Origins of the Wolf Pack

Hitler seized upon the Anglo-French guarantees to Poland as a pretext for abrogating the Anglo-German Naval Treaty. He did so publicly, in a sarcastic speech to the Reichstag on April 28 1939. Soon thereafter the Kriegsmarine laid the keels for the two super-battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz. Despite these provocations and the public indignation and the stepped-up military preparations in Great Britain, Hitler continued to assert to his Nazi cohorts that neither Great Britain nor France would fight for Poland. Believing Hitler would pull another political rabbit out of his hat, Raeder naively—and irresponsibly—assured the Kriegsmarine that there would be no war with Great Britain.

Karl Dönitz was more convinced than ever that the opposite was the case. He believed that the “high state of tension” which Hitler had created between Great Britain and Germany could explode “into actual hostilities at any moment.” He therefore pleaded with Raeder and the OKM to approve a rapid increase in U-boat orders, with a major emphasis on Type VIIs, and to authorize theretofore prohibited U-boat exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. He got nowhere with his pleas for an increase in U-boat orders—the available shipyards were already jammed—but Raeder did permit the Atlantic exercises.

These exercises culminated in May 1939 with group or “wolf pack” attacks against a simulated convoy, composed of some Kriegsmarine vessels assigned to the annual fleet cruise to Lisbon and the western Mediterranean. A total of fifteen VIIs and IXs from the Salzwedel, Wegener, and Hundius flotillas participated. The “convoy” consisted of four German surface ships: a tanker, a freighter, Dönitz’s “command ship,” Erwin Wassner, and the Flotilla Salzwedel tender, Saar—the latter two vessels alternating as targets and defending escorts.

The fifteen U-boats deployed in five packs of three boats along a patrol line several hundred miles long. One pack quickly “found” the “convoy” and radioed a contact report to the other boats. In spite of clever evasive and defensive measures by the convoy—and extremely foul weather—the other boats converged on the target and attacked it relentlessly for over forty-eight hours, May 12 to 14. At the end of the exercise, thirteen of the fifteen boats converged for the final “kill.”

The exercise was wholly artificial and weighted to favor the U-boats. There were serious lapses in communications and tracking and gross errors in position reporting. Nonetheless, Dönitz could not have been more pleased. In a lengthy after-action critique, he concluded that the “principle of fighting a convoy of several steamers with several U-boats” was “correct” and that “the convoy would have been destroyed.” His group or “wolf pack” concept was therefore a sound one for defeating Great Britain; he renewed his pleas to Raeder for a step-up in the construction of Type VIIs.

Absorbed in the grandiose Z Plan, the OKM emphatically disagreed with Dönitz. The senior submarine planner at the OKM, Werner Fürbringer, a rear admiral and an assistant to Raeder’s chief of staff, Otto Schniewind, framed the response. “At the present moment,” Fürbringer wrote, “U-boat blockade of England has very little prospect of success for Germany. Any contradictory opinion, which takes comfort in the large number of our U-boats or in the idea that the English U-boat defense will not be effective far out in the Atlantic, can be dismissed as misleading” and, furthermore, it would be “irresponsible to commit the valuable U-boat crews” to such a war. “It can be taken as proven,” Fürbringer went on, “that every English convoy, no matter whether it operates along the coast or on the high seas, will be secured by defensive forces, fully capable of destroying with certainty any attacking U-boat, even under the surface.” In support of has argument, Fürbringer stressed the effectiveness of British sonar and predicted that the British would again resort to defensive minefields, which had been so deadly effective against U-boats in World War I. Until U-boats could be made “sonar-immune,” it was pointless to even consider starting a U-boat campaign against British commerce.

The Fürbringer paper dismayed and enraged Dönitz. In response he drafted a reply for Fürbringer’s superior, Otto Schniewind, vigorously rebutting Fürbringer’s arguments point by point. Going a step beyond—a large and career-risking step—he communicated his arguments directly and emphatically to Raeder, and asked that Raeder in turn place his views “before Hitler.” Hitler’s response, relayed to Dönitz through Raeder, was, as Dönitz remembered it, that “he would ensure that in no circumstances would war with Great Britain come about. For that would mean finis Germaniae. The officers of the U-boat arm had no cause to worry.”


By the time Dönitz was ready to launch the second wave of U-boats to the Atlantic in early October, the Allies had organized most merchant shipping into convoys. Composed of thirty to forty ships, the majority of the convoys arrived and departed the British Isles through the Western Approaches. The heaviest convoy traffic ran across the North Atlantic between the British Isles and the strategically situated British colony of Newfoundland and its neighbor, the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia.

By October 1939, the North Atlantic convoy system was fully in place. On the western end, the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the gathering place. All ships bound for the British Isles that cruised between 9 and 15 knots had to join convoys. There were two types of convoys: Halifax Fast (designated HX-F), composed of ships that cruised at 12 to 15 knots; and Halifax Slow (HX), composed of ships that cruised at 9 to 12 knots. Ships that cruised at speeds over 15 knots (considered too fast to be vulnerable to U-boats) were allowed to proceed alone, as were ships that cruised at less than 9 knots (considered too slow and not valuable enough to warrant the holdup of faster ships).

On the eastern end, the British Isles, departing convoys were categorized as Outbound. Those convoys bound for Halifax or elsewhere in the western hemisphere (the reverse of the Halifax convoys), composed mostly of ships in ballast, were designated Outbound B or OB. Some ships in OB convoys peeled away after some days of travel and went due south down the mid-Atlantic to ports in West Africa. Ships outbound from the British Isles that cruised faster than 15 knots or slower than 9 knots were also exempt from convoys.* Most North Atlantic convoys were escorted only during part of the voyage. The inexperienced and small Royal Canadian Navy (six destroyers) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) provided escort on the western end, going east several hundred miles with eastbound convoys and returning with westbound convoys. British and French surface ships and aircraft provided escort on the eastern end for Outbound convoys in a similar manner for a like distance. The important Halifax Fast convoys were escorted all the way across to the British Isles by Royal Navy capital ships (battleships, carriers) and their destroyer screens, or by cruisers. But only reluctantly. The long transatlantic voyage was very hard on these warships. The old destroyers assigned to this task (V and W class) could not cross the Atlantic without refueling, and the Royal Navy had not fully mastered ocean refueling. The modern destroyers could just barely make it across in heavy weather, which was the usual condition. Convoy escort was “defensive,” tedious, and boring for sailors trained to attack big German ships in complex fleet actions.

The Germans possessed a fairly accurate picture of Allied maritime traffic. During the 1935 crisis in the Mediterranean, when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the Kriegsmarine codebreaking unit B-dienst (later directed by Heinz Bonatz) had broken the Royal Navy’s old-fashioned (nonmachine) operational codes and, later, the nonsecure British merchant marine code. From the outset of the war, B-dienst codebreakers had supplied the OKM with current information on the movements of most British capital ships and other naval formations as well as convoy routing and rendezvous points for the convoy escorts.

In the initial U-boat offensive the OKM had deployed the Atlantic boats to individual patrol zones before the convoys had formed. Almost all of the merchant ships they sank had been sailing alone. Now that convoying was in full swing, Dönitz believed the time was ripe to initiate his group (or “wolf pack”) tactics. The packs were to capitalize on convoy information provided by the codebreakers in B-dienst.

Dönitz planned to deploy two packs in October, composed of the ten boats he had recalled earlier: five Type VIIBs of the Wegener Flotilla and five Type IXs of the Hundius Flotilla. But that plan went awry. Five of the ten boats were unavailable: U-47 (assigned to the Scapa Flow mission) and U-52 (undergoing major repairs), U-38 (assigned to a special mission to Murmansk), U-39 (lost), and U-41 (undergoing major repairs).

The upshot was that Dönitz could mount only one pack, composed of six boats of an unwieldy mixture of types, from two different flotillas, which had not before exercised as a group: three VIIBs, U-45, U-47, U-48, and three IXs, U-37, U-40, and the U-42, the latter brand-new and rushed into service before completing a full workup. The senior officer, Hundius Flotilla commander Werner Hartmann, age thirty-seven, who had taken command of U-37, was to tactically direct the pack at sea.

Five of the six boats sailed independently into stormy, cold North Sea weather in the first week of October, going northabout the British Isles. Wrongly believing the Allies had not yet mined the English Channel, Dönitz ordered the last boat, U-40, a Type IX making its second patrol, with a new skipper, Wolfgang Barten, age thirty, to go by way of the channel to save time and catch up with the others.

While these boats were en route to the Atlantic, Hitler, poised to attack France (or so he thought), removed another important restriction on the U-boats. Commencing October 4, U-boats were permitted to sink on sight and without warning any blacked-out ship (including a neutral ship) sailing close to the British Isles in the Atlantic or North Sea and the French Atlantic coast. Dönitz and his skippers cheered this news, but to minimize charges of barbarism and inhumanity, Hitler had added a caveat: U-boats were still required to “save the crew” of any ship they sank if that could be done “without endangering” the U-boat.

Rushing to catch up with the other boats, U-40 ran at full speed through the English Channel on the surface. In the early hours of October 13, she hit a mine in the Dover-Cape Gris-Nez field. The boat blew up and sank immediately in 115 feet of water. Presumably, all hands on the bridge and in the forward compartments were killed instantly. But the watertight door in the stern room had been closed and as a result, nine enlisted men in that compartment survived the explosion and sinking. When they recovered from shock and ascertained what had occurred, the senior man, Otto Winkler, age twenty-one, organized an escape through the after deck hatch, which had a skirt for that purpose. After eating some biscuits, the men strapped on oxygen apparatus and flooded the compartment. When the water pressure in the compartment equalized with outside sea pressure, the hatch opened freely and the nine men—the first to escape a sunken U-boat—ascended.

Winkler was the last to leave the compartment. When he reached the surface he saw the eight other men swimming around in a cluster. It was dark—a new moon—and the channel water was frigid. Winkler thought he saw a lighthouse and began swimming toward it. Along the way he became nauseous and then he passed out. The next morning, two British destroyers (Brazen and Boreas) fished Winkler and two other survivors and five bodies from the water. All were wearing escape apparatus, labeled “U-40.” No trace was ever found of the remaining forty-six crew. Rushed to a hospital, Winkler and the other two lived to become prisoners. The next day, October 14, Boreas found an emergency telephone-equipped buoy, which had torn loose from U-40 in the explosion. Inscribed on a brass plate were these instructions: “U-boat 40 is sunk here. Do not raise buoy. Telegraph the situation to the nearest German naval command.”

Unaware of this loss, the other five boats of the “pack” headed for the Western Approaches one by one. First to arrive was the new, undertrained Type IX, U-42, commanded by Rolf Dau, age thirty-three. On the same day U-40 was lost, Dau found a 5,000-ton British freighter, Stonepool, which had separated from a convoy. Husbanding his torpedoes for pack operations, Dau attacked Stonepool with his 4.1” deck gun, but the freighter was armed, shot back, and radioed the SSS alarm. Two British destroyers, Imogen and Ilex, responding to the alarm, rushed up and attacked U-42 with guns, driving the boat under.

Attempting to evade, Dau took U-42 to 361 feet. But the destroyers fixed the boat on sonar and delivered an accurate and brutal depth-charge attack. One charge that exploded close over U-42’s stern ruptured the after-ballast tanks and lifted the bow to a 45-degree angle. In a desperate attempt to avoid sliding to crush depth stern first, Dau blew all ballast tanks. The U-42 shot to the surface like a giant cork, into the waiting arms of the destroyers, which instantly opened fire, scoring hits in the bow room. Holed fore and aft, U-42 began to sink. Ilex ran in at full speed to ram, but seeing that U-42 was doomed and sinking, she backed full astern to avoid damage to herself, and merely grazed the boat abaft the conning tower. Dau and sixteen men got out of the sinking boat through the conning tower hatch; the other thirty-two men were lost. Imogen fished the dazed German survivors from the sea.

By that time Dönitz had good information from the codebreakers of B-dienst on a special French-British convoy, KJF 3, inbound directly from Kingston, Jamaica, escorted by the monster French submarine Surcouf (two 8” deck guns). Assuming all six boats had reached positions in the Western Approaches, Dönitz ordered Hartmann to lead the pack in the attack. But two of the six boats had been lost and Hartmann, having sunk two neutral ships (a Swede and a Greek) en route, was behind schedule and too far away to take tactical command of the other boats.

Two VIIBs of the pack, operating independently, found the convoy and attacked. Herbert Schultze in U-48 sank two French ships from the convoy: the 14,000-ton tanker Emile-Miguet and the 7,000-ton freighter Louisiane, plus two British freighters, apparently stragglers from other convoys. Alexander Gelhaar in U-45 also sank two ships from the convoy: the 9,200-ton British freighter Lochavon and a prohibited vessel, the 10,000-ton French passenger liner Bretagne, which was running blacked out and therefore inviting trouble. While she slowly sank, British ships rescued 300 passengers.

Gelhaar in U-45 did not have to answer for this mistake. While he was pursuing another ship of the now-dispersing convoy, four British destroyers, Icarus, Inglefield, Intrepid, and Ivanhoe, which had responded to the SSS alarms, found U-45 and attacked. Nothing more was ever heard from U-45. She was the first VIIB and the first Atlantic boat to disappear without survivors.

The other two boats of the pack, U-37 and U-46, arrived too late to engage in a coordinated attack. However, on the morning of October 15, Hartmann in U-37 lucked into a straggler of the convoy, the 5,200-ton French freighter Vermont, and sank her with demolitions. But Herbert Sohler in U-46 never found the convoy at all. His sole contribution to the action was the interception of U-45’s last radio transmission (not received in Germany), which helped sort out Gelhaar’s first—and last—sinkings.

After the convoy dispersed, Dönitz, who was following the action by radio and by reports of distress calls and British movements provided by B-dienst, ordered the six boats (or so he thought) to move south to attack another convoy, HG 3, inbound from Gibraltar to the British Isles and to report results to date. Schultze in U-48 radioed four ships sunk for 29,000 tons; Hartmann in U-37, three ships sunk for 11,000 tons; Sohler in U-46, none. Wrongly believing Schultze and Hartmann had sunk a total of seven ships from the Caribbean convoy, Dönitz added all those to Gelhaar’s two and concluded that the first pack to attack an Allied convoy had sunk nine ships, an outstanding “success” that absolutely validated his pack doctrine. In reality, the first pack was so far a disaster: three of its six U-boats sunk; only four ships of the Caribbean convoy positively sunk, one of them a prohibited passenger liner!

While the boats were southbound on October 17, Hitler, still poised to attack France (as he thought), authorized a further relaxation in the rules. Henceforth U-boats could attack any “enemy” merchant ship (i.e., British or French) except big passenger liners, anywhere, without observance of the Submarine Protocol. In other words, U-boats were excused or exempted from the requirement to insure the safety of merchant-ship crews. This important relaxation allowed U-boats to wage unrestricted submarine warfare on all British and French shipping, except big passenger liners.

The luckless Sohler in U-46 was first to find convoy Homebound Gibraltar 3, which was heavily escorted by British destroyers transferring from the Mediterranean to home waters. He tracked the ships through the night, radioed a contact report, then submerged for a daylight attack. One of his first electric torpedoes pre-matured. In all, Sohler experienced seven torpedo malfunctions, but even so, he sank the 7,200-ton British freighter City of Mandalay. Brought into contact by Sohler’s report, Hartmann in U-37 sank the 10,000-ton British freighter Yorkshire and Schultze in U-48 got his fifth ship in as many days, the 7,250-ton British freighter Clan Chisholm.

Following this attack, Sohler broke radio silence to report the premature torpedo detonation and other torpedo problems. Shocked—and angry—Dönitz declared that the magnetic pistol was “not safe” under any circumstances and without consulting the OKM or the Torpedo Directorate, he ordered all boats to use only contact (or impact) pistols. Hence the more powerful effect of the magnetic pistol—exploding the torpedo beneath the ship—was lost. “We’re back to where we were in 1914-1918,” Dönitz noted bitterly in his war diary.

Upon learning that Dönitz had prohibited any and all use of the magnetic pistol, two days later, October 20, the Torpedo Directorate confessed to another defect. The torpedoes were indeed running deeper than set—6½ feet deeper. The Directorate technicians had known this all along, but did not report it to Dönitz because they did not believe it made that much difference when using magnetic pistols. But it did make a difference when using contact pistols. Dönitz hastened to relay this new discovery to his skippers, advising them to deduct 6½ feet from the usual depth settings for impact firing. The order introduced yet another complication. Since a depth setting of less than 13 feet was impractical when shooting in heavy seas, skippers were not to fire at any targets drawing less than 13 feet, such as destroyers.

