Convoy Battles were as Important as El Alamein, Stalingrad or Guadalcanal

Seventy-five years ago saw what has often been lauded as the moment of victory for the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic. The key clashes were staged across April and May 1943, with convoy escorts battling a U-boat force encouraged by an impressive score in March – sinking 107 Allied ships in the month’s first 20 days – to believe it could yet secure supreme triumph for Germany.

As was so often the case in war, such an upswing in fortune could so easily become a downturn and signs of the German decline to come were there even in March. The month had closed amid dreadful weather, with only 15 enemy merchant vessels sent to the bottom by U-boats during its final 11 days. The submarine crews were tired, the boats battered and in need of repair, while fuel and torpedo stocks were depleted.

A U-boat hunts for a convoy in the vast N. Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

Yet the resilient U-boat force soon sent its submarines back into action, to become locked in battle with escort groups, trying to break through and attack merchant vessels.

The first of the pivotal fights came in early April with the assault on convoy HX-231, of 61 merchant vessels, a battle stretching across hundreds of miles of ocean. The cutting edge of the wolf pack was blunted above all by the determined actions of the B7 escort group, led by the Royal Navy’s formidable Commander Peter Gretton. Six merchant vessels were sunk, for no boats lost, but the overall performance of the German submarines had been timid, the U-boat force War Log blaming it on ‘the inexperience of young Commanding Officers.’

A British escort charges off to tackle a U-boat to prevent it from sinking merchant ships in convoy across the Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

In fact, morale was so fragile in the U-boat force that some submarine COs eagerly embraced any mechanical defect to report their vessels non-operational. Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief Grand Admiral Karl Donitz responded by threatening stiffer penalties for those he perceived to be shirkers.

The B7 group was also sent out to protect the 41-ship convoy ONS-5. The U-boats were ordered by their boss to wait for nightfall on 5 May and then to attack with vigour in order to ensure ‘there will be nothing of the convoy left’. This was far from being the case, with just 13 merchant vessels sunk, a poor return for five U-boats and their crews destroyed.

When the U-boats tried to score big again in late May, they failed utterly, with four submarines lost during attempts to attack convoy SC-130. All 37 of its precious merchant vessels – carrying fuel oil, explosives, lumber and grain among other things – were delivered safely to Liverpool.

By this time in the contest Allied escort groups & aircraft were clearly achieving a measure of superiority in the open ocean war that stacked the odds heavily against Germany’s submariners. In the first five months of 1943, Allied warships and aircraft sank 81 U-boats. With that rate of losses Donitz felt he had no choice but to admit wolf pack operations were no longer possible – at least not for the time being. He therefore issued an order for U-boats to withdraw from the North Atlantic on May 24.

The quality of Allied warships, not least their weapons and U-boat detecting equipment, had risen dramatically since German submarines had been able to wreak havoc on convoys (especially during 1940 – 1941). The senior leadership of the Allied escorts – the skill of junior officers too – was also greatly improved.

Gretton, along with other escort group commanders, including the equally lethally proficient Donald Macintyre and ‘Johnny’ Walker, were now getting into their stride. As they wielded their ships to great effect, long-range air patrols by Allied air forces bore down heavily on the enemy too, at times scoring a similarly devastating rate of kills.

An Allied aircraft attacks a U-boat as the struggle in the N. Atlantic continues during WW2. Photo: US Navy/NHHC.

Amid all the memorializing of the great victories on land at the end of 1942 and in the first half of 1943, the great turning of the tide against the Axis – via the British victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Sixth Army surrendering to the Russians at Stalingrad, the capture of 275,000 Italian and German troops in Tunisia and Americans triumphing at Guadalcanal – the significance of the convoy battles in the Atlantic of April and May 1943 can become forgotten. Such critical events in the turn of the tide at sea risk being lost amid the amorphous term Battle of the Atlantic.

Those laurels that were awarded to the warship captains who beat the U-boats came in the form of paper slips on which were written decryptions of coded signals conveying congratulations from senior commanders. In the aftermath of the fight to get ONS-5 through there was at least a message of thanks from Prime Minister Winston Churchill signaled to escorts.

