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Part 1 of 3 - 1939-41

HMS Ark Royal, fleet carrier (Navy Photos/Ben Titheridge, click to enlarge)

on to Part 2, Carrier Warfare, 1941-43,


Each Summary is complete in its own right. The same information may therefore be found in a number of related summaries

(for more ship information,  go to Naval History Homepage and type name in Site Search)



1921-22 - Washington Naval Treaty - Britain, United States, Japan, France and Italy agreed to limit the displacement and main armament of capital ships, aircraft carriers and cruisers, and total tonnage and age of the first two categories.

1922 - Japanese carrier "Hosho" completed.

1927 - French carrier "Bearn", US carriers "Lexington" and "Saratoga", Japanese carrier "Akagi" completed

1928 - Japanese carrier "Kaga" completed

1930 - London Naval Treaty - Britain, US and Japan agreed on total tonnage, tonnage and armament limitations for cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Neither France nor Italy were signatories.

1933 - Japanese carrier "Ryujo" completed

1934 - US carrier "Ranger" completed

1936 - The 1922 and 1930 Naval Treaties were allowed to lapse and the major powers moved towards rearmament.

1937 - US carrier "Yorktown", Japanese carrier "Soryu" completed

1938 - Germany drew up the major naval rearmament programme, the 'Z' plan, to bring the Navy closer to equality to Britain by the mid-1940s. British carrier "Ark Royal", US carrier "Enterprise" completed; German carrier "Graf Zeppelin" was launched but never completed.

1939 August - German U-boats and two pocket battleships sailed for their war stations in the Atlantic. Completed to 3rd September 1939 - Japanese carrier "Hiryu". Launched in the same period - British fleet carriers "Illustrious", "Formidable", Japanese carrier "Shokaku" and US carrier "Wasp"





Carrier Strengths and Dispositions

The Royal Navy, still the largest in the world in September 1939, included six old aircraft carriers ("Argus", "Eagle", "Hermes", "Furious", "Courageous" and "Glorious") and the new "Ark Royal". Five of the six planned armoured-deck fleet carriers were under construction. There were no escort carriers. The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) recently returned to full control of the Navy, was equipped with obsolescent aircraft. The French had the old "Bearn" and a second one laid down in 1938 but never launched.

The Allies primary maritime tasks were based on the assumption Britain and France would fight the European Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The Royal Navy would be responsible for the North Sea and most of the Atlantic, although the French would contribute some forces. In the Mediterranean, defence would be shared between both Navies. Off the many threats facing the two Navies, the only role apparently foreseen for the aircraft carriers apart from being the "eyes of the fleet" was to carry out anti-U-boat sweeps in the Western Approaches. The results were tragic.

Four Royal Navy and the one French carrier were in European waters. Two of the British were part of Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow and Rosyth, and the other two with the English Channel Force.

3rd - After Germany invaded Poland on the 1st, Britain and France demanded the withdrawal of German forces. The ultimatum expired and at 11.15am on the 3rd, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to announce that Britain was at war with Germany. He formed a War Cabinet with Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. France, Australia, New Zealand and India declared war the same day.


14th - After an unsuccessful attack on carrier "Ark Royal" off the Hebrides, NW Scotland, German "U-39" was depth-charged and sunk by screening destroyers "Faulknor", "Firedrake" and "Foxhound".

17th - Three days after the sinking of "U-39", fleet carrier "COURAGEOUS" was sent to the bottom to the southwest of Ireland by "U-29" with heavy loss of life. Carriers were withdrawn from anti-U-boat patrols as it became accepted that the best chance of sinking U-boats was to attract them to well-defended convoys where the escorts could hunt them down.



German Heavy Warships - Pocket battleship "Graf Spee" claimed four more merchant ships in the South Atlantic before heading into the southern Indian Ocean. Seven Allied hunting groups were formed in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean to search for her. In total the Royal and French Navies deployed three capital ships, four aircraft carriers and 16 cruisers.


German Heavy Warships - Battlecruiser "Gneisenau" and other ships of the German Navy sortied on the 8th off Norway to draw the Home Fleet within U-boat and aircraft range. Capital ships "Hood", "Nelson", "Repulse", "Rodney" and "Royal Oak" together with carrier "Furious", cruisers and destroyers sailed for various positions, but no contact was made.




APRIL 1940



Norwegian Campaign

7th-8th - In response to reported German movements, units of the Home Fleet including “Rodney”, “Valiant”, “Repulse”, four cruisers and 14 destroyers sail from Scapa Flow and Rosyth.

