‘Of all the branches of men in the forces, there is none that shows more devotion and faces more perils than the submariner. I should like you to know that very often your exploits and deeds cannot be told because of secrecy. Not alone do I watch these feats of yours in this war. They are closely followed by the whole cabinet. Great deeds are done in the air and on land. Nevertheless nothing surpasses your exploits’
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, July 19th, 1940, Fort Blockhouse, Gosport
On August 9th, at the height of the trauma over the loss of Narhwal and Spearfish, 1940 the signals office at Elfin was at the centre of a drama when a message was received from the badly damaged Third Flotilla boat, Sealion;
‘AM RETURNING BLIND BUT BLYTH’
The wren who deciphered it naturally thought that Lieutenant Commander Bryant was trying to convey that he intended to bring his badly damaged boat back to Blyth. Emergency arrangements were planned to shepherd the submarine into the East Coast Swept Channel but it was VA(S) himself who saw through Bryant’s singular sense of humour.
What Bryant really meant was that the boat was indeed blind (her periscopes had been snapped off due to the boat having been rammed by a German A/S vessel) but the submarine was otherwise seaworthy and the Captain intended to make for his Forth base. Sealion arrived in the Forth next day and to Bryant’s surprise, waiting for the boat was a welcoming party of press and camera men as well as a knot of gold braid. Bryant anticipated a rocket for failing to prevent the snapped jumping wire from coiling around one of Sealion‘s screws thus causing an embarrassing collision with Hawes Pier, with the press looking on. Bryant was amazed to be given a hero’s welcome. Among a bundle of messages pressed into his hand was one from Sir Charles Forbes congratulating Bryant for:
‘Carrying out their offensive patrol right up to the enemy’s shore and in successfully extricating their damaged submarine from close to the enemy coast is worthy of the highest of praise. If a tonic is needed at a time when we have suffered the loss of several of our most successful submarines, then Sealion has provided it‘
Bryant read between the lines. As a result of the recent losses the slightest success was being hailed as a triumph and mere survival spun into a resounding against-the-odds victory. On August 13th Sealion sailed down the coast to the Tyne and Swan Hunter’s Yard for a lengthy repair. Ben Bryant learned that once repairs were completed, Sealion would be sent to join the Sixth Flotilla at Blyth The frustration felt by submariners was very real and manifested in a thirst to strike back hard. Lieutenant Commander Ben Bryant was just the man to bring this to fruition but first he found accommodation for his wife, Marjorie at Seaton Sluice, then he organised a fishing holiday on the Coquet.
Sealion returns to the Forth. The boat was filmed from HMS Maidstone
A major re-organisation of submarine flotillas was planned. Following the fall of Norway, questions were raised about the future of Blyth as a submarine base in August 1940. Opportunities for the Germans to use Norway or Denmark as springboards to invade Britain were fast receding but the threat to the South East of England remained in September. Horton set about transferring as many submarines as possible to Blockhouse. Mussolini had now entered the war on the side of the Nazis, The future theatre of operations was going to be the Mediterranean and the Biscay sector rather than the North Sea. It was agreed that submarine patrols would be required off Norway but these could be handled by the Third Submarine Flotilla on the Forth and the newly constituted Ninth Flotilla in Dundee (and its satellite at Lerwick). A training unit designated the Seventh Submarine Flotilla was established at Rothesay. H31 (Lieutenant Richard Coltart) was sent from Blyth to join it at the end of August. The Harwich base was closed but It was decided to retain Blyth for the moment, not least because HMS Maidstone was operating at full capacity and the Ninth was concentrating upon providing facilities suitable for Allied submarines.
The Sixth Flotilla had now been reduced to Ursula, Sturgeon and Swordfish. Truant (Lieutenant Commander H. Haggard) was in Blyth Docks under repair that August but she was only under the temporary administrative aegis of the Flotilla. The Blyth Flotilla was given some dangerous patrols off the Norwegian coast during August. The order to proceed with dispatch’ was still being routinely issued, despite suspicions that B-Diest was breaking the submarine codes.
In early August Swordfish (Lieutenant P.J. Cowell) carried out a patrol in Zone C2 off Lindesnes Light in Norway which culminated in an unsuccessful attack on a merchant in the early hours of August 4th (57°54’N, 06°48’E). On August 8th the boat returned to Blyth.
On July 18th HMS/M Ursula left the Swan Hunter Yard, Wallsend for Blyth. The bow section had been re-modelled to reduce possibilities of a bow-wave exposing the location of the boat. Following a series of trials, Ursula left Blyth on August 28th for a risky patrol in Zone C 2 off Stavanger.
This patrol was uneventful and the now svelte Ursula returned on September 13th. This was Ursula‘s tenth patrol from Blyth. It was also to be her last. The boat was heading for Gosport and Fort Blockhouse, home of the Fifth Submarine Flotilla. Swordfish carried out an uneventful patrol in Zone J at the mouth of the Skagerrak from Blyth between August 27th and September 13th. Upon her return, Lieutenant Cowell was informed that Swordfish was also bound for Blockhouse, albeit on a temporary basis. Wives and dependents remained in Blyth. Lieutenant Patrick Cowell was to relinquish command in October in favour of Lieutenant Michael Langley. Ursula and Swordfish sailed in company with Convoy FS84 on September 17th.
Naturally these departures came as something of a shock to the locals who had taken the submariners to their hearts. Bob Pearson here recounts how he heard of his lodger’s departure:
‘One day I remember George came in and told us of his suspicions that he and Liz would be off soon because he reckoned the Ursula would be moving on in the near future. He left on patrol and the next thing Liz knew about it was a mechanic called Archie from the local garage knocking on our door to say there was a ‘phone call for her from somewhere down South and asking to speak to us all. Well we all ran down to this garage, me, Liz and my mother – still in her slippers. George told Liz that he thought the move ‘South’ was long term and that the boat would not be coming back to Blyth anytime soon and that he had found a room for her. They were crying their eyes out these two women. All these old blokes in the garage were wondering what was up. My mother had not used a telephone before. George told her she was his second mother. She was heartbroken and told him ‘Watch what you are doing hinny and mind you come back and see us’. She thought a lot of him you see‘
The first Bernard Cranmer knew of the departure of Swordfish was when Petty Officer Trevor Dando, former instructor at HMS Defiance, the Torpedo School, gave Bernard his much admired watch strap embossed with the Scout crest as a going away gift. Dando had mentored Cranmer at Portsmouth and more recently played alongside him in the Elfin rugby team.
On September 2nd, 1940 the German transport, Pionier, steaming from Frederikshavn to Frederiksstad in Norway, was approaching the Skaw, the peninsula marking the Northern tip of Denmark. The Ship had been built in 1934 at the Vegesack Bremen Yard to carry bananas and passengers between Cameroon and Hamburg. Pionier at 3,624 tons was not ahuge ship but she was well suited to her role as a transport. She was a surprisingly elegant vessel. On this occasion Pionier was transporting men and equipment required for consolidating the seizure of Norway. She had sailed from Frederickshavn earlier that day. Apart from her crew of thirty-five, on this trip the ship was transporting 753 Austrian soldiers. Some accounts say that 823 people were onboard that September day, other sources give a much higher figure.
belonging to the Austrian Mountain Ranger Division. Their destination, Narvik. There was also a contingent of Luftwaffe officers and at least fifty medical personnel including nursing staff. Shortly before departure, some large containers had been embarked along with a number of scientists believed to be heading for the Hydro at Rjuken in Auslandet, Norway. Hush hush stuff.
