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.

In pursuit of ‘The Deadly Trade’ across the ages

It has been almost four years in the making but it’s not long now until ‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ hits the water, with a publication date of 8 March.

In ‘THE DEADLY TRADE’ readers encounter the heroes and villains of submarine warfare across the ages, plunging into the story of not only how the technology has evolved but also high stakes, kill-or-be-killed struggles under the waves.

Among the submarine warfare legends we encounter are Max Horton, Martin Nasmith and Georg von Trapp (in WW1), Otto Kretschmer, Gunther Prien, Malcolm Wanklyn, Alastair Mars, Dudley Morton and Sam Dealey (in WW2).

A Japanese destroyer sinks during WW2, seen via the periscope of USS Nautilus. Photo: US NHHC.

Aside from telling the stories of the undersea warriors, the book also covers the mad, bad and dangerous schemes of inventors in earlier eras as they sought to give one side or other the edge in combat via their primitive vessels. More often than not the early attempts at undersea vessels killed their own crews (rather than harming the enemy).

Those who went up against the U-boats in WW2’s Battle of the Atlantic are also part of the action, not least ‘Johnny’ Walker, Donald Macintyre and Peter Gretton. The part played by code-breaking during WW2 is told, along with the intelligence-gathering efforts of both sides in the subsequent NATO versus Warsaw Pact confrontation.

‘THE DEADLY TRADE’ offers an epic voyage from Ancient times through the invention, development and lethal application of undersea warships, from Archimedes leaping out of his bath, down through the first attempt by Germany to win a war via U-boats, to WW2’s bitter convoys battles and the US Navy campaign to bring Japan to its knees.

The story continues with dangerous Cold War shadow boxing below the waves in the North Atlantic and Arctic (1940s – late 1980s), along with hot war submarine attacks in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic (during the 1970s and 1980s respectively).

British nuclear submarine

A British nuclear-powered attack submarine of today. Photo: USN.

It comes right up to date with North Korea’s covert sinking of a warship, Putin’s submarines launching cruise missiles into the cauldron of the Middle East and China seeking to create a bastion to protect its doomsday vessels.

Hidden and largely ignored by the general public, it is clear that submarines and submariners still pursue The Deadly Trade of hunting other vessels and deterring nuclear attack by standing ready to unleash Armageddon. It is something we should ponder deeply while the global effect of submarine warfare for more than a century is demonstrated across the vast span of the book’s narrative.

‘THE DEADLY TRADE’ considers how the world’s fate has since the 1950s been in the hands of young submariners burdened with terrible destructive power. They are out there right now in their boats patrolling the world’s oceans.

 

The Deadly Trade cover‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99).
Available through Amazon and Waterstones  and other book retailers.

If We Didn’t Fly There Would Be No Tomorrow

In this specially adapted extract from the book ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, by Iain Ballantyne, we ride with Canadian-born Fleet Air Arm aviator Terry Goddard, the Observer of a Swordfish torpedo-bomber sent to try and cripple the famous German high seas raider.

26 May 1941

7.00PMHMS Ark Royal’s Bid

It is time for another set of contenders to climb into the ring for a round with the heavyweight. The battlecruiser HMS Hood tried on 24 May and was blown apart. Three days later aviators aboard the carrier HMS Ark Royal are being called forward, asked to inflict some kind of decisive blow to slow down Bismarck.

The Swordfish is deceptively antiquated looking. Though a biplane that chugs through the air sounding like an aerial tractor, it is not actually that old, having entered Fleet Air Arm service in 1937. It won its spurs in late 1940 by knocking out Italian battleships in Taranto harbour. The first U-boat sunk in the Second World War by the British was courtesy of a Swordfish using bombs but it is as a torpedo-bomber that it will achieve new fame.

HMS Ark Royal in WW2, operating Swordfish. Photo: USH&HC.

Slow, with only a top speed of 138 mph, its two wings give incredible lift. A monoplane needs around 30 knots of wind across the flight deck to take off from a carrier. The Swordfish can take off from a vessel at anchor (and even into the teeth of a gale). Constructed from wood, canvas and metal struts, it can survive hits that will destroy metal-skinned aircraft, for the simple reason that cannon shells and bullets pass right through it.

After the mission briefing for the attack on Bismarck comes the sitting and waiting for take-off. It is inevitable people ponder their mortality and chances of survival. Terry Goddard recognises that dreadful weather conditions will not be a barrier to the mission. ‘We knew perfectly well we were gonna fly, because if we didn’t fly there would be no tomorrow for us. We had to fly and weather be darned.’

 The aircrews feel the weight of expectation, of history itself – the fate of the Navy and the nation, also the Fleet Air Arm’s honour all pressing down on their shoulders. ‘It is the sitting around that gnaws at you. You’re thinking rather than doing, which is worrisome. Once you start doing things the worry disappears. It must be tough on God. In war there aren’t any atheists – both sides are asking God for help. Most of us say prayers for him to help us. I know I did. Often. Fortunately he was on my side…’

Fifteen Swordfish are ranged on the flight deck, herring bone fashion, all fuelled up and each armed with a single 18-inch torpedo, ready to go.

7.10PM – Stormy Take-off

With waves crashing over Ark Royal’s bows, the Swordfish are launched, clawing their way into the sky. ‘One by one, the batsman, the deck control officer, leads you forward – and you just sit and wait, look at the island waiting for the green flag and away you go. The ship is steering into wind, actually on this occasion slowed down, so there wasn’t too much wind going over the deck. There’s green water coming over the bow. In my aircraft – Swordfish 5K – Stan Keane was the pilot, I was the Navigator and Milliner was the Air Gunner. He was responsible for working the radio. I’m responsible for getting us there and Stan is responsible for flying the aircraft and carrying out the attack. The ship was taking green water. The bow was going up and down 60ft. It was raining, windy and the ship was rolling and pitching but there was no problem in take off, we were airborne before we passed the island.’

