Merchant Ships Used as Fighter Carriers in World War Two

by Commander Fraser M. McKee 2012

Auxiliary Carrier

Prologue

Early in World War 2 it was of much concern to the Admiralty when ships began to be sunk in significant numbers by aircraft of the German Luftwaffe, not only around the U.K. but especially by KG-40 "Condor" long range patrol and bomber aircraft well out into the Atlantic. While anti–aircraft guns were promptly provided for most ships (largely manned by Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) gunners from the RN, a few Royal Marines, the Army’s Royal Artillery Maritime Regiments and even a few hundred infantry Anti–Aircraft gunners), this proved insufficient defence. The only aircraft carriers in the Fleet were large, few and required for naval fleet operations, not for convoy defence.

Winston Churchill sent a memo to the Minister of Defence on March 6, 1941: " .... We must assume that the battle of the Atlantic has begun ..... 2. Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult or otherwise launch fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week .... "

It was not an entirely new concept, since cruisers and other large naval ships had carried catapult–launched aircraft, usually the venerable Walrus, for many years for scouting purposes. But launching fighters, while not unique, was novel.

Thus was born two temporary and emergency measures in early 1941. The first was provided by merchant ships fitted with a single fighter aircraft on a catapult, all but one right forward in the bows. While it could be fired off via its rocket-propelled cradle, there was no provision to recover the aircraft. If within reach of land after driving off any enemy aircraft, the pilot could aim for some local field. But if beyond reach, either the plane was ditched in the ocean or the pilot bailed out and hoped to land close to an escort who would pick him up. A small dinghy was provided with his parachute pack.

Of the first five trial ships one, HMS PEGASUS, was already in hand as an aircraft transporter, the other four were taken into the Navy also as HMS. These five were referred to as Fighter Catapult Ships (FCSs) and the four merchantmen carried no cargoes. They had naval ships and air crews and Lieutenant or Sub Lieutenant pilots, at first flying Fulmar two–seater fighters. But these proved too slow to catch the ex–airliner Condors and were replaced by Hurricanes Marks 1 and 1A, referred to as "Hurricats" or "Catafighters". These Hurricanes, with a large engine air scoop under the mid–body, did not ditch well, so most that had to be abandoned were left to crash into the ocean while the pilot parachuted down.

Although two of these FCS were sunk and successes modest, the concept seemed worth pursuing, failing other options and against RAF objections. That model of Hurricane was being superseded by later models and by the Spitfire in front line service, the protection was vital. So aircraft were available and a Merchant Ship Fighter Unit (MSFU) was established at Speke, near Liverpool.

Thus the second measure: thirty–five Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen (CAMs) – were taken in hand and the catapults installed. This time the ships remained as merchant ships, carried cargoes, and the Master was the final arbiter as to when a plane should be launched to drive off any shadower. The first ship in the group, MICHAEL E, was still manned by a Naval Fleet Air Arm air crew. All subsequent ships flying parties were RAF. All but two of the 35 were new construction, and 27 owned by the Ministry of War Transport as "EMPIRE" ships, the oldest being David MacBrayne19s 1922 ex–LOCHGOIL which became EMPIRE ROWAN.

Both these FCS and CAMs were later replaced by the Merchant Aircraft Carriers – (MAC ships). These were bulk freighters – grain ships or tankers – carried their almost full cargoes, but fitted with small full flight decks and miniature combined bridges and "islands". They carried usually Swordfish anti–submarine aircraft, not fighters, as by that time – 1943/1944 – the Condor danger was largely passed or only used for distant shadowing. Same applied for the Escort Carriers, the first, HMS AUDACITY (ex–captured German passenger–cargo ship HANNOVER) was commissioned June 20, 1941. She and her successors were RN–manned true small carriers with full flight decks and hangars, carrying fighters and Swordfish. The RCN manned two of them, still as HMS NABOB and HMS PUNCHER.

Assessment

The value of these temporary air defence measures was more in what they prevented than in what was achieved. The FCS and CAM ships would seem to have caused a significant reduction in ship sinkings by aircraft when they were present in convoys. The Condors, Heinkles and other attackers were considerably charier of low level attacks, made their passes more quickly and hence less accurately when they noted the presence of an FCS or CAM ship within a convoy. Only 7 German aircraft were shot down, at the cost of over 25 Hurricanes in total. But the number of merchantmen not sunk is immeasurable.

With the MAC ships in convoy the ‘Black gap’ in air cover in mid–Atlantic was closed in 1943, and almost no ships were sunk in convoys that had MAC protection except those that straggled away from its protection. Again it is a case of what was prevented by their Swordfish driving down shadowing and attacking U-boats rather than actual sinkings of those attackers.

