DAFPosted on Wednesday 20th June 2018
Did RAF torpedo-bombers sink Rommel’s last chance at El Alamein?
Was the momentous victory in October/November 1942 by the British Eighth Army at El Alamein over Rommel’s Axis Army clinched in a little known way? In ‘The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942-1945’, military historian Bryn Evans unearthed the little known story of how an RAF raid clearly sank Rommel’s last chance.
It was October 26 1942 on the coast of Libya as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Wiggins led off a flight of three Wellington torpedo-bombers on a mission that sought to change the course of the North African campaign. The aim was to cripple the Axis Army of Germany’s notorious ‘Desert Fox’ Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Three days earlier at 21.40 hours on the night of 23 October 1942 at El Alamein in Egypt, the British Eighth Army had launched its major offensive against Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika. The Axis Army was positioned behind extensive minefields awaiting further supplies. There was one vital ingredient missing from Rommel’s battle plans – fuel.
Could the Axis fuel supplies be cut off?
Over many months, interdiction by the Royal Navy and the RAF of the Axis shipping supplies, lay at the heart of the Allies’ strategy to defeat the Panzerarmee Afrika. With the Allied attack at El Alamein under way, the pressure was acute to intensify the blockade of Axis supplies. On the evening of 24 October No 38 Squadron RAF planned two strikes by Wellington torpedo-bombers on enemy shipping consisting of one merchant vessel and one destroyer. For the first strike two aircraft, flown by Wing Commander Pratt in EX442 and Sergeant Price in HX517, took off at 18.00 hours from the Shallufa airfield in Egypt’s Suex Canal zone in formation with a Special Wellington of No 221 Squadron RAF.
The Vickers Wellington was a medium twin-engined bomber with a top speed of 250mph, a service ceiling of around 16,000 feet, and a range of 1,750 miles. The role of the Special Wellington was reconnaissance and illumination by flares of enemy ships. The crews were briefed to maintain contact with each other if possible until the Special Wellington located the convoy, and then make a moonlight attack. Unfortunately severe electrical storms all along the coast forced these two aircraft to return to base without reaching the target area. In case of failure two other Wellingtons and their crews had been detailed to stand-by for take-off at 23.00 hours.
In the hope that the storms may have abated and the general weather conditions of the coast had improved, the second strike force took off, Sergeant Taylor in Wellington HF893 at 23.04 hours and Australian Flight Lieutenant Wiggins in HX472 at 23.20 hours. With a later take off Wiggins was unable to penetrate storms and deteriorating weather, and returned after two hours. On landing at the Gianaclis satellite airfield a tyre burst, causing the aircraft to crash incurring serious damage. Luckily Wiggins and his screw were unhurt. Meanwhile Sergeant Taylor found a break in the storm clouds, and reached the target area some ten miles north of Derna. Despite searching the inlets and sea along the coast from Cap El Tin to Cap Elihall, Taylor and his crew were unable to sight any shipping.
The return of the Desert Fox
One month earlier on 23 September Rommel had handed over command to his deputy, General Stumme, and because of his worsening bad health had flown back to Germany for treatment. During a brief stop en route in Rome he had remonstrated with Mussolini that his demands for supplies, 30,000 tons in September and 35,000 tons in October, must be met as a minimum. Otherwise the campaign in North Africa would be lost. Rommel’s recuperation was disrupted on the afternoon of 24 October when he was telephoned by Field Marshal Keitel. He was told of the massive attack by Eighth Army on the previous evening, and asked to again take command of the Afrika Korps and Panzerarmee Afrika. At 07.00 next morning 25 October Rommel’s plane left for Rome.
On arrival in Rome in late morning he was briefed by General von Rintelen, who was attached to Italian forces: the British Eighth Army attack was still pressing forward, General Stumme was reported missing, and because of ships sunk by the Royal Navy and the RAF only three issues of petrol remained for the Axis army. Rommel was bitterly angry, and demanded that all Italian naval resources be tasked with the immediate shipment of petrol and ammunition to Axis-held ports in North Africa, and particularly Tobruk which was the nearest to his positions at El Alamein. He knew that one issue of petrol was required for each day of battle, without which an army was hamstrung.
