Strike wing

Coastal Command’s campaign against enemy surface shipping during the early years of the war met with limited success. The Blenheims, Hampdens and Beauforts rarely attacked as a co-ordinated force and, faced by a formidable threat, suffered heavy losses for very modest results.

The availability of the Beaufighter brought about a dramatic change in the anti-shipping campaign and the Command’s Strike Wings changed the course of the war in the waters off German-occupied Europe.

In November 1942 the first of the Strike Wings was formed at North Coates on the Lincolnshire coast. Its task was to attack the important convoys, heavily escorted by flak-ships, transporting raw materials from Scandinavia to the Dutch port of Rotterdam. It consisted of two squadrons of Beaufighter VIcs: 236 armed with cannon, machine-guns and bombs and 254 with cannon and torpedoes.

The first operation was mounted on November 20 to attack a southbound convoy off the Hook of Holland. Twenty-five Beaufighters took off with New Zealander, Sqn Ldr G D ‘Bill’ Sise leading the torpedo-carrying flight of nine 254 ‘Torbeaus’. One of the youngest pilots on the sortie was 236’s Sgt David Ellis with his observer Eric Ramsbottom. Their ‘Beau’ was armed with cannon and two 250lb (113kg) bombs as part of the anti-flak force.

The fighter escort failed to make the rendezvous and the force headed across the North Sea. The formation split up and Ellis’ section hit the Dutch coast to the south of the convoy and was unable to make an attack at the briefed time. Meanwhile, German fighters pounced repeatedly on Sise’s flight. His aircraft was badly damaged but he limped home to make a crash-landing near Frinton-on-Sea. For his gallantry on this first ill-fated raid he was awarded the DFC.

PUT TO THE TEST

This first ‘op’ by the Strike Wings was a tragic failure resulting in the loss of three crews, five aircraft and others badly shot up. Among those lost were the CO of 236 Squadron and one of his flight commanders. Within days, Wg Cdr Neil Wheeler arrived to take command.

Wheeler, 26, was a graduate of the RAF College at Cranwell and one of the pioneer Spitfire photographic reconnaissance pilots; his exploits during 56 operations earned him the DFC. On arrival he recognised the low morale and immediately reviewed and revised the tactics. To provide stronger support for the ‘Torbeaus’, 143 Squadron joined the Wing in the New Year in the anti-flak role.

Wheeler recommended that the three units should attack together and established a period of intense training in which everyone was expected to match his high standards. During February some crew flew more than 20 sorties practicing tactical formations and co-ordinated strikes. Wheeler was adamant that a fighter escort was essential and vowed that no matter how much pressure was put on him, he would refuse to lead a sortie without an escort.

Wheeler’s firm views, natural leadership and example brought an enthusiastic response from his crews. He was soon recognised as a strict but fair man, a trait that remained with him throughout his long RAF career. Finally, on April 18, 1943, his beliefs, intensive training and new tactics were put to the test. An important and heavily-defended convoy had been sighted off the Dutch coast and Wheeler was ordered to attack.

Six machines from each of 143 and 236 Squadrons, armed with four 20mm cannon and a pair of 250-pounders, were to take on the flak-ships. Nine ‘Torbeaus’ of 254, led by Bill Sise, were to hit the merchant ships.

David Ellis flew as No.2 to his 236 Squadron Flight Commander, Sqn Ldr ‘Dusky’ Denholm. The Beaufighters took off at 13:20 hours and Ellis settled in alongside Denholm as they crossed the Wash, heading for Coltishall where they saw their fighter escort taking off. Wheeler led the 21 Beaufighters, and their escort of 30 long-range fighters, across the North Sea at 50ft (15m).

Bob Irving, Wheeler’s navigator, set a good course; his timing and plotting were perfect and after 40 minutes, Ellis saw Wheeler start a climbing turn to 1,500ft as the convoy came into view. Eight merchant ships sailing in two lines of four were protected by six escorting flak-ships with two minesweepers ahead.

Ellis selected his target as radio silence was broken and Wheeler ordered: “Attack, attack, attack!” The formation turned to starboard, the ‘Torbeaus’ remaining at low level as the dozen antiflak ‘Beaus’ dived into the fray.

