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HISTORY OF THE 423 SQUADRON

CHAPTER III

 

INTO ACTION - WORLD WAR TWO

 

1944: The Tide Turns

Crews continued to carry out the long, monotonous patrols but neither the U-boats nor the weather cooperated to brighten their days. Even a visiting Personnel Liaison Officer from RCAF District Headquarters commented indirectly on the doldrums experienced during this period in noting that: "(t)here appeared to be no serious grievance on the squadron, although it is well known that the weather here and the isolated location of the station has the effect of making everyone wish they were at some other place." 34

The discovery on 10 February of several dinghies containing about forty survivors of a ship recently sunk by a U-boat helped remind the crews of the value of their patrols. In addition, the retiring Commander-in-Chief of Coastal Command, Air Marshall Sir John Slessor, had some cheering words for 423 Squadron in his message to the Station Commander of Castle, which read in part:

"We have had a great year. The anti-submarine squadrons have dealt the U-boats a blow from which I believe they will never recover . . . All has been made possible by the courage and skill of aircrews, and by the steadfast devotion to duty of all ranks on the ground." 35

 

Target Practice

During February, a "Planned Flying and Maintenance Programme" was put in place in an attempt to improve the serviceability rate of the hard-worked Sunderlands. The amount of down-time did decrease, but the Squadron was to lose yet another aircraft to faulty engines. On 12 March, F/O J.B. Donnett, the squadron's first navigator "skipper", was 150 miles out at sea in 3+H (W.6008) when trouble developed in not one but three engines. One failed completely, with the other two giving only partial power. Donnett directed the pilot, P/O D.R. Hemming, to head for a convoy picked up on radar some twenty miles ahead. Hemming was able to safely ditch the aircraft alongside an escort vessel, the frigate HMCS ST CATHERINES, with only one minor injury to a crew member. Due to the swell, it was impossible to tow or salvage the aircraft. In the end, the Sunderland crew had to look on as the Canadian Navy destroyed the flying boat with gunfire.

On 24 April, a Squadron crew was finally able to put the long hours of practice and patrols to good use. F/L F.G. Fellows and crew in 3+A (DD862) had been on patrol for barely an hour when a U-boat was sighted sixteen miles ahead. Fellows closed the distance and turned to obtain the optimum attack position.

The sub was determined to scrap it out, and turned to keep its heavily armed stern to the aircraft. Fellows manoeuvred the aircraft into the sun and began his approach. At 1200 yards, the impressive firepower of the Sunderland came into play, throwing over 1500 rounds into the sub, silencing the enemy's guns. Six depth charges were dropped from fifty feet, with such accuracy that one hit the conning tower of the U-boat and detonated, with devastating effect to both attacker and victim. The blast threw equipment, crewmen, and anything not tied down throughout the aircraft. The rear-gunner was knocked unconscious and his turret out of commission. The airframe was twisted and most of the control surfaces damaged. The elevators and trim tabs were so badly damaged that the entire crew had to be stationed forward of the main spar in order to keep the aircraft flying level.

When last seen, the sub was stern down and listing, surrounded by a brown pool of water and blue smoke. It took several minutes to turn the badly damaged aircraft around; once they returned to the scene of action, only an oil slick remained. Fellows and crew had sunk U 311, the Squadron's fourth confirmed victory. As for the aircraft, it took eleven months to return it to a flyable condition, and it was never used for operational trips again. Shortly after returning to service, it caught fire and sank in Lough Erne. 36

 

The Calm Before The Storm

The spring of 1944 saw a lull in the action for 423 Squadron. During the first half of May, only four operational trips were flown. The maintenance people were busy as usual. The squadron gained several new crews and aircraft, possessing sixteen Sunderlands by July. Training advanced and so did the Station's favourite past-time activity. The Adjutant noted that "not all leisure activities were so innocent:"

"An amusing incident (that comes to mind) concerns the RAF Administration Officer who was a regular, spit-and-polish, hater of all Colonials (Canadians ranked the lowest). He used to march to work every morning as if a steel rod was up his backside, complete with a waxed mustache. He also had a beautiful "Golden Lab" dog that he used to boast "had more ribbons than the King." He used to tether the dog outside his office until he was ready for lunch. The boys got together one day, sneaked past his window, cut the leash and put the dog into a shed near the office. At the same time, they rounded up about six of the stray dogs that used to prowl the station and ushered them into the same little shed."

"Try to imagine the commotion caused by a bitch in heat and six mongrels all trying to get at her. Of course the door was locked and the key, mysteriously, was not on its usual hook. Naturally, by the time the door was forced open, the dastardly deed had been accomplished and a purebred had been defiled! The gentleman officer came within an inch of having a heart attack, and for several days, threats of court martial were issued against the perpetrators of such a heinous crime. I believe he was transferred shortly afterwards--at his own request. . ."