Operations of the first wolf pack were terminated after the attack on the Gibraltar convoy. The two surviving VIIBs, U-46 and U-48, low on fuel and low on, or out of, torpedoes, returned to Germany, Herbert Schultze to rave reviews. In two patrols Schultze had sunk eight ships for 52,000 tons, elevating him to first place in total tonnage sunk. Extending his patrol to the approaches of Gibraltar, Hartmann in U-37 sank three more ships by gun and torpedo, establishing a new sinking record for a single patrol: eight ships sunk for 35,300 tons.

A careful after-action analysis of the first wolf pack deflated the earlier euphoria. In reality the attack on the Caribbean convoy was an uncoordinated free-for-all. Thanks to Sohler’s contact report, the attack on the Gibraltar convoy was slightly better coordinated. However, the boats had sunk only four ships from the Caribbean convoy and three from the Gibraltar convoy. Half the pack (three of six boats) had been lost to the enemy, two boats to convoy escorts. In a significant and far-reaching report, Hartmann, who had sunk only one ship from each convoy and who had found it impossible to “tactically coordinate” the other boats of the pack, recommended that the concept of flotillas and “local pack control” (at sea) be abandoned, and that all boats should be controlled individually from Dönitz’s headquarters.

Dönitz had three reasons for the failure to destroy the Caribbean convoy. First, the attack had been mounted too late—after the convoy was well into the Western Approaches and had been reinforced by local ASW vessels and had only a relatively short run to reach the safety of land. Second, in the confusion of combat, the boats making contact, U-45 and U-48, had not been able to transmit accurate data on the position, course, and speed of the convoy; hence help from U-46 had been lost. Third, there were too few boats in the initial attack—only two, actually—hence the escorts were able to concentrate on those two, sinking one, U-45.

The analysis led to three conclusions. First, convoys inbound to the British Isles from any direction had to be attacked as far out as possible in order to give the boats sufficient sea room for repeated attacks over several days and before the enemy added local ASW measures. Second, the boat first making contact with a convoy should not immediately attack, but instead should “shadow” it, transmitting “beacon” signals to “home” in other boats of the pack. Third, after the other boats arrived, all were to attack simultaneously in a single massive blow, which would scatter the convoy and overwhelm the escorts, maximizing opportunities for repeated attacks and minimizing counterattacks.

These tactics could be tested in Baltic training exercises, but not in Atlantic combat. There were not to be enough oceangoing boats to mount another full-scale wolf pack for months to come.

Korean naval bolt-firing cannons (Chongtong)

The first one is a chija-ch’ongt’ong which was the second largest of the cannons that appeared in the mid-1500s. The second was a pyorhwangja which was a swivel gun variant of the smallest cannon, the hwangja, which appeared during the Imjin War or shortly after. The third was a hyonja which was the second smallest.

The first one is a chija-ch’ongt’ong which was the second largest of the cannons that appeared in the mid-1500s. The second was a pyorhwangja which was a swivel gun variant of the smallest cannon, the hwangja, which appeared during the Imjin War or shortly after. The third was a hyonja which was the second smallest.

The turtle ship was equipped with Cheonja “Heaven”, Jija “Earth”, Hyeonja “Black”, and Hwangja “Yellow” type chongtong (Joseon cannons). There was also an arquebus known as Seungja (Victory). The Seungja ranged 200 metres (660 ft) while the Hwangja was the lightest but with a range of 1,200 metres (3,900 ft). According to Hae-Ill Bak, one Japanese record of the Battle of Angolpo records the experience of two Japanese commanders on July 9, 1592 in their battle against turtle ships: “their (turtle ships’) attack continued until about 6 o’clock in the afternoon by firing large fire-arrows through repeated alternate approaches, even as close as 18-30 feet. As a result, almost every part of our ships – the turret, the passages and the side shielding – were totally destroyed…”

The bolts from the Korean guns look very heavy and large. That means, with the same powder charge and quality, the range would be very limited compared to a gun firing plain metal ball, and effective range even more so with the low muzzle velocity. At this effective range the impact would be devastating though.

I can see them working as a kind of counterpart to carronades – very short range, very big punch, but… They will miss out on the bonus of carronade, which was relatively small weight for the projectile weight. Still, since the concept is already there, they may be available earlier, especially for ship armament and perhaps for sieges (though getting close enough would be a challenge). But the ship then either should have a mixed battery… Or the gun needs to be “universal” – at longer ranges firing shot, at short ranges the bolt (and extra arrangements for reloading).

But overall this style of bolts would be always tied by the need to have them sticking out. I do not really see any option to make a discarding sabot arrangement reliable enough and giving enough benefit to make such thing work in given time period. Maybe by the late 19th century you can have shells with spring-loaded fins (kinda like RPG-7) but that would be solution looking for problem at that time.

According to partially confirmed information, largest of such cannons “cheonja-chongtong” which fired 30 kg (66 pounds) heavy bolt had a maximum range of ~ 1600 m. With help of some math, I eventually ended up estimating its muzzle velocity to be around 140-170 m/s. These cannons were being improved from 15th to 18th century but except for minor improvement, there was no major overhaul.

In fact, the bolt fining cannons were gradually pushed out by Chinese take on European Culverins named Hongyipao.

Muzzle velocity of 140-170 m/s that I calculated is greatly below what the potential of black powder cannon can do, so it appears there is lot of space to improve that. However, that would require a thicker cannon, that can withstand a larger charge (Cheonja Chongtong apparently used only a bit over 1kg charge to fire the 30 kg bolt) and also making the cannon longer would improve its efficiency. Actually without making the cannon longer, the improvement we can achieve is limited.

Which is where the problem is. These bolts have to have fins to have stable flight and accuracy. And so, making the cannon longer without making the bolt longer poses a problem, as in the historical version, bolt was put into cannon in a way that fins were in front of the muzzle.

Korean cannon explained

U.S. Navy Aircraft Development, 1922–1945 Part I

The sun shone brightly in the Panama sky as the fighter planes from the aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV-3) roared aloft as part of fleet exercises off the coast of the Central American nation. A few days earlier these same planes had launched a surprise “attack” against the Panama Canal that foreshadowed the independent operations of carrier task forces during World War II. On this day, they were part of a mock fleet engagement, with fighter planes escorting bombing and torpedo aircraft. “Climbed so high we near froze to death [and] cruised over to the enemy [battle] line where we discovered all the Lexington planes below us,” wrote Lieutenant Austin K. Doyle of Fighting Squadron (VF) 2B. With the benefits of altitude and surprise, ideal for fighter pilots ready to do battle, Doyle and his division dove into the “enemy” planes, twisting and turning in dogfights. “When we broke off we rendezvoused . . . [and] strafed every ship in the fleet. . . . No other plane came near us.”

The events of a February day in 1929 described above occurred in the midst of a watershed era in naval aviation, the interwar years bringing a host of momentous advancements on multiple levels. From a technological and operational standpoint, none were as important as the aircraft carrier and the tactical and strategic implications of this new weapon of war. Arguably, the key element of the carrier’s success was its main battery in the form of the aircraft that launched from its decks, the unparalleled progress made in the design and operation of carrier aircraft providing the foundation for the flattop’s success during World War II. Similar progress marked other areas of naval aviation as well. Such was the lasting influence of interwar aircraft development that Lieutenant Doyle, who as a Naval Academy plebe during 1916–1917 served in a Navy with just fifty-eight aircraft of assorted types, could in 1929 write of a carrier strike against the Panama Canal and, later in his career as a carrier skipper, order planes designed on drawing boards of the 1930s to attack Japanese-held beachheads and strike enemy ships over the horizon.

On the day World War I ended, the U.S. Navy’s inventory totaled 2,337 aircraft, including heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air types. While this is an impressive total, given the aforementioned aircraft total of fifty-eight when America entered World War I, the number is deceiving. It is true that flying boats built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company operated extensively from overseas coastal bases in the antisubmarine role. Yet, when it came to combat types flown at the front, the majority of naval aviators who deployed overseas trained and logged their operational missions in the cockpits of foreign-built airplanes. As the U.S. Navy developed its plan for aircraft production, the realization of the superiority of foreign designs was apparent to, among others, Commander John H. Towers, the Navy’s third aviator, who before U.S. entry into the war had observed firsthand operations of British aircraft during a stint in England as assistant naval attaché. Even after the signing of the Armistice, foreign types retained their importance to the U.S. Navy’s operations. With overseas observers having witnessed the launching of wheeled aircraft from flight decks built on board British ships, aircraft like Sopwith Camels, Hanriot HD-1s, and Nieuport 29s were procured for use in Navy experiments flying landplanes from temporary wooden platforms erected atop the turrets of fleet battleships. Ironically, the performance of these aircraft, built in the factories of England and France, proved a key factor in the shaping of the interwar aircraft building program.

Indeed, if there was one driving force behind the development of aircraft for the U.S. Navy during the 1920s and 1930s, it was the realization of the importance of shipboard aircraft to naval aviation operations. While this had been on the minds of naval aviation personnel from the beginning—among the earliest experiments conducted were the testing of catapults for launching aircraft from ships—most naval aviators were initially wedded to seaplanes. Upon arriving in Pensacola, Florida, to establish the Navy’s first aeronautical station there in January 1914, Lieutenant Commander Henry Mustin wrote to his wife of the difficulties of finding a suitable site for an airfield from which to operated landplanes and dirigibles: “Personally, I don’t approve of the Naval flying corps going in for those two branches because I think they both belong to the Army.” This philosophy would guide aircraft operations during naval aviation’s first decade and beyond, with naval aviator training and operations centered on seaplane operations.

British experience in World War I, namely the operation of wheeled-aircraft from ships, coupled with the aforementioned experiments on U.S. Navy battleships carried out during winter maneuvers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1919, prompted a shift in thinking. Weighed down by pontoons, floatplanes simply could not compare with landplanes when it came to speed and maneuverability. Also, ships operating floatplanes, while they could launch them relatively quickly, had to disrupt operations to come alongside a returning aircraft and crane it back aboard. The aircraft carrier, with a deck devoted to the launching and recovery of aircraft, offered the most promise of maximizing the potential of aircraft in fleet operations.

By 1927, three aircraft carriers—Langley (CV-1), Lexington (CV-2), and Saratoga (CV-3)—had been placed in commission, their presence giving naval aviation heretofore unrealized capabilities in fleet operations and a potential as offensive weapons at sea or against land targets. “The value of aircraft acting on the defensive as a protective group against enemy aircraft is doubtful unless it is in connection with an offensive move,” wrote naval aviator Commander Patrick N. L. Bellinger in his Naval War College thesis in 1925.

The most effective defensive against air attack is offensive action against the source, that is enemy vessels carrying aircraft and therefore, enemy aircraft carriers, or their bases and hangars on shore as well as the factories in which they are built. The air force that first strikes its enemy a serious blow will reap a tremendous initial advantage. The opposing force cannot hope to surely prevent such a blow by the mere placing of aircraft in certain protective screens or by patrolling certain areas. There is no certainty, even with preponderance in numbers, of making contact with enemy aircraft, before they have reached the proper area and delivered their attack, and there is no certainty even if contact is made, of being able to stop them.

Nine years later, the Navy’s war instructions for 1934 emphasized the importance of seizing the offensive during a fleet engagement. “If the enemy aircraft carriers have not been located, our fleet is in danger of an air attack. In this situation, enemy carriers should be located and destroyed,” the document read. It further stated that if enemy carriers had been located, either with their aircraft on board or their strike groups having been launched, U.S. carrier planes would “vigorously” attack them, “destroy[ing] their flying decks.”

This realization of the threat of enemy air power in a fleet action stimulated tactical thought, which in turn influenced the design of the planes tasked with delivering the blows against enemy carriers. Initially, it was conventional wisdom that torpedoes would be the most effective method of attack against enemy ships, but whether an aerial torpedo or a bomb, the struggle facing aircraft designers was developing aircraft that could carry the weight of the ordnance without compromising too much in the way of speed, maneuverability, and range. The first successful torpedo plane design introduced into fleet service was Douglas Aircraft Company’s DT, which was important in more than one respect. First, it was the maiden military plane produced by the company, symbolizing the emergence of a postwar aircraft manufacturing base marked by the opening of such companies as Douglas and Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation. These firms, founded after World War I, joined such wartime entities as the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, Boeing Company, Glenn L. Martin Company, and the Naval Aircraft Factory—the latter a Navy-owned center for manufacturing and testing of airplanes—in meeting the demands of the Navy’s aircraft programs. Second, due to the weight of aerial torpedoes, while earlier torpedo plane designs were twin-engine ones that were unsuitable for carrier use, the single-engine DT was capable of shipboard operations and of carrying a payload of 1,835 pounds. In fact, on 2 May 1924, a DT-2 version of the design carrying a dummy torpedo successfully catapult launched from Langley anchored at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida. Finally, the DT pointed to the future in its composition, the traditional wood and fabric used in aircraft, while still present, accompanied by sections of welded steel.

Following the DT into production was Martin’s T3M/T4M torpedo planes (versions were also built by Great Lakes with the designation TG), which boasted a higher speed than the DT and could carry versions of the Mk-VII torpedo that was in the Navy’s weapons arsenal during the late 1920s. Its introduction coincided with the first significant involvement of aircraft carriers in fleet exercises, which revealed much about the employment of torpedo planes. Fleet pilots all too quickly found that the operational parameters of their torpedoes left much to be desired, any hope of a successful attack necessitating that the weapon be dropped at an altitude of no more than twenty-five feet with the aircraft flying at a maximum speed of eighty-six miles per hour. Malfunctioning torpedoes were the norm rather than the exception, and the survivability of torpedo planes flying “low and slow” was questionable. Noted a section of the Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet document “Aircraft Tactics—Development of” dated 3 February 1927: “Even with anti-aircraft gunfire in its present underdeveloped stage, torpedo planes cannot hope to successfully launch [an] attack from 2,000 yards and less.” By 1930, there were serious questions as to the wisdom of operating torpedo planes at all.

The introduction of the Mark XIII torpedo held enough promise for the continuation of the torpedo mission, the weapon capable of being launched at a range of 6,300 yards from altitudes of between 40 and 90 feet and at a speed of 115 mph. The weapon’s weight of 1,927 pounds mandated the introduction of a more capable torpedo plane, the Navy selecting another Douglas design, the TBD Devastator. First flown in 1935, the TBD was cutting edge for its era given the fact that it was a monoplane of all-metal construction with a top speed of over 200 mph. It would be upon the wings of the TBD that torpedo squadrons went to war in 1941 and 1942.

Developing alongside airborne torpedo attack as an element of naval aviation’s offensive arsenal was aerial bombing. Before World War I and in the years immediately following, battleship officers remained skeptical of the ability of an aircraft to sink a capital ship with bombs. Though bombing tests conducted by Army and Navy airplanes against antiquated U.S. ships and captured German vessels during 1921 proved a success in the damage they inflicted, the fact that the target ships were at anchor with no anti-aircraft defenses left many Navy officers skeptical. Yet, as the first decade of the 1920s progressed, bombing offered increasing promise. “The relative merits of the torpedo plane and the bombing plane has [sic] been a much mooted question recently,” Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics Rear Admiral William A. Moffett told an audience at the Army War College in 1925. “Potentially, the aircraft bomb is, I believe, the most serious menace which the surface craft has to face at the present time.” The following year, operations in the fleet focused on a particular type of bombing attack that offered the best chance to make Moffett’s potential menace a real one. On an October day off the coast of San Pedro, California, sailors on the decks of the battleships of the Pacific Fleet heard the whine of aircraft engines and spotted dark specks diving toward them. What they saw and heard were F6C Hawks of Fighting VF Squadron 2 making a simulated attack, the pilots positioning their planes in steep dives as they roared down on their targets. The event marked the first fleet demonstration of the tactic of dive-bombing, and less than two months later squadrons of Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet completed their first dive-bombing exercise.

As was the case with the development of torpedo aircraft, the evolution of bomber designs during the interwar years was in part driven by the increasing weight of the ordnance, their reason for being. Yet, most of the aircraft initially filling the “light bombing” role were not employed solely in that mission, the Bureau of Aeronautics as late as 1927 issuing the opinion that there was no need for a specialized aircraft for that task alone. Four years later the air groups in Lexington and Saratoga did not even include a bombing squadron, each carrier instead embarking two fighting squadrons with one devoted to the fighting mission and one to light bombing. Even the aircraft considered the first Navy design built specifically for dive-bombing, the Curtiss F8C, was a dual mission aircraft that operated in the fleet as a fighter bomber.

