‘I will drink life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name’
Time was running out for the crew of Spearfish. The boat was trapped in shallow water off Denmark with the hunters showing no inclination to break off the pursuit. With the air practically exhausted, Lt. John Eaden faced a stark choice, either surface and confront overwhelming odds or surrender boat and crew. The boat had left Dundee on the 20th September for her second patrol. There had been intermittent sightings of A/S vessels for a couple of days The Patrol Report succinctly describes what followed:
‘24 September 1939
03:46 hours – Dived in position 55°20’N, 06°50E.
04:20 hours – Heard a curious ‘gurgling grunt’ noise. Heard very faint HE ahead. Spearfish was severely handicapped by not being able to use her ASDIC in the shallow water.
07:13 hours – A depth charge exploded vibrating the whole submarine. Bottomed in 84 feet and stopped all machinery possible and listened carefully. Except for the intermittent ‘gurgling grunt’ all was quiet.
08:00 hours – Position was now 55°12’N, 06°50’E.
09:00 hours – Decided to come to periscope depth and have a look as nothing had been heard for nearly two hours except for the ‘gurgling grunts’. Went to diving stations.
09:05 hours – The ballast pump had hardly been running for three minutes when a heavy depth charge exploded quite close and shook the submarine. It blew the steering motor fuses but otherwise did no damage. It was now apparent that Spearfish was being hunted. Immediately stopped all machinery.
The enemy remained in the area for the whole day until at 17:20 hours – Some form of wire or grapnel was heard passing over the after jumping stay. Next a bump on the after casing followed by a series of short bumps moving aft. The charge then exploded with a most appalling crash. The whole ship appeared to spring inwards and then open out again. Nearly all lights were smashed including glass shades. Ordered the crew to diving stations, switch on secondary lighting and investigate the damage. Immediate damage was as follows:
Engine room pressure hull and frames badly pushed in and leaking.
Port main motor cooler burst and port main motor switchboard covered in water.
Serious HP air leaks.
Main battery ventilation drain running water’.
‘Chiefy’ Peel heroically worked on repairing the damage. Stoker Alfie Backers was reassured by his sang froid. All the same, the twenty-six year old did feel apprehensive:
‘Was I scared ? Well I asked you who wouldn’t be with all these ash cans going off all around ? You didn’t know where one ended and the next began. Those explosions were so close we were flinching each time one went off. What’s it like ? You were trying to blot it out, think of anything you can to take your mind off it but you can’t. Everyone is scared stiff but frightened of letting it show. Cold fear. You could see it in mens’ faces. Blokes, some of them real hard cases were losing control of their bowels and trying to hide it. Just like you trying not to look scared out of your tiny wits. Lt. Pirie came around with a big grin and a bag of boiled sweets. He was handing them round when this explosion knocked him off his feet, sending him flying over the port engine. We got him up again but he wouldn’t dish out the sweets for fear we saw his hands shaking. And we wouldn’t take them ‘cause our hands were shaking too ! Then everything went quiet except for the noise made by this damned bulls eye sweet – the one we couldn’t find – rattling around the deck. I thought to myself what a daft way to go. I mean if the Germans killed us because of a boiled sweet’
The Patrol Report summarises what happened next:
‘As soon as it became apparent that there was no immediate danger of the ship flooding up, new light bulbs were fitted, broken glass carefully swept up and HP air leaks stopped as far as possible. Apart from this no more was done to avoid making any more noise.
Although more charges were expected after the first charges no more followed. Decided to remain down because it was quite possible that the enemy was not aware that Spearfish had been hit and damaged. The crew meanwhile behaved magnificently to the highest standards of the submarine service.
18:00 hours – Issued a tot of rum to all officers and crew and made them lie down to conserve air which was getting very foul. Several of the crew were breathing heavily.
18:30 hours – The bow started to lift sharply and then fall back with a thud. This was repeated about 20 times. This was most likely caused by swinging to the tide’.
Stoker Alfie Backers witnessed something remarkable:
‘I was at the end of my tether by this stage. Jack Smith told me to sit down for a bit. Sandwiches were passed round but I couldn’t be bothered. Also there was this pail beside me and blokes kept being sick in it and this put me off eating. I was soaking wet but seating with fear and I had a rotten headache. Suddenly the bows were pulled upwards and someone said, ‘That’s it. They’ve got us’. ‘Night night nurse, blow out the candles’. Smithy was praying aloud. My head was thumping but over and over in my mind I kept repeating. ‘Get on with it, just get on with it and put us out of our flaming misery’
’There was a horrible noise then I saw it. I saw stanchions jump out of place. Straights, I saw these bolted down fittings jump out of alignment then spring back again all in the blinking of an eye. I turned to Smithy and he was just standing there, gaping. Like me he had seen the impossible. The lights smashed again so I got to work fitting new bulbs. When I smelled burning I knew we were really done for…’
CERA Stan Peel dashed into the motor room, pitch black except for vivid blue sparks arcing up from water damaged fuses. A finger tip examination revealed a damaged motor cooler on the verge of bursting into flames. Peel brought the situation under control.
