This is a real battle report of a World War II convoy. The copyright for this article remains with Mal. Wright
The battle for Convoy HG76 ((see the International Registry of Sunken Ships, Convoy Routes – WW1 & WW2 for details of the convoy numbering system for both World Wars)) from Gibraltar to the UK in the middle of December 1941 was overshadowed by momentous events taking place in the Pacific and Asia. But in the fighting during this passage, we can clearly see the beginning of tactics and measures for 1942, which would lead to the decisive convoy battles of mid-1943 and the ultimate defeat of the German U-Boats.
But at this dark time, convoys sailed in expectation of heavy loss. The loss of many warships of all categories was pushing the Royal Navy beyond tolerance. Merchant ship sinking’s were also reaching alarming proportions. The United States was now in the war, but its effect not yet felt. The availability of escorts had improved only slightly, as more and more new vessels entered service. This gave the opportunity for older ships to be modified in ways that increased their value as Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) ships, improved AA capability etc. There seemed as yet, no counter to the wolf pack tactics employed by the German U-Boats except lots more escorts but their availability would be still some time off.
Due to the proximity of occupied air bases in France, from which the Luftwaffe could locate them, the Germans were particularly savaging convoys between Gibraltar and England. French Atlantic ports from which the U boats could sortie were also close at hand for the ever-growing numbers of submarines being churned out by German shipyards. German surface attackers could also not be discounted.
When HG-76 sailed from Gibraltar three factors would make its passage particularly difficult. One was that German agents in Spain could see the assembly of convoys and report when they had left. This gave the Luftwaffe a good idea of where to look, after considering convoy speed and weather effects. The second factor was the Fw200 ‘Condor’ aircraft and others, operating from occupied France. In addition to picking off some ships themselves, the Condors were locating and reporting convoy positions, which enabled U-Boats to assemble for an attack. The third was the inevitable concentration of U-Boat boats that could be directed to a convoy to engage Wolfpack tactics, once it was located at sea.
Wolfpack tactics consisted of concentrating several submarines around a convoy. The first boat to make contact took up a shadow position and transmitted regular signals so that other U-Boats could home in on it. To do this the shadowing boat had to remain on the surface. If it dived, even a slow convoy would soon out run it, because the boats lacked sufficient battery power to maintain higher speeds below the surface. While on the surface it could also transmit its homing signal. Even when other boats came up, they would be forced to stay on the surface by day, unless they could get far enough ahead to dive and wait. If the convoy altered course, dived boats could miss it altogether. Therefore the heart of Wolf Pack tactics required one or more boats to keep visual contact, home the others in, and wait for night. Because submarines sit so low in the water, it was very difficult to see them from surface ships. A U-Boat could take up a position from which it could see the convoy on the horizon, and be relatively sure that it could not be seen in return. Even early radar did not change this much, because its range was quite short, and the ‘return’ from moving wave tops created so much clutter that a small distant target would remain invisible. Advantage therefore lay with the submarine as long as it could keep its distance.
After dark the German boats would attack on the surface. As other than perhaps a basic time, there could be little other co-ordination. The boats came in individually, but the presence of several of them was enough to keep the convoy escorts dashing about to drive them off. While engaged in this, an escort chasing one U-Boat might well leave a gap through which another could safely proceed to attack. After a few hours of attacks, a previously tight escort screen could become badly scattered.
Being low in the water when viewed from a surface ship, submarines had a huge advantage at night, even when on the surface. They saw the convoy and its escorts against the lighter night sky, but in reverse, they were always against the blackness of the night sea. This made them almost invisible to the naked eye until very close. Many passed within 500 yards or less, quite unseen. Cloaked in this invisibility U Boats ran in on the surface, using the higher speed of their diesel engines, in which situation they were faster than the merchant ships. In some cases they were faster on the surface, than some of the escort ships. But if forced to dive, this speed advantage was lost, because on their electric motors they would soon lose contact. Additionally ASDIC ((In 1916, under the British Board of Invention and Research, Canadian physicist Robert William Boyle took on the active sound detection project with A B Wood, producing a prototype for testing in mid-1917. This work, for the Anti-Submarine Division, was undertaken in utmost secrecy, and used quartz piezoelectric crystals to produce the world’s first practical underwater active sound detection apparatus. To maintain secrecy no mention of sound experimentation or quartz was made – the word used to describe the early work (‘supersonics’) was changed to ‘ASD’ics, and the quartz material ‘ASD’ivite. From this came the British acronym ASDIC. In 1939, in response to a question from the Oxford English Dictionary, the Admiralty made up the story that the letters stood for ‘Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee’, and this is still widely believed, though no committee bearing this name has ever been found in the Admiralty archives)), the main British detection device, could only locate them while dived. If U Boats were on the surface ASDIC was useless.
