By Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.)
The story of U.S. Naval Aviation in the Pacific during World War II is very well known, but perhaps less known is the story of naval aircraft and crews that served with distinction in Europe against Germany and its Axis allies. This article will look at actions and campaigns that ranged from northwest Africa to the cold, damp airfields of England and beyond.
In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his military advisers began planning offensive operations in both the Pacific and Europe. The offensive in the Solomon Islands, beginning in August 1942, began the long trek to Japan. The Allies, however, decided to focus the majority of their resources to take care of Germany first. It was out of this “Europe first” policy that the first action involving U.S. Naval Aviation forces in Europe was executed against the Vichy French territories of French Morocco and Algeria in North Africa in November 1942.
The Americans and British wanted to land in Africa to strike German and Italian forces in Libya from behind and prepare for the invasion of Italy. The French remained angry that the British had attacked the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940 and at Dakar two months later. As a result, there was concern that the Vichy forces would fight, if only as a point of honor. What made the matter even more awkward was the fact that France had bought several fighters and light bombers from the United States just before the war. The Curtiss and Martin aircraft were used against the Germans in 1940, and in 1942 the puppet Vichy government continued to operate these aircraft, which were painted with conspicuous red-and-yellow stripes on the engine cowlings and tail surfaces. Overall, the Allies faced approximately 500 French aircraft of varying numbers and quality.
The assembled Allied task force included nine American and British carriers: USS Ranger (CV 4), USS Sangamon (CVE 26), USS Chenango (CVE 28), USS Suwanee (CVE 27), USS Santee (CVE 29), HMS Avenger, HMS Argus, HMS Furious, and HMS Dasher. As the first troops hit the beach on 8 November 1942, the carriers launched strikes against targets and met some resistance, mainly light antiaircraft fire from shore-based batteries. The French battleship Jean Bart, bottled up in Casablanca harbor, added its 15-inch guns to the mix of enemy fire until a response from the USS Massachusetts (BB 59) struck the French ship’s one working turret. Several Vichy destroyers and submarines sortied from the harbor as F4F Wildcats and SBD Dauntlesses from Ranger and the U.S. escort carriers bombed and strafed targets.
The first major aerial resistance appeared in the form of American-built Curtiss Hawk 75s, the export version of the U.S. Army’s P-36. Although the French aviators were reluctant to fight their erstwhile American allies, they did, shooting down four Wildcats while losing 16 of their own. Even a lumbering SOC biplane, usually used for artillery spotting, got into the action by bombing a tank column with depth charges.
Another oddly placed little Army plane also participated in the fight. An L-4 Grasshopper, the Army’s version of the Piper Cub, launched from Ranger to offer spotting services. The little Grasshoppers were in the thick of it, and some of them were struck by enemy fire. Added to this mix were a number of P-40s that launched from the escort carrier Chenango. A few Americans were shot down and captured, although their internment proved to be brief. While the fighters were engaged, squadrons of SBDs and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers attacked various targets, including Jean Bart, now badly damaged at her berth.
Overwhelmed, French resistance collapsed on 10 November. An armistice was signed on 11 November, the day on which a similar action brought World War I to a close 24 years earlier. Operation Torch served several purposes, not the least of which was the beginning of the expulsion of German and Italian forces from North Africa. It also provided valuable experience for further Allied operations that would eventually lead to the landing in France on 6 June 1944.
A Scandinavian Diversion
Rangerreturned to the United States and spent several months on anti-submarine (ASW) and maritime patrol. Eventually, the carrier and its air group were sent back across the Atlantic to help with Operation Leader, the Royal Navy’s plan to attack German targets at Bodø on Norway’s west central coast, just above the Arctic Circle, on the Norwegian Sea.
In August 1943, Ranger reached the main Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow and began training flights so the aircrews could get the feel of their new theater of operations. There were occasional mishaps involving the loss of aircraft, but soon Ranger joined the main Royal Navy task force as it headed for Bodø. Targets included enemy shipping along the rocky Norwegian coast, oil tanks, the aerodrome at Bodø, and radar facilities near the city itself. Ranger launched its first aircraft shortly after 0600 on 4 October, an ASW patrol of two SBDs and four F4Fs as a combat air patrol. Other sorties followed, including by TBF Avengers carrying bombs instead of torpedoes in their internal bays.
