The British navy has always produced ships that were on the leading edge of naval technology - HMS Victory and HMS Dreadnought being such two. Another became HMS Audacity, the first escort aircraft carrier. The escort supplied replacement aircraft for the larger fleet carriers to cover their losses in combat. This allowed the mission to continue without having the fleet carrier return to a land base to receive needed aircraft and pilots. This World War II solution of an aircraft-and-pilot supply ship for fleet carriers evolved into air cover and strike operations for convoys and amphibious landings, reducing the need for building larger and more expensive fleet carriers.
Audacity was originally built and launched as a German 5,537 ton merchant ship known as the MV Hannover by the German company Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack, and launched in 1939. As a cargo ship, Hanover was first used in the West Indies as a fruit carrier. With her port of registry being Bremen, Germany, she was allowed to be sunk when war was declared. Hannover was ordered to steam to the natural port of Netherlands Antilles and, in early 1940, Hannover's Captain Wahnschaff received orders to return to Germany. She was sighted close to Puerto Rico and was ordered to stop by the light cruiser HMS Dunedin and the destroyer HMCS Assiniboine. Hanover chose to try and escape to the neutral port of the Dominican Republic. The escape was cut off by the British war ships so Capitan Wahnschaff instructed the sea cocks be opened and to set the ship on fire. Boarding parties from HMS Dunedin captured the crew and were able to close the sea cocks. Hannover was towed into international waters and it took four days to bring the fire under control. Taken as a war prize, the Hannover was towed to Jamaica on March 11, 1940.
Now under British control, Hannover was renamed Sinbad and given a United Kingdom Official Number and code letters. Her port of registry was changed to Kingston, Jamaica, under the British flag. In late 1940, Sinbad was renamed Empire Audacity by the Ministry of War Transport. Her port of registry was changed from Jamaica to London and was placed under the management of the White Star Line Ltd.
The Royal Navy had recognized a need for defense carriers in the 1930s but no action was taken at that time. When the war broke out, the Admiralty needing carriers to protect valuable cargo ships en route to British bases around the world and decided the escort carrier concept needed to be acted upon. In January 1941, she was sent to Blyth shipbuilding docks to be rebuilt as an escort carrier. Empire Audacity was the largest ship ever handled at Blyth and the shipwrights wondered why the superstructure was being removed at a time when Britain was short of ships. Empire Audacity was commissioned on June 17, 1941, and was the first escort carrier of the Royal Navy. Being pressed for time, the new carrier was not fitted with an elevator to bring aircraft below to a hanger deck. This forced all repairs of the aircraft to be done top side and reduced the overall amount of space for additional aircraft. They were typically half the length and one-third the displacement of the larger fleet carriers. While they were slower, less well-armed and armored and carried fewer planes, they were still much less expensive to produce.
HMS Empire Audacity's first Squadron was the 802 FAA comprised of Grumman Martlet fighter aircraft and the first landing on her deck was on July10, 1941. The Martlet was the F4F Wildcat in British Royal Navy service, Grumman's first monoplane and one of the outstanding Naval fighters of World War 2 (particularly in the Pacific Theater). This American fighter was called the Martlet by the Royal Navy until March 1944 when it reverted back to its US name Wildcat. The Admiralty disliked her merchant name and HMS Empire Audacity was renamed HMS Audacity (D-10).
No major problems were found during sea trials and with her need to be on station being so great, Audacity was put into full service. Three arrestor wires for deck landings were used as was the case on all carriers (even to this day). A small conning tower was built on the starboard side and for air defense 8 x AA (anti-aircraft) guns were mounted. Radar Type 79B air warning radar was installed for two reasons, the first being to find inbound threat aircraft and the second to track her own aircraft within 75 miles. The major air threat was expected to be the German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range reconnaissance aircraft. Hurricanes were proposed to be used on the ship but they were not available while the Grumman Martlet, being specifically designed for carrier operations and were proven, became the mount of choice for Audacity. She embarked with six or eight Grumman Martlets assigned to No. 802 Squadron FAA (Fleet Air Arm). Audacity was assigned to support convoys from England to Gibraltar. She commenced her war service when she sailed with her first convoy - OG 74 (Out to Gibraltar) - in September of 1941 to Gibraltar as a guard for the convoy. During the voyage the convoy was attacked by Condors and one was shot down by a Martlet. Her next convoy - HG 74 (Homeward from Gibraltar) - she lost one of her aircraft but shot down 4 x Condors.
Her fourth and last convoy was HG 76. Many felt the carrier should be in the center of the convoy with the warships on the outside perimeter. This would provide maximum protection for the unarmored carrier against torpedo attack. This was tried but was found to be impractical due to the large area need to maneuver and launch/recover aircraft into the wind. As such, the carrier had to operate outside the protective ring of these ships.
