Liberators and Kin Against the U-Boats

Consolidated B-24 Liberator of No.120 Squadron (FL923 V). F/O J. K. Moffatt flying this aircraft sank U-189 in April 1943. However, this machine was shot down attacking U-539 in October 1943. It was being flown by the unit’s CO, W/Cdr R. M. Longmore, crashing into the sea with the loss of all its crew.

As it became obvious that German submarines would quickly begin to wreak havoc amongst the convoys bringing supplies from Canada and America, Coastal Command saw bases in Iceland as a necessity. Unknown to the Admiralty was that the Germans had broken part of the British Naval code allowing them, for a period in 1942, to know when convoys were sailing and to where. Operating anti-U-boat operations from anywhere along the west coast of Britain would stretch the already limited range aircraft could fly out into the North Atlantic, so Iceland needed to be a major base for these operations.

The airfield at Reykjavik had seen the arrival of 209 Squadron’s Catalinas in August 1941, while the Hudsons of 269 Squadron moved into Kaldernes in June. Once the Americans came into the war, they based their VP-73 US Navy Catalinas on Iceland, and later VP 84’s Cats came too, both being under Coastal Command control. In July 1942 a detachment of VLR (Very Long Range) Liberators of 120 Squadron arrived at Reykjavik.

Two successful attacks had been made by 209 and 269 Squadrons in August 1941, but it was almost a year before another U-boat sinking was claimed. This was by an American Catalina of VP-73 Squadron, sinking a 1,600 ton supply boat, U-464. Piloted by Lieutenant R. B. Hopgood, the Catalina had been assigned to cover a small force of minelaying vessels, but spotted the U-boat just 1,500 yards away. Bob Hopgood attacked, dropping five 325lb US Navy depth charges from 100 feet which straddling the conning tower. Curving round, the crew could see the U-boat still above water and his gunners exchanged fire with gunners on the tower, while Hopgood radioed the minesweepers’ commander who despatched the destroyer HMS Castletown to the spot. By this time the sub had sunk, leaving most of her crew in the water. As the destroyer arrived, a fishing boat was already picking up survivors, and then the destroyer took on fifty-two of them.

VP-73 attacked U-491 on 1/2 September, which was believed to have been U756 but this proved incorrect. U-491 escaped damage. No. 269 Squadron sank U-582 on 5 October during a convoy patrol and, a week later, 120 Squadron scored its first victory. The Liberator was piloted by a man who would become legend within Coastal, Squadron Leader T. M. Bulloch.

His squadron had left 15 Group for Iceland but it was not long before Bulloch sank his first confirmed enemy submarine, which was also the first for 120. Out to escort convoy ONS 136, ASV picked up a contact shortly after midday and, five minutes later, a U-boat was seen and attacked, but the boat went down without apparent serious damage, although some wreckage and oil could be seen. Bulloch flew to the convoy and advised the Senior Naval Officer (SNO) of the contact. Almost three hours later Bulloch had to return to base, only to spot another U-boat. In an attack, two of his depth charges did not release and the two that went down again did not appear to have done any harm. However, the first boat attacked, U-597, had in fact been destroyed along with her forty-nine crewmen.

Three days later, 15 October, 120 scored again. This time Flying Officer S. E. ‘Red’ Esler made an attack (thought to have been on U-661) but success was not confirmed, and it turned out to be U-615 which suffered only superficial damage. However, a Catalina of VP-84, Lieutenant R. C. Millard and crew, did manage a sinking on 5 November. Two 650lb and two 325lb US depth charges straddled the crash-diving U-408 to the north of Iceland and the eight or nine sailors seen left on the conning tower disappeared in the explosions. When seen again, the men were swimming amongst much debris but within forty minutes they too had gone. Millard received the American DFC and would have further success. He had already attacked and damaged U-664 on 1 November.

