Bay of Biscay
ln mid-1943 the Battle of the Atlantic reached a climax. German submarines were being attacked by Coastal Command's depth charge carrying aircraft, Ju 88 long range fighters operated against these and long range RAF fighters operated against the Ju 88s.
To supplement Coastal Command's resources in the area, Mosquitos from the nightfighter squadrons were temporarily stationed at Predannack in Cornwall to carry out offensive sweeps over the Bay of Biscay.
One German reaction to this intensive air activity was to use Fw 190s based on the Brest peninsular to catch any aircraft that came near to the French coast. If attacked our instructions were to turn west out into the Atlantic, going as fast as possible, letting the Fw 190s continue pursuing until they reached the end of their range and had to turn back. At this point the Mosquitos were expected to become the pursuers, if circumstances were favourable, in the hope of catching the retreating fighters, by now short of fuel and so unable to engage in a dog fight.
The squadron had several aircraft stationed at Predannack, the crews being changed from time to time. The airfield was packed with aircraft, but I cannot recall that living accommodation was over crowded. It was a wartime airfield and I had a room in a remotely-sited wooden hut. I borrowed a bicycle from the stores, a boneshaker with 28 inch wheels, so getting around the airfield was not difficult. The weather was glorious and when we had an afternoon off several of us would cycle to Kynance Cove, park the bicycles at the top and then, with the beach to ourselves, swim and sunbathe just as though we were on holiday.
The flights we made were very tiring for the navigator. We flew at low level (one pilot went so low that the aircraft made a wake in the water, to the consternation of his navigator, Johnnie Hunt, and another was lost in a collision). The navigator knelt in great discomfort on his seat facing backwards, scanning the sea and sky, at the same time keeping a dead reckoning plot based on estimates of the wind velocity made by looking at the waves and windlanes.
The nightfighter Mosquitos had no navigation aids other than the R/T, with which homing bearings could be obtained, but the range was seldom greater than 50 miles, often much less, depending on altitude. It was not surprising that occasionally aircraft missed the Lizard, flying up the Irish Sea or the Bristol Channel by mistake. One crew, not from 410 Squadron, followed the standing instructions after an engine failure by not attempting to get back past the Brest peninsular and its hordes of Fw 190s but instead flew across Spain to Gibraltar.
The two trawlers were a long way out at sea. We and the other three aircraft forming the patrol all attacked, leaving the boats badly damaged. We did not stay to see if they sank or what happened to the crews. I recall that the one we fired at had a cloud of steam coming out as we passed over it. The trawlers were flying Spanish flags but we were told on return that they were probably being used by the Germans for intelligence gathering.
Later, much nearer the Spanish coast, we saw a large passenger ship heading east, its decks crowded with people. As we normally maintained R/T silence, except in emergency, the leader did not pass instructions but as he did not attack the ship neither did the rest of us.
On returning we nearly missed Cornwall for we were heading for the Irish Sea. However, we obtained an R/T bearing just in time to avoid making an awkward mistake.
On 28 June we did a patrol down to the coast of Spain which was uneventful apart from the sighting of two ships near the coast.
This was another long trip on a hot, clear summer's day. On returning we saw the Cornish coast to the north from many miles away. We climbed up and called for bearings and were at about 5,000 feet when we realised that the other aircraft of the patrol had disappeared. It suddenly struck me that what we were looking at was not Cornwall but the Brest peninsular. Immediately we turned west and dived to sea level, fearing that at any moment the Fw 190s would appear. However, we reached Predannack without further incident but with so little fuel that one engine cut out as we taxied in.
At the briefing for the flight we were told that we were to escort a Horsa glider, towed by a Halifax, on the first and most dangerous leg of their journey to North Africa and if attacked the Halifax would release the glider and try to make its escape.
Just after dawn we flew over Portreath but the Halifax was not ready. We went back again a couple of hours later, watched the take off and set off to the south west.
The four Mosquitos forming the patrol kept a loose formation well away from the tug and glider, which were often hidden by broken cloud. The weather was bad and the sea rough. We were several miles behind the others when we saw an aircraft climbing towards the Halifax and glider, but with still some miles to go to reach them. We set off in pursuit. The aircraft, a Ju 88, disappeared behind, or into cloud at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. That was the last we saw of it for although we had AI it was not switched on because our normal operating height over the Bay of Biscay, sea level, was too low for it to be usable. Nor, of course, was it possible for the navigator to go rapidly from the glare outside to watching the CRTs. Even so as we climbed I did make an attempt to use the set but got no contact.
We went as far as we could and as we turned for home I thought how vulnerable the glider looked and how little chance the pilot had of surviving if anything went wrong on a flight the greater part of which lay ahead of him. I found out a day or so later that he did reach his destination. The glider was one of those that soon afterwards took part in the airborne Invasion of Sicily.
On our way back we saw ahead and slightly to starboard several circling aircraft. We realised that Beaufighters were being attacked by Fw 190s. One Beaufighter went down burning, leaving a great cloud of black smoke where it hit the sea. The remaining Beaufighters appeared to be getting away as the German fighters came after us. Bud and I were nearest to them and I watched a fighter closing in. Bud pulled the "tit", the boost override, so we managed to keep our distance and before long the enemy turned away. We did not follow.
Having lost sight of the other Mosquitos we made our own way home. Despite the difficulty keeping a DR plot on the outward leg and the erratic courses we had followed whilst watching the dog-fight and being chased, I managed to perform one of my best bits of dead reckoning navigation. Of course, it was luck, not skill that produced this near miracle!
Apart from these four flights, the visits to Kynance Cove and my twentieth Birthday, which passed uncelebrated, there was a "Wings for Victory'' week in Penzance. One morning Bud and I were told that we were to go to Penzance and give talks. So after breakfast P/O Green, Flight Sergeant White and LACW Grey, a WAAF who was driving us, set off to do we knew not what.
Soon I found myself backstage at a cinema, Bud having been taken elsewhere to perform. I was told the audience consisted of children and that the film would be interrupted for me to give a talk. When I asked what I was meant to talk about I was told that was up to me! So the film stopped, the lights went up and I was introduced. This was my first shot at public speaking, I was facing an audience of several hundred children, probably annoyed because the film had been interrupted, and I had no idea what to say. So, speaking out loud and clear, I did the only thing I could: I shot a line for five minutes, finishing up by asking everyone to buy aeroplanes for the RAF. The morning continued until finally the team of Green, White and Grey appeared together at a girls' school. By this time we were accomplished performers!
After lunch we were taken to an auction in a nearby village by a not very sober young man who was one of the Week's organisers The bidding, being promises to buy National Savings, was pushed up by the young man and his friends so that by bidding hundreds of pounds they managed to get their hands on a stock of lobsters and other luxuries to the obvious amazement of most of the people at the auction. Bud and I travelled back to Penzance with the young man who amused himself by patching lobsters out of his car. But during the day I learnt a lot very quickly about public speaking that proved useful in the future: talk to a person in the back row, know your subject and try to give the impression of speaking off the cuff.
Then on 8 July I went back to Coleby Grange as a passenger in the squadron's Oxford flown by F/O Cybulski.