March 2021: Ribbons on the Sea

A ship slipped through the darkness, strong and proud and free,
Yet her wake was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple sea,
The aircraft dived, the bombs were dropped; flame and spray leapt high!
The droning engines faded, and the sailors were left to die.

Each month, Storm of War awards campaign ribbons to the best results of those pilots who fly the minimum number hours. The results are reckoned per “pilot career”, thus rewarding those who can achieve victory for minimal loss. There are three separate categories: victories against maritime, ground and air targets. The same number of ribbons are awarded for each category. Both the air-victory and ground-victory categories are usually well contested. With the ribbon-earners generally racking-up 5+ successes per pilot-career (so, roughly “ace” status).

However, that is not the case with the ships.

Since starting the statistics, it’s been the the other way around… 1 success per 5 pilot-careers. Some months, it’s been even less demanding. For example, last month there were so few attempts on shipping that there was a ribbon given out for a single success from a pilot who flew 15 pilot-careers!. Yes, that’s right, getting 0.07 maritime victories per pilot carreer would have got you a ribbon in February 2021. Thus the maritime campaign ribbon is currently rewarding its pilots, not just for the skill in sinking these stubborn targets, but for being resourceful in the first place and exploring all that SoW has to offer.

But why are there so few ships sunk?

Well, there are number of factors. There are fewer of them, compared to other target types. They can sometimes be difficult to find, often difficult to approach and even difficult to hit. Some pilots just can’t handle that challenge. And others probably don’t even realise such targets are there. The top-10 list for both ground and air fill up quickly each month, but the seascape attracts scant attention. So here are some tips to surmount the difficulties, and to put yourself in the running for a coveted SoW campaign ribbon.

Finding targets
Finding ships out on the open sea can be challenging, just based on the sheer distances required to cover them. Altitude helps, but then there is the potential for clouds to obstruct the view. If you do spot ships out on the open water, report them via radio (SRS) so that others on your side, and your GCI controller (Kenway or JaFü), can respond even if you yourself do not.

Especially in the earlier missions which are set shortly after the landings, there can be a plethora of vessels along the landing grounds. Flying along the beaches can quickly spot the larger vessels and quite often there will be small landing craft in the vicinity, making their way to the sandy shore or pulled up on the sand.

Ships will congregate in the harbours too. Cherbourg, Le Havre and Grandcamp are well-known sites and both sides will make use of such havens when they have them. But there are lesser ports too. And sometimes barges and small craft can be found on the rivers and inland waterways (and, yes, inland shipping counts in the maritime category). Be wary though. Ships are generally good at self-defence, but these ports can be absolutely bristling with resistance.

Approaching targets
The large transports, and the LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), are very well armed. Approaching them can be downright dangerous. And ships in ports will have nearby anti-aircraft emplacements on the docksides and shorelines. Harbours will often have multiple ships, multiplying the firepower even further. This can make a close approach suicidal for a lone, low-and-slow, fighter bomber.

Treat flotillas like bomber formations — hit the stragglers. Look out for those that are separated from the others and attack them orthogonally to the main group, so that the bulk of the guns will have to lead their shots against you. Of course, if you can find a lone ship somewhere, all the better.

The dropped ordnance for DCS WW2 is currently limited. There are no level-bombing sights for high-altitude attacks, nor delayed-fuse bombs for low-level work. And sea-skipping bombs is also not yet functioning. So this means a dive-bombing or shallow-dive attacks are your only options. Dive bombing can be difficult, as you need to get your speed under control to be able to maintain good aim, and then pull out in time. The upcoming F4U Corsair should be good for this. A shallow-dive approach is an effective bombing method, as very high speed (but still controlled) can be obtained, with minimal side-slip to ensure bombing accuracy. You can then continue the dive down to sea level to keep your speed up for the escape.

As with all attacks. There is safety and strength in numbers. Do not go in alone. Use numbers both to increase your firepower, but more importantly to distribute that of the enemy. Successful attacks on ports were done with a lot of aircraft. For example, there were two whole squadrons of FW 190s that attacked Bône Harbour on 1-2 January 1943, and they were additionally backed up with a squadron of Stukas.

