Operation AVALANCHE: September 1943
ATTACKER was to form part of Task Force 88, a part of Force 'V' the covering force for the allied invasion of Salerno, Italy in operation AVALANCHE planned for September 9 - 12th. Task Force 88 comprised CVEs ATTACKER, BATTLER, HUNTER, STALKER, and the maintenance carrier UNICORN (making a rare operational contribution), Cruisers EURYALUS [flagship], SCYLLA and CHARYBDIS, Destroyers CLEVELAND, HOLCOMBE, ATHERSTONE, LIDDESDALE, FARNDALE, CALPE, and Polish destroyers ORP SLAZAK and ORP KRAKOWIAK.
A second force, Force 'H' comprised the Battleships NELSON, RODNEY, WARSPITE and VALIANT, Fleet Carriers ILLUSTRIOUS and FORMIDABLE and a screen of 21 destroyers including French, Polish and Greek warships was a covering force for the landings, intended to prevent any interference by Italian surface warships. On the eve of operation AVALANCHE Italy surrendered so the threat had passed, however there was a strong German force in the area.
Force 'V' left Malta on September 8th and proceeded via the Straits of Messina arriving on station 45 miles south-west of the beachhead early in the morning of the 9th. Each CVE in Task Force 88 carried 2 Seafire squadrons, UNICORN carried 3, making a total of 109 aircraft in 11 squadrons. The five carriers were to provide fighter cover for the landings. It was intended that a constant presence of naval air cover would be maintained over the landing sites, up to 20 aircraft aloft at a time. The first flights were launched at dawn on the 9th. At this time none of the four CVEs were equipped as fighter or assault carriers so fighter direction was provided by the Fighter Direction Ship HMS ULSTER QUEEN.
Flying operations began at 06:15 and continued throughout the day, with ATTACKER's last range landing on at 19:15. Three aircraft were lost during operations; Sub-Lt P. B. N. Prentice RNVR (886) was killed when his aircraft, NM923, dove into the sea on approach to land on, he had made three approaches to the deck and been waved off by the DCLO three times, on the third wave off he stalled and ditched. During the last serial of the day, Sub-Lt G. Calder RNVR (879) in Seafire NM965, landing on under somewhat poor light conditions, floated at speed over the arrester gear and crashed through the barriers into the aircraft parked forward, NM965 was a write off, NM941 was pushed overboard by the impact and rendering another unserviceable for 18 hours. There were 6 other incidents recorded; Lt H Lang RNZNVR (886) made a heavy landing damaging his aircraft retuning for serial No, 2 and damaged his propeller landing on after serial No. 6; Sub-Lt T R. J. H. Grose RNVR (879) burst a tyre and damaged a mainplane landing on after serial 3; Lt G. P. L. Pardoe RNVR (879) crashed into the barrier writing off his aircraft landing on after serial 5; Lt I. O. Robertson RNVR (886) crashed into the barrier landing on after serial 8; Sub-Lt T. A. Cooper RNVR (886) had to return to the ship for an emergency landing 35 minutes after launching with serial 12.. By the end of the first day's flying program all 52 planned sorties had been completed; 12 aircraft were serviceable, or made serviceable for the following day.
During the night of the 9th/l0th September the Force proceeded clear of the operational area, returning on the morning of the 10th, when flying resumed at 06:15. The day began with a tragedy when Ord. Seaman Edwin Kershaw, of the Aircraft Handling Party, ran into a propeller and was instantaneously killed. He was buried at sea at 11:00 on the same day. There were 4 landing incidents on the 10th; Sub-Lt A. A. Gowan RNZNVR (879) crashed on deck landing on from serial No. 6; Sub-Lt T. A. Cooper RNVR (886) crashed on deck landing on from serial No. 7; Sub-Lt G. Ogilvy (879) broke a wheel landing on from serial No. 8; Sub-Lt T R. J. H. Grose RNVR (879) returning to the ship in NM924 after landing on HUNTER earlier, crashed on deck breaking the aircrafts back. Later that day an aircraft from BATTLER was ordered to land on as her deck was fouled; Sub-Lt A. C. B. Ford RNVR (807) approached at an excessive speed, crashed through the barriers into the aircraft park, the pilot writing off his own aircraft and one in the park and severely damaged another. By the end of the second day's flying program 45 sorties had been completed; 8 aircraft were serviceable, or made serviceable for the following day.
