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Fairey Albacores over Libya
A flight of Fairey Albacores of the Fleet Air Army seen over Libya
Operation Harpoon (1942)
Operation Harpoon or Battle of Pantelleria (Italian: Battaglia di Mezzo Giugno) was one of two simultaneous Allied convoys sent to supply Malta in the Axis-dominated central Mediterranean Sea in mid-June 1942, during the Second World War. Operation Vigorous was a westward convoy from Alexandria run at the same time Operation Harpoon was an eastbound convoy operation from Gibraltar. Two of the six ships in the Harpoon convoy completed the journey, at the cost of several Allied warships. The Vigorous convoy was driven back by the Italian fleet and attacks by Axis aircraft.
News of the two operations had been unwittingly revealed beforehand to the Axis by the US Military Attaché in Egypt, Colonel Bonner Fellers, who had been submitting detailed military reports on British activities to Washington. The American code was later revealed by Ultra intercepts to have been broken by Italian military intelligence (Servizio Informazioni Militare).
On this day 30 July 1941
This unsuccessful raid from the aircraft carriers HMS Victorious and Furious was intended to inflict damage on merchant vessels owned by Germany and Finland, a political gesture to show support for Britain&rsquos new ally, the Soviet Union which had entered the war following Hitler&rsquos invasion of its territory in June 1941.
Furious attacked ships in the harbour of Petsamo, Liinahamari, launching nine Fairey Albacores from 817 Squadron, nine Fairey Swordfish of 812 Squadron and six bomb-armed Fairey Fulmars from 800 Squadron. In the end, the harbour was almost entirely empty and the raiders claimed sinking only one small steamer and the destruction of several jetties, amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. One Albacore and one Fulmar were lost due to enemy action and one more Fulmar was lost due to engine failure prior to the attack.
The raid on Kirkenes was a disaster. The Luftwaffe had been alerted and had their Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters in the air and waiting. Victorious launched two sub flights consisting of a total of 12 Albacores from 827 Squadron, eight Albacores from 828 Squadron, and nine Fulmars from 809 Squadron. The Fulmars were unable to rendezvous with the Albacore squadrons, who were then left without fighter protection. The Albacores had to attack by flying over the mountains and the fjord rather than attacking from the sea. There were only four cargo vessels within the harbour. The aircraft released their torpedoes quickly to get away from anti-aircraft fire, sinking one 2,000 tons vessel and setting another on fire and causing minor damage ashore. One Bf 109, two Bf 110s and one Ju 87 were claimed shot down for the loss of 11 Albacores and two Fulmars, with a further eight Albacores damaged.
From Graces Guide
Fairey Marine was a boat building company based on the River Hamble, Southampton, England, a subsidiary of Fairey Aviation Co Ltd.
1946 The company was created by Sir Charles Richard Fairey and Fairey Aviation's managing director, Mr. Chichester-Smith, to make use of redundant facilities at Hamble Ώ] . Both men were avid sailing enthusiasts along with Chichester-Smith's good friend and former Olympic yachtsman, Charles Currey.
In the early years, thousands of dinghies were produced by Fairey Marine including the Firefly, Albacore, Falcon (dinghy), Swordfish (dinghy), Jollyboat, Flying Fifteen, 505 and International 14's along with the much smaller Dinky and Duckling.
In the 1960s Fairey designed and built a range of wooden-hulled speedboats and motor launches designed by Alan Burnand.
In the early 1970s Fairey Marine switched to glass reinforced plastic hulls of the same design.
1977 Fairey Marine was taken into Receivership along with other companies in the Fairey Group when the parent company went into liquidation ΐ]
When the main Fairey company went into receivership the work force and the management did not want to be taken over by Trafalgar House or Rank International because they expected that those companies would shut the firm and adapt the site for use as a marina. The workforce wanted to stay in boat building and were keen that the National Enterprise Board should take them over.
1980 The National Enterprise Board sold Fairey Holdings to Doulton, the subsidiary of S. Pearson and Son Β]
1984 Jack Barr took over as managing director and led a policy of new product development and introduced CAD techniques developed new fast ferry designs Γ]
1986 Fairey Marine of Cowes was sold by Pearsons to Marinteknik International of Hong Kong Δ]
1988 The name was changed to FBM Marine
The company developed and expanded its range of products as well as acquiring a number of other companies including Cheverton Workboats, Brooke Marine and what became Fairey Marinteknik, the company was also known as Fairey Allday Marine produced the Waveney class lifeboat for the RNLI.
2000 FBM Marine Holding, the ferry builders, was acquired by Babcock Engineering Services Ε] , a major UK based support services, facilities management and engineering company specialising in the support of defence forces worldwide, and renamed FBM Babcock Marine Ltd.
Fairey Swordfish: The Glorious “Stringbag”
Built in 1941, the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Fairey Swordfish W5856 is the oldest of its kind still flying.
