The craziest kill of the U-boat war
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
A Nazi submarine, cowed by a barrage of pop bottles, surrendered to a Canadian officer who led a one-man boarding party. Harold Lawrence wryly recounts the briefly famous exploit that won him a DSC from King George and inspired an RCN recruiting poster
THE URGENT JANGLE of action-station bells jerked me from my hammock on the deck of HMCS Oakville. The slight fuzziness in my head was not due solely to being awakened so unceremoniously. This was our second night out of Port of Spain, Trinidad, where sleep had seemed a shameful waste of time in our valiant effort to spend a month's pay in forty-eight hours of shore leave.
Now, on the moonlit night of Thursday, Aug. 27, 1942. we were just south of Haiti, zigzagging on the port flank of TAW 15, a convoy of twenty-nine heavily laden oil tankers wallowing toward a North Atlantic rendezvous at an agonizing eight knots. With Oakville were two other Canadian corvettes, Snowberry and Halifax, the Dutch Jan Van Brakel, three small U. S. patrol vessels and the powerful U. S. destroyer Lea.
I swarmed sleepily up the bridge ladder and got a navy boot heel hard in the face from some hand in an equal hurry to reach his action station. Three steps brought me to the asdic shack. Leading
Seaman Hartman, our best asdic man. shoved the cruising-watch operator out of the seat, donned the earphones, and pointed ahead. Four plumes of water from depth-bomb explosions were subsiding in a misty haze and forming small rainbows in the moonlight. Above, the U. S. patrol plane that had dropped the bombs was circling, blinking “S for submarine’’ in morse with her signal light. Oakville’s primitive triple-expansion steam engines thumped and groaned as they drove the corvette at her full fourteen knots toward another engagement in the endless Battle of the Caribbean.
The Battle of the Caribbean does not rate with the Battle of the Atlantic in the annals of World War II. But in strategic importance, as in the bitterness with which it was fought, it was almost as crucial to both sides. By the summer of 1942 the Allies' only important source of oil, the lifeblood of war, was the Caribbean area —Trinidad, Curaçao, Aruba and Maracaibo. The route from the Middle East through the Mediterranean was all but closed. Borneo and the Dutch East Indies had fallen to Japan. Convoys from
the Persian Gulf had to be routed nine thousand miles around Africa and were preyed on by Japanese submarines and surface raiders. The Caribbean route was little safer. Submarines swarmed the southern sea lanes; in the first eight months of 1942 they had sunk four hundred ships between Trinidad and Halifax. (Later I learned that Oberleutnant Otto Ites, the young commander of the submarine we were now about to encounter, had heen credited with a hundred thousand tons of shipping sunk.)
Hartman swung the asdic transmitter to bear on the subsiding depth-bomb splashes and we made contact. The asdic soundwave, searching outward, found an underwater object and bounced back a loud PING! The reverberations grew fainter and fainter. Carefully, Hartman trained his transmitter a few degrees to the right. PING! again.
"Fire a five-charge pattern when we cross the spot those depth-bombs landed,” rapped the captain. (He was Lieut.-Com. Clarence King; Distinguished Service Cross from World War I for sinking one U-boai and getting two “probables.” His score
in this war was zero and he didn't like it.)
I pressed the fire bell. Depth charges arched out from either side of Oakville; three splashed astern. We tensed. With our relatively slow speed these things could damage us as well. With a rumble they exploded. Water erupted mast high. Oakville bucked, shuddered, and resumed her eager trembling.
Hartman was still intently sweeping his arc. Before the reverberations died out there came a low drumming note in our earphones. Suddenly it changed to the clamor of fast engines and the unmistakable turbulence of a submarine blowing her ballast tanks.
Alter course to ram!
"Submarine hydrophone dead ahead,” I reported to the captain. "Target moving left," I said. This report, which should have elicited from the captain a quiet “very good” and from the lookout a calm bearing, was answered by a dozen shouts: “There he goes!”
A black snout reared out of the water; the conning tower burst through a swell; she surfaced completely. From her decks
water cascaded foaming white in the moonlight. 11-94.
