Military history

THE NORTH ATLANTIC RUN

Owing to the great distance to Greenland waters, which severely limited the patrol time of the Type VII boats, to the fog on the Newfoundland Bank and other hazards to navigation, and to radio interference, Dönitz had curtailed U-boat operations in that distant area in the summer of 1941. However, the intensified British ASW measures in Icelandic waters and in the Northwest Approaches—in particular the air patrols—persuaded Dönitz to again shift the weight of North Atlantic operations westward toward Greenland, beyond reach of Iceland-based short-range Hudsons and the long-range Catalinas and Mariners. There was another advantage. Dönitz knew that the inexperienced Canadians now escorted Sydney (or Slow) convoys between Canada and Iceland. The many green U-boat skippers and crews entering the Atlantic on maiden patrols stood a far better chance of success and survival against these convoys than others.

Beginning with group Markgraf, for the next seventy days—early September into early November—Dönitz attempted to maintain one or more large groups in the waters southeast of Greenland. Because of the fuel limitations of the Type VIIs, the makeup of these wolf packs changed often, the new boats from Germany or France replacing the boats that were forced to terminate patrols.

Two new boats that had pioneered Arctic patrols in the summer, U-81 and U-652, sailed from Trondheim to join the Markgraf group. On the morning of September 4, an Iceland-based Coastal Command Hudson of British Squadron 269 spotted U-652, but her young skipper, George-Werner Fraatz, age twenty-four, crash-dived before the Hudson could mount an attack.

As it happened, there was a lone American destroyer about ten miles to the south—Greer, a four-stack, similar to the fifty American destroyers given to Britain. Commanded by Laurence H. Frost, Greer was en route to Iceland with mail and freight for the American occupation forces. Sighting Greer, the Hudson signaled that a U-boat lay along her track. As a precaution Frost ordered general quarters and increased speed to 22 knots. The Hudson returned to the place where U-652 had dived and dropped four 250-pound depth charges and notified Iceland headquarters, which later sent to the scene relief planes and three destroyers, Malcolm, Sardonyx, and Watchman.

Under the ambiguous orders then in force for American warships, Greer could defend herself, but she was not specifically authorized to mount an unprovoked attack on a U-boat. Coming up, Greer slowed to 10 knots and got U-652 on sonar and held the contact, maneuvering to keep the U-boat on her bows. Why Frost elected to act aggressively against U-652 is not certain; perhaps to drill his crew, perhaps to hold the U-boat in place until other British ASW forces arrived. Unable to evade and doubtless fearing the arrival of other ASW forces, after three hours of harassment Fraatz, who may have believed Greer was one of the fifty four-stack destroyers transferred to Britain, shot a torpedo at her. It was the first German U-boat attack on an American warship in the war.

Fully alert to a possible attack, Frost evaded the torpedo and counterattacked, dropping eight depth charges. Fraatz responded with a second torpedo, which Frost also evaded. During the evasion, Frost lost sonar contact, and Fraatz escaped, temporarily. Frost regained contact two hours later and mounted a second attack, dropping eleven more depth charges. None fell close and Fraatz again eluded Greer. Frost hunted for another four hours, then gave up and proceeded to Iceland. Greer’s failure to pursue more aggressively—and to call in other ASW forces—drew angry comments from Atlantic Fleet commander Ernest King.

To this time the United States had publicly maintained a pretense of neutrality. That pose, however, could not be sustained for long. American destroyers were preparing to escort their first fast convoy, Halifax 150, from Canada to Iceland. Partly to justify that overt intervention in the war, Roosevelt indignantly denounced U-652’s attack on Greer as unprovoked “piracy” and revealed that he had issued what the media described as orders to “shoot on sight” any Axis submarines or ships that threatened the freedom of the seas. “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike,” Roosevelt explained in a “Fireside Chat” radio broadcast, “you do not wait until he has struck you before you crush him.”

Admirals Raeder and Dönitz seized upon Roosevelt’s public declaration to urge Hitler to rescind the complicated restrictions on U-boats. Meeting with the Führer at his headquarters, Wolfsschanze, they proposed, in effect, that U-boats be permitted to wage unrestricted submarine warfare to within twenty miles of the coast of North and South America. But Hitler demurred. Impeded by rain, poor roads, and other factors, the Russian campaign was not going as rapidly as planned. However, “great decisions” were expected by the end of September, Hitler said. Therefore, “care should be taken,” he told Raeder and Dönitz, “to avoid any incidents in the war on merchant shipping before about the middle of October.” Since this would leave German submariners fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, Hitler directed Dönitz to tactfully inform his men of “the reason for temporarily keeping to the old orders.”

