On 2 July 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill took a moment, in the midst of an important speech before the House of Commons on the state of the war effort, to call out the contribution of one American warship, the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7). He intoned as only he could:
As part of this [effort to reinforce Malta], hundreds of fighter aircraft have been flown in from aircraft-carriers by the Royal Navy, and we were assisted by the United States Navy, whose carrier Wasp rendered notable service on more than one occasion, enabling me to send them the message of thanks, “Who says a wasp cannot sting twice?”
In the years following Churchill’s remarkable tribute to the Wasp, she received little attention, though Life magazine covered her fiery sinking in 1942.
Recently, though, she has received more notoriety. In 2019, in his article “Lost in the Deep” in The New York Times Magazine, Ed Caesar recounted the discovery of the Wasp 13,800 feet below in the South Pacific by Paul Allen’s research vessel Petrel and told of the ship’s loss and of a moving letter from one of her officers to his young son. Then, in the October 2022 Naval History, Norman Polmar wrote in “Historic Aircraft: A British Connection” (pp. 6–7), of the Wasp’s missions to fly off Spitfires to save a besieged Malta in 1942.
There is even more to the Wasp’s story: the mystery of an admiral lost overboard in stormy weather, the origin of her voyages into the Mediterranean to fly off Spitfires to Malta, a passenger who had given up his Hollywood acting career to join the Navy, and a Canadian Spitfire pilot who made an extraordinary landing on board the Wasp.
Missing: One Admiral
The “stings” Churchill spoke of came about in a rather convoluted way. In early 1942, he became worried that the Japanese would occupy the Vichy French island of Madagascar and cut off the British supply route around the Cape of Good Hope to North Africa. He began plotting an attack on the island’s naval base at Diego Suarez, but he needed U.S. warships to free up British warships for the operation.
Aware of U.S. Navy ships on the other side of the Atlantic, Churchill contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Referring to himself, as usual, as the “Former Naval Person,” Churchill asked FDR on 14 March to send U.S. warships. After some negotiation about which ships would be sent and where to send them, Roosevelt agreed to send a task force to Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.
On 26 March, Task Force 39 (TF39) sailed from Maine with the Wasp, the battleship USS Washington (BB-56), the heavy cruisers Wichita (CA-45) and Tuscaloosa (CA-37), and eight destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral J. W. “Billy” Wilcox. After enduring heavy weather, they were met by the British light cruiser HMS Edinburgh at sea. Salutes and cheers were exchanged, and Royal Navy Admiral S. S. Bonham-Carter signaled, “I have been sent here by the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, to welcome you and to say how much we are looking forward to having you work with us.” Led by the Edinburgh, TF39 arrived at Scapa Flow at 0900 on 4 April.
The task force arrived—but without Admiral Wilcox, who had been lost at sea on the 27th. He was last seen on the stern of the Washington before a man overboard was sighted. A life buoy was thrown from the Tuscaloosa; the man swam for it but didn’t reach it. The Wasp launched Vought SB2U Vindicator scout planes to search for the man, but they found nothing. One of the planes crashed, and its crew members, Ensign Edwin Petway and Aviation Machinist Mate Thomas Bame, were lost.
Repeated musters on board the Washington failed to reveal the missing man’s identity, but the admiral’s staff soon figured out that it was Admiral Wilcox himself. They found in his locked desk a note that read, “One rotten cog out of the machinery of a new and greater America.” A later board of inquiry was inconclusive as to the cause of the mishap. Wilcox was the first U.S. admiral (of only two) ever lost at sea, and Rear Admiral Robert “Ike” Giffen in the Wichita took command of the task force.
A Key Island Besieged
By the time TF39 reached Scapa Flow, Churchill’s attention had turned to the island of Malta in the central Mediterranean. No stranger to sieges (most notably when the Knights of Malta withstood a siege by the Ottoman Turks in 1565), the island in World War II was undergoing an aerial siege by the Italian Regia Aeronautica and the German Luftwaffe. On 2 December 1941, Adolf Hitler had ordered II Fliegerkorps from the Soviet Union to the Mediterranean and ordered Field Marshal Albert Kesselring to suppress Malta.
By March, the aerial assault on Malta was reaching a cruel crescendo. The island was being bombed to rubble and dust by aircraft based in nearby Sicily. Malta could muster but a few Hawker Hurricanes in its own defense, and they were no match for the Messerschmidt Bf 109Fs flown by the Germans. By April, British submarines and bombers could no longer operate from Malta.
