HMS EDINBURGH (Town class cruiser) HMS HERMIONE (Dido class cruiser) HMS EURYALUS (Dido class cruiser) steaming in line abreast whilst they escort a convoy (Operation HALBERD – convoy not visible).
Two men stained with fuel oil taking a breath of fresh air on on Town Class cruiser HMS Manchester flight deck, after being rescued from below deck. Both of them are wearing life preservers. Manchester had been damaged by an aerial torpedo but was not sunk. Photo by Imperial War Museum)
HMS Liverpool at speed February 1942 (photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)
All ten Town class cruisers were light cruisers, built to constraints of London Naval Treaty of 1930. This laudable but misguided treaty hurt the Royal Navy and the US Navy since the Japanese Navy and Kriegsmarine cheated outrageously and lied about the displacement of their “treaty cruisers.”
The two forward 6-inch gun turrets of the Town class cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD after she had opened fire and sunk the German tanker FRIEDERICH BREME in the North Atlantic. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum).
HM King George VI, wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, inspecting personnel from Glasgow‘s crew at Scapa Flow as part of a four-day visit to the Home Fleet. Her two forward 6 inch gun turrets can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
Cruisers HMS Glasgow (C21), left, and USS Quincy (CA-71), right, during the bombardment of Cherbourg in support of the advancing Allied troops. (Official Royal Navy photograph courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
HMS Sheffield, a Southampton class cruiser, was built by Vickers Armstrong , on the Tyne, and completed in 1937. Ice forming on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD whilst she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia. (photograph courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Featured Image: As oil storage tanks burn in the distance, a trawler crowded with troops heads from Dunkirk back to England, June 1940. Imperial War Museum
Escorting convoys to Russia was a brutal task given the terrible weather and constant attacks by German aircraft and U-boats out of Norway. Home Fleet provided “distant cover” since fleet carriers like HMS Victorious and battleships such as KGV were too valuable to risk anywhere close to German air attack. Home FLeet distant cover was laid on in the event the Tirpitz came out.
The Royal Navy named all of its bases as if they were ships. Hence, HMS Spurwing was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm base providing cover for convoys forming up off Freetown, Sierra Leone, a major convoy destination point where escorts changed.
The Royal Navy did most of its accounting by ship so it was easier to keep track of everything if all bases were treated as ships. For instance, unassigned officers were carried on the books of HMS Victory although they were obviously not on the ship itself although it did have accommodation for a small number of officers in transit.
If you wrote someone in the Royal Navy in World War Two, you addressed the letter to that person followed by name of ship followed by GPO, London.
The two photographs above are unusual because they show planes both landing and taking off from the Royal Navy fleet carrier HMS Victorious while the carrier is at anchor in the Royal Navy Home Fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow.
Because of aerodynamic reasons, carriers in World War Two typically had to turn into the wind which gave added lift to planes taking off. As an aircraft carrier neared its anchorage, the planes based on the carrier took off while the carrier was still at sea and could turn into the wind and flew to a Fleet Air Arm base on land.
They usually practiced landing on a carrier deck by landing on runways on land marked with the length of a carrier deck. Aircraft carrier pilots then and to this day often describe landing on a carrier as a “controlled crash.” It isn’t and wasn’t for the faint of heart.
In the last few years, the US Navy has started to fly drones from aircraft carriers which calls in question our naval strategy based around massive aircraft carrier battle groups. This is according to defense writer and expert Thomas Ricks, not me.
RNVR means Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Officers wore wavy stripes on their coat sleeves instead of regular stripes worn by professional “regular service” officers. Hence known as “wavy navy.” Nonetheless, RNVR officers came to vastly outnumber the regular service officers of whom there were only about 5,000 when the war began.
RNVR officers who were pilots assigned to the Fleet Air Arm wore a small insignia denoting this. The men claimed the small insignia was meant to inform all other RN personnel that they knew absolutely nothing about the navy.
Hvalfjord was a treacherous anchorage because it was exposed to vicious winds. Ships at anchor normally dropped both bow and stern anchors which they usually didn’t do in more protected anchorages as well as keep steam on since they often had to make revolutions for two or three knots simply to stay where they were and not drag their anchors if a storm came up.
Featured image shows: Fairey Albacores, the torpedo carrying plane of the Fleet Air Arm landing on the deck of HMS VICTORIOUS while the ship was en route to Hvalfjord, Iceland from Scapa Flow. The automatic Bat can be seen in the right of the picture, as can the arrestor wires running across the flight deck.
RAF Spitfire launches from USS Wasp
In the early 1930s the British government decided Malta would not be defended if war came. While a major naval base with huge warship repair years for the Royal Navy, no funds were allocated for building up the defenses of Malta. Those defenses which remained from World War One were left to decay.
As you will note from the map above, Malta was a key position if you wanted to control the Mediterranean. And when war came, the British desperately needed to either control the Med or 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 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