Canada and the Battle of the Atlantic- Part 11

I return to my favorite area of study in this post, with an emphasis on saying things in my own words and perhaps cutting down on some of the more innocuous detail. Im sure you are all capable of reading my sources yourselves if you so desire. I have branched out into more and more sources to help diversify my information.


“The Far Distant Ships” by Joseph Schull, ISBN-10 0773721606 (An official operational account published in 1950, a product of its time and somewhat “epic” in its retelling.)

“North Atlantic Run” by Marc Milner, ISBN-10 0802025447 (Written in an attempt to give a more strategic view of Canada’s contribution than Joseph Schull’s work, published 1985)

“Reader’s Digest: The Canadians at War: Volumes 1 & 2” ISBN-10 0888501617 (A compilation of articles ranging from personal stories to overviews of Canadian involvement in a particular campaign. Contains excerpts from a number of more obscure Canadian books written after the war, published 1969)

“The Corvette Navy” by James B. Lamb, ISBN 0-7737-3225-X, (A shorter book that contains personal anecdotes of Mr Lamb’s service aboard corvettes during the Battle of the Atlantic, and later his involvement in the D-day landings)

“The Crucible of War: 1939-1945, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume III” Written by Brereton Greenhous, Stephen J. Harris, William C. Johnston, and William G.P. Rawling. ISBN 0-8020-0574-8

Pictures are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Library and Archives Canada,, The Rooms Provincial Photo Archive, and other sources. I only use photos that exist in the Public Domain unless otherwise stated.

You may wish to re-read Part 10 in order to catch up to where we are now, as I will be continuing where I left off.

End of Drumbeat, Atlantic Review, Huff-Duff

Poor communication and different strategic viewpoints between the RCN, RN, and USN were still causing difficulties by the end of the U-boat campaign off American shores. On the 20th of May, 1942, Admiral H.R Stark passed along a personal request to the Admiralty made by Admiral King, who was now Commander-in-chief of the USN. He requested that the RN dispatch fifteen to twenty corvettes to aid the American forces in their plight, especially as the USN began dispersing more of its strength into the southern Atlantic to cover an area that was becoming a potential new hunting ground for the German submarines. This, King explained, would give the RN a position from which to cover the main North American coastal routes whilst his own ships deployed southwards. Sir Dudley Pound wrote out a lengthy reply to this request, which stressed the already stretched nature of current RN and RCN assets. While they had more ships to spare on paper, Pound countered that one-third of this strength was always in refit or training, and that what remained was already spending as much as 24 days at sea every month. Any further transfer of MOEF (Mid Ocean Escort Force) groups to America would reduce the time operational ships had in port by an additional three days, which, Pound believed, would make the current convoy escort work unsustainable unless the Great Circle route across the Atlantic remained usable for the foreseeable future, and provided no convoys got delayed due to bad weather. The latter was impossible, the former was undeterminable. Enemy activity might again make the Great Circle route untenable.

By the end of the letter, Pound reaffirmed that he would not consider allowing British ships to log any more seatime unless “American and Canadian ships were being worked equally as hard.” To ensure this he had his response forwarded to the Naval Staff HQ in Ottawa as well as Washington. His hope was that the three nations could work together to “find the twenty corvettes.” Nelle’s reaction to Pounds message was never recorded, but the RCN did send delegates to a conference convened in Washington in early June to discuss the issues raised in May. Ultimately, the conference agreed to find the ships required by reducing the size of individual MOEF escort groups to a minimum of six ships, preferably two destroyers and four corvettes. Canada agreed with this outcome, and based on available information it seems as though they were confident the reduction in the minimum size could be made up for by increasing their own standard of training and capability, as well as taking steps to ensure the maximum number of ships in their own fleet were operational at any one time. In Spring of 1942 the RCN averaged just 22% of its ships (around 80 vessels by this point) undergoing refit or repair at any one time, and that figure would drop over the summer until around 90% of the RCNs escort force was operational at once. The number of ships assigned to training or workup was never more than 3 or 4 at a time. A far cry from the one-third standard that the British held themselves to.

Under pressure from both the British, Americans, and to a certain extent the Germans, the RCN eagerly accepted new responsibilities. In itself, this was a grand step upwards in prestige for a service that had almost ceased to exist between the wars, and this contributed somewhat to Canadian zeal. It had serious drawbacks however. The aforementioned high rate of operations was not always built on efficiency but sometimes the simple cutting of services. Percentage of ships training was a result of simply not training large portions of the navy at any one time, which could lead to mistakes and inefficiency such as was witnessed in 1941. Refits were delayed or simple not completed in order to keep ships at sea. Repairs were less easily ignored, but there was an emphasis on “haste”. In the words of Marc Milner in North Atlantic Run

“The navy’s naive eagerness to meet every request for escorts stretched the fleet to the point of collapse and, ultimately, brought a sour reward.”

