On a String and a prayer


Another ‘Stringbag’ story for you…

Late in July of 1942, Royal Navy Sub-Lieutenant L.F. Thompson counted himself lucky to be assigned a seat in one of four Fairey Swordfish I aircraft being ferried from Halifax, Nova Scotia to San Francisco, California. 

If nothing else, flying over 3,00 miles at a sedate 125 mph or so promised to be an adventure. And then there would be the mid-summer weather to contend with…

Sub-Lieut. Thompson and Swordfish V4388 of 838 NAS, working up over Nova Scotia in mid-1942. The pilot is Sub-Lieut. D McAleese ('Mac') and the gunner is Leading Aircraftman J. McRandles.
Sub-Lieut. Thompson and Swordfish V4388 of 838 NAS, working up over Nova Scotia in mid-1942. The pilot is Sub-Lieut. D McAleese (‘Mac’) and the gunner is Leading Aircraftman J. McRandles.

Going to San Francisco

Our squadron was a small one – just the four Swordfish – and we had been ‘working-up’ at Halifax for some three months. Consequently, when the news came that we were going to San Francisco, there was considerable jubilation. No one enjoys working-up.

It was then late July. The orders stated that the squadron was to be in San Francisco by a date early in August. So the plans were laid. The C.O. (Lt-Cdr J. R. C. Callandar, RN) decided he would only take one observer, to navigate, and one air gunner, to maintain wireless communications. The other passenger occupants of the aircraft would be maintenance ratings of the different departments. It was imperative, of course, that the aircraft should not break down in the middle of the continent, since Swordfish spares were none too plentiful on that side of the Atlantic at the time.

The route was decided by the C.O. and the Senior Observer, who was to be responsible for the navigation. They thought it best not to rush things but, in order to save the aircraft and pilots from strain, to cover about six hundred miles a day. This was about six hours’ flying time in a ‘Stringbag’.

Just when I was reconciled to going by train, the Senior Observer conveniently caught mumps. To my delight, the C.O. chose to take me on the trip in his place.

All was not so peaceful

So, bright and early on the morning of July 30th, the four Swordfish took off. Our first stop, to refuel only, was Bangor, Maine. We rumbled over the woods and lakes of Nova Scotia, across the rich, fruit-bearing Annapolis Valley, and out of Canada for the time being.

Over the Bay of Fundy we flew, with its erratic, impetuous tides, and crossed over the rocky coast of Maine. On to Bangor – a simple, uneventful run despite misgivings, on my part at any rate, that “they” might not know who we were. Not that we saw any sign of “they”. All was peaceful in the countryside.

All was not so peaceful at Bangor. The airfield bristled with guards and rifles and jeeps. There were guards everywhere and all of them black. A first impression was that, maybe, there were no white Americans, Hollywood not-withstanding.

But while the aircraft were being re-fuelled, this was disproved. I went to check on the weather for the next stage of the flight. As I was doing so, I met the commanding officer of the airfield, a full Colonel, who addressed me, somewhat to my embarrassment as a junior Sub-Lieutenant, as ‘Captain’. But he was courtesy itself, helpful to a degree, and we were soon off on the next stage of our flight.

A sharp blow

Once again we crossed the border, this time back into Canada. After an uneventful passage through the Northern Appalachians, we stopped for lunch at an RAF training airfield opposite Montreal on the St. Lawrence. We had no time, unfortunately, to see the city of Montreal itself, much as we would have liked to.

A carefully staged crew photo, showing the position of the air gunner, navigator and pilot. Guns weren't carried across the States, and most of the crew positions were filled by a (usually hungover) maintenance rating.
A carefully staged crew photo, showing the positions of the air gunner, navigator and pilot. Guns weren’t carried across the States, and most of the crew positions were filled by a (frequently hungover) maintenance Rating.

Kingston, the Fleet Air Arm station on Lake Ontario, was our next and last objective for that day. The only navigating required between Montreal and there was for the pilots to follow the St. Lawrence River. So I relaxed.

I was awakened from my idle contemplation of the river traffic by smart blow between the shoulder blades. Turning, I saw the petty officer in the rear cockpit gazing upward, terror on his face. He was struck dumb. There, poised some six feet above us, was another Swordfish!

As I, too, looked at it in horror, an equally startled face appeared over the side of the pilot’s open cockpit in the menacing aircraft. It was Mac (Sub Lieut. Daniel McAleese),with whom I normally flew. Hastily, he jerked his machine back to its correct place, well on our starboard side. Fortunately for him, the CO., in the front cockpit of my aircraft, had missed the whole incident. He flew blissfully on.

Strict, teetotal quiet

At Kingston we literally had to fight our way in to land, so thick were the training aircraft landing and taking off.

