Coastal Command Strike Wings by Air Chief Marshall Sir Neil Wheeler
It was not until ten years ago that the first detailed account appeared recording the achievements and sacrifices of the Beaufighter anti-shipping Strike Wings. Surprisingly, these important and, as a whole, very successful activities seemed to have been forgotten in the years immediately after the war. Until 1942 the attack of enemy shipping, particularly that to and from Dutch ports and North German and Scandinavian ports, had been carried out in the main by individual attacks by bomber aircraft, at times with considerable losses. The concept of using a Wing of Beaufighters, with two squadrons to suppress enemy anti-aircraft fire and one with torpedoes to sink the ships in the convoy, gradually developed in 1942. Unfortunately, the first strike on 20th November 1942 was disastrous, largely through failure to rendezvous with the fighter escort, the casualties were heavy and the results poor. The Wing was not to operate again until 18th April 1943, and only after a thorough revision of tactics and much training. That strike, which I led, was an unqualified success ans Strike Wings were, so to speak, born. They continued with great success until the end of the war. Initially, the casualties that were suffered were extremely high, particularly in 1943 before the Allies achieved overwhelming air supremacy. But they continued to be high because most were due to the concentrated anti-aircraft fire from the ships in the convoys. I understand that the casualties were about the same as Bomber Command. However, the Strike Wings, as a considerably smaller force in comparison, inflicted far greater losses on the enemy relative to their own.
|'Strike Wing Attack' - Frank Wootton|
Account of the operation on 21st July 1944 - Philip Brett:
'This was my second operational flight. On my first I had had a three foot hole blown in my tailplane, teaching me that shipping strikes were indeed dangerous. This time I was carrying my first live torpedo and I realised I now had to do in anger what I had done a hundred times in enjoyable practice runs. I was expected to fly at a height of 150 feet and a speed of 180 knots, keeping straight and level until I was within about half a mile of an enemy ship, with cameras recording what I was actually doing when I made my drop. To add to my nervousness we were told that the convoy consisted of nine merchantmen guarded by no less than 31 escort vessels. Fear was forgotten in the concentration needed to fly very low across the North Sea in close squadron formation but it reasserted itself sharply enough immediately the ships appeared. The convoy was as big as promised. The anti-flak squadrons, 455 (Australian) 489 (New Zealand) and 404 (Canadian) began their climb. Our leader, Squadron Leader Robin Burwell, held 144 back, aiming to brings us in to the ships just as the anti-flak aircraft completed their work. On his order - Attack, Attack - we spread out as briefed, choosing individually the biggest targets we could find and setting our travelling light torpedo sights accordingly. The other squadrons had caused havoc. There was smoke everywhere on the sea and in the sky. Explosions were occurring along the whole length of the convoy. I came in like a good new boy, doing just what I had been told. I was aware of a sort of sparkling curtain between me and my target and the pretty tracer curving gracefully towards us, but I was concerned only with speed and height and the need to wait until the ship grew large. My torpedo gone, I could at last ram open the throttles and take violent evasive action as I climbed through the flak from my target and the surrounding escort vessels into the safer sky beyond. As we circled the scene of the attack there were still bursts of heavy flak everywhere above the convoy. Some of the aircraft seemed to be having a second go. Many of the ships below were enveloped in smoke and steam and several were blazing - Bill Boorer, my navigator, thought our merchantman was one of them. We set course for our base, Strubby, in Lincolnshire, and landed in the dark, unscathed. At debriefing everyone told of the severe damage that had been inflicted but no-one could be really sure of who had done what. The next day I heard that, from my aircraft cameras and all the other evidence, my torpedo had been assessed as a hit.'
I don't know why Brett is known as Philip here, but as Peter in Bill Boorer's report of their being shot down the following year. I have purchased a print of the painting above signed by - among others - Flying Officer P. Brett; I shall confirm which name he uses when I get it. I think it will look rather nice in the annexe. The elder Miss Epictetus has been dispatched to the ex-marital home to find a photo of your bloggist and Mr Boorer; a photo that incidentally also includes someone else whose picture has previously graced this blog. So far all she has turned up is a picture of me in front of a palm tree at RAF Luqa, which I must admit is fairly nostalgic in its own right.