Episodes & Studies Volume 2
NORTH ATLANTIC PATROLS
NORTH ATLANTIC PATROLS
ON THE MORNING of 22 April 1943 a Coastal Command Liberator from Iceland landed at Goose Bay airfield in Labrador after an 18-hour patrol. Its crew, which included two New Zealanders, the co-pilot and the navigator, were stiff and tired after their long flight. They had taken off from Reykjavik early the previous afternoon, met a convoy in mid-Atlantic, and remained with it for nearly five hours. During this time a U-boat was sighted and attacked. Then, after receiving a message from base advising a deterioration in landing conditions there, the Liberator had flown on across the Atlantic. It was the first operational aircraft to land at Goose Bay.
This patrol is of particular interest as it illustrates an important stage that had been reached in the Battle of the Atlantic—the stage when air cover could at last be provided over the whole of the North Atlantic convoy route. It was the climax of a campaign which had begun three years before when a steadily increasing fleet of U-boats had operated successfully in the focal points of shipping— the Western Approaches to the British Isles and later off the American seaboard. Then, as the number and range of shore-based aircraft on either side of the ocean increased, the U-boats had continued their depredations in mid-Atlantic, outside the range of air cover.
The land planes and flying boats of Coastal Command were now operating to the limit of their various ranges and endurance in order to give the maximum possible protection to threatened convoys. Sorties averaged from ten hours in the case of Wellingtons to seventeen with the VLR* Liberators and even longer with Catalinas. The patrols they flew were of three main types. First, there was the ‘close escort’ during which the aircraft, after meeting the convoy and exchanging recognition signals, remained in its vicinity, carrying out searches on the orders of the senior naval officer on one of the escort vessels. Second, there were offensive patrols sweeping on parallel tracks over the convoy's path and along its flanks. These patrols were timed so that some aircraft reached the ships at dawn, while relieving aircraft later in the day flew beyond the convoy, returning over or near it about dusk, the U-boat's favourite hour for attack. Many sightings and attacks resulted from these tactics. Sometimes it was a shadowing U-boat that was depth-charged from the air.
* Very long range. They carried minimum armament, fewer depth-charges, and extra fuel.
At other times it was a pack gathering for the assault. Several times U-boats were sunk as a result of close co-operation between aircraft and the surface vessels of the escort, signals being exchanged by radio-telephone or, when radio silence was essential, by Aldis lamp.
The third type of air patrol was the independent hunt over areas of the ocean where U-boats were known to be lurking, their presence having been discovered by sightings or by the interception of their radio transmissions. The information collected from such sources was sent to the operational units so that crews could be briefed before setting out on their missions.
The month of February 1943, when sixty-three ships were lost, saw bitter and prolonged engagements between the U-boat packs and the air and surface escorts. An example of the growing value of air support occurred during the passage of one convoy of sixty-four ships which left New York for the United Kingdom on 25 January. Air cover from West Atlantic bases was provided for the first week of the voyage, which was uneventful. On the morning of 4 February the ships were sighted by a patrolling U-boat, a pack assembled, and during the next two days five vessels were lost. One U-boat was sunk in counter-attacks by the surface escorts. From the morning of the 6th, in spite of rough weather, which at one time caused the convoy to be spread over fifty square miles of ocean, the maximum possible air cover was provided from bases in Iceland and later from the United Kingdom. Ten U-boats were sighted and depth-charged from the air during the following forty-eight hours, one being sunk outright. Thereafter no further attacks were made on the ships, which reached port four days later.
