Operation Schooner (i)

This was a British and Australian convoy operation to ship Australian forces from Ceylon to Australia (23 June/7 August 1942).

The operation began on 23 June with the shipment of two Australian brigades from Ceylon. Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force ‘A’, the core of the Eastern Fleet, departed Colombo with the battleship Warspite, fleet carrier Formidable, light cruiser Gambia, and destroyers Laforey, Lightning and Free Dutch Van Galen to support the undertaking. Gambia was assigned to escort the convoy from Colombo with support from the US light cruiser Phoenix.

When the convoy was some 40 miles (65 km) to the west of Colombo, a synchronised training attack was carried out by Ceylon-based aircraft. Two pairs of Bristol Beaufort torpedo-bombers attacked simultaneously, one pair from each side, and at the same time a squadron of Bristol Blenheim light bombers approached unobserved and carried out a high-level bombing attack. Fairey Albacore aircraft from Formidable had earlier carried out an air-to-surface vessel exercise on the submarine Truant farther to the north and were returning to the carrier during the approach of the Ceylon ‘attack force’. The convergence of these aircraft forces caused some confusion on the surface forces’ radar screens. Nevertheless, the poor results obtained by the radar in failing to detect the approach of the Ceylon ‘attack force’ was deemed unsatisfactory, and immediate efforts were instituted to improve matters, particularly to speed the passing of reports about attacking aircraft from outlying ships to the flagship.

It was on 13 July that the first major convoy sailed from Colombo to Melbourne via Fremantle, this comprising 11 British merchant vessels (9,031-ton Aronda, 25,564-ton Athlone Castle, 8,331-ton City of Canterbury, 6,588-ton City of Lille, 9,653-ton Clan MacDonald, 11,275-ton Devonshire, 12,891-ton Dunedin Star, 5,108-ton Ekma, 7,967-ton Martand, 8,478-ton Rajula and 16,479-ton Westernland) and an eventual total of 13 escorts including two British armed merchant cruisers (11,402-ton Worcestershire and 10,985-ton Kanimbla), four light cruisers (British Gambia, Australian Adelaide, Free Dutch Tromp and US Phoenix), Australian destroyer Voyager, British corvettes Aster and Tulip, Indian sloops Jumna and Sutlej, and Australian minesweeper Wollongong.

The undertaking was part of the result of the Australian government’s decision to concentrate all available combat-experienced Australian land forces, especially the three divisions that had been operating in the Middle East and North Africa, within Australia to cope with any Japanese invasion.