In spite of the
tremendous importance of replenishing Malta, the hard decision had been
taken in April that the island would have to hold out without a convoy until
mid-June. Never before had the Royal Navy suffered such heavy losses as
between December 1941 and May 1942, and to find sufficient ships to provide
anything like the escort to fight through these convoys to Malta
was to prove an extremely difficult problem. In the end it was decided to run
two convoys, one from each end, so as to encourage the enemy to spread his
naval and air forces in opposing them.
Plans for the two
convoys (operation Harpoon from the west and Vigorous from the east) differed
only in matters of detail from the previous ones. Their sailing was to be
preceded by the bombing of enemy ports and airfields in Italy, Sicily,
Sardinia, North Africa and Crete, and over
Cyrenacia. These attacks were to be continued during their passage. To
simplify problems of unloading after arrival, Harpoon was to arrive at
Malta one day before Victorious. The fast minelayer Welshman, with a load of ammunition,
was to accompany the Harpoon convoy as far as the Narrows and then to go alone
at 28 knots to reach Malta at first light on the day the
convoy was due.
planning of the operation took place at the Admiralty between the 23rd May and
the 2nd June. Vice-Admiral A.T.B. Curteis, Second-in-Command, Home Fleet, was
to command and, with a small staff, he prepared the operational orders. Ten
days in which to prepare, draft, type and to distribute orders was
insufficient and was to lead to a number of deficiencies.
The first of the
conferences was held at Greenock on the 4th
June, when Vice-Admiral Curteis met the commanding officers of the Home Fleet
ships and explained the details of the operation. In the afternoon of the same
day a second conference was attended by the Masters and Naval Liaison Officers
of the five merchant ships which were to sail from the Clyde. Commander J.P.W. Pilditch, the Senior N.L.O. was
selected as Commodore. As the King’s Harbour Master, Malta, designate, his was to be an
odd way of taking up an appointment which, in peacetime, would have had him
traveling first class by P and O.
conference was to be held at Gibraltar for
those unable to attend the first two. It was actually to take place in the
morning of the 11th June, while Kenya
(Captain A.S. Russell) was oiling, and when it left little time for the
commanding officers to assimilate the details.
The six ships of
the Harpoon convoy were to be covered as far as the Skeri Channel by the main
covering force (Force W). This comprised the ancient battleship Malaya (Captain J.W.A. Waller); the
equally antiquated carriers Argus
(Captain G.T. Philip, D.S.C.) and Eagle (Captain E.G.N. Rushbrooke),
with only 22 fighters between them; the modern cruisers Kenya, Liverpool and Charybdis (Captain L.D. Mackintosh,
D.S.C.); and destroyers Antelope
(Lieut.-Commdr. E.N. Sinclair), Escapade (Lieut.-Commdr. E.N.V.
Curvey), Icarus (Lieut.-Commdr.
C.D. Maud), Onslow (Captain H.T.
Armstrong), Westcott (Commdr. I.H. Brockett-Pugh), Wishart (Commdr. H.G. Scott), Wrestler (Lieut. R.W.B. Lacon) and Vidette (Lieut.-Commdr. E.M.
From there, under
the group command of Captain C.C. Hardy, in the old light cruiser Cairo (converted before the war into an
anti-aircraft ship of eight single 4-inch guns), Force X was to continue to
Malta. This comprised five Fleet
destroyers, Bedouin (Commdr.
Scurfield), Marne (Lieut.-Commdr.
H.N.A. Richardson), Matchless
(Lieut.-Commdr. J. Mowlam), Ithuriel (Lieut.-Commdr. D.H.
Maitland-Makgill-Cricton, D.S.C.) and Partridge (Lieut.-Commdr. W.A.F. Hawkins); four Hunt class destroyers,
Blankney (Lieut.-Commdr. P.F.
Paulett), Middleton (Lieut.-Commdr.
D.C. Kinloch), Badsworth (Lieut.
