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HMS Eagle (pennant number 94) was an aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy. It was laid down prior to the First World War as the Battleship Almirante Cochrane for Chilemarker. In 1917 she was purchased by Britain for conversion to a through-deck aircraft carrier, being commissioned in 1924.

Eagle remained in service at the outbreak of the Second World War, serving mainly in the Mediterranean, where she was took part in escorting several convoys to Maltamarker, and in delivering fighter aircraft to Malta to boost its air defences. Eagle was torpedoed and sunk by the German U-boat U-73 on 11 August 1942, while part of the escort to a convoy to Malta, (Operation Pedestal).

History

Construction and Conversion

In 1911, the Chilean Navy ordered two 28,000 ton displacement Super-dreadnought Battleships, each to be armed with ten 14 inch (356 mm) and sixteen 6 inch (152 mm) guns, to be named Almirante Latorre and Almirante Cochrane. Latorre was laid down in November 1911, with Almirante Cochrane being laid down at the Armstrong yards at Newcastle-on-Tynemarker on 20 February 1913. On the outbreak of the First World War, construction of the two ships was suspended. As Almirante Latorre was almost complete, she was purchased for the Royal Navy, entering service as HMS Canada in 1915. Construction of Almirante Cochrane was much less advanced, and no work was carried out until 1917, when the British decided to complete her as an Aircraft Carrier for the Royal Navy. She was therefore purchased from Chile at a cost of £1.3 million, to be converted into the carrier HMS Eagle. She was the fourteenth ship to bear that name.

Her initial redesign was as a base for seaplane operations. After trials with other ships the design was changed to a proper fleet carrier with a full flight deck and 'island'. She was launched on 8 June 1918 but the delays meant that the Eagle was unfinished at the end of hostilities. Construction was slowed by Industrial action following the end of the war, and was suspended in October 1919 as Chile wanted to repurchase the ship and have it re-converted to a Battleship. The Royal Navy's need to carry out trials with a carrier fitted with an Island meant that construction was resumed in November, carrying out sea trials and initial flying trials in February 1920. It was then sent to Devonport dockyardmarker for completion, with its machinery being converted from part-coal burning to all oil burning, a much longer Island being fitted and Anti-torpedo bulges added, finally being commissioned on 26 February 1924.

Service between the wars

The first large through-deck aircraft carrier to join the Royal Navy, Eagle was sent to the Mediterraneanmarker serving in the Mediterranean Fleet from 1924 until 1931, when it was returned to the United Kingdom for a major Refit, being fitted with new boilers as well as arrester gear and improved anti-aircraft armament.

In 1928 while she lay at Gibraltarmarker she was the site of two high-profile court martials, when Captain Kenneth Dewar and Commander H.M. Daniel were tried for subverting discipline in what became known as the "Royal Oakmarker Mutiny". The pair were tried separately in Hangar Deck "A".

Following the refit, in 1933 Eagle was sent to the Far East, serving on the China Station throughout 1934, with its aircraft being deployed against against Pirate ships and their bases before returning to the Mediterranean in 1935. It was sent back to the Far East in 1937, remaining there until the outbreak of the Second World War.

World War II

1939-41

In September 1939 the Eagle was based at Singaporemarker with an air wing consisting of two squadrons (813 Naval Air Squadron and 823 Naval Air Squadron) equipped with a total of eighteen Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. Her first offensive action of the war was as part of the hunt for the Admiral Graf Speemarker. She began 1940 in the Indian Oceanmarker, but on 14 March, a bomb accidentally exploded while being fitted with a fuse, killing thirteen. After repairs she joined the major units Malaya, Ramillies, Royal Sovereign and Warspite in the eastern Mediterranean at Alexandriamarker in May.

In early July, the Mediterranean Fleet, including Eagle carried out operations to protect convoys sailing to and from Malta. On 9 July she was part of an ineffectual clash with the Italian fleet at Calabriamarker, sometimes called the Battle of Punta Stilo. On 10 July, Eagle's Swordfishes attacked Augustamarker habour in Sicily, torpedoing the Italian destroyer Leone Pancaldo. In between sailings of Eagle, her Swordfishes operated from shore bases against Tobrukmarker, an attack on 5 July sinking the destroyer Zeffiro and a merchantmen, with a similar attack two weeks later (20 July) sank another two destroyers.

On 22 August her aircraft attacked and sank the submarine Iride and the depot ship Monte Gargano in the Gulf of Bomba. In September she joined the carrier HMS Illustrious as part of Operation Hats, and supported an attack on Maritza, Rhodesmarker.

