THE COASTAL COMMAND AND ITS WORK WITH THE ROYAL NAVY
AN ADDRESS BY
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR FREDERICK BOWHILL, K.C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O.
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, January 15, 1942
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: When we look at the headlines on our papers, our thoughts swing to the Atlantic, Pearl Harbour, bong Kong, Singapore, Libya, or Russia, just as the day's news happens to focus our attention. But in spite of all, our thoughts inevitably come back to the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle which may be the finally decisive factor of our success in the war. And the Battle of the Atlantic, of course, means the keeping open not only of a sea-lane, but also of an air-lane. Therefore The Empire Club offers a very special welcome today to Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill who will talk to us about the air side as well as the naval side of the Battle of the Atlantic. (Applause.)
May I recall to those people who are listening to me on the radio that Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill speaks to us from a particularly wide knowledge and experience. He began his flying in the last war, flying a seaplane carrier; he eventually commanded squadrons in Mesopotamia, in East Africa, and in the Mediterranean; he was the head of the Coastal Command in Britain during the chase and the sinking of the "Bismarck"; today he is the supreme head of the Royal Air Force Ferry Command--that vital link between the two hemispheres in this World War. It is my privilege to present to you Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill. (Applause.)
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR FREDERICK BOWHILL: Mr. President, Gentlemen: It is indeed a great honour to be asked to talk to the members of this distinguished Club this afternoon.
I propose to divide my talk into two headings: one, the Battle of the Atlantic; and, two, the chase of the Bismarck. (Applause.)
Now, as regards the Battle o f the Atlantic, the Navy (and when I speak about the Navy I mean all our Navies -the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Australian Navy) has been given a very heavy task and that task is to defend the sea communications of the Empire and to deny sea communications to the enemy. The Royal Air Force and in particular my own Coastal Command had the honour of working in the very closest conjunction with the Navy in this most important task.
You will all realize that if our lifeline were broken and by the lifeline I mean the Merchant Navy, it would mean the finish, and I always think we never give sufficient credit to that magnificent body of men-the Merchant Navy. (Applause.) Day in, day out, month in, month out, year in, year out, they brave the dangers of the sea and that of the enemy, and very often, when they get safe into port, they are bombed there, because the enemy knows our ports are vital to us.
As regards the war itself. We are fighting at a disadvantage because Germany and Italy are fighting on internal lines. They have no long sea communications. Even when Germany took Norway their sea communication were very small because they had taken care to overrun Denmark first. And the same of Italy, although very often they can't keep them open. I think we might say that Japan, owing to its foul actions, and having over-run Siam, etcetera, now also is working on internal lines. Look at our problems. We have to feed the Empire, not only feed it but also get all the sinews of war in through very long lines of communication, dangerous and open to attack in all directions. In our fighting abroad we have the same long lines. We are fighting on external lines.
Now, let us look at the task of the Navy. Our lifeline can be attacked on five broad bases: one, by the U-boat; two, by the surface warship; three, by the armed merchant raider; four, by mines; and, five (but not least) by the air.
Let us examine each of those points separately, as they appear to the Admiralty and to the Coastal Command working under the Admiralty.
The U-boat. You will remember that German Air Admiral who told Admiral Fisher, many many years ago, "You Britons will always be fools, we Germans can never be gentlemen". Well, we started the war on that principle. The Germans put their U-boats over our sealanes before war started. They decided at once on unrestricted warfare. Therefore, they took a heavy toll of our Merchant Navy until we could get the convoy system into being.
Now, I know there are some people who argue as to whether the convoy system is correct or not. It is not for me to enter into that argument today. All I maintain is that you must remember, if the convoy system is to work properly, it must, like anything else in the world, have proper tools. Those tools are escort vessels and aircraft. Well, we gradually got the convoy system going and down went our sinkings in a remarkable degree,--in fact, so much so, that some people were inclined to believe we had overcome the U-boat menace. That, unfortunately, was not the case, and these are some of the reasons. Germany over-ran Norway and opened up all those Norwegian fiords, hundreds of miles of good water, which meant very many exits and very many decent ports for refueling, repairs, relaxation of crews. Also, this threw them at least 150 miles-and when I talk about miles, I talk about sea miles-closer to our northern lines of communication, or three hundred miles, if they had to go down and back from bases in Germany. A very valuable asset to Germany.