The crew of the battleship Bismarck could be proud of themselves and their great ship. Two days earlier, on May 24, 1941, they had sent the pride of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, and all but three of its 1,419-man crew to the bottom of the Atlantic. Hit by three shells in return, Bismarck had set course for the port of Brest, in occupied France, to undergo repairs. The only warships that could pose a threat were hundreds of miles away.
Then, at dusk, out of a rainsquall, skimming just above the waves at a leisurely pace, appeared what must have seemed phantoms from the previous war: nine Fairey Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carrier Victorious, their crews’ heads leaning out of open cockpits. Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann ordered the helm put hard over. He knew that while the biplanes might be obsolete, the torpedoes they carried were not. The battleship’s anti-aircraft guns unleashed an intense barrage. No planes were shot down, but only one torpedo scored a hit, amidships on the main armor belt, with negligible effect. Bismarck’s crew probably wondered why, in the third year of the war, the Royal Navy had only sent a handful of antique aircraft against them. Tomorrow, they would be close to France, protected by the Luftwaffe and a line of U-boats.
The battleship Bismarck, shown in September 1940, fell victim to a single torpedo launched from a Swordfish that jammed its rudder and left it steaming in circles. (Sobotta/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
For the British there remained one last, desperate chance to attack. With darkness falling, another flight of 15 Swordfish managed to take off from the wildly pitching deck of the carrier Ark Royal into 70 mph winds. One of their torpedoes again fruitlessly hit the armor belt, but, as Bismarck turned hard to port, a second struck its vulnerable stern. With its rudder jammed, the great ship could only steam in circles. The next day, May 27, the battleships King George V and Rodney, together with several cruisers, appeared on the horizon. Bismarck put up a brave fight, but eventually joined Hood on the ocean floor.
Britain pioneered naval aviation. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) used seaplanes and land-based aircraft during World War I with some notable successes, including bombing the Zeppelin hangars at Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven and Tondern. A Short 184 seaplane made history when it sank a Turkish ship by torpedo during the 1915 Gallipoli operation. In 1918 Britain launched Argus, the first aircraft carrier with a full-length flight deck, allowing planes to both take off and land. The British were the first to begin construction of a purpose-designed carrier, Hermes, commissioned in 1924. It set the pattern for future aircraft carriers: a flush flight deck with command superstructure “island” to starboard.
The RNAS and Royal Flying Corps were combined to form the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918—April Fool’s Day, as some disgruntled RNAS personnel observed. The bizarre result was the Royal Navy operating aircraft carriers with planes and pilots commanded by the RAF.
In common with every other naval power, a battleship mentality ruled at the Admiralty during the interwar years. The prevailing view was that future battles would still be fought by ships lining up to slug it out, like at Jutland in 1916. The notion that flimsy flying machines could sink great warships was considered absurd. Vast sums were spent on new battleships, but only a trifle for a few hybrid carriers based on the hulls of merchant ships or of battleships whose construction had been halted by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. And nothing for developing carrier aircraft.
Admiral Lord Chatfield, head of the Royal Navy, called this “insanity” for an island nation whose very existence depended on its sea power. He threatened to resign unless naval aviation reverted to the Royal Navy, which it finally did in 1939. At the beginning of World War II, Britain had seven aircraft carriers, more than any other nation (reduced to six when Courageous was torpedoed with the war just 14 days old), but two were 15 years old and four had been launched in the previous war. Only Ark Royal, commissioned in 1938, was reasonably up to date. The government, now with a more visionary Admiralty, canceled battleship building and ordered the construction of modern carriers, 17 of which would enter service beginning in 1940. But the opportunity to develop advanced carrier-borne fighters and bombers had been irretrievably lost.
The Air Ministry had issued a specification for a carrier aircraft in 1930: a biplane with an open cockpit like its RAF contemporaries, such as the Bristol Bulldog. The Fairey Aviation Company responded with the prototype T.S.R. II (for Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance), progenitor of the Swordfish, for which it received a contract a few months later. Significantly, the Swordfish entered service in 1936, the year the first Spitfire flew. Long after other countries had introduced modern all-metal monoplane carrier aircraft with enclosed cockpits, powerful engines and retractable landing gear, for most of the war the “Stringbag,” as it was affectionately known by its crews, was the only effective torpedo, bombing and anti-submarine aircraft available to the Fleet Air Arm. What it achieved in those six years defied all expectations.
Captain Lindemann and his officers had good reason to respect this apparent relic of a bygone era. In the April 1940 Battle of Narvik, off Norway, a Swordfish catapulted from the battleship Warspite, piloted by Petty Officer Frederick Rice, spotted 10 destroyers supporting the invading German army’s landing. Rice’s radio transmissions corrected the fall of shot from Warspite’s 15-inch guns and allowed British destroyers to ambush their German counterparts, seven of which were destroyed, along with three supply ships. He then dived on the 1,050-ton U-64, and although hit in the tailplane and floats by the submarine’s gunfire, released two bombs. U-64 sank in half a minute, the first sub to be destroyed by an unaided aircraft. Stringbags would go on to sink 15 more, and share in another nine.
