Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Operation C3/Herkules - report by Paul Elton

Operation C3/Herkules Wargame at Duxford October 2010 - report written by Paul Elton an reproduced here with his permission.

This is a report from a single perspective of the Operation C3/Herkules Mega(war)game held at the IWM Duxford on Saturday 16th October 2010.

The best gaming experiences live in your memory and imagination as a narrative. The mechanics, the maps and the counters fade from memory leaving a narrative every bit as strong as those read from the real history books. So this article is my narrative of the fateful (and wholly hypothetical) defence of the island of Malta from Italian and German invaders during the late spring of 1942.

Like all personal observations of real history, this narrative will suffer from mistaken presumption and inaccuracies of observations and must remain so until this account can be cross checked with the numerous other perspectives on these events. So apologies from the start for that!

Also much credit should be given to many people for the success of the day but I am unable to thank all involved since I saw only a fraction of the action. However I can thank those I was most aware of, the main organisers were Tim Gow and Jerry Elsmore, game control, with Jim Wallman providing map control and the land battle rule-set.

The defenders of Malta were led by the Governor General, Bernard Ganley and his predecessor the Civil Governor, Alan Kingsnorth. The impeccable ground defence CiC was Michael Brett-Pitt, his staff officer was Martin Davies and Bob Cordery aggressively commanded the artillery ranging from coastal defence guns, anti-aircraft defences and RA field battery. The RAF was thriftily and cunningly commanded by Dave Townsend.

Paul Goddard commanded the local Malta based Royal Navy flotilla and I commanded the submarine force based from Alexandria. Our Royal Navy liaison umpire was Steve Hockin who was our main source of intelligence and insight on all events naval.

Background to the Battle

In the late spring of 1942 the island of Malta was at its lowest point. The island was under continuous air attack from Axis airfields in Sicily, the population was approaching the point of starvation since the air threat prevented convoys reaching the island. The defences of Malta had been a priority and were in moderately good shape with around three brigades of infantry, a tiny force of tanks, good coverage from coastal artillery and possibly the greatest concentration of anti-aircraft artillery yet assembled in the war.

May 1942 started with the island being under siege from the air but unaware of any immediate threat of invasion. The Royal Navy focus was on provisions, patrol and preparation.

Three of the nine submarines of the Tenth flotilla were dedicated to providing essential supplies to the beleaguered island. With their torpedoes removed all available space was dedicated to supplies. By the request of the Civil Governor some space was allocated to “morale” supplies which included beer, fags and tea for Tommy and chocolate for the island’s children. Supplies had to be unloaded at night with the Malta submarine base was too badly damaged to be used to support the submarine flotilla except in dire emergency. Of the three submarines dedicated to supply, one submarine was lost, presumably due to enemy action, somewhere between Malta and Alexandria.

The remaining six submarines of the flotilla were allocated to actively patrol and reconnoitre ports between Malta and Sicily and sailed as far north as Taranto on the Italian mainland to observe the main Italian battle fleet. The Malta based inshore flotilla consisted of four minesweepers, some with a couple of destroyer class 4” guns, and eight lightly armed motor launches. The duty of the minesweepers was to maintain swept channels in the Axis minefields laid before the Valetta harbour entrance and through the minefields to the south of the island. This enabled the safe resupply by submarine as well as any providential arrival of surface shipping. The motor launches were tasked during the day with anti-submarine patrols and the rescue of any downed pilots. At night the motor launches fruitlessly patrolled the potential landing beaches in the hope of intercepting any Italian reconnaissance parties. During the many months of watchful patrol the Navy was able to refine our cooperation and operating procedures with the RAF and with the Army’s coastal defence gun batteries. This preparation would prove invaluable in the days to come.

Preparing for the Invasion

An early example of this cross service collaboration came about after the RAF received intelligence of the importance of the Messina railway ferry. This was a significant choke point in transporting war materiel to the invasion force gathering in Sicily. Only a night time raid could be contemplated due to the enemy flak coverage across the Straits of Messina and there was some doubt whether the high flying bombers would be able to locate the vital ferries. The Royal Navy was able to assist by despatching two submarines to watch inshore and report on the location of the ferries. The ferries were observed over two nights and the RAF raid went in on the third night with the submarines being prepared to attack with torpedoes if necessary. In the event, the RAF raid was faultless; resulting in considerable fireworks and the destruction of all the ferries and the Royal Navy’s submarines were able to retire without detection.

