Operation Halberd was a British naval operation that took place in September 1941, during the Second World War. The British were attempting to deliver a convoy from Gibraltar to Malta. The convoy was escorted by several battleships and an aircraft carrier, to deter interference from the Italian surface fleet, while a close escort of cruisers and destroyers provided an anti-aircraft screen.
The Italian fleet sortied after the convoy was detected, but turned back after learning the strength of the escorting force. Air attacks by Italian bombers and fighters damaged several ships, and forced one of the merchant vessels to be scuttled. The rest of the convoy arrived at Malta and discharged their cargo.
The nine merchant ships originally sailed from Liverpool (16 September) and the Clyde (17 September) as part of convoy WS (Winston Specials) 11X, arriving at Gibraltar on 24 September 1941, with a close escort under the command of Rear-Admiral Harold Martin Burrough. It was also accompanied by Force H, under the command of Admiral James Somerville. This consisted of the one aircraft carrier (HMS Ark Royal) and three battleships (HMS Nelson, HMS Rodney and HMS Prince of Wales) to protect the convoy against Italian surface ships. The British warships also included five cruisers and 18 destroyers.
The Italian fleet attempted to intercept the convoy on 26 September but did not make contact with it as they turned away after learning that the Royal Navy force included several battleships and an aircraft carrier. HMS Prince of Wales, followed by the slower HMS Rodney, attempted in vain to intercept the Italian force. HMS Nelson was hit in the bows by a torpedo launched from an Italian torpedo bomber on 27 September south of Sardinia and seriously damaged. On the evening of 27 September Force H turned back and sailed for Gibraltar. The merchant vessel Imperial Star, carrying 8,000 tons of war supplies, was hit by another aerial torpedo on the 27th and damaged. Despite being taken in tow by the destroyer HMS Oribi, Imperial Star had to be scuttled the following day. There was no loss of life. The convoy arrived at Malta on 28 September and delivered 85,000 tons of supplies to the island. The Italian Air Force lost 21 aircraft to Fleet Air Arm fighters and anti-aircraft fire from the warships.
Extract from an Italian Report
At 08:18 on 27 September 1941 an Italian reconnaissance aircraft spotted a carrier and seven unidentified ships west of La Galite. Towards noon, the Comando Aeronautica della Sardegna received the following message from a Cant Z.506 (triple-engine float-plane) of 287a Squadriglia (Sottotente Giovanni Del Vento in MM45252):"At 37°43' – 8°55' - route 90° - speed 12 nm per hour: 1 battleship, 1 carrier, 4 cruiser, unspecified number of destroyers and steamboats. At 37°55' - 8°45' - route 90° - speed 18 nm per hours: 3 cruisers"
At 13.20 the S.79s (torpedo-bombers) of the 130 Gruppo, escorted by twelve fighters, had spotted the enemy. The formation split up to perform an attack from various directions: the 280 and the 282 Squadriglia from north, the 283 Squadriglia from south, the 278 Squadriglia and Tenente Deslex from west. Before they could attack, they were chased by six Fulmars. The 280 Squadriglia’s Melley and Setti believed to have shared a hit on a light cruiser, actually (HMS Lightning), which had a narrow miss.
At 13.58 the north-coming torpedo-bombers, partially covered by bad weather, surprised the enemy. Tenente Deslex tried to attack HMS Ark Royal at sea level, but was shot down by AA fire before having released the torpedo. Then Venturini and Bucceri attacked HMS Ark Royal and HMS Cossack missing both. Soon after they were chased for 20 minutes by Ark Royal's Fairey Fulmars, which killed Venturini's radio operator. At 13.59 in an attempt to distract the anti-aircraft gunners, Sergente Maggiore Luigi Valiotti, flying a Fiat CR.42 of 354 Squadriglia started performing aerobatics over the heads of the astounded ships gunners, who after a while started to shoot at him. He lasted six minutes before he was shot down and killed. Further attacks were unable to get through the anti-aircraft barrage, and the Italian aircraft flew back to base, landing at 15.50 pursued by the Ark Royal's Fulmars, which strafed the airfield at Cagliari (Sardinia), damaging ten seaplanes and causing three casualties.
A first hand account by George Gilroy of HMS Lightning describes the loss of Valiotti: "I remember at one stage during an attack a Fiat fighter performing stunts over the convoy; some said that it was trying to divert attention from the incoming torpedo bombers. However, we shot him down".
The convoy and close escorts through to Malta
- HMS Breconshire (9,776 tons) 'Convoy Commodore' Auxiliary Supply Ship
- SS Ajax (7,797 tons) Blue Funnel Line
- SS City of Calcutta (8,063 tons) Ellerman’s City Line
- SS City of Lincoln (8,039 tons) Ellerman & Bucknall
- SS Clan Ferguson (7,347 tons) Clan Line
- SS Clan MacDonald (9,653 tons) Clan Line
- MV Dunedin Star (13,000 tons) Blue Star Line
- SS Imperial Star (12,427 tons) Blue Star Line
- SS Rowallan Castle (7,798 tons) Union-Castle Line
Their nine close escorts consisted of the destroyers:
- HMS Blankney
- HMS Laforey
- HMS Lightning
- HMS Oribi
- HMS Whitehall
- HMS Witch
- ORP Garland (Polish)
- ORP Piorun (Polish)
- HNLMS Isaac Sweers (Dutch)
- The Italian Navy in WW2, Sadkovich, p181
- The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, p28
- The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys, p21. This account states that the torpedo attacks were carried out by SM-79 and BR-20 torpedo bombers.
- The Italian Navy in WW2, Sadkovich, p182
- Biplane fighter aces, Italy, Generale di Divisione Corrado Santoro
- Operation Halberd Malta Convoy WS 11 X
- WS CONVOYS - July to December 1941 SAILINGS, including two DM Convoys, WS 10 to 14B
- Battle of the Mediterranean
- Malta Convoys
- Hein, David. “Vulnerable: HMS Prince of Wales in 1941.” (Abstract) Journal of Military History 77, no. 3 (July 2013): 955-989.
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