Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Last stand of HMS Strongbow

Day broke on the 17 October 1917 and HMS Strongbow, an M-class destroyer escorting a convoy consisting of two British, one Belgian and nine neutral Scandinavian vessels from Lerwick to Bergen with the armed trawlers Elise and P. Fannon. Strongbow was at the rear of the convoy whilst her sister HMS Mary Rose under Lt Commander Fox led the convoy from the front, when the crew spotted two cruisers at 06:05 approaching through the early morning haze at two points after beam. Visibility was only 4000 yards and the two vessels were closing at speed. The Duty officer Acting Lieutenant James believed them to be British light cruisers of the Cleopatra class and signalled them for identification using a Morse spot lamps.
There was no response.

The second signal met with no response.

The third was met with a poorly morsed letters that made no sense when translated. Something was not right and James immediately sent for the Captain Lt-Commander Brooke and Strongbow turned to meet the two unknown vessels and increased speed.
HMS Strongbow moves to engage SMS Bremse and Brummer

SMS Bremse and Brummer had been dispatched by Admiral Scheer to seek convoys on the Lerwick to Bergen route and if none were to be found to proceed to the West coast of Britain and range into the Atlantic at their discretion and depending on their fuel supplies.

The Germans reasoned that whilst the rest of their fleet was known to be engaged in the Baltic and capturing Helsingfors that the British would not expect an attack. A successful attack would also cause problems for the enemy and ultimately aid the U-boat campaign as the Royal Navy would need to bleed off vessels searching for U-boats to protect these neutral convoys from surface raiders. The mine-laying cruisers Bremse and Brummer were specifically chosen for their appearance which was similar to British cruisers and that they had a top speed of 34 knots and could use either oil or coal. With their decks cleared of all their mine laying equipment, save for the lowering mechanism, and the births for 450 mines the cruisers left Wilhelmshaven and proceeded into the North sea after a day's delay whilst minesweepers cleared a path for them.

Scheer legitimised attacking neutral ships in his memoirs;

It was known that neutral merchant vessels assembled in convoys to travel under the protection of English warships, and therefore they might be regarded as enemy vessels, since they openly claimed English protection as to benefit the enemy and consequently to injure us.

Room 40, the Admiralty's code breakers, had intercepted Bremse and Brummer reporting their position as north of the Sylt at Lister Tief. This information was passed on to Operations to evaluate as Room 40 had no knowledge of British vessel's dispositions.

The Admiralty Operations room did not believe that two mine laying cruisers would be a threat to anything and that they were probably adding to the formidable minefields already in existence. There had been a belief that the Germans would attempt a raid of some sort and a force of tree cruisers, twenty seven light cruisers and fifty-four destroyers spread itself from the mid North Sea to the coast of Norway looking for a mine layer and force of destroyers.

The Brummer and Bremse had slipped by at night using their high top speed and now were closing on Strongbow and at 3000 yards fired with their first salvo falling short. The second hit the main steam pipe causing the destroyer to stop and the Wireless room removing her ability to call for help. The time was 06:15.

With Mary Rose some way ahead the defenceless merchant ships slowed to a stop and began abandoning ship in the hope that they're crews could be afforded safety in the lifeboats. The two German cruisers closed and began sinking the merchant ships with expertly aimed shots at the waterline and would eventually claim all nine of the neutral Danes, Swedish and Norwegian vessels whilst the Belgian and British vessels fled the scene.

At 06:20 the Mary Rose reappeared reacting to the gunfire and sighting four merchant vessels already sinking and bravely charged the German warships whilst trying to send an SOS transmission. Although acknowledged by a shore station and asked for confirmation SMS Brummer managed to block any further communication. Mary Rose began firing straight away at a range of 6-7000 yards and closed with the enemy at top speed but at 2000 yards Fox ordered the helm hard over and the two German cruisers hit their mark sending all but eight of the crew to their deaths.

With the escorting destroyers dealt with the German cruisers returned to the task of shelling the defenceless merchant vessels. 

The fight was not over as the plucky Elise defied orders and returned to the scene at first trying to rescue survivors from Strongbow and then firing upon the two German vessels and trying to draw them away. When this failed the trawler could do no more than move to a safe distance and wait.

With their work completed Bremse and Brummer withdrew to the South-East without picking up a single survivor. Scheer would later legitimise this by stating that;

As two (actually three) of the steamers had been able to get away in time on noticing the attack, the care of the crews in the boats could be left to them, for our cruisers had to consider their own safety on the long return journey.

The Elise did return and pick up survivors from Strongbow whilst others were picked up by lifeboats
SMS Brummer 
from the lost merchants. Strongbow finally disappeared beneath the waves at 09:30 having been scuttled by her crew following the destruction of all code books. All in all 250 men died in those few hours or from exposure and a further 50 were wounded. The Germans suffered no casualties.

News of the disaster did not reach the British authorities until 15:50 when HMS Marmion, on the return Bergen - Lerwick track, found the ELISE at 13:30 and steamed to send the message to Admiral Brock, officer commanding Shetland and Orkneys. Beatty was told within an hour and hurriedly deployed his cruisers on the off chance of catching the two Germans that night but to no avail.

The Admiralty were criticised for their failings by the Conservative press and questions were asked in Parliament but the only defence offered was that the sea is a large place and occasionally the enemy, using night and fog may slip through the defences and hit a convoy. It was also pointed out that some 4500 vessels had got through safely in the last six months on the same route.

