Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy IV

“Operation Cerberus – The Channel Dash” by Philip E. West – Reproduced from SWA Fine Art Publishers. Here we see the Swordfish flown by Sub. Lt. Kingsmill and Sub. Lt. Samples with PO Bunce in the rear, fighting for their lives with his machine gun.

The Beauforts’ ranks were joined on 12 February 1942 by the crews of naval Swordfish which on that day attacked the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen and her consorts in the English Channel after they had broken out of Brest heading for the safety of their home bases. None of the bomber squadrons could attack before 1500 hours so the main hope was the slender force of Beaufort torpedo-bombers on 42, 86 and 217 Squadrons and the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish of 815 Squadron commanded by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde. At 1130 hours very few of these aircraft were within range of the German ships. 86 and part of 217 were at St. Eval, in Cornwall; the remainder of 217 was at Thorney Island, near Portsmouth; and 42 was just coming in to land at Coltishall, the fighter airfield near Norwich, after flying down from Leuchars, having been delayed by snow on airfields. Only the six Swordfish at Manston and the seven Beauforts at Thorney Island were in a position to attack within the next two hours. As the Swordfish attacked the first to fall was Esmonde, a victim of the enemy fighters. The two remaining aircraft of his section survived the fighter attacks and pressed on into the storm of flak now coming up from the vessels. Repeatedly hit and with their crews wounded, the two Swordfish still headed for one of the two big ships visible through the clouds of mist and smoke. Both crews managed to launch torpedoes before their aircraft, riddled with bullets, struck the sea. Five of the six men were afterwards rescued from the sea. From the second section of Swordfish, which disappeared from view after crossing the destroyer screen, there were no survivors. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Seven Beauforts at Thorney Island were available at short notice when the order to attack was received. Two were armed with bombs, which had to be changed to torpedoes and a third developed a technical fault. Only four of the Beauforts thus took off at 1325 and when they did so they were twenty minutes late on planned rendezvous with their fighter cover at Manston. To make up for this delay both sets of aircraft were ordered while in the air to proceed independently to the targets but because of radio frequency problems the torpedobombers did not receive the message. Eventually the front section of two Beauforts set off for the French coast, found nothing and returned to Manston, where they discovered for the first time the nature of their target. Meanwhile the two rear Beauforts, which had lost touch with their leaders, had already landed at Manston, learned their target and the latest position of the ships and set off towards the Belgian coast. At 1540, about the same time as navy destroyers from the Thames estuary were making an extremely brave but ineffective attack, the two pilots sighted a large warship which they took to be the Prinz Eugen. Despite intense flak they turned in and launched their torpedoes from a thousand yards range but to no avail.

Aircraft of Bomber Command loaded up with semi-armour-piercing bombs, which had to be dropped from at least 7,000 feet, were ready to attack. Cloud was 8/10ths-10/l0ths, with base at 700 feet. Unless cloud-gaps occurred at precisely the right place and moment, the bomb-aimers would be faced with an impossible task. But the alternative armament, the general-purpose bomb, which could be dropped effectively from lower heights, would certainly not penetrate decks plated with several inches of steel. However, GP bombs could be used to damage the superstructure of the vessels and distract the attention of their crews from the torpedo-bombers. The first wave of 73 bombers began to take off at 1420. Most of them managed to reach the target area, individually or in pairs, between 1455 and 1558, but in the thick low clouds and intermittent rainstorms only ten crews saw the German ships long enough to release their bombs. The next wave, of 134 aircraft, began to take off at 1437 and arrived in the target area between 1600 and 1706. Twenty of these are known to have delivered attacks. A third and final wave of thirty-five aircraft took off at about 1615 and was over the target from 1750 to 1815. Nine managed to attack. All told, 242 aircraft of Bomber Command attempted to find the enemy during the afternoon; and of those that returned, only 39 succeeded in bombing. Fifteen aircraft were lost, mostly from flak and flying into the sea and twenty damaged. No hits were scored on the vessels.

