Episodes & Studies Volume 2
WEST AFRICA and No. 490 (NZ) SQUADRON
WEST AFRICA and No. 490 (NZ) SQUADRON
THE OPERATIONS begun in May 1941, which drove his U-boats away from the British coasts, led the enemy to seek farther afield for weak spots in the defence of Allied merchant shipping. At that time such places were not difficult to find, and off Freetown a group of six U-boats sank no fewer than thirty-two ships during the next month. But thereafter, as air bases were established and surface escorts increased, the sinkings diminished steadily, until by 1943 they were almost negligible. 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, proved irksome and monotonous.
New Zealanders had taken a prominent part in the establishment of the first base for anti- submarine aircraft in West Africa. When the first three Sunderlands left the United Kingdom to fly to Freetown and form No. 95 Squadron, two of them were piloted by Flight Lieutenant C. E. W. Evison22 and Flying Officer S. G. Baggott.23 Another New Zealand pilot, Flight Lieutenant T. P. Gibson,24 sailed in charge of the first ground party. All three had flown Sunderlands over the Western Approaches from the early days of the war. Subsequently Evison was to command the squadron and Baggott to become a flight commander. Another RAF Sunderland squadron sent to West Africa was commanded for a time by Wing Commander H.J.L. Hawkins25 and then by Wing Commander A. Frame.26
During 1943 about seventy New Zealanders served with the squadrons based in West Africa, the majority with No. 490 (NZ) Squadron although each of the RAF units along the coast had its small group of men from the Dominion. The patrols then flown by these squadrons practically closed the gap on the shipping route from Gibraltar to the Cape. Convoys were met as they entered the area and escorted by relays of aircraft from base to base along the coast. In addition, offensive sorties were flown against U-boats patrolling in the area or in transit to the Indian Ocean, and searches were made for survivors from torpedoed vessels. But the U-boats, captained by experienced officers, were operating with great caution on the fringe of the area swept by the air patrols. Consequently most of these patrols were without incident, and the routine flying over the sea did little to relieve the boredom of life in isolated tropical bases. The climate was unhealthy and treacherous, sudden storms of great violence being frequent at certain seasons of the year.
Jui, the base near Freetown from which No. 490 Squadron began operations at the beginning of July 1943, was not a particularly pleasant spot. The name itself meant ‘swamp of death’. The station was built on a low spur running out into an estuary where the Catalina flying boats were moored. Surrounding it were dense, steamy, mangrove swamps while farther back were high hills which cut off the sea breezes that would have freshened the heavy, stagnant atmosphere. The humidity, especially in the wet season, was excessive.
No. 490 Squadron had begun to form at Stranraer, on the west coast of Scotland, at the end of March 1943, under Wing Commander D. W. Baird.27 The first three crews had already arrived and others followed during the next two months. Among them were several New Zealanders who had already distinguished themselves in operations with Coastal Command. One was Flight Lieutenant P. R. Godby,28 who had flown Ansons during the early days of the war with No. 48 page 30 Squadron. Others were Flight Lieutenant A. Frame, who had operated with a Sunderland squadron from Oban at the same time, and Flight Lieutenant A. M. Foster,29 who had been with the Fleet Air Arm at the outbreak of war. A few New Zealanders came from Bomber Command.
The squadron's Catalinas were named after the New Zealand provinces and the first two aircraft, piloted by Wing Commander Baird and Flying Officer H. K. Patience,30 flew to West Africa in the middle of June, the others following during the next few weeks. Operations were begun at once and before long the squadron had achieved an enviable reputation for good serviceability and general efficiency which it maintained throughout its sojourn in West Africa to the end of the war, in spite of the fact that most of its later work, under Wing Commander B. S. Nicholl,31 was exacting and very monotonous.
During August 1943 there were several incidents off the West African coast in which New Zealanders played a prominent part. The first was the rescue of survivors from the merchant ship Fernhill, torpedoed 400 miles off Freetown at midnight on 6 August. Flying Officer R. M. Grant32 was captain of the Catalina from No. 490 Squadron which set out upon receipt of the vessel's distress signal. Within five minutes of reaching the reported position, two lifeboats and three rafts were sighted, containing thirty-nine survivors. Emergency packs, a wireless transmitter, and a bundle of clothing were dropped to them, the clothing being supplied by the aircrew from what they were wearing at the time. It was a nearly naked crew that returned to base after remaining with the survivors for five hours. As a result of their messages a corvette had been directed to the rescue, but before it reached the survivors, Flying Officer N. A. Ward,33 flying another 490 Squadron Catalina, had succeeded in leading a merchant ship to the scene to pick them up. This vessel was then escorted to port by a third Catalina from the same squadron.
