CHAPTER XIV

THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC

The Triumph of the Escorts
1st January--31st May, 1943

 

'These were the men
who were her salvation
who conquered the waters and the underwaters
who
in storm and calm
taught England to live anew,
and fed her children'.

   

From the Solemn Bidding to the Service of Celebration at Liverpool Cathedral, 9th August 1945.


It was told in the last chapter dealing with the Battle of the Atlantic how the year 1942 had been one of continuous and heavy Allied shipping losses1. The balance sheet of profit and loss in mercantile tonnage was one of the most disturbing issues which confronted the Casablanca Conference when it opened on the 14th of January 1943. Until the U-boats were defeated the offensive strategy to which the Allies were committed could not succeed. Europe could never be invaded until the Battle of the Atlantic had been won, and the latter purpose had therefore to be made a first charge on all Allied resources.

The bomb-proof U-boat shelters at Lorient and La Pallice, each designed to protect two flotillas, were in use by the end Of 1941; by the middle of 1942 those at Brest and St. Nazaire, which would accommodate two flotillas, were about half-finished. At Bordeaux a shelter for one flotilla was being built, but it was not ready to receive its occupants until March 1943. Ever since the summer of 1940 the Admiralty and Coastal Command had pressed for the bombing of the Biscay U-boat bases2, and Bomber Command had in fact deployed a considerable proportion of its effort against them and against other naval targets. It is now plain that the most favourable time to attack the shelters was while they were being constructed behind water-tight caissons, as was revealed by our constant photographic air reconnaissances3; but neither the Admiralty nor the

--351--

Air Ministry appears to have suggested this at the time. Early in December 1942 the bombing of the Biscay bases was considered by the Cabinet Anti U-boat Committee. The Air Staff then represented that, as the submarine pens themselves could not be penetrated by bombs, it would be necessary to achieve the object by devastating the adjacent towns and dockyards. This was bound to cause heavy casualties among the French civilian population, with possibly unfavourable political repercussions. The Foreign Office supported the view that the infliction of such suffering on the French should if possible be avoided, and the attacks were therefore postponed. On the 7th of January 1943, however, the First Sea Lord circulated a memorandum stressing the view that the situation in the Atlantic was so critical that 'area bombing' of the towns and installations near the U-boat bases was justified, and the Cabinet thereupon decided to go ahead. On the 14th orders were accordingly issued to Bomber Command to give first priority to the Biscay ports, and to start by attacking Lorient. The French population was warned of our intention, and on the night of 14th- 15th of January a raid was made by 101 aircraft. Next night an even greater strength of 131 bombers was sent out. American bombers made 'precision' daylight attacks on the actual submarine pens concurrently. On the 20th of January the Cabinet decided to carry on with attacks on the other bases without pausing to study the effects on Lorient, as had at first been intended. This decision conformed with a directive issued by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Casablanca Conference on the 21st, making the U-boat building industry and the Biscay operational bases the primary objects of the Allied bomber offensive. On the 23rd and 27th of January the Commander-in-Chief, Bomber Command, wrote to the Air Ministry protesting that the new offensive was a waste of effort, and could not contribute effectively to reducing the depredations of the U-boats against our Atlantic convoys. But the Air Staff felt bound to give the policy a fair trial, and in the two following months heavy raids were therefore made on St. Nazaire. Not until mid-April, by which time the Atlantic struggle appeared to be moving more in our favour, was Bomber Command relieved of the duty to attack the Biscay ports. The American 8th Air Force, however, continued to make daylight attacks on the U-boat pens until mid-summer, and the offensive was continued sporadically right up to the end of the war. We now know that at no time was a submarine shelter in any Biscay port penetrated by a bomb.4

Apart from one U-boat being damaged and slightly delayed at Lorient in December 1940, no loss was inflicted by bombing a U-boat base until U-622 was destroyed in Trondheim by U.S. Army bombers

--352--

on the 24th of July 1943. Nor do the U-boat crews seem to have suffered appreciably from the raids, for they were accommodated out in the country; and our losses of bombers on these operations were heavy. As to attacks on the U-boat building yards, a substantial proportion of Bomber Command's effort was devoted to trying to put the yards themselves out of action and to destroy the U-boats completing in them. Heavy attacks had been made on Hamburg, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven, and on Vegesack, Flensburg and Lubeck in the autumn of 1942, but with little effect on the yards themselves, or on the U-boats in them. Not until April 1944 was a completed U-boat destroyed in a German building yard. We shall return to the effect of bombing raids on U-boat production in our final volume. Here it is only necessary to point out that their effect on the Battle of the Atlantic during the present critical phase was not appreciable. The size of the air effort involved and the losses suffered during the first half of 1943 are shown in the table below.

Table 28. Bombing Operations against U-boat Bases and Building Yards
(R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F.)
January--May 1943

  BISCAY BASES GERMAN YARDS
Month
1943
No. of Aircraft Sorties Tons of H.E. Bombs dropped Aircraft Losses No. of Aircraft Sorties Tons of H.E. Bombs dropped Aircraft Losses
January 666 744 31 167 317 13
February 1,744 2,184 30 1,119 1,550 46
March 646 1,250 6 539 981 15
April 148 544 9 1,041 1,572 59
May 364 707 22 548 1,152 35
TOTAL 3,568 5,429
(Plus 3,704 tons Incendiaries)
98 3,414 5,572
(Plus 4,173 tons Incendiaries)
168

It was in the first month of the year that the long-smouldering conflict between Admiral Raeder and Hitler on the functions of maritime power and the employment of the German Navy came to a head. Since this had important repercussions on the Battle of the Atlantic it is best considered now, before we turn to the convoy routes. The immediate cause of the rupture was the unsatisfactory action fought on New Year's Eve 1942 in the Arctic by the Hipper, Lutzow and six destroyers against the far weaker British escort of the Arctic convoy JW 51B.5 The breach might have been postponed, or even avoided, had not Göring, who could never miss a chance to exploit the Navy's difficulties to his own aggrandisement, assiduously fanned the flames of Hitler's schizophrenic rage. The critical

--353--

conference between Raeder and Hitler took place on the 6th of January. It opened with a ninety minute diatribe by the Führer castigating the conduct and impugning the courage of the German Navy, past, present and future. He called the recent failure in the Arctic 'typical of German ships, just the opposite of the British who, true to their tradition, fought to the bitter end'-a tribute which the Royal Navy would probably appreciate more had it come from any other source. Raeder, who 'rarely had an opportunity to comment', was finally told to make proposals to pay off all the big ships. On the 15th he submitted a paper in which he ably argued the true meaning, purpose and significance of maritime power. He warned Hitler that the order he had given 'will be a victory for our enemies, gained without any effort on their part'. But such abstract reasoning was beyond Hitler's comprehension, and he remained adamant. On the 30th of January Raeder resigned the post he had held since October 1928, and Hitler appointed Dönitz in his place. Raeder's soundness in strategic outlook is, perhaps, clearer today to his former enemies than it ever was to the people whom he so long served. It is true that he had earlier shown that he lacked the moral courage to press his convictions very far against the weight of the Führer's opinions; and that he suffered, though to a lesser degree than many of his Army contemporaries, from the common German failing of excessive veneration for authority-even to the point of sycophancy.6 But it is none the less fair that a British history should record that had he got his way in building the German Navy he wanted to build7, and, had he then been allowed to use it as he wished to do, it cannot be doubted that the Allied victory at sea would have been more hardly won.

On the 13th of February, at Hitler's conference, the new Commander-in-Chief outlined his proposals for putting the Führer's views into effect. Most of the big ships were to be paid off, complete priority was asked for the construction, repair and manning of U-boats, and adequate air support from the Luftwaffe (which Raeder had so long and vainly requested) was demanded. To all Dönitz's proposals Hitler gave 'his complete and definite approval'. In spite of the categorical nature of these decisions it was less than a fortnight later, on the 26th of February, that the German Commander-in-Chief sought and obtained substantial modification of

--354--

the order to pay off the big ships. The Tirpitz and Lutzow were to stay in Norway 'for the present', and the Scharnhorst was to be sent there to provide between them 'a fairly powerful task force'. One may well ponder on the consequences of such violent and erratic changes in high policy and strategic purpose, both to the fighting service concerned and to the German nation as a whole.