Early Radars did not help a lot. The wavelengths they operated on were not conducive to picking up small objects against the clutter of return from the sea itself. Additionally a submarine with the surface ships behind it would be lost in the radar returns from them, even if the escorts were close As equipment improved, more and more submarines were being picked up on radar. But that depended on if the escort even had radar in the first place. Many still did not. Contacts rarely took place over 4,000 yards. Some were missed entirely. Therefore in the period in which HG-76 sailed, radar was of some help, but not able to entirely solve the problem of detection of submarines at night.
Most of the early U-boat aces had achieved their kills by being able to slip into convoy ranks. Here they could pick off their targets more easily, then dive deep below the ships. Once dived, they allowed the convoy to pass overhead, thereby making their escape. Even while in the ranks of the convoy circumstances favoured them. Large propellers create lots of bubbles, which burst underwater, creating what is known as ‘cavitivity’. The noise of these bubbles made sound detection difficult. But in addition the disturbed water cause a wall effect for active sonar/ASDIC pulses to bounce off. The deeper the boat went under a convoy, the less this would effect the searchers, so U-Boat commanders knew to remain at a depth where the wall of disturbed water would help.
HG-76 had some things in its favour, which the Germans had not previously encountered. First was the presence of the little Escort Carrier HMS Audacity (Commander. D. W. McKendrick) This ship had been the German merchant prize M.V. Hannover. After a very basic conversion to an Escort Carrier she commissioned as Empire Audacity. The first ship of the type, to join the Battle of the Atlantic. Few aircraft were available to operate from such a small flight deck and she went to sea with three two plane sections of Martlet 1’s, designated Red, Yellow & Black flights respectively. On passage to Gibraltar the little auxiliary carrier had proved successful against the Fw200 Condors but suffered some losses herself. Her own AA armament was quite meagre and more along the lines of a merchant ship. A gun tub aft, and below deck level, contained a 4” gun for surface use. Along her sides were four 20mm AA guns.
Her Martlet aircraft were quite good fighters. These were certainly quite capable of handling Fw200 Condor’s. But the Mark 1 version could not carry bombs of any kind. This meant they were of limited use against submarines. But it was to their great advantage that U-Boat commanders did not know this It would be a daring captain indeed; who kept his boat on the surface in the hope the attacker had nothing serious to attack with. Therefore if a Martlet came diving at them firing its machine-guns, most enemy captains would take the safe option and dive to avoid bombs. Forcing them to dive was one of the very things required. Once down, they would be sure to lose contact with the convoy. They also had to proceed at their slower speed, and if an escort was available to follow up the sighting, the U-Boat could well be detected.
For the return voyage with HG-76 only four Martlet aircraft were still available. Some Swordfish of 812 Squadron ashore at Gibraltar due to the loss of the fleet carrier HMS Ark Royal were to be transferred to her. This proved impossible, as she did not have facilities to operate them. Actual surviving crew members of Ark Royal were aboard the Audacity when she sailed, but not the aircraft. These same Swordfish aircraft did fly in support of HG76 while it was in range of Gibraltar. As a result the Germans thought they were aboard. In addition the ship had now been renamed HMS Audacity.
The second and perhaps most important factor in favour of HG76 was the 36th Escort Group under the command of Commander F. J. Walker (RN). This officer had been an ASW expert between the wars, when this was an unfashionable branch of the service. He had been passed over for higher promotion and had spent the early part of the war in great frustration, watching the growing “Battle of the Atlantic”. This was the very type of warfare he had trained for, trained others in, and held strong ideas about. The defensive tactics then in use were quite against the ideas he held. Walker was an advocate of a more aggressive posture when dealing with U-boats. He advocated taking the attack to them, instead of waiting to be attacked. Despite memos and pleas, he had failed to convince his superiors that his radical ideas were the answer.
