Black May” – Biscay Bay in May 1943 Part III

Aircraft carrying six or fewer D/Cs on hunting patrols or sweeps, such as Derange, should drop the whole load in one stick; aircraft carrying more than six should drop sticks of six. Aircraft on convoy or other escort duty should drop sticks of four, leaving D/Cs for a possible second attack; this rule could be altered at the Captain’s discretion, for example when nearing his PLE or while returning to base. After carrying out an attack on a diving boat by day, the aircraft must drop a marker on or beside the swirl. By night the position must be marked by flame floats, usually two dropped at the same time as the D/Cs.

For purposes of assessment and so that every possible lesson could be learned from each attack, a complete and detailed record, for example, of the exact time lapse between submersion of a U-boat and the release of D/Cs, should be kept by members of the crew. “The story should be complete to the smallest detail and even facts which may appear irrelevant should be included.” Within twenty-four hours a connected account should be written down and read by the crew.

Not all of these rules were observed to the letter, as will be seen in the after-action reports that follow. Some pilots, following Terence Bulloch’s example, fudged the rules and had unorthodox successes. But in the main, Coastal’s tactical doctrine proved out not only in the Bay but also in the convoy routes. The mole, it turned out, had a lot to fear from the crow. At 2055 GMT on 30 April (all times that follow are GMT), L/L Wellington “N” of 172 Sqdn. lifted off from Chivenor in Devon, bound southwest to the Derange ribbon, where the cloud was 4/Ioths to 7/Ioths with bases at 2,000 feet, the sea moderate to rough, the air bumpy, and visibility 2–4 miles. At 0007 on 1 May, Pilot Flight Sergeant Peter W. Phillips was patrolling in the ribbon at 1,200 feet on course 168° when he obtained an S/E contact (Special Equipment, a code word for A.S.V. Mark III 10cm radar) bearing Green (starboard) 45°, range 6’½ miles. Phillips dived on the surfaced U-boat, which was proceeding inbound on a course of 132° at seven knots, and, after reaching 550 feet three-quarters of a mile from the target, he “struck” (switched on) the Leigh Light. The run-in was made on the U-boat’s port bow at 80° to track, while the Navigator, Sergeant H. A. Bate, fired about forty rounds from the front gun before it jammed, and at 0100 Phillips released six Mark XI Torpex D/Cs set to shallow depth and spaced 50 feet apart from a height of 75 feet. All were seen by the rear gunner to explode with blue flashes, two to port and four to starboard; Nos. 2 and 3 were thought to have been very close to the U-boat’s hull.

During the aircraft’s pass over the target a shudder was felt underneath, though no gun fire was observed. (An hour after the attack it was found that the hydraulic system had been damaged; not known until landing was that the port tire had been punctured.) Phillips made a 180° turn to port and, four minutes later, flew back over the attack position, which was marked by flame floats. Except for a patch of foam and bubbles, nothing could be seen, not even a diving swirl. After twelve more minutes in the vicinity, Phillips resumed patrol. At 0452 he and his five-man crew landed at the nearest base, Predannack in Cornwall. As they did so, the port landing gear collapsed, and the aircraft swung off the runway and slammed into a Nissen hut. Beyond scratches, the crew were not injured. The base Medical Officer pronounced them “very lucky.”

The U-boat they had attacked, U-415 (Oblt.z.S. Kurt Neide), returning from her first war cruise, was also very lucky. Damaged by Phillips’s D/Cs, she would be attacked twice more before the day was out. At 1136 she was visually sighted on the surface in visibility 15 miles, at 4435’N, 10°37’W, by Sunderland “M” of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No. 461 Sqdn., flying on Derange. Bearing Green 30° at a range of 5–6 miles, the U-boat was estimated at 6 knots on a course of 100°. Seeing the aircraft approach, U—415 dived. Pilot Flight Lieutenant E. C. “Bertie” Smith, DFC, put the flying boat into a dive and attacked the swirl 18 seconds after submergence from the U-boat’s port beam, dropping four Mark XI D/Cs set shallow and spaced 200 feet apart from a height of 50–75 feet. The D/Cs straddled the U-boat’s line of advance 70–100 feet ahead of the apex of the swirl. No debris appeared, however. Smith took his aircraft off on baiting procedures and returned in cloud 29 minutes later, but again saw no evidence of damage where his sea marker had disappeared in rough seas.

