1943: Channel Battles I

A rocket armed Mk. IV, flying with No. 184 Squadron, flying rocket attacks on coastal shipping from Manston.

If it was true that 1942 had witnessed its share of Allied disasters, it could at least be said that the year ended on a note of victory, with General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army inflicting a decisive defeat on General Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika at El Alamein and Allied forces going ashore at Algiers and Oran early in November. As the 160 British warships and the many merchant vessels detailed to take part in the North African landings (Operation Torch) assembled mainly in the Clyde and Loch Ewe, their activities have no part on this narrative, except for the mention that the British coastal convoys were virtually stripped bare of escorts for quite a long period in October and November 1942, when German S-boat activity was again on the increase with the onset of the long, dark nights. On the night of 18/19 November, for example, the German 5th Flotilla, comprising S68, S77, S82, S112, S115 and S116 engaged a convoy off Plymouth and sank the armed trawler Ullswater and two coasters with torpedoes.

The success, however, was not all one-sided. On 13/14 October 1942, the German armed merchant cruiser Komet, harbour-hopping through the Channel with an escort of four destroyers, was sighted soon after leaving Le Havre by Swordfish aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. Flares dropped by the Swordfish brought five British destroyers and eight MTBs to the scene, and the fight was on. Komet was hit many times by gunfire from the destroyers and set ablaze, and at 0116 she exploded. Some of the enemy destroyers were damaged, apparently by the Komet’s gunners, firing wildly in the confusion. The destroyer HMS Brocklesby was damaged by a shell from a German coastal battery after the engagement. The damage was not serious and she was at sea again on the last night of October, attacking a small enemy convoy and sinking one of its vessels.

The first major attempt by the enemy to attack a British coastal convoy in 1943 occurred on the night of 24/25 January, not in the Channel but in the North Sea, when 16 S-boats of the German 2nd, 4th and 6th Flotillas tried to attack a convoy off Lowestoft but were driven off by the destroyers Mendip and Windsor. On 3/4 February, destroyers made a sortie from Plymouth to attack enemy shipping off Alderney, sinking two coasters, Hermann and Schleswig-Holstein, and on the following night the Polish destroyer Krakowiak, which had taken part in the Alderney mission, beat off an attempted S-boat attack on a convoy near Start Point.

Since March 1942, enemy shipping and coastal targets had been frequently attacked by the Hurricane IIB fighter-bombers based at Manston with No. 174 Squadron, and No. 175 Squadron at Warmwell. In September 1942 the Westland Whirlwind Mk Is of Nos. 137 and 263 Squadrons, newly converted to the fighter-bomber role, also deployed to Manston and Warmwell respectively and were soon engaged in similar operations. Shipping attacks did not meet with much success, but on 10 February the German armed merchant cruiser Schiff 14, attempting to break through the Channel under escort by the 8th Motor Minesweeper Flotilla, was bombed by Whirlwinds and forced into Boulogne. She was again attacked there with no result, but the attempt to force the Straits of Dover was abandoned and the ship was ordered back to the Baltic. This was the last attempt to send an auxiliary cruiser into the Atlantic.

By this time, RAF Coastal Command was operating its first dedicated Strike Wing. Formed by No. 16 Group at North Coates on the coast of Lincolnshire in November 1942, it consisted of two squadrons equipped with the Bristol Beaufighter Mk VIC; No. 236 Squadron armed with cannon, machine guns and bombs, and No. 254 Squadron armed with cannon and torpedoes. Early in 1943 these two units were joined by No. 143 Squadron, equipped with the Beaufighter Mk XIC for use in the anti-flak role.

The role of the North Coates Strike Wing, and others like it that were formed subsequently, was to assume great importance in 1943, as German convoy defences grew stronger. In addition to the merchant vessels themselves, which ranged from 1,000 to 10,000 tons (the average being about 3,000 tons) and which were all armed, the Germans used so-called Vorpostenboote, armed trawlers crammed with flak guns of all calibres, and Sperrbrecher (literally ‘barrier breaker’ ships which were former merchant vessels of up to 8,000 tons). Then there were purpose-built mine-sweepers, Minensuchboote (M-class minesweepers to the British), which swept just ahead of the convoys and which were also heavily armed; Räumboote or R-boats, 125-ton close escort vessels armed with 20mm cannon; Schnellboote; and sometimes destroyers. Any aircraft attacking the convoy therefore had to contend with a storm of flak ranging in calibre from the heavy weapons – 105mm and 88mm – on the Sperrbrecher, down through 40mm, 37mm, 20mm cannon and 7.92mm machine-guns on the smaller escort craft and the transports themselves.