G.T.S. Gray) and Kujawiak (Commdr.
Lichodziejewski); and four fast Fleet mine-sweepers of the 17th Flotilla, Hebe (Lieut.-Commdr. G. Mowatt), Hythe (Lieut.-Commdr. L.B. Miller), Speedy (Lieut.-Commdr. A.E. Doran) and
Rye (Lieut. J.A. Pearson).
The tanker Brown Ranger (Master D.B.C. Ralph)
with her own escort - Force Y: the corvettes Coltsfoot (Lieut. the Hon. W.K. Rous)
and Geranium (Lieut.-Commdr. A.
Foxall) - would not accompany the convoy but cruise independently along its
route, to refuel the smaller warships, particularly those of Force X. Six
mine-sweeping motor-launches of the 6th Flotilla - M.L. 121, 134, 135, 168, 459 and 462 (Lieut.-Commdr. E.J. Stowlger) -
were also to be included in the convoy. Finally four submarines were to be
stationed in a line between Cagliari in
Sardinia and the western end of Sicily to report and to attack the enemy if
wore the flag of Vice-Admiral Curteis. Although his forces were weak in
comparison with those of the previous July and September, they had been
assembled with difficulty, for since the closing months of 1941 the Royal Navy
had lost many ships and had shouldered many new responsibilities. However,
there were grounds for hoping that the escort would be strong enough. The main
units of the Italian Fleet, which were at Taranto, were more likely to dispute the
passage of the convoy from the east, and the enemy’s air effort would be
divided between the two convoys and the battle in the desert.
On the 3rd June,
Liverpool had sailed from Scapa
Flow to Greenock, from where she had left on the following day for Malta. Barely three weeks earlier,
she had been off northern Norway amidst snow flurries and within sight of
the ice edge, and many found this change from the Arctic to the Mediterranean rather abrupt! Although the crew had been
unaware of their eventual destination, the fact that an R.C. chaplain had
joined the ship gave them notice of a difficult time ahead. A press
correspondent also had come aboard.
Liverpool entered Gibraltar around
midnight, oiled, and left the following morning (the 12th) at about 0700.
Shortly following this passage into the Mediterranean, a cinema show on board
included a newsreel showing an earlier Malta
convoy under attack. Comfort and reassurance!
of the Harpoon convoy - the Blue Funnel Line’s Troilus of 7,500 tons; Burdwan, 6,000 tons, belonging to the
Hain Line; the 5,500 ton American
Chant; the Orari, 10,500 tons,
belonging to the New Zealand Shipping Line; and the Dutch Tanimbar of 8,619 tons - had left the
Clyde in the afternoon of the 4th June, soon after the second conference. As a
precautionary measure, the merchant ships had been routed to Freetown and the Masters had been told that they would
probably go on to the Cape. However, the
attempt at deception was unsuccessful, for it was common knowledge on board
the ships that their destination was Malta.
The first ships
entered the Mediterranean during the night of
the 11th/12th. The sixth, Kentucky (9,300 tons) -
one of the very few fast tankers made available from the United States - joined from Gibraltar soon after dark on the 11th, and was escorted
by four Fleet minesweepers and six minelayers.
On first signs of
the operation, two Italian submarine groups, Bronzo, Emo, Malachite, Velella and Zaffiro, and Acciaio, Alagi, Giada, Otario and Uarsciek, were stationed north of the
Algerian coast. A third group (Aradam,
Ascianghi, Corallo, Dessie, and Onice) was placed in the Malta
- Lampedusa area. A forth (Atropo,
Axum, Micca, Platino and Zoea)
was stationed in the Ionian Sea, while Galatea, Sirena, and the German U77, U81, U205, U431, U453, and U559 operated further to the
It had been hoped
to maintain a speed of 14 knots on the passage, and the orders had been worked
out accordingly. Troilus had been
selected as the Commodore’s ship as she had been thought to be the slowest,
but it soon became evident that neither Chant nor Burdwan could keep station at more
than 13 knots. To complicate matters still further, Tanimbar, a motor ship, could not
proceed at speeds of more than 12 knots for any but short periods. Since to
cut the convoy speed to 12 knots was out of the question, Tanimbar was instructed to do the best
she could. By cutting off corners, the convoy had managed to keep to its time
schedule to Gibraltar.