Thus was the stage set for Germany to fling into the Atlantic struggle the greatest possible strength, directed by the man who had from the beginning of the war controlled the U-boats and had always been their protagonist. It was plain to both sides that the U-boats and the convoy escorts would shortly be locked in a deadly, ruthless series of fights, in which no mercy would be expected and little shown. Nor would one battle, or a week's or a month's fighting, decide the issue. It would be decided by which side could endure the longer; by whether the stamina and strength of purpose of the crews of the Allied escort vessels and aircraft, watching and listening all the time for the hidden enemy, outlasted the will-power of the U-boat crews, lurking in the darkness or the depths, fearing the relentless tap of the asdic, the unseen eye of the radar and the crash of the depth charges. It depended on whether the men of the Merchant Navy, themselves almost powerless to defend their precious cargoes of fuel, munitions and food, could stand the strain of waiting day after day and night after night throughout the long, slow passages for the rending detonation of the torpedoes, which could send their ships to the bottom in a matter of seconds, or explode their cargoes in a searing sheet of flame from which there could be no escape. It was a battle between men, aided certainly by all the instruments and devices which science could provide, but still one that would be decided by the skill and endurance of men, and by the intensity of the moral purpose which inspired them. In all the long history of sea warfare there has been no parallel to this battle, whose field was thousands of square miles of ocean, and to which no limits in time or space could be set. In its intensity, and in the certainty that its outcome would decide the issue of the war, the battle may be compared to the Battle of Britain of 1940. Just as Goring then tried with all the forces of the Luftwaffe to gain command of the skies over Britain, so now did Dľnitz seek to gain command of the Atlantic with his U-boats. And the men who defeated him-the crews of the little ships, of the air escorts and of our tiny force of long-range aircraft-may justly be immortalised alongside 'the few' who won the 1940 battle of the air.

 

In the North Atlantic the month of January produced its customary tempestuous weather. This and the successful use of evasive

--355--

routeing caused an immediate drop in sinkings. Only one convoy (HX 222) was attacked, and it only lost one ship, but further south a total of eleven 'independents' or stragglers were sunk; and a tanker convoy from Trinidad to Gibraltar (TM 1) was cut to pieces between the 9th and 11th when out of range of air cover south of the Azores. It was escorted by only one destroyer and three corvettes, and they were handicapped by failure of their radar sets; only two of the nine tankers comprising the convoy survived.

The enemy was now steadily increasing his strength in the Atlantic, and by the end of the month there were thirty-seven U-boats waiting on the limits of the 'Greenland air gap'8, eleven between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay and twenty-five stretching down from the Azores, past the Canaries to the west coast of Africa. With twenty-seven more on passage in or out, his total of U-boats at sea in the north and central Atlantic reached the formidable figure of 100. The effects of this concentration were soon felt.

Early in February convoy HX 224 was intercepted, but by no great number of enemies. Two ships were lost, but a Fortress of No. 220 Squadron sank U-265 in return. U-632 picked up one lone survivor from a British straggler which she had sunk from this convoy. He told his captors that a large, slow convoy was following along astern of his own faster one, and by the same route. With this gratuitous aid the enemy was able to concentrate great strength against SC 118. The informant must have sacrificed many of his comrades' lives, for that convoy, which consisted originally of sixty-three ships and ten escorts, was attacked by no less than twenty U-boats and lost thirteen ships between the 4th and 9th of February. The battle with the sea and air escorts was, however a furious one; three-quarters of the enemies suffered depth charge attacks at one time or another, three U-boats were sunk and two more seriously damaged by the escorts. The Germans, who believed--as so often--that the U-boats had done far better than they had, were satisfied with the results of this battle. We on our side learnt that even continuous escort by long-range aircraft in daylight could not prevent some enemies catching up and attacking the convoys during the long winter nights. It was plain that the Fortresses and Liberators needed to be fitted with Leigh-Lights as soon as possible. A disturbing feature of this convoy's passage was that heavy losses were suffered in spite of the unusually numerous surface escort; thanks to American reinforcements from Iceland there were twelve warships with the convoy at the height of the attack-double the strength of a normal escort group. But the reinforcements could not pull their full weight, because they lacked training as part of an integrated group; we had long since learnt that training was more important than mere

--356--

numbers.9 A further lesson was that in such a prolonged and severe battle expenditure of depth charges was enormous; replenishments for the escorts must therefore be carried in the merchantmen. And still more weight was added to the arguments in favour of support groups being used to reinforce threatened convoys. They were, in Admiral Horton's words, 'vital to ensure reasonable safety'.

Although by mid-February the north Atlantic routes were well covered by the four groups of U-boats then formed or forming, their next operation was not a success. The slow, outward convoy ONS. 165 was located about 350 miles east of Newfoundland and attacked in very stormy weather. Only two ships were sunk, and the destroyers Fame and Viscount accounted for U-201 and U-69 respectively. These were the same ships of the Liverpool Escort Force which had destroyed two other enemies in the heavy attack on SC 104 in the previous October.10 Their double success was an example of what a well-trained and experienced escort group could do. As Admiral Horton put it at an Admiralty conference at this time, 'it could not be too often stressed that the trained group was the basis of protection, not mere numbers of escort vessels'. That training also counted for more than modernity is well brought out by the fact that, although the Fame was a comparatively modern ship (1932 Programme, completed 1935), the Viscount dated back to the First World War and was about to celebrate the silver jubilee of her entry into service (March 1918). Nor was she by any means the only ship of the 1914-18 War's 'V-and W-Classes' still to be fighting in the Atlantic.

His next operation brought the enemy even more substantial success. ON 166 was located by wireless interception early in its passage, and was pursued from the 21st to the 25th of February across 1,100 miles of ocean. Fourteen ships of some 85,000 tons were sunk, and only one U-boat was destroyed. The next slow outward convoy was also attacked, but suffered less severe losses.

These successive attacks on three outward convoys (ONS 165, ON 166 and ONS 167) were made possible by the two 'milch cows' U-460 and U-462. They lay between 400 and 600 miles to the north of the Azores and replenished no less than twenty-seven operational U-boats between the 21st of February and 5th of March. On our part the escort of ON 166 was fuelled from tankers accompanying the convoy--a practice which was now becoming common.

January, with its bad weather, had seen a big drop in sinkings to thirty-seven ships of 203,128 tons by U-boats, and fifty of little more than a quarter of a million tons in all; but the next two months told a very different story. In February the U-boats' score shot up to sixty-three ships of 359,328 tons. March was even worse with 108

--357--

ships of 627,377 tons sunk by U-boats. Enemy aircraft also improved their performance and we lost in all 120 ships of about 693,000 tons--the worst month since November 1942.11

On the 1st of March an 'Atlantic Convoy Conference' was opened between the United Kingdom, the Americans and the Canadians in Washington. The matters to be discussed included revision of the arrangements for the operational control of Atlantic convoys, the provision of air and surface escorts, and adjustment of the 'Chop Line' to coincide with the Western Ocean Meeting Point in 400 West.12 The senior British representatives were Admiral Sir Percy Noble, head of the British Admiralty Delegation in America, and Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Moore (Vice Chief of Naval Staff). The Commander-in-Chief, Coastal Command, was represented by Air Vice-Marshal A. Durston. Early in the discussions it became apparent that the Americans wished to withdraw entirely from sharing the protection of the North Atlantic convoys (HX/ON and SC/ONS). The main reasons for the American proposal appear to have been that Admiral King disliked escorts of mixed nationality, and that he desired to concentrate his country's ships on the more southerly convoy routes, which served the United States forces in the Mediterranean theatre. But it is evident that the suggestion to withdraw from the North Atlantic took the British delegates by surprise. It was, however, finally agreed that the U.S. Navy would compensate for the increased strain thereby placed on Britain and Canada by taking over responsibility for the important tanker convoys (CU/UC) running between Britain and the Dutch West Indies, and by providing a support group, consisting of an escort carrier and five destroyers, to work under British control with the North Atlantic convoys.13 This difficulty out of the way, the rest of the agenda was, with one exception (to be referred to shortly), dealt with fairly easily. It was decided that Britain and Canada would take complete charge of all convoys running between Britain and New York, or ports north of the latter; Canada would create a North-West Atlantic Command to exercise full control on her side of 470 West (to which meridian the 'Chop Line' would be shifted), in the same way that the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, controlled all movements to the east of that line.14 In addition new convoy cycles were agreed for the North Atlantic, and it was decided that the number of long-range aircraft in Newfoundland would be

--358--

increased to four squadrons (forty-eight aircraft). The long-range aircraft, no matter of which country, were to work to the limit of their endurance without regard to the 'Chop Line'; and the support groups were also to have freedom to move wherever they might be needed, under the general strategic control of the command to which they belonged.

These arrangements (with minor variations) came into force on the1st of April 1943. Canada thereafter became responsible not only for all movements within the Canadian coastal zone, but for the routeing and diversion of HX/ON and SC/ONS convoys westward of 'Chop', provided they were outside the American Eastern Sea Frontier. Independently-sailed troopships and also merchantmen plying between Canadian, Newfoundland and British ports came within her jurisdiction as well. It will thus be seen how the Royal Canadian Navy, having started the war with such very small strength, and having so long shared with the Royal Navy the heat and burden of the Atlantic Battle, now came into full partnership in controlling the forces deployed in this vast theatre.15 To help Canada meet her increased responsibilities the R.C.N, corvettes lent to the United States Navy to work in the Caribbean, and those which had come across to take part in operation 'TORCH', returned to their own country. Furthermore Britain transferred to Canada six of her older fleet destroyers.

