A Dash of Courage



St Nazaire
Schiff 24
UJ 126


Kriegsmarine 'Shiff 24' - Formerly Fishing Vessel 'Mars' or 'Saturn?'

Schiff 24 - The Ship With No Name

'Ship 24' . The ship with no name - and yet several names. An armed decoy trawler that masqueraded under many disguises, and many national flags, following a historic tradition of naval deception dating back hundreds of years. Perhaps the concept is best known today as a 'Q' ship, such as the large disguised merchantmen that were utilised to great effect by the German Navy in the First World War.

But Schiff 24 belonged to a smaller class of vessel, one whose role was to blend in with the local fishing fleets and monitor coastal activity along the Bay of Biscay. Operating alongside its sister ship, 'Schiff 13', it reported on the movements of ships and aircraft in its area of operation, whilst also acting as a trap for enemy submarines ('U-Bootfalle').

French, Portugese, and Spanish disguises were carried, amongst others, to conceal not only its identity but also the 8.8cm quick firing canon hidden under a dummy lifeboat and the retractable 30cm machine guns under concealed trapdoors, as well as the torpedo tubes and anti-submarine equipment. In age-old naval tradition, it was not illegal to sail under false colours as a ruse - but in order to open fire or fight, a ship was expected to display true identity (hence the 'raising of the flag' scene, so common in wartime naval movies').

Although some evidence is contradictory, it would appear that on 22 June 1941, Schif 24 was to become the target of two Blenheim aircraft from 53 Sqn based at RAF St Eval, in an encounter that left both sides nursing their losses. The story today begins with the brief entries in Charles' logbook: "Strike on enemy M/V, 1000 tons, 4x250 G.P. 1 glanced off decks. P/O Williams (A/C Y) turned before ETA. P/O Hewson (A/C F) missing after leaving scene of attack."

Eric 'Nine-Lives' Hewson was a close friend of Charles', who had initially trained with him but had slipped back during the courses due to a sequence of aircraft accidents that had earned him his nickname. He had only recently joined 53 Squadron and this was one of his first few operational sorties. The day was to confirm his nickname in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Another new squadron member P/O Williams may have 'turned before ETA' for this particular attack (did that annoy Charles? It is recorded in other reports that Williams 'broke formation') but records show that after turning away at 2051hrs Williams' aircraft then dropped its bombs at 2128hrs in a more northerly position on an ocean-going tramp steamer of about 1500 tons in a convoy of 11 ships. Indeed, that convoy would seem to have been the original target for the mission; the tasking order asked for '6 aircraft of 53 Sqn and 1 of 217 Sqn to attack 14 motor vessels reported at 1500 hrs. (AIR 25 459)

Tactics in Coastal Command had changed since the high-level bombing attacks on the Battle Cruisers and Naval Facilities during April: it had been realised that the chances of hitting a ship from high altitude were small. Consequently, low level shipping sweeps over the Bay of Biscay were introduced, with the aim of finding and destroying coastal shipping on routes from Spain to the West Coast of France or U-boats setting out on or returning from patrol in the Atlantic. The advantage of this tactic was a hugely increased chance of a bomb hitting the target as the aircraft ran in directly towards it in a single vertical plain: the disadvantage (for the same reason) was that of becoming a straightforward target for anti-aircraft fire, with little scope for evasive manoeuvering. PRO AIR 15/247 (Bombing Attacks by CC Aircraft on Enemy Surface Craft - Record and Analysis) shows how the bomb hit rate compared to height of release was analysed at the time, in order to confirm the tactic. It would appear that only attacks from less than 200' were ever succesful. Forty years later, during the Falklands Conflict, the same effect could be seen as Argentinian Skyhawks bravely and succesfully used similar tactics with essentially similar bombing equipment against Task Force shipping in Falklands Sound. AIR 15/298 from July 1941 consolidates the Coastal Command policy with instructions to attack from the beam if the vessel is unarmed and from directly ahead or astern if armed (in order to reduce the number of defensive guns that could be brought to bear). The aiming point for a beam attack should be the side of the ship, and for an end-on attack the deck. It notes that 10% of hits would be 'glancing' and also helpfully advises that the aircraft's forward guns should be used to suppress flak during the attack.

The Coastal Command Narrative for 22 June 1941 (PRO AIR 24/379) adds detail to Charles' logbook entry: "Aircraft B of 53 Squadron dropped 4 x 250 lb General Purpose bombs on 1 motor vessel at 2118 hrs from 50'. One bomb fell on deck and bounced off without exploding. Two bombs overshot. Fragments presumeably from a bomb hit aircraft which felt explosion about 2 seconds after aircraft passed over ship. Aircraft F is overdue from strike."
The 53 Sqn F540 records slightly more detail: "Direct Hit on target observed but bomb failed to explode. Fragments, presumeably from a bomb, hit aircraft in wing, tailplane, and engine."

