Fairey Swordfish Mk III NF374 of No. 119 Squadron RAF
In 1943, No. 415 Squadron RCAF was equipped with Albacores (presumably ex-FAA) before the Flight operating them was transferred and reformed as 119 Squadron at RAF Manston in July 1944. The squadron deployed later to Belgium and their Albacores were disposed of in early 1945, due to spares shortages, in favour of the inferior but ASV radar-equipped Swordfish Mk.IIIs that the squadron kept until the end of the war on 8 May. This was to combat German mini-submarines attacking Allied shipping entering the River Scheldt on its way to Antwerp Port.
On 19 July 1944 however, 119 Squadron was reformed by redesignation of a flight of No. 415 Squadron RCAF at RAF Manston, equipped with Albacore Mk.Is, taking over the aircraft as well as the squadron code, ‘NH’ (till this moment the aircraft of no. 119 sqn had only carried single-letter individual aircraft codes). They deployed to RAF Swingfield and (very briefly) RAF Beccles before being based at RAF Bircham Newton in September, flying anti-shipping patrols and hunting for German E-boats and R-boats. In October 1944 detachments of the squadron were sent to B.65/Maldeghem, B.63/St. Croix and B.83/Knocke-Le Zoute in Belgium and added German midget-submarines to its prey. In January 1945 they re-equipped with the ASV-equipped Swordfish Mk.III which aided in the hunt on midget-submarines, destroying three before their final mission was flown on 8 May 1945. The squadron disbanded at Bircham Newton on 25 May 1945.
Fairey Swordfish III NF374 ‘NH-M’ of 119 Squadron, RAF, Bircham Newton in January to June 1945.
Towards the end of 1944 the enemy began using midget submarines to disrupt Allied shipping in the northern Channel and the Scheldt estuary. These one or two-man boats generally carried two torpedoes strapped to their side, but had limited range and were somewhat unstable in rough water. Nonetheless, they had the potential to become a serious threat.
The Molch class were single-man boats of eight tonnes with a range of just 40 miles and no ability to recharge batteries at sea. They proved difficult to control and suffered heavy losses during combat operations. The six-and-a-half-tonne Biber-class boats were also single-manned and, once again, design flaws and hasty crew training resulted in heavy losses. The third and largest type of midget submarine was the Seehund class, also known as the Type XXVII, which had a displacement of 17 tonnes. Carrying a crew of two and with two torpedoes, they had a range of more than 200 miles on the surface or 63 submerged, and could dive to a depth of 160ft. The Kriegsmarine commissioned 137 of them and, with their light weight, they proved relatively immune to depth charge attack. To interdict Allied naval operations around the Dutch and Belgian coasts, having been evacuated from France, K-Flotille 261 – under Korvettenkapitän Hans Bartels, a 35-year-old Knight’s Cross holder – had set up forward bases at Poortershaven and Hellevoetsluis on the Maas estuary, though its main base was at Rotterdam.
As the deployment became known to Allied intelligence, hunting these dangerous small targets became the squadron’s main task, as Norman Williamson, Squadron CO, described. “Around this time the German Navy started to use small one-man and two-man submarines – Bibers – and also explosive motorboats to attack Allied shipping using the newly captured port of Antwerp. To offset this new threat we found ourselves hunting these targets by day around the Dutch islands of Schouen, Walcheren and so on, as well as carrying out the usual night divebombing operations. The daytime attacks against such targets were made at low level using depth charges.”
Eighteen Bibers left Poortershaven and Hellevoetsluis on the evening of 22 December, 1944 but the operation was a failure. By year’s end 31 of them had been lost against the sinking of a single merchant ship. It was not until 23 January 1945 that one of 119’s Albacores made the first aerial sighting of a mini-submarine, but in spite of an attack with six depth charges the vessel survived.
This was the last attack that the Albacore made on the enemy. With an increasing paucity of spares it was decided to re-equip the squadron with the type’s lineal predecessor, the Fairey Swordfish! This would give commonality with 819 Squadron, which was also at Knokke, though it was withdrawn to Bircham Newton in late February. Although ordered to convert to a new aircraft, Williamson was instructed to maintain his operational capability. This was achieved by sending several crews at a time back to Bircham Newton. There the Station Flight held a number of Swordfish IIIs for the training task, later formally established as 119’s Training Flight.