At 06:15 on the 11th, flying resumed and operations continued throughout the day with the last range at 18:31. Lt. Morrison (879) landed at the emergency field ashore with arrestor hook trouble. His hook was repaired by the R.A.F. and he returned to the ship at 17:05 and entered the barrier. Sub-Lt R. J. Sturges RNVR (879) in NM944 was unable to lower his undercarriage on returning to land on, and was told to return to shore for an emergency landing on Salerno beach; the aircraft was abandoned, he later re-joined the ship at Bizerta. Sub-Lt G. Ogilvy (879) entered the barrier landing on from serial No. 8; Sub-Lt T. W. Down RNVR (886) taxied MA996 into MB306 in the deck park after his brakes failed. The number of serviceable aircraft dwindled throughout the day; serials 1 -4 comprised of three stories, 5 – 8 managed only 2 sorties each and 9 – 13 managed only 1 aircraft. By the end of the third day's flying program 22 sorties had been completed; 5 aircraft were serviceable or made serviceable for the following day. The attrition rate was very high, all the CVEs required additional aircraft to be transferred from the Fleet Carriers of Force H in order to continue operations at this intensity (Force H withdrew to Malta on the 11th, being nearly out of aircraft itself by this time).
At 06:15 on the 12th, the first aircraft were flown off; only 10 sorties were flown during the day. At 09:10 Sub-Lt Whitehead from 880 squadron on STALKER landed on in Seafire MA985 damaging the undercarriage. It had been envisaged that one or more enemy airfields would be in allied hands by the end of the first day and so shore based air cover would take over, this was not the case; it was not until the third day that the airfield at Paestum was under Allied control that this became possible. At 13:45 on the 12th as many serviceable fighters as could be mustered were put ashore to operate at Paestum; ATTACKER managed 4, BATTLER 5, HUNTER 5, and STALKER only 2, UNICORN supplied 10. At approximately 18:30 the Force left the operational area and proceeded to Palermo,  arriving at 20:00. At 06:00 on the following morning the Force sailed for Bizerta, arriving there at 19:00. ATTACKER''s detached aircraft re-joined the ship on the 17th.
During the four days on station the carriers launched a combined total of 707 sorties, aircraft from ATTACKER flew 130 sorties; 879 squadron carried out 75 patrol sorties, 886 flew 57. No aircraft were lost to enemy action.
Force 'V' was to disband on September 20th; ATTACKER, HUNTER and STALKER proceeded to Gibraltar, arriving there on the 24th to await a convoy to the UK to refit and allow their squadrons the opportunity to receive replacement aircraft and aircrews. The three carriers joined the Clyde bound convoy MKF.24 as additional escorts on September 30th. The Swordfish element of 886 squadron re-joined ATTACKER on October 1st and conducted anti-submarine patrols on passage. The convoy arrived on the Clyde on October 6th, disembarking her squadrons to RNAS Machrihanish. ‘Z’ flight was disbanded on arrival.
A Seafire L.II wearing invasion stripes at RNAS Lee-on-Solent. This aircraft was operated by VCS-7 squadron U.S. Navy.
D-Day, June 6th the first serial took off at 0441; Lt. Cdr P. E. Bailey and Sub-Lt D. H. Lewis RNVR, both from 886 squadron were tasked with spouting for the opening bombardment of operation Neptune. Pilots operated in pairs, one as the spotter the other as his wingman to protect helm when focused on the bombardment fall of shot. On the first day of the allied landings naval aircraft had flown 141 sorties over Normandy; 808 flew 28, 885 also 28, 886 flew 46 and 897 completed 39. 885 squadron pilots completed three missions each. Four naval pilots were shot down by flak on D-Day, two were killed; Sub-Lt A. H. Bassett RNVR (885 squadron) force landed in a field south of Hermanville-sur-Mer and was killed in the crash; Sub-Lt H. A. Coghill (808 squadron) was unable to bale out after being hit, his hood remained closed as he crashed into the sea off Normandy. Sub-Lt C. L. Metcalfe (885 squadron) managed to limp back across the channel and baled out over Hayling Island, suffering only a broken arm; Lt W. A. Wallace (886 squadron) in NF537 had to make a forced landing after being hit by light flak, he survived the crash and managed to make his way to the coast to met up with the invasion troops.
