Chapter 6: Coastal Command and the Struggle at Sea: The Offensive against German Shipping and U-Boats in 1942
Throughout 1942 Coastal Command continued its routine work of reconnaissance and convoy escort. At the same time it steadily pursued and developed those offensive operations against German shipping and U-boats which in the end contributed so powerfully to the Allied victory.
By the beginning of 1942 the anti-shipping offensive had been waged for over a year. Already Coastal Command was ceaselessly attacking sea-reaches so vital to the enemy as the coastal waters of Norway, the Southern North Sea and the Bay of Biscay. With Bomber Command’s Bostons—successors to the heavily-smitten Blenheims-joining in at need, and Fighter Command operating the ‘Channel Stop’ and supplying escort, there were few occasions on which German vessels could sail completely unchallenged. Unless, of course, they cared to confine themselves to the Baltic.
The year began disappointingly. During the last quarter of 1941 Coastal Command had sunk fifteen ships for the loss of forty-six aircraft, but in the first four months of 1942 it sank only six for the loss of fifty-five aircraft. This was largely a ‘seasonal decline’. Better weather, coupled with increased resources in the form of four Hampden squadrons converted to torpedo bombers, soon gave rise to renewed hopes. By May the Command was attacking more fiercely and more frequently than ever before.
Much the larger part of this work against enemy shipping fell to the Hudsons. With the help of the Hampdens, those of No. 18 Group (Nos. 48 and 608 Squadrons) were responsible for strikes off Norway; those of No. 16 Group (Nos. 53, 59, 320 (Dutch) Squadrons, and No. 407 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force) concentrated on the traffic between the estuary of the Elbe and the Hook of Holland.
With iron determination the pilots of these squadrons dived through the flak and released their bombs from mast-height—or so near it that damage from impact with ship or sea was distressingly frequent. On 28th May, for instance, No. 59 Squadron recorded that one of its aircraft ‘struck the sea with port prop—badly bent and homed on one engine at 60 m.p.h.’. The next day No. 407 Squadron reported a still more telling incident.’ For the second time in two nights Pilot Officer O’Connell successfully bombed enemy shipping. After this last episode he is seriously thinking of taking up paper-hanging after the war. He went in so low to attack that he struck a mast and hung one of the bomb-doors thereon’. As material for an impressive ‘line’ this was probably surpassed only by an incident two years later, when a pilot of No. 455 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, returned from a shipping attack near the Dutch coast with several feet of mast attached to his aircraft.
Tactics—and courage—of this kind reaped their reward, and during May alone Coastal Command claimed twelve ships, ten of which have since been confirmed. Many others were damaged. Unfortunately attacks at so low a level also involved severe losses; and at forty-three aircraft for the month these were greater than the Command could possibly continue to accept. The war diarist of No. 407 Squadron, while justifiably stressing the achievements of his comrades, leaves no doubt about their cost. ‘Since this squadron became operational again on 1st April we have lost twelve crews, in all fifty persons either missing or killed. During the past month six crews have been designated missing or killed on operations with the loss of twenty-seven lives. This does not take into consideration the fact that after every major operation of this nature at least two or three aircraft are so very badly damaged that they are of no use to this, or any other, squadron’.
In work of this nature even the cloak of semi-darkness was no protection. Whether the strike took place in moonlight or twilight or daylight made little difference—the proportion of aircraft lost steadily increased. By the end of June the grim fact emerged that during the previous three months, out of every four aircraft attempting to attack, one had been shot down. The Germans were applying the obvious remedy. They were arming their merchantmen more and more heavily, surrounding them with more and more escorts—sometimes they now employed as many as four or five warships for a single merchant vessel. This impressive tribute to the work of our crews unfortunately spelled, for the time being, the end of our success; for with his resources stretched to the utmost Joubert could not afford losses of anything like this order. In July he instructed his
crews to abandon the low attack, and to bomb from medium level. The resulting fall in casualties was equalled only by the decline in sinkings.
The ineffectiveness of medium-level attack arose partly from the lack of a good bomb-sight for the type of work, partly from the drain of experienced crews—including two of the four Beaufort Squadrons—to the Middle East. The Hampdens, too, were not fast enough for work against the more powerfully escorted convoys—a fact which sometimes led their pilots into desperate expedients. ‘There was’, records a member of No. 455 Royal Australian Air Force Squadron, ‘a very keen type who earned himself the nickname “Hacksaw”, because whenever he had the opportunity he sawed off some of the many appendages the old Hampden acquired, to try and squeeze the extra half-knot out of her’.
None of these handicaps was likely to be overcome in the near future. Joubert, however, was far from beaten. Impressed by the remarkable combination of adaptability, speed, strength and endurance to be found in the Beaufighter, he had already suggested that some of these admirable aircraft should be modified to carry torpedoes; and to this suggestion, which was approved by the Air Ministry in June, he now added another—that special Beaufighter ‘strike wings’ should be formed. These, he urged, should consist partly of the ordinary cannon Beaufighters or Beaufighter-bombers (which would concentrate on the ships’ crews and guns) and partly of the new Torbeaus. The whole wing, being composed of the same type of aircraft, could be expected to attack at high speed with cohesion. This proposal also won acceptance, and in September the decision was taken to equip Coastal Command with five Beaufighter squadrons of each type by April 1943.
The first of these new wings, consisting of Nos. 143 (Beaufighter), 236 (Bomber-Beaufighter) and 254 (Beaufighter and Torbeau) Squadrons was assembled in November 1942. It was stationed at North Coates, in No. 16 Group, for work against the heavily escorted traffic along the Frisian coast. On 20th November Spitfires of No. 12 Group, Fighter Command, reported a convoy of twelve to sixteen ships steering south west towards Rotterdam. Two of the Beaufighter squadrons—Nos. 236 and 254—were at once ordered off; but the weather was bad, the formations lost touch, and the convoy was protected by FW.190s. The result was, to say the least, discouraging. The largest merchant ship and two escort-vessels were hit, but only at prohibitive cost to the Beaufighters, three of which were lost and four so seriously damaged that they crashed or made forced landings on return. Concluding that the wing was not
yet properly trained as a working unit, Joubert at once withdrew it from the line of battle, leaving the Hudsons and Hampdens to sustain the burden of the offensive.
