‘I roam the seas from Scapa Flow
To the Bight of Heligoland
In the Dover Strait
I lie in wait
On the edge of the Goodwin Sands,
I am here and there and everywhere,
Like a phantom in a dream
And I sing Ho ! Ho !
Through the winds that blow
The song of the submarine’
‘The Song of the Submarine’ Trad
The Sixth Flotilla was reduced to Sturgeon, Ursula, Unity and L23. All were in urgent need of refits. Unity left Blyth for Portsmouth on January 12th. The controversial Max Horton, who was appointed VA(S) in place of Bertram Watson on January 9th, decreed a suspension of patrols in Zone B and Zone E until more intelligence could be gathered (which had been the standpoint of the now sacked Watson from the outset). Horton’s next step was to move his headquarters from Aberdour in Fife to Northways in London on the grounds that this would facilitate better communications with RAF Coastal Command (it seems to have been overlooked that this move distanced VA(S) from his operational flotillas in Northern Britain however).
Ursula, which had left Blyth on January 10th to relieve the now destroyed Starfish in the Bight was redirected to patrol in Zone J. Patrols in the Kattegat, Skagerrak, West of the GDM and off the Norwegian coast, increased.
Unity returned to Blyth on February 2nd and on February 29th left to patrol the Norwegian coast. Ursula left Blyth on January 10th to carry out a patrol in Zone J in the Skagerrak. Sturgeon left Blyth for a billet in Zone J in the mouth of the Skagerrak on January 21st. On her return Sturgeon was packed off to Swan Hunters’ Yard for a refit L23 patrolled in Zone A and the mouth of the Skagerrak in patrols commencing January 21st and February 12th respectively. Unity returned to Blyth on February 2nd and on February 29th left to patrol the Norwegian coast. Ursula left Blyth on January 10th to carry out a patrol in Zone J in the Skagerrak. Sturgeon left Blyth for a billet in Zone J in the mouth of the Skagerrak on January 21st.
Max Horton was concerned with the morale of Sixth Flotilla but as Lieutenant Anthony Langridge of Narwhal here observes, the esprit de corps was sound enough:
‘The loss of so many submarines did not seem to affect the morale of other submariners to any great extent. The thing that struck me about Blyth was the great spirit that existed there. It was a spirit of optimism and cheerfulness which could not be dampened by loss of life and vessels, even though most of us had lost one or more close friends‘
Horton knew Blyth well, having served there as commander of J6 in the latter stages of the Great War. Horton assured the submariners drawn up on the parade ground that such a disaster would not be allowed to happen again. Horton outlined changes in procedure designed to safeguard the submarines. On receipt of the ‘recall’ transmission, every boat would now be required to ‘report out’ the situation with regard to A/S vessels, mines and hostile aircraft. In this way fresh intelligence could be passed on to the incoming boat. Horton promised Bethell ‘S’ class replacements as soon as they became available.
On her return on January 31st from a patrol in Zone J, waiting to greet Gregory and his officers was the new VA(S) Admiral Max Horton. It had been an eventless patrol until Sturgeon attempted to enter ‘Gap B’ in the British minefield. A coastal patrol vessel charged in to ram. Michael Lumby:
‘We often had trouble with our own armed trawlers. They were totally disinterested in recognition signals. They would open fire or even try to ram without even checking to see what we were. Fortunately basic English with a few four letter words thrown in, was usually immediately effective’
When a nervous Lieutenant Lumby told Admiral Horton about the trawler episode, Horton’s fierce countenance softened and he chuckled. It reminded him of the days when he used to bring J6 back from patrol and the keeper at St Mary’s Light would take pot shots at the submarine in the belief it must be a U-boat.
On February 18th the Kriegsmarine launched Operation Nordmark. A task force comprising Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Admiral Hipper and Königsberg was to break out into the North Sea with a view to menacing convoys running between Bergen and Lerwick. An arc of U-boats had been placed between Kinnaird Head and the Shetlands in the bonus hope that British warships based in Scapa and Rosyth would rush forth in pursuit of the German ships only to find find themselves in a trap. In fact the German ships and their substantial escort was spotted by British aircraft as the task force left Wangerooge in the Friesan Islands. Part of the British fleet was already at sea engaged in operations against the Altmark, currently ‘skulking’ in Norwegian territorial waters. The German task force passed Skagen in Denmark then turned into the Skagerrak. Disappointed by the absence of British ships, the German ships turned back on the night of February 19th. Meanwhile L23 (Lieutenant Francis Brooks) lay at periscope depth North of the GDM:
‘The submarine was taken deep and the first charge exploded at 40’ with three more following at close intervals. When the submarine had reached 80’four more charges exploded as the second destroyer passed overhead. I stopped every motor and allowed her to settle on the bottom in 152’ of water. There were no more charges but surface craft remained in the vicinity until 04:30hrs’
We know from German sources that the depth charging was carried out by M1, M5 and M7 of the First Minesweeping Flotilla. It will be recalled that M5 had played a role in the destruction of Starfish and some believe she may have sunk Seahorse. L23 later surfaced to report. It is not clear whether S-Gerȁt was used by the German vessels but they did inflict a severe depth charge drubbing on L23 which is not reflected in the sang froid language of the Patrol Report. L23 remained at periscope depth until 06:00hrs before surfacing to report: ‘One cruiser and two destroyers steering South East’
Upon surfacing the look-outs were surprised to see an arc of diesel oil around the boat. The ‘M’ boats had broken off the attack because they believed the submarine had been destroyed. This oil came from the ruptured number six external tank. L23 limped back to Rosyth on February 23rd.
Unity left Blyth on February 29th to hunt for Altmark. The previous month the crew of HMS Cossack had raided this Nazi prison ship to free 300 prisoners. The crew of Cossack had violated Norwegian territorial waters in the process. Neutral sensitivities were high.
Cossack was ordered to draw back in the hope that Altmark would enter international waters before renewing the attack. At 08:50 on March 6th Unity watched Altmark leave Jøssingfiord surrounded by a clutch of escorts, which, presumably, the Norwegian authorities opted not to see. Altmark remained well within Norwegian territorial waters, hugging the coast under Lista Light. Rob Roy McCurrach had been due to wait on Spearfish but he arranged a swop with fellow ERA ‘Olly’ Oliver to ensure a draft to Unity in his place. This was his first submarine patrol:
‘We found her (Altmark) without any difficulty, heavily escorted. We ran out to sea to signal this news to the Admiralty. They in their turn told us to diesel through the night at full speed and intercept her before she reached her base. We did as ordered but our top speed was too slow. Altmark had sought and gained sanctuary before we stood a chance of hitting her with a couple of ‘fish’. Our TI observed, ‘Pity we didn’t whack a couple of ‘fish’ into her, then the lads up forward might have had a bit more room.
At night we rolled like an old sea-cow. Cups jumped out of their racks, overfilled buckets of gash tipped onto their sides, water cascaded down the conning tower, hastened by the draught of incoming air to the diesels, food sloshed over the electric oven producing eye-searing fumes which stung like tear gas. The look-outs came down from the bridge, cold, wet, dirty – and nearly blind. The human chain handing up buckets of gash for ditching cursed and blasphemed as the revolting stuff dribbled down on their upturned faces but finally it was done.
Gradually the night passed, six to eight long wet hours of near misery. Finally the battery was charged and we could seek the peace of eighty feet. As we did so I thought of the surface ship men who were up there all the time. I wouldn’t have changed places with them for anything’
Altmark reached Kiel on March 27th. Unity returned to base on March 11th. Rob Roy McCurrach:
‘I walked through the engine room and patted both engines. I lit a cigarette, picked up my steaming bag and made my way out of the boat and up the fore hatch ladder. As I stood on the casing the cold wind took my breath away as did the two young wrens, Kit Watson and Diana ‘the Deb’. ‘Mac’, said Kit, ‘where have you been ? To me, reeking of oil, unshaven conscious of my dirty hands, clothes and hair, in their tailored uniforms. We walked back up to the main road. Kit and Diana going back to Watson’s Chip Shop on Woodbine Terrace while I headed for the base and a bath.
Rob Roy had missed a royal visit. On a cold wet and otherwise miserable March 8th, Bethell cleared lower decks as the crew of Spearfish and Ursula received decorations from the doomed Duke of Kent.
Stan Peel of Spearfish was awarded a DSM ‘for showing great presence of mind and skill under conditions of complete darkness’. Seven others, including ERA Ernie Buckingham and TI Richard Pitman of Ursula were presented with the same medal.
