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Air Operations Of
Part Two -January - December 1941
|At R.A.F. Wick, the
year 1941 was to prove similar in many ways to the preceding year - a
steady routine of convoy protection and general reconnaissance patrols
punctuated by attacks on U-boats and enemy shipping off the Norwegian
coastline. The greatest coup of that year belonged to Wick's Photographic
Reconnaissance Unit which found and photographed the "Bismarck" and the "Prinz
Eugen" in a Norwegian fjord. The sturdy Hudsons were not to be outdone by
the glamorous Spitfires and among their outstanding achievements was a
successful bombing raid on the port of Aalesund. The year ended with both
Wick and Sumburgh providing the air strike and the fighter umbrella in
support of the Combined Operations raid upon the German-occupied island of
The month of January saw the arrival of a new squadron and a new aircraft to Wick. No. 502 Squadron was the first Coastal Command unit to use the Amstrong-Whitworth Whitley in its new maritime reconnaissance role. At that time Coastal Command regarded itself, with some justification, as the "Cinderella" of the R.A.F. since the Command was desperately short of suitable long-range aircraft. Until the impressive Liberator came forward in any large numbers, Coastal Command had to make do with hastily improvised bomber conversions, among them the Whitley and the Wellington. With a bomb load of 3,000 lbs., the Whitley had a range of 1,650 miles and the G.R. VII version could be easily identified by the row of radar Anti Surface Vessel (A.S.V.) "stickleback" aerials along the spine of the fuselage. Although something of a stop-gap measure, the G.R. Whitley units were responsible for sinking or seriously damaging at least fifteen U-boats.
Another unit equipped with the 'Whitley was No. 612 Squadron which moved to Wick in March 1941. Many of the Squadron's early sorties were abortive owing to the unserviceable A.S.V. equipment. In the Spring, only seventy to eighty sorties were being flown, mainly on convoy escort duties.
Contrasting with the slow Whitley, which lumbered along at 160 m.p.h., were the racy, agile Spitfires of Wick's Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (P.R.U.) which were fitted with long-range fuel tanks and carried cameras instead of armament. Ranging far over the North Sea, their role was to report and photograph enemy shipping movements. Such a task fell to two P.R. Spitfires based at Wick in May 1941 when they took off to search for Germany's most powerful battleship "Bismarck" and the accompanying heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" which were poised to break out into the North Atlantic and wreak havoc among Britain's merchant shipping.
During the second week in May 1941 German air reconnaissance over Scapa Flow was increased which alerted Admiral Tovey to the imminence of a breakout into the Atlantic by a German force. On 18th May the "Bismarck" and the "Prinz Eugen" sailed from Gotenhafen (Gdynia). Two days later the German force was sighted by the Swedish cruiser "Gotland" while it was steaming north of Gotherburg. The "Gotland's" signal found its way to Capt. Henry Denham, the British Naval Attache in Stockholm who sent a Most Immediate signal to the Director of naval Intelligence in London. The signal contained the dramatic news the Admiralty had been waiting for:
"Kattegat today, 20th May at 1500, two large warships, escorted by two destroyers, five escort vessels, ten or twelve aircraft passed Marstrang, course North West".
Further confirmation was received from the Norwegian Resistance who reported the squadron off Kristiansund. This alarming intelligence spurred the Admiralty into action and by 3.30 a.m. on 21st May, two of Wick's P.R. Spitfires were made ready for a reconnaissance patrol over the Norwegian fjords. Later that morning Flying Officer Greenhill, D.F.C., and Pilot Officer Michael "Babe" Suckling took off from Wick and headed for Norway. It was Suckling who sighted and photographed two large warships in Kors Fjord, near Bergen. As he taxied his Spitfire up to dispersal at Wick, he was met by two aircraftmen waiting to remove his aeroplane's camera. Shoving back the cockpit canopy, Suckling exclaimed: "I've seen them! Two of Them! I think they are cruisers, although one could be a battleship!"
All crews returning from a mission were debriefed by the Station Intelligence Officer who had to be tireless in collecting facts, expert in checking them and concise in presenting them. While Suckling was being debriefed by Wick S.T.O., the wet prints of the photographs he had taken were brought in. The S.T.O. examined them and saw what the pilot surmised was indeed the truth. Suckling himself flew the prints down to Coastal Command Headquarters at Northwood, near Watford (where the Falklands campaign of 1982 was conducted from), making the last stage of the journey from Nottingham in a friend's car. Admiralty and R.A.F. photographic interpreters confirmed that they were the "Bismarck" and the "Prinz Eugen".
