Hellcats in the Royal Navy

The Royal Navy acquired large numbers of F4Fs as Grumman Martlets and made extensive use of the type. The F4F’s successor was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, designed as a private initiative in response to feedback from fleet aviators, which entered front-line service in mid-1943. It was powered by a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, giving it a maximum speed of 376 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 168 miles per hour, and a range of 1,090 miles on internal fuel or 1,590 miles with a 150-gallon drop tank. The F6F was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and also could carry rockets or bombs. The Royal Navy also operated substantial numbers of F6Fs as the Grumman Hellcat.

From April 1943, the British started receiving F6Fs as part of the Lend-Lease program, which America used to arm its ally. At first, they renamed these planes with the far more British title of “Gannet” instead of “Hellcat”.

The British received 252 Hellcats, but these planes never became as important for the Royal Navy as they were for its US counterpart.

On 16 July 1945 four carriers of the British Pacific Fleet joined the American fast-carriers as Task Force 37. They contained 112 Seafire or Firefly fighters, 73 Corsairs, and 62 Avengers. But the HMS Formidable also embarked a detachment of Hellcats from the HMS Indomitable’s outstanding 1844 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm.

British use of Hellcats in the Pacific extended back to the fall of 1944. In a series of strikes on Sumatran oil fields in December and January, 1844 and 1839 Squadrons off the Indomitable had accounted for some 15 aerial victories with few losses. Then came the Okinawa Campaign where 1844 ran up the largest one-day score for British F6Fs by downing four Oscars, a Tony, and a Zeke over Formosa on 12 April. It was a mighty small bag by U.S. Navy standards, but proof the British could put the Hellcat to good use.

The Royal Navy put its F6Fs to a different use the night of 25 July. When a small Japanese formation was detected heading for the British task group, two of 1844’s Hellcats were scrambled from the Formidable under a full moon. These were conventional Hellcat II’s (F6F-5s) without radar, but their pilots had been trained in night flying and were vectored by the ship’s FDO to an intercept position.

Lieutenant W. H. Atkinson, a Canadian, led the element and made contact. He identified the bandits as big, single-engine Grace torpedo planes and took his New Zealand wingman, Sub-Lieutenant R. F. Mackie, into the attack. Atkinson latched on to a pair of Graces and shot them both into the water while Mackie dumped a third. Then, in routing the other bandits, a fourth Grace was damaged and the attack was completely broken up.

It was ironic that the British, who led the Allies in night flying experience, should find themselves without their own carrier-based single-seat night fighters. Two Hellcat NF-II squadrons, 891 and 892, were forming with F6F-5Ns but would not become operational in time to fly combat.

These three victories raised the Hellcat’s tally to 47½ under British colors in the Pacific. Not surprisingly, 1844 Squadron remained the most successful F6F unit in the Fleet Air Arm with 31½ of the Royal Navy total. It also produced the individual top scorer, Sub-Lieutenant E. T. Wilson, who claimed 4.83 victories flying from the Indomitable in the Sumatran and Okinawan operations.

The Grumman F6F Hellcat was an American designed carrier borne fighter. Its design began as a development of the F4F Wildcat  powered by the R-2600 engine, but soon evolved into a much larger and more capable aircraft, with the R-2800 engine. The Hellcat was designed and put into service in a very short period in order to counteract the A6M ‘Zero’ from the second half of 1943 onwards, and soon became the main shipboard fighter of the US Navy for the last two years of the Pacific War. The Hellcat was the most sucessful allied fighter in WWII with over 5,000 aerial victories, and credited with 76% of all aircraft destroyed by USN carrier fighters.

On 30 June, 1941 the US Navy ordered the prototypes XF6F-1 and XF6F-2,  rugged aircraft that lacked aesthetic appeal.  In order to keep the take-off and landing speeds at a reasonable level, Grumman made the wings proportionally larger than most aircraft (including the Thunderbolt) to reduce wing loading. In fact, the Hellcat had the largest wing area of any single engine fighter of WWII at 334 square feet (102 square meters). They were to have the Pratt-Whitney Double Wasp 2600-10 with a two-stage supercharger installed delivering 1,700 hp (1,269 kW) for take-off. Immediately after the first flight of the XF6F1 on 26, June, 1942, the craft was redesignated the “XF6F-3”.