The Swordfish’s greatest single achievement came seven months later. The Italian navy’s fleet of fast, modern warships—six battleships, nine heavy cruisers and multiple destroyers—was twice the size of the British Mediterranean fleet. From its main base in Taranto it could threaten key British bases such as Malta, Gibraltar and Alexandria cut off vital oil from the Middle East and jeopardize supplies for the British fighting the Italian army in North Africa. Taranto boasted one of the world’s most heavily defended harbors, with hundreds of anti-aircraft guns in shore batteries and on the warships themselves. Barrage balloon cables encircled the anchorage to snare low-flying aircraft, and tests had indicated the harbor waters were too shallow for aerial torpedoes, which simply plunged into the mud.
On the night of November 11, 1940, against this seemingly impregnable fortress, Illustrious launched 20 Swordfish, armed either with torpedoes (modified for shallow water), bombs or flares to illuminate the targets. Pilot Lt. Cmdr. John Godley wrote: “It’s hard to understand how such a decision was ever made. The Charge of the Light Brigade…can it really not have been foreseen that the entire mad venture would end in disaster?”
A post-strike photo of Taranto shows the devastation wrought on the Italian fleet by the aircraft carrier Illustrious’ Swordfish on November 11, 1940. (Imperial War Museum CM 164)
The element of surprise was lost when one plane arrived early, alerting gun and searchlight crews. In the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, the Swordfish torpedoed the battleships Littorio—putting it out of action for the rest of the war—Conte di Cavour and Caio Duilio, plus a cruiser and several destroyers. Conte di Cavour exploded. Caio Duilio took three torpedoes and sank. Despite 14,000 anti-aircraft shells being fired, only two planes were lost, with one crew surviving.
In March 1941, the Italian navy sought revenge against the British in the Mediterranean, leading to the Battle of Cape Matapan. The battleship Vittorio Veneto, eight cruisers and 14 destroyers set out to intercept Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s fleet. British cryptographers, having just broken the Italian naval code, alerted Cunningham. The heavy cruiser Pola was brought to a stop by torpedoes from Formidable’s Swordfish. Vittorio Veneto, hit in the stern and with one propeller smashed, almost suffered Bismarck’s fate, but limped back to its harbor, leaving orders for the cruisers Zara and Fiume and two destroyers to stand by the stricken Pola. That night Cunningham’s ships sank all five. The Italian fleet never again posed a threat to the Royal Navy.
Taranto was momentous in its implications. A handful of carrier aircraft had reversed the naval balance in the Mediterranean, literally overnight. Together with Cape Matapan, it signaled that the days of the battleship as supreme warship were over, that aircraft carriers would play the decisive role in future naval battles and that a powerful fleet in a heavily defended harbor could be devastated by aircraft. Taranto’s significance was recognized in Japan, but apparently not in the United States. A year later, the aerial attack was repeated on a grand scale at Pearl Harbor.
In all, 2,391 Swordfish were manufactured, with production simplified by their uncomplicated structure—wings of steel spars and duralumin ribs, steel-tube fuselage and fabric covering. The original 690-hp Bristol Pegasus engine, which Royal Navy test pilot Captain Eric Brown wrote “from appearances seemed to have been added as an afterthought,” was noted for its reliability, an important consideration to crews flying at night over water. “The Swordfish ambled along lazily at about 85 knots if the wind was favorable,” wrote Brown, but “it was unbelievably easy to fly…no aircraft could have been more tractable or forgiving.”
What the Stringbag lacked in speed it made up for in the multiplicity of armament and equipment it could carry, arguably more than any other aircraft: torpedoes, bombs, mines, flares, Air-to-Surface Vessel (ASV) radar, Leigh Lights (20-million-candlepower spotlights powered by a 300-pound battery), rocket-assisted-takeoff units (RATO) and rocket projectiles (on a fabric-covered plane!). Brown described taking off loaded with a Leigh Light, torpedo and eight anti-submarine bombs: “There was really no logical reason why it should ever have flown with this mass of stores, but fly it did.”
The elongated cockpit, holding pilot, navigator and gunner, tended to act as an air scoop. One test pilot, losing control of the prototype, bailed out, only to be blown back into the rear cockpit, from which he finally exited, becoming the only man in history to have bailed out of the same aircraft twice. The gunner was originally equipped with a WWI-vintage Lewis machine gun, but since its utility against modern fighters was limited, the ex-gunner became the radio operator. All were exposed to the elements, particularly the bitter cold of North Atlantic winters and subzero temperatures on the convoys to Murmansk, Russia. That they could still conduct patrols against U-boats under such conditions, constantly aware that ditching likely meant death, was remarkable. Pilot Lt. Cmdr. Terence Horsley wrote of the Swordfish: “[Y]ou know that you’ve got a friend. And a friend, when you are fighting your way through the darkness towards a lurching flight deck, or are 100 miles out over an empty waste, is something worth having.” Stringbags sank six U-boats on the Murmansk convoys—three on one alone—and shared in the sinking of five more.
