Chapters 10 - 12
CHAPTER 10 - HOIST GENERAL CHASE
ON July 3rd, 1943, the Group sailed from Plymouth to arrive in the “Musketry” patrol area the next evening shortly before midnight. At dawn two days later, a Sunderland reported a U-boat on the surface approximately thirty miles to the west of the Group, and Walker turned at full speed to investigate. Before the ships could arrive at the position, the aircraft reached its Prudent Limit of Endurance and was forced to head for home. It passed over the Group, exchanged signals of mutual regret and vanished into the distance, leaving the sloops with no sign of the enemy. They searched vainly for more than two hours and finally gave up in disgust. During the morning, a Catalina reported herself attacking three U-boats on the surface and followed quickly with another message saying she had been badly damaged and was returning to base. Her pilot forgot to give any position for the Group to follow up. Another aircraft flew into sight and blinked a signal to Walker saying that mechanical defects made it imperative to return to base. His departure left the Bay without air patrols of any kind. A biting signal from Walker to Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth about the beauties of air-sea co-operation, when no aircraft were flying, brought immediate results. At noon a Liberator appeared and placed himself under orders. He circled the Group at a range of thirty miles and, for the next few hours, it looked as though an air-sea team had finally been established. Unfortunately, the aircraft could stay only as long as its fuel lasted and, in the early evening, the Group were sorry this co-operative pilot had to fly back to base. Within an hour another Liberator had made a meteoric arrival and disappeared again before Walker could even make contact. The Group had been steaming eastwards all day and, by nightfall, were only ten miles from the Spanish coast; in fact, their radar screens were showing in clear greenish blobs landmarks known to be fifteen miles inland. The ships about-turned and headed to the northwest corner of “Musketry”, their starting-off point for sweeps towards Bordeaux and Lorient during the next two days. The series of disappointments continued, and it seemed possible that the enemy had taken steps to counter the blockade. Walker’s Report of Proceedings for this voyage reflected some of the frustration felt by the whole Group. There was something of Drake, Raleigh, Frobisher and Nelson in him. While ashore he was reserved to the point of shyness and restrained in all his dealings with people outside the Service but, once at sea with his own command, swash buckling tendencies came to the surface. It was impossible for anyone near him not to be affected, and the crew of Wild Goose, like the men of Starling, soon became inspired with a spirit of dash. By 11 am they were nearing the reported position of the enemy force and tension mounted when an aircraft reported the sinking of one U-boat. Soon they could see four aircraft circling wildly ahead over a sea covered in a spreading patch of oil. On the fringes were seven disconsolate-looking Germans squatting dumbly in a rubber dinghy. The Group raced past them, Walker signalling to his ships that there was no time to stop and pick them up. “It will do them no harm to contemplate nature while we do the hunting,” he snapped. Before Wren broke away from the formation, a Liberator dropped a smoke float on a U-boat eight miles away and she was quickly told to resume her station. Walker had turned the Group towards the thin column of smoke when look-outs in all ships sighted a whale blowing indignantly alongside the float. A few derisive signals about “blind” pilots passed between the ships as they returned to their asdic sweep. This time Wren peeled off and hurried to pick up the Germans, now a tiny speck on the horizon and, at the same time, five JU 88’s appeared and followed her movements with cautious curiosity while she rescued their countrymen. U-607, a 500-ton U-boat commanded by Oberleutnant Jeschonneck had left Lorient for operations off Kingston, Jamaica, on the evening of the 12th. After midnight, champagne had been served to the crew to celebrate the captain’s birthday and, for this reason perhaps, they were a little slow in sighting a Sunderland which roared in to attack at 8 am on the 13th. The first bombs scored direct hits on the frantically dodging boat, blowing the conning tower party into the water. They were the only survivors, the remainder of the crew being trapped in U-607 which sank immediately.
Jeschonneck and his six companions were swimming together when the Sunderland came low and, for a panic-stricken moment, they feared they were about to be machine-gunned. Instead, the aircraft dropped a raft alongside them and circled high overhead, obviously directing surface units to their position. By now, even Walker had decided that Doenitz was refusing to give battle and, with this anti-climax, the Group made glumly for Plymouth, which they finally reached on the i6th. Walker found that Starling was not yet ready for sea, so he took a few days’ leave to see his wife and family in Liverpool and to deliver his Report of Proceedings personally to Sir Max Horton who was demanding first-hand reports of the Group’s activities. His obvious delight at Walker’s adventures came out in the covering letter he wrote when forwarding the Captain’s Official Report to the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare at the Admiralty. “This is typical of Walker,” said Sir Max. “A nice bright and breezy report even if the metaphors are a bit mixed. All huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ with a little cricket thrown in for good measure.” By the end of 1942, a large number of ships in the Western Approaches Command had been fitted with new anti submarine devices designed to reduce the margin of an enemy’s potential escape. The asdic was modified to the extent that the operator could not only “ping” on a target ahead and below but could estimate its depth. Recording machines electrically operated with the asdic set showed a commanding officer roughly what evasive action the enemy was employing. These improved devices called for new armaments for precision attacks. With the “guesswork” being taken out of the normal attack procedure, it would be possible to fire projectiles to explode on impact. After the marked lull in June caused by the temporary retirement of the U-boats from the convoy routes, the enemy returned cautiously into the North Atlantic during July. Doenitz threw 150 U-boats into this mid-summer blitz in a concentrated thrust aimed at severing the Atlantic lifelines. To do this, he had to regain the initiative by sending his boats into their patrol areas at the greatest possible speed. This meant sailing across the Bay on the surface and risking losses due to air attack. To minimise the danger, he reverted to sending them out in groups of three, and sometimes five. When Walker received a copy of this intelligence from Commander-in-Chief; Plymouth, he announced joyfully: “So they are back on the surface. Long may they continue to be".
On July 22nd, he transferred his command to Kite, handed back Wild Goose to Commander Wemyss, welcomed a new sister sloop to the Group, Woodcock, and sailed the following day to enforce the blockade in the Bay of Biscay. When the Second Support Group arrived in the southern section of the Bay for the “Musketry” patrol at noon on July 2 he sent the following signal to all ships: “This time we must deliver a hard enough blow for the Boche to be left in no uncertainty about the fate of his U-boats. He must be made to realise that the Royal Navy considers the Bay of Biscay a happy hunting ground and will stamp out any attempt to restrict the free and rightful passage of Allied shipping. When we meet him we will destroy him. We are a hunting force and from now on, ‘a-hunting we will go’.” It was not surprising that from then onwards the famous old song, “A-Hunting We Will Go”, became the Group’s signature tune to be played over the leader’s loudhailer each time Starling entered and left harbour. During this fine, balmy afternoon with a frivolous sea leaping lightly across the slight, contented swell, the five sloops steered to the southeast towards the coast of Spain in their normal hunting formation, line abreast and two miles apart. At 6 pm they sighted an object which looked to Kite’s Officer of the Watch suspiciously like a conning tower ten miles to port. He sounded action stations, reported to Walker, and the Group turned to investigate. As they drew nearer, the object became a large ocean-going fishing boat and closer inspection proved it to be the Spanish trawler, Europe 5, from Vigo. “Musketry” was one of the areas the Admiralty had promulgated as being used by neutrals at their own risk. Should they ignore the warning and be met by British warships, they were liable to be taken as prize or sunk. Walker did not hesitate; it was impossible for him to continue his patrol with the trawler in tow as a prize, so he ordered Wren to take off the Spaniards and sink her. An hour later, seventeen Spanish fishermen were aboard Wren, and Europe 5 was blown up and sunk. For the next two days the Group swept to the westward in close contact with air patrols. Walker grumbled that, now air-sea co-operation was working so well that he was rarely without a Sunderland or Catalina in company, the enemy was refusing to give battle. But at noon on the 28th, just as the five ships’ companies were being piped to dinner, alarm bells clanged and nearly 1000 men scrambled to their action stations. Three more Spanish trawlers had invaded the prohibited area and were about to regret it. Walker instructed Wild Goose and Woodpecker to take off the crews and destroy the boats while the remainder of the Group covered the operation against enemy intervention. The sea began to fill with trawlers and, in no time, each of the five sloops was busy taking off fishermen and sinking their boats. The El Viro was sunk by Kite; Montenegro by Wild Goose; Buena Esperansa by Woodpecker; Don Antonio by Woodpecker and Comparrel by Woodcock. Another trawler, H. de Valterra, was kept in reserve to act as an evacuee ship and, later in the afternoon, all the fishermen, including the seventeen who had enjoyed the hospitality of Wren since the 25th were transferred to her. “This bedraggled little vessel,” wrote Captain Walker in his Report, “with her decks packed with excited Spaniards, bore some faint resemblance to the old pleasure steamers brought out for the day to cope with the Bank Holiday trippers at home. But she lacked that fleeting air of dignity which befits an old vessel brought out to meet such a situation and, as she lay between Woodpecker and Kite, she cut a pitiful figure of poverty, neglect and squalor in sharp contrast to the business-like air of His Majesty’s ships and the blue-gold glory of a shimmering afternoon in the Bay of Biscay.
