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First British Naval bombing of WW2

Unit/ Formation: RM Airmen

Location: North Atlantic

Period/ Conflict: World War II

Year: 1939

Date/s: 14th September 1939

Ark Royal Log

31 August 1939: In view of the possible outbreak of hostilities, the Ark Royal puts to sea with the Home Fleet to patrol the waters between the Shetlands and Norway.

01 September 1939: One of Ark Royal's reconnaissance Swordfish makes a forced landing due to bad visibility on a Norwegian fiord and sinks. The crew was later able to ship to England before the declaration of war on 3 September.

14 September 1939: At about 0240, Ark Royal launches three Blackburn Skuas of 803 squadron to search for the recently torpedoed SS Fanad Head. Just about the same time, the Ark Royal is attacked by the U39 (Kapitänleutnant Glattes). The attack fails since the German torpedoes armed with magnetic pistols do not work properly. Thereafter, Ark Royal's escorting destroyers Faulknor, Firedrake und Foxhound force the German submarine to surface and later sinks. The entire crew are saved and taken on board destroyer Faulknor. U39 becomes the first German U-boat lost in the war. Meanwhile, the Skuas sight the Fanad Head laying stopped and being shelled by U30 with her deck gun. Two Skuas crash into the sea while attacking the U30 that dives.

26 September 1939: Skuas from Ark Royal shot down the first German plane of the war over the North Sea, a Dornier 18 flying boat. At about 0220, the Ark Royal is attacked by a Heinkel 111 (Leutnant Adolf Francke). A 2,000 lbs bomb lands close to the ship some 30 yards from the port bow. German propaganda claims to have sunk the carrier but this is not the case.

27 September 1939: Returns to Scapa Flow.

The First British Bombing

Eleven days into the Second World War, HMS Ark Royal picked up an SOS from the merchant ship SS Fanad Head, under attack from German submarine U30.

Skuas of 800 Naval Air Squadron lined up on the flight deck of Ark Royal

Three Skuas, including one piloted by Griffiths, conducted the first British Naval bombing of the war. Due to the incorrect fuse arming in relation to the height of attack, the bomb explosions of Griff’s aircraft and that of Lieutenantt Thurstan RN damaged the tails of both planes, and they crashed into the sea with the loss of each air observer. Griff and Thurstan were the first naval officers captured in the war. When the UK entered the Second World War on 3 September 1939 Fanad Head was in Canada. She sailed from Montreal carrying general cargo and grain to the UK, and on 14 September she was steaming unescorted off the coast of Ireland when at 1323 hours she was sighted by the German submarine U-30.

The U-boat surfaced and gave chase, and Fanad Head radioed for assistance. Some 280 nautical miles (520 km) west-northwest of Malin Head U-30 fired a shot across the cargo ship's bow from her 88 mm gun, which persuaded Fanad Head's Master, George Pinkerton, to stop. Pinkerton, his 33 crew and eight passengers abandoned ship in two lifeboats. U-30 took them in tow and put a prize crew aboard her to gather provisions and then scuttle the ship. The distress call reached the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, then on an anti-submarine patrol 200 miles (320 km) north-east of Fanad Head's position.

Ark Royal quickly launched three Blackburn Skuas of 803 Naval Air Squadron, and detached the Tribal-class destroyers HMS Bedouin, HMS Punjabi and HMS Tartar to go to Fanad Head's assistance. 30 minutes after launching the first wave of aircraft, Ark Royal herself was attacked by U-39. She succeeded in avoiding the torpedoes and her escorts subsequently sank U-39. After two hours, Ark Royal launched six Swordfish aircraft and detached the F-class destroyers HMS Fame and HMS Forester as reinforcements.

When the first Skua reached Fanad Head, the pilots were surprised to find the U-boat surfaced alongside her and dropped the bombs immediately at very low level. The bombs detonated on contact with the water, causing shrapnel to hit the aircraft, damaging it enough to force the pilot to ditch his burning Skua in the sea. Both crewmen survived the crash, but were badly burnt and began swimming towards Fanad Head. Only the pilot managed to reach the ship and was pulled unconscious from the water.

U-30 had crash-dived by the stern and avoided damage, but one of its crew had not had time to get below deck before she had submerged, so he too swam to Fanad Head. Meanwhile, the bombs dropped by the Skua had detonated so close to the ship that three men from the prize crew were wounded by shrapnel. Ten minutes after the first attack, the second Skua reached the scene. Its crew sighted what they believed was a U-boat and dropped their bombs, but this was probably the wreck of the first Skua.

When U-30 then surfaced nearby they had no bombs left, but repeatedly strafed her with machine gun fire and forced her to dive again. After the aircraft, low on fuel, left to return to Ark Royal, the U-boat re-surfaced and tried to return alongside Fanad Head to take off the prize crew. The third Skua then arrived and sighting U-30, dropped its bombs, but again from an insufficient height. Damage from the explosion caused the Skua to fall into the sea. The pilot managed to get free, and swim to Fanad Head, where he too was taken aboard by the German prize crew.

U-30 continued to attempt to come alongside, but damaged her bow in her third attempt. She eventually managed to take aboard the five members of the prize crew. The Royal Naval pilots initially remained aboard, but on being told that U-30 intended to torpedo Fanad Head, they jumped overboard and were captured. Shortly afterwards, the first Swordfish arrived and made a strafing run that again forced the U-boat to dive.

Attack on U 30 by Guy Griffiths

At 1820 hours U-30 launched a G7a torpedo from one of her stern tubes at Fanad Head from a range of 500 metres (550 yd), causing her to sink. U-30 was then repeatedly attacked with bombs from the Swordfishes and depth charges from the two destroyers which had reached the scene. HMS Tartar rescued Fanad Head's passengers and crew and took them to Mallaig, Scotland. U-30 was attacked until 2200 hours, suffering considerable damage, before managing to escape on the surface one hour later. U-30 then made for Reykjavík, reaching there on 19 September. Here the submarine landed one of her seriously injured crewmen and took aboard a replacement from an interned German freighter. U-30 then returned to Germany with the two captured Royal Naval pilots, reaching Wilhelmshaven on 27 September.

The pilots Royal Marine Guy Griffiths and Lieutenant Thurstan RN spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camps.

More related 'Dits'

Some images found online probably taken from Skua!: The Royal Navy’s Dive-Bomber Peter C Smith

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