The Fleet Air Arm over Dunkirk

The involvement of the RAF in the Dunkirk evacuations is well recognised now (even if it wasn’t at the time by those on the ground) – less well known is the role of the Fleet Air Arm. However, at a time when every aircraft was desperately needed, the tiny naval air arm put many of its aircraft into the fight.

Where the Fleet Air Arm’s presence is acknowledged, however, it is often in a less than favourable light.

The second fighter patrol of the day was flown by Fleet Air Arm dive bombers and two-seater fighters. “The 37 Skuas and Rocs were a splendid sight as they took off in mass formation,” recalled [Squadron Leader D.H. ‘Nobby’] Clarke. “They looked a bit more operational than some of the others even if their maximum speed was only 225mph. They came back just before lunchtime, so I stayed to watch them land. There were not many; I counted six; where were the others? One belly-flopped and I went across to see what had happened, the blood-wagon passing me on the way.  That aircraft was a complete write-off. Bullets and cannon shells had ripped the fuselage from end to end – the after cockpit was sprayed liberally with blood, the inside of the glasshouse reddened throughout by the forward draft  The front cockpit, if anything, was worse. Two bullet holes through the back of the pilot’s seat showed where he had been hit, and his parachute, still in position, was saturated with blood. The instrument panel was shattered wreckage, and on the floor was a boot – and the remains of a foot.  I was nearly sick with the horror of it. How that pilot flew home will never be known, for I found he was dead when they dragged him out. Of those 37 Skuas and Rocs, only nine came back; of the nine, only four were serviceable.”

This account from Alexander McKee’s book Strike From The Sky suggests the Fleet Air Arm’s aircraft at Dunkirk were outdated, ineffectual, expendable and torn to shreds by a vastly superior Luftwaffe. The truth is somewhat different. Numerous squadrons operated over Dunkirk and had a hard time during the evacuation – as did the RAF, the army and the Navy – but nevertheless gave a markedly better account of themselves than the above, rather exaggerated, account suggests.

Skuas, Rocs and Swordfish at Eastleigh aerodrome

While Dowding was hoarding a certain number of his Spitfires and Hurricanes in readiness for the inevitable Battle for Britain, the evacuation of troops had to be covered if an immediate disaster was to be avoided. The shortfall left by Fighter Command had to be made up. The Navy’s aircraft, while not in any way designed for daylight battlefield operation, tended to have longer range than the RAF types, particularly the fighters, and could spend more useful time over the beaches. The FAA could support the RAF in tasks that were appropriate, such as anti-shipping and anti-submarine warfare – vital to protect the armada of rescue ships and boats from the predations of E-boats and submarines. Though the crews were not trained for direct support of ground forces, many Swordfish and Skua crews had experience of this from Norway, where the RAF struggled to provide adequate air cover and the FAA had to step in. The Navy also had capabilties to support an army on the ground that the RAF lacked. Specifically, the absence of a dedicated dive-bomber in the RAF’s inventory at the time was a significant failure. The gap could only be plugged by obsolete types on the brink of retirement, such as Hawker Hector army co-operation aircraft – and the Fleet Air Arm, which could dive-bomb with its Swordfish and new Albacore torpedo bombers, and Skua and Roc dive-bomber/fighters.

German forces, displaying superb integration between ground and air forces (not least with its Junkers Ju87 dive bombers), had swept across France and in less than a month had the British army cornered. The Luftwaffe had to be prevented from helping the army tear through the last line of defence and Coastal Command was required to bolster the available air support with any aircraft it could muster. Several Fleet Air Arm squadrons were seconded to this division of the RAF, including 801 and 806 which moved from Hatston to Detling and Manston in Kent flying a mix of Skuas and Rocs. They were joined by 826 Squadron with Fairey Albacores (new aircraft seeing their first action) and four squadrons of Swordfish, 815, 818, 825, flying from Detling and Thorney Island. Joining them was a rag-tag collection of naval types from Anti-Aircraft Co-operation, Air-Sea Rescue and Maintenance units, including at least one more Skua and a Blackburn Shark which had been in use as target tugs. The second line aircraft were not technically meant to engage the enemy, but on occasion came uncomfortably close.

Several of the front line squadrons were still licking their wounds from the ongoing Norwegian campaign, and one, 815 NAS, had been formed from the survivors of the two squadrons effectively wiped out by the sinking of HMS Courageous a few months beforehand. A couple of Swordfish squadrons had been operating with Coastal Command since April and were in action before the evacuation even began, with aircraft involved in missions over the Netherlands and Belgium. On 24 May, Swordfish carried out two attacks on a German tank column on the road between Calais and Gravelines – potentially suicidal in daylight considering the Swordfish’s slow speed and paltry defensive armament. Even more surprisingly, Swordfish were dispatched to patrol over the beaches when the evacuation was underway, in the hope that the Luftwaffe would mistake them for Gloster Gladiators and overestimate the RAF’s fighter strength.