On March 12th Ursula (Lieutenant Commander George Philips) left Blyth for a patrol between Skagen in Denmark and Gothenberg in Sweden. This would be Philips last patrol. With characteristic bluntness Admiral Horton let it be known that he intended to retire all submarine commanders over the age of thirty-five. It was called ‘Horton’s purge’. Wintery conditions in the Skaggerak were exceptionally hazardous. Several times the boat was damaged by ice floes. On one occasion the boat suffered ice damage to the bow cap shutters and the attack periscope which became locked in the raised position. The outline of a darkened ship was spotted in international waters on March 21st. Ursula closed to investigate. Lieutenant Piper, who had earlier worked for the Baltic Union Steamship Company which plied these waters, advised Phillips that the vessel was too big to belong to one of the Baltic states. There was every chance it was a German blockade runner. The ship was the 4,947 ton Heddernheim with a cargo of 7,000 tons of pyrites and copper ore, though the crew of Ursula did not know this at the time. She was sailing between Thamshavn in Norway to Germany. As previously mentioned the Royal Navy was forced to adhere to obeying international law in the form of the ‘Prize Rules’. First the nationality of the ship had to be established, easy enough in civilian theory but somewhat more complicated when the blockade runners adopted false colours. Secondly, when a blockade runner had been identified, the British warship was responsible for ensuring the safety of the crew. This extract from the Patrol Report describes events as they unfolded:
‘21:46hrs Sighted a dim lights of a ship. Closed to investigate. When close signalled the ship to stop. This they did not do. After another attempt the ship was seen to increase speed so a practice round was fired with the gun as a warning shot. The ship now stopped and was asked to identify her self. She signalled ‘Estonian’. Meanwhile Ursula crossed close astern of the ship and with the Aldis light the name ‘Heddernheim – Bremen’ could be read. The crew was ordered to abandon ship. Meanwhile they were also signalling. The crew eventually sent a boat over but this all took a very long time, it was obvious they were ‘buying time’. Once again they were ordered to abandon ship, which they did but again very slow. A second warning round was now fired and this speeded up things a bit’.
While Ursula was manouvered into a position to torpedo the ship no.1 torpedo tube was fired by accident. This torpedo missed the ship. Due to ice damage to Ursula only no. 2 and no.5 torpedo tubes could be fired. so these were now brought to the ready. No.5 torpedo tube was now fired but the torpedo failed to run. Possibly it was damaged upon discharge also due to ice damage. Now no.2 tube was fired. This torpedo hit the ship amidships and it sank shortly afterwards‘
Aston Piper, who spoke some German, questioned the men in the lifeboats for the wherabouts of the captain. The Germans maintained that Kȁpitan Teichmann had committed suicide. Of course this was nonsense but with a second unidentified ship closing, there was no time for further investigation. Chief Engineer Sinn was seized in his place as a ‘sample’. A second ship was stopped by Ursula, the Sejrö. Her papers were found to be in order and she was allowed to proceed.
Sinn was an object of curiosity for the crew of Ursula as Ernie Buckingham recalls:
‘He was a funny little bloke who smoked like a chimney once he got the chance. Of course he was a prisoner and we had to guard him closely. The trouble was that Ursula was too small, you just couldn’t prevent him from seeing what was going on. I mean every compartment on a submarine contains sensitive equipment. In the end we reverted to putting a sack over his head if we had to move him around the boat. Chatting in the mess he told us he hated the Nazis but as a German sailor he was compelled to do his duty for Germany. I recall he sang for us, some German lied. Sometimes you would hear him singing away to himself even with this bag over his head. Hard to hate a man with a voice like that‘
Ursula docked at the Middle Jetty on March 25th and Engineer Officer Sinn was removed into captivity. This was Phillips last submarine patrol – though he would return to Blyth. Ursula was in Blyth Docks until April 2nd.
Jock Bethell was acutely aware he had too few boats to meet the challenges ahead. True to his word Admiral Horton allocated Swordfish and Spearfish to the Sixth Flotilla, the former arrived on March 13th, the latter on April 2nd. Command of Swordfish passed to Lieutenant ‘Joe’ Cowell formerly of L27. Swordfish had been serving with the Third Flotilla at Harwich but Horton had a far more challenging command for Lieutenant ‘Lucky’ Cecil Crouch. He would take command of a newly commissioned submarine called Thunderbolt, formerly known as Thetis.
Oddly enough there was another reminder of that doomed submarine. Among the new men drafted to Spearfish was one whose photograph had been splashed over every newsreel and newspaper in the English speaking world. The six foot tall Stoker was none other than Walter ‘Mac’ Arnold, the last man to emerge from Thetis alive following the tragic accident in Liverpool Bay the previous year. From the instant Walter Arnold was plucked from the sea his life would never be the same again. Even while giving evidence to the inquest, Arnold was engaged in assisting and advising in the removal of bodies from the beached Thetis. Admiralty allowed a decent interval to pass before quizzing Walter as to whether he wanted to remain in boats. When he answered to the affirmative he was drafted to Spearfish. Some regarded Walter Arnold as a Jonah but Alfie Backers had a more empathetic perspective:
‘We couldn’t believe it. We thought they must have forced him to come back into boats. I mean fancy coming back into submarines after everything he had been through – fancy coming to Spearfish of all boats. He made a great effort to fit in but we never asked him about the Thetis and I don’t recall him ever talking about it – besides Stan Peel had warned us that on no account were we to bring the subject up. Walter Arnold was a quiet lad and it used to make our blood boil when ignorant sods from other boats would point him out like a freak. I still think he made a mistake in coming back to boats. They should never have allowed him to bring out those bodies from the Thetis‘
While the old guard including Lieutenant Donald Pirie and Stan Peel remained with the boat, Lieutenant Eaden left to stand by Utmost. Command of Spearfish passed to Lieutenant Commander Jock Hay Forbes. The Swan Hunter shipwrights had to replace practically the entire casing of Spearfish. Lieutenant Donald Pirie looked across the River from Wallsend to watch destroyer HMS Jupiter moor alongside Hawthorn Leslie’s Hebburn Yard. This was an exciting development as his younger brother Lindsay was a junior officer on the ship. Presented with the rare opportunity of a wartime reunion, the brothers met up and set course for Newcastle and a memorable run ashore. Lindsay was later returned to Jupiter ‘as tight as an owl’ but a couple of hours spent rowing around the Tyne in a whaler soon brought him to a state of sobriety.
On March 13th, Spearfish now ‘squared up’ and ‘off the wall’ left the Blyth for a rendezvous with the destroyer HMS Garth for sea trials. Shortly afterwards an incident occurred which was evoke nightmares among the old hands while providing the new men with a glimpse into the future. With Spearfish surfaced in the Swept Channel, HMS Garth reported an ASDIC contact. Suspected U-boat. Spearfish newcomer Fred Rumsey had a grandstand view of proceedings from the bridge:
‘We kept in touch with the contact via ASDIC. We acted as a pointer while Garth carried out depth charge attacks. I have no recollection of the outcome but what I do recall is the feeling among the crew – especially those who had suffered the depth charge attack in September. We were close enough for the depth charges to shake us as well’. Immediately afterwards Walter Arnold put in a transfer to general service. Everyone realised and sympathised with how he must have felt’
The contact was ‘nonsub’. A period of working up exercises in Scapa Flow followed. During this time the professionalism and good humour of Jock Forbes made an impression on the crew of Spearfish. The small slim Scot looked more like a benign elf than a grizzled submarine commander but he was nevertheless one of the most experienced captains in the Submarine Service, having joined in 1929 having earlier served in H31 and L21. Lieutenant Commander Forbes had been First Lieutenant of Phoenix but H49 was his first independent command. Fred Rumsey gained an insight into his Skipper when the boat left Scapa for Blyth on March 30th:
‘I made a name for myself on look-out duty one night by reporting an aircraft in sight and causing a hurried dive. When we eventually surfaced it was discovered that the ‘aircraft’ was actually a star (I think it might have been Arcturus) Anyway what I thought I had seen was not an aircraft, an error partly caused by the movement of the boat and the fact that this star did appear to blink. I had my leg pulled about this for the rest of the time I was on the boat – although I was made to feel less of a fool by the Skipper remarking publicly that I had done the right thing: It was better for look-outs to mistakenly report something rather than hesitate until it was too late. Spearfish was a happy boat and I particularly recall the regard we had for the Skipper – he inspired confidence in all of us‘
The return journey from Scapa to Blyth was made down the East Coast Swept Channel. Fred Rumsey:
‘One dark night when I was port look-out I saw a darkened ship and as I reported it, the starboard look-out made a similar report. The Captain ordered that navigation lights to be switched on and then all around us the navigation lights of ships were switched on. We were in the middle of a convoy (FN32) heading in the opposite course to us. It was a frightening experience. I remember looking up at a great steel wall that seemed to be absolutely rushing past very close to our port side‘
Spearfish arrived back at Blyth on April 2nd.
At 16:00hrs On March 25th Unity was on her way to a patrol in the Skagerrak when a lifeboat containing eight men was spotted. Upon determining that this was not a trap, Lieutenant Brown brought the submarine alongside the boat. It transpired that the men, who were in a bad way, were survivors from the fishing boat Protinus from Ijmuiden in Holland. They had been fishing on the Middle Rough Banks when a German bomber flew low and bombed them, killing the captain and a deck hand. The remainder of the crew took to the boat but it too was strafed by the HEIII of KG26.