Then they over-ran France and the same thing happened. They got the valuable Biscay ports with fine clocks, etcetera, and they could work from them in the same way as they could work from the Norwegian ports. Again they were three hundred miles closer to our communications, or six hundred miles if they had to work from bases in Germany. We lost the service of the French navy, and not only that, but Italy came into the war, and Italy, at that time, had a strong navy. We had to return all those escort vessels which had been borrowed from the Mediterranean, our convoys were left very sparsely armed as regards escort vessels, and the U-boat started to take its heavy toll again.
You remember that we got fifty destroyers from the United States of America and that small escort vessels were being rapidly built at home and over here. Gradually then, as the number of escort vessels went up, the number of sinkings went down, and I think we can safely say, we have now got the situation in hand as regards the U-boat. (Applause.)
Now, we will take the surface warship. When war started I had sleepless nights thinking what would happen if the Germans sent out their three pocket battleships at one and the same time. Thank God they didn't! You remember those three pocket battleships were built for the purpose of preying on convoys. They were fast, they had long range and they had heavy armament. They have all been out some time, but never three together. The Germans have not shown very much ability in that respect. As you know, the Graf Spec is finished, the Bismarck is finished. In the Bay of Biscay ports for months we have got shut up those three big German warships, and the Lutzow was torpedoed by the Coastal Command aircraft. That was done the night before I left to come over here to take command. I stopped up all night and had the satisfaction of knowing that, while we didn't sink her, she went limping home, badly damaged. So I hope we have got the warship threat under control.
As regards the armed merchant raider, the situation is more difficult, first, because she is very easily camouflaged, second, because she can remain a long time at seasometimes nine months without refuelling. . But there is one weakness in her armour, and that she must not get damaged if she is going to do her work. By working on this we have relegated her to what I could call the "desert areas of the sea". She daren't come near our lines of communication, and the most she can hope, therefore, is to pick up stragglers or an occasional ship which has been routed separately.
Now, as to the mines. There is no doubt that the magnetic mine at the start of the war took quite a heavy toll of our shipping. I think it was what Hitler called one of his secret weapons, but I want you to remember that the magnetic mine was not an invention of the Germans, but that it was invented by the Royal Navy at the latter part of the last war. Unfortunately, owing to the financial stringency during the piping times of peace, we didn't develop it. The Germans did. It was due to a small but very gallant body of naval officers and ratings who, when two of those magnetic mines were discovered, washed up on a sand bank off the mouth of the Thames, went and collected them and stripped them to see how they worked -at great personal risk to themselves. Then, thanks to our scientists, we quickly got the antidote against the German mine, and we can safely say now the German mine is more of a nuisance than anything else, except, of course, to that very gallant body of men, the minesweepers.
Not so with our mine. Our magnetic mine is proving very dangerous and taking a heavy toll of the Germans. Also, in this war we have had to contend with a mine being dropped from aircraft by parachute. They come down low to within about 150 feet of the water and drop the mine. That means to say that the mines could be dropped in position in our channels close to shore. This couldn't have been done during the last war by surface vessel or by U-boat. So much for the mine.
And, last but not least, we come to the air. Now, the air can be a nuisance or more than a nuisance to our lines of communication in three ways: one, it can report our convoys; two, it can bomb or torpedo the ships; and, three, it can whistle up the U-boats in the vicinity.
Here, again, having Norway and also France at their disposal, has greatly helped them as it has thrown their bases and thus their air attack closer to our lines of communication. I have often known one of the bombers, which they generally use, leave Norway, go deep into the Atlantic and go back to Brest. It was a hard and difficult position to defend, but by the good shooting of the escort vessels, by arming all our merchant ships, and by their good shooting, and by hitting their aircraft with long range fighters which had a greater speed, we have again kept that difficult situation in hand.
So there are the five broad principles we had to contend with. Now, you can imagine what it meant in the way of men and material: hundreds of ships required to carry our men, our foodstuffs, and our sinews of war; thousands of men to man our escort vessels; thousands in the Coastal Command; superimposed on that, the people who are building ships, repairing ships, etcetera,-and that is a great point in this war. We found that we had to take a tremendous lot of men away from other jobs to repair ships, but it paid.
That is the situation, very- broadly given to you, which has existed every day since war started and is continuing and will continue until the war finishes. In fact, we have got to be like my countrymen on the border of Scotland--you will remember during those troublesome times when we were having a certain amount of bother with our Southern neighbours
"They carved the meal with gloves of steel,
And they drank the red wine through the helmet barred".