During the prewar years the fleet would never divest itself of using a multi-mission aircraft as a dive-bomber, but during the early 1930s the Bureau of Aeronautics issued requests for proposal for a new classification of aircraft called the scout-bomber to equip carrier-based scouting and bombing squadrons. This aircraft would fulfill the missions outlined in the war instructions of attacking enemy surface ships and scouting tactically. Among naval aircraft, the scout-bombers designed in the decade preceding World War II were among the most technologically advanced. The SBU was the first capable of exceeding 200 mph, its wings reinforced to handle the stress of steep dives carrying a 500-pound bomb, while the BF2C-1 Goshawk possessed an all-metal wing structure that made it even more durable in a dive. The SB2U Vindicator, ordered in 1934, was the sea service’s first monoplane scout-bomber. However, the greatest developments came with the Northrop BT-1 and the SBD Dauntless. The former, delivered in 1937, incorporated unique split flaps, the upper and lower flaps opening when the airplane was in a dive. When flight tests revealed extreme buffeting in the horizontal stabilizer, engineers added holes to the flaps, which remedied the problem and in dive-bombing runs slowed the aircraft and made it a stable bombing platform. This technology carried over to Douglas Aircraft Company’s SBD Dauntless, which boasted a top speed of 256 mph, could carry a 1,000-pound bomb, and had a maximum range of 1,370 miles in the scouting configuration. Enhancing the capabilities of these aircraft as dive-bombers was equipment such as telescopic sights and a bomb crutch, the ladder swinging ordnance away from the fuselage during a dive so that falling bombs did not strike the aircraft’s propeller.

In comparison to dive-bombers and torpedo planes, fighter aircraft had a sound foundation upon which to build during the interwar years, air-to-air combat having advanced more during World War I than other arenas of air warfare. Fighters provided cover for bases and ships against enemy air attack and protected bombing and torpedo planes en route to bomb enemy targets, their missions also including clearing the skies of enemy fighters and shooting down enemy scouting planes to deny information to enemy commanders. In short, on the wings of fighter planes rested the responsibility of gaining control of the air and maintaining air superiority, the ideal characteristics for aircraft tasked with this mission being speed, rate of climb, and maneuverability. These characteristics were greatly enhanced in naval aircraft by the introduction of air-cooled engines, embodied by the Pratt & Whitney Wasp. Unencumbered by a radiator that was standard on water-cooled engines, the Wasp was lighter, the savings in weight translating into improved performance. Endurance tests also revealed that air-cooled engines were more reliable, which was appealing for naval aircraft that operated over open ocean far removed from land bases.

As mentioned above, Navy fighters of the interwar era were viewed as multi-mission platforms, as evidenced by the fact that it was fighters that delivered the first successful fleet demonstration of a dive-bombing attack. The Bureau of Aeronautics, in issuing specifications to aircraft companies for the design of new fighter planes, routinely included parameters for the aircraft in the bombing role. As tactics developed during the 1920s and 1930s, however, air-minded officers came to the realization that saddling fighters with a bomb diminished their ability to provide air superiority. As Rear Admiral Harry E. Yarnell commented in 1932 during his tour as Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Force, “It is becoming increasingly evident that if the performance of fighters is to be improved . . . bombing characteristics of fighters must be made secondary to fighting characteristics.”

Yarnell’s letter coincided with the emergence of the first fighter designed by the relatively new Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, the FF-1. Delivered in 1933, the airplane boasted features new to Navy fighters, including an enclosed cockpit canopy, an all-metal fuselage, and retractable landing gear. Though its forward fuselage was bulbous in order to house the latter, the FF-1 had a top speed of 207 mph, this attribute becoming readily apparent to a U.S. Army Air Service squadron commander, who upon seeing one of the “Fifis” during a tactical exercise over Hawaii in 1933 decided to make a run on it. “Great was his amazement when his dive upon the innocent looking target failed to close the range.” One other aspect of the FF-1’s design was that it was a two-seater, with room for a pilot and observer, an arrangement more in line with torpedo and bombing planes. This fact sparked a debate among fighter pilots over the direction of design of future aircraft. In a 1935 memorandum to the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, the commanding officer of VF-5B noted the two-seat fighter’s superiority in escorting strike groups was possible because of the observer’s ability to scan the skies for enemy aircraft and proclaimed it less vulnerable to diving attack by enemy fighters for the same reason. The VF-5B skipper argued that the two-seater was equal to or superior to the single-seater in all tactical missions required of fighter aircraft. Conceding the general advantage of smaller, single-seat fighters in speed and maneuverability, he concluded that in naval warfare control of the air was obtained not by air-to-air superiority over enemy aircraft formations, but by knocking out the carriers from which the enemy planes operated. “In this the superior characteristic of the single-seater fighter can play little or no part.”

A tactical board convened by Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Force issued a report on the issue the following January, defining a fighter plane as a “high speed weapon of destruction against other aircraft.” The board criticized the dismissal of this fundamental mission of Navy carrier fighters, writing that the VF-5B commander’s report “gives undue importance to secondary fields of employment . . . emphasizing the suitability of the airplane for a function which is not one for which a VF [fighter plane] is properly suited.” The board concluded that “present VF aircraft in service are of practically no value as VF. They lack either necessary speed superiority over other types or necessary offensive armament, or both.”

This quest for speed would endure, with Grumman following up the FF-1 with first the F2F and then the F3F biplanes, each faster but limited in capability when compared with the Japanese A6M Zero also under development in the late 1930s (the A6M-2, which was operational in 1940, had a top speed of 331 mph compared to 264 mph for the F3F-3). Throughout the late 1930s the Bureau of Aeronautics initiated requests for proposals to the nation’s aircraft industry for fighter designs that emphasized speed and improved armament. In this approach of casting a wide net, the Navy received a variety of designs. Some, including the unorthodox twin-engine F5F Skyrocket, did not enter production, while others, namely Brewster’s F2A Buffalo monoplane, were put into production, but proved disappointing. The aircraft that emerged as the best that could be placed in production most quickly was Grumman’s F4F Wildcat, a monoplane successor to the company’s earlier biplane fighter designs, which with its super-charged engine achieved a maximum speed of 333.5 mph at an altitude of 21,300 feet and boasted four .50-caliber machine guns for armament. On it would rest the fortunes of Navy and Marine fighter squadrons until 1943.

The aircraft carrier and the airplanes that flew from her deck represented the cutting edge of naval aviation operations of the interwar years, with New York Times reporter Lewis R. Freeman capturing the public’s excitement over the ship’s unique operations in an article written in the aftermath of Fleet Problem IX. “Just about the most spectacular show in the world today . . . is the handling and manoevering [sic] of the great carriers Lexington and Saratoga,” he wrote. “The spectacle of launching and landing planes is fully up to the superlative scale of the ship itself. . . . In the darkness of early morning the effect is heightened by circles of spitting fire from the exhausts and the colored lights of the wings and tail.” However, the foundation upon which the airplane entered naval service was seaplanes and flying boats, and in the immediate postwar years they provided naval aviation’s first real integration with fleet operations.

Established in early 1919, Fleet Air Detachment, Atlantic Fleet, put to sea in exercises with surface forces, part of its operations being flights of wheeled aircraft from improvised decks on board battleships. However, significant attention was also devoted to flying boat operations and their support of surface ships, particularly in the spotting of naval gunfire. “For the first time in the history of the Navy, the actual setting of the sights was, to a large extent, controlled by the officers of the Airboat squadron,” read an air detachment report of 1920. “This marks the beginning of a new era in our naval gunnery.” Success in this role, the spotting of naval gunfire, led to the eventual assignment of detachments of seaplanes to cruisers and battleships as part of cruiser scouting (VCS) and observation (VO) squadrons, respectively. To fill this requirement, a number of aircraft procured by the Navy during the interwar years, including the VE-7, UO/FU, and O2U, could be operated in both the landplane and floatplane configuration. By the time the United States entered World War II, the principal aircraft flying in the scouting and observation roles were the Curtiss SOC Seagull and Vought OS2U Kingfisher, the latter a monoplane of which over a thousand were eventually produced.

Long-range scouting would become the domain of flying boats, the detachment demonstrating their endurance in a lengthy seven-month cruise with the fleet, logging 12,731 nautical miles, some 4,000 of which were in direct maneuvers with the fleet. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, flying boats and seaplane tenders formed Air Force, Pacific Fleet in July 1920, putting to sea for joint fleet exercises that demonstrated the scouting capabilities of Navy flying boats. During the cruise, wartime F-5L flying boats covered a distance of 6,076 miles in operations between California and Central America. Wrote Admiral Hugh Rodman, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, at the conclusion of the exercises, “The scouting work performed by the seaplanes was carried out to a distance of about one hundred and sixty-five miles from the bases and in weather which, except under war conditions, might have caused the commander of the force to hesitate about sending the planes into the air.”

U.S. Navy Aircraft Development, 1922–1945 Part II

During the late 1920s flying boat operations in the Navy began to stagnate as increasing emphasis and funding was devoted to aircraft carrier development. Though over the course of the ensuing years new designs appeared, they were, in the words of Rear Admiral A. W. Johnson in a paper on the development and use of patrol planes, “of no useful purpose except for training and utility services.” In contrast to the seagoing force that had demonstrated so much the potential of the flying boat in fleet operations in the immediate postwar years, Johnson, who commanded Aircraft, Base Force, noted that “patrol plane squadrons became in reality a shore based force,” with cruising reports of seaplane tenders during the late 1920s and early 1930s proof of the diminished employment of flying boats in fleet operations. Even the Consolidated Aircraft Company’s P2Y, which achieved fame when it equipped Patrol VP Squadron 10F in a record-setting non-stop flight between California and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in January 1934, had limitations: “[It] must operate from sheltered harbors, and can do nothing in the way of scouting and bombing that cannot be as equally well done by large land planes operating from established shore bases equipped with good flying fields.” Yet, landplanes for distant overwater flights were the exclusive domain of the Army Air Corps, a 1931 agreement between Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William V. Pratt preventing the Navy from operating long-range land-based aircraft.

Johnson’s comments came at a critical juncture for both the development of flying boats and the strategic requirements for their employment in the event of war. By the early 1930s, those officers working on War Plan Orange, the constantly evolving American strategy in the event of war with Japan, had begun to more appreciate the role of air power in a fleet engagement. With ships able to engage at greater distances, advance scouting, particularly in the open expanses of the Central Pacific, could prove a deciding factor between victory and defeat.35 For proponents of patrol aviation, this tactical and strategic requirement for flying boats coincided with the introduction of a plane that represented a tremendous advance in flying boat technology—the PBY Catalina.

With a maze of struts and wires between wings limiting the performance of earlier biplane designs, Consolidated Aircraft Company engineers drew up a flying boat built around a high-mounted parasol wing with minimal struts necessary because of internal bracing; this reduced drag, as did wing floats that retracted once airborne to form wingtips. Despite a gross weight that exceeded that of the P2Y it replaced, the PBY boasted a top speed nearly 40 miles per hour faster than that of the P2Y. Deliveries of the PBY began in 1936, and two years later fourteen Navy patrol squadrons operated the type. “I feel very strongly that when the PBY’s [sic] come into service, the Fleet will begin to realize the potentialities of VP’s [sic] [patrol planes],” wrote Rear Admiral Ernest J. King on the eve of the aircraft’s delivery, “and will begin to demand their services.”

Performance in fleet exercises validated the PBY’s capabilities as a long-range scout. Comments on patrol plane activities in Fleet Problem XVIII held in early 1937 concluded that they were capable of locating an enemy force within a five hundred- to one thousand-mile radius of their bases, night tracking, and high-altitude bombing. “Your patrol planes have certainly changed the whole picture in regard to tactics and even strategy,” Captain W. R. Furlong of the Bureau of Ordnance wrote King. Such was the range that the newly arrived Catalinas could reach; planners of future war games would have to “put the brakes on the patrol planes to keep them from finding out everything long before we could get the information from the cruisers and other scouts.”

The capabilities of the PBY, coupled with fatal crashes, spelled the end of the use of rigid airships as long-range scouts, an idea long championed by Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. However, non-rigid airships, notably of the K-class would prove effective in long-range antisubmarine patrols during World War II.

Not as clear in discussions about patrol aviation was the advisability of using flying boats in a bombing role. There was indeed a precedent in the practice, F-5Ls having participated in the famous 1921 bombing tests against captured German warships and stricken U.S. Navy vessels. In 1934, while serving as Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral Ernest J. King had suggested that flying boats could serve as a first strike weapon in an engagement at sea, their attacks preceding those of carrier planes and surface forces. Correspondence between Captain John Hoover and Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves, the latter Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, the following year illuminated the problems with flying boats operating in this capacity. Umpires in fleet exercises determined that patrol planes would incur heavy losses and inflict insignificant damage to capital ships when used in the strike role, with Hoover pointing to the fact that the slow speeds and low service ceilings of patrol planes then in operation (the Consolidated P2Y and Martin PM) made attacks by them “suicidal.” “The way to utilize patrol planes for attacking must by re-studied from a practical viewpoint.” The introduction of the PBY Catalina (“PB” being the Navy designation for patrol bomber), which incorporated a nose compartment for a bombardier and provision to carry the Norden bombsight, offered more promise when it came to patrol bombing operations. However, as the author of the foremost study of planning for the war against Japan has noted, by 1940 the notion of operating flying boats as patrol bombers had been discounted. Yet, wartime necessity would awaken interest in flying boat offensive operations for the PBY and other flying boat designs of the 1930s, including the PBM Mariner and PB2Y Coronado.

By mid-1941, the year in which naval aviation entered the world’s second global war, the Secretary of the Navy could report a net increase of 82 percent over the previous fiscal year in the number of service aircraft on hand in the Navy’s inventory. His annual report noted emphasis being placed on development of dive-bombing and fighting aircraft of greater power, which was “vindicated in the service reports received from belligerents abroad.” Other technical adaptations based on wartime observations included such equipment as self-sealing fuel tanks and improved armor and firepower. “With the present international situation,” the secretary concluded, “it is imperative that all construction work on ships, aircraft and bases be kept at the highest possible tempo in order that the prospective two-ocean Navy become a reality at the earliest possible date.” The sudden events of the morning of 7 December 1941 shifted this tempo into previously unimagined levels, the events that occurred between that day and September 1945 representing the ultimate test for the technology and tactics that evolved during the previous two decades.

“When war comes,” Captain John Hoover wrote in 1935, “we will have just what is on hand at the time, not planes on the drafting board or projected.” For naval aviation, the combat aircraft flying from carrier decks, fleet anchorages, and airfields when war came had entered service between 1936 and 1940. Fortunately, however, the planes that eventually would replace or complement them were far removed from the drafting board. The prototype of the F6F Hellcat made its first flight just months after the Pearl Harbor attack, while the XF4U-1 Corsair had already demonstrated speeds of over four hundred mph during test flights in 1940. Similarly, prototypes of the SB2C Helldiver and TBF Avenger had already taken to the air by the time the United States entered World War II. And with the coming of war, the mobilization of industry translated into rapid transformation of prototypes into production versions of airplanes ready for combat, with American factories turning out an average of 170 airplanes per day from 1942 to 1945.

How did these airplanes fare in the crucible of combat? A telling statistic is found in an examination of air-to-air combat: During the period 1 September 1944–15 August 1945, the zenith of naval aviation power in the Pacific, in engagements with enemy aircraft, a total of 218 naval carrier–based and land-based fighters were lost in aerial combat, while Navy and Marine Corps FM Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and F4U Corsair fighters destroyed 4,937 enemy fighters and bombers. Even during the period 1942–1943, when naval aviators flew the F4F Wildcat, which in comparison to the heralded Japanese Zero had an advantage only in its defensive armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, carrier-based and land-based Wildcat pilots splashed 905 enemy fighters and bombers. This came at a cost of 178 Wildcats destroyed and 83 damaged. Comparing the two eras, in all the action sorties flown by naval aircraft during 1942, 5 percent ended in the loss of the aircraft. In 1945, less than one-eighth of 1 percent of all action sorties resulted in a combat loss. While direct comparisons are not possible with other classes of aircraft, a look at the total number of sorties flown against land and ship targets by year is revealing. In the first two years of the war, 19,701 sorties were directed against ship and shore, a figure that for the years 1944–1945 jumped to 239,386!

