Battle of Atlantic , December 1941 , Battle of Convoy HG-76 , First Serious Defeat of U-Boat Packs

At the end of November 1941 , as a gesture to support Rommel’s Panzer Army in Libya , OKM (Oberkommando Marine) in Berlin instructed BdU ( U-Boat High Command) to transfer several more U-Boats to western sector of Gibraltar area. They were to continue attacking convoys from Mediterranean to British isles , despite all intelligence available to Berlin that British convoys to Mediterranean and Middle East were following Cape Hope route by rounding African shores to Indian Ocean and Red Sea , German High Command and OKM made this an order.

On top of that British ASW forces and escort vessels were greatly strenghened in this area around Gibraltar since 1941 summer. Initially U-Boats scored a few sucesses in this region. U-43 commanded by Wolfgand Luth sunk two straggling merchant ships from convoy Ourtbound South OS12 and then destroyed an 12.000 ton American tanker Astral sailing alone from Caribbean carrying fuel. (this ship went off with a tremendous explosion and none of her crew survived)

At this time German spies in Gibraltar reported that a Homebound Gibraltar convoy HG76 was about to sail to British isles , BdU (U-Boat command) position several U-Boats west of Gibraltar to form a new patrol group code named Seerauber (made up seven U-boats) In the afternoon of 14th December 1941 convoy HG76 made up thirty two merchant vessels left Gibraltar and started their paasage to UK. German submarine U-74 reported convoys departure same day then went straigght into Gibraltar Straits to enter Mediterranean.

German spies in Gibraltar also reported the departure of convoy HG76. They listed the precise number of merchant ships (thirty two) , but understated or misindentified the escort forces (which was actually very strong) , reporting “three destroyers” , “few corvettes” and “an aircraft tender” Actually Royal Navy escort to convoy HG76 was massive , organised under command of Escort Group 36 : three destroyers , four sloops , nine corvettes and jeep carier HMS Audacity carrying four Martlet fighter aircraft ( F4 Grumann Wildcats manufactured in US and purchased by British ) against German Condor reconnisance bombers. Heavy irony is this : HMS Audacity had been a German merchant ship named Hamburg previously , captured intact by Royal Navy in 1939 and converted into a jeep carrier. This was thae first time an aircraft carrier vessel was escorting a convoy all the way to destination.

HMS Audacity

HMS Audacity

On top of everything the officer commanding Escort Group 36 protecting the convoy had been no other than extremely capable and talented Royal Navy Captain 45 year old Frederic “Johnny” Walker in the Royal Navy sloop HMS Stork who would be the ultimate nemesis personified for German Navy U-Boat arm later in the future. Son of a career naval officer , Walker was a tough , outspoken onetime a middle weight boxer with 27 years of naval service in His Majesty’s Navy and now he was itching to put a few punches (first of many in his active career) to German U-Boats. Between the wars he had specialised in ASW (Anti Submarine Warfare) , rising to command of the Royal Navy ASW school in Portland in 1937. Lifted from a staff job , he had been given command of Escort Group 36 (two sloops and seven corvettes) in March 1941 and drilled his crews ruthlessly in ASW (Anti Submarine Warfare)

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Frederic “Johnny” Walker

As soon as they got the intelligence report from spies in Gibraltar that convoy HG76 departed the harbour and got contact report of U-74 , BdU and Admiral Donitz alerted and redeployed all U-Boats on Seerauber patrol group to north to north west and requested Luftwaffe Condor recon flights from Bordeux.

Things began to go wrong from first day for German side though. A heavy fog on December 15th prevented and air or U-Boat contact with convoy. Then on night of 15th-16th December 1941 , four Royal Navy destroyers (Australian destroyer HMAS Nestor and British destroyers HMS Croome , HMS Foxhound and HMS Gurkha II) made an ASW sweeping patrol on the area west of Gibraltar. At 11:00 PM , HMAS Nestor spotted a U-Boat on the surface thirty miles off Cape St. Vincent close to approaches of Gibraltar. HMAS Nestor alerted other destroyers then charged in full speed guns blazing. U-Boat quickly dived but all four British destroyers alerted , started an offensive sweep with hydrophones and active sonar.

