A Cat with nine lives
c/n 300 Buno 2459 - 73-P-9 - 84-P-7 - NC18446 - N18446 - CF-HHR - C-FHHR - N27311
“Sank sub, Open club”
The unique history of the Catalina with Buno 2459
Early in the afternoon of the 15th November 1941 construction number 300 roles off the production line. This was one of a series of 33 aircraft that had been ordered by the United States Navy in December 1939. This is the beginning of the illustrious history of this aircraft. Nobody could foresee that this aircraft would sink three submarines, survive many attacks and fight forest fires in Chile and Canada after the war. And eventually, 75 years later, still fly on a regular base in Europe as a historical plane. It is currently the oldest flying, Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina in the world!
By the Naval Air Office Building Number 2459 was granted. The first time the 2459 was mentioned was on December 23, 1941 in the log of the VP-73 US Navy patrol squadron. It was stated that VP-73 would taking over five PBY-5A's of VP-83. Three aircraft at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia were made operational again and then partially disassembled to be loaded on board the aircraft tender USS Albemarle (AV-5) for transfer to Iceland. One of these three aircraft was the 2459 that carried the registration 73-P-9. The USS Albemarle departed on the 28th of that month. The route was through Quonset Point, Rhode Island and Argentina, Newfoundland. At Quonset Point another two Catalina of VP-83 were taken on board which completed squadron VP-73. The aircraft tender came in early January 1942 in the port of Hvalfjord, Iceland. Between 12 and 16 January, the Catalinas were flown to the Fleet Air Base Reykjavik. The five Amphibians replaced five Catalina flying boats from VP-73 (Detachment Iceland). This change was deemed necessary because of the very extreme weather conditions in this area. This proved to be the case when a severe storm raged around the Reykjavik area on January 15. Three Catalina flying boats moored at buoys in the Skerjafjördur water, on the other side of the bay of Reykjavik, brook loose and smacked on shore during wind gusts between 90 and 120 knots. The damage was so extensive that the aircraft had to be considered lost. Of the five new arrivals PBY-5A's there were now four at the airport in Reykjavik, here all hands were needed to weigh the aircraft with chains in order to keep them on the tarmac.
During the month of January, the number of flights were minimized by the bad weather and the necessary familiarization flights for the crew with the new type of aircraft. On 1 February 1942 73-P-9 began its operational life. Like most Catalina's, in those areas it would consist of long consecutive hours of patrolling, a particularly monotonous activity with perhaps just a few moments of excitement. In February and March, the 73-P-9 flew 20 operational flights; six flights convoy escort, two "ice-patrol's" one submarine patrol flight and eleven so-called 'Hvalfjord Sweeps. These were submarine and shipping tracking flights in order to protect the harbour routes to Hvalfjord and safeguard of enemy shipping. The ice patrols (73-P-9 flew the first on March 9) were flights in the area between Iceland and Greenland (Street of Denmark) to assess the situation and the number of icebergs and ice floes on behalf of shipping and convoys, sailing towards the northern Russian ports for supplies of the Russian ally.
Although flight operations often had many problems with the weather, especially in the form of ice and poor visibility, the 73-P-9 had to return only twice without being able to finish the flight. This month 15 operational flights were made. In May a new role for VP-73 emerged. The so-called North Atlantic Ferry route became operational which immediately led to an almost constant flow of aircraft to Europe with Reykjavik as a stopover. VP-73 was placed on standby for any rescue operations on this route.
On 23 June, the 73 P-9 was performing an ice-cap patrol flight to the island of Jan Mayen, a flight of just under twelve hours, when the crew spotted a German Heinkel He 111. The distance was too great to be able to attack the aircraft. A month later, the Germans changed their tactics with regard to the transatlantic convoy attacks. Because of this VP-73 became closely involved in the defense of these convoys.
