New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 14 — Battle of the Atlantic, 1942
Battle of the Atlantic, 1942
FOR the Allies 1942 was the most difficult and critical period of the war at sea. They had to maintain the flow of supplies from Great Britain to Russia, Malta, Egypt and India, while the flood of ‘lease-lend’ material which was beginning to pour from the United States to Great Britain, Russia, and the Middle East demanded more and more shipping. The protection of this increasing volume of seaborne supplies made heavy demands on the air and surface forces since the enemy now redoubled his efforts to intercept Allied con- voys. At the beginning of 1942 the Germans had a total fleet of some 250 U-boats and more were coming into service at the rate of about ten a month. Moreover, the Gormans had now largely surmounted their problem of dilution of personnel. Many U-boats had been at sea during the past year and there were numbers of trained and tried men with seagoing experience who could be used to leaven the mass of newer entries into the submarine service. Intensification of the air effort against the enemy at sea was made particularly urgent by the heavy losses which the Royal Navy had suffered at the close of the previous year. In November the carrier Ark Royal and the battleship Barham had been lost in the Mediterranean and the aircraft carrier Illustrious damaged; the following month the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth were mined at Alexandria and the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were lost in the Far East. Royal Air Force Coastal Command was ill equipped to undertake additional tasks at this time owing to the demands of overseas theatres for reinforcement, while the new type of aircraft and equipment which the situation demanded were not yet available. It was, in fact, with very limited resources in men and machines that the command faced the onslaught of the U-boats in what was to prove the blackest year of the war at sea.
New Zealand airmen were to make a significant contribution during this difficult period. As a result of the increasing output of the Empire Air Training Scheme, more men from the Dominion were now reaching the squadrons engaged in hunting the U-boats. While some found their way to Iceland, Gibraltar and West Africa, the majority flew with units based in the United Kingdom, many at page 292 bleak and remote spots in Soctland, Northern Ireland, the Hebrides, and in the Shetlands far to the north. During 1942 several New Zealanders who had joined the Royal Air Force before the war held senior posts in Coastal Command. Air Vice-Marshal Maynard, who had successfully organised the air defence of Malta during the initial stages of the enemy attack, was at Headquarters Coastal Command. At the same headquarters Wing Commander Young,1 who had joined the Royal Air Force in 1934 on gaining a special University commission, continued as engineering staff officer, and Wing Commander R. Faville, also an engineering specialist, was in charge of an experimental unit. One of the squadrons flying patrols over the Western Approaches was commanded by Wing Commander D. McC. Gordon, while Squadron Leader I. C. Patterson was flight commander in another. Two pilots who had flown with Coastal Command in the early months of the war, Squadron Leaders C. E. W. Evison and Marshall,2 both became flight commanders with Sunderland squadrons, Evison flying from Bathurst in West Africa and Marshall from a base in south-west Wales. Among the experienced pilots now serving as instructors were Wing Commander G. G. Stead, who had flown from Iceland and West Africa as well as the United Kingdom, and Squadron Leaders Godby3 and D. M. Brass, both of whom had flown Ansons in the early months of the war. Wing Commander H. L. Willcox, a senior medical officer with Coastal Command, was among the small group of New Zealanders who served in various ground duties during 1942. One New Zealand corporal spent 22 months in the Orkney Islands as a wireless operator.
Close escort of the Atlantic convoys continued to be the main task; however, as the year progressed, there was a steady increase in the number of patrols designed to harass the U-boats on passage to their stations in the Atlantic, particularly while crossing the Bay of Biscay from French ports. At the same time the need for air cover in other areas increased and aircraft flew from northern bases to protect convoys going to Russia. Ships were also escorted and anti-submarine patrols flown from bases in the Freetown area of West Africa and from Gibraltar. ‘Coastal’ Command was, in fact, becoming an ‘Ocean’ Command.
1 Group Captain T. G. Young; born Wellington, 17 Jun 1911; permanent commission RAF 1934; transferred technical branch 1940; Coastal Command, 1939–43; engineering duties in NZ, 1943–45; CTO, No. 2 School of Technical Training, 1945.
2 Wing Commander T. O. Marshall, DFC; born Stratford, 25 Nov 1914; joined RAF 1937; Flying Instructor, No. 4 OTU, 1942; Staff duties, D of AT, Air Ministry, 1943; killed on air operations, 8 Jul 1944.
3 Wing Commander P. R. Godby; born Christchurch, 27 Aug 1914; joined RAF Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF Jan 1945; Navigation Instructor, No. 9 OTU, 1942–43; Staff duties, Navigation, HQ No. 19 Group, 1944.
