WELLINGTON BOMBER: HIGH ALTITUDE VARIANTS

In response to Operational Requirement OR.94 calling for a bomber capable of operating at a cruising height of 35,000 feet over 2,200 miles, Vickers proposed the Mk.V and Mk.VI variants of the Wellington, around which Specifications B.23/39 and B.17/40 were written. The aircraft were fitted with a pressurised cabin in the forward fuselage and ultimately a 12 feet increase in wingspan. The two variants differed mainly in their powerplants, with the Mk.V having the Hercules Mk.VIII and the Mk.VI the Merlin 60; prototypes of both were built at Vickers’ Experimental Section site at Foxwarren, Cobham, a few miles from Weybridge. They first flew in 1940 and 1941 respectively, but a change in air staff policy led to second thoughts about the value of high-flying bombers and consequently only the Mk.VI was ordered into limited production, with sixty-four being built at Weybridge between May 1942 and January 1943 and assembled at Smith’s Lawn temporary airfield in Windsor Great Park. Testing at A&AEE Boscombe Down commenced with W5795 but on 12 July 1942 the aircraft dived at high speed from altitude, breaking up before it reached the ground, with the loss of Sqn Ldr Cyril Colmore and his crew. The probable cause was the failure of a propeller blade which penetrated the pressure cabin and hit the pilot. In December 1942, a production Mk.VI DR484 was used to demonstrate its true performance and included a cruising altitude of 34,000 feet (which the aircraft took fifty minutes to reach), an estimated range of 1,100 miles, and a height over the target of 37,100 feet.

The aircraft was operated by a crew of four; pilot, navigator, bomb aimer and wireless operator, all housed in the forward pressure cabin. The need for air gunners was removed as the turrets were to be operated remotely from the cabin and sighted via a periscope. In the event the only service use was with one flight of 109 Squadron which received four aircraft (W5801, W5802, DR480, DR484) as GEE trainers and for Oboe trials in concert with Mk.ICs T2513 and X9678 of the Telecommunications Flying Unit (TFU) Defford, Worcestershire with trials also being flown from Tempsford. The remainder of the Mk.VI fleet was struck off charge and scrapped between March 1943 and August 1944.

A Mk.VI DR480 was to be have been fitted with a British Thomson-Houston built W.2B jet engine in November 1942, but these trials were delayed until 26 January 1943 and the aircraft was re-allocated for use at TFU Defford without being converted

Type 407 and Type 421 Wellington Mark V were the second and first prototypes respectively: three were built, designed for pressurised, high-altitude operations using turbocharged Hercules VIII engines.

Wellington Mark VI

The Mk VI was developed at the same time as the Mk V, but using Rolls Royce Merlin 60 engines, providing 1,600 hp. These proved more successful than the Hercules III engines used in the Mk V, but high-altitude flight provided problems of its own, as many of the liquids used in the aircraft froze in the extreme cold. Sixty four Mk VIs were produced, and it was intended to use them with pathfinder squadrons to mark targets for the main bomber force, but by the time the Mk VI was ready for service the Mosquito had appeared, and was very obviously better suited to the role. The Mark VIs never saw combat, though two were flown by a service squadron for a short time, presumably as operational evaluation. Most of the Mark VI bombers were converted to “Wellington Mark VIG” trainers for the Gee radio precision bombing system. The surviving Mk VIs were scrapping in 1943.

Mk.V Type 407, 421, 426, 436, 440, 443 – 3 built

Hercules III 1,425 hp. High-altitude bomber to operate up to 40,000 ft. Prototypes R3298 & R3299 first flown August 1940. One further aircraft W5766. Type 443 one aircraft for Hercules VIII tests

Mk.VI Type 431, 439, 442, 443, 449 – 64 built

Wing span 86 ft 2 in length 61 ft 9 in height 17 ft 8 in, gross weight 30,450 lb, service ceiling 38,500 ft, range 2,275 miles with 1,500 lb bomb load. Merlin 60 1,600 hp. High-altitude bomber. Prototype W5795 plus 63 production aircraft, some used as GEE trainers by one flight of 109 Squadron which received 4 aircraft

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HMS Inflexible (1876)

Inflexible, 1876, as completed with sails for training. Note the torpedo launching chute over the stem.

The design concept of Inflexible was of a raft, the citadel, which would float if the ends were destroyed or flooded. The ends were closely subdivided and protected by a thick deck. A light, unprotected structure above provided accommodation.

In 1885 Inflexible’s sailing rig was replaced by two military masts.

In a letter to The Times of 1 January 1877, Edward Reed described the Inflexible as `… a huge engine of war, animated and put into activity in every part by steam and steam alone. The main propelling engines are worked by steam, a separate steam engine starts and stops them; steam ventilates the monster, steam weighs the anchors, steam steers her, steam pumps her out if she leaks, steam loads the gun, steam trains it, steam elevates or depresses it. The Ship is a steam being .’

