Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Jan.13, 2021: Of Hurricat and Hoverfly
Here we see a very early Sikorsky R-4 rotorcraft (BuNo 46445), a type designated the HNS-1 helicopter by the U.S. Navy and the Hoverfly I by the Royal Navy, comes in astern of the red duster-flying British Motor Vessel Daghestan during tests on Long Island Sound in early January 1944. The pilot is LCDR Frank A. Erickson, Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 1, while his passenger in the two-man craft is Army Brig. Gen. Frank Lowe, the latter of whom was on special duty with the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program.
Sure, Daghestan is a merchie, but she truly deserves her place in a Warship Wednesday as you shall see.
Wartime construction built for the Hindustan Steam Shipping Co. Ltd, of Newcastle to replace a lost ship of the same name, MV Daghestan was a 7,200-ton Santa Rosa SR-3 type grainer with four holds. Laid down at William Doxford & Sons Ltd., Pallion, as Yard No. 674, she was completed in August 1941. As a British cargo ship plying the North Atlantic during the “Happy Times” of Donitz’s U-boat wolf packs, her life expectancy outlook was mixed at best, and she was soon on regular convoy runs.
Soon after she was completed, Daghestan was one of eight privately-owned British merchies that, along with 27 Ministry of War Transport-owned ships, were selected for use in the Catapult Armed Merchantman program. The CAM ships were a desperate effort by the Brits to counter long-ranging German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor patrol bombers of Fliegerführer Atlantik who were prowling the sea lanes between Canada and Ireland, bird-dogging convoys who had no air cover.
The ungainly Condors proved extremely effective in both cueing U-boats and plinking freighters on their own, reportedly taking credit for some 365,000 tons of Allied shipping between June 1940 and February 1941 via low-altitude bomb drops on slow-moving targets.
Winston Churchill described the Condor as the “Scourge of the Atlantic” and penned a March 1941 memo to the MOD saying:
We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Fokke Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Fokke Wulf, and other bombers employed against our shipping, must be attacked in the air and in their nests.
Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult, or otherwise launch, fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week.
As with the other CAM ships, Daghestan had a short 85-foot catapult fitted over her bow, just past her forward cargo hatch– these mini aircraft carriers were still expected to carry their full cargo load on escort missions. Her aircraft, mounted on the cat for a single-use launch, was a decrepit “Sea Hurricane Mk. IA,” an aircraft essentially on its last legs and otherwise unfit for further front-line service but still flyable enough to take on a slow and relatively lightly armed Condor in a one-on-one dogfight.
Modified by General Aircraft Limited to be carried by CAM ships, these Sea Hurricanes, typically referred to as Hurricats or Catafighters, were given more than 80 modifications including an easily removable canopy (as the pilot likely had to ditch at sea), a 44-gallon overflow fuel tank to extend the plane’s range (which might make it able to reach shore) and an on-board rapidly deployable dinghy for logical reasons. About 50 such Hurricanes were converted, assigned to the RAF’s purpose-formed Merchant Ship Fighter Unit, and manned by volunteers.
The catapult was angled to starboard over the bow, both to prevent the blast from its rockets smoking the superstructure, and to reduce the risk of the pilot being overtaken by the ship, should the Hurricat wind up ditching on launch.
One of the pilots assigned to Daghestan during her CAM service, Alec Lumsden, reportedly told his son that “his back was never the same” after being catapult certified.
Between August 1941 and August 1942, Daghestan shipped out on at least seven Atlantic convoys as a CAM ship, often with similarly equipped vessels to help share the load.
While she did not have to launch her Hurricat, at least nine combat launches from other CAM ships took place during the conflict, resulting in nine downed German aircraft, thus proving the concept. When it came to the Hurricats themselves, eight of the nine launched ditched at sea, with seven pilots recovered alive. The ninth aircraft, on a Murmansk convoy, was close enough to Russia to make shore– after splashing two He 111s out of Norway.
Regardless, with the increased use of escort carriers, the CAM project was phased out by 1943, leaving Daghestan and her fellow Hurricat-carrying partners to land their catapults and bid the RAF goodbye. She went on to pull at least another seven convoys with just her guns for protection by October 1943, but that doesn’t mean she was done with aviation.
Enter the whirlybird
Igor I. Sikorsky’s attempts to create a practical helicopter got a big boost from the Army in December 1940 when they gave him $50,000 for his XR-4 concept aircraft, itself a development of his earlier VS-300. The helicopter first flew on 14 January 1942, with Sikorsky chief test pilot Les Morris at the controls. The first production aircraft, 41-18874, was adopted by the Army in May 1942.
By 1943, more advanced versions of the R-4 were fielded, and the aircraft was theorized to be able to carry small bombs or casualty litters.
