On the 18 of February 1942 a Short Sunderland flying boat of 95 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command took off from her base at Freetown, West Africa on what should have been a normal escort mission protecting a convoy of Merchant Ships... Instead it was involved in an incident that was to make headline news in the national press back in the UK.
I first learnt the story of Sunderland T9040 and what became known as "The Long Tow" many years ago, when my brother Derrick who was seven years my senior, was home on leave and I was looking through his logbooks.
Derrick joined the RAF early in 1939 and trained as a Wireless Operator (Passing out on 06.05.40), later retraining as a Wireless Operator Mechanic (Wom) (07.03.41) after which he was posted to No.12 WI (Wireless Interception) screen Northern Ireland where he was to occupy a farm cottage on the border of Northern Ireland and Eire to maintain a listening watch, along with another RAF wireless operator and six soldiers to act as guards (I believe this to be part of the "Y" service but cannot get confirmation of it), whilst here in Northern Ireland, his home base was RAF Aldergrove, and it was on one of his regular visits to collect his pay he heard that due to the introduction of the new four engine bombers, as well as to enemy action there was a shortage of Air Gunners and they were recruiting for replacements, Derrick volunteered and on completion of his training (20.07.41) he was eventually transferred to Coastal Command.
Italy Enters The War
On June 10th 1940, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, consequently the Mediterranean no longer provided a safe route for allied ships supplying our forces in the Middle East and it now became necessary for them to travel round the Cape-of-Good-Hope using Freetown in Sierra Leone West Africa as a staging post.
During November 1940 a prolonged spell of bad weather in the North Atlantic, interfered with German submarine operations and so as an experiment Admiral Doenitz decided to send a U-Boat to operate off the coast of West Africa, as far as the Germans were concerned he could not have made a better choice, as the submarine was able to sink four allied ships on its first outing.
The Allies soon realized that the Royal Navy had insufficient resources to counter the threat in this area and so it was agreed to station a squadron of Coastal Command flying boats in West Africa.
The Birth of 95 Squadron
On the 15th.January 1941 the Commanding Officer of 210 Squadron stationed at Oban in Scotland was ordered to send three Sunderland's with full crews and the necessary ground staff to Freetown, these were eventually to form 95 squadron with W/Com. F. J. Fressanges as its CO and Squadron Leader Lombard as Flight Commander.
The first ferry flight was to have comprised Sunderland L2163 flown by F/O Baggot, P9623 flown by Flt Lt Evison and T9041 flown by Plt Off Bailey. They left Oban for Pembroke Dock, Wales, to be prepared for the long flight from the UK to West Africa staging through Gibraltar. Each aircraft was given a full service, equipped with a good range of spares and fitted with extra fuel tanks in the bomb compartment capable of holding 355 gallons. They were now ready to transit to Mount Batten, a flying boat station on the south coast from where they would fly to West Africa, but at the last moment N9027 took the place of L2163 because it had flown fewer hours since its last major service.
The transit flight to Freetown was not without mishap, F/O Baggott in N9027 was the first to leave on February 2nd and in spite of losing his port outer engine because of an oil leak, he continue to Gibraltar, after repairs his aircraft gave cover to convoy HG53, and on the 11th it was used in the search for the crew of a ship that had been torpedoed. On February 14th P9623 flown by F/Lt. Evison and S/Ldr. Lombard, was forced to land in Portugal because of a head wind which had caused him to use up his fuel. The aircraft was impounded but the crew were released some time later and allowed to make their way back to England - the Sunderland was kept for the duration
Back in Gibraltar, N9027 was blown ashore at Devils Tongue Bay on February 15th. She was eventually salvaged thanks to the effort of a team led by F/O Lee. The storm eventually blew itself out, but in the meantime the crews had to live on board and run the engines to keep the aircraft head to wind, this led to the accident that put the third aircraft T9041 out of service, while attempting to put the pilot on board, the pinnace (a small boat used as service tender) collided with, and caused serious damage to the Sunderland's bows. After five days the storm had blown itself out and T9041 was given a temporary repair before being flown back to Mount Batton in the UK for a full repair, now leaving 95 Squadron with no aircraft.
