Chapters 7 - 9
CHAPTER 7 - MISSION TO "CHOP"
The Navy in peacetime and the Navy at war are vastly different affairs. Officers who had been social lions and ear marked for high rank in 1939 had been known to fail on the battlefield; others who had spurned the niceties of the peace time service and suffered for it were proving indomitable, and sometimes brilliant, leaders in war. The Admiralty is probably the most rigidly disciplined of the three Service departments; yet time and again it proves itself capable of astonishingly human actions. Commanders-in-Chief are not responsible merely for the destruction of the enemy with the fleets at their disposal. They also keep a constant, vigilant watch over the health, behaviour, cares and worries of their commanding officers. Sir Percy Noble had long realised that in Commander Walker he had found one of the most keen and efficient U-boat hunters in the Western Approaches Command. He knew also, through that strange, invisible grapevine which reaches through mess decks and staffs, that Walker could best be rewarded by early promotion. Accordingly, he recommended to the Admiralty that the 3 Group’s Senior Officer should be given immediately the rank of Captain. The Admiral had another motive for this. Reports had reached him through Staff channels that Walker, spending most of his sea time on Stork’s bridge from which he could instantly control any given emergency, was showing signs of strain and tiredness. He had summoned him to Derby House for an interview and had noticed for himself that the quiet, modest officer burned inside like a suppressed volcano when discussing the Atlantic battle. Tell-tale lines were already tugging at his eyes. It was time for Walker to be rested ashore, but it was obvious too that any attempt to tell him so and relieve him for a trip would be strenuously resisted. If he were promoted he must expect to be moved from Stork and might accept a shore job, no matter how reluctantly, without realising he was actually being given a let-up. The Admiralty agreed with Sir Percy’s recommendation and threw in a reward of its own. When the half-yearly promotion lists were issued in July, Walker’s name headed the list of commanders promoted to captain, thereby cancelling out the pre-war report from Valiant which had criticised him. The citation read: “For leadership and skill in action against enemy submarines.” Soon after this promotion, Sir Percy sent for his Chief of Staff Commodore Mansfield, and said: “Walker’s promotion and seniority now makes it necessary to make some changes. Therefore I suggest we take the opportunity to rest him by appointing him Captain (D) for about six months. He should go back to sea by the spring of next year.”
Unaware of the real reason for his transfer ashore, this promotion brought disappointment to Walker. He saw the logic of the new appointment but was hardly content to sit behind a desk reading the exploits of the Western Approaches in their Battle Reports. When breaking the news to Eilleen, he said: “The Admiralty have only themselves to blame if I make a damned awful Captain (D)—which I shall.” He took over his new job in October and immediately opened a two-pronged attack on the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief, one for a less cautious and more offensive approach to the Battle of the Atlantic, and the second to persuade Their Lordships that he should be sent back to sea in the small ships he had come to regard as his second home. He sent for Eilleen who gave up her job and they found “The White House”, South Road, Liverpool, which became their home for the remainder of the war, and his life. His tall, spare figure with the gaunt, weather-tanned face became as familiar among the shopping crowds of the port as it was in the dockyards, inspecting ships, advising their commanders and sorting out the complex problems of getting old ships refitted, new ones launched and secret equipment installed in ships waiting to sail. At Derby House, he analysed reports of convoy battles, handled personnel problems by the thousand, recommended officers and men for awards and sent for others to be quietly and politely burned by the “bottles of acid” that became the standard reward for slovenly behaviour or indecision in action. Commanding officers learned that it was decisiveness that counted with Captain (D). He could not tolerate a dithering officer but would always help and advise those whose decisions had been near to disastrous. On a few occasions, he was invited to wardroom celebration parties and it was then that his gayer, more relaxed, side appeared in the intimacy of a close professional circle. He had always been keen on physical exercise and keeping fit generally, he took cold baths winter and summer, and he could stand on his head almost indefinitely, drinking a glass of beer. At Christmas, Walker gave the first of his few wartime lectures. It was on a subject he believed in passionately and which he considered a number of reservist commanding officers should know more about. “Leadership comes very much easier to those of strong personality, commanding presence, but don’t fall into the mistake of thinking these things are essential. They are not. Nelson and Napoleon were both little squirts and Hitler is in my opinion a figure of fun. Yet Napoleon led a whole nation for some years all over Europe to eventual defeat and Hitler is doing the same thing now. “There is a distinction between leadership and discipline. An utterly undisciplined rabble was successfully led to storm the Bastille in 1789—leadership without discipline. Conversely, I have watched a magnificently disciplined body of Royal Marines in a big ship expending foot-tons of energy in trivial exercises—discipline without leadership. A well-led ship’s company can be recognised in any emergency by their ready and intelligent anticipation of orders and the absence of confusion and shouting.” Unconsciously, perhaps, he was drawing upon his own experience in command. It was against the wasting of “foot tons of energy” that he had rebelled in big ships before the war. Similarly, he could not really care how a sailor dressed at sea or whether his hair was cut to the required length, so long as he was keen, efficient and trustworthy in his job. On morale, he dealt mainly from his own experiences quoting examples from Stork and current cases he was dealing with at Derby House.
“I have seen a good many leave-breakers, ship jumpers, drunks, etc.,” he said. “I have a standard speech for them. I tell them what stinking skunks they are for helping the German war effort, doing their little best to lose the Battle of the Atlantic, miserably failing their country in her hour of need. Most of them are shaken to the core by it, some even burst into tears. You must get home to your men that there is no excuse for leave-breaking, that it is not merely playing truant from school, but letting their mates down badly. If a wife is ill or having a baby, the man must realise that his duty to his country comes before his duty to his family. Another cause of low morale is the difference in pay between the sailor and the dockyard and factory workers ashore. Rub in the honour of being picked for the finest fighting team in the world, and that the country would have been in German hands long ago but for that team and his part in it.”
Some weeks before, Timothy had written asking his father to help him transfer to submarines. Walker had pulled a few minor strings and at Christmas his son, now a sub-lieutenant RNVR, came home to Liverpool on leave prior to attending a submarine course at Blyth. Nicholas was also on leave, and Gillian had taken a job at a garage to learn something about driving before joining the Wrens. As Timmy had been in Rome when Andrew was born, this meant that the family was re-united for the first time. One night during the festivities, Eilleen wakened and heard a slight noise outside her bedroom. She slipped out of bed, opened the door and to her astonishment saw a workman’s brazier glowing redly on the landing and, in front of it, a large red-painted signpost saying “ROAD CLOSED”. She returned to the bedroom, shook Johnnie awake and told him what she had seen. “Nicholas,” he muttered sleepily. “I’ll deal with him in the morning.” Then he turned over and went to sleep again, leaving Eilleen prey to such thoughts as a mother might have at 2 a.m. with a brazier burning enthusiastically on her landing. At breakfast next morning, Nicholas and Gillian glanced apprehensively at their father who continued to sip his coffee in silence. He finished a second cup and lit a cigarette. before looking at Nicholas and saying abruptly: “Put it back.” He walked out leaving consternation behind him. It had not seemed such a bad idea to remove the brazier after a party at night; but to put it back in cold blood during daylight was another matter. Yet family discipline was such that after dusk that evening, two heavily-laden figures slunk furtively through the streets towards the river. A splash in the Mersey covered their trail and the incident was closed. Walker’s reputation as a fighting captain and a relentless administrator was so well known that when Admiral Sir Max Horton took over the Western Approaches from Sir Percy Noble, who was being sent to Washington for liaison duties, one of the first officers he asked to see was Captain (D). It was to be one of many meetings and, by the time Walker returned to sea, Sir Max Horton had set his standard of efficiency for the Command on the level of this captain. More important to Walker, he found the new Commander-in-Chief sympathetic to his ideas for more positive action in the Atlantic Battle. He set seriously to work on a paper campaign directed at both the Admiral and the Admiralty to convince them that the U-boat war could not be won by escorts huddled round convoys and waiting for the enemy. In a series of memoranda, he stressed the need for special groups to roam the Atlantic freely in search of the enemy. Coastal Command, he said, were increasing the number of their aircraft and, as a result, air co-operation was being improved and extended right across the Bay of Biscay, up to Iceland and over to Greenland. Now was the time for sloops and destroyers to revert to their traditional roles of seeking out and destroying the enemy. He pointed to dockyards round the country where new ships were nearing completion and urged that these should be used to form the new striking forces, or hunting groups. During one discussion with Sir Max Horton, the latter asked: “And where would you suggest these hunting groups would find the enemy?” “In my view we should seek them out on their own doorstep, the Bay of Biscay, and the mid-Atlantic where they are also vulnerable because they feel safe.”
