Chapter 3: Stratagems and Spoils
From the beginning Coastal Command had sought to make it as hard as possible for German shipping of all kinds to make use of the seas within range of Great Britain. In this important enterprise Hudsons of Nos. 206, 220 Squadrons, 320 (Dutch) Squadron and 407 Squadron RCAF showed the way and achieved a measure of success in the early and middle stages of the war. In the summer of 1942, it was the successful attacks they carried out from a low level which compelled the enemy to provide a better defensive armament for his ships and larger escort convoys. These counter-measures gradually forced the squadrons of Coastal Command to abandon low level attacks, since the losses incurred became too great, and to use bombs instead dropped from a medium height out of range of anti-aircraft fire. Casualties at once became fewer but so did those of the enemy, for no suitable bomb sight was available. New tactics were obviously necessary, and, as related in Volume II (Chapter VI), the autumn of 1942 saw the first Strike Wing formed at North Coates. Its object was to provide formations able and ready to take instant action against any target of sufficient size, for example, a convoy creeping along the coast of Europe, and it was composed of Nos. 143 and 236 Squadrons flying Beaufighters, and No. 254 Squadron flying Beaufighters armed with torpedoes. Bad weather and inexperience thwarted the first operation of the Wing, but those in command judged, and judged rightly, that this form of attack would ultimately prove of great effect if it could be developed to the requisite standard by training and co-operation in the air. The squadrons accordingly withdrew from the line and were submitted to an intensive period of training throughout the winter of 1942 and the early spring of 1943. In April they were in action once more, and it had been Slessor’s intention to put three such wings into operation by that month. Shortage of Beaufighters, however, combined with the need for fighter protection for the anti-submarine squadrons operating over the Bay, together with the demands of the air force in the Mediterranean, delayed the fulfilment of the plan, and it did not come into full operation until the end of 1943.
Throughout the year ‘Rover’ patrols continued to be maintained by the obsolescent Hampdens of No. 144 Squadron and No. 455 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force based at Leuchars, and No. 489 Squadron Royal New Zealand Air Force based on Wick. They harried enemy shipping off Norway. The Strike Wing at North Coates, the first to come into action, aided these efforts, which became stronger and more effective as Beaufighters began gradually to take the place of the outmoded Hampdens.
While the ‘Rovers’ of Air Vice-Marshal A. B. Ellwood’s No. 18 Group—single aircraft, or small formations not exceeding five—quartering the seas, ranged far and wide up and down the long Norwegian coast, the Strike Wing at North Coates struck farther south against enemy convoys, strongly escorted by flak vessels. In May, the Wing received a number of Beaufighters equipped with the new rocket projectile, a singularly effective weapon against shipping. It was first used in force on 22nd June, 1943. The manner in which the Wing was henceforth to operate was this. Up to twelve aircraft carrying torpedoes attacked the enemy convoy, being covered by as many as sixteen rocket and eight cannon firing Beaufighters whose duty it was to engage the escorting vessels.1 Such, for example were the tactics followed in the assaults on convoys delivered on 18th July and 2nd August. If the enemy was found within range of Spitfires and Mustangs of Fighter Command, these also joined in the battle.
The immediate effects, though not spectacular, were encouraging. Out of three ships sunk in that month by aircraft of Coastal Command two fell victims to the reorganized Strike Wing. This was a promise of better things to come and soon the Wing was fully engaged and scoring considerable successes. Not only were their activities to compel the enemy to divert manpower, fighter aircraft and escort vessels needed for other duties in order to protect his merchantmen, but he presently found himself almost unable to make use of Rotterdam. This gateway to the Ruhr, and, up to the summer of 1943, the terminal of his North Sea shipping route, was virtually denied him by the joint efforts of the Strike Wing, the minelaying aircraft of Bomber Command and the light surface craft of the Nore Flotilla of the Royal Navy. For some three years the great Dutch port had been much used by the iron-ore ships coming from Sweden and mostly of Swedish origin. As the attacks continued the Swedish skippers began to demand a bonus of as much as 300 per cent. for
risking their ships in or near Rotterdam, or, as they put it, for braving the perils of the ‘Gold Coast’. The possession of Bremen and Emden, which lacked the necessary special unloading gear, was no compensation for the loss of Rotterdam, a misfortune in all probability far more embarrassing to the enemy than the sinking in 1943 by the Strike Wing of thirteen ships of a total tonnage of 34,076 gross tons. The losses inflicted upon him by other anti-shipping aircraft of Coastal Command were nineteen ships of a total tonnage of 50,683.
