- 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.
While still some days out of Liverpool, Walker had sent a signal to Sir Max Horton giving a summary of the damage sustained by the Group and requesting that each ship be placed in dry dock for urgent repairs. Six invaluable dry docks were made immediately available and the Second Support Group was placed on top priority to be repaired, reinforced in design and, in some cases, fitted with the latest equipment. In his Report of Proceedings for the whole trip, Walker said: “In previous reports I have called this class of sloop fine little ships—and so they are in fine weather and in general conception. Bad weather, however, shows up how jerry-built they really are. They leak like sieves and on several occasions I hankered after my sturdy peacetime-built Stork.” Referring to operations as a striking force in mid-Atlantic and the sinking of the two U-boats, he wrote: “I do not know if any of the other Groups have yet used the creeping attack. This is the fourth success in this Group and so far no U-boat has survived to tell the tale, mainly I think because the victim does not know he is being attacked until the charges start exploding all around him. “As regards the value of aircraft-carriers, I think it likely that they will not prove much use in operations with actual convoys unless they can fly off aircraft at night when U-boats are most likely to attack. Their offensive value by day to prevent U-boat concentrations is legendary, but to-day the only possible time carrier aircraft can hope to sight a U-boat before she dives is half an hour before dawn and dusk. The chance of seeing a U-boat at periscope depth in the North Atlantic is negligible. “A carrier with a Support Group in winter is nothing but an embarrassment to the Group Senior Officer who is faced with the stipulation that not less than three of his ships must be left to screen her during an attack.” When forwarding this Report to the Admiralty, Admiral Sir Max Horton sent a covering letter saying: “The destruction of two U-boats on November 6th after no more than a total of seven attacks is a striking example of the ability to achieve kills which is an outstanding attribute of Captain Walker and the Second Support Group. The creeping attack, originated and developed so successfully by Captain Walker, affords little warning to the U-boat, one of the main features of its success. Opportunities to carry out this form of attack are more likely to occur with Support Groups and the attention of commanding officers is once again being drawn to its value.” In Liverpool, the Press had suddenly come alive to the fact that not only was a battle being fought in the Atlantic but that when connected with Captain Walker it was no longer a familiar story of reverses. Starling was besieged by reporters and photographers from whom Walker bolted as though the memory of his childhood embarrassment at the Albert Hall was still fresh in his mind. He buried himself at home leaving his officers to cope with the newspapermen. One morning, Sir Max Horton boarded Starling with the Engineer Rear-Admiral on his staff to inspect the damage. Walker, fond of an occasional show of pomp when it could not interfere with the fighting efficiency of his ship or the Group, welcomed them with a bugler sounding the appropriate calls. Then he escorted the Admirals aft to see a bulkhead which had split open from continual popping backwards and forwards. Next they were taken below and shown the wide crack across the quarter deck above them.
At that moment two stokers on deck turned on fire hoses and played jets of sea water on the crack to demonstrate conditions at sea. The water poured through the crack in torrents, nearly drenching the visitors. They left the ship convinced that this class of sloop needed a good deal of strengthening. For the whole Group, and Starling in particular, the weeks in dock passed all too swiftly. During the day, the crews over hauled equipment, learned how to use new instruments, attended courses ashore and in a variety of ways managed to keep themselves busy. In the evenings, there was the occasional dinner for Starling’s officers at “The White House” where Eilleen presided, and more often parties on board Starling or some other ship at which Walker stood on his head, drinking a pint of beer. At one party, he challenged Filleul to do it and the eager First Lieutenant, on the excellent assumption that this was one of his captain’s achievements which could be equalled, nonchalantly stood on his head and called for the glass of beer. It was intercepted by Captain Walker who solemnly took a firm grip of Number One’s trouser leg and poured the beer down it amid a gale of laughter. Meanwhile, all leave had been stopped in readiness for D-Day and, although Walker argued with the authorities ashore that his men had earned the right to some time with their families, he was allowed to grant local leave only. This meant that they had to live in the same surroundings which for weeks had spelled constant strain and vigilance. . . an atmosphere which was accentuated rather than relieved by the sudden stop of machinery which normally hums in a ship at sea. At nights a deathly hush fell over Starling, and sleep was disturbed and fitful because of it. During their first days ashore the crew were still wound up from the weeks at sea, still tensed, waiting and humming inside like dynamos. It was hard in those first few days to adjust the inter-locking pattern of life ashore after the small self-contained life of a community at sea. This worried Walker, who disliked punishing men and felt it possible that being confined to Liverpool without the relaxation of home might lead to drunkenness and leave-breaking. For himself there was little chance to rest. His body could unwind, but his mind was always on his ships and their crews. He talked to Eilleen for hours about his “chicks”, and together they ironed out many domestic problems which were reported to him. As a rule he never intervened in the private lives of his officers or men unless specifically asked to give advice. Even then he was wary of sailing into dangerous, uncharted waters churned up by long separations and hard ships. In the mornings, he visited Derby House to keep abreast of the daily happenings at sea, with a watchful eye on the enemy’s tactics and looking for new moves which would call for careful counter-measures when he returned to the battle. The reports from the various fronts of the Atlantic were changing rapidly; a year before they had made sombre reading; now each Intelligence survey provided a tonic and a spur to greater effort.
