The Failure of Royal Navy Air Power 1939-40

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During the Norwegian campaign there was one brilliantly successful but now almost forgotten exploit by the Fleet Air Arm. On 10th April 1940 Skua dive-bombers flying from the Orkneys sank the German cruiser Konigsberg in Bergen harbour. Although this was the first time a major warship had been sunk by air attack, the word appeared to fall on stony ground in the Admiralty. Skuas were withdrawn from operations in early 1941 and thereafter the Fleet Air Arm had no specialist dive-bomber until the unsatisfactory Barracuda in 1943. But for the Germans and the Japanese the attack on Konigsberg was a textbook demonstration and later in the war both showed that they had read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested the lessen of.

In significant measure the Royal Navy’s inability to secure the initiative in the North Sea reflected the failure of the Royal Air Force to prepare for maritime war. The experience of 1914-18 had demonstrated that aircraft had a major role in naval warfare, in reconnaissance, anti-surface, anti-submarine strike, and fleet air defence, but the Royal Air Force did not develop effective aircraft or weapons between the wars. This was most significant in the field of ASW, where the standard patrol aircraft of 1939, the Anson, was less effective, in range and weapons, than the 1918 Kangaroo. The malaise was deeply rooted. It began when the service was founded by army officers under Air Marshal Lord Trenchard. In 1935 Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris insisted that the answer to the submarine, and by implication every other naval threat, was to area-bomb shipyards and naval bases. Harris seems to have been unaware that in the event of war the enemy would be a foreign power, and not the Royal Navy. In the process he sacrificed coherence, logic, and the hard won lessons of war in pursuit of a greater budget share for the unproven concept and systems of strategic bombing. He went on to make wholly specious arguments about the superior mobility of land-based aircraft over those based on carriers, arguments revived by the RAF, whenever the navy was attempting to procure new carriers. As a result the RAF went to war in 1939 with a standard patrol aeroplane incapable of sustained operations off the Norwegian coast and no effective submarine-killing weapon.

While the mere presence of aircraft might deter submarines, the Germans would soon realise that the planes had no bite. Throughout the war this task was given a low priority: small numbers of British Sunderland flying boats were produced, there were only 27 at the outbreak of war, and the mainstay of Coastal Command for the first three years of the war would be worn-out ex-Bomber command types, supplemented by small numbers of superior American Catalinas, Hudsons and Liberators. Under pressure from Churchill, and fortuitously re-equipped with new Hudsons, Coastal Command’s performance had improved by the end of 1939, but an effective anti-submarine bomb took longer to introduce. Air reconnaissance was vital because, in contrast to 1914-18, the British did not yet have access to German signals. Instead the Germans had access to British ciphers, forcing the British to rely on visual indicators and radio direction-finding to locate U-boats. The British also lacked a long-range torpedo bomber; the Beaufort was in development, but not in service. This left anti-shipping strikes to RAF medium bombers, using level attack profiles that scored very few hits, even on stationary targets. The raid on Wilhelmshaven at the outbreak of the war was typical, there were very few hits and the only one that might have been effective did not explode. Lacking suitable aircraft and weapons, air power provided little help to the navy in the North Sea/Scandinavian theatre up to April 1940.

Having recently recovered control of the Fleet Air Arm, the navy was equally hampered in its embarked aviation. The Air Ministry had denied the navy access to the best aero engines, so the standard fighter-bomber and torpedo bomber used a power plant with only half the output of the engines used by land-based fighters. The naval fighter, the Skua, was slower than the Junkers 88. Nor did the navy have enough of these less imperfect aircraft. The new carrier ARK ROYAL had hangar space for 72 aircraft, but never operated more than 40, reflecting a lack of planes and pilots. This mattered because the Home Fleet had useful air warning radar and could have used more and faster fighters to provide effective air defence. Radar-based fighter direction was effectively invented during the latter stages of the Norwegian campaign. It quickly became a critical element in reversing the balance of power between land and sea power. The legacy of RAF control of ship- and shore-based naval aviation between 1918 and 1939 proved to be catastrophic. The aero-naval campaign for Norway only emphasised the fact that Britain could not command the North Sea in the face of German bombers.

