Hunting in the Bay of Biscay: November 1942 - October 1943
While AAF antisubmarine units played a minor role in the Battle of the Atlantic, they made a far greater contribution in assisting British forces on patrol in the Bay of Biscay. To reach patrol areas in the Atlantic from July 1940 until October 1943, almost a year after the AAF ceased antisubmarine operations, most German submarines sailed from four French ports through the Bay of Biscay. From the west coast of France and the north coast of Spain, the bay extends to Ushant Island off the coast of Brittany, France, south to Cape Finisterre at the northwest tip of Spain. Approximately 300 miles from north to south and 120 miles east to west, the Bay of Biscay was relatively confined transit area that could be patrolled by long-range aircraft flying from bases in Britain.
The RAF Coastal Command, in charge of Britain's aerial antisubmarine effort, patrolled the bay as frequently as possible. To assist the British, the AAF sent antisubmarine groups at two different times. The first joined the RAF Coastal Command in February 1943, before moving to North Africa. The second operated over the bay from July through October 1943.
By the fall of 1942, the Germans had equipped their submarines with a warning device to detect longwave radar and thus avoid being caught on the surface. The RAF Coastal Command immediately requested a contingent of B-24 Liberators equipped with microwave radar, which the enemy could not detect. In response, the AAF sent the 1st Antisubmarine Squadron, under the command of Lt. Col. Jack Roberts, to Great Britain in November.
While stationed at St. Eval, Cornwall, the 1st Antisubmarine Squadron operated under the control of RAF Coastal Command. It flew its first mission on November 1, long before reaching its full strength of sixteen aircraft. Subsequent flights were nominally in support of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. They were, however, essentially training missions that extended up to six hundred miles into the Atlantic Ocean south and west of the British Isles. The squadron quickly became familiar with the British methods of flight planning, communications, patrol patterns, and administration and learned to use the new microwave radar equipment aboard the B-24s. Soon the aircrews were accustomed to long and exhausting missions of ten to twelve hours.
Two months later, in January 1943, the 2d Antisubmarine Squadron joined the 1st at St. Eval. The two squadrons became the 1st Antisubmarine Group (Provisional) on January 15, the day before their first command patrol.
Augmented by the American squadrons, the RAF Coastal Command planned a nine-day offensive in the bay to coincide with the February return of German submarines from convoy battles in the North Atlantic. Beginning on February 6, the command flew over three hundred missions, which resulted in nineteen sightings and eight attacks. With the advantage of microwave radar, the American B-24s accounted for fifteen sightings and five attacks. On the 10th, "Tidewater Tillie," a Liberator of the 2d Antisubmarine Squadron, piloted by 1st Lt. W.L. Sanford, sank U-519 about six hundred miles west of Lorient, France--the first U-boat kill by the AAF in the EAME theater.
In the four months that American B-24s were stationed in Great Britain, their aircrews flew 1,966 hours in 218 missions, sighting twenty German submarines, attacking eleven, and sinking one. On the average, they made one sighting for every 98.3 hours of flying time and one attack for every 177.8 flight hours. The Americans achieved these results despite losses from enemy aircraft attacks.
In April the continued
pressure from the RAF Coastal Command led Dönitz to change his methods
of operations. U-boats crossing the Bay of Biscay were ordered to
submerge at night, surface during the day to recharge batteries and
travel more swiftly, and fight any attacking aircraft. The last tactic
proved to be a serious mistake. A month later, the British sank seven
submarines in sixty-four attacks, at a cost of six aircraft. The German
commander did not realize the Allies' uncanny ability to locate
submarines with microwave radar and Ultra intelligence. On June 1, he
ordered the submarines to cross the bay in groups, believing that their
combined antiaircraft flak would drive off the British aircraft. Two
weeks later, the Germans lost another U-boat, and two more were severely
damaged. The commander also ordered the submarines to cross the
bay submerged and to surface only to charge batteries, but that practice
seriously harmed crew morale at the beginning of their patrols. Slowing
down the submarines shortened their time on battle stations once they
cleared the bay allowed the RAF Coastal Command more time to locate them
when they surfaced. Dönitz also failed to revoke the fatal order that
required surfaced submarines to fight off attacking aircraft.
