The more direct method of attack was to bomb the ships of the enemy wherever they may be found. Coastal Command began early. The first enemy ship to be bombed was a tanker attacked by a London flying boat on 10 April 1940, forty miles from the Faroe Islands. The limited resources of the Command did not permit it, in those early days, to make attacks on a large scale. Nevertheless, its achievements are not to be ignored. Between 10 April and 31 December 1940 223 attacks were made on merchant vessels and supply ships and 81 on enemy ships of war. They took place along the Norwegian coast, the Dutch, Belgian and French coasts and also in the Heligoland Bight and off the North-West coasts of Germany. The sinking of a merchant vessel off Haugesund by a Lockheed Hudson on 22 June and the hitting and sinking of twelve merchant vessels, one of which was of 14,000 tons and a tanker of 10,000 tons in July must be mentioned.
The attacks in August 1940 were not very successful, but in September two E-boats were sunk by a Blenheim 18 miles off Dieppe on the 10th and hits obtained on ten merchant vessels, one of which was certainly sunk. In October 1940 three merchant vessels were hit. The attacks fell off in November, but in December no less than 45 were made on merchant vessels and one on enemy destroyers. So ended the year 1940. The attacks had been mostly carried out by single aircraft, a Blenheim, a Hudson, or a Beaufort, though sometimes the attackers flew in formation of two or three. They were in the nature of an experiment. The crews taking part in them were gaining experience of which they were to make good use in 1941. It was not a quick process. To attack and hit a ship, especially when it is protected by its own fire and that of flak-ships, is not only dangerous but difficult. The technique was worked out and improvements made through that winter and spring. During this period much work was done to determine the correct fuse-setting of the bombs. It was very necessary to do so. On 30 March an enemy ship loaded with depth charges, probably an anti-submarine vessel, was found off La Rochelle and hit by a 250lb bomb dropped from 400 feet without a delay fuse. The bomb detonated all the depth charges and blew the ship to pieces. The aircraft returned ‘riddled with bits of its target.’ As a result of this and other attacks of the same kind it has become the general practice to use delayed-action bombs.
When vessels carrying ammunition, however, are hit, the explosion is naturally so formidable that the aircraft runs a great risk of suffering damage. On one occasion a Hudson belonging to a Dutch Squadron dropped a salvo of bombs on a ship near the Norwegian coast. ‘Nothing happened at first,’ reported the Dutch pilot. ‘The rear gunner started swearing because he didn’t see anything. Then he said he saw the crew frantically lowering a boat. Then came a tremendous explosion and we thought our bombs had hung up and gone off underneath our aircraft till we saw the ship in small pieces.’
The pilots who carried out attacks on German occupied ports were only slightly less laconic than the official reports. ‘The bombs caused an enormous explosion,’ said one of them who flew a Beaufort in an attack on Brest on 13 January 1941, ‘which shook the aircraft so violently that the crew thought they had received a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. Showers of sparks accompanied the explosion, which sent up a column of smoke to the height at which the aircraft was flying – 10,000 feet.’ During a raid on St. Nazaire a Blenheim looped the loop when an anti-aircraft shell exploded immediately beneath its fuselage. ‘The concussion stunned the second pilot, knocked out the rear gunner and left the pilot dazed.’ When they recovered consciousness the Blenheim was in a dive from which the pilot was unable to pull out until 500 feet from the ground. On regaining a level keel it was found that all the instruments were out of order and that everything loose on the navigator’s table, including his charts, had disappeared, flung out of a hatch which had been forced open. The pilot succeeded in climbing up to 8,000 feet. ‘The Blenheim was see-sawing up and down like a switchback and we thought we should have to bail out.’ He was able, however, to keep control until a patrolling Beaufighter was sighted off the English coast in the dawn. The Beaufighter escorted the Blenheim to an aerodrome where it made a safe landing.
Sometimes attacks were made by day. On one occasion a Beaufort was off La Pallice at 9,000 feet. ‘Alongside the wharf,’ says the observer, ‘we could see a ship of about 7,000 tons discharging cargo. The crew were busy on the deck and workmen were coming and going about the wharf. The pilot pointed to the ship and said: ‘Shall we bomb it?’ I nodded, thinking he meant to do a little high-level bombing. The next thing I knew was that I was flat on my back. The pilot had put the nose right down in the steepest dive I have ever been in. We dropped from 9,000 to 100 feet. At the bottom we let go the bombs and then began to pull out, dodging between the cranes on the wharf. For a moment we were actually flying under the German flag, for as we beat it over the dock I saw out of the corner of my eye a swastika flag hanging from a staff about fifty feet above us. The ship’s stern was wreathed in smoke as we left.’
