Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy III

Flight Sergeant Ray Loveitt, second from left, flew the only aircraft to locate the Lutzow and torpedo her. This subsequent publicity shot shows his crew – Flight Sergeants C.T. Downing, A.H. Morris and P. Wallace-Pannell.

The same conditions for attack apply to the torpedo-carrying aircraft of the Command. The Squadrons engaged on them flew Beauforts, aircraft which can carry either bombs or torpedoes. The torpedo is more effective than any other against a ship, for it explodes beneath the surface of the water and the damage that it causes is therefore, in nine cases out of ten, more severe than that caused by a bomb. The torpedo is brittle in the sense that if it is dropped from too great a height or when an aircraft is travelling too fast it will break up on striking the surface and it is hard to aim, for it must enter the water at the correct angle. If it does not it will either, hit the bottom and there explode or be diverted, or move up and down as though on a switchback, ‘porpoising’ as it is called and then break surface. Moreover, its delicacy of construction makes it impossible to drop it if the aircraft is flying too fast. It cannot be dropped too near the target or it may pass beneath it and this means that the pilot must become very proficient in judging distance.

Pilots and crews go through a course of intensive training in which they learn as much as they can about the idiosyncrasies of the torpedo. By means of simple .and ingenious photographic machinery the pilot under instruction who has attacked a target with dummy torpedoes and the fully trained pilot who has loosed his torpedo against a ship, are enabled to discover the exact distance from the target at which they dropped them. The torpedoes are beautifully made and covered with anti-corrosive paint, which gives them a dark blue colour. This paint is very effective against the action of sea-water and torpedoes have been known to remain in the sea for as long as thirteen years and still be perfectly serviceable.

The Beauforts operated on cloudy days or, if the weather was clear, with a fighter escort and during moonlight nights. They, too, found the enemy by means of a Rover patrol or a ‘strike’ directed against a ship or a convoy which has previously been discovered by reconnaissance. Group Captain Guy Bolland, who commanded 217 Squadron, which in early 1941 had been re-equipped with Beauforts, considered that daylight raids using the aircraft were suicidal and he insisted on night attacks only. When the potential menace of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to Britain’s Atlantic shipping meant that Beauforts had to attack in daylight, Bolland declared all of his squadron’s aircraft unserviceable. ‘There was no possible chance of any of my aircraft getting anywhere near Brest,’ he later explained ‘and even if they did and were lucky enough to hit the ships the damage would have been negligible.’ Bolland then reported to Plymouth where he told his air marshal and an admiral that ‘sending young men to their deaths on useless missions is not on.’ The visit cost him his command.

Here is what happened on a March day in 1941 to a Beaufort which had scored a hit on a destroyer off the Ile de Batz and had been hit by a shell which destroyed the hydraulic system, rendering all the turrets and the undercarriage unserviceable.

‘On reaching base,’ says the account, ‘the Squadron Leader circled the aerodrome for an hour to consume all his petrol. While doing so his air gunner, a large man, succeeded in climbing out of the turret and into the tail in an effort to staunch the holes in the pipes with rags, but in this he was not successful. The pilot spoke to the ground, saying: ‘We will crash-land. Keep us some tea.’ To crashland it was necessary to fly the aircraft straight on to the ground, throttle back at the last moment and then cut off the engines. This he did and the aircraft skidded 120 yards along the runway, structure and dust flying up on either side. The starboard propeller shot off and spun along in front of the aircraft on its tips like a wheel. The pilot thought at any moment that it would pierce the perspex windows of the cockpit. ‘The funny thing,’ he said afterwards, ‘about getting out of a crashed aircraft is when you step down. You go straight on to the ground without having to climb down by means of the usual footholds.’

Much has also been said of the activity of the flak-ships. The Germans are using them in ever-increasing numbers to protect shipping, of which the value, always great, grows daily. Sometimes as many as five have been observed escorting a single merchant vessel. Their crews are not unnaturally light on the trigger. ‘Just as we were right over the ship it spotted us,’ reported the pilot of a Hudson who met one such vessel off Norway. ‘The Germans opened up first with machine-gun fire and then the heavier guns started firing. It seemed to me at that moment that they were throwing up everything at us except the ship herself.’ It was bombed and left burning.

