- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Captain Frederic John Walker
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 August 2005
The following story by Terence Robertson is out of copyright and appears courtesy of and with thanks to Mike Kemble, and Captain Frederic John Walker.
For many weeks the ships of the Western Approaches Command had known that the invasion of Normandy might take place any day. What would be their role in that vast, cross-Channel armada? Their old adversary, Grand Admiral Doenitz, supplied the answer; he had devised a threefold counter to the invasion fleets which could be launched with deadly effect, if he were given enough time. His defence of the Occupied territories by the U-boat Arm called for:
1. The withdrawal of orthodox U-boats from the Atlantic battlefield for equipping with “Schnorkel” breathing apparatus. This would allow them to move in Channel and coastal waters comparatively immune from air reconnaissance.
2. The massed counter-attacks by midget one and two- man submarines hard to spot from the air, harder to hit even if sighted, and able to operate in those restricted waters which larger boats would be unable to penetrate. He could accept high losses in this weapon as the manpower was negligible and the tiny submarines were easy to mass- produce cheaply.
3. The introduction into the U-boat war of an entirely new boat of revolutionary design with which he hoped to cut the invasion supply lines, paralyse the invasion ports along the English coast and drive Allied shipping from the Atlantic highways.
It is reasonable to say to-day that this new boat might well have achieved all these aims had D-day been delayed for as little as weeks or had the invasion itself miscarried in some way. For these boats could maintain their surface speed while submerged at any depth and at twenty knots carrying twice the normal number of torpedoes, could follow and attack the same convoy for the whole of its crossing from the United States to Britain. The destruction it could cause would be limited only by their fire-power. If detected, they could run away at a greater speed than most of the escort vessels, while in the Channel they could pass through an invasion supply fleet firing left and right and be gone before the slender escort had fully understood what had happened. This was a development which if allowed to pass the final stages of experimental trials and go into production might well have changed not only the course of the war, but of history. Fortunately for the Allies, the delay to D-day was counted in hours only and Doenitz was never given time to put these new boats on mass-production lines.
The Allies fully expected the still considerable might of the U-boat Arm to be flung against the cross-Channel supply lines; the enemy withdrawal from the Atlantic made it possible to release escort groups and striking forces to be deployed in the Channel, the southern Irish Seas and off the Biscayan coasts in waters which the enemy must cross to reach Normandy. These had been German-controlled since 1940 and the risk of losses due to enemy air action had to be accepted. To minimise the risk, the various Groups which had been operating together as teams for many years had to split up and re-form to ensure an even distribution of and-aircraft guns. More by example and personality than by orders; Walker had impressed upon his Group the action to be taken in almost any given emergency. No one in the Group wanted to fight under another leader. There was something deeper and more binding; with familiar ships around they felt secure and undismayed by danger because of the solid record of confident team work which had become the driving force behind their reputation for success. With it had come an unqualified trust between officers, men and ships. This would not be easy to replace. With Kite, Woodpecker and Woodcock already lost to the Group, they were now to lose Magpie and Whimbrel leaving only Starling, Wild Goose and Wren to carry on the tradition and pass it on, if possible, to the Group’s recruits, Loch Killin, Loch Fada and Dominica, representatives of a new class of frigate and slightly smaller than the sloops.
