Clearing The Channel: Air Force, Part 33

June 25, 2009 by Hugh A. Halliday
A Sunderland flying boat of No. 422 Squadron. [PHOTO: CARL F. SCHAEFER COLLECTION, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA202897]

A Sunderland flying boat of No. 422 Squadron.
PHOTO: CARL F. SCHAEFER COLLECTION, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA202897

The success of Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and the subsequent campaign to break out from that ancient province was due to the services and sacrifices of all three military arms—land, sea and air. The contribution of the air forces took many forms. One was close co-operation with naval forces in holding the ring against German forces that sought to attack the cross-Channel convoys so vital to the reinforcement of the beachhead.

The D-Day assault was unopposed by German naval forces, but in subsequent weeks the enemy skillfully marshalled what resources it had. These included U-boats (submarines), small warships (motor torpedo boats, known as E-boats, and T-boats which resembled small destroyers), small battle units (midget submarines; unmanned radio-controlled explosive motorboats), and conventional warships (destroyers). Each presented its own challenges. Royal Air Force Coastal Command, working in conjunction with naval forces, was the principal aerial defender of invasion waters.

As of D-Day, there were six Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons in Coastal Command. No. 404 Squadron (Beaufighters) operated in a daylight anti-shipping role; No. 415 Sqdn. (Albacores and Wellingtons) performed the same duties at night. No. 407 Sqdn. (Wellingtons) was engaged in anti-submarine operations, as were Nos. 422 and 423 squadrons (Sunderland flying boats).

In the North Transit Area between Iceland and Scotland, No.162 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn. was also active in hunting submarines. Formerly a component of the RCAF’s home-based Eastern Air Command, No. 162 had been transferred to Iceland in December 1943 and placed under British operational control. Although far removed from the Normandy area—and not described here in the interests of brev­ity—northern Coastal Command squadrons like No. 162 affected the battle in that many German U-boats passing through the North Transit Area were intended to reinforce those attempting to hinder the invasion campaign. Every U-boat sunk in the north was one less threat in the south.

In addition to the six RCAF squadrons, approximately 800 Canadians were scattered through RAF Coastal Command units. Many were aircrew; others were radar specialists. Some were far from the Normandy area, including 63 personnel in the Azores. Others were close to it. Nos. 172 and 612 squadrons, both based at RAF Station Chivenor on the north coast of Devon, England, had 31 and 27 respectively. Late in July, No. 415 Sqdn. was transferred from Coastal Command to Bomber Command. Most of its aircrew was posted to RAF anti-shipping squadrons, swelling the ranks of the so-called Lost Legion of Canadian personnel serving outside RCAF squadrons.

The “beat” patrolled by Coastal Command aircraft ranged from Boulogne, situated in France along the Strait of Dover, to Bordeaux, France, along the Bay of Biscay. It included any port that might provide German re­inforcements for the invasion area or offer an operational base in close proximity thereto. Overwhelming Allied air and naval power prevented daylight surface attacks on convoys proceeding across the English Channel. They also limited the success of nocturnal attacks. In the first week after D-Day, German E-boats managed to sink only three small freighters, two LST (Landing Ship Tank) transports and a half-dozen small craft. Returning to their bases at dawn, the enemy vessels were harried by Coastal Command aircraft.

A Mosquito with D-Day markings. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA175168]

A Mosquito with D-Day markings.
PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA175168

On June 13, pilots of No. 415 Sqdn. reported E-boats off Le Touquet, southwest of Boulogne. Their attacks were ineffective, but Beaufighters of No. 143 and 236 squadrons followed up, sinking three E-boats and one R-boat. One of the successful pilots was Pilot Officer William Auld of the RCAF. However, E-boats were difficult targets—very fast, relatively small and hard to assess for damage at night. A summary of Auld’s attack, carried out at 0502 hours, reads: “Aircraft on anti-shipping patrol sighted an unidentified vessel and attacked, dropping two 250-lb and two 500-lb M.C. (Medium Casing) bombs, air burst pistol, from 1,200 feet. Bombs seen to explode but no results were observed.”

Another attack by Auld, this one at 0142 hours on July 6, near Boulogne, was dramatic but inconclusive: “Aircraft on anti-shipping patrol sighted two E/R boats and attacked with two 250-lb and two 500-lb M.C. bombs, air burst pistol, in dive from 3,500 to 1,800 feet and with cannon in dive from 1,500 feet to 500 feet. No results were observed, but after attack only one E-boat seen.”

Auld was killed in action on Sept. 25, 1944.

The greatest damage inflicted on the E-boats came on the evening of June 14 when Bomber Command hit the English Channel port of Le Havre. Although there was considerable “collateral damage,” including 76 French civilians killed, 14 E-boats were destroyed in an operation described by a German admiral as “catastrophic.” A similar raid on Boulogne on June 15 killed 200 civilians, but practically ended E-boat operations for June 1944. Periodic revisits by bombers disrupted, but did not completely eliminate, the E-boat menace.

