RN Flattops Echo History in the Med

Moving on to the second leg of the Royal Navy’s 28-week CSG21 deployment (which has already seen combat sorties), HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), along with her task force, on 6 July passed into the Suez Canal from the Med and into the Red Sea and firmly inside the Middle East on her way, eventually, to the Pacific.

“Flanked by the spectacular scenery of Egypt’s desert landscape, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her escorts and auxiliaries have passed through the Suez Canal, marking a new chapter in the operational deployment of the UK Carrier Strike Group,” photo/caption by RN. Note the American Aegis destroyer (The Sullivans) behind her.

With an airwing made up of RAF, RN, and USMC aviators flying a mix of 40 AEW, strike fighter (F-35B), and ASW/ASuW helicopters (Wildcats), the 65,000-ton carrier is escorted by the RN Type 23 ASW frigates HMS Richmond (F239) and HMS Kent (F78); Type 45 air defense destroyers HMS Defender (D36) and HMS Diamond (D34); Royal Fleet Auxiliaries RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring; the Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805); and the (largely unseen) attack boat HMS Artful (S121).

As the task force has a company of 42 Royal Marine Commando spread out in dets across the various ships, you can bet eyeballs are peeled and magazines are loaded, if needed.

Royal Marines of 42 Commando have been on intensive training missions as part of their role on the Carrier Strike Group deployment (Photo/caption, RN)

Enter player #2 

On the same day as HMSQNLZ ran the Suez, 6 July, her sistership, HMS Prince of Wales (R09) entered Gibraltar with a rotary-wing group of Apache attack helicopters of the British Army’s 656 Squadron and Wildcats of 825 Naval Air Squadron (as the ship is still in shakedown and the Brits don’t have any “spare” F-35s currently)

HMS Prince of Wales, Gibraltar July 6, 2021

Still, this makes it the first time two British large-deck carriers (not Invincible-class through-deck destroyers/Harrier carriers) were in the Med in the same year– much less the same time– was circa 1970, when both of the operational 40,000-ton Audacious-class flattops of the Royal Navy– HMS Eagle (R05) and HMS Ark Royal (R09)— passed through the sea with active air wings. Alternatively, Ark Royal and the smaller 23,000-ton HMS Hermes (R12) were both in Gibraltar at the same time in 1970 immediately before Hermes was downgraded to a helicopter-only “Commando Carrier” (that would later carry Harriers in the Falklands) and still had an airwing that included a squadron each of Blackburn Buccaneer S.2s (801 NAS) and De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2s (893 NAS).

But the history of last week’s evolution by the Royal Navy goes further.

“Hello, Gibraltar!” noted Prince of Wales‘ social media feed on the occasion of sighting The Rock. “It’s been a fair few years since the name @HMSPWLS has graced your shores. We are looking forward to it.”

Indeed, the last HMS Prince of Wales, the famed King George V-class battleship that, although not fully complete, engaged in the epic Hunt for the Bismarck in May 1941, called at Gibraltar during WWII twice that same year, in September, as bookends of a series of convoys to Malta.

That makes it an almost 80-year gap, shy of just a couple months. 

King George V-class battleship HMS Prince of Wales (53) in Gibraltar, 1941.

The battleship, just over two months later, was famously lost to strikes from ground-based Japanese aircraft off the coast of Malaya as part of Force Z when she was sunk on 10 December 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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