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.

No.311 Squadron (Czech) Coastal Command

At the end of April 1942 the squadron was transferred from Bomber Command to Coastal Command in to undertake maritime patrols. It moved to RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland on 28 April and began maritime patrol training on 1 May. The squadron was made part of No. 19 Group RAF, moved to RAF Talbenny in Wales on 12 June and undertook its first anti-submarine patrol on 30 June. Its Wellingtons lacked air to surface vessel (ASV) radar, but despite this between June 1942 and April 1943 the squadron achieved the highest success rate of any Coastal Command squadron.

Throughout July and August the squadron’s Wellingtons remained in Bomber Command’s Temperate Land Scheme camouflage: dark green and dark earth above, and black below. This was unsuitable for maritime patrols, but not until September 1942 were the aircraft repainted in Coastal Command’s Temperate Sea Scheme: dark slate grey and extra dark sea grey above, and white below.

In April 1943 the squadron was partly re-equipped with five Wellington Mark X aircraft. This could carry two torpedoes or 3,999 lb (1,814 kg) of bombs, but it was primarily a Bomber Command variant, not designed for maritime patrol work. Air Vice-Marshal Karel Janoušek, Inspector-General of the Czechoslovak Air Force, eventually convinced the UK Air Ministry to re-equip the squadron with Consolidated Liberator heavy bombers, as these had radar and a longer range, both of which made them more suitable for maritime patrols. Retraining flights began on 25 May and continued until August.

Towards the end of May 1943 squadron personnel began to move to Beaulieu in Hampshire, where the unit would begin its work-up on Liberators. Coastal Command had set up a training unit at Beaulieu (No. 1 Operational Training Unit) under the command of Sqn/Ldr Everest, to convert 311 Squadron onto the new aircraft. Both June and July were wholly taken up with conversion to the Liberator, thus no operational sorties were carried out. The Operational Training Unit had a number of Liberator Mk. III/IIIAs at its disposal; FK219 `9′, FK220 `3′, LV339 `4′, LV343 `12′, LV344 `8′ and LV342 `5’and they were later joined by two more Lib’ Mk. IIIs, FK215 and FK224 together with a Liberator Mk. V FL971 `7′ (Once the initial training of 311 Squadron had been completed the training unit moved to Aldergrove in September and eventually merged with 1674 Heavy Conversion Unit. Aircrew from the squadron were still undertaking training into at least October at Aldergrove using Liberators such as LV344 `8′. During the conversion period at Beaulieu, AVM Janousek paid a visit to observe the unit’s progress and the unit on parade he presented the CBE to Gp/Cpt Kubita. Life for the aircrews became a succession of training and operational exercises with rockets and bombs. Initially there were problems with the availability of aircraft, but by the end of July Liberators BZ773 `A’, BZ774 `D’, BZ775 `G’, BZ779 ‘J’, BZ782 `K’ and BZ785 `L’ were all in use. The additional aircraft allowed the training to be intensified, with special exercises being undertaken covering, familiarisation flying, navigation, bombing practice, air-to-air and air-to-sea firing, and with lectures and demonstrations being delivered if the weather was unfit for flying.

The month of August was to prove hugely significant for the squadron and it began on a proud and confident note. The unit hosted a visit from a number of high ranking individuals, who attended the celebrations on the 4th of the month, commemorating the third anniversary of the squadron’s foundation. The President Dr Beneš; the Minister of National Defence General Sergej Ingr; The Minister for Foreign Affairs Jan Masaryk; The Czechoslovak Liaison Officer at Coastal Command Gp/Cpt Kubita all attended together with the AOC Coastal Command AM Slessor and the AOC 19 Gp Coastal Command, AVM Bromet. The squadron paraded and a memorable time was had by all. By the middle of the month the squadron was deemed ready to resume operational status and the first anti-submarine sweep was organised. This took place on the 21st and involved the two crews of the Commanding Officer, Wg/Cdr Jindřich Breitcetl and Sqn/Ldr Václav Korda. Unfortunately the start of the new phase was to be marred, Breitcetl’s Liberator failed to return from the sweep. At the time the reason for the disappearance of Liberator BZ780 ‘O’ was not known, but it was thought to have been lost in combat with enemy long range fighters over the Bay of Biscay. German records appear to indicate that the Liberator was shot down by a group of Me.IIO fighters from 4ZG1 about 120 miles north west of Brest at approximately 1820 hours. Fw. Lothar Uhlig carried out two attacks on the Lib’ and was apparently credited with the victory. A second Me.IIO (No.6406 SG+GN) from the unit failed to return to base and it is thought that it may have been shot down by the Liberator’s gunners. The German airmen Uffz Georg Planer and Uffz Horst Hofman are listed as missing on this date. Amongst the crew of BZ780 was Air Gunner W/O Vilém Jakš , a pre-war boxer of international repute. The others listed as missing were second pilot Flt/Lt František Fencl, navigator P/O Eduard Pavelka, gunners P/O Emilián Mrázek, F/Sgt Josef Halada, Sgt Josef Felkl and wireless operator Sgt Michal Pizur.