A key reason for this increase was aircraft development. The carrier Enterprise (CV-6), at sea when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, had none of the same aircraft types on board when she operated off Japan in 1945. The F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat by that time in the war boasted better top speeds, rate of climb, and performance at altitude than the most advanced versions of the Japanese navy’s Zero fighter. Similarly, the SB2C Helldiver and TBF/TBM Avenger, particularly once technical maladies were corrected in the former, proved to be more than comparable to the aircraft operated by the Japanese in the torpedo and bombing roles. In addition, Japanese aircraft to a great extent suffered from deficiencies in their armor protection, making them more susceptible to being shot down by Allied aircraft and antiaircraft gunners. Even though the Japanese did produce some very capable aircraft as the war progressed—among them the all-metal Yokosuka D4Y Suisei bomber that had a top speed comparable to many fighters and the Kawanishi N1K1-J/N1K5-J Shiden and Shiden Kai fighter, which in the hands of an experienced pilot could be more than a match for an Allied fighter—they appeared in too few numbers to have much effect on the outcome of the war. In addition, due to increasing Allied superiority in material, the successful campaign against Japanese merchant and combat ships, and the increasing conquest of territory, Japanese planes were at a strategic and tactical disadvantage before they even left the ground.

There is more to the story behind the statistics. First, sortie rates and the number of enemy aircraft destroyed rose in direct proportion to the growth of U.S. naval aviation. In 1941 there were 1,774 combat aircraft on hand in the U.S. Navy. By 1945 that figure had grown to 29,125. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Navy had a total of seven fleet carriers and one escort carrier in commission. Between that time and the end of the war, the Navy commissioned 102 flattops of all classes. Then there was the human factor. Imperial Japanese Navy and Army pilots generally remained in combat squadrons until they were killed or suffered wounds that rendered them unable to fly, this policy of attrition steadily reducing the quality of enemy pilots faced as the war progressed. This was apparent as early as late 1942, a Report of Action of Fighting Squadron (VF) 10 in November 1942 noting that the “ability of the enemy VF [fighter] pilots encountered in the vicinity of Guadalcanal is considered to be much inferior to the pilots encountered earlier in the war.” In contrast, experienced U.S. naval aviators rotated in and out of combat squadrons. For example, Lieutenant Tom Provost, designated a naval aviator during the late 1930s, flew fighting planes from the carrier Enterprise (CV-6) during the early months of World War II, including service at the Battle of Midway. His next tour was as a flight instructor, imparting knowledge to fledgling pilots before returning to the fleet in 1944 and 1945 to fly F6F Hellcat fighters off an Essex-class carrier. These naval aviators were well led and well trained. Fighter squadron commanders during the early months of the war, notably Lieutenant Commanders John S. Thach and James Flatley, proved adept at developing tactics to maximize the advantages of their aircraft over those of the enemy while the U.S. Navy’s longtime emphasis on teaching deflection shooting paid dividends in actual combat. The same imparting of lessons learned was standard in other types of squadrons as tactics developed throughout the war.

During World War II, were U.S. Navy aircraft employed in a manner envisioned during the interwar years and how did the ever-changing tactical environment affect the operations of naval aircraft? The answers to these questions provide an important framework in which to assess the history of aircraft development between 1922 and 1945.

Much prewar discussion centered on how naval aircraft could be most effective in a fleet engagement, and concerns expressed at that time about the vulnerability of torpedo planes proved well founded, with carrier-based torpedo squadrons at Midway suffering grievous losses. Despite the fact that even as late as May 1945, experienced carrier task force commander Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher still considered the torpedo “the major weapon for use against surface ships,” the number of torpedoes dropped at sea decreased as the war progressed. For carrier-based aircraft and land-based aircraft, during the first year of the war torpedoes accounted for 73 percent and 94 percent, respectively, of the total ordnance expended on shipping by weight. By 1945, those figures had dropped to 16 percent and 0 percent, respectively, and throughout the war only 1,460 torpedoes were dropped by naval aircraft. Factors contributing to these low numbers included the problematic aerial torpedoes in the U.S. inventory early in the war and the focus of carrier strikes in the war’s latter months being increasingly centered on hitting land targets. During 1945 the total tonnage of bombs dropped on land targets by Navy and Marine Corps aircraft was 41,555 as compared to just 4,261 tons of ordnance dropped on ships of all types during the same period.

Dive-bombing lived up to expectations as a tactic that could influence the outcome of a sea battle, a fact demonstrated in dramatic fashion in the sinking of four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway. However, as evidenced by the statistic above, as the war moved ever closer to the Japanese home islands, targets for carrier-based dive-bombers were increasingly located ashore rather than afloat, with planes attacking harbor areas, transportation networks, and enemy airfields. It was in the bombing mission that wartime experience shuffled the prewar and early war composition of carrier air groups. Scouting squadrons, which in 1942 were equipped with the same airplane—the SBD Dauntless—as bombing squadrons on board carriers, were eliminated from carrier air groups by 1943. In addition, torpedo planes and fighters increasingly assumed some of the ground attack mission, the latter reawakening the fighter versus fighter bomber debate of the 1930s. Commanders had no choice but to use fighters in the bombing role during 1944 and 1945 when the advent of the kamikazes necessitated that the number of fighter planes in a carrier air group be increased dramatically. By war’s end, their numbers were double that of the combined number of torpedo and scout-bombers. In the fighter-bomber role, naval single-engine fighters from land and ship logged a comparable number of ground attack missions as that of airplanes designed as bombers. However, on these missions they expended primarily rockets and machine gun ammunition. The SBD Dauntless, SB2C Helldiver, and TBF/TBM Avenger proved the mainstay of the bombing mission, the latter aircraft proving to be one of the most versatile naval aircraft of the entire war. The dive-bombers carried 34 percent of all naval aviation’s bomb tonnage, while Avengers delivered 32 percent of the bomb tonnage and launched 29 percent of all rockets.

The employment of fighters in the bombing role was central to the debate about the composition of carrier air groups, the subject of much discussion as the war drew to a close. A 1944 survey of carrier division commanders on the subject revealed a consensus that the majority of airplanes on deck should be fighters, the problematic SB2C Helldiver perhaps influencing calls for fighters to assume a ground attack role in addition to the air-to-air mission. Vice Admiral Mitscher preferred dive-bombers over fighter bombers, telling Captain Seldon Spangler, who was on an inspection tour of the Pacific in 1945, that dive-bombers, even given the inadequacies of the SB2C, were better than the F4U Corsair in the bombing role. Wrote Spangler, “He thought it would be most desirable to get down to two airplane types aboard carriers, one to be the best fighter we can build, the other to be a high performance torpedo dive bomber.” Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan concurred to some degree. Although favoring the intensification of dive-bombing for fighting planes, he wrote “Do not emasculate the VF plane.” Interestingly, in production were two airframes that met Mitscher’s requirements, the BT2D (later AD) Skyraider, which combined the torpedo and bombing missions into one attack mission, and a pure fighter in the form of the F8F Bearcat. Interestingly, the F4U Corsair, which, after some technical problems were solved, became an excellent carrier plane and served for years after World War II on the basis of its capabilities as a fighter bomber.

“The Fleet is well satisfied with PBY-5A airplanes for use at Guadalcanal for night reconnaissance, bombing, torpedo attack, mining, etc.,” read an 28 April 1943, report to the Director of Material in the Bureau of Aeronautics. “They are not using these airplanes in the daytime except in bad visibility.” This concise summary of operations in the first part of the Pacific War reveals that in their decision to remove the flying boat from consideration as a long-range daylight bomber, prewar officers were correct about the platform’s capabilities. Action in the war’s early weeks proved the vulnerability of the lumbering PBYs to enemy fighters, with four of six PBYs of VP Patrol Squadron 101 shot down on a 27 December 1941, raid on Jolo in the central Philippines. However, under the cover of darkness, the aircraft proved highly effective in the ground attack mission. As prewar exercises demonstrated, PBYs performed well as long-range scouts, most notably in their locating elements of the Japanese fleet at Midway. Their ability to patrol wide expanses of ocean also made them effective as antisubmarine platforms against German U-boats as well as very capable search and rescue aircraft.

What could not have been foreseen during the 1930s in light of the division of roles and missions between the armed services was the successful operation of long-range multi-engine landplanes in naval aviation. As noted above, the Pratt-MacArthur agreement had given the Army Air Corps exclusive use of long-range land-based bombers to fill their role in coast defense, but with flying boats limited in daylight bombing, the Navy began pressing for the ability to operate multi-engine bombers from land bases. In July 1942 the Sea Service reached an agreement with the Army Air Forces (re-designation of Army Air Corps in 1941) to divert some production B-24 Liberators to the Navy for use as patrol bombers. The first of these airplanes, designated PB4Y- 1s, were delivered to the Navy in August, and the following year, with its focus on the strategic bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific, the Army Air Forces relinquished its role in antisubmarine warfare. Other aircraft eventually joined the PB4Y-1 in the patrol bombing role in both the European and Pacific theaters, including a modified Liberator designated the PB4Y-2 Privateer, the PBJ (Army Air Forces B-25) Mitchell, and the PV Ventura/Harpoon.

While the Army Air Forces employed their bombers in primarily in horizontal attacks, which were also carried out by Navy and Marine Corps medium bombers, many Navy crews specialized in low-level bombing, oftentimes dropping on enemy shipping at masthead level. A review of 870 PB4Y attacks against shipping revealed that over 40 percent of them resulted in hits. In addition, they were credited with downing over three hundred enemy planes, the PB4Ys being heavily armed with machine guns. Marine PBJs proved the workhorse of land-based patrol bombers, flying more than half of all action sorties flown. All told, patrol bombers, while flying just 6 percent of naval aviation’s action sorties, dropped 12 percent of all bomb tonnage delivered on targets during World War II.

A number of other operations involving naval aircraft are worthy of discussion in drawing conclusions about the development of naval aircraft through World War II. Radar-equipped aircraft made tremendous strides in operations after dark during World War II, completing some 5,800 action sorties from carriers and land bases. From a total of only 76 attacks (air-to-ground and air-to-air) against enemy targets in 1942, naval aviation night operations grew to include 2,654 nocturnal attacks in 1944. The PBYs would not have been able to have as much of an offensive impact as they did without their night attack capability. Carrier aircraft, despite fears about tying carriers to beachheads in support of amphibious operations, achieved a great deal of success in providing close air support to assault forces, primarily flying from escort carriers. Naval aircraft, including carrier-based ones, proved that they could neutralize land-based air power, with fighter sweeps focusing on enemy airfields on island chains and the Japanese homeland serving the purpose of striking potential attackers at their source. “Pilots must be impressed with the double profit feature of destruction of enemy aircraft,” read a June 1945 memorandum on target selection for Task Force 38 carriers operating off Japan. “Pilots must understand the principles involved in executing a blanket attack. The Blanket Operation is NOT a defensive assignment. It is a strike against air strength.” Finally, in the field of weapons development, the advances like electronic countermeasures equipment to thwart enemy radar and the introduction of high-velocity aircraft rockets (HVAR) made carrier aircraft more capable platforms, the latter yielding positive results particularly in close air support against enemy defensive positions.

In a speech delivered during the 1920s, Admiral William S. Sims remarked, “One of the outstanding lessons of the overseas problems played each year is that to advance in a hostile zone, the fleet must carry with it an air force that will assure, beyond a doubt, command of the air. This means not only superiority to enemy fleet aircraft, but also to his fleet and shore-based aircraft combined.” This statement reflected the essence of naval air power, and it can be argued that during the interwar years all aspects of aircraft development, from design to tactics, supported the drive of naval aviation advocates toward a fleet that reflected this vision. By 1945, at the end of the greatest war the world has ever known, a triumphant flight of hundreds of carrier planes over the battleship Missouri (BB 63) as the instrument of surrender was being signed on her deck was proof that the vision had been realized.

Soviet Coastal MTBs

Soviet G5 Torpedo Boat

The majority of all Soviet high-speed motor torpedo boats of World War II were of this type, called G-5.

Interesting features of Type G-5 were the light aluminium hulls and the change to the more powerful 21 inch torpedo (earlier Soviet attempts to develop MTBs used the 18 inch torpedo). Type G-5 was built from 1930 to 1939 to various specifications as Series 7, 8, 9,10, and 11, with the last named series being produced in 1939, fitted with two GAM 34 BSF engines which called for more robust hulls, and one boat was reportedly able to attain a speed of 62 knots unladen.’

Some 329 boats were built to this design from 1934-1944, divided into five basic series. In 1942, following the successful use of home-made Katyusha 88mm rocket-launchers from boats of this type, the naval authorities ordered 82mm and 132mm army rocket-launchers to be adapted for naval use (242 had been ordered by 1945). Some of the G5-class boats completed from 1943 to 1944 had torpedo wells plated out, and missile-launchers mounted above the conning tower.

Vihuri was a Soviet G-5 type torpedo boat captured by the Finns— they captured three of them during the war, although they only made use of two (all had to be returned to the Soviets in 1944 as part of the armistice provisions.  The Finns would also eventually turn over to the Russians coast defense vessel Vainamoinen, the biggest ship in the Finnish Navy).  The metal-hulled G-5 boats (59 feet long, 17 tons), designed by the aircraft designer Tupolev, were extremely fast, capable of making 53 knots, and carried two 21-inch (533mm) torpedoes plus a 12.7mm machinegun.  Both the Russian G-5 and the Finnish Syoksy-class boats used an unusual torpedo launching system.  The torpedoes were not fired from tubes, nor suspended outboard and dropped, but mounted on rails aft, and were ejected tail-first behind the boat, which then had to get out of their way (a safety device ensured a delay before the torpedo started running, to give the boat a head start on evasive action).

Altogether 321 “G-5” boats were produced. They were actively used in all the theatres of war, except in the North.

“G-5” was one of the most high-speed boats in the world and was armed very well for her displacement. She was suited for daring attacks on the still water. Foreign boats of the same displacement were usually armed with less powerful torpedoes of 450 – 457-mm caliber. But the advantages of the boats were accompanied by disadvantages. The redan that allowed attaining high speed also was the reason for the high yawing and loss of speed on the waves. In heavy seas at full speed the boat was beaten by the waves. Heavy splashing hampered the work of the crew and observation. This in turn decreased the accuracy of torpedo and machine-gun firing.


Soviet Coastal MTBs in the Black Sea WWII

Two big motor boats were approaching Nazi-occupied Yalta amidst morning fog. Their appearance did not warn anybody either on watches, or on coastal artillery batteries on Cap Aytodor and Cap Massandra, or aboard the patrol boat cruising in the port approaches. As the German boat transmitted the light identification signal, her commander saw that on one of the intruders the lights also started blinking, but instantly ceased. Must have faulty lamp, thought sluggishly the commander and with increasing speed turned his ship to Aytodor. Meanwhile intruders at slow speed began entering Yalta harbour, while Nazi soldiers gathered on the breakwater gazed at them… Suddenly the roar of powerful engines tore the silence. Astonished Germans saw the boats sharply increasing their speed. One of them made a narrow circulation and fired torpedoes at the drifters and the submarine moored near-by. Meanwhile from the other boat rockets flung at materials stashed on the piers, and within seconds exploding torpedoes demolished fascist boats moored along the piers. Machine guns on the breakwater, and the artillery of German ships rattled after the boats going away into the open sea. Also the coastal batteries deployed in the port and on the caps opened fire. An enemy shell hit one of the boats; it damaged the engine and wounded several crewmen… And nevertheless the daredevil assault brought a real success. Professional skills and utter exploitation of the surprise factor decided about that success. On 20 June 1942 the Nazis felt in Yalta at home: the nearest base of the Soviet torpedo boats was in Novorossiysk – at a distance exceeding the range of the Soviet G-5 boats, which were also familiar to the Germans. But the enemy did not know that the Black Sea Fleet possessed two large torpedo boats developed by Soviet constructors at the eve of the war.

The necessity to have such ships was defined yet during the manoeuvres of the Pacific Fleet in 1935. Then the fleet commander M.V.Viktorov, when he commented on the operations of Tupolev’s small boats Sh-4 and G-5, had said: For open theatres, like the Pacific Ocean, we need boats of bigger displacement and range, capable to sail in at least force 5 waves. Indeed, the low seaworthiness of the small boats, especially the Sh-4’s, was no secret to anybody. Even moderated waves would flood them, and easily penetrate the very low, open atop, cockpit. Torpedo launch was guaranteed when the waves were no bigger than the force 1, and their sea running could be impaired already at the force 3 waves. Due to the low seaworthiness Sh-4’s and G-5’s rarely achieved their construction range, which depended no as much of the fuel as of the weather. All those and other deficiencies came out of the “aviation” heritage of the boats. Constructors based their project on the profile of a hydroplane float. Instead of the upper deck Sh-4 and G-5 had a steep curve surface. It provided a high mechanical resistance of the hull, but simultaneously created a lot of maintenance problems. It was difficult to hold atop even when the boat was motionless. Whereas the boat was at full speed, absolutely everything unattached would be swept away. This proved a very serious minus as far as combat operations are concerned: landing parties had to be accommodated in the torpedo gutters – there was no other space for them. Also due to the lack of flat deck Sh-4’s and G-5’s, despite of relatively good floating qualities, practically could not carry bigger cargo. Another “aviation” deficiency of the Tupolev’s boats was closed profiles: they proved too expensive and too inconvenient in shipbuilding production. Also the hull material was flawed. Corrosion literally “devoured” duralumin, and the ships had to be slipped virtually after every single sea going.

