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World War 2 at Sea

 

THE SUPPLY OF MALTA 1940-1942, Part 2 of 3

by the late Arnold Hague, Lieutenant Commander, RNR (Rtd) (c) 1995

 

Editing by Gordon Smith, Naval-History.Net

HMS Ark Royal, aircraft carrier, lost 13 November 1941 (Navy Photos/Ben Titheridge, click to enlarge)

on to Part 3

 
Part 2 Contents
 
 

Unescorted merchant ships, including:

Operation TEMPLE

Operation PROPELLER

Operation ASTROLOGER

Operation CRUPPER

 

Supply of aircraft to Malta by the Royal Navy

Operations HURRY & COAT

Operations WHITE & WINCH

Operations DUNLOP & SPLICE

Operations ROCKET & TRACER

 

 

Supply of aircraft (continued)

Operations RAILWAY I & II

Operations STATUS I & II

Operations CALLBOY & PERPETUAL

Operations SPOTTER I, II & PICKET I

Operations PICKET II & CALENDAR 48

Operation BOWERY

Operations LB, STYLE & SALIENT

Operations PINPOINT & INSECT

Operations BELLOWS, BARITONE & TRAIN

       

 

 

SUPPLY OF MALTA BY UNESCORTED MERCHANTMEN

 

 

Such was the desperate condition of Malta that it was decided to explore the possibility of supplying the island by means of clandestine passage by unescorted merchant ships. This scheme was theoretically possible due to the considerable traffic by older, small, vessels of the tramp type along the North African coast; shore communications were limited and of poor quality and sea transport was (indeed still is) a major factor. Unescorted passage was also resorted to to recover some of the ships remaining at Malta from incoming convoys. Usually, although unescorted, such passages took place during succeeding operations, in which case they are so recorded; however certain vessels made the return passage without benefit of cover from other events, they are listed in chronological sequence in this section.

 

Operation TEMPLE - Accordingly, the first attempt was made by the steamer PARRACOMBE which sailed on 17.4.41 from the UK in convoy OG 59. She had been repainted in peace time colouration and left the convoy early in its passage and proceeded as a single ship escorted by the corvettes COLUMBINE and GARDENIA to pass through the Strait during the night of the 28/29.4.41, under the designation Operation TEMPLE. Patrols had explicit orders neither to approach nor challenge the ship, whose escort was to detach off Europa Point.

 

PARRACOMBE was loaded with 21 cased Hurricane fighters and their associated spares, 68 UP (unrotated projectile) rocket projectors and ammunition for them, and various other military stores.

 

Passing through the Straits she wore the Spanish ensign, assuming French colours when well to the eastward, off the Algerian coast. Her orders were to pass close to Cape Bon, and then to break for Malta during the dark hours to arrive within 50 miles of Malta at dawn to receive fighter cover.

 

Nothing was heard from her after clearing the Straits until it became apparent that she had fallen foul of minefields laid in the vicinity of Cape Bon. She sank on 2.5, 18 of her crew of 47 making shore and being interned by the French. The field had been laid by enemy forces and apparently commenced at or very close to the limit of territorial waters.

 

Operation PROPELLER - A second, similar, attempt was made under the title Operation PROPELLER by the freighter EMPIRE GUILLEMOT, but this time the ship was loaded with fodder. In explanation it must be appreciated that civilian transport in Malta now relied solely upon horse or donkey, as did work on the land, and that these animals also provided a food reserve. Even in normal times, much fodder was imported, in siege conditions little could be grown as cultivable land was devoted to food production for the population.

 

EMPIRE GUILLEMOT came out from the UK in convoy OG 73, also suitable disguised to pass as a local French or Spanish freighter. She left the convoy and passed through the Straits, escorted by corvettes GENTIAN and JASMINE, during the night of 13/14.9.41 with Spanish markings.

 

She shifted her disguise to French on 15.9 until her arrival off Bizerta when she became Italian and followed the route northward for Sicily; on the final run to Malta she wore British colours and arrived in Malta early on 19.9.

 

The final part of her passage was hair raising as she became involved with an Italian convoy which was attacked by Swordfish aircraft. Fortunately, the naval aircrew had strict orders not to attack any single ships that night, orders which were strictly observed even in the circumstances of a night action.

 

CLAN MACDONALD - CLAN MACDONALD sailed independently from Malta on 16.10, although located and attacked by torpedo carrying aircraft on 17.10, she successfully evaded the attack and arrived at Gibraltar on 19.10.41.

 

CITY OF LINCOLN, DUNEDIN STAR, EMPIRE GUILLEMOT - EMPIRE GUILLEMOT should have returned during Operation HALBERD but unfortunately could not sail due to engine defects. She eventually left Malta independently on 22.10.41 during darkness but was identified by an Italian torpedo bomber on 24.10 and sunk off La Galita Island, one officer being killed. The remaining 38 crew and 6 gunners got away in two boats, unfortunately one was wrecked in surf when landing on the African coast and 9 more men were lost, 33 survivors were interned by the French.

 

CITY OF LINCOLN and DUNEDIN STAR also sailed on 22.10 and proceeded separately, both arrived safely at Gibraltar.

