Circus over France

Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation to Lille, 5 July 1941. The use of heavy bombers instead of the more usual Bristol Blenheims was a further attempt to encourage Luftwaffe fighters into the air.

The Mk Vb was the principal Spitfire variant in service during 1941 and 1942. This particular aircraft (serial R6923) was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Dover on 21 June 1941.

The Battle of Britain was over. Operation Sealion, Hitler’s projected invasion of England, had been postponed indefinitely. The Luftwaffe’s bombers now came at night, striking at Britain’s cities in the cold, interminable darkness of the war’s second winter.

It was time for Fighter Command to turn from defence to offence. On 20 December 1940, two Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron, flown by Flight Lieutenant G. P. Christie and Pilot Officer C. A. W. Brodie, took off from Biggin Hill and set course across the Channel under a low cloud base. Crossing the enemy coast at Dieppe, they swept down on Le Touquet airfield and shot up several installations. There was no opposition from either flak or fighters and both Spitfires returned safely to base.

During the next few days, Spitfires and Hurricanes from other squadrons, operating in twos and threes, made short dashes into enemy territory. Their pilots reported that the Luftwaffe was absent from the sky. Encouraged, Fighter Command decided to try something bigger. On 9 January 1941, in brilliant sunshine and perfect visibility, five fighter squadrons penetrated thirty miles into France. There was no sign of movement on the snow-covered airfields they flew over; not a single Messerschmitt took to the air to intercept them.

The following day, the RAF decided to stir up a hornet’s nest. That morning, six Blenheims of No. 114 Squadron, escorted by six squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires, attacked ammunition and stores dumps in the Foret de Guines. This time, the Luftwaffe took the bait, but only to a limited extent. There was some skirmishing, in the course of which one Hurricane was shot down. Two battle-damaged Spitfires crash-landed on return to base, one of the pilots being killed. It was an inauspicious end to the RAF’S first combined daylight bombing raid and fighter sweep, known as ‘Circus No. 1’.

Nevertheless, offensive sweeps were carried out whenever the weather permitted during the early weeks of 1941, and Luftwaffe opposition gradually increased. It was clear that the Germans, following the policy adopted by the RAF before the Battle of Britain, were reluctant to commit their fighter defences in strength. There was also another reason; in January 1941, several first-line Luftwaffe fighter units on the Channel coast had begun to re-equip with an improved model of the Messerschmitt, the 109F-1, but early in February three 190Fs were lost when the complete tail assembly broke away, and the remainder had to be withdrawn for structural modifications.

By March 1941, fighter sweeps over the continent were becoming organized affairs, with the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons operating in wing strength. A Fighter Command Wing consisted of three squadrons, each of twelve aircraft. There were Spitfire wings at Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Tangmere, mixed Spitfire and Hurricane wings at Duxford, Middle Wallop and Wittering, and Hurricane wings at Kenley, Northolt and North Weald.

The Biggin Hill Wing, in the spring and summer of 1941, comprised Nos. 72, 92 and 609 Squadrons, all of which had achieved impressive records during the Battle of Britain. It was led by Wing Commander Adolf Gysbert Malan, a redoubtable South African with eighteen confirmed victories to his credit, a DSO and two DFCs. Known to all and sundry as ‘Sailor’ because of his pre-war service in the Merchant Navy, he was one of the RAF’S foremost air combat tacticians, and his famous ‘Ten Rules of Air Fighting’ were displayed on crew-room walls throughout Fighter Command. Their message was brutally simple.

  1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of 1 or 2 seconds and only when your sights are definitely ‘ON’.
  2. Whilst shooting think of nothing else; brace the whole of your body; have both hands on the stick; concentrate on your ring sight.
  3. Always keep a sharp lookout. Keep your fingers out!
  4. Height gives you the initiative.
  5. Always turn and face the attack.
  6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
  7. Never fly straight and level for more than thirty seconds in the combat area.
  8. When diving to attack leave a proportion of your formation above to act as top guard.
  9. Initiative, aggression, air discipline and TEAMWORK are the words that mean something in air fighting.
  10. Go in quickly — punch hard — Get out!

Sailor Malan was not a talkative man. His business was killing the enemy, and the basic skills of his trade were hammered home hard to those who found themselves under his wing. During the Battle of Britain, when he first rose to fame, the popular Press did its best to surround him with an aura of glamour. War reporters found him uncommunicative, and on the few occasions when he did open up his forthright manner often shocked them. Once, he was asked how he went about shooting down a German bomber. ‘I try not to, now,’ was his reply. ‘I think it’s a bad thing. If you shoot them down they don’t get back, and no one over there knows what’s happening. So I reckon the right thing to do is to let them get back. With a dead rear gunner; a dead navigator, and the pilot coughing up his lungs as he lands. If you do that, it has a better effect on their morale. Of course, if you just mean to shoot them down — well, what I generally do is knock out both engines.’

The pilots of Malan’s Biggin Hill Wing were proud to belong to what was generally recognized as an elite formation. One of them was Sergeant Jim Rosser of 72 Squadron, who flew his first sweeps in the spring of 1941 and whose experiences were typical of many young pilots.

‘We would cross the Channel in sections, line astern, climbing all the time. We always climbed into the sun, which was absolute hell; your eyes felt as though they were burning down into your head and within a few minutes you were saturated in sweat. It might have been just coincidence, but on every sweep I flew we always seemed to head for Lille, which we hated. It was our deepest penetration at that time, and there was flak all the way.

‘I will never forget my first operation. Seventy-two Squadron was flying top cover; I was “Yellow Two”, in other words the number two aircraft in Yellow Section, and quite honestly I hadn’t a clue what was going on. We flew a sort of semi-circle over France, still in sections line astern, and then came out again. I never saw a single enemy aircraft; but we must have been attacked, because when we got home three of our Spits were missing…’

No. 72 Squadron’s commanding officer was an Australian, Desmond Sheen, who had begun his operational career with the squadron before the war. In April 1940 he had been posted to No. 212 Squadron and during the next few months had flown photo-reconnaissance sorties all over Europe in specially modified Spitfires, returning to 72 Squadron just in time to take part in the Battle of Britain. He was to lead the squadron on sweeps over occupied Europe for eight months, from March to November 1941.

Sheen’s opposite number with No. 92 Squadron was Jamie Rankin, a Scot from Portobello, Edinburgh, who had originally joined the Fleet Air Arm but later transferred to the RAF. When he was appointed to command No. 92 in March 1941 it was the top-scoring unit in Fighter Command, and its score increased steadily under Rankin’s dynamic leadership. Rankin himself opened his score with No. 92 by destroying a Heinkel He 59 floatplane and damaging a Bf 109 on 11 April. This was followed by another confirmed 109 on the twenty-fourth, and in June — a month of hectic fighting over France — he shot down seven more 109s, together with one probable.

It was Jamie Rankin who provided Jim Rosser with the latter’s first Messerschmitt 109. Rosser was now commissioned, with the rank of pilot officer.

‘We didn’t always fly operationally with our own squadrons. On this occasion Jamie Rankin was leading the wing and I was flying as his number two, which was a considerable privilege. The Luftwaffe was up in strength and there was an almighty free-for-all, during which the wing got split up. I clung to Jamie’s tail like grim death, and as we were heading for the Channel he suddenly called up over the R/T and said: “There’s a Hun at two o’clock below — have a go!” I looked down ahead and to the right and there, sure enough, was a 109, flying along quite sedately a few thousand feet lower down. I dived after him, levelled out astern and opened fire. He began to smoke almost at once and fell away in a kind of sideslip. A moment later, flames streamed from him.’

A lot of young pilots got their first break that way, while flying with Rankin. And most of them felt the same as Jim Rosser: with Jamie guarding your tail, you didn’t have much to worry about except shooting down the Hun in your sights.

Leadership of this kind emerged in more than one way during that spring and summer of 1941. ‘Once,’ Jim Rosser remembers, ‘we were on our way back home after a sweep, heading for Mansion as usual to refuel, when the weather clamped down. I knew Manston well by this time, and I just managed to scrape in, together with four or five other pilots. Many of the others, however, were relatively new boys and they were in trouble. Then one of our 72 Squadron flight commanders, Ken Campbell, came up over the radio and told everybody to get into a circle and stay put above the murk. One by one he guided them down, wingtip to wingtip, until they were safely on the ground. When he eventually landed, I don’t think he had enough fuel left to taxi in. More than one pilot owed his life to Ken that day.’

By May 1941, fifty-six squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers were regularly taking part in offensive sweeps over occupied Europe. Of these, twenty-nine still flew Hurricanes, but the earlier Mk. Is had now been almost completely replaced by improved Mk. IIAs and IIBs. Before the end of the year, however, the Hurricanes were to assume the role of fighter-bomber, the actual sweeps being undertaken exclusively by Spitfires. In June, the Spitfire II began to give way to the Mk. V, which was to become the most numerous of all Spitfire variants. The majority were armed with two 20mm cannon and four machine guns, affording a greater chance of success against armour plating. The Mk. V was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 engine, developing 1,415 hp at 19,000 feet against the 1,150 hp of the Merlin XII fitted in the Mk. II. Nevertheless, the Spitfire V was essentially a compromise aircraft, rushed into service to meet an urgent Air Staff requirement for a fighter with a performance superior to the latest model of Messerschmitt. The service debut of the Spitfire V came just in time, for in May 1941 the Luftwaffe fighter units on the Channel coast had begun to receive the Messerschmitt 109F, its technical problems now resolved. On 11 May, a group of bomb-carrying 109Fs attacked Lympne and Hawkinge, and one of them was shot down by a Spitfire of No. 91 Squadron.

The Spitfire V, however, failed to provide the overall superiority Fighter Command needed so badly. At high altitude, where many air combats took place, it was found to be inferior to the Bf 109F on most counts, and several squadrons equipped with the Mk. V took a severe mauling during that summer.

Several notable RAF pilots flew their last sorties in a Spitfire V. One of them was the near-legendary Douglas Bader, who flew with artificial legs as a result of a pre-war flying accident. In 1941 Bader commanded the Tangmere Wing, which comprised Nos. 145, 610 and 616 Squadrons, all flying Spitfires, and by the end of July his personal score stood at twenty-two enemy aircraft destroyed. Bader had an aversion to cannon armament, believing that it encouraged pilots to open fire at too great a range, so his personal aircraft was a Spitfire VA with an armament of eight machine-guns. The Germans always knew when the Tangmere Wing was involved in a sweep, for Bader’s callsign — ‘Dogsbody’, taken from his initials — was easily identifiable.

Bader came from Duxford to take command of the Tangmere Wing, and with him, as station commander and fighter controller, came Group Captain Woodhall, considered by many to be the finest controller produced by the RAF during the war. Together, they made a formidable team. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, who flew with the Tangmere Wing in 1941 and who later became the official top-scoring pilot in the RAF, wrote of Woodhall:

Over the radio Woodhall’s deep resonant voice seemed to fill our earphones with confidence and assurance. When we were far out over France and he spoke into his microphone it was as if the man was in the air with you, not issuing orders but giving encouragement and advice and always watching the precious minutes, and the headwind which would delay our withdrawal, and the low cloud creeping up from the west which might cover Tangmere when we returned, tired and short of petrol. Then he was always on the ground to meet us after the big shows, to compare notes with Bader and the other leaders. Always he had time for a cheerful word with the novices. And whenever a spontaneous party sprang up in the mess, after a stiff fight or someone collecting a gong or for no valid reason whatsoever, Woodhall was always in the centre of the crowd, leading the jousting with his expensive accordion, which he played with surprising skill, his monocle still held firmly in place. We were a very happy family at Tangmere in that spring and summer of 1941.

Handling the large fighter formations which were being pushed across the Channel that summer called for a high degree of skill on the part of men like Woodhall, whose vital role is all too often ignored, or rather eclipsed, in headier stories of air combat. And by July 1941 Circus operations were very large affairs indeed, with as many as eighteen squadrons of fighters covering a small force of bombers. Getting six wings of Spitfires airborne, to the rendezvous at the right time and place, and shepherding them into and out of enemy territory, was something of a nightmare for everyone concerned, and it began on the ground. Three squadrons of Spitfires — thirty-six aircraft — might make an impressive sight as they taxied round the perimeter of an airfield, but with propellers flicking over dangerously close to wingtips it was all too easy to make a mistake. A late starter would add to the problem as its pilot edged around the outside of the queue, trying to catch up with the rest of his squadron.

Making rendezvous with the bombers — usually over Manston in Kent — was another critical factor. A Spitfire’s tanks held only eighty-five gallons of petrol, and every minute spent in waiting for the Blenheims to turn up reduced a pilot’s chances of getting home safely if he found himself in trouble over France. And over enemy territory the Luftwaffe always seemed to have the advantage. No matter how high the Spitfires climbed, the 109s usually managed to climb higher, ready to dive on the ‘tail-end Charlies’ of the fighter formations and pick them off. There was no dogfighting in the original sense of the word; the Messerschmitts fought on the climb and dive, avoiding turning combat with the more manoeuvrable Spitfires wherever possible, and life or death were measured in no more than seconds.

One of the biggest fighter sweeps of 1941 — code-named Circus 62 — was carried out on 7 August, when eighteen squadrons of Spitfires and two of Hurricanes accompanied six Blenheim bombers in an attack on a power station at Lille (always Lille!). The whole force made rendezvous over Manston, with the North Weald Wing, comprising the Hurricanes of No. 71 (American Eagle) Squadron and the Spitfires of Nos. Ill and 222 Squadrons providing close escort for the bombers. Behind and above, as immediate top cover, came the three Spitfire squadrons of the Kenley Wing: Nos. 452 (Australia), 485 (New Zealand), and 602. High above this ‘beehive’ of nearly eighty fighters and bombers came the target support wings, flying at 27,000 feet. There was the Biggin Hill Wing, with Nos. 72, 92 and 609 Squadrons; the Hornchurch Wing, with Nos. 403 (Canadian), 603 and 611 Squadrons; and Douglas Bader’s Tangmere Wing, with Nos. 41 (the latter having replaced No. 145), 610 and 616. The target support force’s task was to assure air superiority over and around Lille while the attack was in progress.

On this occasion, however, the Luftwaffe stubbornly refused to be drawn into battle in large numbers. Six weeks earlier, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union, and many fighter groups had been transferred from the Channel area to the eastern front. Those that remained, seriously outnumbered in the face of Fighter Command’s growing strength, had been ordered to conserve their resources. The 109s stayed well above the Spitfire formations, shadowing them. From time to time, small numbers of Messerschmitts broke away and darted down to fire on the odd straggler, always disengaging when the rest of the Spitfires turned on them. Nevertheless, the 109s succeeded in shooting down one of 41 Squadron’s commanders.