None of the
escorts saw either the Spanish or African coasts in making the passage through
the Straits. An elaborate refueling plan went forward without a hitch during
the night, with the ships reforming at daylight, far to the east to escape the
notice of Axis agents in Spain. Although this covert
activity did not deceive the enemy, it was not totally unproductive. It showed
that the dockyard resources had borne a heavy strain and that they required to
be enhanced for the larger convoy planned for August (Pedestal). All of the
escorts had left Gibraltar by about 0300, and
the whole party was at full strength by 0700, and was steaming east, with a
combined capacity of 43,000 tons of cargo.
Next day German
reconnaissance aircraft located the convoy south of the Balearics. It was
shadowed from the air and reported by submarine. Oiling at sea took place, but
was started late owing to navigational errors. The first two destroyers had
parted company before daylight. Badsworth and Blankney had started from opposite
sides of the screen, but the latter failed to find Brown Ranger. In contrast, Badsworth found her just where she had
been expected! To make up for lost time, Liverpool was ordered to
refuel some of the destroyers. The first alongside was Kujawiak, but her commanding officer
had had little experience of this manoeuvre and was unable to keep station.
The attempt had to be abandoned. Bedouin, Ithuriel and Vidette did refuel from Liverpool while Cairo and 11 destroyers refueled from Brown Ranger.
The Brown Ranger was to loiter for a
further four days in this area, to be at hand should any ship have required
refueling on the return. It is remarkable that she went undetected.
Westcott (Commdr. I.H. Brockett-Pugh, D.S.C.) was the last destroyer to
refuel from the tanker, and she did not finish until after dark, so delayed
rejoining until she thought it was light enough on the morning of the 14th. In
spite of this caution, she was fired upon by Escapade. Coming up from astern
in the dim light of a Mediterranean summer morning, she was mistaken for a
U-boat on the surface. Fortunately, no damage was done.
On the 13th
German and Italian aircraft again located the convoy but Italian torpedo
aircraft from Cagliari - one of the enemy’s
main air bases in Sardinia, where there were
based twenty bombers and fifty torpedo-bombers - failed to find it. Italian
submarines Giada and Uarsciek were unsuccessful with an
attack on the convoy. The 7th Italian Division (cruisers Eugenio di Savoia and Montecuccoli and
the destroyers Ascari, Oriani, and
Gioberti) sailed from Cagliari to attack the convoy in the area off Cape Bon,
but put into Palermo after being reported by two British
By the morning of
the 14th, which was fine and calm, the convoy was within 145 miles of
daylight, the convoy was reformed from its night time (anti-submarine)
formation to its day-time formation which was designed to be both
anti-aircraft and anti-submarine. Kenya led the
port column and Liverpool the starboard,
with the carriers to windward of the merchant ships and inside the destroyer
screen. Old and slow, both Eagle
and Argus were handicapped in
working their aircraft, because what little wind there was, was blowing was
from the west. If they were to haul right round to fly off their fighters,
they would leave the safety of their destroyer screen; and after flying
operations it was certain to be a slow business for them to overtake the
Eagle carried sixteen Hurricanes of No. 801 Squadron and four Fulmars of
No. 801 Squadron which were subsequently transferred to Argus. The latter
carried eighteen Swordfish of No. 824 Squadron and two Fulmars of No. 813
Squadron. Argus carried out all the
anti-submarine work and provided low cover with the Fulmars, while Eagle took care of the high cover.
