The Myth of "Black Sunday".
One of the recurring myths about the Blackburn Skua is that a whole squadron of them was lost overboard on a training exercise. This story has found its way into numerous internet and magazine articles and a book on "great military blunders". So what is the real story?
Skua L3012 being hoisted back onto the deck of the carrier HMS Illustrious - Photo courtesy of Rita Freeman.
806 Squadron of the Royal Navy Air Branch was formed in February 1940 to fly Blackburn Skua and Roc aircraft to form the fighter compliment for the first of the Royal Navy's armoured aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious. It originally had the pick of experienced aircrew, but delays in commissioning the Illustrious led to the majority of them being posted away to other squadrons and their places taken by new crews straight out of training. Despite this, the squadron was pressed into service when the phoney war ended and they flew combat missions over Norway and then over Dunkirk . When, in June 1940, the new carrier was ready for them, the squadron was then flying a mixture of Skuas and a few of the new Fairey Fulmar fighters. Many of the squadron's pilots had never made a carrier landing before, some had never seen a carrier! Their first flight out to the Illustrious was not a success, one Skua (L2965) being lost while attempting to land (crew rescued) and another three Skuas force-landed on fields and roads onshore when their fuel ran out. One source suggests a second Skua was also lost during this incident.¹ The squadron had to spend a few more days training before going back onto the carrier for her shakedown cruise.
This first cruise was to the Western Atlantic and the island of Bermuda. The opportunity being taken to test the island's response to air-attacks (there were fears that the German aircraft carrier "Graf Zeppelin" could be used for such a strike on Bermuda). On Sunday, 7th July, Illustrious was anchored off the island, but a stiff wind over the flight deck gave the opportunity to launch a training flight of Swordfish, five Skuas and two Fulmars. The aim was for the Swordfish and Skuas to carry out dummy attacks on Bermuda's harbour, with the Fulmars trying to intercept them. Unfortunately, the wind then dropped, and the aircraft did not have enough fuel to wait for the carrier to build up steam. Since there was no airfield on Bermuda there was no option but for the aircraft to attempt to land back on the carrier. The Swordfish, with their lower landing speed, managed to land okay. The Fulmars also landed okay because of their strong, new arrestor hooks. The Skuas did not fare so well; of the five Skuas aloft, one succeeded in landing safely, one (L2904) had its landing hook torn off and managed to get back into the air, it then crash-landed on a golf course on Bermuda. Two Skuas rammed the carrier's "island", one of them (L3011 "A") carried on to stop 5 metres short of the edge of the flight-deck. Only one Skua (L3012 "K") , flown by Sub Lt Eric Buttle, was lost overboard. There were no casualties and all the Skuas were recovered to be returned to service or stripped for spare parts. There has been a suggestion that the failure of the Skua's arrestor hooks was due to them being old ones, recycled from Blackburn Shark biplanes. There would seem to have been no warning given to the Skua pilots that the wind had dropped, and they made their approaches assuming there was still a headwind over the carrier deck (an account by one of the Fulmar pilots in the book "Skua!" by Peter C. Smith confirms he had no warning and carried out a normal approach).
Thus the lurid reports that the whole squadron had been "wiped-out" has no basis. Only four aircraft were damaged and only one of those actually ended up in the water. Enough Skuas remained for the squadron to carry on training flights on the way back to the UK. On the 18th July Skua L2914 crashed during a practice interception of a Swordfish torpedo-bomber, with the loss of the Pilot Lt Peter Dean and his Gunner, Naval Airman Kenneth Jones. This loss would have been much more keenly felt than the damage to the four Skuas on the 7th July. When the Illustrious returned to the UK the squadron was given replacement Fulmar fighters, but the Illustrious still had 6 Skuas onboard when it sailed for the Mediterranean. Those Skuas were off-loaded in Egypt. Two of those went on to be briefly used on board the carrier HMS Eagle.
HMS Illustrious would go on to to win fame for the attack on Taranto that crippled the Italian fleet and 806 Squadron would go on to be the top-scoring fighter squadron of the Royal Navy in WW2.
¹ In the book "806 Naval Air Squadron" (see sources below) there are accounts of two losses that day. Skua L2945, flown by Sub-Lt Ivan Lowe, had an engine failure on final approach and had to ditch short of the flightdeck. Another account, attributed to Lt Vincent-Jones, says another aircraft, flown by Sub-Lt Buttle of 806 Squadron (who was later to be the only pilot to end up in Bermuda harbour), carrying the luggage of many of the other 806 Squadron pilots, also apparently crashed into the sea. But no serial number of the aircraft concerned is noted and its not clear if it was a Skua, Fulmar or Swordfish.
"Wings Over Bermuda: 100 Years of Aviation in the West Atlantic" by Ewan Partridge & Tom Singfield. National Museum of Bermuda Press 2014, ISBN 978-1-927750-32-2. The book has much more detail than on this webpage with an additional picture of L3012 in the water. Highly recommended.
"Skua! The Royal Navy's Dive-Bomber" by Peter C. Smith, published by Pen & Sword 2006, ISBN 1-84415-455-6 The book presents the myth and then demolishes it by presenting the true facts. This seems to have caught out a few casual "skim-readers" who have not bothered to read the full account and assumed the "myth" to be true.
"Fleet Air Arm Camouflage and Markings" by Stuart Lloyd has a large-format photo (page125) of L3011 "A" with its hook torn off, just short of the edge of the carrier's flight-deck.
"806 Naval Air Squadron" By Brian Cull and Frederick Galea, published by Fonthill media 2019, ISBN 978-1-78155-750-1. Has a short account of the events, along with the photo of L3012 in the water and L3011 "A" on the flight-deck (but in a smaller format).
Photographs of L3012 in the water and being hoisted back onto the Illustrious were taken by the carrier's photographer (there was a full darkroom on the carrier for developing reconnaissance photos). Copies of these were then sold to the crew as souvenirs. The photo above was forwarded to me by Rita Freeman, who had two brothers who both served on HMS Illustrious.
Flight Safety Network entry for Skua L2914.