~ COASTAL COMMAND'S ANTI-SUBMARINE PATROLS ~
Coastal Command's Anti-Submarine patrols on the flanks of Combined Operations.
I’m not quite sure what I was doing on the afternoon of Monday, June 5, 1944 - the day before D-day! I do know I was based at St. Eval, near Newquay in Cornwall flying as a co-pilot with 547 Squadron of the Liberator Wing, part of 53, 206, 224 and 547 squadrons that formed 19 Group, Coastal Command. Our squadron flew Liberator Vs and VIs, equipped with a powerful searchlight, the Leigh Light. The proud motto of the squadron was ‘Celer ad Caedendum’ - ‘Swift to Strike’.
The 30 squadrons of the Group, which included four Swordfish squadrons from the Royal Navy and three Liberator squadrons of the U.S. Navy, had the duty of providing the anti-submarine air defence for Overlord, the great combined operation for the invasion of Europe, that both we and the Germans were expecting. The opposition were the 35 U-boats of the Group Landwirt, allocated the anti-invasion task and based on Brest and the Biscay ports.
My captain was F/O "Charlie" Dingle DFC of the RCAF; his decoration had been earned as a navigator in Bomber Command. I’d obtained, what was grandly called, a second-class navigator’s certificate from No.1 General Reconnaissance School at Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, and, as we had two other fully trained navigators aboard, we should never have got lost. Indeed we never did; that was not the problem.
The crew had arrived from No. 111 Operational Training Unit, at Nassau in the Bahamas, in May - five Britons and five Canadians. There we had flown Mitchell IIs and then Liberator Vs. We had already flown two operational patrols in February, as a U-boat was suspected to be north of the Bahamas. Mitchells and Libs went out in force, but there was no contact. We arrived at St Eval as a tiny part of the build-up for Overlord.
Our check flight at St. Eval with the squadron commander had passed happily and we were engaged on honing our anti-submarine skills every day. During the last half of May operational sorties had been reduced; this enabled more training to take place, permitted crews to rest and the planes to be brought to a high level of availability. It was possible because many U-boats were being held in the French ports in anticipation of the invasion. (Photo; B for Baker of 547 Squadron, being flown by the writer - Ready to go.)
As there had been considerable activity by enemy fighters, mainly Ju 88s, against our aircraft in the Bay of Biscay and Channel, the training included what was called ‘fighter affiliation’ - sparing with a Spitfire or a Beaufighter. We soon got to the stage that it was judged that skilful ‘weaving’ and our eight 0.5 in. calibre machine-guns could beat off a single Spit or a single Beau, but if there were two of them then we lost the duel. No doubt if we had met two Ju 88s, where-ever we where, we would have headed rapidly westwards!
On the morning of June 5 we had flown to the 19 Group airfield at Angle in Pembrokeshire, to bring five aircrew back to St. Eval. I think they were survivors of a Liberator crash in Wales, but I’m not certain. It was not a nice day. We did not know that Overlord, scheduled for that day, had been postponed because of the bad weather. Low cloud over the Bristol Channel forced us to make a DTC (descent through cloud) to Angle; it is on such occasions that good navigators are worth their weight in gold! It is not a nice surprise, when you come out of a cloud, to find you are heading directly into a cliff or mountain.
That afternoon we were ordered to practice depth-charge attacks in the Channel. It was raining and the cloud-base was still low, about 500 feet, so we had to undertake another DTC to reach our designated bombing area. We now know the Luftwaffe’s HQ in Paris had decided the weather was so bad that it was probable that no allied aircraft would be operational that day. On emerging from the murk imagine our surprise to see an unforgettable, great, grey fleet of all shapes and sizes sailing slowly eastwards on our port side. We had been ordered to an area in the Channel between the invasion fleet and the enemy. Why had we been ordered here - to dupe the enemy into thinking just normal training was in progress, a sacrificial cow to attract any stray enemy fighter to within the range of the fleet’s guns, to give the convoys assurance that they had air support ? In effect we were riding shot-gun on the flank of the fleet and, so far as we knew, we were the first crew of our Wing to know the invasion fleet was at sea. It was both surprising and spine-tingling.
The convoy was part of Task Force U that had sailed from Plymouth, Salcombe, Dartmouth and Brixham. They had assembled on June 3; the postponement of D-day found some of them already at sea. They back-tracked to use up the extra day, some had returned to their starting port and some of the small ships had sought temporary shelter in Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour. The final decision by General Eisenhower to send them into battle was taken at 21.45h on June 4th. They were transporting the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. First Army, to a rendezvous south of the Isle of Wight; from there they would sail to Utah Beach, the most westerly of the landing beaches.
On June 6, dragged by a strong current, the 4th Division landed about a mile west of their planned landing site; fortunately the defences at their actual landing beach were less than those at their designated beach! By the end of the day over 23,000 men and 1,700 vehicles had landed on the beach, for the loss of 160 men, and the vanguard was four miles inland and in contact with the paratroopers of 101st Airborne Division. It was an extraordinarily successful result; it could certainly lay claim to be one of the most successful combined operations of the century.
The next day the aircrews were assembled to be told the invasion had begun. The Group had already started its operational plan to protect the landing fleets - operation CORK. As the enemy had concentrated the bulk of his operational U-boats in the French ports, it was expected the U-boats would put to sea to attack the ships supporting the invasion. To prevent such attacks air patrols were organised to cover the approaches to, and in, the western English Channel. The plan was that a plane would observe with its radar every part of the CORK area, from southern Ireland to the mouth of the Loire, 20,000 square miles, every 30 minutes, day and night for an indefinite period. Thirty minutes was chosen as a U-boat was believed to use, in a crash dive, about as much battery energy as could be charged into the batteries in 30 minutes on the surface. If a U-boat had to crash dive every 30 minutes it would show no net gain from charging its batteries while on the surface between dives. It would arrive in the fighting-zone with its crew exhausted, little compressed air to surface and its batteries flat.In the entire month of June there were no losses to the invasion fleet known to have been caused by U-boats. This was a tremendous achievement in support of the greatest combined operation in history. It was good to have played a small part in it, even if the introduction had been unforeseen and somewhat uncertain.
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In 1945, the author, Dr Salmon was posted, as a Flt. Lt. first pilot, to join Tiger Force. This was three Groups of Liberators and Lancasters destined to fly VLR (very-long-range) missions against Japan. Tiger Force was disbanded after the surrender of Japan. He finished his service with Air Sea Rescue 1347 Flight, flying Liberators from Chittagong, mainly concerned with aircraft flying over ‘The Hump’ to China.