Operation Vigorous

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Operation Vigorous
Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of Second World War
Date 12–16 June 1942
Location Eastern Mediterranean Sea, towards Malta
Result Axis victory
Allied convoy blocked by the Italian Fleet
Belligerents
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Australia Australia
Italy Italy
Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Philip Vian Italy Giuseppe Fioravanzo
Strength
8 light cruisers
26 destroyers
9 submarines
2 minesweepers
4 corvettes
2 rescue ships
4 MTBs
11 merchant ships
1 auxiliary ship
2 battleships
2 heavy cruisers
2 light cruisers
12 destroyers
6 E-boats
2 U-boats
Casualties and losses
1 cruiser sunk
3 destroyers sunk
2 merchant ships sunk
1 MTB
3 cruisers damaged
2 merchant ships damaged
1 heavy cruiser sunk
1 battleship slightly damaged

Operation Vigorous was a Second World War Allied operation to deliver a supply convoy (MW-11) that sailed from Haifa and Port Said on 12 June 1942 to Malta. The convoy encountered heavy Axis air and sea opposition and returned to Alexandria on 16 June.

Background[edit]

Until the French surrender and Italy's declaration of war, the Mediterranean had been an Allied "lake". The French Fleet and the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet dominated the only potential and credible adversary, Italy's Regia Marina.

The French surrender and its consequences changed that. The French Fleet became a potentially potent threat in Axis hands and so was, in part, destroyed, adding to French antipathy toward the British. French bases in North Africa ceased to offer protection to Allied, i.e., British, shipping. The Regia Marina possessed potent modern warships, particularly battleships and heavy cruisers, and Italian and Libyan territory provided centrally located bases that could cut British supply routes. The fall of Greece in 1941 extended the reach of Axis aircraft and submarines, which were consequently able to intercept Allied shipping from Alexandria and Suez.

German and Italian armies from Libyan territory also threatened Egypt and the strategically important Suez Canal by land. A catastrophe in Egypt might in turn lead to destabilisation of Britain's control of Middle Eastern oil supplies, or even worse, to the Axis gaining control of them. This scenario depended upon Axis forces in North Africa receiving adequate supplies from Italy.

Malta threatened this Axis supply route, but itself needed regular resupply and reinforcement, in order to be both an effective threat and to resist Axis invasion.

By mid-June 1942, Malta's supply situation had deteriorated. The German Luftwaffe had joined the Italian Regia Aeronautica to isolate and starve the island and it had become untenable as an offensive base. Axis armies had advanced into Egypt and Crete thereby acquiring their own advance bases and denying the British safety over much of the eastern Mediterranean.

Fresh aircraft were regularly flown into Malta, but food and fuel were diminishing. In response, the British invested large amounts of effort to ensure resupply. Two convoys, codenamed Harpoon and Vigorous, were gathered, sailing simultaneously to split the Axis opposition.

Convoy assembles[edit]

The British Mediterranean Fleet was reinforced, with forces available from the Indian Ocean, for the passage of two simultaneous Malta convoys, one from Gibraltar (Operation Harpoon), the other from Egypt (Operation Vigorous). Ships were sent from Kilindini, Kenya, to Haifa to cover the eastern convoy, including the four Australian N-Class destroyers; HMAS Norman, Napier, Nestor and Nizam. These formed the 7th Destroyer Flotilla.

The Operation Vigorous force of 11 ships and their escorts sailed from Haifa and Port Said on 12 June, and were met the next day off Tobruk by Rear-Admiral Philip Vian's Force A, with seven light cruisers and 17 destroyers.

The total escorting force now comprised eight cruisers and 26 destroyers supported by corvettes and minesweepers, and the battleship HMS Centurion, which—having been disarmed between the wars—had been refitted with anti-aircraft guns. Two British battleships had been sunk in Alexandria harbour in December 1941 (HMS Queen Elizabeth and Valiant) by Italian frogmen, so no battleship was available to provide cover: Centurion simulated a commissioned battleship. Nine submarines were deployed as a screen at Taranto (four more operated west of Malta).

Apart from the operation, the British destroyer escort HMS Grove was sunk north of Sollum after being hit by two torpedoes launched by the German submarine U-77 at 05:37 on 12 June. Two officers and 108 ratings died, there were 60 survivors. She was returning from a Tobruk supply trip, and her loss should not be connected with the Vigorous operation.[1]

"Bomb Alley"[edit]

The convoy sailed through 'Bomb Alley' between German occupied Crete and north Africa and came under intensive bomb, torpedo and surface attacks almost as soon as the convoy had left Alexandria. Early attacks were concentrated on the cruisers and the 11 ships of the convoy but later the destroyers became the principal targets.

A merchant ship was damaged by air attacks on the 12th and had to divert to Tobruk. Another merchant ship sent to Tobruk due to engine trouble was sunk by further aircraft attacks.

Italian Fleet at sea[edit]

Battleship Littorio

By 14 June, two ships had been lost to air attack and two more damaged. That evening, Vian learnt that a strong Italian naval force (under Admiral Giuseppe Fioravanzo) with two battleships, two heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers had sailed from Taranto to intercept the convoy. The Italian fleet went into combat equipped with a search radar for the first time in the war; a German De.Te system which was mounted on board the destroyer Legionario. The chances of driving them off were slim.

Early on 15 June, the first of five (1-5) course reversals were made as Vigorous tried to break through to Malta. As the convoy now headed eastward (1), German E-boats from Derna, Libya launched torpedo strikes. The cruiser HMS Newcastle was damaged by S-56 and the destroyer HMS Hasty was sunk by S-55. Around 07:00, when the Italian fleet was 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) to the northwest, the convoy resumed its course for Malta (2).