HG 76 was comprised of 36 merchant ships and a very strong escort of 17 warships. The 36th escort group was under the command of Captain Walker, comprised of 2 sloops (Stork and Deptford) and 7 corvettes (Convulvulus, Gardenia, Marigold, Penstemon, Rhodedendron, Samphire and Vetch). For this voyage, additional forces were assigned to Walker's group. There was the carrier Audacity along with her destroyers, the Blanckney, Stanley and Exmoor II as well as 2 additional sloops-of-war - the Black Swan and Fowey - and corvettes Carnation and La Malouine. Attacking the convoy was a German Wolfpack consisting of U-boats U-67, U-107, U-108, U-131, U-434 and U-574.
When the convoy sailed, German spies stationed in Spain across the bay notified U-boat command of the time the ships sailed out and their overall strength. The U-boat line was south of Cape St Vincent but did not come in contact with the convoy until she was spotted by a Condor on December 16th to which U- 108 was contacted. The boat started shadowing the convoy and by the next morning four U-boats were in position to attack. Regular air patrols from Audacity located U-131 and notified the escort group. U-131 was attacked by the sloops Stork and Penstemon and destroyers Blanckney, Stanley and Exmoor II. The destroyer's depth charged U-131 and forced her to the surface and her deck crew shot down a Martlet before she was sunk. On the 18th, U-434 was discovered by the destroyer Blankney to which she attacked and rammed the U-boat. The battle caused the escorts to use large amounts of fuel so Corvettes Carnation and La Malouine returned to Gibraltar to re-fuel along with the damaged Blankney, the latter now needing repairs, and all were escorted by Exmoor II. The sloops Black Swan , Fowey, left for Gibraltar soon after to also receive fuel.
On the night of the 19th, U-574 attacked but was torpedoed and sunk. Stork and Samphire sighted and attacked (and destroyed) U-574. During the night, U-108 attacked the Ruckinge and sank her. On the 19th, the convoy was attacked by five Condors to which two were shot down and another damaged by the Martlets air cover as provided by Audacity. Also that day, the German Wolfpack was joined by U-751,U-71 and U-567 captained by U-boat ace KL Endrass. Over the next few days, the 3 remaining boats - U-67, U-107 and U-108 - arrived and attacked without any result. On the 21st, the three boats from Bordeaux arrived and the U-boats prepared to attack.
Captain Walker had Deptford move way off from the convoy and shoot star shells to attract the U-boats. However some of the merchant ships became confused by the action also fired star-shells, effectively giving away their position. U-567 was able to sink the merchant ship Annavore while U-751 sighted Audacity behind the convoy without her escort. He fired 3 torpedoes and Audacity was sunk. Marigold, Vetch and Samphire saw the attack and counter-attackedU-751 but did not sink her. Later, Deptford spotted a U-boat and attacked using depth-charges to no avail. However, after the war, German records indicated that she had sunk U-567.
On December 22nd an additional three U-boats arrived along with the British destroyers Vanquisher and Witch. The next day, Admiral Donitz, shaken by his U-boat losses and the lack of ships sunk, called off the attack so all remaining German boats returned to bases in France. Despite the loss of Audacity and the three other ships, the safe arrival of thirty ships and the destruction of three U-boats (U-127 was not included and U-567 not confirmed until after the war) was a victory. Also, the loss of U-boat ace Endrass was a major blow to Germany. The British lost the carrier HMS Audacity and the destroyer HMS Stanley along with cargo ships Ruckinge and Annavore with a loss of thirty-six merchantmen. Germany lost four U-Boats (U-131, U-434, U-567, and U-574) with some 76 men lost.
Allied escort carriers were typically around 500ft (150m) long - not much more than half the length of the-almost 900ft (300m) fleet carriers of the same era but actually less than one-third of the weight. A typical escort carrier displaced about 8,000 tons as compared to almost 30,000 tons for a full-size fleet carrier. The island on these ships was small and cramped and located well forward of the funnels unlike on a normal-sized carrier where the funnels were integrated into the island. Although the first British escort carriers featured no aircraft elevator, two elevators - one fore and one aft - quickly became standard along with the aircraft catapult. The carriers employed the same system of arresting cables and tail hooks as on the big carriers and procedures for launch and recovery were identical. Of the 151 aircraft carriers built in the United States during World War 2, one hundred twenty-two were of the escort carrier type. Of these, six were British conversions of merchant ships: HMS Audacity (D10), Nairana (D05), Campania (D48), Activity (D94), Pretoria Castle F61) and Vindex (D15).
HMS Audacity (D10) started as the Hannover, an inglorious fruit carrier, and was given four names between the German Navy and the Royal Navy and ended her short career as the first escort aircraft carrier. She was launched on June 17, 1941 and sunk on December 21, 1941.
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