Fleet Air Arm Protecting Convoys

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 22308) Protection for convoys is one of the jobs of the Fleet Air Arm planes of the Royal Air Naval Station, Sierra Leone. Here a Boulton Paul Defiant from the station sweeps over a big convoy which is just leaving Freetown Harbour. The aircraft took off from from HMS SPURWING, Royal Naval Air Station in Sierra Leone, once a stretch of untouchable bush. Part of the wings and struts of the biplane from wh… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016128


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 22306) Two of the station’s Boulton Paul Defiant aircraft in flight after taking off from HMS SPURWING, Royal Naval Air Station in Sierra Leone, once a stretch of untouchable bush. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016127



THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7869) A Fairey Fulmar returns to HMS VICTORIOUS after doing patrol during a Home Fleet convoy to Russia. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185619

Escorting convoys to Russia was a brutal task given the terrible weather and constant attacks by German aircraft and U-boats out of Norway. Home Fleet provided “distant cover” since fleet carriers like HMS Victorious and battleships such as KGV were too valuable to risk anywhere close to German air attack. Home FLeet distant cover was laid on in the event the Tirpitz came out.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 22312) A Fairey Fulmar aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm about to take off from HMS SPURWING, a Royal Naval Air Station in Sierra Leone, on a coastal reconnaissance. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205186969

The Royal Navy named all of its bases as if they were ships. Hence, HMS Spurwing was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm base providing cover for convoys forming up off Freetown, Sierra Leone, a major convoy destination point where escorts changed.

The Royal Navy did most of its accounting by ship so it was easier to keep track of everything if all bases were treated as ships. For instance, unassigned officers were carried on the books of HMS Victory although they were obviously not on the ship itself although it did have accommodation for a small number of officers in transit.

If you wrote someone in the Royal Navy in World War Two, you addressed the letter to that person followed by name of ship followed by GPO, London.


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6123) A Fairey Fulmar being flagged off from the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS at Scapa Flow. The carrier’s island can be seen in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185487


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6120) A Fairey Fulmar taking off from the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS at Scapa Flow. Two more of the aircraft can be seen at the end of the flight deck. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185486

The two photographs above are unusual because they show planes both landing and taking off from the Royal Navy fleet carrier HMS Victorious while the carrier is at anchor in the Royal Navy Home Fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow.

Because of aerodynamic reasons, carriers in World War Two typically had to turn into the wind which gave added lift to planes taking off.  As an aircraft carrier neared its anchorage, the planes based on the carrier took off while the carrier was still at sea and could turn into the wind and flew to a Fleet Air Arm base on land.

They usually practiced landing on a carrier deck by landing on runways on land marked with the length of a carrier deck. Aircraft carrier pilots then and to this day often describe landing on a carrier as a “controlled crash.” It isn’t and wasn’t for the faint of heart.

In the last few years, the US Navy has started to fly drones from aircraft carriers which calls in question our naval strategy based around massive aircraft carrier battle groups. This is according to defense writer and expert Thomas Ricks, not me.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6955) A Fairey Fulmar warming up on the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS. Note the Donald Duck painted on the nose of the plane. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185544


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7003) Sub Lieutenant (A) M Bennett, RNVR, in the cockpit of his Fairey Fulmar on board HMS VICTORIOUS. Note the art work on the nose of the aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185552

RNVR means Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Officers wore wavy stripes on their coat sleeves instead of regular stripes worn by professional “regular service” officers. Hence known as “wavy navy.” Nonetheless, RNVR officers came to vastly outnumber the regular service officers of whom there were only about 5,000 when the war began.

RNVR officers who were pilots assigned to the Fleet Air Arm wore a small insignia denoting this. The men claimed the small insignia was meant to inform all other RN personnel that they knew absolutely nothing about the navy.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7279) In the hangar deck of HMS VICTORIOUS at Hvalfjord, Iceland a row of Fairey Fulmars is flanked on either side by two rows of Fairey Albacores, all with their wings folded. The photograph was taken around the time of the search for the TIRPITZ. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185573

Hvalfjord was a treacherous anchorage because it was exposed to vicious winds. Ships at anchor normally dropped both bow and stern anchors which they usually didn’t do in more protected anchorages as well as keep steam on since they often had to make revolutions for two or three knots simply to stay where they were and not drag their anchors if a storm came up.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 5950) The forward part of the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS with Fairey Fulmars and Fairey Albacores on board during preparations for Norwegian operations. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185479


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7540) A bearded Fleet Air Arm gunner, Leading Airman C H Clark, from Tadworth, Surrey, exits his Fairey Albacore aircraft carrying his flying kit, after his aircraft returned from a patrol to HMS VICTORIOUS off the coast of Iceland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185586


Featured image shows: Fairey Albacores, the torpedo carrying plane of the Fleet Air Arm landing on the deck of HMS VICTORIOUS while the ship was en route to Hvalfjord, Iceland from Scapa Flow. The automatic Bat can be seen in the right of the picture, as can the arrestor wires running across the flight deck.

Fire! Royal Navy Battleships at War

The awesome power of a battleship

Firing all main battery guns at once was a broadside. Usually, battleships fired salvos. This consisted of firing every other barrel of the main batteries and was the usual practice.