“However, carnival gives place to duty and H. de Valterra was slapped on the flank and told to go home, which she did to continuous cries of “Vive Angleterre”, just as three more trawlers hove in sight. It would, I am sure be an exaggeration to say that they had heard the buzz and were anxious to join the party. It proved impossible to add them to their gallant band of brothers as the Admiralty had just reported a U-boat in our vicinity, an aircraft had signalled a sighting report and the Group formed up in line abreast and set off to the northwest at full speed.” Nothing came of this search and the Group resumed patrol ling through the northwest corner of “Musketry”, their cruise assuming the aspect of peacetime exercises until shortly after 7 am on the 30th when Wild Goose intercepted the wireless signals of a U-boat talking to her base at Lorient. Walker wheeled off the Group and set course along the bearing to the southwest and an hour later an aircraft reported himself circling over three U-boats roughly in the same position as that which they were already chasing. By 8.30 a.m. all ships were receiving excellent bearings of the chattering U-boat. She was probably telling Lorient of the aircraft patrolling above herself and her partners. The many and varied positions being signalled by the now wildly excited aircraft were ignored. At 9.30 am the Group sighted an aircraft low on the horizon ahead and almost immediately heard the sound of exploding depth charges. Alarm bells rang through each ship and the men rushed to their action stations for what looked like an interesting battle. At 10 am the enemy came in sight on the horizon, three conning towers turning together to avoid attacks from three aircraft. Four minutes later, Walker’s rarely-revealed love of the dramatic came to the fore as he beckoned to Kite’s yeoman of signals and ordered: “Hoist the General Chase.”
For a moment the yeoman was confused. Then, with a smile of joy, he raced to the rear of the bridge and a few seconds later made a signal used only twice before in the Royal Navy, once by Drake, when he chased the Spanish Armada from the Channel, and again by Nelson when he defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile. When the flags came down in the executive signal for the order to come into operation, the five sloops surged forward under maximum power, each ship now free to race for the privilege of being the first to engage the enemy. Those with binoculars turned towards Kite’s bridge would have seen Walker waving his cap in the air as though, by doing so, he could urge each of his brood on to greater efforts. The two bloated-looking boats of 1600 tons, U-461 commanded by Korvettenkapitan Steibler, and U-462 commanded by Oberleutnant Bruno Vowe, had sailed from Bordeaux on July 28th for patrols off the Brazilian and central American coasts. Their escort for the Bay crossing was U-504, a fast 500-tonner commanded by Kapitanleutnant Luis.
Steibler, a bluff; hearty officer of thirty-six, had only recently brought U-504 back from North America where he had carried out a special mission for Army Headquarters in Berlin. An Army officer and three civilian wireless specialists had been taken to about fifty miles off the coast of Maine. There they had set up secret radio equipment in the wireless room and locked themselves in. Members of the crew were banned from the room during the operation, but Steibler had known they were using a map of the United States on which all radio stations were marked in red. He could only assume the experts were trying to discover something about these stations.’ (These were actually radar and cypher experts attempting to establish the positions of U.S. Coastal and radar stations in preparation for possible commando raids from a U-boat striking force). After lying surfaced for nearly three days, the specialists had completed whatever they were doing and he had headed for home. On the way, he found a lifeboat filled with survivors from the British merchantman, Teesbank, which had been torpedoed by U-505. He ordered provisions to be passed across and took the merchant skipper, Captain Lorrain, back to Germany as a prisoner. Nearer France, U-461 had met the survivors of another British ship, the SS Saint Margaret, torpedoed the night before by U-588. He took prisoner her captain, Mr. DMS Davis, of Liverpool, and had more provisions handed down into the lifeboat. Among the survivors were a Polish woman and her daughter and an Englishwoman. Captain Davis called out for someone to tell his wife in Liverpool what had happened, and Steibler set off at full speed on the surface for Bordeaux and the end of an eventful trip. On the morning of the 3 the three U-boats were making their way westwards on the surface across the Bay when a Sunderland flew out of cloud and began circling them. The Germans were not too worried, being capable of a concentrated combined fire almost guaranteed to scare off the most determined pilot. But in the next hour two more aircraft, a Halifax bomber and a United States Liberator, joined the Sunderland and the U-boats could expect a three-cornered attack at any moment. Steibler was sailing in the centre of the line abreast in formation with Vowe in U-462 to starboard and Luis in U-504 to port. The three aircraft roared down to the attack. The first three attempts to dive-bomb were beaten off with a vicious crossfire from the three boats. While they were turning to form up in line ahead, the Liberator came down to bomb U-504, now in the lead. With the guns of all three concentrating on this threat, the Sunderland came up astern and dropped a depth charge neatly alongside U-461. It exploded directly underneath her, blowing her vast bulk upwards almost clear of the water. A great hole was torn in her bottom and, as she came down to the surface, the ocean poured into her and she sank in seconds.
Only Steibler and fourteen of his crew of sixty survived. (By a curious coincidence the identification number of the Sunderland which sank U-461 was also U-461, it was aircraft “U” of 461 Squadron.) The Sunderland’s successful attack, the pilot’s first engagement with a U-boat, was made possible only by the Liberator’s deliberately diving low to draw the full weight of the enemy fire away from her. It was a gallant gesture and, though badly shot up, 0-53 of the United States Army Air Force limped across the Bay and reached Portugal where the pilot made a lucky crash-landing. The crew escaped injury and were later returned to the United Kingdom by the Portuguese authorities. When the range closed to six miles the second Support Group, with Kite slightly in the lead and Walker waving his cap and grinning to the next ship in line, opened fire with their for’ard guns. The battle now became a strictly naval occasion and the aircraft withdrew to watch the Group race into action, guns roaring, engines pulsating and bow waves high as they drove through the choppy seas. A Royal Air Force officer wrote later: “It was a grand sight, those five ships in line abreast cutting along at full speed in a blue-white sea under a deep blue sky. The guns roared and the smell of cordite hung over the ocean and guns crews cheered as shells dropped near the twisting targets.” On the conning tower of U-462 Vowe, an elderly officer promoted from the lower deck, was feeling anxious. His boat had been hit by three shells, badly holed and two of his officers were suffering from wounds caused by shell and splinters. There seemed little likelihood of making a surface escape with five ships on his heels. As the next barrage screamed overhead, he ordered scuttling charges to be set. The shells were dropping close again. There was a stunning explosion on the foredeck as two hits exploded in quick succession. To stay aboard any longer would be suicide. Vowe shouted his next order: “Abandon ship.” Within a few minutes the crew were swimming in the water and, as the scuttling charges went off the stricken U-boat shuddered under the impact of more direct hits. Then she caved inwards and sank. On the bridge of Kite, a signalman read a message being flashed from the Halifax bomber. “Congratulations. U-boat no more.” With both “milch cows” sunk, there remained the operational escort, U-504. A worried witness of the fate which had overcome his two brothers-in-arms, Kapitanleutnant Luis had not waited for the gunfire barrage of the Group to be turned on him. He dived and went deep in the hope of escaping under cover of the confusion caused by survivors and wreckage on the surface. He reckoned without Captain Walker who, guessing his intentions, formed the Group in circles patrolling round the spreading oil, wreckage and survivors. In less than five minutes, Kite gained asdic contact and Walker ordered an immediate attack. It took him a few minutes to reach this decision; the point of attack would be less than half a mile from where the shouting survivors were swimming in clusters. Later he wrote in his Report: “When I ordered Kite into attack no one could foretell what effect it would have on the members of the Aryan bathing party who were but a short distance astern with the whites of their eyes clearly visible. It was a fateful moment although there was no question of a sword hanging over their heads; rather was their fate to be decided much lower down.” Contact with the U-boat was lost and regained intermittently until 11.30 a.m. when Walker withdrew the Group to take stock of the situation. There was no doubt that the U-boat had gone deep after the first attack. It was now necessary, in his view, to “get down to the job seriously”. Placing Kite in position as the directing ship, he lined up the Group for a series of creeping attacks alternated with three- ship barrage assaults. Woodpecker crept in silently to drop twenty-two depth charges at maximum settings. Wild Goose followed. It was enough. Oil and wreckage plummeted to the surface, including planks of wood, a mass of sodden clothing, a side of bacon and a human lung. “The bacon had been well cured,” wrote Walker grimly, “but the lung was very new.” With U-504 and the hopeful Kapitanleutnant Luis destroyed, the Group returned to the bunches of survivors who were distributed between Kite, Wren and Woodpecker. That evening they sighted a yellow sail and Walker ordered Woodpecker to pick up the occupants of the raft. These were found to be the crew of a Focke-Wulf which, they said, had been shot down by a Beaufighter on July 29th. However, Woodpecker’s doctor reported that two of the wounded survivors had received their injuries not later than the 27th. This caused some puzzlement among the Group as no one could imagine why the Germans should bother to lie about a harmless date. By the 30th the Group had reached “U-boat Alley”, the direct route across the Bay between the Atlantic and Bordeaux and begun sweeping towards the French coast. At 9 am on August 1st, another eventful day for the Second Support Group opened with the report of an aircraft that she was circling a U-boat riding fast on the surface towards open sea only forty miles away. For two hours they crashed along at full speed through rough seas and a short heavy swell with no further report from the aircraft.
