The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe - 1939-1945 by David Hobbs

Union Jack

War Hero
AuthorDavid Hobbs

ARRSE Rating5.00 stars

This fascinating book is written by no less an authority than Commander David Hobbs, who could probably not be better suited to the task, having spent some 30 years flying both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft before becoming curator of the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton.

He has already written five books on the development and history of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), and has set out to fill a notable gap by highlighting events and the remarkable level of success that was achieved during the Second World War through the operation of naval aircraft from carriers, and airfields ashore, in the European theatre between September 1939 and May 1945. Regrettably, these have tended all too often to be ignored with the passage of time, but the author has amply succeeded in trying to put this right over 319 pages, complemented by first-class comprehensive Notes, Bibliography and Index, together with a substantial number of absorbing photographs and charts. Many of the former will almost certainly not have been seen before, especially those coming from the author’s own extensive records, and providing a very worthwhile complement to the associated subject matter.


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Drawing on material collected over the past 30 years, coupled with information from previously unpublished documents, it provides an absorbing and most interesting account of the role of the FAA during the war in Europe. This is arguably an under-reported and not properly considered aspect of the war in Europe, which started on 1 September 1939, despite FAA involvement as early as 14 September when HMS ARK ROYAL narrowly missed being torpedoed by U-39 and, even more alarmingly, HMS COURAGEOUS was sunk by U-29 on 17 September with the loss of 518 of her ship’s company. Naval aircraft operated in European waters right through until the German surrender in May 1945, and it is quite remarkable to consider that, during this time, the FAA expanded from an establishment of 406 pilots and 232 front-line aircraft to no fewer than 3243 pilots and 1336 aircraft.

The author sets the scene by describing how the FAA was a small but integral part of the Royal Navy (RN), when the Admiralty only resumed full control after the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps had combined to create the Royal Air Force (RAF), perhaps fittingly enough on 1 April 1918, with the Admiralty only regaining control in May 1939, following the recommendations of the Inskip Report in 1937. In other words, for some 30 years, the Air Ministry had retained the final decision on all military aviation matters, and consequently had little interest in promoting naval aviation, which would inevitably divert funds and effort away from its own limited single service aims and vision of aerial warfare.

Perhaps astonishingly, the RAF apparently actively discouraged its own senior officers from having discussions with their naval counterparts, which inevitably led to a loss of expertise, in both Services, regarding aircraft and their evolution and employment on naval operations. This blinkered attitude even ignored the basic premise that naval aircraft were effectively providing the third dimension for the Fleet, fighting as an integral part of it, and the Air Ministry concluded, despite the absence of experience or indeed evidence, that naval aircraft would simply operate independently, rather than as a fully coordinated part of naval operations.

Fortunately, the RN had succeeded in using aircraft in reconnaissance and airborne torpedo attack roles, but still had to try to overcome the Air Ministry’s overly simplistic mantra, namely that “the bomber will always get through”. In their view, the latter thus reached the absurd conclusion that there was no point in introducing high-performance aircraft into aircraft carrier operations since they would be unable to stop the bombers, an even more blinkered view that was only overcome by the Treasury, and not the Air Ministry, calling for Fighter Command to be expanded.

The author sets the scene by describing how the RN had led the world in aircraft carrier design and construction, as it indeed it is generally considered it has continued to do ever since — stand fast nuclear propulsion! — whilst the Air Ministry had continued to control the provision of the aircraft and the pilots for them, until the RN finally succeeded in establishing a scheme for training their own pilots and observers, together with that of naval ratings as telegraphist air gunners (TAGs). A further curiosity arose in that, whilst disembarked to RAF airfields, pilots came under the control of the RAF station concerned but observers and TAGs remained as part of their parent ship’s company.

