Airborne by Rocket
A Personal Recollection from WW2
Sub. Lt. David A. Wright R.N.V.R.
CHAPTER ONE CATAPULTING – A NEW DEPARTURE
In October 1941, as a newly qualified 20 year old fighter pilot and commissioned Royal Navy Officer in the Fleet Air Arm, I was posted to my first Operational Squadron. Based near Belfast in Northern Ireland, 804 Squadron was equipped with Hawker Hurricanes, a fighter aircraft with a proven record of success having been largely responsible, with the assistance of Supermarine Spitfires, for winning the Battle of Britain. 804 Squadron’s Hurricanes were helping to win the Battle of the Atlantic, operating from C.A.M. ships (catapult aircraft merchantmen). These ships had been converted from pre WW2 banana boats by the simple addition of a short aeroplane launching rocket catapult mounted over the ship’s forecastle in front of the mainmast. (fig.1) C.A.M. ships were the outcome of a pressing
need, arising during 1940, to protect Atlantic shipping convoys bringing vital supplies to Britain, from long range German bomber aircraft which by that time were sinking an average of one ship loaded with 5,000 tons of commodities for each bombing sortie. U-boat attacks added to those shipping losses considerably and further threatened the only lifeline to fortress Britain. It is believed Winston Churchill was the original suggestor of arming merchant ships with fighter aircraft. If they could successfully defend London, then why not Atlantic convoys? Royal Naval battleships, cruisers and carriers were fully deployed in other theatres of war so only the larger convoys could be afforded a destroyer escort. Even those protected convoys suffered sinkings and without essential supplies, notably from the USA under our lease lend scheme; Britain was fast approaching a time when it could no longer continue to wage war.
So an adaptation was made of the battleship cordite cylinder catapult (which already launched lightweight seaplane spotter planes from the top of gun turrets) into a much more powerful rocket propelled catapult capable of accelerating a much heavier Hurricane to its necessarily higher flying speed within the very limited ship’s forecastle space available. In all, five ex banana boats became C.A.M. ships.With a change of role, they received a change of name. 804 Squadron’s allocated C.A.M. ship, previously Ffyffes banana boat ERIN, became H.M.S. MAPLIN. The other H.M.S. promotions were EMPIRE TIDE, PEGASUS, SPRINGBANK and AROGUANY.The last two were soon torpedoed by U-boats but the other three served briefly as C.A.M. ships manned by RAF pilots until reverting to other duties. MAPLIN was the only C.A.M. ship to uphold its role into mid 1942.
Before I could play an active role within 804 Squadron I needed to acquire proficiency in catapulted rather than rolling take offs. Hitherto I had only become airborne from aerodrome runways. My catapult course started at H.M.S. Daedelus, a Naval Air shore station near Lee-on-Solent, where an airfield catapult fired students off in a Swordfish biplane, this catapult being identical with the cylinder seaplane catapults mentioned earlier. A bounce on the grass with a wheeled Swordfish was quite harmless! (fig.2) The catapult’s cordite
charge pressurised a series of pistons, which propelled a cradle, on which the Swordfish was mounted, along a 70 feet long track. Buffers at the end stopped the cradle and released the Swordfish. 50 knots release speed was enough to have the Swordfish airborne.
I had never before flown a Swordfish but of all WW2 aeroplanes this was the most gentle and forgiving. Once airborne they almost fly themselves so I had no qualms about my first flight in one. Means of launch however was another matter! My catapult was first swivelled to face into the wind then with the engine ticking over the Swordfish gently craned from the ground alongside, up onto the catapult trolley mount. I then climbed a ladder into the cockpit and followed normal cockpit drill of securing my lap and shoulder harness (rather more tightly than normally!) and then dismissed the supervising technician who descended and removed the ladder. My escape was gone! The launching officer on the ground held up his blue flag and awaited my
readiness signal. Dropping his flag would simultaneously include a press on his fire button. I set aircraft trim for take off, opened the throttle to full revs and tightened its thumbscrew to resist the jolt of launch, then braced my body as instructed. Firstly, stiff legs centralising the rudder pedals. Right hand on the control column with elbow into my stomach to prevent tug back on forward jerk. Head back into the pad and neck braced. Up with my left hand to indicate “ready”. Down hand onto the throttle lever with elbow into stomach, counting 3, 2, and whoosh! My cheeks flexed backward, my eyesight blackened and I was flying! The blackout lasted only a second as acceleration flushed blood from behind my eyes but by then I was climbing away into an exhilarating circuit of the aerodrome and a perfect three point landing. Log book entry – one catapult launch, 5 mins solo Swordfish!