WO Gilbert Mills remembered the change. “The Swordfish, with its ghastly flywheel starter, fixed-pitch prop and lack of flaps – the angle of all four ailerons were altered instead – was far more elementary than the Albacore. Admittedly, we were given the MkIII version, equipped with a Pegasus XXX engine, but its extra power was more than offset by a large, ungainly bump under the nose housing the new `hush-hush’ MkIX ASV. This proved to be an excellent airborne low-level radar set, but its shape was not calculated to enhance the aerodynamics of the aircraft! We navigators had to get used to the ASV radar, which was excellent for the job of searching for small targets close in-shore. It was rather like AI and we could detect small targets if they were around at about 12 miles’ range, though it had a theoretical range of about 25 miles against ships. In good conditions it could also detect a RAF SWORDFISH U-boat snorkel, but only in very calm seas and at distances out to about five miles. The navigation techniques remained the same, however, though the Swordfish was considerably slower – and much windier! Thus, we had to keep a close hold on charts, navigation equipment and the like.
“Perhaps the most depressing thing about the `Stringbag’ from the crew’s point of view was its open cockpits instead of the comfortable enclosed cockpits of the Albacore. Believe me, sitting cramped for about three hours at 3,000ft over the North Sea in the small hours of a January night can be cold and miserable beyond imagination. My normal attire was aircrew `long john’ woollen underwear, shirt, thick woollen aircrew sweater, woollen scarf, battledress trousers and blouse, Irvin jacket, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of socks and fleece lined flying boots. As it was, one became so stiff with the cold that one had to be assisted by the groundcrew to climb out of the cockpit after landing.”
Williamson also remembered the training period. “The pilots had to practise a new technique for night dive-bombing, as the cockpit was behind the mainplanes as opposed to in front in the Albacore. The new technique was to track the aircraft so that the target appeared to move down the port side between two guidelines on the lower port mainplane. Once the target emerged from beneath the trailing edge between its marker lines, the pilot simply heaved the nose up and kicked in left rudder. The ensuing stall turn through 90° and the dropping of the nose brought the target – with luck! – on to the nose of the aircraft in the required angle of dive.”
Although antiquated in appearance, the ASV MkIX equipped Swordfish III was in many ways ideal for the squadron’s difficult night task. Painted black overall they became known on the squadron as `Blackfish’, and by the end of January 119 had fully converted. Action for 119’s `Blackfish’ came in early March as the Kriegsmarine continued to despatch its mini-submarines on operations. Few returned, however. For example, on 6 March 11 examples sailed but none made it home. During the night of the 9th Swordfish NF307/NH-G was lost, believed to have been shot down with the loss of Flt Lt Sutton and Fg Off Radford. Frank Sutton’s loss particularly affected the CO, who recalled wistfully: “Though tour-expired, many crews simply carried on, provided they were considered by the MO [medical orderly] and myself as fit to do so. Few left, most wishing to carry on with the last of the `Stringbags’ to the bitter end. One loss, however, grieved me greatly. My senior flight commander at this time was a man named Frank Sutton who, as a sergeant pilot, had flown one of the earliest Swordfish to enter squadron service in early 1935. I always promised him that, God willing, he would fly the last one when the war ended. Sadly, he was shot down in March 1945, some six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.”
This was the squadron’s only Swordfish to be lost on operations. Searches were flown through the night looking for the missing crew without success. These continued into the following day, resulting in what was undoubtedly the squadron’s most bizarre success.
A tractor pulls a Swordfish out of the hangar. With its engines running in the background is 119’s Anson I EG257, which sank a mini-submarine by `buzzing’.
To ferry crews and spares between Knokke and Bircham, 119 had an Avro Anson I, which was always flown unarmed. On the 11th it was being flown by Flt Lt Campbell, searching for Sutton and Radford. As the unit record states, “Having a keen eye, he spotted something suspicious in the sea 10 miles west of Schouwen, and on flying down to investigate identified the conning tower of a Biber. No RT, no WT, but remembering his early training he switched on his IFF to Stud 3 trusting that it would be picked up and understood, but it wasn’t. As the Anson was unarmed there was no possibility of attacking the midget, but a spot of `beating-up’ was attempted without, however, shaking the Jerry sufficiently to make him do anything silly.
“After several attacks it was eventually given up as a bad job, and the aircraft was just making for home when, lo and behold, another little Biber made its appearance about a mile away. Campbell tried out the same tactics, and this time success greeted his efforts for the `U-boat commander’ (as the subsequent newspaper story dubbed him) evidently didn’t like the feel of an aircraft roaring over him at 20ft, and on the third dive the pilot and observer glimpsed one large rump disappearing over the side of the U-boat. On the final return a figure was seen trying to struggle into a dinghy, the midget turning turtle and slowly disappearing beneath the waves.”
