Operation Alacrity

This was the British introduction of forces into the Azores islands group, part of neutral Portugal, by agreement with the Portuguese government (8 October 1943).

The British had long needed a foothold in this island group, possessing the same strategic importance in the central Atlantic as Iceland did in the northern Atlantic for the control of the sea lanes passing by them, and the concept was a particular favourite of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who fully appreciated that while Iceland could exercise a major role in safeguarding east/west convoy routes, the Azores could fulfil the same role for north/south convoys.

The British rightly reckoned that a move into the Azores would offer the double advantage of denying this key base to the Germans should they overrun the Iberian peninsula, and also of providing the Allies with bases for the long-range patrol bombers and short-range escort ships so desperately needed to cover the mid-Atlantic gap in which the U-boats were proving so successful.

The British and Portuguese governments had been negotiating the matter for some two years. The British had long considered plans for an occupation of the Azores islands by force or by invitation, but were loathe to use force against a country which was the UK’s oldest ally (despite the fact that the UK had declined Portugal’s offer of assistance in 1939), and the talks therefore reached no conclusion until the fears of Dr António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese prime minister and virtual dictator, about the possibility of German retaliation faded with the turn of the tide against Germany in the summer of 1943.

The obstacles still to be overcome, however, were the Portuguese reluctance to allow the landing of US as well as British forces, and the US insistence on sharing any of the Azorean facilities to which the British gained access. These conflicting objectives nearly occasioned a breakdown of the negotiations.

On 18 August 1943, finally, the British and Portuguese governments reached an agreement whereby the British would provide Portugal with war matériel and a guarantee against German aggression in return for the right to use, from 8 October, the Portuguese air bases on the islands of Fayal and Terceira.

With the agreement signed, the British plans for ‘Alacrity’ were finalised and implemented. A naval squadron and all the necessary merchant vessels, tankers, anti-submarine trawlers and landing craft were despatched with the men, equipment and supplies needed to open and organise the bases.

The RAF established Air Vice Marshal G. R. Bromet’s new No. 247 Group on the islands, and plans were made for the establishment of an Area Combined Headquarters on Fayal. Only the continued existence of a separate US entity, the Moroccan Sea Frontier, prevented the full implementation of a new type of efficient control of maritime aircraft over the whole of the eastern Atlantic.

The ‘Alacrity’ force departed from the UK under the command of Commodore R. V. Holt and was centred on the 20,158-ton large transport Franconia and, as noted above, a number of tankers, freighters and small warships to provide local security. While on passage, the force was supported by the British Escort Group B5 (destroyers Havelock, Volunteer and Warwick, corvettes Buttercup, Lavender and Godetia, and sloop Lowestoft) and also the 8th Support Group (escort carrier Fencer and destroyers Inconstant, Viscount, Whitehall, Wrestler, and Polish Garland and Burza).

The British force reached the islands on 8 October. Meanwhile the Boeing Fortress aircraft, which were to fly from Gibraltar to the Lagens airfield on Terceira to provide the nucleus of a long-range patrol capability, were delayed by bad weather. Fencer therefore put to sea again on 11 October, and flew off nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft to the airfield. For the next week, despite the fact that only very rudimentary facilities were currently available at Lagens, the Swordfish aircraft carried out dawn and dusk searches of the adjacent waters, as well as anti-submarine patrols.

On 18 October the first Fortress aircraft arrived, and began patrol activities on the next day. After more than four years of war, air cover could finally be generated over the entire east/west and north/south fetches of the Atlantic north of 30° N, and the Allies’ growing force of escort carriers looked after convoys using the more southerly routes. It was 1944 before the use of the Azores islands group by US aircraft, disguised as machines of Air Vice Marshal B. E. Baker’s No. 19 Group of Air Chief Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas’s RAF Coastal Command, was finally permitted by the Portuguese government, but the availability of the bases in the Azores islands group nonetheless transformed the nature of the maritime war in the Atlantic to the detriment of the U-boat arm.