U-Boats versus escorts in the Battle of the Atlantic

…and submarine warfare across the centuries

‘The Deadly Trade’ takes readers on an epic voyage through submarine warfare, including how U-boats in two world wars tried to achieve victory, first for the Kaiser and 20 years later for Adolf Hitler.

The action-packed narrative includes bitterly contested Battle of the Atlantic convoy fights of WW2. ‘The Deadly Trade’ tells the stories of Britain’s formidable submarine-killing escort group leaders, including Frederic ‘Johnny’ Walker, Donald Macintyre and Peter Gretton, while looking at the technological game of leap-frog played by both sides to try and gain the winning edge.

An Atlantic convoy under heavy Allied escort in 1943. Photo: USN/US National Archives.



We sail to war with submarine ‘Aces’ Otto Kretschmer, Gunther Prien, Joachim Schepke and Fritz-Julius Lemp and on the Allied side learn of exploits by Britain’s Malcolm Wanklyn in the Mediterranean, and the USA’s Dudley Morton, Richard O’Kane and Sam Dealey in the Pacific.

The anti-submarine corvette HMS Loch Killin, which sank U-736 in August 1944. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

Included in this globe-spanning tale are the famous Enigma machine and code book captures that played a key role in deciding the outcome of WW2, along with a broader look at the naval intelligence contest so crucial in the Battle of the Atlantic and the Pacific.

A U-boat sinks a British merchant vessel in the early days of WW2. Image: US Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

‘The Deadly Trade’ tells the story of how tiny craft took on massive battleships, including U-boats sinking the Royal Navy’s HMS Royal Oak and HMS Barham in WW2, along with the incredible exploits of British submariners in the Dardanelles and Baltic during WW1. The deeds of Japanese and Italian submarines in WW2 are not overlooked. We also learn how close the Kaiser’s U-boats came to starving Britain and collapsing the entire Allied war effort in 1917, as the first Battle of the Atlantic peaked.

Before telling the story of submarine warfare during two global conflicts of the 20th Century, ‘The Deadly Trade’ presents the amazing stories of submarine technology pioneers such as Cornelius Drebbel, Robert Fulton and John Philip Holland (between the 1600s and early 1900s). This opens up a window on the primitive attempts to create workable undersea warships in confrontations between England and its enemies in the 17th Century, as well as during the American War of Independence, Napoleonic Wars, American Civil War and the Crimean War.

WW1 undersea warriors in the action-packed narrative include Max Horton of the Royal Navy, whom the Germans feared so much they hired assassins to eliminate him, and Georg von Trapp, of ‘Sound of Music’ fame, who was Austria’s top U-boat captain.

When it comes to WW2, the book looks at the role of submarines in the clash of battle fleets at Midway in June 1942. How the US Navy submarine service brought the Empire of Japanese to its knees in 1945 – even before the atomic bombs were dropped – is explained too, via the stories of daring American submarine captains and their famous craft.

Two American submarine ‘Aces’ of WW2: Dudley Morton (right) and Richard O’Kane on the bridge of the USS Wahoo. Photo: USN/US National Archives.

We dive into unconventional submarine warfare, including Japanese midget subs during the notorious Pearl Harbor raid plus British X-craft against the Nazi battleship Tirpitz in Arctic waters and the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao at Singapore.

As WW2 approaches its finale we discover how the Germans set out to pursue Total Underwater Warfare, partly via the revolutionary Type XXI U-boat. The incredible story of a proposed cruise 1945 missile attack on New York is told, while the likelihood (or otherwise) of Hitler escaping to South America in a U-boat is considered when telling the story of U-977, which made the journey as the Reich collapsed.

‘The Deadly Trade’ takes us into the post-WW2 Cold War face-off between the Soviets and NATO including dangerous jousts below the waves between Western and Russian submarines. The book also tells the inside story of how the Pakistan Navy submarine PNS Hangor in the early 1970s sank the Indian frigate INS Khukri. The attack on the Argentine cruiser ARA Belgrano by the British nuclear-powered attack boat HMS Conqueror features in chapters on the submarine side of the Falklands War.

The Trafalgar Class hunter-killer submarine HMS Turbulent returning to Devonport after action in the 2003 Iraq War. Photo: Tony Carney.

‘The Deadly Trade’ concludes with a look at today’s global submarine arms race and the continuing use of submarines to try and gain geopolitical advantage. Outlined are President Putin’s ‘missile boat diplomacy’, along with the use of cruise missiles by the British and Americans to try and decapitate rogue regimes headed by the dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

The Deadly Trade’  is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. It has been published in the USA by Pegasus Books as ‘The Deadly Deep’.

Confrontation at sea as U-boats deploy despite German surrender

Iain Ballantyne tells the story of a little-known confrontation between Allied warships and U-boats that took place off the coast of Norway some days after the official end of the conflict in Europe.

When VE Day fell, Lieutenant Commander Nicholas Monsarrat – who had seen a great deal of convoy escort work in the conflict – thought it a strange kind of finale for men who had fought so hard and for so long.

