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Operation White

Operation White
Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of World War II
Sicily during Operation White
Date 17 November 1940
Location Strait of Sicily, Mediterranean Sea
Result Italian victory
Belligerents
 United Kingdom  Italy
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom James Somerville Kingdom of Italy Inigo Campioni
Strength
2 aircraft carriers
1 battlecruiser
2 cruisers
7 destroyers
2 battleships
2 heavy cruisers
16 destroyers
Casualties and losses
9 aircraft lost
7 pilots missing
2 prisoners
None

Operation White was a British attempt to deliver 14 aircraft—12 Hawker Hurricane fighters and two Blackburn Skua dive bombers—to Malta from the aircraft carrier HMS Argus, on 17 November 1940. The operation was thwarted by the presence of the Italian Fleet at sea, which prompted a premature take-off of the fighters, and bad weather, with the result that only five aircraft reached Malta. White was one of several so-called "Club Runs" that supplied short-range fighters for the defence of Malta.[1]

Previous missions

After the entry of Italy in the Second World War, British authorities designed a formal system of aircraft reinforcement to Malta, in order to build-up a credible air defence and replace potential losses. Only two possible routes remained open after the fall of France: the most obvious, via North Africa, by shuttling the fighters through the Sahara or the Suez Canal to Egypt, and its alternative, the delivery of them by carrier from the western Mediterranean.[2] The first unit to be transferred by carrier was 418 Flight, a group composed by Navy and RAF pilots specially trained for deck operations.[3] They accomplished a successful mission on 2 August 1940 from the old carrier HMS Argus, escorted by the fleet carrier HMS Ark Royal, three battleships, two cruisers and 10 destroyers. Three Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 medium bombers attacked the convoy, but a group of Skuas from Ark Royal shot down one of the SM.79s and repulsed the surviving two. All the British fighters reached the airstrip of Luqa at Malta, although two planes crash-landed.[4] The first engagement of the new arrived aircraft took place on the night of 13 August, when they shot down another SM.79. By 16 August, 418 Flight and the original Malta units were merged into 261 Squadron.[5]

Operation White

First moves

Following this success, both the Navy and the RAF were encouraged to repeat the mission in November. Again, the aircraft were to be delivered by HMS Argus, escorted by the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the cruisers HMS Despatch and Sheffield and seven destroyers. The convoy—under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville—departed from Gibraltar at dawn on 15 November. The Italian naval headquarters (Supermarina), was informed of the ongoing operation four hours later. A fleet commanded by Admiral Inigo Campioni sailed out from Naples and Messina, and by the morning of 17 November the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare, along with two heavy cruisers and several destroyers were waiting 35 mi (30 nmi; 56 km) southwest of Sardinia.[6] Earlier the same day, a report was passed to Somerville about the deployment of the Italian fleet south of Naples, with the apparent intention of intercepting the British squadron. He then decided to launch the fighters as soon as possible.[7][8]

Delivery

The British convoy was 400 mi (350 nmi; 640 km) west of Malta when the first wave of fighters took off from Argus at 06:15. Given the correct speed and the best cruise-range, the Hurricanes would have been left with just 45 minutes of fuel after reaching the coast of the island. But they lost a third of this reserve while scrambling and forming up. The fighters flew at 150 mph (240 km/h) at a height of 2,000 ft (610 m), far from the ideal height and speed intended for their maximal range. The second wave was launched an hour later, as the convoy turned back at full speed. The wind veered from southwest to southeast, hampering the westward path of the aircraft. Near the Galite Islands, a Short Sunderland flying boat met them to lead the formation to Malta. Two Hurricanes were lost after running out of fuel at 09:08 and 09:12. One of the pilots was rescued by the Sunderland, the other was never found. Eventually, the four remaining Hurricanes and the Skua landed at Luqa at 09:20.

The second wave missed the Sunderland's assistance when the flying boat failed to take off from Gibraltar to escort them. They also missed the Galite Islands and a bomber sent from Malta to replace the Sunderland. One by one, the Hurricanes ran out of fuel and fell into the sea, with the loss in all cases of both pilots and aircraft. The Skua managed to crash-land near Syracuse, Sicily, just before its fuel tanks became empty, and after being fired upon by an anti-aircraft artillery unit of the Italian army. The two-man crew was taken prisoner.[8]

Aftermath

Admiral Somerville privately assessed the operation "a frightful failure".[9] The official inquiry put the blame on the Skua crew, but it was agreed that poor weather, lack of cooperation between the Navy and the RAF and the fleet's reluctance to take risks were the real cause of the fiasco. The loss of experienced fighter pilots was particularly painful. Nevertheless, the most successful aces survived the ordeal, some of them being veterans of the Battle of Britain.[10]

See also

Notes

References

  • Shores, Cull and Malizia: Malta: The Hurricane years (1940-41). Grub Street, London, 1999. ISBN 0-948817-06-2
  • Sierra, Luis de la: La guerra naval en el Mediterráneo, 1940-1943, Ed. Juventud, Barcelona, 1976. ISBN 84-261-0264-6 (Spanish)

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