The 1873 Estimates envisaged the building of a single, improved ‘Fury’ (in fact, this meant Fury, not yet renamed, with the modifications which made her Dreadnought). The problem facing Barnaby was stark; the 12.5in, 38-ton gun fitted in recent ships could fire an 820lb projectile through 15.7in of iron armour at 1000yds. Fury’s 14in belt (amidships) was already inadequate and, furthermore, both Woolwich and Elswick claimed that 50-ton guns were within existing capabilities with even larger guns in the near future.

The early studies retained the main features of Dreadnought with the two twin 38-ton turrets augmented by a number of smaller guns en barbette amidships. In one such study a single 50-ton gun in a turret was squeezed in amidships. The 14in belt was retained amidships but the thinner belt at the ends was omitted and a thick transverse bulkhead fitted at each end of the belt. Thus the much admired end-to-end belt of Devastation was already abandoned for what must have been a very small saving in weight.

By this time Woolwich was speaking with confidence of a 60-ton gun and Barnaby was driven to a more radical solution. The main requirements seem to have been set by Barnaby himself, though presumably after discussion with Board members and others. The armament was to consist of two twin turrets with 60-ton guns capable, if possible of being changed to 80-ton guns when available. White described the problem: ‘At first it was contemplated to have 60-ton guns and the ship was laid down on this basis. Finally, in 1874 it was decided to adopt 80-ton guns, which involved an increased weight aloft of 200 tons, and considerably modified the design, the draft and displacement having to be increased. There had been some previous instances of ships getting ahead of the settlement of their gun designs but never so serious one as this. Unfortunately, it was only the first of a long series of similar difficulties … .’ The armour was to be concentrated over a short citadel with a maximum thickness of 24in. She was to be fast – 14kts – and capable of using the Suez Canal at light draught (24ft 4in). Barnaby’s ideas were generally welcomed and the design was progressed incorporating some detail improvements mainly suggested by the DNO, Captain Hood, but with some later ideas from Barnaby. The following paragraphs describe the design as it finally evolved.

The design concept was of a very heavily armoured raft containing the machinery and magazines on which the two turrets were carried. The ends were protected by a strong armoured deck below the waterline, by close subdivision and by buoyant material whilst a light superstructure provided living space. Even if both ends were flooded, the armoured box was intended to have sufficient buoyancy and stability to float upright. This stability requirement led to a wide beam which, in turn, meant that the turrets could fire close to the axis past the narrow superstructure, limited by blast damage to the superstructure. She was fitted with anti-rolling water tanks to reduce the severity of rolling but these were ineffective.

The earliest studies of this configuration showed 60-ton guns though provision was made to mount 100-ton guns when they became available. Woolwich built an experimental 80-ton MLR which completed in September 1875 with a 14.5in bore. After tests, it was bored out to 15in and after further tests in March 1876 it was finally enlarged to 16in bore with an 18in chamber, accepting a 370lb charge. This gun fired a total of 140 rounds-215,855lbs of iron from 42,203lbs of powder – mostly against what was known as ‘Target 41’ which had four 8in plates separated by 5in teak. The standard system of grooving used with studded shell proved troublesome and in final form it had thirty-nine shallow grooves (‘polygroove’) with a lead gas check at the base of the shell.

The production guns-80-ton, Mark I-were mounted in twin turrets each weighing 750 tons and 33ft 10in external diameter. These turrets had an outer layer of compound armour with 18in teak backing and an inner layer of 7in wrought iron. The projectile weighed 16841b and when fired with the full charge of 450lbs brown prism powder had a muzzle velocity of 1590ft/sec and in tests could penetrate 23in of wrought iron in either a single thickness or two plates spaced. The interval between rounds was said to be between 2½ and 4 minutes. To load, the guns were run out and depressed against ports in the deck through which hydraulic rams loaded the guns. Two of these monstrous guns survive on the train ferry pier at Dover, though the turret design is rather different and an early studded shell is in the Naval Armament Museum, Gosport.

Inflexible’s citadel was protected at the waterline by a strake of 12in plate, 4ft deep, backed by 11 in teak containing vertical frames. Behind this was another 12in plate backed by 6in horizontal frames, filled with teak followed by the shell of two thicknesses of ⅝in plate. The total thickness of this waterline belt was 4lin, weighing 1100lbs/sq ft and this thickness was preserved in the protection above and below, the thickness of teak increasing as that of the iron was reduced. Above the waterline strake there was a 12in outer plate and an 8in inner plate whilst below the thicknesses were 12in and 4in.

It is not clear why the armour was in two thicknesses as a 22in plate was made by 1877 and it was already recognised that two plates are inferior to a single plate of the same total thickness. A test in 1877 showed that a single plate 17-17½in thick was equivalent to three plates of 6½in. The waterline belt of 24in in total was the thickest belt ever carried on a battleship but it was only 4ft high and would have been of limited value. It does not seem that this protection was tried in final form. It was claimed that this protection was invulnerable to guns similar to those she carried and even to the 17.7in, 100-ton Elswick guns mounted in Italian ships but it was clearly the end of the road for wrought iron as the weight was already at the very limit of what could be carried.

