GENERAL ARTICLES

THEY KILL U-BOATS

Not only must they battle wind and weather but bomb with splitsecond accuracy—and bring back actual proof of their "kill."

ARCH WHITEHOUSE May 15 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

THEY KILL U-BOATS

Not only must they battle wind and weather but bomb with splitsecond accuracy—and bring back actual proof of their "kill."

ARCH WHITEHOUSE May 15 1943

THEY KILL U-BOATS

Not only must they battle wind and weather but bomb with splitsecond accuracy—and bring back actual proof of their "kill."

ARCH WHITEHOUSE

A SUCCESSFUL attack on a submarine from the air demands more intensive teamwork, more unquestioning loyalty and more cooperation by every member of the crew than any other form of aerial warfare. The failure of one member to complete his portion of the drill or fit it into its proper sequence with hair-trigger precision, can deprive the team of full credit for a “kill.”

This drill is usually carried out miles from the base when an attack is least expected. The drill must be machinelike in its operation in spite of the fact it is executed within a confined space by men who are probably half-frozen while the attacking aircraft goes through a series of violent combat manoeuvres.

In no other form of aerial combat does precision and teamwork play such an important role. It is not simply a matter of bombing an infinitesimal target miles from a base and getting back safely. It involves finding a target upon which no prearranged course can be set, making certain strategic moves to get into an attacking position quickly, fighting off any opposition from submarine deck guns and then planting depth charges in a required pattern.

They not only chance wind and weather to find the U-boat. They have to bomb it according to a strict official formula and when they have bombed it—they must bring back actual proof of a kill.

We leave early. Maybe you’d like to go on an anti-submarine patrol.

“Take Action Posts”

FLIGHT LIEUT. Frederick C. Colborne commands one of the bomber-reconnaissance squadrons located somewhere on the East coast of Canada. Freddie is a tall pleasant chap who does more than his share of flying. He feels he has to keep up with the boys under him who are more than ambitious and have ideas of their own.

Not so long ago Colborne’s crew went off early in the morning long before “first light,” on a regular sweep. For weeks they had carried out these routine patrols, one day battling with the winds, fogs and blizzards, and the next inching their way out as far as they dared, seeking submarines that skulked well beyond the usual range of the bombers.

They had been briefed by the control officers and given the weather report by the meteorologists in the big creaky building that houses the control office and operations tower for the whole field. There had been a hurried breakfast in the N.C.O.’s mess a short distance away. When you leave before “first light” there isn’t very much doing in the comparative swank of the officers’ mess.

Colborne’s crew, consisting of a co-pilot, a navigator, two wireless air-gunners, and a first and second engineer, have been together many months. Freddie has made certain of his men. He is something of a taskmaster when it comes to maintaining a strict routine of aircraft drill and regular periods of physical training, engine lectures, navigation lessons and other subjects that make a really polished outfit.

But with all this, who would believe that an ordained minister of the United Church would be found at the navigator’s table?

But Flying Officer Irving is just that and this story is as much his as it is about the time they came upon a German submarine, attacked it and brought back one of the best sets of “attack" pictures RCAF Intelligence has seen.

Colborne was at the wheel that day. What happened was a tribute to the intense action drill that the young flight commander has insisted upon since he was burdened with his second ring of braid.

“I saw it," Freddie explained to me before the crackling fire of the mess, “and I couldn’t believe my eyes. You must remember, I had been doing this sort of thing for more than five months, and had never even seen a submarine. I’ll tell you what went on from there.”

In the drill the first pilot actually flies the bomber, but if he spots something he does not take his eyes off it. He simply taps his co-pilot on the shoulder, still keeping his eyes on the object, and holds his hand in a certain way.

Flight-Sgt. Duncan, the co-pilot, knew what was wanted and placed the binoculars in Colborne’s hand. Freddie put the glasses to his eyes and saw, beyond all shadow of doubt, a German submarine.

