Part 39- Enter the Harrows
Over the convoy
When the Airstrike arrived the scene that greeted them was one of confusion. There was smoke everywhere, but they could make out the convoy, with Peel – obviously badly damaged, having lost two masts mast and apparently being on fire - standing between them and a confused Coastal Force melee, gun flashes showing that she was engaging.
The Aircraft tried calling them up on the radio, but there was no response.
Lieutenant Dasgupta had seen the aircraft, but with the flotilla in the midst of a confused melee with the Japanese he hadn’t been able to spare the time to retune the TBS to their frequency – under the circumstances he needed the TBS to keep some semblance of control. Truth be told it wasn’t likely he’d have been able to tell them anything useful anyway - when the Japanese closed in he’d lost his view of the big picture, being forced to concentrate on the battle around him, trying desperately to make sense of the confusion as Coastal craft flashed by at high speed.
Over the convoy
Squadron Leader Pettigrew had the Harrows circling the convoy, his eyes on the wild melee below. Ships darted in and out, circling each other, changing course wildly, the whole chaotic mass constantly in motion, constantly changing. . Maybe it would have made sense to a naval officer, but to his untrained eye … he could tell that the escort was hard pressed, but whether they were winning or losing he just couldn’t say – the melee below was a confused dogfight, and he couldn’t even differentiate who was who. One thing was certain, they needed help.
“Banner lead calling Firedrake lead, Banner lead calling Firedrake lead.”
“Firedrake lead answering.”
“Listen Firedrake, those escorts need help. My boys can’t do anything – we’d be bombing indiscriminately and Coastal Forces aren’t our sort of target anyway. Can you help them? Strafing run maybe? Over.”
“Possibly Banner, but if we do it’ll leave you without any escort – if we’re going to do any good we’ll need to fire off everything we’ve got, nothing held back. That’ll leave you defenceless if Jap fighters turn up. Do you want to take the risk? Over.”
Pettigrew paused, weighed up the factors, then made his decision.
“I think we have to Firedrake, I’m not sure they’ll last till the MTB arrive if we don’t step in. Over.
“Understood. Out. Firedrake lead to all Firedrakes, turning to port, follow me round.”
Star of Hope
When the RAF had arrived Wessex Faversham had been relieved, now he was frustrated. Why wouldn’t they DO something? They’d just been stooging round the convoy for five minutes now, not getting involved – couldn’t they see that they needed help?
Then one group – the Blenheims - broke off and looked as if they were going to do something – at last. That left the other group - he didn’t recognise the type but they had the look of bombers of some kind - still circling.
“Get the Aldis lamp ready, when those aircraft swing round we’ll try and contact them.”
Banner Flight, over the convoy
“We’re being signalled skipper, light from the convoy, second ship from the rear – repeating message SNO TO RAF SNO TO RAF.”
“We’ll hold this course. Acknowledge their message.
“Wilco skipper … they’re responding, someone take this down … SNO TO RAF FOUR JAPANESE DESTROYERS TO SEAWARD STOP ESCORT HAS NOTHING REPEAT NOTHING THAT CAN STOP THEM STOP IF YOU CAN’T STOP THEM THEN WE ARE ALL DEAD STOP… he’s repeating the message.”
“Acknowledge and tell him …” Pettigrew paused, considering his words “ … tell them WILL ATTACK IMMEDIATELY STOP FRIENDLY MTB FIFTEEN MILES OUT AND CLOSING FAST STOP FRIENDLY DESTROYERS FOLLOW STOP THEY WILL MOP UP ANYTHING THAT SURVIVES OUR ATTACK.”
“Got it … sending now.”
“Banner lead to all Banners, in case you missed that message there are four Jap destroyers out to seaward and we’re the only thing standing between them and the Convoy. It’s up to us. Follow me.”
