The Fleet Air Arm in CRUSADER

The Fleet Air Arm in CRUSADER

Fleet Air Arm squadrons were quite involved in the Mediterranean battles during Operation Crusader. While no carrier was active in the Med following the sinking of HMS Ark Royal on 13/14 November 1941, FAA squadrons such as No. 828 Squadron FAA (see also Thomas Barker’s diary) operated from Malta against Italian shipping, and several squadrons operated from the western desert in support of ground operations.

Origin of Squadrons

805, 806 and 815 Squadrons were disembarked from HMS Illustrious, while 803 and 826 Squadrons were disembarked from HMS Formidable after she was damaged during the evacuation of Crete. The Martlets (Grumman F-4 Wildcats) equipping 805 Squadron came from a Greek order which was on a cargo ship at Port Suez when the Greek armed forces surrendered in April 1941.

Western Desert Operations

In the western desert, a number of FAA squadrons were active in supporting naval operations, according to the official history. These were Nos. 803, 805, 806 Squadron FAA which formed the Western Desert RN Fighter squadron, consisting of 24 Hurricanes in 803 and 806 Squadrons  (taken over from the RAF, presumably Hurricane I) and 12 Grumman Martlets (Wildcats for Americans) in 805 Squadron for 36 fighters in total.

During the summer the task of this squadron was protection of the coastal convoys from Alexandria to Tobruk and back (the ‘Tobruk Run’). The squadron was operating from August 41 out of Mersa Matruh for shipping protection between Alexandria and Tobruk.

With the start of CRUSADER they moved to Fort Maddalena on the frontier on 22 November to support air superiority operations over the battlefield, and then on to Tobruk on 11 December after the retreat of Axis forces. A short section in the official wartime account of the Fleet Air Arm published by the Ministry of Information in 1943 deals with the desert squadrons of the FAA  (see also here). The Squadron operated under RAF Wings 264, 269 and 234 until disbanded in February 1942.

Convoy protection operations were supported by No. 815 Squadron FAA with 6 Fairey Albacores and 6 A.S.V. Fairey Swordfish (according to the official history A.S.V. was fitted in early December – this was an early form of air-ground radar used to detect ships).  The squadron operated from Sidi Barrani on A/S (anti-submarine) patrols and A/S escort duties for convoys.


Formation of Fleet Air Arm Fairey Albacores over Malta, GC. (IWM A16151)

Ground Attack

Interestingly, the FAA also supported army co-operation operations.  No. 826 Squadron FAA with 12 Albacores which could carry out anti-shipping strikes when released from army cooperation duties.  On army cooperation support these planes carried out flare dropping and night bombing of vehicle and tank concentrations. The illumination of targets for night bombardment was a specialty function carried out by these Albacores, which were very well suited for this task, it appears. They also carried out artillery spotting duties for naval bombardments such as occurred at Bardia and Derna during CRUSADER.

RAF Torpedo Strikes

RAF torpedo squadrons did not become active until very late in the battle. As I understand it, No.39 Squadron, operating Bristol Beauforts out of Malta and Cyrenaica, contributed to the sinking of troopship MS Victoria in the T.18 convoy on 23 January 1942. She was finished off by Albacores from No.826 Squadron FAA operating out of Berka in Cyrenaica.

At the end of 1941, first attempts to use Wellington medium bombers as torpedo strike aircraft were also undertaken. The first operation I can find against enemy targets is the attempt to stop a major Axis convoy in February 1942, when the mixed strike force of 26 Wellingtons from Nos. 38, 104 and 148 Squadrons and 1 Liberator of No. 108 Squadron included three Wellington Mk. ICs of No. 38 Squadron. The attack was not successful.

These operations were undertaken by the RAF however and not the Fleet Air Arm.

Wellington torpedo

Armourers wheeling two Mark XII aerial torpedoes for loading into a Vickers Wellington Mark IC of No. 38 Squadron RAF at Shallufa, Egypt. IWM ME(RAF) 3689