In March of 1941 after much pleading for a command, he was sent to sea. In September 1941 he was appointed to HMS Stork. This also made him the senior officer of the 36th Escort Group, which also comprised HMS Deptford a pre war sloop, and seven war built flower class corvettes. No action occurred during the passage to Gibraltar in severe weather conditions, which the convoy reached without loss. At Gibraltar his escort group was detailed to escort HG76, a convoy bound for the UK. Walker wanted the chance to use tactics he had been theorizing about for years. The Admiralty apparently expected him to obediently follow doctrine. He had other ideas and fate was about to give him the opportunity he had been waiting for.
Walker’s own ships comprised two sloops. Stork, and the older Deptford. He also had the Flower class Corvettes Rhododendron, Marigold, Convolvulus, Pentstemon, Gardenia, Samphire and Vetch. Off Gibraltar, the 36th EG formed up with HG76, and were reinforced by the arrival of Audacity. The Catapult Ship SS. Darwin was also with the convoy. This ship had only a single aircraft on its catapult and was to be reserved for emergencies as the pilot had to try to make it to land once launched, or failing that, ditch in the sea.
The destroyers Stanley, Blankney and Exmoor also joined and were placed under his command. Due to their shorter range, the latter two ships would only stay with him for a few days. Stanley was ex USS McCalla, one of the 50 WW1 vintage flush deck destroyers transferred from the US Navy the previous year. She had recently received a major refit that involved removing her forward boilers and two of the four funnels. The spare space was used to greatly increase her operating range, accommodation and improve sea keeping through reduced top weight and the addition of ballast. Her anti submarine equipment was also updated, the number of depth charges increased, and her meagre AA increased.
Blankney and Exmoor were units of the recently completed Hunt II type escort destroyers, with an excellent Heavy AA armament with which it was hoped to keep the Focke Wulf Condors at bay. Stork, although designed with low angle 4.7” guns in 1936 had been completed with a very similar AA armament to that of the Hunt Class vessels.
The Flower class corvettes were poor in AA defence and speed, but well armed for ASW work. Most had been recently completed, being part of a huge wartime program to provide more anti submarine escorts for merchant convoys. As such they were efficient U-Boat killers, inexpensive, and able to be built in large numbers.
While at Gibraltar they had learnt of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The US Navy was reeling from the sudden blow and would take time to recover. It seemed as if everything was going against the Allies at sea, with the loss or merchant ships having become critical. But Walker was about to step into the Bullring at last.
The convoy sailed on December 14th and consisted of 32 ships arranged in five columns. Convoys were always wider than they were long, to make submarine attack more difficult, and the work of escorts easier. Following the ideas he had fruitlessly been recommending to the Admiralty, Walker arranged his escorts in two screens, one close to the convoy and one further out. For the first time the U-boats would encounter a double layer of escorts through which they would have to penetrate. This was not without some risk to the convoy as both screens were consequently quite thin, although compared to some early convoys, this one had a strong escort.
Force H based on Gibraltar formed a ‘Hunter Group’ from its destroyers and sent them to sea first. It comprised of the British destroyers Gurkha, Foxhound, Croome, and the Australian Destroyer Nestor. They commenced sweeping the area ahead of the convoy, outside Gibraltar. This precaution paid off. Nestor sank U127 (Hansmann) with all hands, 35 miles off Cape St Vincent on December 15th. However the group could not assist any further than assisting the convoy to clear the immediate area of departure after which they turned back to rejoin Force H, which was in need of them. Warned of the departure by agents in Spain, Doenitz ordered the U-boat pack Seerauber (Pirate) to position itself for an attack.
HG76 remained unsighted until U131 (Korvettenkapitan Arend Baumann) fell in with it during the late afternoon of the 16th. He reported, then dived to let the convoy pass over him, intending to follow along behind and make reports. Due to hydrophone equipment failure he accidentally came to periscope depth in the middle of the convoy but after initially attempting an attack was forced to dive deep to avoid being rammed. He was apparently not spotted. U67 and U108 also attempted to approach the convoy but were forced to dive by aircraft and could not locate it.