Two of the fisherman had earlier died of exposure. Lieutenant Brown had no hesitation in bringing the ailing survivors onboard Unity. Lieutenant John Brown diverted from his patrol to take the survivors to Rosyth, arriving there on March 27th. Captain Brown added the following to his report:
‘I wish to pay tribute to the extremely fine and unselfish spirit displayed by the sailors whom I have the honour to command in their dealings with the survivors of the Protinus. Not only did they cheerfully sacrifice their very limited sleeping accommodation to these men but all ratings gave up a very considerable amount of their time, time which especially during the foul weather experienced on the trip to base was extremely precious to them. Massaging the extremities of the survivors, fetching them water and generally administering to them, they did their best under trying circumstances. The fine example set by Lt. Low and PO Knott was undoubtedly responsible for this‘
Rob Roy McCurrach made the most of his time ashore when Unity returned to Blyth.
We knew about six girls who used Seghinis Cafe. I preferred Jean, Cookem liked them all. If I was at sea he would go ashore after supper, visit the coffee shop and take all six to the cinema, front row circle, three on each side. On return from patrol I could call for a coffee, drink it, stroll to the nearest cinema and ask the girl selling the tickets for Cookem’s wherabouts. Without fail she would be able to tell me where he was. It was a small town and I guess we were well known. If free on a Saturday afternoon we caught the train and went to Newcastle where our routine was simple; a visit to the Laing Art Gallery followed by supper at the Silver Grill, then to the Tatler News Theatre‘
Cookem Fry was a talented artist and his work aroused the interest of Willian Wetherill, art lecturer at King’s College (now Newcastle University). In Willian Wetherill the to submariners found a firm ally, enthusiastic to encourage their artistic pursuits in the less than conducive atmosphere of HMS Elfin barrack blocks. Their penchant for drawing and painting provoked a great deal of mockery tinged with intense curiosity from fellow ERAs (whose own tastes were governed by the sexual imperative coupled with an eternal search for potent but cheap booze). As a seaport, Blyth could cater for both. Pubs were legion. In February 1940 local newspapers lamented a 45% increase in drunkenness but pointed out that 25% of this increase had been down to ‘outsiders’. Locals could tell when a boat was due out on patrol by the number of sailors found slumped in Ridley Park. Prostitution thrived amid an enthusiastic clientele of footloose, lonely young men. Amorous officers relaxed in the lace curtain respectability of a well known house in Whitley Bay, while less fastidious ratings opted for encounters in the more notorious pubs – despite efforts to keep them out. The last thing Bethell needed was an outbreak of venereal disease among his crews. Some red light hostelries met with more official approval than others – that is to say the shore patrols drank there. Rob Roy here describes an encounter with ‘Betty’. a Blyth institution:
‘One table was in use occupied by a neat, plumpish woman of about forty. Quite old from where we stood. Momentarily I glimpsed an unusual quality about her – something I could not define, ‘Do sit here, boys’, she said graciously and lit a cigarette. Grudgingly Cookem produced his case then offered his lighter.
‘Ah, thank you. Are you from the base ?‘
‘You must be new. I haven’t seen either of you before. Now tell me, do you know xxx‘ and rattled off a whole string of names, many of them our messmates.
‘Are any of them ashore ?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know’, answered Cookem glancing at me.
‘I shook my head‘
‘Throatily she added, ‘I am looking for a man‘
I was about to ask what his name was, when Cookem caught my eye and I realised we were talking to ‘Betty’. ‘Watch out’ our messmates had warned, ‘watch out for Betty. She would kill the both of you stone dead’ I glanced at my watch, thinking that if some of our messmates walked in now, Cookem and I would achieve a certain distinction. She stood up regally, surveyed us pityingly and said,
‘I was looking for a man and I was tempted to take the pair of you on but I doubt whether you’ve got enough between you !’
April brought unwanted visitors to Blyth. German bombers from the Sylt/Flensburg sector regularly probed coastal defences and menaced the FS/FN East coast convoys. George Gibbs who worked at the docks was escorting his young lady to the mid ferry landing:
‘Just as the ferry was leaving the jetty a German bomber flying very low passed overhead, machine guns blazing. I could hear the bullets tearing past me as I stood on the ferry landing. Some of them hit the small torpedo replenishment vessel, HMS Elfin. I heard next day that a round had actually penetrated the pillows of one of the crew but fortunately he was not in his bunk at the time’
Bob Fife witnessed the same attack:
‘A German bomber flew over the docks, flying in from the sea. It flew up the line of the quay where a coal boat was tied up right outside the window of the Drill Hall where we were billeted. It was machine gunning the length of the South Staithes. As I popped my head out of the window I saw the skipper of the boat standing in his pyjamas blazing away with a Lewis gun. His language was enough to frighten off the Germans, never mind his gun !’
On the evening of March 29th a JU88A bomber approached a Northbound convoy, FN29. There were three escorts, the sloop HMS Auckland and the armed trawlers Indian Star and Rutlandshire. Auckland had been warned that there were German bombers in the area and at 20:30hrs, with the convoy level with the F20 Buoy, a JU88 swooped in to strafe at 1,000 feet. The escorts replied with Lewis gun fire. The bomber was seen to veer away then crash. The Cresswell lifeboat was called out but nothing but oil patches was found. However in subsequent days the aircraft wreck was salvaged and brought into Blyth. Rob Roy McCurrach was helping to prepare Unity for sea on April 1st when the salvage vessels brought the wrecked aircraft into the South Harbour:
‘The plane and the two dead Germans were hoisted up by a floating crane, set down on the jetty and guarded. Cookem and I went along to view this and managed to see these men, even touch their uniforms. We were, at that time, familiar with several German words. One in particular was ‘ersatz’. We knew that the German war machine was rapacious and that the civilian population were enduring severe shortages. No coffee was available so acorns were being roasted…ersatz. Clothes, poorly cut, inferior material…ersatz. Indeed if we used tools that broke we’d discard them and say…ersatz.
Cookem and I examined the German clothes. Under immaculate overalls they wore fine uniforms of superior gaberdine. Their parachutes showed an equally high standard of work and material. ‘Perhaps’ said Cookem, ‘we’d better not believe all the papers tell us. If that’s an example of ersatz, heaven preserve us from the real thing…’
The bomber belonging to KG30 had taken off from Sylt. The bodies of Oberleutnant Rudolf Quat and Unteroffiziere Gustav Hartung were removed and buried at Chevington Cemetery, Section H. The wrecked bomber was dismantled and taken away by No 60 Maintenance Unit based at Shipton by Beningbrough near York. The body of Unteroffiziere Andreas Wunderling washed up near Cresswell some time later and he too was buried at Chevington with his comrades
That very day the town of Blyth paid tribute to the crew of Ursula by inviting the crew to a dinner held in their honour at the Market Hotel. The crew of Ursula attended with wives and girlfriends. On behalf of the people of Blyth, Mr Davie proposed a toast with the following words:
‘We know of Ursula’s exploits. She has not only upheld the traditions of the Royal Navy but has set an example which will be hard to live up to. We wish them God-speed in the future, happy returns and many happy days to come’
Bethell would have liked to have been present but Horton had compelled him to attend a meeting of all flotilla commanders at Northways, his London HQ. Present at this meeting were Captain Menzies of the Second Flotilla (Rosyth), Captain Ruck-Keene of the Third Flotilla (Harwich) and Captain Roper of the soon to be formed Ninth Flotilla in Dundee. Horton informed them that he considered the German invasion of Norway to be imminent. He explained the reasoning behind his dispositions and advised them of the recent cabinet decision to sanction mine-laying operations in Norwegian territorial waters.
Opinion within Admiralty was divided as to whether the Germans would invade Norway in the Spring. Many in naval intelligence believed the Kriegsmarine would not dare a confrontation with the Royal Navy. Admiral Horton recognized that it was a question of when, not if, the Germans would land in Norway, if only for the imperative to secure iron ore resources. The challenge for Horton was to get his submarine dispositions right in the face of Admiralty scepticism. The Skagerrak and the Kattegat would be the focus of future operations and Blyth would be on the front line.
Operation ‘R4’ was an Admiralty measure drawn up to meet a German invasion of Norway. Once it had been established that an invasion was underway, the plan called for an unleashing of submarines in both the Skagerrak and the Kattegat. Their objective was to sink transports and escorts before German soldiers had the opportunity to disembark in strength. Allied troops would then land in Norway to repel the invaders. R4 was far removed from the pre-emptive strike which Churchill was yearning to make but a response which handed all initiative to the enemy. Horton anticipated the Germans would strike at key ports on the Norwegian coast and strike soon. But where would they land and which routes would they take ? Where should he concentrate his thin grey line ? Dispositions for April were based as much upon guess work as reliable intelligence. Only the most likely invasion points could be covered, including Zone J, the entrance to the Skagerrak and the approaches to as many major Norwegian ports as meagre resources allowed.
The difficulties would be acute and a Spring campaign would be a gruelling test of endurance as submarines would spend most of the day submerged. At best there would be only two or three hours of darkness in which to charge batteries, necessitating that boats must run out to sea. This was an inconvenient and time consuming operation. At this time a number of measures designed to aid operations in Scandinavian waters were introduced.
