Operation Excess

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Operation Excess
Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of World War II
HMS Valiant fires guns 1942.jpg
A later image taken from Illustrious showing Valiant in the background. Both ships were part of Force A, and the closest aircraft are Fulmar fighters of the type defending operation Excess.
Date January 10–11, 1941
Location South of Sicily
Result British victory All freighters reached their destinations
Belligerents
 United Kingdom  Kingdom of Italy
 Nazi Germany
Strength
1 aircraft carrier
2 battleships
3 cruisers
7 destroyers
2 destroyers
Unknown number of Stuka dive-bombers and fighters
Casualties and losses
1 aircraft carrier damaged
1 cruiser sunk
1 cruiser damaged
1 destroyer damaged beyond repair
1 destroyer sunk
8 aircraft shot down (British claim)

Operation Excess was a series of British supply convoys to Malta, Alexandria and Greece in January 1941. The operation encountered the first presence of Luftwaffe anti-shipping aircraft in the Mediterranean Sea. All the convoyed freighters reached their destinations. The destroyer Gallant was lost to Italian mines; and Axis bombers destroyed the cruiser Southampton, and put the aircraft carrier Illustrious out of operation for nearly a year.

Background[edit]

Italy's declaration of War on 10 June 1940 brought World War II to the Mediterranean Sea and placed the Regia Aeronautica astride England's traditional sea route to Indian Ocean ports, while the Regia Marina roughly tripled the numbers of battleships, cruisers, and submarines available to challenge British sea power. The Royal Navy had been prepared to defend the eastern Mediterranean so long as France could control the western Mediterranean, but the Second Armistice at Compiègne removed the French navy from the alliance on 25 June 1940. From bases at Gibraltar and Alexandria the Royal Navy attempted to convoy supplies to sustain Malta as a base in the central Mediterranean. As Italy attacked Egypt from Libya in September 1940 and Greece from Albania in October 1940, the Royal Navy maintained most of their Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria while Force H at Gibraltar was used for raids. Early November 1940 successes including halting the Italian offensive in Greece and disabling Italian battleships Littorio, Conte di Cavour and Caio Duilio at the Battle of Taranto provided incentive and opportunity to resupply Malta and Greece.[1]

Preparations[edit]

Allied[edit]

Convoy MC 4: Four freighters waited at Gibraltar. Clan Cumming, Clan MacDonald and Empire Song carried materiel destined for Piraeus; while Essex carried 3,000 tons of seed potatoes, 4,000 tons of ammunition, and 12 crated Hawker Hurricanes for Malta.[2]

Convoy MW 5: Freighters Breconshire and Clan Macaulay waited at Alexandria with material for Malta.[3]

Convoy ME 6: Nine freighters waited at Malta for passage to Alexandria.[3]

Force A: HMS Warspite, Valiant, Nubian, Mohawk, Dainty, Gallant, Greyhound, Griffin, Jervis and Illustrious would sail from Alexandria to cover convoys MC 4, MW 5 and ME 6 east of the Skerki Banks.[2]

Force B: HMS Gloucester, Southampton, Ilex and Janus[2] would carry five hundred soldiers and airmen from the Aegean to Malta, and join convoy MC 4 after dropping their passengers in Malta.[4]

Force C: Convoy MW 5 would be screened by HMS Calcutta, Defender and Diamond.[2]

Force D: HMS York and Orion would sail from Alexandria with Flower class corvettes Gloxinia, Peony, Hyacinth, Salvia and the replenishment oiler Brambleleaf to be joined by HMS Ajax and HMAS Perth from Souda Bay.[2]

Force F: Convoy MC 4 would be screened by HMS Jaguar, Hero, Hasty, Hereward,[2] and Bonaventure carrying four hundred soldiers and airmen to Malta.[4]

Force H: Convoy MC 4 would be covered from Gibraltar to the Skerki Banks by HMS Malaya, Renown, Sheffield, Faulknor, Fury, Forester, Fortune, Firedrake, and Ark Royal carrying six Fairey Swordfish for Malta.[2]

Axis[edit]

Five hundred anti-shipping aircraft of X. Fliegerkorps were being transferred from Norway to Sicily to protect Axis convoys to North Africa and prevent passage of British convoys to Malta.[1]

