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VAN STOCKUM: My Marine Corps Journal 1937-42, Part 26: A hazardous mission: Spitfires in Relief of Malta

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By Ron Van Stockum

April 22, 1942

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The Wasp’s second “campaign” is nearly over – the “Battle of the Mediterranean,” the first having been our “conquest” of Martinique. [An attempt at jest]

The morning of 19th we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar on my mid watch. The lights of Tangier and Ceuta were illuminating the African shore, but the Gibraltar side was blacked out except for navigational lights.

As we headed East in the “Roman Lake” we were in condition one in the gunnery department with all batteries manned. I spent nearly all daylight hours in sky control either as control officer or standing by. We had occasional radar contacts at 25 to 30 miles, those planes, which came in sight proving to be British fleet air arm craft – Sunderlands, Catalinas, and Hudsons. It was not hot as we had expected it to be but we in sky control were able to shed our shirts and soak up a little sunshine. All planes picked up by radar [We had only recently installed RADAR] were tracked on our plotting board and we found this warning excellent.

Launching 47 Spitfires for Malta

Our big day was the 20th. At dawn we launched an eleven plane combat patrol [Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters] and followed this by launching the 47 Spitfires. It took an hour and a quarter for this latter job, excellent time considering the long run necessary and the fact that the pilots had not before been launched from a carrier. Two or three Spits nearly went into the water upon taking the air but managed to build up sufficient flying speed to climb back up. [Hazardous, indeed!]

We then speeded up to 23 knots and started our run to get out of the danger zone. Our gun watches were similar to those of the day before, excitement being caused by apparent “snoopers” which radar discovered circling the ship just outside our vision. At one time a plane identified by the lookout officer as a JU 88 dropped out of the clouds only to disappear before it could be intercepted. [Highly effective twin-engine bomber by Junkers, with both level and dive-bombing capabilities] Contact reports by our enemies were intercepted and we realized that our presence was probably known. We were in very great danger of air attack but none developed fortunately. We were all disappointed that we couldn’t shoot at something – especially the gun crews whose morale was very high those two days in the Mediterranean

The morning of the 21st we passed again into the comparative safety of the Atlantic. So many subs had been reported in the area that we were indeed fortunate that we were not torpedoed as we entered the bottleneck at Gibraltar. Our closest approach to Malta was about 500 miles and to Sardinia about half that distance.

Our mission was accomplished in a most satisfying manner. In waters dominated by Axis aircraft and thick with subs we did our job as if it were routine. The fact that it was done in such secrecy that we were not attacked was to those of us who have not seen battle a disappointment. But certainly it is better to bring our ship back undamaged with all our crew intact. [A tribute to my nemesis, Wasp’s Captain “Black Jack” Reeves.]

British planning was excellent. Destroyer screens were changed outside Gib. to allow refueling. Shore based aircraft were with us almost the entire trip. The whole thing had the precision of clockwork. The ships that accompanied us in various legs of our trip were Renown, Cairo, Charybdis and the destroyers Lang and Madison, U.S. and Echo, Inglefield, Partridge, Wrestler, Antelope, Vidette, Wishart, Wescott, Gayret, H.M.S [British]. We are taking back to Scapa nine swordfish torpedo planes, which flew aboard from Gib. and one corpse of an R. A. F. mechanic who had his skull cleaved in two by a Spit propeller. [The Swordfish, a biplane torpedo bomber, while obsolescent, achieved some spectacular successes during the war. Several carrier-based Swordfish sank one Italian battleship and damaged two others during the Battle of Taranto November 11-12 1940. On May 26, 1941 Swordfish jammed the German super-battleship Bismarck’s rudders in a turning position, preventing her escape.

One can appreciate the courage of the Swordfish pilots, flying a long straight course at low speed, only 100 feet above the water, in the face of Bismarck’s anti-aircraft and 15-inch turret guns.]

[Here I had pasted entries from the Wasp’s Plan of the Day for April 22, which quoted congratulatory dispatches, including the following one from Malta:

“Malta was raided Monday [20 April] by 306 bombers escorted by fighters. Some of the Spitfires which were delivered by the WASP were in action three hours after their arrival and aided in destroying seven bombers and four fighters certain, three bombers one fighter probable and damaging nine bombers and one fighter.”]

April 24, 1942

From Gib we headed due west for about a day and a half before turning to 000˚ on the 19th meridian. The idea of this was, I suppose, to avoid approaching too close to the French coast and the German airfields there. We now have just four destroyers and the Cairo with us.

April 27, 1942

We anchored in Scapa Flow at 1740 yesterday having come around Ireland and up the inland passage to the West of Scotland. I had nine hours’ sleep last night, my first real rest in two weeks.

Movie star Lt. (j.g.) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. joins our crew

April 29, 1942

Last night Captain Hall, chief of staff of com task force 39 moved aboard, bringing his aide, Lt. (j.g.) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This morning at 0830 we got underway quietly with three destroyers, fired a couple of gunnery practices, and headed south along the West coast of Scotland. Since we have only fighters on board, it looks like another ferry trip, probably to Malta.

Doug Fairbanks sits one chair removed from me at the dinner table [We were seated in the officers’ wardroom by rank] and has proven to be a very interesting person to listen to. He has traveled extensively and on account of his fame and popularity, has had access to the people who are running this Big Show. He has therefore a wealth of information and most of us at his table stay after the meal to hear what he has to say. [I didn’t have the temerity to ask him about “Green Hell,” a lavish 1940 movie in which he starred with Joan Bennett. It was filmed with a background stage setting of a jungle, elaborate, but obvious and had turned out to be a disaster.]

April 30, 1942

Yes! Here we are back at King George pier in Port of Glasgow with twelve Spitfires already on board.

Will Fyfe, Scottish comedian

May 1, 1942

I fear that we will get underway in the morning and thereby deprive my section of any shore leave this trip. I have been ashore once in the last six weeks and would like to get away from my job for at least a few hours. Doug Fairbanks has persuaded his friend, Will Fyfe, the famous Scottish comedian to come over from Glasgow to entertain us. As soon as a very mediocre movie is over, I shall go up to the hangar deck to watch the performance. [In those days, before TV and the Internet, the principal amusement at sea was watching movies every night. They were frequently exchanged by ships at sea, which came closely enough along side to throw over a carrying line.]

Later

Will Fyfe was just the man I expected him to be – serious and determined regarding the War but with an eye to the lighter side. After the performance I sat next to him in the wardroom while Doug Fairbanks pumped him for stories. [He and Fairbanks had starred in “Rulers of the Sea,” a 1939 American historical drama.]

Next: Pilot Officer Jerrold (Jerry) Alpine Smith, Lands his Spitfire on Wasp, without a Hook!

In addition to his numerous columns and magazine articles, Brig. Gen. Ron Van Stockum has published five books, including Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers. Copies can be obtained by contacting him at ronvanstockum@mac.com.