The first attack by the North Coates Wing was made on 20 November 1942, against a convoy near the Hook of Holland. In addition to the naval escorts, it was also protected by Me 109s and Fw 190s. The mission was a disaster. The strike aircraft lost contact with their anti-flak Beaufighters, a promised escort of Spitfires failed to show up, three Beaufighters were shot down, two more crashed on return and five more were badly damaged. All there was to show on the credit side was one tug sunk and a couple of armed trawlers slightly damaged.

It seemed that the failure of this sortie might have placed the whole future of the Strike Wing concept in jeopardy. But after several weeks of training under the energetic leadership of Wing Commander H.N.G. Wheeler (whose predecessor, Wing Commander Fraser, had been killed in the November attack) the North Coates Wing finally had a chance to prove itself on 18 April 1943, when a strike was laid on against an enemy convoy off the Hook of Holland. Twenty-one Beaufighters, escorted by 22 Spitfires of Nos. 118 and 167 Squadrons and eight Mustangs of No. 613 Squadron, hit the convoy hard, sinking the 4,906-ton freighter Hoegh Carrier, shattering the minesweeper M-201, which had to be towed into Den Helder, and damaging several other vessels. There was no air opposition, and all the RAF aircraft returned to base.

The real key to success in anti-shipping work, as would later be proved time and again, was the rocket projectile, and in this respect much pioneering work was carried out by the Hurricanes of No. 184 Squadron, formed at Colerne in Wiltshire in December 1942 under the command of Squadron Leader Jack Rose DFC, a highly experienced Hurricane pilot. The Squadron was initially equipped with Hurricane Mk IIDs, armed with two 40mm Vickers ‘S’ guns – used successfully in the Western Desert by No. 6 Squadron – and two Browning .303 machine guns. Jack Rose describes the Squadron’s subsequent activities:

As we collected more aircraft and built up the Squadron, one of our essential activities was the calibration of the 40mm guns, which were remarkably accurate. When the aircraft was set up to fire into practice targets at the butts, the normal standard was all rounds in a pattern of eight inches by five at 540 yards. As the Vickers guns were mounted below the wings, when fired in flight the recoil depressed the nose of the aircraft, so that after each pair of guns was fired the gunsight had to be re-positioned on the target before the next pair was loosed off. After practice, it proved possible to fire off four pairs with high accuracy on the run-up to a ground target, so with 32 rounds – sixteen to each gun – we could achieve a possible average of four attacks.

The Squadron was operational by early March, 1943, and we were expecting a posting to a busier airfield. However, on 4 March we became involved in Exercise SPARTAN, which involved large elements of the Army and many RAF squadrons under simulated battle conditions. We did not know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the preparation for D-Day, some fifteen months away. We lived under field conditions, under canvas – which was no joke in early March – and moved rapidly from one airfield to another. Each squadron which was to work closely with the Army had an ALO – an Army Liaison Officer – permanently attached to it, and apart from a few key personnel all ground crew became part of a mobile airfield establishment, enabling the squadrons to move rapidly from airfield to airfield and then start up in business immediately on arrival.

Early in 1943 we were equipped with Hurricane IVs, carrying a bank of four rockets under each wing. These had either 25lb armour-piercing heads or 60lb semi-armour-piercing high-explosive shells. The damage that these rockets could inflict proved to be very impressive, and I remember being told that if all eight rockets with the larger warheads were fired at once, the result would be approximately that achieved by a broadside from an eight-inch gun cruiser. The most usual technique was to fire the rockets in a ripple, that is one pair at a time during the approach run. As there was no recoil from the rockets, there was no need to re-sight in between each pair of rockets being fired, as in the case of the Vickers ‘S’ guns. We could, if we wished, use the Vickers guns instead of the rockets and occasionally we did so, but after a time we stuck to the RPs [rocket projectiles].

The firing range we used was Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, where the officer in charge of the range did his best to provide very substantial targets anchored offshore for our benefit; but as none of these targets lasted longer than one or two attacks we cast around for something more substantial. Our Army Liaison Officer, who was with us at the time, arranged for me to meet a brigadier in charge of an infantry tank brigade near Canterbury, and over a drink we discussed our problem. As a result, we were supplied with an unserviceable Churchill tank and later a Sherman too. They were transported to the Leysdown range and were set up on the beach, providing first-class durable targets. All attacks were recorded by the range officers, and my log book shows such scores as 26 and 28 rounds out of 32 fired from the Vickers guns and three or four out of eight using the 25lb AP rockets.

As Jack Rose points out, operations with the Hurricane IV’s against heavily defended targets brought their share of problems.