The only matter which could not be resolved satisfactorily at the Atlantic Convoy Conference concerned the control of Allied aircraft at Gibraltar and in Morocco. For the North African landings control of the Royal Air Force at Gibraltar and of the aircraft allocated to the three Task Forces had passed to the Allied Commander-in-Chief of Operation 'TORCH' (General Eisenhower), who exercised it through the Eastern and Western Air Commanders (Air Marshal Sir William Welsh and Major-General J. Doolittle, U.S.A.A.F. respectively).16 The British Chiefs of Staff undoubtedly expected the special arrangements made for the assault to lapse at some convenient date after its completion; but this did not take place. It is certain that the British authorities never agreed to, and would not have accepted, a permanent and independent American command within the British Strategic Zone. None the less this came to pass when, on the 17th of February, Admiral King set up a Moroccan Sea Frontier Command responsible direct to Washington. The Royal Air Force at Gibraltar was meanwhile still under the 'TORCH' Commander. This and the new organisation in Morocco at once produced difficulties over the air protection of British military and trade convoys in the eastern

--359--

Atlantic, for which the Admiralty and Coastal Command were responsible. The unsatisfactory nature of these arrangements was raised at the Atlantic Convoy Conference in March. The Sub-Committee appointed by Admiral King to investigate the problem then proposed that a naval officer should be in charge of all air operations; but the Air Ministry resisted this, because it was contrary to the long-established British practice of all the services working in and through an Area Combined Headquarters in which they were all equal. The Conference next proposed that General Eisenhower should decide whether the British Admiral at Gibraltar or the American one in Morocco should be the controlling authority. It was then the turn of the Admiralty to protest, on the grounds that the air co-operation supplied for them by the Royal Air Force should not be controlled by an American naval officer.

In June the question was examined by the Allied Anti-Submarine Survey Board17, which recommended that the Moroccan Sea Frontier should be abolished, and that control of all maritime aircraft in the area should be vested in the Area Combined Headquarters at Gibraltar. The British Chiefs of Staff, and also Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Tedder agreed to this readily enough; but the U.S. Navy Department turned it down. The consequences of the failure of the protracted attempts to achieve unification of the anti-U-boat air offensive in these waters were that confusion persisted and that much wasteful flying was undertaken. Control of the Royal Air Force at Gibraltar did not revert to Coastal Command until October 1943; and the American enclave within the British Strategic Zone remained until the end of the war. The needs of our Atlantic shipping were, however, meanwhile met by the Gibraltar aircraft flying surreptitiously to meet the requirements of the Admiralty and Coastal Command.18

Having thus made one digression from the field of battle into the


Series of photographs showing the destruction of U-465 by Liberator P of No. 86 Squadron R.A.F. while escorting Convoy HX-236 on 4th May 1943 (See p. 381).
Top Photograph. The U-boat sighted and starting to dive.
Middle photograph. Depth charges exploding.
Bottom photograph. Wreckage and oil comes to the surface.
 

Top photograph. U-boat base at Lorient under attack by Fortress aircraft of the U.S.A.A.F., 6th March 1943. (See pp. 351-353).
Bottom photographs. The minelaying U-boat U-119 under depth charge attack by two R.A.A.F. Sunderlands, 29th April 1943. In spite of the accuracy of the attacks the U-boat was only slightly damaged.
 

Top photograph. Homeward-bound Atlantic convoy, probably SC 105, as seen from a Coastal Command Fortress, October 1942.
Bottom photograph. The shadow of a Sunderland over the spot where the combined efforts of aircraft from Nos. 58 and 22 Squadrons had just destroyed U-563 on 31st May 1943.
 

Clear Flight Deck and An Escort Carrier by Stephen Bone. (National Maritime Museum)
 

--360--

field of policy, it will be convenient to make another before returning to the convoy routes. Between the months of February and April 1943 proposals were received in London from various sources urging that a 'Super-Commander-in-Chief' should be appointed to assume strategic responsibility for all forces involved in the Atlantic battle and, secondly, that a 'Super-Air Officer Commander-in-Chief' should be appointed to take charge of the entire Allied air effort involved in that struggle. Field Marshal Smuts had made suggestions to Mr. Churchill for achieving unified strategic control and, although the U.S. Navy certainly opposed the idea of a Supreme Commander, it is plain that the U.S. Army Air Force and some members of the United States Government were in favour of it. The First Sea Lord asked his staff to advise on all the different aspects of the problem. The Naval Staff's advice was, broadly speaking, that, while unified strategic control was undoubtedly a need 'devoutly to be wished' and one that might be achieved by gradual stages, a new authority could not possibly be suddenly super-imposed on the whole complicated structure of British-American-Canadian operational practice. To attempt to do so would cause endless confusion and, moreover, would almost certainly slow up the day-to-day, even hour-to-hour, prosecution of the war against the U-boats. A second and no less important consideration was that some Americans appeared to envisage an officer of their nationality being appointed. To Britain victory in the Atlantic was a matter of life or death; to America it was only one part of a world-wide struggle. How could the British Admiralty delegate its responsibility to a national of another country? And what asked the Naval Staff, would be the reaction of the House of Commons, the Press and the British people to such an idea? The Allied Anti-Submarine Survey Board had recently been formed with the chief duty of 'making recommendations as regards the distribution of forces', and the Naval Staff considered that this first step towards unified strategic control was all that could be prudently undertaken at that time.

A similar proposal to that which was now being discussed had been made by Air Chief Marshal Joubert, C.-in-C. Coastal Command, in the autumn of 1942, and the Air Staff seems all along to have looked on it with greater favour than the Naval Staff.

As to the second high appointment, that of a 'Super-Air Officer Commander-in-Chief' to achieve 'unified air control of the Atlantic', the proposal emanated from Mr. Stimson in mid-April 1942, and was fully discussed between the Prime Minister, the First Sea Lord and the Chief of the Air Staff. The British authorities were, of course, well aware of the confusion then reigning on the American side of the Atlantic19, caused by failure to integrate air operations over the sea

--361--

or to place control of maritime aircraft in the hands of one service and one command. Not until June 1942 had General Marshall ordered the U.S. Army Air Force to leave the anti-submarine field entirely to the Navy. That being the case the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, whilst not by any means averse to the principle involved, considered that the essential preliminary was for the Americans to put their own house in order. The First Sea Lord, on the other hand, was 'very definitely against a supreme commander either for surface ships or air forces for the whole Atlantic' and gave his full reasons. The Prime Minister himself felt that 'there comes a point . . . in the development of all large commands where one must consider whether the general advantages of unity will outweigh the practical difficulties of administration, as the size of the command and the complexity of the arrangements increase . . . When all this is taken into account, it is clear that the best practicable arrangement is to have separate commands working in close cooperation and unison on either side of the Atlantic.'20

These matters were much debated in the spring of 1943, and at one time it seemed that at least a unified air command for all antisubmarine work might be achieved. All such proposals seem, however, to have foundered on the unwillingness of Britain or the United States to surrender any measure of sovereignty within their own strategic zones, and on the very real difficulty of integrating the functions of the British Admiralty and Ministry of War Transport with the corresponding American departments. Moreover the Chiefs of Staff of both nations felt that, on questions of major strategy which concerned the forces for which they were responsible to their own Governments, they could not share their responsibility with anyone else. The outcome was that the proposal was not pursued, and it was left for the post-war Governments of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to accept and introduce measures similar to those here discussed.

Concurrently with the discussions on the control of the sea and air forces engaged in the Atlantic battle, outlined above, the long-debated question of providing adequate numbers of 'Very Long Range' (V.L.R.) aircraft came to a head. In February 1943, when Air Marshal Sir John Slessor succeeded Sir Philip Joubert as C.-in-C., Coastal Command still possessed only one V.L.R. Liberator Squadron (No. 120), though another (No. 224) was working in the Bay of Biscay with Liberators which had not been modified to give extended endurance. At the Casablanca Conference of the previous month the Combined Chiefs of Staff had recommended that eighty V.L.R. aircraft should be allocated to cover the Greenland 'air gap',


Map 37. Dispositions and strengths of Coastal Command Squadrons Employed in the Battle of the Atlantic, February 1943 (Showing Group Boundaries)

--362--

but deliveries had lagged sadly. The urgency of the matter was raised at the Washington Convoy Conference in March, when Canada reported that she possessed trained crews for the purpose, but no aircraft. It was agreed that twenty Liberators should be transferred from the British allocation to the R.C.A.F., to work in the western Atlantic; but they could not be made ready at once.

Meanwhile the U.S. Navy had, under earlier agreements, been receiving large allocations of the sorely-needed Liberators. By the end of 1942 they had received fifty-two, and by the 1st of July, 1943 (when Coastal Command possessed thirty-seven V.L.R. aircraft) the U.S. Navy's total was 209.21 Moreover many of the U.S. Navy's Liberators were working in the Pacific, and were apparently being used for reconnaissance purposes.22 The air strength available to the Allies for the war against the U-boats on the North Atlantic convoy routes in February 1943 is shown in the next table.

