By CDR. JOHN W. BIRCH, USNR (Ret.)
In April 1942, I was an ensign on the aircraft carrier USS Wasp off the coast of Great Britain when, at the request of the British government, we received orders to ferry British Spitfires to the island of Malta. At that time during World War II, the British were being dominated in the skies over Europe by the German Luftwaffe and the Spitfires were needed badly in Malta.
When we entered the Firth of Clyde in Scotland to pick up the Spitfires at King George Dock in Glasgow, rousing cheers greeted us from shore. "The Yanks Are Coming . . . The Yanks Are Here!" It was a wonderful sight to behold for all of us.
After loading 47 British Spitfires aboard on 13 April, we took off into the Atlantic at a speed of 25 knots, ringed all the while by destroyers for protection. The Wasp's convoy down to British Gibraltar included both destroyers and cruisers to protect us from possible attack by German U-boats prowling the Atlantic. Just w-h-o-o-s-h we went past the Bay of Biscay which was the "country road," really, for U-boats heading west.
At Gibraltar we picked up a couple of British destroyers (with anti-aircraft guns all over them just like a cruiser) and headed for Malta. About 150 miles away, confident of success, we launched the Spitfires from the deck of the Wasp so they could fly the rest of the way. It would have been far too risky for us to take them all the way to Malta.
Tragically, when the Spitfires reached Malta and had either landed, or were in the process of landing, German and Italian planes were waiting for them. To our dismay, we learned later that Axis intelligence had discovered our plans. They destroyed at least 30-35 of the Spitfires either in the air or on the ground in a devastating attack.
Our mission had been in vain. Or had it? . . . .
During our return trip to Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to request that the Wasp make a second trip to Malta. President Roosevelt agreed at once. So perhaps we would succeed after all. . . .
The calendar had now turned into May when we returned to Scotland and hoisted aboard another complement of Spitfires. Heading toward Malta on our second attempt, a flash from British Gibraltar came saying that we were lined up to go through Gibraltar – through the pass. But once we were into the throat of it, the Wasp received word that "Five or six unidentified objects have been spotted heading west. (Towards our convoy.) Be alert."
It was obviously a "wolfpack" of German U-boats.
With that, the senior British officer immediately ordered the convoy to reverse course. Emergency turns, full speed out. We went far out into the Atlantic Ocean and headed south in a big, sweeping arc out of harms way – we hoped.
After a very tense night aboard ship, the next day –9 May– we reached British Gibraltar naval base without a bit of trouble. The British had sent their destroyers out to clear a path for us. So we all thought that this time would be it. Primed to rise to the occasion, we were acutely aware of the importance of our mission and what was at stake. We were determined to succeed and knew the very real danger that we had faced the night before from those German U-boats.
Benefiting from our "learning curve" after the Wasps first unsuccessful trip to Malta, this time we attached "belly tanks" to the Spitfires so they could fly on to Malta using that fuel and have a full tank in reserve just in case they encountered German and Italian fighter planes again. Which is precisely what happened.
But this time the Spitfires were ready. Turning the tables, they released the belly tanks and engaged the enemy with a full complement of fuel. Utilizing all their skill, the brave Royal Air Force pilots won the air war as they blew the Axis planes out of the sky!
With the Spitfires now safely on the ground in Malta, the Wasp turned and headed north back to Britain. The entire ship felt a great sense of pride – not only for a job well done but because we had done our duty and accomplished our mission. The successful delivery of the Spitfires proved to be a deciding factor in the interception and termination of the supply line to the Axis forces in Africa.
En route to Britain, as the Wasp exited the Mediterranean, the ship received a personal message from Winston Churchill on 11 May that read:
"Who said a Wasp couldn't sting twice? Many thanks
to you all for the timely help." – Churchill
Needless to say, that message was so typically "Churchillian" in tone –short, elegant, and eloquent– that its effect on the Wasp's morale and esprit de corps was incredible, unbelievable. The entire ship went into an uproar!
I have always admired Winston Churchill as a great leader and a great man, and my admiration for him at that moment knew no bounds. Churchill's personal message, which I considered a message of commendation for the two trips that the Wasp made to Malta, remains my most unforgettable memory during my service aboard the USS Wasp. It inspires me still.
Bio. Note: In April 1942, John W. (Jack) Birch was an Ensign aboard the USS Wasp, a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier that took eight years to design and build, and whose top speed was 30 knots. He served on the Wasp from Labor Day 1941, until it was sunk in the Pacific Ocean by the Japanese on 15 September 1942. He retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander on 1 September 1974.