A Catalina then came in sight to give the position of a U-boat on the surface which was almost certainly that reported earlier. This aircraft proved an attentive and efficient guide. He had dropped a smoke float on the spot where the U-boat had dived and proceeded to con the Group to the marker. Walker commenced his sweep steering westwards in the belief that the U-boat would continue on her passage to the Atlantic and, shortly after 2 pm, his look-outs sighted a Sunderland bombing a target ten miles ahead. The Group raced forward and were closing the U-boat rapidly when the Sunderland made another attack. To the horror of the watching sailors, the aircraft failed to pull out of her dive and crashed headlong into the sea. There came a deafening roar as her remaining bombs exploded. It seemed impossible that anyone could have survived. When the Group raced up, they found six RAF men safe in a makeshift raft while, further away, crouched the terrified crew of the destroyed U-boat. The crews of all five ships cheered in spontaneous admiration for an aircraft which had pressed home its attack in the face of such a hot barrage from the enemy that both pilots had been killed, but not before their bombs had gone on their way to kill the U-boat. This was U-454 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Backlander, a man who struck the officers of Kite as being that rare breed, a pleasant type of non-political German. Only twelve others of his crew of forty-five survived. Wren was detached to pick up the RAF crew who were using a wing of their broken aircraft as a raft. On August 2nd, the day began with reports that a force of enemy Narvik-class destroyers had sailed from the French ports to clear the Bay of the Second Support Group. This caused Walker to order the Group into line-ahead formation and steer at full speed for the French coast to engage the enemy. As this class of destroyers were virtually young cruisers, some in the Group thought that their Leader was taking a bite at something a little too big this time. The vast majority, however, were sublimely confident. Guns were cleared for action in an atmosphere of cheerful anticipation of a new and bigger kill. The Group hunted for the German force for two days without success and were eventually ordered to return to Plymouth, where they arrived on the 6th. At the flagstaff in front of Admiralty House, the C-in-C’s residence, flew the signal: “Well done again, Second Support Group.”
Walker, who had fired depth charges when men were in the water nearby, had killed more Germans than any other officer in the Western Approaches Command, felt keenly that the Spanish fishermen operating in the “Musketry” area were unaware that they invited instant death by their fishing in prohibited waters. As soon as Kite had been tied up alongside, he made his way ashore and reported to the Commander-in-Chief’s staff: “I feel it should be widely promulgated that these Spaniards are a harmless, ignorant and cheerful lot, utterly pro-British. It is unlikely that the order to attack on sight in ‘Musketry’ could ever be carried out by a British naval officer who was aware of this.” As a result, the Admiralty amended its shoot-to-kill order for the blockade, instructing instead that Spanish fishermen should receive the sort of treatment given them by the Second Support Group, evacuation from their ships, which should then be sunk, and sent back to Spain in a refugee trawler kept afloat for the purpose. To Walker’s joy, Starling had completed her refit, carried out trials and was ready for duty. Handing Kite to her commanding officer, he transferred back to his old quarters in Starling. On arrival in harbour, he telephoned Eilleen to join him in Plymouth where she arrived in time to see the German prisoners marched into captivity. They had a week-end together before Johnnie sailed again leaving his wife to stay for a short holiday with some friends in Somerset before returning to Liverpool. While there she received her first warning that something had happened to Timmy. A letter was forwarded to her from a friend of her son’s. It offered condolences on his death. Deeply shocked, Eilleen wrote to Captain (D), Liverpool, asking if he could find out if the submarine Parthian were all right. Several days of anxious, agonising hopes punctuated by moments of depression followed until eventually she cut her holiday short and returned to Liverpool. At home there was a message asking her to telephone Captain (D) and intuitively she realised that the letter-writer had known the truth. On calling Captain (D)’s office she learned that Parthian was overdue and presumed lost from an operation in the Mediterranean. It was thought at Derby House that the Group would return to Liverpool the following week. Eilleen requested that her husband should not be told the news while at sea. Meanwhile the Group, which had sailed on the 9th, was now engaged in a battle with the Luftwaffe.
During July, the blockade of the Bay of Biscay began to yield results; twenty-one U-boats were sunk by air and sea patrols in the “Musketry” and “Seaslug” areas, sightings were fewer and it seemed that Doenitz was exploring a possible alternative route to the Atlantic by sailing his boats down the Spanish coast inside the three-mile territorial waters limit. Interrogation of survivors had begun to show a deterioration in the U-boat crews. The Intelligence survey for July, 1943, said: “Main reasons for the decline in morale are the heavy U-boat losses and a growing realisation that Germany can no longer hope to win the war. At least two out of every five prisoners are quite willing to admit that they have had more than enough of the war which they consider as good as lost. Their own war-weariness is increased by depressing letters from equally tired relations and friends inside Germany.” Doenitz’s attempts to find a route round the Bay instead of across it became apparent when the Second Support Group arrived for their next patrol in the “Musketry” area on August 12th. There were few aircraft sightings of the enemy and, throughout the patrol, the Group enlivened proceedings by a series of encounters with the Luftwaffe. On the first day they sighted a party of eight JU 88s who darted in close for a quick look before making off at high speed. The next day another flock paid a brief visit and, in the afternoon, the ships sighted an empty RAF rubber dinghy half-submerged. In the evening, the sloops were in sight of the Spanish coast when nine JU 88 fighter-bombers circled above and looked as though they were about to attack. Action stations were sounded and, as the aircraft came in low on the horizon, they were met by a full barrage from the six sloops, followed by a stream of machine-gun and oerlikon tracers which forced them to swerve away and split up. It was not Walker’s way to take evasive action; he forced the Group into line abreast and at full speed headed towards the regrouping point of the aircraft over the Spanish coast; a gesture more of bravado than menace. Enemy planes screamed in low again, but this time Walker kept his armament silent, allowing the aircraft to come into range of the small-arms before giving the executive signal to open fire. The JU 88s were caught in a fierce fan of gunfire which again they were unable to penetrate; instead they broke away, two of them heading back towards France with smoke belching from their tails.
By this time, almost a revolution in air-sea warfare had taken place. In effect, six sloops doing twenty-one knots were chasing a formation of aircraft capable of more than 300 miles an hour. The enemy carried out the next attack in two groups, one of three and the other of four, at a great height. They were greeted by a barrage from eighteen twin-barrelled mountings which split up their formations and sent them scattering back to the coast. Another plane was seen to be in difficulty, losing height as it changed course and headed northwards from the battlefield. This was their last attempt. They circled out of range while the ships, reaching the three-mile limit of Spanish waters, turned on a sweep towards Bordeaux. Only then did the remaining six aircraft vanish into the haze, chased and defeated by surface units. It was a remarkable encounter. Although no planes were seen to crash, and therefore could not be claimed, it is certain that two and probably three were damaged without ever dropping a bomb or firing a shot. The sloops were fortunate perhaps that the aircraft had not been led by a more determined leader. On the 10th, three Focke-Wulf bombers came accidentally within range of the Group’s guns and were chased away with shells exploding around them. Four days later the sloops headed for Liverpool having neither sighted nor gained contact with anything more exciting than a school of porpoise. In fact, the successes of the Second Support Group in “Musketry”, of other Groups patrolling in “Seaslug”, and of Coastal Command and patrols supported recently by Mosquito squadrons to ward off marauding JU 88s, enforced the blockade to the extent that Doenitz had for the first time lost the initiative since the fall of France and the occupation of the Biscayan ports.
