Lost In The Dark: Navy, Part 45

June 19, 2011 by Marc Milner

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Spikenard at Halifax, about two months before she was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA116955]

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Spikenard at Halifax, about two months before she was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA116955

Events off the American eastern seaboard in early 1942 typically capture the attention of historians when it comes to examining this phase of the Atlantic war. But for the Royal Canadian Navy’s escorts on the North Atlantic Run, early 1942 transatlantic escort of convoys remained a perilous and critical task. Winter weather was vile and the U-boats—many of them by then in transit to warmer hunting ground off the United States—required constant vigilance. Evidence of that danger was made plain in February with the tragic loss of the corvette Spikenard while escorting slow convoy SC 67 south of Iceland.

Spikenard was one of the original 10 Canadian-built British corvettes, hence her flower name as opposed to a city or town name, and like the others of her class she went to the United Kingdom in early 1941 for transfer to the Royal Navy. Like her Canadian-built sisters, Spikenard and her temporary RCN crew were retained for operations, and most operated briefly as part of Clyde Escort Force. “Spike”—as she was known to her crew—was assigned to the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) in June and by the end of 1941 had made three trips to Iceland as an ocean escort. By early 1942, Spikenard—a lowly corvette—was actually the senior officer’s ship for NEF group N15, comprised of herself, and the corvettes Chilliwack, Dauphin, Lethbridge, Louisburg and Shediac.

When N15 left St. John’s, Nfld., in early February to pick up an eastbound convoy it was the first headed for the new eastern terminus of NEF operations of Londonderry, Northern Ireland. This was the embryo of what soon became Mid-Ocean Escort Force, which by month’s end operated between the Grand Banks and the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland. For the moment, however, the escort arrangements for transatlantic convoys still relied on three, roughly equal, relays of groups. N15’s first convoy in February 1942, SC 67 (just 22 ships) was escorted from Halifax to just south of Newfoundland by a Halifax-based group comprised of ex-United States Navy destroyer His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Hamilton, the RCN corvettes Dunvegan and Saskatoon, and the Bangor-class minesweeper Nipigon. N15 was responsible for the mid-ocean passage. Then, south of Iceland, another ex-USN destroyer, the Norwegian St. Albans, and two British corvettes, Gentian and Honeysuckle, would take over SC 67. At that point, Spikenard and her brood were to steam straight for the warmth and hospitality of the new USN base at Londonderry.

Unfortunately, the day after SC 67 cleared Halifax Harbour, Allied code-breakers suddenly lost their ability to read the operational ciphers of North Atlantic U-boats. This ability had been a key to successful Allied convoy operations in the Atlantic since the previous June, when captured material from U-110 allowed scientists at the British government’s Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park to read German signal traffic in a timely manner. On Feb. 1, the Germans made two crucial changes to their U-boat cipher and encryption systems for the North Atlantic. The previous German Enigma coding machine operated with three alpha-numeric “rotors”—like the rotors of a slot machine—that were set each day from code books issued for the period of the operational cruise. Once this was done, pressing a letter or number key at the front of the machine, which was set up like a typewriter, illuminated a character on a panel at the back of the machine. On any given day the letter “a”, for example, might appear as any other letter in the alphabet. In this way a text message (like a sighting report) was encrypted into four-letter signal groups for transmission.

The new M-4 cipher machine, introduced on Feb. 1, added a fourth rotor, increasing the complexity of decoding the intercepted signal. This was done by massive analog computers at Bletchley Park called ‘bombs.’ In theory, the number of possible combinations of settings on the Enigma machine was in the millions. The key to reducing the number of ‘runs’ necessary to crack the settings for the day had been using German weather signals as a crib. These followed a standard pattern and dealt with predictable information. Once the weather signal was cracked, the settings for the day allowed the rest of the signals to be read. When it worked, the Allies read German signal traffic almost as fast as they did themselves. Unfortunately, on Feb. 1 the Germans also introduced a new weather signal, and an 11-month gap in the ability of Bletchley Park to read U-boat signal traffic followed.