Tables

This reference list has been prepared to record all the merchant ships that were fitted to carry aircraft, including two dummy CAMs. Determining the names has proved very difficult, from a myriad of sources, not all agreeing, and in some cases confusing one class with another.

FCS, CAM, MAC SHIPS & OTHER CATAPULT MERCHANT SHIPS

(Included: ship detail - when built, gross registered tonnage; some a/c pilot names; successes & losses. Success = German a/c destroyed by FCS or CAM a/c. Details of losses of ships. d = died in sinking. a/c = German aircraft),

1. FIGHTER CATAPULT SHIPS (FCS): 5 ships

a. Four ex-banana boats; H.M.S., with Naval crews & flying parties for a/c and guns, FAA pilots. Usually carried Fulmars, then Sea Hurricanes.

ARIGUANI: (ex–Elder Fyffes Ltd., 1926, 6,746 grt.) S/Lt. Harvey, S/Lt Birrell. Damaged by torpedo off SW Portugal on 23/10/1941 by U–23, again by U–83 on 28/10; towed into Gibraltar. (She was hit twice over 5 days!) Decommissioned, returned to general merchant service in 1944.

MAPLIN: (1922, 5,355 grt.) With Hurricanes. 1 success with OG-70 to Gibraltar, Lt. Everett, 18/7/1941; again, near Convoy SL- 81 on 3/8/1941. P/O Walker with HG 72.

PATIA: (1922, 5,355 grt. CDR D.M.B. Baker, RNR (d).) Sunk by a/c on 27/4/1941 during 1st trials off Mersey/Liverpool

SPRINGBANK (Ex-Bank Lines Ltd., 1926, 5,155 grt. Capt. C.H. Godwin, RN) With midships catapult, like a cruiser’s. P.O. Shaw. Sunk 27/9/1941 by U-201 while supporting HG-73 from Gibraltar, SW of Ireland.

b. Built in 1914 as a collier, but bought by Admiralty as HMS "Ark Royal" re–named 1934 as HMS "PEGASUS" for carrying and moving aircraft. Fitted with a catapult like the first 3 above, not as far forward.

PEGASUS. (1914, 7,020 t.) Carried Fulmars. P.O. Shaw, S/Lt Cox, Lt Parke {killed}. With HG–75. Later used for training, then as an accommodation ship. She lasted, as a merchantman, until 1950!

2. DUMMY FIGHTER CATAPULT SHIPS: 2 ships

(Included in convoys, but dummy catapults & fighters; carried cargoes)

CAPE CLEAR (Lyle Shipping Co., 1939, 5,085 grt.) Catapult added during repair after being mined 27/2/1941 in the Irish Sea off Liverpool.

CITY OF JOHANNESBURG (Ellerman/Hall Lines, 1920, 5,669 grt.) Sunk 23/10/1942 by U–504 off East London, South Africa.

3. CATAPULT AIRCRAFT MERCHANTMEN (CAM SHIPS): 35 ships

Assigned 50 a/c Sea Hurricanes, from MSFU. All ships with cargoes. All RAF flying crew except 1st trial ship, MICHAEL E. Ships were all with Merchant Navy crews. Any sunk after mid-1943 is after CAM service ended. MWT = owner as Ministry of War Transport; all assigned to various existing shipping companies as Managers.

MICHAEL E. (1st trial CAM; RN FAA crew. Bury Hill Shipping Co., 1941, 7,628 grt.) On initial trials 28/5/1941, but with OB-327, Atlantic convoy; S/Lt Birrell. Sunk 2/6/1941 by U-108 in mid-Atlantic.

DAGHESTAN (Hindustan Steam Shipping Co., 1941, 7,250 grt. Grainer {2nd of name 1st was sunk 25/3/1940 by U-57} P/O/ Lumsden

DALTON HALL (West Hartlepool Stm. Navigation Co., 1941, 7,250 grt.) Sunk 24/9/1941 by mine, Bristol Channel.

EASTERN CITY (Leeds Shipping Co., 1941, 5,185 grt.) P/O Turley–George, P/O/ Spurdle

EMPIRE BURTON (MWT, 1941, 6,966 grt.) Sunk with Convoy SC-44 20/9/1941 by U–74 SE of Greenland

EMPIRE CLIVE (MWT, 1941, 7,069 grt.)

EMPIRE DARWIN (MWT, 1941, 6,710 grt.) With SL-133, Sierra Leone convoy; success by F/O Stewart on 26/7/1943

EMPIRE DAY (MWT, 1941, 7,250 grt.) Sunk 7/8/1944 by U-198 N. End Mozambique Channel, Indian Ocean

EMPIRE DELL (MWT, 1941, 7,065 grt.) P/O Watson. Sunk 11/5/1942 by U–124 with Convoy ON-92 in mid-Atlantic

EMPIRE EVE (MWT, 1941, 5,970 grt.) Sunk 18/5/1943 by U–414 in Med., off Oran.

