GENERAL ARTICLES

They Kill U-Boats

"The grimmest game of chess in the world...is the war at your back door." A gripping story of the R. C. A. F.'s fight against submarines on the North Atlantic front

ARCH WHITEHOUSE May 1 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

They Kill U-Boats

"The grimmest game of chess in the world...is the war at your back door." A gripping story of the R. C. A. F.'s fight against submarines on the North Atlantic front

ARCH WHITEHOUSE May 1 1943

YOU SIT in a blister beside two machine guns. Below you is nothing but water and a few chunks of ice. Your knees are stiff and your thighs seem to have changed into stone. You grab at the plane’s metal conduits, H-beam framework and hang on.

You are aboard a long-range patrol bomber of the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying over the North Atlantic on the anti-submarine front.

You’re dressed in the most fantastic garb man ever devised and you look and feel like a fool because you don’t know how to move about in it, and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to drift nonchalantly from port to starboard as the real gunner does. The patrol bomber is doing a Calgary stampede act that makes you clutch again. You look about and find the parachute harness you are supposed to wear is stuffed in between the ammunition boxes and a spare-parts case. What does it matter? You are flying so low now that it seems a waste of money to bother about putting wings on these things.

You struggle to get a folding seat down and you lower yourself to it gingerly and peer out at the depth charges that hang below the wing on your side. Someone has told you that the explosive inside that cylinder is several times more powerful than TNT.

Back at the base you’ve signed your life away and agreed to the conditions involving this little deal between you and His Britannic Majesty. He has agreed to let you ride around in his aircraft so that you can see how it is done, but in case something slips, you have no comeback.

Maybe you think you were an “intrepid airman” in the last war, but you haven’t the slightest idea what this is like until you have tried it. Up here they have managed to combine the worst features of the tank, the airplane and the submarine, and call it anti-submarine warfare.

Inside the plane is a maze of mechanical equipment from which vibrates the insistent drum of power. There are seven other chaps aboard with you somewhere, but you might just as well be alone in a cement mixer installed on Baffin Land. You wonder about the others but they have disappeared along catwalks, up ladders and through metal doors. You soon reach the point where you keep watching the other gunner across the compartment to make sure he doesn’t slip off somewhere.

It’s still cold and you wonder how they stand twelve or sixteen hours of it. When you go hundreds of miles out to sea with a strong westerly tail wind at your back you can’t get home in a few hours, and you gamble on the hope that the weather map was right and the favorable front that was somewhere in Ontario when you left your base on the east coast will have reached the strip of runway hacked out of the muskeg and pines when you get back.

The patrol goes on for hours and hours and you become colder and colder . . .

“The Most Deadly Game’’

THERE is a stately room in a grey stone building in Hamburg buried deep below the surface of the street. Before a massive green board a chunky man wearing the reefer jacket of a vice-admiral strides up and down, watching small lights flicker and colored symbols move along almost invisible wires. At a group of intricate control tables several junior officers, with the stamp of the undersea boat in their features, speak with quiet deliberation into microphones strapped to their chests and respond to the vice-admiral’s every gesture and command.

From tall black panels banking the sides of the room modulated voices may be heard. Their reports are taken down by alert operators and the figures and symbols on the great board are changed or moved. The vice-admiral continues his striding with automatic glances at his massive chart of operations. An oblong block of symbols is moved en masse and there is a decided contrast in colors. The black symbols are forming a new geometrical pattern while the red markers move ever on eastward.

It takes but a few minutes to write this but the submarine warfare staff of the German admiralty is willing to wait weeks until these little symbols are in their proper tactical positions. A new and refreshed pack of U-boats has crept out of Saint-Nazaire and L’Orient and their progress is watched closely by the men in the sunken room in Hamburg as they slip out of the Bay of Biscay and take up their positions in the North Atlantic.

Now we turn to another board just as big and just as elaborate with its lights, symbols and figures. The operators of the two boards are 3,000 miles apart but they are staging the grimmest and most deadly game of chess the world will ever know. Opposing the German vice-admiral we see an unnamed Canadian officer who directs operations from a combined Army-Navy-Air Force base somewhere between Cape Sable and St. John’s. The German uses submarines, radio and Nazi discipline. The Canadian does his job with anti-submarine squadrons working in co-operation with surface craft.

