The Nightmare Convoy of the Atlantic
a MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
This is the blow-by-blow story of ONS 154—the hardest-hit convoy ever escorted by the Canadian Navy. In live tragic days at the close of 1942 fourteen ships fell victim to the U-boat wolf pack while the little ships of the RCN fought every yard to write a new stark chapter into naval history
JACK Mc NAUGHT
AT NOON on Dec. 28, 1942, the captain of the Canadian destroyer St. Laurent, then nine days out from Britain and bound for North America, looked thoughtfully at the grey Atlantic, the pale sky and the long plodding columns of merchant ships in convoy a mile or so astern. Then he left the bridge, went down to the crowded mess deck, and made a speech to his men.
“You joined the Navy for a reason,” he said, “and that reason has arrived. The subs are gathering around us now and tonight there will be ten to fifteen of them. The going will be rough but I know you are up to it. After all, we don’t all expect to be old men.” In these words stocky spade-bearded Lieut.-Comdr. Guy Windeyer, RCN, broke the news that, bad as the run had been so far, it was about to become tragically worse. And five days later, when Slow Convoy No. ONS 154 at last won through to the other side, fourteen of its forty-six ships had been sunk, more than one hundred merchant seamen had died, and it had made bitter history as the hardest-hit convoy ever escorted by the Canadian Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The story of ONS 154, a closely guarded wartime secret, begins on Dec. 19, 1942. At nine that morning the destroyer St. Laurent and two corvettes, Chilliwack and Battleford, sailed seaward down the narrow twisting River Foyle from the naval base at Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The three other corvettes of the all-Canadian escort group, Napanee, Kenogami and Shediac, had been in England having a new type of radar installed,and they joined at the mouth of the river. HMS Burwell, a destroyer of the Royal Navy which was also to have joined, broke down at the last minute and had to stay behind.
Even with two destroyers the escort would have been barely up to strength, and Burwell’s failure was disastrous. But when he learned of it Windeyer, who as senior officer of the group was chiefly responsible for the safety of the convoy, simply said, “That isn’t too good,” and went on trying to light his rain-wet cigarette. And ONS 154 put to sea—forty-four merchantmen, one rescue ship, one
special service ship and the six fighting escorts.
Toward dawn on Dec. 20 a signal from Admiralty came in saying that ninety to a hundred U-boats were estimated to be at sea in the Atlantic. And for the next two days the wind rose slowly and steadily, blowing from dead ahead and holding the convoy down to the pace of a man walking (it wasn’t much more than that at its scheduled best, a scant eight land miles an hour). At midnight on Dec. 22 the wind had become a gale and it went on rising until sunset on Christmas Eve.
Nothing bad happened that night and Christmas day dawned on a sullen but submarine-free sea. The wind had now died to a soft, curiously greasy breeze; yet its violence had left a strong ground swell running which was to play a sinister part in the hard time ahead. Because four days of struggling through the storm had used a great deal of the escort’s limited fuel more oil would have to be taken on at once.
There were two tankers in ONS 154 —the
American E. G. Seuber and the British Scottish Heather. At that stage of the war Canadian escorts had not had much practice in fueling at sea (later the operation was standardized and became relatively simple) and transferring oil from tanker to warship by pumping it through a heaving jerking six-inch hose was a formidable task.
The destroyer, as the only ship of the group fast enough to overtake a U-boat running on the surface and therefore tactically the most important, ordered Scottish Heather to drop behind clear of the convoy and made the first try. All day long lines were heaved from St. Laurent’s bow to the tanker so wire cables could be passed to hold the ships at a steady distance from each other during the actual fueling. And all day long the lines snapped, one by one in maddening sequence, as tanker and destroyer slid down the steep ground swells and pulled convulsively apart.
Toward dusk, just when the sweating seamen had managed for the first time to make cables
fast and oiling could have begun, a steeper swell than ever rolled by. Whereupon St. Laurent’s officer of the watch made a brief entry in the deck log: “Attempts at oiling failed. Towing wires
and hose parted.” And her medical officer wrote in his diary,“It was a hell of a way to spend Christmas,” adding a heartfelt two-word comment on the destroyer’s Christmas dinner—“Shepherd’s pie!”
Besides the frustration of not getting fuel, and the dismal substitute for turkey and fixings, the day brought a further unfestive note. An afternoon wireless message from Admiralty warned the convoy that a number of U-boats were within one hundred miles of its position.
That made it more urgently necessary than ever to refuel and next morning, the 26th, St. Laurent ordered Scottish Heather to drop astern once more and tried again. Just before the second attempt a large sewer-pipe-shaped aircraft flew up and circled the convoy, safely out of gunshot range.
