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Called “Bats” after the disks he used to signal pilots, a landing officer says “Lower!” to an approaching airman. The air-to-surface vessel radar dome is visible between the airplane’s gear struts. (Courtesy Robert Powell)

Short Decks and Swordfish

Britain’s desperate response to U-boats.

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.

When the Mark III version of the Swordfish came into use, the gunner’s position was eliminated in order to make room for the air-to-surface-vessel radar. In that version of the biplane, the ASV radar scope and controls went into the rear cockpit, where the observer worked them in addition to serving as telegraphist and navigator.

Working in an open cockpit required a set of rare skills. In Achtung! Swordfish! Stanley Brand describes the challenges of an observer’s job: “It was indeed a miracle that an observer could concentrate on the difficult task of keeping track of our whereabouts with a chart and chart board balanced on his knee, without a table for his instruments, needing pencils, ruler, rubber, dividers, compasses, records of deviations, variations, courses and times flown, wind speeds and direction and a calculator for drift and distance flown. Gloved hands and sometimes numb fingers made it difficult to hold these awkward things and if they were dropped Sod’s Law decreed that they would rest just out of reach, with movement restricted in the confines of the cockpit and by the many layers of clumsy protective clothing. There was a limit on the number of bits of string which could be used to restrain individual items of equipment such as eraser, ruler, pencil and protractor without creating a spider’s web when in use.”

The Swordfish is best known for three actions unrelated to Atlantic convoys: launching the torpedo that crippled the Bismarck and led to its destruction; a doomed 1942 strike on German ships during the famous Channel Dash (all six aircraft were lost), and the historic Battle of Taranto—a night attack that took out half the Italian battle fleet. But the biplane’s chief contribution was made from the decks of MACships. On April 18, 1945, a U-boat using new acoustic homing torpedoes, which enabled it to fire without extending its periscope, sank an ammunition ship and a tanker, both in Jack Thomas’ convoy. They were the only ships sunk in more than 200 convoys that had been escorted by MACships since May 1943. The Battle of the Atlantic was not won by MACships, but if they had been introduced earlier, many more Allied ships would have been saved.

Robert R. “Boom” Powell was a Navy aviator and airline pilot before writing about aviation history and flying gliders and antique aircraft.

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