* WORK IN PROGRESS
HMS Illustrious was gone. Her battered hull had slipped quietly through the Suez Canal to start the long journey to the United States for repair.
This left HMS Eagle as the sole surviving carrier in the eastern Mediterranean. But she was in dire need of a refit. The troubles that had prevented her from taking part in the attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto had not been resolved. Admiral Cunningham also feared the old 'experimental' aircraft carrier was unsuited to the intense fighting in the confined waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. She was unarmoured and slow. And suitable numbers of fighters could only be carried if all vital anti-submarine and search aircraft were landed. This was deemed unacceptable.
There was an alternative, however. The freshly commissioned HMS Formidable was in the South Atlantic. Cunningham quickly convinced the Admiralty that she should be diverted to Alexandria.
Eagle’s departure was delayed: the Suez Canal had been closed by Italian air-dropped mines. So her Swordfish were flown to Port Sudan to support Commonwealth troops fighting in East Africa. In less than a fortnight the dozen biplanes sank three and beached two destroyers. They also bombed port facilities and flew close-air support for ground troops.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy's newest aircraft carrier - HMS Formidable - had arrived in the Red Sea. Her air group was also to be active.
At the time of HMS Illustrious’ bombing, Formidable had been in commission just three months.
She had joined the fleet for the first time at Scapa Flow on December 12. But, just six days later, she was ordered to the South Atlantic to hunt surface raiders (including the pocket battleship Scheer) off St Helena after the attack on convoy HX84 and the loss of Jervis Bay. She sailed on December 18 with HMS Dorsetshire and Norfolk.
Formidable arrived in Sierra Leone on January 5, before continuing with the convoy to Cape Town on January 22. The plan had been she would relieve Ark Royal and join Force H based at Gibraltar after the raider hunt.
But the damage to HMS Illustrious turned everything on its head. Formidable departed Cape Town on January 26 with the cruiser Hawkins. Her new destination was Aden.
Aboard were 12 Fulmars of 803 Squadron led by veteran Lt 'Bill' Bruen. These pilots were experienced and had just converted to the new aircraft after serving a tour of duty with Skuas aboard Ark Royal.
There were also two Albacore squadrons, totalling 21 aircraft: Numbers 826 and 289. These squadrons had served in the English Channel before and after the Dunkirk evacuations. But this was the first time they had embarked aboard a carrier.
After ongoing training operations as she rounded Africa, HMS Formidable entered the Indian Ocean and worked her way up the African coast towards Egypt
The carrier was tasked with putting her pilots to the test in raids on lightly defended French and Italian-held facilities in East Africa.
But not all went to plan.
Of particular concern was the Italian air-laid mines which had made the Suez Canal impassable. This would delay HMS Formidable’s transit.
Ultimately Formidable’s would remain active on 'working-up- operations in the Red Sea until March 9, 1941, when RN clearance teams were confident enough that the canal had been cleared.
The plan was to use bombs, torpedoes and mines on port installations to disrupt Italian naval operations.
February 2: OPERATION BREACH - MOGADISHU, SOMALIA
Formidable's passage up the east coast of Africa provided the opportunity to harass occupational Italian forces along the way.
It would be Formidable's first operational air strike.
Operation Breach included the deployment of sea-mines off Kismayn and Mogadishu by Albacores of 803 and 806 squadron. The bombers took off at 5pm, returning four hours later. No aircraft was lost.
Once the Albacores were safely back, Formidable and Hawkins continued up the coast. They arrived at Aden on February 6.
February 13: MASSAWA, ERITREA
HMS Formidable's stop-over at Aden was brief. By February 10 she was at sea again - this time under orders to hit military targets in Italian-occupied Eritrea.
A strike of 14 aircraft was launched at 2am against the harbour facilities of Massawa, on the Red Sea coast.
It met unexpectedly intense opposition.
Nevertheless, one probable torpedo hit was recorded on a ship lying at a Northern Harbour jetty. This area had been selected after reconnaissance reported a submarine and its tender there. Another merchant ship was sunk by torpedo outside the harbor and another damaged. An Italian destroyer was believed bombed in the main harbour.
But two Albacores failed to return to Formidable: One made a forced landing 20 miles outside Massawa due to engine troubles.
It would not be the last time the Albacore’s Taurus engine would prove problematic.
February 18: Suez Canal
German aircraft dropped new acoustic mines in the narrow strategic waterway even as the last Italian devices were being removed. It would take time for clearance teams and minesweepers to devise new safe ways to counteract these weapons.
February 21: MASSAWA, ERITREA
A strike of eight Albacores was sent on its way at 4.20am for a second try at Massawa. Three hours later, all returned safely.
Formidable now made her way north to Suez Bay, anchoring there to await passage through the canal.
But the new mines had not been cleared. Two large cargo ships had been hit, along with three smaller vessels. These were now blocking the narrow channel.
The canal was a frenzy of salvage and mine-clearance operations. New channels were also being dredged around chokepoints.
Formidable could not pass.
So, she was ordered to put in for an unscheduled stop-over at Port Sudan.
Formidable returned to Suez Bay where she founds tugs and lighters waiting for her. An all-out effort had been planned to wedge the carrier through the channel and past the wrecks.
On March 8, she began the obstacle course.
Wellington aircraft fitted with huge magnetic mine-detonating hoops flew up and down the channel ahead of her. Every available minesweeper plied the waters.
Six larger ships were positioned ahead of the carrier while two noisy motor boats raced about in a crude and dangerous effort to set-off any remaining acoustic mines. Their volunteers crews knew they were there to take any hit that would otherwise damage Formidable.
