Operation Faith

This was a British troop convoy heavily attacked by Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor maritime patrol bombers (8/12 July 1943).

On 8 July the convoy’s three ships (16,792-ton British California, 20,021-ton British Duchess of York and 10,243-ton British Port Fairy) departed Greenock on the lower preaches of the Clyde river bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone.

From August 1940 to June 1941 the III/Kampfgeschwader 40 had achieved considerable success with its Fw 200 warplanes in attacks on Allied shipping in the Western Approaches and on passage between the UK and Gibraltar. The Allies had responded by increasing the anti-aircraft armament carried by many of their merchant ships, and also through the development of ways to provide convoys with fighter protection through the provision of CAM-ships and escort carriers. During the last six months of 1941 these improved defences inflicted heavy losses on the Condor force, which ceased their anti-ship attacks early in 1942.

For the remainder of this year the III/KG 40 flew primarily in the reconnaissance role, reporting targets onto which U-boats were then vectored for the attack. The aircraft did make a small number of attacks against ships on passage between the UK and Gibraltar from May, but these cost the unit 15 Condor aircraft (eight destroyed in action and seven in accidents) without achieving any sinking.

In November 1942, the Condor’s now well-established vulnerability to Allied defences led General Ulrich Kessler, the Fliegerführer ‘Atlantik’ and thus the commander of the German air force’s Atlantic anti-shipping force, to recommend that the Condor be withdrawn from service. Even so, the III/KG 40’s ability to attack Allied shipping had been boosted late in 1942. During the last months of the year the unit received 18 examples of the improved Fw 200C-4 fitted with the Lofte 7D bomb sight, which reduced the Condor’s vulnerability to anti-aircraft fire by allowing the type to fly medium- rather than low-altitude bombing attacks. Moreover, several of the aircraft were now equipped with surface-search radar. Early in 1943 it was decided to use these aircraft to renew attacks on convoys steaming to Gibraltar in an attempt to disrupt the Allied build-up in the Mediterranean during the Tunisian campaign.

The attacks began early in March, and concentrated their efforts in the area off southern Portugal between Lisbon and Cape St Vincent as this area lay beyond the range of Gibraltar-based fighter aircraft and there were still but few escort carriers to escort convoys. Between March and the start of July the III/KG 40 sank five merchant ships and damaged another two for the loss of at least five Condors. In response, the British began to use de Havilland Mosquito long-range fighters to patrol the Bay of Biscay, deployed four additional squadrons of patrol aircraft to Gibraltar and embarked signals intelligence teams on warships in the Bay of Biscay to monitor the KG 40’s radio communications.

During March 1943 the British government decided to transfer Major General F. J. Loftus-Tottenham’s newly raised 81st (West Africa) Division from West Africa to India as a reinforcement for the forces fighting the Burma campaign. This division required much more shipping space than other British divisions, as its combat elements were supported by large numbers of porters. To facilitate the movement of this large formation, additional troop ships were assigned to the regular WS series of convoys between the UK and the Indian Ocean via West Africa and South Africa. The 81st (WA) Division’s advance parties departed Freetown with the WS.29 and WS.30 convoys during April and May, and Brigadier J. W. A. Hayes’s 6th (West Africa) Brigade embarked in ships of the WS.31 at Lagos between 2 and 10 July, it being planned that the division’s two other brigades would be transported in the WS.32 and WS.33 convoys. Brigadier E. H. Collins’s 5th (WA) Brigade was the second of the 81st (WA) Division’s brigades to be shipped from West Africa, and its 12,000 personnel were scheduled to depart with the WS.32 on 31 July.

The liners Britannic, Largs Bay and Tamaroa were available in Freetown to carry 8,528 of these men, and it was decided to sail California directly from the Clyde in Scotland to provide the remaining berths. After completing repairs, California began to embark 470 personnel bound for West Africa on 4 July. The ship was to be accompanied on this voyage by Duchess of York with 600 RAF personnel and civilians for West Africa, but which had missed an earlier convoy as a result of technical problems. Before the two ships’ departure it was decided to use Duchess of York to carry the West African troops after the ships had reached Freetown and unloaded their current personnel. California and Duchess of York sailed from Greenock on 8 July, and early in the following day were joined by the storeship Port Fairy bound for Australia and New Zealand via West Africa and the Panama Canal.

These ships were escorted by the destroyer Douglas and frigate Moyola from 9 July, and the Canadian destroyer Iroquois joined the convoy during the following day. The escort was further strengthened by the arrival of the frigate Swale on 11 July.

The route used by this convoy was similar to that of other recent convoys sailing between the UK and West Africa, though the strength of the escort force was much weaker than that assigned to the regular convoys. On the evening of 11 July this ‘Faith’ convoy was detected by a Condor about 300 miles (485 km) off the coast of Portugal. Late in the evening of the same day three Condors bombed the ships from an altitude of about 14,765 ft (4500 m) and, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, badly damaged California with a near miss from the first aeroplane to attack and two bombs dropped by the second attacker. These attacks set the ship on fire and the vessel began to sink. The passengers were evacuated onboard lifeboats while the crew tried to save the ship, but this proved unsuccessful and they abandoned ship later that night. California was torpedoed and sunk by one of the escorting destroyers at 00.45 on 12 July.

Duchess of York also came under attack, several bombs hitting the ship and setting it on fire. The fire could not be brought under control, and the vessel was abandoned at 22.40 on 11 July. Douglas then sank Duchess of York with a torpedo.

There are differing accounts of the casualties on the two troopships. The official casualty figures state that 89 people were killed on Duchess of York and 26 on California. The survivors were rescued by the two destroyers and Moyola, Iroquois alone rescuing 660 persons. The survivors were taken to Casablanca by the warships, from where the seamen returned to the UK and the military personnel continued to West Africa.

Following the attack the undamaged Port Fairy and Swale also continued to Casablanca, where the escorts were to refuel. Later that day the storeship was attacked by two Condor bombers, which damaged the vessel before they were driven away by two US Consolidated PBY flying boats.

The losses of the ‘Faith’ convoy came as a major shock to the British military, who had come to believe that the Condor force was no longer a significant threat. The decision to use a route similar to that used by other convoys and the weakness of the escort were also contributions to the success of the attack.

In order to prevent a repetition of the attack the convoy routes between the UK and West Africa were therefore moved farther to the west so that they were almost at the limit of the Condor’s range. The Germans attempted to build on their success against 'Faith' with further medium-altitude attacks on convoys. The III/KG 40 managed to sink another four ships between July and September, but suffered heavy losses from Allied aircraft and anti-aircraft guns, and from October Heinkel He 177 aircraft steadily replaced the Fw 200 in the anti-shipping role. The Condor flew its last sorties over the Atlantic early in 1944.