The operational activity which did take place was mainly centred about Sullom Voe. There had been numerous U-boat sightings in that area of the Shetlands. Accordingly, four crews from the Squadron deployed to the RAF station there, flying in Norwegian waters well within range of enemy fighters. Almost immediately, the crews found success with several submarine sightings, but the cautious U-boats were quick to dive before the Sunderlands could come within range. On 24 May, F/L R.H. Nesbitt in 3+S (DW111) picked up an S.O.S. from an aircraft. Proceeding to investigate, the crew saw a large splash some fifteen miles away. Upon approaching the scene, the crew spotted the unmistakable wake of a submarine, with the wreckage of an aircraft in the foreground. The U-boat had been the victor in its battle with the first aircraft, and now Nesbitt desperately tried to avoid the accurate flak during his attack run. His jinking, combined with some fancy manoeuvres of the sub, caused his depth charges to fall short. The U-boat escaped, but so did Nesbitt's crew. Not a bad performance, considering it was only their second flight, as all were newcomers to the Squadron.

 

The Word Is Given

On 6 June 1944, F/L W.M. Conners wrote the following in the Operations Record Book:

"Enemy reports on the radio at 0800 hours this morning that paratroops had landed in France gave us the first intimation of the invasion of the continent. Was it true or a flutter sent out by the enemy for his own purpose? Four years ago we were driven out and for months we have been waiting for "D" day and were consequently not prepared to accept the news without proof. During the morning, there were more rumours that General Eisenhower had spoken and different scraps of information gleaned from the radio . . . We were now prepared to accept it as the truth and awaited only the BBC news at 1300 hours to confirm it. The King's call for prayer at 2100 hours was heard attentively at the messes and at every radio on the station with a sense of pride and humility."

A special order of the day was received from Air Chief Marshall Sir W. Sholto Douglas, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Coastal Command:

"The great day we have all been waiting for has arrived. The invasion of the continent of Europe has started. In this operation, Coastal Command has a vital role to play. Our job is to 'hold the ring' - this is, to prevent the enemy from interfering with our invasion convoys, and so ensure the safe passage to the Continent of our troops and their supplies. Without this the invasion cannot succeed. The enemy will doubtless make determined efforts to penetrate Coastal Command's screen with his U-boats and E-boats. They must not get through ..."37

423 Squadron responded to the call. Leave was cancelled, and the squadron flew more operational hours in June than ever before, totalling eighty-nine sorties and 1206 hours. Whereas the Squadron had formerly sent out an average of less than two aircraft per day, it was now often sending out three to four a day. In addition to the operations off Norway from Sullom Voe, crews concentrated on sweeping the south-west approaches to England and the upper approaches to the Bay of Biscay. In the Bay of Biscay, they were searching for U-boats transiting to or from their submarine pens at Brest, St. Nazaire, Lorient, and La Rochelle. As a general rule during this period, a crew would fly about once every five days, but sometimes more often. In between, they would carry out whatever training they could, and rest whenever possible. 38

Operations continued at a steady pace through the month and into the next, with the most interesting patrol occurring on 12 July. F/O C.M. Ulrich and crew in 3+J (KK583) were sweeping an area some 200 miles west of the Outer Hebrides when Ulrich spotted a "feather" (the wake left by a periscope) four miles ahead. Jumping right to the attack, he quickly lined up the aircraft one mile astern of the sub and began his approach. Tracking right over the small swirl made by the submerging periscope, he dropped eight depth charges from fifty feet, the charges spaced sixty feet apart and set to explode at a depth of twenty-five feet. The rear gunner saw the charges perfectly bracket the quickly disappearing swirl.

Returning to the scene, the crew saw a black triangular object five feet long momentarily break the surface of the greenish froth, and then disappear from sight. Approximately half an hour later, two light brown, torpedo-shaped objects were seen in the water a half-mile from the attack area. Based on this evidence, Coastal Command gave the crew credit for one "damaged."

 

"Schnorkel" Hunting

August and September saw the Squadron conducting patrols in the southwestern approaches to England, the North Atlantic, and the North Sea. The allied forces were now pushing through France and reducing the number of ports available for U-Boats. The subs were now pressing operations from home harbours and Norwegian fjords, thus the Squadron's unsurpassed record of 100 sorties in September.