9th - Germany invaded Denmark and Norway - In Norway, troops landed at Oslo, Kristiansand and Bergen in the south, Trondheim in the centre and Narvik in the north. German Navy forces included a pocket battleship, six cruisers and 14 destroyers for the landings at the five Norwegian ports, with battlecruisers “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau” covering the two most northerly landings. Thirty U-boats patrolled off Norway and British bases.

10th - British Home Fleet was reinforced by battleship “Warspite” and carrier “Furious”. Fleet Air Arm Skua dive-bomber’s of 800 and 803 Squadrons flying from the Orkney Islands sank German cruiser "KOENIGSBERG" at her moorings in Bergen. This was the first major warship sunk by air attack.

24th - Carrier “Glorious” flew off obsolescent Gladiator biplanes for shore operations.


MAY 1940


10th - Germany invaded Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg

Norwegian Campaign - The Allies had evacuated central Norway, but continued to build up forces for the attack on Narvik in the north. By the 23rd carriers “Furious” and “Glorious” had flown ashore the first modern RAF fighters.

JUNE 1940


Norwegian Campaign - At the end of the evacuation, fleet carrier “GLORIOUS” (below) and escorting destroyers “ACASTA” and “ARDENT” sailed for Britain independently of the other withdrawing forces. West of Lofoten Islands on the 8th they met the 11in gun battlecruisers “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau” sailing to attack suspected Allied shipping off Harstad. The British ships were soon overwhelmed and sunk, but not before “Acasta” hit “Scharnhorst” with a torpedo. Few of the Royal Navy crews survived.

 13th - Five days after the sinking of “Glorious”, aircraft from carrier “Ark Royal” attacked the damaged “Scharnhorst” in Trondheim but to little effect.


10th - Italy Declared War on Britain and France

Mediterranean Naval Strengths - The Western Mediterranean was primarily the responsibility of the French Navy - although British reinforcements could soon be dispatched from the Home Fleet as shortly happened. The Eastern Mediterranean was in the hands of the Mediterranean Fleet and a small French squadron based at Alexandria. It was up to strength in major units but still weak in cruisers, destroyers and submarines when compared with the Italian Navy. This was partly offset by the presence of carrier “Eagle” to accompany battleships “Malaya”, “Ramillies”, “Royal Sovereign” and “Warspite”. The large Italian fleet was mainly based in the Mediterranean, but had no carriers.

12th -The Mediterranean Fleet with “Warspite”, “Malaya”, carrier “Eagle”, cruisers and destroyers sailed from Alexandria for a sweep against Italian shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. South of Crete, light cruiser “CALYPSO” was torpedoed and sunk by Italian submarine “Bagnolini”.

British Force H - By the end of the month, Force H had been assembled at Gibraltar from units of the Home Fleet. Vice-Adm Sir James Somerville flew his flag in battlecruiser “Hood” and commanded battleships “Resolution” and “Valiant”, carrier “Ark Royal” and a few cruisers and destroyers. From Gibraltar, Force H could cover the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

JULY 1940


French Navy in the Atlantic - Carrier “Hermes” and cruisers “Dorsetshire” and Australian sister-ship “Australia” laid off Dakar, French West Africa on the 8th after negotiations were refused on the future of French battleship “Richelieu”. Attacks made with depth-charges from a fast motorboat failed and a torpedo strike by Swordfish inflicted only minor damage.


French Navy in the Mediterranean - In the Action at Oran (Operation 'Catapult'), Adm Somerville arrived with Force H off the French Algerian base of Mers-el-Kebir near Oran on the 3rd. French Adm Gensoul was offered a number of choices to ensure his fleet with its four capital ships stayed out of Axis hands. All were turned down and, at around 18.00, Force H opened fire on the anchored ships. "BRETAGNE" blew up and the "Dunkerque" and "Provence", together with other ships, were badly damaged. Battlecruiser "Strasbourg" and some destroyers managed to break out in spite of attacks by aircraft from carrier "Ark Royal", and reached Toulon in the south of France. Three days later the damaged "Dunkerque" was torpedoed at her moorings by "Ark Royal's" Swordfish. The tragic and unhappy episode was over as far as Oran was concerned.