The protection for the ends was a very sophisticated combination of measures. The first line of defence was a 3in wrought iron deck, normally 6-8ft below the waterline. The space between this deck and the middle deck, just above water, was closely subdivided and used for coal and stores which would limit the amount of water which could enter from holes in the side. In addition, narrow tanks 4ft wide and filled with cork were arranged at the sides between these decks and extending 4ft above the middle deck. Inside these cork-filled spaces there was a 2ft coffer dam filled with canvas packed with oakum. All these fillings were treated with calcium chloride to reduce their flammability although tests showed this was not very effective. This scheme has much in common with that which Reed proposed to the 1871 Committee.

In 1877, Reed wrote to Barnaby and later to The Times claiming that calculations which he and Elgar had made showed that the stability provided by the citadel was inadequate if both ends were flooded. Despite a comprehensive rebuttal by Barnaby, an enquiry was set up chaired by Admiral Hope and consisting of three distinguished engineers, Wooley, Rendel and W Froude. Their investigation was extremely thorough, entering into aspects of naval architecture never previously studied.

Their report concluded that it was most unlikely that both ends would be completely flooded but that if this did happen, the Inflexible would a retain a small but just adequate margin of stability in terms of the GZ curve. Their comments on the difficulty of actually hitting the enemy ship are of interest – remember the Glatton turret and Hotspurs initial miss! They listed the problems as the relative movements of the two ships, the smoke generated (470lbs of powder per round), the rolling and pitching of the firing ship, the lack of any way of determining range and the deflection due to wind. In particular, they noted that it was customary to fire the guns from a rolling ship when the deck appeared horizontal at which position the angular velocity was greatest. (Note also that Froude had showed that human balance organs are very bad at determining true vertical in a rolling ship.) All in all, hits anywhere on the ship would be few and those in a position to flood the ends few indeed.

A shell exploding within the cork would destroy it locally but tests showed that a shell hitting light structure would explode about  of a second later during which it would travel 6-10ft, clear of the cork. The canvas and oakum filling of the coffer dam was quite effective at reducing the size of the hole made by a projectile passing through. Both the cork and the coffer dam were tested full scale with the gunboat Nettle firing a 64pdr shell into replicas. The Committee also pointed out that shells were unlikely to enter the space between the waterline and armoured deck except at long range when hits were even less likely.

Though the Committee thought it was unlikely that the ends would be riddled (filled with water) and even less likely that they would be gutted (all stores, coal, cork etc, blown out with water filling the entire space), they examined these conditions with extreme care. Stability curves were prepared and Froude carried out rolling trials on a 1-ton model both in his experiment tank at Torquay and in waves at sea. The movement of floodwater within the ship acted to oppose rolling in waves, as in an anti-rolling tank. The effect of speed on the trim of the flooded model was also examined. Their conclusion was that the ship should survive this extreme condition but would be incapable of anything other than returning for repair.

This investigation was far more thorough than any previous study of the effects of damage and owed much to White’s calculations and Froude’s experiments. It was the first time that GZ curves of stability had been drawn for a damaged ship and the importance of armoured freeboard was brought out and it must be a matter for regret that similar work was not carried out for later ships. With the invaluable gift of hindsight, one may suggest two aspects not fully brought out. The first was the vulnerability of the citadel armour itself, particularly bearing in mind the shallow 24in layer, in two thicknesses, and the increasing power of guns. The second point was the assumption that the watertight integrity of the citadel would endure even when multiple hits had riddled the ends. The Victoria collision was to show that doors, ventilation and valves do not remain tight after damage and Inflexible would probably have foundered from slow flooding into this citadel. Barnaby claimed that she was designed to withstand a torpedo hit with the centreline bulkhead giving only a small heel – but he did not envisage flooding extending beyond one transverse compartment.

However, it is difficult to see a better solution to the design requirement and the concept received some vindication from the battle of the Yalu Sea on 17 September 1894 when two Chinese ironclads, Ting Yuen and Chen Yuan, to Inflexible’s configuration, but smaller, received a very large number of hits and survived. To some extent, the 1913 trial firings against the Edinburgh may be seen as justifying the concept. Opponents of the Inflexible mainly favoured protected cruisers whose only protection was similar to that at the ends of the Inflexible which they derided. White gives her cost as £812,000 though other, much lower, figures have been quoted. There were two diminutives which call for no mention.

‘The Ship is a Steam Being’

Reed’s letter, quoted at the beginning of the chapter, referred to the increasing use of auxiliary machinery. Some early examples include; a capstan in Hercules (1866), hydraulic steering gear, fitted to Warrior in 1870, and a steam steering engine for Northumberland as well as the turrets in Thunderer and later ships. The number increased rapidly and Inflexible was truly a ‘steam being’. Her auxiliaries comprised:

1 steering engine

2 reversing engines

2 vertical direct fire engines

2 pairs steam/hydraulic engines to work the 750-ton turrets

1 capstan engine

4 ash hoists

1 vertical direct turning engine

2 40hp pumping engines, total capacity 4800 tons/hr 2 donkey engines for bilge pumping

2 steam shot hoists

4 auxiliary feed, similar to donkey engines.