The aircraft were all eventually replaced and 95 squadron was able to carryout its first official operation from Cline Bay, Freetown, on March 24th 1941 when Flg Off Baggott and his crew flew Sunderland N9050 SE-D to provide an escort to convoy SL69.
95 squadron later moved up from Cline Bay to Jui, at the junction of two rivers, where there was sufficient length and depth of water for the aircraft to take-off and land, RAF station Jui was officially formed on July 12th 1942. Because it was surrounded by mangrove swamps those airmen unfortunate enough to be stationed at Jui swore you'd be more likely to get malaria at Jui, than catch a cold in the England.
Having staged through Freetown, Convoy OS17 was travelling south on February 9th 1942 with T9040 detailed to act as escort and patrol ahead of the convoy. At 07.06 hours. Flt. Lt. "Pissy" Parson took off from Cline Bay, accompanied by Flg Off. Davies, Plt. Off. Marshal, Plt. Off. Banfield (Navigator), F/Sgt Derrick Turner (WOM/Air Gunner), other members of the crew were a Sgt. Wireless Operator/Air Gunner), Sgt. Eddie Edwards (Rigger/Air Gunner), Sgt. Joe Tanner Fitter Engines/Air Gunner and a Sergeant Armourer/Air Gunners. It was quite a self-sufficient team, capable of taking care of the aircraft under almost any circumstances since some spares were also carried.
Convoy OS17 was sighted at 10.52hrs. Sailing South, T9040 identified herself as the relief escort and then proceeded to sweep the sea ahead of the convoy's path. At 12.38 when about 50 miles ahead of the convoy the Flight Engineer reported a complete loss of oil pressure on the starboard inner engine and suggested that the propeller should be feathered and the engine shut down. F/L Parsons turned the aircraft back towards the convoy and at 13.00 was able to put T9040 down safely within sight of one the convoy's escort ships. Had the pilot or engineer but known, they could have tried the propeller pitch control which would have confirmed the loss or otherwise of the oil pressure. Safely down on the water T9040 was then able to signal to one of the escorting ships, a Flower Class corvette HMS Auricula, after signals had passed between ship and aircraft it was arranged that the corvette would take the Sunderland in tow in an endeavour to get her back to her base at Freetown a distance of about 350 miles. It was to be a 74-hour battle against a heavy swell, a fierce crosswind and a vicious electrical storm. In spite of the heavy swell, the captain of Auricula, Lt-Cdr Maybury RN was able to transfer his First Lieutenant, Lt. Webb RNR to the Sunderland to supervise securing a rope and to organise the tow from the aircraft end. It was fortunate that Auricular was one of the very few corvettes to be fitted out for minesweeping as it had a powerful steam winch at the stern. This winch incorporated two drums, 31/2 circumference, six strand wire rope, Midshipman Scot, now retired and to whom I am indebted for much of the information concerning Auricula`s involvement in the tow was placed at the stern of the ship in charge of the tow.
The ships captain was then able to manoeuvre the stern of Auricula close to the Sunderland so that a "Grass Rope" (made of coir) could be floated down to the aircraft, this was then fastened to a heaving line, which in turn was fastened to a single minesweeping wire, and then pulled in and made fast to the Sunderland.
The Sunderland's forward gun turret could be partially retracted into the hull, making way for a member of the crew whenever she took up or dropped her moorings, now the two bollards normally used for fastening the mooring line was to be used to fasten the towrope.
With a heavy swell running and some of the aircrew feeling unwell, those men not required for the tow were transferred to the Auricular, Lt. Webb together with a Petty Officer and a signaller from the ship, remained on the aircraft for the duration, with fresh food being floated down to the aircraft from the ship daily.