Beatty was livid that he had not been informed the German ships were Bremse and Brummer as he would have changed his whole deployment knowing their capability. Changes to the convoy system were brought in immediately with larger convoys on a less frequent basis with Destroyer commanders ordered to be at constant standby, suspect all unknown vessels as enemy until absolutely certain to the contrary, scatter the convoy when attacked, avoid engaging "Superior forces" and use W/T to call for help "IMMEDIATELY"

Criticism was brought against Fox and Brooke for their "ill advised" actions that day. Although their bravery in engaging the enemy was hailed it was the various enquiries and court-martials opinion that they're first duty was to summon assistance from the cruiser forces. It was later acknowledged that the Strongbow simply did not have the opportunity to contact anyone as her W/T set was knocked out within minutes. Post war it was revealed by the Germans that Mary Rose had also attempted to do the same .

Indeed the German official account post war acknowledge the bravery of the British crews:

The heroic fight put up by the two British destroyers had been in the highest British tradition, but it achieved nothing.

It was a defeat for the Allies but it was learnt from quickly. Beatty took steps to rectify the situation with his fresh orders and the number of vessels in convoy were increased whilst their frequency decreased so that they would be better protected.

For the Germans it was a victory and was celebrated by the Kaiser with the opening of champagne. Two cruisers had caused embarrassment to the Royal Navy for no loss at a time when good news in Germany was distinctly lacking but strategically it achieved nothing.

There were accusations of war crimes post war with the German crews accused of shelling survivors in the water. Newbolt wrote that;

Throughout the attack the Germans displayed a severity which is hard to distinguish from downright cruelty. They gave the neutral masters and crews no chance to lower their boats and get away, but poured their broadsides into them without warning as though they had been armed enemies... In the case of the destroyers the enemy's conduct was even worse; for to their everlasting discredit fire was opened and maintained upon the Strongbow's survivors.

This would later be refuted by the Germans in Krieg in der Nordsee;

Some of Strongbow's crew, who had taken to the lifeboat , and others who had leapt into the water, became additional victims of gunfire, possibly from shots falling short; it stands to reason that there was no intention whatsoever of firing on them. The statement of the British Official history, that defenceless survivors form the Strongbow were deliberately fired on, cannot be refuted strongly enough.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Battle of Texel

On the 17 October 1914 the 7th Half-Flotilla's four S-90 class torpedo ships shipped out of the Ems estuary to carryout mining operations on the Downs or even as far as the Thames Estuary which would cause major disruption to British shipping.

The torpedo boat SMS S-119
   The force was selected for their good speed of 27 knots and that beyond coastal patrol duties they were of little use with only torpedo launchers and three 2" L/40 guns. The design was almost twenty years old and  much lighter in armour and armament than the Royal Navy's destroyers and indeed there were some within the Admiralstab who had written them off as expendable and the crews were all volunteers for this dangerous journey.

   "Expendable" was a thought many miles from the mind of Korvettenkapitän Georg Thiele as the thirty three year old stood on the bridge of his flagship SMS S-119 as it proceeded south along the Dutch coast off Texel. Thiele had been forced to keep close to land by British mines that lay between Lat 51 15'N and 51 41' against Long 1 35' E and 3 0'E.

   The 7th Half-Flotilla had already lost on of her number in the relative safety of the Ems estuary. The S-116 had been torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Horton's HMS E9 as it reconnoitered German naval build up on the 6 October killing nine men and her commander Kapitanleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Ziegesar. It was an inauspicious start to the operation but for Thiele, submarines were no longer his concern as a signalman reported smoke on the horizon aft.

   Acting on a report from HMS E8 the British Admiralty had dispatched a small force to reconnoiter the Dutch coast. They were disconcerted by the activity in the German estuary fearing that the Kaiser's warships were going to sweep down the coast and threaten the port of Zeebrugge which the British were using to resupply the British and Belgian armies. At the same time the German army was sweeping westward with all of its might and should a force of German Cruisers attack and destroy or even damage the port facilities at Zeebrugge it would see the German army to continue straight through the Belgians.

   To combat this a several patrols were sent to meet any German vessels with the light Cruiser HMS Undaunted leading the destroyers HMS Loyal, HMS Lance, HMS Legion and HMS Lennox from the First Division of Third Destroyer flotilla arrived off the Dutch coast. Captain Cecil Fox on the Undaunted began to proceed north with the destroyers at 16 knots when at 1:50 p.m. they sighted their quarry. At first the German formation made no move to avoid their British counterparts until they were in visual range when they began to scatter.

   For Fox this small force of German ships had to be dealt with quickly as they may be screening a larger force heading for Zeebrugge. The Undaunted was ahead of her destroyers and orders were rapidly dispatched with each destroyer to attack their opposite number with the Undaunted assisting with the order "General Chase" signaling the start of the battle and a further signal to the Admiralty "Am pursuing four German Destroyers.

   As the Undaunted reached eight thousand yards she opened fire on the S-118 causing the German vessel to take avoiding action which saved her from damage but allowed the Undaunted to get closer. The British Cruiser resumed fire at 5000 yards with the destroyers going in to support.

   HMS Lance and the Lennox tunred to chase the easternmost German ships, the S-115 and S-119 whilst the Legion and the Loyal went for the S-118 and the S-117 with the Undaunted took direct action on the unfortunate S-118 at a range of 2500 yards with the Legion and the Loyal. One of HMS Loyal's lyditte shells struck the German's conning tower blowing in and Kapitänleutnant Erich Bickert away whilst another 6" shell from the Undaunted caused an explosion by her foremost funnel. The German Torpedo boat was reduced to a "sinking condition" with the Legion and the Loyal firing freely and the vessel disappeared at 3:17 p.m.