Bulloch too had achieved another success on the 5th, sinking U-132, or so it was thought. This boat was part of a wolf pack ordered to attack convoy ON 137, but bad weather caused an abandonment. Discovering another convoy, U-132 made an attack, sank three ships, but then disappeared. It has since been believed that one of her victims, crammed with explosives, had blown up under water destroying the luckless U-boat. Bulloch had in fact attacked and damaged U-89 while giving cover to convoy SC 107. He had already sighted a U-boat on the way there but he was seen and the boat had gone before he could attack. Over the convoy an escort ship told him they had a contact, gave a bearing, sending Bulloch off to investigate. At 3,500 feet a U-boat was spotted, Bulloch dropping down to attack. The boat began to submerge but with its conning tower still in view, six depth charges were dropped, the explosions sending the boat’s stern thirty feet into the air, with both screws turning. It then disappeared, replaced by rising air bubbles. U-89 was severely damaged, and had to abort back to port. Bulloch had received a Bar to his DFC in October and then received the DSO in December.

Bulloch would, of course, have no way of knowing that, uniquely, this had been his second attack on U-89. As we read earlier in this chapter, he had done so back in August while operating with 15 Group.

Bulloch was in action again on 8 December, records later showing he had sunk U-254, but, again, later research indicated this boat had been damaged in a collision with another U-boat on another date and lost. Bulloch had attacked another boat that had not been hit. However, 120 continued its success in the New Year.

Meantime, patrols of anti-submarine aircraft continued out over the North Atlantic for the rest of the year and 1943 would see a massive increase in sightings and attacks. Nos 120, 269, and VP-84 would be joined by Liberators of 59 Squadron until Dönitz was forced to abandon operations totally in this area.

No. 15 Group 1943

If 1942 had been a lean year for 15 Group, with just two U-boat sinkings and one damaged, 1943 was quite the reverse. Coastal Command’s fight against the German U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic, defending the massive convoys of supplies from Canada and the US, had finally started to look up. It now had the weapon to sink the menace and, at last, the aircraft to do the job.

Flying Fortresses, VLR Liberators and Sunderlands dominated the convoy patrol work, edging into the area patrolled by Iceland’s Liberators, Hudsons and Catalinas, further to the north. However, there was now the start of a constant battle with technology from both sides. With the introduction of the Leigh Light, U-boat crews no longer felt safe travelling on the surface at night, but then the Germans came up with a method of picking up an aircraft’s ASV transmissions from patrolling aircraft, called Metox. As soon as the submarine’s radio room operator picked up the signals, the boat would dive. What is more, Metox could pick up these transmissions up to thirty miles away, virtually twice the range of the ASV coverage. By September 1942 a number of U-boats were having Metox installed, this number increasing as time went by.

Nevertheless, the U-boat arm, while inflicting heavy losses on Allied shipping, was beginning to suffer serious losses of its own. Allied air power was beginning to establish itself over the Atlantic, the Bay of Biscay, and the approaches to it. With the Atlantic Gap largely closed with VLR Liberators, even if the number of Libs was still low, German crews were vulnerable from every quarter. Even more so with the later arrival of MAC ships and escort carriers added to convoys.

Meantime, the boffins had been working steadily to help counter Bomber Command’s inability to hit targets in Germany, and provided a version of ASV III called H2S. The Americans at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had been working on improvements to radar and shared their work with Britain’s Telecommunications Research Establishment to acquire centimetric radar. Bomber Command got priority with the new sets but finally Coastal began receiving them, especially when the Metox development began to reduce sub kills. The code-breakers at Bletchley Park had finally broken the four-wheel code of the Enigma machine that boats had been using since February 1942, but it had taken ten months. They were now reading U-boat messages once again and passing this information to Naval HQ. U-boats were still sending frequent position reports, as well as informing their HQ when they were going to return through the Bay, and when they had successfully crossed out from Bay ports, or their north German ports. Eventually Coastal aircraft, using the new centimetric radar, would be able to home in on submarines even if only the periscope was above the surface. The see-saw struggle for supremacy through technology would continue.