The passage went according to plan, until a strong breeze threatened to blow her into the wreck of a Greek merchant ship. Tugs struggled to warp the carrier's bulk past the obstacle for the next six hours.
At 20.50, HMS Formidable anchored for the night. It would all begin again at 06.00.
There was to be one last scare.
A suspected acoustic mine caused the carrier to shut down all machinery. It took 20 minutes for two tugs to push her around the threat.
Formidable arrived safely at Port Said at 15.10 on March 9.
Once in Alexandria, the carrier and her vital aircraft would be pressed into Mediterranean service after just 10-days of respite and aircraft training.
Joining her were the surviving Fulmars of Illustrious’ 806 Squadron. These pilots would be crucial in bringing Formidable’s aircrew ‘up to speed’.
The Fulmar had already proven to be remarkably successful aboard HMS Illustrious and Ark Royal. But this was not due to the aircraft itself. The reality they were relatively low performance fighters, with a speed only marginally greater than theirprimary target - Savoia marchetti SM79 bombers.
The game changer was the presence of radar, and the rapidly evolving concept of Fighter Direction Officers (FDOs). Ark Royal had used a rudimentary form of radar-guided fighter direction using data transmitted (often by flag) from HMS Sheffield. Illustrious took it too a new level as she had her own air detection radar.
It was this combination of technology and technique which allowed the careful coordination that exploited the Fulmar's full potential.
At the end of May, the combined number of kills claimed by the Fulmars of 803 and 806 squadrons would be 56 destroyed and 33 damaged. This was almost half the total 'bag' claimed by the Fulmar in its war service.
On March 18 Formidable was deployed with HMS Barham, Valiant and Warspite along with nine destroyers as cover for Convoy MW6.
This was a group of four freighters out of Haifa and Alexandria destined for Malta - City of Manchester, Clan Ferguson, Perthshire and City of Lincoln. Close escort was the destroyers Griffin, Hotspur and Greyhound.
HMS Formidable's Fulmars took first blood when the fleet was about 30 miles south of Crete on March 21. Squadron Leader Bruen's flight was successfully directed by radar to shoot down an unsuspecting Ju88 reconnaissance plane.
The convoy came under air attack about noon on March 22, just as Formidable's force took up positions with the escort. Her Fulmars were able to beat off the bombers and the convoy suffered no damage.
By mid afternoon six cruiser and three destroyers joined the screen, with another three cruisers and a destroyer in the evening. The heavily defended group continued the final run towards Valetta, with docking completed by 0700 on March 23
BATTLE OF MATAPAN
On March 27, 1941, a Sunderland flying from Malta spotted hostile ships moving in the direction of Crete, 120 miles south-east of Italy's 'toe'. It was a strong force of Italian warships, tasked with the role of disrupting allied shipping supporting Greece.
The Italian ground invasion was finding its attack to be much more difficult than expected. Its generals had appealed for intervention by the navy to sever the steady stream of supplies and reinforcements arriving from Egypt.
For Admiral Cunningham, this was the opportunity he had waited more than a year for. He surged his fleet out of Alexandria in pursuit - but only after taking elaborate measures to deceive enemy agents that he was taking a golfing break and that the ships were stood-down.
HMS Formidable slipped her moorings at 16:00, taking to sea to land-on her air group. She would rendezvous with the battleships of Cunningham's main body at 20:00
ALLIED ORDER OF BATTLE
ITALIAN ORDER OF BATTLE
Formidable’s Albacores set out before dawn. It was shortly after the sun rose at 0720 that the Italian ships were sighted - a group of four enemy cruiser and seven destroyers - steering south-east off the south-west coast of Crete, about 30 miles off Gavdhos Island. The Albacores began the long cat-and-mouse game of shadowing the enemy.
Cunningham's cruiser squadron, under Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, made contact at 0745.
RAF medium-level bombers added to the confusion during the day, but did distract Italian gunners from approaching torpedo bombers.
At 1000, six 826 Squadron Albacores flew off Formidable with two Fulmars as escort. After a 100 miles the Albacores spotted the battleship Vittorio Veneto. Their orders had been to attack the cruisers. But the battleship – obviously where the cruisers were headed – was obviously a choice target.
The Albacores attacked in two flights of three. None were shot down, but no torpedoes hit.
Formidable's Fulmars had also been busy: they had sighted two Ju88 bombers taking up position to attack the shadowing British cruisers.
Observer LA Freddy de Frias, who was flying with PO Alf Theobald, recalled:
‘The enemy fleet was just about in sight when Theobald spotted a Ju 88 below us. The two Fulmars went into a diving attack (our only chance of getting a Ju 88) and shot it down. At our speed of just over 200 knots you only got one pass. Fortunately, an Albacore observer reported seeing the Junkers going into the sea, and so a confirmed claim was allowed.’
Thomas, Andrew. Royal Navy Aces of World War 2 (Aircraft of the Aces 75) (Kindle Locations 568-571). Osprey Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Three Swordfish of 815 Squadron flying out of Maleme, Crete, attacked 30 minutes later. Again, there were no hits.
It was not until 1350 that Formidable launched her second strike: three Albacores and two Swordfish. Again the escort was two Fulmars.
Malcolm Smith: Voices in Flight: The Fleet Air Arm: Recollections from Formation to Cold War
Account by R. Campling RNVR (Retd)
The evening of 27 March 1941 in the Eastern Mediterranean was very dark and the sea calm with only a light wind. At 20.00 the Gunnery Control Party of B Director in HMS Formidable closed up for the First Watch. They comprised the Layer Trainer, Range Taker, Boy Communications Number and myself as Gunnery Control Officer. Formidable was, at that time, the latest of the Illustrious class of armoured fleet aircraft carriers, having only been in commission for about four months. We had left Alexandria harbour hurriedly the previous evening and flown on our squadrons of Fulmar fighters and Albacore torpedo-bombers, after which we had proceeded westwards in company with the battleships HMS Warspite, Valiant and Barham and a powerful destroyer escort.
