Chapters 4 - 6
CHAPTER 4 - THE FIRST CLASH
Since their autumn offensive began, the U-boats had singled out our Gibraltar convoy routes for a special kind of blitz. For the first time since the war opened, Doenitz had received sufficient co from the Luftwaffe to enable Focke Wulf bombers to be sent over the Atlantic in search of convoys, their limited range making the Gibraltar routes the most suitable targets. Their mission was to seek out a convoy and then send out a series of wireless reports giving its position, speed and course on which any U-boats in the vicinity could converge and attack as a “pack”. There was little we could do about these “homing” tactics outside the range of shore-based Coastal Command planes unless each convoy was provided with its own aircraft-carrier. In July, 1941, Korvettenkapitan Arend Baumann, aged thirty-seven and an old hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, took command of the new 740-ton, ocean-going U-131. She carried fourteen torpedoes, a crew of forty-eight and could stay at sea for about six weeks. Now the two countries were at war, he was certain of Germany’s victory and determined to ensure it by making U-131 the most efficient submarine in the Atlantic. Whilst they were exercising in the Baltic, the R.A.F. raided Kielthe night his wife started labour pains heralding the arrival of their second child. She could not find a taxi to take her to hospital, but a fire-engine racing to the bombed docks picked her up and rushed her there in time. U-131's short career was made even more eventful in the Baltic when a Russian sub marine just missed her with a torpedo and the excitement had barely died down when a brother U-boat, also on exercises, fired a torpedo which passed under U-131 and exploded a hundred yards away. U-131 sailed at noon on November 17th and a week later was cruising off Spain. By December 12th she had sunk one merchant ship—expending six of her torpedoes, and had chased a large liner without success. There was high hope that they would be ordered into Lorient in time to be home for Christmas. Doenitz had other ideas, and sent U-131 to patrol off Gibraltar. It was a deeply depressed U-boat which sighted a convoy late in the afternoon of the 16th and sent out a general alarm to all submarines in the vicinity.Baumann knew that at least two other U-boats were around somewhere and decided to shadow the convoy by diving from his position ahead, allowing the convoy to pass over him before surfacing astern to make his hourly homing reports for the gathering “pack”. In the middle of the manoeuvre his hydro phones broke down and, when he came up to see where he was, the periscope poked up right in the centre of the convoy. Recovering from his surprise, he selected a target and prepared to fire, but for some reason the merchant ship chose that moment to indulge in some accidental, but really impressive, zig-zagging to adjust her position in the column. Baumann was forced to call off the attack; instead, he decided to dive deep and get away before being rammed. That night he surfaced astern, and his call went out for help. Among those who were close enough to answer the summons were U-434 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Wolfgang Heyda, and U-574 under Oberleutnant zur see Gegnalbach. Both these boats, like U-131, were on their first cruise having left Kiel about the same time in October. They had joined a “pack” attacking a convoy in the North Atlantic near Halifax, but after being beaten off bad headed southwards on a vain search for prey off Spain. They received U-131's wireless reports on the 16th and steamed at full speed to contact the convoy.
At headquarters in Lorient, Doenitz and his staff moved three tiny flags on their operations map, plotted the probable position, course and speed of the convoy and sent signals to four more U-boats well to the north to make all possible speed to intercept. All day during the 16th a Focke-Wulf had been re-enforcing U-131’s reports with its own, and Doenitz had every reason to believe it possible to deliver a mutilating blow. The “pack” was gathering for the kill. Convoy H.G. 76 was fully aware it had been sighted. At dusk on the 16th, Stanley reported sighting two aircraft at visibility distance. No one else was able to spot them, and Walker wrote in his War Diary: “This report was pooh poohed by Audacity, but Stanley stuck stoutly to his convictions. I have assumed the enemy has now passed our full particulars to every U-boat not wearing a deaf-aid.” This was confirmed at midnight by the Admiralty.
When shadowing a convoy, U-boats usually stayed on the surface at visibility distance from the convoy, submerging only when there was a danger of being seen either by aircraft or an inquisitive escort. As they were low in the water, they could keep watch on the convoy’s mastheads while relying on their own tiny silhouette to keep them well hidden from the escort look-outs. To counter this, Walker closed Audacity and requested that an aircraft be flown off at dawn to search for about twenty miles around the convoy. He vaguely hoped that in the grey, half-light of a winter morning a surfaced U-boat might be caught unawares before it could submerge. He was lucky. Shortly after 9 a.m., when her fuel was running low, Audacity’s aircraft reported: “U-BOAT ON SURFACE TWENTY-TWO MILES ON CONVOY’S PORT BEAM.” Ordering the destroyers Exmoor, Blankney and Stanley, and the corvette Penstemon, which was nearest to the aircraft’s position, to join him, Walker turned Stork and set off at full speed. As the five ships raced away, the remainder of the escort closed the gaps by drawing nearer to the convoy. A lamp blinked “Good Hunting” from the Commodore’s ship leading the centre column of the convoy, and, after a cheerful “Thank you”. Walker concentrated on meeting the enemy for the first time.Blankney reached the position first and found a number of asdic echoes. two of which she classified as coming from a submarine, and proceeded to attack with depth charges. When the rest arrived, Walker was unable to find anything remotely resembling a U-boat echo and, calming the exuberant Blankney, he formed the ships into line abreast for a sweep westwards, assuming that the submarine would continue on the convoy’s course. The slower Penstemon, plugging along in the rear, then picked up an echo. She reported the contact and Walker sent Stanley to assist her. He gave both ships instructions to rejoin him as soon as they lost contact—an order that was to prolong the battle for several hours. Penslemon attacked with a pattern of ten depth charges and, after the boiling sea had simmered down, neither she nor Stanley were able to regain contact. In accordance with Walker’s orders they left the area to rejoin with Stork.
By the time they caught up with the search party, Walker had asked Audacity to assist by flying off an aircraft to replace the one that had landed after making the original sighting report. The hunt was developing into a full-scale offensive lunge, rarely employed by escort groups in these days. It was more usual to stay close to the convoy and wait for the U-boats to attack in the hope of keeping them at bay rather than set off in full chase, thereby leaving dangerous gaps in the screen. In fact, it was almost unheard of for an escort commander to take five of his ships on a hunt more than twenty miles from the convoy. Walker was by no means ignorant of his personal risk if a concerted attack were made on the convoy while lie was away. To justify this hunt, he would have to make a kill. The searching ships in line abreast and one mile apart were now well out on the port bow of the convoy with no sign of a contact. Walker decided to turn back and sweep eastwards across the front of the convoy. He had just sent the order when the ships on the extreme port side of the line signalled: “Object on horizon to starboard.” Having spent the night jogging along behind the convoy, Baumann decided to take his boat up ahead for the next day. By his reckoning, there should be enough of his fellow- submariners in the vicinity for the attack to start after dusk. Keeping the convoy at visibility distance, he increased to full speed and had reached the port beam when, in the dawning overcast sky, he heard the sound of aircraft. As U-131's alarm blared, a plane appeared from the cloud and swept low over her. Baumann and the conning tower crew leapt for the hatchway and tumbled down into the control room. A few seconds later they were diving rapidly. Despite faulty hydrophones, he altered course towards the convoy in the hope of avoiding any surface attack that might follow his discovery by the aircraft. Half an hour later, unable to hear the approach of Penstemon and Stanley, he was thrown to the deck by the blast of exploding depth charges. When the tumult had subsided, the crew of U-131 stunned by the closeness of the attack, investigated the damage. In a few minutes, with lights gone, batteries spreading deadly chloride gas, and an ominous leak near the stern, Baumann knew he would have to surface. To do so there would mean disaster. He needed to put at least fifteen miles between himself and his attackers before he could surface and escape at high speed. He took the U-boat down to six hundred feet, ordered full submerged speed of five knots and sat down to wonder which would be the first to force them up—the gas, the running-down batteries or the leak astern.He was, perhaps, fortunate to be granted two hours before he had to surface. When the hatch was opened and he rushed out to the conning tower, there was nothing immediately in sight. A few minutes later a look-out shouted: “Ships astern, Kapitan.” Baumann turned and saw five ships heading to wards him no more than seven miles away. He called clown to the engineer. “I want every bit of speed you can get. We are being chased by warships.” A few minutes after Stanley’s report, the “object” was identified as a U-boat and Walker flashed along the line “Open fire independently when in range.” Directors swung the gun turrets round on to the target, range-takers called out ranges and the leading ships, Stork, Exmoor and Blankney, prepared for the first barrage. ‘Walker ordered the Martlet fighter from Audacity to attack in the hope that her machine guns might help to slow down the fast-moving enemy.
