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Episodes & Studies Volume 2



AN INDICATION of the more effective role aircraft were soon to play in the U-boat war was provided during the North African landings in November 1942. During that month, of nine U-boats destroyed in the Western Mediterranean, four were sunk by air attack alone, four by surface vessels, and another by combined assault.

Several New Zealanders flying with No. 500 Hudson Squadron had very successful hunting during this period. Their unit was one of several sent to Gibraltar to hunt U-boats in the sea lanes through which the convoys were passing to invade North Africa. This was a welcome change of activity as for the previous nine months the squadron had been based at Stornaway, in the Outer Hebrides, whence it patrolled over the bleak waters to the north of Scotland. On arrival at Gibraltar, after a 1200-mile flight from Cornwall, they found the air base at the ‘Rock’ very crowded, every inch being taken up by either an aircraft or a can of petrol. D-day for the North African landings was close at hand and this was the only place available as a jumping-off point, for, in November 1942, the Allies possessed no other single piece of ground in all Western Europe and the Mediterranean west of Malta. In fact, Britain's possession of Gibraltar made possible the invasion of North Africa. The development of a flying-boat base there had been difficult enough, but the construction of an airfield with an adequate runway extending into the sea was a much harder task. Gibraltar is only three miles long and varies from 600 yards to one and a half miles in width, but more than three-fifths of this area is high rock tunnelled for military purposes and useless for an airfield. The small sandy plain, a racecourse in former days, which joins Gibraltar to Spanish territory, was converted into an aerodrome at the outbreak of war. Later it was ex tended so that, by the end of 1942, a tarmac strip extended well out into Algeciras Bay.

As the first convoys were already approaching the Straits, the Hudsons began operations immediately. During the next three weeks No. 500 Squadron flew over 200 sorties and attacked thirty-four U-boats; three of these have now been confirmed as destroyed. Two of these successful attacks were made by New Zealand pilots. Throughout the month flying conditions were generally good with visibility almost unlimited except during heavy but infrequent storms which passed quickly. On most days conditions were ideal for carrying out surprise attacks, since aircraft page 7 patrolling at heights between 5000 and 8000 feet were, with few exceptions, flying either through or over broken cloud with excellent visibility down sun.

On 6 November, two days before the landings began, anti-submarine patrols were flown to the east of Gibraltar ahead of the convoys, and it was while engaged in one of these missions that Pilot Officer H. A. Poole1 made the squadron's first attack. In fact, he had the unusual experience of attacking two U-boats in the course of a single patrol. The first was sighted in the act of diving, and by the time the Hudson reached the spot it had been submerged for some twenty seconds. Nevertheless, the four depth-charges that were dropped must have shaken the submarine as its stern immediately rose above the surface for a few moments before it finally disappeared. In the second attack the submarine had dived about a minute before the aircraft reached it and no results were seen.

On the following day the convoys were nearing the landing points. Strong air cover was provided, including many patrols and sweeps flown by the anti-submarine aircraft from Gibraltar. Just before midday Flight Lieutenant H. G. Holmes2 sighted a U-boat ‘travelling at high speed on the surface a few miles south of the Fleet’. He achieved complete surprise in his attack, the depth- charges straddling the enemy vessel while it was still on the surface. A piece of metal was seen to fly into the air in the midst of the explosions and subsequently large quantities of oil appeared on the surface of the sea. About the same time, Squadron Leader I. C. Patterson3 saw a German submarine on the surface some fifteen miles ahead. He was able to approach unobserved, but in his first attack the depth-charges failed to release. A second attempt, a few seconds after the enemy had dived, brought air bubbles to the surface but no other sign of damage was seen.

The next day, 8 November, twelve aircraft from No. 500 Squadron, four of which were piloted by New Zealanders, were employed in protecting the naval forces and convoys landing troops on the beaches in the vicinity of Oran and Algiers. The work of guarding this shipping against submarine attack was continuous from dawn to dusk, the Hudsons flying perimeter patrols outside the destroyer screen in excellent weather. No submarines were seen and no enemy aircraft attempted to hinder the landing.

During the next two days, while anti-submarine patrols continued, a detachment of Hudsons moved to the airfield at Tafaroui, near Oran, to provide closer protection to the large concentrations of shipping in the approaches to the landing areas. The ground crews had already landed with the Americans, spending two days and nights on the beaches sniping and being sniped at. When the airfields were captured they exchanged tommy-guns for spanners and immediately began servicing the Hudsons as they flew in from Gibraltar. Tafaroui had good runways but servicing the aircraft proved difficult during the first few days. Nevertheless the ground crews were adept at improvisation. For instance, refuelling with the American four-gallon petrol tins was a problem until someone produced the spinners* off several abandoned French aircraft and with the aid of a short length of pipe soldered to the bottom made a very serviceable petrol filler. Aircrews slept on the hangar floors without any covering except their flying clothing, and as there was some danger from snipers and also of sabotage one member of each crew slept in the aircraft.

