New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 7 — Air War at Sea
Air War at Sea
BY the end of 1940 aircraft had begun to play a dual role in the war at sea. On the one hand, in co-operation with the Royal Navy, they protected the trade routes, escorting convoys and hunting U-boats and surface raiders; on the other, in a more independent role, they had begun to attack the enemy’s sea communications along the European seaboard with mine, bomb and torpedo. But at this stage, when the initiative lay with the enemy, the emphasis was more on the defensive task—the guarding of the sea lanes by which Britain was receiving the food and supplies upon which her survival depended.
With the German capture of Norway and the occupation of northern France, Britain’s command of her sea approaches was more seriously threatened than it had ever been in the First World War. Air and sea bases were now available to the enemy in the Biscay area and in Norway from which attacks upon British supply routes could more easily be launched. Britain’s harbours and ports were also exposed to heavy air attack. In July 1940 the bombing of ships in the Channel from German air bases in France forced the Admiralty to abandon this route for convoys, and soon the only way by which ships could reach and leave the British Isles was through the narrow passage between the Hebrides and Northern Ireland. With the collapse of their plan to reduce Britain by invasion, the Germans intensified their air and sea attacks on her supplies, so that the closing months of 1940 found Britain fighting for control of the North-Western Approaches as a matter of life and death.
At first, aircraft and surface raiders caused heavy losses. In a three months’ cruise one raider sank 19 merchantmen and sent a further two as prizes to Brest. From September onwards the long-range Focke-Wulf Condors were reporting and bombing convoys in the Western Approaches. These aircraft flew from bases near Brest and Bordeaux right round the British Isles to Norway, where they refuelled and made a return flight the next day. But the U-boats soon proved an even greater menace. The Germans had started the war with 56 of these vessels, less than half of them ocean-going types, yet this small fleet under Admiral Doenitz, himself a former U-boat captain of the First World War, was page 141 remarkable for the skill and audacity of its personnel. By the end of October 1940 they had sunk 471 ships, totalling more than two million tons—this in spite of the fact that the Admiralty had introduced the convoy system soon after the outbreak of hostilities. However, the shortage of British escort vessels, rendered more acute through losses and damage during the evacuation from Belgium and France, meant that, on occasion, no more than two escorts were available for a convoy of 40 merchant ships. While evasive routeing was often successful in getting the convoys through the outer areas, the concentration of shipping in the North-Western Approaches provided many targets.
October was a black month. Two convoys were cut to pieces by U-boats and suffered the loss of no fewer than 31 ships. Surface raiders also took their toll—this was the period of the gallant Jervis Bay action and the epic of the San Demetrio.1 The same month German aircraft were particularly active in attacking ships to the west of Ireland. On 26 October the 42,000-ton Empress of Britain was bombed and set on fire in this area. She was torpedoed and sunk the following day. A further seven ships were bombed and either sunk or severely damaged during the next fortnight. ‘Now our life-line, even across the broad oceans, and especially in the entrances to the Island, was endangered,’ writes the British Prime Minister. ‘I was even more anxious about this battle than the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.’ Plans were made to lay a carpet of thousands of contact mines in the North Channel to prevent U-boats from closing this only remaining entrance to the Mersey and Clyde. In the event, counter measures by the Royal Navy and by Coastal Command succeeded in driving the U-boats farther out and thus overtook preparations for the dynamite carpet. This, however, was but the opening phase of the long and bitter struggle which came to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic.
1 The Jervis Bay, an armed merchant ship, was acting as ocean escort to a convoy of 37 ships when, in the late afternoon of 5 November 1940, they fell in with the German pocket battleship, Admiral Scheer. While the convoy scattered, the Jervis Bay closed with her overwhelming antagonist and opened fire with her old 6-inch guns. Within an hour the Jervis Bay was burning fiercely and out of control. She sank shortly afterwards with the loss of 190 officers and men, including her commanding officer, Captain E. S. F. Fegen, RN. Meanwhile the other ships had scattered and the Admiral Scheer was only able to overtake and sink five before darkness fell. The tanker San Demetrio, carrying 7000 tons of petrol, was set on fire and abandoned. But the next morning the crew reboarded their ship, put out the fire and, without navigational aids, succeeded in bringing her to a British port.