One post-war admiral – a junior officer serving in destroyers during 1943 – judged Allied victories in the Battle of the Atlantic to be as great as any land victory. According to Vice Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald, they were vital in ‘preparing the way for the invasion of Europe’. Had it been fought ashore, or even a sea engagement in the age of fighting sail, the ONS-5 victory ‘would be [lauded] in the history books, like Salamis or Trafalgar’ for it was ‘no skirmish’ and the battle ‘to defend convoy ONS-5 was of more significance than Alamein.’

That may be stretching it a little, but the point is well made, for pitched battles at sea do not leave behind scarred buildings or pockmarked bunkers, or wrecked tanks littering the landscape. Nor do the casualties lie in lovingly tended war cemeteries close to the scene of the battle to offer an all too tangible reminder of sacrifice.

Those who perished in the battles for convoys HX-231, ONS-5 and SC-130 lie in unseen and unknowable watery graves, vanished under the sea either inside their sunken ships and submarines or swept away by the cruel sea until absorbed into the vastness of the ocean.


Each merchant vessel that reached a UK port was another victory for the Allies in the struggle against the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Photo: US National Archives.

Victory for the Allies was actually recorded in the ships the enemy never saw – the vessels that slid by the U-boats without a shot being fired and to enter a British port to offload their vital cargoes, all routine and largely unremarked. Each ship unloaded was, however, another small victory and diminished even further Germany’s chances of success.

Even though May 1943 is often regarded as the moment when the Battle of the Atlantic was won by the Allies – enabling the invasion of Normandy just over a year later – in reality the bitter struggle between Allied escorts/airpower and U-boats continued right until the end of the war in Europe. There were even fears the war at sea off Europe could still be lost by the Allies.

It morphed into a different kind of contest – in fact a series of contests stretching from the deep ocean to inshore waters around N.W. Europe – that at various times was arguably harder for the Allies to deal with, though the US Navy’s escort carrier hunter-killer groups reaped a devastating harvest in the mid-Atlantic, around the Azores. Tough as the fight may have become once again, British escort groups were relentless elsewhere.

The Allies feared the ‘U-boat peril’ (to borrow Churchill’s description) right up until the Reich’s total collapse, not just because of the looming (if troubled) introduction into service of the much-vaunted Type XXI and Type XXIII U-boats, but the Total Underwater Warfare concept.

Donitz hoped it could deliver final victory to Germany. So, in May 1943 the war of the transatlantic convoys may have peaked but now the battles had different objectives and the Allies’ hard won advantages were under threat of neutralization by Total Underwater Warfare.

 

How that German bid to achieve victory at sea unfolded – along with many other episodes in submarine warfare across the ages – is told in my latest book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99) which is available via Amazon and Waterstones plus other retailers and shops.

Kremlin sends out ASW ‘search-and-strike’ group

• Strike carrier reinforces Med US Navy presence
• Is Russian ‘carrier-killer’ submarine being deployed?
• Only the latest naval face-off in Med

Heavy-hitting reinforcements for US Navy forces in the Mediterranean have now arrived, with the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) and its powerful array of warships completing the trans-Atlantic crossing in just over a week.

They join US Navy’s Sixth Fleet area of operations (AOR) at a time of continuing high tension between Russia and the West. The entry of the Harry S. Truman comes less than a week after bombardment of suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria by US Navy surface warships and a submarine, along with a French frigate – all firing cruise missiles – in tandem with air strikes by jet fighters from the USA, France and the UK. The cruise missiles fired by the US Navy attack boat USS John Warner were the first ever fired in anger by a submarine of the Virginia Class, the American navy’s latest SSN type.

The US Navy attack submarine USS John Warner in the Mediterranean. She has since launched cruise missiles against targets in Syria. Photo: NATO.

Within days of the Syria strikes, the Kremlin deployed an Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) ‘search-and-strike group’, as the Russian Navy termed it, from the Northern Fleet in the Arctic. The destroyers Severomorsk and Vice Admiral Kulakov (both Udaloy I Class ships) were, according to the Russians, in the Barents Sea conducting a ‘test tactical drill on searching for and destroying’ what was further described as a ‘simulated enemy submarine’.