“That’s around the ‘Chop’ Line Area,” said Sir Max. (The Atlantic was divided down the middle by the “Chop” Line. To the west of “Chop” the Americans had control, east of “Chop” was Britain’s responsibility.) “Without aircraft you might spend days not sighting a damn thing. You would need to take a carrier, and I doubt if we could afford to risk them in that kind of operation.” Curiously, although he agreed with Walker on almost every point in the general plan, the Commander-in-Chief refused to add his endorsement on the question of aircraft-carriers. But, at the Admiralty, this was no problem. Small carriers were being built in considerable numbers and the war at sea was becoming the pivot of all other military operations. Sir Max went to London for a series of conferences and, by February, Walker’s ideas were substantially approved. They were not his alone. Other senior officers had contributed the basis of much of the overall plan and little could have been done without the help of Sir Max Horton. But it was Walker’s persistence and energy that pushed it through. He received forceful backing from Naval Intelligence who compiled reports from numerous sources into composite monthly surveys of the Battle of the Atlantic for the private use of the War Cabinet, Board of the Admiralty and certain departmental heads, such as the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare and the Commander-in Chief of the various shore and sea-going commands. The Survey for January, 1943, was hardly encouraging. “Now that Grand Admiral Doenitz is Supreme Commander of the German Navy,” said the Intelligence Report, “we may expect all units to operate in support of the U-boat war and we shall be on the look-out for any indication of a change of policy. It is certainly going to be a grim fight in 1943 and though we are not as ready as we would like to be, there have been plenty of examples late in 1942 to demonstrate that even with our present inadequate air and surface escorts, with good training and team work it is possible to fight a convoy through a pack of U-boats and give as good as we get.” ( Intelligence was referring to Walker’s defence of convoy HG 76) For March and February the Reports were equally, if not slightly more, cheerless. “Never before has the enemy displayed such singlemindedness of purpose in utilising his strength against one objective, the interruption of supplies from America to Great Britain. As a result, engagements were embittered and successes against U-boats high. “The months ahead are critical and the outcome of the struggle is by no means sure.” It was at this vital period that Walker persuaded Sir Max Horton to let him return to the struggle.
He was appointed Captain of a new sloop, Starling, and senior officer of the now famous Atlantic striking force known as the Second Support Group consisting of five other sloops of the same class, Wild Goose, Wren, Kite, Cygnet and Woodpecker. There was no conflict in his mind over leaving his family again. He knew his wife would never attempt to hold him back even if she could. For Eilleen, his return to sea meant going back to the long days and weeks of waiting she had come to share with thousands of naval wives throughout the country, never quite certain what the next telegram or BBC announcement would bring. She still suffered from a recurrent illness, but she were troubled in any way, Johnnie was not allowed to see it. Her patient restraint when her husband was ashore did not escape him. He knew she was calling on all resources of mind and body to appear cheerful at times when she must have felt more like crying. Before leaving the office of Captain (D), Walker proposed to broadcast a message to all Navy wives. This was accepted by• the BBC and then quashed by the Admiralty who feared it might tend to convey to the world that we had so many deserters and leave breakers that we had to appeal to their women to help. In fact, Walker wanted the help of the Navy wives and sweethearts, not because of deserting, they were too few cases to worry about, but because he wished these women to realise how important they were in maintaining the morale of the fighting men. He considered they were as vital to the war effort as anyone in the factories. Today, many of those women who were sweethearts are wives now, and a great number of the wives have become mothers. For some nostalgic memories may return at this brief excerpt from Captain Walker’s message.
“We sailors all know that beastly moment when leave is over and how it would be tempting to seize on some trivial excuse to stay a little longer. I am glad to say that most wives see to it that their husbands return to their ships in good time. I have this to say to those who have wavered. Never forget your influence on your man and keep him up to the mark. Send him back from leave itching to get at Hitler’s throat, not unhappy, worried and anxious about his home. Your paramount duty is to help your husband or son or sweetheart to grind the Nazi face back into the dirt from which it sprang.”
Soon after handing over office to his relief, Walker put in a request that with only a few exceptions the whole crew, officers and men, of Stork should be appointed to Starling. Most of them had been paid off from Stork when she passed into dock yard hands, and were now on leave. Telegrams went out from Derby House ordering as many as were available to report to Fairfield’s Dockyard near Glasgow to stand-by Job Number SL 197. Fairfield’s was soon working overtime. Job Number SL 197, an embryo ship which by the end of March, was to become the sloop-of-war, HMS Starling, was not only needed urgently by the Admiralty, but even more so by Captain John Walker whose letter to the management left them in no doubt at all of the fate awaiting them if the ship were delayed in any way. For the next two weeks, SL 197 was the focal point for hundreds of workers. Riveters clattered and chattered their deafening way along the hull; welders’ lamps hissed defiance at the daily drizzle; railway goods wagons clanged alongside, shunted there by noisily officious engines; towering cranes trundled crazily up and down in whining unison, their giraffe-like arms swaying drunkenly skywards. The bare-ribbed carcass of rusting metal became a red paint-splotched shell stuffed daily with engines and instruments of war, while bits of superstructure appeared round a stumpy, grotesque mast. Keeping wondering eyes on this magical transformation of jumbled confusion of scrap metal into the recognisable shape of a ship were Lieutenant Impey, former asdic officer of Stork, Lieutenant John Filleul, RN, and Sub-Lieutenant Alan Burn, RNVR (author of The Fighting Captain), a newcomer to the Walker entourage. As “stand-by” officers waiting for the time to walk aboard, they lived in a hotel ashore by night and in a tiny wooden hut in the Yard by day. They did not quite know what would emerge from the muddy inferno job Number SL197. Filleul, newly promoted, was overjoyed at his appointment to the embryo Starling. Ever since he had sailed in Stork and returned from the fierce, drawn-out defence of convoy HG 84, he had become a fervent support of his captain. While on leave, he had received the telegram appointing him to Starling. Next he learned that most of Stork’s crew were also being transferred at the request of their new commanding officer.