Although nobody was able to identify it positively it seemed pretty certain to be a Nazi and a signal was made to the convoy to keep alert. However, as the strange plane merely flew round and round awhile and went away, oiling proceeded as if it hadn’t been there at all. And this time St. Laurent took on a hundred tons before the hose broke —enough to let her stay with the convoy the rest of the way across to Newfoundland with any luck.
But the luck of ONS 154, such as it was, had already begun to run out.
At 2.30 that afternoon a Coastal Command aircraft unsuccessfully attacked a U-boat twentytwo miles astern of the convoy. It was fully surfaced and overhauling the convoy at twice the speed of the slow merchant ships. And soon before dark another signal from Admiralty warned that even more U-boats were now closing in on the lumbering freighters.
This confirmed what the senior officer of the escort already knew. St. Laurent and the rescue
ship Toward, a small shabby-looking vessel whose duty was to pick up survivors after a torpedoing, were fitted with a special radar device for tracing enemy submarines. In the destroyer this apparatus was housed in a sort of steel hut abaft the torpedo tubes, connected with the bridge by a telephone which, instead of ringing a bell, gave a sudden ghastly howl like a mad dog being strangled. Throughout the day of the 26th the bridge phone howled almost incessantly as the operators in the hut reported U-boat after U-boat, many of them apparently within fifty miles and none farther than a hundred and fifty miles away. These reports, and a stream of similar ones passed from the rescue ship by signal lamp, told their own story of trouble ahead. It wasn’t long coming.
About nine o’clock that night the corvette Shediac, commanded by Lieut. John E. Clayton, RCNR, and stationed on the left and a little ahead of the convoy, got a suspicious blip on her radar and went off to
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investigate. Five minutes later she sighted a U-boat on the surface about a mile and a half from the convoy, fired star shells (projectiles designed to burst in the air and drop a bright flare attached to a little parachute, thus lighting up the target) and followed with rounds of high explosive from her single four-inch gun.
The U-boat wasn’t hit and at once crash dived, so Shediac moved in to make a depth-charge attack after finding the enemy by means of asdic—a detection apparatus that bounced echoes (they sounded like ping-pong balls being batted) from the hull of a submarine which would otherwise have been safely hidden in deep water. The attack failed and contact was lost soon before ten o’clock. Meanwhile the ships of the convoy had begun to fire snowflake rockets which gave much the same illumination as star shells and were used for the same purpose. And up and down the lines of merchantmen alarm gongs clanged and the crews of the one or two naval guns each ship carried went to their action stations, ready to shoot if the U-boat surfaced again inside the lumbering columns, now bathed in a light nearly as bright as day.
On the far side of ONS 154 the corvette Napanee, under the command of Lieut. Stuart Henderson, IICNR, fired star shells and quartered back and forth to see if the submarine had passed clear across the convoy underwater and was going to risk coming up to periscope depth for an attack. And at about 10.30 St. Laurent, whose radar had spotted a U-boat on the surface seven miles ahead of the convoy, increased her speed to twenty knots and dashed off to the hunt.
Napanee quartered in vain, the first U-boat commander having wisely decided to stay submerged and make himself scarce for a while. But the destroyer, overtaking the second Uboat about half an hour later and just after the Nazi had dived, made asdic contact and started to run in to drop depth charges.
Before St. Laurent could get directly above the submarine to do this the attacker suddenly and dramatically became the attacked. From a point beneath the surface half a mile off St. Laurent’s port bow the hissing white track of a torpedo streaked straight at her across the black waves. The destroyer’s wheel was put hard over and the torpedo raced along her flank, maybe a hundred feet away, and disappeared harmlessly into the night astern. And after that, although St. Laurent did her best to pick the enemy up again on asdic and hunted for another half hour, this U-boat disappeared too and the destroyer raced back to join the convoy.
By then it was close to midnight and ONS 154 was momentarily safe; darkness and quiet descended once more. St. Laurent’s medical officer took advantage of this unexpected lull to enter in his diary his impression of the earlier alarm.
“The escorts scurried around according to a prearranged plan,” he wrote, “while the convoy slowly plodded on. It reminded me of going for a walk with my dog. As I walk down the street he is all over the place, investigating this and that, and here and there leaving a ‘calling card,’ just as we left depth charges.”
The lull ended abruptly a couple of hours later, at 2.05 in the morning of the 27th. One after another the : thumping crash of torpedo hits sounded in the convoy and flames broke out on ,
four stricken merchant ships—the British Melrose Abbey, Empire Union and King Edward, and the Dutch Soekaboemi. All were hit within an hour and a half of the start of the attack and all sank quickly. The King Edward went down in less than two minutes.
