Withdrawal From Norway:
On 10 June 1940 the Germans successfully occupied Norway and the British troops had to withdraw.1 The war in the air, however, continued for a few more days as protection was needed for the troops being evacuated back to Britain.
During the afternoon of 10 June, six Heinkel 115s seaplanes were sent out from Trondheim. They found a convoy of British warships, including a battleship and two heavy cruisers, with a defensive patrol of a Sunderland and several Skuas from 803 Squadron. Three of these, flown by Lieutenant Commander Casson, Guy and Petty Officer Ridley, attacked the leading ‘float’ plane.2 The British pilots claimed ‘possibly damaged’, but in fact the float plane suffered nearly fifty hits, and the pilot had to make a forced landing on the sea near Trondheim. The crew, who got out just before the aircraft sank, were later rescued.
The final Norwegian air encounter, however, had a tragic ending for the British. Two minutes after midnight on 13 June, Ark Royal began an action aimed at taking out the Scharnhorst, launching fifteen Skuas: nine from 803 Squadron and six from 800 Squadron, all weighed down with the load of 500-lb semi-armour piercing bombs beneath their belly. Very soon things began to go wrong. The bombers lost formation in bad visibility; three returned to base and only four were able to attack – at about 01:50. When the unescorted Skuas arrived over Trondheimsfjorden at about 02:00 a considerable force of German fighters was already in the air and waiting for them. Within about ten minutes it was all over. The Skuas would scarcely have been a match for the fighters opposing them even without the heavy bomb loads. In their laden condition the Skuas were almost helpless.
The Skuas pressed gallantly on, and the few that survived made their dives on the Scharnhorst. One bomb did strike the warship, but by a quirk of fate it failed to explode. The British sacrifice had been in vain and the cost had been desperately high. Only seven Skuas returned to the carrier.
The lesson learned from this disastrous morning, coupled with evidence soon to come of the vulnerability of the Luftwaffe’s Stuka to fighter attack, turned the face of the Admiralty resolutely against the use of dive bombers.
The excerpt below from a report by Lieutenant Donald Gibson refers to the same dive-bombing attack on the German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst in Trondheimsfjorden. Guy gets special mention.
By the time I was in a position to attack from North to South along the deck of the battle-cruiser, the anti- aircraft fire was exceedingly fierce. Lieutenant Commander J. Casson was leading the squadron round to attack from south to north (from bow to stern). As I was the last section to attack, I considered it not worthwhile to expose my aircraft to an extra five minutes of anti-aircraft fire. We attacked stern to bow of the enemy, being in a perfect position to do so. There appear to be only two survivors of the … attack.
Although we have no record of having hit the target, our bombs seem to have fallen close around it, one being estimated at 15 feet from its stern.
With one exception, all the survivors escaped by low- flying in the ground mist. The exception was Sub Lieutenant (A) G.W. Brokensha, who circled the area twice to see if he could help anyone.
Many Me109 fighters3 were seen to attack Skuas, and four Me110 fighters were present, though they held off … From what we saw, those who were attacked by fighters were those aircraft which climbed after attacking, and did not take advantage of the ground mist. As we had no height and negligible performance, it would have been suicidal to have gone to their assistance.
Another quotation mentioning Guy came to light recently, though its source is currently unknown:
Lt Brokensha played a significant role in the Fleet Air Arm’s contribution to the ill-fated Norwegian Campaign from April to June 1940 in FAA 503 Squadron. We know he was a fearless flyer because he completed two circuits of the bombing zone during the disastrous attack on the battleship Scharnhorst on 13th June 1940.
Several of the surviving pilots were very critical of their senior officers. One compared the bombing attack to the charge of the Light Brigade; another suggested that ‘All future admirals should be shot at in an aeroplane while they are still young.’ Perhaps not such a bad idea. Another wrote:
Many of the higher officers who made decisions at an early stage during the Second World War had no experience of air warfare. The order to attack Trondheim was given without fully realising what it was all about … [B]oth the squadron leaders understood that this was a wrong use of our naval aircraft but they could not object.
Partridge discusses the same issue in Operation Skua:
The sinking of the Königsberg [by a squadron of Skuas, on 10 April 1940] was a historic event, demonstrating for the first time the effectiveness of the dive bomber againstmajorwarships. Thiswasalessonthatwasnotlost on the Japanese and American navies … Inexplicably, the message was ignored by our Admiralty … It was not long before the Skua was phased out of operational flying because of its poor performance as a fighter. A poor fighter it may have been, but in my opinion it was a great dive-bomber, and used properly in surprise attacks or with adequate fighter cover it could have played a more significant role in the early war years.
After the war, Partridge’s crashed Skua was recovered from the Norwegian lake and can be seen in the Fleet Air Arm Museum at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, in Somerset. Bernard and I, together with Guy’s daughter, Deirdre, and her husband, Peter Blackwood, visited this museum and saw the restored plane. It is the only surviving Skua.
Vice Admiral Wells felt deeply the loss of so many of his young aircrew, and yet, of course, it was he who had planned the mission and despatched them to their fate. Those who planned the operation had reckoned on surprising the enemy, but the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes, was more forthcoming: ‘I think it is reasonable to assume that the Skuas were reported by coast watchers at least 20 minutes before they arrived over the target. In that time there could have been several fighters at 10,000 feet over the enemy ships.’
- The 62 days of fighting made Norway the nation that withstood a German invasion for the second longest period of time, after the Soviet Union.
- So called on account of the pontoons (floats) mounted under the fuselage to provide buoyancy. (Commercial seaplanes used the fuselage itself for buoyancy.)