This tragic event was not allowed to affect the unit’s routine and Sqn/Ldr Vladimír Nedvěd (who would shortly be appointed as the squadron’s next commanding officer) took off with F/O Karel Schoř and his crew in Liberator BZ779 ‘J’ at ten minutes after six the next morning, to carry out a morale boosting patrol. It was the aircraft’s first operational patrol. During the sweep a submerging U-Boat was sighted, but the Liberator was not in a position to attack before the submarine disappeared. The aircraft returned to Beaulieu later in the day having carried out a patrol of eleven hours and twenty minutes duration. Further tragedies were in store before the end of the month, almost certainly due in no small measure to lack of familiarity with the new aircraft. On the 29th F/O Adolf Musálek perished with his crew when Liberator BZ775 ‘G’ failed to gain height, struck trees and crashed on take-off for an operational patrol. The subsequent investigation came to the conclusion that insufficient runway had been used before the pilot attempted to get airborne with the fully loaded aircraft. The Liberator burst into flames on impacting with the ground and all eight crew members died in the inferno (pilot F/O Adolf Musálek, second pilot Sgt Stanislav Jelínek, navigator Flt/Lt Bruno Babš and wireless operator/gunners Sgt Eduard Blaháček, Sgt Hanuš Polak and Sgt Jiří Rubín together with gunners F/O Miroslav Čtvrtlík and Sgt Václav Blahna). On the 29th of August F/O Metoděj Šebela and his crew, had to divert to Gibraltar following engine trouble while on patrol in Liberator BZ779 ‘J’. They were forced to throw surplus equipment overboard to rid themselves of unnecessary weight, managing to reach Gibraltar with only 70 gallons of fuel remaining. The Lutwaffe were again making their presence felt on the 30th of August, when P/O Josef Stach and his crew in Liberator FL948 ‘M’ were attacked at 1100 hours by a Ju.88 in position 45.28N 08.32W. The Ju.88 opened fire from 500 yards and closed on the Liberator. In all the Liberator was hit some twenty times and the gunners became involved in a protracted duel with the fighter. Their gunnery was of the highest standard and the engines of the Ju.88 were set on fire and it crashed into the sea at 45.48N 09.32W. During the fight the mid-upper gunner (Sgt František Benedikt) had fired 750 rounds and the rear gunner (Sgt František Skalík) 600 rounds. During the fifteen minute combat one of the beam gunners Sgt Andrej Šimek (it was his first operational flight) was killed, although the rest of the crew were unharmed. The Ju.88 was probably Ju.88C-6 No.750399 (F8+FX) of 13/KG40 crewed by Uffz E Itzegehl, Uffz U Lentz and Gefr H Hobusch, all of whom are recorded as missing. Later on the same day, Flt/Lt Emil Palichleb’s Liberator BZ785 ‘L’ crashed and burst into flames, causing the death of all on board (Flt/Lt Emil Palichleb, Sgt Josef Bittner, Sgt Zdeněk Řezáč, Sgt Theodor Schwarz and Sgt Emil Szeliga). The aircraft stalled off a steep turn close to the base during a practice evasion flight and crashed at 1542 hours. It spun into the ground from a height of around 1,000 feet and came to earth at Dilton Copse, near Brockenhurst. It was thought that the aircraft had exceeded the normal all up weight laid down by flight limitations and that this together with poor handling had contributed to the crash. By the end of the month the squadron had carried out ten operations, 21 sorties and covered 31,000 nautical miles in some 200 hours of operational flying.

Life throughout September was fairly quiet, although a number of fighter affiliation exercises were conducted with 310 (Czech) Squadron Spitfires, which was based at nearby Ibsley. A parade was held on the 15th at which the CO Wg/Cdr Nedvěd was decorated with the DFC by the AOC 19 Group. Wg/Cdr Nedvěd had some additional excitement the next day (the 16th). He and his crew were on patrol from early morning having taken off at 0653 hours in Liberator BZ779 ‘J’, when they sighted a U-Boat. Unfortunately they were unable to get into an attacking position before the submarine dived to safety. The aircraft returned to base after a patrol lasting ten hours and forty three minutes. Things got a good deal ‘hotter’ on the 27th September when P/O Jan Irving in newly delivered Liberator BZ786 ‘G’, attacked an unidentified U-Boat shortly before 1115 hours. The submarine appeared to have escaped and no indications of damage were seen. Irving made sure that a sea marker was dropped at the scene. Some time later at 1520 hours, a periscope was sighted at position 49.30N 09.45W and again Irving went into the attack. On this occasion rocket projectiles were fired (believed to be the first time they had been used by an aircraft of the squadron on a submarine. BZ786 had external rocket rails fitted to the forward fuselage, carrying eight 60lb rockets with armour piercing warheads). Three to four minutes after the attack oil began to rise to the surface, spreading rapidly along the submarine’s track. After ten minutes of circling the Liberator had reached its ‘prudent limit of endurance’ (PLE) and the captain decided to head for home. At that time the oil patch had ceased to move forward, but was still spreading. All the indications were that the U-Boat was either sunk or severely damaged. At the end of the month the squadron had accomplished 26 operations with 54 sorties and had covered approximately 87,000 nautical miles in 560 hours of operational flying.

The Liberator’s ability to defend itself was severely tested on at least two occasions in October 1943. F/Sgt Josef Kuhn was at the controls of Liberator BZ779 ‘J’, when the aircraft was attacked by four Ju.88s in position 47.28N 10.17W. The enemy fighters were first sighted at a distance of three miles and they changed formation into ‘line astern’ in readiness to carry out a series of attacks on the Liberator. The first of the Junkers opened fire from a distance of 1,000 yards and together with the others closed in on the Lib’. Kuhn continually corkscrewed the aircraft to present as small and as difficult a target as possible to his attackers. The gunners wreathed in cordite fumes returned fire at every possible opportunity. The aircraft suffered considerable damage; the radar was put out of action and fuel and hydraulic tanks were holed and leaking. Several of the crew were wounded; Sgt Alois Matýsek, the radar operator, had splinter wounds in his leg and shoulder; F/Sgt František Veverka, one of the gunners, had splinter wounds in his leg and face (he had been wounded firstly when manning the rear turret and had moved to the starboard beam gun where he was wounded for the second time). Regardless of his injuries he continued to engage the enemy fighters throughout. One of the enemy fighters was claimed as damaged, probably shot down. The aircraft in question was probably JU.88C-6 No.750434 of KG40, which was listed as missing. The missing crew members were Oblt G Christner, Few E Leubner and Uffz A Knefel. After the attack Kuhn managed to nurse the Liberator back to the airfield at St. Eval for a ‘no flaps’ landing on the nose wheel and one main wheel. Both Kuhn and Veverka were to later receive the DFM in recognition of the courage and skill that they displayed during the incident. On the 23rd it was the turn of P/O Josef Stach to come under attack this time from seven enemy fighters! Liberator BZ774 ‘D’ was bounced at 1315 hours in position 45.00N 10.08W. The gunners put up a spirited defence and the German airmen soon realised that they had picked on a rather tough adversary. During the 45 minute combat that followed, one of the enemy fighters was claimed as shot down and two damaged. Stach manoeuvred the Liberator masterfully and despite the efforts of the enemy fighters the aircraft was not damaged and none of the crew were injured. An exhausted and thankful crew reached base after a flight lasting over 12 hours. This was another classic instance that served to emphasise the squadron’s motto ‘Never Regard their Numbers’. No matter what the odds the airmen of 311 were always ready to give battle. Stach was later to receive the DFC in recognition of his piloting skills. Despite the outside interference, the squadron carried out 23 operations and 54 sorties in 550 hours and covered 86,000 nautical miles during the month.

