Operation White (ii)

This was the British naval successor to ‘Hurry’ (i), and thus the second operation to deliver aircraft reinforcements to Malta (14/19 November 1940).

Departing the Clyde river on 11 November under escort of the light cruiser Despatch and destroyers Duncan, Fury and Wishart, on 14 November the old carrier Argus reached Gibraltar carrying 12 Hawker Hurricane fighters for the air units based on Malta as well as two Blackburn Skua two-seat naval aircraft to serve as the fighters’ navigational leaders.

The ‘White’ (ii) operation in which these machines were to be flown off the Argus’s flight deck was based on the very successful ‘Hurry’ (i) of August 1940, but in this instance with very different results. Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’, recently boosted in strength by the rearrival of the battle-cruiser Renown, and also including the fleet carrier Ark Royal, light cruiser Sheffield and destroyers Faulknor, Firedrake, Forester, Fortune and Foxhound, departed early on 15 November. The plan specified that the fighters should be flown off from a suitable position to the south of the Italian island of Sardinia, but reports from Malta indicating that an Italian force of one battleship, seven cruisers and a number of destroyers was concentrating to the south of Naples persuaded Somerville to fly off the Hurricane machines from a point as far to the west as the safe operational range of the aircraft would permit.

In the semi-darkness just before the break of day on 17 November, the Hurricanes took off in two flights, each led by one Skua aeroplane of the Fleet Air Arm, from a position between 30 and 40 miles (48 and 64 km) farther to the west than that used for ‘Hurry’ (i), thus requiring the aircraft to fly some 460 miles (740 km) in order to reach Malta.

Another fleet carrier, the more modern Ark Royal, provided anti-submarine patrols and fighters to cover the fly-off, and it had been arranged that a Short Sunderland flying boat would rendezvous with the first flight some 5 miles (8 km) to the north of Galita island, off the coast of Tunisia, and a Martin Maryland twin-engine reconnaissance aeroplane with the second flight in the same position. Although it loitered for more than one hour at the rendezvous point, the Maryland failed to make contact with the second flight, none of whose aircraft reached their destination. Of the first flight, two Hurricane fighters ran out of fuel when they were within 25 and 34 miles (40 and 55 km) of Malta respectively, one of the pilots being rescued by the Sunderland. Four Hurricane and one Skua aircraft succeeded in reaching Malta with their fuel tanks all but empty as they landed. The loss of the nine aircraft was ascribed partly to faulty navigation and partly to the fact that, although the distance to be covered was well within the range of the aircraft, the pilots probably did not fly at their machines’ most economical cruising speed. The net result was that the fighter strength at Malta received only a small increase.

The return of Force ‘H’ to Gibraltar partly covered the movement of the light cruiser Newcastle, which had left the Strait of Gibraltar at 12.00 on 17 November with airmen and stores for Malta. Axis minelaying had delayed her departure from the UK so long that the cruiser had been prevented from joining Argus in ‘White’ (ii) as originally intended. After a comparatively uneventful trip, Newcastle reached Malta safely on 19 November.

Some six weeks later, five of the six assembled Fairey Swordfish naval aircraft taken out to Gibraltar in one of the earlier ferry trips from the UK were embarked in Ark Royal on 9 January 1941 before the carrier sailed for ‘Excess’, and all five of the aircraft were flown off and arrived safely on Malta.