New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 15 — Attacking Enemy Ships With Mine, Bomb and Torpedo
Attacking Enemy Ships With Mine,
Bomb and Torpedo
WHILE the main concern of the Allies in the war at sea during 1942 was the growing menace of the U-boat, surface units of the German Navy had still to be reckoned with. At the beginning of that year the new and powerful battleship Tirpitz came into full commission and joined the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lutzow and the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Emden in German home waters. These vessels not only represented a potential danger to Allied shipping in the Atlantic, but by moving into Norwegian bases they could also threaten the convoys now carrying supplies to Russia’s northern ports. At the same time, three other units of the German Fleet, the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, were in Brest and appeared likely to break out and attack convoys proceeding to and from Gibraltar.1
1 In the event Hitler, fearing an Allied invasion of Norway, ordered these ships north, and for some time most of the German Fleet was held in readiness to repel the expected attack. When this did not take place, the ships were used to attack Allied convoys to Russia.
Throughout 1942 the Royal Air Force was able to give substantial assistance to the Royal Navy in restricting the movements of the enemy’s major naval units and in dislocating his seaborne trade. Aircraft laid mines in enemy waters and attacked warships and merchant vessels both at sea and in harbour. Ocean sweeps and coastwise patrols were a daily task, the reconnaissance flights supplying useful information which supplemented the photographic cover of enemy ports, so that movements of both German naval and merchant vessels were kept under constant observation. In addition, reconnaissance and protection from U-boat attack were provided for ships of the Home Fleet when they put to sea.
The laying of mines from the air had previously been undertaken by the Hampdens of No. 5 Bomber Group and the Beauforts of Coastal Command. Ships at sea and in harbour had also been attacked by both bomber and coastal aircraft during 1941. But now Bomber Command assumed responsibility for all aerial mine- laying, while Coastal Command specialised in the more direct forms of attack with bomb and torpedo. In March 1942 it was decided to extend minelaying duties to the Stirlings and Wellingtons of No. 3 Bomber Group and later, as aircraft were modified and stocks of mines and other materials became available, to the other groups. This use of heavier bombers with their greater load-carrying capacity brought about an increase in the number of mines laid from the air, while the number of sorties also rose as aircraft from other groups became available for minelaying operations. Whereas in February about 300 mines were laid by bombers, by June the total was over 1000. At the same time research and experiment were continued to improve existing mines and to produce new and more efficient types. Airborne acoustic mines, operated by sound waves sent through the water by ships, were now used by Bomber Command, and variations of this type and of the magnetic mine were also developed for dropping from the air. The Germans were continually searching for means of neutralising the British mines, and when it became evident that they had page 317 evolved a counter, new devices were quickly introduced to set them fresh problems. In fact, it became a battle of wits between the opposing groups of scientists and technicians.
Most of the New Zealanders serving with the medium and heavy bomber squadrons flew on minelaying sorties during 1942. This was specially true of the men flying the Wellingtons and Stirlings of No. 3 Group, a formation in which New Zealand representation continued at a high level. No. 75 Wellington Squadron operated with this Bomber Group, and in its first minelaying mission on the night of 27 April mines were laid off Heligoland. Thereafter aircraft from the unit participated frequently and by the end of the year 140 sorties had been flown, of which 105 were successful in laying a total of 233 mines, an effort which compared favourably with that of other units similarly engaged. Several aircraft from No. 75 Squadron were among those lost during the year while laying mines in enemy waters, but some of the crews survived to become prisoners of war. The New Zealand captain of a Wellington shot down over Denmark writes of his sortie on 17 May:
We were carrying four new-type mines to be laid in the Baltic. As this necessitated fixing a position on the coast and then dropping the mines from about one hundred feet, we were advised to cross Denmark at very low level—partly to keep a more accurate track and partly to avoid enemy fighters. Had just crossed the coast on the way in when a burst of tracer came from below. I swung to port to avoid it, thinking it was ground flak. But it turned out to be a night fighter and the next moment the starboard inner was on fire. The oil tank behind the motor looked like a charcoal brazier, glowing redly through the bullet holes. As the mines were secret, I turned back towards the coast to try and dump them in the sea where they would become alive and defy investigation. But a few minutes later the main wing tanks went up and the fire spread rapidly. Ordered the crew out and followed immediately as we were very low. Pulled the ripcord right away. The burning aircraft crashed as the chute opened and by the light of the fire I made a good landing in a ploughed field a few moments later. My navigator was unfortunately killed by a last burst from the fighter before his chute opened. Was joined by other crew members and we made our way across country. But the short summer night was soon over and we were forced to hide until dusk. Then we approached an isolated house for food which was provided but we were captured as we were leaving. At a nearby German Air Force base we were told how we had flown over just as a patrol was taking off. Also found out that we had destroyed the fighter which shot us down. Just as my rear gunner was vacating his turret, the Messerschmitt came up close so he popped back in again and gave a burst at close range. It blew up.
