Fire-breathing Rockbeaus II

The strike was to be led by Tony Gadd, formerly a flight commander with Gibbs on 22 Squadron, now wing commander flying of the North Coates wing. The leadership was given to North Coates because of their greater experience of operating off the Dutch coast.

Gadd was a tall, slim, rather typical R. A. F. figure, of fair complexion, equable temperament and supreme self-confidence. Uniform sat easily on him. He had been an instructor at Gosport, and had dropped over a thousand torpedoes in practice, besides completing his tour on 22 Squadron. He was not over imaginative, but was quick to grasp essentials and discard irrelevencies. Life for him was never complicated. He had the unshakable practicality of the man who is adept at making things with his hands. Gadd was quite unmoved by the pressure put on him by the men of the Langham wing to revert to their tactical approach. There was no stubbornness about it; he was absolutely sure of his ground and did not for one moment consider giving an inch. Eventually the men of the Langham wing, aware that, since Gadd was to lead, the success of the strike must be resigned to his leadership, acquiesced.

When the reconnaissance report came through on the night of 14th-15th June, Gadd disposed his forces. Leading the convoy were six R-boats, 1 proceeding two by two. Behind them were four minesweepers. Then came the naval auxiliary, followed by the merchant vessel. Four more minesweepers were spread round the port side of the big ships (the seaward side) and two more were stationed to starboard. Bringing up the rear of the convoy were another minesweeper and an R-boat. The whole convoy was proceeding almost due east a few miles off the Frisian Islands opposite Emden, at a speed of ten knots. The draught of the main ships, however, had forced the convoy to take to deep open water. The torpedo could therefore be applied as the primary weapon.

Gadd decided to send cannon-firing aircraft against all the escort vessels, one squadron on his left to attack the leading vessels and a squadron on his right to take the close screen to seaward and in rear of the main targets. He himself, in the centre of the formation at 2000 feet, would carry eight rockets, with three other aircraft similarly armed. The rocket attack would be made on the big vessels in the centre of the convoy, sixteen rockets being fired at each.

The whole anti-flak formation would sweep into the breadth of the convoy in line abreast on the port side, synchronizing their attacks. At the moment of the dive down from 2000 feet, when cannon and rockets were tearing into the port beam along the whole length of the convoy, the torpedo aircraft would reach dropping position. Six of the torpedo aircraft were to attack the Amerskerke and four the naval auxiliary.

The anti-flak aircraft were not briefed to attack any particular ship, since the exact disposition of the convoy might change. But the two target vessels would be certain to be in the centre of the convoy, so that the squadrons on either side of the four R. P. aircraft would fall naturally on to the front and rear vessels respectively. Experience taught a pilot to choose his target on the run in. Diving down from 2000 feet to 300, at over 300 miles an hour, there was no time to change one’s aim.

Gadd made the briefing as straight-forward as possible. He warned the crews that nearly every ship was flying a balloon, but he did not stress the many dangers inherent in an attack on so large a convoy. They were known and feared well enough.

Many of these dangers would be heightened by the employment of so large a striking force. There would be over fifty aircraft converging on the convoy at high speed, and the smallest error in timing or flying discipline could be disastrous. They ought to be able to silence the flak, yes; but the last few moments of that 300-mile-an-hour dive, and the pull out afterwards, were another matter. With so many aircraft concentrated in time and space, collision was an ever-present threat. Many crews had been lost in this way. The Beaufighter was extremely stable at high speed, but the controls were leaden, and pulling out from that powered dive could so easily be too late. There were the masts of the ship to miss, and then the balloon cables. And the rest of the formation was coming in right behind you, aiming their fire as best they could, but not too discriminately. It was easy enough to get hit by the chap behind. Gadd himself had had a rocket clean through his port wing on his last operation, and right through the outer petrol tank at that, severing the aileron control and spreading petrol all over the wing. Miraculously it had not caught fire or broken up.

All these were occupational hazards, quite apart from the flak and the fighters. Every man’s mind would dwell for a moment on each of them. There was no need to remind them.

The crews drove from the operations room out to their aircraft in darkness. An airfield was a chill, cheerless place at night, even in midsummer. This was the time when one took two or three deep breaths, to steady the nerves.

The crews climbed into their aircraft, allowing themselves the momentary luxury of wondering about their personal fate. Then the engines roared into life, their bridges were burned, and their nerves were gone.