It was the chance young Sub-Lieutenant George Fletcher, R.N.V.R., had been hoping would come his way ever since he had qualified as a Fleet Air Arm pilot and been sent to a convoy training base for duties in the Atlantic. He banked his plane, screamed over the convoy and spotted the U-boat, tiny target on the heaving sea, right ahead. He put the Martlet into a dive. The conning tower came into his sights and he could dimly see figures clustered round a gun. Then the tracers floated up at him and it was time to press a thumb down hard on the firing button. The fighter jerked as its guns flamed. Suddenly, the perspex windscreen shattered and smoke filled the cockpit. Below, the watchers in the five racing ships, with the corvette, Penstemon, plodding gamely in the rear, saw the fighter begin its dive, heard the urgent clatter of gunfire and were shocked to see smoke gushing from the cockpit. Silently, and dazed by the speed of events, they followed the plane down until it crashed in a cloud of spray almost alongside the U-boat. With the range only slightly less than seven miles, Stork, Blankney and Exmoor commenced firing. Soon, Stanley’ joined in the barrage, Penstemon still being too far astern for her single gun mounting forward to have any effect. The barrage lasted for nearly twenty minutes, with shells plastering the area around U-131 until Stork’s masthead look-out reported: “Enemy abandoning ship, Sir. Looks as though she’s been hit badly.”
The “cease fire” was hoisted and, as the smoke cleared and the range closed rapidly, they could see figures leaping from the conning tower into the sea. Before they could reach the scene, however, U-131 pointed her nose to the sky and slid stern first below the waves. Damaged first by depth charges and then holed eight times by the striking force guns, she was of no further use to Doenitz. Exmoor and Blankney picked up her crew, all screaming and wailing in the water and looking not in the least like supermen. Walker was pleased, even though he looked grim when his whaler recovered Fletcher’s bullet-ridden body kept afloat by the sodden life-jacket. He sent a signal to the Admiralty and the Commander-in- Chief, Western Approaches, then formed up his ships and returned to the convoy by 5.30 p.m., eight hours after the hunt had started. There would be few who could now criticise his lunge from the screen. There might, perhaps, be more opportunities to use the same offensive tactics, for a quick interrogation of prisoners had disclosed the presence of other U-boats at the convoy. That same night the congratulations arrived. One came from Sir Percy Noble which said with customary brevity “Well Done.” The first round in the battle to get H.G. 76 through the U-boat cordon had gone to Walker. His novel tactics introduced into the Atlantic for the first time had not only succeeded, but had wiped away any doubts that any of his Group’s captains might have had of a leader who, in the words of one officer left behind with the convoy during the hunt, was “haring about the ocean at the expense of the convoy”. At daylight on the 18th, Walker read a short service over the flag-covered body of Sub-Lieutenant Fletcher and, as it was consigned to the sea, all escorts and ships of the convoy dipped their ensigns in salute. Audacity flew off her dawn patrol and the Commodore signalled to Walker. "Never mind the gathering storm. With the score at one for nil, the convoy is confident it is in good hands.”
CHAPTER 5 - U BOAT KILLER
KAPITANLEUTNANT HEYDA was worried about U-131. There had been no report from her throughout the day of the 17th and none all night. Having made contact with the convoy in U-434 shortly after midnight he had decided that, in the absence of “homing” reports from his colleague, he had better take over as shadower. He was on the surface about ten miles from the convoy at dawn on the 18th checking the positions of the nearest escorts before diving to give the crew a chance to clean up the boat and have breakfast in peace. Carrying out a similar check on the port beam of the convoy, Stanley sighted him from a range of about six miles, on her port quarter. She broke R/T silence to report to Walker and turned away at high speed to attack. Exmoor, Blankley and the sloop, Deptford, all of whom were stationed within reasonable distance of the enemy were ordered to join her, Walker’s principal concern being for Stanley’s asdic which had been breaking down. She closed the enemy at twenty-four knots, hoping to get near enough to drop depth charges with a reasonable chance of success. But she was soon sighted by U-434, which crash dived in seconds with Stanley still some three miles away. At a mile from the diving position, she saw oil bubbles blow to the surface and, reducing speed, began dropping single depth charges in a square around the area. Blankney arrived and, picking up an asdic echo, dropped a quick pattern of five depth charges set to explode at 150 feet. When the disturbance had died away, she regained contact and acted as directing ship, passing the range and bearing to the asdic-less Stanley who went in to drop a pattern of fourteen charges set to 150 and 300 feet. While the spray was still falling, the irrepressible Blankney, always willing to attack anything and everything, raced in and dropped a ten-charge pattern in the same place. Below the two ships, U-434 was reeling under the shock. The charges, tumbling down, were causing damage faster than it could be repaired. The conning tower hatch cover cracked and a steady stream of water poured down at Heyda’s feet as he stood gripping the periscope column for support. The lights went out and the auxiliary system failed. Another rocking blast put the steering gear out of action. The finale came when the next pattern—Blankney’s for luck, detonated so close that the blast pressure of the water exploded one of their own torpedoes in the stern tubes. Panicking men shouted for’ard; the wounded in the stern screamed. Heyda glanced quickly at the depth gauge. It showed them sinking rapidly and out of control. White-faced, but calm, he ordered tanks to be blown and called the crew to prepare for surfacing. Stanley and Blankney were preparing for another attack when U- 434 came to the surface less than a mile ahead with such a rush that she nearly leapt out of the water. Joyously, Blankney turned to ram at full speed but was too late. Shouting and wailing like their comrades in U-131 this crew jumped into the water. The last came up through to the conning tower as U- 434 rolled over and sank. The two destroyers, with the recently arrived Exmoor, picked up survivors and rejoined the convoy, and Walker was able to signal that a second U-boat had been sunk. During the morning two Focke-Wulfs appeared low on the horizon and Audacity flew off two of her Martlets to engage them before they had a chance to send out too many details on their radios. When they came out of cloud ahead of the enemy, the guns of both aircraft unfortunately jammed after the initial bursts and the two enemy bombers scuttled off, one damaged slightly. After this Walker arranged with Audacity’s captain that aircraft should be flown off for routine patrols round the convoys at dusk and dawn each day. Any U-boats answering the summons of the Focke-Wulfs would receive a warm welcome by H.G. 76 from the air and the sea. Early in the afternoon, Exmoor and Blankney, who were based at Gibraltar and had barely enough fuel to make, the return trip, parted company reluctantly. Before they left, Blankney signalled to Walker: “Regret very much having to leave you when the spoils of war are still waiting to be plucked. Good luck, am proud to have sailed under your orders.”
While on passage to Gibraltar, Blankney heard disquieting news from her forty-five prisoners. She signalled Stork immediately with a warning: “Have learned from prisoners that position, course and speed of convoy are known to enemy together with name of aircraft-carrier.” In the late afternoon, Audacity flew off her dusk patrol too early and nothing was sighted. But as darkness approached, Penstemon, on the convoy’s port beam, broke R/T silence to report sighting a U-boat on the surface about ten miles to port, Walker ordered her to attack and told off another corvette, Convolvulus, to join her. They gave chase and the U-boat dived. As nightfall would cloak the convoy too soon for Walker to direct the chase, he ordered the two ships to remain hunting only so long as there seemed a chance of sinking the U-boat. While Convolvulus was taking down his orders, the men on the bridge went rigid as her asdic loudspeaker picked up the approach of torpedo propellers. “Hard a’ starboard,” shouted her captain. “Full ahead.” Painfully and slowly the bows of the little ship began to swing as the noise from the loudspeaker sounded like the rushing of express trains. Suddenly a look-out shouted: “Torpedoes to port, Sir.” The captain rushed to the side of the bridge in time to see the wakes of two torpedoes about twenty feet away. It had been a very near miss. After dark, the two ships lost contact with the submarine and rejoined the convoy. For the next few hours peace came to H.G. 76. On the starboard quarter, two miles from the end merchant ship I the starboard column, Walker zig-zagged in Stork. The next ship to his left was Stanley, covering the rear of the convoy a patrol two miles dead astern. The weather was fine, only slightly overcast and with a pale on shining bleakly through occasional breaks in the cloud. The sea was behaving much the same as it had throughout the voyage; short and choppy, with a swell big enough to roll a small ship round without being too uncomfortable. The wind was light and bitterly cold.