Their querry was brand new Type IX class submarine U-127 commanded by Bruno Hansmann sailed from Kiel seventeen days earlier. She was holding extreme south end of Seerauber patrol line. Due to an erronous spy report from Gibraltar , Hansmann assumed convoy HG76 returned to Gibraltar and expecting to contact with the convoy when she sailed again.

Upon reaching the spot where U-127 crash dived , HMAS Nestor got an excellent sonar contact. Holding the contact HMAS Nestor dropped five depth charges in a rapid but carefully planned attack. Soon afterwards , British destroyers found some oil , wreckage , pieces of wood and some clothing plus “human remains” on the spot. Nothing more was ever heard from U-127. This was the first U-Boat loss from Seerauber group.

Strike One

Condor aircraft from Bordeaux found convoy HG76 on the morning of 16th December 1941 and shadowed it , unseen by any escorts at first. BdU quickly relayed the convoy position to Seerauber U-Boat pack. In late afternoon a Type IX submarine U-108 contacted with convoy and sent a radio contact report. Donitza in BdU headquarters at Kerneval , France , passed this information to other U-Boats in Seerauber group , promising Luftwaffe air support , urgfing them to converge on the convoy at the highest speed and to attack by dawn on December 17 without fail. However Royal Navy intelligence at Western Approaches Command , Derby House , Liverpool , intercepting and decrypting this Enigma radio traffic between BdU command and U-Boats on sea , alerted the convoy HG76 to the impending danger and ordered carrier HMS Audacity to start air patrols against U-Boats.

By dawn 17th December , four U-Boats contacted the convoy , preparing to attack. But British hit the first punch. A Martlet fighter aircraft from HMS Audacity patrolling , sighted a U-Boat on the surface 20 miles ahead of the convoy. When U-Boat also saw the aircraft she dived. Hearing this report Escort Group 36 commander Captain Johnny Walker left the convoy with his flagship , sloop HMS Stork plus three other destroyers (HMS Blankney , HMS Exmoor II and ex American four stack HMS Stanley ) and a corvette HMS Penstemon to carry out a U-Boat hunt. When his ships arrived to the position Walker organised his ships to conduct a coodinated sweep in the area. The corvette HMS Penstemon got a firm sonar contact and 11:00 AM HMS Penstemon made a deliberate attack on the contact dropping ten depth charges.

Their target was Type IX class submarine U-131 commanded by Arend Bauman. The depth charges badly damaged German submarine. Bauman tried to ease away but after one hour and fourty möinutes of further depth charge attack , U-131 gravely damaged , had to surface right next to destroyer HMS Stanley which sounded the alarm. All five British warships converged on U-Boat. Plus a Martlet fighter from HMS Audacity tried to attack and strafe U-Boat but gunners of U-131 shot it down. All other British destroyers HMS Stork , HMS Stanley , HMS Exmorr II and HMS Blankney began to attack on damaged U-Boat and opened fire with their main guns hitting their target several times. Finally Bauman ordered to scuttle U-131 and abandon the ship. U-131 upended and sank stern firstat 13:21 hours. Bauman and all of her crew was rescued by British destroyers.

Strike Two

Next morning on 18th December at 09:00 hours destroyer HMS Stanley spotted a U-Boat on the surfaceabout six miles off. The other two destroyers HMS Blankney , HMS Exmoor II and sloop HMS Deptford joined the HMS Stanley to hunt down the U-Boat. When HMS Stanley closed to three miles U-Boat dived but HMS Stanley dropped nineteen depth charges on the presumed position of U-Boat with a squarish pattern. Running in to join in , destroyer HMS Blankney got a firm sonar contact and dropped six more depth charges right on top of it then relayed position of contact to HMS Stanley. HMS Stanley dropped nineteen more depth charges and following her HMS Blankney also dropped six more depth charges again on the top of the contact.