2 Brotherhood 3 cylinder for boat hoisting

4 Brotherhood 3-cylinder fan engines

4 Friedman ejectors

2 horizontal direct acting centrifugal circulating pump

The list above does not mention ventilation fans but it is virtually certain that these were fitted. It was some time before satisfactory ventilation systems were developed. An electric searchlight was tried in Comet in 1874 and the first permanent fitting was in Minotaur in 1876. Inflexible had 800-volt d.c. generators by the US Brush company. These powered arc lights in the machinery space and Swan ‘Glow’ lamps elsewhere. The Swan lamps were connected in series and it was a year before the 800-volt system killed its first victim. She was even launched by electricity; when Princess Louise touched a button, a wire fused and the bottle of wine fell and weights crashed onto the dog shores.

Battle of La Rochelle (1372)

Battle of La Rochelle (1372), a Castillian fleet annihilate the English fleet at the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War by Giuseppe Rava.

King Charles’s reconquest had continued. Although the Mayor of Poitiers supported the English, its people opened the gates to du Guesclin in 1372 and the rest of Poitou soon followed its capital. In June the same year, off La Rochelle, a Castilian fleet defeated an English fleet under the Earl of Pembroke—the new Governor of Aquitaine—sending the ship carrying his troops’ pay to the bottom and taking the Earl back to Spain as a prisoner. In consequence the Mayor of La Rochelle overpowered the English garrison and admitted du Guesclin. The Constable also took Usson in the Auvergne, while the whole of the Angoumois and the Saintonge went over to the French. There were not enough English troops to provide adequate garrisons and the enemy seemed to be everywhere. The English strongholds in Normandy and Brittany were falling and even Guernsey was invaded by a French force under Evan of Wales (a member of the former ruling family of Gwynedd).

The Battle

The development of battle tactics are also clearly illustrated in the course of this encounter, which took place in June 1372 at a time when England’s military prowess was on the wane. Edward III was now old and had lost his wife, Philippa, probably to a recurrence of the plague in 1369. Both 1370 and 1371 had seen invasion scares, with the south-coast towns on alert for raiders, and stories circulating widely of large French fleets being gathered for a descent on the English coast. John of Gaunt was actively pursuing his ambitions in Spain and attempting to put together an expedition and a fleet for that purpose. In France itself, English forces in the southwest were under pressure. In these rather unpromising circumstances the young Earl of Pembroke was commissioned in April as royal lieutenant in Aquitaine. He finally left to take up his position in June, leading a small force of probably under twenty ships, mostly small transports, but with three large vessels as escorts. He had with him 224 knights, fifty-five esquires and eighty archers. He also received a large sum of money in gold and silver, about £12,000, so that he could recruit and pay an army of about three thousand men when he reached his destination.

The various chronicle accounts then differ markedly as to what then ensued. Froissart as usual has a stirring tale to tell, which also changed between the different versions of his work. The foremost English chronicles hardly mention the incident. The Anonimalle Chronicle merely states that ‘the young count set out towards Gascony with too few men to the great damage of England’. He encountered enemy ships and was captured along with some of his companions and others were killed.38 A French chronicle, the Chronique des Quatre Premiers Valois, explains that on 22 June the English squadron arrived off La Rochelle and found a force of Castilian galleys already barring their way. The English thought little of the Spanish and were not unduly disturbed. An action ensued with the crossbowmen on the galleys opposing the archers on the English sailing ships. At nightfall this was still inconclusive so the two fleets parted. The chronicle also implies at this point that low tide was around dusk, perhaps around 9pm. This chronicle is then adamant that at dawn the next day after the first attack the English were aground because of the falling tide. The galleys, drawing much less water, were still able to manoeuvre freely and attacked, this time using flaming arrows and pots of grease and oil to set the English ships on fire. Soon most of the English ships were alight, with terrified horses in the holds adding to the confusion and uproar. The earl’s vessel was grappled by no fewer than four galleys and despite fierce fighting on the deck those who remained alive were forced to surrender and were captured. The treasure intended to pay the army in Gascony also fell into enemy hands.

This account of the battle has generally been accepted, although there is some disagreement over whether the English ships went aground. The timing of the crucial tide changes must remain uncertain without precise information but it seems likely that the tide was ebbing from around 2–3am on the morning of 23 June so that at dawn when the Castilian attack went in this would soon be a problem for the English ships if they had anchored not far from the shore. More controversial is the effect of this battle. One historian has called it ‘the greatest defeat ever sustained by the English navy’. Another has claimed that the effect was, ‘to stimulate naval activity’. The most recent writer’s view is that ‘the loss of prestige incurred by this first major English defeat was incalculable.’ For most contemporary English chroniclers the most important matter was the capture of the Earl of Pembroke by the Spanish.

Despite the loss of ships in this disaster and the need to compensate the owners of three of the largest with grants of royal ships, a large fleet was raised later that same summer for an expedition to France, which came to nothing because of a long spell of adverse winds. There is also evidence that the fact that a galley fleet had destroyed one made up of sailing vessels lay behind the decision to set in train the building of more balingers and barges for the Crown. Feelers were also put out to both Genoa and Portugal in the hope that they might be able to provide galleys or oarsmen to power the new balingers. More generally, English military power was receding as Charles V of France reinvigorated his forces both on land and at sea; the era of English success and stunning victories seemed to have ended, as the enormous expense of the wars became more and more apparent to a people who had lost much of their enthusiasm for the whole endeavour.