One of the Russian destroyers engaged in the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) exercise in the Barents Sea. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

However, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Russian exercise was in reality a means to sanitise exit routes for Russian submarines being deployed to go and shadow the Harry S. Truman and her battle group. A potential candidate for that mission is the Oscar II Class ‘carrier killer’ submarine Oryol, which last year emerged from a major refit. The 24,000 tons (dived) submarine is now armed with 3M-54 Kalibr land-attack and anti-shipping cruise missiles.

The Northern Fleet nuclear-powered Oscar II Class ‘carrier killer’ submarine Oryol returning to her base in the Kola Peninsula after her major upgrade. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

If Oryol has been sent out, Russian attack submarines would also have been deployed to ‘delouse’ waters off the main naval bases in the Kola Peninsula, in case there were any NATO submarines snooping around – although one of them could not be the British hunter-killer boat HMS Trenchant. Following her dramatic exploits alongside American submarines in the Arctic, surfacing through polar ice, the Trafalgar Class SSN this week sailed into Submarine Base New London, on the east coast of the USA, for a port visit.


HMS Trenchant approaches the pier at Naval Submarine Base New London for a port visit after participating in ICEX 2018. Photo: US Navy.

Scheduled to last several days, the Russian ASW exercise in the Barents was due to involve ‘tasks of engaging the simulated submarine enemy,’ according to the Russian defence ministry. It also advised that its ASW warships would ‘conduct torpedo firing with practical ammunition.’ During the old Cold War between Russia and the West this might have been considered convenient cover for the pursuit of a NATO submarine on surveillance mission in the Barents.

From the late 1940s to the early 1990s there was an almost continual forward deployment of US Navy and Royal Navy submarines into the Barents – considered by the Russians to be Mare Nostrum – to gather intelligence on weapons tests and the latest surface ships and submarines operated by the foe. Armed with sound signature and radar emissions intelligence, and details of weaponry, NATO hoped to stand a better chance of fighting off any massive Soviet surge into the North Atlantic if the Cold War turned hot.

As the Russian ASW ‘exercise’ got underway in the Arctic this month, a highly significant face-to-face meeting was being held in Baku, Azerbaijan, between NATO’s current Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti and the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov.

The neutral ground summit was called to discuss relations between NATO and Russia, but was surely also a means to ensure Moscow’s military and those of Western nations do not clash in any future episodes in which weaponry is unleashed to against Syrian targets. A Russian defence ministry account explained: ‘They also exchanged views on the situation in Syria, stressing the necessity of cooperation in fighting against international terrorism.’ For the Russians the latter group does not include President Assad’s regime in Syria, however.

The USS Harry S. Truman is no stranger to operations in the US 6th Fleet AOR, having been sent there to conduct strikes on ISIL targets in Syria in the summer of 2016. The US Navy has in the past frequently also stationed a strike carrier in the neighbouring 5th Fleet AOR – covering waters off Arabia – but at the time of last weekend’s strikes on Syria, the assigned ship, USS Theodore Roosevelt, was in the South China Sea, another zone of increased tension at sea.

The US Navy strike carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the eastern Mediterranean while working with the French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle. Photo: US Navy.

Russian submarine deployments to shadow American Carrier Strike Groups in the eastern Med are nothing new either. In late 2016 NATO warships detected and then tracked at least one Russian nuclear-powered submarine sent from the Northern Fleet to shadow the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. This came as the Nimitz Class carrier was conducting joint strike operations against Islamic State targets in Syria with the French Navy strike carrier FS Charles de Gaulle.

Around the same time NATO also sent its submarines to shadow Russia’s carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. As related in ‘The Deadly Trade’ the Russian defence ministry claimed it had been forced to order Vice Admiral Kulakov and Severomorsk – the same ships involved in today’s ASW exercise in the Barents – to chase away a Dutch diesel-electric submarine attempting to trail the Kuznetsov (as the carrier prepared to launch her own jets on missions against Syrian targets).

