Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy
Battle of the Atlantic Pt 2.
The Battle of the Atlantic was near its peak in the winter and spring of 1941/42. The Allies were beginning to bring on more ships and better equipment; the Germans had perfected the “wolfpack” technique of coordinated attacks on convoys by groups of U-boats.
The tactical use of Asdic was being refined, and beginning to show results in terms of the number of U-boats attacked and sunk. But the numbers were still ugly – one U-boat sunk for every 10 merchant ships and only 2 merchant ships lost for every one built.
In September 1941, 53 merchant ships – over 200,000 tons - were sunk by U-boats.
Convoy SC 42 sailed from Sydney, Nova Scotia on August 30 1941. Comprised of 64 merchant ships in ragged lines covering about 25 square miles of ocean, the convoy headed northeast past Cape Race and towards Cape Farewell at the south tip of Greenland. The “SC” prefix meant that these cargo ships were slow, capable of speeds between 6 and 9 knots. Faster ships, able to make 9 to 15 knots, sailed in convoys with the prefix “HX”.
Rounding Cape Farewell, escort duty changed to the Newfoundland Group, and the destroyer Skeena and three corvettes (Orillia, Kenogami and Alberni) took over. Four small ships armed with very basic detection gear, a limited number of depth charges and a lot of guts would be responsible for the convoy until reaching the Mid-Atlantic meeting point, south of Iceland. From there, a new escort group would take the convoy into the Western Approaches.
7 days out and the convoy was running (make that crawling) up the Greenland coastline. Wolfpack Gruppe Markgraf, consisting of 14 boats, had been positioned in the area since August 28. Atlantic Command was aware of the pack from the heavy concentration of wireless signals, and had diverted SC-42 to the north in an effort to avoid detection. It didn’t work.
At 9:37 pm on September 9, a ship on the port side of the convoy, the Muneric, was torpedoed by U-432 and sank quickly. Kenogami gave chase but was soon called back because another U-boat had been sighted.
At 9:40 empire springbuck was torpedoed (U-81), and then just before midnight, the Baron Pentland was hit followed minutes later by a hit on the tanker Tachee (both by U-652). Machine guns on civilian and navy ships alike blazed away at real or imaginary targets as everyone felt the need to do something about those damn torpedoes. At 2:10 am the Winterswijk was hit, then the Stargaard (both by U-432) and the Sally Maersk (U-81). All three sank. Just after 5 am, it was the Empire Hudson’s turn (U-82).
As daylight came, the four escorts were looking for survivors from the night’s sinkings, rounding up stragglers and having a go at asdic targets in their spare time. Wolfpacks generally preferred to attack at night, when they could run in on the surface at high speed and attack from inside the convoy lines before diving to make their escape. But that didn’t always mean that daylight brought safety…
Sure enough, at 11:43 am, the cargo ship Thistleglen was hit (U-85). Loaded with steel and iron, she sank like the proverbial rock.
Long range Catalina flying boats helped to keep the wolfpack at bay for the rest of the day (September 10/41). One of the escort corvettes (Orillia) was off towing the tanker Tachee towards Iceland, but as evening fell things began to heat up again. At 8:57 pm the Bulysses was sunk, followed twenty minutes later by the Gypsum Queen (both by U-82). The escort was now reinforced by the RCN corvettes Chambly and Moose Jaw, which had been out on a training mission, and now pressed into urgent duty.
Almost immediately, Chambly got an asdic contact and ran in to drop depth charges. As she circled to drop a second pattern, U-501 surfaced just off Moose Jaw’s port bow. The U-boat stopped and her crew poured out of the conning tower onto the main deck. Moose Jaw came alongside, and the U-boat’s skipper leapt aboard followed by some of his crew. Some of his crew were not impressed with his lack of fighting spirit, and the U-boat quickly got under way again.
Moose Jaw opened fire and then rammed. U-501 stopped again, and a boarding party from Chambly forced its way into the conning tower. Unfortunately, the boat was sinking fast and there was no chance to save this valuable prize. The two Canadian corvettes saved all but eleven of the U-boat’s crew and rejoined the convoy.
At quarter to one in the morning, Stonepool was torpedoed and sunk, followed a few minutes later by Berury (both by U-207). Later that night, Scania and Empire Crossbill were sunk (both by U-82) and then Garm (U-432).
The escorts did what they could in the face very long odds. By noon on September 13, laden with survivors, short of depth charges and fuel, and exhausted by the last few days’ entertainment, the sight of the Iceland-based escort group must have been very welcome.
The Canadians could now head home to rearm and refuel before doing it all again in 24 hours or less.
Gruppe Markgraf continued to shadow Convoy SC-42 until September 14, when the operation was called off due to continued bad weather and poor visibility. A chance encounter meant the end for the freighter Jedmoor, sunk by U-98 on September 16 near the Hebrides. 16 ships out of the original 64 didn’t make it.
This particular story was not unusual – it was a way of life for Royal Canadian Navy and Merchant Marine sailors alike – and it continued through 1941 and into 1942. The tide began to turn in 1942 and ’43, as the U-boat threat was blunted by stronger escorts and the declining strength of the U-boat fleet.
Canada contributed men, equipment, and fighting spirit from the earliest days of the war until the bitter end. For sailors, an important part of that contribution came from two remarkable types of ship, built in Canadian shipyards coast to coast.
Next month - more about the Flower class corvettes and the North Sands type freighters.
The Far Distant Ships, Joseph Schull, Queen’s Printer, 1961
The War at Sea Volume 1, S.W. Roskill, HMSO, 1954