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Cam ships

7 February 2011 by stepheng

old photo of an aircraft carrier from above

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

My first construction kit was of a galleon with a solid balsa wood hull and colourful cardboard cabins and sails.

All the later ones were plastic. I have fond memories of making a big model of HMS Hood with The Searchers on the radio in the background singing ‘Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya’. Strange how music can imprint pictures in the brain.

My favourite aircraft construction kit was a Swordfish – I marvelled how this hugely-successful biplane was put together, with a lethal torpedo slung beneath its fuselage.

Among the measures used by Britain to protect beleaguered convoys in the Second World War was a unique type of ship which catapulted fighter aircraft into action.

From the summer of 1941 onwards Britain converted 35 newly-built cargo ships into Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen – known as CAM ships. Each was able to launch a Hurricane fighter using a rocket-propelled catapult to protect a convoy from air attack.

The CAM ships had no flight decks on which the aircraft could land. Pilots would bail out and the fighters plunged into the sea after just one mission – a wasteful way to wage war.

Although in reality rarely launching their aircraft, between 1941 and mid-1943 (when they were withdrawn from service) the CAM ships were a useful deterrent against enemy aircraft on Atlantic, Gibraltar and Arctic routes.

On display at Merseyside Maritime Museum is a photograph of a CAM ship preparing to launch its Hurricane.

The CAM ships were replaced by MAC ships – short for Merchant Aircraft Carrier. These were grain carriers or oil tankers fitted, whilst being built, with a basic flat deck for three or four Swordfish aircraft (pictured).

These ships could not only provide air cover for convoys but also carry much-needed grain and oil for Britain.

From mid-1943 at least one MAC ship crewed by the Merchant Navy but carrying aircraft and men of 836 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, sailed with every North Atlantic convoy.

The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber – affectionately known as The Stringbag by its crews – was one of the last biplanes to be built but gained a fearsome reputation.

First flown in 1934, they were considered outdated at the outbreak of war but went on to achieve some spectacular successes.

They famously crippled the German battleship Bismarck, leaving her floundering to be finished off by British warships. An Italian battleship was sunk and two others damaged by Swordfish in the Battle of Taranto.

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 or bookshops.

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