Table 29. Allied Maritime Air Forces available for the Battle of the Atlantic Convoy Routes, February 1943

EASTERN SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC
Location Very
Long
Range
Long
Range
Medium
Range
Short
Range
Total No.
of Squadrons
Approx.
Strength
Iceland 9 11 12 24 3-1/2 56
No. 15 Group 9 60 --- --- 6-1/2 69
Gibraltar and Morocco --- 43 20 42 6+1 flight 105
West Africa --- 18 --- 20 4 38
South Africa --- --- --- 32 2 32
     TOTAL 18 132 32 118 22+1 flight 300
 
WESTERN SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC
Location Very
Long
Range
Long
Range
Medium
Range
Short
Range
Total No.
of Squadrons
Approx.
Strength
Greenland --- 2 8 4 3 flights 14
Newfoundland and Canada --- 34 24 70 12+2 flights 128
Bermuda --- 12 --- --- 1 12
Eastern Sea Frontier --- 70 100 144 25+4 flights 314
Gulf Sea Frontier --- 12 24 56 6+5 flights 92
Caribbean Sea Frontier --- 30 108 70 12+16 flights 208
Brazilian Coast --- 20 20 12 3+3 flights 52
     TOTAL   180 284 356 59+33 flights 820
NOTES:   The Western Atlantic figures include both U.S.N. and U.S.A.A.F. aircraft. In the Eastern Atlantic figures are included two squadrons of U.S.N. flying boats in Morocco, and one in Iceland.
Aircraft employed against U-boats passing through the Bay of Biscay and the northern transit area from Germany are not included in this table.

--363--

At the end of March the Navy Department at last realised the seriousness of the situation, and underwent a change of heart. It seems that the President enquired where its Liberators were operating at the time when the recent heavy losses in the Atlantic were suffered; furthermore the Allied Anti-Submarine Survey Board had just reported that air cover in the North Atlantic was 'totally inadequate', and had drawn attention to the fact that not one V.L.R. aircraft was to be found at any Allied air base west of Iceland. The result was that the Americans agreed that 255 Liberators (seventy-five from the U.S. Army Air Force, sixty from the U.S. Navy and 120 from British allocations) should be provided for the North Atlantic. This could not, of course, take effect at once, and the full benefits were not felt until the next phase. At the end of March we had twenty V.L.R. aircraft operational, and by mid-April the maximum was only forty-one - all of them flown by British crews.

In other directions Coastal Command's strength was increasing more satisfactorily. All its Whitley and all but three of its Hudson squadrons had by mid-May been rearmed with Leigh-Light Wellingtons or ordinary (not V.L.R.) Liberators.23 Apart from Bomber Command, Fighter Command or Naval aircraft on loan, it then possessed twenty-eight anti-submarine and eleven anti-shipping squadrons, 619 aircraft in all--a striking change since September 1939.24

 

The difficulty experienced by the enemy in locating our convoys during the early days of 1943 led him to make a full investigation of the sources from which the British Admiralty was presumed to derive its intelligence regarding U-boat movements and dispositions. The U-boat command was seriously disturbed over the evidence regarding the efficiency of our intelligence. After examining all possibilities they concluded that there was no evidence of treachery, and that their cyphers were secure. Our successes must, they considered, be achieved by constant search and patrolling by radar-fitted aircraft. On their own side they were still deriving great benefit from the daily 'U-boat situation' and convoy-control signals sent by the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, or the Admiralty; and such successes as they achieved in intercepting our convoys were largely brought about through the undoubted efficiency of the German wireless intelligence service. Yet the U-boat Command was harassed and anxious about what they believed to be the principal


Map 38. The Battle of the Convoys, SC 122 & HX 229, 6th-22nd March 1943

--364--

cause of our successes in locating U-boats and in evading their concentrations; namely our wide use of and superiority in radar, and the efficiency of our air patrols. On the 5th of March they ordered that as soon as a U-boat became aware of radar transmissions she was to dive for half an hour. The enemy was also conscious of the great increase in our escort strength, often permitting a convoy to be given an outer as well as an inner screen, made possible by fuelling the little ships from tankers in the convoy. They tried to find new tactics with which to defeat our radar and our swelling escort strength; and for a time they continued to achieve a very serious degree of success.

At the end of February the enemy made a determined attempt to catch convoy SC 121, using two groups of U-boats for this purpose; but the convoy slipped through their patrol line unsighted. There followed a pursuit by seventeen enemies which lasted from the 7th to the 11th of March. Several ships straggled from the convoy in the prevailing heavy weather, and provided easy targets. In all thirteen ships (about 62,000 tons) were sunk without loss to the U-boats. The next operation (7th to 14th of March) against HX 228 was less successful, and only four of its number were sunk. In the course of this battle the Senior Officer of the escort, in the Harvester, rammed and sank U-444, but the destroyer received such damage herself that she was disabled and fell an easy prey to U-432. The latter was then sunk in turn by the Free French corvette Aconit--a good example of the relentless giving and taking of lethal blows which was such a marked feature of the struggle. The Harvester's Commanding Officer (Commander A. A. Tait), 'an outstanding leader of a group of British, Polish and Free French escort vessels', was lost with his ship.

There now followed one of the biggest convoy battles of the whole war. No less than forty U-boats were concentrated against HX 229 and SC 122.25 By noon on the 16th of March eight enemies were in touch with the former convoy, originally composed of forty ships, and in the course of the next three days they sank twelve of its number. Meanwhile SC 122 had been located some 120 miles ahead of the sorely beset Halifax convoy. As the leading convoy was the slower, the two convoys were gradually closing each other, and so ultimately formed a large mass of shipping in a relatively confined space of ocean. Although air cover became available for part of the 17th, the enemy was able to exploit these favourable circumstances. Attacks were continued during the two succeeding nights, the HX convoy suffering the more heavily. Not till the 20th did the increasing air support force the attackers to desist. The U-boats claimed thirty-two ships of 136,000 tons. In fact we lost only twenty-one, but their

--365--

tonnage was no less than 141,000; and only one U-boat was lost by the enemy in the course of all these attacks, in which about a score participated. It was a serious disaster to the Allied cause. The Commodore of HX 229, who had already had much experience of Atlantic convoys, imperturbably remarked in his report that 'apart from U-boat attacks the voyage was fairly average'.

Happily such misfortune was not repeated with the next Halifax convoy (HX 230). The enemy made strenuous endeavours to intercept both it and the corresponding outward convoy. Once again a storm of such violence as to warrant classification as a hurricane raged around the embattled convoys. Even the normally stormy North Atlantic excelled itself in the weather which it provided throughout this winter and early spring. Storm succeeded storm, and ships were often overwhelmed by the mere violence of the elements. True, the weather handicapped the U-boats, but our escorts and aircraft suffered as much and more; the convoyed ships were forced to scatter and straggle, and so fell easy victims to the pursuers when the weather abated. Losses from 'marine causes' rose so high as to be second only to those caused by U-boats. For example, the Commodore's ship of one convoy capsized, and was lost with all hands. HX 230, however, had a fortunate passage, and lost only one straggler. The American escort carrier Bogue accompanied the slow convoy SC 123, which was passing eastwards at the same time, as far as a position some 175 miles south-east of Cape Farewell. Furthermore a support group, led by the destroyer Offa, was sent to the convoy's help until such time as it had passed through the danger zone, when the group was switched back to reinforce HX 230; and, lastly the direction-finding wireless in the escorts enabled them to find the reporting U-boat and force her under, so that 'a hole was punched in the [U-boat patrol] line and the convoy passed safely through'. The successful passages of HX 230 and SC 123 thus did something to offset the disaster to their immediate predecessors.

It thus came to pass that the appearance of the long-awaited escort carriers on the Atlantic convoy routes coincided with the introduction of support groups. It will therefore be convenient to analyse the strength and composition of the latter. The reader will remember how the first escort carrier, the Audacity, closed the air gap on the Gibraltar route in September 1941.26 Now other ships of the same class were to perform the same vital function in the Atlantic. At the end of March Admiral Horton had five support groups at his disposal. The 1st and 2nd Groups were composed of experienced flotilla vessels of the Western Approaches command; the 3rd and 4th of destroyers lent from the Home Fleet, and the 5th comprised the escort carrier Biter and three destroyers. In addition to the Biter

--366--

and the U.S. Navy's Bogue, mentioned above, the carriers Archer and Dasher also came to the Western Approaches during the month. Admiral Horton reported on the 13th that 'much depends on the successful employment of these carriers, especially the first two'.27 Unhappily the Dasher was destroyed by an internal petrol explosion while carrying out exercises on the 27th of March.28

The detailed organisation of the support groups is shown below.