For the most part, the long air patrols were monotonous and exacting, demanding quiet courage, endless patience, and constant vigilance in preparation for swift and sudden attack. The pilots, particularly those in the flying boats, had to possess many of the qualities of the sailor, and in the early days of their operational training they were brought into close association with the Royal Navy. Tactical exercises were carried out with surface vessels and submarines, visits were made to naval bases and, when it could be arranged, aircrew met and discussed their work with the crews of the naval escort vessels. Furthermore, as part of their training, pilots had to acquire a knowledge of the various types of naval and merchant vessels they were likely to encounter. This training in ship recognition formed an important part of the instruction of all aircrew in the command. The pilot appointed captain of an aircraft became responsible to a large extent for the care and maintenance of his aircraft and for the welfare of his crew. He had to be a leader, able to weld his crew into a team, for without the active co-operation of every member it was impossible to reach a high level of efficiency in operations. The captain, therefore, had to know something of the work of each man in his crew and train them to work together. On days when they were not engaged on flying duties, he would get his crew together and, in a corner of the mess or huddling round the old iron stove in a Nissen hut, they would discuss tactics and difficulties that had to be overcome. In this way they learnt the value of co-operation, and in most crews men came to know a good deal of each other’s jobs so that, in an emergency, they could undertake another’s duties as well as their own. In the early days of the war all pilots were trained as navigators, and during 1940 the Hudsons had carried two pilots who took turns at carrying out the duties of navigator. Later, however, as these duties became more specialised, aircrew were trained for either one or the other of these tasks.
There are no landmarks 500 miles out in the Atlantic and the crews engaged on patrols over that ocean usually saw no land of any kind for nine-tenths of their flight. They had to find their way by dead-reckoning, aided sometimes by astro-navigation and relying on instruments for their guidance.
The ability to find their way over vast spaces of water, marked only by the changing lanes traced upon its surface by the wind, was a faculty acquired only after months of practice and hard work. The navigator was thus a most important member of the crew. The problems which faced him literally changed with the changing winds. His craft was not moving in an element of which the tides and currents have been known, charted, and set out in tables for page 294 hundreds of years. He had no such exact information and was forced to rely upon weather reports and forecasts. But in spite of the splendid assistance provided by the meteorological service, changes in the direction and speed of the wind in the areas through which his aircraft had to fly could not always be calculated accurately in advance. Temperatures and pressures could vary with every change in the cloud formation. Each flight was a navigational adventure. The problems which beset the navigator flying in an aircraft over the Atlantic were, indeed, much the same as those which faced Columbus when sailing upon its surface, although in place of the saliva spat over the bows of the Santa Maria by which Columbus was wont to estimate the drift of the vessel, the navigator of a Coastal Command aircraft had drift sights and flame floats to aid him. Later, as wireless and radar aids to navigation were more fully developed and astro-navigation more widely used, the task was made somewhat easier. On the other hand, the greater distances then flown made his work very exhausting, since in his special duties he had no relief throughout a flight. In a Catalina, for example, he might be continuously at work, in cramped con- ditions; for upwards of twenty hours. It was also the navigator’s task to keep an accurate log of every flight. As well as recording every alteration of course and every calculation of drift, it included the text of all messages sent and received, all sightings of convoys and individual ships, with details of their number, size and speed, and the position in which they were sighted. In addition a meteorological report was made, usually at the western extremity of the patrol. In all, therefore, the navigators of Coastal Command fulfilled a variety of tasks with skill and patient endurance, and the success of their efforts can best be measured by the few aircraft which were lost through errors in navigation and by the regularity with which convoys were duly met and escorted, often in conditions of appalling severity.
The work of the navigator was supplemented by that of the wireless operator-air gunner, and they interchanged their duties to afford some relief on long patrols. As radar sets were fitted to aircraft of the command, these men specialised in operating them, although in the course of a patrol all members of a crew might undertake turns of duty at the radar set. The work of the air gunner in Coastal Command was important, even when the aircraft was patrolling in an area where enemy aircraft were not likely to be encountered. His duty was to watch the surface of the sea within his field of vision, and to report anything he sighted. Ships straggling from a convoy, derelict lifeboats and survivors on rafts or in dinghies were often discovered as a result of his vigilance. The wireless operator, on the other hand, saw little of what occurred page 295 outside the aircraft. Crouched in a corner over his radio set, with earphones clasped to his ears, he remained alert, ready to transmit an emergency sighting report or to receive messages which might lead to a change of patrol, a diversion to assist in a search or attack, or instructions to land at a different base owing to weather conditions. There were occasions when alertness on his part led to the reception of a faint SOS from a lifeboat’s weak transmitter or from another aircraft in distress. In the larger aircraft another important member of the crew was the engineer, whose duty it was to watch the behaviour of the engines, to check cylinder temperatures, oil pressures and petrol consumption. He also kept a record for each patrol so that any fault which became evident could be dealt with by the maintenance staff of his unit when the aircraft returned to base. Each member of a crew had his allotted task, and every patrol successfully completed was the result of efficient co-operation in carrying out their various duties. While many patrols provided little incident, there was always a report to be made after every sortie. If there had been an encounter with the enemy or if anything unusual had occurred, each member of the crew would be called upon to give details of the events as he had seen them. Usually, however, after a routine patrol the details required were supplied from the navigator’s log, with the pilot and the wireiess operator checking the account.
