New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 2 — Aircraft against U-boat
Aircraft against U-boat
The last months of 1942 had been a virtual paradise for the German U-boats. Within the space of twelve weeks they had sunk no fewer than 271 ships, totalling just over one and a half million tons. Provided with greater resources and a more efficient organisation than they ever possessed in the First World War, the German U-boat command was now making a supreme effort to sever the Atlantic supply lines and frustrate the launching of an Allied offensive in Europe. Hitherto the tonnage of shipping lost in 1917 had been deemed an astronomical figure unlikely ever again to be approached, yet the total losses for 1942, over six million tons, had far exceeded it. ‘In the U-boat war we have England by the throat,’ boasted Goebbels, the Nazi Minister for Propaganda. And if further indication of the enemy's intentions were needed it came with the appointment in January 1943 of Admiral Doenitz, previously in charge of the U-boat arm, to succeed Admiral Raeder as Commander- in-Chief of the German Navy. Doenitz immediately subordinated the requirements of the surface ships to the U-boat flotillas so that, in the fourth year of the war, production continued to outpace losses and more U-boats than ever before put to sea.
On the part of the Allies, while the gravity and extent of the German threat were now realised, there was some uncertainty as to how air power might best be used in meeting it. Attacks on the U-boats at sea were coming to be recognised in some quarters as the most direct and possibly in the long run the most effective method, but, as things were, it was felt that they needed to be supplemented by attacks on the submarines at their point of origin. The factories making component parts, the construction yards, and the operational bases on the French coast were suggested as suitable targets.
Bomber Command had already expended a not inconsiderable effort against the first two objectives but, in accordance with the RAF policy of area bombing, the attacks had been directed principally against the cities themselves rather than against port facilities and factories; apart from the damage to the plant at Augsburg, which had been attacked in daylight during April 1942 with heavy loss, the raids had been without noticeable effect on U-boat production. The plants making component parts for U-boats were many, widely scattered, hard to identify, sometimes inaccessible page 16 from the United Kingdom and difficult to destroy except by very heavy attacks, while a surplus of suitable productive capacity still existed in Germany. The shipyards also presented small targets, often isolated from other suitable objectives and of the type not easily put permanently out of action by bombing. Nevertheless, the submarine menace had become so serious that further attacks on these difficult targets seemed warranted.
As regards the bombardment of the main U-boat bases on the Biscay coast - already undertaken on a limited scale by Bomber Command and the USAAF - both British and American observers entertained profound doubts. Apart from a strong reluctance to cause further damage to French civilian life and property, it was generally conceded that the roofs of the submarine shelters, constructed of reinforced concrete, sometimes over a dozen feet thick, were impervious to any projectiles then available. But many still hoped that, by disorganising the various installations and facilities in the port areas, the turn-around of U-boats at the bases might be slowed down to such an extent that their activity along the Allied shipping lanes would be effectively reduced. The British Admiralty in particular, deeply concerned at the inability to deal with the increasing numbers of U-boats at sea, was most anxious for the Biscay bases to be attacked. At Bomber Command, on the other hand, Air Marshal Harris1 protested vigorously against ‘the employment of his force on a type of operation which could not achieve the intended object.’ However, after a controversy confused by lack of accurate intelligence information, the Admiralty view prevailed, and British and American bombers were directed to continue their attacks on the Biscay bases until it might be conclusively determined whether or not they constituted profitable objectives.
1 Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, Bt, GCB, OBE, AFC, Order of Suverov (USSR); Legion of Merit (US), Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol.), National Order of the Southern Cross (Bra.), Distinguished Service Medal (US); born Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, 13 Apr 1892; served 1st Rhodesian Regiment, 1914–15; RFC 1915; transferred RAF 1918; permanent commission 1919; AOC Palestine and Transjordan, 1938–39; AOC No. 5 Bomber Group, 1939–40; DCAS, Royal Air Force, 1940–41; Head of British Air Staff, Washington, 1941–42; AOC-in-C Bomber Command, 1942–45.
Meanwhile major attacks aimed at U-boat construction in German ports commenced at the beginning of February with a Bomber Command attack on Hamburg, but the principal targets for the British and American bombers were the two great naval bases of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. The RAF raids were particularly heavy. On four nights during February more than 800 bombers went to Wilhelmshaven, while in a single raid on Kiel early in April the force used exceeded 550 aircraft. Bremen was also raided in February, a second attack was made on Hamburg at the beginning of March, while simultaneous raids were delivered against Stettin and Rostock during April. Altogether these six German ports were subjected to ten night attacks in addition to the daylight raids by the American bombers.
