Measures to combat air attacks on Shipping

HMS Cairo, an Anti Aircraft Cruiser

From the Naval Military and Air Situation up to 12 noon on February 8, 1940 as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval Situation

Home Waters

1. Enemy air attacks on East Coast shipping were renewed on 3 February. … only one small Norwegian ship was actually sunk. Three convoys were attacked without success; the escorting vessels, which included H.M.S. Cairo (A.A.cruiser), engaged the enemy aircraft and drove them off. 3 Heinkels were shot down by our fighters and another was damaged.

2. On the same day H.M. Minesweeper Sphinx (senior officer of the fifth Minesweeping Flotilla) was bombed 15 miles north of Kinnaird Head, sustaining considerable damage and the loss of the Commanding Officer and four ratings. The ship was taken in tow but eventually capsized in heavy seas; two officers and 44 men were rescued by H.M.S. Boreas (who damaged her bows when going alongside H.M.S. Sphinx), but four officers and 45 men lost their lives. The wreck is now ashore off Lybster. Attacks were made on four of H.M. Trawlers, the Reboundo and Willow off the Tyne and Yarmouth respectively, and the Arctic Explorer and the Hugh Walpole off the Orkneys. One officer and one rating were wounded.

3. The third Canadian Troop Convoy, escorted by H.M.S. Malaya , H.M.S. Valiant and 13 destroyers, arrived in the Clyde on 7 February.
H.M.S. Southampton has been engaged since 4th February in a search off the Norwegian Coast fought for enemy ships believed to be carrying munitions from Germany to Murmansk. A flying boat has been assisting her in this operation. Southampton is to be relieved in order that the search can be continued.

5. On 3rd February an explosion occurred in the minesweeping trawler Firefly as a result of the detonation of a mine which was being recovered in the Firth of Forth. One lieutenant R.N.V.R., three sub-lieutenants R.N.V.R. and 6 or more ratings were killed. One lieutenant R.N.V.R.and four ratings were wounded. She was subsequently towed into Leith.

12. There are about 320 ships between 500 and 2,000 gross tonnes on the East Coast at sea and in harbour on a given day. Over these, 90 are already armed with a 12-pdr. and 16 others are now in hand for arming. In order to complete the remaining ships in this class with minimum delay, urgent action has been taken through the Ministry of Shipping with the Area Committees at the ports to lay up these ships in rotation for arming as quickly as possible, and it is expected that all vessels over 500 gross tons trading regularly on the East Coast will have a 12-pdr. gun mounted by the end of March.

13. A pool of 120 Lewis guns manned by naval personnel is established on the East Coast. These men are detailed for ships trading regularly between ports from the Firth of Forth to London. In certain cases they are retained in ships proceeding onwards to the north of France and Channel ports. These equipments are moved from ship to ship our circumstances require. 100 additional Lewis guns will be distributed in the immediate future to other vessels sailing on the East Coast not hitherto provided for. These guns will be manned by merchant Navy personnel as naval ratings are not available.

14. Schermuley rockets are being distributed to east coast ports now force applied to merchant ships and fishing vessels generally. Trials have recently been carried out at Portsmouth with a lethal head which is to be attached to these rockets. The results of these trials is not yet known. Approval is being given for the purchase of a further 20,000 Schermuley rockets, and a high degree of priority is being given to other and more effective weapons for defence against a low-bombing and machine-gun attacks.

A Schermuley rocket can be seen standing upright in the corner

15. Shipowners have already been given detailed advice concerning the protection of helmsman, lookouts and other exposed personnel from machine gunfire. The majority of ships have already fitted some kind of protection, e.g. sandbags. Other and more effective means of protection, such as steel pillboxes and concrete blocks have been recommended and immediate action is now being taken to the Ministry of Shipping to ensure that all ships in an area subject to air attack are provided with some adequate means of protection of this kind.

16. Forty-five trawlers have already been armed with 12-pdrs and eight others have been selected for a similar armaments. Of the 450 trawlers operating in the North Sea, Lewis guns have been distributed for all except about 38. Approximately 300 additional Lewis guns will be required for the drifter fleet in April when fishing is due to start. Training of fishing personnel in the use of these guns is in progress at fishing ports on the East Coast and is being received with enthusiasm by the men concerned.

Military Situation

26. There have been no important movements during the week and operations have been restricted to patrolling. Unfavourable weather conditions have made air reconnaissance virtually impossible. On the Saar front, the 15th Infantry Brigade has been relieved by the 8th Infantry Brigade.

Air Situation

Royal Air Force Operations

Bomber Command
35. Weather conditions during the week brought operations almost to a standstill. Many of the aerodromes were unserviceable owing to the bad state of the ground. The only operation which bomber command have undertaken is a sweep by six Wellingtons on 1st February in the western part of the North Sea. Visibility was extremely bad, and nothing of particular interest was seen.

Fighter Command
36. Adverse weather conditions generally restricted air operations during the week. On 3 February, however, the German Air force made a series of widespread attacks on the East Coast shipping, and several top fighter patrols were dispatched south of the Wash visibility was limited to 500 yards, and they were continual showers of snow and sleet, but further north, flying conditions were better, and our fighters were able to operate more successfully. Six enemy aircraft were sighted, and of these, three (all Heinkel 111) were shot down (one on land near Whitby and two in the sea off Tynemouth and north of Blyth respectively) and the fourth was severely damaged.

Coastal command

38. 69 patrols were flown during the week, and 37 convoys were provided with air escort. Three enemy submarines were sighted and two attacks made … There were no apparent results from either attack.

Russian Finnish Hostilities

49. The fighting on the Karelian Isthmus has been particularly severe. On 1st February the Red Army attacked with two divisions and a large number of tanks, in an effort to break through in the Summa sector. This attack penetrated the Finnish positions, but the Red troops were later ejected. Since then the Read Army has maintained a steady succession of smaller attacks in the same sector. These tactics appeared to be designed to exhaust the Finns and to obtain an eventual breakthrough by cumulative efforts. Though very expensive in men and material, they must, to some extent, be achieving their object. The handling of the Soviet troops has shown some improvement over former standards.

See TNA: CAB/66/5/26

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