Chapters 13 - 14
CHAPTER 13 - UNDER REPAIRS
While still some days out of Liverpool, Walker had sent a signal to Sir Max Horton giving a summary of the damage sustained by the Group and requesting that each ship be placed in dry dock for urgent repairs. Six invaluable dry docks were made immediately available and the Second Support Group was placed on top priority to be repaired, reinforced in design and, in some cases, fitted with the latest equipment. In his Report of Proceedings for the whole trip, Walker said: “In previous reports I have called this class of sloop fine little ships—and so they are in fine weather and in general conception. Bad weather, however, shows up how jerry-built they really are. They leak like sieves and on several occasions I hankered after my sturdy peacetime-built Stork.” Referring to operations as a striking force in mid-Atlantic and the sinking of the two U-boats, he wrote: “I do not know if any of the other Groups have yet used the creeping attack. This is the fourth success in this Group and so far no U-boat has survived to tell the tale, mainly I think because the victim does not know he is being attacked until the charges start exploding all around him. “As regards the value of aircraft-carriers, I think it likely that they will not prove much use in operations with actual convoys unless they can fly off aircraft at night when U-boats are most likely to attack. Their offensive value by day to prevent U-boat concentrations is legendary, but to-day the only possible time carrier aircraft can hope to sight a U-boat before she dives is half an hour before dawn and dusk. The chance of seeing a U-boat at periscope depth in the North Atlantic is negligible. “A carrier with a Support Group in winter is nothing but an embarrassment to the Group Senior Officer who is faced with the stipulation that not less than three of his ships must be left to screen her during an attack.” When forwarding this Report to the Admiralty, Admiral Sir Max Horton sent a covering letter saying: “The destruction of two U-boats on November 6th after no more than a total of seven attacks is a striking example of the ability to achieve kills which is an outstanding attribute of Captain Walker and the Second Support Group. The creeping attack, originated and developed so successfully by Captain Walker, affords little warning to the U-boat, one of the main features of its success. Opportunities to carry out this form of attack are more likely to occur with Support Groups and the attention of commanding officers is once again being drawn to its value.” In Liverpool, the Press had suddenly come alive to the fact that not only was a battle being fought in the Atlantic but that when connected with Captain Walker it was no longer a familiar story of reverses. Starling was besieged by reporters and photographers from whom Walker bolted as though the memory of his childhood embarrassment at the Albert Hall was still fresh in his mind. He buried himself at home leaving his officers to cope with the newspapermen. One morning, Sir Max Horton boarded Starling with the Engineer Rear-Admiral on his staff to inspect the damage. Walker, fond of an occasional show of pomp when it could not interfere with the fighting efficiency of his ship or the Group, welcomed them with a bugler sounding the appropriate calls. Then he escorted the Admirals aft to see a bulkhead which had split open from continual popping backwards and forwards. Next they were taken below and shown the wide crack across the quarter deck above them.
At that moment two stokers on deck turned on fire hoses and played jets of sea water on the crack to demonstrate conditions at sea. The water poured through the crack in torrents, nearly drenching the visitors. They left the ship convinced that this class of sloop needed a good deal of strengthening. For the whole Group, and Starling in particular, the weeks in dock passed all too swiftly. During the day, the crews over hauled equipment, learned how to use new instruments, attended courses ashore and in a variety of ways managed to keep themselves busy. In the evenings, there was the occasional dinner for Starling’s officers at “The White House” where Eilleen presided, and more often parties on board Starling or some other ship at which Walker stood on his head, drinking a pint of beer. At one party, he challenged Filleul to do it and the eager First Lieutenant, on the excellent assumption that this was one of his captain’s achievements which could be equalled, nonchalantly stood on his head and called for the glass of beer. It was intercepted by Captain Walker who solemnly took a firm grip of Number One’s trouser leg and poured the beer down it amid a gale of laughter. Meanwhile, all leave had been stopped in readiness for D-Day and, although Walker argued with the authorities ashore that his men had earned the right to some time with their families, he was allowed to grant local leave only. This meant that they had to live in the same surroundings which for weeks had spelled constant strain and vigilance. . . an atmosphere which was accentuated rather than relieved by the sudden stop of machinery which normally hums in a ship at sea. At nights a deathly hush fell over Starling, and sleep was disturbed and fitful because of it. During their first days ashore the crew were still wound up from the weeks at sea, still tensed, waiting and humming inside like dynamos. It was hard in those first few days to adjust the inter-locking pattern of life ashore after the small self-contained life of a community at sea. This worried Walker, who disliked punishing men and felt it possible that being confined to Liverpool without the relaxation of home might lead to drunkenness and leave-breaking. For himself there was little chance to rest. His body could unwind, but his mind was always on his ships and their crews. He talked to Eilleen for hours about his “chicks”, and together they ironed out many domestic problems which were reported to him. As a rule he never intervened in the private lives of his officers or men unless specifically asked to give advice. Even then he was wary of sailing into dangerous, uncharted waters churned up by long separations and hard ships. In the mornings, he visited Derby House to keep abreast of the daily happenings at sea, with a watchful eye on the enemy’s tactics and looking for new moves which would call for careful counter-measures when he returned to the battle. The reports from the various fronts of the Atlantic were changing rapidly; a year before they had made sombre reading; now each Intelligence survey provided a tonic and a spur to greater effort.