At 3.45 in the morning of the 19th Stanley reported by R/T, “Submarine in sight”. in his excitement the reporting officer forgot to say where or on what bearing from the convoy. U-574 bad been the third U-boat to contact H.G. 76 late on the 16th. Since then she bad been staying close but doing nothing to give herself away. Her commander, Oberleutnant Gegnalbach, had watched the sinking of U-131 through his periscope and, slightly sickened, bad slunk away to the stern of the convoy. He stayed there throughout the 18th while U-434 was being chased and destroyed, and eventually decided to make his attack that night. He surfaced and, increasing speed to catch up with the rear ships, got to within three miles when the moon came out for longer than usual to bathe the scene in a pale glow. He saw an escort on his port bow and, at the same time, Stanley made her report. While Stanley turned to attack, Gegnalbach gave a curt order. “Stand by torpedoes.” “Attacking.” ‘‘FIRE.’ Walker raged on the bridge of Stork. He had almost lived there throughout the trip, retiring to his cabin only to shave and collapse wearily and fully-dressed for an hour or two on his bunk during the day. Even then he could not relax. As senior officer of the escort every signal affecting the convoy or any ship in the escort was sent to Stork and had to be dealt with during these precious moments. He could not see Stanley in the dark, they were about six miles apart, and she had given him no idea of what directions he should steer to support her attack. Grabbing the R/T phone he shouted her code name and ordered: “Fire an illuminant to indicate your position.” If a shadower had contact with the convoy there was nothing much to give away. He had just replaced the telephone when Stanley came on the air with another report: “Torpedoes passing from astern.” As this was being given to Walker, one of his look-outs sighted Stanley who blinked her recognition signal with a shaded Aldis lamp. “At the moment,” wrote Walker in his Diary later, “when everything seemed to be sorting itself out at once and I had my glasses on her, she went up, literally, in a sheet of flame hundreds of feet high. She thought the torpedoes were passing her.”
It was a few minutes after a.m. when Stanley was torpedoed, and Walker for the first time ordered his “Operation Butter cup” to deal with this night attack. Escorts turned outwards from the convoy firing starshell over the areas ordered by the “Buttercup” instructions in an effort to illuminate the probable directions of the U-boat’s escape on the surface. Walker took Stork close to the burning, sinking Stanley and dropped depth charges in case the attacker had submerged and was trying to escape detection by hiding from asdics in the disturbance caused by the wreck. He took care not to go closer than half a mile to avoid injuring any of Stanley’s survivors. While turning round the stern of Stanley, Walker gained contact with what his asdic team called a “certain” submarine. He went in to attack, dropping a pattern of ten charges set to 50 and 150 feet. Then he ran out for half a mile to turn again in readiness for another attack. The second run-in had just started when the U-boat surfaced two hundred yards ahead. Stork increased to full speed and steered a collision course. The ensuing chase, which lasted for eleven minutes, is told in Walker’s Battle Report. “As I went in to ram he ran away from me and turned to port. I followed and I was surprised to find later that I had turned three complete circles, the U-boat turning continuously to port just inside Stork’s turning-circle at only two or three knots slower than me. I kept her illuminated with snowflakes and fired at him with the four-inch guns until they could not be sufficiently depressed. After this the guns’ crews were reduced to fist shaking and roaring curses at an enemy who several times seemed to be a matter of feet away rather than yards. “A burst of our machine-gun fire was let off when these could bear, but the prettiest shooting was made by my First Lieutenant, Lieut. G. T. S. Gray, DSC, RN, with a stripped Lewis gun from over the top of the bridge screen. He quickly reduced the conning tower to a mortuary. No men were seen to leave the U-boat although they must have jumped some time judging from the position in which we found the survivors later.” Eventually, Stork managed to ram her quarry just before the conning tower. U hung for a second on Stork’s stem before rolling off and scraping underneath her until reaching the stern where she was greeted by a pattern of depth charges set at shallowest settings. These blew her to pieces and even rocked Stork dangerously. Several Germans in the water were blown to bits by the depth charges, and Walker did not expect any survivors when he steamed over to where some English-sounding shouts in the water indicated •they might be some of the men from the stricken Stanley. They were Germans, and with Samphire helping, Stork picked them up. From the prisoners, he learned that his latest kill had been U-574. With five prisoners aboard, Walker proceeded to search for Stanley’s survivors with extra look-outs and the asdic team watching for signs of other U-boats. There was little hope of anyone surviving the fire that had followed the torpedo explosion in Stanley, but cries from the water soon disclosed that twenty-five of them were swimming in a group. Stork’s boats pulled away and brought them aboard. One died later.
In the middle of this operation there was a dull explosion and a flash from the direction of the convoy. It was the SS Ruckinge, which managed to send out her name on the radio before the crew abandoned ship. Walker ordered Samphire to stay until she had picked up all survivors, and took Stork back to the convoy at full speed. On the way, he stopped to rescue from a lifeboat the master, chief engineer and twelve others of the Ruckinge. By this time it was clear that more than one U-boat had attacked the convoy, but it was now nearly 5.30 a.m. and they could expect some respite. On board Stork at this stage were three Stanley survivors, fourteen from Ruckinge, seven from U-131 and six from U-574. Walker reported the night’s events to C-in-C, Western Approaches and to the Admiralty. To crown a night of flame and smoke, a signal marked “urgent” from the Admiralty reached them as dawn was breaking on the 19th, saying that six U-boats appeared to be in the convoy’s vicinity! The Group felt the loss of Stanley deeply and there was a sense of sadness that one of the convoy had been sunk despite their efforts. But, in return, they had inflicted a hammer blow on the enemy. In three days, he had lost three ocean-going submarines and their crews. No escort before them could claim such toll for so small a loss. Fortunately, the day proved quiet with only sparring skirmishes. Walker, with Stork’s bows crushed in and bent sideways by the force of her collision with U- had no wish to drive her too hard. He had also lost the use of his asdic set and was virtually powerless to attack anything submerged. In the afternoon, a Focke-Wulf appeared to starboard with the obvious intention of establishing their position, course and speed for a night U-boat attack. Walker ordered Audacity’s aircraft up. “The resulting battle was pretty to watch,” says his War Diary. “The two Martlets climbed at the enemy alternately as he attempted to escape first in the clouds and then low over the sea. They presently returned, leaving a very dead Focke-WuIf.” The carrier’s dusk patrol sighted a U-boat on the surface fifteen miles away on the port beam, and immediately Walker ordered Deptford, Marigold and Convolvulus to hunt him at utmost speed, while he fumed at Stork’s own inability to join in the search because of her “bent beak and my own stupidity in getting the dome’ knocked off”. ( The asdic dome sticks out from the bottom of a ship like a small blister. It sends out the “pings” which echo back when hitting an underwater obstacle). But the force returned after dark, having found nothing, only to be mistaken by some of the merchant ships for U-boats. The ensuing bout of pyrotechnics as they fired their snowflakes to illuminate the “enemy” did not, however, disturb the remainder of the night. The U-boats were around, but for some reason failed to press home the attack. Perhaps they had learned of the fate served out to their three colleagues. The 20th passed uneventfully except for occasional darts outwards by Audacity’s aircraft to attack U-boats reported shadowing the convoy, and by noon on the 20th Walker had made up his mind that, no matter what evasive alterations of course it took, the convoy was still going to be shadowed. Therefore he might as well take the shortest route home. In his War Diary, he wrote with obvious weariness: “The net of U-boats seems to be growing tighter around us despite Audacity’s heroic efforts to keep them at arm’s length.”