In deference to Eilleen’s wishes Johnnie had not been told about the fate of Parthian, when the Group were about to enter Gladstone Docks, she prepared to meet him and break the news quietly in the privacy of his cabin. But while Starling was being mancruvred into position for the tricky approach to the narrow entrance of the dock, a signalman reported to Walker: “There is someone ashore waving as though he wants to come aboard urgently, Sir.” It was an officer from Derby House and, as Starling nosed her way through the entrance, he leapt on to the quarter deck and rushed up to the bridge. After saluting, he said: “I have been ordered to report to you, Sir, that your son Timothy is believed to have been killed in action while serving in the submarine Parthian.” A shocked silence followed his words; with the seeming exception of Walker, all were stunned by the news and the almost indecent haste with which it had been given, not through any fault of the officer, but because no one had waited until the ship was safely docked. Walker’s face was expressionless as he continued to bring Starling alongside the jetty. It was a difficult manoeuvre at the best of times and Walker, superb seaman as he was, could not lay claim to being an expert ship handler in confined waters. This time, he conned his ship brilliantly and, after “Finished with Engines” had been rung on the telegraph, left the bridge without a word to greet Eilleen at the gangway and escort her to his cabin. Starling’s officers helped them both through that difficult morning. One by one they came to their Captain’s cabin to have a drink and try to talk light-hearted nonsense. Eilleen still remembers how much it meant not to have a procession of people coming to offer sympathy. In the afternoon, they visited the Red Cross headquarters in Liverpool to register Timothy’s biographical details on the chance that he might still be alive and taken prisoner. In their own hearts, however, they realised he was dead, although the Admiralty officially recognised him at this stage as being missing. By an earlier arrangement, Starling’s Wardroom were giving a party the next afternoon for the officials and wives of a borough which had more or less adopted Starling. Filleul offered to have the party cancelled, but neither Johnnie nor Eilleen would hear of it. The party was held as arranged and even the hosts seemed to be enjoying it. No mention was made of the tragic blow under which Captain and Mrs. Walker were suffering until someone, looking at the family photographs in Johnnie’s cabin, asked Eilleen how many children she had. Unthinkingly she answered four . . . then she stopped short in sudden realisation, her eyes meeting her husband’s across the cabin. The incident was passed over in a spate of chatter. It has since been suggested in various newspaper reports that Captain Walker fought from that time onwards in a spirit of revenge. This was not so; he hated the Nazi creed and would take any measures to stamp it out. But towards the Germans as people he was completely impersonal, they were foreigners he hardly knew. During this period in harbour, the London Gazette published a list of awards to the Second Support Group for their exploits on the “Musketry” patrols. In his Reports of Proceedings, Walker took care to recommend those officers and ratings he thought had done what he called a “good job of work”. Conversely, he would always stress tactical blunders for which he considered himself responsible. The Gazette was a sure guide to the opinions of his senior officers ashore. He was made a Commander of the Order of the Bath, only officers of Flag Rank were made Knights, and once again the citation stressed, among other qualities, his skill in leadership.
Starling’s First Lieutenant and asdic officer, Lieutenant Impey, had already received a D.S.C. while serving under Walker in Stork. Now he received the DSO but, before the ships sailed again, contracted an illness which put him ashore indefinitely. Filleul found he had been given a double honour, the DSC and, at Walker’s invitation, he replaced Impey as First Lieutenant. The communications team were not forgotten. Yeoman of Signals E. C. Keyworth and Chief Petty Officer (Telegraphist) T. Teece, already the holders of the D.S.M., both received Bars. On the second evening ashore, John and Wendy Filleul were invited with Alan Burn to dine with the Walkers at “The White House”. Eilleen had recovered from her illness and, to her husband’s obvious relief seemed in cheerful spirits. Gillian and Wendy had both joined the Wrens, so the dinner was an all-naval occasion. Walker, the host, was courteous and flattering. To the amazement of his young officers who were accustomed only to taking his orders and admiring him from a respectful distance, he waited on them with an old-world dignity, personally seeing that they had everything they wanted and not allowing his wife to carry the brunt of Guest Night. It is for such simple gestures that Walker is remembered to-day by his old officers. Towards the end of August, Doenitz resumed his offensive against the North American coastal and Atlantic convoy routes; on the 31st Starling led the Group to sea again, less Woodpecker who had gone to Bristol for a refit. They carried out a series of anti-submarine exercises off Londonderry and set course for the Bay of Biscay on September 6th. Approaching “Musketry” they came across a small sailing vessel which turned out to be the French fisherman J’Tana Goutreau, from La Rochelle. According to Captain Walker’s report, “no vessel afloat could have conveyed to the most suspicious observer a more peaceful or innocuous impression and this little vessel’s inoffensive appearance was not belied by my boarding party. “However, a striking force patrol in the Bay has no time to enthuse over the beauty of sail or the ancient calling of fisher men, so after her crew had been taken aboard Woodcock she was scuttled at noon on September 8th. She went down with her mainsail still set and her outsize fishing rods waving plaintively in the air against the sky. This was the nearest the Second Support Group had ever come to shooting an albatross.” At dawn next morning, the Group sighted a dinghy tossing dangerously in a choppy sea and heavy swell. In it were five survivors from the crew of a Liberator which had been attacked by four JU 88s eight days before. The bomber had destroyed one enemy plane before being shot down herself, with the pilot and sergeant co-pilot dead at the controls. Shortly after the remainder of the crew had taken to the dinghy, a U-boat surfaced alongside. The aircrew asked the Germans for some drinking water, to be needed badly in the days ahead, but, in Captain Walker’s own words: “This simple request from a beaten adversary was refused by the gallant U-boat captain in accordance with the accepted traditions of the U-boat Arm.” Only a few hours before being picked up by Wild Goose, two more officers in the dinghy had died of exposure and thirst. Another, a Sergeant Bareham, was seriously wounded and in spite of continuous medical treatment died on September 10th. Seven hours later, Pilot Officer Collins also died of exposure and exhaustion. They were buried at sea from Wild Goose the same day. That evening a signal was received from Commander-in- Chief, Western Approaches, ordering two of the Group to the assistance of a North Atlantic convoy, XE 11. Walker detached Kite and Woodcock while the remaining three sloops continued their patrol to the south. At 2.20 pm on the 15th five JU 88s were sighted flying out of range down the starboard side of the Group and twenty minutes later eight more appeared. This long, thin enemy procession flew completely round the Group, and Walker saw it as a curtain-raiser for more evil events. At 3 pm a Halifax bomber rushed to the scene and stayed close to the Group for the next three hours, obviously seeking protection under their guns. His vast bulk tempted four of what were thought to be enemy planes to attempt a quick thrust low over the water. The Group opened fire but stopped after the first salvo when the “marauders” were recognised as Mosquitos, apparently nothing to do with the patrolling JU 88s and wanting no part of them. They swished over the sloops and vanished towards the coast of France. The next arrival in the early evening was a Liberator which came and went abruptly before they had time to establish signalling contact. All this coming and going of friends and enemies kept the interest of the sloops at a high pitch, Walker’s most of all. He wrote later: “It is probably a great many years since most of the officers in Starling had read Alice in Wonderland, but a child of twelve would have had no difficulty in explaining what this great scurrying to and fro brought to mind. All these events seemed to be working up to an Imperial Tea Party indeed, but it is reported regretfully that after all the preparations that had been made by the Group nothing happened for the remainder of the day.”
