Mid-Atlantic gap

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The Mid-Atlantic gap was an area outside the cover by land-based aircraft, those limits are shown with black arcs (map shows the gap in 1941). Bluish dots show destroyed ships of the Allies The battle of the Atlantic 1941 map.svg
The Mid-Atlantic gap was an area outside the cover by land-based aircraft, those limits are shown with black arcs (map shows the gap in 1941). Bluish dots show destroyed ships of the Allies

The Mid-Atlantic Gap is a geographical term applied to an undefended area beyond the reach of land-based RAF Coastal Command antisubmarine (A/S) aircraft during the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. It is frequently known as The Black Pit, as well as the Atlantic Gap, Air Gap, Greenland Gap, or just "the Gap". This resulted in heavy merchant shipping losses to U-boats. The gap was eventually closed in May 1943, as growing numbers of VLR Liberators (Very Long Range models) and escort carriers became available, and as basing problems were addressed.

RAF Coastal Command

RAF Coastal Command was a formation within the Royal Air Force (RAF). It was founded in 1936, when the RAF was restructured into Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands and played an important role during the Second World War. Maritime Aviation had been neglected in the inter-war period, due to disagreements between the Royal Navy (RN) and RAF over the ownership, roles and investment in maritime air power.

Anti-submarine warfare Branch of naval warfare

Anti-submarine warfare is a branch of underwater warfare that uses surface warships, aircraft, or other submarines to find, track, and deter, damage, or destroy enemy submarines.

Battle of the Atlantic longest continuous military campaign in World War II

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign in World War II, running from 1939 to the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, and was a major part of the Naval history of World War II. At its core was the Allied naval blockade of Germany, announced the day after the declaration of war, and Germany's subsequent counter-blockade. It was at its height from mid-1940 through to the end of 1943.



RAF Coastal Command, when it was created in 1936, [1] was given responsibility for A/S (or ASW) patrol. It was equipped only with small numbers of short-ranged aircraft, the most common being the Avro Anson (which was obsolescent by the start of World War II) and Vickers Vildebeest (which was obsolete); for a time, shortages of aircraft were so severe, "scarecrow patrols" using Tiger Moths were even employed. [2] Bomber Command routinely got higher priority for the best, longest-ranged aircraft. Only as Bomber Command transitioned to four-engined aircraft did Coastal Command receive the castoffs, such as Vickers Wellingtons, which finally had adequate range for A/S patrol. [3] Moreover, Coastal Command's motley assortment of Ansons, Whitleys, and Hampdens were unable to carry the standard 450 lb (205 kg) depth charge; that needed Wellingtons or Sunderlands. (The other aircraft capable of carrying it, the Avro Lancaster, was Bomber Command's crown jewel.) [4]

Avro Anson airplane

The Avro Anson is a British twin-engined, multi-role aircraft built by the aircraft manufacturer Avro. Large numbers of the type served in a variety of roles for the Royal Air Force (RAF), Fleet Air Arm (FAA), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and numerous other air forces before, during, and after the Second World War.

Vickers Vildebeest light bomber aircraft

The Vickers Vildebeest and the similar Vickers Vincent were two very large two- to three-seat single-engined British biplanes designed and built by Vickers and used as light bombers, torpedo bombers and in army cooperation roles. First flown in 1928, it remained in service at the start of the Second World War, with the last Vildebeests flying against Japanese forces over Singapore and Java in 1942.

de Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft

The de Havilland DH.82 Tiger Moth is a 1930s British biplane designed by Geoffrey de Havilland and built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company. It was operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and many other operators as a primary trainer aircraft. In addition to the type's principal use for ab-initio training, the Second World War saw RAF Tiger Moths operating in other capacities, including maritime surveillance and defensive anti-invasion preparations; some aircraft were even outfitted to function as armed light bombers.

