Short Decks and Swordfish
Britain’s desperate response to U-boats.
- By Robert R. Powell
- Air & Space magazine, August 2013
Courtesy Robert Powell
(Page 3 of 4)
Both ships were narrow, a mere 62 feet wide. The Swordfish’s wings, with a span of 45 feet, were eight feet from the deck edges—when the aircraft was on the centerline—except beside the island where the clearance was only 27 inches. MACships were poor sea-keepers. They “rolled like a pig with waves from abeam,” wrote Brand, due to the weight, much of it 30 feet above the waterline, added during conversion.
A mix of Merchant and Royal Navy personnel set to sea on a MACship. The captain (who had been through a rushed, two-week training course) and ship’s crew were civilian. The aviation detachment, which came from 836 Squadron, based at Maydown in Northern Ireland, typically consisted of four Royal Navy pilots, four observers, and a DLCO—all commissioned officers. Enlisted men included four telegraphist–air gunners, a chief petty officer in charge of maintenance, two fitters (for engines), two riggers (for airframes), one electrician, and a radio-and-radar technician. Flight operations with three or four Swordfish were run by an air staff officer, usually an observer with the rank of lieutenant commander.
The Swordfish telegraphist–air gunner, or TAG, monitored Morse code coming in on the radio. He was not allowed to transmit except in an emergency or when in contact with the enemy. Royal Navy rules prevented him, as an enlisted man, from associating with officers—including during flight briefings. He met with his pilot and observer only at the airplane.
According to Jack Thomas, the Swordfishes were sent to patrol various areas, based on intelligence received by the commodore of the convoy. Encrypted radio messages between U-boats and their command centers, intercepted and decoded by British technicians, gave away the positions of the submarines. “The successful use of aircraft patrols was not only to sink the U‑boats,” Thomas adds, “but to deter them by keeping them submerged, where they were slower than the convoy—a case of preventative medicine.”
On sub patrols, each crewman watched a section of the ocean, says John Beresford, who served aboard both escort carriers and MACships. “The observer and rear gunner had binoculars,” he says. “Most U-boats cruised just below the surface in daylight, with the periscope leaving a small trail, the size of the trail depending on the sub’s speed. If the plane was reasonably low—say, 500 feet—you could see the periscope and the feathering trail that it left. And if the water was reasonably calm, you could see the hull just below the surface. If they were more than about 20 feet below the surface, or if the sea was very choppy, they couldn’t be seen.
“The U-boats had to come to the surface for speed and oxygen. They could travel twice as fast—about 10 knots—on the surface, but only about 5 knots submerged. Once they knew that they had been spotted, they could decide either to fight it out on the surface or dive to a safe depth.”
On a March 1944 patrol, just before Beresford’s 21st birthday, the U-boat captain decided to fight it out. Beresford had taken off from the U.S.-built escort carrier HMS Chaser, part of a convoy returning from delivering supplies to the Soviet port Murmansk. “There was broken cloud at about 500 feet, very low but it would be good cover if and when we met a U-boat,” he recalls. When his air gunner spotted the submarine several miles away, Beresford immediately climbed into the cloud. He was carrying eight armor-piercing rockets under each wing. “We flew in cloud as close to the U-boat as we could, then dived on him,” Beresford says. The U-boat opened up on Beresford with four 20-mm cannon, and Beresford fired the rockets. “I don’t know how many hit him, but he started going round in circles so I presume his steering gear was out of action.” When the U-boat started sinking, Beresford’s TAG radioed a convoy frigate, which came to the rescue, and Beresford returned to the Chaser and landed with five minutes’ worth of fuel left. He and his crew were lifted from the cockpits by pulleys rigged on a scaffold to hoist them out after winter missions in the open cockpit had left them too cold and stiff to climb out on their own. Frostbite was a frequent problem.
MACships were popular with the air crews because they went straight across the Atlantic in about three weeks with the same convoy, then spent four to six days in port loading and unloading cargo before heading out again. In contrast to wartime England, with its shortages, life ashore in Canada was luxurious, with plenty to eat and drink. Everyone shopped for items scarce back home, and aircrews had an advantage: They could load their Swordfish with goodies—chocolate, nylons, canned fruit, sugar, booze—which they flew ashore at the end of the journey. The Stringbag earned its sobriquet by carrying these treats instead of ordnance; some bulky items, including more than one bicycle, were strapped to bomb racks or wing struts. The laden airplane would land at home field, be taxied into a hangar, and unloaded before His Majesty’s customs inspectors were called.