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First Blood In The Atlantic: Navy, Part 24



From top: A view from HMCS Ottawa, 1940; officers and crew aboard HMCS Saguenay, Oct. 1940.

One of the great shortcomings of the German navy in World War I was that it lacked operating bases on the open Atlantic. The German army fixed that problem in 1940 in a matter of weeks. Bases in Norway became available in the spring, and by June Kriegsmarine personnel and equipment were arriving–hot on the heels of the Panzers–in French ports along the English Channel and Bay of Biscay coasts. While much of the focus of the wider war remained–for the time being–on big ships and the direct threat to Britain by German aerial and land forces, it was Axis submarines that eventually benefited most from the new strategic situation.

By early July, U-boats were operating from Bergen, Norway, and on the 5th the first U-boat base on the French coast, at Lorient, became operational. The next day, U-30–already notorious for sinking the liner Athenia on Sept. 3, 1939–arrived, an event that gave her another notable first. And so in a stroke of time, the operational capability of the German submarine fleet increased by 11 per cent, simply because the new bases gave it easy access to the Atlantic. By July, Italian submarines were probing the Atlantic west of Gibraltar, and in late summer a fleet of 26 Italian subs made Bordeaux their operating base. The establishment of Axis submarines along the Atlantic littoral started a new phase in the war at sea, one that would consume the bulk of the Royal Canadian Navy’s attention over the next four years. In the fall of 1940, action against those submarines provided the RCN with a number of notable ‘firsts’ in its short history.

The presence of German and Italian submarine bases in France presented Britain with an unprecedented crisis. It was already under heavy aerial attack which, had it succeeded, might have opened the way for an amphibious assault by the German army. The only ‘good’ news in September was the redirection of German air efforts away from the destruction of the Royal Air Force, as a prelude to invasion, to destruction of British cities. This change in strategy was an admission of failure by the Germans, and now only the collapse of British popular will to resist the enemy–a resistance that was itself hardened by the enemy bombardment–would pave the way for a German invasion.

Part of that general attack on Britain’s ability to fight was an all-out assault on the country’s merchant shipping. The idea was simple: cut Britain’s communications with the outside world and she would eventually have to surrender. And so as the immediate threat of invasion eased in the late summer, smaller warships were drawn north to form escorts for convoys that were under sustained attack by German naval and air forces. The RCN’s destroyers were among the first to be reassigned in the summer of 1940 to convoy escort duty.

In late 1940, escorts shepherded outbound convoys from British ports to about 17 degrees west, where the convoys dispersed and the ships proceeded independently to their destinations. The escort groups then picked up inbound convoys, which had been protected across the Atlantic by large warships to guard them against surface raiders, and brought them through the submarine danger zone into British harbours. It was not a perfect system. The escort groups were typically small, ad hoc, untrained for the duty and lacking essential equipment, like radar and radio telephones. Moreover, the Germans learned to attack convoys before the anti-submarine escort joined, when the targets were compact and the killing was easy.

Evidence of the new reach of U-boats into the broad Atlantic came in August and one of the early battles produced the first instance of a Canadian warship inflicting damage on an enemy vessel. The action occurred around convoy HX 60, after His Majesty’s Canadian Ship St. Laurent, under Commander H.S. Rayner, and the British destroyer Sandwich, joined the convoy at sea. By then U-52 had sunk two ships from the convoy, and three and a half hours after the escorts joined the U-boat torpedoed another ship in a submerged daylight attack. Sandwich and St. Laurent immediately obtained an asdic contact on the U-boat and over the next three hours they took turns directing each other over the target, conducting nine depth charge attacks. When no evidence of damage came to the surface and depth charges ran low, the escorts resumed their duty around the convoy. As it turned out, U-52 was heavily damaged and took four months to repair. This incident stands as the first successful engagement of the enemy at sea by the Canadian navy, and it was only revealed in the 2002 book No Higher Purpose: The Official Operational History of the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War.

The intensification of the aerial assault on Britain and the threat of invasion in September coincided with the attacks on Britain’s sea lanes. By late September, about a dozen U-boats were operating in the northwest approaches to Britain, including many of the great U-boat “aces” of the war. This small group of professional submariners exacted a punishing toll on Allied shipping over the next eight months. One of them, Gunther Prien, located HX 72 on Sept. 20 just as the ocean escort, HMS Jervis Bay, was leaving and before the anti-submarine escort joined. Five U-boats responded to Prien’s report. One of them, commanded by another U-boat ace, Otto Kretschmer, sank one ship and damaged two before the escort arrived: Prien finished off the damaged ships the next day. That night, Joachim Schepke, another legendary and fearless U-boat ace, slipped unseen into the convoy and sank seven ships, while Heinrich Bleichrodt’s U-48 sank two more. In all, 12 ships were lost from the 41-ship convoy.

