The forward from the
book Walker RN by Terrence Robertson, now out of print, by Admiral Sir
Alexander Madden, K.G.B., C.B.E., R.X.
This was the late Captain Frederick John Walker, R.N., Companion of the Order of the Bath and holder of the DSO and three Bars—the second naval officer to earn this high award four times. “Johnnie” Walker possessed probably more than a normal share of two great gifts—faith and curiosity; not the faith of mere credulity, nor the curiosity expressed by a turn of the neck, but each requiring the highest form of courage. If Walker’s character had not included the curiosity to find out how to combat U-boats, and the faith to carry into effect his own ideas, the Atlantic battle would certainly have been pro longed and might have taken a very different course. This is implied in an Admiralty communiqué issued in 1950, five and a half years after his death, which listed the Navy’s greatest wartime achievements. “Captain Walker, more than any other, won the Battle of the Atlantic. His methods had amazing success and more than any other factor gave the Royal Navy supremacy. It is only now that we have learned the full impact he had on the enemy. No tribute could be too high for the work he carried out. This ace killer of submarines not only showed what mastery in this art could do, but by his example infected all those others concerned with him in this business with the same enthusiasm. “His death was directly attributable to the overstrain which he suffered in setting that admirable example.” Today, memories of Walker and his striking force are undimmed by time. To those who knew him best, close friends, relatives and brother officers, he is still vividly alive, and I am deeply grateful to them all for their kind assistance given so readily in spite of some memories being as painful as many more were gay and exciting.
In addition to Mrs. Walker, who gave me so much of her time and allowed me full use of her late husband’s documents and photographs, I must express particular gratitude to Admiral of the Fleet, Sir George Greasy, Commander-in-Chief; Portsmouth; the late Admiral Sir Percy Noble, former Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches; Captain E. Hastle-Hurst R.N. (Retd.); Captain Donald Maclntyre, R.N. (Retd.); Captain P. J. Cooper, R.N. (Retd.); Captain W. B. Walker R.N. (Retd.); Commander D. E. G. Wemyss, R.N. (Retd.), for permission to refer to his book Walker’s Groups in the Western Approaches published by the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo; Mrs. Georgina Forbes, Captain Walker’s eldest sister; Lieutenant Commander J. S. Filleul, R.N.; Lieutenant H. W. F. Johnson, R.N.V.R. and Lieutenant Alan Burn, RN who unselfishly allowed me full use of his own unpublished memoirs on which he toiled for many years in the hope that one day they would appear as a tribute to his late captain. Those members of the Admiralty who devoted so much time to ensure that necessary documents were at all times available to me, Mr. C. H. Hurford, Miss D.Johnson and their colleagues in the Historical Section; Mr. I. Jerome, of the Department of Naval Information; Mr. Elmers, Chief of the Records Office; Commander M. C. Saunders R.N. (Retd.), head of the Foreign Documents Section; Mr. E. Thompson, of the Scrutiny Section and Mr. W. Parry of the Photographic Library. I must express particular gratitude to Their Lordships of the Board of Admiralty for their ready consent that I should receive full facilities for the inspection of documents.