During the long evenings ashore waiting for SL 197 to become a ship with a name, Filleul told stories of Stork and Walker to Alan Burn, a stocky, square-faced recent arrival to Western Approaches Command who had heard of his new commanding officer and imagined him a stickler for discipline and not at all likely to tolerate mistakes a reservist officer might be expected to make, particularly from such a key department head as the Gunnery Officer. At last came March 21st, Commissioning Day, and those key officers and ratings who had watched a ship grow from the tangled chaos of Fairfield’s gazed in wonderment again at the sleek, newly-painted warship with bristling guns and business like equipment giving her the appearance of a healthy warrior impatiently waiting for the order that would fling him into the line. To Walker, this day meant a long-delayed return to the Atlantic battlefield. He knew some of the faces confronting him on the quarter deck as he addressed the ship’s company. On brief acquaintance with those officers he had met for the first time, he was satisfied there would be no hitches to prevent the working-up trials being cut shorter than usual. He was particularly pleased that Lieutenant Impey, RN, his asdic officer in Stork, had been sent to Starling as First Lieutenant. His Commission Speech was short, most of these men knew what he wanted of them, and after the officers had exchanged handshakes with the Yard superintendents the bo’sun’s mate piped: “Secure for sea. All hands prepare for leaving harbour. Sea-duty men to their stations.” A few minutes later, the engines throbbed alive and H.M.Starling, at last a ship with a name instead of a number, sailed down the Clyde on her maiden voyage to the Western Approaches. Hundreds of workers lined the docksides to wave and tout “good luck”, for they were as proud of the ship as the crew who now sailed in her. While steaming down the Clyde they received a general signal from Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, to all units in the Command saying it was intended to operate five support Groups over the North Atlantic convoy routes, and initial Groups would proceed to sea on March 2 These 3uld remain under operational control of C-in-C Western Approaches regardless of “Chop”. The officers of Starling now received some idea of what their duties were to be. Walker already knew, but his eye was fixed on the Bay. He would go along with the plan to support the convoy escorts for the moment, but his main target for the future operations was Biscay itself. For the next ten days it was trials, exercises, exercises and trials for the crew of Starling. From the first Captain Walker made it clear to officers and men that their job in the war was to sink U-boats, and everything was directed to achieve the highest possible competence in this art; day and night this simple idea of “kill the Boche before he kills you” drove Starlings crew to semi-exhaustion until one day they sailed from Liverpool, a confident, keen fighting unit ready for war, impatient to get into the battlefield to seek out and destroy the enemy.
At the end of April, they received their orders. The other five ships of the Second Support Group, Wild Goose, Wren, Kite, Cygnet and Woodpecker, had completed their training and were to meet their leader off Londonderry whence they were to proceed to the mid-Atlantic. The strategic plan to harry the U-boat on their doorstep and in their happiest hunting ground along the mid-Atlantic “Chop” Line was about to be launched. The Second Support Group became a striking force on April 8th when the six sloops left the Western Approaches bound for the Atlantic deepfield where, free from troublesome aircraft, the U-boats lay in wait for the convoys. Added to Walker’s satisfaction at being on his own bridge again, was the pleasure of knowing that in command of Wild Goose was his old friend, Commander D. E. G. Wemyss. In his first tour of the Battle of the Atlantic, Walker had been a convoy escort drawing the enemy like a magnet. Now he was looking for trouble wherever it could be found. After two days’ steaming he was ordered to take his Group to assist a convoy inward bound from Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was being hard-pressed by a U-boat “wolf pack”.
Early in the morning of May 12th, the Group were steaming off Northern Ireland on their way to Liverpool. The most excited officer in Starling was John Filleul. If there were time before they sailed again he intended to marry a girl who, having said “Yes”, now waited in Bournemouth for him to say when the Navy could spare him for those few days necessary to organise the ceremony and a brief honeymoon. Then Walker took a hand. It was a strict rule that no ship at sea should break wireless silence except in clearly defined circumstances, one of which gave commanding officers a measure of discretion, and leaders of Groups even a little more. As captain of Starling and Leader of the Second Support Group, he used this discretion. He sent a wireless signal addressed to Captain (D), Liverpool, requesting that Miss Wendy Taylor in Bournemouth be informed that her fiancé was due in harbour that evening. She should proceed immediately with arrangements for the earliest possible wedding. By the time Filleul telephoned her in the evening, she had the situation under control. The wedding went off without a hitch next morning followed by a three days’ honeymoon. In Liverpool, Captain Walker found his Commander-in-Chief, who had received a copy of the signal, unwilling to condone his use of personal discretion in breaking wireless silence for a private and domestic reason. If he was temporarily in hot water, Walker did not mind. It was more important that his officers and men should be happy at home, in his view the root of fighting efficiency at sea. Four days later they sailed again to act as a striking force along the northern convoy routes, clearing the shipping lanes of patrolling U-boats in wait to intercept our east and west bound convoys. June 1st dawned clear and sunny. The grey Atlantic had for once stopped heaving and lay placid and oily under a hot sun shining brilliantly from a blue, cloudless sky. The 900 men of the Second Support Group threw aside their salt-caked duffle coats, damp sweaters and woollen socks for clean white singlets and uniform trousers. In Starling there was little to disturb the peaceful calm of such an unexpectedly glorious day. The sea rushed quietly past the bows in frivolous curling waves; an occasional clanking of buckets came from the decks where sailors were washing down paintwork; from the gun platform in front of and below the bridge came the steady hum of conversation as the crews on watch stripped and examined the mechanism. The elements had called a truce, Neptune was on holiday and Starling could relax. To Alan Burn, the Officer of the Watch, it seemed more like a summer’s day on a vicarage lawn. “You know, John,” said he blissfully, “I can almost hear the sound of tennis rackets hitting the ball over the net and see myself having tea on the lawn accompanied by the drone of wasps and bees. Marvellous thought.”
Suddenly, a telephone buzzer blared urgently. Burn sprang to the receiver. "What is it?” “Submarine on the surface transmitting on bearing 225 degrees. Must be about twenty miles away, Sir.” It was the HF/DF operator reporting that his set was intercepting a U-boat chattering either to its base or another colleague. Burn snapped out his order. “Port fifteen . . . midships . . . steady . . . steer 225. Full speed ahead both.” He turned to the voice pipe reaching down to the captain’s sea cabin. “Captain, Sir.” “Yes, what is it?” came the muffled reply. “Submarine on the surface reported by HF/DF.” “Right.” In a few seconds, Walker was on the bridge, checking the orders given by Alan and sending signals to the Group. The six ships were reformed in line abreast on their new course along the bearing of the U-boat, steaming at full speed. The tempo in Starling changed swiftly. She vibrated violently as the engines raced and thousands of fittings began to throb in protest. Walker turned to Burn. “Sound Action Stations.” To the Yeoman of Signals: “Make to the Group: keep station on me. Course 225, speed 18 knots, ships to be four miles apart.” As he spoke, the alarm bells clanged through the ship and in seconds the decks were filled with seamen in every state of dress, or undress, dashing to their action stations. A lamp blinked from Wild Goose and the Yeoman read out: “Have picked up U-boat on HF/DF bearing 228.” Just then Starling’s HF/DF officer reported the U-boat still talking on a bearing 225. The navigator quickly ran off the two nearly parallel lines on his chart and placed the enemy between fifteen and twenty miles away. It was their first smell of the enemy since leaving the builders’ yard. Walker noted in his Diary: “I fixed the U-boat’s position using bearings from Starling and Wild Goose. The date was June 1st, the Christian name of my HF/DF officer was Howe, asdic conditions were perfect, all these things promised well.” At 10.15, look-outs in Starling sighted a swirl of water and, almost at once, her asdic team picked up an echo that was unmistakably a submarine.