Because of its importance Pionier had been given an escort of T4 a fast Torpedo Boat, five ‘M’ class vessels belonging to the Nineteenth Minesweeping Flotilla and two Heinkel 115 seaplanes. The young Austrian troops were nevertheless anxious. Most had never been to see before and even a short journey like the trip between Frederickshavn and Frederikstad was something of an ordeal. Their officers had re-assured them on embarkation that all the British submarines had either been sunk or chased out of the Skagerrak. In this the Germans were quite wrong. Not all submarines had been chased out and the skipper of one now had Pionier in his periscope sights.
The irony was that HMS Sturgeon was even supposed to be there. A sad litany of British and Allied submarines had come to grief in the Skagerrak due to German mines (or B-Dienst decryptions). Orders to patrol the Skagerrak (Zone J) were still issued but patrols did not penetrate beyond eight degrees East. For the submariners thirsting to avenge their brethren, this was unwelcome news as it was well known that the German logistical support lines ran through the Kattegat to Oslo. The significant prizes were out of reach.
Sturgeon (Lieutenant David Gregory, DSO) left Blyth on August 27th for a patrol North of Zones E1 and Zone J. The orders issued to Gregory were quite specific as regards to the Skagerrak patrol line. These orders failed to specify the point at which this line was to end, thus providing Gregory with a highly exploitable loophole. By the early evening of September 2nd, Sturgeon was North of the Skaw at 57°56’N, 10°46′ E , searching the route used by Oslo-bound shipping. Gregory was about to exceed his orders. In remained to be seen how Horton would react to a direct contravention like this. It may be that Gregory suspected he was on Horton’s next purge list.
Among the crew of Sturgeon was Bernard Cranmer, his apprenticeship in H31 now over. The boat had its share of characters ranging from ‘Wild Ginger’ Nicholson the bug-whiskered Scots Signalman, to Stoker Goodwin who had served in submarines during the Great War. All were bound by a desire to strike hard at the enemy. Many of the crew were feeling queasy due to having consumed some over-boiled eggs as First Lieutenant Gordon Meeke describes:
‘We were not feeling too well because we had eaten some extraordinarily hard boiled eggs for breakfast. When I asked out ‘cook’ how long he had boiled those eggs he replied, ‘two and a half hours, Sir !’ There were one hundred eggs to boil for three minutes each. He had therefore multiplied one hundred by three, adjusted his calculations and boiled our eggs for two and a half hours’
An unexpected gale powered Sturgeon towards her billet faster than expected. Rough seas now gave way to conditions that were so calm that the periscope cut through the waves like a plough through a furrow. September 2nd closed with a glorious golden sunset, marred only by the presence of a low-flying HE115 sea plane. HE115’s were known to be used as convoy escorts. Gregory interpreted the presence of this aircraft to mean that some large vessel was at sea. At 19:39hrs (GT) the ASDIC operator reported faint propeller noise. David Gregory:
‘Nothing was seen until a very large transport escorted by a torpedo boat on either bow came into sight. At about 19:50hrs four or five small merchant vessels were first seen about three miles astern of the transport and the remainder of the salvo at the concentration of smaller vessels‘
One the vessels was the transport Utlandshörn. Gregory mistook this vessel for one of the escorts and it’s presence complicated his calculations. As Gordon Meeke recalls it was likely to be a difficult target:
‘Our chances were not very good. We seemed a long way from our quarry when we first spotted her. We went to ‘diving stations’ and brought the tubes to the ready but the ship was silhouetted against the last vestiges of light and she appeared to be going away from us’
What follows is an extract from the Patrol Report:
Gregory may have deliberately inflated the size of the ship to justify his actions in exceeding the patrol limit. There was only one other merchant ship close by. Gregory grouped up the motors to approach the target at speed. Once the range had closed, he gave the order to ‘Group Down’ so that Sturgeon proceeded at a crawl. With Sturgeon scarcely moving, Gregory raised the periscope and gave the order to fire.
‘19:53 hrs In position 57°56’N, 10°46’E fired two torpedoes at a 10,000 tons transport ship escorted by two torpedo-boats and one float plane. Range was 6,000 yards. Enemy course 360°, speed 15 knots. Shortly before firing a concentration of smaller merchant vessels was seen beyond the large transport.
19:58 hrs An explosion was heard and a dense column of black smoke was seen to rise from the target. Soon afterwards she was seen to be on fire‘. Michael Lumby:
‘We waited in dead silence, our eyes fixed on the minute hand of the control room clock. It seemed to creep round the dial. One minute went by, then two, and my doubts and uncertainties began to grow agonizing. I strained my ears for a distant sound, but heard only the hum and tick-tock of the gyro near the helmsman, the faint noises of the sea outside the hull, and the glug- glug of the ballast tanks as we kept our depth‘.
T4 did not carry out an A/S hunt – after all the British submarines had been chased out of the Skagerrak and Kattegat. It was assumed that the ship had struck a mine or suffered an internal explosion. Nor did the HE 115’s spot the torpedo tracks as Gregory had feared. Sturgeon was able to withdraw without hindrance. Lieutenants Meeke and Lumby motioned for silence from the effervescent crew as Gregory ordered. ‘Up Periscope’. He carried out a sweep but his impassive countenance revealed nothing; then he turned to Gordon Meeke:
‘We’ve got a hit and she’s a big ship – have a look‘
Meeke had no difficulty in spotting the target. The ship was ablaze. Even at a range of 6,000 yards, showers of sparks could be seen. From time to time minute torches detached from the inferno to drop into the darkness. Lieutenant Lumby interpreted this to be burning men plunging into the sea. Searchlight equipped escorts were weaving through the darkness. By the time Lieutenant Meeke handed the periscope to Coxswain Jackman, the sea around the stricken ship was on fire. Gregory dived Sturgeon to reload torpedoes, withdrew further from the scene, then he gave the order to surface the boat. Sturgeon was now three miles from her victim. The ship was still burning. Gregory decided to allow all rates to share the success but allowing them on the bridge two at a time. In the words of Bernard Cranmer it looked, ‘Just like Blackpool Illuminations’. The crew reacted in different ways but for most it was a sobering sight. As Michael Lumby observed,
‘We were simply trained to sink ships and killing people did not enter into it‘
In any case there was neither the time nor the inclination to moralise, this being the luxury of those who have won their wars and can afford to look back in retrospect. By 23:30hrs the ship had gone. All that was left were the bobbing lights of escorts still looking for survivors.
Nobody knows what happened to Pionier. Suspicions of a secondary explosion were confirmed when the wreck was surveyed by the Sea War Museum, Thybøren in Denmark. The wreck was located at 057° 58. 368′ N, 010° 51.551′ E. The stern was not only completely blown off, it was gone. Obliterated. The damage is too great to be attributed to a single Mark VIII torpedo containing seventy-eight pounds of torpex explosive. It is known that Pionier was transporting munitions for the Mountain Ranger Division and this must have contributed to the disaster. The sonar sidescan shows a second area of damage forward of the bridge, raising the possibility that two of Sturgeon‘s torpedoes hit her.
The loss of life was significant. 245 of the dead were buried on September 6th at the German plot at Frederickshavn. According to the Swedish attaché (who put the death toll at just under one thousand) others were buried at Kviborg in Sweden. Ninety-three bodies were never found. In terms of lives lost, in one single attack Gregory had more than evened up the losses of Seahorse, Narwhal and Spearfish.
The History of the Austrian Mountain Ranger Division simply described September 2nd as ‘The Black Day’ for the unit. German naval intelligence was profoundly shocked. Clearly British and allied submarines were still penetrating the Skagerrak. OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres) demanded that from this point onwards all Norwegian bound troop transports should proceed via Sassnitz in the Baltic to Trälleborg in neutral Sweden. The Swedish government did not appear to mind Nazi vessels passing through their waters. Only equipment and munitions were to sail on the Frederickshavn and Aalborg routes and then, only in daylight.
