From the Archives - “Report on British Convoy to Malta, January 1941”
Although the U.S. was not yet in the Second World War in early 1941, Britain found it prudent to keep American officials informed of much of the details of the struggle. Through the winter of 1940-1941, Malta was closely besieged by Italian and German naval and air forces. The British several times tried to run convoys into the island fortress, not always with success.
What follows is the report of a communiqué from an American diplomat in Cairo to the State Department, which the latter passed on the Navy department, dealing with a British attempt to run a convoy into Malta on January 7-13, 1941, which on the 10th ran into the Italian seagoing torpedo boats Circe and Vega, wrongly identified as destroyers.
SD WASHINGTON DC JAN 16:
OPNAV FROM STATE:
FOLLOWING IS A PRAPHRASE TELEGRAM NO 13 FROM LEGATION, CAIRO
SENT JANUARY 14, 1941, NOON. RECD 550 AM 15TH.
QUOTE FROM OPIE FOR THE NAVY DEPARTMENT.
THE JANUARY 7 TO 13 MEDITERRANEAN SWEEP WAS MADE UP OF COVERING USUAL CONVOYS TO PIRAEUS AND TO AND FROM MALTA, LIKEWISE FOUR MERCHANT VESSELS, HURRICANE PLANES NUMBERING TWELVE , ANTIAIRCRAFT GUNS NUMERING TWENTY-FOUR FOR MALTA, AND TANKS, PLANES, GUNS, AND PERSONNEL OF THE R.A.F. TO GREECE TO PASS THROUGH THE STRAITS OF SICILY. FROM ALEXANDRIA TO MALTA THE FLEET WAS CONTINUOUSLY SHADOWED. HOWEVER, THE FLEET WAS NOT THE SUBJECT OF ANY AIR ATTACKS.
TWO ITALIAN DESTROYERS AT DAWN ON THE 10TH OF JANUARY ATTACKED THE SOUTHAMPTON, BONAVENTURA AND THE GLOUCESTER AS WELL AS FOUR DESTROYERS, WHICH VESSELS HAD ESCORTED WITH SUCCESS THE CONVOY THROUGH THE STRAITS. ONE DESTROYER [Vega] WAS SUNK BY THE
BONAVENTURA, WHILE THE OTHER, ALTHOUGH HIT, ESCAPED. THE PANTELLERIA SHORE BATTERIES DID NOT OPEN FIRE, ALTHOUGH THEY WERE IN RANGE OF THE BRITISH CRUISERS. THE RETREATING DESTROYER WAS ATACKED BY A BRITISH ANTI-SUBMARINE PATROL PLANE. HOWEVER, NO HITS WERE MADE.
THE DESTROYER GALLANT WHICH WAS ON THE STARBOARD BOW OF THE BATTLESHIPS AND SCREENING THEM HAD, AT NINE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING, HER BOW BLOWN OFF TO NUMBER 1
Although the convoy got through with only Gallant damaged, by a mine, later that day the carrier HMS Illustrious was severely damaged by German aircraft. Worse, the next day the cruisers Gloucester and Southampton were also hit by Axis aircraft, with the result that the latter had to be sunk by the destroyer HMS Orion.