 

CLAN FERGUSON - CLAN FERGUSON was sailed from Malta on 24.10.41 as the final unit in this attempt to clear the harbour of empty freighters. Shortly after sailing she was intercepted and attacked by aircraft off Malta, as her passage was compromised at so early a point she was recalled to the island, eventually to leave in an eastward convoy, ME 8, to Alexandria.

 

Operation ASTROLOGER - The next attempt from the westward was by two ships, EMPIRE DEFENDER and EMPIRE PELICAN, in Operation Astrologer. The two ships passed westward through the Strait independently on 12 and 14.11.41, and followed the same pattern as EMPIRE GUILLEMOT. Unfortunately, it would seem that the scheme was compromised, probably from awareness of PARRACOMBE's attempt after her crew had been taken prisoner in North Africa and observation from the Spanish coast of the vessels' passage.

 

Both EMPIRE PELICAN on 14.11 and EMPIRE DEFENDER on 15.11 were attacked by aircraft off Galita Island and sunk, the former with the loss of one man and the latter four. This setback concluded the attempts from the west for a full year.

 

EMPIRE PATROL - At Alexandria, the presence of an ex Italian vessel taken in prize, the EMPIRE PATROL ex-RODI, encouraged an attempt to pass stores from the eastward. In late 1942 the fuel situation in Malta became crucial due to the heavy expenditure to be incurred by the island's aircraft supporting Operation TORCH.. Accordingly, EMPIRE PATROL was commissioned as an HM Ship and sailed on 1.11.42 loaded with 1200 tons of aviation petrol and 300 tons of benzine, all in cans, to attempt an unescorted passage to Malta.

 

Her orders were to pass east of Cyprus into Turkish waters wearing Turkish colours, then to turn westward under Italian colours as if she were an Italian freighter bound from the Dardanelles to Southern Italy, a commonly used route. The Commanding Officer, a Lieutenant RNR, had total discretion to abandon the attempt if he was convinced that his disguise had been compromised.

 

The ship was plagued with electrical and diesel defects and, during the afternoon of 2.11, was closely examined by a German reconnaissance aircraft. In consequence the attempt was abandoned and EMPIRE PATROL entered Famagusta on 3.11. The decision to abort the operation was supported by the Commander-in-Chief.

 

Operation CRUPPER - One final attempt was made, to take advantage of the confusion of the North African invasion, Operation TORCH. Two ships, ARDEOLA and TADORNA, were sent out in the stores convoy for the invasion, KMS 1, but were detached west of Gibraltar. Both passed the Straits with the usual disguises and proceeded along the North African coast to Cape Bon.

 

Unfortunately, one of the assumptions of Operation TORCH was that there would be little if any opposition by the French In fact, French resistance was considerable and, in Tunisia, reached the point of active cooperation with Axis forces. In consequence, when both ships were fired on and ordered to stop by shore batteries off Cape Bon, neither Master scuttled their ship, on the assumption that they could "explain" and be allowed to proceed. Both ships were in fact captured and taken in to Bizerta where they were unloaded, the cargoes seized and the ships handed over to the Italians.

 

Both ships were placed under Italian colours, as ADERNO and BALZAC respectively, and were later torpedoed and sunk by British submarines, on 23.7.43 and 7.3.43.

 

 

 


 

 

 

THE SUPPLY OF AIRCRAFT TO MALTA BY SEA

 

It will be well known that political parsimony and faulty strategic judgment by air commanders resulted in Malta being almost bereft of fighter aircraft in June 1940. But for the fortuitous discovery of four crated Sea Gladiators in store at Malta which became operational 3.5.40, the four Hurricanes flown out via France and Tunis, arriving on 28. 6.40 would have been the total air defence for the island.

 

The subsequent story of fighter defence of Malta is one of neglect by the Government and Air Staff; despite the Battle of Britain victory and the subsequent very large build up of modern aircraft in Southern England, only early marks of Hurricane were supplied to Malta and the Middle East until late in the period under review.

 

The supply of single seat, short ranged, fighters to Malta (and also the Naval torpedo bombers used for offensive purposes) depended entirely upon the Royal Navy in the absence of a land route. Such aircraft were unable to reach the island from bases in Egypt and rarely did the Army succeed in advancing far enough west (or for long enough) to gain the necessary airstrips to do so. The Royal Navy was therefore obliged to freight aircraft from Britain in carriers such as ARGUS and FURIOUS, or in merchant ships, and either transfer them at Gibraltar to ARK ROYAL and EAGLE, or carry out the flying off operation themselves. These carriers were then hazarded close to enemy air bases, with only very limited aerial defence due to the presence onboard of the aircraft being ferried to Malta. The inexperience of RAF fighter pilots over open sea and the very limited nature of navigational aids in the earl

y Hurricane required the presence of guide aircraft, usually either RAF Blenheim bombers or RN Fulmars or Skuas, to lead the fighter formation to Malta.

 

As the presence of the carrier was inevitably known to the enemy, and simple plotting would reveal the probable time of launch and, therefore, of arrival over Malta, it was quite usual for the enemy to attempt the destruction of the incoming fighters prior to landing, arming and fuelling (they were not usually ammunitioned on take off from the carrier, all weight being reserved for fuel). A very fast turn-round by the RAF ground crews at Malta was required coupled with the organisation of arrival prior to probable predictions, to avoid the new asset being lost. It is to the immense credit of the ground crews and Army assistant labour that such a result was usually achieved.

