Desperate times call for desperate measures…
In 1940 Britain was in a desperate fight for survival. Isolated from the Continent, Britain was relying on a lifeline extended from the States via merchant convoys. Plying the North Atlantic, out of range of land-based air cover, the convoys were subject to attack from German submarines, operating singly at first and later in wolf-packs, and from the air – He 111’s and Ju 88’s to be sure, but primarily from the long-range Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor. The Condors, first operating from Norway and later from France, were able to range far out into the North Atlantic, well out of the range of the RAF’s shore-based Spitfires and Hurricanes. Without being threatened, the Condors could range freely to provide detailed reports on convoy positions to waiting wolf packs as well as attack the un- or under-armed merchants and their few escorts on their own with bombs. Between June 1940 and February 1941, Condors alone accounted for sinking over 365,000 tons. Obviously something had to be done.
The first course of choice was to improve individual ship AAW capabilities, but that was a limited possibility owing to a variety of factors. More escorts likewise were a problem as the demand signal for warships was high in a variety of theaters in this truly global war. Sea-based air was an obvious answer, but it would be some time before escort carriers could be developed and airwings deployed. Something had to fill the gap – and that something was a modified Hurricane that could be catapulted from a merchantman to engage the Condor threat. Informally called the “Hurricat” an initial group of 50 older model Hurricanes were modified to be launched via catapult from specially configured merchant ships called CAMs – Catapult Aircraft Merchantman. This was truly a one-shot deal as there was no way to recover the Hurricane once launched – the pilot would be forced to ditch the aircraft alongside a merchantman and hope that he would be subsequently picked up, an altogether not certain proposition in the North Atlantic.
Modifications were pretty straightforward. A fixed rail was mounted on the ships bow on which a rocket-propelled sled was mounted. To this was fitted a Sea Hurricane which had a catapult reel mounted. The aircraft was secured for sea and the CAM would then join the convoy. When activated, the Hurricat was fired up and subsequently launched. As was the case with all early catapults, the launch forces were pretty significant, actually causing one Hurricat to disintegrate on launch during early testing. After August of 1941, with the introduction of more powerful catapults (!), long-range tanks were added to the Hurricat to expand its range of coverage. Most of the modified aircraft were assigned to the Fleet Air Arm, although the RAF retained and operated a few.
The first four or five ships were taken into Royal Navy service as Auxiliary Fighter Catapult Ships, but later conversions were named CAMs and manned by merchant crews. The aircraft were manned by pilots from the specially formed Merchant Ship Fighter Unit, based at RAF Speke near Liverpool.
The first CAM to deploy was the SS Michael E in May 1941. Ironically, she was sunk by a torpedo before having a chance to employ her fighter. By the end of 1941 the CAMs and their Hurricats had drawn first blood, shooting down five Condors. The first victory was achieved by Lt Everett RNVR who was awarded the DSO for the destruction of an Fw 200 on 3 August 1941. After Everett ditched his aircraft, it pitched violently below the waves and although it rapidly sank, he managed to escape at a depth later estimated to be at least 30 feet.
In the two years that they were in service, only eight catapult launchings were made, and six enemy aircraft shot down with the loss of one RAF pilot. Twelve CAM ships were sunk through enemy action.