‘Wiping’ or ‘Degaussing’ involved the artificial deflection of a submarine’s magnetic field. In this way, it was hoped that magnetic mines could be exploded harmlessly astern. By April 1940 all Blyth submarines had been treated. Drugs and gadgets designed to counteract the effects of prolonged submersion were made available. These ranged from ‘Protosorb’ trays containing a carbon dioxide absorbent to injections of the drug Benzedrine, known to be used by U-boat commanders to delay the onset of fatigue. When the option was put to British submarine commanders they rejected it to a man on the grounds that they did not want to be turned into a gang of drug-addicts.
Admiralty dismissed as scaremongering reports that an invasion force bound for Narvik and other key ports was due to leave Germany on April 8th. In so doing their lordships made a grave error. At 23:00hrs on April 6th, a mighty German armada weighed anchor and set course for Norway.
Operation Weserübung was as simple as it was audacious. The plan called for a number of lightly equipped army units to be landed by ship at key Norwegian ports. With the benefit of air support the German forces would first consolidate then drive inland to isolate any pockets of resistance. Sweden was not to be invaded, after all the country had enjoyed a good relationship with Germany since before the outbreak of the Great War. The seizure of Narvik would guarantee control of the iron ore trade. Denmark was to be seized because of the imperative to secure airfields capable of supporting the operation.
The most critical stage of the operation lay in its initial stage, the sea-borne invasion. Should the force be intercepted en route by the Royal Navy, it would be duly sent to the bottom of the North Sea. German success depended upon total surprise. Although the main strike was planned for April 8th, units due to land at the more Northerly Norwegian ports left the Weser on April 6th. Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were given Narvik as their objective. Hipper and four destroyers left on the same day for Trondheim. Lützow should have joined them but was redirected to join ‘Group V’ due to leave Kiel for Oslo on April 7th. VA(S) based his dispositions in the certainty that an invasion force would have to pass between the Danish coast and the GDM (Zone E) before it would cross the mouth of the Skagerrak (Zones J and C). Although these zones were routinely patrolled, the submarines were required to cover a huge expanse of sea and there were far too many variables for Horton to feel confident.
We can follow the fortunes of Unity, Spearfish, Swordfish and Ursula (Sturgeon was undergoing a refit at Swan Hunters Yard) in these opening stages of the Norwegian campaign.
Unity (Lieutenant John Brown) left Blyth on April 2nd for a patrol in Zone E. On April 5th a U-boat was spotted in position 56°03’N, 06°35’E:
‘At 08:37hrs a U-boat which had the appearance of a 250 ton class, was seen at a range of 3,000 yards, Unity being 10° on her starboard bow. There was a very rough sea running and a heavy swell, which made depth keeping difficult. Unity’s four internal tubes were at once brought to the ready but No 4 tube’s interlocking gear failed to clear and it could not be fired.
08:48 hrs three torpedoes were fired on an estimated 150° track at a range of 2,000 yards, using a 7 second firing interval and a point of aim one-third the ship’s length ahead. The torpedoes were set to 8’. Two explosions were heard, one at 08:56hrs and one at 09:02hrs. HE was still heard after the first explosion but owing to the state of the sea the target could not be seen and in fact during the run-out and turn onto firing course the target was seen only three times. Under the circumstances the attack was considered to have been unsuccessful’
The target was U-2 (Kapitȁnleutnant Rosenbaum). U-2 had sailed from Wilhelmshaven at noon on April 4th to patrol off Egersund. On the forenoon of April 5th she was proceeding Northwards through the ‘Route Green Swept Channel’ when at the time of Unity‘s attack two separate explosions were heard and the boat was violently shaken.
Unity (Lieutenant John Brown) left Blyth on April 2nd for a patrol in Zone E. On April 5th a U-boat was spotted in position 56°03’N, 06°35’E.
‘At 08:37hrs a U-boat which had the appearance of a 250 ton class, was seen at a range of 3,000 yards, Unity being 10° on her starboard bow. There was a very rough sea running and a heavy swell, which made depth keeping difficult. Unity’s four internal tubes were at once brought to the ready but No 4 tube’s interlocking gear failed to clear and it could not be fired.
08:48 hrs three torpedoes were fired on an estimated 150° track at a range of 2,000 yards, using a 7 second firing interval and a point of aim one-third the ship’s length ahead. The torpedoes were set to 8’. Two explosions were heard, one at 08:56 and one at 09:02. HE was still heard after the first explosion but owing to the state of the sea the target could not be seen and in fact during the run-out and turn onto firing course the target was seen only three times. Under the circumstances the attack was considered to have been unsuccessful’
By April 9th Unity moved North into Zone J and the mouth of the Skagerrak. The German invasion was underway and at 13:24 VA(S) issued a message to his boats that all German merchant vessels in the Skagerrak East of 8° or East of the GDM could be treated as hostile and torpedoed without warning. The kid gloves were coming off as the Prize Rules were ditched. At 16:00hrs on April 9th Unity was surfaced off Ringkøbing in Denmark at 55°58’N, 06°33’E. When a vessel was spotted to the North, Lieutenant Brown decided to dive and investigate, approaching at periscope depth. The ship was identified as the 3,000 ton Casablanca. At his stage Brown had not received Horton’s 1324/9 transmission. Unity was not fitted with a gun. Interception under the Prize Rules on the surface might have proved problematic if this was a ‘Q’ ship as Brown and his crew increasingly suspected.
’16:50 hrs The vessel was now at only 1,000 yards range. The ASDIC operator reported that she had stopped her engines. Shortly afterwards two depth charges exploded close by. Unity now tried to get into an attack position as this vessel was now clearly hostile. The attempts however failed as the target kept bows on.
17:10 hrs The attempts to get into a firing position were now abandoned and Unity retired slowly to the West.
17:24 hrs Speed was now increased. This was immediately followed by four depth charges.
17:26 hrs Four more depth charges were dropped.
17:28 hrs Six more depth charges were dropped. The enemy was heard to steam up and down.
17:55 hrs Three more depth charges were dropped.18:40 hrs Two more depth charges were dropped. These were not very close.
This was the first and last experience of depth-charging for the crew of Unity as Rob Roy McCurrach describes:
‘The depth charges exploded with the most terrifying crumps I’d ever heard. Cockroaches scattered by the hundred from the police lights they loved. Fine pieces of cork from the hull joined them and any crockery not stowed leaped with abandon and smashed. We turned away – evasive action in a quick attempt to present our stern towards the direction of the explosions. I wasn’t mature or blasé enough to chalk up the number of charges dropped though this was happening in the control room by the helmsman’s messenger. I had given a sudden involuntary jump at the first bang and was trying to display voluntary indifference with all my will. Fortunately the Torpedo Officer recruited me to decode the latest batch of signals. It was far better to do something‘
With some relief the Patrol Report relates:
19:30 hrs Returned to periscope depth. Nothing in sight’
The identity of the ship which attacked Unity is in doubt. Casablanca, a ‘Q’ ship, was in harbour at this time. However Schiff 35 also known as Oldenburg was in the area and reported attacking an enemy submarine. However this attack is recorded on April 8th not April 9th. The 2,132 ton Oldenburg, sister of Casablanca was supported by two vessels of the Fourteenth Vorpost Flotilla, VP403 and VP408. Their logs all give the date of the attack on the submarine as April 8th, yet it is incredible that Unity could lose an entire day in her Patrol Report. This was Oldenburg‘s first A/S patrol. The mystery remains. Unity ended her ninth patrol at Blyth on April 17th. The crew did not know it but the Oldenburg had been torpedoed and sunk by HMS/M Sunfish on April 14trh. Forty-five men died in Oldenburg.
By the time that Unity had surfaced, the main invasion force (Group V) had passed without molestation. The opportunity to stop the German task force in its tracks had ended. Confident that the landing could be made without interdiction from the Royal Navy, Ribbentrop made a simultaneous ultimatum to Denmark and Norway. Denmark capitulated immediately but Norway was defiant.
Now let us turn to HMS/M Spearfish. Spearfish left Blyth on August 5th for a patrol in Zones E and J to relieve Swordfish, specifically a billet off the tip of Denmark known as the Skaw. Morale was high and the boat had its share of characters as Fred Rumsey recalls:
‘One bloke was a recalled reservist, ‘Dutchy’ Holland, a former fireman. He caused some amusement when he put up a photograph of himself dressed in full fireman’s uniform complete with a polished brass helmet with the note underneath,
‘THE ONLY MAN IN THE BOAT ENTITLED TO WEAR A BRASS HAT’
The Skipper took it in good part – as it was meant – and he had a chuckle. This same fireman used to wear a cinema commissionaire’s greatcoat in the boat. It reached almost to his ankles and was a vivid purple colour complete with tiddly epaulettes and buttons‘
The outward journey was littered with hazards ranging from sea-mines to loose barrage balloons. Just before midday on April 7th a German bomber suddenly swooped from a cloud to drop a bomb which exploded harmlessly astern. Spearfish lost trim in the sudden dive. Until Donald Pirie and the hydroplane operators arrested the dive, the boat was heading towards the bottom with a thirty degree bow angle. Spearfish levelled out but from this point on Forbes decided that despite his orders to ‘proceed with dispatch’ speed would be sacrificed for safety and the boat would travel at periscope depth. A thick fog curtained off the South coast of Norway but formations of aircraft could be heard overhead. It was obvious that a major operation was underway. At one point the look-outs heard the unmistakeable sounds of an aircraft in trouble. The bomber spluttered, carried on then dived into the sea close to Spearfish. Within minutes ASDIC Operator Tuson reported the sound of fast turbines directly ahead, Forbes slowly withdrew Spearfish from the scene without further investigation.