On 26 May 1943 the squadron moved to RAF Beaulieu in Hampshire. On 4 August it celebrated its third anniversary. Guests again included President Beneš and Foreign Minister Masaryk. They included also General Sergej Ingr, who had succeeded General Hasal-Nižborský as Defence Minister, and the head of Coastal Command, Air Marshal John Slessor.

On 21 August 1943 the squadron began maritime patrols with Consolidated Liberator GR Mk V aircraft and continued anti-submarine work, but now over the Bay of Biscay. On 10 November Liberator BZ774/D, led by Flt Sgt Otto Žanta, attacked German submarine U-966 with rocket projectiles (RP’s) off the Galician coast. The submarine ran aground and her crew abandoned her.

On 27 December 1943 Liberator BZ796/H, led by Plt Off Oldřich Doležal, attacked the German blockade runner Alsterufer in the Bay of Biscay. Doležal’s crew set the cargo ship on fire with five RP’s and a 500 lb (230 kg) bomb, and she sank the next day.

In February 1944 the squadron was re-equipped with nine Liberator C Mk VI aircraft.[5][28] On 23 February it moved to RAF Predannack in Cornwall. On 24 June Liberator FL961/O led by Fg Off Jan Vella, along with the Tribal-class destroyers HMS Eskimo and HMCS Haida, attacked and sank U-971 just west of the English Channel.

On 7 August 1944 the squadron transferred to RAF Tain in Scotland[31] and its area of operations changed from the Bay of Biscay and Western Approaches to the North Sea. In September its rôle was changed from day to night anti-submarine patrols. On 27 October Fleet Air Arm aircraft from HMS Implacable damaged U-1060, forcing her to run aground on the coast of German-occupied Norway. Two days later two 311 Squadron Liberators, FL949/Y led by Fg Off Josef Pavelka and BZ723/H led by Sqn Ldr Alois Šedivý, damaged the grounded submarine with salvos of RP’s. Later two Halifax heavy bombers of No. 502 Squadron RAF finished off U-1060 with depth charges.

In February 1945 the squadron was re-equipped, again with Liberator C Mk VI aircraft but now equipped with anti-submarine Leigh Lights. In March the entire squadron took part in the “Chilli-II” and “Chilli-III” raids on German submarine training areas in the Baltic.

Grave of Sgt Rudolf Scholz in St John’s parish churchyard, Stoke Row, Oxfordshire. Sholz was the flight engineer of Liberator IV EV995 when it crashed on the beach at Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland, on 10 April 1945. Six of its crew were killed and three injured.

311 Squadron was with Coastal Command for 38 months, in which time it flew 2,111 sorties. By the end of the war 247 of its men had been killed, either in combat or in accidents. 33 of its members were released from German prisoner-of-war camps. One PoW, Plt Off Arnošt Valenta, was murdered by the Gestapo in March 1944 for taking part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III.

LINK

Cold War Submarine Warfare I

Submarines played a significant role in the Cold War (1947–91), particularly as the development of nuclear weapons and platforms to deliver them introduced the ballistic missile submarine into the fleets of the United States, the Soviet Union, and then to other powers. With the concept of a submarine surfacing in close enough proximity to launch missiles without sufficient warning to evacuate the civilian leadership of a country, or to conduct a preemptive assault, submarine warfare by necessity also involved fast attack craft to hunt and stop ballistic boats from getting too close. Missions to shadow surface fleets, infiltrate enemy harbors and ports, conduct espionage and intelligence gathering, and the development of new technologies to intercept communications, listen for enemy boats with greater ability to detect and track them, and to build deeper, faster, and deadlier submarines defined the Cold War beneath the waves. Among the missions were early penetrations of the Black Sea, then a Soviet Mare Clausum, in early 1947, and the waters off Vladivostok in 1952 during the Korean War by wartime diesel boats, US submarine surveillance of Soviet atomic testing off Novaya Zemlya, deployment of divers to tap into Soviet seabed cables, shadowing and photographing Soviet submarines, and the mapping off the Arctic coast of the Soviet Union. A deadly Cold War game of cat-and-mouse ensued, with the Soviets losing four of their boats, K-129, K-8, K-219, and Komsomolets and the US losing two, USS Thresher and USS Scorpion as various missions pushed some boats beyond their capacity and tragic accidents occurred. The May 15, 1968, loss of Scorpion, still classified by the US Government as “cause unknown,” is widely believed to be “the first premeditated sinking of a US submarine since World War II,” a retaliatory act by the Soviet Union in the belief that an American submarine had collided with and sank the Golf II boat K-129 in the Pacific on March 8, 1968. Even without any verified combat, the Cold War exacted a human price. There were other submarine-caused casualties and submarine losses during the Cold War period, three British submarines, Truculent, Affray, and Sidon and the Israeli submarine Dakar are among the more famous losses. Truculent was sunk in 1950 as the result of a collision with a Swedish oil tanker in the Thames Estuary, while Sidon was lost in 1955 due to an explosion of a test torpedo on board. Both Affray and Dakar were sunk with all hands and were not recovered for some time. Affray was lost during a simulated war mission in 1951 and was not found for two months, while Dakar sunk in 1968 due to what has now believed to be a ruptured hull, but was missing for over 30 years. Even after the Cold War, the Russian Navy lost the nuclear submarine Kursk in a tragic training accident that claimed all of its crew. The Kursk tragedy unfolded during naval maneuvers in the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000. During preparations to fire a torpedo, an explosion at the bow was followed by a second, larger explosion. The first explosion is believed to have been caused by a faulty hydrogen peroxide fueled torpedo followed by a secondary detonation of additional torpedoes which demolished the bow and sank the submarine. Coming to rest in 354 feet of water, the sunken Kursk became the center of a protracted drama as Russian authorities refused to accept international help to rescue any surviving crew out of the 118 men aboard. It was later determined that 23 men had survived in an aft compartment but were tragically lost.