CHAPTER 8 - BLOCKADE
Twelve months earlier, on May 27th, 1942, a lithe, fair-haired young officer had been ushered into the private office of Admiral Doenitz at U-boat headquarters in Lorient. He was Kapitanleutnant Hans Linder, commanding officer of the new 500 ton submarine, U-202, and he had been summoned to a briefing for a secret mission. “This job is going to take a lot of nerve and cool judgment, Linder,” Doenitz said. “Your navigation will have to be exact. One mistake might cost the lives of you all and, whatever the cost, you must not lose your boat or your crew. Is that clear ?" Linder nodded. ‘Right. You are to take four secret agents with their equipment to the American coast and land them on Long Island, New Jersey. The actual spot is the beach at Amagansett. You should put them ashore on June 13th and in any event not later than the 15th. Those dates coincide with the new moon which you will need for an approach so close inshore, although you must risk being sighted by some wide-awake coastguard. Remember, the safety of your boat and your crew comes before the lives of the four spies.” “I understand, Sir,” replied Linder excitedly. “When do I sail? “The passengers join you to-day. You sail to-morrow.” "Yes, Sir.” Linder saluted and returned to his boat to prepare for the voyage. When Linder took U-202 to sea next day, he did not know he was in the van of a determined German effort to invade the United States with fifteen highly trained saboteurs and intelligence agents whose mission was to organise a nation-wide espionage network. The same afternoon, U-584 sailed with five more spies bound for Jacksonville while another U-boat was embarking six others to be landed near Boston. The last group never sailed, but nine agents were already on their way across the Atlantic. This special mission, planned by German Military Intelligence and given the code name “Operation Pastorius”, was designed to establish secret wireless communication between Germany and America; to provide the nucleus of a spy organisation responsible for supplying general intelligence; to set up a secret saboteur school which would supervise the blowing up of vital military establishments; and to infiltrate into those circles best calculated to be of use in undermining the morale of the people.
The agents were volunteers chosen because they had intimate knowledge of the United States, having lived there or visited the country before the war. One claimed to have lived in New York throughout the First World War, operating as a German spy. But while waiting for the U-boat arm to carry them across the Atlantic, several had consumed too much French wine at Lorient and loosened tongues revealed their real purpose in volunteering. At least three said they intended to give themselves up to the United States Police and spend the remainder of the war in the comparative luxury of a POW camp, apparently preferring this to the Russian front. Reports of their behaviour reached Doenitz who was angered at the thought of risking valuable U-boats for the sake of transporting such characters. In a signal to Berlin, he said: “There is every evidence that the special agents are not activated by patriotic motives but rather by adventurous spirits and a desire to seek refuge in the United States. I request ‘Operation Pastorius’ be considered in this light because we cannot on any account risk unduly and with little chance of reward the loss of the submarine involved in their transportation.” (Admiralty Intelligence, or as we now know, more likely Beltchley Park - Enigma) Military intelligence, however, had spent many months and plenty of money in training the saboteur force and was not to be swayed by a “lay” report from Lorient. Doenitz was ordered to proceed with the operation as planned. Having given instructions to U-202 and U-584, he managed to effect a compromise by seizing on slight engine trouble in the third U-boat to postpone her sailing for so long that the six agents had their orders cancelled. On board U-202, her four passengers changed into civilian clothes labelled with the name of a well-known New York department store. They carried forged papers and passports, and each was equipped with a brief case into which was stowed explosives in the shape of highly-inflammable “stick” grenades and various parts of two wireless transmitting and receiving sets. Between them they carried 5,000 dollars, a list of “sympathetic addresses” and the names of hotels suitable for visitors who wanted to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Linder made the crossing on the surface, when out of range of air patrols, and submerged on approaching the United States coast. On the evening of June 13th he lay at periscope depth off the entrance to Long Island Sound in New York harbour. It was a brilliant summer’s day and the sun went down reluctantly. The four spies took it in turns to look through the periscope at passing ships and chuckled among themselves as they joked with the U-boat’s crew about what they would do on their first night ashore as self-appointed members of the American community. According to one member of the crew: “Our passengers seemed to have been told in Berlin that every American girl looked like a Hollywood film star and would be easier to pick up than a French harlot.” Darkness fell shortly before 11 pm and Linder surfaced for the approach towards the coast. Apart from the new moon, navigation was made easy by the bright lights ashore reflecting on the water and at midnight they were close enough to hear the blaring of car horns and the strains of dance music. Silently, a rubber dinghy was lowered into the water from the foredeck and the four spies, waving good-bye to the officers on the conning tower, took their places while three of Linder’s sailors rowed them ashore. They landed on Amagansett beach at exactly thirty minutes after midnight, picked up their brief cases, and, after shaking hands with the sailors, vanished across the beach into the dark hinterland of the American continent. At almost the same moment, five of their colleagues were landed on a beach near Jacksonville, from U-584 (Both groups ran into coastal patrols and were arrested. All nine were charged with espionage and six were sent to the electric chair. The remaining three received life imprisonment).
When his rubber dinghy had been safely hauled inboard, Linder let out a deep breath of relief and muttered aloud: “Thank heaven that’s over.” He turned U-202 seawards for the safety of open sea; but two minutes later the U-boat shuddered and the crew were shocked into near-panic by a horrible grating noise which seemed to echo through the night. U- was stuck hard and fast on a sandbank on an ebb tide. Despite continued frantic efforts to refloat her during the night, she remained firmly embedded. Linder sent a signal to Lorient informing Doenitz that he had successfully carried out his mission but could not return and had prepared to surrender his men to imprisonment. Then he instructed the crew to set scuttling charges, and settled down to await daylight. At the first greyness of dawn they heard again the loud blaring of car horns; dogs barked and cocks crowed. Luckily, although on the surface, they were hidden by a heavy mist which lay over the sea blotting out the coastline. Gradually the tide turned and began to flow strongly. At 5 am the boat shifted slightly. Linder ordered the crew to sea stations and put both engines astern at full power. Slowly the U-boat moved over the sand, quivering as the propellers gripped the water and strained to pull her clear. Suddenly, the bows shot up and she surged backwards, clear at last. Still cloaked by the mist, Linder headed seawards and made good his escape. (The incident was told to Naval Intelligence Officers, who interrogated the survivors of U-202; and was confirmed by captured documents). This mission cracked Linder’s nerve and, on return to Brest, he was relieved by Kapitanleutnant Gunter Poser, who became commanding officer of one of Doenitz’s most favoured U-boats. Under Poser, U-202 made five more voyages, sinking a total of 50,000 tons of Allied shipping before sailing from Brest on April 29th, 1943 on her ninth trip of the war. She was to patrol in the vicinity of the northern convoy routes in mid- Atlantic. During May she was bombed by aircraft, chased by escorts and made several abortive attacks on convoys. Poser, aged twenty-seven, and fairly quick-witted, was a capable captain but a lazy one. He failed to press home his attacks, preferred to lie in wait for targets rather than look for them, and spent most of his time at sea lying on his bunk reading and dozing. On May 2 he was ordered to return to Brest to take fuel on board before sailing to Kiel for a refit. Thankfully, he headed U-202for the Bay of Biscay and began planning his leave. In her thirty days at sea, U-202 had been bombed three times, had dived for twenty-nine aircraft alarms and had been chased five times by escorts. At 10 am on June 1st, a chief petty officer acting as Officer of the Watch sighted mastheads which he took to belong to a convoy. He reported to Poser, who was lying on his bunk, and was told to take U-202 closer to the convoy. Eventually, Poser decided to look for himself. On the conning tower he glanced through his binoculars and went suddenly rigid. “My God,” he shouted. “I can’t see any merchant ships, only destroyers. Sound diving stations.” Klaxons clattered through the U-boat and within seconds she was diving to 500 feet. Poser ordered all machinery except the electric lighting generators and engines to be shut down and waited hopefully for the destroyers to pass overhead. He could not be expected to know that he had not seen destroyers, but the sloops of the Second Support Group, already sweeping with their Asdics. And in Starling, the asdic officer, Lieutenant Impey, had already reported: “In contact, Sir.”