So far most of the patrols had been uneventful, but the next week there were many sightings and attacks as the U-boats made strenuous efforts to intercept the supply convoys. On 12 November page 8 Flight Lieutenant I. R. Mitchell's4 aircraft attacked a diving U-boat and brought oil to the surface, while Holmes put destroyers on the scent of another which had submerged before he could attack it. Patterson had three sightings in the course of one patrol during the following morning. His first was made at a distance of nearly twenty miles, but evidently the U-boat lookouts spotted the Hudson as the submarine dived before an attack could be made. However, employing the skill and patience derived from long experience in hunting U-boats, Patterson flew away from the area and returned later, using cloud to conceal his approach. His perseverance was rewarded when, shortly after his return, a U-boat was seen surfacing. Still using cloud cover, Patterson manoeuvred his machine into a position from which he was able to deliver a surprise attack. The stern of the submarine was blown out of the water and the vessel assumed a vertical position with some twenty feet of its hull above the surface. It remained like this for nearly a minute and then went down at the same angle. Soon afterwards gushes of air and oil came to the surface and continued to rise for some minutes. The same afternoon another Hudson pilot, Flight Lieutenant M. A. Ensor,5 while flying just above broken cloud, saw a fully surfaced U-boat below him through a clear patch. He immediately dived to attack and was able to release his depth-charges just as the enemy submarine submerged. They were well aimed, as a few moments later the U-boat reappeared midst a mass of foam and air bubbles. Several of the crew then appeared on the conning tower and opened fire on the aircraft. This fire was silenced but unfortunately the Hudson was compelled through shortage of fuel to leave the scene before assistance arrived. The damaged U-boat was then circling slowly on the surface.

On 14 November Mitchell took part in an attack on another German submarine which was eventually forced to beach itself near Oran after concentrated attacks by several Hudsons from No. 500 Squadron. Further successes followed. On patrol the next morning Holmes saw a target on the surface ten miles away. By stalking his quarry with the aid of cloud, he was able to make a surprise attack which brought oil and air bubbles to the surface although no further evidence of damage was seen.

Ensor had better luck the same morning, some forty miles off Algiers, when he literally blew a German submarine to pieces in what was one of the most spectacular attacks of the whole war. After the initial sighting about ten miles away, an approach through cloud enabled him to attack while the U-boat was still on the surface. The four depth-charges appeared to straddle the vessel just ahead of the conning tower, but one of them must have struck the hull for immediately there was a terrific explosion, followed by two more inside the U-boat, which flung the forward gun into the air and ripped the conning tower wide open. When the upheaval had subsided, the bows of the U-boat were seen on the surface for a few seconds amidst an area of bubbles before it sank. The Hudson itself was blown several hundred feet into the air and badly shattered by the first explosion. The rudders and elevators were torn off and the ailerons damaged; the turret and cabin floor were blown in and several feet of each wing tip was bent almost vertically upwards. In this condition the aircraft was climbed to 1500 feet and flown towards Algiers, Ensor using the crew as moveable ballast and steering on the engines. However, after fifteen minutes, one engine suddenly gave out and the Hudson became uncontrollable so that the crew, were forced to abandon page 9 it by parachute. Only two of them, Ensor and his wireless operator, were picked up, a most unfortunate sequel to a very successful attack and a superb display of airmanship.

‘The trip back was a nightmare,’ Ensor said afterwards. ‘Sometimes the plane's nose would dip steeply and I had to signal the crew to run into the tail to balance it. Then the tail would drop, whereupon they would have to run to the nose. It was when we were nearly home and congratulating ourselves that all was well that the engine gave out.’

Misfortune of a different kind attended another successful attack by Squadron Leader Patterson two days later, when he caught an enemy submarine unawares on the surface. The U-boat's stern was lifted clean out of the water and the conning tower stove in by the explosions of the depth- charges which straddled it. Attempts by the crew to man the machine guns were prevented by fire from the aircraft. Smoke was coming from inside the vessel and some of the crew leapt over the side. Others came on deck waving white objects in token of surrender. As it was now certain that the submarine was disabled and as other aircraft had reached the scene, Patterson flew to a nearby airfield to report the opportunity of capturing a valuable prize. A destroyer was sent out from Algiers and Patterson refuelled his aircraft in order to act as guide, but just before the destroyer reached the scene a naval aircraft torpedoed the U-boat, which exploded and sank.

The last patrols from the airfield at Tafaroui were flown on 18 November, in the course of which two more attacks were made, one of them by Holmes, after which a large amount of oil and air bubbles came to the surface for over half an hour before the Hudson was forced to leave the scene.

No. 500 Squadron now moved to Blida airfield, about thirty miles south-west of Algiers. This was an established base, and as the French had not sabotaged any of their equipment the squadron fared better as regards the maintenance of their aircraft. There were no runways, however, only a surface of hard mud. The aircrew were quartered in a large barrack block which had two tiers of solid iron bedsteads. ‘The place,’ according to one pilot, ‘resembled the interior of a prison.’ All forms of insect life were rampant and most of the men were more or less severely bitten. However, the liberal use of blowlamps and disinfectant gradually improved the conditions.

Operations were continued without a break and during the following days patrols were flown continuously from the new base. During the first flights from Blida, Holmes made another attack on a U-boat, his fifth in thirteen days. Very large air bubbles were observed as if the vessel was attempting to resurface and subsequently a patch of oil appeared, approximately thirty yards in diameter. Thereafter, sightings and attacks became noticeably fewer and before the end of the month it was clear that the enemy had decided to reduce the scale of his attack in the Western Mediterranean. In fact, most of the U-boats withdrew and moved to the Northern Atlantic. In their operations against the North African convoys, amply provided with air cover, they had suffered heavy casualties and sunk comparatively few ships. The wear and tear of constant crash- diving was extremely severe on the U-boat crews and had intensified the dislike felt by their captains for the narrow waters of the Mediterranean. Therefore it was with considerable relief that they returned to their old hunting grounds on the convoy routes in the North Atlantic, where the main battle was being fought under conditions more favourable to them.

* The conical hub on some types of airscrews.