He handed the glasses back. The command was shouted over intercom microphone: “Submarine

sighted ! Take action posts !” Colborne never took his eyes off the splinter of U-boat he could still see. Behind him the rest of them were taking their positions. All knew everything had to click off like clockwork. A lot of things could go wrong in the next few seconds.

Flying Officer Irving, the navigator, was pinpointing their position for the tenth time and wondering what he could take as his sermon subject when he took the chaplain’s place in church the following Sunday morning. Suddenly he heard

Eiden had been hooked into his radio set, and had not heard the “Submarine sighted,” but he knew what had happened when Irving stuck that card in the prongs before him.

Flight Sgt. Blain, the second Wireless Operator Air-Gunner, helped Irving get the camera through the small doorway leading into the gunblister compartment. It was his further duty to clamber

the “Submarine sighted” order and all thoughts of next Sunday’s possible text went overboard. He glanced at his chart, scribbled a set of position figures on a stiff card and handed them over to Warrant Officer Eiden, the first Wireless Operator Air-Gunner. through to the narrow aft compartment and drop sea-markers in the area so that after their attack dive, the plane could zoom away from the possible effect of the depth charges used and turn and fly back over the scene of the attack. Unless markers are dropped, it is often difficult to estimate where the crash-diving submarine has disappeared.

Meanwhile up above in his confined control compartment the First Engineer, Sergeant Thomson, had heard the warning and already was

“Get Out of My Way!”

rI^HE submarine had heard A the bomber long before the bomber crew had spotted the U-boat. Colborne had lost not a second in preparing his crew for action. The second pilot had set the selector gear for the proper disposition of the depth charges. He had also returned to his seat with a small pistolgrip hand camera and was already shooting a set of pictures.

The sea was emerald green except where the U-boat was thrashing its screws and blasting air from its ballast tanks.

Continued on page 44

peering out of his small port window to obtain his version of what actually happened.

They Kill U-Boats

Continued from page 13—Starts on page 12

Aft, Irving, better known as the Deacon to the rest of the crew, was in an argument with Blain, the second WAG, as to who was to use the port blister.

The big blister hatch, somewhat like a third of a massive transparent eggshell, was opened. The Deacon shoved the WAG away with a thrust of the big camera and dropped to his knees on the hard catwalk that circled the port gun mounting. The big bomber was on her way down now at a million miles an hour—or so it seemed.

The big bomber leaped with the release of the depth charges. Aft, the WAG was dropping long silver torpedo-shaped objects out of the tail hatch.

They all hung on, tense. If Freddie went too low, they could blow their own tail off. The pressure, as she came out of the dive, made them all bend and stand spraddle-legged. There was a broken tumult of explosion. "Right on, Skipper!” the second WAG yelled, without knowing whether he was hooked into the intercom or not. He had seen a slice of diving rudder a few feet behind the last depth charge blossom.

The bomber screamed with the strain as she went sharply into her climbing turn. Freddie stayed with her at the wheel and then looked over. There was a distinct slab of black submarine deck as the great cauliflower blossoms of the depth charge explosions fell back, and lathered the ocean for a hundred square yards.

But Freddie wanted to see more and he banked the bomber over steeper and held her up by sheer force with the rudder.

"I could almost swear,” he began, glancing over at his co-pilot. “You certain you got your shots?”

"If I haven’t the Deacon must have some beauts !”

Back in the blister compartment, the second WAG was standing behind two impressive black Browning guns, pleading to his gods for a shot at something. He turned as the big bomber came around and to glance at the Deacon in the port blister. What he saw made him twist like a salmon and dive across the compartment—just in time.

The Deacon, with his massive camera, was actually sliding clean over the edge of the gun blister. The second WAG grabbed his legs and shouted.

“Judas! The Deacon nearly went out!” he yelled.

“You still got that camera?” he shouted over the Deacon’s shoulder. “You didn’t drop the camera?”