When considering the detailed outline the ships and strength of the FAA when the Second World War broke out on 1 September 1939, it seems alarming even now to realise that there were only four operational aircraft carriers in the European theatre, namely HM Ships ARK ROYAL, FURIOUS, COURAGEOUS and HERMES, plus one seaplane carrier, HMS ALBATROSS, whilst the aircraft themselves consisted simply of five types, namely Fairey Swordfish, Blackburn Skuas, Supermarine Walruses, Gloster Sea Gladiators, and Fairey Seafoxes, the last operating from cruisers unable to operate the Walrus.

Weaponry was equally simply confined to the Admiralty Mark XII torpedo for anti-surface use, or alternatively a single Type A mine which could alternatively be carried by the Swordfish, whilst all the bombs in service were those sourced by the Air Ministry, namely 500lb, 250lb, 100lb and 20lb, the last simply anti-personnel weapons thus with virtually no naval value whatsoever, whilst the fighter aircraft had either Vickers, Browning, or even Lewis, 0.303 inch machine guns.

The limited shore-based facilities consisted of the headquarters at RNAS Lee-on-Solent (HMS DAEDALUS), itself only regained from the RAF in May 1939, along with Worthy Down (HMS KESTREL), Donibristle (HMS MERLIN), Donibristle (HMS MERLIN) and Ford (HMS PEREGRINE), supplemented subsequently by RNAS Eastleigh (HMS RAVEN), and most importantly as it turned out in relation to several major operations, RNAS Hatston in Orkney (HMS SPARROWHAWK). These airfields quickly proved all too few and new naval air stations were constructed for the Admiralty at Arbroath, St Merryn, Crail, Machrihanish and Yeovilton, the sole survivor in the FAA of today, together of course with RNAS Culdrose.

Providing a human interest picture to complement the vivid detail of the naval aircraft and their operations, it shines through that the author makes a very praiseworthy effort to include as much personal detail as possible of the aircrews involved, drawing commendably on the FAA Roll of Honour to pay tribute to those aircrew who lost their lives in action. Two personal examples come readily to mind, that of one pilot who was lost and one TAG whom fortunately survived. As will be mentioned later, it is particularly noteworthy that the bulk of the photographs come from the author’s own collection, which means of course that many will very rarely have been seen before, since one particularly notable one, provided by his family, shows an officer in the pre war full ceremonial dress worn by all officers.

Recalling the belated efforts of the Treasury to increase fighter aircraft numbers, it is perhaps not a little ironic to reflect that this is Lieutenant Bill Lucy DSO, Commanding Officer of 803 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) flying Blackburn Skuas, who was the first RN pilot to achieve the five or more victories that would have brought him ace status, as it is known in the United States. Not only that, but he was the first military pilot in the whole British Commonwealth to do so, sadly losing his life off Norway on 14 May 1940 when attacking five Heinkel He 111s, with only one other Skua in company.

The mention of the TAG stems from the very detailed account of the reconnaissance flight from RNAS Hatston which on 22 May 1941 confirmed and reported the vitally important information that the German battleship BISMARCK and her escort PRINCE EUGEN had sailed from Bergen, only 270 miles from Scapa Flow where the major warships on the Home Fleet not already at sea eagerly awaited news of her sailing. Following an unsuccessful attempt by RAF Whitleys and Hudsons to locate her due to thick fog, and Coastal Command consequently declining to fly a further sortie, an ex French Air Force Martin Maryland of 771 NAS, a Fleet Requirements Unit normally employed to tow sleeve targets, was tasked to find out for certain.

The crew of three, supplemented by a very experienced observer RNAS Hatston’s Executive Officer, Commander Hank Rotherham (who incidentally was the man responsible for highlighting the inadequacy of Coastal Command’s anti invasion patrol), left Orkney in increasingly poor weather conditions, flying at times under 50 feet in order to keep the sea surface in sight, before finally discovering after coming under heavy fire the vital information that all possible locations were empty and that the BISMARCK had indeed sailed. In view of the discovery’s vital urgency, Commander Rotherham ordered the message to be transmitted in plain language and so it was quickly passed by Leading Airman Willie Armstrong, the TAG. Unfortunately, he had no response on the Coastal Command reconnaissance frequency so, very cleverly acting on his own initiative, he succeeded in passing the message to 771 NAS’s target towing frequency and the vital information duly reached Admiral Tovey, the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, somewhat prosaically by telephone, and the Admiralty more formally by teleprinter.