Two Fw200 of 1-KG-40 from Bordeaux had also sighted the convoy in the failing light of the 16th and made a report. Although spotted in the distance by Stanley the other escorts did not see them. Fighter controllers on Audacity doubted the report, choosing not send Martlets to investigate. At this time U574 (Oberleutnant zur see Gegnalbach) and U434 (Kapitanleutnant Wolfgang Heyda) were off Spain, both on their first war cruise and headed to join U131.
Once astern U131 surfaced in darkness and made another sighting report. Heyda continued to make hourly reports to Lorient from where Doenitz directed four other U-boats to head to the area. Walker was well aware he had been spotted due to Admiralty warnings based on their radio intercepts. He request the Audacity provide dawn and dusk sweeps with her aircraft at a distance of about 20 miles around the convoy. It was the practice of U-boats to maintain contact at maximum visibility while calling others in. Although the seas were very choppy and there was quite a lot of cloud cover overhead, visibility was quite good at sea level. The weather would remain much the same for most of the voyage.
At 0900 on the 17th aircraft from Audacity reported the shadower was 22 miles off to the port of the convoy. Because of its entirely machine-gun armament, the fighter was unable to do more than scare U131 into a crash dive. Of course the U-boat commander did not know the fighter had no bombs and was not going to wait around to find out.
The Martlet then climbed high enough for a radar fix to be made on it, which established the exact location. This was the chance Walker had been waiting for to test his theory of “offensive” escort. Calling for Exmoor, Blankney, Stanley and Pentstemon to join him, he raced toward the contact in Stork. The good wishes of the Convoy commodore went with him in the form of the signal ‘Good Hunting’. This formed the idea for the ‘A Hunting We Shall Go’ theme song adopted by Walker’s later 2nd Support Group. By now U108 and U107 were also now in contact but had remained unsighted.
Meanwhile U131 had attempted to avoid further detection by aircraft, in moving closer to the convoy, and diving from time to time. But faulty hydrophones failed to warn of the approach of Pentstemon and Stanley, both of which gained contact. They heavily damaged the boat with depth charges. U131 went down to 600 feet and moved away at five knots in the hope of getting as much distance away from the attackers as possible because Chlorine Gas was slowly leaking into the boat and they would eventually have to surface. Following his ideas for hunting U-boats Walker put his escorts out into a search line and commenced the search. When U131 did pop up two hours later, Stanley immediately sighted it and Walker ordered his units to close and fire as soon as they were in range. In the meantime a Martlet (Sub Lt.Fletcher) of Black Flight dived on the submarine to strafe it but was shot down and killed. On this occasion the U-boat commander had little choice but to fight off the aircraft as he attempted to out-run the escorts. Persistent Chlorine gas prevented him diving. His need to proceed at full speed left a tell tale wake, making the boat easier to see from a distance, and some of his attackers had improved radar. Running fully surfaced, he was easier to detect than when laying low in the water to sneak into a convoy.
The Escorts commenced fire at 14,000 yards and after twenty minutes of shelling at rapidly closing ranges, the crew of U131 could be seen going over the side. Pentstemon and others picked up the survivors. Stork led the escorts back to the convoy, which they rejoined at 1730. Walker had made his first kill, using tactics of going out to meet the U-boats instead of waiting for them to attack. Even though Audacity was down to three Martlets high hopes were held for future co-operation between aircraft and escort vessels.
Despite information from U131 having ceased, and that boats now ominous silence, U434 still sighted the convoy just after midnight and immediately made a contact report, before taking over as the shadow vessel. U434 was ten miles from the convoy, running on the surface at dawn of the 18th when it fell foul of the unexpected outer escort screen in the form of Stanley. The destroyer turned to attack immediately, despite her ASDIC giving trouble and warned Walker. Deptford with Exmoor and Blankney were ordered to race to her aid.
