A Night Of Furious Action

March 24, 2014 by Marc Milner

Sackville’s Remarkable Battles Against The Wolf Pack

 

The first phase of the battle for convoy ON 115 was won by the Royal Canadian Navy. For days the convoy brushed its way past U-boats, and from July 29 to Aug. 1, 1942, it was shadowed by six enemy subs.

Escort group C3 did its job. No ships were lost, and best of all, U-588 was sunk in a skilful hunt. In the early hours of Aug. 1, the U-boats that had not been driven off lost contact. Now only 500 miles from Newfoundland, ON 115 should have been in the clear.

It was not.

A painting by John M. Horton depicts HMCS Sackville on North Atlantic convoy duty. [ILLUSTRATION: JOHN M. HORTON, BEAVERBROOK COLLECTION OF WAR ART/CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—19840654-001]

A painting by John M. Horton depicts HMCS Sackville on North Atlantic convoy duty.
ILLUSTRATION: JOHN M. HORTON, BEAVERBROOK COLLECTION OF WAR ART/CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—19840654-001

With plenty of “sea room” to the west, Admiral Karl Dönitz—in the early hours of Aug. 1—formed a patrol line, called Pirat, directly across ON 115’s path. The next day, contact was re-established and the battle for ON 115 began again.

By then the escort force was much reduced. Its senior officer, Acting Commander D.C. Wallace, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR), used his destroyers aggressively during the crossing to run down MF/DF beacons from the shadowing U-boats. That kept enemy subs at bay, but it also exhausted his destroyers’ fuel.

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Skeena went straight into St. John’s after the sinking of U-588. Upon arrival, she had barely 10 per cent of her fuel. The Canadian destroyer Saguenay departed for port just a few hours later, and the corvette Wetaskiwin never did relocate ON 115. She made her own way to Newfoundland. Agassiz, another Canadian corvette, and the British destroyers Hamilton (with a largely Canadian crew) and Witch were dispatched to help, while Royal Canadian Air Force and United States Navy aircraft tried in vain to find and assist ON 115 on Aug. 1 and 2.

It was fortunate, therefore, for ON 115 and its three remaining Canadian corvettes, Galt, Louisbourg and Sackville, that their greatest moment of vulnerability coincided with a temporary gap in U-boat contact.

The reinforcements and the U-boats arrived at about the same time on Aug. 2. Agassiz joined around noon and by early afternoon she and Galt were chasing a U-boat off the convoy’s port quarter. About the same time the convoy altered course to meet Witch and Hamilton. Both came in sight around 5:50 p.m. Within an hour, both were hunting a U-boat.

Meanwhile, Sackville drove off a U-boat in a short chase. By dusk the senior officer, Lieutenant-Commander C.H. Holmes of HMS Witch, had his six escorts re-assembled around ON 115, ready for the night’s action. The scratch team had done well: at least three, and possibly four U-boats in Group Pirat lost contact before dusk. Unfortunately, the enterprising Erik Topp was not one of them.

Shortly after midnight, Topp, in U-552, penetrated the escort screen and torpedoed the tanker GS Walden. The attack turned the night into a shower of illumination flares and stars shells which allowed the crew of the convoy commodore’s ship, Pacific Pioneer, to see U-552 clearly as she made her escape. That was entirely the point of the illumination tactic called Operation Raspberry, which also called for a prescribed search pattern by the escort. However, the pyrotechnics also alerted other U-boats to ON 115’s location. As a result, U-553 was able to torpedo the SS Belgian Soldier, a freighter which stayed afloat. While this was happening, the starboard wing of the convoy executed an emergency turn to starboard, effectively splitting ON 115, adding to the confusion. What followed was a night of furious action.

Lieutenant-Commander Alan H. Easton, while in command of HMCS Matane, January 1944. Easton was commanding officer of HMCS Sackville from April 1942 to April 1943. [PHOTO: LIEUTENANT GILBERT A. MILNE, DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA206442]

Lieutenant-Commander Alan H. Easton, while in command of HMCS Matane, January 1944. Easton was commanding officer of HMCS Sackville from April 1942 to April 1943.
PHOTO: LIEUTENANT GILBERT A. MILNE, DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA206442

Operation Raspberry produced no contacts and as Sackville headed back to her screening station she came upon Witch and Agassiz rescuing survivors from the GS Walden. Lieutenant Alan Easton, RCNR, decided to screen the rescue effort and was rewarded for his thoughtfulness 40 minutes later by a contact on Sackville’s SW1C radar set. The target was U-43, and it marked the start of one of the most remarkable episodes in the story of the little escort that is now Canada’s National Naval Memorial.

