Academic journal article Air Power History

"Definitely Damaged or Destroyed" Reexamining Civil Air Patrol's Wartime Claims

Academic journal article Air Power History

"Definitely Damaged or Destroyed" Reexamining Civil Air Patrol's Wartime Claims

Article excerpt

The headline shouted "Flying Guerrillas" for a feature in the May 15, 1943, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The article opened dramatically: (1)

Early one gray, icy morning last winter, the captain of a Nazi U-boat, surfacing a few miles off the coast of Florida, got the surprise of his life. Out of a fog bank barely a thousand feet overhead dived a flea-sized civilian plane, a hedge-hopper so skimpy that he must have felt like laughing it away. But under its thin belly gleamed what looked to he a crude bomb rack. It was the last thing that captain ever knew. A husky demolition bomb burst sprang on his conning tower, blasting captain, crew and U-boat clear out of the water.

The plane was a 90-horsepower Stinson Voyager with a top speed of 100 miles per hour, the pilot a retired business man of sixty. They were in the service of the Civil Air Patrol.

In a period of wartime secrecy, this stunning attack in American waters by a humble civilian volunteer against a marauding enemy submarine sounded unbelievable--because it was. This attack never happened. In May 1943, however, such an action did exist in the realm of plausibility in an environment of wartime secrecy.

In a December 28, 1943, restricted "Report of the Civil Air Patrol" to the Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Operations, Commitments and Requirements, Civil Air Patrol's (CAP) National Headquarters included a detailed summary about the coastal patrol operation that ran from March 5, 1942 to August 31, 1943. Among the figures listed are two highlighting the military nature of these civilian-flown missions. Namely, a report of eighty-two "bombs dropped against enemy submarines" and a claim of two "enemy submarines definitely damaged or destroyed." (2) In February 1944, the U.S. Navy published the August 1943 War Diary for the Eastern Sea Frontier, which also included the cumulative CAP coastal patrol statistics. The Navy war diary prefaced the information by noting that "the CAP Coastal Patrol left an interesting record of service." (3)

Since the fall of 1943, CAP has believed that its eighteen month-long coastal patrol operation definitely damaged or destroyed two German U-boats. Following the conclusion of the war, this claim evolved within the organization to become a claim of destroying two enemy submarines, albeit with only circumstantial supporting evidence. CAP's wartime history is oftentimes ignored by scholars, although several dismiss CAP's claim to sinking submarines while acknowledging the contribution CAP made to the overall success in the Battle of the Atlantic. (4) Nevertheless, articles or press releases from CAP, the U.S. Air Force, or other accounts of CAP's coastal patrol effort repeat the claims of destroying submarines. (5)

The surviving CAP coastal patrol records have never before been subjected to academic scrutiny, but a reevaluation of the claim of damaging or destroying two enemy submarines is long overdue. Through the use of previously lost or unavailable primary source material, this article seeks to explain how privately-owned civilian aircraft came to be armed and the actual results produced from this effort.

Coastal Patrol Overview

The CAP coastal patrol effort commenced in March 1942, in response to the German submarine offensive off the East and later Gulf Coasts. To supplement the efforts of the Navy's Eastern Sea Frontier together with the Army's Eastern Defense Command, the Army Air Forces initially established a 30-day experiment on February 28, 1942, to evaluate the feasibility of using light civilian aircraft to patrol the coastal shipping lanes. Flying from fields in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, the Army Air Forces ordered CAP personnel "to establish an inshore anti-submarine patrol for the purpose of reporting the locations of enemy submarines and friendly vessels in distress." Typical patrols consisted of two-ship formations with two-man crews (pilots and observers), flying from dawn to dusk at altitudes ranging from a few hundred to perhaps a thousand feet above the waves for hours at time up to fifteen miles offshore. …

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