U-415 had received a severe shaking but was still intact.43 At 1727 she was sighted for a third time, in position 44°13’N, 10°23’W, by Derange aircraft Whitley “E” of 612 Sqdn. The sea had moderated to a slight swell and visibility was still 15 miles. The U-boat was bearing 180°, distant 5 miles, at a fast speed, 15 knots, on course 090°. Pilot Flight Sergeant Norman Earnshaw descended from 3,000 feet, intending to attack from the U-boat’s port quarter at 20° to track. As he began his run in at about 150 knots, U-415 opened fire with 20mm cannon and light machine guns. Earnshaw’s release from 90 feet of six Mark XI D/Cs, set to shallow, spaced 200 feet apart, exploded 200 feet to starboard of the target, as the U-boat took hard evasive action in a tight turn.

Kicking rudder, Earnshaw set up for a second attack. Meanwhile, U-415 dived. In the second attack, made from the U-boat’s port beam at 90° to track, two D/Cs were released from 70 feet and exploded 28 seconds after submergence 300 feet ahead of the swirl. This time oil was seen. Earnshaw patrolled the scene for 40 minutes, then set course for base at Davidstow Moor in Cornwall. Further shaken, U-415 limped on to her base at Brest. At BdU, Donitz and Godt were relieved to learn of her safe arrival. Their war diary recorded: “U-415 was bombed three times … Despite much damage she was still able to dive.” The good luck that carried U-415 through May Day would stay with her until 14 July 1944, when she struck an RAF mine and sank in the Brest approaches.

Two other attacks in the Bay were made on 1 May: At 0825, Halifax “C” of 502 Sqdn. dropped six D/Cs on a surfaced boat, and at 1015, Hampden “L” of 1404 Sqdn. released six on a surfaced boat. Initial contact was made by eye in each case. Return fire was not observed from either boat before it dived. There were no visible results from the attacks. Three daylight attacks on surfaced boats were made the next day, 2 May: by Sunderland “R” of 10 Sqdn. at 0810; by Hudson “W” of 269 Sqdn. at 1437; and by Whitley “G” of 612 Sqdn. at 1531. In the first and third attacks initial contact was by eye; in the second it was obtained by S/E. None of the boats was reported to have fought back.

The first kill in May was made at dusk that day by Flight Lieutenant “Bertie” Smith and his ten-man Australian crew in the same Sunderland “M” they had flown the day before (which deserves mention only because it should be noted that air crews frequently switched aircraft from day to day within a squadron). Smith was trolling in the Derange ribbon at 2,500 feet in the base of 6/Ioths cloud. Visibility was 10–12 miles. The darkening sea below was rough in 26-knot winds from 010°. At 1917, eyeballs sighted a U-boat on the surface bearing Red (port) 45°, range 10 miles. Smith estimated it to be traveling at 10–12 knots on an outbound course of 270°. He pushed forward his four engine throttles and climbed into cloud, where he turned to make his approach. At four miles from the target he dove from the cloud. On sighting the flying boat, the U-boat responded with flak and machinegun fire, and when Smith was down to 300 feet and ½ mile distant, the U-boat abruptly altered course to port. Smith was able to complete his run-in from the U-boat’s port beam at 90° to track, while RAF gunner Sergeant R. MacDonald swept the deck with fire from the bow turret. Just before release from an altitude of 50–70 feet, the U-boat gunners were seen scrambling for the conning tower hatch.

Four Mark XII D/Cs straddled the boat just aft of the tower, after which the boat described a tight circle, apparently out of control, then came to a gradual stop with a bad list to port. A large volume of brown vapor blew out from its stern and a white vapor plume rose about three feet from its port quarter. Then a heavy flow of oil was observed pouring from its port side. Meanwhile, Smith was making a climbing turn to 500 feet to set up a second attack, which he delivered at 75 feet with four D/Cs released from the target’s starboard bow at 15° to track, again straddling the tower. The now gravely wounded boat settled by its stern. The oil patch spread to 300 yards in diameter. Some fifteen crewmen were seen jumping into the water, where they waved frantically at the aircraft. Then, at 1940, the U-boat’s stern sank beneath the waves; its bow followed, reappearing twice briefly at an angle of 30°. The victim was U—465 (Kptlt. Heinz Wolf, 28 years old, from Emmerich/Rhein), on her third war patrol. Smith and crew remained in the area for 30 minutes, then, having reached PLE, returned with their victory photographs to base at Pembroke Dock in South Wales.