‘19:20 hours – Mustered all hands. Explained the intention to blow all tanks by 2030 hours to get to the surface. If there was an enemy in sight on surfacing we would engage them. Started to prepare for surfacing.
20:00 hours – Position still 55°12’N, 06°50’E.
20:43 hours – All hands at diving stations. Blew main ballast and surfaced. No enemy in sight. Visibility was about three nautical miles. Proceeded slow ahead on the main motor on a course of 35 degrees.
21:00 hours – Started the starboard engine.
22:45 hours – Started the port engine. Meanwhile repairs were carried out to the damage which included smashed W/T aerials.
25 September 1939
05:00 hours ‘- Passed signals for assistance on fully rigged aerial. They had not been passed earlier for fear of D/F. Closed to within three nautical miles of Danish territorial waters.
07:20 hours – Altered course to 320° to make for the Norwegian coast.
08:04 hours – Sighted smoke coming from the southward. Could not wait to verify the smoke but they might well be enemy patrols. Altered course towards Danish waters. Patrolled near Danish territorial waters.
14:35 hours – Sighted two large single wing float planes to the southward. The nearest passed about four nautical miles away. Avoided detection by keeping within 500 yards of some sand dunes and steaming slow on one engine. Manned the Lewis gun and two rifles.
15:43 hours – Sighted two float planes, possibly the same two returning, the nearest machine was flying very low and passed two to three nautical miles away. Manned the Lewis gun and the rifles as before.
20:05 hours – Set course to 287° to make for rendezvous position signalled by Capt.(D) 6’
Spearfish was the focus of major rescue operation. The boat successfully rendezvoused with two Tribal class destroyers, Eskimo and Somali. In turn the destroyers met up with the Second Cruiser Squadron led by Sir Charles Forbes in HMS Nelson with Ark Royal and Hood following astern. Although the Luftwaffe made some determined attacks, the task force successfully rescued Spearfish which docked in Rosyth on 27th September. The boat was made seaworthy then she made the journey down the coast to Swan Hunters Yard on the Tyne, arriving on 30th September.
There were two important implications relating to this event. The depth charging of Spearfish was the first time a British submarine had come under sustained attack. The evasion techniques used by Lt. Eaden were circulated to other submarine commanders and became standard procedures. The behaviour of the crew was rewarded with decorations. PO Alf Blackmore and CERA Stan Peel were both awarded the DSM. Lt. Eaden received a DSC . Alfie Backers was mentioned in dispatches but in common with many of the crew, he found the experience deeply traumatic:
‘It’s not something you can easily describe to people who have not been through it. Some lads got the shakes (one started to wet the bed) and I know I had the ‘abdabs’ for a while. We referred to our little experience as ‘the great bollocking’ but we rarely discussed it. One or two lads put in for drafts to gens but I was happy to stick with submarines’
Submarines in dry dock at Swan Hunters came under the administrative umbrella of the Sixth Flotilla at Blyth. Some maritime engineers thought that Spearfish was finished as an operational boat so great was the damage but this was wartime and submarines were in short supply. Repairs took six months. Spearfish added to the problems piling up on Jock Bethell’s desk.
Since the outbreak of war doubts had been cast over the adequacy of anti-aircraft defences at Blyth and Dundee. On October 13th Bethell was ordered by Watson to evacuate Blyth and sail Titania to the Forth. Sailing was delayed because of (false) reports of a U-boat operating off Cresswell and Titania did not actually leave Blyth until 16th October. That day the Luftwaffe penetrated the Forth defences, damaging a number of warships moored at South Queensferry under the Forth Rail Bridge. The bombers were driven off with losses but news of something worse were trickling down from Scapa Flow. On October 14th Prien took U-47 into the anchorage to sink Royal Oak with the loss of 810 lives. The human tragedy was appalling enough but the implications of a U-boat penetrating Britain’s premier naval anchorage were to have repercussions for the Submarine Service.
