Chapters 15 - End
CHAPTER 15 - A GIFT TO STALIN
The Group sailed with the aircraft-carrier, Vindex, for mid Atlantic, a sister sloop, Whimbrel, having joined as a replacement for the lost Woodpecker. It seemed that their hunt might well prove fruitless; one U-boat in the Atlantic being almost like the proverbial needle in a haystack. To help, the Group had intercepted the U-boat’s wireless signals on HF/DF and the search area was narrowed down to a few hundred miles after a week of hunting. Eventually, at dawn some two days later, their quarry was discovered in a copybook combined air-sea operation. The Atlantic weather had turned nasty again and asdic conditions were not helped by the high running seas. Vindex flew off her dawn patrol and after an hour the aircraft broke out of cloud directly above the U-boat which had surfaced ten miles from the Group. She crash-dived on sighting the plane, but the sloops were already heading for the scene at full speed. The infallible Wild Goose made contact first and, after handing the echo to Starling, waited for Walker’s order to begin the attack. As a preliminary, designed to force the enemy to dive deep, he took Starling in for a medium-depth pattern which should have pinned her down nicely for Wild Goose. Unfortunately for Wemyss and his crew, Starling’s pattern destroyed the enemy, much to Walker’s personal astonishment. As it had become the Group’s unwritten rule that the first ship to detect an enemy should have the privilege of opening the attack, he sent the following signal to Wild Goose. “I am guilty of flagrant poaching. Very much regret my unwarrantable intrusion into your game.” So U-653 was sunk by what was merely intended to be a softener attack before hostilities opened in earnest. When this success had been reported to the Commander- in-Chief, Western Approaches, and the Group had celebrated, orders were received to proceed with dispatch to Scapa Flow, main base for the Home Fleet. At once a crop of rumours spread through the sloops that something big was in the wind, something, for instance, like a Russian convoy. On March 28th, Starling, Wild Goose, Magpie, Wren and Whimbrel sailed from Scapa to join two other Groups as escorts for the Russian-bound convoy JW 58 which carried aircraft and guns for the Red Army and Air Force. Also in company were two old friends from the mid-Atlantic patrols, the aircraft-carriers Tracker and Activity, and the senior officer of the combined force was the Rear-Admiral in command of the cruiser, Diadem, then a comparatively new ship and leader of the Tenth Cruiser Squadron.
To Walker, who assumed automatic command of the three escorting Groups of sloops and destroyers, it soon became apparent that their real task was to ensure the safe arrival in Russia of a huge four-funnelled American cruiser, the USS Milwaukee, which was placed in the centre of the convoy. It was a gift from President Roosevelt to the Russian leader as a token of the American people’s appreciation of Red Army successes. Although sailing with an American crew under the Stars and Stripes, she was under the care and protection of the Royal Navy until reaching Russia. Before leaving Scapa, Walker had been warned at a briefing conference that, whatever the fate of the rest of the force, Milwaukee had to reach Russia intact as Mr. Churchill thought it might prove more than a little embarrassing if he had to explain to the President and Stalin why this symbol of Soviet-American friendship lay undelivered at the bottom of the Arctic. The Admiralty and the various senior officers at Scapa Flow concerned with Milwaukee’s fate were fully aware of the responsibility. It was thought that the operation needed not only a large escort of powerful anti submarine striking ships but also a senior officer of strong calibre and experience to discourage the enemy. But if Walker was senior officer of the escorts, he was by no means in command of the entire force. This authority was vested in Diadem and, no matter how he tried, he could not extricate his ships from the welter of orthodox Fleet instructions which came from Diadem’s bridge. Throughout the first day, batteries of signal lamps blinked from the big ships in the middle of which Walker tried to get permission to carry out a practice shoot. Starling’s Yeoman of Signals tried patiently to get a word in edgewise at the chattering Diadem for more than twenty minutes before Walker, red-faced with anger and thoroughly upset at the screening orders, told him to abandon the attempt and turned to Burn, acting as staff gunnery officer to the Group, to say: “I’m sorry. I just can’t seem to get a thing out of that ship.” For the Group, these were strange waters. It was not too cold if the men kept themselves well wrapped up in their Arctic clothing, but the weather played havoc with the senses. There were only four hours darkness for most nights and the days were strangely unreal with so much daylight and no twilight or dawn. Atmospheric conditions distorted wireless beams and HF/DF interceptions of enemy signals were not only frequent but gave wildly inaccurate bearings. On the night of the 3oth, Starling literally stumbled across a U-boat. They picked up asdic contact about a mile to starboard and attacked with two hurriedly-fired patterns set to explode between 150 and 300 feet. There was a tremendous under-water explosion followed by a stream of oil, wreckage and dead bodies floating to the surface. U-961 a newly-commissioned boat outward bound from Norway to the Atlantic on her first war patrol, and chiefly concerned with making a safe passage through the “Rose Garden”, as the Germans called the area south of Iceland where they often had a bad time, was destroyed without ever knowing what had hit her. It is certain she had no evil intentions towards the convoy and probably had no idea she was anywhere near a force of warships. She took no evading action and, in Walker’s words to his officers later: “She was that rare thing these days, a genuine mug.” On another night, Walker picked up radar contact with a U-boat two miles from him and, ordering the Group to form up on him, gave chase at full speed. The enemy ran away on the surface and was out of range at dawn, but carrier aircraft dived on her and scored direct hits. Starling picked up evidence of destruction a few minutes later. By this time the Group had fallen well behind the convoy and, as they turned to catch up at full speed, visibility became astonishing. Tiny stakes sticking up like needles over the horizon showed the position of the convoy; as they closed the range, hulls of ships appeared as thin, grey pencils which grew larger until finally taking shape. At times the merchant ships seemed to be flying several feet above the water in a glassy, hazy mirage while, on occasion, the water turned upside down and the ships sailed on the tips of their masts. Snow squalls appeared frequently and with startling suddenness. They could be seen forming up miles away and racing across the sea like white blankets lowered to the surface from huge black clouds. Officers of the Watch found it broke the monotony by varying their zigzags to avoid the squalls.
The Group had nearly taken up their proper stations again when Wild Goose, true to her old tradition, found good enough reason to break this unreal peace and indulge in a practice shoot. Commander Weymss asked Walker for permission to fire his guns, a request which was passed on to Diadem. It was refused on the ground that a single shot fired within sight or sound of the convoy would be welcomed by all as a chance to loose off a magazine or two and thus create confusion. No sooner had Walker regretfully repeated this decision to Wild Goose, than her guns blared viciously and little puffs of black smoke appeared low on the horizon. Almost at once an enemy aircraft was seen dancing just above the sea in a misty haze out of range of the sloop’s guns. Undoubtedly the pilot was reporting the convoy to German headquarters in Norway, and wheels were turning to intercept and interrupt their peaceful passage. Undeterred, Wemyss signalled gleefully to Walker: “Practice shoot completed.” Shortly afterwards, fighters flown off from the two carriers dived on the enemy who vanished disconsolately into the watery haze. This was only the beginning for the Fleet Air Arm. The weather deteriorated until solid squalls of snow, rain and hail spread across the sky. Huge hailstones whipped the faces of those on watch until it was impossible to look into the wind with open eyes. Yet through all this the aircraft took off on daily sorties against enemy shadowers. During the next few days and nights the U-boats gathered for a mass attack. HF/DF interceptions came rapidly but Walker refused to use up time, energy and fuel in chasing them all. There were several nightly skirmishes but no major attack developed. The force arrived off Vaenga Bay, the escort base near Murmansk, on April 4th and parted company with the convoy. A Russian pilot was embarked in Starling to lead the Group into the anchorage and, to make matters difficult, he could speak not a word of English. The Engineer Officer who had been to Russia once and claimed to speak the language was sent for to ask the pilot how far it was to the Bay. With the pilot looking over his shoulder, he put a finger on the chart where Vaenga Bay was marked and uttered strange sounds supposed to be Russian for “How far?” The Russian looked at him stolidly and said: “Ugh”. The Engineer Officer repeated his verbal acrobatics and each time received the stolid, “Ugh”. Eventually he left the bridge in disgust muttering angrily under his breath something about these “ignorant blasted Russians”. After this the pilot navigated Starling by pointing in various directions and grunting in different tones. When they had anchored safely, the problem arose of how to entertain the pilot. He was taken down to the Wardroom and Walker started proceedings by offering him a glass of the most powerful and virulent gin on board in the hope that he might mistake it for bad vodka. The Russian gulped it down in one and shook his head in strong disapproval. John Filleul followed by handing him a glass of whisky which again vanished in one gulp followed by a vigorous shaking of the pilot’s head. A variety of other drinks received the same reaction until it was time for dinner and the officers, who had been matching the pilot’s drinks, were in fine fettle. Language difficulties were fast disappearing and half way through the meal most of the Wardroom was gaily incoherent. Then it was noticed that their guest was looking sullen and unhappy; he had no drink. It fell to the Navigator to save Starling’s prestige. Clearing his throat he said loudly: “Bring the pilot one of those half-crown (12p) bottles of cooking port.” After downing the first glass of this real red infuriator, the guest rolled his eyes and licked his lips with joy; at last he had been given a drink suitable to the Russian palate. In ten minutes he finished the bottle, and a second vanished with equal speed and dexterity. Then, with some assistance, he made his way to the Captain’s cabin and collapsed on the bunk, happily out to the world.
The Second Support Group’s stay in Russia was brief and unexciting. They watched a concert put on by a Russian Naval theatrical company but there was little else to do, and the lack of such ordinary institutions as pubs, cinemas and dance halls proved an incentive to stay aboard. Starling’s officers had not yet visited the newcomer, Whimbrel, so with the pilot in company they proposed to call, taking care to warn the sloop in advance that cooking port was a “must” for the guest. While in Whimbrel’s Wardroom that night there was a sudden commotion on deck. A sailor, overcome with emotion at being so close to the birthplace of Communism, attempted to desert the Royal Navy to seek happier days in Stalin’s ships. He had thrown a Carley raft overboard, jumped down into it and was paddling furiously for shore. Whimbrel’s crew lined the ship’s side in awed silence to watch this performance. The would-be deserter had forgotten to let go the rope securing the raft to the ship and there he was, some twenty yards away, pulling the rope tight with long, powerful thrusts of the paddle while the raft stayed exactly in the same spot. Eventually, several sailors hauled the raft slowly back to the ship, but the red-minded seaman, intent on his paddling, failed to notice in the darkness that he was going backwards until the raft bounced gently against the ship’s side and he turned to look up at his ship-mates who were gazing down in sheer wonderment. There was a gale of laughter which echoed across the harbour as he was pulled aboard, crestfallen and angry, to face punishment. There was nothing impressive about Russian life ashore. The value of money appeared to be nil and, in consequence, even the street urchins, of whom there were many, seemed to have plenty; fantastic prices were asked for chocolates and cigarettes but there was little else to buy. During the voyage home there were no serious engagements with the enemy and Walker grumbled later that it was marked only by “the humiliating experience of getting three U-boats by radar and visual sighting, only to get no asdic contact at all once they dived, conditions were so bad”. While the main force of warships broke away from the convoy they were escorting to head for Scapa Flow, Walker and his Group were ordered to return to Liverpool, where they arrived on the 14th of April.
