Hungarian Air Force 1930-45 Part II

Meanwhile, German counter-attacks failed to retake Kiev but did push the Soviets out of Zhitomir, where the 1 Ungarishe Jabostafel found a new base and celebrated its 100th kill in December 1943. Through long months of intense combat, it had suffered the loss of just 6 pilots (plus 2 missing) from an original 37 airmen, as proof of their great skill and good luck. After New Year’s 1944, they relocated yet again, this time to Khalinovka. During the transfer, Lieutenant Lasl6 Molnar and his wingman, Corporal Erno Kiss, encountered 30 Shturmoviks covered by 10 Lavochkins. Laughing at the 20-to-1 odds against them, the Hungarians dove amid the enemy bombers, shooting down four of them, plus two Red fighters, before completing their flight to Khalinovka.

While battles such as these showcased the Hungarians’ superb combat performance, they nonetheless demonstrated the awful numerical edge overshadowing the Eastern Front in lengthening shades of doom. The sheer mass of man power and materiel now at Stalin’s disposal was sufficient to usually drown any technological superiority the Axis might have possessed, as evidenced by the 2,600 warplanes he assembled for his conquest of Vinnitsa, the Wehrmacht’s own headquarters in Russia, defended by 1,460 Luftwaffe aircraft. The Soviets were nevertheless stymied for more than three months, during which the entire Eastern Front was stabilized, and the Pumas were in the thick of the fighting, scoring more than 50 “kills” in January and February alone.

On March 17,1944, the USAAF for the first time attacked Budapest with 70 B-24s. The Liberators were undeterred by just four Hungarian flown Messerschmitts, all of which were damaged and two shot down by the unescorted heavy-bombers’ defensive fire. The encounter illustrated not only the pitifully inadequate numbers of aircraft available for home defense but lack of proper pilot training. The Americans returned on April 3 to bomb a hospital and other civilian targets as punishment, it was generally believed, for the recent establishment of a new government closer aligned with Germany. In any case, the attack left 1,073 dead and 526 wounded.

During the 13-day interval between these raids, the 1/1 and 2/1 Fighter Squadrons had been reassigned to the capital, and its crews provided a crash course in interception tactics. Even so, 170 P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs prevented most of the two dozen Pumas from approaching their targets. A few that penetrated the escorts’ protective ring destroyed 11 heavy-bombers at the cost of 1 Hungarian flyer. Six more Liberators were brought down by Budapest flak. In another USAAF raid 10 days later, the Mustangs were replaced by Republic P-47s, which failed to score against the Messerschmitts. Instead, two Thunderbolts fell to ground fire, along with four B-17 Flying Fortresses.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian pilots were getting the hang of interception, suffering no casualties for downing eight B-24s and six Lightnings. These losses combined with the mistaken American belief that aircraft manufacturing throughout Hungary had been brought to a halt. In fact, just a small Experimental Institute lost its hangars and workshops, and a Messerschmitt factory was damaged, although soon after restored to full production capacity. USAAF warplanes continued to appear in Hungarian skies over the next two months, but only on their way to targets in Austria or ferrying supplies to the Soviet Union. The Magyar Legierd took full advantage of this lull in enemy raids to upgrade and re-train three, full-strength fighter squadrons, while Budapest’s already formidable anti-aircraft defenses were bolstered.

When the 101. Honi Legvedelmi Vadkszrepiild Osztkly, or 101st “Puma” Fighter Group, was formed on May 1, 1944, Cadet Dezsd Szentgyorgyi transferred to the 101/2 Retek, “Radish” Fighter Squadron, where he would soon become Flight Leader, then, on November 16, Ensign. These rapid promotions were generated by his rapidly rising number of enemy heavy-bombers shot down during the “American Season;’ as the period was referred to by his fellow pilots. Placed in charge of the Home Defense Fighter Wing was Major Aladar Heppes. At 40 years of age, he was the Magyar Legierd’s eldest pilot, known as “the Old Puma;’ a seasoned Eastern Front veteran. For practice, his airmen confronted several hundred USAAF heavy bombers and their escorts droning toward Vienna on May 24. Although four Liberators, a Flying Fortress and one Mustang were destroyed, Major Heppes lost one man killed, and six Messerschmitts were damaged. But the Home Defense Fighter Wing crews learned from their experience, and vowed to do better when the Yanks returned in earnest.

Meanwhile, in preparation for imminent Soviet invasion of their country, the “Coconut” Stuka crews were recalled from Eastern Front duty to serve on Hungarian soil. Their 102/2nd dive-bomber squadron was redesignated the 102/1st fighter-bomber squadron, indicating the transition training they undertook to Focke-Wulf FW-190F-8s at Borgond airfield.

On the morning of June 14, 600 USAAF heavy-bombers and 200 escorts went after nitrogen plants and oil refineries outside Budapest, while P-38 Lightnings made low-level strafing runs on a Luftwaffe squadron of Messerschmitt Me.323 Gigant transports at Kecskemet airfield. The defenders were joined by a quartet of German fighters, which made two “kills:’ Eight more were claimed by the 32 Hungarian pilots, who lost one of their own. The city’s anti-aircraft defenses once again proved their worth, shooting down 11 enemy intruders.

Only 28 Home Defense interceptors were serviceable 48 hours later to oppose 650 heavy-bombers ringed by 290 Lightnings and Mustangs that filled the skies over Lake Balaton. Despite the excessive odds confronting them, the Pumas broke through the thick ranks of protective American fighters, claiming a dozen of them to destroy four Liberators. A remarkable set of “kills” was accomplished by Corporal Matyas Lorincz during this, his first operational flight. Hot in pursuit of four P-38s, he was unable to prevent them from shooting down Lieutenant Kohalmy. A moment later, Lorincz was in firing range, and the two Lightnings he set afire collided with and brought down a third. Lieutenant Lajos Toth, Hungary’s third highest-ranking ace with 26 “kills, was forced to take to his parachute, landing not far from the U.S. pilot he had himself shot down a few minutes before. Aviation engineer Gyorgy Punka, recorded how “they chatted until the American was picked up by a Hungarian Army patrol”‘

Relations between opponents were not invariably cordial, however, “with the American pilots deliberately firing on Hungarian airmen who had saved themselves by parachute, or strafing crash-landed aircraft;’ according to Neulen. “One of the victims was Senior Lieutenant Jozef Bognar, who was killed by an American pilot while hanging helplessly beneath his parachute”‘

The June 16 air battle had cost the Home Defense Fighter Wing the lives of five pilots, including two more wounded. Six Gustav Messerschmitts were destroyed, and seven damaged. These losses were immediately made good by fresh recruits and replacement planes, as the struggle against the bombers began to reach a crescendo on the 30th. This time, the Pumas were aided by 12 Messerschmitt Me-110 Destroyers and Me-410 Hornets, plus 5 Gustavs from the Luftwaffe’s 8th Jagddivision. The Germans and Hungarians claimed 11 “kills” between them, while the ferocity of their interception forced a formation of 27 bombers to turn back short of the capital; the remaining 412 diverted into the northwest.

The next USAAF attempt to strike Budapest’s area oil refineries on July 2 was similarly spoiled by just 18 Pumas, together with a like number of Luftwaffe Messerschmitts. As their colleagues in Germany had already learned, it was not necessary to destroy an entire flight of enemy bombers to make them miss their target. Among the most successful interceptions undertaken by the Magyar Legier6 fighters was carried out against 800 U.S. warplanes on July 7. A mere 10 Messerschmitts led by Major Heppes, the Old Puma himself, accounted for as many Liberators falling in flames from the sky, together with another 15 brought down by flak. One Gustav was lost, its pilot parachuting safely to earth.

The American aerial offensive pressed on throughout the summer and into fall of 1944 on an almost daily basis and in growing numbers. The Home Defense Fighter Wing continued to score “kills” and deflect bomber missions, until its men and machines were withdrawn from around Budapest in mid-October on more immediately pressing business: the invasion of their country. The previous six months of stiff Axis resistance had slowed, but could not halt the Red Army juggernaut, which now reached the foot of the Carpathian Mountains at the Hungarian frontier.

In the midst of this crisis, Admiral Horthy lost his nerve and attempted to capitulate to the Soviets. But the Germans learned of it in time, and placed him in protective custody for the rest of the war. News of his dethronement was met with a mix of indifference and acclaim, because the Hungarian people, who remembered all too well the Communist tyranny and terror they experienced during the 1920s, preferred resistance to submission. The Red Army was stopped at the Eastern Carpathian Mountains by German-Hungarian forces, but they could not simultaneously contain a veritable deluge of Red Army troops that overran Transylvania.

Their attack on Budapest began in early December, although the capital was not easily taken. Russian losses over the previous three-anda-half years were becoming apparent in the declining quality of personnel on the ground and in the air. When, for example, a formation of Heinkel He.111 medium-bombers escorted by Hungarian pilots of the 101/2 Fighter Squadron was about to sortie against Soviet troops crossing the Danube on December 21, an out-numbering group of Lavochkins scattered and fled without a fight. Clearly, Stalin was relying on the dead weight of numbers more than ever before to achieve his objectives.

On January 2,1945, a joint German-Hungarian effort known as Operation Konrad I was launched to break the siege of Budapest. Although significant gains were made early and the Pumas wracked up more “kills;’ high winds kept flying to a frustrating minimum and destroyed more of their aircraft than Soviet pilots. After three days, the attempt to liberate the capital bogged down. Undaunted, reserves pushed onward with Operation Konrad II. During a rare stretch of clear weather on the 8th, Hungarian crews of the 102 Fast Bomber Group celebrated their 2,000th sortie by pummeling Red Army positions. The return of dense fog grounded further flights, however, and Operation Konrad II was abandoned the next day, mostly for lack of air support.

A third and final Operation Konrad appeared to succeed where its predecessors had failed. The Vlth German Army kicked it off on January 18, and 35 miles of territory were recaptured in the first 48 hours of the attack. The mighty Soviet 17th Air Army stumbled backward across the Danube, which advancing Axis troops reached on the 20th. Two days later, the Russians evacuated Szakesfehervar. These successes on the ground were importantly aided by airmen such as Ensign Dezso Szentgyorgyi, the Magyar Legier’s leading ace, who scored 14 victories alone in the fighting for Budapest. His and the rest of the Pumas’s chief targets were Shturmovik ground-attack planes, together with enemy armored vehicles and troops.

A few survivors of the 102/2 Dive-bomber “Coconut” Squadron most of its Ju-87Ds had been destroyed on the ground at Bdrgond the previous October 12 by low-flying P-51s of the American 15th Air Force-pounded Red Army positions and knocked out T-34 tanks. Their vital sorties were abruptly curtailed from January 23 by heavy snowfall, just when Soviet reserves began entering the battle area, and more than 300 German tanks were destroyed. Three days later, Operation Konrad III had to be canceled. During these repeated, all-out efforts to liberate Budapest, the three participating Magyar Legiero squadrons had flown some 150 combined missions to win 69 aerial victories for the loss of 6 pilots during 20 days of flight allowed by the weather. The “Coconut” Squadron was finished, having flown 1,500 sorties, dropped 750 tons of bombs, for the loss of half of their commissioned officer pilots and 40 percent of noncommissioned pilots.

An even-more ambitious attempt than Operation Konrad to regain the initiative got underway on March 6 with Operation Fruhlingserwachsen (“Spring Awakening”) in the Lake Balaton area of Transdanubia. Forces included the German 6th SS Panzer Army, the 1.SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, German 2nd Panzer Army, Army Group Balck, elements of German Army Group E, and the Hungarian Third Army. Objectives included saving the last oil reserves still available to the Axis and routing the Red Army long enough to recapture Budapest. Combined Luftwaffe and Magyar Legiero forces amounted to 850 aircraft opposed by 965 Soviet warplanes.

