"Pilots, Man Your Planes!"   
                                         WWII U.S. Naval Aviation Collector's Guide                                                                              
                Hellcats  over  PROVENCE  
                                      VF-74 & VOF-1 IN OPERATION DRAGOON,  Part 2
As Commander, Task Group Eighty-Eight Point Two, Rear Admiral Durgin submitted an Action Report For Operation Dragoon to Commander-In-Chief, United States Fleet, dated September 6, 1944. One section of his report addressed the use of night fighters in the operation and provides us with a concise summation of events as well as his subsequent conclusions and recommendations.

         1. General
               (a) To provide fighter protection for the task force at night during Operation Dragoon a detachment of eight night fighters*, was assigned to VF-74. In cooperation with and at the request of Mediterranean Allied Air Force on arrival in the theater these night fighters were placed under the operational control of Coastal Air Force for training and to augment the latter's night fighter force in an effort to thwart the enemy's use of "window" in attacks on convoys and shipping in harbors. These planes operated under 337 Wing (R.A.F.) at Oran, under Air Headquarters Malta, and from 25 July until returning to the carriers on 24 August  at Solenzara, Corsica. In the last period they were under the control of the Borgo Sector of 63rd Fighter Wing, Mediterranean Allied Air Force.

             (b) During this time, the enemy made no bombing attacks on the carrier force or on shipping in areas which the night fighters were patrolling. The only enemy activity that did develop was night reconnaissance over Corsica before the Germans discontinued such operations about D-5.  One AI contact at 2 1/2 miles was obtained on one "hostile" which successfully outran the Hellcat near the French coast. On two occasions no contact was established from vectors given on probable enemy night recces and on two other interceptions were made by friendly Beaufighters. Reference is made to the report of the Officer-in-Charge of the Detachment, contained as an enclosure in the Action Report of USS KASAAN BAY. 

            (c) During Operation Dragoon it was decided to have two night Hellcats land on the TULAGI before sundown to be at readiness in the event a dusk or night bombing attack developed. Two Hellcats were also held at readiness at St. Catherine's on the northwest coast of Corsica. This procedure was followed on D-Day and D+4, in which case the planes returning to Corsica after having been launched at dawn. On D+2 and D+3, Hellcats patrolled over the Group without landing on TULAGI and then returned to base. In addition, an anti-shipping sweep off the mouth of the Rhone was made on D+5 by five night Hellcats which had landed on the TULAGI in the late afternoon for briefing. No targets were discovered and the flight returned to Corsica, one plane crashing near Calvi, Corsica, for unknown reasons.  These planes were controlled from TULAGI** to a predetermined point in the target area and after finishing their sweep were directed back to Corsica under radar control. On D+9, the remaining planes returned to the TULAGI and KASSAN BAY, being stripped of their AIA gear and thereafter were employed only on force cover missions.


            (a) The performance of the single-seat night fighter in this theater gave strong indications that it can be successfully employed as a night interceptor against all types of aircraft which the Hellcat can out perform. Pilots were as effectively controlled as those of two-place night fighters during such periods of activity as arose and on no occasion did the Hellcat pilot appear at a disadvantage by virtue of having to fly the plane, listen to the controller and observe his AIA at the same time.

            (b)  The AIA functioned efficiently and met all expectations.

            (c) The Hellcat night fighter appeared to be inferior to the Mosquito only in speed at low altitudes, but to be superior at very low altitudes due to the fact that the nose does not drop when firing ammunition or rockets. The Hellcat will outmaneuver and outclimb the Mosquito through extremes of altitude. The performances of the Beaufighter is inferior to that of the Hellcat.

            (d) In two or three attempts against bogies that were probably enemy aircraft, the night Hellcat failed to make interceptions at low altitude. These bogies were believed to be the extremely fast JU-188 or JU-88 recce aircraft using in all cases highly evasive and deceptive tactics, islands and land effects as foils against interception. These aircraft are also known to carry backward looking AI and Code 1 and 6 of I.F.F.***, thereby simplifying the problem for German Air Force. 

            (e) "Window" was not observed to be used at any time and therefore its effectiveness was not determined. Apparently it is not deemed necessary for night recces, and, as indicated above, no bombers were active in the areas in which night Hellcats were operating. 

            (f) The pilots of VF-74(N) Detachment gained operational experience of particular benefit in the methods used for controlling night fighters in the European Theater, which are considered to be well advanced, and in skillful evasive tactics. This experience can be made quite useful to the night fighter squadrons now in training under Commander Fleet Air, Quonset Point.

           (g) In the operational experience gained it was again clearly evident that night fighter pilots must be excellent instrument pilots and must maintain themselves in excellent physical condition, in order to be successful in executing difficult night interceptions. 

           (h) Only well trained and skillful pilots can be expected to make interception against a skillful enemy employing evasive tactics in high performance aircraft.

           (i) The lack of height finding radar equipment prevented accurate control of night fighters from the CVE's.

*  Durgin's report mentions eight Hellcat night fighters, however, the report by the Detachment's CO, LT Brown, mentions only seven. It is assumed that while the Detachment was land-based, prior to the start of  Dragoon, that one of the F6F-3Ns became unserviceable and did not take part in operations.

** Although VF-74 was aboard Kasaan Bay, the night controllers and their radar were aboard Tulagi, thus the night fighters use of this carrier during operations.

***  It was believed that the German recce aircraft encountered carried tail radar that transmitted on the same frequency as the American I.F.F. (Identification-Friend-Or-Foe) sets carried in the Hellcats and could detect them as they attempted to close in. It was also thought that they carried captured examples of American I.F.F. equipment, set to Code 1 (bomber) or Code 6 (fighter), to help hide their true identity from the ship-board controllers and intercepting fighters.  

Background photo:  An F6F-3N at NAS Quonset Point, RI. It was part of Project Affirm/Night Fighter Development Unit. The pilots of VF-74(N) Detachment trained at NAAF Charlestown, a nearby satellite airfield.

Below:  In the Pacific, night Hellcats of VF(N)-76 are about to take off from U.S.S. Essex, summer of 1944. While facing a different enemy than the pilots of VF-74(N) Detachment, they shared the challenges of night operations while pioneering a new doctrine that had not yet been fully embraced by all those in the Navy's command structure.

All nine pilots of VF-74(N) Detachment were given Letters of Commendation and authorized to wear the Commendation Ribbon.

                                          LT Harold E. Brown, USNR  (commanding officer)
                                          LT (jg) Burton E. Smith, USNR
                                          ENS Raymond F. Klingerman, USNR
                                          ENS William E. Stakeley, USNR
                                          ENS William E. Stanton, USNR
                                          ENS Max B. Hales, USNR
                                          ENS Sutton "L" Jaynes, USNR
                                          ENS Albert R. Tiffany, USNR
                                          ENS Marion F. DeMasters, USNR  (missing in action) 

Among the recommendations made in LT Brown's report was the following statement:

"The pilots selected (for night fighter training) should be expert instrument pilots. They should be of a very even temperament and non-excitable particularly with regards to their speaking voice and radio procedure. Few pilots who can meet all the requirements will want this type of combat flying, but on the other hand, a very few good Night Fighters can easily break up an otherwise tremendous enemy night effort."