The bombers, meanwhile, had found Lille obscured by cloud, so had turned back towards the Channel to attack a concentration of barges at Gravelines. A fierce air battle was already in progress over the coast, where two Polish squadrons of the Northolt Wing — Nos. 306 and 308 — had been waiting to cover the Blenheims during the first phase of their withdrawal. No. 308 Squadron was suddenly ‘bounced’ by about eighteen Messerschmitts, and in the ensuing mêlée two Spitfires were shot down. The Blenheims made their escape unmolested, but the rear support wing, comprising Nos. 19, 257 and 401 Squadrons, was also attacked and lost two Spitfires and a Hurricane. The RAF had therefore lost six aircraft; a result which, set against a claim of three 109s destroyed, could hardly be considered favourable, considering the far smaller numbers of enemy aircraft involved.

Another large operation — Circus 63 — was mounted two days later, on Saturday 9 August. This time, the Blenheims’ objective was a supply dump in the Bethune area. Once again, Bader’s Tangmere Wing formed part of the target support force, but things went wrong right from the start when No. 41 Squadron failed to rendezvous on time. The remainder, unable to wait, carried on across the Channel. For a while, all was peaceful; then, just a few miles short of the target, the 109s hit them hard. For the next few minutes, Bader’s pilots were hard put to it to hold their own, the wing becoming badly dislocated as the Messer-schmitts pressed home a series of determined attacks. Bader misjudged an attack on a 109 and suddenly found himself isolated. Six enemy fighters closed in on him and, by superb flying, he destroyed two. The end came soon afterwards, when a third 109 collided with him and severed his Spitfire’s fuselage just behind the cockpit. Bader managed to struggle clear of the plunging debris, leaving one of his artificial legs still trapped in the cockpit. His parachute opened, and he floated down to a painful landing and captivity.

On 12 August, three days after Bader was shot down, the medium bombers of the RAF’S NO. 2 Group made their deepest daylight penetration into enemy territory so far when 54 Blenheims bombed two power stations near Cologne. They were escorted by Westland Whirlwind fighters of No. 263 Squadron, the only fighter aircraft with sufficient range to carry out this task. The Whirlwind was highly manoeuvrable, faster than a Spitfire at low altitude, and its armament of four closely-grouped 20mm nose cannon made it a match for any Luftwaffe fighter of the day. As it was, the Whirlwind experienced a spate of troubles with its twin Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines, and only two squadrons were equipped with the type. Eventually, it was used in the fighter-bomber role with considerable success.

As August gave way to September, some senior Air Staff members began to have serious doubts about the value of Circus operations. Fighter Command losses were climbing steadily, and the results achieved hardly seemed to compensate for them. The only real justification for continuing the sweeps, apparently, was to ensure that Fighter Command remained in a state of combat readiness.

The morale of Fighter Command, however, was soon to take a serious blow. On 21 September 1941, Polish pilots of No. 315 Squadron, on their way home after Circus 101, reported being attacked by ‘an unknown enemy aircraft with a radial engine’. A few days later, Jim Rosser of 72 Squadron was on a sweep over Boulogne, flying No. 2 to Ken Campbell, when he too sighted one of the mysterious radial-engined machines and went down after it, opening fire at extreme range. The enemy aircraft dived into the Boulogne flak barrage and Campbell called Rosser back, but not before the latter had secured some good gun-camera shots.

All sorts of wild rumours circulated in Fighter Command, the favourite among them being that the strange aircraft were Curtiss Hawks, captured by the Germans and pressed into service. Then RAF Intelligence examined all the data and came up with the answer. The Focke-Wulf 190 had arrived in France.

The first Luftwaffe unit to receive Focke-Wulf 190s on the Channel coast was Jagdgeschwader 26, followed by JG 2, and by October 1941 the RAF was encountering the type in growing numbers. Within weeks, the FW 190 had established a definite measure of air superiority for the Germans. It completely outclassed the Spitfire VB at all altitudes, and Fighter Command losses rose steadily that autumn. Not until the advent of the Spitfire IX — resulting from the marriage of a Merlin 61 engine to a Mk. V airframe — was the balance restored; but the first Mk. IXs did not enter service with No. 64 Squadron until June 1942.

As far as Circus operations were concerned, the crunch came on 8 November 1941, when the Blenheims of No. 2 Group and their escorting fighters suffered unusually heavy losses. The whole ‘show’ went wrong from the start, with poor visibility making it difficult for the bombers and fighters to rendezvous as planned. Combined with a general lack of co-ordination, this meant that the attacking forces entered enemy territory piecemeal, and the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts were waiting for them. The Intelligence Summary of No. 118 (Spitfire) Squadron gives a typical account:

It was decided in the afternoon to carry out a most ill-conceived scheme, designated Rodeo 5, in which the Middle Wallop

Wing rendezvoused with the Whirlwinds of 263 Squadron over Warm well and carried out a sweep of the Channel Islands area. The whole sortie seems to have been one long muddle. The Whirlwinds led the Spits much too far south and then returned right over the flak area. 501 Squadron were sent out to deal with a few Huns that put in an appearance when we were on the way back. 118 went back to help, but 501 were not located. The net result was at least three planes damaged by flak and enemy aircraft, and one shot down, and all we could claim was one enemy aircraft damaged…

It was the end. Winston Churchill himself decreed that there should be no more large-scale sweeps over the Continent in 1941; it was now the duty of Fighter Command to gather its strength for the following spring.

By that time, although no one yet dreamed it, Britain would no longer stand alone. On the other side of the world, events were moving to a climax that would soon make Pearl Harbor a household name, and bring the unparalleled resources of the United States into the battle.

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US Navy Carrier Aircraft I

During the 1950s the US Navy had introduced no fewer than five advanced swept wing fighters and by 1960 the first of the supersonic Mach 2 world record beating McDonnell F4H Phantoms were being delivered. Indeed, they had even experimented with vertical take-off fighters and a transonic seaplane jet fighter. Bearing in mind the original British lead in jet propulsion immediately after World War II, it is instructive to see how the Americans began to forge ahead so quickly.

In fact, the US Navy was inexplicably slow off the mark to apply the principle of swept wing aerodynamics and its arch rival, the USAF, initially made all the running. This is even more surprising when it is realised that the fighter that effectively gave them command of the skies in the Korean War was actually developed from a naval jet fighter. This was the famous North American F-86 Sabre, which had its origins in the FJ-1 Fury that had been ordered by the Navy in 1944. This was a straight-winged single-engined fighter characterised by its then unique nose intake and straight-through jet configuration. The USAAF ordered a land-based version under the designation XP-86 but a courageous decision was taken to delay delivery and production for a year so that the design could be recast to incorporate a 35-degree swept wing and powered flying controls. Even so, the first XP-86 flew as early as 1 October 1947 and a few months later became the first US fighter to exceed the speed of sound in a shallow dive. The initial production version became the F-86A Sabre and by the end of 1949 two USAF fighter groups were equipped with the new fighter, which proved to have excellent handling characteristics. Subsequently several thousand were built in the United States with licence production being undertaken in Canada, Italy, Australia and Japan. The Sabre can be regarded as one of the most famous aircraft ever built.

Despite its naval origins, the US Navy did not take a serious interest in the Sabre until after the outbreak of the Korean War and eventually ordered three prototypes of a naval version in March 1951. These were designated FJ-2 Fury and eventually some 200 were produced. In most respects they were standard F-86E Sabres powered by 6,000 lb thrust General Electric J47-GE-2 turbojets, which gave a maximum speed of 676 mph at sea level, an initial rate of climb of 7,250 feet/min and a combat ceiling of 41,700 feet. The only modifications for naval service were the obvious ones of an arrester hook, catapult attachment point and power folding wings, as well as a lengthened nosewheel oleo to increase the angle of attack for catapult launches. In addition the armament was changed from six 0.5 inch machine-guns to the standard US Navy fit of four 20 mm cannon. Despite these limited changes, FJ-2 Furies did not begin to reach operational units until January 1954 due to the priority accorded to Sabres for the Air Force and most were allocated to USMC squadrons. Later that year US Navy squadrons began to receive a more advanced version of the Fury under the designation FJ-3. Development of this had started in March 1952 and the main change was the installation of a much more powerful Wright J65-W-2 engine rated at 7,800 lb thrust. This necessitated an enlarged nose intake and a slightly deeper fuselage profile and production aircraft were powered by the slightly derated J65-W-4 engine. In passing it should be noted that the J65 was in fact a licence-built version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet and this was used by several other US Navy jets.

Some 538 FJ-3s were built between 1953 and August 1956 and the aircraft equipped no fewer than seventeen US Navy and four Marine squadrons. The first unit was VF-173, which received its Furies in September 1954 and was deployed aboard the USS Bennington in May 1954. An aircraft from another US Navy fighter squadron (VF-21) was the first jet to land aboard the new carrier USS Forrestal, this event occurring on 4 January 1956. In that year also missile-equipped FJ-3Ms began reaching the fleet, these being fitted to carry up to four Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The final Fury variant was the FJ-4, which first flew in October 1954 and represented a complete redesign with the objective of increasing range and endurance. The requirement to carry 50 per cent more fuel resulted in a new fuselage outline while thinner wings and tail surfaces were also fitted. To improve handling aboard carriers, a wider track undercarriage was fitted. A total of 152 FJ-4s were produced but these were used almost exclusively by Marine squadrons, replacing the earlier FJ-2. Deliveries began in February 1955. These were intended for use in the close support role and the four underwing pylons could carry either bombs or missiles. The ultimate attack version was the FJ-4B, which did not appear until the end of 1956 but this had six weapons stations and was fitted with a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), which enabled the Fury to use the toss bombing technique to deliver a tactical nuclear weapons. The FJ-4B was issued to nine US Navy and three Marine attack squadrons and when production ended in May 1958 a total of 1,112 swept wing Furies had been delivered, making it one of the most significant naval fighters of the period.

To some extent the development of a naval version of the F-86 Sabre was driven by the sudden appearance of the swept wing MiG-15 over Korea and the realisation that the US Navy’s current straight-winged jets were outclassed. The same motive also led directly to a swept wing development of the existing Grumman F9F-5 Panther. In fact, Grumman had investigated the possibility of swept wing variant when the original Panther design had been proposed but although some design work was done, the decision was made to concentrate on getting the Panther into service. There were also doubts about the suitability of swept wing aircraft for carrier operations due to the problem experienced at that time with low-speed handling. However, the appearance of the Russian-built MiG swept such concerns aside and Grumman was authorised to proceed with the construction of three swept wing Panthers in December 1950. The project was given the highest priority with the result that the prototype F9F-6 Cougar flew in September 1951 and VF-32 received the first production examples in November 1952, although by the time the aircraft was ready for operational deployment the Korean War had ended.

Compared with the Panther, the most obvious change was fitting a new wing with 35 degrees of sweepback at quarter chord, as well as a similarly swept tailplane, although the vertical tail surfaces were substantially unchanged. Inevitably the stalling and approach speeds increased but to assist low-speed handling the chord of the leading edge slats and trailing edge flaps was increased, larger flaps were fitted below the centre section, and rudder controls were boosted by the addition of a yaw damper. The forward fuselage was lengthened by 2 feet and the wing centre section, which included the air intakes, was also extended forward. The lengthened fuselage allowed internal fuel capacity to be increased to allow for the fact that wingtip tanks (as on the Panther) could not be fitted. Flight testing resulted in changes, including the adoption of an all-flying tail and the introduction of spoilers to replace conventional ailerons and improve lateral control. Finally, it was found necessary to fit conspicuous wing fences to reduce a tendency for the airflow to spread spanwise and cause difficulties with lateral control. Taken together, these changes substantially improved handling to the extent that most pilots found the Cougar easier to handle in the carrier environment than its straight-winged predecessor. It should be noted that the problems that the Grumman team experienced echoed those that had affected the British Supermarine Type 510 and Hawker P.1052, and the solutions adopted were much the same.

The Cougar was powered by a 7,000 lb thrust Pratt & Whitney J48 turbojet, which had also been installed in the later Panther variants and was actually a development of the Rolls-Royce Nene of which the British equivalent was named the Tay. However, by the early 1950s new British jet fighters were being designed around axial flow engines such as the Avon and Sapphire and the only British application of the Rolls-Royce Tay was in an experimental jet-powered version of the Viscount airliner (Type 633), which flew in March 1950 but did not enter production. On the other hand the Cougar proved extremely adaptable and ultimately a total of 1,988 were built, the last being delivered as late as February 1960. Although too late to see service in the Korean War, the Cougar rapidly replaced Panthers and Banshees in some twenty US Navy squadrons, these all receiving the F9F-6 and -7 versions. In a parallel with Panther experience, the F9F-7 was powered by an American-designed Allison J33-A-16 turbojet rated at 6,350 lb thrust. However, most of these were eventually refitted with J48s and the last fifty produced were completed with the more powerful Pratt & Whitney engine.

Once the basic F9F-6 was established in production, Grumman had time to look at improving the design and this resulted in the F9F-8, which first flew on 18 January 1954. This incorporated several changes to the wing, including a thinner profile, increased wing area, and extended and cambered leading edges. Additional fuel tankage was incorporated in the extended leading edges and the fuselage tank was enlarged, increasing total capacity from 919 to 1,063 US gallons. The wing modifications resulted in a useful increase in critical Mach number and the additional fuel increased range by almost 300 miles. However, the extra weight reduced the rate of climb and service ceiling but this was offset to some extent by much improved handling and manoeuvrability. There were several sub variants of the F9F-8, including a photo reconnaissance version (F9F-8P), which flew in February 1955, and a two-seat trainer (F9F-8T), which flew in February 1956. Finally, some Cougars were modified for the tactical nuclear strike role with the fitting of LABS as in the FJ-4B Fury and these were designated F9F-9B. Although fighter versions of the Cougar were phased out of frontline service with the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets service by 1959 in favour of more advanced types, the F9F-8P was operational until 1960. The trainer version (later redesignated TF-9J) served with five training squadrons and the last of these, VT-4, did not relinquish its Cougars until 1974. In addition, many reserve units continued to fly Cougars throughout the 1960s.

