Military history

ENCOUNTERS WITH ARK ROYAL

Merely five days into the war, on September 8, Dönitz ordered a sweeping redeployment of the Atlantic U-boats. The main reason for the change was to amass oceangoing boats at home to deploy in a “second wave” in October, so there would be no lull or gap in the U-boat offensive. Accordingly, he ordered ten of the eighteen boats in the Atlantic (five of the six VIIBs and all five IXs) to return to Germany. The unsteady U-26, which found no targets for her six torpedoes, developed mechanical problems and soon joined the homeward trek, leaving only seven of the original group, all Type VIIs of the Salzwedel Flotilla, to carry on the war. To augment these, Dönitz committed the reserve force of three Type VIIs. One, U-32, was to go northabout the British Isles and lay a TMB minefield off the British naval base at Portsmouth, in the English Channel east of Portland. In order to save time, the other two, U-31 and U-35, loaded with torpedoes, were to go directly to the Atlantic via the English Channel. The U-31 made it through the channel safely, but U-35, attacked by aircraft and the British submarine Ursula, was forced to abort the channel passage and go northabout like U-32.

The ten boats recalled to Germany stayed well to the westward of the British Isles, where the remaining U-boats were patrolling. It was not a happy homebound procession. The five IXs of the Hundius Flotilla had sunk one ship—the Manaar by Liebe in U-38. The five VIIBs of the Wegener Flotilla had sunk only five ships—three by Prien in U-47 and two by Herbert Schultze in U-48. However, Liebe and Schultze had further success on the way home. On September 11, Liebe torpedoed the fully loaded 9,456-ton British tanker Inverliffey, which blew up in a fireball. At considerable risk to U-38, Liebe saved the crew by towing the lifeboats from the blazing inferno. Further north that same day, Schultze sank the 4,869-ton British freighter Firby with his deck gun and a torpedo. Schultze provided medical care for several wounded Firby crewmen, provisioned the lifeboats, then radioed in the clear: “TRANSMIT TO MR. CHURCHILL. I HAVE SUNK THE BRITISH STEAMER FIRBY. POSIT FIFTY-NINE DEGREES FORTY MINUTES NORTH, THIRTEEN DEGREES FIFTY MINUTES WEST. SAVE THE CREW IF YOU PLEASE. GERMAN SUBMARINE.”

The returning boats passed near Rockall, where Lemp in U-30 was patrolling. But not happily. Since sinking Athenia on September 3, the U-30 had been dogged by foul weather and a dearth of traffic. He had found and sunk by gunfire only one other ship: the 4,500-ton British freighter Blairlogie. Adhering strictly to the rules, Lemp gave the survivors whisky and cigarettes and stood by the lifeboats until a neutral ship rescued them.

Near Rockall on the morning of September 14, Lemp found another British freighter, the 5,200-ton Fanad Head. He stopped her with his deck gun, but not before she had radioed SSS and her position. After the crew had abandoned ship, Lemp decided to send a two-man team across in a rubber dinghy and blow her up with a demolition charge. This would save torpedoes, which were in short supply. The demolition team, led by Adolph Schmidt, could also ransack Fanad Head for fresh bread and other booty.

British shore stations and ships picked up Fanad Head’s distress call. The ships included the Royal Navy’s newest and most formidable carrier, Ark Royal, which was about 180 miles to the northeast on ASW patrol, escorted by six destroyers. Three of the destroyers peeled off and proceeded southwest to Fanad Head at top speed. Shortly afterward Ark Royal launched three Skua monoplanes armed with ASW bombs.* The planes arrived at the scene in the midst of U-30’s demolition operation, forcing Lemp to break off and dive, leaving Schmidt and his assistant stranded on Fanad Head. In the rush to get under, Lemp’s men forgot to cut the line to the dinghy, which, unknown to Lemp, trailed over U-30 like a marker buoy.

The three Skua pilots saw a “black object” (the dinghy) and attacked it with bombs, some of which rattled U-30. Unfortunately, the British pilots did not know the bombs were scandalously ill designed. Some bombs struck the water and “skipped” back into the air. The impact triggered the fuses, exploding the bombs, spewing fragments into the path of the oncoming aircraft. Severely damaged by the bomb fragments, two of the Skuas were forced to ditch. Looking on in amazement, Adolph Schmidt and his assistant on Fanad Head swam out and rescued both British pilots, one of whom was badly burned. Although one plane was still overhead, Lemp surfaced to recover Schmidt, his assistant—and the two British pilots—and to cut loose the dinghy. During the recovery, the surviving aircraft raked U-30 with machine-gun fire, wounding Schmidt, who was helping the injured British pilot get below.

While U-30’s medic attended to Schmidt and the British pilots, Lemp set up and fired four bow torpedoes at Fanad Head. All malfunctioned or missed. A fifth torpedo from the external stern tube struck home and the ship blew up and sank. At that moment—it was now 1830—a second wave of Ark Royal aircraft comprised of six older Swordfish biplanes, each armed with six 100-pound bombs, arrived over the scene. The pilots could clearly see the submerged shadow of U-30. They attacked, dropping a total of eleven bombs, some of which exploded very close to the boat. Lemp went deep to evade.

Later the three fleet destroyers arrived, having traveled the 180 miles in about seven hours. All were equipped with the latest sonar manned by skilled operators. One destroyer went in search of the Fanad Head crew, the other two hunted—and found—U-30. Sonar conditions were good; the operators knew exactly what to do.