New Zealanders flew with RAF squadrons in each of Bomber Command's attacks. In addition, crews from No. 75 Squadron took part in five raids on Lorient, the three major attacks against St. Nazaire, and in both raids on Hamburg; they also flew to Wilhelmshaven, Kiel, and Rostock. Five New Zealand Stirlings failed to return from these missions. Pilot Officers Blincoe1 and McCullough,2 two of the most experienced pilots serving with the squadron, were lost with their crews in the first attack on Hamburg. Another captain, Sergeant Kidd,3 whose aircraft was shot down in a January raid on Lorient, managed to evade capture and after a series of adventures returned to England four months later. The other members of his crew were either killed or made prisoner. Kidd had landed unconscious in a ploughed field after baling out from his burning machine, but the Germans missed him in their search. French people helped him with food, clothing, and shelter and eventually ‘arranged’ his journey down through France and over the Pyrenees into Spain.
In April 1943 Bomber Command was relieved of its commitment to attack the U-boat bases and specific construction facilities, although the offensive was continued for a time by the United States 8th Air Force. There was, particularly in the British Air Staff, a growing feeling that the heavy bombers would achieve a greater overall result and still contribute to the U-boat war if their attacks were concentrated against the main industrial centres in Germany. And while the Admiralty continued to press for further attacks, particularly against the French ports, there were soon more serious doubts in other quarters as to whether bombing could achieve any immediate effect on the operations of the enemy submarine fleet. Fortunately by June the U-boat menace had greatly subsided and the main effort of the Allied bombers could be directed elsewhere.
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As regards the aerial campaign at sea there was, at the beginning of 1943, some difference of opinion on the relative merits of giving close escort to all convoys and, on the other hand, of maintaining offensive patrols in areas of U-boat concentration such as the Bay of Biscay, where the German submarines passed to and from their bases in the French Atlantic ports. But the heavy losses then being suffered in the North Atlantic demanded that the major effort of RAF Coastal Command should be directed to the protection of shipping in this area.
1 During 1943 the main types of operational U-boats used by the Germans were vessels of 517 and 740 tons carrying crews of about 45 and 55 respectively, although they were also building 1600-tonners for longer cruises and supply. The U-boats had two sets of machinery; diesel engines for propulsion on the surface and electric motors for use when submerged, the latter also serving as dynamos for recharging batteries on the surface. Maximum speed on the surface was about seventeen knots, but the normal cruising speed of eight knots gave an endurance of some 10,000 miles. When travelling submerged on both motors top speed was about seven and a half knots, but then battery endurance was only two hours. At lower speeds a U-boat could remain submerged much longer, but the air became so foul that normally the vessel would not stay down for more than twenty hours at a time.
Land planes and flying boats of Coastal Command were now employed to the limit of their range and endurance in order to give the fullest possible protection to threatened convoys, sorties averaging from ten hours in the case of Wellingtons to seventeen hours with the very-long-range Liberators, and even longer with Catalinas. The patrols flown were of three main types. First, there was the ‘close escort’ in which the aircraft, after meeting the convoy and exchanging recognition signals, remained in its vicinity carrying out page 21 searches on the orders of the senior naval officer on one of the escort vessels; secondly, there were offensive patrols sweeping on parallel tracks over the convoy's path and along its flanks. Such patrols were usually 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. These tactics proved highly successful. Sometimes it was a shadowing U-boat that was depth-charged from the air or a pack gathering for the assault would be found and attacked; on several occasions German submarines were destroyed as the result of close co-operation between patrolling aircraft and the surface vessels of the escort, signals being exchanged by radio telephone or, when radio silence was deemed essential, by Aldis lamp. A third type of air patrol was the independent hunt over areas of the ocean where U-boats were known to be lurking, their presence revealed by sightings or by directional fixes from their radio transmissions. Information obtained from such sources was sent to the operational units so that crews could be briefed before setting out on their missions.
