Will Allied Planes Spell the U-boats' Doom?

The War Illustrated, Volume 7, No. 162, Page 202, September 3, 1943.

Step by step the U-boat menace is being met and mastered. And in that process a great and growing part is being played by aircraft. Indeed, as Capt. FRANK H. SHAW tells below, the men of the R.A.F.'s Coastal Command are of the opinion that, given the planes, they can provide the best answer to the enemy's much-vaunted submarine.

My pilot claimed no fewer than seventeen aerial attacks on enemy U-boats during the recent months; and he expressed the opinion that in the long-range Sunderland or Liberator or Catalina – or the Whitley, for that matter – the Allies had the best answer to Hitler's savage U-boat threats. Over the Bay of Biscay, in the Sunderland's wardroom, he intelligently expressed his views; and, though a child in years, he was a sagacious veteran in experience, which counts more than many years of theorizing.

It seems enemy submarines, when attacked, vary in behaviour according to their nationality. Italians usually surface, Germans as usually crash-dive, when spotted from the air and in danger of attack. Just why this should be so my pilot had no opinion to offer, unless it was that the “Itie” commanders were more humane to their crews than the Huns, and gave them an extra chance of survival. Better to jump overboard than die, poisoned and drowned and suffocated, in the clammy dark of the Biscay deeps.

Out long-range, weight-carrying aircraft have one main advantage over surface warships – speed. The increased range of vision is also worth taking into account. The Sunderland in which I travelled recently attacked and badly damaged a U-boat that was just coming into position to scatter torpedoes among a convoy; and the destroyers and corvettes shepherding the freighters didn't even know of the killer's proximity. He had probably detected the escort's precise whereabout by his listening devices and had planned a quick hit-and-run assault on the unguarded part of the convoy. Instead there was this young pilot, with depth-charges.

“We shook up that custard!” grinned the pilot. “It was a picnic; he tried to dive – hard; but the depth-charges lifted him so high out of the water that we saw his keel as he rolled. We gave him a pretty bracket; escort ships hadn't even turned about by the time out attack was over.”

The corvettes found just oil and a smear of debris; and the Sunderland's crew were allowed a “probable”. If they hadn't spotted him, two, three or four – even more – of that very valuable convoy might well have been lost, ships and cargoes alike. A U-boat can crash-dive in 20 seconds, and can cruise on the surface at round about 20 knots. He has the entire ocean in which to hide; and the range of vision from a warship's bridge is limited. My pilot backed the aircraft against the surface ship every time.

“It will be better when the anti-submarine aircraft are trebled in number, of course”, said Young Sagacity. “I know we're not exactly limiting our output. Assume that one aircraft attacks one submarine – to be relieved by another the moment it's got rid of its load of d.c.s. (depth-charges) – the good old Merchant Navy would have a better chance. As it is, a man hesitates to unload everything on a single target in case another and even more urgent target shoots up just as he has disarmed himself. You can attack with machine-guns, cannon even, if fitted; but these U-boats are tough and can take a lot of punishment; and that sort of fire is wasted when they submerge.”

To drop heavy depth-charges across the U-boat swirls more than doubles the hope of destroying him; the sea-disturbance following the big burst is bound to shake him up more than somewhat, set his batteries leaking, jolt the machinery; and when that happens he simply must surface to avoid asphyxiating his crew. That emergence gives the surface escort its chance.

Quite recently this pilot was cruising southwards not far from the course taken by enemy submarines from Lorient. The Bay of Biscay is a fruitful stalking-ground for Coastal Command.

Handing immediately below cloud, in order to be able to climb to cover if attacked by the almost ubiquitous Ju 88s, he sighted some French trawlers down below. At that height they looked toylike, innocent. As the Sunderland passed over, the rear-gunner called through the inter-com: “There's one, Captain!” The U-boat had mingled with the trawlers as soon as it spotted our aircraft.

“Maybe he thought I wouldn't attack with a chance of sinking so-called friendly craft. It was a real Hun trick; like driving women before an advancing army to stop hostile fire. But the trawlers simply scuttered away like porpoises, so the Hun started to dive. We shot down on him like a thunderbolt and followed his swirl. Crossing him, we dropped a couple of d.c.s., and nothing happened beyond the bursts. But after a bit the crew turns into a look-out at such times – reported a small quantity of oil That mightn't have meant anything; it's simple to squirt a gallon of oil out through a valve. But presently a little more oil seeped up – at about the same spot.”

The pilot's face glowed. He was seeing it all again; that victory which means so much to our airminded youth.

The aircraft then circled the swirls. Everyone was keyed up, with the gunners watching in case of air-attack. The pilot went in and dropped another brace of depth-charges; these exploded precisely. Up came the Hun, rolling hard. Before his conning-tower was rightly up, men opened the hatches and began to jump over the side. Others, better disciplined, manned their A.A. guns and opened fire; but a spraying from the Sunderland's armament either laid them out or caused them, too, to leap overboard.

With the flying-boat going at full speed, it wasn't too easy to distinguish details; but the U-boat appeared to be tilted the wrong way, down by the stern. The commander appeared in the conning-tower and must have tried to recall his crew; but they swam away all faster, whereupon the German shot them up with a machine-gun. Another charge dropping close to the hull caused it to fold like a pocket-knife; the wreck went down humpbacked. All that remained was to go lower and signal the trawlers to pick up survivors.

Coastal Command has no desire to steal the Navy's thunder; but the impression is growing strongly in the Command that big, long-range aircraft provide the best antidote to the marauding submarine. The radius of action is wide; with an adequate number operating, aircraft relieving aircraft without gaps, there need be no single moment, day or night, when a convoy is not covered by an efficient air-umbrella.

“We feel we cannot do enough to help the Merchant Navy”, said my pilot. “The way they carry on, come hell or high water, they deserve the best protection they can get.”

Two of this youth's best attacks occurred at night. Once the moon helped; the Northern Lights flared usefully the other time. A corvette collected survivors from No. 1, but no corvette was handy in the second case.

These long-range flying-boats are usefully employed against enemy surface ships. This one in which I travelled caught one blockade-runner fairly west of Finisterre, hurrying for a Biscay port. As no answer was given to the private signal, the Sunderland went down to investigate; whereupon the blockade-runner opened fire with everything he carried. Had the Hun kept quiet he might have had the benefit of the doubt, being disguised as a Spaniard; as it was, evasive action became immediately necessary. With the run-in, two depth-charges dropped almost against his paint. As the ship was not divided into innumerable water-tight compartments, he promptly disintegrated. The opinion was that his magazine had exploded. “Once H.E. could have created such a Brock's benefit!” said my pilot.

I foresee a time when the air will be full of flying “destroyers”. When that time comes Hitler's dreams of final victory will fade into distorted nightmares.

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