The aircraft in which New Zealanders were now flying in the Battle of the Atlantic were some of them land aircraft and some flying boats. At the beginning of the war the main land aircraft had been the Anson, but by 1942 it had been almost entirely replaced by faster and larger aircraft. American-built Hudsons had been put into service as fast as they could be procured, and they did valuable work within the limits of their range. Then, during 1942, the Hudsons were gradually supplemented by British Whitleys and Wellingtons and by a few American Liberators and Fortresses. These were bomber aircraft which had been converted for reconnaissance work and they were used for both day and night patrols. The main type of flying boat was the Sunderland, which was an adaptation of the pre-war civil aircraft. Sunderlands had been flying at the outset and were to continue in operations till the end. Possessing a wide range and an armament formidable enough for them to be named ‘the flying porcupines’ by the enemy, they had already proved invaluable both in convoy protection and on anti-submarine patrols. In 1942 the Sunderland was the largest aircraft used by Coastal Command. Meals could be cooked on board in the galley and there were. bunks in the wardroom where the crew could rest when not on watch during a long patrol. Another flying boat which had come into use early in 1941 was the American-built page 296 Catalina. While less roomy than the Sunderland, it was notable for its endurance and had, on occasion, flown patrols of over twenty-four hours. Catalina aircraft had played an important part in the events leading to the sinking of the Bismarck.
The submarine campaign during 1941, serious though it was, had failed to achieve the success hoped for by the enemy, and by the end of that year the counter measures in the Western Approaches appeared to be gaining the ascendancy. Therefore, the formal entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 provided the German U-boat Command with new and welcome theatres of operation. Allowing for the time spent in crossing the Atlantic, the 500-ton U-boats could spend at least three weeks off the coast of the United States and the 740-tonners about the same period in the Caribbean. Both areas provided a rich harvest. For apart from heavy commitments in the Pacific, the United States had to protect an extensive network of traffic on other routes so that the anti-U-boat forces, both air and surface, available on the Atlantic seaboard were inevitably very limited. Furthermore, the few aircraft that could be employed had neither the special equipment for detecting submarines nor crews with the requisite training and experience.
There was another reason for the concentrated German attack upon ships in American waters. Except for the convoys which had to be fought through to the beleaguered fortress of Malta with heavy loss, the Mediterranean was virtually closed to shipping; and with Japan in possession of the sources of oil in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies and with Japanese surface raiders and submarines in the Indian Ocean threatening supplies from the Persian Gulf, the provision of oil to Britain from the East by means of long voyages round the Cape of Good Hope was precarious in the extreme, and totally insufficient for her needs. She had to rely on oil from the West—from Aruba, Curaçao, and the Gulfs of Venezuela and Mexico. Thus a stream of tankers passed out of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and up the east coast of the United States before crossing the Atlantic in convoy. The Germans realised that if this vital pipeline was cut at or near its sources, the war would be virtually won by the Axis.
When the campaign commenced in January 1942, the enemy had six U-boats in American waters, but on achieving immediate and considerable successes he quickly reinforced them until, by the end of February, there were some twenty boats operating in page 297 that area. Avoiding the few escorted convoys, the U-boats concentrated all the venom of their attacks upon such focal areas as Hampton Roads, North Carolina, and Cape Hatteras. Spending the days on the bottom, the U-boats worked mainly at night, using their high surface speed to overtake and choose their targets. When torpedoes ran short, ships were often attacked by gunfire. It was a holocaust. In the last 19 days of January 39 ships, totalling nearly 250,000 tons, were sunk. Sixteen of them were tankers. Then, in February, the larger U-boats entered the Caribbean to attack the oil traffic at its source. They sank a further 23 tankers, and the total sinkings in the Western Atlantic for the month rose to over 300,000 tons. This offensive in the Caribbean slackened during March, but off the American coast heavy sinkings continued and losses through U-boat action reached a new monthly peak figure of more than half a million tons; in all, 94 ships were lost in March, of which a substantial number again were tankers. In April the number of merchant ships lost showed a slight reduction, but unfortunately this was not brought about by the success of any counter measures. It was due to the melancholy expedient of curtailing sailings and to the fact that the enemy could not immediately replace his U-boats on patrol.
