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PART II: 1940: Norway and Taranto

The crucial need for Fleet Air Arm facilities overseas was most clearly expressed by Vice Admiral Tom Phillips, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, who stated ‘I fully agree that adequate provision for the Fleet Air Arm at Singapore is an essential requirement. The whole basis of our sea power rests on having adequate bases for repair facilities all the world over’ [84]. Phillips argued that only when these facilities were in place would the Navy’s aircraft carriers have the greatest operational flexibility. The requirements for all overseas facilities were considered at a meeting in June 1940 in the Air Ministry [61]. Much of the focus was on the Far East and Singapore [53, 84, 85, 88], with other papers regarding facilities in Egypt [48] and the proposal to move Observer training to Piarco in Trinidad following air attacks on the existing facility at RNAS Ford [71, 73]. In January 1940, Captain Daniel, the Director of Plans, put forward the latest requirements for aircraft carriers operating with the fleet and on trade routes [28] and at the end of the year made an assessment of the number of carriers which would be available in future years and how these related to expansion programmes [90]. Consideration was also given to the possible design of a Battle Carrier [79] to carry fighters for defence of the fleet and the options for providing catapult launched fighters to cover convoys [93]. The potential threat posed by the German battleship Bismarck and the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin was studied together with the part which carriers would play in dealing with the threat they posed [29]. Churchill, when First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested that the Fleet Air Arm should take over some shore-based operations from the RAF and reduce the aircraft complements of carriers accordingly [26]. It seems unlikely that this suggestion was taken particularly seriously in the Admiralty at the time, given the limited assets the Fleet Air Arm possessed to undertake its core roles. The sensitive issue of aircraft production was the subject of a debate regarding the decision in May to give five RAF aircraft types top priority and the case put by the Navy for the Fairey Albacore and the Fairey

Fulmar to be given a similar status [45, 46, 47]. Earlier in the year a request had been made for orders to be placed for 400 Fairey Albacores, 200 Fairey Fulmars, 150 Supermarine Walrus and potentially 200 Fairey Fireflies, the Fulmar’s replacement [33, 35]. The orders for aircraft spares were often separate to those for the aircraft themselves and the lack of spares, especially bomb carrier and torpedo fittings, caused problems with the availability of Swordfish aircraft [98]. In January, a visit was made to Fairey’s factory at Hayes to ascertain their production progress and the assistance they were giving to Blackburn Aviation for the transfer of Fairey Swordfish production [25, 25a]. In September, an agreement was made between the newly formed Ministry of Aircraft Production and the Admiralty to make clear the relative responsibilities of the two organisations [75]. At the beginning of the year, the suitability of the existing Blackburn Skua and the Blackburn Roc in their role as fighter aircraft had been questioned by the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet and the Commanding Officer, 803 Squadron [32, 32a]. Discussions took place within the Admiralty over the types of fighters which were necessary and the balance between two-seater and single-seater types [27, 34, 54]. The primacy of the two-seater fighter was reaffirmed in the guise of the Fairey Fulmar and its replacement, the Fairey Firefly [54]. Single-seater fighters in the guise of either Hurricanes or Spitfires were identified as being required for defence of naval air bases and limited fleet use [27, 34], although they did not actually materialise during 1940. A proposal for the development of a large single-seater fighter by Blackburn Aviation was enthusiastically received [34, 54]. It was the only bespoke single-seater naval fighter planned for production in Britain but unfortunately turned out to be the unsuccessful Blackburn Firebrand. As far as weaponry was concerned, serious defects were identified with the 100lb anti-submarine bomb in the opening months of the war [30, 31], while the Fleet Air Arm’s requirements for bombs until 1943 were outlined in October [82]. The extensive operations undertaken during the year led to a review by the Admiralty’s Medical Department of the ways of preventing flying stress and how such cases should be handled by the Admiralty’s Medical Department [89].