A naval welcome awaited us that evening, organised by one of the C.O.’s old shipmates… So when the next day brought heavy, unceasing rain, no complaints were heard. The Swordfish were left to the apprehensive interest of the pupils, and strict teetotal quiet was our order of the day.

Only one day had been allowed for bad weather and mishaps. Thus the next morning, despite an unfavourable weather report, we started again.

This was to be the longest leg of the whole crossing. To begin with, our track followed the northern shore of Lake Ontario. We passed to the south of Toronto, shrouded in industrial haze, and then left the lake behind us.

Crossing the canal which joins Lake Huron to the north and Lake St. Clair to the south, we dropped down on to Selfridge Field. This was just to the north of Detroit, and we discovered it to be an old-established, luxurious USAAF base. Here our first real snag developed.

Out for contact flying

After an excellent lunch, the C.O. and I went to check the weather and obtain clearances for our next destination – Chicago. The weather was bad, we learnt, and Chicago was “out for contact flying”.

This meant that pilots who, according to United States records, were only qualified to fly in strange areas when cloud and visibility conditions were good and they could see the ground, could not fly to Chicago. There was too much haze and rain there.

In vain, the C.O. proclaimed his, and his pilots’, instrument flying abilities. In vain, too, he boasted of my navigational skills.

Firmly but courteously he was refused. Without the necessary card, issued by the U.S. authorities to successfully tested flyers, we could not go on.

‘Where can we get to then?” the C.O. asked. ‘Can we get part of the way?’

Yes, we could: Battle Creek was ‘open for contact flying’.

Without more ado we set out for Battle Creek, Michigan, with its warlike name.

It was a little murky there too. We hadn’t seen a lot of Michigan on the way but we arrived and, knowing the meteorological brigade, weren’t surprised to learn that Chicago was now ‘open’ for us once more. There were thunderstorms expected and it was hazy, but it was ‘open’.

Chill and hostile waters

Again there was a hasty take-off, before any change of mind could take place. The weather was certainly none too good, and the strong wind was dead against us. For some reason, perhaps the weather and our less-than-full tanks, (in our haste, we hadn’t topped them off at Battle Creek), an intense fit of depression, even fear, came over me.

Swordfish in their element – in this case 820 Sqn operating off HMS Ark Royal just before the war. As aircraft No. 845 takes off, another is already approaching the straight-through flight deck.

Below us the whipped waters of Lake Michigan were chill and hostile. Somewhere ahead lay Chicago, cloaked in its natural and man-made mist. It seemed an eternity, struggling slowly across that lake. No Air-Sea Rescue here, I thought.

But eventually the city was reached, and we located the airfield in the gathering dusk. To the west, lightning was flickering wildly, and from below came, as if in answer, flashes from the streetcars and electric trains.

An optimistic weather report

For me, our time in Chicago was like a bad dream. All night, the city resounded to a terrific barrage of thunder. I was tired and went to bed early. But at about two in the morning I was awakened, in a foul mood, by the combined hammering of my room mate Mac and a hotel detective. I had inadvertently locked the door when I turned in, and their knocking had long been lost in the thunder. Mac’s temper was even worse than mine.

The next day we were given an optimistic weather report. Even though light rain was falling at the airfield, and it looked worse to the west, the weather people said it would be all right for Des Moines, our next stop. So off we went.

We had barely cleared the suburbs of Chicago before we ran into some really nasty weather, with the clouds becoming lower and lower. This was a front. The C.O. turned to the north to fly round it.

At this time I was forced to admit to myself that we were lost. On the previous flights there had been no trouble at all in following the maps. Consequently I hadn’t really bothered to keep a proper Dead Reckoning plot. Now, this proved to be my undoing. All I could see below me were endless mid-Western farms and lanes, with occasional herds of cattle charging around as the Swordfish roared low over their heads.

‘I hope you know where we are,’ came the C.O.’s voice.

‘Oh yes,’ I lied cheerfully.

‘Then I suggest we try for a nearer airfield. Let me know the nearest, and what course you want me to steer for it.’

Direct to Omaha

I looked hastily at the map. Moline seemed to be the nearest haven. Yes, due south for Moline.

We went along for some minutes without seeing any distinguishable landmarks. Then, just as I was about to confess my navigational sins to the C.O., a canal turned up running from east to west. I found it on the map and we crawled along it until it led us to Moline on the Mississippi.

For a sense of scale... Radio Mechanics of the WRNS prepare to board a Fleet Air Arm aircraft to test the radio during a flight. (IWM 13359)
For a sense of scale… Radio Mechanics of the WRNS prepare to board a Fleet Air Arm aircraft to test the radio during a flight. (IWM 13359)

After lunch it was decided that Des Moines would now be omitted from the itinerary. We would fly direct to Omaha, where we planned to spend that night. And so it was. The afternoon was as bright as the morning had been dull. Map-reading was simple again, and we reached Omaha without difficulty.

Before crossing the bend in the Missouri, where Omaha stands, we saw some sandy bluffs. They were the first hills of any size that we’d seen since the Appalachians.

It was Sunday evening when our four Swordfish arrived, much to the amazement of a considerable body of Omaha’s citizens. Their idea of a big weekend seemed to be going down to the airport and watching the planes come in. The outfit we were wearing was the Royal Navy’s tropical working rig of khaki shorts and shirts. This, I think, only added to our other-worldliness in their eyes – unaccustomed as Americans are to the sight of fully-grown men in shorts. For the first and only time in my life I was asked for my autograph.

Omaha, almost the centre of the country, is the town where the trans-continental junction was made. Somehow it’s character seemed suitably indeterminate, neither of the east nor the west.

5,000 feet above sea level

The next morning saw us off in good flying conditions across the sunburnt Nebraskan ranges, climbing now steadily. We took lunch as guests of the local Rotary in North Platte – a town which takes its name from the shallow, meandering river running through it.

It was now very hot on the ground, but as we flew higher, I had to put on more clothes. And we were forced to fly fairly high. Cheyenne, our next halt, is five thousand feet above sea level. That I shall never forget, because practically everyone I met there told me so.

Before we could land at Cheyenne we had to circle for a little, waiting for a moderately severe thunderstorm to pass through. It was not a large city and had more of a western atmosphere than Omaha. We saw ten-gallon hats being worn on the street, along with tall, uncomfortable-looking cowboy boots. The desert lies at Cheyenne’s gates but, within those gates,we found a typical modern American city.

Snare and delusion

When the flight was being planned at Halifax, one self-styled expert had advised us to stop at Rock Springs, Wyoming. ‘A pleasant spot,’ he said. ‘It’s a spa.’ So the next morning we went there, flying through the passes of the Rockies – not as impressive as I’d imagined, viewed from above, but still fierce and hostile to the airman. I was glad not to meet any fronts there.

Of course Rock Springs was no spa. It was a mining town.

It was also a snare and delusion: We landed at the airfield marked on the map, but it seemed suspiciously quiet. In fact, we found it all rather deserted and unkempt. So reluctantly we staggered off again and made wireless contact with the new airport, which wasn’t marked on the maps because it wasn’t completely finished. The runway we landed on there had a sheer drop at the end, so it was just like coming in over a carrier’s stern.

A wild flight

From Rock Springs to Salt Lake City was a wild flight. The weather was sullen and freakish, and storms were about again. In the valleys, our pilots met with the strongest down-draughts they had ever experienced, and they had difficulty maintaining the altitude that we needed.

We burst through the mountains above the city just as a storm broke against them from the west. Lightning struck in the town as our Swordfish landed, and the rain poured down.

Salt Lake City, like Cheyenne, had its own refrain, heard on every lip. It was ‘seven women to every man’, and it seemed to be true enough. The city was ugly, architecturally, but there must have been a fine, hard-working spirit in the early Mormons, for the streets of their desert city were green and pleasant.

Nearly over

Our route had to be altered next day. We had planned to fly directly west across the Great Salt Lake, but a military restriction forbade this. So we went north to Ogden, then across the lake and the desert that lies to the west of it. The desert dazzles but, fortunately, our track followed the railway to San Francisco that runs across it.

The mid-day stop was at Elko, a small mining town in Nevada, where, for the first time, we saw the silver dollars so popular in this gambling State. There were even more of them in Reno – ‘the biggest little city in the world’ as the banner in Main Street proclaimed – where the gambling industry ran second only to the divorce mill.

We spent the night at Reno. It was a lively town but, by this time, we were all glad that the crossing was nearly over. Next morning the Swordfish climbed wearily over the Sierra Nevada, passed the lovely mountain resort at Lake Tahoe to our left, and dropped down into the green and fertile Sacramento valley.

Seven-and-a-half days

Past Sacramento itself we flew, and on to the great bay of San Francisco. We touched down at Alameda, the naval air station, thirty-five and a half hours’ flying time from Halifax.

Our seven-and-a-half days’ trip broke no records, unless the continent had never been flown so slowly. But the lack of speed had at least one advantage. At no time did the scenery become monotonous, nor did we rush through it too quickly for appreciation.

Of the courtesy and kindness shown by the Americans, little need be said. They were extremely helpful. What rather amazed us was their almost intimate knowledge of our next stop—usually some 300 miles on. Distance seemed to have lost any meaning for them. And the ratings in our party were so well treated each evening that they slept most of the time we were airborne.

The aircraft were sometimes regarded with amusement, but usually with respect, and their war record was surprisingly well known. The only ‘gag’ I heard made about them was at the very end of the trip:

‘Well,’ said a US sailor as he contemplated all the struts and wires, ‘now I know what they mean by a coast-to-coast network!’

838 Squadron's 2C, 2F and 2B over Coit Tower and the Embarcadero, San Francisco. The runway in the background is the wartime Naval Auxilliary Air Facility on Treasure Island. (Dan Shumaker Collection)
838 Squadron’s 2C, 2F and 2B over Coit Tower and the Embarcadero, San Francisco. The runway in the background is the wartime Naval Auxilliary Air Facility on Treasure Island. (Dan Shumaker Collection)

A bit of background

This great story originally appeared in Flight magazine on August 5th, 1946, four years after 838 Squadron’s 7½-day odyssey – and eight months after Col. W.H. Councill had flown a Lockheed P-80 from Los Angeles to La Guardia in 4 hours, 13 minutes.

The four Swordfish belonged to 838 Naval Air Squadron, RN, which had been formed at RCNAS Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, in May 1942. The quartet was:

• V4387 marked as “2C”
• V4417 as “2F”
• V4389(??) as “2B”; and
• V4388 which, unmarked, was the C.O.’s aircraft that Thompson flew in.

All were built by Blackburn Aircraft in Brough, Yorks. making them, colloquially at least, “Blackfish”.

The squadron was detailed to join the newly completed HMS Attacker (D02) in San Francisco, which would be commissioned into the USN as USS Barnes (CVE-7) on September 30th, 1942, and simultaneously transferred to the Royal Navy under Lend-Lease.

Attacker making way during her trials, with one of the 838 Sqn Swordfish on her flight deck. (USN Photo via navsource.org)
Attacker making way during her trials, with an 838 Sqn Swordfish aboard. (USN Photo via navsource.org)
HMS Attacker at anchor in San Francisco Bay on November 13th, 1942, during her trials. Note the Swordfish, wings folded, in front of the 'island'. (US Navy identification photo #7042-42)
HMS Attacker at anchor in San Francisco Bay on November 13th, 1942, during her trials. Note the Swordfish, wings folded, in front of the ‘island’.  (US Navy)

Attacker conducted deck trials with the four Swordfish during November before entering fleet service in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific theatres. 838 only embarked as far as Quonset Point, Rhode Island, after transiting with the ship from Alameda via the Panama Canal in December 1942.

V4387 “2C” suffered one very heavy landing during the trials– okay, it crashed on the deck – but, from what I can tell, was returned to service and embarked with her squadron-mates.

I kid you not... HMS Attacker (USS Barnes) transformed into the peaceful passenger and cruise ship 'Fairsky'. The old warhorse was finally broken up in Hong Kong in 1980.
I kid you not… HMS Attacker (USS Barnes) transformed into the peaceful passenger and cruise ship Fairsky. The old warhorse was finally broken up in Hong Kong in 1980.

838 Sqn only remained at Quonset for a short while before being assigned to Merchant Aircraft Carrier duties in the Atlantic. Briefly absorbed into 836 Sqn later in 1943, the squadron reformed in November 1943 and continued to use Swordfish II and II aircraft until it was disbanded in February 1945.

Incredibly, after post-war decommissioning, Attacker was converted (beyond all recognition!) into a passenger ship named Fairsky. Swords into ploughshares…

(Please let me know if you can add any extra info or corrections.)

Below: 2C’s accident sequence aboard Attacker. Notice how quickly the Batsman hits the deck in Image #2, but how nobody’s getting out of the way in Image 3! These photos appear courtesy of David Hamilton, via http://www.royalnavyresearcharchive.org.uk – a fantastic resource for things royal and nautical. Thanks to webmaster Tony Drury for his assistance.

Make sure you check out the full HMS Attacker Gallery here for more incredible shots of Swordfish, Martlets/Wildcats and Seafires – not all of them in one piece!

Hamilton 1

Hamilton 2

Hamilton 3

2 thoughts on “On a String and a prayer

  1. I thought the bit about the carrier being converted into a passenger ship was the most memorable part of the whole story. I guess it stuck with me because these days, everything from planes to large ships seem to have a short lifespan. They’re taken out of service and replaced as soon as something bigger or more fuel efficient comes along. Kinda sad, even if it does make economic sense.

    1. It was certainly an amazing transformation. ‘Fairsky’ was a popular old cruise ship round these parts when I was a kid – taking people offshore for casino nights, etc – and I’m sure I saw her in Auckland (NZ) harbour a few times. I’m sure I would have looked at her in whole new light if I’d known. Still don’t know what they could have converted all those fighters and bombers into though…

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