rations of meat, fats and sugar were cut further and on 5 May, the bread ration was reduced to 10.5 ounces (300 g) per day, enough to last until late July; pasta rations had already been stopped and there had been a poor winter potato harvest. Three destroyers, three submarines, three minesweepers, five tugs, a water carrier and a floating crane were sunk in port and more ships damaged. The island continued to function as a staging post but the Axis bombing campaign neutralised Malta as an offensive base. Two boats of the 10th Submarine Flotilla had been sunk, two were damaged in harbour and on 26 April the flotilla was ordered out because of mining by small fast craft, which were undetectable by radar and inaudible during the bombing; the surviving minesweepers were too reduced in numbers to clear the approaches. Three reconnaissance aircraft remained and only 22 bomber sorties were flown, eleven more by Fleet Air Arm (FAA) aircraft during the month and by the start of June, only two Fairey Albacores and two Fairey Swordfish were left.
From December 1941, Luftwaffe bombing neutralised Malta, decrypts of Italian C 38m cipher messages showed more sailings and fewer losses and on 23 February 1942, an Italian "battleship convoy" reached Tripoli. By the end of February, 11 ships had crossed without escort and a blackout caused by a change to the C 38m machine in early March made little difference to the British for lack of means. After the British broke C 38m, 26 Axis supply journeys had been made by May, only nine being spotted byair reconnaissance. On 14 April, five Malta aircraft were shot down and the submarine HMS Upholder was lost. On 10 March, the cruiser HMS Naiad was sunk by a U-boat and on 10 May, three of four destroyers were sunk by the Luftwaffe. In February and March, Axis losses were 9 percent of supplies sent, in April fewer than one percent and May losses were 7 percent.
The Axis was able to reinforce north Africa sufficient for Rommel to try to attack before the British. In late April, the British Chiefs of Staff ruled that there would be no convoy to Malta in May, because the Italian fleet could be expected to sail and convoy would need battleship and aircraft carrier cover, which was not available. An operation to fly Spitfires to Malta succeeded and anti-aircraft ammunition was to be supplied by fast minelayer, with which Malta must hold on until mid-June, when the situation in the Western Desert. Should Martuba or Benghazi in Cyrenaica have been captured by the Eighth Army, a westbound convoy from Alexandria might survive without cover from battleships and aircraft carriers. It would also be known if Luftwaffe aircraft had been diverted to the Russian Front and if the crisis in the Indian Ocean had abated, sufficient for ships to escort a fast convoy from Alexandria.
Operation Hercules (Operazione C3) was an Axis plan to invade Malta and during 1942, reinforcement of the Luftwaffe in Sicily and the bombing campaign against the island led to speculation that it was the prelude to invasion. Gleanings from Prisoners or war and diplomatic sources led to a certain apprehension about the meaning of troop movements in southern Italy. The absence of evidence from signals intelligence and air reconnaissance led to a conclusion that an invasion was not imminent but the need to protect the source of information meant that this was not disclosed by the British. That preparations were being made was revealed on 7 February through the decryption of Luftwaffe Enigma messages but by 23 March the scare died down and more bombing was expected. By 31 March the progress of the Axis bombing campaign led to a prediction that the attempt would be made in April but this was soon discounted because although the bombing offensive increased from 750 long tons (760 t) in February, to 2,000 long tons (2,000 t) in March, 5,500 long tons (5,600 t) in April, Enigma decodes showed that there were still 425 Luftwaffe aircraft in Sicily, not the 650 aircraft originally intended, because aircraft were detained in Russia by the Soviet winter offensive and on 26 April, Enigma revealed that Fliegerkorps II was being withdrawn. By 2 May, a Luftwaffe bomber group and a fighter group had been withdrawn with more to follow, which explained the lull. Hitler was lukewarm about the operation, in case the Italian navy left down German airborne forces but the capture of Tobruk in mid-June made it appear that the invasion was unnecessary. Hitler and Mussolini agreed to Panzerarmee Afrika pursuing the British into Egypt for the rest of June and into July, which meant cancelling Hercules.
Western Desert Campaign
After the success of Operation Crusader (18 November – 30 December 1941), the Eighth Army advanced 800 kilometres (500 mi) west to El Agheila in Libya, capturing airfields and landing grounds useful for air cover for Malta convoys. The British misjudged the speed of Axis reinforcement and expected to attack well before the Axis but Panzerarmee Afrika forestalled the Eighth Army by beginning an offensive on 21 January 1942. By 6 February, the British had been defeated, forced to retreat east of the Jebel Akhdar back to the Gazala line just west of Tobruk, where Panzerarmee had begun its retirement seven weeks earlier. At the Battle of Gazala (26 May – 21 June), Panzerarmee Afrika attacked first again but appeared close to defeat until 11 June. Operation Julius began on the same day as the Afrika Korps broke out and by 14 June, forced the British to retreat towards Tobruk. The Axis then forces pursued the British into Egypt and the Desert Air Force lost the Libyan landing grounds from which to cover Malta convoys.