The next day was hectic with our aircraft operating continuously from dawn. The reason for the sudden departure of the fleet from Alex was the receipt of information that units of the Italian battle fleet were at sea and Formidable’s aircraft were intended to attack them, which they did with vigour and some success. Throughout the day the ship’s company were closed up at action stations or at a high degree of readiness, but as dusk fell and flying operations ceased (there was no night flying at the time) a relative calm had descended on Formidable as we continued steaming westwards in line ahead with the battleships.
B Director was one of four in this class of carrier and controlled the forward port side battery of two 4.5-inch twin turrets. A Director was above the compass platform and controlled the forward battery on the starboard side and X and Y Directors similarly controlled the two after batteries. A feature of B was that it was situated almost beneath the catapult gear and had to be at flight-deck level when flying was in progress. However, in this position, the view was considerably obstructed for gunnery purposes and, to remedy this, the Director could be raised and lowered hydraulically about six feet. The result was that, when flying was in progress, it was necessary constantly to raise and lower the Director, and we sometimes felt like Reginald Dixon on his Mighty Wurlitzer!
Vitorrio Venito was located south of Cape Matapan. Two Albacores attacked first, out of the sun. The others followed close behind.
One torpedo was seen to strike the battleship. One of the two Albacores was shot down.
The torpedo slowed Vittorio Venito to about 8kts. It took her crew four frantic hours of damage control to enable the wounded battleship to increase its speed to 19kts.
Formidable's Fulmars had also been busy: they had sighted two Ju88 bombers taking up position to attack the British cruisers. One was claimed shot down.
All this time, Cunningham’s forces raced to close the distance. Formidable was repeatedly out of position, hauling out of the battle-line to launch and recover aircraft. For this reason she was largely alone at 1254 when she was attacked by two SM79 bombers. Captain Bisset manouvered the carrier out of harm's reach.
The final strike of the day involved six Albacores and two Swordfish from Formidable. Two Swordfish from Maleme followed Formidable’s formation in.
The attack was conducted even as the sun dipped over the horizon at 1930.
Smoke screens added to the confusion of the dusk. Searchlights joined the AA fire in intimidating the attackers, which made their attack-runs independently.
But Lt F. M. A. Torrens-Spense in an 815 Squadron Albacore found another mark. His torpedo struck the 10,000ton heavy cruiser Pola.
The blast left the ship dead in the water. Her engines had failed, and so had her electrical power.
The day-long labours of Formidable’s CAP Fulmars also had paid off. The Italian commander was left unaware that Cunningham had continued to close. Every attempt by reconnaissance aircraft to pinpoint the Royal Navy fleet had failed.
He felt safe in ordering the heavy cruisers Zara and Fiume, with two destroyers, to stand by an assist the crippled Pola. The only real threat, he thought, would be an accidental encounter with the cruiser and destroyer escort of an allied convoy.
Malcolm Smith: Voices in Flight: The Fleet Air Arm: Recollections from Formation to Cold War
Account by R. Campling RNVR (Retd)
We had been closed up for about an hour and so far as we were concerned all seemed to be quiet and peaceful as we continued our westward course at a speed of about twenty knots. Warspite was leading the column followed by Valiant, then came Formidable and astern of us was Barham. After the rigours of the day there seemed to be a slight feeling of anti-climax in that, despite the heroic efforts of our aircrews, the Italian fleet had got away. It was the custom for the Air Defence Position (ADP) above the bridge regularly to call up the Director during the watch to test communications and when, at about 21.00, the phone buzzed we assumed that this would be just another routine call. Imagine our surprise, therefore, when word was passed down that there was a report from Warspite of unidentified surface ships a few miles distant on the port bow. I immediately passed on this information to the Transmitting Station and the turrets, ordering them to stand to. A tense silence followed for several minutes, then everything seemed to happen at once. ... As we retired from the scene, severe explosions continued with white flashes and the orange glow of fires lighting up the sky. The enemy ships were the three Italian cruisers Pola, Fiume and Zara, all of which were sunk. The rest of the night passed in relative peace so far as Formidable was concerned, although the following day was a very different story.
The battle in the early hours of March 29 is well documented. HMS Formidable’s role, however, less so. She was in the battle-line behind Warspite and Valiant, with Barham astern.
A carrier has no place in a fleet fight, but Formidable needed protection at night lest she stumble alone into Italian forces. She fired a single volley, then sought the protection of darkness.
She would not take her place in the battle-line behind Warspite again until 0710
Formidable’s Fulmars played a key role in breaking up waves of attacking aircraft as the British battlefleet withdrew to Alexandria. The largest attack was by dive bombers at 1540. No ship was damaged.
Italy had suffered a serious blow to one of its modern battleships. Its heavy cruiser force was cripped.
The Royal Navy lost just one Albacore and its crew.
HMS Formidable had enacted the role envisaged for her when her class was conceived in 1936. She was operating in closed waters, under the constant threat of air attack. Her aircraft had located and shadowed the enemy battlefleet. Her aircraft had scored slowing-blows against its capital ships. Her fighters had kept the sky above her on formation clear.
Two months later, HMS Victorious would repeat this task. Her Swordfish crippled the Bismark, causing her to fall under the big guns of the Home Fleet.
It would be just the second - and last - time this doctrine would be realised.