It is always tempting to look for decisive dates in history, and the greater the field of operations under review the more satisfying the find. In the First World War, March 2 1918, stands out as the day on which the Germans began the great offensive which led them by way of victories to utter defeat; a quarter of a century later another decisive date arrived. Up to March 20th, 1943, there had been a real danger that the enemy would achieve his aim of severing the routes which united Great Britain with the North American continent; after that date his strength seemed to ebb and, though the potential power of the U-boat Arm was still enormous, it appeared then that it could be held in check. The significance of the period up to March 20th, 1943, was that it came close to proving likely that we would not be able to continue convoys as a suitable defence against the enemy’s “pack” tactics. The Admiralty graph of sinkings was again nudging dangerously against the thin red line. After this date, however, the Support Groups, particularly the Second, made an appearance on the battlegrounds and altered the whole strategy of the bitter struggle. In September, Doenitz made a great effort to retrieve the situation, but his crews were not the men of earlier years. The great autumn offensive failed and the extent of its failure is illustrated by the story of a naval officer ashore in London who was asked by a civilian friend: “How is the war at sea going?” Being discreet, the officer gave a non-committal reply. “There’s no need to be quite so discreet,” said his friend. “I can tell you how it is going. My business is to assemble machines sent over from the United States. At the beginning of the year I was practically at a stop; since the summer, however, I have been working like a man caught in a flood.” Doenitz was not having much luck with his secret weapons. The “gnat” was still deadly and a weapon to be reckoned with, but the “foxer” counter-device was proving fairly effective and U-boat commanders were reluctant to use “gnats” for their primary purpose of clearing the way through an escort screen to a convoy, preferring to hoard them against the day they would be needed to cripple or sink an attacking escort. The “Chase-me-Charles” were also proving of dubious value. They had been insufficiently tested and were still largely in the experimental stage. They had not yet claimed a totally destroyed victim, though a Canadian escort, HMCS Athabaskan, was seriously damaged by one and had to be towed into dock at Devonport. Civilian experts salvaged bits and pieces of the bomb. Their evidence, when coupled with pictures of the bomb taken by sailors who kept their cameras clicking even with the glider-bombs coming straight at them, was sufficient to reconstruct the weapon and discover the sort of fuel which powered the rocket. Bomber Command also carried out a series of nightly attacks on the German plants producing the fuel and by January, 1944, “Chase-me-Charlies” were making only sporadic, mostly ineffective appearances in the Atlantic battle. But Doenitz had another trick up his sleeve. It was announced to Western Approaches Command in a general signal from the Admiralty which said: “U-boats employ a decoy to give a response to radar similar to that given by a U-boat. The device consists of a balloon about two feet six inches in diameter from which is suspended a reflector connected by about fifty feet of thin wire to a wooden float. The reflector consists of a number, about three, of metal-foil strips like pennants one above the other. “U-boats are believed to carry about fifty of these decoys. Once released, the U-boat steams away and the decoy moves down wind at about half the wind speed and remains effective for about four to six hours.” Doenitz had no monopoly of cunning. Two helpful weapons emerged from the Admiralty backroom scientists, a one-ton torpedo-like depth charge which Walker had called for when he first discovered that U-boats could submerge to more than 800 feet, and a special armour piercing shell for sinking surfaced U-boats which was called the “Shark”. The latter, fired from a four-inch gun, hit the water about 100 feet short of a U-boat and continued to travel in a straight line just below the surface to strike the target below the waterline like a tiny torpedo. It would penetrate through the hull and explode inside the U-boat.
The fight for supremacy at sea was beginning to pass from the opposing navies afloat to the scientists ashore. Soon after the Group was formed in 1943, Starling had been “adopted” by Bootle which boasted that the best of Liverpool docks lay in its boundaries. Now, while the Group was re fitting, a ceremony was arranged through Captain (D), Captain Brewer, for the town to be handed the “General Chase” signals which Walker had used in the Bay of Biscay, and also the Battle Ensigns flown by Starling and Kite in that and subsequent actions.
CHAPTER 14 THE NELSON TOUCH
Captain Walker took over a Flag Officer’s command on January 29th, 1944, when he led his Group from Liverpool to rendezvous off Northern Ireland with the aircraft-carriers, Nairana and Activity, for a hunting strike into mid-Atlantic. The Group was back to Fall strength, Starling, Wild Goose, Kite, Wren, Woodpecker and Magpie. After the appalling storms of December, fresh paintwork gleamed dully in a pale wintry sun. Leaks had been plugged, damage repaired, tailwags stopped, and there was every reason for this striking force to be fir, ready and eager to destroy the enemy if he could be found. The carriers’ aircraft would be their eyes. To his officers, Walker confessed his dislike of having to operate with carriers but found some consolation in the hope that they would act as irresistible bait for the U-boats. He grinned appreciatively on the first night out when a bleak half-obscured moon showed both “fiat tops” clearly visible at five miles or more. He mentioned this on the bridge, but the carriers were left in ignorance of their nakedness, it being considered bad for their morale to tell them. On February 1st they were drawing near to the battleground, steaming in hunting formation, the sloops in line abreast, a mile apart, and the carriers zigzagging independently a mile behind them. Shortly after 10 am all seemed peaceful enough; it was a crisp, cold morning with a slight swell and calm sea. In Starling, Alan Burn had exercised his guns crews, Woodpecker had carried out depth charge drill, and in Wild Goose on the port extreme of the line, Commander Wemyss was discussing their “dead reckoning” position with his navigator in the chartroom. Suddenly a shout came down the bridge voice pipe. “Captain, Sir, submarine echo to starboard.” Wemyss rushed to the bridge, and a quick report from the asdic operator made it clear that it was a U-boat trying to penetrate the screen for a close shot at the bait. Wemyss turned to look back at the carriers and, to his horror, saw Nairana turn on a zig to port bringing her in the enemy’s direction. At any moment she would be sitting squarely in the U-boat’s sights. Wemyss rapped out orders. “Hard a’starboard. . . . Full speed. . . . Hoist attacking flag. . . . Tell Leader on R/T I am attacking.” The enemy had passed between Wild Goose and her neighbour, Magpie, by the time Wemyss had turned his ship and was slithering in for the first attack. Wemyss blinked a warning to .,Vairana to get out of the way and without waiting for a perfect run-in, dropped a ten-charge pattern more to scare the enemy than to sink him. .Nairana was still in danger. As soon as he received Wemyss’s report, Walker flashed a signal to Nairana ordering her to head out to starboard at full speed. He repeated the order to Activity and told off Kite, Wren and Woodpecker to screen them. Then he headed towards the battle while Wild Goose was drawing off and Magpie about to follow with another attack. This yielded no result and Magpie was sent off to assist in screening the carrier, leaving Wild Goose and Starling to continue the hunt. “Unquestionably, .Nairana was saved by Wild Goose’s exemplary speed and decision,” Walker said later. “Another minute or two and she would have been a sitter.