A large part of the minelaying effort by the bomber aircraft during 1942 was directed to the areas along the enemy-held coast of the North Sea, particularly the Frisian Islands, and to a lesser extent the coast of south-west Norway and the entrances to the Baltic. The target for these operations was shipping carrying iron ore and page 318 other supplies from Scandinavian ports, and the sinkings which followed were the main reason for the Swedes withdrawing chartered ships from the routes. There was also dislocation of the transport of troops and military stores from German Baltic ports to the Russian front; moreover, it is now known that mines laid from the air in the U-boat exercising grounds in the Baltic interrupted trials and training and caused delay in the appearance of prefabricated U-boats in the Atlantic. German U-boats were the main target of minelaying operations in the Bay of Biscay, where mines were laid in the approaches to the bases at St. Nazaire, Lorient and La Pallice. These operations achieved a fair measure of success since, in addition to several U-boats sunk or damaged, arrivals and departures were often delayed or even suspended while sweeping was in progress. The most significant mining operations in this area during 1942 were undertaken during October and November, in an effort to restrict U-boat activities against the large Allied convoys carrying troops and supplies for the landings in North Africa. During these two months 1024 mines were laid from the air in the Biscay area. Two U-boats were sunk by mines off the port of Lorient during October while a third, outward bound from La Pallice, was mined and severely damaged shortly after sailing. This mining from the air of the Biscay ports also helped to impede blockade running by the Germans. During 1942 both submarines and surface vessels were used to carry special cargoes to and from the Far East, but by the end of that year minelaying and the patrols and attacks of both air and naval forces had severely restricted this activity.
1 From July to December 1942, 105 aircraft were lost on minelaying sorties.
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The mining campaign against the enemy’s sea communications during 1942 was supplemented by bombing and torpedo attacks by aircraft of Coastal Command, but because of the demand for increased air patrols in the Atlantic, relatively few squadrons were available for this task and their tactics and weapons were still in the early stages of development. Nevertheless, these more direct forms of attack were responsible for the sinking of 42 ships and the damaging of a further 21. But a heavy price was paid for these results as many crews were lost in the low-level bombing attacks.
The original role chosen for No. 489 Squadron was reconnaissance and strikes against enemy shipping plying between Spanish and enemy-occupied French ports, but the contemporary shortage of aircraft for operations against the U-boats crossing the Bay of Biscay led to the diversion of the squadron’s major effort to anti-submarine patrols. The first sortie was flown on 11 May 1942 and throughout the next two months the patrols were continued, some extending as far south as the coast of Spain. No attacks were made on German submarines during these sorties, but this was not the result of any lack of keenness on the part of the aircrew. At this period the air patrols were forcing the enemy’s submarines in the Bay of Biscay to surface mainly at night, and by helping to maintain the pressure day by day against the enemy the squadron made a contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic at a very difficult period.
By the end of June more aircraft had become available to Coastal Command for the Bay offensive, and this enabled No. 489 Squadron to be withdrawn from operations to continue its training as a torpedo-bomber squadron. In the second week of July the unit moved to Tain, near Invergordon, where tactical torpedo training was resumed in earnest.