Table 30. Atlantic Support Groups, March-May 1943

Group Commanding Ships
1st Escort Group Commander G. N. Brewer Pelican, Sennen, Rother, Spey, Wear, Jed
2nd Escort Group Captain F. J. Walker Cygnet, Starling, Wren, Kite, Whimbrel, Wild Goose, Woodpecker
3rd Escort Group Captain J. A. McCoy Offa, Obedient, Oribi, Orwell, Onslaught
4th Escort Group Captain A. K. Scott-Moncrieff Inglefield, Eclipse, Impulsive, Icarus, Fury
5th Escort Group Captain E. M. C. Abel Smith Biter, Pathfinder, Obbdurate, Opportune
NOTE:   The composition of the above groups varied constantly. The table only shows a typical allocation of ships.

At the end of 1943, when the Admiralty cast their eye backward to the crisis of the previous spring, they recorded that 'the Germans never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March 1943'. Even at the present distance of time one can sense the relief which the dawning realisation that the crisis of crises had come, and had been successfully surmounted, brought in London. Nor can one yet look back on that month without feeling something approaching horror over the losses we suffered. In the first ten days, in all waters, we lost forty-one ships; in the second ten days fifty-six. More than half a million tons of shipping was sunk in those twenty days; and, what made the losses so much more serious than the bare figures can indicate, was that nearly two-thirds of the ships sunk during the month were sunk in convoy. 'It appeared possible' wrote the Naval Staff after the crisis had passed, 'that we should not be able to continue [to regard] convoy as an effective system of defence'. It had, during three-and-a-half years of war, slowly become the lynch

--367--

pin of our maritime strategy. Where could the Admiralty turn if the convoy system had lost its effectiveness? They did not know; but they must have felt, though no one admitted it, that defeat then stared them in the face. Apart from the indomitable spirit of the seamen and airmen engaged in the battle, it was the advent of the Support Groups, the Escort Carriers and the Very Long Range Aircraft which turned the tables on the U-boats-and did so with astonishing rapidity.

Next there took place a series of actions with HX, SL and ON convoys in which neither side gained great advantage. We lost some, though not many, ships; and the U-boats suffered some, though not decisive, losses. Nor did the enemy's attempts to find and attack the supply convoys passing further south, direct from America to the North African supply bases, yield more substantial results. Sinkings on that important route remained small. By the end of March the pendulum had swung back central again. An attempt by six U-boats to strike again off the American coast and in the Caribbean had produced only slight returns, because almost all ships were convoyed, and the American sea and air forces were now well-trained and watchful. And in the North Atlantic we only lost fifteen ships during the last eleven days of this fateful month, compared with 107 sunk during the first twenty days. Yet the collapse of the enemy's offensive, when it came, was so sudden that it took him completely by surprise. We now know that, in fact, a downward trend in the U-boats' recent accomplishments could have forewarned him, but was concealed from him by the exaggerated claims made by their commanders.

We must now take temporary leave of the convoy routes to review the ebb and flow of Coastal Command's offensive against outward bound U-boats from Germany and in the Bay of Biscay. In the 'northern transit area', through which all new U-boats bound for the Atlantic had to pass, the patrols flown by Nos. 15 and 18 Groups at first followed the same general pattern as in 194229; but until March the heavy calls for aircraft for other purposes, and in particular for escort duties in the Atlantic, prevented a constant watch being kept on the routes used by the enemy. In that month reinforcements began to reach the R.A.F. groups concerned. Of the twenty-four U-boats now known to have traversed those waters in March, two (U-469 and U-169) were sunk by a Fortress of No. 206 Squadron. In April more aircraft were available, but out of the twenty-one U-boats which passed through only one (U-227) was sunk by an air patrol. May brought further air reinforcements, but again only one enemy was sunk in the transit area. Not until the U-boat packs withdrew from the convoy routes in June was it possible substantially to increase the patrols in the north.


Map 39. Bay of Biscay, Air Anti-Submarine Transit Patrols, Jan 1942--May 1943

--368--

The reader will remember that, after achieving some initial successes when airborne one-and-a-half metre radar was first introduced, the offensive against the U-boats passing to and from the Bay of Biscay bases had entirely collapsed in October 1942, because the German search receiver gave ample warning of the approach of an aircraft, and so enabled the U-boats to get well below the surface before an attack could be delivered.30 The initiative could only be regained by Coastal Command when the early radar sets had been replaced by the new ten-centimetre model. The extent of the decline of our offensive is best indicated by the fact that, although U-boat traffic was heavy in January 1943, the number of aircraft sightings was the lowest ever recorded. In February the patrols were reorganised and a big effort was made by No. 19 Group from the 6th to the 15th. It resulted in eighteen of the forty U-boats now known to have crossed the Bay being sighted; but only U-519 was sunk. She fell victim to a United States Army Liberator fitted with ten-centimetre radar-the first success in these waters to the new equipment. After this improvement another recession occurred, partly because the convoy battles had become so violent that aircraft could not be spared to carry out patrolling. However, on the night of the 19th-20th of February a Leigh-Light Wellington of No. 172 Squadron sank U-268 in the 'Inner Bay'.31 Then, early in March, No. 19 Group's only two Liberator squadrons were moved by the Americans to Port Lyautey in Morocco, in spite of vigorous protests by the British Chiefs of Staff, to help combat the U-boats which had appeared off that coast.32

At about the same time a Wellington fitted with the new ten-centimetre radar located and attacked a U-boat, but was shot down in the process. This enemy (U-333) reported that her search receiver had failed to detect the aircraft's radar; and that report, combined with her success in destroying her attacker, was to have important results.

For eight days towards the end of March No. 19 Group, which now had more aircraft fitted with the new radar set, made a fresh effort. Forty-one U-boats passed across the patrol lines; one was sunk and one seriously damaged. Both successes were achieved by Leigh-Light Wellingtons fitted with the new radar set. It was at this time that Dönitz noted the increasing effectiveness of our air patrols and prophesied, correctly, 'that there will be further losses'.

There now followed a period of controversy and discussion, chiefly in the Prime Minister's Anti-U-Boat Committee, regarding the conflicting needs of the Bay patrols, of convoy protection and of

--369--

bombing Germany. The Admiralty pitched its requirements in additional aircraft for the Bay at the high figure of 190, and wanted at the same time to have the bases and their U-boat accommodation continuously bombed. The Air Ministry declared that to meet the former need would drastically reduce the offensive against Germany, and said (we now know correctly) that the 10,000 tons of bombs recently dropped on Lorient and St. Nazaire had not produced the desired results.33 The Chief of the Air Staff proposed instead to increase patrols in the Bay by some seventy aircraft, by making loans to Coastal Command and by re-deploying certain of its forces. As a long-term measure, he would ask the Americans to provide additional radar-fitted aircraft to start 'an all-out offensive . . . in the Bay of Biscay' in July. The story of the harvest gathered from this offensive will be told in our third volume.

The conflict between the desire to devote the maximum strength to bombing Germany and the Admiralty's deep anxiety regarding our losses from U-boats was thus reopened in March 1943.34 As the Admiralty saw it, the whole grand strategy of the Allies depended on defeating the U-boats. 'The people of Britain can tighten their belts', said Professor P. M. S. Blackett, Chief of Operational Research in the Admiralty, 'but our armies cannot be let down by failure to provide equipment, guns and tanks, This means ships and more ships, and safe escort for them'. In addition to bombing the U-boat bases more intensively the crucial needs were, in the Naval Staff's opinion, to provide more Very Long Range aircraft, to expedite the entry of escort carriers into service, and to gain the use of bases in the Azores. Bomber Command and the Air Staff considered that the 'softening process', which could only be applied to Germany by the persistent use of the heavy bombers against land targets, was the essential preliminary to victory. Against that the Admiralty argued that the art of grand strategy was to employ all our forces in furtherance of a common aim, that the accepted aim was the strategic offensive by all arms into Europe, and that the destruction of the U-boats was the necessary prelude to the successful mounting and maintenance of our offensive plans. Such was the problem which the Cabinet, working through the Prime Minister's Anti-U-Boat Committee, had to resolve. In effect it was resolved by something in the nature of a compromise. The Admiralty's needs were met, though not as quickly as that department wished, the U-boats were defeated -though only after they had inflicted terrible losses on us and our Allies-and the bombing of Germany continued. Whether final victory would have come sooner had our forces been differently allocated at an earlier date is likely to continue to be a subject of

--370--

dispute. For what it is worth this writer's view is that in the early spring of 1943 we had a very narrow escape from defeat in the Atlantic; and that, had we suffered such a defeat, history would have judged that the main cause had been the lack of two more squadrons of very long range aircraft for convoy escort duties.