That night, when the moon had gone behind a thick layer of overcast, he turned the convoy on to a course heading straight for the Western Approaches while he continued with a small escort force on a northwesterly course, the convoy’s general direction for the past few days. Once well away from the convoy, he staged a mock battle with the ships firing their starshell and snowflakes and dashing around as though in search of U-boats. Walker hoped that any U-boats shadowing them would be persuaded by the fuss that they had somehow lost the convoy and would come hurrying over to rejoin. In this way, he would draw them off H.G. 76 and bring them to his doorstep where Ins “feudin’ and fussin’ “ force of decoys could get them on the surface. Unfortunately, some merchantmen, seeing all this happen on the horizon, thought they were being attacked and immediately started firing their own snowflakes to warn their escort of an enemy attack and to see if a stray U-boat had penetrated into the convoy lanes. With the true position of the convoy now revealed, starkly, while the snowflake burned, and his ace-in-the-hole tipped off to the enemy, Walker took his force back to resume escort positions. Stork had no sooner taken up her own station astern of the convoy when the balloon went up again. Still on his bridge for the fourth day and night, Walker turned at a shout from his Officer of the Watch to see a ship disintegrate in flames on his starboard bow. Immediately, he called up the Group on R/T and ordered a “BUTTERCUP” illuminations search to starboard of the convoy. This was a blunder, which he later admitted. The torpedoed ship, was in fact, the last in the line of the centre column and the search should have been ordered astern of the convoy. A few minutes later, about it p.m., the carrier Audacity which had done such noble work with her aircraft flying in impossible weather, reported herself torpedoed. Walker’s Battle Report says: “For the last three nights, Audacity with one corvette had zig-zagged independently well clear of the convoy. Before dark to-night she had asked for a corvette and proposed to operate on the starboard side of the convoy. I had regretfully refused the corvette since I had only four escorts immediately around the convoy. I also suggested she should take station to port of the convoy since I anticipated any attack from the starboard side. Audacity replied that the convoy’s alterations of course to port would inconvenience her and eventually she went off to starboard alone. “I should have finally ordered her either on to the port side or into the middle of the convoy and I feel myself accordingly responsible for her loss.”
Marigold, Convolvulus and Samphire were sent off to starboard where the carrier listed badly ten miles away. Of the survivors, one was in immaculate uniform, sitting in a Carley raft with a suitcase full of personal belongings. He was a young lieutenant, RNVR who, the moment Audacity had parted with the convoy that evening to starboard, had announced to the wardroom: “The senior officer of the escort is right, you know, chaps. We should have gone to port. And to back it up I’m going to pack my bags and put one in a raft all ready for the bright and jolly evacuation.” It had seemed quite a good joke a few hours before. Walker had been in an awkward and, in many respects, unfair position. Although senior officer of the escort, and as such able to call on Audacity for assistance in hunting down the enemy, the commanding officer of the carrier, Commander D. W. MacKendrick, RN, was his senior. Walker’s job was to protect the convoy and see it through as intact as possible. Audacity was there to help him do it. On that last night, he felt the convoy needed the greater measure of protection and refused to part with a corvette to screen what he considered to be Audacity’s recklessness in manoeuvring to starboard of the convoy, the danger side. But in terms of seniority he could not give orders to MacKendrick on anything, and he was reluctant to argue openly by signal the niceties of rank between the senior officer of an escort and the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier. It fell to Penstemon to sight Commander MacKendrick swimming among the oil and debris in a state of collapse. He was on their weather side and the ship was rolling heavily in mounting sea and swell. The ship’s boat was away picking up other survivors and, when he saw the danger of the drowning officer being cut to ribbons by the keel, Lieutenant Williams, RNVR, the First Lieutenant, stripped off his jacket and plunged overboard to try and tie a rope round the exhausted Commander. MacKendrick’s body, supported only by a life jacket, floated limply on the water. Williams managed to get a lifebuoy round him and signalled his crew to haul the officer on board. But while they were trying to pull him to the ship’s side, a particularly heavy roll jerked the rope out of their hands. Members of the crew had just enough time to grab the exhausted Williams before MacKendrick drifted away in the swell. That was the last seen of him. While the rescue work was going on, Deptford, on the convoy’s port beam, sighted a U-boat on the surface between herself and the convoy. Walker joined her, firing starshell, and Deptford ran in to attack. The enemy dived and, for the next hour, Deptford and Stork carried out a series of depth charge attacks until finally all contact was lost. In their opinion, the U-boat had sunk but, in the absence of any evidence, such as wreckage or survivors, Walker refused to confirm it as a “kill”. They made several more runs on what appeared to be a sub marine lying deep. Eventually, Walker called off the attack, classified it as a “probable kill” and stationed Deptford on the convoy’s port beam with Stork on the bow. This submarine was later admitted by the Germans to have been destroyed and was identified as another 740-tonner, U-567 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Endrass.’ (Endrass had been First Lieutenant of U-47 commanded by Gunter Prien, when she penetrated Scapa Flow earlier in the war).
By three in the morning of the 22nd, a lull in the fighting gave Walker a chance to assess the position. Once again, only one of the convoy had gone down, the Norwegian tanker, SS Annavore (3,000 tons), but the loss of Audacity with her aircraft was the most grievous blow. In retaliation they had beaten off most attacks and scored a “probable”. Walker ordered the corvettes picking up survivors to return to the screen and on the bridge murmured aloud a prayer that the U-boats would spend the rest of the night licking their wounds and regrouping. Fifteen minutes later, Stork’s crew were startled by an unusually heavy crash. Walker and the bridge personnel rushed to look aft and to their astonishment saw the bows of Deptford cutting into Stork’s quarter deck. A look-out in Deptford had seen what he thought was a U-boat close on the surface. The Officer of the Watch had altered course and crammed on full speed, at the same time calling his captain who was down in the chartroom estimating the convoy’s position. When it was too late, the “U-boat” was seen to be Stork. Damage was serious if not vital. Describing the scene in his War Diary, Walker wrote: “Deptford’s stern had walked straight into the temporary prison and two of the five Boche captives there were pulped literally into a bloody mess. When I went aft in the dark later to inspect the damage I walked straight into the hole and found myself with my feet among the Boche corpses and my elbows on the quarter deck.” When he had been helped back on deck, he turned to a group of sailors and muttered quietly: “Well, well, well. Never a dull moment.” Then he returned to the bridge. There were no further attacks that night, but at dawn on the 22nd, the balance sheet showed a gloomy picture, as far as the escort was concerned. Stork’s asdic equipment was useless; her depth charges had to be moved to the bows to lighten the stern damaged by Deptford; and her speed had been reduced to ten knots; Deptford herself had a damaged stem, her asdic was out of action and her maximum speed was eleven knots; most of the Group’s radar sets had packed up; Audacity and her aircraft had followed Stanley to the bottom. During the day, a Liberator arrived to patrol round the convoy for nearly three hours. At this time, a Focke-Wulf paid them a brief visit but soon vanished in the clouds. At 4 pm, as darkness was falling, the Liberator reported two U-boats on the surface twenty-five miles astern of the convoy. They were lying alongside each other, when the aircraft broke cloud, and a wide plank bridged the gap between them. Men were crossing from one to another and it seemed likely they were repairing some sort of damage. The aircraft dived and shot three men off the plank before the U-boats drew apart. It was learned later that one of them had been holed previously either by depth charges or gunfire during the convoy battle and had been trying to effect repairs that prevented her from diving. When the aircraft appeared, the crew of the damaged U-boat transferred to the other leaving behind scuttling charges. When the latter left the scene at high speed on the surface and the other one sank as the scuttling charges went off the aircraft thought she had submerged.
The U-boat had quite certainly been damaged by the escort and finished
off unwittingly by the aircraft. The score could now read four and a half
U-boats destroyed by the Group, as they shared honours with the Liberator
for this last kill. At midnight, the SS Ogmore Castle shuddered under a
particular heavy sea. Officers and crew were suddenly convinced that they
had rammed a U-boat, and were holed themselves. They rushed to the boats
and abandoned ship. Convolvulus investigated, found the deserted ship to
be floating quite serenely and informed the crew in the lifeboats that
they could re-board their ship. By dawn, the Ogmore Castle had resumed her
station in the convoy, manned by a sheepish crew. The night passed without
further incident, the quietest for seven days, and, at noon on the 23rd,
the convoy was led into the Western Approaches “safe” area by an exhausted
but happy Group. The Commodore signalled Walker: “Despite the loss of
Audacity and Stanley, you have won a great victory. On behalf of the
convoy deepest congratulations and many thanks.” Walker acknowledged
and set off for Plymouth to have Stork’s damaged “beak” repaired. The
convoy that had to get through had started off from Gibraltar with
thirty-two ships and now arrived in the United Kingdom thirteen days later
with two fewer. Before docking in Plymouth, Walker received a message from
Sir Percy Noble saying: “You are required to attend a meeting with
myself and the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare at the Admiralty at 1500
on Tuesday, January 6th.”