BRITISH BATTLESHIP BOMBARDS CATANIA. 17 JULY 1943, ON BOARD HMS WARSPITE. WHEN HMS WARSPITE, ANSWERING A CALL FROM THE ARMY, HURLED TONS OF SHELLS, FROM A RANGE VARYING BETWEEN 15,000 AND 11,000 YARDS, AT ENEMY TROOPS STILL HOLDING OUT AT CATANIA, SICILY. (A 18486) The big guns of HMS WARSPITE firing on Catania from about 5 miles. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205151234


BRITISH BATTLESHIP BOMBARDS CATANIA. 17 JULY 1943, ON BOARD HMS WARSPITE. WHEN HMS WARSPITE, ANSWERING A CALL FROM THE ARMY, HURLED TONS OF SHELLS, FROM A RANGE VARYING BETWEEN 15,000 AND 11,000 YARDS, AT ENEMY TROOPS STILL HOLDING OUT AT CATANIA, SICILY. (A 18494) The big guns of the WARSPITE hurling shells at the Catania enemy. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205151240


HMS RENOWN FIRING. 1 DECEMBER 1942. (A 13013) HMS RENOWN firing a 15-inch salvo. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205146371


ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS RODNEY AT SEA. 1940. (A 2069) HMS RODNEY firing her 6’s. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205136482

comments Charles McCain: HMS Rodney was one of two Nelson class battleships constructed in the late 1920s. (Commissioned in 1927). These two battleships were unique in the Royal Navy. They were the only battleships armed with 16 inch main batteries, the heaviest guns in the fleet, all three main battery turrets were forward of the bridge.

They were the only two RN battleships which had armament equal to the Bismarck’s.



NAVAL FORCES THAT TOOK PART IN THE BOMBARDMENT OF GENOA, 9 FEBRUARY 1941. ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS MALAYA. (A 4046) HMS RENOWN firing at Genoa. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205138380

Comments Charles McCain: battlecruiser HMS Renown firing. During this carefully planned attack on the dockyards at Genoa by the famed Force H from Gibralter (the ‘H’ did not stand for anything), HMS Renown served as the flagship of Admiral James Somerville.

Known to the men as “our Jimmy,” or “Slim” Somerville was a respected, popular and effective fighting admiral. He was never pretentious and radiated calm and good humour. He was knowledgeable about new technology and how to best use such new inventions as radar.

Curiously, he had been retired before the war due to what we call today as a “false positive” on an x-ray for tuberculosis although it became clear as time went on that he did not have that disease. Somerville was recalled to the colours when the war began and served throughout the conflict on the retired list.

Tuberculosis was a serious problem in the Royal Navy and medical officers were deeply concerned about the disease. Given how contagious this disease was, it could spread rapidly through the damp and often poorly ventilated mess decks of a warship.

After testing positive for TB,100 men immediately taken off HMS Renown

In late December 1944, HMS Renown arrived in Durban for a refit prior to returning to Europe. While the ship was being refitted and critical maintenance on engines and other machinery performed, every member of the ship’s company was given a chest x-ray. More than 100 were found to have tuberculosis and were immediately removed from the ship.

(Source: The Battlecruiser HMS Renown by Peter C. Smith)

BISMARCK ACTION. 27 MAY, ON BOARD ONE OF THE ATTACKING WARSHIPS CHASING AND SINKING THE GERMAN BATTLESHIP BISMARCK. (A 4387) BISMARCK on fire, at the closing stages of the battle. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205138675


NORTHERN CONVOY, FEBRUARY 1943. (A 15432) HMS HOWE firing a broadside in Northern waters, seen from HMS KING GEORGE V. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205148496


Minefield. You are in it. We are not.



   Aerial photograph of British destroyer HMS Highlander (H44) underway. Rayner spent a number of months as her CO.

D.A. Rayner was an officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during World War Two. They wore wavy stripes on their uniforms and were called, with condescension, the “the Wavy Navy”. There was also the Royal Naval Reserve consisting of masters and mates of merchant ships. It was said that the RNVR were gentlemen trying to become officers and the RNR were officers trying to become gentleman.

Rayner compiled an outstanding record in World War Two becoming the only RNVR officer to command a Royal Navy escort group in the Atlantic. His memoir, Escort, is rich in stories of his life at sea in the war, each one more amusing than the one before. Escort is one of the best naval memoirs I have ever read. It is beautifully written (the English really know how to write English), funny, very sad at times, and brutally honest. I certainly give it five stars. Escort is truly a must read.

The war has only recently begun and Rayner is commanding an anti-submarine trawler patrolling off the coast of England. He is lost in a dense fog. There was no radar then. Out of the fog looms a Royal Navy destroyer. Rayner orders the signalman to use his Aldis Lamp (Morse Lamp to Americans) and make to the destroyer: “Can you tell me where am I?” Comes the reply: “Regret have not known you long enough to venture an opinion.” Rayner is puzzled till he discovers the signalman had actually made the message: “Can you tell me what I am?”