Two daylight attacks were made on 3 May against boats sighted on the surface in the Derange ribbon: by Sunderland “S” of 461 Sqdn., at 1044, and by Whitley “R” of 10 Sqdn. O.T.U. In the first instance, the initial contact was made by eye and four D/Cs were released 22 seconds after the U-boat had submerged. In the second, the contact was also made by eye, and five D/Cs (one having hung up) were released while the boat was still on the surface. There were no visible results in either case. On the next day, 4 May, Halifax “S” of 58 Sqdn. was on morning patrol, having lifted off at 0555 for the Derange area, where the seas were very rough under 7/Ioths-8/Ioths cloud, visibility 8–10 miles. At 1740, the crew made the visual sighting of a creamy wake, bearing Green 90°, which led to a surfaced U-boat, outbound from base at 6–8 knots on a course of 270°, distant 4–5 miles.

Pilot Flying Officer John M. Hartley turned to starboard, lost height rapidly, and approached out of the sun. At 1,400 yards the U-boat opened fire with what Hartley thought was an impressive amount of armament: “heavy guns” from the afterdeck, followed at 1,200 yards by “cannon at the front of the bridge,” and later by cannon on the forward deck and two pairs of machine guns on a stepped gun platform in front of the conning tower. He could see about fifteen of the boat’s crew, most of them manning the cannons and guns, but two men in black uniform and another in a white sweater, all wearing peaked caps, standing on the deck at the port side of the tower. Hartley ordered answering fire against the pugnacious boat, which scattered some of the men manning cannon and machine guns, the rest maintaining heavy and light flak.

By evasive action Hartley managed to prevent his four-engine Halifax from being hit by that fusillade, and at a quarter of a mile from target, he leveled out to release six Mark XI D/Cs from the U-boat’s port quarter at an angle of 60°-70° to track. The navigator firing the front gun saw one man on deck hit and fall overboard. Altitude at the time of release was a relatively high 200–400 feet. The rear gunner reported that the D/Cs straddled aft of the conning tower, two on the port quarter and four on the starboard beam. In addition, the gunner had fired 500 rounds at the tower and hull as the aircraft passed. But the U-boat submerged thirty seconds after the Halifax, turning back, caught sight of it again, and no damage was visible, only the usual D/C scum. Baiting procedure was followed, Hartley returning at 0910, but the marker could not be found. With PLE reached at 1000, the Halifax returned to base, landing at 1258. Subsequent assessment by NHB/MOD has identified the boat as U-/90, which suffered “slight damage,” nothing to prevent her continuing on Feindfahrt.

Three more attacks in the Bay were made later in the day: by Halifax “A” of 502 Sqdn. at 1920, by Catalina “J” of 202 Sqdn. at 2110, and by L/L Wellington “P” of 407 Sqdn. at 2309. In the first, initial contact was made by eye and six D/Cs were released on a surfaced U-boat. In the second, contact was also made by eye and five D/Cs (one hanging up) were dropped 37 seconds after submergence. In the third, contact was obtained by S/E and six D/Cs were dropped 10 seconds after submergence. No results were evident, but minor damage was done to U-405 (Korv. Kapt. Rolf-Heinrich Hopmann) by the Halifax, and the target of the Catalina was later assessed to be U-6oo (Kptlt. Bernard Zurmühlen).

Three daylight attacks were made on 7 May in the Derange area, the first two on diving boats by Wing Commander Wilfrid E. Oulton of 58 Sqdn. At 0656, just after dawn (Oulton forbade his crew to eat breakfast prior to a morning flight because it put “spots,” not U-boats, before the eyes), Oulton sighted a U-boat’s wake from the cockpit of Halifax “S,” dived on the target, and dropped six D/Cs over its swirl 10–15 seconds after the U-boat’s submergence. And at 1015, Oulton dived on another U-boat’s wake and released three D/Cs on the submerging boat while its conning tower was still visible. The first attack yielded no visible results. The second, now known to have been against the outbound U-214, badly wounded her Commander, Kptlt. Rup-precht Stock, and forced the boat back to her base at Brest. Oulton’s aircraft received machine-gun hits during the run in.

