Warship Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020: U-Boat Hat Trick

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020: U-Boat Hat Trick

Photo # A 22465 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum.

Here we see the Attacker-class escort carrier HMS Chaser (D32) as observed from the Telegraphist Air Gunner’s position in a just-launched Fairey Swordfish Mk II biplane strike aircraft of 835 Squadron NAS, while escorting Russia-bound Convoy JW57 in February 1944. Constructed in Mississippi of all places, she had the hull of a freighter but the heart of a lion– and proved particularly deadly to one of Herr Donitz’s wolfpacks.

Most people think the business of making these short flattops, derided as “Jeep Carriers” was one that kicked off post-Pearl Harbor. This is fundamentally incorrect as the U.S. Maritime Commission, under orders from the Navy Department and the guidance of FDR’s White House, got into the “AVG” (Aircraft Escort Vessel) game in late 1939, at a time when the so-called “Phony War” was underway in Europe and both England and France were both very much in the war.

The first two such ships, USS Long Island (AVG-1, later CVE-1) and HMS Archer (D78) respectively, were converted Type C3-class merchant hulls that were brought into naval service in 1940. Capable (in theory) of carrying up to 30 light aircraft and defended by a couple of pop guns, these 13,500-ton vessels were declared an initial success and a follow-on class, the 4-unit Avenger-type with a half hangar, was soon ordered under Lend-Lease. Then followed the much more substantial (45-ship) Bouge-class, which utilized a fuller hangar.

With the Royal Navy in desperate straits in 1941 when it came to aircraft carriers, 9 of the 14 Bogues laid down that year eventually went to the Brits, forming the Attacker-class in RN service. One of these, an 11,900-ton C3-S-A2 type freighter, Hull Number 162, was ordered originally for the Moore-McCormack Lines as the SS Mormacgulf. She was soon requisitioned by the Navy and converted on the builder’s ways at the newly formed Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula to become our HMS Chaser, using the name of an RN sloop that ironically served in the War of Independence era.

Mrs. Jennie Mae Turner, a welder at the Ingalls shipyard, Pascagoula, Miss. Circa 1943. U.S. Maritime Commission photo in Library of Congress. It is still super common to find female welders at Ingalls today.

Nominally commissioned into the U.S. Navy as on 9 April 1943 as USS Breton (AVG-10), she was transferred that day as Chaser in the RN, then marked on U.S Naval List as BAVG-10, with the “B” denoting the British loan.

Some 14,170-tons full load, the 486-foot vessel had a wooden “roof” made up of a 442-foot flight deck. Below deck, she had an 18-foot high hangar that ran 262-feet long and 62 wide. This was serviced by a pair of elevators. When it came to handling equipment, she had a single H2 hydraulic catapult and a 9-wire/3-barrier arrestor system.

Up-armed from the original Long Island-class, Chaser carried two 4″/50s– which had typically been recycled from old Flush Decker tin cans— for warning off surface contacts, and 34 Bofors/Oerlikon AAA guns. She had British radar outfits and commo suites.

Bogue (Attacker)-class sistership HMS Trumpeter (D09) drydocked at Rosyth, Scotland, 4 June 1944. Note the single rudder/screw arrangement, freighter hull, wooden flight deck “roof” and gun sponsons. The angular ones are for 4″/50s while the more rounded are for AAA (IWM A 24056)

In June 1943, equipped with 12 Grumman Avengers of 845 Squadron, the brand-new HMS Chaser sailed across the Atlantic as part of Convoy HX245.

HMS Chaser (D32/R306) underway on 20 June 1943, showing single 20-mm guns on her forecastle and twin 40-mm guns in the forward deck-edge sponsons. Three Avenger strike aircraft are ranged aft. U.S. National Archives photo. Photo and text from Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Roger Chesneau. Via Navsource. 

HMS Chaser (D32), commanded by Captain H.V.P. McClintock, at anchor at Greenock, Scotland, date unknown. The photo was taken by Lt. S.J. Beadell, Royal Navy official photographer. Photo # A 17859 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum.

