Canada in the Second World War

Arms & Weapons

Attack on U-604 by Canso of 5 (BR) Squadron, February 24th, 1943

Flight Lieutenant Colborne and his crew were dispatched to reinforce air protection for convoy ON-166, then under heavy attack by a pack of eighteen U-boats. Before reaching the convoy, Colborne sighted U-604 and immediately launched the attack. Contrary to the crew’s belief, the U-boat escaped and the captain reported to base: “Both compressors torn off. Shafts displaced in axial direction. Diesel clutches are pounding hard. Main clutches cannot be fully disengaged. Main ballast tank V has 50 cm long crack. Tank vents air very rapidly. Moved off at 50° to make repairs.” The following narratives are from the RCAF file about the attack.

Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Heritage, 181.003 (D1338).

F/L F.C. Colborne’s Account of Attack on U-Boat, February 24th, 1943

I have been asked for a complete account of my attack on an enemy “U Boat” on Feb 24th 1943. To start with, I really should go back to the night before.

Our squadron had its first “Smoker” on the night of the 23rd and of course my whole crew was there. We knew we had a long hard day ahead of us and could not enter into the festivities or remain very late. After ensuring that all “my lads” had returned to their quarters, I too, went to my room and went to bed.

My efforts to sleep were rather unsuccessful, as they sometimes are, previous to a patrol. It would be a night take off – at least three hours of flying in the dark – heading out to sea. What would the weather be like? Would the sea be rough? Would we find the convoy? These and other thoughts raced through my mind my sleep was fitful.

At 3 o’clock in the morning the phone rang – it was “operations” – time to get up!

I woke my Navigator, washed shaved and dressed had breakfast. Transport arrived at the mess at 345 and took Myself and the Navigator to “ops”.

It is at “Ops” that we are “briefed”. We are given our orders for the patrol. All information about “our convoy” Its position course & speed. Also intelegence. There were about twenty “Subs” in the “wolf pack” they were giving the convoy a rough time. Seven ships had been sunk during the night and the convoy, which was just coming into range of our aircraft, needed air protection badly. The distance was great and we would have to be very accurate in our navigation as we could only remain two and a half hours before shortage of fuel would force us to set course for base. That was only part of the picture. What about weather.

From our visit to the meteorologist who is jokingly know as “the Crystal Gazer” we learned that between us and the convoy there would be fog for two hundred miles then an overcast of stratocumulus from 1000 to 2500 feet then nearing the convoy area a big high which meant good weather probably cavu (ceiling and visibility unlimited). From that report we decided that “over the top by astro” was the only way. We took our orders and equipment and were then transported to the hangar.

When we arrived the other lads in the crew had the aircraft ready and waiting. Engines were warming up, crew members in their places checking instruments – radio, guns. I was glad that it was aircraft number 9738 because we were flying her when we had our first attack and had become quite attached to her.

It was 5 o’clock when we were “airborn” and set course from the airport to intercept the convoy. From then on it was routine flying. The navigator busily going about his job of getting us to the convoy. The Wag [wireless operator/air gunner] at his radio sets keeping listening watch for any messages which Base may wish to send. The engineer nursing maximum power from his engines for a minimum of fuel consumption. All was serene and the “trip out” was uneventful until 1245 G.M.T. at which time we received a message from base advising us that a merchant ship had been torpedoed and that six submarines had been sighted in a position eighty miles east of the convoys estimated position. We altered course! Everyone was doubly alert. After another half hour it happened!

We were at 3000 ft altitude when I saw the “u boat” 6 miles ahead and slightly to port. As promissed by the weather man it was a cloudless day in this area. No cloud cover! No chance to sneak up on him! I slapped open the throttles and started to dive t gain speed. The copilot, sgt. Duncan, gave the alarm signal to the rest of the crew and prepared to take pictures of the approach to attack. I was sure we could never get to him in time. But he was caught napping. Duncan took two pictures as we approached.

It seemed to take hours to get near him. Why didn’t he dive? He must see us now? I began to fear that he was going to shoot it out with us. Could we hold our own against his superior fire power? How close should I go before taking evasive action? The decision was made for me! That tell-tale puff of smoke from the U boat stern signalled the start of his crash dive.

But all too late! We were doing two hundred miles per hour – too fast! 800 ft – too high. I cut throttles shoved her nose down and made the attack. Throttles on again as we were in close – then the moment for release of the depth charges! Every pilot knows instinctively as he pushes the release button if the attack was good. I was happy! The front gun, conning tower and all of the stern of the U boat were visible as we passed over.