Part 2 of my catapult course was held at Speke aerodrome near Liverpool. A similar grass field launching apparatus awaited me but this time the aircraft was a Hurricane fighter and the catapult powered by rockets. Fourteen of them, each 11 feet long, 4″ diameter. Enormous missiles by early 1940 standards and the thought of being blasted off atop them causing me high apprehension! These rockets were secured in a cluster to the trolley on which the aircraft was mounted. A powder keg to shoot the trolley, Hurricane and me to a terminal velocity and requisite 70 knot flying speed by the end of the 70 feet long track.A compound one knot per foot acceleration, which means high G force! My launch was scheduled for the afternoon and I was advised not to watch another student’s forenoon launch.The noise and sight of billowing rocket flames could unnerve me! But walking to the Officers’ Mess for lunch coincided with the other student’s delayed launch and across the field I could not avoid seeing the blast of fire followed by a roar as of an exploding bomb. Unnerving indeed and an unappetising lunch!
3 p.m. and my turn.This time the aircraft was ready mounted on the trolley and when I arrived, a mechanic was warming up the engine. He switched off and climbed out of the cockpit to allow me to waddle up the ladder with my parachute strapped to my rear and heave-ho in. Usual cockpit check followed – slide the canopy closed over my head, tighten in to my Sutton lap and shoulder harness followed by
engine start up. Magneto check, pressure and engine temperature, propeller into fine pitch, all familiar routines, then catapult procedure, similar to the Lee catapult but this time I knew the forward blast would be more violent. So I made sure of control column in slightly tail down position and extra body bracing with both elbows into stomach. The 3, 2, 1 countdown was the same but the wallop much more chest compressing! 31⁄2 to 4 times the force of gravity and the blackout perhaps a second longer than Lee. However I was clear of the grass and then became aware there had been no bang nor sign of explosion. In fact I was ahead of the sound wave and the rockets left far behind.And a Merlin engine at full revs is deafening in itself. So one more log book entry – 1 rocket launch, 5 mins solo Hurricane. I was ready to join my Squadron as a potential Catafighter!
My descriptions of catapults and a pilot’s role have so far dwelt only on getting airborne. Not a word on aircraft/pilot’s return. Shooting down the enemy, in my case a Focke Wolfe Condor (the war derivative of pre-war commercial Kurriers) before it could bomb convoy ships or radio a convoy’s position to U-boats, seemed the only purpose that should concern me. But a banana boat had no deck area or length to provide a landing back aboard, so I joined 804 assuming my peers would provide the detail, which would ensure my preservation!
CHAPTER TWO – FULLY FLEDGED AND OPERATIONAL
7 days leave was however, my immediate concern and a succession of dates and dances dispelled further thoughts of convoy protection. But all too soon, war duty called again and I was boarding the 8.38 night boat train to Heysham.The girl I would marry five years later (after a sailor’s permissible dalliances with a few others) stood on the station platform in the gloom of blackout and swirling steam as I lowered the carriage window to lean down and receive her tip-toed goodbye kiss. Then into the night and an early morning ferryboat arrival at Belfast. At the nearby Sydenham airfield, designated H.M.S. Caroline, I reported “aboard” and became junior pilot of 804.
My accumulated skills would now be put to use aboard Maplin escorting convoys, either to or from the still neutral country U.S.A., or Gibraltar, or the North Cape passage to Murmansk in Russia. Whenever ashore from Maplin in Belfast I was allocated civilian digs where my landlady’s war effort was devoted to my wellbeing. She became my cloth mother providing every home comfort. She could not have pursued a more worthy cause; her home was my haven. She even tried to marry me off to Joan, her neighbour’s daughter, a voluptuous girl of vocal aspiration who timed her operatic crescendo to coincide with my arrival at her door for our dates. If only she had crooned more sweetly!
Of less romantic tenor was my Commanding Officer, Marine Major A. E. (Minnie) Marsh. His greeting was vague, almost as though our acquaintance would unlikely be long lived! He first introduced me to Lieutenant Dodds, our Squadron doctor who no doubt assessed my early need of anti-twitch tablets and then to Jack Barnett, an ex-Lancashire County cricketer, our personnel officer, who was most understanding and friendly. Lieutenant Bob Everett was our senior pilot, a recent recipient of the D.S.O., who on Sunday afternoon of 3rd August 1941 had become the first C.A.M. ship pilot to shoot down a convoy attacking Focke Wolfe and survive his subsequent ditching. The other pilots were Benji Mancus, Cecil (Johnny) Walker, Jimmy Clark and Johnny Scott. I was the relief of another departing Squadron pilot, “Winkle” Brown, who I watched fly away from the aerodrome in a slow roll 100 feet above the runway. What an example for a new recruit such as I, instilled to aerobat at never less than 2,000 feet. But Winkle went on to become a foremost test pilot of post war years and the first to land a jet aircraft on a carrier. His farewell to Sydenham was typical of a seasoned pilot’s confidence, irreverent of regulations.