Sturgeon remained in the vicinity of the Skaw for four more days before slowly withdrawing Westwards. By September 10th the boat was slowly crossing Little Fisher Bank at periscope depth, just to the North of the GDM. Lieutenant Lumby was at the periscope when he reported a suspected U-boat.
‘13:33 hrs Heard faint HE bearing 055°. Came to 22 feet
13:35 hrs Sighted a large German U-boat on the surface. Range was 5,000 yards. Started attack.
13:48 hrs In position 57°14’N, 06°04’E fired six torpedoes from 7,000 yards.
13:54 hrs Heard a loud explosion. HE of the submarine ceased.
13:55 hrs No sign of the submarine. The remaining five torpedoes were heard to explode at the end of their run‘.
A keen huntsman, Gregory was far from squeamish but this particular patrol had brought so much concentrated death and destruction that in the anxiety of the moment, the Skipper handed the periscope over to Lieutenant Meeke and eyes unseeing, he dashed into the wardroom. Allied to the earlier loss of so many friends, it was all a bit too much.
This attack was made at extreme range and so success had been unlikely. U-43 (Käpitanleutnant Wilhelm Ambrosius belonging to the 2. Flottille, Wilhelmshaven. Ambrosius and his crew survived this encounter but the explosion of spent torpedoes was enough to shake the U-boat. The U-boat was sailing between Wilhelmshaven and Bergen at the time of this attack. In common with OKH, BdU was reluctant to believe this was the work of a British submarine but henceforward advised U-boat commanders to avoid crossing Little Fisher Bank on the surface. U-43 was eventually sunk in July 1943 by an American Avenger bomber off the Azores. Wilhelm Ambrosius survived the war.
Sturgeon returned to Blyth on September 13th. Gregory piloted the boat upriver to No 5 Dry Dock. As the boat approached, so Gregory could see Captain George Voelcker’s staff car waiting for him – an ominous sign. Having exceeded his orders, Gregory knew he was in trouble. Even the sinking the German transport and a claimed U-boat would not compensate for insubordination in the eyes of Horton. Drawing upon all the eloquence he could muster in his defence, Gregory composed then handed over his Patrol Report. By penetrating the Kattegat, he had, in his own estimation, merely stretched a point.
George Voelcker advised Gregory that the sinking of the transport was to be milked to the full for propaganda value. Sturgeon would have to return to the Blyth roads then make a triumphant entry for the gathered press. Shore patrols were dispatched to flush out watch ashore who had flocked to The Royal in Beaconsfield Street in good faith.
Two days after her actual return, the ‘homecoming’ was staged. Voelcker turning out the lower decks in traditional naval fashion. None of the press commented upon the astonishingly clean appearance of the casing party – not an oil stain in sight. There was the usual spate of decorations awarded in the wake of a successful strike. David Gregory was awarded a Bar to his DSO. Lieutenants Meeke and Lumby, Torpedo Officer, earned praise, the latter for his, ‘…outstanding ability in maintaining his department in a high state of efficiency under difficult conditions’. Coxswain John Jackman earned recognition for ‘his steady depth-keeping and for setting a fine example for the rest of the crew‘. ERA Jim Rowe was praised for setting a good example in the engine room and commended for his devotion to duty.
Leading Stoker Fred Swann was commended for his ‘devotion to duty, cheerfulness and general example to his mates’ To cap an outstanding patrol, David Gregory’s newborn son was, ‘Launched upon the sea of life’ from a ship’s bell in the Harbour, cheered on by the crew. Two days later Voelcker handed Lieutenant Commander David Gregory a report containing VA(S) observations on this patrol.
‘I CONSIDER THAT THE COMMANDING OFFICER ACTED INCORRECTLY BY PROCEEDING INDEFINITELY EASTWARDS ALONG THIS LINE, THEREBY PASSING THOUGH MANY MILES OF SHALLOW WATER WITH THE RISK OF BEING MINED.
NEVERTHELESS, HIS DETERMINATION TO MAKE USE OF A LOOPHOLE GIVEN HIM IN HIS ORDERS AND HIS REASON FOR DOING SO, AS STATED IN HIS PATROL REPORT, ALTHOUGH INCORRECT, ARE TO BE ADMIRED. THEY RESULTED IN IMPORTANT SUCCESSES, THE SINKING OF A LARGE TRANSPORT AND APPARENTLY HEAVY LOSS OF LIFE AND THEIR SUPPLY OF MOST USEFUL INFORMATION AND THE APPARENT ABSENCE OF MINES’
Horton was far from happy but he admired the enterprising Gregory’s courage and enterprise. Any plans VA(S) may have had to immediately punish Gregory were put on hold when support came from the highest echelons of Admiralty.
German records made available in the post war era demonstrate that the Skagerrak had been effectively closed by mine-fields. Some of the finest British and Allied submarines had taken their last dives in these fields which although suspected, their locations remained unknown to Admiralty planners. Horton was right to suspend operations in the Skagerrak Not everyone agreed. Commander in Chief Home Fleet Charles Forbes welcomed Gregory’s attack as vindication of his view that submarines should return to the Skagerrak and operate there in numbers:
‘I HAVE READ WITH INTEREST THE PATROL REPORT OF HMS STURGEON, SEPTEMBER 14TH, 1940 AND NOTE WITH PLEASURE THE SUCCESSFUL RESUMPTION OF THE OFFENSIVE IN THE SKAW AREA. LIEUTENANT COMMANDER GREGORY AND HIS SHIP’S COMPANY ARE TO BE CONGRATULATED ON THE RESULT OF THIS ENTERPRISING AND EFFICIENT PATROL’
Meanwhile VA(S) informed Admiralty and the commanders in chief of his intended submarine dispositions off Norway for the Autumnal phase when comfortably dark nights could be anticipated. These dispositions were: one submarine each off Fro Havet, Fejeosen, Kors Fjord, and in the Skagerrak; two off Skudesnes; four South of Lister covering the Skagerrak approaches; one Southeast of Gap E, and two off the Texel. Two submarines to patrol the Netherlands were also required. Sturgeon was now the only submarine left in the Sixth Flotilla but Voelcker had been assured that Sealion and at least one other ‘S’ class boat would be joining soon. It was initially planned that newly commissioned ‘U’ class boats were to be administered from Blyth prior to deployment in one of the operational theatres (though this did not come to fruition). During this period there was a shortage of Type VIII torpedoes. Submarine commanders were pressed into loading the unreliable 1917 vintage Type IV Whiteheads, torpedoes which had the depressing tendency to break surface once fired.
On September 29th Gregory took Sturgeon out of Blyth for a patrol in the mouth of the Skagerrak. The boat was later ordered to patrol off Lista Light on the fearsome Stadtlandet Peninsula. It was known that ore carriers inbound from Narvik hugged the Norwegian coast, dashing between the leads and the skerries. The patrol was uneventful and Sturgeon returned to Blyth from this, her fourteenth wartime patrol on October 14th. On his return David Gregory learned he was to be relieved of command of Sturgeon and was to be given a senior staff job at Elfin instead. Horton did however allow him to carry out one final patrol, even allowing him to chose his own the billet. Gregory requested he be allowed to take Sturgeon back to the Skaw sector, beyond 8° East. Horton and Voelcker grudgingly agreed – providing Gregory’s dangerous venture could be combined with a patrol against ore carriers off the Norwegian coast in the ‘C’ Zones.
