Operation White ends in disaster

Hurricane aircraft

The Hurricane had played a vital role alongside the Spitfire in the defense of Britain. Now an attempt was made to fly them from aircraft carriers to reinforce Malta.

The island of Malta, a British possession, was initially regarded as too isolated to be defended. Yet it occupied a strategically vital point at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. It was at Churchill’s insistence that attempts were made to improve the fighter defences of the island.

Operation White sought to bring the aircraft carrier HMS Argus within close enough distance of the island for twelve RAF Hurricanes to be flown off to make their way to Malta. This had to be balanced against the risk of bringing the Argus and escorting warships within range of the Italian bombers. The advice to Admiral Somerville was that the 400 miles was within the Hurricane’s range and in due course the planes, escorted by two Fleet Air Arm Skua aircraft, took off.

The first wave of six aircraft and one Skua only just made it to Malta, two of the Hurricanes having to ditch offshore, only one of the pilots being saved by a Sunderland flying boat. The second wave of six Hurricanes and their pilots were never seen again. Their escorting Skua crash landed on Sicily where the crew were taken prisoner.

The subsequent enquiry had little information to work on but exonerated Somerville. It was believed that adverse wind conditions and the challenging navigation across open sea had led to the loss of the aircraft.

The World War I vintage HMS Argus was one of the first aircraft carriers ever built but operated throughout World War II. Its large hangars were capable of holding fixed wing aircraft.

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