From the purely statistical angle, anti-shipping operations during 1942 thus showed disappointing results. Over the whole year 42 ships (61,028 tons) were assessed as sunk by the three home Commands. All these sinkings—and three more—have since been confirmed. The total cost was 251 aircraft. These figures are unimpressive, but it would be wrong to conclude from them that the offensive was misconceived or that its effects were insignificant. The Germans were forced to protect their convoys with fighters, guns and minor warships which they could certainly have used to advantage elsewhere. They were driven into adopting rigorous methods which were temporarily effective in repelling attack but greatly reduced the volume of goods they could carry. They were made to haggle about payment with nervous, grasping, or merely sensible Scandinavian crews. In sum, the offensive kept the Germans under pressure on their sea routes, just as other operations kept them under pressure on their land routes. Attacks on snipping by our coastal aircraft were in fact the necessary complement of attacks on ports and marshalling yards by our bombers and ‘train-busting’ by our fighters. Release the pressure at any point, allow the ships or the trains or the barges to proceed with immunity, and traffic would at once flow from the more to the less threatened routes, with benefit to the whole of the enemy’s hard-driven transport system.
These were what Joubert called the ‘hidden assets’ of the offensive. But even in terms of bare statistics there were some aspects of the campaign which were highly and obviously profitable. There was, for example, a small class of traffic of unique importance in the German war economy—the cargoes of urgently needed primary products carried by blockade-runners from the Far East. The safe arrival of one of these venturesome craft was an occasion for tremendous rejoicing among the enemy. It was the privilege of Coastal Command’s No. 19 Group to help the Navy make such occasions few and far between.
The blockade-runners were speedy vessels whose captains were well versed in all the arts of maritime deception. Despite this they rarely managed to avoid the vigilance of the Navy in the outer seas. If luck or good judgment brought them safely past our ships they were almost invariably picked up by Coastal Command as they approached the Bay of Biscay; for though No. 19 Group was on the hunt for U-boats it did not disdain other prey. In January 1943, for instance, there was the case of the Rhakotis. Spotted by a Hampden
of No. 502 Squadron and shadowed by a Sunderland of No. 10, RAAF, she was finished off by a cruiser which ‘homed’ on to the flying boat. This single stroke deprived Germany not only of useful quantities of fats, vegetable oils, quinine bark, tea, tin, rice and wolfram, but also of 4,000 tons of rubber—enough to supply four armoured divisions for a year. And the fate of the Rhakotis was by no means untypical; in the first four months of 1943 only one blockade-runner out of seven reached the French coast. After that, until the end of the year, the Germans even gave up trying.
By the spring of 1943 the Beaufighter wing at North Coates was ready for action. On 18th April it took off on its first ‘strike’ since the unfortunate episode of November. The target, located earlier in the day by one of the wing aircraft, was a heavily escorted convoy off the Dutch coast; and the attacking force consisted of nine Torbeaus of No. 254 Squadron, six Beaufighter bombers of No. 236 Squadron and six Beaufighters of No. 143 Squadron, all covered at high level by Spitfires and Mustangs of Fighter Command. ‘The role of the escorting Beaufighters’, records No. 236 Squadron, ‘was to attack the escort vessels with bombs, cannon and machine guns and silence their fire whilst the torpedo carrying “Beaus” attacked the large merchant vessel. Rendezvous with single-engine fighter escort was to be made over Coltishall. The operation went entirely according to plan except that the convoy was encountered some ten miles further north than had been expected (off Texel). Two ‘M’ class minesweepers were hit with bombs, cannon and machine-gun fire, and left on fire, and an armed trawler was also hit. Two certain torpedo hits were made by No. 254 Squadron on the largest merchant vessel (the target vessel of the strike), which was left on fire listing heavily, and thought to be sinking. Many excellent close-up photographs of the attack were secured. The whole operation was outstanding not only in the success of the attack but also in the fact that between 1535 and 1550 hours every one of the 21 Beaufighters engaged landed safely back at North Coates. Only very slight damage due to enemy fire was sustained by two or three aircraft, and no casualties whatsoever to crew’.
Before the end of April a similar operation resulted in the destruction of two merchant vessels and a trawler, besides damage to several escorts, all at a cost of one Beaufighter. The key to success thus seemed within our grasp. A notable indication of this was soon to come. In May 1943 a tally was made of the active shipping in Rotterdam, the most convenient port for the great industrial area of Rhenish Westphalia. It amounted to only 37,000 tons, as against 106,000 tons a year earlier. The work of the strike-wing, coupled with
our raids on the port and our ceaseless mining, had forced the Germans to halt most of their traffic at Emden, where handling and transport facilities were greatly inferior.
By the spring of 1943 the anti-shipping offensive thus promised great things. Unfortunately these were not to be achieved as quickly as we had hoped. The demands of the Mediterranean theatre had by then shattered our plan of building up five strike-wings in this country and many difficulties remained to be overcome before our aircraft could seal up Rotterdam and subject the ships’ crews off the Dutch and Norwegian coasts to a veritable reign of terror. But if the great days of the offensive were still beyond the horizon, already the clouds were tinged with their approaching light.
Moreover, in the minelaying carried out night after night by Bomber Command, and to a much lesser degree by Coastal Command, there was a weapon at work far more deadly than we realized. Between April 1940 and March 1943 Bomber and Coastal Commands laid nearly 16,000 mines at a cost of 329 aircraft. We now know that these mines sank 369 vessels, totalling 361,821 tons. During the same period Bomber, Coastal, and Fighter Commands delivered some 3,700 attacks on ships at sea at a cost of 648 aircraft. We now know that these attacks sank 107 vessels, totalling 155,076 tons. In other words, it was costing us six aircraft to sink one ship by direct attack, but less than one aircraft to sink one ship by mining. Here was something unappreciated then, and little known now. Taken in conjunction, the two forms of attack were already doing great damage to the enemy, and would soon do much more.
