New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 5 — With Mine, Bomb, and Torpedo
With Mine, Bomb, and Torpedo
Throughout1943 the growing power of the Allied bombing offensive and the deadly battle with the U-boats were the dominating features of the air war against Germany. But there were other campaigns that now absorbed a considerable proportion of the available effort and resources and which, while unspectacular in themselves, achieved quite remarkable results. One of these campaigns, waged continuously throughout 1943, was the attack on German sea communications in North-West Europe and the Baltic.
This offensive against enemy shipping had started in the early days of the war but it was not accorded high priority, only such marginal forces being employed as were available after the requirements of other more important operations had been met. Neverthe- less, while the tonnage of merchant shipping available to Germany in these waters at the end of 1940 was adequate, by 1943 the situation had changed to one of considerable stringency. Moreover, the Germans were then forced to deploy in defence of their merchant ships more than 75,000 men, several hundreds of small vessels as escorts and nearly one-quarter of a million tons as Sperrbrechers - converted merchant ships specially equipped as minesweepers and heavily armed escorts.
The greater part of the German and German-controlled merchant fleet was employed in carrying supplies between Germany and Scandinavia; to a lesser extent it conveyed military stores to German forces in Norway and Finland. There was also brisk coastal traffic between German, Dutch, and Danish ports and some coastwise movement of military supplies to the East Baltic.
Most important commodities in the enemy trade with Scandinavia were the import into Germany of iron ore and the export of coal and coke. Indeed, these accounted over the whole war for about 80 per cent of the total German overseas trade in the North-West Europe and Baltic areas. Swedish ore was of a very high grade and of particular value in the manufacture of high-quality steel for armaments; it was also especially suited to the open-hearth process of steel manufacture practised in Germany. The imports from Sweden provided a quarter of Germany's iron-ore requirements for the Ruhr. Much of this iron ore was unloaded at Rotterdam and page 115 transferred to barges for its onward journey through inland water- ways to the steel furnaces of the Ruhr. Indeed Rotterdam, which was reached by a fairly well-defined route along the Frisian Islands, received a large proportion of the total traffic through the Kiel Canal including cargoes from Norway and Finland as well as from Sweden.
Interruption of this traffic was attempted by two distinct forms of air action. The first comprised attacks with bombs or torpedoes, and later with rocket projectiles, by formations of shore-based aircraft against ships at sea or in harbour. Such attacks took place along the continental seaboard from Calais to Trondheim, but until the closing stages of the war they were not pressed eastward into the Skagerrak and the Baltic owing to the limited range and performance of the early types of aircraft. Torpedoes were used in the North Sea and off the south-west coast of Norway with good effect, although north of Stavanger where shipping moved through sheltered channels they were of less value. From December 1944 the rocket took the place of the torpedo in all areas as by that time the enemy seldom exposed his shipping during daylight in those waters where torpedoes could be used. Rockets proved specially effective off the Norwegian coast in the final stages.
The second method of aerial attack was minelaying by heavy bombers of the RAF, which was carried on continuously from April 1940 until the end of the war. It started in a small way but, increasing in scale and extent as the war progressed, aerial minelaying in the end accounted for seven times the number of ships sunk or damaged by mines laid by surface vessels in the North-West European area. Air action as a whole was responsible for by far the largest part of the shipping casualties inflicted upon the enemy in this same region.
By the beginning of 1943 the majority of the torpedo and bombing attacks were being carried out by aircraft of RAF Coastal Command while minelaying from the air was the responsibility of Bomber Command. Minelaying was, in fact, Bomber Command's most consistent and effective contribution to the war at sea. It proved a useful method of giving freshmen crews operational experience and was also a means of employment for at least part of the bomber force when weather was not suitable for operations over Germany. Between January 1943 and February of the following year, when there came a change of tasks in preparation for the invasion of Europe, aircrews of Bomber Command laid 16,668 mines, an average of well over one thousand a month.
The main targets of the minelaying aircraft continued to be the traffic in iron ore from Scandinavia to the Ruhr via Rotterdam, and the movement of troops and supplies to Norway and to the Eastern Front through the Baltic. One ship laden with iron ore which was sunk by a mine in the Kiel Canal blocked it for several weeks. The 18,000-ton liner Gneisenau, used as a trooper for the Russian front, became a total wreck in the western Baltic, while another large troopship carrying ground crews and equipment to north Norway for Luftwaffe units that were attacking Allied convoys to Russia was sunk by a mine in the Kattegat. The train-ferry plying between Sweden, Denmark, and Germany was also a fruitful target. In addition, mines laid by Bomber Command upset the arrival and departure of blockade runners, armed merchant raiders, and other ships using ports on the west coast of France.
