Airborne Arctic Support
Operational area from Sullom Voe.
Both Germany and Britain needed to install Arctic weather stations to assist operations on the convoy route to Murmansk. Desolate Spitzbergen, lying almost 80N, was an ideal location for Met observations. In early 1942 the Luftwaffe established a Met station on Spitzbergen. The Allies identified some German radio traffic so they sent a raiding party of 60 Norwegians in an ice breaker and a sealer to land in a nearby fjord. The two ships were seen whilst unloading and destroyed by 4 Focke-Wulf Kondors leaving the landing party scattered across the ice. In the ensuing silence the RAF was tasked with finding out what had happened to the landing party.
RAF Catalina. Photo credit RAF Seletar.
The Consolidated Catalina was an amphibian; only 11 were delivered to the RAF and their primary role was recce and convoy protection. One task was to monitor the edge of the ice pack and for this a flight of Catalinas was based at Sullom Voe in the Shetlands and the northern most airfield in Britain.
Crew of P for Peter. Seated left to right co pilot Ronnie Martin, pilot Tim Healey and navigator Scho Schofield; standing wireless operators, flight engineers and a rigger. Photo credit Schofield. Catalina P for Peter was prepared for the flight. It was commanded by Fl Lt Tim Healey with 2nd pilot Ronald Martin, navigator Scho Schofield, 3 wireless operators, 2 flight engineers and a rigger.
The flight would be between Sullom Voe at the tip of the Shetlands and the Spitzbergen archipelago about 1000 miles north midway between Greenland and Russia. This was in an aircraft that had no heating; the crew wore sheepskin Irvin suit, several layers of woollens, fur lined boots and 3 pairs of gloves.
At 11.23hr on 25 May 1942 P for Peter slipped her mooring and flew at 600ft under 10/10 low stratus. The wind was SE so they set a course of 042deg and held the same course for the next 8 hours. In that time the wind varied between 10 and 32 knots and the magnetic variation between 13 and 6degW so the track made good altered by up to 13deg. As a further complication the RAF charts ran out at 71deg N after which the Admiralty charts were used with, of course, a different scale.
At intervals low cloud forced them down to 400ft and they met occasional fog patches to sea level. After 4hr flying a quick sun sight through thinning cloud put them 5 miles from their DR. After 10hr of flying they made their first landfall when the radar showed Bear Island at 35 miles on the starboard bow. After 2 further hours they sighted the south tip of Spitzbergen.
Flying at 700ft they had stratus at 1500ft in which they would hide if attacked. They passed up the W coast with precipitous cliffs and the peaks chopped off by stratus cloud. There was no visible German activity where they expected to find it.
Two survivors waving to Catalina. Photo credit Schofield.
They then backtracked and suddenly saw up a side fjord a long channel through the ice. There were a few huts but a man stood by one with an Aldis lamp and a second man waved his arms..
1) Survivor: ‘Ships sunk, nothing saved, survivors here, Germans in next bay, help essential’
2) Catalina: ‘Ok, will organise help. God bless’
3) Survivor: ‘Some survivors and wounded here’
By now the Catalina had been in the area for 1hr30 and burning fuel. So, at 14 hours into the flight, the Catalina set course for home via Jan Mayen Island. They flew under 10/10 stratus and the sea ice below became solid. For 30min the temperature stayed below zero and they met freezing fog; the Catalina staggered along managing 85kt at 300ft. Five hours after starting back the Catalina was again flying over clear water. At 14.27hr the Catalina landed at Sullom Voe and cut engines. The engines had worked non stop for 27 hours and 10 minutes.
On 28 May the same aircraft and crew made an over-flight and dropped medical supplies, warm clothing and some luxuries for morale.
On 31may: they flew with arms and ammunition but after 10 hours had to turn back after meeting a snowstorm. On 6 Jun the same aircraft and crew returned and landed in the fjord. They delivered 24 rifles, 3000 rounds and a 2 gallon jar rum. They collected 6 wounded Norwegians.
Who’s a hero?
My Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, New Mid Century Version 1952, says a hero is ‘A man of distinguished bravery’. You will note the date as1952; the dictionary was a school prize given me in my formative years and my idea of bravery has not changed since.
So my heroes are the freighter crews trading with Sweden: for their repeated operation of small boats in the winter N Seas when faced with standing patrols, radar stations and destroyers deployed on the Norwegian and Danish shores, minefields and hostile command of the air.
My heroes are also the Mosquito crews for repeated operations over the entire war of small unarmed aircraft in challenging weather with only speed as their defence.
Finally, of course, are the heroic Catalina crews supporting Spitzbergen operations: for their repeated flights of 24 hour duration in the extreme cold of an unheated aircraft, invariably adverse weather usually with solid stratus at 1500ft and occurrences of frozen fog.
By PK Hope-Lang
Acknowledgements for this three-part series:
Ralph Barker, 1976. ‘The Blockade Busters’. Chatto & Windus, London.
Norman Malayney, who had served in Vietnam with the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing, had a great interest in the BOAC Mosquitos and had interviewed all the crew that he could find.
Alan S Milward, “Could Sweden have stopped the Second World War?,” The Scandinavian Economic History Review, vol. XV, 1967, 127‐138.
Ernest Schofield and Roy Conyers Nesbitt, 1987. ‘Arctic Airmen’. History Press, Stroud.
Jeff White of The Old Tautonians Associatio