With their steadily expanding U-boat fleet and the development of bases in Norway and in the French Atlantic ports, the Germans were able to increase the scale of their attacks. By March 1941, after a temporary lull during the winter months, a renewed offensive in the Western Approaches was in full swing, with the U-boats hunting in packs and attacking by day as well as by night. ‘I will show that the U-boat alone can win this war,’ declared Admiral Doenitz. ‘Nothing is impossible to us.’ It was no idle boast. Losses mounted alarmingly—142 ships, of over 800,000 tons, were lost in 13 weeks between March and May—some of the sinkings taking place farther out in the Atlantic to the south of Iceland and as far afield as Freetown, West Africa.
Early in March the British Prime Minister decided that ‘extreme urgency was to be given to measures designed to defeat the German attempt to strangle our food supplies and our connection with the United States’, and it now became the prime responsibility of the air squadrons of Coastal Command to assist the Royal Navy in meeting this threat. The organisation by which the naval and air efforts could be co-ordinated was already being enlarged and strengthened. At the centre there was closer liaison between the Admiralty and Coastal Command headquarters in London, while at a lower level there was expansion of the coastal air groups. The geographical boundaries of the coastal groups coincided with those of the naval commands on shore, and in each case the naval and air staffs worked side by side in what were known as Area Combined Headquarters, where the operations room was common to both. It was from these control centres that orders and information were transmitted to the operational bases and to ships and aircraft on patrol. The Area Combined Headquarters which directed the Battle of the Atlantic for the next four years were situated at Liverpool, Plymouth, and Rosyth.
The development of air patrol and attack had been proceeding slowly since the early days of the war. Experience had shown that the best height to fly for visual location of surfaced U-boats was between 1500 and 2000 feet, but increasing vigilance on the part of the U-boat lookouts often resulted in the aircraft being seen by them first. The watch maintained by the German U-boat commanders when patrolling on the surface was of a high order, and from the moment the alarm was sounded, the vessel could be under the surface in 25 seconds. Consequently most of the air attacks were made on swirls or foam marks left on the surface after U-boats had crash-dived. Under such conditions the anti-submarine bombs carried by aircraft were virtually useless, and a modified form of the naval depth-charge was gradually adopted as a more effective weapon. But at first these depth-charges were set to explode at depths of 100 to 200 feet and were at times released up to five minutes after the U-boat had vanished; yet once a submarine completely submerged, its position, in both depth and direction, was a matter for guesswork. Thus very few attacks inflicted serious damage and, until January 1941, only one German U-boat was destroyed by air attack alone. This encouraged Admiral Doenitz to boast that ‘an aircraft has as little chance of hurting a U-boat as a crow has of killing a mole’—a boast which he later had cause to regret.
Various methods were tried to improve the efficiency of the air attacks by reducing the time lag, but until the advent of improved radar no real advance took place. As this equipment became more reliable and was fitted to more aircraft, it proved of vital assistance to aircrews in making an unseen approach, using cloud cover until the last possible moment. But even then it was discovered that, unless the cloud base was fairly low, U-boats could still submerge before the aircraft reached them. The answer was found in making aircraft more difficult to see from the bridge of a U-boat, and after various experiments in camouflage it was discovered that plain white on all sides and under surfaces of the aircraft gave a remarkable degree of invisibility in the cloud and sky conditions prevalent in northern latitudes. This was the origin of the familiar ‘white crows’ of Coastal Command and, with certain refinements, this white camouflage remained the standard colour for anti-submarine aircraft throughout the war.page 144
During 1941, 120 New Zealanders served with the anti-submarine squadrons of Coastal Command as pilots, navigators, wireless operators and air gunners. Many were with the Anson and Hudson squadrons which did valuable work at this period of the war; others flew with the Sunderlands, while several were with the first Whitley and Wellington squadrons to operate against the U-boats. By September 1941, 54 New Zealanders had lost their lives while serving with the command, some when their machines developed engine trouble over the sea, others when they failed to find a landing area in bad weather. In one case a Hudson crashed into a balloon barrage and all the crew were lost. Several crews failed to return from reconnaissance patrols in the vicinity of the enemy coast, while a few disappeared completely on long patrols over the Atlantic.
Throughout the winter of 1940–41 much of their work consisted of flying escort patrols to convoys approaching and leaving the British coast, the length and range of the patrols being governed by the endurance of the various types of aircraft. Such missions were fatiguing and usually very monotonous. The worst enemy was the weather which, in northern and western districts, could be very treacherous. Aircraft might leave their bases in clear weather only to find on their return, six to eight hours later, that cloud or mist had descended, making the location of a base for landing exceedingly difficult. This applied particularly on the west coast of Scotland and in Iceland.