After leaving Rome at midday on 25 October in a single-engined Storch aircraft, Rommel landed in the twilight at his HQ. There he was told that the fuel shortage was constraining Axis forces to only localized and tactical counter-attacks against Eighth Army. He had a feeling of impending doom, and felt the supply situation was now approaching disaster. Rommel’s troops had only enough fuel for transport vehicles to keep various general supplies moving from Tobruk to the front lines. They had no new fuel for tanks and other armoured vehicles. If some Italian oil tankers could reach and off-load at Tobruk, it would give front-line armour and motor transport, another week’s supply of fuel in battlefield conditions. It was a pivotal moment. Rommel’s last hope of fuel re-supply hung in the balance.
Searching for the Axis oil tankers
On the evening of 25 October soon after 22.00 hours ten Wellingtons of No 38 Squadron, one bomber and nine torpedo-bombers, took off to intercept a convoy of enemy merchant ships and destroyers. The plan was to proceed in conjunction with a Special Wellington from No 221 Squadron to Cap El Tin, and then from there to search for and locate the convoy at a position north of Derna. Soon after take-off the aircraft of Sergeant Viles suffered engine trouble, forcing Viles to jettison its torpedoes and return to base. All remaining aircraft and the Special Wellington stayed on course and made landfall over Cap El Tin.
As planned north of Derna the Special Wellington spotted the convoy, and dropped its flares. Despite the illumination there was intense darkness and patches of cumulous cloud at 2,000 to 3,000 feet, which made the weather unfavourable for torpedo attacks. In addition less than ideal positioning of the flares, resulted in only two merchant ships and five destroyers being sighted, and prevented some aircraft, that were unable to see the convoy, from making an attack.
Of those aircraft able to see the convoy and make an attack on a ship, Flight Lieutenant Gillingham dropped one torpedo on his first run at 1,000 yards, and found that the second torpedo had hung up. One splash was observed but nothing else was seen. Against anti-aircraft flak from all of the enemy ships, Gillingham circled around five times to make further runs to release the remaining torpedo, before he was forced to abandon his attacks. Meanwhile Wing Commander Pratt attacked the largest merchant ship, dropping two torpedoes, one at 800 yards and one at 600 yards. Neither torpedo hit the vessel, and as Pratt pulled away his aircraft came under heavy flak.
Sergeant Jones made his run at one of the merchant ships, dropping a torpedo as close as 400 yards, and like Gillingham also found that his second torpedo had hung up. Although no actual result from the launched torpedo was seen, Jones claimed a hit since he and his crew felt the effect of an explosion on their aircraft. Sergeant Page, pilot of the sole Wellington carrying bombs, took his aircraft into a low level attack at about 150 feet above the sea. All bombs were released in a single stick, falling either side of the vessel without a hit. Despite receiving anti-aircraft fire and some attacks by enemy night-fighters, from 07.00 hours on the morning of 26 October all aircraft returned safely to base. The last to land at 08.55, delayed by his repeated attempts to launch his second torpedo, was Flight Lieutenant Gillingham.
Meanwhile at El Alamein during 24 and 25 October Eighth Army’s X Corps (armour) and XXX Corps (infantry) failed to break through the Axis lines. In the forty-eight hours against determined Axis defences, they had been unable to even reach the positions planned to be taken by the morning of 24 October. General Montgomery’s offensive was stillborn, teetering on the verge of collapse. On 26 October while Montgomery remained at his HQ reviewing and revising his plans, the RAF pressed on with its well established strategy.
Around noon on 26 October Beaufort and Bisley bombers of No. 47 Squadron RAF attacked an Axis convoy heading for Tobruk, setting on fire an oil tanker, the Proserpina (4,809 tons). Another oil tanker in the convoy of supply ships, Tergestea (5,809 tons), escaped damage and continued on. Out of ten aircraft in the operation six were lost. A further attack in the afternoon by Beaufort bombers on the convoy failed to stop the Tergestea. With the Tergestea only some fifty miles from Tobruk, and estimated to dock by nightfall, it was critical to mount another attack quickly and stop its fuel reaching the Axis army. Even though dusk was not long away, a decision was taken to make another attack at once.
Sink the Tergestea!