Regular flying practice over nearby Strangford Loch soon gave me authority over my Hurricane but never with the brilliance of Winkle, Bob or Benji.Aces all. It was the swashbuckling glamour of such pilots coupled with their posting to C.A.M. ships that coined their title – Catafighters. Although quite untrue we were also described in the press as “suicide pilots”, “one way ticket” pilots and “brave volunteers”.The only volunteering I ever did was to join the Fleet Air Arm on my 19th birthday as a trainee pilot. My operational destiny can only have been determined from an instructor’s assessment of my aptitude with Hurricanes.
Evening runs “ashore” from H.M.S. Caroline meant taking a train the few miles from Sydenham to Belfast where the “in” place was the bar of the Grand Central Hotel, in which Bob Everett was a regular patron.A hard drinking old sea dog having spent the last two years of the first world war afloat in R.N. warships. He had relinquished his Naval commission in 1920 to become a farmer in South West Africa, where he acquired a passion for racing horses. Returning to England in 1928 and after riding ten winners as an amateur under National Hunt rules, he turned professional and in 1929 was offered a ride in the Aintree Grand National on a 100 to 1 outsider called Gregalach. Two fences from home, Bob brought his horse in front of the odds on favourite Easter Hero and held on to win by six lengths. These attributes of tenaciousness led him to triumph in other fields including learning to fly aeroplanes and on the outbreak of WW2, joining the Fleet Air arm. So it was a hero twice my age on whose port wing I first flew in Squadron formation.
And it was at Bob’s side, he wearing his battered hat, faded medal ribbons, and tarnished gold braid, that I self consciously strode into the Grand Central bar. He was brusque, dry humoured and outspoken – some would say rude, but toward me, immediately companionable.As we walked through the hotel lobby he recognised the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava; in his jockey days, an owner. She was obviously pregnant but Bob greeted her with a light tap on her stomach and,“Another scone in the oven Lady?” She smiled, I blushed and Bob ordered gimlets.
Three months earlier, Bob with Benji Mancus, had been the pilots crewing Maplin’s convoy escort duty, during which Bob scored a C.A.M. ship’s first kill. His launch, engagement with a Focke Wolfe and successful destruction of it was followed by his safe recovery from the sea after escaping his instantly sinking Hurricane. His recounted experience was my first realisation of previously suppressed thoughts about my own preservation after combat. Emphasis on launching procedures had overridden aircraft abandonment drill. No doubt the powers in Admiralty Command felt that a successful dispatch of an enemy aircraft before it could identify a convoy position to U-boats, was well worth loss of a Hurricane. Indeed, loss of a pilot would not be deemed too devastating if 1,000’s of cargo tons plus ships and their crews were spared.
So on Bob Everett’s experience; a format was devised for we Catafighter’s post attack procedure. After conclusion of what we presumed would be a successful engagement with the enemy, we would firstly ascertain our own aircraft’s airworthiness. Has it suffered damage from any Focke Wolfe counter fire? After all it was a defensively armed aircraft we were attacking. Secondly, how much fuel is left and will it be sufficient to put friendly territory within reach? This excluded Eire, a non-belligerent nation where, if a pilot landed, he would be interned until the end of England’s hostilities.
Thirdly, if a ditching is inevitable, decide which ship of the convoy is best likely to be equipped to lower a boat and able to pick me up. Finally, am I going to land the aircraft wheels up in the sea or would I be better baling out ahead of my chosen ship? Hawker, the Hurricane manufacturer estimated it would only float 1.7 seconds because not only would water flood the wheel housings but the oil cooler under the engine would become a water scoop and immediately somersault the aircraft. With an open cockpit and inverted, little time would be left to detach cockpit harness (very necessary during the rapidly decelerated sea landing) and scramble clear whilst simultaneously ridding the parachute strapped to one’s back.