Fairey Swordfish patrolled the French coast in May-June 1940

On 28 May, the evacuation started in earnest. Reichsmarshall Göring committed the Luftwaffe to destroying the remainder of the BEF and on this day the skies were swarming with German aircraft. On their first fighter patrol over the Channel, 806 Squadron’s Skuas were set upon by RAF Spitfires, who shot down Lieutenant Campbell-Horsfall (who lost a finger as a result) and left Midshipman Hogg’s aircraft to limp back to Manston where it crashed on landing. Naval Airman Burton, Hogg’s TAG, was killed. This is the closest incident I have found to the episode related in Strike from the Sky as descriptions of the bloodied cockpit are similar in the case of Burton and the dead pilot of McKee’s text. On the 31 May another Skua was damaged and crashed on landing though both aircrew survived. The legend of the Skua flown back to base with a dying pilot was evidently quite well known in air arm circles – Eric Brown refers to it in ‘Wings of the Navy’ as well. It is almost certainly mostly fiction – the anecdote of 28 Skuas and Rocs destroyed in one day cannot be taken seriously as no records attest to such a slaughter.

Aircraft recognition was poor on both sides at this time, and the Skua would have been largely unfamiliar to both the RAF and the Armée de l’Air. Moreover, the Fleet Air Arm’s camouflage at that time bore some resemblance to that worn by the Luftwaffe’s fighters. It was perhaps for this reason that modifications to the colours later appeared, with the upper camouflage demarcation line being extended down to the level of the wing from the rear of the cowling to the front of the tail fin. To compound the problem, inter-service communication appears to have been poor. Several Allied aircraft were shot down by ‘friendly fire’ on this day but as Norman L.R. Franks noted ‘after days of air attack it was obviously a case of shoot first, question it later’

In any event, it was a bad day for the Swordfish of 825 Squadron, flying from RAF Detling, which lost five aircraft, more than half their total losses for the operation, in a single bombing raid on this day. Also on 31 March, 826 Squadron’s Albacores were well and truly blooded with a raid on road and rail communications at Westende, and later attacked E-boats of Zeebrugge.

The Fairey Albacore, intended as a fleet torpedo bomber, saw its first action over France and Belgium in May 1940

Later that day, nine Skuas of 801 Squadron took part in action alongside ten Albacores of 826 Squadron. Both squadrons dive-bombed targets around Nieuport; the Albacores went for the harbour with 250lb bombs, and later a road junction. 801 Squadron meanwhile looked for pontoon bridges in the area to attack to hold up the movement of German troops. They found none, and instead dive bombed a pier on an island in a canal North-North-West of Nieuport, around which enemy forces were concentrated, and scored several direct hits. A second sub-flight of three Skuas attacked two piers on the Nieuport foreshore and again scored direct hits.

On the way back to Detling, the Skuas were attacked by Messerschmitt Bf109s, and two of the dive bombers were shot down, though not without a fight – one of the Messerschmitts was claimed as a probable kill before the fighters broke off to attack a more promising target of 206 Squadron’s Lockheed Hudsons, on patrol that evening. Improbably, Norman Franks, in The Air Battle over Dunkirk, suggests the Hudsons waded into the fray to save the Skuas and in doing so shot down two Bf109s. (This is rather unsurprising in a book that somewhat underplays the efforts of the Fleet Air Arm during the evacuation. Franks also suggests the incident took place a day later on 1 June.) In fact, the Hudsons confirmed the Skuas’ account and claim for a kill.

It has been suggested  by writers such as Peter C. Smith and John Dell that the Fleet Air Arm’s bombing on the Nieuport foreshore prevented an attack by heavy German forces on the Dunkirk perimeter, which could have had dire consequences for the entire BEF. It is true that the 12th Infantry Division had beaten back a concerted attack earlier in the day and later reported that the buildup to a second attack had been disrupted as a result of bombing by British aircraft at around 5pm. The Skuas were in action in the later part of the day, and were in the region of the canal at Nieuport. The timings do not entirely match up – 801 Squadron’s attack on the piers did not take place until a couple of hours after the 12th’s account – but the value of the aircraft in this crucial battle is apparent, not least in showing some British soldiers that it was not just them who had to face the terrifying assault of dive bombers.

The Blackburn Skua was an effective dive bomber, but was also required to operate as a patrol fighter

The following day, 806 Squadron had a much better day when joining a number of Fighter Command squadrons flying patrols over the evacuation ships. The Luftwaffe’s Fliegerkorps VIII had not been able to fly for several days due to low cloud cover, which rendered their Ju87 Stukas virtually useless. However, at lunchtime, the clouds cleared and the Luftwaffe returned in force. Two Skuas and a Roc of 801 Squadron attacked Ju88s which were bombing the ships off the coast.  Sneaking up on the bombers as they were intent on their dives, the Roc was able to shoot down one of the ‘Schnellbombers’ while a Skua claimed another damaged. This was to be the only ‘destroyed’ claim for the Roc in its career.