After salvors raised Kursk, in aft compartment number nine, the body of Captain-Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov, commander of the seventh compartment, was found with notes he had written after the disaster and as he and the others faced their deaths. Kolesnikov’s last words were powerful, poignant, and brave:

It’s dark here to write, but I’ll try by feel. It seems there are no chances, 10–20 percent. Let’s hope that at least someone will read this. Here’s the list of personnel from the other sections, who are now in the 9th and will attempt to get out. Regards to everybody, no need to be desperate.

Kolsenikov’s last note also included a message to his wife; “Olichka, I love you. Don’t suffer too much. My regards to GV [his mother-in-law] and regards to mine.”

The submarine also exacted a toll on other vessels during the Cold War and afterward. During the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971, the French-designed Pakistani submarine Hangor under the command of Ahmed Tasnim sank the Indian frigate Khakri on November 22, 1971, the first submarine kill since World War II, and the former Tench-class Indian Navy submarine Ghazi sank during the war through circumstances that remain disputed. The British submarine HMS Conqueror, under the command of Commander Chris Wreford-Brown sank the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War on May 2, 1982, the first and currently the only wartime attack by a nuclear submarine. The most recent likely submarine attack came on March 26, 2010, when the South Korean corvette Cheonan exploded and sank, killing 46 of its crew. After raising the sunken craft, South Korean officials stated that a North Korean submarine had sunk Cheonan, and displayed the remains of a homing torpedo recovered from the wreck site, releasing a report from a panel of foreign experts. North Korea angrily denied any complicity in the sinking, and the matter remains controversial.

By the end of the Cold War in 1991, submarines prowled the oceans of the world at depth, silently waiting for coded orders to unleash enough atomic firepower to wipe all life off the surface of the planet. While a number of stories have emerged about the Cold War nuclear boats, the men who commanded and crewed them, and the various missions they undertook, many more stories and details remain secret and shrouded in mystery, and only the opening of top-secret archives will allow for a final accounting of this period of submarine development and operations. Cold War submariner and author W. Craig Reed sees this period as one in which American submarines prevailed due to leadership, superior training, and technology, despite the US submarine force being “greatly outnumbered by the Soviets, with only 123 submarines pitted against nearly three times that number.” By the time the Cold War ended, Soviet technology had caught up, and as Reed has noted, if the Cold War had continued, it might have in time had a different conclusion.

In the first decades of the 21st century, other powers have acquired nuclear submarines, other nations retain diesel-electric fleets, including some nuclear powers, and a submarine arms race quietly continues around the globe in the face of ongoing regional and international tension.

The nuclear submarine

The US Navy had designed a new submarine, the Tang class, to replace the fleet boat, but budget constraints limited production even as the Soviets raced to build up their own fleet of modern fast diesel-electric submarines. Experiments with the Walter propulsion system determined, just as British experiments had, that the hydrogen peroxide system was not ideal, nor was any other form of diesel-electric propulsion. The concept of a nuclear-powered boat, first envisioned in 1939 and more firmly pursued by naval visionaries, excited a number of submarine proponents, among them Admiral Charles Lockwood, a veteran commander of Pacific submarines in World War II, who later recalled a meeting about the concept:

If I live to be a hundred, I shall never forget that meeting on March 28, 1946, in a large Bureau of Ships conference room, its walls lined with blackboards which, in turn, were covered by diagrams, blueprints, figures, and equations … used to illustrate various points as he [Philip Abelson, a brilliant physicist whose work helped pave the way for naval nuclear reactors] read from his document, the first ever submitted anywhere on nuclear powered subs. It sounded like something out of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

By late 1947, the idea had received the support of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who wrote a secret memorandum to the Secretary of Defense arguing that:

The most secure means of carrying out an offensive submarine mission against an enemy is by the use of a true submarine, that is one that can operate submerged for very long periods of time and is able to make high submerged speeds … it is important that the Navy initiate action with [a] view to prompt development, design, and construction of a nuclear powered submarine.

Following various stages of approval, the Navy pursued the plans for a nuclear submarine beginning in 1948. By 1949, the plans had progressed to the point where two designs, one to test the ideal hull form for high speeds, and the other to test a naval reactor, were ready for trials.

The hull form test boat, designed by the Bureau of Ships under submarine veteran Admiral Charles B. Momsen, was a return to some of the basic concepts that John Holland had advanced at the beginning of the century – a sleek craft with minimal superstructure, a single propeller, stern planes to make it dive, and a rudder aft of the screw – the final design of USS Holland. That basic form was adopted and updated in the experimental submarine USS Albacore. Laid down at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, navy yard between 1950 and 1953, Albacore was built with a new, low-carbon steel known as HY-80. Commissioned in December 1953, it was tested and modified as a result through 1961, before being retired and ultimately decommissioned in 1972. Albacore’s design and tests paved the way for the Skipjack class of nuclear attack submarines, which made submerged speeds of more than 25 knots and could dive to greater depths thanks to the improved steel; Navy designers had been seeking submarines capable of dives up to 1,000ft.

The first nuclear-powered US submarine was USS Nautilus, its design emerging from years of study and proposals. The first step was the development of a prototype reactor for the ship, which emerged from the work of a team led by an energetic if not hard-driving and intense, at times eccentric, engineering officer, Captain Hyman G. Rickover. Disregarding protocol and the “way things are done,” Rickover relentlessly assumed strong control of the research program, and ordered simultaneous development not only of the submarine’s hull in advance of testing its yet to be developed propulsion system, but also of two simultaneous prototype reactors. He also insisted “that the Mark 1 [and Mark 2] reactor be both an engineering prototype and a shipboard prototype, completely sized to fit a submarine’s hull.” This approach would cost engineering flexibility, but with it Rickover could speed up the development schedule.