The principal weapon employed in the air attacks at this time was the 250-pound depth-charge set to explode at twenty-five feet below the surface, and from four to eight were carried by aircraft according to type and the length of their patrol. The depth-charges were aimed visually by the pilot but released by an electrical distributor so that they fell in an evenly placed stick, the intention being to straddle the U-boat so that one depth-charge fell near enough to cause lethal damage. In order to achieve surprise the aircraft usually patrolled at heights up to 5000 feet according to cloud cover, but the actual attack, which had to be a short and sharp affair before the U-boat crash-dived, was made from about fifty feet. Yet it was not easy to manoeuvre a heavy four-engined aircraft into position for successful attack while the target was still visible. Moreover, the German submarines with their extra pressure hull of high-tensile steel were specially constructed to withstand the underwater blast of depth-charges. Nevertheless as training, tactics, and experience improved the air attacks became more accurate, inflicted greater damage, and more frequently resulted in the complete destruction of a most difficult and elusive target.
Particularly effective during the early months of 1943 were the patrols flown by the Liberators of No. 120 Squadron from Iceland and Northern Ireland and by the Fortresses of Nos. 206 and 220 Squadrons from a base in the Outer Hebrides. Stripped of unessential armament and carrying maximum fuel, these machines were able to reach far out into the Atlantic and cover the area in which the page 22 U-boats were concentrating their attacks. Apart from the enormous deterrent value of their patrols the three squadrons had, by the end of March, completely destroyed ten U-boats, which was almost half the total sunk by the combined Allied air and surface forces in the North Atlantic during the same period. Indeed, while the efforts of those who flew the aircraft of shorter range were successful in keeping the U-boats away from the British coasts, it was the handful of crews flying VLR Liberators and Fortresses who played the more spectacular and decisive part in the North Atlantic battle at this time.
New Zealanders who flew from Iceland with No. 120 Liberator Squadron at this time included two pilots, Sergeants Bennett1 and Turnbull,2 together with Flight Sergeant McKeague,3 navigator, and Sergeant Tingey,4 wireless operator. Of particular interest is the part played by these men in the protection of one large convoy of sixty-four ships which crossed the Atlantic to the United Kingdom early in February. Bennett and McKeague flew in the first Liberator from Iceland to reach the ships in mid-Atlantic after an urgent call for air cover. Although the convoy was more than 800 miles from the air base in Iceland, the Liberator found the ships and remained with them for seven hours, sighting and attacking three U-boats during its escort patrol. The following day Turnbull and Tingey were in the crew of another Liberator which attacked a U-boat in the path of the same convoy. A second U-boat was attacked near the ships that day by a Fortress of No. 206 Squadron which had flown far out from the bleak and windswept airfield at Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. Sergeant Easton5 was a member of the crew. Rain and low cloud enabled the Fortress to achieve complete surprise and the four German lookouts were still on 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.
During the early months of 1943 the efforts of crews who flew patrols over the Atlantic were more frequently rewarded by sighting and attack, but few New Zealanders with Coastal Command were as fortunate as Pilot Officer Ackerman,1 navigator of a Fortress bomber which sank two U-boats within the space of a few weeks. The second attack was one of several made in the middle of March when two inward-bound convoys, routed close together, were being trailed and intermittently attacked by a pack of some thirty U-boats; thirteen vessels had been sunk during one day while the convoy was outside the range of air cover. The surface escorts were hopelessly outnumbered and unable to repel the mass attacks that took place. During the next few days every long-range aircraft that could be spared joined in the battle; nineteen U-boats were sighted and attacked, and finally the enemy's effort was broken. The intensity of the air cover and frequent depth-charging proved too much for the German U-boat commanders.
Among the aircraft which took part in this action were Liberators from No. 86 Squadron, recently converted to this type of bomber. One crew, with an Australian captain and a New Zealander, Sergeant Lloyd,2 as second pilot, attacked two U-boats after they had flown nearly 800 miles from an airfield in Northern Ireland to cover the convoy in the early stages of the enemy assault. On their next three sorties this same crew attacked four more U-boats – a remarkable experience even in this period of intense activity. On the third patrol early in April, when they were again escorting a convoy at extreme range from their base, a U-boat which they depth-charged near the ships is known to have been destroyed.
During April, when altogether seven U-boats were destroyed by air attack, one of the most dramatic encounters was that reported towards the end of the month by Sergeant Gamlin2 and his crew of No. 206 Squadron. Their Fortress was sweeping along the flank of a large convoy when a U-boat was sighted surfacing. By the time the bomber had turned and commenced its run in to attack, the submarine was fully surfaced and had opened fire from machine guns mounted on the conning tower. Undeterred, the aircraft continued its approach and the crew were elated to see their depth-charges fall in a perfect straddle. When the explosions subsided the bow of the U-boat was jutting out of the water at a steep angle, and a few moments later it sank almost vertically. The Fortress circled and prepared to make a second attack with its two remaining depth-charges but it was soon obvious that this would not be necessary. A large patch of oil covered the sea, in which were pieces of the U-boat and some twenty to thirty members of its crew.