Coastal Command aircraft began to operate from Iceland early in April 1941, and several New Zealanders flew with the first Sunderland squadron and the detachment of Hudsons sent there from the United Kingdom. As well as escorting convoys and hunting U-boats, these aircraft flew regular ‘ice patrols’ over the Denmark Strait as far as Greenland in order to watch the extent and movement of pack ice in that passage, through which German raiders might enter the Atlantic. On the Iceland airfield the Hudsons had to be protected from the fierce and sudden gales by mooring them to concrete blocks and providing windbreaks of lava rock faced with turf. Even so, on one occasion a gale blew six aircraft from their dispersal point, each machine dragging the concrete mooring blocks along with it. A Nissen hut is reported to have ‘taken off’ and ‘crash-landed’ on a runway. These huts, in which the aircrew lived, were constructed of corrugated iron and were half cylindrical in shape. In winter, covered with snow, they looked like the igloos of the Eskimoes. By contrast, in summer lava dust spread over everything, causing sore throats and severely shortening the life of clothing and boots. It was while based in page 145 Iceland that Flying Officer Tye,1 as captain of a Hudson of No. 269 Squadron, had two encounters with U-boats towards the end of August 1941. Both submarines were attacked before they had completely submerged—this in itself was an achievement at this time. On the second occasion the U-boat, in its anxiety to dive quickly, apparently flooded its forward tanks too rapidly as its stern was sticking out of the water at a sharp angle when Tye dropped the depth-charges. A large patch of oil appeared on the surface shortly afterwards.
From June 1941 the patrols began to assume a more offensive character. This was the result of a change in policy, under which close air escort to every convoy was discarded, to some extent, in favour of sweeps and searches in areas where U-boats were known to be lurking—their presence revealed by sightings or by the interception of their wireless transmissions. A few patrols were also flown over the Bay of Biscay in an effort to intercept U-boats proceeding to their stations in the Atlantic. The following months saw a marked increase in the number of sightings and attacks, and although few U-boats were completely destroyed from the air the constant harassing began to have its effect, particularly in the Western Approaches. Sinkings of British shipping in this region fell rapidly as the U-boats began to show a strong disinclination to enter the waters swept by aircraft.
In September 1941 all but 6 per cent of the shipping sunk by U-boat attack was lost in the outer fringe of the area which lay between 400 and 600 miles from the air bases in the United Kingdom and Iceland. It was clear that, in the inner area, air patrols had saved a number of convoys from even being sighted. They had kept the U-boats under and also given timely warning of their presence. Admiral Doenitz now complained that ‘… aircraft were locating and attacking the U-boat dispositions so that their patrols were located and avoided by convoys.’ But as the U-boats moved farther out into the Atlantic, the aircrews flying from western Scotland and Northern Ireland found their patrols becoming extremely monotonous and devoid of incident; moreover, with the onset of the northern winter, they frequently had to fly in vile weather. It was a dull, dreary and unrewarding task —hour after hour in the air, a continuous greyness below and weight of cloud and rainstorms sweeping over the sea, with always the oppressive roar of engines and the whistle of a bitter wind through crevices in the hull. To keep an unblinking and vigilant lookout under such conditions demanded physical and mental endurance of a high order.
‘No ships were sighted during the U-boat patrol or on the return journey to St. Nazaire,’ writes Millar, ‘but there were several crash-dives on account of aircraft. We had little rest because of the cramped conditions but considering the fact that we must have been a considerable nuisance to them, our treatment was very good. We lived in the forward compartment next to the bow torpedo-tubes. Two of us had hammocks slung in the engine-room but I usually slept hugging a torpedo tube. Occasionally we were allowed up in the conning tower at night for a smoke—one at a time.’
In spite of their subsequent discomforts these men, rescued by chance from the Atlantic, were among the fortunate few, since with aircraft operating over such wide spaces of sea it was only on rare occasions that crews were picked up after their machines had come down. Later, when the air-sea rescue organisation was more fully developed, rescues became more frequent.