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There were sixteen of them: seven from 800 Squadron led by Captain R. T. Partridge, Royal Marines, and nine from 803 Squadron led by Lieutenant W. P. Lucy, RN. The night was cold and starlit with 4/10 cloud and no more than a whisper of wind. The Skuas, loaded to capacity with 500 lb SAPS, were sluggish and hard to taxi. Harder still to take off. For the Hatston runways were short; and several pilots saw the airfield’s perimeter rushing towards them before they got their planes into the air. Nor, when they were airborne, were their troubles at an end. For the overloaded Skuas were devils to keep in formation. Like a school of ungainly hippopotami they wallowed east, having to be nursed every yard of the 300-0dd miles to the Norwegian shore. But with one exception they managed to keep together.

For nearly two hours they clawed through the darkness; then, a few minutes after seven o’clock, they made the sort of landfall that every observer dreams of, hitting the Norwegian coast slap opposite Bergen within half a minute of BTA. And as they identified their position at the mouth of Bergen Fjord the blood-red oriflamme of the sun rose over the hills to greet them. They climbed to 8,000 feet, working their way into its path. Everything was still and very quiet. The sixteen Skuas seemed to be the only living things in a world not yet awake.

Soon they could see the Konigsberg: a sliver of silver aglint in the sun-apparently oblivious of the wrath to come. The two squadrons went into line astern, like a string of beads threading the path of the sun. Then Lucy tipped the leading Skua into a sixty-degree dive. He was down to 4,000 feet before the ack-ack opened up.

The Germans had been caught unawares. The crew of the-Konigsberg were not even at action stations. Their first hint of danger was the bark of their own ack-ack guns and the whistling roar of Lucy’s bombs which scythed into the sea less than a dozen feet from their stem.

The Konigsberg was lifted half out of the water and flung violently against Skoltegrund Mole. And before her crew could recover their wits she was hit again and again and again.

For the pilots of 800 and 803 Squadrons were past masters in the art of dive-bombing. This was the job for which they had been trained: this was the job .for which their aircraft had been designed. And now, in spite of the curtain of ack-ack which began to stream up at them, they pressed home their attack with the speed and precision of a well-rehearsed maneuver. Within three minutes the Konigsberg had been smothered in fifteen hits and near misses. No bomb landed farther away from her than fifty yards, and the average mean error in bombing was well under twenty yards.

Such accuracy would have been commendable on a defenceless target. And the Konigsberg was far from defenceless. For as soon as the Germans woke up to what was happening, a fair volume of fire was thrown up at the Skuas: light ack-ack from positions in the encircling hills, and pom-pom and machine-gun fire from the cruiser herself and the various ships in harbour. There was no heavy ack-ack, except from one gun in Konigsberg. But that one gun, to quote Partridge, was ‘unpleasantly accurate. And her gunners certainly had guts. They were the first to open fire. They went on firing right through the attack. And as the last aircraft pulled out of its dive they were still blazing away at us’. Three Skuas were hit: one badly.

But the Konigsberg suffered a great deal more.

Five bombs landed within thirty yards of her stern, flinging her bows deep under water, collandering her after gun-turrets with splinten, and swamping her with great cataracts of spray. Another five landed on Skoltegrund Mole, blasting dust and debris on to her deck. Two more sheered through her starboard rail and exploded in the few feet of water between ship and shore. And three were direct hits: one on ‘A’ turret, one on the port quarter, and one amidships flush between the funnels.

The Konigsberg became in an instant a blazing wreck. Great flames poured out of her, a hundred feet into the air. Below-decks casualties were heavy. As the last of the Skuas disappeared to seaward, she rolled slowly on to her side. Her crew fought desperately to save her. But they hadn’t a hope. Within minutes the flames got through to her magazines. There was a heavy explosion: a thin column of light-brown smoke: and the Konigsberg broke in half. Her screws tilted up at the sky, and in a hissing cauldron of steam she capsized and sank.

The Skuas made their getaway low, zigzagging down Bergen Fjord, machine-gunning shipping en route. At the end of the fjord they reformed over Lyso Island; then they set course for home. All except one. Lieutenant Smeeton and Midshipman Watkinson had been seen to pull out of their dive and head down the fjord, but they were never seen again.

At 9.45, after a flight of four hours and thirty minutes, Partridge and his Skuas touched down at Hatston. Several of them hadn’t enough fuel in their tanks to cover an upended penny.

Partridge and Lucy were awarded DSOs. Lucy was shot down and killed when flying from Ark Royal on 14th May. Partridge was shot down, badly burned in the attack on Scharnhorst in Trondheim on 13th June; he was picked up and spent five years as a POW.

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