Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy I

The prototype Beaufort first flew on 15 October 1938 and a production contract for 78 aircraft followed in August 1936. The Beaufort was an improvement on the Avro Anson but it was not very fast and not well armed. Faced with the much faster Bf 109, the Beaufort’s defensive machine guns could put up an estimated 11 ounces of .303 calibre bullets as compared with the Messerschmitts 12 lbs of cannon and machine gun fire in the same amount of time. Coastal Command’s standard torpedo-bomber from 1940 to 1943, Bristol Beauforts first entered service with 22 Squadron at Thorney Island in November 1939. The Beauforts, along with the Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm flew out in secret, deposited their mines in the dark and flew away again without knowing whether their work would prove fruitful or futile. Such work called for strength of spirit and purpose to sustain men for any length of time. The mine-layers laid dozens of minefields on all the coasts from the northern coast of Norway right down the French coast to Bayonne on the border of Spain and German rivers and ports and even in the Kiel Canal itself. On the night of 15/16 April 1940 22 Squadron’s Beauforts carried out Coastal Command’s first mine-laying sortie, in the mouth of the River Jade and on 7 May 1940 dropped the first 2,000lb bomb. Beauforts saw action over the North Sea, the English Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Beauforts also took part in the attack on the German pocket battleships which escaped through the Channel early in 1942.

It was in the ultimate issue just an odd trick of chance which led Group Captain Finlay Crerar to make history on the night of 10/11 June 1940, by intercepting the first ship which Italy lost in the war. The wireless told him at 6 o’clock in the evening that Mussolini had declared war as from midnight and while he sat at dinner in the mess he learned that one of the afternoon patrols over the North Sea had sighted the big Italian steamer Marzocco making full speed to the east. It would, he thought, be a pity to let that ship get back into Italian hands and he accordingly requested permission to go out to try to intercept her. Permission was not at once forthcoming. There were conferences in which the naval authorities joined, but at length his request was granted. There was still a little daylight left when he climbed into his aircraft with his navigator and took off. The navigator had worked out the course and estimated the position in which the Italian steamer should be picked up and along this course Group Captain Crerar flew. The weather could hardly have been worse. The cloud was practically down to the surface of the sea. To attempt to intercept a ship on such a night seemed quite hopeless – but not to Group Captain Crerar. Finding it was impossible to fly below the clouds because they were down so low, he went up and flew above them at 2,000 feet. Speeding to the area in which he expected to find the steamer, he dived down to try to get under the clouds to search the surface. He could not do it and was forced to climb. Flying a little further, he dived once more to try to get below the blanketing clouds, but was driven again to climb.

Nature seemed to be conspiring to help the Marzocco to escape. But the Scottish pilot was a tenacious man. He refused to give up and dived down for the third time to try to get under the clouds. For the third time he was defeated. There seemed nothing more he could do. No human power could overcome that handicap of the clouds. He was cruising round above the carpet of cloud, loath to return with his mission unaccomplished, when he saw a dark smudge on a cloud ahead. Gazing at it carefully as he flew in that direction, he was astonished to see a small black puff rise through the cloud. To his expert eye that black puff could only be one thing – smoke and immediately he concluded it must be smoke from the funnel of the Marzocco. He was right. The master of the Italian steamer must have heard the engines of the aircraft and in his anxiety to escape made his crew stoke up the furnaces more than ever, with the result that instead of getting away, he merely gave away his position by the big clouds of smoke emitted from the funnels. Diving for the fourth time down into the cloud, Group Captain Crerar discovered that by some strange fluke the base of the cloud had risen to fifty feet above the surface so that he was able to fly without endangering his aircraft.

‘I had just been on the point of turning for home bitterly disappointed at having failed and you can imagine my surprise and pleasure at seeing the quarry in front of me,’ he reported. ‘She was steaming as fast as possible due east. I signalled her in international code to stop immediately, turn and make for Aberdeen, but no notice was taken of my signals. This was tried three times. Then I decided to open up my front gun as a warning and flying low across her bows I gave her a good burst, did a steep turn and repeated the manoeuvre from the other beam. Immediately there-afterwards the ship hove to and, after some exchange of signal, turned round on a course for Kinnaird’s Head. We escorted her although it was dark until lack of petrol forced us to leave.’

Returning to their base, they refuelled and went off again to pick up the Marzocco and escort her to port. But the weather was so bad that they were quite unable to find the ship, which the navigator thought must have turned eastward to try to escape. The pilot, however, thought otherwise and felt sure that she was continuing on her course to land. His judgment was confirmed. At his request a destroyer was sent out. But eventually the Italian master cheated his captors, for he opened the sea-cocks and scuttled his ship. As she was sinking, a tug managed to take her in tow and get her as far as the entrance to Peterhead harbour where she touched bottom and was beached. Had it not been for that smudge of smoke arising from the frantic endeavours of the master to elude capture there is no doubt that the Marzocco would have escaped.

