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Hunting U-boats From The Air: Air Force, Part 15



Top: A Canso flying boat observes the surrender of U-889 (left) to the Canadian navy off Nova Scotia in 1945; Bottom: A Liberator patrol bomber helps escort a trans-Atlantic convoy in 1943.

In the Atlantic, the first four months of 1943 were dreadful. By April the U-boat fleet had grown to 240 operational submarines and 185 more on trials and training. Convoy battles raged from Greenland to the Azores. During February, the enemy sank 63 ships–41 of them in convoy–and lost 16 U-boats. In March it was 108 ships lost for only 12 U-boats. Yet when the tide turned–as it did in May 1943–the change was sudden and dramatic as a series of new weapons and tactics, plus more effective code-breaking techniques and intelligence, forced crippling losses on the enemy, with 41 sunk in May alone.

Those months of struggle and transition were a frustrating time for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Eastern Air Command (EAC). As of January 1943, it had 201 operational aircraft, but only 85 were suitable for the anti-submarine war, specifically 10 Digbys, 43 Hudsons and 32 Cansos.

With most of the battles being waged far out at sea, EAC Cansos were the most significant RCAF presence in the Battle of the Atlantic, particularly those of 5 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron based at Torbay, Nfld. They were sturdy enough, but their large profile and slow speed rendered surprise attacks almost impossible. Added radar and aerials made them even more awkward to fly. The type seemed to have a “built-in headwind”, and many Canso crews returned to base with the barest reserves of fuel remaining in their tanks. Adding discomfort to stress, some crews considered the Canso as having been designed to induce airsickness.

During February, 5 (BR) Sqdn. made four attacks. Two others were made during March and April. Only one appeared successful, and even that was downgraded to “insufficient evidence of damage.” Finally, on May 4, Squadron Leader Barry H. Moffit homed in on radar contact some 750 miles northeast of Torbay. Perhaps the enemy was inattentive, given the extreme range and overcast, but Moffit achieved surprise and blasted U-630 into oblivion. He then forced another U-boat to submerge, although with no more depth charges he could not inflict any significant damage.

That same day, another Canso crew encountered a new enemy tactic–a U-boat remaining on the surface to fight it out with flak. Flight Lieutenant J.C. Langmuir reported on the tactic: “As the aircraft came in to attack, the U-boat opened fire with anti-aircraft gun. After dropping the depth charges, the aircraft turned to port. The U-boat made a complete 360-degree starboard turn, pitching and rolling violently. Fire was resumed from the submarine and the aircraft moved out of range to mount the bow gun and then closed in for attack at about 80 degrees from the submarine’s starboard beam, lowering from 250 feet to 50 feet. The U-boat opened fire at 600 yards and the aircraft at 400 yards. The submarine used tracers and bursts were observed near the port blister. The aircraft’s fire was accurate over the conning tower and three men were seen to fall. One fell backward into the water and the others forward. While manoeuvring for a second attack with machine-gun, the aircraft lost trace of the U-boat, which had apparently dived.”

May 1943 had been a time of radical change, not only in the Battle of the Atlantic but in the history of the EAC. A look back demonstrates how long overdue the changes were.

The official RCAF history is critical of EAC leadership in the winter of 1942-43. Senior officers were slow to adopt more successful Royal Air Force tactics of hunting U-boats. Co-ordination of efforts with naval forces left much to be desired. In November 1942, Coastal Command suggested a four-week course for senior Canadian pilots, arriving in Britain on rotation, to benefit from British experience. The offer was not taken up. However, in February 1943, Coastal Command’s most deadly U-boat hunter, Sqdn. Ldr. T.M. Bulloch, visited Canada. He was accompanied by his RAF navigator, Flt. Lt. M.S. Layton, whose presence made Bulloch more acceptable to prickly Canadian egos.

Bulloch and Layton had a lot of advice to offer on subjects ranging from effective patrol altitudes (just below cloud base) to the need for electrically heated flying suits for Canso crews. Air Force headquarters in Ottawa was nonplussed that such junior officers should have so much to say. However, Bomber Reconnaissance aircrews–the people at EAC’s sharp end–were far more responsive.

