SKUAS OVER NORWAY
The Germans invaded Norway on the night of 8th/9th of April 1940. On the 10th April the Skuas of 800 and 803 squadron carried out their daring and successful attack on the Königsberg in Bergen harbour.
The Luftwaffe kept up pressure on the Royal Navy's anchorage at Scapa Flow, including a raid by no less than 60 bombers on the 10th April (the same day as the sinking of the Königsberg) which was driven off by FAA Gladiators and RAF Hurricanes. 801 squadron flew north to join 800 and 803 squadrons at Hatston. On the 12th of April the three squadrons launched a strike by 20 aircraft on shipping in Bergen harbour. A single Skua was lost (but the crew escaped back to the UK). On the 14th two separate Skua raids attacked Bergen, the last of which spectacularly sunk the freighter Barenfels, but at the cost of a Skua and its crew (Captain Eric D. McIver and LA Albert Barnard).
On the morning of 16th April two Skuas did a low level recce of Bergen, one of them attacked the gunnery training ship Bremse in the process. In the afternoon Skuas of 803 squadron patrolled over the damaged cruiser HMS Suffolk and shot down a Dornier 18, badly damaged another Do 18 and a Henkel 111 and chased off other enemy aircraft including one of the fast Ju88 bombers.
On the 20th April another Skua raid on shipping around Bergen took place, a single Skua a crew being lost on the flight back. A single Skua did a recce to Larvik and attacked a German patrol boat and submarine on the flight back.
When the German's invaded Norway the carriers Ark Royal and Glorious where both in Alexandria in the Eastern Mediterranean. They were recalled to the Home Fleet and arrived in Scapa on the 21st April. The following day the Skua squadrons were embarked, 800 Squadron ( 9 Skuas and 2 Rocs) and 801 Squadron (9 Skuas and 3 Rocs) went aboard Ark Royal while 803 Squadron (11 Skuas) went aboard the Glorious. Also aboard Glorious were 17 Sea Gladiators of 802 and 804 Squadrons FAA and 18 Gladiators of 263 Squadron RAF (made up of 17 RAF Gladiator IIs and a single Sea Gladiator lent from 802 Squadron).
15 Skuas ranged aft on Ark Royal with engines running prior to take off, note the large exhaust stains along the starboard sides of the Skuas.
The carriers were to provide cover for British landings at Namsos and Aandalsnes, intended to take the major port of Trondheim in a pincer movement from the north and south. The plan was for the Sea Gladiators to provide protection for the fleet while the longer range Skuas would operate as both bombers and fighters over the British forces ashore with additional support to be given by the RAF Gladiators who were to operate from the surface of the frozen lake Lesjaskog near Aandalsnes. Radar cover was provided by the cruiser HMS Curlew which had a Type 79 radar with a range, in ideal conditions, of 80 miles. The Force sailed on the 23rd April, that evening the Curlew picked up a force of 3 Heinkel 111 bombers and six Skuas were launched which saw off the Heinkels, damaging one. This was the first ever radar controlled interception at sea.
Having flown off the RAF Gladiators on the morning of the 24th April (a single Skua lead the fighters to their destination) the carriers stayed a substantial distance from the Norwegian coast. The Skuas flew patrols over Aandalsnes and a force of Luftwaffe bombers were engaged by 803 Squadron who claimed two Heinkel 111s destroyed and a Dornier 17 damaged. One of the Skuas of 800 Squadron, L3050 flown by Midshipman Treene with observer Naval Airman "Doc" Goble, ran out of fuel on the final approach to land back on the Ark Royal and had to ditch; both crewmen were rescued by a destroyer (to read about this and further adventures click here). The next day (25th) a dawn strike was launched by both Skuas and Swordfish on the harbour and Luftwaffe bases at Trondheim, claiming 12 enemy aircraft destroyed and doing extensive damage to German shipping and port facilities. However 4 of the Skuas failed to return to Glorious, only one was hit by enemy AA fire, the other 3 were forced down by extremely bad weather, all the crews were rescued (for details of one crew's escape see Skua Postscripts ). On the same day a bitter blow was dealt by the Luftwaffe when they destroyed all but 5 of the RAF Gladiators operating from Lake Lesjaskog and made the lake unusable through bombing. The remaining RAF Gladiators operated from Setnesmoen nearer to Aandalsnes the following day but by the evening of the 26th only one Gladiator survived and that had to be destroyed due to lack of fuel. Thus the weight of protecting the forces ashore from air attack fell on the Skuas, with only the scanty support of a single squadron of long range Blenheim fighters based in the UK, operating at the limit of their range.
