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12 January 1941: Illustrious Attack Marks Dramatic Development of War

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By Rev Reginald Nicholls, Chancellor of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral:

“A fortnight ago Goering or Goebbels announced a dramatic development of the war in the Mediterranean. This has happened. A Gibraltar Convoy passed from East to West and that part destined for Malta, very precious ammunition, and among other things seed potatoes for us, arrived [today]. The rest passed onto Greece. The whole Mediterranean Fleet seems to have been out from Gibraltar to Alexandria spread over a vast front. The Convoy got through safely. But times have changed.

HMS Southampton under attack

HMS Southampton under attack

Germany has at last decided to come to the help of Italy, which is said to be full of German troops and aeroplanes. The escort was fiercely attacked on Friday 10th as it passed Pantelleria by German dive-bombers. The Aircraft carrier Illustrious was hit 6 times, and her after deck was a mass of flame. But the fire was put out and the ship reached Malta under her own steam… The Southampton was also hit and set on fire. Blazing from stem to stern she had to be sunk by one of our own ships. Gallant hit a mine and the whole of her bows were neatly cut off at the bridge. She was towed to Malta stern-foremost, she had about 70 killed… The Ark Royal was also engaged, but we think arrived unhurt at Gib.

The Chaplain and First Lieutenant of HMS Illustrious who came to arrange a Memorial and Thanksgiving Service told me that the attacks were magnificent; superb low-diving and marvellously accurate bombing. But the planes eventually left her, and she came to Malta under her own steam, arriving [on Friday] night.” (1)


Malta’s successful RAF reconnaissance operation, 431 Flight, has been strengthened and renamed 69 Squadron. Formed last August and equipped with the American Maryland Maryland aircraft, 431 carries out patrols of the Central Mediterranean on the hunt for potential enemy shipping targets.  Their greatest success to date is the photographic reconnaissance of Taranto Harbour prior to the Fleet Air Arm attack on 10 November last.  The flight is to be expanded along with its designation as a full Squadron. 


Weather  Clear

0826-0840 hrs  Air raid alert for six JU88 aircraft reported which fly over Grand Harbour from the north east, apparently on reconnaissance, then turn south over Luqa airfield before departing.  Four Hurricanes are scrambled. Three Fulmars are also airborne at the time and are engaged by anti-aircraft fire, whereupon they fire the recognition signal.  Fortunately there are no hits before the friendly aircraft are identified and they and land at Hal Far without damage .

0140-0150 hrs  Air raid alert; raid does not materialise.

Military casualties  Able Seaman Joseph Arthur Pritchard, HMS Gallant; Sergeant G C Hall, Royal Air Force, 148 Squadron; Flying Officer G K Noble, Royal Air Force, 148 Squadron.


AIR HQ 0557-1532 hrs Sunderland on patrol western Ionian Sea for enemy shipping movements. 0720-1230 hrs Maryland special photo-reconnaissance as ordered but mission not fulfilled due to bad weather in target area; further attempt will be made. 0937-1644 hrs Maryland heading for reconnaissance Taranto when 40 miles north east of Malta was attacked by Macchi 200; intercommunication gear unserviceable so decided to abandon mission. 1045-1325 hrs Maryland recce Augusta and Catania; aerodrome photographed – 16 fighters and 18 bombers seen dispersed, probably more. 2100-0700 hrs Sunderland effected anti-convoy patrol between Malta and Tunisia; nil report.  2100-0050 hrs Sunderland special mission successfully accomplished.

ROYAL NAVY  Triumph and Upholder arrived to join First Submarine Flotilla. 

LUQA 69 Squadron (431 Flight): 1 Maryland special reconnaissance unsuccessful owing to bad weather.  1 Maryland reconnaissance Taranto prevented by Macchi 200; 1 Maryland reconnaissance Augusta and Catania.  148 Squadron: 10 Wellingtons bombing raid on Catania – one aircraft force-landed, crew saved; another was shot down – crew missing.  Two Wellingtons conducted two trips each.

FORTRESS ROYAL ENGINEERS  No1 Works Company began work on accommodation and magazines at Birzebuggia.

8th Bn MANCHESTER REGIMENT  One Section of Bren Carriers stationed at Ta Qali.