Altogether during the early months of 1942, the more urgent requirements of anti-submarine patrols and reconnaissance against enemy naval units considerably restricted the development of the direct attack on the enemy’s coastal shipping. In particular, the potential breakout of the German battle-cruisers from Brest and the presence of other warships in Norwegian waters demanded the diversion of aircraft from other duties to watch these areas. How- ever, as far as resources permitted, efforts were made to harass enemy shipping along the Dutch and Norwegian coasts and in the Bay of Biscay. Air operations in these regions were of two kinds: armed reconnaissance patrols, usually by single aircraft, and strikes on which several machines were despatched to attack a specified ship or convoy. The low-level attack was still employed and the majority of the patrols were flown by Hudson aircraft.
On occasion, the reconnaissance aircraft attacked ships and installations in enemy or enemy-occupied ports. Early in February Flying Officer Brice, piloting a Beaufort of No. 86 Squadron, bombed a merchant vessel lying just off the port of Le Verdon. During his low-level approach Brice met considerable opposition from anti-aircraft batteries, and his machine was hit in the starboard engine and one of the turrets. On reconnaissance in the same area a few days later Brice sighted a convoy of four ships. He at once attacked the leading vessel from mast height and two of his bombs appeared to score direct hits on the forward part, which was afterwards seen to be blown off and awash. The ship sank a few minutes later.
During the early months of 1942, New Zealand airmen with Coastal Command were engaged with their squadrons in two major encounters with German warships. On 12 February there occurred the melancholy episode in which combined air and sea attacks failed to prevent the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen escaping up the Channel from Brest to German home ports. Squadrons from Coastal Command were involved in both torpedo and bombing attacks, but their efforts were frustrated by heavy opposition and the unfortunate circumstances in which the whole air assault was launched. At the beginning of the month the presence of the Tirpitz in Trondheim and of the three warships in Brest constituted two separate threats to British sea communications. While the reconnaissance forces available to Coastal Command were sufficient to page 323 establish with some regularity the presence of these vessels in their respective bases, the striking force available to attack them if they came out was small and ill equipped for the task. It consisted of three squadrons of Beauforts which were disposed as far as possible to meet the two threats. No. 86 Squadron, augmented by a detachment of No. 217 Squadron, was at St. Eval in Cornwall, while No. 42 Squadron was at Leuchars in Scotland; the remainder of No. 217 Squadron was at Thorney Island, near Portsmouth. New Zealanders were serving with each of these units. On 1 February all three warships at Brest were out of dock and, in spite of bombing attacks during January, it appeared that none of the vessels had suffered damage which would seriously affect its seaworthiness. Therefore on 3 February, after an Admiralty review of the situation, the plans which had been concerted to deal with the breakout of the enemy naval units were put into operation. In Coastal Command this involved the arrangement of a full scheme of continuous reconnaissance patrols, both by day and by night. These were flown by Hudson aircraft equipped with radar. By 8 February it had become fairly clear that the most likely move of the cruisers from Brest was up the Channel, and it was therefore decided to concentrate the striking force of Coastal Command’s torpedo-bombers. This decision was a difficult one to take since there was no guarantee that the Tirpitz might not break out from Norway at the same time as the cruisers from Brest. An added complication was the very bad condition of the aerodromes on the south-east coast owing to snow and ice. It was not until the morning of 12 February that the Beauforts of No. 42 Squadron were able to move south. Even then, owing to unfavourable conditions, the Beauforts had to be diverted to land at an airfield where further difficulties were experienced in refuelling and rearming. No. 86 Squadron, which had been retained at St. Eval until the last moment in case the cruisers should break out westwards, was ordered to Thorney Island, while No. 217 Squadron was moved to Manston, in Kent.