The afternoon of 26 October was fine with good visibility and little cloud. Three crews of Wellington torpedo-bombers, the leader Flight Lieutenant Wiggins in aircraft HX633, Pilot Officer Bertran in HF595, and Sergeant Viles in HF912, were briefed on a desperate final attempt to stop the tanker Tergestea reaching the safety of Tobruk harbour.
Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Wiggins was twenty-five years old from Middleton, South Australia, where he worked as an auctioneer. He had enlisted in the RAAF in November 1940, and after going through the Empire Air Training Scheme, was posted to No 38 Squadron RAF in North Africa. The Wellington bombers of No 38 Squadron were armed with two torpedoes each, while some were radar equipped to enable them to locate and attack targets at night from very low level. It was a role described by Wiggins as, ‘Not for the faint-hearted.’
That description was particularly apt for the mission of No 38 Squadron on 26 October. To evade interception by German fighters and keep below enemy radar, the plan was for the three aircraft to first fly due north out to sea for about sixty miles, trying to keep as low as 100 feet above the water. Then they were to turn west, and fly approximately parallel to the coast until they reached a position some sixty miles north east of Tobruk. At that point the formation of three Wellingtons was to turn onto a south west heading, and fly directly towards Tobruk to take the enemy air defences by surprise. By making their attacking runs out of a darkening sky, it was hoped to catch the Tergestea outside Tobruk harbor before it was able to dock.
At 15.40 hours Flight Lieutenant Wiggins led the three aircraft into the air, and brought them down towards the waves as they sped north out into the Mediterranean. If their raid was successful, it would paralyse Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika.
This is the last chance!
Helped by excellent work from his navigator, Wiggins spotted the Tergestea only a few miles from Tobruk harbour. In the first dusk attack ever attempted by No 38 Squadron, the three aircraft headed straight for the Tergestea, a tanker/freighter carrying cargo that included 1,000 tons of petrol, and 1,000 tons of ammunition. Wiggins’ bombing run came in with fading light behind the three Wellington bombers, whereas their target, the Tergestea stood out against the sun setting in the west. There were many destroyers escorting the Tergestea, but they were taken completely by surprise. It was not until the aircraft were beginning their run less than two miles from the Tergestea, that frantic signalling took place from the destroyers to the oil tanker. Ignoring the anti-aircraft flak, Wiggins held the three Wellington bombers dead on course.
It was the last chance for the RAF to sink the tanker Tergestea before it reached the protection of Tobruk harbour and it’s anti-aircraft defences. A second bombing run without the element of surprise and at night, would almost certainly be unsuccessful. Led by Flight Lieutenant Wiggins who made the first run, all three bombers each dropped two torpedoes at a distance of around 500-600 yards from the target. Of the six torpedoes launched, three ran well, striking the Tergestea, and causing an enormous explosion.
After dropping his torpedos Wiggins chose to take his lead aircraft climbing straight over the top of the Tergestea, attracting the greatest concentration of anti-aircraft fire from the escort destroyers. Despite his aircraft suffering multiple hits, Wiggins was able to maintain his escape flight beyond the range of the destroyers’ guns. Sergeant Bertran banked his Wellington away to starboard, and received lighter anti-aircraft fire. The aircraft crews observed a huge column of black smoke, surging up from the Tergestea to an estimated 3,000 feet.
Sergeant Viles’ aircraft, after releasing its torpedos was seen to stagger, probably from receiving fire from the destroyers. The last that was seen of Viles was his aircraft breaking away to port. Both Wiggins and Bertran completed their return flights safely to base by 22.00 hours. A search sortie that night reported that there was no sign of Viles’ Wellington nor of the Tergestea, which must have sunk. Nothing remained of the convoy except for the tanker Proserpina, now settling low in the water and still burning after the earlier attack by Beaufort aircraft.
Rommel is left powerless
The same evening of 26 October, unaware of the torpedo attack on the Tergestea, Rommel wrote to his wife that the loss of the Proserpina made the supply situation critical. Next day on 27 October after hearing of the confirmed further loss overnight of the Tergestea tanker and its fuel supplies, Rommel wrote to his wife again. In near defeatist mood he doubted that he would survive. Starved of fuel, running out of other supplies, and powerless to withstand Eighth Army’s renewed attack in Operation SUPERCHARGE, on 4 November Rommel ordered a general retreat.