With the steady campaign waged against German U-boats entering and leaving their Biscay bases, minelaying also played a part in the Battle of the Atlantic. It is recorded that on one occasion a typical German reception, with a band on the pier, was waiting to greet two submarines returning from a successful Atlantic patrol. One of the captains, anxious to be first in, manoeuvred his ship ahead of the other, and in front of the reception his submarine touched off a mine and was blown to pieces. Mines were also frequently laid in the U-boat exercising grounds in the Baltic, where training of U-boat crews was often interrupted. Altogether, twenty-six German U-boats were sunk by mines during the war, sixteen of them by mines laid by the Royal Air Force. Areas through which German warships might pass were also mined in the hope of causing delay and damage. The whole campaign compelled the enemy to retain large numbers of skilled naval personnel and valuable materials for the sweeping of widely spaced harbours and channels used by his shipping.
At the beginning of 1943 Bomber Command was faced with new problems in its minelaying, as the Germans had reacted strongly to the increased activity of the previous year. Night fighters now made more frequent interceptions while anti-aircraft guns and flak ships placed in the vicinity of the most vulnerable areas took a heavier toll of the British bombers. What the bomber crews had considered a simple mission now became as dangerous as the bombing raids on some land targets, for the successful laying of mines still depended on aircraft flying in low to the dropping point. This was necessary not only to achieve accuracy but also to avoid exploding the mines by the shock of impact, which was likely to happen if they were page 118 dropped from a height exceeding 1000 feet. Until the scientists could devise ways for aircraft to drop from higher levels, mining was generally restricted to more open areas where there was less chance of interception by night fighters and the dangers from flak were not so great. Even so, losses continued to be relatively heavy; there were frequent reports of combats with enemy fighters and many machines returned bearing signs of encounters with enemy anti-aircraft batteries.
On the night of 18 January Sergeant Bennett was captain of one of two Stirlings from No. 75 Squadron sent to lay mines in the Gironde estuary. This was his first operation as captain of aircraft. On approaching the French coast the bomber was attacked by a Messerschmitt 110 but, before it could do any damage, the mid-upper and rear gunners had both fired sharp bursts, upon which the fighter pulled over on to its back and disappeared. The Stirling then carried on and dropped its mines in the estuary, but on the way out the crew found themselves flying over several German flak ships. These put up an intense barrage, rocking the Stirling, but it managed to get clear. No sooner had a course been set for base when a Junkers 88 was sighted to port. Bennett took evasive action but the enemy machine hung on without opening fire. Describing this incident later, Bennett said:
The reason for this soon became obvious when my rear gunner gave me directions for turning away from another Junkers from the rear. Each German fighter appeared to be acting as a decoy for the other. Had I adopted my rear gunner's direction we should have been exposed to the fire of the fighter on our port wing.
The rear and mid-upper gunners were able to get in bursts at the enemy on their tail, who was so close that when he returned fire the gunners could actually hear the noise of the German cannon. Bennett continued:
At this stage we were down to almost the level of the sea and must have been silhouetted against reflection of the moon – a sitting bird for the enemy. But luck was on our side and a thick blanket of cloud suddenly appeared and gave us protection. We lost the fighters.
Once more a course was set for base but again the crew found themselves over the flak ships; however, they soon got clear. The action had been so violent that everything movable in the Stirling had been thrown on to the floor and the navigator, who had been sitting behind the pilot, retrieved his maps from well forward over the bomb-sight, down in the nose of the aircraft.
Bomber Command's record lay of mines during 1943 took place in April when 1887 mines were released in all the principal areas. More than half this total was dropped on two successive nights in response to an Admiralty request to drop a new type of mine which employed a combination of acoustic and magnetic fuses designed to defeat current German minesweeping methods. To secure a maximum of surprise it was essential that these mines should be laid in quantity at all the principal minefields within a matter of hours. Therefore on two successive nights towards the end of April when weather over Germany was unsuitable for bombing operations, strong forces were turned to minelaying. The first night a force of 160 Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings and Wellingtons laid 458 mines along the French west coast and Frisian Islands, and on the second a total of 226 bombers dropped 593 mines in the Heligoland Bight, off the Norwegian coast, in the Kattegat and Baltic Approaches, and in channels off the Baltic ports from Kiel to the Gulf of Danzig. On both occasions the mines were laid from low level underneath a layer of cloud. On the 27th when the nearer areas were tackled only one aircraft was missing, but twenty-three bombers failed to return from the more distant and difficult fields.