 

This then is the listing of the numerous operations to supply Malta with aircraft.

 

Operation by HMS ARGUS - Shortly after the outbreak of war in the Mediterranean, ARGUS carried out the first sea reinforcement of Malta by flying off 12 Swordfish aircraft of 830 Naval Squadron to Malta to provide a torpedo striking force for the island, a role that the RN continued to provide throughout the siege.

 

Operation HURRY - On 20.7. ARGUS, having landed her own aircraft, embarked 12 Hurricanes in the Clyde and sailed for Malta escorted by the destroyers ENCOUNTER, GALLANT, GREYHOUND and HOTSPUR. The force was met by the battleships RESOLUTION and VALIANT, cruiser ARETHUSA and destroyers ESCAPADE and VELOX. The combined force then proceeded to the launch point west of Malta where the Hurricanes were flown off on 2.8, led by two Skuas from ARGUS which then returned to Gibraltar.

 

All aircraft arrived, one Hurricane crashing on landing. The two Skuas, intended to return to ARGUS, were retained in Malta for further use. The crashed Hurricane was restored to operational efficiency by the Malta ground crews using spares on hand.

 

The RAF ground crews for these aircraft were taken to Malta in the submarines PANDORA and PROTEUS, as a forerunner of the later supply of the island by this means.

 

During the operation the battlecruiser HOOD, carrier ARK ROYAL and destroyers FAULKNOR, FORESTER, FORESIGHT and FOXHOUND made an air strike on Cagliari as a diversion, while the cruiser ENTERPRISE detached and searched for a French vessel thought to be in the area.

 

Operation COAT - Not in fact in connection with the support of Malta, it is worthy of note that during this operation in 11.40, ARK ROYAL flew three Fulmar aircraft in to Malta from where, after fuelling, the aircraft continued eastward to land on ILLUSTRIOUS of the Mediterranean Fleet as an addition to the fighter defence.

 

Operation WHITE - ARGUS was again required to replace the attrition of aircraft in Malta and, after loading twelve Hurricanes and two Skua guide aircraft, sailed from the Clyde 11.11 escorted by the cruiser DESPATCH and destroyers DUNCAN, FURY and WISHART. Met by Force H west of Gibraltar, battlecruiser RENOWN, carrier ARK ROYAL, cruiser SHEFFIELD and destroyers FAULKNOR, FIREDRAKE, FORESTER, FORTUNE and FOXHOUND, she proceeded to the launch point where two flights took off on 17.11.

 

Due to the reported presence of strong Italian forces, the launch point was further west than that of HURRY, and that plus other factors, led to eight Hurricanes ditching through lack of fuel while one of the Skua guide aircraft lost its way, strayed over Sicily and was shot down. Sunderland and Glenn Martin aircraft, also intended as guides, did not meet the force and proceeded independently to Malta.

 

Swordfish aircraft from HMS ARK ROYAL - Six assembled Swordfish having been taken out to Gibraltar in one of the earlier ferry trips from the UK, five were embarked in ARK ROYAL (one being unserviceable) on 9.1 when the carrier sailed for Operation Excess. During this operation, which is recorded fully in the Convoy section, all five aircraft were flown off and arrived safely in Malta.

 

Operation WINCH - In the months following WHITE attrition continued at a high rate, despite the delivery of twelve Hurricanes via forward bases in Libya from Egypt. The RN was therefore called upon to carry out a further replenishment from the UK.

 

In mid 3.41 ARGUS therefore loaded the standard 12 Hurricanes (this time Mk II) accompanied on this occasion by three Skuas, and sailed from the Clyde 21.3 escorted by the cruiser SHEFFIELD and destroyers GARLAND, NAPIER, NIZAM and OTTAWA, being screened also by Force H, battlecruiser RENOWN, carrier ARK ROYAL and destroyers FORESIGHT, FORESTER and FORTUNE from 25.3 to her arrival at Gibraltar on 29.3.

Here all aircraft were transferred to ARK ROYAL by 2.4 on which day she sailed screened by RENOWN, SHEFFIELD and destroyers FAULKNOR, FEARLESS, FORESIGHT, FORTUNE and FURY.

 

On 3.4 the Hurricanes and Skuas were flown off. ARK ROYAL also dispatched nine Fulmars of 800X Naval Squadron to reinforce the Malta garrison. All the Hurricanes arrived, one crashing on landing. The guiding Skuas were intended to return to their carrier, but adverse weather conditions on their return flight caused them to ditch.

 

Operation DUNLOP - The ferry carrier from the Clyde on this occasion was again ARGUS which loaded a mixed batch of 24 Mk I and II Hurricane aircraft on the Clyde sailing 17.4 accompanied by the cruiser LONDON, and arriving at Gibraltar on 24.4 with a local escort of the cruiser SHEFFIELD and destroyers FAULKNOR, FORESTER and WRESTLER. Here she transferred 23 Hurricanes (one remained unserviceable in ARGUS due to damage incurred) to ARK ROYAL which sailed 25.4 for the launching position escorted by the battlecruiser RENOWN, cruiser SHEFFIELD and destroyers FAULKNOR, FEARLESS, FORESIGHT, FORTUNE and FURY. 23 out of the 24 Hurricanes were launched on 27.4, led by three Skuas, and all arrived safely at Malta.