Swordfish Mark Is of No. 785 Squadron from Royal Naval Air Station Crail in Scotland embark on a torpedo training flight in 1939. (Military History Collection/Alamy)
Intended to operate at night, or if by day hopefully beyond the range of land-based enemy fighters, the Swordfish relied on its exceptional maneuverability as its main defense when intercepted. In a vertical bank it could turn around almost in its own length. This or a sudden climb—essentially standing the plane on its tail—presented the attacking fighter pilot with an apparently stationary target disappearing behind him at 300 mph. Attempting to slow and follow these aerobatics would cause a stall. “It will maneuver in a vertical plane easily as straight and level,” Horsley wrote. “It is possible to hold the dive to within 200 feet of the water a gentle pressure on the stick pulls it out quickly and safely.” Several enemy pilots who tried to follow Swordfish ended up in the sea. But a torpedo attack required flying straight and level, leading to a most tragic, gallant and unnecessary episode.
As a result of continual RAF bombing at the French port of Brest, Adolf Hitler ordered the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to safer berths in Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea. On February 11, 1942, together with 25 destroyers, and with aerial cover from several hundred fighters, they steamed up the English Channel in daylight. Hitler believed the British would be slow to react to such an audacious gamble. Due to ill luck, foul weather, radar failure at critical moments and poor communications, the fleet was only spotted when halfway through the Channel. RAF bombers failed to locate it in the poor visibility, bombed ineffectually or were shot down by anti-aircraft fire or fighters. RAF losses totaled 35 aircraft. As the ships passed the Straits of Dover, in an act of desperation Lt. Cmdr. Eugene Esmonde was ordered to attack with just six Swordfish. “He knew what he was going into, but it was his duty,” wrote Wing Cmdr. Tom Gleave. “His face was tense and white, that of a man already dead.” Escorting Spitfires, battling swarms of German fighters, were unable to protect them. Although several launched their torpedoes, all were shot down before coming close enough to achieve a hit. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Swordfish pioneered the use of ASV radar to attack ships and surfaced U-boats in 1940. It could detect a submarine up to five miles away and larger vessels up to 25. Operating from Malta, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm created havoc among convoys supplying the Italian and German armies in North Africa. A couple dozen Swordfish alone sank an average of 50,000 tons of shipping per month, with a record 98,000 in August 1941.
In August 1940 at the Gulf of Bomba, Libya, three Stringbags of No. 813 Squadron had the distinction of sinking four Axis vessels with just three torpedoes. One submarine underway was quickly sunk. The aircrews then spotted a destroyer, with another sub and a depot ship moored on each side. After the Swordfish torpedoed the outer vessels, the depot ship’s munitions exploded, sinking all three vessels.
Britain’s most crucial conflict, however, was in the Atlantic. The majority of the island nation’s food and raw materials, and all of its fuel oil and gasoline, came by sea. By 1942, U-boats were sinking half a million tons a month, rising to 700,000 tons in November. Britain faced a real risk of being starved into surrender. “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” Winston Churchill later wrote. A 500-mile gap in the mid-Atlantic, beyond the range of land-based aircraft, allowed the subs to operate largely unmolested. From May 1943, operating from small escort carriers or merchant aircraft carriers (MACs—merchant ships with short decks built above their holds), Swordfish launched by catapult or RATO helped to close this gap. At night their ASV radar detected surfaced U-boats shadowing a convoy or recharging their batteries. Suddenly illuminated by the Leigh Light, they would be attacked with bombs or depth charges. As a result, the U-boats were forced to surface for battery recharging during the day, when they could at least see the attacking aircraft coming. But now they were prey to the Swordfish’s 30-pound armor-piercing rockets. Fired in pairs or a salvo of all eight, one or two hits usually sufficed.
From May 1943 until V-E Day, only one of the 217 convoys escorted by MACs was successfully attacked. Swordfish would fly 4,177 patrols, sink 10 U-boats and share in the destruction of five more. Already obsolescent when the first one landed on an aircraft carrier, this ugly duckling, outliving several designs meant to replace it, was the only naval aircraft in frontline service from the first day of the European war to the last. Amazingly, the glorious Stringbag was responsible for the destruction of a greater tonnage of Axis shipping in WWII than any other Allied aircraft.
Nicholas O’Dell served in RAF Bomber Command from 1958 to 1962. For additional reading, he suggests: Bring Back My Stringbag: A Swordfish Pilot at War 1940–1945, by Lord Kilbracken and To War in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb.