All that forced the navy to speed up definition of the requirements given to the shipbuilding industry, concerning development of bigger and more seaworthy torpedo boats for the Northern and Pacific fleets. In autumn 1935 a group of constructors started projects of torpedo boats with steel hulls SM-3 and SM-4 (stalnoy morekhodnyi – steel seaworthy), and with three and four engines. Another group started simultaneous works according to the same specifications on the boats D-2 and D-3 with wooden hulls. In the summer 1939 the “woodcarvers” showed experimental prototypes of their ships to Admiral Ivan Isakov, after which a commission was created to conduct tests in the Baltic. The chairman of the commission, Rear-Admiral B.V.Nikitin noted, that

it soon came clear, that the D-2 project does not fully satisfy navy’s requirements: it proved too crank, unstable on straight courses – yawing. Its displacement barely exceeded the well-known G-5. Whereas the tests of D-3 showed, that this boat had good agility and quite satisfactory seaworthiness. Having displacement of 40t and summary power of three engines GAM 3600hp it could achieve speed of 48 knots. The best foreign ships of comparable type did not achieve such speed until 15 years later. Moreover, D-3 had a big range (355 miles against G-5’s 220 miles) and therefore could be considered a long-range torpedo boat.

The test in the Black Sea confirmed the reliability and combat qualities of the D-3 boats, which were commissioned and handed over to the Black Sea Fleet. Simultaneously the People’s Commissariat for the Navy placed an order for several dozens of such boats with shipbuilding industry. In the spring 1940, when the production of D-3 boats already started in several shipyards, it occurred that the aviation industry was unable to deliver the extremely deficit engines GAM 1250hp. The navy had to content itself with 1000hp engines, which reduced the speed below 40 knots.

At the time when the navy received the first D-3’s the industry also finished building of the experimental prototype of SM-3. In February 1941 the state commission started testing the new boat. It was found already during the first sorties, that due to unsatisfactory hardness of the hull the planking around the foundations of the high-revolution engines vibrated excessively. It did not cause troubles until the boat underwent tests in the high seas. Then came the disaster, remembers Nikitin.

At 42-knot speed the hull, made of 4mm-thick steel cracked and the water poured inside. The crack was right in the middle of the engine compartment, from one board to the other, and menaced to break the boat in halves on force 4 waves. We had to reduce speed and take the homebound course. Fortunately, SM-3 managed to moor, and the flooding ceased. While the commission came to conclusion that the boat could not be commissioned for production, it simultaneously recommended strengthening of the hull with additional futtocks and stringers. Let the boat become heavier, decided commission members, let it be slower, but in return the Black Sea Fleet will receive a long range torpedo boat. Just several months later the ominous events of the Great Patriotic War confirmed specialists’ foresight and the wisdom of their decision.

In the end of December 1941, before the Kerch-Theodosian amphibious operation, SM-3 under command of Lieutenant I.Belousov disembarked a reconnaissance squad on Cap Chauda. Several days later the same boat twice sailed to Kerch to divert the fire of the Nazi artillery from the landing of the Soviet troops. And on 18 June 1942, when the air reconnaissance of the Black Sea Fleet spotted several ships and transports in the port of Yalta, the Soviet sailors remembered about D-3 and SM-3 – the only long range torpedo boats in the Black Sea. As a matter of fact the distance from Novorossiysk, where the boats were based, to Yalta exceeded the boats’ range, but the squadron leader Lieutenant K.Kochiyev calculated that additional petrol stashed on the decks in barrels would provide enough fuel to carry out the assault on Yalta and return home. It was also to the advantage of the Soviet sailors that the Germans, confirmed in the belief that Yalta was beyond the reach of the Soviet boats, in the morning fog would likely take them for own ships returning from patrol. After considering all the “pros” and “cons” the brigade command approved the operation. The group composed of D-3 under command of O.Chepik, and SM-3 under command of D.Karymov was led by K.Kochiyev. On 19 June evening, having loaded extra fuel, the boats left Novorossiysk, and after 7-hours journey they reached Yalta.

The fight, which happened after the daredevil assault of two tiny but heavily armed ships on Nazi-occupied Yalta, was already described. It reached its critical point: an artillery shell hit one of the retreating Soviet boats. It rendered the SM-3’s engines inoperable; the tiny ship rocked helpless on the waves of the Black Sea. One could say her hour had come. But the Russian navy has an unwritten rule: “dieth but rescueth thy mate”. The crew of D-3 immediately covered the damaged boat with dense smoke screen. While the wounded ship was towed after D-3, hidden from artillery fire, SM-3’s engineers managed to re-start engines, and soon the boat could develop 20-knot speed. They successfully evaded the pursuit of the enemy patrol boats, and towards the end of 20 June they returned to the base, having sunk a submarine and a torpedo boat, and damaged several other enemy torpedo boats. And several weeks after Soviet boats again distinguished themselves by sinking two fascist landing crafts near Theodosia.

At the outbreak of the war the Soviet navy, apart of the experimental prototype in the Black Sea, possessed two more D-3boats. Those were the only torpedo boats, with which the Northern Fleet went to the war. In August five more units were transported from Leningrad by train, and this small squadron fought till March 1943, when the Northern Fleet acquired boats of Higgins and Vosper type, delivered by the Allies. Vice-Admiral A.Kuzmin, who during the war commanded the torpedo boats brigade in the North, wrote:

We liked our domestic torpedo boats, particularly D-3, better than the foreign ones. Having installed newer engines, they achieved the same speed as the “Higgins” ones, and while they had displacement twice as less as the latter, they were superior in respect of agility. Low silhouette, low draught, and reliable mufflers made our D-3’s irreplaceable in the operations in the enemy littoral.

D-3 and SM-3 were not the only torpedo boats developed in the USSR at the eve of the war. At that time a group of constructors developed a small torpedo boat Komsomolets, which had almost the same displacement as G-5, improved torpedo tubes, and better anti-air and anti-submarine defence. Successful test of D-3 made experienced Soviet boaters B.Nikitin and N.Khavin to think about a project of a small submarine chaser and a torpedo boat built on the same universal hull, and as the basis for their project they wanted to take the hull of D-3. Authorities supported this idea, and the industry received an order for development of a wooden hull, which could become either a small chaser or a torpedo boat, depending of the armament it carried. The bureau of low tonnage constructions, a subsidiary of Baltsudoproyekt, in 1941 successfully completed the task: by 1942 a group of constructors led by L.Yermash designed the small chaser OD-200 and torpedo boat TD-200 on a universal wooden hull. The latter, as compared with D-3, had the board torpedo tubes replaced by torpedo launchers, which protected torpedoes of icing. The production line of the wooden hulls was established at one of the evacuated factories: they were assembled on a slip out of details manufactured in a workshop according to standard templates. Apart of the wooden hull, also a universal steel hull had been developed, which became the basis for the small chaser OM-200, and torpedo boat TM-200.

Although the war slowed down finishing works on the Komsomolets, the project was not all scrapped. Together with D-3, “Komsomolets” will become the standard torpedo boat, said the deputy people’s commissar for the Navy, Admiral Lev Galler, during one of the conferences in 1942; it is good both for the Baltic and the Black Sea. New boats had been commissioned for the navy since August 1944, and took part in the final battles in the Baltic. Nowadays in Severomorsk three machines, depicting the striking force of the Northern Fleet during the Great Patriotic War, have been turned into monuments. On the Gulf of Kola waterfront has been placed a famous “Katyusha” – the cruiser submarine K-21. In a gorge between two hills, on a concrete pillar, a navy torpedo bomber Il-4 soars in eternal flight. And in the centre of a downtown boulevard, while leaving behind a concrete wake sails from the past TKA-12 – a wooden boat of D-3 type. One of the two, with which the Northern Fleet met the Great Patriotic War.

Coastal Command Post War I

Coastal Command had really earned its spurs during the Second World War; not only were its allocated squadrons involved hunting U-boats, they also carried out attacks on surface shipping and introduced a fully fledged search and rescue service to the great benefit of those it rescued. Having risen greatly throughout the war Coastal Command would be afflicted by a great contraction immediately afterwards. As many of the command’s aircraft were American Lend Lease, such as the Catalina, their operating units quickly disappeared. Also disappearing almost overnight were those units whose personnel were mainly drawn from the Commonwealth; they decamped home in many cases taking their aircraft with them. Changes were also wrought upon the strike squadrons as they disbanded very quickly.

These changes also set the course for the command’s future thus anti-submarine, search and rescue plus meteorological fights became the post-war duties of Coastal Command. The majority of service aircraft would also be scrapped as the majority were war weary. Beaufighters, Mosquitoes and Halifax patrol aircraft would be rounded up and reduced to produce. These aircraft were replaced by new build Avro Lancasters for use in the General Reconnaissance and air-sea rescue roles while the Short Sunderland was used in a similar role over longer ranges. Joining the Lancaster and Sunderland would be the Handley Page Hastings MR1, which equipped No. 202 Squadron based at Aldergrove while detachments were undertaken to North Front, Gibraltar. Originally the maritime reconnaissance tasks were assigned codenames, which were Epicure from St Eval, Nocturnal from Gibraltar and Bismuth from Aldergrove. When the eight Hastings came into service only the Bismuth task force remained and these were divided into tracks labelled A to O. Sorties were selected by the Chief Meteorological Officer and, on a normal day, only one track was selected and flown. Things changed during exercises and alerts when more missions were undertaken, some of them at night. The Bismuth sorties were being flown when weather satellites were no more than just a dream thus the Met flights were providing very important data not only to the military, but to the nascent and burgeoning airlines starting to cross the Atlantic en masse. The squadron continued to provide this service until August 1964 when it was disbanded.

While the Avro Lancaster GR3 was undertaking sterling work it had become obvious that it was becoming long in the tooth thus a more capable replacement was sought. Initially a version of the Avro Lincoln was mooted, however the potential lack of growth in what was basically a bomber design saw this idea sent back to the drawing board. To fill the gap between the Lancaster and its replacement an approach was made to the United States to provide Lockheed Neptunes under the Mutual Defence Aid Programme (MDAP). The version of Neptune supplied to the RAF was equivalent to the US Navy P2V-5 and came complete with nose and tail gun turrets although these were soon improved by the fitment of a clear Plexiglas nose while the tail turret was replaced by a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), sting tail. The first of fifty-two Neptunes were delivered to No. 217 Squadron based at St Eval in January 1952, although by April the squadron had moved to Kinloss. This first Neptune squadron was quickly joined by No. 210 Squadron based at Topcliffe in February 1953 while No. 203 Squadron, also at Topcliffe, received its complement by March 1953. No. 36 Squadron was the final unit to form, also at Topcliffe, was reforming in July 1953.

Although the Neptune squadrons were declared operational there were numerous technical problems experienced with the aircraft. Not only did the weapons systems fail to work correctly but some of the electronic systems were not fitted before delivery and the Americans were slow to deliver the missing boxes preferring to give priority to their own forces. By 1955 the Neptunes were fully modified and operational thus they were able to take part in a major exercise over the Bay of Biscay called Centre Board. While the majority of Neptunes concentrated on the maritime reconnaissance role four were utilized for a completely different role that would have far reaching consequences for the future. On 1 November 1952, four Lockheed Neptune MR Mk 1s formed the inventory of Vanguard Flight of Fighter Command based at RAF Kinloss. Their purpose was to research and develop tactics for use by Airborne Early Warning aircraft.

Although disbanded in June 1953 the four Neptune aircraft of Vanguard Flight were reformed as No. 1453 (Early Warning) Flight at RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire. Despite their anonymous role the Neptunes of No. 1453 Flight appeared like normal aircraft to the public as they retained the full armament of the P2V-5 variant with nose, dorsal and tail turrets. Details of No. 1453 Flight’s operations are scant, leading to speculation that they may have been involved in highly classified reconnaissance missions over or near the Eastern Bloc countries in a similar manner to the US Navy’s Martin P4M Mercator ELectronic INTelligence (ELINT) aircraft, and the ‘Ghost’ North American RB-45 Tornados that flew with RAF crews and markings from RAF Sculthorpe, over eastern Europe to provide radar images of potential targets for RAF and Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers.

By 1957 there were sufficient replacements available to allow the Neptunes to be returned to America. No. 36 Squadron would disband in February 1957, although No. 203 had gone by August 1956. Other 1957 disbandments included No. 210 Squadron in January while No. 217 Squadron relinquished its aircraft two months later. No. 1453 Flight would end its mission in June 1956 with its machines returning home first.

Not only were the aircraft of Coastal Command changing so were its areas of responsibility. When NATO became operational in April 1951 the AOC-in-C Coast Command also became Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Atlantic. This change resulted in HQ Command issuing its projected mid-1953 deployment and equipment. The planned eight Shackleton squadrons covering long-range patrol and maritime reconnaissance were deployed thus: four were allocated to South Western Approaches, three to North West Approaches and a single unit to Gibraltar. All eight units had an aircraft inventory of eight aircraft each. The Short Sunderland was still in service at this time and its deployment included two squadrons each deployed to the southern and northern approaches. As all four units were due to be disbanded or re-equipped their inventory stood at five aircraft each. The Neptune squadrons were concentrated to the east; one was allocated to the north-eastern approaches while the remainder covered the Eastern approaches. In common with the Shackleton units each Neptune squadron was equipped with eight aircraft. Meteorological duties were covered by five Hastings aircraft based at Aldergrove and their duties were set by the Chief Meteorological Officer. By this time the command was operating helicopters for short-range rescue and communications duties, as the operating squadron was divided into flights the sixteen helicopters were dispersed around the country.

Coastal Command also had an extensive support network; most of it was active during peacetime although some organizations were wartime only. Providing training for the front-line squadrons was the School of Maritime Reconnaissance (SoMR) and the Anti-Submarine Warfare Development Unit, both of which moved into St Mawgan when it reopened in January 1951. Should war break out No. 16 Group would be reformed at Chatham to manage the three Neptune units charged with patrolling the eastern approaches while No. 17 Group would reform at Benson for training purposes with No. 19 Group moving to Liverpool to cover the port facilities. The duties of the SoMR included giving sprog maritime aircrew their initial training during a three-month period when 100 hours of training were flown, leaving the Operational Conversion Units to concentrate upon the individual aircraft.

It would be the arrival of the Shackleton that would bring a great leap in capability to Coastal Command. The progenitor of the Shackleton was designed by Roy Chadwick as the Avro Type 696. It was based on the Lincoln bomber and Tudor airliner, both derivatives of the successful wartime Lancaster heavy bomber, one of Chadwick’s earlier designs, which was the current MR aircraft. The design utilized the Lincoln centre wing section and tail unit assemblies bolted to which were the Tudor outer wings and landing gear. These in turn were married to a new wider and deeper fuselage while power was provided by four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. It was initially referred to during development as the Lincoln ASR3. The design was accepted by the Air Ministry as Specification R.5/46. The tail unit for the Shackleton differed from that of the Lincoln while the Merlin engines were replaced by the more powerful Rolls-Royce Griffons driving contra-rotating propellers. The Griffons were necessary due to the increased weight and drag and having a lower engine speed; they provided greater fuel efficiency for the long periods in the denser air at low altitudes that the Shackleton was intended for when hunting submarines better known as loitering.

The first test flight of the prototype Shackleton GR1, VW135, was undertaken on 9 March 1949 at the hands of Avro’s Chief Test Pilot J.H. Jimmy Orrell. In the antisubmarine warfare role, the Shackleton carried sonobuoys, electronic warfare support measures, an Autolycus diesel fume detection system and for a short time an unreliable magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) system. Available weaponry included nine bombs, three torpedoes or depth charges, while defensive armament included two 20mm cannon in a Bristol dorsal turret. The aircraft was originally designated GR1, although it was later redesignated the MR1. The Shackleton MR2 was an improved design incorporating feedback from the crews’ operational experience. The radome was moved from the earlier position in the nose to a ventral position, which improved radar coverage and minimized the risk of bird-strikes. Both the nose and tail sections were lengthened while the tailplanes were redesigned and the undercarriage was strengthened.