While King Edward and the other torpedoed ships were sinking, the escorts were attacking the half-dozen or so submarines which had been lying in wait ahead of ONS 154 and now converged to strike. At about three o’clock St. Laurent sighted a U-boat on the surface (the sea was day-bright again with star shells, rockets, and the flames of burning ships) moving in fast on the convoy.
The destroyer opened fire first with her Oerlikons—20-millimetre automatic cannons—and then with her main armament of 4.7-inch guns. The Uboat, a thousand yards away, dived to periscope depth and kept on toward the convoy. But the destroyer closed in to drop depth charges and, although it is doubtful whether the submarine was actually sunk, that particular enemy gave no more trouble that night.
The other U-boats had lost their earlier advantage of surprise and were beaten off by the escort in a series of attacks which, like the destroyer’s three o’clock fight, failed to sink a single submarine for sure. But they at least staved off any further torpedoings and allowed the rescue ship Toward to pick up one hundred and sixty survivors and the corvette Napanee to save twenty more; so that the loss of life was kept down to about one man in five from the four sunken ships. (Because the available casualty lists of ONS 154 are incomplete only a rough estimate can be given.)
By dawn the Nazi wolf pack had gone off to gather on the surface, safely out of range, and wait for the other U-boats of the mid-Atlantic patrol which had been ordered by radio from Germany to join them.
Trouble was piling up like a thundercloud on the beleaguered convoy. Only St. Laurent and Chilliwack had so far been able to refuel. The tanker Scottish Heather had been torpedoed, but not sunk, soon after Chilliwack finished refueling, and had been forced to turn back to Britain. Napanee, Battleford and Shediac were running critically short of oil. Kenogami, whose radar had broken down the night before, had consequently gone on fewer fuel-consuming U-boat chases than her sister corvettes and still had a fair amount left in her tanks. The oil-starved escorts had to try to fuel as quickly as possible from the remaining tanker, E. G. Seuber.
Besides the threatening disaster by which three corvettes might soon find themselves drifting, their boiler fires dead and their engines stopped, what could well prove another tragedy was in the making. At six in the evening Napanee, which had stayed behind the convoy to protect the rescue ship and was eighteen miles astern, relayed a message from the master of that valiant little vessel to Lieut.-Comdr. Windeyer: “Have insufficient food and water for survivors now on board. Request another rescue ship be detailed.” And in the whole of ONS 154 no suitable ship could be spared.
The piercing howls of St. Laurent’s bridge phone started coming at shorter and shorter intervals as the operators reported the U-boats closing in again. This time there seemed to be twice as many as there had been the night before. A signal from Admiralty bore out this gloomy estimate and a further signal ordered the convoy’s course altered sharply southward when dark came.
Windeyer answered the alter-course order, which under the circumstances was wonderfully welcome to him, with one of the most remarkable signals of the war at sea: “To Commander-in-
Chief, Western Approaches, from St. Laurent: Psalm 119, Verses 97 and 98.” ! And when the astonished and faintly outraged admiral opened his Bible to decode this cry from the deep he read, “O how love I Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thou through Thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me.”
Although the convoy was now in mid-Atlantic, too far out for protection by land-based aircraft from either Britain or Newfoundland, there was one last faint chance of help from the air. Among ONS 154’s ships was the Fidelity, a special service vessel of the | Royal Navy on her way to a secret mission in the south Atlantic. And Fidelity had aboard a small seaplane. If it could be flown that afternoon it might be able to find some of the U-boats which were following unseen below the edge of the horizon and force them to dive. This would slow them from their surface speed, potentially more than twice the convoy’s seven knots, to a submerged crawl. ONS 154 could thus gain a little distance on its deadly pursuers, make a surprise turn • under cover of darkness, and perhaps I escape altogether for a few hours or ! the whole menacing night.
Windeyer accordingly signaled this plan to Fidelity, whose captain was at first unwilling to carry it out. Fidelity, a converted tramp steamer, had no flight deck; the only way of getting i the seaplane into the air was to lower it over the ship’s side by means of a derrick and leave it to take off from the sea. That would have been risky enough in mid-ocean even in a flat calm; but a rough wind was beginning to blow and the gale-made swells were still running high. Under those conditions, the captain of Fidelity felt, asking anyone to try was pretty much the same as asking them to commit suicide.
However, he eventually did ask and two officers at once volunteered. Both were Frenchmen serving in the F’leet Air Arm, one a black-haired young college student and the other a greying middle-aged dentist who had escaped from Nazi-occupied F’ranee by stealing an aircraft and flying it to FIngland.