The end had to come for the American happy time, and come it did at the end of Summer 1942. Donitz himself had never expected it to last much longer than it did and as the tonnage sunk slowly came down and the coverage of the American coast increased in the air and on the sea the U-boats slowly withdrew. A staggering number of ships had gone down on the United States own doorstep. To put things in perspective; the Allies lost 397 ships off the East coast, totalling somewhere in the neighborhood of two million tons and costing roughly 5000 lives. For their part, the Germans lost only seven U-boats (although all except two of these were lost with all hands) totalling 302 sailors killed in action. The goal had only ever been sink as many ships as possible, and they had gone far above what they expected to achieve.

Only the first five boats sent across the Atlantic were considered part of Operation Drumbeat. Subsequent waves of boats were given different operational designations, and it is a post-war tendency to lump all of the boats together under a single name. Nevertheless, the first five boats deployed were U-125, U-123, U-66, U-130, and U-109. Besides the latter two, all of them made their own way to the US, taking two weeks to cross the Atlantic and under strict orders to ignore any other vessels unless a particularly tempting target (such as a battleship or aircraft carrier) presented itself. They were all either Type IXC or IXB boats, designed specifically as ocean-going boats with much longer range than their smaller Type VII siblings who were the workhorses of the fleet. The Type IXB is considered the ‘most successful’ of all U-boat designs, with each boat of this type sinking an average of 100,000 tons. The attacks were to begin on Jan 13th, 1942 but U-123 sank the S.S. Cyclops on the 11th, and U-130 sank two ships over the course of the 12th, slightly jumping the gun. The drumbeaters began operations in earnest soon after that, and they headed for home on February 6th, having sunk 25 ships for a total of 156,939 tons. This was the official end of Operation Drumbeat as far as the Germans were concerned, although more U-boats were already en route to pick up where they left off.

(U-123 and U-201 returning from successful operations off the US East Coast. U-123 was one of the original ‘drumbeaters’ and was sent back to the Americas in a subsequent wave to sink more ships. They received quite a welcome on their return. Second Happy time indeed. Photo courtesy of the Bundesarchiv.)

By the time the first wave was returning to their bases in France, the second wave had already hit hard, and subsequent waves were in the works. Some of Germany’s best boats and crews were sent across the Atlantic, including U-552, U-701, U-201, U-124, and U-160, just to name a few. The desire to get the maximum number of boats into the new area of operations meant that a number of Type VIIC boats were sent across. Even with the assistance of “milkcows” (retrofitted submarines designed to refuel and rearm other U-boats), many Type VIIs were forced to sacrifice drinking water space and fill the tanks with diesel instead, just to make it across the ocean. The ‘Milkcows’ were capable of extending the operating time of a Type IX boat by 8 weeks, and a Type VII by 4 weeks on average. This allowed the strikes into the Gulf of Mexico and southern Caribbean, further south than ever before. It was not to last. The Allies transferred escort ships, the USN finally adopted convoy operations in May 1942 (four months too late), and Donitz withdrew the last two U-boats from the region on July 18th. 8 days later he returned his attentions to the Mid-Atlantic.

New opportunities would need to be found and exploited if the end goal (the starving of Britain) was to be realized. In the meantime, the U-boats returned to the main convoy routes across the ocean proper, and the North Atlantic Run was once again under siege.

The fear of a German renewal of their earlier pack tactics (which they had not had needed for of the American coast) formed the basis of Murray’s concern regarding the reductions in group strength. While the escorts moved to the US East coast had been needed there, Murray feared a repeat of convoy SC-42 if the Allied focus did not shift back into the mid-ocean. This sentiment was echoed by Vice-Admiral E.L.S. King, the British ACNS(T), both in King’s letter to Pound and in his contribution to the ‘Battle of the Atlantic Review’ of May 1942 he espoused similar concerns. Notably, he differed in his opinion that Donitzs strategy and the battle as a whole would ultimately be determined by U-boats sunk by the Allies, not by the rate of Allied merchant losses. This was similar to the American opinion on the matter with one vital exception; Vice-Admiral King put his faith in convoy and escort. (I know it is confusing having TWO Admiral King’s, but remember that Ernest King is the American C-in-C of the Navy, and E.L.S King is a British Vice-Admiral within the Admiralty.)

Only by establishing a strong defence around the only target the U-boats were interested in could U-boats be sunk and forced to find new theatres. King, like Murray, strongly suspected, and in hindsight predicted, that as soon as the American coast became too hot, they would return to their mid-ocean hunting grounds, where the escort groups that had been weakened to protect the Coast would now need reinforcing of their own. The routes no longer stretched far to the North as they had in the days before Drumbeat, and convoy interception was much easier than it had been before. Air cover was non-existent in the now fairly well defined air gap, and all of the above was compounded by the growth of the U-boat fleet, and the intelligence black-out, which limited the effectiveness of the first line of defence, evasive routing.