The operations in 1943 of the Strike Wings were a prelude to stronger action in 1944, when disciplined co-ordination in the execution of attacks had been perfected. By the beginning of that year, No. 455 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force and No. 489 Squadron Royal New Zealand Air Force had at last received their torpedo-carrying Beaufighters, or Torbeaus as they were known. They at once began to operate from Leuchars as a second Strike Wing, having spent the previous autumn and summer in ‘Rover’ work off the Norwegian coast. Here, too, may be mentioned the work of No. 333 (Norwegian) Squadron, operating Catalinas from Woodhaven. They were indefatigable in reconnoitring the rugged coastline of their country, which they knew so well, and in maintaining the traffic in secret passengers.
The ‘Rover’ patrols and the assaults carried out by Strike Wings were the responsibility of No. 18 Group covering Norway and of No. 16 Group (with headquarters at Chatham under Air Vice-Marshal B. E. Baker, later relieved by Air Vice-Marshal F. L. Hopps) covering the German and Dutch coasts.
No. 19 Group operating from Plymouth had yet another task, the interception of blockade runners, which they performed in conjunction with the surface vessels and submarines of the Royal Navy. Their targets were for the most part fast ships carrying rare and urgently needed commodities, such as rubber, tin, vegetable oil and wolfram from the Far East to the Biscay ports. By the summer of 1943 this traffic had been brought to a standstill, and when the season of blockade running opened again in the following winter it was marked by a particularly gallant attack in which an aircraft of No. 311, a Czech squadron, played the principal part. A little before ten o’clock on the morning of 27th December, Sunderland ‘T for Tare’ of No. 201 Squadron sighted the Alsterufer, a vessel of 2,729 tons, coming from the South Atlantic and making for Bordeaux with a somewhat disgruntled crew on board. They had hoped to reach that port in time to celebrate Christmas, but had not been able to do so, and their commander, Captain Piatek, imbued
with a caution natural in the circumstances, would not allow even one of the 6,000 bottles of beer aboard to be opened for fear of entering the danger zone ‘with a tipsy crew’. The moment Piatek realised that he was being shadowed he broke wireless silence and called for help. All that morning he was under attack from Sunderlands ‘Q for Queen’ of No. 422 Squadron RCAF and ‘U for Uncle’ of No. 201 Squadron. The Alsterufer defended herself stoutly and with some success. Although the bombs of the Sunderlands fell very close none of them hit the ship, which steamed ahead undamaged. As the day wore on the situation on the bridge grew very tense. The Luftwaffe and German Admiralty had promised aid in the form of aircraft and destroyers, but a further signal that the destroyers would not arrive until the following morning damped the spirits of captain and crew who were not to know that the cruisers HMS Glasgow and Enterprise had put the destroyers to flight. The promised aircraft were equally elusive and by four o’clock in the afternoon none had appeared. The Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist said afterwards that he could have wept with rage at the failure of the Luftwaffe to provide the promised help. At 1607 hours the mortal blow fell. It was struck by Liberator ‘H for How’ of No. 311 (Czech) Squadron, which made a low level attack using all its armaments and resolutely facing heavy anti-aircraft fire and small mines shot into the air to descend by parachute. Four pairs of rockets were fired and one 250 and one 500-pound bomb released from 600 feet. Five of the rockets struck home and caused a fire in the afterpart of the Alsterufer and both bombs struck her decks smashing through into a hold and killing two ratings on the mess-deck, who were ‘trying to soothe their nerves by playing chess’. The Alsterufer began to burn fiercely and was presently abandoned. She did not sink for four hours and her end was hastened by two Liberators of No. 86 Squadron. Seventy-four survivors, drifting about in boats or rafts, were picked up and brought in as prisoners. They were loud in their praise of the Czech Liberator, which they said had flown ‘unperturbed through the heaviest barrage’ and whose pilot was obviously, as the master of the Alsterufer put it, ‘a cunning old fox’.