At 17:00hrs on April 10th Spearfish was at periscope depth off the Skaw, the Northernmost tip of Denmark. It was a good location for intercepting any German vessels bound for Oslo. Sure enough the smoke of a Northbound convoy was spotted. A short distance away in the neighbouring billet close to the coast of Sweden, Commander Pizey of HM S/M Triton had also spotted the ships. The convoy consisted of Scharhörn, Tucuman, Itauri, Espana, Friedenau, Hamm Muansa, Wigbert and an escort of Six A/S trawlers and whalers . Pizey selected the two largest ships, Friedenau and Wigbert. The torpedoes struck home, sinking the ships with with considerable loss of life (1,160 lives). The escort V-1507 sank with all nineteen hands. Triton was treated to a depth charge attack but some of the escorts drew closer to Spearfish. Jock Forbes realised that Spearfish had been detected by hydrophone. As the German escorts now turned their attention to Spearfish, Forbes gave the order to close off for depth charging. The scene was set for one of the truly epic encounters of the Second World War.
‘Bow-caps were shut, main coolers shut off and fans stopped at he beginning of the attack. As U-boats are reputed to dive deep when charged, shallow tactics were adopted. The first part of the hunt was carried out at 45 feet and the latter part at 55 feet. Slow speed was maintained throughout‘
The boat lurched and bucked under the force of the explosions. Only the combined skills of the planesmen kept her down. For those who had been through the September ordeal, this was agonisingly familiar. No fewer than sixty-six depth charges exploded around Spearfish in less than an hour but has Forbes had anticipated, they had all been set to explode at depths deeper than fifty-five feet.
Tuson confirmed something the crew already knew, a couple of destroyers had taken up position on either beam. Turning to his charts, Forbes noted that the bed of a nearby fjord was rocky. The transition between sandy to rocky seabed might be sufficient to confuse the listening Germans. Spearfish drew closer to Hierto Fjord in Denmark but the gamble failed. Forbes could not throw off the hunters and the depth charge attacks continued with terrifying ferocity. A brief lull at 19:00hrs enabled Forbes to digest damage reports. A jammed periscope and a multitude of HP leaks apart, Spearfish was undamaged. At 20:30hrs a pinging sound was heard. At least one of the hunters was equipped with S-Gerȁt. A barrage of depth charges followed. On the face of it Spearfish was in a tricky situation, cornered on the sea bed with battery power and oxygen fast running out. It was a situation every bit as desperate as that faced by the boat in September 1939 but as that episode taught, end-games do not always play out according to expectation.
Suddenly the transmissions became continuous, signifying that the destroyers were now dead on to Spearfish. The dreaded coup de grace did not materialise however – Forbes suspecting that the A/S vessels had run out of depth charges. Listening in to the sounds overhead he deduced that two vessels had left the scene leaving one to guard it. Forbes decided to keep Spearfish submerged until sunrise, then they would surface and face whatever fate had in store. The confidential books were burned accordingly. Just before 21:00hrs Tuson reported:
‘Reciprocating engines ahead, Sir !’
The workmanlike I-can-do-it, I-can-do-it, I-can-do-it of the merchantman’s engines contrasted with the whine of destroyer turbines. There was always the chance that the revolutions of the merchant’s engines might be loud enough to mask the sound of the submarine’s motors. Forbes waited until the merchant transport was directly overhead before giving the order to start the motors. As the transport moved off, so Spearfish kept pace beneath the surface, Forbes skilfully using a combination of hydrophones and guesswork to keep his boat between the vessel and the hunting destroyer.
Hopes of escape were dashed when Tuson despondently reported that the destroyer was now in hot pursuit. Its movements suddenly became erratic. First it stopped, raced in towards Spearfish then stopped again. The destroyer altered course and the sound of its turbines became fainter. Spearfish now grouped up and drew Northwards. The astonishing judgement displayed by Forbes had saved the boat. Jock Forbes modestly maintained that his crew had a German troop transport to thank for their deliverance. At 23:30hrs the periscope revealed an empty sea. Forbes gave the order to surface.
Prior to surfacing the slightly built Forbes took the precaution of securing himself by ropes before unclipping the hatch. Caution was justified. As the last of the clips was removed, the hatch flew open with such force that the counter-weight yoke cracked, forcing the lid back down on his head. As the crew drank in the cold rejuvenating night air, Forbes and Pirie prepared to continue the patrol. The batteries had not been fully charged when Donald Pirie spotted a dark patch speeding through the gloom. Within minutes the silvery furrow of a huge bow-wave materialised ahead. The night’s drama was far from over. As the distance closed, the look-outs confirmed Pirie’s initial assessment that this was a pocket battleship. Lieutenant Pirie thought he was looking at Admiral Scheer but the ship was Lützow.
It will be recalled that The heavy cruiser Lützow (Kapitȁn zur See August Thiele) had missed her original convoy. She had been ordered to rendezvous instead with the Oslo bound invasion force. The Oslo operation now over, Lützow was returning to Kiel and zig-zagging when an unidentified object was picked up on her DeTe-Gerȁt radar. The object was 15,000 metres ahead on the starboard bow. Thiele, assuming the contact to be a Danish fishing vessel, issued orders turn to turn one rudder to port in order to give the vessel a wide berth. This was the disturbance interpreted as a bow-wave by Lieutenant Pirie. The contact now disappeared and Lützow returned to her original course.
Forbes decided upon a surface attack carried out with the bows turning slowly to port. By firing on a slow turn, the salvo would spread thus increasing the chances of a hit. Forbes aimed his torpedoes at the most vulnerable part of the ship, the stern. With the tubes reported ready, all Sub-Lieutenant John Best, the Torpedo Officer needed now was word to fire. This was twenty-two year old John’s first patrol and what a patrol it was turning out to be. John had been appointed to Spearfish from Elfin’s pool of spare officers. Just a few hours before John Best had cowered against the depth charge explosions with the rest of the crew, now he was poised ready to sink a pocket battleship. Such are the fortunes of war. Up on the bridge, fearing to lose the target, Forbes declined to use the night sight. ‘Stop Engines !’ he whispered. As the bows of Spearfish slowly turned, he gave the order to fire.
Patrol reports are rarely dramatic, that of Spearfish is no different.
’00:29 hrs – Spearfish was on the surface, doing 12 knots on the main engines. Lt. Pirie sighted the bow wave of a ship bearing green 80° (course of Spearfish was 270°), range was about 3,000 yards.
00:30 hrs – As the enemy was thought to be one of the destroyers that hunted Spearfish the previous day the stern was turned on to the enemy. Shortly afterwards the enemy was identified as being a large warship. Started attack.
00:33 hrs The torpedo tubes were reported ready. Within half a minute started firing six torpedoes from 2,500 yards.
00:34 hrs Turned on the motors to course 270°.
00:35 hrs Proceeded at 12 knots on main engines.
00:38 hrs Heard a heavy explosion. Continued to the westward at high speed. Made an enemy report‘.
Spearfish dived following the explosion to reload torpedoes. When she eventually returned to periscope depth there was nothing to be seen on the surface. There had been no escorts and an A/S hunt did not develop.
Lützow was left badly damaged and sinking by the stern, which was in serious danger of breaking off altogether. The steering gear was hopelessly mangled by the exploding torpedoes German records relate one of the rudders was jammed, both propellers were blown off and several stern compartments were flooded. Without steering or propulsion the ship drifted helplessly until heavy tugs arrived on the scene.
The ship was in serious danger of sinking or falling victim to RAF bombs. only herculean work on the part of German damage control teams, aided by a flotilla of tugs succeeded in bringing Lützow back to the Deutsche Werke Yard in Kiel on April 14th. Although loss of life was comparatively light – fifteen sailors drowned or died in the explosion and were later buried at Kiel, the ship was out of action until March 1941.