On the 26th April Skuas on patrol over Aandalsnes carried out 8 interceptions and claimed 2 Heinkel 111s destroyed and another three Heinkels damaged. A Skua from 803 Squadron was lost this day, its pilot Lieutenant Cecil Howard Filmer survived but the gunner, Petty Officer Baldwin was killed (A rare colour photo of their Skua is on the Skua Colours page). An 800 Squadron pilot, Petty Officer J Hadley was badly wounded that day. The FAA pilots were learning how to use their Skuas to the best advantage and on the following day they claimed no less than nine German bombers destroyed and another two damaged. At one stage over twenty bombers were driven off by the Skuas making dummy attacks, having used up all their ammunition. On this same day (the 27th) the British carriers were attacked by German bombers, but were beaten off by Gladiators from Glorious. The Sea Gladiators from Glorious had been providing protection for the aircraft carriers themselves but the Glorious had had to leave to refuel on the evening of the 27th leaving the Ark Royal's Skuas and Blackburn Rocs to provide fighter cover for the 28th. The three Rocs of 803 squadron being launched twice that day, when they drove off German aircraft shadowing the British carrier force. Three Skuas of 800 squadron were sent to patrol over a convoy of British ships, they drove off attacks by several bombers. One of the Skuas, crewed by Captain Richard Thomas Partridge RM and Lieutenant Robin Souyhey Bostock RN shot down a Heinkel III. Shortly afterwards their Skua's engine failed and they had to land on a frozen lake. The crew of the Skua and the survivors of the Heinkel found refuge in the same cabin. Their story, and the story of the recovery of the Skua from the bottom of the lake (it is now on display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum Yeovilton) can be found on the Operation Skua Website. The story also formed the basis for the feature film "Cross of Honour". Also on the 27th April, six of Ark Royal's Skuas took part in an early morning strike on Trondheim harbour, attacking merchant ships and float planes. One of the Skuas was unable to find its way back to Ark Royal and made a landing at the Setnesmoen landing ground. The crew managed to refuel their Skua and with the happy discovery of a discarded engine starter cartridge were able to fly back to Hatston in the Orkney Islands on the 30th April.
The Ark Royal withdrew into the Atlantic on the 29th and 30th and then joined up with the refuelled Glorious to approach the Norwegian coast on the 1st May (on board the Glorious, along with her Swordfish and Sea Gladiators, were 3 Skuas and a single Roc of 803 squadron). Spotted by the Luftwaffe both Carriers were subjected to a series of attacks by Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, during which Glorious in particular, was very lucky not to be hit. With the threat of air attack now so high and with the possibility of U-boats making an appearance there was no alternative but for the carriers to withdraw leaving Aandalsnes and Namsos to be evacuated without air cover. However the Skuas would be back in Norwegian skies within a week
On the 4th May the Ark Royal set out from Scapa to give cover to the British and French forces attacking the Northern Norwegian port of Narvik, important to the Germans for the shipment of iron ore from Sweden. Arriving off the coast on the 6th May the Ark Royal's Skuas did not operate because of bad weather until the following day, when sorties were flown over Narvik, one Skua being lost when its engine failed, happily the crew of Midshipman Treene with observer Naval Airman "Doc" Goble were able to be rescued (click here for the full story). On the 9th May Skuas gave cover to Swordfish aircraft attacking the railway from Sweden to Narvik along which the Swedish iron ore was shipped, a viaduct and tunnel mouth were destroyed. One of the Skuas had to force-land but the crew walked to the coast and were saved. Flying patrols over the allied forces attacking Narvik the Skuas found cloud provided cover for German bombers making the job more difficult, but in sixteen days of constant operation they claimed six German aircraft and damaged another eight. Nine Skuas were lost, five due to enemy action but the only crew not saved were Lieutenant W.P. Lucy and his observer M.C.E. Hanson who were shot down on the 14th May while engaging a force of 5 Heinkel 111s attacking the fleet. Narvik was outside the range of German single engined fighter's, but on the 16th May the Luftwaffe sent twin engined fighter's, both Messerschmitt 110s and the fighter version of the Junkers 88 to engage the Skuas. The Messerchmitts shot down one 803 Squadron Skua (but the crew were rescued) but lost one of their own to the rear gunner of another Skua. The formation of six Ju88 fighters were engaged by 803 Squadron and two of them were destroyed for no loss to the Skuas.