(Signalmen aboard HMCS Kitchener, which is at sea escorting a convoy to Liverpool, October 1942)

It was also painfully aware that the Allies could not be everywhere at the same time, or at least, they could not be “strong” everywhere. Focusing on any one area of operations drew forces away from other areas. The U-boats could simply switch targets to wherever the allies were weaker, and then move on as the Allies tried to catch up. Donitz still had the advantage. Resources had to be as flexible as possible. The Battle of the Atlantic review put great emphasis on this, and highlighted how the use of air power needed to be brought up to a higher standard to maximize its potential. “With proper air escort, the “Wolf Pack” style of attack on a convoy would be rendered impossible.” Those of you who have read my Air Power over the Atlantic series will know that Coastal Command had serious difficulties in the early war, lacking suitable aircraft, armament, and supporting assets like Radar and other sensors. Not until the introduction of the first VLR (very-long range) Maritime Patrol Liberators could the Allies begin to chip away at the gap. Interestingly enough, Captain C.P Clarke, RN, director of the Admiralty’s ASW Division, made some remarks of his own that draw a sharp contrast with Canadian issues. The RN had also undergone a period of serious expansion and growth during which standards of training were reduced to what was called “an unacceptable level.” To compensate for this, the RN had established new minimum requirements for operational efficiency and had lengthed many of the courses that had been shortened during the expansion period. They had every intention of overcoming the ravages of rapid expansion. Their actions contrast sharply with that of the RCN, who were still in the midst of expansion, and were unable to make such a return to “proper” training.

Aside from that, the Review also made note that the key to the convoy battles in 1942 was increasingly taking the shape of radar. Whilst aforementioned Canadian radar systems left MUCH to be desired, the British Type 271 was showing great potential. As Captain Clarke concluded, this was ‘another corollary to the present U-boat surface night tactics.’ The Canadians were not unaware of the Type 271, or of the failure of their own first generation of escort radars. Marc Milner writes in North Atlantic Run

"…Complaints regarding the SW1C poured forth from Murray’s office through the winter of 1941-42. In large part these concerned the frail qualities of the equipment under operational conditions, a situation not enhanced by the RCN’s poor maintenance capabilities. The latter were virtually non-existent in 1942, and eas early as April Murray advised NSHQ that the failure of the SW1C was due primarily to poor operators ‘rather than faulty equipment.’ Proper radar mechanics (RDF 1s) did not become available in sufficient numbers until early 1943; in the meantime the radar rating of each escort (trained solely as an operator) and the wireless rating had to manage as best they could.

The only vital element missing from the review’s assessment of how the U-boat packs were to be beaten was high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF). The plotting of transmitters, and thus ships, was a well developed science by early 1942. Much of the Allies’ operational intelligence of U-boat activities was gleaned from the network of shore-based DF stations which ringed the Atlantic. The provision and use of commercial-wavelength (MF) DF sets in ships was never a problem for the RCN, and these were widely fitted to escorts by early 1942. MF/DF was potentially useful for locating the homing beacons of U-boats showing convoys. But for a number of reasons MF/DF never developed into an effective means of disrupting the assembly of a pack around convoys.

Until the fall of 1942 the escorts themselves did not have sufficient manpower to monitor medium frequency constantly. This duty was therefore left to the MF ‘guard ship’ of the convoy, and with only one possible interception the precise location of the transmitter was never a sure bet. Moreover, proper classification of MF interceptions was always a problem. Much more important from a tactical point of view were the U-boats operational communications, particularly sighting reports of convoys, which were sent by HF. Because of the difficulty of plotting HF transmissions and their brevity when used with coded messages, HF communications were considered fairly secure. But the British pushed development of a shipborne HF/DF sent during the winter of 1940-41, and in July 1941 the first set, FH3, when to sea. Like the first radars, the FH3 was not a runaway success. It operated much like the early sonars in that it was dependant upon the operators ear as he sat with headphones on, monitoring suspected wavelengths. The FH4, in production by early 1942, displayed the intercepted transmission on a cathode-ray tube, which made classification and bearing determination much faster and easier. HF/DF or ‘Huff-Duff’, especially when operated in pairs, provided the escort with very accurate and vitally important intelligence of immediate value. A U-boat transmitting a sighting report was always within striking distance of the escort and hence could be forced down and driven away from its newly acquired target.

In the absence of two sets it was still possible for a trained operator to differentiate between a signal received on the ‘ground wave’ and one intercepted after skipping off the ionosphere. Such knowledge provided relative distances and was therefore of some value to the escort. In short, so long as U-boats were dependant upon HF communications, HF/DF functioned much like a long-range radar. By the summer of 1942 the RN’s escort destroyers were equipped with HF/DF (on average on per group), and many of the rescue ships which now began to accompany ocean convoys were also fitted…"

Marc Milner, North Atlantic Run

(The FH4 HF/DF set aboard museum ship, HMS Belfast.)

A bit smaller than my average posts I know, but I wanted to ease back into this and really try to cut things down a little bit. I hope I can continue to produce these posts moving forward.