Worse followed in early October when one of the new series of slow convoys originating from Sydney, N.S., the SC series, was nearly annihilated by a hunting U-boat wolf pack. The SC convoys were composed of ships too slow and sometimes too unreliable to travel in the HX series. Their vulnerability was savagely exposed on the night of Oct. 17, when six U-boats attacked SC 7, sinking 15 of the convoy’s 34 ships. The tiny escort of three RN warships was overwhelmed. The U-boats then turned their attention to HX 79, sinking 12 more ships–only stopping because the wolf pack had exhausted its torpedoes. In these circumstances every Allied escort was worth its weight in gold, but it was also difficult and dangerous work–as the RCN found out in the fall of 1940.

The first RCN warship to succumb to the perils of this new warfare was HMCS Margaree, Fraser’s replacement. She had commissioned in London at the start of the Blitz in September and, following workups at Londonderry, Northern Ireland, sailed on Oct. 20 as escort for a small outbound convoy, OL 8, while en route to Canada for further repairs. The five-ship convoy was disposed in two columns, Port Fairy and Jamaica Planter on the port side and the other three vessels in column to starboard. The speed of the convoy, at over 14 knots, was comparatively fast and for that reason OL 8 did not zig-zag. On the evening of Oct. 21, Margaree was 1½ miles ahead of the convoy’s port column and the weather had started to deteriorate. By midnight Margaree and the convoy had lost track of each other. Then, at 1 a.m. on the 22nd, Margaree suddenly appeared crossing Port Fairy’s bow, much too close for the ship to avoid her. In an almost repeat of Fraser’s loss, Port Fairy’s bow sliced through Margaree just under the bridge, severing the forward section of the ship. On this occasion, however, the whole bow and bridge portion of Margaree sank almost immediately, taking virtually everyone who was off watch in the forward messdecks or standing watch on the bridge down with it.

When Lieutenant Bill Landymore, who was off duty in the wardroom, came forward he heard only the whistling of the wind and the slam of the sea against Margaree’s hull. “There was no noise at all,” he later reported. “No shouts even in the after part. Not even the sound of escaping steam.” Others recalled the grinding of steel on steel, as what was left of Margaree rubbed against the towering sides of Port Fairy. Sub-Lieutenant Bob Timbrell and Able Seaman H.V. Holman had the good sense to scramble aft and set the depth charges to safe. Meanwhile, a quick look around revealed there was no wounded to tend to. All the casualties were in the now sunken forward half of the ship: 142 officers and men swallowed by the sea in an instant. Only six officers and 28 ratings survived the collision. Thirty-two of them scrambled safely up the side of Port Fairy, the two others slipped from the ropes and were crushed between the vessels. By dawn, the stern of Margaree was still afloat, despite attempts by Port Fairy’s little four-inch gun to sink it. The wreck was last seen adrift and sinking slowly by the stern.

Since no one survived from Margaree’s bridge, the Board of Enquiry was unable to determine the cause of her loss. The most likely scenario is that in the poor visibility she drifted slightly north, to the head of the starboard column of OL 8. According to this theory, when Margaree’s bridge personnel regained visual contact with the convoy at 1 a.m.–at very close range–they assumed they were still ahead of the port column. To get clear they took avoiding action to port, which immediately put the destroyer right across Port Fairy’s bow.

Other theories speculate on compass failure and navigation error contributing to the tragedy, but we will never know. The loss of 142 men was compounded by the fact that 86 of them were survivors of Fraser’s mishap (Dispatching The Destroyers, July/August). As author Fraser McKee wrote, “The loss of two destroyers by collision in four months was a bitter blow to the Canadian Navy and the large loss of lives was a shock to all at home.”