While the Harrows headed out to sea the Squadron Leader commanding the Blenheims was trying to work out how best to help the escort. Being a Night Fighter unit they hadn’t had any training in ship recognition and given the confusion below couldn’t reliably differentiate friend from foe. Add in the confused nature of the fight, with friend and enemy so close to each other that a strafing run would probably hit both and a direct attack on the melee below was out of the question.
“Firedrake two to Leader”
“Go ahead two”
“On the sea, three o’clock maybe two miles out, looks like Jap reinforcements about to join the fight.”
“I see them … and we can hit them before they get mixed up in the crowd. Firedrake Lead to all Firedrakes this is how we’ll play it …”
“Target in sight. Have you sent that status report in yet?”
“Just finished coding it. Sending now”
“Let me know when it’s gone and we’ll start the attack.”
25th and 27tth Flotillas, at sea
They could see the smoke now, and if the engines – throttles opened wide – hadn’t been making a God awful din would probably have been able to hear the gunfire too. The crews were largely veterans, and were at their Action stations already. The more perceptive of them had realised that there was something the Officers weren’t telling them, and given the tight knit relationship of Coastal Force crews that fact spoke volumes. Whatever was up ahead, this was going to be a tough fight.
Across the flotillas men checked their weapons – which had already been checked dozens of times before – using the actions as a way to mask their nervousness.
Japanese MGB Squadron
The Squadron had started out with four ships, but one was a waterlogged hulk – salvageable but out of the running – currently left behind with the Depot ship. The remaining three ships having rearmed from the Depot ships stores, and taken the crew from the fourth ship to replenish losses were now heading back into the battle.
The Ships were the Gunboat version of the G type MTB, losing the torpedoes in exchange for hull reinforcement which allowed them to carry a heavier gun armament – and that was exactly what was needed to engage the British escorts right now. The Squadron commander was sure his arrival would turn the tide of battle. Then a lookout – a man he’d assigned the task of keeping an eye on the British aircraft – called out.
The aircraft are reforming sir … I think they’re setting up for an attack on us.”
“All Hands prepare for air action, signal the other boats to adopt anti aircraft formation. Port twenty.”
The Blenheims had no training in naval attack, hadn’t exercised or planned for it, but their attack plan was, considering the short time they’d had to prepare, a fairly good one. The six aircraft split into pairs, manoeuvred to put the sun behind them, then the first pair swooped down on the Japanese ships.
The Japanese gunners opened fire, 25 mm and machine guns blazing away, but the sun in the gunner's eyes didn’t help matters and if they achieved any hits they weren’t enough to stop the oncoming Blenheims.
The principle element of the Blenheim’s fighter conversion was the rearmament, each aircraft being fitted with a belly pack containing four .303 Brownings. The aircraft waited until they were close – and being night fighters the pilots were used to getting close – before opening fire. With both aircraft engaging the same target, the deck was scoured by a hail of bullets. They may not have caused the damage that a cannon armed aircraft would, and the ship itself wasn’t seriously damaged, but those crew who were above deck weren’t so lucky.
Then the Blenheims roared overhead and away, but before the Japanese had time to react the second pair was upon them, guns blazing, making the sea boil as the bullets struck all round. Then they too were gone, but the third pair had taken their place, with their guns spitting fire at the ships below. By the time the third pair had made their pass the first pair had turned and were coming in again from a different angle, with the second pair close behind.
And so it continued, the Blenheims making pass after pass without respite until they’d used up all their ammunition on the ships below. Then they left, leaving one Japanese ship looking like a sieve, and leaking like one too, and all three with dead or wounded requiring attention. Not that the Blenheims had it all their own way – they’d all taken hits, and one was trailing smoke from his port engine. All of them had lost their radars – the delicate equipment not standing up well to the incoming rounds, and as a Night Fighter unit the Blenheims would be non operational for some time to come.
Bridge, HIJMS Hachijo
The radar had reported the approaching aircraft, now they were in sight. While the gunnery director tracked them, on the Bridge Commander Isoroku and his officers focused their binoculars on them.
“Anyone recognise the type?”
“No. Looks like a bomber though.”