He grabbed Irving back, startled and breathless, but Irving lunged forward again and went after some more. Below was a tell-tale splotch of widening oil—then a gasp of white as if something below had suffered a great wound. There was another trickle of oil and then a series of slobbery air bubbles that seemed like great tears drooling across a strip of film.

“If you had let that go I would have tossed you over after it,” the WAG said with absolutely no respect for the Deacon’s rank. “I could have ...”

“If I had let it go,” Irving muttered, staring at the film counter on his camera, “I would have jumped out after it. I think I got a couple of nice shots.”

A couple of nice shots !

Back at the base the Intelligence Officers fine-combed the evidence. There was no question about Freddie Colborne’s attack—thanks to the Deacon. “And,” the second WAG told me on the quiet, “I must say he gave a swell sermon the next Sunday.”

Someone asked him how he felt

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“If you only knew your Bible, you’d have the answer,” replied the Deacon.

“We Like to Get Back . . .”

THEIR own personal safety means nothing compared with keeping equipment and crews on the “active” board.

Colborne was a radio announcer for a western Canada station before he became one of Canada’s U-boat aces. Today he worries more about the number of aircraft he has on his “serviceable” list than he ever did about a program being on time.

This war has done something to these boys. The responsibility they have had to shoulder and the hours they have spent in the air seem to have annealed their character years before one might expect them to throw off the lighthearted irresponsibility of youth. Perhaps it is the continued contact with the sea and the hours of battling northeasters thathaveputthe true-tempered lights in their eyes.

We were talking about the weather —as usual.

“Sometimes we are ordered to go into alternate bases if it closes in here,” Colborne explained over a pocket map the first night I arrived at his station. “We can get in at ‘A’ or ‘B’ or ‘C’; but you will notice that in all cases these alternate bases are further away and while we may get good weather, we may not have the fuel to fly that far. That means a possible forced landing, and as I say, you may get down safely, but you deprive the squadron of one aircraft and one full crew, and they have to send a salvage party out to help you get into the air again. It’s just not efficient. We like to get back here, if we can.”

That brought up the subject of Squadron Leader Wilson who with his Hudson crew was rescued from an ice floe somewhere off Prince Edward Island.

Wilson, pilot of a Hudson patrol-bomber flying out of a RCAF station at Dartmouth, N.S., late last February completed his routine sweep out over the Atlantic and returned to find the weather in the Halifax area had closed in. He was advised to fly north and try to get in at another base, but on his arrival there, another front of weather had slipped in from the Newfoundland coast and Wilson found his first alternate base closed off.

With typical bomber-reconnaissance stubbornness he started back to Halifax, determined to make a final effort to get into Dartmouth. The weather there, however, was even worse than before. There was nothing to do but seek another alternate base.

Through the murk Wilson and his three comrades plunged, with zerozero weather beating them in by minutes wherever they attempted to land. Eventually their fuel supply was exhausted and night had fallen. There was nothing to do but order the crew to bail out. One by one they jumped into the night. Wilson switched in “George,” the automatic pilot, to hold the bomber on an even keel while he himself leaped to safety. With “George” at the controls, the bomber roared away into the night on the last few pints of gasoline.

Then came one of the strangest adventures in the history of the antisubmarine patrols.

Other Ghostly Figures

INSTEAD of dropping into an uninhabited pine-spiked waste of Nova Scotia, Wilson’s crew landed on a smooth, hard area that offered not a twig of surface relief. Each member, believing he was alone and completely isolated, made the best of a bad situation and walked about in a small space to stay awake and keep from freezing to death. Not one had any idea that any of the others could be anywhere near.

Then with the cold light of early morning each airman, blanketed with his parachute for warmth, was astonished to find three other ghostly figures moving about in the mist and gloom. By an extraordinary twist of fate, all four had landed on a floating ice cake somewhere south of Prince Edward Island.

There are several versions of this unexpected meeting of the crew, but the general story is that the navigator, the air-gunner and the wireless man discovered each other first. The pilot turned up later that morning. Wilson made several gallant efforts to get to the shore, but succeeded only in breaking through the thin edge of the flow and getting soaked. They had to burn their parachutes and harness gear to get him dry again and prevent him from freezing to death.

