By the summer of 1942, the small Mediterranean island of Malta had been under Axis siege for two years. That April and May, more bombs fell on Malta than fell on London during the Battle of Britain. Like ants, the Maltese moved by the thousands into man-made caves and tunnels in the island’s limestone, some remaining from the Great Siege in 1565, when the Ottoman Turks attacked the Knights of Malta—Muslims vs. Christians, an earlier round.
Flying from airfields in nearby Sicily, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica made relentless bombing runs in synchronized waves, flying steady Savoia-Marchetti 79s, versatile Ju 88s, and fearsome Ju 87 Stukas. There were nine thousand sorties in April alone. Gallant pilots of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm engaged them, struggling to take off from the island’s dirt airstrips, riddled with craters and littered with planes that had been destroyed on the ground or crash-landed after being hit. Maltese boys perched on rooftops like crows and watched the dogfights as spectator sport, cheering for the home team, which was often outnumbered by ten or more to one.
Lacking a river, forests, or rich soil, Malta could provide little of its own food or fuel. Supplies from Gibraltar, 999 miles to the west, and Alexandria, 866 miles east, had been stopped by the German and Italian air forces and navies. Small amounts of cargo came in over the “magic carpet”—a slim trail of fast minesweepers and mine-laying submarines from Alexandria—but not nearly enough to sustain the island.
By June, it had been nine months since a convoy had made it to Valletta. Eight cargo ships had trickled through in that time, but that was not enough. The RAF was running on empty. Spitfires lacked rivets to patch shot-up skins. The few remaining submarines of the 10th Flotilla had been sent to Alexandria for lack of diesel fuel. Antiaircraft guns of the Royal Malta Artillery were rationed to fifteen shells per day. Soldiers hid in trees with Browning machine guns to defend against enemy aircraft.
Malta’s days seemed numbered, literally. “By July 1, we calculated, we should be out of business,” said the RAF commander, Air Marshal Hugh Lloyd.
Yet Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that Malta had to survive for the war to be won. “Its effective action against the enemy communications with Libya and Egypt is essential to the whole strategic position in the Middle East,” he told the House of Commons.
“The Navy had always regarded the island as the keystone of victory in the Mediterranean, and considered it should be held at all costs,” wrote Adm. Andrew Browne Cunningham, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean and Britain’s greatest admiral since Horatio Nelson.
“Malta must be held at all costs,” said her military governor, Lt. Gen. William G. S. Dobbie. “Its loss would obviously open the door to disasters of the first magnitude, the outcome of which was not good to contemplate.”
It was all about oil, as usual. Oil from the fields in Iraq and Iran (then Persia) powered the Allies’ effort. Churchill called Malta the “windlass of the tourniquet” on the supply lines of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and Rommel was moving across North Africa in pursuit of the Mideast oil. If Hitler got the oil, it would all be over—before the United States even had a chance to get there.
Churchill didn’t believe that the British Eighth Army would be able to stop Rommel without Malta’s support. Axis convoys from Italy to North Africa kept Rommel in supplies, and submarines and bombers from Malta attacked those convoys. Bombers from Malta also flew sorties over North Africa, striking truck convoys. General Dobbie’s “disaster of the first magnitude” would be the Luftwaffe and Italian navy moving in where the RAF and Royal Navy now held out.
“With Malta in our hands, the British would have had little chance of exercising any further control over convoy traffic in the Central Mediterranean,” wrote Rommel, who pushed Hitler for an invasion of the island. It was planned for late June, and code-named Operation Hercules.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, chief of the Luftwaffe’s Mediterranean force, agreed with Rommel. “Over and over again, sometimes with the support of the Comando Supremo, I urged Göring and Hitler to stabilize our position in the Mediterranean by taking Malta,” he wrote in his memoirs.
Vice Adm. Eberhard Weichold, the German commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean, wrote in a report to Hitler, “I see only one possibility, and that is a thorough strategical offensive against the British Air Force in the Central Mediterranean. That is, Malta must be obliterated.”
But Hitler decided that it was enough for Malta to be rendered ineffective by blockade. A naval invasion of the island was too risky. Operation Hercules was called off. “I am a coward at sea,” he once told Weichold.