One of the objects of Coastal Command in attacking fringe targets was to prevent, if it could, German sailors and airmen who were taking an active part in the Battle of the Atlantic from obtaining the rest they needed. Another was to harass the German troops in occupied countries. Finse in Norway was a well-known winter sports centre. It consisted of a small railway station with a hotel nearby and a few mountain huts and chalets. The railway passing through it was protected from avalanches by a number of snow-sheds, which were wooden tunnels hundreds of yards in length. It was known that the hotel contained a large number of German officers and Norwegian quislings enjoying a skiing holiday. There were thus two objectives: to destroy or damage the sheds, which would interrupt communications of great importance almost certainly for the whole of the winter and to put out of action a number of the enemy and of the traitors helping them. Three attacks were made – on 18, 20 and 22 December 1940. So that the crews taking part in them should have as clear an idea as possible of the nature and look of the place, they had been shown a pre-war travel film containing excellent shots of the station, the hotel and the surrounding slopes of snow. The first attack was only in part successful, for despite the film which they had seen and the special maps which they carried, several of the crews did not find the target. Two nights later it was repeated and Beauforts scored direct hits on the snow-sheds and the railway line. A train in the station took refuge in a shed from which it did not emerge. In the third attack the hotel was hit. It was subsequently discovered that two mechanical snow-ploughs had been destroyed in the railway station and that the line was, in consequence, blocked for many weeks. The leader of the first attack, carried out by Hudsons, flew up and down above the target with his navigation lights on, in order to show the way to the rest.

Coastal Command, while not exclusively equipped for bombing, made 682 attacks on land targets between 21 June 1940 and the end of December 1941. Excluding aerodromes, which the Command attacked 130 times in France, 30 times in the Low Countries, 44 times in Norway and thrice in Germany, there were during that period 28 attacks on French fuel dumps and electrical power plants, 36 attacks on Dutch oil installations and eight on Norwegian. There were also 69 attacks on other miscellaneous targets. The bulk of the effort, however, was naturally directed against docks and harbours and the shipping in them. Brest headed the list with 62 attacks; Boulogne followed with 50. Then came Lorient with 30, Cherbourg with 28, St. Nazaire with 21; Le Havre with 16, Calais with 13 and Nantes with five. The raids were made mostly at night. They were harassing operations designed to destroy valuable stores and necessities for the prosecution of the battle and to interfere as much as possible with the lives of men on garrison duty in foreign and hostile lands. After the fall of France, the effort made by Coastal Command was directed against shipping. One squadron alone made 28 attacks on French ports, involving 136 individual sorties, in six weeks. In the early days even Ansons, too, played a part before they were relegated to training Groups. On Monday 23rd September 1940 six Ansons on 217 Squadron carried out an attack on Brest between 0115 and 0415 hours, dropping their 360lb bomb loads from heights as low as low as 2,000 feet and then diving to 500 feet to shoot out searchlights. On later raids the Ansons were often accompanied by Fairey Albacores of 826 Squadron of the Royal Navy awaiting the completion of the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable which was to be their home. Lorient, too, came to be important, for it was soon made one of the main bases for German submarines. The primary target was at first the power station and later on the submarine moorings. Blenheims attacked both on 8th, 13th and 17th October and again on 7 and 8 November, being accompanied on these last two raids by Beauforts and Swordfish. The attack on shipping at Flushing on the 13th by six Blenheims caused large fires. In December German submarines were discovered further South in the Gironde, near Bordeaux. They were attacked by Beauforts carrying land-mines on 8 and 13 December. Large explosions and fires followed.

Inevitably as time went on attacks became concentrated on Brest, especially after the last week in March 1941, when the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau or ‘Salmon and Gluckstein’ (a famous London store) as they were known throughout the Royal Air Force, took refuge in that naval base on their return from commerce-raiding in the Atlantic. Coastal Command attacked them, either alone or as part of an operation by Bomber Command, 63 times in 1941, including an attack on the Scharnhorst on 23 July when she had sought temporary refuge at La Pallice. The defences of Brest, always formidable grew stronger and stronger. On one occasion a Blenheim was forced by the failure of both engines to glide through them. It circled slowly round above the harbour while the pilot still tried to get into a good position from which to drop his bombs. ‘It looked as though we should come down in enemy territory,’ he said, ‘so I thought we might as well drop our bombs in the best place possible.’ The first attempt did not succeed and before releasing its load the Blenheim glided three times round the docks, each time going lower and lower. At last a good target came into the bomb-sight and the bombs were dropped at the very ‘moment when both the engines picked up simultaneously. The Blenheim reached base unscathed.

