Preparing to sail to Malta

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) entering Hampton Roads, Virginia (USA), on 26 May 1942. The escorting destroyer USS Gleaves (DD-423) is visible in the background.

On the 13th April 1942 RAF Spitfire pilot Denis Barnham arrived in Glasgow and boarded the USS Wasp. He had been married for a few weeks and felt himself lucky to have been granted 48 hours pre-embarkation leave. He was bound for Malta. The Royal Navy was now so short of ships that the British had been forced to seek the assistance of the US Navy. The situation on Malta was becoming ever more desperate. As the USS Wasp prepared to sail Denis Barnham reflected on his future:

The Germans have assembled a bombing fleet of five hundred planes on the Sicilian airfields; for months they have been hammering and hammering at the tiny island. The island’s R.A.F. bomber force has been wiped out. The dwindling number of fighter planes are battling against odds of forty or fifty to one. Will we be in time before the German invasion? Will the fifty Spitfires we are taking be enough?

A few minutes ago I was in the hangar deck looking at our cargo of Spitfires. The hangar is a vast girdered cavern stretching away into the distance like the inside of a whale; in it our fighters are lashed into position, parasites to Leviathan. It is impossible to cross the deck without ducking under wings and tails, all tucked into one another. The Spitfires’ wheels are steadied by wooden blocks, their wing tips lashed to the deck by ropes and cables, but more Spitfires are suspended from the roof girders, slung there by canvas loops – they sway gently as our carrier rolls. Staring at these planes I coulld not help wondering how many of them and, indeed, how many of our pilots will be left in a week’s time.

In order to get into the Mediterranean without being seen by enemy agents on the shores of Spain or North Africa, our fleet is going to pass through the Straits of Giraltar in the dead of night. Once inside, the Navy, who have precious few heavy ships left, dare not take us very far – we will have to take off and fly about seven hundred miles to our destination. I hope we are taken far enough: of the last formation that left a carrier in this way, only four reached the island – nine others ran out of petrol: the machines were lost and the pilots drowned.

Even the take-off will be an ordeal – in order to avoid a similar disaster we will be carrying an extra ninety gallons of fuel in larger long-range tanks attached under the belly of each plane: but a new problem arises – weight. We have each been limited to ten pounds of personal luggage in order to keep our machines as light as possible – but the planes themselves, with an extra powerful armament of four cannons and four machine-guns, are unusually heavy.

Is the deck going to belong enough for us to take off and climb into the air: It looked awfully short when we came aboard and none of us have ever taken off from an aircraft carrier before.

Thus we face the octopus future that draws us steadily towards it. As a fighter pilot I know I have little chance of coming out of such a battle alive, so it is with sorrow that I look back on what I have done with my life so far and on what I hoped I might achieve.

See Denis Barnham: Malta Spitfire Pilot, originally published as ‘One Man’s Window’.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Beveridge April 20, 2017 at 3:20 pm

I lived in Malta for 2years (52 – 54). So many bombed areas still only piles of rubble. “Faith”, the remaining Gladiator was THE exhibit in the National Museum.
If you want to see how much the Maltese loved the Spitfire pilots watch the video – Merlin, the return of the Defenders.

Michael Foley April 13, 2017 at 6:06 pm

I can’t believe I am the first to comment on this outstanding post. Perhaps it is a new one? Anyway, I appreciate the editor’s choice to include excerpts from service-men’s diaries. Especially when they are so well-written as this one. In this one passage the pilot sums up the overall strategic situation at Malta in 1942, the objective of the mission, the incredibly high odds against success, his nerves about making a first take-off from a short-decked carrier in an overweight aircraft, and his regrets over what he has failed to achieve. What incredible self-control. As Churchill said, “Never have so many owed so much to so few”. Thanks for this one.

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