SKUAS IN THE MEDITERRANEAN AND OFF WEST AFRICA
I am indebted to Mark E Horan for the information on the use of Skuas on Illustrious and Eagle
HMS Ark Royal, with the Skuas of 800 and 803 Squadrons, sailed from Scapa Flow for Gibraltar on 18th June 1940, arriving on 23rd June. She joined Force H under Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville. France had surrendered and the fate of the French fleet became of the utmost importance to Britain. In German hands the French fleet could have been used for a naval blockade of Britain or to greatly assist the much smaller German Navy in an Invasion of the British Isles. French Ships in British home ports were seized and at Alexandria an arrangement was reached whereby the French Eastern Mediterranean fleet stayed in harbour. At the Moroccan ports of Oran and nearby Mers-el-Kebir a large fleet of French Ships was in harbour. Force H approached Oran on the 3rd July and the Admiral Gensoul, in command of the French fleet was given 3 choices; continue the war on the side of the British, sail to a British port and surrender their warships after which the French sailors would be repatriated, or sail to a French port in the West Indies where the ships would be demilitarised. All these options were refused. At 5.53pm the British opened fire on the French Fleet. Skuas from Ark Royal escorted Swordfish aircraft which mined the entrance to the harbour. The Skuas tangled with French fighters, one Skua was shot down and its crew killed. Another Skua ditched because its engine stopped, the crew being rescued by destroyer. The French Battleship Strasbourg made a run for safety and was pursued and attacked by Swordfish with an escort of Skuas (the Strasbourg escaped to France). Late in the evening the French used two of their large Breguet Bizerte flying boats for separate high-altitude bombing attacks on the British Fleet (neither scored any hits). One of the huge Bizertes of Escadrille E2 ran into the Skuas returning from escorting the strike on the Strasbourg and was peppered with machine-gun fire, wounding one of the French crewmen.*
On the 6th of July Skuas escorted Swordfish torpedo bombers attacking the stranded French Battleship Resolution. The Skuas tangled with defending French fighters, but the combat was half-hearted and only one Skua was lost (crew recovered). The FAA pilots noted that the French could have inflicted much higher casualties if they had wanted to.
On the 9th July a patrol of Ark Royal's Skuas, flying patrols over a convoy, forced an Italian Cant 506 float plane down onto the sea. Later that day some forty Savoia SM 79 bombers attacked Force H. The Skuas claimed one destroyed and two damaged and drove off the rest.
In the early morning of 2nd August Swordfish from Ark Royal attacked targets in Sardinia. Skuas shot down two shadowing Italian aircraft and damaged another. One of the purposes of the attack was act as a diversion so that the carrier HMS Argus could try to get fighter aircraft to the beleaguered island of Malta. 2 Skuas acted as navigational leaders to 12 Hurricanes flown off the carrier 400 miles from Malta. All the aircraft reached Malta but a Skua and Hurricane were lost landing on the island. The single Skua left joined 431 Flight based on the island.
This attack on Sardinia was followed up a month later on the 2nd and 3rd of September by attacks on the same target. This was done as part of a much larger attacking force including the new carrier HMS Illustrious. The Italians did not launch bombing attacks against this force but two shadowing Cant floatplanes aircraft were shot down by Skuas. The Skuas continued to provide fighter cover for Force H during this period alongside the new Fulmars on board Illustrious.
The Ark Royal left the Mediterranean and took part in the action at Dakar in West Africa on 23rd -25th September. Apparently Skuas dive bombed the Vichy French battleship Richelieu but no damage can have been expected to be done against its thick armour. After this abortive action the Ark Royal returned to the UK for a refit..
In the Autumn of 1940 801 Squadron was also operating off West Africa from HMS Furious. They sailed in early November and the Skuas operated briefly from the airfield at the port of Takoradi before going back aboard Furious. The carrier was back in British waters by the end of the year.
Back in the Med in November 1940, the Ark Royal now had the Fulmar two seat fighters of 807 squadron to fly alongside the Skuas of 800 Squadron in the air defence role. The Fulmar was some 50 mph faster than the Skua and had double the forward firing armament. With much the same long range as the Skua the Fulmar was ideal for flying long patrols over the British fleet and catching the Italian bombers and fighters (which did not have the performance of their German counterparts). Another bombing attack on Sardinia was launched on the 9th November and Skuas and Fulmars operated together to shoot down three Italian aircraft on the 8th and 9th November.
Also in November a repeat of the resupply mission flown to Malta in April was attempted - This time with disastrous results. Launched further away from the island, and with strong headwinds, fuel tanks ran dry and out of 2 Skuas and 12 Hurricanes only a single Skua and 4 Hurricanes made it to Malta. The other Skua made landfall in Sicily, where it crash landed and the crew were captured. Of the lost Hurricanes, only one pilot was rescued.
On the 27th November a major action took place between Force H and a large part of the Italian fleet south of Sardinia. Late in the day came the opportunity for the Skua to go out in style. Seven Skuas led by Lieutenant R.M. Smeeton surprised what they identified as three Italian Cruisers, but only near misses were obtained. The Skuas did shoot down a Italian spotter-plane.
The last combat victory for a Skua came on 6th February 1941 when, during Force H's operation to bombard Genoa, a Cant 506 floatplane was shot down.
The Skuas of 800 Squadron were retained on Ark Royal until April 1941. They then transferred to HMS Furious and were replaced by Fulmars when the Furious returned to the UK.
During 1940 Skuas were operated by other aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. When the new armoured carrier Illustrious arrived in the Eastern Med in September 806 squadron aboard her still did not have a full complement of Fulmars and so retained some Skuas, as late as 18th October they still had 4 Skuas on strength.
Throughout 1940-41 there were never enough Fulmars to cover combat losses and wastage for the Squadrons engaged in the Med, namely 806 (Illustrious), 808, and later 807 (Ark Royal), 803 (Formidable), and 805 (land-based). A couple of the Skuas that arrived with 806 Squadron were, on at least two occasions, used briefly, in lieu of Sea Gladiators, by 813 Fighter Flight on HMS Eagle during sorties in late 1940 and early 1941.
This interesting table of figures appeared in "The Gloster Gladiator" by Francis K Mason (pub Waterlow and Sons, Dunstable) it represents FAA fighter use in 1940. I do not know how the figures were arrived at, in particular if "combat" just refers to fighter combat or includes bombing operations, but it would seem to show just how useful the Skua was.
* Details of the Breguet Bizerte attack on the British Fleet from the article "From Calcutta to Bizerte" by Malcolm Passingham in the March/April 2000 edition of "Air Enthusiast" magazine (no 86).