Golden Comb (tactic)
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The Golden Comb (Ger. die Goldene Zange) was an anti-ship tactic developed by the German air force (Luftwaffe) during World War II for use against Allied convoys taking supplies to the Soviet Union by the Arctic route. It was first employed against convoy PQ 18 in September 1942.
Before 1942 the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) lacked a means to attack ships at sea due to the inter-service rivalry between the Luftwaffe, which regarded all air operations as its domain, and the Kriegsmarine, which saw the development, production and use of torpedoes as its own. Consequently Germany had no torpedo bomber force, in contrast to the forces of other world powers, even the other Axis nations like Italy with the land-based Aerosiluranti, or the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service which used the effective Type 91 torpedo in the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
In early 1942, when the Allied Arctic convoy cycle was becoming well established, the Luftwaffe was ordered to form a torpedo bomber force, and was allotted the resources to do so. In response, two groups (Gruppe), III/KG 26 and III/KG 30, were assigned to train and equip as anti-ship /anti-convoy units. These units were equipped with He 111 and Ju 88 aircraft, modified to carry two air-dropped torpedoes externally under the wings.
In order to attack a target like a convoy, a formation of 20 to 30 ships sailing in close formation at relatively slow speed, KG 26 commander Generalmajor Harlinghausen and his men developed the Goldene Zange ( the “Golden Comb”), a new anti-ship (specifically an anti- convoy) tactic.
The Golden Comb involved the full group, which, having found its target, would form into a line abreast, some 40 aircraft flying approximately 30 metres apart. These would approach the convoy, from a forward quarter, and simultaneously launch their torpedoes at a distance of 1000 metres. The line would then overfly the convoy and escape.
The resulting pattern of up to 80 torpedoes, all travelling in parallel towards the target, was likened to the teeth of a comb; hence the name.
The attack was planned for use in the half light period of dawn or dusk, and would be in conjunction with a simultaneous dive bombing attack to divide opposing AA fire.
The first use of the tactics occurred on 13 September 1942 against the Allied convoy PQ 18, a collection of 35 merchant ships, with a strong escort of 18 warships including the escort carrier Avenger.
After a dive-bombing attack by I/KG 30, the convoy was approached by I/KG 26, the torpedo-bombers, in a formation of 42 aircraft. The sight was described by one observer as “a huge flight of nightmare locusts”.
Despite anti-aircraft fire from the ships and their escorts, the group continued on course, dropping their torpedoes as planned. In response the convoy commodore ordered a turn to starboard in order to sail parallel to the torpedo tracks. In the confusion the signal was misread by the ships of the starboard columns, which continued ahead. The torpedoes struck and eight ships, six in the outermost starboard column, and two further in, were sunk.
This occasion was the most successful use of the Golden Comb. The German aircraft made repeated attacks on PQ 18 thereafter, and two more ships were sunk by them, but no successes similar to the first day were achieved. Conversely, aircraft losses mounted after the first attack, and by the end of the air offensive against PQ 18, 40 aircraft from the two groups had been lost.
Following PQ 18 the Allied convoy cycle was paused until December 1942 when the next series of convoys was able to travel under cover of the Arctic night. Thus the Luftwaffe had no further opportunity to use the Golden Comb.
Impressive as it was, and devastating as its first use had been, the Golden Comb was, in the end, an ineffective tactic. The Allies quickly found counter-measures which reduced its effectiveness and inflicted crippling losses on the attackers.
The approaching formation was unable to take any evasive action on its approach, and was vulnerable to AA fire from the ships and escorts. The formation was also vulnerable to attacks by fighter aircraft from the carrier, and the combination of gun and fighter attack, aided by the bold and aggressive handling of the carrier, Avenger, and the AA ship, Ulster Queen, caused the bombers to release and break formation earlier and earlier in their approach runs as the battle progressed.
Finally the standard response to torpedo attack, to turn into the track to present a smaller target ( coincidentally referred to as “combing the tracks”) was made more effective against torpedoes running on the same vector. The confusion over signals that contributed to PQ 18’s first day losses was not repeated.
Other air forces had found torpedo attacks were more effective against ships when delivered from different directions simultaneously. Whilst hitting 8 ships in one attack was a huge success, the bombers had launched over 80 torpedoes in that one attack; a ratio of 10 torpedoes to one ship hit. This was a less successful ratio than other occasions by other air forces, such as the RN's attack on Bismarck (May 1941), the IJN's attack on Prince of Wales and Repulse, (December 1941) and the USN's attack on Yamato, (April 1945).
- Smith p69