Escort carriers

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Model of a long ship with camouflage paint, and a flat deck with planes on it.

The Audacity model. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

My first flight in a helicopter was on a Royal Navy facility trip to the Ark Royal aircraft carrier in Liverpool Bay. It was an amazing experience with the deck opening up underneath as a huge lift transported us below. Most of all I remember the delicious meal they served.

In contrast, HMS Audacity was the Royal Navy’s first merchant aircraft carrier. Her role was to protect convoys crossing the Atlantic with vital supplies for Britain during the Second World War. Surprisingly, Audacity started life as a German passenger ship captured early in the war. In 1941 she was converted into a flat-top escort carrier, also known as a MAC ship. She could operate just four light Grumman Martlet aircraft from her short flight deck with no hanger.

There is a 1:300 scale model of the camouflaged Audacity in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery. She did not have a long life as she was sunk by a German U-boat submarine in December 1941 after just four escort passages.

The need to close the 400-mile ‘air gap’ in the mid-Atlantic led to the development of the MAC ships. Most were grain carriers or oil tankers fitted with a basic flight deck for three or four Swordfish bi-planes. The MAC ships not only provided air cover for convoys but also carried much-needed supplies of grain or oil for Britain. From mid-1943 at least one MAC ship sailed with every north Atlantic convoy.

They were joined by new purpose-built British and US naval aircraft carriers. US Liberator bombers closed the ‘air gap’ by late April 1943. At the same time, long-range British and American aircraft attacked U-boats in the Bay of Biscay near their French bases. Equipped with powerful searchlights for night operations, air-to-surface radar and increasingly effective weapons, these aircraft enjoyed many successes.

The fitting of highly-accurate centimetric radar on long-range aircraft was another major turning point in the anti-U-boat campaign. More U-boats were sunk by aircraft than by ships during the last two years of the war. The RAF Coastal Command played a decisive role in the Battle of the Atlantic. In all, it sank at least 155 U-boats in Atlantic waters.

Other exhibits include a green-coloured 100 lb air-dropped anti-submarine bomb from about 1941 – the earliest of its type used by the British.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from (£1.50 p&p UK).