“Look it up. Check the recognition guide.
“I’ve got it. Call out the characteristics someone.”
“Twin engined, twin tail … fixed landing gear … wings high on the fuselage.”
“Yes … yes … no that doesn’t fit … no … nothing in the guide matches sir.”
Squadron Leader Pettigrew remembered the last time he’d attacked a ship at sea, trying to hit a raider that was gutting a convoy. Then he’d bombed from high level, the formation scattering bombs and taking the shotgun approach, that if you scattered enough bombs in the area something was bound to hit. Only it hadn’t worked and the raider had come out of it unscathed. He couldn’t afford to let that happen now. There was only one way to guarantee a result.
“Banner Lead to Banners, we need hits, we need to hit all four ships. That means we have to go in low for the accuracy. One hundred feet.”
“Lead this is Four. The bombs will never arm. If we don’t drop from higher then they won’t explode and won’t stop the Japs.”
Pettigrew thought about this, mentally kicking himself for not foreseeing it.
“You’re right Four. We’ll make it three hundred feet repeat three hundred. Acknowledge.”
There were eleven Harrows in total, and they split into four groups, three of three aircraft and one of two.
Bridge, HIJMS Hachijo
“What are they doing?”
“They’re looking to split our fire. If they’d come in as a single group we’d have been able to concentrate our AA barrage, now we either have to split it or give one of the groups a free run.”
“Signal the squadron – freedom to manoeuver independently when the attack comes in. Targeting at Captain’s discretion.”
“Doesn’t that run the risk of giving one or more groups a free run sir?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to tie the hand of the others Captains, this way they can concentrate on whoever they see as the greatest threat.”
“They’re turning in … here they come.”
The Harrows opened up the throttles and accelerated towards their maximum speed, then they put the nose down and went into a shallow dive. The speed crept up, the gauges showing figures that no one ever expected to see in a Harrow. The crews could hear the fuselage groaning as it was submitted to stresses it was never intended to take.
Then the first shells started bursting around them, the pilots fought the controls as the aircraft bucked – partly buffeted by the shells, partly due to the aircraft going well beyond their design speed.
All the Japanese ships had 4.7 inch guns, mounting ten between them. All of them now spat out shell after shell, the gun crews reloading as fast as they could, trying to put a wall of steel between themselves and the approaching aircraft.
Fortunately the Japanese were dividing their fire, so each of the Harrow groups faced a barrage that was weaker then it might otherwise have been. It didn’t feel that way to the crews though, and even a relatively light barrage proved dangerous.
“Port engine on fire – extinguishing.”
“We can’t hold height for long.”
“Be better once we drop the bomb load.”
The Japanese gunners hacked one of the Harrows out of the sky, and two others were clearly damaged, trailing smoke – although both still bore in on their targets. Then they entered the range of the light AA.
The Japanese ships carried a lot of light AA – their role involved fending off air attacks on the convoys, so the Fleet gave them a reasonably high priority for AA weaponry, and their official level of armament was, if not lavish, certainly generous when compared to pre war standards. This level of firepower was augmented by additional weapons “acquired” by their crews – the first taste of air attack normally incentivised the scroungers wonderfully – and the ships now bristled with cannon and machineguns. These now came into action. Every gun that would bear opened up, first the cannon, then the machine guns sprang to life, pumping bullets and shells into the Harrow’s path.
“Keep at it, hit them, hit them.”
“Concentrate fire on the one on the left, the one on the left.”
“He’s on fire!”
“He’s finished – switch target to the one on the right.”
From the perspective of the Harrows’ crew suddenly the sky was full of fire. Waves of tracer reaching up into the sky, like the tentacles of some beast seeking to pull the aircraft out of the air – it was an intimidating sight, particularly for relatively green crews not trained for missions like this. Not only did they have to cope with the sight, but also the sound of bullets thumping home as the aircraft was hit, and of shells hitting with rather greater effect.
“Six has bought it.”