   Korvettenkapitän Thiele ordered the S-119 and the S-117 to turn back to attack the Undaunted by either launching a torpedo attack or to draw fire from the beleaguered SMS S-118 but as they reached the furthest limits of torpedo range the Undaunted turned sixteen points away with Fox ordering the Legion and the Loyal advance to attack the advancing Germans. Fox had watched the Germans approach with a growing temptation to let them approach and decimate them with his gunfire but he later commented that “common sense prevailed” which might have been tinged with the memory of the loss of the Amphion still fresh in his mind and not willing to risk another of His Majesty’s warships. Thiele appeared to be unwilling to risk his vessels and countered by seemingly abandoning the attack with the S-117 turning sixteen points north whilst Thiele’s flagship turned east with both vessels coming under direct fire from HMS Loyal, HMS Legion and the Undaunted.

   The Legion pursued the fleeing SMS S-117 and entered a duel which saw the German vessel turn to fire off three torpedoes at her pursuer. Lieutenant-Commander Claud Allsup ordered avoiding action with the first torpedo passing a few yards past her bow and the second a few yards astern but the third torpedo sailed below the destroyer amidships just below her funnel. Thankfully for Allsup and his crew it failed to go off. With her torpedoes spent the S-117 resumed her escape attempt and fired her guns continually at her pursuer as well as trying to rake the decks of the Legion with machine gun fire but to no avail. The British Lyditte shells were much more effective and knocked out the German’s steering gear forcing her to likewise turn in a circle and leaving her deck covered in twisted metal with steam escaping from her many holes. Kapitänleutnant Sohnke’s men fought on until the last gun fell silent and then abandoned ship taking their chances in the cold North Sea than on the sinking wreck which finally slipped below the waves at 3:30 p.m.

   HMS Loyal gave chase to Thiele’s flagship with the excitement clearly getting to Lieutenant-Commander Burgess Watson’s men who began firing wildly at 3,500 yards before steadying their fire with five well executed salvoes that were thought to have calmed the men and “disturbed the quarry”.
   Thiele and the S-119’s Captain, Oberleutnant zur See Windel executed another daring move to try and put off their pursuers by turning eight points towards the Loyal so as to pass astern of her and to put a few shells into her. Watson refused to change course and later reported that;
I decided to steer a steady course and give the after gun a chance of knocker her out; however the spotting was very and. Shot after shot was going over. I sent a Sub-lieutenant aft to with a more or less curt message that they must get a shot short. The Sub-lieutenant soon returned looking rather startled with the information that the First Lieutenant and two men were knocked out. (Naval review p.141) 

   One of the wounded men was Lieutenant Commander G. L. Davidson who remained at his post after his left foot was shot off encouraging his gun crew to continue their efforts and giving orders whilst spotting for the gunners and reporting where the shot fell, a feat that earned him the DSC.
 SMS S-119 soon became a target for both the Loyal, who had altered course to bring her other guns to bear but also the Lance who had left the Lennox to deal with the S-115 alone. The Lance put three shots into the German vessel in quick succession but was struck amidships by the S-119’s last torpedo but it failed to explode. Thiele, Windel and S-119 slipped beneath the waves at 3:35 p.m. but not before a metal case that had been chained shut was jettisoned overboard containing the naval code books.

  In the meantime HMS Lennox had begun firing her forward turret at SMS S-115 at 2:25 p.m. but was inaccurate for some thirty five minutes and it wasn't until 3:10 p.m. that any damage was registered when two Lyditte shells disabled the steering gear forcing the German vessel to turn sixteen points to port. It was at this point that the Lance departed to assist in combatting the S-119. Starting at 2500 yards the Lennox began to demolish the stricken German vessel destroying the bridge at 1,200 yards. It was not until the destroyer reached 700 yards that fire was ceased believing the Germans would strike their colours and surrender but the crew continued to fire prompting the Lennox to resume her devastation until all signs of resistance ceased and a boarding party was dispatched with the officer later reporting that;

   On conclusion of the action I was sent away in a boat to S-115 to take off the only man left alive on board. He was standing on the propeller guard waving his shirt as a signal of distress and on my coming alongside he jumped into the boat and shook me warmly by the hand, pouring down blessings on my head in guttural Hun language.
He continued his report on the damage caused by the Lennox's fire;
I had been ordered to waste no time in taking off the German, so really was not able to make a thorough inspection of her; perhaps I was also thinking a little of our own safety, in that at any moment she might have been expected to blow up, as she was burning fiercely between decks.
   Her hull was riddled with shot holes all along the water-line the starboard side; and aft, she had two large gaping holes either side of the stern post. Nothing could be seen inside these latter but twisted lumps of metal and burning woodwork.
   The funnels, although rather badly knocked about, were still standing, but were more in the shape of a bashed in top-hat than anything else.
   The foremost torpedo tube and the foremost starboard gun had completely disappeared, only gaping holes showing the havoc wrought by our Lyditte.
   Both masts had also gone over the side, this, unfortunately, frustrating any chance there might have been of securing her ensign as a much to be valued trophy.
   The ‘midship torpedo tube was practically untouched, only the lip being a little bent and the torpedo was still in the tube. The after gun also remained standing, but a shell had evidently struck the muzzle, as about half the barrel had been blown away. The after torpedo tube hadn’t been fired and was very little damaged.
   It seemed evident that the officers and crew had jumped overboard soon after the ship had really began to get knocked about; but I should think that they must have nearly exhausted their ammunition first. I am sure that had there been anything left in the magazines the ship would have blown up, considering the heavy fire that was raging fore and aft.
   Owing to the short time I was alongside, I was unable to see what damage had been done to the engines and boilers, or to the foremost port gun; but as regards the former, they were probably reduced to scrap iron, judging from what I could see through holes in the ship’s side.
   Having collected a few empty 4-pounder cartridge cases as “souvenirs,” I pulled back to the ship with our one prisoner. We picked up four other survivors later from the water, one of whom died on the way home from the effects of a bad leg wound
. (Naval review p142-3)

   SMS-115 was finally sunk by the Undaunted signalling the end of the German squadron in an action which had claimed some two hundred sailors killed including all four vessel's captains and the flotilla leader with only thirty one men pulled from the water as prisoners and a further two sailors being pulled from the water by neutral shipping. During the engagement Alfred Fright, who was serving on the bridge of the Undaunted witnessed one of the German vessels hoist a white flag before firing upon lifeboats that were lowered by one of the destroyers. The First Officer, Lt-Commander Wood asked if he should lower the boats to which Fox retorted that "If you do I'll shoot you." It was rumoured that Fox had sworn that he would kill an equal amount of the enemy as had perished under him aboard the Amphion. Needless to say the Undaunted picked up no survivors.  