On the evening of April 12th Spearfish was charging batteries on the surface North of the GDM when the look-outs spotted the conning tower of a large submarine heading towards them. Peering through the twilight the men discerned the off-centre periscope standards of a British Porpoise class mine laying submarine. It could only have been the Blyth-based Narwhal outward bound to carry out Operation FD5, a mine-lay North of Laeso Island in position 57°26’N, 10°45’E off the tip of Denmark. Appropriate challenges were made but Narwhal failed to respond. When the mine layer suddenly veered towards Spearfish as if to ram, Forbes waited until the range had closed to 1,500 yards before diving. Narwhal had already helped to destroy a U-boat, Forbes was not about to let Spearfish become her next victim. At first light on April 17th the look-outs spotted the familiar red and white banded Longstone Lighthouse. By 09:00hrs the boat was poised to enter the South Harbour where Jock Bethell had turned out the base to ‘cheer ship’. Wren Rose Murray who worked in the Elfin Signals Office remembers the day well:
‘We knew Spearfish had sunk a German battleship because her captain had sent a message. Since then a lot of messages had passed between Northways and Elfin on the subject. We only knew that Spearfish was coming in in a couple of hours before she actually arrived. Everyone else was going down to the Harbour as if it was a holiday or something. Chiefy Reading said he didn’t think anyone in the Signals Office would be allowed down to the Harbour to cheer Spearfish in but I asked Commander Bethell and he said, ‘Yes Murray, you can go’
I was just in time to see the Spearfish come in with the boys on the deck. They were all scruffy (nobody ever went near the submariners because when they had been on patrol they usually came back with lice). Everyone yelled and cheered and raised their caps to give a real Royal Navy salute. I remember seeing Lieutenant Commander Forbes grinning like a Cheshire cat. he seemed so small. He said a few words to Commander Bethell and all of these press men were pushing forward to talk to him but he turned away from them and went over to hug his wife‘
The inboard boat is Unity, just returned from patrol. The man in the boiler suit and the scarf is Olly Oliver who took Rob Roy McCurrach’s place on Spearfish. Behind him are Jock Forbes and Donald Pirie. Note damage to casing
Sub-Lieutenant John Best went into the fore-ends to remove one of the tube safety forks. Later he had it attached to a plaque engraved with the words:
‘HMS/SM SPEARFISH – Safety fork of torpedo which sank ? Admiral Scheer, Skagerrak 11.4.40, Fired by Sub-Lt John Best RN‘.
John later sent the plaque to his family in London.
Admiralty believed the warship had been sunk. Members of the crew were scheduled for decorations and Jock Hay Forbes was to be awarded a DSO.
The Spearfish crew made their way to their favourite pub, the Blagdon Arms leaving duty watch in the boat. Rob Roy McCurrach found them in celebratory mood:
‘As we walked along the jetty we were hailed by a sailor from the ‘S’ class boat ahead of us. He called out,
‘D’ya want a drink ?’
‘That remark is pure magic to my ears’ said Nat and without faltering a step, we turned right down the gangway on to the catamaran across a long greasy plank and joyfully entered the fore-ends. This boat had round bulkhead doors about 3′ in diameter and monstrously difficult to negotiate.
‘Now’, asked our host, ‘what will you have ?’
We accepted the drinks, toasted our host and drank deeply.
‘Nice of you to invite us over’, said Nat.
‘The officers were in such a hurry to get up the road, they forgot they’d left the wine cupboard keys in the lock and I didn’t fancy drinking alone‘
‘You have’, said Nat, ‘the makings of greatness. Cheers !’
The fact that we were drinking the officers’ wines bothered none of us, nor the idea that this seaman was giving away something that did not belong to him. If the officers were careless enough to leave the keys…well they were careless. We drank our third or fourth and suddenly heard footsteps along the gangway. An irate officer appeared. ‘What the hell is going on here ?’ We scarpered, Nat, Clem and I, we always reckoned, unison, laughing all the way back to the base‘
The ailing Ursula (Lieutenant Commander W. Cavaye) left Blyth at 03:00hrs for an uneventful patrol North of Zone A1 West of the GDM, then North of Zone J. The boat returned on April 20th and sailed for Swan Hunters Yard on April 22nd for urgent repairs. The arrival of the large River-class boat Clyde on April 16th following a patrol off Egersund, must have posed a challenge in the already crowded South Harbour. Clyde (Lieutenant Commander D. Ingram) left Blyth for a patrol off Jutland on April 24th. This patrol was ultimately abandoned. Clyde was ordered to Rosyth to make preparations for ‘Operation Knife’, a mission to supply Norwegian fighters with armaments.
Swordfish (Lieutenant P.J. Cowell) carried out an uneventful patrol from Blyth in Zone J between March 22nd and April 7th. On April 16th Swordfish left Blyth to carry out a patrol in the Zone C6 (one of eight patrol sectors created off the South coast of Norway following the invasion) This patrol would take Swordfish close to the approaches to Oslo. Now that the Germans were rapidly establishing air superiority in Scandinavian waters it was proving highly dangerous for British submarines to carry out the order, ‘Proceed with Dispatch’ ie proceed towards the patrol billet on the surface. Even when dived there were serious hazards. The seas were glass calm as the boat approached her billet, producing a feathering effect around the periscope, easily visible to a prowling aircraft. By April 20th Swordfish was behaving like a yo-yo, such was the continual stream of hostile aircraft. A bomber screamed low overhead forcing an emergency dive. First Lieutenant Hal Stacey fought to maintain trim as sea water surged into ‘Q’ tank. Swordfish plunged, assuming a steep bows-down angle as she plummeted towards the sea bed. As the boat levelled off, the ASDIC operator reported faint propeller noise. Lieutenant Cowell took the boat to periscope depth at 10:25hrs. Wavelets broke over the lens obscuring his vision. Water dribbled away and then the grey seas suddenly metamorphosised into the familiar forms of grey funnels, hulls and bows where no funnels, hulls or bows should be…
‘DIVE, DIVE, DIVE’
Cowell had brought Swordfish to periscope depth amidst a clutch of undetected enemy warships. Fortunately the enemy look-outs were slow to react. Depth charges were dropped until 12:30hrs. HP lines were ruptured but following two hours in silent routine the boat was able to escape and resume her patrol.
Later that afternoon off Larvik, Cowell spotted the smoke plumes of a North bound convoy. The convoy consisted of the transports Scharhörn , Entrerios and the depot ship Brommy escorted by submarine chasers of the 5th UJ-Gruppe. This is an extract from the Patrol Report:
‘13:00 hrs Sighted smoke of a convoy to the south-east. Forced to go deep again.
13:12 hrs Sighted the convoy again on the port bow. The convoy was made up of 3 merchant vessels escorted by 4 F-class escorts. Started attack.
13:18 hrs In position 58°48’N, 10°19’E fired a salvo of 6 torpedoes from 5,000 yards. No explosion or hits were heard. Swordfish was however hunted and depth charged until 19:40 hrs (at a range of 5,000 yards success was unlikely but Lieutenant Cowell brought the bows to bear on the leading ship. As he gave the order to fire, the magnetic compass went haywire).
20:44hrs Surfaced. When opening the conning tower hatch the Commanding Officer was unable to ease the large pressure in the boat and the hatch flew open. The Commanding Officer and Leading Signalman Davis were both knocked out. The First Lieutenant took over command until 0800/22‘.
By April 23rd Swordfish was cruising in millpond seas off the Norwegian port of Arendal. Masked from the open seas by the skerries of Hisøy and Trømoya, Arendal was a useful staging post for Nazi iron ore shipments. Now fully recovered, Joe Cowell found the leads to be infested with enemy A/S vessels. Just before 19:00hrs a shape flickered across the periscope lens, followed moments later by a massive explosion. It was sobering to consider that the small submarine was visible from the air even when at periscope depth. The Skagerrak was becoming ever more dangerous for the Blyth submarines.
Later as Swordfish made a fast surface night passage towards Kristiansund a ‘T’ class boat was spotted charging batteries. It was the Rosyth based Tetrarch (Lieutenant Commander Ronnie Mills). Tetrarch had earlier been subjected to a depth-charge barrage and had been kept under for forty-three hours, a record to date. In the early hours of April 26th Swordfish was charging batteries North of the GDM when he look-outs spotted loose mines drifting between 57°39’N, 07°43’E and 57°39’N, 07°25’E.
A third mine was spotted, too close for the helmsman to take evasive action. Hearts pounded, prayers were muttered but the men below were oblivious to the drama being played out above. None dared move on the bridge as the mine crested a wave to bump gently against the port ballast tank. The mine gently scraped along the casing. Swordfish was within a second of being blown up. After what seemed like an eternity the waves carried the mine astern. This time all was well. Swordfish safely returned to Blyth on April 28th.
Cowell’s patrol report reads like a microcosm of all the hazards now facing British submarines operating in the Skagerrak and the Kattegat. The Nazis had established air superiority and the seas were infested with A/S vessels not to mention mines. Seemingly endless hours of daylight rendered charging batteries extremely perilous. Taking all these factors into consideration, Horton had little real option but to suspend routine patrols in these waters for the foreseeable future. This did not however apply to mining operations.
The surface Royal Navy had concentrated its assets too far to the North to lend assistance to the Norwegian defenders. The reality was that the Germans invasion had been largely unopposed. Predictably Horton’s submarines had been too thinly spread in the key areas of the Bight, the Skagerrak and the Kattegat to halt the German invasion. Where British submarines had been able to intercept, they made a good account. Apart from the damage to Lützow, British submarines had sunk eleven troop transports, the cruiser Karlsruhe, the gunnery ship Brummer, two minesweepers and two U-boats – a total of 50.000 tons of enemy shipping.
As usual there was an obverse to the coin. The Rosyth boats Thistle and Tarpon were lost with all hands and the Harwich based Sterlet was missing, likely in one of the minefields sown in the Kattegat. The Wardle family who were now coming to terms that Geoffrey was a prisoner of war having been captured from Starfish, now faced up to the death of his twin brother in Sterlet.