Lieutenant T. Campling RNVR, one of Formidable's Gunnery Control Officers, recalls in Voices in Flight that Formidable's 4.5-inch dual-purpose guns actually contributed to the gun fight:
We saw a group of coloured flares fired from Warspite, which were in fact the night challenge signal, then, almost immediately, the battleship’s searchlights were switched on to reveal to our amazement three sleek-looking light grey warships, their guns trained fore and aft. Within seconds there was an ear-splitting roar as the 15-inch guns of our battleships opened fire at almost point-blank range. The result was immediate and devastating. I vividly recall seeing a complete turret of the leading ship disappear over the side. Masses of flame soon enveloped all three ships. Although we received the order to open fire the order was almost immediately countermanded as Formidable turned out of line to starboard. One salvo was in fact fired by Formidable, and this must have been one of the few occasions during the Second World War when an aircraft carrier used its main gunnery armament against a major enemy warship.
As we retired from the scene, severe explosions continued with white flashes and the orange glow of fires lighting up the sky. The enemy ships were the three Italian cruisers Pola, Fiume and Zara, all of which were sunk. The rest of the night passed in relative peace so far as Formidable was concerned, although the following day was a very different story.
Malcolm Smith: Voices in Flight: The Fleet Air Arm: Recollections from Formation to Cold War
Account by R. Campling RNVR (Retd)
At about 15.00 word was passed to the Director from the ADP that a large group of unidentified aircraft was approaching the fleet from the north-west. The ship went to action stations. When first reported the group was some seventy miles away, but the distance rapidly reduced and it became clear that the fleet was about to be attacked. The weather was fine with a hazy sun. When the group was five miles away we were told that it had split up and that an attack was imminent, and almost immediately we caught a glimpse of several black specks in the sky. It was difficult to make out details as they were high up and against the sun. We received the order to open fire in ‘barrage’ – this meant setting the fuses to burst at close range above the fleet. Simultaneously every other ship seemed to do likewise and a curtain of bursting shells appeared over us, forming an umbrella at about 2,000 feet. We then heard the scream of the dive-bombers, soon identified as German Ju87s, as they dived mostly against Formidable, or so it seemed to us.
We caught fleeting glimpses of bombs rushing past us to be followed by enormous columns of water rising from the sea, causing the ship, all 23,000 tons of her, to lurch and shudder. The noise from the ‘umbrella barrage’ made up from our own 4.5-inch guns and multi-barrelled pom-poms and the guns of the rest of the Fleet, the scream of the diving bombers and the rattling sound of shrapnel from bursting shells hitting our steel flight deck was deafening. Miraculously we were not hit, though there were several very near misses. Several enemy aircraft were seen to drop into the sea and disappear, not having survived the barrage. Our task completed, we returned to Alexandria to receive a warm welcome from the numerous ships of all kinds in the harbour. The whole action was shortly afterwards given the name of the Battle of Matapan. Historically it was the first fleet action between major naval units since the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
Formidable was deployed with HMS Barham, Valiant and Warspite. Covering the force was the cruisers HMS Ajax, Calcutta, Glouchester, Orion and Phoebe and the destroyers Encounter, Hasty, Hereward, Havock, Hero, Jaguar, Juno, Decoy, Defender, Grayhound and Ilex.
The mission was to cover a group of empty transports (Convoy ME7) out of Malta.
Then they would to take up position for a bombardment of Tripoli.
On this day the Fulmar belonging to 803 Squadron’s senior pilot was hit while leading his flight to engage Italian bombers. The aircraft’s windscreen was covered in oil and the instrument panel destroyed. Though wounded in the arm and thigh, he put the Fulmar on the deck of Formidable with only one wheel down – but the hook detached and the aircraft bounced off the island and skidded over the forward guns and bow and into the sea. Lt Donald Gibson was recovered by a destroyer, but Observer Sub Lt Ashbrook was killed.
Soon after dawn a flight of two Fulmars of 806 Squadron encountered an Italian Cant Z1007bis. It was quickly shot down by Charles Evans and Sub Lt Jackiew Sewell. It was Evans' 10th kill.
Two hours later, five Ju52 transports were detected flying towards Africa. Two 806 Squadron sections were vectored to intercept. Four were claimed shot down: one by Lt Henley, another to Lt Shears and two to Julian Sparke.
Shears' Fulmar, however, was shot down.
Admiral Cunningham sought to express his fresh moral dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean. While acting as distant cover for a convoy, he would engage in an aggressive raid. Nine of Formidable’s Albacores would act as spotter aircraft as the 15in guns of his battleships bombarded the harbour and town of Tripoli.
The bombardment force consisted of HMS Warspite and Barham, screened by HMS Glouchster and the destroyers Hero, Hasty, Havock, Hereward, Hotspur, Jaguar, Janus, Jervis and Juno. The remainder of the force clustered protectively around HMS Formidable, further out to sea.
The Albacores deployed flares during the 49-minute early morning bombardment. Six freighters were believed damaged or sunk (in fact only one was sunk), along with the torpedo boat Partenope, and the harbour’s fuel dump set alight.
The fleet withdrew, anticipating heavy air attack.
The following day, the 22nd, saw her Fulmars once again operating in defence of the withdrawing fleet. April 22 would prove to be the peak of HMS Formidable’s flight operations, with up to 14 Fulmars in the air at once. Eight aircraft were claimed shot down in this period, and three listed as “probable”. Two of the claimed kills were Ju88s.
Formidable's Fulmars had urgently sought to stave off the inevitable raids by preventing enemy reconnaissance reports of the fleet's whereabouts. Shortly after noon two fighters downed a Do24N flying boat which had been seen flying low over the sea. It landed on the water, its port engine ablaze. But it attempted to take-off, drawing another strafing run from the Fulmars. It was abandoned, sinking.