EMPIRE FAITH (MWT, 1941, 7,061 grt.)

EMPIRE FLAME (MWT, 1941, 7,069 grt.)

EMPIRE FOAM (MWT, 1941, 7,047 grt. With HX-156; F/O Varley)

EMPIRE FRANKLIN {FRANKLYN in some records} (MWT, 1941, 7,292 grt.) P/O Fenwick

EMPIRE GALE (MWT, 1941, 7,089 grt. P/O Varley

EMPIRE HEATH (MWT, 1941, 6,643 grt.) Sailed with HG–91 from Gibraltar; success by F/O Taylor on 1/11/1942. Sunk 11/5/1944 by U–129 in SW Atlantic, off Brazil (not as a CAM)

EMPIRE HUDSON (MWT, 1941, 7,430 grt.) Sunk 10/9/1941 by U-82 when with Convoy SC–42 off South tip of Greenland.

EMPIRE LAWRENCE (MWT, 1941, 7,430 grt.) General cargo. Sailed with PQ-16 to Russia; success by P/O Hay on 26/4/1942. Sunk 27/5/1942 by a/c N. of North Cape, Norway, Barents Sea.

EMPIRE MOON (MWT, 1941, 7,242 grt.) 2nd RAF CAM ship. Sailed with HG–84 from Gibraltar; success by P/O Saunders on 14/6/1942. Also P/O Campbell, P/O Sabourin.

EMPIRE MORN (MWT, 1941, 7092 grt.) Sailed 10 Apr. 1942 with PQ-15, 1st CAM ship with Russian convoys; then back with QP-12 from Russia; then PQ-18; P/O Lane; success by F/O Kendal (killed) on 26/4/1942; P/O Burr & P/O Lane. Returned with QP–15.

EMPIRE OCEAN (MWT, 1941, 6,765 grt. ) Went ashore on Newfoundland, sank in tow after floating off on 5/8/1942 SE of Cape Race.

EMPIRE RAINBOW (MWT, 1941, 6,942 grt.) 1st RAF a/c crew. Sailed 31/5/1941, P/O Davidson. Sunk 26/7/1942 by U-607 and U–704 western mid-Atlantic.

EMPIRE RAY (MWT, 1941, 6,919 grt.)

EMPIRE ROWAN (ex–LOCHGOIL, 1922, 9,545 grt. David MacBrayne Ltd., MWT) Sunk 27/3/1943 by a/c in Med. off Phillipeville, Algeria.

EMPIRE SHACKLETON (MWT, 1941, 7,068 grt.) Damaged but not sunk on 28/12/1942 by U–225; again by U–123 on 29/12/1942; then again & sunk by gunfire of U-217 on 29/12/1942

EMPIRE SPRAY (MWT, 1941, 7,242 grt.) Transferred to Dutch flag 1941. P/O Lee

EMPIRE SPRING (MWT, 1941, 6,946 grt.) P/O/ North. Sunk 13/2/1942 by U–576 SE of Sable Island, N.S.

EMPIRE STANLEY (MWT, 1941, 6,921 grt.) Sunk 17/8/1943 by U–197 Indian Ocean, SE of Madagascar. Not as a CAM

EMPIRE SUN (MWT, 1941, 6,952 grt.) Sunk 7/2/1942 by U–751 off Halifax.

EMPIRE TIDE (MWT, 1941, 6,900 grt.) Sailed with SL–133 to Sierra Leone; success by F/O Flynn on 28/7/1943; with PQ–17, Fl/Lt Turley–George; F/O Fenwick

EMPIRE WAVE (MWT, 1941, 7 ,463 grt.) Sunk 2/10/1941 by U–562 when with Convoy ON–19, mid-Atlantic

HELENCREST (Crest Shipping Co., 1941, 5,200 grt.)

KAFIRISTAN (2nd of name – 1st sunk 17/9/1939 Hindustan Steam Shipping Co., 1941, 7,250 grt.)

NOVELIST (T & J Harrison, 1940, 6,133 grt.)

PRIMROSE HILL (Putney Hills S.S. Co., 1941, 7,600 grt.) Sunk 29/10/1942 by UD–5 (ex–Dutch S/M) in Convoy ON-139, Atlantic NW of Cape Verde Islands.