Just before sunset the plane was lowered and it taxied slowly across the choppy waves to a strip of sea made somewhat smoother by St. Laurent’s having raced ahead and flattened it with her foaming passage.
Gathering speed the seaplane, with the dentist at the controls, roared along the destroyer’s wake, skittering over the first few swells very neatly. Then came a swell higher and steeper than the rest a hissing hillside already beginning to curl and break.
The little aircraft hit it with a splashing crash, nosed down, and drove straight on in. The landing lights were jarred on by the shock and for an instant the plane could be seen through the green water, with the Frenchmen still sitting in the cockpit, like a child’s toy in a bright glass showcase. The ! lights went out, dusk cloaked the sea i again, and there was no sound but the wind.
St. Laurent’s wheel was put hard over and she nosed back to the place where the plane had crashed. It was now nearly eight o’clock, the sea was dark, and it took some time to spot the two heads bobbing in the water. Wind and current had swept the men half a mile apart. The destroyer was brought close alongside one man and he was pulled out of the water, a sea-
boat was sent away to get the other.
The two Frenchmen, alive and little the worse for their crash, were no sooner aboard St. Laurent than Fidelity reported by radio phone that her asdic had caught the sound of a submarine nearby. And two minutes later she reported her main engines were broken down.
St. Laurent had only time to make a hurried and fortunately successful effort to drive the U-boat off by dropping depth charges when an ominous signal came from Battleford. A little earlier this corvette, stationed ahead and to starboard of the convoy, had sighted something black and sinister outlined against a break in the clouds on the western horizon. She had instantly given chase and now identified the menace as the first of four surfaced U-boats, running in on ONS 154 in line-ahead formation, perfectly spaced one behind the other as if they had been on a peacetime exercise at high noon.
What happened then was told afterward in the terse report of Battleford’s captain, Lieut. Fred Beck, RCNVlt. “The nearest U-boat was trimmed down and soon dived. The second was difficult to see, being below the horizon and therefore not silhouetted. This was followed by radar only after the initial sighting. Fire was opened on the third and fourth U-boats . . . while the range was closed on a zigzag course. One U-boat was believed hit . . . but this claim was later withdrawn because of the lack of further evidence. Uboats three and four flashed Morse to each other and turned.”
St. Laurent had overtaken the convoy, which was now being attacked from all directions at once. The time was 8.20, barely half an hour from the start of the attack, and already three merchant ships had been sunk. One of them went down with such shattering swiftness that the master of another merchant ship, passing the spot a minute later, reported that “only a few white star sparks were noticed on the edge of a large cloud of whitish smoke.” He saw no wreckage.
It soon became clear that instead of fifteen U-boats which had been forecast in the gloomiest estimate there were certainly twenty, quite possibly twenty-five. One quarter of all Nazi submarines then in the Atlantic had gathered to attack a single convoy. To beat them off there were at first only St. Laurent and four corvettes. ONS 154 had made an emergency turn at dark and Battleford, then miles away and busy with her own fight, had not got the signal which ordered the turn. Consequently she had had to hunt blindly—her radar had failed— until she caught up again and so was missing from much of the main battle.
The rest of the vastly outnumbered escort raced in and out among the plodding columns, attacking where they could and turning from one enemy to engage another whenever the . second seemed a greater threat. U-boats were everywhere. “At one stage,” the captain of Shediac reported later, “torpedoes were so numerous in the convoy that the officer of the watch remarked, ‘Here comes ours now, sir,’ as if next week’s groceries were being delivered.”
Every merchant ship was firing snowflake rockets and these and the star shells fired by the escort lit the ocean all around. Most of the swarming U-boats had dived, but others took advantage of the light, stayed on the surface, and closed in on the ships they had chosen for targets. As they came, white streams of tracer bullets poured from the machine guns in their greygreen conning towers, crossing red-andwhite answering streams of tracer from
escorts and the convoy, the slamming orange flashes of heavier guns and the immense livid blasts of torpedo hits. Pinpointing this gaudy nightmare were the little red lights on the lifejackets of men floating in the sea and the waving flashlights of men clinging to rafts or crowded into lifeboats.
The escort, fighting desperately, could do nothing for them. “Fortunately the water was warm, about sixty degrees,” »St. Laurent’s medical officer wrote in his diary, “but 1 must .say it is a terrible thing to have to pass survivors in the water and be unable
to pick them up.” He added, sadly, “This was about the most demoralizing experience of all.”