Accurate depth charge patterns from Stanley and Blankney had dealt the U434 her deathblows before the other escorts could even arrive and she bobbed to the surface, with her crew tumbling out of the conning tower and into the water just in time. Within minutes the U-boat had rolled over and slipped beneath the waves. U434 crew joined the prisoner of war bag along with the men of U131. Walker was delighted to be able to signal the Admiralty that they had so far sunk two U-boats without loss to the convoy.
The same morning two Fw200 Condor aircraft attempted to close the convoy at 1130 but were spotted when still low on the horizon and were chased off by the fighters of Black Flight. The guns of both jammed, allowing the Germans a lucky escape. During the afternoon however, Exmoor and Blankney, reaching the end of their fuel endurance, were forced to turn back to Gibraltar. The latter took 45 prisoners with her as the fighters again carried out a sweep.
Not long after, in the gathering dusk, Pentstemon sighted a U-boat on the surface ten miles off the port side of the convoy. This was U107 (Gelhaus) who sent off a contact report at 1819. Walker ordered Convolvulus to join her sister ship in the hunt, but as it was getting very dark, he decided to keep Stork close to the convoy with the rest of the escorts. U-67 (Mueller-Stockheim) was closing the convoy at the same time and attempted to torpedo Convolvulus as she moved to obey her orders. The corvette was near missed, immediately counter attacked and drove U-67 off. The crew of U107 were thankful able to avoid detection.
Since making contact late on the 16th U574 had waited for a pack to assemble, but after witnessing the destruction of U131, dropped well astern. After dark on the 18th the boat closed to an attack position. At 0400 on the 19th U574 was closing the rear of the convoy when it sighted a destroyer, which had also seen the U-boat and was turning to attack. Stanley blew up in a sheet of flame when hit by torpedoes. It is likely that the forward magazine was detonated and it was expected there would be few survivors.
Although shocked by the loss, Walker, not knowing where the U-boat was, ordered the escorts to perform “Operation Buttercup”. This was a tactical idea of his own, that he had trained his group in. The escorts turned outward from the convoy, firing star shell and snowflake on every bearing the U-boat might use as an escape route. Shortly after Stork picked up a positive submarine echo. This was U574, which had been forced to dive due to the Buttercup tactic. An attack with a ten-charge pattern followed. Walker was still turning to attack again when U574 surfaced, badly damaged, but attempting to escape on the surface. After sweeping the decks of the unfortunate U-boat with gunfire, the Stork turned in and rammed her just forward of the conning tower. The escort continued on over the rolling U-boat and finished her off with a pattern set shallow. Some of the Germans were already in the water when these charges went off and did not survive, but five were later picked up. A search located 25 crew from the Stanley and these were also taken aboard.
While in the middle of her rescue operation Stork observed an explosion from within the convoy. This was the SS Ruckinge a ship of 2,869 (gross) tons. U108 (Schonder) had sneaked in and scored a kill. This was the first loss to the merchant ships of the convoy. Three U-boats had so far been sunk which was an amazing feat for that time of the war. In the Atlantic convoys were being decimated in night attacks, often without any loss to the U Boats Wolf packs seemed to be unstoppable and ship losses had reach frightening levels.
On the down side, Stanley had been sunk and Stork had damaged her ASDIC in the ramming of U574. The sloop had bent her bows so badly she could no longer steam at full speed. Audacity had however been lucky, with one torpedo narrowly missing her during the attack. During the same day the Luftwaffe attempted to re-establish contact with the convoy. In the morning a pair of Fw200 Condors approached, but Red Flight intercepted them. Sub Lieutenant Brown destroyed one in a daring head on attack. The other fled into the clouds chased by Sub Lt. Lamb and was not sighted again. During the afternoon another Fw200 was spotted by Stork, which passed on the information. Sub. Lt. Sleigh of Yellow Flight tried some stern attacks before changing to a head on, as Brown had done. This tactic downed the Condor, but in doing so the Martlet was damaged. Sleigh returned to the carrier with part of the Condors wireless aerial wrapped around his tail wheel.
At dusk an Audacity Martlet sighted a U-boat 15 miles to port. This was U107 (Gelhaus), which had been able to stay in touch with the convoy. Gelhaus took his boat down and although hunted by Deptford, Marigold & Convolvulus could not be located. This was fortunate for the Germans as U107 was directing the arrival of U108 (Scholtz), U71, U751, & U567 (Endrass), all of which were being homed in on HG76.