"Ho-ho!” cried the captain, not very nautically. But I knew how he felt. The signalman. C'heyne, remembered his training anyway. Two rockets, the submarinesighted signal, hissed skyward and burst into white stars.
The captain altered course to ram. The corvette's own single-plated hull, comparatively fragile as it was, still was this ship's most effective weapon, and Allied strategists considered a corvette in exchange for a submarine was a bargain—even if the people aboard had their reservations.
We had only about three hundred feet to manœuvre in, and the captain couldn’t quite make it. We missed. 11-94 bumped down our portside. The captain opened the range to get another run-in.
This gave the gunners a chance. Our four-inch gun roared out again, and again; we saw two splashes and then a satisfying orange flash on the submarine’s conning tower. The oerlikon banged away, the red tracer flowing out and ricocheting at wild angles off the pressure-hull of U-94. Our bow swung on again.
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“Clad only in a pistol, a gas mask, a length of chain and a life belt, I lurched up the deck”
Now the machine guns started their insane chatter. The port gunner — Cheyne again doubled up at the guns —ignoring the captain’s ear just six inches from the muzzle, let go the first burst. Capt. King, a veteran in his fifties, executed a standing sidejump of a dozen feet.
We bore in. The four-inch gun flashed again and scored a hit on the submarine’s eighty - eight - millimeter deck gun. Four streams of lead spewed from the machine guns, and down below I could hear the Lewis gun spitting. With precision and speed the German gunners boiled out on deck and made for their weapons. In our murderous fire none of them could make it, and they dived back to cover.
Itcs was manoeuvring U-94 with skill, and by now at good speed. On our second pass we hit a glancing blow. Again U-94 passed down our portside, so close that our guns could not depress enough to fire. In the lull, German sailors poured on deck once more. Now we unleashed a weapon unique in modern warfare. On the boat deck were six stokers not needed in the engine-room during action. Their job was to reload the depth charge throwers. With the throwers loaded they had nothing to do. Yet here were German sailors on the bridge of a U-boat just a few feet away. A few feet away, too, were the cases where the canteen manager stored his empty Coke bottles. To the ignorant stokers, uninstructed in the art of war, the connection was obvious.
I have never seen more astonished faces than those of the German submariners when they came under a barrage of empty pop bottles at twenty - foot range, hurled by muscular stokers to the accompaniment of a hoarse chorus of “Yah! Yah! Yah!”
Before the enemy could recover from this attack, the submarine and the corvette were apart—in the depth charge range. One exploded directly under U-94. She bucked; spray obscured her. She slowed. We swung around and charged the submarine for the third time. By now the captain was getting the hang of it. This time we struck at right angles. Our bow reared up and U-94 rolled under us. We felt three distinct shocks and heard rending metal. U-94 wallowed soddenly astern.
“Away boarding party!” the captain cried. “Come on, Lawrence, get cracking!” (I was boarding-party officer as well as asdic officer.) I slid down the ladder to the boarding party’s locker where my twelve hands were struggling into their gear. And “struggling” is no figure of speech. For a boarding operation you keep on the life belt we all wore at sea, of course. You need a pistol, hung around your neck by a lanyard. Another lanyard carries a flashlight. Hand grenades are on the list; I had two. A gas mask is recommended “in case of toxic fumes.” Two fathoms of chain bent onto a fathom of
rope is mandatory (you make fast the rope on the bridge and lower the chain down the hatch so the enemy can’t close the hatch, submerge, and leave you foolishly treading water.) Ludicrous, but all demanded by The Regulations. In addition, the signalman has a signal lamp, the engineer has a bag of tools for his own mysterious purposes, and so on.
“Never mind lowering the boat,” bellowed the captain from the bridge above. “I’ll put you alongside.” I thought skeptically of his two misses.
