Seated facing each other in the high-backed walnut chairs of the Air Council Room in King Charles Street were the top brass of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The man who had called the conference was Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the newly appointed Chief of the Air Staff. Confronting him across the square walnut table was the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, Chief of the Naval Staff.
The highly polished furniture, the rich velvet of the curtains, the thick pile of the carpet, the solid permanence of the stone fireplace, and the graceful aerobatics depicted in the World War I paintings on the panelled walls, failed to create the usual atmosphere of relaxation and confidence. The date was Tuesday 12 November 1940, the time four o’clock in the afternoon.
The Battle of Britain had been won, but Britain still stood alone against a powerful, ruthless and impatient enemy. Four days earlier, Hitler had sworn to intensify the air and U-boat war. Britain was to be bombed and starved into submission.
The November fogs that might have blanketed London as a target had failed to materialise, and the gales that had restricted enemy air activity the previous night had blown themselves out. The sky was clear, and the moon was full. Across the English Channel the Luftwaffe were preparing to renew their onslaught, with London the main objective.
As the conference deliberated, the lights in the room were switched on and the curtains punctiliously drawn. From a score of heavily sandbagged Government departments in adjacent Whitehall, drably attired civil servants scurried off home to beat the black-out.
As night fell the sirens wailed, and within minutes the guns of the barrage thundered. Soon, from the outskirts of the city, the first bombs reverberated. But the men closeted in the luxurious isolation of the Air Council Room paid no heed. They did not allow the bombing to interrupt their proceedings. In any case the bombing, for the moment, was not their prime concern. Nor were the U-boats, though they were headache enough. To the unrelenting battle of attrition in the Atlantic, in this first winter of the shooting war, a new dimension had been added, and the brass-hats had been caught off their guard. They faced what seemed an insoluble problem, yet it was one to which they had to find the answer. ‘If we fail in this,’ said one of them, ‘we lose the war.’
Before the German conquest of Norway in April 1940, Britain’s trade routes were menaced by U-boat and surface raider only. The threat from the air was confined to the routes along the east coast Even after Norway fell, Britain’s merchant shipping crossing the Atlantic, or plying to and from the southern hemisphere, could safely use the south-western approaches, rounding Southern Ireland before passing through St George’s Channel and into the Irish Sea. But with the fall of France in June 1940, Germany commanded the entire Western European seaboard from Norway to the Pyrenees. Former French airfields were occupied by the Luftwaffe, and it was from one of these airfields, Bordeaux-Merignac, that the Nazis unleashed a new threat to Britain’s lifelines in the Focke-Wulf 200, or Condor, soon to be described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the ‘scourge of the Atlantic.’
The Condor, aptly named despite its genesis as a peacetime airliner, began its depredations against Allied merchantmen in August 1940, and in two and a half months these huge four-engined bombers, hurriedly converted from the civil version, sank nearly 90,000 tons of Allied shipping. With dimensions and wing area roughly equivalent of the Lancaster and Halifax bombers of later years, they were capable of reaching more than a thousand miles out into the Atlantic, far beyond the range of Britain’s shore-based fighters, and at once it was clear that the Germans had found one of Britain’s weakest links, Under the command of the experienced and dedicated Oberstleutnant Edgar Petersen, the Condors of the newly formed I. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 40 exploited it eagerly.
Frustrated in their invasion plans, the Nazis abandoned their efforts to attain air superiority over the English Channel and concentrated their resources first on the destruction of Britain’s industry and morale by night bombing and second on the severing of her vital trade lifelines. Patrolling at 2,000 feet and 190 miles an hour, searching for single ships or stragglers, the Condors that autumn began to sink ships almost at will.
In vain did the British Admiralty close all southern ports to heavy shipping, switch convoys to the Clyde and the Mersey, and re-route their ships as far as possible away from Bordeaux. On 26 October the 42,000-ton Canadian Pacific luxury liner Empress of Britain, operating as a troopship but sailing without escort, was bombed and set on fire eighty miles west of Bloody Foreland, by a pilot named Bernhard Jope on his first operational flight Sailing from Cape Town to Liverpool, she had encountered good weather and was a day ahead of schedule. Jope sighted her, circled, and flashed a recognition signal; but he was fairly certain that in this position she must be an enemy vessel. He worked round to her stern, then turned in suddenly on the same course, opened fire, and dropped his first bombs. Until the last moment the crew of the liner thought the aircraft was friendly. In two further attacks Jope met heavy return fire from the troopship’s three-inch and Lewis guns and his Condor was severely damaged, but he managed to limp back to Bordeaux.
Next day the 5,000-ton Alfred Jones was bombed and badly damaged 150 miles west of Malin Head; and six more ships were bombed and in some cases abandoned off the west and north-west coast of Ireland in the next ten days. Although medium bombers like the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 88 had operated successfully in the North Sea, the range of these types was restricted and in every case the attacking aircraft was a Focke-Wulf Condor.
