Short Decks and Swordfish
Britain’s desperate response to U-boats.
- By Robert R. Powell
- Air & Space magazine, August 2013
Courtesy Robert Powell
(Page 2 of 4)
Timing was everything. The aircraft had to be descending steadily to arrive as the stern of the ship was sinking to about three feet above the ship’s lowest point. There was usually a steady moment at the lowest point before the stern started to rise again; it was then that the “cut” signal was given: Pull the engine to idle and drop the nose. The uphill slope of the deck helped bring the aircraft to a halt and reduced the load on the arrester wire. It would have been very difficult at this point to go around because the Swordfish was at its lowest, and obstructions forward were highest. The ship’s roll also had to be considered. The best touchdown coincided with the middle of a roll from starboard to port so that the left side was going down and an escape route free from obstruction—except for the batsman on his platform—was available to the pilot who could swing violently left over the side of the ship, gun it, and with luck stay airborne.
Brand landed safely. Months later, his aircraft emerged from heavy fog just in time for him to see his ship and, in the same instant, the batsman waving him off. With no time to react, he bore down on the batsman, who hurled himself over the side to land in the safety net, hanging just below his station. More than one batsman had to leap for the net, according to pilot John Beresford. The Swordfish’s radar antenna hung from the lower wingtip, “like a carving knife about 18 inches long,” he says. “You couldn’t duck if it came too close. You had to jump into the net.”
Unlike American landing signal officers, DLCOs were responsible for aircraft launching, refueling, and overall flight deck discipline. Sub-Lieutenant Jack Thomas flew the Swordfish from November 1943 to February 1945, when he was ordered to train as a batsman. “I wasn’t too pleased at first but found that I had a natural ability and really began to enjoy the job,” he recalled in a recent e-mail. In order to make himself more visible to the pilots, Thomas created a new “batting rig” of a red rugby shirt, a blue and white cap, and a fluorescent disk on his chest.
Batsmen were not permitted to fly although they were pilots; some, in fact, had so many hours flying in combat that they suffered from battle fatigue. “Often the best DLCO’s were pilots of long flying experience who developed a nervous disposition because of stress caused by over-exposure to dangerous activity without relief,” Stanley Brand wrote in notes for a series of lectures he gave on his Royal Navy experience. “Unlike the RAF which gave seven days leave every eight weeks to operational aircrew with a second-line posting after 30 operational flights, the Fleet Air Arm had insufficient manpower, or willpower, to adopt a similar policy.
“Men of great experience, living on their nerves but with the courage to carry on in spite of their misgivings were ideal subjects to become DLCOs and an inappropriate comment sometimes made by the insensitive was ‘He may be a new DLCO, but it is obvious that he has been bats for ages.’ ”
So dire was the supply shortage in 1942 that the British had no time to wait for escort carriers to be built from the keel up. Instead, the admiralty directed ship makers to transform oil tankers and grain haulers into carriers by building flight decks atop them. These types of ships were selected because of their size and because oil and grain were both pumped on and off instead of being lowered by crane into a hold. The MACships could continue to carry grain and oil while operating aircraft. Nineteen MACships went into service between April 1943 and April 1944 and operated throughout the war. Thirteen were tankers weighing 8,000 tons and having flight decks 460 feet long. Six were grain ships whose decks were 40 feet shorter.
Grain-carrying MACs had a hangar below the flight deck into which airplanes could be lowered for storage and maintenance, but the tanker MACs did not. On an oiler MACship, when one aircraft was landing, the other had to be moved forward of the barrier abeam the island, the ship’s command center. All maintenance had to be done on deck as well. Since convoys were routed as far north as possible, there was only four hours of daylight much of the year. The only lights permitted on deck were flashlights, and those had cardboard over the lamps, with quarter-inch holes for light to shine through. In his lecture notes, Stanley Brand wrote, “Refueling, rearming, and correction of electrical and mechanical defects had to be carried out largely by feel.”