Meanwhile, during the night of 11 February the enemy warships had left Brest and, keeping well into the French coast under an umbrella of escorting fighters, had proceeded undetected up the Channel until eleven o’clock the following morning. This was largely due to radar failure on one of the night patrols and the fact that the early morning reconnaissance had not identified the enemy with certainty. Immediately news of the breakout was received at Coastal Command, orders were given for the launching of a series of attacks by the torpedo-carrying aircraft. However, by the time the first Beauforts reached their target it was three o’clock in the afternoon and the German ships were off the Dutch coast, steaming at some 30 knots into an area where the weather was steadily page 324 deteriorating. Formations were broken, fighter cover was lost and, on flying in to drop their torpedoes, the Beauforts met fierce anti-aircraft fire from the three warships and their escorting destroyers. Crews reported that the barrage was so intense that the sky seemed full of it. Enemy fighters were also present in force, and in the face of the intense opposition and having regard to the uncoordinated nature of the attacks, it is not surprising they achieved no success.
Among those who took part in the torpedo attacks was Squadron Leader Dinsdale, who led Beauforts of No. 42 Squadron. His machine was badly shot up while he was attempting to get near enough to the enemy vessels to release his torpedo.
Our squadron had left Leuchars, Scotland, that morning for Coltishall, landing there about mid-day. We were immediately informed that we were to carry out an attack on the German Fleet. The whole squadron, carrying torpedoes, eventually got off the airfield which was one sheet of ice, without mishap, and set course for Manston, where we were to rendezvous with fighters. After circling for some time, no fighters appeared so we set course for the Hook of Holland. Soon we ran into fog and low cloud and were right down on the sea. Then through a break in the cloud we saw our fighter escort which gave us added confidence. The first glimpse of the enemy ships reminded me of a large factory with smoking chimneys, as if we were going overland—an impression caused by aircraft burning on the water and gunfire and smoke from the ships. Our Beauforts deployed for the attack and I dropped my torpedo at what appeared to be the Gneisenau. On the actual run in to the target, which was only a matter of seconds, three aircraft fell into the sea in front of us and we were forced to climb to escape the flames. It was not possible to see the result of our attack as we were picked up by an enemy fighter and forced to head away.
Flying as navigator in another Beaufort was Flight Sergeant Keeling.1 As his aircraft flew in to attack, it met thick anti-aircraft fire from destroyers forming a protective screen round the Scharnhorst— ‘heavy shells were hitting the wave tops and light tracer was whizzing over the aircraft.’ The Beaufort was hit several times, the rear gunner wounded, and the top of the cockpit blown off. Then, while Keeling was giving first aid to the gunner, a German fighter appeared so he immediately took the wounded gunner’s place and opened fire. The enemy machine was eventually driven off. Another New Zealander afterwards told how his aircraft flew close to the enemy ships through the hail of fire; there was ‘one glorious moment’ when they came within a few hundred yards of the Scharnhorst and were able to turn their machine guns on her decks.
During the late afternoon rain and low cloud caused visibility to decrease to only a few hundred yards, making location of the enemy force exceedingly difficult, with the result that in spite of attacks by Bomber Command the warships were able to escape in the gathering darkness of the early February night. The weather throughout the day played an important part in the operation, and it seems certain that the enemy’s decision to break up-Channel on 12 February was made in the knowledge that a belt of rain and low cloud was approaching the Channel. The Germans flew regular and extensive meteorological reconnaissances over the Atlantic, and on this occasion their estimation of weather conditions was made with precision and their plans laid with corresponding care.
Three months later the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was the target for bombing and torpedo attacks by Hudsons and Beauforts in northern waters. In the late afternoon of 16 May the Prinz Eugen, accompanied by destroyers, was sighted by a reconnaissance aircraft travelling southwards along the Norwegian coast; and on the assumption that this force would pass Stadlandet at midnight, 14 Beauforts were despatched to that area to find and attack the cruiser. All failed to sight the enemy naval force. Reconnaissance on the following day succeeded in locating the warships farther southwards. The various sightings which were then made justified the conclusion that they would pass the Lister Light in the early evening. Torpedo-carrying Beauforts, with a Beaufighter escort and a diversion of high-flying Hudsons, were therefore despatched to attack. They were successful in finding the ships but, just as the torpedo-bombers were approaching their target, they were set upon by fighters and three were shot down. Flight Sergeant Keeling, who was flying in one of these aircraft, was lost with his crew. Pilot Officer Wells,1 navigator in another, survived to become a prisoner of war. Later he told how:
Our Beaufort managed to survive two attacks and had closed the range to one mile when an Me 109 succeeded in putting a full burst into the starboard motor. The pilot began to turn away but found the aircraft out of control. We struck the water fairly hard and by the time the pilot and myself had come to the surface, only the fuselage abaft the rear turret was still afloat. The wireless operator and gunner had escaped from the rear hatch but their combined efforts to release the dinghy were unsuccessful. We remained afloat for twenty minutes by keeping closely together and finally attracted the attention of one of the German destroyers which altered course and hauled us aboard.
