Military history

ANOTHER FIERCE CONVOY BATTLE

By the beginning of October in the North Atlantic, the luckless Brandenburg pack had dissolved and a new pack, Mordbrenner, was in process of formation. Four new boats arriving from Germany were to serve as the cadre. They were to be augmented by four veteran boats sailing from France, including Ernst Mengersen in the VIIB U-101, which was to be retired to the Training Command. But Mengersen’s radio failed two days out from France and he was forced to abort to Lorient.

Four boats returning to France in early October came upon single merchant ships and sank three.

• Horst Hamm in the new VIIC U-562 found the 7,500-ton British freighter Empire Wave, which had been fitted with a catapult and fighter. She had sailed westward in the storm-scattered convoy Outbound North 19. Hamm hit and sank her with two torpedoes. The crew launched two fifty-foot lifeboats; the port boat held sixteen men. Fifteen days later, an Iceland-based American Catalina found the port boat and later that day a British trawler rescued the sixteen men. The starboard boat was never found.

• Günther Heydemann in the new VIIC U-575 found a cluster of four ships, apparently stragglers from a storm-tossed convoy. He shot three torpedoes into the cluster, sinking the 4,700-ton Dutch freighter Tuva.

• Wilhelm Dommes in the U-431 sank the 3,200-ton British freighter Hatasu.

While en route to join group Mordbrenner off Greenland, one of the four new boats from Germany, the IXC U-502, commanded by Jürgen von Rosenstiel, age twenty-eight, ran into a fat target sailing alone. She was the 15,000-ton Norwegian whale-factory ship Svend Foyn, converted to a tanker. Massively laden with 20,000 tons of oil and ten(!) dismantled B-24 Liberator bombers on her main deck, and 220 passengers, she had sailed with convoy Halifax 152, escorted by an American group. When the convoy ran into heavy weather on October 1, Svend Foyn’s cargo shifted, forcing her to heave to for several hours, and during that pause the convoy proceeded without her.

When von Rosenstiel in U-502 spotted Svend Foyn on the afternoon of October 7, he fired two torpedoes. One missed but the other hit the starboard side of the ship, blowing a hole in her plates seventy feet long and forty feet wide. When he surfaced U-502 three-quarters of a mile astern to assess the damage, Svend Foyn opened fire with her 4” gun and machine guns, forcing the U-boat to dive and evade and forgo a second attack. Although the whale-factory ship was badly smashed up internally, the crew dumped 7,500 tons of oil and in a fine display of seamanship nursed the stricken vessel into Iceland six days later.

Upon learning that Svend Foyn had been torpedoed, the American escort commander commenced zigzagging the convoy, Halifax 152, toward the MOMP, where a British escort group awaited. While so maneuvering at dusk, some ships of the convoy missed turn signals. As a result, the “convoy [became] completely broken up,” the escort commander wrote later. The ragtag group he turned over to the waiting British was not a pretty sight; however, all eventually reached their destinations.

At the same time, a British group likewise fouled up. It was the escort for the fast convoy Outbound North 22. Sailing in heavy gale weather, the British had not been able to get a navigational fix on stars or the sun for three days. Relying only on dead reckoning, they arrived on October 7, but they were fifteen miles north of the rendezvous and the Americans could not find them. Most ships in this convoy sailed onward and dispersed, fortunately with no losses.

In the meantime, the German group Mordbrenner formed up on a line in the “Air Gap,” running southeasterly from Greenland. First came three of the four new boats from Germany. They were soon joined by Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt in the IXB U-109 from France, who had yet to sink a ship in his four months in this new command. The next boats from France assigned to the pack, Karl Thurmann in U-553 and Joachim Preuss in U-568, lagged by four days. Another six boats from France, including Mengersen’s resailing U-101, were to join Mordbrenner at mid-month, bringing the total to thirteen boats.

The North Atlantic was crowded with convoys: three inbound to the British Isles and two outbound. Aware from Ultra that Mordbrenner was forming southeasterly from Greenland, the British diverted all five convoys well to the south of the three boats of the cadre already on station. But the codebreakers at Bletchley Park “lost” naval Enigma on October 12 and 13, and the Admiralty’s U-boat Tracking Room was reduced to educated guesswork about the exact positions of the lagging fourth boat from Germany, U-502, and the eight boats en route from France to join the pack.