Although too late to see combat, the swept wing Grumman Cougar and North American Fury provided the backbone of the US Navy’s carrier air groups in the years following the Korean War. As already related, both were developed from straight-wing, first-generation jets under the impetus of the challenge presented by the Russian-designed MiG-15. However, by the early 1950s the US Navy had other projects underway for even more advanced aircraft, although none of these would see full-scale service until the latter half of the decade. The benefits of swept wings had become apparent when allied engineers and scientists gained access to the results of German wartime experience and research, but there were other advanced aerodynamic features that the Germans had applied and a number of US designers attempted to make use of these. Foremost amongst these was the concept of the delta wing pioneered by Dr Alexander Lippisch and when the US Navy needed a fast-climbing interceptor, this configuration appeared to offer some significant advantages. During World War II, the principle of a standing Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was established with waiting interceptor fighters being directed by radar onto incoming targets. However, the new jet fighters had limited endurance so a standing airborne CAP was difficult to organise and costly in fuel consumption. Perhaps more significantly, the performance gap between fighters and jet bombers had narrowed considerably to the extent where the bomber would be difficult to catch in a pursuit scenario. From this problem evolved the concept of a Deck Launched Interceptor (DLI), which remained on short-notice standby on the carrier’s deck. Assuming an inbound missile-armed bomber flying at 550 mph at 40,000 feet was detected by radar at a range of 100 miles, a further nine or ten minutes would elapse before it was close enough to launch its missiles. If the DLI was at five minutes’ notice, this left less than four minutes for it to launch, climb to 40,000 feet and destroy its target. This implied a minimum rate of climb of around 15,000 feet/min, as well as high speed and good manoeuvrability at that altitude.

To meet this requirement the Douglas company proposed a delta-wing fighter powered by a Westinghouse J40 axial flow turbojet, which was expected to provide 7,000 lb thrust, increasing to 11,600 lb with afterburning. A development contract was awarded in June 1947 but as design work got underway the wing planform was progressively modified. Instead of a pure delta wing, the final configuration was more akin to a tailless aircraft with low aspect ratio wings having a sharply swept leading edge and rounded wingtips. The pilot sat well forward with bifurcated leading edge intakes just behind the cockpit. A tricycle undercarriage with a long nosewheel oleo for catapult launches was fitted, and the resulting high angle of attack on the ground required a small retractable tailwheel to guard against excessive pitch up at launch. The standard armament was four 20 mm cannon – a missile armament not being contemplated at this time. With the design finalised, a contract for the construction of two prototype XF4D-1 Skyrays was awarded in December 1948, although the first of these did not fly until 23 January 1951. Even then flight testing was limited due to the fact that the intended Westinghouse J40 engines were not ready and both prototypes were initially powered by Allison J35-A-17 turbojets, which were only rated at 5,000 lb thrust so that the full performance envelope could not be demonstrated.

As will be seen, the Skyray was not the only aircraft to suffer from problems with the J40 engine, which also formed the basis of several other contemporary projects. Even when production examples of the engine became available, they proved to be very unreliable with an alarming tendency to shed turbine blades in flight. Eventually the whole engine project was cancelled in 1953. Nevertheless, the availability of early J40s allowed the Skyray to demonstrate its potential, which it did in spectacular fashion on 3 October 1953 by wresting the absolute world airspeed record from Britain (set by a Supermarine Swift on 26 September 1953 with a speed of 735.7 mph). The average speed achieved by the Skyray over a 3 km course was 752.944 mph. It is interesting to note that both records were set at very low level in very high ambient temperatures where the speed of sound would be in excess of 760 mph so that Mach numbers in the region of 0.98 were attained. In fact, neither aircraft was supersonic in level flight at that time, although they could exceed Mach 1.0 in a dive, especially in colder air at high altitude where the speed of sound reduced to around 660 mph. Despite this success, the cancellation of the J40 engine programme forced the Douglas team to find a suitable alternative and this was to be the Pratt & Whitney J57-P-2. In fact, this was a much better engine, offering 9,700 lb thrust, which could be boosted to 14,800 with afterburning, and was to prove a very reliable powerplant. The later J57-P-8 offered 10,200 lb dry thrust and 16,000 lb with afterburning. Although the physical integration of the new engine with the Skyray airframe posed few difficulties, trials with the first production aircraft (first flight 5 June 1954) revealed aerodynamic problems with the air intakes, which were eventually solved by the addition of a splitter plate between the fuselage and intake, a device applied to many subsequent supersonic aircraft. However, this added further delays to the Skyray’s service debut and it was not until mid 1956 that it finally became fully operational, five years after the first prototype and almost two years after the first re-engined production aircraft had flown (although initial carrier trials were carried out by one of the J40-powered prototypes aboard the USS Coral Sea in October 1953). Nevertheless, the US Navy now possessed a remarkable interceptor. With the J57 engine, the Skyray was now just supersonic in level flight at altitude and had an initial rate of climb in excess of 18,000 feet/ min. In May 1958 a Skyray set a series of time to height records, reaching 15,000 metres (49,212 feet) in only two minutes and thirty-six seconds! The capturing of the world airspeed record was the first time that this had been achieved by a carrier-capable aircraft and the production F4D-1 was the US Navy’s first supersonic fighter, although only just so. Outside the time scale of this book, it is interesting to note that Douglas produced an advanced version of the Skyray, which was the F5D-1 Skylancer. The prototype flew in 1956 and reached speeds of Mach 1.5 at 40,000 feet, as well as possessing a limited all-weather capability, but was not ordered into production.

US Navy Carrier Aircraft II

The US Navy could not be accused of being unwilling to try out new concepts. Even before the Skyray development was initiated, it had commissioned the construction of three prototype fighters from Chance Vought in June 1946. These were again based on German work and the result was a revolutionary tailless design with directional control achieved by twin fin and rudder assemblies at mid span on each wing. Like the Skyray, the new XF7U-1 Cutlass was intended as a deck-launched interceptor and to achieve the required performance a twin-engine configuration was adopted, two Westinghouse J34-WE-32 turbojets with afterburning being set side by side in the fuselage nacelle. The result was unlike anything flown before or since and, considering the unorthodox layout, performed better than might have been expected, although several serious problems were encountered. The prototype XF7U-1 flew on 29 September 1948 and was followed by the first of fourteen production F7U-1s in March 1950. These were eventually allocated to the Navy’s Advanced Training Command at Corpus Christi in 1952 as problems with the J34 engine as well as handling difficulties made the Cutlass unsuitable for carrier deployment. These caused the cancellation of the F7U-2 with more powerful J34s and development was centred on the F7U-3, which was re-engined with Westinghouse 4,660 lb thrust J46-WE-8A engines. The centre fuselage was entirely re-designed and the underwing section of the vertical tail surfaces was virtually eliminated. The F7U-3 was first flown in December 1951 and initially four Navy squadrons (VF-81, VF-83, VF-122, VF-124) were equipped with the Cutlass, although operational deployments did not commence until May 1954, the first being VF-81 aboard the USS Ticonderoga. A total of 290 F7U-3s were delivered, which included ninety-eight F7U-3Ms with provision to carry four Sparrow air-to-air missiles and twelve F7U-3P photo reconnaissance aircraft. However, the type’s record in service was very poor with serious maintenance problems and a frighteningly high accident rate so that production ceased in 1955 and it had been entirely replaced before the end of the decade. Originally intended as a pure interceptor, it was outclassed in this role by the Skyray and subsequently was more often utilised in the attack role, carrying two 1,000- or 2,000 lb bombs, and it could also be fitted with a centreline pod carrying forty-four 2.75 inch air-to-air unguided rockets.

Although the US Navy was never able to field a swept wing jet fighter in the Korean War, things might have been different if development of another design had progressed as hoped. This was the McDonnell F3H Demon, which was ordered in prototype form in September 1949 following the company’s response to an earlier request for proposals issued by the Bureau of Aeronautics in May 1948 for a swept-wing naval interceptor. For its time, the Demon was an advanced design with sharply swept flying surfaces, wide lateral air intakes and provision for afterburning with the tailplane and fin being set well above the jet efflux. The prototype XF3H-1 flew on 7 August 1951 but even by that time the programme was in deep trouble. Things were not helped by a BuAer requirement that the Demon should be redesigned as an all-weather fighter under the designation F3H-1N. This significantly delayed development, the first production examples not flying until December 1953. In the meantime a much more serious problem had arisen in the shape of the failure of the Westinghouse J40 engine programme. The afterburning 9,200 lb thrust J40-WE-8 had initially been selected as the powerplant for the Demon but the XF3H-1 prototype was only fitted with the unreheated 6,500 lb thrust J40-WE-6. Eventually the afterburning variants were fitted to both prototypes and initial carrier trials were carried out aboard the USS Coral Sea in October 1953. Even by that time the J40 was proving unreliable, resulting in damage to one aircraft, and both being grounded for various periods. When testing of production F3H-1Ns began, the results were even more disastrous with no fewer than five aircraft being destroyed in accidents, including three in which the pilot was killed. In most cases the root cause of the accident was a failure of the J40 engine and it was quite clear that the Demon was seriously underpowered. Matters were so bad that many of the fifty-eight F3H-1Ns completed were never even flown, but were shipped by barge down the Mississippi from St Louis to Memphis where they were used as instructional airframes.

The US Navy had a major commitment to the J40 engine, which was the prime powerplant for several projected aircraft (including the F4D Skyray and twin-engined A3D bomber), and was reluctant to abandon development despite the evidence of flight tests. However, the McDonnell team was determined to salvage the Demon programme and persuaded the US Navy to allow two F3H-1N airframes to be converted to accommodate an Allison J71-A-2E rated at 9,700 lb thrust (14,400 lb with afterburning). Thus powered, the first F3H-2N flew on 23 April 1955 and proved to be a much better performer, although the Demon would have benefited further if an even more powerful engine could have been fitted but this was not possible without a major redesign. Eventually the F3H-2N began to reach squadrons in late 1956, subsequently embarking in the USS Forrestal for a Mediterranean deployment in January 1957. The standard F3H-2N was armed with fuselage-mounted 20 mm cannon but in August 1955 the missile-armed F3H-2M made its first flight. This could carry four AAM-N-2 Sparrow 1 semiactive homing guided missiles, which relied on the target being illuminated by the aircraft’s AN/APG-51B radar. In this guise the Demon became the US Navy’s first all-weather missile armed interceptor and remained in service until replaced by more capable fighters in the early 1960s. Thus the Demon was too late to see service in the Korean War and had been phased out of service by the time the United States became involved in Vietnam.

Despite the fact that the Demon had a relatively inauspicious career, it did provide the springboard for another project that was to become not just a first-class naval fighter, but one of the most successful all-round combat aircraft ever flown – the Mach 2 capable McDonnell F4H Phantom II. Although the first flight and subsequent development of this superb aircraft lie outside the period covered by this book, its initial development can actually be traced back as far as 1953 when McDonnell began a series of studies aimed at offering a substantial improvement in capability and performance of the F3H Demon. Under the designation Model 98, a series of single- and two-seat, single and twin-engined proposals were made. Of these, and after discussions with the US Navy, the Model 98B powered by either two Wright J67s or two General Electric J79s was taken as the basis for a new single-seat aircraft initially designated AH-1 in recognition of its planned attack role. However, by May 1955 when the construction of two prototypes was authorised, it was decided that they would be completed as two-seat, missile armed, all-weather fighters under the designation YF4H-1. Subsequently the prototype flew on 27 May 1958 and its startling performance led to substantial US Navy orders and, in a remarkable achievement, it was also ordered in quantity for the USAF – the first time that a naval fighter had achieved this distinction.

In fact, successful as the Phantom was to prove, it would not be the US Navy’s first fully supersonic fighter as it was preceded by two other types, both of which were easily capable of exceeding Mach 1 in level flight. The first of these to enter service was the Grumman F11F-1 Tiger, which had first flown on 30 July 1954 and subsequently entered operational service in early 1957. Development of the F11F had commenced in December 1952 when the possibility of applying the area rule principle to the swept wing F9F was investigated. It quickly became apparent that a fresh design would be required and this evolved as a slim-fuselaged, swept wing jet fighter with an empty weight of around 13,000 lb. The incorporation of area rule led to distinctive narrowing of the fuselage where the wings were mounted in order to eliminate rapid changes in the total cross-sectional area presented to the airflow. The slim fuselage was achieved by using an axial flow jet engine, in this case an afterburning Wright J65, which was actually a licence-built version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. Considerable attempts were made to reduce weight and one unusual feature was that the wingtips were folded down manually, saving the complexity of the more conventional power-actuated upward-folding wings. The first prototype was lost in an accident in October 1954 due to an engine flameout – a recurrent problem with the J65. However, the second prototype had flown by then and was able to carry on the test programme, exceeding Mach 1 for the first time before the end of the year. A third prototype flew in December 1954 and incorporated various modifications, including redesigned tail surfaces, a longer nose, air intake splitter plates, a new clear-view canopy and had provision for an air-to-air refuelling probe to be fitted. A standard armament of four 20 mm cannon was fitted and the F11F-1 could carry four Sidewinder missiles or two missiles and two drop tanks of 150 US gallons.

Carrier trials aboard the USS Forrestal in April 1956 highlighted the need for further modifications, notably increasing the fuel capacity to make good shortfalls in range and endurance. As already related, service entry followed in 1957 but the Tiger’s operational career was relatively short and it was withdrawn from frontline units by 1961, although it enjoyed a longer career with second line training units and was adopted as the mount for the famous Blue Angels naval demonstration team. When the Tiger passed out of frontline service, it was the end of an era for Grumman who had provided naval fighters continuously from 1933 and it was not until the 1970s that another Grumman jet fighter (the F14 Tomcat) was to serve aboard US carriers. The reasons for the Tiger’s premature withdrawal were varied but included poor handling, which made it an unsteady gun platform, and the unreliability of the J65 engine. However, the main reason was that it was totally eclipsed by another fighter that had entered service at the same time.

This was the Chance Vought F8U Crusader, which originated from a US Navy requirement for a supersonic air superiority fighter issued in 1952. This company had, of course, made its name as the builder of the famous Corsair piston-engined fighter but had experienced less success with its subsequent jet designs. Awarded a contract in May 1953 for further development of its proposals, Chance Vought produced a fairly conventional design based around a single Pratt & Whitney J57-P-11 turbojet, which could produce 18,900 lb thrust with afterburning and was positioned towards the rear of the long fuselage. A pointed radome with a semi-circular chin air intake below gave the Crusader a distinct profile but its most unusual feature was the high-mounted swept wing with noticeable anhedral. This was unusual in a jet fighter but was accounted for by a unique feature intended to make the task of landing this hot ship aboard a carrier easier than it might otherwise have been. In normal flight the top surface of the wing centre section lay flush with the top of the fuselage but at slower speeds the leading edge could be raised by means of screw jacks, so increasing the angle of incidence of the whole wing relative to the fuselage. This in turn effectively reduced the nose-up attitude of the whole aircraft, improving the pilot’s view of the deck while also increasing lift. The high wing layout did mean that the main undercarriage legs had to retract in the fuselage, which resulted in a relatively narrow wheel track.