For John, the homeless wanderings of a sailor were no new experience. His mother, four sisters, two brothers and himself had moved about regularly, packing and unpacking according to the movements of their father. He had been born in Ply mouth and then moved to a variety of towns stretching from the South Coast to Scotland; of these, they stayed longest in Milford-on-Sea and Bath, which became their last home town as a family. Then, not long before the wedding, Captain Walker’s illness became serious and, while being nursed by his wife in Bath, he collapsed and died. However, the Walker family was contributing two-thirds of its sons to the Navy; for John’s elder brother was now Lieutenant William Baggot Walker, R.N., (who later married Eileen's sister) and the youngest had also tried to enter, only to be turned down because his eyesight was too weak. They married with Bill Walker as best man and, after a brief honeymoon at Bournemouth, Eilleen settled down to the nomadic life of a naval officer’s wife. In the first year they stayed nowhere long enough to set up a home. While John returned for a spell in big ships as a watchkeeper in the battle ship, Valiant, Eilleen moved around, leaving behind a dismal trail of hotel rooms and flats. But they were supremely happy and, like all young lovers, completely confident of the future. With John at sea, Eilleen stayed for a while with his mother in Bath. It was here on March 22nd, 1920, that she gave birth to their first child, Timothy. During his next leave, John told his wife of his impatience with the strict discipline and social life that was a normal part of battleship routine and confessed he was trying to have himself transferred back to destroyers. He was still keen on learning more about anti-submarine tactics and had decided that, if he specialised in this field, he would greatly enhance his chances of serving in small anti-submarine ships, which he would also like. The few shillings a day “specialist’s allowance” was a further attraction. He volunteered for a new and special course at Portland naval base where a school of anti-submarine warfare had been recently established, called H.M.S. Osprey. A year later, his request for transfer was accepted and he left Valiant for Portland to begin his technical courses on secret equipment prior to becoming a specialist. During the next four years Lieutenant and Mrs. Walker managed to establish a temporary base in adjacent Weymouth, not daring to make it too permanent in case sailing orders arrived. Ready money was an urgent problem indeed, and some times Johnnie was forced to look around for something to sell. On one occasion when he was in Portsmouth and Eilleen in Weymouth, there was the chance of a week-end together. Eilleen counted up the housekeeping and decided she would have to stay in Weymouth. Johnnie discovered he had seven and sixpence to spare after paying his mess bill, hardly enough for a week-end with his family. His eyes strayed to an expensive- looking travelling clock they had received as a wedding present. He would pawn it first it needed repairing. He took it to a watchmaker and, on the eve of his free week-end, collected the clock, instructed the shop to send the bill on to him, and marched straight round to a pawnshop. He hoped for twenty- five bob, perhaps two pounds. The pawnbroker offered seven and six. Argument was useless, it was seven and six or nothing. John pocketed the three half crowns ruefully. It would be enough to reach Weymouth. But the following morning the repair bill arrived. He had expected it to be two or three shillings at the most. It cost the enormous sum of twelve and sixpence. John fingered the fifteen shillings in his pocket. Later in the day, he paid the bill and wired Eilleen that he was staying in Portsmouth minus clock and with five shillings less than when he had first thought of pawning it. It was characteristic of the young couple that, although frequently hard up, they were never in debt. Johnnie would draw his last penny from the bank to buy Eilleen some un expected gift, but kept a tight rein on bills. He never worried about money; when it was short he would say—”Everything will turn out all right”—and it always did.
The Walker trio, father, mother and son, matured and learned to cope with recurrent minor financial crises. Father, always an individualist, acquired the reputation of being an outspoken critic of instruction he considered ill-advised or based on wrong precepts. Yet he was a popular figure at Osprey and regarded as one of the few pioneer experts in the developing art of tactical defence and attack against an underwater enemy. Mrs. Walker increased her authority over all things domestic by giving birth in 1924 to a second son, Nicholas, and a year later to their first daughter, Gillian. But the years ashore made Walker restless, even promotion to lieutenant-commander failing to induce him to settle down in his career. For many long hours, he discussed with his wife the attractive possibility of leaving the Navy and finding a more lucrative job in civilian life while they were both young. When he said that the Navy in peacetime was “not my cup of tea” he really meant it. He had enormous energy and an equally vast capacity for sheer hard work, but the Navy had returned to its pre-war role of providing a salty atmosphere in society ashore. Overshadowing this frustrating state of affairs was Walker’s awareness that a healthy and growing family would tax his income to the limit. He was a family man and hated to think that the number of children he might enjoy could be limited by naval pay. For a long time he toyed with the possibility of seeing how much further his economy would stretch outside the Navy. Eilleen, however, knew he would never really be happy outside the Service and gently opposed his most determined decisions to make a change. He burned away most of this excess energy in gardening, hockey, swimming and boxing, if and when someone at Osprey was brash enough to suggest a round or two in the gym. He had given up rugger, although he might easily have played for the Navy, but was still a nimble middleweight with a powerful punch in both fists. But his speed, offensive spirit and individuality emerged best on the hockey field where he played himself into the Dorset county eleven and would have been selected for the West of England team but for a capricious Appointments Branch of the Admiralty who decided at that moment to send him back to sea.