Sturgeon left Blyth on October 26th. Unlike the previous patrol there was little activity in the Skaw sector Oslo roads. In one of the might-have-beens of the Second World War, it appears that Sturgeon crossed the track of Admiral Scheer on her way to a North Atlantic breakout but distance and prevailing conditions prevented Gregory from making an attack. On Halloween (October 31st) three German A/S vessels detected Sturgeon but an old hand like Gregory was able to harness his skill and his knowledge of salt water layers to give these hunters the slip:
‘…it was noticed that there was a dense layer of water at 38′. so with the hope of another and an ASDIC baffling one at that, the boat was taken down to 150′. A layer was noticed at 85′. On passing through it, a marked change took place in the conduct of the hunt. The trawlers found it difficult to maintain contact with the submarine end-on and contact was never firm for any length of time…about two hours after the start of the hunt, all trawlers lost contact never to regain it’
By November 3rd Gregory took Sturgeon Westwards through Zone C3. The boat was submerged when smoke plumes were sighted.
‘09:46 hrs. 58°59’N, 10°23’E fired three torpedoes at a merchant vessel of 2,000 tons from 4,000 yards. No hits were obtained. All torpedoes were heard to explode 7 to 8 minutes after firing.
09:52 hrs Sighted another 2,000 tons merchant vessel. Started attack.
10:10 hrs In position 58°59’N, 10°22’E fired the three remaining torpedoes in the tubes from 4,000 yards. One hit was obtained. The other two torpedoes were heard to explode after about 7 minutes.
10:14 hrs The vessel was seen to be down by the bow and a lot of smoke was hanging around her.
10:21 hrs The vessel was not seen anymore. She must have gone down. Two A/S trawler now were seen coming towards the area of the attack from the Eastward. A counter attack was then started in which 32 depth charges were dropped. The hunt lasted for 1 hour and 15 minutes. No damage was done by this counter attack’.
The Danish 1,337 ton Sigrun (Captain Einar Bangs) had been en route between Oslo and Porsgrunn when Gregory struck. One man, Norwegian Otto Baltzersen, died in this sinking.
Next day Sturgeon proceeded to a new patrol area, between Lista Light and Obrestad Light. (Zone C2):
‘15:27 hrs In position 58°41’N, 09°21’E fired two torpedoes at the Norwegian merchant Uly from 1,000 yards. No hits were obtained.
15:30 hrs – The target was observed to have turned away. One torpedo was heard to detonate on hitting the land’
The target, the SS Uly was bound for Arendal with a cargo of German munitions. The torpedoes exploded harmlessly against the reef of Store Varo. Gregory took Sturgeon into Zone C3 and on November 6th the boat was approaching Stavanger just off Varhaug, when a small ship appeared out of the murk.
‘14:55 hrs 58°34’N, 05°37’E Fired two torpedoes at the Norwegian merchant Delfinus from 1,000 yards. One hit was obtained.
15:02 hrs Only 10 feet of the stern of the target remained out of the water.
15:06 hrs The target had sunk‘
Lifeboats had been swung out on their davits, the coastguard was alerted and there were no casualties among the seventeen strong crew on Delfinus. The vessel had been outbound from Stavanger with a mixed cargo, largely comprising of fish and cod liver oil bound for Hamburg.
On November 8th Sturgeon moored at the Middle Jetty in the South Harbour. Sturgeon was indeed a lucky boat. The relieving submarine allocated to succeed Sturgeon in the C3 billet, the Dundee based Dutch O22 (Luitenant ter Zee 1ste Klasse Johann Ort) was lost to unknown causes off Stavanger.
This patrol marked the end of David Gregory’s operational career as a submariner (though he did briefly take command of the training boat Oberon at Blyth in December 1941). The best of the young men men who had formerly served as first lieutenants operating in the North Sea now took command of new-built submarines. Young commanders were also appointed to some of the older surviving submarines. Ursula, now commanded by thirty year old Lieutenant Alexander Mackenzie sailed for the Mediterranean on October 20th. On October 11th, twenty-nine years old Lieutenant Michael Langley was appointed to Swordfish, now serving with the Fifth Flotilla out of Blockhouse. This was designed as a temporary arrangement as Voelcker had demanded that the boat should return to the Sixth Flotilla.
The Fifth Flotilla submarines were still carrying out anti invasion patrols in which reporting enemy movements took priority over attacks. There were only two billets for the Blockhouse boats, one between Dieppe and Cap d’Antifer (Zone W1) and the other off Cherbourg between Cape de la Hague and Barfleur (Zone W2).
Lieutenant Cowell had carried out a couple of aggressive but fruitless patrols in Swordfish from Blockhouse before handing over command to Michael Langley on October 21st. Langley attacked a convoy off Cherbourg. He claimed a hit on a German destroyer and was credited accordingly but post-war research has disproved any success. Swordfish returned to Blockhouse on October 30th. Lieutenant Langley was greeted with the news that his previous command, H49 had been lost in Zone H2. The boat had been lost on her first patrol under the luckless Lieutenant Richard Coltart. Coltart had repeated Cowell’s error of surfacing too close to A/S vessels belonging to the 11. Jagdflotille. During the severe depth charge attack which followed, the engine room hatch blew off, flooding the boat. There was one survivor, Leading Stoker George Oliver from Hartlepool. He was rescued by the Germans and sent to Torun in Poland where following recovery, he met up with that other sole survivor, Billy Pester of Spearfish. This episode marked the end of operations for ‘H’ class boats which were withdrawn to Rothesay for training duties.
On November 7th Swordfish was ‘Let Go’ from the Petrol Quay at Fort Blockhouse. The boat was due to relieve Usk off Brest. This was her twelfth wartime patrol, it was also to be her last. Swordfish sailed down the Solent. Off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight the boat altered course to Westwards in preparation for a trim dive. The bridge was cleared. Down she went, out of sight and into oblivion.
Blockhouse first became worried on November 15th when the boat failed to acknowledge transmissions. Opinions differed as to the cause of her loss. Some thought she had been mined – the Germans had made no specific claims of a sinking but in the post-war years attention was drawn to an attack made by German warships off Brest. The mystery of her fate would remain until the Summer of 1983. On November 20th, 1940 the usual telegrams were sent out to families, advising them that Swordfish was now, ‘…severely overdue and must now be presumed lost’. News of submarine losses was no longer made public and next-of-kin were urged not to disclose this information beyond the confines of their immediate family. In Plessey Road, Broadway, Stanley Street and Park Road where most wives lived, it was a time for the drawing down of blinds.
Bernard Cranmer took the news of the loss of Swordfish badly. He stared at the watch strip given to him by PO Dando and he could not help but wonder whether Trevor Dando had suffered a premonition of disaster. Bernard treasured the strap for the rest of his life. Bernard had recently passed for his ‘hook’, in other words he had been promoted to the rate of Leading Seaman. As proof of his status he was now entitled to wear the fouled anchor badge or ‘killick’ in naval parlance. He was delighted to be drafted to Sealion, a boat that had carved out an impressive reputation under the legendary Bryant. Brimming with confidence, so sooner had he stepped onboard Sealion than First Lieutenant John Bromage advised him that the Skipper wanted a word with him. Nervously Bernard entered the curtained off space which served as the wardroom. This was Bernard’s first sight of Bryant. Pipe jutting from mouth, Bryant fixed his gimlet eye on this new addition to his crew. Finally he spoke:
‘Cranmer, I am supposed to make you up to Leading Seaman but I don’t intend to do it. I have my reasons. I don’t know you or your abilities and we have several seamen onboard Sealion who have more experience than you do. I will recognise your hook when, and only when you have proved to me that you are worthy of it‘
Bernard was devastated. Somehow he managed to contain his anger but he knew there was little he could do other than convince Bryant of his worth.
