Operation Tracer (ii)

This was a British naval undertaking to deliver air reinforcements to Malta (13/15 June 1941).

It had been intended that the new fleet carrier Victorious would be used to deliver Hawker Hurricane single-seat fighters to West Africa, but she had disembarked these so that she could take part in the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, which had broken out into the Atlantic Ocean in ‘Rheinübung’. After this, the carrier re-embarked 48 Hurricane Mk I aircraft on 29 May and departed on 31 May with the WS.8X convoy escorted by the light cruisers Neptune and Orion and destroyer Wessex.

Victorious and Neptune left the WS.8X convoy on 5 June and arrived off Gibraltar on 9 June after being met by elements of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’. In the form of the battle-cruiser Renown, fleet carriers Ark Royal and Furious, light cruiser Sheffield and destroyers Faulknor, Fearless, Forester, Foxhound and Fury, had departed Gibraltar into the Atlantic to ensure its safety should the Vichy French undertake an air raid against Gibraltar in response to a British reconnaissance of Mers el Kébir, just outside Oran in the French North African territory of Algeria, a few days earlier. Initially this force remained at sea to the west while Neptune entered Gibraltar to land prisoners and documents seized after the capture of the German supply ship Gonzenheim in the aftermath of ‘Rheinübung’, but then entered the harbour.

On Victorious's arrival, 26 Hurricane fighters were transferred to Ark Royal and 22 retained in Victorious, and both ships departed Gibraltar on 13 June for what was in essence a repeat of 'Rocket' except that the air escorts for the fighters were Lockheed Hudson machines, escorted by Renown and the destroyers Faulknor, Fearless, Foresight, Forester, Foxhound, Hesperus and Wishart. At a point to the west of Malta, the two carriers launched 46 Hurricane fighters to rendezvous with four Lockheed Hudson aircraft from Gibraltar. Two crashed on landing, one ditched and one went missing during the flight, landing in North Africa.

The Italian submarines Corallo and Santorre Santarosa were patrolling in the area to the south of Sardinia, but did not spot the British force. On 15 June the carriers and their escort returned to Gibraltar, from where Victorious departed for the Clyde river, arriving on 21 June having been met two days earlier by the destroyers Cossack and Sikh.