Further thoughts of leaving the Navy were pushed aside, and he left Portland to serve for the next five years in the battleships Revenge, Nelson and Queen Elizabeth as Fleet Anti Submarine Officer of the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets. This period in what he regarded as floating parade grounds where no one from admirals downward seemed to care much about submarines or their antidotes, was punctuated by continual but fruitless efforts to have himself transferred back to destroyers. The only bright spot came in the Mediterranean when he out pointed a mountainous sailor to become unofficial middleweight champion of the Fleet. Although a brilliant future had been predicted for him at Dartmouth, Walker came face to face with the sudden realisation that he had entered the zone for promotion to commander, passed through most of it and had only a few months left before he would become “passed over”, as a Lieutenant Commander. Not even a “brass-hat” to show for all that early promise. He tackled his senior officers, finally reaching the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, whose reply was hardly encouraging. But, not long afterwards, he received the third ring of a commander with an appointment to take command of the destroyer, Shikari, “brain” of the Navy’s first radio-controlled gunnery target ship, Centurion. The Navy had never looked better to Commander Walker. His ship was equipped with the latest asdic and other anti-submarine devices. At home, the extra pay made him feel almost affluent. This device enabled surface ships to detect submerged submarines. It sent out sound waves underwater which produced a distinctive “ping” or echo, if they hit metallic objects. As it also produced echoes from shoals of fish, wrecks and confused whirlpools of water, the operator had to be highly trained to distinguish the difference.
Unfortunately, the Shikari days ended all too soon and six months later he learned with dismay that he was to be sent to the China Station to take command of the sloop, Falmouth, also used by the Commander-in-Chief, Far Eastern Fleet, as his personal yacht. He remarked tersely to his wife “I know I’m not cut out for that job.” Before leaving for China, Eilleen took a personal step she had been considering for some time. Since childhood, religion had meant much to her, and one of Johnnie’s attractions had been his belief not only in God, but in going to church. When ashore he attended services every Sunday. Now Eilleen decided to become a Catholic. To remain an Anglican, feeling as she did, would have been to live a lie and she refused to do this even for the sake of husband and family. Johnnie, eminently fair-minded, put no obstacles in her way, although he preferred to remain in his own religion. Eilleen’s conversion was carried out smoothly. On the question of the children, Johnnie was decisive. They were to be allowed to choose for themselves when they were old enough and, until then, would remain in the Anglican Church in which they had been brought up. In return, he agreed that, should they ever have another child, he should be raised as a Catholic. On Sundays, they walked up the road together, each to go to their respective churches; often, if Johnnie arrived in a port before Eilleen, he would hunt out her church and note the times of Services for her. Not long afterwards, he left England for China, an interlude in his career which placed the first black mark against his name in the files of the Admiralty.
CHAPTER 2 - NEARLY A FAILURE
IN the years between his arrival at Dartmouth as a boy and the receipt of his orders to proceed to China, Johnnie Walker had not put a foot wrong in the Service. In spite of managing to scrape through to commander only just before the promotion zone passed, his personal record at the Admiralty was good, and it was likely that he would receive promotion at the normal rate, perhaps to Flag rank. But from the time he joined the Far Eastern Fleet dubious reports on his suitability for senior rank were to be written into an otherwise impeccable record. When the Fleet moved from one part of the China station to another, Johnnie clashed with his superiors. Always outspoken and inclined to put his case with considerable forcefulness, he failed to show the necessary tact in those social duties which go with the command of the Admiral’s yacht. When his two years’ service abroad were up and he returned to England, adverse reports from a senior officer had already reached London. He was glad to be back. Eilleen had fallen ill in China and he was anxious to have her examined by London specialists. The result was that she underwent two major operations, while Johnnie was sent to Greenwich for a senior officer’s course. Meanwhile, Timmy, as the family called him, had won a scholarship to Eton and, while there, prepared to enter the Catholic Church. He was only sixteen and Johnnie had not intended his children to choose for themselves at such an early age. However, in the face of the boy’s determination, he gave his consent and allowed him to have instruction. As quiet, blunt and forthright as his father, Timothy was received into the Church in July, 1936 and later accepted for the priest hood. Walker had now received his next appointment, as second in-command of the battleship Valiant. Despite his refusal in China to bow to what he regarded as the whims of higher authorities, the harsh reports on him had not been sufficient in themselves seriously to affect his career. But while in Valiant there came another clash of personalities which led to one more adverse report. In recent years, a great change had taken place in Walker; from a home-loving boy he had become a gifted scholar and hero to his classmates; and now the young naval officer had grown into a mature, somewhat serious-minded father and deeply devoted husband. Gone were the youthful days of early marriage when gay cocktail parties with his young wife had been accompanied by occasional visits to the pawnbroker’s. They were replaced by a supreme contentment only to be found when at home playing with the children and in peaceful evenings with Eilleen. His family possessed him and he was only too willing to be possessed. This was encouraged, perhaps, by the Admiralty’s persistent refusal to appoint him to the small ships he liked, sending him instead to one big ship after another.