* * *
It is recorded in the first volume of this history that as soon as the United States became involved in the war six of Germany’s biggest U-boats were ordered to North American waters. These vessels reached their new hunting-grounds during the second week of January 1942. Within three weeks they had destroyed no less than forty Allied and neutral ships, totalling 230,000 tons.
Well satisfied with this experiment, Dönitz decided to strike while the iron was hot, or rather, while the American defences were still lukewarm. He at once ordered all U-boats lying westward of the British Isles and several lying off the Azores to take up station on the North American seaboard. Shortly afterwards he sent five large boats to operate off Central America. He also began to organize a system of refuelling from other U-boats at sea. One important element in his plan, however, was frustrated. By Hitler’s express command
twenty-four U-boats—over a quarter of the total operational force in the Atlantic—remained on guard against the expected British invasion of Norway.
For the next four months the German vessels wrought havoc. With a brief exception in April, when sailings were suspended in the most dangerous areas, the sinkings off the American coast grew ever more frequent. For May the figure reached 531,000 tons, or 109 ships, including thirty tankers. All this the Germans achieved at an average cost of less than two U-boats each month.
Such blows, if not mortal, were indeed staggering. Yet there were two facts which offered some consolation. The enemy’s easy run of success must surely end as soon as the Americans could develop systematic air and surface escort; and if U-boats were fully occupied in the western Atlantic their capacity for mischief must be smaller elsewhere. During most of the spring the convoys between North America and Great Britain thus sailed relatively unscathed, while in waters covered by Coastal Command only nine merchant ships were sunk within five months. All this enabled the Command, despite the drain of resources overseas and the frequent calls for operations against the German capital ships, to give more attention to the U-boat ‘transit areas’.
Two of these transit areas—the northern and the Bay of Biscay—were of particular importance. The former, between the Shetlands and Norway on the one side and the Shetlands and the Faroes on the other, was traversed by new U-boats on their maiden voyage from Germany; the latter was crossed every time a U-boat approached or left the main operational bases in Western France. The most ardent efforts on the part of No. 15 Group in the first area and No. 19 Group in the second at first produced few ‘kills’ in either zone, but in June 1942 there came a perceptible improvement in the Bay. The reasons for this were very numerous. There was an increase in the anti-U-boat air forces, largely at the expense of Bomber Command1; fixed mirror-cameras for recording attacks became more plentiful; new depth charges were introduced, filled with Torpex—thirty per cent more powerful than the old Amatol—and fitted with the Mark XIIIQ pistol. The latter ensured detonation at 34 feet below the surface—
better than preceding marks, but still deeper than the desired ideal of 25 feet. The effect of all these things, however, was much less than that of another innovation—the Leigh Light.
As is not unusual with inventions of great importance, the origins of the Leigh Light were unorthodox. The need for a good illuminant had been realized very early at Coastal Command; and the idea that anti-submarine aircraft should carry a searchlight, instead of depending on unreliable and swiftly-consumed flares, was born in the mind of Squadron Leader H. de V. Leigh during the summer of 1940. Leigh, who was no specialist in these matters but who had any amount of initiative and common sense, was at that time engaged on personnel duties at Coastal Command Headquarters. He was, however, a pilot of the First World War; and by a fortunate chance the Coastal chief in 1940, Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, had been his Squadron Commander in the old days. The two men were thus on closer terms than those normally obtaining between the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief and a squadron leader on ‘P’ staff.
From the start Bowhill encouraged Leigh to develop his idea. At the end of October 1940 he obtained for him a D.W.I. (mine-detonating) Wellington, complete with generator. The task before Leigh was to fit a 24-inch searchlight into the under-turret of this aircraft, so mounted that the ASV operator could direct it by remote control. The problem, already delicate enough, was complicated by the question whether the weight of the equipment would prevent the aircraft carrying long-range ASV, without which it would be useless, besides a full load of fuel and depth charges. But on this score the inventor felt high confidence from the beginning.
By hard work, ingenuity, and help from various sources, among which HMS Vernon and the searchlight engineering firm of Messrs. Savage and Parsons take pride of place, Leigh had his prototype installation complete by January 1941. Two months later he carried out his first trials, against an illuminated corvette; and as soon as his ASV equipment was complete, in May, he proceeded to the great test against an unlit submarine. His success was complete. Switching on the light at the last moment just as the ASV reaction was disappearing—for the ‘blip’, which grows clearer up to about a mile from the detected object, then becomes merged in the general returns from the sea surface—the operator almost instantly trapped and held the submarine in the beam. Long before the vessel could submerge, the pilot had carried out his dummy attack. A new weapon of decisive effect was within our grasp.
The task now appeared to be one of production—of expanding a single prototype into a force of Leigh Light aircraft. By substituting
batteries for the generator Leigh had already overcome any difficulty of weight in the Wellington, while for aircraft without under-turrets, such as the Catalina, he was developing a special nacelle-type light to be clamped on the wing. The technical side was well in hand; and for a device of what promised to be revolutionary importance the problems of production should not have been insoluble.
At this stage there occurred an unexpected setback. After the successful trials Bowhill wrote to Joubert, then Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Radio) at the Air Ministry, suggesting that Leigh should be officially entrusted with the task of bringing searchlight ASV aircraft to an operational condition. The reply was discouraging. Joubert had been closely in touch with the development of Group Captain Helmore’s ‘Turbinlite’; and he considered that Helmore’s invention—intended, it will be remembered, for night-fighting—would meet the anti-submarine requirement. So, too, did Helmore. In reality the two lights had little in common; for Helmore’s was extremely heavy and not very manoeuvrable, gave a strong diffused light instead of a beam, was fitted into the nose of the aircraft, and was used to illuminate the target so that another aircraft could attack. The fundamental differences between the two inventions, however, were not fully appreciated at the Air Ministry; and knowing Helmore to be an expert in his particular field, Joubert met Bowhill’s suggestion by assigning responsibility for further trials to the Coastal Command Development Unit (with whom Leigh was already working), and responsibility for further technical progress to Group Captain Helmore.
