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Thread: Coastal Command convoy escorts

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    Default Coastal Command convoy escorts

    How soon after war was declared did Coastal Command commence convoy escort operations and what was the radius of operations? In a similar vein when did anti-submarine operations start; presumably not on an ad hoc basis but on the receipt of intelligence? I'm only interested in the Atlantic and am really after some idea as to the furthest distance frome base.

    I appreciate the first part of the query is determined to some extent by the organisation of the convoys themselves.

    Brian

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    Ahh..bit of background first.

    Various to and fro of Coastal Command war task had been going on since the mid 1930s and it was not until 1938 that it had been written down and divied up between the other parties.

    RN had taken on board the action of submarine sinking. All that Coastal was expected to do was to recce and find the submarines by visual means. Once located the Admiralty would despatch ships to deal with them by depth charge.

    In Sept 39 no depth charge was available to be carried by Coastal aircraft.

    In respect of enemy naval shipping then it was Bomber Command who were tasked with sinking them once visual confirmation of position had been reported by Coastal Patrol aircraft.

    Coastal Command had been on annual exercise from 24th August 1939 and had been flying the actual war patrols designed to visually sight the U-Boats transiting the North Sea into the Atlantic.

    So Coastal had started anti-submarine ops before declaration of war and maintained them for the first few weeks after declaration.

    The Kreigsmarine had also started to send the batches of U-boats through the North Sea in late August as well as Capital units.

    No significant visual report was made by the war patrols of these movements.

    The main detection method was visual and the effectiveness of Aug/Sept patrols was hampered by the weather and aided the passage of the vessels to and fro without sighting.

    Coastal units had moved to the war stations for the August exercises in the expectation that after 14 days they would return to the peacetime southern training bases and so moved without the bulk of ground crews, stores and supplies.

    The increase in patrols and continuation into mid Sept ate into aircraft flying hours and soon patrols were being cancelled in mid Sept due to the need for the aircraft to be rotated south for maintenance.

    This lack of IE/IR aircraft and the bad weather corresponded with the return to base for the short range U-boats in operation at the time so again they passed with only a few sightings.

    For the first months of the war Coastal was recovering from the exercise depletion and almost all the resource was occupied in recce to prevent Kreigsmarine breakout to the Atlantic so what few shipping protection ops that were flown were visual escort to high value vessels travelling in single units or to Naval Force.

    The failure of Bomber Command to attack the enemy naval squadron found and shadowed off Norway on 8th Oct led to a role change of offensive bombing action to be taken by Coastal and removal of the tasking from Bomber Command on the 12th Oct.

    This meant a hasty revision of number of aircraft for patrols, those held ready for strike action at 4hr readiness and a reduction in the range of patrol aircraft due to the added load of bombs.

    Trade protection of coastal shipping had been tasked to Fighter Command and the long range fighter (Blenheim) that was to have been set up in Coastal for this role delayed until financial year 1940/41 to allow spend on Fighter Command. The formation of the four units was moved forward to 1939 and they were alloted to Fighter Command.

    However C in C Fighter Command did not provide this task as he was relying on RDF to provide warning of attack to prevent the need for standing patrols and without low looking stations could only react within 5 to 10 miles out to sea.

    The squadrons were not assigned to Coastal until Feb 1940.

    From Oct 39 to May 1940 protection of Coastal Convoys was the duty of Fighter Command with aircraft being operated from Shetland, Wick, Bircham Newton etc.

    Fishery Protection in the North Sea was a Coastal Task and special dedicated "Herring patrols" instigated from Oct 1939.

    Convoy routing by means of a inward and outward route was instigated on 3rd Sept 1939 but vessels traveled these corridors singly and it was not until mid Oct that Ocean convoy system started.

    Assimilation of tasking that was expected to have been carried out by RN, Bomber Command and Fighter Command had led to a major shortage of Coastal aircraft and so not all convoys were escorted and those that were are subject to a 400 mile max radius. Much reduced radius if the aircraft were required to keep pace with the convoy.

    Very much a case of moveable goal posts in the first few months of the war. None of the peacetime War planning for Coastal survived first contact. It started the war with meagre resource and no suitable equipment. All had to be amended on the hoof.

    Regards
    Ross
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    Very many thanks Ross, you've filled in many holes for me and the background is invaluable. Since starting the thread I've been reading Chaz Bowyer's 'History of the RAF' and that describes CC as having only two squadrons of Sunderlands as having the range and capability for operations outside coastal waters - a brief summary that you've added much meat to.

    My query is based, as always, on meteorology (which perhaps I should have indicated at the start). Once war was declared the Met Office was immediately deprived of its North Atlantic data leaving forecasters with a large blank chart. With the passage of time debriefs from CC crews helped fill the void, but I believe that by late 1940, and certainly early 1941, when an aircraft had completed its escort duty and was returning to base it would fly in a random direction for 50-60 miles off-track before descending to very low (sea) level to record conditions (wind, pressure and possibly temperature), which were then transmitted to base - immediacy being crucial.