For four days and nights they huddled together on the raft of ice before they were eventually sighted and rescued more dead than alive. However, a few days in hospital and all four were fit and ready for action again. When I arrived in Halifax in hopes of interviewing them, I discovered that all had been discharged from hospital and were in California. On the squadron strength-board they were listed by some wag as being in “Hollywood.” Actually they were at San Diego to ferry a new plane out.

But I did learn that this amazing drama of the anti-submarine patrol had provided a bizarre anti-climax. After they had left the doomed plane with no one but “George” in charge, the Hudson went on alone, drained its tanks dry and then with Mephistophelean mockery landed itself in the only stretch of open space available for miles around. A small sapling standing sentry-go in the field attempted to enforce the landing rules and managed to damage one of the propellers.

A local resident notified the officials and a salvage party went in to take over. A new propeller was fitted, a few minor adjustments were made to the slightly damaged motor and the bomber was flown out long before her original crew had been discharged from the hospital.

But not all anti-submarine patrol accidents end with such successstory climaxes. There are many of the other kind.

Take the case of Squadron Leader “Molly” Small, perhaps one of the most beloved anti-submarine stars in the eastern air command. Small, from all accounts, was a “Hun hater” and he never relaxed his one-man war against the U-boats. As a result he had the finest record on this side of the North Atlantic.

Small drove himself fiendishly and wore out crew after crew in his efforts to keep his aircraft in the danger area. He used to say, “You can’t get subs sitting in the mess and talking about it. You’ve got to go out there to be sure of getting them!”

He fretted ail one night in the mess on his inability to get out to the spot where he believed he would find submarines. His fierce intensity of purpose eventually goaded his listeners into forming a volunteer crew to attempt the almost impossible.

“We can make it if we can load a few more gallons of gasoline,” Small persisted. “If we can get out to blank degrees longitude we’ll get subs.”

They turned off the phonograph, climbed into their greatcoats and went out to the hangars where the ground crews were preparing the big Cansos for the next day’s patrols.

There Small and the rest went over their equipment. Instead of eight canisters of food they settled for three. They agreed to strip down to their lightest equipment. Spare parts were jettisoned and the mooring gear left on the hangar floor. From the gun blisters aft all the way to the nose they went, removing everything that was not absolutely essential. The jettisoned equipment was weighed and replaced with extra gasoline.

It was a brave effort to reach the blank degrees longitude, but Squadron Leader Small’s luck had run out. They lumbered down the runway, struggled into the air and crashed a few miles away. The wreck was discovered the next day.

Job Is No Sinecure

THERE were tears in the eyes of Squadron Leader F. H. Griffin, the control officer at an eastern station, when he showed me the records of his efforts to find another crew that had started out to get to the spot Small had mentally pinpointed.

“It’s tough losing them,” Griffin muttered, “when you know what eventually happened, but this one had us crazy for nearly two weeks. I keep the file on the search right here on top of my desk and some day I’m going to find out what happened—if I have to pay for the search myself.” The control officer of an operational squadron has no sinecure. A few weeks of that and you have your fingernails gnawed down to the elbows. In the first place he is responsible for every aircraft and crew on the station. He outlines their patrol to fit the convoy—and weather circumstances of the hour. If he makes a mistake a lot of swell boys don’t get back. If he goes easy on his air crews several merchantmen are torpedoed out there on the North Atlantic. If the weather doublecrosses him, he has to bring any number of aircraft back from heaven knows where and get them down safely. I watched Squadron Leader Griffin one night when he had to recall several patrol-bombers. The weather had shifted suddenly and a snowstorm raged across the field for more than five hours. All this happened after nine o’clock at night and there were five aircraft and crews somewhere up there in the murk.

One by one they were first assigned to different altitude levels. Then he talked to them and found out which was entitled to come in first. His decision is based on their remaining fuel supply and the number of hours they have been in the air.