Meanwhile Sunfish (Lieutenant George Colvin) had arrived at Blyth on November 11th to take the place of Swordfish. Three days later she was joined by Bryant’s Sealion. Bryant had put his downtime while Sealion was being repaired on the Tyne to good use, touring Northumberland castles with his wife, Marjorie in their battered car, ‘Fanny’. One snowy day en-route to Warkworth they paused at Morpeth to have a look around. Ben Bryant:
‘As we got towards Morpeth we passed the Gaol which likes like an ancient fortress. Marjorie having developed a taste for ancient buildings remarked that she would like to see inside of it. At any rate we did a bit of shopping and bought a dry battery for our wireless set. We were looking for somewhere to have tea when a police car suddenly drew alongside and two stern looking policemen took us aside and started to question us.
A crowd collected and I suggested that we went somewhere less public for the interrogation and they seemed delighted at the idea. I was put between two policemen in the back of the car and Marjorie followed in another. Who would have thought that within half an hour of expressing her wish to enter the fortress, she would actually be inside it ? It was a good Gaol, 19th century but it looked much older. It gradually dawned on me, after some questioning, that I was suspected of being a spy. If I were a spy, I reasoned, , the last thing I should do would be to wear a beard but apparently in Morpeth that was the accepted hall-mark. It was not until I managed to get through to Captain (S) at Blyth that I was able to convince our guardians that a man with a beard who walked along a railway line, who bought wireless batteries and spun the unlikely story that he walked in snow-clad countryside for pleasure, was not a fiendish saboteur. Bless them they were very apologetic and we parted the best of friends’
The Germans were still dependent upon iron ore imports from Narvik and enemy supply vessels took advantage of the vast archipelago of tiny islands guarding the Norwegian coast. These ships were at their most vulnerable when rounding the rocky fist of the Stadtlandet Peninsula. Supply ships operating between Bergen and Alesund regularly sheltered in the flanking fjords of Vanelv and Sildegapet before embarking on the journey around Stadtlandet. If the German ships would not venture beyond the coast hugging routes, the Blyth boats would simply have to go in to sink them.
Ben Bryant was not the least deterred by the prospect of patrolling the Norwegian coast in Winter. From the moment he squeezed his six foot four inch frame into his first submarine, L52 (the slug) in 1927, he was determined to make his mark. Bryant appeared the epitome of the Elizabethan buccaneer, yet the sea was not in his blood, rather he was the son of a civil servant who had spent most of his time in India. Nevertheless Bryant had already cut a name for himself with his daring and first rate seamanship. Bryant appears to have earned the trust of VA(S) Horton, who retained him while purging younger submarine commanders (Bryant was thirty-six in 1941). Horton also excused some of Bryant’s wilder schemes and his tendency to exceed of patrol orders when other captains were punished for their temerity. As Bernard Cranmer discovered Bryant could also be arrogant and intolerant. The opinions of others counted for little if at variance with his own. The disciplinarian streak to his character was countered by a dry sense of humour and irresistible charm. When time allowed he would chat knowledgeably with local fishermen down in the Harbour, who in turn kept the base wardroom plentifully supplied with fish.
Bryant was inspired by his own brand of muscular Christianity and what was good for the Skipper was also good for the crew. It was the Skipper’s habit to hold an interdenominational service shortly after leaving port, followed by a frank outline of the patrol ahead. Above all, Bryant sought to fashion his crew into a fully integrated mechanism, whereby all rates possessed an awareness of mutual roles and responsibilities. Instead of an easy return passage, Bryant would put his crew through a series of perplexing exercises. Stokers swopped places with seamen, Navigator ‘Vasco’ Stroud assumed the role of weapons officer, Freddy Sherwood while Bryant and First Lieutenant Bromage looked on with wry amusement.
Sealion patrolled off the Island of Utvaer in a patrol lasting between November 21st and December 6th, in very difficult conditions. On November 25th, with the boat ten miles West of Utvaer lighthouse, a large tanker was momentarily spotted. What follows is an extract from the Patrol Report:
‘11:03 hrs Sighted a vessel bearing 102°. Altered course to attack but while doing so the target was lost in the rain.
11:07 hrs Sighted the target again. It was seen to be a big oiler. Turned again and one again lost the target in the rain but the target HE was clearly picked up.
11:12 hrs In approximate position 61°01’N, 04°04’E fired two torpedoes from about 4,000 yards but the target was still barely visible and a good setup could not be made. Both torpedoes missed’.
The intended victim was likely the six thousand ton German naval supply tanker Adria. At any rate, one of Sealion‘s engines proved defective forcing a premature end to the patrol.
As the boat drew alongside the crew was given an object lesson as to just how thorough Bryant could be. Bernard Cranmer:
‘The lights went out and we heard the First Lieutenant’s voice on the tannoy,
‘NO ONE TO LEAVE THE BOAT. THE CAPTAIN HAS ORDERED THAT EVERYONE MUST MAKE A DRY ESCAPE BEFORE DISEMBARKING‘.
This meant that we had to troop up to the for’rard escape chamber, climb into it and go through the motions of making an escape – flooding up etc. with the First Lieutenant standing over us. Failure to follow the correct procedure would not only result in the culprit missing the next patrol, he would be forced to repeat the exercise until he finally got it right. Needless to add, our escape technique was perfect‘
Sturgeon (Lieutenant Commander Drummond St. Clair-Ford) endured a profitless watch off Bergen between November 28th and December 11th. The Most interesting of the November patrols was that undertaken by Sunfish (Lieutenant George Colvin). Sunfish was ordered to patrol the fjord of Sildegapet and its environs. Dangerous at the best of times due to deficient chart information, more dangerous still in the deteriorating weather conditions of late Autumn.
On December 5th a ship hove into view in position 62°03’N, 05°06’E.
14:48 hrs Sighted a southbound merchant vessel of about 4,000 tons, heavily laden, close inshore, enemy speed 9 knots. Range was 4,500 yards. Started attack.
15:09 hrs Fired four torpedoes from 4,000 yards.
15:13 hrs Heard a double explosion. Two large columns of water were observed near the ship. Two hits had been obtained.
15:14 hrs Heard a second double explosion. These were two torpedoes hitting the land beyond the ship.
15:15 hrs Nothing was seen of the target, it must have gone down very quickly. The ship was heavily laden and it is likely she was carrying a cargo of ore to Germany (in fact the ship was carrying a cargo of nickel bound for Petsamo). We were not in a good firing position and in a matter of minutes it would have been too late, so we closed at top speed and fired four torpedoes. After firing I was more concerned with avoiding the Havluerene Reefs than the fate of the ship ! There was a double explosion and through the periscope I saw two huge humps of displaced water. A second double explosion followed but there was no trace of our target and we judged her to be sunk’
Oscar Midling sank with all twenty-five hands, including two Norwegian pilots. These were the first torpedoes twemty-nine year old Colvin had ever fired in anger.
Colvin wisely moved Sunfish Northwards, taking up position near Bjornsund light. On December 7th a small Norwegian ship appeared. Turning onto a firing course Colvin fired a torpedo salvo only to witness the ship change course. The torpedoes exploded against a reef.
15:09 hrs – Sighted a small vessel about half a mile astern of the tanker. Sighted a 3,000 tons merchant vessel of about 3,000 tons astern of this coaster. Continued the attack on the tanker, the best target.
15:16 hrs In position 62°10’N, 05°05’E fired four torpedoes at the tanker from 3,000 yards.