A few days before the Alsterufer met her end, the Pietro Orseolo of 6,344 tons was severely damaged by Beaufighters of No. 254 Squadron when anchored off the Brittany coast south-west of Concarneau. The Osorno of 6,951 tons was attacked on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and was later found beached at Le Verdon at the mouth of the Gironde.
Other activities of the Command must now be mentioned: the sorties flown by the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit and the work
of the Air/Sea Rescue Squadrons. During 1943 the Photographic Reconnaissance Squadrons of No. 106 Wing were particularly active. Since December, 1942, the Wing had been re-equipped with Spitfire Mark XI’s and Mosquito Mark IX’s. The new Spitfire was able to fly at a far greater height and speed than the old Mark V. This gave it a superiority over the Focke-Wulf 190’s and the Messerschmitt 109G’s, and its pilots made the fullest use of its abilities. The great danger for photographic reconnaissance aircraft—which, it must not be forgotten, flew unarmed, one wing filled with petrol, the other with cameras—was the appearance of vapour trails, those white fingers thrust out from an aircraft flying high which betray its passage when passing through certain types of air. The new Spitfire, cerulean blue and covered with a special dope giving a highly polished surface, flying as it could and did at 42,000 feet, was far above the danger belt and was therefore almost immune from visual identification. Even were the enemy fighter to climb to 40,000 feet or more, to manoeuvre for a successful attack was exceedingly difficult. Anti-aircraft fire, however, remained a danger for the photographing aircraft, which had of necessity to maintain a straight and steady course when taking pictures, offering a difficult, but by no means impossible, target to an experienced gunner.
To fly at such heights in an aircraft not fitted with a pressure cabin imposed a severe physical strain. ‘Just before reaching the city (Berlin)’, records one pilot, ‘I had a sharp attack of bends2 in my left arm and leg, but emergency oxygen and a descent to 38,000 feet alleviated this a little. ... I came down to 36,000 feet ... to get rid of my “bends” which were getting quite severe’. This pilot eventually landed with just enough fuel left to taxi from the runway to the watch office.
The sensations of flying at a great height to take photographs have been described by Wing Commander J. H. Safferey, an experienced pilot of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.
Forty thousand feet [he says] is the brink of the stratosphere. The climb towards it can be compared to the launching of a boat through the shallows into deep water.
The troposphere corresponds to the shallows. This layer, immediately above the earth’s surface and about seven miles deep in European latitudes, is where the weather lakes place. After the dust-laden first few hundred feet (he climbing aircraft passes through the turbulent layer of low cloud floating above the plains and breaking round the hills like surf on a rocky shore. Here is the rain and the varying wind as the high and low pressure systems with their frontal waves pass over the earth like eddies and whirlpools. Higher up, above 20,000 feet,
come the cirrus—tenuous veils of ice crystals to the pilot; the beautiful mares’ tails and mackerel skies to the watchers down below. This is also the level of the vapour trails.
All the way up the temperature has been falling till at the cirrus level a bitter westerly gale blows at temperatures of about 60 or 70 below and at speeds around 80 m.p.h., although it may on occasions rise to a crescendo of 200 m.p.h. just below the tropopause.
The tropopause in the temperate latitudes is at about 36,000 feet, lower in winter, higher in summer, and is the level where the troposphere ends and the stratosphere begins. It forms a sort of roof to the weather, because in the stratosphere there is no weather although there are seasonal changes. Here conditions are stable. The temperature no longer falls. The wind slackens considerably as a rule although usually keeping much the same direction as below. There are no clouds of any sort, and most important from the operational point of view, vapour trails are no longer formed. The sky above is a deep blue, the sun a compact fiery ball.
The air is exceedingly thin. In the rarefied atmosphere of 40,000 feet the wing of any aircraft must travel twice as fast as it need at ground level to displace the same amount of air, so the stalling speed, the minimum at which the aircraft will fly, is doubled. Round about 45,000 feet the top speed attainable is only equal to the stalling speed. This is absolute ceiling.