On the 21st May RAF Gladiators of 263 Sqdn were flown off Furious to land at an airfield prepared at Bardufoss, north of Narvik. they were joined on the 26th by Hurricanes of 46 Squadron flown off Glorious. This released Ark Royal to sail for Scapa on the 25th. French and British troops captured Narvik on the 29th.
In the meantime the success of the German assault in the Low Countries and France had made the idea of holding onto the gains in Northern Norway impracticable and so the Ark Royal returned with Glorious to cover the evacuation of Allied forces. Bad weather helped the evacuation, keeping the Luftwaffe largely grounded. The Gladiators of 263 Squadron and the Hurricanes of 46 Squadron were flown onto Glorious on the night of 7th/8th June but all were lost on the following day when the Glorious and her two escorting destroyers were destroyed by the big guns of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in circumstances that are still controversial. In the fight the Scharnhorst was damaged by a torpedo and had to put into Trondheim for repairs.
The Ark Royal escorted convoys from Narvik, its Skuas shooting down a Heinkel 111 and damaging another two on the night of 9th June (the northerly latitudes meant it never got dark).
The presence of the damaged battlecruiser Scharnhorst in Trondheim harbour was a tempting target and it attracted the attention of the RAF. On the 11th of June a force of twelve Hudson bombers attacked at medium altitude, but not a single hit was achieved.
It must have seemed that a repeat of the sinking of the Königsberg by Skuas was possible. However there were important differences, the Königsberg had been a light cruiser whose armour could be easily penetrated by the 500 lb* bomb carried by Skuas, whereas the much more heavily armoured battlecruiser Scharnhorst would have hardly been touched by such bombs. The Königsberg had been attacked in the first days of the Norwegian campaign before the Germans could put fighter and Flak defences in place. Lastly Bergen, where the Königsberg was sunk is fairly near the open sea allowing little time for observers on the coast to spot incoming aircraft (even here the Germans had had 15 minutes warning) while Trondheim, where the Scharnhorst was anchored, is a long distance from the open sea, being reached by a long fyord, giving ample warning of the approach of aircraft. Trondheim was too far North to be reached by Skuas flying from land bases so such a strike would have to be flown off the Ark Royal.
A plan was devised to attack the Scharnhorst. Fifteen Skuas would be launched from Ark Royal in the middle of the night (although it would still be light, Trondheim being close to the Arctic Circle). An attack by RAF Beauforts on the main German aerodrome at Vaernes was planned to disrupt any German fighter response and support was to be given by long range Bleinheim fighters.