5th - Obsolescent torpedo-carrying Swordfish from carrier "Eagle's" squadrons flew from land bases on successful attacks against Tobruk and area. On the 5th, aircraft of 813 Squadron sank Italian destroyer "ZEFFIRO" and a freighter at Tobruk. The success was repeated two weeks later

9th - Action off Calabria or Battle of Punto Stila - On the 7th, Adm Cunningham sailed from Alexandria with battleships "Warspite", Malaya", Royal Sovereign", carrier "Eagle", cruisers and destroyers to cover convoys from Malta to Alexandria and to challenge the Italians to action. Next day - the 8th - two Italian battleships, 14 cruisers and 32 destroyers were reported in the Ionian Sea covering a convoy of their own to Benghazi in Libya. Italian aircraft now started five days of accurate high-level bombing (also against Force H out of Gibraltar) and cruiser "Gloucester" was hit and damaged. Mediterranean Fleet headed for a position to cut off the Italians from their base at Taranto. On the 9th, "Eagle's" aircraft failed to find the Italians and first contact was made by a detached cruiser squadron which was soon under fire from the heavier Italian ships. "Warspite" came up and damaged "Giulio Cesare" with a 15in hit. As the Italian battleships turned away, the British cruisers and destroyers engaged, but with little effect. Mediterranean Fleet pursued to within 50 miles of the south west Italian coast off Calabria before withdrawing. As Adm Cunningham covered the by now delayed convoys to Alexandria, "Eagle's" Swordfish attacked Augusta harbour, Sicily on the 10th. Destroyer "Pancaldo" was torpedoed, but later re-floated and re-commissioned.

20th - "Eagle's" Swordfish continued their strikes against Italian targets around Tobruk. In the nearby Gulf of Bomba, 824 Squadron was responsible for sinking destroyers "NEMBO" and "OSTRO" and another freighter.


With the fall of France, Italy continued to dominate the central Mediterranean. The comparatively healthy naval position also changed for the worse. In all except capital ships – seven British to six Italian - the Royal Navy was distinctly inferior in numbers to the Italians, but had its two near-priceless fleet carriers – “Ark Royal” based on Gibraltar, and “Eagle”, later joined by “Illustrious” operating out of Alexandria. They would dominate the Mediterranean over the next six months.



Battle of the Atlantic - Long range Focke Wulf Kondor bombers started patrols off the coast of Ireland. As well as spotting for U-boats they attacked and sank many ships, and continued to be a major threat until the introduction of ship-borne aircraft in late 1941 started to counteract them.


Malta - The decision was taken to reinforce Malta and in Operation 'Hurry', carrier "Argus" flew off 12 Hurricanes from a position southwest of Sardinia. This was the first of many reinforcement and supply operations, often bitterly fought to keep Malta alive and in the fight against Axis supply routes to their armies in North Africa. Now, as in the future, cover from the west was provided by Force H. The opportunity was taken for carrier "Ark Royal's" aircraft to hit Sardinian targets.

22nd - Land-based Swordfish from carrier "Eagle's" 824 Squadron repeated their July success with another torpedo strike in the Gulf of Bomba near Tobruk. Just as she prepared for a human torpedo attack on Alexandria, submarine "IRIDE" and a depot ship were sunk.



23rd-25th - Dakar Expedition, Operation 'Menace' - Because of Dakar's strategic importance to the North and South Atlantic shipping routes, an expedition was mounted to acquire the port for Allied use. Free French troops led by Gen de Gaulle were carried in ships escorted and supported by units of the Home Fleet and Force H under the command of Vice-Adm John Cunningham. They included battleships "Barham" and "Resolution", carrier "Ark Royal", three heavy cruisers. Naval forces at Dakar included the unfinished battleship "Richelieu" and two cruisers recently arrived from Toulon. Attempts to negotiate on the 23rd soon failed and as Vichy French ships tried to leave harbour, shore batteries opened fire, damaging heavy cruiser "Cumberland" and two destroyers. Shortly afterwards, the Vichy submarine "PERSEE" was sunk by gunfire and large destroyer "L'AUDACIEUX" disabled by cruiser "Australia" and beached. A Free French landing was beaten off. Next day, on the 24th, Dakar was bombarded by the warships and "Richelieu" attacked by carrier "Ark Royal's" aircraft. Vichy submarine "AJAX" was sunk by destroyer "Fortune". The bombardment continued on the 25th, but battleship "Resolution" was now torpedoed and badly damaged by submarine "Beveziers" and "Barham" hit by "Richelieu's" 15in gunfire. At this point the operation was abandoned and the Anglo-Free French forces withdrew.