With the forcing of his U-boats away from the British coasts, which began in April 1941, the enemy began to look for weak spots in the defence of Allied merchant shipping. At that time they were not difficult to find. Off Freetown a group of six U-boats sank no fewer than 32 ships during the next month. But steps to meet this threat were already being taken by providing air bases in this area, and three New Zealanders who had been flying Sunderlands over the Western Approaches from the early days of the war took a prominent part in the establishment of the first base for anti-submarine aircraft in West Africa. Flight Lieutenant T. P. Gibson was in charge of the ground and maintenance party which sailed from the United Kingdom in February 1941. Then, early in the following month when the first three Sunderlands left to fly to Freetown, one was piloted by Flight Lieutenant Evison and another by Flying Officer Baggott. Their initial attempt was not without incident. On the first stage of the flight from Plymouth to Gibraltar, Baggott had an engine failure off Cape Finisterre but managed to reach Gibraltar safely. Evison was forced down in Portugal owing to shortage of petrol and he and his crew were interned. However, they managed to escape and returned to England by way of Gibraltar to collect another aircraft. Meanwhile the third Sunderland had been damaged at Gibraltar in a gale and had to return to England for repairs. Eventually three aircraft reached Freetown separately towards the end of the month. Operations were begun immediately to protect convoys in that area and page 148 a number of successful searches were flown for survivors from torpedoed ships. A typical report of one of the latter missions reads:
6th April, 1941. Sunderland, Captain—Flight Lieutenant T. P. Gibson; airborne Freetown 0545 hours to carry out anti-submarine search. 0712 hours sighted large oil patch and began square search. 0740 hours sighted three lifeboats carrying approximately sixty men. 0827 found and informed M.V. Foremost of position of lifeboats. 0835 back to lifeboats to inform them of ship’s approach. Then patrolled between ship and lifeboats. 1350 hours M.V. Foremost picked up survivors. 1555 hours landed Freetown.
The patrols were continued in spite of maintenance difficulties and the vagaries of a tropical climate. Forty-four inches of rain fell in September while many of the men were still accommodated in tents. Supplies were delayed through ships being sunk, but substitutes were found locally for many things. For example, it was discovered that groundnut oil worked splendidly in the hydraulics; oil pipeline joints were packed with sheets of brown paper, and serviceable oil filters were made from thin paper. A motor boat to act as tender to the flying boats was contrived by removing the engine from a discarded lorry and fitting it to a large dinghy.
By the end of the year more New Zealanders had reached West Africa with No. 204 Squadron from Iceland and No. 200 Squadron from the United Kingdom. With these additional squadrons established in new bases along the coast, the gap in the air patrols over the convoy route between Gibraltar and the Cape was reduced and sinkings diminished. But continued air patrols were necessary to prevent their recurrence, although this routine defensive work, in an area far removed from the main centres of the war, was to prove irksome and monotonous. It was in this region that No. 490 New Zealand Squadron was later to give valuable assistance in convoy protection.
Meanwhile, in the North Atlantic, British counter measures were proving successful. Stronger surface escorts and more frequent air patrols had removed the threat to the North-Western Approaches, so that shipping moved more freely to and from the Mersey and the Clyde. Co-operation between aircraft and escort ships in protecting convoys was steadily improving as the development of radio-telephony made inter-communication easier and quicker. The Senior Naval Officer of a convoy could now direct his attendant aircraft to distant search and the aircraft were able to report results without having to return within visual signalling range. While shipping losses fell, the casualties suffered by the U-boats increased, 17 being destroyed in the Atlantic during the second half of 1941. page 149 By the end of that year the Germans mourned the loss of almost all their ‘ace’ captains of the earlier period. However, this success in clearing the British coasts marked but the first stage in the battle against the U-boats. The German strength was now sufficient to allow penetration into the South Atlantic where ships were torpedoed off the coast of Brazil and off St. Helena. U-boats had also started to enter the Mediterranean; during November 1941 the battleship Barham was sunk off the Libyan coast with heavy loss of life and the famous aircraft carrier Ark Royal torpedoed near Gibraltar. With the entry of the United States into the war after the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the Germans prepared for the U-boat campaign in American waters that was to be the main feature of the war at sea during the early months of the following year.
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A further aspect of the war at sea in which New Zealand airmen took part during 1941 was the assault on German shipping along the extensive coastline between north Norway and the Franco– Spanish frontier. In the early stages the Bay of Biscay area was relatively unimportant commercially, although it later assumed prominence as the European terminal and departure point for some rare and valuable cargoes urgently needed by Germany and Italy. In the North Sea, however, it was different. Ores, particularly iron ore from north Norway and Swedish ores shipped through Narvik, passed down the Norwegian coast, through the Skaggerak and Kattegat to the Kiel Canal; part of the Swedish ores from Baltic ports also went through the canal, to be delivered at Rotterdam and Emden. In the reverse direction cargoes of coal and coke were carried to Norwegian and Baltic ports, while important military supplies also flowed northward along the Norwegian coast, all under the protection of the Luftwaffe.