15:21 hrs – Observed the tanker to be listing but not sinking. All torpedoes had now been expended. The coaster remained near the tanker.
Colvin merely attributed his success to ‘beginner’s luck’. The crew of Sunfish was not only overjoyed with this success, it knew that whichever boat drew the short straw to be landed with a Christmas patrol, it would not be them. The crews of Sturgeon and Sunfish were relieved of patrol duties until the New Year but Sealion was allotted a patrol off Fro Havet, departure date December 22nd. If they could not spend Christmas ashore, the crew was determined to at least enjoy a proper dinner with all the trimmings. For weeks the crew had been preparing for just such an eventuality by tenderly nurturing a batch of chickens in one of the neighbouring allotments. Day and night they had protected these chickens from the depredations of the two other crews. There was only one problem. If the chickens were to be killed on the day of departure, they would surely be on the turn by Christmas Day and even Bryant would draw the line when it came to taking live chickens to sea. How could the crew keep them fresh for three crucial days ? The ballast pump bilge offered the best storage option as it was the coldest place on the boat (if not the driest). Just before Sealion sailed the chickens were duly slaughtered then carefully stored inside the bilge well. To make sure of their condition, each evening First Lieutenant Bromage would perform a sniff test. The Coxswain did not share the First Lieutenant’s optimism and gravely opined that unless the birds were cooked immediately they may as well be flung out in the gash bucket. As far as the lower deck was concerned there was only one solution, Christmas must be brought forward by a day. This done, the men enjoyed their meal. The officers persevered until next day but they later admitted that the chickens had been ‘a trifle gamey’. Predictably the blockade runners opted to spend Christmas in port. Sealion returned to Blyth on January 6th, 1941
Between December 27th and January 8th Sunfish carried out an uneventful patrol off Fejøsen, while Sturgeon left Blyth on New Year’s Eve for an equally unproductive patrol in the Bud sector, returning on January 13th. Once safely ashore both crews held their own postponed New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Sealion left Blyth on January 27th for a patrol in Zone C5. Predictably the weather added to the difficulties. Spray froze on the periscope lens and Ben Bryant lamented the difficulties of attacking ships outlined against black reefs veined with white snow. Nevertheless on February 1st Bryant decided to attack a convoy rounding the North West corner of the Stadlandet peninsula at 62°13’N, 05°08’E . It is believed these ships were the 4,818 ton Harm Fritzen and 6,318 ton Falkenfels. the convoy was escorted by a number of Raumbooten. Bryant noted that ‘they preserved formation and did not swerve about‘. The Kriegsmarine A/S boats had now upped their game. They tended to hunt in line abreast, the S-Gerät sets were more reliable (although the skerries and reefs of Norway seriously undermined the accuracy of all acoustic devices, including ASDIC) and they made fewer mistakes. The whalers, with their shallow draught, in particular were ideally suited for working inshore.
It was difficult for Sealion to find a viable firing position because of the numerous reefs, many uncharted, studding the sector. Six torpedoes were fired but all missed. Bryant later blamed incorrect depth settings but the attack on the second ship was made from a distance of just 1,700 yards. The failure may have been due to malfunctioning 1917 vintage Mark IV torpedoes. Prevailing conditions made life difficult for the ‘R’ boat ‘S’ Gerät operators too and no sustained anti submarine hunt developed this time.
The next few days witnessed the weather close in with frequent snow squalls. On February 5th a few miles North of Stad, a Northbound Norwegian steamer, Ryfylke, was spotted at 62°14’N, 05°13’E. At 16:40hrs, three Mark IV torpedoes were fired at a range of just 600 yards. The second torpedo hit (‘a most miserable little explosion’) The Mark IV torpedo carried a warhead of just 515 pounds in contrast with the 750 pounds of torpex contained in the Type VIII. Ryfylke showed no sign of sinking. Bryant decided to surface and finish her off with the gun. The vessel was ordered by signal lamp to ‘Abandon Ship’.
‘… she was passenger and cargo. The Captain must have been a sportsman for he replied, ‘Thank You’. The ship was much smaller than I expected, about 1,500 tons. The mistake was I think excusable as she was a large ship in miniature, very nice lines, Norwegian colours but I was too busy looking for ‘R’ boats and aircraft to note too much about her. She was very smart and quickly lowered four boat loads – she was passenger and cargo – and after fifteen minutes grace all boats were down and we opened fire. Her name was written’ midships and I ordered AB Middleton to ‘airm at the writing’. Unfortunately he misheard and our first round picked off the starboard bow light ! The ship was very low in the water and three out of the thrity-two rounds fell short – even at a cable the sea made shooting interesting. The first two rounds in the upper works to scare anyone who had elected to stay and then at the water line…the gun crew was frozen and drenched but otherwise very happy. By this time she was burning furiously and at 17:25hrs we dived and made off‘.
Gun action was the hall-mark of Lieutenant Commander Ben Bryant. He once described it as ‘the greatest sport in the world’. He took immense pleasure in the speed and accuracy of his gun team. Bryant’s infectious ardour spread to the newer members of his crew as Bernard Cranmer describes:
‘This wonderful sparkle used to come into his eyes when we were going into action. You could tell he enjoyed it. When he said you were going to do something, you knew you were going to succeed. Skippers like this inspire you, they push you to the absolute limits but you are glad of it afterwards. I actually began to look forward to patrols and during our runs ashore, having sampled large quantities of ‘stuka juice’ we had a proud boast that should Ben accidentally beach Sealion and request us to tow her overland to Berlin, why we would have willingly done it’. Everyone who served under him was proud of the fact. Mind you he was ruthless. I knew skippers who did the job efficiently but when you looked at their faces after an attack you could tell they hated the killing. They had compassion but Ben Bryant had no heart at all‘
Ryfylke had been a regular on the Hurtigruten route until she was requisitioned by the Germans. Forty-five people were later picked up by the rescue vessel Christian Bugge.
Next day Bryant noted ‘Extremely heavy weather, the marvellous sea-keeping qualities of the ‘S’ boat being in evidence. Impossible to operate. At 90′ the boat was rolling twelve degrees either side. Left Patrol‘. He laterobserved, ‘That night at storm blew up accompanied by some of the heaviest seas I have ever seen in my life. Towering above us in the darkness we could just discern the watery mountains advancing as if to overwhelm us at any moment. I was extremely concerned that dear old Sealion might not be able to shake herself clear from her plunge down the previous monster, in time to rise to the next. The blowers were in continuous action. I have never experienced seas like this before or since’
Faced with impossible conditions at sea, Sealion returned to Blyth on February 10th.
There had long been wild talk of spies at Blyth. These stories tended to subside with the fall of Scandinavia and the ending of the Norwegian convoys between Methil and Bergen. There was one genuine spy at Blyth however in January 1941. His name was Captain Odd Starheim and he was destined to become one of the greatest fighters in the Norwegian resistance movement. There is no scope to examine his wartime career in any sort of detail. His incredible story is told in the book ‘Saltwater Thief’. Captain Starheim first escaped from Norway in August 1940. He was among the pioneer members of the SOE branch called Norwegian Independent Company One, hand-picked by Captain Martin Linge. Starheim and three fellow merchant marine trainees had escaped from Farsund in August 1940. Two of his colleagues, Alf Lindeberg and Pedersen Kviljo and had returned to Norway from the Shetlands with the intention of setting up a resistance network. However by the end of 1940 the two operatives had gone missing in Southern Norway. It was widely believed they had been captured and were suffering torture at the hands of the Germans. Captain Starheim volunteered to return to Southern Norway in order to first discover the fate of his comrades then set up a radio network in the Agder area. ‘Operation Cheese’ was born. Starheim spent Christmas in the Norwegian Sailors’ Mission in Liverpool. In mid January he was taken to Blyth.