The first target of opportunity turned out to be a German cargo ship. A section of Wildcats pealed off to strafe the little steamer, encountering a surprisingly stout defense of antiaircraft fire, which struck one of the U.S. fighters. Although his cockpit was filled with smoke, the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Moore Jr., took his Wildcat down to masthead height and made several runs strafing the German ship’s deck, leaving it so badly damaged that the SBD pilots who followed decided to save their ordnance for another target. Another was quickly found.
The Dauntlesses attacked a small convoy of ships, and the accompanying Wildcats made another strafing run. Bombs struck a cargo vessel but flak rose from the burning ship, hitting the American attackers with some success. The ship showed signs of serious damage, but still offered surprisingly dangerous resistance. Several Wildcats and Dauntlesses sustained hits. Attacks on other ships met with similar enemy fire.
Seven ships were eventually sunk by the two morning strikes, and later in the day air-to-air encounters saw two German aircraft—a Ju 88 attack bomber and an He 115 floatplane bomber—shot down by Wildcats. They were the first German kills of the war by the U.S. Navy. The Ju 88 had been on a snooper mission, and the big Heinkel floatplane had probably been caught in a rain squall and had the bad luck to run into an American patrol of seven young fighter pilots aching for a fight. They disposed of the He 115 only 13 miles from Ranger. One of the pilots, Lt. j.g. Dean “Diz” Laird, would eventually go to the Pacific and score five kills against the Japanese. He became the only U.S. Navy ace to claim kills against the two main Axis powers.
The Invasion of Southern France
The landings of 6 June 1944 were intended to gain an Allied foothold in northern France and to forge a path to the population and political centers of Germany. To protect the flank of this advance, landings were planned for the south of France as well. Initially named Operation Anvil (later changed to Dragoon—according to rumors at the time—because British Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed he had been “dragooned” into participating) the U.S.-led invasion began on 15 August 1944, with two task forces combining British and American ships, including seven British CVEs and two U.S. CVEs (USS Tulagi [CVE 72] and USS Kasaan Bay [CVE 69]). These small but extremely useful flattops together carried 216 fighters, mainly Grumman F6F Hellcats and Supermarine Seafires.
The landings went off without much trouble, unlike the bloody operations at Normandy more than two months earlier. And it was not until 19 August that German aircraft put in an appearance. Tulagi’s squadron was Observation-Fighter Squadron (VOF) 1. This oddly named squadron’s mission was spotting for naval gunfire. At first equipped with F4U-1 Corsairs, the unit exchanged its “U-birds” for F6F-3s, then F6F-5s.
During Dragoon, VOF-1 flew hundreds of reconnaissance and interdiction sorties against German rolling stock and also called in strikes for U.S. Army troops. Of the eight German aircraft shot down in aerial combat, VOF-1 aviators accounted for six, losing five Hellcats in the process. Ens. Ed Olszewski scored two kills—two Ju 52 transports—on 21 August. That same day, two He 111 bombers were spotted and the VOF-1 Hellcats gave chase. The Germans split up, heading in two different directions. Lieutenants Rene E. Poucel and Archie R. Wood went after one of the Heinkels, eventually shooting it down. Lt. Cmdr. John H. Sandor and Ens. David E. Robinson went after the southbound bomber, eventually shooting it down as well. A third bomber was soon spotted and Wood gave chase, pumping .50-caliber bullets into the German aircraft until it, too, crashed. The four VOF-1 fighters were not finished, however. On the way back to their ship, they strafed an airfield (damaging a Ju 88) and attacked a locomotive, which they left smoking and burning along with its train of boxcars.
Over the following week, the port cities of Marseilles and Toulon were liberated, and the main German forces in the south of France retreated northward. After Dragoon, U.S. Navy carrier forces were no longer needed for the drive to Germany, and many aircraft and ships that had served in Europe eventually were used in combat against the Japanese in the Pacific. In the end, U.S. Naval Aviation contributed its fair share to the victory that would come on VE Day on 8 May 1945.
Cmdr. Mersky has written more than 15 books and 100 magazine articles on military aviation. He received the Admiral Arthur Radford Award in 1999 and the 2003 Contributor of the Year Award from the Tailhook Association. The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of photographs from Alan C. Carey, Eddie Creek, Robert J. Cressman, Maryrose Grossman, Marrisa Joseph, Tony Holmes, Kate Moore, and Barrett Tillman.