Two weeks before the convoys, the carrier HMS Eagle began operations to deliver 63 Spitfires to Malta, which increased the number to 95 serviceable fighters. Air operations for the two convoys began on 24 May, when Vickers Wellington bombers of 104 Squadron from Malta, began bombing airfields and ports in Sicily and southern Italy. On 11 June, the Wellingtons were withdrawn to accommodate six Wellington torpedo bombers of 38 Squadron, Bristol Beaufort torpedo-bombers of 217 Squadron and Martin Baltimore reconnaissance aircraft of 69 Squadron. Aircraft from Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt also began reconnaissance flights on 11 June, searching for the Italian fleet. Twelve Beauforts of 39 Squadron were based at Bir Amud in Egypt near the Libyan border, five B-24 Liberator bombers of 160 Squadron and about 24 aircraft of the Halverson Detachment United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) at RAF Fayid, were also made available.
Short-range fighters based in Palestine, Egypt, Cyrenaica and Malta, were to provide air cover at first and as the convoy moved out of range, protection would be taken over by Curtiss Kittyhawks of 250 Squadron equipped with long-range fuel tanks, Bristol Beaufighters from 252 Squadron and 272 Squadron and Beaufighter night fighters from 227 Squadron. Air cover from Cyrenaica could not overlap with coverage from Malta leaving a gap but Wellingtons of 205 Group and the light bombers of the Desert Air Force would attack Axis airfields in North Africa. The coastal 201 Group would provide reconnaissance and anti-submarine sorties and a small sabotage party was to land on Crete, to attack Axis aircraft on the ground.
Vigorous was planned as a joint Royal Navy–RAF operation, to be conducted from the headquarters of 201 Naval Co-operation Group by Admiral Henry Harwood and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, with Rear Admiral Philip Vian in command of the convoy and escorts (Force A). If a larger Italian force attacked, Vian was to protect the convoy with smoke and the escorts were to repulse the attackers with torpedoes and try to inflict early casualties with gunfire against two of the Italian ships. The success of the convoy would depend on the Italian fleet being damaged by air and submarine attack before it could close on the ships, rather than on surface action because HMS Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were still out of action. The convoy and escort force comprised Force A, four Dido-class 5.25-inch light cruisers and a C-class anti-aircraft cruiser, three 6-inch Town class cruisers and 26 destroyers, four corvettes, two minesweepers, four Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) and two rescue ships. The former battleship HMS Centurion was pressed into service to masquerade as a battleship. Two submarine flotillas were to send nine boats to screen the convoy and to patrol areas that the Italian fleet was likely to be found.
Convoy MW4 left Gibraltar on 12 June 1942, with six merchantmen (the British Troilus, Burdwan and Orari, the Dutch Tanimbar, the American Chant and the tanker Kentucky) carrying 43,000 short tons (39,000 t) of cargo and oil. The Harpoon convoy was escorted by Force X, the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo, nine destroyers, the fast minelayer HMS Welshman and smaller ships. Distant cover was provided by the battleship HMS Malaya, aircraft carriers HMS Argus and Eagle, cruisers HMS Kenya, Charybdis and Liverpool, with several destroyers. Eagle carried 16 Sea Hurricanes of 801 Naval Air Squadron (801 NAS) and 813 NAS and four Fairey Fulmars of 807 NAS. Argus had two more Fulmars of 807 NAS and 18 Fairey Swordfish of 824 NAS.
The first air attacks were made by Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo bombers on 14 June and sank Tanimbar, south of Sardinia. Liverpool was damaged and towed back to Gibraltar by Antelope, under air attack (arriving on 17 June). Later on 14 June, the covering force returned to Gibraltar, short of the Strait of Sicily. The fast minelayer Welshman was detached and travelled to Malta alone, delivered ammunition, then sailed back next day to rejoin the convoy escorts.
At dawn of 15 June, the lightly defended convoy was subjected to a coordinated attack near Pantelleria, by Axis aircraft and the Italian 7th Cruiser Division (it:Ammiraglio di divisione [Vice-Admiral] Alberto Da Zara), Raimondo Montecuccoli, Eugenio di Savoia and the destroyers Ascari, Oriani, Malocello, Premuda and Vivaldi.