The Avro Type 716 Shackleton MR3 was a radical redesign of the aircraft in response to crew complaints. A new tricycle undercarriage was introduced while the fuselage was lengthened. Redesigned wings with better ailerons and tip tanks were introduced, although the span was slightly reduced. To improve the crews’ working conditions on fifteen-hour flights, the sound proofing was improved and a proper galley and sleeping space were included. Due to these upgrades the take-off weight of the RAF’s MR3s had risen by over 30,000lb and assistance from Armstrong Siddeley Viper Mk 203 turbojets was needed on take-off, although these extra engines were not added until the aircraft went through the Phase 3 upgrade. This extra weight and increased fatigue consumption took a toll on the airframe thus the service life of the RAF MR3s was sufficiently reduced that they were outlived by the MR2s. In an attempt to take the design further the Avro Type 719 Shackleton IV was proposed. Later redesignated as the MR4 this was a projected variant using the extremely fuel efficient Napier Nomad compound engine. Unfortunately for Avro the Shackleton IV was cancelled in 1955 as the RAF was shrinking as financial cuts and a contraction of responsibilities was taking place.

The Shackleton MR1 entered service with the Coastal Command Operational Conversion Unit at Kinloss in February 1951. Even as the first Shackletons were entering service with the newly created No. 236 OCU the Royal Navy was trying to scupper the whole of Coastal Command. Their plan was to scrap Avro’s finest and replace them with a fleet of Fairey Gannets operating off small aircraft carriers in midocean while further aircraft would cover the inshore areas. Once the idea had been fully costed it was obvious that the whole plan was fundamentally flawed. Within the command itself the flying boat lobby was also reacting vociferously putting forward the type as a more flexible design, however this too was shot down in flames when it was pointed out that rough sea conditions would either stop them flying or actually wreck the aircraft. Also, flying boats were inherently slow and heavy and the proliferation of runways of sufficient length were springing up all over the world and many of these countries were still susceptible to British entreaties.

No. 224 Squadron based at Aldergrove would be the first unit to receive the Shackleton MR1 in July 1951 replacing the unit’s weary Handley Page Halifax GR6s. Other units that received the Shackleton MR1 included No. 220 Squadron, which initially formed at Kinloss in September 1951 although the unit moved to St Eval in November. In May 1952 No. 269 Squadron based in Gibraltar received its allocation of MR1s while its crews were formed from the nucleus of No. 224 Squadron. By March, however, the entire squadron had returned to Britain taking up residence at Ballykelly. No. 120 Squadron had already been equipped with the Shackleton MR1 in March 1951 while based at Kinloss, although this tenure was short as the entire unit decamped to Aldergrove in April 1952. While at Aldergrove No. 120 Squadron provided the nucleus for No. 240 Squadron, which was also based there. The squadron quickly moved to its new base at St Eval for a few weeks before settling at Ballykelly. No. 240 Squadron would later be renumbered as No. 203 Squadron in November 1958, although this unit would be equipped with the MR1A version that featured slightly more powerful engines amongst other improvements. The Shackleton MR1A was also used by No. 42 Squadron based at St Eval retaining this model until July 1954. No. 206 Squadron was also based at St Eval when it re-equipped with the MR1A in September 1952; the squadron retained this model until May 1958. The last unit to equip with the MR1A was No. 204 Squadron, which traded in its more advanced Shackleton MR2s for the less capable MR1As in May 1958 while stationed at Ballykelly. The MR1As remained in use until February 1960, although by this time the squadron had received some MR2Cs that it retained until March 1971.

The arrival of the Shackleton MR2 would improve the capabilities of the MR squadrons and, in most cases, this new marque would replace the MR1/1A in use. Deliveries to operational units began in 1953 with first deliveries being made to No. 42 Squadron. Initially the squadron retained some of its complement of MR1As until July 1954 as the entry of the MR2 into service was slow, although once the technical problems had been ironed out the type served until 1966. No. 206 Squadron would receive some MR2s in February 1953, although they were dispensed with in June 1954, the unit retaining its complement of MR1As throughout this period. In January 1958 No. 206 Squadron departed St Eval for St Mawgan, remaining there until July 1965 when a further transfer was made to Kinloss. In March 1953 two units would start to accept deliveries of Shackleton MR2s. The first would be No. 240 Squadron based at Ballykelly, although their tenure was short as they were dispensed with in August 1954, the unit resuming operations with MR1s. By November 1958 No. 204 Squadron had been renumbered as No. 203 Squadron still at Ballykelly. No. 203 Squadron would later receive MR2s in April 1962, retaining them until December 1966. The other unit that gained MR2s would be No. 269 Squadron, also based at Ballykelly. The initial allocation lasted until August 1954, the squadron resuming operations flying its original MR1s, which remained the case until October 1958 when a new batch of Shackleton MR2s was received. By December No. 269 Squadron had been renumbered as No. 210 Squadron as part of the contraction of the RAF and the desire of Coastal Command to retain significant unit number plates. No. 210 Squadron would remain as part of Coastal Command and into the early days of Strike Command before disbanding on 31 October 1970 only to reappear the following day as a Near East Air Force squadron.

No. 120 Squadron was based at Aldergrove and had a bit of a hit and miss affair with the Shackleton MR2. The first deliveries were made in April 1953, although all had been returned by August 1954, the unit resuming operations with its MR1s. The squadron received another allocation of MR2s in October 1956 and retained these until November 1958. No. 224 Squadron had slightly better luck with its MR2 allocation that was taken on charge in May 1953, retaining them until disbandment in October 1966.

Ballykelly would also be home to No. 204 Squadron, which had last been in existence as a Vickers Valetta unit before renumbering as No. 84 Squadron in February 1953. The squadron would receive its complement of MR2s in January 1954, which remained in use until May 1958 when they were replaced by Shackleton MR1As. These remained in service until February 1960 by which time the first of the replacement MR2s had arrived. No. 204 Squadron retained its MR2Cs until disbandment in March 1971. The MR2C model differed from the basic MR2 in that it was fitted with the avionics suite from the later MR3. Instead of a base transfer No. 204 Squadron would be disbanded on 1 April 1971 reforming on the same date at Honington. The squadron would supply detachments to Majunga, Tengah and Masirah – the unit had originally been known as the Majunga Detachment Support Unit. The purpose of the Majunga, Madagascar, detachment was to provide aircraft for the blockade of Rhodesia. When the Rhodesian blockade was withdrawn in 1972 No. 204 Squadron was disbanded, its Tengah and Masirah patrols being covered by other units on rotation.

The Shackleton MR2 underwent extensive trials of its avionics and remedial work on its engines, which had a tendency to throw spark plugs from their cylinder heads and required an overhaul every 400 hours. Trials were carried out with the MR2 at the Anti Submarine Warfare Development Unit (ASWDU) covering the performance of the ASV Mk 13 and extensive trials of the RCM/ECM suite before they were cleared for use. The Autolycos diesel fume detection system was also put through its paces before being cleared for service use. Other trials undertaken by the MR2 included the Glow Worm illuminating rocket system, the Shackleton replacing the last Lancaster in operational use. At least one MR2 was utilized for MAD sting trials, although both it and the rocket were dropped. However, the former would equip the later MR3 once all the bugs had been ironed out. Fortunately, the Orange Harvest ECM system, homing torpedoes and the various sonic buoys at least were successful.

The genesis of the Shackleton MR3 would rest upon the need for Coastal Command to cover its projected strength of 180 front-line aircraft by 1956. Although other projects had been put forward the Air Staff finally plumped for the Avro product, issuing OR.320 in January 1953. The first Shackleton MR3 made its maiden flight on 2 September 1955, although production aircraft did not reach service until 1957 by which time some of the contracts had been cancelled. The MR3 was a complete contrast to the earlier models in that it was carried on a tricycle undercarriage, had wing-tip mounted fuel tanks, modified ailerons, a clear view canopy and a sound proofed wardroom to help alleviate the effects of long patrols. Defensive armament consisted of a pair of nose-mounted 20mm cannon, the upper turret being deleted. During 1966 a programme was instituted to upgrade the MR3, the most obvious change being the fitment of a Bristol-Siddeley Viper engine in each outboard engine nacelle resulting in the type being designated the MR3/3.

First deliveries were made to No. 220 Squadron based at St Mawgan in August 1957, although the unit retained some of its MR2s. The squadron had a short existence as it was renumbered as No. 201 Squadron in October 1958. This unit would last a lot longer than its predecessor as it remained as a Shackleton operator until 1970 having moved to Kinloss in December 1965. Close on the heels of No. 220 Squadron to equip with the Shackleton MR3 was No. 206 Squadron, also based at St Mawgan. This unit traded in its 5/3 mix of MR1As and MR2s for a similar number of the new model in January 1958. No. 206 Squadron would also move to Kinloss, departing St Mawgan in July 1965 and remaining there until re-equipping in August 1970.

St Mawgan was also the home for No. 42 Squadron, although this unit would continue to fly some of its MR2s alongside the MR3s after their delivery in November 1965, retaining them until replacement in September 1971. Ballykelly and No. 203 Squadron would be the final recipient of the Shackleton MR3 in June 1966 having first used this model between December 1958 and July 1962. No. 202 Squadron would leave Coastal Command in February 1969 when it was transferred to Luqa, Malta, as part of Near East Air Force (NEAF).

Development of weaponry for the Shackletons continued apace with the Mk 30 Homing Torpedo finally being cleared for service in March 1955 after a period spent trying to get the delicate mechanisms to work properly under operational conditions. With this weapon in service it would see the final demise of the depth charge as the primary anti-submarine weapon. To complement the Mk 30 development work was also taking place on an active homing torpedo codenamed Petane. Unfortunately, delays in clearing the torpedo for service use would result in cancellation and its replacement by the American Mk 43 weapon although the latter’s strike rate was less than that of the British weapon. Also missing from the Shackleton fleet was an airborne lifeboat that had been prominent under the Lancaster GR3s. Although a boat was planned for the Shackleton it was never developed and the fleet was supplied with Lindholme gear that became a standard throughout the command. Avionics for the Shackleton were also under continual improvement, Orange Harvest was constantly being improved while a Doppler system known as Blue Silk was also developed, which was an improvement on the Green Satin system. The primary radar system installed in the Shackleton was the AN/ASV-21 developed for submarine detection; this too was in a state of constant development in order to improve its capability and its ease of operation.

Coastal Command Post War II

Avro Shackleton MR3

This period was also one of confusion, while the Neptunes and Shackletons remained a constant Coastal Command was also looking at extending the lives of ten of the command’s Short Sunderlands however as the type would need extensive and expensive upgrades to its avionics and weapons systems. Another Short product, the Seamew, was also intended for Coastal Command use, the intention being to base flights at St Mawgan and Ballykelly. However, this was a period of defence cuts thus all programmes were put under close scrutiny. The result of this was the cancellation of the Sunderland life extension while the Seamew programme was cancelled as its handling, performance and overall usefulness was questioned.

The Shackleton was also accumulating secondary roles such as trooping, which was tested to the full during Operation Encompass undertaken during January when 1,200 troops were flown to Cyprus to counter terrorist activity. Colonial policing also became a Shackleton role, being allocated to No. 42 Squadron, which took over the task from Bomber Command. These extra duties helped the AOC-in-C to counter the desire of the Air Ministry to reduce the overall strength. Initially it was proposed that the entire force would be four active units although Coastal Command would counter with a need for a minimum of nine squadrons operating in the MR role, one covering MR and Met while sixteen older MR1/T4s would be operated by the Maritime Operational Training Unit, formed from No. 236 OCU and the SMR at Kinloss on 1 October 1956, while a further three aircraft would be used for trials work.

1957 was a tumultous year for Coastal Command. The Sunderlands had finally retired resulting in the final closure of Pembroke Dock while St Eval would suffer a similar fate as Nos 220 and 228 Squadrons would move to St Mawgan to prepare for the Shackleton Mk 3 as St Eval was not capable of supporting this model. When No. 42 Squadron departed for colonial policing duties in Aden this sounded the death knell thus St Eval was finally closed in 1959.

The genesis of the Shackleton MR3 would rest upon the need for Coastal Command to cover its projected strength of 180 front-line aircraft by 1956. Although other projects had been put forward the Air Staff finally plumped for the Avro product, issuing OR.320 in January 1953. The first Shackleton MR3 made its maiden flight on 2 September 1955, although production aircraft did not reach service until 1957 by which time some of the contracts had been cancelled. The MR3 was a complete contrast to the earlier models in that it was carried on a tricycle undercarriage, had wing-tip mounted fuel tanks, modified ailerons, a clear view canopy and a sound proofed wardroom to help alleviate the effects of long patrols. Defensive armament consisted of a pair of nose-mounted 20mm cannon, the upper turret being deleted. During 1966 a programme was instituted to upgrade the MR3, the most obvious change being the fitment of a Bristol-Siddeley Viper engine in each outboard engine nacelle resulting in the type being designated the MR3/3.

First deliveries were made to No. 220 Squadron based at St Mawgan in August 1957, although the unit retained some of its MR2s. The squadron had a short existence as it was renumbered as No. 201 Squadron in October 1958. This unit would last a lot longer than its predecessor as it remained as a Shackleton operator until 1970 having moved to Kinloss in December 1965. Close on the heels of No. 220 Squadron to equip with the Shackleton MR3 was No. 206 Squadron, also based at St Mawgan. This unit traded in its 5/3 mix of MR1As and MR2s for a similar number of the new model in January 1958. No. 206 Squadron would also move to Kinloss, departing St Mawgan in July 1965 and remaining there until re-equipping in August 1970.

St Mawgan was also the home for No. 42 Squadron, although this unit would continue to fly some of its MR2s alongside the MR3s after their delivery in November 1965, retaining them until replacement in September 1971. Ballykelly and No. 203 Squadron would be the final recipient of the Shackleton MR3 in June 1966 having first used this model between December 1958 and July 1962. No. 202 Squadron would leave Coastal Command in February 1969 when it was transferred to Luqa, Malta, as part of Near East Air Force (NEAF).

Development of weaponry for the Shackletons continued apace with the Mk 30 Homing Torpedo finally being cleared for service in March 1955 after a period spent trying to get the delicate mechanisms to work properly under operational conditions. With this weapon in service it would see the final demise of the depth charge as the primary anti-submarine weapon. To complement the Mk 30 development work was also taking place on an active homing torpedo codenamed Petane. Unfortunately, delays in clearing the torpedo for service use would result in cancellation and its replacement by the American Mk 43 weapon although the latter’s strike rate was less than that of the British weapon. Also missing from the Shackleton fleet was an airborne lifeboat that had been prominent under the Lancaster GR3s. Although a boat was planned for the Shackleton it was never developed and the fleet was supplied with Lindholme gear that became a standard throughout the command. Avionics for the Shackleton were also under continual improvement, Orange Harvest was constantly being improved while a Doppler system known as Blue Silk was also developed, which was an improvement on the Green Satin system. The primary radar system installed in the Shackleton was the AN/ASV-21 developed for submarine detection; this too was in a state of constant development in order to improve its capability and its ease of operation.

This period was also one of confusion, while the Neptunes and Shackletons remained a constant Coastal Command was also looking at extending the lives of ten of the command’s Short Sunderlands however as the type would need extensive and expensive upgrades to its avionics and weapons systems. Another Short product, the Seamew, was also intended for Coastal Command use, the intention being to base flights at St Mawgan and Ballykelly. However, this was a period of defence cuts thus all programmes were put under close scrutiny. The result of this was the cancellation of the Sunderland life extension while the Seamew programme was cancelled as its handling, performance and overall usefulness was questioned.

The Shackleton was also accumulating secondary roles such as trooping, which was tested to the full during Operation Encompass undertaken during January when 1,200 troops were flown to Cyprus to counter terrorist activity. Colonial policing also became a Shackleton role, being allocated to No. 42 Squadron, which took over the task from Bomber Command. These extra duties helped the AOC-in-C to counter the desire of the Air Ministry to reduce the overall strength. Initially it was proposed that the entire force would be four active units although Coastal Command would counter with a need for a minimum of nine squadrons operating in the MR role, one covering MR and Met while sixteen older MR1/T4s would be operated by the Maritime Operational Training Unit, formed from No. 236 OCU and the SMR at Kinloss on 1 October 1956, while a further three aircraft would be used for trials work.

1957 was a tumultous year for Coastal Command. The Sunderlands had finally retired resulting in the final closure of Pembroke Dock while St Eval would suffer a similar fate as Nos 220 and 228 Squadrons would move to St Mawgan to prepare for the Shackleton Mk 3 as St Eval was not capable of supporting this model. When No. 42 Squadron departed for colonial policing duties in Aden this sounded the death knell thus St Eval was finally closed in 1959.