While these difficult controversies were being thrashed out around a table in London, early in April Coastal Command carried out another series of intensive patrols for a week in the Bay of Biscay. As the First Sea Lord said to Air Marshal Slessor, 'I feel that enough has been written about the poor old Bay offensive, and that what we want to do is to collect the necessary aircraft ... and get on with the job'. The results were similar to those achieved in March--U-376 was sunk by a Wellington, and another U-boat was badly damaged. At the end of April a series of night attacks, which defeated the German warning receivers, caused Dönitz to commit perhaps his biggest mistake of the war. His faith in the German counter-measures to our radar was destroyed, and he reversed the previous policy by ordering all U-boats to dive by night and to surface by day for long enough to charge their batteries. The immediate result was a decrease in night sightings by our aircraft, and a corresponding rise in day sightings. During the first week in May three outward-bound U-boats (U-332, 109 and 663) were sunk in day attacks, and three more were damaged. On the 15th U-463, an outward-bound supply U-boat, was destroyed by a Halifax of No. 58 squadron--the first of the valuable 'milch cows' to be sunk. The increased losses in day attacks, combined with the anti-aircraft success of U-333 already mentioned, resulted in Dönitz ordering his crews 'to stay on the surface and fight it out with the aircraft', not only on the Bay transit routes but around our convoys. Increased A.A. armaments were to be fitted, and special A.A. U-boats were sent to patrol the Bay, seeking encounters with our aircraft. At the same time he ordered the U-boats to return home in groups of from three to six, so that they could support each other more effectively. On the last day of May U-440 and U-563, which had stayed on the surface in accordance with this new policy, were both sunk. Thus was the stage set for the period of high accomplishment by Coastal Command on the Biscay transit routes.

In April six U-boats and a 'milch cow' arrived in the waters off Freetown, 'the old battle-ground' where the enemy had so often found easy targets in earlier phases.35 Five independents were quickly sunk and then, on the 30th of April convoy TS 37 (Takoradi-Sierra Leone), of eighteen ships escorted by a corvette and three trawlers, was attacked when approaching Freetown. The Senior Officer of

--371--

the escort had picked up U-boat transmissions, but did not break wireless silence to tell the shore authorities. Instead a message was sent through a patrolling Hudson. The aircraft merely included the message in its normal report, with the result that it did not reach the Headquarters of the Flag Officer, West Africa, until after the convoy was attacked that evening. Three destroyers were at once sent out to reinforce the escort, but they did not arrive until after a second attack had taken place early on the 1st of May. Seven merchantmen of 43,255 tons were lost that night to the attacks of only one enemy, U-515. These heavy sinkings were described by Mr. Churchill as 'deplorable', and the Admiralty had again to point out how we were always liable to suffer from a sudden re-appearance of U-boats in an area which had for some time been free from them. Actually, since these convoys were started in September 1941, 743 ships had sailed in them and only eight had been sunk. To indicate the size of our commitments off West Africa at the time, a large WS convoy with troops for the invasion of Sicily was passing through, a floating dock was being towed from Gibraltar to Freetown, an OS convoy of twenty-one ships was bound for the same base, and one of twenty ships was sailing from Freetown to Takoradi. Escorts had to be provided for all of these and it was, said the Admiralty, impossible to give them all as strong protection as we should have liked. The enemy kept an average of four U-boats off Freetown until the end of May, but they did not repeat the success scored against TS 37.

To return now to the northern convoy routes, the month of April started with only one large group of U-boats actually at sea in the favourite waters north-east of Cape Race, and ready for operations; but a stream of new or refitted boats amounting almost to a flood was coming out from Germany by the northern route, or leaving the Biscay bases. No less than ninety-eight sailed during the month. The first attempt made by the enemy's new concentration was against HX 233 in the middle of April. The convoy had been routed along a southerly course passing some 400 miles north of the Azores, and the attack on it was not at all a success. The escort received a timely reinforcement in the shape of the Offa's ubiquitous support group, only one ship was lost, and U-175 was sunk. The next Halifax convoy was sent by the northern route; both it and the corresponding outward convoys ONS 3 and 4 were shadowed and attacked36, but their losses were slight and the air and surface escorts accounted for U-189 and U-191. For the month of April our losses fell to fifty-six ships of 327,943 tons sunk by U-boats--little more than half the March losses--and only sixty-four ships of under 350,000 tons from all


Map 40. The Battle of the Atlantic, The Triumph of the Escorts, May 1943

--372--

causes. There had been no less than five support groups working in the Atlantic during the month, two of them with their own escort carrier; and the number of V.L.R. aircraft had risen to over thirty. 'This', said the Admiralty, 'shows what our counter measures can achieve against the enemy's most strenuous efforts'. There had, moreover, been what the Naval Staff described as 'a considerable slaughter' of U-boats during the last week of the month, and they listed five successes to our surface and air escorts-all of which, and two more, have since been confirmed as accurate. Indeed the accuracy of our contemporary assessments of losses inflicted is not the least creditable aspect of this, as of earlier phases.37

In spite of the losses he had recently suffered, on the 1st of May the enemy had about sixty U-boats, organised in four groups ready to seek battle. The disposition of these groups, waiting on the limits of the 'Greenland air gap', are shown on Map 40 (opp.), as are the positions of all other U-boats which were at sea at this critical juncture. The same map shows how the 'air gap' had narrowed since the early days, and also how air cover had been extended in the coastal waters of the central and south Atlantic.38

On the 29th of April the enemy made contact with ONS-5, which was taking the northerly route, in stormy weather some 500 miles east of Cape Farewell. At first his pursuit accomplished little. The convoy was escorted by an experienced group led by the destroyer Duncan (Commander P. W. Gretton), and consisting of two destroyers, one frigate, four corvettes and two rescue trawlers.

But the watchers on shore saw the seriousness of the threat now developing, and on the 29th of April the 3rd Escort Group of five destroyers led by the Offa was ordered from St. John's to meet and reinforce the ocean escort. In very bad weather-a full gale and low visibility, which had forced the convoy virtually to heave to, the support group had great difficulty finding it. Not until 8 p.m. on the 2nd of May was contact made. Meanwhile the enemy had managed to place no less than thirty U-boats, only eight miles apart, right across the convoy's track; and eleven more were lying in wait further ahead. Gale succeeded to gale, and the convoy became much scattered; heavy seas and the presence of icebergs and pack ice made it impossible to fuel the escorts. On the 3rd of May the Duncan had to make for St. John's, and command of the escort devolved on the frigate Tay (Lieutenant-Commander R. E. Sherwood, R.N.R.). Next day, the 4th, two of the Offa's group also had to seek harbour to replenish their tanks, but the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, ordered the 1st Escort Group (Commander G. N.

--373--

Brewer), consisting of the sloop Pelican, three frigates and an ex-American cutter, out from St. John's to reinforce the escort. Air cover by Royal Canadian Air Force flying boats was available on this day. Two of them attacked U-boats approaching the convoy, and one sank U-630. The real battle was joined after dark on the 4th, by which time the weather had moderated and thirty ships of the convoy had been collected together. Commander Brewer's support group did not join until the 6th; it will be told shortly how the junction took place at a most fortunate moment. Meanwhile the convoy was sore beset. Only the Tay, four corvettes and the two remaining destroyers of the Offa's groups (the Offa and Oribi) were with it at the time. Attack and counter-attack followed each other rapidly and fiercely, and five merchantmen (one a straggler) went down that night. At daylight on the 5th there were twenty-six ships left, but luckily it was possible to start refuelling the escorts. Four more ships were sunk in daylight attacks, but the corvette Pink, which had been rounding up stragglers and had managed to collect some half dozen into a small convoy under her charge, sank U-192. That evening a V.L.R. aircraft from Iceland, at the limit of its endurance, was with the convoy for a short time.

On the night of the 5th-6th 'about twenty-four attacks took place from every direction except ahead' and, as the Senior Officer of the escort reported, 'the battle continued without a stop until 4:20 a.m. [on the 6th]. One can well understand that 'the situation was confused'. But the little ships hit back hard, and triumphantly. No more of the convoy were lost, and a heavy toll was exacted from the attackers. The first success was scored by the corvette Loosestrife, which chased and sank U-638. Then, in the small hours of the morning of the 6th, the destroyer Vidette attacked with her 'Hedge hog' and sank U-125; a short while later the Oribi got a contact, and U-531 'slid out of the fog' close at hand. She was promptly rammed and sunk. Finally at about 4 a.m. the sloop Pelican ran down a radar echo, made several depth charge attacks and destroyed U-438. The Pelican and her group had, as already mentioned, just joined from St. John's, and had replaced the last two ships of the 3rd Escort Group--the Offa and Oribi. The western local escort also met the convoy that morning, the 6th of May, and no more incidents occurred. Twelve ships were lost from the convoy, but, apart from the successes achieved by the surface escorts, and the sinking of U-630 by the R.C.A.F., a Coastal Command Flying Fortress had sunk U-710 early on in the convoy's passage. The total cost of the operation to the enemy was therefore seven U-boats. The Western Approaches and North-West Atlantic Commands and the escort groups concerned had good grounds for satisfaction over these events, and Admiral Horton paid warm tribute to the latter in his

--374--

report to the Admiralty on the adventurous passage of convoy ONS 5. Surface escorts alone had inflicted grave losses on an exceptionally strong concentration of attackers.