The months of April and May 1943 brought a remarkable change in the situation in the North Atlantic as the balance of advantage swung in favour of the Allies. In April merchant shipping losses fell to fifty-six vessels totalling 328,000 tons and in May they dropped further to fifty vessels of 265,000 tons. On the other hand, fifteen U-boats were destroyed in April and thirty-eight in May.
This closing of the gap, which had long been the aim of RAF Coastal Command, is well illustrated by a patrol flown towards the end of April by a Liberator of No. 120 Squadron. Two New Zealanders, Flight Sergeant McKeague and Sergeant Bennett, were among its crew. The bomber took off from its base near Reykjavik in Iceland early on the afternoon of 21 April, met a convoy in mid-Atlantic and remained with it for nearly five hours, during which time a U-boat was sighted and attacked. Then, after receiving a message from Iceland reporting a deterioration in landing con- ditions, the Liberator flew on across the Atlantic and landed the following morning at Goose Bay airfield in Labrador after a flight of nearly eighteen hours.
Gradually the increase in the range and strength of the Allied forces began to have its effect. There were still well over a hundred U-boats at sea at any one time and the German building yards were producing more than sufficient new vessels to make up for their losses, but for the first time the U-boat captains showed definite signs of losing heart, failing to press home their attacks even when favourably placed for doing so. The air patrols continued relentlessly, and the constant harassing from the air was a very strong deterrent. No longer could the enemy submarines approach convoys and remain immune from counter-attack. The time when a U-boat could stay on the surface shadowing a convoy while it homed others to form a pack was now passing. The assembling packs would be broken up and forced under by air attack often many miles from the convoys, and on occasion the shadowing U-boat itself destroyed before it could even begin transmissions.
At the end of May 1943 there was a notable achievement when a slow convoy of thirty-seven ships crossed the North Atlantic without the loss of a single vessel, in spite of the fact that throughout most of its passage it was shadowed and trailed by a large pack of U-boats. ‘This success,’ says an official Admiralty report, ‘was achieved largely through the excellent co-operation between the surface escorts and the accompanying aircraft, particularly the strong support provided by the long range Liberators from Iceland operating at great distances from their bases.’
Throughout the following weeks convoys came through with negligible losses and it was soon clear that the Allies had won a considerable victory. This was confirmed by the virtual withdrawal page 26 of the German U-boats from the North Atlantic at the beginning of June. Merchant shipping losses in that month fell to 96,000 tons, the lowest figure for nearly two years. The growing despondency of the German U-boat Command was reflected in various statements and in comments of the enemy press and radio. ‘At present it is more and more difficult for U-boats to attack convoys nor may we hope that the U-boat campaign will lead to a quick decision,’ wrote Admiral Gatow on 9 June, and a few weeks later another German naval expert openly declared that: ‘The increased air support given to the Allied convoys has neutralised the U-boat's most powerful weapon – invisibility.’
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The main centre of interest in the U-boat war now shifted to the Bay of Biscay where squadrons of Coastal Command had long maintained offensive patrols from bases in the south-west of England. During the first half of 1943 New Zealanders continued to fly with the Sunderlands, Whitleys, Wellingtons, Halifaxes and Liberators which kept a constant watch by day and by night over the waters from Cornwall to the north coast of Spain. They also protected shipping in the south-western approaches. One Liberator squadron based at St. Eval in Cornwall was led by Wing Commander A. E. Clouston, who had come to Coastal Command after a distinguished career in experimental flying, while Squadron Leader Brass1 commanded a flight of Leigh Light Wellingtons2 and Squadron Leaders Marshall3 and Baggott4 held senior posts in Sunderland flying-boat squadrons.
1 Wing Commander D. M. Brass, DSO; born Otautau, 1 Dec 1916; joined RAF 1937; served on Atlantic Ferry, 1941; Instructor, No. 3 School of GR, 1941–42; commanded No. 612 Sqdn, 1943–44; CI No. 3 School of GR, 1945.
2 The Leigh Light was a two-million candlepower searchlight, named after the officer responsible for its development; it was fitted in the under-turret of the aircraft. With pilot and radar operator working together, it was possible to locate and home on to surfaced U-boats at night; then at a range of approximately one mile the searchlight would be switched on to illuminate the target, which could then be attacked with depth-charges as by day. The Leigh Light in a modified form was later fitted to Liberators and Catalinas.