However, at the height of the attacks there were never more than six
Hurricanes and four Fulmars airborne. This did not constitute a very
formidable defense force for, at one time, there were to be as many as sixty
aircraft attacking the convoy. Nevertheless, thirteen enemy aircraft of
various types were to be brought down, for the loss of three Hurricanes and
four Fulmars. Two of the latter were, in fact, brought down by the convoy’s
Liverpool went to action
stations sometime during the early part of the forenoon watch. Things were
quiet for a while, but at 1030 air attacks began, with shallow dive-bombing on
the carriers by two groups of Italian fighter bombers. This was the first
appearance of the Ju.87 dive-bomber with Italian crews. These had recently
been trained in dive-bombing by the Luftwaffe in return for torpedo-bomber
facilities for the newly formed Heinkel 111 squadrons being formed in
Germany. The Italians had evidently
not gained the same proficiency as had the Luftwaffe and they did no harm. Two
were shot down by fighters. With this attack over, a second developed at 1108,
when twenty-eight Savoia S79’s torpedo-bombers, escorted by twenty Macchi
fighters, attacked in two groups. There was also a high level bombing attack
by ten Cant high level bombers, but these were hardly noticed. The
torpedo-bombers circled round the convoy and then came in from both quarters
simultaneously. The attack on the port column was successfully dealt with by
gunfire and fighters, but that on the starboard column went unopposed. The
aircraft came in low through a gap in the destroyer screen and released their
torpedoes at close range. At 1135, Liverpool and the Dutch
ship Tanimbar (at the rear of the
convoy) were hit; the latter sank within a few minutes.
Despite the fact
that the attack was coming in from the starboard beam, it was decided to turn
Liverpool towards the
aircraft. A turn away would have combed the tracks nicely, but it would have
left the starboard column entirely exposed and without gunfire support. As it
turned out, the latter amounted to very little and Liverpool was hit by one
of four torpedoes which could be clearly seen throughout their short run. One
of the attacking aircraft even flew over the ship and machine-gunned the upper
deck, causing a few casualties.
While steaming at
21 knots, Liverpool had been hit by
a 440 lbs. contact-torpedo that had struck the starboard side abreast the
after engine room. A 24 ft. by 19 ft. hole was blown in the outer bottom and
the lower deck was blown up by three feet. Liverpool turned right
round and stopped within a short distance of the rapidly disappearing Tanimbar. Her after boiler room and
engine rooms, starboard oil fuel tanks and compartments up to the lower deck
flooded immediately, while flooding continued to fill the engine room.
between the engine room and the Main W/T Office was ruptured. Lights were out
and water was coming in; although unharmed, C.P.O. Steele and Ldg. Tel.
Kimbell were trapped with their communications cut off. Unable to raise the
Main Office with the internal morse buzzer, P.O. Tel. Hamilton then assumed
general control of W/T operations, being in direct contact with the bridge by
voice pipe. With those in this 2nd Office, Hamilton was also trapped, but for quite
The 2nd Office
was on the Marines’ mess deck to which access was gained through a hatch, and
along a narrow passage (above the fresh water tanks). This hatch was heavy and
was supported by a strong spring, without which it could not be opened from
the inside. Now the gunnery transmitting station, manned by the Marines, also
had such a hatch requiring such a spring. However, since the latter had gone
missing, the Marines had adopted the habit of ‘borrowing’ the one from the 2nd
W/T Office. This spring must have again been borrowed after the Office had
gone to action stations. Realising what had happened, a rating was stationed
to bang on the inside of the hatch-way until he was heard. When able to leave
the 2nd Office, P.O. Tel. Hamilton made a tour of inspection and found that
the 3rd W/T Office (under the charge of P.O. Tel. Wright) was taking in water.
A rivet had sprung, but a solution to this problem was to come later that
afternoon when, under tow, a near miss on the ship had the effect of settling
the sprung rivet.