The five fleet destroyers in the convoy escort made a smokescreen and attacked the Italian squadron but the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Bedouin and the P-class destroyer HMS Partridge were hit by the Italian cruisers and disabled. Italian reports claimed that the destroyers Vivaldi and Malocello closed to within 6,000 yards (5,500 m) of the merchantmen and scored a hit on one of the freighters at approximately 6:15 a.m. Vivaldi was eventually hit by a shot from the British destroyers and caught fire but was taken in tow and saved by Malocello and Premuda. Both forces broke off the engagement at about 8:00 a.m. and the Italians lost track of the convoy.
The 10,000-long-ton (10,000 t) tanker Kentucky, Chant and the freighter Burdwan, already disabled by air attack, were abandoned by their escorts when the Italian cruisers returned shortly before noon. Burdwan and Kentucky were sunk by gunfire from Raimondo Montecuccoli and the destroyers Ascari and Oriani. Kentucky was also struck by a torpedo launched by the Oriani. Chant had already been sunk by bombs when the Italian squadron found her smouldering wreck site. The cruiser HMS Cairo and the minesweeper HMS Hebe also received hits from Italian gunfire. The bulk of the escorts and two cargo ships reached Malta.
Partridge was recovered and took Bedouin in tow, then the Italian cruisers with two destroyers reappeared; the tow was cast off, leaving Bedouin adrift. At 2:30 p.m., Partridge managed to withdraw and run for Gibraltar but Bedouin had already been hit by at least twelve 152 mm (6.0 in) shells plus several near misses and listed heavily. Bedouin was sunk by an aerial torpedo from an Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bomber that was shot down by the Bedouin as it sank. Twenty-eight of the crew were killed and more than 200 were taken prisoner. The majority of the survivors were rounded up by the small hospital ship Meta.
In the evening, the surviving ships ran into a minefield off Malta. The destroyers Badsworth and Matchless and the freighter Orari struck mines and were damaged; the Polish destroyer ORP Kujawiak sank after midnight. Of the six merchantmen, Orari and Troilus reached Malta, the former having lost some cargo in the mine explosion; Hebe also struck a mine and suffered further damage, requiring a month in dry dock.
The operation against Operation Harpoon was the only undisputed squadron-sized victory for the Regia Marina in World War II.
Clearly this was an Axis victory and a tactical victory for the Italian Navy. Part of the convoy did get through to Malta, but the British suffered far heavier losses than did the Italians....
Captain Hardy, in his report of the battle wrote,
During the final day of Harpoon three merchant ships in convoy were lost due to enemy air action. Of these, Chant received three direct hits, but Burdwan and Kentucky were, I believe, not touched but disabled by near misses. But for the enemy surface force, both of these ships might have been brought in.
Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm fighters shot down 13 Axis aircraft while ships' gunners destroyed 16, for a total of 29 Axis aircraft shot down during the battle.
Giorgio Giorgerini said that the Battle of Pantelleria, while not a complete strategic success (with two merchantmen managing to reach their objective), was a satisfying tactical success and one of the few instances in which Italian warships fought aggressively enough against their opponents, even though somewhat exaggerated beyond its own merits in later historiography.
In 1960, I. S. O. Playfair, the British official historian wrote that the relationship of the "battle for supplies" with the land war reached a climax in the second half of 1942. Far from the Eighth Army capturing airfields to the west in the Cyrenaican bulge, it had been defeated at Gazala while Operation Julius was on and lost the landing grounds to the east. The disaster at Gazala had led to the military forces on Malta trying to save Egypt rather than vice-versa. Vigorous had been a "disappointing operation" and turned back because the British and US air attacks on the Italian battlefleet had failed to inflict the damage hoped. Force A could not hope to defeat it in a surface action, a view echoed by Greene and Massignani in 2003. The two ships of Operation Harpoon reached Malta and delivered 15,000 long tons (15,000 t) of supplies, which with a decent harvest might keep the population of Malta fed until September but the loss of the tanker Kentucky and the consumption aviation fuel at Malta, led to fighters being give priority over the offensive force. Transit flights through Malta except for Beauforts was suspended, only close range air attacks on easy targets were to be permitted and more fuel for the fighters was to be carried to Malta by submarine.