The reactors were completed and tested at an Atomic Energy Commission facility in the desert outside Arco, Idaho, and on June 25, 1953, the Mark 1 reactor reached its full power level. Not content with a limited test, Rickover insisted that the reactor run for the duration of a cross-Atlantic voyage. Meanwhile, the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics laid the keel of the submarine on June 12, 1952, at its Groton, Connecticut, yard, with the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, officiating. On January 21, 1954, the First Lady of the United States, Mamie Eisenhower, christened the submarine with an obvious and fitting name, Nautilus. Measuring 323ft 9in in length with a 27ft 9in beam, USS Nautilus displaced 3,533 tons. The submarine could dive deep, and run at 23 knots indefinitely either surfaced or submerged – its endurance, thanks to its reactor, was limited by the amount of supplies it could carry for the crew. With its sealed pressurized water reactor (PWR), it was roomier than wartime boats, and had amenities such as air-conditioning (a necessity given the high heat of the reactor-heated steam plant), better berthing, and Coca-Cola and ice-cream machines, as well as a jukebox that played with a nickel. On January 17, 1955, USS Nautilus put to sea for the first time, her commander sending an historic message, “Underway on nuclear power.” A new era – the era of the first true submarines, craft capable of diving deep and remaining there, capable of circling the globe, and of penetrating to the top of the world, beneath the Arctic ice – had dawned. Jules Verne’s dream had at last come true. Nautilus’ 25-year career saw it break existing records for submarine endurance and speed, and on August 3, 1958, it became the first submarine to penetrate the Arctic ice-pack and reach the North Pole, where Captain William Anderson sent an historic signal, “Nautilus 90 North.” Anderson would later write that, “I stood for a moment in silence, awestruck at what Nautilus had achieved. She had blazed a new submerged northwest passage, vastly decreasing the sea-travel time for nuclear submarines from the Atlantic to the Pacific… Nautilus had opened a new era, completely conquered the vast, inhospitable Arctic.”

Cold War Submarine Warfare II

For a short time, Nautilus was the world’s only nuclear-powered submarine. Admiral Rickover noted that, “Nautilus did not mark the end of a technological road. It marked the beginning. It should be compared with the first airplane that flew at Kitty Hawk. It marks the beginning of technological revolution at sea.” Another Cold War submarine mission also demonstrated the age of the submarine had arrived. USS Triton (SSN-586), commissioned in 1959, was the only dual-reactor American nuclear submarine. Built as a radar picket to perform electronic surveillance and radar screening in advance of a surface fleet, the 447-foot long, 5,963-ton Triton was built not only to be the largest US submarine up to that time, but also fast. On its trials, Triton exceeded 30 knots. It was not speed, however, that distinguished Triton, but under the command of veteran submariner Edward L. “Ned” Beach, Jr., Triton made history on its shakedown cruise when it embarked on a submerged cruise around the world.

While the mission commenced as a Top Secret exercise codenamed Operation Sandblast, the Navy’s intention was to publicize the feat after the voyage. Departing on February 15, 1960, on what was billed as a transatlantic crossing, Triton submerged and followed the track of 16th century navigator Ferdinand Magellan for 36,102 nautical miles for the next 60 days and 21 hours. In addition to completing the world’s first completely submerged circumnavigation, Beach and his crew collected oceanographic data and made history, a fact that the commander, as a naval historian and author in his own right, was well aware of in his dedication of the voyage:

The sea may yet hold the key to the salvation of man and his civilization. That the world may better understand this, the Navy directed a submerged retrace of Ferdinand Magellan’s historic circumnavigation. The honor of doing it fell to the Triton, but it has been a national accomplishment; for the sinews and the power which make up our ship, the genius which designed her, the thousands and hundreds of thousands who labored, each at his own metier, in all parts of the country, to build her safe, strong, self-reliant, are America. Triton, a unit of their Navy, pridefully and respectfully dedicates this voyage to the people of the United States.

The intended recipient of the message of Triton’s voyage – and America’s submarine prowess – was the Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, a fact underscored by headlines like that of the Hartford, Connecticut, Courant of May 15, 1960, “Triton’s 83-day Odyssey Should Give Reds Chills.” While that message was overshadowed by the downing of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union and the capture of its pilot, the successful completion of the voyage of USS Triton earned Captain Beach a Legion of Merit, personally awarded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower after a dramatic helicopter trip that plucked Beach off Triton for a fast trip to the White House for the ceremony before returning him to the submarine. In addition to Beach’s medal, Triton and its crew were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

Demonstrations of Nautilus, Triton, and their immediate successors, USS Seawolf, Skate, and Skipjack, proved the concept of the nuclear submarine to allies, notably Britain, which had previously studied reactor designs but had set its own project aside in 1952. The UK now acquired an American reactor (of the type used in the Skipjack class) for its first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, which was launched from Vickers Armstrong shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness on October 21, 1960, by Queen Elizabeth II. An all-British reactor and submarine followed with HMS Valiant. Like Nautilus, Dreadnought had a distinguished career, including surfacing at the North Pole on March 3, 1971. Laid down at roughly the same time as Nautilus, Dreadnought was succeeded by the two-boat Valiant class and then Polaris-carrying Resolution class, part of a nuclear club that by 1980 included 14 other British, five French, 115 American, and 170 Soviet nuclear submarines.

With the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, inaugurated a nuclear submarine program that culminated in the Project 627 (NATO codename November) class boats. Between 1957 and 1962, the Soviets launched 14 variants of the class, with a series of achievements – long-range missions, silent tracking of US surface warships, and submarine K-3, “Leninskiy Komsomol,” reaching the North Pole in July 1962. Other classes followed, with the Soviets ultimately building a diverse and powerful fleet of larger, harder-hitting boats – hunter-killers, such as the Victor, Sierra, Akula, and Alfa classes, guided missile boats like the Echo, Charlie, and Oscar classes, and submarines carrying ballistic missiles such as the Hotel, Yankee, Delta, and Typhoon classes. The NATO-codenamed Typhoon, project 941 “Akula” (not to be confused with the NATO-named submarine) was not only the largest Soviet submarine, but also the largest submarine class built in the world with a surfaced displacement of 24,110 tons, a length of 574ft, and a beam of 675ft 6in. Built with multiple pressure hulls enclosed within one massive outer hull, the six Typhoon boats were designed to carry a 163-man crew for missions of 180 days and longer, if needed, and were specially designed for Arctic service. In addition to torpedoes and cruise missiles, the Typhoons were built to also carry 20 missiles, each missile with 10 MIRVs in tubes forward of the sail.12 While a technical triumph, the cost of these submarines and their weapons were ruinous, with one Soviet submarine designer noting that “such ill-considered decisions, which were lobbied by the definite industrial circles, undermined the economy of the USSR and contributed to the loss [of] the Cold War.” The economic cost of the Soviet submarine program, including the Typhoons, was staggering. During the Cold War, the United States built 191 submarines, while the Soviets completed 661.

