The division of Allied labour worked out in August 1941 for operations on the North Atlantic made perfect sense. Fifty destroyers of the United States Atlantic Fleet’s Support Force assumed responsibility for fast convoys between the Grand Banks and Iceland. This freed British forces to concentrate east of Iceland, especially along the embattled United Kingdom-South Atlantic route.
In time, the burgeoning escort forces of the Royal Canadian Navy would be shifted eastward, but in the interim—while the United States Navy found its feet—the Newfoundland Escort Force’s largely corvette fleet took charge of the slow convoys between the Grand Banks and Iceland. Plodding along at roughly seven knots—and frequently much slower—and typically comprised of the oldest ships which belched smoke and straggled, slow convoys took days longer than their faster counterparts to make their weary passage of the mid-Atlantic. Shepherding slow convoys across the Atlantic in all seasons and in the face of heavy U-boat attacks was an unenviable task as well as a defining experience for the RCN.
No one in September 1941 could anticipate what lay ahead, and for the moment there was reason for optimism. The involvement of the USN in escort operations was an incredible accretion of strength for the Allies. And it was thought that it might even help the NEF to overcome its teething problems by lightening the load. “As the force is now organized,” wrote the Captain (Destroyers), Newfoundland, early that month, “there is ample time for training ships, having due regard for necessary rest period between convoy cycles.” That said, the training equipment at St John’s was “a beggar’s portion”—two asdic simulators on the dockside in portable huts. Not surprisingly, the Captain (D) Newfoundland, E.B.K. Stevens, RN, concluded that, “At present, most escorts are equipped with one weapon of approximate precision—the ram.” Commodore Leonard Murray did not need to be reminded. When Lieutenant-Commander Chummy Prentice arrived in St. John’s with the first corvettes, operational training of new escorts at Halifax ceased. Corvettes arriving from Canada now had little more than rudimentary training in basic skills. To help resolve this, Prentice—in late August—was authorized to establish an NEF training group.
For those in the know, the intelligence picture in the North Atlantic was also guardedly optimistic in the late summer of 1941. Since June the Allies had been able to read the cypher for Atlantic U-boats, and over July and August convoys kept clear of danger. The Germans could not explain the success of Allied routing, but they did notice, and on Sept. 6 abandoned linear deployments and dispersed a large group of U-boats, dubbed wolf pack “markgraf,” in a loose pattern between Greenland and Iceland in an attempt to locate the convoys.
The dispersion of U-boats southeast of Greenland made it difficult for intelligence to plot their positions. The slow, east-bound convoy SC 41, escorted by the destroyer St. Croix, and corvettes Pictou, Buctouche and Galt, was just able to skip through undetected, as were several British escorted convoys. But SC 42 was not so fortunate. It sailed from Sydney, N.S., on Aug. 30 and, with joiners from Newfoundland, comprised 65 ships organized in 12 columns, giving it a front of about five miles and a depth of about a mile. Like SC 41, SC 42 was unusually large and weakly escorted because the Allies were adjusting to American involvement in escort operations. The more frequent sailing of smaller SC convoys—more suited to the size of NEF groups—had not yet begun. And in the meantime, the Allies had abandoned the summer practice of sailing HX and SC convoys together in order to provide for a larger combined escort. And like SC 41, SC 42 was routed north, through the Strait of Belle Isle and then directly towards Cape Farewell, Greenland, in an effort to skirt around the U-boats. The effort failed. On the afternoon of Sept. 9, U-85 sighted the convoy and her report started a cascade that ultimately brought 16 U-boats down on the convoy.
By 1941 standards, the escort for SC 42 was seasoned. Cmdr. Jimmy Hibbard, RCN, in command of the destroyer Skeena, was a professional naval officer with nearly a year of battling U-boats under his belt. The corvettes Orillia and Alberni had operated with Hibbard before. Only Kenogami was a newcomer. One destroyer and three corvettes was not a powerful escort, but given the success of evasive routing over the summer, it was judged sufficient. However, SC 42 was watched anxiously by Murray, and on Sept. 5 he ordered Prentice and his training group of Chambly and Moose Jaw northward as reinforcements. It was not much, but it was all the NEF could spare.