The rescue ship could do no more than the hard-pressed escort. So those who lived through these new sinkings (by ten o’clock four more merchant ships had gone down, bringing the night’s total until then to seven) would have to be left to drown or die of thirst unless the rear ships of the columns could drop astern and pick them up, in the face of great difficulty and danger, as the convoy went slowly on into the dark.
When the attack ended a little before midnight as suddenly as it began another three ships had been torpedoed. In the four hours it had taken to drive them off the U-boats had sunk ten ships. This, the heaviest shipping loss in a single attack during the whole Battle of the Atlantic, might also have meant the heaviest loss of life. Instead, at least five hundred of the six hundred or more men of their crews were saved. The »salt-stained and cockroach-ridden old tramps that brought up the rear of ONS 154 had done their work in spite of all.
In the first light of morning on Dec. 29, Lieut.-Comdr. Windeyer on the bridge of St. Laurent took stock of the position. None of the escorts, every one of which had been repeatedly fired upon by surfaced U-boats and attacked with torpedoes from those underwater, had been even slightly damaged and none of their men had been wounded. But there were only thirty-one merchant ships remaining in the convoy out of the forty-six that had sailed. None of the U-boats had been sunk for sure, although in the excitement of the fight there were times when
captains had thought differently. The commander of one corvette signaled to St. Laurent, “Praise the Lord and pass the fuel oil: 1 got one of the
bastards.” Thus it was fair to suppose the Nazis had only hauled off to surface out of sight below the horizon astern for a day of fresh air and battery recharging and were following ONS 154 at their leisure to strike again when night came.
Three of the five corvettes had enough fuel to get the rest of the way across. But unless Battleford and Shediac got more oil they would have
to leave the convoy almost at once.
However, the prospect, bleak though it was, was still not hopeless. The Commander - in - Chief, Western Approaches, had signaled during the night that two destroyers of the Royal Navy, Milne and Meteor, had been detached from a mid-ocean hunting group and would reinforce the Canadian ships at five o’clock that afternoon.
The two destroyers were right on time. Just as they approached the convoy Milne had four torpedoes fired at her in quick succession by a lurking U-boat they all missed. At the same
time the escort’s radar began to pick up numbers of other U-boats on the surface nearby. The newly arrived destroyers capped the bad news with a signal that their fuel was so low they would have to fall out again the following day.
All night the escorts crisscrossed through and around ONS 154, ready to head off the expected attack before it could develop. But no serious attack was made, although here and there a pattern of depth charges was dropped over a U-boat creeping under the convoy. Once again no submarines were sunk, or at any rate none whose destruction could then or ever be proved. Yet no merchant ships were sunk and no escort hit; so the night’s work could be reckoned a success.
Next day, Dec. 30, ONS 154’s situation became desperate. Milne and Meteor left the convoy at 10 a.rn. Soon after that Shediac ran so short of oil she had to detach and head for Pon ta Delgada in the Azores. And Battleford, almost but not quite as fuel-starved as her consort, left with her in case Shediac should run out of fuel altogether and have to be towed. This, in fact, happened next morning when the two corvettes were still five hours away from port.
1 aeut.-Comdr. Windeyer signaled the convoy to make an emergency turn at dark. Then, he wrote in his official report, “I told Calgary (15 knots), carrying women and children, and Advastus, to escape if in their judgment they had an opportunity. It should be borne in mind that at this stage I considered we were done for, that the departure of Milne, Meteor, Shediac and Battleford had been observed and that tonight would see our final carving with only four escorts (St. Laurent, Chilliwack, Kenogami and Napanee) left to take the bowling.”
At 7.30 p.m. St. Laurent’s searching radar found a surfaced U-boat less than two miles ahead of the convoy. The destroyer raced at the enemy, who dived in time to avoid depth charges and was not seen or heard again. And this, which was thought merely the first U-boat of a great pack, turned out to be the only one. There were no more attacks.
At dusk on Dec. 31, after a quiet day of fair weather, HMS Fame joined ONS 154 from Newfoundland. Later HMS Mansfield, USS Cole and two ships of the Third Destroyer Flotilla also arrived, and on New Year’s Day Commander Windeyer (he had been promoted that morning) handed over to the captain of Cole, who was senior officer of the new escort.
St. Laurent, Chilliwack, Kenogami and Napanee, their duty done, turned away and sailed for the Canadian Navy’s Newfoundland base at St. John’s.
Fourteen ships of the convoy under their charge had been sunk. More than one hundred merchant seamen had died. That was a disaster and a defeat. But thirty-one ships were brought safely into their North American port with two thousand people aboard them alive and well.
And that was victory.