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.

The Failure of Royal Navy Aircraft in World War Two

supermarine seafire


A Supermarine Seafire landing on board HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, February 1943. This was the naval version of the famed Spitfire.

During the First World War, the British Navy developed a highly successful naval air force called the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS). This entity designed and built naval aircraft to be catapulted from surface ships. Toward the end of the war, a flight deck was added to a RN battlecruiser and the first landing of an aircraft on a ship took place. RNAS trained its own pilots and maintenance crews all of whom were regular Royal Navy officers and other ranks.

After the war, the Royal Navy lost control of their aviation to the Royal Air Force. Part of its brief was to provide the Royal Navy with suitable aircraft and to train aircrew and maintenance crews. This system did not work well and led to absurbdities such as Royal Navy commanders given a sub-lieutenant’s rank in the RAF while they did their pilot or observer training and being treated as such. Additionally, the Royal Air Force, like the US Army Air Force, was controlled by “Bomber Barons.”

These men were only interested in building up their strategic bombing forces and they ignored the the highly specialized aircraft requirements of the Royal Navy. This resulted in a lack of aircraft designed  to be used on aircraft carriers and dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the British naval aviation. Only when the the US came into the war did the RN slowly begin to acquire planes built to withstand the rigor of carrier operations.

As a substitute in the first years of the war, the British Admiralty pressed into carrier service the Seafire, a hastily cobbled together carrier plane created by making slight modifications to the famous RAF Spitfire. Unfortunately, the Spitfire was never desgined to operate from an aircraft carrier. Since the Seafire was nothing but a Spitfire with a few design changes, this was less than a successful solution. That the Spitfire was difficult to fly only added to the problems.

 

 

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A Supermarine Seafire nosed over on the flight deck of HMS SMITER after a landing accident, 1944. Official Royal Navy photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

 

Because of this, two less-than-ideal-things often happened: the landing gear couldn’t take the strain and collapsed. This caused the Seafire to skid on its belly down the steel flight deck which bent the propeller. Second, given the desgin of the Spitfire/Seafire, the aircraft had a tendency to nose forward a bit on landing. On an aircraft carrier, this also caused the propeller to hit the steel deck and bent the propeller.

Machinists on British carriers did not have the ability to fix propellers so badly damaged. Hence, they had to replace them and RN aircraft carriers using Seafires would go through fifty or a hundred replacement propellers in a handful of days when on active operations.

In his memoirs, Admiral of the Fleet Philip Vian, commanding Allied aircraft carriers covering Allied landings off Salerno,  wrote that one exasperated aircraft carrier captain had eight inches sawed of the propeller blades of all his Seafires. This dramatically reduced the number of bent propellers which increased operational readiness dramtically and had no effect on the performance of the aircraft.

Landing on an aircraft aircraft has been described by naval pilots as a “controlled crash.” The deck is so short in relation to a landing strip on the ground that the objective is to get the plane on the deck of the carrier as soon as you can so the arresting wires will catch the tail hook and jerk the plane to a halt.

There were a series of arresting wires, as many as nine on World War Two carriers, so the odds were good that your tailhook would catch one of them. When landing you approached the aircraft carrier from astern and were guided into landing by the “batsman,” (in Royal Navy parlance), an experienced naval aviator with a luminous paddle in each hand.

This was a tricky business. You had to come in low and slow enough to get your plane on the deck of the carrier as soon as you could without crashing into the stern. Trying to do this in a heavy sea with the stern rising and falling required exquisite timing. In bad weather the bow and stern could be rising or falling as much as forty feet in less than a minute.

While the RN regained controlled of naval aviation in 1937, the reformed RNAS, then re-named as the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), never came up to par with the aviation units of either the US Navy or Japanese Navy. Making this more insufferable, it was the Royal Navy which had invented carrier aviation.

The residual anger over their treatment by the RAF in the interwar years, caused a contentious relationship between the RN and the RAF throughout the 1939-1945 war. That RAF pilots did not excel in ship recognition and attacked almost every ship they came across, including RN ships, did not help ameliorate the strain between the services. Neither did the RN response which was to open fire on any aircraft.

The Royal Navy was well aware of the problems with the Seafire but used it because they had no choice until more US planes built for operating of aircraft carriers became available to the British.