Though only 30, Rayner is quickly given command of a corvette, a small escort vessel used in the North Atlantic. Because of the shortage of escort ships, he has been compelled to put to sea before his charts are up to date. As he is putting into port one day, Rayner sees a merchantman sinking off his starboard bow. He asks the escort commander for leave to rescue the crew. Comes the reply, “Proceed, but your attention is called to Notices to Mariners Number______.”

Rayner rescues a boatload of survivors and sees another boatload. Comes a signal from the escort commander, “Your attention is called to Notices to Mariners_____.” This annoys Rayner but given his charts aren’t up to date, he doesn’t want to ask the escort commander what he means so he waits until another corvette steams between him and the escort commander. Rayner makes inquiry of what Notices to Mariners_____means. Comes the reply, “Minefield. You are in it. We are not.”

Watch Out for Minefield!


crews frantically waved to us, wishing us luck, as we thought


British fishing trawler Picton Castle converted to a minesweeper in World War Two. (photo courtesy of  tugster.wordpress.com)

Fishing trawlers made ideal minesweepers since streaming parvanes to cut mine cables was similar to deploying fishing nets. This type of minesweeping only worked on sea mines attached to cables which were attached to weights which kept the mines at a certain depth.

Life aboard the converted fishing trawlers wasn’t easy. The trawlers were part of the Royal Navy Patrol Service and except for a handful of Royal Navy sailors, the rest of the men were the original fishing crew who wouldn’t wear uniforms or salute and couldn’t read RN signals.

“Once, in Falmouth, after a raid, it was feared the entrance to the harbour had been mined, with a type which were difficult to sweep. After two days we were given special permission to leave, providing we kept to a very precise channel. As we got under way, other ships sounded their sirens, and crews frantically waved to us, wishing us luck, as we thought. On reaching Fowey, we had to explain why we had steamed right through the danger area. So that was what the other ships were trying to tell us.”

from “Death of a Minesweeper” by A.H. Archer   BBC World War Two archive


AT SEA WITH BRITISH MINESWEEPERS. NOVEMBER 1941, ON BOARD A MINESWEEPING TRAWLER OF THE DOVER COMMAND DURING A SWEEP WITH OTHER MINESWEEPING TRAWLERS OF THE COMMAND. (A 6293) A look-out on the after gun platform of a minesweeping trawler watches other ships of the group moving up to take station. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205140428

British Royal Navy minesweepers, November 1941. A look-out on the after gun platform of a minesweeping trawler of the Royal Navy’s Dover Command watches other ships of the group moving up to take station for a sweep. Dover Command was one of the operational commands of the Royal Navy assigned to patrol a section of the English Channel as well as to constantly sweep the civilian shipping lanes for mines.


AT SEA WITH BRITISH MINESWEEPERS. NOVEMBER 1941, ON BOARD A MINESWEEPING TRAWLER OF THE DOVER COMMAND DURING A SWEEP WITH OTHER MINESWEEPING TRAWLERS OF THE COMMAND. (A 6299) Minesweeping trawlers line up in readiness to start a sweep. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205140434


British Royal Navy minesweepers, November 1941. Minesweeping trawlers from Dover Command line up in readiness to start a sweep. 

(Photos Copyright: © IWM and used by courtesy of IWM).


Map of Royal Navy Commands covering the English Channel in World War Two http://www.naval-history.net/xDKWW2-4201-40RNShips2Home.htm

The map above shows the southern waters of Great Britain and the four Royal Navy operational commands which had responsibility for keeping the English Channel navigable and contesting German use of the Channel. The commands are: Nore Command , Dover Command, Portsmouth Command and Plymouth Command. (Map courtesy of www.naval-history.net)


Life on a Sunderland Flying Boat

Responding to an Air Ministry request for a general reconnaissance flying boat, Short mostly copied the design of their famous “Empire”  flying boat. This aircraft, which first flew in 1937, was the flagship of Imperial Airways. By making changes to the original design, the Short Brothers Sunderland flying boat was quickly approved and went operational in 1938. (Hence, ‘short’ is not a description of the plane just the name of the company which built them).



Short Sunderland in World War Two

Royal Air Force- 1939-1945- Coastal Command
No 210 Squadron Sunderland L 5798/DA-A, taxying on the water at Oban, August 1940.
Date between 1939 and 1945.

(Brits write “taxying” while Americans write “taxiing”)

photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.



Looking for U-Boats in World War Two

The pilot of a Short Sunderland of No. 201 Squadron RAF, scans the sea through binoculars while on patrol over the Atlantic from its base at Castle Archdale, County Fermanagh.  (Photo by Flight Officer H Hensser, Royal Air Force official photographer and courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.)


Sunderland On Take-Off Run

This is A Mark IIIa with Mk III engines and bomb windows, but Mk V radar blisters and nose guns. Photo and caption from Canadian Forces. Now in the public domain.


The major difficulty encountered by Short Sunderland pilots on take-off was getting the aircraft to break free from the surface tension or suction of the water. By using a special hull design, Short Brothers maximized the ability of the Sunderland to become airborne. Even with that, it could be difficult in perfectly calm weather to get the plane into the air.

Pilots would often rock their planes back and forth to break the surface tension. Taking off was never easy and sometimes the plane had to go quite a distance before it broke free from the hold of the water and became airborne. Once in the air, depending on weather and speed, the Sunderland could stay aloft for as long as fourteen hours. It carried a crew of 11. A set of bunks, kerosene stove and flush toilet were provided for the crew.