Events did not stand here. In mid-June Joubert succeeded Bowhill at Northwood. Within a few days he had both recalled Leigh to full ‘P’ Staff duties and asked for the Helmore light to be fitted in two ASV Wellingtons. At this juncture a lesser man than Leigh might have given up in despair; but the Squadron Leader merely proceeded with his personnel duties at official times, and the development of his invention at others. In particular he persuaded Messrs. Savage and Parsons to carry on with the production of the prototype nacelle and controls, though they had no sort of contract to do so. His quiet persistence was rewarded two months later, when a combined Coastal Command-Admiralty investigation reported that the ‘Turbinlite’ was quite unsuited for work against submarines.
Joubert, as befitted so acute and agile a commander, now changed his tack right about. He at once became Leigh’s firmest supporter. On 7th August he asked for six Wellingtons and six Catalinas to be fitted with the Leigh Light as a matter of urgency; and in November, before delivery had begun, he extended his demand by another thirty
Wellingtons. This was too fast for the Air Staff, who insisted on further trials. When these confirmed the merits of Leigh’s device, the Air Ministry then approved an order for twenty more searchlight equipments; but it refused to have these fitted to aircraft until the success of the first six Wellingtons had been demonstrated in operations. Only in response to Joubert’s repeated pressure did the Ministry so far relent, in February 1942, as to agree that the immediate aim should be a full squadron (No. 172) of Leigh Light Wellingtons, instead of a flight.
By now, some seven months after Joubert’s initial request, the first Wellington had reached Chivenor, a Coastal airfield on the Bristol Channel. There followed a disheartening period during which the aircraft arrived at the rate of about one a month. By May, when there were still only five, Joubert lost patience. Realizing that the laggards and sceptics would be convinced only by a successful operation, he decided to sacrifice the very great advantage of a first appearance in force. On the night of 4th June, 1942, over a year after successful trials, he ordered four of the five Leigh Light Wellingtons to patrol over the Bay of Biscay.
The result was highly gratifying. Three of the Wellingtons found no U-boats, but the ease with which they illuminated ASV contacts which turned out to be fishing vessels left little doubt of the merits of Leigh’s invention. The fourth aircraft gave further witness in the best possible way. It contacted, ‘homed’ on to, and successfully illuminated two enemy submarines. Both fired recognition signals and made no attempt to dive. The first, an Italian vessel, was heavily damaged by the Wellington’s depth-charges, and was finished off three days later by No. 10 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. The second, profiting from the fact that the Wellington had used all its depth-charges in the first attack, escaped with nothing worse than slight damage from the aircraft’s machine-guns.
This was well enough for a start, and the Squadron diary very reasonably recorded: ‘the first operational effort was hailed with great enthusiasm throughout the Squadron as it had proved the whole “outfit” to be an outstanding success’. Joubert, equally impressed, within a few hours of receiving a report on the night’s activities again demanded an increase in the Leigh Light production programme. Operations during the rest of June fully confirmed the wisdom of his request. One aircraft was lost by flying into the sea—there was still no reliable low-reading altimeter—but between them the five Leigh Light Wellingtons sighted seven U-boats during 230 flying hours over the Bay. In the same period the ordinary night-flying Whitleys, using flares, put in 260 hours without a single sighting.
The new weapon, even though its first use was on so small a scale, had an instant effect on the German crews. Liable to be suddenly transfixed by a dazzling glare which was the sure harbinger of a salvo of depth-charges, they found darkness no longer a protection; and their growing reluctance to break surface at night soon presented our daylight patrols with increased opportunities for attack. Reacting swiftly to the double threat, on 24th June Dönitz ordered all U-boats in the Bay of Biscay to proceed submerged both by day and night. If they surfaced, it must be only to recharge batteries. The result was that life for the German crews became not only more dangerous but more uncomfortable. Their morale, shaken by the British efforts in 1941 and then boosted by their success off the American coast, took a sharp turn for the worse.
During July 1942 the Leigh Light Wellingtons scored their first ‘kill’, and in August the Air Ministry approved the formation of a second squadron. At the same time nacelle-type lights were ordered for all Catalinas and trial installations for the Liberators and Fortresses. By then some of the secondary effects of the new weapon were becoming clear. One of these was that the U-boats, forced to travel great distances submerged, could now spend much less time on patrol. Another was the reinforcement of the Luftwaffe in Western France. On 2nd July Dönitz accused Göring of allowing British aircraft to operate in the Bay with ‘absolutely no opposition’, and soon twenty-four Ju.88s, which could ill be spared from other fields, were being added to the forces of the Fliegerführer Atlantik.
By the summer of 1942 the Bay was thus becoming a scene of danger for the U-boats. By then, too, increased Allied resources and better organization were having their effect along the North American coast. In the air, British as well as American and Canadian units played their part, for in July the Hudsons of No. 53 Squadron began operating from Rhode Island. As the U-boats were driven out of the northern reaches to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, so No. 53 Squadron followed them south. By August it was based on Trinidad, with detachments in British and Dutch Guiana. The German heyday in American waters was over.
Though Dönitz could still find ‘soft spots’ to exploit in the Caribbean and off Brazil, the time had now come for a general redeployment of his forces. Of where the U-boat chief would strike next there was little doubt. Whatever the attractions of the waters off Capetown, West Africa and North Russia, where merchant ships were many and Allied aircraft few, the main offensive must continue in the North Atlantic. And as there was now no safety for U-boats within five hundred miles of Anglo-American air bases, the attack
must perforce be concentrated in mid-ocean. The Allied air patrols from Newfoundland, Dönitz was gratefully aware, had not yet been stretched to meet the Allied air patrols from Iceland and Northern Ireland. Those from Gibraltar failed to link up with those from Cornwall. The ‘Greenland Gap’ in the north, the ‘Azores Gap’ in the south: here were waters still bright with promise for the German cause.
‘Wolf pack’ attacks in the Greenland Gap began in the opening days of August 1942. The fierce battles of the next three months displayed at least two consistent features. One was the gallantry and skill with which the surface-escorts harassed the attackers; the other was the fact that the attacks began when systematic air escort ended and ended when systematic air escort began. A good example occurred on 1st September. On that morning the westbound convoy SC.97 was under attack from nine U-boats towards the westward edge of the Greenland Gap. At midday, British and American Catalinas from Iceland began to appear on the scene. Before nightfall they had sunk one U-boat, attacked two more with depth-charges, and forced all the rest to dive. Thereafter the convoy sailed on unmolested. ‘I decided to break off the operation’, wrote Dönitz in his War Diary, ‘as experience had shown that further pursuit in an area under constant air patrol would be useless’.