All this time the guns had been hammering away, but suddenly the four-incher was silent. It had misfired. Or was the charge smouldering and would it go off in five seconds, ten seconds? Gordon, the captain-ofthe-gun, tenderly eased the breech open, gently slid the charge into his arms, carefully took five lurching steps to the ship’s side and daintily dropped it over. The rest of the gun’s crew watched this in silence and with interest.
Now with a whoop they loaded again. They were so intent they didn’t notice my boarding party. The muzzle swung. I was leaning over the rail gauging the narrowing distance to U-94 when I heard, “Layer on . . . trainer on . . .”
One startled look over my shoulder and I scuttled for safety.
“Fire.” We were only fifteen feet from the muzzle. The blast was stunning and blew us all into an untidy heap. I came to in a few moments with Petty Officer Powell shaking me and slapping my face.
“Come on, sir, we’re nearly alongside.” A bump and the grating of metal completed my recovery although my nose was bleeding and my ears were buzzing. No time for the rest of the boarding party, groping about, still confused.
We slid alongside and I jumped eight feet to the deck of the submarine. The belt of my tropical shorts broke from the severe thump of my landing. My pants slid down to my ankles. I stumbled, kicked them off, and clad only in a pistol, two grenades, a gas mask, a length of chain, a flashlight and a life belt, I lurched up the deck.
“The bridge,” I said to Powell, and
a wave washed me over the side. Powell helped me back but the chain I'd been carrying was on a thousandfathom journey to the bottom. We started forward again, swaying up the heaving deck.
The enemy were still below, but they wouldn't stay there long. If we could gain the bridge first, we would be in control.
Oakville was stopped a half mile away. Her aftergun opened up at us. Luckily it started at the other end of the U-94's pressure hull and methodically worked its fire to our end. The bullets ricocheted off with nasty whinging sounds. (“There’s always someone who doesn’t get the word!” I thought resentfully.) Over the side again; it was safer in the water. I swam hack on board with the next wave, throwing the gas mask off.
Despite casualties, there were still at least thirty able-bodied Germans on board. We were two. The odds had to be shortened. We reached the forward gun—a tangled mess of steel. A German slid from behind it. With my pistol barrel 1 knocked him over the side. Twenty-nine to two. Rounding the conning tower we saw two more. We rushed. They jumped into the water when we were within three feet. Twenty-seven to two. Powell flushed another and knocked him over. Twenty-six to two.
“The bridge,” I urged again. “We can t fight the whole bloody crew one by one. We've got to keep them below.”
Too late! As we reached the top of the ladder two German crewmen were already out. A third was half out.
“Get below,” I said to the leading one. It wasn’t in German but a pistol three feet from your face means “stop” in any language. He kept coming. I fired and he went backward over the side. Powell fired. The second German sagged. Twenty-four to two. The third man, half out, hobbed down.
“Keep them below,” I ordered Powell. “Find out if they opened the seacocks or set scuttling charges. I want to look at that open hatch.”
I jumped down the ladder, hung on as a wave washed over, and as the deck lifted clear, tore for the open hatch and hung on to it with both hands as the next wave swept the deck. The brilliant moon showed the compartment flooded; no one would flank us from here. On a lifting deck 1 rushed back. Powell was sitting on the rail, his gun dangling casually, his eyes alert. The prisoners below were shouting.
“Better let them out if we’re to salvage this bucket,” Powell said.
1 knelt by the hatch and shouted, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” A clamor told me they all did.
“No, no, I mean, “Sprechen Sie Englisch ?” Silence.
“How are you going to get them up?” Powell asked mildly. We had certainly been definite about their staying below. And, apart from “Auf Wiedersehen,” which did not seem to fit the situation, 1 had exhausted my German vocabulary. I put the pistol on the deck, shone the flashlight on my face and spoke in what 1 hoped was a reassuring voice.
"Come on up. It’s all right. See —
no gun.” I grinned, pleasantly I hoped. But I was feeling far from pleasant, silhouetted in the hatch of a dark compartment filled with frightened men who might he armed. But if 1 didn't get below, this boat would sink from water splashing in. even if the sea-cocks weren't opened.