In service the F8U Crusader offered a substantial increase in performance over previous naval fighters. The top speed was around Mach 1.7 at altitude, although the initial rate of climb was only 12,000 feet/min, still very good but well below that achievable with the Skyray. This difference was accounted for by the weight of the Crusader, which grossed at 34,000 lb compared with the 25,000 lb MAUW of the Skyray. However, the Crusader had a much better endurance and was capable of carrying a wide variety of weapons apart from the internal four 20 mm cannon. The standard fit was either two (later four) Sidewinder infra-red homing homing missiles, or up to 5,000 lb of bombs or rockets, or any combination of these. Given the advanced performance of the Crusader, its development and entry into service was completed in an amazingly short time, especially when compared with earlier jets such as the Skyray and Demon. The prototype XF8U-1 flew in March 1955 and production standard aircraft were coming off the assembly lines by the end of 1956 with the first squadron (VF32) forming in March 1957. By the end of the year the squadron was deployed aboard the USS Saratoga and subsequently various versions of the Crusader flew with no fewer than seventy US Navy and USMC squadrons in a career that lasted until the mid 1980s. A total of 1,261 Crusaders were produced, which included forty-two for the French Navy, one of the few cases where US Navy fighters were exported. One of the most important variants was the RF-8 in which a battery of five cameras replaced the 20 mm cannon and provision was made for additional fuel. Both fighter photo reconnaissance versions saw considerable action during the Vietnam War, some units serving right through to the end in 1973.

The variable incidence wing of the Crusader was one example of altering wing characteristics to overcome the problem of landing high-performance swept wing aircraft on a carrier deck. A more ambitious solution dated as far back as 1946 when Grumman were asked to build a research aircraft to test swept wings with an eye to their later application to the XF9F-2 Panther. The initial proposal was for a single-engined, high-mounted, modified delta-wing aircraft with a T-tail and a contract was issued in April 1948 for two prototypes. However, by 1950 a new specification was issued calling for a fighter that would have good low-speed handling qualities and be capable of transonic speeds. At the same time a heavy armament and long range was required so that the final Grumman design increased in weight from around 18,000 lb MTOW to over 31,000 lb. After investigating the possibility of using variable incidence, the Grumman team went a step further and proposed a variable sweep wing with full-span leading edge slats and flaps along 80 per cent of the trailing edge.

The prototype XF10F-1 Jaguar eventually flew on 19 May 1952 but almost immediately severe problems were manifest. These were both technical failures and stability problems, although the wing sweep mechanism itself caused no trouble and turned out to be very reliable. The Achilles’ heel of the project was the use of the ill-fated Westinghouse J40 engine. The cancellation of this engine in 1953 and the subsequent grounding of all aircraft fitted with it effectively ended the Jaguar programme. Nevertheless it should be recognised as a pioneering attempt at what was actually a viable proposition and the concept of variable sweep was incorporated in the American F-111 and B-1 bombers, and the European Tornado.

At this point brief mention should be made of two significant aircraft that were built in prototype form to explore the concept of a VTOL combat aircraft. These were the Convair XFY-1 and the Lockheed XFV-1. Both came about as a result of studies made by both the US Navy and Air Force in the late 1940s and with the outbreak of the Korean War development funds became available. The two designs were very similar in concept, power for take-off and conventional flight being provided by turboprops driving a pair of three-bladed contra-rotating propellers. With broad chord blades these acted as helicopter rotors to lift the aircraft from the ground, the transition to horizontal flight being made gradually as speed and altitude increased. The Lockheed XFV-1 had short stubby wings with wingtip tanks, and a cruciform tail assembly that incorporated four wheels on which the aircraft rested when on the ground. The pilot was provided with an ejector seat. For initial flight trials a 5,850 hp Allison XT40-A-6 turboprop was installed with a more powerful YT40-A-14 scheduled for later tests, although this never actually became available. The production FV-2 would have had an even more powerful T54-A-16. The prototype was fitted with a temporary fixed undercarriage to permit conventional take-off and landings for the initial test flights and officially flew on 16 June 1954, although it had previously become airborne in high-speed taxi trials. Although transitions from horizontal to vertical flight modes and back again were made in the air, vertical take-offs and landings from the ground were never attempted as the trials engine did not produce enough power. The programme was cancelled in mid 1955 when it was realised that even if full transitions could be achieved, the performance of the turboprop fighter would lag well behind that of contemporary jets.

The Convair XFY-1 was much more successful and featured a broad delta wing, together with upper and lower vertical fins. This made a much more stable base (an important consideration aboard ship) but in other respects the design was similar to that of the Lockheed aircraft with the same powerplant and a tilting ejector seat for the pilot. Initial tethered flights commenced in April 1954 and these culminated in the first free flight in which transition to horizontal mode was successfully accomplished and was then followed by a vertical landing. This occurred in November 1954 and subsequently the XFY-1 recorded a maximum speed of 610 mph at 15,000 feet and had an excellent rate of climb, reaching 30,000 feet in 4.6 minutes. Despite the apparent success of the programme the project was cancelled in 1956, one possible reason being that the widespread adoption of VTOL combat aircraft might result in a reduction in the size of the US Navy’s carrier fleet – something that many Admirals did not wish to see. A similar attitude prevailed in Britain in the 1960s when aircraft such as the P1127 and Kestrel (forerunners of the Harrier) were seen by some as a possible threat to the Royal Navy’s carriers.

Convair were to achieve considerable success with the production of delta-winged jet fighters for the USAF (F-102 and F-106) and applied some of their experience to produce a jet-powered water borne fighter, the XF2Y-1 Sea Dart. Powered by two 3,400 lb thrust J34-WE-32 engines, the Sea Dart was very similar in outline to the F-102 Delta Dagger except that the engine intakes were on the top of the fuselage to prevent spray ingestion on take-off. Instead of a conventional flying boat hull, the XF2Y-1 was fitted with retractable hydro skis, which offered less drag in the air and permitted higher speeds on the water. The official first flight was on 9 April 1953, although the aircraft had previously been briefly airborne during taxi trials. There were problems both with the engines, which failed to develop the expected thrust, and with controlling the aircraft on take-off while running on the skis. Consequently only three development YF2Y-1s were built and one of these crashed in November 1954. Although the US Navy continued test and evaluation trials, the project was finally halted in 1956.

By the mid 1950s, the development of jet combat aircraft for naval use had advanced considerably in the decade following the end of World War II. By 1955 high-performance swept wing aircraft, some with supersonic capability, were either in service or under active development in both Britain and America. However, it was almost inevitable, given the strength of their industrial base, that the Americans should forge ahead. Thus in 1955, while the Royal Navy was still operating straight-winged Seahawks and Sea Venoms, the US Navy had swept wing Furies and Cougars and was about to introduce the fast-climbing Skyray, while the supersonic Crusader (capable of speeds in excess of 1,000 mph) had already flown in prototype form.

 

KATANGESE AIR FORCE

Force Aérienne Katangaise

The second phase the fight for Katanga commenced with Security Council authorization to take “all appropriate measures” to prevent the occurrence of civil war in the Congo, including “the use of force, if necessary, in the last resort”.  This resolution was used to justify UN military operations to end the Katangan secession. Ironically, Prime Minister Lumumba’s death triggered the fulfillment of his demands that the United Nations forcefully support his country’s campaign against the secession. Also looming large was the threat of intervention by the Soviet Union, which was emboldened and angered after Lumumba’s murder, and Moscow’s offer to provide the Congolese government with personnel and materiel to suppress the secession. These developments combined to mobilize Western powers to request the United Nations to fulfill that role.

Katanga’s leader, Moise Tshombé, professed anti-Communism and was backed by powerful Belgian and other Western interests, especially the company Union Miniere du Haute Katanga. Also Tshombé controlled Katanga’s gendarmerie and a large cadre of mercenaries. The resolve of his secessionists hardened after some 1,500 of the central government’s troops reached north Katanga in January 1961. Until that initiation of hostilities, the neutral zone negotiated by the United Nations with Tshombé on 17 October 1960 had held up but “it all came apart as pro-Lumumba troops captured Manono” in north Katanga. After Manono, the situation deteriorated rapidly and negotiations broke down.

On 28 August 1961, the United Nations launched Operation Rumpunch to arrest and deport mercenaries in Katanga. Then, in September, the Indian-led UN forces in Katanga launched Operation Morthor (“morthor” is the Hindi word for “smash”), to further round up foreign mercenaries and political advisers and to arrest Katangese officials. The “arrest” operation, which violated Hammarskjöld’s explicit directions to ONUC, quickly escalated into open warfare.

Almost immediately, air power in Katanga was brought in as a game-changer – but not by the United Nations. At this early stage of the conflict, the Aviation Katangaise (Avikat), also known as Force Aérienne Katangaise (FAK), held air superiority, though it consisted of only three Fouga Magister jet trainers. Remarkably, these aircraft were brought to Katanga in February aboard a Boeing Stratocruiser by the Seven Seas Charter Company, later identified as a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractor and possibly a front company. After UN officials observed the unloading of the aircraft, the mission grounded the company’s entire fleet of planes, which the United Nations had earlier contracted to carry food. President John F. Kennedy decried the jet delivery and alleged in correspondence with President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana that the transaction had taken place before the US government could stop it.

In any case, the KAF fleet was quickly reduced in effectiveness: one Fouga Magister was lost when its pilot tried to fly under (rather than over) a power line; and UN forces captured another when they seized the airfield at Elisabethville, the Katangan capital, on 28 August 1961. This left the FAK with only one plane, but this single aircraft attained world renown during the hostilities of September by paralyzing UN supply efforts, which were mostly conducted by air transport aircraft. The single jet, flown by a Belgian mercenary from the Kolwezi airfield, also strafed UN positions, including the UN Headquarters in Katanga, and helped isolate a company of Irish troops who were forced to surrender to Katangan forces. Furthermore, the Fouga jet destroyed several UN-chartered aircraft at Katangan airports, including Elisabethville, the Katangan capital. A US State Department official, Wayne Fredericks, commented: “I have always believed in air power, but I never thought I’d see the day when one plane would stop the United States and the whole United Nations”.

Deadlock prevailed throughout 1961, and the indecisive outcome of the UN’s August and September 1961 ground initiatives in Katanga (Operations Rumpunch and Morthor) spurred Hammarskjöld to try to negotiate a ceasefire with Tshombé. As the Secretary-General was flying to meet with the Katangan leader at the border town of Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, his plane crashed on the night of 17 September 1961, killing all onboard. Complicating the rescue effort, the plane had largely maintained radio silence and flew a circuitous route mostly at night in order to reduce the possibility of an attack by the “Lone Ranger” Fouga Magister. The Katangan jet had shot bullets into UN aircraft only days before. And Hammarskjöld’s aircraft had been damaged by ground fire but was quickly repaired before take-off. The cause of the UN plane crash was never determined with certainty, though a UN commission concluded that it was probably due to pilot error during the approach to Ndola.

With Hammarskjöld’s death, the battle for Katanga entered a new phase. The new Secretary-General, U Thant, did not share Hammarskjöld’s belief that the United Nations should not interfere in Congolese internal politics. Moreover, the general escalation of events spurred the Security Council to pass Resolution 169 on 24 November 1961, strongly deprecating the secessionist activities of Katanga and authorizing ONUC to use “the requisite measure of force” to remove foreign mercenaries and “to take all necessary measures to prevent the entry or return of such elements”.

Meanwhile, the United States, fearful of communist encroachment on the continent, was resolved in the Congo to keep the Soviet Union out, the United Nations in, and Belgian interference down in the former colony. The Americans also wanted to stop the country from falling apart, viewing secession of mineral- rich Katanga as a threat to the economic vitality of the new country. In the background, decolonization was one of the great movements of the era and the United States was keen to show newly independent countries that it supported integral, viable new states. The disintegration of the Congo was a major concern, as was Soviet intervention. Therefore, international (United Nations) intervention in Katanga was deemed necessary, even if it meant intervention into the internal affairs of a new state (although at the request of that state). Thus the United States, which had previously refused Hammarskjöld’s requests to ferry troops within the Congo and had only brought troops to the Congo from abroad, now provided four transport planes without conditions. President Kennedy even offered to provide eight fighter jets if no other member nations were willing to do so. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested these jets could “seek out and destroy, either on the ground or in the air, the Fouga Magister jets”. However, Thant sought to avoid direct superpower involvement in combat. Having promises of fighter jets from other nations, the American offer was turned down. Instead, the United States provided over 20 large transport planes to ferry reinforcements and anti-aircraft guns into Katanga.

Before his death, Hammarskjöld had managed to obtain from several UN member states promises of combat aircraft, which were desperately needed for the field mission. In October 1961, Sweden provided five J-29 Tunnan (“The Flying Barrel”) fighter jets. Ethiopia sent four F-86 Sabre jets, and India backed the mission with four Indian B(I)58 Canberra light bombers. These aircraft became what mission personnel dubbed the first “UN Air Force”.

The UN’s aerial assets soon joined the fray. In December, they attacked a military train east of Kolwezi and Katangan airfields at Jadotville and Kolwezi. The United Nations created havoc among Katangan forces in much the same way that the armed Fouga Magister had earlier done to the UN mission. Charanjit Singh, one of the Indian UN pilots, described his attack on a Katangan camp in Elisabethville on 8 December 1961 in a cavalier fashion:

…attacked an army police camp 2 km NE of old runway. Some vehicles were parked outside what looked like a headquarters building. I fired a full burst on those and saw them going up in smoke and flames. As I pulled out of the dive, I saw hundreds of men running out in utter panic. As I flashed past them, I gathered an image of men running in all directions, some in undies, others in halfpants, some in uniforms. I saw some enter a billet. Attacked the HQ building and vehicles again. Saw a vehicle turn over. At the end of four attacks, the whole thing looked like the Tilpat [air-to-ground practice firing range near Delhi] show.

The net result of the UN buildup and its December 1961 offensive was that Katanga’s “air superiority” was temporarily ended. The fate of the infamous jet trainer became an object of much speculation. The UN pilots claimed to have destroyed it on the ground in an air attack on the Kolwezi airfield, but they actually hit a carefully crafted dummy. It was then believed that the Katangan Fouga had crashed while its South African mercenary pilot had parachuted to safety, but this too was found to be false.

But even the UN’s new aerial hardware was deemed insufficient for the robust mandate. The UN field mission pressed headquarters to obtain bombs for the Indian Canberra jets. “We need those bombs”, Secretary-General U Thant would insist to the British government. After weeks of stalling, the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan finally agreed on 7 December 1961 to supply 24 1,000-lb bombs. But the offer came with the condition that they could only be used “against aircraft on the ground or [against] airstrips and airfields”. Even still, Macmillan worried that his government might fall over its handling of the Congo crisis, given the fierce support in some Conservative quarters for the anti-communist Katanga regime. In the end, the United States transported bombs directly from India.