The main attack arrived late in the afternoon. Two sections of Fulmars - one from 803 Squadron and another from 806 - intercepted a wave of Ju88s.
The only damage the fleet suffered was when the battleship HMS Valiant struck a floating mine.
Between 17 and 23 April, Formidable’s 17 Fulmars had completed 156 sorties. Her pilots, observers and flight operations personnel were getting very tired. So were the aircraft themselves.
Britain scrambled to reinforce its retreating 8th Army in Egypt with fresh tanks and aircraft. General Rommel’s Afrika Korps had exacted a terrible toll.
Admiral Cunningham’s fleet was also in desperate need of reinforcement and replacements. The modernised battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth and the cruisers Glouchester, Fiji and Naiad were ready to make the dash from Gibraltar to Alexandria.
Cunningham, however, remained opposed to the notion of running a convoy the length of the Mediterranean now Fliegerkorps X was well established. The damage done to HMS Illustrious in January was still fresh in his mind.
But Churchill was adamant: Urgent British reinforcement of the forces in Egypt was vital if Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel's Panzerdivisions were to be halted.
So, in May, a hastily assembled collection of fast merchant ships was to run the gauntlet of Sardinia and Sicily. Supply Convoy MW7 would depart Alexandria for Malta, both as a diversion and to exploit the opportunity to get them to the beseiged island. The heavily protected military convoy would come from Gibraltar at the tame time.
It would be a particularly hard-fought operation.
Force H, with HMS Ark Royal, would cover the ships on the western half of the route.
After delivering MW7 to the rendezvous south of Malta, HMS Formidable and the Mediterranean Fleet would see the troop and tank transports of 'Tiger' safely to their destination.
ALLIED ORDER OF BATTLE
Ark Royal (Fulmars: 808, 807 Squadron)
* 807 Squadron was a new arrival, replacing the Skua fighter-bombers of 800 Squadron.
Battlecruiser: Renown (Repulse remained in port as her anti-aircraft strength was deemed too weak)
Cruisers: HMS Sheffield, Naiad,
Destroyers: HMS Wrestler, Kashmir, Kipling, Faulknor, Forester, Fury, Harvester, Havelock, Hesperus.
'Tiger' Fast Convoy (All ships capable of +15kts, carrying 295 Matilda and Crusader tanks, 180 vehicles and 53 crated Hurricanes)
Transports Clan Campbell, Clan Chattan, Clan Lamont, Empire Song, New Zealand Star.
* Joined with convoy WS8A from Clyde to Cape Town. Near Gibraltar, on May 2, the fast transports detached with the escorts HMS Repulse, Naiad, Harvester, Havelock, Hesperus.
Mediterranean Fleet Reinforcement force: HMS Queen Elizabeth, Glouchester, Fiji, Naiad.
Operation MD4 (Departing Alexandria)
Battleship: Warspite, Barham, Valiant
Cruisers: HMS Ajax, Orion, Abdiel, HMAS Perth
Destroyers: HMS Jervis, Juno, Jaguar, Kandahar, Kimberley, Kingston, Napier, Nizam, Imperial, Griffin, Hotsupur, Havock. (The Malta destroyer force Kelly, Jackal, Kelvin and Janus joined temporarily on May 9)
Support: Breconshire (tanker)
Operation MW7A (Departing Alexandria)
Cruisers: Dido, Phoebe, Calcutta
Destroyers: Isis, Hero, Hereward
Transports: Settler, Thermopylae, Amerika, Talabot
Convoy AN30 (Departing Haifa and Port Said, Palestine for Suda Bay, Crete)
Destroyers: HMAS Stuart, Vampire, Waterhen
Sloops: Grimsby, Flamingo, HMNZS Auckland
Transports: Lossiebank, Cape Horn, City of Canterbury, Rawnsley
AXIS ORDER OF BATTLE
The Luftwaffe had diverted much of its strength out of Sicily to prepare for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia.
Force H took up its covering position with the ‘Tiger’ convoy as it passed through the Straits of Gibraltar.
About the same time, at the other end of the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean Fleet departed Alexandria.
Fortunately for Force H, the weather was poor and visibility was low. Its passage on the 6th and 7th went unnoticed.
During the night of the 7th and 8th, the light cruiser HMS Ajax and the destroyers Havock, Hotspur and Imperial undertook a diversion to shell the harbour of Benghazi. Thy sank two transports.
The Italians mobilised a force from Palermo: the light cruisers Luigi di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Luigi Cadorna, together with five destroyers, were too late to intercept.
The tribulations of the Fleet Air Arm following the Battle of Britain emergency had not left HMS Ark Royal untouched. Only 12 Fulmars from her two squadrons were listed as operational.
Despite this, she maintained a constant standing air patrol of two aircraft from 8am as the convoy approached the 100 mile gap between Sardinia and Algeria. It was the start of the ‘narrows’ which would exact a heavy toll from many convoys to come.
In the western Mediterranean, an Italian shadower was seen over the convoy and Force H about noon. It escaped into cloud.
Two hours later, at 1345, the radar-guard and fighter-direction cruiser HMS Sheffield sounded an alarm: incoming aircraft were detected at 32 miles.
Two sections of 808 Squadron Fulmars (two aircraft each) were airborne at this time. Another two sections of 807 Squadron were scrambled. All were directed towards the incoming Italians.
They found 16 SM79 torpedo bombers of 38 Gruppo, escorted by 12 Fiat CR42 biplane fighters of 3 Gruppo, flying out of Sardinia.
Christopher Shores’ book, Malta: The Hurricane Years gives a detailed account of the action.