The Ark Royal and escorts arrived off the coast of Norway but the strike had to be postponed due to bad weather, the Ark was spotted by German reconnaissance but the weather prevented the Germans taking any action against her, but the defences of Trondheim were put on alert. The raid was launched on the night of 12th/13th of June. Six Skuas from 800 squadron and nine from 803 Squadron flew off the carrier at around midnight. They crossed the coast at 01.23 hrs, still 20 minutes from their target. The RAF attack on Vaernes had the opposite effect to that intended, swarms of Luftwaffe aircraft took off in response to it and were in exactly the right position to attack the incoming Skuas. The Skuas split into two formations and 800 squadron attacked the Scharnhorst stern to bow while 803 squadron ran in from the other direction, bow to stern. Two hits were claimed, but German records admit to only one, and that did not explode. The Skuas crews fought for their lives through the flak from the Scharnhorst and the other German naval vessels in harbour, and from the Messerschmitt Bf109 and 110 fighters that swarmed around them. Eight of the fifteen Skuas were shot down, including the commanders of both 800 and 803 squadron (Lt Cdr Casson and Capt R.T. Partridge). The survivors only got away by flying low in the early morning mist, claiming a single Messerschmitt 110 damaged. The RAF Blenheims turned up only after the attack was over. One of the surviving Skua pilots was 24 year old Donald Gibson, much later to become Vice-Admiral Sir Donald Gibson. In his memoirs Gibson compared the attack on the Scharnhorst to the Charge of the Light Brigade and said "In future all admirals should ideally be shot at in an aeroplane while they are still young."**
803 Squadron went ashore at the Orkney Islands to operate from Hatston, along with 801 Squadron, flying missions to the Norwegian coast around Bergen and keeping up pressure on the Germans during the crucial summer and autumn of 1940 (meanwhile 800 Squadron had stayed with the Ark Royal as it sailed for the Mediterranean.). Shipping and numerous oil tank installation were the most common target for the Skuas and they proved much more effective than conventional "level" bombers, but they met increasing numbers of Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters and these took an escalating toll. On the 13th Sept two Skuas were lost to Bf109s of JG5 (The famous test pilot Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown participated in one of these raids). Also during this period the Aircraft Carrier HMS Furious was used for brief missions to enable the Skuas to strike at targets further north along the Norwegian coast. Following one such attack by 801 Squadron launched from Furious against Trondheim on 22nd September Skua L2942 piloted by Sub Lt Bernard Wigginton with Leading Aircraftsman Kenneth King as his gunner, was unable to find the Furious and had to crash land in neutral Sweden; the first allied aircraft to do so.*** HMS Furious was used to launch another such attack by 801 Squadron this time against Tromso on 16th October, when another skua was forced to land in Sweden.
HMS Furious left for a brief mission to the coast of West Africa in early November taking 801 Squadron with it (click here for more details).. They returned at the end of December and flew missions against Norway again on the 27th December and 5th January 1941 - This was the Skuas last operational mission over Norway. The Skuas were then concentrated at St Evel in Cornwall, from where it was hoped to strike at the German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest Harbour, a mission that promised to be a tragic re-run of the raid against the Scharnhorst in Norway (although it was hoped to launch the attack at night). The Skuas did take part in raids on Alderney in the German-occupied channel islands and Cherbourg while waiting for the "big show". In the event a series of German bombing raids against St Eval destroyed enough Skuas to force the abandonment of the Brest raid.
A Skua strike against a German supply ship in the harbour at Hagesund.
On the left a huge black mushroom cloud rises while ripples from other bomb blasts fan out in the water after a raid by Skuas on a fuel installation at Dolvik not far from the modern Bergen airport.
* Most descriptions of the Skuas armament make no mention of the fully Armour-Piercing (AP) 500 lb bomb and its existance is disputed. However, armourers who served with Skua squadrons are adamant such a weapon existed and was used in the attack on the Scharnhorst. It was apparently identical in shape to the 500 lb Semi-Armour-Piercing (SAP) bomb and it may have simply been the SAP bomb with a hardened nosecone or nose "plug".
** The August 2007 issue of Aeroplane magazine features an outstanding article "Into the Fjord of Death" by Matthew Willis and Simon Partridge. It covers the attack on the Scharnhorst at Trondheim in detail.
*** An article by Lennart Berns on Skua L2942's arrival in Sweden appeared in the June 2006 edition of Flypast magazine. Interestingly the photos seem to show that at this stage Skuas were flying with bullet-proof glass fitted to the front windscreen. Peter C. Smiths book "Skua- The Royal Navy's Dive Bomber" features an interview with Ken King that reveals the reasons why they could not locate Furious or make it back to Sumburgh.