You can never let up one minute. So, for the Battle of the Atlantic.
As regards the chase of the Bismarck. We found the Bismarck and the cruiser Prince Eugen ten miles apart, not very far from Bergen. They were found by a Coastal Command-a P.R.U. aircraft. They were tucked close into the cliffs, and you remember what a wonderful hiding-place those Norwegian fiords are. There are five thousand miles of mountainous waterways with deep water, steep, too. So you can imagine what a hiding-place they are, as I have said before, and how difficult to search every mile. As soon as the report came in, I examined the charts in the hope that I would find that they had anchored in a position from which I could attack by torpedo aircraft. You remember that, if you are going to attack by torpedo aircraft, you have to come down fairly low, close to the water, and you have to have a certain distance away from your target so that your torpedo, upon entering the water, takes up its proper depth and steadies itself. I found that I could not attack by torpedo. In fact I did not expect it. I would have been very surprised if such had been the case. We are up against a clever and cunning enemy. I gave orders at once for my bombers to go out and attack. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived over the target, the weather had seriously deteriorated, and it was with great difficulty they found those ships. They had to come down very low and drop their bombs. It was so bad they couldn't tell me whether they had hit or not. But, even if they had hit, (you remember they were two modern ships and would therefore have decks heavily armoured against such attack), the damage could only have been superficial from the height at which the bombs were dropped. Then, down came the fog all over those Norwegian fiords and hundreds of miles out at sea.
Again and again I sent out my aircraft to see if we could get through, and we couldn't. It was an ideal time for those ships to slip out. When the fog lifted a little bit, my aircraft reported those ships had gone. Now came the problem: had they gone farther afield in those five thousand miles of Norwegian fiords; had they gone to the north of Norway; had they gone to break out on one of our trade routes via Denmark Straits; or had they gone to break out on our trade route via the Faroes?
The aircraft I had was limited. The first thing I did was to examine the Norwegian fiords to be sure they weren't there. Also I sent out aircraft in case they were trying to break out. The Norwegian fiords were very carefully examined and the report was negative. The weather was very bad. I rather liked the report over the 'phone from one of my Group Commanders. His aircraft had come back and said: "Those ships could not be there; if they were, we would have hit them, we came so low". I found afterwards that one of the aircraft which I had sent to search outside passed very close to those two ships but, unfortunately, owing to the bad weather, they did not see them.
Then came silence. Then one night that silence was broken by two gallant little ships-the Norfolk and the Suffolk. They reported: "Have seen the enemy and am attempting to shadow". Two little cruisers. Unfortunately, night shut down and they lost the enemy. I immediately warned my aircraft in Iceland to get ready and get up and search. The next report came from one of His Majesty's Ships, the Sheffield: "Am in sight of the enemy and am proceeding to shadow". And shadow she did, and I think it was one of the finest feats of seamanship the Navy has done, and that is saying a lot for His Majesty's Navy.
My aircraft then got in touch and the chase went on. Then, as you know, the naval unit closed and engaged the enemy. Unfortunately, in that engagement we lost the Hood. The weather was still bad. Then came that ominous signal: "Have lost touch with the enemy". Now, my task then was a very difficult one. You remember the distances were long. The aircraft with long range was limited. I had to make up my mind what the enemy was going to do. Would she go on? Would she go back by the way she came through the Denmark Straits? Would she go back the shorter route by the Faroes or would she try to make the Biscay Ports?
I reasoned as follows: Would she go on? She had been damaged. How badly damaged, we did not know, but she had been damaged. Also, she had been going full speed for a very considerable time and therefore had burnt up a tremendous lot of fuel. If she tried to get to her fuel ships, her programme was badly put out. Therefore, I maintained; she wouldn't go on.
Would she go back via the Faroes? I maintained "no", because she did not know the naval dispositions and it was rather a dangerous thing for her to do.
Would she double back by her tracks and go via Denmark Straits? That was the most plausible thing she could do.
Then I examined the other way--the Biscay Port. If she went to the Biscay Port, she would have fine repair facilities, but what was most important from her point of view was the fact that the last three to four hundred miles she would be under the protection of her own aircraft.
So, weighing the pros and cons, I said "Biscay Ports", and I put my patrols across so as to find her if she should make this move.
