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Library Reference Number: 204

Flying Boat Versus U-Boat

Jerry Dawson, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

"Standing War Order 483" (Ständiger Kriegsbefehl) was to be known as the "Fight Back" order and it simply meant than when faced with an aircraft (and the time needed to reach safe diving depth was not available) U-boats would stay on the surface and fight back instead of the normal tactic of emergency diving. By 1943 now fitted with 20 mm armament, German submarines became a formidable adversary as Saltire Branch member Jerry Dawson found out much to the cost of himself and crew.

In July 1943 I was first wireless operator on Catalina ‘F’ of No.210 Squadron Coastal Command on detachment to Gibraltar from our home base in Poole Harbour, Dorset. Our captain was F/Lt. Denis Ryan who had spent most of his early life in Argentina.

In the early morning of 9th July we had been detailed to escort a convoy in the Atlantic but about two hours after take-off a wireless message from Gibraltar instructed us to search for a damaged U-boat in a position 200-250 miles west of Lisbon, so on reaching Cape St. Vincent the aircraft turned on to a north westerly course for the search area. Some six hours after leaving Gib, with the sun near its Zenith, a few miles away on the port bow, a surfaced U-boat course 020, 14 kts was sighted crossing ahead of the Catalina in position 3830N 1412W.

The alarm horn sounded, the Rigger dashed to the front gun and the blister guns were swung out. Ryan launched his attack in a shallow dive, weaving the aircraft from side to side. The U-boat's first burst of tracer passed harmlessly to starboard. Then the aircraft flew into a hail of fire and was hit repeatedly, but the attack was pressed home. Perhaps because of damage to the electrical circuit only the three depth charges under the starboard wing dropped, and although these exploded, the effect on the U-boat could not be seen. KL Herbett Brunning dived, then took eight days to reach St. Nazaire.

The Catalina had received the worst of the exchange. Two crewmen were killed in the exchange and another died of heart failure next day. The blazing port engine coughed ominously, a mass of flames swept the navigator's and engineer's compartments, several holes gaped in the hull and another, just inboard of the pitot head suggested why the ASI was not registering. Black smoke and escaping petrol streamed astern. The captain feathered the port aircrew while the second pilot attacked the fire with extinguishers, but to no avail. Neither could the depth charges under the port wing be jettisoned. With smoke filling the cockpit, the captain decided to alight immediately. Turning to starboard into a 20 knot wind, he made a perfect fully stalled landing with the floats up. After one almighty thump, the aircraft settled, port wing tip in the water.

As burning petrol from the port side spread over the water, accompanied by signs of the fire spreading to the starboard side and the possibility of the depth charges exploding, hurried evacuation of the aircraft was imperative. Flames and choking smoke in the bunk compartment made retrieval of the wireless and emergency packs impossible. The Captain and three crew members jumped into the sea from the cockpit while those remaining pushed the dinghies through the starboard blister and started to swim.

Clear of the flames, seven crewmen inflated and boarded the "H" type and were soon joined by the rigger who had swum out to recover the US-made 'Air Cruiser'. Transferring so that there were five survivors in the "H" type and three in the Air Cruiser all baled using their shoes to make both dinghies tolerably dry. Although Paddy Doyle had helped the wounded W/Op Les Yarnell into the water, neither he nor F/O Ray Hunter, the navigator, had made it to the dinghies. After about ten minutes FP155 (F) exploded with a soft crump, its sinking wreckage leaving only a patch of burning petrol.

The dinghies carried topping-up pumps, a patching outfit, two knives, pliers, heliograph mirror and three Fluorescene blocks. From the crew's pockets came three two-ounce chocolate bars, an orange and two steel shaving mirrors. Ryan knew that intense air effort was in progress in the area of their forced landing, and that he was not far off a shipping route. The NNE wind was unhelpful, but the prospect of it backing westerly seemed good. Even without aid the crew could probably last for a week, perhaps ten days for the fitter ones.

While no survivor had severe injuries, all but the captain and the rigger were very seasick after the first half hour. Although the sea became rougher, fleeting appearances by the sun aided attempts to dry clothes through the afternoon, thus improving everyone's comfort by nightfall.

All watches had stopped. At approximately 20:00, a Catalina seen approaching from the east at about 3000 feet passed about five miles to the north, then disappeared in cloud. With no sun visible the helio proved useless and waving futile. F/210 was not due back at Gibraltar until 02:00 on 10th July, so prospects of search aircraft on the next day kept the crew's spirits up.