Realizing what an enormous role a single Fouga jet had played in the success of Katangan operations in September 1961, Tshombé began purchasing new aircraft and hiring foreign mercenary pilots of various nationalities to fly them. Indeed, throughout 1962, UN Air Command desperately tried to monitor the Katangan aerial buildup through both aerial surveillance of Katangan airfields and intelligence gathered by ONUC’s Military Information Branch (MIB). In an attempt to procure immediate intelligence on Katanga’s air capability, a desperate ONUC on 9 March 1962 noted that aircrews from UN military air units and from its charter companies were making “important observations during their flights and stops at various airfields in the Congo”. The mission began mandatory debriefings of aircrews after landing. The mission also sought to create an air reconnaissance unit capable of meeting both long-term reconnaissance and immediate operational requirements. One memo dated 10 March 1962 stated “it becomes imperative that the air recce unit should be allotted with both C-47s and jet recce aircraft such as S-29s or photo-recce Canberras”. ONUC’s Chief of Military Intelligence requested three C-47 aircraft “to check the Katangan air movements through systematic visual reconnaissance of their airfields”. On 6 June 1962 the ONUC Force Commander cabled Ralph Bunche, the Under-Secretary-General at UN Headquarters responsible for peacekeeping operations that:

ONUC suffers from a grave lack of reconnaissance facilities. As a result even the photographs available may contain much more information which it is NOT possible to get because of inadequate facilities in equipment and personnel for interpretation.

In 1962, Sweden provided two J-29Cs, the photo-reconnaissance versions of the J-29 jet aircraft that proved of great worth. The mission consequently added personnel designated as air intelligence officers. At the same time, the threat of re-emerging Katangan aerial capabilities was real. ONUC concluded in May 1962:

[M]ercenaries, fighting for money and receiving higher salaries as FAK pilots than even Generals receive in UN service, are ruthless, cunning, non- conventional, clever and inventive. They have war experience, and they know where, when and how to hit. there is no alternative but to consider FAK as a dangerous enemy in the air.

ONUC had success uncovering the extent of Tshombé’s aircraft acquisitions through intelligence gathered by the MIB. Defectors and informants interviewed by the MIB revealed a wealth of information about Katangan aircraft both in Katanga and neighbouring countries. Lieutenant-General Kebbede Guebre (Ethiopia), the ONUC Force Commander, cabled Bunche at UN Headquarters on 24 August 1962, referencing a report that Katanga-owned jet fighters were hidden in Angola and/or Rhodesia. Kebbede requested Bunche to “check with Australia [about] the possibility of Australian trained jet [mercenary] pilots being available to Tshombe”. In another cable to Bunche dated 27 September 1962, he stated that:

a fully reliable source reported…that twelve Harvard aircraft have recently left South Africa, bound for Katanga…equipped with guns and French rockets…[and that] an unspecified number of P-51 Mustangs may have left South Africa recently…intended for Katanga.

Clearly, the United Nations perceived itself in an aerial arms race with the Katanga government. It was trying to persuade its member states to provide aircraft while the Katanga government was purchasing them clandestinely wherever possible.

General Kebbede again cabled Under-Secretary-General Bunche on 1 October 1962, comparing the air capabilities of the two protagonists. Katanga (FAK) was now estimated to have twelve Harvard single-propeller aircraft, eight or nine Fouga Magister trainer jets, four Vampire jet fighters and a large number of P-51 Mustang single-propeller fighters (being delivered). The UN mission possessed six Canberra jet fighter-bombers, four Saab J-29B fighter-bombers, and four Sabre F-86 jet fighters. At the time, the UN Air Division possessed no bombs – a serious deficiency, as it was considered the weapon needed to neutralize air bases and enemy forces on the ground. Great Britain was still dithering on UN pleas for bombs for its Canberra aircraft. ONUC concluded once again that air resources were inadequate to meet the FAK threat. Due to serviceability problems, only about 60 to 70 percent of ONUC aircraft would be available for operations, which would make it impossible to keep even a section of fighters on readiness and thus impossible to simultaneously defend even one airfield, conduct offensive sweeps, and escort transport aircraft. Moreover, since ONUC was entirely dependent on supplies delivered by air, of which 95 percent were lifted by civil chartered companies, a Katangan air threat would ground essential supply planes in the absence of UN fighter escorts.

In the same October 1962 report to Bunche, General Kebbede recommended immediate steps be taken to reinforce the UN Air Division. The first recommendation was for the acquisition of two S-29E photo-reconnaissance aircraft and a complete photo-interpretation unit to monitor developments and activities at Katangan air bases. The second was to increase two UN fighter squadrons to eight fighters each (for a total of 16 fighters). The third was the addition of two additional Canberra aircraft. Also recommended was the acquisition of anti-aircraft defences for UN air bases and radar for Elisabethville, as well as heavy-calibre and napalm bombs for the Canberra bombers and additional communications equipment. These recommendations were considered to be the bare minimum necessary for the operation.

Things became even worse when Ethiopia abruptly withdrew its Sabre aircraft after losing one in an accident. Furthermore, India experienced an urgent need to repatriate its Canberra bombers to fight in a border war with China. On the positive side, Sweden promised more Saab jets and Norway offered an anti-aircraft battery. New air surveillance radars were deployed at Kamina and Elisabethville.

A few days following Kebbede’s UN requests, a cable from Robert Gardiner, the UN representative in the Congo, to Bunche reported that a South African aircraft company had offered Katanga 40 Harvard aircraft, each equipped with 40 rockets, for US$27,000 each. The planes were thought to be transported into Katanga through Angola, a Portuguese colony. Moreover, intelligence reported that the same company had previously sold 17 aircraft to Katanga. On 17 October, Gardiner cabled Bunche that aerial photography had confirmed the presence of six Harvard aircraft at Katanga’s Kolwezi-Kengere airfield.

The UN mission was clamouring to increase its air force, particularly its fighter strength, despite UN Headquarters’ concerns about costs, having overcome earlier inhibitions on combat. Intelligence evidence mounted regarding the acquisition of new aircraft by Katanga. The growing strength of Katanga’s air force relative to ONUC’s had immediate military and strategic consequences. The ANC were frequently bombed and harassed by Katangan aircraft. The UN Commander’s assessment was that:

Due to ONUC’s limited strength of four fighters, we have to confine our action to Recce the area in question as often as possible during daylight and attack any Katangese aircraft flying in that area. We are not attempting to destroy any aircraft found in the airfield in the vicinity of that area because if we do locate one or two aircraft and destroy them, we feel that FAK will react against [our] Kamina Base and also disperse their aircraft from Kolwezi to other airfields, thereby making our task of locating and destroying these aircraft on the ground very difficult. Please advise dates by which additional four Swedish fighters, as promised, will be available and if any additional aircraft expected from other nations.

The UN Commander’s strategy was to wait until the new aircraft gave ONUC a fighter force capable of destroying the bulk of Katanga’s air force on the ground in one overwhelming surprise attack. Another cable from Kebbede to Bunche on the same day (24 November 1962) stated that:

on request from the ANC, air recce missions over Kongolo area are being provided by UN fighters. Missions will be confined to recce and destroying any Katangese aircraft if found flying over that area. Instructions have been issued NO repeat NO ground targets to be attacked.

The ONUC Commander did not want to give the Katangese any reason to disperse or hide their aircraft but rather wanted them to feel that they were safe and secure when on the ground at their major airfields.

 

Operation Brazil and Lone Wolf U-507 1942

B-25B “Lero-Lero”

Unit: Agrupamento de Aviхes de Adaptatio (Adaptation Airplane Group), Forca Aerea Brasileira

Serial: 10 (FAB-2310, US 40-2310)

Circa 1942. This is one of the first B-25’s of FAB.

FAB B-25’s arrived at Salvador in 1942 and then located at BANT, BAF and BAS (BAF – Base Aerea de Fortaleza (Fortaleza AB), Ceara / BANT – Base Aerea de Natal (Natal AB), Rio Grande do Norte / BAS – Base Aerea de Salvador (Salvador AB), Bahia). Her sisters was 40-2263, 40-2255, 40-2306, 40-2309, 40-2316 and 40-2245. The last one, the ’45’ was the first Brazilian airplane to engage an enemy in battle. In this case, the Italian submarine ‘Barbarigo’ in May 22, 1942.

Brazil’s air force had become active in hunting and attacking German submarines so it was already in the fight though the nation was officially neutral, but between August 15 and 19, the sinking of six ships off the Brazilian coast took the republic into the war. Notably the army wanted to revenge the deaths of the 16 officers and 125 men of its Seventh Artillery Group on the passenger ship Baependy (sunk on August 15). The sinking of the Baependy raised questions that went unaddressed, about the competence of army leaders who did not take adequate precautions against the known submarine threat. They may have thought that peaceful coastal traffic would not be attacked. It may puzzle readers that the Brazilian Navy did not provide an armed escort. The two services were not accustomed to cooperating, and the navy did not yet have an anti-submarine capability. A Brazilian officer of that era, Nelson Werneck Sodré, in his memoir, condemned the ineptitude of Dutra and Góes for allowing such an obviously dangerous troop movement and the insensitivity of the army bureaucracy in indemnifying the survivors with a mere month’s pay, whose payment was delayed. Unfortunately Sodré fertilized the Nazi-created rumors of American responsibility for the sinkings by saying that there was no proof that the submarines were German.

Of course there was proof, Sodré was either ignoring it or perhaps he did not want to believe it. Both Germany and Italy had submarines operating in the South Atlantic. On June 2, 1942, the Brazilian press reported that Brazilian air crews flying B-25s had sunk two Italian subs. Radio Berlin warned that retaliation would be swift. Authorities in Natal ordered a blackout to make night attacks more difficult. Marines at the Natal Air Base dug trenches and set up machine guns. Fear gripped the people of Natal because of the radio threats. The German government saw Brazilian cooperation with the American forces as the end of Brazilian neutrality and believed that when Brazil was ready it would formally enter the war. Likewise German officials seemed offended that a military nonentity of mixed race would dare take defensive measures against Axis vessels. The commander of the German Navy, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, on June 15, 1942, met with Hitler, who approved a massive submarine attack on Brazilian ports and coastal shipping, called “Operation Brazil.” Thereafter a number of subs, variously reported as eight to ten, left French ports for the South Atlantic.

The Brazilian fleet was all but obsolete and had no experience or appropriate vessels to combat submarines. The great 305 mm guns on its two 1910 battleships were useless against subs. The ports without anti-submarine nets were defenseless. Submarines could stealthily enter the great bays at Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia to sink vessels anchored there, and at Recife the area protected by the seawall was so small that many ships were anchored outside it. They made easy prey. The German submarines would encounter a Brazilian fleet “incapable of efficiently reacting to a surprise attack.” The hard truth was that “the extreme fragility of Brazilian naval defense was similar to that in the Army and in the recently created Air Force.” Brazil was paying the price for successive governments’ inability to pull the country out of its deep underdevelopment.

The reader should recall that Brazil of 1942 was totally dependent on the sea for transport among its coastal cities north of Rio de Janeiro. Vitória, Salvador, Maceió, ecife, Natal, Fortaleza, São Luis, and Belém were basically islands separated one from the others by vast stretches of land. Brazilians, at the time, described the country as an archipelago. There were no long-distance connecting railroads or all-weather highways. Indeed in 1942–1943, “there were eighty miles of paved road in that vast country outside of the cities.” Rudimentary aviation was available only to a small portion of the elite. The first regular flight between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo began in August 1936 with two 17-passenger German-made Junkers . That same year construction began on Brazil’s first civilian airport, Rio’s Santos Dumont , which would be completed only in 1947! Significantly it was built on landfill in Guanabara Bay partly to accommodate the seaplanes of international airlines. Everything moved by water, which meant that the Brazilian economy could be shattered by submarines. The consequences of such an attack for the political situation could only be bad. Vargas was slowly recovering from his May automobile accident and would be in no condition to hold things together. Moreover, despite the political-military accord signed with the United States in May, the Brazilian high command was not hurrying to implement it.

Providentially, Hitler had approved “Operation Brazil” with the stipulation that before it was launched there should be a review of the diplomatic situation. That brought the plan to the foreign ministry and the desk of former ambassador to Brazil, Karl Ritter, the same who had been declared “persona non grata” and expelled by Oswaldo Aranha. Ritter was responsible for liaison between the foreign ministry and the military. Such a submarine offensive against still officially neutral Brazil would mean expanding the war. Ritter argued that pushing Brazil into the conflict could have negative consequences for interactions with Chile and Argentina, who still had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Axis. Besides he thought that Italy and Japan ought to be consulted before such an attack. From an operational point of view, an attack was complicated by the great distance from Europe and the submarine’s vulnerability during the 26 days en route. The submarines would have to surface regularly to recharge their batteries and so would be vulnerable to attack. It was true that because Brazil was neutral, its cities would be lit up at night making it easier to see targets in silhouette, and Brazilian coastal shipping would likely still be brightly lit. It should be noted that submarine attacks on ports had some recent precedence. In February 1942, a German submarine attacked a refinery on Aruba and a Japanese sub fired on a refinery at Santa Barbara, California.

There is some confusion regarding when “Operation Brazil” was cancelled and when and who ordered the attacks in August. Colonel Durval Lourenço Pereira carefully reconstructed the dating and origins of the various orders and contra-orders showing that Admirals Donitz and Raeder in their defense testimonies during the Nuremberg trials and American historians were inaccurate about timing and responsibility. The startling reality is that, instead of a wolf pack of submarines, there was only one submarine, U-507, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Harro Schacht, whose attack procedures were strikingly inhuman.

Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht

U-507 was one of the original vessels designated for the campaign against Brazil. When the foreign ministry, that is, Karl Ritter, objected to “Operation Brazil,” it was cancelled and the submarine commanders were told to destroy their orders. They were given other missions in the Atlantic. On August 7 Lieutenant Commander Schacht requested by radio to “freely maneuver” along the Brazilian coast. Jürgen Rower, a distinguished German historian, was puzzled by U-507’s mission, but suspected that it might have been motivated by the naval command’s desire for retaliation for Brazil’s participation in allied anti-submarine operations. He thought that it contradicted Hitler’s cancelation of “Operation Brazil” and that it was a “foolish mistake.” It was a mistake that had frightful consequences for the passengers and crews of defenseless Brazilian coastal transports.

U-156 (foreground) and U-507 (background) on 15 September 1942

On the afternoon of July 4, 1942, Schacht’s U-507 and a companion vessel U-130 headed into the open ocean from the port of Lorient on the coast of Brittany. Their destination was a stretch of ocean between the tiny Brazilian islets of São Pedro and São Paulo and the islands of Fernando de Noronha. The islets are 590 miles from Brazil’s northeastern shore. Their mission was to patrol one of the quadrants by which the German navy divided the vast ocean. The outward voyage was uneventful except for an encounter with a sonar-equipped destroyer, which detected the U-507 and launched four depth charges. The charges missed the submarine but caused some slight damage that produced a constant loud pinging sound that Schacht feared could be detected at a distance.

