Air cover

The convoy route … runs right along the coast of North Africa … If German units … take off from the South of France or Northern Italy … they have to cover … at least 750 km, taking them … over an area in which the enemy has air superiority. On top of that, with Sicily and Sardinia as bases he has the opportunity of engaging German formations at any time during their approach.

“H.L.” (German war correspondent), 13 May 1944

“Operation Barricade” was designed to re-empt attacks with Beaufighters and Mosquitoes patrolling off Cap Creus “on the reconnaissance approach path”, with more east of Minorca and between that Island and Mallorca. A mix of day and night fighters took part but all missed the Germans as they routed their attack far to the east of the “Barricade” patrols. At 20.53 GMT, defending fighters were deployed as follows:

Over convoy: six P-39 of GC 1/4 “Navarre” and two Beaufighters of No. 153 Sqn.

50 km north of convoy: two Beaufighters of No. 153 Sqn.

Between Mallorca and Minorca: two Beaufighters of No. 153 Sqn.

160 km north of Réghaia: eight Mosquitoes of No. 256 Sqn.

NOTE: No. 153 was using callsign “Norah” while No. 256 was “Crosscut”.

According to Flight Lieutenant D.G. Wheatley, controller at No. 8006 AMES, the first sign of the approaching Germans came at 20.50 when “isolated pin-points in AI. were received from Filter Room”. These were not continuous but sufficient to establish a track coming south and classify it as “X” (unidentified). It was evident that these aircraft were flying very low.

NOTE: AMES = Air Ministry Experimental Station, a cover name for radar.

 

The attack

There was no moon, the sun had set at 20.45 hours and visibility was up to 10 miles, but poor in places. There were 5 to 7-tenths cloud at 1000/1500 feet and some haze. The general weather was fair to fine.

Senior Air Staff Officer, MACAF

The torpedo force was first plotted at 20.53 hrs., 65 km north of Cap Corbelin, then a second group was quickly picked up, 16 km ahead of them. The bombers were identified approaching the convoy, apparently in tight formation, at 21.02; their speed an estimated 180 knots (333 km/h). The Mosquitoes were brought south east with the aim of cutting the raiders off. For their part, the German airmen found the convoy 3.5 nautical miles (6.5 km) further east than they had estimated; it was shrouded in smoke and was putting up a powerful barrage from both AA and main armament while the attackers were still 15 km away.

At 21.05 the bombers were ordered to break formation, but three minutes later were instructed to close up for further attacks; at 21.09, one group was ordered to bear to the right, while another stated that it was coming in from the left. Shortly afterward they encountered the defending fighters. A German war correspondent painted a vivid picture, perhaps from his imagination rather than from life:

Even though an extraordinarily strong defence was initiated, the enemy could not thwart the success of the attack. Light and medium ships’ Flak opened a hellish fire on the German planes, while numerous enemy fighter and destroyer aircraft circled over the convoy and tried to force the German formations away. In the fierce air battles the German torpedo flyers shot down a Beaufighter. Despite the powerful Flak fire and the furious fighter attacks, again and again the German machines set course for the fat tubs in the convoy.

Beaufighters of No. 153 Squadron had been patrolling over the convoy throughout the day and observing R/T silence but all six had “no joy”. Two aircraft were briefly vectored after bandits at around 18.30 but were soon called back to patrolling. Flight Lieutenant A.H. Norris and F/O D. Sheriff (in KW114, “Norah 30”) were leading a two-plane section over UGS-40, under ground control from “Hoarding”. They were at 200–300 m, as high as they could go and still keep sight of the sea; visibility at low altitude was 3.5–5 km. At 21.00 a single track appeared on the controller’s radar and, in three successive sweeps, a larger formation was revealed. At 21.02, the two Beaufighters sighted 40 Ju 88 in two waves, on the deck and around 24–32 km NE of the convoy. They quickly intercepted three Ju 88 Ketten vic formations) flying at sea level.

Norris put his Beaufighter down to 100 m and although nothing registered on Sheriff’s A.I. fired a short burst and saw strikes on their target. German return fire was intense but caused no damage. They waited for “Norah 34” (P/O’s H.C. Barr and J. Barnett in KV114) to join up, then went for the central, leading Kette. Attacking from slightly ahead and to port, they saw multiple strikes behind one Ju 88’s cockpit, again experiencing heavy but ineffective return fire. “Norah 34” saw an aircraft explode and fall into the sea after the other machine’s pass through the formation. Norris and Sheriff now ran into heavy AA from the convoy and after being hit in the fin turned north. Asking “Hoarding” for a new vector they were set on to a lone Ju 88 which their A.I. picked up at a mile (1.6 km) but though fire was opened, no strikes were seen and both visual and A.I. contacts were lost when the bandit was flying at 50 feet (16 m). Another Ju 88 was acquired and hit in the port wing but this too was lost, although it was though to be heading for shallow water to ditch. Several more contacts came to nothing, this crew claiming one Ju 88 destroyed and one damaged.

Having followed a number of vectors, Barr and Barnett met a Ju 88 head-on and, threatened with collision, had no time to open fire. Turning to port they encountered five or six more hostiles which they attacked from the beam, obtaining strikes on one of them in two short bursts. Another head-on contact ensued but their fire brought no result although after reducing the deflection, they got hits on a Junkers which “was seen to make a drunken right turn and fall into sea”. Subsequent vectors brought no success and this crew too claimed 1–0–1 Ju 88s.

continued on next page …

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CONTENTS

Introduction

Shadowing

The attackng force

The convoy escorts

Air cover

The Attack

Aftermath

Losses

Assessments

Propaganda

Sources

Map

© Nick Beale 2019

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