American USS WASP in the Mediterranean flying off urgently needed Spitfires to Malta.
RAF Spitfire launches from USS Wasp
American aircraft carrier USS Wasp Twice Resupplied Malta with Spitfires
CONTROLLING MALTA KEY TO CONTROLLING MED
In the early 1930s the British government decided Malta would not be defended if war came. While a major naval base with huge Royal Navy warship repair yards, no funds were allocated for rebuilding the defenses of Malta from World War One as well as adding to them. Those defenses which remained from World War One had been left to decay.
As you will note from the map above, Malta is the key position if you wanted to control the Mediterranean. And when war came, the British desperately needed to either control the Med and certainly deny its control to other belligerents like Italy or Germany. 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 by the Royal Navy and RAF. Both services suffered heavy losses in men and equipment, warships, merchant ships, fighter planes, bombers and submarines.
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)
USS WASP IN BACKGROUND
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.
AIRCRAFT CARRIERS COULD NOT GET CLOSER THAN 400 MILES OF MALTA
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 some of which came from the refusal by the British to lend the US Navy one of its carriers.
USS WASP EMBARKS SPITFIRES IN GREAT BRITAIN
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)
NO REVETMENTS PREPARED BY RAF MALTA FOR NEW PLANES SO DESTROYED ON GROUND
In spite of being aware that numerous Spitfires were being flown in to reinforce the small number of aircraft defending the island, the local RAF commander did nothing to prepare to receive the planes or pilots. No revetments were constructed, no camouflaged workshops, nothing. All the new planes were destroyed by the Germans on the ground within a few days.
GOVERNOR OF MALTA SACKED FOR THIS INCOMPETENCE
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.
EVERY ARRIVING SPITFIRE IMMEDIATELY PARKED IN PROTECTIVE REVETMENTS
This time the British ground forces had prepared protected areas for the Spitfires and every 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.
MOST OF THE PILOTS ABOVE WERE AMERICANS WHO HAD BEEN FLYING FOR THE RAF BEFORE USA GOT INTO THE WAR. THESE MEN WERE GROUPED IN THE FAMOUS EAGLE SQUADRONS.
copyright (c) 2019 by Charles McCain