In mid-October she was part of the cover for a Maltamarker convoy (MB-6), being damaged by near misses. Her aircraft flew from Illustrious during the attack on Tarantomarker (Operation Judgementmarker, on 11 November), the damaged Eagle remained in Alexandria. On the 26th her aircraft attacked Tripolimarker, damaging a freighter.

In March 1941 she was assigned to Freetownmarker. Her aircraft, flying from Port Sudanmarker, attacked Italian ships at Massawamarker en route. She arrived at Freetown in early May, carrying out patrols in the South Atlantic searching for German raiders and supply ships. In October 1941 she returned to Britain for a refit at Cammell Laird shipyard, Birkenheadmarker, this continuing until January 1942.

She returned to Britain for a refit and rejoined the Mediterranean Fleet early in 1942. In February 1942 she carried aircraft for Malta, an operation repeated in May and twice in June. In June she also provided air cover for the convoy of Operation Harpoonmarker (12th to 16th).

Role in the Battle of Malta

HMS Eagle played a pivotal role in the Battle of Malta and was one of two aircraft carriers lost in the defense of the island, the other being . Together with , she was involved in the crucial resupply of Malta's dwindling fighter force, mostly Mark II Hurricanes, pitted against much larger Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe fighter and bomber forces, 90 miles to the north in Sicily.

The success of the cruisers of Force K, along with Tenth Flotilla submarines and a specially adapted force of Wellingtons and Beauforts in Malta forced Hitler to order sixty-five U-boats to leave the North Atlantic for the Mediterranean. An entire airforce, one of three surrounding a beleaguered Moscow (Luftflotte II, under Kesselring) was also diverted from the Eastern Front to Sicily. It was the sinking of the entire Duisburg convoymarker (consisting of seven ships) by Force K on the 8th November 1941, that pushed Hitler into making this fateful decision.

"The decisions taken by Hitler and the OKW in Berlin to move Luftflotte II to Sicily and large numbers of U-boats to the Mediterranean were of profound psychological, as well as material, significance. Hitler on this occasion, was reacting to an Allied success; he was taking a counter-move. For the first time since invading Poland on 1 September 1939, he was dancing to the Allies' tune. A faint light was appearing at the end of a long dark tunnel."


Unbeknownst to the Germans and Italians, their Enigma (C38) ciphers had long since been compromised by Ultra. Forewarned with precise information as to the location, time of departure and intended destination of Axis convoys, the Allies were able to inflict maximum losses while keeping the enemy guessing as to the source of their intelligence. Thus was Rommel denied the critical supplies needed to maintain the momentum of his North African campaign. Such was the quality of the intelligence streaming in from Hut 10 Bletchley Parkmarker, that in Malta, only Gort and Cunningham were privy to its secrets.

The first two attempts to augment Malta's air defenses with more capable fighters involved small groups of Spitfires from 249 Squadron, flown off HMS Eagle on 7 and 31 March 1942.

The third attempt involved the USS Wasp, which left Port Glasgow for Algiers on 15 April, and by the 20th she was within range of Malta. Early that morning, 47 Mark V Spitfires fitted with special auxiliary tanks took off, arriving a few hours later when an air raid was in progress. By the 23rd April all were either destroyed or unserviceable - 300 sorties of JU87s, JU88s, and Me109s having been launched between the 20th and 23rd. Takali (Ta' Qali), Hal Far and Luqa Aerodromes received over 500 tons of high explosive between them.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, realising that Malta would fall unless further action was taken, once again took matters into his own hands.

"Churchill personally telephoned the American President F.D. Roosevelt and again requested to borrow their aircraft-carrier Wasp. With the President's immediate agreement, arrangements were made for Wasp and the Royal Navy aircraft-carrier HMS Eagle to sail together towards Malta with a total of sixty-four Spitfires either packed inside or crowding their decks."

This time, in an effort to avoid being caught on the ground the aircraft were rearmed and refueled within minutes of landing, taking off again immediately to face their adversaries in the air.

Allied air superiority was regained on 10 May 1942 following the fourth launch, facing an enemy front line force of around 600 aircraft. This contributed to the decision to postpone and ultimately cancel the Axis invasion plans for Malta. Thanks in part to Eagle, the island was now relatively free from the incessant bombing that had reduced the ancient capital and port areas to rubble. However by this time, Malta's offensive capability had been almost completely neutralised, with only one hit being scored, probably on the Reginaldo Giuliani (5,000 tons) by a Wellington, on 5 June. The cruisers of Force K and submarines of Tenth Flotilla had by now retreated to the safer waters of the Middle East, but, with the food situation critical, resupply was necessary to avoid capitulation.