Same day/place/photographer. Photo # A 17861

After a minute spent operating with Fairey Swordfish Mk. II biplanes and Hawker Sea Hurricanes of 835 Squadron, Chaser would later embark 11 Swords and 11 Martlet Mk IVs (British-variants of the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat) of 816 Squadron (commanded by a South African, T/A/Lt.Cdr. (A) Fred Charles “Freddie” Nottingham, DSC, RNVR) for the job of running shotgun for the 42-ship Convoy JW57 from the UK to Murmansk in February 1944.

On the way, several German U-boats had assembled in Norway to jump the convoy but scrubbed their attack due to the heavy air cover, for which Chaser and 816 Squadron could take credit.

A Fairey Swordfish about to be waved off on anti-submarine patrol by the deck control officer aboard HMS Chaser Note the Fairey Swordfish flying above ship to port which has its bows covered in ice. © IWM A 22468

Martlets (Wildcats) and Fairey Swordfish on the flight deck of the CHASER. Note the ice-covered ship astern and the folded wings of the Martlets. © IWM A 22466

Capable of just 140 knots when wide open, while dated when it came to any sort of warfare in WWII, Mark II Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers by 1943 proved valuable once again as, equipped with eight underwing 3-inch rockets, it became a formidable ASW asset against surfaced U-Boats due to their low-speed and stable flight. On 23 May 1943, a rocket-equipped Swordfish destroyed German submarine U-752 off the coast of Ireland, the first such kill, but not the last. IWM A 24981

With JW57 under her belt, then came the Scotland-bound return convoy, RA57, which sailed from Kola Inlet on 2 March. Rolling the dice, the Boreas Wolfpack, which included up to 12 Type VII German subs, moved in to give it a shot as the weather conditions seemed too harsh for aircraft to fly.

They would be wrong.

On 4 March, southeast of frozen Bear Island in the Barents Sea, U-472 (v. Forstner) was sunk by a combination of rockets fired by Chaser’s Swordfish and gunfire from the destroyer HMS Onslaught

“THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER HMS CHASER’S U-BOAT SUCCESS. MARCH 1944, ONBOARD A FAIREY SWORDFISH OF THE CHASER. PICTURES FROM THE AIR OF THE END OF ONE OF THE TWO U-BOATS DESTROYED BY AIRCRAFT OF THE CARRIER HMS CHASER ON A RECENT ATLANTIC CONVOY. (A 22727) The wash of the submarine has been caused by her last vain maneuvers.” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154897

“THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER HMS CHASER’S U-BOAT SUCCESS. MARCH 1944, ONBOARD A FAIREY SWORDFISH OF THE CHASER. PICTURES FROM THE AIR OF THE END OF ONE OF THE TWO U-BOATS DESTROYED BY AIRCRAFT OF THE CARRIER HMS CHASER ON A RECENT ATLANTIC CONVOY. (A 22729) The wash of the submarine has been caused by her last vain maneuvers.” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154899

The next day, on 5 March, U-366 (Langenberg) was sent to the bottom by Chaser’s Swordfish alone in the Norwegian Sea north-west of Hammerfest, with no survivors. 

Finally, on 6 March, U-973 (Paepenmöller) was destroyed by rocket-firing Swordfish in the Norwegian Sea north-west of Narvik.

Three German U-boats in three days*. A record any carrier could be proud of. 

[*A similar event nonetheless occurred two months later when Swordfish from 842 Squadron, flying from one of Chaser’s sisterships, HMS Fencer (D64), sank three U-boats (U277, U674, and U959) of Wolfpack Donner & Keil during Russian Convoy RA59. However, it should be noted that, instead of scratching three boats on three subsequent days, Fencer managed to bag her trio on just two days, 1st and 2nd May 1944.]

To Points West

In the end, RA57 arrived at Loch Ewe having lost just one ship, the 7,000-ton British freighter Empire Tourist, sank by U-703 with no losses. The submarine would later go missing in the Norwegian Sea.

With a collision sidelining Chaser for the rest of 1944, it was decided to send her to the Pacific once she was repaired. Leaving Clyde in February 1945, she carried 20 brand-new Seafires for the British Pacific Fleet’s 899 Squadron.

Chaser arrived in Sydney in May, destined to join the eight other RN baby flattops of the 30th Aircraft Carrier Squadron, which included several of her sisters. Around this time her pennant number shifted to R306.