Perhaps baling out would be the better alternative. Indeed Johnny Walker later proved it was. After dispatching the enemy and then choosing his pre-selected rescue ship he first climbed to about 2,000 feet ahead of it and then jettisoned his cockpit canopy. Secondly he undid his cockpit seat safety harness to leave him shoulder and lap free so he could crouch with his feet on the seat and his head just below the windscreen. He then reduced speed and turned the aircraft into a slow roll to inverted, keeping the nose up and just before he succumbed to gravity and began falling out of the aircraft, he kicked the control column forward which flung him downwards and clear. In the immediate silence he then pulled the brass D ring to release his parachute drogue which automatically deployed the main canopy to leave him gently descending to look for his rescue ship. But still in his hand he was clutching the D ring. So he let it go but immediately vomited.Altraphobic nausea at the sight of the brass ring plummeting down to the ocean below! Within minutes of hitting the sea, his rescue ship’s boat appeared and he completed the rest of the voyage in comfort.
My first rocket launch at sea from Maplin was not nearly so dramatic. Merely a routine aircraft recovery from ship to airfield. One of the Hurricanes on board had remained unlaunched during the previous convoy and needed to be brought ashore for servicing.A tender took me to the ship moored in Belfast Loch and so as to follow normal catapulting preparation, the Captain upped anchor and steamed Maplin for a few miles to provide me with an artificial headwind so that my airspeed would be 15 knots or so higher at point of launch. The aircraft was also lighter than normal being disarmed and minimum fuelled (so only 14 rather than the normally used 15 rockets were needed). Otherwise a routine launch but nonetheless twitch making. (fig.3) Also steaming in Belfast loch at the time was the cruiser H.M.S. Ajax, whose Captain had requested 804 Squadron provide dummy air attacks for the benefit of her gun crews and to calibrate gun deflections at various angles and ranges.Assurance had been given no live ammunition would be used! So I was briefed to make a series of attacks immediately after my Maplin launch.With the exhilaration from my 4G blast off, I did so with great gusto, from all angles and heights. Landing back at Sydenham it was pleasing to read a signal sent from Ajax Captain to 804, “Congratulate that pilot – an exemplary sequence of attacks.All our turret crews now thoroughly rehearsed.”
In compliance with requirements when returning aircraft into the servicing hangar, I reported a rough sounding engine. In my flight back from Maplin and my Ajax encounter I detected what could have been a misfiring cylinder, maybe a new spark plug would do the trick. But subsequent to Bob’s more thorough flight test it was decided the engine was more seriously defective and had better be thoroughly overhauled. This could only be done properly at Yeovilton in Somerset so Bob was detailed to fly the aircraft there and fly a replacement back before Maplin’s next convoy patrol. A routine exchange which was to prove fateful for Bob. Over the Irish Sea approaching Anglesey, much more than a new spark plug proved to be the cause of a rough sounding engine.The whole engine must have seized and Bob needed to ditch for the second time in his life. He stretched his now engineless glide towards shallower and calmer coastal water, perhaps hoping to make the beach. But the aircraft did not reach the shore and must have immediately overturned and sunk with Bob trapped in the cockpit.A terribly sad and inglorious end to the life of a proven Catafighter and popular officer who had so briefly been my friend and hero. It was thereafter decided any future abandonment of a Hurricane over the sea should be by parachute and sea landings never attempted. The fact that Bob had got away with it once was discounted as a lucky one off. Hurricane sea landings did in fact afterwards take place but only because the pilot had no option. One such was Gordon Reece, a New Zealand Fleet Air Arm pilot who had total engine failure at low level over the North Atlantic and splashed down into the cruelly cold water. He was able to scramble clear and fortunately rescued within 15 minutes by a close sailing vessel or would otherwise have been overcome with hypothermia.
My first convoy escort duty aboard Maplin was in January 1942, my first real contribution to England’s defence after more than a year’s training, accompanying an outbound convoy from Liverpool to mid Atlantic, where it became out of range of Focke Wolfe Condors, then diverting to protect an incoming convoy from U.S.A.As fighter aircraft, Hurricanes did not have effective armament to inflict serious damage on U-boats. Far more important to shoot down enemy aircraft before its crew could spot a convoy and radio its position to prowling U-boats, who otherwise had to rely on chancing upon their prey.
We had two Hurricanes aboard Maplin, one at preparedness on the catapult and the other immediately abaft the mainmast where it could be craned round when the first had been fired off. So only three pilots were aboard, taking turns of 2 hour stints during daylight hours sitting in the cockpit, acting as bridge lookout to identify aircraft or stood down at rest.The 2 hour cockpit stint was particularly boring, alone with nothing to do but warm up the engine every 20 minutes, all the while uncomfortably strapped in at readiness on our parachute pack seat. I spent many hours daydreaming, writing love letters or if in creative mood, composing rude songs! A verse of one which achieved fame and survives still as a Fleet Air Arm wardroom song, goes, “I sat on the squirter awaiting the kick, passing the time by caressing my stick. Down went the blue flag, the thing gave a cough – cor f*** me cried Benji, he’s tossed himself off!”