Their victim was Type VII submarine U-434 , commanded by Wolfgang Heyda , still on her first patrol from Germany. It would also be her last patrol. Depth charge attack inflicted such a heavy damage and flooding , Heyda was forced to surface his submarine. When U-434 popped off , destroyer HMS Blankney was mere 2.000 yards off and she immediately opened fire with her guns then sped up to ram U-434. As German crew watched in horror that British destroyer was incoming to ram , they panicked and began to jump overboard. HMS Blankney struck U-434 a glancing blow that damaged both ships. When HMS Blankney lowered her whaler with an armed party to board the U-Boat , Heyda set up the depth charges then abandoned the submarine. U-434 blew up and sunk before whaler reached her. British destroyers picked up 43 Germans from water , four crewmembers of U-434 was lost. HMS Blankney and HMS Stanley shared the credit for the kill.

Strike Three

By design or by accident , the surface escort of convoy HG76 was gradually diminised at this point. Four corevettes and two destroyers HMS Blankney and HMS Exmoor II had to return back to Gibraltar due to lack of fuel. By the night of December 18th , the surface escort of HG76 was diminished to eleven ships. The sole remaining destroyer in the convoy old American four stack HMS Stanley took up position in the stern of the convoy. In the early hours of December 19 , HMS Stanley saw a U-Boat and gave the alarm to Capain Walker in HMS Stork. But while HMS Stork was closing to the position , HMS Stanley was torpedoed and she “blew up in a sheet of flame several hundred feet high” Only 28 men (out of 120) from HMS Stanley were picked from water by British escort ships.

The shooter was Dieter Gengelbach from Type VII submarine U-574. She was also on her first (and again last) patrol. Gengelbach did not have time to savor his victory. Walker in HMS Stork determined to settle the score , led several escort corvettes to the scene and within nine minutes HMS Stork had a good sonar contact and attacked , dropping fifteen depth charges. That did the trick. Some of the depth charges caused such a heavy damage in U-574 that Gengelbach was forced to surface his submarine fifteen minutes after first depth charge dropped.

U-574 came up 200 yards in front of HMS Stork. Catching sight of her prey , Walker , seeing red at this point , bent on flank speed to ram German submarine , firing snowflake starshells and main guns of HMS Stork meanwhile. Gengelbach too bent on flank speed, circling the port HMS Stork pulled so close to U-574 , British gunners couldn’t depress their main guns to shoot German U-Boat and as Walker reported they were “reduced to fist shaking and roaring curses” After eleven minutes of chase though HMS Stork caught up and rammed U-574 forward of her conning tower and rolled her over. For good measure Walker dropped ten more depth charged set to explode fifty feet that broke back of U-Boat. While survivors jumping overboard , U-574 sunk along with Gengelbach and 26 of her crew. HMS Stork picked up 16 Germans from water.

Strike Four

At this time U-108 , which had been shadowing the convoy for days but unable to attack , finally launched her last torpedoes to the main body of ships while escort vessels were busy rescuing survivors from HMS Stanley and U-574. Torpedoes of U-108 hit and wrecked 2.900 ton merchant ship Ruckinge but she did not sink though gravely damaged. However her crew hastily took to lifeboats , leaving some confidential papers behind. HMS Stork and freighter Finland rescued the survivors. When Walker learned that captain of Ruckinge left secret papers behind , he ordered corvette HMS Samphire to board burning hulk of Ruckinge and collect them. After this was done , HMS Samphire sunk wrecked Ruckinge with gunfire.

During that day , December 19 , Luftwaffe Condor aircraft from Bordeaux discovered another convoy that was southbound. However BdU and Admiral Donitz instead ordered to focus attacks on “that troublesome northbound convoy” (HG-76) instead. British Marlet fighter aircraft prepared a hot reception for Luftwaffe Condor reconnisance bombers that day and shooting down two Condors and badly damaging a third one. Meanwhile Donitz and BdU dispatched three additional U-Boats from French bases to attack HG-76 to reinforce Seerauber pack which was having very difficult time against HG76 convoy and determined Escort Group 36 commanded by Frederic Johnny Walker. All thre reimaning U-Boats (U-67 , U-107 and U-108) in Seerauber pack tried to attack to convoy HG 76 on 19th but they couldn’t hit a single ship and were constantly harrassed on the surface by Martlet fighter aircraft from esccort carrier HMS Audacity.