“Right a bit skipper, that’s AAAAAGH!”
“Port fifteen … midships.”
“Aircraft approaching from aft … he’s turning our way.”
“Where? … Starboard thirty!
The Japanese fire claimed three of the Harrows coming in, but the other eight pressed home the attack, despite the damage they’d taken. Kunashiri was attacked by three Harrows – a group that had passed through the AA barrage comparatively unscathed – while Hachijo and Okikaze were attacked by two aircraft apiece, and Hagi only suffered the attentions of a single attacker.
As the weight disappeared from the bomb bay Pettigrew felt the aircraft lurch skyward, and he wrestled with the controls trying to keep her steady. He turned slightly to starboard, seeking to avoid overflying another of the escorts and as he steered the aircraft away he felt the thud of impacts on the fuselage.
“Hit aft sir, looks like Y mount … I can see damage control parties there, should have a proper report soon.”
“Good … find out how the other ships faired.”
The damage control party were up to their knees in water, which was rising inexorably – the Petty Officer leading the party assessed the rate it was rising … they had a few minutes yet before they’d have to go. Still time to act.
“Find that leak someone.”
“Chief over here, it’s coming from behind these lockers.”
“Pull them out the way.”
The Chief joined his men in manhandling the lockers away, revealing the splinter holes in the hull, from which water was pouring in.
“Shot plugs, now.”
As the shot plugs were hammered home the rush of water slowed to a trickle.
“Good enough. Adachi you finish up here. The rest of you get looking. That won’t be the only leak, find the others.”
“Get that hose over here, by the depth charges.”
“Sir … we’re losing pressure sir!”
The Lieutenant took in the situation, the water pressure had definitely fallen … no make that was falling, He moved to the telephone handset.
“Damage control. Lieutenant Bunya here. The hoses are losing pressure, what’s happening? … I see … I see …” A pause while he considered the situation then “… put me through to the Captain. … Lieutenant Bunya sir. The fire is closing on the depth charges and we’re losing water pressure. I don’t think we’ll be able to keep it in check. I recommend ditching the charges now while we still can, before the fire takes hold and they start cooking off …Yes sir I’ll attend to it immediately.”
Bunya replaced the handset and turned.
“Chief. Set all the depth charges to safe, then jettison them, jettison them all.”
While the attack had been going in the signal staff at RAF Bentong had been busy decrypting Banner Flight’s message.
Communications Centre, RAF Bentong
When the signal came in the duty Officer quickly dispatched a copy to the Operations Room – both Wing Commander Grosman and Air Commodore Temple had impressed on him the need to be informed of any news related to the convoy as soon as it arrived. That done he picked up the telephone handset.
“Switchboard, put me through to the Naval Supply Depot.”
Lieutenant Commander Standish put down the telephone handset, thinking hard about the information he’d just received. He looked at the notes he’d taken, thinking furiously. Was there anything he could do to help? No.
That decided he turned to the next priority – over the last hour he’d received a number of signals from very senior officers all asking to be kept informed of developments. Captain Drummond had also signalled that he’d like Agincourt to be copied in on any signal traffic, and that Standish should keep him informed generally. Now he had some news he needed to pass it on.
“Take a Signal Kingston … ready?”
“Most Immediate, From Staff Officer 4174 to CinC Eastern Fleet, FOC Royal Indian Navy, Flag Officer Coastal Forces, Flag Captain 4174, all Force WC ships at sea …”
Flag Officer Coastal Forces office, CFHQ, Colombo
The door opened and Commodore Armstrong’s Flag Lieutenant came in holding a signal flimsy.
“Sorry to interrupt Sir, but Staff Officer 4174 has sent in an update on the convoy.”
Armstrong was immediately interested – the radio silence had been a concern, hopefully this message would offer reassurance.
“What does he say?”
“It’s not good sir, listen.
1. Friendly air strike arrived at convoy. This update based on their report.
2. HERO sunk. PEEL severely damaged and on fire. Remaining escorts heavily engaged with quote swarms unquote of Japanese Coastal Forces.