A few minor heads rolled but the blame game stopped short of the political stratum. RA(S) Bertram Watson had few friends in high places. He had been openly dismissive of Churchill’s scheme to send a task force, including the Second Flotilla’s submarines into the Baltic. Moreover, Watson’s submarines had failed in their primary mission to interdict the passage of German warships in Home Waters. Watson was surely not pressing his submarines hard enough opined Sir Charles Forbes, Commander in Chief, Home Fleet. The beleaguered Watson was left in no doubt he was on borrowed time His submariners must show the same skill and ruthless daring as their German counterparts. Where were the submarines ? They were in the Bight, they were in the Skaggerak. Some were thanklessly policing the Norwegian iron ore trade. In fact given the paltry resources at its disposal and the multitude of tasks laid at its door, the Submarine Service was not doing so badly after all.
It was known that the Nazis annually imported 10,000,000 tons of iron ore via Norway. Upon declaration of war a tight blockade was imposed but the Scandinavian countries favoured continuing trade links with the Nazis. Some claimed this was a means of maintaining useful dialogue. Norway placed its faith in its own neutrality plus a belief that Germany would never risk confrontation with the Royal Navy. It was to be wrong on both counts.
In theory British policy was clear, ore carriers bound for Germany were to be stopped, their crews given time to evacuate, then the ship would be sunk. Practice was complicated because the ore ships kept to territorial waters as far as they could, often adopting false colours. Any attempted interception while the blockade runners were in Norwegian waters would represent a clear breach of neutrality and bring down condemnation at a time when Britain was courting American sentiment. It was hoped that the Germans might respond with an ill-conceived invasion of Norway which would bring about a one sided confrontation with the Royal Navy. Churchill’s scheme was rejected. There was to be no more talk of mining the leads – for the present.
By 8th November the submarines returned to Blyth, minus Titania undergoing reboilering at Rosyth. This marked the end of Titania’s association with Blyth and the ship did not return. There had been a number of new arrivals at Blyth however. Starfish (Lt. T.A. Turner) arrived at the South Harbour on 7th November, followed by Seahorse (Lt. G. D. Gregory) The Sixth Flotilla had grown significantly in size and firepower. The increased number of boats required more accommodation for personnel . Among the new arrivals was a draft of ERAs including twenty-two year old Rob Roy McCurrach and his pal (Doc) Lawrie Lawrenson. Both newly qualified ERAs 4th class but wise to the injustices likely to befall the laggard, priorities lay in securing a billet in one of the bungalows:
‘Williams and Harrison were off, running like startled hares, intent on bagging the best billet. They got the room with a gas fire. True, this room to some extent served as a gangway for other men on their way to the heads but by 23:00 all would be turned in, doors shut, fire on. They rubbed their hands with glee but by the following morning they were nearly dead. No flue. They received large quantities of naval sympathy, which is anything but sympathetic’
‘Lawrie and I found a room which was superb. Space for two cots. We dumped our gear, bought some curtains and an electric fire for five shillings, hung a few pictures. We had by good fortune found the best billet going. Warm too. That fire was never switched off and to wake up during that bitter Winter and see the rosy glow was as close to heaven as we would get’.
Rob Roy’s accommodation reflected his status as a skilled albeit inexperienced man. It had taken twelve years to earn his gold cap badge. Like many boys growing up around Portsmouth he had been marked for a naval career from an early age, a career that began at the Boy Artificer’s School at Chatham:
‘In January 1932 there were very few jobs going. At fifteen and a half I would be off my parents’ hands. They knew I’d do the four and a half years as an apprentice, be taught a trade, go to sea at twenty and retire at forty with a pension. During this time I would travel the world, see the sights and get paid for it. Well it sounds all right in sailors’ songs but you soon find out things can go wrong’
Things went wrong quickly for Rob Roy. Life in a naval boarding school was predictably tough and the new entrants soon found themselves bullied by ‘J’ class, the senior group. Authority turned a blind eye to this bullying which knew no bounds. Apart from obligatory ‘fagging’ the new boys were forced to polish oily boots, sing to walls and even nose push peanuts across the floor while the older boys took bets on the outcome. Under size and under weight Rob Roy attracted the sadistic attention of one George Jagger. It came as something of a relief when Jagger completed his apprenticeship in 1932 but for Rob Roy the mental scars would remain for many years to come.