Royal Navy in the Mediterranean - Reinforcements were sent to the Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria right through until the end of the year. They were covered from Gibraltar by Adm Somerville's Force H, then met in the central basin by Adm Cunningham and escorted the rest of the way. The opportunity was usually taken to carry in supplies of men and material to Malta. Early in September new fleet carrier "Illustrious" with its armoured flight deck, battleship "Valiant" and two cruisers were transferred in this way in Operation 'Hats'. On passage with the new arrivals, aircraft from Force H's "Ark Royal" attacked Sardinian targets. After joining up with carrier "Eagle" and now in the eastern Med, "Illustrious" sent aircraft against Rhodes. The Italian Fleet sortied during these operations, but failed to make contact. The arrival of "Illustrious" allowed Adm Cunningham to go ahead with his plans to attack the Italian battlefleet at Taranto.

17th - Units of the Mediterranean Fleet including battleship "Valiant" sailed with carrier "Illustrious" for a raid on Benghazi. Swordfish biplanes torpedoed destroyer "BOREA", and mines laid by them off the port sank "AQUILONE".



12th/14th - Attacks on Malta Convoy - From Alexandria a convoy safely reached Malta covered by the Mediterranean Fleet with four battleships and carriers "Illustrious" and "Eagle". As the Fleet returned on the 12th, attacks were made by Italian light forces southeast of Sicily. Cruiser "Ajax" sank Italian torpedo boats "AIRONE" and "ARIEL" and badly damaged destroyer "ARTIGLIERE" which was finished off by heavy cruiser "York". Later heading back east, the carriers launched air strikes against Leros island in the Dodecanese.



11th - Fleet Air Arm Attack on Taranto, Operation 'Judgement' - Early in the month a complex series of reinforcement and supply moves (1-5) mounted from both ends of the Mediterranean led to the classic air attack (6) on the Italian battlefleet at Taranto. (1) From Alexandria, Adm Cunningham, with battleships "Malaya", "Ramillies", Valiant" and "Warspite", carrier "Illustrious", cruisers and destroyers, sailed to cover west-bound convoys to Crete and Malta. Aircraft carrier "Eagle" had to be left behind because of defects caused by earlier bombing. (2) From Gibraltar, Force H in a separate operation called "Coat" supported the east-bound passage of battleship "Barham", two cruisers and three destroyers to reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet. (3) Troop reinforcements were also carried to Malta at this time from Gibraltar.

(4) Still in the eastern half of the Med, Adm Cunningham's Fleet met its new members and covered the return of an empty ship convoy from Malta. (5) On the 11th a cruiser force was detached for a successful attack on Italian shipping in the Strait of Otranto at the entrance to the Adriatic Sea. (6) "Illustrious" meanwhile, escorted by cruisers and destroyers, headed for a position in the Ionian Sea 170 miles to the southeast of Taranto. All six battleships of the Italian Navy were at anchor there. That night she launched two waves of Swordfish biplanes, some belonging to "Eagle". Under the command of Lt-Cdrs K. Williamson and J. W. Hale, the total of no more than 20 aircraft of Number 813, 815, 819 and 824 Squadrons hit "CONTE DI CAVOUR" and "CAIO DIULIO" with one torpedo each and the brand new "LITTORIA" with three. All three battleships sank at their moorings and "Cavour" was never recommissioned, all for the loss of just two Swordfish.

The Japanese Navy carefully studied the attack as Pearl Harbor learnt to its cost just a year later.

27th - Action off Cape Spartivento, Southern Sardinia - A fast convoy under the codename Operation 'Collar' sailed eastward from Gibraltar with ships for Malta and Alexandria. Cover as usual was provided by Force H with battlecruiser "Renown", carrier "Ark Royal", cruisers "Despatch" and "Sheffield" Meanwhile, units of the Mediterranean Fleet including "Ramillies" and cruisers "Newcastle", "Berwick" and "Coventry" headed west for a position south of Sardinia to meet them. Other ships accompanied the two Mediterranean Fleet carriers in separate attacks on Italian targets - "Eagle" on Tripoli, Libya and "Illustrious" on Rhodes off the southwest Turkish coast. These moves took place on the 26th. Next day, on the 27th, south of Sardinia, aircraft of Force H carrier "Ark Royal" sighted an Italian force with two battleships and seven heavy cruisers. Force H, now joined by the Med Fleet's "Ramillies", sailed to meet them. In an hour-long exchange of gunfire "Renown" and the cruisers were in action, during which time "Berwick" was damaged and an Italian destroyer badly hit. The slower "Ramillies" had not come up by the time the Italians had turned back for home. Adm Somerville pursued, but as he approached Italian shores had to turn back himself. The convoys arrive safely.



Mediterranean Operations - Another series of convoy and offensive operations were carried out by the Mediterranean Fleet with battleships "Warspite", "Valiant "and carrier "Illustrious". On the 17th carrier aircraft attacked Rhodes and on the night of the 18th/19th the two battleships bombarded Valona, Albania. At the same time, battleship "Malaya" passed through to the west for Gibraltar. On the way, escorting destroyer "HYPERION" hit a nine near Cape Bon, northeast tip of Tunisia on the 22nd and had to be scuttled. "Malaya" carried on to meet up with Force H.