Sunderland L2163/DA-G, one of a pair from No 210 Squadron, patrolling over convoy TC6 carrying Canadian troops to Britain, 31 July 1940. The convoy had left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 23 July and was due to arrive at Greenock on 1 August. (Photo by Mr. S A Devon, RAF Official Photographer. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

 Convoys carrying troops received the highest level of protection which could be mustered. This included air cover although aircraft could not stay over the convoy the entire time because the distance was too great until the arrival of Very Long Range Liberators in late 1943. Every troop convoy had both significant numbers of Royal Navy escorts and a Royal Navy battleship with its escorting destroyers.


Royal Air Force Coastal Command
A peaceful scene at Castle Archdale in Northern Ireland on 20 May 1943, as a seaplane tender passes a Sunderland of No 201 Squadron. The censor has removed all trace of the aircraft’s fuselage-mounted ASV aerials.
photo by RAF official photographer Mr. H. Hensser
photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Posted by Charles McCain on http://charlesmccain.com/blog/


Royal Air Force Coastal Command, 1939-1945. Sergeant Patrick McCombie, a flight engineer of the Royal Australian Air Force, in his bunk on board a Short Sunderland of No. 10 Squadron RAAF at Mount Batten, Plymouth, Devon. Date between 1939 and 1945.

Note the cigarette in the photo above. It not only took bravery to simply be a member of the aircrew of one of these Sunderland Flying Boats since they were relatively slow and easy to shoot down. But it took as much bravery to smoke a cigarette in an airplane filled with high octane aviation fuel which was not stored nearly as safely as aviation fuel is in modern aircraft.

Because a Sunderland Flying Patrol Bomber could stay in the air for as long as 14 hours, bunks, a small kitchen, and a flush toilet were supplied for the aircrew which usually totaled 11 men. Two men were always on board when the float plane was anchored and if there was any hint of bad weather then a pilot had to stay aboard as well to taxi the plane and turn it into the wind.

Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum


Royal Air Force Coastal Command Sunderland

August 1940The Frazer-Nash FN13 rear turret of a Sunderland of No 210 Squadron at Oban, August 1940. The Sunderland was the first RAF flying boat to be fitted with power-operated gun turrets.
This is photograph CH 854 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums now in the public domain.

mooring sunderland

Royal Air Force Coastal Command Sunderland

Close-up of the nose of a Sunderland of No 210 Squadron at Oban, August 1940. A mooring compartment was situated in the nose of the Sunderland, containing anchor, winch, boat-hook and ladder. The front turret was designed to slide back, enabling the crew to secure the aircraft to a buoy, as demonstrated here. The circle painted on the fuselage just below the cockpit is a gas-detection patch.
Date between 1939 and 1945

(photo by Devon S A (Mr), Royal Air Force official photographer, courtesy Imperial War Museum.)


you can read more details about the Sunderland in this:

excellent article on Short Sunderland from Uboat Net

Admiral Max Horton Defeats German U-Boats Battle of Atlantic

Admiral Sir Max Horton was one of the best fighting admirals in the Royal Navy in the Second World War.  Bold and daring, inspiring those who served under him with his confidence, his astonishing breadth of knowledge of naval affairs and ships, and his unshakable belief in victory.

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Vice-Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton, RN

Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, Distinguished Service Order & two bars, Legion of Merit from the United States of America, Order of St George, Board of Trade Medal for Saving Life at Sea, Légion d’honneur, Croix de Guerre; Order of St. Vladimir, Order of St. Anna, Order of St. Stanislaus; Order of Orange-Nassau, Order of St. Olaf.

  We should all know of the high-minded British Admiral of unimpeachable character, Sir Max Horton. He defeated Dönitz and his U-Boats and won the Battle of the Atlantic. Do not admire Dönitz. He was an anti-Semite (“I would rather eat dirt than have my grandson grow up in the Jewish spirit and faith.”) who agreed with the ideology of the Nazi Party and groveled and debased himself every time he met Hitler. He looked up to the evil Fuhrer as a great man.   


           Admiral Sir Max Horton RN, C-in-C Western Approaches, 1943

Unfortunately, today Dönitz continues to be well known, even admired by some. These admirers must be unaware– or undisturbed– by Dönitz’s shallow and conniving personality, his betrayal of his men as well as the highest traditions of his navy, and his revolting subservience to Adolf Hitler.  He was such a lickspittle that other members of Hitler’s entourage referred to Dönitz as “Hitler Jugend Quex.” This was the name of a film about a true and loyal Hitler Youth who is the “Quex” of the title.

 Dönitz’s unwavering loyalty to the man who started World War Two was rewarded after Hitler killed himself. In his last written orders, he appointed Dönitz as his successor.

Hence, it is a terrible irony of history that the upright, civilized man of strong character who bested Dönitz, his nemesis in the Battle of the Atlantic, is hardly known at all. That man was the English admiral, Sir Max Horton, perhaps the greatest fighting admiral produced by Great Britain in the 20th Century and one of the most important Allied commanders in the entire Second World War.

