26 April 1944
The Germans did not rely solely on aircraft to watch the seas around Britain. Shortly before midnight on the 25th an action had broken out 50 km NE of Cap Barfleur, between Free French destroyer La Combattante, the frigate HMS Rowley and “a force of E-Boats from Boulogne, apparently attempting an armed R/C [reconnaissance] of the eastern channel Assembly Ports.” In the early hours, E-Boat S.147 was sunk by La Combattante and 12 prisoners were taken. Their interrogation indicated that elements of two Schnellboot flotillas had been on a reconnaissance in force to establish whether landing vessels reported by German aircraft on the 25th were in fact about to attempt a landing.
Two Bf 109s of NAG 13 were up from 0543–0707 to cover a strip of land including Brixham and Dartmouth from 4–5000 m, their photos showing (amongst others) 10 tank landing ships, 52 LCTs of different sizes, two cargo vessels and a tanker. They were subjected to inaccurate medium AA over Brixham, while in Dartmouth MTBs put up light AA. Again the German airmen were warned of pursuing fighters. A fragmentary report of an early morning operation by two Bf 109, apparently from 4.(F)/123 on security reconnaissance, stated that the pilot of the lead aircraft had been slightly wounded in an attack by eight fighters, over the sea about 60 km north of Port-en-Bessin. As interpreted by the RAF’s Y-Service:
On the second sortie (3 aircraft) combat seems to have taken place with Typhoons and Typhoon Bombers. 2 aircraft reported that they had received hits, one pilot being wounded, but were able to reach base, possibly Évreux or Bernay.
Large forces of Typhoons were indeed operating against targets in France that day but there is no record of their engaging in any combat with Bf 109s, let alone registering a “damaged” claim, so quite what happened — if anything — remains unresolved.
Pairs of aircraft were detected over the Channel around midday and early in the evening but none appears to have ventured overland. Further east, two Bf 109s of 4.(F)/123 made an unproductive flight south of Beachy Head and two from the 5. Staffel saw a 20-strong convoy in the Thames Estuary.
The Isle of Wight and Portsmouth area was raided in the early hours. Red marker flares fell over Portsmouth but the bombing was described by the Admiralty as “indiscriminate over sea and land” causing civilian casualties and hitting houses but no ships were damaged. Despite this, the Royal Navy authorities were concerned:
C-in-C Portsmouth considers, from the evidence of E-Boat prisoners, that E-Boat activity in his command on the night 25th/26th was probably the result of enemy air R/C [reconnaissance] of the Isle of Wight on 25th April, and thinks that the provision of strong air cover in that area is of extreme importance from now onwards.
Denial of R/C to the enemy is of extreme importance for defence of the concentration in Isle of Wight area prior to “Overlord” and during the course of exercise “Fabius” [a series of practice landings from 2 May onwards] for which loading has now commenced.
Four days later, Allied Expeditionary Air Force HQ gave its reply:
Extreme importance of denying air R/C to enemy fully appreciated. Frequent saturation of area at all heights by friendly aircraft makes tracking and identification complex and not completely reliable. Lack of need to make penetration [inland] also reduces time available for interception. In spite of these difficulties every effort now being made to prevent him reconnoitring concentrations in Isle of Wight area prior to “Overlord” and during exercise “Fabius”. In spite of all measures being taken however, complete immunity from enemy air R/C cannot be guaranteed.
