Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Convoy Peewit, Blitzkrieg from the Air and Sea 8th August 1940 - Andy Saunders

Convoy Westbound number 9 (CW9) codenamed Peewit set sail from Southend, a seaside resort town at the mouth of the River Thames, at 0700 on the 7th August 1940 with twenty four small coasters carrying principally coal from the north east, for industrial and domestic use in the southwest of England.

The Royal Navy provided an escort of two destroyers and ten smaller vessels together with detachments of men on board the merchantmen detailed to man the Lewis light machine-guns mounted as the main defence against air attack.

Over the previous month the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine had posed the first serious tests of Britain's air and sea defences with attacks principally aimed at channel traffic whilst the German High Command prepared its forces for an all out offensive designed to capture air superiority over the English Channel preparatory to the expected German invasion of the British Isles.

Andy Saunder's book is the first forensic study of this most significant battle which saw a marked increase in the ferocity of the air war that would become known later as the Battle of Britain and in this battle within a wider battle see both sides loose about twenty aircraft in a day and the sinking of six coasters and one Royal Navy escort.

The first attack on Convoy CW9 was at 02.00 on the 8th August 1940, not from the air but by four E-boats out of Cherbourg
I have always had an interest in air warfare and aircraft in general, cultivated with the release of the film Battle of Britain in 1970, my Mum's own wartime service as a WAAF plotter in WWII and then my own flying activities that lead to me doing my private pilots licence, flying out of the old Battle of Britain airfield here at Exeter and being instructed at the time by an RAF Spitfire pilot.

The Battle of Britain is a fascinating air campaign with epic 'David versus Goliath' undertones that often fails to appreciate the force multiplying effects of the first ground directed air defence system so carefully developed under the guiding hand of Sir Hugh (Stuffy) Dowding, arguably one of the most important military commanders in British history to rank alongside Marlborough Wellington and Nelson.

The major leap forward that Dowding's system enabled was the ability of the RAF to receive early warning of impending Luftwaffe attacks that enabled significant numbers of aircraft to be directed against them in a timely manner without the need for wasteful air patrols that fatigued aircrew and wasted fuel on pointless flights.

Channel convoy under air attack
However in early August 1940, the RAF was still near the bottom of the learning curve when it came to using its new system and the air fighting tactics to take advantage of it, and the air combat over and around Convoy Peewit falls very much into this period.

I have many books on the campaign as a whole, but this is the only one I have that looks at this early battle within the campaign in detail and documents the activities of the naval and air forces of both sides over the two days of Peewit's transit from Southend to Weymouth Bay with a thorough assessment and analysis of the forces involved, despite the fact that no 'Convoy Cruising Orders' listing the ships in Peewit exist in the Kew Records Office archives.

This lack of detail has been painstakingly overcome with a gathering of information identifying the vessels and their masters, embroidered throughout with documented testimony from the men involved in fighting the ships through. This together with a comprehensive coverage of the air fighting and units involved interlaced with the drama described by aircrew and witnesses on the ground and at sea.

SS Coquetdale one of the coasters sunk by Stukas at 09.00 on the 8th August 1940 with a cargo of coal
With a ringing endorsement from that great air historian Dr Alfred Price writing the forward to the book, Saunders sets the scene for his fourteen chapters with an introduction that discusses the difficulties of setting a date for the start of the Battle of Britain, now generally considered as the 10th of July.

However Dowding described in the Air Ministry Information Booklet published in 1941
"the first attack in force against laid objectives in this country" 
as being a good place to start, with his initial selection of the 8th of August and Convoy Peewit to the close on 31st October as his chosen dates for the battle as laid out. It was later in 1946 that he revised his start date to the 10th of July to include the period of increasing tempo in Luftwaffe attacks that characterised the fighting in July.

There is a short preamble in which Saunders describes his meeting with retired Royal Naval Officer, Arthur Hague RD in 1990 and his work with barrage balloon vessels in 1940, which provided information that became relevant in future TV productions for 'Timewatch' and a TV documentary 'Dig 1940' that the author was involved in that lead to the decision to research Peewit more thoroughly.