When Magpie had left to join the remainder of our force, Wild Goose handed me asdic contact with the Boche on a plate. I could ask nothing better than to take the field again partnered by this doughty, well-trained warrior. Conditions were good, though the wind was rising and stirring up the sea a bit.” Walker followed quietly behind the U-boat for a while, calculating that she was steaming at about four knots very deep. He decided to carry out a two-ship “Operation Plaster”. Line abreast and close, Starling and Wild Goose went in to the attack at five knots dropping in all some sixty-odd depth charges set to explode between 500 feet and 700 feet at five second intervals. In their wake the depth charges detonated in a continuous crackling roar like an express train tearing through a tunnel. The sea split and heaved under the explosions and even the experienced sailors, accustomed as they were to the weight and ferocity of Walker’s methods, were stunned by the non-stop crashing and cracking from below the surface. Walker was in effect using his depth charges as main armament and firing them in salvoes as though from guns. Starling’s crew were startled when, while all were gazing astern at the exploding sea, a bang shook them from ahead and a gush of water appeared over the bows. This could hardly be a depth charge. After a few minutes Walker ordered “Cease Fire” and both ships stood by to wait for tangible evidence of a sinking. It was not long in coming. Oil, clothing, planks of wood, pulped lifejackets, books and the mangled remains of bodies provided all the evidence needed of death and destruction far below them. Using the loudhailer, Walker shouted to Wemyss to follow him and, as the two ships rejoined the carriers, Starling flew from her yardarm the eagerly expected signal: “Splice the mainbrace.” In this way, the 740-ton underwater raider U-502 was destroyed. Five uneventful days later, the sloops refuelled from Activity and received orders to support the west-bound convoy SL 147 which was believed to be heading for trouble. Quick calculations in Starling showed to everyone’s joy that a large “pack” was gathering and the Group could arrive in time for the impending battle. The striking force made contact with SL 147 on February 7 and Walker took overall command of the escort. Leaving the close escort group in their stations, he placed his sloops round the convoy as an outer screen six miles out. Nairana and Activity were ordered to operate their aircraft in the deepfield by day and to enter into the middle of the convoy at night. During the 7th, Admiralty reports of U-boats heard chattering by wireless in the convoy’s vicinity indicated a “pack” of about ten. Next day, the pack increased until it became likely that at least fifteen U-boats were converging for the fatal pounce. Tension grew as warning signals poured in during the afternoon. After an exchange with the Commodore, Walker sent a general message ordering all ships to action stations at nightfall. He stayed happily on his bridge all that day, well wrapped up in his fading old grey pullover and stained leather waistcoat. With one U-boat already destroyed on this voyage, the 1944 season had opened well for his Group. He would have been just as cheerful had he known that no fewer than twenty-six U-boats were in contact and waiting for the cover of darkness to spring upon their prey, a convoy of eighty-one ships with two aircraft carriers looming high in the centre. As dusk faded into darkness, the night became eerie; a heavy damp mist settled over the scene covering ships and men in a white frost-like dew; sea and sky merged in a haze of deep midnight blue gradually blotting out the horizon until the ships seemed to be flying through thin, wispy, low-lying cloud.
A hush settled over both sea and ships and the darkness closed in, muffling all sounds other than the swish of bows cutting into green, unfriendly water. To Walker and the thirteen other warship commanders it was a game of patience, waiting to see from which quarter the enemy would make his first lunge. To the eighty-one Merchant Navy captains it was more like roulette. Whose number would come up first? Which of them would be the first to explode in flames? Wild Goose was six miles ahead of the convoy on the port quarter and it fell to her port bridge look-out, Able Seaman J G Wall, a young reservist sailor, to sound the alarm which rang through the silence to be repeated in dozens of ships spread across miles of the Atlantic. Raking his sector with binoculars on this deathly black night, he beat the radar by sighting a U-boat trimmed down on the surface with only her conning tower showing at a range of nearly a mile and a half. His report, shouted excitedly to a tense group of officers on the bridge, sparked off the warning and, as the close escort hugged their charges protectively, Walker ordered the convoy to make a drastic alteration of course. The enemy had launched their attack; now his sloops could get down to the earnest business of killing. Wild Goose turned towards the U-boat, increased to full speed and prepared to ram. The enemy, realising he had been sighted, crash-dived. When the sloop arrived only a swirl of water marked the spot. But the enemy captain was curious and, instead of diving deep and taking avoiding action, he stayed at periscope depth to keep track of Wild Goose’s movements in the hope of slipping past her and continuing his swoop on the convoy. Again it was Able Seaman Wall who succeeded where instruments failed. A shout brought Commander Wemyss to the side of his bridge to gape in astonishment, while Wall pointed to a periscope poking out of the water approximately twenty yards away. Wemyss fumed; he was searching the area with his asdic and going too slow to punish the enemy’s impertinence with a shallow-set pattern of depth charges. His machine gunners had just enough time to pepper the two or three feet of periscope with fire, scoring several hits, before the U-boat commander, anticipating the awful retribution which might follow his impudence, downed periscope and dived away. Wild Goose obtained asdic contact in time to direct the newly arrived Woodpecker into a creeping attack. When the last depth charge had exploded, Walker raced up, took one look at the surging water and signalled Woodpecker: “Look what a mess you have made.” After some crackling cross-chat, the three sloops regained contact with the enemy and settled down to the attack formula, convoy, aircraft-carriers, close escort and the rest of the Group steaming rapidly out of danger.