English Naval Forces

The idea that all ships in the possession of Englishmen and able to go to sea made up the navy of England was deeply rooted in the minds of English monarchs and accepted by English seafarers. However reluctant they might be at times to obey a royal summons to serve the King and defend the realm with their vessels at sea, the existence of this principle was not questioned. English kings from at least the tenth century had at times also owned ships themselves and had used these in a variety of roles. The twists and turns of external circumstances and royal policy ensured that there was little continuity in the royal ownership of ships, or in the way they were financed or maintained. We have seen that some English kings devoted considerable time and energy to the well-being and the proper use of their ships, while others neglected them, or in fact disposed of them entirely. How did the rulers of other states approach the same problem of defending the dwellers on their coasts, their ports and their trade? How did they also attempt to supply the need for ships that could give a good account of themselves in war at sea?

France

Facing the North Sea and the Atlantic, the kingdom of France possessed, in theory, around 2500 kilometres of coastline, stretching from the estuary of the Zwyn in Flanders to Hendaye on the frontier with Castile. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, only the counties of Ponthieu and Artois on the north coast were ruled directly by the French king; other territories including Flanders, Normandy, Brittany, Poitou and Gascony were fiefs of the French Crown, but were ruled directly by dukes or counts who often followed their own policies. This was particularly the case with the territories which were ruled by the Kings of England as dukes, first of Normandy from the Conquest till c.1204 and from c.1417 to c.1450, and second of Gascony (also known as Aquitaine) from 1152, when the future Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, till 1453. Brittany, under its own duke, also pursued independent policies until the last years of the fifteenth century, when the French king took over the direct rule of the duchy by marrying Anne, the heiress of the last duke in 1491. As a consequence of this situation, kings of France had taken little interest in maritime matters, until the collapse of English rule in northern France in the reign of King John extended their power over most of the Channel coast. The kings of France, initially Philip II Augustus, now had control over a coastline in the north of their kingdom with excellent ports, where maritime trade was on the rise, and where skilled and adventurous seamen could be found in large numbers. They also had the power to demand feudal service at sea from these mariners and their ships in much the same way as the English Crown could rely on its power to conscript ships and crews for royal fleets. As Michel Mollat put it, ‘Philip [II] did not have a fleet but he had ships’. It was a fleet raised in this manner which met with the English at the battle of Dover in 1217.

Sources for French naval forces

There are not, however, many surviving French equivalents of the letters patent, commissions and accounts which allow historians to examine in detail the fleets largely made up of conscripted merchant ships raised by English kings from the thirteenth century onwards. It is easier to find evidence of the measures taken by French kings to defend their coastline by fortifying ports and building castles, for example at Montreuilsur-Mer and Boulogne. After their control also extended by the mid thirteenth century to the coast of Poitou and Saintonge, the fortifications of the major port of La Rochelle were also strengthened, although it was not until 1345–47 that the twin towers which guard the harbour entrance were built. These still exist and the Tour St Nicholas, in particular, is a very imposing structure; the watch tower is more than 35m above sea level. A chain was stretched across the entrance to the harbour between the two towers on which cannon were also mounted. Harfleur had similar towers, while at Honfleur across the estuary of the Seine one tower was built by the French in the mid fourteenth century, and another built c.1430 when the town was ruled by the English.

The Centurion in Combat

Photographed in the Valley of Tears in the Northern Golan Heights, this 105mm L7-equipped Sho’t Kal Centurion of the Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade provides a memorial to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. During this action 150 Israeli tanks faced more than 1,400 Syrian tanks across the Golan Heights. Although the Centurions fought well, this was to be their last combat before being replaced by the Israeli-designed Merkava

The Centurion entered regular service with the British Army in December 1946, when a small number of Mk 1s and 2s were delivered to the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Brigade, which at the time was based at Hamm in Germany. By the end of 1948 the new tank was also in the hands of the other two regiments of 7th Armoured Brigade, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. Ultimately, as well as being based in Britain, there were Centurions with British armoured regiments in Aden, Hong Kong and West Germany. An armoured regiment of the day was generally equipped with forty-eight Centurions in three squadrons of fifteen, with the remaining three assigned to the headquarters; a squadron consisted of four tank troops and a headquarters, each with three tanks, and each squadron also normally included a ‘dozer tank in its complement. From the mid-1950s, in West Germany, six of the Centurions were replaced by Conquerors.

In the gun tank role, the Centurion enjoyed a more than twenty-year career with the British Army, but by the early 1970s most had been replaced in service by the new Chieftain, albeit some Centurions were retained for driver training. It was not quite the same story for the engineer variants, and both ARVs and BARVs, as well as ‘dozer tanks, AVREs, bridgelayers and ARKs, remained in service into the 1970s and, in some cases, well beyond … astonishingly, a small number of AVREs actually saw active service in the Gulf War in 1990.