Bomber Command took a prominent part in the attacks on shipping. To press home an attack on a well-camouflaged warship protected by fighters, balloons and one of the heaviest concentrations of anti-aircraft guns in Europe and to know that as it was in dry dock not even the best-aimed bombs could sink it, demanded the very highest qualities of morale. But the demand, as in every other task set to the crews of the Royal Air Force, was met to the full. Something of what these young men were called upon to face may be glimpsed from an account by Sergeant J. S. Boucher, a navigator on 144 Squadron. The squadron, still equipped with Hampdens, was required to find three crews for a daylight raid under cloud cover: ‘Three crews’, writes Boucher, ‘were drawn out of the hat’ and you can imagine our annoyance on being awakened by an orderly at 1.30 am on Christmas Eve to be told that we were to report to the Briefing Room at 2.30 am – especially after a ‘stand down’ evening at such a festive time of the year. Our annoyance was only exceeded by our surprise when the CO, Group Captain ‘Gus’ Walker, explained the hazardous mission which we were to undertake in a few hours’ time. The general opinion amongst the crews was that this was not a job for an obsolescent aircraft like the Hampden with its cruising speed of 140 mph and its very poor defensive armament. We kept these opinions to ourselves, however … ’
In this frame of mind the crews climbed into their aircraft. Boucher’s machine, piloted by Sergeant P. A. C. McDermott, took off soon after 0600 and made its way to a point west of Ushant: ‘Cloud was 10/10ths with base at 1,000 feet and everyone felt relatively safe during this part of the journey. When it was time to turn eastwards for the target the pilot broke cloud at about 900 feet and we could see Ushant right in front of us. Neither of us had had much experience of operating in daylight and having experienced the fierceness of this target at 12,000 feet at night we both felt a little apprehensive, to say the least – but we did not share our thoughts openly.
‘The pilot climbed into cloud again and headed south-east. A few minutes later he turned north-east and broke cloud again. The enemy coast was very close and we nipped into cloud again. These zigzag tactics were continued and accompanied by violent’ jinking’ as soon as the coast was crossed. Everyone was strangely silent – apart from my curt navigational directions-until the rear gunner, who was experiencing his first operational flight, asked what the ‘tapping noise’ was. The wireless-operator told him that it was only ‘light flak’ bursting as it hit the wings and the fuselage … We broke cloud again for a few seconds, just long enough to enable me to give McDermott a course which would bring us over the docks. The flak grew more and more intense and although flying in cloud the aircraft was repeatedly hit. We could see the criss-cross of red tracer shells through the cloud haze a few yards in front of us. It seemed that all the anti-aircraft defences of the docks – as well as those of the battle cruisers – were directed against this one aircraft; and this was most probably the case.
The Hampden broke cloud again at 900 feet above sea-level and I picked out the target about half-a-mile ahead. To make a proper run up under such conditions would have been impossible if one was to survive to complete the task. I leaned over my bomb-sight and pressed the ‘tit’. For a few fleeting moments I could see the German gunners frantically firing at us. They seemed so close that I felt myself to be before a firing squad. The pilot opened the throttle and we roared up into cloud again at 180 mph, too soon even to see our bombs burst, The sudden upward movement threw me back into my seat and a second later there was a yellow flash as a shell exploded, shattering the perspex nose of my cabin and driving me backwards under the floor of the pilot’s cockpit. Stunned for a moment, I tried to open my eyes, but the pain was too great. I felt the wet blood on my face. The cold blast of air now passing through the gaping hole in the nose, had blown all my maps and my log through the pilot’s cockpit window. I crawled back through the fuselage to where the wireless-operator was sitting and plugged in his intercom gear. We were relatively safe now that we were in cloud again and leaving the coast behind us. A rough mental calculation enabled me to give the pilot a course for the Lizard … ’
Damage, wounds and lack of maps did not prevent the crew bringing their aircraft back to England. Of the other two machines, one lost half its tail plane to a balloon cable over Brest, but still struggled home; the other failed to return.
In March 1941 meanwhile, Coastal Command aircraft made nine attacks and eight in the following month, on enemy ships of war at sea, in addition to a large number of attacks on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in harbour at Brest. They also hit for certain fifteen merchant vessels during the same period and probably many more. One attack on a convoy of eight merchant vessels off Stavanger on 18 April was pressed home with great determination. Two merchant vessels were hit and left sinking for the loss of two Blenheims; a second attack made on the convoy encountered heavy opposition from Me 110s which shot down three Blenheims after one of them had scored a hit on another vessel.
