‘Battle in the Bay’ – Sunderland v Ju 88s

Sunderland flying boat in flight

The huge Short Sunderland flying boat had a crew of 9 but could accommodate as many as 80 men when used as a transport. Radar had only been introduced to the Sunderland in October 1941.

Two gunners in Short Sunderland Mark I, N9027, of No 210 Squadron RAF based at Oban, Argyll, sit at their positions with .303 Vickers K-type machine guns, mounted in the upper fuselage hatches.

Two gunners in Short Sunderland Mark I, N9027, of No 210 Squadron RAF based at Oban, Argyll, sit at their positions with .303 Vickers K-type machine guns, mounted in the upper fuselage hatches.

The aircraft of RAF Coastal Command were spread far and wide as the Allies sought to extend their surveillance of the seas. In turn of course the Germans were intent on fighting back. They attempted to arm their U-boats with better anti-aircraft guns. And they brought in more aircraft to take on the U-boat hunters.

No sea area was contested more fiercely than the Bay of Biscay. Here RAF aircraft were proving remarkably successful in catching U-boats as they departed from their French bases or returned from patrols. But the hunters soon became the hunted as the Luftwaffe brought more planes back to the area.

On 2nd June 1943 a Sunderland of 461 Squadron R.A.A.F took on eight Ju 88 and won. It was a remarkable air battle, memorably recorded by Ivan Southall, a member of the Squadron at the time:

1855 hours. The turrets moved slowly while eyes strained in the sunlight. This was indeed the Tiger Country, a slaughteryard, a stage for a play of suspense and savagery, where all men at one time or another knew the meaning of fear. Here there were no parachutes and no patriots in the back country.

1900 hours. Goode, swinging his tail turret to the right, suddenly stopped. His eyes widened and his heart missed a beat:
“Tail to Control,” he barked.“Eight aircraft. Thirty degrees on the port quarter. Six miles. Up one thousand feet.”
Pause. Electric silence. A moment or two of shock. Simpson suddenly jumped to the astrodome. Walker rammed his throttles wide and sounded the alarm. Dowling hauled on the pitch levers and the engines howled at twenty-six hundred revolutions a minute.
“Control to Tail. Can you identify those aircraft?”
“Twin-engined,” said Goode. “Probably Junkers 88’s.”
They were. They came sweeping in at high speed.

“Captain to Wireless Operator.” Walker’s voice was sharp and urgent.
“Message to Group. O/A Priority. Attacked by eight JU-88s . . . . How’s that inner engine, Engineer?”
“No worse, Captain. No better.”
“Captain to Galley. Have you got the bomb-racks out?”
“Ready, Captain.”
“Right. Bombs gone. You’ve got to work fast. Run in the racks, close the doors, and get cracking with the galley guns. Who’s down there to man them?”
“Miles on the starboard, sir. Lane on the port.”
“Thanks.”
“Control to all positions.” That was Simpson again. “They’ve spread all round us. Hold your fire until they’re in range. Don’t shoot before six hundred yards. Three are on the Starboard beam; three port beam; one on each quarter. Range fifteen hundred yards; fifteen hundred feet up.”
Simpson paused and they all waited. Suddenly his voice was there again, precise, calm, yet – underlaid with urgency.
“Okay. They’re coming. One peeling off from each beam. Prepare to corkscrew. Twelve hundred yards. One thousand yards. They’re firing. Prepare to corkscrew to starboard. Eight hundred yards. Corkscrew starboard. Go!”
Walker jammed over the wheel with a violent thrust of strength. The Sunderland screwed steeply down. Shell and tracer blasted right through it. “Corkscrew port. Port. Now port. Go!”
Walker savagely reversed controls. The boat shuddered with shock and climbed giddily to the left. The port-outer engine burst into flames. Smoke and fire scattered over the wing. Incendiary bullets ripped up the cockpit. Walkers compass blew up and sprayed him with blazing alcohol. Liquid fire splashed across the bridge and poured down the companionway into the bow compartment.

Through a confusion of sound and vibration and choking smoke Walker heard Simpson urging him to straighten up. But two more 88’s were on the way in. They had blooded. They had scored in the first attack. They were screaming in for the kill. Walker yelled at Dowling.
“Take over! Fly it! We’ve got to get these fires out!”
Amiss wrenched the extinguisher from its bracket on the bulkhead and turned it full onto the captain, because Walker was burning. Simpson’s calm voice still was coming through the earphones.
“Eight hundred yards,” he was saying. “Corkscrew port . . . Corkscrew port . . . .”
And Walker was hearing it but seeing nothing, only smelling the smoke and the extinguishing fluid, and now the Sunderland was plunging down again and Dowling was fighting the controls. Amiss, hanging on his extinguisher and clinging for support to anything he could hold, was chasing the fires. Walker pressed the Graviner switch to extinguish the blazing engine. The fire snuffed out into clouds of white smoke which the aircraft left behind it as a billowing trail. The engine was finished. The airscrews windmilled and dragged and Dowling was up against it. Walker swung on Amiss again.
“Give the wireless operator a message for Group, On Fire.”

The 88’s were still coming in, again and again. They pressed home their attacks with increasing fury and reckless courage and Dowling could, scarcely hold his aircraft. It was pulling like a mad thing to port into the dead engine. He wound the trimming tabs over as fast as his hand could fly, but it still didn’t take up the pressure; he still had full weight jammed against the rudder pedal to hold it in control. Simpson’s voice suddenly dropped in pitch.
“They’re reforming. They’ve returned to the quarters and the beams.”
There was a pause, a breather for a few seconds. Amiss overcame the fires on the bridge and Walker again took the controls. There was a brief silence on the intercom. They were in terrible trouble, and there wasn’t a man aboard who tried to deceive himself into believing that they weren’t. Suddenly a new voice came over the intercom. It was Fuller in the midships turret, up there on top in the weakening sunlight. He was singing:
“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
“They’re coming,” said Simpson. “One from port and one from starboard.

The full account can be read at N/461 or in the original volume, see Ivan Southall: They Shall Not Pass Unseen. Ivan Southall’s childrens’ books have been published in many countries, this early memoir of wartime flying is difficult to obtain.

The Ju 88 was to become a mainstay of the Luftwaffe fleet but it had spent a long time in development as it was intended to perform so many roles.

The Ju 88 was to become a mainstay of the Luftwaffe fleet but it had spent a long time in development as it was intended to perform so many roles.

The Junkers Ju 88A-1. The original bomber version of the highly adaptable Junkers 88 aircraft.

The Junkers Ju 88A-1. The original bomber version of the highly adaptable Junkers 88 aircraft.

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