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HISTORY OF THE 423 SQUADRON

CHAPTER II

 

INTO ACTION - WORLD WAR TWO

 

An Equitable Trade

Rainy weather in June 1944 put a damper upon the squadron's sub-hunting success, but the month still held some noteworthy events. On 8 June, A/V/M W.A. Curtis arrived and presented 423 Squadron with its official badge (which the King had approved earlier). In exchange, W/C Rump presented the Air Vice-Marshall with six dozen eggs - a valuable offering indeed!

Changes in the nature of the war saw crews of the squadron operate in new areas. F/L Frizell's crew was called upon to fly protective patrols over a convoy bound for the Mediterranean, which ended up giving the crew a few days in Gibraltar, a welcome break from the Irish weather.

More important was the seconding of several crews to operate in the Bay of Biscay area. Allied air units protecting the convoys far out at sea had been so successful that the Germans had been forced to change tactics. Now, the wolfpacks were operating closer to home, where they enjoyed greater numbers and German air support to keep the Sunderlands off their backs.

The anti-air armament of most U-boats included two 37 mm cannon, along with several 20 mm cannon and M.G. 81 machine guns, 20 which the submarine crews were proving more and more willing to use. F/O H.C. Jackson and crew in AB+H (W.6008) were reminded of this fact during one of the Biscay sorties. During their mission on 3 July, Jackson came across not one, but three surfaced U-boats together. All three threw up a heavy barrage of cannon fire, but decided to dive before the Sunderland could attack. A more serious incident occurred on 22 July to F/L Musgrave's crew in AB+J (DD860). While on patrol in the Bay of Biscay, the Sunderland was jumped by a Focke Wulf FW 200 Kurier. The Kurier was a fast, multi-engined aircraft armed with 20 mm cannon and rockets whose normal role was anti-shipping operations. Unfortunately for Musgrave, the lumbering Sunderland proved to be too enticing a target for the German. The squadron's Operations Record Book tersely recounts the mission:

"At 1405 attacked by one FW/200. Cloud lifted from 500 to 1500 when rear gunner reported enemy A/C astern. E/A (Enemy Aircraft) opened fire from approximately 1500 yds. damaging hydraulic system with first burst. J/423 rear gunner could only get about 50 rounds away before turret went U/S (unserviceable). Rear Gunner received slight facial splinter wounds, 2nd pilot injured slightly on right arm and front gunner slight wound in right knee. Numerous holes made in hull below and above waterline. Trimming control shot away as well as port carburettor cock, and port jettison control. Two torpex D/C's (depth charges) were hit by rockets but refused to detonate. Enemy aircraft not seen again after J/423 entered cloud."21

Musgrave managed to land his sieve-like aircraft safely and neither crewman nor aircraft was lost. Incidents like this supported the need for heavier defensive armament on the Sunderland. Coastal Command's review of the incident read: "Excellent long-range shooting by Focke Wulf. Why wait until damaged before seeking perfect cover only a short flying time away or taking evasive action? A poor example of crew cooperation." A curt comeback was handwritten directly underneath, saying: "It's a cinch that these comments were written from behind a desk." The latter remark bore the initials of the squadron's new Officer Commanding, W/C Archambault. 22

W/C Rump, leaving that month, was not the only person who would be missed. The Adjutant noted the following in his daily comments of 31 July:

"S/L Hughes, our original Flight Commander, greeted heartily on visit to Squadron. Impromptu party to honour the occasion (and) bid farewell to S/L Jack Sumner (was) a howling success, with official cameras clicking, bulbs flashing, and tonsils rattling to every known and unknown tune. A memorable one for the records with three Squadron Flight Commanders, S/L Hughes the original, his successor S/L J. Sumner outgoing and F/L T. Thompson incoming, combining forces to sing the praises of 423."

 

Bishop Gets Even--At A Price

In August 1943, the Squadron began missions which were formally known as "Moorings Patrols." These patrols took place in the Iceland-Faroes gap, but in order to extend time on task, the aircraft would land at Reykjavik (Iceland) for fuel and rest. From there, they would carry out another patrol and recover at Castle Archdale. This shuttle system reduced the time spent in transit to the operating area. The increased coverage forced the U-boats to spend less time on the surface, allowing less time for them to charge their batteries or attack shipping. The operation produced almost immediate successes for 423 Squadron.