In June 1942, Eagle provided air cover for another convoy, Operation Harpoonmarker, one of two (the other being Operation Vigorous) that departed for Malta simultaneously, but from opposite directions. The idea to split up the Italian navy was a good one, but it was the Luftwaffe who succeeded in preventing Operation Vigorous from reaching Malta. Her escorts, having expended nearly all their anti-aircraft ammunition and with barely half the journey completed returned to Alexandria (though it was known, through Ultra, that the Italian fleet was steaming back to Taranto). The ships of Operation Harpoon were also subject to heavy air attack, and although Eagle's Hurricanes managed to disrupt many attacks, claiming nine aircraft destroyed and a further two probably destroyed, the convoy was subject to surface attack after the covering force (including Eagle) withdrew. Only two merchant ships out of a total of six that left Gibraltar, Troilus and Orari, slipped through the net to reach Malta. Together they delivered 25,000 tons of supplies, enabling the island to fight on for another two months.

On 5 June 1942, the last of two preconditions for the return of the submarines of Tenth Flotilla was met. With fresh supplies, the Royal Navy could now guarantee that the sea approaches to Grand Harbour were reasonably free of mines. The other condition, the regaining of air superiority, had already been met on 10 May. Malta's final reprieve however, did not come until 15 August, with the conclusion of Operation Pedestal.

Eagle was one of three carriers tasked with covering Pedestal, the other two being and . On the early morning of 11 August, a day after the convoy entered the Mediterranean, Eagle was hit by four torpedoes from U-73 commanded by Helmut Rosenbaum and sank 70 nm south of Cape Salinas at position
, four minutes after being hit. A total of 160 officers and men, mainly from the ship's machinery rooms, were lost in the sinking along with sixteen Sea Hurricanes.


U-73 herself was sunk by surface ships on 16 December 1943.

By the end of October 1942, Malta had received a total of 367 Spitfires, mostly from the decks of Wasp and Eagle. Operation Pedestal, in particular the offloading of crucial supplies on SS Ohio as she lay scuttled in Grand Harbour, became a powerful symbol of independence in Malta.

Notes

  1. Archibald 1971, pp.77-79.
  2. Purnell 1978-79,p.91.
  3. Gardiner and Gray 1985, p.70.
  4. Purnell 1978-79,p.808.
  5. Brown 1972, p.14.
  6. Brown 1977, p.36.
  7. Brown 1972, pp.14-15.
  8. Brown 1972, pp.15-16.
  9. Brown 1972, p.15.
  10. Brown 1972,p.16.
  11. Spooner,1996, p.3
  12. Spooner, 1996, p.294
  13. Spooner, 1996, p.82
  14. Spooner, 1996, p.81
  15. Douglas Hamilton, 1981, pp. 31-38.
  16. Douglas Hamilton, 1981, pp. 31-38
  17. Spooner, 1996, p.121
  18. Douglas-Hamilton, 1981, p.51
  19. Spooner, 1996, p.153
  20. Spooner, 1996, pp.145-153
  21. Brown 1972, p.20.
  22. Spooner, 1996, pp. 155, 159-160
  23. Spooner, 1996, p.206
  24. Spooner, 1996, p.339
  25. Spooner, 1996, p.145


References

  • Archibald, E.H.H. The Metal Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy 1860-1970. London:Blandford Press, 1971. ISBN 0 7137 0551 5.
  • Brown, David. Carrier Air Groups: HMS Eagle:Volume 1. Windsor, UK:Hylton Lacy, 1972. ISBN 85064 103 9.
  • Brown, David. World War 2 Fact Files: Aircraft Carriers. London:Macdonald and Jane's, 1977. ISBN 0 354 010008 5.
  • Chesneau, Roger. Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Brockhamton Press, 1998. ISBN 1 86019 87 5 9.
  • Douglas Hamilton, James The Air Battle for Malta, Airlife Publishing Ltd, 1981, ISBN 1-84037-145-5 .
  • Gardiner, Robert and Gray, Randal (editors). Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships 1906-1921. London:Conway Maritime Press, 1985. ISBN 0 85177 245 2.
  • Spooner, Tony. Supreme Gallantry. John Murray, 1996, ISBN 0-7195-5706-2
  • Purnell's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Modern Weapons and Warfare (Part work 1978-1979). London : Phoebus.


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