 

During this operation a number of warships were passed through to Malta under the title Operation SALIENT, referred to in the appropriate section of the narrative.

 

Operation SPLICE - FURIOUS was required to carry out a further delivery passage in 5.41, embarking 64 Mk II Hurricanes at Liverpool and then sailing to the Clyde to join the cruiser LONDON, both ships sailing for Gibraltar on 12.5 escrxted by BRILLIANT, LEGION, MASHONA and TARTAR from the Clyde until 15.5, relieved later by FEARLESS, HARVESTER, HAVELOCK and WRESTLER. FURIOUS and LONDON arrived at Gibraltar 18.5, LONDON having 575 Service passengers onboard.

 

On arrival, FURIOUS berthed stern to stern with ARK ROYAL and transferred 20 Hurricanes and 5 of her own Fulmars over a timber ramp erected between the two ships round downs. Both ships then sailed on 19.5 screened by battlecruiser RENOWN, cruiser SHEFFIELD and destroyers BRILLIANT, FAULKNOR, FORESTER, FOXHOUND, FURY and HESPERUS. After launching 48 Hurricanes and 5 Fulmars all ships returned to Gibraltar arriving 22.5.

 

Three Glenn Martin aircraft from Malta were sent out as leaders for the fighters, 46 Hurricanes arrived at Malta, one crashed off Cape Bon and one is logged as "missing"; 16 further aircraft remained at Gibraltar.

 

During this operation the destroyer FORESIGHT made her return from Malta to Gibraltar independently.

 

Operation ROCKET - ARGUS meanwhile was loading 29 cased Hurricanes on the Clyde, and sailed with the cruiser EXETER to join convoy WS 8B on 22.5, arriving at Gibraltar on 31.5 having been met by the destroyer FORESIGHT. FURIOUS, after a fast passage to the UK and turn round, arrived on 1.6 with 48 Mk II aircraft, loading some into ARK ROYAL immediately on arrival. ARGUS made a stern to stern transfer of her aircraft to FURIOUS at the same time the ultimate stowage being 20 Hurricanes in FURIOUS and 24 in ARK ROYAL, the balance were landed at Gibraltar for erection there.

 

ARK ROYAL and FURIOUS, escorted by battlecruiser RENOWN, cruiser SHEFFIELD and destroyers FAULKNOR, FEARLESS, FORESIGHT, FORESTER, FOXHOUND and FURY sailed 4.6 and launched 44 Hurricanes on 6.6. One Hurricane returned with defects, the remaining 43, escorted by 8 Blenheims from Gibraltar, arrived safely.

 

The squadron returned to Gibraltar, arriving 7.6, when FURIOUS sailed for the UK to load more aircraft, joining ARGUS at sea en route, both carriers arrived in the Clyde 14.6 accompanied by the liner NEA HELLAS and escorted by the destroyers COSSACK, MAORI and SIKH. FURIOUS was escorted from Gibraltar by Force H which transferred to escort VICTORIOUS on meeting ARGUS and her escort.

 

Operation TRACER - A new "ferry" now enters the scene. The new fleet carrier VICTORIOUS had been intended to freight Hurricanes to West Africa but disembarked them so that she could take part in the Bismarck operation; she now re-Ioaded 48 Mk I aircraft on 29.5 and sailed on 31.5 with convoy WS 8X escorted by the cruisers NEPTUNE and ORION and destroyer WESSEX. VICTORIOUS and NEPTUNE left WS 8X on 5.6 to arrive off Gibraltar on 9.6 having been met by RENOWN, ARK ROYAL and 6 destroyers. Initially this force remained at sea to the west while NEPTUNE entered Gibraltar, but later entered harbour to delay in the operation.

 

On arrival 26 Hurricanes were transferred to ARK ROYAL and 22 retained in VICTORIOUS, and both ships sailed on 13.6 escorted by the battlecruiser RENOWN and destroyers FAULKNOR, FEARLESS, FORESIGHT, FORESTER, FOXHOUND, HESPERUS and WISHART.

 

Forty six Hurricanes were launched, to make a rendezvous with 4 Hudsons from Gibraltar; 2 crashed on landing, one ditched and one went missing during the flight, landing in North Africa. The carriers and escorts returned to Gibraltar on 15.6 from where VICTORIOUS returned to the Clyde, arriving there on 21.6 having been met on 19.6 by the destroyers COSSACK and SIKH.

 

Operation RAILWAY I - FURIOUS having returned to the Clyde from ROCKET, then loaded her largest cargo so far - 64 Hurricanes and 9 Swordfish. Sailing from the Clyde 22.6 escorted by the cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers LANCE, LEGION. VANQUISHER and WINCHELSEA were local UK escort, Later FAULKNOR, FEARLESS, FORESTER, FOXHOUND and FURY joined from Gibraltar, where FURIOUS arrived 25.6.

 

Twenty two aircraft were transferred to ARK ROYAL which sailed 26.6 escorted by RENOWN, HERMIONE and FAULKNOR, FORESTER, FURY LANCE and LEGION to fly off the aircraft on 27.6 escorted by Blenheims from Gibraltar. Only one Hurricane failed to complete the delivery flight, while ARK ROYAL and her escort returned to Gibraltar on 28.6.