In what is one of the classic memoirs of the Atlantic war, titled 50 North, Easton recorded what happened during those next few hours. A British merchant marine officer prior to the war, Easton had a professional sailor’s interest in the Atlantic campaign. He was also a keen observer and a gifted writer. Seven of the chapters in 50 North dealt with his time in command of Sackville, the first of these chapters is entitled The Queen, which says a great deal about his attachment to the ship. Two chapters, Close Quarters and The Derelict, deal with the battle for ON 115 and they are compelling reading.

Easton learned of U-43’s presence when he overheard his navigator acknowledge the radar operator reporting something 40 degrees off the starboard bow: “Radar contact red four-oh, mile and a quarter, sir.” Easton put Sackville onto an intercepting course and then along with the officers and lookouts on the bridge strained to catch a glimpse of the target. As the radar reports came in Easton adjusted the corvette’s course until the First Lieutenant said quietly, “There it is! A bit to starboard… Submarine I think, sir.” Convinced he was looking at a trawler, Easton hesitated before realizing the First Lieutenant was right. There it was, laying square on.

“Full ahead!” Easton barked down the voice pipe to the engine room, followed immediately by “Fire, Number One.” The shriek from the warning whistle was followed instantly by a sharp bang from Sackville’s four-inch gun. Moments later a star shell burst behind U-43, barely 400 yards away.

U-43 was moving, “a short boiling wake in her stern,” and she had begun to dive. As the star shell faded, Easton was suddenly and temporarily blinded—he had forgotten to close his eyes when the gun fired. He passed control of the ship for the moment to the navigator who fired a ‘snowflake’ illumination rocket. In the glare, Easton was able to see again. Sackville was, as Easton hoped, on a collision course. The order “Stand by to ram!” was given, and the depth charge crews were told to “Set pattern A” for a shallow attack.

Sackville ran over the swirl of U-43’s dive just seconds after the conning tower disappeared—close enough for Easton to anticipate a collision. Nothing happened and so Easton ordered an immediate depth change attack.

Sailors on board HMCS Sackville, mid-ocean off the Azores. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

Sailors on board HMCS Sackville, mid-ocean off the Azores.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

Explosions from the depth charges followed, but Easton saw nothing from the bridge. “I was shaking badly and I felt rather weak and my mouth was dry. I wanted a smoke of my pipe. I had failed to ram him—even to hit him,” he confided in his memoir. After a few minutes Easton turned Sackville back to the spot of the U-boat’s dive to begin a deliberate hunt. Contact was established and five more charges dropped. “We thought it was a pretty accurate attack” he wrote, noting that the smell of diesel filled the air.

Easton was lining up Sackville for another attack when his torpedo officer (in charge of depth charges) reached the bridge. When Easton demanded to know why he was there and not at his station, the young officer told him in a breathless state, “Think we are wasting ammunition now.” When Easton looked puzzled, the torpedo officer said, “Didn’t you see it? Didn’t you see what happened after the first attack?” The first attack had blown the bow of U-43 to the surface a few feet astern of Sackville, exposing a full third of her hull at a 40 degree angle. “As she hung for an instant in this precarious position,” Easton wrote, “another depth charge which had been dropped over the stern rail exploded immediately beneath her and she disappeared in the huge column of water.”

“She’ll never surface again, sir” was the torpedo officer’s conclusion. Unable to re-establish asdic contact, Easton gave up the hunt.

By 1:30 a.m. Sackville was shrouded in heavy fog. “The air grew chilly and wet and the moon, as it rose higher, spread a gloom over the ship,” Easton recalled. He stood his crew down from action stations, which put the corvette in a second degree of readiness. This also allowed time for the SW1C radar to be switched off to cool the motor. He expected a quiet night, and Sackville was now moving slowly through the murk. Roughly 10 minutes later when the SW1C radar started up again the operatorcalled out that there seemed to be something close by, on “the ground wave, too close to get the direction.” Within minutes someone on the lower deck shouted, “Submarine on the port beam!” When Easton looked, there it was—perfectly still.