Walker directed Woodpecker into the first attack while Wild Goose prepared to follow. Firing her charges, Woodpecker slowly moved over the U-boat dropping twenty-six set to explode at maximum depth. A few moments of expectant silence fell after the last charge had detonated; then a tremendous explosion came from the depths below and for a fraction of a second the sea was petrified into immobility, before boiling in angry confusion. Another of Doenitz’s prized fleet, U-762, was destroyed, blown apart by the depth charging and finally disintegrating under the impact of an internal explosion. The three sloops fired snowflake rockets to illuminate the scene and, in their bleak flare, pieces of wreckage could be seen floating forlornly on waves blackened and quietened by the weight and flow of the U-boat’s oil. Starling lowered a boat, and collected a German coat and other evidence of destruction before Walker led the three triumphant ships back to the convoy. It was shortly after midnight and the score was one up and more to come. Kapitanleutnant Hartwig Looks, a U-boat officer since 1936 and now captain of U-264 with 14,000 tons of Allied shipping to his credit, had lost the convoy. He had been in contact since the previous morning, knew there were probably twenty of his brother U-boats in the vicinity with more arriving at regular intervals and decided to launch his attack on SL 147 at midnight on the night 8/9 February. It was a large convoy and he had hopes of more than usual success. His ship was the first in the U-boat Arm to be fitted with that ingenious extensible Diesel air intake and exhaust device which allowed U-boats to “breathe”. Instead of having to surface to charge its batteries, U-26 could stay submerged at periscope depth with the “Schnorkel” poking up like a periscope. This meant he could submit to a prolonged destroyer hunt without having to surface. Shortly before midnight, an escort force had come chasing towards him and he had dived thinking they were about to attack. The exploding depth charges had fallen quite near, but far enough away for Looks to be tolerably certain someone else and not U-26 was under attack. Looks took his boat deep and continued on the same course as the convoy had been steering all day. At a crucial moment his hydrophones broke down and he could no longer hear the convoy’s propellers. Taking a gamble, he stayed on course and came up to periscope depth to check his position in relation to the convoy. His quarry had altered course and Looks saw nothing but darkness as he turned the periscope in a complete circle. Inwardly furious, he brought U-26 to the surface and headed northwards in the hope of finding other prey. Soon after Starling, Wild Goose and Woodpecker had resumed their stations, the close escorts to port of the convoy beat back a skirmish with two U-boats creeping in on the surface. The action was too far away and over too quickly for Walker to play any part in the proceedings. The night was enlivened further by the sudden roar of aircraft engines followed by the brilliant glare of flares dropped over the convoy in an attempt to provide the U-boats with silhouetted targets. It seemed, however, that the “pack” were not to be tempted even by their flying brethren. No attack followed and, somewhat mystified, Walker had to wait until just before 6 am when all ships of the Group and the close escort intercepted by HF/DF a U-boat signalling by wireless on the surface.
Bearings put the enemy ten miles ahead of the convoy, so he ordered Magpie and Kite, the nearest sloops, to investigate. Fifteen minutes later, while Magpie was still some distance astern of Kite and racing to catch up, the U-boat was suddenly sighted as it came out of a patch of mist steaming fast towards the convoy and only 800 yards away from Kite. Her commanding officer’s instinctive reaction to Walker’s long and patient training was to realise instantly the danger of being attacked by “gnats”. As the U-boat crash-dived, he reduced speed to seven knots and fired a single depth charge in the hope of counter-mining a “gnat” torpedo before it could strike home. A second or two later a violent explosion threw up a column of water twenty yards on Kite’s port beam. Her captain’s fears had been well-founded. The U-boat had fired while diving and the depth-charge explosion had set off the “gnat” warhead causing a double explosion. Immediately, Kite increased to full speed and ran over the diving position to fire a full pattern of ten depth charges. This brought no result and, after Magpie joined, the two ships gained asdic contact and settled down to a classic Walker hunt. At the moment Kite and the U-boat sighted each other, Wild Goose obtained radar contact with another U-boat little more than a mile away on the convoy’s port bow. Also fearing a “gnat” torpedo, she reduced speed to seven knots and fired off starshell. The first salvoes revealed the U-boat about to dive, and a few seconds later a loud explosion was heard astern. A “gnat”, having failed to pick up her slow-revving propellers, had missed and exploded at the end of its run. Wild Goose’s first depth charge attack at shallow settings drove the U-boat deep and, by the time Walker came up in Starling, he was again handed asdic contact “on a plate”. By 8.30 am Walker had directed Wild Goose on two creeping attacks and carried out another himself during which another “gnat”, unable to home itself on to targets moving at slow speeds, detonated at the end of its run, a few hundred yards astern of Starling. Although the crews of the three sloops were well aware that slow speeds were the best defence against this deadly weapon, the men could not help showing some anxiety. It was not natural to amble slowly about the ocean while the enemy fired torpedoes; especially worried were the depth-charge crews on the quarter decks who would be the first to suffer should a “gnat” prove hypersensitive and “hear” even the slowest revolutions. Half an hour later oil came to the surface, but the U-boat was still on its feet, if a little groggy. At 9 am the convoy, carriers and close escort steamed between the two battle grounds, each about six miles on either side of it. As they cleared the area, the senior officer of the close escort signalled Walker: “Good luck, hope to see you again.” The reply came: “We seem to have nabbed a couple of particularly tough babies. Will be rejoining soon.” This was nearly wishful thinking. Starling was only just moving when suddenly a chorus of amazed, urgent shouts came from all parts of the ship. Walker spun round and, only a few hundred yards away, the shallow-running torpedo could be seen streaking towards them. There was no time to pick up speed and take avoiding action. The enemy had come up to periscope depth, fired an ordinary torpedo at a sitting target and gone down again. Walker’s mind raced: unless he found a way out in the next few seconds, Starling would be a blazing, sinking wreck. With eyes fixed on the bubbling track of the deadly missile, he gave orders. “Hard a’port. . . Stand by depth charges. . . Shallow setting. . . . Fire.”