'Fragmentation damage' is a common problem with low-level bombing attacks: after release a slick bomb will continue to travel at much the same speed as the releasing aircraft and will hit the target the same time as the aircraft overflies it. In order to prevent damage from one's own bomb fragments, a time delay was set into the bomb fuse (often 11 seconds for CC aircraft) so that the aircraft would be clear of the area - but such fuses were not always reliable. An alternative solution which was more common post war was to 'retard' the bomb using plates which deployed into the airflow after release, so that the bomb travelled more slowly than the aircraft.

No further details of circumstance leading up tothe attack could be found in the British records, so to complete the story it now needed an examination of Schiff 24's Kriegstagebuch (War Diary). Fortunately, this had survived along with the majority of German Naval records which were captured towards the end of the war, and a desciption of the attack is here given in the words of the ships's Captain Bludau (in my best, but very poor, effort to translate from the German, for which I apologise):

Bridge of “Schiff 24” Lorient, 24 June 1941

Western Naval Command Paris
Western Defence HQ Paris
3rd Coastal Defence Division Brest

Re: Combat Report on the bombing attack which happened on the 22 June.

Ship’s position at 2100 hrs: Lat = 46° 44’ N
Long = 05° 00’ W

Wind: Westerly Force 1, Seastate: 0-1, Weather: scattered cloud
Visibility: 18km, with the Sun in the West.

2105 hrs. The topdeck lookout reported “Aircraft off the port bow”. The aircraft was an English machine like a Lockheed Hudson, which was flying at about 400m high on a course of roughly 310 degrees, 2000 meters (estimated) past us in front. As was usual on the appearance of a hostile aircraft the hatches were closed and access onto the maindeck was forbidden. Two marines acted as lookouts whilst working on the fishing nets.

2110 hrs While that aircraft was passing behind us to starboard, another 2 aircraft were sighted flying side by side ahead of us at a height of 50 to 60 meters. They were of a similar type, and were flying towards the ship. At that stage of the alert nothing was changed from what I had decided on the 11 June with regard to provoking low-flying aircraft. (See Ship’s Diary pages 36/37). At a distance of about 1,000 meters the right hand aircraft turned to port. I assumed that it would fly past in front of us like the first one.

2114 hrs The third aircraft flew past close behind the stern.

2115 hrs After the second aircraft that was apparently flying on past in front of us had crossed our bows at about 800 meters ahead, it turned to starboard and flew towards the ship from a few degrees off the starboard bow at low level. Since this kind of occurrence had already happened on previous occasions, I maintained my original course and speed, specifically to emphasise that my Spanish disguise was genuine. About 50 meters in front of the ship four Bombs were released, estimated at between 50 and 100kg in size. The bombs on these aircraft were not hung externally but were carried in an internal bomb-bay under the fuselage with 6 to 8 racks (like a Sunderland or a Bristol Blenheim). One of these bombs ripped through the aft mast at the height of the derrick and exploded there. The other three landed 20 meters behind the ship. On this occasion two explosions were observed, at the impact and about 5 to 8 seconds afterwards. It is probable that perhaps two bombs had impact fuses and the other two had a time delay fuse in order to be effective against submarines. Putting the rudder hard to port and an increase in speed had no real effect because of the short time between release and impact (3-4 seconds) and the late stage at which the order was given. On seeing the bombs being released I ordered the air raid warning alarm but because of a failure in the alarm system there was a delay before it went out. As a result of that, the second electric motor which is needed to operate the lifting mechanism for the C/30 machine guns was not engaged straight away. Then, because communication could not be established with the engine room either by telephone or voicepipe and the revolution counter indicated ‘stopped’, I assumed that the attack had caused considerable damage to the engine or to the personel on duty, so I ordered the C/30 Machine guns to be deployed by hand and I sent a runner to the engine room to report on the cause of the engine failure.

2117 hrs Meanwhile, the aircraft that had flown past the stern now made a low-level attack from the starboard beam. Four equally spaced bombs missed their target and exploded in the way that has previously been described, about 50 meters beyond the port beam. No further attack was made. Both aircraft flew off on a course of approximately 310 degrees and were very quickly out of sight. One aircraft got rid of its remaining bombs by jettisoning them in the sea about 1,500 meters away, without any target.

After the second attack the Engineer on Watch, Ob. Gfr. Somerfeld (who was injured) came on to the upperdeck and reported to me that he had stopped the engine since the steam turbine had no oil as a result of damage to the turbine oil pressure tank. In addition, a small fire had broken out and filled the room with smoke but he had checked that it had not spread. Straight after the first attack Masch Mt Lehmann had hurried into the engineroom, extinguished the fire and established that the engine was capable of giving 9 knots. Since we could no longer complete our mission, I took the decision to head straight for Lorient. Clearing up the damage and work on the camouflage began at once. And so, in the guise of a normal Patrol Boat, I arrived in Lorient at 0730 on the 23rd June.