It was on such a patrol, on 4 August, that Bishop made up for his unsuccessful attack four months earlier, scoring the Squadron's second official kill. Four hours into the mission, Bishop spotted a surfaced submarine five miles off the port bow. As the Sunderland approached and prepared to attack, the U-boat (U 489) did not dive as expected, but began making evasive turns in order to keep the aircraft in the sights of its aft gunners. This forced Bishop to manoeuvre in an attempt to get in an attack on the sub's undefended frontal position. It became obvious that the sub had no intentions of dropping its guard and Bishop came in out of the sun determined to get in his high-explosive punch. On the approach, he jinked the aircraft in order to throw off the increasingly accurate aim of the desperate U-boat gunners, but close in, he had to steady the aircraft in order to make an accurate drop. This allowed the sub to get in some hits of its own. The official account reads:

"Opened fire at 1000 yds with .5 gun, first burst landing short followed by strike on conning tower. At 500 yds aircraft levelled at fifty feet directly astern, then opened fire with front .303 guns. Gunsight went U/S, apparently hit by U-boat fire. Continued firing gun by tracer only, 100 rounds fired. Flak from U-boat hit ac at 300 yds. AC hit on port side very heavily, also put front turret out of commission. Attacked from fifty feet, 140 knots with six Torpex DC's from directly astern. Port side of ac on fire. Attempted landing." 23

Bishop's own description of what happened next:

"We bounced once, twice, three times on the swell, and on the third bounce the port wing dropped . . . The float was torn off, the wing-tip dug in, and the kite cartwheeled into the sea. One second there was a crash and the next we found ourselves in the water . . . The Sunderland went down within five minutes after going in . . ." 24

Bishop saw the wounded Sgt Finn and swam to him, supporting him until their rescue. Meanwhile, the sub was in its death throes. The survivors of the Sunderland saw it approach stern down, with its crew standing on the forward deck preparing to abandon ship. This they did a scant 200 yards away, and both parties watched as the sub pitched up thirty degrees, broke up with a huge explosion, and sank. Before long, the destroyer HMS CASTLETON arrived to collect the survivors. Sgt F. Hadcroft was taken from the water dead; four others, P/O H.B. Parliament, F/S J.S. Kelly, F/S J.B. Horsburgh, and Sgt H. Gossop were missing, presumed dead. As for U 489, the entire crew of fifty-four officers and men were recovered, although one officer later died. 25 Bishop's crew were taken to Reykjavik for recovery and convalescence. F/O Bishop was awarded an immediate D.F.C. for "gallantry and determination of a high order." 26

Interrogation of the U-boat crew soon explained why they had not attempted to submerge, and this gave great credit to the tactics and efforts employed by 423 Squadron and Coastal Command. U 489 had been in trouble for days, constantly having to dive to avoid air attack and, on one occasion, a destroyer. Her passage through the "Rosengarten" ("Moorings" area) had therefore been spent forcibly submerged. By the morning of 4 August, the U-boat's batteries were exhausted, and U 489 was left with no option but to surface. Shortly afterwards, Bishop's crew showed up on the scene. 27 Until the advent of the schnorkel, U-boats would become more the hunted and less the hunter.

The squadron's third and final encounter with the Luftwaffe came on 14 September, once more on a Biscay operation. F/O H.C. Jackson and crew in 3+D (DP181) 28 were on an "Operation Percussion" mission. These missions were anti-submarine searches instead of convoy escort patrols. Halfway through the flight, a Focke Wulf Condor was sighted three miles ahead. The four-engined anti-shipping aircraft ducked into the clouds and reappeared 3000 yards behind the Sunderland. It opened fire with cannon at 1500 yards. Closing to 300 yards, the Sunderland's rear gunner was able to reply with 800 rounds of .303 ammunition. The German and the Canadian both missed, but the Condor thought better of the engagement and disappeared back into the clouds. The 423 versus Luftwaffe tally now stood at one win, one loss, and a draw.

Back at Castle Archdale, life consisted of the usual ups-and-downs. Everyone was heartened by the news that Italy had been invaded. The accommodation problem with the officers continued to get worse as the squadron grew in numbers. Some relief from the overcrowding was provided by social activities on the station. One such event was the "Domestic Evening," when the aircrew would be given a task to accomplish, almost like housework. This sometimes meant cutting wood for heating the chilly Nissen huts, or sprucing up the area. On 13 September for example, it meant picking potatoes from the Station potato patch. All told, it was a way of getting everyone to work together on a project whose accomplishment and rewards would boost morale.

Other activities may have been more beneficial than the arguable ecstasies of the "domestic evenings." Dances were held frequently, but there was a general paucity of female dance partners. Still, many squadron members managed to cope despite the difficult conditions:

"Food and drinks were obtained for an estimated 350 people at a Squadron party held in the entertainments hall last evening. Only about half of that number appeared and they drank nine-tenths of the beer. In view of the fact that no orderly room charges appeared this morning, it speaks well for the beer guzzling capacity of this squadron. Squadron funds took a beating." 29

And another memorable event:

"One night we were celebrating (F/S) Cook finishing his tour or something like that, and after arranging our feast of steak, eggs and chips at Bothwell's, started doing it up proper at Achutt's out of those beer bottles with the corks and no labels. Finally Cook, Jack Ritchie and I decided it was mealtime, but found we couldn't walk upright. So Cook said we'd have to go on our hands and knees. He would take the inside and follow the wall, Jack could navigate by following along the curb, and I was to follow behind in the middle to make sure they didn't get out on the street. It was dark, and Cook was night blind. He flew strictly by instruments at night, and as a result, was probably the best pilot the RCAF ever put out. Anyway, we had made it around the corner and were going down the long grade to Bothwell's when Jack started to holler that something was holding him back. "Somethin's holding me back!" he kept saying. Cook says to me, "Red, get over and see what's wrong with Jack." I did. Jack had his shoulder up against a lamp post."

