Baker-Falkner led audacious attack against German battleship

Roy Baker-Falkner

DND

Roy Baker-Falkner

The German battleship Tirpitz rode at anchor in a Norwegian fjord, unaware of what was to come.

In a surprise attack on April 3, 1944, a young Canadian naval aviator flying with the Royal Navy (RN) Fleet Air Arm led an audacious low-level dive-bombing raid against Tirpitz.

The attack consisted of 40 Barracuda dive-bombers carrying 730 kg armour-piercing bombs and 40 escorting fighters in two waves, scoring 15 direct hits.

Lieutenant-Commander Roy Sydney Baker-Falkner from Saanich, B.C., and his Naval Air Wing shared 14 dive-bombing hits, crippling the battleship and preventing it from posing a major threat in the forthcoming invasion of Normandy by the allies in June. LCdr Baker-Falkner was one of several naval aviators from Canada who distinguished themselves throughout the war as effective combat pilots.

The air strike was a complete success, causing significant damage to Tirpitz’s superstructure and inflicting serious casualties.

Baker-Falkner was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on July 25, 1944, “for undaunted courage, skill and determination in carrying out the daring attack” on Tirpitz.

Baker-Falkner came from a military family and was born June 3, 1916, in Nottingham, England, where his father was stationed with the 79th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force. The family returned to Canada in early 1918, eventually moving to Saanich, B.C.

In mid-1929, Baker-Falkner applied to join the RCN in Esquimalt, B.C. Along with other RCN cadets, he was enrolled in officer training at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. In 1934, he was appointed to His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Kent, flagship of the China fleet.

In 1937, he transferred to the RN Fleet Air Arm as one of several Canadian pilots, completing his pilot training with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He earned his pilot’s wings in 1938, specializing in torpedo reconnaissance, and was appointed to an operational carrier-based squadron in HMS Glorious in the Mediterranean.

On the outbreak of war in September 1939, his Fairey Swordfish (torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft) squadron was actively involved in the search for the German warship Graf Spee in the Indian Ocean.

Baker-Falkner returned to England in spring 1940, and was seconded to a shore-based squadron where he supported the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk and later participated in the Battle of Britain. He was one of the few Canadian naval officers to participate in this battle. He then was seconded to RAF Coastal Command, flying the venerable Swordfish bi-plane in mining missions against the German coastline.

As a result of these actions, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for outstanding zeal, patience and cheerfulness, and for setting an example of wholehearted devotion to duty, without which the high tradition of the RN could not have been upheld.”

Subsequently, he was sent to the RN aircraft testing squadron at RAF Boscombe Down as a test pilot, and proved instrumental in testing naval aircraft prior to their operational use.

Chief amongst these was the dive-bomber Barracuda. Based on his unique skills with the Barracuda, he was given command of 827 Squadron in August 1943, the first RN unit equipped with this advanced dive-bomber.

Baker-Falkner was soon appointed Wing Leader of No. 8 Torpedo Bombing Reconnaissance Naval Air Wing, which consisted mainly of young Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand Voluntary Reserve aircrews. The Wing joined the carrier HMS Furious in the Orkney Islands off Scotland in February 1944.

Baker-Falkner led the Wing on an air strike against enemy shipping in north Norway, supported by the Home Fleet and three Canadian Tribal class destroyers, His Majesty’s Canadian Ships Iroquois, Haida and Athabaskan.

On March 30, 1944, No. 8 Naval Air Wing embarked from Hatston in Scotland to the fleet carriers HMS Furious and Victorious to lead Operation TUNGSTEN, the devastating air attack on Tirpitz.

But Baker-Falkner’s Wing was not yet finished with its campaign against Tirpitz, and a subsequent bombing strike proved to be Baker-Falkner’s last.

On July 17, 1944, his Wing was ordered to undertake further operations against the battleship from the fleet carriers Formidable, Furious and Indefatigable.

Baker-Falkner led the strike of some 92 aircraft, but German submarines spotted the advancing armada and surprise was lost. With Tirpitz surrounded by a smoke screen, the aircraft were unable to deliver accurate attacks, and so the mission met with limited success.

On July 18, 1944, with the fleet threatened by U-boat wolf packs as part of the Battle of the Atlantic, Baker-Falkner was launched on the first anti-submarine patrol. Flying a Barracuda II aircraft, he was assisted by his observer, Lieutenant G.N. Micklem, and his tactical air gunner, Petty Officer A.H. Kimberley.

A Corsair from 1841 Squadron flown by the senior pilot, Sub-Lieutenant H.S. Mattholie, escorted his Barracuda. Tragically, the weather worsened and Baker-Falkner’s Barracuda and the Corsair failed to find the fleet and became separated.

Baker-Falkner and his crew were lost at sea.

SLt Mattholie crash-landed in Norway and was subsequently taken as a prisoner of war. SLt Mattholie’s successor as senior pilot in 1841 squadron was Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, RCNVR, who was later to posthumously earn the Victoria Cross in the Pacific.

Baker-Falkner received the 1939-1945 Star and Battle of Britain clasp, Atlantic Star, Africa Star, Defence Medal and War Medal 1939-45 and was Mentioned in Dispatches for his “bravery, leadership, skill and devotion to duty while operating from, or serving in, His Majesty’s Ships during successful strikes at enemy shipping off the coast of Norway.”

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