The four Fulmars of 808 Squadron’s CAP found themselves in a poor position: The CR42s were unexpectedly higher, and immediately ‘bounced’ the British fleet fighters as they positioned themselves to swoop on the bombers.
The commanding officer of 808 Squadron, Lieutenant Tillard, was shot down. Both he and his observer, Lieutenant Somerville, were killed. The remaining three Fulmars also had not escaped unscathed. Two had suffered hits on their tailplanes, while the observer of another had been wounded in the leg.
One CR42 was also seen to be hit by Lieutenant Taylour and to enter a violent spin. It was classified as a ‘probable’. The Italians, however, ambitiously claimed five Fulmars as shot down.
This did not deter the freshly launched Fulmars. They evaded the CR42s and fell upon the SM79 torpedo bombers.
One Fulmar was hit by return fire. Lieutenant N.G. 'Buster' Hallett was forced to ditch. Both he and his Australian observer were picked up by HMS Foresight. Blue Section 807 Squadron’s two Fulmars destroyed the SM79 that had shot down Hallett.
As the remaining fighters wheeled among them, half of the Italian torpedo bomber force turned back. The remaining eight, however, pressed on.
No further FAA fighters stood between the bombers and the fleet.
Unmolested, the eight torpedo bombers delivered hair-raising attacks on Ark Royal herself, as well as her close escort – HMS Renown.
From about 1620 more flights of SM79s approached. Some with CR42 escorts.
Yellow Section 808 Squadron’s Lieutenant A.T.J. Kindersley and Lieutenant Ronnie Hay, R.M., claimed a SM79 kill at 1710.
‘Tiger’ came within range of the Luftwaffe bases on Sicily shortly before dusk.
This time, however, there was more warning. At 1930, HMS Sheffield detected the German strike force as it formed up some 70 miles distant.
Ark Royal had three Fulmars in the air (Red Section 807 Squadron). But the remaining four serviceable fighters had been ready on deck for this obviously ‘peak threat’ period.
These (two each from 807 and 808 Squadrons) took up station some 15 miles out from the fleet at a medium altitude. After all, it was the low-flying torpedo bombers that presented the greatest threat
Against them was an experienced force of Germany’s best aircraft. Two formations of 14-28 Stukas (accounts differ) from I/StG1 had flown out of Cagliari. They had a top-cover of six twin-engine Bf110 heavy fighters of 9/ZG26.
They were sighted when 20 miles out from the convoy. Three fighters of the high CAP, Red Section, tangled with the Bf110s. The four scrambled Fulmars swept among the Stukas.
This time the outcome was clearly in the FAA’s favour. The Stuka force scattered, scrambling for the patchy cloud to escape the unexpectedly aggressive FAA fighters.
Blue Leader, Lieutenant ‘Jimmie” Gardner, claimed one Ju87 destroyed and another probable. But his windscreen was then shattered by Stuka return fire and his radiator damaged. He managed to crash-land aboard Ark Royal. (A review of his gun camera footage confirmed the probable.)
Yellow 1 (Lieutenant Taylour) claimed a Ju87 but sustained a serious hit from a Bf110 in the starboard wing which destroyed the hydraulics and caused the wheel to drop down.
Two Bf110s were also reported as damaged. One had been seen streaming white smoke after being hit by Red 2 (P.O.(A) R.T. Leggott). Another was seen on fire by Sub Lt R.F. Walker (who also claimed smoke from a Stuka).
The returning pilots of 9/ZG26 claimed three ‘Hurricanes’ as shot down. German records show two Bf110s crash landed with wounded crews.
The FAA claims against the Ju87s, however, seem to have been optimistic. German records admit only one Ju87 being damaged, with its wounded pilot and gunner returning to Cagliari.
All surviving Fulmars had landed aboard Ark Royal by 2015. But two were quickly scrambled again as a flight of SM79s was detected approaching at low level.
They were unable to intercept before the torpedo bombers launched an unsuccessful attack on Ark Royal and Renown. During this action one of HMS Renown's port-side 4.5in dual-purpose gun mounts suffered a control failure, firing into the rear of the mount in front of it. Six were killed and 26 injured. It was the only damage the force was to sustain.
Under the cover of darkness, the convoy, unmolested, separated from Force H at Skerki Bank and ran full speed through the Sicilian Narrows.
It had been a close-run thing.
Ark Royal’s experience was a harbinger of things to come. Lack of spare parts and replacement Fulmars would put HMS Formidable in a desperate position in just a few short weeks time.
That same day, HMS Formidable had been having an eventful time in the eastern Mediterranean. Her Fulmars had shot down three reconnaissance He111s, damaged a Ju88 and destroyed an Italian Cant Z1007bis. Axis forces were so cowed by the effectiveness of the CAP that they began to fly higher to evade the fighters, with a significant reduction in their chances of sighting and assessing the fleet.
Lt Bob MacDonald-Hall of 806 Squadron recalled:
‘We came across two He 111s, the first of which I rather stupidly flew in formation with some 50 yards behind! I still managed to blow up the Heinkel’s starboard engine, however, the debris of which – being glycol and fuel – smothered my cockpit and I watched it cartwheel down and hit the sea. I then rejoined Touchbourne, and we harassed, attacked and shot down the other Heinkel, prior to returning to Formidable.’
The third He111 was confirmed killed by an 803 Squadron flight led by Lt Bill Bruen. This made him an ace.
With the two forces having converged, MW7 made its dash for Valetta harbour. The two tankers and four transports at this point had a close escort of the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta, Carlisle, Coventry, Dido and Phoebe, along with three destroyers and two corvettes.
Tiger’s luck did not hold.