Take with you all your squad mates or anyone else you can rustle up on comms. Fly out with an AI wingman to help disperse the return fire (even the wingman’s aircraft is not carrying bombs itself) and distract defending interceptors. Make use of AI raids too. Going in to support a squadron of Ju 88 torpedo bombers will definitely be easier, as they’ll break up the fleet and draw the AAA-fire away from you.

Consider also your approach direction. Are you coming in over land (and other Flak/AAA units), or are their other ships in the area? And what about barrage balloons? Having some good reconnaissance will help and knowing the placement and disposition of the docks and piers, and those berthed at them, will be of benefit in planning.

And don’t forget to use the radar reports and GCI fighter controller to warn you of potential interdiction.

Hitting targets
Landing bombs on ships is harder than it seems. Firstly, you need to manage your sideslip. Fly with the “trim ball” centred. This means that a longer, more deliberate approach can be more accurate, as you can ensure that the aircraft is not slipping. That will make your lateral accuracy very good.

Getting the timing and aim right for the bomb release is much more difficult. So attacking the ship along its length is a good idea. A slight error in release will still result in a hit, as the bomb falls further forward or aft on the target. In some cases, the very front (or aft) guns cannot track back (or forward) across the superstructure. Thus you might even reduce the amount of return fire you receive.

And, when bombing on water, a near miss is still a miss. Ground targets can be caught up in the blast, even if not hit directly, but this is not the case with ships. Well… not unless you hit the quayside.

Smaller warships, Schnellboote, U-Boote, etc., present a different challenge. They still carry a potent arsenal of anti-aircraft weapons, yet they are smaller in size and thus can be more elusive to your falling bombs. On the other hand, once hit they will slip beneath the waves more readily, so are susceptible to concerted rocket and cannon attacks.

The small infantry landing craft (Higgens boats) can be easy pickings for rapidly moving fighters to strafe. But they are tiny and are thus difficult to spot, let alone hit. And the plume of water that will erupt from near-misses can obscure them (and your vision more generally), so prepare for one careful solid burst. Note that you can hit and sink them with cannon fire from a fair way out, so don’t feel you need to close in to point-blank range to hit.

The catch with those Higgens boats is that there are usually LSTs and transports nearby. So come in very fast, obliquely to the larger ships, get one and then get out!

Leaving the area
Planning your egress is just as important as planning your approach. If you attack on the open sea, you don’t have many options, although a setting/rising sun may mask your retreat. However, attacking ports and shorelines will require some more tactical thinking. It may make more sense to attack from the sea, overfly, and then head inland. Thus, you can use terrain and port buildings to mask your departure.

Keep your speed up. Some maritime pilots (and this applies to ground attack too!) will make their attack and then pull up. As they climb out, they are slowing down, and remain well within the range of the guns of their targets. These aircraft become extremely easy to hit. Instead, level out and egress with your speed as high as you can manage until you are well out of range.

Resist the allure of a second pass. It is so tempting, I know. But do not do it! By now the ships are all alerted and all guns are training on you. Your turn back will bleed you of speed and make you even more vulnerable to the naval AAA. And, being low on energy is not a good idea for when those enemy fighters show up. And you can rest assured that they will be homing in on your radar mark, not to mention all the smoke and commotion.

Violent jinking (hard manoeuvring to avoid being hit by bullets) does not help as much as you might think. To the pilot, it seems like you are making huge corrections and are dancing all over the sky. But these are less than a degree in he sights of the AAA gunners who are just concentrating on putting maximum rounds downrange in your direction. Instead, arcing away means you are changing direction, and are forcing the guns to track you, but you are still keeping your speed up and thus are getting out of their reach quicker.

The reward

Landing safely after taking out a floating target, whether a tiny boat or a many-thousand-tonne behemoth, is most gratifying. Very few pilots are brave enough to attempt the challenge and even fewer can pull it off. So those ribbons in shades of purple, silver and gold, do actually make you one of the few. Even better are the sea stories of your exploits.

And those sea stories are actually sea stories.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: