26 July 1941: Italian E-Boats Attack Malta Harbours

26 Jul

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Italian plan of attack

Italian plan of attack


A flotilla of Italian boats launched a daring attack at dawn this morning on Malta’s main harbours. It is believed the attack was aimed at the convoy ships in Grand Harbour and the submarine base at Manoel Island. But within a matter of minutes all the enemy vessels had been destroyed or disabled by Harbour defences. 

The Harbour gunners had been at their posts since before midnight last night, when enemy shipping was detected off the north coast of the Island. In anticipation of a naval bombardment, all coastal defence posts were ordered to ‘stand to’ and Swordfish aircraft were sent out to attack but the enemy vessels were reported to have turned away.  However, the incident placed the Harbour Fire Command on high alert; gunners were not sent to barracks but ordered to sleep at their gun positions.

Just before dawn this morning the air raid alert sounded for a small group of enemy fighters approaching the Island. No attack was made but as All Clear siren died down, the sound of motor boat engines was heard off Grand Harbour. 

A minute later came the first intimation of the attack on the Harbour, with a heavy explosion under the St Elmo Viaduct. The order was given for all searchlights to be switched on and the sea outside Grand Harbour was lit up across a wide area, exposing several enemy E-boats close to the shore. The gunners at St Elmo and Ricasoli and along the coastline opened fire.  The first enemy boat was blown up within 10 seconds, followed at short intervals by several others.     

Already woken by the air raid alert, many civilians watched: “the resulting fireworks display, as [the tracer bullets] ricocheted off the surface of the sea and formed interweaving patterns of dark red, green and light red, was a sight witnessed by the crowds, which surprisingly enough for the hour of the morning had gathered along Valletta bastions and Sliema front…” (1)

As it became lighter more E-boats were sighted and engaged with great success by the twin 6 pounders of the Harbour Fire Command, the Bofors positions at Dragut Point, Fort St Elmo and Ricasoli, and also from a coastal defence post.

Corporal L G Ferris of 1st Bn Cheshire Regiment was manning a gun at the defence post: 

Italian MTB

Italian E-boat or ‘barchino’

I heard loud explosions in the mouth of the Grand Harbour. I went outside and saw two Motor Torpedo Boats.  I watched them for approximately ten minutes and decided that they were hostile craft, and so I engaged them with a Vickers Machine Gun… We continued to fire until both boats were sunk and all firing ceased at approximately 0530 hrs.  Daylight showed the wreckage of two boats with survivors clinging to them, and these survivors were picked up by a naval boat…” 

At about 0550 hrs we saw three other craft on the horizon and this was reported to Company Headquarters.”

Meanwhile the RAF reported enemy aircraft approaching the Island. Hurricanes fighters were sent to intercept and engaged the raiders.  While most concentrated on the Macchi fighters, two Hurricanes dived on enemy motor boats and opened fire, damaging at least two.

P/O Winton was surprised by a Macchi fighter: “and received such damage to his machine that his fan stopped. Using his speed to gain height, he was able to reach 700 feet and then baled out, both his parachute and dinghy doing all the things that a kind-hearted MO likes them to do… then he spotted a stationary torpedo boat.  He paddled the dinghy with his hands and, finding progress slow, towed it and swam towards the boat.  By climbing up the side he was able to peer into it and was confronted by eight very much dead Italians.

Taking possession of the boat was thus quite easy and as he couldn’t start it he waited, flying the flag at half-mast, since he didn’t know which side would rescue him. An Army rescue boat did a circuit round him – almost six hours after he had baled out on an empty stomach – and thinking he was an Italian, also that there was a machine-gun on the boat, left him to cool his heels for a time.  Before they could return a Swordfish with floats dropped in to pay him a visit and gave him a lift home…” (2)

The attacking force is believed to have consisted of one fast tender vessel carrying the strike flotilla, two large motor torpedo-boats (MTBs), one torpedo-carrying flotilla leader, two baby submarines and one baby submarine carrier, and nine E-boats.  The attack vessels were apparently escorted to within a couple of miles of Grand Harbour before the escorting boats turned out to sea, to stand ready for any rescue operations.  Six E-boats, one two-man motor torpedo boat and a large motor boat were destroyed by coastal defences, three MTBs and two rescue launches were destroyed by the RAF. 

One two-man torpedo boat exploded on attacking the St Elmo breakwater; the outer span of the breakwater was brought down, effectively blocking access to Grand Harbour for the following attack vessels.  No other damage was caused.

Malta rescue boats and aircraft searched throughout the day for survivors. The enemy also carried out air searches and an Italian hospital ship remained 12 miles offshore for most of the day; the RAF did not mount any attacks.  In all, 15 dead bodies were recovered; 18 Italians were rescued alive and taken prisoner.  One MTB was recovered and brought in to Grand Harbour.  A one-man boat was also recovered intact, and it is hoped to salvage other craft.  


Weather  Sunny and hot.

0415 hrs  Air raid alert for three enemy aircraft approaching the Island. They turn away without dropping any bombs.

0445 hrs  Five motor torpedo boats (MTB) are reported off Grand Harbour.

0446 hrs  A large explosion is heard from the direction of Grand Harbour.

0450 hrs  MTBs, one-man motor boats and two-person manned torpedoes are reported off Grand Harbour. The St Elmo alarm sounds again and sentries take up positions on all beach posts.