Coastal Command's prize was the Consolidated Aircraft Liberator GR.I, commonly called the VLR Liberator or just VLR. The Liberator B.I proved too vulnerable for bombing missions over Europe, but had excellent range and payload, ideal for A/S patrol. [5] Top priority for these was the U.S. Navy for reconnaissance operations in the Pacific, where their long legs were equally valuable, but where they generally carried out missions of lower priority than Coastal Command's. [6]

Consolidated Aircraft 1923-1943 aircraft manufacturer in the United States

The Consolidated Aircraft Corporation was founded in 1923 by Reuben H. Fleet in Buffalo, New York, the result of the Gallaudet Aircraft Company's liquidation and Fleet's purchase of designs from the Dayton-Wright Company as the subsidiary was being closed by its parent corporation, General Motors. Consolidated became famous, during the 1920s and 1930s, for its line of flying boats. The most successful of the Consolidated patrol boats was the PBY Catalina, which was produced throughout World War II and used extensively by the Allies. Equally famous was the B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber which, like the Catalina, saw action in both the Pacific and European theaters.

Consolidated Liberator I heavy bomber

Consolidated Liberator I was the service name of the first Consolidated B-24 Liberator four-engined bombers to see use with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

VLRs were of particular importance in times when Bletchley Park was unable to read Kriegsmarine Enigma (Ultra). [7] When ON 127 was attacked by U-584 on 11 September 1942, there was exactly one VLR of 120 Squadron overhead. [8] Fifteen U-boats converged on ON 131, only to meet aircraft, and Coastal Command sank two, while in protecting ON 136, 120 Squadron's VLRs sank U-597 on 12 October 1942. [9] Even then, VLRs proved invaluable in co-operation with shipborne "Huff Duff". Defending SC 104, VLRs guided by HF/DF drove off three shadowers in one day, 16 October. [10] They bettered the performance on 29 October, for HX 212, driving off five, [11] and seven on 6 November around SC 107. [12] "...[T]he apparent inadequacy Newfoundland-based air support was highlighted by the early interception of SC 107 and the resultant bitter and costly battle." [13] This led RAF to belatedly move a number of Coastal Command squadrons.

Bletchley Park British country house

Bletchley Park is a nineteenth-century mansion and estate near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, constructed during the years following 1883 for the English financier and politician Sir Herbert Samuel Leon in the Victorian Gothic, Tudor, and Dutch Baroque styles, on the site of older buildings of the same name. It has received latter-day fame as the central site for British codebreakers during World War II, although at the time of their operation this fact was a closely guarded secret. During the Second World War, the estate housed the British Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which regularly penetrated the secret communications of the Axis Powers – most importantly the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers; among its most notable early personnel the GC&CS team of codebreakers included Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander and Stuart Milner-Barry.

<i>Kriegsmarine</i> 1935–1945 naval warfare branch of Germanys armed forces

The Kriegsmarine was the navy of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It superseded the Imperial German Navy of the German Empire (1871–1918) and the inter-war Reichsmarine (1919–1935) of the Weimar Republic. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches, along with the Heer (Army) and the Luftwaffe of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces from 1933 to 1945.

Enigma machine German cipher machine

The Enigma machine is an encryption device developed and used in the early- to mid-20th century to protect commercial, diplomatic and military communication. It was employed extensively by Nazi Germany during World War II, in all branches of the German military.

The paltry nine Liberator GR.Is operating over the Atlantic, [4] members of 120 Squadron based in Iceland, were nevertheless a worry to Admiral Dönitz, BdU. [14] As a measure of how valuable they were, after patrols off Canada were added in 1942, only one ship was lost in convoy. [4] Even in mid-1942, Coastal Command only had two squadrons of Liberators and Fortresses, and at the first sign of Coastal Command's success against U-boats, Harris sought to have their aircraft used in attacking German cities. [3]