The crew, many of whom had already run to the far side away from the expected explosion while others had thrown themselves flat on the deck, were astounded to hear a command for the charges to fire at shallow setting while their ship was dawdling along. The explosions would blow the stern off. Suddenly the air was torn by two almost simultaneous, shattering roars. The first came from the depth charges, and the second, by far the more frightening, from the torpedo which had gone off only five yards from Starling’s quarter deck. A lightning decision, coupled with instant and disciplined obedience, had certainly saved the ship and countless lives, for the depth charges had counter-mined the torpedo a second before it struck home against Starling’s thinly-plated hull. A huge wave pyramided vertically high above Starling’s masthead, the sloop shook and jerked as though being shaken by some gigantic hand; reserve depth charges were thrown overboard by the shock blast, luckily failing to explode; tons of water fell in solid green sheets over the depth-charge crew standing momentarily stunned on the quarter deck but still doing their duty automatically; all electrical switches were thrown open in the power rooms; and worse, every bottle in the Wardroom was shattered into fragments. Starling gathered speed and shook herself clear of the swilling water while depth charges continued to leave the ship in the strict, methodical pattern of the creeping attack. There was not a hitch or delay in the drill. Remarkably, Starling had suffered no damage and on the bridge Walker murmured, “Interesting. This chap seems to know his job. It’s almost a pity to think we shall kill him without ever seeing what he’s like.” In the next half hour, Walker directed Wild Goose on two more creeping attacks and followed up with both ships carrying out an “Operation Plaster”. In this last run, he took his revenge and delivered the death blow. A few minutes later a loud underwater explosion cracked to the surface and soon a huge air bubble boiled up and collapsed spreading chunks of wood and human remains over hundreds of feet of sea. At 10 am, after collecting wreckage and other evidence, Starling and Wild Goose steamed off to assist Kite and Magpie. U-734 had gone the way of so many others, but it had taken nearly 150 depth charges dropped over more than three hours to destroy her. And she had come closer than any U-boat to destroying Starling. On joining Kite and Magpie at noon Walker found that they had carried out a series of creeping attacks without result. As Kite had first made contact with the U-boat, he sent Wild Goose and Magpie to patrol the area, gained contact himself and directed Kite into two more attacks using more than fifty depth charges. In this last attack, the enemy showed himself as cunning and tough as the one before. As Kite steamed in slowly to begin her depth charge barrage, a “gnat” was fired in self-defence. While it was still twenty yards away, the first depth charges set off immediately counter-mined the torpedo, which Kite had not yet seen. There was a thunderous crash and, to Starling’s crew, it looked as if their sister ship had been hit squarely amidships. For long heart-stopping seconds, the wide column of thin green water hovered over the shocked surprised Kite.
Cheers rang out from Starling’s men as, first Kite’s mast appeared, then her bridge, and finally the whole ship, unbelievably, wonderfully intact. She had shuddered and kicked under the impact of the blast, but was still on course and the depth charges were tumbling from her racks and shooting from her throwers in well-drilled precision. There had been no faltering in the continuity of the attack. But the sloop was badly shaken and several leaks had been sprung in her stern. She had only seventeen depth charges left, so Walker sent her out of the touchline and brought Magpie in for the next assault. With Starling acting as directing ship, Magpie now carried out a twenty-six charge creeping attack with the same result—nothing. On Starling's bridge, Walker grinned appreciatively. This was an opponent worthy of his best. Twisting, altering his depth constantly, the enemy commander was making every attack fall wide of the mark. Walker worked out a new procedure on the spot. Magpie was equipped with “Hedgehog”, the multi-barrelled mortar bomb thrower which could destroy only if one or more bombs scored direct hits. He would direct her in for a “Hedgehog” barrage and follow up with a depth charge attack himself. When he announced this to Starling’s officers, there were chuckles all round. Imagine aiming another ship’s weapons to fire twenty-four bombs and expect any of them to score direct hits on a target 700 feet below. “I was highly tickled by this hedgehoggery,” he wrote later. “Complicated instruments are normally deemed essential to score an occasional hit with this weapon. But under my orders over the R/T, Magpie steamed in to attack and fired off her bombs when told as if firing depth charges for a creeping attack. The result was an immediate double explosion which shook both ships. To score two bulls-eyes like that first shot with somebody else’s “Hedgehog” 1000 yards away was, of course, a ghastly fluke, but amusing considering no instruments at all were used.” This unorthodox and unscientific attack had without doubt succeeded. To make sure, Walker accepted the risk that the enemy might still be capable of firing “gnats”. At 3.30 pm Starling raced in at full speed for a ten-charge pattern set deep. A few seconds later, when the crashing roar of the last depth charge had died away, the remains of U-238 bobbed sadly on the surface. Magpie was now a fully-blooded member of the Group. Walker had been in command of the battle for nearly thirty-six hours without break. With eighty-one merchant ships depending on him, two aircraft-carriers hoping he would protect them, a close escort screen of six warships feeling unhappily impotent in their role of static defenders, and his own sloops spoiling for trouble in the outfield, he had faced one of the most dangerous “pack” attacks of the war and ripped it apart by killing three of the enemy in relentless thrusts and beating off less skilled raiders. This had been done without loss in ships, and at least 140 Germans had died while the British sailors had not suffered even a slight wound. Tired, but seemingly fresh; outwardly matter-of-fact yet inwardly tensed and fizzing with excitement at the victory,
