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Skua fighter forced to crash-land on Sicily during Operation White

Operation White was a British attempt to deliver 14 aircraft -12 Hurricanes and two Skuas- to Malta from the aircraft carrier HMS Argus, on 17 November 1940. The Operation was thwarted by the presence of the Italian Fleet at sea, which prompted a premature take-off of the fighters, and bad weather, with the result that only five aircraft reached Malta.

Contents

Previous missions

After the entry of Italy in the Second World War, British authorities designed a formal system of aircraft reinforcement to Malta, in order to build-up a credible air defence and replace potential losses. Only two possible routes remained open after the fall of France: the most obvious, via North Africa, by shuttling the fighters through the Sahara or the Suez Canal to Egypt, and its alternative, the delivery of them by carrier from the western Mediterranean.[1] The first unit to be transferred by carrier was the 418 Flight, a group composed by Navy and RAF's pilots specially trained for deck operations.[2] They accomplished a successful mission on 2 August 1940 from the ageing aircraft carrier HMS Argus, escorted by HMS Ark Royal, three battleships, two cruiser and 10 destroyers. Three Italian SM 79 bombers attacked the convoy, but a group of Skuas from Ark Royal shot down one of the Savoias and repulsed the surviving two. All the British fighters reached the airstrip of Luqa at Malta, although two planes crash-landed.[3] The first engagement of the new arrived aircraft took place on the night of 13 August, when they shot down another Italian SM 79. By 16 August, 418 Flight and the original Malta units were merged into 261 Squadron.[4]

Operation White

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First moves

Following this success, both the Navy and the RAF were encouraged to repeat the mission on November. Again, the aircraft were to be delivered by HMS Argus, escorted by the battleship HMS Renown, the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the cruisers HMS Despatch, HMS Sheffield and seven destroyers. The convoy, under the command of Admiral Somerville, departed from Gibraltar at dawn on 15 November. The Italian naval headquarters (Supermarina), was informed of the ongoing operation four hours later. A fleet commanded by Admiral Campioni sailed out from Naples and Messina, and by the morning of 17 November the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare, along with two heavy cruisers and several destroyers were awaiting 35 miles southwest of Sardinia.[5] Earlier the same day, a report was passed to Somerville about the deployment of the Italian fleet south of Naples, with the apparent intention of intercept the British squadron. He then decided to launch the fighters as soon as possible.[6][7]

Delivery

The British convoy was 400 miles west of Malta when the first wave of fighters took off from Argus at 06:15 AM. Given the correct speed and the best cruise-range, the Hurricanes would have been left with just 45 minutes of fuel after reaching the coast of the island. But they lost a third of this reserve while scrambling and forming up. The fighters flew at 150 mph at a height of 2,000 feet, far from the ideal height and speed intended for their maximal range. The second wave was launched an hour later, as the convoy turned back at full speed. The wind veered from southwest to southeast, hampering the westward path of the aircraft. Near Galite Islands a Sunderland flying boat met them to lead the formation to Malta. Two Hurricanes were lost after running out of fuel at 09:08 and 09:12. One of the pilots was rescued by the Sunderland, the other was never found. Eventually, the four remaining Hurricanes and the Skua landed at Luqa at 09:20.

The second wave missed the Sunderland's assistance when the flying boat failed to take off from Gibraltar to escort them. They also missed Galite Islands and a bomber sent from Malta to replace the Sunderland. One by one, the Hurricanes ran out of fuel and fell to the sea, with the loss of both pilots and aircraft. The Skua managed to crash-land near Syracuse, Sicily, just before its fuel tanks became empty and after being fired upon by Italian anti-aircraft artillery. The two-man crew was taken prisoner.[7]

Aftermath

Admiral Somerville privately assessed the operation "a frightful failure".[8] The official inquiry put the blame on the Skua crew, but it was agreed that poor weather, lack of cooperation between the Navy and the RAF and the fleet reluctance to take risks were the real cause of the fiasco. The loss of experienced fighter pilots was particularly painful. Nevertheless, the most successful aces survived the ordeal, some of them being veterans of the battle of Britain.[9]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Shores, Cull & Malizia, pp. 43-44
  2. ^ Shores, Cull & Malizia, pp. 44-45
  3. ^ Shores, Cull & Malizia, pp. 46-47
  4. ^ Shores, Cull & Malizia, pp. 52-53
  5. ^ De La Sierra, page 148
  6. ^ Woodman, page
  7. ^ a b Shores, Cull & Malizia, pp. 86-88
  8. ^ Woodman, page 93
  9. ^ Shores, Cull & Malizia, page 88

References

  • Shores, Cull and Malizia: Malta: The Hurricane years (1940-41). Grub Street, London, 1999. ISBN 0948817062
  • Woodman, Richard: Malta Convoys, 1940-1943, Jack Murray Ltd., London, 2000. ISBN 0719557534
  • Sierra, Luis de la: La guerra naval en el Mediterráneo, 1940-1943, Ed. Juventud, Barcelona, 1976. ISBN 8426102646 (Spanish)

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