The M4 German naval Enigma machine was introduced on Atlantic U-boats in February 1942. [PHOTO: BLETCHLEY PARK]

The M4 German naval Enigma machine was introduced on Atlantic U-boats in February 1942.
PHOTO: BLETCHLEY PARK

As we will see, the gap in special intelligence on U-boat operations had little real impact on the campaign off the U.S. east coast, where “flaming datum” provided ample evidence of just where the U-boats were. Moreover, the less spectacular but equally important Y service which involved the tracking of U-boat positions by their transmissions through HF/DF (High Frequency Radio Direction Finding) stations, and general traffic analysis kept the Allies well aware of how many U-boats were at sea and generally where they were. But by the first week of February, the location of U-boats in the North Atlantic was imprecise, and SC 67 stumbled upon a group of them.

The U-boat pack had actually been stationed much further east, watching for an Allied invasion of Norway, when it ran into the westbound convoy ON 63 on Feb. 4. Three U-boats, U-136, U-213 and U-591 were tasked to pursue, which carried them into the broad North Atlantic. By the time they gave up on ON 63 on Feb. 10, only U-136 commanded by Kapitainleutant Heinrich Zimmermann had attacked, sinking the British corvette Arbutus. On that day, U-591 sighted SC 67.

The senior officer of N15 was Lieutenant-Commander H.G. “Bert” Shadforth, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, a West Coast marine pilot prior to the war. Joe Marston who, as a sub-lieutenant, served as navigating officer on Spikenard until just before her fateful voyage, later described Shadforth as “a most popular officer, highly regarded by both his subordinates and his superiors. His sense of humour was legend….” Among Spikenard’s other officers was a young architect, Lieutenant Charles C. Fawcett, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. The scion of a prominent Sackville, N.B., family, Fawcett had worked with William J. Roué, designer of the famous Bluenose. He had designed and built half a dozen fast sailing dinghies and yachts—and narrowly survived two airplane crashes—by the time he joined Canadian Vickers in Montreal in 1935. Fawcett embodied the skill and promise which the young officers of the RCNVR brought to the navy at this stage of the war.

On the night of Feb. 10-11, 1942, Spikenard and N15 were just hours away from relief by St. Alban’s group. They had been beset by fog and battered by storms and high seas, but had not encountered U-boats. Shadforth had N15 deployed around convoy SC 67 to ward off attacks from two directions. The starboard (southern) side of his escort was weighted forward, probably to detect U-boats coming in from ahead and just to the side of the convoy, where they could fire at a veritable wall of overlapping targets. Spikenard was zigzagging directly ahead of the starboard column, Louisburg was 2,000 yards to starboard of the first ship in the starboard column, and Dauphin—a mile astern of the last ship in the starboard column—was watching the rear. On the port side, Shadforth weighted his defence to the rear, probably the darkest portion of the sky and a good background for U-boats making an approach. Chilliwack was in station abreast of the lead ship in the port column, Shediac was off the port quarter of the last ship in the port column and according to Fraser McKee and Robert Darlington in their book The Canadian Navy Chronicle, “Lethbridge was further astern and to port of Shediac,” which would have made her an outer barrier, assuming her radar was working.

In fact, the state of N15’s radar is largely unknown, except that Spikenard’s—the Canadian-designed and -built SW1C metric wavelength radar at the top of her mast—was known to be not working. The SW1C was a good set when it worked, and better than its British counterpart the type 286. But the SW1C was fickle and its hasty design meant it was not easy to fix at sea: even simple faults required a complete tear down of the set.

The importance of Shadforth’s dispositions lay not so much in whether they prevented or deterred attack, indeed in the event his dispositions were excellent, but in the remoteness of the tiny escort vessels from each other. The virtually simultaneous attack by both U-591 and U-136 late on Feb. 10 sowed some confusion among the escort, and Spikenard’s disappearance went unknown for at least six hours.