Towing a vessel at sea is not like towing a car on land. The towrope or wire must never be allowed to become taught, should this happen a wave could cause sufficient extra strain to break the securing fittings on one vessel or the other and of the two, the Sunderland were most at risk as they were not intended for this kind of treatment. If the towrope snapped, the two ends could recoil with enough force to kill or maim anyone in their path and the thin skin of a flying boat would have given no protection at all. To prevent this from happening Midshipman Scott utilised some concrete blocks, each weighing around half hundred-weight which were on board as part of Auricula`s minesweeping equipment. The blocks were shackled at regular intervals along the length of the rope, weighing it down and giving some slack. This slack could then be taken up by any snatch put on the tow thus preventing it from being pulled tight.
Having paid out about 600 yards of towing wire all was set for the tow to commence, Midshipman Scott, by means of a voice pipe informed the captain that all was ready and the order was given "DEAD SLOW AHEAD" At exactly 15.50hrs. on February 9, 1942 HMS "AURICULA" started the long tow of RAF Sunderland T9040 back to her base.
Once the tow had started, Auricular's Captain gradually increased speed until advised by Midshipman Scott that the strain on the tow wire was approaching danger point, whilst an Aldis Lamp in the Sunderland was also flashing a similar message. The tow speed was now established but would need to be monitored and adjusted throughout the 74-hour tow.
All Sunderland's rides with most of their bulk out of the water, and not having a water rudder to assist with steering it is at a great disadvantage without her engines and to make matters worse, they had a heavy sea swell to contend with as well as a cross wind of up to 10 knots, everyone knew that this tow was not going to be easy, the wind was on the Sunderland's beam causing her to keep "sailing up" until she was almost abeam of Auricular, thus putting a lot of extra strain on the tow wire.
Progress was going to be slow, but in spite of all these difficulties Auricular delivered T9040 to Cline Bay Freetown, at 17.45 hours on the afternoon of February 12th 1942. The respective crews returned to their own 'vessels' and in true naval tradition the corvette displayed the signal "Per Ardua Freetown", from Cline Bay T9040 was later towed up the river by RAF pinnace to her base at Jui for inspection and repair. When the starboard inner engine was checked out by ground service engineers it was discovered that the fault had been with the oil pressure gauge, there was nothing wrong with the engine oil supply.
Unaware of this at the time, the pilot was right to shut down the affected engine, it could be argued that a return to base on three engines was in order Sunderland's had even been known to make it back on two. It is quite possible F/L Parsons thought it more prudent to put T9040 down whilst still close to the convoy, where assistance would be readily available had he risked the flight back to base, he may have been forced to put down at sea unseen thereby greatly reducing their chances of a successful rescue, particularly so if the aircraft lost a float when alighting a not unheard of occurrence. As it was the Royal Navy was able to return T9040 and her crew back to their base at Jui totally unharmed, though one or two did have a slight hangover from some generous rations of Navy rum. After only six days in dock T9040 resumed her normal duties on February 18th patrolling sector "H".
This must be a tribute to the seaworthiness of the Sunderland, as well as the seamanship of the captain and crew of Auricular.
At the time of the tow Derrick had reached the rank of Flight Sergeant, he was later (01.04.44) promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer.
The end of HMS Auricular and the end of Sunderland T9040.
HMS Auricular - On May 5th 1942, During Operation Torch (an amphibious landing on the Northern tip of Madagascar) HMS Auricular was tasked to clear a channel through a minefield ahead of the landing craft. The corvette struck a mine and was abandoned, sinking the next day with no loss of life.
Sunderland T9040 - T9040 went on to serve with 202 Squadron before returning for another stint with 95. The Sunderland ended her days with 4 Operational Training Unit at Alness (or Invergordon), Scotland, when an engine caught fire whilst it was underway on the water on July 2, 1942 and T9040 was destroyed.
Derrick died on the 21st March 1966.