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Dropping 'Fish': Air Force, Part 44

A Bristol Beaufort, September 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA160969]

A Bristol Beaufort, September 1941.

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s overseas experience with torpedo bombers differed greatly from the sporadic and often ineffective operations on the home front. Although the RCAF carried only one torpedo bomber squadron in its overseas Order of Battle, many Canadians flew with British squadrons in this role.

The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm entered the war with one obsolete torpedo bomber type in service, the Fairey Swordfish. Its replacement, the Fairey Albacore, was not much better. The Royal Air Force was in worse shape, having only a few Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers. Two British-based squadrons exchanged these relics for Beauforts in 1940, but the old biplanes soldiered on at Imperial outposts.

Vildebeest aircraft formed the main torpedo bomber defences in Singapore before they were quickly eliminated during a Japanese attack in January 1942. One member of the RCAF, Flight Sergeant George Ewen of Toronto was killed in action in a Vildebeest on Jan. 26, 1942. The navigator was serving with No. 36 Squadron, and his name is recorded on the Singapore Memorial which commemorates casualties in that theatre who have no known grave.

The Vildebeest’s replacement, the Bristol Beaufort, was a modern, twin-engine aircraft capable of lifting bombs, depth charges or an 1,800-pound, 18-inch Mark XII torpedo. Nos. 22 and 42 squadrons were the first RAF units to receive the type, and among the first to fly them were British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) graduates. These men, who were trained under the Canada-based BCATP, began arriving in Britain in November 1940. One of them, Pilot Officer Lawrence Stanley Hill, a navigator from Calgary, had barely reported to No. 42 Sqdn. when he was dispatched on a Dec. 28 Beaufort mission to locate an enemy tanker off Trondheim, Norway. The aircraft was last seen on a homeward track off Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Hill and the other four crew members are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial west of London, England.

Torpedo bombing required both skill and nerves of steel. The “fish” were dropped from an altitude of roughly 80 feet, approximately 1,000 yards from target. Close for sure, but if a ship had shallow draught the torpedoes could pass harmlessly underneath. The attack itself demanded a straight and level approach which made the aircraft an easy target for enemy gunners, and so it was not uncommon for a strike force to lose a third of its planes. The death of Warrant Officer Alan Morris of Ottawa, a wireless operator in No. 42 Sqdn., is particularly tragic. Not only had the wireless operator in No. 42 Sqdn. completed his tour and participated in several attacks, he was ready to leave the squadron when asked to replace a sick man for a May 17, 1942, strike on the cruiser Lutznow. The mission was a disaster. Three Beauforts in the first wave were shot down. Four more—in the second wave—were destroyed by German fighters, and the cruiser escaped.

A RAF Beaufighter with torpedo. [PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH HALLIDAY]

A RAF Beaufighter with torpedo.

Torpedo bombers were dispatched in response to sighting reports, but more often Beaufort offensive operations consisted of mine-laying operations which caused the most aircrew casualties. Nevertheless, Sergeant James Philip Scott of Toronto, a RCAF navigator in No. 22 Sqdn., died during one of the most daring RAF torpedo bomber sorties. On April 6, 1941, Beauforts penetrated Brest harbour and attacked the German battle cruiser Gneisenau. The British pilot, Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, ran a gauntlet of flak before launching his torpedo which put the vessel into dry dock for eight months. The Beaufort crew perished in the mission; Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Urgent strategic and operational requirements diverted most RAF Beaufort squadrons to the Mediterranean, and so in order to maintain pressure on German maritime traffic, RAF Coastal Command formed two new squadrons—No. 415 (RCAF) and No. 489 (Royal New Zealand Air Force). Both were equipped with Handley Page Hampden torpedo bombers. Soon two more Hampden squadrons were added—No. 144 and No. 455 (Royal Australian Air Force)—both transferred from Bomber Command.

The Hampdens had begun the war as “heavy” bombers, but were retired from the role. They flew on as mine-layers, meteorological aircraft and torpedo bombers. Less manoeuvrable than the Beaufort, they were regarded as too slow and vulnerable to fighter attack, but their range and fuselage shape made them quite adequate in their new role.