Many New Zealanders flew in aircraft from RAF squadrons, while No. 75 Squadron was represented on both of these important missions. On 27 April the four New Zealand Stirlings laid their mines and returned safely to base but the following night, when eight aircraft were sent to Kiel Bay, four failed to return. Ten New Zealanders were among the missing crews, including two captains, Pilot Officer D. L. Thompson and Sergeant Halliburton.1 The crews who returned reported no sightings of enemy aircraft but heavy anti-aircraft fire came from a flak ship stationed in the mining area.
Progress was now being made in the difficult task of developing a new technique that would outwit the German defences and their methods of assessing the numbers and positions of mines laid. By March the packing material which protected the delicate mechanism of the mines had been improved sufficiently to allow them to be dropped from heights up to 3000 feet. In the following months there was further patient experiment, and although many missions in open areas continued to be carried out at low level, from August onwards mines were laid regularly in some of the more dangerous zones from a height of 6000 feet. As a result there was a substantial fall in the loss rate which had been so severe at the beginning of the year.
The possibilities of high-level minelaying from normal bombing heights between 12,000 to 15,000 feet had been appreciated as early as May 1943, but before this became a practical proposition much research had to be undertaken. Eventually special mines were produced in which packing materials and parachutes had been further improved. Then a pathfinder technique was evolved, so that when necessary a high concentration of mines could be achieved by the use of sea or sky markers accurately placed with the aid of H2S.
With new weapons it was no longer necessary for aircraft to fly at low heights to search for a pinpoint before beginning their run up to the laying positions, while by using H2S mines could be dropped with precision through thick cloud. Increased safety was also given to the attacking aircraft and the enemy was presented with new problems in plotting the positions of the mines laid.
Now that the enemy's most heavily defended harbours and swept channels were again vulnerable to minelaying there was a rapid increase in the number of sorties carried out, and many New Zealanders were among the aircrews who took part in the operations during January and February 1944 in which this new method of sea warfare was used. New Zealand airmen also took part in a new tactical development introduced on the night of 24 February when 115 aircraft were sent to lay mines in Kiel Harbour, the Kattegat, and Lorient as a diversion for a main-force bombing attack by over 700 aircraft on Schweinfurt. The next night minelaying was again used as a diversion for a main-force attack of almost 600 aircraft on Augsburg, the areas mined being St. Nazaire, The Sound and Kiel. The co-ordination of minelaying and bombing operations in this manner gave additional protection to both forces by confusing the enemy ground organisation and splitting the fighter force available in the area of the attacks.
Although No. 75 Squadron despatched aircraft on minelaying sorties in each of the first nine months of 1943, the greater part of its effort was to be concentrated in the last quarter of that year and the first two months of 1944. This emphasis on minelaying followed the decision taken in September that the Halifax and Stirling squadrons should be restricted to the less hazardous targets, leaving the Lancaster to bear the brunt of the bomber offensive.
In October and November 1943 squadron aircraft laid a total of 176 mines in the Baltic, the Bay of Biscay, in the Gironde estuary, and off the Frisian Islands and the port of Cherbourg. On the night of 24 October one Stirling which laid mines off the Frisian Islands page 122 crashed when about to land and was burnt out. Three New Zealanders including the captain, Flight Sergeant Randle,1 were among those killed. The 4th November was a particularly unfortunate night for the squadron when, of the four aircraft sent to lay mines in the Baltic, three failed to return. Their captains were Flying Officer Wilson2 and Pilot Officers Masters3 and G. K. Williams; eight other New Zealanders were among their crews. The surviving aircraft, flown by Flying Officer Witting,4 was attacked by an enemy fighter when approaching the mining area and the rear gunner was killed. Witting succeeded in jettisoning his mines during the combat and then skilfully outmanoeuvred the enemy machine. Although the Stirling had sustained severe damage to the port wing, starboard flap and rear turret, and also had many large holes torn in the fuselage, Witting flew back to base and made a safe landing. In December ten minelaying missions, involving twenty-nine aircraft, were flown by No. 75 Squadron and 108 mines laid; unfortunately, during the month two Stirlings crashed on return after laying their mines. One of these machines was flown by Pilot Officer Kinross,5 who had Flying Officer Jenkin6 as his navigator.
In February the squadron's effort was entirely devoted to minelaying and in twenty operations 120 aircraft were despatched to lay no fewer than 372 mines. Towards the end of the month, when minelaying aircraft were used as a diversion for the bombing attacks on Schweinfurt and Augsburg, the squadron sent fifteen aircraft to Kiel Harbour on the first occasion and the next night the same number went to The Sound. The Stirling captained by Flight Sergeant Bruhns1 failed to return from Kiel but there were no losses the second night, although Flight Sergeant Willis2 and his crew reported a brush with several Junkers 88s flying in formation.