The Centurion arrived too late to see action during the Second World War but nevertheless many of the tanks still spent their working lives in Germany, where they were assigned to the 1st, 3rd and 4th Armoured Divisions of BAOR until their replacement by Chieftains, a process which began in November 1966. Fortunately, there was no live action in Europe, and instead the tanks of BAOR spent their working lives endlessly training for a Soviet invasion that never came; the first significant BAOR exercises in which Centurions were involved were Operation Broadside 1 and Operation Broadside 2. Involving 7th Armoured Division and 2nd Infantry Division, the exercises were carried out in late September 1950, and were intended to ‘practise movement and concentration in the face of enemy air superiority, and to carry out operations on wider fronts entailing movement laterally and from front to rear, and quick concentration for attack and dispersion afterwards’. Little was said of the performance of the Centurions, but it was stated that the length of the barrel made the tank difficult to conceal.

The tank saw its first combat during the Korean War, with a number of Mk 3s, originally destined for Australia, being diverted to the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars – generally simply described as the 8th Hussars – towards the end of 1950, where they joined US Army M26 Pershings facing the Chinese and the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) at New Year 1951. Centurions went into action at the Battle of Imjin River in April of that year, where they were famously used to provide cover for the withdrawing infantry of the 29th Brigade. By May 1951 the British Army had sixty-four Centurions in Korea and by the end of the year, when the Hussars were relieved by the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the Centurions were dug in amongst infantry positions on high ground facing the enemy. There was little movement as the British Centurions and the Chinese and North Korean T-34/85s exchanged fire across no-man’s-land. During the following year the tanks were involved in limited armoured raids across the unfavourable terrain, some of which took place in sub-zero temperatures. In late 1952, with the war grinding on and neither side able to gain the upper hand, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were relieved by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, and the Centurions played a significant role in repelling Chinese forces during the second Battle of the Hook in 1953. During one night’s action 504 high-explosive (HE) 20-pounder rounds were rained down on the enemy.

Centurion ARVs were also first deployed in Korea, replacing older vehicles based on the Churchill infantry tank. Their performance was described as ‘excellent’.

The Centurion was highly praised for its all-round performance, and particularly for its apparent ability to go anywhere, while the minimum elevation (-10 degrees) of the main gun allowed the Centurion to operate almost completely concealed in a ‘hull down’ position. Its lack of vulnerability under fire provided a real boost to the morale of the fighting men … one official report specifically singled out the lack of internal effect from a hollow charge from a 3.7in Russian bazooka or a captured US Army recoilless rifle which created a 3in deep hole in the back of the turret but failed to penetrate. Several tanks also received multiple direct hits that caused little damage to the tanks and no injuries to the crews … there is a story of two Centurions that had to be abandoned in Korea, with unsuccessful attempts being made to destroy them using 20-pounder armour-piercing shot to prevent them falling into enemy hands; undestroyed, they were eventually recovered, more or less intact. Another story described a Centurion in the 29th Brigade’s sector during March 1952, sliding sideways from the top of a razor-edged ridge, gathering speed down the slope as the tracks failed to grip the frozen ground. Eventually the tank somersaulted three times, landing in a minefield, in which it caused considerable mayhem, before arriving at the bottom, on its tracks, but with the gun barrel severely bent and the turret off its ring – indeed, as the contemporary report put it, the ‘tank generally was in considerable confusion’. All of this happened in full view of the enemy! The crew was shaken and embarrassed but generally uninjured and the tank was abandoned. However this wasn’t the end of the sorry saga and it was decided that recovery was impractical since it would require two ARVs, one of which would have to be lowered down by the other The Royal Engineers were asked to destroy the gun-stabiliser equipment to prevent it falling into enemy hands but, overestimating the size of charge required, managed to ‘set everything off’. The report of the incident ended by stating that the ‘tank will be of no value to the enemy’!

Hostilities in Korea came to an end on 27 July 1953 with no proper resolution of the conflict. All things considered, the Centurion was an extremely capable machine, able to fire accurately even at its maximum range, and able to traverse the most rugged and challenging terrain … even in the stickiest mud, the tracks never sank more than 12in into the ground and cross-country performance was always considered to be excellent. The extreme cold of the Korean winter sometimes caused problems with tracks failing to gain traction on the frozen ground and, on occasions, the track brakes, which were entirely mechanical, became inoperative due to icing leading to at least one runaway. However, the Centurions had proved themselves to be worthy opponents.

Little more than three years later, British Army Centurions of the 1st and 6th Royal Tank Regiments were deployed to Egypt in November 1956, as part of the joint Anglo-French-Israeli operation intended to wrest back control of the Suez Canal Zone out of the hands of President Nasser. Despite a shortage of landing craft, which restricted the number of vehicles available to ninety-three, Centurions were successfully landed and fought alongside the French AMX-13 light tanks, capturing Port Said in November, before the governments involved finally bowed to UN pressure and withdrew the troops on 23 December.