Three methods of attacking this traffic—by mine, bomb and torpedo—were now being developed by the Royal Air Force, but for some time the mines laid from the air produced the best results. By the end of 1941 the Germans had, according to Lloyds’ and their own records, lost 142 ships totalling 136,870 tons in areas where mines had been laid by aircraft. Others had been damaged and the Germans forced to divert an increasing amount of their war effort to counter measures such as minesweeping, and to the building of ships and their repair.
Minelaying from the air had begun in April 1940 at the time of the Norwegian campaign, and had been continued mainly as an anti-invasion measure. Only towards the end of that year was a page 150 serious effort made to interfere with the enemy’s sea communications along the Dutch and German coasts. New Zealanders serving with both the Hampden squadrons of Bomber Command and the Beauforts of Coastal Command took part in these early mining operations. No. 42 Beaufort Squadron was commanded for the greater part of 1941 by Wing Commander Faville,1 who had been appointed to a permanent commission in the RAF nine years earlier, had specialised in engineering, and had joined Coastal Command in 1937. The mines sown from the air were of the magnetic type, designed to lie on the sea floor—an innovation in warfare as all mines previously used had been buoyant and were moored at fixed depths below the surface. The magnetic mine, which weighed about 1500 pounds, was dropped from the aircraft by parachute to avoid injuring the delicate mechanism on impact with the sea. It was set of by any violent change in the surrounding magnetic field such as would be caused by the passage of a ship above it. Various plant and vegetable code-names were given to the areas where the mines were laid so that, not unnaturally, the operations themselves were referred to as ‘gardening’.
1 Group Captain R. Faville, CBE; RAF; born Christchurch, 5 Aug 1908; permanent commission RAF 1932; commanded No. 42 Sqdn, 1940–41; Coastal Command Development Unit, 1941–42; Group Captain, Operations, HQ Coastal Command, 1944–45.
Nor did the crews of the minelaying aircraft have the satisfaction of seeing the results of their work. There was no target area in which bomb bursts, fires or explosions could be observed. There was the splash of the mine as it entered the water and that was all. Yet the results achieved from this form of attack during 1941 continued to be greater than those obtained by the more spectacular weapons—the bomb and the torpedo.
These more direct methods of attack were developed slowly, and it was not until the spring of 1941 that a real offensive with bomb and torpedo was begun against shipping at sea along the enemy-occupied coast of Europe. Previously a considerable part of the effort of the Coastal Command squadrons in eastern England had been devoted to anti-invasion patrols and the bombing of ‘fringe targets’—aerodromes, railway yards, military depots, and ports along the whole length of the German-controlled coast from Norway to the Spanish frontier. Any bombing attacks on ships had usually been made by single aircraft engaged on reconnaissance. But now the Blenheims and Hudsons began to fly in small formations of two or three, sometimes more, each formation being allocated a particular ‘beat’ off the enemy coast. Furthermore, really low-level attacks became the rule, with aircraft making the best use of cloud cover and evasive action during their swift approach and departure.
Just over eighty New Zealand airmen took part in these operations during 1941 as pilots, navigators, wireless operators or gunners. Two-thirds of them flew with the Blenheim squadrons of No. 2 Group, Bomber Command, which began shipping attacks in March, the remainder with the Hudson and Blenheim squadrons of Coastal Command based in the eastern and southern districts of Britain. On patrol the aircraft flew low over the sea and, as soon as enemy ships were sighted, each pilot picked a target and delivered an attack from mast height. He would fly directly at the ship and, just before a collision seemed imminent, would ease back the control column to lift the aircraft over the vessel, the bombs being released in a closely spaced stick. If these were well aimed, the sides or deck of the ship would be penetrated and a bomb would explode inside, sometimes setting the ship on fire. Then the aircraft skidded round, weaving as much as possible to avoid anti-aircraft fire, and made for home. As they flew low over the ships, there was the ever-present danger that they would strike the masts of a vessel. This happened on several occasions when pilots misjudged their page 152 height. Delayed action bombs1 were used in these attacks, and much experimental work had been necessary to determine the amount of delay required so that the attacking aircraft would not be damaged or destroyed by the explosion of their own bombs.