Plumes of smoke from careless—or simply inefficient—ships could be seen for 30 miles by the time SC 42 arrived off Greenland. That smoke drew U-85 to the convoy at dawn on Sept. 9. After sending out a contact report, U-85 made a hapless attempt during the day to sink the straggler Jedmoor. The steamer’s report of torpedo tracks coupled with the burst of U-boat signal traffic alerted Allied naval intelligence. As U-boats closed on the convoy, orders went out to Prentice to support SC 42 and for British reinforcements to sail from Iceland.
The U-boats got there first. At 9:30 p.m. (Greenwich Mean Time) torpedoes from U-432 struck the ore carrier SS Muneric, the fourth ship in the port column. She sank like a stone: no one got off. Kenogami and Skeena searched for the U-boat, and Skeena fired starshell, a form of illumination round, to no avail. Kenogami had no starshell, nor did her gun have flashless powder. So when her lookouts spotted a U-boat on the surface and she fired a four-inch round at it, the flash night-blinded the lookouts, and the U-boat escaped unhurt. Meanwhile, Skeena was recalled by a report from the convoy commodore stating there was a U-boat dead ahead of SC 42, a sighting confirmed by several other ships. Nothing came of that report, and Skeena took station just ahead of the centre column.
About an hour and half later, the ship at the end of the 9th column reported a U-boat on the surface behind her. Skeena turned and raced through the convoy between the 7th and 8th columns, just as the commodore ordered an emergency turn to port for the merchant ships. Making 18 knots—with larger vessels turning all around her—Skeena had to be nimble. As Hibbard later recalled, “full speed ahead and full speed astern had to be used on both engines to avoid a collision.” As the destroyer and the merchant ships manoeuvred frantically, U-652 passed Skeena—too close for her guns to bear—going in the opposition direction and drawing fire from every ship around. The U-boat’s captain, who never saw the destroyer, fired two torpedoes and then crash-dived in the middle of the convoy. His log later reported being depth charged by ships in the convoy, but the pattern came from Skeena. Both Skeena and the U-boat escaped the incident unharmed, but U-652’s torpedoes found their marks: two ships in the 4th column, Pentland and Tahchee. Now fearing U-boats on his portside, the commodore ordered another evasive turn to starboard. Two suspense-filled, but quiet hours followed, during which corvettes were busy doing rescue work in the wake of SC 42.
Their absence was noticed by U-432 which spent those two hours manoeuvering to the dark side of the convoy. It then slipped into the convoy and torpedoed Winterswijk and Stargard. A nearby merchant ship, Regin, engaged the U-boat, but Skeena and Kenogami found nothing. As SC 42 moved on, only Alberni was left with the convoy, and she could not stop U-81 from hitting the lead ship in the starboard column, Sally Maersk. The commodore ordered yet another evasive turn, and when her search produced nothing, Alberni, too, switched to rescue work. SC 42 was now completely unguarded.
The last attack of the night struck the Empire Hudson, the lead ship in the 2nd column. Skeena searched around the stricken vessel, which remained buoyed by her cargo of grain. That hunt, one by Alberni and a search for a periscope by Skeena, ended in frustration. By dawn Orillia was still astern with more than 100 survivors on board, trying to salvage the tanker Tahchee. Kenogami, meanwhile, had picked up the 34-man crew of Sally Maersk.
Daylight brought no respite for SC 42 and its struggling escorts. Thistleglen, laden with steel and pig iron, was hit by U-85 just before noon. U-85 then trolled around the convoy at periscope depth as it set up for another target. When the sub’s periscope was reported by several ships, Hibbard made a quick depth-charge attack, then called in help. Eventually Skeena and Kenogami established good asdic contact, and the corvette guided the destroyer in for a 10-charge pattern that brought a large air bubble and oil to the surface. Hibbard claimed a kill, but his attack inflicted only serious damage on U-85. It knocked out her compasses, rudders, engine room telegraph, all lights and port engine, and sent the sub into a dive that was only stopped by rushing the crew aft to restore trim. U-85 was forced to head home.
Sweeps and hunts by the three remaining escorts during the day were fruitless. Hibbard never did re-establish contact with Orillia, which eventually towed Tahchee to Iceland: a remarkable feat of seamanship, but Hibbard needed Orillia in the screen. In the gathering darkness and deteriorating weather of September, U-82 torpedoed Bulysse in the 10th column. The large tanker exploded in a tower of flame, and lit “the convoy as if it were day.” In the ensuing chaos, U-82 sank Gypsum Queen from the 8th column. Merchantships at the ends of each column stood by their duty and picked up survivors, while Skeena and Alberni conducted another frustrating search.
