US Navy aircraft carrier USS Wasp Mediterranean flying off urgently needed Spitfires to Malta.
RAF Spitfire launches from USS Wasp
USS Wasp Twice Resupplied Malta with Spitfires
Pre-war British war plans presumed the abandonment of Malta.
In the early 1930s, the British government decided Malta would not be defended if war came although Malta was a major naval base for the Royal Navy containing massive warship repair yards with a highly skilled Maltese workforce. No funds were allocated for building up the defenses of Malta. The initial defenses they had remained from World War One and had been left to decay.
As you will note from the map above, Malta was a key position if you wanted to control the Mediterranean. The Royal Navy had controlled the Mediterranean since the days of Lord Nelson in the early 1800s. In 1940, after the Italians came into the war against the British, a Royal Navy ship sighted and Italian ship. The signal flags for “Enemy in Sight” went up the halyards for the first time in more than one hundred fifty years.
When war came, the British desperately needed to either control the Med or deny its control to other belligerents like Italy or Germany. Should the Italians and Germans take Malta, it would have made the British fleet anchorage of Alexandria in Egypt untenable.
If the Royal Navy was forced from Alexandria, they feared they would lose control of Egypt and the Suez canal which would have been a disater. So the decision not to defend Malta was reversed.
April 1942. A heavily bomb-damaged street in Valletta, Malta. This street is Kingsway, the principle street in Valetta. Service personnel and civilians are present clearing up the debris. (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Unfortunately for the British, since Malta had few defense installations, actually defending the island required a far greater effort than ever envisioned the Royal Navy and RAF. Both services suffered heavy losses in ships of the former and planes of the latter.
USS Wichita (CA-45) at anchor in Scapa Flow in April 1942. USS Wasp (CV-7) is in the background. The Wichita sortied as part of the Allied escort of one of the PQ convoys to Russia while the Wasp sortied into the Med as described below.
(official US Navy photo)
As valuable as Malta was a naval base, it was even more valuable as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. The only problem was that German and Italian planes attacked the island constantly and kept shooting down all the RAF planes defending Malta.
In April and May of 1942, the British were desperate to send additional aircraft to defend Malta. But no British airfield was close enough so an aircraft carrier had to be loaded with planes and escorted to within about 400 miles of Malta (this being the range of fighter aircraft before running out of fuel) and then launch the aircraft which would fly to the island.
Because of the incredible danger from German and Italian air attacks on shipping, the aircraft carriers would not get closer and even coming within 400 miles was risky. The Med also was infested with numerous German and Italian U Boats.
The British did not have a carrier available so Churchill asked President Roosevelt if an American aircraft carrier could be sent to the Med to perform the urgent task of resupplying Malta with fighter aircraft.
Roosevelt agreed although Admiral King, CNO and C-in-C US Fleet (the only person ever to hold these two offices) no doubt was pissed off since he had an intense dislike of the British. USS Wasp was sent, first going to Great Britain to embark Spitfires. She subsequently entered the Mediterranean heavily escorted by units of the British Home Fleet including the battlecruiser HMS Renown. A very large number of Royal Navy destroyers and sloops formed the screen around the USS Wasp.
19 April 1942. U.S. Navy Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats from Fighting Squadron 71 (VF-71) and Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfires Mk.Vc of No. 603 Squadron RAF on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) on 19 April 1942.
(Official US Navy photograph)
On 19 April 1942, USS Wasp launched 47 Spitfires which flew to Malta (several did not make it). Incredibly, the British forces on the island had no prepared revetments or other safe locations for these precious Spitfires and most were destroyed on the ground by the Germans and Italians within 24 hours.
The military Governor of Malta, Lt. Gen. Dobbie, was sacked several weeks later and replaced by Lord Gort, promoted Field Marshal in 1943 because of his successful leadership of the defense of Malta.
Supermarine Spitfires Mk.VC spotted on the deck of the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) in 1942. HMS Eagle is visible in the background.
(official US Navy photograph)
On 9 May 1942, USS Wasp again entered the Med, again heavily escorted by the Royal Navy, and flew off 47 Spitfires. The British had finished refitting HMS Eagle, a World War One battleship converted to an aircraft carrier and she joined the Wasp.
However, HMS Eagle could not carry many Spitfires because they did not have folding wings and did not fit her old lifts. But she did manage to fly off 17 Spitfires which joined the others flown off by the USS Wasp.
This time the British ground forces had prepared protected areas for the Spitfires and each time one landed, it was immediately taken off the runway and parked in a protected revetment.
These aircraft helped save the island which was under continual bombing attacks day and night by German and Italian warplanes.
Sources: The Siege of Malta 1940-1943 by E. Bradford and author’s research
Supermarine Spitfire pilots in front of one of their planes. They are Empire and American pilots (Eagle Squadron). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205143393