The Beaufighters took off and formed up at first light, picked up their fighter escort a few minutes later over Coltishall, and set course at 05.00. They expected to intercept the convoy within forty-five minutes. The German ships, however, had made better progress than had been anticipated. The strike force made their landfall on the Dutch islands some way short of the progress of the convoy.

This was the first setback. The only feasible direction of attack was abeam of the convoy, to smother all the escort ships simultaneously. But they would now come up on the convoy from astern. They would have to execute a complicated manouvre to get into position. No one had ever flown on a shipping strike before in such a large formation, and there was no telling what would happen.

There was another factor, too. So large a force patrolling off the Dutch islands would not go unobserved. They had proof of this a moment later when the shore batteries began to fire at them.

And the weather conditions had deteriorated. There was a lot of sea fog about, and at 2000 feet there was six-tenths’ cloud, so that the anti-flak squadrons had only an intermittent view of the sea below them and a restricted view ahead. Gadd could not see the Torbeaus at all.

But difficulties of communication, which had been the downfall of 86 Squadron in the attack on the Prinz Eugen two years earlier, and which had often hampered 39 Squadron in the Mediterranean in 1942, had been solved by the fitting of V. H. F. wireless equipment in all strike aircraft. Gadd was able to talk to the whole formation, telling them what he planned to do.

At 05.50, off Schiermonnikoog, near Borkum, they had their first glimpse of the escort vessels astern of the convoy, only four miles ahead. Then they sighted the two major vessels, standing out from the minesweepers and R-boats like a brace of swans with their cygnets.

Now, thought Gadd, for that complicated manouvre. But at least it was only in one dimension. How much more complicated it would have been if the anti-flak aircraft had not already been at the attacking height.

He called the formation. “I’m going to make an `S’ turn, to bring us up abeam of the convoy. “First I shall turn to port, out to sea, come up level with the convoy, and then turn back to starboard, delivering the attack at an angle of ninety degrees as planned. Aircraft on the left of the formation will have to open up as they’ve got further to travel. Aircraft on the right will throttle back and give the others a chance to get into position.

“Turning to port now.”

The whole formation swung away to port, kept on until it was almost abreast of the convoy, and then turned in towards land. The crews could never quite stifle the thought, in the still moment after the thrill of the sighting and before the clamour of the attack, that they might not come through.

The final turn in was made like an enfilade of guardsmen, the aircraft on the inside of the turn standing on their props, almost marking time, while the aircraft on the outside swept forward like a wave.

Included in the strike force were many aces of the strike wing period, with a leavening of the men of the Beauforts, now on their second tour. Colin Milson, the Australian who had distinguished himself at Malta with 39 Squadron, was in the anti-flak formation. Ewan Gillies, a contemporary of Milson’s on 39, one of the men to go to Malta with 86, was with the Torbeaus. Roy Cannell, a contemporary of Ray Loveitt’s on 42 Squadron, was with 489 on the left. Tony Gadd was leading. The anti-shipping torch had been jealously passed on. And of the newer men, Wing Commander Paddy Burns led the Torbeaus, cursing the manouvring of the aircraft above him over the intercom in his Irish brogue; and Squadron Leader Billy Tacon, a short, slight, wiry New Zealander, perhaps the greatest of all exponents of the rocket projectile, was No. 2 to Tony Gadd in the centre.

Most pilots, wisely enough, used their 20-millimetre cannon purely to silence the flak. But not Tacon. His faith in the rocket was reminiscent of Gibbs and the torpedo. He believed in it as a primary weapon, the primary weapon. And he used his cannon as a sighter for his rockets. What he did was to go into the dive, wait until he was at about 1000 yards’ range, hold his sight on the target, press the tit of his cannon without allowing for bullet drop, watch the cannon shells tearing up the water short of the target, lift the nose gently until the trail of cannon fire crept along the water into the ship, and then fire his rockets. This way, he reckoned he could not miss. It meant accepting all the fire that the ship could hurl at him meanwhile, but he thought it was worth it. His percentage of hits fully supported his view.

The whole formation was now in position abeam of the convoy, going through those moments of fear and frustration when they were within range of the convoy’s guns but still out of range with their own. For twenty seconds the flak rose at them, first an isolated burst, then a steady barrage, then a curtain of fire.

“Attack! Attack! Attack!”