While these attacks were in progress, the next group of torpedo-bombers was being launched against the enemy. 42 Squadron arrived at Coltishall to find no facilities for torpedo aircraft but nine of the Beauforts had flown from Leuchars with torpedoes on and these took off at 1425. The remaining five, having no torpedoes, remained on the ground. On leaving Coltishall the nine Beauforts headed south to Manston to link up with fighters and some Hudsons intended for diversionary bombing. They were then to follow the Hudsons out to sea. But when the Beauforts arrived over the airfield they were unable to form up with the other aircraft. After orbiting Manston for over half an hour, the Beaufort commander finally decided to set a course based on information of the enemy’s position given him before he had left Coltishall. As he turned out to sea with his squadron, six of the Hudsons followed him. The remaining five continued to circle until almost 1600 before withdrawing to Bircham Newton. In thick cloud and heavy rain the nine Beauforts and six Hudsons now pressed on towards the Dutch coast. The two formations quickly lost touch, but after an ASV contact the Hudsons sighted the enemy and attacked through heavy flak. Two of the Hudsons were shot down and no damage was done to the ships. A few minutes later six of the nine Beauforts, flying just above sea-level, also came across the main German force – the other three had already released their torpedoes against what were possibly Royal Navy destroyers. Most of the torpedoes were seen to be running well but none found its mark.

Nine Hampden crews on 455 Squadron RAAF, the second Australian squadron formed in Britain, led by Wing Commander G. M. Lindeman DFC had to go down to 800 feet to drop their bombs and they encountered intense and accurate AA fire. Squadron Leader W. H. Cliff, commanding 42 Squadron, who led the formation, had on either side of him a Beaufort captained by an Australian – Pilot Officer E. Birchley on his left and Pilot Officer R. B. Archer on his right. Shells and bullets from the destroyers forming a protective screen around the Scharnhorst flew all round them. Archer saw heavy shells hitting the wave-tops and light tracer whizzing over his aircraft. His Beaufort was hit by the Scharnhorst’s guns and his rear gunner was wounded. The gunner was receiving first aid from the navigator and wireless operator when an enemy aircraft appeared. When the gunner re-entered his turret, Archer ordered him out and his place was taken by the navigator, Sergeant D. N. Keeling RNZAF. Birchley, who had turned away in the opposite direction from Archer after dropping his torpedo, put his head out of the open window to try and see through the mist. Tracer bullets passed close to him. Both Australians thought they would never get out of the flak. Birchley flew within 100 yards of the Scharnhorst and his gunner had a glorious moment when he turned his machine guns on the deck. Archer was subsequently awarded the DFC.

By this time the two Beauforts on 217 Squadron which had failed to find the ships earlier in the afternoon had set off again from Manston. Operating independently both picked up the Scharnhorst off the Dutch coast with the aid of their ASV. But their attacks, delivered at 1710 and 1800, were as unsuccessful as all the rest.

One last chance now remained. There were still the Beauforts of 86 and 217 Squadrons at St. Eval. These had been hastily ordered to Thorney Island, which they reached at 1430. There, after adjusting torpedoes and refuelling, they took off to link up with fighters over Coltishall. The Beauforts reached Coltishall at 1700, but found no sign of the escort they were expecting. They at once headed out to sea and at 1805, in the growing dusk, with visibility less than 1,000 yards and cloud base down to 600 feet they came across four enemy mine-sweepers. One pilot caught sight of what he took to be a big ship, but by then his aircraft was so damaged that he was unable to release his torpedo. Soon darkness was upon them and at 1830 the Beauforts abandoned their search and set course back for Coltishall. Two of their number, victims of flak or the dangerous flying conditions, failed to return.