Towards the end of May, they sailed for an energetic battle course in the Irish Sea. Conditions they might expect to meet in the Channel fighting were simulated with the help of Fighter Command, a flotilla of submarines and one of motor torpedo boats. It was a dress rehearsal for the real thing and not a little frightening. It was not funny when a flight of cannon-firing fighters screamed down firing live ammunition into the water just ahead of the ships while they were allowed only to train their guns on the fighters. Under these realistic conditions accidents were inevitable and, if some were fatal, all were necessary. After this livening-up period, the Group spent a few days at anchor in Lough Foyle waiting, as were thousands of other Allied fighting men around the coasts of Britain, for the signal to go. Ships’ companies were trained to a fine pitch; further training would have made them stale like an overworked boat-race crew. In the first days of June a general signal was received from the Admiralty instructing commanding officers to open the sealed orders for “Operation Neptune”, code name for the actual Normandy landing operations. This vast omnibus of orders included instructions for the Second Support Group to proceed to Moelfre Bay, south of Anglesey on the Welsh coast, to wait for the signal which would set off the greatest combined operation in history. The function of the Western Approaches ships was to repel Doenitz’s expected counter-attack. They were to gather at Moelfre Bay from where, on Walker’s orders, the fleet of some forty-odd destroyers, sloops, frigates and corvettes would be thrown along patrol lines stretching from Brest to the Scilly Isles; and from Land’s End to the Channel Islands. It had been a fine summer’s day when the Group sailed from Lough Foyle, but by the time they arrived at Moelfre Bay the wind had risen to gale force and the Western Approaches fleet was at anchor half-hidden by flying spray and sleet. As Walker was senior officer, Starling’s motor-boat was sent round the ships distributing orders and collecting commanding officers for conferences during which loose ends were tied up and patrolling procedures worked out to provide an unbroken screen between the actual supply lines and the U-boat Arm. The gale kept up for another twenty-four hours until just as the keen, tensed-up crews thought the operation might be called off, the historic signal was sent which began the return journey to Europe.
Signals blinked from Starling’s bridge lamps and the Western Approaches men weighed anchor to sail for a new and much smaller battleground. From this day onward an even greater strain was to fall on Walker. Most of the ships were strictly convoy escorts which had operated in the limitless waters of the Atlantic for five long years. Their officers and men were accustomed to wide-open spaces with plenty of deep water and sea-room. Narrow waters strewn with wrecks, shoals and other navigational dangers were strange to them. Similarly, the Coastal Command pilots who were to sweep ahead of the patrol lines to force the enemy to submerge were not the same experienced men who had flown over the Bay in the days of the blockade. They were mostly fresh to the U-boat war and keen as mustard, that was the trouble. Every swirl of water became a U-boat, every broom handle a periscope. As soon as the ships reached their patrol lines, reports flowed in of squadrons of U-boats flocking to the invasion area. If many of these were false, there were plenty which proved accurate. Doenitz had counter-attacked. His new type of submerged speedboat submarine had not completed its trials, but with midget submarines from the northern French ports co-operating, he sent out his waiting fleets from Biscay to pierce the Channel defences. On D-day, seventy-six U-boats sailed from their bases for the invasion area, mostly commanded by men who had operated in the Atlantic and had a natural preference for staying on the surface. “Schnorkels” were ignored in their haste to deliver a crippling blow during the critical build-up period at the beach-heads. Instead, they met the full blast of Coastal Command’s advance patrols. In the first twenty-four hours while the surface units were forming up, thirty-six U-boats were sighted streaming towards the Channel, twenty three being attacked and six sunk. U-boat commanders learned all about their “breathing equipment” in double-quick time and the advance continued, but now underwater, as they crept towards the spread-out Groups waiting to fire a solid wall of depth charges across the Channel entrances. But if the enemy had in reality dived, Coastal Command insisted he was still on the surface, and the number of sightings increased until the patrols in the Channel bottleneck became one headlong chase after another. The ships packed into the area so complicated matters that two lines of ships going hell-for-leather after different aircraft sightings were frequently forced to cut through each other at acute angles. On one occasion Walker’s Group had gained a contact at a point where two other Groups were crossing through each other. The subsequent mêlée as one force went into a prearranged circling movement to prevent the enemy escaping; and as two more ships ran in to attack while another force tried to clear the pitch, the whole affair being carried out in darkness without lights, required something special in the way of good seamanship and alertness to avoid collision while at the same time destroying the enemy. Under these conditions it was almost impossible for Walker to leave his bridge for any length of time. These were snags to be ironed out ashore and, as the senior officer of the patrolling forces, it was his job to recommend the answers when he returned to harbour for periodic conferences.
The Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, had asked for the Channel to be kept clear of U-boats for at least two weeks while the armies secured a firm foothold on the Continent. Walker was determined he should not only get the two weeks, but that the U-boat Arm should be smashed for all time. He lived on his bridge at sea and, while others rested in harbour, he attended conferences. Then it was back to sea again for the same round of scares, alarms and false emergencies; the organising of fruitless searches, the direction of several striking forces at the same time and the mental noting of all problems which could be solved if only someone ashore used a little sense. During the first week, the U-boats failed to menace the landings, although a moment’s relaxation might have been enough to allow a handful to get through and create chaos in the congested landing areas. The stakes were high; in these restricted waters the Western Approaches fleet faced the full strength of the U-boat Arm in direct and open conflict, the climax of a battle which for so long had stretched more than half way round the world. Walker took the Second Support Group into the front line between the Scilly Isles and Brest, prowling along the French coasts. On one such cruise, Filleul, on the morning watch, sighted another force of warships hunting dead ahead. It was still dark and obviously the Group would have to cut through. He called down the voice pipe to the captain’s cabin. “Ships dead ahead, Sir. We shall be going through them on this course.” “Right, Number One,” came the sleepy reply and Filleul waited for his captain to guide the Group through the danger area. He waited, but Walker failed to arrive. He waited until the crisis moment when some action had to be taken to avoid collision. Then the young First Lieutenant made the necessary signals and took avoiding action, for the moment carrying the burden of responsibility for the safety of every ship in the Group. Fortunately there were no mistakes, no collisions; and the following morning when Walker stumbled wearily to the bridge and asked cheerfully if everything were all right, John reported the incident with gentle reproach for having been left unexpectedly in command of the Group at such a moment Walker remembered nothing about it; he could not recall being disturbed by his First Lieutenant’s report, nor his own reply. It vaguely crossed Filleul’s mind that his Captain needed a good long rest. Walker was his energetic self the next night when he led the Group in closer to the enemy coast than ever before, so close in fact that the German garrison at Ushant lighthouse signalled: “Good evening. What ship ?“ “Hell Hitler, you dirty .—,“ was Walker’s reply. On Starling’s bridge he muttered: “That ought to make the Boche open fire on us.” But the enemy was probably too astonished to take such elementary action in retaliation for the insult and the night passed peaceably enough. If Coastal Command had slowed down the U-boat advance during the first week, the surface units delivered their blow in the second. As the enemy moved slowly up the Channel, eight of his number were destroyed and the rest hugged the jagged coastline, using “Schnorkels” to breathe and not daring to move until the surface was momentarily clear of Allied units. This was difficult, for the Navy’s frantic hurryings hither and thither, as Commander Wemyss has since described it, made it seem to the miserable U-boats as though the sea were as full of destroyers as the air was of bombers. General Eisenhower was given his two free weeks, not a single enemy penetrating through the invasion area. By the third week it was doubtful if Doenitz possessed the fifty-odd U-boats with which he had opened the war five years before, but he persisted in sending them all to sea. On the basis that, if they tried hard enough for long enough some would have to get through, he succeeded in making minor dents in our screen by D-day plus eighteen. About this time, the Second Support Group, now joined by another frigate, Lochy, was carrying out a last sweep close to Ushant. It was a clear, sunny morning with a slight Channel mist hovering close over the shoreline. Suddenly a lamp blinked urgently from Wren: “Radar reports indicate twenty-one unidentified aircraft approaching. Range twenty-six miles.” The aircraft were coming from the direction of France and it was logical to expect them to be Germans. Perhaps, thought Starling’s officers, they were getting fed up with seeing the Group so often on their doorstep at breakfast time. Then the aircraft came in sight, flying low over the coast straight towards the Group, not twenty-one as Wren had reported, but a vast black cloud of planes thundering through the air at high speed.
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