The loss of the Empress of Britain – she was given the coup de grâce two days later by a passing U-boat while a tow was being attempted – stood out as a devastating blow. She had taken three years to build and in wartime she was irreplaceable. Some defence against the new predator had to be found.
The man sounding off most shrilly in the corridors of Whitehall was an R.A.F. air commodore named Donald Stevenson, Director of Fighter Operations at the Air Ministry. Denouncing what he saw as the Admiralty’s complacency, he kept thumping home the message that the Western Approaches were Britain’s lifeline, without which the war was lost East coast traffic, which he felt the Admiralty were treating as of equal importance, was not comparable in his view. There was no alternative to the Atlantic route, whereas east coast traffic, in the last resort, could always be transported by road or rail. In any case losses in coastal waters, which had reached a peak during the first phase of the Battle of Britain in July, had fallen off considerably since then. No doubt this was an oversimplification; but Stevenson argued with some force that the naval staff be invited to review their routeings and priorities so that fighter protection in the Atlantic to the greatest practicable range could be provided.
In an impassioned plea to Portal, Stevenson submitted that the Condor bomber was one of the most serious problems of the future. It could find ships and convoys at great distances, and it was unrealistic to suppose that shore-based fighters could help. They would only be effective against the shorter-range He. 111 and Ju. 88. The overseas convoys must face the fact that they must rely on local protection only – their own guns, plus anything that the Navy could provide in the way of carrier aircraft.
Stevenson did offer Portal one crumb of comfort, but he warned that it was a crumb upon which Britain might choke. The Germans had started the Condor war on Britain’s trade, he said, with a small unit backed up by a very limited production programme. Indeed, essentially the Condor was not a war machine at all. It still followed the structural lines of its predecessor, hastily strengthened for war purposes. Even the new Condors that were coming off the production line of the Focke-Wulf factory at Bremen followed the same constructional principles, so that the machines, although well armed, were far more susceptible to damage from enemy defences and from minor accidents than the averagely robust operational type. The Condor might well be decisive, warned Stevenson, in a maritime war against Britain’s trade, but only if it were employed in considerable numbers before Britain could find an antidote. ‘It looks as if Germany has repeated the same kind of mistake as she made in 1914–18 with her U-boats,’ conjectured Stevenson. This was very fortunate for Britain; but it could not be expected to last. Germany had ample bases, and production was bound to be increased. By the spring of 1941, Britain’s arrangements to secure her vital trade against this form of attack must be completed.
Stimulated by these and other outpourings from Stevenson, Portal called a conference to discuss fighter protection for Britain’s convoys, to which he invited Sir Dudley Pound and his vice-chief, Admiral Tom Phillips (Fifth Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Air Services), and the commanders-in-chief of the two R.A.F. commands most closely concerned – Fighter and Coastal The agenda was prepared by Stevenson; and even on the morning of the conference he was sending urgent minutes to Portal. This was the conference that met on that fateful afternoon of 12 November 1940 in the Air Council Room in King Charles Street.
The meeting began with a discussion of the various methods by which the activities of the Condors might be countered. The Condor factory at Bremen, and the Condor base at Bordeaux, must be singled out for bombing attack. Anti-aircraft armament for merchant ships must be substantially improved, even if it meant – as it assuredly would – denuding shore defences. But no one believed that these measures were more than palliatives. The obvious requirement was for high performance fighters capable of making interceptions to the limit of Condor range; but the only way of achieving this was by providing them as an integral part of convoy escorts, which meant aircraft carriers. And with the sinking of the Courageous and the Glorious in the early months of the war, and the demands of the Mediterranean theatre, the aircraft carrier cupboard was bare.
Second best seemed to be to transfer squadrons of the new twin-engined Beaufighter to Northern Ireland. But there were objections. The Beaufighters, helped by ground radar stations which vectored them on to their targets, were doing a good job in a defensive role where they were and could ill be spared. Attempts to locate Condors in the wide open spaces of the Atlantic were not likely to succeed. It was one thing for a Condor to locate a convoy, it was quite another for a Beaufighter to track down a Condor, even with the aid of Intelligence gleaned from the secret radio intercept service at Cheadle. Nevertheless the Admiralty favoured above all else the strengthening of the long-range fighter force in Northern Ireland.
The Air Staff had assessed the requirement as a minimum of three Beaufighter squadrons, and the transfer was duly made. It was nothing like enough. There might be as many as four convoys in the danger zone at any one time, to say nothing of unescorted vessels, and to maintain continuous patrols would have required ten times as many aircraft, equivalent to the entire Beaufighter output for the next twelve months. Even then some of the attack areas would have remained out of reach.