Odds against the Axis on the ground were far more loaded in their opponents’ favor, with seven infantry armies and a tank army. The combined 101/1 and 101/3 Fighter Squadrons strove to stave off massed flights of Bostons and Shturmoviks savaging Axis armored units and troop concentrations. High numbers of either type were shot down, together with several Yak-9s, on March 9, when the Pumas completed 56 sorties, to gain temporary air superiority above the German 6th SS Panzer Army, enabling it to advance. Despite early, impressive gains such as these, Germany’s last offensive could not prevail against the enemy’s overwhelming numerical advantage, and Axis troops were compelled to fall back to their prepared positions in Hungary, where they were soon overrun.

When the Soviets began their drive across the Austrian border, Magyar Legiero-flown Gustavs shot up infantry columns, cavalry corps, truck convoys, and horse-drawn wagons clogging the roads to Vienna in low-level runs throughout April 3. Fierce ground fire claimed 8 Pumas and destroyed 10 of their aircraft. Replacements of both men and machines arrived almost immediately, but their operations were restricted by a serious fuel shortage. In spite of this crisis, they continued to shoot down both Soviet Lavochkins and American Mustangs, although their primary focus was strafing and bombing the endless torrent of Soviet troops and equipment flooding into Austria. A Yak-9 Lieutenant Kiss, already an ace with five “kills;’ shot down on April 17, 1945, was the Hungarians’ final aerial victory. They went on to fly throughout the month, blasting Soviet vehicles, troops, and supplies.

On May 4, as American soldiers approached the airfield at Raffelding, remaining warplanes of the Magyar Legier6, sabotaged by their own crews, exploded into flames. Their self-immolation represented the undefeated Pumas’s ultimate act of defiance.

Long before these climactic events, in early 1938, the first Hungarian airborne unit had been formed at Szent Endre, an island in the Danube River, near the capital city of Budapest. The Ejtoernyos (paratroopers) attracted many volunteers, although their equipment was at first entirely foreign made. The cadets jumped with Italian Salvadore, German Schrodor, and American Irving parachutes from Italian Caproni 101 transport aircraft. Powered by three Alfa Romeo, license-built Armstrong Siddeley Lynx engines rated at 200 hp apiece, the reliable, sturdy, high-wing monoplanes could accommodate eight paratroopers each.

By the following year, the Hungarian Army had developed its own, locally manufactured airborne equipment, including knee and elbow pads, jump smock, and H-39M parachute. The doughty Caproni veterans of the Ethiopian War were replaced by the much-larger SavoiaMarchetti SM-75. The huge Marsupiale, “Marsupial;’ with its 1,276.14 square feet of wing area, was capable of carrying 25 paratroopers. After relocating to the Papa Airport, the Ejtoernyos consisted of 30 officers, 120 NCOs, and 250 enlisted men in one battalion of three companies.

Their baptism of fire was a limited invasion of Yugoslavia to reclaim territories severed from Hungary after World War I by Allied framers of the Versailles Treaty. The Ejtoernyos made their first combat jump on April 12, 1941, over the northern Yugoslavian district of Delidek. From there, they marched more than 18 miles under cover of darkness to surprise the defenders of several bridges, which were swiftly taken after brief fighting. That same day, the paratroopers suffered a grievous loss in an accident that took the lives of 22 comrades and their first commander, Major Arpad Bertalan, when the overloaded Marsupiale in which they were flying crashed at Veszprem airfield. Thereafter, the unit was known as the “Bertalan Battalion;’ led by Colonel Zoltan Szugyi.

The Ejtoernyos participated in numerous actions on the Eastern Front, most notably in the relief of Hungarian troops during the struggle for Stalingrad. During March 1944, the paratroopers were part of Axis efforts to shore up the southeastern flank in danger of collapse caused by Romania’s defection to Stalin. Colonel Szugyi and his men established a strong defensive perimeter in the Carpathian Mountains, the last natural emplacement of its kind in the East. Warriors of the hard-pressed Bertalan Battalion held their positions against 10-to-1 odds, suffering many casualties, but repeatedly frustrated the combined Russian-Romanian offensive long enough for regular German and Hungarian troops to withdraw with their weapons and equipment in good order.

Ejtoernyos survivors re-grouped on October 20 with two other light infantry battalions in the understrength St. Laszlo Division, named after the victorious medieval king, Saint Ladislas I. It was commanded by Zoltan Szugyi, who had been promoted to General for his exemplary defense of the Carpathian Mountains. In November, the St. Laszlo Division transferred to the Lake Balaton area, where, after fruitlessly trying to stem the Red Army tide for 10 days, the paratroopers and their comrades pulled back to defend the Hungarian capital. By December 1, they were surrounded in Budapest by the Soviets, but broke through enemy lines before the city capitulated on February 12, 1945.

Ejtoernyos remnants still fought cohesively as a unit, retreating into Austria, until the last day of the war, when General Szugyi surrendered with a handful of survivors to the British Army on May 10 to escape capture by the Russians. Instead, they were all placed under arrest and transported to the East. Lieutenant-General Szombathelyi, Commander in Chief of the Hungarian Army during 1941, had been similarly turned over to Communist authorities in Belgrade, where, after a well-publicized show trial, was executed by impalement. General Sziigyi’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment only after he had been sufficiently tortured into a fulsome confession. Meanwhile, his paratroopers disappeared behind the Iron Curtain that fell over Hungary for the next 43 years.

On April 16, 1945, two weeks before the close of hostilities, Dezsd Szentgyorgyi destroyed the last of his 32 confirmed victims-an Ilyushin 11-4 bomber-making him Hungary’s leading ace. Such skills were not only reflected in his aerial victories: during the course of more than 220 sorties, he was never shot down, nor ever crashed under any circumstances. After the war, he flew as a commercial pilot for MASZOVLET, Hungarian-Soviet Airlines, from 1946 until 1949, but was arrested the following year for his past association with the criminalized Magyar Legiero.

His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but he was freed during the Budapest Uprising of 1956. Following its blood-stained suppression, the new Soviet authorities, not wishing to further antagonize their restive subjects, dismissed all charges against Szentgyorgyi and allowed him to resume his aviation career with the renamed Malev Hungarian Airlines. Over the next 15 years, he logged 12,334 flight hours over more than three million miles, dying on August 28, 1971, in his one and only crash near Copenhagen, less than three weeks short of his retirement. The aircraft in which he died had been built by the same company that made his final victim of World War II-Ilyushin.

Today, the Hungarian armed forces at Kecskemet operate the 59th “Szentgyorgyi Dezso” Air Base.

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Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy I

The prototype Beaufort first flew on 15 October 1938 and a production contract for 78 aircraft followed in August 1936. The Beaufort was an improvement on the Avro Anson but it was not very fast and not well armed. Faced with the much faster Bf 109, the Beaufort’s defensive machine guns could put up an estimated 11 ounces of .303 calibre bullets as compared with the Messerschmitts 12 lbs of cannon and machine gun fire in the same amount of time. Coastal Command’s standard torpedo-bomber from 1940 to 1943, Bristol Beauforts first entered service with 22 Squadron at Thorney Island in November 1939. The Beauforts, along with the Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm flew out in secret, deposited their mines in the dark and flew away again without knowing whether their work would prove fruitful or futile. Such work called for strength of spirit and purpose to sustain men for any length of time. The mine-layers laid dozens of minefields on all the coasts from the northern coast of Norway right down the French coast to Bayonne on the border of Spain and German rivers and ports and even in the Kiel Canal itself. On the night of 15/16 April 1940 22 Squadron’s Beauforts carried out Coastal Command’s first mine-laying sortie, in the mouth of the River Jade and on 7 May 1940 dropped the first 2,000lb bomb. Beauforts saw action over the North Sea, the English Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Beauforts also took part in the attack on the German pocket battleships which escaped through the Channel early in 1942.

It was in the ultimate issue just an odd trick of chance which led Group Captain Finlay Crerar to make history on the night of 10/11 June 1940, by intercepting the first ship which Italy lost in the war. The wireless told him at 6 o’clock in the evening that Mussolini had declared war as from midnight and while he sat at dinner in the mess he learned that one of the afternoon patrols over the North Sea had sighted the big Italian steamer Marzocco making full speed to the east. It would, he thought, be a pity to let that ship get back into Italian hands and he accordingly requested permission to go out to try to intercept her. Permission was not at once forthcoming. There were conferences in which the naval authorities joined, but at length his request was granted. There was still a little daylight left when he climbed into his aircraft with his navigator and took off. The navigator had worked out the course and estimated the position in which the Italian steamer should be picked up and along this course Group Captain Crerar flew. The weather could hardly have been worse. The cloud was practically down to the surface of the sea. To attempt to intercept a ship on such a night seemed quite hopeless – but not to Group Captain Crerar. Finding it was impossible to fly below the clouds because they were down so low, he went up and flew above them at 2,000 feet. Speeding to the area in which he expected to find the steamer, he dived down to try to get under the clouds to search the surface. He could not do it and was forced to climb. Flying a little further, he dived once more to try to get below the blanketing clouds, but was driven again to climb.

Nature seemed to be conspiring to help the Marzocco to escape. But the Scottish pilot was a tenacious man. He refused to give up and dived down for the third time to try to get under the clouds. For the third time he was defeated. There seemed nothing more he could do. No human power could overcome that handicap of the clouds. He was cruising round above the carpet of cloud, loath to return with his mission unaccomplished, when he saw a dark smudge on a cloud ahead. Gazing at it carefully as he flew in that direction, he was astonished to see a small black puff rise through the cloud. To his expert eye that black puff could only be one thing – smoke and immediately he concluded it must be smoke from the funnel of the Marzocco. He was right. The master of the Italian steamer must have heard the engines of the aircraft and in his anxiety to escape made his crew stoke up the furnaces more than ever, with the result that instead of getting away, he merely gave away his position by the big clouds of smoke emitted from the funnels. Diving for the fourth time down into the cloud, Group Captain Crerar discovered that by some strange fluke the base of the cloud had risen to fifty feet above the surface so that he was able to fly without endangering his aircraft.

‘I had just been on the point of turning for home bitterly disappointed at having failed and you can imagine my surprise and pleasure at seeing the quarry in front of me,’ he reported. ‘She was steaming as fast as possible due east. I signalled her in international code to stop immediately, turn and make for Aberdeen, but no notice was taken of my signals. This was tried three times. Then I decided to open up my front gun as a warning and flying low across her bows I gave her a good burst, did a steep turn and repeated the manoeuvre from the other beam. Immediately there-afterwards the ship hove to and, after some exchange of signal, turned round on a course for Kinnaird’s Head. We escorted her although it was dark until lack of petrol forced us to leave.’

Returning to their base, they refuelled and went off again to pick up the Marzocco and escort her to port. But the weather was so bad that they were quite unable to find the ship, which the navigator thought must have turned eastward to try to escape. The pilot, however, thought otherwise and felt sure that she was continuing on her course to land. His judgment was confirmed. At his request a destroyer was sent out. But eventually the Italian master cheated his captors, for he opened the sea-cocks and scuttled his ship. As she was sinking, a tug managed to take her in tow and get her as far as the entrance to Peterhead harbour where she touched bottom and was beached. Had it not been for that smudge of smoke arising from the frantic endeavours of the master to elude capture there is no doubt that the Marzocco would have escaped.

One of the objects of Coastal Command in attacking fringe targets was to prevent, if it could, German sailors and airmen who were taking an active part in the Battle of the Atlantic from obtaining the rest they needed. Another was to harass the German troops in occupied countries. Finse in Norway was a well-known winter sports centre. It consisted of a small railway station with a hotel nearby and a few mountain huts and chalets. The railway passing through it was protected from avalanches by a number of snow-sheds, which were wooden tunnels hundreds of yards in length. It was known that the hotel contained a large number of German officers and Norwegian quislings enjoying a skiing holiday. There were thus two objectives: to destroy or damage the sheds, which would interrupt communications of great importance almost certainly for the whole of the winter and to put out of action a number of the enemy and of the traitors helping them. Three attacks were made – on 18, 20 and 22 December 1940. So that the crews taking part in them should have as clear an idea as possible of the nature and look of the place, they had been shown a pre-war travel film containing excellent shots of the station, the hotel and the surrounding slopes of snow. The first attack was only in part successful, for despite the film which they had seen and the special maps which they carried, several of the crews did not find the target. Two nights later it was repeated and Beauforts scored direct hits on the snow-sheds and the railway line. A train in the station took refuge in a shed from which it did not emerge. In the third attack the hotel was hit. It was subsequently discovered that two mechanical snow-ploughs had been destroyed in the railway station and that the line was, in consequence, blocked for many weeks. The leader of the first attack, carried out by Hudsons, flew up and down above the target with his navigation lights on, in order to show the way to the rest.

