Warship Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021: Hard Luck Flattop

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Dec. 22, 2021: Hard Luck Flattop

Photo via the Fleet Air Arm Museum

Here we see German-built Norddeutscher Lloyd freighter Hannover, during the second part of her WWII service, as the Condor-killing Royal Navy auxiliary aircraft carrier (aka escort carrier) HMS Audacity (D10), the first of her type put into service. That short run ended 80 years ago this week, after an abbreviated six-month roll in the barrel.

Completed for the Bremen-based shipping company by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack in early 1939, the 5,600-ton steamer was built for the “Banana Boat” route through Central America and the Caribbean, carrying a mix of cargo and third-class passengers. She was the third “Hannover” built for NDL, with the first, built in 1869, scrapped in 1894, and the second, a 7,300-ton vessel constructed in 1899, ceded to Britain as war reparation after Versailles then repurchased by NGL in 1922, returning to Bremen – New York crossings until she was laid up in 1926 then scrapped during the global depression in 1933.

Via Lloyds, 1939 edition, showing NDL’s third, and final, Hannover, just under the Danish-flagged Hans Broge.

At sea in Latin American waters when the war started, Hannover crept around neutral areas– primarily in Curacao– to remain ahead of Allied warships and eventually make it through the blockade back to Germany.

Her luck ran out after seven months while passing through the West Indies in the deep waters of the Mona Passage off the Dominican Republic. There, on 8 March 1940, the Canadian River-class destroyer HMCS Assiniboine (I 18) and the British light cruiser HMS Dunedin (D 93)— the latter fresh off of intercepting the German motor merchant Heidelberg (6530 grt) the week before which was scuttled by her crew west of the Windward passage to avoid capture– came across Hannover and, making the case that it was violating Pan-American Neutrality although it was still very near the Dominican Republic, moved in to capture the vessel.

Despite the German mariners’ efforts to set the ship ablaze and open her sea cocks, a crew from Assiniboine boarded the flaming and listing vessel and managed to save her.

SS Hannover as seen from HMCS ASSINIBOINE – 6 March 1940

Via The Naval and Military Museum, CFB Esquimalt: 

Immediately on being intercepted, Hannover’s crew, in the best tradition of blockade-runners, had set fire to the ship and completely wrecked the ship’s steering gear; some took to a boat and pulled for the shore.

Two hours after receiving the summons, Assiniboine was on the scene. She found the Hannover belching smoke and flames from her fore and after hatches, and the cruiser Dunedin close alongside with hoses pouring sea water into the stricken ship. At the gaff of the mainmast, the White Ensign flew above the Swastika and the Hannover’s Master and First Officer stood glumly on the bridge covered by an armed guard.

In a freshening on-shore wind, aside from the fire, the critical problem was the fact that the German was being rapidly carried close to the territorial waters of San Domingo, a neutral area. Although Hannover had by now a sharp list to starboard, Assiniboine secured on that side with a view to heading the burning ship seaward. However, the sea was such that the destroyer was threatened with serious damage, so a wire was passed and Assiniboine took her in tow, bow to bow, while Dunedin continued with much difficulty to keep close enough to make her hose lines effective.

Later that morning, Dunedin took over the tow while Assiniboine fire parties, still dressed in tropical whites, boarded the Hannover to bring the fire to closer quarters. While the burning ship swung and yawed, Assiniboine clung tenaciously to her side. Soon, Nature came to the assistance of the dogged firefighters in the form of a sudden tropical rain-storm.

The struggle went on for four days. As often happens with seamen, a humorous incident occurred 12 March that relieved for a moment the gravity of the salvage problem. From Dunedin to Assiniboine: “Close with all dispatch. Man overboard. Man is German attempting suicide.” Cdr. Mainguy wrote:

1425 – Sighted man swimming strongly.
1426 – Lowered whaler.
1430 – Whaler picked up man who requested the coxswain to shoot him. Coxswain regretted he had no gun.”
1500 – Evolution completed.

The Canadian towed the smoky, water-logged vessel into Kingston, Jamaica, turning her over to the port captain there on 13 March.

Welcome to the RN

Found to still be sound, the prize was requisitioned by the Admiralty and in November 1940 was converted to one of 20 or so “Ocean Boarding Vessels,” a type of lightly-armed auxiliary cruiser tasked to enforce the blockade and release HMs destroyers and cruisers from such work. In this, she was dubbed HMS Sinbad. Her main fixed armament was a Great War-era 4″/45 QF Mark V, backed up by an even older 6-pounder Hotchkiss, and a mix of 40mm (Vickers) and 20mm (Oerlikon) AAA guns to ward off long-reaching German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor maritime patrol aircraft.

However, this service was short-lived and, in January 1941 she was selected for deployment as the first merchant ship to be converted for use as an escort carrier.

After a four-month conversion at Blyth Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company (Cowpen Quay), Northumberland, which saw her superstructure removed and covered over by a flat deck sans any sort of traditional aircraft carrier “island” or bridge structure, she became HMS Empire Audacity on 17 June 1941 for service in Western Approaches for convoy defense.