It is always tempting to look for decisive dates in history, and the greater the field of operations under review the more satisfying the find. In the First World War, March 2 1918, stands out as the day on which the Germans began the great offensive which led them by way of victories to utter defeat; a quarter of a century later another decisive date arrived. Up to March 20th, 1943, there had been a real danger that the enemy would achieve his aim of severing the routes which united Great Britain with the North American continent; after that date his strength seemed to ebb and, though the potential power of the U-boat Arm was still enormous, it appeared then that it could be held in check. The significance of the period up to March 20th, 1943, was that it came close to proving likely that we would not be able to continue convoys as a suitable defence against the enemy’s “pack” tactics. The Admiralty graph of sinkings was again nudging dangerously against the thin red line. After this date, however, the Support Groups, particularly the Second, made an appearance on the battlegrounds and altered the whole strategy of the bitter struggle. In September, Doenitz made a great effort to retrieve the situation, but his crews were not the men of earlier years. The great autumn offensive failed and the extent of its failure is illustrated by the story of a naval officer ashore in London who was asked by a civilian friend: “How is the war at sea going?” Being discreet, the officer gave a non-committal reply. “There’s no need to be quite so discreet,” said his friend. “I can tell you how it is going. My business is to assemble machines sent over from the United States. At the beginning of the year I was practically at a stop; since the summer, however, I have been working like a man caught in a flood.” Doenitz was not having much luck with his secret weapons. The “gnat” was still deadly and a weapon to be reckoned with, but the “foxer” counter-device was proving fairly effective and U-boat commanders were reluctant to use “gnats” for their primary purpose of clearing the way through an escort screen to a convoy, preferring to hoard them against the day they would be needed to cripple or sink an attacking escort. The “Chase-me-Charles” were also proving of dubious value. They had been insufficiently tested and were still largely in the experimental stage. They had not yet claimed a totally destroyed victim, though a Canadian escort, HMCS Athabaskan, was seriously damaged by one and had to be towed into dock at Devonport. Civilian experts salvaged bits and pieces of the bomb. Their evidence, when coupled with pictures of the bomb taken by sailors who kept their cameras clicking even with the glider-bombs coming straight at them, was sufficient to reconstruct the weapon and discover the sort of fuel which powered the rocket. Bomber Command also carried out a series of nightly attacks on the German plants producing the fuel and by January, 1944, “Chase-me-Charlies” were making only sporadic, mostly ineffective appearances in the Atlantic battle. But Doenitz had another trick up his sleeve. It was announced to Western Approaches Command in a general signal from the Admiralty which said: “U-boats employ a decoy to give a response to radar similar to that given by a U-boat. The device consists of a balloon about two feet six inches in diameter from which is suspended a reflector connected by about fifty feet of thin wire to a wooden float. The reflector consists of a number, about three, of metal-foil strips like pennants one above the other. “U-boats are believed to carry about fifty of these decoys. Once released, the U-boat steams away and the decoy moves down wind at about half the wind speed and remains effective for about four to six hours.” Doenitz had no monopoly of cunning. Two helpful weapons emerged from the Admiralty backroom scientists, a one-ton torpedo-like depth charge which Walker had called for when he first discovered that U-boats could submerge to more than 800 feet, and a special armour piercing shell for sinking surfaced U-boats which was called the “Shark”. The latter, fired from a four-inch gun, hit the water about 100 feet short of a U-boat and continued to travel in a straight line just below the surface to strike the target below the waterline like a tiny torpedo. It would penetrate through the hull and explode inside the U-boat.
The fight for supremacy at sea was beginning to pass from the opposing navies afloat to the scientists ashore. Soon after the Group was formed in 1943, Starling had been “adopted” by Bootle which boasted that the best of Liverpool docks lay in its boundaries. Now, while the Group was re fitting, a ceremony was arranged through Captain (D), Captain Brewer, for the town to be handed the “General Chase” signals which Walker had used in the Bay of Biscay, and also the Battle Ensigns flown by Starling and Kite in that and subsequent actions.
During his speech the Mayor, Councillor G. A. Rogers, praised Walker as the Navy’s number one U-boat “killer”. In reply, Captain Brewer said: “That is quite true. Captain Walker, I think, has not only sex-appeal, but a decided U-boat appeal. At the end of the War, we must give all credit to this officer who in November and December, 1941, won the biggest anti-submarine victory of the war while in command of my old ship, Stork.” After handing over the flags in the Town Hall, with Eilleen and most of Starling’s officers present, Walker gave his customary modest reply: “I do not think I am an ‘ace’ U-boat killer. This kind of warfare is not the sort that has one man as its ace protagonist. Fighting U-boats is very much like playing football or any other sort of game. You have a team of 1,000 men any one of whom can wreck the whole show if he doesn’t do his job properly. Every man has his own job to do, I am merely at the head of the affair. So please don’t call me U-boat killer number one. That formidable character is 1000 British tars.” Nicholas came home for a few days before joining, of all ships, the sloop Woodcock. For a moment it looked as though he would sail under his father’s leadership, but Woodcock was not to return to the Group. Instead she sailed to the Clyde to join the Seventh Escort. Soon Captain Walker’s Group left their various dockyards and reformed for a short working-up period before setting sail on what was to prove the greatest sea voyage of the Battle of the Atlantic.
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