In the early hours of October 15, Thurmann in U-553 ran right into one of the five convoys. This was Slow Convoy 48, which had sailed with fifty ships and a Canadian escort group composed of the ex-American four-stack destroyer Columbia and seven corvettes (five Canadian, one British, one Free French). Several days after sailing, the convoy had run into a storm; about eleven merchant ships were straggling. One Canadian corvette, Shediac, whose radio was not properly tuned, had separated and was lost. Columbia and two other corvettes were attempting to round up the stragglers, leaving only four corvettes with the main body of the convoy.

Thurmann in U-553 got off a contact report and attacked. He missed his main targets, but claimed his torpedoes sank two ships for 11,000 tons and possibly a third of 4,000 tons. He was credited in postwar records with sinking two ships for 6,000 tons. Upon receiving Thurmann’s report, Dönitz directed him to shadow and brought up nine other boats—the new U-502 from Germany and the eight veteran boats en route to Greenland from France—to expand Mordbrenner.

While Thurmann shadowed during October 15 and the nine other boats homed on his beacon, British codebreakers recovered naval Enigma. They saw that a major U-boat attack against Slow Convoy 48 was developing. In reaction, they launched Catalinas from Iceland and directed numerous American and British surface ships nearby—including escorts of other nonthreatened convoys—to reinforce the Canadian escort group. Meanwhile, the destroyer Columbia and the two corvettes with her returned to the convoy. In the late afternoon, Columbia saw and attacked U-553. Thurmann responded by shooting torpedoes at Columbia, but he missed.

That night several boats closed on Thurmann’s beacon signals. On the way in, Günther Krech in U-558, a onetime Luftwaffe pilot who had served as first watch officer on Schepke’s famous U-100, found and sank the 9,500-ton Canadian freighter Vancouver Island (ex-German Weser), which was sailing alone. Joachim Preuss in U-568, making contact with the convoy itself, sank a 6,000-ton British freighter. The crack British corvette Gladiolus, credited with full or part credit for three U-boat kills (U-26, U-556, and incorrectly so for U-65), counterattacked and drove Preuss off.

The surface reinforcements arrived on October 16. First came five American destroyers which had escorted Halifax 151 to the MOMP and were returning to Canada with the fast convoy Outbound North 24. Next came two British destroyers from eastbound Troop Convoy 14. Last came two of six British corvettes from the slow convoy Outbound North 25, and a Free French corvette from Iceland. Total escorts, including the scattered Canadian group: eighteen (eight destroyers, ten corvettes), by far the strongest protection ever provided a North Atlantic convoy.

The senior officer in the escort force, the American Navy captain Leo H. The-baud, commander of Destroyer Squadron 13, assumed tactical control. He was not overly pleased with some of the American, skippers and vessels in his outfit. Of the five new destroyers that had so far reported for duty, he wrote later, only one had been properly worked up, only one had ever fired her main battery, and some had not even fired machine guns. Four of his skippers had considerable seniority and rank but no destroyer experience and their “ship handling ability and confidence in command were certainly far from an inspiration to their ship’s companies.” These “beautiful ships,” Thebaud lamented, “were being sent to sea in that condition on escort duty in the North Atlantic winter to pit their ignorance and lack of skill against enemy submarines experienced from two years of warfare.”*

The gathering U-boats struck at Slow Convoy 48 again in pitch darkness on the night of October 16-17. In his second attack, Thurmann in U-553 expended all his torpedoes. He sank a 6,600-ton Panamanian freighter and claimed a “destroyer,” but he missed the latter. Günther Krech in U-558 sank the 9,600-ton British tanker W. C. Teagle and the 6,600-ton Norwegian tanker Erviken, and probably another 1,400-ton Norwegian freighter. Heinz-Otto Schultze in U-432 sank the 9,700-ton Norwegian tanker Barfonn and a 5,300-ton Greek freighter but missed two others. Schultze described his hit on the Norwegian tanker Barfonn, which was loaded with aviation gasoline:

A colossal flame leapt from the convoy. In a moment it resolved itself into a tremendous flame which shot upwards from the water, accompanied by a roar like the passing of an express train. The great column of fire, whose diameter might have been equal to the length of the ship from whose tanks it sprang, seemed almost to reach the cloud base. The whole convoy was lit up by its brilliance.