The torpedo attacks continued, the majority being carried out during Rover patrols. On 23 October 1940 for example, a German convoy off Schiermonnikoog, made up of nine merchant vessels and three flak-ships, was attacked by two Beauforts, the largest vessel being sunk and the second largest left listing heavily to port. Here again the anti-aircraft fire was intense, but its accuracy poor, possibly because the Beauforts, when retreating after loosing their torpedoes, had the help of a 40-mph wind behind their tails. On 8 November three Beauforts attacked a merchant ship off Norderney. All torpedoes missed, but in taking avoiding action the ship ran aground and became a total loss. The next day a torpedo running strong and straight towards a vessel off Borkum hit a sandbank and exploded, doing no harm. The state of the tide had saved the enemy.

During 1941 torpedo attacks increased. They were made not only off the Dutch, Belgian and Danish coasts, but also along the Norwegian coast. On 9 February, for example, three Beauforts attacked six destroyers off Norway and hit two of them. On 2 March a large merchant vessel was hit off the Danish coast and left on fire. On the 12th an enemy destroyer was blown up in moonlight off the Norwegian coast. Early in September a fierce action was fought near Stavanger between Beauforts seeking to torpedo a large tanker and Me 109s which came to its rescue. The tanker was hit by two torpedoes, an escort vessel by one and a Me 109 shot down. One Beaufort was lost. Another which returned safely entered cloud cover only twenty yards ahead of the German fighters. A little later in the month a cargo vessel was set on fire near the Lister Light.

In twelve months 126 attacks by torpedo were made. Between January and September 1941 87,000 tons of enemy shipping was sunk. One attack must be specially mentioned. It was made by a torpedo-carrying Beaufort of 22 Squadron at first light on 6 April 1941. Six Beauforts were given the task of torpedoing the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau known to be lying alongside the quay in the Rade Abri at Brest. The port was literally ringed by hills in which hundreds of anti-aircraft guns were located, while in the harbour three flak ships added their weight of fire to the massive guns of the two battle-cruisers. The Scharnhorst had put into Brest harbour on 22 March to re-tube her boilers, accompanied by the Gneisenau and an RAF reconnaissance flight on 28 March confirmed their presence in Brest. Bomber Command immediately carried out a series of bombing attacks on Brest without any effect. However, one bomb dropped near the Gneisenau failed to explode and the battleship was moved out of dry dock into the open harbour to allow bomb disposal teams to defuse it. The Scharnhorst was already tied up to the harbour’s north quay, protected by torpedo nets. On 5 April a photographic reconnaissance Spitfire photographed the harbour, revealing the vulnerable position of the Gneisenau, totally exposed to an aerial torpedo attack, in the inner harbour. An attack order for 6 April was quickly passed to 22 Squadron, which at this time was nominally stationed at North Coates but had moved nine of its Beauforts to the South-West of England, to St. Eval just north of Newquay in Cornwall, to be within striking distance of the ports and harbours on the Atlantic coast. The squadron commander had already dispatched three Beauforts on another operation; leaving him with only six Beauforts available. He decided to send these in two formations of three aircraft; one formation to bomb any torpedo nets surrounding the Gneisenau first and the other to carry torpedoes for the attack.

Flying Officer J. Hyde DFC, Sergeant Camp and Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell were chosen for the torpedo attack. All three were experienced and for Campbell this was to be his twentieth operational sortie. ‘Ken’ Campbell was born on 21 April 1917 at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, the youngest in a family of six children and had attended Sedbergh School before gaining entrance to Clare College, Cambridge, to study for a degree in chemistry. Joining the Cambridge University Air Squadron, he had been commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve on 23 August 1938 and eventually mobilised for RAF service on 25 September 1939. His three-man crew comprised Sergeant James Philip Scott, a blond Canadian from Toronto as navigator, Sergeant William Cecil Mullins, a farmer from Somerset as wireless operator and Sergeant Ralph Waiter Hillman, a chauffeur from Edmonton, London as air gunner. They were detailed to leave St Eval first and then wait on the outskirts of Brest for the bombing formation to make the first attack against any torpedo nets; after which the torpedo bombers would go in individually to make their runs.