For the Admiralstab it was a stinging but expected defeat and the loss of the four older vessels only cemented their belief that the Royal Navy destroyers had superiority of numbers and ability over their German counterparts and further such missions were abandoned.

   The Royal Navy could not afford to be self-congratulatory though as despite the easy victory and only five wounded casualties the accuracy of the gunnery was exceptionally questionable with a total of 1031 shells being fired by the five vessels and HMS Lance firing 262 alone. Fox attributed the high amount of shells to the action taking place at high speed and long range and in an article written for the Naval review he made several observations which would have been dutifully brought forward to the Admiralty's attention including noting that independent fire at a range of over 2000 yards with officers spotting was wasteful and inaccurate preferring controlled fire using salvoes with bursts of rapid fire would be the best method until range finders could be employed.
   The Germans on the other hand had also failed to score any significant hits whether due to poor accuracy or just not being able to get rounds in the air due to the enemy fire. The damage was minimal with the Legion being struck in the starboard condenser, the Loyal took two shells including the one that struck the aft gun with the second causing a small fire in the steering compartment and had to undergo minor repair on return to Harwich and her wounded were taken off. The Lance  was raked with Maxim machine gun fire but the damage was superficial and the Lennox and the Undaunted suffered no damage at all.

   With concern that U-boats may be in the area Fox decided to leave the area as quickly as possible and with a brief signal to the Admiralty enforming them that the German force had been sunk his ships turned for home.

   The silence left by Thiele's force passing led to the Admiralstab accepting the worse and a hospital ship was dispatched to look for survivors. The SS Ophelia  was a 1153 ton liner formerly owned by the Hamburg-London line which had been pressed into service as a hospital ship. All was not as it seemed and the Ophelia's behaviour attracted the attention of the Royal Navy as she communicated with the German Naval Wireless station at Norddeich and then she broke the Hague convention by communicating in coded wireless messages. The Admiralty consulted their list of hospital ships which they had exchanged with the German government on the commencement of the war and found the Ophelia was not on the list. HMS D8 was sent to follow the liner but when the submarine was spotted the German ship fled at speed adding to the belief that she was being used as a thinly veiled scout and the decision was taken to board and inspect the vessel which was allowed by the convention.

   HMS Meteor intercepted the vessel and began an inspection. At first all seemed to be in order but there was a curious amount of Verey lights discovered onboard including 600 green, 480 red and 140 white compared to the British who carried no more than twelve of each. The actions of her Captain, Dr Pfeiffer condemned the vessel further as he was spotted throwing code books and documents overboard. The Ophelia was seized as the destruction of her Wireless set and code books officially cast doubt on her status and the decision was upheld in the Prize Courts the following year. The Germans accused the British of piracy with Scheer writing post war that;

SMS Ophelia
The English captured her and made her prize, charging us with having sent her out for scouting purposes, although she was obviously fitted up as a hospital ship and bore all the requisite markings.  (Scheer, R.  Germany's High Sea's Fleet in the World War, Kindle, loc 1101)

  The final chapter of the Texel episode came almost two months after the battle on 30 November when a British trawler snagged and retrieved a lead lined box on the sea bottom. On inspection it was found to be the chest jettisoned from SMS S-119 which contained the Naval Verkehrsbuch codes which were for cable communications between Naval attaches, foreign based ships and Admirals at sea adding to the books already taken from the Magdeburg and the Hobart handing Room 40 a massive advantage in deciphering German naval codes and anticipating their moves.


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Desert offensive, Libya 1940