Coastal Command underwent further contractions as some of the Shackleton MR1s were converted to T4 trainers, although some aircraft were gained when the Joint Anti-Submarine School was disbanded releasing a handful of aircraft for front-line duties. Although the MR3 had been cleared for squadron use it was restricted until some of the problems such as hydraulic malfunctions and engine fading were ironed out. It had been intended that No. 228 Squadron would be the first to re-equip, although the deteriorating state of the aircraft flown by No. 220 Squadron hastened their replacement. Even so, given the problems experienced with the MR3 the squadron continued to operate the MR1 alongside the newer machine. Maintaining the operational front-line strength for Coastal Command was becoming more difficult as the extra duties piled up. Not only were colonial duties carrying on longer than expected, other aircraft were being diverted to protect the zone in the Hebrides missile range.

In March 1957 the Jordanian government severed the long-standing treaty ties with Britain therefore over the next few months the British started to remove stores from the two RAF bases and from Aqaba. By 6 July 1957 a ceremonial guard from the 10th Hussars and the Middlesex Regiment handed over the base to the Jordan Arab Army. During July 1958 a call for assistance came from King Hussein of Jordan and the 16th Para Brigade responded sending the 2nd Battalion Para to Amman airfield on 17 July courtesy of some Coastal Command Shackletons. A flight of Hawker Hunter fighters followed in the afternoon, followed by Blackburn Beverly transports with the 33rd Para Field Regiment aboard. Their task was to defend the hills overlooking the runway of Amman’s aerodrome. By mid-October the situation had eased thus the paratroops were withdrawn on 2 November.

In June 1958 intensive flying trials began with the Shackleton MR3, the plan being to fly 1,000 hours in nine weeks. Taken into consideration was the projected fatigue life of 3,000 airframe hours, although it was thought that none of the airframes would ever reach that figure. Even so, it was planned that modifications to the MR3 would include airframe strengthening when the Phase 1 modification programme was undertaken. While the MR3 was undertaking its flight trials revised fatigue life figures for the earlier models had been calculated. Unlike more modern aircraft the fatigue life for such aircraft was calculated on the life of the main spar structure. Without any modifications the spar life for both the MR1 and MR2 would be limited to between 2,500 and 2,700 hours. This put Coastal Command in a difficult position as the MR3 was still not fully up to speed while the earlier models required major upgrading to continue in service. Adding to the woes of the AOC-in-C Coastal Command had been informed that it was intended to reduce the command to only six squadrons flying thirty-six aircraft with a handful of spares to cover overhauls.

At the beginning of 1959 No. 42 Squadron was replaced by No. 224 Squadron for colonial policing duties the former returning home to St Mawgan. By March 1959 the Coastal Command strength had dropped to twenty-four aircraft but nevertheless No. 120 Squadron despatched aircraft to take part in Exercise Dawn Breeze IV, which was followed by preparations for Calypso Strait, a tour of the Caribbean, although this was extended due to unrest in British Honduras, better known as Belize. By mid June the Shackleton fleet was in trouble again as all those aircraft that had more than 2,150 hours on the clock were grounded due to cracks in the main spars. This affected all of the earlier versions thus a substitute had to be found to keep the pilots current. To that end the squadrons were supplied with a handful of Vickers Varsities while MOTU crew training was carried out using Shackleton MR3s that were still cleared for flying. With no replacement in sight an accelerated programme of modifications was put in place, the intention being to relife the spar for a total life of 5,000 hours. This programme saw the first reworked aircraft return to their squadrons in August 1959 with the entire fleet being back in service by October.

The early months of 1960 saw the Phase I update programme completed, which was immediately followed by the start of Phase II, although this concentrated on updating the aircraft’s avionics and the weapons capability, with the American Mk 44 torpedo being added to the incumbent Mk 30 torpedo. Even as the Shackleton fleet was being upgraded the Air Ministry was undertaking the machinations of selecting a replacement. However, this was not the easy task as it first seemed, as not only was the RAF looking for a replacement, NATO and the US Navy were also on the hunt for a replacement for the venerable Lockheed P-2 Neptune. Like many of the proposed joint programmes none of the participants could agree on exactly what was required. The outcome was that the United States selected another Lockheed product, the P-3 Orion, while those interested parties in NATO selected the Breguet 1150 Atlantique. Both these designs were rejected by the RAF and Air Ministry; the P-3 was considered too slow while the Atlantique was rejected as it only had two engines and was considered to have too low a safety margin for long-range operations. Eventually OR.350 was issued, requesting a new aircraft to be ready for service in 1960, although as with most projects it would be subject to time slip.

Exercises would occupy the Shackleton squadrons during the 1960s. In July 1960 three Shackletons from No. 204 Squadron departed Ballykelly to undertake Operation Calypso Stream III that involved visiting Bermuda, Jamaica, British Honduras and Trinidad, the distance covered being 10,000 miles. Having returned home to Ballykelly No. 204 Squadron would join the rest of Coastal Command and Bomber Command in preparing for Exercise Fallex 60. This was a large NATO exercise that combined numerous exercises into one. This involved Blue Shield First/Second Watch, antisubmarine and shipping exercises, Sword Thrust, Bomber Command attacks plus Coffer Dam and Ballast One. Also involved in this exercise were units from the RCAF plus the carriers USS Saratoga and Shangri La from the US Navy. The Fallex exercises that followed were all of a similar nature, however Fallex 62 was a completely different matter. This was a full simulation of an all-out attack against NATO complete with an armoured attack backed up by a full range of nuclear weapons. Within the first few days the entire exercise had come to a shuddering halt as the projected loss of life inflicted by the enemy orange forces, between 19–15 million dead in Britain alone, revealed that NATO was completely unprepared for such an assault.

On a lighter note the Aird Whyte Competition between the squadrons of Coastal Command was revamped as the Fincastle Trophy. This would, and still does, involve crews and aircraft from Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. 1961 was also notable for a threatened invasion of Kuwait by an unstable Iraq regime. As Britain was still providing security for the country Operation Vantage was launched to provide troops, aircraft and naval forces. For the Shackleton squadrons this meant that No. 42 Squadron would be placed on standby while Nos 203 and 204 Squadrons would be used to transport some equipment for Bomber Command. Fortunately for the Iraqis they had the sense to withdraw from the border while the Arab League would take over the security of Kuwait.

1963 was also an exciting year for the Shackleton squadrons. In August No. 201 Squadron sent a detachment to Nassau their brief being to deter Cuban forces attempting to capture refugees seeking political asylum. During their eight-week detachment the squadron undertook general surveillance and anti-smuggling patrols plus flew relief supplies into Mayaguana Island after it was devastated by a hurricane. A further detachment, this time provided by No. 210 Squadron, was deployed to Cyprus in December due to yet another round of trouble between the Greeks and the Turks. The trouble between the two ethnic groups continued until August 1964, resulting in the squadron having to send a rotating detachment to keep the aircraft flying. During this same period the Shackletons of Nos 120, 201, 204 and 206 Squadrons undertook Operation Adjutant, which was intended to assess the movements of Russian submarines passing through the choke area to the north of Britain. During this period over 2,000 hours were flown until August when the operation was completed.

September 1964 would see the whole of Coastal Command involved in Exercise Teamwork, which included the crews and senior students from MOTU that became the shadow unit No. 220 Squadron for the period. Most of the squadrons operated around Britain although No. 204 Squadron would fly to Norway from Gibraltar and operate out of Bodø while part of No. 203 Squadron would also travel north but only as far as Kinloss. A reshuffle of the Shackleton squadrons would take place in early 1965 as it had been determined that the greatest threat to shipping approaching the British Isles was from the Soviet Northern Fleet. To that end No. 201 Squadron was transferred from St Mawgan to Kinloss in July 1965 while MOTU came the other way. Kinloss thus became the home for No. 18 Group’s assets while St Mawgan was home to No. 42 Squadron, the sole operational unit of No. 19 Group. From October the Kinloss-based squadrons took over the Affluent detachments, incorporating the Hornet Moth patrols. To Coastal Command these patrols in this undeclared war with Indonesia were a drain of resources. Fortunately the confrontation would eventually end in August 1966.

Exercise Calpurnia held during December 1965 involved all of the Coastal Command squadrons and required the crews to detect and carry out mock attacks against submarines provided by the Royal Navy. As ever the command was operating under financial constraints thus the planning staff had to contend with the day-to-day running and increasing overseas commitments, very much a case of doing more with even less. To that end more overseas detachments were undertaken in order to give the crews as much experience as possible. 1966 would also see No. 42 Squadron undertaking the final Exercise Capex to South Africa; these detachments were discontinued due to increasing pressure from the rest of the world concerning apartheid. No. 42 Squadron would also take over the Mizar patrols operating from Majunga in support of the Rhodesian blockade during which they acted in conjunction with Royal Navy patrols.

The operational squadrons had already received their initial allocation of Phase III Shackletons, which allowed some of the earlier MR2s to be modified to Phase III standard. Some of these aircraft would be transferred to MOTU to replace the outmoded Shackleton T4s. It was also at this time that centralized servicing and wing pooling of aircraft became a fact of life. Conceived as yet another means to save money both these ideas would result in loss of morale in both aircrew and ground crew. Adding to the work load of the Coastal Command stations was the news that Britain would withdraw from Aden in 1967. This news would see internecine fighting between the various tribal factions and increased attacks on British forces in theatre. As with all such conflicts in the Middle East the trouble soon spread to the remainder of the Persian Gulf. In order to monitor the possibility of illegal weaponry entering the area a MARDET (Maritime Detachment) was established at Sharjah, the crews and aircraft coming from the Kinloss wing. Not aiding the situation was further trouble in Cyprus that required more reinforcements from Britain.

From January 1968 the Shackleton T2 Phase IIIs entered service with MOTU, although the last T4 would hang onto July. The re-equipment of MOTU would bring benefits to Coastal Command as the new aircraft were equipped to the same standard as the operational units as No. 38 Squadron had just disbanded. This coupled with an increase in Soviet naval activity in the Mediterranean required that a detachment be sent to Luqa, Malta, from No. 42 Squadron for three months before No. 203 Squadron was permanently transferred to NEAF in February 1969.

On the re-equipment front both the British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley Aircraft presented responses to OR.350. By June 1963 it had been revamped by the Ministry of Defence as Air Staff Target 357 and this was to be based upon existing designs thus the Trident and VC 10 and the Comet were in the running. Eventually, Hawker Siddeley won the competition and utilized two redundant Comet 4 airframes to create the HS801 prototypes. Both airframes flew in 1967, although the Nimrod did not enter service until 1968.

Coastal Command would be a pioneer in the use of the helicopter in the role of airsea rescue. The first machine utilized was the Bristol Sycamore, a small batch of four being delivered to St Mawgan for trials with the ASWDU for anti-submarine and rescue trials. No. 22 Squadron would reform at Thorney Island in March 1955 and take over the four Sycamore HC12s as their first equipment, retaining them until January 1956. While No. 22 Squadron was developing search and rescue techniques the Air Ministry was authorizing the use of the Westland Whirlwind as the primary aircraft in this role. The squadron received its first Whirlwind HAR2s in June 1955 while still based at Thorney Island. The HQ and A Flight were based at Thorney Island while B Flight was based at Martlesham Heath and Felixstowe with C Flight located at Valley. Twelve months later the HQ and A Flight had moved to St Mawgan with an outstation at Chivenor that had originally been part of No. 257 Squadron. The other flights were located at Felixstowe, Tangmere and Coltishall, all part of B Flight. C Flight had aircraft based at Valley while D Flight had aircraft operating at Thorney Island, Manston and Brawdy. The HAR2s were retained until August 1962 when the turbine-powered Whirlwind HAR10s were received, remaining in service until November 1981. On 27 November 1969 Air Marshal Sir John Lapsley would take the flypast salute at St Mawgan on the disbandment of Coastal Command, comprising two Westland Whirlwinds, nine Shackletons and a single Nimrod. The following day No. 18 (Maritime) Group took over the assets at Northwood while the existing headquarters at Pitreavie Castle, 18 Group, and Mount Devon, No. 19 Group, became the headquarters of the Northern and Southern Maritime Air Regions respectively.

IJN Hyuga and Ise Hybrid Battleships – Leyte Gulf

IJN Ise 1944
IJN ISE at Leyte Gulf
IJN Hyuga on trials 1943

The sinking of the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse by Japanese land-based aircraft on 10 December 1941 led the IJN to realize that battleships could not operate in the face of enemy aircraft and required friendly air support to protect them. The loss of four Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway in June 1942 severely limited the ability of the IJN to provide any air cover and alternatives were sought. Earlier proposals to convert one or more battleships into carriers had been made and rejected at the beginning of the war, but they were revived after Midway. Plans for more elaborate conversions were rejected on the grounds of expense and, most critically, time, and the IJN settled on removing the rear pair of turrets and replacing them with a flight deck equipped with two catapults to launch floatplanes. The Ise-class ships were selected for the conversion because Hyūga had suffered an explosion in Turret No. 5 in early May that virtually destroyed the turret and their Turret No. 6 could not elevate to the full +43 degrees deemed necessary for the long-range engagement anticipated by the IJN. The Fusōs were scheduled to follow once the first two were completed.

On 20 October 1944, after preliminary strikes by aircraft from the escort carriers and a bombardment by the battleships, the landing was duly made and achieved complete success. On the 21st, Tacloban and Dulag airfields were captured, though both were so badly flooded that they were scarcely fit for use. By the 23rd, 132,400 men and 200,000 tons of supplies were ashore. On the 24th, Krueger set up his command post on Leyte and MacArthur did the same on the following day.

Seventh Fleet suffered only minor casualties as the price for its success. On 19 October, destroyer Ross hit two mines but proved to be the only destroyer to survive such a dual misfortune in the whole war. On the afternoon of the 20th, a torpedo-bomber badly damaged light cruiser Honolulu. Early on the 21st, a bomber crashed, apparently deliberately, into HMAS Australia, a heavy cruiser that was a veteran of Seventh Fleet operations and she, like Honolulu, had to retire from the combat-zone. Two of the escort carriers withdrew on the 24th to collect replacement aircraft. None of these events, however, had any real effect on Seventh Fleet’s ability to cover and support the landing forces.

Seventh Fleet in turn received cover and support from Halsey’s mighty Third Fleet, which had taken station east of the Philippines. This would not be quite as strong as it had been during the strikes on Formosa, for on the evening of 22 October, Halsey had detached one of his four Task Groups for rest and reprovisioning. Unfortunately, the Group that he chose was that of Vice Admiral John McCain which was the strongest of the four, including fleet carriers Wasp, Hornet and Hancock and light carriers Monterey and Cowpens, and he did not recall it when the first reports of Japanese movements were received.

Even without McCain’s Group, Third Fleet could boast fleet carriers Lexington (Mitscher’s flagship), Essex, Intrepid, Franklin and the veteran Enterprise, light carriers Princeton, Langley, Independence, Cabot, San Jacinto and Belleau Wood, six battleships, two heavy cruisers, seven light cruisers and forty-four destroyers. Although the number of warplanes varied on every ship, on average the five large carriers contained thirty Helldivers, eighteen Avengers and forty-two Hellcats each, and the six light carriers, nine Avengers and twenty-two Hellcats each. These resources were quite sufficient to enable Halsey alone to cope with any fleet the Japanese might send into battle.

Yet in practice, the Americans’ situation was not as satisfactory as it appeared. The chain of command had a fundamental weakness in that while Kinkaid was under MacArthur, Halsey took his orders from Admiral Nimitz in Pearl Harbour. The result was a lack of liaison between Third and Seventh Fleets. Worse still, as it transpired, Halsey’s instructions told him not only to protect the beachhead but to destroy any enemy force that appeared. Aggressive by nature and dangerously contemptuous of his enemies, he believed this implied that he could regard the protection of the beachhead as subsidiary, and persisted in his view despite clear statements to the contrary from both Nimitz and MacArthur.

Halsey’s eagerness for action had one further adverse effect. He issued orders directly to his Task Group Commanders, bypassing his chief subordinate Vice Admiral Mitscher, who, as Professor Morison states in his volume on the battle, Leyte June 1944 – January 1945 became ‘little better than a passenger in his beloved Fast Carrier Forces, Pacific Fleet’. This was most unfortunate because Mitscher’s much greater combat experience would probably have prevented most if not all of the errors that would bedevil the Americans throughout the coming conflict.