In words that intimated a heartfelt relief and appreciation, General Montgomery conveyed his thanks for the outstanding efforts of No 38 Squadron and 201 Group RAF:
Recent attacks carried out against enemy ships so vital … were a wonderful achievement. I would be grateful if you would convey to those responsible our gratitude for operations carried out … epic against ships at sea.
It is of course purely speculative to try and imagine what might have been the consequences, if either the Proserpina or Tergestea had made it to Tobruk. But given Rommel’s experience and aggressive nature as an innovative battlefield general, it would seem extremely probable that he would have attempted some kind of surprising counter attack. What can be said is, that if he had gained this capability, the battle of El Alamein may have taken a very different course.
The reality was that the RAF had eliminated all of Rommel’s remaining options bar one – acceptance of defeat and ignominious retreat westwards from El Alamein.
The above account of the sinking of the Proserpina and Tergestea, is based upon an edited extract from my book The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942 – 1945, (Pen and Sword Books, April 2014), including interviews with Wing Commander Lloyd Wiggins, the Operations Record Book of No 38 Squadron, and a number of other sources that recount air operations at that time.
Wing Commander Lloyd Wiggins, DSO, DFC, MID, was awarded the DSO for the sinking of the Tergestea. While serving in UK he met Thelma Wigfield, an officer in the WAAF, and they married in 1944. In the same year he was posted as CO to No 455 Squadron RAF in UK, flying Beaufighters until promoted to Wing Commander prior to the end of the war. Lloyd and Thelma returned to Adelaide in South Australia, where they raised four children, and Lloyd established his own auction company. In December 2015 in his 100th year Wing Commander Wiggins passed away at his home in Adelaide.
In my most recent book Air Battle for Burma (Pen and Sword Books, November 2016), first-hand accounts by pilots in their torrid struggle against the Japanese air force, include a number of airmen who were transferred from the Desert Air Force to the Far East campaign.
15 March 2017
The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942-1945
(Hardback - 223 pages)
by Bryn Evans
Compared to the RAF's Fighter and Bomber Commands, the Desert Air Force (DAF) is far less well known, yet its achievements were spectacular.
DAF led the way in North Africa and Italy in pioneering new tactics in close Army-Air Force co-operation on the battlefield, DAF and Allied air forces gave Allied armies in North Africa and Italy a decisive cutting edge.
While the Axis forces used the many rivers and mountains of Tunisia and Italy to slow the Allies advance, DAF was there to…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...
Air Battle for Burma
(Hardback - 251 pages)
by Bryn Evans
After a long series of crushing defeats by the apparently unstoppable Japanese air and ground forces, the eventual fightback and victory in Burma was achieved as a result of the exercise of unprecedented combined services cooperation and operations. Crucial to this was the Allies’ supremacy in the air coupled with their ground/air support strategy.
Using veterans’ first-hand accounts, Air Battle For Burma reveals the decisive nature of Allied air power in inflicting the first major defeat on the Japanese Army in the Second World War. Newly equipped…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...
With The East Surreys in Tunisia and Italy 1942 - 1945
(Hardback - 240 pages)
by Bryn Evans
The East Surreys were in near continuous action from November 1942, when they landed in North Africa (Operation TORCH) through to the end of hostilities in May 1945. During these three years of bitter fighting they cleared the Germans from Tunisia, took part in Operation HUSKY, (the invasion of Sicily) and fought up through Italy as far as the River Po.
Trained as mountain troops, the East Surreys saw set piece and patrol action in the Atlas Mountains, on the slopes of Mount Etna and Monte Cassino,…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...
Evans is a management consultant with many years’ experience of
finance and IT at boardroom level. As well as military history Bryn
writes extensively across a wide range of categories, be it business
management, sport, travel, or fiction, and his work has been widely
published. His fiction work has earned a Second Prize in the
Catherine Cookson Short Story Competition and other awards.
Bryn is the author of With the East Surreys in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy 1942 – 1945 (2012), and The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942 – 1945 (2014), both published by Pen and Sword Books Ltd, UK. In his research he has interviewed veterans and their families world-wide, and visited battlefields and campaign locales in Egypt, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy.
After periods residing in UK, Zambia, and Germany, Bryn his wife Dr Jean Evans have lived for many years in Sydney, Australia.
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