The Catapult Fighters

History - WW2, Naval Aviation, Naval technology
None noted.
RAN Ships
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December 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

For two years during World War II, from 1941 to 1943, the Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships, assisted by Fighter Catapult Ships of the Royal Navy, played an important role in defending convoys from German air attacks.

BRITISH HISTORY ABOUNDS with the names of gallant men who have met the test of warfare on land, sea and air. The gallantry of the fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain achieved wide publicity and is known to the world. There were other fighter pilots whose deeds are unheard of. One such group was the pilots of the Fighter Catapult Ships and the Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships. It was their duty to be launched from ships over convoys to engage enemy bombers far out to sea. It was a most hazardous undertaking requiring cold-blooded courage. In nearly all cases where the enemy was engaged it was a case of ‘Catapult Off – Parachute Back’ and waiting to be picked up in the sea by one of the escorts.

With the fall of France in June 1940, Germany occupied the entire western coast from Norway to Spain. Britain found herself within easy range of enemy aircraft based in France. In July 12 four-engined Focke-Wulf Condor bombers were operating from the former French airfield at Bordeaux- Merignac. During the second half of 1940 enemy bombers sank over half a million tons of Allied shipping.

The Focke-Wulf Condors operated in conjunction with the U-boats, so it was vital to protect the convoys from the bombers. Churchill rather optimistically wrote in his memoirs, ‘By the use of fighter aircraft mounted in ordinary merchant ships, as well as converted ships manned by the Royal Navy, we soon met this thrust. The fighter pilot, having been tossed like a falcon against his prey, had at first to rely for his life on being retrieved from the sea by one of the escorts‘.

It is evident that there could be only one answer to the problem of the Condors – the ships must carry their own fighter aircraft with them. Two methods of doing this were proposed by Captain M.S. Slattery, RN. One was ‘The fitting of catapults to suitable merchant ships’ and the second, ‘the fitting of the simplest possible flight decks and landing equipment to suitable merchant ships‘. Both proposals were approved by the Admiralty and early in 1941 the work began on the conversion of the Hurricane aircraft to Sea Hurricanes for catapult operations. A prototype rocket fired catapult was also made and production started on over 50 more.

Shortly after I joined the Admiralty in March 1941, work began on fitting the catapults on suitable merchant ships. They were 75 feet long and rocket fired.

When I joined I was informed I would be sent up to Newcastle to take charge of the ships fitting out there after the design was completed. In the end I was not sent to Newcastle, but did start one conversion in London. The ships were designated Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships or CAM ships and flew the Red Ensign. Thirty five ships were converted, although the original figure had been 50. Catafighter pilots and maintenance personnel came from the Royal Air Force.

In addition to the CAM ships, the Admiralty had selected three Ocean Boarding Vessels, Maplin, Ariguani and Patia, one auxiliary anti-aircraft cruiser, Springbank, and the seaplane carrier Pegasus (ex Ark Royal) for employment as Fighter Catapult Ships under the White Ensign.

On the 5th May 1941, a RAF unit was formed at Speke Airport, Liverpool, ‘to implement the policy of providing merchant shipborne fighter aircraft for the protection of shipping against air attack‘. This was the Merchant Service Fighter Unit. The first MSFU pilot reported on the 9th May.

It was obvious from the start that one big problem in operating Hurricanes would be maintenance due to bad weather The aircraft with its catapult was sited on the port side of the forecastle and extended to the foremast. Very rough seas and 65 mph gales often resulted in aircraft getting soaked in sea water continuously for four days; ran one RAF report ‘Covers were ripped off, airframe corroded, engine mags and all electrical gear setting up current. In bad weather inspection and maintenance was impossible and corrosion was an ever present problem.

The Fighter Catapult Ships did not have a long life. Patia was bombed and sunk at the end of April 1941, before she had embarked her aircraft. Springbank was torpedoed and sunk in September, while Ariguani was torpedoed in October, and after repairs reverted to trade. As the aged Pegasus retired to catapult training in July this only left Maplin.

It was the Fighter Catapult Ship Maplin which gained the first victory over a Focke- Wulf. On 3rd August Maplin was on her way to pick up a convoy when she sighted a Condor low on the horizon ten miles astern. The Hurricane was launched, piloted by Lieutenant R.W.H. Everett RNVR, who had won the Grand National in 1929. Everett had a hard fight. ‘By this time I had reached the starboard bow and three machine guns opened up as well as the forward cannon. I did a quick turn to port and opened up just abaft the beam I fired five second burst at this range and my guns were empty‘. Everett saw that the Focke-Wulf was on fire and it was later seen to crash. Everett was awarded the DSO for his victory.