During the morning of 2 September, F/O Pepper and crew sighted a cloud of "white smoke" rising from the water approximately eight miles away. Inspection with binoculars revealed a dark-coloured object just beyond the smoke, but when the aircraft closed to within four miles, the object and smoke disappeared. The Squadron had just been introduced to the "Schnorkel," a breathing device which allowed submarines to charge batteries without surfacing.

F/L J.K. Campbell and crew had the first chance to attack a schnorkel the very next day and in the same area. They passed fifty feet over a sub showing two feet of the breathing device and attempted to release their depth charges. Unfortunately, the bombs did not drop and a subsequent pass revealed no sign of the contact.

A patrol on 6 September ended in tragedy, when F/O E.E. McCann and crew crashed into the sea three hours after take-off. The lone survivor, W/O R.H. Voyce, remembered only that a dual engine failure had led to the crash.

There would be, however, good news for the month. F/O Farrer and crew were on patrol in the outer Hebrides on 11 September, when they sighted "whitish vapour or steam" nine miles away. Farrer turned to close and started a shallow dive. Approximately two miles from the contact, the vapour ceased, but a faint wake about 100 feet long remained. Farrer attacked 700 feet ahead of the wake's track, with four of eight depth charges successfully dropping. Three Royal Canadian Navy vessels, including HMC Ships DUNVER and HESPELER, were homed to the area and pressed the attack. Official assessments later confirmed that U484 had been destroyed, providing the Squadron with its fifth (and final) kill of the war.

The last official kill may have been scored, but there were to be more successful engagements. The job of sub-hunting was not getting any easier, with the use of the schnorkel making radar contact nearly impossible. And U-Boats were now seeding floating mines in the open ocean in advance of convoys, as evidenced by two 423 sightings in October.

The Squadron would find its next victim on 28 December. F/O C. Strobl, flying with F/L Farrer, spotted the now familiar smoke/vapour cloud twenty miles away. While the navigator, F/O R.A. Simpson, attempted to photograph the smoke clouds, the Sunderland raced to the scene, only to have the schnorkelling stop and the vapour disperse with the aircraft two miles back. The sub was still showing a periscope, however, and the front turret operator, F/S C.E Goebel, could see the "eye of the scope" rotating in search of the attacking aircraft. Farrer lost no time in making his run and ringed the periscope area with eight depth charges. All charges went off and heavy oil was observed rising to the surface, the resulting slick expanding to cover 300 yards within twenty minutes. 423 was credited with another "damaged" to end the year.

The action continued on 22 January, when F/S G. MacDonald, of F/O Pinder's crew, spotted "a continuous trail of smoke, darkish in colour, at sea level." MacDonald could also make out two dark objects protruding about two feet above the water at the source of the smoke. MacDonald unleashed 600 rounds from 500-600 yards back and observed tracer ricochetting off of the objects. Just as the attack was nearing ultimate success, the port bomb door jammed and the depth charge run had to be aborted. F/S J. Noakes (RAF), thinking quickly, dropped a smoke marker from the galley window as the Sunderland overflew the target and he held the bomb door open to free the loaded rack. Pinder turned hard to port for an immediate attack and dropped eight depth charges on the smoke marker. Unfortunately, no official result could be ascertained, but the crew was confident that the submarine had not enjoyed that particular day.

 

The Luck of the Irish

Unfortunately, 423 Squadron's time in Castle Archdale did not end on this good note, although Lady Luck certainly smiled on a particular crew. On 20 May, F/L C. Allen and crew took off in YI+A for a patrol in the Irish Sea. Due to a combination of faulty navigation and poor weather, the aircraft suddenly broke out of the fog facing solid rock, in this case, the top of the Mourne Mountains. The pilot's quick reactions saved the crew from destruction, but the aircraft now staggered along minus the bottom of the hull and the starboard float, wingtip, and aileron.

One of the crew, F/O J. Miller, had been dozing in one of the bunks near the galley when the aircraft hit. In his words:

"I was still in the bunk when at exactly 8:00 A.M. a terrible crunching sound took place. I must have dozed off because I thought we were coming in for a pretty rough landing. The next thing I knew, I was straddling a hole about ten feet long and two feet wide and my hat was sucked through it. We must have hit some sort of log on top of a hill because the whole inside was covered with peat and debris and I was too. It was at the same time that an immense roar took place from all four motors and the plane creaked and groaned and after an eternity became airborne again."

