Operation Pedestal gets under way

Photograph taken from the after end of VICTORIOUS’ flight deck showing HMS INDOMITABLE and EAGLE. A Hawker Sea Hurricane and a Fairey Albacore are ranged on VICTORIOUS’ flight deck.

The business of trying to get a convoy through to Malta continued. The Mediterranean island was standing up to the daily assault by Italian and German bombers, and now that Spitfires formed part of its defence, giving a very good account of itself. But without fuel, ammunition and food the island could not hold out for ever.

The Royal Navy now mounted its most ambitious convoy escort operation ever. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

Arming a Hawker Sea Hurricane fighter on board HMS INDOMITABLE.

Hugh Popham was flying a Sea Hurricane from HMS Indomitable. He describes the first day as the fleet crept into the Mediterranean hoping to avoid detection until the last possible moment:

During the night of August 9th, the convoy and its escorts entered the Mediterranean.

From first light the following morning four fighters were kept at immediate readiness; engines warmed up, pilots strapped in. The day broke fine and clear; all round us the ships moved easily over the sea in a profound and tranquil dream.

From time to time, Albacores took off on A/S patrol, others landed – on, and hardly disturbed the serenity. The aerials of the radar sets turned steadily through their 360 degrees, sweeping the empty skies. Submerged beneath the surface inaction, men pored over their sets, listened intently to the crackle of their headphones, peered through their binoculars in the look-out positions, with unblinking, rapt vigilance. and nerves.

Sooner or later the peace would be shattered; jumping at every pipe, at every change in course or revs, screamed out for it to happen and be done with. All morning the ships steamed on in undisturbed calm.

Then, suddenly, in the afternoon watch, two Wildcats from Victorious went tearing into the air. We moved nearer the island, hoping for tit-bits of news. The Tannoy crackled. It was the Commander: “Victorious has scrambled two fighters after a suspected shadower. That’s all for the moment.”

We waited, nerves prickling. That was how it would start, with a shadower picked up on the radar, lurking low down on the horizon or at a great height, and sending sighting reports back to base. But not yet.

This was not a shadower but a Vichy French flying-boat, probably about its lawful business, a routine trip from Toulon to Morocco. But Admiral Syfret was taking no chances. Without enthusiasm, it was shot into the sea. When it sighted our fighters, it would know that there was a fleet in the vicinity; its course would have taken it within sight of us; if it was left in peace, the news would be out.

One day’s less grace might make all the difference, to us, to the convoy, to Malta at the far end of the line, already on starvation rations and almost out of petrol for her lighters and ammunition for her guns.

That was the key. What happened to us, the forty fighting ships deployed on this smooth sea, was unimportant so long as the little knot of merchantmen in the centre reached their destination. To ensure that, we were, if need be expendable.

See Hugh Popham: Sea Flight: Fleet Air Arm Pilot’s Story

The convoy to Malta, with its huge escort, about to enter the Mediterranean. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

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