Meanwhile, the Hudson crews continued to fly reconnaissance patrols and harass enemy merchant shipping along the Norwegian and North Sea coasts. Single aircraft ranged far and wide along the shipping routes and, on locating a target, would report its speed and position so that a striking force could be despatched to attack. On occasion the reconnaissance aircraft also attacked targets that were less heavily defended. Altogether the work done by the crews of these lone aircraft, in the face of opposition from enemy fighters and shore defences, was of a high order. But too often the Hudsons, intercepted in clear skies by German aircraft of superior perform- ance, failed to return from their patrols. Typically, on 15 July the Hudson flown by Squadron Leader Pederson1 disappeared during a long reconnaissance patrol off the Norwegian coast. No message was received from the aircraft and nothing was heard of its fate. Pederson had flown Ansons and Hudsons in the early months of the war and then, after a period of ferrying duties, had returned to Coastal Command to fly anti-shipping patrols as flight commander in No. 48 Squadron.
1 Squadron Leader V. A. Pederson; born Manunui, 28 Oct 1913; joined RAF Dec 1938; killed on air operations, 15 Jul 1942.
This stronger protection given his merchant shipping won for the enemy a temporary victory; Coastal Command was forced to give up low-level attacks and revert to medium level bombing—a change in tactics which reduced British casualties but also seriously reduced the accuracy of the attacks, since a relatively efficient bomb sight for use in medium level bombing was not yet available. It was clear that to continue the offensive effectively it would be necessary to develop a new form of attack. The stage had also been reached where the Hudson as an anti-shipping aircraft, and indeed, even for reconnaissance purposes in the North Sea, was almost obsolete. Its replacement by the Beaufighter for those duties and also as a torpedo aircraft, which now began, was already overdue. Meanwhile, as a temporary expedient Hampden bombers were employed in anti-shipping operations, but these aircraft were really not suitable for the type of strike warfare that was now envisaged, since their slow speed made it impossible for the faster cannon-firing Beaufighters to achieve co-operation with them in such operations. The only way in which they could be used effectively was in torpedo attacks along the Norwegian coast, where the enemy’s convoys were less heavily escorted than off the Dutch coast.
In the following weeks the Hampdens searched for enemy shipping along the south-west coast of Norway and also flew anti-submarine patrols to the north of Scotland. An interesting mission was flown on 21 August by Flying Officer Tidy2 and his crew, who met and escorted the aircraft carrier Victorious and the battleship Rodney during the last stage of their passage to Scapa Flow. Early September patrols over northern waters were uneventful, but during the third week the squadron suffered its second loss when Flying Officer Murray3 and his crew failed to return from patrol. A message received from the Hampden nine hours after take-off indicated that it had been battling against head winds, was short of fuel and would have to land in the sea. Intensive air searches during the next few days proved fruitless.
1 Sergeant G. A. Jones; born Dunedin, 8 Jun 1912; wool worker; joined RNZAF Dec 1940; killed on air operations, 11 Aug 1942.
A few weeks later, on anti-shipping reconnaissance between Egero and the Naze, Richardson and his New Zealand crew consisting of Flight Sergeants McKenzie1 and Hyde2 and Sergeant Gaskill,3 sighted a transport of some 4000 tons. The ship’s gunners opened fire, but Richardson immediately went in to launch his torpedo and it was seen to strike the enemy vessel almost amidships. While turning away after the attack the Hampden was hotly engaged by a Junkers 88, but the gunners were able to drive it off and the bomber returned to base without further incident.