At Derby House, Walker met several of the officers who had taken the USS Milwaukee to Russia and were then on their way back to the United States. When the Stars and Stripes had been lowered and the Red Flag hoisted in its place, the USS Milwaukee had become, in the official words: “The first sea fighting Unit of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to be named the Murmansk.” After a brief rest at home with Eilleen and Gillian, who stayed at “The White House” when off duty, Walker was called back to sea again, this time to sail with Tracker, for final mopping-up operations prior to the invasion of Normandy. The main U-boat force was being pulled back into the Western Approaches, but the few still marauding along the convoy routes could inflict heavy losses on the pre-invasion build-up of supplies if allowed to operate unhindered. They had to be harried and chased until they withdrew to more favourable battlegrounds. Walker seemed to be tanned and fit. The craggy jaw was, perhaps, a little craggier; the wide-set eyes more sunken than usual; and the crinkly, brown hair receding a bit from the forehead and showing the first signs of greyness at the temples. But the effect was that of an athlete at the peak of his training, that is, to anyone who didn’t know him well. Possibly the only person who noticed these first signs of strain and weariness was Eilleen. His energy was amazing, and unfortunate mistakes by the Group’s commanding officers could bring either a witty, ready rejoinder or a biting blast from which the sting had been taken by his choice of language. His standing among the Liverpool authorities was higher than ever and this was amply illustrated when he showed his contempt for red tape by having Starling’s “foxer” anti-gnat device put ashore because the long trailing wires once fouled her propellers. The equipment was landed on the dockside with not a word of protest from Derby House. Although it was known among the staff ashore and the Group’s officers that he was working hard and shouldering far more responsibility than his rank warranted, none of them could see that it was having any effect other than to stimulate him in his grim determination to help destroy the enemy. But the constant strain of being in the fight for longer than any other officer afloat was relentlessly taking toll of mind and body, wearing thin the machinery of his heart and gnawing at the delicate mechanism of the brain. Had he been given a shore appointment then, this story might have taken a very different course. There were few in those days who would have dared to try and part Walker from Starling, and it became a simple matter of how long he would last before some part of him collapsed.
On this voyage, surrounded by Wild Goose, Magpie, Wren, Whimbrel and Tracker, he cruised along the Atlantic battle front and, within a few days, was engaging the enemy in a final fight. The striking force reached their patrol area on May 1st, sighting only a large buoy bearing a tall mast-like affair which they had photographed before sinking it by gunfire. It looked as if the Atlantic had at last been freed of the U-boat pincers. But before this hope could settle into certainty, U-473 an impertinent 740-tonner carrying a crew of fifty-two, slunk across the black sea before dawn on May 3rd and sank the American destroyer, USS Donnell, then about 200 miles southwest of the Group. Walker received news of this attack from Liverpool and further signals from the Admiralty gave the estimated position of the enemy according to interceptions of his radio chattering to France. He detached Whimbrel and Magpie to proceed at full speed to the assistance of the American warship and with Wild Goose, Wren and Tracker headed for the search area. It was a classic hunt which took the Group back more than a year to their first scalp, U-202. That time it had taken nearly fifteen hours to destroy the enemy; this was going to take even longer. Walker’s instinct nosed out the U-boat. Although the enemy could have been almost anywhere inside a radius of 200 miles from the scene of the Donnell attack, he steered on what he hoped would be an interception course and proved right first time. Also in accordance with tradition, Wild Goose gained asdic contact first and carried out a swift anti-gnat depth charge attack before handing over the echo to Walker in Starling. Tracker was sent out of the danger area while the three sloops lined up for the run-in on a series of creeping attacks. At one time, Starling had to cut close to Wild Goose, and an angry voice bellowed from Wemyss’ quarter deck: “Go find one of your own to play with. We started this little game and this time we want to finish it. Away with you.” There were grins in both ships which soon began to fade as one attack after another failed to produce evidence of destruction. In U-473 they had encountered a slippery opponent. He went on zigzagging steadily ahead with depth charges falling about his ears and twice tried to escape by turning complete circles and reversing course in attempts to pass back between the sloops. Cunning as he was, hurried manoeuvres by the Group foiled each wriggle. So it went on all day and into the night. This was, in fact, more of a repetition of the U-202 hunt than had at first been thought possible. Nearly 900 feet—and the depth charges were exploding well above. Walker decided to wait for him to surface through lack of air or run-down batteries, but towards midnight the enemy varied the depth and came up to fire a shower of “gnats” in a vain chance of breaking up the hunting formation. Starling counter-attacked rapidly with twenty-six depth charges which inflicted the first damage. After this Walker suspected he would surface at any moment.