Just before dark, each crew member received one small square of chocolate - a ration issued on succeeding days. As darkness fell, the wind felt colder, and rougher seas caused frequent breaking waves to enter both dinghies. It was then found that suitable manipulation of its oars kept the Air Cruiser relatively dry, with the added advantage that the exercise kept the rowers warm.

Sleep had been virtually impossible, but as the welcome sun climbed on 10th July, the majority dozed, only to be awakened by the sound of an aircraft. This proved to be a Liberator flying west, but efforts to attract its attention on either the outward or the inward flight some hours later failed. Near nightfall, a Catalina was seen some 20 miles to the south west. It came no closer, but knowing that air effort continued in the area was reassuring.

Very rough seas during the second night parted the dinghies. Only after much shouting, whistle blowing and manoeuvring were they secured again. Cold and wet by daylight on the 11th, everyone's spirits rose with the sun, and the wind dropped slightly. An attempt to row the dinghies across wind to the east had to be abandoned as the the Air Cruiser tended to swamp. Another Catalina was sighted that afternoon. Although a Fluorescene block spread its vivid green streak some 300 yards astern of the dinghies, this did not attract the aircraft's attention and it passed about seven miles to the north. Clouds covered the sun.

Although nobody had drunk anything for over two days, strangely, no one felt thirsty. Nonetheless, deciding to have the orange for the evening meal, the captain cut it into eight pieces. Efforts at fishing with improvised tackle were fruitless. At dusk on the third evening, a large sea bird swooped low over the dinghies effortlessly evading attempts to interrupt its flight with an oar. (I ventured my opinion that it was an albatross but reminded Ryan of the fate of The Ancient Mariner - J.D.)

Decreasing wind strength on the fourth day permitted rowing the Air Cruiser to the east, so everyone was heartened. Each man rowed for approximately one hour.

About six: that evening a voice from the "H" type exclaimed: 'There's a ship'. The dinghies dipped into a trough and when the next sea lifted them all saw two ships on a parallel course about seven miles away. Mirrors flashed furiously in the sun. Unaware that the keen eyes of the 63-year-old Quartermaster of the SS "Port Fairy" had spotted them, they cut the tow so that the Air Cruiser rowed by the Rigger and carrying the Captain could intercept.

Undoubtedly Sgt. L.J. 'Paddy' Doyle, not only by his conduct during the attack but also throughout their 80 hours adrift, was one of the heroes of the incident. Quoting from his skipper's report, which led to Paddy's DFM and a DFC for Denis Ryan: "No Oxford Blue ever made greater effort". As HMS "Swale" halted a hundred yards away he calmly rowed alongside. The frigate then steamed slowly towards the H-type dinghy from which waving and flashing had continued until there was no doubt that they had been seen. All climbed aboard unaided and then found to their surprise that their legs gave way. Their voyage had taken them 100 miles to the south. Apart from bums and sunburn, none suffered severe after-effects.

Log HMS "Swale" 12 July 1943, 1900B 'Have picked up in 37 24N 15 04W, FL. Ryan and seven Sgts'.

F/Lt DM Ryan, Flt.Sgts J Dawson & AC Martin DFM; Sgts. J I McCrone, R W Cooper, E S (Ted) Aldenton R W Aubrey and LJ Doyle.. F/O R L Hunter and Sgt. L Yarnell missing, believed drowned.

When picked up by HMS "Swale" the crew's troubles had not ended. Sick bay treatment lasted about 15 minutes - examination for injuries, drinks of water and a cigarette each. Then the alarm sounded. A Focke Wulf had bombed the "Port Fairy". All hell broke loose as the "SwaIe's" AA armament opened up. She then moored alongside the merchant ship to put out the fires and evacuate the wounded. It got hot, bloody hot!

It was not a case of 'out of the frying pan into the fire' but 'out of the sea into the frying pan', All the Catalina survivors were hurriedly removed to other parts of the ship, fires put out, and cooler conditions (comparatively speaking) prevailed.

About noon on the following day the Catalina survivors were put ashore on the quay at Casablanca. On the other side of the harbour they could see another casualty of war, the scuttled French battleship, "Jean Bart".

“Coastal Command Review” (an Air Ministry Publication) made much of this saga to inspire ditched aircrew to hang on.

ASI - Air speed indicator.
Pitot - Short tube protruding from leading edge of wing via which the velocity of the air flow is converted into miles (or knots) per hour on the air speed indicator.
H-type – Circular inflatable rescue dinghy capable of holding several survivors.

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