He would later sum it up in his famous novel ‘The Cruel Sea’ as follows: ‘…all over the Atlantic, the fighting died – a strangely tame finish, after five and a half years of bitter struggle.’ There were ‘no eleventh hour death or glory assaults’ or even post-surrender acts of piracy by the U-boats. According to Monsarrat ‘the vicious war petered out in bubbles, blown tanks, a sulky yielding, and the laconic order: “Follow me”.’ Tensions did exist, however, and there were U-boat commanders who seemed reluctant to follow the instructions of the victor.

A U-boat returns to Narvik during the war. Photo: NHHC.

For some days after the official end of hostilities there was anxiety that fighting could erupt again at sea, which wasn’t surprising, given that the Battle of Atlantic had raged for six years, from the conflict’s very first days in 1939 until its last moments in 1945.

A tricky turn of events came when a group of U-boats, along with five surface ships set sail from their base in the Arctic, just as the last Allied convoy to Russia was underway. Convoy JW67 had departed the Clyde on May 12, and was due to reach the Kola Inlet on May 20. Its 23 ships had a close escort from the 4th Escort Group (4th EG) along with the carrier HMS Queen, while Commander Arthur Layard’s 9th EG was providing back-up at a distance. On May 14 the 9th EG was diverted to intercept the U-boat group. Royal Navy veteran Layard was the right man to handle the situation. Between July 1941 and 1945 he had served almost continuously at sea, much of the time as the commander of Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) escort groups, like the 9th EG.

Having fought off U-boats during the ferocious SC 94 convoy battle in August 1942, by spring 1943 he was leading the 9th EG, with the River Class frigate HMCS Matane as his command ship. On April 22, 1944 she sank U-311 to the south west of Iceland, with assistance from HMCS Swansea. After action in the Channel as part of the anti-submarine screen for Normandy invasion shipping Layard’s group was assigned to protecting Arctic convoys.

Layard had received an Admiralty signal, saying Norway-based U-boats were preparing to formally surrender, having been told to cease-fire by Kriegsmarine boss Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, who had succeeded Hitler after the latter’s death on 30 April. Donitz knew some of his U-boat captains would instinctively object to any order to hand over their submarines to the foe, preferring to scuttle them.

The unconditional surrender of Germany had been declared on 8/9 May and five days later the Royal Norwegian Navy destroyer Stord sent a message about the convoy of German vessels – five ships and 15 U-boats – deploying from Narvik, apparently heading south for Trondheim. Stord sent a signal to the Admiralty in London asking if this was permitted and so Layard’s group was ordered to intercept the U-boats and take them to Loch Eriboll on the north coast of Scotland.

Two German type VIIC U-boats meet in Arctic seas during a convoy hunt at the height of WW2. Their captains confer by megaphone prior to resuming the search. Photo: US Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

‘It put us in a flat spin of course,’ confessed Layard. ‘By 14,30 we had formed up and began heading for Trondheim.’ The escort ships were heading into a gale, but still managing 17 knots. In the early hours of 17 May Layard was wrestling with nagging anxiety that the Germans might reach Trondheim before they could be intercepted and diverted to Scotland. ‘…the mist dispersed,’ recalled Layard, ‘and there was excellent visibility when the sun rose at 04.00. We sighted mountain tops at about 40 miles but found the land difficult to identify.’

Submarines might not be easy to identify against such a backdrop, but at 05.30 the German convoy was sighted. The 15 U-boats were on the surface in company with two repair ships, a command vessel, an accommodation ship and a tanker. Now came the difficulty of ascertaining the U-boats’ intentions. ‘We went to action stations as we approached,’ recalled Layard. The captain of HMCS Matane, Lieutenant F.J. Jones, was in no doubt about his ship’s readiness, for her men ‘were ready to blast them out of the water’.

  • To read what happened next, order the June/July 2020 edition of WARSHIPS IFR, which offers the full story of this episode. To get the magazine sent direct as hard copy or digital edition subscribe here.
  • Iain Ballantyne writes about submarine warfare history, including the contest between U-boats and Allied escorts during WW2, in his book ‘The Deadly Trade’ (W&N)  which has been published in the USA as ‘The Deadly Deep’ (Pegasus Books)



For Britain Scapa Flow U-Boat attack was a terrible ‘feat of arms’

On 12 October 1939, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight confirmed the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy was in Scapa Flow and ripe for attack. The Germans had previously spotted a gap in the sea defences of the RN’s main war base and so kept a keen eye on things there.

The British war anchorage at Scapa Flow, at the end of WW1, with the interned German battle fleet enclosed. Photo: NHHC.

After sunset, however, the majority of the British vessels departed, with battleship Rodney and rest of the fleet heading for Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland. Yet the battleship HMS Royal Oak, which had been detached to patrol waters between the Orkneys and Shetland, remained at Scapa. Her job was also to act as anti-aircraft guardship for Kirkwall.

U-47, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien, had been sent to exploit Scapa’s defensive vulnerability and achieve something his forebears during WW1 had failed to do – sink a British battleship in the anchorage. As he took his boat north, Prien followed a pattern or running that aimed to ensure maximum stealth and survivability. U-boats, like all diesel-electric submarines, were much faster on the surface than dived.

