chapter  7
35 Pages

The Apogee of Maritime Aviation, January 1943–September 1944

After four months' training and equipping with a greater quantity of weaponry (especially rocket projectiles) and equipment (including F.24 cameras) not available when Strike Wing tactics were first tried, the North Coates Wing was ready to re-enter the front line. The Wing con­ sisted of three squadrons of Beaufighters. The torpedo component of the Wing was No. 254 Squadron, which had a full complement of 31 aircraft, and the anti-flak section, comprising Nos. 236 and 143 Squadrons, had a total of 38 Beaufighters. Thus equipped, the Wing made its first strike on a well escorted northbound convoy in the early afternoon of 18 April 1943. The target was spotted first by Mustangs on reconnaissance off the Hague, and their report was relayed to No. 16 Group's headquarters. The convoy was larger than most, consisting of eight merchant vessels, ranging in size from 1,561 tons to 4,906 tons, and eight escort vessels, including four minesweepers. It was considered too important a target to let through, and 21 Beaufighters were despatched. Cover was provided by 21 Spitfires of Nos. 167 and 118 Squadrons, and eight Typhoons of No. 56 Squadron, and close escort by eight Mustangs of No. 613 Squadron. On this occasion, there was no difficulty in making contact with the main strike force. All the aircraft located the target, and a well executed attack followed. It was led by Squadron leader Neil Wheeler, the Commanding Officer of No. 236 Squadron, whose recommendations following the unsuccessful Wing operation of 20 November laid the foundation for the new strike tactics. Leading the torpedo section was another experienced airman, Squadron Leader G .D . (‘Bill’) Sise, who was also a formative influence, going on to become one of the prime movers in the creation of a Mosquito Strike Wing. The convoy was taken by surprise, and the first

section of aircraft encountered only moderate flak. Following behind, the Torbeaus released their weapons from the prescribed 1,000 yards and continued to attack with cannon. The largest ship, it was claimed, received at least two torpedo hits, and the last photographs taken showed it enveloped in smoke and listing heavily to port. The minesweepers also came under heavy attack and were damaged, as were the remaining escort vessels. Using photographs taken during the attack, the AntiShipping Assessment Committee was able to confirm that the largest vessel, upon which the Torbeau attack was concentrated, was the Norwegian Hoegh Carrier (4,906 tons), and that this had been sunk. The Committee also assessed as sunk another merchant vessel, two minesweepers were claimed as seriously damaged, and the remaining ships were thought to have sustained varying degrees of damage. Post-war records confirmed only the sinking of the Hoegh Carrier, but at the time the belief that more damage had been inflicted gave a very important fillip to morale. The attack had been carried out with almost clockwork precision, lasting no more than four minutes, and all of the aircraft, including the fighters, returned safely to their bases. The success of the operation marked a turning point in the fortunes of the strike squadrons.1