The United States commenced running its first coastal convoys in May but the effect was at first negligible, since the U-boats withdrew to focal areas where convoy was not in force and the dismal tale of shipping losses continued unabated. In the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean the enemy continued to play havoc with the tanker traffic. The U-boat sinkings for that month rose to 600,000 tons, the highest figure for the war up to that time. June, when 145 ships of over 700,000 tons were destroyed, showed no improvement. There were now about 65 U-boats at sea in the North Atlantic and they were operating in wider areas off the American coast. Furthermore, the U-boats were remaining at sea for longer periods than was thought possible. However, by July 1942, the convoy system on the American seaboard had been extended so that a ship was under escort throughout the entire voyage from the oil ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean to the United Kingdom. Counter measures rapidly improved, an increasing number of attacks were made on U-boats, and the diminishing successes obtained in American waters during this month caused the enemy to shift the main scene of his operations to mid-Atlantic and to the Freetown area.
Throughout this period of disastrous shipping losses along the Atlantic coast of the United States, RAF Coastal Command was only able to provide indirect help by attacking the U-boats as they page 298 journeyed to and from their bases in the Biscay ports. The development of this offensive was made possible by the fact that the enemy, while he was enjoying remarkable dividends off the American coast, was content to allow the North Atlantic convoys to proceed almost unmolested. Thus Coastal Command was able to reduce convoy patrols in that area and move aircraft to the south-west of England for operations over the Bay of Biscay.
This air offensive against the U-boats on passage was based on certain limitations of these vessels. In the first place, the average rate of progress of a submerged U-boat was two to three knots, except for short bursts of six to seven knots which, if maintained, would exhaust the U-boat’s batteries in less than an hour. Secondly, the standard type of U-boat in use at this time was compelled to come to the surface for several hours in every twenty-four to recharge its batteries and ventilate the boat. If, therefore, the area through which a U-boat could pass at submerged speed in twenty-four hours was kept under constant observation by aircraft, sightings of surfaced U-boats at some time during that period were, in theory, a certainty. But even in the clearest weather there was a limit to the range at which a U-boat could be detected from an aircraft. An analysis of anti-U-boat operations during 1941 had shown that, in visibility of the order of twelve miles, the average sighting distance of a surfaced U-boat by an aircraft was six miles. In poor visibility the range was, of course, considerably reduced. The patrol areas of individual aircraft had therefore to be close enough to each other to ensure that there was no gap between the visual ranges of adjacent aircraft. Furthermore, to be sure of catching the enemy on the surface, every spot in the patrol area had to come under observation at least once during the minimum period of time required by a U-boat for recharging its batteries.
The early efforts to harass the U-boats crossing the Bay of Biscay produced no spectacular results, as insufficient aircraft were available to ‘flood’ the area with the frequent patrols needed to produce sight- ings. Moreover, although radar was already proving an invaluable aid, the sharp lookout maintained by U-boats often enabled them to crash-dive before they were seen by the aircraft. However, during the first months of 1942 the daylight patrols did succeed in forcing many U-boats crossing the Bay to surface only at night; but they could still proceed unmolested, for as yet no suitable illuminant was available for use in night attacks. Thus the rather negative achievement in driving the U-boats under in daylight was hardly pleasing to the crews who continued to fly the dreary and seemingly fruitless patrols over the Bay of Biscay. At the same time, those who guarded the convoys in the Western Approaches gained little satisfaction from getting them safely through the page 299 eastern side of the Atlantic only to see them cut to pieces on entering the American zone.
It was, indeed, an unrewarding period in which the monotony of flying over the sea was seldom relieved by sighting and attack. Among the few pilots more fortunate in this respect were Flying Officer Ensor1 and Pilot Officer Neville.2 Ensor, who captained a Hudson from No. 500 Squadron at Stornoway in the bleak Outer Hebrides, was on patrol over the Western Approaches one day in April when the wake of a German submarine was sighted about eight miles away. As the Hudson dived to attack, the U-boat began to submerge and it disappeared a few seconds before the aircraft reached the scene. Ensor therefore aimed his depth-charges ahead of the swirl left by the diving U-boat and they brought air bubbles and oil to the surface. Neville flew as navigator in a Liberator of No. 120 Squadron, the first unit to be equipped with the new American bombers for anti-submarine work. One morning early in May his aircraft was sweeping ahead of a convoy bound from Canada to Gibraltar, when a radar contact indicated the presence of the enemy submarine. Although the Liberator used cloud to cover its approach, the U-boat was already well submerged when the depth-charges exploded. However, a large patch of oil appeared on the surface shortly after the attack.