No. 120 Squadron RAF

Number 120 Squadron or No. CXX Squadron is a squadron of the Royal Air Force which was established as a Royal Flying Corps unit late in World War I, disbanded a year after the end of the war, then re-established as a RAF Coastal Command squadron during World War II. Although disbanded again a month after Victory in Europe Day, during and after World War II it operated almost continuously, with maritime patrol aircraft; most recently with the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod, based at RAF Kinloss in Scotland until the type's withdrawal in March 2010. The squadron was disbanded again the following year. No. 120 Squadron stood up again in April 2018 at RAF Lossiemouth and will become the first squadron to be equipped with the Boeing Poseidon MRA1 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft in 2019.

Karl Dönitz President of Germany; admiral in command of German submarine forces during World War II

Karl Dönitz was a German admiral who played a major role in the naval history of World War II. Dönitz briefly succeeded Adolf Hitler as the head of state of Nazi Germany.

After Convoy SC 118, Professor Patrick M. S. Blackett, Director of the Admiralty's Operations Research section, made several proposals, including diverting VLRs from Bomber Command to Coastal Command. "Despite the strength of Blackett's case, the Admiralty (not to mention the Air Ministry, Bomber Command, and the Americans) believed for some time yet that it could not afford to reduce the heavy air offensive in the Bay of Biscay or to abandon the bombing of German bases by the RAF." [15] "The number of VLR aircraft operating in the North Atlantic in February [1943] was only 18, and no substantial increase was made until after the crisis of March." [16] Nor were night air patrols, recognized as necessary, initiated until the autumn of 1943. [17]

Convoy SC 118

Convoy SC 118 was the 118th of the numbered series of World War II Slow Convoys of merchant ships from Sydney, Cape Breton Island to Liverpool. The ships departed New York City on 24 January 1943 and were met by Mid-Ocean Escort Force Group B-2 consisting of V-class destroyers Vanessa and Vimy, the Treasury-class cutter Bibb, the Town-class destroyer Beverley, Flower-class corvettes Campanula, Mignonette, Abelia and Lobelia, and the convoy rescue ship Toward.

Admiralty British Government ministry responsible for the Royal Navy until 1964

The Admiralty, originally known as the Office of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs, was the government department responsible for the command of the Royal Navy first in the Kingdom of England, later in the Kingdom of Great Britain, and from 1801 to 1964, the United Kingdom and former British Empire. Originally exercised by a single person, the Lord High Admiral (1385–1628), the Admiralty was, from the early 18th century onwards, almost invariably put "in commission" and exercised by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who sat on the Board of Admiralty.

Operations research, or operational research (OR) in British usage, is a discipline that deals with the application of advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions. Further, the term operational analysis is used in the British military as an intrinsic part of capability development, management and assurance. In particular, operational analysis forms part of the Combined Operational Effectiveness and Investment Appraisals, which support British defense capability acquisition decision-making.

Bomber Command did not refuse entirely to offer assistance against U-boats. From 14 January 1943 through May, they flew seven thousand sorties [3] against the U-boat pens in Lorient, Brest, and St. Nazaire, [18] at a cost of 266 aircraft and crews. [3] They accomplished no damage to the pens nor the submarines within them. [3] Coastal Command strength never reached 266 VLRs. [19] [ citation needed ] Missions flown against German U-boat building yards had similarly disappointing results. [20]

Aircraft also had an important indirect role, by preventing even the formation of wolf packs. They limited the places U-boats could attack in safety, and (by reducing the ability of shadowers to find and track convoys) made shipping harder to find, thereby reducing losses. This also helped escorts, by enabling them to deal with one U-boat at a time. [21] Despite a willingness of RCAF aircraft to fly in (perennially bad) conditions off the Grand Banks Coastal Command would never have attempted, [22] U-boats could trail convoys beginning very soon after departure from Halifax. [23] Without ASV, the almost "perpetual fog of the Grand Banks also allowed pack operations to penetrate within a couple of hundred miles of Newfoundland, while aircraft patrolled harmlessly above", [24] visual detection impossible.

