Short Decks and Swordfish

Britain’s desperate response to U-boats.

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)
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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.”

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.”

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