This feature appeared in the March 2019 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!
Friday, June 16, 2006
Middle East air operations June-October 1941
During a four month period from mid-June to mid-October 1941, there were widespread air operations in the Middle Eastern theater. The Tripoli port was hit at night 72 times by a total of 357 Wellingtons (one aircraft per sortie). Daylight raids were made by Marylands and Blenheims. As the British were only able to use 500 lbs. bombs and smaller, the damage was not as extensive as it might have been.
Operations continued from Malta. They hit targets in Sicily and Southern Italy, concentrating on airfields and ports.
Benghazi was hit in 102 attacks by Wellingtons operating from Egypt. The squadrons involved were No.37, No.38, No.70, and No.148. Marylands from No.12 Squadron SAAF and No.24 Squadron SAAF, as well as No.39 Squadron RAF. Marylands and Blenheims also were used in night attacks on Benghazi, starting in August. By the end of this period, SAAF Marylands were used in daylight attacks. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Official History.
Obviously, you want a shiny new Albacore. We all do. But did you know that the 2012 North American Championship was won by a 15 year old boat, and the 2nd and 3rd place boats were significantly older than that?
A used Albacore is an excellent bargain, with good quality used boats coming on the market regularly, and cottage boats always available.
Find the latest listing on our classifieds at http://albacore.ca/classifieds or try our friends from the US at http://usaa.albacore.org/boats.
Kijiji classifieds are also a good source, particularly for cost-effective club boats and cottage boats.
If the boat is not too far away, and you want to join an Albacore fleet, then the CAA may be able to help with inspection and delivery.
Fairey Albacores over Libya - History
History: When British naval intelligence determined that a large number of Italian warships lay at anchor in Taranto harbour in November 1940, an attack was organized, to be carried out by 21 single-engine carrier-based biplanes. The operation was a huge success -- three battleships were severely damaged, a cruiser and two destroyers were hit, and two other vessels were sunk. In the space of one hour the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had been altered forever.
The unlikely cause of this destruction was one of the warplane legends of World War Two, the Fairey Swordfish Mk.1, first flown on 17 April 1934. It was a three-man torpedo-bomber and reconnaissance biplane with a basic structure of fabric-covered metal. The wings folded for storage on the crowded deck of an aircraft carrier. Armament included one forward-firing Vickers machine gun and one swivelling Vickers in the rear cockpit. Primary offensive power took the form of depth charges, mines, bombs or, especially, a torpedo.
Unfortunately, this outstanding plane was too slow to withstand the punishment of German anti-aircraft fire. Long, accurate approaches to the target made the Swordfish very vulnerable when delivering its torpedo. Thus came re-deployment in an anti-submarine warfare role, using depth charges and, later, rockets.
As with many wartime aircraft, Swordfish were produced by more than one manufacturer. Well over half (almost 1700) were built by the Blackburn company in Sherburn in Elmet, UK.
The Mk II model was introduced in 1943, and featured strengthened and metal-skinned lower wings to allow the firing of rockets from underneath. Later that year, the Mk III appeared, which featured a large ASV anti-submarine radar unit mounted between the landing gear legs which allowed detection of submarines up to 40 km away. For operation over the cold waters of Canada, the Swordfish Mk IV was fitted with an enclosed cabin.
When production ended in 1944, the Swordfish had had been introduced into a full range of duties for the fleet: Torpedo-bomber, minelayer, convoy escort, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft and training craft. Today, four Swordfish are airworthy -- two in Britain and two in Canada. [History by Jeff VanDerford]
Nicknames: Stringbag Blackfish (Blackburn-built Swordfish)
Specifications (Swordfish Mk II):
Engine: One 750-hp Bristol Pegasus XXX 9-cylinder radial piston engine
Weight: Empty 4,700 lbs., Max Takeoff 7,510 lbs.
Wing Span: 45ft. 6in.
Length: 35ft. 8in.
Height: 12ft. 4in.
Maximum Speed: 138 mph
Ceiling: 10,700 ft.
Range: 1,030 miles
Armament: Two 7.7-mm (0.303-inch) Vickers machine guns (one forward-firing and one one in a Fairey High-Speed Mounting in rear cockpit) plus one 1,600-pound torpedo, or 1,500 pounds of depth charges, bombs or mines or up to eight rockets on underwing racks.
The Island Everyone Wanted – Malta Was the Most Bombed Place on Earth
Malta is a small island in the Mediterranean Sea, consisting of 95 square miles strategically located between Italy and Libya. It became a British colony in 1815 and from that point onwards was an important naval base for the British.
With the coming of World War II and Italy entering the war on the Axis side in June 1940, Malta became even more significant. A great deal of crucial war material was being sent via sea convoy through the Suez Canal. The convoys then had to traverse a hazardous Mediterranean route before heading north to Great Britain.