The results of the minelaying campaign were difficult to assess at the time owing to the delayed action of mines which might lie for a considerable time before claiming a victim and because of loss or damage to enemy vessels caused by other methods of attack. However, reports of casualties in mined areas were frequent and covered many classes of shipping including troopships, cargo vessels, tankers, train ferries, naval surface craft and U-boats, while the large sweeping force also suffered heavily in its efforts to keep channels and harbours clear of mines. Evidence of the effectiveness of minelaying in the Baltic was provided by the Naval Liaison Officer at German Air Force Operations Division in April 1943. He stressed the shortage of escort vessels which allowed escorts to be provided only for troopships, transports, tankers, hospital ships, and warships in those waters where the greatest danger was from mines and where all ships should have been provided with individual escort. In February 1944 the same officer reported: ‘It is evident that the enemy intends to interrupt, if not destroy, all supply shipping to Norway by the relatively heavy use of mines. It is now being decided whether night fighters in the Jutland area can be reinforced.’
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Bomber Command's minelaying campaign during 1943 was supplemented by torpedo and bombing attacks carried out mainly by Beaufighters and Hampdens of Coastal Command. The torpedo was now the principal weapon and there were two main areas of attack, the Dutch coast from the Frisian Islands to Rotterdam and the south-western coast of Norway. In both these regions there was to be a steady development of aerial attack during 1943. Operations fell into two main classes – the ‘Rover’ patrol flown by small formations of from two to six machines and the ‘Strike’ by larger forces with fighter escort, against targets previously located by reconnaissance aircraft. Rover patrols were more frequently employed along the Norwegian coast where convoys were less heavily defended; Strike Wings were gradually developed for attacks off the Dutch coast where there was usually stronger opposition.
At the beginning of the year No. 489 New Zealand Squadron was one of several Hampden squadrons employed in patrol and attack along the Norwegian coast. This New Zealand torpedo-bomber squadron had been formed at Leuchars in Scotland in August 1941 and during the next twelve months it had experienced a chequered career. The early training was interrupted by shortages of torpedo aircraft and some months elapsed before No. 489 was finally equipped with Hampdens discarded by Bomber Command. Then its role was suddenly changed to anti-submarine work and the first operational sorties were flown over the Bay of Biscay. It was not until July 1942 that the squadron returned northwards to take up its originally intended task of attacking enemy shipping in northern waters. During the closing months of that year there were several successful attacks on enemy ships; the Hampdens also flew escort patrols to naval forces proceeding to and from Scapa, covered convoys bound for Russian Arctic ports, and searched for U-boats travelling to and from bases in Norway.
January 1943 found the New Zealand Squadron based at Wick on the north-east coast of Scotland under the command of an English page 125 pilot, Wing Commander Darling.1 New Zealanders now made up a substantial part of the aircrew strength of the unit but there was still strong representation from other parts of the Commonwealth, from Canada and Australia as well as from the British Isles. Squadron Leader Evans2 of London and Squadron Leader James3 of Ross-on-Wye were the flight commanders, while Flight Lieutenant Mottram4 of Coventry, the prominent English tennis player, Flying Officer Pedersen,5 a Danish pilot, Warrant Officer Dubbery6 from Essex and Warrant Officer Strain,7 a Scot from Glasgow, all won distinction as captains of aircraft during 1943. New Zealand pilots who had notable success in operations with the squadron at this time were Flying Officer Richardson,8 Flying Officer Freshney,9 Flying Officer Moyniham,10 Flying Officer Pettitt,11 Flying Officer Latta,12 and Warrant Officer Dunn.13
Richardson and his crew were lost in mid-January whilst attacking enemy ships off the Naze. The first run was unsuccessful as Richardson's vision was spoilt by oil from an overgreased front gun. Accurate anti-aircraft fire was met as he turned to make a second attempt, and it was during this second approach that the Hampden was shot down by the ship's gunners. Fortunately the crew survived the crash-landing on the sea and were picked up by the enemy shortly afterwards. A few weeks later Freshney's Hampden was shot down whilst he was leading the attack on a convoy off Kristiansund; all the crew were lost.
1 Wing Commander V. C. Darling, OBE; RAF; born Acton, London, 8 Sep 1915; Cranwell cadet; permanent commission RAF 1936; commanded No. 86 Sqdn, 1942; No. 489 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942–43; duty with Directorate of Ops (Air Staff), 1944.
As the months passed the obsolete Hampdens faced further hazards. Not only did the Germans begin to install their latest single-engined fighters, the Focke-Wulf 190s, in Norway but they also employed considerable cunning in the movement of convoys. These would often sail at night or in poor visibility by day. At other times they would lie at anchor, hidden close up to the steep cliffs of the Norwegian fiords, where they were difficult to locate and attack.
