Britain At War

Front Line Sketches
and London Letter

by Ralph Michaelis, RAF

Some folks used to derive a great deal of satisfaction during the more leisurely times of peace in sitting for days as spectators at a murder trial in order to see the murderer brought to bay, and finally sentenced to death. That was never one of my hobbies; but I experienced what must have been those emotions of anticipation and satisfaction to the nth degree at a Coastal Command Station the other day, as I watched the death sentence passed and executed on a German convoy.

The show started in the early hours of the morning when a couple of Beaufighters took off bound for the Dutch Coast a hundred-odd miles away, on reconnaissance. Now the Beau, as you probably know, is an ugly, flat-nosed brute packing a terrific punch, with four cannon and six machine guns all firing forward. The enemy seldom lives to know what hit him, and I have heard of Ju-88 crews baling out at the mere sight of Beaufighters. I can only comment that it was a wise precaution; because once a Beau has hit you, there is no such thing as baling out, and, in fact nothing left to bale out from.

To send these Beaus out on a recky (or reconnaissance) with orders to be good boys and not to get into any fights, but simply to keep their eyes and their cameras skinned for German shipping is like sending out Joe Louis to see and report back whether the rabbits are eating the salad.

At least, that is what their crews feel about it. But these reckies along the Dutch Coast are operations as vital as any undertaken by the RAF for the destruction of the enemy's war material is largely dependent on them. His convoys creep southwards along the coast under the protection of shore guns from Narvik in the North of Norway with iron ore for the blast furnaces of the Ruhr, which they reach through the canals and inland waterways of the Low Countries. They make their way northwards with submarine engines and spares, and ships' stores for their naval base.

Usually they only travel by night or in thick weather along the Dutch Coast, owing to the vigilance of our reckies, and hide themselves away in some port during the day time. But sometimes, when speed is urgent, or maybe through a miscalculation in the weather, they travel by day, and one of our reckies catches them.

On the occasion of which I am writing the day dawned clear with a visibility of some twenty miles, and the Beaus spotted two large German convoys, the one steaming southwards, and the other stationary, either mustering to go out, or into port. The Beaus crept in, hoping not to be seen, like a couple of 180-pound drunks trying to get into the house after a heavy night out without waking the wife. They approached near enough to take their photographs, and to be greeted with a salvo of flak from the flak ships flanking the convoy which was sailing in two lines with other flak ships between the lines, and a bunch of balloons like a Christmas carnival floating overhead.

As soon as the boys were back with their report, we knew there would be action; but not for them; and they were sick as an Irishman banned from Donnybrook Fair. But it couldn't be helped. Recky was their job, not strikes; and someone else was going to be in at the kill.

Meanwhile, quite a lot of activity was going on. Everyone in England who had any business to know was informed that the Germans were out. Another recky was sent to keep touch with the convoy, and Fighter Command was informed, in case the ships should make for the Channel, and thus come within range of the Spitfires.

I looked over the photos with the Intelligence Officer. There were the unmistakable ugly broad iron ore ships from Narvik, low in the water, and loaded well above their Plimsoll lines, with the armed trawlers and flak ships echeloned across the convoy.

The second convoy consisted of medium-sized freighters between 3,000 and 5,000 tons, the number and disposition of the derricks on their decks suggesting that they were loaded with heavy machinery, such as submarine engines and spare parts.

While we were thus busy on our side, the Germans had sent out an SOS for fighters as soon as they knew they had been spotted, and by the time the next recky got out there, the area around the convoys was swarming with FW-190s.

Touch was kept, however, with the convoys, and at dusk a strike force of Hudsons went out loaded up with bombs.

With the aid of a pathfinder who went ahead of them dropping flares, they chewed up the northward bound convoy pretty well, in spite of the fact that it was ready for them, and put up a curtain of flak fire. The other convoy, however, was nowhere to be seen. It had doubtless put into port for safety's sake.

But that was not the last that was heard of it.

The information obtained in these reckies is passed on to the Ministry of Economic Warfare who are able to deduce from the type of ship and probable cargo combined with other information at their disposal whether it is destined for Krupps at Essen, or for Renault in Paris.

And Bomber Command, acting on that analysis, follow up those cargoes onto the rivers and canals that carry them inland, to the wharfs where they are unloaded, to the very factories themselves. And even when a part escapes and issues in the form of the manufactured article, whether guns, tanks, airplanes, or other war material, these, too, are followed and bombed by Bomber Command.

And now you may ask why that early morning recky did not in the first case go right in and bomb the convoy, and save all this trouble of following it and its component parts for months.

Well, that is what used to be done both by the RAF and the Luftwaffe at an earlier stage in the war. But in static warfare, the combatants dig themselves in, so to speak, to such an extent that the defense of shore batteries, single-seater fighters and anti-aircraft barrages becomes practically impenetrable in daylight except to a surprise attack out of thick cloud. And even that makes things as difficult to the attacking force as to the defense.

The system of perpetual standing offensive and defensive patrols practiced in World War I has not been followed by either combatant in this war. The reasons given are the huge consumption of fuel required, and the speed with which, aided by radio location, modern fighters can be put into the air.

I am not myself convinced that the day of the standing patrol is over in the static warfare of prepared positions. I believe it has such advantages that it must come back. But that is merely my opinion.

Recently the Mosquitos had their first tryout as fighters. Up to now they have been used as long-range daylight fighter bombers, their most notable raids being those against the Gestapo Headquarters at Oslo, and against Berlin, when they sent Mr Goering scuttling underground, and delayed his radio speech.

Two of them accompanied by a third shot down two of a party of Ju-88s in the course of a 1,000- mile flight in the Bay of Biscay. This is their story.