A means of detecting surfaced submarines at night, when they were at their most vulnerable, recharging batteries, and felt most safe, was a top priority for Coastal Command. ASV gave it to them. The previous AI.II (Mark 2 Airborne Interception) radar became ASV.II (Air to Surface Vessel Mark 2) fitted in Coastal Command aircraft. Coastal Command priority for it, however, ranked behind Fighter Command's night fighter units. [3] ASV.II's 1½-metre wavelength (actually 1.7 m, 176 MHz), [25] mid-VHF band emissions meant however, that a submarine was usually lost in sea return before it came in visual range, [24] at around a mile (1,850 m), by which time it was already diving. In response, the Leigh light was developed. Though it had to overcome Air Ministry indifference, and only entered service in June 1941, [3] it proved very successful. This, however, required a large aircraft, such as the Wellington or Liberator, to carry the generator needed to power the light, [24] and most of Coastal Command's aircraft were incapable of it, [3] nor were Bomber Command inclined to turn over anything better. Moreover, the Germans developed Metox, which picked up ASV's radar pulses before it was able to detect a submarine at all, rendering it useless.

The appearance of H2S three gigahertz-frequency (10 cm) radar changed that, and the combination of H2S (as ASV.III) [26] and Leigh light proved lethal to U-boats. [27] Harris, however, denied Coastal Command any allocation of H2S systems, [28] claiming Bomber Command needed it to find targets, in preference to Gee and Oboe, while arguing Coastal Command might lose it to the Germans. Churchill backed him up. [3] Marshal John Slessor, head of Coastal Command, countered Bomber Command also risked having it fall in enemy hands, and having the Germans produce a countermeasure against it, before Coastal Command ever got to use it. In the event, this was exactly what happened. The first ASV.III was fitted to a Coastal Command Wellington at Defford in December 1942, with twelve based at Chivenor by February 1943, [26] while a copy of H2S was lost 2/3 February when a Stirling Pathfinder was shot down over the Netherlands, on only H2S's second operational use. [29] Harris made similar objections to supplying the American-created 3 cm-wavelength H2X radar units to Coastal Command (which knew it as ASV.IV), [30] again got higher priority, and again saw it fall into German hands, almost exactly a year later, in February 1944. [31]

As Coastal Command predicted, the Germans captured the damaged H2S, which would have been next to impossible from a Coastal Command aircraft downed at sea, rather than over land, and Telefunken produced the Rotterdam Gerät (Rotterdam Device, named for where it was captured). Coastal Command's first ASV.III-equipped patrol took place over the Bay of Biscay 1 March. ASV.III made its first U-boat contact on the night of 17 March, but unfortunately the carrier Wellington suffered a malfunction of its Leigh Light and was unable to press home the attack. The first attack using the system occurred the next night. [26] When ASV.III did enter service, German submariners, right up to Dönitz, began to mistakenly believe British aircraft were homing on emissions from the Metox receiver, [26] [32] which no longer gave warning. [26] Meantime, German scientists were perfecting the Rotterdam Gerät to create a submersible version for U-boat defense, of the aviation-utilized FuG 350 Naxos radar detector for night fighters, the submersible version getting the FuMB7 Naxos U designation. [33] While fragile, Naxos worked. However, it entered service the same day as the 10 GHz-emissions H2X (which Naxos could not detect) became operational in Coastal Command. Naxos was replaced by FuMB36 [34] Tunis in May 1944, [31] and was supplemented by Stumpf, what today would be called radar absorbent material, under the codename Schornsteinfeger ("Chimneysweep"). [34]

