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Who’s a Hero? Three WW2 Special Operations Part Three

Posted By Keith Hope-Lang, 21 August 2018

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

Tags:  airborne  ww2 

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Who’s a Hero? Three WW2 Special Operations Part One

Posted By PK Hope-Lang, 07 August 2018

Seaborne Blockade Running

Ball bearing market

Ball bearings were important to the war effort in Germany and Britain. The only quality source was neutral Sweden and the trade embraced ball bearings, roller bearings, production machines and special steel.

Both Britain and Germany had some leverage so it would have been difficult for the Swedish industry to withhold all supplies of ball bearings to either belligerent.

There was a curious anomaly in that the Swedish parent company SKF had ‘branches’ in both countries – the German VKF in Schweinfurt,and the British Skefko in Luton. However, the local manufacture was still dependent on Swedish steel and spares for the production machines.


George Binney, flotilla leader. Photo credit Barker.

A central figure in the blockade running was George Binney who graduated from Merton College in 1922; he joined the Hudson Bay Company and then United Steel. At the outbreak of war, he was posted to the legation in Stockholm and tasked with maximising Britain’s trade in steel and frustrating that of the Germans.

In 1941 Binney masterminded Operation Rubble which was the breakout of five Norwegian merchant ships interned in Sweden and loaded with 25,000 tons of steel supplies. However, two ships loaded with steel remained marooned in Lysekil Fjord on the west coast of Sweden. Binney proposed using converted Motor Gun Boats (MGB) to bring this cargo home because they would be faster and more difficult to intercept than merchant ships.

Sweden’s neutral role was complex. In WW1 Sweden had been largely pro German but when WW2 started probably 90% sympathised with Britain. One exception was the Swedish Board of Admirals which favoured Germany – this view was inherited from the belief that Sweden’s safety required a strong Germany to counter balance the hereditary enemy Russia.


Above: MGB 502 with slim line superstructure; photo credit IWM. Below: Gay Viking with deck mounted superstructure; photo credit ships.nostalgia.
The gunboat to freighter conversion was achieved thanks to the Turkish Navy. Eight Camper & Nicholson 117ft MGBs under were being constructed for Turkey but were commandeered by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war. Five were converted to freighters by turning the accommodation below into forward and aft holds. A lightweight deckhouse with open bridge was constructed on the deck. The boats had three diesel engines and would cruise at 20 knots with a cargo capacity of 40 tons. The boats were armed with Oerlikons fore and aft, twin Vickers .303in machine guns on either side of the bridge and a quadruple Vickers abaft the bridge.

The entire operation had to be a merchant navy affair. The natural source for recruiting crews was the Ellerman Shipping Company because their Wilson Line was based at Hull and familiar with North Sea conditions.

Each boat was commanded by a First Mate holding a Master’s ticket and each carried a ‘Chief Officer’ who was an SOE liaison officer. Crew volunteers were sought for “a service entailing special risks”. Most of those selected came from Hull and many were not more than twenty years old. They were picked for their adaptability as much as their professional skill; the deckhouse would be very cramped for 20 men so best suited to the young and fit.
The opposition was daunting. Outside Swedish waters the boats would run the gauntlet of standing patrols in the Skagerrak, radar stations on both sides of the gap, minefields, destroyers based in Denmark and Norway and hostile command of the air to mid North Sea. There would also be large fishing fleets to avoid. In Sweden the boats would be watched by German agents and diplomats.

Against this the freighters would be wood which gave a low radar return, shallow draft which allowed them to cross some mine fields and fast. The boats planned to pass through the Skagerrak both ways at night but these conditions would only be met during the longer winter nights.


Track between Hull and Lysekil.

The boats were ready in autumn 1943; the aim was to bring back 400 tons of steel over the winter. Binney planned to lead his flotilla as a convoy of 5 boats but from the beginning the boats suffered from engine and gearbox failures. On 23 Dec Binney could only muster 2 boats. Hopewell and Gay Viking, commanded by George Binney and Harry Whitfield. They sailed into a NW 4-5 and crossed the North Sea at 15kt. Then on Hopewell the central engine broke down, the starboard engine became temporarily out of action with air locks in the fuel line and soon after that the steering gear failed.

The wind was now F6 from NW and discouraged a return. However with the starboard engine working again and the steering repaired Hopewell declared she could manage 15k on the two wing engines. Gay Viking tucked in behind Hopewell and they carried on through the Skagerrak, staying 25 miles off the Danish coast.

Opposite Kristiansand they took evasive action for two substantial unlit echoes off the starboard bow. Later they learnt that these had been a destroyer accompanied by a torpedo boat and a minelayer. Later they avoided two more unlit radar echoes, They entered Swedish waters at 05.30 and berthed at Lysekil 07.39 despite Hopewell having trouble with its starboard gearbox.

When the boats tied up they were to find themselves harassed by the Swedish navy. A Swedish naval control party boarded to seal all guns, ammunition, radio and radar equipment while in port. 2hr later a Swedish naval officer returned to Hopewell with instructions to remove the radar display tube. The officer took this to a corvette also lying alongside the pier. Binney demanded the return and protested to the local magistrate, 40min later the tube was returned. 2hr later a more senior Swedish officer demanded the radar tubes from both boats but Binney refused.

The mayor asked to see round Hopewell –during his visit he said he regretted the naval incident and told Binney that the British boats had the goodwill of the authorities and of the local inhabitants.

When Gay Viking needed authorisation to move berth the same Swedish naval officer asked, and was granted, permission to come aboard for the move and to bring two Post Office engineers to agree the location of the seals. One engineer was later identified not as a Post Office engineer but as the head of SATT which was a German controlled subsidiary of the German electrical firm AEG.

At 1730 on 16 Jan Gay Viking sailed, leaving Hopewell waiting for spares. It is now known that the Germans had already moved three more destroyers to Kristiansand to be kept at 2hr notice to sail. Two days later at 0745 Gay Viking passed through the Humber boom.

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 Association

Tags:  Blockade  Britain.  Freighters  Navigation  Passage  Seaborne  ww2 

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