3 Wing Commander T. O. Marshall, DFC; born Stratford, 25 Nov 1914; joined RAF 1937; Flying Instructor, No. 4 OTU, 1942; Staff duties, D of AT, Air Ministry, 1943; killed on air operations, 8 Jul 1944.
The introduction of the Leigh Light Wellingtons in the middle of 1942 had made the night patrols more effective, but towards the end of that year, just when Coastal Command's effort began to bring an increase of sightings and attacks, the Germans countered the type of airborne radar then in use by fitting their submarines with a receiver that could detect approaching aircraft. The U-boat commanders were then able to evade attack by crash-diving. The result was that in spite of much patient and persistent effort the campaign against the U-boats in the Bay of Biscay was largely nullified. In fact it did not become really effective until March 1943, when the German U-boat commanders apparently began to lose faith in their search receivers. By that time improved radar was being fitted to Allied machines, and the provision of additional aircraft made possible more frequent patrols by night as well as by day, which gave the U-boats little respite during their passage. The chances of page 28 aircraft catching them on the surface were further increased by the careful selection of patrol areas after sightings were reported or on the receipt of information from other sources.
Even so the Biscay patrols continued to demand much patience and steadfast endurance from the aircrews concerned. The amount of monotonous flying involved is difficult to imagine. There was not even the meeting of a convoy and the subsequent exchange of signals to break the long spell of flying over the sea. After five hours in the air the men might catch a glimpse of the coast of north Spain only to have to turn and begin the long flight northwards again. It was only on rare occasions that a sudden shout from one of the lookouts that he had sighted a possible U-boat provided welcome relief. Yet these alarms sometimes proved disappointing since the efficiency of patrols was marred by the presence of French and Spanish fishing vessels in the Bay of Biscay; much time was often wasted in following up radar contacts or distant sightings of these vessels. On other occasions a German submarine would be sighted when the aircraft was not in a position to make an immediate attack, and before it could turn and reach its target the U-boat would have submerged.
The night patrols during the winter months had been particularly dreary for the crews of the Leigh Light Wellingtons, but towards the end of March 1943, by which time many of the machines had been fitted with improved radar, the patrols began to show better results. A typical attack was made one night towards the end of the month by Flying Officer Lewis,1 captain of a Wellington from No. 172 Squadron. His crew of five included four other New Zealanders. They were nearing the end of the southward leg of their patrol when the radar operator reported a possible target ten miles to starboard. Lewis immediately turned and homed on the contact, losing height at the same time. When the radar operator called the range as just under one mile the Leigh Light was switched on to illuminate a U-boat almost straight ahead; the Wellington swept in to attack and, as the depth-charges exploded, the vessel appeared to heel over on one side before it was lost in the darkness. It was not seen again.
Encounters with surfaced U-boats gave the air gunners more opportunities for proving their skill. Typically, one day towards the end of May a Sunderland from No. 228 Squadron sighted a U-boat, which opened fire and zigzagged as the aircraft approached. The front gunner, Flight Sergeant Armstrong,1 directed his fire with such good effect that several of the German gunners were seen to crumple up on the conning tower. The flak slackened and his captain was able to take accurate aim. As depth-charges exploded the U-boat shuddered violently; soon afterwards it sank, leaving a large patch of oil and some thirty survivors on the surface of the sea. Before joining Coastal Command, Armstrong had flown in the crew of a Wellington bomber in raids on Germany. He had been shot down over the North Sea and picked up by a destroyer an hour later. On a subsequent raid his machine was badly damaged by flak when flying high over Germany. The Wellington went down almost to ground level before the captain could regain control. Armstrong's ears were affected and he was told he could not fly at high altitudes again, but he refused to be repatriated and transferred to Coastal Command Sunderlands, which did not fly at great heights. After taking part in several attacks on U-boats, Armstrong was lost with his crew early in July 1943 when their Sunderland was shot down over the Bay of Biscay after a gallant combat in which the flying boat was heavily outnumbered by enemy fighters.
In a desperate attempt to counter the growing air offensive Doenitz began to send his outward-bound submarines across the bay on the surface in small groups, so that they could give mutual anti-aircraft support. One of the first sightings of such a group was made by a Liberator of No. 53 Squadron, captained by Flight Sergeant Anderson.2 During its approach the bomber was heavily hit by concentrated cannon and machine-gun fire from three submarines travelling in ‘V’ formation; one of the crew was seriously wounded and holes were torn in the fuselage and in one wing. Nevertheless, Anderson persevered and in a second approach was able to depth-charge a U-boat on the outside of the formation. The other two then dived, leaving the third damaged and wallowing on the surface.