The first CAM ship action against the enemy did not occur until 1st November 1941, when the Empire Foam sighted a Condor west of Ireland. There was no engagement, as the enemy flew off when it saw the flash of rockets when the Hurricane was launched. During the next six months CAM ship pilots saw no further action against the enemy. As Luftwaffe attacks increased on the Russia-bound convoys, a decision was made to give the convoys air protection by using CAM ships. The need for fighters was now urgent.

Convoy PQ16 with thirty five ships, the largest Russian Convoy so far, sailed from Iceland on 15th May with the CAM ship Empire Lawrence. Convoy QP12, sailing simultaneously from Mumansk, included the CAM ship Empire Morn.

Early on the morning of the 25th, when the two convoys were drawing close to each other, a Condor was sighted ten miles off circling PQ16. The weather was too cloudy for the Empire Lawrence’s aircraft to be launched.

Aboard the Empire Morn in QP12 Pilot Officer J.B Kendal was launched at 0855 as the weather had by now improved. There were now four enemy aircraft circling QP12 independently. The Hurricane engaged a Junkers 88, which was still circling the convoy at a height of about 1,000 feet. When the 88 was astern of the convoy the Hurricane was seen to attack opening fire at short range. It was a perfectly timed attack and must have caught the enemy by surprise. The Condor was seen to be on fire, but although it was seen to jettison its bombs it was not certain if it had crashed. By R/T Kendal was asked to confirm any possible success. Later he reported that he had found the wreckage of the aircraft and a rubber dinghy. During this time the weather was closing down and there was the problem of picking up the pilot.

The Fighter Direction Officer concluded his report – ‘Some seconds later the Hurricane was seen to dive perpendicularly, into the sea, followed immediately by Kendal, his parachute opening some 50 feet before he reached the water. Badsworth raced to the scene some half a mile ahead of her and within a few minutes had a boat out and picked him up at 1004. They signalled that Kendal was alive but very seriously injured and later that he died.’

Shortly after Kendal was killed the Germans attacked in force. Pilot Officer Hay was launched from Empire Lawrence and succeeding in destroying a Heinkel and damaging another before he was wounded and had to bail out. His dinghy was punctured and useless, but within six minutes he was picked up by the destroyer Volunteer. It was later found that the shell which penetrated the Hurricane’s cockpit was fired by a trigger happy American on one of the freighters.

During the attack the enemy sank five merchant ships, their chief target being the Empire Lawrence, which was among the number lost.

Three more enemy aircraft were shot down by CAM ships during the remainder of 1942. In one case the pilot did not have to bail out. On the 18th September Flying Officer A.H. Burr was launched from the Empire Morn in the Arctic to attack Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111 torpedo bombers. Under heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns and worried by the ‘Catafighter’ the torpedo bombers missed their targets. Burr shot down one and although out of ammunition carried on the attack, ‘ . . . it was my intention to show myself to any other formation and endeavour to break it up with a mock attack‘.

Burr now decided to save his aircraft as he had enough petrol and asked for a distance and vector. He landed at Archangel with five gallons in his reserve tank.

By the spring of 1943 there were sufficient escort carriers in operation to give air cover to convoys and on the 8th June the MSFU was disbanded. But there were still CAM ships at sea returning to have their fighters removed.

German Intelligence learnt of the disbandment of the MSFU. When a convoy left Gibraltar on the 23rd July it was later attacked by Focke-Wulf Condors confident that the convoy sailed without fighter escort. But the convoy included the last two CAM ships returning home to have their fighters removed – the Empire Darwin and the Empire Tide.

On the evening of the 28th a Condor appeared flying low along the convoy. Flying Officer J. A. Stewart promptly climbed into his Hurricane and was launched from Empire Darwin. The Fighter Direction Officer passed to him, ‘Bandit 3 o’clock moving from right to left‘ and on the R/T Stewart answered, ‘Tally-Ho!‘ and opened fire on the bomber. After a short chase the Condor crashed into the sea.

Flying Officer P.J.R. Flynn was later launched from the Empire Tide to attack another Condor. In the battle both aircraft took punishment. The German was last seen losing height and jettisoning its bombs. Both Flynn and Stewart were successfully picked up by the escorts.

It was a fitting end to a brilliant improvisation and a great tribute to the pilots, officers and men of the MSFU and the captains of the 35 CAM ships, 12 of which were lost by enemy action.

Once the CAM ships joined the convoys merchant ship losses from enemy aircraft were greatly reduced. They were officially credited with six ‘kills’ and damaging three others, but this last figure is probably an underestimate. The great success of the stopgap CAM ship was that every launch of a fighter resulted in the enemy bomber being destroyed, damaged or driven off.

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