 

Operation RAILWAY II - On the return of ARK ROYAL to Gibraltar, FURIOUS transferred a further 26 aircraft retaining 16 and both carriers then sailed on 29.6 for a further flying off, being escorted by the battlecruiser RENOWN, cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers FAULKNOR, FEARLESS, FORESTER, FOXHOUND, FURY, LANCE and LEGION.

 

On flying off on 30.6, FURIOUS had a serious flight deck accident when the tenth aircraft to take off hit the island, consequently when both ships returned to Gibraltar 6 Hurricanes remained onboard, their pilots having become casualties in the accident, and were landed at Gibraltar. All the 35 aircraft successfully launched arrived at Malta, being led in by six Blenheim bombers.

 

FURIOUS subsequently sailed for the UK on 4.7 escorting CAMERONIA and SCYTHIA, accompanied by the destroyers LANCE, LEGION, FURY and WISHART with the cruiser EDINBURGH joining later until 9.7. On 9.7, the battleship ROYAL SOVEREIGN and destroyer PIORUN relieved the earlier escort and proceeded with the convoy to the Clyde arriving there 12.7.

 

Operation SUBSTANCE - In fact a supply convoy operation, and described in that section, ARK ROYAL took the opportunity of escorting the convoy to fly off to Malta 6 Swordfish aircraft on 25.7 to reinforce the torpedo bomber force in the island; all the aircraft arrived safely.

 

Operation STATUS I - On completion of Operation SUBSTANCE, the fighter strength of Malta stood at 85 serviceable aircraft, principally Mk II Hurricanes, and it was arranged that on completion of operations off Norway and North Russia further ferry trips would be undertaken. Accordingly FURIOUS sailed from the Clyde on 31.8 with 61 Hurricanes embarked additional to her own aircraft. She was obliged to put in to Bangor, Co Down with defects, but sailed again 1.9 to join convoy WS 11, escorted by the AA cruiser CAIRO to 2.9, the cruiser SHEFFIELD and destroyers BLANKNEY, GARLAND(to 3.9), LIVELY and PIORUN (to 3.9), arriving at Gibraltar 7.9 to transfer 26 aircraft to ARK ROYAL.

 

ARK ROYAL sailed on 8.9 escorted by the cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers FORESTER. GURKHA, LANCE and LIVELY. Only one of the guide Blenheims made the rendezvous on 9.9, so only 14 Hurricanes were flown off, all aircraft arriving at Malta. The carrier returned to Gibraltar on 10.9 to make a fast turnround for the second stage of STATUS.

 

Operation STATUS II - Making a fast turnaround at Gibraltar, ARK ROYAL with 26 Hurricanes and FURIOUS with 20 sailed on the 10.9, as two separate forces which joined in the early on 11.9 the combined escort being the battleship NELSON, cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers FORESIGHT, FORESTER, GURKHA, LANCE, LEGION, LIVELY and ZULU. 46 Hurricanes took off on 13.9 of which one, the third launched, crashed on take off, and met 7 Blenheim guides, all aircraft arriving safely. The ships returned to Gibraltar on 14.9. FURIOUS sailed again on 18.9 for passage to Bermuda, escorted locally by FORESTER, FORESIGHT, FURY and LEGION, thence to the USA for refit.

 

Operation CALLBOY - The next supply operation was to replenish and strengthen the abilities of the torpedo bomber force in Malta. ARGUS embarked 828 Naval Squadron (12 Albacore aircraft with long range tanks) in the Clyde and sailed in convoy WS 12 on 1.10, detaching to Gibraltar escorted by the destroyer COSSACK, SIKH and ZULU, arriving there 8.10.

 

Disembarked at Gibraltar, these aircraft were loaded in ARK ROYAL which sailed for the flying off position on 16.10 escorted by the battleship RODNEY, cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers COSSACK, FORESTER, FORESIGHT, FURY, LEGION, SIKH and ZULU. On 18.10 11 Albacores and 2 Swordfish were flown off, all but 1 Swordfish arriving; the squadron returning to Gibraltar on 19.10.

 

During this operation, the cruisers AURORA, PENELOPE and destroyers LANCE and LIVELY also made passage to Malta to form Force K.

 

ARGUS, plus EAGLE, escorted by the destroyers FORESTER, FORESIGHT and FURY to the Clyde plus SIKH and ZULU as additional local escort, sailed from Gibraltar 21.10 and arrived in the Clyde 26.10.

 

Operation PERPETUAL - ARGUS and the aircraft transport ATHENE transported 62 Hurricanes from the Clyde on 1.11 (23 in ARGUS and 39 in ATHENE) escorted by the destroyer LAFOREY to Gibraltar, arriving there 8.11 having been joined en route by GURKHA, ISAAC SWEERS, LIGHTNING and ZULU. On arrival 26 aircraft were transferred to ARK ROYAL, ARGUS retained 11 and the remainder (probably still crated) were landed for assembly at Gibraltar.

 

On 10.11 ARGUS and ARK ROYAL sailed escorted by the battleship MALAYA, cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers ISAAC SWEERS, LAFOREY, LEGION, LIGHTNING, GURKHA, SIKH and ZULU. 37 Hurricanes were flown off 12.11 to be met by Blenheims from Gibraltar to be led to Malta, three Hurricanes failed to arrive.