German destroyers based in the Bay of Biscay ports never got close to the invasion convoys. Almost from the moment they sailed they were under air observation. On the evening of D-Day, No. 404 Sqdn. dispatched 14 rocket-armed Beaufighters in company with 17 “Beaus” from No. 144 Sqdn. and eight Mosquitos of No. 248 Sqdn. Leading No. 404 was a relatively junior officer—Flying Officer Sydney S. Shulemson who was nevertheless recognized as one of the most efficient and inventive proponents of rockets in maritime warfare, including the use of armour-piercing rockets fired below a target’s waterline.

Southwest of Belle Isle (Brittany) they spotted three destroyers. The “Mossies” climbed to provide cover while the Beaufighters went down to maul the ships with rockets and gunfire. Approaching out of the sun they achieved surprise; some aircraft had completed their attacks before the flak started. A followup attack five hours later, this time by three Beaufighters of No. 404 Sqdn., inflicted further damage. The destroyers took refuge in Brest harbour until June 8 when they sallied again, only to run into the 10th Destroyer Flotilla which sank one and forced the other two, T-24 and Z-24, back into Brest. They were effectively out of the campaign, but would have one more encounter with No. 404 Sqdn.

As of D-Day there were 36 U-boats in Bay of Biscay ports with more in transit from Norway. The submarines began moving out on the evening of June 6, but Coastal Command presented a solid wall of air power to the enemy, virtually drawing lines between the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast of England, Ushant Island off Brittany, and between St. Alban’s Head on the south coast of England and Cap de la Hague in Normandy. The submarines were harried almost from the hour they sailed, though at a cost. The U-boats carried heavy flak defences, and in the first 24 hours after sailing they shot down four low-flying anti-submarine aircraft, including a Wellington of No. 407 Sqdn. which resulted in the deaths of six members of the RCAF. Also lost was a Liberator belonging to No. 53 Sqdn. and another Liberator of No. 224 Sqdn. Both incidents resulted in the loss of RCAF personnel. In the same period, however, U-955 was sunk and five more subs were so damaged they had to return to port.

One of those damaged was attacked on June 7 by two Mosquitos XVIII aircraft of No. 248 Sqdn. Flying Officer Alwyan L. Bonnet of the RCAF piloted one of the aircraft. This was an anti-shipping version of the Mosquito armed with a 57-mm cannon that fired six-pound shells. The aircraft discovered U-212 on the surface in the Bay of Biscay and swooped down. Bonnet fired one round before his gun jammed. He resorted to dummy attacks, drawing flak away from the other “Mossie” which fired 21 rounds. U-212 crash-dived and returned to port, but when it ventured out again in mid-July it was promptly sunk by British warships.

Coastal Command’s most remarkable feat came in the early hours of June 8 and it was a triumph for the RCAF’s Lost Legion. No. 224 Sqdn., based at St. Eval in southwest England, had a very high number of Canadian personnel. It flew Liberator VI aircraft—the most formidable sub-hunter of the war with an array of radar and enough depth charges for two attacks in a sortie. The 10-man crew of G/224 included seven members of the RCAF, namely Flying Officer Kenneth O. Moore, pilot and captain, Flying Officer J.M. Ketcheson, second pilot, Pilot Officer A.P. Gibb, navigator, plus Warrant Officers M.N. Werbiski, W.P. Foster, D.H. Griese and D.E. Davision, wireless air gunners. Moore and his crew had attacked a U-boat unsuccessfully on March 31, 1944. This night he and his crew would have better luck.

At 0211 hours, Moore homed in on a radar contact and, by moonlight, sighted a surfaced U-boat at the western entrance to the English Channel. Radar was switched off in the final two miles of his run, in case the enemy had detection equipment. The attack was delivered at 50 feet as Gibb in the nose turret exchanged fire with crewmen on deck. Six depth charges straddled the hull. Moore’s report grimly noted, “U-boat was observed to lift out of the sea and disintegrate and was then hidden from view as plumes rose up to full height.” By the time he had circled back, the sea was stained with oil patches.

The Schnorkel of a U-boat is barely visible in the water below a Liberator during the Second World War. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141384]

The Schnorkel of a U-boat is barely visible in the water below a Liberator during the Second World War.
PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141384

G/224 resumed its patrol and at 0240 hours gained another radar contact. The second attack was almost identical to the first, except that the flak was heavier. After the depth charges exploded, the submarine took on a heavy list. Its bow rose to a near-vertical position before it slid backwards into the sea. Circling, Moore switched on his Leigh Light (a powerful, focused beam) and illuminated three dinghies containing survivors amongst oil and wreckage.

Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) Moore had destroyed U-629 and U-373 in a single sortie, a feat unique in the history of Coastal Command. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and an American Silver Star. Several of his crew had been decorated for earlier exploits, but Warrant Officer Foster, who had been handling the radar, received a Distinguished Flying Cross. Two RAF members of the crew were also decorated.

RCAF public relations officers were ecstatic at the achievement of G/224, but they were almost equally delighted to learn that the crew always flew with a stuffed panda named Dinty. The mascot wore miniature RCAF battle dress, Canada badges, an observer wing and patent leather boots.

U-821 was sunk off Ushant on June 10, 1944, by a Liberator of No. 206 Sqdn. with two RCAF members in the crew. On June 20, Flying Officer Fred Foster, piloting a Wellington of No. 407 Sqdn., attacked and damaged U-971 southwest of the Scillies. It was finished off on the 24th by the combined efforts of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Haida and His Majesty’s Ship Eskimo and an aircraft of No. 311 Sqdn.

Air attacks on submarines tapered off owing to Schnorkel equipment which enabled the U-boats to cruise submerged—although at a slower speed—and thus avoid radar detection. The destruction of U-988 on the night of June 29-30 was almost a lucky break. It happened west of Guernsey in the Channel Islands when a Liberator of No. 224 Sqdn. spent several minutes investigating a very weak radar contact before identifying and bombing the enemy’s Schnorkel wake. Two members of the RCAF were among the crew. The submarine was damaged and was finished off at dawn by four British warships. Another success against a Schnorkel boat (U-1222) occurred on July 11 when a Sunderland crew of No. 201 Sqdn., patrolling the Bay of Biscay, spotted the submarine’s breathing tube and executed a successful attack. Four members of the flying boat’s crew were members of the RCAF.

The campaign continued to exact a toll. No. 415 Sqdn. lost a Wellington and seven men on the night of June 13, 1944, while No. 407 reported another Wellington missing on June 22 with six men lost. No. 404 lost a Beaufighter and its two men on June 28. The same unit suffered another Beaufighter loss on July 7, while No. 415 reported a further Wellington missing on July 13 with the loss of six men. This was followed by the loss of an Albacore and two men on July 26. In addition to these casualties, other Canadians were lost with various RAF units.

German efforts to attack the cross-Channel convoys continued up to the time that their Normandy front collapsed in August 1944. Towards the end of their campaign they used bizarre weapons and tactics, notably unmanned, radio-controlled explosive boats which appeared on the night of Aug. 2-3. The weakest part of this system was the “mother ship” directing the tiny craft. Coastal Command aircraft were ill-suited to deal with them, although they proved vulnerable to nimble Spitfires of the Second Tactical Air Force.

By Aug. 13 the major U-Boat bases had been encircled by American troops. The enemy now had no options other than to scuttle what could not be saved and attempt to escape with anything else. In an orgy of destruction they blew up every warship and merchantman within reach to deny their use to the Allies. That month they lost 36 submarines, including 11 scuttled or scrapped in French ports and four destroyed by bombing in Toulon. From Aug. 10-18, Coastal Command participated in the sinking of six U-boats in the Bay of Biscay, half in conjunction with warships. Canadians were involved in four of these, though as relative “spear bearers” in RAF crews.

The German retreat was marked by two events of significant interest to the RCAF. The first was in the evening of Aug. 24 when the destroyers T-24 and Z-24, holed up in Brest, had their final encounter with No. 404 Sqdn. In attempting to break out, they were swarmed by 18 Beaufighters of Nos. 236 and 404 squadrons, directed by a near-legendary New Zealander, Wing Commander E.W. Tacon. No. 404’s component had Flight Lieutenant William R. Christison in the lead. Numerous rocket hits ensured the destruction of both vessels. Flak from ships and shore was intense—15 Beaufighters were damaged. One of them ditched, but its crew was rescued. Christison himself had to make a single-engine landing in France.

Shortly after midnight on Aug. 27, a Wellington of No. 172 Sqdn. attacked U-534 near the mouth of the Gironde. The aircrew included three members of the RCAF, namely Flying Officer Thomas G. Robb, second pilot, Flying Officer Roderick B. Gray, navigator, and Warrant Officer Gordon H. Bulley, wireless operator. The submarine put up a stout flak defence, survived the depth charges dropped and escaped to Norway. The Wellington was shot down. Two crewmen, including Robb, went down with the aircraft. Over the next 15 hours, Gray performed heroics to save his comrades, concealed his own wounds, yielded his turn in a dinghy, and died before rescue. He was ultimately awarded a posthumous George Cross. Bulley, less seriously wounded, survived to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Service and sacrifice. That was Coastal Command in the Normandy Campaign, and the role of Canadians within that command.

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