Hour after hour passed and it was a very anxious time. Was this prize going to slip through our fingers? Had I reasoned aright? Then I remembered Queen Victoria's words: "Please understand, there is no depression in this house. There is no use talking defeat. It does not exist". (Applause.)
Then into my operations room flashed the signal: "Am in touch with the enemy". The pilot was a youngster of 21 in a Catalina, which is an American built flying boat. He was badly hit because he came very close. I told you the weather was bad. He had to come close to keep in touch. Although he was badly hit, he reported he could still hang on.
The next thing, I gave orders for the other aircraft to close and sent up additional aircraft from my bases. But, of course, to get to the scene of action would take time. The distances were long. Then came another signal which I was not supposed to see. It was addressed by this youngster to the Wing Commander at his base: "Am hit again. May I bomb the blighter?" He was sternly told, of course, to do nothing of the sort. His duty was to hang on, which he did until he was relieved. Directly he was relieved he certainly went and bombed that ship.
The Navy, with their usual wonderful dispositions, rapidly closed in, and the result you know. The Bismarck was sunk, but for twelve hours after I had reasoned I had a very bad time. Still, it was a great honour for the Coastal Command and the Air Force to be associated with that sinking. (Applause.)
Gentlemen, I am going to get Flight Lieutenant McDougall shortly to show you how a single man dinghy works. You know that the rubber dinghies, which we carry in all our airplanes now, have saved thousands. That is perhaps an exaggeration, but anyway, hundreds of lives. We have the big ones and we have the small ones. The small dinghy, which you are going to be shown very shortly is that used in single seater fighters.
Before I finish, may I just say one word about the Empire Training Scheme? I always believe in keeping to something I know. I had the honour, as you know, to lunch with Mr. Winston Churchill when he came up to Ottawa the other day. I went around one of the stations beforehand with our Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal. When we had gone around, Portal said to me, "Have you seen Garrod's report?" Garrod is Air Marshal Garrod, Air Marshal for Training on the Air Council. He had been over here for six weeks. I said, "Yes, I have just seen it". I can't give you anything confidential, hut in that report he was struck by the wonderful work which was being done in what I like to term it-your "Air University". Portal said, "What I have seen and what I have heard give me the greatest confidence". That was also echoed by Mr. Winston Churchill.
Now, Gentlemen, that wonderful work is due-and I think that here again we give credit where credit it dueto the Royal Canadian Air Force and also to its wonderful Chief of Staff Breadner. (Loud applause.)
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: We were more than fortunate in having Sir Frederick Bowhill as our speaker today. I may now tell you that Sir Frederick flew his plane from Montreal this morning with no ceiling at all, and with his plane skimming the tree tops, in order to get here. I hoped he would tell you that. But, Gentlemen, we get the measure of a man, we get the measure of the stature of a man, by his own personal modesty. Sir Frederick has an incredibly important job. But, like all great fighting men, he gives the limelight of full credit to other arms of the Service. And when, after talking about those other arms, he came to his own branch of the Service, he merely began that part of his address by saying, "last but not least". But in all sincerity, we would like to tell him how conscious we are that that "last but not least" is a magnificent job and that it has everyone's fullest and grateful admiration.
We have today had the privilege of hearing the story of the Bismarck told us by the man who had charge of the air operations leading to her destruction, by the man who had the skill and insight to make that vitally correct assessment of the enemy's intentions in that encounter. But, again like all great fighting men, Sir Frederick gives the fullest credit to his subordinates. Those personal and intimate details which he brought into the story--the young Flying Officer asking "May I bomb the blighter"--reflect the courage of the man flying the plane. But, Gentlemen, such courage comes from the inspiration of leaders like Sir Frederick Bowhill himself.
Therefore, Sir, not only on behalf of this audience, but on behalf of the people who are listening to us over the radio, I would express our gratitude to you for this inspiring talk, this wonderful story which you have brought and which to hear from you first hand has been a very special privilege. (Applause.)
Gentlemen, if you can remain for a few moments, Flight Lieutenant McDougall will show us something which I know we shall all find particularly interesting. He has brought with him a rubber dinghy in which a pilot finds safety should he come down in the sea, and he is going to be kind enough to give us a demonstration of how it works.
(Flight Lieutenant McDougall gave a demonstration in which the audience was most interested, describing the equipment carried, and showing how the dinghy was inflated in the water when required by the pilot.)