Blenheim Mk Is in Iraq © IWM (CM 106)
War in North Africa was not a surprise and had been planned for since July 1937 with the Committee of Imperial defence reversing the Cabinet’s decision to exclude any government expenditure for defence against Italian aggression especially in North Africa where ports and the Suez Canal in need of protection and the Desert air-force was in need of modernisation. The Air Ministry further analysed the Italian threat in 1938 concluding that Italy would cross the border with a significant air-force and two motorised divisions. The Italian Airforce was appraised as already having 174 aircraft in Libya and be able to direct a total of 730 aircraft against the RAF within two months whereas the British could muster around 200 aircraft from across the Middle East with squadrons based in Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Aden with very little hope of significant reinforcements coming from Britain and arriving piecemeal.
   A joint planning committee was set up after General Wavell’s appointment as GOC-in-C of the Middle East in August 1939 with the newly created Air Officer commanding in Chief Longmore with the aim of working with the Egyptian Government and local commanders in the Middle East to coordinate against the Italian aggression.
   The main aim of the defence policy in the Air Ministry’s mind was to centralise their control of their forces but maintain a flexible approach but bringing in support from artillery and fighter forces but the Committee assigned the limited fighter forces to the Defence commander removing the flexible approach. The Air Council also believed that the key to victory was to destroy as many Italian Bombers before they reached their targets but the tactic that the Fortress Commander was likely to employ meant that the three fighter squadrons available would be scattered to the desired defence points and perform standing patrols. Not only did this blunt the offensive power of the fighters but would also mean they were unavailable for escort missions for the Blenheim squadrons based in Egypt who were ideally placed to carry out pre-emptive strikes on the Regia Aeronautica or their bases. Although fighter organisation was modified by the Air Ministry its primary role was for defence against the Italians with a secondary role for ground attack whist at the same time ongoing talks were attempting to expand the Bomber forces with two wings deployed to the Nile Delta and two squadrons for Army co-operation to be put at the disposal of Wavell in the Western Desert with communications passing from GOC HQ to the Squadrons rapidly with targets to be hit.
   The Director of operations at the Air Ministry was keen to affect a German style approach and strike the opposition as quickly as possible with potential targets being the Italian depots and supply system and the Italian Airforce on the ground well aware that there was no repair facility in Libya which could cope with major maintenance projects meaning even moderate damage to an aircraft would result in it being a write off or being shipped back to Italy. As the RAF carried out Douhet’s vision the Royal Navy and French could disrupt resupply across the Mediterranean cutting their supply line to Italian East Africa as well as Libya.
   The relatively small British force was assigned to carry out army cooperation, assault the supply
Regia Aeronautica SM 79 escorted by Fiats
system and Regia Aeronautica whilst providing support to the Royal Navy. A very ambitious target considering that by the 10 June 1940 AHQ in Egypt had five squadrons of Blenheim Mk Is and one squadron each of Bristol Bombay and Valentia transports that could be converted to carry a 2000 lb and 2200 lb bomb loads respectively on underwing racks. A reinforcement plan had been implemented which saw the obsolete aircraft in the theatre gradual replaced with the Blenheim with 211 Squadron being the first in April 1939, 45 squadron in June and 113 squadron by September as were 30 and 55 squadrons who were transferred from Iraq giving a total strength of 132 Blenheims and the possibility of another squadron to follow. There was also a plan for up to twelve heavy bomber squadrons to come from Britain with the Bombays and Valentias filling the gap until they arrived but it was a gap that widened as events overtook the theatre with the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens being held through 1940 for operations against the more pressing enemy, Germany.
   Another crisis facing the RAF in the Middle East was a distinct shortage of spare parts with Blenheim spares unable to support a war condition “for more than a short period” and the official history gave the example of only two spare petrol tanks being available to each squadron which would meant one of the most common areas to be hit would cause a large number of aircraft to be lost to attrition. Sir William Mitchell managed, with the approval of the committee of Imperial Defence, to “borrow” from British based squadrons to increase supply stocks across the summer of 1939 knowing that there would be no more than a trickle if war broke out on the continent. The arrival of the extra squadrons and their conversions to twin engine Blenhims had further put strain on the repair facility at Alexandria and steps were taken to free up space and to get tradesmen from Britain to alleviate the strain whilst the older, more obsolete aircraft were being packed away for dispatch to Afghanistan.
   A further facility was established at Abu Sueir to supply the operational squadrons with an aircraft storage section to provide spares, equipment and stores whilst a pilot training school was moved to the safety of Iraq. A motorised transport infrastructure was also increased as it was not adequate enough to get the supplies and squadrons to their forward bases. By December these facilities were far from perfect with them still geared to repairing single engine aircraft which would cause problems for the Blenheims who required engine replacement after 225 flying hours, the equivalent of two months of flying meaning that sixty engines would need replacing a month but the facilities could only cope with ten aircraft a month.
   Blenheim bombers were having a difficult time acclimatising to the sand with their intakes being close to the ground and very rapidly filling with sand which meant regular cleaning but there was a shortage of cleaning equipment as well as spare parts for the Lewis guns and the Blenheims Vickers K and 250 lb bombs with projections showing that after fourteen days of maximum effort the bomber force would be useless. Dust and sand would permeate into dials and interfered with the airscrews whilst the heat would make the cockpit’s Perspex crack or pop out of its fittings which put further strains on the maintenance crews, a strain not exerted by the older obsolete aircraft who had their own faults in the fact that once their spares ran out there would be no more. The sand thrown up by the aircraft taking off was so thick that pilots visibility would be next to nothing so the bombers would take off in a line abreast formation.
   The airfields available in September 1939 included five permanent stations in Egypt at Aboukir, Ismalia, Abu Sueir, Heliopolis and Helwas with further desert landing strips stretching to Mersa Matruh south of Luxor with some emergency landing grounds around the Suez Canal and Red sea. The desert landing grounds were very basic and in 1938 it was decided to build camp facilities and amass stocks of petrol and ammunition so that they could be used operationally at a moment’s notice with twelve of them operational by the outbreak of war however they varied in quality and surface including lose sand which was far from ideal. Facilities for the crews were also very basic including tented accommodation with prefabricated operations rooms and cook houses as well as Bessoneau hangers. However by the time war started some were still just patches of desert with the most basic of facilities with the deployment of the squadrons being so rushed that for the first raids armourers had trouble trying to find equipment and ammunition to get the bombers ready to take off. These emergency landing grounds were rendered unusable during the rainy seasons between November and April.  A further six airfields were immediately put into construction with their completion date due to be 1941. 

   The forces and organisation available were deemed adequate for the defence of Egypt from the Italians but should Germany become involved then the Desert Air Force would find themselves very stretched. It was also a concern to the Air ministry that the amassing of the force had been at the expense of the RAF’s bomber forces ear marked for war against Germany. If the RAF in the Middle East was to get reinforcements they had to look to factories in Egypt, India and South Africa especially as the theatre was still considered a backwater compared to France and Singapore as Germany and Japan were by far aggressively expansionistic than Italy.  