Then a quick turn to port t give the camera operator his chance to get the pictures which are so important in determining results of the attack. As we turned I could see through the settling water of our explosion, what appeard to be the conning tower wallowing through the swirling water. It sank and then came air bubbles a large boiling mass of tem! These lasted for about 10 minutes, then oil spread overt eh area with bits of debris.

We remained in the vicinity for nearly an hour before setting course for base. It was a long drag back t base, taking seven hours to complete, but we were all happy.

We had dinner on the way in and the rest of the flight was quiet – punctuated at intervals by whoops of joy and bits of song.

When we landed we all reported to the intelegence officers office to tell our story and have our photos developed. They turned out perfectly and will be a lasting record of one of the greatest events in our lives.

Account of Attack by Leading Aircraftsman J. Watson, Engineer

While preparing to attend a smoker I was interrupted by an airman who informed me that we were flying on patrol early in the morning. My job on the crew is 2nd engineer which meant that a few glasses of beer was strictly out of the question, that made me desperately unhappy as I was very dry.

Forgetting the smoker I grabbed off a few hours sleep and with the 1st engineer Sgt Thomson we made all necessary preparations for take off. With the engines all tested I checked to see that all the crew was aboard and closed the blisters.

Rapidly we raced down the runway and glided gently into the air leaving the beer and our cozy beds behind. We soon past over the rugged waste lands of Newfoundland and was welcomed by very calm ocean which is extremely helpful in siting submarines.

Then coming so unexpected the excited voice of the co-pilot F/S Duncan “Submarine” immediately I jumped to my feet and opened the blister, the white wash of the submarine was very attracting against the green ocean as it darted threw the water like a bal out of hell. I quickly unfastened the gun as the navigator F/O Erving and F/S Blain came scrambling out of the forward compartment of the aircraft with the camera. Then I realized that they were going to be in my way as I was dying to get a crack at one of Hitler’s little pets.

The captain F/L Colbourne then gave the aircraft all she would take and as I gazed for a moment at the fluttering wings I thought our goose was cooked. With the submarine still fully surfaced and drawing closer and closer I immediately prepared for action as I believed he was going to have guts enough to stay up and give us a little excitement. But the navigator believing pictures were very important kind of pushed me aside from the gun and began taken pictures. While amidst the excitement and extreme wind the navigator made a desperate attempt to get a full few picture of the fully surfaced submarine but was nearly drawn out of the plane only for the good work of F/S Blain who grabbed his legs and pulled him back in the blister. When I saw the large guns on the submarine it was just a toss up whether to let the navigator go and use the guns or let him have his pictures but being one of the crew I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

As the aircraft fastly pulled closer a slite movement of the submarine made me believe it was starting to dive but knew its chances were very slim and I was partly relieved. As the water seemed to be coming up at a terrific speed I wandered if we could come out of the dive but at the same moment the depth charges dropped which took my mind of the danger.

I followed the one charge as it dropped threw the air and it seemed to hit directly in front of the conning tour of the submarine. The next moment we had to look behind as we were going at a terrific speed and then came the terrible explosion of the charges.

The water just seemed to leap into the air and hang there about a hundred feet for several seconds. As the white splash was settling the Wireless airgunner threw out some markers so we could find the spot and the navigator still taken pictures.

The captain swung the plane around and returned to the spot which was marked plainly by upcoming air bubbles and spots of oil followed closely by parts of light coloured objects which was somewhat the same colour as the calling tour. The danger was all over and Hitler’s little pet was blown to peaces. The whole crew seemed as one happy family as we went over our doings and tryied to find out were improvement on the attack could have been improved.

After flying around the marked spot for about an hour and the operator taken pictures of the bubbles we lost the position and started for our home base. We went through all this on an empty stomach so the captain asked me to cook up a warm meal which really hit the spot. I guess if we had had dinner first we could of done a better job possibly brought them back alive?

We wasted no time on returning to base as we fell a little proud for the job that we had done and was anxious to kid the boys along about how we got our man. As we approached our home destination we quickly got permission to land and was welcomed by a excited crowd at the hanger.

We went over our doings with the intelligence off and enjoyed coffee and sandwiches while waiting after giving him the full story and seeing the pictures we took we proceeded to barracks for a well deserved rest, all ready to repeat the Yanks saying off “We done it before and we can do it again.