 

 

More on the undersea and surface navy face-off between Russia and the West in recent years and during the Cold War is to be found in ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99)  which is available via Amazon or Waterstones and other retailers and shops.
The latest edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine (May 2018), whose Editor is Iain Ballantyne, is out now. It includes a look at the formidable new weapons being created by order of President Putin to try and cow the West, along with reports and pictures from a recent major Anti-submarine Warfare exercise staged by NATO in the Mediterranean.

We Must all Pray ‘the Better Angels’ Prevail

As I went to bed last night I stopped on the upstairs landing, my head spinning with the realisation that the world stood on the edge of an abyss, with two nuclear powers potentially at war before too long.

I paused at the threshold of each of my children’s bedrooms, listening to them breathe easily as they slept peacefully, the sort of thing I had not done for some years as they are teenagers now. Lodged in my mind was something a British politician said almost 56 years ago, which was before I was even born.

In late October 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis finally cooled, Labour MP Frank Allaun got to his feet during a Parliamentary debate on what had just happened in Caribbean – when the world had seemed to be on the verge of nuclear conflict – and revealed how it had shaken him to his core.

‘I went upstairs and looked at my children, who were asleep, and wondered what kind of future, if any, they were going to have,’ Allaun told his fellow MPs. ‘I guess that parents throughout the world had the same sort of reaction. I have maintained for some years that mankind’s chances of survival are only fifty-fifty. In the light of the last few days, however, I would say that the odds have considerably worsened.’

I could never have guessed when I found those words in Hansard while researching and writing my book ‘Hunter Killers’ , about British submariners versus the Soviets in the Cold War, that just five years after it was first published I would be having similar thoughts.

Thankfully, the dawn broke without the world having been obliterated by nuclear weapons and the breakfast news programmes continued their discussions with politicians and top brass about the mechanics of the Syrian crisis. An air of unreality still hung over it all, as if it was all some kind of outlandish computer game.

Yet, just as with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, today naval forces are being positioned to face each other down, armed to the teeth and potentially on a hair trigger with the horrifying spectre of nuclear exchange looming darkly over all of us.

A Soviet submarine caught on the surface during the Cuban Missile Crisis of late 1962. Photo: US Navy/US National Archives.

That we are here is doubly bewildering for me, as I witnessed the end of the Cold War at sea between NATO and Soviet naval forces. In the aftermath of the hardliners coup of August 1991, I sailed into the Barents Sea as an embedded journalist aboard the anti-submarine and intelligence-gathering frigate HMS London. As recounted in another book of mine, on the fighting lives of frigates named HMS London, back then there had been real fears that Gorbachev would fall and that the communist hardliners would return us all to the East-West confrontation.

HMS London had been sent into the High North on a long-planned diplomatic mission to make visits to Murmansk and Archangel even as the attempted coup unfolded and collapsed. What kind of reception would the Russians give to HMS London? She had already been overflown by Soviet jet bombers and was being shadowed by a sinister-looking Russian destroyer. With chaos in Moscow, nobody knew if the old foe was setting his face into stone again for a renewal of the confrontation, or would be welcoming.

A depiction of the end of the Cold War between the Royal Navy and Soviet Navy in the Barents, with the frigate HMS London greeted in the old battleground by the Soviet Navy warship Gromky and two Sukhoi fighter jets of the Russian naval air arm. Painting by Ross Watton © 2013. For more on the work of Ross Watton visit www.rosswatton.com

‘As HMS London sailed out of a brilliant orange sunset in the west, the Soviet Navy frigate Gromky suddenly plunged out of the steel grey curtain of drizzle and gloom that had fallen in the East,’ observe my diary notes from the 1991 voyage. ‘She closed in spectacular fashion – at her top speed…prow plunging into the sea, ploughing a furious furrow of spray. The crew of HMS London, who were told to clear lower decks, gave her a rousing welcome, cheering “hurray! hurray! hurray!” and lifting their caps in salute. The Gromky’s crew replied in similar fashion and with great gusto. Then all eyes switched skywards as two Soviet naval air arm SU-27 Flanker fighters wheeled low overhead with a bunsen burner roar. They dipped their wings in salute before their pilots pulled back hard on their control columns, showing off what fantastic technology the Soviets could produce to the old enemy… taking their jets up in a spectacular climb above the British frigate.