Therefore, the closing of the Dover - Calais door in the face of Doenitz was the task of a highly- trained specialist. Walker himself was disappointed at the appointment. Although it lifted him from the list of the “virtually unemployed” and gave him an active, key role in the front line of events, he would have preferred command of a small ship. They had moved most of their belongings and furniture into store at Weymouth and taken a furnished house in Dover, when a letter arrived for Johnnie from Timmy, who had been in Rome for the past two years. It was a remarkable letter, laying bare the mental agony of a boy, then nineteen, who had given himself to his faith at a time when his country had gone to war. He now sought advice and guidance from his father. After explaining that he was not free to return and fight as he chose, Timmy said he had talked the matter over with his rector and that, as a Church student, he would have first to obtain the permission of Cardinal Hinsley, Archbishop of Westminster, before joining up for the duration.
“As far as my personal inclinations are concerned,” he wrote, “I would much rather fight than stay here. To go on with my ordinary work while England is at war would involve deep mortification and require far greater courage. But I am determined not to act upon inclination, but to try simply to find out what is right. “The reasons which urge me to fight are too obvious to be expounded at length. It is a conflict in which everything which has any claim on my loyalty is involved—Church, Country and civilisation itself. “The reasons against it are such that I must ask you to adjudge them with that appreciation of my position as a Catholic which you have hitherto so generously shown. I have already said that the Church disapproves of it. The reason is that the vocation to priesthood is the highest of all vocations, higher even than the vocation to fight for your country and it is more important, not only for the Church but also for England to have good priests rather than to have good soldiers or sailors. “To leave the Church even for a few years to fight for a cause, however just, unless a number of Church students were so great as to make a vital difference, which it is not, would be to prefer the gratification of a romantic impulse to doing my real duty to my Country and my Church—a most un-English thing to do. Before coming to a final conclusion I want you to tell me what in your opinion it is my duty to do. Because you probably do not want to influence my decision I must make it clear I am determined not to be influenced. I realise that I alone am responsible before my Church and my Country and cannot shift it on to anyone else.” Walker replied at once that Timmy was to stay in Rome, but should there ever come a time when England would need every able-bodied man, then he would write and say so. It would be up to his son to make his own decision. There, the matter rested. International developments took a hand. Italy attacked France, and the English College in Rome was disbanded for the duration, the English students returning home by sea to wait until the College could find suitable accommodation to re open in England. Timothy joined his mother and father in Dover and, throughout the evacuation of Dunkirk, worked as a stretcher-bearer at Dover Hospital. The English College re-opened in the Lake District and Timothy left Dover to resume his studies. But, shortly after wards, his father sent the promised letter. In Johnnie’s opinion, the time had come when every fit man was needed to fight the war. Timothy obtained his rector’s consent to write to Cardinal Hinsley asking for permission to suspend his studies for the priesthood until the end of the war, in order to join one of the Fighting Services. There was no delay in the reply. It came almost at once.