U-473 came up shortly after midnight, the noise of blowing tanks heralding the battle’s dramatic close to the waiting, listening Group. Starshell and flares silhouetted his tiny conning tower as he attempted to run away at full speed. The three sloops, rolling horribly, opened fire with all they had as the enemy set off at a cracking pace across their bows. The water in the vicinity of the U-boat became a mass of foam as the combined fire fell around him; a salvo of four-inch guns from Wren struck home on the conning tower; then two more from Starling, followed by excited claims over the R/T from Wild Goose. Walker, always a spectator when the guns took over from his beloved depth charges, clambered to the highest spot on the bridge and watched as an evil red glow spread from the conning tower to the enemy’s deck. Machine-gun tracer bullets streamed and bounced off armour plating in colourful fountains of light. On Starling’s bridge, Walker shouted above the sound of the salvoes: “Come on, Burn. Give the blasted Boche hell. . . . Oh, well shot, someone, that’s another direct hit. . . We have got him this time.” Through binoculars it was possible to see the U-boat’s crew scamper from their action stations; then the gun on the foredeck vanished in a creamy whirlpool. Men were still manning the shattered stump of a conning tower and, after twenty minutes of pitched battle, the victim turned towards her enemies, fired off a cloud of “gnats” in a last desperate effort to take at least one of the sloops with him to the bottom. But the deadly torpedoes missed, the U-boat commander pointed his bows at Starling and lunged forward in a brave attempt to ram. Walker stopped cheering suddenly and, with some alacrity, conned Starling out of danger only just in time. As the enemy passed across their bows another salvo from Wren crashed into him. It was the death blow. The crew were seen to leap over board while U-473 shuddered to a stop. Then with nose pointed downwards, it sank, leaving thirty of the crew to be picked up by Starling and Wild Goose. Starling alone had fired nearly 150 rounds of ammunition. A few minutes later a signal was sent to Liverpool saying that U-473 the sinker of the USS Donnell, had been destroyed and our Allies avenged. The Group resumed patrolling but there was nothing to disturb the peace for the next few days and, somewhat bored, they set sail for home. If the battlefield remained quiet, it was not so peaceful in Starling. At dawn on the 8th a sentry, guarding the sleeping U-boat prisoners, fired his revolver accidentally and wounded a German in the left shoulder. The revolver, a six-shooter, had one chamber empty for safety. One sentry pulled the trigger to see if the chamber was empty. It was, so he handed it over to his relief, saying: “It’s quite safe. You pull the trigger and nothing happens.” But he had forgotten to reset the chambers. Later, the relief decided to find out for himself and pulled the trigger. The result was one wounded prisoner. Fortunately, the wound was not serious, but Walker worried that the incident might lead to a rash of atrocity stories in Germany with reprisals against Royal Navy prisoners. He sent for the German, apologised on behalf of the Navy and then asked the senior German prisoner aboard, who happened to be a Petty Officer, to sign a statement testifying that it had been an accident. While this was prepared, he held a quarter deck inquiry which led to severe punishment for the sentry responsible. On the 17th the Group returned to Liverpool where Sir Max Horton was waiting impatiently to discuss the role of the Western Approaches Command in the coming Allied return to the Continent, the D-day landings. Eilleen, who had thought for some time that her husband was overdoing it at sea, noticed now how haggard he had become. “I was aghast,” she recalls, “at the toll being taken of his strength and resistance.” Nevertheless, on that first night when his most urgent need was for sleep he was summoned to Derby House to dine with the Commander-in-Chief and other senior officers. He returned home late, flopped on his bed and said: “I’m all right, although I feel pretty tired now. You see, I stay on the bridge for as long as possible. I see the sailors looking up and know they are thinking: ‘It’s all right, the old man’s up there.’ It does give them confidence, you know.” Then he added somewhat naïvely, and with boyish pride: “As a matter of fact, I can stay on the bridge much longer than any of the young chaps.” That was the trouble; he could and did. As a result he was killing himself; gradually but inevitably. The following day he was sent for again by Sir Max to be given the first indication of his future in the Royal Navy—as the Admiralty saw it. “I think we are on top of this U-boat war at last, Walker,” said Sir Max, “and it’s largely due to your efforts.” - “Not all mine, Sir. The Group’s as well.” - “That may be, but there is no need now to kill yourself over this business in the Atlantic. Bigger things are coming up. I have had a word with Their Lordships and it seems to have been decided that you should have a complete rest for two months after we have got our troops securely entrenched in Europe. That should be in about August. It won’t be a desk job, but a proper rest.” “I don’t think that will be necessary, Sir. I feel fine and the Group have got used to me being around. I should like to finish the war with them. Then I can retire fairly gracefully.”
“I’m afraid not,” the Commander in Chief smiled. “You are slated to take command of an aircraft-carrier to get you accustomed to air procedure and, somewhere about the end of the year, you will be promoted to Flag rank and given a carrier task force to take out to the Pacific. That war looks as though it might drag on for quite a while yet and there will be a real need for you out there. How does that sound?” “Wonderful, Sir. But frankly I have been thinking seriously about retiring after the war and giving some time to my family, home and garden. I’ve had my share and it would be a waste for the Admiralty to promote me for the sake of a few months. Why not let me finish up doing the work I know best?” “I’m sorry,” replied Sir Max, “but I don’t think the Admiralty will let you retire. You are too valuable an officer, Johnnie, and there is going to be a crying need for Admirals with your experience after the war. I’m afraid Their Lordships will insist you take both the promotion and the appointment, or else. . . . Anyway, think about it, and meanwhile I’ll arrange for you to be sent on leave somewhere in August when the invasion business has sorted itself out.” Walker repeated the conversation to his wife later that night and she was mostly relieved to hear that he was to be given a rest. But the more he talked the more upset he seemed to become. “I told the Elephant! (A western Approaches nickname for the Commander in Chief) I wanted to retire when all this is over,” he said almost plaintively, “but he said I could forget that as they would never let me go. Think of what a mess I shall make of the peacetime Navy.” The matter was left in abeyance while he prepared for D-day.
CHAPTER 16 - THE PRICE
For many weeks the ships of the Western Approaches Command had known that the invasion of Normandy might take place any day. What would be their role in that vast, cross-Channel armada? Their old adversary, Grand Admiral Doenitz, supplied the answer; he had devised a threefold counter to the invasion fleets which could be launched with deadly effect, if he were given enough time. His defence of the Occupied territories by the U-boat Arm called for:
1. The withdrawal of orthodox U-boats from the Atlantic battlefield for equipping with “Schnorkel” breathing apparatus. This would allow them to move in Channel and coastal waters comparatively immune from air reconnaissance.
