With the anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic making headlines, the legendary Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown has come to even greater prominence. Captain Brown flew a Grumman Martlet fighter from HMS Audacity during the darkest days of the Atlantic conflict.
Slightly earlier in the war, however, Brown had been ‘blooded’ with some long-range dive-bombing missions to Norway. After the Allies were ejected from Norway in June 1940, the Blackburn Skuas of 801 Naval Air Squadron staged a number of raids from Hatston, on Orkney, to hamper the occupying German forces. The raids were at the very limit of the Skua’s range.
The Skua’s ‘office’ – this being the example beautifully reconstructed from crashed Skuas by the Norsk Luftfartsmuesum, Bodø
The Squadron had lost a number of crew members during the campaign itself, and relief pilots were sometimes drafted in temporarily to help maintain the unit’s strength. One of these was the youthful Lieutenant Eric Brown, who was engaged for a mission to bomb fuel storage tanks near Bergen. His account provides a sobering view of the dangers of this kind of mission:
‘We were flying out of Hatston – that was a tight trip for distance. We took off, we went to Bergen and climbed up. We hadn’t met any opposition at that point, we were at about 10,000ft and we came in and dived down on the oil tanks. Not from 10,000ft – we came down a bit from ten because we wanted to have a bit of speed over the target, so we dived from about, I would say, six or seven thousand and dropped our bombs on the oil tanks.
‘We seemed to get a few hits – then we collected a shoal of Me109s, and they pursued us along the fjord. I clung to the fjord wall and that meant they could only attack me from one side, and I was very close to the water so they couldn’t attack me from below. The only way they could do it was from above and the left. And when we did have one come in on us, the way I got rid of him was to put out the dive brakes suddenly. He got the shock of his life because we slowed right up, he had to take violent evasive action and he left us pretty well alone after that. He fired on us, and he hit us before he broke away, but not very much.’
A Skua in colourful pre-war markings. A dive-bombing attack in wartime would have been much steeper than this
This typically modest account belies the vulnerability of Skuas when confronted with Messerschmitt Bf109s. The Skua had a maximum speed of 225mph, and for rear defence had only one Lewis or Vickers .303in machine gun. During a raid earlier in 1940, half the Skuas taking part had been shot down (see Black Thursday). Brown was clearly an extraordinarily skilled pilot even at this early stage in his career.
(Quotes from Captain E. Brown from a conversation with the author 20th August 2006, originally published in The Blackburn Skua and Roc, MMP Books 2007)