Audacity, 1941. IWM 1203

With no hangar deck, she didn’t need any elevators and it was thought she could support as many as eight single-engined aircraft, be they Swordfish torpedo/strike planes or fighters. She was also fitted with one of the first early Type 79 radars.

HMS Audacity underway in coastal waters, 1941. IWM FL 1204

After acceptance and trials in the Clyde area, she marked her first deck landing with a Grumman Martlet (F4F-4 Wildcat) of 802 Squadron on 10 July. Formed in 1933 from 408 and 409 Fleet Fighter Flights, the squadron had just been reformed after being lost at sea aboard the carrier HMS Glorious on 8 June 1940 during the evacuation of Norway.

Martlet MkII British Fleet Air Arm (F4F Wildcat) of No. 888 Squadron, parked at La Senia airbase, Oran, Algeria, 14 December 1942. Some 1,123 Fleet Air Arm Martlets operated in all theatres of war including Norway, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Far East. USN photo

Her name was shortened to Audacity at the end of the month, dropping the “Empire.”

Joining five sloops and corvettes, the brand-new baby carrier became part of Convoy OG74 for passage to Gibraltar between 13 and 27 September, with six Martlets of 804 Squadron aboard. During the passage, U-124 and U-201 sank five of the 22 merchantmen, leaving Audacity to house 88 survivors. However, her fighters were able to draw blood, downing an Fw 200 Condor of KG40 during the trip.

Returning to Liverpool from Gibraltar with inward Convoy HG74, she made another run in November back to “The Rock” with OG76 in November, carrying six Martlets of 802 Squadron. 

That trip also saw a Wildcat vs Condor encounter.

From My Unofficial FAA History Page

8 November 1941 Lt Cdr J.M. Wintour (CO 802 NAS HMS Audacity) escorting Convoy OG76 to Gibraltar, shot down and killed while engaging a German Fw200 Condor. His wingman Sub Lt(A) D.A. Hutchison RN (pictured) took over the attack and the Condor crashed in flames.

Later that afternoon another Condor appeared. 802 NAS had one serviceable aircraft and another with a bent propeller. Hutchison took off again while Sub Lt(A) E.M. ‘Winkle’ Brown RNVR volunteered to fly the second aircraft, but the two got separated in cloud.

Brown intercepted two Fw200s and made four passes, including a head-on attack. The German bomber spun into the sea from a height of 10,000ft. The convoy reached Gibraltar without loss.

Sub-Lieutenant Eric M.Brown, R.N.V.R., Fleet Air Arm, with a Grumman Martlet Mk. I, circa 1941, during a time when he was assigned to Audacity

The Seerauber Gauntlet

Then came the homeward-bound HG76 Convoy, with 32 merchants headed from Gibraltar back to the Home Isles, escorted by a formidable force of 12 destroyers, sloops, and corvettes along with Audacity.

Audacity via Fleet Air Arm Museum, note the Martlets on her deck

Reported by German spies, 10 U-boats of reinforced Wolfpack Seerauber were waiting for the kill, sinking three small merchant ships of the convoy between the 19th and 21st of December. However, the British made them pay for it.

HG76 proved hairy for our little flattop, with Sub. Lt (A) Graham R.P. Fletcher RNVR, flying a Martlet of 802 NAS from the ship, becoming the first Fleet Air Arm aviator to be shot down by a submarine, when a damaged and surfaced U-131, her batteries leaking chlorine gas, was strafed by Fletcher and in turn downed by AAA fire from the U-boat’s 20mm and 37mm flak guns. Just 20 minutes later, U-131 went to the bottom and 47 of her crew were recovered. The Bittern-class sloop HMS Stork (L81) recovered fletcher’s body, and he was buried at sea the following morning– just before U-434 (Kptlt Heyda) was sunk by escorting destroyers.

On 19 December, as U-574 (Oblt Gengelbach) was rammed and sunk by the avenging Stork, Audacity’s aircrew managed to bag two further Condors.

By 21 December, Audacity’s luck ran out after the vessel’s Martlets chased off a second wave of Condors but, just after nightfall, was hit by a torpedo from U-751 (Kptlt. Gerhard Bigalk) that disabled her steering. While her crew was able to rush to control the damage, the dead in the water carrier proved too tempting a target for Bigalk not to take another bite, and he fired two more torpedoes into the vessel in a second run. These hit aviation fuel storage tanks and caused a massive explosion forward, which sent the carrier to the bottom.

Michael Turner’s illustration for Winkle Brown’s book sinking of the escort carrier HMS Audacity

She suffered at least 73 of her complement and embarked aircrew dead or missing, with the survivors picked up after over four hours fighting hypothermia in the freezing water. Of 802 Squadron, just two members were pulled from the water, including “Winkle” Brown. The squadron was disbanded for the *second time in two years.

Epilogue

U-751 would herself be sunk just seven months later, by depth charges from a British Whitley (502 Sqn RAF/H) and a Lancaster aircraft (61 Sqn RAF/F) taking all hands, including Bigalk, to the bottom.

