Document: Formidable, from Commanding Officer, May 26

Report of Proceedings from Commanding Officer, HMS Formidable to Rear Admiral, Mediterranean Aircraft Carriers

ADM 199/810

6 June 1941

HMS Formidable’s operations, 25–27 May 1941

I have the honour to forward the proceedings of H.M. Ship under my command and wearing your Flag for the period of operations Sunday 25th May to Tuesday 27th May, 1941, (attached as Appendix I).

2. The attack on Scarpanto aerodrome at daylight on the 26th May achieved surprise and it is hoped that a number of enemy aircraft were destroyed or damaged.

3. From daylight onwards on Monday 26th May, there were frequent calls for fighters to drive off enemy reconnaissance aircraft. Three of these were shot down.
The small number of fighters available on board made it impossible to answer the above calls and maintain an adequate number in reserve to deal with bombing attacks. As a result, when the main attack developed on the Fleet, only two fighters were in the air and no more were available until after the attack was over.

4. The Fleet was attacked soon after 1300 by a large formation of Ju.88′s and 87′s, accompanied by Messerschmitt fighters. In the course of the attack, about eight aircraft definitely attacked ‘FORMIDABLE’ and the ship was hit twice within a short space of time by large Armour-piercing bombs, once forward on the starboard side and once aft on the starboard side of X.1. turret.
Detailed reports of the damage are being forwarded separately in accordance with Confidential Admiralty Fleet orders 2972/39 and 3376/39.

5. The hit forward caused a large fire in the Fleet Air Arm workshop and severe structural damage from the main deck to Upper Gallery deck between 6 and 24 bulkheads.
The fire was got under control in about 5 to 10 minutes and the ship was unable to maintain her position in the Fleet at 19 knots.

6. The hit aft put X.1 turret out of action, and shook the ship very badly. We were extremely fortunate, however, as the bomb was deflected clear of the ship and exploded in the water under the starboard quarter.

7. A list of the main items of damage is given in Appendix II.

8. The damage control organisation worked well and it is satisfactory to note that all the armament with the exception of X.1 turret which was jambed [sic], was in action very shortly after the ship was hit. ‘A’ group did particularly well under very trying conditions from the heat and smoke of the fire.

9. A number of witnesses state that two of the attacking aircraft were damaged by gunfire and subsequently crashed in the sea.

10. After the attack, fighter patrols were operated until dark but no further contacts with enemy aircraft were made.

11. It is much regretted that there were nine ratings killed and eight wounded as a result of the bombing. Of the latter two subsequently died from wounds received.
Their names are given in Appendix III.

12. I have included in Appendix IV the names of certain officers and men whose services were outstanding. I consider all officers and men did well under trying conditions.

SUNDAY, 25th MAY, 1941

‘Formidable’ proceeded to sea at 1230. Aircraft landed on between 1410 and 1455, ‘Formidable’ with four destroyers acting independently for this, and joining V.A.1 in ‘Queen Elizabeth’, with ‘Barham’, on completion.

2. A/S patrol was maintained until dark. A fighter patrol was kept on deck at readiness until 1800, and then one fighter section in the air until dark.

3. The number of aircraft available for operations was
  7 Albacores.
  8 Swordfish.
  13 Fulmars (one unserviceable after arrival on board).

MONDAY, 26th May, 1941.

4. Seven Albacores were ranged to carry out a dawn bombing attack on the enemy aerodrome on Scarpanto Island, each armed with 4 – 250-lb. G.P. bombs, and 12 – 40-lb. G.P. bombs. One aircraft failed to start, and remainder were flown off at 0330. Half an hour later, one aircraft returned and made an emergency landing due to engine trouble. Another aircraft which had formed up in the first place on the one which had engine trouble, failed to find the rest of the formation. After a prolonged search, he returned and was landed on at 0509.

5. Six Fulmars were then ranged for a front gun attack on enemy aircraft on Scarpanto Island aerodrome. It was intended to fly these off at 0430, but delay was caused by the Albacore’s emergency landing, and later by two Fulmars failing to start. Four Fulmars were flown off at 0500.

6. The Albacores attacked with dive-bombing between 0505 and 0515, the majority of the bombs falling on the Southern and South-Eastern edges of the aerodrome. There was insufficient light for the first aircraft to see any enemy aircraft. A fire was seen to start after the first three aircraft had attacked, and the last aircraft reported having seen one aircraft hit by his bombs, while others were probably damaged by near misses. The destruction of at least two aircraft was confirmed by the observations of the Fulmar aircraft crews later.

7. The Fulmars made their attack at 0545 and found about 15 each JU.87 and CR.42 on the aerodrome. They machine-gunned in a dive along the lines of aircraft which were parked fairly close together. It is estimated that about ten enemy aircraft received damage, and personnel on the ground were also machine-gunned.

8. Very little effective position was offered by the ground defences, though some 6–8 A.A. guns and a similar number of machine-guns were observed firing. All our aircraft returned safely and landed on, T.S.R’s at 0625, and Fulmars at 0655.