A muscular arm shot up. I leaned back, startled. Another arm followed and a body heaved out, and another, and another, and another. Soon I was milling around in a mob of enemy
sailors. My pistol trailed around my ankles, banging my shins painfully. In the squeeze I couldn't bend to pick it up.
I had certainly lost command of this situation.
Powell hadn't. He butted and shoved and kicked the submariners to the after gun platform that abutted the bridge. Magically, 1 was free. 1 wriggled under the hatch and dropped into the conning tower. It was hlack. From repeated wettings my flashlight
was burning dull orange. Nothing here. 1 climbed down the next ladder into the control room. The water was chest high. In this compartment were the flooding valves I must close. I concentrated on remembering my indoctrination in U-boat equipment, part of my boarding-officer training.
Number one valve forward, number three amidships, number five aft. Three and five were ballast-trimming tanks and unimportant. Pressure gauges all on the port side. Now if
I could only remember those long German words.
My dilemma was solved by a thump, a lurch and a particularly long roll to port. She lolled there. Little buoyancy left. You can tell when a boat is mortally hurt—and 11-94 was.
“Come up, sir,” yelled Powell, “she’s going.”
I prayed as 1 swam for the ladder. Water poured down from above, and Powell’s face appeared, anxious. I felt a surge of gratitude for a staunch companion. The prisoners were huddled near him.
“Get them over,” I said. Powell jerked his thumb and they plunged into the water.
“You, too.” Powell followed them and 1 stepped over a few seconds behind. Off to the north the dark bulk of the convoy receded. Two “whumps” of torpedoes striking home told me that other submarines were attacking. A pillar of flame erupted and briefly took the shape of a crooked tree, blown aslant by the wind.
Oakville was a black silhouette a mile away. We hadn't abandoned U-94 a moment too soon. She lifted her bow, lifted it more, and slid under. She would never steam into port, as I had hoped, with the white ensign flying over the swastika.
Forty-five minutes had passed since first sighting. Stripped now to my life jacket, 1 started to swim through water I knew was bloodied and therefore probably swarming with sharks and barracuda. I longed for the confidence —if not the protection—a pair of shorts would have given me.
Out of the night the destroyer Lea pulled up in a welter of foam and prisoners and captors struggled for the ladder. On deck I was grabbed and hustled aft along with the prisoners. This was the bitter end!
“I'm a Canadian officer.”
“Godammit, I am!”
In some Royal Navy gunroom
messes, obscenity is an art. As a midshipman I had served in such a mess. A steady and ever-rising stream of vituperation flowed out of me.
“I would like to speak to the captain.”
”Yeh,” said one, “sir.”
1 saluted, self-consciously aware of my missing shorts, and briefly told the captain of the Lea what had transpired. These USN officers were very kind. They escorted me to the wardroom and offered me coffee. Coffee! Someone gave me a singlet, pants and gym shoes.
With handshakes, back-slapping, and see-you-in-Guantánamo's I was sent back to the Oakville. It was one o'clock Friday morning.
“Well, you're back eh?” said the first lieutenant. “Good boy. We’re still at action stations. You’d better get up to the bridge.”
In the west the moon sank, wanly. Dawn came redly, reflected off cumulus clouds towering above Haiti. We secured action stations and ate an hilarious breakfast. On the settee Otto Ites lay, one leg broken, the other with bullet wounds, his face to the bulkhead, silent.
We arrived at Guantánamo, Cuba, that afternoon. The prisoners were landed — twenty-one from Lea and five from Oakville. Out of U-94's original crew of forty-five, nineteen were dead. Two of the convoyed ships had been torpedoed and fiftynine of their survivors were landed; I had been right to fear sharks—some survivors were badly chewed.
The commander-in-chief, U. S. Atlantic Fleet, sent his congratulations; our admiral sent us a “well done”; Admiralty informed us that their lordships congratulated us. It was all very pleasant but we were a bit sombre; a lot of men had died.
But anyway, we had no casualties, at least, only one. / had been wounded: when I wiggled down U-94's hatch I cut my elbow on a broken Coke bottle. ★