Horton never wrote his memoirs and would have regarded “public relations” as beneath the dignity of an Admiral of the British Royal Navy. His attitude was not shared by Admiral Andrew Cunningham, C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet and later First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy. Cunningham had a keen eye for publicity and wrote a long and windy memoir of his life and service in the Royal Navy.  While overshadowed by Cunningham, Vice-Admiral Sir Max Horton was one of the great captains of World War Two at sea.   Admiral-Sir-Max-Horton

Adm. Sir Max Horton, C-in-C of the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command, addresses assembled Royal Navy sailors aboard HMS Loch Killian. While he spoke to ratings as part of a ship’s company, he never spoke to an individual enlisted man unless absolutely necessary. In fact, he often didn’t speak to anyone except to give orders.

He wasn’t the nicest man in the world, Sir Max. Ruthless, indifferent to anyone’s feelings, “as hard as nails and close as a clam.” A man so self-absorbed he barely knew the names of his staff officers.  Horton possessed a “hardness which could at times be terrifying to even the toughest of men. He was a man of few friends…,” said his Chief of Staff in an interview years after the war and after Horton’s death. 

A know it all. A driver. Aloof. Vain. Blunt to the point of rudeness. Uncaring of the personal issues which affected the men and women around him.

“…a staff officer reported that a certain cruiser had been lost, and that his son was on board. Horton instinctively replied, ‘Yes, but what happened to the ship?” If he had any friends, inside of the Royal Navy or out, no one knew who they were. Only after his death did those who knew him learn he often spent his leave with theater people in London, that he was a devotee of opera and a long time student of Catholic theology although not himself a Catholic. In fact, Horton was partly Jewish so his successful career in a very anti-Semitic Royal Navy was even more remarkable.


Escort, by Commander D.A. Rayner, RNVR, is one of the best memoirs of World War Two convoy duty in the Royal Navy by an officer who served under Max Horton in Western Approaches. (In fact, if you only want to read one memoir by an escort commander, read this one, although it barely edges out Convoy Escort Commander by Peter Gretton, RN). D.A. Rayner was a keen observer of life around him and a natural leader of men with an instinctive grasp of how to command a ship in action.  He was one of the best escort commanders the Royal Navy had in World War Two and the only Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer to command an escort group.   DenysRayner1943

D.A. Rayner, RNVR. 1943.

This memoir stands out from others because Rayner not only had a wonderful and self-deprecating sense of humor, he was keenly observant of the events and people around him. His success in the unrelenting Battle of the Atlantic marked him as one of Horton’s stars and he interacted with Sir Max on a level which few ever did.  Writes Commander Rayner:

“…Max Horton’s own staff regarded him as something less than God but more than Man. If they had not done so they would have found themselves relieved. He had more personal charm than any man I ever met, but he could be unbelievably cruel to those who fell by the wayside.”
max HMS Forth
Vice-admiral Sir Max Horton as Commander-in-Chief, Submarines, visiting submarine depot ship HMS Forth on 19 March 1942.
His service in submarines in World War One was distinguished by his fearlessness, his aggressive spirit and his detailed knowledge of his boat. He also sank a lot of German ships. In the same war, a young Karl Dönitz achieved pitifully small results and after being captured by the Royal Navy had a nervous breakdown and had to be placed in a mental asylum.

From 17 November 1942 to 15 August 1945, Admiral Sir Max Horton was known by the Wind-in-the-Willows sounding acronym: CINCWA (sinkwa), Commander in Chief, Western Approaches — the largest operational command in the entire Royal Navy — over 121,000 men and women with over 300 escort ships. So why had Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself put Sir Max at the head of the most important command in the Royal Navy? Because CINCWA commanded all British forces contesting German U-Boats for control of the North Atlantic — the most critical battle of the war. “It isn’t the most important battle of the war,” said First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound. “It is the war.”

merchant ship sinking after being torpedoed

And the British were losing. Ship after ship being sunk by U-Boats — an average of four merchant ships each and every day by the winter of 1942/1943. By March, the United Kingdom had only a three week supply of food. Unless they could receive the goods being sent over the seas from America, Great Britain would be forced to surrender.     Top secret bunker in Derby House. Wireless room where signals are sent and received in July of Room, where signals are sent and received to and from ships in the Atlantic.  In a gray month, in a gray time, Sir Max came to Derby House in Liverpool, to a top-secret command bunker built several years before on Churchill’s orders. It is now a museum. In the beginning, few liked the man — and that was the high point of his popularity. Not that Max cared. Desperate times call for ruthless men. You had served with him in the past? Perhaps as a young officer in the Great War? That mattered for nothing. If you weren’t up to snuff, Sir Max sent you packing. He rid Western Approaches Command of  “incompetents – of whom there were plenty…” said one of his best seagoing escort captains, Commander Peter Gretton, who retired from the Royal Navy in 1963 as Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Gretton KCB, DSO & Two Bars, OBE, DSC.

nemesis-wrens-training WRENs in training. Almost all of the non-command positions in the secret headquarters of Western Approaches were “Women in the Royal Navy”.