In July 1943 came the climax of the Biscay campaign, when, in spite of the enemy's new tactics, no fewer than twelve U-boats were sunk in the bay by air attack. Several of these successes were achieved by the Leigh Light Wellingtons which had continued to maintain pressure by night, some of them now flying on to Gibraltar, while a detachment there flew patrols to the north-west to link up with those from the United Kingdom. Towards the end of the month Flight Sergeant D. E. McKenzie,5 who was with No. 179 Wellington Squadron at Gibraltar, had the unusual experience of taking part in three night attacks within a fortnight. In the third encounter the U-boat was so badly damaged that it had to be towed into a Spanish port.
Of the daylight attacks in which New Zealanders took part during this month one of the most successful was that made by Wing Commander Clouston and his crew in a Liberator of No. 224 Squadron. There was a strong New Zealand representation in this squadron, both on the ground and in the air throughout the second half of the war. One of the flight commanders was Squadron Leader Ensor,6 who had already had notable success in attacks against U-boats both from the United Kingdom and during the North African campaign; two New Zealand navigators, Flight Lieutenant Kay7 and Flying Officer MacAvoy,8 also achieved particular distinction in their work with No. 224 Squadron. In the three months from May to July 1943 the Liberators attacked no fewer than fourteen U-boats, completely destroying three of them.
The tactics to which the Germans now resorted were eloquent evidence of the final success of the Biscay offensive. Moreover, the effect of the air patrols cannot be measured solely by the amount of damage directly inflicted on the enemy. The constant patrolling forced the German submarines to travel so slowly across the bay that their efficiency in the open sea was considerably reduced and the morale of their crews thereby impaired. In terms of submarines sunk the campaign inflicted heavy loss on the enemy. During the period from the beginning of June to the middle of August, twenty-seven U-boats had been sunk in the Bay of Biscay and its approaches, all but four of them accounted for by aircraft. Rear-Admiral Godt, Commander-in-Chief of the German U-boats at this time, has since declared: ‘July 1943 brought about the collapse of U-boat warfare in its previous form. What happened after this point cannot be compared with the early operations and nothing remained but plans, preparations and hopes, which at the end of the war were only about to be a reality.’
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While the main air battle against the U-boats in 1943 was fought along the North Atlantic convoy routes and in the Bay of Biscay, activity was by no means confined to those areas. Both from Gibraltar and from bases along the West African coast RAF squadrons continued to maintain patrols, and during this fourth year of war New Zealand pilots, navigators, wireless operators and gunners flew with these units. For the Hudsons and Catalinas at Gibraltar the main tasks were the protection of convoys from both the Mediterranean and the Cape and the hunting of U-boats in their area. Flight Lieutenant Le Couteur1 and Flight Lieutenant Kilgour2 were prominent in these duties as captains of aircraft with No. 202 Squadron whose Catalinas, because of their low speed and great endurance, were able to escort ships over long distances.
In West Africa New Zealanders were with each of the squadrons based at intervals along the coast. Some were among the crews of the Catalina and Sunderland flying boats and there was a small group with the Hudsons of No. 200 Squadron flying from airfields near Freetown and Yundum in Gambia. Wing Commander Evison,2 who had captained one of the first three Sunderlands to operate from West Africa, was now in command of No. 204 Sunderland Squadron. He was later succeeded by another New Zealander, Wing Commander Hawkins,3 who had begun his career with flying boats some years before the war. Prominent captains of aircraft were Flying Officer Steer,4 who saw long service with No. 95 Sunderland Squad- ron, and Sergeant Umbers,5 who was with No. 270 Catalina Squad- ron. The Dominion's contribution in the West African area was to be considerably increased with the formation early in 1943 of a New Zealand unit, No. 490 Squadron.
During 1943 enemy activity off the West African coast was only intermittent and the U-boats, captained by experienced officers, operated with great caution on the fringe of the area swept by aircraft. Consequently many patrols were without incident and the routine flying over vast stretches of 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, when it was not uncommon for aircraft on patrol to be forced down almost into the sea or to return to find their base almost blotted out by heavy clouds and tropical rain. Jui, 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’ and the humidity, especially in the wet season, was excessive. The station was built on the low spur running out into the estuary where the flying boats were moored. Surrounding it were dense, steamy, mangrove swamps, while farther back lay high hills which cut off the sea breezes that would have freshened the heavy, stagnant atmosphere.