On 2nd June, numerous patrols were carried out from early in the morning over the columns of ships ferrying troops back from France, the Fleet Air Arm’s patrol fighters joining Hudsons and Blenheims. A report by an 801 Squadron crew indicated that they could see vessels ranging in size from merchant ships to fishing boats crammed with soldiers, and even a tug towing a lifeboat, both crammed with men. On the following day a greater contrast would be hard to imagine; there were hardly any German aircraft over the Channel and the squadron diary states there was ‘nothing to report’. The three Skuas and three Rocs patrolled at 4,000ft around the North Foreland in weather that was clear as a bell with fifteen miles’ visibility and no cloud, and saw nothing.  The evacuation was all but over. However, the Battle of France continued to rage and Channel convoys were now more vulnerable than ever – the Fleet Air Arm’s work over the Channel was to continue.

The next mission for 801 Squadron did not take place until 9 June, with numerous convoy escorts taking place. Similar missions were undertaken on the 11th and 12th, though poor visibility made the convoys hard to locate. While part of the squadron searched in vain for convoys in the mist, the rest of the Skuas attacked ‘E’ Boats in Boulogne harbour. These fast torpedo boats, otherwise known as ‘Schnellboots’, were playing havoc with Channel convoys and would continue to do so into July.

At around 1235 hours the Skuas dive bombed the harbour where the ‘E’ boats were moored and strafed the boats themselves. The Flight Commander suggested another attack with the addition of 20lb bombs in Light Series carriers and at 1525 the flight of five aircraft took off for the day’s second operation. After the first attack the ‘E’ boats had been moved across the harbour, but were no less vulnerable. The five aircraft attacked, dropping three 250lb bombs and 40 20lb bombs. One ‘E’ boat suffered several direct hits and two others were damaged. A jetty was also hit and as the Skuas pulled up, they raked a row of parked lorries loaded with soldiers.

That night another Skua operated above the evacuation. Pilot Officer Clarke’s yellow and black striped target tug Skua was assigned to a novel task, towing a lighted flare above the sea north of the ferry channel to allow Coastal Command Avro Ansons to bomb any ‘E’ boats that might try to attack the evacuation ships, along with a Fairey Battle, also of No. 2 Anti Aircraft Co-operation unit. All the two aircraft could do was patrol up and down between Dunkirk and the River Scheldt, blinded by the light of their own flares, hoping there were no night fighters in the area.

Clarke had several lucky escapes that night. An unidentified aircraft collided with the towing cable, severing it but not damaging the Skua, while on the way home he was fixed in the glare of searchlights at Dover and narrowly avoided crashing into the sea. On the positive side, the Coastal Command Ansons claimed one ‘E’ boat destroyed.

Over the next couple of days the Fleet Air Arm Skuas and Rocs undertook more convoy escort patrols and photo reconnaissance missions. One of these turned sour when Lieutenant Collett was sent to reconnoitre Boulogne and photograph a new battery being constructed near Calais. The Skua came under heavy anti-aircraft fire and the port wing was almost blown off. Collett limped back to Manston with shrapnel in his abdomen and his port fuel tank pierced and leaking – at the time, the Skua lacked self-sealing fuel tanks.

More convoy and reconnaissance missions followed, but on 20 June, 801 Squadron dive bombed heavy gun emplacements, possibly those that Lieutenant Collett was photographing when he was hit by AA fire. A large battery was being installed at Cap Blanc Nez and four Skuas and five Rocs of 801 were despatched to bomb the emplacement. This time it appeared the lessons of the past had been learned – the disastrous attack on the Scharnhorst had taken place only the previous week – and fighter escort was on hand. Twelve Hurricanes from Croydon met the Blackburns before they set out over the Channel.  At 1440 the squadron attacked from the sea in line astern. From 2,000ft they dived to 1,000ft dropping their bombs. The defences were initially caught off guard but by the time the third sub-flight had winged-over into the dive, the AA batteries were blazing into the sky. Sub-Lieutenant Day and Naval Airman Berry’s Roc was hit as it dived, and plunged into the sea in a wreath of black smoke. The others pressed home their attack and scored four direct hits and a number of near misses. The Commanding Officer praised the Hurricanes for their co-operation, on one of the few occasions when the dive bombers were fortunate enough to have proper fighter escort.

Shortly after this episode, 801 and 806 Squadrons would be released from Coastal Command control and return to Hatston on Orkney, there to carry out a series of long-range raids on Norway. Some of the Swordfish Squadrons remained for several months, bolstering Coastal Command’s anti-shipping and anti-submarine strength until the RAF was able to maintain this role unaided. While the lion’s share of the air operations over Dunkirk were carried out by the RAF, a small but highly significant contribution was made by the Fleet Air Arm which should not be ignored.

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