Arising from this discussion, however, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Training), Rear Admiral H. R. Moore, interposed a suggestion. If special ships in each convoy were equipped as mobile radar sector stations, they could guide the Beaufighters on to their Condor targets. This sounded like good sense; and an unnamed Air Ministry representative at the conference went one better by suggesting a refinement – ‘to fit such a ship with a catapult so that two or three fighters could be carried for interception purposes’.
The notion of the expendable fighter, flown by a pilot on a one-way ticket, had been anonymously born.
Even in the rarefied atmosphere of the Air Council Room, it was difficult enough to take decisions and make recommendations; and when it came to translating these policies into reality, the complications multiplied tenfold. However, the Condor crews themselves, by further bombing attacks off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland, concentrated the thoughts of one man’s mind wonderfully. After producing a further paper for Portal immediately after the conference, Stevenson was writing to him again within a week. Since the meeting, he said, several more ships had been bombed. He listed the Apapa (9,000 tons), the Fishpool (5,000 tons) and the Empire Wind (7,500 tons); two sunk, the third on fire and sinking. Even as he was compiling his list, news reached him of the bombing of two more ships. One of them, the 10,000-ton Nestlea, the convoy commodore’s ship, lay abandoned and sinking. Both, Stevenson alleged, had been routed within a hundred miles of the south-west point of Ireland, where they were ‘easy money’. Why were the Admiralty still routeing ships in this way?
For the Admiralty, of course, the routeing of convoys presented a ceaseless dilemma. Especially vulnerable were the routes to and from Gibraltar, where the flank was continually exposed to the Condor base. The Admiralty’s answer was to route convoys further and further west to stretch the Condors to the uttermost; but this had the disadvantage of widening the gap between shore-based air cover from south-west England and Gibraltar. While the right compromise was being sought, convoys continued to suffer.
Another thing that angered Stevenson was the Admiralty’s attitude, expressed in conference, towards warning their convoys of the known approach of Condors. So vital to Britain’s conduct of the war was the knowledge she gained from her intercept service that no one dare risk compromising it. But surely, argued Stevenson, it was not beyond the wit of the Admiralty to devise a safe method of passing the necessary information? The screw was being turned, and the effect of shortages was already becoming apparent on the industrial scene. Stevenson recommended that all convoys should approach from the north-west, where Condors from both France and Norway were at the limit of their range, pass into the danger area in darkness, and rely on protection from land-based fighters from dawn. But the Admiralty, with the menace of U-boats and surface raiders still the major threat, thought otherwise. For the long term, however, Stevenson pinned his faith on the expendable fighter. ‘We should get moving on this at once.’
Thus fertilised, the idea of the expendable fighter took root in Portal’s mind, and he sounded Pound on the practicability of allocating a ship fitted with radar, catapult and fighter to accompany each convoy. Pound approved in principle; but in a situation where shortages were endemic, the catapults, the radar equipment, and above all the ships and the aircraft, had to be found.
It was thought at first that tankers, with their lengthy foredeck, would be the type most easily adapted to mounting a catapult rail; and it was believed that the aircraft most likely to be available in numbers was the single-engined twin-seat Fairey Fulmar. But tankers, it was soon realised, were too slow. A speed of 10–12 knots would be needed to assist the launch, and another requirement was the ability to turn quickly into wind for launching, which the tanker lacked. The Fulmar was also dismissed as too slow, except as a stopgap; its margin of speed over the Condor was reckoned to be not more than 10 m.p.h. After a flirtation with a new light-weight wooden aircraft, the Miles M.20, which would have been easy to catapult but which never reached the production stage, investigations were begun into modifying the Hawker Hurricane. This tough little aircraft, in the process of being superseded in fighter squadrons by the Spitfire, seemed likely to prove the ideal choice.
As for the catapult, the type normally used to launch aircraft from ships was hydraulically operated and had a cordite cylinder, but it was too cumbersome, too sophisticated and too expensive for general use in merchant ships, while the lighter naval type could not launch a fighter of the weight of the Hurricane at the velocity required. The alternative was the simple rocket catapult, propelled by banks of 3-inch rockets; and the rockets happened to be available. All these matters, however, remained for the moment in the realm of investigation, and no decisions could be taken until the results of preliminary trials were known.
One measure that could be quickly implemented, however, was the bombing of the Condor base, and on the night of 22/23 November a sizeable force from Bomber Command set out to attack Bordeaux-Merignac. Of the forty-three crews detailed – in eighteen Wellingtons, eleven Whitleys and fourteen Hampdens – thirty claimed to have dropped their high-explosive and incendiary bombs in the target area, and they reported explosions and fires amongst hangars and buildings. But although German accounts confirm that the raid did considerable damage, further raids were less successful, and the activities of the Condors were never interrupted for long.