Perhaps put on the scent of a convoy by B-dienst, or influenced by the Greer incident, merely hours after the encounter between U-652 and Greer, Dönitz shifted the entire Markgraf group (fourteen boats) 150 miles farther to the west—toward safer waters southeast of Greenland. On September 9, two of the most recent boats to join the group, U-81 and U-85, patrolled close to the ice pack on the east coast of Greenland. Early that day Friedrich Guggenberger in U-81 found and sank a lone 5,600-ton British freighter. A little to the south of Guggenberger, Eberhard Greger, age twenty-six, in U-85 ran into a huge mass of ships. He shot at one British freighter, but missed, and got off a contact report.

The U-81 and U-85 had found Slow Convoy 42. Composed of sixty-five ships making about 5 knots, it was escorted by the newly formed Canadian Escort Group 24, consisting of the modern Canadian destroyer Skeena, commanded by the combat-experienced J. C. Hibbard, and corvettes Alberni, Kenogami, and Orillia.

Acting on Greger’s contact report, Dönitz directed the entire Markgraf group to close and attack. Three other boats joined U-81 and U-85 during the night of September 9-10 and the next day. All five U-boats found good hunting.

• Guggenberger in U-81 carried out two further attacks, expending all his torpedoes except one. He claimed sinking four more ships (for a total of five ships for 31,000 tons), but only one other of 3,300 tons went down.

• Siegfried Rollmann, age twenty-six, in the new U-82, sank one ship, the 7,500-ton Empire Hudson, equipped with a catapult and aircraft.

• Although Eberhard Greger in U-85 reported five torpedo failures in two attacks, he claimed sinking three ships for 15,000 tons, and possibly one other, but only one for 4,700 tons could be confirmed. He sank her during a submerged periscope attack. In response, skipper Hibbard in the destroyer Skeena and Reginald Jackson in Kenogami (on her first combat cruise), aggressively pounced on U-85, dropping depth charges which inflicted such serious engine damage that Greger was forced to abort.

• Heinz-Otto Schultze, age twenty-six, in the new U-432, sank three ships for 9,500 tons and shadowed aggressively.

• Georg-Werner Fraatz in U-652 damaged the 6,500-ton British tanker Tahchee and the 3,500-ton British freighter Baron Pentland. Owing to a mix-up in signals, the corvette Orillia, commanded by W.E.S. (Ted) Briggs, took the tanker Tahchee in tow and set off for Iceland, leaving only three escorts. The Baron Pentland was abandoned, but her cargo of lumber kept her afloat.

Total bag in the first assault by these five boats: seven ships for 30,600 tons sunk; two for 9,900 tons damaged.

Upon receiving the news that Slow Convoy 42 was under attack, Western Approaches ordered surface and air escorts to rush to its assistance. The first reinforcements were two Canadian corvettes, Chambly and Moosejaw, Canada’s first “Support Group.”* The two corvettes caught up with some ships of the disorganized convoy at about 2200 on the night of September 10. Mere minutes after arriving on station, Chambly, commanded by J. D. Prentice, got a “good” sonar contact, ran down the bearing, and attacked with four depth charges. Moosejaw, commanded by F. E. Grubb, maneuvering to assist, saw a U-boat surface dead ahead and opened fire with her 4” gun. However, the gun jammed and Grubb put on speed to ram.

The boat was the new Type IXC U-501, commanded by Hugo Förster, age thirty-six, thirty-five days out from Trondheim. In that long, arduous time, Förster had sunk one freighter, a 2,000-ton Norwegian, on September 5, expending six torpedoes and forty rounds from his deck gun to do so. Chambly’s depth charges caught the boat at 131 feet, putting out lights, smashing dials and valves, and blowing off the port diving plane. Although U-501 was faster than the corvettes and Förster might well have escaped in the dark, he made the decision to scuttle.

As Moosejaw closed U-501 to ram, Förster put on rudder and ran parallel with the corvette, the sides of the two vessels merely inches apart. To the astonishment of Germans and Canadians alike, Förster suddenly leaped from the deck of U-501 to the deck of Moosejaw. “It is not clear how he did it,” Grubb reported, “but he did not get wet in the process.” That Förster had given up the fight so quickly and was first, rather than last, to leave his ship caused deep resentment among the Germans. Förster later justified his action as the first step in a process to “negotiate the surrender of the crew,” but few Canadians believed that.