If Norville Small had been EAC’s hero in 1942 (Eastern Air Command, March/ April), Clare Annis was EAC’s most influential figure of 1943. He was noted for his grasp of technical and operational matters. Indeed, much later–during the 1960s–people would recall staff meetings attended by numerous senior officers but with only two people talking. One would be an incomprehensible expert on this or that subject and the other would be Air Marshal Annis, the only other person who understood enough to ask intelligent questions.

As wing commander, Annis led 10 (BR) Sqdn. for much of its early history. As a group captain, he commanded Station Gander where his old squadron spent its most productive years. Annis appreciated the long-range capabilities of the Digby, but realized that something more was needed. He had long been urging the need for replacement aircraft and the Bulloch/Layton tour gave him fresh knowledge and arguments.

His briefing and persuasive skills came to the fore in March 1943 at an Atlantic Convoy Conference in Washington. EAC headquarters was granted more operational authority over all units in its area, including American squadrons in Newfoundland. At the same time a block of 15 Consolidated Liberators were assigned to the RCAF. This was no small feat because Liberators were in great demand in all theatres.

In EAC terms, the Liberator represented the finest anti-submarine aircraft of the war. It had enough range to close the Black Pit, a dangerous area of ocean that had been beyond the air cover radiating from Newfoundland and Iceland. The Liberator also had the very latest in radar, twice the ordnance load of a Digby or Canso, speed (250 mph compared to a Digby approach at 180 mph), and firepower in the form of .50-calibre machine-guns. Best of all, the Liberator was adaptable to almost every new gadget that came along, including homing torpedoes.

No. 10 (BR) Sqdn. was the logical unit to receive Liberators. Training was intense; for most pilots the Lib was their first experience with a tricycle undercarriage. RCAF Liberators became operational at Gander in May 1943, but their presence in Newfoundland was a closely guarded secret until July 3, 1943, when Pilot Officer R.R. Stevenson attacked and heavily damaged U-420.

Following its losses in May 1943, the German navy withdrew most of its U-boats from the North Atlantic, but in September 1943 a new offensive developed, with high hopes. U-boats carried heavier flak defences and acoustic torpedoes designed to knock out escorts. The result was a savage battle waged in mid-month centred on two westbound convoys, ONS.18 and ON.202.

The first blow in the battle was struck on Sept. 19. Flt. Lt. R.F. Fisher and crew had flown to Iceland, escorting His Majesty’s Ship Renown which had been carrying Winston Churchill from the Quebec Conference. Fisher was en route back to Gander when he spotted U-341 and attacked. His first pass was too high, but the enemy chose to stay on the surface for a gun battle.

The U-boat managed to damage one of the plane’s wingtips, but succumbed to two attacks with depth charges. A month later, on Oct. 20, 1943, as second pilot of a passenger flight to Montreal, Fisher was killed in a flying accident that took 24 lives, the worst single-airplane accident in the history of the RCAF.

The main battle for ONS.18 and ON.202 was fought between the 20th and the 23rd. Air and sea escorts dominated the action by day, but the enemy sank several vessels at night, including the escorts HMS Itchen, Polyanthus and His Majesty’s Canadian Ship St. Croix. As of the morning of the 22nd, the convoys were in former Black Pit waters, but this time there was almost constant cover from 10 (BR) Squadron’s Liberators. Sticking to “fight on surface” tactics, U-270 damaged a Liberator captained by Warrant Officer J. Billings but was itself crippled and forced out of the battle. In the heat of the action, Billings radioed for assistance. The nearest other Lib was 40 miles away, but sent the following reply: “I have a U-boat of my own on my hands.”

Other submarines were engaged without decisive results although the enemy was driven under the surface repeatedly. The most frustrating part of the battle was the failure of airborne homing torpedoes to work properly.