The British would convert a few other, smaller, freighters to a similar layout as Audacity, with the four-vessel Avenger-class having a 190×47-foot below deck half hangar doubling their airwing to 15 single-engine fighters and strike aircraft (Swordfish and Avenger). Two of the four ships in the class were lost during the war with HMS Avenger (D14) sunk by U-155 off Gibraltar on 15 November 1942 and HMS Dasher (D37) lost in a mysterious explosion while in the Firth of Clyde.

HMS Avenger (D14) (converted 9,000-ton American type C3 Liberty ship SS Rio Hudson) underway in rough seas, date, and location unknown. Note the unusual camouflage scheme on her flight deck. Six Sea Hurricane IIC fighters are lined-up on the centerline. This image is often mistaken as one of Audacity. IWM FL 1268

*Of note, 802 Squadron, FAA, which had been lost almost to a man with Audacity, was re-formed at Yeovilton in February 1942 with Hawker Sea Hurricane Ibs, before embarking on Avenger for escorting Arctic Convoy PQ 18 in September– during which time five enemy aircraft were shot down and 17 damaged, in conjunction with 883 Squadron. The squadron was disbanded a third time after Avenger was lost two months later, certainly a tragic record of having been completely destroyed three times in three years. The squadron lay dormant till May 1945 when it was reformed at Arbroath with Supermarine Seafire L.IIIs and escaped further WWII service though it did see combat in Korea with “Hoagy” Carmichael famously downing a Nork MiG-15 with his Hawker Sea Fury.

Likewise, the Americans built their first escort carrier, USS Long Island (initially designated APV-1, but redesignated and commissioned as AVG-1, then later as Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier ACV-1 and finally CVE-1), between March and June 1941. A converted C3 Liberty, she looked a lot like the Avengers and Audacity

USS Long Island (AVG-1) underway on 8 July 1941, with two F2A Brewster Buffalo fighters parked at the forward end of her flight deck. Note flight deck markings: LI. The ship is painted in Measure 1 camouflage, with heavy weathering of paint evident on the hull side. 80-G-26567

No matter if you call them “jeep carriers,” or “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable,” the escort carrier concept is one we have covered a few times in the past several years on WW. Besides one-off training carriers and prototype ships, four large classes of U.S.-built CVEs (Bogue, Sangamon, Casablanca, Commencement Bay) were cranked out during WWII, approaching 150~ hulls planned or completed for Uncle Sam and his Allies. And Audacity just beat Long Island to the punch, completing just a few days before the USN’s inaugural model although Long Island was the first to handle aircraft, having been underway with operational test aircraft only days before Audacity launched her first Martlet.

In Sept. 1981, a commemorative stamp was issued celebrating the 40th anniversary of the downing of Audacity’s first Condor via Martlet.

Speaking of Martlets, Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN, who claimed his first kill while flying one of the chunky Grumman fighters from Audacity’s deck in November 1941, went on to be dubbed the “world’s greatest test pilot,” a title he earned after flying a whopping 487 types (a record verified by Guinness) over his career, interrogating Goering, becoming the only Allied pilot to fly both the rocket-powered Me 163 and more advanced Me 262, and making 2,407 carrier traps while testing the arrestor wires on more than 20 British flattops.

On 4 December 1945, he made the world’s first carrier landing by a jet, bringing the second prototype De Havilland DH.100 Sea Vampire Mk.10, No. LZ551, aboard HMS Ocean.

De Havilland Sea Vampire Mk.10 LZ551G catches the arresting wire aboard HMS Ocean, 3 December 1945.

“Winkle” Brown died at Redhill, Surrey, England, on 21 February 2016, at the age of 97 years.

Captain Eric M. Brown with the De Havilland DH.100 Sea Vampire Mk.10, LZ551, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, Somerset, England. (Nigel Cheffers-Heard, Fleet Air Arm Museum)

As for Hannover’s former owners, during World War II, NDL lost their entire fleet and restarted in the late 1940s with chartered ships. In 1970 the company amalgamated with Hamburg America Line to become HAPAG-Lloyd.

Specs: 

(Hannover, Sinbad)
Tonnage 5,600 GRT
Length: 434 ft 9 in
Beam: 56 ft 1 in
Draft: 27 ft 7 in
Machinery: Two 7 cyl. 2S.C.DA oil engines built by Vulkan Vegesack, 5,200 hp
Speed: 17 knots

(Changes as Empire Audacity/Audacity)

Displacement: 11,000 long tons (11,000 t)
Length: 467 ft 3 in
Beam: 56 ft 3 in
Draft: 27 ft 6 in
Speed 14.5 knots
Complement: 298 officers and men including 24 airwing personnel
Radar: Type 79B air warning radar
Armament
1 × 4″/45 QF Mark V gun
1 × 57/40 6-pounder Hotchkiss Mk I
4 × 40/39 2-pounder Vickers QF Mk II anti-aircraft guns
4 × 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons
Aviation facilities: Up to eight aircraft stowage spots on the deck, typically just embarked six


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