Rob Roy passed out of Chatham with flying colours to be drafted to the engine room of the battleship Barham to gain experience as a watch keeper. He studied for and passed the Higher Educational Test – a qualification required for those seeking warrant officer status. Aged twenty-one he went on to obtain the ‘Auxiliary Ticket’ qualifying him to, ‘run start and stop all auxiliary machinery on a warship’. Rob Roy was now entitled to discard the ‘square rig’ of an ordinary rating in favour of the ‘fore and aft rig’ (blue reefer jacket, trousers and peaked cap) of a PO. He now earned the princely sum of eight shillings per day. There was still a long way to go up the promotional ladder of marine engineering. The next step was to obtain a ‘Boiler Room Ticket’, proof of the holder’s ability to ‘flash up a boiler room, keep a watch and shut down when required’. Ticket duly earned, Rob Roy was confirmed as an ERA 4th class. His new status was expressed in subtle changes to uniform. The old black buttons were replaced by brass versions and Rob Roy now sported the coveted gold laurel badge on his cap. For the moment he had studied enough. Instead he volunteered for submarines on the reasoning that the smaller the vessel, the greater the responsibility. The off-beat eccentric character of the Submarine Service had a ready appeal for the individualistic young ERA.
The ERAs were a close-knit bunch. Everyone knew everybody else. Among the crew of Seahorse, Rob Roy recognised the boisterous Billy Packer and ‘Tug’ Wilson, fellow ‘Boy Arts’ from his time at Chatham. The crew of Starfish proved even more interesting. The CERA was none other than his arch tormentor, George Jagger.
At this time Admiralty rightly feared the Germans would take advantage of hours of darkness and worsening visibility to launch an attack on the East coast or one of the East coast convoys. Admiralty was also aware that Scharnhörst and Gneisenau, having recently sunk Rawalpindi, would be heading back to the Bight. A line of watching submarines was organized running on a Southwesterly course from Lista Light on the Norwegian coast but the big ships were not intercepted. RA(S) Watson was finished.
On 17th September the crew of Seahorse, outward bound from Dundee on her second war patrol, had encountered the surfaced U-36 shelling a Danish merchantman, NJ Ohlsen. Lt. Massy-Dawson turned on a firing course then dispatched three torpedoes. All missed.
At 18:00 Seahorse was ‘let go’ for her first patrol from Blyth on her fourth war patrol on 11th November. This patrol took the boat into a billet off the islands of Terschelling and Borkum shielding the Dutch and German coasts. This billet would later be assigned the newly formed (15th November) Third Submarine Flotilla based at Harwich. The mission of Seahorse was to investigate enemy navigational aids and shipping movements. Autumn was rapidly giving way to Winter as the casing party shivered in their Greenburgh jumpers. Sea and sky were indistinguishable as the boat ploughed on through the dark night. Yet the night was not as dark as Lt. Massy-Dawson would have liked, due to the phosphorescent water dribbling down the casing. The boat had been ordered to ‘proceed with dispatch’ which meant diving was out of the question. The men on the bridge were understandably edgy.
Next morning Seahorse dived when lookouts spotted a torpedo streaking towards the boat. The submarine levelled off and Lt. Massy-Dawson grasped the periscope handles. This turned out not to be a torpedo but a school of porpoises tracking the boat. The porpoises suddenly became bored with the strange new creature in their midst and broke off the pursuit. On the 14th of November Seahorse entered her billet off Terschelling (Zone H2). The Royal Navy had recently mined these waters. The boat proceeded with caution. Navigator Lt. Thain RNR found great difficulty in obtaining a fix at periscope depth due to flying spindrift. Adverse conditions continued until 15:00 next day when Massy-Dawson was forced to surface the boat. Lt. Thain made an alarming discovery. Due to an error of calculation, the boat had spent the last two hours travelling submerged through a minefield. Shaken, Lt. Thain gathered all the navigational information he could as Seahorse prepared to enter German territorial waters.
Warrant Engineer Alexander Cockburn had been delighted by the move from Dundee to Blyth, his father was the vicar of Belford some forty miles to the North. It was a heaven sent opportunity for the thirty-two year old Engineer to bring his wife and son up from Portsmouth to enjoy a family Christmas. Alexander’s family had a notable naval pedigree and the rev Cockburn himself had retired as a Lt. Commander. Alexander had joined as an ERA in 1928, going on to serve in H34, L25 and H49, with a later appointment to Sturgeon. He had joined Seahorse in 1939 with the rank of Warrant Engineer. Warrant Engineer Cockburn was one of the most experienced and respected submarine experts at the Blyth base, now styled HMS Elfin.