Based on Campbell’s report a Swordfish (coded NH-H) flown by Fg Offs Corbel and O’Donnell took off immediately, followed soon afterwards by NF377/NH-R in the hands of the CO and his navigator Fg Off Gardiner, to search for the mini-sub that was still at large. At 18.25hrs, just off the coast north of the island of Schouwen, Corbel and O’Donnell sighted the cupola of a Biber just surfacing, and as they circled it broke cover fully. Diving to attack, Corbel’s first depth charge exploded about 30 yards ahead of the vessel. It continued on course, though it turned sharply to port when a second depth charge landed off its starboard bow. A third was dropped, and the fourth exploded very close as its plume completely enveloped the Biber, which disappeared. Soon an oil slick was spotted. Corble dropped a flame float and the CO’s aircraft was homed in. Williamson dropped his four bombs in two attacks on the oil patch, “to make sure”. 119’s vintage biplanes had at last encountered their elusive foe. The daily report concluded: “Needless to say there was a great deal of tailwagging in the mess that night.”
Some Belgian civilians help the groundcrew lift a cradle holding a 250lb bomb before loading. On the left under the wing can be seen light series bomb carriers used to carry flame floats and flares.
These boats must have been among the 15 Biber and 14 Molch-class vessels that had sailed, most of which were lost. At 16.40hrs on the 12th, Swordfish NH-L attacked and sank a Biber just off The Hague, probably after it had left the entrance to the port of Rotterdam. An hour later the crew of NH-R found and sank another Biber off Schouwen. A further claim came the next night, possibly one of the three Seehund vessels lost to aircraft in March.
Patrols continued fairly uneventfully until the end of the war. Norman Williamson recalled: “I flew the last operational sortie of a Swordfish myself on 8 May 1945. The surrender of the German forces was due to come into effect at midnight, but the previous week we had been warned that a number of attacks on Allied shipping might be expected from German Navy fanatics in their midget submarines. I landed back at Knokke at 21.40hrs that evening, having made an attack on a Biber [.] 40 minutes earlier. As I came over the coast from the last Swordfish operational sortie of the war the celebration bonfire was already alight in the square in front of the Memlinc Hotel.”
Williamson’s attack was the final air attack of any kind during the war in Europe, thus enabling 119 and its vintage `Blackfish’ to claim a unique niche in RAF history. Patrols looking for possible rogue units were continued until the 11th. The squadron was ordered back to Bircham Newton on 22 May, Williamson recounting: “We left Knokke-leZoute in style, the entire squadron in formation, and maintained this over our old group headquarters – No 16 Group at Chatham – on our way to Bircham.”
No 119 Squadron was disbanded three days later and the Swordfish ended its career with the `light blues’ of the RAF. It is appropriate that the last words should be from its final commanding officer. “When the squadron was disbanded I myself took the ops records and so forth to the Air Historical Branch. I also took the original of the squadron crest signed by King George VI and J. D. Heaton-Armstrong, the Garter King of Arms. Very few people know that 119 had a crest. It consists of a sword crossing an anchor, both covered half-black and half-white signifying day and night operational roles, and the motto of course is `By Night, By Day’ in English. It was designed for me by one of the ops room squadron leaders on No 157 Wing when we were at Manston, the Hon – later Sir – George Bellow, who prior to the war was Chester Herald at the College of Arms. What better bloke to design a crest for you?”
Adverse weather forced a suspension of K-Verbände operations until 6 March 1945 when Seehunds and Bibers were once more cleared for action. For the Bibers it was also another day marked by disaster as they gathered ready to put to sea. In the crowded harbour basin at Hellevoetsluis, ten minutes before the Bibers were due to commence departure, a pilot accidentally released his torpedoes sinking fourteen Bibers in the resultant explosion and damaging another nine. Only eleven Bibers were left in a seaworthy state following this fresh accident, but they all sailed for the Scheldt that evening. None of them returned. One was captured by a British motor launch off Breskens on 7 March, another sunk by coastal artillery fire off Westkappelle the following day, four found abandoned ashore on the coastline at North Beveland, Knocke, Domberg and Zeebrugge. The remaining five vanished without trace. Undeterred, the assault against Scheldt shipping continued with six Linsens leaving Hellevoetsluis on the night of 10 March to attack the Veere anchorage on the northern Walcheren coast. Sighted by shore batteries they were driven away by heavy fire, leaving two boats grounded behind them.