Crews attacking shipping in the vicinity of the enemy-occupied coasts also had to face the constant threat of interception by enemy fighters. Early in January Pilot Officer Sise,2 of No. 254 Squadron Coastal Command, on a reconnaissance patrol near Bergen, sighted a merchant vessel. While making an attack he was set upon by a Messerschmitt 109 but fortunately, after a brief exchange of fire, his Blenheim was able to escape into cloud. Sise’s report of the encounter ends: ‘No damage. Patrol completed.’ More often though it was the flak from the ships and their escorts which caused aircraft to come to grief, and on many occasions it was only by the exercise of great skill that pilots brought badly damaged aircraft safely back across the North Sea. On 14 February 1941 Pilot Officer Poynter,3 flying a Coastal Command Blenheim, attacked a tanker off the south-west coast of Norway. Afterwards the ship was seen to be on fire with oil burning on the water. But during the attack anti-aircraft fire tore holes in the port wing and fuselage and put elevator control and the undercarriage out of action. It was only by fine airmanship that Poynter got the Blenheim back to England to make a landing without injury to his crew. On return from patrol early in April Pilot Officer Brice,4 captain of a Beaufort of No. 86 Squadron, was not so fortunate. His aircraft crashed on landing and burst into flames. He found the top hatch jammed and was badly burned before he was able to force it open and jump clear. Then he discovered that his rear gunner was still trapped in the burning machine. By this time the wind was blowing flames over the rear hatch, but Brice climbed back on the fuselage and by jumping on the hatch eventually succeeded in forcing it open. He got his gunner clear but suffered serious burns to his hands and face in doing so. His courage was recognised by the award of the George Medal.
1 The Blenheim usually carried four 250-pound or two 500-pound bombs together with four 25-pound incendiaries.
2 Wing Commander G. D. Sise, DSO and bar, DFC and bar; RAF; born Dunedin, 21 Jan 1917; joined RNZAF Oct 1939; Wing Commander, anti-shipping tactics, Coastal Command, 1943–44; commanded No. 248 Sqdn, 1944–45; RAF Station, Mount Farm, 1945; transferred RAF Aug 1947.
Usually these daylight attacks in areas close to the enemy coast were arranged for times and in weather conditions when the German fighter patrols could be avoided. But sometimes the Blenheims were unlucky. On one occasion three of these aircraft were detailed to attack a large tanker which, accompanied by nine escorts, had been sighted in the Channel off the Belgian coast. One of the bombers was flown by Pilot Officer Cooper.3 It was his sixth operational mission. The bombers found and attacked the tanker, but on the homeward flight they were intercepted by Messerschmitts and two Blenheims, including that piloted by Cooper, were shot down. The third, although badly battered, got back with two of its crew wounded, one of them fatally.
1 Air Commodore S. C. Elworthy, CBE, DSO, DFC, AFC; RAF; born Timaru, 23 Mar 1911; permanent commission RAF 1936; commanded No. 82 Sqdn, 1940–41; Operations Staff, No. 2 Bomber Group, 1941; Group Captain, Operations, HQ Bomber Command, 1942–43; commanded RAF Station, Waddington, 1943–44; Air Staff, HQ Bomber Command, 1944; SASO, No. 5 Bomber Group, 1944–45.
On 20 September 1941 Flight Lieutenant Wheeler1 and Pilot Officers Allport2 and Edmunds3 took a prominent part in a midday attack by three squadrons on a convoy of 14 vessels off the Dutch coast. Many of the ships were flying balloons and they were also protected by anti-aircraft vessels. Despite these balloons and the heavy flak, the Blenheims went in low, with front guns blazing, and rose to little more than mast height to bomb. The formation of six aircraft with which Allport and Edmunds were flying reported direct hits on a tanker and a cargo ship, with a probable hit on one of the escorts. However, the Blenheims met considerable anti-aircraft fire. One caught fire and crashed into the sea while two others, including that flown by Allport, were badly damaged and barely managed to get back to base. Wheeler had a narrow escape while leading another section of bombers in the same action. He attacked ‘a big fat one of about 5000 tons which was flying a balloon’, and afterwards reported:
As we went over the ship I had to list my starboard wing sharply to miss the balloon cable and then propelled down between two flak ships. The Blenheim was hit in the starboard engine. The aircraft shuddered and in counteracting the sudden lurch we hit the sea with our port airscrew. Had just managed to pull out when the starboard engine knocked and rattled so badly that I had to throttle down. We hit the sea a second time and I thought we were finished. Again I gave the aircraft all the boost I could and once more we pulled up.
1 Wing Commander A. B. Wheeler, DFC; born Feilding, 11 Feb 1916; farmer; joined RCAF Oct 1940; commanded No. 88 Sqdn, 1944; killed on air operations, 15 Feb 1944.