While not all of the Typhoons survived the end of the Cold War, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, two of these behemoths remain in service in the fleet of the Russian Navy. In addition to the gigantic Typhoons, the Soviet Union also built two small experimental submarines for coastal incursions and special operations in the 1980s. The Project 865 “Piranha” or Losos submarines MS-520 and MS-521, which displace 218 tons surfaced and are 93ft long, define the other end of the Soviet submarine spectrum.

The concept of nuclear deterrence included a decision by the US to make the submarine the ultimate deterrent, with nuclear-powered craft capable of remaining submerged, on constant patrol, armed with nuclear missiles that could be launched from the deep. Submarines launching a Regulus on the surface were exposed to attack, whereas submarines firing a missile while submerged were less vulnerable. What followed the cruise missile program in close order was the construction of a new type of missile together with a new type of submarine to carry it, the strategic ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). That missile, an A-1 Polaris, was a solid-fuel ballistic missile developed between 1956 and 1960 by Lockheed. With a 1,000 nautical mile range, the 28-foot long two-stage missile carried a 600-kiloton warhead.

The submarine-launched ballistic nuclear missile

The first test firing of a submarine-launched ballistic nuclear missile was the launch of a Polaris by USS George Washington, on July 20, 1960. The successful launch was reported in a coded message to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower; “Polaris – from out of the deep to target. Perfect.” George Washington again made submarine history when it departed from Charleston, South Carolina, on November 15, 1960, on its first nuclear deterrence cruise. In the words of Admiral I. J. Galantin, that was when “sea-based ballistic missile deterrence became a reality.” The Cold War in submarines was defined in part by the nature of such a cruise; “Once in deep water, the ship proceeded submerged to an area in the North Atlantic from which the arching trajectories of her missiles could reach targets far inside Russia’s borders. As she roamed randomly and silently within a sea area the size of Texas, no one ashore, not even her operational commander, Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Command, could know exactly where she was at any time.”

The cruise of USS George Washington lasted 67 days and 10 hours, all of them submerged. The Cold War submarine had become more than the ultimate deterrent; it was a true submarine, operating in the depths, as Admiral Galantin noted, with only one dive and one surfacing. Over the course of the Cold War, thousands of strategic deterrence patrols, as well as barrier patrols and surveillance patrols followed the first missile cruise of George Washington. The five George Washington class of submarines, built between 1957 and 1961, were 381ft long boats that carried 16 Polaris missiles in a 130ft compartment known to their crews as “Sherwood Forest.” They remained in service into the 1980s, with the Navy decommissioning the last boat in 1986.

The George Washington class was followed by the Ethan Allen class, the first American ballistic missile submarines designed and built as such from the keel up, since the George Washington class were essentially Skipjack-class attack boats with the missile compartment added on. The United States built 41 variations of the Ethan Allen boats as the Lafayette, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin classes. Carrying Polaris A-2 missiles, and later fitted with Poseidon and Trident missiles, these boats, collectively known as the “41 for Freedom,” served between the 1960s and the beginning of the 21st century. The 41s were phased out in favor of the Ohio class, a group of 18 boats built by General Dynamics Electric Boat between 1976 and 1996. The Ohios, the largest American submarines yet built, are 560ft long, with a 42ft beam, and displace 16,499 tons surfaced. Built for speed, rapid replenishment, and 100-day patrols, the Ohios do not remain in port for long. Designed to deliver 24 Trident missiles, the Ohio class is the current ultimate submarine nuclear deterrent of the United States, with 14 of the class carrying upgraded Trident II missiles, each missile with up to eight multiple independent reentry vehicle warheads (MIRVs). Four of the class were modified to carry vertically launched Tomahawk cruise missiles (which can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads). Collectively, it is claimed that the Ohios can carry up to half of the United States’ nuclear warheads.

As with the attack boats, the Soviets countered with their own ballistic missile submarines, at first with diesel boats in 1962 and then with the nuclear-powered Yankee class in 1968. Other powers also joined the submarine nuclear “club” – France in 1971 and China in 1974, each introducing ballistic nuclear missile boats respectively in 1971 and 1987. Britain took its first nuclear missiles to sea in 1967 with HMS Resolution, which was quickly followed by three sister boats, Repulse, Renown, and Revenge, all armed with US-provided Polaris missiles.

Enter the U-Class

Malta had already become an offensive base for the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force; in 1941 it became a base for submarines. This was not without its difficulties, since most of the necessary supplies had been taken to Alexandria, but submarines operated from Gibraltar to Malta overloaded with torpedoes and other equipment until stocks were built up. Submarines were also set to become an important link in the attempts to supply Malta.

Throughout 1941, Malta continued to develop its offensive capability, helped in February by the arrival of the first of a new class of submarines, the U-class, while Grand Harbour also was the base for four destroyers. The destroyers were more powerful ships than earlier classes, marking the continuing evolution of the destroyer from the relatively small torpedo-boat destroyer of the early years of the century to a ship with broader potential, and included the ‘J’-class fleet destroyers, HMS Janus and Jervis, and the Tribal-class fleet destroyers Mohawk and Nubian.

The clear waters of the Mediterranean had proved fatal for larger submarines, but the new U-class of smaller submarines was better suited to the Mediterranean, and of these, nine were deployed to Malta; Undaunted, Union, Upholder, Upright, Utmost, Unique, Urge, Ursula and Usk. The first two, Usk and Undaunted, nevertheless, did not survive long, but their place was soon taken by others of the same class. In addition to attacking Axis convoys and warships, these submarines were also ideal for landing raiding parties on the Italian coast, and on one occasion wrecked a railway line along which trains carrying munitions for the Luftwaffe bases in Sicily travelled.

The submarines were based at Manoel Island, which lay in the Marsamxett Harbour and was approached by a causeway just off the main road to Sliema, the island effectively dividing Sliema Creek from Lazzaretto Creek. Originally a fort designed to protect the outskirts of Valletta, which towered over the other side of the harbour, Manoel Island was now a naval base, with workshops and accommodation for resting submariners and for the artificers, the Royal Navy’s skilled tradesmen. The submarines were moored alongside. Substantial AA defences were placed on Manoel Island, but being on the other side of Valletta from Grand Harbour did not spare the base from heavy aerial attack, and at the worst of the raids, the submarines found it safer to rest on the bottom, fully submerged.

