It seems too incredible to believe in hindsight but World War II began rather quietly for the western allies. The so-called “Phoney War” lasted from the 3rd September 1939 right up to when the Germans launched their push westward on the 10th May 1940. While it was anything but phoney for the Polish who were being decimated in the east the western powers settled for a series of sporadic engagements in the air and on the sea.
In the 21st century many of these early encounters have become lost in the fog created by the grand scale of the events between 1940 and 1945 but it was in this period that many of the war’s firsts were achieved. Without question one of the most important weapons to achieve maturity in World War II was the aircraft carrier. While carriers were not new inventions they still played second fiddle to battleships in terms of importance within the world’s navy and the Royal Navy, with its grand history of mighty warships, was no exception.
In the early days of the war carrier-borne aircraft were used very much as an extension of the battleship’s guns as well as carrying out spotting duties and fighter defence. Carrier aircraft had to be more rugged than their land based counterparts to take in to account the hard landings one could expect returning to the ship and often this requirement resulted in rather heavy aircraft. As a result carrier-borne aircraft, at least initially, were seen as inferior. One aircraft that probably did nothing to change this opinion was the Blackburn Skua.
The Skua was one of a number of aircraft intended to catapult the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in to the modern era of the very late 1930s. The Fleet Air Arm liked the slow speed handling of biplanes and the view the traditional open cockpit afforded the pilot on landing aboard a carrier but all that meant was that the aircraft were outclassed in the air. The Skua was therefore the Royal Navy’s first monoplane combat aircraft with an enclosed canopy increasing both crew comfort and aerodynamic efficiency. It entered service in mid 1939 long after most land based air forces had re-equipped with monoplanes as their primary combat type.
The Skua was never going to win any beauty pagents and looked somewhat ungainly. It was powered by a a single 890hp Bristol Perseus XII radial engine that pulled it along at 225mph which was marginally slower than the Gloster Gladiator biplane. It was tough however and could carry a single 500lb bomb on a centreline pylon. Offically classed as a dive bomber this dimply looking aircraft found itself operating as a fighter when war broke out thanks largely to the Fleet Air Arm’s slow rearmament process which meant many squadrons were still shore based transitioning from their biplanes to dedicated fighters like the brutish Fairey Fulmar. The aircraft was hardly ideal but there were few concerned as it was never expected to tangle with the Messerschmitt Bf109 but rather it would shoot down lumbering maritime reconnaissance planes. Armament for the fighter role comprised four forward firing .303 machine guns in the wings and a single .303 mounted in the rear cockpit.
On the 24th September 1939 a British submarine, HMS Spearfish, was damaged following an encounter with German surface warships in the North Sea and sent a distress signal. The submarine was unable to surface as a result of battle damage but had managed to successfully evade her attackers. A plan was hatched by the Admiralty to go to her rescue and involved a flotilla of three major warships – the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Embarked aboard HMS Ark Royal were Skuas of No.803 NAS who were to provide fighter cover for the operation.
The Germans too knew that an operation would likely be underway to rescue the Spearfish and so they put a number of aircraft in to the air including several Dornier Do.18 flying boats. It was as the flotilla were approximately 250 miles west of the German held island of Heligoland that Do.18 crew spotted them at 1100hrs. The British ships went to action stations and the Skuas were ordered to intercept. Realising they were under attack by fighters the crew of the Do.18 turned for home but not before the Skuas inflicted several hits on the aircraft.
With the Do.18 escaping the British knew their position was compromised. Indeed, it was less than thirty minutes before a second Do.18 flying boat was vectored in to monitor the progress of the British fleet. This time however the alerted pilots of No.803 NAS, including Lt BS McEwen and his observer PO BM Seymour, were much quicker to respond and three Skuas went up after the intruder. The three Skuas pounced on the lumbering Dornier and a strafing pass by McEwen saw the aircraft’s engines begin to splutter and down it went, the extremely skilled German pilot making a rather controlled landing on the sea. The German crew were picked up a short while later by the British destroyer HMS Somali.
McEwan and Seymour had more than just an aerial victory to claim. It was, they believed, the first air to air kill by a British aircraft of the Second World War and was reported as such in the press until a few weeks later when French sources reported the finding of wreckage of a German fighter brought down by an RAF Fairey Battle over France on the 20th September. At the time the kill was listed as “probable” since the German aircraft was not seen to crash by the Battle’s crew. McEwan and Seymour may have been stripped of this title but they retain the accolade of having achieved the first kill of an enemy aircraft by a carrier based fighter in the Second World War.