The Norwegian coast, awe-inspiring in appearance, was not the most pleasant area to patrol at any time. Navigators found the coastline most difficult because of its monotonous similarity. Often the first landfall would be a cluster of islands, giving way to mountains and fiords in the background. Conditions were seldom suitable for good reconnaissance and the times when crews could have a good look round were so few that they could not get to know the whole of that wild and rugged coastline from Aalesund in the north to Kristiansund in the south.
The weather in that region was most treacherous and subject to sudden and violent changes. An aircraft might be flying in thick cloud almost down to sea level when suddenly it would come out into clear skies and bright sunshine; then it fell an easy victim to enemy fighter patrols. Again, whilst exploring channels for possible targets, crews needed to be sure that the particular channel they entered had an outlet to the sea at the other end. It could be most disconcerting to find the aircraft heading for a wall of rock, especially since some of the fiords were so narrow that a modern aircraft could not easily be turned in them, while the cliffs on either side were so high that it was difficult to climb over them at short notice. Low flying along the channels amongst the islands could, however, be most exhilarating, and sometimes crews would receive an encouraging wave from friendly Norwegians. But they might equally well be greeted with a burst of anti-aircraft fire, for the Germans had established concentrations of flak guns at certain points along the coast, and a machine flying into such an area could find itself in a very unpleasant situation. However, as the Germans usually placed their guns half-way up the sides of the fiords, Allied airmen found that by flying very low they forced the Germans to depress their weapons so far that they were firing at each other across the water.page 127
Eighteen attacks on enemy ships were reported by No. 489 Squadron during the first half of 1943. An early success was shared with No. 455 Australian Squadron when at dusk one evening towards the end of January seven Hampdens, four of them from No. 489 Squadron, attacked the 3200-ton Ahrensburg close to the coast near Stavanger. They met sharp anti-aircraft fire from the ship and shore batteries also intervened to divert their attack. But the Hampdens went in to drop their torpedoes at low level and score hits. There were large explosions, debris was hurled into the air, and a cloud of smoke rose from the ship. A few minutes later crews had the unusual satisfaction of seeing her sink by the stern.
April 1943 was a particularly active month for the New Zealanders. On the 4th a large merchant ship, estimated at some 7000 tons, was torpedoed by Latta. After the attack his crew saw the vessel heading for the shore, very much down by the bows and listing heavily; she subsequently became a total loss. A few days later hits were reported on a tanker and one of two merchant ships in convoy near Stadlandet. Of his attack on the tanker Flight Lieutenant Willis1 relates:
We were on the look-out for enemy ships, in excellent visibility, when suddenly we spotted two enemy aircraft. We wondered what they were protecting and went in to investigate. Then we saw the convoy. There was a large tanker, a medium size merchant ship, and a smaller vessel. They were lying in the lee of the fiord right up against the cliff. All three ships opened fire as we approached. We dropped our ‘Fish’ and took sharp evasive action from both the flak and the enemy fighters, one of which was now firing at us. As I broke away the tanker burst into flames; they seemed to shoot up several hundred feet into the air and a few minutes later there was a mushroom of dense black oily smoke spreading over the fiord at a height of some 2000 feet.
Towards the end of April two hits on merchant ships in convoy near Obrestad were reported after an attack by four Hampdens. They were led by Squadron Leader Hughes,1 who had taken over a flight at the beginning of this month. In another action which Hughes led against a convoy off the Naze, intense opposition came from both ships and shore batteries. Enemy fighters also appeared on the scene and crews were unable to see the result of their attacks. However, reconnaissance aircraft flying over the scene shortly afterwards found one of the ships, a large vessel of some 6000 tons, lying on the rocks close to the shore, a total wreck.
The summer months saw a considerable part of No. 489's effort diverted to anti-submarine patrols in the area to the north of Scotland. There were also several air-sea rescue missions. On one occasion a dinghy containing the crew of a Fortress aircraft, which had been shot down after attacking and sinking a German U-boat, was found after a sustained search. It was then kept under observation for two days by relays of Hampdens until the survivors were picked up by a surface vessel.
August 1943 brought a change of leadership for No. 489 Squadron when Wing Commander Dinsdale2 succeeded Wing Commander Darling as squadron commander. Dinsdale was a New Zealander who had served with Coastal Command since the outbreak of war. He had commenced his first operational tour with No. 42 Torpedo Bomber Squadron on 3 September 1939 and had flown with this squadron in the early operations off the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. He had taken part in a torpedo attack on the German battleship Lutzow and led a flight of Beauforts against the three German warships fleeing up the Channel. Later, in May 1942, he had led a daylight torpedo attack against the Prinz Eugen in a Norwegian fiord and scored a torpedo hit on the warship.
