In late August 1942 a fierce and bloody battle in the Caribbean pitted a Canadian corvette against a menacing U-boat. What transpired is the stuff of legends.
News from the sea was really quite good for the Royal Canadian Navy between late July and early September 1942. The fleet was sinking U-boats: two for sure in July by warships St. Croix and Saguenay and Wetaskiwin, maybe one or two more by Sackville, and Assiniboine’s dramatic sinking of U-210 on Aug. 6.
These victories coincided with a period of quiet in inshore waters, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Two more U-boat kills followed in the next four weeks. The final confirmed tally for the Royal Canadian Navy from July 24 to Sept. 1 was five U-boats destroyed, making those six weeks the best period for U-boat hunting in the navy’s history.
But in a summer characterized by drama, the sinking of U-94 in the Caribbean on Aug. 28 is in a league of its own. It was an unusual place for a Canadian warship to sink a sub—a long way from the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The corvette responsible, His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Oakville, had been escorting Canadian oil tanker convoys between Halifax and Aruba. As the Americans extended coastal convoy systems, the Canadian oil convoys became redundant: the last one departed Halifax on Aug. 13, arriving at Aruba on the 25th without loss. The corvettes assigned to this route were among the RCN’s best, many of them new construction with increased sheer and flare, higher bridges and better armament than average mid-ocean corvettes.
Some of the RCN’s best people were there, too. Among them was Lieutenant-Commander Clarence King of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve. At 56 years of age he was old enough to be the father of most corvette captains. An ex-pat Brit, King was schooled at Rugby and the British merchant marine depot ship Conway. During the Great War he commanded a Q-Ship (a decoy for U-boats), sank a submarine, was awarded two probable sinkings and earned a Distinguished Service Cross.
After the war, King bought a fruit farm in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and settled into the life of a gentleman farmer.
The Nazis drew “Uncle Clarence” back to the colours in 1939. Hal Lawrence, who knew him well, described King as “a real fire eater” who “wanted to do his bit, sink more submarines.” And he did, eventually tying Chummy Prentice as the highest scoring RCN U-boat killer of the war. That, and King’s movie-star good looks, had all the makings of a public relations dream, and his ultimate accomplishments might have warranted some form of recognition at the time or afterwards. But King was RCNR, not real navy. The straight-stripers cast him and his ilk off after 1945 as quickly as they discarded the Sheep Dog Navy itself.
In late August, King’s corvette, Oakville, along with HMCS Snowberry and HMCS Halifax, was lying off Port of Spain, Trinidad, waiting for convoy TAW-15. “Our cargo was oil, the life-blood of war,” Lawrence wrote in his memoir titled A Bloody War. “We took only tankers, fast tankers.” Many of these had already come from British Guiana, 350 miles to the south. TAW-15 was routed to Curacao, where tankers from Aruba and Maracaibo joined, and then to the east coast of the U.S.
There are only two direct ways northward from the central Caribbean; through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, and the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
The Germans knew that, too. As the success rate of the U-boat fleet hunting in the Gulf of Mexico and across the wide basin of the Caribbean declined in mid-summer, German Admiral Karl Döntiz shifted most of it further south and east. By August U-boats were hunting successfully to seaward of Trinidad and along the Atlantic shoreline of South America. But Dönitz also knew that the Allies were routing convoys through the Windward and Mona passages, and so he deployed a number of U-boats there as well. The results at these two choke points were dramatic. “In the space of seven days,” the new RCN official history observed, “submarines torpedoed twelve ships, sinking eleven.” Most of these came from TAW convoys.
So by the time TAW-15 reached Curacao, efforts were underway to bolster the escort. A Dutch minesweeper joined as TAW-15 departed on Aug. 25 with 19 merchant ships. Twelve more vessels and five United States Navy escorts joined at sea as TAW-15 headed north. Two U-boats lay in their path: U-511, operating well to the west of the convoy’s track, and U-94, patrolling the southern approaches to the Windward Passage.
The commander of U-94, Oberleutnant Otto Ites, was an experienced, skilled and decorated veteran. A pre-war naval officer, Ites started the war in U-48, in which he served for nine war patrols as second and first officer. It was a good and comparatively safe time to be at sea, and Ites honed his skills under excellent captains. Promoted to Oberleutnant on Oct. 1, 1940, Ites took U-146 on two war patrols in the Baltic, then shifted to command U-94 on five patrols in the Atlantic. By August 1942, his score was sinking 15 ships totalling over 76,000 tons. Three of these ships were from the USN- and RCN-escorted ONS 92 in May 1942. Now, in the warm waters of the Caribbean, Ites confronted a joint USN-RCN escort again. This time he would not be so lucky.