As she had been
hit, Liverpool had taken an
immediate 7 degree list to starboard. The starboard outer, and both the inner
propeller shafts had been put out of action, the steering gear had jammed and
the propeller served by the port forward engine had become visible in the
water. Even with this, revolutions were to be severely restricted because the
water feeding the steam pipes to the engine had become contaminated with
boilers’ priming. Water-tight compartments were flooded on the port side to
get the propeller back into the water, and compartments forward back to `B’
magazine and shell room were also flooded to lift the stern. Power boats,
aircraft and aviation fuel were ditched.
One Acting P.O.
Torpedoman, who had been reduced to leading hand sometime before the 14th
June, had his rate immediately restored (and was later recommended for the
D.C.M.) by Captain Slayter, in recognition of his continuous and sterling work
in damage control and repair. Overall, the damage control activity (in which
Lieut. F. W. Lawson played a large part) was to become regarded as a model and
to be used as such in post-war R.N. damage control courses. With this work
undertaken, Liverpool was no longer in
any immediate danger of sinking, but otherwise was in a pretty bad way. `X’
and `Y’ turrets were unable to train owing to the loss of power and all 6-inch
guns were out of action. Her 4-inch guns had only ready-use ammunition
available, as the shell hoists were out of action. The after HACS was out of
action; the main W/T aerials had broken owing to whipping and all radar was
out of action.
While the damage
report had been awaited anxiously on the bridge, the Navigation Officer,
Lieut. T.H.B. Shaw, contemplated the remains of the magnetic compass, and
noted that both gyro-compasses were off the board. The whip of the ship at the
moment of the explosion had flung the compass bowl out of its binnacle and had
smashed it completely. Nevertheless, it was found possible to repair the
forward gyro-compass, which had subsided into its bowl and was hanging by the
power cables. Repaired, it was to give service all the way to Gibraltar.
At 1145 Liverpool set course for Gibraltar, the damage report having been that the ship
was able to use only its port outer engine and at slow speed. She managed to
work up to three knots, but the prospect of the 625 miles trip was somewhat
At 1215 the
E.N. Sinclair) came to take Liverpool in tow. Wire
cable, anchor cable and more wire cable were passed across, and by 1300 the
tow was fast with both ships making a good nine knots. The sky was free of
aircraft and the sea calm, but there was an expectation of the eventual
attention of a passing U-boat. Purposely a course had been set to take them
close to the African coast so that, in the worst eventuality, they would not
have too far to make for shore.
At 1430, with
things still peaceful, Westcott
joined Liverpool and Antelope to provide some
anti-submarine protection. Course was altered every four to six hours to
counter any prowling U-boat. It was the nearest to a set zig-zag that could be
managed on one engine and in tow. On the night of the 16th this practice was
to come in good stead as they neared the Spanish coast. A 60 degree turn to
port to be held for three hours had been scheduled for 2300. At 2255, Westcott attacked a contact with depth
charges on their starboard bow and so the 2300 planned turn proved highly
Antelope’s tow parted at this juncture, and it took a full hour to pass it
again. With no form of radar warning available to them, the atmosphere was
tense in anticipation of further attention from the enemy. At 1800, eleven
high level bombers attacked in formation, dropping well clear of Liverpool but
close enough to Westcott to cause a
few casualties. A short while later, seven torpedo-bombers escorted by an
equal number of fighters appeared low on the horizon. In their midst was the
sole British support, a lone Catalina flying boat which gave an impressive
display of offensive action against greatly superior odds. Doing its best to
break up the enemy formation, it caused the Italians some inconvenience, but
of the Catalina, the enemy aircraft completed a full circuit of the horizon
before two of them raised enough courage to attack. Coming in very low, they
dropped their bombs just as an H.B. barrage burst in front of them, and in
time to disturb their aim. One aircraft went straight into the sea, while the
other caught fire and passed low over the bridge before crashing. This display
clearly unnerved the others and they proceeded to drop their torpedoes at long
range before departing. The fighters made no attack at all, from which it was
concluded that they had been sent to find the convoy.