As he rapped out orders to be signalled to the Group, Walker seemed to come alive with an energy and drive quite new to the old hands from the Stork days. They remembered the grin on his face at the first signs of battle; they remembered the light of sheer joy in his eyes at the prospect of a “kill”; now there was a tenseness about him as though he were trying to steer the asdic on to the target by will power alone. He stood behind the compass, completely at home in this struggle, his mind racing ahead to anticipate the evasive tactics his opponent might use. Concern about a possible enemy counter-attack never entered Walker’s head. “Yeoman, tell Cygnet, Woodpecker and Wren to maintain square patrol at two miles and Wild Goose and Kite to stand by in the outfield to support my attack.” He turned to the asdic officer. “Going in to attack now.” His orders to the wheelhouse for full speed were made quietly. Starling surged forward, pulsating with power and her bows cutting foaming waves through the placid sea, her wide white- edged wake vanishing almost imperceptibly into the glassy, even breathing of the swell astern. The “ping” of the asdic beam echoing from the hull of U-202 came faster as the range shortened. “Stand by depth charges . . .“: a second later . . . “FIRE”. Tons of high explosives rolled from the stern rails and were shot from throwers on either side of the quarter deck to curve gracefully into the air. In all, ten charges were rumbling downwards through the water heading for the hidden enemy. For a few seconds there was silence. Then miles of ocean and the waiting stoops shook and quivered under the blasting as the charges went off in a series of deafening, crackling roars. Huge columns of water boiled to the surface and sprayed out into vast fountains astern of Starling. The great cascades of water subsided, leaving spreading whirlpools to mark the position of the attack. But there was no U-boat. Walker settled down to the struggle. His adversary was proving tough to hold and hard to find; he admired an enemy who refused to be panicked into some desperate folly that would lead to easy and swift destruction. He took Starling out for half a mile and turned to regain contact. Next, he ordered Wild Goose and Kite to join him while the other three sloops kept up their patrol ready to pick up the U-boat should she shake off her attackers. Five hundred feet below, the crew of U-202 picked them selves up from the corners into which they had been flung by the force of the depth-charges. Everything movable had been smashed; the lights had failed, and a small leak had appeared in the stern. They had been saved by the inaccuracies of the depth-charge mechanism which had been set to 350 and 550 feet but had probably exploded fifty feet either way. Poser began to wonder if this was an attack he could escape and, for the first time, the crew thought it likely that they would have been better off had they surrendered off the beach at Amagansett a year before. Poser turned to his engineer and ordered: “Take her up to 400.”
During Starling’s working-up trials, Walker had devised a depth-charge barrage attack for use against U-boats believed to be hugging extreme depths for safety. The plan, known as “Operation Plaster”, called for three ships in close line abreast to drop depth charges set to 550 feet at five-second intervals. Now he signalled Wild Goose and Kite to close in on either side of Starling and the three ships steamed forwards over the “pinged” position of the U-boat dropping a continuous stream of depth charges. It was the naval equivalent of the artillery barrage that precedes an infantry attack. The sea heaved and boiled under the non-stop impact of the explosions. Twisting and turning and always leaving a trail of charges, the ships “plastered” the area of U-2o2. In three minutes a total of seventy-six depth charges had rocked and shaken the attacking ships almost as much as it had the U-boat. Poser, hearing the first of the barrage explode beneath him, at first thought his hunters outwitted. After minutes of continuous shuddering blasts threatening to blow out every rivet, he decided to dive as deep as U-202 could go. He gave his orders calmly, while the sweat streamed down his face. “Slow ahead both engines" “Diving" “Take her down slowly . . Tautly the control room crew watched the depth gauge. How far down would she go; and could they get below the rolling roar of depth charges? The engineer officer called out the reading: “Five hundred . . 550 . . . 600 . . . 650 . . . 700.” That was the limit she had taken on exercises. Much more, and she would crack under the tremendous pressure. “Seven hundred and fifty feet . . The first lieutenant muttered hoarsely into the silence. “For heaven’s sake, Sir, she won’t take any more. Let’s stay here or surface and fight it out. She’ll break up at any moment if we go further.” Poser ignored the plea and went on staring rigidly at the controls, his mind concentrating on the creaks and groans reverberating through the boat from the straining hull. “Seven hundred and eighty . . . 800 . . . Now it was the engineer’s turn to plead with his captain. “With the weight of water on top now, Sir, she probably won’t go up. For the love of God, no further.” Still there was silence from Poser. Above they could hear the dull explosions of the depth charges cushioned by a gap of 300 feet of ocean. It was not the depth charges that would worry them now: only that the U-boat would hold together. “Eight hundred and twenty feet, Sir.” Poser snapped out a command. “Level off and keep her trimmed at 820. Steer due north with revolutions for three knots.” He left the control room abruptly and the amazed crew saw him take off his jacket, collapse on his bunk and begin reading. He called out to the first lieutenant. “Warn the crew to use as little energy as possible and to talk only when necessary. The more we conserve our air the longer we can stay down. The enemy might leave us alone or lose us in a few hours.” There was little hope of that. Above, Walker took Starling in for a second attack with charges set at 300 feet. When this had little effect, he called in Wild Goose and Kite again and the three ships set off on a second barrage attack. The only damage inflicted was to blow Kite’s gyro compass out of action, and Walker sent her into the outfield, bringing in Woodpecker to take her place. Woodpecker carried out a single attack also without result and Walker turned to the officers on Starling’s bridge. “Now we have established that he isn’t too shallow, we can only assume he must be deeper than we thought.” He made several test runs on asdic bearing and found he was losing the echo each time at a range of seven hundred yards. This meant the U-boat was deeper than 500 feet. “What I wouldn’t give,” he exclaimed to all and sundry, “for a good and large charge capable of being set to 700 feet.” He had no idea at that time, neither had the Admiralty, that U-boats could withstand the pressure of water at more than 800 feet. As the day wore on, Walker maintained asdic contact in Starling and, using the loudhailer, directed his Group into a series of attacks at speeds of little more than five knots. Between attacks he did everything possible to “rattle the U-boat into using up his batteries”. He carried out dummy attacks at speed hoping the enemy would hear his fast revving propellers and use up valuable battery power in taking avoiding action. Then he ordered Kite to drop charges in the outfield to give the impression the Group was drawing away on a false scent. Kapitanleutnant Poser was also using every trick he knew. U-boats had been equipped with a device that could be fired from torpedo tubes which caused a minor upheaval in the water and sent huge bubbles upwards and gave off the same echo on an asdic set as the U-boat itself. In this way it was hoped that the asdic “ping” would receive an echo back from the device, which would be attacked and the ships further led astray by the appearance of bubbles. They were known as Submarine Bubble Targets, SBTs. Poser ordered them to be released every few minutes throughout the day to hide his alterations of course. Walker had a knack of knowing when his asdic operators were “pinging” off a U-boat or an SBT Between 1030 am and 7 pm U-202 released seventy-six SBTs but Starling and the Group were still in contact. “The U-boat,” Walker wrote later, “was sitting pretty well out of reach and all our antics only made him discharge the wretched SBTs. It was all most maddening, but the laugh was very much on our side because not only were asdic conditions perfect and the enemy could easily be held up to a mile, but I could afford to wait for two days while Fritz obviously could not. In any event, it was merely childish of him to try and palm off SBTs on my asdic team and myself I decided that as he was obviously staying out of reach I would wait until he had either exhausted his patience, his batteries or his high pressure air.” By 8 pm Poser had taken several evasive turns quite fruitlessly and attempted to distract his tormentors with more SBTs But Walker was still in contact, with the remainder of the Group patrolling round two miles away, ready to take over contact should Starling lose it. He told Impey and Burn: “We will sit it out. I estimate this chap will surface about midnight. Either his air or his batteries will run out by then.” At two minutes past midnight on June 2nd, the air gave out in U-202 and Poser ordered: “Take her to the surface.”