Working as a team, the two destroyers fixed U-30 and delivered a series of devastating depth-charge attacks.* The explosions shattered glass dials—and men’s nerves—damaged two torpedo bow caps, and cracked open a valve in the engine room, partially flooding that space. Before the crew could stop the leak and organize a bucket brigade to shift the water to the control-room bilges, where it could be pumped overboard, U-30 sank to a greater depth than any U-boat had ever gone—472 feet. Throughout this punishing ordeal, Lemp remained absolute master of his boat—“even-tempered, very determined, and possessed of unshakable calm.” After six hours, Lemp eluded his pursuers, surfaced, and escaped in the darkness.

Lemp broke radio silence to report the fight and his damage and to request permission to land the wounded Schmidt and the two Ark Royal pilots in neutral Iceland for medical care. Dönitz authorized the diversion, after which Lemp was to return directly to Germany. Monitoring this radio exchange, the OKM gained the impression that U-30 had shot down the two aircraft and on the following day, Berlin propagandists gloatingly announced a “victory” over Ark Royal.

That day, September 14, while Ark Royal was launching its first flight of aircraft to attack U-30, one of the homebound IXs of the Hundius Flotilla, U-39, commanded by Gerhard Glattes, age thirty, happened upon the carrier. The view from U-39’s periscope was a submariner’s dream: the majestic Ark Royal steaming alone. She had turned into the wind to launch the Skuas and, as a result, she had fallen four miles astern of the three remaining destroyers of her screen, Faulkner, Foxhound, and Firedrake.

The excitement on U-39 could not have been greater. After twenty-six days of luckless patrolling, Glattes now had the pride of the Royal Navy in his crosshairs. Carefully, competently, coolly, Glattes ordered the bow tubes made ready arid the outer doors opened. Then, at 1507, he fired a fan of three electric torpedoes with magnetic pistols. Timing the torpedo runs with a stopwatch, the crew tensely waited. Then, finally, explosions! A hit!

Or so it seemed. Actually, the torpedoes had been misaimed or had malfunctioned. None hit Ark Royal. Men on one of the destroyers saw Ark Royal swing rapidly to port, then a “high white splash” on her port side, followed by “a flash and black smoke to starboard.” The British believed Glattes had underestimated Ark Royal’s speed (20 knots versus actual speed of 26 knots). They reported that the torpedoes had exploded harmlessly “in the wake.” In his postwar memoir, Dönitz wrote that the magnetic pistols of the torpedoes had not worked properly and that all had “exploded prematurely underwater, close to the ship, but before they had reached a position below her.”

Upon receiving a signal from Ark Royal reporting a submarine attack, the three destroyers reversed course and launched a hunt, line abreast, making 15 knots and maintaining a distance of one mile between them. Sonar conditions were good; the operators were among the best in the fleet. Within eighteen minutes, both Foxhound and Faulkner had sonar contact. Foxhound attacked immediately, dropping two depth charges, one set for 250 feet, one for 300 feet. Faulkner followed with five more depth charges set for 100 and 150 feet. In the noise of exploding depth charges, both of these destroyers lost contact, but Firedrake did not, and she moved in to drop five more charges set for 250 feet and 500 feet.

These twelve depth charges exploded close and rocked U-39 violently. The first batch caused arcing flames in the battery and knocked out all lighting. Glattes took U-39 “deep” (to about 230 feet) but the second salvo caught her and cracked sea valves and flanges. Salt water flooded into the battery, generating deadly chlorine gas. Then the electric motors shut down and U-39, unable to maneuver submerged, went out of control.

No one on U-39 had ever experienced noise and terror on this scale. After twenty minutes of it, a shaken Glattes concluded the boat was fatally damaged, and he commanded the crew to prepare to abandon ship and blew all main ballast tanks. At 1546—thirty-nine minutes after firing the torpedoes—U-39 broke surface, bow up, in broad daylight, surrounded by the three destroyers. All three vessels opened fire with guns, but when it was seen that the U-39 crew was jumping overboard, the destroyers checked fire. Glattes’s men had set a scuttling charge and opened the forward torpedo-room hatch. The charge exploded as designed and U-39, fatally holed, went down bow first—the first U-boat to be lost in the war. The three destroyers launched boats and fished forty-three bearded, shocked U-39 survivors from the water. There were no casualties.

The Ark Royal hunter-killer grqup. had good reason to celebrate. Until Berlin announced the capture of the two Ark Royal pilots and they appeared in Iceland, the group believed it had sunk two U-boats in a single day with the loss of only two Skuas. Wrongly believing that U-39 had earlier sunk Firby—and sent the personal message to Churchill to pick up her survivors—Churchill boasted in a public speech that the culprit had been captured. Offsetting these supposed successes, however, was U-59’s near hit on Ark Royal. That chilling experience provided a telling argument for those who opposed using fleet carriers—and wearing out precious aircraft—in an ASW role.

Nine of the ten recalled boats reached Germany September 15 to 17. Inbound in the North Sea, one of the IXs, U-41, commanded by Gustav-Adolf Mügler, age twenty-six, captured two small (1,000-ton) Finnish freighters deemed to be transporting contraband and escorted them into Germany. Discounting these insignificant “prizes,” the ten boats of the Wegener and Hundius flotillas had sunk only eight ships—three each by Prien and Schultze, two by Liebe. Seven of the ten skippers had sunk no ships. Moreover, one of these ten boats, U-39, was missing. It was not an auspicious beginning.

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