At roughly 2230 (10:30 p.m.), in the inky darkness of a North Atlantic winter night, U-136 fired two torpedoes and U-591 fired three from positions on the starboard bow of the convoy, just where Shadforth had weighted his screen on that side. According to Allied accounts, the first torpedo hit the Norwegian steamer Heina, the lead ship in the starboard column. Seconds later Spikenard went to action stations, just as she was struck forward of the bridge on the port side by a torpedo from U-136. The two explosions had been mere seconds apart: close enough to assume it was two hits on a single target.

Heina burst into flames and fell out of station, while the shattered Spikenard drifted off alone into the dark. Her fore-ends and bridge were destroyed by the torpedo. No signals were sent to the other ships and she sank in less than five minutes: gone before anyone knew what had happened. Just how many men got away will never be known. Since action stations had just been sounded, it is assumed that some men managed to spill out of the forward messdecks before the torpedo hit, and some may have been blown clear. Others certainly died in the water when Spikenard’s boilers or depth charges exploded as she sank. We do know that most of the life-saving equipment, including the ship’s boats, was wrecked by the blast and brief fire. “It is of vital importance,” McKee and Darlington write, “that both torpedoes struck within seconds of each other and that it was the senior officer’s ship that disappeared.” Although some in the convoy and among its escorts heard two explosions, the fire from Heina drew their attention. Silence from Shadforth was worrisome, but everyone knew what they had to do and they got on with it.

HMCS Chilliwack was among six corvettes assigned to SC 67. [PHOTO:  LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105915]

HMCS Chilliwack was among six corvettes assigned to SC 67.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105915

Indeed, the remaining escorts responded as best they could. The closest corvette, Louisburg, reacted to a torpedo track passing close by, gained an asdic contact and attacked it for the next hour and a half. Dauphin, astern of the starboard column, picked up survivors from Heina. This was a natural instinct, but not her task: rescue work was the duty of the last merchant ship in the column. Miles away on the port side, Chilliwack chased shadows and illusive contacts. Meanwhile, Shediac moved quickly to the starboard side of the convoy and eventually screened Dauphin in her rescue work. As Chilliwack and Shediac moved off their stations on the port side, Lethbridge came forward and provided SC 67’s only screen on that side. Through the night Spikenard failed to answer hails by radio, but at the time it could be assumed she was drawn away in pursuit of a U-boat or have radio failure: those things happened.

Eventually, Lt.-Cmdr. R.A.S. McNeil, RCNR, the commanding officer of Dauphin, assumed control of the group. At dawn on Feb. 11, he enquired how many ships were missing. The reply was one. That news, coupled with the inability to raise Spikenard by radio, soon raised suspicion that the second explosion must have been a hit on Shadforth’s ship. When St. Albans’s group joined that morning, the corvette Gentian was dispatched to search astern of the convoy. Nineteen hours after the incident one of Spikenard’s carley floats with eight men aboard was found: all that remained of her crew. No officers were among them.

The subsequent board of enquiry into the loss of Spikenard found no fault with the conduct of the remaining corvettes of N15 following the explosions at 2230 hours on the 10th. Standing orders called for action against the enemy in the event of an attack and N15 did that. Radio, especially radio telephone, was still a novelty and escorts were discouraged from using it freely because it could be detected. Early radars were also fickle things. Night, distance and weather all played a crucial role in the tardy determination that Spikenard was missing. Testimony from survivors also suggests that little more could have been accomplished had N15 responded promptly to Spikenard’s distress. The torpedo struck where most of the crew was concentrated, and did so with devastating results. Gasoline stored on the upper decks ignited and burned one of her boats and the other was destroyed when the ship sank. The secondary explosion of boilers or depth charges would have killed men in the water nearby. By all accounts only 10 men got away on a carley float, a racetrack-shaped emergency raft that still left survivors partially in the water. Two died during the night of hypothermia, leaving the eight for Gentian to recover. Fifty-seven officers and men perished.

As a result of this experience the RCN finally abandoned the idea that the corvette’s small boats provided its primary life-saving equipment. It adopted the larger merchant service self-launching life raft, which had a wooden frame and deck built over 45 gallon drums. It kept men out of the water, safe from both hypothermia and boiler and depth charge explosions, and with luck they kept survivors alive until rescue came.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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