The following night a combined massed operation was launched by using fifteen Bibers armed with torpedoes and mines, fourteen Molchs and twenty-seven Linsens, all targeting shipping in the West Scheldt. The results were predictably disastrous; thirteen Bibers, nine Molchs and sixteen Linsens lost for no result. Of the Biber casualties, the RAF’s 119 Squadron off Schouwen sank two on 11 March.
During the afternoon F/LT Campbell took up the Anson on an air test cum /ASR flight (searching for an aircraft lost on 9 March) … Having a keen eye, he spotted something suspicious in the sea 10 miles east of Schouwen and on flying down to investigate identified the conning tower of a Biber. No R/T, no W/T, but remembering his early training, he switched his I.F.F. to Stud 3 trusting it would be picked up and understood but it wasn’t. As the Anson was unarmed there was no possibility of attacking the midget, but a spot of ‘beating up’ was attempted without, however, shaking the Jerry sufficiently to make him do anything silly. After several attacks it was eventually given up as a bad job, and the aircraft was just making for home when lo and behold! Another little Biber made its appearance about a mile away. Campbell tried out the same tactics, and this time success greeted his efforts for the ‘U-Boat Commander’ (as the subsequent newspaper story dubbed him) evidently didn’t like the feel of an aircraft roaring over him at twenty feet, and on the third dive pilot and observer glimpsed one large rump disappearing over the side of the U-boat. On the final return a figure was seen trying to struggle into a dinghy, the midget turning turtle and slowly disappearing beneath the waves. ‘Killer’ Campbell returned to make his report and Swordfish ‘H’ … immediately took off followed in a few minutes by ‘R’… to search for the U-boat that was still at large.
At 18.25hrs at position 51°48’N 03°31’E, Flying Officers Corbie and O’Donnell aboard Swordfish ‘F’ sighted the Biber’s cupola as it surfaced, and attacked with four depth-charge runs. The last exploded almost directly beneath the Biber which was enveloped in spray and disappearing, leaving just a thick oil slick on the disturbed surface of the sea. The second Swordfish then arrived and dropped four more depth charges on the oil streak to ensure the Biber’s destruction.
The following day Swordfish ‘E’ of 119 Squadron encountered Linsens for the first time, sighting three and diving to release depth charges and strafe the Linsens below, disabling one which was seen to be ‘lower in the water after the shoot up’ and later still found floating abandoned on the swell. Further Swordfish encountered more Linsens, attacking and then calling for support from two Tempest fighter-bombers of 33 Squadron who destroyed the sighted Linsens with strafing, a single survivor seen floating in the wreckage.
The run of success enjoyed by 119 Squadron continued that day as two more Swordfish encountered Bibers, both subjected to depth charge and machine gun attacks rewarded by both Bibers sinking and in once case a small yellow life raft observed amongst the oil slicks, the other leaving only wreckage and oil behind. The jubilation felt by the Swordfish crews was reflected in their Squadron Log Book: ‘Four Bibers in two days! Whizzo!’ Two days later Swordfish ‘D’, engaged on a similar anti-Biber patrol, arrived on the scene of a single Linsen being circled by a Warwick and Beaufighter. Soon a Walrus flying boat of 276 Squadron arrived and landed beside the solitary German to pluck him from his disabled boat.
While the Seehunds had helped carry the war back into British home waters, the Bibers and Linsens had continued their desperate onslaught in the Scheldt, sixty Molchs being held in reserve in Amersfoort. In the early afternoon of 9 April, 1945 five Bibers armed with a mine and torpedo each had sailed for the Scheldt estuary. Two were forced to return within two days with mechanical defects, one striking a mine and sinking en route, while the remaining three were lost without apparent success, Beaufighter pilots of 236 Squadron and Swordfish of 119 Squadron reported attacking and hitting Bibers within the area.
For the Biber pilots the emphasis moved completely to mine laying and on 11 April two Bibers sailed from Zierikzee to lay their mines before Sandkreek. One accomplished its mission successfully while the other was lost. Swordfish of 119 Squadron probably accounted for the missing Biber, their logbook entry echoing what had become regular reports for Allied airmen as they harvested a grim tally of Biber kills.
April 12: Swordfish ‘F’ … Scrambled to search for Bibers reported approximately 40 miles north of base. At 15.10hrs two were sighted in position 0051°54’N 0003°17’E, one stationary on surface, the other just surfacing about 50 yards away. The first Biber apparently attempted to submerge but the conning tower was still visible when ‘F’ attacked with four depth charges. The stick fell between the two, the first one being blown out of the water and left stationary on the surface. The second was not seen again.