After passing the Azores, Schacht was ordered by radio to operate jointly with U-130 commanded by Captain Ernst Kals and the Italian sub Pietro Calvi, but that very day a British destroyer sank the Calvi. On the afternoon of July 23, the two German subs were given their patrol quadrants being told that traffic crossed those quadrants in scattered fashion in a northeasterly direction and vice versa. They were patrolling a stretch of the Atlantic narrows between Dakar and Brazil, focused on convoys and single vessels coming from Trinidad and Georgetown. Their orders took the two subs in autonomous directions. Brazil itself was beyond their area. So how did U-507 end up in Brazilian waters?

Schacht’s U-507 was now on its own and seeing no targets, the crew practiced submerging and firing the deck gun. Isolated from his colleagues deployed across the South Atlantic, Schacht was the only commander who did not have any “victories.” His earlier companion Kals had sunk two ships, but in more than a month since leaving Lorient, U-507 had not fired a single torpedo. For ten days he did not see any ships at all, which led him to think that maritime traffic had been diverted westward toward the Brazilian coast. The boredom and tedium must have been corrosive on the crew’s morale. On the surface the heat of the equatorial zone, the glare of the sunlight reflecting off the sea would have been physically draining, and while submerged the stink of the diesel engines and the sulfuric acidy smell from the electric batteries mixed with the odors of the unwashed crew wearing the same uniforms for weeks must have been extremely distasteful. There was only one toilet available for the 56 crew men. On August 3 the sub was 90 nautical miles from the coast of Ceará when it turned back toward the open ocean. Reaching a point northeast of the islets São Pedro and São Paulo, Schacht made a decision that “would bring unexpected consequences for the Axis war effort.”

Late on the night of August 7, he asked permission from the Submarine Command to operate freely on the Brazilian coast. Some 15 hours later, he received the go-ahead from Submarine Command: “Change course and head for Pernambuco.” This exchange of radio messages shows that historians have been wrong for decades attributing the attacks on Brazilian coastal shipping to the considered planning of the German navy or to orders from Hitler. In reality, it was the decision of a lone sub commander seeking victims. It coincided with the presence of a convoy (AS-4) at Recife ready to head to Africa carrying critically important Sherman tanks for British forces, and German naval leaders hoped that U-507 could do some damage to it and subsequent convoys. In an analysis related to “Operation Brazil,” German naval planners had given Pernambuco considerable importance for the security of Allied convoys. On August 14, a radio message to Schacht emphasized Recife as a resupply and gathering point for convoys and ships from Florida via Georgetown to Natal, St. Helena Island, and Cape Town. Schacht had other ideas. He considered heading toward Rio de Janeiro, however, was dissuaded by his declining fuel supply. The meaning of Submarine Command’s repeated instructions to Schacht was that he was to attack the allied convoys heading toward Cape Town and not Brazilian coastal shipping. On his own he did the opposite. Did Schacht’s disobedience allow Convoy AS-4 to escape unscathed? If so perhaps he contributed to the German defeat at El Alamein? He apparently believed that the reason he had not encountered ships during the previous days was that the Allies had shifted their routes further to the west along the Brazilian coast. He had the idea that oil tankers were coming into the Atlantic through the Strait of Magellan and up the South American coast to a crossing point to Freetown in Africa. He shied away from Pernambuco, which perhaps he thought was too heavily protected. Admiral Ingram had chosen Recife for his headquarters because he believed that Recife’s closeness to Cape São Roque, the nearest location to Africa and thus “most strategic point in South America,” made it the best port for his operations.

August 1942 Disaster on the Coast of Sergipe and Bahia

Schacht took up station off the coast of Bahia and its great port of São Salvador. There he ran less chance of discovery before he could strike. If U-507 was detected, it could plunge into the deep waters off Bahia. The captain was not a coward, but he was cautious. He was one of the German Navy’s 2% of submarine commanders responsible for 30% of sinkings during the war. It is notable that of the 870 U-boats sent after Allied shipping, fully 550 did not sink or damage a single ship. Of a total of 2450 Allied merchantmen sent to the bottom, 800 were sunk by only 30 commanders. Harro Schacht was among that number and was one of Germany’s most intrepid and daring submariners. It is not clear whether he thought he was disobeying orders, perhaps he considered a radio message of July 5 authorizing attack without warning “against all Brazilian merchant ships, including disarmed and recognized as Brazilian” as sufficient sanction. Of course, the July 5 message did not give permission to attack vessels in Brazilian waters. The German Submarine Command never gave an order to attack Brazilian coastal shipping. Recall that Hitler had expressly vetoed “Operation Brazil.” At the Nuremberg trials, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of the German Navy, testified that his submarines had attacked Brazilian ships because they lacked clear identification as neutral and that Germany had advised all South American countries to illuminate their vessels so that they could be recognized at night. However, Brazil had not been so advised, even though Raeder’s testimony implied that it had. Schacht did not long survive these events and left no explanations of his conduct, but all the evidence points to his action as violating orders by sinking seven ships in Brazilian coastal waters. The leading scholar of the submarine attacks, Durval Lourenço Pereira, reached the firm condemning conclusion: “The massacre in the waters of the northeastern litoral happened thanks to the initiative and the personal decision of Lieutenant Commander Harro Schacht”.

Since February 1942 Brazil had lost 12 ships to Axis submarines, but they had all been off the East Coast of the United States or in the Caribbean and adjacent waters. Somehow such losses could be accepted as costs of doing business traversing known war zones. Being attacked while traveling from one state to another via “our territorial waters” would elicit very different emotions. Meanwhile the South Atlantic took on increasing importance in the summer of 1942 because the Germans successfully shut down British convoys using the Arctic above Scandinavia to reach the Russian port of Archangel. The losses were so heavy that the Arctic route had to be discontinued. FDR and Churchill were determined to keep the Soviet Union fighting. The best alternative route was to convoy from the United States via the South Atlantic, around Africa through the Indian Ocean to Iran and thence overland to Soviet territory. An idea of the importance of the route can be seen in the 47,874 aircraft that were shipped disassembled to Russia via the “Persian Corridor.” The route was some 10,000 nautical miles longer than the Arctic one, but there was no other choice. This meant that Brazil and the bases there increased in significance. Brazil was literally the keystone in the edifice of the logistical war. And the war was not going well for the Allies. On January 2, 1942, Manila fell to the Japanese, who also swept over the Netherlands East Indies, then in the next month, the British surrendered Singapore, losing 130,000.

troops taken captive. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18 was predictive of the future and boosted Allied morale, but did little to change the immediate dark trend. In Egypt, on June 21, Rommel’s supposedly weakened Africa corps surprised the British by seizing Tobruk in a relatively brief combat, losing another 6,000 soldiers to the Nazi forces, along with all their armament. Loss of the Suez Canal loomed as an alarming possibility. The Germans would get to 70 miles from Alexandria before being stopped at El Alamein on June 29. Without doubt the war could be won or lost in the South Atlantic. Armies cannot fight without weapons and all sorts of supplies and so safe routes for shipping were crucial to obtain victory. That is why the Axis was sending submarines into the South Atlantic and why the Allies had to destroy them.

Ironically Schacht’s impatience and decision to head to Brazil caused him to miss the S.S. Seatrain Texas which was carrying 250 Sherman tanks steaming for Cape Town and, via the Red Sea, for Port Suez. At Cape Town the British gave it the code name “Treasure Ship.” The US Merchant Marine history concluded that “These Sherman tanks, the first Allied tanks which matched the German Mark IV Panzer in firepower, were a decisive factor at the battle of El Alamein which began on October 23, 1942, and resulted in an Allied victory.” Of course, the intense air cover that Army Air Corps planes gave to the British Eighth Army played an extremely important role, and they would not have been there without Brazilian cooperation and the Parnamirim base at Natal.

Leaving his assigned quadrant caused U-507 to miss the important cargo targets. Schacht’s next action would cause war between Brazil and Germany. He was heading south away from Recife and toward Salvador da Bahia. Submarine Command’s instructions allowed attacking without warning all merchant vessels cruising with their lights out. He was aware that Brazilian coastal ships carried both cargo and passengers. Strictly speaking passenger vessels were not on the list of approved targets, but he could have been frustrated after 40 days at sea and still carrying his compliment of 22 torpedoes. He was moving southeast and would encounter the passenger steamer Baependy on a north-northeast heading. The confrontation of these two vessels had a certain irony to it. They had the same birthplace, at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg. The Baependy had been launched 40 years before and had fallen into Brazilian hands during World War I. U-507 was laid down in 1939. The Brazilian vessel had its running lights on, but its flag and name were in the dark. As Schacht maneuvered into attack position, he saw a light on the horizon, likely another ship. If he acted quickly, he could get two victims. He launched two torpedoes each with an explosive mixture equal to 280 kilos of TNT.

It was 1825 hours and the unwary Baependy was 1500 meters away [1600.4 yards]. On board the Brazilians had just finished dinner and were gathering to celebrate a crew member’s birthday. Soldiers, most of whom were Cariocas, were on the rear deck playing their pandeiros, drumming on cans, and singing sambas. This happy scene was undisturbed as both torpedoes missed their mark and continued on in the darkness. Schacht had miscalculated the speed of the Baependy. He raced ahead and came back at a better angle before launching two more torpedoes at 1912 hours. In his diary he noted “two shots to prevent any possibility of radio transmission by the steamer.” An SOS from the ship could reveal the submarine’s presence. Even if the captain of the Baependy could have seen the torpedoes, at their 40 knot speed, he could not have avoided them. The two torpedoes hit the Baependy about 30 seconds apart.

The 320 passengers were stunned, some frozen in absolute fear, others screaming and trying to reach the deck. Captain Lauro Mourinho dos Reis of the Seventh Artillery Group recalled that glass and wood fragments flew in every direction cutting and killing indiscriminately. The second torpedo had hit the engine room; the lights went out, leaving everyone to struggle for a way out in the dark. Up on deck flames shot into the night. It had happened so rapidly that, despite frenzied efforts, only one of the lifeboats could be let down. Finally on deck Captain Lauro understood that he had to jump overboard to avoid getting sucked under by the sinking ship. A machinist saw the ship’s captain covered in blood on the bridge sounding the ship’s whistle repeatedly as it went under. Those who could not swim thrashed about uselessly, while others held on to floating pieces of wreckage. It had been four minutes from impact to the ship going down prow first. For the 28 survivors in the lone lifeboat, it would be a long dramatic night of terror before they reached land.

Schacht knew he had hit a passenger vessel but did nothing to help the survivors. Instead he attacked the second ship, the Araraquara, a relatively new, luxury vessel He noted that it had its running lights on and was “brilliantly illuminated” but it lacked any mark of neutrality. Two hours after sinking the Baependy, the U-507’s torpedo exploded amidship plunging the Araraquara into darkness. It listed and broke in half and within five minutes it and its 131 passengers were gone. Four crewmen clung to wreckage, one hallucinated and threw himself into the sea, and the others lived to tell the tale.

On August 16 at 0210 in the morning, on the north coast of Bahia, the third victim was the Anibal Benevolo, with 154 passengers and crew on board. Asleep, they had no time to panic; the vessel went down in 45 seconds. Only four crewmen managed to save themselves. U-507 continued toward Salvador. So far it was very successful from a coldly martial point of view. The three ships had not been able to sound an SOS; the German submarine was advancing on Salvador undetected. One of the reasons Schacht chose this region is that the depth of the sea plunges from 40 meters north of the city to 1000 meters at the bay’s mouth. If discovered, he could easily dive to the sub’s maximum depth of 230 meters. Unhappily for Schacht nothing seemed to be afloat in the great bay, except a small sailboat that he did not regard as worth his bother. Before dawn on the 17th, he went back to deep water, where at 0841 he spied a steamer going north. It was the Itagíba, carrying the rest of the army’s Seventh Artillery Group among other passengers. At a distance of 1000 meters, the torpedo hit the ship in the middle. Its passengers managed to get off in lifeboats, although two of the boats were hit or dragged under by the sinking ship. Ten minutes had elapsed.

In an act of temporary mercy, Schacht chose not to sink the yacht Aragipe which came to rescue the people in the crowded lifeboats. Likely he simply did not want to surface to use his deck gun, so as not to reveal his position. The Aragipe was able to crowd on 150 terrified survivors; the remainders were picked up by two of the lifeboats. Meanwhile in Salvador an alarm had been sounded and vessels were held in port. One ship, the Arará, unaware of the warning, had gone amidst the floating wreckage to pick up 18 survivors. Observing through his periscope from 200 meters away, he waited until all were onboard before firing the torpedo. Raising the periscope again to survey the scene, he could only see one lifeboat with five “non-whites” in it.

Later in the afternoon, Schacht saw a passenger ship coming his way. It was painted gray and did not have a flag or other marks of neutrality. He fired and the torpedo hit its mark but it did not explode. The unnamed vessel was moving too fast for U-507 to catch it before it reached safety in the port. He noted in his log: “It is not possible to stop it with artillery during the day, considering the nearness of the port and the aerial danger.”

It was now clear to the Brazilian and American authorities that submarines were operating in Bahian waters. From Recife the destroyer USS Somers and cruiser USS Humboldt steamed south, and seaplanes from VP-83 squadron flew out on patrol. Meanwhile Schacht, on August 18, had taken U-507 out to sea to make repairs on a mechanical problem in a launch tube. The seaplane PBY Catalina 83P6 found it exposed on the surface and attacked with machine guns and depth charges. U-507 dived rapidly. The pilot, Lt. John M. Lacey, USN, thought he had sunk it because an oil slick and air bubbles appeared on the surface. But all the attack had done was cause a leak in an oil tank. Schacht steered his boat south toward Ilhéus in search for more targets. But the only vessel encountered was a small coastal sailing boat, on August 19, that his crew boarded but not understanding Portuguese learned nothing useful. The Jacyra was carrying a disassembled truck, cases of empty bottles, and cacao. The mestiço crew were sent toward shore and the Germans blew up the vessel. Why they took the trouble to destroy such a harmless craft is a mystery. The smell of fuel oil alerted them to the leak in the tank and the need for repairs. The next day U-507 returned to the entrance to the Bay of All Saints where he found the lighthouses were shut down, but oddly Salvador was still lit up brightly. On the 22nd Schacht encountered the Swedish ship Hammarem without lights and launched a torpedo, but missed. A second one hit its mark but did not explode. As dawn broke he surfaced and fired the 105 mm gun on the rear deck hitting the bridge. The crew abandoned the burning ship, while Schacht maneuvered to fire his last torpedo from the stern tube. Turning north he set course for France. He left behind a Brazil lusting for revenge.