As the convoys crossed the Mediterranean they had to contend with the continuous threat of aerial bombardment, submarines, surface raiders and fast attack boats from all directions.Service personnel and civilians clear bombing debris from Kingsway in Valletta in 1942
To make matters worse, the British Royal Navy was stretched to the breaking point from having to protect convoys traveling across the North Atlantic, as well as defending the homeland from the possible threat of invasion. It also was trying to counter Japan’s spectacular success in the Pacific theater of war.
As a result, in the summer of 1940 Malta was poorly defended, with a weakened squadron of just twelve Sea Gladiator biplanes and a handful of anti-aircraft batteries with which to defend itself. The situation looked hopeless, as there was little prospect of reinforcements and the island was within easy striking distance of Italian bombers based at Libya and Sicily.
Italian bombing of the Grand Harbor, Malta
Malta grew more and more isolated between June and December 1940, when intense fighting broke out along the Libyan and Egyptian border as the British and Italians fought for control of the region. This signified the beginning of the North African campaign.
At the very start of the campaign, Italy considered invading Malta, but dismissed the idea as impractical. They felt that their navy, the Regia Marina, was ill-prepared to carry out such a task. They also wanted to avoid an all-out confrontation with the British Royal Navy.
HMS Illustrious under Ju 87 attack in the Grand Harbour. The carrier is to the right of the large crane
Unknown to the Italians at this stage of the war, the British saw Malta as a lost cause and had resigned themselves to the idea that they would most likely lose the island early on in the war.
Since the Italians also overestimated the military forces on the island and the resolve of the British to reinforce it, they initially decided to ignore the island and let it be slowly starved into submission.
Spitfire Vc (trop) in North Africa. The Spitfire arrived in Malta in March 1942, becoming the main RAF fighter
Italian shipping of supplies to Libya steadily increased over the year from around 37,000 tonnes a month at the beginning of 1940 to just over 49,000 tonnes by the end of the year.
Italian bombing raids on Malta during the summer of 1940 were carried out by medium bombers with a heavy fighter escort. The Italians would normally carry out their bombing at around 20,000 ft. This was blanket bombing, designed to terrorize the local population rather than hit any particular target.
HMS Ark Royal in 1939, with Swordfish of 820 Naval Air Squadron passing overhead. The ship was sunk in 1941
At first neither side was particularly effective. The British Sea Gladiators had some limited success, but were not available in sufficient numbers and struggled to intercept the high flying and quick aerial raiders.
But by the end of the summer, Malta’s defenders had acquired Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers and Hawker Hurricane fighters. Though there were problems with spare parts and maintenance issues, these aircraft quickly made their presence felt. By the end of the year Malta’s pilots claimed to have shot down 45 Italian aircraft and damaged nearly 200 more, as well as sinking an Italian destroyer off the coast of Sicily.
Hawker Hurricanes 1939
In November 1940, using Fairey Swordfish launched from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, the British attacked the Italian port of Taranto. The torpedo bombers surprised the ships of the Regia Marina which were anchored up in port. Despite heavy Italian defenses, the Swordfish damaged three Italian battleships.
This was half the Italian battleship fleet, and though most of the damage was quickly repaired, the attack had a profound psychological effect on the Italian High Command.
It made the Italian Navy more hesitant to commit the Regia Marina into an outright confrontation with the British, which indirectly took some of the pressure off Malta.
HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, 1940. Underway.
Despite all this, North Africa was still very much a side show, with little German involvement and Britain making the supplying of troops there a low priority. But 1941 brought about a sharp increase in the intensity of fighting in the region. Both sides started to realize the growing importance of the North African campaign.
The Luftwaffe started to get involved with the conflict, with large number of Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers. They carried out multiple attacks on the HMS Illustrious, which was berthed at Malta at that time. Though the Illustrious was only damaged, it made the British realize how skilled and determined the German pilots were.
Oblique bow view of Illustrious at anchor
In February 1941, the Germans deployed the Afrika Korps under the famed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in order to help their beleaguered allies the Italians.
As the fighting in North Africa intensified and the balance of power there swung back and forth between the Allies and the Axis during 1941, the situation around Malta became intense and almost chaotic.
Erwin Rommel Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1977-018-13A / Otto / CC-BY-SA 3.0
At first Malta was more harassing the enemy than inflicting heavy casualties on them. Malta-based submarines were heavily hampered by the Italians who were putting down huge numbers of mines around the island and the Tunisian coast line.
But as the year went by the British became more successful at attacking Axis convoys and assisting in getting Allied convoys through. The Germans were forced to withdraw some of their units to the Balkans at a time when Malta’s forces were considerably increased, especially in the form of aerial capability.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 escorting a Ju 87 over the Mediterranean Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-429-0646-31 / Billhardt / CC-BY-SA 3.0
As the German impact was starting to be felt in North Africa, this meant there was an ever increasing need for men and materials. This need became even more crucial as Rommel set about besieging the strategically important seaport of Tobruk.