9. R.D/F was switched on at 0330 and movements of the Naval aircraft plotted out and back. Between 0330 and daylight, upwards of ten aircraft echoes were plotted in the vicinity of the Fleet. It was presumed that these were R.A.F. bombers returning from raids on Crete, though in not one case was I.F.F. shown.

10. Echoes continued to appear after daylight, so a fighter section was sent up at 0535 to patrol. They were directed towards an echo at 013° 45 miles at 0640, but were withdrawn after proceeding to 20 miles, when the unidentified echo had passed clear to the South-East.

11. At 0700, an echo appeared at 305° 55 miles. Grey section (806 Squadron) was directed and intercepted at 220° 8 miles. The enemy aircraft, a JU.88, was driven off but speed was too great for Fulmars to engage effectively. Grey section leader’s aircraft was slightly damaged by bullets in this combat.

12. At 0733, a relief Fighter Section (White, 806 Squadron) was launched, and was directed on to another enemy reconnaissance aircraft near the Fleet at 0750. They engaged this, a JU.88, and shot it down about 30 miles North of the Fleet.

13. At 0810, Black Section (806 Squadron) was launched, and at 0825 was directed on to an echo at 070° 10 miles which had approached from the Northward. They intercepted this at 0840, and Black 2 (Sub-Lieutenant Sewell) shot it down, a HE.111K. They were directed on to a new echo as they were returning and intercepted this, a JU.88, at 0855. They drove him off to the Northward, and when last seen he was flying very slowly, starboard engine stopped, and petrol apparently leaking from port wing. Black leader (Lieutenant-Commander Garnett) was damaged in the engine cooling system in this encounter, and forced landed in the sea near the Fleet, the crew being recovered unhurt by ‘Hereward’ at 0940, Brown 2 landing on 5 minutes later.

14. Meanwhile, Brown Section (806 Squadron) were launched at 0903. At 0939, they were directed on to an enemy aircraft approaching from 135° 40 miles which they intercepted at 0944, a JU.88. They drove it off and observed some damage to the enemy aircraft.

15. Up to this time, 1000, all enemy aircraft which came near to the Fleet had been intercepted and either shot down or driven off.

16. At 1008, Yellow Section, which had gone up at 0948, was directed towards enemy aircraft which was approaching from the South-Eastward. They failed to intercept, however, and so did Brown Section, which was also directed towards this enemy aircraft. The enemy aircraft sighted the Fleet from the Eastward about 1015 and retired to the North-Westward at 1030.

17. Yellow Section (803 Squadron) was next directed towards an enemy aircraft approaching from 255° 70 miles at 1050, and was very near to it at 1110, without sighting, This enemy aircraft sighted the Fleet from Southward about 1110 and circled round at about 10–15 miles. Grey Section (806 Squadron), which had taken off at 1100, was directed in a favourable position at 1120 and, on being directed, sighted the enemy aircraft, a JU.88, almost immediately. The enemy aircraft turned away and was chased to the North-Eastwards for 10 minutes, but the Fulmars were unable to get nearer than 600 yards from him. As soon as the Fulmars had been shaken off and turned back at 1135, the enemy aircraft also turned round again and approached to within about 20 miles from the Fleet, circling to the Northward. Grey 2, who had not taken part in previous combat owing to dropping astern, was re-directed and sighted the enemy aircraft at 1200, chasing him for 10 minutes, again without effective result.

18. By this time, 1220, Red Section, which had taken off at 1212, was ready to join in and was directed on to the same enemy aircraft which he sighted at 1225. Red Section made a good attack from a favourable position, and the enemy aircraft then retired to the North-West, the Fulmars being landed on at 1310, at which time the only remaining available fighters, Brown Section (806 Squadron), were flown off.

19. From 1240 onwards, an echo had been shewing at 230° 87 miles and by 1253 had started closing towards the Fleet, being estimated as a large group. By 1310, when the ship turned into the wind to fly off the only available section of fighters, the approaching raid was in a number of groups stretching from 30 to 39 miles distant. By this time also, a number of groups which had been detected approaching from the Westward had closed to 010° at 47, 58, and 61 miles. The Brown Section, which had not had time to reach an effective height, were given the enemy’s position at 1318, and sighted them immediately afterwards, some 5000 feet above them.

20. At 1321, the Fleet first opened fire and altered course 90° to starboard (to 020°) to bring the enemy aircraft on the beam amidships. From this point, records are not complete enough to shew the direction of approach of successive waves. The R.D/F however continued to issue warnings to the A.D.P. of each approaching group until 1329. At 1327, a large bomb hit the ship on the wind screen at 21½ station, 26 feet 6 inches to starboard of the centre line, passed through four decks and exploded in the Capstan machinery compartment, causing a fire, which was extinguished after about 10 minutes. The damage caused to the ship reduced the maximum safe speed to 17 knots. A full report of damage and casualties will be rendered separately.