By the middle of 1942 the increasing shipping losses in the Atlantic and the contemplated large-scale movement of United States forces to Europe had brought fresh consideration by both British and American Chiefs of Staff of the best means of countering the growing menace of the U-boat. The Americans at first urged the bombing of the U-boat building yards and bases, but when the severe limitations of bombing atacks on these targets were pointed out,3 they agreed with the British view that the best method of dealing with the U-boats was to intensify the air attacks upon them at sea, particularly in the transit area of the Bay of Biscay. While this policy was being agreed upon, certain developments were taking place with regard to the weapons and tactics which the aircrews of Coastal Command were employing against the U-boats.
3 In the French Atlantic ports, the U-boats were small targets in well protected shelters, and their crews were generally out of harm’s way.
Much thought and attention had also been given to the possibility of equipping anti-U-boat aircraft with searchlights, an idea originated by Squadron Leader Leigh1 of the Royal Air Force. During trials in December 1941 the target was held without difficulty when flying down to within fifty feet of the sea. The Leigh Light, as the new weapon came to be known, was first fitted to Wellington aircraft. A powerful carbon arc searchlight was mounted in a retractable under-turret and controlled by an operator sitting in the nose of the aircraft, where indicators showing the direction in which the searchlight was trained enabled him to aim the beam before the light was exposed. The Wellington could thus approach unobserved and make an attack a few seconds after showing the searchlight. Later a nacelle type of searchlight was fitted to the wings of Catalina and Liberator aircraft. Successful operation of the Leigh Light, however, was only possible in close conjunction with radar. In fact the closest co-operation between the radar operator, the pilot, and searchlight operator was necessary in order to make a successful attack. As soon as a radar contact was received, the pilot would be ‘conned’ on to his target by the radar operator, who would call the range indicated on his screen as the aircraft closed for the attack. The navigator would supply any corrections for drift. At a range of approximately three-quarters of a mile, the light would be switched on when only a small degree of movement was usually necessary in order to illuminate the target. Immediately this occurred, the aircraft reduced height and made the normal depth-charge attack.
Several New Zealanders flew in the crews of the first Leigh Light aircraft of No. 172 Squadron. They included Flying Officer Robinson,1 Flight Sergeant Burns2 and Sergeant Gregory.3 Pilot Officer Brown4 was the squadron’s radar officer. A typical attack in which Burns took part was made on the night of 26 October. His Wellington was on patrol over the Bay of Biscay in the early hours when a radar contact indicated a possible U-boat five miles to starboard. The aircraft turned and reduced height as it ‘homed’ on the contact. When the range had been closed to approximately half a mile, the searchlight was switched on to illuminate a U-boat travelling at high speed on the surface. The Wellington attacked at once and depth-charges appeared to fall close to the enemy vessel along her starboard side. A few minutes later the U-boat was seen lying stationary on the surface, just ahead of the spot where the depth-charges had exploded. The Wellington then made a machine-gun attack, to which the Germans replied with fire from their deck gun. Shortly afterwards the U-boat disappeared and, in spite of a prolonged search, was not seen again.
The enemy now gave tacit admission of the embarrassment that the air patrols were causing by transferring aircraft from other fronts to carry out fighter patrols over the Bay and provide protection for his U-boats. The British aircraft thus faced increasing opposition and the number of combats mounted steadily. On 15 September the Whitley in which Pilot Officer Coates1 and Sergeant Coburn2 were flying on patrol over the Bay of Biscay was forced down some 150 miles west of Brest, after making a gallant effort to reach base following an encounter with several enemy aircraft. Both men lost their lives.
The wireless operator of another Whitley, Sergeant Robison, 3 although badly wounded, survived to become a prisoner of war after his machine was shot down. Of the encounter with Junkers 88s he writes:
Another bomber piloted by Sergeant Denham1 was attacked in the Biscay area on 17 December by four Junkers 88s. Again the aircraft was forced to land in the sea and all the crew were lost.
Nevertheless, aircraft continued to harass the U-boats and to inflict such damage that the German Naval Command began to seek frantically for a means of countering the radar which they considered was largely responsible. Their deduction was correct. Improved radar equipment had now been fitted to more of Coastal Command’s anti-submarine aircraft and, as crews acquired experience in its use, it led to a steady increase in the number of sightings and attacks.
