On 3 September 1939, the liner Athenia was torpedoed by a U-boat off the west coast of Ireland - the Battle of the Atlantic had begun. It was the longest-lasting and most crucial campaign fought by the Western Allies in World War 11.
From their point of view, the key to ultimate victory was the defeat of the U-Boats which, from the outset, constituted the only weapon in Germany's armoury with the potential to knock the United Kingdom out of the war.
To that end, aircraft of the Royal Air Force Coastal Command (RAFCC), operating from bases in Northern Ireland, played an important part, being actively engaged from the first day of war to the last.
Though the contribution of RAFCC was vital, it was regarded by the Air Staff as being of much less value than Bomber Command's strategic bombing designs on mainland Europe. The availability and disposition of resources in September 1939 reflected this philosophy, Bomber Command having forty operational squadrons to Coastal's seventeen. Moreover, RAFCC was then made up of three operational Groups, two of which covered the English Channel and North Sea. 15 Group, with headquarters in Plymouth, covered the Southwest and Northwest Approaches with only five squadrons one of which was 502 Sqn based at Aldergrove with
general reconnaissance Ansons. In the first month of war, U-Boats sank 41 ships. Despite a lull during the ensuing winter, 502 Sqn managed to locate and attack a few U-Boats close to the Irish Coast but to no avail. Their short-range Ansons only carried four 100-pound bombs which were useless against submarines.
Following the lull, U-Boat activity intensified and the rate of shipping losses increased rapidly in June 1940, in which month an additional adversary entered the fray - the Focke Wulf Condor. With a standard range of 2000 miles, Condors carried four 550-pound bombs and frequently set off from France to flyover the eastern Atlantic to bases in Norway, returning the next day. On 13 September, one of them bombed and strafed ships in Belfast Lough. To counter the U-Boats and Condors, two squadrons of Hudsons – 244 and 233 – were based at Aldergrove in support of 502 Sqn towards the end of the year, prior to which small numbers of Ansons, Hudsons and Whitleys as well as Blenheim fighters were sent on short-term detachments from bases in Britain.
Airfields and Aircraft of Coastal Command in Northern Ireland
One of the RAF pilots already experienced in flying the type who was posted to 120 Sqn was a young Ulsterman Terence Bulloch. Born in Lisburn in 1916 Bulloch became the most decorated and celebrated pilot in RAF Coastal Command during WW2.
Joining the RAF in 1937, he transferred to 120 Squadron at Nutt's Corner in 1941 flying B-24 Liberators. He destroyed his first U-Boat in October 1942. His pilots flying logbook shows that throughout the war he completed 350 operational missions with 2058 operational flying hours. By the end of the war, Sqn Ldr T Bulloch, DSO, DFC (each with bars) was officially credited with sinking four and seriously damaging a further two U-Boats, the highest score by any pilot.
Squadron Leader Terrence Bulloch (left) with Flying Officer Michael Layton RCAF who was an expert Navigator. They teamed up in the later half of 1942 and became close friends, Layton being a key member of Bulloch's crew when they sank a U-Boat on the 8th December that year.
by Ernie Cromie
PART ONE: Operations
But the shipping losses continued at a serious rate and were regarded by the Government with growing alarm. In February 1941, Western Approaches Command was set up to co-ordinate operations by the RAF and RN in the sea lanes leading to the major ports of Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast via the North Channel, to which route convoys were now restricted. 15 Group moved into the new Command area, also setting up its headquarters at Liverpool and a new Group, 19, took over at Plymouth to cover the Bay of Biscay area. In March, the Prime Minister issued his famous "Battle of the Atlantic" Directive which called for the main strength of RAFCC to be concentrated urgency in the Western Approaches area.
Action soon followed. For instance, the force of RAFCC fighters at Aldergrove was considerably strengthened by the presence there during the spring of one and a half squadrons of Blenheims and in early April 252 Sqn arrived with Beaufighters, the Command's new standard long-range type. The squadron was about to achieve its first 'kill' for, 90 miles west of Ireland.
On 16 April, Irishman Flight Lieutenant Riley in Beaufighter 'K' encountered a Condor which we shot down in flames. By May, German Heinkel 111 aircraft were also operating over the Atlantic and on the 28th one of them was shot down, followed on the 23 July by another Condor. On both occasions, Hudsons of 233 Sqn were responsible while on convoy escort.
By July 1941, RAFCC strength had increased to thirty five operational squadrons, nine of which were in Northern Ireland at three new air bases as well as Aldergrove.
Three were at Limavady flying Whitleys, Hudsons and Wellingtons respectively; two were at Lough Erne with Catalinas while at Nutts Corner a new squadron — 120 was just beginning to form.
Also opening for use by RAFCC was a new airfield at Ballykelly, albeit it was not until mid-1942 that operational squadrons were based there. This amounted to the largest number of RAFCC squadrons based in the Province at anytime during the war and yet locally-based aircraft had thus far failed to sink a U-Boat, in contrast to their counterparts in other areas, notably 18 Group.
One reason was the lack of very long range (VLR) aircraft to patrol the 'Gap', a large area in mid-Ocean where U-Boats were operating unhindered by RAFCC aircraft.
The VLR types available - American B17 Fortresses and B24 Liberators - had been acquired and flown to Britain months previously but their allocation to RAFCC was delayed because the perceived needs of Bomber Command and the Transatlantic Ferry Service had a higher priority. In the event, Liberators were the first to be released, to 120 Sqn at Nutts Corner where they became operational in late September. Able to remain on station for more than 3 hours at 1100 miles from base, equipped with radar and 8 depth charges, they were formidable aircraft.
Aircrew prepare to board an Avro Anson from 502 Squadron at Aldergrove in 1939. The two ground-crew are in the process of loading a 100lb bomb, illustrating well the inadequate nature of the armoury available in the early days.
Bristol Beaufighter 'K' of No 252 Squadron. Flight Lieutenant William Riley shot down a Focke Wulf Condor about 70 miles west of Erris Head in County Mayo on 16th April 1941 piloting this aircraft. Riley was from Manorhamilton County Leitrim and joined the RAF in 1935. He rose to the rank of Wing Commander with 9 confirmed kills to his name. In May 1941 252 Sqn moved to Malta. Riley was killed during a mid air collision on 16th July 1942
Focke Wulf Condor being abandoned by its crew after being shot down by Hudson AM536 of 233 Squadron Aldergrove on 23rd July 1941.The Condor had been shadowing a west bound convoy. Six of the Luftwaffe crew were picked up by a Royal Navy escort.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator AM929 / H from 120 Squadron.
This aircraft was piloted by Squadron Leader Terrence Bulloch.