2 Wing Commander J. S. Dinsdale, DSO, DFC; 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.
Before this move took place, however, No. 489 Squadron scored one more success with the Hampdens. This was on 16 September when, during a Rover patrol along the south-west coast of Norway, four crews sighted and attacked a small convoy lying in a fiord. The formation was led by Flying Officer Moyniham, who scored a torpedo hit on a medium-sized merchant vessel. It later sank. Moyniham told afterwards how they had sighted the two merchant vessels and their three escorts lying close inshore and apparently forming up in convoy. ‘All five ships and the shore batteries opened fire with both light and heavy flak,’ he said. ‘We dropped our torpedoes and my rear-gunner saw the leading ship almost obliterated with spray as the torpedo exploded near its bow. We didn't stay to see any more as there was no cloud and we expected enemy fighters.’ Although one of the aircraft in the formation received slight damage from flak during this attack, all returned safely to base.
Some of the squadron's Hampdens, now accorded an honourable retirement, had been on operations for as long as the squadron had been in action. ‘A’ for Apple, with its villainous crest of a Hampden rampant, had flown on twenty-six sorties. It took part in the sinking of the 5000-ton Karpfunger in September 1942, the squadron's first success against enemy shipping. ‘G’ for George was an even greater veteran. It was this aircraft which had been in combat with two enemy fighters over the Bay of Biscay on 13 June 1942, and which lived to fly another thirty sorties and also take part in the sinking of the Karpfunger. Another veteran was ‘S’ for Sugar, which had begun its career in June 1942 and had led the attack on the 3200-ton Abrensburg on 29 January 1943. It did another twenty-three trips with the same crew and then another ten, during which time it was damaged, rebuilt, and returned to operations.
During the year's operations from Scotland, the Hampdens of No. 489 Squadron had been credited with the sinking of 36,000 tons and the damaging of a further 30,000 tons of enemy shipping, including tankers, ore ships, transports and coasters. The aircraft had flown both by day and by night searching for targets along the Norwegian coast, and often when there was little cloud cover to give the slow Hampdens a chance against the fighters, they had gone in to attack. The crews had not always been able to see the results of their attacks, but some of them had been dramatic and were later confirmed by photographic reconnaissance or from Intelligence sources. Altogether, 1943 had been a very successful year for the squadron, but even better results were expected when, page 130 re-equipped with Beaufighters, it returned to the front line in January 1944.
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Among the New Zealanders flying with other Coastal Command squadrons on anti-shipping patrols during 1943, the outstanding personality was Squadron Leader Sise1 who was with No. 254 Beaufighters of the North Coates Wing. This was the first of the Strike Wings formed in Coastal Command, and Sise had led the torpedo-carrying Beaufighters in their first mission in November 1942. For his leadership in this and subsequent attacks he was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order in July 1943. Flying Officer Palmer2 and Flight Sergeant Simpson3 also piloted Beaufighters of No. 254 Squadron during that year.
A typical action was fought by the North Coates Wing on 13 June 1943, when a convoy of four merchant ships, escorted by five M class minesweepers and four trawlers, was attacked off Den Helder. The British force consisted of eleven torpedo-carrying Beaufighters, nine anti-flak Beaufighters armed with cannon and each carrying two bombs, and nine Beaufighters armed with cannon and machine guns. They were escorted by four squadrons of long-range Spitfires, and as the fighter pilots circled above they saw the largest ship hit amidships by at least one torpedo; it swung out of line and was last seen listing heavily. Two trawlers and one minesweeper were also reported hit and on fire, while a second merchant ship, photographed at a late stage of the attack, showed only her central structure above water, with trawlers standing by. Only one Beaufighter was lost, although several returned damaged by flak from the ships.
The development of large-scale attacks by Strike Wings was the outstanding feature of Coastal Command's anti-shipping operations during 1943. It proved the answer to the increased flak defences of the German convoys which had caused heavy losses in low-level bombing and torpedo attacks. The escort of Spitfires could deal with any enemy fighters which attempted to intervene while the Beaufighters, armed with cannon and machine guns, cleared the way for the torpedo attack, raking the decks of the surface escort vessels to disorganise the gunners and divert fire from the torpedo aircraft as they flew in.
1 Wing Commander G. D. Sise, DSO and bar, DFC and bar; 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.
2 Flying Officer W. G. Palmer; born Dunedin, 21 Mar 1916; clerk; joined RNZAF Jun 1941; killed on air operations, 5 Nov 1943.
Other factors which helped in the air war against enemy shipping during 1943 were the introduction of an improved torpedo sight, the use of Torpex instead of TNT as the explosive charge, and the use of a new gyro-controlled air tail for the torpedoes. This air tail stabilised the flight of the torpedo in the air after its release from the aircraft and then broke off on impact with the water.