Further effects of the crash complicated a safe landing. The bomb doors were jammed and the fuel jettison pipe was ruptured, which made it impossible to jettison either. The aircraft asked control for directions to a diversion field and, upon inquiry, further provided: "Whole hull gone, aileron damaged; cannot stay airborne long; hurry!" Just then, Lady Luck caused a hole to appear in the clouds, revealing an airfield beneath. Deciding it better to land on terra firma than sink on the water, F/L Allen took YI+A down for a flawless - and, gearless - landing at Jurby field. Miraculously, everyone got out alive, and ran like mad, carrying the injured F/L J. "Ole" Oleson with them. Oleson was thrown on to a stretcher in an ambulance which then tore off as fast as it could go, for the Sunderland had now caught fire. All of the crew managed to get to safety when the eight depth charges exploded. The blast obliterated the aircraft and it also blew out the walls of a nearby hangar, badly damaged the control tower, and broke windows within a three-mile radius of the airfield. 39

 

A Time of Celebration

On 30 May, notice was received at the Squadron that it was to become part of Transport Command. Accordingly, the following day saw 423 Squadron's last operational flight from Castle Archdale, F/L Magor taking the honours. Flying ceased, allowing the Squadron the chance to celebrate VE Day. The big blowout started on 11 June, and was still continuing as late as the fifteenth. The messes were opened to all ranks, dances were held, and a sports day arranged, despite uncooperative weather. A victory party was held in the Officers' Mess on the evening of 15 June which featured "three bars, food, fireworks, decorations, and other adornments in the persons of charming young things of the district, who were present in almost sufficient strength to ensure partners for all attending officers."40

With all of the Squadron's aircraft being ferried away before the end of July, the Squadron concentrated its work efforts on preparing for the move away from Castle Archdale to Bassingbourn, the unit's new home. It had been decided that the Squadron would convert to Liberator aircraft in the transport role. In the meantime, there was still opportunity for the Squadron to demonstrate its ability in its favourite sport to all comers. On 11 July, the Squadron softball team journeyed to Londonderry where it defeated teams from the US Marines and the US Navy (seven to zero and ten to zero, respectively), handing both their very first defeats.

The evening of 24 July saw 423 Squadron bid farewell to RAF Station Castle Archdale and their compatriots in 201 (RAF) Squadron. The following morning, fifty personnel headed to Bassingbourn as the unit's advance party.

"When we were all posted from Castle Archdale we had a few hours to spare in Irvinestown, from where the train would depart. The town council declared a half-holiday and "Ma Achutt" who ran the favourite watering hole declared free drinks for all Canadians for the afternoon - not all of us boarded the train in a vertical position! The last view we had was seeing every girl in town and "Ma" all waving handkerchiefs as the train puffed out of the station."

 

BASSINGBOURN

 423 Squadron finally received the word to complete the move to Bassingbourn on 5 August. Two days later, the remaining squadron personnel piled onto trains at Irvinestown, arriving at their new home the following day.

While the unit prepared to begin conversion flying, dramatic events were happening half a world away. At 0001 hours on 15 August, the station Tannoy announced the surrender of Japan. Celebrations included a bonfire in the middle of the parade square. Despite the news, the Squadron was ordered to continue training, as it was foreseen that the "Eagles" might have a role to play in repatriating personnel from the Japanese theatre, especially former prisoners-of-war. S/L R.F. Milne, S/L Sattler and F/O Longly were the first to begin flying the new aircraft in training on the twenty-first. Within a week, sixteen pilots were checked out to solo status.

 

The First Disbandment

On 27 August, a call was received instructing the Squadron to cease all flying, pending orders to disband. The following day the Squadron Commander, W/C McMillan, mustered the squadron to give aircrew a choice for their future. Those who wished to remain in Transport Command were to specify whether they wished to remain on Liberators or convert to Dakotas, otherwise, personnel would have to prepare for repatriation.

Soon enough, the word came that the Squadron was to disband on 4 September, with aircrew and groundcrew making their separate ways to their respective manning depots.

 

A Proud Record

The wartime accomplishments of 423 Squadron were considerable. Crews flew 1401 operational sorties, of which forty-one were adversely affected by excessively bad weather or aircraft unserviceabilities. Over 300 convoys were entrusted to the unit's protection, with only eight failing to be located and escorted. For all its long hours of flying, the Squadron made twenty-five sightings of U-boats, ten sightings of "schnorkels," and six sightings of suspicious slicks or disturbances. A total of twenty-two attacks were made, which yielded five official kills, along with two "unofficial" kills (one by assisting a Liberator). 423 crews further damaged three U-boats, and possibly damaged another. On top of its undersea victories, the Squadron was also credited with damaging a JU 88, and was responsible for saving the lives of at least twenty-nine people. For awards, Squadron members received a total of four Distinguished Flying Crosses, one Distinguished Flying Medal, and several Mentions In Dispatches.

All of this came at a cost, however. The Squadron lost a total of six aircraft, along with forty-nine persons killed and fifteen injured.

 

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