A Hunting We Will Go

Captain FJ Walker

'A Hunting We Will Go' - Tom Teece RN in FJ Walker's  Battle of the Atlantic

An address to the Royal Naval Association, Canberra, 25 March 2010.

by Phil Teece

Type 7C slips out of her pen to begin another Atlantic Patrol (U-333)


In his 'History of the Second World War', Winston Churchill wrote three things relevant to the topic I have been asked to address. One: 'The Battle of the Atlantic was always the dominant factor in winning the war'. Two: 'the only thing that really frightened me was the u-boat peril'. Three: 'Captain FJ Walker and his men were our foremost u-boat killers - they sank more German submarines than anybody else'.

My father was Walker's Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist throughout this period.

I should begin with some basic biography. My father was Tom Teece, DSM and bar, Royal Navy 1926-46. He  was born in North West England in 1913, the fourth of six children. He was orphaned at five. At twelve he went  to sea-school. And at thirteen he was on the high seas. It was a hard childhood that produced a tough man.

He had an early interest in radio, the new technology of the day. And he used that to build his naval career. Through the 1920s and 1930s he enjoyed Navy life and saw a lot of the world. In 1938 he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist on the sloop HMS  Stork, then primarily a survey ship in the Mediterranean. This was a fateful appointment, but he did not know it at the time.

Less than a year later, war was declared in September 1939.  Stork was re-armed and directed to convoy escort duties in the Atlantic.

Their first task was to escort a 36-ship convoy  from Gibraltar to Liverpool. They did so in weather described in the official record as 'uniformly appalling'. I remember vividly my father's lurid descriptions of huge seas and violently ill crew-members.  Incidentally, he seemed to find it particularly vital to tell this story whenever my brother and I were about to take the midnight ferry from Liverpool across the Irish Sea. 

But in more serious moments he always said this foul weather was actually 'somebody up there looking after us'. Because in seas so big, German  submarines could not function effectively. Thus, the convoy arrived safely in Liverpool without coming under serious attack.  This was a blessing for a first-time crew. But it never happened again.

In early 1940, Stork was transferred to the ill-fated Norwegian campaign and the Battle of Narvik, where the weather, of course, was even worse.

Their most dramatic moments came while escorting the SS Chobry, a Polish troopship carrying almost 1,000 men. They were attacked in one of the fjiords by German aircraft and  heavily fired upon. Chobry was hit several times and set badly alight. Many were killed, including all her officers. Eventually the destroyer HMS Wolverine  with help from Stork was able to fight off the aircraft. They took off 700 survivors and the Chobry was later scuttled by the RAF.

With the Allied retreat from Norway, Stork went back to Atlantic convoy duties throughout 1940, escorting as many as 50 ships at a time. But it was a dismal year, the worst  of his naval career, my father said. At sea - as elsewhere - the war was going very badly.

By early 1941, more than 2,000 merchant ships  had been lost. This was obviously unsustainable. Something had to be done and done quickly. 

As they say, 'cometh the hour, cometh the man'. And the man was Captain FJ 'Johnny' Walker.  In February 1941, Walker was appointed to head-up the new 36th Escort Group with fairly wide authority to apply his own ideas on anti-submarine warfare. He was made Captain of my father's ship, HMS Stork,  from which he led  the group.

My father always said that Walker was 'like Churchill'. What he meant was that Walker, like Churchill, 'thought outside the square', to use the modern  expression. 

Like Churchill, Walker studied war deeply and held unconventional views about it. He had studied anti-submarine warfare for years. He knew more about it than anybody in the Royal Navy. But he had controversial opinions about how it should be conducted. As a result, Walker - like Churchill -  found himself marginalised for much of the pre-war and early-war years. Immediately before he was appointed to Stork, he had been  marooned in desk jobs and kept well away from the action, no doubt to his immense frustration.

But just as the country turned to Churchill when things got desperate in 1940, so the Navy turned to Walker when the battle at sea  seemed all but lost early in 1941.

My father said the whole spirit on Stork changed as soon as Walker stepped on board. He cut formality to a minimum. He increased training to the maximum. And he threw a defensive mindset overboard.

When he began, the group was of necessity primarily a defensive, close-escort group. But as he got on top of the u-boats he steadily moved to the front foot.

By the time the 2nd Support Group was formed in 1943 with Walker leading on HMS Starling, they had become, as Churchill described them,  'an attacking band of brothers'.

This shift is best illustrated by the groups' formal orders. Originally, orders included the statement:

'Our object is the safe and timely arrival of the convoy'.

As Walker stamped his own approach on the group, this changed to:

'Our object is to destroy u-boats, particularly those that menace our convoys'.    

To illustrate their attitude, Walker's ships always left and returned to Liverpool with loudspeakers blaring out their signature tune: "A Hunting We Will Go".  Years later, my father could be heard singing it as he painted the ceiling or planted potatoes.

Out on the convoys, Walker had an immediate effect. The 36th group's very first trip was a baptism of fire on the Gibralter-Liverpool run. They were under almost constant attack. The escort carrier Audacity was lost. But Walker got all 32 merchant ships home intact. And five u-boats were sunk.