In August nine submarines were attacked by VP-73; the 73-P-9 took part in two of them and sunk one sub. On August 9 Lt. (jg) Henry C. Colee took off with 73-P-9 just before noon for an anti-submarine flight south-west of Iceland. At 17:06 hours an U-boat was spotted at a distance of three miles. Only the tower was visible and the submarine was clearly trying to dive. Lt. (jg) Colee dived immediately but arrived one minute after the submarine was gone. Six depth bombs were placed, 68 seconds after the submarine was out of sight, with a setting of 50 feet deep. All bombs exploded but it was conceivable that the submarine did not suffer any damage and escaped to a safe depth. This was the fifth submarine attack of the VP-73 squadron and Colee's second.
On August 20 1942 The British Task Force SN-73 passed 250 miles south-east of Iceland. Lt. (jg) Robert B. Hopgood took of with the 73-P-9 from Reykjavik a few minutes before three o'clock in the morning for convoy escort. Just before dawn the U464 (Kapitänleutnant Otto Harms) was discovered, a type XIV Milchkuh U-tanker. This type of vessels was able to provide approximately twelve type VIIC submarines with oil and fuel for a period of four weeks. The U464 had left Kiel on 4 August for her first foraging other submarines trip in the Atlantic.
A destroyer of the Task Force was the first to spot the U464 and a message was sent to the 73-P-9. The 73-P-9 sighted the U-boat at a mile and a half straight ahead. Immediately the attack was launched and Lt. (jg) Hopgood had all six depth charges from 250lb dropped at the U-boat. One bomb remained but the other five dropped in a pattern around the submarine. The explosion lifted the submarine almost entirely out of the water and caused sever damaged. Next Hopgood attacked with his machine guns, this attack was answered by the enemy with reasonable accurate antiaircraft and Hopgood had to retreat to a safe distance (After returning to the base it was found that Catalina had sustained 25 bullet holes in the wings). The subsequent three quarters of an hour the Catalina remained at a safe distance and followed the submarine until a downpour made it impossible to locate the submarine.
Lt. Hopgood went searching for the convoy to see if any further assistance was required and remained there until approximately 7:15 pm. Meanwhile the accompanying ships were briefed on the situation. When the weather cleared another search was made for the U464. Following an oil spill the U464 came in sight which had managed to maneuver alongside the Icelandic fishing vessel Skaftfellingur. The submarine tilted sharply to one side and the crew was making herself master of the fishing vessel. The plane flew low over the two vessels and was promptly fired upon by the weapons of the U464. Because of the fear to hit the cutter and/or its crew the fire was not answered. Hopgood returned to the convoy and directed one of the destroyers (HMS Castletown) to the place of the U-boat. After which the 73-P-9 returned to base. HMS Castletown did not find any trace of the submarine, which was probably sunk by its own crew. The destroyer took 52 survivors off the Skaftfellingur and made these prisoners (two German sailors were killed).
A special detail of this victory was later provided by the British secret service; The deathblow to the U464 came mainly from a depth charge which had landed on the deck of the submarine. A, probably inexperienced, sailor had in all his innocence rolled the bomb off the deck which, when the depth charge reached the depth at which the hydrostatic fuses were set the depth charge exploded immediately and caused fatal damage. Each submarine crew member should know that a depth charge had to be transferred to a lifeboat and cut loose in order to drift away.....
Another interesting detail of Hopgood's successful attack was the later famous statement "Sank sub, open club." The base commander and commander of the detachment Iceland was Captain (later Rear Admiral) Daniel V. Gallery, Jr., a serious and inflexible naval officer. Gallery was displeased by the fact that VP-73 had not been able to sink any submarine. According to Gallery the poor results were caused by the flight crew spending extensive hours at the Officers Club. By staying to long at the bar they received too little sleep and were not fit enough for duty next day was his reasoning. Subsequently Gallery ordered the bar to remain closed until an U-boat had been sunk. He also desired convincing proof such as "the captains pants".