Just a few days after he walked through the guarded steel door of the bunker, everyone throughout the command began to feel the dragon’s breath. Sir Max inspected, asked questions. Lots of questions. If you didn’t know the answer, you were out. Dockyard superintendents slow getting work done; supply officers who could not get organized; escort captains not aggressive enough; training officers who didn’t know enough? They were dismissed. All of them. Immediately. On the spot. This did not happen gradually. It happened in the first few months and kept on happening if anyone slacked off.

Royal Navy convoy escort destroyer HMS Inglefield in heavy seas. 

No matter what one’s assignment, Sir Max impressed on each and every man and woman in his command that they had but one goal: bring the convoys safely through the wolf-packs in the North Atlantic by sinking U-Boats. Sir Max focused everyone on this goal. Nothing else mattered. And one of the best ways to sink U-Boats was by ceaselessly training the men and the women who comprised Western Approaches Command. No matter what task you performed, you could perform it better. HMS Tay, a River Class frigate. Made famous during the Battle of Convoy ONS 5. All River Class frigates which were deployed as convoy escorts in the North Atlantic and did yeoman service. Escort captains went to a special school. Anti-aircraft gunners trained in realistic simulation booths created by the British motion picture industry. Individuals were sent to one course after another. Entire escort groups were pulled out of the battle and trained and trained till they could not only execute every command but correctly anticipate every command. Training, training, and more training. Realistic training. Everyone one cursed him for it. Officers and ratings began to call him “Der Fuhrer.” And they came up with a slogan, parroted by all, “Max knows everything. Max knows everything.” And he did — or most of it anyway. He was the most competent, most informed, most knowledgeable, and most experienced officer in the Royal Navy. He knew it and so did everyone else. 78987985

World War II, 1942, Admiral Sir Max Horton looking at a picture showing the submarine that he commanded in World War One. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

If you commanded an escort ship, don’t tell Sir Max that a U-Boat got away from you because of some surprise maneuver. Sir Max knew everything about submarines — more than anyone in the Royal Navy and more than most in the German Navy. Max had begun his career in the Royal Navy in submarines, at a time when they were just curiosities. In 1914, the beginning of World War One, a young Max Horton had sunk the first warship ever sent to the bottom by a submarine. In 1940 and 1941, Max Horton served as C-in-C Submarines for the Royal Navy, revitalizing this previously neglected arm of the service.   Horton_Lawrence

Max Horton, (left) as commander of submarine HMS E-9 with Noel Laurence (right), commander of HMS E1  during service with British Submarine Flotilla in the Baltic during World War One.

  Don’t tell Sir Max that when your engine broke down in the North Atlantic it took eight hours to fix. Max knew how long it took to repair a ship’s engine. Unlike any other deck officer in the Royal Navy, Max knew all about engines. Mechanical things fascinated him. He could take an engine apart himself. He inspected engine rooms on ships and gave lessons to Royal Navy engineers.

Four Royal Navy battleships in line ahead circa 1930s

Seamanship? Don’t tell Sir Max anything about that. He had been at sea since he was thirteen, served on vessels of every sort, and commanded vessels of every size in numbers ranging from one ship to a squadron. Max was one of the few men in the Royal Navy to command the battleship squadron of the British Home Fleet — ships he routinely trained to perform the most complex maneuvers — at full speed. At night. Radar had not then been invented.  


Sir Max on the cover of a wartime edition of Life Magazine. He became famous in the US because of the photo spread of him in this issue which includes photographs of Sir Max playing golf which he did everyday war or no war.

Torpedoes? When commanding the British submarine fleet before his tenure at Western Approaches, one of his submarine captains described a torpedo attack on a German ship. The attack had failed, the man said because the torpedo had a faulty detonator and did not explode. Wrong. Max knew everything about torpedoes. Admit that what you said was rubbish he told the captain who brought him this story and the captain admitted it was rubbish. Sir Max had the torpedo blueprints brought to him. With the young captain, he worked through them to establish why the torpedo had failed to explode. And there was a fault, but not in the detonator. Orders went to the submarine fleet the next morning instructing them on what changes to make. Radar? Gunnery? Aircraft? Unlike most officers of his generation, Max had realized their importance long before the war. He invited 15 Group of RAF Coastal Command — responsible for patrolling Western Approaches — to share his headquarters — and they did.   15 Group RAF Coastal Command in co-located headquarters with Western Approaches. Attention like this from a senior officer was unusual. Coastal Command was the red-headed step-child of the RAF — the ‘Cinderella Service’ those within called it. While a part of the Royal Air Force, they were under the tactical command of the Royal Navy. It could have been a bureaucratic nightmare. It wasn’t because men like Max Horton made it work.   co_plotting

Sir Max could look directly into the plotting room from his desk.

(photo courtesy of www.bbc.co.uk/liverpool/localhistory)

For many hours of the day and night, Sir Max stared at a plotting map which took up an entire wall of the very large operations room in his bunker and the map told him with up to the minute accuracy the location of every ship, every plane, and every convoy in his vast part of the ocean. All of this was kept up to date by several dozen Wrens (women in the Royal Navy) who climbed long ladders and moved the magnetic markers to their new positions. The ladders were so tall that one Wren slipped and fell to her death. It is said that her ghost still haunts the bunker.