It quickly became apparent that Rommel did not have enough troops to take the port. Rommel’s situation was even more complicated because his supply lines, which ran from the Egyptian border town of Sollum all the way back to the Italian ports, were vulnerable.
General Erwin Rommel and his staff observe troops of the 7th Panzer Division practicing a river crossing at the Moselle River in France in 1940. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-124-0242-24 / Gutjahr / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Along this vulnerable route lay the Island of Malta, which was constantly threatening Rommel’s supply lines. He felt that Malta could no longer be ignored, but he was overruled. It was decided to continue with the Axis campaign of besieging the island by attacking any convoys heading there, as well as trying to bomb it into submission.
Therefore the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica ended up flying over 3,000 missions to try to destroy the military defenses and morale of the island’s defenders. The idea by now was to either force the island to surrender or pave the way for an invasion.
Italian bomber being refuelled in Sicily
By the summer of 1942, many things had changed. The Axis seemed to be winning in North Africa with Rommel’s victory at Battle of Gazala and the fall of Tobruk, which caused the British to retreat into Egypt. So Hitler and Mussolini, enthusiastically supported by Rommel, approved the planning of Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta.
Major General Kurt Student, Knight’s Cross recipient and the highest ranking officer in Germany’s parachute infantry, was assigned the task of leading the invasion of Malta.
He had excellent intelligence concerning the island, as the Italians had carried out extensive aerial reconnaissance of the island’s fortifications, emplacements, and military assets.
Kurt Student Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1979-128-26 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA
Student was eager to learn from any mistakes the Germans had made during the highly successful invasion of the Greek island of Crete back in May 1941. Despite its success, the Germans had lost a large number of men, especially in the parachute units.
Student devised a plan for attacking Malta using a combined force of Italian and German units. The initial attack would use a force numbering 700 transporters planes with over 500 gliders landing around 29,000 airborne troops.
German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) landing on Crete, May 1941 Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-0864 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
By now the Malta garrison had been heavily strengthened. It was composed of 20,000 troops backed up with armored detachments, as well as extensive air defenses and heavy shore batteries.
Because of these defenses, Student felt the airborne units would need to be followed up with a massive amphibious landing comprised of 700,000 Italian troops supported by large numbers of Italian and German armor, including captured Soviet equipment.
Ramcke, Kurt Student, Hans Kroh Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1979-128-35 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Student’s plan called for massive resources that simply were not there. Events like the commitment of Germany’s Army Group B at Stalingrad and the Axis defeat at the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942 caused the Axis no end of problems.
This was compounded by the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa. The Axis were now fighting a war in North Africa on two fronts against an enemy increasing in strength at a time when the Axis forces were diminishing dramatically in numbers.
Second Battle of El Alamein
Also, in the summer of 1942 the Maltese started to receive Supermarine Spitfires and quickly gained air superiority at the same time that Axis raids were just starting to have a detrimental effect on the island’s military capacity.
Previously, Italian bombers had been getting daring and carrying out highly effective low level attacks. But with the Spitfires’ arrival and the implementation of a new tactic called the Forward Interception Plan, the RAF quickly dominated the Maltese sky and the Axis were forced to scale back their operations, from which they never recovered.
An Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79 bomber
With renewed confidence, in December 1942 air and sea units operating from Malta went on the offensive. Over the next 6 months they sank over 200 Axis ships.
So any idea of invading Malta was permanently shelved as the Axis fought for their very survival in North Africa. Their situation continued to deteriorate, and in May 1943 Axis troops in Africa were forced to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of their troops and vast amounts of their equipment were captured.
Canadian fighter ace George Beurling, known as the “Knight of Malta”, shot down 27 Axis aircraft in just 14 days over the skies of Malta during the summer of 1942.
Shortly afterward, in July 1943, Italy was invaded by the Allies. By September, Italy had signed an armistice and had switched sides, declaring war on Nazi Germany.
For its part, the Island of Malta was awarded the George Cross medal for the bravery and sacrifice of its people during the siege. This was the only time in World War II the George Cross was awarded collectively rather than to an individual.
Because of this honor, since 1943 the George Cross symbol has been incorporated into the flag of Malta.
1956: Fastest Aircraft
Like a number of milestones in the history of Guinness World Records, the challenge of not only flying the fastest aircraft in the world but also becoming the first pilot to break the 1,000 mph air-speed barrier was a close-run race, and one conducted in utmost secrecy.
It’s a tale of derring-do and adventure, starring a larger-than-life character straight from the pages of a Boy’s Own comic: a tea-tasting-apprentice-turned-fighter-pilot who would go on to become a multiple record-holder, a speedboat consultant and a James Bond stuntman.
In the mid 1950s, the British Fairey Aviation Company had its sights set on a world record. Fearing that they would be beaten to the 1,000-mph air-speed mark by American rivals, Fairey conducted top secret test flights across the British countryside, terrorising the inhabitants of Southeast England with deafening jet engines and window-shattering sonic booms.
