Operation Perpetual (i)

This was the British naval delivery of Hawker Hurricane fighters to Malta (10/14 November 1941).

The elderly carrier Argus and the aircraft transport Athene embarked 62 Hurricane fighters of the Royal Air Force’s ‘Pantaloon’ contribution (23 in Argus and the other 39 in Athene), and the ships departed the Clyde river on 1 November, under escort of the destroyer Laforey, and reached Gibraltar on 8 November after being joined en route by the destroyers Gurkha, Lightning, Zulu and Free Dutch Isaac Sweers.

At Gibraltar 26 aircraft were transferred to the fleet carrier Ark Royal, Argus retained 11 and the remainder were landed for assembly at Gibraltar. Ark Royal and Argus departed Gibraltar on 10 November, supported by elements of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’ in the form of the battleship Malaya, light anti-aircraft cruiser Hermione and destroyers Gurkha, Laforey, Legion, Lightning, Sikh, Zulu and Free Dutch Isaac Sweers.

Steaming toward Malta, the force successfully flew off 37 Hurricane fighters to meet seven Bristol Blenheim light bombers from Gibraltar as guide aircraft; three of the Hurricane fighters did not reach Malta.

The ships then turned back toward Gibraltar, but in the middle of the afternoon of 13 November were spotted at a location to the east of Gibraltar by a pair of U-boats returning from a patrol. Six radar-equipped Fairey Swordfish aircraft were aloft on anti-submarine patrol, but none of them detected the U-boats. U-205 fired three torpedoes, one of which exploded in the wake of the destroyer Legion. Then at 15.41 Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Guggenberger’s U-81 fired a salvo of four torpedoes, one of which hit the carrier Ark Royal. The British ship soon took on a heavy list. It seemed at first that the ship would survive, but then a fire broke out in a boiler room and the ship started to list further, finally being abandoned at and sinking at 06.13 on 14 November when just 30 miles (48 km) from Gibraltar.

The Italian submarines Aradam, Squalo, Turchese, Fratelli Bandiera, Onice and Narvalo were too far to the east to intervene.

The loss of Ark Royal resulted in the cancellation of the proposed ‘Perpetual II’, which would have flown in the remaining 25 Hurricane fighters. During the following month, these were re-loaded into Athene, sailed on 23 December escorted by the escort destroyers Croome and Exmoor to Takoradi in West Africa, where the aircraft were landed, assembled and flown to Egypt via the trans-Africa route.