Unprepared “to repel boarders,” Grubb veered off before any more Germans could leap on his ship. Abandoned by the captain, U-501’s first watch officer, Werner Albring, assumed command and ordered the boat scuttled. In the ensuing minutes, Chambly sent across a nine-man boarding party, led by Edward T. Simmons, to grab secret papers. Simmons found eleven Germans still on the deck of U-501 and forced two of them at gunpoint to the bridge to help him, but it was all for naught. Flooding swiftly by the stern, the boat literally sank beneath Simmons’s feet. Moosejaw and Chambly rescued thirty-seven Germans, including all six officers and midshipmen; about eleven German enlisted men were never accounted for. One man of the boarding party, William I. Brown, was swept away and could not be found.

British intelligence officers noted the youth, the lack of experience and training of U-501’s crew, the exceptional seniority of Förster, and his newness to the U-boat arm. Only seven men of the forty-eight-man crew had made prior patrols in U-boats. One enlisted man was merely seventeen years old. According to the British author Terence Robertson, when Förster was delivered to the officers’ POW camp at Grizedale Hall, Otto Kretschmer convened the Council of Honor to try Förster for cowardice, as he had tried Rahmlow and Berndt of U-570. But when camp officials got wind of the plan, they isolated Förster and sent him to another POW camp.

While Chambly and Moosejaw were sinking U-501, a half dozen other U-boats of group Markgraf commenced a second assault on the main body of Slow Convoy 42.

Ritterkreuz holder Wolfgang Lüth in the weary IX U-43 fired a salvo of six torpedoes, but four broached and ran erratically and the other two missed.

• Siegfried Rollmann in U-82 carried out a second and third attack, claiming four more ships sunk for 26,000 tons. Postwar accounting credited three ships for 16,900 tons, including the 7,500-ton British tanker Bulysses sunk, and damage to the 2,000-ton Swedish freighter Scania.

• Ritterkreuz holder Georg Schewe in the IXB U-105 sank a 1,500-ton straggler, but his diesels failed, forcing him to abort.

• Fritz Meyer, age twenty-five, in the new VIIC U-207 sank two freighters for 9,700 tons, and possibly a small Canadian freighter.

• Hans-Heinz Linder, age twenty-eight, in the VIIC U-202 missed with all five torpedoes in his first attack. In a second attack he finished off the damaged Scania with two torpedoes and wrongly claimed sinking an escort.

• Heinz-Otto Schultze in the new U-432, making his third attack, sank a 1,200-ton freighter—his third confirmed victim.

• Hans Ey, age twenty-five, in the new U-433 damaged a 2,200-ton freighter.

• Hans-Peter Hinsch in the new U-569 was forced to abort with mechanical problems before he could shoot.

Total bag in the second assault on Slow Convoy 42: eight ships for 31,300 tons sunk and possibly another for 1,500 tons; one ship for 2,200 tons damaged.

During the morning of September 11, reinforcements arrived from Iceland to assist this besieged convoy escort: Catalinas of British Squadron 209, five destroyers of British Escort Group 2 commanded by W. E. Banks in Douglas, the smart British corvette Gladiolus, the Canadian corvette Wetaskiwin, and two British trawlers, Buttermere and Windemere. These raised the total surface escorts for that day to twelve.

In the early afternoon, a Coastal Command aircraft reported a U-boat lying ahead of the convoy. Banks in Douglas sent two of his destroyers, Leamington and Veteran, to investigate. At 3:00 P.M., both destroyers saw a U-boat on the surface about seven miles dead ahead. This was Fritz Meyer’s new VIIC U-207, merely two weeks out of Trondheim. Leamington and Veteran charged at 22 knots and Meyer crash-dived, but he was too late and both destroyers soon got U-207 on sonar. In three deliberate, well-planned attacks, Leamington and Veteran dropped twenty-one depth charges. Having no tangible proof of a kill, Leamington and Veteran did not get credit in wartime for one, but nothing further was ever heard from U-207 after this attack. In the postwar years, the Admiralty gave the two destroyers credit for the kill.