For the next two days they patrolled about 100 miles off Bordeaux and down to Spanish territorial limits. Early on the morning of the 17th it was reported that a British aircraft had been shot down about seventy miles to the north, and the sloops set off to search for survivors. The report and the Group’s navigation proved satisfyingly accurate when at 8 am they sighted a dinghy; half an hour later eleven of a crashed Sunderland’s air crew were sipping hot cocoa aboard Starling. By coincidence, the captain of the aircraft and six members of the crew had been in the Sunderland which had destroyed the U-461 at the time when the Group had raced across the Bay under the “General Chase”. Later that day, Kite and Woodcock rejoined having had an adventurous twenty-four hours assisting XE 11 through a danger area. At one time the two sloops had sailed into the outfield to meet a formation of JU 88s flying in low to attack the convoy. The aircraft were met by the combined fire of the ships and, after a thirty-minute engagement in which neither side scored hits, the enemy broke off the action without getting nearer to their main target. The Group returned to Liverpool on the 20th with fourteen airmen and four French tunnymen, the latter, if anything, more excited at their adventure and the prospect of being guests of the British Government than the RAF men returning to fly again. Between May and August, the U-boat Arm had taken a severe beating. In the Bay, Coastal Command aircraft and the Second Support Group had made the passage en route to the Atlantic a dangerous undertaking; on the northern Atlantic convoy routes, increased escort groups operating under continuous air cover were taking a heavy toll of the “packs”. The stamina and efficiency of the U-boat crews began to wilt and when they returned to harbour there was no rest, for the Allied offensive was maintained by nightly visits to the Biscayan bases by Bomber Command. By August Admiralty Intelligence could report: “The U-boats have been forced on the defensive and for the moment appear to have no antidote for the great and growing power of the Allies working together in unison on the sea and in the air.” This was unusually encouraging from a source which preferred to survey the Atlantic scene cautiously; and it gave rise to the premature hope that, if the battle were not yet won, victory was at least in sight. Doenitz, probably the finest U-boat tactician Germany had ever produced, made a practice of probing our defences and striking hard when a weak link was exposed in the thin chain stretching over the vast, lonely wastelands of the north and south Atlantic. By the time we had raced reinforcements to one area he had found a crack elsewhere. Late in August, he discovered that Allied convoys from America to North Africa were being routed for speed 500 miles southwest of the Azores, an area which shore-based aircraft could not reach, and returned to the offensive in two directions. He spread more than a hundred U-boats across the Atlantic, some to cut the smaller supply arteries off Rio de Janeiro, Freetown, Mexico and the West Indies, while his main forces were concentrated in the “Black Hole” to intercept convoys taking the southern route to the Mediterranean and again along the northern routes to disrupt the supplies of men and materials gathered in Britain for the invasion of Normandy. This offensive was accompanied by the introduction into the Battle of the Atlantic of two new weapons which struck a sombre chord in the wearied breasts of our sailors who were faced yet again with the spectre of U-boat supremacy and the mass destruction of convoys. The first of these “secret weapons” made its appearance on September 20th when two west-bound convoys, one of nearly fifty ships and the other of some thirty-odd, both with escorts, were within ninety miles of each other nearly 700 miles out into the Atlantic. Long-range air cover was supplied by Liberators from Iceland, and twenty U-boats were known to be operating in the vicinity. At dawn, one of the escorts was torpedoed, losing her stern, and soon afterwards the two merchant ships nearest to her were also torpedoed. One of the escorts took the stricken warship in tow, and miraculously she made port barely afloat. Meanwhile, the two convoys joined forces at noon and pooled their escorts, an operation easier to order than effect. Nearly 100 merchant ships had to be re-organised without loss of speed by a handful of escorts. The senior officer of the combined escort group, Commander (now Captain) M. J. Evans, wrote later: “The two convoys gyrated majestically round the ocean never appearing to get much closer to a union and watched appreciatively by a growing swarm of U-boats.” The combined convoy was seven miles deep and eight miles across when the first attacks developed after dark. For the next five nights, sometimes in dense fog, they were under continuous assault and eventually reached safety on the sixth day, at a price. Despite the strain of handling so many ships in fog while knowing that the U-boat “packs” were in contact by hydrophones, only six merchant ships were lost. Far more serious was the loss of three warships and another damaged, for the probable destruction of three U-boats. Curiously, all the warships torpedoed had reported their sterns blown off.
An intense interrogation began of the crew of the one that made port under tow to find the answer to this curious phenomenon. This enquiry, followed by an analysis of the escort’s manoeuvring at the time she was hit, when added to the reports of the three warships which had been sunk, reached an astonishing and alarming conclusion. The enemy was apparently using a torpedo which followed a ship’s course and struck her in the stern. Intelligence soon provided indisputable evidence that Doenitz was equipping his U-boats with three or four of these acoustic weapons, and the true picture began to unfold. This deadly torpedo was intended primarily to destroy escorts so that a convoy would be left unprotected at the mercy of ordinary torpedoes. The new weapon could be fired at extreme range in the general direction of an escort. It would then “hear” her propellers and automatically alter course towards the target, faithfully following her zigzags until hitting the propellers and blowing off her stern. This provided a disquieting thought to depth-charge crews whose action station was on quarter decks. Only experience in action would produce a counter-measure; meanwhile, morale among the escorts of the Western Approaches Command took a serious knock. What could be done about torpedoes which followed you around until they hit? The second weapon made its appearance in the battle late in September while the Second Support Group, still without Woodpecker, was patrolling off Lorient searching for U-boats which continued to creep across the Bay surfacing only at night for the minimum time necessary to charge their batteries. They saw nothing on this patrol, although on September 29th a signal was received warning all ships of an air attack in which an escort had been subjected to a “glider bomb” assault.
Chase Me Charlie
A Dornier bomber was apparently sighted by this escort off the French coast and it cautiously circled out of range. Surprisingly, it flew towards the escort as though to attack but, while still at extreme range, let go a missile which looked like an ordinary bomb with miniature wings. Instead of falling, the bomb headed direct for the startled ship. Before reaching its target, the bomb executed a tight turn and dived into the sea. When the Group returned to Liverpool on October 9th, they studied reports of the incident and learned that the bomb was the first guided missile ever to be launched in anger. It was rocket-propelled, fitted with small wings to give stability, and radio-controlled on to its target from the launching “parent” aircraft. Morale was shaken again. Not only were the escorts to be chased by “gnats”, as the acoustic torpedoes were nicknamed, but now they could be attacked from the air with bombs directed on to them no matter what evasive action they employed. The men of Western Approaches dubbed the glider bombs, “Chase-me-Charlies”. From the “gnat”, Admiralty experts established some measure of defence. If escorts steamed at not more than eight knots or less than twenty-four they were immune. Analyses of widespread attacks showed that the torpedoes were hard to shake off between these speeds, but could not “hear” propellers outside them. There was an important snag. At seven knots the escort would be too slow for the convoys, and at twenty-five the convoys would be too slow for the escorts.
Another defence was the introduction of “foxers”, a device which would, it was hopefully supposed, attract the “gnat” and explode it well astern of the target. This consisted of a series of wires trailed over the stern on the ends of which were long strips of metal. When a ship was at sea, according to theory, the metal strips were tossed around in the wake some fifty yards astern and clashed together making a din the “gnats” could not fail to hear above the noise of the propellers. Walker had no use for the “foxer”. It made so much noise the asdic set became practically useless. He rarely used it, relying instead on contacting the enemy first. Against the “Chase-me-Charlies” there was no defence until, one day in the Bay, an escort was attacked by an aircraft which launched its “glider bomb” just as a scientist aboard switched on his electric razor to test out a theory. To the amazement of the ship and the enemy aircraft, the new weapon gyrated about the sky in a fantastic exhibition of aerobatics finally giving chase to its own “parent”. In some inexplicable way, the “Chase-me-Charlie” control system had been affected by electric waves given off by the razor. This method was never officially admitted by the Admiralty as a defence measure, but the ships who sailed into the “Chase-me-Charlie” areas found it foolproof. In Liverpool there was a sudden run on shops selling all makes of electric razors. In October, it became apparent that Doenitz had switched tactics again and was launching his autumn offensive against the north Atlantic convoy routes in a sustained effort to curtail the invasion build-up. With the “gnats” taking their toll of our escorts, and a new threat growing against the major convoys, it was decided to make the mid-Atlantic “Chop” Line area our first line of defence. American forces continued to operate south of the Azores while the Royal Navy undertook to send carriers north of the islands. The Biscayan blockade had proved successful. The enemy in transit had been tamed and, for the moment, Coastal Command could forestall any attempts at a mass break-out. The Second Support Group went into training for the North Atlantic, without Starling. Walker approved of exercises, theoretical training and commanding officers’ courses for all his captains but not himself. Stubbornly he refused to spend long days at Tobermory, considered by many as the cradle of victory in the Atlantic, but encouraged his ships to take every opportunity to go there. He resisted for himself the introduction of new methods to deal with U-boats devised to co-ordinate the latest weapons and equipment. If this appeared as autocratic vanity, it was certainly not baseless. With his “bow and arrow” unmodified asdic he had destroyed more U-boats and killed more Germans than any other commander in the Navy. He had a gift for “smelling out” the enemy, and his mind could unravel the tactical problems of attack as quickly and accurately as any machine. He instructed his captains to exercise and train in the orthodox manner providing that, once at sea, they forgot temporarily what they had learned and reverted to his way of doing things. This stubborn attitude became manifest when Captain (D), Liverpool, suggested he should visit the Tactical Training School set up to train commanding officers and asdic teams in dealing with the various evasive actions a U-boat might take when under attack. It was a sound course considered to be excellent value by most Western Approaches captains. Walker was quite willing to agree, but firmly rejected any proposal that he himself should attend the school. A staff officer told him that Sir Max Horton was taking a poor view of this dogmatic attitude but Walker stuck to his guns.