In 1962, the British naval official historian Stephen Roskill, called the Axis success undeniable. Malta had not been supplied and the British had lost a cruiser, three destroyers and two merchantmen against the sinking of Trento and minor damage to Littorio. No attempt was made to run another convoy from Alexandria until the Eighth Army had conquered Libya. Roskill wrote that with hindsight, the course of events on land made naval operations in the central Mediterranean inherently dangerous and during the operation, the withdrawal of the Eighth Army lost one of the airfields being used for air cover. With Axis aircraft based along the length of the route to Malta, air power had decided the course of events, although the diversion of Axis bombers against the convoys had been of some benefit to the British as they conducted the "scuttle" to El Alamein. In 1941, 30 of 31 merchant ships sailing for Malta had arrived but in the first seven months of 1942, 30 ships sailed, ten were sunk, ten were turned back damaged, three were sunk on arrival and seven delivered their supplies.
In 2003, Woodward wrote that on 16 June, Harwood reported that
We are outnumbered both in surface ships and Air Force and very gallant endeavour of all concerned cannot make up for...the deficiency.
In a later report, Harwood blamed the RAF for its inability to provide a sufficient number of aircraft capable of defeating the Italian battlefleet. The only success in Operation Julius was the arrival of the two ships from Operation Harpoon.
Orders of battle
- Key: † sunk, # damaged, ## heavily damaged
- Force X, convoy escort: Capt. Cecil Campbell Hardy
- light cruiser (AA) HMS Cairo # (flag)
- minelayer HMS Welshman
- destroyers: HMS Bedouin†, Marne, Matchless ##, Ithuriel, Partridge #
- escort destroyers: HMS Blankney, Badsworth ##, Middleton, ORP Kujawiak†
- minesweepers: HMS Hebe ##, Speedy, Rye, Hythe
- minesweeping motor launches: ML-121, 134, 135, 168, 459, 462
- Convoy WS-19z (GM4 from Gibraltar)
- transports: Burdwan†, Chant†, Orari ##, Tanimbar†, Troilus
- tanker: Kentucky†
- Force W, covering force: Vice-Admiral Alban Curteis
- Force Y - replenishment force
- fleet tanker: Brown Ranger
- corvettes: Coltsfoot, Geranium
- The Italian Poeti-class destroyer Oriani
- The Italian Condottieri-class cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli
- Anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo
- The Italian destroyers just about to open fire on the stragglers of the convoy, the disabled Kentucky and Burdwan
- The end of SS Kentucky, in flames after being hit by Italian cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli main guns. She was later torpedoed and sunk by the destroyer Oriani
- The destroyer HMS Bedouin, crippled by gunfire from the cruisers of the Italian navy's 7th Division and sinking after an aerial torpedo hit some hours later
- 28 killed on HMS Bedouin, 15 on HMS Liverpool, 13 on ORP Kujawiak, 9 on HMS Badsworth, 2 on HMS Cairo, 1 on HMS Partridge, 3 on the auxiliary minesweeper Justified, 23 on Tanimbar, 4 on Chant, 3 on Burdwan. Wounded and prisoners:213 from HMS Bedouin and 3 from Chant Sources www.naval-history.net and www.wrecksite.eu
- 10 on Ugolino Vivaldi and 2 on Eugenio di Savoia, in addition to air crews.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 184–186.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 185–186.
- Hinsley 1994, pp. 205–206.
- Hinsley 1994, pp. 204–205.
- Hinsley 1994, pp. 203–204.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 186–187.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 299, 253–298, 331–340.
- Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 230–231.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 139–153.
- Woodman 2003, p. 350.
- Playfair 2004, p. 300.
- Richards & Saunders 1975, p. 203.
- Richards & Saunders 1975, p. 204.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 308–309.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 307–308.
- Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 235–236.
- Woodman 2003, pp. 329–330.
- Playfair 2004, p. 301.
- Thomas, 1999, p. 158
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 181
- Cocchia, 1980, p. 131
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 184
- Woodman, 2000, p. 339
- Ireland, 2004, p. 133
- Woodman 2003, p. 340.
- Greene & Massignani, 1998, p. 238
- Cernuschi, 2010, p. 42
- Woodman 2003, pp. 344–345.
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 185
- Cunningham, 1948, p. 4495
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 186
- Grehan and Mace, 2013, p. 153
- Llewellyn-Jones, 2007, p. 67
- Giorgerini, 2001, p. 374
- Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 239–240.
- Playfair 2004, pp. 299, 313–314.
- Roskill 1962, pp. 71–72.
- Woodman 2003, p. 368.
- Woodman 2003, pp. 359, 367–368.
- Greene & Massignani 2002, p. 237.
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- The London Gazette: . 10 August 1948. Official Despatch to the Admiralty
- Operation Harpoon
- Order of battle
- Italian Cruiser Montecuccoli
- Battaglia di Mezzo Giugno - Plancia di Commando