 

The Third Kill

On 8 October, F/O Russell and crew in 3+J (DD863) were escorting convoy SC 143 in poor weather. W/C J.R. Frizzle, the Commanding Officer of 422 Squadron co-located at Castle Archdale, was along for the ride and wrote this report:

". . . At our height of 500 feet we could see the water about fifty per cent of the time, visibility ranging intermittently from zero to one mile . . . As we came out of a cloud I noticed the second pilot, F/O Art Menaul lean forward for a better look at . . . a prominent wake ahead, the object making the wake being hidden from my view . . . The wake was scarcely 200 yards ahead, and almost immediately Menaul yelled "It's a submarine."

". . . When Russell took over we were 500 feet above the water and not more than 700 yards from the sub . . . Russell partially closed the throttles and dived at a fairly steep angle because of our proximity to the target . . . The U-boat had opened fire as we turned, but the shots were wild and well below us. On the other hand our nose gunner's .5's were ricochetting off the hull and conning tower in all directions, and by the time the range had been reduced to 200 yards the enemy's 4.7 inch flak gun was silenced.

"We passed over the U-boat at approximately a hundred feet, and as we climbed to port the galley advised that three DC's had dropped and a fourth had failed to release. Nos. 1 and 2 fell to port and No. 3 to starboard abreast of the conning tower, which lifted 15 to 20 feet as No. 2 exploded . . . (W)e turned in for a second attack . . . (b)ut there was no submarine. Instead there were fifteen or more Germans, surrounded by debris, swimming about in a rapidly spreading oil patch." 30

The crew had destroyed U 610. F/O Russell was awarded the D.F.C. for his actions on 18 January 1944. This success would mark the beginning of a drought of submarine sightings. The U-boats would not reappear in strength again until technology, in the form of the schnorkel, once again made their lethal business possible.

 

The Dark Days of Fall, 1943

Wear and tear on man and machine and pure bad luck combined to take their toll. On 23 October, a 423 Squadron crew was flying a 201 (RAF) Squadron aircraft when it struck a partially submerged log in Belfast Lough and overturned. Seven crew members were injured, two seriously. The following day, F/O C.M. Ulrich was up in 3+G (DD867) when the port outer propeller and reduction gear flew off, damaging the port inner propeller as well. Ulrich was able to return to Castle Archdale safely.

Such happy endings were not to be in November. Aircraft unserviceabilities born of progressive equipment deterioration were occurring more frequently, seeing four of twelve squadron aircraft undergoing major overhauls. 31 Out of those aircraft flying, one-half either crashed or were damaged by the end of the month.

The first accident occurred on Remembrance Day. F/L M.D. Lee and crew departed Lough Erne in 3+D (DP181) in mid-afternoon, only to be recalled by weather. The aircraft crashed on landing, killing five and wounding the remaining six crew members.

Two days later, F/L A.F. Brazenor and crew took off in 3+J (DD863) for an anti-submarine patrol. Two hours into the mission, the aircraft reported it was returning due to engine trouble. Soon afterwards, it sent an S.O.S., giving its position as fifteen miles from the coast. The aircraft disappeared. Five days later, wreckage identified as parts of a Sunderland was washed ashore in the vicinity of the last report. All twelve men were lost.

It is often said that bad luck comes in threes, and so it was for 423 Squadron. Three weeks after the November fatalities, F/O Russell was flying 3+W (W6013) to Wig Bay with a skeleton crew and many passengers. While flying in cloud, the aircraft hit Knocklayd Mountain near Ballycastle. Nine passengers were killed, and the seven others onboard injured. These three accidents put the toll at seventeen dead and thirteen injured in three weeks. 32

Although weather and accidents had sharply curtailed operations, 423 Squadron had two notable missions in this period. On 22 November, P/O L.B. Pearson was tasked to escort convoy SL 139. U-boats were not to be the threat on this occasion. Pearson could only obey orders to return to base when seven enemy aircraft - four Heinkel HE 177's and three FW 200 Kuriers - attacked the convoy with radio-controlled glider bombs. The lessons learned from the last Sunderland encounter with the rocket-armed Kurier had not been forgotten.

The second mission was a search for a blockade runner, which began on Christmas Day. Two days later, F/L Jackson in DD849 found the culprit less than an hour into his patrol. Jackson shadowed the vessel for three hours, giving homing assistance to three other aircraft who attempted to bomb it. When Jackson attempted an attack, he was turned back by heavy flak from the ship. Eventually, a Liberator arrived, and attacking, left the ship in flames and its crew in lifeboats. 33 Jackson's efforts ended the year on a positive note.

 

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