"Club Run" was an informal name for aircraft supply operations to the besieged island of Malta during the Second World War. Malta was the object of determined Axis attempts in 1941-1942 to either force the British military authorities to surrender or to destroy its effectiveness as a military base. The island's significance was as a forward base from which Axis supplies to their north African armies could be attacked. It is a measure of Malta's importance that Britain reassigned fighter aircraft from home defence.
"Club Runs" were covered by Force H, based at Gibraltar (called "The Club"), consisting of the battlecruiser HMS Renown, aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, light cruiser HMS Sheffield and the "F"-class destroyers of the 8th Flotilla. Its Mediterranean operations were called "Club Runs". It was deemed to be an exclusive club of the most efficient warships in the Royal Navy. A mythical "regimental tie" was designed for members of "The Club", consisting of a Mediterranean grey field, scattered with raspberries.
Malta's air defences were essential and aircraft reinforcements and replacements were a constant need. Fighters (Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires) and torpedo bombers (Fairey Swordfish and Albacores) were required, but they lacked the range to fly direct from the British base at Gibraltar. The solution was for aircraft carriers to move within range and then "fly-off" fighters to land at a Maltese airfield.
At the outbreak of war, the opinion of the Chiefs of Staff was that Malta was indefensible and this view was supported by a later review that stated: "there is nothing practicable that we can do to increase the powers of resistance of Malta". Winston Churchill disagreed. In July 1940, he insisted that Hurricanes be flown in "at the earliest moment". This led to the first "Club Run", Operation Hurry, using the old carrier HMS Argus.
The Axis air forces developed measures to counter the "Club Runs" — attacking the aircraft while in transit and catching them on the ground before they could be armed and refuelled. Forty of the Spitfires delivered by the American carrier USS Wasp (Operation Calendar) were destroyed on the ground but in the following operation (Bowery) the Luftwaffe were outwitted and British fighters were airborne and ready for their opponents.
In their turn, the carriers became prime targets and required more heavily protected and complex operations to ensure success. Despite this, the British carrier HMS Ark Royal was sunk, and the American carrier USS Wasp was loaned for "Club Runs" in April and May 1942.
Aircraft losses over Malta were such that the replenishment "Club Runs" became a constant conveyor belt of aircraft ferried to Gibraltar where they were transferred to carriers for flying off while more were ferried from Britain. Additional capacity was created by transporting aircraft in crates and assembling them at Gibraltar or on board carriers. In this way, one ferry run from Britain would deliver enough aircraft for two flying-off operations.
From early 1942, Spitfires were necessary to counter the more modern German fighters that outclassed the robust but outdated Hurricanes. On several occasions, however, there were faults with the external fuel tanks that were needed to give the required range. As a result, two "Club Runs" were aborted and had to be repeated after modifications at Gibraltar, Calendar delivered inadequately prepared aircraft that fell prey to bombing on Malta and Bowery′s 64 Spitfires required adaptations to the external fuel tanks while on board USS Wasp. The failure to rectify a fault over several deliveries for a critical purpose in hazardous circumstances is unexplained but was described as "embarrassing".
From October, 1942, modified Spitfire Mk VCs with additional internal and external fuel tanks and most armament removed were capable of flying the 1,100 mi (1,800 km) from Gibraltar to Malta. The modifications were reversed in Malta. This removed the need for "Club Runs".
List of "Club Run" operations
- August 1940 - Operation Hurry: 12 Hurricanes flown off HMS Argus
- November 1940 - Operation Coat: off HMS Ark Royal 3 Fulmars for HMS Illustrious
- November 1940 - Operation White: 12 Hurricanes flown off Argus, 8 lost en route after running out of fuel
- April 1941 - Operation Winch: 12 Hurricane IIs flown off Ark Royal
- April 1941 - Operation Dunlop: 22 Hurricanes flown off Ark Royal
- May 1941 - Operation Splice: 48 Hurricane IIs flown off Furious and Ark Royal
- June 1941 - Operation Rocket: 35 Hurricane IIs flown off Furious and Ark Royal
- June 1941 - Operation Tracer: HMS Ark Royal and Victorious flew off 47 Hurricanes to Malta
- June 1941 - Operation Railway I: 22 Hurricanes flown off Ark Royal
- June 1941 - Operation Railway II: 35 Hurricanes off Ark Royal and Furious (7 not launched due to deck accident)
- September 1941 - Operation Status I: 26 Hurricanes flown off Ark Royal
- September 1941 - Operation Status II: 46 Hurricanes flown off Ark Royal and Furious
- October 1941 - Operation Callboy: 11 Albacores and 2 Swordfish flown off Ark Royal
- November 1941 - Operation Perpetual: 37 Hurricanes flown off Ark Royal and Argus (10–12 November 1941) [note 1]
- February 1942 - Operation Spotter I: 15 Spitfire Mk VBs off HMS Eagle aborted due to fuel tank fault
- March 1942 - Operation Spotter II: 15 Spitfire Mk VBs flown off Eagle
- March 1942 - Operation Picket I: 9 Spitfires off Eagle aborted due to fuel tank fault
- March 1942 - Operation Picket II: 7 Spitfires flown off Eagle and Argus; 6 Albacores unable to fly off Argus
- April 1942 - Operation Calendar: 48 Spitfires flown off from USS Wasp[note 2]
- May 1942 - Operation Bowery 64 Spitfires: flown off USS Wasp and HMS Eagle (61 arrived).
- May 1942 - Operation LB: 17 Spitfires flown off Eagle; 6 Albacores again failed to fly off
- June 1942 - Operation Style: 32 Spitfires flown off HMS Eagle. Twenty-eight of them arrived safely, four shot down en route.
- June 1942 – Operation Salient: 32 Spitfires from HMS Eagle
- June 1942 - Operation Pinpoint: 31 Spitfires flown off Eagle
- July 1942 - Operation Insect: 28 Spitfires flown off Eagle
- August 1942 - Operation Bellows: 39 Spitfires flown off Furious
- August 1942 - Operation Baritone: 32 Spitfires flown off Furious
- October 1942 – Operation Train: 29 Spitfires flown off Furious
- On the return leg, Ark Royal was torpedoed by U-81 and sank a day later; Perpetual II cancelled.
- Most of these aircraft were destroyed on the ground by bombing.
- Woodman, Richard (2000). Malta Convoys 1940-1943. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6408-5.
- Hague, Arnold (1995). "THE SUPPLY OF MALTA 1940-1942, Part 2 of 3". naval-history.com. Retrieved 3 Sep 2010.
- Woodman, pp.56-57
- Woodman, pp.320-323
- Whitehead, Christopher (1996). "1942 - The Fight Continues". The Spitfire is 60. Retrieved 28 Aug 2010.