Exhibition Opens at the Fleet Air Arm Museum

News of the opening of a new exhibition in a military history museum is always of interest to enthusiasts and militaria collectors who are keen to see displays of items and learn more about the aspects of a campaign or battle. The new display which opened at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset on 11 July tells the history of the campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic and when The Armourer was invited we eagerly accepted and went along to see for ourselves.

The Battle of the Atlantic can be said to have begun on the first day of the war and continued until May 1945. It was a never-ending fight to keep open the convoy routes from Canada, and later America, under the Lend Lease Act, in order to maintain the supply routes along which vital materials flowed that would keep Britain in the war. It was a battle which the country had to win and indeed the FAA Museum recognises this by proclaiming its new exhibition was ‘The Battle Britain Could Not Afford to Lose’. How right this comment is in so many different ways because looking around the new exhibition one comes to realise how important the Atlantic routes were in supporting all the other operations and campaigns of the war.

The Battle of the Atlantic exhibition is a permanent display and has been put together following months of planning and preparation followed by many more months of hard work. The result is a fresh look at a campaign which was fought on the waves by surface warships, below the surface by U-Boats and in the skies by the Luftwaffe, RAF Coastal Command and, of course, the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm operating from escort carriers such as the MV Empire MacAlpine and HMS Audacity, which began its history in a singularly unique fashion. It also reminds us how fragile at times these routes were and how science and human endeavour kept the channels operating and secure.

One episode begins in March 1939 when the Germans launched a cargo ship by the name of Hannover with a 5,537 GRT, 12,000 ton displacement, and used on the banana route in the West Indies. She was intercepted and captured intact in March 1940 when attempts to scuttle her failed and she was taken to Jamaica. She was then renamed Sinbad and placed under management of the Cunard White Star Line Ltd before being commandeered by the Admiralty for conversion to an escort carrier. These were a new class of vessel intended to provide air cover in the area which had become identified as the ‘Mid-Atlantic Gap’ where convoys were at their most vulnerable. In January 1941 work on converting the Sinbad to her new role was started. The work was undertaken at Blyth Dry Docks and she was renamed Empire Audacity, given the prefix term HMS before finally becoming simply HMS Audacity.

Following her conversion from banana boat to warship the Audacity was armed with a single 4-inch gun, one 6-Pounder, four 2-Pounder ‘Pom-Pom anti-aircraft guns and four 20mm anti-aircraft guns. A squadron of Martlet aircraft, American-built F4F Grumman Wildcat, was embarked to provide air cover. After completing sea trials the Audacity was deployed to provide cover to the convoys sailing the route to Gibraltar. She served well in this role, sinking five U-Boats and destroying five German long-range reconnaissance FW200 ‘Condor’ aircraft, during several sailings until she was sunk by U-751 on the night of 21 December 1941. She took some 70 minutes to sink and the survivors were rescued by three escorting warships. It is rather ironic to think that it was the Germans who built the ship and it was they who also sank her, such is the twisting fate of history.

One of those pulled out of the water was Lieutenant Eric Brown of 802 Squadron Fleet Air Arm, who was a pilot of one of the Martlets. Seventy-two years later and now Captain, Eric Brown was among those who were present at the opening of the new exhibition as a guest of honour. The Armourer had the very great privilege of being introduced to him and being granted an interview to learn of his remarkable history.

Lieutenant Brown completed his flight training at HMS Heron as the air base in Yeovilton is known but he was not overly impressed with the aircraft they were using. He was sent to join 25 Squadron in the Orkneys; from there he was transferred to 802 Squadron and embarked on HMS Audacity and flew a Martlet fighter. He completed four sailings on the Liverpool to Gibraltar convoy during which time he flew a number of sorties and shot down two of the five FW 200 Condor aircraft credited to being destroyed by the actions of the Audacity. He was on board when the carrier was hit by three torpedoes and the ship sank in just over one hour. He was in the water for four hours until rescued and taken to safety. Eric Brown was then transferred to Patuxent Naval Air Station in America, followed by service at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment in Farnborough and rising to become the Chief Test Pilot.