Another who welcomed the move to Blyth was twenty-five year old Leading Torpedoman Jack Dunwell. Blyth was close to Newcastle and Newcastle was linked by rail to Carlisle where his fiancée Ruth lived. As a boy, this Nottingham lad had been sent to live with an aunt in Carlisle who lived in the next terrace to Ruth. A childhood romance had developed and flowered. The romance even survived Jack’s decision to join the Royal Navy as a boy sailor. Jack, aware that every penny would be needed if they were to get married, joined the Submarine Service in 1938. Ruth was horrified but Jack’s frequent quip was, ‘Don’t worry lass, I’m a good swimmer’. Jack served in the fore-ends of the big minelayer Narwhal in the years leading up to the outbreak of war. Jack’s role in boats was always something of a mystery to Ruth and her family. When asked what he actually did on Seahorse, Jack would respond,
‘Me, oh I just keep the windows clean’
On 18th November two Rőder class enemy destroyers were spotted in poor visibility. Torpedo Instructor Skilling’s team was gripped by a frenzy of activity as the tubes were brought to the ready. LTO Dunwell opened the bow-caps before taking up position on the small platform between the tubes. It was Jack’s responsibility to replicate the firing sequence by hand and he stared intently at the indicator lights initiated from the control room. The warships easily outpaced Lt. Massy-Dawson’s attempts to bring Seahorse onto a firing course. They disappeared back into the murk.
Next day off Texel Island the submarine crew had to contend with a force 9 gale. The Skipper was forced to ‘bottom’ Seahorse on the sandy sea bed, rising to periscope depth every half hour. During one descent to the bottom, trim was lost and the boat struck with a sickening crunch. PO Pughe reported that the vital ASDIC dome was not working. The patrol would have to be cut short.
Off Sunderland on 28th November, look-outs on the convoy escort vessels Stork and Whitley eyed Seahorse with suspicion. The submarine was required to signal twice before recognition signals were given in return. As other Blyth submariners would discover, the Swept Channel was a dangerous place for boats.
Seahorse was examined by the Dockyard shipwrights who confirmed that the ASDIC dome had been crushed. The boat would have to spend upwards of a month in No 5 Dry Dock. Hopes grew for a Christmas ashore .
Sturgeon had left Rosyth on her fourth war patrol on 11th November. This patrol took her deep into the Helgoland Bight through Zones E and B. Admiralty responded to intelligence that Scharnhörst and Gneisenau were about to return to the Bight by keeping the boat on patrol for three extra days. When Sturgeon finally nosed into the South Harbour, Blyth on 29th November, Gregory made his displeasure clear to Bethell recording acidly in his report:
‘After being on patrol for twelve days the reduced efficiency of the crew was very marked and the reactions to orders slowed up. It is difficult to keep and ‘S’ boat’s crew keyed up for a much longer period of time and it is considered that no ‘S’ boat should carry on a patrol for a duration greater than fourteen days ’
Gregory had found the Bight to be infested with enemy A/S patrols. All but the smallest of German A/S vessels had been fitted with the passive Horchgerät and acoustic sounding sets. S-Gerät was similar to ASDIC but not so functional or robust. S-Gerät transmitted sound pulses and timed the returning echo to detect objects up to 4,000 metres away. In order to work properly the S-Gerät had to be switched off on a frequent basis or the set would shut down on its own accord and remain off. The frailties of the two sets determined tactics. One A/S vessel would remain stationary or at very low speed, slightly ahead of the others with its S-Gerät switched on, directing its consorts in the attack. The remaining A/S vessels sailed in line abreast using their GHG (Gruppenhorcherät) passive listening sets. Every three hours the lead boat would changed and the S-Gerät rested.
On 20th November Sturgeon had encountered elements of one such group while off the Island of Amrum in the Bight:
’13:30 – Sighed a pair of armed trawlers bearing 070°, range 2.5 nautical miles. Position was 54°34’N, 06°28’E.
14:00 – Started attack on these trawlers.
15:55 – Fired two torpedoes at the first trawler.
15:56 – Fired two torpedoes at the second trawler.
15:58 – Heard a loud explosion. The result was not observed’.
Post war it was discovered that the 428 ton Gauleiter Telschow (V209) was in fact sunk. Oxley aside, this was the first British submarine ‘kill’ of the war. Of course the crew of Sturgeon did not realise this success, which would have surely lightened the mood. In fact the patrol had been marred by tragedy when on 16th November, Leading Signalman William Penny was hurled out of the conning tower by an immense build-up pressure following a long period submerged. William Penny was carried away by the sea before he could be rescued. He is remembered on the Chatham Memorial. There is no mention of this freak event in the Patrol Report and it must be assumed it was the subject of a subsidiary report which has not survived.
