Fire-breathing Rockbeaus I

Air Commodore E W “Bill” Tacon

Tacon’s most outstanding wartime successes took place in 1944, after he converted to Beaufighters, joined 236 Squadron, and rapidly began to demonstrate dead-eyed accuracy with his front guns and rockets. On June 23 he attacked four R-boats entering Boulogne harbour; although his aircraft was badly hit and his navigator killed, R 79 was sunk, earning Tacon a Bar to the DFC he had won in 1940.

Tacon, who was based at Davidstow Moor, was soon involved in helping the Navy destroy the remaining Kriegsmarine vessels off western France. In the first of these attacks, at Les Sables d’Olonne, nine Beaufighters sank a German Jupiter escort ship with armour-piercing rockets weighing just 25lbs, using a procedure devised by Tacon and the armaments officer at North Coates.

They had calculated that, in a 25-degree dive from 1,500 feet at 230 knots, the pilot should always score hits if he closed to a distance of about 800 yards. While not popular with all aircrews – for it involved flying steadily at the target whilst ignoring the return fire – the method worked. The Jupiter vanished under a hail of cannon fire, with no loss to the attackers.

The second attack was equally successful. On August 8, 15 Beaufighters of 404 Squadron and nine of 236 Squadron, led by Tacon, set off on another armed sweep, working with the naval squadron Force 26. In the shallow Bay of Bourgneuf, they found four M-class minesweepers. Flak rose to meet them and one Beaufighter exploded but, as the remaining Beaufighters left, all four vessels were ablaze.

By now the strike wings’ attacks, combined with those of Bomber Command and the Navy, had all but destroyed the remains of Marinegruppekommando West. The surviving U-boats had departed for Norway and the Germans were scuttling many of their damaged surface vessels. Two important warships remained afloat, however: the destroyer Z 24 and the torpedo boat T 24, which had survived the thwarted attack on the western flank of the Allied invasion forces.

Still well-armed, the two ships were thought to be at Le Verdon on the southern tip of the mouth of the Gironde estuary. On August 15, the naval Force 27 had damaged T 24 near La Pallice, but the German warships were in the shelter of coastal batteries, so an air attack was needed.

This was the last big strike required of the Davidstow Moor wing. Tacon was to lead 10 Beaufighters from 236 and 10 from 404, all armed with cannon and 25lb rockets. Taking off at 4.15pm, they were scheduled to attack near the limit of their range, with the prospect of returning in darkness.

Two Beaufighters of 404 Squadron turned back en route with mechanical trouble, but the remaining 18 aircraft made their landfall and turned north to the Gironde estuary. Spotting the two warships in the harbour of Le Verdon, Tacon called: “Keep down low, everyone. We’ll head to the estuary first and fly along it for our climb. Then straight out to sea after the attack.”

Tacon hoped to take the enemy by surprise, but the two vessels had steam up by the time the Beaufighters dived, and the flak was the most intense the crews had ever experienced. Nevertheless, every Beaufighter followed Tacon’s leadership in one of the most dangerous attacks made by a strike wing. Several 25lb warheads penetrated T 24 below the waterline, causing an uncontrollable rush of sea-water into the hull and the warship to sink almost immediately.

Z 24 received numerous hits above and below the waterline. Her starboard engine was disabled but she remained afloat, and there was time to tow her the short distance to a quay at Le Verdon, where she was made fast alongside the harbour railway station. Frantic efforts to patch the underwater holes were to no avail; five minutes before midnight she capsized and sank.

Although none of the Beaufighters was shot down, 15 were damaged. They were a long way from home, with darkness ahead. Tacon’s “Call in, anyone in trouble” elicited several responses. After instructing one of the crippled aircraft to ditch near the naval force (the crew was picked up after 10 hours) Tacon led five Beaufighters to Vannes aerodrome, planning to leave three of the damaged aircraft, before returning to England in the remaining two.

One of the aircraft crash-landed, however, and there was no alternative but to leave the two crew there and hope that medical help would arrive before long. With Davidstow Moor closed due to fog, the 12 remaining Beaufighters were redirected to alternative landing strips in the South-West. Their fuel was almost exhausted, and one landed just as its engines cut out. Tacon eventually landed at Portreath, six hours after take-off. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

The destruction of the two German warships caused much excitement in the Admiralty. Some naval officers were incredulous; others were alarmed that such powerful destroyers could be defeated by the tiny 25lb warheads. Tacon took command of 236 Squadron the day after attack on the Gironde, and the detachment returned to North Coates. He continued to fly with the same determination until September 12 1944, when he led 40 Beaufighters from North Coates and Langham against a convoy assembling in Den Helder harbour.

Diving down against a hail of fire from the ships and the harbour, his Beaufighter was badly hit in the wing and fuel tank. Tacon fired his rockets for the last time, before his aircraft was hit in the fuselage. Ammunition in the cannon boxes caught fire and exploded. His navigator cried out and Tacon turned round to see him lying dead on the floor. He began to climb, tugging on the lanyard of his bottom escape hatch, but this remained closed.

As flames licked around him, burning his face and helmet, he almost gave up hope. When his Beaufighter was hit for the third time, Tacon could see the gun post firing at him and decided to take the gunners with him. He rolled the Beaufighter on its back and dived straight at the post. His last recollection was of the airspeed indicator showing 360 knots. Then there was a violent explosion and he floated through the air, pulling his ripcord just in time.