The convoy passed through the narrow, in close company with the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, the cruisers Gloucester, Fiji and Naiad, and the destroyers Faulknor, Fearless, Foresight, Forester, Fortune, Fury, Kashmir and Kipling.
The destroyers were in formation ahead, with minesweeping equipment deployed.
Shortly after midnight, one of the vital cargo ships – MV New Zealand Star – safely detonated a mine with her parvane. Then, in the Narrows off the coast of Tunisia, the 9200ton MV Empire Song struck two mines. A fire started among the ammunition in her hold. Her crew evacuated to a destroyers.
The ship blew up at 0400, taking with her 57 tanks and 10 crated Hurricanes.
Then a lone torpedo-bomber slipped through the darkness to deliver an attack on HMS Queen Elizabeth. It only narrowly missed.
Force H now handed over responsibility for the vital fast transports to the Mediterranean Fleet.
It was an immensely dangerous time.
The weather smiled upon Operation Tiger. Their time of greatest vulnerability was as dawn broke over the ships exiting the Sicilian Narrows and passing to the south of Malta.
They were blanketed by heavy cloud, fog and rain and raid. Beafighters from Malta could also be seen periodically passing protectively overhead.
Italy had three submarines operating in the area: Santore Santarosa, Rugiero Settimo and Corallo. None were able to engage.
Then the 5th Destroyer Flotilla hove into view: Jackal, Kelly and Kelvin had used the opportunity to escape Malta. They would now travel with Tiger - also reinforced by Ajax, Dido, Orion, Perth and Phoebe - until meeting Admiral Cunningham's main body further to to the east.
Kashmir, Kipling and Faulknor dashed into Valetta to refuel before making the run back through the narrows to rejoin Force H.
One tenacious German Ju88, from 2(F)/123, was detected on radar attempting to locate the fleet through any opportune break in the clouds.
Two of HMS Formidable’s fighters (806 Squadron) were soon vectored in on the hapless aircraft, and claimed it as shot down. In actuality, it had limped back to Sicily where it was destroyed in a crash landing. While the crew survived, they had not sighted the fleet.
By 1515 the two convoys that had been covered by the Mediterranean Fleet had made it to Malta without loss.
For a period of 24 hours, the Axis received no intelligence as to the convoy’s location.
But it was obvious where it was headed. And its average speed was known.
All they had to do was extrapolate a course – and wait.
Dawn broke to foul weather once again. It would persist for much of the day – but began to lift in the afternoon.
Force H, returning to Gibraltar, was not so lucky. It was attacked by 21 Italian aircraft, damaging the destroyer Fortune with a near-miss. Her speed was reduced to just seven knots. The destroyer Fury was detached as escort.
During the morning two Malta Beaufighters tasked with protecting the convoy were directed to a ‘bogie’ 70km south west of the island. They found a Ju88 of 2(F)/123. The exchange of gunfire seriously damaged the Junkers, but return-fire destroyed one of the Beaufighters.
Soon high-flying German aircraft were detected – staying above the Fulmar’s optimal height where they could out-run the fleet fighter. One He111 was sighted by a CAP Fulmar, but it escaped into fog.
The Tiger convoy was now being shadowed.
At 2100 the inevitable attacks began. Over a period of one –and-a-half hours, torpedo bombers and attempted to use the moon to silhouette the ships. All were turned away by AA fire from the escorts and harrying Fulmars. No ship was damaged.
However, HMS Formidable was to lose a pilot and observer when their Fulmar crashed on take-off.
Five destroyers of the escort, led by Lord Louis Mountbatten's 5th Destroyer Flotilla , were detached shortly after midnight to again bombard Benghazi. They claimed one vessel hit.
But, as they returned to the Tiger formation, they were bounced by a flight of Ju87s from II/StG2. They suffered only minor damage.
A combination of patchy weather and poor intelligence delayed any Axis attack until the afternoon.
Nine Ju88’s of 5/LG1 were intercepted by a flight from 806 Squadron.
Lieutenant R.S. Henley damaged the Ju88 he singled out to attack. But his wingman, Lieutenant P.D.J. Sparke collided with his target. The Fulmar and Ju88 plunged into the ocean, taking both crews with them.
The remaining Ju88s, however, turned back.
This was the last attack on Tiger.
All up, the Fulmars of Ark Royal and Formidable had claimed 10 Axis aircraft. The price was four Fulmars.
Most importantly, on May 12, the remaining fast transports were able to deliver 238 tanks (82 of them the new Crusaders) and 43 crated Hurricanes to Alexandria. The British 8th Army now had the fighting equipment it needed to stop Rommel in his tracks – a full three weeks earlier than had the Tiger convoy been routed the safer route around Africa.
Minute from First Sea Lord to Prime Minister, 26 May 1941.
Availability of Fulmar Fighters
“From the 18th April to the 12th May, 18 Fulmars have made 390 (? Sorties), 338 being fighter patrols. 25 interceptions were made, 15 plus 5 enemy aircraft were shot down, 18 enemy aircraft sighted… During this period 12 Fulmars were lost by rendering beyond repair (sic), 4 being lost after combat. There are now 15 serviceable and 14 under repair or overhaul. The least number required maintain fighter efforts is 3 squadrons of 12 each, and a reserve of 36.
HMS Formidable’s air group had suffered serious attrition. Upon her return to harbour on May 12, she had just four operational Fulmars.
All had tired engines or damaged components. Losses had not been replaced and spares not delivered.
The fallout of the Battle of Britain was beginning to bite home.
All aircraft and engine production had been diverted to just a handful of RAF machines – in particular the Spitfire and Hurricane. All Fleet Air Arm production had been halted.