The Malta-based submarines and Swordfish embarked on a campaign to sever the Axis supply lines between Italy and North Africa. The favoured hunting ground for the submarine commanders was the area off the Kerkenah Bank, even though it was heavily mined and contained many natural hazards to safe navigation. On the plus side, the Italians could only listen using hydrophones, but had nothing as effective as the British sonar, known at the time as Asdic, and also lacked radar. The campaign started in February 1941 with offensive patrols by Unique, Upright and Utmost. The first significant operation was in late February, when Upright, commanded by Lieutenant E. D. Norman, sunk the Italian cruiser Armando Diaz, one of two cruisers escorting a large German convoy. No doubt the Italians had committed two cruisers to this role to put on a show for their allies, but there were no major British warships in the area, and the cruiser, which posed no threat at all to a submarine, proved an ideal target. The effect on British and Maltese morale can be imagined!

Reconnaissance reports of large-scale shipping movements, received on 8 March, resulted in these three boats being sent to sea, even though Utmost, commanded by Lieutenant Commander C. D. Caylet, had only been in harbour for twenty-four hours. Despite this, the following day, Utmost found and sank the Italian merchantman Capo Vita. On 10 March, Unique sank another merchantman, the Fenicia. Later in the month, these submarines were at sea again, with Utmost finding a convoy of five ships on 28 March, and torpedoing and sinking the Heraklia while the Ruhr had to be towed into port. The return voyage for the depleted convoy was no less eventful, when Upright torpedoed and severely damaged the Galilea, reported as being a straggler.

April saw Upholder join the flotilla, and for almost a year she, and her commander, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, played havoc with the Axis convoys. From April 1941 to March 1942, this one submarine accounted for three large troop-carrying liners each of more than 18,000 tons, seven other merchant ships, a destroyer and two German U-boats, as well as damaging a further cruiser and three merchant ships. The first two troop-carrying liners had been in a convoy of three approached by Wanklyn steering on the surface, who then skilfully fired a spread of four torpedoes at the ships. Two of the troopships managed to zigzag into the path of the torpedoes, with one sinking immediately, leaving the other to be finished off by Wanklyn when he returned the following morning. Ursula missed the third troopship, which managed to reach Tripoli safely. For his time in the Mediterranean, Wanklyn was awarded both the Victoria Cross, the highest British service decoration, and the DSO. It was a sad day when Upholder was lost off Tripoli with all of her crew in April 1942.

For a period of about a year, the Malta-based submariners exacted a high price from the enemy, but opportunities could be missed. Probably more than any other type of warship, submarines need to practise ‘deconfliction’, largely because of the difficulty of recognizing other submarines. ‘Deconfliction’ is the deliberate separation of friendly forces. In British submarine practice, this meant placing submarines to operate independently within designated patrol zones known as billets, and any other submarine found in that area was to be regarded as hostile. Yet, off Malta there were often so many British submarines that it was necessary to impose an embargo on night attacks on other submarines because of the difficulty in accurate recognition.

During the early hours of one morning in 1942, HMS Upright was on the surface when her lookouts spotted another larger submarine on a reciprocal course, and it was not until they passed that they realized that the other submarine was a large U-boat. A missed opportunity! Of course, there were many U-boats off Malta at the time, and no one will ever know if the Germans were working to the same rules, or whether their lookouts failed to spot the smaller British submarine!

The Magic Carpet

The idea of using submarines to carry supplies was not new – it dated from the First World War when the Germans had established a company to operate merchant submarines to bring much needed strategic materials from the United States and bypass the increasingly effective British blockade of German ports. The siege of Malta presented an opportunity for British submarines to show what they could do, carrying supplies on what became known as ‘Magic Carpet’ runs. At first the Axis grip on Malta was relatively light, and losses on the early convoys were few and far between, but by 1941, the situation was increasingly difficult, and it became the practice for every submarine heading to Malta from both Gibraltar and Alexandria to attempt to carry at least some items of stores in addition to their usual torpedoes or mines. The ‘Magic Carpet’ submarines, however, were the larger submarines, and included the minelaying submarines Rorqual and Cachalot, the fleet submarine Clyde and the larger boats of the O, P and R classes. The tragedy was that had not an unfortunate accident deprived the Royal Navy of its sole aircraft carrying submarine, M2, some years before the war, that boat’s hangar would have made an ideal cargo hold. In fact, the Royal Navy could have used the French submarine Surcouf, a large 2,800 ton boat also with a hangar, but never did so even though she was with the Free French rather than Vichy forces. Some have surmised that doubts over the reliability of her crew might have been behind this failure, but it is more likely to have been a failure of the imagination, since the crew could have been taken off and a British one installed – but in any event, Surcouf was lost in the Caribbean.

The Porpoise-class minelayers and Clyde were especially effective as supply ships, with plenty of room between their casing and the pressure hull for stores while sometimes one of the batteries would be removed to provide extra space as happened on Clyde on at least one occasion, and the mine stowage tunnel was a good cargo space. Rorqual on one occasion carried twenty-four personnel, 147 bags of mail, two tons of medical stores, sixty-two tons of aviation spirit and forty-five tons of kerosene. Inevitably, there was much unofficial cargo, a favourite being gin for the wardrooms and messes in Malta, and even Lord Gort, Dobbie’s successor as governor, was not above having a small consignment of gramophone records brought out to him in this way. Cargo was sometimes carried externally in containers welded to the casing.

The operation was not without its problems and the size of cargo that could be carried, while impressive in itself, could never compare with that of an average merchant ship, at this period around 7,500 tons. This was a measure of the desperation of Malta’s plight! For the submariners, there were problems with buoyancy. On one occasion Cachalot had so much sea water absorbed by wooden packing cases stowed in her casing that her first lieutenant had to pump out 1,000 gallons of water from her internal tanks to compensate. Fuel was another hazard. In July 1941, Talisman carried 5,500 gallons in cans stowed beneath her casing, and on other occasions fuel could be carried in external fuel tanks. When carrying petrol in cans, submarines were not allowed to dive below sixty-five feet, while aviation fuel in the external tanks meant that fumes venting in the usual way constituted a fire hazard, so smoking was banned on the bridge and pyrotechnic recognition signals were also banned. Another problem was that the Mediterranean favoured smaller rather than larger submarines, with its clear waters and the lack of great depths, although, of course, these submarines were always too close to the surface anyway.