St. Eval was rain-soaked and two of the bomber Beauforts became bogged down in the slush and mud, leaving just Sergeant Henry Menary, a Belfast-born Irishman, to actually get airborne. The three torpedo Beauforts had already left at intervals of a few minutes, between 04.30 and 05.00. Menary groped his way through the darkness and atrocious weather conditions of rain, fog and mists and soon lost his way. When daylight came he realised he was many miles away from Brest, too late for his appointed task and accordingly he dropped his bombs on a ship near Ile de Batz and turned for home. The fourth Beaufort failed to find Brest in the haze which preceded the dawn and returned with its torpedo. The fifth went in to attack a few minutes too late. ‘When I arrived at Brest,’ reported its pilot, ‘it was full daylight. I crossed the spit of land at the South-West corner of the harbour, coming under fire from shore batteries. I then came down to a few feet above the water and flew towards the mole protecting the Rade Abri, behind which the battle-cruiser lay. I passed three flak-ships and nearly reached the mole itself. By then I was being fired at from batteries all round the harbour. Continuous streams of fire seemed to be coming from every direction. It was by far the worst flak I have ever encountered. When I was nearly up to the mole I saw that the battle-cruiser herself was completely hidden from me by a bank of haze. I therefore turned away to the East and climbed into cloud.’

Campbell had attacked a few minutes before. He had crossed the same spit of land South-West of the harbour entrance at around 300 feet and found the Gneisenau, lying alongside the quay on the North shore, where it was protected by a stone mole curving round from the West. The Beaufort dived to less than 50 feet and was at once under the fire of 270 anti-aircraft guns of varying calibres established on the rising ground behind the battle cruiser and on the two arms of land which encircled the outer harbour. To the formidable concentration of fire which these guns immediately produced was added the barrage from the guns of the warship itself and from those of the three flak-ships already mentioned. Moreover, having penetrated these formidable defences, the Beaufort, after delivering its low-level attack, would have had the greatest difficulty in avoiding the rising ground behind the harbour. All these obstacles were known to Campbell, who stuck resolutely to the task. He passed the anti-aircraft ships at less than mast height, flying into the very mouths of their guns. Skimming over the mole, a torpedo was launched point-blank at a range of 500 yards and then Campbell pulled the Beaufort in a port climbing turn, heading for cloud cover above the rapidly-approaching hills behind Brest. At that moment all the defences opened up on Campbell’s aircraft, which out of control, crashed straight ahead into the harbour. Campbell, having released his torpedo, was almost immediately killed or wounded by the first predicted flak. When the aircraft was later salvaged the Germans found the body of ‘Jimmy’ Scott in the pilot’s seat usually occupied by Campbell. All four crew members were buried by the Germans in the grave of honour in Brest cemetery. The Gneisenau was hit and damaged below the waterline. Subsequent photographs showed that she was undergoing repairs in dry dock. Eight months later the battle cruiser was still undergoing repairs and it only went to sea again in February 1942 when it made the Channel-dash with the Scharnhorst to German waters.

Campbell, Scott, Mullins and Hillman were of that company – ‘Who wore on their hearts the fire’s centre; Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun and left the vivid air signed with their honour.’ On 13 March 1942 Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, which his parents received from King George VI at an investiture on 23 June 1943.

Lützow

Two more attacks must be described. On 12 June 1941 a Blenheim on reconnaissance emerging from clouds some miles South of the Lister Light saw, 1,000 feet below, four or five enemy destroyers screening a much larger vessel, coloured light grey, steaming North-West. The larger vessel was almost certainly the Lützow and it seems probable that she had put out with the object of raiding our commerce in the Atlantic. In addition to her destroyer escort, the pocket-battleship had an escort of Me 109 and Me 110 fighters. The Blenheim slipped back into the clouds. It was then one minute before midnight. On receipt of its message a striking force of Beauforts was sent from a Scottish aerodrome to attack with torpedoes. At 2.20 in the morning of the 13 June – it must be remembered that in those latitudes, at that time of the year, there is almost no darkness – one of the Beauforts attacked the enemy. It flew low, crossed just above one of the protecting destroyers and released its torpedo at a range of 700 yards. As the aircraft broke away the air, gunner and wireless operator both saw a column of water leap from the Lützow amidships and this was followed by a dense cloud of smoke. A few minutes later a second Beaufort arrived on the scene, which the destroyers were busily engaged in obscuring by means of smoke. The second torpedo was fired from 1,000 yards into this artificial haze and almost certainly hit the pocket-battleship. She was picked up again later by Blenheims of Coastal Command, which, together with Beauforts, shadowed her for many hours. By this time she and her escort had turned about and were making for the Skagerrak at reduced speed. The Lützow subsequently put into a North-West German base for repairs.