In February 1943, 15 Group Fortresses sank two U-boats, and a Lib made it three, all round convoys. This increased to four in March, three by Libs and one by a Sunderland. Three more were damaged, all round convoys, two by Fortresses, one by a Sunderland

U-710 was the victim of Bob Cowey and his crew from 206 Squadron, on 24 April. Operating out of RAF Benbecula, patrolling for convoy ONS 5, the boat was seen at periscope depth eight miles ahead. Cowey headed down and in, a gun on the conning tower opening fire as he approached. As Cowey later commented, this was a first, as U-boats usually crash-dived when the danger was seen. As the depth charges exploded, his rear gunner saw the sub rise vertically out of the water, and then sink, leaving much debris and about twenty-five men in the water. They had no way of helping them and, as the weather at home base was reported to be closing in, they had to leave. Like virtually all U-boat crews who survived a sinking, there was no rescue. Very occasionally another nearby boat might come along, but this was rare. This was Bob Cowey’s second kill and he received the DFC.

May began with an 86 Squadron Liberator sinking U-109 on the 4th and on the 12th another from this Squadron, from Aldergrove, found U-456 in showery weather near convoy HX 237. Flight Lieutenant J. Wright’s crew dropped a Mark 24 mine that caused damage to the sub, which surfaced. Wright called the convoy’s SNO and a destroyer was despatched to the scene. The U-boat captain, aware of the approaching danger, decided to dive but was lost in the attempt. It was the device’s first kill. Wright would gain further success.

The Mark 24 mine, an American weapon made available in great secrecy, was in fact an acoustic torpedo, which is why it was referred to as being a ‘mine’. Once in the water, the torpedo would home onto the submarine’s noise. It had a running time of ten minutes and a range of 4,000 yards and contained 9,216lb of Torpex. It had to be dropped from 250 feet with the aircraft flying at 125 knots, and it would steer towards the noise of a sub. Care had to be taken if Allied ships were near. Generally, it would only be dropped if a U-boat had just dived. In all 346 were dropped in anger. They were also known as Fido or Zombie.

Another new weapon about to be unleashed was the 600lb (272 kg) anti-submarine bomb, which we will see used as the Germans changed tactics later in the year. In essence, this weapon was one that could be dropped at height, up to 5,000 feet, with the use of a bomb-sight. However, the depth charge remained the preferred device against the U-boats.

Further success in May resulted in two sinkings and one damaged. One of these was found on 31 May by Flight Lieutenant D. M. Gall, of 201 Sunderland Squadron. Up until now, Douglas Gall had flown a total of 732 hours on Sunderlands, not seen any trace of a German submarine, and was beginning to believe he never would, so it came as a tremendous surprise when U-440 was sighted in the distance. Diving, he got his aircraft up to 150 knots, trying to get to fifty feet as quickly as possible. As the boat was making no signs of diving, Gall asked his navigator to check that they were not in one of the ‘free lanes’ used by Allied subs. Closing in, Gall was even more sceptical as the boat began signalling to the Sunderland. Then one of his gunners came over the R/T saying that it was not a signal, it was gunfire.

With him this day was the Squadron Gunnery Officer, Pilot Officer Martin, who was in the front turret and he used his skill to great effect, as witnessed by the number of bodies seen in the conning tower as the flying boat passed over. Gall pressed the release for four depth charges, Gall admitting that he would have missed by yards, but at the last minute the U-boat turned, right into the middle of the stick. The boat’s bows lifted out of the water and then slid slowly out of sight. Douglas Gall received the DFC.

Five more U-boats were sunk or damaged in June, but one on 11 June had a very different end as far as the RAF crew were concerned. Wing Commander R. B. Thomson DSO was CO of 206 Squadron. The Fortress had been in its patrol area for two hours when a U-boat was spotted seven miles away. On the approach the boat’s gunners began to open fire, something that was becoming a regular occurrence, and bullets hit the front of the aircraft. The depth charges went down and, when next seen, the sub’s bows were up; then it went down stern first, leaving oil and about twenty-five men in the water.