One disadvantage of the convoy system is that ships come in bunches, like London buses, rather than one or two at a time when port facilities can cope easily. The submarines were free of this inconvenience, the case of feast and famine, and made supply runs once every twelve days or so.

In addition to flying her ‘Jolly Roger’ at the end of a successful patrol, HMS Porpoise added a second flag flown beneath the Jolly Roger’s tally of ships sunk – this was marked PCS for ‘Porpoise Carrier Service’, with a white bar for each successful supply run, and there were at least four for this one boat alone.

The ‘Magic Carpet’ submarines did not confine themselves to their supply runs. After unloading in Malta, they would take mines from the underground stores and proceeded north to lay them off the main Italian ports, such as Palermo, before returning to Egypt. On a number of occasions, these submarines also found and torpedoed Axis shipping, with one torpedoing and sinking an Italian submarine and then torpedoing an Italian merchantman, which stubbornly refused to sink until the submarine surfaced and sank her with gunfire.

Meagre though the capacity of the submarines might have been compared with that of cargo ships and tankers, the steady trickle of supplies did at least stave off defeat. Their work was augmented by a tenuous air link with Gibraltar, operated by the newly-formed British Overseas Airways Corporation, formed in 1940 on the merger of Imperial Airways with its lively competitor, British Airways, which operated ex-RAF Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bombers, modified to carry supplies.

German WWI U-boats I

Germany was one of the last of the major powers to begin a submarine-building programme for her navy. In many respects she followed the British model, developing and experimenting with new submarine designs rather than putting them into full production and then discovering that there were operational or constructional problems. While the British intended to use the submarine to defend bases and the coastline, the German navy’s intention was to use them as an offensive arm.

The key battle area would be the North Sea. This meant that any submarine deployed by the Germans would have to have a good operational range, the ability to remain at sea in the challenging winter months and a good surface speed, along with a high level of reliability.

It was not until February 1905 that the German navy awarded the first contract to build a submarine to the Germania Yard at Kiel. U-1 would be a 238-ton vessel with a kerosene engine and a single 45 cm bow torpedo-tube. One of the problems was that the kerosene created clouds of white smoke that could be seen for miles. Nevertheless, U-1 was finished in December 1906, and in the meantime a second and larger submarine had been commissioned to be built at the Imperial Dockyard at Danzig – U-2. In August 1907 two more slightly larger submarines, U-3 and U-4, were also ordered. It transpired that U-1 was unable to meet the operational requirements of the German navy, and the engine was not reliable enough.

The German navy was looking for a vessel that had a 2,000-nautical-mile surface endurance, a speed of 10.5 knots underwater, a surface speed of 15 knots, four torpedo tubes, two bow tubes and the ability to supply a crew of twenty with seventy-two hours’ air supply. Although the next twelve submarines were built with these specifications in mind, they did not fulfil them.

By 1912 it was still considered to be practicable only for the submarines to be out operationally for five days, working no more than 300 nautical miles from their base. In effect this meant they could operate on the eastern side of England and just into the English Channel from Heligoland.

The German’s first submarine casualty took place on 9 August 1914, when U-15 was rammed and sunk by HMS Birmingham. U-13 had been due to return from patrol on 12 August, but she failed to appear, in all probability having struck a German mine.

The German submarines had more success the following month when on the morning of 22 September U-9 sank three British cruisers, HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue. She also managed to sink the cruiser HMS Hawk on 15 October.

Technically, the U-19 Class of German submarine was an enormous step forward. It had a diesel engine, 50 cm torpedo tubes; it was much larger and longer and it also had six torpedo tubes. This type of vessel would provide the blueprint for many of the German submarines up to U-116.

Later on in the war larger submarines were ordered by the German navy, but many of these vessels were never completed. Those that were completed were often named after early German submarine heroes. U-140, for example, was named after Kapitän-leutnant Weddigen, who had commanded U-9 in 1914 but had been killed in action in U-29.

The Germans also deployed mercantile submarines, notably Deutschland (U-155). She was a blockade runner carrying cargo to and from the United States. She made two trips in 1916. Bremen accompanied her on the second trip but never arrived. A third, Oldenburg, was converted into a cruiser U-boat before she was completed. Ultimately Deutschland was also converted, with a pair of bow torpedo tubes and a pair of 15 cm guns.

Later in the war an improved version of this submarine cruiser was proposed, with six torpedo tubes and heavier guns. UD-1 was started but never completed.

When the Germans overran parts of Belgium in 1914 they acquired Bruges and Zeebrugge, both of which would be ideal submarine bases and, of course, closer to the proposed areas of operation. The Germans decided to introduce smaller coastal submarines. These were ordered in November 1914 and came into service at the beginning of 1915. They were known as Type UB submarines, just 88 ft 7 in. long, with a displacement of 127 tons and a pair of torpedo tubes. The idea was that they would be built in sections, transported by rail and then assembled at their base. The first was UB-1, which would operate in the Adriatic. The Type UB-3 came into service during the 1917–18 period. It was much larger: 182 ft long, a displacement of 520 tons and five torpedo tubes. These were such a success that they were to prove to be the blueprint upon which the Germans would design their Type VII U-boats for World War Two.

The Type UB submarines were designed for coastal operations. A smaller, Type UC, of which there were two variants, was also designed as minelayers. These too were transported by rail for final assembly, but the early ones had no means of offence or defence, although later models had torpedo tubes.

The British captured UC-5 and made a careful examination of the wreck of UC-2. This helped them enormously in unravelling German mining strategy and allowed the British to modify their own E Class submarines as minelayers.

There were also smaller Type UE ocean-going minelayers that had torpedo tubes. The later submarines in this series could operate off the United States coastline. A further Type UF coastal submarine was also planned. This was similar to UB-2 but would have four or five 50 cm torpedo tubes, but the Germans did not manage to complete any of these before the end of the war.