Coastal Command, while not exclusively equipped for bombing, made 682 attacks on land targets between 21 June 1940 and the end of December 1941. Excluding aerodromes, which the Command attacked 130 times in France, 30 times in the Low Countries, 44 times in Norway and thrice in Germany, there were during that period 28 attacks on French fuel dumps and electrical power plants, 36 attacks on Dutch oil installations and eight on Norwegian. There were also 69 attacks on other miscellaneous targets. The bulk of the effort, however, was naturally directed against docks and harbours and the shipping in them. Brest headed the list with 62 attacks; Boulogne followed with 50. Then came Lorient with 30, Cherbourg with 28, St. Nazaire with 21; Le Havre with 16, Calais with 13 and Nantes with five. The raids were made mostly at night. They were harassing operations designed to destroy valuable stores and necessities for the prosecution of the battle and to interfere as much as possible with the lives of men on garrison duty in foreign and hostile lands. After the fall of France, the effort made by Coastal Command was directed against shipping. One squadron alone made 28 attacks on French ports, involving 136 individual sorties, in six weeks. In the early days even Ansons, too, played a part before they were relegated to training Groups. On Monday 23rd September 1940 six Ansons on 217 Squadron carried out an attack on Brest between 0115 and 0415 hours, dropping their 360lb bomb loads from heights as low as low as 2,000 feet and then diving to 500 feet to shoot out searchlights. On later raids the Ansons were often accompanied by Fairey Albacores of 826 Squadron of the Royal Navy awaiting the completion of the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable which was to be their home. Lorient, too, came to be important, for it was soon made one of the main bases for German submarines. The primary target was at first the power station and later on the submarine moorings. Blenheims attacked both on 8th, 13th and 17th October and again on 7 and 8 November, being accompanied on these last two raids by Beauforts and Swordfish. The attack on shipping at Flushing on the 13th by six Blenheims caused large fires. In December German submarines were discovered further South in the Gironde, near Bordeaux. They were attacked by Beauforts carrying land-mines on 8 and 13 December. Large explosions and fires followed.

Inevitably as time went on attacks became concentrated on Brest, especially after the last week in March 1941, when the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau or ‘Salmon and Gluckstein’ (a famous London store) as they were known throughout the Royal Air Force, took refuge in that naval base on their return from commerce-raiding in the Atlantic. Coastal Command attacked them, either alone or as part of an operation by Bomber Command, 63 times in 1941, including an attack on the Scharnhorst on 23 July when she had sought temporary refuge at La Pallice. The defences of Brest, always formidable grew stronger and stronger. On one occasion a Blenheim was forced by the failure of both engines to glide through them. It circled slowly round above the harbour while the pilot still tried to get into a good position from which to drop his bombs. ‘It looked as though we should come down in enemy territory,’ he said, ‘so I thought we might as well drop our bombs in the best place possible.’ The first attempt did not succeed and before releasing its load the Blenheim glided three times round the docks, each time going lower and lower. At last a good target came into the bomb-sight and the bombs were dropped at the very ‘moment when both the engines picked up simultaneously. The Blenheim reached base unscathed.

22 Squadron of the Coastal Command was not only the first to be equipped with Beauforts, but among the first to take part in the mine-laying operations. Under the command of Wing Commander M. H. St. G. Braithwaite, it also carried out many torpedo attacks on the shipping in the invasion ports. Its losses in the early days were sometimes due to enemy action, sometimes to circumstances over which the pilots had no control. For a period the squadron suffered heavily, which robbed the Royal Air Force of some of its most highly-trained specialist pilots. Among them was Flight Lieutenant A. R. H. ‘Dicky’ Beauman who carried out thirty operations in all sorts of weather, with many torpedo attacks on ships by day and by night. On 5 December 1940 he was last seen off Wilhelmshaven going in to torpedo a big ship in the face of terrific anti-aircraft fire, but whether he hit the ship before he was hit himself remains unknown. ‘Dicky’ Beauman was one of the most popular members of the mess and no finer pilot or braver man ever sat in the cockpit of an aircraft.

On the moonlight night of 17 September 1940 six Beauforts on 22 Squadron in two flights of three led by Squadron Leader Rex Mack DFC were detached from North Coates to Thorney Island and detailed to attack shipping in Cherbourg Harbour at 2300 hours. At that time it was probably the best defended of all the Channel ports.

‘I decided,’ said Squadron Leader Mack ‘that I would enter by the Western entrance of Cherbourg harbour. I took this decision because there was a great deal of wind and I thought that if I were to approach the Germans with the gale in my face they might not hear me. That indeed proved to be the case, because when I entered the harbour no one fired at me. I had hardly got in, flying at about 50 feet, when the Germans opened fire. I was so close that I could actually see them and I watched a German gunner, one of a crew of three manning a Bofors gun, trying to depress the barrel, which moved slowly downwards as he turned the handles. He could not get it sufficiently depressed and the flak passed above our heads. It was bright red tracer and most of it hit the fort at the end of the other breakwater on the farther side of the entrance. At the same moment I saw a large ship winking with red lights, from which I judged that there were troops on board firing at us with machine-guns and rifles.

‘I dropped the torpedo in perfect conditions, for I was flying at the right speed and at the right height. Half a second after I had dropped it five searchlights opened up and caught me in their beams. I pulled back the stick and put on a lot of left rudder and cleared out. The trouble about a torpedo attack is that when you have released the torpedo you have to fly on the same course for a short time to make quite sure that it has, in fact, left the aircraft. I remember counting one and two and three and forcing myself not to count too fast. Then we were away.’

Another Beaufort coming in immediately afterwards seemed ‘to be surrounded by coloured lights,’ and a third, flown by a sergeant pilot, hit a destroyer and at the same time lost half its tail from a well-aimed burst of anti-aircraft fire. It got safely back, however. All the pilots reported that the opposition was the fiercest they had ever experienced. In this gallant affair one Beaufort was lost.

Sergeant Norman Hearn-Phillips (later Squadron Leader Hearn-Phillips AFC DFM) was one of the pilots detailed but although he had completed twenty operations on Beauforts, he had only dropped torpedoes in practice. He had joined the RAF in 1936 as a Direct Entry Sergeant pilot and had trained on Hawker Harts and Audax. The attack was to be a combined attack with eight Blenheims on 59 Squadron, who were to drop bombs and flares to light the way for the Beauforts. The moon was at the full and the Blenheims were bombing the docks when the first flight of Beauforts were led into Cherbourg at no more than ten feet above the surface. They flew so low that the gun in the fort at the entrance could not be depressed sufficiently and its tracers were seen bouncing off the other breakwater. Squadron Leader Mack got his torpedo away at a steamer of over 5,000 tons just as five searchlights picked him up. The fire from the breakwater and harbour and ships was so intense that the tracer bullets cannoned off ships and walls in all directions. Flight Lieutenant Francis hit a destroyer. Sergeant Norman Hearn-Phillips brought his Beaufort down to sea-level and headed for the target at 80 feet and 140 knots. As he released his torpedo at a vessel of over 5,000 tons, the flak was intense and the aircraft was hot as he turned away. The port elevator had been shot away and the rudder and hydraulics damaged. Despite this Hearn-Phillips nursed his crippled aircraft back to Thorney Island where he carried out a successful belly-landing. One of the Beauforts was lost, but it was a wonder that any escaped at all in such a heavy barrage of fire.

Soon afterwards, at the beginning of an autumn afternoon on Friday 4th October, a roving patrol of two Beauforts on 42 Squadron found two enemy destroyers and six escort vessels off the Dutch coast near Ijmuiden. These they did not attack, but carrying on soon found a 2,000-ton mine-layer surrounded by four flak-ships all at anchor in the harbour. They attacked, but the torpedoes were swept from their course by the tide. The Beauforts were intercepted by four Bf 109s and L4488 was shot down by Oberleutnant Ulrich Steinhilper of 3./JG 52. All the crew were taken prisoner. During the engagement Beaufort L4505 was hit and the elevator controls severed. The pilot, however, succeeded in flying his aircraft safely home by juggling with the throttle and elevator trimmer. Surprisingly enough the elevator had a marked effect on the aircraft’s trim despite the fact that the fore and aft controls were severed. On reaching base in very bad weather, with clouds down to 50 feet, he was seen to pass over the aerodrome, but he could not turn the aircraft in its crippled condition enough to regain it. He followed the coast and after jettisoning his torpedo in Thorney Creek, although the flaps of the Beaufort were out of action, made a successful landing at Thorney Island with most of his crew wounded.

Some weeks later, on 8 November three Beauforts launched their torpedoes at a steamer and not one of them hit the mark. Nevertheless the master of the steamer swung her about so frantically to avoid them that he ran aground and his ship became a total loss, so the Beaufort accomplished their purpose of destroying the ship, although all their torpedoes missed. Two days later, Wing Commander Braithwaite was about to make a torpedo attack on a steamer which was steaming at five knots. Circling round, he swept in and got his torpedo away. It ran perfectly straight for the steamer which was palpably doomed – or so it seemed. Then, quite unexpectedly, before the torpedo reached the target, there was a gigantic explosion and a great column of water shot up in the air. It was very hard luck for Wing Commander Braithwaite that it happened to be low tide and the torpedo hit the top of a sandbank which lay in its path. At high tide the torpedo would have sped over the top of the sandbank and the steamer would have gone to the bottom.

Apart from the torpedo Coastal Command made use of two other chief weapons dropped from the air in its operations against enemy shipping – the mine and the bomb. The task of laying mines in enemy waters was shared with Bomber Command. Each Command has been allotted certain areas along the coasts of the enemy and of the occupied countries off which mines are laid. The aircraft used for the purpose were originally Swordfish, of which the open cockpit added considerably to the discomfort suffered by the crews in winter, though in other respects it was an advantage, for the pilot could see the surface more easily. As soon as Beauforts became available they were pressed into service. The method used is as follows: The aircraft sets out flying at a height between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. When it approaches near to the place chosen – a shipping channel, the entrance to a port, the mouth of a fjord, or wherever it may be – it comes down low in order to pin-point its position. This is done by picking up some prominent landmark, such as a building, a headland, a lighthouse, a small island. Arrived there, the navigator sights the landmark through the bomb-sight and, at the exact moment at which the Beaufort passes over it, presses a stop-watch, at the same time telling the pilot to fly a course at a certain speed at a certain height for a certain time. During this, the run-up, the aircraft must be kept on an absolutely level keel. At the end of the period, calculated in seconds and fractions of seconds by means of the stop-watch, the observer releases the mine and the operation is over.

Very rarely did the crew even see the splash when the mine hit the water. The operation was dull, difficult and dangerous. ‘Creeping like a cat into a crypt’ is how one pilot has described it. The Germans did their best to cover all likely landmarks with anti-aircraft fire. More than once the crews of Coastal Command had seen little lights moving, like strange fire-flies, along the edges of cliffs. They came from the pocket-torches held in the hands of German gunners as they ran to man their guns.

Little was heard of these mining operations. Only an occasional reference was made to them in official communiqués. But they went on night after night and the crews who carried them out ran risks as great as those who achieved a result by the use of a more spectacular weapon – the bomb or the torpedo. Over a period of six months in 1941 seventy per cent of the mines laid by Coastal Command were placed in the position chosen for them. It was impossible to do more than estimate the damage they caused. Certain successes were known to have been achieved. In February 1941 a German vessel of about 3,000 tons was damaged near Haugesund and beached to prevent her sinking. A German trawler struck another mine on the same day and sank. The area was closed to traffic for some time. Later that month a German ship was mined off Lorient and many corpses were washed ashore on the Quiberon Peninsula. An aircraft of Coastal Command had dropped a mine in that area a night or two before. In September of that year two cargo vessels were mined and sunk in the roadsteads of La Pallice and La Rochelle. In October a 4,000-ton ship was mined and sunk in the channel leading to Haugesund and the entrance to the port was blocked for some time.

Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy II

The more direct method of attack was to bomb the ships of the enemy wherever they may be found. Coastal Command began early. The first enemy ship to be bombed was a tanker attacked by a London flying boat on 10 April 1940, forty miles from the Faroe Islands. The limited resources of the Command did not permit it, in those early days, to make attacks on a large scale. Nevertheless, its achievements are not to be ignored. Between 10 April and 31 December 1940 223 attacks were made on merchant vessels and supply ships and 81 on enemy ships of war. They took place along the Norwegian coast, the Dutch, Belgian and French coasts and also in the Heligoland Bight and off the North-West coasts of Germany. The sinking of a merchant vessel off Haugesund by a Lockheed Hudson on 22 June and the hitting and sinking of twelve merchant vessels, one of which was of 14,000 tons and a tanker of 10,000 tons in July must be mentioned.

The attacks in August 1940 were not very successful, but in September two E-boats were sunk by a Blenheim 18 miles off Dieppe on the 10th and hits obtained on ten merchant vessels, one of which was certainly sunk. In October 1940 three merchant vessels were hit. The attacks fell off in November, but in December no less than 45 were made on merchant vessels and one on enemy destroyers. So ended the year 1940. The attacks had been mostly carried out by single aircraft, a Blenheim, a Hudson, or a Beaufort, though sometimes the attackers flew in formation of two or three. They were in the nature of an experiment. The crews taking part in them were gaining experience of which they were to make good use in 1941. It was not a quick process. To attack and hit a ship, especially when it is protected by its own fire and that of flak-ships, is not only dangerous but difficult. The technique was worked out and improvements made through that winter and spring. During this period much work was done to determine the correct fuse-setting of the bombs. It was very necessary to do so. On 30 March an enemy ship loaded with depth charges, probably an anti-submarine vessel, was found off La Rochelle and hit by a 250lb bomb dropped from 400 feet without a delay fuse. The bomb detonated all the depth charges and blew the ship to pieces. The aircraft returned ‘riddled with bits of its target.’ As a result of this and other attacks of the same kind it has become the general practice to use delayed-action bombs.

When vessels carrying ammunition, however, are hit, the explosion is naturally so formidable that the aircraft runs a great risk of suffering damage. On one occasion a Hudson belonging to a Dutch Squadron dropped a salvo of bombs on a ship near the Norwegian coast. ‘Nothing happened at first,’ reported the Dutch pilot. ‘The rear gunner started swearing because he didn’t see anything. Then he said he saw the crew frantically lowering a boat. Then came a tremendous explosion and we thought our bombs had hung up and gone off underneath our aircraft till we saw the ship in small pieces.’

The pilots who carried out attacks on German occupied ports were only slightly less laconic than the official reports. ‘The bombs caused an enormous explosion,’ said one of them who flew a Beaufort in an attack on Brest on 13 January 1941, ‘which shook the aircraft so violently that the crew thought they had received a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. Showers of sparks accompanied the explosion, which sent up a column of smoke to the height at which the aircraft was flying – 10,000 feet.’ During a raid on St. Nazaire a Blenheim looped the loop when an anti-aircraft shell exploded immediately beneath its fuselage. ‘The concussion stunned the second pilot, knocked out the rear gunner and left the pilot dazed.’ When they recovered consciousness the Blenheim was in a dive from which the pilot was unable to pull out until 500 feet from the ground. On regaining a level keel it was found that all the instruments were out of order and that everything loose on the navigator’s table, including his charts, had disappeared, flung out of a hatch which had been forced open. The pilot succeeded in climbing up to 8,000 feet. ‘The Blenheim was see-sawing up and down like a switchback and we thought we should have to bail out.’ He was able, however, to keep control until a patrolling Beaufighter was sighted off the English coast in the dawn. The Beaufighter escorted the Blenheim to an aerodrome where it made a safe landing.

Sometimes attacks were made by day. On one occasion a Beaufort was off La Pallice at 9,000 feet. ‘Alongside the wharf,’ says the observer, ‘we could see a ship of about 7,000 tons discharging cargo. The crew were busy on the deck and workmen were coming and going about the wharf. The pilot pointed to the ship and said: ‘Shall we bomb it?’ I nodded, thinking he meant to do a little high-level bombing. The next thing I knew was that I was flat on my back. The pilot had put the nose right down in the steepest dive I have ever been in. We dropped from 9,000 to 100 feet. At the bottom we let go the bombs and then began to pull out, dodging between the cranes on the wharf. For a moment we were actually flying under the German flag, for as we beat it over the dock I saw out of the corner of my eye a swastika flag hanging from a staff about fifty feet above us. The ship’s stern was wreathed in smoke as we left.’

Bomber Command took a prominent part in the attacks on shipping. To press home an attack on a well-camouflaged warship protected by fighters, balloons and one of the heaviest concentrations of anti-aircraft guns in Europe and to know that as it was in dry dock not even the best-aimed bombs could sink it, demanded the very highest qualities of morale. But the demand, as in every other task set to the crews of the Royal Air Force, was met to the full. Something of what these young men were called upon to face may be glimpsed from an account by Sergeant J. S. Boucher, a navigator on 144 Squadron. The squadron, still equipped with Hampdens, was required to find three crews for a daylight raid under cloud cover: ‘Three crews’, writes Boucher, ‘were drawn out of the hat’ and you can imagine our annoyance on being awakened by an orderly at 1.30 am on Christmas Eve to be told that we were to report to the Briefing Room at 2.30 am – especially after a ‘stand down’ evening at such a festive time of the year. Our annoyance was only exceeded by our surprise when the CO, Group Captain ‘Gus’ Walker, explained the hazardous mission which we were to undertake in a few hours’ time. The general opinion amongst the crews was that this was not a job for an obsolescent aircraft like the Hampden with its cruising speed of 140 mph and its very poor defensive armament. We kept these opinions to ourselves, however … ’

In this frame of mind the crews climbed into their aircraft. Boucher’s machine, piloted by Sergeant P. A. C. McDermott, took off soon after 0600 and made its way to a point west of Ushant: ‘Cloud was 10/10ths with base at 1,000 feet and everyone felt relatively safe during this part of the journey. When it was time to turn eastwards for the target the pilot broke cloud at about 900 feet and we could see Ushant right in front of us. Neither of us had had much experience of operating in daylight and having experienced the fierceness of this target at 12,000 feet at night we both felt a little apprehensive, to say the least – but we did not share our thoughts openly.

‘The pilot climbed into cloud again and headed south-east. A few minutes later he turned north-east and broke cloud again. The enemy coast was very close and we nipped into cloud again. These zigzag tactics were continued and accompanied by violent’ jinking’ as soon as the coast was crossed. Everyone was strangely silent – apart from my curt navigational directions-until the rear gunner, who was experiencing his first operational flight, asked what the ‘tapping noise’ was. The wireless-operator told him that it was only ‘light flak’ bursting as it hit the wings and the fuselage … We broke cloud again for a few seconds, just long enough to enable me to give McDermott a course which would bring us over the docks. The flak grew more and more intense and although flying in cloud the aircraft was repeatedly hit. We could see the criss-cross of red tracer shells through the cloud haze a few yards in front of us. It seemed that all the anti-aircraft defences of the docks – as well as those of the battle cruisers – were directed against this one aircraft; and this was most probably the case.

The Hampden broke cloud again at 900 feet above sea-level and I picked out the target about half-a-mile ahead. To make a proper run up under such conditions would have been impossible if one was to survive to complete the task. I leaned over my bomb-sight and pressed the ‘tit’. For a few fleeting moments I could see the German gunners frantically firing at us. They seemed so close that I felt myself to be before a firing squad. The pilot opened the throttle and we roared up into cloud again at 180 mph, too soon even to see our bombs burst, The sudden upward movement threw me back into my seat and a second later there was a yellow flash as a shell exploded, shattering the perspex nose of my cabin and driving me backwards under the floor of the pilot’s cockpit. Stunned for a moment, I tried to open my eyes, but the pain was too great. I felt the wet blood on my face. The cold blast of air now passing through the gaping hole in the nose, had blown all my maps and my log through the pilot’s cockpit window. I crawled back through the fuselage to where the wireless-operator was sitting and plugged in his intercom gear. We were relatively safe now that we were in cloud again and leaving the coast behind us. A rough mental calculation enabled me to give the pilot a course for the Lizard … ’

Damage, wounds and lack of maps did not prevent the crew bringing their aircraft back to England. Of the other two machines, one lost half its tail plane to a balloon cable over Brest, but still struggled home; the other failed to return.

In March 1941 meanwhile, Coastal Command aircraft made nine attacks and eight in the following month, on enemy ships of war at sea, in addition to a large number of attacks on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in harbour at Brest. They also hit for certain fifteen merchant vessels during the same period and probably many more. One attack on a convoy of eight merchant vessels off Stavanger on 18 April was pressed home with great determination. Two merchant vessels were hit and left sinking for the loss of two Blenheims; a second attack made on the convoy encountered heavy opposition from Me 110s which shot down three Blenheims after one of them had scored a hit on another vessel.

The attacks continued on much the same scale throughout the summer. On 11 June Blenheims scored seven direct hits on a large tanker discovered between Ostend and Dunkirk. On 5 July Blenheims, again escorted by fighters, discovered an enemy convoy near Zuydcote. Some of the aircraft attacked from a high level and drew the fire of the convoy and its escorting vessels. The remainder went in low and scored two direct hits on one merchant vessel and another on a second. One of the Blenheims, hit by anti-aircraft fire, struck the water, bending both propellers, but got back to base. By then the Blenheims and Beauforts operating over the English Channel had been so successful that it was practically denied to enemy shipping. After July attention became more concentrated on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. By the end of that month Continental business men were complaining of the heavy losses incurred by them in shipping goods from Dutch ports.

On 23 July 1941 the captain of a Hudson bade farewell to the convoy he had been ‘escorting’ for several hours and was about to turn for home when a naval corvette below flashed a signal to him, ‘Suspicious aircraft to starboard’. Knowing the tendency of all Royal Navy vessels to regard any aircraft as ‘suspicious’, the Hudson skipper at first thought the corvette had merely spotted the Hudson’s due relief Wellington and, indeed, when first sighting the distant machine also believed it to be his relief on the convoy escort:

‘I flew over to have a look at her anyway and pulled down my front gun sight purely for practice. As we neared the aircraft, however, my Irish second pilot suddenly swore and then shouted, ‘It’s a Kondor!’ Automatically I increased speed while he ran aft to man one of the beam guns, the wireless operator manned the other side gun and the mid-upper gunner swung his turret round. There, about 1,000 feet above the sea and running in towards our convoy, was one of the large Focke Wulf 200s. We overhauled him fast and at 400 yards I opened the proceedings with about five short bursts from my front guns, though I don’t think I hit him. He returned the fire immediately from both top and bottom guns and I saw his tracers whip past the Hudson’s nose in little streaks of light. He missed us and his pilot turned slightly to starboard and ran parallel to the convoy.

‘I soon realised that we had the legs of him and soon caught up with him. He put up his nose, as if thinking to make a climb for cloud cover, but evidently changed his mind and decided that he was safer where he was, down close to the sea. As we drew closer my rear gunner opened up, firing forward and I could see his tracers nipping across my wing. We drew closer and closer and the Kondor began to look like the side of a house; at the end all I could see of it was part of the fuselage and two whacking great engines. My rear gunner was pumping bullets into him all the time. When we were only 40 feet away I could see two of his engines beginning to glow. I throttled back so as not to over-shoot him, or crash into him and for one brief moment my second pilot, Ernie, saw a white face appear at one of the side windows and then quickly disappear.