D+1 all naval squadrons were in action again, 808 flew 22, 885 flew 26, 886 flew 37 and 897 completed 34 sorties. Lt R. M. Crosley RNVR (886 squadron) flying in NN341 engaged and destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109 at 17:35. Three 886 squadron aircraft were lost but without any loss of life; Lt D. B. Law RNVR in NF541 was hit by anti-aircraft fire at 09:10 and made a forced landing in Normandy, Sub-Lt R. I. Foxley RNVR made a forced landing in a field near gliders, after shrapnel form Flak punctured the fuel tank. The squadron commanding officer Lt. Cdr P. E. I. Bailey had a brush with death when his aircraft NF534 was hit be friendly anti-aircraft fire over the English Channel at 06:30, he managed to bale out at only 400 feet and landed on one of the beaches, where his parachute dragged him into a mine field, detonating one mine. He survived with only a sprained ankle. All three pilots made their way back to Lee-on-Solent and re-joined the squadron. Another friendly fire hazard came from the Combat Air Patrols over the invasion beaches, there were few German aircraft in the area and often the Seafire, with it’s squared wing tips was mistaken for a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and despite the large white invasion stripes painted on the wings and fuselage they would come under fire from a pack of CAP aircraft. No Seafires were shot down but there were some close calls.
By this time the Germans had begun to pay attention to the pairs of Seafires orbiting the Beachhead and targets inland; bogus radio calls were sending the spotting teams to fake locations where they were set upon by groups of Fw190s. Lt-Cdr S. A. Devonald RN (C.O. 885 squadron) was the first casualty of this deception. He and his no. 2 Sub-Lt R. G. S. Chaman SANF were directed to a target Southwest of Caen and were jumped by 8 Fw190s, severely damaged Lt-Cdr Devonald managed to ditch his aircraft. NF535. in the shallows off one of the crowded beachheads and was rescued unhurt by a Landing Ship Tank. He returned to Lee-on-Solent and active duty. Although shot up Sub-Lt Chaman made it safely back to base.
Another casualty on D+1 was Cdr J. M. Keene-Miller, (Cdr Flying RNAS Leo-on-Solent) who together with Lt. Cdr C. P. Campbell-Horsfall as hi no.2 took off for a ‘private’ spotting sortie in a pair of 808-squadron aircraft. They were jumped by 6 Bf109s at 19:15 southwest of Cena. Cdr Keene-Miller was shot down and taken prisoner, his no.2 managed to return to base to make a wheels-up landing at Lee-on-Solent.
D+2 all naval squadrons were in action again, 808 flew 15, 885 flew 12, 886 flew 19 and 897 completed 24 sorties. while spotting for the Cruiser MAURITIUS Lt Crosley damaged one Fw190 and chased another over Normandy, his no.2 Sub-Lt D. T. Keene RNVR was also attacked by a Fw190 taking some damage but landed safely. Sub-Lt H. H. Simpson RNVR suffered wing damage from fire by Bf109s and Fw190s but managed to return to base safely. Lt H. Lang RNZNVR in NF525 engaged 2 Fw190s at 06:10 shooting one down over Houlgate but taking engine damage in the fight from the other Fw190 made a forced landing among trees east of Caen, injured he was helped by locals to an allied casualty clearing centre.
D+3 no flying was possible due to bad weather.
D+4 all naval squadrons were in action again, 808 flew 12, 885 flew 18, 886 flew 13 and 897 completed 24 sorties. Spotting for the cruiser ARETHUSA resulted in the destruction of German tanks concealed 10 miles southeast of Bayeux. Spoof radio massages continued to plaque the spotting teams. Sub-Lt R.G. Kennett (885 squadron) was killed when he appears to have been shot down by overzealous Spitfire pilots in a friendly fire incident, he crashed into the sea off sDeauville.
D+5 a much-reduced flying programme due to deteriorating weather, 808 flew 1, 885 flew 6, 886 flew 3 sorties.
D+6 the weather improved significantly and all naval squadrons were in action, 808 flew 20, 885 flew 17, 886 flew 22 and 897 completed 28 sorties. 12 of which were for ‘Operation Rodeo’ fighter sweeps making gunfire attacks on targets of opportunity
D+7 all naval squadrons were in action again, 808 flew 10, 885 flew 18, 886 flew 10 and 897 completed 4 sorties.
D+8 only 886 and 897 squadrons flew today, completing 17 and 19 sorties respectively. Spotting was undertaken for inland targets including H.Q. buildings, filed guns, Anti-aircraft batteries, and road junctions. Sub-Lt D. W. Barraclough RNVR (897 squadron) shot down a Bf109 but was later damaged by flak and made a safe landing at an agency strip in France
D+9 June 15th, all naval squadrons were in action again, 808 flew 11, 885 flew 16, 886 flew 8 and 897 completed 8 sorties. No. 886 and 897 squadrons flew 8 sorties each on uneventful TacR sweeps. Meanwhile 808 and 885 provided spotters for bombardments.
D+10 bad weather cancelled all flying.