The crew had many anxious moments during the return flight but, after ‘what seemed an eternity’, succeeded in reaching base. When the Blenheim touched down it was found that the oil pipes had been damaged and there was scarcely any oil left in the tank. Wheeler’s squadron lost two of the six aircraft engaged in this attack: one Blenheim was hit by flak as it approached the convoy and made a belly landing on the sea; the other was blown up by the bombs of a preceding aircraft as it attacked one of the ships. All three pilots, after winning the Distinguished Flying Cross, lost their lives in subsequent operations, Edmunds whilst attacking shipping from Malta in December 1941, Wheeler whilst flying with Bomber Command early in 1944—he had by then risen to command a squadron—and Allport whilst instructing at a flying training unit about the same time.
In the face of the mounting losses and a serious shortage of Blenheim aircraft, the squadrons of No. 2 Group, Bomber Com- mand, were withdrawn from attacks on shipping in the North Sea at the end of October 1941. Some of these units were immediately transferred to Malta, where they continued to score successes against shipping plying between Sicily and North African ports. A limited offensive was continued in the North Sea and along the Norwegian coast mainly by aircraft of Coastal Command. On the night of 3 November a notable success was scored by a single Hampden of No. 144 Squadron on offensive reconnaissance along the Frisian Islands. During a break in the snow and rain squalls which swept across the North Sea, the captain, Pilot Officer Craig,1 sighted a convoy of ten ships. Selecting the largest target, a vessel of some 10,000 tons, he flew in at low level, made an accurate attack and set the ship on fire. It was learnt later that the German general commanding the western anti-aircraft defences was on board this ship and was among those killed as a result of the Hampden’s attack.
The assault ships and their escort of naval craft reached Vaagso just before dawn on 27 December and the landings began at first light.
1 Combined operations were raids on enemy coastal targets in which the services co-operated, the extent of the contribution by air, sea and land units being determined by the nature of the task. The first large-scale raid was made by Royal Navy and Commando units on 4 March 1941, against the Lofoten Islands. The herring and cod oil factories, which had been supplying the Germans with a badly needed product, were destroyed. In addition, over 200 prisoners were taken, including some Norwegian collaborators, and more than 300 volunteers for the Norwegian forces returned with the expedition. On the night of 27 February 1942 a successful raid was made against the German radio-location post at Bruneval, a small village some twelve miles north-north-east of Le Havre. On this occasion the assault force was composed of airborne troops, supported by naval units and a detachment of troops to cover their withdrawal. A month later the German naval base at St. Nazaire was attacked. This port possessed the only dry dock on the Atlantic seaboard capable of holding the Tirpitz. HMS Campbeltown rammed the lock gates and was then scuttled. The next morning five tons of explosives on board detonated, killing some 400 Germans. The dry dock was destroyed together with the pump house and winding gear. Damage was also inflicted on the port and on shipping. The largest of the combined operations in Europe was against Dieppe on 19 August 1942.
The torpedo attacks made on merchant shipping during 1941 were few as only two squadrons of Coastal Command were available for this form of attack. Furthermore, apart from an acute shortage of torpedoes at this period, these same squadrons had to be prepared for diversion at short notice to search for and attack German naval units at sea. The torpedo itself was an awkward weapon when carried by aircraft and launched from the air, but very effective if it hit the target since it exploded beneath the surface. The resulting damage was almost always more severe than that caused by a bomb. The torpedo was an awkward weapon for a number of reasons. It was brittle and if dropped from too great a height, or when the aircraft was travelling too fast, would break up on striking the sea. It was also a difficult weapon to aim, since it was essential that a torpedo entered the water at the correct angle. If badly aimed it would either dive deeply and explode or else might move up and down like a porpoise and be diverted from its target. It could not be aimed too near the target or it would pass underneath. At this stage of the war, when experience and training facilities were lacking, it is not surprising that a large number of the attacks were abortive.1
1 One squadron commander has commented: ‘We had much to learn about the requirements for anti-shipping operations. At first when the Service was equipped with biplanes we were able to profit by the Royal Navy’s experience and adopt similar tactics. But soon after the war began the Vildebeeste was replaced by the Beaufort, and this machine was unfortunately pressed into service before the “bugs” had been removed from the airframe or the engine and before new tactics were evolved—with the faster aircraft there were limitations in dropping speed of torpedoes. The defensive armament of the Beaufort was weak and the inter-communication by W/T was far too slow. These difficulties were not appreciated by those responsible for operations and too much was expected of the aircrew. There was no set operational tour and crews were kept on the job until they were lost or until squadron commanders could force them off on a rest—all too frequently not a rest but the unremitting grind of instructional work at an overcrowded operational training unit.’