In this chaos, the escorts charged to and fro, hurling depth charges and firing star shells. A torpedo from Schultze’s U-432 or Krech’s U-558 hit the gallant corvette Gladiolus, which blew up and disappeared with the loss of all hands. Preuss in U-568, who had sunk the British corvette Picotee in August, deliberately fired at and hit a “hostile” destroyer, which had slowed to a near dead stop to avoid colliding with a corvette.

The “hostile” destroyer was the new, stoutly built American vessel Kearny, commanded by Anthony L. Danis, age forty-two. The torpedo hit Kearny on the starboard side, killing eleven men and injuring twenty-two—the first American casualties of the North Atlantic naval war—and causing immense damage. However, Danis and his chief engineer, Robert J. Esslinger, and others, were able to control the damage* and to nurse Kearny out of the danger zone at 10 knots. Subsequently, Greer escorted Kearny into Iceland, where technicians on the tender Vulcan patched her back together.

The next day, October 17, British Escort Group 3, comprised of four destroyers, several corvettes, and several trawlers, joined Slow Convoy 48 while Catalinas from Iceland provided continuous air cover. The U-boats hung on, dodging aircraft, but they were not able to penetrate the tight escort screen to mount further attacks. The British destroyer Veronica carried out five depth-charge attacks and claimed a success, but no U-boat was sunk at this time and place. A Catalina bombed Krech in U-558, inflicting damage, but Krech gamely hung on for another twenty-four hours. During the night of October 17-18, Ernst Mengersen in U-101 hit the ex-American four-stack British destroyer Broadwater, inflicting such damage that she had to be abandoned and sunk.

Total damage to Slow Convoy 48: nine of fifty merchant ships for 51,000 tons definitely sunk (three tankers), plus the corvette Gladiolus sunk; destroyer Broadwater fatally damaged; and the American destroyer Kearny severely damaged.

President Roosevelt seized upon the Kearny incident to build public support for his decision to escort North Atlantic convoys and for repeal of the Neutrality Act. In a bellicose Navy Day speech on October 27, he said the United States had tried to avoid shooting but that the “shooting has started” and that “history has recorded who fired the first shot.” Although Hitler had insisted that “incidents” with United States ships be avoided, Joachim Preuss in U-568 was not criticized for the hit on Kearny. For past victories and for causing the loss of the destroyer Broadwater, Ernst Mengersen, who returned U-101 to the Training Command, was awarded a Ritterkreuz* and promoted to a staff job.

In the days following the attack on Slow Convoy 48, Dönitz formed the twenty boats in the North Atlantic that were already out or newly sailed into three groups:

MORDBRENNER. Never fully formed, this group of three new boats from Germany plus Bleichrodt’s U-109 from France was still in place southeast of Greenland and had achieved nothing. After the OKM obtained permission from Hitler, Dönitz sent these four boats westward toward Newfoundland to scout out and attack convoys that might be going northeastward through the Strait of Belle Isle.

This was the first U-boat group to deliberately and overtly operate in “American waters,” theretofore avoided for political reasons. British codebreakers decrypted the Enigma traffic ordering the assault and the Admiralty warned the Canadians what was afoot. Thus alerted, the Canadians mounted maximum air and surface ASW patrols, but the aircraft and ships available were few, the crews inexperienced, and the weather unfavorable for flying.

REISSWOLF. Composed of the new IXC U-502 from Germany and the seven veteran boats from France, all of which had attacked Slow Convoy 48, this pack replaced group Mordbrenner on a line southeast of Greenland. British code-breakers also noted its formation and rerouted convoys accordingly.

SCHLAGETOD. Composed of nine veteran boats newly sailing from France, this pack was to occupy waters slightly to the southeast of the Reisswolf pack, extending the U-boat line another 200 miles across the supposed convoy routes.

While outbound from France on the night of October 20, Horst Uphoff in U-84, a boat of the Schlagetod group, ran into what he reported as “four fast ships” 350 miles west of Ireland. Actually it was a formation of five big, fast armed merchant cruisers, escorted by the British Hunt-class destroyer Croome and the ex-American Coast Guard cutters Sennen and Totland, northbound to the British Isles. Doubtful that the other boats of Schlagetod could catch these ships before they came into range of Coastal Command aircraft, Dönitz relayed Uphoff’s report with instructions that no boat of the group should pursue the contact unless it had “a good chance of success.”