    Your 400 miles radius (about 15W from western CC airfields) gives me the absolute limit of those observations - thank you.

    Brian

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    I would not have expected to see any significant Coastal Command met reports from Atlantic convoy reports until the begining of Dec 1939 then these will have dried up again between April and Nov 1940.

    The most common aircraft for available for patrol was the Anson. As a southern North Sea recce aircraft flying with minimum weapon load it did what it said on the tin but when tasked with Atlantic escort with full bomb load (2 off 100lb contact bombs) the radius of action was 255 miles.

    10 of the 11 General Recce Squadrons at Sept 1939 were equipped with these Ansons.

    Add to this 2 torpedo bomber squadrons with Vildebeest and 5 flying boat squadrons with one additional Sunderland Squadron returning from the Med. Two of these flying boat units were Sunderland and the other 3 London and Stranraer.

    In total the establishment was 242 IE and 82 IR aircraft but in effect the daily availability for the first two weeks was 170 aircraft with fully trained crews.

    The Admiralty laid down policy for the conduct of the war at sea and AOCinC Coastal Command deployed and operated the forces at his disposal to meet Admiralty requirements
    The role tasking was:

    a) recce of Home Waters
    b) Co-op with Royal Navy in Convoy Protection
    c) Counter Offensive action in defence of seaborne trade embracing attacks on enemy fleet, submarines or air forces

    The Admiralty operated a blockade policy in the first six months of the war and Coastal aircraft were almost exclusively tasked to a) by a continuous daylight chain of Ansons operating from Montrose to Oberstad off the Norwegian coast. I say off the coast because even with a light weapon load the Anson range stopped 50 miles short of Norwegian waters (it was expected that Norway would look after their own territorial limits).

    Daily track patrols running parallel to the continuous chain would be ordered as considered needed.

    The few operational Sunderlands were spread thinly covering the Western Approaches in b) tasking.

    One London/Stranraer was used to provide a Dawn and Dusk North Sea Patrol at the outer edges of the Anson daily track patrols as a trip wire for any enemy fleet units that evaded the contiuous patrol.

    Sunderland production run had been completed and Short had started to dismantle jigs ready for Stirling production. This was to plan as the Sunderland was intended to be quickly replaced with the Lerwick.

    In Dec 1939 the London and Sunderland had been tasked with patrols of the seas between the outer hebridies and Scotland, between Orkney and Shetland and a cross over patrol just north of Shetland. No real increase in Western Approaches Convoy Patrols was possible or ordered.

    In April 1940 the invasion of Norway demanded the diversion of Sunderland as recce/communcation aircraft and the use of Hudson as Battle Flights to provide long range fighter protection of the fleet and land forces so again no available resource for convoy work.

    When Fighter Command handed over the four Blenheim trade protection squadrons AOCinC Coastal thought them best used in recce/photo recce role in the Low Countries rather than for long range fighter duties.

    From May to Nov 1940 focus of all Coastal resource was the Channel and Southern North Sea as anti-invasion recce/strike.

    The anti submarine depth charge was under development from Sept 1939 but it was not until 24th June that the first weapons were sent to No.10 (RAAF) Squadron and the first operational drop was not carried out until 6th July and first sub attack on 31st July. Only the Sunderland could be armed with this weapon so it can be considered that Coastal did not have an effective convoy a/sub capability until early Aug 1940.

    This coupled with the demands on resource was why Convoy Escort was not expanded until the end of 1940 and your dearth of Coastal Atlantic met observations.

    Another consideration for your met reports was that until asv radar appeared in quantity in mid 1940 all Coastal sighting/attacks was at low level by visual means so RN met at sea level was considered adequate.

    Bomber Command was operating in conservation of force mode with first attacks against shipping at German ports first then off Norway. So it was not until after June 1940 that longer range night bombing attacks as opposed to nickel sorties showed the need for better forecasts. The lack of target area forecasts was brought to Prime Minister attention by CinC Bomber Command on 24th Dec 1940 so I suspect that things only really changed after that date.

    Regards
    Ross
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    Once again I'm very much obliged Ross. As the proverbial S**'s law would have it within the last hour I've just found a partial answer to my query in an exchange of letters between the Admiralty and Air Ministry (for the Met Office) about the urgent need for weather ships; this from a letter dated 12 July 1940:

    1. In the area of the South Western Approaches observations (made by aircraft) are normally received from a position of approximately 48N 10W, and sometimes as far west as 15W.

    2. Meteorological reports are also made by aircraft operating to the north of Ireland, but these reports possess a limited value since they usually refer to positions at no great distance from the Scottish coast.