Above, only the faint swish of water round the sloops disturbed the penetrating silence as they waited. Without any audible warning, the U-boat rose fast through the water and surfaced with her bows high in the air where they hung momentarily before falling back into the water. The crew leapt through the conning tower hatch to man the guns, and Poser shouted for full speed in the hope of outrunning the hunters. On Starling’s bridge, the tiny silver conning tower and the wash of water was just visible in the moonlight as the U-boat broke surface. “Starshell . . . commence.” One turret spread the heavens with light, then came the crash and flash of the Group’s first broadside laying a barrage of shells round the small target. Through his binoculars, Burn could see a dull red glow leap from behind the conning tower. The night became alive with flames and tracer bullets streaming towards the stricken U-boat as it twisted violently in the agony of death. A signal lamp blinked from Starling and the barrage ceased while Walker increased speed to ram. The ship trembled under increased power, heeled over and rushed towards the riddled enemy now lying stopped and enveloped in coarse red smoke. The range closed and they could see the jagged stump of the conning tower. Evidently the U-boat was too crippled to escape, so Walker altered course slightly and ran alongside, raking her decks with machine gun fire and firing a shallow pattern of depth charges which straddled the submarine and covered her in a cloud of smoke and spray as they rumbled and cracked around her. When the heaving seas had subsided, she could be seen settling slowly down with waves pouring over her conning tower and her crew running frantically along the decks, their shouts and screams mingling with the cheers of Starling’s own feverishly excited company. Three high explosive shells had torn great holes in U-202’s foredeck, more hits had sliced jaggedly through her conning tower and fifteen of her crew lay dead or dying at their action stations. Poser clutched the periscope column, pulled a revolver from his pocket and gave his last order. “Abandon ship . . . abandon ship.” The cry was taken up and passed through the U-boat. Poser turned to say good-bye to his officers. Rather than be captured he was prepared to take his own life. But two of his officers had panicked under the hail of shellfire and, anticipating his order, were already swimming fast from the danger area with a group of sailors who were all crying out for help furiously, Poser threw away his revolver and cursing under his breath decided to be taken prisoner so that one day, when Germany had won the war, he could have the satisfaction of seeing his two defecting officers court-martialled.
By 12.30 am the battle was over and the survivors picked up, two officers and sixteen men in Starling, two officers and ten men in Wild Goose. The first three to scramble up the nets dangling over Starling’s side were stopped when they reached the guard rail and asked the name of their captain and the number of the U-boat. They refused to answer. When this was reported to Walker, he said: “Don’t let them come aboard, Number One. And tell them they cannot be picked up until they have given the information we want.” The three survivors were ordered back into the water where they shouted and screamed for mercy while Filleul, who was in charge of rescue operations, shrugged and repeated the questions. Starling was moving slowly away until one lost his nerve and cried out: “Kapitan Poser, U-boat 202.” He was still sobbing out the reply when they were picked up again, blue with cold. Fifteen minutes later, the scuttling charges in U-202 exploded and, rolling from side to side, the boat which had escaped destruction within yards of the United States coastline, went to her grave in the middle of the Atlantic. She would break up long before reaching the bottom five miles below. Later that morning one of Surgeon-Lieutenant Fraser’s patients died and Walker ordered a burial at sea with full honours. In his view, he could take any measures he wished to destroy the enemy in as effective manner as possible and, if Germans lost their lives unnecessarily, they became victims of their own “total” war. But once the battle was over, he treated prisoners correctly. And a dead German, being also a good one, was entitled to be buried with the ceremony his gallantry deserved. After the funeral service, Starling hoisted the time-honoured signal for a naval victory at sea. “Second Support Group splice the mainbrace.”
They began moving eastwards on June 5 and finally reached Liverpool four days later. Walker was particularly pleased. His Group was the first to return to harbour with a “kill”. He had been able to indoctrinate his ships with the team spirit he believed in so passionately and in his own ships he had seen the various fighting departments operate cohesively and efficiently. The guns crews were especially delighted because both Walker and the First Lieutenant seemed to place more value on the asdic and depth charges than the guns, which they thought to be noisy gadgets. In fact, both made it only too clear that as anti-submarine experts they considered that depth charges were the main armament of the ship rather than guns. This had proved dispiriting to the gunnery team, consisting of the largest number of men in the ship, but the sinking of U-202 had shown that the skill of the asdic operators in holding the target for nearly fifteen hours and the combined depth-charge attacks of the whole Group had not been enough to cripple the enemy. For that, they had been forced to call upon the guns to provide the broadsides. Eilleen had been told of Johnnie’s successes by Captain (D), Liverpool, and wanted to join in the celebrations when the sloops returned to harbour, but three days before their return she was taken to a nursing home for an emergency operation. Within an hour of docking, Johnnie came to her bedside with flowers and a bottle of champagne. Other patients joined them in a toast and the bedside celebration lost nothing of its gaiety. Meanwhile, Timmy had sailed from Liverpool to join the submarine Parthian, then operating in the Mediterranean, fate ironically decreeing that father and son should serve together, one with the hunters and the other with the hunted.