‘Just then the Kondor began a turn, its belly exposed to us and my gunners opened up with everything. There was a wisp of smoke, a sudden belching of smoke and then flames shot out from underneath both port engines. He turned to starboard, while I made a tight port turn ready to come at him again. We came out of the turn, only to see the Kondor again flying steadily, apparently unhurt. For a moment I thought he had got away with it, but then realised that he was getting lower and lower and a minute later he went into the sea. I yelled, ‘We’ve got him! He’s in the drink! We’ve got him!’ The upper gunner too was yelling down the intercom great exultant Yorkshire oaths.

‘It was only then that we all realised just how hard and how silently we’d all been concentrating and how full the Hudson was of cordite fumes. I also saw how short of petrol we were. We flew over the Kondor – its wing tips were just awash – and Ernie took photos. Four of the crew were in the water hanging on to a rubber dinghy which was just beginning to inflate, while a fifth man was scrambling along the fuselage. We learnt later that a Met man who had been aboard had been killed by a bullet through the heart, but the others were all right. Two corvettes were rushing to pick them up and the whole crew seemed to be crowded onto the deck of the leading one, waving and shouting at us. One man was waving a shirt. Our relief Wellington and Hudson were by now circling round too and as we made off for home we could see the white puffs of steam as all the ships in the convoy sounded their sirens.’

The attacks by bombs on enemy shipping reached a momentary climax in October and November 1941. Many of them took place by night during the moon periods and the aircraft employed were Hudsons flown by RAF, Canadian and Dutch Naval Air Squadrons. The attack on the night of 29/30 October is especially noteworthy. Reconnaissance on the morning of the 29th had disclosed a concentration of German shipping in the harbour at Ålesund and the neighbouring fjords. Hudsons set out from the North of Scotland and delivered the attack. The first to arrive saw the ships lying at anchor beneath a brilliant moon lighting the harbour in its frame of mountains on which the first snows of winter had fallen. The attack can best be described in the words of one of those who took part in it:

‘There was a lot of flak coming up as I came over the target. I could see one ship burning, with smoke pouring from it. The ground was covered with snow and I had the whole target in silhouette. I flew around pretty low for a bit, then climbed up to get a better view and choose my target, keeping out of range of the flak. I saw a second ship hit and it soon became an inferno of flames. We could actually see the plates red-hot. I saw four other aircraft attack shipping in the harbour. They were flying very low and the flak was streaming down on them from batteries in the hills-green, white, red, yellow. A lot of it was going straight on to the enemy’s ships.

‘I had by then chosen my target – the biggest ship in the harbour, about 5,000/6,000 tons. I approached from the North, about five miles away, my engines throttled right back. I came down to about 5,000 feet, by which time I was nearly over the ship and dived straight on to it. I dropped my bombs at about 2,000 feet. I did my own bomb-aiming. Directly the bombs were gone I pulled up over the town. I was then down to about 1,000 feet, still throttled back; then I opened up fully and went off. There was a lot of flak coming up at us. Some of it came pretty close, but we couldn’t actually hear it. The gunner definitely silenced two flak positions.

‘I flew right round the harbour and when I came back to the target I saw the ship was still there. I said to the crew: ‘We must have missed it.’ A moment later the gunner shouted: ‘Think I can see a glow forward.’ I turned round to have another look and saw she was down by the bows. I flew round again and this time I saw the bows were awash. I kept on flying round and next time I looked the water was about up to her funnel. She got lower and lower and then we saw the rudder come out of the water and about a third of her keel. Just before she went down we saw part of the stern with the flag-pole sticking up and as we watched she sank. The ship took twelve minutes to sink from the time] released the bombs. It was a most satisfying sight to see it going down.’

All the aircraft returned safely. One of them was carrying the Air Officer Commanding the Group to which the Squadron making the attack belonged. Its bombs sank one of the four ships destroyed that night. Three others were hit and very heavily damaged. In the five nights from 31 October to 5 November eighteen merchant vessels were hit, the majority, perhaps all, being sunk or burned out. On 2 November the attack switched to the Dutch coast and four ships were hit. In less than a month about 150,000 tons of enemy shipping had been sunk or severely damaged and of this about 120,000 could be claimed by Hudson Squadrons. The denial to the enemy of these ships and the loss of their cargoes undoubtedly affected his military operation against Russia. To read the reports submitted by pilots immediately after their encounters with enemy ships is to receive the impression of men so eager to get to grips with the enemy that they disregard the risks involved. This, however, is not so. A more careful perusal of them shows that the captain of a Hudson, a Beaufort or a Blenheim, while prepared to take great risks and accepting them as in the ordinary course of duty, is not at the same time heedlessly risking the lives of his crew or the safety of his aircraft.

‘From mast height I laid a stick of bombs across the ship. I didn’t see them drop, but the rear gunner reported: ‘There’s one on the deck.’ At that moment both my engines spluttered and stopped. That shook me, for we were flying right between the masts. The whole sky lit up as two of the bombs burst and the ship seemed to disappear into thin air.’

Such phrases as these indicate how closely pressed home is the attack, but they are often followed by the statement that it was made from cloud cover, that evasive action followed immediately afterwards and that the aircraft regained the shelter of the clouds as soon as possible. Such actions on the part of the pilot in no way detract from the achievement. On the contrary, they enhance it. The enemy’s merchant vessels, of which all are armed and most protected by flak-ships which put up a heavy barrage, are not attacked haphazard. The tactics of swift approach and swift ‘get-away’ have been carefully worked out and studied and though the hazard of the operation is never allowed to interfere with its execution, if the chances of a successful attack are nil it is not made. If there is even the smallest prospect of success, it is.

Single enemy vessels or vessels in convoy hug the coasts of conquered Europe. They are discovered, therefore, by visual and photographic reconnaissance or by means of patrols given a roving commission to attack any suitable shipping target which may present itself. Such patrols are called ‘Rovers.’ They are sent out very often at the discretion of the Officer Commanding the station, who acts under a general order from the Group and they are flown both by day and night. They were welcomed from the start by the pilots and crews as an exciting change from convoy or anti-submarine patrols. In daylight, weather is of supreme importance. Crews detailed for such patrols cannot take off unless there is a reasonable certainty that the area they are going to investigate will be covered with cloud.

‘There is a feeling of unreality,’ says a Wing Commander, ‘in starting out on a bright, sunny day and presently flying into horrible grey weather and so finding the enemy coasts and flying along low-lying, sandy shores or an island of the Frisian group and perhaps stumbling on a ship before either she or oneself has quite realised what has happened. The whole essence of a successful shipping ‘strike’ is surprise … The attacking aircraft has to come in very close and very low … It is in this position, however, for only a few seconds and we rely on catching the gunner on board when he is lighting a surreptitious cigarette, talking to a pal, or perhaps blowing on cold fingers … The moonlight Rover is quite different and in some ways more fascinating … It can take place only on bright nights. There is something indescribably exhilarating about flying low over the water along a path of living flame … Surprise is nearly always achieved because it is possible to see much more looking up-moon than it is looking the other way and the marauding aircraft comes suddenly on the ship out of the ghostly murkiness of night.’

Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy III

Flight Sergeant Ray Loveitt, second from left, flew the only aircraft to locate the Lutzow and torpedo her. This subsequent publicity shot shows his crew – Flight Sergeants C.T. Downing, A.H. Morris and P. Wallace-Pannell.

The same conditions for attack apply to the torpedo-carrying aircraft of the Command. The Squadrons engaged on them flew Beauforts, aircraft which can carry either bombs or torpedoes. The torpedo is more effective than any other against a ship, for it explodes beneath the surface of the water and the damage that it causes is therefore, in nine cases out of ten, more severe than that caused by a bomb. The torpedo is brittle in the sense that if it is dropped from too great a height or when an aircraft is travelling too fast it will break up on striking the surface and it is hard to aim, for it must enter the water at the correct angle. If it does not it will either, hit the bottom and there explode or be diverted, or move up and down as though on a switchback, ‘porpoising’ as it is called and then break surface. Moreover, its delicacy of construction makes it impossible to drop it if the aircraft is flying too fast. It cannot be dropped too near the target or it may pass beneath it and this means that the pilot must become very proficient in judging distance.

Pilots and crews go through a course of intensive training in which they learn as much as they can about the idiosyncrasies of the torpedo. By means of simple .and ingenious photographic machinery the pilot under instruction who has attacked a target with dummy torpedoes and the fully trained pilot who has loosed his torpedo against a ship, are enabled to discover the exact distance from the target at which they dropped them. The torpedoes are beautifully made and covered with anti-corrosive paint, which gives them a dark blue colour. This paint is very effective against the action of sea-water and torpedoes have been known to remain in the sea for as long as thirteen years and still be perfectly serviceable.

The Beauforts operated on cloudy days or, if the weather was clear, with a fighter escort and during moonlight nights. They, too, found the enemy by means of a Rover patrol or a ‘strike’ directed against a ship or a convoy which has previously been discovered by reconnaissance. Group Captain Guy Bolland, who commanded 217 Squadron, which in early 1941 had been re-equipped with Beauforts, considered that daylight raids using the aircraft were suicidal and he insisted on night attacks only. When the potential menace of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to Britain’s Atlantic shipping meant that Beauforts had to attack in daylight, Bolland declared all of his squadron’s aircraft unserviceable. ‘There was no possible chance of any of my aircraft getting anywhere near Brest,’ he later explained ‘and even if they did and were lucky enough to hit the ships the damage would have been negligible.’ Bolland then reported to Plymouth where he told his air marshal and an admiral that ‘sending young men to their deaths on useless missions is not on.’ The visit cost him his command.

Here is what happened on a March day in 1941 to a Beaufort which had scored a hit on a destroyer off the Ile de Batz and had been hit by a shell which destroyed the hydraulic system, rendering all the turrets and the undercarriage unserviceable.

‘On reaching base,’ says the account, ‘the Squadron Leader circled the aerodrome for an hour to consume all his petrol. While doing so his air gunner, a large man, succeeded in climbing out of the turret and into the tail in an effort to staunch the holes in the pipes with rags, but in this he was not successful. The pilot spoke to the ground, saying: ‘We will crash-land. Keep us some tea.’ To crashland it was necessary to fly the aircraft straight on to the ground, throttle back at the last moment and then cut off the engines. This he did and the aircraft skidded 120 yards along the runway, structure and dust flying up on either side. The starboard propeller shot off and spun along in front of the aircraft on its tips like a wheel. The pilot thought at any moment that it would pierce the perspex windows of the cockpit. ‘The funny thing,’ he said afterwards, ‘about getting out of a crashed aircraft is when you step down. You go straight on to the ground without having to climb down by means of the usual footholds.’

Much has also been said of the activity of the flak-ships. The Germans are using them in ever-increasing numbers to protect shipping, of which the value, always great, grows daily. Sometimes as many as five have been observed escorting a single merchant vessel. Their crews are not unnaturally light on the trigger. ‘Just as we were right over the ship it spotted us,’ reported the pilot of a Hudson who met one such vessel off Norway. ‘The Germans opened up first with machine-gun fire and then the heavier guns started firing. It seemed to me at that moment that they were throwing up everything at us except the ship herself.’ It was bombed and left burning.

The torpedo attacks continued, the majority being carried out during Rover patrols. On 23 October 1940 for example, a German convoy off Schiermonnikoog, made up of nine merchant vessels and three flak-ships, was attacked by two Beauforts, the largest vessel being sunk and the second largest left listing heavily to port. Here again the anti-aircraft fire was intense, but its accuracy poor, possibly because the Beauforts, when retreating after loosing their torpedoes, had the help of a 40-mph wind behind their tails. On 8 November three Beauforts attacked a merchant ship off Norderney. All torpedoes missed, but in taking avoiding action the ship ran aground and became a total loss. The next day a torpedo running strong and straight towards a vessel off Borkum hit a sandbank and exploded, doing no harm. The state of the tide had saved the enemy.

During 1941 torpedo attacks increased. They were made not only off the Dutch, Belgian and Danish coasts, but also along the Norwegian coast. On 9 February, for example, three Beauforts attacked six destroyers off Norway and hit two of them. On 2 March a large merchant vessel was hit off the Danish coast and left on fire. On the 12th an enemy destroyer was blown up in moonlight off the Norwegian coast. Early in September a fierce action was fought near Stavanger between Beauforts seeking to torpedo a large tanker and Me 109s which came to its rescue. The tanker was hit by two torpedoes, an escort vessel by one and a Me 109 shot down. One Beaufort was lost. Another which returned safely entered cloud cover only twenty yards ahead of the German fighters. A little later in the month a cargo vessel was set on fire near the Lister Light.