Walker was outspoken in his criticism of certain parts of his Group’s efforts during the night; but in his heart deeply proud and content with every one of them. The Group stayed with SL J47 until the following morning, the 10th, but the crippled enemy failed to appear. At dawn, after exchanging signals with the Commodore, the aircraft-carriers and the close escort, Starling, Wild Goose, Woodpecker, Kite and Wren and Magpie, formed up in line abreast, hunting formation, and set course for another convoy, HX 277, which included the Norwegian tanker, Thorsholm, fully stocked with depth charges to replenish escorts in the unfortunate position of Starling and Kite. Re-ammunitioning with depth charges at sea was a long, tedious and nerve-wracking business requiring skill, patience and an even temper. Walker snatched his first two hours of sleep for nearly three days while the Group was en route but the afternoon of the 10th spent steering alongside the Thorsholm proved the most gruelling experience of the voyage. Only twenty-five yards apart and rolling heavily in a high swell the two ships steamed together, each of the tanker’s rolls threatening to capsize the sloop. The depth charges were hauled over by hand singly, at times sinking below the surface or being carried away to bump dangerously against the ship’s side as both sending and receiving ships rose and fell unevenly on the swell. To avoid the whole Group being immobilised, Walker ordered Wren to stand by while Wild Goose, Woodpecker and Magpie sailed off to support a following convoy, HX 278. The Group was all keyed to carry the battle to the enemy; any let-down now would accentuate their weariness and Walker was keen on getting Starling back into commission with the power to punch hard. At dusk, he called a halt to the ammunitioning and headed south at full speed with Kite and Wren to join the rest sweeping far astern of the convoy. So many signals of congratulation had been received from Liverpool and the Admiralty, each was read out to the crews of all ships by their commanding officers, that there was an air of carefree omnipotence around. The knowing ones on the mess decks were no longer taking bets on whether the Group would make a “kill” this trip, but on how many and at what time the next would be sighted. Wild Goose, Woodpecker and Magpie swept astern the track of convoy HX 278 in the hope of pouncing on stragglers or shadowers who might be still on the surface. Success came quickly; during the middle or “graveyard” watch between midnight and 4 am on the 12th, the three ships stumbled over a submerged marauder creeping up on the convoy from the stern. Wild Goose, usually first of the Group to join battle, made contact, and Commander Wemyss, still suffering from a won’t-be-stared-at-through-periscopes complex from his last struggle, went in to attack. But Magpie had somehow manoeuvred into the way and Wild Goose had to swerve hurriedly in the middle of her run to avoid collision. Wemyss resumed the attack with the range so close that he was still going slow when his depth charges exploded, nearly lifting the sloop out of the water with the blast force. Asdic conditions were not good, in certain sea areas the beams became distorted, and the three ships had an uncomfortable time gaining, losing and regaining contact with a slippery opponent who snaked freely about the ocean at varying depths. After an hour of attack during which some fifty-odd depth charges were dropped, Wild Goose made firm contact at last and Wemyss, tired of what he called “this groping around and dot and carry one business” went in for a full-blooded “plaster” attack. After the sea had died down, the tensed, anxious sloops were rewarded with a heavy roar of underwater crunching and breaking-up noises. For a few minutes the noises continued, then oil and wreckage came rushing to the surface. The trio reported by R/T to Walker who was hurrying to the scene with Kite and Wren, and resumed their patrol. He arrived next morning and steamed through the area inspecting the bits and pieces floating in the oil, but he refused to credit the Group with another “kill” because an aircraft had claimed a sinking in almost the same position and Starling’s doctor was unable to declare samples of the pulped flesh as human. U-boats had been known to take slaughtered animals to sea and fire them to the surface, when under attack, in the hope of fooling the hunters. At noon the two sections of the Group united and Wemyss insisted he had destroyed the U-boat in his last attack. Walker therefore decreed they should all patrol back to the scene to investigate the wreckage more carefully. They returned at 5 pm and, by this time, the oil patch spread over an area six miles in diameter, and convincing human and other remains were awaiting collection. “I might well have realised,” said Walker later, “that an officer of Wild Goose’s experience knows what he is talking about when he reports breaking up noises, etc. It was an undoubted kill.” So ended the career of the 740-ton U-424.
While Commander Wemyss and his officers were celebrating their victory the idea of giving Wild Goose a ship’s banner was born. When he had commanded a submarine during the First World War, Sir Max Horton had flown a black flag on returning to harbour to signify a successful voyage. This flag carried the skull and cross-bones and bore other strange devices to commemorate the submarine’s exploits. Wemyss could see no reason why an anti-submarine vessel such as Wild Goose should not do the same, although in discussion with his officers he insisted that the design should be dignified as befitted the sloop’s size and appearance. “The outcome,” he says, “was a really handsome banner. It was dark blue in colour with the ship’s crest in white in the middle.” As the Second Support Group celebrated “kills” by splicing the mainbrace, it was decided to portray the victories by drawing empty grog casks in the top right-hand corner. The design having been approved by their captain, the crew of Wild Goose settled down to have the banner ready for entering harbour. After this patrol, the Group sailed to the support of a westward-bound convoy, ON 224, from which Walker decided to take on more depth charges. He took twenty-six from the Panamanian tanker Belgian Gulf who also sent across a water proof bag containing bottles of brandy and cigarettes. That night Walker took overall command of the three forces, the close escort, the Seventh Support Group and his own Group, in readiness for a fight through an area reportedly jammed with U-boats. The next two days saw only minor skirmishes and, on the 19th he led the Group away to retrace the convoys course in another attempt to catch unawares any of the enemy who might be shadowing. He reported this decision to Liverpool and received in reply a signal telling him to stay with the convoy. By that time the Group were in line abreast some nineteen miles astern of the convoy and, like Nelson before