“It was the greatest mistake of the Axis in the whole war in this theater,” Weichold would later write from his cell at Nuremberg.
Churchill had been working his friend and ally Franklin D. Roosevelt for all the ships he could get, including some of the best freighters America could sacrifice. What he needed now was a big, fast tanker.
The glistening new SS Kentucky had never seen action. Built for the Texas Company (to be named Texaco after the war) by Sun Shipbuilding in Chester, Pennsylvania, she had made just one test run before getting orders to Gibraltar. She steamed solo across the Atlantic with a load of aviation fuel, insanely exposed without an escort. She was armed, but her only defense against U-boats was speed. The lookouts were motivated by terror. The captain ran her powerful Westinghouse steam turbine engines flat-out all the way, averaging 15.8 knots despite a four-day gale.
Her aviation fuel was offloaded in Gibraltar, and she was turned over to the British Ministry of War Transport. Her American crew had been trained in the operation of the ship’s high-tech boilers and other systems, and they wanted to stay with her, but politics—in the form of Adm. Ernest J. King, commander of the U.S. fleet—intervened. King, a first-generation Irishman who instinctively distrusted the British and didn’t think Malta was worth fighting for, insisted that she be taken over by a British crew. The new crew knew little about her—just that she was a luxury liner compared to the tubs they were used to.
At midnight on the moonless night of June 11, 1942, after exactly two years of bombing on Malta, the Kentucky stole away from Gibraltar toward Malta to join the convoy called Operation Harpoon. The convoy included one battleship, two aircraft carriers, four cruisers, seventeen destroyers, four minesweepers, an oiler, a minelayer, two corvettes, and six motor patrol boats, all to escort the Kentucky, which carried thirteen thousand tons of oil in her thirty-three honeycombed compartments; and five freighters carrying grain, ammunition, and about two thousand tons each of aviation fuel.
Convoys to Malta were always kept a tight secret—as if the Axis didn’t know they were coming. For one thing, convoys only happened during a dark moon; for another, spies in Gibraltar could clearly see the activity. So to intercept Harpoon when it came within range of Sardinia, the Regia Aeronautica had lined up 81 fighters, 61 bombers, and 50 torpedo bombers. The Luftwaffe had added 40 bombers.
They began to attack at daybreak on Sunday, June 14, flying in dozens of formations of three to six planes each. “It was impossible to count the number of planes, as they circled round and over the convoy, bombing continuously,” reported Capt. C. R. J. Roberts, Kentucky’s new master.
Fighters from the convoy’s carriers attacked the Axis bombers that were defended by their own fighters, as antiaircraft guns from the warships and armed freighters pounded the blue sky.
In the first attack, Kentucky shot down a bomber with the Oerlikon 20mm antiaircraft guns on the bridge. In the second attack a torpedo bomber came in at two hundred feet, half a mile off the port beam. “I saw three splashes in the water,” said Roberts. “I thought at first that they were bombs, but suddenly realized that they were torpedoes, as I could faintly see the wakes approaching the convoy. I immediately altered course hard to starboard and managed to avoid them. HMS Liverpool and the Dutch merchant vessel Tanimbar were both struck by these torpedoes.”
The aviation fuel and ammunition on the Tanimbar immediately blew. “I saw lifeboats, people and debris hurtling upwards,” said a sailor watching from another ship. “Flames shot hundreds of feet in the air. The hull of the vessel separated amidships, and within no time she had disappeared from sight, leaving only a few smoldering relics.”
She sank in seven minutes, leaving thirty men dead.
The second torpedo blew a huge hole in the new cruiser Liverpool, and she was towed back to Gibraltar. Volunteers were given an extra tot of rum for retrieving the bodies of the twelve men who had been steamed in the engine room.
The convoy reached the Sicilian Narrows at dusk. As planned, the battleship, both carriers, three of the four cruisers, and seven destroyers turned back to Gibraltar. The carriers were too vulnerable in the channel because they had no room to maneuver or run, and the other warships were needed to escort them.
Kentucky and the four other freighters were left with HMS Cairo, an aging cruiser with four-inch antiaircraft guns, plus nine destroyers, four minesweepers, and six motor launches, good for rescuing survivors of blown-up merchantmen.