Troubles assail the pilot. In order to get oxygen down into his lungs... a gas tight mask and a pressure waistcoat is necessary, or a pressurized cabin. The latter is much the best solution as it increases the pressure all over the pilot’s body and so minimises the likelihood of ‘bends’—the very painful results when the nitrogen in the blood bubbles out and collects round the joints when the atmospheric pressure is reduced. ‘Bends’ can affect different people at different heights, but can be agonizing and are only relieved by a precipitate dive to lower levels, which is a dangerous proceeding in itself. Flying at or above 40,000 feet in a Spitfire was therefore a fairly delicate matter. The aeroplane was near its ceiling so a violent or clumsy manoeuvre led to a stall. There was always the fear of passing out with very little warning if anything went wrong with the oxygen system, and to guard against this I used to keep a fairly elaborate log, because I reckoned if I could write legibly I must be all right. Nevertheless until the arrival of the pressure cabins we were a bit slow-witted from lack of oxygen, I think.
There was an extraordinary feeling of muffled remoteness. The engine itself, which was practically in one’s lap, only made a sort of ticking noise like a clockwork mouse.
Before the days of pressure cabins, physical effort, even speaking, was quite a strain. One day I held my height till I was crossing the North Sea for the fun of saying ‘Angels 41’ when calling up Benson to notify them that I had crossed out of Europe. I was horrified at the wheezy croak that was all the voice I had.
The cold, the low pressure and the immobilizing effect of the elaborate equipment and bulky clothing in the tiny cockpit had the effect of damping down and subduing all the senses except the sense of sight. One became just an eye, and what one saw was always wonderful.
On a clear day one could see immense distances, whole countries at one time. From over the middle of Holland I have seen the coast from Ostend round beyond Emden, and from the neighbourhood of Hanover seen the smoke pluming up from burning Leipzig. I’ve seen the Baltic coast from above Berlin and from over Wiesbaden, seen the Alps sticking up like rocky islands through clouds. On such days, which are very rare in Europe, it was more like looking at a map than a view. It used to strike me how precisely like the map the coastlines were, which sounds a bit silly, but it was similar to recognizing a man from his picture as when one thinks on seeing someone like Churchill or Monty for the first time, ‘How exactly like the cartoons he is’.
On one occasion I noticed wide lanes of thick cirrus below me which did not seem to bear a proper relation to the other clouds, and a little later I passed over the raid of Fortresses whose bombing results I was going to photograph. Each big formation was followed by a wide carpet of trail which in the prevailing conditions was persisting and thickening into broad bands of cloud so that I found the target area very largely obscured by the trails from the raiding aeroplanes.
Another time over France 1 saw, three or four miles below me, a raid of silver Marauders going in over the green and yellow fields. Around them a scrap was going on, the fighters glinting as they circled in the sun. I felt like a man looking down into a pool watching the minnows playing near the bottom.
The cabins were heated after 1942 and a temperature of slightly above freezing was maintained so that we flew in battle dress with thick sweaters, long woollen stockings, double gloves and flying boots, but electrically heated clothing was not necessary. But the air temperature outside was 60 or 70 below and if, as occasionally happened, the cabin heating failed the cold was agonizing. Everything in the cockpit became covered with frost and long icicles grew from the oxygen mask like Jack Frost’s beard. Most alarming of all, the entire windscreen and blister hood was liable to frost over so that one could not see out at all except where one rubbed the rime off with a finger to have a frenzied peep round through the little clear patch before it froze again. At such times one felt the air was full of Messerschmitts.
Another time on reaching for a map I felt my pressure waistcoat deflate and realized that I had knocked the oxygen pipe out of its connection to the waistcoat. I held my breath, whipped off my outer gloves and after perhaps twenty seconds of pretty anxious fumbling I got the junction coupled up again so all was well, but it was nasty while it lasted because I could not see the socket at my waist into which the pipe had to fit owing to all the trappings I was wearing. The doctors had told us that in such an event the best thing to do was to hold your breath as the air at that height would not put any oxygen into the lungs but might wash out what little was there. If you tried to breathe you were liable to pass out in one minute and die after two.
