World War II

Down to the sea

... into troubled waters

by Jerry Norton

Watching television programs dealing with historical events sometimes calls to mind a story about which your writer has had some personal knowledge. My recent viewing dealt with the subject of the North Atlantic convoy battles of the Second World War.

Convoy assembled

As a member of the Navy Armed Guard serving aboard merchant vessels I had occasion to make several ocean crossings between the US and Great Britain during that period. The winter and spring of 1942/43 saw both the violence of the weather and the struggle reach new heights. The stakes were high for both sides and, for the Allies, it was essential that the ocean supply lines be kept open in order to sustain Britain and prepare for the Allied invasion of the continent the following year.

SS Western Queen

During most of this time the German U-boat strength was at its greatest and the Allied defenses at their weakest. It was not uncommon for a convoy of as many as seventy merchant ships to be escorted by as few as six or eight naval destroyers and corvettes. Early on, the lack of advanced underwater listening devices (SONAR) - and until the advent of radar -  weighed heavily against the Allies.

 British corvette

The German strategy was fairly simple: establish a line of submarines as pickets spread north to south along the expected paths of oncoming convoys, hoping that at least one U-boat would make a sighting. This boat would not attack but would radio the location, size, course and speed of the oncoming convoy to the other submarines. These boats would then speed to intercept the convoy and assemble in a "wolf pack" for a unified attack.

Heavy seas

The battle would be joined, most often in darkness, when one or more submarines succeeded in penetrating the escort screen undetected. Once inside, it was "Katie-bar-the-door" when they commenced firing torpedoes in spreads, resulting in a high  probability of hits. Several of the escort ships would then break to the inside of the convoy and engage the U-boats with gunfire, depth charges and ramming.

Losses of merchant ships (and occasionaly an escorting destroyer) were always the greatest in the mid-Atlantic portion of the crossing where land-based Allied aircraft could not reach to assist in suppressing the submarines. We referred to this area as "the black pit" and, plodding at eight or nine knots, we were days transiting it.

Armed Guard gun crew

Looking back, one of my most memorable crossings was made in March 1943, at the height of the U-boat successes against our shipping.  I was aboard an old World War I freighter, SS Western Queen, in an eastbound convoy (code-named SC123). It was remarkable for what didn't happen in light of the terrible losses inflicted upon both of the convoys ahead of mine, (SC122 and HX229), who lost 22 ships, only part of  the total of over one-hundred Allied supply vessels torpedoed and sunk during that month of March alone. My group made that voyage unscathed, thanks to the efficient work of one of our destroyer support units who operated independently of the screening ships.

We had departed New York on 14 March 1943 in company with 43 other merchantmen (cargo ships) and an escorting screen of about seven British destroyers and corvettes. Twelve days later, as we crossed the submarine picket line, we were detected by two U-boats who were promptly pounced upon by our support destroyers, driving them down before they could get off a contact report. Whether our escape was due to the lack of this report or because all available U-boats were busy attacking the above-mentioned convoys, I don't know. In the fortunes of war one does not "look a gift horse in the mouth."

Depth charge geyser

While Allied losses in both ships and men were prodigious during the long years of the war it must be acknowledged that of the 39,000 German U-boat sailors who put to sea, only 7,000 survived to return to the Fatherland. In the late spring and early summer of 1943 the battle turned dramatically against the Germans, largely due to the Allies' advanced technology, more escort destroyers and total air cover. The hunters then became the hunted and life on "Das Boote" was a poor place for a guarantee of longevity.

Now the deep caverns of the Atlantic Ocean are littered with rusted hulks, the ships of friend and foe alike, bearing mute testimony to the fury of that distant time.

September 1, 2006

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