These same photographs have been frequently published in books and magazines over the past thirty years and are remarkable for their clarity in showing the distinctive outline of a major capital ship such as the "Bismarck". Michael Frank Suckling was awarded the D.F.C. and promoted to Flying Officer for his exploit: but sadly he was killed a few months later during another P.R.U. mission. He was flying over La Pallice on 21st July when he was shot down and killed by flak defences.
The clear weather which had enabled Suckling to photograph the German warships quickly worsened to frustrate a bombing mission made by six of 612's Whitleys. The weather had not let up the following day when, in appalling conditions, Commander Rotherham, navigator, and his pilot, Captain Fancourt, of the Fleet Air Arm, made a reconnaissance sortie over Bergen and were able to assure Admiral Tovey that the "Bismarck" and "Prinz Eugen" had left, presumed heading for the North Atlantic. A mere six days after Suckling's "discovery", the elusive Bismarck", which had sunk H.M.S. "Hood", had become disabled and on the morning of the 27th May was pounded to pieces by units of the Home Fleet.
No. 269 Squadron's long association with Wick was ended in June 1941 when the squadron moved to Iceland to patrol the North Atlantic Gap with its Hudsons. Just two months after settling in at their new base, there occurred one of the most astounding events of the war when one of the 269's Hudsons secured the capture of the U-boat U-570 on 27th August, 1941. Squadron Leader J. Thompson depth-charged and machine-gunned the surfaced U-boat forcing it to surrender. This remarkable capture presented the Royal Navy with its first real chance to thoroughly evaluate the performance of the principal weapon in the Battle of the Atlantic when the U-boat was commissioned as H.M.S. "Graph".
With the departure of No. 269 Squadron, Wick was shared by Hudson squadrons No. 220 (arrived April 1941) and No. 206 (arrived August 1941); a detachment of Beaufort torpedo-bombers from No. 22 Squadron; the two Whitley squadrons, Nos. 502 and 612. The latter squadron suffered a succession of losses and in August, two Whitley crews were killed. The. completion of Castletown airfield, on the land of Thurdistoft farm in 1940, meant that the fighter squadrons were based there rather than overcrowd the facilities at Wick.
A distinguished visitor to R.A.F. Wick in August 1941 was Mr. Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of New Zealand, who dined with two of his fellow countrymen: Flight Lieutenant S. McHardy of Napier, who had been decorated for shooting down a Messerschmitt and a Heinkel over Norway on the same day, and Flying Officer J. V. Swift who had won his D.F.C. for operations over Germany.
Following Coastal Command's harassment of enemy shipping in the English Channel during the summer of 1941, attention became more concentrated on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. These attacks reached a momentary climax in October and November 1941 when many of the raids took place by night during the moon periods.
On the morning of 29th October, a Spitfire from Wick made a P.R. sortie over the port of Aalesund in Norway. Interpretation of the photographs by the S.T.O. revealed the presence of several worthwhile targets and in consequence, nine Hudsons of No. 220 Squadron were briefed to take off at 1600 hours. Aalesund, which later became one of the Norwegian termini of the clandestine "Shetland Bus" ferry service in support of the Norwegian Resistance, lay 420 miles to the north-east of Wick. The first Hudson to arrive saw ships lying at anchor beneath a brilliant moon which illuminated the harbour in its frame of mountains on which the first snows of winter had fallen. Seven Hudsons broke formation to attack ships in the harbour area while the other two found shore targets.
The Germans were firing a lot of flak and as the Hudsons flew lowover the harbour, the anti-aircraft guns in the hills fired down on them, some of the flak going on to their own ships. One ship was straddled by a stick of bombs and became an inferno of flames and the attackers could actually see the plates burning red hot.
One of the pilots chose his target which was the biggest ship in the harbour and guessed that it measured about 5 to 6,000 tons. He approached from the north about five miles and throttled his engines right back. Coming down to about 5,000 feet, by which time he was nearly over the ship, he dived straight on to it. Performing his own bomb-aiming, he dropped his bombs at about 2,000 feet and as soon as the bombs were gone, he pulled up over the town, fully opened the throttle and climbed away from the scene still being harassed by the enemy flak.