The attacks continued on much the same scale throughout the summer. On 11 June Blenheims scored seven direct hits on a large tanker discovered between Ostend and Dunkirk. On 5 July Blenheims, again escorted by fighters, discovered an enemy convoy near Zuydcote. Some of the aircraft attacked from a high level and drew the fire of the convoy and its escorting vessels. The remainder went in low and scored two direct hits on one merchant vessel and another on a second. One of the Blenheims, hit by anti-aircraft fire, struck the water, bending both propellers, but got back to base. By then the Blenheims and Beauforts operating over the English Channel had been so successful that it was practically denied to enemy shipping. After July attention became more concentrated on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. By the end of that month Continental business men were complaining of the heavy losses incurred by them in shipping goods from Dutch ports.
On 23 July 1941 the captain of a Hudson bade farewell to the convoy he had been ‘escorting’ for several hours and was about to turn for home when a naval corvette below flashed a signal to him, ‘Suspicious aircraft to starboard’. Knowing the tendency of all Royal Navy vessels to regard any aircraft as ‘suspicious’, the Hudson skipper at first thought the corvette had merely spotted the Hudson’s due relief Wellington and, indeed, when first sighting the distant machine also believed it to be his relief on the convoy escort:
‘I flew over to have a look at her anyway and pulled down my front gun sight purely for practice. As we neared the aircraft, however, my Irish second pilot suddenly swore and then shouted, ‘It’s a Kondor!’ Automatically I increased speed while he ran aft to man one of the beam guns, the wireless operator manned the other side gun and the mid-upper gunner swung his turret round. There, about 1,000 feet above the sea and running in towards our convoy, was one of the large Focke Wulf 200s. We overhauled him fast and at 400 yards I opened the proceedings with about five short bursts from my front guns, though I don’t think I hit him. He returned the fire immediately from both top and bottom guns and I saw his tracers whip past the Hudson’s nose in little streaks of light. He missed us and his pilot turned slightly to starboard and ran parallel to the convoy.
‘I soon realised that we had the legs of him and soon caught up with him. He put up his nose, as if thinking to make a climb for cloud cover, but evidently changed his mind and decided that he was safer where he was, down close to the sea. As we drew closer my rear gunner opened up, firing forward and I could see his tracers nipping across my wing. We drew closer and closer and the Kondor began to look like the side of a house; at the end all I could see of it was part of the fuselage and two whacking great engines. My rear gunner was pumping bullets into him all the time. When we were only 40 feet away I could see two of his engines beginning to glow. I throttled back so as not to over-shoot him, or crash into him and for one brief moment my second pilot, Ernie, saw a white face appear at one of the side windows and then quickly disappear.
‘Just then the Kondor began a turn, its belly exposed to us and my gunners opened up with everything. There was a wisp of smoke, a sudden belching of smoke and then flames shot out from underneath both port engines. He turned to starboard, while I made a tight port turn ready to come at him again. We came out of the turn, only to see the Kondor again flying steadily, apparently unhurt. For a moment I thought he had got away with it, but then realised that he was getting lower and lower and a minute later he went into the sea. I yelled, ‘We’ve got him! He’s in the drink! We’ve got him!’ The upper gunner too was yelling down the intercom great exultant Yorkshire oaths.
‘It was only then that we all realised just how hard and how silently we’d all been concentrating and how full the Hudson was of cordite fumes. I also saw how short of petrol we were. We flew over the Kondor – its wing tips were just awash – and Ernie took photos. Four of the crew were in the water hanging on to a rubber dinghy which was just beginning to inflate, while a fifth man was scrambling along the fuselage. We learnt later that a Met man who had been aboard had been killed by a bullet through the heart, but the others were all right. Two corvettes were rushing to pick them up and the whole crew seemed to be crowded onto the deck of the leading one, waving and shouting at us. One man was waving a shirt. Our relief Wellington and Hudson were by now circling round too and as we made off for home we could see the white puffs of steam as all the ships in the convoy sounded their sirens.’
The attacks by bombs on enemy shipping reached a momentary climax in October and November 1941. Many of them took place by night during the moon periods and the aircraft employed were Hudsons flown by RAF, Canadian and Dutch Naval Air Squadrons. The attack on the night of 29/30 October is especially noteworthy. Reconnaissance on the morning of the 29th had disclosed a concentration of German shipping in the harbour at Ålesund and the neighbouring fjords. Hudsons set out from the North of Scotland and delivered the attack. The first to arrive saw the ships lying at anchor beneath a brilliant moon lighting the harbour in its frame of mountains on which the first snows of winter had fallen. The attack can best be described in the words of one of those who took part in it:
‘There was a lot of flak coming up as I came over the target. I could see one ship burning, with smoke pouring from it. The ground was covered with snow and I had the whole target in silhouette. I flew around pretty low for a bit, then climbed up to get a better view and choose my target, keeping out of range of the flak. I saw a second ship hit and it soon became an inferno of flames. We could actually see the plates red-hot. I saw four other aircraft attack shipping in the harbour. They were flying very low and the flak was streaming down on them from batteries in the hills-green, white, red, yellow. A lot of it was going straight on to the enemy’s ships.