No. 415 Sqdn. formed at Thorney Island, Sussex, on Aug. 20, 1941, worked up on Beauforts, and became operational on Hampdens in April 1942. The squadron often flew in company with its New Zealand sister squadron. Their most effective weapon was the Mark XII torpedo, but the Hampdens also operated with ordinary bombs and sometimes with depth charges. Indeed, their first anti-shipping mission on May 20, 1942, was with bombs; they did not attack a target with “fish” until July 1, 1942. Although No. 415 Sqdn. submitted several claims for enemy ships sunk or damaged, they did not register a solid success until April 10, 1943. The squadron operated Hampdens until September 1943; after that they sought out enemy shipping with bombs alone, carried in Wellington and Albacore aircraft.

The squadron’s theatre of operations ranged from Norwegian waters to the Dutch coast and southward to the Bay of Biscay. Daylight operations were rare. Instead, the Hampdens worked at night, without radar, in concert with Hudson aircraft which dropped flares to create silhouettes of the targets. Such tactics ruled out surprise attacks, and the Hampden crews were met routinely with intense flak.

No. 415’s first major success occurred on April 10, 1943, and it is an excellent example of the perils and challenges met. At 4:32 p.m., the squadron dispatched five aircraft from St. Eval in the United Kingdom, bound for the Bay of Biscay. The target was the 6,240-ton Himalaya, a cargo vessel intent on breaking out of Brest, France. The Hampdens linked up with a small Wellington bomber force, but when it was apparent that the Wellingtons were following the wrong track, No. 415’s crews broke away. Almost at once they found the Himalaya and attacked at 8:31 p.m. The ship and its four destroyer escorts threw up a curtain of flak. One Hampden was shot down and every other aircraft sustained damage. One machine returned to base on one engine, escorted by two less seriously damaged Hampdens. The Himalaya was so crippled that it had to return to Brest; it was never able to run the blockade.

In its search for more modern aircraft, RAF Coastal Command adapted the Bristol Beaufighter to carry a torpedo. Introduction of the “Torbeau” was a costly failure; on Nov. 20, 1942, No. 254 Sqdn., attacking a German convoy off the Dutch coast, lost three aircraft and failed to register a hit. They were withdrawn for training which lasted until April 1943. When “Torbeau” attacks resumed, they were conducted with new tactics; swarms of conventional Beaufighters smothered enemy defences with cannon and rocket fire while the torpedo aircraft approached.

An undated shot of a Hampden II prototype torpedo bomber. [PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM]

An undated shot of a Hampden II prototype torpedo bomber.

Although no RCAF squadron ever flew “Torbeaus,” a few Canadians served in units operating them. In this regard, the career of Squadron Leader John Aldridge Reynolds of Regina is illustrative of tactical developments. His first operational tour, which lasted from October 1942 to March 1943, was with Nos. 69 and 458 squadrons in the Mediterranean. He would locate enemy convoys using radar, and then drop flares to allow other aircraft to attack. Reynolds was so good at this that he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.

He commenced a second tour in February 1944, this time in Britain with No. 489 Sqdn. which had exchanged its Hampdens for Beaufighters and was using both rockets and torpedos. Reynolds earned a Bar to his DFC; his commanding officer wrote that he possessed a “very extensive knowledge of torpedoes and their development in Coastal Command.” One of the actions for which he was cited occurred on May 14, 1944, close to Ameland, an island off the north coast of the Netherlands. No. 489 Sqdn. dispatched six Torbeaus and six cannon-firing Beaufighters, supported by 12 more Beaufighters of No. 455 Sqdn. The target was a convoy of seven merchant ships with 12 escorting warships. Three of the merchantmen were reported torpedoed, although only one was sunk, along with an escorting German minesweeper. One of No. 489 Squadron’s aircraft was shot down.

Royal Air Force torpedo bombers had their most significant impact in the Mediterranean. Throughout the 36-month campaign in North Africa, Axis forces were continually starved of war materials. Bombers, torpedo bombers and submarines harried the enemy supply lines from ports of embarkation through transit routes to unloading docks; tactical aircraft interdicted road traffic thereafter. Beauforts took part in this work, as did Wellington bombers modified to carry torpedoes. Night work relied on other aircraft to find and illuminate marine targets. John Reynolds has already been noted in this regard. Other members of the RCAF flew in mixed crews, harvesting enemy shipping and paying the cost.