During the siege, Malta possessed a resolute and loyal populace, a resourceful and courageous garrison composed of every service branch, and numerous antiaircraft guns manned by the Royal Artillery and the Royal Malta Artillery. The beleaguered island needed all sorts of things—such as food—but more than anything, it needed Spitfires to match the 109Fs, not only to provide relief from bombing raids but to help vital convoys reach Malta. The Supermarine Spitfire already had achieved eternal fame for its part in the Battle of Britain, and by April 1942, the Spitfire V was the only British fighter that could match the 109F.
To meet the need for Spitfires, the Royal Navy in March began employing the old aircraft carrier HMS Eagle to fly off groups of 17 Spitfires to Malta. The Eagle started life as a battleship being built in Britain for Chile in 1913; her conversion to a Royal Navy aircraft carrier was completed in 1924. She was proficient at the task of flying off Spitfires, but her age was showing, and on 30 March 1942, she went into dock to remedy a defect in her steering gear. Something had to be done to get Spitfires to Malta, so Churchill again turned to FDR.
Again using their back-channel of direct communication, on 31 March Churchill explained the situation to FDR and asked, “Would you be willing to allow your carrier Wasp to do one of these trips provided details are satisfactorily agreed between the Naval Staffs[?]” Roosevelt, no doubt advised by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King, asked whether the British carrier HMS Furious could do the job, but First Sea Lord Dudley Pound convinced Admiral King that only the Wasp was up to the task. The operation became known by the Royal Navy code name “Calendar.”
Worthy Ship, Tough Captain
The Wasp had been built in Quincy, Massachusetts, by the Bethlehem Steel Company and was commissioned in June 1940. At more than 15,000 tons, she used up the remaining tonnage allotted the United States under naval limitations treaties (and a little more); essentially, she was a smaller version of the famous USS Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise (CV-6). At 29 knots, she was a little slower than them but could still carry almost 80 aircraft and sported the same gun armament.
In command of the Wasp was Captain John W. “Black Jack” Reeves Jr., a 1911 U.S. Naval Academy graduate. An expert shiphandler, he had a reputation as a tough and mean officer, exacting and demanding, but occasionally displaying a sense of humor. Many felt that if they had to go to war, there was nobody they would rather serve under.
The Wasp had an excellent crew, not least her landing signals officer (LSO), Lieutenant David McCampbell, whose job it was to guide pilots landing their planes onto the arrestor wires on the ship’s flight deck. Himself a fighter pilot, he went on to become the Navy’s highest scoring ace in the Pacific and to receive the Medal of Honor. Another notable crew member was the commander of the ship’s Marine detachment, Captain Ronald R. Van Stockum, who never saw eye-to-eye with Captain Reeves. Van Stockum had been born in Cambridgeshire, England, a week after his father was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
After her commissioning and shakedown cruise, the Wasp kept plenty busy. On 6 August 1941, she flew off 30 U.S. Army Curtis P-40C fighters for Iceland, which U.S. troops were to occupy. On 7 December, she was anchored off Bermuda when word of the attack on Pearl Harbor arrived. A Bermuda resident, Hermione Williams, was a guest on board at the time, and many years later she remembered the commotion the news caused.
In April 1942, the Wasp’s war was truly about to begin. After departing Scapa Flow on 9 April, she sailed to Glasgow to load 47 Spitfires at the King George V Dock. On the 14th, accompanied by the destroyers USS Lang (DD-399) and Madison (DD-425), the Wasp joined the Royal Navy’s Force W, led by Commodore Charles S. Daniel in the old but fast (and thoroughly modernized) battle cruiser HMS Renown. Rounding out the force were the antiaircraft cruisers Cairo and Charybdis and a number of Royal Navy destroyers.
‘Our Darkest Hour’
Force W sailed from Greenock, Scotland, around the northern coast of Ireland, then well out into the Atlantic before turning east to transit the Strait of Gibraltar and sail into the Mediterranean. At 0530 on 20 April, the Wasp commenced flying off aircraft. According to Commodore Daniel, the “evolution was carried out extremely quickly and with great precision, a total of 58 aircraft”—11 of the Wasp’s Grumman F4F Wildcats and the 47 RAF Spitfires—“being flown off in 61 minutes, including the time to range the second wave of Spitfires.” (During the flyoff, an RAF mechanic, Sergeant Douglas Preston, stepped into a spinning propeller and was killed instantly.)