Businesses with German names were sacked. Police rounded up Germans. What some called Brazil’s “ Pearl Harbor” provoked clamorous street demonstrations throughout the country. The streets of Fortaleza, Ceará, filled with people breaking into stores owned by real or supposed Germans and Italians and setting them afire. The police could not control the mob. In Vitória, Espírito Santo, on the 17th the authorities could not quell the rioters, who wrecked some 25 buildings, but took all Axis nationals into custody, while in Belém do Pará, news of the sinkings resulted in mobs destroying some 20 stores, offices, and houses of alleged Axis nationals and sympathizers. In Manaus there were loud anti-Axis demonstrations that saw numerous Axis nationals being beaten and injured. In Natal there was destruction of Axis property and “genuine enthusiasm against enemy for the first time….” São Paulo saw large groups of students shouting for war and a huge number in the plaza in front of the Cathedral clamoring for action. The US Consulate in Porto Alegre reported that there was a systematic smashing of shops belonging to supposed Axis sympathizers. “All around the Consulate at this minute stores are being demolished.” The material damage was already great.40 The outraged Brazilian people demanded a response.

Inadvertently, U-507 would contribute to the eventual Allied victory by its unauthorized attack on Brazilian shipping. After pulling Brazil into the war, Schacht returned to his home base at Lorient in France. Unlike a previous voyage this time there were no medals and the reception was not warm. U-507 retuned to sea in late November and cruised back to Brazil, where it patrolled off of Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte. In conducting attacks Schacht changed his procedure to take prisoner the fated ship’s captain to obtain precise information about cargoes and navigation routes. By New Year’s 1943, he had three British merchant marine captains on board the U-507. In a twist of fortune, on January 13, 1943, a USN Catalina PBY, flying out of the base at Fortaleza, spotted the submarine and dropped four depth charges totaling 884 kilos of TNT making direct hits.

U-507’s voyages of death were ended thanks to the Brazilian-American alliance.

The Scourge of the Atlantic I

Fw 200, “SG+KS” of I.Gruppe/KG 40.

Seated facing each other in the high-backed walnut chairs of the Air Council Room in King Charles Street were the top brass of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The man who had called the conference was Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the newly appointed Chief of the Air Staff. Confronting him across the square walnut table was the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, Chief of the Naval Staff.

The highly polished furniture, the rich velvet of the curtains, the thick pile of the carpet, the solid permanence of the stone fireplace, and the graceful aerobatics depicted in the World War I paintings on the panelled walls, failed to create the usual atmosphere of relaxation and confidence. The date was Tuesday 12 November 1940, the time four o’clock in the afternoon.

The Battle of Britain had been won, but Britain still stood alone against a powerful, ruthless and impatient enemy. Four days earlier, Hitler had sworn to intensify the air and U-boat war. Britain was to be bombed and starved into submission.

The November fogs that might have blanketed London as a target had failed to materialise, and the gales that had restricted enemy air activity the previous night had blown themselves out. The sky was clear, and the moon was full. Across the English Channel the Luftwaffe were preparing to renew their onslaught, with London the main objective.

As the conference deliberated, the lights in the room were switched on and the curtains punctiliously drawn. From a score of heavily sandbagged Government departments in adjacent Whitehall, drably attired civil servants scurried off home to beat the black-out.

As night fell the sirens wailed, and within minutes the guns of the barrage thundered. Soon, from the outskirts of the city, the first bombs reverberated. But the men closeted in the luxurious isolation of the Air Council Room paid no heed. They did not allow the bombing to interrupt their proceedings. In any case the bombing, for the moment, was not their prime concern. Nor were the U-boats, though they were headache enough. To the unrelenting battle of attrition in the Atlantic, in this first winter of the shooting war, a new dimension had been added, and the brass-hats had been caught off their guard. They faced what seemed an insoluble problem, yet it was one to which they had to find the answer. ‘If we fail in this,’ said one of them, ‘we lose the war.’

Before the German conquest of Norway in April 1940, Britain’s trade routes were menaced by U-boat and surface raider only. The threat from the air was confined to the routes along the east coast Even after Norway fell, Britain’s merchant shipping crossing the Atlantic, or plying to and from the southern hemisphere, could safely use the south-western approaches, rounding Southern Ireland before passing through St George’s Channel and into the Irish Sea. But with the fall of France in June 1940, Germany commanded the entire Western European seaboard from Norway to the Pyrenees. Former French airfields were occupied by the Luftwaffe, and it was from one of these airfields, Bordeaux-Merignac, that the Nazis unleashed a new threat to Britain’s lifelines in the Focke-Wulf 200, or Condor, soon to be described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the ‘scourge of the Atlantic.’

The Condor, aptly named despite its genesis as a peacetime airliner, began its depredations against Allied merchantmen in August 1940, and in two and a half months these huge four-engined bombers, hurriedly converted from the civil version, sank nearly 90,000 tons of Allied shipping. With dimensions and wing area roughly equivalent of the Lancaster and Halifax bombers of later years, they were capable of reaching more than a thousand miles out into the Atlantic, far beyond the range of Britain’s shore-based fighters, and at once it was clear that the Germans had found one of Britain’s weakest links, Under the command of the experienced and dedicated Oberstleutnant Edgar Petersen, the Condors of the newly formed I. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 40 exploited it eagerly.

Frustrated in their invasion plans, the Nazis abandoned their efforts to attain air superiority over the English Channel and concentrated their resources first on the destruction of Britain’s industry and morale by night bombing and second on the severing of her vital trade lifelines. Patrolling at 2,000 feet and 190 miles an hour, searching for single ships or stragglers, the Condors that autumn began to sink ships almost at will.

In vain did the British Admiralty close all southern ports to heavy shipping, switch convoys to the Clyde and the Mersey, and re-route their ships as far as possible away from Bordeaux. On 26 October the 42,000-ton Canadian Pacific luxury liner Empress of Britain, operating as a troopship but sailing without escort, was bombed and set on fire eighty miles west of Bloody Foreland, by a pilot named Bernhard Jope on his first operational flight Sailing from Cape Town to Liverpool, she had encountered good weather and was a day ahead of schedule. Jope sighted her, circled, and flashed a recognition signal; but he was fairly certain that in this position she must be an enemy vessel. He worked round to her stern, then turned in suddenly on the same course, opened fire, and dropped his first bombs. Until the last moment the crew of the liner thought the aircraft was friendly. In two further attacks Jope met heavy return fire from the troopship’s three-inch and Lewis guns and his Condor was severely damaged, but he managed to limp back to Bordeaux.

Next day the 5,000-ton Alfred Jones was bombed and badly damaged 150 miles west of Malin Head; and six more ships were bombed and in some cases abandoned off the west and north-west coast of Ireland in the next ten days. Although medium bombers like the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 88 had operated successfully in the North Sea, the range of these types was restricted and in every case the attacking aircraft was a Focke-Wulf Condor.

The loss of the Empress of Britain – she was given the coup de grâce two days later by a passing U-boat while a tow was being attempted – stood out as a devastating blow. She had taken three years to build and in wartime she was irreplaceable. Some defence against the new predator had to be found.

The man sounding off most shrilly in the corridors of Whitehall was an R.A.F. air commodore named Donald Stevenson, Director of Fighter Operations at the Air Ministry. Denouncing what he saw as the Admiralty’s complacency, he kept thumping home the message that the Western Approaches were Britain’s lifeline, without which the war was lost East coast traffic, which he felt the Admiralty were treating as of equal importance, was not comparable in his view. There was no alternative to the Atlantic route, whereas east coast traffic, in the last resort, could always be transported by road or rail. In any case losses in coastal waters, which had reached a peak during the first phase of the Battle of Britain in July, had fallen off considerably since then. No doubt this was an oversimplification; but Stevenson argued with some force that the naval staff be invited to review their routeings and priorities so that fighter protection in the Atlantic to the greatest practicable range could be provided.

In an impassioned plea to Portal, Stevenson submitted that the Condor bomber was one of the most serious problems of the future. It could find ships and convoys at great distances, and it was unrealistic to suppose that shore-based fighters could help. They would only be effective against the shorter-range He. 111 and Ju. 88. The overseas convoys must face the fact that they must rely on local protection only – their own guns, plus anything that the Navy could provide in the way of carrier aircraft.

Stevenson did offer Portal one crumb of comfort, but he warned that it was a crumb upon which Britain might choke. The Germans had started the Condor war on Britain’s trade, he said, with a small unit backed up by a very limited production programme. Indeed, essentially the Condor was not a war machine at all. It still followed the structural lines of its predecessor, hastily strengthened for war purposes. Even the new Condors that were coming off the production line of the Focke-Wulf factory at Bremen followed the same constructional principles, so that the machines, although well armed, were far more susceptible to damage from enemy defences and from minor accidents than the averagely robust operational type. The Condor might well be decisive, warned Stevenson, in a maritime war against Britain’s trade, but only if it were employed in considerable numbers before Britain could find an antidote. ‘It looks as if Germany has repeated the same kind of mistake as she made in 1914–18 with her U-boats,’ conjectured Stevenson. This was very fortunate for Britain; but it could not be expected to last. Germany had ample bases, and production was bound to be increased. By the spring of 1941, Britain’s arrangements to secure her vital trade against this form of attack must be completed.

Stimulated by these and other outpourings from Stevenson, Portal called a conference to discuss fighter protection for Britain’s convoys, to which he invited Sir Dudley Pound and his vice-chief, Admiral Tom Phillips (Fifth Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Air Services), and the commanders-in-chief of the two R.A.F. commands most closely concerned – Fighter and Coastal The agenda was prepared by Stevenson; and even on the morning of the conference he was sending urgent minutes to Portal. This was the conference that met on that fateful afternoon of 12 November 1940 in the Air Council Room in King Charles Street.

The meeting began with a discussion of the various methods by which the activities of the Condors might be countered. The Condor factory at Bremen, and the Condor base at Bordeaux, must be singled out for bombing attack. Anti-aircraft armament for merchant ships must be substantially improved, even if it meant – as it assuredly would – denuding shore defences. But no one believed that these measures were more than palliatives. The obvious requirement was for high performance fighters capable of making interceptions to the limit of Condor range; but the only way of achieving this was by providing them as an integral part of convoy escorts, which meant aircraft carriers. And with the sinking of the Courageous and the Glorious in the early months of the war, and the demands of the Mediterranean theatre, the aircraft carrier cupboard was bare.

Second best seemed to be to transfer squadrons of the new twin-engined Beaufighter to Northern Ireland. But there were objections. The Beaufighters, helped by ground radar stations which vectored them on to their targets, were doing a good job in a defensive role where they were and could ill be spared. Attempts to locate Condors in the wide open spaces of the Atlantic were not likely to succeed. It was one thing for a Condor to locate a convoy, it was quite another for a Beaufighter to track down a Condor, even with the aid of Intelligence gleaned from the secret radio intercept service at Cheadle. Nevertheless the Admiralty favoured above all else the strengthening of the long-range fighter force in Northern Ireland.

The Air Staff had assessed the requirement as a minimum of three Beaufighter squadrons, and the transfer was duly made. It was nothing like enough. There might be as many as four convoys in the danger zone at any one time, to say nothing of unescorted vessels, and to maintain continuous patrols would have required ten times as many aircraft, equivalent to the entire Beaufighter output for the next twelve months. Even then some of the attack areas would have remained out of reach.

Arising from this discussion, however, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Training), Rear Admiral H. R. Moore, interposed a suggestion. If special ships in each convoy were equipped as mobile radar sector stations, they could guide the Beaufighters on to their Condor targets. This sounded like good sense; and an unnamed Air Ministry representative at the conference went one better by suggesting a refinement – ‘to fit such a ship with a catapult so that two or three fighters could be carried for interception purposes’.

The notion of the expendable fighter, flown by a pilot on a one-way ticket, had been anonymously born.

Even in the rarefied atmosphere of the Air Council Room, it was difficult enough to take decisions and make recommendations; and when it came to translating these policies into reality, the complications multiplied tenfold. However, the Condor crews themselves, by further bombing attacks off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland, concentrated the thoughts of one man’s mind wonderfully. After producing a further paper for Portal immediately after the conference, Stevenson was writing to him again within a week. Since the meeting, he said, several more ships had been bombed. He listed the Apapa (9,000 tons), the Fishpool (5,000 tons) and the Empire Wind (7,500 tons); two sunk, the third on fire and sinking. Even as he was compiling his list, news reached him of the bombing of two more ships. One of them, the 10,000-ton Nestlea, the convoy commodore’s ship, lay abandoned and sinking. Both, Stevenson alleged, had been routed within a hundred miles of the south-west point of Ireland, where they were ‘easy money’. Why were the Admiralty still routeing ships in this way?

For the Admiralty, of course, the routeing of convoys presented a ceaseless dilemma. Especially vulnerable were the routes to and from Gibraltar, where the flank was continually exposed to the Condor base. The Admiralty’s answer was to route convoys further and further west to stretch the Condors to the uttermost; but this had the disadvantage of widening the gap between shore-based air cover from south-west England and Gibraltar. While the right compromise was being sought, convoys continued to suffer.

Another thing that angered Stevenson was the Admiralty’s attitude, expressed in conference, towards warning their convoys of the known approach of Condors. So vital to Britain’s conduct of the war was the knowledge she gained from her intercept service that no one dare risk compromising it. But surely, argued Stevenson, it was not beyond the wit of the Admiralty to devise a safe method of passing the necessary information? The screw was being turned, and the effect of shortages was already becoming apparent on the industrial scene. Stevenson recommended that all convoys should approach from the north-west, where Condors from both France and Norway were at the limit of their range, pass into the danger area in darkness, and rely on protection from land-based fighters from dawn. But the Admiralty, with the menace of U-boats and surface raiders still the major threat, thought otherwise. For the long term, however, Stevenson pinned his faith on the expendable fighter. ‘We should get moving on this at once.’

Thus fertilised, the idea of the expendable fighter took root in Portal’s mind, and he sounded Pound on the practicability of allocating a ship fitted with radar, catapult and fighter to accompany each convoy. Pound approved in principle; but in a situation where shortages were endemic, the catapults, the radar equipment, and above all the ships and the aircraft, had to be found.

It was thought at first that tankers, with their lengthy foredeck, would be the type most easily adapted to mounting a catapult rail; and it was believed that the aircraft most likely to be available in numbers was the single-engined twin-seat Fairey Fulmar. But tankers, it was soon realised, were too slow. A speed of 10–12 knots would be needed to assist the launch, and another requirement was the ability to turn quickly into wind for launching, which the tanker lacked. The Fulmar was also dismissed as too slow, except as a stopgap; its margin of speed over the Condor was reckoned to be not more than 10 m.p.h. After a flirtation with a new light-weight wooden aircraft, the Miles M.20, which would have been easy to catapult but which never reached the production stage, investigations were begun into modifying the Hawker Hurricane. This tough little aircraft, in the process of being superseded in fighter squadrons by the Spitfire, seemed likely to prove the ideal choice.

As for the catapult, the type normally used to launch aircraft from ships was hydraulically operated and had a cordite cylinder, but it was too cumbersome, too sophisticated and too expensive for general use in merchant ships, while the lighter naval type could not launch a fighter of the weight of the Hurricane at the velocity required. The alternative was the simple rocket catapult, propelled by banks of 3-inch rockets; and the rockets happened to be available. All these matters, however, remained for the moment in the realm of investigation, and no decisions could be taken until the results of preliminary trials were known.

