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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Catapult Condor

Update: Good news everybody! Blogger have updated their software for creating posts... and they've competently banjaxed it, made it vastly more complicated, with no benefit. The new software is also not working properly. Hence why you will see some oddities in layout. This is now a hell of a lot more difficult and time consuming to get an article up.

Yay for progress! 


On the 23rd of July 1943 convoy MKS 18G left Gibraltar and sailed out into the Atlantic. Three days later it met up with convoy SL 133, which it merged into. This convoy now consisted of forty ships in eight rows of five. The convoy was bound for the UK, and had to cross Germany's back yard, the Bay of Biscay. To cover this force there were just eight escorts, including the Dido AA cruiser HMS Scylla. The presence of an AA cruiser might seem curious at first glance, but the Germans flew FW200 Condors out of France to attack convoys, and marauding Condors could, and would sink shipping.

FW200 attacking an allied convoy

The convoy had one other defence against Condors. The freighters SS Empire Tide and SS Empire Darwin. These were two CAM ships, in fact the last two CAM ships on their final voyage, as the CAM ship program had been ended. For those unaware CAM stood for Catapult Aircraft Merchant. An old Mk.IA Sea Hurricane was strapped to a sled on ramp. The sled had thirteen rockets on it, which when fired, and with the Hurricane's engine at full boost would accelerate the fighter to flying speed in just 75ft! There was no way to land the fighter, so the pilot would bail out, and hope to be picked up. In all other respects the merchant ship was entirely normal, and usually carrying a full cargo. 

 SS Empire Darwin as a CAM ship

On the 28th of July, warnings were issued that a south bound convoy was under attack from Condors, and at this time some eight ships were reported as sunk. HMS Scylla took up position in the centre of the convoy to provide as much of a flak umbrella as she could, and SS Empire Tide prepared to launch her plane. The first of many radar contacts, at a range of 35 miles, and closing, was picked up heading towards the convoy. The Condor was attacking a ship that had fallen behind. However, the catapult on SS Empire Tide then broke down, so SS Empire Darwin took over as first to launch while the fault was fixed. A FW200 was soon seen closing from the starboard rear side of the convoy, and SS Empire Darwin prepared to launch. 

However, as luck would have it a USAAF B-24 Liberator, flown by Lieutenant Elbert Hyde, on anti-submarine patrol was spotted to the north of the convoy. The convoy commander requested the Liberator tackle the closing Condor. The B-24 swooped in, and chased down the Condor, with a blistering low speed dogfight erupting as both planes hammered each other, getting lower and lower, until they were only about 150ft in altitude. Without warning one of the engines on the Condor burst into flame, the German plane dumped its bombs to try and maintain altitude, however, it was to no avail and it slammed into the ocean. The last that was heard from the Liberator was an SOS, however, as the American plane was now some twenty miles away no help could be given. Luckily, the crew of the Liberator were able to make landfall in Algiers before they had to crash land. The German crew lost one person killed, but five others, and the pilot Rudolf Waschek, were rescued and became POW's. 

Eight minutes later two more Condors were detected closing on the convoy at altitude. Flying Officer Jimmy Stewart, the pilot in the SS Empire Darwin's Hurricane, was scrambled. After the colossal acceleration had thrown the Hurricane into the sky, F/O Stewart had steadied his craft. Back on the merchant his Fighter Direction Officer radioed through directing him to a Condor on his 9 o'clock, which F/O Stewart immediately spotted. The Condor was heading north but turned to head south as the Hurricane approached. When the pilot of the Condor spotted the closing fighter he turned east and put his plane into a dive. It was still easy for the Hurricane to catch up. F/O Stewart dived out of the sun, and opened fire, aiming at the cockpit. He started firing at 300 yards, with a five second burst. He could see hits on the sea around the nose of the craft. Suddenly there was a vivid white flash from near one of the turrets, to no effect. He closed in, firing away, the defensive fire was described as heavy, but scored no hits on the Hurricane. F/O Stewart broke off and lined up for a second pass.

About half a second after opening fire all of the Hurricane’s guns jammed. F/O Stewart continued making dummy attack runs to keep the pressure up, however, he soon realised he was leaving the convoy behind. He returned to the convoy and began orbiting it at about 1,000ft trying to make contact with the convoy on radio. Then suddenly he saw a second Condor attacking the convoy from 800ft, and in a storm of flak from HMS Scylla. Two near misses rocked the cruiser, as F/O Stewart dived on the Condor. F/O Stewart braved the defensive fire making repeated dummy attacks until the Condor entered a cloud bank, when he returned to the convoy. He made contact, confirmed he was bailing out, and climbed to 4,500 feet, where he and his Hurricane went their separate ways. After fifteen minutes afloat he was rescued by HMS Leith, who confirmed they too had seen the bright flash from the FW200.

Later on that same day, SS Empire Tide's Hurricane was launched and shot down a Condor. However, we do not have an accurate account of the flight. Due to the strange flash that F/O Stewart encountered, he filled out an intelligence report which detailed the entire incident, this report survives. 

 F/O James Stewart

F/O Stewart went on to serve in Typhoons. He was shot down near Roen in France while attacking a German tank convoy, he survived, and bailed out. He met up with a group of resistance fighters, whom he worked with for some months. The resistance group was then betrayed by a Gestapo agent and the cell, along with F/O Stewart were captured. F/O Stewart ended up at Fresnes Prison, as he was claimed to be a spy supporting the resistance. Here he was placed with several other RAF officers whom had displeased the Gestapo. Later this party would be moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp to await execution. Shortly before the act was to be carried out a Luftwaffe officer learnt of the situation and forced the Gestapo to hand over the condemned. These were then transferred to Stalag Luft III, where F/O Stewart remained until the end of the war. Jimmy Stewart died last year on 17th of April. 


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Image credits:

www.asisbiz.com and obituaries.tj.news