Australia’s one-legged Beaufighter pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bruce Rose DFC was probably the last airman to see the Scharnhorst that day. Flying through intense flak from the destroyer screen, he completely circled the cruiser before leaving for base. It was almost dark when he left. Single aircraft of Coastal Command which had been trying to shadow the German formation since about 1600 obtained two sightings before dark and two or three ASV contacts afterwards – the last of them, against the Scharnhorst, as late as 0155 on 13 February. Their reports correctly indicated that the German force had split up, but were too late to be of any value. As a final effort, twelve Hampdens and nine Manchesters were sent to lay mines in the Elbe estuary during the night. Only eight aircraft laid their mines and none of these did any damage. In the course of the evening, mines laid by 5 Group Hampdens or Manchesters in the Frisian Islands during recent nights, caused some damage when the Scharnhorst hit two mines and Gneisenau, one. The Gneisenau managed to maintain company with the Prinz Eugen and reached the mouth of the Elbe at 0700 on 13 February. The Scharnhorst was more seriously damaged. With speed reduced to twelve knots and shipping a thousand tons of water, she nevertheless managed to limp into Wilhelmshaven. The news of the escape of the German vessels was greeted in England with widespread dismay and indignation. ‘Vice-Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed,’ wrote The Times: ‘Nothing more mortifying to the pride of sea-power in Home Waters has happened since the 17th century.’

Both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were located in Kiel later. The Gneisenau received additional damage between 25 February and 28 February, during bombing raids on the dockyards at Kiel and was never in action again. The Navy got the Scharnhorst in the end and she was sunk on Boxing Day, 1943, off Norway. The Prinz Eugen reached Germany safely, but later, when on her way to Trondheim, was attacked off Kristiansund by HM Submarine Trident and severely damaged. The cruiser tried to get away again early on the morning of 18 May 1942, this time from Trondheim. Twelve Coastal Command Beauforts found and attacked her. Again Australian flyers helped to pound the 10,000-ton cruiser. It was a first experience of enemy fire for at least two of them – Pilot Officer E. Mc. McKern, a Beaufort pilot and his observer, Gordon L. Duffield. They were in the first wave. Shells from the anti-aircraft guns were whistling around them as they went in. Some of them burst over the aircraft’s nose and above the starboard wing, but they kept flying on. Another shell burst beneath the aircraft and shot it upwards. A Me 109 tried to stop it, but McKern’s RAF gunner poured a stream of bullets into its engine and it turned away, dropping down towards the sea. At 1,000 yards the Beaufort dropped its torpedo. Then it went straight on across the bows of the Prinz Eugen at about sixty feet and 600 yards in front of her. The destroyer ahead fired determinedly at the Beaufort as it came on, but it escaped damage and the crew got back in the last light to claim a ‘possible’ hit. Duffield brought back the only photograph which showed clearly the cruiser and her four protecting destroyers. Archer and Birchley, the Australians who had participated in the Channel attack, took part, but both were shot down. Archer was killed, Birchley taken prisoner.

On the night of 11/12 February the usual patrols over Brest were flown from dusk to dawn. A reconnaissance on the previous afternoon had revealed both battle-cruisers berthed at the torpedo-boat station, protected by anti-torpedo booms and the Prinz Eugen at the coaling wharf. Six destroyers were also in the harbour. Sometime during the night, which was pitch-black with no moon, they slipped out. On the morning of the 12th the weather was still thick and nothing was seen. A report received by Headquarters, Coastal Command, at 11.28 stated that a large enemy naval force, including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen had been sighted between Berck and Le Touquet. A Beaufort, a Whitley and two Beaufighters were at once ordered off to shadow this force, while Hudsons and Beauforts, provided with fighter escort, endeavoured to deliver bombing attacks in the early hours of the afternoon. The weather was so thick that they achieved no result and it proved very difficult for the Hudsons and Beauforts to maintain contact with the fighter escort. Beauforts carrying torpedoes delivered attacks off Holland, which were possibly more successful. ‘One Squadron did so only at its second attempt. At the first the enemy was not found. At least three torpedoes were observed to be running strongly towards the targets and one crew reported that they had seen an enemy warship listing badly with smoke pouring from her bows. The Beauforts were subjected to very fierce anti-aircraft fire and to severe fighter opposition.