CHAPTER 6 - SPLICE THE MAINBRACE!
Ashore in Plymouth, Walker telephoned his wife and arranged to meet her in London. He held a series of conferences with his First Lieutenant and the Dockyard Superintendent to facilitate the effective and speedy repair of Stork; sent his Report of Proceedings of the last voyage to the Admiralty; and eventually vanished from Plymouth for a week’s rest. In the days that followed, the Admiralty issued a statement announcing the award of the DSO but to Walker the Press publicity was not only unexpected, but unwanted. He cringed from the thought of his name being published in anything more widely read than the Navy List. When a staff officer phoned to say the naval reporters wished to interview him, he instructed that his whereabouts be kept secret. For the remainder of his leave he was nervous if the telephone rang or anyone other than a tradesman called at his house. According to his elder sister, now Mrs. Georgina Forbes, he had once appeared as a child ballet dancer before a huge audience at the Albert Hall which had led to a fit of uncontrollable sobbing and a hatred of ever again making a spectacle of himself. It may be that his passionate dislike of publicity stemmed from this experience. Now, as an active service commander, although still sub consciously frightened of making a spectacle of himself, he resented any invasion of his privacy and was forever indignant at any individual should be singled out for public acclaim when the work had been done by a team. At 3 p.m. on January 6th, he entered the office of the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare at the Admiralty to find Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Captain George Creasy and other senior officers already in conference and waiting for him. Despite his commanding height and lean, tanned appearance, he shrank from talking too freely in front of superiors and subsided into his chair in the hope that his presence might be forgotten. But he had been invited specially to give the conference a chance to discuss the strategic and tactical policy of the U-boat war in the light of his experience with HG 76. He answered questions briefly, saying much in few words. His impact on the Atlantic battle had been sudden and successful and, through the reports of Sir Percy Noble and Captain Creasy, more swiftly recognised by the Admiralty than was usual in that citadel of conservatism. When question time was over, he was asked to make recommendations for future operations. This was unexpected, but he gave his reply without pulling punches.
“(1) Aircraft are absolutely invaluable for anti-submarine work. There should be shore-based patrol planes for hunting down U-boats and carrier-borne fighters for destroying the Focke-Wulf bombers on ‘homing’ patrols. Audacity, her staff and pilots, put up a matchless performance.
(2) Every effort should be made to
provide convoys with two protective screens—an outer and an inner. By day
the outer screen sights U-boats on the surface farther away from the
convoy and can attack in offensive striking forces well clear of the
merchantmen. By night, U-boats are forced to attack from between the
screens or at least to penetrate both.
(4) The 36th Escort Group ‘OPERATION BUTTERCUP’ is a sound plan despite my putting it into operation on the wrong side on one occasion. But snowflake illuminant rockets are a menace in the convoy. I am well aware that merchant ships are fitted with tins to ‘turn night into day’. But I feel strongly that there should be no guarantee that snowflakes will not be fired at exactly the wrong moment. Neither can we legislate for the regrettable tendency of some ships in an emergency, real or imaginary, to fire everything, drop everything and abandon ship.”
It was his third point that brought immediate opposition. His remarks on air co-operation were to be passed to Coastal Command; the question of ships for outer and inner screen, although desirable for the future, was dismissed as impracticable at the present moment due to lack of available ships; and his comment on snowflakes in merchant ships was brushed aside as being based on an isolated and unfortunate experience. The question of whether escorts should be used as striking forces for forays against the enemy well away from the convoy aroused instant opposition. Privately, Walker determined to go his own way and rely on success to keep him out of trouble. By the time he left the room he had no doubts that he would be a watched man. When his leave was up, he returned to Plymouth while Eileen stayed on in London. With her husband and two sons in uniform—Timmy was serving in a destroyer and Nicholas a sub-lieutenant in Ajax—she had decided to take a war job herself and was about to start in the Naval Section of Censorship. Walker found in Plymouth that Stork would not be ready until March, but on January 10th he was ordered to take temporary command of a sloop, Pelican, and lead his Group to sea for another trip to Gibraltar. Before sailing he called onboard Stork and found waiting for him the official signals concerning his decoration. To his officers, who would stay with Stork while she was being repaired and Walker went to sea in Pelican, he seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the honour which had come his way so unexpectedly; and to their affectionate amusement was obviously very shy about the whole thing. The Group, consisting of Samphire, Rhododendron, Penstemon, F Marigold and Gardenia, met Pelican off the Irish coast and rendezvoused with the convoy, CG 78, in the approaches, northwest of Ireland. Deptford and Convolvulus remained behind in Liverpool for minor repairs. For the next three days they battled southwards against a fierce southerly gale, sheets of rain blotting out the horizon, wind shrieking through the rigging and angry seas buffeting their bows. Penstemon reported all her lifeboats smashed and as of the Group had suffered damage to vital equipment. By the 16th the convoy had been scattered and only thirteen of the original twenty-six ships were in sight. Three more sleepless nights were spent in rounding up the lost ones and, at dawn on the 19th, it looked as though most of the flock had been returned to the fold. But a rapid count showed eight still missing and the Group steamed off again into the boiling seas for another search. Eventually, on the 21st, the weather abated and the risk of attack returned with calmer days. The Group took up their screen with four ships still unaccounted. No attack developed and, on the 24th, the convoy was delivered to Gibraltar intact except for the errant quartet who luckily survived all hazards and reached the Rock next day.
Three days later, they sailed again with a homeward-bound convoy, a trip remembered by the Group only for the exercises Walker ordered to increase “team” efficiency. At any time of day he might order a variety of dummy attacks; at night he would instruct all ships to carry out depth-charge drill and it was not considered safe for a commander to report progress until he could say his charges were ready within thirty seconds. By the time they reached the Western Approaches, most of the ships’ companies were praying earnestly for a U-boat “pack” to arrive and spare them all these fake alarms and scares. On landing at Liverpool, Walker learned that Stork was to be ready for sea ahead of schedule and, after turning over Pelican to a new commanding officer, he entrained for Plymouth to take his own ship to sea again. The next day, slim dapper young Sub-Lieutenant John Filleul, RN, arrived in Plymouth to join Stork. After nine years in Canada, he had followed his father into the Navy; but for a number of reasons, probably caused by recent Canadian influence on his outlook, he had felt rather a misfit in his last ship, a cruiser in which pomp was expected and frequent parades. As he boarded Stork he was filled with misgivings about the future. Perhaps this was another ship in which all he did would bring down the wrath of both captain and first lieutenant. He was standing on the quarter deck idly watching an officer cross the gangway and vanish below when a voice shouted: “Who was that who just came aboard, Sub ?“ Filleul turned to face the First Lieutenant and muttered that he did not know. Secretly he wondered how he, a newcomer, could reasonably be expected to know. Later, a tall, athletic looking commander came aboard, glanced at Filleul and said, “Come down to my cabin, Sub.” Filleul groaned inwardly. What had he done wrong already? From experience he knew that interviews with commanders could be unpleasant milestones in a young officer’s life. Instead, the senior officer introduced himself as Commander Walker and invited him to have a gin.From that moment, the young Sub-Lieutenant viewed senior officers in a different light; his bias against the Service fell away and, like all other officers who served under Walker in the years ahead, it was the beginning of a discipleship, almost a dedication, to a captain he admired and respected above all others. Walker spent the next trip working up his own ship’s company after their long spell in harbour and resumed exercising the Group, often to the amusement of the convoy Commodore who interrupted intricate manoeuvres with a stream of rude signals. Walker retaliated by “requesting” the Commodore to exercise his convoy in a variety of evasive turns, so that “I can keep my escort up to scratch and assist in the working out of new escort stations”. It was a flimsy enough excuse but served to give the by now thoroughly irate Commodore some anxious moments as the lumbering merchantmen either failed to see his altering course signals or merely decided to ignore them. This flock also arrived at the Rock without incident and, almost immediately, the Group about-turned to bring HG 80 home to England, a convoy the enemy refused to attack.