Italian reconnaissance planes dropped parachute flares that torched the moonless night with a surreal glow, trying to locate the convoy for Italian and German submarines. But the flares missed by miles, as the ships steamed at twelve knots, zigzagging to keep the target moving. By daybreak, they had made it through the Narrows.
As the sun rose on the faces of the sailors on deck of the Kentucky, shells from six-inch guns started flying at her bow. Adm. Angelo da Zara had raced overnight from Palermo on the north side of Sicily with two Italian light cruisers and five destroyers to stand between the convoy and Malta.
Capt. C. C. Hardy, commanding Operation Harpoon on the Cairo, sent his five largest destroyers ahead to fight off the Italian warships, leaving the merchantmen protected by just Cairo and four small 1,050-ton destroyers. Cairo pumped out a thick smoke screen, and Hardy told the masters to run for Vichy French territorial waters along the African coast.
Led by the 1,850-ton Bedouin, the five fleet destroyers raced toward the enemy, between splashes from the screaming six-inch shells. Bedouin took twelve hits, which blew the mast away and knocked out the engines, electrical systems, and fire systems. She was towed away by another destroyer and later sunk by a torpedo bomber that killed twenty-eight of her crew.
“During this time Cairo was on a course roughly parallel to the enemy,” stated Captain Hardy in his vague and rambling report. Cairo was hit twice, with the first six-inch shell damaging the superstructure and the second one lodging inside an oil tank without exploding, partially flooding the engine room. She returned to the convoy, where Hardy found chaos.
Admiral Cunningham had been assigned by Churchill to represent the Admiralty in Washington, primarily to deal with the difficult American admiral King. Adm. Henry Harwood replaced Cunningham as Mediterranean commander-in-chief, but distinctly lacked his predecessor’s fighting spirit.
“So as to free our naval forces if the convoy is cornered,” Harwood had told Churchill in a message, “I intend to arrange for the merchant ships to be scuttled, as by doing this they will release the warships for offensive purposes against the enemy, or, if this is impossible, for a rapid return through the bombing areas. What I particularly want to avoid is the loss of both escorts and convoy.”
What Churchill wanted to avoid was the loss of Malta. Besides, the role of the warships was to protect the merchant ships, not attack the enemy. And how could a man like Churchill read the words “rapid return” without hearing “run from the fight” ring in his ears like the boom of a fifteen-inch gun?
While Captain Hardy was off in the Cairo trying to keep the Italian warships away from the convoy, the Italian bombers arrived. It had been perfectly coordinated between the Italian navy and air force, and Hardy had fallen perfectly into Admiral da Zara’s trap: almost all the convoy’s antiaircraft guns were away chasing ships—and getting blasted for their efforts.
A Stuka dive-bombed MS Chant, a 5,600-ton Danish freighter with an American crew. All but three men jumped overboard before her superstructure collapsed and she quickly sank. “Her oil tanks burst as she went down, leaving a terrific pall of smoke and fire that was visible for most of the day,” said the master of the Orari, steaming behind her.
Captain Roberts watched it all from Monkey Island, a platform above the bridge of the Kentucky, with nothing between him and the dive-bombers but his binoculars. “Captain C. R. J. Roberts gave the impression of having particularly outstanding qualities of courage and organizing abilities,” said the admiral who recommended him for a medal. “Throughout the violent attacks on Kentucky, he remained exposed on ‘Monkey Island’ with very little protection and maneuvered and fought his vessel magnificently.”
But there were too many bombs to dodge. Roberts watched a Ju 88 dive at his ship and drop two bombs that “straddled the poop,” said the third mate. Giant columns of water crashed on deck.
“The chief engineer reported that the main generator steam feed pipe was fractured, and the engine room full of steam and ammonia,” stated Lieutenant Huntley, the Royal Navy liaison officer aboard Kentucky. “The Chief and Second Engineer again went below, and the Chief Engineer reported to the Master, that, lacking electricity, he could neither fill his boilers, nor raise steam.”
Sometimes the men in the engine room were cooked like lobsters when a steam line snapped. Or a man could get scored and split by an invisible jet of steam, 300 degrees at 220 psi.