Ellis commented: “As I settled into the dive I brought my gun sight to bear on the target and saw cannon shell splashes in the sea move towards the ship. At the same time tracer shells were rising to meet me. At the last moment, with my sight still on the ship, I released my two bombs and skimmed over it and weaved my way through the convoy.”

As the anti-flak force unleashed cannons and bombs, Sise led the others, each armed with a Mk.XV torpedo and four cannons, low down against the major merchant ships. Flying in his formation was another young pilot, recently commissioned ‘Del’ Wright who had joined in June 1942 with his observer Bob Price — they had been together since their days on Blenheims.

Flying in pairs at 120ft, the ‘Torbeaus’ headed for the freighters and released their torpedoes at 800 yards range. Despite the intense anti-aircraft fire, Wright had a perfect run to the 4,900-ton Norwegian Hoegh Carrier and released his torpedo. Although individual pilots did not observe the progress of their weapons as they took evasive action immediately after the drop, following crews saw definite hits.

Analysis indicated that three torpedoes had hit, including Wright’s, which had struck between amidships and the stern. It was later confirmed that the Hoegh Carrier had sunk and other ships had been left burning and badly damaged. It was completed in four minutes and without loss. All the Beaufighters returned safely and the raid was recognised as an outstanding success.

CANNON AND TORPEDOES

The Wing was next in action on April 29 after a 143 Squadron Beaufighter flying a LAGOON reconnaissance sortie sighted a convoy of six merchant vessels and nine escort ships off the Netherlands. Following a detailed crew briefing, the Wing was airborne at 16:50 with Wheeler in the lead. On this occasion it consisted of 12 ‘Torbeaus’ of 254, nine ‘Beaus’ of236 with bombs and six of 143 with cannons. The force was escorted by 24 Spitfires and six Mustangs.

The ships were located off Texel. Three minesweepers in line abreast were leading the merchant vessels in two lines astern. Escort craft were stationed around the convoy. Five balloons at about 800 to 1,000ft were picketed from the centre ships. The disposition of the escorts made the target more formidable than the previous one. Also, owing to a change in speed by the enemy since the last recce, the all-important element of surprise was lost. However, Wheeler’s skilful leadership brought the attackers into position and the onslaught began.

Despite intense anti-aircraft fire, Wheeler brought the three sections of 236 into dive-bombing the escorts. Sqn Ldr John Holgate of 143 led his men into cannon attacks against the leading minesweepers. Ellis picked out an escort and, with cannons firing, he dived at 20-degrees and released his bombs before escaping from the heavy flak to make his way home.

As the escorts were being hit, the dozen ‘Torbeaus’, in two sections led by Wg Cdr Charles Cooper and Bill Sise, dropped their Torpex-Duplex torpedoes — set to run at eight feet depth — from 100ft. One hit was seen amidships on the leading merchant vessel, confirmed by the fighter escort, and a second struck the stern of a merchantman, which started to list and turn out of line. The ‘Torbeaus’ strafed with cannon before departing.

The Assessment Committee (which analysed film, photographs, crew debriefs and enemy radio intercepts) confirmed that two merchant ships, the Aludra of 4,900 tons and the Narvik of 4,250 tons, had been sunk, together with a flak-ship. Others had been badly damaged. A Beaufighter of 143 Squadron failed to return.

GRIM JUSTIFICATION

Throughout the intensive training period, Wheeler had always insisted that fighter escort was essential. This requirement was grimly justified on May 1 when 31 Beaufighters of the North Coates Strike Wing, led by ‘Dusty’ Denholm, were sent on a sweep along the Norwegian coast against the cruiser Nurnberg. The target was outside the range of fighters and the ‘Beaus’ approached the Norwegian coast without an escort.

The cruiser was sighted and the Wing had just turned in to attack when Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters intercepted. Before Sise could get his torpedo-bombers into position, the Germans shot down three of them.

In the melee that followed, torpedoes and bombs were jettisoned, the Beaufighters descended to sea level and turned for home. Two Fw 190s closed in on Del Wright but sheared off to attack another Beaufighter. Wright landed at Skitten in the Orkneys and others went to Wick. In addition to the three lost by 254 Squadron, two machines from 143 also failed to return.

The next strike on May 17 had the benefit of a formidable fighter escort of 59 Spitfires. A Mustang of 2 Squadron had sighted a northbound convoy as it left the Hook of Holland and it was shadowed and photographed by other Mustangs and a raid was ordered. Using the photographs, Wheeler briefed his crews.

