Catapult Armed Merchant ships (CAM ships)

The Hawker Sea Hurricane W9182 on the catapult of a CAM Ship.
An amazing wartime photograph of the cordite rocket catapult on a CAM ship being fired, propelling the Hurricane Mk I ‘Hurricat’ into the air at flying speed.

In the beginning years of the war, German aircraft caused so much damage to Allied convoys that the very unusual expedient of arming merchant ships with fighter planes was put into practice. They were designated CAM ships and this was exclusively a British initiative with only British ships used. This is how it worked: a merchant ship was fitted with a steam catapult and a fighter, usually a Hawker Hurricane, was mounted on the catapult. Two pilots were assigned to the ship. If German planes were creating havoc on a convoy, then the Senior Officer Escort would order the plane catapulted into the air to deal with the Germans.

Problem: the plane could not land anywhere since CAM ships were not aircraft carriers. Once out of fuel, the pilot either ditched into the sea close to one of the escorts or bailed out over the convoy with the hope one of the ships would pick him up. As you can tell, this was a desperate measure but this was a desperate time. While there were plans for many more, only 35 CAM ships were created. Theoretically, just knowing a convoy had a fighter they could launch scared off German bombers but this is hardly credible. One fighter could hardly stop an attack by several dozen German aircraft.

Having a CAM ship in a convoy probably helped lift the morale of the merchant crews but not much else. CAM ships were an expensive folly but show both the desperation and inventiveness of the Royal Navy in protecting merchant convoys. According to The Allied Convoy System in 1939-1945: It’s Organization, Defence and Operation by Arnold Hague (3 stars), only 8 operational launches of aircraft were ever made in the 170 round trips made by the 35 CAM ships and only 7 enemy planes were shot down. During the 8 operational launches, only one pilot died and that was due to his parachute getting tangled up when he bailed out.

CAM ships were phased out in July of 1943.

Cam Ship with Hurricane Fighter on the Catapult…Atlantic Convoy 1942.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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