The part played by Coastal Command in the Combined Operations raid on Vaagsö on 27 December 1941, may be mentioned, for this operation was an attack on a fringe target carried out by the Royal Navy and the Army. It was the task of Blenheim fighters and Beaufighters of the Command to provide protection from the air while Blenheims of Bomber Command made an attack on enemy aerodromes within’ range. The sky was clear and the Beaufighters, which were over the target about 1300, successfully prevented the German Air Force from interfering. Several combats took place; four He 111s were shot down for’ the loss of three Beaufighters. One Blenheim returned to base with the observer and rear gunner both badly wounded. It fought two Me 109s over the ships and during this engagement the rear gunner was put out of action. It turned for home when it encountered a Me 110 very low over the water. The observer was attending the wounded rear gunner, whom he had taken from the turret. He manned the guns, but was himself wounded a moment later by a burst of fire from the Me 110. ‘Just then,’ reported the pilot, ‘I heard a swishing noise and spray flew in from my open side-window. An engine began to cough. I had hit the water with one propeller, but fortunately, beyond bending it a bit, there was no serious damage and the engine picked up again.’ Within 50 miles of base the observer succeeded in reaching the wireless set, though it took him ten minutes to cover the six feet separating him from it and sent out a distress signal. The Blenheim, with flaps and undercarriage unserviceable, made a successful belly landing. The crew survived.

This account of attacks on land targets is best ended by the story of the Beaufort raid on the docks of Nantes on the night of 26/27 October 1941. The Beauforts set out in formation and flew a hundred feet above a stormy sea.

‘We were so low,’ says the leader of the attack, ‘that when we reached the French coast I had to pull up sharply to avoid the sand-dunes. Every time we came to a clump of trees we leapfrogged over them and then went down almost to the ground again … It grew darker as we went farther inland and then began the most surprising experience of all. It was as though the whole of that part of France were turning out to welcome us. Every village we went over became a blaze of light. People threw open their doors and came out to watch us skim their chimney-pots. In other places hamlets would suddenly light up as if the people had torn the blackout down when they heard us coming … I remember one house with a courtyard fully lit, up. I saw a woman come out of the house, look up at us, wave and then go back. She switched off the outside lights and then I saw a yellow light from inside stream out as she opened the door.’

The docks were bombed from 300 feet. Then the Beauforts turned for home just above the roof-tops of Nantes, which, in the bright moonlight, ‘looked like a city of the dead.’ ‘Then I began to see white pin-points on the ground and one by one, lights appeared as we raced over the chimney-pots … We were at top speed, but even so we could see doors opening and people coming out. I felt that we had brought some comfort to the people of Nantes.’ They were in need of it; a cordon of German troops had for some days surrounded the city and within there were fifty hostages awaiting execution as a reprisal for the killing of the German governor. These were shot the next morning. Yet the lights which were switched on that night have been seen on subsequent raids. Through them shines the indomitable spirit of the Bretons.

Attacks on land targets by Coastal Command have yielded in the last months to attacks on shipping. The work of dealing with U-boats and surface raiders in their lairs is now for the most part being performed by Bomber Command. Yet those earlier days when Blenheims, Hudsons, Beauforts and flying boats went in to the attack must not be forgotten. They harassed the enemy – 6,000 metric tons of fuel oil were destroyed in two attacks on St. Nazaire alone, sufficient to fuel a U-boat for six to eight sorties – and prevented him from developing his full strength in the Western Approaches to Great Britain.

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