The Desert War – April 1942

Nov 1942 On Road to matruk-Galal
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

April 1942, another month where nothing much seemed to be happening in the desert, the same can’t be said of the sea and air campaigns.

On the first of the month Churchill spoke with FDR and asked for the use of one of the US “giant” carriers to ferry planes to Malta. It may have been a giant in 1942 but at 14,700 tons it is nowhere near the 100,000 tonners that sail these days. In fact it was much the same size as a UK carrier but had been built much later than the British carriers. Nevertheless it could carry about 100 planes and deliver around 50 Spitfires compared to the UK carriers with a capacity of around 70 but only delivered 15 or so planes.

For the RAF crews aboard the Wasp life was somewhat odd. All US ships were teetotal and RAF aircrew were somewhat puffinesque in their approach to the demon drink.

At 03:00 on Sunday the 19th USS Wasp sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, thus avoiding enquiring German eyes in Spain. The carrier was now accompanied by a battle cruiser, two other cruisers and eight destroyers. At 05:45 on Sunday 20th the Spitfires took off for Malta from somewhere near Algiers. At less than 200mph, to save fuel, they flew the roughly 1,000 miles towards Malta. At midday the Luftwaffe began raiding Malta in four waves, they had spotted the delivery of the Spitfires. One wave for each of the airfields and one for the Grand Harbour. Over 300 Axis bombers paid Malta a visit that day. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the 20th was Adolf’s birthday and the Luftwaffe gave him a special present. I really find it hard to warm to that man.

Over the next three days many of the 46 Spitfires that made it to Malta (one had landed in Tunisia and the Vichy Frogs were not about to let him go) were destroyed or put out of action by the bombers. This time lessons were learned and next time it would be very different. By the 22nd only six of the 46 Spitfires that had been delivered were operational.

Churchill’s response was to ask FDR for another delivery using the USS Wasp and this was agreed but that happened in May. Although we lost lots of planes on Malta, the erics probably lost about 200 themselves. By the end of the month Churchill had demanded the Navy plan to have weekly deliveries of Spitfires to Malta over the next two months.

On a very busy 1st U-77 was damaged by a Swordfish north of Sidi Barrani and as a result she was no longer able to dive, submarine HMS Urge sank Italian cruiser Bande Nere north of Sicily using two torpedos, Italian bombers sank submarines HMS P36 and Pandora in Valletta harbour, Malta was still the most bombed location on the planet. On the 4th greek submarine Glavkos was sunk by Axis aircraft at Malta.  On the 5th the Italians again bombed Valletta harbour damaging minesweeper HMS Abingdon and two destroyers HMS Gallant and Lance. On the 6th they bombed tug HMS West Cocker and destroyed her. On the 7th 2 more tugs were sunk.

On the 7th U-453 damaged British hospital ship HMHS Somersetshire near Sidi Barrani. Only two were killed and the survivors were towed to Alexandria. On the 8th Italian bombers sank anti-submarine whaler HMS Thorgrim off Alexandria. In Valletta harbour HMS Moor, a mooring ship on boom defence duty hit a mine at the entrance and was sunk. On the 9th submarine HMS Thrasher sank Italian freighter Gala near Benghazi and Italian aircraft severely damaged HMS Lance in Valletta harbour, the Lance would soon be a write-off. On the 11th more sailing ship action when submarine HMS Torbay attacked two Italian schooners and Axis bombers attacked Valletta harbour again destroying HMS Kingston, a destroyer in the dry dock.

On the 13th HMS Thrasher sank German merchant ship Atlas off Benghazi and then evaded a depth charge attack from the escorts plus carrier USS Wasp loaded Spitfires in Glasgow. On the 14th USS Wasp left the Clyde carrying 47 Spitfires for Malta escorted by destroyers USS Lang and Madison. On the 15th King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross, named after himself. On the 16th submarine HMS Turbulent sank Italian freighter Delia off Brindisi and the 11th Battalion of the Royal Marines landed on the usually uninhabited Greek island of Koufonisi, a very small island off Crete. They smashed up a German radio station and purloined some papers and equipment before rejoining destroyers HMS Kelvin and Kipling  and were back in Alexandria by 6:30pm. On the 19th submarine HMS Umbra sank Italian merchant ship Assunta de Gregoria off Sfax in Tunisia.  On the 21st Axis aircraft sank anti-submarine trawler HMT Jade in the Grand Harbour in Malta and submarine HMS Torbay sank German freighter Delps II  north of Crete, the Torbay escaped the German response. Yet again on the 22nd Axis aircraft attacked Malta and on the 28th they sank tug HMS Dean in Valletta harbour.

On the 30th der Führer and Il Duce met in Berchtesgaden to talk about their strategy in the Mediterranean. They decided the priorities were getting hold of the Suez Canal and Malta as the Führer wanted to link up with his Eastern Front in the Caucasus via Syria and Persia as it then was. Italian Foreign Minister Ciano wrote in his diary that Adolf appeared to be tired, one might also add deluded.

And in the little other news there is ….. on the 8th the US sent George Marshal and Harry Hopkins (one of Stalin’s spies) to Britain to discuss the second front issue, the target was to be France (remember Churchill was still obsessed with the soft underbelly theory, proven to be wrong later on), on the 10th Norwegian Lutheran Bishop Elvind Berggrav was sent to a concentration camp having been arrested the previous day, his crime was resisting the Germans, on the 13th 38, aka Gerald Ford (NHRN, he was born Leslie Lynch King Jr), was commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy Reserve, on the 17th the Germans reduced the rations given to Soviet PoWs, on the 18th came the Doolittle Raid on multiple targets in Japan, most crews crashed or bailed out in China but one crew landed in Russia and were interned, on the 19th Slim, Alexander and Wavell met to discuss the retreat from Burma, on the 20th German Jews were banned from using public transport (the unvaxxed may yet find out what that means), on the 23rd the Germans started bombing Cathedral cities in the UK beginning with Exeter, on the 16th the Reichstag passed a law allowing Hitler to effectively govern by decree and on the 29th the Germans were reportedly executing 25 to 30 Belgians a month as retaliation for their unruliness.

Yet another month goes by with little movement on the ground. This was the second month when basically no supplies reached Malta. It would take a while before Malta could be re-supplied and life became very tough for not only the Maltese but the Empire forces serving on that island.

Yet again the infallible Germans made a strategic mistake, this time by bombing Cathedral cities. There was no military reason to do this, it was a bit of a punishment beating. They had already gone wrong by switching attacks from radar stations to airfields and then from airfields to cities. If only they had known to destroy all the radar stations and then go after the airfields we would have been sitting ducks. By their logic they were right because they had calculated we had no aircraft left when they stopped bombing airfields but their calculations had obviously been done by Miss Diane or one of her ancestors.

The discerning Puffin will have noticed that there were an awfully large number of British submarines with names beginning with U. There was a method; U-Class boats had names beginning with U, T-Class boats had names beginning with T and those boats with names beginning with P were of course U-Class as well – QED.


© well_chuffed 2022