I intercepted the following email from Tim, my father, to a Polish WWII historian a couple of days ago – and was interested by the glimpse that it gave into one of the less-known aspects of the RAF’s history at the time, the CAM ships, or Catapult Aircraft Merchant ships.
“It was 1942. We had only recently returned from Vaenga in Northern Russia, where we left our Hurricane IIBs for the Russians, and were enjoying the conversion to Spitfire VBs in Northern Ireland. Then, to spoil the euphoria, I was posted to MSFU, the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit at RAF Speke, which provided the pilots for the CAM Ships. And so back to old Hurricane Is, modified to Sea Hurricanes by the addition of lugs for catapult connection.
“Someone must have misread my Service record, because the requirement for the task was ‘… it is of paramount importance that pilots in MSFU must be first class chaps in combat, because they operate on their own and on them, and them alone, may depend the safety of many hundreds of thousands of tons of merchant shipping and cargo, which form the life-line of this country. They must be reliable and keen, have tact and initiative, and be able to engage the enemy after long periods of inactivity.’
“I’m very glad that I failed to realise the enormity of this responsibility! Added was: ‘They must also be good sailors.’ I was never happy in a large, heaving vessel!
“The RAF pilots, and Royal Naval Fighter Direction Officers with whom we sailed and who were our operational controllers made up a truly vibrant, at times eccentric unit. For years afterwards, we received Christmas cards from one, John Robarts, who was by then Ontario’s PM!
“Looking back on the statistics, I see that of 35 (some say 36) CAM ships, 12 were sunk. A fairly high attrition rate. Furthermore, any launch would end in a ditching or bale-out and it was our hope that some unit of the escort force would be able to disengage for long enough to pull us out of the ocean. This they achieved with aplomb, the slowest rescue taking 7 minutes.
“Strangely, the full nature of a defensive launch, especially on the Arctic route, never dawned on me. Our training included 3 launches from a ground catapult, air to air firing, dinghy drills in the local pool, radio control by the FDO and range tests on our allotted aircraft. I found that I could get 400 miles out of mine. Necessary to know when considering a possible destination airfield, and obviating the need for off-loading by crane – as in Dartmouth (see photo). This was in deference to those who remembered the terrible explosion of a munition ship in earlier years.
“Looking back in my log, I note that my ground catapult launch speeds were only around 58 mph, but enough to allow a safe climb away. In later trials, a Spitfire reached 70 mph. In one second! We hoped, of course, that our ship’s speed would assist our launch.
“I was extremely fortunate in that I only completed one round trip to Canada – and that I was not called upon to launch other than on return to the UK to save unloading time in harbour. The main discomfort was boredom. Thankfully, our ship’s crew (MV Eastern City) were great company, although we found our Captain a bit dour in running a dry ship even when out of attack range.
“We filled in time playing darts, card games, whittling model aircraft, eating remarkably good food and talking by Aldis Lamp with the other CAM ship pilot. Our two ships kept a bit ahead of the outer columns so that we could quickly turn into wind for launching, and so had direct line of sight between us. I cannot understand how we have let the Morse Code fade out of our lives. It can be life-saving. An example: I believed that I saw a mine ahead of the escort cruiser. I flashed a warning and the ship swerved out of line, coming back with ‘TU’, or Thank You!
“As to food, the gourmet dish was a sandwich of the two ends of a freshly baked bread loaf, smothered in butter, eaten on duty on the bridge. In Canada, we were hugely well received, despite the over-enthusiastic behaviour of some of our predecessors. The local Council in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, allowed us alcohol in the Club at a very favourable rate. But the greatest thrill was nights without the blackout that we had been subjected to for two years.
“Nothing to do with Sea Hurricanes, but the nicest gesture was from a member of Eaton’s store, who took me out BBQing on the beach – etc. Only as I left did I find out that she was using her boyfriend’s car! But I was able to thank him at a final get-together supper with their whole family.
“Soon after, I was very grateful for a posting back to my old squadron, No 1, on Typhoons, shortly before I was due to sail on the fateful PQ 17 convoy to Russia. A colourful history of the unit can be found in Hurricats by Ralph Barker and full details of ships, launches and successes can be found in Wikipedia.”