On my next convoy duty which was a return trip to Gibraltar, I was accompanied aboard Maplin by Johnny Walker and Benji Mancus, the latter a deep baritone voiced, angular bodied Jew whose cabin I shared. When stood down at dusk, we were redundant until next dawn so our cabin often resounded with bawdy duets. Benji and I became staunch friends.After the war he went on to make his career in aviation becoming test pilot for Boulton Paul, an aeroplane manufacturer. He was involved in development of the V Wing and at many Farnborough air displays could be seen hurtling his odd shaped projectile down the runway at low level, often inverted! Sadly at an early age he developed M.N. disease and his body slowly wasted away. The Boulton Paul apprentices made him a specially adapted wheelchair he could drive with minimum muscle movement.A far cry from his extreme agility and stentorian tones of our Maplin days. My final conversation with him was a pre-arranged telephone call when he was bed ridden and his wife held the phone on his pillow while we talked together of our past. It is a sombre thought that as we cease to contribute to our current world; our musings revert to our creative youth.Youth and vigour is the stuff of life. Reminiscing is the pastime of decline.
I had two hairy moments during my second convoy deployment though one only became hairy after the event. I was in the cockpit at readiness when the ship’s RADAR detected an unidentified aircraft approaching the convoy beyond the horizon. I immediately started the engine and catapult crew made all pre launch procedure (fig. 4a and 4b) including water hosing all the forecastle and catapult surround so as to quench fire which the 15 rockets would belch as I was launched.At the last moment the incoming aircraft identified itself by broadcasting a coded Morse signal which proved it to be a Hudson coastal command Allied aeroplane. My launching officer indicated engine shut down to me, water jets were turned off and catapult crew climbed up to re-lock the trolley to the rail track to prevent trolley, aircraft and me rolling over the bows into the sea if the ship began pitching. But the locking pin was found still in place! The responsible crewmember had failed to remove it during his immediate pre-launch routine. Had my launch gone ahead, all 15 eleven foot rockets would have exploded beneath me on my immovable trolley and I would have been cremated! Until I dismounted from the aircraft, I of course, knew nothing of this oversight but when informed, I understandably became volatile! The guilty crewmember was put on a disciplinary charge as I was steered away from him!
My second adrenaline rush was again caused by an approaching unidentified aircraft when I followed pre launch drill as before. But this time I was not spared a reprieve. Down blue flag and whoosh! I went. Immediately into a full boost climb with all thought on gaining attacking height as quickly as possible, arming my wing guns and scouring the sky for my enemy. My crackling radio in my flying helmet suddenly came to life. It was Benji with a, “Break away! Break away!” He had identified the “bogey” as a neutral Irish mail plane, not a hostile Focke Wolfe. Our convoy was by then in the Western Approaches where air traffic could include Eire aircraft oblivious of our twitchy presence. Fortunately I had a virtually full tank of fuel and landing wheels re-attached. (Only when out of range of friendly territory were wheels removed so as to save weight and increase aircraft performance. After all, landing wheels could be of little use in mid Atlantic!) So Benji gave me a compass heading over my radio and
off I scarpered to Eglington in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where I landed, refuelled and beat Benji and Johnny back to Belfast by two days!Within weeks, convoy protection became more effective and less wasteful of aircraft by operating them off newly converted M.A.C. Ships (Merchant Aircraft Carriers). In reality these were merchant navy tankers with a flat top added and funnels repositioned on their starboard side so aircraft could both take off and land back on in conventional aircraft carrier fashion. The careless use of M.A.C. abbreviation has over succeeding years caused much confusion with their C.A.M. ship forebears.And so 804 Squadron was disbanded. But a newly trained Catafighter recruit Bill Sturgess and I stayed on to crew Maplin, the last surviving C.A.M. ship. A new Squadron was formed, 702 and because of my vast experience (?) I was given command of a total complement of 3 Hurricanes, we two pilots, a Petty Officer and 11 technical crew. (fig.5) Maplin’s homeport
remained Belfast so Sydenham airfield continued as our shore base. My exhalted command of the smallest Squadron in the Fleet Air Arm was of short duration, ending with Maplin’s decommission. Nevertheless I was proud to have been one of the very few pilots in history who needed neither wheels, skids nor floats to fly aircraft. It also gives me pride to have been amongst the earliest men to have been rocket propelled into the sky. Not quite Cape Kennedy spectacular but at the time, equally adventurous. After 702 I was posted to 893 Squadron and a proper Fleet aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Formidable, flying American Grumman Wildcats and covering the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy – but that is another story!
Originally Printed by Badger Press Ltd., Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria