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HMS Victorious During Operation Pedestal

HMS Victorious During Operation Pedestal

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HMS Victorious was commissioned in early 1941,2 years into world war two and straight away was in the thick of the fighting.

Just two weeks after being commissioned in 1941 Victorious went after the hunt for the battleship Bismarck that was trying to break out in the North Atlantic. Shecwas originally intended to be part of the escort for a Convoy going to the Middle East, she was barely ready for the hunt for Bismarck as she only had a quarter of her aircraft on board. She was hastily deployed along with the battleship HMS King George V, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse and 4 light cruisers.

On 24 May 1941, Victorious launched nine of her biplane Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber aircraft under the command of Eugene Esmonde,they flew through bad weather and attacked Bismarck in the face of huge AA fire from anti-aircraft guns managing to score a hit to the armoured belt with a torpedo. No aircraft were shot down during the attack, HMS Ark Royal then came along and disabled Bismarck’s steering gear which would lead to her sinking three days later.

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In early June 1941, while part of the escort for troop convoy WS 8X, a Swordfish of 825 Squadron from Victorious located the German supply ship Gonzenheim north of the Azores. Gonzenheim had been intended to support Bismarck on her mission but was scuttled after the sighting as British warships approached her.

On the 5th of June, Victorious was detached to Gibraltar along with Ark Royal and a naval escort to take part in Operation Tracer to take Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft to reinforce the besieged British Mediterranean base of Malta. Victorious would then return to Scapa Flow with the captured crewmen from the sunk supply ship Gonzenheim.

Next in late July 1941, she escorted HMS Adventure via the Arctic to Murmansk with a load of mines for a mining operation.

On the 31st of July she then took part in the raid on Kirkenes and Petsamo to attack merchant vessels in the northern Norwegian port of Kirkenes and the north Finnish port of Liinakhamari in Petsamo, she lost thirteen of her aircraft.

At the end of August, Victorious escorted the first Allied convoy to Archangel (Operation Dervish) in company with a force of cruisers and destroyers, and then covered the return passage of HMS Argus, which had delivered Hurricane fighters to Murmansk in a supply mission to the Soviet Union. During early September, she launched more air attacks against Tromsø twice then against Vestfjorden, and against shipping off Bodø. Then on the 13th of September, aircraft from Victorious sank the Norwegian Hurtigruten coastal steamer Barøy giving her a very successful mission.

In October 1941, decrypted German Enigma signals indicated a break-out into the Atlantic by the German warships Scheer and Tirpitz sister of the Bismarck. Victorious went with the Home Fleet to intercept them, this included a joint patrol in the Denmark Strait with battleships HMS King George V, USS Idaho, and USS Mississippi, and cruisers USS Wichita and USS Tuscaloosa. This was controversial as this joint Anglo-American operation was before there was a formal state of war between the United States and Germany. This continued until mid-November, when Hitler cancelled the German operation because of the defeat Bismarck suffered. Victorious then continued to sail with the Home Fleet until March 1942.

Victorious then returned to Arctic Convoy escort in March and April 1942, helping to provide air cover for convoys PQ 12, QP 8, PQ 13, QP 9, PQ 14, and QP 10. During these operations, she also made an unsuccessful air strike on the Tirpitz where she lost two aircraft. From the end of April, until June, Anglo-American forces which included the US ships Washington, Tuscaloosa, and Wichita) covered convoys PQ 16, QP 12, PQ 17, and QP 13, after the escorts Victorious returned to Scapa Flow. Victorious went on other duties as the Arctic convoys had been suspended after the heavy losses suffered by Convoy PQ 17 when twenty-three out of thirty-six ships were sunk after the convoy had been scattered in the belief that an attack was imminent by the battleship Tirpitz.

The suspension of the Arctic convoys released Victorious to take part in a massive desperate attempt to resupply Malta called Operation Pedestal. The Malta bound Convoy departed Britain on 3 August 1942 escorted by Victorious with HMS Nelson and cruisers Nigeria, Kenya and Manchester, The aircraft carriers HMS Indomitable, Furious, Eagle and Argus, along with 32 destroyers.