 

During the return of the squadron to Gibraltar ARK ROYAL was torpedoed by U 81 and sank in tow within sight of her base on 13.11, thus causing the cancellation of a proposed PERPETUAL II which would have flown in the remaining 25 Hurricanes. These were re-Ioaded into ATHENE the following month and she sailed 23.12 escorted by CROOME and EXMOOR to Takoradi where the aircraft were to be flown to Egypt via the trans-Africa route.

 

Aircraft Supply Summary - By the beginning of 1942, the Luftwaffe had returned in force to the Mediterranean from the Russian campaign, and Malta was under increasing pressure. By mid 2.42, there were very few serviceable Hurricanes remaining in the island, and ARGUS, the only carrier now available in the Mediterranean, was sent back to Britain to load reinforcements.

 

Operation SPOTTER - ARGUS loaded 15 Spitfire Mk VB, the first for the island, indeed the first to go overseas, and sailed in convoy WS 16 on 16.2 to detach to Gibraltar where she arrived 24.2. In addition the freighter CAPE HAWKE had sailed from the UK on 10.2 with 16 crated Spitfires, 13 officers and 131 ground crews escorted by the destroyer WHITEHALL and corvettes ASPHODEL and HYDRANGEA. Her aircraft were assembled at Gibraltar after her arrival on 23.2.

 

The 15 Spitfires from ARGUS were transferred to EAGLE while ARGUS embarked Fulmars for fleet protection. Sailing on 27.2 with EAGLE, defects were discovered in the Spitfire's fuel tanks and the operation was aborted, the ships arriving back in port on 28.2.

 

Operation SPOTTER II - With only 32 Hurricanes airworthy in Malta, another attempt was imperative, so that as soon as work to rectify the defects was completed with an expert being flown out from Britain and the cannibalisation of one of the Spitfires for spares, the ships sailed again on 6.3 with ARGUS and EAGLE escorted by the battleship MALAYA, cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers ACTIVE, ANTHONY, BLANKNEY, CROOME, EXMOOR, LAFOREY, LIGHTNING, WHITEHALL and WISHART.

 

Fifteen Spitfires were flown off on 7.3 and were guided in to Malta by 7 Blenheim bomber reinforcements, all arriving safely, while the squadron returned to Gibraltar, arriving 8.3.

 

Operation PICKET I  - Further reinforcement being imperative, EAGLE loaded 9 Spitfires from crated aircraft sent out in the freighter QUEEN VICTORIA, which had been escorted by the destroyer AIREDALE and corvette PETUNIA to Gibraltar arriving on 13.3, the aircraft being assembled onboard EAGLE, while ARGUS embarked Sea Hurricanes for protection. Both carriers sailed on 20.3 with the battleship MALAYA, cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers ACTIVE, ANTHONY, BLANKNEY, CROOME, EXMOOR, LAFOREY, LIGHTNING, WHITEHALL and WISHART as escort. The tug SALVONIA, escorted by ML 121 and 168, operated as a rescue tug. Aircraft were flown off on 21.3 and all the 9 Spitfires arrived safely, while the squadron arrived back at Gibraltar on 23.3.

 

Operation PICKET II - A further operation under the PICKET title was planned, with EAGLE embarking 8 Spitfires (the balance from the CAPE HAWKE and QUEEN VICTORIA shipments), and the two carriers (ARGUS?!) sailed on 27.3. On 29.3, 7 Spitfires were flown off and met 2 Beaufort torpedo bombers and 3 Blenheims from Gibraltar, all arriving safely. Unfortunately, 6 Albacores to reinforce 828 Squadron were unable to fly off and returned to Gibraltar in ARGUS. The escort screen comprised the battleship MALAYA, cruiser HERMIONE and destroyers ACTIVE, ANTHONY, BLANKNEY, CROOME, DUNCAN, EXMOOR, LAFOREY, LIGHTNING and WISHART, with SALVONIA escorted by ML 174 operating as a rescue tug.

 

In the closing stages of this operation 10 Hurricane IIC aircraft were flown in from North Africa on 27.3.42, followed by 8 on 6.4.42 and a final 6 on 19.4.42, one of the rare occasions when airfields in Libya were available for the reinforcement of the island. Unfortunately they were totally outclassed by the newer Luftwaffe aircraft and rapidly suffered very heavy loss of both aircraft and pilots in the days following their arrival.

 

Operation CALENDAR - By 4.42 the situation in Malta had reached desperate proportions, both in stocks of essential supplies, depletion of the offensive forces, and particularly of the fighter defence force. By the middle of April, the latter had fallen to minute numbers and reinforcement was essential if the island was not to fall.

 

No British carriers were available for further ferry trips so, an appeal was made to the USA for assistance. The US carrier WASP was therefore made available and after landing all her aircraft at Hatson except for 20 fighters, she embarked 47 Spitfire VC on the Clyde, leaving that port on 14.4. escorted by the battlecruiser RENOWN, destroyers ECHO, INGLEFIELD, ITHURIEL and PARTRIDGE and US destroyers LANG and MADISON. The destroyers ANTELOPE, VIDETTE, WESTCOTT, WISHART and WRESTLER relieved the destroyer screen at dusk 17.4 to fuel at Gibraltar. The original screen plus the cruisers CAIRO and CHARYBDIS rejoined the main force at daylight on 19 when the Gibraltar escort, less VIDETTE, returned to base to fuel while WASP and her escorts went through without pause at Gibraltar to the flying off position and flew off the Spitfires at 0530 on 20.4. Despite the absence of guides, 46 of them reached the Malta airfields, only to be reduced to 6 in four days fighting!