The enemy attributed our success, with some reason, to the efficiency of our radar, and to the fact that his search receivers could not give warning of the transmissions from our ten-centimetre sets; but he also became aware, and apprehensive, of the new weapons, like the 'Hedgehog', now in use against him, and of the vastly heavier and more deadly depth charge patterns being fired. He also learnt that the new, large and more complicated boats (Type IX) were more vulnerable than the smaller and older ones (Type VII)39, and decided to transfer the former to the safer waters in the south.

In spite of his losses, and his apprehensions, the enemy at once reformed the survivors to renew the battle. HX 237 and SC 129, whose routes lay much further south, were next located. Three ships were sunk from the former, but a like number of U-boats was destroyed by the air and surface escorts. Carrier-borne aircraft, this time from the Biter, again did good work in defending this convoy; while shore-based aircraft sank one U-boat and shared another with the surface ships. It was indeed a combined operation by all arms and services. The enemies sent against the slow convoy did no better than those which had been so severely handled while attacking the faster one. They were repeatedly driven off by the surface escorts; and they lost two of their number, while many others were seriously damaged, all for a return of only two ships sunk. The Biter was diverted from HX 237 to the slower convoy (SC 129) when the latter was threatened, and again showed the great value of the continuously available carrier aircraft.

Two complete enemy failures followed rapidly in the wake of the slight successes achieved by him in these last operations. Convoy SC 130, of thirty-eight ships, sailed from Halifax on the 11th of May. On the 14th B7 Escort Group40, led by the Duncan (Commander P. W. Gretton), which we last encountered stoutly defending ONS 5, sailed from St. John's. Early next morning they met the convoy in thick fog east of Newfoundland, and took over responsibility from the western local escort. In course of transferring papers to and from the Commodore's ship, the Escort Commander passed the word that, as he was getting married very soon after the convoy was due to arrive, it was most important that, throughout the long eastward journey the convoy should maintain, or if possible improve on, its rated speed. The Commodore promised his full co-operation, and it is pleasant to record that, although four groups of U-boats were concentrated to attack the convoy between the 15th and 20th,

--375--

and the air and surface escorts were heavily engaged with them, no ships were lost. The convoy made excellent progress, and the Escort Commander steamed into Londonderry in ample time to keep his appointment. Moreover by way of wedding present to the leader of this splendid group, to whose 'outstanding ability' Admiral Norton paid warm tribute, five U-boats were sunk during the convoy's passage. U-954 and U-258 were destroyed by Liberators of No. 120 Squadron of Coastal Command, U-209 by the Jed and Sennen of the 1st Escort Group, which had joined to reinforce the threatened convoy, a Hudson of No. 269 Squadron accounted for U-273, and the Senior Officer's Duncan herself had a hand in disposing of U-381. This fine achievement was largely due to the almost continuous presence of air cover during the time when the convoy was being threatened. The second enemy failure was against HX 239. This time it was the carrier-borne aircraft of U.S.S. Bogue and H.M.S. Archer which did the damage. The tatter's success was obtained with the new rocket projectiles, which had just been fitted to three of her aircraft, only two months after the first suggestion that they should be tried for anti-submarine purposes had been mooted.

Thus did the enemy fail, and fail most expensively, in a whole series of convoy battles; and it is perfectly plain today that it was the sea and air escorts of the convoys which achieved this decisive victory. 'We know now', wrote Admiral Horton to a brother flag officer shortly after these events, 'what strength and composition of forces is necessary to deal with the U-boat menace against convoys'.41 But the immense debt owed to the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, himself must also be recorded, for without his intimate knowledge of submarine warfare, and his great determination and drive, the victory could not possibly have been won. As his principal air colleague, Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, stated after the war, 'no one played a more critical part in the Battle of the Atlantic than Admiral Horton.'42 At the end of May 1943 the Naval Staff noted with a relief that can still be felt today 'the sudden cessation of U-boat activity which occurred on or about the 23rd of May'; and remarked that SC 130, which arrived at its destination on the 25th, 'was the last convoy to be seriously menaced'.

The great contribution of the support groups and of the air escorts in these decisive weeks is shown in tabular form at the end of this chapter. Throughout the whole of the present phase only two ships were sunk in convoy in the Atlantic while an air anti-submarine escort was present; and not one of the ships lost from the convoys shown in Table 32 (pp. 380-382) fell victim to a U-boat while her convoy was receiving air protection.

--376--

By the 22nd of May, when the Germans made up their minds that they must accept defeat and withdraw the survivors from the field of battle, they had already lost thirty-three U-boats; and the toll taken during the whole month was forty-one.43 Dönitz declared that the withdrawal was only temporary 'to avoid unnecessary losses in a period when our weapons are shown to be at a disadvantage' and that 'the battle in the north Atlantic--the decisive area--will be resumed'; and it is true that six months later he did renew the campaign on the convoy routes. But, as will be told in our final volume, the battle never again reached the same pitch of intensity, nor hung so delicately in the balance, as during the spring of 1943. It is therefore fair to claim that the victory here recounted marked one of the decisive stages of the war; for the enemy then made his greatest effort against our Atlantic life-line--and he failed. After forty-five months of unceasing battle, of a more exacting and arduous nature than posterity may easily realise, our convoy escorts and aircraft had won the triumph they had so richly merited.

As we shall now take leave of the Battle of the Atlantic so far as this volume is concerned, it will be appropriate to summarise the world-wide results of the onslaught by Axis U-boats against our shipping from January 1942 to May 1943. These are set out in the next table. It will be seen that losses of independently-sailed ships were very high during the campaign in American waters (January--June 1942), and that sinkings of U-boats, especially by convoy escorts, were then low. From February to May 1943, during the second campaign on the convoy routes, independently-sailed losses were comparatively small. Losses of convoyed ships were high until the victories of May 1943 were won, but then declined sharply. Sinkings of U-boats on the other hand were then very heavy, especially those accomplished by the sea and air escorts. The figures given below show more emphatically than many words of description how it was the convoy system which reduced our losses, and also brought us the victory over the U-boats.

--377--

Table 31. Allied Shipping Losses in Convoy and Independently Sailed, and U-Boats Sunk
1st January 1942--31st May 1943

(All Theaters)

  Allied ships
sunk in convoy
Allied
independently
sailed ships
sunk
 
Month By
U-boats
only
By
all
enemies
By
U-boats
only
By
all
enemies
Axis U-boats
sunk by sea
and air
convoy
escorts and
support
Axis
U-boats
sunk by
all other
means
Remarks
   1942  
Jan. 3 9 48 60 4 5 The U-boat Campaign on the east coast of America
Feb. 9 16 67 78 2 0
March 0 8 88 98 5 4
April 4 11 69 104 1 3
May 13 24 111 119 1 5
June 20 29 121 135 1 5
July 24 44 70 81 8 7
Aug. 50 60 51 56 9 8  
Sept. 29 39 58 62 6 7  
Oct. 29 33 54 56 9 8  
Nov. 39 46 70 75 9 8  
Dec. 19 25 33 38 6 7  
   1943  
Jan. 15 18 14 19 5 6 The second U-boat campaign on the Atlantic Convoy Route
Feb. 34 38 16 18 17 6
March 72 77 23 25 6 10
April 25 29 22 24 9 8
May 26 31 19 19 28 19
TOTALS 411 537 934 1067 126 116  
NOTE:   During the same period 108 allied ships which were stragglers from convoy were sunk by U-boats and 114 by all enemies.

It remains to mention one other very important fact concerning this phase of the Battle of the Atlantic. We are not here directly concerned with the parallel struggle of the Allied shipyards to build more and still more merchant ships, and to build them faster than the enemy was sinking them. For the technical problems involved in that stupendous accomplishment, and the success ultimately accomplished, chiefly by our American Allies, the reader must refer to the appropriate volumes of the Civil Histories.44 Although our losses of ships in convoy had never, since the beginning of the war, fallen below our gains of merchant shipping from new construction and other sources, our total losses had so far always exceeded our gains.45 It was, however, just after the end of the present phase-to

--378--

be precise in July 1943--that the rising curve of Allied merchant ship construction overtook and crossed the more slowly rising curve of sinkings by the enemy; and never again did the former fall below the latter. Had this victory of production not been won, the sacrifices of the escorting ships and aircraft, and of the merchant seaman, were all bound to have been made in vain. As long as the enemy was sinking more ships than we were building, the final victory would remain in the balance--as the Germans very well realised. Hence their determined effort to achieve a decisive success in the Battle of the Atlantic in the first half of 1943. The men who manned the escorts and the merchant ships, and flew in the far-ranging aircraft, will be the first to acknowledge the contribution of the shipyards to the defeat of that purpose. The appropriate curves of new construction and losses, covering the whole war, are shown below.