21. Two minutes later, another bomb hit the ship just outside X 1 turret, passed through X 1 gun bay and out into the sea, where it exploded under water, just abaft the starboard propeller. This explosion shook the ship from end to end, and the lurch put the R.D/F out of action for five minutes.

22. At 1332, ‘Formidable’ ceased firing. By 1334, all enemy aircraft appeared to be opening range with the exception of one group, estimated as 5 aircraft, approaching from 070° 25 miles. This group closed to 5 miles at 105° by 1348, when fire was opened on it. It then opened out again and no attack developed.

23. Shortly afterwards, another group closed from 180° 8 miles and fire was opened on this group bearing 220° at 1352. This group also then retired, and again no attack developed.

24. Meanwhile, Brown Section landed on at 1340, the leader hitting the barrier. They had been unable to attack the enemy aircraft before the bombing attack developed owing to lack of height, but they had attacked the JU.87′s as they retired, definitely shot down one each into the sea, and damaged two others which are unlikely to have reached their base. The crews of these aircraft reported sighting 17 JU.87′s, 11 JU.88′s, and a number of fighters, ME.110, ME.109, and HE.113. They were attacked by four ME.110′s and had to break away from the bombers, retiring inside the destroyer screen. The air gunner of Brown 2 received four bullet wounds in his leg.

25. At 1400, course was altered to 110° and at this time a fresh group of enemy aircraft was detected approaching from 267° 55 miles, estimated as 12 aircraft. At 1414, course was altered to 170° and at 1419 to 140°. This group closed, and passed to the Southward of the Fleet at 5 miles, at 1423. Two minutes later, they carried out a high level bombing attack on the ‘Nubian’, ‘Jervis’, at 5 miles, 160° from the Fleet, which at this time altered course to 110°. The enemy aircraft retired to the North-Eastward and then turned round and approached the Fleet again at 1437, without making any further attack.

26. At 1512, a small group of aircraft was detected at 190° 40 miles, closing. By 1520, this echo was at 125° 25 miles and at 1532 ‘Ajax’ opened fire. Immediately afterwards this turned out to be friendly aircraft, two Blenheim fighters. At 1542, Green Section (803 Squadron) was flown off and was relieved at 1805 by a single Fulmar of Yellow Section (803 Squadron).

27. From 1520 to 1600, efforts were made to get in touch with the Blenheim by W/T on 4410 k/c’s without result, although a large amount of R.A.F. traffic on this wave (or on 4400 k/cs) was heard throughout the evening. These Blenheims were apparently relieved at intervals, and in addition, a section of Hurricanes was expected to be over the Fleet. Efforts were made to get into R/T touch with the Hurricanes on 5450 k/cs until 1700, when a signal was received from the Commander-in-Chief to the effect that they were using 4690 k/cs. No answer was received and nothing was heard on this wave either.

28. At 1620, an echo appeared from 120° 40 miles, believed to be a section of Hurricanes coming out to patrol. They passed 25 miles away at 140° and opened out to the Eastward disappearing at 095° 65 miles.

29. From 1530 onwards, the presence of a number of R.A.F. aircraft, which cruised around the Fleet at distances up to 20 miles, made it impossible to determine whether any enemy aircraft were in the vicinity or not. None of the R.A.F. aircraft shewed I.F.F.
30. The last aircraft was landed on at 2015, and at 2115, ‘Formidable’ was detached with ‘Decoy’, ‘Voyager’, ‘Vendetta’ and ‘Hereward’ for Alexandria.

TUESDAY, 27th May.

31. All T.S.R’s were flown off at 0500, to Dekheila, and all Fulmars capable of flying, at 0545 to Aboukir. ‘Formidable’ entered harbour at 0715 and secured to Mamoudieh Quay.


By bomb hit forward.

1. All compartments above the main deck and below the Upper Gallery deck between 6 and 24 bulkheads seriously damaged and the contents destroyed. These compartments include the larger proportion of the Ship’s Heads.24 bulkhead itself is damaged and 37 is the foremost bulkhead which is at present watertight.

2. All Cable and Capstan machinery out of action.

3. Structural damage mentioned in para. 1 makes it inadvisable to fire ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups of 4.5 inch guns.

4. A large amount of electric wiring damaged in the forward compartments including D.G. coils.

5. Foremost ammunition conveyor strained.

6. Foremost aircraft lift balance weight out of line (repairs should not be difficult to effect).

7. Assisted Take-off Gear requires re-alignment.

By bomb hit aft and underwater explosion.

8. X.1 turret out of action. It is hoped to get the turret working shortly by ship’s staff.

9. From 144–171 bulkheads below the waterline, there are many plates on the ship’s side buckled, rivets started and internal frames and stiffeners distorted. The full extent of the damage cannot be ascertained until the ship is dry-docked. It is considered however that the ship is ‘seaworthy’ aft.