The German Luftwaffe's X Fliegerkorps - including Ju87 Stuka dive-bombers - was ordered to Sicily and southern Italy to bolster the Italian Air Force.

Mediterranean Theatre after Seven Months - Mussolini's claimed domination of the Mediterranean had not been apparent. In spite of the loss of French naval power, Force H and the Mediterranean Fleet and their carriers had more than held the Italian Navy in check. Malta had been supplied and reinforced, and the British offensive in North Africa was underway. Elsewhere, the Greeks were driving the Italians back into Albania and away to the south the Italian East African Empire was about to be wound up.

However, it was now only a matter of months and even weeks before the Luftwaffe appeared in Sicily, Gen Rommel in North Africa and the German Army in Greece, followed by their Paratroops in Crete





6th-11th - Malta Convoy "Excess" - Another complex series of convoy and ship movements (1-6) revolving around Malta led to carrier "Illustrious" being badly damaged and the Royal Navy losing its comparative freedom of operation in the Eastern Mediterranean. This followed the arrival in Sicily of the German Luftwaffe's X Fliegerkorps. (1) On the 6th, convoy 'Excess' left Gibraltar for Malta and Greece covered by Gibraltar-based Force H. (2) At the same time the Mediterranean Fleet from Alexandria prepared to cover supply ships to Malta and (3) bring out empty ones. (4) Mediterranean Fleet cruisers "Gloucester" and "Southampton" carried troop reinforcements to Malta and then (5) continued on west to meet 'Excess'. (6) Force H returned to Gibraltar.

By the 10th, 'Excess' had reached the Strait of Sicily and was attacked by Italian torpedo boats. "VEGA" was sunk by escorting cruiser "Bonaventure" and destroyer "Hereward". As the Mediterranean Fleet including "Illustrious" met the convoy off the Italian-held island of Pantelleria, screening destroyers "GALLANT" hit a mine. Still west of Malta, heavy attacks by German and Italian aircraft were launched. Carrier "Illustrious" was singled out and hit six times by Ju87 and Ju88 bombers. Only the armoured flight deck saved her from total destruction as she struggled into Malta with 200 casualties. There, under continual attack, she was repaired temporarily and left on the 23rd for Alexandria. Sister-ship "Formidable" was sent out to replace her via the Cape of Good Hope, but it was some weeks before she reached the Eastern Mediterranean. All merchantmen reached their destinations safely, but at a cost of a cruiser and destroyer, and the loss of carrier "Illustrious'" vital air power.



9th - Force H Attack in the Gulf of Genoa - "Renown", "Malaya" and carrier "Ark Royal," sailed right up into the Gulf of Genoa, northwest Italy. The big ships bombarded the city of Genoa while "Ark Royal's" aircraft bombed Leghorn and laid mines off Spezia, all on the 9th. An Italian battlefleet sortied but failed to make contact.

MARCH 1941


Battle of the Atlantic - On 6th March 1941, faced with the mortal threat of the German U-boat and aircraft offensive in the Atlantic, Winston Churchill issued his famous Battle of the Atlantic directive. Catapult armed merchantmen (CAM) were to be fitted out, merchant ships equipped with AA weapons as a first priority, and more Coastal Command squadrons formed and fitted with radar. Port and dockyard congestion was to be dealt with and the defence of ports greatly improved.


28th - Battle of Cape Matapan - As ships of the Mediterranean Fleet covered troop movements to Greece, 'Ultra' intelligence was received reporting the sailing of an Italian battlefleet with one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers to attack the convoy routes. On the 27th, Vice-Adm Pridham-Wippell with cruisers "Ajax", "Gloucester", "Orion" and the Australian "Perth" and destroyers sailed from Greek waters for a position south of Crete. Adm Cunningham with carrier "Formidable" (right) and battleships "Warspite", "Barham" and "Valiant" left Alexandria on the same day to meet the cruisers. Around 08.30 on the 28th, south of Crete, Adm Pridham- Wippell was in action with an Italian cruiser squadron. Just before noon he found himself between them and the battleship "Vittorio Veneto" which had now come up. An attack by Swordfish from carrier "Formidable" failed to hit the Italian battleship, but enabled the British cruisers to extricate themselves. Mediterranean Fleet heavy units arrived, but their only chance of action was to slow down the Italians before they could reach Italy. A second Swordfish carrier aircraft strike at around 15.25 hit and slowed down "Vittorio Veneto", but only for a short while. At 19.30 a third carrier strike southwest of Cape Matapan stopped heavy cruiser "Pola".