Soon, floats were fitted to make the eggbeater amphibious, leading to tests from the decks of the hastily converted freighter SS Bunker Hill and the troopship USS James Parker. From there, the Coast Guard and Navy ordered a trio of YR-4Bs while the Royal Navy signed on for seven. In the end, the Navy would up this to a full 20 aircraft, designating it the HNS-1 (Helicopter, Navy, Sikorsky, model 1) while the British Fleet Air Arm, in conjunction with the RAF, would eventually buy 45.
The first British ship to operate them was our humble Daghestan.
Coast Guard LCDR Frank A. Erickson, an unsung aviation pioneer, trained at Sikorsky Aircraft Company’s plant at Bridgeport then by November 1943 was aboard Daghestan, which was anchored in Long Island as a floating testbed for the YR-4 series. With her bow catapult long removed, she now carried a stern helicopter pad.
In all, Erickson would conduct shipboard trials with the R-4 while eventually training 102 helicopter pilots and 225 mechanics, including personnel from the Army Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Navy.
He also made history on 3 January 1944 when he rushed much-needed plasma by helicopter from Battery Park to a hospital in Sandy Hook through a severe winter storm. The plasma, used to treat injured sailors from the damaged destroyer USS Turner (DD-648), was a literal lifesaver.
As for our ship, she solidified her place in naval lore when she left New York in convoy HX 274 on 6 January 1944, headed to Liverpool, with two Royal Navy-manned R-4s aboard, ready to fight. Daghestan’s choppers were fitted with floats and believed to have flown convoy-protection trials from the ship during the voyage.
The trials must have been successful as the Brits soon deployed other R-4s, dubbed Hoverfly Is, with the escort carrier HMS Thane (D48) at the end of December 1944.
In the meantime, our freighter was back to her more traditional convoy runs, sans choppers. Typically carrying Canadian wheat/grain/flour and mail, she crossed the Atlantic at least 18 times* headed West to Britain, and then returned back east again with largely empty holds.
*Convoys, via War Sailors.com:
ON 11 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) Aug. 30- Sept 11, 1941, CAM
HX 151 Halifax to Liverpool Sept 22-Oct. 7, 1941 CAM with fellow CAM Empire Spray
HX 160 Halifax to Liverpool Nov. 15-30, 1941 CAM with five other CAM ships!
HX 170 Halifax to Liverpool Jan. 13-28, 1942 CAM along with Empire Spray
HX 187 Halifax to Liverpool April 26- May 8, 1942 CAM along with Empire Foam and Primrose Hill
HX 194 Halifax to Liverpool June 14-26, 1942 CAM along with Empire Day
HX 203 Halifax to Liverpool Aug 16- 28 1942 CAM (with Clyde Commodore aboard)
HX 210 Halifax to Liverpool Oct. 1-16, 1942
HX 216 Halifax to Liverpool Nov. 19-Dec. 6, 1942
ON 159 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) Jan 4-20, 1943
HX 225/226 Halifax to Liverpool Feb. 8-24, 1943
ON 170 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) March 3-20, 1943
HX 252 Halifax to Liverpool Aug 14-28, 1943
ON 203 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) Sept. 22-Oct 8, 1943
HX 274 New York to Liverpool Jan 6-21, 1944 helicopter mission
HX 282 New York to Liverpool March 6-22, 1944
HX 292 New York to Liverpool May 19-June 2, 1944 (96 ship convoy!)
HX 299 New York to Liverpool July 11-24, 1944
ON 223 Belfast to New York Aug. 2-16, 1944
HX 305/306 New York to Liverpool Aug. 31-Sept. 17, 1944
HX 319 New York to Liverpool (Hull) Nov. 9-25, 1944
HX 342 New York to Liverpool April 1945
Coming through the war in one piece, Daghestan was disarmed and soon back on the commercial trade with Hindustan Steam.
Sold in 1957 to Asimarfield Shipping Corporation of Monrovia, she left her Red Duster behind for a Liberian flag as MV Annefield for another decade of service.
On 21 February 1969, MV Annefield was delivered to Isaac Manuel Davalillo in Castellon, Spain, where demolition began in May.
Displacement: 7248 grt, 4389 nrt, 10325 dwt
Length: 442.9 ft.
Beam: 56.5 ft.
Draft: 27.4 ft. (35.5 depth of hold)
Propulsion: Oil 2SA 3cyl (600 x 2320mm), 1 screw
2 x 3-inch guns
4 x AAA guns, possibly 40mm or 3-inch DP
1 x Sea Hurricane (single use) CATODITCH, Aug 1942-Aug 1943
1-2 R-4 series helicopters (stern deck, no hangar) Nov 1943- Jan 1944
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