He landed on the island of Texel, so badly burned around the eyes that he could hardly see. He was soon taken prisoner by German soldiers, who bundled him roughly aboard a boat which took him to Den Helder. On arrival, he was surrounded by a group of sailors and kicked violently before being marched him off to the local jail.

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In June 1943 a new weapon of unparalleled virulence for its size was introduced into the anti-shipping war. This was the rocket projectile. Previously, the firing of heavy calibre guns from aircraft had been limited by the capacity of the structure of the aircraft to withstand the recoil; but this problem disappeared with the rocket projectile, because the recoil was taken up by the high velocity gases ejected by the rocket itself. These gases blew beneath the wing surfaces, where they did not affect the aircraft so long as no part of its structure lay in their path. During the firing of its 20-millimetre cannon the Beaufighter shuddered violently; but it flew steadily on its course during the firing of the R. P., which was released at a low velocity but gained speed after release through the recoil action of its gases.

The Beaufighters’ 20-millimetre cannon, when pressed well home by three aircraft against an escort vessel, was devastating in its effect on gun crews, amongst whom it caused terrible casualties. But a well-aimed R. P. salvo could do more than kill the escort’s gun crew and quell the flak; it could completely destroy the escort vessel. The tactical sequence therefore became the cannon attack on the escort, the R. P. attack, and finally the torpedo attack on the main target.

Various improvements had been made to the torpedo over the years, so that it could be dropped at a slightly increased speed and from a greater height; but its destructive power was little altered, and fundamentally it was the same weapon that Beauman and Francis had dropped in the first Beaufort torpedo attack of the war in September 1940. The torpedo had stood almost still while the bomb had multiplied its weight and destructive power many times over; yet, because of its power to strike below water, it remained the most lethal anti-shipping weapon.

For smaller ships not warranting the use of a torpedo, however, rocket projectiles, preceded by cannon attack, began to be used alone. The writing was on the wall for the aerial torpedo.

Along both the Dutch and Norwegian coasts there were many stretches of shallow water, and since enemy shipping usually sailed close inshore, and stretches of open deep water were few, torpedo attacks had always been to some extent restricted. This was especially true of the Norwegian coast north of Stavanger, where coastal shipping made its tortuous way through the Leads. The rocket projectile, however, was not baulked by these conditions. It was not affected by depth of water, or by a rough sea, which sometimes spoiled the run of a torpedo; and being launched in a dive, from a greater height, it gave the aircraft more freedom of manouvre.

Before the end of 1944, many daring R. P. attacks had been carried out in the extremely confined spaces of the Norwegian fjords, where mountains on either side were precipitous and there was barely room for an aircraft to dive down at the target, pull out, and climb away. In the open sea, however, the torpedo still remained supreme, and the combined endeavours of all other aircraft of the strike wings were employed so that the Torbeaus could get a clear run and drop from close range at the main target. The elements of success then were exactly the same as they had been at Malta under Gibbs; good prior reconnaissance, careful briefing, inspired leadership, the saturation of defences, and a close range of drop.

The enemy’s respect for the strike wings grew, so that even the employment of a whole wing, plus a large fighter escort, was insufficient to quieten the flak defences of some of the convoys. Under these circumstances, losses could quickly have become prohibitive again. But if there was one thing better than a strike wing, it was two strike wings. On 15th June 1944, nine days after D-Day, two wings were employed together, as a single strike force, for the first time.

Some days earlier, a report had filtered through from the Dutch underground that a large convoy was preparing to leave Rotterdam for the Baltic, consisting of two new vessels which had just been completed and would be on their maiden voyage, the 8000-ton merchant vessel Amerskerke and a 4000-ton naval auxiliary, escorted by no less than eighteen smaller vessels. The disruption and chaos wrought amongst German rail and road communications prior to D-Day had forced the Germans to rely more than ever on their sea routes, so that the destruction of these two new vessels, almost as soon as they were launched, would represent an important contribution to the breaking down of the enemy’s power to resist and to the shortening of the war.

The advance information given by the Dutch resistance gave us the chance to plan a large-scale operation, the biggest of its kind so far. A new wing had been formed at Langham in Norfolk to deal with enemy shipping that might attempt to interfere with our invasion convoys, and it was decided to send two squadrons of this wing together with two of the North Coates wing, the whole to be escorted by ten Mustangs of Fighter Command.

Of the four squadrons, three were to dive on the convoy and smother the defences with cannon and rockets, and the fourth was to come in at low level and aim torpedoes at the two new ships.

The two squadrons of the Langham wing, 455 (Australian) and 489 [New Zealand), had done most of their earlier operations off the Norwegian coast, too far from base to allow escort by single-seater fighters. They operated in the same way as Gibbs and his formations had operated at Malta-the whole formation flew out low on the deck, and when the target was sighted, the anti-flak aircraft went on ahead, climbed to 2000 feet, and then dived down on the convoy. The North Coates wing, however, operating mostly off the Dutch coast, could generally rely on the luxury of a strong single-seater fighter escort, and they were not so worried about fighter interception. They therefore approached their targets at the height required for the actual attack-the anti-flak and R. P. aircraft at 2000 feet, the torpedo aircraft on the deck. The fusion of the two wings thus threatened a collision over tactics. Fortunately, thanks to the warning given by the Dutch, there was plenty of time to thrash out the squadrons’ differences and arrive at a conclusion. The two North Coates squadrons, 236 (anti-flak and R. P.) and 254 (Torbeaus), flew down to Langham on 14th June, and the arguments began.