Later that evening (still on the 28th), two more heavy cruisers - "Fiume" and "Zara with four destroyers were detached to help "Pola". Before reaching her, Adm Cunningham's ships detected them by radar and "FIUME", "ZARA" and destroyers "ALFIERI" and "CARDUCCI" were crippled by the close range gunfire of "Barham", "Valiant" and "Warspite". All four Italians were finished off by four destroyers led by the Australian "Stuart". Early next morning on the 29th, "POLA" was found, partly abandoned. After taking off the remaining crew, destroyers "Jervis" and "Nubian" sank her with torpedoes. The Royal Navy lost one aircraft.

APRIL 1941


Battle of the Atlantic - Over the next few months a number of long awaited ship types and weapons started to be introduced. These would contribute significantly to the eventual defeat of the U-boat and includd: (1) The first Auxiliary Fighter Catapult Ships flying the White Ensign and equipped with a single 'one-way' Hurricane were ready in April 1941. They shot down their first Kondor in August. In May a Hurricane was successfully launched from a Red Ensign Catapult Armed Merchantman (CAM), but they did not claim their first victim until November. CAM-ships were eventually superseded in 1943 by Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs) - merchantmen with full flightdecks, but sailing under the Red Ensign and also carrying oil or grain. (2) The final step in the introduction of ship-borne aircraft into the Battle of the Atlantic came in June when the first escort carrier was ready for service. HMS Audacity, converted from a German prize, had a short life, but proved the great value of these vessels.


3rd - Leading up to the capture of Massawa, capital of the Italian colony of Eritrea, the surviving eight Italian destroyers and torpedo boats were lost or scuttled. On the 3rd, five seaworthy destroyers sailed to attack Port Sudan, Sudan further north along the Red Sea shore. Shore-based Swordfish from carrier "Eagle" sank "MANIN" and "SAURO".

Malta - In the first week of April, carrier "Ark Royal" escorted by Force H sailed from Gibraltar and flew off 12 Hurricanes for Malta. Three weeks later the operation was repeated with 20 more aircraft. From the other end of the Mediterranean, Alexandria-based battleships "Barham", "Valiant" and "Warspite" together with carrier "Formidable" covered the movement of fast transport "Breconshire" to Malta. On the 21st they bombarded Tripoli on the return.

MAY 1941


18th-28th - Hunt for the "Bismarck" - Starting on the 18th, new German 15in battleship "Bismarck" and heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" sailed from Gdynia in the Baltic for the Atlantic via Norway. A simultaneous sortie by the battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" from Brest was fortunately prevented by the damage inflicted by the RAF. 21st - In the evening the German ships were sighted in a fiord south of Bergen, Norway. Two of the Home Fleet's capital ships, "Hood" and "Prince of Wales" (still not fully completed and working up), sailed from Scapa Flow towards Iceland to support the cruisers on Northern Patrol. 22nd - "Bismarck" was reported at sea and the main body of the Home Fleet under Adm Tovey left Scapa Flow and headed west. Battleship "King George V", fleet carrier "Victorious", cruisers and destroyers were later joined by battlecruiser "Repulse". "Victorious" was also a recent addition to the Fleet and also working up. 23rd - In the early evening, heavy cruisers "Suffolk" and shortly "Norfolk" sighted the German ships north west of Iceland and shadowed them southwestwards through the Denmark Strait separating Iceland from Greenland to the west. "Hood" and "Prince of Wales" pressed on to intercept west of Iceland. 24th - That morning the big ships met and opened fire. Around 06.00, after firing two or three salvos, "Bismarck" hit "HOOD" which blew up with only three survivors. Now it was "Prince of Wales" turn to be the target. After being hit several times she turned away but not before damaging "Bismarck" and causing her to lose fuel oil to the sea. German Adm Lutjens decided to make for St Nazaire in France and headed southwest and later south out of the Denmark Strait. The two Royal Navy cruisers, and for a while the damaged "Prince of Wales", continued to shadow. Adm Tovey hurried west with the rest of Home Fleet. With "Hood's" loss, Force H (Adm Somerville) with battlecruiser "Renown", carrier "Ark Royal" and cruiser "Sheffield" was sailing north from Gibraltar. Battleship "Ramillies", released from convoy escort duties, and "Rodney", then to the west of Ireland, headed towards "Bismarck's" expected track. "Ramillies" played no part in later operations.