But somehow the Kentucky’s men got out of the engine room. Captain Roberts praised his chief engineer, J. J. Ross. “His cool and calm bearing were an inspiration to all the Engine Room staff,” he reported.
Ross had just three days in Gibraltar to learn the complicated Westinghouse steam turbine engines, Brown-Curtiss water tube boilers, and the elaborate electrical systems. The chief engineer from the American crew had been with the Kentucky for nearly a year, during her construction and trials, and he had tried to stay with the ship. Had he been permitted to remain aboard, the steam line almost certainly would have been repaired.
Captain Roberts asked the minesweeper Hebe for a tow, but they could only make five knots, so Captain Hardy sent back the destroyer Ithuriel to help. Then he changed his mind. “I reconsidered and cancelled this order as I came to the conclusion that I could not afford to immobilize one of the three remaining fleet destroyers for this purpose while the threat from enemy surface vessels was considerable.”
True to Admiral Harwood’s intentions, the convoy left the disabled Kentucky behind—“like a stranded whale,” said the third mate. But the threat from enemy surface vessels wasn’t really so considerable—especially not after Malta sent out three Albacore torpedo bombers after the Italian ships. As Hardy reported, “From 0930 onwards fighters from Malta provided continuous escort except for two short periods.”
At 11:20 a.m., a near miss by a bomb from a Ju 88 disabled the third of five freighters, Burdwan, with a jammed rudder and flooded engine room. Operation Harpoon was now down to two merchantmen out of six, and it had lost its biggest destroyer and newest cruiser. The bombers weren’t going away, and Hardy believed that at any minute the Italian cruisers would be on top of what was left of the convoy, still 150 miles from Malta.
Captain Hardy appears to have changed his mind about orders to the convoy three times in three hours. He finally took a page out of Harwood’s manual. “I decided to cut my losses and at 1142 ordered Badsworth and Hebe to scuttle Burdwan and Kentucky, at the same time ordering the remaining merchant ships to proceed at their utmost speed. I believe Masters had received instructions regarding scuttling in the event of damage, but I do not know what these orders were,” he reported, remarkably.
Captain Roberts makes it clear in his report that it wasn’t his idea to scuttle the Kentucky. “The next order I received was to abandon and scuttle the ship,” he said. “By this time there were only 2 other merchant vessels left in the convoy and as the Senior Naval Officer [Hardy] was in a hurry to reach Malta before all the Merchant ships in the convoy were lost, we scuttled the ship. The Rye came alongside to take off the crew and told us to hurry because more bombers were coming. We abandoned ship at 1200 and set her on fire, but we could not get into the engine-room to open the sea cocks.”
There were no explosive charges in the holds for scuttling, because there hadn’t been time in Gibraltar to install them. The Kentucky was a state-of-the-art tanker, with her honeycomb structure and welded seams. The minesweepers Badsworth and Hebe couldn’t sink her.
Admiral da Zara sent his light cruiser Montecuccoli with the destroyers Oriani and Ascari around to the rear of the convoy, where the Kentucky drifted, abandoned. The minesweepers sped away when Montecuccoli’s mast appeared on the horizon, leaving Kentucky and her load of precious fuel to the enemy. Except for scorching, a broken steam line, and some destroyed wiring, there wasn’t a scratch on her. All da Zara needed to do was hook up his two destroyers to Kentucky and tow her, along with thirteen thousand tons of fuel oil, back to Pantelleria. The Italians needed the fuel for warships, but Malta needed it to survive. Captain Hardy had handed the fate of Malta to the Axis.
But da Zara blew it—literally. “Arriving at the scene, the Italians saw the sea strewn with debris, and all over the horizon were the burning ships and those left behind to help them,” stated the official Italian history. “The tanker Kentucky had only a small fire aboard, but several shells from the Montecuccoli and then a torpedo from the Oriani caused her to explode in flames like a huge funeral pyre, and shortly thereafter she sank.”
Da Zara had perfectly executed Admiral Harwood’s orders after Captain Hardy’s own failure. The irony was “most convenient,” said Hardy. Da Zara was given a medal by Mussolini.
