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Photo: Courtesy of Ted Barris

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How the Second World War’s Greatest Battle Was Waged on Water

In an excerpt from "The Battle of the Atlantic" by Ted Barris, the author recounts tense moments when Canadian ships tracked – and sank – German U-boats off the East Coast / BY Ted Barris / September 23rd, 2022


In the 20th century’s greatest war, one battlefield held the key to victory or defeat – the North Atlantic. It took 2,074 days and nights to determine its outcome, but the Battle of the Atlantic proved to be the turning point of the Second World War.

For five and a half years, German warships and submarines attempted to destroy Allied transatlantic convoys, mostly escorted by Royal Canadian Navy destroyers and corvettes, as well as aircraft of the Royal Canadian Air Force. By positioning deadly U-boat “wolf packs” in the paths of Merchant Navy convoys, the German Kriegsmarine nearly strangled this vital lifeline to a beleaguered Great Britain.

In 1939, Canada’s navy went to war with exactly 13 warships and about 3,500 sailors. During the desperate Atlantic crossings, the Royal Canadian Navy grew to 400 fighting ships and more than 100,000 men and women in uniform. By V-E Day in 1945, it had become the fourth largest navy in the world. The Battle of the Atlantic proved to be Canada’s longest continuous military engagement of the war. The story of Canada’s naval awakening in the bloody battle to get convoys to Britain is a Canadian wartime saga for the ages.

The following passage is an excerpt from Battle of the Atlantic: Gauntlet to Victory, a new book by Ted Barris, the Canadian author of 20 works of nonfiction, including 10 wartime histories.  

Inexperience had been Cdr James Prentice’s mortal enemy during his first year with the Royal Canadian Navy – not his inexperience, but that of his charges. In August 1941, as newly appointed senior officer, Canadian corvettes, with the Newfoundland Escort Force, Prentice had faced the greatest challenge of his navy career – taking a growing fleet of tiny corvettes intended for harbour patrol, manning them with inexperienced volunteers from across Canada, and transforming ships and crews into deep-sea sub-killers.

Their baptism of fire arrived during those early days of September 1941. In the darkness of early-morning September 5, Prentice’s corvette, HMCS Chambly, and her sister ship, HMCS Moose Jaw, had just put to sea from St. John’s. Never letting them stay long enough in port to get dry, Prentice had ordered Chambly and Moose Jaw into work-ups – practicing convoy screening, U-boat detection, and assault tactics – off the coast of Newfoundland. Not one to sit and wait for trouble, but more likely to go find it, Prentice had decided to stage his advanced exercises farther out to sea, closer to the shipping lanes off Greenland where U-boats and convoys were likely to tangle. And if called upon for assistance, Prentice knew exactly what he’d do.

“When we get there, we’ll not have to worry about the convoy,” he told Edward Simmons, his first lieutenant onboard Chambly. “Our job will be to find the enemy and kill him.”

Cdr Prentice didn’t know that the Canadian 24th Escort Group – destroyer HMCS Skeena and her Flower-class corvettes HMCS Alberni, Kenogami, and Orillia – escorting Convoy SC 42, were about to meet a growing wolf pack head on, near Cape Farewell, Greenland. Much like some of the novices on the German side, crews aboard the three Canadian corvettes escorting SC 42 were experiencing their first ocean convoy. NEF had tasked the four escorts to screen a convoy of twelve columns of freighters and tanker ships three miles wide and a mile and a quarter from front to back. Suddenly, on the morning of September 9, Prentice received new orders from Cmdre Murray at NEF HQ in St. John’s. He was to steam with all possible speed northeast to reinforce Skeena and the other warships escorting Convoy SC 42.