While lying in Gladstone Dock waiting to be ammunitioned and stored for the next voyage, Stork was inspected by Admiral Sir Percy Noble. Walker laid on a special display of action drills and afterwards the ship’s company were mustered on the quarter deck to be addressed by their Commander-in- Chief. “I am very much impressed,” said Sir Percy, “with the efficiency of this ship. We can win this battle against the U boats only by constant drilling and training—and you are all well-drilled and well-trained. You have been successful in your actions against the enemy and it would take a blind man to fail to see your keenness and eagerness to come to grips with him again. I am proud of you all.”
Later, in the privacy of his office, Sir Percy told his Chief of Staff: “That crowd in Stork are an amazingly efficient team. They can run and fight their ship blindfold. And everyone of them adores Walker. I could see they would follow him without question anywhere he chose to lead. If we can get all our ships trained and keyed up to that pitch we will make the U-boat crews wish they had never been born.” When the 36th Group sailed again from Liverpool on April 12th, Walker was becoming a little concerned about his ships. So many trips with only drills and exercises to relieve the strain and tension of guarding against attacks which never materialised, made him suspect that his commanding officers were getting stale. He hoped sincerely that the enemy would soon make some sort of an appearance. As if the enemy were reading his mind, he received on the 14th a warning from the Admiralty that a U-boat was in the vicinity of his convoy, HG 82, probably about thirty miles away. That evening Walker had taken Stork to the stern of the convoy, the most dangerous position, as U-boats were known to be fond of night attacks from the stern, and Vetch was in station about two miles ahead of the convoy’s port column. At 9.30 Vetch’s radar operator reported an object about four miles on the port quarter; this would put it about three miles on the port bow of the column’s leading ship. Vetch turned hurriedly to investigate and approached what at first sight appeared to be a corvette end-on, which she took to be her sister ship, Penstemon. Her commanding officer, however, had thoroughly absorbed the teachings, drills and exercises of his Group leader, and. leaving nothing to chance, fired a round of starshell to make sure. In the pale glare of the shell, they saw a U-boat, U-252 less than a mile away, and heading fast into the convoy. At once, they saw it wheel round; then the bridge watch heard the unmistakable sounds of torpedoes approaching on the asdic loudspeaker. Fetch took drastic evasive action while breaking R/T silence to tell Walker: “Submarine one mile away from us.” The torpedoes missed Vetch by about twenty feet and she opened fire just as the U-boat decided to dive. Her next report to Walker—”Submarine has dived”—caused some agitation in Stork, for again it gave no position or indication that Vetch had left her station ahead of the port column. However, Walker saw Vetch’s machine-gun tracer bullets and, heading towards them at full speed, ordered the corvette to indicate her position by firing a snowflake rocket. As soon as this had been done and the area of the attack pinpointed to the port side of the convoy, he altered course to join Vetch and instructed the remainder of the Group to stay close to the convoy. By the time he arrived, the convoy had drawn ahead and Vetch was searching for asdic contact.
Shortly after midnight, both ships received signals from the First Sea Lord and C-in-C, Western Approaches, saying “Well Done”. Vetch’s signal set the pattern for celebrating all Walker’s future successes. From then on, it became customary for all ships under his command to “splice the mainbrace” after ever confirmed kill. Two days later they sighted a merchant ship’s Carley raft bobbing forlornly out to starboard. Walker took Stork close. and it seemed to be empty; certainly no one was getting excited about the approach of a warship. Suddenly, a look-out shouted: “There’s a dog still alive, Sir.” Sure enough, when they came alongside there was a small. grey-brown mongrel of obscure parentage huddled in a corner of the raft, too wet and weak to raise more than a whimper. A few minutes later he was aboard Stork being warmed. fed and cared for as no waif drifting about the Atlantic had ever been cared for before, indeed it is unlikely that a puppy has ever been found in such circumstances. In no time he was called “Buster” and, when capable of sounding off a few healthy yaps, trotted off to inspect the ship. He found it a “likely craft” and showed his democratic spirit by making a daily visit to both wardroom and mess decks. After several trips, the thunder of roaring depth charges left him as unmoved as the crack of the guns. He adopted an action station on the bridge, despite the almost vertical ladders he had to climb unaided. Normally, he would sit around waiting to be carried up or down, but the moment the alarm bells rang he took the ladders in his stride under his own steam. Nothing further interfered with the peaceful passage of the convoy which arrived at Gibraltar intact on the 24th. The sinking of U-252 had all the ingredients of a classic Walker attack. With a minimum of signalling, the Group was split into two units, the hunting team and the continuing escort with the convoy. During the action, the value of drill emerged as an essential to success. The depth-charge crews, the asdic team, the guns crews and signalmen played split-second and vital roles. A hitch anywhere and a determined, clever and slippery opponent might have escaped to sink more ships on another day. Throughout the attack the signalling of orders and reports between Vetch and Stork were kept down to a total of eight messages, embracing twenty-five words.
The final chapter in the U-boat’s life was told by Walker who, as usual, played down his own share. “Vetch acted with exemplary initiative and dash,” he wrote. “He saved the convoy from attack, and his bulldog tenacity in clinging on to the U-boat was mainly responsible for bringing her to a very fitting end. To him must be given the larger slice of credit. No doubt she received a blow from Stork just where the chicken got the axe, but it was Vetch’s final pattern which doubtless reduced all buoyant remains of U-boat and crew to the disgusting mess of junk, matchwood and butcher’s exhibits which were later found.” Among the awards was the first Bar to Johnnie Walker’s D.S.O. Two more voyages across the Bay of Biscay passed without more than irritating skirmishes with the enemy which kept the Group in a constant state of readiness. They returned to Gibraltar in May and, on June 9 sailed again to rendezvous with the HG 84 for the trip home. Wear, tear and enemy action had reduced the 36th Escort Group to Stork, Marigold, Convolvulus and Gardenia; Vetch stayed in Gibraltar for repairs. The Group’s career had been short, eventful and successful. Whenever the enemy had approached in number they had been counter-attacked until forced to retire while the Group sailed home with trophies and prisoners. In between they had their full share of patient, monotonous slogging waiting for an enemy who rarely appeared but might easily launch surprise attacks at the most unlikely times. This had taken its toll of the Group’s strength and they needed action to restore morale. The four ships of the decimated 36th Escort Group took over convoy HG 84 off Gibraltar on June 9th. It consisted of twenty merchantmen, with Commodore H. T. Hudson, RNR sailing in the SS Pelavo, leading ship of the centre column. In the port outer column was a CAM ship,’ Empire Morn, ( These were known as Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen.) while astern of the convoy was the SS Copeland, the rescue ship responsible for picking up survivors should any of the convoy be sunk. She was equipped with up-to-date medical instruments and her decks were laid out like a hospital ward. Survivors could look forward to every comfort in Copeland, providing she herself did not get torpedoed.
Walker stationed his escorts about the convoy in accordance with his usual practice, although four ships could hardly be called a screen. By day, he patrolled ahead of the convoy with Marigold on starboard beam, Gardenia to port and Convolvulus astern. At night he changed places with Convolvulus, taking Stork to the stern, the position from which a shadower might be intercepted. To the convoy, the sight of a lone sloop with three ponderous corvettes in attendance could not have presented too comforting a sight or provided an uplift for men about to cross the most dangerous strip of water in the entire Atlantic battlefield—the Bay of Biscay. At the convoy conference held on the Rock before sailing, the briefing officer had been subjected to some grim sarcasm when he told the Merchant Navy captains the size of their escort. Walker headed northwards to a rendezvous with three more ships due to join the convoy from Lisbon. These arrived on the 12th and the convoy settled down on a northerly course, certain now of attack, for the newcomers had been shadowed to the main convoy by a Focke-Wulf. Already their position, with probable course and speed, would be plotted on the charts of every U-boat within hearing distance of the aircraft’s signals. Walker nearly ordered the Empire Morn’s fighter up to shoot down the intruder, but this was a trick that could only be pulled once and he decided to save it for another and possibly more urgent occasion. In any event, the weather might not have been calm enough to ensure the safe recovery of the pilot. The sea was running fairly rough in a high wind and the swell was long enough to start several of the convoy swinging dangerously close to each other. During the 13th enemy aircraft were never far away, appearing at intervals in gaps between the low-lying, fast-moving cloud which provided excellent cover for their patrols. Next day, the Focke-Wulfs kept up their shadowing activities in relays until Walker decided that they might be more cautious and less eager if one or more could be destroyed. He ordered Empire Morn to fly off her Hurricane to shoot down the one Focke-Wulf in sight and to patrol until fuel ran out and the pilot was forced to ditch. The fighter was catapulted into the air shortly after noon and soared off to engage the enemy. Unfortunately, the pilot managed to get only two quick bursts at the shadower before he found a cloud and vanished into its cover. An hour later he pancaked neatly alongside a ship in the starboard column and was picked up as the plane broke in the sea.