The conduct of the crew was exemplarary throughout.


To Personnel: L.M. Obermaschinist d.R. Winzenburger, who was positioned beneath the aft superstructure, died 1 ½ hours later.
Aft Lookout: Matr. Gfr. Krings, was killed instantly.
On watch in the Engine room: Masch. Gfr. Günter died ¼ hour later.

To Equipment:
As a result of the loss of the turbine the engine was only good for up to 9 knots, and even that for a limited time only.
The ship’s radio suffered from interference and poor transmission for ½ an hour, since the aerial had been completely destroyed.
The electrical system for firing the torpedoes was out of action, and the air pipes for the aft tubes were split in very many places.
The bearings for the 88mm gun were destroyed.

Two standby aerials were rigged up (3.5 meters for transmission, 1.5 meters for reception) and 3 signals were sent (see annexes 2-4). The battle damage report was not acknowleged. I sent the other two signals in the hope that Long Wave would not be swamped by static but reception of any kind was unreliable - that’s why signals number 19 and 20 were not received clearly. So I sent a new request by Short Signal which is shown as number 21 giving my intention to put in to Lorient, and this was retransmitted satisfactorily.

As a result of this incident I asked (also by signal) for a suitable berth to be made ready at Lorient if possible. In addition, it was necessary to ask for medical help (either a Ship’s Medic or a Doctor).

I have two possible explanations for this attack:
1.) That, on 11 June, the English pilot took photographs and our disguise was recognised. Under high quality enlargement the fake was revealed, and the reason could only be a Q-ship.
2.) On the same basis, the attacks on French fishing boats can be explained: because of the lack of success in hunting U-boats in the Bay of Biscay, the English suspect that fishing boats are helping protect the submarines, and want to destroy those that are fishing in the areas which are declared to be inside the German blockade.
I suspect that the second case is the more probable. This is suggested by the fact that if the ship had been chosen as a specific target for bombing there would most likely have been many more air attacks several days earlier in order to guarantee success.

As a result of this attack a Q-ship was partially destroyed and the existence of its guns was revealed. Furthermore it must be noted that the crew would have been spotted coming out of their quarters to get the Anti-aircraft guns ready for action inbetween the first and second attack, and so any continued deception by having covers over the fish hatches has become useless. Whether any of these points is true will become apparent as a result of the future behaviour of English pilots towards Schiff 13.

The attack shows once again the element of luck that hangs over ships under such circumstances. There is no way of telling whether the arrival of the aircraft was intentional or merely happened by chance, so this raises two questions, which must be clarified unequivocably:

1.) Should low flying aircraft be shot at ? (There is about 40 seconds warning) The risk here is that because of the lack of certainty of shooting down one aircraft, let alone several, it would thereby further jeopardise the current task and compromise the disguise for future missions.

2.) After one low level attack should the camouflage be maintained during future attacks?

Such questions are for a higher authority to consider, but must be thoroughly discussed for application in sea areas which are frequently patrolled by the enemy air force.

This encounter with English pilots helps make it clear that, whilst the second scenario did not happen in my own case, the disguise should only be shed in the most extreme circumstances and that is made obvious in the enclosed War Diary.

So in summary the most likely sequence of events is that the first aircraft to fly on past Schiff 24 is P/O Williams who has turned North earlier than the other 2 Blenheims and does not attack. Five Minutes later Charles' Blenheim jinks left then right to makes a first-pass head-on attack from the South, with one bomb exploding above deck level as it hit the aft mast (possible interpreted as having 'bounced off the deck') and thus showering the Blenheim with fragments. Meanwhile, Eric Hewson flies past the stern of the ship - perhaps to identify it, or perhaps because he was not well placed to release his bombs - and then turns through a wide circle to re-attack from the West. By that time, well stirred up by Charles' bombs and forewarned by Eric's manoeuvering, the ship's guns are now unstowed and Eric is hit during his pass. Both Blenheims are seen to fly out of sight to the Northwest, with Schiff 24 unaware that they have dealt Eric's aircraft a fatal blow (and hence why he is seen to jettison objects). Eric's own account of the action reveals that they flew on for a further 15 minutes before the aircraft broke in half and crashed into the sea form a heigh of 10'. Link to the 'Hewson' page for a more detsailed account of his adventure.

Note: All Coastal Command records give ship's position as Grid DPCT 5254 = 4652N 0506W (which is very close to Schiff 24's own record). One can probably assume the Ship's log was more exact than that recorded by the aircraft, which may have been taken a few minutes after the attack.