Once in the air, the crew of Swordfish 5K formulates a plan of attack, though communication within the cockpit is difficult, what with a 110-knot wind and roar of the aircraft’s engine. They shout at each other down an interconnecting rubber voice pipe.

Swordfish torpedo-bombers attack battleship Bismarck. Image: Dennis Andrews. www.dennisandrewsart.co.uk

8.47PMFire-spitting Monster

Battling the gale, blown sideways, almost negating their forward momentum, the Swordfish drop from the clouds to make their attack runs. As they sight oncoming aircraft, lookouts aboard Bismarck scream: ‘Alarm!’

Klaxons blare throughout the German battleship. Bismarck takes violent evasive action, her anti-aircraft guns hurling a storm of steel at the British biplanes. Bismarck even fires her main 15-inch guns, the shells sending up tall plumes of spray, hoping to literally knock Swordfish out of the sky. Soon Swordfish 5K will be taking her turn at jousting with the enemy, provided she can find the target.

Terry Goddard looks anxiously over the side of the cockpit for some sign of Bismarck. ‘The whole aircraft shook as if there were a number of express trains roaring by us. We figured Bismarck had opened fire on us. In actual fact she had opened fire on [the nearby cruiser] Sheffield, but…we had found her. So, down we went. Ice was peeling off the wings, couldn’t see a bloody thing. The altimeter is spinning, spinning, spinning and then we break into the clear about 600ft and there’s Bismarck on our starboard bow. She was a fire-spitting monster. Everything was coming at us and she was illuminated…awesome. This ship was just magnificent. It looked exactly like a battleship should, I mean scary and everything but just a beautiful ship.

Once the attack has started it’s all about the pilot. The Observer and the Air Gunner, we just stand by and get really excited watching what is going on. You are not thinking you are going to be killed, you’re thinking you’re going to hit the bastard and that’s it. The more you turn [the aircraft] around, and the more you frig around, the more chance they get to hit you, so we just went straight in. We got as low on the deck as we could and went straight. Bismarck was on the port side and she just got bigger and bigger. The flak is bursting over our head. Well above us. The small arms fire is pretty well all around us – and hitting us every once in a while – but we get in to drop the torpedo…do a quick turn away.

Looking back shortly after the turn I see a large black and white explosion on the Bismarck. It is high and wide. Obviously it is a torpedo hit. There is no other aircraft anywhere near us and there is no doubt it was the torpedo we had just dropped. I tell Stan, he grunts – he’s busy doing various manoeuvres on the deck – I give a message to the Air Gunner that we have scored a hit. Milliner thought he’d seen something too. Right after the attack the shooting stopped. We were in the clear. She wasn’t firing at us. Ark Royal requests us to repeat the message. Then we climb back up into the clag and this time it is about 6,000ft that we broke clear. About five minutes later we saw another Swordfish well ahead. We increase speed, join up with him. It’s David Godfrey-Faussett [the other aircraft’s pilot] smoking a big cigar and with a smile on his face. I didn’t like his course so we broke away and we headed off on our own.’

11.30PMMission Failure?

With Swordfish landing back aboard Ark Royal, and their crews filing reports, it is decided the balance of probability is that Bismarck has not been damaged. This is despite claims in the briefing room by some aviators that they managed torpedo hits on the German giant. ‘Command was very reluctant to accept that there were any. I told them three or four times that we had scored a hit and they ignored me. Finally, when Sheffield sent a report that Bismarck was steering north-east, they suddenly realised that something had happened.’

In other words, the enemy vessel is not heading towards the sanctuary of Brest on the French Atlantic coast, but rather back to where the Home Fleet battleships are closing. Bismarck’s change in direction cannot be happening by choice.

‘They ultimately accepted that there were two hits…we had attacked after the torpedo had hit the rudder. We were the last aircraft to attack the Bismarck, then or any other day.’

Now it was down to the rest of British fleet to destroy the German behemoth…

For the rest of the exciting, action-packed story buy ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ (£2.99 ebook/£5.99 paperback) which is published by Ipso Books

 

Swordfish aviator Terry Goddard aboard a Royal Navy aircraft carrier during WW2. Photo: © Goddard Collection.

Commander Terry Goddard, Royal Canadian Navy (Retd) had an extraordinary war and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1943 ‘for outstanding bravery & skill’. After the Bismarck Action, Terry remained with 818 NAS for some time before joining 803 NAS. He saw further action, flying in Fulmars from the carrier Formidable during operations in the Indian Ocean. His aircraft engaged in a dogfight with a Japanese fighter, narrowly evading destruction. Switched to the Mediterranean, Terry at one time had command of 821 NAS, equipped with Albacore torpedo-bombers. Flying from North Africa and Malta, 821 NAS carried out anti-shipping and mine laying tasks, path-finding for RAF Wellington bombers and anti-submarine protection of the Sicily invasion force. Post-war Lieutenant Goddard served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) destroyer HMCS Haida, before promotion to Lt Cdr and taking command of the RCN Fleet Air Arm’s 826 Squadron and the 18th Carrier Air Group flying from the carrier HMCS Magnificent. Cdr Goddard ended his naval career as Staff Officer Operations at NATO’s Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic (CINCEASTLANT). Terry lived for many years in peaceful retirement with his wife Cora, in Ontario, Canada. They were together for more than 30 years. Terry was 96 when he passed away in March 2016. ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ also contains details of Terry’s war service both before and after the May 1941 battle.

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