Episodes & Studies Volume 2
HUNTING U-BOATS IN THE BAY OF BISCAY
HUNTING U-BOATS IN THE BAY OF BISCAY
FOR THE GREATER PART of the war, the main operational bases for the German U-boats were situated in the French Atlantic ports where, sheltered beneath many feet of concrete, they were immune from bombing attacks. But to reach the Allied shipping lanes from these bases they had to cross the Bay of Biscay. By the middle of August 1943 they were managing this only by remaining submerged throughout almost the whole passage and by creeping in and out close to the north-west corner of Spain, thus keeping as far as possible from the air patrols flown from the south-west of England. They had good reason to do so since, during the previous three months, twenty-seven U-boats had been sunk in the Bay area, twenty-four of them by air attack.
New Zealand airmen had taken part in this campaign from the outset, flying with the Sunderlands, Wellingtons, Whitleys, and Hudsons on patrols planned by the Area Combined Headquarters of Plymouth. During the first part of 1942, No. 489 (NZ) Squadron, was employed for a time on Biscay patrols, and it was during one of these sorties that serious action was first joined with the enemy by this unit. This was on 13 June, when a Hampden piloted by Flight Lieutenant R. G. Hartshorn11 beat off attacks by two German fighters whilst returning from an anti-submarine patrol. Several New Zealanders also flew with the first Wellington squadron to be equipped with the Leigh Light for night attacks in the Bay of Biscay. This two-million-candlepower searchlight, so named after the officer responsible for its development, was fitted in the under-turret of the aircraft. With pilot and radar operator working together it was possible to locate and home on to surfaced U-boats at night; then, at a range of approximately one mile, the searchlight would be switched on to illuminate the target, which could be attacked as by day. The Leigh Light, in a modified form, was later fitted to Liberators and Catalinas.
March to August 1943 saw the climax of the Biscay campaign. In the former month, the Leigh Light Wellingtons, many of which had now been fitted with improved radar, had considerable success. A typical attack was that made by Flying Officer W. Lewis12 as captain of one of these aircraft, on the night of 24-25 March. His crew of five included four other New Zealanders. They were nearing the end of the southward leg of their patrol when a radar contact indicated a possible target ten miles to starboard. Lewis immediately turned and homed on the contact, losing height at the same time. When the radar operator called the range as just under one mile, the Leigh Light was switched on. It lit up a fully-surfaced U-boat dead ahead. Six depth-charges were dropped near the vessel, which appeared to heel over on its side, but nothing further was seen. However, although it was disappointing for the crews of the Leigh Light aircraft not to be able to see the results of their attacks, their efforts were soon rewarded. Towards the end of April, U-boats began to appear on the surface by day rather than face the sudden and unexpected attacks in darkness. They also began to carry increased armament to drive off aircraft that surprised them, or at least to upset the accuracy of the attacks. Although some aircraft were shot down and others damaged,* the density of the patrols was now such that an increasing toll was taken of the enemy. The duels which occurred gave the air gunners many opportunities to prove their skill. By directing a hail of fire at the gun positions on the conning tower as the aircraft went in to attack, they enabled their captains to aim the depth-charges with a minimum of interference. On one occasion a Sunderland sighted a U-boat, which opened fire and zig-zagged as the aircraft approached. The front gunner, Flight Sergeant R. C. Armstrong,13 directed his fire with such good effect that several of the enemy gunners were seen to crumple. The flak slackened and his captain was able to take accurate aim. The U-boat shuddered violently as the depth-charges exploded and soon afterwards it sank, leaving a large patch of oil on the sea in which about thirty of the crew were seen.page 27
Sometimes both hunter and hunted perished, as when a Wellington crashsed on the deck of a 1600-ton supply U-boat during its attack. The U-boat was sighted and sunk half an hour later by another Wellington captained by Flying Officer J. Whyte.14 He also found the sole survivor from the first aircraft in a small dinghy a few miles from the scene. Supplies were dropped to him and the position reported so that both he and the survivors form the U-boat were subsequently rescued.
Towards the end of June 1943. new tactics were adopted by the enemy to counter the air offensive. His outward-bound submarines began to cross the Bay in small groups in order to give mutual anti-aircraft support. One of the first sightings of such a groups was made by was made by a Liberator captained by Flight Sergent W. Anderson.15 During its approach the aircraft was heavily hit by concentrated cannon and machine-gun fire from three submarines travelling in V formation. One member of the crew was seriously wounded and large holes were torn in the fuselage and one wing. Nevertheless, in a second attempt, Anderson succeeded in depth-charging a U-boat on the outside of the formation. The other two then dived, leaving the third damaged and wallowing on the surface.
In spite of these new tactics by the enemy, July 1943 was a disastrous month for his U-boats, no fewer than twelve being sunk in the Bay area alone. The Leigh Light Wellingtons continued to maintain the pressure by night with good effect. Some of them were now flying on to Gibraltar, while a detachment there was flying patrols to the north-west to link up with those flown from the United Kingdom. Towards the end of the month Flight Sergeant D. E. McKenzie20 had the experience of taking part in three night attacks within a fortnight. On the third occasion the U-boat was so damaged that it had to be towed into a Spanish port. Of the daylight attacks in which New Zealanders took part during the same period, one of the most successful was made by Wing Commander A. E. Clouston,21 who after a distinguished career in experimental flying had come to Coastal Command a few months before to take charge of a Liberator squadron based in Cornwall.
In his unit were many New Zealanders, both on the ground as well as in the air. One of the flight commanders was Squadron Leader M. A. Ensor, an outstanding figure in Coastal Command. In 1945, when Ensor was awarded a bar to his DSO, the official citation stated that, in addition to a fine operational career, ‘He had contributed much to the development of new and successful methods of attacking enemy submarines’.
In August 1943, after a week in which nine U-boats were sunk in the Biscay area, there was a considerable reduction in the traffic across the Bay, and during the following months the enemy showed little inclination to restore it. Instead, he kept many of his submarines in port for re- equipment with the Schnorkel device with which he hoped to operate them successfully against the Allied invasion armadas. Those that made the passage hugged the north coast of Spain more closely than before, sometimes even within the limit of Spanish territorial waters, an area crowded with fishing craft which made their detection very difficult.
But the hard-won advantage that had been gained by the aircrews was not allowed to slip from their grasp. The Bay patrols were continued relentlessly both by day and by night and any U-boats sighted were hunted to exhaustion.
* A Sunderland flying boat was so badly holed in one encounter that it was forced to land in a ploughed field, a feat that was achieved without injuring the crew.