The first aircraft to reach the convoy on the 6th was a Liberator from Iceland with Sergeant H. J. Bennett,6 as pilot, and Sergeant V. B. McKeague7, navigator. Three U-boats were attacked during their close escort patrols, the aircraft remaining with the ships for seven hours at a distance of more than eight hundred miles from its base. The following morning Sergeant W. M. Easton8 was with a Fortress from a base in the Hebrides which attacked a U-boat near the same convoy. Rain and low cloud enabled the aircraft to achieve complete surprise as the four lookouts were seen in the conning tower as the depth-charges fell. Their explosions engulfed the U-boat, which disappeared leaving a large patch of oil on the surface. On the same day Flying Officer B. W. Turnbull,9 as captain of a Liberator from Iceland, attacked a German submarine sighted right in the path of this convoy, about thirty miles in front of the leading ships. A few months later Turnbull completely destroyed another U-boat in the same area, under similar circumstances. After the explosions of the depth-charges had subsided the German submarine was seen to break in half. The bow and stern both rose well out of the sea and then sank inwards almost vertically. Subsequently some thirty of the crew were seen amidst wreckage.
During these months New Zealand airmen were involved in a number of similar episodes. One of them, Flight Sergeant J. D. Ackerman,10 was navigator of a Fortress which sank two U-boats within a few weeks. The second success was scored in the middle of March when heavy air protection was provided for two inward-bound convoys routed close together. They were attacked by a pack of some forty U-boats. Thirteen vessels had been sunk during one day while the ships were outside the range of air cover. The surface escorts, hopelessly outnumbered, were unable to repel the mass attacks which took place. The next day every long-range aircraft that could be spared joined in the battle. Nineteen attacks resulted and finally the enemy's effort was broken. This was achieved not so much by the few definite kills as by the density of the air cover provided and the close co-operation between the surface vessels and aircraft protecting the ships.page 13
U-BOAT BEACHED near Oran
Aircrew & Ground Staff
No. 490 SQUADRON
GROUP, July 1943
Jui, West Africa
The aircraft is a Catalina
(Left) WING COMMANDER M. A. ENSOR, DSO and bar, DFC and bar
(Right) GROUP CAPTAIN A. E. CLOUSTON, DSO, DFC, AFC and bar
HUDSONS LEAVING ON PATROL Iceland
MAINTENANCE BASE Jui, West Africa
COASTAL COMMAND LIBERATOR ABOUT TO DROP A SMOKE-FLOAT as a navigational aid for ocean flying. A back bearing taken on this marker enabled the navigator to check his drift
During March 1943, 108 ships totalling 627,000 tons were lost. In the following month the losses fell to fifty-six vessels of 328,000 tons, and by the middle of May it was clear that the tide of battle in the North Atlantic was turning in favour of the Allies. Sixteen U-boats had been sunk during April and, in addition, the constant harassing from the air was having its effect. No longer could the enemy submarines approach convoys and remain immune from counter-attack. The time when one U-boat could remain on the surface shadowing a convoy, while it ‘homed’ others to from a pack, was passing. The assembling packs were broken up and forced under by the air patrols, often many miles from the ships, while the shadower itself was on several occasions destroyed before it could even begin transmission. Towards the end of May a slow convoy of thirty-seven ships crossed the North Atlantic without the loss of a single vessel, although trailed throughout most of its passage by a large group of German submarines.
‘It is more and more difficult for the U-boats to attack convoys,’ declared Admiral Luctzow about this time. ‘The increased air support given to the Allied ships has neutralised the U-boat's most powerful weapon—invisibility.’
The lull which followed meant that the air patrols in the North Atlantic became very monotonous. Indeed, even during the months when U-boat activity was at its peak in that region, many airmen flew hundreds of hours without sighting an enemy. This applied particularly to those engaged in covering areas closer to the British Isles. Nevertheless, their presence over these waters ensured the safe passage of shipping in the Western Approaches, which, two years earlier, had been the scene of very heavy sinkings.
Their patrols, so often lacking in incident, and frequently flown in vilc weather, demanded quiet courage, endless patience, and constant vigilance. The pilots, particularly those in the flying boats, had to possess many of the qualities of the sailor. Indeed, from the earliest days of their training they were brought into close association with the Royal Navy. Tactical exercises with ships and submarines helped to develop the technique of co-operation and to give the pilots a knowledge of the vessels they were likely to encounter. In addition, the pilot who was captain of an aircraft had to weld his crew into a team, and he had to know something of the work of each man in the crew.* On days when they were not flying he would get his men 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. In this way good teamwork was achieved and, in most crews, men came to know a great deal of each other's work, so that in an emergency they could undertake another's job as well as their own.