For the next five days, six U-boats stalked Slow Convoy 42 eastward toward Iceland and beyond. But the large force of surface escorts, including three American destroyers (Hughes, Russell, Sims) that came out from Iceland, and Iceland-based aircraft held the U-boats off. Late on September 16, however, as the convoy approached North Channel, Robert Gysae in U-98 attacked and sank a 4,400-ton British freighter. Still later, Heinz-Joachim Neumann in U-372 found the abandoned hulk of the freighter Baron Pentland, damaged by Fraatz in U-652, and sank her.

Total confirmed damage to Slow Convoy 42 in all the attacks: nineteen of the original sixty-five ships for 73,574 tons sunk (one tanker), and the 6,500-ton tanker Tahchee, hit but saved.

In terms of ships sunk, to then this was the second-worst convoy loss of the war after Slow Convoy 7, from which U-boats sank twenty-one ships in October 1940. It came just as the Americans took command of the Canada-Iceland convoy-escort forces and it naturally made a powerful impression on Atlantic Fleet commander King, as well as Support Force commander Bristol. It virtually cast in concrete the prevailing American view that a poorly escorted convoy was much worse than no convoy at all.

The Canadians drew a barrage of official and unofficial criticism for the performance of their Escort Group 24. They could be faulted perhaps for attempting too much too soon, mostly out of nationalistic pride, but the Admiralty was also at fault. It permitted this insufficiently equipped and trained naval force to assume large responsibilities before it was fully qualified and then routed the convoy north, directly into the arms of Markgraf, rather than south to avoid this menace.* Although Orillia mistakenly left the convoy prematurely, the other Canadian warships performed well or even better than anyone had any right to expect, all things considered. In this battle, the Canadians sank their first U-boat, U-501, and so badly damaged U-85 that she had to abort.

One final aspect of this battle should be stressed. It was much easier for U-boats to track and attack a slow convoy, whether eastbound or westbound, as opposed to a convoy that traveled two to four knots faster, such as the Halifax convoys. Although seemingly slight, the edge in speed enjoyed by “fast” convoys was just sufficient to outrun most U-boats converging on a convoy from the more distant areas of a patrol line. Moreover, the fast destroyers escorting fast convoys could drop back to drive down and hold off U-boat shadowers and still catch up with the convoy, whereas the shadower subjected to such harassment could not.

Assuming from the overclaims in the flash battle reports that group Markgraf had sunk well over twice the tonnage confirmed in postwar records, for the loss of two boats (both on maiden patrols), Dönitz was not unhappy with the results.

A new patrol line, group Brandenburg, replaced group Markgraf. It was composed of nine boats, some of them newly arrived from Germany or France.

One of the boats assigned to Brandenburg was the VIIC U-94, now commanded by young Otto Ites, age twenty-three, who had been a watch officer on the famous U-48 for two full years of combat. As such he had served under the boat’s four Ritterkreuzholders: Herbert Schultze, Hans-Rudolf Rösing, Heinrich Bleichrodt, and Reinhard Suhren. Ites had orders to return U-94 to the Baltic for a thorough yard overhaul and upgrade.

En route to the Brandenburg patrol area on September 15, the U-94 came upon elements of convoy Outbound North 14 and/or other lone vessels. Making the most of this lucky find, in a series of skilled night surface attacks, Ites sank three freighters (two British, one Greek) for 16,477 tons, a notable debut for this young skipper who had obviously learned well on U-48. He had no luck while in Brandenburg but two weeks later, October 1, Ites sank the impressive 12,800-ton British tanker San Florentino, a straggler from the storm-scattered slow convoy Outbound North 19. This success raised his total bag to four ships for 29,300 tons, earning a warm welcome for the boat when it arrived in Kiel for overhaul.

Unknown to Donitz, one of the Brandenburg boats, Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat’s U-74, came upon Slow Convoy 44 on September 18. It consisted of sixty-six ships, thinly escorted by another Canadian escort group comprised of one destroyer and four corvettes. Kentrat got off a contact report, but Kerneval did not hear him. Other boats did and while they were converging on his beacon, Kentrat attacked the convoy twice, expending all torpedoes. He claimed sinking four large freighters for 26,000 tons, but only two ships for 8,000 tons were confirmed: a British freighter and the Canadian corvette Levis, commanded by C. W. Gilding. The Canadian corvettes Mayflower and Agassiz were able to rescue forty survivors of Levis; seventeen Canadians perished.