The Germans have the weather and cover of the ocean depths on their side. The men who attempt to beat them off are relentless, determined and cruelly cold in their calculations. They have drive and spirit but it isn’t displayed in the theatrical manner. This is important business. There’s no glamour to it.

Submarine Armada

THEIR U-boat front starts in Ottawa. So I went to Ottawa and talked with Air Marshal L. S. Breadner, Chief of the Air Staff, and the Deputy Air Minister, S. L. deCarteret. The whole situation w'as explained frankly. They minimized no feature of the U-boat problem. It was a serious one.

In January the Germans claimed sixty-three sinkings, totalling 408,000 tons, which is well below the rate of 630,000 tons a month they claimed for 1942—but—it is still very serious.

Canada has built more than 500 surface ships and put them into operation against the U-boat packs. Canadian air squadrons continue their patrols day after day and night after night, even when their chances of reasonable visibility and tactical operations are hopeless. Our fliers know it will be tougher when summer comes and the ice conditions change. It is known that Germany is building between twenty and thirty new submarines a month and that by the time this appears in print there will be between 500 and 700 submarines for the Germans to throw against us.

In Ottawa I also saw Wing Commander C. L. Annis of Bomber Reconnaissance. He was working on a new program of anti-submarine armament and his desk was stacked high with charts, lists, explosive data and photographs.

Annis brought out a blank chart of the North Atlantic, grabbed a red pencil and went to work. He is a tall good-looking lad who seldom smiles. When he does it is more than worth the time you waited because you sense at once you have been accepted.

Annis has been on submarine patrol and he talks the language. He explained the general setup and outlined in broad terms the defenses that have been erected to beat the U-boat.

“Submarines don’t just hunt in packs,” he explained, putting some marks down on the chart. “They have a definite program from the time they start out from the Bay of Biscay. They work in packs in predetermined areas and they have a working schedule.

“Now around here they keep subs which rarely cruise out of these particular areas. They are the reconnaissance groups which sit there and try to pick up the convoys a few hours or days after they sail. They trail the convoys to make sure which route they are taking. All this information is then relayed to the interceptor packs deployed out here.

“Convoy routes are based partly on seasonal and partly on tactical situations. Whenever possible, of course, advantage is taken of air coverage but convoy size, importance, speed, amount and type of naval escort, etc., are all considered carefully by the routing staffs.”

The picture was taking form now and I began to see the situation and the difficulties. Both sides were being moved by the men 3,000 miles apart, who sat before the great control boards. Ships, aircraft and submarines being moved like pawns across a chess board.

“At present we are working with this particular type of plane in this particular area. The aircraft has a range of so many miles. That means we can send them out to this point and get them back again. If they have a strong tail wing out it means they get there that much quicker but they are that much longer getting hack. Simple arithmetic.

“In other words,” he continued solemnly, “we can get aircraft out there in good weather but the percentage of their total airborne time in the area outside our present normal range is so low that it is uneconomical. If the weather closes in behind the aircraft it may mean a big loss to us with little or no gain exacted from the enemy in return.

“As both we and the Germans well know, many freight convoys sail at slow speed—often less than ten knots. If the convoy is several hundred miles from land an aircraft may have to spend many hours, say twelve or more, going only from base to convoy and return. If the aircraft’s working endurance were fifteen hours that would mean it could only spend three hours with the convoy. And in that period such convoys as I mentioned would have sailed less than 30 miles—and eight aircraft flying fifteen hours each would be required to give that one convoy continuous single aircraft coverage for just one twenty-four-hour period.”

“Good” Hunting Weather

FROM Ottawa I went straight to an operations base. I served many months with an active service squadron at the front in the last war, but in two weeks with the men of the various operational squadrons on anti-submarine duty, I learned more than I ever learned in that many years on the western front.

Talk to the boys of the antisubmarine patrol and you realize you’re in a war—a war that isn’t too far from your back door either.

Several times a week, in weather fair or foul, they go out and play their insane game of hide-and-seek for twelve or fifteen or eighteen hours or more. They start out before it is light and they don’t get back until we “in the officers’ mess” have just about finished dinner. Twelve hours of incessant vigil, skipping the whitecaps or darting madly in and out of the low-hanging cloud cover.

Good weather up there a few skips below the Arctic Circle is something most pilots would take one look at and go back to bed. What they call good hunting weather out over the North Atlantic is a spotty combination of low fog, curtains of black murk and buttresses of snow squalls.