3. Four Japanese Destroyers closing on convoy. Convoy reports they have no repeat no means of stopping them. Our Airstrike about to engage Destroyers.
4. Reinforcing friendly MTB ten to fifteen miles distant and closing fast. US Destroyers further out.
USS Fogg at sea
Heads turned as the tannoy came to life.
“This is the Captain, we’ve just had the word on the Convoy. They’re heavily engaged with Jap Coastal Forces and there are Jap destroyers closing in. British PT boats are closing fast and they’ll hold the ring till we arrive, but it looks like it’ll be down to us and the Donnell. Gun crews, there will be a lot of PT boats out there, British and Japanese. Check the recognition books while you have the chance, I don’t want anyone shooting a British PT boat by mistake, or having a Jap boat get the chance at putting a torp in us because we thought he was a friendly.”
25th and 27th Flotillas
Lieutenant Commander Kevin Settler, Flotilla commander of 27th Flotilla watched the Harrows fly overhead on their way home. Judging from their state of some of them he doubted if they’d all make it. He felt a pang of sympathy for whoever ended up in the drink, stuck on a life raft in the middle of the ocean praying that someone – anyone, even the Japs – would find them, it wasn’t an enviable position.
Then the TBS squawked into life, dragging his thoughts away.
“Two Five to Two Seven.”
Settler reached for the microphone.
“We should be up with the convoy soon. When we arrive I want your boys to take on the Coastal Forces. If the Destroyers are in evidence then we’ll go after them, if not we’ll back you up.”
Settler considered this, given that his boats had a better gun armament it made sense.
“Understood Two Five. Out. Two Seven lead to all Two Sevens, you all heard that – we’re to go after the Coastal Forces …”
Settler was interrupted by the lookout’s cry.
“Smudge on the horizon dead ahead, looks like a ship.”
Settler got back on the TBS.
“Ship sighted dead ahead, looks like we’re in business. Remember that our job is to defend the convoy and get them safely home, so we’re looking to drive the Jap’s off, not chase them down. We can’t be drawn too far away or we won’t be around to help bag those destroyers. “
As the surviving Harrows overflew the MTBs Banner Eight’s pilot struggled to keep her in the air.
“I can’t hold her for much longer, we’re going to have to ditch.”
“Keep her up a little longer. The Yank destroyers are coming up, if we ditch near them they’ll pick us up.”
“Aircraft losing height red two five … heading this way, losing height fast … I think he’s going to crash!”
Ignoring the unprofessional end to the lookouts report, Lieutenant Commander Ketch went to the Bridge rail and looked out in the direction indicated … there it was. He trained his binoculars on it.
“British, looks like one of the bombers we saw earlier … I think the pilot is trying to ditch.”
“Makes sense Sir, better for him if we can pick him up, especially if he’s got wounded aboard.”
Ketch recognised the voice of Lieutenant Gemmall, his Executive Officer who had evidently stepped up behind him. He didn’t reply but kept his binoculars glued to the aircraft. He saw it land – well more of a controlled crash really – then he saw movement, the crew hurriedly abandoning the aircraft and getting into a yellow life raft which they paddled away from the rapidly sinking plane.
“Do we go and pick them up sir, or send Fogg?”
Ketch thought back to his own experiences after Valley Forge was sunk, the desperate struggle to get into the raft, the feeling of shock and helplessness that he’d felt, the overwhelming relief when he’d been picked up by a Destroyer. He knew just what those men must be feeling, what they’d be hoping. Then there was the code of the sea, something he’d lived by his entire career, every instinct he had was screaming at him to pick the men up.
“Neither Mr Gemmell. Hold current course and signal Fogg. Tell her not to pick them up. The convoy needs help desperately, and the British PT boats can’t hold off destroyers for long without our support. We can’t spare the time to pick up survivors. They’ll have to hope we see them on the way home.”
There was a pause then.
