Debunking the Flying Porcupine Myth

A Sunderland in Action

The Aeroplane – Published April 12, 1940

A Short Sunderland four-motor flying-boat of the Coastal Command was engaged with six two-motor Junkers Ju. 88K bombers while on convoy duty off the coast of Norway on April 3. The Sunderland shot down one of the Ju. 88s in flames, another was forced to land in Norway, where the crew set it on fire before being arrested and interned. The rest tried, unsuccessfully, to bomb the Sunderland. The Sunderland’s first and second pilots were both slightly injured by bomb splinters, and some of the boat’s controls were damaged, but it returned to its base at the end of its patrol. The Sunderland had previously driven of a German reconnaissance aeroplane which had been shadowing the convoy. Later, four bombers (believed to be Ju. 88Ks) made an attack on the ships but were driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Soon afterwards, the six Ju. 88Ks appeared. They probably intended to renew the attack on the convoy, but paused to dispose of the Sunderland first – a move which proved a tactical error.

The Sunderland was often called the `Fliegende Stachelswein’ in the British press – but was that just a propaganda myth?

From the earliest days of service, the Sunderland was regarded as a heavily armed aircraft by the British and Empire press, even to the extent of using terms like `Flying Fortress’. This was mainly due to the four belt-fed Browning .303 guns in the tail turret. It’s often overlooked that the three other guns were pan-fed .303 Vickers K guns, with a far lower rate of fire and small ammunition supply. It is unlikely that the Luftwaffe was impressed by this armament, having larger calibre, longer range and more powerful cannon in their machines.

The initial inadequate armament was boosted throughout the war with the addition of the mid upper turret and guns below the wings in the galley hatches. By the summer of 1943, the Sunderlands of Coastal Command faced the threat of long-range German fighters with a success rate that has become legendary. The Ju88s of V/KG-40 patrolled in packs but on more than one occasion, a lone Sunderland was able to fight off the assault and return to base. Perhaps the most frequently quoted battle is that of Flt Lt Colin Walker and crew, flying EJ134 of 461 Squadron, on June 2, 1943. As their patrol ended, eight Ju88s were spotted and in the ensuing 45 minute battle, they claimed three fighters shot down and several others damaged, although Luftwaffe records do not show a loss that day. One gunner on the Sunderland was mortally wounded and the aircraft so badly damaged it was beached at Praa Sands in Cornwall.

This is commonly cited as evidence for the Germans having nicknamed the Sunderland `Fliegende Stachelswein’ – the `flying porcupine’. But how likely is it that the Germans gave the enemy such a name? And how likely is it that a German nickname would become well known in the UK?

Actually, the 1942 propaganda booklet, `Coastal Command’ describes the Sunderland as having `a very wide range and an armament formidable enough for it to have been nicknamed `flying porcupine’ by the Germans.’ An earlier 1940 Christmas Quiz in The Times asked: `What British aeroplane do the Germans call `Fliegende Stachelswein’?’ Clearly they expected their readers would know the phrase. But just what incident was the question referring to? A clue lies even further back in The Times of September 11 that year in an article `A year’s work of the RAF Coastal Command,’ which stated:

`The Germans have a wholesome respect for them, and it is a pilot of more than average courage who would dare to tackle one unaided. With their guns sticking out at all angles, they seem to be able to fire in any direction. Because of their bristling armament, the Germans call them Fliegende Stachelswein.’

There were at least three incidents that the public would have known about in 1940 which proved the Sunderland’s reputation for defence: two occurred during the Norwegian campaign, although perhaps the most dramatic was over the Mediterranean when Italian fighters attacked an aircraft with the War Correspondent Alexander Clifford on board. Sunderland L5804 encountered three Macchi Mc200s on July 28: claiming one shot down in a long battle described in some detail in Clifford’s write-up for several newspapers.

Equally dramatic was an encounter on April 3, in Sunderland N9046, piloted by Flt Lt Frank Phillips. The Sunderland was on patrol of the Norwegian coast, when they had a skirmish with two Ju88s before running into six more. The official Air Ministry announcement stated, `While engaged in patrol duties over the North Sea yesterday (Weds) afternoon, a flying boat of Coastal Command, RAF, encountered six enemy aircraft of the Junkers type. One of the latter was shot down and seen to fall into the sea. The remaining Junkers broke off the engagement and our aircraft resumed patrol.’

The stark statement hides the reality of the battle in which Cpl Lillie in the rear turret was cool enough to hold his fire until the Junkers was only 100 yards away. He watched his prey turn away sharply and spin into the sea. After the badly damaged Sunderland made it safely home, Phillips was awarded a DFC and Lillie the DFM.

It seems that N9046 was the original `Flying Porcupine’. The incident was even used in adverts by Short Brothers soon after the attack.

Later that month, another Sunderland, N9025, fought off a Bf110 over Molde Fjord. The 110 was later reported to have crashed as a result of the damage it received. But the Germans had their share of success against the Sunderlands over Norway, with L5799 lost on April 7 and L2167 lost on April 9, both to a Bf110.

Ironically, the British wartime public never got to see one reason the Germans might have regarded the Sunderland as a porcupine. For much of the war, Sunderlands operated with the dipole ASV radar aerials on the rear fuselage, making it look rather like a spiky hedgehog. But any images showing these aerials were censored in the British wartime press. Even today, these retouched photos are still often used and consequently continue to obscure the importance of radar in the U-Boat battle. And there’s no evidence that the aerials led German aircrew to call the Sunderlands `Stachelswein’.

In 1940, the British needed to be able to celebrate how good their aircraft were – even if only when fighting off attackers. So it seems someone just invented the name.

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