22 Squadron of the Coastal Command was not only the first to be equipped with Beauforts, but among the first to take part in the mine-laying operations. Under the command of Wing Commander M. H. St. G. Braithwaite, it also carried out many torpedo attacks on the shipping in the invasion ports. Its losses in the early days were sometimes due to enemy action, sometimes to circumstances over which the pilots had no control. For a period the squadron suffered heavily, which robbed the Royal Air Force of some of its most highly-trained specialist pilots. Among them was Flight Lieutenant A. R. H. ‘Dicky’ Beauman who carried out thirty operations in all sorts of weather, with many torpedo attacks on ships by day and by night. On 5 December 1940 he was last seen off Wilhelmshaven going in to torpedo a big ship in the face of terrific anti-aircraft fire, but whether he hit the ship before he was hit himself remains unknown. ‘Dicky’ Beauman was one of the most popular members of the mess and no finer pilot or braver man ever sat in the cockpit of an aircraft.

On the moonlight night of 17 September 1940 six Beauforts on 22 Squadron in two flights of three led by Squadron Leader Rex Mack DFC were detached from North Coates to Thorney Island and detailed to attack shipping in Cherbourg Harbour at 2300 hours. At that time it was probably the best defended of all the Channel ports.

‘I decided,’ said Squadron Leader Mack ‘that I would enter by the Western entrance of Cherbourg harbour. I took this decision because there was a great deal of wind and I thought that if I were to approach the Germans with the gale in my face they might not hear me. That indeed proved to be the case, because when I entered the harbour no one fired at me. I had hardly got in, flying at about 50 feet, when the Germans opened fire. I was so close that I could actually see them and I watched a German gunner, one of a crew of three manning a Bofors gun, trying to depress the barrel, which moved slowly downwards as he turned the handles. He could not get it sufficiently depressed and the flak passed above our heads. It was bright red tracer and most of it hit the fort at the end of the other breakwater on the farther side of the entrance. At the same moment I saw a large ship winking with red lights, from which I judged that there were troops on board firing at us with machine-guns and rifles.

‘I dropped the torpedo in perfect conditions, for I was flying at the right speed and at the right height. Half a second after I had dropped it five searchlights opened up and caught me in their beams. I pulled back the stick and put on a lot of left rudder and cleared out. The trouble about a torpedo attack is that when you have released the torpedo you have to fly on the same course for a short time to make quite sure that it has, in fact, left the aircraft. I remember counting one and two and three and forcing myself not to count too fast. Then we were away.’

Another Beaufort coming in immediately afterwards seemed ‘to be surrounded by coloured lights,’ and a third, flown by a sergeant pilot, hit a destroyer and at the same time lost half its tail from a well-aimed burst of anti-aircraft fire. It got safely back, however. All the pilots reported that the opposition was the fiercest they had ever experienced. In this gallant affair one Beaufort was lost.

Sergeant Norman Hearn-Phillips (later Squadron Leader Hearn-Phillips AFC DFM) was one of the pilots detailed but although he had completed twenty operations on Beauforts, he had only dropped torpedoes in practice. He had joined the RAF in 1936 as a Direct Entry Sergeant pilot and had trained on Hawker Harts and Audax. The attack was to be a combined attack with eight Blenheims on 59 Squadron, who were to drop bombs and flares to light the way for the Beauforts. The moon was at the full and the Blenheims were bombing the docks when the first flight of Beauforts were led into Cherbourg at no more than ten feet above the surface. They flew so low that the gun in the fort at the entrance could not be depressed sufficiently and its tracers were seen bouncing off the other breakwater. Squadron Leader Mack got his torpedo away at a steamer of over 5,000 tons just as five searchlights picked him up. The fire from the breakwater and harbour and ships was so intense that the tracer bullets cannoned off ships and walls in all directions. Flight Lieutenant Francis hit a destroyer. Sergeant Norman Hearn-Phillips brought his Beaufort down to sea-level and headed for the target at 80 feet and 140 knots. As he released his torpedo at a vessel of over 5,000 tons, the flak was intense and the aircraft was hot as he turned away. The port elevator had been shot away and the rudder and hydraulics damaged. Despite this Hearn-Phillips nursed his crippled aircraft back to Thorney Island where he carried out a successful belly-landing. One of the Beauforts was lost, but it was a wonder that any escaped at all in such a heavy barrage of fire.