(What follows is an edited version of ‘The Time Capsuled Heroes of Cresswell – the last Dive of HMS/M Unity)
The crew of Unity faced a hazardous patrol off the River Elbe, moreover Unity would undertake this mission without her Skipper Lieutenant Brown, who was ill. He would miss this patrol. Lieutenant Brown’s place was taken by Lieutenant. Francis Brooks, the spare commanding officer at HMS Elfin. Francis Brooks (thirty-one) had previously commanded L23 (see entry) but to the crew of Unity, he remained mysterious.
Fog stubbornly curtained the North East coast that morning. With Unity under sailing orders, conditions were so dreadful it was widely anticipated that sailing times would be postponed as the local coastguard and SNO (Senior Naval Officer) Tyne advised. The sea lanes were simply not safe. The decision was taken to postpone Unity’s departure until 17:30hrs in the hope that the fog might clear but visibility actually deteriorated. It will be recalled that Captain (S) 6 Bethell had been sacked the previous day and none of the senior naval officers present at the base felt able to step in to further postpone the mission.
As usual the Signals Distribution Office at the base was buzzing with activity that afternoon. Teleprinters tapped out intelligence gleaned from submarine patrols, vital minefield updates (QZHs) from Dundee, Rosyth and Harwich as well as last minute communications from Horton’s Northways HQ. Each submarine had its own message tray in the office. It was the responsibility of the senior telegraphist on the submarine to check each tray before sailing. A wren messenger sat poised on a motorbike outside the office. In the event of a last minute message coming through, the wren would ride at speed down to the South Harbour to intercept the boat before it sailed. Staff Officer (Ops) was on hand to advise a captain in the event of last minute queries arising from any communication. Brooks made it clear he was very unhappy that Unity should sail in such conditions without the benefit of an escort vessel.
Submarine crews about to depart on patrol were routinely ferried down to the South Harbour from the base in the back of a Ferguson’s lorry, RAF style. The commissioned officers and POs usually arrived several hours earlier to run through their duties and check equipment. The responsibility of ‘letting go’ a submarine in the South Harbour, Blyth normally fell to the duty PO. On April 29th, 1940 this was PO Telegraphist Norman Drury of HMS Sturgeon, a Telegraphist and submariner of vast experience. Norman was unable to see from one side of the South Harbour to the other. He was appalled to learn that Unity was to sail at 17:30hrs as scheduled. Let go forward and let go aft, the small submarine was immediately out of sight as she rounded the harbour wall.
Submarines operating in Home Waters were routinely ordered to ‘Proceed with Dispatch’ during this period. This was universally interpreted to mean that a submarine must travel on the surface, harnessing the power of its diesel engines. Lieutenant Brooks, who took up position on the bridge, was keen to maintain a steady eight knots.
From this point onward the boat would travel up the Swept Channel until St. Abb’s Head was reached. Having reached this location Unity would adopt a NNE course to approach the coast of Southern Norway. Independent merchant ships and convoy stragglers might be anticipated in the main East Coast Channel but Brooks did not order the siren to be sounded. After all he had received no warnings of convoys or any other vessels likely to hazard the boat’s progress. At 19:00hrs Lieutenant George Hunt, Unity‘s Navigation Officer and three relief look-outs stepped out onto the bridge. The men they were about to relieve were straining their eyes looking for Buoy 20 F. Under the pressing circumstances (and the lack of room on the bridge) the ratings were sent back down the ladder. Relief was postponed until the Buoy was located but Lieutenant Hunt remained on the bridge to join the search.
All of a sudden at 19:07hrs the silence was pierced by a low mournful wail and the men on the bridge knew its significance only too well,
‘Christ, a ship and she’s close !’.
Yet more wails signified that Unity was sharing the Channel with a convoy. Should that convoy be sailing South, there was every possibility of a collision. Lieutenant. Brooks acted quickly, ordering down the voice pipe that the wheel should be put hard over, sounding Unity‘s own feeble siren in the process. The look-outs stared through the fog, willing the outline of the ship to emerge from the fog-bank so that avoiding action could be taken. A second wail boomed out, this time so close it was deafening. Looming out of the fog like some monstrous apparition reared the bows of a merchantman. The ship was an estimated fifty metres (165’) away. Collision was inevitable and the impact was but seconds away. The men on the bridge were momentarily transfixed with disbelief but Brooks ordered Trickey to call out down the voice-pipe,
‘COLLISION STATIONS. PREPARE TO ABANDON SHIP !’
Lieutenant John Trickey, “At 19:09 I saw a merchant ship about 25 degrees on the port bow, about 30 yards distant, which seemed to be steering across the bow. The engines were put full astern and three short [whistle] blasts were made. At 19:10 the merchant struck the port bow about the bulkhead in the fore-ends. The speed of the other ship appeared to be 4 knots. The impact was gentle. I estimate our position to have been 55° 13.5′ N 1° 19 W”
Unity was struck in the vicinity of the port forward hydroplane. Both casing and pressure hull were sliced through. The North Sea was already flooding into the auxiliary machinery space below the floor. ERA Rob Roy McCurrach was enjoying a cigarette in the ERA’s mess. Concluding it was nothing more than an exercise a collective groan broke out in the engine room, for the sailors resented any interruptions of their otherwise ordered lives.
Had Leading Seaman Hare (an experienced sailor but a newcomer to submarines) closed the door before the men in the engine room had a chance to shut down the diesel engines, they would surely have been asphyxiated. Down in the motor room, Leading Seaman William ‘Pusser’ Hill scarcely remembered the impact.
“I received the order, ‘Full speed astern both’, and it was carried out at once. We were still going astern when the First Lieutenant opened the door and gave the order, ‘Abandon Ship’ both of us, myself and Miller, made to move forward to obey that order. Miller had preceded me slightly when I received the order to ‘Stop starboard’, I went back and stopped starboard then I picked up two life-belts, throwing one to Miller”
One by one the crew filed into the control room then up the ladder onto the bridge, where Brooks and Trickey directed them down to the aft casing. Not all were aware that the emergency was for real,
Rob Roy McCurrach:
‘Six feet of water showing on the guage’, called out Lt. Low‘ I glanced around quickly. Nothing looked wrong. All lights on, the mess neat and tidy. Curtains a bit off centre and we were slightly bows-down. I went up to the bridge and heard the Captain shout,
‘I MUST HAVE THE MAIN MOTORS STOPPED !’
But of course, those propellers would mince us. Knowing how to stop them I shouted, ‘Right Sir, I’ll go’ and turned to re-enter the boat, nearly treading on ‘Dusty’ Miller’s head. Having heard the last order he said, I’ll go Bob, I’m better placed’”
As ‘Dusty’ clambered back down the ladder to join Lieutenant Low, Rob Roy stepped down from the bridge to the aft casing,
‘Water filled my shoes so I kicked them off. Through my stockinged feet I felt the propeller vibrations stop. I knew I could now swim away to safety. The sea was bitterly cold – so cold it took my breath away. Silly thoughts ran through my head such as, ‘I bet I catch a chill’ or ‘what i really need is a piece of my mother’s blackberry and apple pie’ . I wanted company. ‘Pusser’ Hill was lying on his back, ears underwater, so I reached out and pulled his hair, ‘Pusser have you got a lifebelt ?’ ‘No’, ‘a DSEA set ?’, ‘No, not a thing. You ok ?’
We trod water and saved our breath. The bow was well underwater now and lacking the restraining power of the motors on full astern”.
Lieutenant George Hunt was ordered to close the conning tower hatch and stand on it. In this way if Unity sank the men down below would be able to retreat to the unflooded control room, close the bulkhead doors and resort to DSEA.
Without warning at 19:29hrs the stern swung up to a near vertical position, it remained motionless for a few seconds, then with her White Ensign still flying, HM S/M Unity plunged to the bottom of the North Sea taking John Low and Henry Miller with her. There was no time for the men in the water to dwell upon matters. Rob Roy McCurrach,
“There was no break in the waves just a strong oily swell. At the top of one I saw a lifeboat. I grabbed ‘Pusser’ and yelled, ‘Come on !’ ‘Swim !’ We headed for the direction of the lifeboat and were making progress when it altered course. This was quite demoralising”
At last we made it to a lifeboat and clung onto the gunwales. Whacked. To my right and in an equally sorry state bobbed the Captain. ‘Give us a hand !’ shouted ‘Pusser’ but they just sat there like numbed frozen effigies. Exhausted.’ I can’t hang on much longer, Mac. Can you pull me up ?’ I shook my head, ‘No’. ‘Look, push my left foot up and hook my heel over the gunwale’. ‘Pusser’ did this and with a great effort I managed to scramble into the boat. Then I turned and pulled him. Between us we did the same for the Captain”
The 1,173 ton Atle Jarl (Master: Baltzer Thorsen) had left the Fife port of Methil that morning, sailing in Convoy MT61 bound for North Shields. Ship and Submarine had been mutually oblivious to the presence of the other until moments before the impact. Thorsen had glimpsed the White Ensign and decided it was his duty to turn back. Turning within a convoy took considerable nautical skill as did estimating the likely position of survivors from the drift of the current viewed through a curtain of fog and darkness. Nevertheless within fifteen minutes Atle Jarl did return to the scene and lowered boats in an effort to rescue the men in the water, her searchlights stabbing through the darkness. It took twenty-five minutes to rescue the men in the water. Atle Jarl was not fitted with a radio and all touch had been lost with the other ships in MT 60. Thorsen was unable to alert the authorities until the Ship anchored in the mouth of the Tyne. All told four men were missing, Lieutenant. John (Angus) Low (twenty-nine), Stoker Henry Miller (thirty-nine), Leading Seaman James Hare (twenty-five) and Stoker Cecil Shelton (twenty-one). All are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. The last two were known to have purchased boots sold off at a bargain price by Blyth fire station. They had been observed to be wearing these boots when they entered the water. Alf Potter had also bought a pair but discarded them prior to slipping over the side. The survivors solemnly concluded that the waterlogged boots were responsible for dragging the missing men under.