 

The whole force returned towards Gibraltar, being met en route by ANTELOPE, WESTCOTT, WISHART and WRESTLER during the forenoon of 20.4. The whole force passed through the Strait, CAIRO, ECHO, INGLEFIELD, LANG and MADISON fuelling at Gibraltar. WASP flew on 812 Squadron for passage to the UK, its personnel and stores having been embarked in CAIRO. RENOWN, CHARYBDIS, ANTELOPE, ITHURIEL, PARTRIDGE, VIDETTE, WESTCOTT, WISHART and WRESTLER detached to Gibraltar am 21.4 with WASP and her escort returning to the UK.

 

Operation BOWERY - Faced with such an extreme situation, there was no option but to mount another, immediate, operation and WASP was again lent to the RN for this purpose. Having arrived at Scapa Flow on 26.4 she returned to the Clyde on 29.4 and this time loaded 50 Spitfires, a very tight stowage. WASP sailed for Gibraltar on 3.5 escorted by the destroyers ECHO and INTREPID and US destroyers LANG and STERETT. This escort was relieved in 39.13N, 14.20E by the destroyers ANTELOPE, WESTCOTT, WISHART and WRESTLER pm 7.5. On 8.5 the force was met by the carrier EAGLE which had loaded 17 Spitfires from stock at Gibraltar, battlecruiser RENOWN, cruiser CHARYBDIS and the destroyers ECHO, GEORGETOWN, INTREPID, ITHURIEL, PARTRIDGE, VIDETTE, SALISBURY and US destroyers LANG and STERRETT.

 

On 9.5 WASP flew off 47 Spitfires and EAGLE 17, three crashed during the passage (one in the sea on take off, one crash landed onto WASP and one off Malta, a fourth lost its way and arrived in North Africa) but 60 Spitfires were in action within thirty five minutes of landing AND prior to the main German attack; planning on the British side having outwitted the estimated time of arrival made by the enemy. Thirty German aircraft were destroyed in this action for the loss of only three Spitfires. All ships returned, EAGLE to load further Spitfires and WASP to return to Scapa Flow escorted by RENOWN, ECHO, INTREPID, LANG, SALISBURY and STERETT, the destroyers fuelling at Gibraltar, arriving at Scapa Flow on 15.5. ITHURIEL provided additional escort from Gibraltar until detaching 12.5 to meet MALAYA.

 

Whilst on passage, WASP flew off RAF personnel and spare gear on 10 May using 6 Swordfish aircraft flown out from Gibraltar for the purpose

 

Operation LB - Matters in Malta having been eased by the preceding operation the opportunity was taken to maximise upon that, so EAGLE loaded 17 Spitfires (15 of these remaining from PICKET II) and the 6 Albacores left at Gibraltar by ARGUS on a previous occasion.

 

In company with ARGUS with Fulmars for Fleet defence, both carriers sailed on 17.5 escorted by the cruiser CHARYBDIS and destroyers ANTELOPE, ITHURIEL, PARTRIDGE, WESTCOTT, WISHART and WRESTLER. The destroyer VIDETTE, delayed at Gibraltar with defects, joined 18.5 but was later obliged to return to Gibraltar with further defects.

 

Aircraft were flown off on 19.5, unfortunately the Albacores had to return, and were taken back to Gibraltar for a second time.

 

During this operation, Vichy French fighters attacked a patrolling Catalina and downed it, also a Fulmar sent to protect the ITHURIEL who rescued the Catalina crew.

 

The squadron returned to Gibraltar on 20.5.

 

Operation STYLE - The freighter EMPIRE CONRAD sailed from Milford Haven on 20.5 in company with 29th ML Flotilla all escorted by the corvette SPIRAEA, loaded with 32 cased Spitfires and the necessary ground crew (13 officers and over 100 NCOs and men) to assemble them. Arriving at Gibraltar 27.5 having been met by the minesweepers HYTHE and RYE, the aircraft were assembled in the carrier EAGLE which sailed on 2.6 for Malta escorted by the cruiser CHARYBDIS, and destroyers ANTELOPE, ITHURIEL, PARTRIDGE, WESTCOTT and WISHART.

 

Aircraft were flown off on 3.6, of which 4 were shot down in transit; this delivery brought EAGLE's total to 136 aircraft flown off to Malta.

 

Operation SALIENT - The decision, forced by starvation of Malta, to run two convoys (from east and west) to Malta necessitated a further supply of fighters. The freighter HOPETARN sailed from Milford Haven on 26.5, escorted by the frigate ROTHER and corvette ARMERIA, with 32 cased Spitfires, 13 officers and 106 NCOs and airmen to assemble them at Gibraltar after arrival on 2.6.

 

EAGLE embarked these aircraft on completion and sailed on 8.6 escorted by the cruisers CAIRO and CHARYBDIS and destroyers ANTELOPE, ITHURIEL, PARTRIDGE, WESTCOTT, WISHART and WRESTLER. Aircraft were flown off on 9.6 and all reached Malta safely, while the ships returned to Gibraltar to prepare for the supply convoy.