Finally three submarines sent as reinforcements by BdU contacted convoy HG76 on 21st December. These were U-71 , U-567 commanded by one of the leading Rittenkreuz holders and top aces of U-Boat fleet , Engelbert Endrass (and executive officer of U-47 in Scapa Flow raid that dunk HMS Royal Oak in October 1939) and U-751 commanded by Gerhard Bigalk. Endrass in U-567 struck that night by torpedoing and sinking 3.300 ton British iron ore carrier Annavore from convoys HG76. She sunk instantly , only four of her crew were rescued. Upon seeing this , Walker ordered sloop HMS Deptford to break off from her position , locate and sink the target.

At the almost same moment ib 11:00 PM , Bigalk in U-751 saw escort carrier HMS Audacity sailing unescorted on the flank of convoy , illuminated by snowflake starshells. Bigalk set up and fired three torpedoes , all hit HMS Audacity. Flooding heavily from three solid hits , 10.000 escort carrier without any hull armor (she was an ex German merchant ship called Hamburg which was captured by Royal Navy in 1939 and converted into an escort carrier) , she quickly sunk in fifteen minutes. After that U-751 lost the convoy ( when Bigalk reported to BdU that he sunk 24.000 ton British fleet carrier HMS Formidabble Donitz gave him Rittenkreuz.)

Meanwhile a wild night action started. Directed by Walker in HMS Stork , ten remaining escorts of HG76 ran hither and yon , dropping depth charges , firing snowflake starshells and resuing survivors of HMS Audacity. Finally spotting a U-Boat on the surface at the stern of the convoy , Royal Navy sloop HMS Deptford turned to ram. When U-Boat dived , HMS Deptford raced up and threw off ten depth charges set to detonate at shallow “by eye” After noise subsided HMS Deptford got a solid sonar contact and attacked with care , firing another fifteen depth charges. Holding the contact HMS Deptford carried out three more depth charge attacks before losing the contact. Crew of HMS Deptford did not know it but they had sunk U-567 commanded by one of the leading U-Boat aces Englebert Endrass (who sunk 25 merchant ships totalling 137.000 tons so far) U-567 sunk with all hands.

Strike Five

The attack on U-567 utterley drained the crew of HMS Deptford. Returning to convoy in pitch darkness and not alert enough , HMS Deptford smashed port side of HMS Stork. Hr bow , Walker logged , rode right up on HMS Stork , crushing her after cabin where five survivors of U-574 crew held. Two Germans Walker wrote dispassionately , were pulped into bloody mess. Fortunetely neither HMS Deptford nor HMS Stork damaged were damaged badly and after both vessels untangled each other , they could continue on their own propulsion in reduced speed.

During 22nd December , Donitz and BdU requested reports from Seerauber pack. Nothing has been heard from Bruno Hansmann in U-127 for days. It was assumed that convoy escorts sunk U-131 and brand new U-434 and U-574. No one in BdU would permit himself to believe that invincible Endrass along with his new command U-567 gone for good yet none of them reported its position and status. When it was certain U-567 was gone for good Donitz withheld the news for weeks.

After assesing the battle on 22nd December Donitz called off the chase of HG76 and ordered remaining U-Boats of Seerauber to return to French bases. Upon tabulating this epic chase (first Allied total tactical and operational victory of Battle of Atlantic) Donitz and BdU were devestated. Just to sink one escort carrier , two small freighters and one old WWI era vintage destroyer costed five U-Boats including one leading ace Endrass plus two Condor aircraft. It was a terrible setback for U-Boat arm. Meanwhile reinforced by air and sea escorts from British isles , convoy HG76 reached its destination Liverpool on 23rd December. Although loss of escort carrier HMS Audacity and destroyer HMS Stanley was a sharp blow , British Admiralty lavished well deserved praise and awards on escort force commander Johnny Walker and his captains. In relentlessly aggressive defense , they sunk for U-Boats in three days and brought thirty of the thirty two merchant ships in the convoy despite all naval and air assets enemy deployed against. This was a timely and smashing victory for Allies in Battle of Atlantic.

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Frederic Johhny Walker statue in Liverpool

I do not think Tom Hanks in Greyhound could be compared with this guy. Walker continued to do this work till end of his life