All the defenders of Malta were focussed on preparation. The Army ran a series of realistic invasion response exercises. One novel innovation introduced was the seconding of mobile light anti-aircraft artillery batteries to train with infantry battalions in the direct ground fire role. This provided extra firepower to the infantry that was to prove telling in the engagements to come. The Royal Artillery also investigated to what extent their coastal guns might be able to provide conventional artillery support to the land forces by mapping the extreme traverse of each piece. Stores of additional high explosive shells built up at the most useful gun locations.

By mid-May 1942 it was clear that the invasion of Malta had been sanctioned by the Axis high command and their military build-up was proceeding rapidly. The Allies responded, reinforcing Malta’s air defence by flying in around sixty Spitfires and Hurricanes from the loaned American aircraft carrier USS Wasp. With careful husbanding of this force the RAF felt it could at least challenge for air superiority when the need arose. Morale across the island was raised when the MV Welshpool, sailing unescorted from Gibraltar, unexpectedly arrived in Valletta harbour. Military supplies on the island were now judged to be at acceptable levels given the threat.

The Royal Navy was very concerned about the lack of naval assets to respond to the threat of invasion. The diminished submarine flotilla was the only significant fighting force near the island. It would take two days for any ships from Force H in Gibraltar to intervene and a further day longer for the units of the Mediterranean Fleet to arrive from their base in Alexandria.

At this time the Navy’s assets were greatly diminished and over stretched. Operation Ironclad, the Allied invasion of Vichy held Madagascar, meant that a significant proportion of Force H was operating in the Indian Ocean. The Mediterranean Fleet had not yet recovered from its mauling by the Luftwaffe around Crete and had no capital ships fit for action.

It was our profound hope that the Italians were not aware of the state of the Royal Navy at this time. To attempt to confuse the Italians as to our strength the submarine shadowing Taranto was ordered to indulge in some loose radio traffic. We hoped that by signalling to phantom submarines not currently in the Mediterranean we would cause the Italians to over-estimate our available force. We do know these signals were intercepted since Italian destroyers sortied from Taranto to drive off our submarine.

As the invasion was clearly looming the Royal Navy adjusted its patrol plans. The submarine supply line would continue with the two available boats and a single submarine would shadow the Italian battle fleet at Taranto. An advance submarine picket would consist of a boat patrolling to the Northwest of Malta and another boat to the Northeast hoping to intercept and shadow any invasion fleet. The remaining three submarines would be held to the South of Malta waiting to respond to any sighting. It was determined that if at all possible the submarine force should operate together to stand the best chance of overwhelming the anticipated Italian anti-submarine screens.

The inshore flotilla of small boats posed more of a challenge. They had nothing like the firepower to threaten Italian warships as we would sadly demonstrate in the afternoon of the invasion. Where these vessels could be effective would be against the overburdened small craft and as they ferried assault troops between transports and the invasion beaches. Our problem was that our small ships would never be able to make it past the warships guarding the flanks of the invasion. The solution we proposed to this problem was surprising, particularly in the event to the Italians.

After making our own identification of the likely landing beaches we determined, each day after dusk, to moor our small craft inshore as close to the beach. The boats would then be camouflaged as well as possible. Our rationale was that we would not have to penetrate the Italian escort screen since we were already inside it and could pop out amongst the lightly defended landing craft before the Italian warships could intervene. This was clearly going to be a one way trip and the crews were instructed to beach their craft and escape to land when their vessels could no longer fight. So each evening the Navy’s small ships secreted themselves in the coves and cliffs around the beaches taking care to show no lights and to hide their tell-tale silhouettes against the land.

The Invasion Comes

The Navy became aware of the invasion in the early morning of the 22nd of May as the code word “Britannia, Britannia” was broadcast in-clear over the Allies radio net. As anticipated the invasion commenced with paratrooper attacks across the island. Early indications were of an Italian descent on to the airfield at Hal Far and a German landing across the whole Northern part of the island. We were aware of our immense flak barrage taking its toll of the incoming transports and bomber aircraft.

The submarine watching the Italian battle fleet at Taranto reported no movement and this was confirmed by a later RAF reconnaissance flight. We were expecting the Italian battle fleet to sail as a prelude to the invasion. In fact the invasion fleet had left its Sicilian harbours and began landings on Malta in the early morning supported by only a few capital ships.