‘Soon HMS London was cloaked in black, red and grey smoke, created by Soviet naval vessels only faintly made out in the gathering night. Flares dropped from low flying Mail anti-submarine flying boats and May maritime patrol aircraft created more smoke. When the smoke screens dispersed London found herself passing the Soviet Navy hospital ship Svir, which was carrying more than 100 British and Russian veterans of the [WW2] Arctic convoys. The cheering veterans welcomed HMS London to the fold, shouting and waving from the guardrails of the Svir’s packed upper decks.’

That just over quarter century later we have moved to a situation where British submarines could soon potentially launch cruise missiles into Syria, and then be hunted and come under attack from Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean, is, to say the least, a deeply sad turn of events.

The Royal Navy hunter-killer submarine HMS Trenchant surfaces in the Beaufort Sea during a joint UK-US exercise last month (March). Armed with Tomhawak missiles she may be one of the units Britain sends into action against Syria. Photo: US Navy.

Those of us who witnessed the thawing of the Cold War in the Barents – the most dangerous front line at sea – breathed a deep sigh of relief that 40 years of knife-edge confrontation, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon hanging over humanity, was finally over.

In the warm glow of that long confrontation finally being over, we could never have imagined that the world would slide back into the era of nuclear war threats being hurled around, or the repeated use of chemical weapons on civilians.

Yet here we are with the very real possibility of the naval forces of the West and Russia on the brink of the kind of hot war that never actually happened during the Cold War between those two sides. In 1962 cool heads prevailed despite the readiness of Soviet forces on Cuba to fire their nuclear-tipped missiles and the Americans pursuing and forcing Russian submarines to surface.

Indeed, who could have guessed even four years ago when I embarked on writing my latest book, ‘The Deadly Trade’, that an American President would use social media to explicitly threaten the Russians with missile attack.

The Ohio Class guided-missile submarine USS Florida departs Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. Capable of launching up to 154 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) the Florida is most likely still deployed and may be ordered to bombard chemical weapons targets in Syria. Photo: US Navy.

But, it was the Russians who unwisely provoked him in the first place by threatening direct assault on American forces launching any missiles into Syria. In the recent past, as recounted in ‘The Deadly Trade’, the Russians have even threatened European naval forces with nuclear attack as retaliation for their governments daring to consider arming frigates and destroyers with Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems.

Threats of nuclear annihilation by Moscow are nothing new. In the summer of 2014, not long after his forces annexed the Crimea and began fuelling insurrection in eastern Ukraine – the opening shots against the West for pushing too far east with NATO among other so-called transgressions against Russia – President Vladimir Putin stated that his country was reinforcing its ‘powers of nuclear restraint’. He added that other nations should ‘always realise that is it better not to mess with Russia.’

The new Russian guided-missile frigate Admiral Essen, which is reportedly in the eastern Mediterranean awaiting orders from the Kremlin. Photo: Cem Devrim Yaylali. For more of his work visit: www.turkishnavy.net

What made the situation this spring much worse was the reaction of the US President, who stoked the fires with the notorious tweet in which he warned: ‘Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!”.’ Trump later tried to be more conciliatory but the world is less likely to remember his emollient tweet about helping with the Russian economy and avoiding an arms race.

As I suggest in ‘The Deadly Trade’, in an era of strongmen puffing their chests out and making blood-curdling threats to inflict mass destruction on would be foes, humanity will have to rely on what President Abraham Lincoln, during his inaugural address of March 1861, called ‘the better angels of our nature’. They prevailed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we must pray they do so again today as the submarines and surface warships of both sides position themselves in the eastern Mediterranean.

 

 

Iain Ballantyne is the Editor of the global naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review  and author of the recently published ‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, hardback).

 

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