All but one of the Spitfires reached Malta. American Salvador “Bud” Walcott crash-landed his in Algeria under unclear but possibly dishonorable circumstances. The Spitfires that arrived were not ready for action, and Malta was not ready for their arrival. German and Italian aircraft pounced, and within days Malta again was reduced to a handful of Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Germans declared that they had run out of targets on Malta. That was not quite the case, but Malta had reached, according to fighter pilot Laddie Lucas, “Our Darkest Hour.”
Characteristically, Churchill would not relent. Via their back-channel, on 24 April he told Roosevelt, “I am deeply anxious about Malta. . . . I shall be grateful if you will allow Wasp to do a second trip.” This time Roosevelt agreed the same day, writing, “I . . . am pleased to say that Wasp is to be made available for the second trip with Spitfires for Malta.” The Royal Navy called the operation “Bowery,” a name that stuck instead of the RAF code name, “Oppidan.”
Captain Reeves had anticipated another operation, and on 28 April he penned a memorandum to Admiral Giffen proposing that fighters be fitted with extra tanks and flown to Malta via Gibraltar. He went on to question whether “the results [of using a carrier] warranted the risk to the carrier due to Submarines and land[-]based aircraft in relatively confined waters.” He went on, “The way this job is being done now is certainly the hard way when you consider the cost of all the ships used in the operation to get a measly 47 planes there.” By then, the die had been cast in favor of another trip by the Wasp.
The operation was to be very similar to Calendar, but with a few important differences; Malta and the Spitfires would be much better prepared, the repaired Eagle would accompany the Wasp and contribute 17 more Spitfires, and the fast minelayer HMS Welshman, with her roomy mine deck, would sail independently to Malta with vital cargo instead of mines.
The Welshman had been completed in August 1941. Commanded by Captain W. H. D. “Dennis” Friedberger, she displaced 2,650 tons and could make at least 36 knots. Prior to sailing, she was disguised as the French destroyer Léopard. The First Sea Lord informed Churchill, “We are quite likely to lose this ship, but in view of the urgency of getting A.A. [antiaircraft] ammunition through to Malta there appears no alternative.”
A Movie Star on Deck
Before departing Scapa, the Wasp was joined by a famous passenger, U.S. Naval Reserve Lieutenant (junior grade) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The son of Hollywood royalty, his father, Douglas Sr., had been the preeminent screen swashbuckler of the silent-movie era. Fairbanks Jr. himself had starred in such Hollywood classics as The Prisoner of Zenda, Gunga Din, and The Corsican Brothers, but he put his movie career on hold to join the Navy in April 1941. (See “Pieces of the Past,” April 2018, p. 64.)
Lieutenant Fairbanks came aboard with Captain John Hall, Admiral Giffen’s chief of staff, and mingled with pilots and crew on the voyage. He overheard or took part in many an interesting conversation, which he described in an account of the operation called “Messages for Malta” for Admiral Giffen. When the Wasp called at Glasgow, he arranged for a friend, the Scottish actor Will Fyffe, to entertain the crew.
The Wasp again loaded 47 Spitfires, despite a recurring problem with leaky RAF drop tanks. Force W again was commanded by Commodore Daniel in the Renown, and this time it included the Charybdis, various British destroyers, and two American ones, the USS Lang and Sterett (DD-407). Once again, Force W was not seriously bothered by U-boats or enemy aircraft.
After Force W transited the Strait of Gibraltar, the Eagle joined up with her 17 Spitfires and signaled to the Wasp, “The ageing lady looks with envious eyes at her smart younger cousin and sends her greetings and best wishes.” The Wasp replied in kind: “Thank you. There seems to be plenty of life in the old girl if I may say so.”
The Wasp began flying operations at 0630 on 9 May, launching aircraft in three groups of 11 Wildcats, 24 Spitfires, and then the remaining 23 Spitfires. A Spitfire piloted by Sergeant-Pilot R. D. Sherrington experienced propeller difficulties and plunged off the carrier’s bow into the sea, both pilot and plane being lost. The remaining 46 from the Wasp and all 17 from the Eagle took off successfully.
‘So Many British Fighters in the Sky’
Force W had done its job, but before it could turn for the exit it had some unfinished business—the Spitfire flown by Pilot Officer Jerold Alpine “Jerry” Smith of Regina, Saskatchewan. After takeoff, his underwing auxiliary fuel tank had malfunctioned, i.e., “failed to draw,” and after dropping it into the sea he chose to land aboard the Wasp rather than ditch or bale out. Many men on board the Wasp came topside to watch.