MY DEAR MR. WALKER, Your letter shows you have a thoroughly Catholic and patriotic disposition. I agree that you should join one of the Fighting Services. It is sad and deplorable that you should have to interrupt your studies. But you will probably come out of the ordeal a stronger man and by God’s grace, make a more useful priest. I do not think you can oppose your father’s wish. My heartfelt Blessing, Yours devotedly in Christ, A. CARDINAL HINSLEY.
Timothy packed his bags, caught a train to London and joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as an ordinary seaman. With young Nicholas already at Dartmouth, the Walkers could be proud of their Sons.
CHAPTER 3 - WAR COMMAND
It is inevitable in war that the customs of peace often get kicked out of the window. If at this time the Admiralty took a little longer to start kicking, it was only because its deeply ingrained customs were fundamentally good ones. ‘We were losing more ships than we could hope to build, and one of the first customs to suffer was the practice of keeping “passed over” officers in subordinate positions. Experienced officers, particularly those trained in anti-submarine warfare, were in short supply, and an obscure department was ordered to sift personnel. The process was slow but efficient, On receipt of Creasy’s letter, Sir Percy Noble started the machine to have Walker transferred from Dover to his own Command. In September, the Admiralty sent a signal to Dover which ordered him to Liverpool to assume command of HMS Stork for duties in the Atlantic under the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches. The next few days were filled with contented excitement for the Walker family. Ordinary Seaman Timothy had been selected as a candidate for a commission in the RNVR and had been sent to an officers’ training unit; Cadet Nicholas of Dartmouth had become Mr. Midshipman Walker awaiting a sea posting; Gillian had another year at school before she could fulfil her ambition to join the Wrens; and Commander and Mrs. Walker handed in the lease of the house they had rented at Dover for more than a year, waved farewell to less fortunate friends who had to stay in a town still being bombed and under daily fire from the long-range guns of Calais, and set off for separate destinations. Mrs. Walker to her family at Hambledon, near Henley, and her husband to Liverpool to take over his own ship and prepare her to meet the enemy wherever he could be found. After months of office work at Dover, where extensive minefields were relied upon to deny the Channel passage to U-boats, bustling Liverpool presented an exciting, war-like contrast.
This great seaport and front-line base of our Atlantic operations teemed with industry as stevedores raced to unload and load the stream of dirty, unpainted freighters; cranes clattered in the docks while pneumatic drills throbbed in the repair yards; tugs scurried urgently up and down the wide Mersey, their whistles bleating anxiously; sleek destroyers, busy sloops and bouncy, brash corvettes marched and counter marched along swept channels cleared by patient mine-sweepers. Among the massive, smoke-blackened buildings lining the waterfront was Derby House, a comparatively new office block now transformed into the headquarters of Admiral Sir Percy Noble who, little more than a year before, had set up is Command to ensure the “safe and timely arrival of our convoys”. When he arrived with his Chief of Staff; Commodore J. M. Mansfield, and the Air Officer Commanding No. 19 Group of Coastal Command, he had only the promise of ships and men. The Admiralty had scoured the coasts and seas until the Western Approaches Command now controlled the destinies of thousands of men sailing from Gibraltar to Murmansk, from New York to the Channel. A vast headquarters organisation tracked each convoy and Escort Group round the clock; the Intelligence Division intercepted enemy wireless signals at sea to pin-point the positions of every known U-boat; the Air Staff sent their aircraft along convoy routes to the PLE, Prudent Limit of Endurance, of point at which they must turn back if remaining fuel was to last out. Into this organisation stepped Walker who at once found himself among strangely-assorted bedfellows. It seemed that by design or accident all the misfits of the Navy had congregated at Liverpool. Among his brother officers were many of his own kind—”passed overs” who at some stage or other had become red-tape rebels. But the vast majority were officers of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, week-end sailors churned out by the recruiting machine often with inadequate training. The Royal Naval Reserve, those independent merchant men who would become sore boils in big ship wardrooms, somehow fitted in here by providing their expert seamanship to balance the ignorance of the willing, but lamentably “green”, RNVR A generous variety of these officers manned the ships of the 3 Escort Group when Walker took command of His Majesty’s sloop, Stork, and became to his surprise and delight the senior officer of the Group’s nine ships which consisted in addition to Stork, of the sloop, Deptford, and the corvettes, Rhododendron, Marigold, Convolvulus, Penstemon, Gardenia, Samphire and Vetch.