him, Walker turned a blind eye intending to disobey only for a few minutes while they investigated a weak contact reported by Woodpecker. This turned out to be a firm U-boat contact. Ignoring the signal entirely, Walker formed up his ships for the hunt. For the last ten days since leaving convoy SL 147, U-26 had been wandering around the mid-Atlantic battlefield seeing a lot of activity without actually taking part. Kapitan Looks was still confident of his “Schnorkel” breathing device which had enabled him to stay submerged and out of trouble at times when he would have been forced to surface in most embarrassing circumstances. With some confidence he attacked ON 224 during the night of the 18th and 19th of February. He was somewhat less confident when he succeeded only in bringing a destroyer of the close escort screen racing across to bombard him with depth charges for the next two hours. Eventually the destroyer gave up the hunt and U-26 with a chastened and grumbling crew, slunk away to the stern of the convoy. Shortly after 10 am the menacing bows of the Second Support Group filled Looks’ periscope and he gave the order to dive deep. Throughout the 19th in heavy seas, with a gloomy overcast sky and a high wind, the Group attacked their target, but asdic conditions were poor and they kept losing contact. One creeping attack after another was producing no more result than to disturb the already highly angry seas and by 4 pm the battle had settled down to one of endurance. But if Walker and his Group felt capable of continuing the struggle until a decisive result was achieved, Looks knew that time was running out. The continuous depth charging had caused havoc inside U-264. Her lights had failed, her engines had been shaken loose from their mountings, the new “Schnorkel” had broken down and one propeller shaft had jammed. The attack went on and the noise of the crashing, roaring, exploding depth charges made it impossible to hear anything on the hydrophones. Looks decided that he would have to surface and abandon ship. At 5 pm exactly he broke surface a mile from the Second Support Group whose guns bore down and blazed into action. On the bridge of Starling, a wild-looking figure in a patchwork waistcoat stood on the chart table, waving his hat in the air and cheering as each shell exploded in a dull red flash against the U-boat. On the conning tower, despite his desperate plight, the captain of U-26 gave the order, “Abandon Ship”, and stood by until the last of his crew had leapt into the water. Then he went below, set the scuttling charges and, with shells hitting the U-boat at every salvo, saluted and dived overboard. Seven minutes later, U-26 sank stern first. The complete crew of seven officers, nine petty officers and thirty-five ratings were rescued and taken aboard Starling, Wild Goose and Woodpecker. Walker signalled the Group to "splice the mainbrace". In his report he wrote: “The enemy threw in the towel after receiving a big wallop in the belly from Starling’s last creeping attack.” The Group had just reformed when Kite reported engine defects and had to be detached to return to Liverpool. She was never to rejoin the Group. After completing her repairs, she reinforced another striking force covering Russian convoys in icy, Arctic waters. (The waters were not that bad actually). There she was torpedoed and sunk, all but seven (actually 14 were rescued of which 5 died on board HMS Keppel) of her ship’s company of more than 150 (217 in truth) men going down with her. In those icy seas, it was impossible for a man to live longer than minutes. (Kite died due to the relative incompetence of a temporary commander - see my pages on Kite). Kite’s departure left an empty feeling in the Group who knew that with damaged engines she would have to pass through dangerous areas at slow speeds.
That night, shortly before midnight while the sloops were steaming in line abreast, a heavy explosion sounded from somewhere on Starling’s port beam. Walker. who had been snatching a few moments’ rest in his sea cabin, rushed to the bridge and the Officer of the Watch pointed out two flares sparking on the surface about four miles away. They were startled again by three more explosions swiftly followed by an urgent call on the R/T. It was Woodpecker reporting her stern blown off by a “gnat” torpedo. The first explosion had been the “gnat” hitting her, the flares being automatically set off from her spare lifejackets when they hit the water, and the last three explosions had been depth charges going off from her sinking stern. In seconds every man in the Group knew what had happened and was shocked at the disaster; for too long they had believed themselves indestructible. Without thinking of revenge, the Group formed a protective screen round their stricken sister ship and, after half an hour, Woodpecker “ as able to report no one hurt and that she was capable of staying afloat. Relief flowed through the ships; they were still invincible and the enemy could not claim a victim yet. Walker, indifferent ship handler but brilliant sea man, decided to do the towing himself while the Group acted as an escort. While closing in to pass over a towing line, he nearly finished off the U-boat’s job by colliding with Woodpecker. But he grazed her side and eventually the operation was successfully completed and Starling, with Woodpecker in tow, was making about four knots in the general direction of the United Kingdom. However, the weather was too rough and, after the tow lines had parted several times, Walker signalled Liverpool asking for tugs to be sent to their assistance. On the 21st the ocean going tug, Storm King, arrived and took the tailless Woodpecker in tow at a cracking rate of six knots and on an accurate course for Liverpool. All except a skeleton crew were transferred to the other sloops. Handing over their damaged “chick” to another escort Group, the sloops headed for home. The Group was on its last legs; ammunition was low, depth charges had been expended and fuel exhausted in non-stop attack and counter-attack. Officers and men were haggard, irritable and jumpy under the constant strains of alarms and the fear of “gnats”. While they steamed, red-eyed and drawn, towards base, the grey Atlantic took a hand in the towing of Woodpecker. Great rolling seas piled up around the helpless ship and gallant little tug; huge, mocking breakers crashed heavily on the sloop until her captain ordered the skeleton crew to abandon ship. The last man had jumped into a tiny lifeboat and pulled clear when Woodpecker heaved into the air, twisted and writhed as though in mortal agony, then leaned over on her side finally to capsize and sink with a long, low groan of escaping air.