The people of Blyth looked on as uniformed personnel with strange ways invaded their town. Soldiers from the newly built AA battery on the coast road, tank men sent to guard the coal staithes, Royal Marines and of course the submariners from the shore base HMS Elfin. Children danced alongside them as they slouched up the streets, fag in mouth, steaming bags slung. Mining families responded particularly well to pleas for lodgings though as often as not the ‘lodgings’ amounted to little more than a rented bedroom in a terraced house. The locals tried to make their guests as welcome as possible as Bob Pearson, then a young miner recalls:
‘My elder brother was in the forces so we had a spare room going, although our house was tiny and it was hard to find anywhere to sit down at times. My mother was happy to take in lodgers providing they were decent. There were dozens of these submarine people looking around for rooms and it was.t long before our little room was taken by a girl called Liz. She hadn’t been married long and her man was on the Ursula. They were really nice and my mother took to both of them right away. My though, Liz used to get worked up when he was away. She must have had some idea when his submarine was due back because she would take the bus down to Whitley Bay where there was high ground and a place where you could see the ships making for Blyth. To take her mind off things we would take her to the club and there would be all these other submarine wives with the people they lodged with doing exactly the same thing’.
Although the base canteen sold beer at 1d per pint many of the sailors still walked into Blyth. There were cinemas galore, the Roxy Dance Hall was a good place to meet local girls and there was even a little variety theatre. Pubs flourished in an atmosphere thick with Woodbine smoke. From early evening until late at night barmaids pulled endless pints, thrived on tips while fighting off the advances of men deprived of female company for weeks on end. Each crew had its own favourite pub but the Astley Arms was set to become a shrine for the Submarine Service, known in every corner of the world to shelter under the White Ensign. Through a combination of shrewd business sense and genuine affection, Landlady Lydia Jackson cultivated a loyal clientele and by Christmas 1930 the submariners had adopted the Astley Arms as their own. There were plenty of customers now that the ‘S’ boats had joined the Sixth Submarine Flotilla. Jack Dunwell of Seahorse was able to visit his fiancée Ruth to finalise their wedding arrangements. Starfish was the ‘chummy’ boat of Seahorse. The crews shared memories of raucous runs ashore at Valletta and Lisbon. Jack’s closest friend, Peter Graham had agreed to be best man but the unpredictable nature of submarine patrols meant that neither groom nor best man could be sure of being ashore for January when the wedding was planned to take place. Remarkable events on the wider stage were about to impact all their lives.
The SKL (Seekriegsleitung or German Naval War Command) was making some plans of its own. Back in August 1914 the KDM had mined the North East coast in what was considered to be a daring opening wartime gambit (in fact the mines had been laid further offshore than the KDM had been prepared to admit). Now the Kriegsmarine generation was expected to show the same ruthless courage of their fathers and lay mines in the East Coast Swept Channel off the Tyne. Mines had also been laid off the Humber and the Thames by German destroyers in mid-October and mid-November. As part of the same operation two U-boats would lay mines in the swept channel North of Tynemouth. U-22 was detailed to lay mines in the Blyth roads with a view to destroying British submarines. An account of this operation is given in ‘Terror off the Tyne I’ Five modern destroyers were selected to carry out this dangerous operation on 12th/13th December under Kommodore Friedrich Bonté in his flagship Hermann Künne. Bonté had earlier supervised the mine-lay off the Thames in mid-November. In the knowledge that if the destroyers were detected, the Rosyth based 15th Destroyer Flotilla would surely set off in pursuit, SKL set a trap with echoes of Great War strategies.
A task force consisting of the light cruisers, Kőln, Leipzig and Nűrnberg under the command of Konteadmiral Gunther Lűtjens would lie in wait off the mouth of the Skagerrak, just North of the GDM. The superior firepower of these warships allied to the gunnery skills of the German destroyers would give any pursuers nasty shock. The scene was set for an epic encounter but as most of it lies outside the remit of this account, it will be told in brief.
Bonté’s destroyer force consisting of Hermann Kűnne, Friedrich Ihn, Erich Steinbrinck, Richard Beitzen and Bruno Heinemann left Wilhelmshaven on schedule then shaped course for the mouth of the River Tees, acting on Luftwaffe reconnaissance reports that the glow from the steelworks provided a useful navigational aid. Then it was a case of steaming North, just skirting the Swept Channel until the Tyne roads was reached at Buoy 20R. To their astonishment, as they crept closer to the Tyne Roads, the German sailors realised that coastal navigational aids, including St Mary’s Lighthouse and the lights marking the entrance to the Tyne, had not been doused. Nor was there any sign of British patrols. One destroyer officer reported a sighting of vehicle lights at Tynemouth. With the mines duly laid and despite serious engine defects, the destroyers headed back to the mouth of the Skagerrak and their scheduled rendezvous with the Köln class cruisers at 13:30hrs the following morning.