Operation Pedestal began on the 10th of August 1942, the carriers were also transporting aircraft for Malta’s defence and fourteen merchant ships carrying supplies. On the 12th of August 1942 Victorious was slightly damaged by an attack from Italian bombers. Eagle was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat on her return journey to Gibraltar. Even though the convoy suffered losses Pedestal was a success for the allies supplies, including oil and reinforcing Supermarine Spitfires allowed Malta to hold out, at the heavy cost of the loss of nine merchant ships, one aircraft carrier, two cruisers, and a destroyer.

She left for Scapa Flow on the 18th of November and, while en route, Fairey Albacores from Victorious depth charged U-517 off Cape Finisterre damaging her so bad the she was scuttled by the surviving crew

Victorious was on the way to take part in the landings in North Africa. Operation Torch, which involved 196 ships of the Royal Navy and 105 of the United States Navy which landed about 107,000 Allied soldiers. Ultimately successful, it was mainly a launching pad for the invasion of Sicily, Italy and France. Victorious provided air cover during the landings and made air attacks at Algiers and Fort Duree. Four of her Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters landed at Blida airfield to accept its surrender.

In 1943 Victorious had her name changed for a short time as she was loaned to the US Navy and named USS Robin as USS Hornet was sunk and USS Enterprise was badly damaged at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, leaving the United States Navy with only one fleet carrier, USS Saratoga that was operational in the Pacific. Victorious was loaned to the US Navy after an American plea for a carrier reinforcement. After a refit in the United States at the Norfolk Navy Yard in January 1943 and the addition of Avenger aircraft, Victorious operated with the United States forces in the Pacific.

Victorious arrived at Pearl Harbor in March 1943 and was fitted with heavier arrestor wires as RN wires had proved too light for the Grumman Avenger aircraft she was also given additional AA guns. She sailed for the south-west Pacific, arriving at Nouméa, New Caledonia, on 17 May to form Carrier Division 1 with USS Saratoga. She sortied immediately for a week with Task Force 14, including Saratoga and battleships North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Indiana, sweeping against reported Japanese fleet activity, but without contact. Six aircraft were lost to accidents. Rear Admiral DeWitt Ramsey, commanding the division, carried out evaluation exercises and patrol sweeps in June and determined that Victorious had superior fighter control but handled Avenger aircraft poorly because of their weight. Victorious’s primary role was fighter cover and Saratoga mainly handled strikes. On 27 June, TF14 was redesignated Task Group 36.3 and sailed to provide cover for the invasion of New Georgia (part of Operation Cartwheel). Victorious spent the next 28 days continuously in combat operations at sea, a record for a British carrier, steaming 12,223 miles and launching 614 sorties. Returning to Nouméa on 25 July, Victorious was recalled home. Though the Japanese had four carriers to Ramsey’s two, it seemed clear that they were not intending to press their advantage and the first two carriers of the new Essex-class had arrived at Pearl Harbor well ahead of schedule. Victorious left for Pearl Harbor on 31 July, leaving behind her Avengers as replacements for Saratoga, sailing in company with battleship Indiana and launching 165 anti submarine sweeps. She also carried US pilots finishing their tours as well as two Japanese POWs. Specialized US equipment was removed and she returned home, she arrived at Greenock on the Clyde on 26 September 1943.

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At the end of March 1944, Victorious with Anson and Duke of York formed Force 1, covering the passage of Convoy JW 58. On 2 April 1944, Force 1 joined with Force 2, composed of the aging carrier HMS Furious and the escort carriers HMS Emperor, Fencer, Pursuer, and Searcher as well as numerous cruisers and destroyers. The combined force launched an attack on the battleship Tirpitz in Altafjord, Norway. Barracudas in two waves, hit the battleship fourteen times and strafing the ship’s defences killing many sailors. Near misses caused flooding and there was serious damage to the superstructure, and the attack put Tirpitz out of action for several months. The Task Force then returned to Scapa Flow three days later.