There was no single answer to the problem of the ‘gaps’. On the naval side there was still much that could be done by strengthening surface escorts. Special naval forces, too, could be formed to hunt U-boats rather than protect convoys. The first such group, under that redoubtable destroyer of U-boats Commander Walker, began operations on 22nd September, 1942. In regard to the air forces, our attacks on transit areas or the U-boat operational bases would affect events in the ‘gaps’ just as much as elsewhere. But the prime need was simply to abolish the gaps. This could be done either by naval aircraft from carriers, or by VLR (very long range) aircraft from shore. But in August 1942 we had no aircraft-carriers to spare for transatlantic convoys; no auxiliary carriers; and only five VLR aircraft in the whole of Coastal Command.2 Until these things could be supplied our losses at sea were bound to remain grave. From August to October, in fact, an average of nearly half a million tons went down each month in the North Atlantic alone. Worse still, new
U-boats continued to come into operation very much faster than the old ones could be destroyed.
Despite all this, Dönitz was alarmed at the prospect ahead. ‘The number of British aircraft in the East Atlantic’, he wrote at the beginning of September, ‘has increased, a great variety being seen. They are equipped with excellent location devices against U-boats. U-boat traffic round Scotland and in “the Bay of Biscay is gravely endangered by daily, even hourly, hunts by aircraft. In the Atlantic the enemy’s daily reconnaissance covers out as far as 20° W., which forces U-boat dispositions far out into the centre of the Atlantic with consequent higher fuel consumption, shorter operational periods, and greater difficulty in finding the enemy convoys in the open Atlantic. There are also some types of aircraft of particularly long range which are used for convoy escort. Such escort has been flown as much as eight hundred miles from English bases. If development continues at the present rate, these problems will lead to irreparable losses, to a decline in ship sinkings, and consequently to reduced chances of success in the U-boat warfare as a whole’. In view of all this Dönitz once more staked a claim on the four-engined He.177s, ‘the only aircraft which have a range and fighting power capable of acting as reconnaissance against the Atlantic convoys and of combating the English aircraft in the Biscay area’. In support of this demand he quoted the opinion of his U-boat captains that’ successful operations were perfectly possible against convoys even heavily escorted by surface craft, but only as long as Allied aircraft were not in evidence’.
Admiral Dönitz did not get his He.177s; but it was some time before his worst fears came true. Meanwhile those in charge of Royal Air Force policy and operations made further efforts in two important directions. The first was extremely profitable. The Air Staff—in the person of Air Vice-Marshal J. C. Slessor, who undertook a special mission to Washington—managed to speed up the supply of Liberators. The second was attended with less success: Joubert tried to bring the struggle against the U-boats under a unified Anglo-American direction.
Dissatisfaction with the existing organization on the upper levels was no novelty. It had, for instance, already been voiced by the Rt. Hon. S. M. Bruce. In memoranda to the War Cabinet in June and July 1942 the Australian Representative urged that a small high-level committee, wider than the existing Defence or Chiefs of Staff Committees, should be appointed to assess the relative importance of the war at sea and the air offensive against Germany. Having cleared our minds on that difficult and complex matter, Bruce suggested, we should then approach the United States with proposals for a common
policy to be carried out by a common effort. In September Joubert carried this idea a stage further. He proposed a single supreme control for the whole anti-U-boat war, with a central planning staff to coordinate the separate and often conflicting policies of the British, Canadian and American naval and air authorities, together with those of the various Service authorities in such areas as the Mediterranean, West Africa and Australia. The scheme was attractive in theory, if liable to give rise to difficulties in practice; and it was pursued for some months before being finally abandoned. In the meantime a concession was made to the critics by the formation in November of the War Cabinet Anti-U-boat Sub-Committee. Under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, this was normally attended by the political and Service chiefs from the Admiralty and Air Ministry, the Minister of War Transport, some distinguished scientists (such as Lord Cherwell, Sir Robert Watson-Watt and Professor Blackett), and political and naval representatives of the United States. If not what Joubert had hoped for, this body certainly managed to determine priority and secure departmental sanction with great speed, leaving the Admiralty-Coastal Command Anti-U-boat Committee to concentrate largely on technical and tactical matters.3
In conformity with the spirit of these proposals for the higher direction of the struggle, Joubert also achieved greater centralization at a lower level. From the end of July details of sorties by VLR aircraft were decided by Coastal Command Headquarters, in accordance with information supplied by the Admiralty, instead of by the Coastal Group Commander in concert with the local naval Commander-in-Chief. At the momentary cost of the Group Commanders’ feelings this made the most economical use of exceedingly scarce aircraft.
While these matters of organization were under discussion the struggle had once more taken a sharp turn in favour of the enemy. The offensive in the Bay, which had promised so well with the advent of the Leigh Light in June, was now petering out in failure.
This sombre development was not the result of greater activity by the Luftwaffe, though that was real enough. In June German aircraft had managed to intercept only three of our aircraft over the Bay, but with the arrival of the twenty-four Ju.88s which Dönitz had wrung from Göring, opposition warmed up. In July our patrols had to fight some twenty-five combats, in August thirty-three, and in September
forty-four. But though our losses increased from eight aircraft in July to sixteen in October, those of the enemy rose far more abruptly. In July we destroyed over the Bay one German aircraft; in August, four; in September, twelve; and in November (when our own losses were only seven), twelve again. All this was not accomplished without sacrifices in other directions, for the whole effort of two Beaufighter squadrons (Nos. 235 and 248) had to be directed against the enemy. But it was worth diverting squadrons to new tasks when they could record episodes like the following:–
No. 235 Squadron. St. Eval. 18.9.42. Beaufighters N, C, A, H, E, P, J and O. At 1755 hours, aircraft sighted FW.200 Kurier on easterly course, height 200 ft., over armed trawler of 300 tons. E, P and N attacked FW.200 from port while O dived from 2,000 feet head on and remainder attacked from starboard. FW.200 burst into flames, disintegrated, and dived into sea. Three crew were seen in water and one attempting to climb in dinghy. Aircraft H saw C dive into sea from 200 ft., apparently damaged by flak from trawler. 1820, three Ju.88s were sighted flying at 1,000 ft. over fishing vessel flying French flag. Aircraft P climbed and attacked while other Beaufighters converged from various directions. Hits were seen on port engine of one Ju.88 which was further attacked by O and E; flames appeared in cockpit and enemy dived into sea enveloped in flames. When Beaufighters left, tail planes of two Ju.88s were protruding from sea. Aircraft A followed third Ju.88 and delivered two successive attacks, but Ju. disappeared into cloud.