In September 1942, however, the Germans were successful in introducing a search receiver capable of picking up the transmissions from the aircraft’s radar. It was, in many ways, a makeshift equipment, but its operational success was undeniable. Aircraft could now be detected by the U-boats at ranges which allowed them ample time to dive before they were attacked. The night patrols and, to some extent, those in daylight were thus nullified. Not until the advent of new radar equipment whose transmissions could not be detected by the German submarines, was it possible to make the Biscay patrols fully effective and regain the initiative. In the meantime, strenuous efforts were made to counter the advantage the enemy had gained. In an attempt to keep his U-boats down by night and force them to surface by day, the number of night patrols was increased and crews were ordered to fly as high as possible in order to flood the area with their radar transmissions. Day patrols were then flown on the fringes of the transit area where the U-boats would be most likely to surface. However, in spite of much patient and persevering effort, the results of these tactics were negligible. By December the number of sightings and attacks had fallen to a very low figure.
From August 1942 the squadrons engaged in hunting U-boats in the Bay of Biscay were supplemented by Whitley aircraft and crews from one of the bomber training units, and New Zealanders were among those who flew anti-submarine patrols for a short period at the conclusion of their training. These men were inexperienced in this type of work, which differed fundamentally from bomber operations, but their patrols did help to increase the pressure against the U-boats on passage. During the period of their attachment to Coastal Command, the bomber crews operated from the airfield at St. Eval in Cornwall where two experienced New Zealand pilots, Squadron Leaders G. R. Coates and C. P. Towsey, were posted to command operational flights. Both men had already flown many bombing sorties against targets in Germany, and in February 1942 Coates and Towsey each captained aircraft which dropped paratroops in the Bruneval raid. Now they flew anti-submarine patrols over the Bay of Biscay and organised the operations of the newly trained bomber crews. On one occasion after his Whitley had been forced down on the sea with engine trouble, Coates spent 31 hours in a dinghy with his crew before they were picked up. After a long search their dinghy had eventually been found by Towsey, who was able to direct a destroyer to the rescue. Shortly afterwards Coates assisted in the rescue of another crew lost in similar circumstances when he located their dinghy in the Atlantic.
In the small group of New Zealand airmen who flew with the anti-submarine squadrons based in West Africa during 1942, Pilot Officer Wakelin1 and Warrant Officer Shakes, who were with No. 204 Sunderland Squadron, were among the first navigators trained in New Zealand to reach England in June 1940. At the end of that year both men had gone to Iceland with this squadron, which flew the first anti-submarine patrols in that area. The aircrews experienced a violent change of climate when, towards the end of 1941, the Sunderlands were transferred to operate from Bathurst, West Africa. Another New Zealander who flew with the same squadron during this period was Squadron Leader Evison. He had previously flown with the pioneer Sunderland squadron at Freetown and, after a period as a flying instructor in the United Kingdom, had returned to West Africa in August 1942 as a flight commander with No. 204 Squadron. A few months later he was appointed to command the unit.
* * * * *
The failure to maintain the offensive against the U-boats in transit across the Bay of Biscay was reflected in the main battle which had been resumed earlier in the year in the North Atlantic. When, in July, the enemy withdrew the majority of his U-boats from the American seaboard, he distributed them mainly in this area, and there began the most bitter stage of the Battle of the Atlantic– the all-out attempt by the enemy to seize victory by cutting the convoy routes which linked Great Britain and North America. The battle was to continue through the worst autumn and winter of the war and culminate in March 1943, when the enemy came very close to achieving his aim.
The opportunities for aircraft to counter these blows were reduced by the fact that the enemy scored the majority of his successes in that gap in the Atlantic which lay outside the range of air cover from either Iceland or Newfoundland. During the following months many convoys were severely mauled in this area, but it was noticeable that as they came within air protection the U-boat packs broke and the convoys proceeded more freely. The air patrols forced the U-boats to submerge and so lose contact with the convoy they were shadowing and attacking. But the small number of long-range aircraft available for operations over the North Atlantic was still the main problem. All that were available at this time were one squadron of Catalinas and one of Liberators. No. 120 Liberator Squadron, which included several New Zealanders, did valuable work in breaking up concentrations of U-boats, often at great distances from its bases in Iceland and Northern Ireland. On one occasion, while escorting a convoy at extreme range to the south of Iceland, a Liberator from this squadron sighted no fewer than eight U-boats round the ships. It was only possible to carry sufficient depth-charges to attack two U-boats, one of which was sunk outright. Five of the others were, however, attacked with cannon fire and forced to submerge, with the result that no ships were lost while the aircraft was in company.