Any American difficulties, however, were minor compared with the anxieties faced by Admiral Toyoda. The chief of these was that Vice Admiral Ozawa’s carrier force, now based in home waters, was desperately weak. Since the Battle of the Philippine Sea it had been joined by three fleet carriers of some 17,000 tons, Amagi, Unryu and Katsuragi, but unfortunately they were all valueless, because there were no trained pilots to man their aircraft. The Japanese had also adapted two battleships, Hyuga and Ise, replacing their after guns with a flight deck, hangar and lift. It was intended each should house twenty-two seaplanes that would be launched by catapults and subsequently land in the sea and be hoisted aboard by cranes. None of the special seaplanes needed ever became available, however, and there would have been no pilots for them even if they had done.

Nonetheless, there was never any possibility that the Imperial Navy would not take part in the fight for Leyte. As Toyoda bluntly put it: ‘There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.’ Since his carriers could not hope to save Leyte, the essence of Toyoda’s plan, optimistically named Operation SHO – the word means ‘victory’ – was to attack Leyte Gulf with his Fleet’s heavy gunnery units, particularly the great battleships Yamato and Musashi. These had a standard displacement of over 64,000 tons, were of almost 72,000 tons when fully laden and mounted the largest naval guns in existence, nine of 18.1-inch calibre set in three triple turrets, two forward and one aft. These vessels and indeed most of Japan’s surface warships under Vice Admiral Kurita had been stationed near Singapore so as to be close to their fuel supplies but on 18 October, they proceeded to Brunei Bay, Borneo. Here they were refuelled and at 0800 on 22 October, Kurita, with the bulk of his ships, set out again – for Leyte Gulf.

This group that for simplicity’s sake may be called the Japanese Central Force consisted of Yamato, Musashi, three smaller battleships, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fifteen destroyers. Kurita’s mission was to steam west of Palawan, itself the most westerly of the Philippines, then turn east to pass south of Mindoro, cross the Sibuyan Sea, move through the San Bernardino Strait between Luzon and Samar and finally head south along Samar’s eastern coast to attack Leyte Gulf from the north.

Seven hours after Kurita’s departure, Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura, who had a shorter distance to cover, also left Brunei. The Van of the Southern Force, as the Americans named it, contained battleships Yamashiro and Fuso, heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers. It was to pass south of Palawan into the Sulu Sea, proceed north of Mindanao and then, turning sharply north, enter the Surigao Strait between Leyte and the small island of Dinagat to attack Leyte Gulf from the south.

To reinforce Nishimura, the Rear of the Southern Force, heavy cruisers Nachi and Ashigara, light cruiser Abukuma and four more destroyers, set out from Okinawa, steaming west of Luzon and Mindoro before entering the Sulu Sea. However, Shima had only been detailed to support Nishimura at the last minute and knew nothing of his colleague’s plans. He did not, therefore, wish to join the Van Force, when as the senior officer, he would have had to take command; instead he followed it at a distance of at least 40 miles.

Had even a fair proportion of these vessels reached Leyte Gulf, the Americans would have suffered a major disaster. Though the bulk of the transports had left by 25 October when the Japanese ships were planned to arrive, the landing beaches, piled high with food, ammunition and other equipment, would have presented a wonderful target for the Japanese big guns. So would the temporary headquarters of the Army commanders, including that of MacArthur; all, like the supplies, within easy range of ships in the Gulf. If the beaches were shelled, the US Sixth Army would have been deprived of its food, its ammunition and its leaders. It would also have been deprived of its air support.

Ironically, the Japanese did not know of the existence of Seventh Fleet’s escort carriers but they lay right in Kurita’s path. Should they be annihilated, then, declares Professor Morison, ‘General MacArthur’s Army would have been cut off like that of Athens at Syracuse in 413 BC. Third Fleet alone could not have maintained its communications’; – a fact that was admitted by Halsey in a signal to MacArthur on 26 October. Such a disaster, particularly coming after a long series of American successes, might have had immense repercussions.

It seems that this prospect was suddenly realized by the Japanese Army for it belatedly decided to dispatch reinforcements to Leyte. These were to be landed at Ormoc Bay on the west of the island by two transport groups: the larger under Vice Admiral Naomasa Sakonju consisting of one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, one destroyer and four transports; the other under Commander Hisashi Ishii containing only three destroyers.

But how was Kurita to deal with the mighty Third Fleet that blocked his path to Seventh Fleet and the landing beaches? Operation SHO decreed that he would do so by evading it. It would be lured northward during Kurita’s approach, and after causing havoc in Leyte Gulf, he would again elude it by retiring through Surigao Strait, by then already penetrated by Nishimura and Shima.

The unhappy task of providing the lure was given to Vice Admiral Ozawa’s Northern Force. The Japanese had for some time considered using the battleship-carriers Hyuga and Ise as sacrificial decoys in the same way as Ryujo had been used at the Eastern Solomons – a scheme of which, incidentally, the Americans were aware from Intelligence reports. To sweeten the bait, Toyoda now decided to add to them fleet carrier Zuikaku, light carriers Zuiho, Chiyoda and Chitose, three light cruisers and ten destroyers. On board the carriers were just twenty-five Jills, four Kates used as high-level bombers, seven Judys and eighty Zeros, twenty-eight of them fighter-bombers. The standard of their airmen was so low that Ozawa felt it advisable to fly several off to shore bases – but it scarcely mattered for both Toyoda and Ozawa were grimly aware that if the Northern Force succeeded in its mission, this might well be at the cost of its own destruction.

To support their surface warships in the absence of carrier aircraft, the Japanese land-based naval aircraft in the Philippines were ordered to attack Third Fleet as from 24 October, and Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi decided that as Japan’s sailors were risking all in the coming battle, her airmen should make similar sacrifices: to be certain of a hit, they should be prepared to crash deliberately into American carriers. On 20 and 21 October, he formed the first units of a ‘Special Attack Corps’ to do just that. It was given the name ‘Kamikaze’ meaning ‘Divine Wind’, after a typhoon that had destroyed a Mongol invasion fleet in 1281. And already on the 15th, a subordinate commander, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima, had set out with the express intention of ramming an American carrier. Though shot down at a safe distance, he had ‘lit the fuse of the ardent wishes of his men.’

Admiral Halsey had been receiving other welcome news. He was desperately anxious to locate the Japanese carriers which, he was certain, must be participating in the present operation. Ironically, of course, his enemies wanted him to do so and Ozawa’s flagship Zuikaku had therefore deliberately broken radio silence on various frequencies, though an undetected fault in her transmitter meant that her temptations passed unnoticed. The logical place for the carriers to be was north-east of the Philippines, heading straight for Leyte Gulf from the Japanese homeland. Halsey, inexplicably, had ordered no early searches in this direction, and when he attempted to retrieve his error, he was delayed by the air-attacks on Third Fleet. Not until 1405 did Helldivers from Lexington set out to find the elusive ‘flat-tops’.

At 1540, Lieutenant Walters spotted an enemy force, built around Hyuga and Ise, that Ozawa had sent ahead in a somewhat desperate attempt to divert attention away from Kurita by bringing about a surface battle. Next, two big destroyers, detached as pickets, were sighted, and finally, at 1640, Lieutenant Crapser located Northern Force’s carriers. Ozawa was delighted. He recalled the Advance Force, sent the picket destroyers home and, since he wished to pull Third Fleet as far north of the San Bernardino Strait as possible, he spent the night of 24/25 October steering various courses while remaining roughly 200 miles from Luzon’s north-eastern cape. To this, by a weird quirk of fate, a sixteenth-century Spanish navigator, for reasons unknown, had given the name of Engano: Cape Deception.

Admiral Halsey was certainly deceived – and beyond the most optimistic hopes of Toyoda or Ozawa. He knew that enemy forces were approaching from three different directions but as he had left Nishimura and Shima to Kinkaid, he was concerned only with Kurita and Ozawa. Of these, the former was reported to be retiring but the Japanese were notoriously stubborn and there was always the possibility that Central Force’s retirement was only temporary, as indeed Kurita intended it should be. Unfortunately, Halsey had accepted at face value the vastly exaggerated claims made by his pilots and so felt that even if a few undamaged vessels should ‘plod through San Bernardino Strait’ they ‘could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet’.

At 1512, that is before any part of the Northern Force had been sighted, Halsey had stated that a new group, to be called Task Force 34, consisting of four battleships and supporting vessels under the command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee, ‘will be formed’ to deal with Kurita if he sortied from San Bernardino. Halsey had intended this as merely an indication of future intentions, but it was taken as an order by Nimitz, by Mitscher and, most important, by Kinkaid, all of whom thought the new Task Force had actually come into existence.

Having located the Japanese carriers, Halsey could have formed Task Force 34 and left it to guard San Bernardino Strait while the rest of Third Fleet attacked the Northern Force. Or if he felt that Task Force 34 would need fighter protection – though Lee would have been happy to dispense with this in view of the decline in Japan’s air power and in the skill of her airmen – he could have left one of his Task Groups to support it. Or, indeed, he could have massed his whole strength off San Bernardino, destroyed any of Kurita’s ships that emerged from it, which they would have had to do in single file, and turned on Ozawa later.

Unfortunately, acting defensively was never to Halsey’s taste. Moreover, he had again unquestioningly accepted exaggerated reports from his pilots and so believed the Northern Force was considerably stronger than was in fact the case. There was little excuse for Halsey’s error. He had been notified, for instance, that Ozawa had four battleships with him. Yet Intelligence reports had shown that there were only nine Japanese battleships in existence and seven of these had been located with Kurita or Nishimura. There could thus have been only two in the Northern Force and they had to be Hyuga and Ise with their limited armament – a fact confirmed by information that at least one had a flight deck aft. Incidentally, Intelligence had also revealed that the Japanese had long considered using this pair as decoys, so their presence should perhaps have raised some doubts in Halsey’s mind – as it did in that of Vice Admiral Lee for one. He therefore determined he would bring against it every gun and every aircraft he possessed. At 2022, without leaving even a picket destroyer to send warning of the approach of Central Force, the whole of Third Fleet raced after Ozawa – exactly as the Japanese had wanted.

Dawn on 25 October found another Japanese force apparently facing total destruction. Losses in action or operationally had left Ozawa’s Northern Force with just four Jills, a solitary Judy, nineteen Zero fighters and five Zero fighter-bombers – twenty-nine in all; whereas Vice Admiral Mitscher, to whom Halsey had at last delegated tactical command, controlled 214 Helldivers, 171 Avengers and 404 Hellcats, three of them survivors from Princeton. Shortly before 0600, a seemingly endless succession of aircraft began to leave the US carriers’ decks: first the Combat Air Patrol, next search-planes from Lexington, finally sixty-five Helldivers, fifty-five Avengers and sixty Hellcats coming from all three Task Groups with the record-breaking Commander David McCampbell acting as target co-ordinator.

At 0710, the scouts sighted the Japanese ships 145 miles distant heading northward and at about 0830, the first attack began. As the raiders appeared, Zuiho pulled out of formation to launch fifteen Zeros that gallantly rushed into action, downing one Avenger and damaging others before they were overwhelmed by the Hellcats. Nine Zeros were shot down; presumably the rest perished when their fuel was exhausted. The Americans met no further opposition in the air, though they were faced by a daunting barrage of AA fire that, rather surprisingly, claimed only ten victims during the course of the day. It seems, however, that it did help to spoil the attackers’ aim.

This first raid, though, achieved considerable success. The Helldivers from Lexington and Essex scored numerous bomb hits on light carrier Chitose that staggered to a halt, burning and listing, to sink at 0937. The Helldivers from Intrepid scored one hit on Zuiho but this did only minor damage. Intrepid’s torpedo-planes attacked Zuikaku, as did those from light carrier San Jacinto. She was hit aft, her speed reduced to 18 knots, her steering control so damaged that she had to be steered by hand, and her communications system wrecked, forcing Ozawa to transfer his flag to light cruiser Oyodo so that he could continue to exercise his command. A torpedo also hit destroyer Akitsuki which blew up and sank instantly. Akitsuki and three of the other destroyers then with Ozawa were big vessels of 2,700 tons. The Americans consistently reported them as light cruisers and Ozawa’s genuine light cruisers, Oyodo, Tama and Isuzu, as heavy cruisers – a further way in which the strength of the Northern Force was exaggerated.

Even as this assault was ending at about 1000, a second small raid began. Light cruiser Tama, struck by a torpedo, fell out of formation with her speed reduced to about 10 knots. Helldivers – they came from Lexington and Franklin – concentrated on light carrier Chiyoda, scoring three hits that left her dead in the water and on fire, while Hyuga, light cruiser Isuzu and two destroyers hovered round her trying to help. The Americans had now finally formed Task Force 34 under Lee, containing all six battleships, and sent it ahead of their carriers specifically to dispose of any cripples: the group around Chiyoda made splendid potential victims.

But Vice Admiral Lee would never get the opportunity to engage them. At 0822, as the first American formations were preparing to attack the Northern Force, a signal was received on Halsey’s flagship, battleship New Jersey. It had been sent off by Kinkaid an hour and a quarter earlier, its urgency was made clear by its being not in code but in plain English and its contents were horrifying: Japanese capital ships, confirmed in later signals as including four battleships and eight cruisers, were firing on Seventh Fleet’s escort carriers and threatening to penetrate to the vital beachhead in Leyte Gulf.

A whole series of appeals for aid followed from Kinkaid and the Seventh Fleet units under fire. Halsey ignored them. He did order McCain’s Group to help Seventh Fleet but McCain was further away than Halsey. Only at 1000, when he received a signal from Nimitz, demanding to know the whereabouts of Task Force 34 which Nimitz thought had been left to guard San Bernardino, did Halsey falter. After mulling over the situation for about an hour, he finally ordered Task Force 34 to go to the aid of Seventh Fleet. To give Lee air cover, he added Bogan’s Task Group – Intrepid, Cabot and Independence – to his strength.

Ironically enough, Halsey had now divided his command in the very manner that Lee and Bogan had wished him to do when the Northern Force was first discovered. He then split it up still further by forming a new Task Group consisting of his two fastest battleships, Iowa and his own New Jersey, with a small escort and sending this well ahead – ultimately 40 miles ahead – of Lee’s remaining four battleships and Bogan’s carriers. Third Fleet, with a fire-power greater than that of the entire Japanese Navy, was now outgunned by Ozawa in the north and outgunned by Kurita in the south.

Third Fleet’s overwhelming superiority in carrier-aircraft, by contrast, was employed by Mitscher with cool efficiency. Shortly before 1200, he launched the day’s third raid on Northern Force: some 200 warplanes from both his remaining Task Groups with Commander Hugh Winters from Lexington as target co-ordinator. On the way, some of Franklin’s aircraft attacked Hyuga and her escorts, doing no damage but persuading them to rejoin Ozawa. Chiyoda was left alone with her crew still on board – probably at their own request.

Reaching the main part of Northern Force at about 1310, Winters directed his men to attack in two waves. In the first, Helldivers from Essex and Langley scored several hits on Zuiho, starting fires that were, however, brought under control. The airmen from Lexington, together with a few from Langley, assaulted Zuikaku. She too was hit by bombs and in her case also by three torpedoes that struck her almost simultaneously, bringing her to a halt, burning and listing heavily. Winters then sent the aircraft from Enterprise, Franklin and San Jacinto against Zuiho. They scored more bomb hits, reducing her speed and causing her fires to spring up again, but she doggedly continued limping northward.

Zuikaku, though, had reached the end of her remarkable career. At 1414, quietly and without any explosion, the last of the carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbour rolled over and sank. Commander Winters, watching with triumph, not unmixed with a strange sense of regret, reported that she flew to the end ‘a battle flag of tremendous size, perhaps fifty feet square’ that her crew had hoisted to the masthead as a last defiant gesture.

Three more raids followed during the course of the afternoon. A small one from Lexington and Langley attacked at 1445, most of its pilots concentrating on Zuiho. They hit her with two more bombs and at last two torpedoes found their mark. The gallant little light carrier had also used up all her luck; she went down at 1526. The later attacks between them scored seven near misses on Hyuga and one hit and an astonishing thirty-four near misses on Ise, but both suffered only slight injuries.

Yet the Northern Force would still suffer further casualties. At 1625, a cruiser-destroyer force detached by Mitscher opened fire on Chiyoda. She promptly burst into a mass of flames and a towering column of smoke. At 1650, she capsized, sinking almost at once. The Americans continued their pursuit after dark and engaged three Japanese destroyers that had been searching for survivors; they sank the 2,700-ton Hatsutsuki. Also after dark damaged light cruiser Tama, limping home alone, was sunk with all hands by US submarine Jallao. Even so, despite the odds against them, ten of Ozawa’s ships made good their escape.

The decoys had carried out their difficult and dangerous task at less cost than either Toyoda or Ozawa had anticipated. It remained to be seen whether their unselfish valour had won the Battle of Leyte Gulf for the Japanese.