Much has been written about the Battle of the Atlantic and the convoys that kept Britain alive. One aspect of this battleground has largely been forgotten however being overshadowed by the menace of the U-Boats. Dönitz‘s U-Boats were just the end of an an intelligence gathering campaign to track the convoys that started with the four engined Focke-Wulf Fw200 Condor maritime patrol plane. With a range in excess of 2,000 miles and bases in France and Norway the Condor could sweep large areas of the Atlantic, detecting and tracking the convoys before passing that information on to the U-Boat command who relayed that data back to the U-Boats via the Enigma coding machine. Destroying the Fw200s before they could get back to occupied Europe with their information became a matter of urgency.
The Royal Navy had conducted tests launching Sea Hurricanes (the naval version of the RAF’s famous single seat fighter) off catapults mounted on the bow of ships but it was to be the RAF who would provide and train the vast majority of pilots. The plan called for the Hurricane to be catapulted off the ship when an enemy aircraft was sighted and go after it. If the action occurred close to a friendly country then the pilot was allowed to attempt to land there however more often than not the action would take place far outside the range of a land based airfield and so the pilot would have to ditch his aircraft in front of the convoy he was protecting in the hope of being picked up. This required a special kind of mentality and belief in one’s own invincibility.The RAF formed the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit (MSFU) to handle this new dangerous assignment and 35 merchant ships were modified it carry a single Sea Hurricane and catapult gear. The Royal Navy did provide a handful of their own aircrew for the role but the Fleet Air Arm remained primarily a carrier and land based force.
Hawker’s Hurricane was considered the best choice for the job because it had proven a sturdier aircraft than other contemporaries such as the Supermarine Spitfire. Its position as a premier fighter had also deteriorated as newer German fighters appeared freeing the airframes up as they were replaced by newer Spitfires in the RAF. The Hurricane was an excellent gun platform with its close coupled guns proving devastating to multi engined bombers. Later versions also became armed with four 20mm cannons in place of the .303 machine guns thus increasing their lethality. The Fleet Air Arm units initially operated the Fairey Fulmar in the role before they too resorted to the Hurricane. A dedicated naval fighter the Fulmar was also a very tough and sturdy design and had the advantages of longer range and a second crewman to aid with navigation. It was heavier which meant that the catapult launch was that much more difficult however and this was one of the reasons why the FAA switched to the Hurricane – that and the fact the Hurricane was now more readily available thanks to a Canadian production line.
The first CAM ships joined the convoys in June 1941 after the RAF deemed the unit and its pilots ready. It was decided that pilots who were detached to these units would be allowed to make just two convoy journeys before retraining or reassignment to a frontline squadron. It was feared that pilot skill would deteriorate if kept from flying for too long. A handful of early CAM ships left with convoys but were not used and the main threat remained from marauding U-Boats. That changed however on the 3rd of August 1941 when a convoy traversing the North Atlantic codenamed OG17 was spotted by a Fw200. A Hurricane flown by Lt. Robert Everett was launched to intercept the aircraft. Despite persistent defensive fire from the German crew the Fw200 fell to Everett’s guns. Everett then ditched his aircraft and was recovered by a destroyer escort for the convoy.
It would be just under a month later when a second combat launch was undertaken. This time a Fw200 was intercepted but no doubt the Germans had become aware of the threat posed by these catapult fighters as the Fw200 crew thought survival being the better part of valor and elected to retreat rather than duel with the Hurricane. Having patrolled around the convoy in case the Fw200 came back the RAF pilot ditched in the water when his fuel was gone and was recovered by a destroyer. There were a total of nine combat launches in which the Hurricanes engaged enemy aircraft or scared them away (this was still a success because it meant the German crews could not complete their mission). As well as patrol aircraft the Hurricanes had to deal with torpedo armed German bombers such as the Heinkel He111h-6 and the Junkers Ju-88. There were numerous false alarms where aircraft were launched only to discover they were allied aircraft with the B-17 Flying Fortress (which looks remarkably similar to a Fw200 when in flight) and the B-24 Liberator being the biggest culprits.
Despite the immensely dangerous nature of the operation there was only one fatality amongst the MSFU. On 25th May 1942 convoy QP12 was homeward bound from Russia when it was spotted by a German Bv138 flying boat. Flying Officer J.B. Kendall launched in his Hurricane and scared it away. Shortly after a Ju88 appeared and the still patrolling Kendall engaged the twin engined bomber, sending it crashing in to the sea. By now Kendall’s fuel was low and so he was forced to ditch in to the sea. Unfortunately his parachute failed to open correctly and he landed hard in the sea mortally wounding him. He was given a burial sea at sea by a grateful convoy.
By 1943 the introduction of escort carriers negated the need for the CAM ships and as such the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit was disbanded. In total they claimed nine kills and scared off a similar number of other aircraft (exact numbers vary). Their success can be measured in many ways and not just the number of kills they achieved. The very fact these pilots and their aircraft were in the convoy did much to lift the spirits of the merchant navy sailors who had suffered horrendous losses to the Germans. Their bravery and dedication was truly inspiring.