In twelve months 126 attacks by torpedo were made. Between January and September 1941 87,000 tons of enemy shipping was sunk. One attack must be specially mentioned. It was made by a torpedo-carrying Beaufort of 22 Squadron at first light on 6 April 1941. Six Beauforts were given the task of torpedoing the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau known to be lying alongside the quay in the Rade Abri at Brest. The port was literally ringed by hills in which hundreds of anti-aircraft guns were located, while in the harbour three flak ships added their weight of fire to the massive guns of the two battle-cruisers. The Scharnhorst had put into Brest harbour on 22 March to re-tube her boilers, accompanied by the Gneisenau and an RAF reconnaissance flight on 28 March confirmed their presence in Brest. Bomber Command immediately carried out a series of bombing attacks on Brest without any effect. However, one bomb dropped near the Gneisenau failed to explode and the battleship was moved out of dry dock into the open harbour to allow bomb disposal teams to defuse it. The Scharnhorst was already tied up to the harbour’s north quay, protected by torpedo nets. On 5 April a photographic reconnaissance Spitfire photographed the harbour, revealing the vulnerable position of the Gneisenau, totally exposed to an aerial torpedo attack, in the inner harbour. An attack order for 6 April was quickly passed to 22 Squadron, which at this time was nominally stationed at North Coates but had moved nine of its Beauforts to the South-West of England, to St. Eval just north of Newquay in Cornwall, to be within striking distance of the ports and harbours on the Atlantic coast. The squadron commander had already dispatched three Beauforts on another operation; leaving him with only six Beauforts available. He decided to send these in two formations of three aircraft; one formation to bomb any torpedo nets surrounding the Gneisenau first and the other to carry torpedoes for the attack.

Flying Officer J. Hyde DFC, Sergeant Camp and Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell were chosen for the torpedo attack. All three were experienced and for Campbell this was to be his twentieth operational sortie. ‘Ken’ Campbell was born on 21 April 1917 at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, the youngest in a family of six children and had attended Sedbergh School before gaining entrance to Clare College, Cambridge, to study for a degree in chemistry. Joining the Cambridge University Air Squadron, he had been commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve on 23 August 1938 and eventually mobilised for RAF service on 25 September 1939. His three-man crew comprised Sergeant James Philip Scott, a blond Canadian from Toronto as navigator, Sergeant William Cecil Mullins, a farmer from Somerset as wireless operator and Sergeant Ralph Waiter Hillman, a chauffeur from Edmonton, London as air gunner. They were detailed to leave St Eval first and then wait on the outskirts of Brest for the bombing formation to make the first attack against any torpedo nets; after which the torpedo bombers would go in individually to make their runs.

St. Eval was rain-soaked and two of the bomber Beauforts became bogged down in the slush and mud, leaving just Sergeant Henry Menary, a Belfast-born Irishman, to actually get airborne. The three torpedo Beauforts had already left at intervals of a few minutes, between 04.30 and 05.00. Menary groped his way through the darkness and atrocious weather conditions of rain, fog and mists and soon lost his way. When daylight came he realised he was many miles away from Brest, too late for his appointed task and accordingly he dropped his bombs on a ship near Ile de Batz and turned for home. The fourth Beaufort failed to find Brest in the haze which preceded the dawn and returned with its torpedo. The fifth went in to attack a few minutes too late. ‘When I arrived at Brest,’ reported its pilot, ‘it was full daylight. I crossed the spit of land at the South-West corner of the harbour, coming under fire from shore batteries. I then came down to a few feet above the water and flew towards the mole protecting the Rade Abri, behind which the battle-cruiser lay. I passed three flak-ships and nearly reached the mole itself. By then I was being fired at from batteries all round the harbour. Continuous streams of fire seemed to be coming from every direction. It was by far the worst flak I have ever encountered. When I was nearly up to the mole I saw that the battle-cruiser herself was completely hidden from me by a bank of haze. I therefore turned away to the East and climbed into cloud.’

Campbell had attacked a few minutes before. He had crossed the same spit of land South-West of the harbour entrance at around 300 feet and found the Gneisenau, lying alongside the quay on the North shore, where it was protected by a stone mole curving round from the West. The Beaufort dived to less than 50 feet and was at once under the fire of 270 anti-aircraft guns of varying calibres established on the rising ground behind the battle cruiser and on the two arms of land which encircled the outer harbour. To the formidable concentration of fire which these guns immediately produced was added the barrage from the guns of the warship itself and from those of the three flak-ships already mentioned. Moreover, having penetrated these formidable defences, the Beaufort, after delivering its low-level attack, would have had the greatest difficulty in avoiding the rising ground behind the harbour. All these obstacles were known to Campbell, who stuck resolutely to the task. He passed the anti-aircraft ships at less than mast height, flying into the very mouths of their guns. Skimming over the mole, a torpedo was launched point-blank at a range of 500 yards and then Campbell pulled the Beaufort in a port climbing turn, heading for cloud cover above the rapidly-approaching hills behind Brest. At that moment all the defences opened up on Campbell’s aircraft, which out of control, crashed straight ahead into the harbour. Campbell, having released his torpedo, was almost immediately killed or wounded by the first predicted flak. When the aircraft was later salvaged the Germans found the body of ‘Jimmy’ Scott in the pilot’s seat usually occupied by Campbell. All four crew members were buried by the Germans in the grave of honour in Brest cemetery. The Gneisenau was hit and damaged below the waterline. Subsequent photographs showed that she was undergoing repairs in dry dock. Eight months later the battle cruiser was still undergoing repairs and it only went to sea again in February 1942 when it made the Channel-dash with the Scharnhorst to German waters.

Campbell, Scott, Mullins and Hillman were of that company – ‘Who wore on their hearts the fire’s centre; Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun and left the vivid air signed with their honour.’ On 13 March 1942 Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, which his parents received from King George VI at an investiture on 23 June 1943.

Lützow

Two more attacks must be described. On 12 June 1941 a Blenheim on reconnaissance emerging from clouds some miles South of the Lister Light saw, 1,000 feet below, four or five enemy destroyers screening a much larger vessel, coloured light grey, steaming North-West. The larger vessel was almost certainly the Lützow and it seems probable that she had put out with the object of raiding our commerce in the Atlantic. In addition to her destroyer escort, the pocket-battleship had an escort of Me 109 and Me 110 fighters. The Blenheim slipped back into the clouds. It was then one minute before midnight. On receipt of its message a striking force of Beauforts was sent from a Scottish aerodrome to attack with torpedoes. At 2.20 in the morning of the 13 June – it must be remembered that in those latitudes, at that time of the year, there is almost no darkness – one of the Beauforts attacked the enemy. It flew low, crossed just above one of the protecting destroyers and released its torpedo at a range of 700 yards. As the aircraft broke away the air, gunner and wireless operator both saw a column of water leap from the Lützow amidships and this was followed by a dense cloud of smoke. A few minutes later a second Beaufort arrived on the scene, which the destroyers were busily engaged in obscuring by means of smoke. The second torpedo was fired from 1,000 yards into this artificial haze and almost certainly hit the pocket-battleship. She was picked up again later by Blenheims of Coastal Command, which, together with Beauforts, shadowed her for many hours. By this time she and her escort had turned about and were making for the Skagerrak at reduced speed. The Lützow subsequently put into a North-West German base for repairs.

The part played by Coastal Command in the Combined Operations raid on Vaagsö on 27 December 1941, may be mentioned, for this operation was an attack on a fringe target carried out by the Royal Navy and the Army. It was the task of Blenheim fighters and Beaufighters of the Command to provide protection from the air while Blenheims of Bomber Command made an attack on enemy aerodromes within’ range. The sky was clear and the Beaufighters, which were over the target about 1300, successfully prevented the German Air Force from interfering. Several combats took place; four He 111s were shot down for’ the loss of three Beaufighters. One Blenheim returned to base with the observer and rear gunner both badly wounded. It fought two Me 109s over the ships and during this engagement the rear gunner was put out of action. It turned for home when it encountered a Me 110 very low over the water. The observer was attending the wounded rear gunner, whom he had taken from the turret. He manned the guns, but was himself wounded a moment later by a burst of fire from the Me 110. ‘Just then,’ reported the pilot, ‘I heard a swishing noise and spray flew in from my open side-window. An engine began to cough. I had hit the water with one propeller, but fortunately, beyond bending it a bit, there was no serious damage and the engine picked up again.’ Within 50 miles of base the observer succeeded in reaching the wireless set, though it took him ten minutes to cover the six feet separating him from it and sent out a distress signal. The Blenheim, with flaps and undercarriage unserviceable, made a successful belly landing. The crew survived.

This account of attacks on land targets is best ended by the story of the Beaufort raid on the docks of Nantes on the night of 26/27 October 1941. The Beauforts set out in formation and flew a hundred feet above a stormy sea.

‘We were so low,’ says the leader of the attack, ‘that when we reached the French coast I had to pull up sharply to avoid the sand-dunes. Every time we came to a clump of trees we leapfrogged over them and then went down almost to the ground again … It grew darker as we went farther inland and then began the most surprising experience of all. It was as though the whole of that part of France were turning out to welcome us. Every village we went over became a blaze of light. People threw open their doors and came out to watch us skim their chimney-pots. In other places hamlets would suddenly light up as if the people had torn the blackout down when they heard us coming … I remember one house with a courtyard fully lit, up. I saw a woman come out of the house, look up at us, wave and then go back. She switched off the outside lights and then I saw a yellow light from inside stream out as she opened the door.’

The docks were bombed from 300 feet. Then the Beauforts turned for home just above the roof-tops of Nantes, which, in the bright moonlight, ‘looked like a city of the dead.’ ‘Then I began to see white pin-points on the ground and one by one, lights appeared as we raced over the chimney-pots … We were at top speed, but even so we could see doors opening and people coming out. I felt that we had brought some comfort to the people of Nantes.’ They were in need of it; a cordon of German troops had for some days surrounded the city and within there were fifty hostages awaiting execution as a reprisal for the killing of the German governor. These were shot the next morning. Yet the lights which were switched on that night have been seen on subsequent raids. Through them shines the indomitable spirit of the Bretons.

Attacks on land targets by Coastal Command have yielded in the last months to attacks on shipping. The work of dealing with U-boats and surface raiders in their lairs is now for the most part being performed by Bomber Command. Yet those earlier days when Blenheims, Hudsons, Beauforts and flying boats went in to the attack must not be forgotten. They harassed the enemy – 6,000 metric tons of fuel oil were destroyed in two attacks on St. Nazaire alone, sufficient to fuel a U-boat for six to eight sorties – and prevented him from developing his full strength in the Western Approaches to Great Britain.

Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Bedfellows

The Luftwaffe fights today on many fronts-from the Arctic Circle to the Bay of Biscay and the North African desert; from far out over the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga. But we are not alone. The skies are illuminated by the different national colors of other peoples who share our epic struggle for the common defense of European civilization.

-Hermann Goering, February 2, 79431

Although countless books and magazine articles describe virtually every aspect of German air power in World War II, their millions of readers are mostly unaware that the Luftwaffe fought in concert with a broad variety of foreign air forces across Europe and Asia. Benito Mussolini’s partnership with the Third Reich is well known, but his Regis Aeronautics is usually dismissed as having been too weak and ineffectual for interest. So too, Japan’s contribution to the Axis is popularly understood, although beyond common familiarity with the carrier-based attack on Pearl Harbor; and the Zero fighter plane’s enduring reputation, little is known, even to serious students of the Pacific War, about the Imperial Japanese Army or Naval Air Forces.