The work of the Beaufighter patrols was well and swiftly done, and by November it was virtually complete. For the time being German interference from the air almost ceased, and our anti-U-boat aircraft were again able to carry out their patrols unmolested.
A greater difficulty than the Ju.88s was the advent of the French tunny-fishing season. In the latter part of July large numbers of fishing craft began to move out after the tunny into the Middle Bay. In earlier years this movement had not mattered, for we had not been operating against U-boats by night. Now it raised an almost insoluble problem. The ‘blip’ produced on the ASV screen by a fishing vessel was indistinguishable from that caused by a submarine; and the Leigh Light operators found themselves exposing their searchlights only to light up French tunnymen—a waste of effort which ran down batteries and gave unmistakable warning to any U-boats in the vicinity. By mid-August the fishing fleet was so numerous that our night sorties were completely ineffective. Worse still, the U-boats, finding that they could surface with greater freedom during the dark hours, were able to travel submerged through areas covered by our day patrols. Every means of putting pressure on the tunnymen was tried, from leaflet-dropping and appeals over the wireless to sterner
measures such as capturing or ‘shooting-up’ their vessels. Only the end of the season brought relief.
Tunnymen were an accidental and temporary nuisance. The main cause of the break-down of our Bay offensive lay in something much more serious. It had long been realized that if the enemy discovered some means of detecting our ASV radiations, U-boats could dive well before they were sighted by our aircraft. During April 1942 a Hudson carrying ASV had unfortunately crashed in Tunisia; the Germans had obtained the set, including the all-important magnetron valve, more or less intact; and by August they had produced an apparatus which received and recorded ASV transmissions at a distance of thirty miles. By mid-September they had fitted this to large numbers of U-boats. And the vessels not so fitted travelled across the Bay under the escort of those that were.
When we discovered that the Germans had this’ search-receiver’—to use our term—Coastal Command at once strove to apply counter-measures. An attempt was made to ‘flood’ the Bay with ASV transmissions, so that U-boats would be repeatedly forced to submerge. But all efforts to counteract the new apparatus proved unavailing, and by January 1943 our aircraft had almost ceased to sight U-boats by night. Only one thing could now restore our fortunes: radar of a wave-length beyond the scope of the German search-receiver. The time had come—indeed, was long overdue—for the introduction of ASV Mark III.
ASV of 10 centimetres wave-length, as opposed to the 1½ metres of Mark II, was in fact already in existence. It had originated as an adaptation of the American A.I. set; and an improved version, developed with the help of British scientists, had been tried out with success as early as May 1942. Within a few months U.S. Army Liberators on coastal duties in the western hemisphere were equipped with these or similar sets, but production on this side “of the Atlantic was very slow. By August it was clear that the first British models would not be available until the spring of 1943, and that no improvement could be expected while H2S—a new bombing and navigational aid employing many of the same components—was given priority in manufacture. In mid-September a personal approach by Joubert to Harris at Bomber Command failed to persuade the latter to forgo his prior claims, but the discovery of the German ‘search-receiver’ soon altered matters. The Air Staff quickly ruled that the first forty H2S sets should be converted into ASV Mark III, and the Americans agreed to install the new apparatus in all Liberators intended for Coastal Command. It was January 1943, however, before the first daylight patrols by Liberators equipped with 10
centimetre ASV were flown from British bases, and March 1943 before similarly equipped Leigh Light Wellingtons took up the burden of operations by night. During all this time the offensive against the U-boats in the Bay and the northern transit area was conducted as vigorously as ever but showed little result.
The strain under which Coastal Command was labouring towards the end of 1942 was increased still further by a venture to be described in detail later—the massive Operation TORCH. The invasion of French North Africa, the first of the great Anglo-American expeditions under General Eisenhower, set an immense task for our Coastal aircraft. There were photographs to secure of Dakar, Toulon and the Italian naval bases, as well as of the three assault ports—Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. There were weather prospects to be ascertained by ‘Met.’ flights far out into the Atlantic. There was the ceaseless vigil to be kept over the German capital ships in the Norwegian fiords and over their possible break-out routes on both sides of Iceland. Above all, there were intensified patrols to be flown against U-boats in the Bay and the waters around Gibraltar, and close escort to be provided for the convoys. Nearly all this, and much else besides, would have to be done not merely before and during the sailing of the assault forces but over the whole period of the subsequent ‘build-up’.