The Prime Minister in 1937 had expressed the view that Italy, although unlikely to be aggressive without assurances of German support, could no longer be regarded as a reliable friend. Limited expenditure to guard against a hostile Italy had therefore been authorised. From then onwards periodic reviews of our position in relation to Italy had been made.1 

   Italy was in a perfect position to cut the British supply lines across the Mediterranean with bombers operating across the Sicilian narrows and Libya as well as threaten the Red Sea and Suez Canal with air and naval forces in Italian East Africa. This would be their primary objective so that they could protect this colony. Any advance towards Alexandria from Tripoli would have to cross 1,100 miles of open desert which would be vulnerable to air attack however Italy had numerical superiority over Britain in the air and on the land. Italy’s air-force would need to be split between offensive duties and defensive actions to secure their maritime supply lines. The aircraft they had available according to the British European Appreciation 0n 1 April 1939 was 96 bombers, 81 Army co-operation and 90 fighters in Libya with the support of 444 bombers and a similar number of fighters based in Italy which could be available for transfer to the front to help cover the 250,000 troops.
The Italians had in reality carried out an exercise to test deployment of their bomber forces with amazing efficiency but leaving mostly light bombers behind. The main bomber in their arsenal was the Saviola Marchetti SM 79, a three-engine medium bomber nicknamed “Sparviero” (Sparrowhawk) which was also known as the Gobbo Maledetto – damned hunchback by its crews but it was considered to be “a fine and robust bomber that unfailingly operated in the most difficult conditions with great reliability.” The SM 79 had a top speed of 270 mph and a bomb load of 2645 lbs, heavier than a Blenheim. The SM 79 had a reputation from its brutally efficient operations in Spain which saw only four lost in combat through the war and killing 2800 civilians wounding a further 7000 in air raids however the lustre was waning as the world’s best bomber with the appearance of Germany’s modern Ju 88 and its reputation for invincibility being tarnished on 22 June when F/Lt Burgess shot down Tenente Solimene’s MM 22068 on a reconnaissance of Malta in a Gloucester Gladiator. A further
Gloucester Gladiators over Sollum © IWM (CM 354)
complication was that the SM 79 had no dust filters on their engines and this led to many not being serviceable. The levels of serviceability were compounded by severe shortages of spares and stocks leaving many easily repaired aircraft laying around useless on airfields. The British planners were concerned by the bomber force available to the Italians and their projections for an all out attack on Alexandria by forty eight SM 81 aircraft, each carrying 4000 lb bombloads could drop eighty-six tonnes of bombs in a day on the city and each carrying six gun emplacements making them difficult to shoot down by the RAFs Gladiators.  The Italian fighter force was made up of the robust CR 32 and CR 42 “Falco” biplanes which were on par with the Gladiator and were favoured by their pilots for their aeronautical agility. The Intelligence officers played down their capability in briefings claiming that their level of endurance was only some twenty five minutes and that the Blenheim could outpace them and belayed worry about damage by claiming that;
“If a stern attack developed the metal skin of the Blenheim will deflect the (50 calibre) shot” In September A/Sgt Blair found out the folly of this as the Blenheim he was in was attacked by an Italian fighter whose last 50 calibre bullet passed through the fuselage with a loud bang, through the pilot’s chair, through P/O Reynolds and out of the Perspex leaving Blair pulling the dead pilot off the control column and nursing the aircraft home.

   With Italy’s entry into the war the Mediterranean effectively closed to the British and Malta immediately came under siege. A few days later France’s surrender robbed Air Vice Marshal Longmore of 375 allied aircraft. However all was not bleak as the preparations for war had built up a ninety day surplus of fuel and explosives as well as a stockpile of spare aircraft but beyond that was a seventy day journey from Britain via Cape Town and the Red Sea through an ever growing gauntlet of U-Boats and light cruisers. Steps were taken to shorten this with an air bridge implemented by Group Captain Thorold in Takoradi with various stops along the 3697 mile journey to Abu Sueir but despite the length of the journey it only took six days! The first wave flew from Takoradi on 20 September. Although very useful it did put an awful strain on the incoming aircraft with a 10% wastage and already tired engines were thrust into the front line. Longmore would often complain to London of the shortages of aircraft much to Portal’s annoyance as his command suffered heavy losses but to make matters worse his protestations were supported by Wavell and Admiral Cunningham, both of whom were constantly making demands on Longmore’s command and found they were left wanting but it was something Churchill could not get to grips with and he readily criticised Longmore for holding a thousand pilots and aircraft as well as 16,000 personnel in the Middle East and suggesting he should return some to England to pass on their experiences to training units.
  As war became more and more likely Longmore believed that a Douet syle assault on Alexandria with SM 79s out pacing the Gladiators to devastating and so preparations were made whilst Air Commodore Collishaw believed that his group of three Blenheim squadrons should get in first. On the 10 June he ordered his squadrons to prepare for action and at nine minutes past midnight received the order from Longmore that his forces should:

Should carry out reconnaissance as arranged. Bombing formation as available should accompany reconnaissance in Northern area favourable targets observed especially concentrations of aircraft 2

   The Blenheims of 45 squadron took off at first light and made their approach towards El Adem air
80 Squadron's Blenheim Mk Is over the Iraqi desert © IWM (CM 109)
field by the safety of the sea. A signal from a 211 Squadron Blenheim reported the airfield was covered in parked aircraft with none of them dispersed. The force of eight Blenheims broke into sections and began their low level attacks dropping high explosives and incendiaries whilst excited gunners fired at anything that moved and at the flak batteries that began their belated accurate fire. The squadron began to gain height and reform off the coast near Torbruk when Sgt Bower’s Blenheim peeled away in flames and crashed into the sea. On the return flight F/O Finch had to make a force landing with a damaged engine and Sgt Thompson brought his damaged craft down at Sidi Barrain where it immediately burst into flames consuming the crew killing them all. A follow up raid by eighteen Blenheims of 55 and 113 squadron that afternoon suffered no losses and reported more heavy damage to the airfield and the aircraft still on the field and only the final raid’s B flight was chased by CR 32s who attacked from 12,000 feet diving down onto the Blenheims who were flying in a lose formation. Despite accurate fire they were easily outrun with the limited endurance possessed by the fighters showing through rather than the skill of the gunners. A/Sgt Ian Blair of 113 squadron had taken drums of a hundred rounds of ammunition rather than the usual sixty so that he would be able to fire longer and was found himself firing wildly at one aggressive CR 32 who pressed his attacks home.