At 18.00, still an the 24th, "Bismarck" feinted north towards her shadowers for long enough to allow "Prinz Eugen" to get away. Around midnight, southeast of Cape Farewell, Swordfish from Adm Tovey's carrier "Victorious" got one hit on "Bismarck" after she had resumed her southerly course. The damage was negligible. Shortly after, in the early hours of the 25th, she altered course to the southeast for France and the cruisers lost contact. At this point Adm Tovey's heavy ships were only 100 miles away. 25th - "Bismarck" held her southeasterly course, but broke radio silence. Unfortunately the British direction-finding service put her on a northeasterly heading. Adm Tovey sailed in that direction for a while before turning to the southeast in pursuit. Now he was well astern of his quarry. Only by slowing her down could destruction become possible. In the meantime, Force H continued to sail north to take up a blocking position between "Bismarck" and her new goal of Brest.

26th - After a 30-hour interval, "Bismarck" was once more sighted, this time by a RAF Catalina of No 209 Squadron, and only 30hr from home. In the afternoon a Swordfish strike from Force H's carrier "Ark Royal" attacked cruiser "Sheffield" in error. They missed. A second strike took place in the evening by 810, 818 and 820 Squadrons with 15 Swordfish led by Lt-Cdr Coode. They torpedoed "Bismarck" twice and one hit damaged her propellers and jammed the rudder. As "Bismarck" circled, destroyers of the 4th Flotilla (Capt Vian) came up around midnight, and made a series of torpedo and gun attacks but with uncertain results. Capt Vian's "Cossack", "Maori", "Sikh", "Zulu" and Polish "Piorun" had been detached from troop convoy ("Winston's Special") WS8B, an indication of the seriousness of the "Bismarck" threat. By this time Adm Tovey's force of heavy ships had lost "Repulse" to refuel, but been joined by "Rodney". They now came up from the west but did not attack just yet. 27th - "King George V", "Rodney" and the still circling "Bismarck" all opened fire around 08.45. Only the German ship was hit and by 10.15 she was a blazing wreck. Heavy cruiser "Dorsetshire", having left convoy SL74 the previous day, fired torpedoes to finish her off. "BISMARCK" sank at 10.36 to the southwest of Ireland. Shadowing cruiser "Norfolk" was there at the end..


Royal Navy Operations in the Mediterranean - Early in the month, Force H and the Mediterranean Fleet carried out another series of complicated supply, reinforcement and offensive operations. (1) Five fast transports sailed from Gibraltar with tanks and supplies urgently needed for the Army of the Nile (Operation 'Tiger'). Four arrived safely. (2) On passage they were accompanied by battleship "Oueen Elizabeth" and two cruisers sailing to join the Mediterranean Fleet. (3) Two small convoys were escorted westward from Egypt to Malta. (4) Other units of the Mediterranean Fleet shelled Benghazi, Libya on the night of the 7th/8th. (5) After covering the 'Tiger' convoy, carrier "Ark Royal" joined by carrier "Furious", was once again south of Sardinia and flying off a further 48 Hurricanes to Malta on the 21st. Five days later, "Ark Royal's" Swordfish were crippling the "Bismarck" in the North Atlantic!

21st May-1st June - Battle for Crete - Most of the Mediterranean Fleet with four battleships, one carrier, 10 cruisers and 30 destroyers fought the Battle. For the Navy there were two phases, both of which took place under intense air attack, mainly German, from which all losses resulted. Phase One was from the German airborne invasion on the 20th until the decision was take on the 27th to evacuate the island. During this time the Mediterranean Fleet managed to prevent the sea-borne reinforcement of the German paratroops fighting on Crete, but at heavy cost. Most of these losses happened as the ships tried to withdraw from night-time patrols north of the island out of range of enemy aircraft. On the 26th, carrier "Formidable", accompanied by battleships "Barham" and "Queen Elizabeth", flew off aircraft from a position well to the south for an attack on the Scarpanto Island airfields. In the counter-attack "Formidable" and destroyer "Nubian" were damaged. Phase Two was from 27th May to 1st June when over 15,000 British and Dominion troops were evacuated. Ten thousand had to be left behind and again the naval losses were heavy. Throughout the two phases, losses included three cruisers and six destroyers sunk, two battleships, one carrier and five cruisers badly damaged.

JUNE 1941

Germany invaded Russia


Malta - With German forces now in Greece and Crete the problems of supplying Malta were even greater. From airfields in Crete as well as Libya, the Luftwaffe and Italian Air force were as close to the eastern convoy routes from Alexandria, as Sardinia and Sicily were to the western ones through the Strait of Gibraltar. Nevertheless the men and material were fought through for the defence of Malta and its use as an offensive base. In the one month of June alone, carrier "Ark Royal" once on her own, at other times accompanied by "Furious" or "Victorious", flew off more than 140 aircraft for Malta.