When they were sixty miles west of the Gironde estuary, one of the Mosquitos' navigators spotted some Ju-88s low above the water about two miles away.

"When we got close to them they were about 100 feet or so above the water," said the leader of the Mosquitos. "We had to turn to attack, and I dived down to give one a fairly long burst. White smoke from him spread over the sea almost immediately and his starboard engine stopped. Then my No 2 gave him a burst as I broke away.

"Strikes were seen to get home on the fuselage, and when I returned to the attack the Ju-88 was streaming gasoline onto the sea. His starboard engine was now on fire, and all I had to do was to hit him from astern once more and watch him go into the drink."

The third Mosquito which accounted for the other Ju-88 was flown by an Australian pilot who had never before shot down an enemy in air combat.

"I let mine have it truly and well with cannon shells," he said. "His hatch blew off and fire broke out in the fuselage, just behind the rear gunner. The gunner must have been getting singed, for he jumped out, his parachute did not open, and as he was only 100 feet above the water he simply bounced. His aircraft followed him soon afterwards with terrific impact after my last burst of fire."

The other Ju-88s appeared in the distance, but on seeing the burning wreckage of their comrades they turned and made for the safety of the French coast.

Seeing that the Beaufighters have been consistently beating up the Ju-88s in "The Bay" for some months, and that the Mosquitos are much faster and carry an even heavier punch than the Beaus, the result of this fight was not surprising. It will be interesting to see how the Mosquito shapes against enemy single-seater fighters.

The speed of this latest offspring of the de Havilland family is a very hush-hush secret, but is something quite tremendous, and its armament is terrific.

The ancestry and development of airplanes is always an interesting study. In the de Havillands, the family resemblance is particularly remarkable, especially about the tail.

Throughout the range of de Havillands, from the early BE-2s which Captain Geoffrey de Havilland designed for the Royal Aircraft Factory to the DH-5, a biplane fighter with back staggered wings, the DH-6, that 50-mile-an-hour terror of the U-boats of another war, which would float around like a helicopter, the DH-4, fastest reconnaissance fighter of World War I, with a Rolls Royce engine, the DH-9 with an Armstrong Siddeley engine, to the DH-9a with a Liberty engine, they all had the same distinctive, high, self-assertive tail. Then came a long range of air liners and training machines, including the famous DH Moth, the standard initial trainer of the RAF, all flaunting the family tail, and now the latest child, the DH-86, or Mosquito, with a more strongly emphasized family resemblance in his tail than ever.

It is to these family resemblances in airplanes, by the way, not only in DHs, but in Bristols (Beaufighters, Beaufort, Blenheim) in Avros (Lancaster, Manchester, Anson) in Handley-Pages (Hampdens, Halifax) and in Heinkels, Junkers, Messerschmitts, Dorniers, and Henschels, that the spotters of the Royal Observer Corps, and the anti-aircraft gunners look in identifying doubtful aircraft.

But the Mosquito has an even more striking resemblance to its earliest ancestor than in its tail. It is of the same flesh and blood, so to speak. It is made of wood, which has proved to be quicker in construction, and just as tough, for this particular purpose, as metal.

The Battle of the Atlantic is causing some preoccupation in the country at present; and as the tonnage of ships lost by U-boat action is not published, for security reasons, the public can choose between the alternating optimism and pessimism of the speeches of the Minister for the Navy, the pessimism of those of the Minister for Agriculture, and the bland assurance of those of the Minister for Air.

But to get down to brass tacks, the fact remains that, as I have emphasized in these letters previously, the Allies are critically short of long distance aircraft for convoy work in the Atlantic.

The use of helicopters is a stopgap sop to public opinion, whose usefulness remains to be seen; but it is certainly better than nothing.

One of the most curious happenings in the Battle of the Atlantic is the withdrawal of the big four-engined Focke-Wulf 200s from their reconnaissance work in the Eastern part of the North Atlantic.

Their job consisted in spotting our Atlantic convoys, and informing the U-boats of their whereabouts. Lately they have been withdrawn to act as heavy bombers on the Russian front, leaving the U-boats to do their own scouting.

In one recent battle with a pack of some twenty U-boats following a convoy, which lasted for five days, several of the submarines were destroyed and others damaged.

RAF Liberators and Fortresses came swooping out to meet them in the foulest of Atlantic weather.

Within twenty-four hours of the first German attack on a ship, three U-boats had been attacked and a fourth sighted.

On one day, in a period of eight hours, Liberators and Fortresses made five attacks and three sightings. Altogether ten sightings and seven attacks were made before the convoy reached its destination.

One Liberator attacked three U-boats in four hours, depth-charging two of them, and raking the third with cannon fire.

The Squadron Leader who led one Liberator patrol bombed a U-boat from a height of thirty feet, nearly capsizing his plane with the blast from his own bombs. The explosion was so terrific that some members of the crew heard it above the roar of their four engines. Pieces of the submarine were blown hundreds of feet into the air, and went showering back into the sea for several seconds.

"A large black object, probably the bow of the U-boat, leaped out of the water, and slowly sank," said the squadron leader. "The crew were convinced it was a kill, for, when we left the spot, there was an ever increasing patch of oil, and a twenty foot length of bright yellow timber was floating in the middle of it. The inside of the U-boat was painted yellow. Seagulls hovered, vulture-like, overhead."

This article was originally published in the June, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 6, pp 18-21, 58.
The original column includes 4 paintings: Russian convoy engaged with Ju-88 and other Nazi planes, B-17s over Rouen, Mosquito strafing trucks in Italy, Lancasters over Hamburg.
2 Paintings signed by Roake, 1 by W Krogman, 1 by Pace. Credits to British Combine.