At 4 p.m. the rescue ship, Copeland’, intercepted on HF/DF’ (An instrument for intercepting U.boat wireless signals) a U-boat signalling its first sighting report of the convoy from somewhere in the outfield on the port quarter of the convoy. Walker had to choose, to keep his slender screen intact round the convoy, or to dart out to attack the chattering U-boat. Most captains at that time would have taken the safer, and in many ways the sounder, course of staying with the convoy in the hope of beating off the “pack”, but Walker, restless and impatient to destroy the enemy before he could attack the convoy, signalled Gardenia to join Stork, and raced away to hunt down the homing U-boat. By taking this decision he virtually threw away the rule book and staked his career on the success of the offensive lunge and his belief that the convoy would be quite safe in the hands of Convolvulus and Marigold during his absence. The two ships steamed for nearly fifty minutes at 15 knots, Gardenia’s maximum speed, before a look-out in Stork’s crow’s nest shouted excitedly down the voice pipe to the bridge: “Submarine on the surface dead ahead, Sir.” They had been lucky to sight the target so quickly. While this information was being flashed to Gardenia, Walker ordered full speed and sent for his engineer officer. Only a brief glance at the conning tower dimly visible in the haze ten miles away was needed for him to rush back to the engine-room to begin coaxing the last revolution possible from the straining, willing engines. Almost at once they were sighted by the enemy who turned rapidly and began running away on the surface, evidently hoping she could out-distance her hunters. In fact, she was a knot or two slower than Stork whose crew, closed up at action stations, were already training their guns on the target. But they were still out of range. At seven miles they could hope to reach him; at six and a half they could probably score hits. Two hours later, Gardenia was dropping further and further astern and, in Stork, the range-finder crew were calling out the ranges as the gap narrowed with painful slowness. “Fourteen thousand five hundred, Sir.” (One nautical mile is equivalent to 2,000 yards) They were overhauling steadily. “Fourteen thousand, Sir.” A minute had passed, seeming like an hour. “Thirteen thousand six hundred, Sir.” The guns crews tensed for the order to open fire when suddenly the U-boat decided he could not outstrip the sloop and crash-dived. As it vanished in a faintly discernible swirl of bubbling water, Walker was presented with a nasty theoretical problem. It would take Stork nearly twenty minutes to reach the diving point and, in that time, the quarry could steam for about two miles at least in any direction. In seconds, Walker had to decide the direction he must steer to intercept and pick her up on the asdic. The U-boat had dived on a northwesterly course. Logically, she might be expected to continue on that course to keep pace with the convoy and resume her shadowing should her attackers give up the chase. After signalling Gardenia to follow suit, Walker altered course slightly to the south, decreased speed and ordered his asdic team to commence their sweep. He had gambled on the enemy doing exactly the opposite to what might be expected. If the gamble failed and the U-boat slipped past them, the convoy would be at his mercy, virtually un protected. There was another move. The U-boat Commander could torpedo his tormentor and rid himself of the fastest and most effective escort in the screen. In the minutes that followed, the tension throughout Stork increased visibly as guns crews, cheated of a target, moved to their platform rails with eyes searching for a periscope. On the bridge, Walker sat hunched in a wooden seat specially built for him behind the gyro compass. With a slight smile he murmured orders to the helmsman and kept one ear on reports from the asdic team. Suddenly, the hoped-for report rang out. “Echo bearing 340 degrees, Sir.”
Walker arrived at the convoy at midnight and confidently took up his station astern. A quick analysis of the situation showed that the prospects for the night could have been worse; one U-boat was being kept down forty-five miles away on the port quarter by Gardenia; another, now thirty miles away, had been severely shaken by Marigold; Convolvulus had sneaked in a quick lunge during Marigold’s absence and chased a U-boat out of sight on the starboard bow; and if Marigold could resume her station by i a.m. only Gardenia would be missing from the screen. Marigold was fifteen minutes late rejoining, and in that vital time gap an undetected “pack” pounced. The Commodore’s ship, Felavo, was the first to go up. She vanished in a cloud of smoke, flame and spray, the blast of the exploding torpedo blowing Commodore Hudson through the canvas awnings over his bridge into the night. He was never seen again. Well astern of the convoy, the flash and roar of the torpedo striking home had just been reported in Stork and alarm bells were ringing when another ship, the SS. Strib, was silhouetted starkly for a fraction of a second as two torpedoes struck her amidships. A third ship burst into flame on the other side of the convoy, the SS Slendal. All three sank in a few minutes. Walker ordered his illuminant operation, “Buttercup”, to be put into effect astern of the convoy, unhappily aware that only his ship and Marigold, now coming up from astern, could hope to carry it out. It was a fruitless search. In fact, the attacking U-boats had come in on the bows and were retreating on the surface ahead of the convoy, successfully dodging the twisting and turning Convolvulus. Walker ordered Marigold to stay astern and assist Copeland to search for and rescue survivors. This was an unfortunate move. The U-boats had not yet finished with convoy HG 84 for the night and were forming up for the second attack off the starboard beam, where Marigold would have been had she resumed her station. There was a preliminary skirmish at 4 a.m. when one of Stork’s look-outs sighted the wake of a U-boat just diving. Walker altered course towards it, increased to full speed and attacked with a pattern of ten charges. They exploded so accurately that he turned to his First Lieutenant on the bridge and announced with a triumphant grin: “I shall be exceedingly surprised if history does not show that chap to have been well and truly sunk.” He was right but, suppressing a strong desire to linger and collect evidence, raced back to catch up with the stern of the convoy and resume his position. At 4.30 a.m. the U-boats struck back. The SS Thurso, in the middle of the convoy, literally exploded into fragments and for a moment seemed to disintegrate into a white, blazing ball of fire. Darkness had time to close in tightly again before the SS City of Oxford shuddered to a standstill under the impact of an internal explosion caused when the torpedo pierced her hull and detonated inside a cargo hold. She sank while the ships following her were altering course round her heavily listing hulk. The chaos became complete when every ship in the convoy began firing snowflake illuminant rockets wildly and indiscriminately, lighting up every column until it became possible for an attacker to take his time about selecting a target. Walker was raging inwardly, and he almost danced in consternation when one of the ships astern opened fire with her machine-guns sending streams of tracers in a wide arc behind her, nearly hitting Stork’s bridge and moving round to spray the decks of her neighbouring ship in the next column. The latter, thinking he was under attack from the air, fired off everything he had at the nearest star. It was all a bit too much for the escort and, under Walker’s orders, they steamed at full speed round the convoy just outside the glare of the snowflakes in the hope of catching a U-boat stalking them on the surface.