As winter approached, the crews flying patrols along the Norwegian coast frequently met low cloud, sea fog or storms. Such conditions prevailed on 7 November when five Hampdens took part in an extensive but unsuccessful search for the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, which was believed to be off the south-west coast of Norway. Patrols on the 15th, however, proved more fruitful. On that day eleven Hampdens were ordered to search the north-west coast of Norway in the neighbourhood of Stadlandet, the point on the Norwegian coast where enemy ships in their southward journey were forced to leave the shelter of the chain of islands along the coast. On reaching their patrol area the formation divided, and shortly afterwards three Hampdens—two of them piloted by Flying Officer Nilsson and Warrant Officer Dunn—sighted a small convoy. The bombers turned in and launched their torpedoes, but unfortunately the first two broke up in the extremely rough sea. Dunn’s torpedo was seen to hit the rear vessel in the convoy. A great vertical sheet of spray covered the ship, and when this subsided she was seen to be listing heavily and settling in the water. On the return flight, as so often happened, the tired crews flew through rain and sleet to find considerable haze over their base and landing proved difficult.
Meanwhile, during the second half of 1942, a new and stronger form of air attack was being developed—the ‘wing strike’—in which the New Zealand Squadron was later to play a prominent part. There had already been considerable discussion of the relative merits of torpedo and bombing attacks on enemy shipping, and now on the basis of results achieved both in the Mediterranean and in European waters, it was decided that the torpedo attack gave the best promise of successful development at this stage; an anti-shipping strike force should be built up to operate in daylight against the heavily defended convoys such as were now moving along the Dutch coast. It was to be composed of torpedo-carrying aircraft of high speed and manoeuvrability, and fighter aircraft of similar speed and endurance; the latter would provide cover during the torpedo attack by saturating the enemy’s flak defences with cannon fire. The aircrews of this force would be trained and briefed together in order to achieve perfect co-operation. This, together with the similarity in performance of the fighter and strike aircraft, would then make possible the high degree of synchronisation essential for success.
Among the New Zealanders who flew on this first strike wing operation was Squadron Leader G. D. Sise, who led the formation of torpedo-carrying Beaufighters from No. 254 Squadron. Shortly after making a most determined attack at close range on a large supply ship, the principal vessel in the convoy, his Beaufighter was badly damaged by flak from the escorts. With some difficulty Sise retained control of his machine, and then he was almost immediately attacked by three enemy fighters. He managed to avoid most of their attacks although his aircraft was again hit. Finally he got his Beaufighter clear and after a difficult flight reached the English coast, where in failing light and poor visibility he made a crash landing on the beach.
By December 1942 the aerial campaign, particularly the minelaying from the air, was beginning to interfere seriously with the enemy’s seaborne supplies, and his fear of air attack was now very real. Evidence of this was to be found in stronger forces of minesweepers and flak ships accompanying convoys, and in the greater inducements being offered to the Swedes for the use of their ships. In fact, the large bonuses paid to Swedish crews to sail as far as Rotterdam soon led to this route becoming known among them as ‘the gold coast’. Although efficient reorganisation of the enemy’s shipping resources during the last months of 1942 was, for the time being, to offset the effect of the air attacks, German anxieties in this respect were by no means relieved. In December the newly appointed Reichkommissar for shipping was reporting to Hitler:
It has been possible by the utilisation of all available ships to fulfil the supply programme to Norway. However, in view of the regularly accruing losses and the continually increasing amounts of cargo which are required by Norway, it can under no condition be reckoned that the transport programme in the coming year can be accomplished in the same manner.
He had good reason for his pessimism. With the intensification of Bomber Command’s minelaying campaign and the development of torpedo attacks by the strike wings of Coastal Command, the next twelve months were to see the denial of the North Sea to German shipping in daylight and the virtual closing of the vital port of Rotterdam.