A few days later, on 11 August, Ward attacked a German U-boat. He was flying as second pilot to his squadron commander and happened to be at the controls when the U-boat was sighted three miles away. It was only just visible in the fairly heavy sea that was running. The Catalina immediately went in to attack, dropping four depth-charges. These fell slightly astern of the submarine, causing its bows to rise out of the water and remain so for a short time. After turning in small circles, as if its steering had been damaged, and exchanging fire with the Catalina, the U-boat finally submerged. A fifth depth-charge unfortunately failed to release during the attack. However, considerable consolation was derived from the fact that it also held fast during landing.
On the same day and about the same hour, Flying Officer L. A. Trigg34 made a most gallant attack on another U-boat about ninety miles farther north. It was his first operational sortie in a Liberator aircraft. His unit, No. 200 Squadron, was only in process of converting from Hudsons to the new type of aircraft, but as several U-boats were known to be in the area, it was essential that a Liberator be despatched on patrol that morning. The aircraft took off from Rufisque, near Dakar, shortly after dawn. Four hours later a surfaced U-boat was sighted and Trigg prepared to attack. The enemy submarine did not attempt to submerge. Instead it engaged the Liberator with its anti-aircraft guns, scoring repeated hits and setting the aircraft on fire during its approach. Trigg continued with his run in and made such an accurate attack that the U-boat sank a few minutes later. Unfortunately, immediately after making the attack, the Liberator crashed into the sea. There were no survivors.page 31
When the aircraft failed to return to its base, a search was organised, and during the next afternoon a Sunderland sighted a dinghy containing several men who were reported as survivors from the missing Liberator. It was not until a naval vessel reached the scene on the following morning that the occupants of the dinghy were found to be seven Germans, the only survivors from the U-boat. By a strange irony of fate the dinghy was one which had floated free from the Liberator at the moment of the crash. It had been found and inflated by one of the Germans half an hour after the U-boat sank. Among the survivors was the U-boat commander, who expressed sincere admiration of the pilot's courage in not allowing the submarine's heavy and accurate fire and the precarious condition of his aircraft to deter him from pressing home his attack.
‘We sighted an aircraft and engaged it with all our guns,’ he declared. ‘As the machine was coming in to attack, it was hit and set on fire. Although his plane was well alight the pilot continued the attack, releasing his depth-charges from a height of fifteen metres. We could see our fire entering through its open bomb doors as the aircraft passed over us. Then the depth- charges burst near the submarine and I momentarily lost sight of the machine. However, I recovered from the shock in time to observe it dive straight into the sea.’
Flying Officer Trigg was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Only a few weeks earlier he had received the Distinguished Flying Cross for two skilful attacks against U-boats whilst protecting a West African convoy in March 1943.
The members of his crew who perished with him were Flying Officer J. J. Townshend, of Stroud, Gloucestershire, Pilot Officer G. N. Goodwin, of Vresto, British Columbia, Flight Sergeant R. Bonnick, of Hendon, London, and four New Zealanders, Flying Officer I. Marinovich,35 Flight Sergeant A. G. Bennett,36 Flight Sergeant L. J. Frost,37 and Flight Sergeant T. J. Soper.38
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In this brief account it has only been possible to mention the names of a few of the New Zealanders who flew with the anti-submarine squadrons in the Battle of the Atlantic, and the incidents described represent only the highlights of the struggle. It must be emphasised that most of the work done by the aircrews of Coastal Command was long, dull, hard, and drudging toil, lightened by only occasional flashes of combat and sudden attack. Many men flew hundreds of hours on reconnaissance, on anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts, with never an enemy sighting. Through fine weather and foul, by day and by night, the patrols went relentlessly on. Crews weary from hours of buffeting with storms, hundreds of miles from land, would return to their bases to meet others going out to face the same storms. They were partners, in a grim struggle against a determined enemy, with the men of the Allied merchant and naval vessels, without whose sacrifices and devotion to duty the U-boats would not have been beaten. Only as a result of the combined effort were the sea routes kept open and the invasion of the Continent and final victory made possible.