The third attack was made by Sunderland “W” of RAAF. 10 Sqdn. Flying on Derange, aircraft captain Flight Lieutenant Geoffrey G. Rossiter and his eleven-man crew had been airborne from Mount Batten in Cornwall since 0635 when, at 1023, they sighted a wake, then the conning tower, of an outbound U-boat on the starboard beam, distant 10 miles. As the flying boat turned to attack, the U-boat, now known to have been XJ—603 (Oblt.z.S. Rudolf Baltz), dived and disappeared, making attack inadvisable. Patrol was resumed at 2,000 feet just below 6/10ths cloud base, and at 1220 a fully surfaced U-boat was sighted through binoculars 17 miles away on the starboard bow, in position 47°06’N, 10°58’W. The sea state was moderate, the wind was 235° at twenty-six miles per hour, visibility was twenty miles. Rossiter estimated the U-boat to be making 12 knots on an outbound course of 280°. He made a climbing turn into cloud and broke out of it on course 225° with the still-surfaced U-boat four miles distant on the starboard bow.

As he pushed the elevator column forward into a dive, the U-boat altered course to starboard. Rossiter turned with it and ran in across track 60° on its starboard quarter, the nose gunner opening fire with 100 rounds at 800 yards range, scoring hits on the conning tower, where two men were seen. From a height of fifty feet Rossiter released four D/Cs that straddled the boat just forward of the tower, and the resulting explosion plumes completely obscured the boat. Before the explosions, as the aircraft passed, the tail gunner fired 600 rounds at the tower. Rossiter pushed hard left rudder and turned the ailerons for a quick return to the site. Setting up, he attacked a second time, from the U-boat’s port quarter at 45° to track, again releasing four D/Cs from fifty feet. The first D/C fell within twenty feet of the port side aft of the tower; the three remaining overshot.

The U-boat, plainly wounded, made several complete tight circles to starboard at 4–5 knots, trailing oil and gradually losing way. At 1300 it submerged slowly on course 090°, still putting out oil, and disappeared bows up four minutes later. By 1330 a crescent-shaped oil patch 250 yards in diameter and 500 yards in circumference covered the site. The Sunderland remained in the area for another hour and a half, then shaped course for home with its photographs, becoming waterborne at Mount Batten at 1655. Rossiter received the DFC for this action. The NHB/MOD assessment has identified the stricken U-boat as U-663 (Kptlt. Heinrich Schmid). Seriously damaged, she sank the next day with all hands, probably as the result of these injuries.

An eight-day drought in Bay attacks ensued, owing in great part to heavy pro-German weather that greatly restricted visibility. Then, on the 15th, with visibility improved to as much as 25 miles, there were six attacks in one day, all in sunlight, all resulting from visual sightings in the Derange ribbon. The first, by Liberator “O” of 224 Sqdn., was made at 0936 on a U-boat that had submerged 15 seconds before six D/Cs were released. The boat, now known to be U—168 (Kptlt. Helmuth Pich), which was returning from its first war cruise during which she participated in the Battle for ONS.5, was not damaged. The second attack, by Whitley “M” of 10 Sqdn. O.T.U., was delivered at 1127 against a boat that took five D/Cs (one hung up) on the surface. It has since been identified as U-648 and assessed as undamaged.

The third attack, again by Whitley “M,” at 1233, was directed at another surfaced boat, outbound from base, since identified as U-591 (Kptlt. Hansjürgen Zetzsche). Though the Whitley had only the one previously hung-up D/C to drop, which did no damage, the aircraft’s nose machine gun wounded the Commander and one crewman, forcing the boat’s return to base. The fourth attack, by Whitley “B” of 10 Sqdn. O.T.U., was made at 1314 on another outbound surfaced boat. The six D/Cs released caused slight damage to U-305 (Kptlt. Rudolf Bahr). The fifth attack, by Whitley “S” of 10 Sqdn. O.T.U., was delivered at 1403 against the outbound, surfaced U-211 (Oblt.z.S. Karl Hause), which was not damaged.

The sixth and final attack of the day took place at 1810 when the sun was low and there was a bright glare on the water. Pilot Wing Commander Wilfrid E. Oulton of 58 Sqdn. had lifted off in Halifax “M” from St Eval at 1208 and now was on a routine rectangular creeping line ahead patrol at position 45°28’N, 10°20’W, where he swept the sea below with Polaroid glasses. There was 1/10th cloud at 6,000 feet, the sea was moderate to rough, winds were 080° at twenty-four mph, visibility was 10–15 miles in haze. Ahead a V-shaped wake slowly emerged into view bearing Green 30° distant 10 miles. Realizing that he was up sun where he could stalk, Oulton let down gradually to 2,500 feet, and at four miles range sighted a U-boat on the surface, speed 10 knots on an inbound course of 070°. He circled to starboard and descended through 1,500 to begin the run in. At 1,000 yards the navigator opened fire with the nose gun and saw hits on both the conning tower and hull. At a height of 100–120 feet the Halifax released six D/Cs from the U-boat’s port quarter at 10° to track. After crossing, the rear gunner got off additional rounds at the tower and hull and watched for results of the explosions. He reported that two or more D/Cs at the end of the stick fell against the port side of the boat.