His first job was to find out something about the eight commanding officers serving under him, and try out the ships’ companies. All told, upwards of five hundred men who had never before set eyes on each other had to become a trained, well-knit team. This was the key to Walker’s personal plan; if U-boats were to be destroyed, the hunters would have to become a team, with himself as its playing manager. As the group left harbour bound for working-up exercises, Walker was grimly determined that each of the individualists astern of him would quickly learn that the 3 Group was to be a unit welded in one cause—the destruction of the enemy. The working-up routine had been skilfully devised by an expert in the art of driving both officers and men mad in the least possible time. All day they carried out anti-submarine and gunnery exercises; at night they sailed again to protect imaginary convoys. When the sleepless days and nights had stretched into weeks, and orders were given and obeyed automatically, they were allowed one night at anchor. Tired out, the Group collapsed into bunks and hammocks. But it was not to be. In the early hours, the energetic senior officer of the training school came alongside in a motor-boat. "Officer of the Day.” “Yes, Sir.’’ “You have been rammed forward, your stern is on fire and the enemy are preparing to attack the anchorage. Get cracking.” Alarm bells rang and they were at it again. By the middle of November, they were about as trained as the brief course would allow. There was some co-operation between ships—not much it is true, but some. There was no time for anything more. Sir Percy needed every ship on the Atlantic runs. A few days later, the Group returned to Liverpool and re ported ready for duty. Walker himself was not entirely satisfied that they were. The course had provided all concerned with an opportunity to get to know their neighbours, and it had been possible to see how the commanding officers handled their ships. It was also true that, when they took the field, he could now confidently expect them to know in which direction to kick the ball. But sadly, and quite understandably, they were not yet a team. He felt it urgent that every commanding officer in the Group should know exactly what to do in any emergency; and that every individual move should be related so that each ship was operating to a set plan. He would have to make the plans, and his team—when it became one—could then act accordingly. In fact, with a minimum of reference back they would be doing what he wanted them to do automatically and without waiting for orders. In the brief moments of relaxation during exercises, he had drawn up a series of orders to his captains which he called, “ Escort Group Operational Instructions”. They were succinct, concise and, like Walker himself, direct:
(1) The object of the Group while on escort
duty is to ensure the safe and timely arrival of the convoy concerned. It
is not possible, with the ships available, to dispose of the Group in such
a way as to protect the convoy completely from enemy attacks—these must be
accepted and doubtless some losses. The only practicable course of action
is to ensure that any enemy craft, either surface or air, which attack are
(3) I wish to impress on all officers that, although I shall naturally take charge of the majority of operations, I consider it essential for themselves to act instantly without waiting for orders in situations of which I may be unaware or imperfectly informed.
(4) It should seldom, if ever, be necessary to conclude a signalled report with the words: “Request instructions.” Action should be “proposed” or “intended” by the men on the spot—and the senior officer can always say if he doesn’t like it.
(5) No officer will ever be blamed by me for getting on with the job in hand.