In 1942, the design of the prototype  was adapted to take into account the analysis of the first ever captured and undamaged Japanese Zero, found by a  US Navy PBY Catalina making a routine patrol over Akutan Island in the Pacific. The Zero was dismantled and shipped directly to the Grumman Aircraft factory in California where it was reassembled and flown. The information from the test flight of the Zero aided in the final design development of the Hellcat.  It was found the XF6F-1 was marginally slower than the Zero, thus the change from the Pratt-Whitney Double Wasp R-2600 to the R-2800. This engine boosted the Hellcat’s top speed to 375 mph, 29 mph faster than the Zero. No other unfavourable differences between the two planes could be found and the Hellcat was deemed ready for production. The finalized version of the XF6F-3 was almost identical to the production F6F-3 and Grumman shifted the assembly line into high gear.

Hellcat production started in 1943 and a quick and effective distribution was subsequently organised. Well over 2,500 Hellcat were delivered during the first year, making it possible to re-equip Hellcat squadrons rapidly with this more potent fighter, and it remained in frontline service with the FAA and US Navy for the remainder of World War II.

The Hellcat was used extensively as a search aircraft and fighter-bomber,  playing a major and increasing part in strikes on Japanese warships and mercantile shipping in 1944 and 1945.  In this role, and for ground attack,  it could carry up to 2,000 lb of bombs, or be armed with six 5-inch rockets on underwing pylons.

By the time Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat production ended in mid-1944, a total of 4,423 Hellcats had been built. Their numbers included 18 F6F-3E night fighters with APS-4 radar mounted in a pod beneath the starboard wing, and 205 generally similar F6F-3N night fighters with APS-6 radar. Postwar some were converted into unmanned flying bombs, used in Korea.

Versions

 Hellcat I          FAA equivalent F6F-3, 252 lendlease, initial production model

 Hellcat II         NF.II, FAA equivalent of F6F-5, 5n. 930 lendlease, redesigned cowling, provision for rockets or bombs, also nightfighter version (N)

The Royal Navy received 252 F6F-3s as Hellcat I under Lend-Lease. Production continued until November 1945 by which time 7870 F6F-5s had been built, of which some 930 had been supplied to the Royal Navy as Hellcat II and 1434 of the total had been completed as F6F-5N night-fighters. Ultimately, the Hellcat equiped 14 FAA front-line squadrons.

The first Hellcat Mark Is started to be delivered to the Fleet Air Arm on 13 March 1943,  FN321 and FN323 arriving three months later, in June 1943 to the A and C Flights of A&AEE, Boscombe Down for service trials by RN pilots, and in July 1943 FN330 was tested by 778 squadron at Crail.

Very soon afterwards the Hellcat was distributed to operational squadrons, 800 squadron receiving its first Hellcat in batches in July, August and October 1943 (eg FN337, FN334, FN332, FN334, FN332), and 1839 squadron from December 1943 (FN328). Not long after this, on 31 August, 1943 the first combat sorties were being flown by the USN VF9 and VF-5 squadrons aboard USS Yorktown against Japanese targets on Marcus Island (Minami-tori Island) some 700 miles southeast of Japan.

The first batch and second batches of 188 F6F-5 Hellcat Mark IIs started to be delivered to the Royal Navy from May 1944, primarily to 1840 squadron. By this time many Hellcats were being shipped to overseas FAA squadrons directly from Norfolk, Virginia, USA to HMS Thane 14 August 1944 and on to RNARY Wingfield, thence to 804 squadron in September 1944.

The subsequent batch of 295 Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat Mk F.II was also shipped directly to RNARY Wingfield (eg JX670 to JX720) in HMS Ranee in September 1944,  and on to RNARY Coimbatore. Many of these Hellcat were still in service in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after the end of the war and into1946. However, quite a number were surplus to requirement after VJ-Day and dumped in the sea off Australia by HMS Colossus in 1945 (eg JX821).

The final 293 Hellcat II to be delivered to the Fleet Air Arm arrived between January and May 1945, the very last aircraft, KE265 being delivered on 11 May 1945.

The Hellcat served post war and some of the earlier batches managed to remain in RN service, for example JV247 in 709 squadron. After this aircraft was paid off it went to Fairey Aviation at Hayes in 1946. Whilst Grumman F.II KE209 remained as the personal aircraft of the Lossiemouth Station Flight Commanding Officer Caspar John until 1952, and the Aircraft Holding Unit in 1954 (this aircraft is extant in the Fleet Air arm Museum).

Stanley Orr

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