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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bomba Away!

Late in August 1940 a Royal Marine officer stepped through the gates of the airfield at Ma'aten Bagush in Egypt. The Royal Marine was Captain Oliver Patch, and he was a pilot with the Royal Navy Air Service. He had just been dispatched from RNAS Dekheila, his role was to command a flight of three Fairey Swordfish on an anti-shipping strike along the Libyan coast. The three torpedo carrying Swordfish flew to a forward strip at Sidi Barani, arriving at 0700 on the 22nd. While there they ate a breakfast of tinned sausages, baked beans and bread and waited for the reconnaissance to return. The day before a Blenheim bomber had spotted a supply ship and a submarine tied up in a bay on the Libyan coast, if they were still there then the Swordfish would attack. The reconnaissance returned with a positive result, and soon the three Swordfish were bumping along the sandy air strip, heading for Bomba Bay.

At Bomba Bay the Italian forces were actually larger than reported. The bay contained a single supply ship called Monte Gargano and two submarines as well as the torpedo boat Calipso. The latter was a Spica class torpedo boat, and don't think of something like a MTB or PT boat. The Spica class were over 1000 tons in weight and carried three four inch guns and about ten 20mm cannons, as well as an array of machine guns. One of the submarines was called the Iride, the reason for this mass of Italian shipping was a planned frogman raid on Alexandria. By 1230 the frogmen had transferred their human torpedoes (named Maiali, after a type of pig) to the Iride from the Calipso, and the submarine was setting out. Some reports say that the crew, feeling quite safe, had hung their washing out on the rigging of the submarine to dry.
Midships on a Scipa class
Then from out at sea came the three Swordfish, in line abreast with 200 yards between each plane, chugging along at just thirty feet. The Italians immediately leapt to their guns and put up a barrage of AA fire. Cpt Patch swerved the incoming fire, took aim and released his torpedo at about three hundred yards. It ran straight towards the Iride, striking below her conning tower and blowing the submarine in half.

The other two Swordfish hurtled onwards, the first lined up on the Monte Gargano and despite being hit in the wing strut released its torpedo. The pilot of the second Swordfish was about to release when his gunner spotted a submerged sand bank running across the track of the torpedo and shouted a warning. The pilot waited until they had cleared the obstacle and released, and turned to follow his two companions out to sea and back to base.
The two torpedoes were running, the first hit the the Monte Gargano causing a major fire, which eventually spread to her stores and caused an explosion. This also set the Calipso on fire causing her to sink. The final torpedo hit the unnamed submarine also sinking her. This was confirmed by Italian news broadcasts which admitted the loss of the ships.
However that's not what actually happened. There was no four ships for three torpedoes. The third torpedo missed its target (the unknown submarine), which later left the bay of its own accord. The Calipso left the bay and commenced rescue operations on the Iride. Most of the crew were rescued from the water, as they had been on deck at the time of her sinking. However nine men were trapped in the forward section of the hull. The frogmen who had just been rescued, but lacked their breathing gear (as it was on-board the submarine) began to free dive down to the wreck of the submarine. First they attached a marker buoy to the hull, one even managed to communicate with the survivors, presumably by hammering on the hull. He was awarded a medal for his actions.
After a radio call for assistance was dispatched by the Calipso, a diver with additional breathing equipment arrived from Tobruk, and five of the trapped men were rescued.

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