Operation Winch

This was a British naval delivery of fighter reinforcements to Malta (2/4 April 1941).

The British had initially thought, after Italy had entered the war in June 1940, that the island could not be held against determined Italian, let alone German, attack. The events of late 1940 and early 1941 in fact then convinced them that the island could indeed be held, and also serve most usefully as a base from which British forces could interdict the Italian lines of communication to the Axis forces in North Africa.

On 7 March Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie, lieutenant governor of the island, had urged the need for rapid fighter reinforcements, and steps were soon in hand to bolster the island’s defences. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, commanding the RAF in the Middle East, sent six Hawker Hurricane single-seat fighters fitted with drop tanks from Egypt via a forward base in Libya to Malta on 2 March, and another six on 14 March. A more practical delivery method, however, was deemed to be the flying of fighters, shipped from the UK, from the flight decks of aircraft carriers which had either collected the fighters at Gibraltar or brought them out from the UK.

In mid-March 1941 the old carrier Argus was loaded with 12 Hurricane Mk II fighters and three Blackburn Skua two-seat naval aircraft to act as navigation leaders, and sailed from the Clyde on 21 March escorted by the light cruiser Sheffield and destroyers Garland, Napier, Nizam and Ottawa, and soon screened by elements of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force ‘H’ in the form of the battle-cruiser Renown, fleet carrier Ark Royal, light cruiser Fiji and destroyers Foresight, Forester and Fortune from 25 March to her arrival at Gibraltar on 29 March.

At Gibraltar all the aircraft had been transferred to the fleet carrier Ark Royal by 2 April, and on this day the carrier sailed with an escort provided by Renown, Sheffield and destroyers Faulknor, Fearless, Foresight, Fortune and Fury. On 3 April the Hurricane and Skua aircraft were flown off some 460 miles (740 km) to the west of Malta, and Ark Royal also launched nine Fairey Fulmar two-seat naval fighters of No. 800X Squadron to reinforce the Malta garrison. All the Hurricane fighters reached the island, but one crashed on landing. The Skua ‘motherplanes’ should have returned to the carrier, but adverse weather conditions on their return flight caused them to ditch.

This operation was followed by others in April, May and June, and in all some 224 fighters were delivered to the island, 109 for local use and the balance for on-shipment to Egypt.