Bid to hide flying boat in fjord failed

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DATELINE: RAF Invergordon, Scotland, May 2 and 3, 1940 . . .

Lieutenant Haakon Offerdal arrives in Norwegian Heinkel 115. Flying boat Cabot arrives from Helensburgh.

These two brief entries in the log at Invergordon led to separate dangerous operations involving the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establshment at Helensburgh and Rhu.

The story of the Heinkels at RAF Helensburgh has featured in Eye on Millig before. They were German-made floatplanes of the Marinens Flyvevaesen that escaped Norway following the German invasion in 1940.

The story of how and where the flying boat Cabot went to war has not.

The C-class Empire flying boats called Cabot and Caribou were used before World War Two for transatlantic mail and passenger flights by Imperial Airways.

They were graceful four engine aircraft designed for long distance — and they were described as the ‘golden age of air travel’.

They notched up awards for record breaking flights, both in time and distance. They were silver screen stars of Movietone and Pathe News films and made newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

After delivery of the first few Empire boats, an even sleeker version followed from Short Aircraft with four Bristol Perseus engines.

The second S20 boat, named Cabot, went to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, then at Felixstowe, for handling tests and appraisal.

The MAEE also conducted mid-air refuelling tests with Cabot in 1939, extending C-Class non-stop travel even further.

Cabot was linked by a pipe to a Harrow bomber converted into an airborne tanker. The thick cable was towed behind Cabot and a trailing wire was snagged by the Harrow.

This difficult and skilled operation allowed 940 gallons of fuels to be transferred. From early August 1939 seven refuelled transatlantic flights took place in this way.

Another method to extend Empire flying boat flight was the piggy back arrangement devised by the MAEE.

A smaller flying boat rode on the back of a larger C Class and was launched on route while in the air. However, the outbreak of war put an end to all this.

Both Cabot and Caribou were impressed for military service with Coastal Command because of their long range and carrying facility.

Aircraftman Tommy Pepper was with MAEE at Felixstowe and then at Helensburgh, and he saw the piggy back trials and the refuelling of Cabot.

He was at RAF Helensburgh when Cabot arrived on the Gareloch to be prepared for a dangerous mission. Several modifications were made — and broomsticks and bombs were part of this.

Cabot, like Caribou, was armed with seven Vickers K 303 machine guns. Dummy guns, broom sticks painted black, were added. This was to make Cabot and Caribou resemble the more heavily armed Short Sunderlands.

Sunderlands had a similar shape and were rapidly gaining a reputation with Luftwaffe pilots as ‘Flying Porcupines’.

At Helensburgh mobile radar equipment was taken on board for the mission to Norway. Cabot’s destination was Bodo, where the radar equipment and various personnel were to be discharged.

It was to remain 10 days with Caribou while a search was made for airfield sites where the radar would help the RAF stem the German invasion.

At Helensburgh Lieutenant B.Jayer Nilsen, of the Royal Norwegian Navy, joined the crew of Cabot, a mix of RAF men and employees of Imperial Airways.

At Invergordon, Ross and Cromarty, Admiral Sir Lumley Lyster RN hitched a lift to Narvik.

Cabot V3137 with RAF roundels and the serial number V3137 left Invergordon just after midnight on May 3 1940. Caribou V3138 followed next day.

Unfortunately, the diversion via Narvik resulted in Cabot and Caribou arriving at Bodo on May 5 behind schedule. The church bells in Bodo rang — not as a welcome but as an air raid warning.

An enemy Heinkel caught the flying boats like ducks on water with their flaps down.

The K guns were pretty useless according to one crew member pressed ganged at the last moment into the mission. What is more he had never fired a K gun before.

In a second attack Caribou was set on fire and sank in Bodo Fjord. An attempt was made to hide Cabot near to the shore under a cliff. Blankets and bushes were used to cover it and hide those tell-tale RAF roundels.

However following another attack by a Dornier it was burnt out and wrecked (below), and the injured crew were hospitalised in Bodo.

They listened to the progress of the German invasion on a radio salvaged from Cabot. Other crew members had been evacuated by destroyer.

Haakon Offerdal, referred to in the Invergordon log, was the pilot of the first Heinkel 115 floatplanes that arrived at Helensburgh.

He later flew two of the ‘Helensburgh Heinkels’ on clandestine operations from Malta. It is known that Offerdal’s time at Helensburgh in 1940 was a welcome interlude in his short but eventful life.