Kapitanleutnant Endrass, commander of U567 was a holder of the Knights Cross and one of the few remaining early aces. He was 1st Lt of U47 (Gunther Prien), when that boat penetrated Scapa Flow, famously sinking the Battleship Royal Oak. Doenitz placed great faith in him and signalled the closing U-boats that Endrass was on the way, hoping this would boost morale.
While returning to the convoy the escorts were mistaken for the enemy, and many of the Merchant ships fired snowflake rockets. The convoy up was lit up brilliantly in the darkness. No attacks developed despite this error, and in fact the next day, the 20th also passed with only one incident when Red Section Martlets attempted to catch a Condor. After a 55-mile stern chase they were forced to give up at let the speedy Fw200 go. During the same afternoon another Martlet sighted two U-boats ahead, but the alerted HG76 altered course, thereby avoiding any contact with them.
December 21st also passed without attacks for most of the daylight hours, but several U-boats were sighted. Two were 25 miles astern, exchanging personnel across a plank when surprised by the ever-busy Sub Lt. Brown. He strafed them before they could dive, but without apparent damage. Walker detached four of his escorts, including Deptford to pursue the pair but they evaded further detection. At 1130 two other U-boats were sighted to port of the convoy. Marigold and Convolvulus were detached to pursue, again without any contact being made, but the U Boats were forced to dive. Shortly after another was sighted off the port bow shadowing the convoy from about 10 miles out. At 1500 yet another U-boat was sighted. The night of the 21st to 22nd was promising to be very dangerous.
HG76 was now turned onto a more direct course for the Western Approaches. The Germans obviously knew they were there, so it made little point to sail a longer, diversionary route. As HG76 had been followed for several days, it was hoped the radical course change after dark, might fool some of the gathering pack. At dusk Audacity went to her night procedure of zig zagging well clear of the convoy. Walker recommended the port side, as being the safest, but McKendrick preferred the starboard. He went off without escort as having had two escorts turn back, one sunk and one now damaged; the convoy could not spare a screen.
Walker took two escorts with him and staged a mock battle off the port rear side of the convoy hoping to repeat the success of the previous night. By the use of snowflake and star shell he hoped to trick the U-boats into hurrying to the wrong spot in the darkness. Unfortunately the merchant ships of the convoy believed this to be a real attack and commenced firing snowflake as well, which left them brightly lit up and spoiled the diversion Walker then raced back to rejoin but as he did the Annavore, of 3,324 dwt, rear ship of the centre column was hit. U567 had already closed for the attack and the Norwegian tanker exploded into flames.
Instead of sweeping astern for the attacker, Walker then made a tactical mistake by ordering another ‘Buttercup’ be carried out. HG76 merchant ships fired snowflake again, and Audacity was silhouetted against the bright flares. Ten miles out to starboard of the convoy, U751 (Korvettenkapitan Gerhard Bigalk) could not believe his luck. The small carrier was brightly silhouetted and he immediately torpedoed her. Audacity was hit aft just as her officers were completing their evening meal in the wardroom. Out of control the ship continued to steam in circles, badly down by the stern. Her 4” gun was aft and being awash could not be trained. McKendrick ordered engines stopped to avoid collision and the little carrier floated helpless in the darkness for twenty minutes. Anxious eyes scoured the darkness watching for another attack. There were high hopes the ship could be towed to safety. Escorts rushed to the area but before they could arrive, Audacity was finished off by U751. The U Boat came in so close she was fired on by one of the 20mm Oerlikon’s of the Carrier. Shortly after, two torpedoes, struck Audacity in the bow. She sank ten minutes later.
As escorts dashed about the site of the sinking, searching for survivors, the Deptford spotted a U-boat on the surface and fired star shell Stork raced in to help. A series of heavy depth charge attacks followed, which in turn brought on another underwater explosion. U567 (Kapitanleutnant Endrass) had been destroyed with all hands. Walker’s escorts were unsure of the kill, although oil was sighted. Tensions were running high, when shortly after, Deptford accidentally rammed the Stork at slow speed. Damage was not severe, but the ship’s brig was wrecked, killing two of five U-boat survivors locked in it.