Two weeks up there and you wonder which is the greater menace, the weather or the U-boat. Most certainly Hitler has a very formidable and ever-attacking ally in the winds, rain, fog and snow of the North Atlantic. Here our boys meet the one member of the Axis who never surrenders. They may evade him one day, they may beat him back by sheer skill or indomitable courage but he always comes back riding that damnable prevailing wind, detonating his thunderbolts, dispersing his fog screens and laying down his barrage fire of Arctic blasts.

In the Mess of one operational squadron at which I was a guest I found a crest painted on a slab of plywood. In the centre of the buckled garter is—no, not an aircraft or a fighting gamecock—but a three-masted schooner with every stitch of canvas bellowing before the breeze. Beneath the crest the simple word, “Seaward.” This is the official crest of Eastern Air Command. I liked that because it so typified the work of the squadron.

I missed the long patrols but shorter ones gave me an idea of what goes on.

I have leaned over the navigation table and watched a slim serious lad chart a course, check a position, and manipulate the most delicate instruments with fingers that should have lost all sense of feel hours before.

I have crawled under the legs of an engineer who sits in a pulpit high under the wing where he keeps a lookout for submarines, with his fingers on the nerve centres of this massive winged destroyer. I have sat with the pilot and have handled the controls with 2,600 h.p. at the other end of the throttles. I have huddled amid the maze of panels, switches and gleaming cables, and studied the wireless operator’s face as he listened for the signals that were the only tie with the base, miles and miles away.

Once I stood behind another lad who sat jet-eyed before a mysterious panelled instrument. I felt his suspicion as I stood there and when he looked over his shoulder, I knew enough to move on. This was The Thing, the one thing above all that not even J, who had the No. 1 blue card of authority from the officials of the R.C.A.F., was allowed to see. That boy with “WAG” in the centre of his wings was the one person to make me realize my insignificance. He was only eighteen but he was custodian and guardian of an instrument that was as secret and hush-hush as any bomb-sight.

The navigator turned and rescued me by diverting my attention to a special instrument he employed. It was called an astrograph and it was something of an inverted magic lantern, into which could be fed a length of film. When it was possible to see the sky at night, or any of the stars, he simply twirled a knob that brought the proper segment of film into position and presto! there on his chart table was projected the pattern of stars for that particular area and night . . .

“With Everything Cracking”

FIND the man who has actually fought a sub and you’ll have the devil’s own time getting him to talk about it.

Flight Lieutenant Bill Graham, who commands a unit of a Lockheed Hudson squadron, has had three attacks on U-boats to his credit. I found him in a hangar going over his paper work. When I asked him about his attacks, he tried to put me off.

Finally he related how he with Pilot Officer Fred Davies, navigator, Sergeant John Dobie, wireless operator, and Flight-Sergeant Brown, wireless air-gunner, had been posted to cover a convoy which had been heading north for some time. He sat over it, making the usual contacts with the corvettes and convoy leaders. There were long hours of sweeping back and forth, hunting and searching for the U-boats they knew were in that territory. Another hour and they would be able to turn the convoy over to the air escorts of another station farther north and another dreary patrol would be over.

Suddenly Graham sighted a strange spattered design of oil on the water a short distance away from a corvette. It. took on weird patterns as the wind brushed the wave caps.

“You see the darndest things out there,” Bill broke in. “I suppose it is because we have been staring so intently for so long that eventually wishful thinking takes over and produces the images. You can see any kind of submarine you want if you let it get you.”

But this time it was something more substantial. The oil slick design suddenly parted and a distinct section of conning tower wearing a feathery neckpiece came to the surface. There wasn’t any question now. This German was actually making an attack in broad daylight, right under the nose of the attending corvettes!

“We really can put the Hudson down fast,” Bill went on. “She’s a tough baby and can really take it. The bigger boys don’t dare dive like that. We went in with everything cracking!”

Obviously the U-boat had missed the bomber and was concentrating on the vessels of the convoy. The conning tower was almost fully in the clear when Bill’s Hudson slammed down at him. There was a mad scramble somewhere below and the sub started down again, lashing the sea in fury to get below the surface again, but the Hudson had him cold.

In the bomb bay hung depth charges fitted with fuses that would detonate the explosive below the surface. Here was the perfect setup. The selector was set to drop charges on each side of the U-boat. The others were released so that they fell at the stern and at the bow of the crash-diving U-boat. It was as simple as that.