A general lack of appreciation for their significance stems from the pitifully few books devoted to the air arms of either Fascist Italy or Imperial Japan. Far fewer books even go so far as to mention the contemporaneous air forces of Spain, Vichy France, or Hungary, to say nothing of Slovakia, Thailand, and Manchuria. Nor were the air forces operated by these and other Axis nations the miniscule, insignificant military services readers may assume. Close examination of their histories uncovers a hitherto undisclosed, unsuspected panorama of World War II that throws a whole new light on the conflict.

We learn, for example, that the Romanians developed and flew their own interceptor, which capably defended the vital Ploie~ti oil fields against Anglo-American heavy-bombers. Finnish pilots, invariably outnumbered in the air by their Soviet opponents, ranked among the highest-scoring aces of all time. Far from having been saddled with an obsolete air force, the Italians made the world’s first cross-country jet flight in 1941, and their Macchi Greyhounds and Centaurs bested both British Spitfires and U.S. Mustangs.

Contrary to Allied wartime portrayals, not every nation fighting at the side of the Third Reich was headed by a Nazi regime, nor even sympathetic to National Socialism. Croatia, Italy, and Slovakia had Fascist or Fascist-style states aligned with Germany. Hungary went Fascist in late 1944, but had been preceded for most of the war by the regency of an arch-conservative anti-Fascist, Miklos Horthy. Monarchies reigned over Bulgaria, Romania, Manchuria, and Japan, while an authoritarian republic ruled Thailand. The parliamentarians of Finland’s constitutional democracy wanted as little to do with Adolf Hitler as possible, and rejected his plea to advance their armed forces beyond reclaimed Finnish soil previously annexed by the Soviets, thereby losing the Battle of Leningrad for both Germany and Finland. Rightist governments in France and Spain under Philippe Petain and Francisco Franco, respectively, allowed volunteers to join the Wehrmacht, but refrained from formally allying themselves with the Axis.

These and many thousands of volunteers from the occupied and neutral countries made up the German Luftwaffe’s foreign comradesin-arms. Not all shared the same dream. Idealists saw Operation Barbarossa-the code name for Adolf Hitler’s June 22, 1941, invasion of Russia-as the most historically significant, unique opportunity for defending all Europeans from otherwise certain destruction and slavery, a struggle that would make possible a new Golden Age of racial unity and cultural greatness. Blinkered nationalists cared not a fig for their fellow Europeans but fought on the Eastern Front entirely for their own particular lands, and were absolutely blind to the necessity of continental cooperation. Others regarded the conflict only as a means to regain lost territories and/or obtaining new ones. Conquest in the East would simultaneously eliminate Stalin and create Lebensraum (“living space”) for continental over-population, while providing Europe’s new breadbasket.

For all their disparate motivations and agendas, what these strange bedfellows shared in common was the will to extirpate the Soviet colossus growing ever more powerfully next door. Some had first-hand experience with Communism in practice, when Bela Kuhn seized power in post-World War I Hungary, or Lenin sparked a bloody civil war throughout Finland during the 1920s, followed the next decade by another civil war that tore Spain in half. Since then, the Red Army had mushroomed into the largest military phenomenon on Earth, and was universally perceived as a common threat to every European people. Tens of thousands of them-from Iberia to the Balkans-had already died in Soviet-sponsored upheavals long before Operation Barbarossa was launched.

Like the Regia Aeronautica, most Axis air forces operated independently from, but in concert with, the Luftwaffe, although all of them were more or less indebted to Germany for training and, at least partially, leadership and equipment. The distant Manchurians flew Junkers-86 medium-bombers, and the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force’s Kawasaki Tony interceptor began as a Heinkel-100. Particularly surprising were the numerous crucial roles undertaken by the crews of these relatively obscure air forces during the war, and how that global struggle sometimes hinged on their performance.

To be sure, influence on the development and even the outcome of World War II was all out of proportion to their low numbers and outdated aircraft. Operating cast-off Brewster Buffalo fighters, sometimes against 12-to-1 opposition in the skies over Leningrad, Finland’s Eino Juutilainen claimed 94 confirmed “kills;’ though his actual score was well over 100. Even little Slovakia produced world-class aces, such as Jan Reznak, who downed 32 enemy aircraft and destroyed dozens more on the ground.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s Laszlo Molnar and Bulgaria’s Petar Botchev accounted between themselves for literally thousands of Red Army troops, armored vehicles, and supply trucks. Their victories are no less unacknowledged than those scored by France’s Vichy Air Force, which turned back an Allied invasion of West Africa and effectively defended Madagascar against overwhelming odds for half a year. Estonians, Latvians, and even anti-Communist Russians operated their own squadrons on the Eastern Front, where they regularly spoiled Soviet initiatives. During the struggle for Stalingrad, Croatian pilots averaged more than 20 missions per day, until they were the last Axis pilots still flying over the embattled city. While Manchurian airmen rammed their planes into some of the first American B-29s lost during World War II, Japanese interceptors defeated America’s early strategic bombing offensive against their country, and USAAF P-38 Lightnings fell under the guns of Thai pilots.

In addition to those nations operating their own air forces on behalf of the Axis, volunteers from every land occupied by the Wehrmacht, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan-and beyond-joined their respective services, as individuals or in groups. Most did not become aircrews but served throughout military hierarchies according to their ages and abilities. For example, 1,112 Lithuanian youngsters participated in the Luftwaffe as helpers in flak, searchlight, and transport formations.’ Although Estonian and Latvian air force units freely and fully cooperated with the Germans, as Chapter 6 describes, Lithuanian authorities refused direct cooperation with the Axis, unless their nation’s independence was first recognized. Their fellow Balts failed to convince them that political discussions had been rendered premature by the exigencies of war, and could not be properly entertained until after the Soviets had been completely defeated.

Despite the adamantine insistence of their leaders, numerous Lithuanians volunteered for duty in various Waffen-SS divisions-mostly Allgemeine, Volksdeutsche, Estonian, or Latvian. Fewer served in the Luftwaffe, and not always on the Eastern Front. Among the aircraft collected for early 1944s Operation Steinbock planned disruption of Anglo-American materiel stockpiling in Britain preparatory to the Normandy Invasion-several Junkers Ju.88 mediumbombers were manned by Lithuanian crews with German flight officers. They were joined by Belgian volunteers, such as Joseph Christian, a radio operator-rear-dorsal gunner with Kampfgeschwader 54, the famous Totenkopf (“Death’s Head”) squadron, which participated on every front wherever the Wehrmacht was engaged. On April 18, Christian was aboard a Ju.88 over the London docks, which it had successfully attacked, when his Junkers was set upon by several Spitfires and destroyed with the loss of all hands.

Steinbock’s 447 inadequately escorted bombers were intercepted by more than 500 radar-guided RAF fighters, which claimed 329 “kills” over the course of the five-month-long Operation. From late February to early March, Christian’s Totenkopf squadron alone lost 18 warplanes. The British had been additionally and vitally assisted by their complete mastery of all Luftwaffe codes, which warned them prior to each attack of the number and type of enemy aircraft, their target destination, estimated time of arrival, speed, and altitude-even squadron identification, including the individual names of enemy commanders. Given such advance notice, together with their numerical superiority, the British could have hardly missed.

A former pilot of Belgium’s disbanded Militair Vliegwezen, Alfons Labeau, became a Luftwaffe color sergeant (Oberscharfuhrer) in June 1944. Thereafter, he flew mostly transport and liaison aircraft for the duration. His compatriot, Guido Rombart, was a Waffen-SS-Langemarck veteran, who transferred to the Luftwaffe in 1943. After completing his flight instruction at Nenndorf and Gumpersdorf, then posting with a fighter training unit, JG 102, in early April, he was transferred to fully operational interceptors with jagclgeschwacler 1 Oesau the early following autumn. His mount was a Focke-Wulf FW-190 A-8, arguably the best all-around piston-driven fighter plane of World War II. The Wurger’s BMW 801 D-2 radial engine, rated at 2,000 hp, enabled it to climb 2,560 feet per minute and turn inside the Allies’ top competitors. Living up to its name, the “Butcher-Bird” was armed with two, 13-mm MG 131 machine-guns and four 20-mm MG 151.20 E cannons.

On September 27, Rombart and 55 other pilots of I./JG 1 and II./JG 1 were ordered to intercept more than 300 B-17 Flying Fortresses escorted by 262 fighter-escorts of VIII Fighter Command including Thunderbolts of the USAAF 63rd Fighter Squadron raiding the German city of Emden. During the melee that ensued, the Belgian airman’s Focke-Wulf crashed into the sea near the island of Borkum. His body was never recovered.

Like the Lithuanian flak helpers, 2,000 volunteers served in the Flaemische Flakbrigade as gunnery personnel and munition handlers from early 1944 until the Allied occupation of Belgium. A similar unit was Flak-Regiment 159, where Belgians such as Joseph Justin, a 20-year-old laboratory assistant from Malmedy and former gunner aboard a Junkers Ju.88 medium-bomber with 9./KG 6, was assigned in December that same year.

A Danish Ju.88 pilot was A. T. Harild, who rose to the rank of Luftwaffe major while fighting in the skies above Orel, in 1943. Denmark’s aces in the Luftwaffe included Lieutenant Peter Horn and Captain Poul Sommer. Both were Iron Cross recipients-second and first class-for their 11 and 6 aerial victories, respectively. Sommer returned from frontline service in Italy to his homeland, where he formed the Vagtkorpset de Tyske Luftvaaben (“Guard Corps of the German Luftwaffe”), comprising 1,200 personnel in five companies to improve airfield security, particularly against resistance movement saboteurs. So successful were his organizational efforts in this direction, Heinrich Himmler personally promoted Sommer to the rank of reserve SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer on January 11, 1945.

Hurricane Fighter into Battle I

Poland’s first Hurricanes were bought in 1939 but only one from an order for ten was delivered before the German invasion, the remaining nine being allocated to the RAF or diverted to Turkey instead. However, several expatriate Polish pilots flew Hurricanes within the RAF, with the first Polish-manned squadrons forming in Britain in 1940, of which Nos.302 and 303 (Polish) Squadrons took part in the Battle of Britain.

In total, seven Polish-manned squadrons, each named after a Polish city or individual, operated various Marks of Hurricane, namely: No.302 (City of Poznan); No.303 (Kosciuszko); No.306 (City of Torun); No.308 (City of Krakow); No.315 (City of Deblin); No.316 (City of Warsaw); No.317 (City of Wilno)

Pilots from 303 (Polish) Squadron: From the left Pilot Officer Miroslaw Feric, Flight Lieutenant John Kent, Pilot Officer Bohdan Grzeszczak, Pilot Officer Jerzy Radomski and Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach in the background, Pilot Officer Witold Lokuciewski, Flying Officer Zdzislaw Henneberg, Sergeant January Rogowski and Sergeant Eugeniusz Szaposznikow.

The Hurricane’s baptism of fire came on 21 October 1939, when A Flight of No.46 Squadron took off from RAF Digby, Lincolnshire, and was directed to intercept a formation of nine Heinkel He 115B floatplanes from 1./KüFlGr 906, searching for ships to attack in the North Sea. The He 115s had already been attacked and damaged by two No.72 Squadron Spitfires when the six No.46 Squadron Hurricanes intercepted the Heinkels which were flying at sea level in an attempt to avoid further attacks. Nevertheless the Hurricanes shot down three of them in rapid succession and damaged another (although No.46 claimed five and No.72 claimed two!)

By late 1939/1940, many of the early delivery machines were in the process of being updated with ‘metal’ wings, 1,030hp Merlin III engines, ejector exhaust manifolds, de Havilland and Rotol variable speed three-blade propellers, reflector gunsights instead of the original ring and bead type, internal and external armoured windscreens and armour-plated rear cockpit bulkheads – none of which could be achieved overnight of course – resulting in a range of modifications, for a while, that numbered an estimated twenty-seven different standards.