Undine left Blyth to patrol the Southern coast of Norway known as the Naze on 23rd November. This patrol was designed to intercept iron ore blockade runners. Now Ursula had carried out her second and third patrols from Rosyth. The second patrol had been to Zone A just East of the Dogger Bank at a time when Admiralty feared that with nights drawing in, the Kriegsmarine might be encouraged to launch attacks on the British East Coast or the Swept Channel. They were quite correct in this assumption, the Humber and the Thames estuary having already been mined by enemy surface forces. Ursula‘s third patrol was aborted due to engine problems. On the 4th of December, 1939, Ursula left Blyth for her fourth patrol through Zones E and B deep inside the Helgoland Bight. As the boat transited between Zones E and B, a number of vessels identified as sperrbrechen were noted. It was highly likely that the presence of these vessels indicated a swept channel clear of mines used by enemy vessels approaching Helgoland. In intelligence terms this was a priceless discovery.
On the 4th of December, 1939, Ursula left Blyth for her fourth patrol through Zones E and B inside the Helgoland Bight. By the 13th of December Ursula was a short distance to the North East of the red rock of Helgoland. At 20:45 Lt. Commander Phillips surfaced to enable Lt. Piper to take a fix. He recorded the boat’s position as North of the Norderney Light Vessel and a short distance Southwest of Helgoland. The fact that the Light Vessel was still working was evidence that important ships were at sea. Convinced that something was in the offing, Phillips kept Ursula in the area, observing the following in his patrol report:
‘..at 11:15hrs sighted Kőln class cruiser and six destroyers steering south.. Ursula was ahead of the leading ship of the port column. It was not certain at first whether Ursula was immediately ahead of the enemy or astern and course was altered towards the formation’
George Phillips decided to make an attack, first though, Ursula would have to penetrate the escort screen [Fig 2]. The closer the warships approached, the greater the risk of detection. The submarine was turned bows-on to the approaching target. Phillips decided to position Ursula in stopped trim between the port escort column and the cruiser. In this way the S-Gerät operators would confuse any acoustic contacts with the sound of their own screws. Once the screws of the leading destroyer were overhead, George Phillips calculated that the bows of Ursula would be level with the cruiser. Immediately the torpedoes were fired, the boat would dive then head straight towards the cruiser. The dive had to be a shallow one because there was not much depth to manouevre in. As the ships thundered overhead the reverberations shook Ursula but trim was maintained. When the noise reached a crescendo, Phillips ordered a dive to fifty feet. When the ASDIC operator warned this still was not deep enough, Phillips ordered her down to sixty-five feet.
’11:31hrs – Fired four torpedoes from 1,200 yards. 1 min, 10 sec after firing a tremendous explosion occurred followed 6 seconds later by another even heavier explosion. This last explosion even broke some lights in Ursula. HE effect from the target stopped immediately and was succeeded by various noises described by the operator as like, ‘nothing he had ever heard before in his life’. Four destroyers were heard to come towards Ursula but no depth charges were dropped’
CERA Florence was amazed by his Skipper’s audacity:
‘It was a very clever move as the destroyers broke formation and spread out trying to find us. They obviously did not think that we would carry on under our target. By breaking formation they let Ursula off the hook..’
George Phillips again:
‘The silent attacks continued, gradually drawing off to the Southwestwards and 45mins after firing, Ursula came to periscope depth for an observation, being at that time 2,000 to 3,000 yards from the position where the target was torpedoed. Two destroyers were in that position but nothing else was seen’
Convinced he had sunk the cruiser, Phillips surfaced that night to inform the Admiralty of his success. It was not long before rumours were circulating around Blyth as Bob Fife, then serving with the 49th Royal Tank Regiment recalls:
‘One day when we were training on the dunes just South of the Harbour, we heard a rumour that Ursula had sunk a cruiser. It was no official announcement just the Blyth ‘jungle telegraph’. It always struck me as queer that the people of Blyth knew so much, yet when directly questioned, they purported to know so little. The news was announced on the radio three days later’
Ursula returned to Blyth on 20th December. Bethell ‘turned out lower decks’ followed by an order to ‘cheer ship’. Ratings lined the piers and the quays, jostling for a good view. Normally the South Harbour was out of bounds to all but service personnel and authorized civilians. This day wives and dependents of the Ursula crew were invited down to the Harbour, where journalists and newsreels were on hand to capture her triumphant return. Sadly post-war research has taken some of the gloss off Ursula’s achievement.