The pyrotechnics from Bulysse’s explosion were seen from Chambly and Moose Jaw as they closed on SC 42. Prentice had worked his way to the northwest of the convoy, intent on closing from the dark side just after the moon rose in the south: he hoped to catch U-boats silhouetted against the moon-lit sky. It was a brilliant idea, but the initial contact was made on Chambly’s asdic—at a very short 700 yards. Prentice attacked immediately, and a five-charge pattern—slightly compacted by miscues on the quarterdeck—was dropped within two minutes. Two of the charges exploded almost simultaneously, shearing off U-501’s port rear hydroplane, putting a huge dent in her hull and smashing instruments. U-501 had no choice but to blow ballast and she burst to the surface just ahead of Moose Jaw.
What followed was one of the most bizarre incidents of the Atlantic war. HMCS Moose Jaw, commanded by Lieutenant Freddy Grubb, RCN, was on her first operational cruise. Most of the crew were new to the sea and had been seasick for days, and Grubb was missing many of his key specialists. Now, in the darkness of an arctic night, the enemy had emerged from the sea only 400 yards off their port bow. Grubb ordered his gunners to open fire, and when the four-inch jammed after the first round he allowed Moose Jaw to crash into the sub. In the instant the two vessels lay alongside one another, Korvettenkapitan Hugo Forster stepped from his conning tower onto the corvette’s forecastle without even wetting his feet. Fearing a boarding party, Grubb veered off, turned a circle, opened fire again and then rammed U-501.
As soon as it became clear that U-501 had no fight in her, both corvettes sent away boarding parties. Chambly’s party, led by Lieut. Ted Simmons, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, arrived first. After failing to persuade U-501’s crew to go below, Simmons and his men very gingerly, with pistols drawn, descended into the U-boat. By the time they reached the control room, U-501 was doomed. Power was failing, all her key instruments were wrecked and her seacocks had been opened. Stoker W.I. Brown, RCNVR, set off to see if the valves could be closed, but the water continued to rise and the Canadians scampered out as U-501 took her final plunge. The corvettes switched on their 10-inch signal lamps to help locate men in the water, amid shouts—in heavily accented English—of “No lights! No lights!”—for fear that their rescuers would draw torpedoes to themselves. Thirty-seven men were pulled from the sea: Stoker Brown and 11 members of U-501’s crew were not among them. U-501 was the first enemy vessel sunk in combat with a wholly RCN force, and a vindication of Chummy Prentice’s training, his depth-charge procedures and his tactical skill.
Chambly and Moose Jaw then joined in the defence of SC 42. Around midnight, U-207 penetrated the screen, hitting Stonepool and Berury. As the merchantships fell out of station, EG 24 searched in vain. Hibbard assumed his corvettes had returned to the escort screen following the failed search, but he was wrong. Alberni, Kenogami and Moose Jaw remained astern of SC 42 doing rescue work. Their absence simply opened the convoy to an attack by U-82 two hours later, which sank Empire Crossbill and left Scania straggling astern, where she was sunk by U-202. U-432, also hunting for cripples in the wake of SC 42, sank the straggler Bestum.
Although EG 24 chased shadows for the rest of the night, the battle for SC 42 effectively ended with the attack by U-82 at 2:10 a.m., Sept. 11. In the forenoon, five destroyers, two corvettes and two sloops of the Royal Navy arrived to reinforce the escort, and SC 42 moved to within effective range of air support from Iceland. When all was said and done, 16 merchantships were lost in exchange for the sinking of U-501 and serious damage to U-85.
Assessments of the battle were kind to Hibbard and his group. The Admiralty admitted that the “slender escort” had simply been overwhelmed by a wolf pack more than three times its number. Even the surviving merchant captains of SC 42 expressed, “unanimously and spontaneously,” their appreciation for the RCN escorts, and made their sentiment known to Admiral Sir Percy Noble, the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches. The sinking of U-501 was, at the time, the RCN’s first confirmed U-boat kill of the war.
It was also painfully evident that four escorts, only one of which was a destroyer, were no match for a large group of U-boats.
Email the writer at: [email protected]