2 Wing Commander J. S. Dinsdale, DSO, DFC; Auckland; born Christchurch, 24 Apr 1913; joined RAF Aug 1938; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944; commanded No. 489 (NZ) Sqdn, 1943–44; No. 155 (GR) Wing, Coastal Command, 1944.
We took off from a base in the Shetlands just before dusk, our departure being timed to catch the moon rising over the Norwegian coast. We were part of a small flight engaged on rover patrols, but the formation split up during the passage across the North Sea, some returning because of engine trouble. About twenty minutes after reaching our patrol area we sighted what appeared to be two vessels—one large and one small. But before we could attack the moon was obscured and we ran into a heavy rain squall. When we next sighted the ships we found ourselves between the moon and our target so were forced to fly out of range and manoeuvre into a more advantageous position. In endeavouring to do so we lost the ships in the rain squall and had to stand off until they emerged from the darkness. Then we attacked and saw our torpedo strike home. Our exuberance was, however, short-lived as a few moments later we were attacked by two German aircraft in bright moonlight. But they did not press home their advantage and eventually we lost them in cloud.
Dinsdale had been with the Royal Air Force since 1938, and had flown with No. 42 Squadron from the outbreak of war. Among his early exploits had been a successful attack on a Nazi headquarters at Finse, Norway, in December 1940. He was later to command the New Zealand torpedo-bomber squadron.
On a number of occasions during the second year of the war aircraft of Coastal Command were called upon to search for German warships at sea and to attack them with bomb and torpedo. During the winter of 1940 the aircraft flying from bases in the north of Scotland to watch the gap between Norway and the Shetlands had an almost impossible task. The long hours of darkness, and fighter protection from bases in Norway, made it easy for German commerce raiders to elude the reconnaissance patrols and escape into the Atlantic unobserved. The pocket battleship Admiral Scheer broke out early in November 1940 and operated in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean for the next five months. She sank 19 ships. The heavy cruiser Hipper entered the Atlantic in December and was followed by the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in January 1941. By the end of March the latter two raiders had accounted for 27 ships. They then put into Brest, from which base further operations against British Atlantic shipping were intended. But the German plans were frustrated by Royal Air Force reconnaissance patrols and bombing raids,1 which confined these two ships and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (which joined them in May) to port until February 1942, when they abandoned the idea of operating from Brest and returned to Germany in a spectacular dash up Channel.
1 These raids, in which a number of New Zealanders took part, are described in the next chapter.
New Zealanders in Coastal Command took part in the frequent searches flown to intercept these raiders on their outward and inward voyages. There was particular activity by reconnaissance aircraft towards the end of May 1941, when it was discovered that the new German battleship Bismarck in company with the Prinz Eugen had sailed from Bergen in Norway. On 24 May these ships were brought to action by naval forces in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, when HMS Hood was blown up and sunk and the Bismarck damaged. Flight Lieutenant Vaughan,1 flying with No. 201 Squadron from Iceland, was captain of the Sunderland which had sighted and shadowed the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait that day. The crew of the flying boat witnessed the action between the Bismarck and HM ships Prince of Wales and Hood, during which the bearing and distance of the enemy were frequently signalled visually to the British ships. Later, Vaughan was to signal the position of survivors from the Hood and the fact that the Bismarck was leaving a large trail of fuel oil, indicating that damage had been inflicted on her. Altogether the Sunderland was on patrol for 14 hours.2 On 5 June Vaughan flew a long and difficult reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast, including Narvik Fiord, searching for German naval units. This mission involved a flight of 14 hours from a base in the Shetlands. Vaughan, who had been with No. 201 Squadron at the outbreak of war, lost his life six months later when his aircraft crashed into the Irish Sea owing to engine failure.
2 The subsequent events in connection with the Bismarck are of interest. Following the action with the Hood and Prince of Wales, the German ships were shadowed to the southward until the early hours of the following day, when they were lost in thick weather. Nothing was known of their movements for the next 30 hours. Then, on the morning of the 26th, a Catalina of Coastal Command, flying from a base in Northern Ireland, located the Bismarck in the Atlantic on course for Brest. The net closed in and, after torpedo attacks by naval aircraft and destroyers, the Bismarck was finally sunk by battleships and cruisers on 27 May. The Prinz Eugen, which had not been sighted, succeeded in reaching Brest.
Altogether, throughout 1941, the threat contained in the presence of major German naval units in European waters not only absorbed a considerable portion of the air effort available for the war at sea, but it also severely hampered the development of the bombing offensive against Germany.