Upon returning to the target area, he found to his immediate dismay that the ship appeared unscathed. However his gunner reported a glow forward and within minutes she was settling in the water by the bows. The ship sank rapidly and the last the Hudson crew saw of her was the ensign staff at the stern as it slid beneath the water. The ship had taken twelve minutes to sink from the time the bombs were released.
All nine aircraft returned to Wick from a mission which was later described as one of the finest carried out by such a small number of aircraft and which had mercifully incurred no casualties. In their report to the S.T.O., the crews claimed that they had hit a least seven merchant ships, and bursts were seen on a corvette type of vessel. Among the shore targets attacked were harbour installations, a fish oil factory and a power station. However it was not until much later that Lloyd's and German records were able to confirm that one merchant ship of 3,101 gross tons was sunk and two ships Of 1,371 and 1,108 tons respectively, were damaged in Aalesund during the attack.
In spite of the inclement wintry weather, the year ended in style with Wick and Sumburgh airfields providing the bombing support and the fighter umbrella for the Combined Operations raid on the German-occupied Norwegian island of Vaagso on 27th December, 1941. The Vaagso raid involved the combined co-operation of all three Armed Services and its subsequent success paved the way for future assaults upon St. Nazaire and Dieppe, and in expanded form became the basis for the great amphibious invasions mounted in the Mediterranean and Normandy, and indeed one may add the San Carlos landings in the Falklands during May 1982.
There is another similarity between Vaagso and the Falklands war: the problem of launching air strikes and providing air cover over long distances. Pour hundred nautical miles separated Wick from Vaagso, the same distance which separated the Argentine air base at Rio Callegos from the mid-point of Falkland Sound. In 1982 the Argentine pilots were flying close to the limits of their endurance and had very little "loiter time" over the target. In 1941 the same problems beset the organisers of the air cover, Group Captain A. R. Willetts and his chief assistant, Wing Commander R. J. Oxley, D.F.C. The long-range Beaufighter and Blenheim fighters would consume half their fuel in getting there and back meaning that immediately each sortie reached the target, the next would have to depart from base to relieve it on station.
Since Sumburgh was 150 miles nearer to Vaagso than Wick, the majority of fighter units were based there. Detachments from two Coastal Command fighter squadrons arrived at Wick just before Christmas. They were from No. 254 Squadron equipped with Bristol Blenheim IVFs and No. 404 (Buffalo) Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force also with Blenheims. Another arrival at Wick were the Hampdens of No. 50 Squadron Bomber Command, which were to provide the bombing support for the amphibious landings.
The air sorties were almost aborted when, on 26th December, a snow blizzard buried the airfields of Wick and Sumburgh causing a 24 hours' postponement of the strike. Braving the biting cold, the ground crews ventured out to sweep the snow off the aircraft and to run up the engines lest ice formed in the carburetters and vapour locks in the fuel lines. At 0400 hours on Saturday 27th December, 1941, the aircrews were awakened for breakfast while the ground crews, fortified by steaming mugs of cocoa, prepared the aircraft for take-off. Snow was swept off the wings, perspex canopies were cleaned and polished, and packed snow was cleared out of the air intakes and the hinges of the control surfaces.
The heavily laden Hampden bombers were the first away, staggering into the air with ice still coating part of the wings. The Hampdens were assigned the role of knocking out the gun battery at Rugsundo and dropping smoke floats to mask the landing of the assault troops. In spite of the weather, the Hampdens were on schedule as an amphibious assault force crept into the Vaagsfjord.
As the Commandos fought in bitter hand-to-hand engagements around the blazing German barracks and in the streets, thirteen Blenheim bombers of Bomber Command accurately bombed and destroyed the nearest Luftwaffe air-field at Herdla. The Canadians of No. 404 became entangled with Messerschmitt Bf. 109s from another base, scoring one probable victory.
One of the Coastal Command Blenheims returned with the observer and the rear gunner both badly wounded. After shaking off a Messerschmitt Bf. 110 from Trondheim, the pilot was forced down to sea level where the impact force of the water bent a propeller blade but after faltering for a moment the engine picked up. Within fifty miles of base, the wounded observer sent a distress signal. The Blenheim, with both flaps and undercarriage unserviceable, made a successful belly landing which was survived by all the crew.
The Vaagso raid was the first example of tri-service operation in which representatives from each service functioned as a joint team. The only notable failure in the operation was the faulty R.A.F. deck-to-air radio communication which caused the needless loss of several aircraft. However the R.A.F. gained valuable experience in the conduct of long-range aerial support which proved invaluable later in the war.