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Operation Substance - (Also known as - WS 9C)
July 1941

Merchant Ships taking part in Substance
City of Pretoria
7,900 tons
7,800 tons
10,893 tons
Leinster (3)
4302 tons

Photo taken pre war. It's difficult to find photos of this ship.
Photo courtesy of Ian Boyle

This was fitted out as a hospital ship but also carried RAF personnel. My father was one of them. Also 200 Royal Artillery were aboard plus members of the 18th General Hospital Unit.
A photo of Leinster appears on Flikr but was taken in Norway. It shows the ship painted up as a hospital ship.

Ran aground on the coast of Cape Tarifa.

An interesting account of this convoy can be found in a pdf here

Melbourne Star
12,806 tons

Photo courtesy of Tony Jones -
Port Chalmers
8,535 tons
Sydney Star
11,000 tons

Photo courtesy of Tony Jones -

HMS Sikh with possibly Deucalion behind passing St.Angelo.

The 18th General Hospital Unit sailed with the convoy & were distributed around the ships.

Royal Navy Ships taking part in Substance
Vice Admiral Somerville.
Force H
Aircraft Carriers
Ark Royal
Light Cruisers
Torpedoed & damaged off the coast of Spain. Put into Gibraltar.
Home Fleet
33,000 tons
Aircraft Carriers
Ark Royal
Flag Ship. Rear Admiral Syfret.
Nestor (RAN)
Commander A.R.Rosenthal (RAN).
Mediterranean Fleet
8 submarines
Positioned off Calabria, Naples, north of Sicily & both sides of Messina Straits.


Planning for this operation commenced in June 1941. It's aim was to resupply Malta from Gibraltar with cover from Force H as far as the Skerki Channel. The fleet from Alexandria were tasked with creating a diversion to make the axis powers think the convoy was heading for Alexandria.
Submarines from Alexandria were sent to the west of Crete to send misleading radio signals to fool the enemy to thinking their was convoy activity in the area & lure out attacking forces away from the real area of operation. This plan worked as aircraft from the Luftwaffe & Regia Aeronautica were drawn to the area. The battle fleet meanwhile returned to Alexandria.
The second part of the plan was to escort empty merchantmen lying in Grand Harbour, Malta back to Gibraltar. The tanker Breconshire & 6 merchantmen would be part of this return convoy.
Typically cargoes would be split between ships with a bit of everything so that if ships were lost at least some of all items would get through. Port Chalmers loading manifest included:- 2,000 tons of high octane aviation fuel, maize, wheat, flour, corned beef, mutton, cement, whiskey, tobacco, cigarettes, cotton bales, guns, shells, ammunition, cars, lorries & aircraft components.
The convoy originated from Greenock, Scotland. It departed around 2 am.
The convoy entered the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of 21st July 1941. Night passages were the norm as many enemy agents would report shipping movements back to Italian intelligence.
A thick fog covered the Straits & the merchant Leinster ran aground on the north African mainland at Algeciras. This was land controlled by Vichy French forces & the danger was that all personnel & cargo would be impounded. A ship (reportedly a destroyer) came alongside & took off the personnel, delivering them to Gibraltar where they were later billeted on the French Liner Louis Pasteur for a time. Leinster & the Pasteur failed to make the convoy.

At the Skerki Channel (the narrows) Force H turned back to Gibraltar. This was so as not to put capital ships at risk. The Italian fleet had a considerable force of battleships & heavy cruisers at hand.
On the 23rd July Manchester was attacked by 2 Italian torpedo boats (MAS)(No's 16 & 22) & Italian bombers. She was hit in an oil fuel tank & 2 engines were put out of action. She returned to Gibraltar for repairs.
Fearless was torpedoed & had to be sunk by her sister ship Forester.

HMS Fearless in foreground with HMS Nelson in the background.
Photo courtesy of Tony Cox.

Sinking of HMS Fearless taken aboard RA Vessel 'Port Chalmers' July 23rd 1941
Photo courtesy of Tony Cox.

HMS Fearless on fire 23rd July 1941.
Photo courtesy of Tony Cox.

Sydney Star was torpedoed by an E-boat & sustained a 40 x 20' hole in her bows. She started to sink by the head & drifted towards the enemy held island of Pantellaria. HMS Nestor came alongside & started evacuating the crew & 464 troops from the 32nd Light AA Regiment. Apart from the personnel her cargo was grain, naval stores & ammunition. It took about half an hour to transfer some 500 men. A skeleton crew remained on board & managed to get 12 knots out of the engines. They set coarse for Malta.
Some Savoia bombers made an attack which was driven off. Sydney Star by this time was estimated to have shipped 7,000 tons of water & was hard to handle. At 7 am a lone aircraft attacked with a torpedo which exploded in the ships wake. She was joined by Hermione, Nelson & Beaufighters from Malta & made Valletta harbour at 8 am.

HMS Firedrake received a direct hit in No. 1 boiler room from a bomb off Cape Bon. She was taken in tow by a Hunt class destroyer & taken 800 miles to Gibraltar.

HMS Edinburgh endured 13 hours of bombing & torpedoes. She was carrying the 11th Battalion Lancashire Fusilliers.

The convoy reached Malta on the 24th July & was greeted by reconnaissance aircraft from Sicily who brought up high level bombers to attack to convoy in harbour. This attack was broken up by the anti-aircraft barrage & Hurricanes.

The fleet returned to Gibraltar where Leinster & Louis Pasteur were docked. The personnel previously rescued from Leinster were transferred to Arethusa, Hermione & the minelayer Manxman. This small force sailed at top speed for Malta. It was rumoured that Arethusa & Hermione were expendable as long as Manxman got through (ref:Malta Convoy. David A.Thomas pp104). This ship also being loaded with bombs, torpedoes & supplies.
Next day at daybreak a submarine was seen on the surface off Tunis & orders were given for Hermione to ram which she did, hitting the submarine abaft the conning tower. This was the Italian submarine Tambien which sank. Hermione sustained a 20' gash to her bows.
This force got into Malta at 11.30 am, 24th July.

The convoy managed to land 5,000 men, 65,000 tons of stores which included submarine torpedoes, Hurricane engines, anti-aircraft guns, 10,000 tons of ammunition, edible oils, sugar, coffee & tea.

References BBC Website
Malta Convoys David A.Thomas.