A slight clash with Derby House arose over a plan he had devised for dealing with U-boat attacks on a convoy at night. Using the private family name for his wife, he termed the plan “OPERATION BUTTERCUP”. This, in essence, called for turning night into day by a generous use of every form of illuminant such as starshell and rockets. “It is the practice of U-boats,” he said, “to attack our convoys at night, operating, trimmed down on the surface. Once the enemy has located a convoy several U-boats are likely to converge and attack at short intervals. Experience shows that, after an attack. the U-boat will either remain near the wreck of a torpedoed ship, or make off on the surface at high speed to escape the attention of slower escorts. “OPERATION BUTTERCUP" is designed to force the U-boat to dive by plastering the area round the wreck with depth charges and by illuminating the most likely directions of his surface escape. Once submerged, the destruction of the submarine is considerably simplified. The object of OPERATION BUTTERCUP therefore is to destroy any U Boat which has succeeded in attacking a convoy escorted by night by this Group.” The technical method of carrying out this operation so impressed the Operations Staff that a copy was shown to Sir Percy Noble. It was basically sound, but the Commander-in- Chief instructed Walker to make amendments to those clauses with which he did not entirely agree. Walker obeyed with surprising meekness and in consequence the name “BUTTERCUP”, hitherto reserved by the Walker family, was issued for the guidance of the whole Western Approaches Command with the Derby House endorsement that the Operation provided the maximum chance of sinking U-boats at night. Walker had begun to make his presence felt in the battle. His presence had also been felt in the sturdy little, peacetime- built Stork. Ships invariably take on the spirit of their crews, a happy, efficient crew means a buoyant, reliable ship which rarely sees the repair yard and answers willingly to any calls made upon it; a discontented crew—which often means laxity and inefficiency—and the ship is sluggish when she should be fast and ready for that tiny bit extra when most needed. The difference conies from the top—the captain. Stork had become a happy ship. Walker demanded a lot of his officers and men, but he rarely interfered with his officers on the details of their respective duties. His enthusiasm passed right down to the crew who became increasingly aware of the vital role each man played in the fighting of his ship. The men were keen and Stork was happy. She would behave well in battle.
Towards the end of November, 1941, the 3 Group sailed from Liverpool to take an outward-bound convoy to Gibraltar. This first trip, a test for them all, was fortunate indeed. A series of heavy gales hit the convoy, driving it into huge seas and howling winds which made it unlikely that U-boats would be operating seriously on the surface. Walker grabbed the chance to put his Group through a series of exercises, gunnery shoots and depth-charge drills which impressed the convoy. By the time they arrived in Gibraltar early the next month, he could congratulate himself on his handling of the Group and feel confidence in their team efficiency. At a meeting of commanding officers in his own ship he offered the toast:
“To the 36th Group and the total destruction of the enemy.”
Next morning they were ordered to patrol the Gibraltar Straits in an effort to hunt down U-boats on passage into the Mediterranean where they were being employed in attacking Malta-bound convoys and in escorting Axis supply ships carrying vital equipment to Rommel in North Africa. These U-boats were making the passage so easily and causing so much anxiety to the Mediterranean Fleet that Captain Creasy was flown out from London to attend a series of conferences on the Rock. One of the first decisions, in which Captain Creasy had not much faith, was to maintain a hunting force inside the Straits and, to seaward, in the approaches. The 36th Escort Group was awaiting further convoy duties, so Walker received orders to carry out a series of anti-submarine patrols off Gibraltar. They were a sorry failure. U-boats continued to pass into the Mediterranean and, despite a week of patrolling, Walker and his Group sighted not so much as a periscope, the only asdic echoes proving to be fish. The Group was called back to harbour, where they refuelled and, on December 14th sailed to join convoy HG76 for the voyage home to Liverpool. At a conference prior to sailing, Walker was told: “The enemy has been cutting the Gibraltar convoys to shreds. This is an important convoy and you will be re-enforced with ships of the Gibraltar Command. You must arrive as intact as possible.” At the rendezvous outside Gibraltar, Walker received as escort re-enforcements, the destroyers Blankney, Stanley and Exmoor. In addition, the escort included H.M.S. Audacity, a former merchant ship converted into a convoy aircraft-carrier. She had a small flight deck and carried about half a dozen tiny Martlet naval fighters. Their job was to patrol round the convoy, searching for surfaced U-boats and to drive off inquisitive Focke-Wulfs, preferably before they had time to work out and dispatch the convoy’s position to base. Audacity was the first of this type of carrier to serve along the convoy routes. By dusk on the 14th the convoy, consisting of thirty-two ships, had been sorted into five columns and the escort had spread itself around them in two thinly-held protective screens, one close to the convoy and the other further away to act as scouts. Walker, in Stork, led the way ahead of the convoy on a north-westerly course, only too well aware that it was just a matter of time before they reached the battlefield and at last faced the enemy.