First and foremost it was necessary to improve the airstrip at Gibraltar, the focal point of the whole operation. By intense efforts, described later, the runway was widened and at the same time extended 450 yards into the sea. This made it possible for three more Coastal Squadrons—Nos. 210, 500 and 608—to be sent out to join Nos. 202 and 233. The airfields in the South-West of England had also to be developed for very heavy operational work. St. Eval, for instance, was organized for a peak load of 72 aircraft, Chivenor for 88. All these measures, and many others, were taken in good time: the reconnaissance was completed, the patrols and escort arranged, the waters off the Biscay ports mined by forces of Bomber Command. At the last minute, after the first vessels had sailed, the Admiralty suddenly asked for air support for five more convoys, but even this unexpected demand was satisfied. Coastal Command aircraft being already fully committed, Joubert was allowed to borrow a Halifax squadron—No. 405, RCAF—from Bomber Command and eight Liberators from the USAAF
Meanwhile the enemy had fortunately decided to concentrate against our traffic with West Africa. Several U-boats which might otherwise have played havoc with the expedition were thus grouped well to the south-west of our projected routes. Though most of the
fourteen invasion convoys crept along at no more than six or seven knots, and some of them crossed the very mouth of the Bay, only two U-boats were seen to approach our line of passage. Both were sunk by Liberators of No. 224 Squadron. In the second case the depth-charges hit the vessel abaft the conning-tower, exploded on impact, and seriously damaged the Liberator—especially in the elevators. ‘Aircraft’, runs the laconic entry in the squadron diary, ‘went into steep incontrollable climb, almost stalling. Climb counteracted by combined efforts of both pilots. Rear-gunner saw elevators disintegrate and wreckage or debris flew up past the tail. Aircraft was extremely tail heavy and A/S bombs could not be jettisoned owing to damaged gear. 1½ hours later flight-engineer managed to open bomb doors and jettison A/S bombs manually. All other loose heavy gear was also jettisoned. Flight back accomplished by both pilots continuously relieved, bracing hands and knees on control column and all crew in nose of aircraft. About one hour before landing control columns had to be tied forward with straps. W/T went u/s. Electrical equipment commenced to function with switches in “off” position. Batteries were switched off in case of fire. Scilly Isles sighted about 1840 to starboard from 14,000 feet. Crew decided to chance crash-landing at Predannack. When over aerodrome, elevator control broke loose becoming u/s. Crash landed, Sgt. Rose suffered compound fracture of leg, rest of crew superficial scratches and cuts. Aircraft destroyed by fire’.
The work of the two Liberators undoubtedly saved the expedition from serious trouble. Still more decisive was the fact that the U-boats to the south-west intercepted a lightly-escorted convoy from Sierra Leone. Other German submarines further out hastened to join in the slaughter, and the unfortunate convoy became a veritable sacrifice for the success of the invasion.
So the majestic array of the TORCH armada, which the Admiralty had reckoned might suffer attack by some seventy U-boats, swept on undisturbed. On November 2nd the first convoys came under air cover from Gibraltar, and by 7th November, the eve of the landings, the Coastal aircraft on the Rock were putting up some 48 sorties a day, averaging nearly eight hours each. By then Dönitz’s captains were hard on the scent, and twenty-two U-boats were spotted by our air patrols before the assaults were launched. Thirteen of these were successfully attacked and damaged, while on the Allied side not a single ship was lost.
For many days the Gibraltar-based aircraft maintained this effort. Soon it became possible to bring out from home the second squadron—No. 179—to be equipped with the Leigh Light, and the night
patrols became as deadly as those flown by day. By mid-December, when Dönitz finally recognized defeat and called off his pack, the Coastal squadrons at Gibraltar had flown 8,656 hours on tasks connected with TORCH. In the course of these they had sighted 142 U-boats, attacked 83, damaged 23 and sunk 3, apart from sharing a fourth ‘kill’ with an Albacore of the Fleet Air Arm. All this they had achieved at a cost of seventeen aircraft, several of which were shot down by our own or the American forces.
During the closing months of 1942 many U-boats began to ‘fight back’ when attacked from the air. ‘Attacked a U-boat which was fully surfaced’, records No. 311 (Czech) Squadron on 7th September; ‘our aircraft dived to attack from a height of 1,200 feet. U-boat opened fire with cannon and machine gun and our aircraft was hit in the fuselage. Most members of crew injured. The Captain, however, pressed the attack home, and the six depth charges, dropped from seventy feet, straddled the conning tower. Our crew were unable to determine number each side of conning-tower owing to their injuries. Rear-gunner observed the U-boat lift bodily in depth charge explosions. Rear-gunner fired approximately 400 rounds, and observed tracers hit the conning-tower. U-boat dived slowly, and submerged one minute after depth charge attack. Owing to injuries to the crew the Captain left the scene of the attack at once, climbed to 500 feet and set course for base. Crash landed at St. Eval, owing to failure of hydraulics. Navigator seriously injured in both legs, front-gunner small finger of left hand shot away, wireless-operator splinter wounds in right arm, second pilot splinter wounds in leg’.
This practice did not dismay our crews in the least, and a steadily increasing number of attacks ended in ‘kills’. A notable occasion was on 8th December, when a Liberator of No. 120 Squadron, joining convoy HX.217 far out in mid-Atlantic, found a ‘Wolf-pack’ in full cry.’ 0900 hours began escort’, runs the entry in the Squadron diary: ‘ 0929 hours sighted and attacked one U-boat with six depth charges, straddling U-boat. Ten feet eruption of water seen, oil streak, numerous pieces yellow wood; many sea gulls collected on and over the oil patch. Aircraft informed Senior Naval Officer of attack and guided Corvette K.214 to oil patch. K.214 signalled “You killed him”, and that parts of dead bodies were seen’. In the remaining ten hours before this Liberator turned for home its crew spotted six more of the ‘pack’, but having already dropped their depth charges could attack only with cannon fire. In each case this drove the enemy below the surface and helped to save the convoy.
By the beginning of 1943 successful attacks were no longer the rarity of a year before, and admirable descriptions of the destruction
of the enemy occur with pleasing regularity in the Squadron Operations Record Books. On 15th January, for instance, No. 206 Squadron (Fortresses) recorded how one of its aircraft ‘dived to attack from 20 degrees on the port bow. Air-gunner estimated that the stick was a straddle, depth charges Nos. 1 and 2 falling short and Nos. 3 and 4 engulfing the U-boat in one big explosion. Remaining depth charges failed to release. After the attack the aircraft made a steep climb to port; the bow or stern of the U-boat was observed at a very steep angle bobbing up and down like a half-filled bottle, and boiling foam patches were observed in the depth charge subsidence. Photographs were taken as the U-boat gradually shot under. ...’ Still more graphic was the description by a pilot of the same squadron of a successful attack a few weeks later. ‘The aftermath’, he reported, ‘looked like a dose of Eno’s’.
In January 1943, when Morocco and Algeria were firmly in our hands, but a bitter struggle still lay ahead in Tunisia, the British and American leaders met near Casablanca. Of the atmosphere and significance of that great conference more will be said later. Here it is important to note that among the vital decisions then taken was that during 1943 the resources of the two nations would be directed first and foremost to the defeat of the U-boats. No sudden stream of long-sought equipment began to pour into Coastal Command as a result of this ruling, but its effects were nevertheless of the highest moment. For it not only served as a charter of rights for the coastal air forces in disputes over priority and countered the tendency in some American quarters to think primarily in terms of the Pacific; it also made the U-boat bases in the Bay of Biscay Target No. 1 for the Anglo-American bombers.