 

Ted Barris
In six war years, 543 ships were built in Canada, including 122 corvettes like the HMCS Orillia, which was launched in Collingwood, Ont., in 1940. Photo: Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston. Photo: Courtesy of Ted Barris

 

That night, the wolf pack struck. Just before midnight, U432 approached the convoy along its port wing. Seas were moderate, and with skies clear, the moonlight made visibility on both sides almost as clear as day. At 12:46 a.m., Skeena’s LCdr James Hibbard got word that SS Muneric, a merchant ship in the first column, had been torpedoed. Then Hibbard’s sister escort, corvette Kenogami, reported a U-boat sighting on the surface and opened fire. But Hibbard faced the reality that his was the only warship fast enough to keep pace with any of the attacking U-boats. He knew he had to keep his three corvettes tightly screening the convoy and, where possible, picking up survivors, not chasing U-boats.

Radio silence was suddenly broken as merchant ships reported sightings of many U-boats from several locations within the convoy. Hibbard spotted distress rockets on the opposite side of the convoy. KK Georg-Werner Fraatz, commanding U652 on just his second patrol, had fired a spread of torpedoes into the convoy’s starboard quarter. Increasing his speed to eighteen knots to get to the scene of the latest attack, LCdr Hibbard deftly threaded Skeena back through the centre of the convoy. Instead of firing off starshells, which would have blinded warship and merchant crews alike, he turned on navigation lights to avoid colliding with any merchant ships.

Then a succession of explosions erupted. At 2:50 a.m., merchant steamship Winterswijk blew up. Four minutes later it was SS Tahchee’s turn, and then SS Baron Pentland – within 200 yards of Skeena. Hibbard suddenly had U652 in his sights.

 

Ted Barris
Canadian merchant marine ships carried everything from TNT (explosives) to food and fuel across the Atlantic to British civilians. The merchant navy suffered the highest per capita losses (1 in 8) of any Canadian wartime service. Photo: Courtesy of Ted Barris

 

“It [was my intention] to ram the submarine inside the convoy,” he wrote. “On completion of the turn, closed the position where the U-boat had been sighted, illuminated with starshell and dropped depth charges.”

In spite of Hibbard’s success in overtaking his adversary, U652 had successfully crash-dived to elude Skeena’s attack. And though Korvettenkapitan Fraatz had managed to torpedo Tahchee, carrying 6,500 tons of fuel oil in her holds, the tanker stayed afloat. LCdr Ted Briggs, commander of the corvette Orillia, realized the importance of saving the tanker, her load, and her merchant sailors, so his crew secured a line to the burning ship to tow her to the nearest port in Iceland. Of course, that reduced the number of warships escorting the convoy to three. LCdr Hibbard legitimately feared he might lose the majority of Convoy SC 42. He received word that some relief escorts had set out from the Western Approaches, but they were forty-eight hours away. Then Hibbard’s crew made a new sighting – the most welcome of the week – unexpected escorts approaching from the southwest.

Lookouts onboard HMCS Chambly reported to Cdr James Prentice that they’d spotted an arc of white distress rockets from SC 42 on the horizon. Prentice signalled Lt Frederick Grubb and HMCS Moose Jaw to a position on Chambly’s starboard beam, and together, just the way Prentice had practised, the two corvettes approached the convoy from its dark side so they might not be spotted, away from the moonlight. His hunch proved right. Six miles in front of Chambly, coming from the opposite direction, KK Förster jockeyed U501 into an advantageous line of attack, running at full speed at periscope depth, just under the surface. It was just past midnight when U501’s engines and propeller noise became audible.

“Echo bearing 020 degrees,” called out Chambly’s ASDIC operator. “Range 700 yards. Submarine contact.”

U501 and HMCS Chambly were closing rapidly, head-on on opposite courses. Prentice reduced Chambly’s speed. He knew the depth charges were set for over 100 feet, and it was too late to adjust them, so he called for an earlier drop of a five-charge pattern to compensate. But, because of the inexperience of the quarterdeck depth-charge crews, the firing was irregular; as a result, the first and second charges were dropped close together. Astern of Chambly, Lt Grubb abruptly altered Moose Jaw’s course to steer clear of the blast he knew was coming. The concussion struck Chambly aft like the kick of a wild horse. Worse for U501, the blast blew off the U-boat’s stern port hydroplane outside the hull while also smashing her regulator tanks, which sent high-pressure water shooting everywhere inside the U-boat. Förster’s inexperience gave him the impression U501 was sinking.

