The first day of November 1942 started with a scramble at 12.05pm by four Spitfires of No. 1435 Squadron to investigate a raid which did not materialise.
In North Africa, as the British Eighth Army at last had broken through during the Second Battle of El Alamein on November 6, 16 Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron flew to Ta’ Qali from Egypt, followed by six Wellingtons of No. 104 Squadron, which flew to Luqa airfield. They arrived in Malta to lend support to the next Allied operation in North Africa, the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, which was held by Vichy France, allied to Germany.
On November 8, the Anglo-Americans launched a three-pronged amphibious landing, codenamed Operation Torch, to seize the key ports and aerodromes of Morocco and Algeria simultaneously, targeting Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. The only fighting took place in the port of Algiers itself. General Juin surrendered the city to the Allies two days later. By now, Hitler ordered the occupation of Vichy France and reinforced Axis forces in Africa.
Meanwhile, in Egypt an attempt was made to encircle the Axis forces at Marsa Matruh but the Allied attack was frustrated by rain and the Afrika Korps succeeded to escape by November 7. Tobruk was retaken on November 13, but Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s forces escaped the trap again, and Benghazi fell on November 20.
The Germans and Italians retired to a prepared defence line at El Agheila. Axis supplies and reinforcements were now directed into Tunisia at Rommel’s expense. Since Rommel’s supply lines by sea had become so perilous, more and more material had to be transported by air. The Axis could only succeed in this if the aerial convoy was protected by a heavy fighter escort.
Hitler ordered that the El Agheila line should be held at all costs. However, Rommel’s view was for a fighting retreat to Tunisia and a strong defensive position at the Gabès Gap. Permission was granted for a withdrawal to Buerat, east of Sirte. An attempt to outflank El Agheila between December 14 and 16 once again failed to encircle the enemy, and Rommel’s forces withdrew.
Meanwhile, in Malta, fuel supplies as well as other vital stores were again running low. No supplies in appreciable quantity had been received since Operation Pedestal (Santa Marija convoy, mid-August) and there was again the need for another convoy. However, before another operation could be mounted, alternative steps were taken to send supplies to Malta.
In October, the submarines HMS Parthian and HMS Clyde made a trip each from Gibraltar, bringing in aviation spirit, diesel and lubricating oils, torpedoes and foodstuffs. More aviation spirit and torpedoes were delivered by the two submarines in November.
That month an attempt was made to send three unescorted and disguised merchant ships. Empire Patrol sailed from Alexandria, Egypt, with a cargo of aviation spirit and benzene. She was spotted by a German aircraft near Cyprus where she put to port due to engine trouble.
Two other merchant ships, Ardeola and Tadorna, entered the Mediterranean bound for Malta with foodstuffs. At first they formed part of Operation Torch, but as soon they detached themselves from the invasion force, both ships were stopped and boarded, the crew being interned by the Vichy French.
Although the British Admiralty suffered these setbacks, the chiefs-of-staff in London were determined to resupply Malta. HMS Manxman and HMS Welshman were again loaded with reinforcements and sent to Malta. The first reached the island on November 12 with 350 tons of foodstuffs, while Welshman arrived on November 18.
Yet another convoy was being prepared for Malta. The freighters of convoy Operation Stoneage started loading at Port Sudan. The merchant ships included Bantam (Dutch), Denbighshire, Mormacmoon and Robin Locksley (American). The freighters passed the Suez Canal, reaching Port Said on November 16, after which they headed westwards along the Egyptian coast. The next day the Mediterranean Fleet left Alexandria to join the convoy; it consisted of the cruisers Cleopatra (flagship Rear-Admiral Power), Arethusa, Dido, Orion and nine destroyers, and they were later joined by another seven destroyers.
Early on November 18, the convoy was discovered by a German aircraft and was attacked at about 3pm. Three hours later it was again attacked by German torpedo-bombers off Derna, hitting Arethusa on the port side. The cruiser, escorted by the destroyer Petard, turned back towards Alexandria at slow speed.
At about 2pm the following day the convoy reached a position about 80 miles south-east of Malta, and Cleopatra, Dido, Orion and the six fleet destroyers turned back to Alexandria. Euryalus and the nine Hunt destroyers continued to escort the convoy to Malta.
On November 20, the convoy started entering Grand Harbour, bringing some 28,861 tons of supplies. The supplies brought to Malta by convoy Operation Stoneage postponed Malta’s capitulation date to late January 1943. This convoy effectively lifted the siege of Malta.
By the end of the month and early December, another convoy, Operation Portcullis was prepared to reinforce Malta. On November 30 the American tanker Yorba Linda left Port Said for Benghazi escorted by four destroyers and some corvettes. The next day, convoy Operation MW14 departed from Port Said. It consisted of the freighters Alcoa Prospector and Agwimonte (both American), Glenartney and Suffolk, escorted by four destroyers.
Then a day later, the cruiser HMS Orion, accompanied by six destroyers, left Alexandria, joining the convoy in the early morning. At about 5pm of December 3, Force K, consisting of the cruisers Cleopatra, Dido and Euryalus left Grand Harbour with four destroyers and went cruising in the lower Ionian Sea as distant protection for the convoy.
At about noon the convoy met with the tanker Yorba Linda and her escorts off the hump of Cyrenaica. Then the whole convoy set out in a north-westerly direction towards Malta. On the evening of December 4, Force K returned to Malta, while by nightfall, convoy Operation MW14 started entering Grand Harbour. The last of the destroyers did not enter harbour until about 5am of December 5.
The convoy brought about 28,000 tons of supplies. Operation MW14 or Portcullis can be considered as the last of the ‘Malta Convoys’ which set out specifically with Malta as the only destination.
The three convoys which reached Malta during November and December 1942 suffered no damage and the rations were progressively raised until an all-round increase was possible at the beginning of January.
On November 21 it was announced that the changes in the arrangements for Victory Kitchens would take place as from January 23, 1943.
One month was given to the public to decide whether to draw their food entirely in the form of rations or partly as rations and partly through the Victory Kitchens. This announcement was widely welcomed and led to a drop in registrations until the Communal Feeding Department was closed in September 1943.
Meanwhile, aerial pressure against Malta continued to ease. During November there was a large reduction of air raid alerts from 153 in October to 30 in November, but slightly increased again to 35 in December. In fact, the last air raid alert of 1942 was recorded during the night of 17/18 December. It was a heavy raid by 40 Junkers Ju88 which bombed Luqa, Qrendi, Siġġiewi, Gudja and Safi. At about 4am of the 18th, a Handley Page Halifax of No.138 Squadron, flew low over Żejtun with engines failing and crashed between Il-Bajjada and Ta’ San Girgor, east of Żejtun.
The bomber was carrying passengers from the Middle East to the United Kingdom. Seventeen Royal Air Force, Polish Air Force and British Army personnel lost their lives.
According to the Royal Artillery statistics, during October, around 624 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta, while in November only 12 tons of bombs were recorded, which increased again to 60 tons during December.
According to the same statistics, during 1942 some 12,179 tons had been dropped on Malta and Gozo, the worst month being April, which totalled some 6,117, followed by March with 2,028 and February with 1,020 tons of bombs respectively.
The end of 1942 saw an increase in terms of bombers and torpedo-bombers stationed in Malta. More Wellingtons, Albacores and Beaufighters flew in from the Middle East, while Mosquito Mk.IIs from No.23 Squadron were based in Malta, the first aircraft of its type to operate from outside Britain.
Mr Debono is curator of the National War Museum, Valletta, where relevant artefacts and information can be seen.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times of Malta of December 2, 2012