Cats and Condors…

Compiled Story and photo Story and photos by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***One of the most successful Royal Air Force fighters early in World War II was the Hawker Hurricane, though publicly it took a back seat to its more glamorous stablemate − the Supermarine Spitfire.

Hurricanes shot down more German aircraft during the Battle of Britain than Spitfires. But once that battle was over, Hurricanes were shunted to various overseas locations and other missions while the Spitfires, for the most part, stayed in the United Kingdom.

With the end of the Battle of Britain, the Germans turned to submarine warfare to try to starve the island nation by cutting its supply lines. Winston Churchill was to later say the submarine menace was “the only thing that really worried him.”
Groups of German U-boats, called “wolfpacks,” were especially successful against the large British convoys going back and forth across the Atlantic.

 To locate the convoys, the Germans used a four-engine airliner, hastily converted to a long-range bomber and reconnaissance aircraft − the Focke-Wulf 200 Condor.

Flying from the west coast of occupied France, Condors would locate British convoys in the Atlantic and circle out of anti-aircraft range, radioing the position and course to the U-boat wolfpacks and guiding them to the attack. Then they would bomb the convoys themselves on their way home. From June 1940 to February 1941, German U-boats − assisted by the Condors − sunk more than two million tons of British shipping.

The Condors were very fragile and lightly armed, but the British had no aircraft carriers to protect the convoys, so the German aircraft seemed invulnerable. In desperation, the Royal Navy proposed using a rocket-propelled catapult with a launch rail mounted on a ship’s bow to launch a Hurricane to attack the Condors.

There was one problem – the launch vessel had no carrier deck, so the pilot had to bail out or ditch in the sea near the convoy and in the North Atlantic. Survival time in the frigid water would be just a few minutes. Nevertheless, 35 vessels, called Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen, were modified to launch the fighters.

The first CAM − the SS Michael E − was sunk by a U-boat in May 1941 before her Hurricane was needed and that proved to be a pattern; of the 35 CAM ships, 12 were sunk by U-boats.

The “Hurricats” first victory over a Condor was on Aug. 3, 1941. The pilot was able to ditch, but the aircraft sank so rapidly the pilot was barely able to escape. New ditching techniques were developed, and by the end of 1941, CAM Hurricats had been launched seven more times, shooting down five more of the fragile Condors. Surprisingly, only one Royal Air Force pilot died during the operations, which ended when America entered the war and the U-boats moved to the east coast of the
United States.