It takes courage to sit there, keep calm and talk in a modulated voice so that you don’t transfer your own concern to those lads up there. You have to make hair-trigger decisions and insist on their being carried out. There are no false heroics, no faked theatrical situations. One man had the lives of nearly forty skilled airmen in his hands and he knew it.

I remembered a scene in the film “Ceiling Zero” where Pat O’Brien rushed about a control tower screaming his head off to get one man down and I wondered what Hollywood would do with this.

Griffin sat there, ashen and tired. He had to get them all in because on another desk he had already drawn up the plotted details of the next day’s patrols. He was small, wiry and alert in spite of it all. He wore wings on his battle blouse and the ribbons of another war beneath them and he smiled—somehow.

The wind tore at the old barnlike building and it creaked from the basement to the lighted tower above. Outside there was nothing to be seen but a slanting design of Arctic fury. At the alternate landing grounds it was zero-zero also. Above in the storm five patrol bombers circled and waited.

“Don’t worry, Griff,” one of the pilots said from the 3,000 foot level. “Just give us a rocket from the tower. We know where we are now. Don’t worry . . . we’ll get in.”

“That’s courage,” Griffin whispered to me, “but that’s not enough tonight. This is what we call ‘blitz,’” he added with a weary smile.

From the tower above rockets were sent up and a young control operator added further advice and information. His forehead gleamed with perspiration even though the wind howled and stroked icy fingers across the small of his back.

Two motors cut a swath of flailing power through the storm at tower window level and the old building trembled with it all.

More words, another rocket or two and hunched expectancy.

Then one by one they sifted down out of the murk and seemed to dab in lightly—like a party of stealthy stay-outs, tiptoeing in to avoid detection. Griffin reached for his packet of cigarettes, lit one and breathed deep as the WD Operator chalked in the final landing-time figures.

The war birds were home again.

“How do you do it, Griff?” I asked when my own panic had subsided a little.

“I sometimes wonder,” he said. “I suppose it’s luck in some cases, but there’s one thing they can’t build into any control office. I mean, these boys have confidence in me. That’s probably all I have to offer, but it works. When they lose that, all the courage and all the instruments in the world won’t bring them in. That’s why this still keeps me awake at night.”

He handed over the folder on his search for Aircraft No. 9492. That isn’t the number, but it will do.

Patrol bomber 9492 carrying a skilled crew, took off one day on a routine sweep. The bomber in question had about reached the limit of the patrol area and reported that she was turning back. She was never heard of again.

Other aircraft and surface vessels in the area were requested to try to contact her. Two other crews turned off from their submarine search almost immediately and tried to make contact. No trace was ever found.

For nine days and nights Squadron Leader Griffin kept up a frantic but methodical search, covering every square yard of the area. Every bit of debris was picked up and inspected. Every streak of oil was investigated and whenever possible, samples of the slick taken up and analyzed. Day after day the search went on. Night after night they sat and pored over the reports. Absolutely nothing turned up.

From that Griffin then tried a new tack. Land and sea parties scoured the shores. Every hut, shack and collection of boards was carefully inspected. Mile after mile they trudged, searching and enquiring; but to this day no trace of Aircraft 9492 has been uncovered—and Squadron Leader Griffin doesn’t like it.

“What do you think happened?” I asked after I had read the complete file from cover to cover.

He sat staring out of the window that looked on the widest runway on the North American continent. You can put a formation of multiengined bombers down on it with ease. Squadron Leader Griffin would give his next month’s pay to put Aircraft 9492 back on that runway. “Explosion !” he said bitterly. “When they go like that it must be an explosion. I can see it as plain as day. They probably darted out of a low cloud and a Jerry sub was waiting there for them. A lucky shot— and you know those depth charges are wicked things! It had to be an explosion or we would have found something.”

Editor's Note—This is the second and concluding article by Mr. Whitehouse on the RCAF’s anti-submarine patrol over the North Atlantic.

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