Eventually a bus arrived to ferry the survivors back to Blyth but CERA Alf Potter did not join them. Instead he embarked on a fast RAF launch to the main Swept Channel off Cresswell to the estimated position of the collision. Here for several hours he used powerful hydrophones to listen for any sign of tapping, desperate for any indications that Low and Miller were trapped but alive. Potter knew however that in these circumstances the men would have reverted to immediate DSEA escape. Even if they succeeded in reaching the surface there would have been nobody to pluck them to safety. The fruitless vigil ended in the early hours. Lieutenant. Brooks personally broke the bad news to Marjorie Low, then serving as a Regulating CPO Wren at HMS Elfin. A telegram was dispatched to Mrs Miller too, advising that the Submarine Service had claimed yet another of her sons, his birth caul having failed to protect him.
A needless catastrophe had cost the lives of four trained submariners and the loss of a sorely needed modern submarine. Someone was responsible for this tragedy, but who ?
On May 23rd Admiralty held an Inquiry into the loss of Unity at HMS Elfin. Each witness was examined and cross-examined. It rapidly became clear that Lt Brooks had been totally unaware of the South-bound convoy. This was odd because there was evidence that a signal warning of this convoy had been received by the Elfin Signals Distribution Office well before Unity was due to sail. There were two key questions; why had Lieutenant. Brooks not been informed of Signal 1428/29/4 And if the Skipper had not known about its contents, had anyone else ?
The Chief Yeoman of Signals at Blyth, Christopher Reading recalled watching the signal come tapping through the teleprinter and he made sure of placing it in the appropriate pigeon hole ready for collection by Tom Moon (twenty-five) Unity’s Signalman. Signalman Walter Warren remembered seeing the signal awaiting collection at 16:00hrs when he came off duty. Warren’s relief, Telegraphist Percy Marks however maintained there was no sign of the signal when he took up station in the Distribution Office. When a submarine was at harbour stations at Blyth it was the signalman’s responsibility to collect all signals from the pigeonhole then to hand them to the first lieutenant prior to sailing. The evidence of Thomas Moon was therefore of crucial importance to the Inquiry. Moon’s career to date had been exemplary. ‘Shiner’ Moon was insistent that he had no knowledge whatsoever of Signal
428/29/4. He was certain it had not been among the bundle of ‘Q7’ messages he had collected from the Signal Distribution Office then handed to Lieutenant. Low. Obviously the Inquiry was at a major disadvantage in that all the hard evidence had gone down with the boat, as had that other key witness, Lieutenant. Low. Without Low, Moon’s evidence could neither be confirmed nor disproved. Yet not all available evidence was considered.
Only officers and selected ratings were called to give evidence. The court did not hear the disturbing stories of signals regularly being found in the wrong pigeonholes or messages ending up on the wrong submarine. Signals warning of convoy movements frequently went astray (as the crew of Spearfish, Sturgeon and Swordfish discovered in the course of their own near misses with East coast convoys while operating from Blyth).
In fact the court was remarkably selective in terms of the evidence it chose to consider. A civil court would likely have reached an open verdict but this was not a civil court. Rear Admiral Max Horton made his own observations;
‘It appears most probable that the signal was in fact read by Leading Signalman Moon, who failed to show it to the Commanding Officer. I consider however that the probability of obtaining a conviction of this rating for the offence is remote and that the assembly of a court martial is not justified under present conditions’ Max Horton 567/SM172
That was not quite that. Lieutenant Francis Brooks was censured for his failure to discuss last minute developments with the Elfin staff officer prior to sailing, yet Brooks had made his reservations abut sailing without an escort crystal clear to the intelligence officer. It was also noted that Unity had been sailing at eight knots at the time of the collision in bad visibility. This was considered to have been too fast under the circumstances. Yet every submarine commander in the Royal Navy was routinely issued with patrol instructions to ‘proceed with dispatch’ knew full well that order required the boat to travel at the highest speed its engines would allow. At no stage did the Inquiry see fit to question why the boat had been allowed to sail in the first place in such atrocious conditions.
Captain George Voelcker had assumed command of the Sixth Submarine Flotilla and duties of Naval Officer in Command, Blyth on the previous day but he had not been present at HMS Elfin on April 29th. No officer had intervened to halt Unity‘s departure. While there was glowing praise for the way in which the crew had conducted themselves, among the lower deck at least there was a lingering suspicion that the proceedings had been a parody of justice. By deflecting the lion’s share of blame onto a rating, it did not go unnoticed that Admiralty had deftly sidestepped some potentially embarrassing questions. Norman Drury:
‘Whitewash. Contemptible whitewash. We knew from the outset that they (the inquiry board) would blame ‘Shiner’ Moon. I knew the lad. He was far too sharp to forget to pick up messages. I can’t say the same for some of the other dopey so and so’s involved. There were dozens of time when the wrong message ended up in the wrong boat. Once Sturgeon did not receive the awaited ‘recall’ because Elfin signals staff had failed to send it. We remained on patrol for several extra days and were thought lost until someone realised the blunder. As for Unity it was just a question of what kind of somersaults and twists the board would bring to bear to make the blame stick on ‘Shiner’. The wardroom knew it and we knew it too‘.
The wardroom was rather more circumspect in its views. Captain Baltzer Thorsen later confessed (off the record) to George Hunt that he had deliberately rammed Unity because he did not think that a British submarine would be operating in the East Coast Swept Channel without an escort and that she must be a U-boat. Presumably unaware of this twist, in November 1942 Admiralty issued compensation of £1,200 plus interest to the owners of Atle Jarl for the damages sustained to the ship.
As the old Unity crew was broken up and dispersed to stand by two submarines Upright and Utmost, then under construction. Lieutenant George Hunt went on to command Ultor, one of the most successful of British submarines and he survived the War. Thomas Moon would be drafted to Utmost where he served with distinction under Lieutenant Commander ‘Harmonica Dick’ Cayley. Following a spell in command of both Upright and Utmost, Francis Brooks was transferred to the Admiralty Operations Division Staff. Lieutenant Commander. Brooks died in a Mosquito crash in Cornwall on June 3, 1943, aged thirty-two.
As for Rob-Roy McCurrach, he was handed a draft-chit for Fort Blockhouse, Gosport. Rob Roy would ultimately join the crew of Tigris and later, Safari. He would earn a DSM** reach the rank of CERA and become one of the Royal Navy’s most experienced submariners. However all that lay in the future. Blyth had been his home for the past six traumatic months and now it was time to say goodbye to the people who had shown him such kindness,
“I packed my kit then joined Cookem for one last run ashore in Blyth. We went to Seghini’s for coffee then, just like the old time took all six girls to the cinema, walked them back home and then stepped out to the Watson’s for a very special supper. Mr and Mrs Watson were in tears when I left. They admonished me to be careful and to come back soon. This to my eternal regret, I never managed to do”
As seasoned submariners, John Low and Henry Miller would have been acutely aware of the risk they were taking in remaining inside the boat while their twenty-seven colleagues were evacuating it. Both would have known they had minutes to escape the boat once the motors were turned off. One eye-witness account states that both men were last seen entering the engine room bulkhead door, pausing to close it behind them in the knowledge that if they stuck to their task, they had no chance of getting out. They sacrificed their own lives to save their mates. Their courage was initially rewarded with the British Empire Medal but this was later exchanged for the George Cross. The citation reads as follows;
‘‘Able Seaman Henry Miller and Lieutenant John Low, R.N., were on duty in the control room of their submarine Unity when the vessel was struck by the Norwegian Freighter, Atle Jarl, in the North Sea. The submarine began to sink and the order to abandon ship had been called, Low and Miller assisted every member of the submarine to escape, except for themselves. Both received the same posthumous award for these actions.’
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. John 13:15′
The thin grey line had just become a little thinner.
 On January 18th Bertram Watson was appointed Flag Officer, Greenock
ADM 199/1843, ADM 199/1819, ADM 199/1830, ADM 199/1837, ADM199/1940, ADM 199/288, ADM199/1814, ADM199/294, ADM 1/12025, A 1994/95 RNSM
BA-RM 92/5223, BA-RM 48/176, BA-RM 6/87
Diving Stations ! The biography of Captain George Hunt by Peter Dornan
© P Armstrong