Slayter wanting to make a signal direct to the Admiralty, the code and cipher
books had to be retrieved from the Main W/T Office. This was attempted by P.O.
Tel.’s Hamilton and Wright, who descended the hatchway into the Main Office
while it was still being pumped out. Up to their necks in water and fuel oil,
they successfully dived to recover the books. As these were passed to the
Paymaster Commander waiting above, the latter remarked that they had just been
near missed astern by two more torpedoes. After being cleaned up in the sick
sent off the signal, using the ship’s emergency transmitter.
Two further and
very similar attacks had taken place at 2015 and 2230, but no damage was done,
except to morale, for the bombers were at too great a height for Liverpool to
engage them effectively. It was a question of sitting tight, watch and hope.
The last incident of the day was to ease a great deal of this despondency. Westcott steamed close past Liverpool’s
port side, to give three rousing cheers.
uneventful night and morning, one further and very half-hearted attack was
made by three to four torpedo-bombers, whose torpedoes all exploded at the end
of their run before they reached Liverpool. However, there
had been one false alarm. At 0920 everyone had been brought to the alert as
one of the H.A. directors had spotted Venus practically overhead and had
mistaken it for a very high level bomber.
At 1420 on the
15th came Regia Aeronautica’s last effort with Liverpool at about 300 miles from
at 1500 the tug Salvonia arrived,
but it was decided not to interfere with the tow until they were well beyond
the range of the S.M.79’s . By 2100 it was decided that it was safe enough to
transfer the tow. Liverpool then had a good
anti-submarine escort consisting of Panther, Spirea, Jonquil, Westcott,
Antelope, one minelayer and a Catalina flying aircraft by day. On joining,
Panther had signaled that her port
turbine was stripped and that her Asdic could not be used owing to a leak.
Captain Slayter had replied with a signal, ‘Can I offer you a tow? I can
screen you with my Asdic.’ He was later to offer an apology.
The ships reached
Gibraltar at 1700 on the 17th June, when they
received a great reception. The lower deck was cleared for entry into harbour.
They were cheered in with hooters, klaxons, whistles and anything else that
would make a noise, while a military band played on the quay-side. However, if
they had expected relative peace at Gibraltar
they were not to get it. That night the Rock put up a practice barrage!
tow, some of Liverpool’s dead had
remained trapped between the bulkheads and the upper deck. From above, their
bodies could be seen through a grill, but they proved impossible to reach. In
the heat they became bloated above their waist-belts and, although hoses were
played on them, the stench pervaded the whole of the ship. At Gibraltar, the dockyard workers refused to board until
the bodies had been removed. This was eventually organised by Lieut. (E)
Courtney after two of the ship’s doctors had first gone below to release the
gasses. They were then carried up by a party of stokers (well plied with rum)
led by Ldg. Sto. Parish. Burial at sea took place from a trawler.
following her arrival in Gibraltar, Liverpool was honoured by
being asked to supply the Guard of Honour for the ‘Ceremony of the Keys’ at
the Governor’s Palace. This took place on the 24th June.
repairs, carried out in dry dock, had to be completed within six weeks, since
it was required to clear the dockyard before the August convoy. Liverpool
left for Rosyth on the 5th August, steaming on one engine (with the three of
her other screws lashed to the quarter deck) and making 17 knots. She left
with Georgetown and Mansfield, two old American
destroyers which experienced some difficulty in keeping up! As they steamed
westwards out into the Atlantic, they passed the Pedestal convoy eastbound for
the Mediterranean. (The tug Jaunty was to
sail with this convoy to salvage any ship badly hit but capable of being
brought in - a lesson learnt from Harpoon.) Georgetown left on the 9th and Mansfield on the 10th.
Liverpool arrived at
Rosyth on the 12th August where she was placed low on the list of priorities.
She was unable to begin trials until April/May 1945.