Immediately on the signal, the thirty-two anti-flak Beaufighters, in line abreast, tore down from 2000 feet into the convoy, each pilot selecting his own target. Half way down in the dive, with the world beneath them tilted at a steep angle, the pilots began firing their cannon. And as each man fired, the whole aircraft juddered, the cockpit filled with acrid smoke which blew back from the barrels of the guns, and the pilot screwed up his eyes and squinted down through the flak at his target, still firing, immensely comforted by the thunderous racket of the ammunition feed behind him and the guns in front.

And then to pull out, just in time, swerving to miss the masts, swinging away to avoid the balloons, flying across the fire of the rest of the formation. None of them knew for certain, in the smell and the noise and the juddering, whether his aircraft had been hit.

On the left 489 attacked the leading R-boats and minesweepers with such devastating effect that the flak from the van of the convoy was silenced completely. 455 attacked the close screen of minesweepers and the R-boat astern. 236, in the centre, went for the major vessels. As the four R. P. aircraft fired their rockets, thirty-two bright arrows of flame raced on ahead of them, two by two, their quiet sibilance heard only by the men on the ships under attack. There were ten rocket hits on the naval auxiliary and eight on the merchant vessel. The flak, which had filled the sky as the Beaufighters began their dive, was silenced.

Paddy Burns, in the leading torpedo aircraft, had watched the Beaufighters manouvring above him like a flock of migrating birds, and had held his own formation in check so as to time the torpedo run exactly. Now the Torbeaus of 254 Squadron launched their torpedoes. One of the pilots lost position and was squeezed out on the final run in, but the other nine dropped unopposed from a perfect position. Two hits were scored on the Amerskerke and two on the naval auxiliary.

As the R. P. formation crossed to the far side of the convoy they silenced the flak on that side with their cannon, so that the Torbeaus flew straight through without having a shot fired at them. Five of the anti-flak Beaufighters had suffered superficial damage as they dived down through the barrage at the beginning of the attack. But in a complex strike employing an air fleet of forty-two Beaufighters against one of the biggest convoys ever attacked, not a single aircraft had been lost.

As they turned short of the islands, climbed to 1500 feet, and formed up for the return flight, the crews looked back through the mist and smoke and cloud at the stricken convoy. The 8000-ton Amerskerke and the 4000-ton naval auxiliary were both down by the stern, listing badly, and sinking. One of the minesweepers blew up as they came away, and five others were on fire.

Stretched out behind the ship-busters was an awful scene of carnage to contrast with the peaceful progress of twenty ships a few minutes earlier.

At long last the anti-shipping squadrons, Cinderellas of the air forces for so long, possessed the strength and equipment necessary to guarantee the concentration of firepower which every strike pilot knew was the first essential to success against well protected convoys in daylight. The most formidable defences were parried and then swept aside, stunned by a barrage of minor blows, leaving the way clear for the torpedo or rocket to deliver the knock-out punch.

The attack of 15th June was the pattern for many more combined strike wing attacks in the ensuing months. The offensive was maintained in the North Sea; and at the same time the rapid overrunning of western France by our armies increased the importance of operations in the Bay of Biscay.

Two new landmarks in the anti-shipping war were reached in August 1944. First, the Swedish Government announced that, due to the repeated hammering which their ships had taken, they would no longer insure them for trading with German or German-occupied ports. This was a body blow to Hitler’s hopes of fighting on. And secondly, a strike of profound significance took place on the 24th of the month, when a German destroyer and a motor torpedo-boat were sunk in the Gironde estuary by rocket attack alone. Bill Tacon, who fired the rockets that sank the destroyer, was thus confirmed in his view that the rocket was potentially a primary weapon, and that the Torbeaus could now be dispensed with, except perhaps against capital ships.

By September all enemy shipping had been driven from the Dutch coast by day, and few targets could be found even at night. And on the Norwegian coast, shipping now skulked by day in landlocked fjords and in small defended anchorages. But even here the strike wings sought them out, flying boldly, if not fearlessly, into precipitous retreats where there was hardly room to turn, knowing that German fighters were now concentrated in Norway, facing as many as forty fighters on occasion. They had the protection of the Mustangs, and they still wrought havoc amongst enemy shipping; but casualties were often severe.

The climax did not come until the last week of the war. Then, as the defeated German forces fled for Norway and the northern Danish ports in every kind of craft, all the strike wings were thrown in against them.

Amongst the Germans, the lucky ones were those left behind. Terrible damage was inflicted on every type of ship, nearly all of them crowded with troops, in the final débacle of the German armed forces.