At 15:15, he took off at the head of 26 Beaufighters, nine from 236 carrying bombs, six of 143 with cannon and Sise leading 12 torpedo-carriers of 254. Tucked into the leading section of ‘Torbeaus’ was Del Wright.

By the time the force made contact with the convoy it was off Texel. Six merchant vessels were disposed in two lines, escorted by three ‘M-class’ minesweepers sailing in front with four armed trawlers on the flanks. All the merchants were flying balloons on a 400ft cable.

Sise, Wright and Plt Off W G Palmer attacked the leading merchant in the starboard column. Others singled out the second vessel and they reported seeing a torpedo hit on Sise’s target and the 3,000-ton Kyphissia was seen to be on fire. Some of the escorts were also hit and left blazing. Two of the merchant vessels had been seriously damaged and three escorts were damaged.

CHANGE OF FORTUNE

The success of the North Coates Strike

Wing started to attract the attention of the RAF hierarchy. Wheelers tactics were proving that the squadrons were capable of reacting quickly j and effectively, once a i worthwhile convoy had been reported. On May 27, King George VI j and Queen Elizabeth visited North Coates and met the air and ground crews. This emphasised the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes in the six months since Wheeler had assumed command. At the beginning of June, Bill Sise was rested. He had established a formidable reputation as a fearless anti-shipping pilot and during his time on 254 he had led almost all the torpedo sections in the face of intense flak.

A few weeks later it was announced that he had been awarded the DSO for: “leading attacks against enemy shipping during which no less than seven large merchant vessels have been destroyed. He has pressed home his attacks undaunted by any danger or opposition.”

After a break, he took command of a DH Mosquito squadron and flew out of Portreath in Cornwall against the French Biscay ports. He then joined the Banff Wing when he assaulted heavily defended convoys off Norway. He added another DSO and DFC to his gallantry awards. By the end of the war, he was recognised by many as the RAF’s leading ‘ship-buster’.

FORMIDABLE CONVOY

Routine for the Wing was to launch two or three aircraft daily to carry out LAGOON sorties along the Dutch shoreline searching for convoys. On June 12 recently-commissioned David Ellis found a small group of coasters off the island of Nordeney, but it was not considered sufficiently important to mount a strike.

However the following day the North Coates Wing was in action with Wheeler once again in the lead. At 20:45 a force of 18 anti-flak Beaufighters and 12 ‘Torbeaus’, this time led by Charles Cooper, took off accompanied by a strong fighter escort. One of 254’s aircraft returned early when the radio caught fire — it was extinguished with a tin of orange juice!

The northbound convoy was sighted a few miles south of Den Helder and presented a formidable sight. It consisted of the 5,180-ton Stadt Emden and three smaller merchants of 2,000 to 3,000 tons, escorted by five ‘M-class’ minesweepers ahead and astern of the convoy, with two trawler-type auxiliaries on either flank. All the merchant ships were trailing balloons.

Wheeler sighted the convoy to the north of his route and had to make rapid adjustments to his plan. During the approach phase the formation came under heavy fire and Wheeler ordered the co-ordinated attack, accepting that not all the aircraft were well positioned. He led the anti-flak team against the escorts as the ‘Torbeaus’ approached the Stadt Emden, which had been nominated as the main target.

The torpedo-bombers encountered intense flak and some were badly positioned or baulked on their runs and only seven torpedoes were dropped. Attacking in fluid pairs, Del Wright was one of the pilots who managed to release against the main target, which was hit and swung out of line listing heavily to port.

Other ships were left blazing after being hit by cannon and bombs. It was later confirmed that the Stadt Emden and another merchant vessel had been sunk and a number of escorts seriously damaged. One Beaufighter was lost.

ROCKET DEBUT

On June 22, Del Wright took off at 04:20 on a LAGOON reconnaissance and headed for the Dutch coast where he sighted a large convoy of eight merchant vessels and six escorts off Vlieland. Having noted the details, he returned to North Coates.

A Wing strike was ordered and 36 aircraft took off. The 143 and 236 Squadron aircraft were armed with cannons and, for the first time, with rocket projectiles with a 60lb explosive heads.