When the explosion plumes subsided and the boat could be seen again, the fore part of the hull appeared to lift; then, two to three seconds later, there was a “sudden jerk,” and the boat stood up on its stern in a completely vertical position with the bows above water. After Oulton completed a turn for a second attack, he could see a large light blue oil patch and “greenish white water” boiling around the upright 20 feet of bows. The victim’s condition was such, Oulton decided, that he could save his remaining D/Cs for another boat. Two minutes following the attack the U-boat’s last apparition of “gray with brown patches” slid beneath the waves. At 1827, Oulton set course on the homeward leg and was down at St Eval by 2125. The U-boat sunk was the returning U-266 (Kptlt. Rolf von Jessen), which had been Group Fink’s lead scorer in the Battle for ONS.552

With good weather holding, No. 19 Group had another full day on the 16th when five attacks were made in the Derange patrol area, all as the result of visual sightings. The first, by Whitley “E” of 10 Sqdn. O.T.U., was made at 1143 on a diving boat, since identified as U-648 (Oblt.z.S. Peter-Arthur Stahl), which was not damaged. The second attack, by Wellington “H” of 311 Sqdn. (Czech), was delivered at 1410 on a fully surfaced boat, since identified as U-662 (Kptlt. Heinrich Müller), which was not damaged. The third attack, by Liberator “M” of 224 Sqdn. at 1450, was against the same U-648 (Stahl) that Whitley “E” had attacked with six D/Cs three hours before. Now, attacked on the surface with six more D/Cs, the lucky boat escaped again with no damage. The fourth attack, by Liberator “E” of 224 Sqdn., was made at 1650 on a diving boat, which was the same U-662 (Müller) attacked by Wellington “H” two and a half hours before. This time the boat suffered minor damage. Another lucky boat. But, like U-648, she would be sunk within the year.

The killing attack of the day would come at dusk, 2007, when conditions were 1/10th cloud, bases 20,000 feet, sea moderate, wind 110° at 25 mph, and visibility 10 miles in haze. Halifax “R” of 58 Sqdn. made a visual sighting of a narrow brushstroke of a wake across the evening’s dark gray surface. The wake was on bearing Red 100°, distant 6–7 miles. Pilot Flight Officer A. J. W. “Tony” Birch immediately altered course to port. The U-boat, when seen, was on an outbound course of 270°, speed 10 knots. Realizing that he could not lose sufficient height in the distance given, Birch made an altitude-losing turn, keeping up sun of the U-boat, finally making his run in from due west of the target, out of the sun. Eventually seeing him, the U-boat dived. Birch’s six D/Cs dropped while the conning tower was still visible. Because of glare on the water, the rear gunner could not get an exact fix on the stick placement, although, according to the aircraft’s after-action report (Form 540), it was thought that one D/C fell 100 feet ahead of the swirl and the remainder in the swirl or wake.

When Birch circled back over the scene, he observed a patch of blue oil. Shortly afterwards, the mid-upper turret gunner sighted what appeared to be a body. Birch dropped a marker and flame floats, then at 2018 set course away on baiting tactics in company with Halifax “B,” which had been flying about five miles to the west and had witnessed the attack. When both aircraft returned from baiting, they found a large irregular-shaped patch of blue oil a quarter-to a half-mile in extent. Also seen nearby was a circling Sunderland (“T” of 10 Sqdn.), which reported by R/T that it had seen and photographed wreckage. Shortly afterwards, the Sunderland sighted two bodies and wood planking, although these did not show up in the photographs. Halifaxes “R” and “B,” having reached PLE, returned to base, where they sat down at 2345 and 2350. The U-boat was the Type XIV U—463 (Korv. Kapt. Leo Wolfbauer), one of Dönitz’s prized tanker boats, under way from Bordeaux on her fifth supply cruise. She was the first Milch Cow to be sunk. There were no survivors.