(1) Extract from diary of Reverend Reginald M. Nicholls, Chancellor of St.Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta. Courtesy of website: Malta Family History


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Posted by on January 12, 2021 in 1941, January 1941


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11 January 1941: Maltese Help Stricken Illustrious

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HMS Southampton sunk in dive-bombing attack

HMS Southampton sunk in enemy raid


The moment Illustrious berthed last night, hordes of people rushed to her side: firemen with hoses to put out the still burning fires, doctors and ambulance men to attend to the wounded, stretcher bearers to carry them, seamen from other ships,, surveyors to see to the first needs of an impossible task of making the ship seaworthy, and others who in one way or another had a job to do. All of them worked their way in a forest of twisted, torn and blackened steel.  At first light this morning the Maltese dockyard workers took over.  Their specific orders were not to deal with the smashed deck and twisted alleyways, or anything else above the waterline, but to attend only to the bare essentials that would make it possible for the ship to go to sea and quickly.  Divers went down to examine the bottom, the fitters invaded the engine room, and the welders began to weld holes…  The dockyard workers worked like ants until late and only left when others came to take their place. (1)


HMS Gallant damaged by a mine

HMS Gallant damaged by a mine

The Operation Excess convoy today endured further determined attacks from Luftwaffe aircraft.  With the departure of HMS Illustrious and its Fulmar squadron, the remainder of the convoy was left without defensive air cover.  12 JU 87 Stukas launched a further dive bombing attack on the convoy’s cruiser force. HMS Gloucester was hit by a bomb which failed to explode but Southampton suffered three major hits which started large fires. The crew fought in vain to control the blazes but late this evening the captain issued the order to abandon ship. Southampton was then sunk by torpedoes from Gloucester and Orion.  Casualties from Southampton totalled 80 dead and 87 wounded; Gloucester lost nine dead and 14 wounded.



As the convoy and escort passed through to Malta, the destroyer Gallant was mined, lost her bows, and had to be towed in to harbour with Bonaventure, Griffin and Mohawk.  Disembarked Bonaventure: 404 Searchlight Battery Royal Artillery officers 1, other ranks 57.



Weather  Wind slight; high cloud.

0745-0848 hrs Air raid alert for six enemy aircraft reported approaching the Island. One SM 79 flies over the Island at 33000 feet on reconnaissance.  One Maryland is airborne with the task of shadowing any identified German aircraft, especially dive bombers, in order to track them back to their base.  Six Hurricanes are scrambled; one sees the raiders but they are too far away to intercept.  One Hurricane crashes in flames at Ta Qali, killing the pilot; the cause is unknown.

0837 hrs  A defence post of 2nd Bn Devonshire Regiment reports seeing a cruiser heading towards the Island with a damaged destroyer in tow.  

0838 hrs  Southern Infantry Brigade warns 2nd Bn Royal West Kent Regiment to expect 90 prisoners of war shortly, for which they are to provide a guard.  Only three prisoners were disembarked.

0933-0942 hrs  Air raid alert; raid does not materialise.

Military casualties  Leading Aircraftsman Leonard Amos Lewis, Royal Air Force, 819 Squadron; Sergeant William John Timms, Pilot, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve; Flight Sergeant Rene Duvauchelle, pilot Free French; Sergeant Jacques Mehouas, wireless operator/observer Free French, 230 Squadron.


AIR HQ  0445-1457 hrs Sunderland sweep ahead of eastbound convoy. 0530-1515 hrs Sunderland patrol western Ionian Sea.  0600 hrs  Maryland despatched to reconnoitre Taranto for shipping and Catania and Comiso aerodromes.  Pilot signalled at 0900 hrs information of ships at Brindisi, though not instructed to recce there.  The aircraft has so far failed to return.   

ROYAL NAVY  Bonaventure and Griffin arrived escorting Mohawk towing Gallant, the bows of the latter having been blown off.  Griffin sailed pm, leaving Bonaventure and Jaguar.  The last two were to have returned to the westward but were retained at Malta pending developments. 

LUQA  431 Flight: 1 Maryland reconnaissance Taranto – aircraft brought down by fighters, possibly near Catania, all crew missing.

FORTRESS ROYAL ENGINEERS  24 Fortress Company began building a light machine gun post at Lintorn Barracks. Bomb Disposal UXB reported 1; dealt with 1 (Ack Ack shell case).

(1) The Battle of Malta, Joseph Attard, Hamlyn Paperbacks 1980


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Posted by on January 11, 2021 in 1941, January 1941


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