Thirteen heavily-armed escorts protected the convoy and Ellis dived on one of them, firing his cannon and releasing the rockets at close range. This achieved only modest results with three of the escorts damaged.

Two ‘Torbeaus’ were lost and three crash-landed on return and others were damaged. It had been a very modest debut for the rocket, but over the next two years, and after some early difficulties, it proved to be outstanding and became the major anti-shipping weapon, eventually replacing the torpedo.

After this difficult operation, North Coates suffered a serious blow when Wg Cdr W O V Bennett, CO of 143 Squadron, was lost with his observer Fg Off H Emmerson. While Neil Wheeler was recognised as the natural leader of the North Coates Wing; he had just been awarded a Bar to his DFC and the other COs also led the on occasions in addition to their own squadrons. In this way, the Wing was not wholly dependent on one man and a number of the senior pilots studied and practiced the tactics.

FIRST OF THE ‘TENS’

Towards the end of July, the first of the new TF.Xs arrived to re-equip 236 Squadron. On August 2 they went into action for the first time. A reconnaissance sortie had spotted a large enemy convoy off Terschelling Island. After studying photographs, Wheeler took off at the head of 24 anti-flak Beaufighters and 12 ‘Torbeaus’. He saw the convoy at 11:35 and positioned his formation.

The rockets performed well and the torpedo-bombers flew in at low level to release as the Spitfire escort fought off a force of Bf 109s attempting to intercept. The iron-ore carrying 2,700-ton Fortuna was hit and sank within minutes. An flak-ship exploded and others were damaged.

This final sortie was a satisfying end to Neil Wheeler’s arduous and extremely successful time in command of 236 Squardon. Throughout the spring and summer of 1943 he had led numerous successful strikes off the Dutch Frisian Islands, which sank a number of merchant ships carrying crucial raw materials from Scandinavia to Rotterdam.

Within a few days he was awarded the DSO. The citation described him as: “an outstanding leader with cool courage and infectious confidence.” David Ellis, one of his youngest pilots, commented: “we considered him to be the father of the Strike Wings and found him a great and inspiring leader.” In January 1976, Air Chief Marshal Sir Neil Wheeler GCB, CBE, DSO, DFC* retired from the RAF.

It was time for Del Wright to have a rest and it was soon announced that he had been awarded the DFC. The citation recorded that he had been on continuous operations for over two years and had flown 74 sorties. It concluded: “He has shown himself to be a fearless pilot and his efficiency, keenness and devotion to duty has at all times been a great example to the squadron.”

David Ellis remained with the North Coates Wing until the end of the year when he was awarded the DFC after 12 months of ops’. After a six-month rest he returned in January 1945 and flew strikes against convoys off Norway.

UNDER THREAT

Losses among the Beaufighter strike wings were some of the heaviest in the RAF and, despite outstanding leadership and gallantry, success rates were relatively low with just 13 sinkings of enemy merchant ships. In part, this was due to a lack of a suitable fighter escort.

Despite the success of August 2, Coastal Command’s AOC-in-C, Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, wrote to the Air Ministry six days later saying that he could no longer justify the continuation of the North Coates Strike Wing. He suggested the assets should be transferred for operations in the Bay of Biscay against the increasing U-boat threat.

Not unnaturally, this caused a considerable stir and a meeting was convened on the 20th when senior Air Force and Naval officers met. The C-in-C of Nore Command, which had responsibility for the southern North Sea and off the Dutch coast, strongly supported the Wing as a complement to his other operations. The representative from the Ministry of Economic Warfare presented the most powerful argument indicating that the attacks were causing major disruptions to the crucial supplies of raw materials to the German war machine.

The North Coates Strike Wing was saved. The re-equipment gathered pace and by the end of 1943, new wings had been established at Wick, for operations off Norway, and the Anzacs’ at Leuchars in Fife. As the war progressed, some moved to new locations and most of the units were re-equipped with Mosquitos that ranged from the Bay of Biscay to Norway. The three North Coates squadrons retained their ‘Beaus’ and continued the war from their Lincolnshire base until victory in Europe.

No shipping was safe from the rocket-firing Beaufighters and Mosquitos of the Strike Wings. The development and tactics of these potent forces had been pioneered in 1943 by men like Neil Wheeler, Bill Sise, Del Wright, David Ellis and their gallant North Coates colleagues flying from the windswept Lincolnshire coast.

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