The New Zealand squadron had originally been intended for service in the Indian Ocean but the need to reinforce West Africa had caused the change of location. The ground staff reached Freetown towards the end of March, by which time the first crews who were to fly out Catalinas from the United Kingdom had begun to assemble and train at the flying-boat base near Stranraer on the west coast of Scotland. Among them were several New Zealanders who had already distinguished themselves in operations with Coastal Command, notably Flight Lieutenant Godby,1 who had flown Ansons during the early days of the war, and Flight Lieutenant Foster,2 who had been with the Fleet Air Arm at the outbreak of war. The first commanding officer was Wing Commander Baird,3 who had already had an interesting career, first with RAF flying boats before the war and subsequently in photographic survey duties with the RNZAF. He came to No. 490 Squadron after further service in New Zealand and the Pacific.
1 Wing Commander P. R. Godby; born Christchurch, 27 Aug 1914; joined RAF Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF Jan 1945; navigation instructor, No. 9 OTU, 1942–43; staff duties, Navigation, HQ No. 19 Group, 1944.
3 Wing Commander D. W. Baird, AFC; born Bangor, N. Ireland, 23 Dec 1910; served RAF 1931–37; joined RNZAF Mar 1938; commanded RNZAF, Fiji, 1940–41; No. 490 (NZ) Sqdn, W. Africa, 1943; RNZAF Station, Ardmore, 1945.
The squadron's Catalinas were named after the New Zealand provinces and the first two flying boats, piloted by Wing Commander Baird and Flying Officer Patience,1 flew to West Africa in the middle of June, others following during the next few weeks. Anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts were begun at once, and before long the unit had achieved an enviable reputation for good serviceability and general efficiency which it was to maintain throughout its sojourn in West Africa to the end of the war, in spite of the fact that much of its later work was exacting and very monotonous.
Several incidents in which New Zealanders were to play a prominent part occurred during August 1943. The first was the rescue of survivors from a merchant ship torpedoed some 400 miles off Freetown during the night of 6 August. Flying Officer Grant2 and his crew were sent out upon receipt of the vessel's distress signal and within a few minutes of reaching the reported position they sighted two lifeboats and three rafts, containing thirty-nine survivors. Emergency packs, a wireless transmitter, and clothing were dropped to them, the clothing being supplied by the crew of the Catalina from what they were wearing at the time; it was a group of tired and nearly naked men who returned to their base after remaining with the lifeboats for five hours. As a result of their signals a corvette had been directed to the rescue but before it reached the survivors a second 490 Squadron Catalina, captained by Flying Officer Ward,3 had succeeded in leading a merchant ship to the scene to pick them up. This vessel was then escorted to port by a third aircraft from the New Zealand squadron.
A few days later Ward was flying as second pilot to his squadron commander and happened to be at the controls when a German U-boat was sighted. Although only three miles away it was barely visible in the fairly heavy sea that was running. Ward immediately went in to the attack and four depth-charges fell slightly astern of the submarine. As the explosions subsided its bows appeared to rise out of the water; then after turning in small circles as if its steering had been damaged, and exchanging fire with the Catalina, the U-boat finally submerged. During the attack the fifth depth-charge, which might have fallen nearer the target, unfortunately failed to release, but the crew were considerably relieved when it also held fast on landing back at base.
When Trigg and his crew failed to return to their 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 corvette reached the scene on the following morning that they were found to be seven Germans, the only survivors from the U-boat. A dinghy which had floated free from the Liberator at the moment of the crash had been found and inflated by one of the Germans shortly after the U-boat sank. Among the survivors was the German commander, who expressed his admiration of Trigg's courage in not allowing the submarine's accurate fire and the precarious position of his machine to deter him from pressing home his attack. Only a few weeks earlier Trigg had received the Distinguished Flying Cross for two skilful attacks against U-boats whilst protecting a West African convoy in March 1943. He was now awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
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Early in September, anticipating the enemy's change of strategy, Coastal Command had reinforced the squadrons covering the North Atlantic shipping routes, with the result that the U-boats in that area found themselves constantly harassed and attacked from the air. No fewer than fifteen were sunk outright by aircraft in the North Atlantic during September and October. Among the New Zealanders who saw further action during this period was Flight Sergeant Lloyd of No. 86 Liberator Squadron. On 8 October, while he and his crew were escorting a large convoy to the south of Ice- land, Lloyd sighted a U-boat on the surface about seven miles away. The bomber attacked the submarine as it submerged. Returning to the scene an hour later, the crew sighted another Liberator engaging a surfaced U-boat. They joined in the attack and shortly afterwards the vessel blew up, leaving only a few of its crew to be picked up by a destroyer.