Meanwhile the medium-range aircraft continued to fly constant patrols in the inner area, within a radius of 400 miles from the United Kingdom. Because of the considerable air striking force which could now be brought to bear in this region, the U-boats seldom ventured inside it, and consequently opportunities for attack were few. However, on one patrol Flying Officer Ensor caught a U-boat on the surface in this area and delivered an excellent attack. The Hudson was flying above broken cloud when the enemy submarine was first sighted travelling at full speed on the surface. By turning immediately and diving to sea level Ensor achieved almost complete surprise. Fire was opened by the forward guns during the approach and hits were seen on the conning tower and superstructure. Four depth-charges were then dropped as the Hudson swept over the U-boat. The first two straddled the still surfaced submarine and its bows were blown out of the water by page 308 the explosions. When they had subsided, the U-boat was no longer visible, but the conning tower reappeared shortly afterwards and remained above the surface for a few moments before finally submerging. Then large air bubbles appeared and persisted for a short period. Ensor adopted baiting tactics but the U-boat was not seen again.
Good work was done during October and November 1942 by the new Fortress Squadron, No. 206, from the windswept base at Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides. Flight Sergeant Ackerman 1 and Sergeant Wilson2 both took part in attacks made by the squadron during these months. On 27 October a U-boat sighted and attacked by Fortress aircraft was sunk outright. But the enemy continued his attacks on convoys in mid-Atlantic with ruthless and relentless vigour. October proved to be a disastrous month for the Allies when over 600,000 tons of merchant shipping were lost. The situation in the North Atlantic was rendered more serious by the withdrawal, at the end of this month, of surface escorts and aircraft for the protection of the North African expedi- tion. On 28 October the First Sea Lord declared: ‘The U-boat menace is now so serious that it should be tackled with all the means we possess’, and a fortnight later General Smuts, speaking in London, warned that ‘Hitler builds his hopes on the U-boat. … Germany is making an unprecedented concentration of materials, man-power and engineering resources to build and operate U-boat packs. In spite of all our efforts, the U-boat campaign is on the increase.’
These forebodings were soon justified. During November more than 700,000 tons of merchant shipping were lost by U-boat action alone. It was the worst month of the war. Yet there was one consolation in that, early in the month, the Allies were able to make the landings in North Africa with only small losses.
Submarines constituted the biggest menace of the whole enterprise. The three great convoys each spread out over thirty or forty square miles of sea, offered magnificent targets, but skilful routing and vigilant escorts both naval and air were responsible for the highly satisfactory fact that all three convoys reached the African Coast unscathed.
1 It was, in fact, Britain’s possession of Gibraltar which made possible the invasion of North Africa, for in November 1942 the Allies held no other single piece of land in all Western Europe and the Mediterranean west of Malta.
Holmes made five attacks within thirteen days. On patrol to the east of Gibraltar two days before the landings, he sighted and attacked a U-boat which was shadowing a naval force. A large piece of metal was seen to fly into the air in the midst of the explosions, and after the disturbance subsided there was no sign of the U-boat except large oil and air bubbles which were coming to the surface. On another occasion Holmes stalked his prey through cloud for some 15 miles before diving to release his depth-charges. Afterwards large air bubbles were seen as if the U-boat was attempting to resurface. Then oil began to come up and spread across the sea until, by the time the Hudson left the scene, it covered a considerable area. On 14 November Mitchell’s Hudson was one of several aircraft which so damaged a U-boat that it finally ran ashore near Oran. On patrol a fortnight later Mitchell sighted what appeared to be a small ship some twelve miles away. Closer investigation revealed a large German submarine on the surface, which dived as the Hudson drew near. A sharp depth-charge attack brought oil and some light wreckage to the surface.
On 16 November Ensor made what was probably the most spectacular attack of the whole war. He was flying on patrol near Algiers when a U-boat was sighted on the surface about ten miles away. By making a careful approach through cloud Ensor was able to attack before the enemy could submerge, and his depth-charges straddled the submarine just ahead of the conning tower, one of them actually striking the hull. Two seconds after their release there was a violent explosion as the U-boat blew up and dis- integrated–the forward guns went in one direction and the conning tower in another. When the spray of the explosion had subsided only the bows remained on the surface in the middle of an area of oil, wreckage, and air bubbles. The force of the first explosion severely damaged the Hudson. The elevators were torn off, leaving the rudders hanging by their lower hinges, while each wing tip was bent upwards. In addition, the turret and cabin floor were blown in and instruments damaged. It was only with the page 312 greatest difficulty that the Hudson could be kept under control. Ensor therefore ordered the wireless operator and the navigator towards the rear of the aircraft. Then, by opening up the engines and beckoning the crew backwards and forwards, he kept the machine trimmed and turned towards the coast. A few minutes later one of the engines failed and the aircraft began to lose height, so Ensor ordered his crew to bale out. He remained at his post until they had done this and then followed. Two of the crew, including Ensor, were picked up twenty minutes later by naval vessels, but the others were lost.
