UGS-48 (TAMBOURINE) left Hampton Roads on 14 July 1944, bound for Port Said, Egypt. Ships joined and left en route and by 31 July it consisted of 54 merchantmen, a salvage tug, a Royal Navy submarine and an LST. The escort consisted of the AA Cruiser HMS Delhi and 14 smaller USN and RN vessels.
The first German reconnaissance aircraft was plotted heading south west, early on the 31st. It circled another, smaller convoy before approaching to within 16 km of TAMBOURINE which was then off El Marsa. This aircraft withdrew after about an hour but another soon followed, interesting itself in a third convoy, well to the west; another machine was heard homing on its base. This last machine was a Ju 188 of 1.(F)/33 which took off at 10.21 hrs., sighted a convoy at 12.26 and passed about 25 km to the west at 11,000 m. It sent out a detailed weather report and “probably took photographs” according to the Allies. Spitfires and P-39s scrambled against these reconnaissance machines made no interceptions. Defensive measures were initiated in expectation of a dusk attack but none came.
At 09.30 GMT, Feldmarschall Sperrle, CO of Luftflotte 3 had ordered Fliegerdiv. 2 to carry out a torpedo attack on an eastbound Mediterranean convoy during the coming night. In a message timed at 17.15, the division notified Lfl. 3:
Moonlight attack on large convoy level with Cape Bengut by 40 Ju 88. Time of attack with a/c torpedoes: 23.00 hrs.
British Intelligence moved with exceptional speed, transmitting a deciphered text to Allied commands by 20.21 hrs. This carried the maximum “ZZZZZ” priority since it gave over two hours’ warning of the intended strike.
Aircraft of KG 77 were already airborne: Fhj.-Fw. Leonhard Hopp of the Geschwaderstab had taken off at 19.20 hrs. to locate the target and place sea markers (Lux buoys) at the running-in point. Since many of his missions had been radar reconnaissance, it is probable that the FuG 200 search set was used on this occasion too. He was followed an hour later by a Ju 88 of 6./KG 77 whose role was target finding and illumination. In 3Z+DP, Uffz. Walter Pabst’s crew were acting as pathfinders and illuminators with a load of 18 Lux buoys and 10 flares.
The 6./KG 77 dispatched five pathfinders and arrows of 14 buoys (six forming the “shaft”, four in each “barb”) were laid on the sea at 50 km intervals, the last about 100 km. from the Algerian coast forming the initial point for the attack run. About 80 km east of Ibiza, Pabst laid his buoys but half of them failed to ignite. Not only that but they were laid too far west and the mistake was repeated by a back-up crew, delaying the strike force’s arrival in the target area.
Shore-based radars first plotted the incoming attack at 22.22 GMT (= 00.22 local time) on 1 August, estimating that around 25 hostile aircraft were involved. Some of the attackers nosed around convoys “GABARDINE” (GUS-47) and the five-vessel “BATTEN” but turned away. A Mosquito of No. 256 Squadron was already on patrol and three more were scrambled, along with four Beaufighters from 153 Squadron. “Red” warning was given at 22.30 and the ships made smoke, ensuring that the screen was well established before the attack developed.
There was 10/10 cloud at 120 m over the convoy, with clear patches; beneath the cloud there was poor visibility with some mist; the moon was half full. The 6./KG 77’s Technical Officer, Ltn. Barnickel, circled over the convoy, transmitting its course and distance in clear. When Pabst’s aircraft arrived, he dropped flares 1 km to landward to silhouette the ships, then orbited at 2–3,000 m. to observe the torpedo attack.
At 22.47 hrs., the destroyer escort USS Buckley picked up several bandits 90 km to the north east but these disappeared from the radar right away, apparently because they had dropped lower. A flare was dropped at 23.01 and burned brightly on the water, numerous aircraft appearing on the scopes at a range of 16 km soon after.
What was perceived by the ships as the main body of 10 or 11 Ju 88s came in from NNE and by 23.00 GMT on 1 August the action was at its height. The oiler USS Maumee kept a succinct log of events (times converted to GMT):
Pabst related that a spread of torpedoes missed a destroyer but hit a merchantman; his Wireless Operator, Ltn. von Frank, saw two ships on fire. Later in the day, Fliegerdiv. 2 reported that five pathfinders and 40 torpedo-bombers had taken attacked from 23.02–23.37 GMT and had claimed a considerable tally of successes: a cargo vessel of 4000 tonnes, a passenger ship of 8000 t and a a destroyer probably sunk; two cargo ships of 14000 t (total?) badly damaged; and two more (15000 t) damaged. Besides this, eight vessels had been hit by long-running torpedoes but fog had precluded further observation of results.
As many as twenty underwater detonations were noted by the convoy but not a single ship was hit or even damaged, beyond some dents in the plating of Reuben James from machine gun bullets. Crew casualties were nil. The USS Alexander J. Luke reported sighting a Do 217 close aboard but this was mistaken identification, only Ju 88s were involved. UGS-47 was close enough to see the gunfire but was not attacked.
The defences had little success. The smoke was so thick that few of the ships even saw an aeroplane and their AA fire was radar-directed. Flashes amidst the smoke were reported as possible AA hits or perhaps flares, no one was sure. Seven of the night fighters got contacts but none managed a visual interception. While no Düppel was used, interception was made difficult by the Ju 88s’ low altitude, the weather, the confused radar picture and the apparent use of tail-warning devices:
… [Allied] fighters found that only mild evasive action was taken by the enemy beyond [3 km] but at closer ranges violent evasive action was adopted.
Although the ships claimed one Ju 88 probably shot down, the Luftwaffe reported no losses from this, its last operation against an Allied convoy in the Mediterranean.
© Nick Beale 2023