Operation MG1, 19-27 March 1942

Operation “MG1” of March 1942 was a costly attempt to run a small supply convoy from Alexandria to the besieged island of Malta. The previous attempt, in February 1942, had ended in total failure, and supplies on the island were rapidly running out. According the Admiralty informed Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, that his fleet’s most important duty in March would be to get a convoy to Malta, regardless of any risk to the ships involved.

Convoy MW10 contained the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Breconshire (a supply ship), the Norwegian merchant ship Talabot and the British merchant ships Pampas and Clan Campbell, carrying between them 26,000 tons of supplies. They were to be guarded by three cruisers, ten fleet and seven “Hunt” class destroyers from Alexandria under the command of Admiral Vian, and the cruiser Penelope and one destroyer from Malta.

The operation began on the night of 19-20 March when the “Hunt” class destroyers began a sweep for U-boats between Alexandria and Tobruk. This early part of the operation saw the loss of the destroyer Heythrop. She was hit by a torpedo from one of the U-boats being searched for, and although she was initially taken under tow soon had to be sunk. The surviving “Hunt” class destroyers then refuelled at Tobruk, before joining Vian at sea on the morning of 21 March.

The convoy itself left Alexandria on the morning of 20 March, with a small escort. Vian and the main escort left port that evening, and caught up with the convoy on the morning of 21 March. The plan was for Vian to escort the convoy through the dangerous stretch where it was exposed to air attack from both Crete and Libya, and the stretch close to Italy where there was a risk that the powerful Italian fleet might intervene. However the lack of refuelling facilities on Malta, and the risk of overwhelming aerial attack, meant that Vian was to turn back at nightfall on 22 March. It was hoped that the convoy would reach Malta before dawn on 23 March.

At 8.00am on the morning of 22 March the two ships from Malta joined Vian’s fleet. That morning Vian was informed that a powerful Italian fleet was indeed at sea, heading for the convoy. The resulting second battle of Sirte saw Vian fend off two attacks by this fleet, which contained the battleship Littorio, two 8-inch heavy cruisers (the Gorizia and Trento, one 6-inch cruiser (the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere) and ten destroyers. After making two attempts to reach the convoy the Italian fleet gave up and broke off contact.

Although Vian had prevented the Italian surface fleet from interfering with the convoy, the fighting had forced the merchant ships to change course several times, slowing their progress. It had been hoped that the convoy would reach Malta under cover of darkness, but these delays prevents that from happening.  Instead the convoy had to struggle into Malta on the morning of 23 March, all the time under heavy attack from the air. The Talabot and the Pampas reached Malta at 9.15am, but even there they were not safe. On 26 March both ships were hit by German bombs. The Talabot, with a highly explosive cargo of ammunition, had to be scuttled to prevent an explosion, while only two of the Pampas’s holds were not flooded. Just after the first two ships reached Malta the Breconshire was disabled by the bombers eight miles outside the harbour. For the next four days constant efforts were made to save her, at the cost of the destroyer Southwold, sunk by a mine on 24 March, but despite all these efforts on 27 March the Breconshire was sunk at Marsaxlokk. The Clan Campbell was sunk at 10.20 on 23 March, still twenty miles away from relative safety. The same attack also badly damaged the destroyer HMS Legion. She reached the naval dockyard on Malta, but was sunk by German bombs on 26 March.

Only 5,000 of the 26,000 tons of cargo originally loaded on Convoy MW10 actually reached Malta, along with a limited amount of fuel oil that was saved from the Breconshire. As a result of the heavy losses suffered by the convoy it was realised that no more supplies could reach the island until its aerial defences had been improved, and it would be three months before the next convoy arrived. On the Axis side the failure of the Italian fleet convinced Kesselring that he would have to neutralise Malta with his own resources, and during April the tempo of German air attacks on the island greatly increased.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 July 2008), Operation MG1, 19-27 March 1942, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_MG1.html

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