An early morning mission (by 5.(F)/123?) was recalled and ordered to land at Denain-Prouvy, close to the Franco-Belgian border. Meanwhile in the Western Channel, NAG 13 dispatched a Rotte to Lyme Bay at 0745 and a second to the seas south of Plymouth at 1315. The latter mission reported an eastbound convoy 20 km south Rame Head, seven merchant vessels of 3–5,000 tons with a single escort. Allied fighters spotted on a reciprocal course did not attack although German radar had warned that they were looking for the interlopers. It appears to have been this shipping report which prompted the dispatch of E-Boats to Lyme Bay after dark (although they had already been active along the Channel convoy routes for several nights). In the early hours of the 28th, the Germans were able to engage Convoy T-4 which was one element of Exercise Tiger, a practice landing at Slapton Sands in Devon. The E-Boats sank two LSTs and damaged two more, causing the deaths of almost 1,000 men and wounding 200 more. Analysts at Bletchley Park later noted that:
During a sortie by E-boats against LSTs off Portland [Kommando der Schnellboote] felt it necessary to report that LSTs sighted … did not justify the assumption that landing operations had begun …
Speaking to a fellow captive (and, unwittingly, to British micrphones) the day after he was shot down, Fhr. Mayer if 1.(F)/121 had this to say:
Our Staffel flies at night, another … with 109s and 190s flies by day [and] an Oberleutnant [of theirs] was at 12,400 m in a 109, with 340 km/h on the clock in level flight. Coming at him from above were six fighters [but] apparently they’d spotted him too late because in any event he dived away from them immediately, over 700 km/h, and it seems they couldn’t catch him.
Notably more active, NAG 13 sent pairs of fighters to Plymouth (0635–0759) and Penzance (0931–1046), two more Rotten made overwater sorties late in the afternoon; more unusually a group of three was up from 1506–1604. The Penzance mission was abandoned after an hour owing to cloud, the Bf 109s returning to base. There was no action reported elsewhere in the Channel but the coverage of Plymouth proved conspicuously successful. At 0707, radar tracked aircraft 80 km south of the city, heading north to make landfall at Stoke Point. In the harbour they were able to photograph five battleships, five cruisers, 24 destroyers, two monitors, six submarines, 32 “other vessels", 11 LSTs, 11 small landing craft and no fewer than 136 “miscellaneous small ships.” At RAF Mountbatten were 10 Sunderland flying boats. As a bonus, they were able to report 10 eastbound merchant vessels in the Channel. Although the Messerschmitts had been attacked from ahead by two fighters at very low level, neither side had opened fire. Acting on the photos obtained, 101 Luftwaffe bombers raided Plymouth on the night of the 29/30th.
A renewed attempt to get coverage of Penzance succeeded, two NAG 13 Bf 109s leaving Dinard at 1400 and an hour later photographing the coast from Gunwalloe to Newlyn from 7800 m. Only a handful of small ships was in port at Penzance but Newlyn accommodated 45 small craft and auxiliary landing craft; on the return flight they saw a rubber dinghy with about 10 dead bodies aboard. Why these smaller Cornish ports were prioritised over the major (and as yet unphotographed) docks and anchorage of nearby Falmouth and Carrick Roads is far from obvious. During an evening mission, an aircraft was warned by its controller of a “sailing boat” south of the Isle of Wight; the Y-Service took this to be some kind of code word.
On Guernsey, 1./NAG 13’s Fw 190 F-1, W.Nr. 013 0392, was 70% damaged in a crash and handed over to the local salvage unit.
Late in the afternoon, Stab NAG 13 mounted two overwater reconnaissances of two Bf 109 each without seeing any shipping. Both formations reported that defending fighters had been searching for them. FAG 123 also sent up a Bf 109 Rotte during the evening, with a similar absence of results; again the British overheard an “immediate recall” message.
As the month ended, Stab NAG 13 reported recently taking over five Bf 109s: W.Nr. 160876 (NT+_B), 161441 (NP+UL), 162067 (RW+DP) and 15648 (DR+CN), all with Rb 12.5/7 x 9 cameras; and W.Nr. 161429 (NP+ZC) which lacked both MW 50 boost and an Identification Friend or Foe set. Meanwhile, 4.(F)/123 was asking for a new DB 605 engine for Bf 109 G-4 W.Nr. 19401. An unnamed Staffel received Bf 109 G-5 W.Nr. 110346 from Guyancourt, this one properly fitted out with its radio gear, GM 1 boost, Rb 50/30 and an MG 151/20 cannon.
Assessing the month’s efforts, the British attributed the “particularly striking” increase in NAG 13’s sortie rate to the recent arrival of the 3. Staffel on the Channel coast. Meanwhile, 3.(F)/122’s night security reconnaissance had become “a routine operation” but had failed to secure any significant results.
to be continued …