It was decided that Starheim should be landed on the South Eastern tip of Ullero Island (Ullerøy) in Farsund by submarine. As George Colvin had earlier landed agents on Guernsey in H43 (Operation Angler, July 1940) Sunfish was given the job. Lieutenant Colvin was provided with information on a need-to-know basis. Starheim was introduced to Elfin personnel as ‘Lieutenant Young’ of the Sjøforsvaret, the Royal Norwegian Navy. SOE gave him the operational name of ‘Agent Cheese’. On January 24th Sunfish left Blyth for the South coast of Norway. It took three days for Sunfish to reach her destination. Despite the cloak of darkness, Colvin was taking no chances. He decided to proceed at periscope depth until the boat was within a mile of Ullero Island. Mantled with crisp white snow, Ullero Island stood out against the dark sea. It was beautiful in its own way but the knowledge that the final approach must be made through so many semi-submerged reefs made Colvin shiver. Sunfish was piloted through the ice-draped skerries, navigating via ASDIC transmissions. At 19:53hrs Colvin gave the order to surface. With nothing more deadly than a heavy suitcase containing a radio, a rucksack and a roll of bedding, Starheim shook hands with the men on the bridge, then he clambered down the icy casing. Colvin wished him ‘Good Luck and God Speed’.
‘I gave the order to open the fore-hatch and the folbot was passed up to the fore casing, semi assembled. In the darkness Fist Lieutenant Martin and two seamen checked and prepared it for launching. At this point we shut the fore-hatch and opened the gun tower hatch just in case we had to dive in a hurry. With the boat about seven cables from the nearest point of Ullero Island, the folbot was launched under the port bow. Our Norwegian friend then descended the ‘Jacob’s ladder’ in a very expert manner. We lowered his gear by line. The folboat left our side and when last seen, was paddling steadily for the Island’
Upon making landfall, Captain Starheim walked twenty-five miles inland despite suffering from influenza. Starheim succeeded in his mission. He created a resistance network in the Flekkefjord sector and became the first SOE agent to establish radio contact between occupied Europe and Britain on 25 February 1941. Starheim and his network were the first to radio warnings of the first sighting of the German battleship Bismarck following her break-out. Captain Odd Starheim would remain in Norway until June 1941.
Sunfish continued with a patrol in the adjacent Lindesnes sector.
Sunfish spent the next few days operating between Lindesnes and Holmborsund lighthouses in a patrol marred by ice floes and snow squalls. Blizzards curtained visibility to a minimum and at times the periscope had to be forced through thick slabs if ice. At one point on February 2nd while Colvin was attempting to turn Sunfish on to a viable firing course, trim was lost. The ASDIC dome was crushed and rendered inoperable. The boat was steadied and at 11:31hrs Colvin made a second attempt to attack a coaster at a range of 1,200 yards. Four torpedoes were fired (three Type VIIIs and one Type IV) to Colvin’s disgust the Type IV Whitehead torpedo broke surface and commenced to follow a snaking trajectory. The target immediately spotted the track and took evasive action. Within minutes a dazzle-painted ‘R’ boot came thundering in to subject Sunfish to a sustained depth charge attack, delivered with more enthusiasm than accuracy.
Sunfish slipped away and returned to Blyth on February 5th.
In early March Sunfish participated in another special mission when she acted as a navigational beacon for ‘Operation Claymore’, the commando raid on the Lofoten Islands. For some time naval intelligence had been aware that an enigma coding machine was kept on an examination vessel in the Islands. Just as the chiefs of staff relished the opportunity to mount a combined operations attack somewhere on the Norwegian coast, so naval intelligence wanted to get their hands on an ‘Enigma’ coding machine. The Lofoten Islands lie well beyond the Arctic circle and the mission required Sunfish to sail further North than previously. Scapa was the focus of the operation and so Sunfish left Blyth for the Orkneys in company with the Admiralty Yacht HMS Mollusc on February 23rd. On the night of March 3rd/4th, Sunfish surfaced at 22:15hrs to commence a series of transmissions designed to guide in the raiding force and their escorts. This work continued until 01:15hrs when the boat resumed routine patrolling. The official report describes the mission in glowing terms:
‘The weather was ideal, a slight sea and overcast sky. This simplified the approach to Vest Fjord and with the assistance of Sunfish’s beacon transmission, the entrance was made as planned. The results achieved in the destruction of plant, shipping and fuel resources are most satisfactory and there is no doubt that the intangible results were far reaching. 314 Norwegian volunteers were brought back together with 230 involuntary German prisoners’
The Germans did manage to hurl the coding machine into Vest Fjord.
Life went on as usual in Blyth. The skyline was changing however. The captured German passenger and cargo ship Hannover was brought to the Blyth Shipbuilding Company for conversion to a flush decked carrier. Her monstrous bulk towered over the Town during this period. The ship was completed in June 1941 and re-commissioned as HMS Audacity. Her career was brief. While involved in convoy protection duties to and from Gibraltar she was sunk by U-751 off Portugal on December 20th. Seventy-three lives were lost.
Mollusc did not long survive her her role in Operation Claymore. On March 17th, while the ship was serving as the Blyth Examination vessel, a JU 88 of KG 26, scored a direct hit with a bomb. The elegant craft sank to the bottom in seventeen minutes without loss of life.
Civilians not directly employed in the facility were not normally allowed anywhere near the South Harbour but young Harold Bennet was an exception:
‘My job during the school holidays was to take meals to my father when he was on watch. I remember being the envy of my school mates. Hardly anyone had the same access, past the subs and the air sea rescue craft, past the new warships fitting out then up to the best viewpoint in Blyth. I always stayed out for as long as possible. Being a coastguard, my father had access to the beach and Harbour areas. His look -out post was on top of a large building near the smaller of the two piers. Here the coastguards stood four hour watches round the clock, helping shipping come and go, watching for wrecks, distress signals and smuggling, as well as patrolling the deserted beaches. Father always used to get depressed or angry when we found bodies washed up on the beach or when a sub went missing. Officially he knew nothing of the intended movements of submarines but logged their passage in and out of the Harbour, greeting them with identification signals‘
Normally duty watch spent much of their time slapping a thick grey protective paint nicknamed ‘pussers crabfat’ over the submarine casing. In late March 1941, the seamen on the remaining boats, Sturgeon, Sealion and Sunfish were told, ‘not to bother as the colour scheme would be changing soon’. This was widely interpreted to mean that all three boats would imminently be sent off to the Mediterranean or the Biscay sectors as submarines operating in these areas were painted blue.
Lieutenant Commander Bryant’s last patrol from Blyth took Sealion to Øygaden and Hellisøy, the skerries guarding the approach to Bergen (Zone C4) between March 1st and March 15th. Always looking for an opportunity for gun action, Bryant devised a very unofficial scheme to bombard the Holmengrå wireless station. Bryant was disappointed to find the nearby leads infested by fishing boats interspersed with Raumbooten. At one point he was forced to dive Sealion, ‘to avoid sharing the publicity of a whale which was carrying out independent exercises off Hellisøy‘. Bryant kept the boat on the move until she reached Holmengrå. A bright, far too bright moonlit night forced Bryant to abandon his plans to destroy the wireless installation by shell. Sealion was sailed North to Stadlandet but VA(S) forbade Bryant from closing the coast in the fear that the Germans had recently laid mines here.