 

Operation PINPOINT - The aircraft for this operation, 32 Spitfires, were brought out from the UK in convoy OG 85 sailing 13.6 and arriving 25.6, by the freighters EMPIRE SHACKLETON (18 aircraft), GUIDO (12 aircraft) and LUBLIN (2 aircraft), plus ground crews and pilots, and assembled at North Front air strip at Gibraltar.

 

Having been embarked in EAGLE, she sailed on 14.7 escorted by the cruisers CAIRO and CHARYBDIS and destroyers ANTELOPE, ITHURIEL, VANSITTART, WESTCOTT and WRESTLER to the flying off position on 15.7. All but one of the fighters, which had provided cover for the WELSHMAN during their flight, arrived while the squadron returned to Gibraltar on 16.7.

 

Operation INSECT - Thirty two further Spitfires were shipped from Britain, unfortunately several damaged in transit, in the freighters EMPIRE DARWIN (22 aircraft), EMPIRE KESTREL (4 aircraft) and EMPIRE TERN (2 aircraft) in convoy OG 86 which sailed 2.7 and arrived 14.7. It is presumed that the figures quoted for each freighter are the undamaged aircraft. 31 Spitfires and 4 Swordfish from Gibraltar plus 6 Sea Hurricanes were embarked in EAGLE and sailed on 20.7, with the CAIRO, CHARYBDIS, ANTELOPE, ITHURIEL, VANSITTART, WESTCOTT and WRESTLER, to fly off the aircraft on 21.7, after having been unsuccessfully attacked by the submarine DANDOLO.

 

Twenty nine Spitfires took off, one remaining onboard unserviceable, one developed fuel tank defects and ditched the remaining 28 arriving safely, and the ships returned to Gibraltar to prepare for Operation PEDESTAL, detailed in the convoy section.

 

Operation BELLOWS - This operation is, in fact, an integral part of PEDESTAL, the famous convoy action to supply Malta. The carrier FURIOUS, in a subsidiary operation under the code name BELLOWS, loaded 39 Spitfires on the Clyde and sailed on 4.8 with the cruiser MANCHESTER and destroyers BLYSKAWICA and SARDONYX, the latter escorting until the night of 5/6.8. The FURIOUS and MANCHESTER joined convoy WS 21S on 7.8 and the entire force and convoy passed the Straits on 10.8. On 11.8 FURIOUS, escorted by the destroyers LAFOREY and LOOKOUT detached from the main body and flew off all but one of her Spitfires, one was forced to land hurriedly on INDOMITABLE while the remaining 37 made Malta. FURIOUS, having completed her part of the operation, turned back for Gibraltar escorted by the destroyers KEPPEL, VENOMOUS, WOLVERINE and WRESTLER, which had come out from Gibraltar to cover the return passage. WOLVERINE rammed and sank the submarine DAGABUR during the passage, leaving FURIOUS and the remaining destroyers to proceed to Gibraltar.

 

Operation BARITONE - FURIOUS had arrived in Gibraltar on 12.8 and at once loaded both Hurricanes from ARGUS and 32 Spitfires shipped out in the freighter EMPIRE CLIVE and assembled ashore; she sailed again on 16.8 escorted by the cruiser CHARYBDIS and destroyers ANTELOPE, BICESTER, DERWENT, ESKIMO, KEPPEL, LAFOREY, LOOKOUT, LIGHTNING, MALCOLM, SOMALI, VENOMOUS and WISHART. 32 Spitfires were flown off on 17.8 of which 29 arrived, the ships returning to Gibraltar on 18.8. FURIOUS subsequently sailed for Scapa on 20.8 escorted by the battleship NELSON, cruiser KENYA and destroyers BICESTER, ESKIMO, FURY, KEPPEL, MALCOLM, SOMALI, TARTAR and VENOMOUS; the carrier ARGUS accompanied the convoy which arrived 25.8.

 

Operation TRAIN - One final operation took place when FURIOUS returned to Gibraltar having embarked 31 Spitfires in the Clyde. Sailing from there on 20.10 escorted by the destroyers ESCAPADE, MARNE and ISAAC SWEERS, she arrived at Gibraltar 25.10. Sailing on 28.10 escorted by the cruisers AURORA and CHARYBDIS and destroyers ACHATES, BLYSKAWICA, BRAMHAM, COWDRAY, VANOC, VERITY, WESTCOTT and WISHART she flew off 29 Spitfires (2 remained onboard with defects) on 29.10 all of which arrived in Malta, while FURIOUS and the escort returned to Gibraltar on 30.10 to prepare for Operation TORCH, the assault on North Africa.

 

Aircraft Supply Summary - In all these operations the Royal Navy lost one irreplaceable carrier, ARK ROYAL, and transported 756 aircraft, of which 719 ( a little over 95%) arrived in Malta.

 

Figures by type are:

 

Type

Flown off

Arrived

 

 

 

Hurricane (all Marks)

353

334

Spitfire (all Marks)

384

367

Swordfish

8

7

Albacore

17

11

 

 

It is also pertinent to note that, throughout these operations, the Royal Navy was limited in its operation of fighter aircraft to at best, the MK I Hurricane converted for carrier operations!

 

 

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revised 4/12/10


 

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