The Struggle Begins - Roy Grinnell,  Hurricanes from 32 Squadron (this aircraft was flown by FO Pete Brothers with 10 kills in the Battle of Britain) engage Stukas and their escorts over the Channel. The squadron patrolled over Peewit mid morning on the 7th August as it rounded North Foreland to enter the Dover Straits.
From these set up pages the book then follows a logical walk through of the events that sets the scene for this convoy setting out on its journey along the south coast and the combats it goes on to describe;

Chapter 1 - Opening Shots
Chapter 2  - A Disgraceful Episode
Chapter 3 - The Indestructible Highway
Chapter 4 - Attack of the E-Boats
Chapter 5 - Up Balloons....!
Chapter 6 - Unwitting Decoys
Chapter 7 - The Second Air Attack
Chapter 8 - Fighting the Stukas
Chapter 9 - Final Assault
Chapter 10 - Puma vs Peewit
Chapter 11 - Elsewhere that Day
Chapter 12 - Aftermath
Chapter 13 - 8 August 1940 in Retrospect
Chapter 14 - Seventy Years On
A - The Merchant Vessels of Convoy CW9
B - Merchant Navy and Royal Navy Casualties associated with CW9 Peewit
C - Luftwaffe Losseson 8 August 1940 - Operations over Britain
D - RAF Losses on 8 August 1940
E - Luftwaffe Fighter Claims over England for 8 August 1940
F - RAF Fighter Claims over England for 8 August 1940
G - Convoy CW9 Peewit Timeline of Principal Events 7-8 August 1940
H - Secret Report on Convoy CW9
I - Secret Report Channel Mobile Balloon Barrage
J - List of Channel Convoys During 1940
K- The BBC Broadcasts a Live Luftwaffe Attack

As you can see there is an all encompassing set of appendices and thirty six other books around the subject referenced in the bibliography section.

This book was my reading for my week away in France this summer and I have to say it was a very engrossing read which answered a question I had long thought about when considering these channel convoys namely why were they run in a seaway that was so easily intercepted by enemy air and sea forces? Was it a question of willful pride to persist in what seemed to be a deadly game of dare?

The accounts of the bravery of the men on the ships facing E-boat torpedo and gunnery attacks followed up by pinpoint dive bombing and strafing from the Stukas is a tribute to the Merchant and Royal Navy crews but I couldn't help thinking whether the cost in mens lives and ships lost was worth it.

The fact was that in a time when coal dominated in terms of fuel for pretty much everything and with railways already committed to moving as much war materials as they could, bulk transport needed to use ships and these small coasters just like the larger ocean going vessels needed to get to all parts of the UK to maintain the needs of home and industry.

The other interesting aspect of this detailed account of the fighting is the way the accounts of aircraft movements by the Luftwaffe tested the RAF controllers in their abilities to interpret what they were seeing on their plotting tables and how best to respond with the limited assets available.

It seems several German fighter sweeps were launched with the intention of drawing RAF fighters away from the Peewit battle, with RAF fighter crews commenting on German fighters retiring rapidly to the French coast on their appearance or engaging them in combat when fuel levels permitted.

As well as the RAF controllers having to learn and improve the skills and abilities to read the battle and get the squadrons where they were needed, the RAF fighter pilots were also learning the hard way the lessons of air combat.

One account of many in the book illustrated this problem for the RAF that covered a three aircraft patrol of Spitfires from 152 Squadron returning from action over Weymouth Bay flying in the "vic"formation used by the RAF particularly in this early stage of the battle "until we learnt better later" to quote the account from one of the Spitfire pilots, Sergeant Denis Robinson.

With his eyes fixed firmly on his leader's aircraft with, as he described, a foot between wing tips, none of the three spotted the group of Me 109s coming up behind and they casually flew on in a lulled false sense of security returning from the fight with no ammunition left in their guns.