Today Captain Eric Brown is mentioned three times in the Guinness Book of World Captain Eric Brown CBE, DSC, AFC, RN standing by a restored example of a Martlet aircraft of the type he flew from HMS Audacity.

Records as holding the record for the most types of aircraft flown, most landings on the deck of an aircraft carrier and the greatest number of catapult launches. Captain Brown told us that when it came to operating from an aircraft carrier there was no margin for error, otherwise you landed up in the ‘drink’ which is to say in the sea. Fortunately he did not have any accidents but he did tell how an escort carrier such as the Audacity could pitch anything up to 30 feet high before crashing 30 feet down, giving a total of 60 feet height deviation. Fie said these conditions were experienced in the Bay of Biscay during the convoys to Gibraltar but no aircraft could operate in such conditions. Captain Brown’s experiences recalling how he shot down an FW 200 makes up one of the information boards in the new exhibition and reading it makes one gasp in astonishment. Like all veterans of hard campaigns he remains very modest about his accomplishments.

The Battle of the Atlantic exhibition is displayed over two levels with personal effects on show, such as diary entries, photographs and other items. Three aircraft of the type which took part in the campaign are on display including the venerable Swordfish, Fairey Fulmar and a newly-restored Grumman Martlet, of the type flown by Captain Brown. Each has interpretation boards on which all the specifications are listed. A large replica of a German U-Boat conning tower looms but does not overpower the downstairs display and the interior is used as a display area for artefacts relating to incidents such as the sinking of the Athena. The periscope which gave the U-Boat ‘eyes’ is centre stage and looking through it one can see the image of how a target appeared to the U-Boat captain.

If the periscope was the eyes of the U-Boat then the Focke Achgelis Bachstelze (Wagtail) FA330 device allowed visibility out to a range of 25 miles to spot targets. This is an extremely rare item to have on display and was in effect a small, unpowered one-man gyrocopter towed by a U-Boat to which it was tethered by a cable. Visitors can read the whole story of how this device was used in tracking convoys. Display cases contain flying suits worn by pilots, models of escort carriers and many other artefacts including letters. An audio-visual monitor plays archive film footage showing how the Battle of the Atlantic was fought. The U-Boat was the only thing the Germans deployed which truly scared Winston Churchill because he knew if they succeeded in cutting the supply routes to Britain the country would be forced to surrender. Despite staggering losses the battle was won by men such as Captain Frederic Walker, who devised special tactics to attack U-Boats, and veteran pilot Captain Eric Brown who, in shooting down two FW 200 aircraft, undoubtedly saved many ships and hundreds of lives.

The information boards on the walls trace a time line of the war and highlight the many campaigns, battles, operations and assaults which were only possible by keeping open the supply routes across the Atlantic. The buildup for D-Day absorbed huge amounts of equipment and the North African campaign was supported entirely by supply convoys from Britain and direct from America. The list is of operations is a list of fierce battles of the war such as Sicily, Italy, South of France and, of course, the very survival of Britain itself on the Flome Front. The vital role played by aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm in operations such as the Channel Dash in 1942 and the sinking of the Bismarck are all recounted.

For anyone interested in naval history this is a fascinating exhibition and for anyone just beginning to become involved in studying naval warfare in the 2 0,h century they will find this new display extremely instructive and gain ideas for research. Militaria collectors may be able to identify elusive items from the display cases and even modellers and war gamers will gain ideas from the campaign which lasted so long. The museum, which has full disabled access, is open between 10am and 5.30pm between 1 April and 3 November 2013 and in winter it is open between 10am and 4.30pm from 4 November 2013 and 31 March 2014. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays during winter opening times and also on 24, 25 and 26 December. For further details of opening times, prices and location telephone 01935 840565 or visit the website at: www.fleetairarm.com

We at The Armourer would like to extend our gratitude to the Trustees and all the staff at the Fleet Air Arm Museum for inviting us along to the grand opening of the new exhibition and making our visit unforgettable. Sincere thanks are also expressed to Captain Eric Brown for granting us an interview.

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