It is a striking commentary on his reputation and prestige that he could get away with it. Although the most senior ranking officer afloat in the Western Approaches Command, he should still have carried out the general orders governing the working-up, training and equipping of all ships. Somehow, none seemed able to pin him down and he managed to elude issues of this kind without ever openly disobeying orders. While the Group trained at Tobermory until October, and Starling’s officers attended courses at the Tactical Training School and drilled their crews, Walker pottered in his garden at home, went shopping with Eilleen and romped with Andrew in the evenings. His paper work as a captain had so piled up in Starling that someone was clearly needed to administer the whole Group’s office and confidential report work. Captain (D), Liverpool, was persuaded to part with one of his secretarial stafl Lieutenant H. W. F. (Bill) Johnson, RNVR, who became Walker’s secretary and personal assistant. So far there had been no chance to try out the various defences against the “gnat” and the “Chase-me-Charlie”. For the latter nothing really effective had been devised as too little was known about it. It was decided that a striking force should sail under specific orders to test out the varying speeds theory and “foxer” device against “gnats” and to encourage a “Chase-me-Charlie” attack in the hope of shooting one down to be brought home for examination. The selected force would have to be capable of long-range anti-aircraft fire, for the real menace of the “Chase-me-Charlie” lay in the relatively poor anti-aircraft armament in the majority of escort vessels. Corvettes, frigates and destroyers built in the United States for service in the Atlantic under the White Ensign were designed to beat the U-boat but not aircraft as well. These warships had no way of tackling aircraft which fired and controlled rocket-bombs. The double task of acting as guinea pigs and experimental ships fell to the Second Support Group whose powerful guns, high speed and general design made them ideal opponents for the “Chase-rne-Charlies”. On October 15th Walker had the crew of Starling mustered on the quarter deck. “Our main job,” he said, “is to seek out the U-boats and destroy them. If in doing so, we can persuade them to fire off a few of their ‘gnats’ all the better. We shall then find out if these damned awkward ‘foxers’ really work.” He grinned at the blur of faces. “Don’t worry. The Boche hasn’t managed to think up anything we can’t beat yet. Once we get even a smell of him I shall reduce speed to below seven knots and hunt him down. “But about these ‘Chase-me-Charlies’. There’s only one thing we can do. You gunnery boys who are always complaining that I do not show a proper respect for your toys will have a chance to show how good you really are. All you have to do is shoot the things down. Simple enough if you remember that if you don’t they are very liable to hit us.” Smilingly, he told the First Lieutenant to “carry on” and strode away. In the afternoon, Starling sailed to rendezvous off Londonderry with the rest of the Group and the aircraft-carrier, Tracker, for their first hunting strike into the mid - Atlantic wastelands. Kite was in Londonderry repairing minor damage caused in a collision with a tug, and would catch up later; Woodcock was still at Bristol and Wren at the Clyde having new equipment fitted. To compensate, a new sloop called Magpie had joined the Group. (This ship later became the first command of the Duke of Edinburgh, then Lieutenant Mountbatten, RN.) By nightfall they were on their way to take the sting out of the scorpion’s tail.
CHAPTER 12 - ATTACK BEFORE BREAKFAST
The striking force swept into the Atlantic with the sloops drawn up in line abreast ahead of the aircraft-carrier which zigzagged independently a mile astern. On October 19th, they ran into filthy weather, driving wind, rain, hail and sleet, high turbulent seas, and a menacing roller-coaster swell which tossed the smaller ships about until all movement on their decks had to be stopped. This meant that those aft stayed there and those forward handled the bridge and gun watches without relief. The sky was black with heavy, rain-laden cloud racing low across the water reducing visibility to less than a mile. Life in Starling was wretched; men drenched by spray and rain went below to the mess decks only to find cracked rivets letting in thin drips of water over their bunks and mess tables. Walker’s own cabin below the bridge became a swilling mess of dirty water as bulkheads sprung leaks round his bunk and in the dockhead. The plating of the quarter deck cracked, and a large gap let water flow freely into the Wardroom while the whole stern began to quiver and move about independently of the rest of the ship, like a dog wagging its tail, threatening serious damage to the propeller shafts. In the gloom of dawn next day Walker ordered speed for the force to be reduced to eight knots. Behind the sloops, Tracker wallowed and heaved like a huge elephant in agony. Her damage repaired, Kite rejoined, having battled against the storm to catch up and in so doing suffered more than had been inflicted by the tug. Midday was more like midnight, and dusk as black as the inside of a bat, but early on the 22nd the storm seemed to be ending and the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, ordered Walker to alter course to support the west-bound convoy ON 207, already under close escort and supported by Commander Gretton’s famous B7 Group in company with the aircraft-carrier, Biter. On arrival, Walker was to assume overall command of all escorts. In this one signal, Walker was given an Admiral’s responsibility, without an Admiral’s staff to share the burden of minute detail. By evening, contact was made and, after placing the two carriers inside the convoy (he was not taking the chance of having another Audacity tragedy on his hands), he sent B7 Group fifty miles out on the convoy’s starboard bow and placed himself the same distance off the port bow. With eighteen warships, including the carriers, under his command there was neither rest nor sleep for Walker. Every signal passing between convoy, escort, support groups, Liverpool, London and Newfoundland was repeated to him in case he should think it necessary to intervene. In those rare moments when he could stagger down to his bunk for a brief restless hour lying fully-dressed in soaked clothes, water seeped in through leaks, forming puddles in the blankets. On the 25th the weather subsided to an angry simmer and, now that ON 207 was through the danger area, Walker collected Tracker and broke off to continue his striking-force hunt. For the next three days, the ships marched and counter-marched through the “Chop” Line in fruitless sweeps backed up by air patrols launched by the carrier, but they found no evidence that there was such a thing as a U-boat in the Atlantic. At one time, while the weather was hardly suitable for flying but not really bad enough to prevent it, Tracker had four aircraft on patrol. They returned in formation and the sloops closed the carrier to act as rescue ships should any of the planes overshoot the flight deck or get into trouble some other way. Tracker was rolling heavily and landing would not be easy. The first aircraft came down, made a beautiful approach and dropped to the deck, but the deck wasn’t there. Tracker fell into a deep valley of water and the pilot found himself flying when his wheels should have touched down. He overshot the landing wires, hit the deck well for’ard as Tracker came up on another wave and then bounced over the side to crash into the sea. Simultaneously, the sloops raced to rescue the air crew.
Tracker stopped to try and lower a lifeboat and began drifting rapidly in the wind, bearing down on Wren who had reached the wreck first and was lowering a boat herself. For a tense moment it looked as though the rolling edge of Tracker’s flight deck would cut off Wren’s mast a split second before the carrier ran down both sloop and aircrew. But her engines were racing at full astern and she managed to pull herself clear. Two of the air crew were picked up; the other was drowned. More aircraft were still to be brought down. The first of these landed safely more by luck than judgment; the next made a good approach run, but the carrier was tossing heavily and the aircraft was waved round for another attempt. So it went on, with the aircraft making try after try to get down in a succession of moments of suspense until at last it landed, coming to a stop with a broken undercarriage and damaged wings. The men in the sloops wilted with relief. They had been more worried than the pilots. Commander D. S. McGrath, captain of Tracker, reported to Walker by R/T: “Many thanks for your help and moral support. My pilots have resumed their poker in the wardroom and seem to wonder what all the fuss was about.” On Starling’s bridge, Walker chuckled as he turned to Filleul and said admiringly: “Those chaps have got guts. I wouldn’t go near one of those old stringbags on a summer’s day, let alone fly them in half a gale in the middle of the Atlantic from a pint-sized flight deck like Tracker’s.”
