RESEARCH into World War Two’s famous bouncing bombs — used by the Dambusters and to attack the German battleship Tirpitz — was organised at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at RAF Helensburgh.
MAEE expert and author Robin Bird, a retired Merseyside newspaper editor whose late father Bob was an MAEE photographer, confirms that the establishment worked closely with Barnes Wallis and 618 Mosquito Squadron in developing the Highball bomb to attack the huge battleship.
Robin said: “Barnes Wallis never personally used the water testing tank at Glen Fruin to develop his bouncing bombs — the tank was not completed by then. When it was completed it was used to test the behaviour of various airborne weapons.
"As he was also working with Upkeep, the larger bomb used for dams, and 617 Squadron, MAEE Helensburgh was told to work closely with 618 Mosquito squadron, which had been specially formed to attack the Tirpitz with Highballs. He was in regular contact with MAEE about Highball.”
Anchored in a Norwegian fjord, the huge battleship was designed to sail out an attack any ship carrying supplies from the United Kingdom to Russia. Although Tirpitz never did fire at an enemy ship, she posed a huge threat.
As the fjord’s topography was similar to that of Loch Striven, it was seen as a logical idea to practice the dropping of the bombs in the area north of the Isle of Bute.
The loch was also being used for the testing of midget submarines which were also training to attack the Tirpitz.
For the initial tests starting in May 1943 and using wooden bombs, 618 Squadron aircrew practiced on a World War One French battleship, the Admiral Courbet (right), moored halfway up the loch near Inverchaolain. Bob Bird filmed and photographed these trials for study in Helensburgh.
The engineers installed nets to catch the test bombs, which were later filled with concrete, for analysis, but some 200 missed their target and sank. These were considered mixed results and MAEE boffins were able to suggest improvements.
In the meantime the Dambuster Raid took place on May 16 1943, using 617 Squadron Avro Lancaster heavy bombers, and then Wallis turned his full attention to the Highball bomb and would fly from Helensburgh to Loch Striven to watch the trials.
Test pilots were getting better at hitting the old French battleship but there were still problems with release and delivery. Meanwhile the Royal Navy launched the midget submarine attack on the Tirpitz in September 1943, damaging but not sinking her, so Operation Sevant using 618 Squadron was postponed.
At this point trials were being further frustrated by bad weather, and the Chiefs of Staff decided to release the bulk of 618 Squadron from the Highball trials at Loch Striven — effectively abandoning a Highball attack on the Tirpitz.
MAEE Helensburgh put together and rehearsed a daring plan to attack the Tirpitz using two human torpedoes dropped into the sea by a specially converted Sunderland flying boat.
This was aborted when the battleshop was moved to the far north of Norway out of range of chariot-carrying Sunderlands.
They continued Highball trials and by 1944 had overcome most of the problems. The Admiral Courbet had been removed from Loch Striven to be used as a block ship during the D-day landings, and was replaced by HMS Malaya, a commissioned battleship.
Bomber Command finally destroyed the Tirpitz with 617 Squadron Lancasters using Tallboy bombs on November 12 1944. However the trial runs on HMS Malaya continued — and the captain was a bit peeved to have his ship being used as an Aunt Sally for MAEE boffins.
Official records do not state when the bombing trials on HMS Malaya stopped, but it is known that the captain held a farewell meal in his wardroom for the boffins.
If the Tirpitz had not been sunk by Tallboys, Highballs might still have been used against her, but the new target was the Japanese Imperial Fleet and 618 Squadron prepared for this in Australia, operating from an aircraft carrier.
But these operations were aborted as there were few Japanese capital ships left, and the squadron disbanded. MAEE trials of Highball continued late into October 1945 after the war had ended, but these were conducted mostly out at sea.
Robin said: “Such high speed low-flying trials were a challenge both in the loch and on open sea. This is illustrated by the loss of MAEE Mosquito DZ279/G as late as October 25 1945.
“The Mosquito dropped a Highball at a speed of 380mph and height of 30ft above sea level. The impact splash damaged the aircraft and the port wing detached, killing the pilot.
“This was their last fatality in Scotland, and this incident reflects the bravery and loss of life involving Helensburgh-based MAEE air crew, both RAF and civilians. In the end 618 Squadron never dropped Highballs in anger.”
HMS Malaya ended her days at Faslane’s Shipbreaking Industries yard in 1948 being broken up for scrap.
In the summer of 2010 divers pinpointed some of the test Highballs in Loch Striven, and an attempt will be made in September to recover them as there are none in British museums.
- Film footage shot by Bob Bird of the Highball trials on Loch Striven, including one hitting the French battleship, can be seen on this on this You Tube link.