Admiral da Zara could have then run down the rest of the British ships, but he ordered his fleet home, for a number of dubious reasons: low ammunition, not knowing how many British warships there were, thinking that maybe the bombers had already sunk all the merchant ships anyhow, and so on. The Italians say they sent out a rescue ship into the Sicilian Narrows, and picked up 217 sailors and made them prisoners of war.
Captain Hardy’s report, eight pages and sixty items, is a mass of contradiction, omission, and impossibility. The Royal Navy said he “acted throughout with conspicuous courage and resource in the handling of his force for the protection of the convoy.” The Admiralty said his decision to scuttle Kentucky was justified because two freighters eventually made it to Malta.
As the remnants of the convoy straggled into Malta in the middle of the night, the fog of war swept in over the harbor. Either the minesweepers got too far ahead of the convoy, carrying with them the navigation instructions for the channel, or else they fell behind the other ships. Just outside the harbor, four ships struck mines that had either been dropped by Italian parachute, or laid by the British to keep the Italian torpedo boats out. The Polish destroyer Kujawiak was sunk, two British destroyers were damaged, and the fourth and biggest of the five freighters, the 10,400-ton Orari, was holed and lost much of its cargo just outside the breakwater. Glistening waves of oil lapped ashore in the morning sun.
It gets worse. During Harpoon, Admiral Harwood had been leading a simultaneous convoy from Alexandria, Operation Vigorous. Eleven merchantmen were escorted by more than thirty warships. Almost every ship the Royal Navy had in the Mediterranean was on the water with Harpoon and Vigorous.
Air reconnaissance told Harwood that an Italian fleet consisting of two battleships, four cruisers, and about twelve destroyers had left Italy to head him off, so he turned the convoy back to Alexandria. Four more times over the next eighteen hours, he turned the convoy around, as Harwood received new information about the possible position and intent of the enemy. All that day the convoy cruised back and forth in the area called “Bomb Alley,” as bombers, torpedo boats, and submarines fed on the ships like sharks, sinking one cruiser, three destroyers, and two merchantmen. The rest ran back to Alexandria.
The Italians call Operation Harpoon/Operation Vigorous the Battle of Pantelleria, a name as pretty as their picture of it. It’s been called the “forgotten convoy,” because so little has been written about it—the British would be the authors, and there’s not a lot of motivation on their part to tell the story. A better name might be the “disowned convoy.”
Churchill didn’t care who was to blame for the loss of Kentucky. He knew one thing: a tanker had to get through to Malta or the island was lost. There was one more moonless period before its garrison would have to surrender.
On June 16, the day after Kentucky went down, he wrote a “Most Secret” memo to the first lord of the Admiralty, the first sea lord, and his chief of staff, Gen. H. L. “Pug” Ismay.
“It will be necessary to make another attempt to run a convoy into Malta,” began the memo. “The fate of the island is at stake, and if the effort to relieve it is worth making, it is worth making on a great scale. Strong battleship escort capable of fighting the Italian battle squadron and strong Aircraft Carrier support would seem to be required. Also at least a dozen fast supply ships, for which super-priority over all civil requirements must be given.”
The memo ended, “I shall be glad to know in the course of the day what proposals can be made, as it will be right to telegraph to Lord Gort [governor of Malta], thus preventing despair in the population. He must be able to tell them: ‘The Navy will never abandon Malta.’”
Malta’s absolute last chance came one month later, under the next dark moon. Operation Pedestal was the most heavily attacked naval convoy in history. Wolf packs of U-boats stalked the convoy, and Italian torpedo boats attacked viciously during the long night in the Sicilian Narrows. Nine of thirteen freighters went down, six of them in infernos. Kentucky’s faster sister, the SS Ohio, was bombed, torpedoed, and abandoned by her British crew. Slowly sinking, she was boarded by a volunteer crew led by two American merchant mariners whose freighter had been sunk, and towed by destroyers into Malta, where she was greeted by thousands of cheering Maltese. Her back broken, she sank in the harbor after her oil was offloaded. With the aviation fuel from four freighters and diesel carried by the American tanker, the RAF returned to the sky and the 10th Submarine Flotilla resumed its offensive action against Axis supply convoys to North Africa.
By September, Rommel was on the run.
This article was written by Sam Moses and originally published in the January/February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to World War II magazine today!