The Phoney War

In response to a request from the French government for ten fighter squadrons to provide air support, in addition to ten squadrons of Fairey Battles that were flown to bases in metropolitan France in late August/early September 1939, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command, argued that this number of fighters would severely deplete Fighter Command’s British defences, and so initially only a token force of four Hurricane squadrons, Nos.1, 73, 85 and 87, were sent to France in early September 1939, (all Spitfires being retained for Home defence). The RAF supplied two air contingents initially – the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) and the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The four Hurricane squadrons initially formed No.60 Wing within the Air Component of the BEF, but by the middle of September further RAF squadrons comprising Blenheim IV bombers and Lysander tactical reconnaissance and army co-operation aircraft started arriving. Over the following autumn and winter, the squadrons were rotated around various bases while Nos.1 and 73 Squadrons were detached from the BEF’s Air Component control during the winter to form No.67 Fighter Wing attached directly to the AASF.

On 30 October, Hurricane pilots experienced their first action over France. Pilot Officer P. W. O ‘Boy’ Mould of No.1 Squadron, flying L1842, shot down a Dornier Do 17P from 2.(F)/123, sent to photograph allied airfields close to the border, about 10 miles west of Toul, becoming the first RAF pilot to down an enemy aircraft on the continent in the Second World War. Flying Officer E. J. ‘Cobber’ Kain, a New Zealander, was responsible for No.73 Squadron’s first victory, on 8 November 1939, whilst stationed at Rouvres. He went on to become one of the RAF’s first ‘aces’ of the war, being credited with sixteen ‘kills’ before his death in a flying accident on 6 June 1940.

Hurricanes were also involved in the German invasion of Norway. On 9 April 1940, under codename Operation Weserübung the Wehrmacht invaded Denmark, which capitulated after a day, but Norway continued to resist. On 14 April Allied ground troops were landed in Norway, but by the end of the month, the southern parts of the country were in German hands. On 14 May 1940, No.46 Squadron embarked on HMS Glorious and sailed for an airfield near Harstad, Norway, to augment the Gladiators of No.263 Squadron operating from improvised airfields and the frozen lake at Lesjaskog, but they had to return with the carrier to Scapa Flow when the landing ground was found to be unusable.

On 26 May, ten of the squadron’s Hurricanes were flown off to Skaanland, but due to the soft surface two crashed on landing so the remainder were diverted to Bardufoss, sixty miles further north. After providing fighter cover for the Narvik area for two weeks the order to evacuate all Allied forces from Norway was received and, on 7 June, despite the lack of arrester hooks and no deck landing training, the squadron flew its surviving Hurricanes back on to Glorious’ deck – all landing safely. The squadron’s ground crews embarked in other ships and re-assembled at Digby, though tragically, HMS Glorious and her destroyer escort were intercepted by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during their return home, and sunk. Only two RAF officers survived the sinking, one being No.46’s CO, Squadron Leader K. B. B. (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth) Cross. Despite this disaster the squadron was operational again by the end of June, at Digby.

Battle of France

By the spring of 1940, it became rapidly apparent that the handful of Hurricane squadrons based in France would be woefully inadequate to offset an impending Luftwaffe avalanche. In May, three more Hurricane squadrons, Nos.3, 79 and 504, were sent to reinforce the earlier units as Germany’s Blitzkrieg gathered momentum. On 10 May, the first day of the Battle of France, Hurricane squadrons claimed forty-two Luftwaffe aircraft shot down for the loss of seven Hurricanes with none of the pilots killed. Hurricane units also escorted bombers, including those involved with the raids against the Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt bridges on the Meuse, at Maastricht by No.12 Squadron’s Fairey Battles on 12 May. The escort consisted of eight Hurricanes from No.1 Squadron, but when the formation approached Maastricht, it was bounced by Bf 109Es from 2./JG 27. Two Battles and two Hurricanes were shot down, two more Battles were brought down by flak and the fifth was forced to crash land.

On 13 May 1940, more Hurricanes arrived, bringing the total of Hurricane squadrons operating from French soil to ten – Nos. 1, 3, 73, 79, 85, 87, 242, 501, 504 and 615 Squadrons (No. 615 having exchanged its Gladiators for Hurricanes in the preceding weeks) – but heavy losses continued and by the end of the first week of fighting only three of the squadrons remained near operational strength. With ferocious air combat continuing from dawn to dusk, throughout May, the order was finally received on the afternoon of 20 May 1940 for all Hurricane units based in northern France to abandon their bases and return to the UK. During eleven days of fighting in France, between 10 to 21 May, Hurricane units claimed 499 ‘kills’ and 123 probables, although contemporary German records examined post-war, attribute 299 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed and sixty-five seriously damaged by RAF fighters. Number 1 Squadron was the most successful of the campaign, claiming sixty-three victories for the loss of five pilots. On the evening of 21 May, the only Hurricanes still operating in France were those of the AASF that had been moved to bases around Troyes and when the last Hurricanes left France, of the 452 Hurricanes sent only sixty-six returned to bases in the UK with over 170 having to be abandoned at their airfields.

During Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of British, French and Belgian troops cut off by the German army surrounding Dunkirk – Hurricanes continued to operate from British bases and it was over Dunkirk that the Luftwaffe suffered its first serious rebuff of the war. Although operating from captured bases in France, the Bf 109 was at the outer limits of its range and possessed less flying time over the area than the defending Hurricanes (and Spitfires) operating from airfields in southern England. Luftwaffe bombers, many still based in western Germany with farther to fly, found that British fighter attacks often prevented them from performing to their customary, often uninterrupted, degree of effectiveness and both sides suffered heavy losses, which for the Luftwaffe, came as a bit of a shock. For instance, Fliegerkorps II reported in its War Diary that it lost more aircraft on 27 May attacking the evacuation area than it had lost in the previous ten days of the campaign.

Initial engagements with the Luftwaffe had showed the Hurricane to be a tight-turning and steady platform but the Watts two-bladed propeller was clearly unsuitable and its replacement with de Havilland and Rotol units was a priority. The Merlin III engine was designed to run on standard 87 octane aviation fuel, but from early 1940, increasing quantities of 100 octane fuel became available, which together with modifications to allow an additional 6psi of supercharger boost for five minutes, increased engine output by nearly 250hp and gave the Hurricane an approximate increase in speed of 25 to 35mph below 15,000ft, which greatly increased the aircraft’s climb rate. This form of emergency power was an important modification that allowed the Hurricane to be more competitive against the Bf 109E and to increase its margin of superiority over the Bf 110C, especially at lower altitudes.

Deliveries of new Hurricanes fitted with Rotol constant-speed propeller units (CSU) commenced in April/May 1940 and Hurricanes already in France were being retrofitted with Rotol CSUs by parties of the manufacturer’s engineers flying out from England to do the work. The Rotol CSU transformed the Hurricane’s performance and prompted de Havilland to undertake a modification programme of upgrading its older two-pitch propeller into a similar CSU, so that by the late spring/early summer of 1940, most frontline operational Hurricanes were fitted with either Rotol or de Havilland constant-speed propeller units.

The Battle of Britain

By the end of June 1940, following the fall and surrender of France on the 22nd, almost half of the RAF’s Fighter Command squadrons were equipped with Hurricanes. A short lull ensued whilst the Luftwaffe replaced its losses from the French Campaign and established itself on the airfields in the countries they had captured. In Britain this time was spent in putting as many new fighters and trained pilots into service as possible to prepare against the attack everyone knew was coming. The future of Britain was about to be decided in the skies above southeast England, and, as the country’s new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who took over the premiership on 10 May, put it, ‘What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin’

The Battle of Britain officially lasted from 10 July until 31 October 1940, with the heaviest fighting taking place between the beginning of August and mid-September. On 16 July, Hitler ordered the preparation of a plan to invade Britain, under ‘Directive No 16: The Preparation of a Landing Operation against England’ better known today as Operation Sealion. All preparations were to be made by mid-August and it was scheduled to take place in mid-September 1940. Sealion called for landings on the south coast of England, backed by an airborne assault. Neither Hitler nor the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, Supreme Command of the Armed Forces), believed it would be possible to carry out a successful amphibious assault on Britain until the RAF had been neutralised. It was believed that air superiority might make a successful landing possible although it would still be a very risky operation requiring absolute mastery over the Channel by the Luftwaffe.

The Battle went through a series of phases:

Phase 1: From 10 July to 11 August 1940, which saw a series of running fights over convoys in the English Channel and occasional attacks on coastal shipping, convoys and harbours, such as Portsmouth, by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers.

Phase 2: From 12 to 23 August 1940 when the Luftwaffe started to shift its attacks over to RAF airfields, the ground infrastructure and aircraft factories

Phase 3: Which saw intensified Luftwaffe attacks on RAF airfields from 24 August to 6 September 1940 – and came very close to destroying Fighter Command and its bases.

Phase 4: From 7 September to 31 October 1940, when the Luftwaffe changed its tactics and resorted to attacking areas of political significance such as London in daylight, using area bombing tactics.

Phase 5: From late September 1940 through to the spring of 1941 when the Luftwaffe turned more and more to a night bombing campaign against London and the UK’s major cities – known as ‘The Blitz’.

As may be imagined, with Hurricanes making up half of Fighter Command’s frontline force, the type was heavily committed to the Battle and Hurricane squadrons were involved in all the Phases, including some of the first nocturnal interceptions when the Luftwaffe started night bombing raids from late September. Despite the undoubted abilities of the Spitfire, it was the Hurricane that scored the higher number of victories during this period, accounting for almost 60 percent of the recorded 2,739 German losses. Although the Hurricane was slower than both the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, with its thick wings which affected rapid acceleration, it could out-turn both of them. The Hurricane was a steady gun platform, and in spite of its performance differences compared to the Bf 109, the Hurricane was still a capable fighter, especially at lower altitudes. One tactic of the Bf 109 was to attempt to ‘bounce’ RAF fighters in a dive. If spotted in time, Hurricanes were able to evade such tactics by turning into the attack or going into a ‘corkscrew dive’, which the ‘109s, with their lower rate of roll, found hard to counter. If a Bf 109 was engaged in a ‘straight dogfight’, the Hurricane was just as capable of out-turning it as the Spitfire, although in a stern chase, the Bf 109 could easily outpace and evade the Hurricane.

In the summer of 1940, Hurricane Is, (and Spitfire Is) were powered by Merlin III engines, fitted with a float chamber SU carburettor. When a Hurricane (or Spitfire) performed a negative-G manoeuvre (i.e. pitching the nose hard down), fuel was forced up to the top of the carburettor’s float chamber rather than into the engine, leading to loss of power. If the negative-G continued, then enough fuel would collect in the top of the float chamber to force the float to the floor of the chamber. This would in turn open a needle valve to maximum, flooding the carburettor and drowning the supercharger with an over-rich mixture which would lead to a cutout, thus shutting down the engine completely – a serious drawback in combat!

Bf 109s and Bf 110s used Daimler-Benz DB 601 inverted V12 engines fitted with fuel injection pumps, not carburettors, which kept their fuel at a constant pressure whatever manoeuvres they performed and did not suffer from this problem. They could exploit the difference by pitching steeply forward whilst pushing the throttle wide open; pursuing British fighters were left ‘flat footed’ as trying to emulate the manoeuvre would result in loss of power, or fuel flooding and engine shutdown. The only British countermeasure available was to half-roll, so the aircraft would only be subjected to positive-G as they followed a German aircraft into a dive, which invariably took just enough time to let the enemy escape.

Complaints from the pilots led Beatrice Tilly’ Shilling, a young engineer working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, to devise a disarmingly simple solution – a flow restrictor which was a small metal disc, much like a metal washer. The restrictor orifice was made to accommodate just the fuel needed for maximum engine power, the power setting usually used during dogfights. Whilst not completely solving the problem, the restrictor, along with modifications to the needle valve, permitted Hurricane and Spitfire pilots to perform quick negative-G manoeuvres without loss of engine power. In early 1941, Miss Shilling and a small team from the RAE travelled around Fighter Command’s airfields fitting these restrictors, giving priority to front-line units and by March 1941 the device had been installed throughout RAF Fighter Command. Officially named the ‘RAE restrictor’, the device was immensely popular with pilots, who affectionately named it ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice’ or simply the ‘Tilly orifice’. This simple solution was only ever a stopgap as it did not allow inverted flight for any length of time, however, the problems were ultimately overcome by the introduction of Bendix and later Rolls-Royce pressure-carburettors in 1943.