Four days previously Ensor had made another excellent attack. He was flying just above cumulus cloud at 7000 feet when a fully surfaced U-boat was sighted through a clear patch. He immediately turned and dived to attack. The target was reached just after it had submerged so the depth-charges were aimed slightly ahead of the swirl. A few moments later the U-boat heaved up amidst a mass of foam and air bubbles. Several of the crew then appeared on the conning tower bridge and opened fire with a machine gun, but this was silenced by return fire from the aircraft. More men now appeared on deck as the U-boat slowly circled with its bows awash. A second attack by the aircraft sent at least six of them overboard. For the next half hour the Hudson circled the enemy, opening fire whenever any movement was seen on the conning tower, and when finally forced to leave owing to shortage of fuel, the crew saw the U-boat was still circling slowly and sinking lower in the water.
There were also several encounters with enemy aircraft during the month. On one patrol Poole sighted a Junkers 88 shadowing one of the convoys carrying equipment to North Africa. In the ensuing combat the enemy aircraft was damaged and driven off. On another occasion Holmes sighted an Italian fighter flying below him. He immediately closed on the enemy machine and his first burst hit the rear gunner. He continued firing and then turned so that his own gunner could fire on the enemy. Shortly afterwards the Italian aircraft crashed into the sea. This machine was in company with an Italian submarine, which was in turn attacked by another Hudson captained by Patterson. He was flying on a parallel patrol to Holmes and actually sighted the surfaced submarine while the combat was in progress. A number of its Italian crew who had come on deck to watch the aerial engagement were apparently so absorbed that they failed to notice the approach of the second Hudson.
In addition to the Hudsons long-range Hurricane fighters, fitted with extra fuel tanks, had escorted the convoys to the shores of Africa. The pilots found this a difficult and uncomfortable task, for the Hurricanes were not easy to fly with the extra load and it page 313 was hot and cramped in the small confined cockpit on long patrols. But the monotony and discomfort were sometimes relieved. One day Sergeant Ashworth,1 who flew with the first Hurricane squadron to land in North Africa, sighted a Junkers 88 which was attempting to attack the convoy. He dived on its tail and opened fire, then ‘had to break away as bits and pieces flew around him’. Both the Junkers’ engines caught fire and it crashed into the sea.
By the end of November the enemy was forced to reduce the scale of his efforts in the Western Mediterranean; most of his U-boats were withdrawn and transferred to the North Atlantic. In their operations against the Mediterranean convoys, amply provided with air cover, they had suffered heavy casualties and sunk comparatively few ships. The wear and tear of constant crash-diving had been extremely severe on the U-boat crews and had intensified the dislike felt by their captains for the narrow waters of the Mediterranean. It was with considerable relief that they returned to their old hunting grounds on the convoy routes in the North Atlantic.
After the disastrous losses which had occurred in the North Atlantic during previous months, it seemed that the Allies were getting the measure of the enemy, but towards the end of December an outward-bound convoy suffered heavily at the hands of the U-boat packs. This episode showed clearly that without the assistance of air cover, as was the case with this convoy, the surface escorts were incapable of warding off concerted attacks by packs of U-boats, often more than twice their own number. Yet there were still insufficient aircraft to provide protection at extreme ranges, and thus bridge the gap in mid-Atlantic-the ‘black pit’ that was out of range of aircraft based on either side of the ocean and in which so many ships had been lost.
‘The warning is clear…,’ wrote the First Sea Lord.‘We now face the necessity of having to fight the convoys through the U-boat packs. The number at sea is now so great that they can be disposed in such a way that evasion by our convoys becomes impracticable. We have reached the situation which has long been foreseen and for which the very long range aircraft is required.’
Altogether, during 1942, U-boats had been responsible for the loss of over 6,000,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping. This was nearly three times the figure of 1941. Furthermore, although more U-boats had been destroyed than previously, the rate of production of new boats still exceeded, by a large margin, the rate at which they were being destroyed. Nevertheless, in the face of the fierce and determined onslaught of the U-boats, the huge volume of Allied merchant shipping which crossed the Atlantic unmolested was remarkable. Over 34,000,000 tons of essential war cargoes, including some 11,000,000 tons of petroleum products, were landed in ports of the United Kingdom during 1942. This meant the safe arrival of over 4000 ships for these purposes alone, excluding the substantial number engaged in the transport of troops or the convoys routed direct from the United States to North Africa or to theatres of war outside Great Britain. Part of the credit for this achievement was undoubtedly due to the efforts made by the aircrews of Coastal Command. Exhibiting both courage and endurance, they had flown tirelessly in all weathers to find and protect the merchant ships crossing the wide seas. Although, as the year drew to a close. the enemy appeared to have the advantage, the airmen were soon to receive reinforcements and technical aids which would enable them to strike blows from which he would not recover.