Operation ‘Pedestal’ properly speaking began for INDOMITABLE at KILINDINI on 22nd June, when orders were received to embark as many Hurricanes as possible and arrive at Freetown on 28th July.
2. The ship was equipped at the time with three fighter squadrons – 880 Hurricanes, 800 Fulmars and 806 Fulmars. Half the latter were embarked in ILLUSTRIOUS then in Ceylon. It was decided, owing to the difficulty of getting Hurricanes and particularly spares, to re-equip 800 with Hurricanes and 806 with Martlets, eleven of which were available. This allowed a total force of 24 Hurricanes and 10 Martlets. The squadrons were disembarked to TANGA and intensive training commenced.
3. The ship sailed from KILINDINI on 9th July (LAFOREY – D. 19, LIGHTNING and LOOKOUT in company) and although only one pilot of 806 had ever deck landed a Martlet and none of 800 had ever deck landed a Hurricane, all the 35 fighter aircraft except one got on board safely.
4. During the passage D.L.T. was carried out, followed by daily training in interception exercises, formation flying and air firing at sleeve targets. A Martlet was disembarked during the short stops at DURBAN, CAPE TOWN and FREETOWN for further training but the aerodrome at the latter proved unsuitable owing to the narrow runway. INDOMITABLE with PHOEBE and three “L’s” in company joined the Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers, Home Fleet, in H.M.S. VICTORIOUS on 6th August, by which time the Hurricane squadrons were in good shape, 880 predominating owing to their much greater experience. The Martlets had made remarkable progress considering the youth of the pilots and the short time available to get used to their new machines but were behind the others particularly in co-operation for mutual support, the essence of successful fighter operation.
5. After a series of invaluable exercises with VICTORIOUS and EAGLE (Operation BERSERK), INDOMITABLE, after fuelling at Gibraltar, finally joined the convoy for PEDESTAL at 1300 on D. 1, Monday, 10th August. Nothing worth mentioning occurred on that day.
6. D. 2, Tuesday, 11th August. Two sections of fighters (four in number) were maintained at 12,000 feet over the fleet throughout the day occasionally supplemented by additional sections.
They were engaged almost continuously in endeavouring to intercept snoopers; but since the latter were Ju. 88’ s which are faster than Hurricane I’s only two interceptions took place, one enemy being shot down and the other shot up. Ty. Lieutenant J.G.S. Forrest R.N.V.R. of 880 was hit in the engine when giving the coup de grace … the enemy which was destroyed. He force landed in the sea, but was happily picked up.
An attack was detected coming in just before sunset and … aircraft were flown off to supplement the standing patrol, but by … [the] time that the enemy approached it was too dark for [an] interception … [the] fleet put up a spectacular barrage and the enemy bombs were not … to do any damage. One fell about a cable ahead of INDOMITABLE…. landing on the aircraft during the attack was not practicable … [it was] necessary to wait until the enemy had withdrawn, by which time … [it was] getting dark.
Few of the pilots had any night landing experience and to add to their difficulty were continually fired at by enthusiastic destroyers, when attempting to do so. Further difficulty arose from an unfortunate accident at which occurred during the firing, when a premature [firing] from the after 4.5″ turret severely injured Lieutenant Commander G.M. Pares, R.N., the deck landing officer and smashed the illuminated night landing bats. However, by holding one torch in his mouth and two others in his hands, Lieutenant A.P. Boddam-Whetham, R.N., the second flight deck officer, successfully landed seven of INDOMITABLE’s planes (the eighth crashing on board VICTORIOUS) and also four FULMARS and a HURRICANE, strays from VICTORIOUS. It was a great relief when they were all on board, the last few coming on in pitch darkness and several having less than ten gallons of petrol left.
In addition to her own planes INDOMITABLE landed in the course of the day one Spitfire flown off from FURIOUS and unable, owing to a defect, to proceed to MALTA, and three of EAGLE’s Hurricanes, left in the air when their ship sank. The Spitfire was only slightly damaged.
7. D. 3, Wednesday, 12th August. VICTORIOUS’ aircraft were returned to their ship at first light and four fighters were sent on patrol to 12,000 feet. This number, generally supplemented by four and occasionally eight more were maintained in the air throughout the day. Interceptions were frequent and in the course of the day INDOMITABLE’s fighters accounted for no less than 27 enemy certain, 6 probables and 8 possible, a total of 41. Three main attacks were delivered on the fleet and each attack was supported to an increasing extent by fighters. The first two at 0930 and 1230 respectively were met by VICTORIOUS and INDOMITABLE’s fighters and broken up, only a few enemy machines dropping bombs. Torpedo bombers were only observed by INDOMITABLE in the second attack, and none appeared to endanger the fleet. The third attack which was detected at about 1800 and finally came in at 1830 – 1845 was estimated to be over 100 aircraft strong. INDOMITABLE had 14 aircraft up to meet it. Three of these attacked early and after expending their ammunition landed on. A further four were on the point of being ranged when the ship was attacked by eight Ju. 87’ s. These, appearing suddenly from up sun out of the smoky blue sky which was rendered hazy by funnel gases, delivered their attack before adequate gunfire could be brought to bear and scored three direct hits besides several near misses. Unfortunately the flight deck was put out of action, both lifts being damaged, and the aircraft had to come down on VICTORIOUS. Two made forced landings in the sea, the pilots being picked up.
8. The bombs started two fires, but these were soon under control and within half an hour the situation was in hand and the ship proceeded. Unhappily casualties were severe, the greatest sufferers being the Royal Marine detachment, whose two turrets were wrecked by one of the bombs. Six officers, including one who had been gallantly flying a Hurricane all day, were among the fifty killed and fifty nine seriously wounded by the explosions.
9. In addition to the above the ship sustained the loss of four fighter pilots, two shot down, one missing and one badly wounded in combat who crashed overboard on landing. The latter, Lieutenant R.L. Johnston, R.N., the Commanding Officer of 806, gallantly made the deck, but his hook carried away and he went over the side, nothing more being seen of him. The greatest loss among a gallant band was Lieutenant Commander F.E.C. Judd, R.N., the Commanding Officer of 880 Squadron. A great personality and matchless fighter he had, when he met his fate, three enemy machines to his credit including the Ju. 88 of the previous day. In his passing Naval Aviation has sustained a great loss.
10. So ended a great day. The number of sorties was 74 which is thought to be a record for aircraft carriers and would have been 78 but for the bombing. All the pilots were up twice and some three times – they responded to every call. The men in the hangars and on the flight deck worked without a break for fourteen hours being then called upon to fight the fires and repair the damage from the enemy bombing attack. The fighter direction team of nine closed up at 0530 and secured at 2130 when the last aircraft had landed on VICTORIOUS. The teamwork between VICTORIOUS and INDOMITABLE was one of the outstanding features of a notable day and largely contributed to the fact that when, at 1900, in accordance with plan, the carriers withdrew to the westward, the convoy and its escort was, with the exception of one merchant vessel bombed at 1230, proceeding to its destination unhindered by anything the enemy had been able to do from the air. Fighter carriers had proved their worth.