To make matters worse, the major FAA supply dump at Coventry had been smashed by one of the Luftwaffe’s largest raids of the war.
There were simply no spare parts or replacement aircraft to be had.
Repairs had to be effected by scrounging through dumps, cannibalising other aircraft and some creative machine-shop work.
The fallout was immediate and immense.
Admiral Cunningham’s report made it clear how painful HMS Formidable’s absence was:
The Royal Navy lost local control of the air for operations during the urgent evacuations of Greece and Crete. The Navy succeeded in its object but paid a heavy price for this achievement. The fleet was operating within easy range of enemy air bases and beyond the reach of any protection from our own air force. The fleet fighters of H.M.S. FORMIDABLE were reduced to only four as a result of casualties and unserviceability arising from the recent operation " Tiger."* It was, therefore, useless to send H.M.S. FORMIDABLE to assist… So, without air support of any sort, the fleet had to be exposed to a scale of air attack which is believed to have exceeded anything of the kind yet experienced afloat.
It took until May 25 for Formidable to once again field a respectable number of fighters. But the condition of the 13 machines embarked was, in truth, suspect.
This would have grievous implications for Operation M.A.Q. 3 – an attack on the Stuka airfield of Scarpanto and the support of embattled Crete.
Note by Joint Secretaries, British Joint Staff Mission, Washington1
[CAB 122/ 142] 19 September 1941
Allocation of Grumman Martlet fighters to the Royal Navy
The attached Memorandum. from Admiral Lyster to Admiral Sir Charles Little, is circulated herewith for consideration at the meeting to be held on TUESDAY, 23RD SEPTEMBER, 1941, prior to submission to the Supply Council.
MEMORANDUM BY THE JOINT STAFF MISSION.
The Strategic Importance of Single Seater Fighters to the Navy. The pre-war guiding principle of Naval strategy regarding aircraft carriers was to arm them with a striking force of Torpedo-Bomber-Reconnaissance aircraft, and to provide in addition a force of Fighters whose dual role was to protect the ship from enemy bombers and to escort the striking force on its operational sorties. It was the general opinion that navigational facilities would be a sine qua non of such fighter aircraft; hence the insistence on the two-seater fighter. Arrangements have been made in this country to produce all the two seater naval fighters required.
However, in this war aircraft carriers have been required to operate in enclosed waters within striking range of enemy dive-bombers, and often of their shore-based fighter escort. U.S. naval observers have seen for themselves in the Mediterranean that the low speeds of the two-seater fighters hitherto embarked on all aircraft carriers have been insufficient to enable them to deal effectively with attacks pressed home on the mother ship. Our aircraft carriers are often required to operate within range of shore-based aircraft; and it will thus be imperative to arm these carriers with single-seater as well as with two-seater fighters (whether simultaneously or alternatively will depend upon the operations envisaged). The Martlet the only Naval Single Seater Fighter until 1943. Owing to a delay of over 9 months in the appearance of the folding wing Martlet, and to increased commitments involved in the new measures to counter the air menace in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Navy have been forced to obtain obsolescent R.A.F. fighter aircraft for use in the few carriers with large lifts. By next spring the first line strength of single-seater fighters necessary to fill carriers to complement will amount to 120 (10 squadrons, say); five squadrons, but no more, can be maintained by the fighters diverted to the Navy by the R.A.F. It is not possible to use R.A.F. fighters for more than five squadrons for the following reasons: (1) the aircraft will not be available. (2) non-folding aircraft cannot be used in the remaining single-seater fighter squadrons. We are faced with the difficulty of providing the remaining five squadrons. The only British naval single-seater fighter is the Firebrand, a machine which is to be produced ‘off the board’ with deliveries commencing at a very slow rate early next summer. Because of limited capacity, the peak target monthly delivery rate of the Firebrand is only 25, this peak being planned to be attained in October 1942. Allowing for inevitable delays and difficulties encountered in the introduction of a new type of aircraft into service, it is thought that the first operational squadron of Firebrand fighters will only be formed at the outset of 1943.
The above statements relating to the Firebrand make it plain that IF THE CARRIERS ILLUSTRIOUS, FORMIDABLE, VICTORIOUS, AND ARK ROYAL ARE NOT TO BE ENTIRELY DEPRIVED OF FIGHTER PROTECTION, IT WILL BE IMPERATIVE TO FORM AT LEAST 5 FIRST LINE MARTLET SQUADRONS AND TO MAINTAIN THEM UNTIL AT LEAST HALF WAY THROUGH 1943. Since losses on these five squadrons and on the two squadrons of training aircraft are budgeted to amount to about 15 a month and since it has been found essential to build up reserve pools of naval aircraft, it is at once obvious that FAILURE OF THE U.S.A. TO DELIVER THE 20 (FOLDING WING) MARTLETS A MONTH ASKED FOR AFTER THE PRESENT ORDER FOR 240 COMPLETES IN AUGUST, 1942, WILL RESULT IN THE EXPOSURE OF FOUR IMPORTANT CARRIERS TO GRAVE RISKS OR IN THE IMMOBILIZATION OF IMPORTANT NAVAL RESOURCES. Owing to the introduction of new type of two-seater fleet fighter, the Firefly, towards the end of 1943, and the previous cessation of production of the Fulmar, the two-seater fighter situation during the last few months of 1942 and the first months of 1943 will probably be very ‘tight’. The arming of the ILLUSTRIOUS, FORMIDABLE, VICTORIOUS, and the ARK ROYAL with two-seaters in lieu of single-seaters does not therefore exist as a possibility. It will therefore be seen that the release of a continuation order of 20 Martlets a month is a matter of the highest priority towards the Navy war effort …