Its destination Port Said, UGS-46 (GHOST) consisted of 73 merchant vessels in nine columns, plus 18 escorts when it was attacked by Fliegerdivision 2. After twice sighting Allied fighters, a German reconnaissance aircraft signalled a weather report for the convoy’s location off the Algerian coast at 16.20 hrs. on the 11th and again encountered fighters 40 minutes later. This was probably the third reconnaissance plane sent out, since Fliegerdiv. 2 reported that the fighters had prevented it making a complete observation of the target area. The next machine reached the convoy but its FuG 200 search set failed.
In spite of this patchy coverage, the decision was taken to launch an attack based on the ships’ estimated progress and confidence that the pathfinders would find it between Cap Ivi and Cap Ténès and, given favourable the weather, bring the torpedo bombers to the target. It seems from the German report that each of the latter carried a single “eel.” Aircraft began taking off from their bases at 21.30 hrs. Leading the way were five Ju 88s of 6./KG 77 tasked with route marking and target location which all reached the convoy and returned without loss, reporting acceptable marking of the running-in point and 40 Lux buoys were dropped in all. They found the convoy, screened by smoke, at 02.00 and called in the strike force.
The III./KG 26 put up nine Ju 88s, eight of which reached the target but only one attacked, from 50 m at 02.13, missing a destroyer, while one of the Gruppe’s aircraft was reported lost over enemy territory. The I./KG 77 dispatched eight machines, half of which aborted the operation. The remainder reached the convoy but only one of them attacked, at 02.25, while another jettisoned its torpedoes. The Geschwader’s III. Gruppe performed even worse: four machines took off, all reached the target but none attacked and two were lost.
As experienced by the escorts of Task Force 60, the “attack” was largely a confusion of radar plots, smoke, brief sightings of aircraft, engine noise and gunfire. Only a handful of torpedo launches were seen and the Task Force commander, Capt. R.B. Nickerson, was not even sure what the Germans had been trying to achieve. He thought reconnaissance or a diversion for a mining operation to be more likely than a direct attack on the convoy. The only Allied casualties were some seamen injured by shrapnel from the defensive fire. An Allied assessment noted that it was the first time in months that a convoy had been attacked in the Oran area, as well as the first time that enemy aircraft attacked a convoy individually. Overall the Germans:
… showed not only great hesitancy in attacking but also a great lack of knowledge as to where the convoy was.
While the Allies estimated that about 30 aircraft had attacked, the Luftwaffe’s Flight Safety Centre for Southern France reported that 55 Ju 88s had operated, from I./, II./, III./KG 77, II./KG 26 and 1.(F)/33. This far exceeds the 29 sorties detailed above, and substitutes II. for III./KG 26. Although, as we have seen, at least three Ju 88s were missing, the Allies were only aware of a single German loss. This one flew into the sea just after launching its torpedo. Survivors who were picked up thought they had been shot down by a night fighter, but although a Mosquito had chased a Ju 88 at very low altitude and itself hit the sea, it did not make a claim.
The Luftwaffe’s operation had been a complete failure but one downed airman, pulled out of the sea by Allied ships, seemed resigned:
Even if National Socialism is wrong, I believe in it … We were born in Germany and we have to die for Germany. Our fate is to die for National Socialism … It is better to perish with the wrong idea than to be under a foreign yoke.
The Germans had been completely frustrated by the smokescreen, prompting Fliegerdiv. 2 to demand the equipment of all its torpedo bombers with FuG 200 and long-running torpedoes. If these improvements were forthcoming, “torpedo attack then promises good success in spite of the use of smokescreens.”
When 6./KG 77 wrote a report a week later of its experiences with radar, its verdict was more qualified:
The FuG 101 radio altimeter was being used in conjunction with Hohentwiel on security reconnaissance sorties. Half-hourly calibration showed no deviation from the verification mark but after “using own equipment” for 15 minutes a powerful oscillation between 0 and 150 m became evident—apparently resulting from interference—and it was no longer possible to measure altitude.
FuG 200 could be used very successfully on reconnaissance, illumination and pathfinding as well as for ship-search and checking one’s navigation. Event at 30 metres’ altitude it could, if working properly, detect ships perfectly out to almost 60 km, land targets at twice that range; it achieved its full range when at 150–200 m. The number of valve failures meant that the set could not be used for long and it was rare for one to keep going for 20 hours, even though the system was only switched on for short periods. Interference showed up on the scope when approaching Corsica or the Spanish coast and performance was affected by heavy sea states.
As for FuG 214, the Staffel found its tactical possibilities as a night fighter warning device “rather limited” since it could only detect aircraft approaching to within 1,000–2,800 m, did not indicate direction and was entirely ineffective at low altitude. Because crews had “a certain bias” against the set, only a few had been tried out and a most had quickly become unserviceable. It was installed in an awkward position, too far out of the pilot’s eyeline and would be far better placed above the FuG 10 gear where the Bordfunker could look straight at it or, failing that, on the starboard cockpit wall, allowing him to see it by turning to his left. Operating it at the same time as the FuG 101 radio-altimeter interfered with the latter (see above) but no problems were experienced when using FuG 200 and FuG 214 simultaneously.
© Nick Beale 2023