Most of them found the enemy by the simple process of running into heavy flak fired by unseen ships. One made three attempts to attack, but was by that time so badly damaged that its torpedo could not be released. ‘I saw my leader waggle his wing,’ runs the account of one pilot. ‘That meant that he had seen the ships … The Prinz Eugen was steaming along very slowly at the head of a tremendous line of ships. Destroyers were trying to lay a smoke-screen round her … At that moment I saw two Me 109s fly across in front of me… They circled to get on our tail and the Prinz Eugen was in my sights.’ He dropped his torpedo and then the Beaufort became involved in a heavy fight with the Messerschmitts. One of them was shot down and the other made off. ‘My Beaufort was hit in twelve places … A bullet had gone through a propeller and a cannon shell had ploughed a furrow in the tail-plane. The action was fought very near to Overflakee Island off the Dutch coast. We thought the name appropriate in the circumstances.’

In this confused and unsatisfactory action the palm for courage, cold and unshaken, has rightly been awarded to the Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm, which, operating from one of the South coast bases of Coastal Command, delivered their attacks about noon. They came in low in two flights of three in the face of tremendous and accurate anti-aircraft fire, with swarms of enemy fighters about them and all discharged their torpedoes. They were all shot down and of the eighteen members of their crews only five survived.

On the afternoon of 23 February 1942 six Beauforts on 42 Squadron left Sumburgh for a sweep against enemy shipping. They reached the Norwegian coast, but saw no vessels and on the return journey the aircraft became separated. Suddenly Beaufort M, piloted by Squadron Leader W. H. Cliff, went into an uncontrollable dive and hit the sea. Cliff and his crew, who only a fortnight before had led 42 Squadron’s attack on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, thought that their last moment had come; but by some miracle all survived the impact and scrambled out, or were thrown clear, as the aircraft went down. Fortunately one of them was able to secure the dinghy and this all four men eventually succeeded in boarding. Very soon they were joined by one of the two pigeons carried in the aircraft. They at once captured this welcome arrival, attached to its leg a note of the approximate position of the crash and launched the bird into the air. But the creature was wet and darkness was already coming on. After performing a few perfunctory circles the pigeon merely alighted back to the dinghy; and no amount of cajoling, or beating about the head, could persuade it to resume its flight. Its fixed intention was obviously to make a fifth passenger. In disgust the crew therefore abandoned their attempts to drive it off and huddled together against the rigours of the February night.

By this time the search had begun. The last known position of the aircraft was 150 miles east of Aberdeen and throughout the night a Catalina sought in vain for the distressed crew. At first light other aircraft went out from Leuchars, Dyce and Arbroath, but several hours’ search yielded no sign of the missing men. Meanwhile a pigeon had arrived back at base-not the obstinate creature of the previous evening, but its companion from the same basket. Unknown to the Beaufort crew, ‘Winkie’ – as the unfortunate bird was called – had made his escape from the aircraft. He of course carried no message; but this did not defeat the acute intelligences at the station. Since he could not have flown in the dark, he must obviously have found somewhere to rest; and an examination of his feathers revealed unmistakable traces of oil. Someone hazarded the guess that he had spent the night on a tanker; enquiry revealed that such a vessel had been passing off the North East Coast; and from knowledge of its course and a calculation of the time taken by the pigeon to reach base, the area of search was readjusted to fifty miles nearer shore. The next aircraft sent out, a Hudson on 320 Squadron, flew almost straight to the spot where the dinghy lay tossing on the waves. The crew wirelessed a message to base and then dropped a Thornaby Bag. Three hours later a high-speed launch arrived and the sufferings of the four bruised and frost-bitten airmen were over.

The next occasion on which the Prinz Eugen was attacked by Coastal Command was on 17 May 1942 when she was found off the Southern tip of Norway seaming southward. She was on her way to a German port for repairs made necessary because of the damage inflicted on her by HM Submarine Trident. The attack was carried out by Hudsons and torpedo-carrying Beauforts escorted by Beaufighters and Blenheims. It was pressed home with the greatest determination in the teeth of heavy anti-aircraft and fighter opposition. The Beaufighters, sweeping ahead, raked the decks of the German vessels with cannon and machine-gun fire while the Hudsons and the torpedo bombers went in to the attack. In this action the rear gunner of one of the Beauforts beat off a series of attacks by enemy fighters lasting 35 minutes, though one of his guns had jammed and he himself had been wounded in the face, hands, legs and head. Five enemy fighters were claimed shot down and nine RAF aircraft failed to return. Fighter protection was not always possible; the waters in which targets were to be found were too far off. Blenheims, Beauforts and Hudsons still had to go out into the murk of a foggy day alone and unescorted to strike at such targets, themselves the target for German fighters. Sometimes a ‘strike’ was a running engagement against opposition that would increase as the minutes and the hours went by.

Aircraft of Coastal Command, between 3 September 1939 and 30 September 1942 escorted 4,947 merchant convoys, attacked 587 U-boats and, if offensive operations against enemy shipping are included, flew 55 million miles.

Hampden AN149/X on 455 Squadron RAAF captained by Flight Sergeant J. S. Freeth took part in a hand in the submarine war on 30 April 1943 when U-227 suddenly appeared crossing the Hampden’s course, 110 miles north of the Faroes. The boat, which was commanded by 25-year old Korvettenkapitän Jürgen Kuntze, was on its first war cruise, having left Kiel on 24 April for the North Atlantic. Freeth dived immediately and laid a stick of depth charges alongside the conning tower. U-227’s stern rose ten feet out of the water and sank again. The Australians made another attack and the U-boat split into two parts with oil gushing from its sides. The German crew continued firing until the U-boat slithered under, but the Hampden, although hit; suffered no casualties. Afterwards the Australians counted thirty or forty heads bobbing in the water. One sailor shook his fist at the Hampden as it flew off to notify the Air Sea Rescue organization of the location. U-227 was lost with all 49 hands.

455 Squadron RAAF was converted from Hampden bombers to Hampden torpedo bombers in July 1942 and for a time a detachment operated from Russia. The presence of the Hampdens over the North Sea forced the enemy to provide both escort vessels and air cover for their convoys. Torpedo-bombers had to come down so low and keep such a straight course before they could launch their torpedo that sometimes they almost collided with their targets before they could pull up and away. It called for special training and outstanding skill and judgment in assessing the speed and direction of a moving ship and in launching the torpedo. Unless a torpedo was launched at the correct angle, it would dive below the surface and then come up again and do another dive, behaving just like a porpoise, instead of speeding straight to its target at the correct depth below the surface. At first the torpedo was loaded in a line parallel with the fuselage of the aircraft and the pilot had to approach the surface of the sea at the exact angle at which the torpedo should enter. Then the torpedo mounted the torpedo under the aircraft at an angle which enabled it to be correctly launched when the aircraft was flying parallel with the surface, or on an even keel!

It was the misfortune of war which led to Pilot Officer John Davidson, a young New Zealander, receiving a direct hit from a flak ship while he was seeking to bomb German E-boats off the Danish coast. Badly wounded in the thigh and leg, he hung on despite his injuries and flew his aircraft for 300 miles over the sea to his base. The aircraft itself was considerably damaged and when it arrived over the aerodrome the undercarriage was seen to be out of order. The bombs were still on board and the watchers down on the ground fully anticipated that unless the pilot could get the undercarriage to work, the aircraft and crew would be blown to pieces when he attempted to land. For half an hour the pilot flew around the aerodrome struggling to, make the undercarriage function properly, but the task was beyond him.

‘Can you go out over the Wash and jettison your bombs?’ asked Control.

‘Yes,’ he replied and flew off over the sea to drop his bombs; but owing to the damage to the aircraft there was one at the back of the rack which stuck. Unaware of this menace, he flew straight in to make a .crash landing and, as he touched, the bomb exploded and blew the tail to smithereens. The observer and the pilot tumbled out as the engine flamed up and began to run for their lives. Suddenly they thought of the rear-gunner, who was nowhere to be seen. Those who were hastening to their aid saw them turn back and rush into the flames and smoke. A few moments afterwards they emerged again, dragging Sergeant Aslett, the rear-gunner, as though he were a sack of potatoes. He was peppered with bits of nuts and bolts and scraps of metal and although he was knocked out by the explosion and would certainly have lost his life if Pilot Officer Davidson and the observer Sergeant Ross had not gone to his rescue, he recovered along with his companions, to bring their tale of high courage to a happy ending.


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