Map 41. Allied Merchant Shipping, Cumulative Gains & Losses, Sept. 1939--Aug. 1945

--379--

Table 32. The Work of the Escorts and Support Groups, and of Air Escorts and Supports on the North Atlantic Convoy Routes
14th April--31st May 1943

 
Convoy and Number of Ships Ports of Departure Dates of Departure--Arrival Escort and Senior Officer's Ship Support Group and Senior Officer's Ship Whence Sent Period With Convoy Ships of Convoy Lost and Tonnage U-boats Sunk During Convoy Passage and Remarks
HX 233
  54 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
6/4/43-
21/4/43
A3 Group
U.S.S.
Spencer
3rd Escort Group
H.M.S.
Offa
Londonderry 6:40 a.m. 17/4 to
3:45 p.m. 18/4
One (7,134) U-175 by U.S.S. Spencer 17/4/43
SC 126
  38 ships
Halifax-
Liverpool, etc.
8/4/43-
23/4/43
B5 Group
H.M.S.
Havelock
3rd Escort Group
H.M.S.
Offa
HX 233 8:55 a.m. 19/4 to
8:15 a.m. 20/4
Nil  
HX 234
  43 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
12/4/43-
28/4/43
B4 Group
H.M.S.
Highlander
4th Escort Group
H.M.S.
Faulknor
Greenock 8:00 a.m. 25/4 to
8:00 p.m. 25/4
One in convoy (10,218)
One straggler (7,176)
U-189 (by Liberator of 120 Sqdn. R.A.F.) 23/4/43
ONS 4
  32 ships
Liverpool-
Halifax
13/4/43-
5/5/43
B2 Group
H.M.S.
Hesperus
5th Escort Group
H.M.S. Biter
1st Escort Group
H.M.S.
Pelican
Hvalfiord
 
SC 127
9:00 a.m. 23/4 to
11:30 a.m. 26/4
9:00 p.m. 26/4 to
10:30 a.m. 28/4
Nil U-191 (by H.M.S. Hesperus) 23/4/43.
U-203 (by H.M.S. Pathfinder and aircraft from H.M.S. Biter) 25/4/43.
SC 127
  55 ships
Halifax-
Liverpool, etc.
16/4/43-
3/5/43
C1 Group
H.M.S. Itchen
1st Escort Group
H.M.S. Pelican
4th Escort Group
H.M.S. Faulknor
Londonderry
 
HX 234
7:32 a.m. 24/4 to
9:30 a.m. 25/4
9:40 a.m. 27/4 to
4:30 a.m. 30/4
Nil  
HX 235
  36 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
18/4/43-
3/5/43
C4 Group
H.M.S. Churchill
U.S.S. Bogue Argentia 2:00 a.m. 25/4 to
8:00 a.m. 28/4
Nil by enemy, one by collision (5,248) U-174 (by U.S. aircraft off Nova Scotia) 27/4/43. [Note: It is uncertain which convoy this aircraft was escorting at the time of its success.]
ONS 5
  42 ships
Liverpool-
Halifax
21/4/43-
12/5/43
B7 Group
H.M.S. Duncan
3rd Escort Group
H.M.S. Offa
1st Escort Group
H.M.S. Pelican
St. John's
 
St. John's
8:30 a.m. 2/5 to
8:09 a.m. 6/5
5:50 a.m. 6/5 to
10:30 p.m. 8/5
11 in convoy (52,587)
2 stragglers (9,372)
U-710 (by Fortress of 206 Sqdn. R.A.F.) 24/4/43.
U-630 (by Canso of No. 5 Sqdn. R.C.A.F.) 4/5/43*.
U-192 (by H.M.S. Pink) 5/4/43.
U-531 (by H.M.S. Oribi) 6/5/43.
U-638 (by H.M.S. Loosestrife) 6/5/43.
U-125 (by H.M.S. Vidette) 6/5/43.
U-438 (by H.M.S. Pelican) 6/5/43.
* A "Canso" was an R.C.A.F. Catalina.
HX 236
  46 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
24/4/43-
9/5/43
B1 Group
H.M.S. Hurricane
2nd Escort Group
H.M.S. Starling
Londonderry 6:30 a.m. 3/5 to
6:00 p.m. 5/5
Nil U-465 (by Liberator of 86 Sqdn.) 4/5/43
SL 128
  32 ships
Freetown-N.W.
 Approaches
20/4/43-
14/5/43
37th Escort Group
H.M.S. Black Swan
2nd Escort Group
H.M.S. Starling
HX 236 8:05 p.m. 7/5 to
10:30 a.m. 10/5
One (3,803) U-456 (by H.M.S. Lagan, H.M.C.S. Drumheller and Sunderland of 423 Sqdn.) 13/5/43
SC 129
  26 ships
Halifax-
Liverpool, etc.
2/5/43-
20/5/43
B2 Group
H.M.S.
Hesperus
5th Escort Group
H.M.S. Biter
SC 129 2:00 p.m. 14/5 to
11:30 a.m. 16/5
Two (7,627) U-186 (by H.M.S. Hesperus) 12/5/43.
U-266 (by Liberator of 86 Sqdn. R.A.F.) 14/5/43.
ON 182
  56 ships
Liverpool-
New York
6/5/43-
22/5/43
C5 Group
H.M.C.S. Ottawa
4th Escort Group
H.M.S. Archer
ONS 6 1:00 p.m. 12/5 to
7:45 p.m. 14/5
Nil  
HX 238
  45 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
7/5/43-
22/5/43
C3 Group
H.M.C.S. Skeena
Nil --- --- Nil  
ONS 7
  40 ships
Liverpool-
Halifax
7/5/43-
25/5/43
B5 Group
H.M.S. Swale
3rd Escort Group
H.M.S. Offa
St. John's 2:40 a.m. 18/5 to
11:00 a.m. 19/5
One (5,196) U-657 (by U.S. aircraft) 14/5/43.
U-640 (by H.M.S. Swale) 17/5/43.
ON 183
  32 ships
Liverpool-
New York
10/5/43-
25/5/43
B4 Group
H.M.S.
Highlander
Nil --- --- Nil  
SC 130
  38 ships
Halifax-
Liverpool, etc.
11/5/43-
26/5/43
B7 Group
H.M.S. Duncan
1st Escort Group
H.M.S. Wear
St. John's 7:25 p.m. 19/5 to
11:00 a.m. 22/5
Nil U-273 (by Hudson of 269 Sqdn. R.A.F.) 19/5/43.
U-954 (by Liberator of 120 Sqdn. R.A.F.) 19/5/43.
U-381 (by H.M.S. Duncan and Snowflake) 19/5/43.
U-209 (by H.M.S. Jed and Sennen) 19/5/43.
U-258 (by Liberator of 120 Sqdn. R.A.F.) 20/5/43.
ON 184
  39 ships
Liverpool-
New York
15/5/43-
1/6/43
C1 Group
H.M.S. Itchen
6th Escort Group
U.S.S. Bogue
Iceland 8:00 a.m. 19/5 to
10:30 a.m. 25/5
Nil U-569 (by aircraft from  U.S.S. Bogue 22/5/43
HX 239
  42 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
13/5/43-
27/5/43
B3 Group
H.M.S. Keppel
4th Escort Group
H.M.S. Archer
Argentia 8:00 a.m. 19/5 to
1:00 p.m. 25/5
Nil U-752 (by aircraft from  H.M.S. Archer 23/5/43
SC 131
  31 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
18/5/43-
31/5/43
B6 Group
H.M.S. Viscount
3rd Escort Group
H.M.S. Offa
40th Escort Group
H.M.S. Lulworth
St. John's
 
Londonderry
3:00 p.m. 23/5 to
5:30 a.m. 28/5
12:00 p.m. 27/5 to
5:30 a.m. 28/5
Nil  
ONS 8
  52 ships
Liverpool-
Halifax
18/5/43-
1/6/43
C4 Group
H.M.S. Churchill
2nd Escort Group
H.M.S. Starling
Iceland 5:55 p.m. 22/5 to
11:30 p.m. 25/5
Nil  
HX 240
  56 ships
New York-
Liverpool, etc.
19/5/43-
4/6/43
C5 Group
H.M.C.S. Ottawa
2nd Escort Group
H.M.S. Starling
ONS 8 9:50 a.m. 27/5 to
10:30 p.m. 30/5
Nil U-304 (by Liberator of 120 Sqdn. R.A.F.) 28/5/43.
TOTAL OF SHIPS SAILED IN CONVOY:
6th April-19th May, 1943

912
TOTAL OF SHIPS SUNK BY ENEMY
(1) 1n Convoy  17 (85,565 tons)
(2) Stragglers  6 (37,937 tons)
TOTAL  23 (124,502 tons)
TOTAL OF U-BOATS SUNK BY CONVOY
SURFACE AND AIR ESCORTS AND SUPPORTS:

27

--380 / 381--

 

* * * This page intentionally left blank * * *

 

--382--

Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (XIII) ** Next Chapter (XV)


Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Rick Pitz for the HyperWar Foundation.