HMS Chaser arriving at Cochin on the Malabar Coast of India, July 1945, with her flight deck packed with Corsairs, Seafires, and Avengers. The aircraft were to be delivered to the Reception Unit, Royal Naval Air Station Cochin. Some arrived practically fully assembled lashed to the flight deck. Others arrived in packing cases. The photo was taken by an unknown Royal Navy photographer. Photo No A 29289 from the Imperial War Museum Collections.

Used to shuttle replacement aircraft to the BPF’s larger carriers and recover unserviceable aircraft for repair, Chaser was in operations in the Fleet’s train at Leyte in the Philippines and kept up her yeoman service off Iwo Jima and Okinawa, ending the War in Japanese Home Waters where she remained past VJ Day. The then-aircraft-less carrier was used as a troop transport until she returned to the UK in 1946.

HMS Chaser, Hong Kong, 1946 (Art.IWM ART LD 1187) image: a view of the aircraft carrier HMS Chaser moored in Hong Kong harbor. A Chinese junk sail towards the carrier and a small landing craft approaches from the foreground right. Note her R306 pennant. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19665

Epilogue

After removing her British equipment, Chaser sailed for America with a skeleton crew and was handed over to the U.S. Navy 15 May 1946, resuming her spot on the Naval List as USS Breton (CVE-10) until stricken 3 Jul 1946.

With the U.S. Navy in no need of a partially stripped British escort carrier, she was handed over to MARAD, stricken, and sold 20 Dec 1946. The U.S. launched an astounding 50 Casablanca-class and 45 Bogue-class escort carriers between September 1941 and June 1944. Of these 95 carriers, 87 survived the war but were disposed of.

As for Chaser, flight deck scrapped, she returned to active merchant service as SS Aagtekerk, operating for 21 years with the Dutch N.V. Vereenigde Nederlandsche Scheepvaartmaatschappij (VNS) line. A respectable civilian life. 

Ex-Breton, ex-HMS Chaser, as Aagtekerk, berthed in Bremen, Germany, in the late 1950s with her hull high in the water. Published in a Bremen Port promotion brochure in 1960. Photo by Gerhard Mueller-Debus via Navsource.

Sold again in 1967 to Chinese Maritime Trust, Taipei, she became SS E. Yung. In late 1972, she reportedly foundered and was salvaged then broken-up in Taiwan at Kaohsiung.

Of her sisters, none were quite as successful as Chaser, but all survived the war. Like her, they were returned to U.S. custody, then resold into merchant service, with several lasting for decades. The last Attacker-class afloat, HMS Attacker herself, was only scrapped in 1980, having spent the last years of her life as a floating hotel and casino.

HMS Chaser‘s drawings are located in the National Archives

As for 816 Squadron, whose “Flying Stringbags” bagged the trio of U-boats back in March 1944, they had originally formed aboard HMS Furious in October 1939 and were disbanded by the Fleet Air Arm in 1948. Today their WWII lineage, which included the Malta Convoys and total loss on the destroyed HMS Ark Royal in 1941, as well as their later sub-busting exploits and coverage of the Normandy landings, is carried forward by 816 Squadron RAN, flying MH-60R Seahawks off Australian frigates.

Specs:

CVE-53, D79 – HMS Puncher – Booklet of General Plans, 1944, Bogue/Attacker Class

Displacement: 14,170 tons, full
Length: 486 ft (overall); 465 waterline
Flight deck: 442ft x 80ft wood covered mild steel plate
Beam: 69ft 6in; 107 ft. max over flight deck gun tubs
Draft: 24 ft. full load
Propulsion: 2 Foster Wheeler boilers (285 psi); 1 x Allis-Chalmers geared turbine (8,500 shp), driving 1 shaft
Speed: 18.5 knots
Endurance: 27,300 nautical miles @ 11 knots
Complement: 44 Officers, 766 crew + 94 aviation det. 922 Berths
Armament:
2 single 4″/50 U.S. Mk 9 guns
8 40mm/60 Bofors in 4 twin mounts
26 20mm Oerlikon in 8 twins, 10 single mounts
Aircraft: “Up to 30” single-engine planes, but typically carried 20-22

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