Lt. Cdr. Steven
Lawson sat on the edge of the chair, barely wanting to sit at all. He had paced
in the hallway for fifteen minutes before being admitted to the office at
Whitehall, wondering what task he had been summoned for. He had only been told
that he was to command a secret group, with a secret mission, and that his
expertise was necessary to the success of it. That did not bode well. He was the
most experienced Blackburn Skua pilot in the Royal Navy, which meant that he was
the most experienced with an aircraft that was decidedly obsolescent, and he was
under no illusions that they would pick him to lead a unit that was equipped
with anything else.
His suspicions were
confirmed during the briefing, but he was also invigorated to learn that the
task was quite important, and the Skua seemed well-suited to it. As a
dive-bomber it had achieved some early success, with the sinking of the German
cruiser Königsberg in Norway being a pivotal episode in the opening stages of
the war. But encounters with the better elements of the Luftwaffe had discovered
its shortcomings, and air-to air combat was something that was to be avoided at
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The new group assembled at RNAS Eastleigh seemed enthusiastic despite their mounts, and all were comfortable with the Skua. The variant they were to fly, designated the Skua IIR, had a bite that made its ornithological namesake look tame. Eight rockets were loaded under the wings, and they were the proven weapons used in the land-based Z Battery anti-aircraft system. Larger charges had been fitted to them, and tests showed them to be effective against light armour. At the insistence of the Chief Armourer, the fins were painted a bright red. “I’m not ‘aving any of my pin-monkeys gashing their ‘eads open on them sharp points! I wants ‘em ‘ighly visible!” The warheads were painted a mustard yellow, nobody ever knew why.
Their targets were the German invasion fleet assembling on the French coast. The plan was to nip things in the bud before it grew; but unbeknownst to the British this would actually be easier than they thought. It was known that Germany had no real experience at seaborne operations, but their engineering prowess was the concern; their ability to design and construct landing craft and other required equipment was merely assumed. The assumption was wrong.
Germany had pinned its hopes on development of the Pionierlandungsboot 39, but it transpired that pronouncing the name was easier than producing it. As a result, the fleet being built up was little more than a rag-tag assemblage of river barges; unarmoured, slow, and some even unpowered, needing to be towed by other barges that could barely move themselves at a reasonable pace.
The Skuas, nine in all, were divided into three flights, given colour codes of red, yellow, and white, and for administrative purposes were considered to be part of 759 Squadron, Fleet Fighter School, from which their airframes had been borrowed. The normal camouflage pattern had been replaced by an all over dark blue-grey, the low altitude operations negating the need for sky-type undersides. The wingtips and vertical stabilisers were painted with the colours of each flight.
Weather conditions dictated the date of the attack. Overcast clouds were wanted; the plan was to attack at dawn, and the pilots did not like the idea of flying at extremely low altitude with the rising sun in their eyes. The engines roared to life in the darkness of a gloomy Hampshire morning, checks were completed, and all nine aircraft rose into the sky. They flew at wave-top height until their targets were in sight, and before them was the exact picture that they had seen in the low-level reconnaissance photos taken the day before. The crew who had taken the photos had almost paid with their lives, escaping only due to the quick action of the cover flown by Hurricanes. And two of those pilots had not returned.
Lawson took it upon himself to have his flight lead the attack. He was every bit a true leader, caring very much for the safety of those under his command, and arranged it so that he would probably be in the most danger. He had his two wingmen attacked first, and, as Lawson suspected, the defences woke up just in time to ensure that his approach was made under withering fire. His aircraft took a few holes, but at such low altitude the chances of accurately bringing weapons to bear on a speeding aircraft were minimal. He almost wondered if they were in more danger from the debris thrown up when their rockets impacted their targets.
The operation was deemed a success, with much being learned about the capabilities of the weaponry, and the logistics involved, and all but two aircraft returned to base. One crew was rescued from the waters of the English Channel, the others spent the war as guests of their enemy.
Lawson was pleased, and proud of his crew. He was also relieved to discover that this would be the first and last such foray with their mounts. He had grown to have a grudging respect for the Skua, but he also knew that its time was rapidly passing, and that better aircraft would be required in the very near future.
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