As it happened, at about that time one of the five big ships, Ranpura, had an engine failure and was forced to fall out of formation. The cutter Sennen dropped back to protect Ranpura and the other ships reduced speed from 14 to 11 knots. The reduction in speed enabled Uphoff in U-84 to close and shoot a fan of two torpedoes at one of the ships. However, both torpedoes missed and exploded at the end of their runs. Hearing the explosions, the other four big ships and two escorts, Croome and Totland, increased speed to 14 knots again, leaving Ranpura and Sennen behind, and spoiling Uphoff’s hopes for a second attack on the main body.

After Dönitz alerted the Schlagetod group to this contact, one of the boats, Reinhard Hardegen in U-123, was only about seventy miles to the northwest. Believing he had a “good chance of success,” Hardegen belayed his voyage to Greenland, reversed course, and homed on U-84’s beacon at maximum speed. When the ships speeded up and left U-84 behind, Dönitz canceled the operation, ordering all Schlagetod boats to resume their journey to Greenland waters. Risking a reprimand—or worse—Hardegen ignored the order and pressed on. His gamble paid off. In the early morning hours of October 21, Hardegen came upon the four fast-moving big ships and the two escorts. Maneuvering around the escorts, Hardegen set up on the third and fourth ships, intending to shoot a fan of three bow torpedoes at the third ship and a stern torpedo at the fourth ship, but an escort got in the way and he only had time to fire the bow torpedoes.

His target was the 14,000-ton Cunard White Star liner Aurania. One torpedo hit, causing considerable damage and confusion. When Aurania took on a heavy list, the crew rigged out lifeboats as a precaution, and one boat, holding six of her 250-man crew, launched prematurely and capsized. However, Aurania was not fatally holed; her captain got the ship under control and escaped at 8 knots, while the Croome and Totland threw out depth charges. Futilely chasing the other three big ships, Hardegen got off a contact report to Kerneval, then later returned to the scene of his attack to give Aurania a finishing shot. There he found nothing but a capsized lifeboat and one survivor, Bertie E. Shaw. Hardegen picked up Shaw, who cleverly misled Hardegen into believing Aurania had sunk so that he would not pursue her.*

Credited with sinking Aurania, Hardegen returned to his original westward course to Greenland. Later that day—October 21—his bridge watch spotted smoke puffs. It was inbound convoy Sierra Leone 89, consisting of twenty big freighters and tankers, escorted by three destroyers and three corvettes, as well as Coastal Command Catalinas, which had joined that day. While Hardegen was getting off a contact report, an escort, the sloop Wellington, spotted the boat and signaled its presence to a Catalina. The plane found and attacked U-123, dropping four 250-pound depth charges set for fifty feet. These exploded close to the boat, rattling Hardegen and his crew—and Shaw, the English prisoner, as well—but they did no serious damage. Three surface escorts combed the area, holding down U-123 until the convoy was safely away.

Upon receiving Hardegen’s report, Dönitz ordered group Schlagetod to find and attack the convoy. That night Siegfried Rollmann in U-82 and Rolf Mützelburg in U-203 made contact. Rollmann threaded through the escorts and fired, sinking two big British freighters. One, Treverbyn, loaded with 6,700 tons of iron ore, disappeared instantly with no survivors. In the light of star shells, the sloop Wellington spotted a U-boat and ran in to shoot and ram, but her gun misfired and the boat evaded and dived. Wellingtonthrew off depth charges, but none hit the mark; however, they discouraged further attacks by U-boats.

The next day, October 22, Coastal Command saturated the air over Sierra Leone 89 with Whitleys and Catalinas and one of its precious few long-range B-24 Liberators of Squadron 120. The continuous air coverage held off the Schlagetod boats as well as two Condors. The British aircraft carried out five attacks on U-boats, but the bombs and depth charges failed to release or misfired or fell wide of the target. In what was said to be the “first” attack by a B-24 Liberator on a U-boat, the aircraft dropped four 450-pound depth charges, set for fifty feet. One misfired but three exploded, doubtless shaking the boat, but no U-boats were sunk as a result of this or the other air attacks.

The presence of very heavy air and surface escort—and the onset of a storm—persuaded Dönitz to call off the pursuit. Having diverted for several days to chase the big, fast armed merchant ships and Sierra Leone 89 to little effect, group Schlagetod finally resumed its northwestward course toward Greenland. The chases had eaten up much fuel. Only Hardegen in the Type IXB U-123 had enough left to conduct an effective patrol.

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