Sturgeon patrolled the Southern coast of Norway between February 6th and February 23rd. The boat returned to this sector between March 11th and March 25th. On March 20th Lieutenant Commander St. Clair-Ford made an attack on Drafn, a 3,000 ton tanker. The attack on the Southbound vessel off Obrestad was made at extreme range using two torpedoes. This patrol was brought to an end with orders to return to Blyth.
The campaign against the blockade runners was drawing to a close without showing much of a profit. The enemy policy of leap-frogging between coastal bases had paid dividends. Iron ore shipments had barely been inconvenienced. There had been few targets over the Winter months and the coming of Spring would see a significant reduction in the amount of sea-borne ore shipments to Germany. Although something of an anti-climax, Bryant’s last Blyth patrol was not without its humorous moments. Bryant recorded in his Patrol Report how First Lieutenant McVie had asked a seaman to estimate how far the boat was off course:
‘The sailor (whose previous sea experience had been as a passenger on the Gosport ferry) replied ‘About and inch Sir !’. This is true !’
VA(S) no doubt advised Bryant how fortunate he was to have so many trained men under his command. For Horton was now in possession of some sobering statistics. At the outbreak of war, following mobilisation in 1939, 3383 ratings had been available to man submarines. Of these, 474 were from the Royal Fleet Reserve, that is former submarine ratings who had returned to civilian life. The great majority of submariners, officers and ratings, had been volunteers. Only 108 men in this total were specialists who had been ‘pressed’. During the first year of war, Britain had started the war with fifty boats. By September 1940 twenty-six boats had been lost. The Sixth Flotilla at Blyth had suffered the greatest losses of all the Home Waters Flotillas, having lost Seahorse, Undine, Starfish, Unity, Seal and Narwhal. Spearfish and Swordfish had been sunk shortly after joining other flotillas but remained under the administrative umbrella of the 6th Flotilla at the time of their losses. Rosyth lost five British boats during this period, namely Tarpon, Thistle, Salmon and Shark. The Polish Orzel was also lost while operating from Rosyth. Oxley, Thames and the Dutch boats 013 and 022 were lost while operating from Dundee. Sterlet and H49 were sunk while based at Harwich.
545 men had been killed, 115 had been taken prisoner. Some individuals had been ‘weeded out’ on health or other grounds and returned to general service. By early 1941 a total of 3,227 men was available to man submarines. At this time there were forty available boats but newly built ‘S’ and ‘U’ boats were adding to the strength. Up to this time some 1,425 new ratings had been trained for submarines since the outbreak of war. The greatest loss was in experienced submarine personnel and the lost crews were virtually all long service, peacetime trained officers and men. Moreover each lost submarine contained the seeds of future command. It is no exaggeration to state that a whole generation of submarine officers was missing. Horton faced 1941 in the knowledge that the old largely volunteer service was gone forever but the future concerned him more than the past. Horton’s challenge was to find crews for the new submarines.
The survival of the Submarine Service depended upon two factors; the supply of new submarines must keep pace with the rate of losses but the shipyards could do nothing about the shortage of trained personnel, particularly in specialist fields. The imperative to maintain an enlarged surface fleet meant general service was determined to keep its hands on experienced engine room staff, telegraphists, signalmen, torpedomen, gunners and the much prized specialist petty officers. A large intake of men was required if the Submarine Service was to survive.
Desperate situations call for desperate remedies. Horton sought, and obtained cabinet permission to press officers and specialist ratings whenever this proved necessary. Men who had opted to join the navy as a result of receiving call-up papers could now be drafted directly to Blockhouse following a few weeks square-bashing at Shotley or Chatham. If a candidate was regarded as otherwise suitable for submarines, the tank exercise could be waived. This cannot have been an easy decision for Horton. The old Service had largely comprised of volunteers as we have seen. This factor had engendered a fierce pride allied with a willingness to accept hardship, discomfort and ultimately, death. It remained to be seen what kind of esprit de corps would animate these new men.
Horton faced another problem. By the Spring of 1941 Blockhouse was becoming far too dangerous a place to train new submariners. The Seventh Flotilla at Rothesay could not cope with such an enlarged intake. It was decided that from the beginning of April the Sixth Flotilla at Blyth would cease to be operational but would instead take over the burden of sea-training from Blockhouse. Sealion, Sunfish and Sturgeon loaded torpedoes at the Ice House Quay then the remaining torpedo war-heads were shunted by rail up to Rosyth. From this point onwards, only dummy warheads were stored in the Ice House magazines and there was no longer a need for a spare crew pool of personnel. The Royal Marine contingent was sent back to Eastney as now the base would provide its own security.
Plans to send the Blyth submarines to the Mediterranean were overtaken by events when Horton received news in late March that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had broken out and were heading for Brest. Horton responded with a plan to concentrate every available British submarine off the Brest approaches and the Bay of Biscay to intercept them, an operation which later became known as the ‘Ring of Iron’.
There were many changes in personnel. Captain George Voelcker relinquished command to take charge of the Eighth Flotilla at Gibraltar. He would lose his life when the cruiser Charybydis was torpedoed in controversial circumstances off the Channel Islands in October 1943 and is buried at Dinard in Brittany. His place at Blyth as Captain S (6) was taken by Lieutenant Commander George Phillips of Ursula fame.
Many existing submarine crews were broken up. Key personnel were extracted to form a nucleus of trained submariners to man the new submarines. Half the men crewing Sunfish and Sturgeon were dispersed. Lieutenant Commander St. Clair-Ford was assigned to the elderly Parthian. He would move on to, and die in Traveller in December 1941. Curiously the crew of Sealion remained intact. Torpedoman Bernard Cranmer found himself summoned into the awesome presence of Lieutenant Commander Bryant:
‘Ah Cranmer, not only have I decided to award you your hook, I have have decided to keep you on Sealion and take you with us. Well done. You deserve it. Dismiss‘
Bryant was not one for false praise and this was the finest accolade Bernard could have received. Ahead lay seven months of danger in the Bay of Biscay but he never once doubted he had made the right decision in volunteering for submarines. On March 23rd Sealion and Sunfish sailed in company for Harwich, leaving only Sturgeon in the South
Harbour. Sturgeon remained at Blyth until April 4th. In fact persistent mechanical problems forced the return of Sunfish to the Tyne on April 24th. Because Swan Hunters available docks were full, the boat was moored in the Albert Edward Dock instead.
It will be recalled that on March 25th Sturgeon had attacked the tanker Drafn. Admiralty now officially credited as a sinking (post war research has poured doubt on this claim but reliable Hezlet upholds the sinking). In her fifteen patrols Sturgeon had completed more patrols from Blyth than any other submarine. The boat had struck the first British submarine blow of the war by sinking Gauleiter Telschow and it was therefore fitting that the last operational patrol to have begun and ended at Blyth should have resulted in success. It was good to leave on a high note, otherwise this was a sad time as friendships forged in battle ended with the dispersal and dilution of crews. The Rob Roys and the Fred Rumseys might come and go and the Smithies and the Piries live or die. Ben Bryant and Malcolm Wanklyn left behind their legends but for the Town of Blyth, life went on in the same old way. A new proud chapter in the story of the Blyth submarine base was about to open.
Sturgeon Signalman Ginger Nicholson was drafted to stand by Utmost but not before promising his civilian friends that he would return to Blyth. Slumped in a wheelbarrow, head lolling, he was wheeled through the streets of Blyth to the station, where he was ceremoniously deposited on the platform, clad only in a pair of Wren’s bloomers. Around his neck a notice read:
FAREWELL BLYTH – IT’S BEEN GOOD TO KNOW YOU’
ADM 199/1837, ADM 199/1835, ADM 199/1842, ADM 199/285.
One Man Band Ben Bryant, Salt Water Thief M. Munthe and E. Hauge