Sergeant Denis Robinson - 152 Squadron
Sergeant Robinson continued;
"The first thing I felt was the thud of bullets hitting my aircraft and a long line of tracer bullets streaming out ahead of my Spitfire. In a reflex action I slammed  the stick forward as far as it would go. For a brief second my Spitfire stood on its nose and I was looking straight down at Mother Earth, thousands of feet below. Thank God my Sutton harness was good and tight. I could feel the straps biting into my flesh as I entered the vertical  with airspeed building up alarmingly. I felt fear mounting . Sweating, dry mouth and near panic. No ammo and an attacker right on my tail."

As I read this account I cast my mind back to doing aerobatics during my flying training over the Exe estuary and remembering doing stall spins at about 5,000 feet with the nose pointing straight down at the river below and the tightness of the seat harness holding me in during the rapid descent. Of course I only had to concentrate on the recovery technique and enjoy the thrill without the concern of an Me 109 pilot behind looking to fill the cockpit with 20mm cannon shells!

Fortunately the reaction evasion had shaken off his pursuer or perhaps fuel limits had caused the Me 109 pilot to break off, either way the problem of a pierced glycol tank now caused the Spitfire's engine to seize and rather than risk leaving his plane to crash onto civilians below, he decided to crash land the aircraft.

With a dead-stick, wheels up, full flap approach to the best field available, Robinson flared up and brought the plane in sliding along its belly until encountering an unspotted ditch with the results pictured below.

As my instructor used to say, any landing that you walk away from is a good one, and despite a slight bullet graze to the leg, Sergeant Robinson was lead away to the local pub in Wareham to be suitably revived with several drams and was back on ops the next day and able to reflect on the inadvisability of flying straight and level in the combat zone.

Sgt Robinson's Spitfire after he managed to make a wheels up landing in a field near
Wareham, before sliding into an unseen ditch and going nose down, this after being shot up
by Me109's over Weymouth Bay. The bullet holes are visible on the right wing root.

After the fighting was over and the day drew to a close then both sides looked to the rescue of those men desperately trying to survive the sea.

From my general knowledge and reading of the Battle of Britain it is a well established fact that British air-sea rescue assets were considered poor at this time especially against those of the Germans and that Dowding was keen to avoid battle over the Channel due to the losses in aircrew at sea that were caused that didn't apply to battle over land whereas the Luftwaffe loss rate rose due to capture the further inland they went.

This book takes a detailed look at this aspect of the battle and the differences between the two sides in its management, with comparisons of the basic survival kit such as life jackets and bright dyes designed to be released into the sea to draw attention to a downed pilot.

The effects of the poorly integrated air sea rescue service is borne out by the losses suffered in RAF aircrew during the Battle of Britain which saw 179 aircrew posted as missing and no trace of them found, totalling one third of all losses suffered and with the overwhelming majority lost over the sea.

The final chapter that concludes this book takes a look at the archeology, much of it under the sea, that remains to remind us of the battle fought in the channel in that summer of 1940 and the few items recovered that bring the past back to life.

I thoroughly enjoyed Convoy Peewit and the book had me imagining a mini campaign in its own right of RAF controllers trying to manage their fighter assets covering the passage of one of these convoys with the air and sea scenarios it would create for the table.

I picked up my paperback copy via the Naval and Military Press where at the time of writing they have the book on offer for £3.99 which is a bargain for such an interesting read.

 Naval & Military Press - Convoy Peewit


  1. Replies
    1. Steve, you are too kind, you'll have me blushing!

  2. Nice little report.

    I have always been interested in the channel actions. There were some vicious exchanges involving aircraft, ships and fast attack craft on both sides. Definitely not for the faint hearted.

    I have read many criticisms of the channel convoys, but fail to see what they could have done differently. With so much raw material to move from one side of the country to the other and a railway system working at capacity, convoys of coasters were the only answer. That said many men died making these trips and they must have had considerable bottle given the risks involved.