Middle East - Concerned about German influence in Vichy French Lebanon and Syria, British, Dominion and Free French forces invaded on the 8th from points in Palestine, Jordan and later from Iraqi territory. During the campaign a Royal Navy cruiser and destroyer force fought a series of actions with Vichy French warships as well as German aircraft. A number of British destroyers were damaged, but a French destroyer and submarine were sunk including: 16th - Fleet Air Arm torpedo-bombers flying from Cyprus sank the large destroyer "CHEVALIER PAUL"

JULY 1941


21st-24th - Malta Convoy, Operation 'Substance' - 'Substance' set out from Gibraltar with six transports covered by Force H with "Ark Royal", battlecruiser "Renown", cruisers and destroyers. Battleship "Nelson", three cruisers and more destroyers reinforced Force H from the Home Fleet. On the 23rd, south of Sardinia, continuous Italian air attacks started. Cruiser "Manchester" was hit and destroyer "FEARLESS" sunk by aircraft torpedoes. Next day the transports reached Malta safely.



Russian Convoys - The first Russian convoy, 'Dervish', sailed from Iceland with seven ships and arrived safely. Carrier "Argus" accompanied them to fly off Hurricanes for Kola.



Battle of the Atlantic - Escort carrier "Audacity" sailed with UK/Gibraltar convoy OG74. Her American-built Martlet fighters shot down the first Kondor to fall victim to an escort carrier, but U-boats still managed to sink five merchantmen.


Malta - Carriers "Ark Royal" and "Furious" between them flew off over 50 Hurricanes for Malta in two separate operations.

24th-28th - Malta Convoy: Operation 'Halberd' - 'Halberd' sailed from Gibraltar with nine transports. Force H (Adm Somerville), reinforced from the Home Fleet, included "Nelson", "Rodney" and "Prince of Wales" and the usual air cover from "Ark Royal". On the 26th the Italians sailed to intercept but returned to base next day. South of Sardinia on the 27th, "Nelson" was damaged by an Italian aircraft torpedo, and at the end of the day Force H turned back for Gibraltar. Convoy and escort went on to reach Malta on the 28th minus one transport lost to air attack. By now in 1941, three major convoys had reached Malta - 'Excess' in January, 'Substance' in July and now 'Halberd'. Nearly 40 merchantmen had got through with only one sunk. The cost to the Royal Navy had been one cruiser and a destroyer sunk, and a battleship, carrier and two cruisers damaged.



3rd - The recently completed fleet carrier "Indomitable" ran aground and was damaged off Kingston, Jamaica. She was due to accompany capital ships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" to the Far East as a deterrent to Japanese aggression. Her absence in December may have proved fatal to the two big ships.

Battle of the Atlantic - There was a considerable drop in U-boat sinkings in the North Atlantic in the last two months of the year; again the reasons were varied - the increasing number of escorts, the help given by the US Navy, and the increasing effectiveness of land-based aircraft. Escort carrier "Audacity" was also proving her worth. U-boats concentrations off Gibraltar led to the need to strengthen the HG/SL convoy escorts. After the attacks on HG75 in October, the next HG did not sail until December when "Audacity" was available to close the Britain/Gibraltar air gap.


13th - As Force H returned to Gibraltar after flying off more Hurricanes from "Ark Royal" and "Argus" for Malta, the famous and much 'sunk' "ARK ROYAL" was hit by one torpedo from "U-81". Next day she foundered in tow only a few miles from home. One man was killed. "U-81" was one of four U-boats that had just passed into the Mediterranean.

Indian Ocean

British Forces - Britain's limited naval deterrent to Japanese expansion, capital ships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" met at Colombo, Ceylon on the 28th, en route to Singapore. Without the fleet carrier "Indomitable" they had no ship-borne aircraft support.

Pacific Ocean

Japanese Pearl Harbor Force - As US-Japanese talks dragged on and the United States demanded the departure of Japan from China as well as French Indochina, the Pearl Harbor Strike Force sailed into the North Pacific. Vice-Adm Nagumo commanded the fleet carriers "Akagi", "Hiryu", "Kaga", "Soryu", "Shokaku" and "Zuikaku", plus two battleships, cruisers and destroyers.


on to Part 2, Carrier Warfare, 1941-43,
back to Campaigns of World War 2

revised 8/7/11