As the 21 ships of TAW-15 approached the passage, the USN stepped up its air patrols. Catalinas from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had—in the words of the USN official history—kept Ites “dodging Navy flying boats” all day on Aug. 27. However, these efforts did nothing to deter Ites because he knew that the intensity of air patrols meant that a convoy was approaching.
Lookouts on U-94 spotted TAW-15 just after noon, local time. Ites reported its position, course and speed, and then shadowed it for the rest of the day. The report drew U-511, under Kapitainleutnant Frederich Steinhoff, eastwards with the hope that he and Ites could attack together. But Ites declined to wait. Just after dark (2:32 a.m. Greenwich Meantime, Aug. 28) U-94 made its approach. “Conditions were favourable,” the RCN official history observed, “the night moonlit and bright.”
Ites penetrated the screen between Snowberry, on the port bow, and Oakville, on the port quarter: neither had picked up U-94 on radar. U-94 was completely awash except for his conning tower, and only Ites and his first officer were topside. With USN Catalinas flying nighttime patrols around the convoy, Ites crew had been alerted to expect an aircraft alarm, and so U-94 was poised for a crash dive. The plan nearly worked. U-94 was ready to fire torpedoes when Ites spotted a USN flying boat, piloted by Lieutenant Gordon Fiss, headed his way.
It is likely that Fiss found U-94 by the phosphorescence of her wake which Lawrence mentions as being present that night. Fiss dropped four 650-pound depth charges that exploded around the U-boat 30 to 60 feet down. The well-placed bombs blew off both of the U-boat’s bow hydroplanes. That made it all but impossible for Ites to control the sub underwater.
Lawrence recalled that “The urgent jangle of the action-stations bells in HMCS Oakville jerked me from my sleep.” Wearing only his boxer shorts, Lawrence reached the asdic hut just as “Four plumes of water from the aircraft’s depth-bombs were subsiding into a misty haze and showing small, ethereal rainbows in the moonlight.” King ordered an immediate turn towards the scene, and a five-depth-charge quick attack as they passed over the spot. King had killed at least one U-boat in the Great War, but “His score in this war was zero and he didn’t like it.” As the corvette’s charges exploded, “Oakville bucked, shuddered, and resumed her eager trembling,” Lawrence wrote. “Poor old girl: there was worse to come.”
Oakville’s best asdic operator, Leading Seaman Hartman, soon had U-94 back in his sights. As the ship ran out from her attack, Hartman heard the unmistakable sounds of ballast being blown. Lawrence was quietly relaying information about the sub’s movements to King when everyone on the bridge suddenly shouted, “There’s the bastard now!” Everyone, that is, except King. Lawrence opined that Canadian naval officers were not given to inspiring words in moments of great drama. He had been on Moose Jaw in September 1941 when she and Chambly sank U-501—the first known RCN U-boat kill of the war. When the sub was sighted and battle joined, Moose Jaw’s captain, Davey Grubb, had turned to him and said simply, “Lawrence, what are you doing?”
Now, with U-94 in sight, battle imminent, and Oakville’s crew baying for blood, King uttered a quiet “Ho, ho!” This, Lawrence concluded, “was not the stuff of legends.”
King followed his “Ho, ho!” with an order to ram the sub. Oakville was barely 300 feet away, the distance was short and the ramming failed. The corvette just scrapped down the side of U-94, and probably escaped serious damage because the U-boat’s hydroplanes, which could easily slice Oakville open, were already gone.
As the range opened again the corvette’s guns got busy. “Our 4-inch roared again and again,” Lawrence recalled, while both the twin .5-inch and several Lewis guns blasted away. U-94 was struck at least once by a 4-inch shell, and Oakville’s secondary fire struck down German gunners as they “poured out and made for their weapons. In that murderous fire none made it.”
Oakville and U-94 manoeuvred frantically as the corvette tried to ram the sub. As Oakville slipped by harmlessly a second time, her crew “unleashed a weapon hitherto untried in modern warfare.” Idle depth charge crews, sheltering under the after gun position above the engine room, were close enough to pelt the conning tower of U-94 with empty coke bottles, yelling “Yah! Yah!” as each one crashed home. “Ducking heads on U-94 testified to their accuracy,” Lawrence wrote. “If Ites’s courage ever forsook him, it must have been then.”
Lawrence’s courage, too, was about to be tested. And he would have good reason to regret the scantiness of his clothing and the shattered glass that now littered the conning tower of U-94. What happened next, which will be covered in the January/February issue, was the stuff of Hollywood.