This guy must have been twenty or thirty yards a CR 32 he was lethal from where he was. His deflection couldn’t have been very good but he was firing and I was going to have a blast at him but just as I was about to fire he broke off. 3

The standing patrols of Gloucester Gladiators reported a similar lack of Italian air activity along the border and not one bombing raid had been carried out. So where were they? The Italian High Command had indeed declared war on the Allies but had forgotten to inform their Imperial territories so aircraft were not dispersed, no raids were planned and no fighters on standby. A complication that arose over the coming months was concern about British fighter superiority as Longmore had made every opportunity to publicise the movements of his solitary Hurricane around his command making it look like several squadrons. Italian planners were hesitant to fling their bombers into action against superior forces which would leave them decimated.
   The first raid on Italian forces was hailed as a success by Collishaw and his men with many aircraft destroyed (actually eighteen) for the ttal loss of two aircraft and crews. The losses, although acceptable by Bomber Command standards in France they were concerning for Longmore who was well aware of the shortfalls of reinforcement and sent a message to Collishaw to be careful with his numbers.
   The following day the Blenheims were pressed into supporting a Naval sweep into the waters off Torbruk with twenty four Blenheims of 45, 113 and 211 squadrons were ordered to take off at dawn to target the port and airfields but low cloud meant six of 45 squadron returned to base whilst two of 211s bombers crashed on take-off and a third into a parked Bombay. The remaining six made it to the target but were intercepted by CR 32s who were easily outpaced with two of the Italians claimed by C flight. The only damage sustained came from the accurate Flak barrages thrown up by the ships in the harbour including the old First World War cruiser the San Giorgio with one of the bombers losing a propeller but managing to limp back to the British lines. The crews of 55 squadron were just as unlucky with Sgt Lulan, one of the observers, being struck by a propeller, a second Blenheim wouldn’t start whilst a third had to return due to mechanical issues. The remaining two powered on but found the target area swarming with some fifty fighters and decided that withdrawal was a better option. The only squadron to have any real luck was 113 squadron whose aircraft all got through. By the end of the day reconnaissance reported the San Giorgio was on fire and beached and a naval jetty was on fire.
   The 14 June was the Army’s turn to request assistance after a day’s rest. Fort Ridotta Capuzzo on the border was considered to be weakly held and of old Turkish brick construction so easily destructible. That morning eight of 211 squadron came in at low level dropping eleven second delayed fuses on the castle but the fuses were defective and exploded on contact showering the bombers with shrapnel. They turned for home leaving the fort still standing but damaged and an ammo dump on fire whilst that afternoon an army formation took the fort and 208 Italian prisoners. Elsewhere tow of 45 Squadron’s bombers hit Sidi Azoiz airfield and three Fort Maddalene leaving it damaged which was similarly captured by the army. A final aircraft was dispatched to bomb Giarabob and failed to return, its burnt out airframe was spotted near the target on a reconnaissance photograph near the target confirming its fate as the only confirmed loss of the day. In retaliation the Italians began bombing the British border positions.
   Torbruk offered up the most tempting target with tis naval oil reserves, army and air-force headquarters, ships of all manner in the harbour and an airfield with thirty-four aircraft operating from it. The heavy defence had precluded attack during the day but had been steadily assaulted by singular Bombays despite the first mission being scrubbed for fear of striking non-military targets. There were encouraging results with several small vessels being struck and a naval vessel sunk. Anti- aircraft fire was intensive and included “flaming onions” and searchlights which were not always effective but none of the raiders were lost. Combined raids were also carried out with eighteen Blenheims of 113 and 55 Squadron following up a successful night raid on the 15/16 June with a dawn strike but the fifteen that arrived were turned back by fighters having not done much damage. On other occasions a singular Blenheim of 113 squadron would act as a rudimentary pathfinder by bombing the port facilities at Torbruk and illuminating the target and anti-aircraft batteries for the Bombay as it approached with quite some success.
   Longmore had evaluated the Italians as being put on the defensive by Collishaw’s activities.”It obviously took the Italians by surprises and, in the case of the aerodromes, before they had effected adequate dispersal of aircraft and supplies”
   Despite this the Italians were stepping up to deal with the constant beestings and despite not attacking in the large knockout blow Douhet would have been proud of, their dawn and dusk raids on Sidi Baranni, Matruk and positions at Sollum with a dozen bombers caused problems for the RAF.
   The constant headache of reinforcement was also started to effect operations with Longmore conscious that every aircraft lost could not be readily replaced and his repeated requests for aid by fast destroyer were not being met with success. Portal simply had no spare aircraft to send and with France’s surrender and imminent German invasion looking likely his priorities were elsewhere. On top of this the Air staff gave a fresh estimation of Italian strength giving them four hundred bombers against Longmore’s two hundred across the theatre. Orders affectionately known as “Muzzling orders” were issued to Collishaw stating that “whilst fully appreciating the initiative and spirit shown by the squadrons operating under your command in the Western Desert, I must draw your attention to the urgent necessity of conserving resources”

 Longmore also took the precaution to remove 45 squadron from the desert and redeploy them in the Sudan. Air Commodore Drummond reported to Longmore that the time may come to face the Luftwaffe sooner than they had hoped.