0500 hrs  The vessels are engaged by the twin six-pounders of the Harbour Fire Command at a range between 3000 and 500 yards. Bofors gun positions at Dragut Point, Fort St Elmo and Ricasoli also engage. Defence posts of 1st Bn Cheshire Regiment engage the boats with machine-gunfire.

Eight boats attempt to break through the boom defences of Marsamxetto and Grand Harbour. Seven are either sunk or destroyed before reaching their target; one reaches the viaduct of Elmo breakwater and explodes, bringing down the viaduct.  Gas and water mains are broken by the impact; supplies are shut off by Royal Engineers personnel. 

Hurricane fighters join in the attack on the Italian E-boats.  Two are sunk and two disabled, along with the entire force of speed boats and manned torpedoes. One Bofors claims six hits on an E-boat.  1st Bn Cheshire Regiment reports hitting one E-boat with machine-gunfire at 1450 yards; the vessel then explodes.  

0525 hrs  Air raid alert for a large formation of enemy aircraft approaching the Island 15 Hurricanes fighters are scrambled.  Nine of the Hurricanes sight two enemy rescue boats 15 miles from Malta on a north-easterly course.  Two fighters dive towards the boats and open fire from 500 yards, five of the remaining Hurricanes follow in to attack while one remains on lookout.  One of the boats is halted and appears to be sinking, the other is pursued for five miles before bursting into flames. Hurricanes also attack E-boats off the coast of Grand Harbour and Marsamxetto.

A Macchi fighter approaches and attacks one of the Hurricanes. Another Hurricane launches a counter-attack on the Macchi and shoots it down into the sea.  Hurricanes engage 15 Macchi fighters apparently on their way back to Sicily; two Macchis are shot down.

One Hurricane is shot down in the engagement and P/O Winston is reported missing. Another pilot reports having seen him in the sea 25-30 miles north east of Grand Harbour. 

0622 hrs  Raiders passed signal is sounded. Heavy machine-gun fire is heard out to sea.

St Elmo Viaduct has been damaged but the Harbour defences have not been penetrated. Reports claim a mixture of ten vessels including E-boats and one-man torpedoes sunk by shore gun batteries and Hurricane fighters; numbers are difficult to confirm due to the half-light.  However, excellent work by the twin six-pounders of the Harbour Fire Command undoubtedly accounted for the majority of the craft destroyed.

DAY  Swordfish aircraft and rescue boats from Kalafrana carry out patrols to search for survivors, totalling five and a half hours. P/O Winston is picked up unhurt.  Eighteen Italians are rescued alive and taken prisoner.  One disabled E-boat is brought into Grand Harbour.  A one-man speed boat is also recovered intact and it is hoped to salvage other craft. 

The enemy also carry out searches for the missing Italian boats and Macchi pilots throughout the day. Hurricanes make no further contact with enemy aircraft. 

2152-2218 hrs; 2231-2348 hrs  Air raid alerts for six Italian BR 20 bombers which approach the Island singly. Although there is little moon, the raiders manage more hits on the Island than usual.  Bombs are dropped on fields between Mosta and St Paul’s Bay, where they cause a fire among crops which acts as a beacon for a second raider to drop more bombs.  250kg high explosive bombs are also dropped between Naxxar and Mosta, on Zonqor Point and Maddalena, on Zabbar and near Marsascala, on fields behind Sliema, and in the sea.  Hurricanes 249 Squadron are scrambled and anti-aircraft guns fire one barrage; no claims. 

An enemy hospital ship searches through the night for survivors of this morning’s engagement.

Military casualties  Lance-Sergeant Artificer Frederick G Morris, 4th Coast Regiment, Royal Artillery.

Enemy casualties  Sergente Maggiore Ruggero Gallina, 76a Squadriglia, 7o Gruppo, 54o Stormo, Macchi 200 pilot shot down and died. 

Italian attack on Grand Harbour casualty list


ROYAL NAVY  Dawn attack on Grand Harbour and Marsamxett by enemy E and smaller M boats.  Attack decisively defeated, believed a total of 15 boats sunk by harbour defences and RAF.  18 prisoners collected.  St Elmo Viaduct torpedoed – our only casualty. Cachalot sailed for Alexandria with stores and personnel.

AIR HQ Arrivals 2 Sunderland. Departures 1 Blenheim. 69 Squadron Marylands reconnaissance Sicily, Tripoli, Castel Benito and special patrols. 110 Squadron 3 Blenheims sent to attack ship reported by patrol but failed to locate it.

HAL FAR  Wing Commander R H Harris took over command of Station.

4th Bn THE BUFFS (ROYAL EAST KENT REGIMENT)  A and C Companies now at Buschetto Gardens and D Company at Zebbug.

1st Bn CHESHIRE REGIMENT  A machine-gun of a D Company defence post sank an Italian small vessel.

FORTRESS ROYAL ENGINEERS  Bomb Disposal UXB reported 1. 0500 hrs Stand to for action on Harbour defences and action on damage to breakwater. 0530hrs Stand down. First action other than air attacks in this war in which men of FRE unit have taken part.  Results highly successful.

2nd Bn ROYAL IRISH FUSILIERS  A private was killed when handling an unexploded 25 pound shell which he had collected as a souvenir. Three Other Ranks were injured in the explosion.

(1) Malta Blitzed But Not Beaten, Philip Vella, Progress Press 1985)

(2) Air Battle for Malta, HMSO

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Posted by on July 26, 2021 in 1941, July 1941


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