To understand the precise import of this last fact it is necessary to recall how our bombers were already assisting the struggle against the U-boats. Throughout 1942, as in 1941, much of Bomber Command’s effort had been devoted to the war at sea. Apart from lending or transferring to Coastal Command under varying degrees of protest a total of eight squadrons (or nine, if the Whitley O.T.U. squadron is counted) during the year, Bomber Command had helped in many ways. The Bostons of No. 2 Group had joined in the offensive against merchant shipping; the heavier bombers, leaving aside their major effort against the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, had attacked the Tirpitz off Norway and the Graf Zeppelin in Gdynia; and the whole night bomber force, under the impulse of Air Chief Marshal Harris, had taken to minelaying whenever the weather prevented operations over land.4 All these,
however, were subsidiary tasks. The main contribution of the Command to the war at sea had taken a different form.
During 1942 over 2,000 sorties had been directed against the Dutch, Belgian and French Channel ports, and more than 2,500 tons of bombs had been cast down upon them. This work, carried out during daylight by No. 2 Group or at night mainly by ‘freshman’ crews of other groups, had hampered the Germans’ transport system, harassed their minor naval craft, and compelled them to retain strong anti-aircraft defences in the West. It had not, however, any more than the subsidiary activities mentioned above, reduced the number of U-boats. No U-boat was sunk by a mine before 1943; and no U-boats used the Channel ports. As for the French Atlantic ports, from which the U-boats did operate, these had been left virtually untouched. No further sorties were made against Brest once the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had departed, and although St. Nazaire attracted a steady minor effort in the first half of the year, we had not attempted any major bombardment from the air. This was because, as recorded in Volume I, the U-boat pens by the Spring of 1942 were already covered with several feet of concrete, and we could not expect to inflict direct damage on Dönitz’s vessels.
During 1942 Bomber Command’s real effort against the U-boats thus took the form of raids on the German North Sea and Baltic ports. These were for the most part ‘area’ attacks, and part of the wider campaign against German morale and war economy as a whole. But the naval construction yards, or similar objectives, were usually taken as the aiming points; and Bremen, Hamburg and Kiel, which between them were responsible for some 60 per cent of U-boat production, were among the most heavily assaulted towns in all Germany.5 Severe attacks were also made on Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Lübeck and Rostock. In addition, harassing operations by Mosquito aircraft over all the German ports were a regular feature from July onwards, and small-scale precision attacks were delivered against the submarine yards or slipways at Danzig, Flensburg and Vegesack. A notable and successful attempt to strike at a submarine objective by day was also made in the famous raid by Lancasters on the M.A.N. Diesel-engine factory at Augsburg, to be described later. All told, Bomber Command devoted over 7,000 sorties and more than 11,000 tons of bombs, or 20 per cent of its entire effort during 1942, to objectives in Germany primarily naval in character. When to this is added the 8,500 sorties, or 23.7 per cent of effort, devoted
to the other tasks in connection with the war at sea, such as mine-laying and the attacks on occupied ports, it will be seen that the Command’s effort in the maritime struggle was already by no means small.
During many of these raids, notably those on Lübeck, Rostock, Augsburg and Flensburg, damage of varying degrees was inflicted on the German submarine yards. Of the effect on production there is little detailed evidence one way or the other; but it is probably not without significance that the number of newly commissioned U-boats, which was 22 per month over the last five months of 1941, averaged only 20 per month over the whole of 1942. With this output, however, Dönitz could still increase his fleet at an impressive rate, for his monthly losses at sea averaged something under seven. In other words, however much our bombers were achieving, the fortunes of the battle were still running in favour of the enemy.
It was this which led the Admiralty, in the latter part of 1942, to ask for ‘area’ attacks on the Biscay bases; for though we had no hope of penetrating the concrete pens, we might conceivably create such havoc among the servicing, power and recreational facilities that U-boat operations would be seriously affected. The demand was long resisted by the Air Staff and Air Marshal Harris, but it was finally approved by the War Cabinet in mid-January 1943, and a few days afterwards reaffirmed as Allied policy at Casablanca. How the attacks were then carried out, and with what results, is described in Chapter XIII.
The decision to give priority to the battle against the U-boats and to obliterate friendly towns in the course of the struggle was the natural consequence of the shipping losses of November 1942. These reached the appalling total of 814,700 tons—the heaviest of the whole war. The following month saw a fall to 374,000 tons, but this improvement was largely ‘seasonal’. When Sir Philip Joubert handed over his Command to Air Marshal Slessor in February 1943 a desperate fight thus still lay ahead. On the other hand, the retiring Coastal chief could look back on a period of solid achievement, in which our air patrols had been steadily extended and the aeroplane had developed into a real ‘killer’. In June 1941, when he had assumed command, systematic air patrols had extended only 350 miles from the British Isles. Now, in conjunction with those of the American and Canadian forces, they were near to bridging the Atlantic. Up to June 1941 Coastal Command had shared in the destruction of only two U-boats; since then it had destroyed by its own efforts twenty-seven, of which nineteen had been sunk in the last five months. Despite the demands of overseas theatres, the
long-range aircraft in the Command had increased from six-and-a-half squadrons in June 1941 to eighteen, of which one was VLR, in February 1943. Above all, there had been vital technical progress. The Leigh Light was already a proved success, 10 centimetre ASV was on the way.
In point of fact, the worst was over. Within three months the VLR aircraft in co-operation with the naval escorts, support groups and auxiliary carriers, were to win the battle of the Central Atlantic. A little longer and the Leigh Light, in conjunction with the new ASV, would turn the Bay of Biscay into a veritable graveyard for U-boats. These things Joubert was not to know in February 1943. The road ahead seemed hard, the goal very distant. But his work, and that of all those others whose efforts counted equally, had been well done; and triumph, like disaster, is often nearer than we think.