The famous German submarine U-47 departing on patrol in 1939. Photo: US Naval History and Heritage (NHHC).

However, in seas where the enemy had dominant air cover – and with plenty of British patrol vessels also present – it was madness to try and cruise on the surface in daylight. Therefore, U-47 stayed submerged and rested on the seabed during the day, keeping the draw on battery power to a minimum. Most of U-47’s men got some sleep. After dark the boat surfaced and made speed towards Orkneys, her diesels driving hard – the batteries recharging and the engine fumes venting from the boat.

Prien had volunteered for the mission after being asked by Donitz, if he thought he could handle it. Had he refused, so Donitz maintained, there would be no stain on his record, but the ambitious Prien did not shirk the task. In WW1 the boats U-18 and UB-116 had been sent to penetrate Scapa, but had themselves been destroyed. Could Prien pull it off in the new war with Britain, his tiny craft delivering a devastating blow against the goliath of the seas that was the Royal Navy?

Until October 13 the crew of U-47 did not know exactly what their mission was about, though they guessed something big was imminent. When Prien gathered them in the forward torpedo room to reveal their objective, his men seemed to accept it with equanimity. The silence as they contemplated the enormity of the undertaking was broken only by ‘a soft gentle crunching sound as the boat shifted on the sea bed,’ as one account of the moment later described it.

U-47 rested on the bottom all that day, the boat surfacing at 7.15pm, when a hot meal was served – roast ribs of salt pork with cabbage. Making speed on the surface, there was a heart-stopping moment at 11.07 pm when the black mass of a ship materialised out of the night. It was only a merchant vessel, but Prien still dived U-47, to guarantee slipping by unobserved. When the U-boat again surfaced, Kirk Sound was visible ahead and Prien was presented with what he described in his patrol report as ‘a very eerie sight.’

In WW2 U-47 would penetrate Scapa Flow to attack Royal Navy warships and sink HMS Royal Oak (seen above in a floating dock between the wars). Photo: AJAX Vintage Picture Library.

He added: ‘On land everything is dark, high in the sky are the flickering Northern Lights, so that the bay, surrounded by English [sic] mountains, is directly lit up from above. The blockships lie in the sound, ghostly as the wings of a theatre.’ Deciding to squeeze past those blockships on their northern side, from the bridge of his boat Prien spotted the big, bulky silhouettes of ‘two battleships’ along with seemed to be destroyers lying beyond.

At 12.58am, with just 22ft below the boat’s keel, Prien fired one torpedo at what he referred to as ‘the northern’ ship and two at ‘the southern.’ All had impact exploders. ‘After a good three minutes, a torpedo detonates on the northern ship,’ reported Prien, ‘of the other two nothing is to be seen.’

Disappointed, but with no interference so far from the enemy, Prien swung U-47 around and launched a torpedo from the stern tube. He then turned the boat to fire three more torpedoes from the bow tubes, some with magnetic exploders. ‘There is a loud explosion, roar, and rumbling,’ recorded Prien of what happened next. ‘Then come columns of water, followed by columns of fire, and splinters fly through the air. The harbour springs to life…A battleship has been sunk, a second damaged…All the tubes are empty. I decide to withdraw…’

U-47 made off at high speed – still on the surface – exiting Scapa by Skildaenoy Point. Breaking through into the open sea, U-47 went as fast as she could, heading south-east and for home. With daylight fast approaching, Prien decided U-47 would be best advised to dive and sit on the seabed for a few hours to let the fuss die down. As he left the bridge Prien took a last look over his shoulder: ‘The glow from Scapa is still visible… Apparently they are still dropping depth charges.’

A few weeks after sinking the Royal Oak, U-47 sails back into Kiel with her crew arranged on her casing. The battle-cruiser Scharnhorst is in the background. Photo: US Navy/NHHC.

On October 15, Prien sent a signal to U-boat headquarters: ‘Operation successfully completed. “ROYAL OAK” sunk. “REPULSE” damaged.’ He was not quite accurate – Repulse was not there – but he had put three torpedoes into Royal Oak, the old British battleship turning turtle and taking 800 men with her, devastating the families and loved ones of those lost.

The Deadly DeepWinston Churchill observed: ‘This episode, which must be regarded as a feat of arms on the part of the German U-boat commander, gave a shock to public opinion.’ It would be six months before Scapa Flow’s defensive gaps were plugged and the Home Fleet could return in safety to its principal war anchorage. Meanwhile, Prien and the crew of U-47 reached Wilhelmshaven on October 17 to be acclaimed national heroes. During an audience with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, U-47’s commander was presented with the Knight’s Cross. The Fuhrer hailed Prien’s achievement as ‘a unique triumph.’

More on the pursuit of submarine warfare in WW2 and other conflicts is to be found in Iain Ballantyne’s book ‘The Deadly Trade’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) It is published in the USA as ‘The Deadly Deep’ (Pegasus Books)

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