A week later another successful attack was made by Warrant Officer Turnbull as captain of a Liberator of No. 120 Squadron. His crew, typical of many in the RAF at this time, consisted of an Australian, two Canadians, two Englishmen and another New Zealander, Flight Sergeant Tingey. They were sweeping ahead of a large convoy when they sighted their target. As the Liberator approached, the Germans opened fire, but this ceased when the gunners began to score hits on the deck and conning tower. Then, as the depth-charges exploded, a large jagged piece of metal flew into the air and soon the U-boat began to settle by the stern, surrounded by foam and bubbles. In a second attack depth-charges straddled the U-boat, and a few minutes later the Liberator crew saw it break in half; the stern and bow rose well out of the sea and then sank inwards almost vertically.
By the end of October all attempts by the German submarines to stage co-ordinated attacks on convoys were being frustrated, and in the following month not a single ship was lost on the North Atlantic convoy routes while nine more U-boats were sent to the bottom. In fact, such was the strength of the joint air and sea defences that never again was the enemy able to launch any large-scale attacks on shipping in this area.1
The New Zealanders who went with the Fortress squadrons to the Azores found the climate a pleasant change from the gales and storms of the Hebrides, although the conditions under which they lived and operated were at first rather difficult. However, within a few days of their arrival the aircrews were active in escorting convoys and hunting U-boats in that area. No. 220 Squadron also flew meteorological flights to the west, providing information which had previously been denied.
Throughout the winter months the German U-boat Command maintained a policy of the utmost caution, operating their submarines only where the Allied defences were weakest – in the Indian Ocean and the centre of the Atlantic. The air patrols from the United Kingdom now became extremely monotonous for the air- crew, with little incident to break the dull routine of escort and anti-submarine search. Even in the Bay of Biscay the offensive flagged considerably for the U-boats were making the passage to and from their bases either at night or in thick weather and poor visibility. During the whole of December only six attacks were made from the air against U-boats in the Biscay area and of these all but one were at night.
Yet while large convoys continued to pass across the oceans unmolested and the steady build-up of supplies and men in the United Kingdom proceeded apace, enemy propaganda, while admitting that Allied counter measures had gained a temporary advantage, suggested that it would not be long before German ingenuity would restore the balance. On 20 January 1944 Admiral Doenitz declared at a conference in Stettin: ‘The enemy has succeeded in gaining the advantage in the submarine war, but the day will come when I shall offer Churchill a first-rate submarine war. The submarine weapon has not been broken by the set-backs of 1943.’ The threat was not altogether without foundation for the Germans were now experimenting with an entirely new type of submarine capable of high underwater speeds. Apart from this a large portion of Germany's war effort was still directed towards new U-boat pro- duction, and in an effort to minimise the effects of bombing parts of the vessels were being prefabricated in factories scattered all over Germany and then rushed to the shipyards for assembly. The Germans had also begun fitting a new device known as the ‘Schnorkel’ to their old U-boats which would enable them to remain submerged for long periods.1
However, before any new campaign could be launched it became clear to the Germans that, with an Allied invasion of the Continent imminent, their U-boats would have to be preserved for defensive operations against this threat. In the meantime all that could be done was to tie down the Allied forces, keeping them engaged but avoiding unnecessary losses. This meant that the German U-boat fleet was, for the time being at least, virtually immobilised and the Allies, now possessed of greatly increased air and naval power, and encouraged by the enemy's reluctance to renew the Atlantic battle, were able to complete their preparations for the invasion of Europe with their sea communications safe from serious disruption.
1 The ‘Schnorkel’ consisted of air intake and exhaust tubes which could be raised at periscope depth. The U-boat could then recharge batteries and change the air while it remained just below the surface. The two tubes were within a single casing hinged to the deck just forward of the bridge; when raised and in use the tip of the intake tube was level with the top of the periscope while the exhaust tube, a few inches shorter, discharged the burnt gas downwards. At periscope depth with the Schnorkel raised and diesel engines running a U-boat could charge her batteries and make three or four knots simultaneously.