Bill punched the release gear from not so many feet above the raging swirl of screw-churned water and there was no question as to how accurate his sighting had been.

WHONG! The explosions produced gigantic cauliflowers of outraged sea. Everything went up, embossing the perfect pattern of a successful attack. In turn there was an oil slick and a whimpering series of air bubbles. Even better, as the corvettes later reported, a long length of wooden catwalk from the deck of the submarine came shooting up through the broiling seas and floated off—a scrawny length of skeleton.

To get credit for a kill you have to produce something from the inside of the submarine—or you have to bring back convincing photographs.

Bill’s camera had frozen up! No pictures—no confirmation.

And that brings us to the third degree staged by the intelligence men.

I was shown the eleven page submarine attack report these boys have to answer if they come back with empty bomb-racks and a report of having attacked a U-boat. The interrogation goes on for hours and the next day they do it all over again, just to make sure all the questions and answers jibe.

How they remember anything is amazing, because when the attacks take place everything happens fast. Everyone has a job to do and here time is measured in fractions of seconds and the results can only be positively gauged by the results impressed on a sheet of sensitized film. And yet when you get seven men, each doing a separate job, you can get seven different versions of what actually happened.

The verbal records are taken and carefully considered, but it’s what they bring back inside the camera that really turns the cards face up. For sheer drama and suspense Hollywood has yet to equal the few minutes that tick off in the intelligence office when the sergeant of the photographic section comes clumping up the stairs with the first prints of those few inches of film for which the boys have risked everything.

Say It With Depth Charges

THE critic will naturally say, “Well if all this effort is taken and all these hours are spent on patrol, why do we still have a U-boat menace? If our authorities know so much about the movements of the undersea craft as you intimate, why can’t they be destroyed before they get over here? It’s all very well telling us how brave these young airmen are and to what lengths they will go to find and destroy the German U-boats, but what is the actual outcome of it all? Why do we keep losing ships and our merchantmen?”

If all these questions were answered this article could not be published. To tell how many submarines have been destroyed in the past four months, for instance, would be telling the enemy just what he wants to know. To be perfectly frank no one in Canada can tell how many U-boats have been sunk in the North Atlantic during the past four months.

You only have to sit through one interrogation period in the intelligence office to realize this. Compared with the number of attacks made, the number of “kills” is very small. By that I mean the number the intelligence authorities will admit are “kills.” In some cases the final decision on an action will not be known for more than six weeks. That’s when they wait for the final verdict from the British Admiralty, which has its own ways of checking.

It is quite true that the control officials know just about where the individual craft of the enemy undersea pack are hiding. But you can’t cover a sixty-mile square area or more of water with depth charges to get them. The modern submarine can crash dive to 300 feet in a few seconds. They’re more formidable than those used in the last war. Their thick hides are tough and their design incorporates buffer tanks of oil which resist the concussion of depth charges unless the projectiles are placed within a few feet of the submarine.

A successful attack on an enemy submarine can only result from a perfect co-ordination of all the factors involved. The bomber must spot the target and make its attack before the submarine makes a successful crash dive to safety depth.

Effective results do not necessarily produce flame, oil slick, air bubbles or floating wreckage. A successful attack will, however, produce one or several of these results in their proper sequence and within certain time-bracket limitations. An oil slick in itself is not enough. Air bubbles are not enough. A catwalk is not enough. Oil might come from a ruptured outer compartment, but that wouldn’t mean the sub had been fatally damaged. Air bubbles —at the wrong time—could come from an empty tank that had been damaged. Air bubbles appearing so many seconds after other surface evidence and in a certain pattern are something else entirely.

An attack then does not always mean an official kill; but,as one of the intelligence officers told me, a lot of nasty people get a lot of headaches and they’re willing to lay low a long time, or even find some excuses for cruising in less offensive waters. An attack, whether it is considered successful or not, has great morale effect on the crews of the U-boats. While Hitler may be able to build twenty submarines a month, he might find it difficult to find refreshed crews to man them.

There will be more submarine activity this summer and many sinkings will be reported, but only in very isolated cases where the authorities believe that certain service and morale advantages are to be gained, will the successful attacks be publicized.

It’s a way they have in this service. They’d sooner say it with depth charges.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles on the Canadian U-boat front. The second article, which will appear in May 15 Maclean’s, will tell more about the men who carry out this work, and describe actual attacks.