A further innovation which was to have far-reaching effects was the introduction of the rocket projectile as a primary weapon for attacks on ships. This devastating missile consisted of a cordite-filled rocket motor some three inches in diameter to which could be fitted either a 25-pound armour-piercing shot or a 60-pound high-explosive shell. Subsequent experience showed that the 25-pound head was the most effective. It attained such a velocity that it would pass right through a ship unless impeded by some heavy obstruction such as the engines. Four such projectiles could be hung on guide rails about seven feet long that were now fitted beneath each wing of the Beaufighter and later the Mosquito. The rockets could be fired either in pairs or as a salvo of eight.
The heavier scale of attack now launched against shipping along the Dutch coast made it extremely difficult for the Germans to continue using the port of Rotterdam. However, since its harbour facilities and excellent communications by river and canal with the Ruhr made Rotterdam by far the best port for the Germans in the North Sea, they endeavoured to keep it open as long as possible. Convoys continued to enter and leave the port at a greatly reduced rate well into the early part of 1944, and the Germans displayed considerable cunning in the tactics they employed to keep the ships out of reach of air attack. After a period during which all kinds of extemporary alterations of sailing times were tried, they finally settled down to a scheme which made it extremely difficult to lay on a daylight attack against their convoys at sea. Northbound convoys would leave The Hook at last light to reach the well-defended Den Helder anchorage before dawn, and then shelter there during the day before continuing their journey at nightfall. Likewise, southbound convoys were so timed as to reach Den Helder at dawn, waiting during the day and completing the last lap of their voyage to Rotterdam during darkness. But the advent of the Mustang long-range fighter enabled the strike aircraft to range farther north and attack convoys in daylight along the Frisian Islands and into the Heligoland Bight. All the same the time factor in planning attacks now became vital, and fleeting opportunities, often in the first hours of dawn, had to be grasped before the ships found refuge.page 132
By the beginning of 1944, when three Strike Wings had been formed in Coastal Command, operations against enemy shipping had developed into a more or less definite pattern. Reports from reconnaissance aircraft would provide the information upon which the strike leader would plan his attack. He would study the anticipated track of the enemy convoy and work out the navigation so as to intercept that track just outside visibility distance. Then, having noted the disposition of the ships in the enemy convoy, he would brief his men with the plan of attack, indicating to the anti-flak crews the particular escort vessels whose fire needed to be smothered, and generally arranging co-ordination of the whole assault so as to achieve the maximum confusion among the defences while the torpedo aircraft flew in.
The Beaufighters then took off in quick succession, joined formation in the air and set course for the turning point, all flying at low level. Such departures were never without their spectators, and as the aircraft roared away heads would appear at windows, ground crews would stand watching the performance of their machines, while aircrew not on duty would gather in small groups on the airfield. Again, when the Beaufighters returned, anxious eyes would count them in, and should one or two be missing a sense of personal loss would be felt by the whole station.
The force, on making landfall on the enemy coast, would turn and fly along the track of the enemy convoy. On sighting the ships the strike leader would signal to the anti-flak Beaufighters, which then climbed ahead of the torpedo-bombers and launched their smothering attacks. In the ensuing confusion among the German anti-aircraft gunners, the torpedo aircraft would select their targets close to dropping range and place their torpedoes as accurately as possible. This was no easy task for their targets would be moving at anything between eight and twelve knots, and during the time the torpedo took to travel through the water the ships could move ahead or make sudden evasive turns. Then came a critical moment when each Beaufighter banked to break away in order to avoid flying over the defences. It was at this moment of banking that the full span of the aircraft's wings and under-belly were exposed to the German gunners, and pilots had to use all their skill in weaving their way out of range. After the attack the aircraft usually passed through a rendezvous point in order to gain mutual protection against any enemy fighters which followed them on the homeward flight.
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During the previous week the North Coates Wing had achieved the unusual distinction of launching three attacks on three successive days. Although on each occasion the targets were small, four ships, including a Sperrbrecher, were reported sunk, with others damaged.
Among the New Zealanders flying from North Coates at this time was Wing Commander ‘Sam’ McHardy,1 who was in charge of No. 143 Squadron. He led the strike force on many occasions. Describing one April attack, McHardy says:
We had been flying along the Dutch coast for forty miles or so in a sea mist and very soon after emerging from it we sighted two enemy ships. They hadn't much time to do anything about it. All the aircraft swept in to attack and an avalanche of cannon fire struck the ships. There was some flak thrown up at us and some of the Beaufighters were hit, causing a few casualties. The Germans were in an unenviable position with our lead bursting all around them. In a few brief minutes the attack was over and we were heading for home, leaving one ship burning furiously – a big pile of deck cargo as well as the vessel itself was well alight – and the second ship, after an explosion had shaken the inside out of her, was lying obscured by a pall of smoke. All our machines returned safely.