In the context of those dark days, five scalps was a major morale boost for the whole Navy. And, indeed, for the whole country.

For his even more famous 2nd Support Group, Walker switched to the new Black Swan class sloop, HMS Starling, which was to become one of the most  famous ships of World War Two. My father went proudly with Walker to the new ship. They were to sink a further 23 u-boats,  the biggest individual haul of the war. By then, Walker's tactics had been adopted by every Allied  anti-submarine group.

As my father explained it to me, the secret of Walker's success was changing the way the convoys' escort ships were organised. Previously, convoys were surrounded by one ring of escorting warships, which meant u-boats had only to break this ring to get a clear line on the merchant ships. From Starling, Walker now introduced two concentric rings.  Now the enemy would have to penetrate the defences twice. Not only that, but as soon as u-boats were sighted, the outer ring would attack aggressively, sometimes chasing them for as long as 30 hours to get the kill. This became famous as 'Walker's creeping attack'.

On one memorable occasion, six submarines were sunk on a single trip, with no loss of Allied vessels.  When they returned  triumphantly to Liverpool, thousands lined the dock to cheer them home. I remember that my aunt - Dad's sister - had a framed photo of  the occasion from the Liverpool Echo in her hallway. It was the first thing you saw when entering her house. Just  this week while checking some details for today on the internet I found a 7-minute grainy black and white British Pathe newsreel of that very event, 67 years ago. I  have to say it brought a tear to my eye.

Throughout this period there were many successes and many decorations. Walker himself led  the way with a CB and four DSOs. My father and his closest friend, the ship's Yeoman of Signals, both won two DSMs and were mentioned in  despatches on three other occasions. Another of his mates, the ship's ASDIC/Sonar specialist, won four DSMs, apparently the most by any combatant in World War Two.

But there were bad times too. Twice my Mother was informed officially that her husband was 'missing at sea', only for him to turn up again when communications were restored to a badly damaged ship. Stork's stern was badly holed in a collision during  particularly hectic fighting in 1941. Stork in 1942 and Starling in 1943 were both severely damaged when Walker rammed u-boats to sink them. I remember very well some graphic pictures of the damage in the family photo album. Each time, while the wounded ships limped home slowly for repairs, Walker and a few key men, including my father, transferred to another ship by open boat in raging seas, with u-boats prowling - about as dangerous a manoeuvre as you could imagine.

They survived all these dramas and setbacks. But their biggest blow came in July 1944. On a short leave in Liverpool, Walker collapsed and was rushed to hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage. He died without regaining consciousness. He was just 48.

But war waits for no man.  Starling was ordered back to sea the next morning. They missed Walker's funeral in Liverpool Cathedral when more than 1,000 people attended. Many thousands more lined the city's streets as the funeral procession moved to the dockside.

My father and his mates were especially disappointed that another ship - HMS Hesperus - and not their own Starling took Walker's body for burial at sea in Liverpool Bay.

Despite this, they rejoined the battle with even greater resolve to 'live up to  Walker's standards', as my Dad put it. And they did just that, with another eight u-boats sunk before the war ended less than a year later.

So, how to sum up Walker's effect on my father and his mates? Well, perhaps all I need say is that my Dad used to say quite seriously that if  Walker had told any of them to jump overboard they would have done so without hesitation. Long before the word 'charisma'  came to  common usage, this bloke clearly had it in spades.

Walker was their leader for just three and a half years. Yet my father never stopped talking about him. He was still talking about him in awed terms nearly 60 years later.

My father was offered a commission after the war but by then my brother and I had arrived on the scene. He would have been required  to move the family to Plymouth. And I suspect he was physically and mentally exhausted. So he left the Navy in 1946.

In July 1964, 20 years to the day after Walker's death, I went with him to attend the inaugural meeting of the Captain Walker's Old  Boys Association at the Bootle Town Hall, right opposite Gladstone Dock, where all their epic journeys began and ended. It was a great night with the great man's widow in attendance.

The thing that struck me most was that all these men talked about Walker exactly like my Dad had been doing throughout my childhood. And they were rough, tough blokes - not a delicate flower among them.

My father remained active in the Association for the rest of his life. He took part in a BBC documentary on the Battle of the Atlantic. And he collaborated with the authors of several books on Walker, including 'The Fighting Captain' by shipmate Alan Burns. 

In 2004, my father died in his 91st year. Just a few months later, on the 60th anniversary of Walker's death , the Captain Walker's Old Boys Association wound themselves up, 40 years after they'd begun. All their records were formally handed over to Bootle Borough Council.

Almost  everyone from Stork and Starling has gone now. And the ships themselves were scrapped long ago, in 1958 and 1965 respectively.

But the city of Liverpool still remembers them. On the waterfront at Pier Head stands a lifelike statue of Johnny  Walker, commissioned by the Old Boys Association and unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh. In the Maritime Museum at Albert Dock there is a sizeable exhibit on their achievements. On the walls of the Bootle Council Chambers hang the tattered old flags of HMS Starling and other ships of the Group.

Best of all, at the beginning of every Council meeting Starling's old ship's bell is still rung.

Their legacy continues.

Convoy HG76, the previous occupant of this page now has its own page at

Convoy HG76