The year 1943 saw a great extension of the activities of No. 106 Wing. In those twelve months Mosquitos photographed targets as far away from these shores as Narvik, Gdynia, Berlin, Vienna, Belgrade and Budapest. Sometimes they would land in airfields in
Southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa or Gibraltar, to refuel before returning to base. The installation of a new type of camera in the Spitfire Mark XI made the assessment of bomb damage (one of the main uses to which the photographs were put) far more accurate, and the split camera reduced the number of runs necessary to cover an area by a half. On one occasion a Spitfire Photographic Reconnaissance Unit pilot was so determined that the intelligence staff of the Photographic Interpretation Headquarters at Medmenham should be given as much information as possible, that he made twelve runs across the city of Berlin and remained above it for nearly three-quarters of an hour.
The Royal Navy was also aided by photographs, taken at frequent intervals, of all the ports from Bordeaux in the South of France to Gdynia on the Baltic, and the Norwegian ports as far north as Narvik. Thus a check was kept on the movements of enemy shipping, and, when the work of photography was extended to airfields, on those of the Luftwaffe. Towards the end of the year the larger type of German factory (especially those building aircraft) and shipbuilding yards, were also regularly photographed. In addition, No. 106 Wing brought back pictures of radar installations, flak positions, barge building yards, army encampments, tank testing areas, canals, railways and marshalling yards. During the year, 2,989 sorties in all were flown from Benson, the home of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit near Oxford, and photographs obtained on 2,252 occasions. 467,042 negatives were processed, and 1,392,756 prints made from them. The record was achieved when, in one day at Benson, 5,937 negatives and 18,979 prints were made.
Air/Sea Rescue services had formed part of Coastal Command from the beginning. 1943 saw the introduction of the airborne lifeboat which, by means of parachutes, could be dropped from an aircraft to aid the rescue of a crew in their dinghy. This was a sensational improvement and led to the saving of many valuable lives. The most remarkable rescue effected in 1943 was, perhaps, that of the crew of a Wellington which had fallen into the Seine estuary. The six airmen, being well versed in their dinghy drill, had successfully entered their dinghy with their equipment. It was, however, in the grip of a current which took them steadily towards the enemy’s coast. After drifting thirty hours the dinghy was sighted very close to the shores of France. A Hudson carrying a lifeboat and escorted by Typhoons was sent to the rescue and dropped its burden with great accuracy. The crew of the Wellington soon exchanged their dinghy for this larger and more efficient vessel. By then they were very close inshore, but they did not allow themselves to become
flustered, and spent some time reading the book of directions supplied with the lifeboat. They then ‘organized watches, set up the compass, prepared a system of rationing, started the engine and set course towards the north, where England lay eighty miles away’. Meanwhile, the Typhoons beat off a number of attacks delivered by Focke-Wulf 190’s. Within an hour of starting their voyage the Wellington crew met with a high-speed launch sent out for that purpose and were soon well on the way home, this time covered by Spitfires.
Such a rescue is a good example of the close teamwork practised by the Air/Sea Rescue organization. Aircraft in the air, launches on the sea, were alike under the orders of a controller whose task it was to use both to the best advantage. The success achieved by Air/Sea Rescue operations was considerable. In 1943 the number saved was 1,684, the peak being attained in the third quarter of that year when 708 were taken out of the water. By then altogether 3,306 Allied airmen had been saved by this service since it was first systematized in February, 1941.
At the beginning of 1944 the Air/Sea Rescue service possessed thirty-two marine craft units equipped with high speed launches, many of them able to make thirty-five knots and over. They were based along the coasts of Britain and were operationally under the control of the Navy. A ‘crash call’ sent them instantly to sea. This phrase meant that the crew of an aircraft had fallen into the sea at a known position and was in urgent need of help. ‘Neither weather nor the belligerent interest of the enemy has yet been known to deter the crews as they hurried to the spot’, their speediest feat being, perhaps, the rescue of the crew of a Stirling which fell into the sea off Beachy Head and who were picked up within an hour. There were also the search squadrons which stood by on airfields on the east coast ready to go out immediately on receiving a call, and also amphibian aircraft which picked up in home waters fifty-nine aircrews during 1943.
Another activity of Coastal Command, of great importance to the whole Air Force and indeed to the country, was the daily flights of aircraft engaged in collecting meteorological data. At the outbreak of war many sources of this vital information dried up. It was, for example, no longer possible for ships crossing the ocean to transmit regular weather reports, for they were compelled to keep wireless silence. The Atlantic, therefore, as far as weather was concerned became an uncharted region dotted with question marks.
Weather forecasts of as accurate a nature as possible were particularly important for Bomber Command, whose squadrons crossed the North Sea to their assault upon the German Reich.
Before the era of special devices such as GEE, H2S and others accurate forecasts of weather conditions were an essential factor in determining whether or not an operation could take place. The services of the ‘Met.’ flights were also of great importance to the Royal Navy.
At the outbreak of war ‘vertical’ ascents were made to high altitude by ‘Met.’ aircraft to obtain data regarding conditions prevailing in the upper strata of the atmosphere. They were carried out by Gauntlets and Gladiators, biplanes already obsolescent, which were in due course superseded by the Hurricane and the Spitfire with a greatly increased range and a higher ceiling. By 1943 regular readings of conditions at 40,000 feet were being taken, and among other important details the area at which vapour trails were liable to form was charted, a matter of importance to high-flying fighters and photographic reconnaissance aircraft whose presence might well be betrayed by this phenomenon.
‘Met.’ sorties over the Atlantic and the North Sea began in 1940 and were initially carried out by three flights—Nos. 403, 404 and 405—equipped with Blenheims. These were later replaced by Hudsons, Venturas and Hampdens. By the middle of 1943 long range ‘Met.’ reconnaissance was being undertaken by Halifaxes, and later by Fortresses. The range of these larger four-engined aircraft proved a great asset.
A considerable period of time elapsed before trained meteorologists in sufficient numbers were available for such flights. Until they became so, the observations were taken by the navigators. In September, 1942, a Meteorological Observer section was set up, and gradually staff were trained in the technique of making weather observations. In September, 1939, four ‘Met.’ flights a day were all that proved possible. By May, 1945, there were some thirty flights a day in the European theatre alone, half of them long range with an average duration of ten hours. The regularity of these flights was perhaps their best and most valuable feature. They were carried out almost regardless of weather, and in so doing the crews accepted great risks, to maintain the weather guard from the Arctic to the Azores. Their task became easier only with the advent of the United States Army Air Force, who supplied a number of trained crews to take ‘Met.’ readings in the South-Western Approaches.
On occasion, the ‘Met.’ pilot found himself able to take a more active part in the struggle. There were not many combats, but at least one enemy aircraft is known to have been destroyed by a ‘Met.’ aircraft. Thirty-six U-boats were sighted and attacks made on eleven of them.
Thus did Coastal Command pursue its variegated tasks in 1943 and the spring of 1944. Its successes were not a few, and in the North Atlantic perhaps merit the adjective spectacular. The battle that it had to fight was peculiarly exacting, and relaxation was a word unknown in the vocabulary of its pilots and crews. Monotony and the indifference it breeds were foes which had to be fought unceasingly. Though for mile after mile and hour after hour the sea over which the pilots flew might be as empty as the Ancient Mariner’s painted ocean, yet at any moment the flicker of foam caused by a periscope or the ‘heaving black speck’ of the lifeboat might be seen and routine vigil be exchanged for swift action. Fools’ errands were sometimes the order of the day as when, for example, a Liberator flew hundreds of miles into the North Atlantic to investigate a tanker reported to be refuelling three submarines, and found to be an iceberg. But whatever the task, whether it was protecting a heaving convoy carrying the food and munitions of war without which the Allies could not achieve victory, or searching the ridged seas of the Bay for the elusive U-boat, or swooping through the mists of dawn or evening upon the enemy convoy steaming past Den Helder, the pilots and crews of Coastal Command displayed the same resolution, the same skill. The strained monotony or fiery terror of a raid on Berlin was not theirs, nor was their life the fierce flash of combats fought at 400 miles an hour; but the steady process of wearing down the enemy, of denying him an element in which Britain has been supreme for half a thousand years, was their task, and proudly they performed it. In so doing, they gained much experience, displayed much fortitude, and won much honour. In the summer of 1944 a signal triumph awaited them.