Operation Bowery

This was a British and US naval delivery of Supermarine Spitfire fighters to Malta (7/9 May 1942).

Also associated with the codenames ‘Oppidan’ (i) and ‘Hansford’ for the RAF involvement, this undertaking was in essence a larger repeat of ‘Calendar’ (i) and reflected the acute air threat posed to Malta’s defences by the weight of the German and Italian air campaign against the island.

The US light fleet carrier Wasp, specially loaned at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was used once again. Having arrived at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group on 26 April after ‘Calendar’ (i), the US carrier returned to the Clyde river on 29 April and embarked 50 Spitfire Mk Vc fighters.

The core of Commodore C. S. Daniel’s Force ‘W’, the carrier sailed for Gibraltar on 3 May escorted by the destroyers Echo, Intrepid and US Lang and Sterett. This escort was later relieved by the British destroyers Antelope, Westcott, Wishart and Wrestler during the afternoon on 7 May. On the following day the force was met by the British fleet carrier Eagle, which had loaded 17 Spitfire fighters from stock at Gibraltar, and an escort of Rear Admiral E. N. Syfret’s Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’ in the form of the battle-cruiser Renown, anti-aircraft cruiser Charybdis and destroyers Echo, Georgetown, Intrepid, Ithuriel, Partridge, Salisbury, Vidette and US Lang and Sterett.

On 9 May, and some 600 miles (1125 km) to the west of Malta, Wasp flew off 47 Spitfires and Eagle another 17. Four of the fighters were lost as one in the sea on take-off, one in a crash-landing onto Wasp, one off Malta, and one navigating wrongly and arriving in North Africa.

But 60 Spitfire fighters were in action within 35 minutes of landing and before the arrival of the main Axis air attack that almost always followed the arrival of new aircraft on Malta. The lessons after the disaster of ‘Calendar’ had been fully learned, and the 60 fighters which reached the island had immediately been refuelled and armed, or put into bomb-proof shelters. Thus the arrival of German and Italian aircraft to destroy the newly arrived aircraft was greeted with enthusiasm rather than dismay. The newly arrived fighters were airborne, with fresh pilots experienced in the type of air fighting characteristics typical of combat over Malta, and awaiting the arrival of the Axis attacking force. In the resulting air battle, the Italian component (Cant bombers escorted by Macchi MC.202 fighters) was seen off, and 47 Axis aircraft were destroyed or damaged for the loss of just three British aircraft. This air battle abruptly ended the Axis daylight bombing of Malta.

The fast minelayer cruiser Welshman, which had sailed independently but together with the escort, was now risked on a high-speed unescorted run to Malta. The ship was carrying, apart from 340 tons of food and general stores, 100 spare Merlin aircraft engines and RAF ground crews trained on Spitfire fighters. Welshman was disguised as the French destroyer Léopard, and was sighted and inspected twice by German aircraft, but maintained a peaceful appearance and was accepted as non-belligerent. A Vichy French seaplane and shore station were less easily convinced, but the British ship continued to Cape Bon and Pantellaria, finally reaching Malta at daybreak on 10 May. The British warship unloaded even as the German and Italian air attack was taking place, and was damaged by falling debris. Despite this, Welshman departed Valletta on the evening of the same day and arrived back at Gibraltar on 12 May.

All of the ships of the main force had meanwhile turned back to the west, Eagle to load more Spitfires and Wasp to return to Scapa Flow under the escort of Renown, Echo, Intrepid, Salisbury, and Lang and Sterett, the destroyers fuelling at Gibraltar and the force reaching Scapa Flow on 15 May. Ithuriel provided additional escort from Gibraltar until detaching on 12 May to meet the battleship Malaya.

While on passage, Wasp flew off RAF personnel and spare gear on 10 May using six Fairey Swordfish biplanes flown out from Gibraltar for the purpose.