It will be recalled that German destroyers had made a daring mine-lay on the Tyne roads on the night of 13th/14th December. Destroyers Friedrich Ihn and Eric Steinbrinck had suffered from engine overheating and low fuel reserves and so were dispatched directly back to base rather than to make rendezvous with the cruisers. At 10:36hrs the Harwich based HMS/M Salmon (Lt. Commander Edward Bickford) had fired torpedoes at both Leipzig and Nűrnberg as they waited for the returning destroyers (Bickford had already sunk U-36 (KorvettenKapitan Frohlich) North of the GDM in the course of this legendary patrol). Nűrnberg was struck in the stern, Leipzig was hit amidships. The damage to Leipzig could not be assessed properly while at sea and an immediate return to base was ordered with the damaged cruiser escorted by a scratch escort force . This was the Southbound unit attacked by Ursula.
Friedrich Ihn and Hermann Schoemann were dispatched from Wilhelmshaven to escort the undamaged Kőln back to Wilhelmshaven. Hermann Kűnne was ordered to protect Nűrnberg, while destroyers Richard Beitzen and Bruno Heinemann joined Flottenbegleiten F9 and F7 in escorting Leipzig back to base. The Second minesweeper Flotilla consisting of; M9, M10, M12 and M13. together with the First ‘R’ boat Flotilla; R33, R35, R36, R37, R38 and R39 were sent to form a distant escort for Leipzig.
Why had Ursula failed to sink Leipzig ? The German vessels were steaming at twelve knots, leading George Phillips to overestimate their speed. At the moment that George Phillips fired his salvo of torpedoes, one of these escorts, Flottenbegleiter F9 (Kplt. Paul Morgenstern) of the Second Geleitfoltille, Cuxhaven turned her helm straight into the path of the ‘fish’. F9 disintegrated instantly as the torpedoes struck. Over 120 men died and only fifteen were rescued. At the time she was hit F9 was 600-800 metres ahead of Leipzig on the starboard bow. At least one torpedo was spotted crossing the cruiser’s bow. Their unintentional sacrifice undoubtedly saved the cruiser but once Leipzig reached dock it was clear the damage was extensive. Too extensive. Leipzig was relegated to a training role and never saw active service again. Konteadmiral Lűtjens wrote in his report
‘…the fact that there could be a second submarine attack at all was largely due to inadequate A/S tactics of the escort force. The individual vessels – in particular the destroyers had repeatedly to be ordered to increase their speed, to steer a zig-zag course and to search their sectors more closely without wandering too far off. Often the ships would move at slow speed on parallel courses. It looked as though the escort felt too sure and did not really believe there could be another attack. In contrast to the ‘R’ boats performed their tasks eagerly without having to be advised. After the attack the vessels on the starboard side of the screen from where the torpedoes appear to have come, scattered about but failed to locate the submarine. Thus the starboard side of Leipzig was at the time unprotected. After a period of futile search the escort vessels had to be ordered by radio to start dropping depth charges to scare the submarine away…in short it must be concluded that the escort vessels did not prove themselves equal to the task’
From the outset Admiralty intelligence suspected that Bickford and Phillips had targeted the same cruiser but the Royal Navy was not going to be robbed of a propaganda coup. Both men were credited with attacking different warships, promoted to full Commander and awarded a DSO each. First Lieutenant Greene and Lieutenant Piper were both awarded the DSC while several ratings received the DSM. George Phillips relinquished command of Ursula in April1940.
There were no medals for RA(S) Bertram Watson. Watson had been handicapped by factors beyond his control. It was hardly his fault that there were insufficient submarines to meet commitments. Nor should it be forgotten that the fighting efficiency of submarines had been the responsibility of C. in C. Home Fleet, Sir Charles Forbes until the outbreak of war. When he learned of his dismissal for ‘not pressing his submarines hard enough’ he remarked, ‘The rest of the Royal Navy has not been anywhere near the Helgoland Bight’. Admiralty was only too happy to see attention deflected from its own failings. As for the Germans, they reflected on what had gone wrong. Large warships were temporarily suspended from operating in the Bight. A/S patrols in Zones E and B were strengthened and mines – many more mines, were laid. Ursula had achieved a significant propaganda coup – but she had equally stirred a hornets nest for those boats following her into the Helgoland Bight.
ADM 199/1819, ADM 199/1843, ADM 199/1830, ADM 199/1837