However, two of the Fort’s engines were giving trouble and, being unable to maintain height, Thomson was forced to ditch. Only one dinghy inflated and the emergency supplies were lost. The crew were in the water for three days until found by a Catalina of 190 Squadron (Squadron Leader J. A. Holmes DFC) who landed on the sea and picked them up. An earlier attempt by an American Catalina had failed, this having crashed as it attempted to make a sea landing. The RAF aircraft was well over-weight and 140 gallons of fuel had to drained off before they were able to take off. Ronald Thomson was awarded the DFC as were two of his crew, and he later rose to be an air vice marshal. Jack Holmes received a Bar to his DFC.

Admiral Karl Dönitz, mindful of the recent increase in submarine losses, ordered a change to U-boat tactics which began about May 1943. Fully aware that a submarine is most vulnerable during a crash-dive, once an approaching aircraft was spotted, he now ordered his crews to remain on the surface and fight it out. There was some logic to this for a large four-engined Liberator, Fortress or Sunderland, or even a twin-engined aircraft, coming in low, seemed a pretty good target. During a crash dive the U-boat had no defence and the attacking aircraft’s crew had no distractions from placing their depth charges right where they needed to be. Faced with gunfire from the boat there was every chance of shooting down the aircraft, or damaging it sufficiently for it to break away. At the very least, it might well put off the aircraft from pressing home the attack too closely. Of course, for the attacker it did at least show exactly where the target was, reducing the guesswork of where it might be once submerged. The new AOC-in-C of Coastal, having taken over from Joubert de la Ferte in February, was Air Vice-Marshal J. C. Slessor CB DSO MC. He thought that, although it increased the danger to his crews, he would gladly exchange one aircraft for one U-boat.

So this was the reason recent attacks on U-boats had found boats remaining on the surface and defending themselves. As we shall read later, 19 Group, operating over the Bay of Biscay, would likewise discover this change of tactics and face other changes as things developed.

Meantime, on 17 June, Flying Officer L. G. Clark of 206 Squadron, made his third successful attack on a U-boat. Those squadrons operating over the Atlantic but further south, on the approaches to Biscay, were beginning to fly within designated areas. These areas, one supposes, were where intelligence reports indicated better than average chances of spotting a U-boat provided it was caught on the surface. Les Clark had been assigned to patrol a rectangular area coded as Musketry, finding U-338 on the surface. A problem with the intercom delayed the attack but, when it began, the sub was seen to be manoeuvring to place its stern towards the aircraft so that its aft-mounted guns could be brought into action. Six depth charges went down but failed to do any major damage and, as Clark turned to come in again, the boat was crash diving. However, the damage inflicted was sufficient for U-338 to return to St Nazaire.

This boat had successfully engaged a 502 Squadron Halifax in March, shooting it down, so its crew had some confidence in this new ‘stay up and fight’ doctrine. However, the damage forced her to remain in harbour till September and, when coming out again, she was sunk by a Canadian destroyer. Les Clark had now sunk one and damaged two U-boats and would be rewarded with the DFC.

Flight Lieutenant J. Wright of 86 Squadron, made his second successful attack on the 23rd. Flying convoy cover, his crew located U-650 on the surface. In fact, they found three U-boats, but they all quickly submerged. Five hours later they located the three again, one immediately diving, the others staying up and opening fire on the Liberator. As Wright made his approach, these two began to go down but Wright let go a 600lb anti-submarine bomb but, apart from its large explosion, nothing more was seen. Unbeknown to him, however, was that U-650, heading for St Nazaire from Kristiansund was damaged and out of action until December. John Wright was not finished yet.

Seeing three boats on the surface at the same time was evidence of yet another development by the Germans. U-boats now began crossing the Bay in small groups and, on this occasion, had been heading towards port. The idea was that more than one surfaced boat would increase the firepower against an attacking aircraft and, even if one was ordered to submerge for safety, there were still two to engage the attacker. Therefore, in addition to fighting back, groups of three or even five subs would face an attacking aircraft. This, of course, led to a counter-tactic by Coastal aircraft. As there were often several aircraft patrolling not too far from each other, either on the edge of the Bay or in the approaches to it, the order was that whichever aircraft found multiple U-boats, would circle and call up other nearby aircraft so that a co-ordinated attack could be made.

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