In June 1944, Victorious, in company with HMS Indomitable, left British waters to join the Eastern Fleet at Colombo where she arrived on the 5th of July. The Eastern Fleet was now being reinforced with ships released from the Atlantic and Mediterranean, in preparation for offensive action against the Japanese. Victorious took part in a sequence of air attacks against Japanese installations. The first was Operation Crimson on 25 July, a joint attack with HMS Illustrious on airfields near Sabang in Sumatra. In late August, she provided air cover for Eastern Fleet ships that were providing air-sea rescue facilities for US Army aircraft during air attacks on Sumatra. On the 29th of August, in company with HMS Illustrious and Indomitable and escorted by HMS Howe, Victorious made air strikes on Padang, Indaroeng and Emmahaven. After a short pause, on 18 September, Victorious and Indomitable attacked railway yards at Sigli in Sumatra.

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At the end of September, Victorious had a short interval at Bombay for repairs to its steering gear. She would then rejoin the Eastern Fleet on the 6th of October. The next operation was her last in the Eastern Fleet. On the 17th of October she launched attacks on the Nicobar Islands and Nancowry harbour, with HMS Indomitable and escorted by HMS Renown. Enemy air attacks destroyed four aircraft and damaged five more. During early November, Victorious returned to Bombay for more work on her steering as more problems had arisen during the attacks.

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The British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was formed on the 22nd of November 1944 from elements of the Eastern Fleet and Victorious was transferred to this new fleet. From November 1944 until January 1945 the BPF stayed in the Indian Ocean, training and gaining experience that they would need when working with the United States Navy. Victorious, however, remained under repair at Bombay until January 1945

In early January 1945, she was available for Operation Lentil, a repeat raid on the oil refineries at Pangkalan Brandan with HMS Indomitable and HMS Implacable, more raids on Japanese oil and port installations in Sumatra were made on 16 January. By late January she left Ceylon and was en route to her new home base at Sydney. The voyage was interrupted on 24 January for another series of raids, this time on Pladjoe and Manna in south west Sumatra, during which there was little opposition from Japanese aircraft. This was followed on 29 January by unsuccessful attacks on oil installations at Sungai-Gerong. This time, the Japanese attempted air attacks on the British fleet but these were beaten off. The total aircraft losses by all carriers were 16 aircraft in action and another 25 lost by ditching or on landing. Nine Fleet Air Arm pilots from Victorious were captured by the Japanese and were executed in April 1945.

In early February, Victorious joined Task Force 113 at Sydney to prepare for service with the US 5th Fleet. At the end of the month 113 left Sydney for their forward base at Manus Island, north of New Guinea, and then continued, joining the 5th US Fleet at Ulithi on 25 March as Task Force 57 to support the American assault on Okinawa. The task allocated to the British force was to neutralise airfields in the Sakishima Gunto. From late March until 25 May, the British carriers Victorious, Illustrious, Indefatigable and Indomitable formed the 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Philip Vian and they were in action against airfields on the Sakishima Islands.

The British carriers were attacked by kamikazes and Victorious was hit on the 4th and 9th of May and near-misses on 1 April, but her armoured flight deck resisted crashes. She remained on station and was back in operation within hours on each occasion despite the damage, Three men were killed and 19 of the ship’s company were injured.

After May 1945 the British Pacific Fleet withdrew to Sydney and Manus for refits and repairs. The British fleet rendezvoused with the US 3rd Fleet on 16 July and became effectively absorbed into the American to destroy resistance within their home islands.

During the second half of July, aircraft from Victorious took part in a series of attacks on Japanese shipping, transport and air bases on Honshu and around the Inland Sea. In one notable attack in July, aircraft of 849 Squadron from Victorious located the Japanese escort carrier Kaiyo at Beppu Bay in Kyūshū and attacked her, inflicting serious damage that kept the ship out of the remainder of the war. However, British aircraft were excluded from the actions against the major Japanese naval bases as the Americans, for political reasons, preferred to reserve these targets for themselves.

On the 15th of August Japan surrendered so HMS Victorious went back to Sydney and on the 31st of August, Victorious’s ship’s company took part in the Victory Parade in Sydney.

HMS Victorious would go on to have several major upgrades after the war, some lasting up to 8 years as technology was so fast in the 50s and 60s,she would be decommissioned in 1969 after a long career spanning decades.

Her battle honours include…..

The Bismarck Action 1941 – Norway 1941–42 – Arctic 1941–42 – Malta Convoys 1942 – Biscay 1942 – Sabang 1944 – Palembang 1945 – Okinawa 1945 – Japan 1945

HMS Victorious During Operation Pedestal Written by Harry Gillespie