U67 also attacked but missed her target; the CAM ship Darwin. The boat was forced to dive when illuminated by star shell. Her bad luck continued when an escort raced in to attack. Forty-one depth charges shook the helpless U-boat for the next two hours as Rhododendrum plastered her, with some extra help from Deptford. She was not able to surface until 0430, when it was found she was trailing oil. Machinery defects, forced her to withdraw well astern of the convoy.
By dawn of the 22nd of December 1941, HG76 had lost two of its merchant ships, the auxiliary carrier and one escort, but had sunk four submarines, a score, which up until that time was unheard of. Stork and Deptford were damaged, depth charges were running low and various other equipments such as radar sets had started to fail. The sinking of Audacity meant fighter cover had also been lost, along with early warning of U-boats on the surface nearby. Help was on the way for both sides, but the convoy position was starting to favour the British.
German boats U71 and U125 made contact, having being diverted from missions to the US East Coast But this was offset by reinforcements sent from Western Approaches. Vanquisher and Witch were V&W class destroyers converted to short-range Escorts. They soon joined the screen as welcome helpers. A Coastal Command Liberator, from Number 19 Group, patrolled around them for several hours during the day. At 1600 it reported two U-boats stopped on the surface 25 miles astern of the convoy. One was U67, which after assessing her damage, reported to U-Boat command in Lorient.
Now however HG76 was nearing the UK. In London the Admiralty decided there would have to be a re-think about tactics. Walker’s aggressive style had worked and communication with Western Approaches Command commenced before the convoy even reached port. Prime Minister Churchill was delighted that at last in these dark days, a convoy had forced the attacking U-boats into a one for one, swap. As far as the merchantmen and their valuable cargoes were concerned it was a two for one swap in British favour.
During the night, a very heavy sea hit the SS Ogmore Castle. The crew panicked, convinced they had either rammed a submarine or being damaged and abandoned ship. The highly embarrassed men went back on board and the ship resumed its place in the convoy just before dawn, after the Corvette Convolvulus found the merchant ship quite undamaged. After days of strain and tension, the merchant sailors were near breaking point.
From dawn of the 23rd U751, U125 and U71 attempted to penetrate the escort screen but were driven off by the alert and determined escorts. During this action U751 was badly shaken and barely managed to elude the destroyers Vetch, Vanquisher and Witch. Coastal Command was now maintaining heavy air patrols as the range from UK airfields steadily diminished.
Seeing the struggle coming to an end German U-Boat command in Lorient, ordered the damaged U67 home at 0921. They then went on to direct the remaining U-boats elsewhere. It was time to seek out easier targets, as the struggle around convoy HG-76 had proved far too costly.
By the afternoon the convoy was safely in the control zone of Western Approaches and the Commodore signalled to Stork, “Despite the loss of Audacity and Stanley, you have won a great victory. On behalf of the convoy deepest congratulations and many thanks.” The victory was a great Christmas present for the morale of all crews embroiled in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Walker’s report on the proceedings of the convoy was anxiously awaited. On the 6th of January 1942 he attended a special meeting at the Admiralty with the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare during which his tactics were examined, his advice sought and his new approach considered. Until then his ideas of aggressive defence of a convoy had been quite at odds with Admiralty doctrine and practice. While a commander ashore he had been unable to convince his seniors of his ideas on how to tackled the U-Boat menace. As a commander at sea, in charge of an escort group, Walker had been able to prove his theories. They were listened too, taken note of, passed on, and became standard practice for escort groups.
Captain Walker would later go on to command the famous Second Support Group that sank a hefty score of U-boats as the Battle of the Atlantic swung against the Germans. The ships under his command always enjoyed a high priority for repair and refit. His signature tune “A hunting we will go” greeted him from shore on his return from successful sorties. Before his untimely death from natural causes on July 9th 1944, he had been present at the sinking of 25 U-Boats. The previously “passed over” officer was re-instated in the seniority list and had won the DSO four times. He was to have been made a Knight Commander of the Bath and promoted to flag rank after August 1944. Unfulfilled Admiralty plans for his future included command of a carrier group being prepared for deployment to the Far East.
© By Mal. Wright