No. 10 (BR) Sqdn. scored its last “kill” on Oct. 26, 1943. Flt. Lt. R.M. Aldwinckle attacked U-420 some 750 miles northeast of Torbay. The first pass failed when five of the six depth charges failed to explode. However, the enemy remained on the surface for an hour, throwing up flak. When it became evident that the Liberator was not leaving, U-420 dived, fatally exposing itself to a second attack with depth charges and homing torpedoes.

The Battle of the Atlantic still had 18 months to run and EAC had more work to do, but nothing matched the heady intensity of air operations experienced in the autumn of 1943. Underlining the new situation was the transfer of 162 (BR) Sqdn. from Canada to Iceland in January 1944.

Eastern Air Command enjoyed progressive upgrades to equipment from October 1943 to the end of the war. The Liberators of 10 (BR) Sqdn. were joined by those of 11 (BR) Sqdn. Since late 1942, RAF Coastal Command aircraft had carried Leigh Lights which threw a narrow, intense beam and gave aircraft the ability to attack at night; RCAF Liberators finally received this tool. Lockheed Venturas began to replace the venerable Hudsons, and with them came rocket-firing ordnance. Radio sonobuoys were introduced to track submerged U-boats.

Unfortunately, the enemy did not return in strength. Attacks and kills happened in a “target-rich” environment, and by 1944 the Western Atlantic had ceased to be such a place. Home-based aircraft continued to find occasional targets far out to sea. On Feb. 14, 1944, Flying Officer A.P. Cheater of 10 (BR) Sqdn. damaged U-845, which was subsequently sunk by Allied warships as it headed back to base.

U-boats, operating singly or in pairs, still approached Canadian waters, although intense air patrols limited their ability to operate. One U-boat captain reported seven aircraft sightings in four days, each of which forced him to dive. In September 1944, two submarines operating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence found air and sea patrols so intense that they withdrew without sighting a single merchant ship.

Nevertheless, on Oct. 14, 1944, U-1223 torpedoed HMCS Magog in the St. Lawrence near Pointe-des-Monts, Que.; FO L.W. Peters of 161 (BR) Sqdn. landed his Canso nearby and took off wounded survivors in spite of heavy seas.

In 1945, detecting schnorkel-equipped U-boats was almost impossible; EAC’s last attacks were directed more at williwaws (squalls) and driftwood than solid contacts. However, by mid-May the aircrews were escorting very real submarines–U-190 and U-889–which had surrendered in EAC waters and were being sent into Bay Bulls, Nfld., and Shelburne, N.S., respectively.

The Battle of the Atlantic was over, and EAC could begin to fade away through squadron transfers and disbands. However, it was not formally dissolved until March 1, 1947.

Between July 1941 and May 1945, EAC reported 84 attacks on U-boats. Two of these were futile gestures by aircraft lacking any ability to damage a submarine–one by a Kittyhawk fighter, one by a Lysander Army Co-operation aircraft. In at least 10 cases, the attacks were assessed as “insufficient evidence of an enemy presence.” The six U-boat “kills” registered by EAC crews thus constituted a commendable achievement given the relative paucity of targets for much of the war and the second-line quality of many of the aircraft used. Certainly, more attacks and more U-boat sinkings would have resulted from an earlier introduction of modern weapons. Eastern Air Command would have also benefited from an earlier application of tactics learned from RAF experiences.

The EAC “alumni” have been overshadowed by their overseas comrades, though many went from East Coast stations to foreign lands. Maurice Bélanger, for example, having earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Battle of the St. Lawrence, added a Bar to the DFC as a Halifax pilot with 425 Sqdn. Eastern Air Command veterans also became prominent in postwar civil as well as military affairs. As a Canso pilot in 5 (BR) Sqdn., Fred Colborne made two attacks on U-boats and earned a DFC; postwar he became a provincial minister in Alberta. Paul Lafond earned a DFC as a navigator on 10 (BR) Sqdn. Liberators; he was later appointed to the Senate.

For the men and women of the EAC, the words “we stand on guard for thee” had a special meaning.


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