CHAPTER 9 - CREEPING ATTACK
Many of the sailors who manned the Second Support Group had never seen action until the night of June 1st/2nd; others had been in action against aircraft only. All had gone into the battle against U-202 certain that the unseen enemy would strike swiftly and disastrously. Now these fears had been banished forever. An exhilarating keenness to get to grips with the enemy again swept the Group. Walker’s lecture on “Leadership” earlier that year had included the phrase: “Don’t forget that, in a real emergency, the sailor will always look up to the bridge to see how the skipper is taking it.” Throughout June 1st, the Group had been able to see just that. He had stayed on Starling’s bridge for the entire hunt, controlling and directing each attack by signal and loud-hailer. They had seen his grin at every failure; at times they had cursed his unconcern in keeping speeds so low that they were mostly sitting ducks for a torpedo, and they had yearned for a chance to quit the area fast before darkness increased the danger. Now they identified themselves with Walker. The “he” had become “we”, and there was something of Walker in every sailor of the Group who strutted confidently ashore in Liverpool taking the greatest pains to ensure that everyone knew he was serving in the Second Support Group. Nicholas was spending a few days’ leave at home and Gillian was expecting to be called up into the Wrens any day. In the mornings, Walker would accompany his wife on various shopping expeditions round Liverpool and spend the rest of the day with Captain (D) and members of the Commander- in-Chief’s staff in the Operations Room at Derby House. In March, it had become apparent that Doenitz was planning a large-scale spring offensive in the Atlantic. This had been greeted sombrely in the House of Commons when Mr. Churchill, referring to demands for a Second Front, had stood before the Dispatch Box to warn: “The defeat of the U-boat must be the prelude to all effective aggressive operations by the Allies.”
By June, Naval Intelligence experts were able to strike a cheerful if cautious note in their secret survey for the first time since the war began. “Historians of this war,” said the report, “are likely to single out the months of April and May, 1943, as the critical period during which the strength began to ebb away from the U-boat offensive. For the first time, U-boats failed to press home attacks when favourably placed to do so. Morale and efficiency are delicate and may wither rapidly if no longer nourished by rich success. “May was black for the U-boats. Sinkings probably averaged nearly one a day.” In a hurriedly added appendix after a quick analysis of the sinking of U-202, the survey continued: “This hunt, during which continuous contact was held with the U-boat for more than fourteen hours is a complete vindication of the existing asdic equipment when operated by a well-trained team. The U-boat employed every known tactic while endeavouring to break Starling’s contact and fired SBTs regularly, none of which succeeded in misleading the team.” (Admiralty Intelligence Surveys). Following this analysis, the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Max Horton, congratulated Walker on the “most outstanding performance of the war”. (Western Approaches War Diary). The Group learned several weeks later that the propaganda departments at Whitehall had not missed the significance of the whittling down of the U-boat offensive. They drew up a leaflet which was dropped in thousands over Germany by Bomber Command, giving an unmistakable message. “Two thousand U-boat men are now prisoners of war in Britain. But for every prisoner of war, five more U-boat men have died. Life insurance companies in neutral countries estimate the average life of a German U-boat sailor at fifty days. These U-boats have become swimming coffins and now Hitler wants you to join them. If you do, you can look forward to the fastest, and often the most horrible, death in the German armed forces.” It was hoped, perhaps vainly, that this would lead to a marked reluctance on the part of German youth to serve in the U-boat Arm. The German Navy attempted to counter by saying how frightened Britain had become by the U-boat attacks in the Atlantic.
“Germany’s enemies,” they announced triumphantly, “are calling for a Doenitz to combat the U-boat menace. The name Doenitz is a fanfare for the German Navy, but spells terror and horror for the enemy.” But the only “terror and horror” apparent in Liverpool was the desire of Walker and his Group to sail again as soon as possible. Derby House and the Admiralty, where new hope was already surging through all levels up to Their Lordships, and from this august body of leaders to the War Cabinet itself, were only too ready to comply with Walker’s requests. They divided the Bay of Biscay into two operational areas, code- named “Musketry” and “Seaslug”, and published an international warning to neutrals to keep their ships clear. It was thought that the Germans might counter by sailing supply ships across the Bay under neutral flags. Meanwhile, Coastal Command had established daily Sunderland and Catalina flying boat patrols over the Bay to keep outward bound U-boats submerged, thereby taking longer and using more valuable fuel to reach the Atlantic convoy routes. These tactics made it imperative to send surface units into the area to hunt and kill the enemy before he could reach the Atlantic deepfield. This would mean close air-sea co-operation, but at least the pilots would know that ships were around to pick up aircrew survivors. On June 17th Starling led the Group to sea again, bound for “Musketry”, the Biscayan approaches to the principal U-boat bases of Lorient and Bordeaux on the first combined air-sea attempt to bring the battle of the Atlantic to a quick and decisive end by cutting the enemy’s operation routes and nailing him to his own doorstep. The Group, less Cygnet which had been transferred to another force, entered “Musketry” on June 23rd and commenced sweeping southward in line abreast two miles apart at fifteen knots, with Starling in the centre. This first day, sunlit and calm, was spent in smoothing out the teething troubles of liaison with Coastal Command. Enthusiastic flying boat pilots came “on the air” with reports of U-boats ahead, astern and either side of the Group until Walker was mentally tossing a coin to decide which to chase. These mad dashes around the Bay at full speed revealed old barrels, bits of rotting wreckage and tidal swirls, but no U-boats. It became apparent that aircraft flying high and at the mercy of the wind and weather mistook almost every speck for a U-boat and gave positions which provided the Group navigators with perpetual headaches. One pilot reported himself circling over a U-boat in a position which not only took the Group off their charts but would have landed them miles to the north of Paris. Obviously, there was room for improvement, though for the moment keenness was enough.
In Starling, the crew became loudly anti-Coastal Command with choice selections of descriptive threats of what they would do to those “ruddy amateurs up there”. By nightfall, the number of false alarms had reduced them to a state of resignation and, unable to stand the clanging alarm bells every few minutes, the crew resigned themselves to the inevitable and slept at their action stations. At 8 am on the 24th Walker was in his cabin below the bridge and Filleul was about to take a bath. Six minutes later, the asdic operator reported a definite submarine echo about 1000 yards ahead accompanied by loud inexplicable whistling noises. The Officer of the Watch called Walker who, after a quick look round, decided to attack without further investigation. He warned the Group by signal to keep clear, and increased speed. Alarm bells brought the crew to readiness, and depth charges were set to explode at 150 and 300 feet. In the officers’ bathroom, Filleul whose action station was in charge of depth charges, tied a towel round his waist and rushed to the quarter deck. Twelve minutes later, Starling raced over the attacking position and ten depth charges exploded in a series of crashing roars in her wake. Subsequent events startled the Group so much that Walker wrote in his Battle Report: “The wretched U-boat surfaced astern with dramatic suddenness as the last roar of the detonating charges died away. For the enemy to surface in the exact spot where the eyes of the whole Group were concentrated, at the first conceivable moment after the pattern was fired, produced such a copybook result that one felt momentarily a sense of disbelief that this was happening.” Their astonishment did not prevent the Group opening up on the enemy with a broadside and loud, rending crashes punctuated the roar of guns as shell after shell exploded redly against the U-boat’s hull. She was still capable of full surface speed, however, and tried to make a run for it. Walker called out to the Yeoman: “Tell the Group to cease firing. I’m going to ram.” He ordered full speed and warned the engine room staff to stand by for the impact. At this moment a stray shot from one of the ships exploded against Starling’s bows, blowing off the bull-ring, a large circular steel ring through which ropes and wires are fed when tying up in harbour. Walker blinked in some amazement but was concentrating on the enemy. As they drew near, smoke could be seen pouring from the U-boat’s conning tower and she was already seeming to settle in the water. She was still battened down and no attempt was being made to abandon her. For some reason, her captain thought he could still escape. Starling struck the enemy just abreast the conning tower. Her bows had risen on a swell and she came down on the U-boat rather than hitting it square. The sloop shuddered under the impact and her crew yelled their cheers as she started to crawl over her victim which could be seen rolling slowly under the keel like some gigantic grey slug.