There are no landmarks five hundred miles out in the Atlantic and the crews flying patrols over that ocean saw no land of any kind for most of their flight. They had to find their way, relying on instruments for their guidance, over vast spaces, marked only by the changing lanes traced upon the surface by the wind. The navigator was thus a most important member of each crew. The problems which faced him literally changed with the changing winds. His fast-moving craft was not travelling in an element whose tides and currents have been known, charted, and set down in tables for many years. He was forced to rely upon weather reports and forecasts. In spite of the splendid service provided by the ‘met’ men, changes in the direction and speed of the wind in the areas through which his machine had to fly could not always be calculated accurately in advance.
In the early years, each flight was a navigational adventure. Later, as wireless and radar aids were developed and astro-navigation more widely used, the task of the navigator was made somewhat easier. But the greater distances then flown still made his work very exacting, as he had no relief throughout a flight. In a Catalina, for example, he might be continuously engaged at his job, in cramped conditions, for upwards of twenty hours without a break. It was also the navigator's duty to keep an accurate log of each flight. As well as recording every alteration of course and every calculation of drift, the log included the text of all messages sent and received, all sightings of ships and other aircraft, with appropriate details. Weather observations were also made, usually at the western extremity of the patrol. These meteorological reports took the place of the peacetime reports from ships, now forced to remain silent. They contributed much to the successful planning of operations, naval and military as well as air.page 23
The work of the navigator was supplemented by that of the wireless operator-air gunners, who interchanged their duties to afford some relief on long patrols. As radar sets were fitted to anti- submarine aircraft, these men specialised in operating them, although in the course of a patrol most members of a crew would take turns of duty at the set—the ‘magic eye’ which revealed, beyond visual range, the presence of objects on the surface of the sea. The work of an air gunner remained important, even in areas where enemy aircraft were not likely to be encountered. His duty then was to watch continuously the surface of the sea within his field of vision and to report anything he sighted. Ships straggling from convoy, lifeboats or rafts containing survivors from torpedoed ships, were sometimes discovered as a result of his vigilance. The wireless operator, on the other hand, saw little of what occurred outside his aircraft. Crouched over his radio, 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 because of deteriorating weather at the home airfield. There were occasions when it was entirely due to his alertness that a faint SOS was received from a lifeboat's weak transmitter or from another aircraft about to land in the sea. In the larger aircraft another important member of the crew was the engineer whose duty was to watch the behaviour of the engines, to check cylinder temperatures, oil pressures, and petrol consumption. He also kept a record of each patrol so that any fault could be dealt with speedily by the maintenance staff on return.
Thus each member of a crew had his allotted task and every patrol successfully completed was the result of efficient co-operation in carrying out these duties. While many flights involved little incident there was always a report to be made on landing. If there had been an encounter with the enemy or if anything unusual had occurred, each member of the crew was called upon to give details as he had seen them. When the interrogation was completed and the meteorological officer had received his report, along with some good-natured chaff about his forecast, the weary crew made their way to their billets for a few hours' rest. Later they might be found round an old piano in the mess singing together one of the many songs which by this time had become popular throughout the Command. One of the best known was the ‘Coastal Anthem’, the words of which, though often varied, went something like this:
We've flown the North Atlantic,
Till it made us almost weep.
The sea was ruddy wet,
Ruddy cold and ruddy deep.
We've been flying all day long,
At a hundred ruddy feet.
The weather was ruddy awful,
Driving rain and blinding sleet.
We've flown on every compass course,
From South to ruddy North,
And we made a ruddy landfall,
In the Firth of ruddy Forth.
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