Just before the TRIDENT Conference, Admiral Ernest J. King got control of A/S aircraft from the Army Air Force, arranging a trade of B-24s for comparable types. [35] This enabled Slessor to make a deal with him to "borrow" one squadron. [36] After attacks on ONS 166, the number of VLRs in Newfoundland finally increased. [37] "Canadians had been pressing hard for Liberators since autumn 1942, against British doubts that the RCAF could employ them effectively, [38] while RCAF, for its part, opposed RAF taking over a job RCAF saw as its own. The commanding officer of 120 Squadron, Squadron Leader Bulloch, confirmed RCAF's ability, and in early March 1943, the number in Newfoundland belatedly increased (though it was not enough to constitute 10 Squadron, RCAF, before 10 May), [39] while 120 Squadron's strength doubled. [28] This still only put all of thirty-eight VLRs over the Mid-Atlantic Gap. [39] The arrival of 25th Antisubmarine Wing, USAAF, with its medium-range B-24s (equipped with H2S, probably built by Canadians), [40] made it possible to free up Coastal Command VLRs without it. The growth in numbers of escort carriers meant "a dramatic increase of USAAF Fortresses and medium-range Liberators" could be based in Newfoundland. [39] 25h Wing flew over the Bay of Biscay, where they sank one U-boat before being redeployed to Morocco. [3] [41]

Increasing availability of escort carriers reduced the hazard of the Gap. After a crisis in March which nearly had Churchill and the Admiralty abandon convoys altogether, [42] the Mid-Atlantic Gap was finally closed in May 1943, when RCAF VLRs became operational in Newfoundland, [43] by which time the Battle of the Atlantic was largely won.

See also


  1. Bowyer, Chaz. Coastal Command at War (Shepperton, Surrey, UK: Ian Allan Ltd., 1979), p. 157.
  2. Johnson, Brian. The Secret War (London: BBC, 1978), p. 204. The United States would use a similar expedient in early 1942.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Ireland, Bernard. The Battle of the Atlantic (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute Press, 2003), p. 70.
  4. 1 2 3 Milner, Marc. Battle of the Atlantic (St. Catherines, ON: Vanwell Publishing, 2003), p. 99.
  5. Ireland, p. 71.
  6. Ireland, p. 124.
  7. Milner, Marc. North Atlantic Run: the Royal Canadian Navy and the battle for the convoys (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1985), p. 158.
  8. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 161.
  9. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 171.
  10. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 173.
  11. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 176.
  12. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 180.
  13. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 188.
  14. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 158.
  15. Milner, p. 224.
  16. Milner, North Atlantic Run, pp. 224–225.
  17. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 225.
  18. Johnson, p. 234.
  19. Terraine, John. The Right of the Line (London: Wordsworth, 1997 ed.).
  20. Terraine, John. The Right of the Line (London: Wordsworth, 1997 ed.), pp. 454–455.
  21. Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, pp. 98–99.
  22. Milner, North Atlantic Run, pp. 140–141.
  23. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 140.
  24. 1 2 3 Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, p. 101.
  25. Johnson, p. 207.
  26. 1 2 3 4 5 Johnson, p. 227.
  27. Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, p. 102
  28. 1 2 Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, p. 144.
  29. RAF History - Bomber Command 60th Anniversary, Campaign Diary: February 1943. Accessed 18 July 2008
  30. Johnson, p. 230.
  31. 1 2 Ireland, p. 188.
  32. Gordon, Don E. Electronic Warfare: Element of Strategy and Multiplier of Combat Power. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1981)
  33. Johnson, p. 229.
  34. 1 2 Johnson, p. 231.
  35. Ireland, p. 140.
  36. Ireland, p. 141.
  37. Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, p. 143.
  38. Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, p. 143. The same sort of condescension was applied to RCN by RN.
  39. 1 2 3 Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, p. 148.
  40. Zimmerman, David. Great Naval Battle of Ottawa (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989).
  41. Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, pp. 243-244, Random House, New York, NY, 2012. ISBN   978-1-4000-6964-4.
  42. Milner, North Atlantic Run.
  43. Milner, North Atlantic Run, p. 239.

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