[I hope that I may be forgiven for mentioning that I had the great pleasure of meeting the now Lieutenant Willie Armstrong many years later, but to my great regret never knew the detail of his vital role in the great event leading to the award of his well deserved DSM. The loss is entirely mine.]

Probably one of the most important signals of the Second World War, it set off the intensive but short period of operations which regrettably led to the loss of HMS HOOD by BISMARCK’s fifth salvo early on the morning of 24 May 1941, leaving only three survivors of her crew of 1418, but more fortunately the sinking of the BISMARCK on the forenoon of 27 May 1941, described in thrilling detail over some twenty pages

Interestingly enough, 815 NAS, the Swordfish squadron which was the first to be fitted with a SP Mark 2 radar, and which was so involved in the tracking and sinking of the BISMARCK, was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde DSO, who subsequently was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for leading the determined but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent the battle cruisers SCHARNHORST and.GNEISENAU and the heavy cruiser PRINZ EUGEN from completing the Channel Dash from Brest to Kiel between 11 and 13 February 1942.

As the author specifically states, before providing he background in chastening detail “….every British plan put in place to detect German movements on that critical night (11 February) went wrong” That said, If only the RAF fighter reconnaissance daily patrol of the Channel had been prepared to break the policy of radio silence to report that they had indeed sighted the German ships on 12 February, a different outcome might have ensued. Notwithstanding the ultimate failure, Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Vice Admiral Dover ,signalled the Admiralty regarding Esmonde’s 815 NAS to state that, in his opinion, “The gallant sortie of these six Swordfish constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty that the war has yet witnessed”.

The chapter of accidents is described in trenchant detail in the book, and despite the Channel Dash resulting in a tactical victory for the German ships, their change in location proved to be a strategic defeat in that, after being bombed on the night of 26/27 February, GNEISENAU took no further part in the war, PRINCE EUGEN was torpedoed off Norway on 23 February and never ventured into the Atlantic again, whilst SCHARNHORST was of course subsequently pursued and sunk at the Battle of North Cape on 26 December 1943.

It may seem invidious not to comment on more of the many other notable operations on which the FAA was involved, including the Battle of Britain in which it is all too often forgotten that 57 RN pilots took part. They are frankly far too numerous to mention, running as they do from the start to the finish of the war, but the serious student should be reassured to know that they are well covered in detail in this exceedingly well-researched book

Similarly, with its eventual surviving 1336 aircraft in 1945, the FAA introduced too many additional aircraft to list. However, if type one has to be mentioned, perhaps it should be the 1123 Grumman Martlet F4Fs which fulfilled the desperate need for a powerful monoplane fighter, renamed the Wildcat to conflate with US practice, and a name proudly honoured today in the form of the Lynx successor.

It is truly remarkable that so much was achieved from virtually a standing start and limited resources, and the author deserves great credit for presenting this previously under-reported area of the FAA’s history so effectively. The bravery of all the FAA aircrew who flew their frequently antiquated aircraft so determinedly in pursuit of the most demanding objectives against incredible odds, and in such demanding conditions, both by day and by night, backed to the hilt by their exceptional maintainers, is outstanding.

As an tailpiece, the final photograph depicts a German surrender delegation of senior naval officers arriving in Scotland with the Luftwaffe Junkers 52 aircraft that brought them to the UK In May 1945 - a fitting end to the FAA’s major involvement in the war in Europe. Curiously enough, they look very disconsolate, but anyone interested enough to read this absorbing book and the excellent account it provides of the FAA’s war in Europe will understand precisely why, and feel anything but disconsolate. Apologies for the length of this review, but it was a long war.



 

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