After the collision, Filleul, the towel flapping about his bare legs, watched the U-boat, upside down with her keel scraping Starling’s side, approach the propellers. He ordered a pattern of charges to be set at their shallowest depths and gave the order: “Fire.” They rumbled over the stern and shot from throwers as Starling drew clear of the writhing enemy and began to gather speed again. But she was still not quite clear when the charges exploded to give the U-boat her death blow and shatter every light in Starling. To make quite sure, Woodpecker raced over the same spot still close to Starling and gave the U-boat “one for luck”, a pattern of charges which, had it still been floating, would have smashed it into pieces. There was no hope that anyone could have survived that attack. Walker wrote later: “I sent Starling’s whaler away to collect wreckage and the boat soon produced ample evidence that this particular U-boat had been gathered to his fathers. Locker doors and other floating wreckage marked in German, a burst tin of coffee and some walnuts were soon gathered. My Starling had not come through the rough house unscathed. The friendly crack on the nose from somebody’s gunnery team was taken in good part, but in addition, her beak was bent 30 degrees to starboard, the asdic gone and the for’ard magazines flooded.” One of the Group, taking the blame for knocking off Starling’s bull-ring, sent a signal of apology. Walker replied: “No harm done. Just a clout on the snout.” Wild Goose and Wren had meanwhile stumbled across the U-boat’s mate and were already pounding him with depth charges to prevent any attack on the stopped and defenceless Starling. It was by then nearly 10 am and Walker ordered the Group in to attack in turn. Wren carried out two attacks, Woodpecker followed, then Wild Goose and Kite finished up. There was no result, and the ships formed up for their next attacks. Wild Goose led off and the roar and rumble of crashing depth charges split the summer’s morning as Kite, Woodpecker and Wren followed. Nothing happened and, despite repeated signalled assertions that they were still in contact, Walker was nearly dancing with rage on the bridge of Starling. At one point he astonished his crew by throwing his cap to the deck and stamping on it with impotent fury, mostly pretended, but soon he was grinning again as a new thought struck him. He had absolute confidence in his commanding officers but his love of a good fight was stronger. He ordered the Yeoman: “Tell the Group to hold the contact and to cease attacking. Then tell Wild Goose to stop near me and prepare to exchange commanding officers.” His excuse was that “the position was getting out of hand. Ships were getting in each other’s way and it appeared they were attacking two separate contacts due, I think, to the presence of SBTs.”
Walker pointed Wild Goose at the target and called in Wren to steam slowly past him under his directions. As she came level, he shouted his instructions over the loudhailer. She was to move directly between himself and the target, 1000 yards ahead of Wild Goose, and proceed dead ahead at five knots. He would instruct her over the R/T, how and when to drop her charges. Wren crept stealthily into the direct line of attack and moved forward while Wild Goose kept the echo at a steady range and bearing. When Wren reached the same range and bearing as the U-boat, he called out on R/T: “Fire a deep pattern and then continue dropping charges set to maximum depth at five second intervals.” They watched Wren quiver under the impact of the explosions. Nothing came up. The first “creeping attack” had failed. Walker called up Kite and Woodpecker and they set off in line abreast for an “Operation Plaster” barrage attack, dropping more than fifty charges in the next few minutes. He then ordered Kite and Wren to approach slowly for another attack. It is doubtful if the U-boat’ ever knew what hit her. (Confirmed as U-449) By the wreckage that came bubbling up to the surface it looked as if she must have disintegrated under the blast of the charges from ships she could not have heard coming. Oil spread over the area, and Wren lowered a boat to investigate and pick up evidence of destruction to be forwarded to the Admiralty. It was then nearly 4 pm, and Walker took Wild Goose into the centre of the oil to see what they could find in the way of trophies. While leaning over the side of the bridge, the sailors nearest to Walker heard a loud rending noise come from the vicinity of his seat. They burst into scarcely-controlled giggles at the large hole that had appeared in his trousers. When he looked round startled and realised what had happened he collapsed in loud laughter. In his report of the action he wrote: “In my eagerness to view some of the wreckage floating nearby I split, most indecently, the only pair of trousers I had brought with me from Starling.” Making little more than eight knots, Starling was still in sight. Walker signalled the Group his now familiar “splice the mainbrace” and detached Kite to escort Starling back to Plymouth. The remainder of the patrol is best described by Walker’s personal record:
“During the night Wild Goose, Woodpecker and Wren proceeded in line abreast carrying out independent zigzags and searched at twelve knots. After the swift moving events of the forenoon and a second, if less dramatic success, while the sun was still high, the dark hours produced only an anti-climax. Nothing was seen of a U-boat and if any had been there to provide a hat trick to crown the splendour of this Midsummer’s Day, it passed peacefully on its way outside the range of the reduced but no less bloodthirsty Second Support Group. “On June 12th, Kite rejoined us, having handed over the safety of my Starling to a Hunt class destroyer sent from Plymouth, and immediately reported a periscope. Our hopes stirred but she soon dashed them by amending her report saying the periscope was the horn of a floating mine. Nothing exciting happened in the next two days and we set sail for Plymouth.” Meanwhile, the weather favoured the crippled Starling who arrived in Plymouth safely, the shouts and laughter of bathers in front of the Hoe reaching the men lined up on the tilting decks. Some bathers could be seen standing up and shading their eyes as they stared curiously at the odd-looking ship with her flooded bows buried deep in the water and her stern sticking grotesquely into the air. From the Commander- in-Chief’s flagstaff ashore flew the signal: “Well done, Second Support Group.” When at last they tied up alongside a jetty, she was immediately overrun by officials equipped with the largest water pumps they could find, apparently under the impression that Starling was about to sink at any minute. The officers led by Filleul, Burn and “Doc” Fraser headed for the nearest pub. On their return to the jetty, “Doc” acknowledged the salute of a naval patrol and promptly tripped in a pothole, falling flat on his face. He was the Group’s only casualty in the first blockade of the Biscayan ports. On June 3 Wild Goose, Wren, Woodpecker and Kite entered Plymouth harbour and tied up near Starling. From then on the dockyard superintendents were to have the full weight of Walker’s rank and energy to have Starling ready for sea within a month. Meanwhile, the First Sea Lord, Commander-in-Chief; Western Approaches, and Commander-in-Chief; Plymouth, had sent signals saying much in few words: “Well done again, Second Support Group.” At a special conference held by Admiral Sir Charles Forbes in Plymouth, Walker tended to play down the Group’s success with the first U-boat. “This one,” he said, “really rather deserved its fate. It did not even pay us the compliment of going deep or taking any appreciable avoiding action. I think we must have accidentally caught him with his pants down.” But, in a letter to the Admiralty, Admiral Forbes said: “This was the first occasion of a force of British vessels being sent into the Bay of Biscay itself. Much valuable experience was gained and the successes of the Second Support Group have made this strategy undoubtedly worthwhile.” Starling could look forward to a spell in harbour under repair. Walker was impatient, however, to strike again in the Bay before the enemy could change his tactics. He stayed in Wild Goose, leaving Commander Wemyss to supervise the healing of Starling’s wounds. Only three days after returning from the first blockade trip, the Group went to sea for the second time.