One measure that could be quickly implemented, however, was the bombing of the Condor base, and on the night of 22/23 November a sizeable force from Bomber Command set out to attack Bordeaux-Merignac. Of the forty-three crews detailed – in eighteen Wellingtons, eleven Whitleys and fourteen Hampdens – thirty claimed to have dropped their high-explosive and incendiary bombs in the target area, and they reported explosions and fires amongst hangars and buildings. But although German accounts confirm that the raid did considerable damage, further raids were less successful, and the activities of the Condors were never interrupted for long.

 

The Scourge of the Atlantic II

Test launch of a Hurricane at Greenock, Scotland, 31 May 1941

While the air marshals continued to pursue the idea of the expendable fighter with optimism – ‘Bert’ Harris, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, and Wilfred Freeman, Vice-Chief, among them – the admirals on the whole were not enthusiastic. They still preferred to see the strengthening of Coastal Command. Churchill agreed with the air marshals. ‘The eight-gun fighter,’ he wrote, ‘will be a powerful deterrent.’ Yet it was the Admiralty who were the first to take action operationally. They ordered H.M.S. Pegasus, a former seaplane carrier that was being used as a catapult training ship, to sail on 9 December with the next outward bound convoy, carrying two Fulmars for catapulting. Tom Phillips thought little of their chances because of their speed limitations, but believed it was the best that could be done at short notice.

The priority the Admiralty were giving the problem, however, did not satisfy Churchill. ‘What have you done,’ he demanded of Pound on 27 December, ‘about catapulting expendable aircraft from ships?’ Three days later, on 30 December, a final decision was taken – although still only in principle – to fit out an unspecified number of merchant vessels for the catapulting of one or more unspecified types of aircraft. They were to be known as Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships, or Camships, and their numbers were to depend on trials and an operational experience. These Camships were to sail as an integral part of convoys: they would fly the Red Ensign, and they would carry normal freight. Since they would be in the danger zone for no more than a few days at a time, once during the outward journey and once on the return, the watch-keeping was unlikely to be so onerous that one pilot could not cope with it. But where were the vessels to come from? To withdraw freight carriers from convoy service for the fitting of catapults and radar equipment, and for training, would impose an unacceptable reduction of working tonnage, so only vessels under construction, big enough to take a 75-foot steel runway mounted over the forecastle head, were to be fitted. This meant a delay of several months before the scheme could start operating.

Meanwhile, as a stopgap, four ships that were being fitted out for service as auxiliary naval vessels were to be adapted for catapult work. These ships, which had been banana boats in peacetime, were the Ariguani, the Maplin, the Patia and the Springbank, and they were to be known as Fighter Catapult Ships. Each was to carry two expendable fighters, one hoisted in readiness on a catapult trolley and the other stored as a reserve, with the necessary gantries to hoist it into position. As naval auxiliaries they would fly the White Ensign and form part of the convoy escort; they would not carry freight. They would be employed in the danger zone only, accompanying convoys to the western limit before returning with incoming convoys. With approximately seventeen days of concentrated watch-keeping in prospect, and a spare aircraft, they would need three pilots to cope.

While the British sought to improvise an antidote to the Condor, the Germans aimed to capitalise on a weapon that was itself an improvisation. Before the war the Focke-Wulf Condor, designed by the firm’s technical director Kurt Tank, had broken many records on the commercial air routes and had gone into service with Lufthansa and Danish Air Lines. An order from Japan early in 1939 had stimulated design work on a reconnaissance version, and this proved useful when, on the outbreak of war, Germany found herself lacking any long-range reconnaissance aircraft. Göring, urged by Udet, had cancelled production of a projected long-range bomber, and Hitler, believing that he could avoid war with Britain, had trusted to the blitzkrieg for a quick and easy victory. The only suitable aircraft on the drawing board was the Heinkel 177, but it was nowhere near production. The Luftwaffe thus found itself obliged to look for a suitable aircraft to fill the gap. It was Edgar Petersen, formerly Director of the Instrument Flying School at Celle and a flyer with much long-range peacetime experience, who suggested the Condor.

Some progress had already been made with the training of crews. With the increasing risk of war against Britain if Poland were invaded, an investigation was ordered in the spring of 1939 which revealed that all combat units lacked experience of flying over water, and a special course was established at Oldenburg to which Petersen was appointed Director. Then on 1 August 1939, with the formation of the new Fliegerkorps X, Petersen was transferred to its staff.

Summoned soon afterwards to General Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Petersen was ordered to prepare proposals for the formation of a long-range unit for attacking marine targets in the Atlantic. An examination of available types showed Petersen that the FW 200 alone had sufficient potential range, and he submitted his proposals accordingly. Jeschonnek approved, the Focke-Wulf company were duly asked to produce a military version and ten machines were ordered. Four of these were earmarked for transport work, but the remaining six were fitted with defensive armament and bomb-racks. Auxiliary fuel tanks built into the fuselage increased their maximum range to over 2,000 miles. To prepare for the delivery of these six modified Condors (or Kuriers, as the military version was called, though the name Condor soon reasserted itself), a Staffel was formed under Petersen at Bremen on 1 October.

Petersen was careful to choose pilots who were expert in blind flying, and navigators who had specialised knowledge of astro navigation. Most of them had served as instructors at the instrument flying schools, and the Staffel soon developed the discipline and charisma of an élite corps.

While the Condors underwent conversion, the crews passed the winter in training flights over the North and Baltic Seas. Then in the spring of 1940 the unit was redesignated I./KG 40 and began operations, flying armed reconnaissances in support of the German invasion of Norway and bombing sorties against British shipping engaged in the campaign.

Following the Allied débâcle the unit was expanded into two Staffeln, redesignated I. Gruppe KG 40, and re-equipped with an improved mark of Condor, the 200 C-1, which differed from its predecessor principally in that the ventral or belly gondola was considerably lengthened, allowing a 20-millimetre cannon to be fitted to the forward section to silence the guns of target vessels, firing forward and down. The ventral armament was completed by a 7.9 millimetre machine-gun in the rear of the gondola, firing aft and down. The dorsal armament consisted of a 7.9 machine-gun in a forward turret, with an all-round field of fire, and a similar weapon to the rear. The four BMW engines, as in the earlier version, each developed 850 hp, and they could lift five or six 250 kg (551 lb) bombs and a crew of five. These consisted of pilot, co-pilot, navigator (who also served as radio-operator, bomb-aimer and gunner), engineer-gunner, and rear dorsal gunner. The economical cruising speed was approximately 180 mph and the radius of action with a full bomb-load about 1,100 miles.

Early in July, following the fall of France, the transfer of the new Gruppe to a newly acquired airfield at Bordeaux-Merignac was begun; but its true métier was still not fully understood, except perhaps by Petersen. The first phase of the Battle of Britain had started and it was perhaps inevitable that KG 40 should be thrown into the fray. With two big aerial mines suspended externally, the Condor crews, operating in darkness, began a minelaying campaign against Britain’s east coast ports; but thus handicapped the Condors suffered disastrously in speed and stability and became too vulnerable a target for the ground defences. When two Condors were lost on minelaying operations on the night of 19/20 July, Petersen urged that such operations be discontinued. Unable to get permission through the ‘usual channels’, he by-passed them and appealed by telephone direct to Jeschonnek. ‘This wasteful business of mining will have to stop,’ he told Jeschonnek. ‘Otherwise we shall lose all our planes and crews.’ Although taken aback at Petersen’s outburst, Jeschonnek knew his man and agreed. (The two men had served together in the secret air force in Russia in 1929.) Petersen went on to urge that the Gruppe be allowed to begin the work for which it was formed, equipped and trained, and Jeschonnek was sympathetic. But with the Battle of Britain rapidly approaching its climax, the Gruppe was next recruited into the night bombing of Britain’s cities, and missions were flown to the Liverpool-Birkenhead area on four successive nights in August. By this time, however, the Condors had begun operating against Allied merchant shipping, mostly in the North Atlantic, and they soon began to enjoy spectacular success. Co-operating with Marine Gruppe West at Lorient, the Condors took off singly from Bordeaux in the early morning and flew out across the Bay of Biscay as far as 24 degrees west before describing a right-hand semi-circle that took them north of Scotland on their way to a landing in Norway, returning by the same route two days later. Any convoys cut by this huge arc thus came under surveillance, and single ships and stragglers were attacked on sight.

Lacking any sophisticated form of bomb-sight, the Condor crews attacked their targets visually from abeam at low level, diving down to masthead height, where the guns of escort vessels were powerless to interfere. ‘You could hardly miss,’ says Petersen. ‘Even without a bomb-sight at least one of the bombs would find the ship provided you kept low enough.’ Some pilots, learning from experience that what little armament the merchant ships themselves carried was invariably mounted astern, directed their bombing runs along the length of vessels from the bow, pulling up steeply after they had dropped their bombs to avoid collision with masts. It was in this period, from late August to mid-November 1940, that the Condors sank nearly 90,000 tons of Allied shipping and damaged a good deal more.

These were the sinkings that first stimulated the search for a counter-measure by the British naval and air staffs. But they did not satisfy Petersen. Despite well-earned awards of the Knight’s Cross to pilots like Captains Fliegel and Daser and Lieutenants Verlohr and Buchholz, as well as to Jope and himself, and despite the posting-in of the cream of the bomber training schools, Petersen could not contain his frustration. At just about the time that Stevenson was warning Portal that an intensification of the Condor threat must be anticipated, Petersen was appealing to Hitler for a dramatic increase in Condor production. ‘If I had enough aircraft to send out between forty and fifty a day,’ he is reported to have said, ‘the blockade of England could be really effective.’

Clearly Petersen was not given to over-statement, a characteristic which may have told against him in Nazi Germany. Anyway, for the moment at least, he was no more successful in his pleadings than Stevenson had been. Throughout 1940 only thirty-six Condors were built, and although an improved variant – the 200 C-3, incorporating four 1,000 h.p. Bramo-Fafnir radial engines and other refinements – was in preparation, production was still limited to four or five machines a month. Indeed throughout the winter of 1940/41 the Gruppe continued to operate two Staffeln on about fifteen aircraft, of which rarely more than eight were serviceable at any one time.

This problem of serviceability, which was to dog the Condor for many months, was directly traceable to the haste with which the military version had been adapted from the commercial. The basic structure of the Condor, as has been noted, was not designed to meet the demands of continuous operational flying, and the chosen methods of attack, often involving violent evasive manoeuvres at low level, imposed too great a strain. The most frequent faults were that the rear spar failed and the fuselage aft of the trailing edge of the wing cracked.

Despite these drawbacks, however, the two Condor Staffeln, backed up by one small factory with an output of little more than one aircraft a week, continued to sink ships and exert an influence on the sea war out of all proportion to their size. The short-term measures taken against them proved inadequate, further bombing raids on their bases found defences strengthened and dispersal effective, and the expendable fighter, coupled with strong defensive armament on all merchant ships, seemed the only hope of relief.

This relief, though, was still a long way off, and meanwhile the Naval Air Division of the Admiralty put forward an imaginative proposal to erect dummy aircraft on selected ships on a simulated catapult The Intelligence Division would then spread a rumour that merchant ships were being equipped with fighters, and it might be some time before the bluff was called, giving a deterrent effect meanwhile. Objections were that the deception would be so obvious at the ports of embarkation that the enemy would soon get to know the truth, and that even it the ruse didn’t fail completely it might only attract Condor attack. But with real fighters and real catapults in prospect, the enemy might well guess wrong at a later date. Five old Fokker seaplanes and two dummy biplanes were sent to Liverpool and Glasgow, but only two had been fitted when, in June 1941, the idea lapsed on the introduction of the first Camships. It was, however, resuscitated later on the Russian convoys.

The need for fighters at least equal in performance to the Hurricane was underlined on 11 January when a Fulmar was catapulted from Pegasus to attempt an interception. This launching, the first of the so-called expendable fighters, took place 250 miles off the Irish Coast and the pilot was able to reach land, so it lacked an essential element; but there were important lessons to be learnt from it. The ship being attacked was five miles distant from Pegasus on the port beam, clearly visible, and although the Fulmar got off quickly the ship was bombed and hit and the Condor pilot already heading for the sanctuary of cloud when the Fulmar began the chase. Indeed the cloud conditions were such that a launching would hardly have been ordered had the pilot not been within reach of land. In the short pursuit that developed, the Fulmar was exposed as far too slow. The Fulmar pilot, Petty Officer F. J. Shaw, landed safely at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland.

By this time the Condors were finding it more profitable to head out into the Atlantic to a point about 25 degrees west, carry out a two-hour search, and return to Bordeaux, rather than continue to Norway; and their tactics paid off so well that forty-three ships suffered attack by Condor in the first two months of 1941, of which twenty-six were sunk. The worst day of all was 9 February, when five Condors led by Captain Fritz Fliegel sank five freighters in the same convoy, 400 miles south-west of Lisbon and over a thousand miles from Bordeaux.

The Condor crews were claiming 363,000 tons of Allied shipping sunk to date, eighty-five ships in all. Nineteen of these were sunk in February alone. The British knew only too well that, unlike some of the bragging of the Nazi leaders, the claims of the Condor crews were soundly based.

In these early months of 1941, sorties by German surface raiders, among them the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Hipper, wrought further destruction, while the U-boats, which as in 1914 had begun the war underprepared, were known to be building up for a decisive campaign. On 30 January Hitler boasted that a combination of sea and air power would soon encompass Britain’s starvation and surrender. ‘In the spring,’ he promised, ‘our U-boat war will begin at sea, and they will notice that we have not been sleeping. And the Air Force will play its part.’

Early in March 1941 the Luftwaffe established a new anti-shipping command under Fliegerführer Atlantik, with a headquarters near the U-boat base at Lorient. Its task was to direct air operations against Allied shipping in the Atlantic in close co-operation with the C-in-C Submarine Fleet. Up to this time it had been rare for Condors to shadow convoys in order to call up U-boats, but now the arrival of a Condor often presaged attack by U-boat.

Churchill’s reaction was typical. ‘We have got to lift this business to the highest plane, over and above everything else,’ he told Pound. Nine months earlier, on 18 June 1940, he had heralded the Battle of Britain. Now he proclaimed the Battle of the Atlantic.

In view of various German statements [he announced in a historic directive of 6 March 1941], we must assume that the Battle of the Atlantic has begun …

We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Focke-Wulf and other bombers employed against our shipping must be attacked in the air and in their nests.

Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult or otherwise launch fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week …

Preparations for the employment of the expendable fighter after nearly four months of uncertainty and delay, were at last given the impetus that was needed. Within three months of this directive, four Fighter Catapult Ships were operating and the first of the new Camships was about to sail.