“Aye Aye sir. Roseby signal Fogg – HOLD COURSE. DO NOT REPEAT NOT DIVERT TO PICK UP SURVIVORS.”
Ketch kept his binoculars on the raft, saw the men in it waving.
“Make a signal to the raft. CANNOT STOP FOR YOU NOW. WILL PICK YOU UP ON OUR RETURN JOURNEY.”
Inside he knew that he was probably giving them false hope, that the odds of their paths intersecting on his return journey were extremely poor, but that was all he had to offer them. It struck him that – for good professional reasons - he could very well be leaving them to die, condemned by his decision. For the first time in his career Ketch understood the burden of command.
The first Japanese to see the British MTBs approaching were a Division of three MTB which had been working round the front of the convoy. They called in a warning, then turned to intercept the British forces, trying to buy time for their comrades to react to the new threat and reorganise.
It was a valiant attempt, but in vain. The lightly armed MTBs would have been outclassed even by 25th Flotilla’s boats, against the more heavily armed 27th Flotilla they were hopelessly outclassed. Throw in odds of twelve against three and the outcome wasn’t in doubt. The Japanese caused a brief pause in the British deployment, but no more, and the British Flotillas sped onward.
Star of Hope
When the MTBs arrived and were seen carving up a group of Japanese ships cheers had broken out on board, cheering which spread to the other merchants. The relief was palpable, the feeling of renewed hope everywhere – help had come, they were no longer on their own.
Wessex-Faversham however knew that the help, while welcome, may not be sufficient and that there was still hard fighting ahead.
“Signal the MTB. Tell them I’m SNO of the convoy and escort. Tell them there are four Japanese Destroyers to seaward that have been attacked by friendly air, effect of attacks unknown. Advise that while the Coastal Forces need dealing with the Destroyers need to be covered too.
“Two Five to Two Seven, you see that signal?”
“We’ll be with you for the first run at the Coastal Forces, but after that we’ll peel off and work to seaward of the convoy, leaving you to play gunboat.”
The MTBs hit the Japanese as they were trying to disengage and reorganise. The attack was spearheaded by 27th Flotilla who had much larger ships than the Japanese and were far better armed, with the Vospers of 25th Flotilla – more lightly armed, but still superior to most of the Japanese – following up. They slammed into the Japanese before they’d had time to reorganise and meet the threat – the Japanese were still reforming when the MTB hit, surging into the fight spitting fire from all guns.
The Japanese fought back of course – the fight wasn’t completely one sided – but in the end the Japanese pulled back, ships running at high speed, looking to break contact and reorganise. The British let them go, with 27th Flotilla closing on the Convoy and the Fairmiles, while the 25th went to seaward of the convoy.
Extract from “Small ship war – The war the Torpedo boats knew” by Captain Kuroki IJN (Retired), Tokyo 1948, English language translation Conway Maritime Press 1972
The arrival of the British MTBs was unfortunate, but for their intervention we could have finished off the convoy in short order, even without the Inshore Patrol. As it was they arrival complicated matters. They charged in to the nearest of our Squadrons, breaking up its attempt to get round the convoy and spoiling my plan for a co-ordinated attack from multiple axis to over stretch the defences. Then they came at our main body. These boats were fresh, and mounted a heavy gun armament – their Pom Poms punished our ships severely before we managed to disengage.
Once we disengaged one flotilla headed straight for the convoy and assumed positions as close escort, with the convoy’s original escort falling back to join them. Meanwhile the other flotilla laid smoke between the convoy and the Inshore Patrol. This complicated my attack plans. Previously I’d been dealing with damaged ships, short on ammunition and obviously on their last legs, one more push would have finished them. Now however I had fresh ships to content with, and if they showed anything like the determination and skill of the original escort they wouldn’t be an easy victory.
Fortunately I had always known that enemy reinforcements were a possibility and had plans in place for such an eventuality. Recalling my scattered squadrons we retired on our supports which were even now steaming closer.