He ordered Sackville to full speed and put her helm over hard to port. The U-boat was so close that Sackville’s four-inch gun would not depress enough to hit it, but the heel of the ship under full helm might lay her over enough for the gun to bear. Easton ordered his First Lieutenant to “Shoot when you’re on.” The turn was agonizingly slow and as Sackville opened the distance in her turn the gun’s crew had difficulty seeing the sub. Easton admonished his gunnery officer to “Come on! Get her on!” as the crew cranked the four-inch gun around. Within 40 seconds the moment had passed. “Then there was a colossal sound of escaping air…and the U-boat went down like a stone… One moment she was there,” Easton opined, “fully buoyant. The next she was gone. She submerged so quickly that I could hardly believe my eyes…”

A 10-depth charge pattern on the likely spot of the crash dive produced nothing. The phantom U-boat had simply disappeared. Easton wrote that the sub likely surfaced only minutes earlier while Sackville’s radar was resting, and since the corvette was moving slowly it had been undetected on the U-boat’s hydrophone. He thought, at the time, that he would never be so close to a U-boat again. He was wrong.

A crew member of HMCS Sackville plays catch on the jetty at Greenock or Londonderry, 1942. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

A crew member of HMCS Sackville plays catch on the jetty at Greenock or Londonderry, 1942.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

Sackville resumed her ‘patrol’ in the fog around ON 115 and soon stumbled upon Agassiz towing the damaged tanker GS Walden. Easton decided to screen the two ships and in the process found the stricken freighter SS Belgian Soldier. A boarding party removed confidential books and a lone survivor, and then Sackville went back to her new escort duty. She was still screening Agassiz and GS Walden at lunchtime when Easton was invited into the wardroom to dine. He had just settled into his meal when the First Lieutenant reported through the wardroom voice pipe, “Hydrophone effect on the asdic, sir,” The asdic was often used in passive mode to detect engine noises, and it appears it had done so.

Before Easton reached the wardroom flat, action stations had been sounded. Easton had to fight his way through Sackville’s crew as they scurried to their stations. Both asdic and the radar ground wave suggested a target to starboard, so Easton swung Sackville in that direction. The corvette was soon “on a collision bearing with an invisible vessel who might be a friend.” Easton recalled that they would soon either ram or be rammed. With visibility less than 200 yards, Easton ordered the four-inch gun loaded with high explosives.

When U-552 was sighted she was dead ahead, running right to left at about eight knots, roughly 100 yards away. For the third time they were so close that the four-inch gun would not depress sufficiently to hit, but it might come to bear if Sackville turned in pursuit. So Easton ordered “Hard aport. Full ahead. Open Fire!”

As Sackville swung in her turn, Easton again admonished his ship to move faster: “Would the gun never fire!” As the seconds ticked away Sackville’s machine guns—twin .50 calibre on the bridge wings and two Lewis .303 in the after gun tub—hosed the sub with fire. Tracer rounds ricocheted in all directions as they bounced off the U-boat’s tough hull.

Finally, with Sackville fully heeled in her turn to port and the U-boat just 80 feet away, the four-inch gun discharged. The shell hit U-552’s conning tower at the base. “The high explosive shell burst,” Easton wrote, “ripping the near side of the conning tower out. I saw the pieces fly and then the yellow smoke of the projectile rising within.” A second four-inch round skimmed over the U-boat as she dove. Meanwhile, depth charges—and some say empty coke bottles from cases stored near the after gun tub—flew off Sackville’s stern. U-552 slipped beneath the waves and Easton never found her again, despite help from Agassiz. No wreckage appeared, but that might not be expected from a submarine that quickly filled with water following a direct hit, at point-blank range, from a four-inch shell.

By the early afternoon of Aug. 2, 1942, it appeared that Sackville had achieved the remarkable feat of killing two U-boats in just 12 hours. Time, however would reveal what happened to the U-boats.

  • aschwartz12

    I had the pleasure and honor of reading North Atlantic Run at it’s publication. Dr Milner is Canada’s greatest interpreter of the Battle of the Atlantic. This article again puts us all in the shoes of those who performed gallantly. Well said, Marc.

    Art Schwartz

  • Art Schievink

    Although I despise war I recognize our need to protect Canada’s sovereignty. This story has the potential to be made into a movie.
    Perhaps that would be a way for the Maritime Restoration Society to earn some income to further this and other projects.

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