“Surface! Surface!” he screamed. “We’re flooding.”

“We must go down to ninety metres,” machinist Fritz Weinrich called out to his commander, offering an alternative to save the U-boat and possibly escape.

“Surface!” the captain called again, and the order “Blow!”

Meanwhile, Lt Grubb altered Moose Jaw’s course, taking full advantage of his corvette’s tight turning circle, and powered back in the direction of the explosion. Suddenly the water roiled and bubbled 400 yards off his port bow as U501 surfaced and stopped dead. Grubb called for Moose Jaw’s four-inch gun to open fire and directed his corvette on a ramming course.

“I managed to go alongside the submarine . . . and called on her to surrender,” Lt Grubb reported. “To my surprise, I saw a man make a magnificent leap from the submarine’s deck into our waist [mid-part of the corvette], and the remainder of her crew move to do likewise. . . . The submarine altered across my bows and I rammed her.”

 

Ted Barris
The Royal Canadian Air Force Sunderland bomber gives air cover to an Atlantic convoy. Photo: Library and Archives Canada/Courtesy of Ted Barris

 

The U-boat officer who’d leapt onto Moose Jaw’s deck turned out to be KK Hugo Förster. But the drama wasn’t over. Cdr Prentice, wanting to complete the capture, rushed Chambly astern of the U-boat, and at fifty yards, launched a skiff with an armed boarding party. First aboard U501 was Chambly stoker William Brown, who ordered German crew, at gunpoint, to assist in preventing the U-boat from being scuttled.

“Herr Oberleutnant,” machinist Weinrich called to engineer Schiemann, “the enemy are on board!”

From Moose Jaw came backup troops. First Lt Edward Simmons mounted the conning tower to descend through the hatchway. His Mae West life jacket got caught on entry. It was too late. The U-boat crew, most of them having abandoned ship, had opened U501’s stern torpedo hatch to scuttle it, and water was rushing through the hull and now up through the hatchway. The U-boat lurched and began pulling everything and everyone down. Stoker Brown was nowhere to be found, and it was all Simmons could do to save himself.

“There was no sensation of being sucked under, just a hopeless feeling of not being able to last out,” he said. “When I did reach the surface, I popped out like a champagne cork . . . I was alongside our lifeboat which had picked up our boys and some Germans.”

As quickly as the battle on the surface had begun, it ended. In minutes, U501 was gone. KK Förster was a prisoner of war. Corvette crews aboard Moose Jaw and Chambly hauled aboard the remaining U-boat survivors. The Canadians managed to save thirty-five of U501’s officers and men from the sea, while William Brown and ten German U-boat sailors died when the submarine went down. The two corvettes’ decks suddenly revealed an odd visual contradiction – U-boat and merchant navy sailors shivering and shipless, sharing the same space.

Over the next few days, Allied escorts and Coastal Command aircraft guided what was left of Convoy SC 42 to safer waters near their destination ports around the UK. By

September 15, HMCS Orillia had towed the tanker Tahchee and her crew safely to Iceland; although LCdr Briggs took criticism for his decision to leave the convoy to salvage the tanker, ultimately he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. The battle for Convoy SC 42 had taken its toll. Of the original sixty-seven ships, only forty-eight arrived in the UK safely. The Kriegsmarine wolf pack had sunk fifteen merchant ships and damaged several others. In the attack, more than 200 merchant sailors died in explosions and fires, or by drowning or exposure in Arctic waters. And more than 70,000 tons of cargo had gone down. The lost materials would have fed thousands of people, become countless war munitions, and built several ships.

 

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