The weather deteriorated again and a full-scale typhoon hit them on November 1st, forcing Walker to order the whole force to heave-to. For three days they headed into the blackness of the storm only making three knots against mountainous seas which rose like impenetrable green walls above their heads and crashed on the decks with the clash of gigantic cymbals. Overhead, grey watery clouds drove past, propelled by a wind which shrilled with the scream of a thousand violins. Gun mountings were torn from the decks and thrown aside like so much scrap metal; lifeboats, whalers and motor-boats crumbled into firewood at their davits; galley fires were swamped and men forgot the meaning of feeling dry. Starling’s quarter deck crack widened and the stern wagged more dangerously; rivets snapped along the ship’s side; leaks were sprung in a hundred places. Nothing was immune from the onrush of boiling, tormented seas hungrily searching for victims in every compartment. The immaculate cruising formation fell apart and ships fought with bows driving against the pounding waves more to keep in sight of each other than to attempt any form of station- keeping. Tracker, as the largest ship, became the focal point for the rest. The sloops rose high on boiling crests with joints creaking and propellers threshing wildly in air, before vanishing into deep chasms and gorges of white-streaked, wind-torn water. For seconds, seeming more like eternity, they would be lost from sight only to rise with reluctant groaning. But Tracker could be seen by all. She rolled, yawed, tossed and pitched and her flight deck was at times deeper than the bottom of a swimming pool, yet always her radar aerial or control top was visible to red-rimmed eyes peering anxiously from the bridges of the sloops. After two days of this, Walker called up Tracker on the R/T and asked her flight meteorological expert to give an estimate of how long the gales would last. The officer thought they were passing through the edge of the storm and could expect fine weather by the 5th. Unlike the experts who forecast bank holiday weather in peacetime, Tracker’s met. man was right to the day. The fine weather he predicted came on the morning of the 5 and by noon the sea was reduced to a muttering grumble, allowing Walker to turn the Group towards the “big game” grounds. Several hours passed before his “beaters” flushed out the first quarry. Shortly before midnight the crack of gunfire came from the port end of the line abreast formation and the bleak glare of starshell lit up the water ahead of Kite. Immediately, she reported to Starling by R/T: “U-boat on surface two miles ahead of us.”
Walker shouted his orders to the R/T operator: “Tracker alter course to starboard and keep clear of the attack area. Wild Goose and Magpie to act as carrier screen. Woodcock accompany Starling to join U-boat hunt with Kite.” The formation dissolved with alarm bells sounding the urgent call to action stations in every ship, with Wild Goose and Magpie on either bow, Tracker turned away from the danger spot. Woodcock steamed close on Starling’s quarter as she headed at full speed to join Kite. The battle was on and Walker, wrapped in a dirty roll-necked pullover and ancient jacket he had worn since taking command of Starling, leaned over the front of the bridge looking rather like an eagle about to swoop on some unsuspecting prey. The enemy, briefly illuminated by the starshell, was a valuable prize, one of Doenitz’s few huge “milch cow” supply U-boats; it had already dived and released SBT's on which Kite was unwittingly “pinging” when Walker arrived. Starling made contact and her asdic team shouted out ranges and bearing. In a few minutes, they recognised the decoy echoes and a new search began. By 3 am on the 6th Starling found asdic contact with the real target and put the other two sloops on to the U-boat. The night was black and visibility uncertain. Walker decided that with good asdic conditions and an excellent echo, he could afford to wait until daylight before sending Woodcock in for the first “creeping attack”. After Woodcock had been warned to stand by for the first attack after dawn, her captain announced to his ship’s company: “Captain Walker has decided to stay in contact until day light. Then we shall attack and I expect the U-boat to be destroyed before breakfast.” For the next four hours, Starling jogged along on one engine on a southwesterly course about a mile behind the submerged U-boat. Kite and Woodcock stayed in close attendance. At 7 am Walker called Woodcock alongside and gave her commanding officer instructions over the loudhailer. Crews of three sloops came alert, directors swung on the bearing at which the U-boat might be expected to surface, and depth-charge crews stood by. Starling stopped with the enemy firmly held in asdic contact while Woodcock, asdic silent and engines just turning over to give five knots, crept stealthily along. Just before the ranges and bearings of the enemy coincided, Walker shouted into the R/T: “Fire now.” A barrage of twenty-six charges tumbled through the water set to explode at extreme settings of 600 and 800 feet. Said Walker: “I will stake my last penny on a decisive result to that attack.” None of his officers was inclined to accept the bet. (He would have won. This was U-220).
A few minutes later, his asdic operators reported breaking up noises and crunching as though the U-boat was being gripped and squeezed by some colossal hand. Great bubbles of oil spurted to the surface accompanied by wreckage and, an unusual feature, a headless and tailless torpedo. This, with other trophies, was recovered and the three elated sloops altered course to rejoin Tracker and her escorts. As they resumed sweeping stations, Walker hoisted: “Splice the mainbrace” and Wild Goose signalled: “Many congratulations. Magpie and ourselves hope we may play in the first eleven next time.” Walker had provided Woodcock with a trophy and he was not likely to ignore such a plea from Wild Goose. Two hours later another U-boat was reported by aircraft to have dived twenty miles away westward of their sweep. Leaving Kite and Woodcock to take care of Tracker, he called out the “reserve”, Wild Goose and Magpie, and set off at full speed to search the area round the last known diving position. Once more he showed his gift of being able to anticipate the movements of an opponent. It would take the three sloops more than an hour to reach the diving position and during that time the U-boat could have made good at least five miles in any direction of the compass. By quickly relating the U-boat’s position to the convoy routes and taking into account that she might have spotted the aircraft and guessed a carrier force was in the neighbourhood, he swept the northward in the hope of intercepting the enemy. Shortly before 2 pm Wild Goose confirmed the accuracy of his mental arithmetic by triumphantly announcing asdic contact. The three ships metaphorically rolled up their sleeves and, while Magpie maintained a patrol round the attack area, Starling and Wild Goose jockeyed into position for the first assault. Walker attacked with a ten-charge pattern set to 150 and 300 feet to establish the enemy’s depth. This run, in his estimation, was so bad it would bear no analysis. “It was quite shocking,” he wrote later. “The U-boat took what I thought to be text-book avoiding action, hard over rudder and full speed. In fact, the Boche did nothing of the sort and I missed him by yards.” Establishing contact again with the enemy at 1,000 yards range, he directed Wild Goose into a “creeping attack” to drop twenty-six charges set to 500 and 700 feet. As the order to fire was given from Starling, Wild Goose was late in firing her charges and Walker swore with loud violence. The first explosions blew Starling’s gyro compass out of alignment and Wild Goose dropped only twenty-two charges. In Walker’s view it was a “thoroughly bum attack and I would have staked my last penny it had failed miserably”. When the last charge had exploded, he threw his cap to the deck of Starling’s bridge and stamped on it in fury. To the amusement of his own crew and that of Wild Goose who had steamed close by, he stamped harder and threw his arms up with despair when both ships had reported, “lost contact”. Most of his anger was simulated and designed only to let Wild Goose know he was not satisfied with her performance. He was actually sending an acid signal to Wemyss when his own asdic operator calmed him down by reporting breaking up noises and an underwater explosion. In the next few minutes, oil flowed to the surface and spread over a vast area of the sea around them. In the middle of this another headless and tail less torpedo appeared followed immediately by an abundance of further evidence of destruction.’ (Confirmed as U-842). By the time Starling’s whaler had collected the torpedo, a huge block of butter and a glove marked “Luick Pirmann”, Walker admitted he would have lost his last penny. Despite the failure of Wild Goose to drop her full pattern of charges, despite Starling’s compass being wildly inaccurate, the attack had been effective.