Paul Hartman flew 32 sorties out of Malta, piloting Wellington torpedo bombers with No. 69 Sqdn. On the night of Oct. 15-16, 1942, he located a large enemy merchant vessel escorted by two destroyers. Despite intense flak from the destroyers and a heavy smokescreen he made five runs before he was satisfied that he could drop his torpedo with any success. Crews of other aircraft reported he had destroyed the merchant vessel. American by birth, Hartman stayed with the RCAF, rose to Group Captain, became one of its most distinguished test pilots, and is now honoured in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

June 1942 was a busy month for Flying Officer William Stevens of Ottawa. He flew Beauforts with No. 217 Sqdn., and on the 15th was in a formation that damaged the Italian cruiser Trento. Stevens’ torpedo missed because he aimed ahead of the target, not realizing it was dead in the water. The Trento was soon finished off by a British submarine. Six days later Stevens piloted one of nine Beauforts that stormed past escorting destroyers and aircraft to sink the 7,600-ton Reichenfels, laden with vehicles and ammunition for the Afrika Korps. Stevens’ exploits were recounted by Ralph Barker in The Ship Busters, published in 1957, and also titled Torpedo Bomber.

A sortie on Oct. 26, 1942, by Pilot Officer Ralph Manning of Vancouver, flying with No. 217 Sqdn., certainly stands out. Rommel’s Afrika Korps was short of gasoline and the enemy was running a convoy directly to Tobruk; it included the tanker Proserpina. Given their importance, the ships were heavily escorted. Determined to intercept them, the Royal Air Force dispatched eight Beauforts, six Bisley bombers and nine Beaufighters. When they did find a convoy, six of the Beaufort crews, including the formation leader, dropped their torpedoes and missed.

Manning, in spite of his junior rank, trusted his instincts and refused to attack. He believed the ships were too small to be the main target, and concluded that the tanker was further away. Roy Nesbit, in the book The Armed Rovers, wrote: “His decision must be classed as one of the most important of those which affected the Battle of El Alamein.”

With one remaining Beaufort and two Bisleys, Manning continued to search and finally located the Proserpina with a torpedo boat in close escort. Flak striking the accompanying Beaufort caused a premature torpedo drop, so the fate of the tanker lay in Manning’s hands. For a few minutes he matched wits with the ship’s master, who manoeuvred to deny the Beaufort a clear run. When Manning finally attacked, he pressed home closer than normal and very nearly clipped the ship’s mast. His torpedo ran true, and “Rommel’s last tanker” went down.

The North African campaign still had six months to run, culminating in a mass surrender in Tunisia. As long as it lasted, the interdiction campaign went on as well, and RCAF torpedo bomber personnel continued to harass the enemy. One of these was Flight Sergeant Stanley Balkwill of Burford, Ont. He had earned his pilots wings at Moncton, taken advanced navigation courses at Charlottetown and the torpedo bomber course at No. 32 Operational Unit at Patricia Bay, B.C. Overseas he reported to No. 39 Sqdn. and flew a one-year tour; most of his sorties were from Malta.

On Feb. 21, 1943, he carried out a dawn strike on enemy shipping off Marettimo, Sicily. At 4:45 a.m. he sighted and attacked a medium-sized merchant vessel. The aircraft was repeatedly hit by flak in the fuselage and tail. The hydraulic and electrical systems were disabled, the rudder controls on one side completely severed and one elevator shot away. Nevertheless, Balkwill, by great skill and courage, returned to base, and was subsequently awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal.

On April 23, 1943, he participated in another notable sortie, again near Marettimo, involving the destruction of the 5,000-ton Aquino, a heavily damaged merchant vessel. Nesbit notes that this was the last vessel sunk by Beaufort torpedoes, and Balkwill was almost certainly the last Beaufort pilot to use the weapon.

A handful of Canadians served in No. 14 Sqdn. during January and February 1943. The squadron flew Martin Marauders and focused on an area stretching from the Straits of Messina to the Aegean Sea. One crew, consisting of British, Canadian and South African personnel, painted the words “Dominion Revenge” on their aircraft.

Soon the aerial torpedo was being replaced by rockets. On Aug. 27, 1943, the Germans employed radio-controlled glider bombs against Allied ships in the Bay of Biscay, a radical step in the evolution of stand-off weapons leading ultimately to the Exocet and Tomahawk missiles. The last operational use of the conventional aerial torpedo was May 2, 1951, by United States Navy Skyraiders, who used it to breach the Hwachon Dam in North Korea.

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