It is clear that it would be a long while before we get any substantial wastage replacements for our forces which we shall ultimately need most desperately to ensure our holding of this country (Egypt). I therefore feel that we must consider very carefully every air operation we embark on. 4

   Operations were duly cut back to only those that provided the Army or Navy with a strategic advantage rather than short term tactical gain. Other raids were rewstricted to night operations or single aircraft. These cutbacks only emboldened the Italians who began bombing the RAFs airfields casing a retaliatory strike by four Blenheims on El Adem in conjunction with a singular on Torbruk and a withdrawal of forces from forward strips.
Arthur Longmore inspecting no.2 Armored Car Company © IWM (CM 150) 
   A sweeping assault in conjunction with the navy was planned for the 21 June with the Navy intent on shelling Badria which after original misgivings, it was agreed that the RAF should participate with 33 Squadron flying cover for the fleet as well as bombing Torbruk harbour and airfield to keep away the enemy whilst 55 Squadron had nine aircraft detailed to attack warships in the harbour. The mission was deemed so important that reserve aircraft were attached to the formation to replace any that suffered from mechanical failure. Blenheims of 55 squadron took off to attack the harbour and despite fighter interception which chased B flight away without dropping their bombs others attacked successfully leaving a large ship in the harbour on fire all for no lose but claiming two probable CR 42s who chased A flight and were kept at bay by concentrated fire. The attack by five aircraft of 211 squadron on the airfields at Torbruk and El Adem was also a success whilst the cruiser force of HMS Orion, HMS Neptune, HMAS Sydney and French battleship Lorraine all struck enemy positions and ammunition dumps encountering no problems.
   That very afternoon the GOC urgently requested attacks on a build-up of Italian forces at Bir El Gobi. A British advance managed to take Sidi Azeiz airfield following 113 squadron’s eleven strong attack and discovered dummy aircraft on the runways, a tactic claimed to be common place according to one POW throwing doubt on the RAFs claims in previous bombing missions. Another raid on 24 June on a force of 10,000 partially mobilised troops was carried out by eight of 55 squadron all reporting to drop bombs in the target area but failed to stop the formation advancing on the 29 June retaking Sidi Azeiz and Fort Capuzzo.
   Other operations were more successful including preparing to meet a rumoured Italian division at Solum and more single aircraft night raids including on the night of the 22/3 June when a lone Blenheim was guided into the target by the Italians who believed it was a friendly aircraft coming in to land and received a stick of bombs.
   The most successful attack was carried out on 27 June following information that the Italians were massing their aircraft at El Adem to El Gutti providing a temporary target. Twelve aircraft of 55 and 211 squadron attacked at dusk and caught around a hundred Italian aircraft on the runway and oil tanks in Torbruk four miles north west from the airfield. Despite heavy flak the Blenheims reported no fighters or serious damage. The follow up attack by 114 squadron at dawn the next morning did hit the airfield but encountered fighter opposition which engaged losing two of their number in the ensuing battle but claiming two of the British machines as well with a further one damaged. Another British aircraft was claimed to have been shot down over the sea with the San Giorgio beginning the barrage and joined by the airfield’s defensive guns. The wreckage that was recovered though was that of the SM 79 which was bringing Marshal Italo Balbo, Governor of Libya and military Commander in chief to the city with his remains recovered and buried on the 4 July. Further reports from POWs and reconnaissance showed that the airfield was soon abandoned and used as a transportation park.
   Although the number of sorties were scaled back at the end of June and into July the Blenheims were still called upon for further raids of strategic importance such as the rail head at Bir el Gobi on 4 July with intelligence estimating the Italians had gathered a significant level of supplies. Seven of 55 Squadron attacked but caused no significant damage to the gathered rolling stock. Between the 11-16 June Collishaw’s men had flown 106 sorties for the total loss of one Blenheim but between the 17 June and 5 July they had flown 100 sorties losing five but were starting to lose the initiative with the Regia Aeronatica becoming bolder with attacks on the Nile Delta and Desert outposts despite the Gladiator Squadrons claiming thirty four of their number in the same fortnight. On the night of 22 June Alexandria was attacked for the first time by bombers coming from the west in a clear light sky dropping bombs on the quayside and AME station. Longmore had to remain rigid though; Defensive operations but local offensive if opportune. 

  One such attack saw Collishaw working closely with his naval colleagues and dispatched nine bombers with six Gladiator escorts to attack the Bomba seaplane base whose aircraft had been harassing the Royal Navy. In a swift low-level attack saw the fifteen seaplanes on the base and their slipways bombed whilst the fighters strafed the area and set fire to a massive fuel depot whose flames also demolished a tool shed and caused two of the Italian aircraft to explode with a further ten being confirmed destroyed. A further raid on Bomba was carried out on the 20/21 August to test the defences, look for torpedo netting and evidence of Submarine activity. On the 22 August following a night raid by a Bombay three Swordfish assigned to Collishaw attacked the two submarines and their tender in the gulf of Bomba sinking one submarine and the Monte Gargane. The Blenheims of 202 group were also called to provide an aerial umbrella for naval reinforcements entering the area on 31 August and to attack all of the airfields in Cyrenaica by small formations of two or three Blenheims which were then carried out again as the Mediterranean fleet swept back to Malta with a total of eighty nine sorties being flown and successfully keeping the Italian air-force away from the British ships.

  The first phase of war in the desert was very successful with the RAF opening the hostilities with amazing effect before attrition and numerical superiority started to take its toll and the ever cautious Longmore was forced to “muzzle” his men. However his prediction that strong moral over numerical strength shone through as the four Blenheim squadrons of 202 group shone through with excellent performances for comparatively small loss.

1.         War in the Middle East Vol I p.17
2.         War in the Middle East Vol I p. 31
3.         IWM sound archive cat no. 27804 Ian Blair
4.         War in the Middle East vol I p.37