On his first try, Smith received a wave-off from LSO David McCampbell, who dived into a net. On his second try, Smith landed—without, mind you, an arrestor hook—well down the flight deck and braked to stop just a few feet from the Wasp’s bow, to the great approval of the men of the Wasp, who feted him and awarded him U.S. Navy wings . . . and a cake.
Meanwhile, 62 Spitfires headed for Malta. On the way, two of them attacked an Italian Fiat RS.14 seaplane, but the seaplane’s gunner hit one, which then collided with the other. Both planes crashed into the sea, and the two Canadian pilots were lost.
The remaining 60 Spitfires made it safely to Malta. This time, they were ready to fight and Malta was ready for them, as they were speedily refueled and put back into the air with experienced pilots. A young Maltese boy of eight named Joseph Caruana later recalled the scene outside an air raid shelter. “It was almost unbelievable. I . . . had never seen so many British fighters in the sky at one time. There was quite a commotion of talk, almost hysterical.” (The boy’s mother dragged him back into the shelter, and he grew up to become a noted historian.) The newly arrived Spitfires held their own that day, and there were plenty left for action the next day—a momentous one.
The Battle of Malta
Next it was the Welshman’s turn to play her part. At 0715 on the 9th, Captain Friedberger sighted two “coveys” of Spitfires on their way to Malta. That night the Welshman’s navigator, Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant-Commander Lindsay Gellatly, guided her through the treacherous waters of the Sicilian Narrows. The Welshman arrived off Malta the next morning.
Her disguise fooled some observers but not all, and she had to elude a welcoming committee of German S-boats before slipping into the Grand Harbour at 0530. She entered the last intact dock to begin unloading her passengers and cargo, which included precious antiaircraft ammunition and such diverse items as flour mills and Spitfire engines. The Welshman’s presence soon was discovered by a German reconnaissance plane, and before long German and Italian aircraft mounted the first of three raids to destroy her. She did not suffer a direct hit but was deluged with debris from near-misses, which killed a gunner, Able Seaman Arthur Lamb.
The ship was protected by plenty of Spitfires and Hurricanes and by Malta’s considerable antiaircraft artillery, which put up a “cone of fire” over the harbor, and by a smokescreen using canisters thoughtfully brought by the Welshman. Malta gunner Stan Fraser recorded that, in previous air raids,
the report used to come through from the fighter control room: “three Hurricanes, four Spitfires—airborne.” Just imagine our joy when a report began coming through “fifteen Spitfires, twelve Hurricanes—airborne,” then within a few minutes another similar report—and another, until the total in the air reached 60 planes!
The Spitfires and Hurricanes were directed by the RAF Fighter Controller “Woody” Woodhouse, one of the real heroes of the siege. One of his able assistants in the Fighter Operations Room was Christina Ratcliffe, a dancer who was stranded in Malta when Italy declared war. At one point on 10 May, she looked up from her duties at Woody and saw him beaming.
By one Axis count, some 37 German and Italian planes fell that day during what the British and Maltese dubbed “the Battle of Malta.” The outcome was the opposite of what II Fliegerkorps told Hitler: “Enemy naval and air bases at Malta eliminated.” The stings of the Wasp (and the Eagle) in Operation Bowery made all the difference; the RAF never again lost air superiority over Malta, and convoys now had a chance of reaching the island. Starvation was averted, and Malta was able to hold out until the siege was lifted at the end of 1942.
The Fate of the Wasp
For some, it was time to go home. A thoroughly scruffy Welshman slipped out of the Grand Harbour the evening of 10 May to the cheers of the local population and arrived safely at Gibraltar a few days later. The Wasp continued on to Scapa Flow, dropping anchor at 0830 on 15 May. She was recalled to Norfolk for duty in the Pacific following the loss of the USS Lexington (CV-2) at the Battle of the Coral Sea on 8 May. As Churchill had quipped in his speech, “Who said a wasp couldn’t sting twice?” (Note: Wasps actually can.)
The rest of the war not always kind to the ships of Operation Bowery. The venerable Renown survived to the end of the war, but the Eagle was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat during Operation Pedestal in August 1942, just miles from where she and the Wasp had flown off their Spitfires. The Welshman was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat off North Africa early in 1943, and the Charybdis was sunk by German torpedo boats off the Channel Islands later in 1943.