Other boats made contact with Slow Convoy 44 late on September 19 and attacked. The first was Ritterkreuz holder Erich Topp in U-552. He claimed sinking two tankers and two freighters for 27,000 tons. Postwar records confirmed two tankers, the 8,200-ton British T. J. Williams and 6,300-ton Norwegian Barbro, and one 4,200-ton freighter, a total of 18,700 tons. The U-69, commanded by Wilhelm Zahn, who had been relieved of command of the duck U-56 earlier in the year because of nerves, found the blazing Barbro and gave it a finishing shot, but the torpedo failed to detonate and Zahn sank no ships. Nor did any other boat.

Total damage to Slow Convoy 44 by Kentrat and Topp: seven ships (two tankers) for 26,700 tons.

During this engagement, eastbound convoy Halifax 150 passed several hundred miles to the south. Comprised of fifty fast merchant ships of several nationalities, including the 17,000-ton British liner Empress of Asia, it was the first Halifax convoy to have an exclusively American escort group. The group consisted of five destroyers, the new Ericsson and Eberle, and three four-stacks: Dallas* Ellis, and Upshur. Because the nine U-boats of group Markgraf had raced north to attack Slow Convoy 44, Halifax 150 encountered no enemy opposition. One freighter of the convoy, Nigaristan, caught fire and had to be abandoned. Per plan, a British escort group composed of two destroyers’ arid four corvettes relieved the American escort at the Mid-Ocean Meeting Point (MOMP) south of Iceland and took the convoy onward to the British Isles. The American destroyers put into Iceland to refuel and to prepare for a return voyage to Canada with a fast Outbound North convoy.

The Americans learned numerous lessons on this mission. Chief among them was what the British had found out the hard way: that owing to fuel limitations and instability, the aged American four-stack destroyers, such as Dallas, were not really suitable for North Atlantic convoy escort.

British codebreakers made some strides in penetrating the double-enciphered German naval grid codes and could plot or guess at the positions of many boats of group Brandenburg and reroute convoys around them. As a consequence, the boats of this group scoured empty seas for days. The lack of contacts convinced Dönitz and his staff, as Dönitz logged it, that the British had “information obtained by methods undiscovered by us,” which enabled them to evade U-boat packs. In view of the intense measures taken recently to safeguard radio security and other factors, Dönitz doubted that the British “information” was derived from codebreaking. Moreover, on September 19, B-dienst assured Dönitz in writing that “a penetration of our codes does not come into the question”; it simply was not possible. Nonetheless, at Dönitz’s request the chief of the Kriegsmarine communications service, Vice Admiral Erhard Maertens, initiated a new and intensive investigation into cipher security.

Altogether the Allies sailed nearly 1,000 ships east and west in twenty North Atlantic convoys in September. The U-boat packs mounted successful attacks on two Canadian-escorted Slow convoys, 42 and 44, sinking twenty-six merchant ships (three tankers) for about 100,000 tons and one escort, the Canadian corvette Levis. In return, British and Canadian escorts sank two U-boats, U-207 and U-501, and Canadian escorts forced another, U-85, to abort with battle damage. The U-boats sank four other lone freighters for 12,800 tons in northern waters, making a total bag of twenty-eight ships for about 110,000 tons. About 970 ships in eighteen transatlantic convoys got through safely. A harsh gale scattered one convoy, Outbound North 19.

For the Germans, an ominous new trend had set in. In August and again in September, about half the U-boats on patrol returned to bases without having sunk a confirmed ship. This was due, in part, to the inexperience and lack of workup time for the skippers and crews of the many new boats; in part to the sharp reduction in Allied merchant ships sailing outside convoys; and in part to the assignment of U-boats to larger and larger groups, or “wolf packs,” most of which the Allies shrewdly evaded with the help of Ultra.

On the other side, and no less ominous, British forces had not increased the rate of U-boat kills. They had carried out two sinkings and the capture of U-570 in August and two sinkings of August-sailing boats in September. However, they sank none of the twenty-six U-boats sailing on war patrol from Germany or France in September. This lack of kills was due in part to the continuing inability of Coastal Command aircraft to sink sighted U-boats, and in part to the “evasive” convoy strategy, which drastically curtailed contacts between surface escorts and U-boats.

It was all well and good to ensure “the safe and timely” arrival of convoys in the British Isles, a strictly defensive policy, but unless the rate of U-boat kills increased sharply and soon by offensive action, the Atlantic U-boat force would grow to be a truly formidable foe.

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