Sequence of events[edit]

Royal Navy personnel accustomed to these Regia Aeronautica SM.79s were surprised by the intensity of X Fliegerkorps operations encountered during Operation Excess.[5]

6 January 1941[edit]

Convoy MC 4 left Gibraltar feinting toward the Atlantic before turning toward Malta after darkness concealed them from the view of Axis agents near Gibraltar.[4]

7 January[edit]

Force H sailed from Gibraltar to cover convoy MC 4. Force A, Force D, and convoy MW 5 with Force C sailed from Alexandria,[3] and Force B sailed from the Aegean toward Malta. Force A was located by Italian air reconnaissance that afternoon.[2]

8 January[edit]

Force B landed its passengers in Malta and proceeded west to meet convoy MC 4.[2] Vickers Wellingtons bombed Naples damaging Giulio Cesare with three near misses[4] and causing the only operational Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto to retreat from the approaching convoys.[1]

9 January[edit]

Force A was joined by Force D and HMAS Sydney 210 nautical miles southeast of Malta. Force B joined convoy MC 4. Convoy MC 4 and Force H were discovered by Italian aircraft and attacked unsuccessfully by ten SM.79s from Sardinia. Two SM.79s were shot down by Fairey Fulmars from Ark Royal. A later attack by 15 Fiat CR.42s carrying 100kg bombs was similarly ineffective. Force H left convoy MC 4 that afternoon after Ark Royal launched six Swordfish for the defense of Malta. Force A joined convoy MC 4 at dusk.[4]

10 January[edit]

Italian ships from La Spezia searched unsuccessfully for Force H.[1] Italian submarine Settimo and torpedo boats Circe and Vega launched torpedoes unsuccessfully against convoy MC 4.[2] Bonaventure and Hereward sank Vega six miles south of Pantellaria at 0830. Circe escaped undamaged. Bonaventure sustained some damage and two of her complement were killed. She spent 75 per cent of her ammunition in the engagement.[6] Two of Vega '​s crew survived.[7]

Gallant struck a naval mine at 0835.[7] The bow was destroyed[5] and 65 men were killed.[8] Mowhawk took Gallant in tow toward Malta while the Force B cruisers provided protection from air attacks.[5] Convoys MC 4 and MW 5 arrived at Malta and convoy ME 6 departed for Alexandria.[3]

Few ships survived dive bombing attacks of the intensity Illustrious endured from these Ju87 Stukas.

Fulmars from Illustrious shot down an Italian aircraft shadowing Force A at 0930. Valiant avoided torpedoes launched by two SM.79s approaching under the radar horizon at 1230.[5] As the combat air patrol Fulmars dropped altitude to engage the SM.79s, Force A was attacked at 1235 by 18 He111s of KG 26 and 43 Ju87s of StG 1 and StG 2[2] escorted by 10 Bf110s of ZG 26.[9] Illustrious completed launching relief Fulmar and Swordfish patrollers as the attack developed. Illustrious was the main target and was enveloped in waterspouts and mist of exploding bombs. Some bombers diving from an altitude of 12,000 feet delayed bomb release until their pullout altitude was lower than the height of Illustrious '​ funnel. The five air patrol Fulmars had not returned from chasing the SM.79s which attacked Valiant; and the four recently launched Fulmars were unable to gain altitude rapidly enough to break up the attack. The Fulmars claimed eight enemy aircraft downed during the continuing air strikes against Force A as they shuttled to Malta airfields to refuel and re-arm.[5] Warspite was lightly damaged by a single bomb.[10] Illustrious was hit by five bombs, including one which failed to explode; and a near miss disabled her rudder mechanism. A bomb striking a lowered elevator caused extensive hangar damage with many casualties among aircraft maintenance personnel and destroyed nine Swordfish and five Fulmars. At 1530 Illustrious headed for Malta steering with engines. The bombing attacks continued. Seven SM.79s were discouraged by heavy anti-aircraft fire, but an attack by six Italian Ju87s at 1600 scored another bomb hit and two near misses. Fourteen German Ju87s missed Valiant and Janus and a later attack by 14 He111s was similarly ineffective. Illustrious reached Malta at 2130 with 126 dead and 91 wounded.[4]