Having received renewed support and reinforcement, the Coastal Command planned more intensive operations over the Bay of Biscay, using aircraft and surface vessels no longer needed on the convoy routes. The Allies soon developed an effective killer-hunter operation. The Coastal Command arranged new search patterns, having aircraft fly parallel courses three times each day in a wide area north and northwest of Cape Finisterre. The AAF B-24s patrolled the southernmost areas near the coast of Spain.
The revitalized American patrols found good hunting. On July 13, the 479th Antisubmarine Group flew its first mission over the bay. Only a week later, 1st Lt. C. F. Gallmeir, a B-24 pilot from the 19th Antisubmarine Squadron, bombed U-558 approximately 150 miles north of Cape Finisterre. The U-boat's crew abandoned ship just as the B-24, flying on three engines, turned toward its home base. The same day, near the area of Gallmeirer's attack, a pair of German submarines shot down an AAF Liberator. All aboard were killed. That was the only AAF B-24 lost to U-boat antiaircraft fire in the Bay of Biscay offensive because enemy submarines usually failed to seriously damage the attacking aircraft before being forced to submerge. On July 28, a B-24 of the 4th Antisubmarine Squadron sank U-404, two hundred miles north of Cape Finisterre.
As large numbers of aircraft and naval vessels were released from North Atlantic convoy duty in mid- 1943, the pace of the deadly killer-hunt operations in the Bay of Biscay quickened. When a patrolling aircraft spotted and unsuccessfully attacked a German submarine, it radioed the quarters, which dispatched a force of ships and aircraft to maintain contact with the submarine and attack as opportunity arose.
In a single engagement on one exceptional day, the Allies' killer-hunt tactics netted three German submarines in the Bay of Biscay. On July 30, 1943, an AAF B-24 Liberator spotted three U-boats almost 150 miles north of Cape Finisterre. Short on fuel, the pilot radioed the position and brought to the area one British Sunderland, a four-engine long-range bomber; another AAF B-24; and a U.S. Navy flying boat. These five aircraft attacked the three submarines through a barrage of antiaircraft fire. Eventually, a Halifax ruptured the pressure tank of U-462, and the other Halifax left. Soon, a Royal Australian Air Force Sunderland arrived to attack and to sink U-461. As a British task force of surface vessels sailed onto the scene, another Halifax destroyed U-452. The warships then blew up the submerged U-504 with depth charges. This effort, involving aircraft and ships of five Allied armed services, epitomized joint tactical cooperation in antisubmarine warfare. Three days later, about 250 miles norht near the northwest area of the cape, another B-24 of the 4th Antisubmarine Squadron sank U-706--the last kill scored by the AAF B-24s in the bay. The 479the Antisubmarine Group ended operations with only one more sighting and unsuccessful attack between early August and October 31, 1943.
Instead of attacking submarines, the AAF B-24 Liberators spent August and September fighting German aircraft. For two months, the Luftwaffe provided enough air coverage to threaten Allied aerial control over the Bay of Biscay. Although the B-24 aircrews avoided combat whenever possible, enemy aircraft aggressively pursued the fight. Ju 88s, usually flying in groups of six or more, accounted for a dozen Allied aircraft lost, including two AAF B-24s, and fourteen American lives. Still, the Luftwaffe could not drive the Allies from the bay.
All in all, the Bay of Biscay operations met the RAF Coastal Command's expectations. The 479th Antisubmarine Group flew an average of only 54 hours per sighting in July 1943, an exceptional record compared with most AAF Antisubmarine Command patrols, which flew hundreds of hours off the east coast of the United States and in the Caribbean Sea without a single sighting. From July 13 to August 2, the 479th's aircrews sighted twelve submarines, attacked seven, and sank three. During that time, the relatively small area of the bay accounted for about a quarter of all Allied attacks on U-boats and almost 40 percent of those destroyed. The entire Allied offensive, from mid-May to early August, destroyed twenty-eight U-boats and severely damaged seventeen others, forcing them to return to home port for repairs. Seldom could a U-boat surface in or near the Bay of Biscay without being spotted by an aircraft. German submarine forces could not recover the initiative they had lost during the convoy battles in the North Atlantic earlier in the year.