After Hopgood's attack everybody tuned to the radio and the messages of Coastal Command for further developments. All radio traffic was obviously in code. At the end of the flight and after the destroyer had taken the German prisoner of war on board Hopgood transmitted its final report in plain, clear English and telegraphed: "Sank sub, open club". The message was received by a loud cheer and applause. Later the U464 First Officer received dry clothes and his pants were offered to Captain Gallery. The salt-soaked trousers were put on display at the Officers Club in memory of this successful action.
Two months later VP-84 took over the duties of VP-73. Part of VP-73 squadron was en route to the United States when they received the command to return to Iceland since the squadron had to go to North Africa. A number of aircraft VP-73 were under repair or of lower quality than that of VP-84 so it was decided to equip VP-73 with the newer aircraft from VP-84. And the 73-P-9 with construction number 300 received the new registration 84-P-7.
During the last operational flight of VP-73, on October 5, Aircraft c/n 300 had to protect the convoy HX-209, approximately 400 miles south of Iceland. Here they came across the U582 (Korvettenkapitän Werner Schultze), a VIIC U-boat, which was part of a 'Wolfpack' of seventeen submarines. From August 1942 the German navy followed modified tactics; From a pack of submarines one was sent on reconnaissance convoy. If this one convoy noticed the other submarines were called to assist and the convoy was attacked en masse.
About fifteen minutes after the 73-P-9 (Chief Aviation Pilot M. Luke) arrived at the convoy, he sighted the submarine at a distance of 10 miles and 15 miles on the starboard side of the convoy. The submarine was completely on the surface and Luke dived from 2000 ft. to 75 ft. and dropped four depth charges of 250 lb. The bombs fell in a perfect pattern around the boat. After the explosions, the U582 sank immediately leaving only a heavy oil slick behind.
Around April 1943, the German submarines were equipped with a reinforced anti-aircraft battery and changed tactics. Normally when a plane was spotted the sub dived immediately for deeper water. The new tactic meant that the submarine stayed on the surface and engaged the attacking aircraft until the last moment with the anti-aircraft battery. The reply of, mainly, the Catalina's was that they had to veer of because the board weapons range was insufficient and had too little effect in order to cause serious damage.
Some Catalinas, including the 84-P-7 was therefore equipped with a 20mm nose cannon. One disadvantage of this change was that when the aircraft performed its bombing run and the gun was fired, the aircraft received a sideways movement due to the recoil and deviated from the planned bombing run. As a blessing in disguise the gun often jammed.
On April the 28th Lieutenant (jg) William A. Shevlin flew the 84 P-7 to escort the convoys ONS5 and SC147 when the co-pilot, Albert M. Slingluff, sighted a submarine . This was the 1100-ton U528 type IXC / 40 under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Georg von Rabenau. Most likely the submarine crew detected the aircraft earlier since the submarine was already diving. Within minutes Catalina arrived at the place where only a swirling mass betrayed the presence of the submarine. The crew of the Catalina kept their cool and did what later proved to be a very wise decision, and did not drop the depth charges. When William returned to the same place some time later they saw the sub entirely on the surface at a distance of about three and a half miles on the port side. At that time the visibility was bad and that was probably the reason that the subs lookout only saw Shevlin when he was less than a mile from the submarine.
While the enemy was performing his emergency dive Shevlin attacked the submarine. Shooting with his .30 caliber fixed machine gun, he passed the boat 30 degrees to starboard. The submarine was still half above water when Shevlin launched depth charges, aiming at and near the conning tower. Shevlin was aiming the nose of the aircraft at the submarine to hit home with the fixed machine gun, this did ofset the bombing run and the depth charges droped further from the submarine than was desirable.
It was not possible that the submarine was not damaged by the depth charges, yet it was mentioned in the journals as a "near-miss due to Insufficient evidence of damage." Much later it became known that the submarine U528 on May 11, 1943 under the command of Oberleutnant zur See von Rabenau, was sunk by the British Coastal Command in the Bay of Biscay. After interrogation of the survivors it was discovered that the same submarine had escaped a depth charge attack on 28 April. The damage sustained was considerable, three of the four torpedo tubes were unusable, several airtanks leaked and the boat lost fuel. The damage sustained caused the U528 to return to France for repairs.
A seemingly simple Air Sea Rescue (ASR) flight on June 14, 1943 meant almost the end of the 84-P-7. Lieutenant (jg) "Roy" Neff was searching for a missing aircraft of their "own" VP-84. In order to land as light as possible all surplus equipment was removed. Only the .30 calibre nose machine gun was left.
When a Faroese fishing vessel was examined from a close distance, the crew of the vessel thought it was attacked by an enemy reconnaissance aircraft. This vessel was fitted with an ingenious anti-arcraft weapon. Which consisted of a container with a discharge mechanism attached to a cable which was fastened and a parachute. The captain could activate the firing mechanism whereby the cable was shot in the direction of the aircraft. As the plane flew into the cable it would hit and block control surface, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable resulting in a probably crash. Suddenly the Catalina pulled dangerous to the left, the cable had hit the wing but the parachute did not unfold. A second cable hit the tail part of the plane, this parachute did open. Neff was able to keep the Catalina under control but some action had to be taken. The board Constable, A. B. Grant, rushed to the nose dome and dismantled the fixed machine gun and ran back to the starboard blister. With a few short bursts he shot the parachute cable. After landing at the emergency airport Höfn in southeast of Iceland the remains were removed and the plane was returned to home base.
Just ten days after the near-fatal accident the 84-P-7 was back on patrol to the south of Iceland with the pilot Lieutenant Joseph W. Beach and co-pilot Lieutenant Albert M. Slingluff behind the controls. The Catalina was armed with three depth charges and a homing torpedo which was named "Fidol" by users. Soon a submarine of type IXC U-cruiser with an extra long range was spotted; the U194 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Hermann Hess. At that time he was just underway from one of the German ports in the Indian Ocean.
Instead of diving immediately the submarine turned his fire on the attacking aircraft. Beach dived from 1600 ft. right at the submarine firing his guns. After one salvo the weapon jammed. Later it was found that this failure was due to improper maintenance. Beach continued his attack run while under fire. At a height of only 65 ft. the 84-P-7 roared over the submarine. Depth charges were released but they did not fall from the aircraft. Beach made a sharp left turn and aborted the attack, followed by the bullets of the U194. The Catalina circled at a safe distance waiting for an opportunity, but the enemy kept an sharp eye on him.
From a mile and half and under heavy anti-aircraft fire a second attack run was commenced. When the Catalina passed over the submarine, two depth charges were dropped manually, two fell approximately 50 feet alongside the submarine, the third charge was still stuck Another attack runs was made in order to drop the third depth charge. But the charge refused to budge for the third time. By now it was clear to the submarine that the Catalina was not easy to repel and an emergency dive was made. It would be her last. Beach went back to his target and released his "Fidol" to do the final work. Fifty seconds later, it found its target and hit the submarine. A huge mushroom-like cloud erupted from the sea when the submarine exploded. With no evidence of sinking, the "kill" could only be confirmed after the war.
In July and August another 19 anti-submarine and convoy surveillance flights conducted were by this unit. On August 28, 1943 the last scheduled flight was conducted by VP-84.
On September the first the 84-P-7 flew from Iceland via Greenland, Goose Bay and Labrador to NAS Quonset Point. Lt. G. S. Smith was behind the controls, it arrived on September 3 at Quonset Point. The total flight time from Reykjavik to NAS Quonset Point was 20 hours and 25 minutes.
From this point the "2459" is not mentioned in operational reports anymore. She was removed from the VP-84 squadron and deployed to Fleet Air Wing 7 under Headquarters Squadron 7.