D+11 restricted sorties were flown by all naval squadrons, 808 flew 10, 885 flew 10, 886 flew 14 and 897 completed 8 sorties. Naval bombardments destroyed Motor Transport, gun emplacements and road junctions.
D+12 bad weather over Normandy cancelled all flying although conditions were clear over the base of operations.
D+13 Weather continued to be poor over the Normandy region; of the naval squadrons only 885 flew 2 sorties.
D+14 better weather allowed for all naval squadrons to fly, 808 flew 6, 885 flew 8, 886 flew 4 and 897 completed 6 sorties.
D+15 bad weather cancelled all flying.
D+16 only 808 and 897 squadrons flew completing 4 and 6 sorties respectively.
D+17 only 808 and 885 squadrons flew completing 12 and 8 sorties respectively.
D+18 808, 885 and 886 squadrons flew completing 2, 8 and 10 sorties respectively.
D+19 June 25th, there was a large increase in sorties put up, all naval squadrons flew sorties tasked with supporting allied tanks as they assaulted Cherbourg; the naval squadrons flew 59 sorties, 808 flew 12, 885 flew 18, 886 flew 18 and 897 flew 11 sorties. While returning from one of these sorties over Normandy Sub-Lt A. Horstead RNVR (886 squadron) in Seafire NF511 was caught in a sudden deterioration in the weather over Dorset. Emerging from low cloud at 16:30 he made a forced landing at Godlington, near Swanage, Dorset his aircraft crashing through three fields. He later died from his injuries. Cherbourg fell the following day.
D+20 bad weather cancelled all flying.
D+21 all naval squadrons were in action again, spotting for bombardments against gun positions and emplacements in the Caen area. The naval squadrons flew 28 sorties, completing 10, 8, 6 and 4 sorties respectively. During a shoot southeast of Caen Lt. Crosley and his no.2 Sub-Lt D. T. Keene RNVR (both 886 squadron) came under fire from flak, Sub-Lt Keene was hit in the tail and was forced to put his aircraft down on Emergency Landing Ground B4, Lt. Crosley also landed at B4 as he was short of fuel, bursting a tyre on the stell planking runway. Their reliefs, Lt. M. L. Heath RNZNVR and Sub-Lt N. J. Bowen RNVR (both 808 squadron) took over the shoot but shortly after Lt. Heath arrived at B4 with even more serious flak damage. All three returned to Lee-on-Solent the next day, Lt. Crosley in his repaired Seafire, the other two in a Stinson Reliant as passengers.
D+22 bad weather cancelled all flying.
D+23 June 29th, only 808 squadron flew, they completed 12 sorties as fighter escort for RAF Transport Command Dakotas.
D+24 808, 885 and 886 squadrons flew completing 4, 6 and 6 sorties respectively.
D+25 July 1st brought more bad weather and only 897 managed to mount 4 sorties.
D+26 bad weather cancelled all flying.
Once the allied troops had progressed in land far enough that the naval guns no longer had targets the need for aerial spotting had passed so the pilots of 3 NFW were employed on fighter sweeps south of south of Evreux and anti-submarine sweeps called ‘anti-goose patrols’ off the beachheads to locate German two-man minisubs attempting to place limpet mines on allied ships.
No. 886 squadron remained at Lee-on-Solent with No. 3 Naval Fighter Wing until its release from D-Day operations but on July 19th 1944 the squadron was disbanded, its pilots and aircraft being absorbed into 885 squadron.
Content revised: 02 February 2021
Sources used in compiling this account:
Brown, D. (1974)' Carrier Operations in World War 2 -vol 1 the Royal Navy' Shepperton, Ian Allen Ltd.
Crosley, R. (1986 They gave me a Seafire Shrewsbury, Airlife publishing.
Hobbs, D. (2003) 'Royal Navy Escort Carriers' Liskeard, Maritime Books
Sturtivant, R. & Burrows, M. (1995)'Fleet Air Arm Aircraft 1939 to 1945' Tonbridge Wells, Air Britain (Historians)
Sturtivant, R & Balance, T., (1994)'Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm' Tonbridge Wells, Air Britain (Historians)
RN Air Station Lee-on-Solent operations diary for operation Neptune covering D-Day - D=26
Motto: Vires acquirit eundo
Fulmar II Mar 42 - Mar 43
Seafire L.IIc Mar 43 - Feb 44
Spitfire Vb Feb - Mar 44
Lt. (A) J. C. M. Harman RN
Lt. Cdr (A) R. H. H. L. Oliphant RN 27 Jul 42
Lt. Cdr (A) P. E. I. Bailey RN
Aircrew and Squadron Personnel
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