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Captain Walker RN Part One

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Captain Frederick Walker
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Royal Navy
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12 August 2005

This story appears courtesy of and with thanks to Mike Kemble and Captain Frederick Walker

Captain Frederick "Johnny" Walker, CB, and 4 times DSO, was from September 1941 to September 1942, Commanding Officer of HMS STORK. The Second World War was fully in its stride when he took command. When Captain Walker addressed the ship's company, he said that he had not been able to sail during the war, working in Whitehall, but he then made a prophetic statement. He stated, "I have some ideas of my own" in reference to counter measures against U-Boats. A simple enough phrase, perhaps, but those words were soon to be put into practice when, as Senior Officer of the 36th Escort Group, the ships under his command sank 5 U-Boats in 10 days whilst escorting Convoy HG76 from England to Gibraltar, on the return trip he sank 4 more!
Frederick John Walker was born on 3rd June 1896 and entered the Royal Navy on 15th June 1909. He passed out top of his class at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, received the King's Medal and did well in his examinations in the training cruiser. He went to sea in June 1914 as a midshipman in the battleship HMS Ajax and stayed with the ship until he was promoted to sub-lieutenant on 1st January 1916 and moved to HMS Mermaid based at Dover. In 1917 he moved to HMS Sarpedon, which was part of the Grand Fleet. At the age of 21, he became involved in the battle against the U-boats that was to dominate his remaining time in the Royal Navy. In 1919, Johnnie Walker married Eileen Stobart and together they had three sons and a daughter. At the end of the First World War, Walker was sent to HMS Valiant as a watch-keeping officer. In 1921 he began to make a determined effort to learn everything he could about a new subject in naval warfare, anti-submarine operations. He was one of the first volunteers to go to the specialist courses at the newly formed anti-submarine school, HMS Osprey at Portland. He completed the course and was duly sent off to sea for six years, 1925-1931, in the largest ships, as far away from home as possible. Anti-submarine warfare was not a fashionable or glamorous branch and the least likely route for promotion to high rank at that time and was considered by many as a backwater. He was appointed Fleet Anti-Submarine Officer in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets. First he went to HMS Revenge, then to Nelson and finally Queen Elizabeth and during these appointments became increasingly disillusioned with peacetime service in the big ships, but finally in 1933 he was promoted, at the last moment, to Commander and given command of HMS Shikari, an S-class destroyer fitted with Asdic. This appointment lasted for only six months and in 1936 he was appointed to command the sloop HMS Falmouth, used as the Commander-in-Chief's yacht on the China Station. It was a bad appointment for an officer interested in anti-submarine warfare. Nevertheless he managed to make the best of it and spent three years in this ship, moving about to suit the convenience of the C-in-C. During this time, Eileen was taken seriously ill and had to submit to two major operations when in China, and he was financially broke. Shortly after this he completed his time in the Far East and returned home, preceded by unenthusiastic reports. Walker now returned to the Valiant as a caretaker to keep her functional and by the time he left in early 1937 he had accumulated more bad reports. In 1937 he became Experimental Commander in the Anti-Submarine School in Portland, and was responsible for research and development of anti-submarine materials and methods, an appointment he held until the outbreak of the Second World War. It was one of the happiest periods of his life and the disappointment of missing the opportunity for promotion to Captain was offset by doing a job he liked and would prove to be invaluable within a few years. For the first time, he was also able to take a family house and return to his wife and children in the evening. The German Navy circumvented the Versailles Treaty by building U-boats and training their crews in Holland, Spain and Turkey. By 1939 the Royal Navy had an escort fleet of 201, down from the 477 it had in 1918 and there were barely enough destroyers to screen the battle fleets and only 101 escorts to defended the vast fleet of merchant ships needed to supply Britain. The U-boat war opened violently with the sinking of the liner Athenia, without warning, and the carrier, HMS Courageous. Scapa Flow was penetrated and the battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk at her mooring by U-47. In the first three months the U-boats claimed 114 Allied merchant ships of 421,156 tons for the loss of nine U-boats. Walker was appointed Staff Officer Operations to Vice-Admiral B. H. Ramsay, based at Dover and was responsible for the safe passage of the British Expeditionary Force and troops across the channel. The initial threat came from U-boats, but the Channel was blocked and they were barred from using the Straits of Dover as a route to the Atlantic, and only one U-boat got through. The Norwegian campaign cost the Royal Navy 18 escorts as well as the aircraft carrier, Glorious. When the Germans rolled into the low countries, the Allied armies fell back before them to Dunkirk. The evacuation from Dunkirk cost the Royal Navy, a sloop and nine destroyers sunk and nineteen more damaged. As the threat of invasion manifested itself in German occupied harbours, the defence of the convoys was sacrificed to defend England but as the threat disappeared the convoys' protection was returned although the level of sinkings had risen to horrifying levels. In June alone, 585,000 tons of shipping, consisting of 140 ships had been sunk. Walker pleaded to get to sea and finally, after the intervention of Admiral Ramsay, Walker finally came to the attention of the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Percy Noble, and was appointed to command the sloop HMS Stork in September 1941.
Walker's first charge was a convoy, HG.76, of 31 merchantmen and a fleet auxiliary that sailed on 14th December 1941. The first U-boat to come out was U-127, which was spotted by a Sunderland from Gibraltar when it left the Spanish coast late on the 14th. It was picked up by the Asdic of HMAS Nestor and dispatched at 1100 that morning. Just after midnight on 15th December, the convoy made its first contact with the waiting wolf pack. A patrolling Swordfish picked up a U-boat, by radar, on the surface just ahead of the convoy and attacked with three depth charges, dropped flares and tried to warn Stork.. The ship's lookouts spotted the flares and heard the explosion, so she was already racing for the spot at full speed with Rhododendron in pursuit.