Only rapid action by the tug, Storm King, saved her from being dragged under with her charge. The first of the Second Support Group had been destroyed, not by the enemy, but by the impartial, vindictive sea. Almost at the same time, Walker, leading the Group up the Irish Sea, received a signal from the Admiralty saying that the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet wished to convey their congratulations on the excellent work performed by the Second Support Group. Worn out but happy, they sailed in line ahead towards Liverpool; now the shorter, choppy seas of coastal waters replaced the long Atlantic rollers and heralded sanctuary and sleep. With the need for action stations and alarms gone, the spirited internal rivalry between the Group supplied an outlet for over-tensed nerves. While Walker paced the bridge of Starling, leaving his Officer of the Watch to handle the ship, signal lamps blinked domestically ribald messages which he considered it wise to ignore. “To O.O.W. Wild Goose from O.O.W. Starling—You are astern of station.” “To O.O.W. Starling from O.O.W. Wild Goose—Why don’t you keep a steady speed. You are travelling in leaps and bounds like a kangaroo.” “To Navigator Starling from Navigator Wild Goose—You are leading us slap into the middle of a minefield.” This was a direct attack on Starling’s leadership and her navigator indignantly rushed into his chartroom to make a rapid check on his course. A few minutes later he re-appeared on the bridge with seeming unconcern to tell the Yeoman of Signals: “Make an appropriate reply, Yeoman. Not more than one word.” The Group were still some hours out of Liverpool when Starling’s doctor was transferred to Wren to assist her medical officer in an urgent operation for acute appendicitis which proved successful. As Burn remarked irreverently afterwards: “Both those Docs would try anything once.” In this mood the sloops arrived off Liverpool to be met by the training ship, Philante, carrying the flag of Admiral Sir Max Horton, a fast piece of regulation signalling informing them that also aboard was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. A. V. Alexander. Philante steamed down the line of ships signalling to each the First Lord’s congratulations on the successes of their voyage. As they passed, he could be seen through a porthole wearing a dressing gown and hurrying to get dressed in time to wave in person from Philante’s bridge. The Group entered the swept channel in line ahead 200 yards apart and steamed into harbour majestically, maintaining station as rigidly as a line of guardsmen with guns laying fore and aft, White Ensigns flying stiffly in the breeze. From Wild Goose’s masthead fluttered the victory banner with the strange devices. As the line of sturdy “little ships” approached Gladstone Dock, nearly 2,000 officers, sailors, Wrens, civilian port employees and dockyard workers lining both sides of the docks and cheered
Walker’s first thought was for his family. Before the gangway had been put across, he helped Eilleen to step over to the ship’s rail and on to the deck and led her to the Wardroom where with other officers’ wives she waited while the formalities were dealt with first. A battalion of newspapermen and photographers invaded each of the sloops in turn eager to pump stories from men who could only blink red-eyed and sleepily as flash-bulbs exploded in their faces. This was the price of carrying out the most successful patrol of the Battle of the Atlantic; no cruise before or since yielded such a triumphant victory for the Allies or dealt such a crippling blow to the U-boat Arm. (Three months later in the Pacific, the American aircraft carder Hoggart Bay with the anti-submarine vessels USS England, George, Hazelwood and Roby, in company claimed six’ probable’ Japanese submarines in a four week cruise). The Admiralty and the newspapers were determined to make the most of it for propaganda purposes. In Starling Walker told Filleul to keep the Press at bay, instructed Eileen to give no interviews and then escorted the First Lord and Sir Max to his cabin.
Meanwhile, the fifty-one prisoners from U-26 were marched ashore and handed over to an Army escort. Presently, a message was sent down to the Wardroom asking Eileen to join the group in the Captain’s cabin and there she met Mr. Alexander whose first words were: “Well, Mrs. Walker, we have already given your husband a CB and two DSO's, so what on earth do we give now? What would you suggest?” “I really don’t know,” replied Eilleen. “But I am sure Johnnie isn’t even thinking about it.” On the dockside, a broad space had been cleared near the sloops whose crews were lined up in their respective divisions round a raised dais. From this Sir Max opened proceedings. “I am proud of you all. This last voyage was a wonderful achievement. Here in Liverpool, we all watched your progress with mounting excitement. To say we were thrilled is putting it very mildly. Therefore on behalf of us all on the Staff ashore I thank you all for your good work.” But more than anything else, the Group needed rest. While they tried to appear cheerful, many officers were too tired to drink the many toasts offered in their honour. Walker and his family lunched in his cabin and helped to deal with fan mail. He received a surprising number of letters from people throughout Britain and even from America congratulating him and asking for advice on such problems as whether sons and daughters should join the Navy and the Wrens. He answered all these personally, particularly those from a Midland family, named Starling. After lunch, he said to Eilleen: “Isn’t it funny? All this fuss and ceremony and I’m still just the same old Johnnie they didn’t think it worthwhile to promote.” When homeward bound after leaving Woodpecker in the hands of the tug, Storm King, Walker’s officers had noticed that he was inclined to fret unduly about the date of their arrival in Liverpool. In that curious, inexplicable way by which news passes through ships, it was soon discovered that February 27th was his silver wedding anniversary. Starling docked on the 25th and, after several furtive comings and goings by officers and ratings, Johnnie and Eilleen were invited on board for what was supposed to be a small anniversary party. It developed into a gay affair and on behalf of the Wardroom Filleul presented Eilleen with a silver dish suitably inscribed. Later, representatives of the ship’s company came to present her with a silver sugar bowl and cream jug. Both gifts had to be made to her as it would have been a breach of regulations for the crew to offer a present to their captain. About a week later, the value of the creeping attack came up again when Captain Pat Cooper arrived from London and dined aboard as Walker’s guest. One of Walker’s first anti submarine pupils and now specialising for the Admiralty in new equipment, Cooper revived the idea that certain new equipment should be fitted in Starling and jokingly referred to her “bow and arrow” instruments. His arguments were useless. Walker’s mind was set against anything new which could not be shown to have produced the same standard of success which he regarded now as normal. Cooper protested that this was almost impossible as the Second Support Group’s record had not been equalled. “Well, that’s it,” Walker summed up. “When I stop killing U-boats with my present set-up I shall come to you for some thing to cure the complaint. While I am successful, I honestly see no reason why I should clutter up the ship with a lot of gear which in all probability will never be used.” When the two friends parted with a warning from Cooper that the latest instruments might yet prove valuable, neither could foresee that it was to be their last meeting. A friendship which had been born in the difficult days of Portland in the ‘twenties, when all and-submarine specialists were considered only one stage removed from cranks, was in its twilight. But first the threat of the U-boat had to be stamped out to ensure free and unmolested passage across the battlefield for the great invasion convoys. Walker’s tiring, lean, over-taut frame was being driven by seemingly boundless physical and mental energy . After hearing of an impudent U-boat which persisted in patrolling the mid-Atlantic, transmitting regular weather reports for the benefit of the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht as well as the U-boat Arm, the Second Support Group sailed again early in March to deal with this enemy weather station and any other U-boat which might be sailing in what were now rightly regarded as Allied waters. On the eve of sailing, Derby House informed Walker that he had been awarded his third DSO Worth far more to him was the announcement that he had been awarded two year’s extra seniority as Captain. In one stroke a grateful Admiralty had wiped out the past and placed him again among his team mates. Their Lordships had erased forever the old black mark, “lacking powers of leadership”.