11 January[edit]

Gallant was beached in Malta's Grand Harbor at dawn[5] but never repaired.[7] As Mohawk and the Force B cruisers steamed from Malta to rejoin Force A, they were surprised by 12 Ju-87R dive bombers of II/St.G.2 [11][12] attacking out of the sun at 1520. Gloucester was hit by a bomb which failed to explode; and Southampton was hit by two bombs killing 80 men and starting fires requiring the ship to be scuttled 180 miles east of Malta.[7] Force H returned to Gibraltar.[2]

12 January[edit]

Force A was reinforced west of Crete by Force B, the cruisers of Force D, and HMS Barham and Eagle from Alexandria.[2]

13 January[edit]

Convoy ME 6 arrived at Alexandria.[3]

Illustrious Blitz[edit]

What Maltese called the Illustrious Blitz began when bomb stocks depleted during the attacks of 10 and 11 January were replenished and the Axis made a concerted effort to destroy Illustrious before she could be repaired. Illustrious and Essex were hit by an air raid on 16 January. Ten Macchi C.202s, ten CR.42s and twenty Bf110s escorted 44 Ju87s. Bombs exploding in Grand Harbor killed numerous fish collected after the raid and eaten by the besieged Maltese.[4] Illustrious was not seriously damaged,[5] but a bomb exploded in Essex '​s engine room killing 15 men and wounding 23 more. There was another heavy air raid on 17 January,[4] and Illustrious was again hit by an air raid on 18 January.[5] Illustrious was not damaged by the final major attack on 19 January.[4] Illustrious departed Malta on 23 January; but her Fulmars remained for the defense of the island.[1] Illustrious was able to complete additional repairs after reaching Alexandria on 25 January,[4] but restoration of full combat effectiveness required a trip to United States shipyards.[13]

Losses[edit]

Fairey Fulmar fighters and AA gunners of the Royal Navy shot down at least seven aircraft on 10 January 1941, in defence of HMS Illustrious, while one Fulmar was lost.[14][15] No merchantmen were lost during Excess but the Royal Navy lost one cruiser sunk and a destroyer damaged beyond repair.[16]

Sources[edit]

  • Bartimeus East of Malta, West of Suez Little, Brown and Company (1944)
  • Brown, David Warship Losses of World War II Naval Institute Press (1995) ISBN 1-55750-914-X
  • Greene, Jack & Massignani, Alessandro The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 Chatham Publishing (1998) ISBN 1-86176-057-4
  • Hague, Arnold The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945 Naval Institute Press (2000) ISBN 1-55750-019-3
  • Pack, S.W.C. The Battle for Crete Naval Institute Press (1973) ISBN 0-87021-810-7
  • Pegg, Martin Luftwaffe Ground Attack Units 1939-45 Sky Books Press, NY 1977. ISBN 0-89402-013-7
  • Potter, E.B. and Nimitz, Chester W. Sea Power (1960) Prentice-Hall
  • Rohwer, Jürgen; Hummelchen, Gerhard (1992). Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-105-X. 
  • Smith, Peter C. Junkers Ju 87 Stuka Crowood Press, Ramsbury, 1998. ISBN 1 86126 177 2
  • Wood, Tony & Gunston, Bill Hitler's Luftwaffe Crescent Books
  • Woodman, Richard (2000). Malta Convoys, 1940-1943, Jack Murray Ltd., London, ISBN 0-7195-5753-4

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Potter & Nimitz pp.521-527
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Rohwer & Hummelchen pp.47&48
  3. ^ a b c d e Hague p.192
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Greene & Massignani pp.133-136
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Bartimeus pp.56-61
  6. ^ Woodman p.113
  7. ^ a b c d Brown pp.40&41
  8. ^ HMS Gallant (H 59)
  9. ^ Wood & Gunston p.33
  10. ^ HMS Warspite
  11. ^ Pegg, p.12
  12. ^ Smith, p.101
  13. ^ Pack p.17
  14. ^ The Italian Navy in WW2, Sadkovich, p114, states that 5 German and 2 Italian aircraft were shot down,while 2 FAA aircraft were lost.
  15. ^ The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, p. 10, states that Fulmars shot down 5 aircraft while AA shot down 3 more and one Fulmar was lost.
  16. ^ The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys

See also[edit]