Soon afterwards, at the beginning of an autumn afternoon on Friday 4th October, a roving patrol of two Beauforts on 42 Squadron found two enemy destroyers and six escort vessels off the Dutch coast near Ijmuiden. These they did not attack, but carrying on soon found a 2,000-ton mine-layer surrounded by four flak-ships all at anchor in the harbour. They attacked, but the torpedoes were swept from their course by the tide. The Beauforts were intercepted by four Bf 109s and L4488 was shot down by Oberleutnant Ulrich Steinhilper of 3./JG 52. All the crew were taken prisoner. During the engagement Beaufort L4505 was hit and the elevator controls severed. The pilot, however, succeeded in flying his aircraft safely home by juggling with the throttle and elevator trimmer. Surprisingly enough the elevator had a marked effect on the aircraft’s trim despite the fact that the fore and aft controls were severed. On reaching base in very bad weather, with clouds down to 50 feet, he was seen to pass over the aerodrome, but he could not turn the aircraft in its crippled condition enough to regain it. He followed the coast and after jettisoning his torpedo in Thorney Creek, although the flaps of the Beaufort were out of action, made a successful landing at Thorney Island with most of his crew wounded.

Some weeks later, on 8 November three Beauforts launched their torpedoes at a steamer and not one of them hit the mark. Nevertheless the master of the steamer swung her about so frantically to avoid them that he ran aground and his ship became a total loss, so the Beaufort accomplished their purpose of destroying the ship, although all their torpedoes missed. Two days later, Wing Commander Braithwaite was about to make a torpedo attack on a steamer which was steaming at five knots. Circling round, he swept in and got his torpedo away. It ran perfectly straight for the steamer which was palpably doomed – or so it seemed. Then, quite unexpectedly, before the torpedo reached the target, there was a gigantic explosion and a great column of water shot up in the air. It was very hard luck for Wing Commander Braithwaite that it happened to be low tide and the torpedo hit the top of a sandbank which lay in its path. At high tide the torpedo would have sped over the top of the sandbank and the steamer would have gone to the bottom.

Apart from the torpedo Coastal Command made use of two other chief weapons dropped from the air in its operations against enemy shipping – the mine and the bomb. The task of laying mines in enemy waters was shared with Bomber Command. Each Command has been allotted certain areas along the coasts of the enemy and of the occupied countries off which mines are laid. The aircraft used for the purpose were originally Swordfish, of which the open cockpit added considerably to the discomfort suffered by the crews in winter, though in other respects it was an advantage, for the pilot could see the surface more easily. As soon as Beauforts became available they were pressed into service. The method used is as follows: The aircraft sets out flying at a height between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. When it approaches near to the place chosen – a shipping channel, the entrance to a port, the mouth of a fjord, or wherever it may be – it comes down low in order to pin-point its position. This is done by picking up some prominent landmark, such as a building, a headland, a lighthouse, a small island. Arrived there, the navigator sights the landmark through the bomb-sight and, at the exact moment at which the Beaufort passes over it, presses a stop-watch, at the same time telling the pilot to fly a course at a certain speed at a certain height for a certain time. During this, the run-up, the aircraft must be kept on an absolutely level keel. At the end of the period, calculated in seconds and fractions of seconds by means of the stop-watch, the observer releases the mine and the operation is over.

Very rarely did the crew even see the splash when the mine hit the water. The operation was dull, difficult and dangerous. ‘Creeping like a cat into a crypt’ is how one pilot has described it. The Germans did their best to cover all likely landmarks with anti-aircraft fire. More than once the crews of Coastal Command had seen little lights moving, like strange fire-flies, along the edges of cliffs. They came from the pocket-torches held in the hands of German gunners as they ran to man their guns.

Little was heard of these mining operations. Only an occasional reference was made to them in official communiqués. But they went on night after night and the crews who carried them out ran risks as great as those who achieved a result by the use of a more spectacular weapon – the bomb or the torpedo. Over a period of six months in 1941 seventy per cent of the mines laid by Coastal Command were placed in the position chosen for them. It was impossible to do more than estimate the damage they caused. Certain successes were known to have been achieved. In February 1941 a German vessel of about 3,000 tons was damaged near Haugesund and beached to prevent her sinking. A German trawler struck another mine on the same day and sank. The area was closed to traffic for some time. Later that month a German ship was mined off Lorient and many corpses were washed ashore on the Quiberon Peninsula. An aircraft of Coastal Command had dropped a mine in that area a night or two before. In September of that year two cargo vessels were mined and sunk in the roadsteads of La Pallice and La Rochelle. In October a 4,000-ton ship was mined and sunk in the channel leading to Haugesund and the entrance to the port was blocked for some time.

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