4. MERCHANT AIRCRAFT CARRIER (MAC SHIPS): (19 ships)

All carried bulk cargoes - grain or oil. Grainers had a small a/c elevator aft; oilers did not. The hanger reduced the grainers’ capacity from 9,500 tons to 6,500 tons. The tanker MAC ships’ oil capacity was only reduced by 20% due to carrying aircraft fuel and below–deck spares, although with no hangers usually only 3 Swordfish were carried. Carried usually 4 Swordfish (from 836 and 860 Sqns), sometimes Fulmars. Full flying deck, and a small "island". None were sunk. Not fitted with catapults.

a. 6 Grain ships:

EMPIRE MacALPINE: ( MWT; 1943, 7950 grt.) (First of class, in hand in June, 1942)

EMPIRE MacANDREW: (MWT; 1943, 7,950 grt.) (First of class, with above.)

EMPIRE MacCALLUM: (MWT; 1943, 8,250 grt.)

EMPIRE MacDERMOTT: (MWT; 1943, 7,950 grt.)

EMPIRE MacKENDRICK: (MWT; 1943, 7,950 grt.)

EMPIRE MacRAE: (MWT; 1943, 8,250 grt.)

b. 13 tankers:

ACAVUS (Anglo Saxon Petroleum; 1935, 8,010 grt.)

ADULA (Anglo Saxon Petroleum; 1937, 8,040 grt.)

ALEXIA (Anglo Saxon Petroleum; 1935, 8,016 grt. (After being bombed twice, torpedoed once by Kretchmer’s U–99, before conversion to MAC ship)

AMASTRA (Anglo Saxon Petroleum, 1935, 8,031 grt.)

ANCYLUS (Anglo Saxon Petroleum, 1935, 8,017 grt.)

EMPIRE MacCABE (British Petroleum, managers for MWT; 1943, 9,249 grt.)

EMPIRE MacCOLL (British Petroleum, managers for MWT; 1943, 9,133 grt.)

EMPIRE MacKAY (British Petroleum, managers for MWT; 1943, 8,908 grt.) Last operational launch of a Swordfish off MAC ships on 27/6/1945

EMPIRE MacMAHON (British Petroleum, managers for MWT; 1943, 8,856 grt.)

GADILA (NV Petroleum, Dutch; 1935, 7,999 grt.) Dutch M/S crew & Officers

MACOMA (NV Petroleum, Dutch; 1936, 8,011 grt.) Dutch M/S crew & officers

MIRALDA (Anglo Saxon Petroleum, 1936, 8,013 grt.)

RAPANA (Anglo Saxon Petroleum, 1935, 8,017 grt.)

5. ESCORT CARRIERS, ex-MERCHANT SHIPS: 2 ships

Full flying deck small aircraft carriers with islands; HMS, ex-merchantmen. All others were built as aircraft carriers in USA, had not been merchantmen.

AUDACITY (ex–German prize {1940} HANNOVER, 1939, 5,725 grt.) Then EMPIRE AUDACITY as MWT ship. Then HMS. Carried Grumman Martlets. With HG-76. CDR D W MacKendrick (d). Sunk 21/12/1941 by U–751 in Atlantic W. of Finisterre.

PRETORIA CASTLE (ex–Union Castle Lines, 1939, 17,392 grt.) For training only. Up to 15 a/c

References:

  • - Many partial web sites on Hurricanes, CAMs, MAC ships (none complete).
  • - Most useful: (www.warshipsww2.eu/lode.php?language+E&period=2&idtrida=1605) www.Naval-History.net
  • - Barker, Ralph. (2000) "Hurricats" by Ralph Barker, Tempus Publishing, Stroud, UK
  • - Poolman, Kenneth and Wm. Kimber. (1960) )"The Giant Killers", London UK
  • - Poolman, Kenneth. (1978) "Scourge of the Atlantic - Focke-Wulf Condor" Macdonald & Janes, London, 1978
  • - Stephens, Patrick. (1976) "British Vessels Lost At Sea 1939-45"(Official), Cambridge, reprint.
  • - Rohwer, Jürgen. (reprint 1999) "Axis Submarine Successes of World War Two" by , Greenhill Books, London UK;
  • - "Lloyd’s Register of Merchant Shipping" (1941-42 and 1949-50 editions), Lloyds Ltd. London UK;
  • - Roskill, Captain S.W. (1957 & 1956) "The War At Sea", Vols. I and II, HMSO, London, reprint;


To quote from this article please cite:

McKee, Fraser M. (2012) Merchant Ships Used as Fighter Carriers in World War Two. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Auxiliary Carriers.php

New Nauticapedia Book Just Published!

Volume Four in series

The Nauticapedia List of British Columbia's Floating Heritage Volume Four

Book — British Columbia's Floating Heritage
For more information …

Site News: October 15th, 2017

Databases have been updated and are now holding 50,143 vessel histories (with 4,319 images) and 57,540 mariner biographies (with 3,421 images).


© 2002-2017