Royal Air Force aircraft based on Malta attacked the Italian fleet and disabled the heavy cruiser Trento on the morning of 15 June 1942. She was hit by a torpedo from a Bristol Beaufort at 05:15. Trento was immobilized and left behind, assisted by the destroyer Antonio Pigafetta, while the rest of the fleet continued to pursue the Vigorous convoy. The British submarine HMS Umbra found the damaged ship at 09:10 and torpedoed her, hitting the magazine. The ship sank quickly and over half the crew died. Italian support ships attacked the submarine with depth charges without results.

Between 09:40 and noon on 15 June, two more course reversals (3 and 4) were made so that once again the convoy was bound for Malta. All afternoon, there were air attacks and, south of Crete, the cruiser HMS Birmingham was damaged and the escorting destroyer HMS Airedale was sunk by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. During the afternoon, no fewer than 12 aircraft had targeted HMS Airedale, and left her a smouldering wreck. The aft end was completely gone: it's believed that the ship's own ammunition or depth charge store had exploded. She was scuttled the following day by HMS Aldenham and Hurworth.

Sinking HMAS Nestor, 16 June 1942

On the afternoon of 15 June, a signal was received intimating that the Operation Harpoon convoy had succeeded in reaching Malta from the west. The convoy was down to six ships when, at about 18:00 on 15 June, when the convoy was south west of Crete, HMAS Nestor was straddled by a stick of heavy bombs dropped by an Italian bomber which caused serious damage to her boiler rooms. She was taken in tow by HMS Javelin, but at about 05:30 the next morning (16 June)—with the destroyer then sinking by the nose—it was decided to scuttle. The crew was transferred to HMS Javelin and she was sunk at about 07:00 by depth charges.

Operation abandoned[edit]

On the evening of 15 June, in view of the strength of enemy air attacks from the extended network of Axis airfields in North Africa, the presence of a large portion of the Italian fleet, lack of fuel caused by diversionary tactics and seriously depleted ammunition stocks, it was finally decided to abandon the operation and return to Alexandria (course reversal 5).

As the convoy withdrew to Alexandria, the light cruiser HMS Hermione was torpedoed and sunk in the early hours of the 16th by U-205—south of Crete—in "Bomb Alley".

At this time, as the Italian fleet returned to Taranto, an RAF Wellington from Malta torpedoed and slightly damaged the battleship Littorio that, however, reached port without reducing speed.[2]

None of the Vigorous ships reached Malta. One cruiser, HMS Hermione; three destroyers, HMS Airedale, Hasty and HMAS Nestor and two merchant ships had been lost in the attempt. Three cruisers, one destroyer and one corvette were damaged. British air and submarine attacks sank the Italian cruiser Trento and damaged Littorio. Nevertheless, the Italian Fleet succeeded in blocking the Allied convoy even if there was no direct contact between the surface forces. Royal Navy gunners shot down 21 of the approximately 220 attacking aircraft.[3]

To try to keep the Italian Fleet away from the Vigorous and Harpoon convoys, two forces of submarines had been deployed, one to lay in wait off the Italian base at Taranto, and the other to operate between Sicily and Sardinia, ready for orders to attack any Italian forces. The submarines Proteus, Thorn, Taku, Thrasher, Porpoise, Una, Uproar, Ultimatum and Umbra were detailed to patrol off Taranto, with Safari, Unbroken, Unison and Unruffled between Sicily and Sardinia. For various reasons, the submarines were generally unsuccessful in providing any cover for the convoys, with only the Italian cruiser Trento being sunk, and even that only after it had been crippled by an RAF air attack. The two operations, Vigorous and Harpoon, were important Italian naval victories, but unrepeatable due to the crippling oil shortages suffered by the Italian military machine.

The British Spitfire fighters based at Malta needed fuel to fly, just as Malta itself needed supplies. Operation Vigorous had failed. Only two of Operation Harpoon '​s six ships had reached Malta and Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, the air commander in Malta, told London he had only seven weeks’ fuel left. In August, therefore, almost all the available strength of the Royal Navy was put into the next major convoy operation of the war, Operation Pedestal.

Order of battle[edit]

  • † - ships sunk
  • # - ships damaged, ## - heavily damaged

Allies[edit]

Seven cruisers:

26 destroyers:

Four corvettes (Flower-class):

Two minesweepers (Bangor-class):

Four motor torpedo boats:

  • MTB-259†, MTB-261, MTB-262, MTB-264

Two rescue ships:

  • Antwerp, Malines

One auxiliary ship (old battleship):

Nine submarines:

Allied merchantmen[edit]

  • 11 ships
    • MW-11A: Ajax, City of Edinburgh, City of Lincoln, m.v. City of Pretoria, Elizabeth Bakke
    • MW-11B: tankers Bulkoil, Potaro #
    • MW-11C: Aagtekirk†, Bhutan†, City of Calcutta #, Rembrandt

Axis warships[edit]

Two battleships:

Two heavy cruisers:

Two light cruisers:

12 destroyers:

  • Alpino, Antonio Pigafetta, Ascari, Aviere, Bersagliere, Camicia Nera, Geniere, Folgore, Freccia, Legionario, Mitragliere, Saetta

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "HMS Grove, escort destroyer". 
  2. ^ Bragadin, Odoya Ed., p. 237
  3. ^ Naval Staff History, The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, 79.

External references[edit]