When the convoy, now without a commodore until the vice-commodore could assume control, had decided to stop firing snowflakes, Walker ordered Convolvulus back to her station ahead and told off Marigold to continue assisting Cope/and in her search for fresh survivors. What was left of the night passed quietly. Walker felt deeply that he might have prevented the second attack if he had left Marigold to take up her normal position in the screen. “I know that rescue work was the proper duty for Copeland,” he wrote later, “but I am still uncertain if I was right or wrong in telling Marigold to help her. For because of this, Marigold was not in her position on the screen at 4.30 a.m. when the second attack came from the starboard beam where she would have been. She would almost certainly have picked up the attackers on her radar. On the other hand Cope would take a long time to pick up the survivors herself and would have fallen so far astern of the convoy that it is likely she would have been sunk.” Crouched in his seat on the bridge, muffled in scarves and sweaters, he sat silent while the Officer of the Watch handled the ship. Daylight came and it was 8 a.m. before he sat up, mumbled a few orders and went below to bathe, shave and eat a frugal breakfast. He re-appeared on the bridge, refreshed. Marigold was crammed with survivors and. if she were to become a fighting unit again, they would have to be transferred to Copeland and his own ship. He sent the necessary signals and the three ships dropped astern of the convoy while the tiny corvette transferred 172 survivors. Walker grinned as he called over the loudhailer asking Marigold how she had stayed afloat. He was told: “It would hardly appear seemly before our Merchant Navy friends for the rescue ship to be inhospitable, so we prayed.” Stork had taken aboard her share, and more were in the process of boarding Copeland, when Marigold sighted a conning tower six miles from her and ten miles from the convoy. Despite the indignant protests of the few survivors still waiting to be transferred, the corvette jumped through the water in pursuit of the enemy. The U-boat, sighting the corvette leaping over the choppy seas towards her, turned and ran off showing Marigold a fast-vanishing stern. The corvette about-turned, rejoined Copeland and sent across her last survivors. In the evening, Gardenia appeared on the horizon and her signal lamp blinked a cautious claim: “Consider I finished him off.” At dawn, Walker sent a signal to the Commander-in-Chief; Western Approaches informing him of the night’s sinkings and asking for air support from the 15th onwards. A Liberator appeared over the convoy in the late evening and, shortly afterwards, Stork, then ahead of the convoy, sighted a conning tower ten miles on the convoy’s starboard bow. The Liberator was sent off to attack and a few minutes later reported: “Have attacked U-boat and scored seventeen hits. Enemy has either sunk or submerged.” Walker assumed the aircraft must have scored “seventeen hits” with machine gun fire. He could not imagine a U-boat diving if it had been hit that many times by anything larger. He tried to signal the aircraft for further information, but the Liberator had turned away and was heading out of sight. There was every evidence that the “pack” was still with them when darkness fell. At midnight, a look-out in Stork sighted a U-boat probing the defences astern. This was in Stork’s territory, so Walker proceeded to “smarten him up nicely with my eight remaining depth charges”. The attack was abortive and the sloop resumed her station. About the same time, Gardenia with her stern damaged and her speed reduced to a maximum of ten knots joined the screen. The situation was not promising for the night. The escort was at its full strength of four ships but Gardenia was damaged; she had no depth charges; her asdic was useless and she had no speed to chase or attack; Stork had run out of depth charges; Marigold would expend all her charges in the next attack; only Convolvulus, the patient shepherd during the absence of the others, was in a position to fight off enemy probes. Against this, the enemy could see four escorts and would not know their state of unreadiness. Luckily, the next attack came from the starboard bow while Convolvulus was in a position ahead of the starboard column ship. She saw the U-boat racing in, trimmed down on the surface, and altered course at full speed to intercept. The startled U-boat about-turned promptly and with his superior speed was able to lose himself in the night.
After this episode the enemy threw in his hand and the rest of the night passed peaceably enough, marred only by a series of false alarms that left everyone weary and numb with strain when dawn broke on the i6th and brought the prospect of respite. During the morning a Catalina flying boat arrived as their air escort for the day. At noon, Walker gave a striking demonstration of his contempt for the enemy by calling Convolvulus alongside him and, while both ships stopped, Stork’s motor-boat was lowered and began transferring depth charges from the corvette to replenish her empty racks. The wind had dropped and the seas had calmed down. The motor-boat made six trips carrying two depth charges each time, before Walker decided the convoy had drawn far enough ahead and, to the audible relief of both crews who expected to be torpedoed at any moment, had the boat hoisted inboard. Both ships had rejoined the convoy by the afternoon when a Whitley bomber came out to assist the Catalina. With these reinforcements, Walker felt he could keep the U-boats submerged for the rest of the day, and he turned the convoy on a course that would take them the shortest way home. That night they waited expectantly for the enemy to attack, but nothing happened and for the first time in three days they began to hope for a rest. But Doenitz had not yet finished with HG 84. He had another weapon ready for just such an emergency. Meanwhile, Stork had broken down with a painful disease known in naval circles as “condenseritis”, a mechanical complaint which put one engine out of action until the trouble could be found and cured. She was reduced to a maximum speed of about nine knots, thereby joining Gardenia as a mere token escort. It was hardly surprising. For the last few days and nights the sloop had been flogged mercilessly, performing the duties of close escort and hunter until she had been driven, in Walker’s own words, “beyond the endurance of such a gallant thoroughbred”.
All day, the engine-room staff worked in an effort to find the fault while Stork and Gardenia could just keep pace with the convoy. This was the moment Doenitz chose to launch his next attack. At 9.30 that evening, the destroyer Wild Swan, steaming some fifty miles to the eastwards, sighted nine enemy bombers flying towards the convoy. She signalled a general warning and, being in the path of their flight, engaged them with her anti-aircraft armament. The action was one of the fiercest air-sea battles involving a single surface unit ever fought in the war. The bombers attacked Wild Swan in waves of three. She was hit badly by the first wave, missed by the second and hit again by the third. But her vicious, determined fire broke up the formations and the aircraft returned singly. In the next ten minutes, Wild Swan, sinking by the stern, shot down six bombers before the remaining three broke off the action and flew out of sight. Only then did Wild Swan send out the news that she was sinking rapidly. One old destroyer, veteran of the first world war, had broken up Doenitz’s last attack on HG 84. (Wild Swan’s captain, Commander C. E. Slater, RN, survived the fury of this battle to receive the Distinguished Service Order).
The next two days, the convoy struggled northwards with fifty per cent of the escort limping in its wake but, on the afternoon of the 19th Stork’s engineer officer reported to the bridge that the patient had been cured. Walker increased speed on both engines and the little ship surged forward. They were just in time to greet an enemy aircraft which put in an appearance at the unprecedented time of 10.30 pm, an hour at which all good Focke-Wulfs should be asleep. Delightedly, the guns crews went into action to enjoy a practice shoot they had not been able for months to wheedle from the authorities. In what must have been a deadly reminder of his danger, the enemy pilot sheered away and scurried home with tiny puffs of black smoke threatening to burn his tail. This was the last skirmish. The following day the convoy dispersed off the Clyde and Walker led his battered, tired little Group home to Liverpool. Statistically, Convoy HG 84 was not particularly successful. On the balance sheet were five valuable merchant ships and a Hurricane fighter lost for two probable “kills”—for while Walker claimed Gardenia’s and his own attack the following night as two U-boats destroyed, they had not yet been confirmed. When the Reports of Proceedings of the Group had been handed in at Liverpool, Walker fully expected to be called to account for his offensive tactics with such a small force. He was ready to acknowledge that the “safe and timely arrival” of the convoy had at times hung by a thread, due to an entirely inadequate escort screen which on at least one occasion had consisted of only one ship, the corvette Convolvulus. He knew there were higher authorities who disapproved of his tactics and might use the debit balance sheet to relieve him of his command. In his own Report, he had awarded credit and accepted blame for any mistakes someone, probably less experienced in the U-boat war, might consider he had made. Privately, he was proud of his Group and satisfied at their performance. If nothing else, the 3 Escort Group had proved itself a team, thoroughly disciplined to his methods. “I am proud,” he said, “of the offensive spirit, initiative and sheer guts displayed by these corvettes. Convolvulus, my deputy during my absences from the convoy, never put a foot wrong. Gardenia displayed great tenacity despite her damage by remaining sixteen hours to witness the death of her U-boat. Marigold did some fine rescue work and lunged hard against shadowing U-boats when they came near to attacking Copeland who was carrying out her work of mercy. As for Stork, it is inspiring to command such a magnificent body of men, on their toes spoiling for a fight. I adopted an offensive policy in the belief that the best defence is to go out for kills.” He had nothing to fear. Neither the Commander-in-Chief nor the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare assessed Battle Reports by the state of the balance sheet. They related Walker’s actions to the weight of the enemy attack and the result was gratifying even to the most pessimistic. A deliberately planned massacre of Convoy HG 84 had been averted. Instead of the almost total destruction hoped for by the enemy, the convoy had got through with only a twenty-two per cent loss. Messages of congratulations were sent to Stork, but Walker shrugged them off. Far more important was the decisive fact that his unorthodox methods had stood up to vigorous analysis. He was impatient for the Group to carry out repairs. As soon as Stork could lead four of them to sea again, he would report ready for duty. However, Sir Percy Noble had other plans for Commander Walker.