When the three ships left the scene to rejoin Tracker and her escorts, the oil had spread for a mile in all directions. It was a jubilant Walker who sent the victory signal to the Group. At noon on the 8th all the sloops had reached their Prudent Limits of Endurance and Walker ordered the force to set course for Argentia, the United States Atlantic naval base in Newfoundland, where they would refuel and provision for the return voyage. On the way, one U-boat attacked Tracker with two torpedoes from a range of about three miles and HF/DF interceptions showed at least four more in their vicinity, but the Group had insufficient fuel to carry out any hunting. And that night, they ran into the worst gale to strike the western Atlantic in living memory. For the next two days, the force was hove-to in gigantic, darkly menacing seas. Starling’s leaks became larger, her stern wiggling frighteningly as the crack in the quarter deck widened and spread. While Tracker behaved like a double-decker bus on a Big Dipper, the little sloops, battened down but leaking badly, battled night and day against the rushing rollers. To those whose duties kept them shivering on the bridge or somewhere on deck it seemed that salt water could penetrate the most tightly-wrapped scarf to irritate sore necks and trickle clammily down bare backs. Senses of humour became strained and small things assumed magnified importance. It was not funny when some optimist left open a fan inlet and the fans started to spray sea water instead of air; neither was it amusing when someone else failed to clamp down a skylight and quarts of water cascaded into swinging hammocks. Meals became regular tests of stamina, for those who could eat. It required an acrobat to sit balanced in a lashed chair and tilt a cup of soup against the bouncing of an unhelpful ship. An extra lurch would send the soup sailing into unprotected and already sodden laps. Once the meal had finished there was the constant internal movement in protesting stomachs, back and forth, up and down. Perhaps the safest were those who did without. Hammocks bumped against each other and against bulk heads; a rain of condensation showered continually from steel plates of deckheads into the fouled air of closed compartments; exhausted gun crews and bridge personnel stumbled off watch to lie down and doze restlessly as they were in soaking clothes on tables, lockers and even the hard steel deck itself. At dawn on the 10th the storm eased enough to allow the Group to proceed at about ten knots; the stinging spray had lost its zest, great seas passed under the ships instead of over them and sudden violent rolls became less frequent. Through the thinning spume and rain squalls the shattered formation began to re-appear, all with woeful tales of storm damage. Woodcock had suffered worst, one huge wave had smashed into a for’ard gun mounting with its twin guns weighing several tons, ripped it from the deck and cocked the barrels to full elevation; another had crashed against steel ammunition lockers filled with shells and tossed them overboard. It was a battered, weather-scarred and rust-stained line of ships which two days later steamed into Argentia and an unexpected welcome. On entering the harbour, the Group found themselves being feted by the United States Navy. Hundreds of naval men mixed with sturdy Newfoundlanders to cheer them in. An American dance band from the Officers Club played their signature tune, “A-Hunting We Will Go”, and as soon as they had tied up dozens of newspapermen and photographers flocked on board. Walker’s name had, in fact, been a byword in the United States Atlantic Fleet for some time, and the highly successful American air and sea units operating against the U-boats west of “Chop” were impressed with the Second Support Group’s record. Warm as the welcome was, they found greater comfort in the feel of firm, steady ground underfoot; the singing of birds; the smell of burnt rubber on tarmac roads; the blessed release from worry; and sleep, above all sleep, real sleep in steady bunks in strangely quiet ships which no longer rolled, tossed, creaked and groaned. Walker summed up this terrible voyage briefly: “What are all these things compared with the satisfaction of having given the Boche more mouthfuls of dust to bite.” For him, the short respite in Argentia, while the Group carried out stop-gap storm repairs and refuelled, was no rest. He gave a series of lectures to American officers on his methods and then flew to the Royal Navy’s convoy terminal at Halifax, Nova Scotia, to lecture again to Canadian escort officers. Filleul had an uncle living near Halifax whom he had not seen for many years. When he mentioned this jokingly while Walker was packing a bag for his flight in a plane supplied by the United States Air Force, he was told: “That’s fine, Number One. Get a bag packed and come with me. I’ll have a signal sent to Halifax saying you are coming to help me with the lectures.” John spent the next few days with his uncle, Walker lectured, and the Group as a whole coped with a series of entertainments organised with bewildering generosity by their American hosts. And during this period, Alan Burn was promoted to lieutenant with six months back seniority, an event which called for a liberal wining with his brother officers.
A week later Walker and Filleul returned to take Starling to St. John’s, the British base in Newfoundland, to stock up with Christmas shopping, the whole crew indulging in a spending spree on food and goods not seen in England since the introduction of rationing. In a Red Cross parcel, Walker found a multi-coloured patch-work leather waistcoat which became his favourite sea rig. Then they sailed to rendezvous with the Group, now minus Tracker, bound for the United States, and Woodcock which had suffered serious storm damage and had been sent home with a convoy for refit. Starling, leading Wild Goose, Magpie and Kite, set off across the Atlantic to support hard-pressed convoys routed near the Azores. But it was not until the Admiralty signalled that the east-bound convoy, SL 140, had been sighted by Focke-Wulfs and reported to U-boats in the area, that the Group was committed to action again. The Second and Fourth Support Groups were ordered to the convoy’s defence with Walker in overall command. After three days steaming, the four sloops made contact with the convoy to find the Fourth Group already there. On November 27th the Admiralty signalled that “pack” attacks could be expected from that night onwards, and leaving the close escort alone, Walker sent the Fourth Group into the deepfield on the star board bow while his own ships patrolled to port. By the late evening, HF/DF interception of enemy wireless signalling was reported by all ships in company and they estimated that nine U-boats were shadowing the convoy. Wild Goose and Magpie were sent to deal with one of the enemy while Starling and Kite gave chase after another. Subsequent events are described in Walker’s Report of the action. “At 2022 (8.22 pm) a searchlight was seen about eight miles away fine on my starboard bow shining upwards and circling, shortly followed by a ripple of firing. I formed the hasty opinion that this could not be a U-boat, but was probably an encounter or alarm by a unit of one or another of the American task forces’ in the area with whom I did not want to get mixed up. (Two U.S. striking forces were at sea with the carrier, Rogue and Santee). “The situation was tense and a lively battle imminent. The weather was still rough, the sky overcast and intermittent rain squalls made a pretty dismal background to the threat of heavy enemy attacks. Whatever happened I wanted to keep myself and the Fourth Group free to return at full speed to the defence of the convoy once the balloon went up, although I hoped the Support Groups could break up the packs before they formed up. Conditions were not ideal for this, but it was all we could hope for. “I am now thoroughly ashamed of my inaction over the searchlight incident. On cool reflection it was quite obvious that no American task force would come within twenty-five miles of a convoy unheralded. And worse still, it is highly probable that the illumination came from the U-boat we were after, and that it was firing at an aircraft, probably from Rogue or Santee. I cannot express my regret too deeply. Later, I swept the area for some fifty miles from the convoy with Kite in company until we suddenly sighted starshell in the convoy’s direction. I turned about and headed back at full speed.” Meanwhile, Wild Goose and Magpie had sighted a U-boat which dived ahead of them. They attacked but were unable in that weather to gain firm asdic contact. Soon after midnight, Starling joined the hunt, taking place thirteen miles from the convoy, and an hour later her radar picked up an object ahead. The four sloops fired starshell and illuminated a U-boat on the surface which was at once placed under heavy barrage fire. One hit on the conning tower blazed redly for a moment and then sizzled out as the enemy crash-dived and vanished under water. In the next two hours three concentrated “plaster” attacks were made without result and the Group settled down to match its skill against the U-boat’s cunning. Walker was gazing anxiously over his shoulder at the convoy now under attack and thawing further away. Snowflake rockets and starshell were being fired in all directions and already the Fourth Group had dropped back into the outfield off the starboard beam to reinforce the defence. The elusive enemy below would have to be sunk quickly or left alone. One more attack failed to bring any evidence of victory to the surface and at 3.30 am Walker ordered the Group to rejoin the convoy at utmost speed.
The battle was over and the brunt had fallen on the Fourth Support Group who had beaten off repeated enemy attacks without the loss of a single ship. They claimed one U-boat probably sunk. For some reason, the “pack” failed to attack again and, on December 2nd, Walker’s sloops, battered again by the weather and virtually useless for any prolonged action, parted company with the convoy and limped home to Liverpool where they docked on the 5th. Of this voyage, Walker wrote: “The new enemy tactics must have been disappointing to them. Clearly they had known about the convoy for many days and had gathered for the usual mass attack. For some unknown reason, however, they failed to follow up the initial attacks. There is no doubt it was intended as a saturation blitz but it proved a complete flop due to the powerful protection supplied by the escort.” The crews of the Group, however, were not sorry to reach Liverpool with the promise of Christmas at home. They had endured miserable discomfort for weeks in appalling weather. Men and ships needed rest. There was reason to be thankful that neither “gnats” nor “Chase-me-Charlie?’ had appeared to put the final seal on the sheer misery of this voyage. Strain and over-tensed nerves had already taken their toll of Starling’s crew. Since commissioning, two officers had been sent ashore unfit for further sea duty, and an able seaman, the best gunner in the ship and a compact sturdy man, had been on leave when he suddenly went berserk with overstrain and was certified insane.