Nor was the war always kind to the men. Pilot Officer Jerry Smith flew to Malta on 17 May from the Eagle, which continued flying off planes to Malta, but he went missing in August 1942 while chasing a German bomber out to sea. Captain Reeves’ only son was killed on a training flight in 1943, just weeks after receiving his wings and getting married the same day.
The war took a spectacularly unkind turn for the Wasp. After ably supporting the Marine landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in August 1942, on 15 September she was supporting a reinforcement convoy in the Coral Sea when she was hit by torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19. She remained afloat and under way, but raging fires could not be controlled, and she had to be abandoned and scuttled by a destroyer. Churchill noted her loss—“Alas, poor Wasp!”—in his World War II memoir The Hinge of Fate; he described her gallant crew as “a link in our chain of causation.”
The Wasp lost 193 men, but most of her crew survived. One survivor was Lieutenant Jack Mitchell, who sighted an approaching torpedo and then remembered nothing more until he came to in a hospital days later. He had been commanding a group of 20-mm guns, and a torpedo’s explosion blew him up onto the ship’s island, breaking his skull and his back. Two men carried Mitchell down to the flight deck, where he was placed in a life raft and lowered into the water so he could be rescued.
The Wasp never was forgotten by the people who were on Malta in 1942. In 2002, Wasp survivor Hal Sessions was traveling on a cruise ship with his family when, at tea, they met a Cyril Silvester and his wife. As they began talking, Silvester learned that Sessions had served in the Wasp during the war and recounted that his father was in the Army in Malta at the time, and that he, as a Boy Scout, had volunteered to unload ships so they could leave before they were sunk.
After listening to Sessions talk of loading and flying off the Spitfires to Malta, Silvester said, with tears in his eyes, “Yes, I was on Malta when they arrived, and I can’t tell you how much we appreciated them.”
What better tribute could there be?
Cajus Bekker, The Luftwaffe War Diaries (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968).
Ed Caesar, “Lost in the Deep,” The New York Times Magazine, 17 March 2019, 40–49.
Joseph Caruana, letter to the author, 4 March 2016.
Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 4, The Hinge of Fate (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950).
Brian Cull and Frederick Galea, Spitfires Over Malta: The Epic Air Battles of 1942 (London: Grub Street 2005).
Commodore C. S. Daniel, RN, “Reports on the Reinforcement of Malta by Spitfires Flown by U.S.S. Wasp,” 22 April 1942, 15 May 1942, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, “Wasp VIII (CV-7).”
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., A Hell of a War (New York: St. Martin’s, 1993).
LTJG D. E. Fairbanks Jr., USNR, “Messages for Malta” (report for personal records of RADM R. C. Giffen, USN, 15 May 1942), Douglas E. Fairbanks Jr. Papers, Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.
Frederick Galea, Women of Malta: True Wartime Stories of Christina Ratcliffe and Tamara Marks (Malta: Wise Owl Publication, 2006).
Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897–1963, vol. 6, 1935–1942 (New York and London: Chelsea House, 1974).
Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, vol. 1, Alliance Emerging: October 1933–November 1942 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
Laddie Lucas, Malta: The Thorn in Rommel’s Side (London: Stanley Paul, 1992).
Ivan Musicant, Battleship at War: The Epic Story of the USS Washington (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).
Arthur Nicholson, Very Special Ships: Abdiel Class Fast Minelayers in World War Two (Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2015).
Oral History, “Black Jack Reeves,” Naval History #, no. # (Winter 1988): 49–52.
Norman Polmar, “Historic Aircraft: A British Connection Part 1,” Naval History #, no. # (October 2022), 6–7.
CAPT John W. Reeves Jr., USN, Memorandum for ADM Giffen, 28 April 1942, John L. Hall Jr. Papers, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
Marco Mattioli, “Erre Esse: Il Fia RS.14 in Azione: 1941–1945,” Aerei nella Storia no. 28 (February–March 2003), 8–18.
Peter C. Smith, Eagle’s War: The War Diary of an Aircraft Carrier (Manchester, UK: Crecy Publishing, 1995).
RIA Smith and Christopher Shores, The Spitfire Smiths: A Unique Story of Brothers in Arms (London: Grub Street, 2008).
“Wilcox” File, John L. Hall Jr. Papers, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary.