Operation Action of 9 February 1945

The 'Action of 9 February 1945' pitted a force of British warplanes against an air-escorted German destroyer in the waters of occupied Norway (9 February 1945).

The attack was centred on a British force of 31 or 32 Bristol Beaufighter twin-engined maritime attack warplanes in the course of an attack on the German destroyer Z-33 and her escorting vessels, which were sheltering in a strong defensive position in the Førdefjord, forcing the British aircraft to attack through concentrated anti-aircraft fire.

The Beaufighter warplanes and their escort of 10 or 12 North American Mustang Mk III single-engined fighters of the RAF’s No. 65 Squadron were intercepted by 12 Focke-Wulf Fw 190 single-engined fighters of Major Heinrich Ehrler’s Jagdgeschwader 5 'Eismeer'. Another P-51 squadron was assigned to protect Allied aircraft operating near Norway from German fighters. The Allies damaged at least two of the German ships for the loss of seven Beaufighter warplanes shot down by Flak, and another two Beaufighter warplanes and one Mustang fighter were shot down by the Fw 190 fighters, while four or five of the German aircraft were shot down by the Allied aircraft.

The decision to attack Z-33 and her escorts, rather than a nearby group of merchant ships, followed instructions from the Admiralty to Air Chief Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas’s RAF Coastal Command, and the aircraft losses led the decision to target merchant vessels rather than destroyers and small warships in this late stage of World War II.

As a result of Allied victories in France and Soviet victories in eastern Europe, by a time late in 1944 German shipping was largely confined to the lower Baltic and Norwegian waters. This left ports in Norway as Germany’s last remaining bases to continue the Battle of the Atlantic and conduct trade with Sweden. When the surface of the Baltic froze during the winter of 1944/45, Germany was forced to transport its vital imports of Swedish iron ore from the port of Narvik in northern Norway.

As German maritime transport routes through Norwegian waters increased in importance, RAF Coastal Command transferred seven squadrons of anti-shipping aircraft from bases in eastern England to northern Scotland during September and October 1944. Three squadrons equipped with de Havilland Mosquito twin-engined fighter-bombers were stationed at RAF Banff while a wing of four squadrons operating Beaufighter heavy fighters was based at RAF Dallachy. This Dallachy Wing comprised the RAF’s No. 144 Squadron, the RCAF’s No. 404 Squadron, the RAAF’s No. 455 Squadron and the RNZAF’s No. 489 Squadron, all veterans of anti-shipping operations over the North Sea.

Attacks by the Banff Wing rapidly forced German ships travelling along the Norwegian coast to sail at night and in the day to take shelter in deep fjords where they were very difficult to attack. To find German ships, the two wings sent out aircraft on almost daily patrols along the Norwegian coast from the Skagerrak in the south to Trondheim in the north. The Coastal Command squadrons developed a tactic of sending two 'outriders' ahead of the main body of the patrol: these aircraft were flown by experienced aircrew and penetrated into fjords in search of shipping which might not be spotted by the other aircraft. By December 1944, patrols were also routinely escorted by Mustang Mk III fighters and accompanied by Vickers Warwick twin-engined air/sea rescue aircraft. Only one squadron of Mustang fighters was available, as these majority of these long-ranged fighters were needed to escort daylight heavy bomber raids against Germany. German fighters began to be encountered off the Norwegian coast in December, and from the end of the month it was common for Allied wing-sized operations near Norway to be attacked by groups of up to 30 fighters. In March 1945, the Luftwaffe had 85 single-engined and about 45 twin-engined aircraft operating from 10 or 12 airfields to the south of Trondheim.

During the first weeks of 1945, the Allied strike wings flew only a few operations as a result of severe weather. On 15 January, the Banff Wing was intercepted by 30 Fw 190 fighters of the III/JG 5 during a raid on the town of Leirvik. Five Mosquito and five Fw 190 aircraft were shot down. By 9 February, the 9. and 12./JG 5 squadrons were based at Herdla near Bergen, about 65 miles (105 km) to the south of the Førdefjord. These units were equipped with the Fw 190 fighter, and the 12. Staffel was commanded by Leutnant Rudi Linz, a 28-year-old with 69 'kills' to his credit.

The German 'Typ 1936A' class destroyer Z-33 had entered service in February 1943. She served in Norwegian waters from July of that year and saw combat on several occasions. She was the last German destroyer to leave northern Norway, and departed for Germany on 5 February 1945. It was intended that Z-31, a sister ship which had completed initial repairs at Bergen after being heavily damaged in the 'Action of 28 January 1945', would join her to make a joint passage to the Baltic. Z-33 ran aground in Brufjord on 7 February, damaging her port shaft and propeller and causing both engines to fail. She was taken under tow to be repaired in Trondheim. Z-33 and the two tugs with her chose to shelter in the Førdefjord during daylight on 9 February while en route to Trondheim.

On the morning of 9 February, two Beaufighter warplanes of No. 489 Squadron conducted a patrol of the Norwegian coast. The aircraft first sighted a 1,500-ton merchant ship in the Stongfjord and then, continuing to the north, were surprised to find a 'Narvik' class destroyer accompanied by a minesweeper and two Flak ships in the Førdefjord. The aircraft continued their patrol and spotted five large merchant ships in the Nord Gulen and two minesweepers and another Flak ship near Bremanger. Despite the pilots' surprise, on the basis of 'Ultra' signals intelligence the Allied command was aware that Z-33 was in the area.

The Dallachy Wing was on alert to attack any ships found by the reconnaissance patrol. Although the group of five merchant ships was deemed highly vulnerable to attack and a worthwhile target, Coastal Command came under the operational command of the Admiralty and was bound by its decision to give higher priority to attacking warships than merchant vessels, and the wing was therefore despatched against Z-33 even though the destroyer and her escorts were well protected and in a difficult position for aircraft to attack.

Wing Commander Jack Davenport, who had commanded No. 455 Squadron until October 1944 and was now on the staff of No. 18 Group RAF, planned the attack on Z-33. The plan called for two 'outriders' to precede the main force and confirm the location of the German ships. The Beaufighter warplanes would then arrive to the east of the German anchorage, turn to the west and attack the ships before escaping over the sea. Davenport sought to minimise Allied casualties, but the location of the German ships in a narrow and protected fjord meant that the operation was inherently risky. The strike’s leader was Wing Commander Colin Milson, the 25-year-old commanding officer of No. 455 Squadron, a veteran of anti-shipping operations against Italian and German ships in the Mediterranean and North Seas. Milson had reservations about making what was likely to be a costly raid, particularly given that the war was clearly coming to an end. but nonetheless carried out the order to attack Z-33.

After being spotted, the German ships sailed farther up the Førdefjord and prepared to receive an Allied attack. Z-33 and several of her escorts anchored close to the steep southern slopes of the fjord near the village of Bjørkedal. Other ships moored near the northern shore after breaking up pack ice with gunfire. This anchorage was also protected by Flak batteries on the fjord’s shore.

At 13.30 on 9 February, Milson led 31 or 32 Beaufighter warplanes into the air from Dallachy. The strike force was joined by either 10 or 12 Mustang fighters of No. 65 Squadron and two Warwick air/sea rescue aircraft of No. 379 Squadron carrying life rafts to help any aircrew forced to ditch. All four of the Dallachy Wing’s squadrons contributed aircraft to the force: the aircraft of Nos 404 and 455 Squadrons were armed with RP-3 60-lb (27.2-kg) rockets, and those of Nos 144 and 489 Squadrons were armed only with their standard four 20-mm cannon and six 0.303-in (7.7-mm) machine guns.

After the attackers crossed the Norwegian coast at 15.40, two Beaufighter warplanes of Nos 144 and 489 Squadrons detached from the main force and pressed ahead as outriders. The two aircraft crossed the Førdefjord near the point at which the German ships had been sighted that morning, and at 15.50 radioed Milson to the effect that they could see no ships. The outriders then turned to the east and overflew the town of Førde before searching the next fjord to the north. Thus, in the course of their flight near Førdefjord the two aircraft did not spot the German warships in their new position.The 9. and 12./JG 5 were scrambled from Herdla at 15.50 with orders to attack the Dallachy Wing and its escorts.

Several minutes later, the main body of the raid reached the southern shore of the Førdefjord, flying to the north. To their surprise, the Allied planes passed directly over the German ships and came under intense fire from anti-aircraft guns, though no aircraft were hit. Milson wheeled his force to starboard to attack the ships on an east/west heading as planned, but the steep walls of the fjord protected Z-33 against attack from this direction. Milson then led the force to the west to a position near the mouth of the fjord and ordered the Beaufighter warplanes to attack in relays from west to east. This required the aircraft to fly into the face of the German defences and then escape over steep mountains. The narrow confines of the fjord also meant that the Beaufighter warplanes had to attack individually from one direction rather than swamping the German defences as they normally sought to do.

Milson led the first group of Beaufighter warplanes into the Førdefjord at about 16.10. His aeroplane escaped undamaged after attacking a Flak ship, and other Beaufighter warplanes followed him into the fjord. At about this time 12 Fw 190 fighters arrived over the Førdefjord and flew through the Flak to intercept the Beaufighter warplanes waiting their turn to attack. The Mustang escorts were taken by surprise but dived to intercept the German fighters. More than 50 aircraft either engaged in dogfights or dived to attack the German ships in what was the largest aerial engagement ever fought over Norway.

The engagement continued until 16.25, by which time the German ships had shot down seven Beaufighter warplanes, and Fw 190A fighters had claimed another two Beaufighter and one Mustang warplanes. The Allied losses included six of the 11 aircraft of No. 404 Squadron, and the Germans killed 14 Allied airmen and took four prisoner of war. The British aircraft had damaged Z-33 and several of the other German ships, and shot down either four or five Fw 190 fighters, Linz and another German pilot being killed. Kriegsmarine deaths included four sailors on Z-33 and three on the converted trawler VP-6808, both of these vessels being damaged during the attack. There may also have been fatalities on the other German ships.

After leaving the Førdefjord area, the surviving Beaufighter warplanes, many of which were damaged, returned to RAF Dallachy. Several had difficulty making safe landings and two made belly landings as a result of landing gear damage, but no more aircraft were lost. The air and ground crew were shocked by the scale of the losses and the battle became known as 'Black Friday', and the losses suffered by the Dallachy Wing on 9 February were the highest of any RAF Coastal Command’s strike wings in one operation during the war.

The German fighters, many of which were short of fuel and ammunition, also broke off at about 16.25 and returned to base. On the night of 9/10 February, the German ships left the Førdefjord and continued their passage to Trondheim. A subsequent Allied attack on the ships by a different strike wing also failed. Z-33 reached Trondheim on 11 February and was repaired and departed for Germany on 26 March, arriving safely at Swinemünde on 2 April. She did not see any further combat and was decommissioned at Brunsbüttel late in April as the Kriegsmarine lacked the fuel to operate her.