Operations Room at Derby House

Alongside those markers was placed the presumed location of every U-Boat, this last information clattering in unceasingly from the U-Boat tracking room in London. This unit kept a detailed plot which showed their estimate of the location of every German U-boat based on information from dozens of sources including Enigma (although they did not know that). Additionally, the estimated position of every merchant ship in the world came in constantly from the “Trade Plot” in London. There, in a room located next to the U-Boat tracking room, a handful of retired Merchant Navy captains kept the “Trade Plot” up to date using index cards! Dönitz hadn’t anything remotely close to this type of organization. Could never even have dreamed the British and later the Americans would have this. But we did. It required immense effort, money, and a huge number of people. But it was done. Convoy battles usually took place at night. After dinner, Sir Max would come into the plotting room and watch the action develop. Wrote one of his officers:

“His words were always direct. ‘Where is…?’ ‘What is…?’ ‘Why is…?’ ‘Why the hell not?’ Then having grasped the situation, his decision would come in a flash…He seemed to have an uncanny prevision of what the enemy would do next, which came of course from his long experience in submarines.”

If you were competent, if you knew your business, if you did it to your utmost, and if you would admit your mistakes and learn from them, then you could do no wrong with Sir Max. He would back you to the hilt. He brought men to the fore who had an instinctive feel for how to kill a U-Boat and they became famous for their exploits. 05-gretton Peter Gretton, pictured here at as a Lt. Commander in the Royal Navy in World War Two. He eventually became Vice-Admiral Sir Peter William Gretton, KCB, OBE, DSO, (with two bars–meaning he won it three times) DSC.  Born 27 August 1912 died 11 November 1992.  There was Sir Peter Gretton, one of the best escort commanders of the war, likewise ruthless, intolerant of the smallest error, and dismissive of most officers in the Royal Navy. But Sir Max knew his man. Gretton won the Battle of Convoy ONS 5 in May 1943, inflicting such damage on the U-Bootwaffe that Dönitz was forced to recall all U-Boats from the North Atlantic. True, Gretton lost ten merchant ships out of Convoy ONS 5, but his escorts sank five U-Boats, an unacceptable loss ratio for the Germans. (ONS 5: Outward Bound North Slow. The 5th convoy using this routing.)   The_Battle_of_the_Atlantic_1939-1945_A16868 Commander Donald MacIntyre DSO DSC RN who was responsible for sinking two of Germany’s foremost U-boat aces, Otto Kretschmer and Joachim Schepkle on 16 March 1941. Photograph taken on the bridge of HMS HESPERUS at Liverpool. His memoirs, U-Boat Killer, are very much worth your time reading. There was Donald MacIntyre, who sank U99 and captured Otto Kretschmer, the top ace in the German U-Bootwaffe who later commanded all NATO naval forces in the Batlic. The greatest of all — Captain Frederick John “Johnnie” Walker — who had been passed over for promotion to captain in 1938, effectively ending his career. He was thought to be a little too keen, Walker was. Talked shop a bit much. And specialized of all things in anti-submarine tactics, hardly something which would be needed when war came — until war did come and it was desperately needed. “Johnnie” Walker sank more U-Boats, 14, than anyone and developed many of the successful anti-U-Boat tactics used by the Royal Navy. He died of a stroke on 9 July 1944 brought on by the intense stress of combat.   mer_sec_pcf_12_large Captain Frederic John Walker, RN.  (1896–1944), CB, Distinguished Service Order with three bars. The two miniatures painted in the lower left corner are the crests of the two ships Walker commanded during which time he sank 14 U-Boats. The first ship was HMS Starling and the second was HMS Stork. 450px-Statue_of_Frederic_John_Walker_-_geograph.org.uk_-_554235

Statue of Frederic John Walker.

A commemorative statue at the Pier Head in Liverpool. Date 4 February 2006. (Photo taken on 4 February by Robert Brown and courtesy of  geograph.org.uk)       It says something of Admiral Horton that for his greatest captain, he arranged a funeral equivalent to the man’s deeds. Sailors drew the coffin, affixed to a gun carriage, through the crowded streets of Liverpool to the Cathedral. The coffin was escorted on foot by six Royal Navy captains, an unprecedented tribute and in another astonishing tribute, Sir Max himself delivered the eulogy.  


The funeral of Captain Frederic John Walker. His coffin was escorted by six Royal Navy captains. (photo courtesy of www.mikekemble.com)

When the war ended, Sir Max, who already had a long list of decorations, received even more. The one he valued the most? “Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit of the United States of America.” This was the highest decoration the United States could give to non-Americans and few received it. Yet with all of his honors and awards and victories, dispatches and orders, even a cover story in Life Magazine, Admiral Sir Max Horton remain a mystery. This is a great frustration to those of us who study World War Two, particularly the Battle of the Atlantic. Sir Max never wrote his memoirs or, to my knowledge, wrote anything about himself.

Admiral Sir Max Horton was one of the small group of extraordinary men who led the Allies to victory.