    Interestingly the letter continues by referring to plans to establish "special meteorological reconnaissance flights to the north west of the British Isles." (Source BJ5/72) This would eventually result in the formation of 1405 Met Flight at Aldergrove, but there was an even earlier reference along the same lines as this in the same file (dated 6 March 1940).

    I think 1 and 2 dovetail neatly with your account - the background is very useful.

    I'm not sure your reference to RN met at sea level being considered adequate is strictly correct. The Admiralty was never very keen at transmitting weather reports. Even as late as December 1945 The Air Council wrote to the Admiralty requesting an increase in reports from RN ships on the grounds the information was vital for Bomber Command operations. The Admiralty's reply was, basically "Tough, sunshine. In 1944 we agreed to 12 reports from H.M. ships a day (for the whole of the North Atlantic), and 12 it shall remain." (ADM 1/16022; Jan 1945.)

    One assumes the three services were fighting the same war!

    Brian

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    That's useful to me as well, Charles. I've emailed you off-board.

    Brian

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    Good point, Graham. As you noted earlier, it will never be known how may sinkings did NOT occur because of the presence of a patrolling Anson or other short range type. The same applies to later on of course. So my "little to show" is not fully representative of what was achieved in the early months of the campaign.
    Cheers:
    Robert

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    Graham:

    Here's the preceding text which I think amplifies your point while describing why the availability of aircraft with increasingly greater endurance became a critical factor as the U-boat war moved further out into the Atlantic:

    German submarines sank nearly 6,000 ships during the First World War, one quarter of the world’s total tonnage. The experience demonstrated that clustering vessels in convoys was a powerful countermeasure to the U-boat threat – especially when supported by air cover – and most Allied shipping moved in convoys from mid-September 1939. In practice, convoys were difficult to find in the vast Atlantic Ocean. The U-boat arm commanded by then Konteradmiral Karl Dönitz depended on shadowing U-boats to report convoy positions, but once forced to dive by the presence of escorting aircraft, the U-boat’s low submerged cruising speed meant they were soon left behind and contact was lost. Moreover, the U-boat was not a submarine as we understand it today – able to travel submerged over vast distances for extended periods - but a submersible boat that needed to surface for four hours in every 24 to recharge its running batteries and purge the foul air from its cramped hull. The workhorse of the U-boat fleet, the Type VIIC, could cover only 80 miles (130km) at 4 knots (7.5km/h) before resurfacing and, although capable of around 18 knots (33km/h) while on the surface – faster than any convoy – it was vulnerable to sudden attack from the air.

    U-boat commanders were therefore extremely wary of surfacing and attacking ships when aircraft were thought to be in the vicinity. The principal role of aircraft was to patrol around and ahead of convoys, keeping threatening U-boats submerged and frustrating their efforts to track and attack the ships. It followed that the greater the range and load carrying capability of an aircraft, the longer its crew could maintain this harassment and carry out attacks when conditions allowed. All other factors being equal, an aircraft with an endurance of ten hours, for example, could escort a convoy located three hours from base for four hours while one with eight hours endurance could provide an escort for only two hours, 50 percent of the first type.

    Regards:

    Robert

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    Thank you Rob: Brian did start this by expressing an interest in Atlantic operations, for which the Anson is indeed irrelevant. I didn't (and don't) want to hijack the thread, but I felt that some of the comments were lacking in context. If I may be allowed a little more space?

    The German occupation of Norway and the French Atlantic coast could not reasonably have been predicted. This transferred much of the U-boat effort to the Atlantic from the British coast. The economic (and hence militarily productive) importance of the UK coastal trade was enormous. Protection of this trade had to be a prime duty of Coastal Command, and the provision of a fairly cheap shorter-range patrol aircraft in large numbers a necessity. It wasn't possible to provide both this and equally large numbers of longer-range types. It is certainly possible to criticise the lack of an effective weapon, or indeed failure to recognise that an equal or greater threat was now from aircraft, but the "little to show" should include the large numbers of successful sailings.

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    Default Re: Long Range Coastal Command Duties

    Gents;

    I do not profess to be an expert in Coastal Command Operations. However, I have become quite familiar with Coastal Command Operations over the Atlantic in March to May 1941, culminating in the the hunt for the Bismarck. This period also corresponded with the the use of the first Catalina's in the operational squadrons. During this period Coastal Command daily summaries make it pretty clear that there were seldom as many as 15 long range or very long range [flying boats with extended range from carrying excess fuel internally] available for operations anywhere in the Empire on a particular day. They were expected to make routine weather reports during their flights, which with the few (3+) VLR Catalinas could last as long as 24-30 hours.

    I don't know if this helps answer any of the questions posed here, but prior to the availability of fairly consistent long range flights over the Western Approaches, weather data from aircraft would have done little to supplement the data supplied by shipping and the few transatlantic airline flights.

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