‘I had by then chosen my target – the biggest ship in the harbour, about 5,000/6,000 tons. I approached from the North, about five miles away, my engines throttled right back. I came down to about 5,000 feet, by which time I was nearly over the ship and dived straight on to it. I dropped my bombs at about 2,000 feet. I did my own bomb-aiming. Directly the bombs were gone I pulled up over the town. I was then down to about 1,000 feet, still throttled back; then I opened up fully and went off. There was a lot of flak coming up at us. Some of it came pretty close, but we couldn’t actually hear it. The gunner definitely silenced two flak positions.
‘I flew right round the harbour and when I came back to the target I saw the ship was still there. I said to the crew: ‘We must have missed it.’ A moment later the gunner shouted: ‘Think I can see a glow forward.’ I turned round to have another look and saw she was down by the bows. I flew round again and this time I saw the bows were awash. I kept on flying round and next time I looked the water was about up to her funnel. She got lower and lower and then we saw the rudder come out of the water and about a third of her keel. Just before she went down we saw part of the stern with the flag-pole sticking up and as we watched she sank. The ship took twelve minutes to sink from the time] released the bombs. It was a most satisfying sight to see it going down.’
All the aircraft returned safely. One of them was carrying the Air Officer Commanding the Group to which the Squadron making the attack belonged. Its bombs sank one of the four ships destroyed that night. Three others were hit and very heavily damaged. In the five nights from 31 October to 5 November eighteen merchant vessels were hit, the majority, perhaps all, being sunk or burned out. On 2 November the attack switched to the Dutch coast and four ships were hit. In less than a month about 150,000 tons of enemy shipping had been sunk or severely damaged and of this about 120,000 could be claimed by Hudson Squadrons. The denial to the enemy of these ships and the loss of their cargoes undoubtedly affected his military operation against Russia. To read the reports submitted by pilots immediately after their encounters with enemy ships is to receive the impression of men so eager to get to grips with the enemy that they disregard the risks involved. This, however, is not so. A more careful perusal of them shows that the captain of a Hudson, a Beaufort or a Blenheim, while prepared to take great risks and accepting them as in the ordinary course of duty, is not at the same time heedlessly risking the lives of his crew or the safety of his aircraft.
‘From mast height I laid a stick of bombs across the ship. I didn’t see them drop, but the rear gunner reported: ‘There’s one on the deck.’ At that moment both my engines spluttered and stopped. That shook me, for we were flying right between the masts. The whole sky lit up as two of the bombs burst and the ship seemed to disappear into thin air.’
Such phrases as these indicate how closely pressed home is the attack, but they are often followed by the statement that it was made from cloud cover, that evasive action followed immediately afterwards and that the aircraft regained the shelter of the clouds as soon as possible. Such actions on the part of the pilot in no way detract from the achievement. On the contrary, they enhance it. The enemy’s merchant vessels, of which all are armed and most protected by flak-ships which put up a heavy barrage, are not attacked haphazard. The tactics of swift approach and swift ‘get-away’ have been carefully worked out and studied and though the hazard of the operation is never allowed to interfere with its execution, if the chances of a successful attack are nil it is not made. If there is even the smallest prospect of success, it is.
Single enemy vessels or vessels in convoy hug the coasts of conquered Europe. They are discovered, therefore, by visual and photographic reconnaissance or by means of patrols given a roving commission to attack any suitable shipping target which may present itself. Such patrols are called ‘Rovers.’ They are sent out very often at the discretion of the Officer Commanding the station, who acts under a general order from the Group and they are flown both by day and night. They were welcomed from the start by the pilots and crews as an exciting change from convoy or anti-submarine patrols. In daylight, weather is of supreme importance. Crews detailed for such patrols cannot take off unless there is a reasonable certainty that the area they are going to investigate will be covered with cloud.
‘There is a feeling of unreality,’ says a Wing Commander, ‘in starting out on a bright, sunny day and presently flying into horrible grey weather and so finding the enemy coasts and flying along low-lying, sandy shores or an island of the Frisian group and perhaps stumbling on a ship before either she or oneself has quite realised what has happened. The whole essence of a successful shipping ‘strike’ is surprise … The attacking aircraft has to come in very close and very low … It is in this position, however, for only a few seconds and we rely on catching the gunner on board when he is lighting a surreptitious cigarette, talking to a pal, or perhaps blowing on cold fingers … The moonlight Rover is quite different and in some ways more fascinating … It can take place only on bright nights. There is something indescribably exhilarating about flying low over the water along a path of living flame … Surprise is nearly always achieved because it is possible to see much more looking up-moon than it is looking the other way and the marauding aircraft comes suddenly on the ship out of the ghostly murkiness of night.’