The strain of his immense responsibilities robbed Sir Max of his health and in 1951, just six years after the end of the war, he died. He was sixty-seven. His ill-health precluded his life-long dream of living in the warm climate of Southern France. The only biography of him, from which many of the above quotes are drawn, is Max Horton and the Western Approaches: A Biography of Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton by Rear Admiral W.S. Chalmers, RN, a family friend and well-known author of British naval biographies. This is very much an “authorized biography.” Max Horton did have a brother who was married and that family inherited all of his personal papers which, to my knowledge, they have never released. Chalmers only saw what he was shown and was under some very strict ground rules about attribution. While Sir Max was reputed to not have a friend in the world, he did have friends. We just don’t know who they were. Chalmers quotes from numerous letters Horton wrote to friends but never tells us who the letters were written to. Presumably, he was not allowed to disclose that information. I can say this is the only biography I have ever read which never discloses who any of the subject’s personal correspondence was addressed to. Admiral Horton had an extensive acquaintanceship throughout the British Empire. A man in his position would certainly have known a great many people. He entertained to the degree his rank and social position required it. On several occasions, during the war, the King and Queen came to luncheon at his formal living quarters in Derby House. A letter he wrote afterward to a friend clearly indicates he knew them already. But his background? Parents? His childhood? The source of his inner strength? His heroes? His inner life? Of Sir Max as a man? We have no idea. We do know this: the men and women under his command in Western Approaches never came to love him. They never came to like him. But they came quickly to respect him and even more, have the greatest confidence in him — for Sir Max radiated confidence. The war ended at last. Slowly people went back to their civilian lives. The hundreds of RN ships that had defeated the U-Boats were broken up and sold for scrap. The HQ bunker in Liverpool sealed up and practically forgotten. Sir Max passed on. And the veterans of Western Approaches Command? To the end of their lives, they were proud to have served under Sir Max. Why? They knew something which has only become clear in the last years: in the moment of supreme peril against a deadly and determined foe who was serving a régime of unimaginable depravity, Admiral Sir Max Horton was one of the small group of extraordinary men who led the Allies to victory.

 Lest We Forget
Vice Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton, RN.
(29 November 1883 – 30 July 1951)
Western Approaches Command
19 November 1942 to 15 August 1945



Barnett, Correli. Engage The Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War. USA: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Beesly, Patrick. Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre 1939-1945. Wales: Greenhill Books, 2000. 

Chalmers, William Scott. Max Horton and the Western Approaches: A Biography of Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1954.

Gannon, Michael. Black May. USA: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1998.

Gretton, Peter. Convoy Escort Commander. Bungay, Suffolk, UK: Corgi Books, 1971.

Hague, Arnold. The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945: Its Organization, Defence, and Operation. Canada: Vanwell Publishing Limited, 2000.

Hendrie, Andrew. The Cinderella Service: RAF Coastal Command 1939-1945. England: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2006.

Kaplan, Philip and Jack Currie. Convoy: Merchant Sailors at War 1939-1945. Singapore: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Rayner, Douglas A. Escort: The Battle of the Atlantic. London, UK: William Kimber & Co Ltd., 1955.

Wilcox, Richard. “Admiral Sir Max Horton.” Life. 2 August 1943

The painting of Sir Max is oil on canvass by Arthur Douglas Wales-Smith. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.

All photographs courtesy of the Imperial War Museum unless otherwise noted.

Portrait of Captain Frederick John Walked painted by Leslie J. Humphreys. Oil on canvas, 121.7 x 151.2 cm. Courtesy of the collection of the Atkinson Art Gallery.  

This article is copyrighted (c) by Charles McCain and may not be used without the author’s permission.

Posted by writer Charles McCain, author of the World War Two naval epic: An Honorable German.

SAYS NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR NELSON DeMILLE “A truly epic and stirring tale of war, love, and the sea. An Honorable German is a remarkable debut novel by a writer who…seems he was an eyewitness to the history he portrays in such vivid detail. An original and surprising look at the other side.”

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For a signed and personally inscribed first edition hardback email the author here:    charles@charlesmccain.com  

One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 3

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Over two-hundred Flower class corvettes were built in 1939 and 1940 in the UK. Their length at the waterline was just less than two-hundred feet because that was the longest ship which could be built by the majority of civilian shipyards in the UK. These ships were hurriedly constructed by indifferent British laborers. They did not have the redundant heavy steel framing and structural supports common to other Royal Navy warships.

But there was a war on and this was the best the British could do. If the ship was seaworthy, the engine worked, the guns worked, and the depth charge apparatus functioned, then everything else was excused. Consequently, deck seams leaked, portholes weren’t properly sealed, and ventilators were badly designed and badly installed and had to shut down in storms depriving the interior of the ship with fresh air.

The mess decks, where the sailors lived, were often awash with six inches of sea water washing from side to side as the ships rolled from side to side, often in an arc of ninety degrees. The interior hulls of these ships were not insulated and condensation formed and dripped onto the decks.

Officers didn’t have it much better. They usually had two or three inches of water in their cabins and unlike the sailors, who slept in hammocks which swayed to the movements of the ships, the officers had bunks and staying in their bunks and trying to sleep in heavy weather was difficult, almost impossible.


A Flower Class Corvette on patrol in the North Atlantic. The distorting camouflage pattern can be seen here although it is much faded.


[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Image courtesy of World War II Today.]