The Hurricane IV’s low speed in comparison with contemporary fighter aircraft, and its poor armament after the rockets had been released (one Browning .303 in each wing) meant that operations could only be carried out in selected circumstances: Spitfire fighter cover, when this could be arranged, good low cloud cover or the use of semi-darkness. Spitfire escorts were unpopular with the Spitfire pilots as all our operations were at low level, and to maintain effective contact with us this meant flying lower, slower and longer than they would have liked.

Cloud cover was useless unless we could escape into it quickly, so this ruled out medium and higher cloud. My log book records a number of instances (usually entered in the log book as Operation TWITCH) when we started out, mostly from Manston, but were recalled before reaching the enemy coast as cloud cover was reported by the Met. people to have lifted. Firing the rockets at low level in the dark was not on, as a regular practice, so we made use of darkness to approach the enemy coast. Timing our arrival for about first light so that with eyes by then accustomed to the gloom, we could attack and make a quick getaway while there was still half an hour or so to dawn.

In June 1943 a couple of such attacks were made on shipping off the Dutch coast. The first of these, on 17 June, consisted of four aircraft (we normally flew four aircraft on such operations) piloted by myself, Flight Lieutenant Ruffhead, Flying Officer Kilpatrick (Australian) and Flying Officer Gross (Canadian). We each fired our eight 60lb rockets in ripples at ships anchored close inshore and we all returned with nothing more than a few bullet holes. Soon afterwards we had a visit from someone from Boscombe Down, who was rather put out that a special PR flight had not been laid on to record the damage inflicted by the rockets. This was, I believe, the first use in Western Europe of rockets fired from fighter-type aircraft. Later, of the four of us on that operation, Ruffhead, Kilpatrick and Doug Gross were all killed.

The next such attack, a few days later, was carried out by myself, Warrant Officer Starmer (missing on this sortie), Flight Lieutenant ‘Dutch’ Holland and Flight Sergeant Wallace, who was later killed. ‘Dutch’ Holland later had a miraculous escape when he was shot down in a Typhoon attack on a concentration of enemy armoured vehicles well to the south of the Allied beachhead on D-Day Plus One; he had a series of hair-raising adventures before he managed to link up with friendly troops. ‘Humph’ Russell of 164 Squadron was shot down during one of the anti-shipping operations and, was a PoW for the rest of the war.

While we were at Manston, we thought up, in collaboration with some Swordfish pilots who were stationed there with us, a possible joint action to enable us to make rocket attacks at night. Enemy shipping made maximum use of darkness to slip around the northern coast of France and the Netherlands, spending daylight hours under the protection of the guns of the various ports en route. As the Swordfish had radar and could also drop flares, we thought that it might be possible to synchronise our activities so that a Swordfish, at reasonably safe height, could locate an enemy vessel and drop a flare between it and the land, thus silhouetting the target for a Hurricane IV low-level attack out of the darkness on the seaward side. It was on such an attempt that ‘Killy’ Kilpatrick, a very capable pilot, disappeared.

Although Jack Rose is correct in his assumption that his squadron pioneered the operational use of rocket projectiles by single-engined fighter-bombers in Western Europe, these weapons had been operational with aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF Coastal Command since April 1943, although it was not until 23 May that the first success was registered when a Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Archer sank the U-752 off the Azores. Five days later, the U-594 was sunk by an RP-equipped RAF Lockheed Hudson north of the Balearic Islands.

By April 1943, rocket rails had also been fitted the Beaufighters of No. 236 Squadron, and work had begun on those of No. 143 Squadron. Meanwhile, as RP training continued, so did shipping attacks by the North Coates Wing’s torpedo and anti-flak Beaufighters, and on 29 April the Wing sank three vessels for the loss of one Beaufighter of No. 143 Squadron.

The Strike Wing suffered a serious reverse on 1 May, when 31 aircraft set out to hunt the cruiser Nilrnberg and three destroyers off south-west Norway. The mission was beyond fighter escort range and the Beaufighters were badly mauled by Me 109s and Fw 190s, No. 254 Squadron losing three Torbeaus and No. 143 Squadron two anti-flak Beaufighters. The whole Wing was forced to jettison its bombs and torpedoes as the aircraft took evasive action.

The next attack, on 17 May, was accompanied by a strong fighter escort, and the Beaufighters sank the German freighter Kyphissia (2,964 tons), the minesweeper M-414 (775 tons) and the flak ship Vp 1110 off the island of Texel.

Meanwhile, a detachment of No. 236 Squadron been sent to Predannack, in Cornwall, and it was from here that a Beaufighter attacked and sank the U-418 on 1 June, marking the first success for an aircraft of this type using rocket projectiles. The submarine was heading for Brest when it was sighted by Flying Officer Mark Bateman, who was accompanied by a naval specialist, Lieutenant-Commander F.J. Brookes, RN. All four RPs hit the U-418, which went to the bottom with the loss of all hands.