It was hardly the best way to keep a secret – one market gardener threatened to sue when he lost his greenhouses during a test flight – but it certainly worked, and the exact source of the disturbances remained unconfirmed.
Why the secrecy? Over the previous decade following the end of World War II, the air-speed record had changed hands a few times between the UK and the USA, with the Americans having the upper hand.
The supersonic barrier had already been surpassed back in October 1947, when the USAAF’s Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager reached Mach 1.07 (1,310.79 km/h or 814.49 mph) in the rocket-powered Bell X-1. (Despite the unprecedented speed, Yeager’s flight wasn’t formally accepted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) for the air-speed record – it was rocket-powered and dropped out of a B-29 bomber the first supersonic pilot to officially pass the FAI’s strict rulings would be the USAAF’s Horace Haines, who reached Mach 1.25 (1,323.312 km/r or 822.26 mph) on 20 August 1955.)
The British were lagging behind in the development of supersonic craft, so when the next major milestone presented itself – the 1,000 mph mark – the Fairey engineers were determined to secure the record.
The man chosen for the job of piloting Britain back into the record books was Peter Twiss (born Lionel Peter Twiss, 23 July 1921), who’d spent his apprenticeship before World War II as a tea taster for Brooke Bond.
At the outbreak of war, Twiss had signed up as a Naval Airman Second Class and by 1942 had earned himself the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), finishing the conflict as a Lieutenant Commander.
In 1946, he joined Fairey as a test pilot and began top-secret research into trans- and subsonic flight.
The aircraft developed to achieve the superlative speed was the Fairey Delta II – a 15.7-m-long (51-ft 7-in) tailless delta (triangle) wing designed by the Scottish aeronautical engineer Robert Lang Lickley (later Sir).
The project was kept under wraps even from much of the Fairey staff, such was the need for secrecy, and many of the plane’s 400 test flights were done under cover, with only the Royal Air Force aware of what was actually flying overhead.
The single-seater aircraft’s revolutionary design featured a long, tapering nose that could be hinged downwards by 10 degrees to improve the pilot’s forward view from the cockpit. (This unmistakable “cocked nose” design would later be adopted for Concorde.)
Either side of this slender nose were wing-root air intakes, and Rolls-Royce provided the engine in the shape of an Avon RA.14R with afterburner. Finally, the delta wings (named for the greek symbol [delta]) were crucial in helping the aircraft reach supersonic speeds.
Twiss piloted the maiden flight on 6 October 1954 and enjoyed a number of successful tests until a malfunction nearly brought the project to an early close.
On the 14th test flight, engine failure and a loss of pressure resulted in the Delta II crashing to the ground near Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.
Twiss, resolving to save his aircraft rather than ditching, managed a controlled crash-land, and he and his aircraft survived, with the Delta requiring 11 months of repairs before it could get airborne again.
For his heroism, Twiss was awarded The Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service.
After two years of test flights – and with the Rolls Royce engines powering the little Delta II through the sound barrier on less than full power – Twiss and the Fairey team were confident that they could reach the speed required to set the record and pass the 1,000 mph milestone.
Crucially, they had the support of the RAF to be able to sufficiently document the attempt using the radar stations located along England’s south coast.
On 10 March 1956, on the eighth attempt, Twiss succeeded in pushing the Delta II to speeds of 1,117 mph and 1,147 mph (1,797.6 km/h and 1,845.9 km/h) along a 14.5-km (9-mile) course between Chichester and Ford at an altitude of 38,000 ft (11,582 m).
The next morning, the RAF confirmed the average speed of 1,132 mph (1,821.7 km/h) as a new air-speed record, and Twiss was congratulated as the first pilot to fly faster than 1,000 mph.
The Brits held the record for just over a year before it was beaten on 12 December 1957 by a USAF McDonnell F-101A Voodoo that clocked at 1,207.6 mph (1,943.4 km/h). Bar a couple of brief periods when it was held by the Soviets (in 1959 and 1962–65), the record has remained the preserve of the USA ever since, roundly proving their superiority in the air.
Today, the official record stands at an incredible 2,193.2 mph (3,529.6 km/h) – almost twice as fast as Twiss – set by Captain Eldon W. Joersz and Major George T. Morgan in a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird back in July 1976.
Twiss went on to pursue a career in Fairey’s marine division, and even found himself in front of the cameras when he piloted a Fairey speedboat in the Sean Connery James Bond movie From Russia With Love.
He died on 31 August 2011 at the of 90 years. His legacy is a lasting one: not only did he hold the air-speed record and become the first pilot to fly faster than 1,000 mph, he was also the first human to ever fly faster than the Earth’s rotation: as he explained in his autobiography Faster Than The Sun, at his record-breaking speed, he outpace the sun as it crosses the sky.