In September 1960, along with 80,000 soldiers from four nations, Centurions took part in the largest land, sea and air exercise staged in the northern Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) during the Cold War era. Dubbed Operation Holdfast, the exercise was designed to test the effectiveness of NATO defences in the Jutland peninsula. Tanks of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were put ashore from German and British landing craft in Eckenforde Bay in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, while others were brought up by transporter to a holding area south of the Hamburg Lubbeck autobahn. The defenders made mock nuclear strikes against the attacking troops but British armour, forming part of the attacking force, pushed inland to reach within 2 miles of the crucial Kiel Canal. At the end of the nine-day exercise the conclusion was that NATO was well prepared to withstand such an assault from the joint forces of the Warsaw Pact … and the Centurion was seen as a valuable element of the exercise.

Centurions of the Royal Scots Greys were also deployed in Aden (Radfan) during the 1963/64 uprising against British control.

Although most of the Centurion gun tanks had been replaced within twenty years, it was not quite the same for the engineer variants and both ARVs and BARVs, as well as ‘dozer tanks, AVREs, bridgelayers and ARKs, remained in service into the 1970s and beyond. In July 1972 four Centurion AVREs of 26 Armoured Engineer Regiment were deployed to Northern Ireland aboard HMS Fearless and were used to clear Republican roadblocks that had been erected around the Rossville Flats on the Creggan Estate in Derry-Londonderry. The roadblocks were believed to be booby-trapped. Described as Operation Motorman, the exercise was considered to be extremely sensitive for obvious reasons and was conducted during the early hours of the morning; in order to minimise the danger of sensationalist headlines, the tanks were operated with the guns covered and traversed to the rear.

In 1982 a pair of surviving Centurion BARVs were operated from the two LPD (‘landing platform, dock’) vessels HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid during the Falklands War. One broke a drive chain and remained unused for most of the conflict. More recently, both of these BARVs were also deployed to Iraq, fighting in both Gulf Wars before being retired from service in 2002; at least one has survived in private hands.

Astonishingly, a small number of ARVs and AVREs, fitted with additional passive and explosive reactive armour (ERA), saw active service during Operation Granby, the British contribution to the liberation of Kuwait during 1990/91. Despite the Ministry of Defence (MoD) having lost a large percentage of the remaining Centurion spares in a fire at the Donnington stores in 1988, AVREs of 32 Armoured Engineer Regiment played their part in helping to move some 850,000 tons of earth, and in blasting through Iraqi defences. Some spares support was drawn from Aviation Jersey Ltd, who had acquired the entire stock of Centurion parts from the Netherlands in 1990.

In 1968 and 1969 Royal Australian Armoured Corps Centurions, including tank ‘dozer variants, saw action in Vietnam, where most were equipped with 100-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks attached to the rear of the hull, giving the designation Centurion Mk 5/1 (Aust). The decision to send Australian Centurions, consisting of more than twenty gun tanks, two bridgelayers, two ‘dozers and two armoured recovery vehicles, had been taken in October 1967 as part of Australia’s increasing involvement in this ugly conflict. Operating under US command, the Centurions were involved in the Tet Offensive in January 1968, and during their service in south-east Asia they acquitted themselves well in the difficult terrain, including rice paddy and jungle. The Centurions were returned to Australia at the end of 1971.

Australian Centurions were never involved in combat elsewhere. However; back in October 1953 the British and Australian armies had exposed what has been described as a ‘near brand-new’ Leeds-built Centurion Mk 3 of the Australian 1st Armoured Regiment (06BA16, Australian Army number 169041) to a nuclear blast test at Emu Field as part of Operation Totem One. The tank was parked less than 500 yards from the epicentre of the blast, with its engine running. Although it had run out of fuel by the time the test was concluded, and had sustained minor damage, for example to antenna and stowage bins, once it had been decontaminated it was capable of being driven from the site. The tank was subsequently repaired and used in the Vietnam War; in May 1969, during a fierce engagement with the enemy, it was penetrated by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that wounded all of the crew in the turret. The RPG entered the lower left side of the fighting compartment, travelled diagonally across the floor and came to rest in the rear right corner. 169041 was given its third base overhaul in 1970, spending some time in storage before being reissued to the 1st Armoured Regiment. By 1976 Centurions had been phased out of Australian service, having been replaced by the West German Leopard, but 169041 survived and is currently located at Robertson Barracks in Australia’s Northern Territory, where it has been restored to running condition. Nicknamed ‘the atomic tank’, it is occasionally brought out for ceremonial duties.

Three more Centurions were involved in nuclear testing in Australia during the British government’s Operation Buffalo tests held at Maralinga in September/October 1956. The operation involved the detonation of four separate nuclear devices, code-named One Tree, Marcoo, Kite and Breakaway two of which (One Tree, with a yield of 12.9 kilotons, and Breakaway at 10.8 kilotons) were Red Beard tactical bombs exploded from towers, while Marcoo (1.4 kilotons) and Kite (2.9 kilotons) were Blue Danube bombs, the first exploded at ground level, and the second released by an RAF Valiant bomber from a height of 35,000ft. This was the first aircraft launching of a British atomic weapon. During one of these trials the three Centurion Mk 3s were placed at roughly 440 yards, 880 yards and 1760 yards from ground zero. Even at 440 yards the blast damage was only superficial, being largely confined to the external sheet metal, and was not sufficiently serious to have prevented the vehicles fighting again. The report of the trial stated that the Centurion ‘was capable of taking heavy punishment at the range, and with the weight of bomb used, without being disabled to a non-fighting state’. One vehicle (05BA60) was quickly made serviceable and drove some 80 miles after the blast; the gun was also test fired with no recorded loss of accuracy. The fate that might have befallen the luckless crew had this not been an exercise was not recorded.

