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Force H departs Gibraltar with convoy

Loading a 16" shell on board HMS Rodney

Getting a convoy through to Malta was a major undertaking in 1941. Principal responsibility for these operations fell to ‘Force H’ operating out of Gibraltar under Admiral Somerville. This was the largest Royal Navy force operating at the time and was almost continuously in action. They had been called out into the Atlantic in the hunt for the Bismarck where the Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal had played a crucial role.

In the Mediterranean they faced the continuous threat of attack from aircraft almost as soon as they ventured east of Gibraltar. The careful marshalling of resources was essential but deception also played its part. On the evening of the 24th Admiral Somerville’s flag was raised on HMS Rodney and the band played on the quayside as if the battleship were departing for home. She then sailed westward with an escort of destroyers. Admiral Somerville had in fact remained on HMS Nelson and would lead the main force into the Mediterranean after dark. Those watching from Spain and Algeciras in North Africa were duped for a time. HMS Rodney joined the merchant ships of the convoy and came back through the straits of Gibraltar.

Force H now comprised one aircraft carrier, three battleships, five cruisers and twenty destroyers. The nine merchant ships in WS 11 (Winston Special- the designation given to the most vital convoys) had the most formidable protection available.

HMS Nelson the flagship for Admiral Somerville, commanding Force H.
HMS Ark Royal and one of her Swordfish aircraft, operating in the Mediterranean during 1941.

Courtesy MaritimeQuest which has a fine collection of images of Royal Navy ships.

HMS Prince of Wales had just returned from her voyage to Nova Scotia with Winston Churchill for the Atlantic Conference.

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