It is reasonable to say to-day that this new boat might well have achieved all these aims had D-day been delayed for as little as weeks or had the invasion itself miscarried in some way. For these boats could maintain their surface speed while submerged at any depth and at twenty knots carrying twice the normal number of torpedoes, could follow and attack the same convoy for the whole of its crossing from the United States to Britain. The destruction it could cause would be limited only by their fire-power. If detected, they could run away at a greater speed than most of the escort vessels, while in the Channel they could pass through an invasion supply fleet firing left and right and be gone before the slender escort had fully understood what had happened. This was a development which if allowed to pass the final stages of experimental trials and go into production might well have changed not only the course of the war, but of history. Fortunately for the Allies, the delay to D-day was counted in hours only and Doenitz was never given time to put these new boats on mass-production lines.
The Allies fully expected the still considerable might of the U-boat Arm to be flung against the cross-Channel supply lines; the enemy withdrawal from the Atlantic made it possible to release escort groups and striking forces to be deployed in the Channel, the southern Irish Seas and off the Biscayan coasts in waters which the enemy must cross to reach Normandy. These had been German-controlled since 1940 and the risk of losses due to enemy air action had to be accepted. To minimise the risk, the various Groups which had been operating together as teams for many years had to split up and re-form to ensure an even distribution of and-aircraft guns. More by example and personality than by orders; Walker had impressed upon his Group the action to be taken in almost any given emergency. No one in the Group wanted to fight under another leader. There was something deeper and more binding; with familiar ships around they felt secure and undismayed by danger because of the solid record of confident team work which had become the driving force behind their reputation for success. With it had come an unqualified trust between officers, men and ships. This would not be easy to replace. With Kite, Woodpecker and Woodcock already lost to the Group, they were now to lose Magpie and Whimbrel leaving only Starling, Wild Goose and Wren to carry on the tradition and pass it on, if possible, to the Group’s recruits, Loch Killin, Loch Fada and Dominica, representatives of a new class of frigate and slightly smaller than the sloops.
Towards the end of May, they sailed for an energetic battle course in the Irish Sea. Conditions they might expect to meet in the Channel fighting were simulated with the help of Fighter Command, a flotilla of submarines and one of motor torpedo boats. It was a dress rehearsal for the real thing and not a little frightening. It was not funny when a flight of cannon-firing fighters screamed down firing live ammunition into the water just ahead of the ships while they were allowed only to train their guns on the fighters. Under these realistic conditions accidents were inevitable and, if some were fatal, all were necessary. After this livening-up period, the Group spent a few days at anchor in Lough Foyle waiting, as were thousands of other Allied fighting men around the coasts of Britain, for the signal to go. Ships’ companies were trained to a fine pitch; further training would have made them stale like an overworked boat-race crew. In the first days of June a general signal was received from the Admiralty instructing commanding officers to open the sealed orders for “Operation Neptune”, code name for the actual Normandy landing operations. This vast omnibus of orders included instructions for the Second Support Group to proceed to Moelfre Bay, south of Anglesey on the Welsh coast, to wait for the signal which would set off the greatest combined operation in history. The function of the Western Approaches ships was to repel Doenitz’s expected counter-attack. They were to gather at Moelfre Bay from where, on Walker’s orders, the fleet of some forty-odd destroyers, sloops, frigates and corvettes would be thrown along patrol lines stretching from Brest to the Scilly Isles; and from Land’s End to the Channel Islands. It had been a fine summer’s day when the Group sailed from Lough Foyle, but by the time they arrived at Moelfre Bay the wind had risen to gale force and the Western Approaches fleet was at anchor half-hidden by flying spray and sleet. As Walker was senior officer, Starling’s motor-boat was sent round the ships distributing orders and collecting commanding officers for conferences during which loose ends were tied up and patrolling procedures worked out to provide an unbroken screen between the actual supply lines and the U-boat Arm. The gale kept up for another twenty-four hours until just as the keen, tensed-up crews thought the operation might be called off, the historic signal was sent which began the return journey to Europe.
Signals blinked from Starling’s bridge lamps and the Western Approaches men weighed anchor to sail for a new and much smaller battleground. From this day onward an even greater strain was to fall on Walker. Most of the ships were strictly convoy escorts which had operated in the limitless waters of the Atlantic for five long years. Their officers and men were accustomed to wide-open spaces with plenty of deep water and sea-room. Narrow waters strewn with wrecks, shoals and other navigational dangers were strange to them. Similarly, the Coastal Command pilots who were to sweep ahead of the patrol lines to force the enemy to submerge were not the same experienced men who had flown over the Bay in the days of the blockade. They were mostly fresh to the U-boat war and keen as mustard, that was the trouble. Every swirl of water became a U-boat, every broom handle a periscope. As soon as the ships reached their patrol lines, reports flowed in of squadrons of U-boats flocking to the invasion area. If many of these were false, there were plenty which proved accurate. Doenitz had counter-attacked. His new type of submerged speedboat submarine had not completed its trials, but with midget submarines from the northern French ports co-operating, he sent out his waiting fleets from Biscay to pierce the Channel defences. On D-day, seventy-six U-boats sailed from their bases for the invasion area, mostly commanded by men who had operated in the Atlantic and had a natural preference for staying on the surface. “Schnorkels” were ignored in their haste to deliver a crippling blow during the critical build-up period at the beach-heads. Instead, they met the full blast of Coastal Command’s advance patrols. In the first twenty-four hours while the surface units were forming up, thirty-six U-boats were sighted streaming towards the Channel, twenty three being attacked and six sunk. U-boat commanders learned all about their “breathing equipment” in double-quick time and the advance continued, but now underwater, as they crept towards the spread-out Groups waiting to fire a solid wall of depth charges across the Channel entrances. But if the enemy had in reality dived, Coastal Command insisted he was still on the surface, and the number of sightings increased until the patrols in the Channel bottleneck became one headlong chase after another. The ships packed into the area so complicated matters that two lines of ships going hell-for-leather after different aircraft sightings were frequently forced to cut through each other at acute angles. On one occasion Walker’s Group had gained a contact at a point where two other Groups were crossing through each other. The subsequent mêlée as one force went into a prearranged circling movement to prevent the enemy escaping; and as two more ships ran in to attack while another force tried to clear the pitch, the whole affair being carried out in darkness without lights, required something special in the way of good seamanship and alertness to avoid collision while at the same time destroying the enemy. Under these conditions it was almost impossible for Walker to leave his bridge for any length of time. These were snags to be ironed out ashore and, as the senior officer of the patrolling forces, it was his job to recommend the answers when he returned to harbour for periodic conferences.
The Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, had asked for the Channel to be kept clear of U-boats for at least two weeks while the armies secured a firm foothold on the Continent. Walker was determined he should not only get the two weeks, but that the U-boat Arm should be smashed for all time. He lived on his bridge at sea and, while others rested in harbour, he attended conferences. Then it was back to sea again for the same round of scares, alarms and false emergencies; the organising of fruitless searches, the direction of several striking forces at the same time and the mental noting of all problems which could be solved if only someone ashore used a little sense. During the first week, the U-boats failed to menace the landings, although a moment’s relaxation might have been enough to allow a handful to get through and create chaos in the congested landing areas. The stakes were high; in these restricted waters the Western Approaches fleet faced the full strength of the U-boat Arm in direct and open conflict, the climax of a battle which for so long had stretched more than half way round the world. Walker took the Second Support Group into the front line between the Scilly Isles and Brest, prowling along the French coasts. On one such cruise, Filleul, on the morning watch, sighted another force of warships hunting dead ahead. It was still dark and obviously the Group would have to cut through. He called down the voice pipe to the captain’s cabin. “Ships dead ahead, Sir. We shall be going through them on this course.” “Right, Number One,” came the sleepy reply and Filleul waited for his captain to guide the Group through the danger area. He waited, but Walker failed to arrive. He waited until the crisis moment when some action had to be taken to avoid collision. Then the young First Lieutenant made the necessary signals and took avoiding action, for the moment carrying the burden of responsibility for the safety of every ship in the Group. Fortunately there were no mistakes, no collisions; and the following morning when Walker stumbled wearily to the bridge and asked cheerfully if everything were all right, John reported the incident with gentle reproach for having been left unexpectedly in command of the Group at such a moment Walker remembered nothing about it; he could not recall being disturbed by his First Lieutenant’s report, nor his own reply. It vaguely crossed Filleul’s mind that his Captain needed a good long rest. Walker was his energetic self the next night when he led the Group in closer to the enemy coast than ever before, so close in fact that the German garrison at Ushant lighthouse signalled: “Good evening. What ship ?“ “Hell Hitler, you dirty .—,“ was Walker’s reply. On Starling’s bridge he muttered: “That ought to make the Boche open fire on us.” But the enemy was probably too astonished to take such elementary action in retaliation for the insult and the night passed peaceably enough. If Coastal Command had slowed down the U-boat advance during the first week, the surface units delivered their blow in the second. As the enemy moved slowly up the Channel, eight of his number were destroyed and the rest hugged the jagged coastline, using “Schnorkels” to breathe and not daring to move until the surface was momentarily clear of Allied units. This was difficult, for the Navy’s frantic hurryings hither and thither, as Commander Wemyss has since described it, made it seem to the miserable U-boats as though the sea were as full of destroyers as the air was of bombers. General Eisenhower was given his two free weeks, not a single enemy penetrating through the invasion area. By the third week it was doubtful if Doenitz possessed the fifty-odd U-boats with which he had opened the war five years before, but he persisted in sending them all to sea. On the basis that, if they tried hard enough for long enough some would have to get through, he succeeded in making minor dents in our screen by D-day plus eighteen. About this time, the Second Support Group, now joined by another frigate, Lochy, was carrying out a last sweep close to Ushant. It was a clear, sunny morning with a slight Channel mist hovering close over the shoreline. Suddenly a lamp blinked urgently from Wren: “Radar reports indicate twenty-one unidentified aircraft approaching. Range twenty-six miles.” The aircraft were coming from the direction of France and it was logical to expect them to be Germans. Perhaps, thought Starling’s officers, they were getting fed up with seeing the Group so often on their doorstep at breakfast time. Then the aircraft came in sight, flying low over the coast straight towards the Group, not twenty-one as Wren had reported, but a vast black cloud of planes thundering through the air at high speed.
As they came nearer, the cloud grew larger and the roaring louder until it seemed that the sea quivered under the impact of violent sound. To the small ships below there could be no hope of surviving such a terrible onslaught. Guns were trained round, and their crews sat wax-like and waiting for what appeared in every way to be the Group’s final battle. While trigger fingers itched for the order to open fire, a calm voice came over the R/T to be heard by every ship: “Wren, this is Captain Walker. I thought you said there were only twenty-one. It seems to me there might be a few more.” For a moment there was a stunned silence on Wren’s bridge, then her captain capturing the spirit of Walker’s apparent indifference, replied delightedly: “Sorry, Sir. My Radar Operator can’t count over twenty-one.” When each gunnery officer was about to give the order to commence firing, Walker’s voice came over again: “Do not open fire. Secure action stations. These aircraft are Flying Fortresses.” It was almost possible to hear the sigh of relief which spread through the Group. Walker himself had placidly sat on Starling’s bridge throughout the entire affair eating a bacon and egg sandwich and drinking a cup of cocoa. Shortly after this incident, he decided that the main battle would develop nearer the invasion areas, if it developed at all. Starling contracted an unexpected dose of “condenseritis” and returned for repairs to Plymouth where it would be possible for the Captain to talk the Commander-in-Chief into giving his Group a new patrol line in the vicinity of where a U-boat attack might be expected. He succeeded in having the Group transferred and rejoined them in the Channel with the “condenseritis” inexplicably cured again in a surprising manner. But the U-boats failed to make any concerted attack and the next week was marked by vain searches. One of these began with a series of under water explosions ahead of the Group’s hunting formation. They spent some time investigating without result until Walker called off his ships with the signal: “I am afraid we must leave it and put it down to an "ichtheological gefuffle” (A fishy disturbance). These days, Starling’s officers began to see signs of strain in their captain. His keen, hazel eyes had lost their eager glint; the spare frame drooped slightly; and he no longer joined in the Wardroom parties when in harbour, preferring to write letters home in his cabin. Returning to harbour only increased his anxieties. While officers could relax, he was constantly attending conferences and courteously receiving the commanding officers of his ships who brought a continuous stream of problems for immediate decision.
“The Admiralty regrets to inform you of the death of your Senior Officer, Captain F J Walker, which took place at 0200 to-day.”
Walker’s own “gallant Starling” was stunned by shock. At dawn the Ensign was half-masted and lifelines were trailed over the side in an ancient mariner’s tribute to a dead hero, while upon the entire Group fell a strange hush of mourning. From ordinary seaman to captain they grieved over the loss of not only a leader, but a friend. Numbing shock seemed to hang over the Group like a pall; it was almost impossible to imagine the ships going into action without that tall, lean figure in the grey pullover and patchwork waistcoat standing on Starling’s bridge eating a sandwich while he destroyed a U-boat; grinning when he missed; shouting orders over the loudhailer as his “chicks” got mixed up in an attack; cheering wildly when guns blazed at a tiny conning tower silhouetted in the silvery moonlight; meting out stern punishment at the defaulters’ table; and standing on his head in the Wardroom with a glass of beer. Officers and men repeated again and again, as though by some miracle it might not be true: “The Captain is dead.” Signals of sympathy poured into Derby House and the copies were sent by hand to Eilleen at “The White House”. That Captain Walker served not only England, but all the Allies, was underlined in a signal from Admiral Stark.
“The United States Forces in Europe wish to convey their deepest sympathy in the loss of an outstanding fighting naval officer in the untimely death of Captain Walker. Although this loss will be keenly felt by all the Allied forces everywhere, his fighting spirit will endure with us.”
Alongside Gladstone Dock, overlooking the Mersey, was the tiny Flotilla Chapel where once Walker had read the lessons at Sunday Services. Here, on the morning of the 11th, the crests of the Western Approaches Battle Fleets looked down upon the body of Johnnie Walker resting in a coffin draped with the Union Jack. Throughout the day sailors of all ranks came to kneel and pay silent homage to the man regarded by them all as not only a great leader and gallant officer, but always a distinguished gentleman. Outside, the business of war went on; the merchant ships shepherded by eager little tugs, the rust-streaked destroyers, sloops and frigates steaming wearily home from another grim struggle across the vast sea; and the smarter, gleaming warships proudly leaving harbour after refits to fill the gaps in the thin grey line. The following morning, Nicholas and senior officers of the Command attended an intimate service in the Chapel held by the Reverend J. Buckmaster, and later the body was taken to the steps of Liverpool Cathedral. Six petty officers bore the coffin up the steps between lines of ratings and laid it gently to rest in the choir where a blue-jacket guard of honour stood with reversed arms at each corner. The Dean, Dr. F. W. Dwelly, conducted a short service of Preparation of Resting and candles were lit to throw a pale glow over the single wreath lying on the flag-draped coffin and the hundreds of others massed in tiers in front of the choir, blue floral anchors, chaplets and circ of bloom in all colours from the convoy ports, high-ranking Allied officers, ships’ companies, individual officers and ratings, and from the shipping companies whose cargoes and ships had been saved by one man and his team. In the afternoon, more than a thousand people, men and women of the Fighting Forces and civilians, crowded into the cathedral for the funeral service, still remembered as one of the most moving ever held in tribute to the memory of an active service officer. Against the soft background of organ music, Admiral Sir Max Horton, who now reproached himself bitterly for not insisting that Walker take a rest ashore, read a Solemn Acknowledgment. The Cathedral was hushed while he spoke quietly;
“In the day when the waters had well-nigh overwhelmed us, our brother here departed, apprehending the creative power in man, set himself to the task to conquer the malice of the enemy. In our hour of need he was the doughty protector of them that sailed the seas on our behalf. His heart and his mind extended and expanded to the utmost tiring of the body even unto death; that he might discover and operate means of saving ships from the treacherous foes. Truly many, very many, were saved because he was not disobedient to his vision. Victory has been won and should be won by such as he. May there never be wanting in this realm a succession of men of like spirit in discipline, imagination and valour, humble and unafraid. Not dust, nor the light weight of a stone, but all the sea of the Western Approaches shall be his tomb.”
To the singing of “Abide with Me”, the flag-draped coffin was borne slowly out of the Cathedral by six petty officers flanked by eight ranking captains of the Command with gold hilted swords held tightly to the waist and clear of the ground. Eilleen, Nicholas and Gillian followed, Andrew was too ill at the time to come, and then hundreds of sailors and Wrens fell in behind. At the bottom of the steps, the coffin was placed on a gun carriage and the cortege marched through the streets of Liverpool for the docks, where the body was taken aboard the destroyer Hesperus, for burial in the seas.
Captain Walker had known so well. When the chief mourners had taken their places on the quarter deck the tattered Battle Ensign from Starling was hoisted to half-mast and Hesperus slipped her moorings for the voyage down the Mersey. Ships of all shapes and sizes dipped their ensigns in salute. Out to sea by the Bar Light Vessel, the light whose beam had cast warmth on so many battle-weary convoys, a convoy was entering harbour down one side of the channel as another was leaving. Hesperus steamed between the two lines of ships and the merchantmen lowered their ensigns while their crews stood bareheaded in a last salute to the man who had swept the Atlantic free of the enemy. In the late afternoon, the destroyer reached the edge of the great, rolling ocean and here, under a darkening sky with the wind strong enough to fleck the grey-green waves with white, the weighted coffin was tilted over the side into the waiting sea.