The coastal artillery was able to sight and engage a considerable fleet intending to land in the bays to the North of the island. A number of major Italian warships formed a supporting gun-line surprisingly close to the coast. The coastal guns aggressively engaged the capital ships and only switched fire to the incoming smaller vessels as they came within 5000 yards. The result of this was the reported sinking or at least serious damage and withdrawal of an Italian Battleship!

The unsuppressed coastal artillery caused enormous damage to the incoming Northern invasion and at two of the invasion beaches the hidden Royal Navy minesweepers and motor launches were able to suddenly reveal themselves and cut swathes through the poorly defended incoming small craft. Although it was only a matter of time before the escorting warships reacted to and swatted this unexpected threat to their charges, the small ships of the Royal Navy were able to wreak considerable havoc upon the vital lighters and landing craft of the invasion forces.

The submarine pickets did not succeed in locating the invasion fleet during darkness and continued their patrols into daylight. The picket to the Northwest retired to join the main submarine force bringing it up to four boats whilst the picket to the Northeast extended its patrol towards the potential path of the expected Taranto battle fleet.

The prepared plan for the entire available force of four submarines envisaged an attack during the second wave of the invasion. A time of maximum confusion was anticipated as ships returned from the beaches and attempted to reload troops for their next run in. The massed submarine attack achieved surprise and attacked with maximum aggression in the finest spirit of the Senior Service. Attacks were pressed home to the limit against furious and overwhelming opposition to the extent that only two boats were able to retire, weapons spent, from the scene. Two boats were sunk with, as far as we know, all hands lost. Reports from the surviving submarines indicated that the attack was successful if costly. An Italian battleship(!) and cruiser were believed sunk together with a large transport vessel and possibly others.

The situation on land was confusing for many hours. In the North of the island, Italian troops had joined up with elements of the German paratrooper force. They finally overran the local coastal artillery and were pressing the defence back to the prepared positions of the Victoria Lines that ran across the width of the island. The Italian airborne forces landed near Hal Far airfield were being pressed back Southwards and giving ground. The outnumbered RAF valiantly engaged the Axis air forces throughout the day and together with the anti-aircraft artillery wreaked havoc on any slow moving transport aircraft.

Deeply concerning for the defenders was that a significant landing had been made from the South West. The invaders had scaled the natural obstacles of Malta’s cliffs and were pushing inland in the direction of Luqa airfield beyond which ultimately laid Valetta the capital. The Allied command quickly determined that this was now the major threat and diverted the remaining infantry reserves to plug the gap. A small Royal Navy force of two armed minesweepers and four motor launches set out to reconnoitre and harass the Southern invasion forces. This small force quickly ran into an overwhelming powerful screening force of the Italian Navy which combined with Axis air attacks caused the loss of the entire force without reply.

As night fell the British infantry were able to report the mopping up of the remnants of the Italian parachute forces near Hal Far. The Allies determined to make use of their superior night fighting training to push back the enemy on both Northern and Southern beachheads. By the morning though, no great impression had been made in the South and in the North, fighting still continued along the Victoria Lines. The RAF continued its aggressive policy of tasking night fighters to harass the enemy airbases in Sicily.

The Second Day

During the night the British submarine outside Taranto harbour at last reported the sailing of the Italian battle fleet. The Italian force was estimated at three battleships, five cruisers and some fifteen destroyers. Our submarine was instructed to shadow the enemy fleet but quickly lost contact with the fast moving Italian ships. The sole other remaining submarine picket was tasked to scout to the North East to locate the Italian fleet as it approached Malta.

The Governor General had been lobbying London throughout the day for the Royal Navy to intervene to provide assistance to repel the Axis invasion. By the dawn of the second day we became aware that substantial naval forces had already been released from Force H at Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria. Force H was expected to near the waters around Gibraltar in the late afternoon on the second day. This force would have to run the gauntlet of enemy air attacks from first Sardinia and then Sicily. A squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet would arrive some twenty four hours later but could expect heavy air attacks from German aircraft stationed on Crete during its passage. This gave the Royal Navy planners most of the second day to determine what forces might be available and how they might best be deployed.