A few days later Squadron Leader Kellow1 of St. Andrews, Scotland, led eight Beaufighters from No. 489 Squadron on a Rover patrol in the Egero area. A small merchant ship was the first target, but as the attack began Kellow saw smoke on the horizon which he thought might lead to better targets. Leaving the small ship burning, the formation flew towards the smoke which proved to be an auxiliary minelayer, escorted on either side by M class minesweepers. Two torpedoes were launched at the minelayer. She began to alter course but was unable to avoid being hit. There was a sudden convulsion of water just aft of amidships, followed by a heavy explosion. The ship later sank. Meanwhile her escorts had been attacked by cannon fire. Two Messerschmitts approached at low level from the land and flew over the ships during the attack but did not give battle, and all the Beaufighters returned safely with only minor flak damage to a few machines.
Several more successful attacks followed during the next two months in which a prominent part was played by Flight Lieutenants Moyniham and Davidson,2 Flying Officers Gow3 and Osment,4 Pilot Officer O'Connor5 and Flight Sergeant Tapper.6 Flight Lieutenant Hammond7 and Flying Officer Fraser,8 newly arrived on the squadron after successful tours in the Mediterranean, also served with distinction during this period.
By March 1944 plans for the formation of an Anzac Wing in Coastal Command were well advanced. A preliminary operation was flown in the late afternoon of the 6th when four torpedo Beaufighters from the New Zealand Squadron were covered by eight cannon Beaufighters from No. 455 Australian Squadron in an attack on shipping off Stavanger. A cargo ship of 2000 tons was torpedoed and numerous cannon hits were seen on the escorts and other vessels in the convoy. This action marked the beginning of a partnership which was to last until the end of the war. A few weeks later the Anzac Wing was established at Langham, in Norfolk, to supplement operations against German shipping along the North Sea coastline, and it was from this base during the next few months that No. 489 Squadron was to carry out some of the most successful attacks of its career.
Royal Air Force Station, Langham, was at this time commanded by Group Captain A. E. Clouston, and the high standard of efficiency in operations and the happy spirit which prevailed on the station were due in no small measure to Clouston's dynamic personality. Fine leadership was also displayed by the two squadron commanders, Wing Commander Davenport,1 who was in charge of the Australian squadron, and Wing Commander Dinsdale, who led No. 489 Squadron. Typical of the attacks now carried out by the Anzac Wing from Langham was that launched against a heavily defended convoy near Borkum in the late afternoon of 6 May. The target, which had been reported by a reconnaissance aircraft, consisted of twelve merchant ships accompanied by fifteen escort vessels. Twenty-four Beaufighters, twelve from each squadron, comprised the attacking force, torpedoes being carried by six aircraft from the New Zealand unit.
1 Wing Commander J. N. Davenport, DSO, DFC and bar, GM; born Rose Bay, New South Wales, 9 Jun 1920; joined RAAF Jan 1941; commanded No. 455 (Aust) Sqdn, 1943–44; Staff duties, No. 18 Group, Coastal Command, 1944–45.
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By May 1944, when preparations for the assault on Europe entered their final phase, the strike squadrons of Coastal Command had already taken a heavy toll of German and German-controlled shipping. In the seventeen months from January 1943 they had, according to post-war assessments, sunk eighty-four ships totalling 178,537 tons, and damaged a further thirty-three, some of them seriously, necessitating long periods in the overcrowded repair yards. These figures, however, by no means represent the full effect of the operations carried out by the Beaufighter and Hampden crews. The increasing dislocation and delay in the enemy's seaborne trade, the loss of valuable cargoes, the diversion of effort in providing more and more escort vessels and crews, the maintenance of a considerable force of fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns in the areas of attack, all combined to produce a serious drain on the enemy's resources.
At the beginning of 1943 the reorganisation of the German mercantile marine under Karl Kaufmann had led the German High Command to expect that Germany would be able to meet her commitments as regards essential imports and the transport of military supplies to Norway. But by the end of that year not only had the German supply programme fallen considerably in arrears but the excess of sinkings over replacements under Kaufmann's accelerated shipbuilding scheme made it unlikelv that the Germans would be able to improve the situation.
In the anti-shipping squadrons of Coastal Command the Royal Air Force now possessed a powerful striking force trained not only to continue its inroad into the enemy's dwindling resources of shipping, but also to frustrate the attacks by the numerous small craft which the Germans were assembling in the Channel ports for action against the invasion convoys.