Egyptian Centurions saw action during the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, with most being captured by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Ironically, the Egyptian Army captured a similar number of 105mm-equipped Centurions from the IDF during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, although by this time Egypt was operating predominantly with Soviet tanks and equipment.

In India Centurions were deployed during both of the border wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. The 1965 war lasted five weeks and is considered by many to include the largest tank battle in military history since the Second World War. A total of 186 Indian Centurions fought alongside some 340 ageing M4 Sherman tanks of the Indian Army, with both Shermans and M47 and M48 Patton tanks of American origin opposing them on the Pakistani side. The Centurions proved themselves to be superior in most respects to the more modern (and more complex) American tanks, and were able to withstand 90mm armour-piercing shells fired from the powerful M63 guns of the Pattons.

Jordanian Centurions went into action in 1970 to counter Syrian border incursions during the conflict with the Palestinian guerrilla organization Black September that ended in July 1971 with the expulsion of the PLO to Lebanon. In 1973 Jordanian Centurions were in action again in the Golan Heights.

South African Centurion-based Semel tanks were deployed in Namibia (South West Africa) against the military wing of SWAPO (South-West Africa Peoples Organisation) during the fight for independence that endured between 1966 and 1988. The more heavily modified Olifants were deployed against Angolan forces during the Angolan civil war in 1987, where they were fighting against Soviet-built T-34/85s and T-55s.

Outside of Britain, Israel was not only the largest user of Centurions, but was also the nation with the most experience of using the tank in combat. Although only around 250 Centurions were supplied new to Israel, many more were acquired as surplus or were captured during various campaigns with Israel’s neighbours: during the 1967 Six Day War, for example, Israel captured thirty Centurion tanks from Jordan. At one time the IDF was able to deploy a total of around 1,000 Centurions, some 25 per cent of the total production figure, all of which were eventually equipped with the 105mm L7 gun. Poor maintenance and abuse of the tanks in the Israeli deserts by the largely conscripted crews initially gave the Centurion a poor reputation. A company of Israeli Centurions was fired on by Syrian T-55 and T-62 tanks at Nukheila in 1964; despite firing some eighty-nine rounds of 105mm ammunition in an exchange that lasted ninety minutes, not one Syrian tank was hit. Things began to improve when General Israel Tal took command of the Israeli armoured corps towards the end of 1964, and standards of training, maintenance and discipline rose significantly. In a second border incident at Nukheila one Israeli Centurion destroyed two Syrian Panzer IVs. A year later Israeli Centurions destroyed Syrian earth-moving equipment that was being used to divert the Jordan River. Centurions were among some 800 Israeli tanks successfully deployed against assembled Arab forces in the Six Day War of 1967, the tanks being called upon to fight again in the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, where they were exploited to advantage in a hull-down position against the largely Soviet tanks of the opposing Arab forces. Although no longer deployed as gun tanks, small numbers of Israeli Centurions continue to survive, re-equipped as heavily armoured armoured engineers’ vehicles, designated Puma, NagmaSho’t, Nakpadon and Nagmachon.

Many of the Centurions sold to customers around the world saw no active service with their original owners, including those vehicles supplied to the Danish, Netherlands, Swedish and Swiss Armies. However, a few Centurions certainly remained in service into the 1990s, and many, including some British AVREs, were able to be maintained by virtue of the large strategic reserve of parts that had been purchased from the Netherlands government by Aviation Jersey Ltd on behalf of the NATO powers. In a huge operation, every case of parts was opened, quickly examined and then marked as fit for keeping or to be scrapped before being moved to the island of Jersey, where they were held for redistribution within NATO as required.

However, it is impossible to hold back the march of time indefinitely, and improvements in automotive performance, tank guns, and target acquisition and sighting equipment inevitably meant that the Centurion was effectively obsolete. No longer suitable for front-line service, those British Army Centurions that were not scrapped would have certainly suffered the ignominious fate of being used as range hard targets or being sold to more impecunious nations. It was the same story elsewhere, with many similarly superseded by more modern equipment and surplus vehicles sold to other nations. The situation in Denmark was typical. Many of the nation’s 216 Centurions remained in service into the 1990s, serving alongside 120 Leopard IA3 main battle tanks that had started to enter service in February 1976, but the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), signed in 1990 by NATO members and the Warsaw Pact nations, restricted Denmark to 300 main battle tanks and some 146 remaining Centurions were destroyed or taken out of commission between 1993 and 1995.

However, a handful of Centurions have survived in museums around the world, and the relatively low cost of surplus Centurions in the 1990s means that there are also more than a few in private hands.

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.