Fighting on the island continued through the morning. As the hours passed, it became evident that the attacks of Italian seaborne and German airborne forces in the North were failing. They lacked essential heavy weapon support which apparently hadn’t been able to be landed. The British forces’ confidence increased further as the enemy were seen to undertake a partial withdrawal in the afternoon. Our Northern forces were able to start to consider freeing up battalions to assist with the greater Southern threat.

In the South the invaders had effective artillery support from field guns that had been either air-landed earlier or bought ashore. The defenders countered this in part by use of coastal guns at maximum traverse and considerable range. The RAF was also able to divert some aircraft to provide close air support. Both opposed air forces had suffered considerable attrition but the RAF had benefited greatly from the immense flak barrages with which the Royal Artillery would greet each enemy raid.

With both remaining Royal Navy submarines off in search of the Italian battle fleet, sea reconnaissance became exclusively the responsibility of the RAF. The results of the initial reconnaissance flights over the invasion beaches were hugely surprising and confusing to Malta Command. Both landing sites were empty of any active Italian naval or merchant vessels. There were no follow up waves being landed and no resupply taking place! The invasion beaches were empty of all significant activity and the location of the Italian invasion fleet was entirely unknown!

The Turning of the Tide

The first fear was that the Italian fleet had regrouped and was intending to launch a third landing. However throughout the day all coastal stations reported the seas to their front clear. The RAF scanned the seas to the North of the island and found no sign of the Italians. It was only late in the day that RAF reconnaissance spotted the Taranto battle fleet arriving from the North. It became apparent that the whole invasion fleet had withdrawn to the South East of Malta. This was now the destination for the Italian battle fleet.

Later intelligence explained that the mission of the Taranto fleet was to prevent intervention from the Royal Navy in Alexandria; therefore it was able to delay its sailing for a day since the Royal Navy could not arrive in force until the third day of the invasion. We would like to think that the (apparent) presence of an aggressive force of British submarines influenced them to spend longer in port.

It became clear to Malta Command that without resupply the invasion forces were effectively doomed. The best explanation for the enemy behaviour consistent with our reconnaissance and intelligence reports was that the invasion fleet was so depleted in vessels capable of landing troops and stores across beaches, that their only remaining hope was the seizure of a functioning port.

All smaller ports around the island had been rendered unusable by Navy and Royal Engineer specialists and only the massively defended harbour of Valetta and the smaller southern port of Marsaxlokk were functional.

As intelligence collected statistics on downed Axis transport aircraft it became clear that very little capability was left to the enemy for resupply by air. Given the strength of our infantry forces, the Axis ground forces now seemed incapable of reaching their objectives.

The tide had turned and was to be shortly followed by the Royal Navy tsunami. Force H was approaching at full speed from the West in considerable force. The fleet included two aircraft carriers, the battlecruiser Repulse, four cruisers and twenty two destroyers.

Given the improving position on the ground, local naval commanders were considering a cautious employment of Force H that minimised the exposure of our capital vessels to air attack. Instructions from “an ex-naval person” in London called rather for the most aggressive stroke possible against the Italian fleet. To this end, Royal Naval planners set as our objective the annihilation of the invasion fleet and the defending Italian Navy.

The Italian force would be attacked at night since all previous engagements had confirmed the superiority of the Royal Navy’s night fighting capabilities. The remaining two submarines had closed on the Italian fleet during the day and had it under close observation from the North. From the West two powerful forces of cruisers and destroyers would pass North of Malta under whatever air cover the RAF was able to provide and attack the Italian fleet. The battlecruiser and the two carriers would pass Malta to the South with their destroyer screen ahead and attack with torpedo bombers and long range gunnery from the South. This was to be an aggressive battle of annihilation with the only open path for the Italians being a retreat back to the North where our submarines would pounce. It was expected that the Italian transports and smaller vessels would scatter to the East where they would be easy pickings for the Alexandria fleet coming up the next morning.

And sadly that is where the narrative had to end since the game ended at this stage too!

At the End

Time was up and all participants went through the formal debrief by the umpires and senior participants and a number stayed for the informal debrief at the Pub!

The land players had their victory and their defeat but the naval players were still wondering what might have happened. Subsequent reports indicated the Italian fleet was intending to pass to the north of Malta and engage the approaching Allied forces. So there would have been a classic clash of navies, firstly at night with the advantage to the Royal Navy and then on into the day when the Italian and German air forces would have played their part.

Anyway it was a great day and many thanks to all those who made it possible.

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