Operation Hurry (i)

This was the British first naval and air undertaking to reinforce Malta’s air defences shortly after Italy’s entry into the war (31 July/4 August 1940).

On 11 June 1940, one day after its declaration of war on the Allied powers, Italy began its siege of the island bastion of Malta between Sicily and the Italian North African possession of Libya, as the first step in the Italian overall plan to gain control of the Mediterranean. The Italians based their thinking on forcing the surrender of Malta by means of direct bombing or indirect naval and air interdiction to starve Malta into submission. This involved attacks on Malta’s ports, towns, cities and the Allied shipping that was the only way by which the island could be supplied. After more than one month of bombardment, the troops on Malta were beginning to run short of the matériel (including warplanes) they needed to fight off the attackers, and some doubt was expressed about whether or not Malta was worth the supplies it required: some even planned to let Malta maintain its defence only until all it had exhausted all its militarily supplies, at which point it would surrender. Despite these and other uncertainties, the British finally decided to supply Malta.

Soon after Italy’s declaration of war, the elderly aircraft carrier Argus carried out the first naval reinforcement of the island by flying off 12 Fairey Swordfish biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 830 Squadron to Malta to provide the island with a torpedo attack force.

For the following ‘Hurry’ (i), on 20 July Argus landed her own aircraft, and in the Clyde river embarked 12 Hawker Hurricane Mk I fighters of the RAF’s No. 418 Squadron and two Blackburn Skua Mk II two-seat aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm to serve as navigational leaders. The carrier departed for Malta escorted by the destroyers Gallant and Greyhound, together with the armed merchant cruiser Maloja. Off Northern Ireland these ships joined the RS.5 convoy, which was making for the Mediterranean via the Cape of Good Hope with two troopships (17,707-ton Reina del Pacifico and 7,347-ton Clan Ferguson) escorted by the destroyers Encounter and Hotspur. The combined force was met by the battleships Resolution and Valiant, light cruiser Arethusa, and destroyers Escapade and Velox, and the ‘Hurry’ (i) component later broke away to proceed to Gibraltar, which it reached on 30 July.

Argus departed Gibraltar on the following day in company with most of the strength of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force ‘H’ in the form of the battle-cruiser Hood, battleship Valiant, fleet carrier Ark Royal, light cruisers Arethusa and Enterprise, and destroyers Active, Encounter, Escapade, Faulknor, Fearless, Forester, Gallant, Greyhound, Hotspur and Wrestler, and headed toward the designated launch point, to the west of Malta, at which the fighters were to be launched.

At 06.00 on 31 July the 7th Cruiser Squadron (light cruisers Neptune, Orion and Australian Sydney) departed Alexandria with the destroyers Juno, Nubian and Free Polish Garland of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet to operate as Force ‘A’ in the Aegean Sea as a diversion for ‘Hurry’ (i), and at 14.20 on the same day the battleships Malaya and Royal Sovereign, fleet carrier Eagle, and destroyers Hasty, Hereward, Hero, Hostile, Ilex, Imperial, Jervis and Vendetta also sortied from Alexandria to carry out gunnery exercises and then proceed to the west in the direction of Gavdos island to the south of mainland Greece, until after dark on 1 August, and then to became Force ‘B’ as another diversion for ‘Hurry’ (i).

On 2 August the Hurricane fighters were flown off Argus, led by the two Skua machines, and the carrier then returned to Gibraltar. All of the aircraft reached Malta, but one Hurricane crashed on landing. The two Skua machines which, it had been planned, would return to Argus, were in fact retained in Malta for further local service. The crashed Hurricane was restored to service by the Malta ground crews using spares on hand.

The RAF ground crews for these aircraft were taken to Malta in the submarines Pandora and Proteus, in an undertaking that was in effect the prototype of the later supply of Malta by this means.

On receiving information of the fact that Force ‘H’ had departed Gibraltar eastward into the Mediterranean, the Italian naval authorities organised two lines of submarines in the hope of intercepting and destroying a significant part of the British naval strength in the Mediterranean. The submarines Scirè, Argo, Neghelli, Turchese, Medusa, Axum, Diaspro and Manara deployed to the north of Cape Bougaroni on 1 August, but none of the boats made any sighting before 9 August, by which time Force ‘H’ had retired to Gibraltar.

On 1 August Force 'H' was attacked by two waves of Italian aircraft. Taking place at around 18.00 to the north-west of the coast of the Gulf of Bougie, these attacks were successfully repelled.

During ‘Hurry’ (i), the battle-cruiser Hood, fleet carrier Ark Royal and destroyers Faulknor, Forester, Foresight and Foxhound made the ‘Crush’ diversionary air attack on Cagliari, on the south coast of the Italian island of Sardinia, and the light cruiser Enterprise was detached to search for a Vichy French vessel thought to be in the area. Another diversion was 'Spark', which was intended to simulate a major British naval force off Majorca, an island of the Spanish Balearic islands group.

After the completion of 'Hurry' (i), much of Force 'H', including Hood, Resolution, Valiant and Ark Royal, left Force 'H' to take part in the 'Menace' campaign for Dakar in Vichy French West Africa.