Fortunately, the RCN’s luck was about to change. In the first week of November Saguenay, Skeena, Ottawa and several British destroyers sailed to escort the troop convoy WS 4 bound for the Middle East. On the 4th, Saguenay, Skeena and a British destroyer detached to pick-up HX 83 and bring it in, while Ottawa and Harvester set off to find SC 9 which was about a day’s steaming away. Halfway to SC 9, Ottawa and Harvester were redirected to support OG 45, which was being shadowed by an Italian submarine. After being sent in several different directions in pursuit of submarine sightings, on Nov. 6 the destroyers were approaching the steamers Melrose Abbey and Gratbratten, ships from OG 45 which had scattered in the face of the submarine threat, when one of them signalled that it was under attack. By the time Ottawa and Harvester arrived, Melrose Abbey was engaged in a gunnery duel with a surfaced submarine. Ottawa joined in at a range of 5½ miles, followed shortly afterwards by Harvester.

The destroyers’ gunfire quickly drove the sub down and the two hunted the attacker for nearly six hours without luck. They then moved to a position which Harvester’s captain estimated the sub had gone. Ottawa quickly got a contact with her asdic and another six-hour hunt began, with the destroyers taking turns attacking the target. Finally, as the RCN official history records, “at 0046 hours” on Nov. 7, the asdic operators report that the sub “disappeared with grinding squeaks.” Searches the next morning revealed a large patch of oil, but attempts to regain contact–made up until 3 p.m. on the 7th–failed.

Ottawa’s captain, Cmdr. E.R. Mainguy, blamed himself and his ship’s lack of training for what he believed was a botched hunt. “Ottawa has never exercised with one of our submarines,” he wrote. “However, I do not wish to make excuses.” His commanding officer in Liverpool assessed the action a success and considered the submarine sunk, but the Admiralty–cautious in the extreme and generally right–disagreed: there was no conclusive proof that the sub was destroyed. Forty-two years later, following a major reassessment of all U-boat sinkings by British official historians, Ottawa and Harvester were given credit for sinking the Italian submarine Faá Di Bruno. She earned the distinction of being the first enemy warship sunk in action by the RCN.

Curiously, it was also the Italian navy that figured in the first major damage inflicted on a Canadian warship by an enemy warship. At 4 a.m. on Dec. 1, 1940, while escorting convoy HG 47, HMCS Saguenay was struck by a torpedo fired by the Italian submarine Argo. The explosion severed 30 feet of the ship’s bow. Argo was sighted shortly afterwards just 800 yards away, and the destroyer’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Gus Miles, leapt from the bridge to “B” gun to direct fire on the sub. The first two rounds straddled Argo as it dived. This prompt action saved Saguenay and prevented further attacks on the convoy. However, Saguenay was an easy target for a second torpedo. The initial explosion ignited her paint locker, and the fire was so intense that it drove firefighting parties out of the shattered forward section. By 4:50 a.m., Miles feared he would have to abandon ship. At 7 a.m., His Majesty’s Ship Highlander reported Saguenay “still floating comfortably, although she was burning fiercely forward: the fires however seemed to be under control.”

Miles transferred all non-essential personnel–90 officers and men–to Highlander, and by early afternoon was able to get the doors opened to the fire-blackened bow. The ship’s engineering officer, Lieutenant H.H. Wright–a mining engineer in civilian life–shored Saguenay’s bows with timber until she resembled, in Miles’ words, “the biggest gold mine in the world.” With the fire out and the fore-ends secure, Miles shaped course for home. Two tugs met Saguenay on Dec. 2, just before some of the tangled wreckage of her bows fell away, allowing the destroyer to ride higher and make a respectable six knots. Miles dismissed one tug and only relied on the other when his ship reached the North Channel where she was struck by a gale on her final leg to Barrow-in-Furness on Dec. 4. She arrived safely the next day.

Because the torpedo struck just as the watches were changing, only 21 men died in Saguenay’s bow. This was actually higher than it might have been since Saguenay was carrying extra personnel under training in her forward messdecks. Miles was given a mild rebuke for steaming too slow in a dangerous situation, and for not having his firefighting training and equipment up to snuff. But these criticisms were offset by praise for the seamanship and skill evident in saving the ship. As the Board of Enquiry concluded, “the steaming of this ship safely back to harbour, in the condition in which we saw her, represents a very considerable feat of seamanship and endurance, and it is one that reflects great credit on her Captain, Officers and Ships’ company.” Miles was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his action.

And so, as unlikely as it may seem, the RCN’s first serious battles with the enemy at sea took place against the Italian navy. Significantly, however, these were against submarines and it was in this often tedious, but highly volatile world of North Atlantic convoy battles that the RCN would find its niche over the next four years.

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