EPILOGUE - STARLING
The death of Johnnie Walker paralysed Starling; a sudden wave of apathy and disillusionment swept through the ship, although little was said and the daily routine went on without apparent interruption. On deck, the guns’ crews lay around their guns, the look-outs came and went, and the quarter masters put the ship through interminable zigzags. Signal lamps flashed and messages went to and fro. Outwardly, it was the same Starling but the usual chatter and light-hearted chaff was missing; even the grumblers were silent. The petty officer often had to repeat a man’s name before he answered. During drills reports were mumbled and slow where before they had been snapped in rapid, staccato precision; instruments which the men could normally operate in their sleep were handled as though by greenhorns. It was unanimously thought that the only officer who could step into Walker’s shoes with any certainty of immediate respect would be John Filleul who had served under him for so long that he reacted instinctively to emergencies in the Walker manner. But he was still young and too junior for promotion. A new captain was appointed and Starling went to sea. A month later the captain left the ship having contracted lumbago in Walker’s leaky old sea cabin. Wild Goose had not yet finished her refit, so Commander Wemyss, Johnnie Walker’s right hand man for more than a year and the Group captain closest to him, showed his understanding of Starling’s dilemma by going aboard and addressing the ship’s company. Then, seizing the opportunity to snap Starling out of her apathy, he took temporary command of both her and the Group for the next trip. The Walker tradition returned, with a difference. Once they had fought because it was their duty and expected of them; now the tussle became a grim vengeful battle to exact personal revenge for the death of their captain. They were not long in finding the enemy. Loch Killin made contact off the French coast and dropped the usual anti-gnat pattern of depth charges. Suddenly, a U-boat surfaced directly beneath the startled frigate, eventually coming up with a rush to lock herself against Loch Killin's quarter deck. To the utter astonishment of the watching Group, the U-boat was literally hanging on the frigate’s stem. The Germans rushed to the conning tower and turned to gaze open-mouthed at the depth-charge crew and put their hands above their heads as they stepped across the narrow gap on to Loch Killin and into captivity. A few minutes later, Loch Killin shook her tail free of the unwelcome stranger which sank immediately but only after her entire crew of fifty-two had crossed over to the frigate without getting their feet wet. One of Starling’s. crew shouted excitedly: “I bet the Old Man’s rubbing his hands up there.” They sank three more of the enemy before the patrol ended and the Group returned to Plymouth where Wemyss transferred back to Wild Goose. Starling went into dry-dock at Newcastle and the crew were paid off to disperse to other commands. She was still under repair when the war ended. Neither she nor Walker will be forgotten. Recently her cracked ship’s bell was auctioned and, despite a large bid for HMS Osprey who wanted it for their war museum, Commander Wemyss and several later captains of Starling clubbed together to present the bell to Eilleen now living in Devon. When the Captain of Osprey heard about this he withdrew his bid. Osprey remembers Walker in other ways; a street in the newly-built Naval Housing Estate is named “Walker Crescent”. Johnnie Walker died when not quite forty-eight. Yet he lived long enough to achieve his ambition, to help defeat the enemy. The official record of the Battle of the Atlantic pays the simple final tribute: “The Royal Navy and the nation sustained a great loss in the death of Captain Frederic John Walker. ... A prime seaman and fighter and a brilliant leader, he was without doubt one of the outstanding and inspiring figures of the anti-submarine war.” THE END.
Walker RN by Terence Robertson. Published by Evans Brothers Ltd, London 1956. Now out of print. I managed to obtain a first edition from http://www.abebooks.co.uk
Drake, Nelson, Walker - all Naval heroes and all very very special in their own times and places. How would history have changed if these three sailors had not been in their respective time or place? Drake stopped Spain from getting a bit too big for her boots and Nelson likewise with the French. In 2005 is the 200th Anniversary of Trafalgar! Without Walker and his sailors, would the vital lifeline across the Atlantic Ocean have been severed? The other thing these three heroes have in common, they are the only three commanders in British Naval history, to have flown the General Chase Pennant, now on show in Bootle Town Hall. These pages have been all about Captain Frederick John Walker but also, these pages are in memory, and in celebration, of his crews, his commanders, like Wemyss, and to the gallant little ships, the Black Swan Class Sloops with which Walker and his men probably, almost singlehandedly, kept these vital shipping lanes open. Gallant sloops with the hearts of battleships! Also to his remarkable wife Eilleen for her fortitude and high sense of duty. To the men of HMS Kite who lost her life, not with the Second Support Group, but in the dismal waters of the Artic, protecting a convoy en route to Russia with vital supplies. She fought right through, alongside Walker, only to die in August 1944 through the actions of a temporary commander who, quite simply, should have known better!
This is copied here to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Captain Johnnie Walker's death on 9th July 1944 and the 60th anniversary of the death of HMS Kite on the 21st August 1944.
My thanks to many many people who have sent me information and news clippings and photographs for inclusion in these pages. Ray Holden, who started off the Kite saga after reading my Walker pages. Alan Bentham, for the lovely story of when his dad met Walker on a train, and for some clippings of HMS Starling. Lionel Irish, Kite survivor, staff of the Braintree Museum, staff of HQ Western Approaches, Security at Bootle Town Hall for letting me into the Chamber to take some photographs, Christine Chaplin for the Board of Inquiry papers and the classified signals. The Webb brothers, Frank & Rob, one of whom is in Canada, Alan McMillan in Dublin's fair city.
Having read thus far, you can appreciate how long it took me to get this online. If you would like, a voluntary donation