The two ships hunted for the submarine but it stayed submerged. The Commodore drove on the merchantmen mercilessly, unmolested. Seven U-boats were concentrating on the course line of the convoy and three more were on their way from the Bay of Biscay. HG.76 now moved beyond the cover of Gibraltar's aircraft and Audacity had six aircraft of which four were operational. Stanley sighted a Focke-Wulf during 15th December, which confirmed that the Germans were preparing to attack. The escorts Exmoor and Blankney would have to leave the convoy on the 18th due to fuel limitations. Walker asked Audacity to fly a search around the convoy at dawn on the 17th to break the wolf pack's usual routine of staying just out of sight to track the convoy and spring ahead at night on the surface. At 0918 one of the Martlets posted a U-boat 22 miles from the convoy and the escorts set off in pursuit of U-131, which altered course to evade the charging escorts, but ran into HMS Pentstemon because his hydrophones were defective and was bombarded by depth charges which caused damage, forcing the U-boat to leave the area to avoid the escorts. The U-boat surfaced later on and repositioned for another attack. Just as Walker was about to lead his ships back to the convoy and prepare for a bad night, the surfaced U-131 was spotted by Stanley The U-boat was seven miles away, at the ships' guns extreme range and a very small target so the patrolling Martlet was ordered in. The Martlet attacked the surfaced submarine with machine guns, was hit and crashed into the sea. It was twenty minutes later that a number of hits from the four ships penetrated the hull eight times. U-131 sunk and 55 men survived and were picked up by Blankney and Exmoor.
Sub-Lieutenant Fletcher's body, the Martlet pilot, was picked up and he was buried at sea the next morning. The escorts took up their night stations. At 1401 that afternoon a signal had been received confirming that a U-boat in front was still shadowing the convoy. The convoy could expect a big battle as the U-boat was guiding in the wolf pack lying ahead. Overnight five U-boats had gathered in position for a full-scale attack with another three on their way to intercept. This was to be the first of the new style set battles. On one hand, the U-boats and Focke-Wulfs, on the other the slow merchantmen screened by the close escorts, the Support Group and the Martlets from the escort carrier. Walker was now at sea with his long-held belief that the offensive use of an air/sea striking force would give the best chance of doing the maximum damage to the U-boats while still providing the maximum protection to the convoys. The Admiralty's appreciation remained heavily disguised for fear of revealing the secret of Bletchley Park, which had by now broken the U-boat cipher, and confirmed Walker's suspicions about the U-boats nearby. The convoy was steaming in calm weather with excellent visibility. These usual conditions led to an error in judgement by U-434, which had shadowed the convoy during the night. At dawn he was on the surface ten miles out, and could observe the tops of the masts of the convoy without danger of being spotted himself. He decided to close the convoy on the surface then submerge, to conserve his batteries and get into a commanding attacking position. At this moment, Stanley was prowling the deep field on the port side of the convoy. Her Asdic was defective and she only had her lookouts to rely upon. One of the lookouts spied the submarine's periscope and Stanley turned to attack. Walker sent Blankney and Deptford to join her, and Exmoor was already on her way, but U-434 dived ahead of Stanley, who circled where she had dived and dropped single depth charges to keep the U-boat down and mark the position. Blankney established a firm Asdic contact and the two escorts damaged U-434 beyond hope. It was forced to surface and the crew abandoned the ship. The two escorts and Exmoor picked up the survivors. As the rescue was taking place, Focke-Wulfs appeared, circling out of range, but clearly visible.
Audacity flew off two Martlets in response and the Focke-Wulfs ran for it. Exmoor and Blankney were now at the end of their fuel reserves and had to return to Gibraltar, loaded up with ninety-three German prisoners. Pentstemon sighted the first U-boat of the wolf pack, U-574 when he came to the surface to check his position against the convoys. Walker ordered Convolvulus to join her and Stanley was already on her way. As they came up to the diving position, Convolvulus picked up the sound of torpedoes with her hydrophones and turned to port. Corvettes are fine sea-going ships but not very manoeuvrable and the two torpedoes skimmed the stern by twenty feet. U-574 dived and waited for two hours until the escorts gave up and returned to the convoy at full speed. U-574 surfaced and followed on the surface. Stanley was torpedoed and sunk, and then the submarine turned on the Stork and Walker charged the submarine. It dived and a chase ensued. The submarine surfaced to avoid Asdic inside Stork's turning circle and the two vessels circled in concert, Stork's 4-inch guns blazing until they could no longer be sufficiently depressed. After 11 minutes of these manoeuvres, Stork hit the U-boat a glancing blow on the starboard quarter, rolled it over and dropped a shallow pattern as the U-boat sank. The escorts then picked up the survivors and recovered 28 British and 18 Germans. During this, SS Ruckinge had been torpedoed on the port bow of the convoy. Focke-Wulf Condors continued to shadow the convoy, losing four of their number to Audacity's Martlets during the 20th. Samphire sunk the SS Ruckinge on her way back, the ship being too badly damaged to salvage. Stork had by now lost her Asdic dome, and had her speed reduced to ten knots because of damage in ramming U-131. On 21st December, the action started at 0900 with a Martlet reporting sighting two U-boats astern of the convoy. Walker decided to send the sloop Deptford and the corvettes Pentstemon, Vetch and Samphire. It was a bold decision; if they hunted for too long they would be unable to rejoin the convoy before nightfall. He asked for long-range air cover from the UK but none was available and the convoy was just inside their range.

'This story was submitted to the People’s War site by BBC Radio Merseyside’s People’s War team on behalf of the author and has been added to the site with his / her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.'

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