On 18 March 1942, Malta suffered its 1600th air attack by the Italian air force and German Luftwaffe. That is one attack every ten hours for 21 months on the tiny island 60 miles off of Sicily. Most fell on the ships and airfields around Valetta and the Grand Harbor, but no place was safe above ground and the Maltese civilians could only find refuge in the vast system of medieval catacombs cut into the rock. Since Italy entered the war in June 1940, the planes, ships, and submarines from Malta sank nearly 2/3rds of the Axis supply ships destined for Italian and eventually German operations in North Africa. But in December of 1941, winter weather on the Eastern Front precluded Luftwaffe operations there, and the planes of Luftflotte 2, commanded by Gen Albert Kesselring (we will hear his name again) were sent south to Sicily. They pounded Malta’s defenses into submission. By mid-February, Malta was no longer an offensive base. By March, all of its defending fighters were shot down, anti-aircraft ammunition was dangerously low, spare parts had to be brought in by submarine, fuel oil for the port was low, and its coastal defenses wrecked. Via Ultra, the British knew of Operation Herkules, the proposed German-Italian invasion of the island was coming soon. Malta needed help, and needed it immediately.
However, with the loss of the Cyrenaican airfields to Rommel’s riposte after Operation Crusader, every convoy required a massive undertaking by the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. Along with protecting the freighters from the ubiquitous Axis aircraft, the convoy escorts also had to worry about the Italian Navy, which in March 1942, had a substantial qualitative and quantitative advantage over the Royal Navy, at least in regards to ships. In December, Italian frogmen infiltrated Alexandria harbor and severely damaged the only two remaining British battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean, leaving just light cruisers and destroyers to defend the convoys should the Regina Maria sortie from its port in Taranto to intercept. But there was no longer a choice.
On 20 March, 1942, convoy MW-10 (Malta West-10) consisting of just three fast freighters and a fast tanker, departed Alexandria escorted by every available ship in the British Mediterranean Fleet, whether from Malta or out of Alexandria: four light cruisers, one special anti-aircraft cruiser, twelve destroyers, and six destroyer escorts. Italian submarines spotted the departure, and a few hours later the Regina Maria departed Taranto to intercept.
The British commodore, Rear Admiral Phillip Vian was as tough as they came: it was he and his men who boarded the Altmarck in 1940, made near suicidal torpedo runs on the Bismarck, survived numerous Arctic convoys, and made the run to Malta several times in 1941. But he was no fool. The Italian sortie was his enemy’s most likely and most dangerous course of action. His numerous but lightly armed force could not win a long range gun duel with Italian heavy cruisers and battleships. He had to force the Italians to close the distance, and then flee, while still protecting the convoy from direct fire. All the Italians had to do was get between him and Malta, and then they could just conduct a gunnery exercise, only with live targets. He decided not to attack the Italian ships, but their leadership.
On the early afternoon of 22 March, the British spotted two Italian heavy cruisers in the Gulf of Sirte off of Libya. In fine Nelsonian tradition, most of the British escorts charged through the heavy Mediterranean winter swells “to engage the enemy more closely”. The convoy itself turned south with the antiaircraft cruiser and the destroyer escorts. But the Italians weren’t looking for a fight just yet. Soon they returned with the rest of their force: another cruiser, ten destroyers and the modern battleship, the Littorio.
The Littorio and the two heavy cruisers out ranged and out gunned everything Vian had by a wide margin. To compensate for this he divided his force into five divisions which in perfectly rehearsed fashion laid smoke at 45 degree angles to the Italians. This created corridors of smoke from which the British divisions could emerge, fire, and when the bracketed Italian salvos grew close, to retreat to without fear of colliding with friendly vessels. The radar-less Italians would be forced to close the distance if only to prevent the convoy from slipping past in the confusion. He could then assault the Italians with his most potent weapon: the short range torpedoes on his destroyers. If they didn’t, Vian would wait behind the smoke until nightfall, when his radar would give him a significant asymmetric advantage. The appearance of just the Littorio also simplified his plan to attack the Italian leadership. He had expected all three remaining Italian battleships (the Italian commander didn’t want to risk all of his battleships. That should tell you something right there). When there was just one, it was clear where the admiral was.
With the smoke laid, the British ships began a game of cat and mouse with the Italians, albeit with much more serious consequences. Through the high seas that soaked even observers in the range towers, the British concentrated their fire on the Littorio to the most reasonable extent possible, even though no British ship could penetrate its armor at even medium range.
By late afternoon the plan was working. The Italians kept heading west to get between the convoy and Malta, but they couldn’t spot the freighters even though they were well within range. The strong westward wind kept the vulnerable convoy screened by the smoke until nightfall, with Vian’s cruisers and destroyers darting in and out, pounding on the Littorio. Vian expected the Italian commander to go east and around the smoke screen, from where he could have run down the slower convoy. However, this would have exposed the Italians to close contact with the aggressive British, and this was a risk Italian commander was not prepared to take.
By sundown, the Italians had had enough. They had damaged three British cruisers and at least five destroyers, but they couldn’t close with and destroy the ships carrying the vital supplies for Malta. Not wanting to risk the Littorio in a night action (and Mussolini’s wrath if it was sunk), the Italian commander sailed north back to port.
It was a great victory against overwhelming odds, but with an asterisk.
Vian’s tactical success at the Second Battle of Sirte unfortunately had serious operational consequences. The Italian ships may not have been able to fire on the convoy, but the delay caused by the battle meant that they would not arrive in Malta during darkness. When the sun rose on the 23rd, they were still many miles from Valletta. The Luftwaffe pounded them that next morning. Two of the four ships in the convoy were sunk along with three destroyers. The other two freighters were sunk while they were being unloaded. 80% of their cargo was lost.
Malta was on life support.