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Captain Frederic John Walker: Creeping Attack

by ateamwar

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People in story: 
Captain Frederic John Walker
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Royal Navy
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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.

Many of the sailors who manned the Second Support Group had never seen action until the night of June 1st/2nd; others had been in action against aircraft only. All had gone into the battle against U-202 certain that the unseen enemy would strike swiftly and disastrously. Now these fears had been banished forever. An exhilarating keenness to get to grips with the enemy again swept the Group. Walker’s lecture on “Leadership” earlier that year had included the phrase: “Don’t forget that, in a real emergency, the sailor will always look up to the bridge to see how the skipper is taking it.” Throughout June 1st, the Group had been able to see just that. He had stayed on Starling’s bridge for the entire hunt, controlling and directing each attack by signal and loud-hailer. They had seen his grin at every failure; at times they had cursed his unconcern in keeping speeds so low that they were mostly sitting ducks for a torpedo, and they had yearned for a chance to quit the area fast before darkness increased the danger. Now they identified themselves with Walker. The “he” had become “we”, and there was something of Walker in every sailor of the Group who strutted confidently ashore in Liverpool taking the greatest pains to ensure that everyone knew he was serving in the Second Support Group. Nicholas was spending a few days’ leave at home and Gillian was expecting to be called up into the Wrens any day. In the mornings, Walker would accompany his wife on various shopping expeditions round Liverpool and spend the rest of the day with Captain (D) and members of the Commander- in-Chief’s staff in the Operations Room at Derby House. In March, it had become apparent that Doenitz was planning a large-scale spring offensive in the Atlantic. This had been greeted sombrely in the House of Commons when Mr. Churchill, referring to demands for a Second Front, had stood before the Dispatch Box to warn: “The defeat of the U-boat must be the prelude to all effective aggressive operations by the Allies.”
By June, Naval Intelligence experts were able to strike a cheerful if cautious note in their secret survey for the first time since the war began. “Historians of this war,” said the report, “are likely to single out the months of April and May, 1943, as the critical period during which the strength began to ebb away from the U-boat offensive. For the first time, U-boats failed to press home attacks when favourably placed to do so. Morale and efficiency are delicate and may wither rapidly if no longer nourished by rich success. “May was black for the U-boats. Sinkings probably averaged nearly one a day.” In a hurriedly added appendix after a quick analysis of the sinking of U-202, the survey continued: “This hunt, during which continuous contact was held with the U-boat for more than fourteen hours is a complete vindication of the existing asdic equipment when operated by a well-trained team. The U-boat employed every known tactic while endeavouring to break Starling’s contact and fired SBTs regularly, none of which succeeded in misleading the team.” (Admiralty Intelligence Surveys). Following this analysis, the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Max Horton, congratulated Walker on the “most outstanding performance of the war”. (Western Approaches War Diary). The Group learned several weeks later that the propaganda departments at Whitehall had not missed the significance of the whittling down of the U-boat offensive. They drew up a leaflet which was dropped in thousands over Germany by Bomber Command, giving an unmistakable message. “Two thousand U-boat men are now prisoners of war in Britain. But for every prisoner of war, five more U-boat men have died. Life insurance companies in neutral countries estimate the average life of a German U-boat sailor at fifty days. These U-boats have become swimming coffins and now Hitler wants you to join them. If you do, you can look forward to the fastest, and often the most horrible, death in the German armed forces.” It was hoped, perhaps vainly, that this would lead to a marked reluctance on the part of German youth to serve in the U-boat Arm. The German Navy attempted to counter by saying how frightened Britain had become by the U-boat attacks in the Atlantic.
“Germany’s enemies,” they announced triumphantly, “are calling for a Doenitz to combat the U-boat menace. The name Doenitz is a fanfare for the German Navy, but spells terror and horror for the enemy.” But the only “terror and horror” apparent in Liverpool was the desire of Walker and his Group to sail again as soon as possible. Derby House and the Admiralty, where new hope was already surging through all levels up to Their Lordships, and from this august body of leaders to the War Cabinet itself, were only too ready to comply with Walker’s requests. They divided the Bay of Biscay into two operational areas, code- named “Musketry” and “Seaslug”, and published an international warning to neutrals to keep their ships clear. It was thought that the Germans might counter by sailing supply ships across the Bay under neutral flags. Meanwhile, Coastal Command had established daily Sunderland and Catalina flying boat patrols over the Bay to keep outward bound U-boats submerged, thereby taking longer and using more valuable fuel to reach the Atlantic convoy routes. These tactics made it imperative to send surface units into the area to hunt and kill the enemy before he could reach the Atlantic deepfield. This would mean close air-sea co-operation, but at least the pilots would know that ships were around to pick up aircrew survivors. On June 17th Starling led the Group to sea again, bound for “Musketry”, the Biscayan approaches to the principal U-boat bases of Lorient and Bordeaux on the first combined air-sea attempt to bring the battle of the Atlantic to a quick and decisive end by cutting the enemy’s operation routes and nailing him to his own doorstep. The Group, less Cygnet which had been transferred to another force, entered “Musketry” on June 23rd and commenced sweeping southward in line abreast two miles apart at fifteen knots, with Starling in the centre. This first day, sunlit and calm, was spent in smoothing out the teething troubles of liaison with Coastal Command. Enthusiastic flying boat pilots came “on the air” with reports of U-boats ahead, astern and either side of the Group until Walker was mentally tossing a coin to decide which to chase. These mad dashes around the Bay at full speed revealed old barrels, bits of rotting wreckage and tidal swirls, but no U-boats. It became apparent that aircraft flying high and at the mercy of the wind and weather mistook almost every speck for a U-boat and gave positions which provided the Group navigators with perpetual headaches. One pilot reported himself circling over a U-boat in a position which not only took the Group off their charts but would have landed them miles to the north of Paris. Obviously, there was room for improvement, though for the moment keenness was enough.
In Starling, the crew became loudly anti-Coastal Command with choice selections of descriptive threats of what they would do to those “ruddy amateurs up there”. By nightfall, the number of false alarms had reduced them to a state of resignation and, unable to stand the clanging alarm bells every few minutes, the crew resigned themselves to the inevitable and slept at their action stations. At 8 am on the 24th Walker was in his cabin below the bridge and Filleul was about to take a bath. Six minutes later, the asdic operator reported a definite submarine echo about 1000 yards ahead accompanied by loud inexplicable whistling noises. The Officer of the Watch called Walker who, after a quick look round, decided to attack without further investigation. He warned the Group by signal to keep clear, and increased speed. Alarm bells brought the crew to readiness, and depth charges were set to explode at 150 and 300 feet. In the officers’ bathroom, Filleul whose action station was in charge of depth charges, tied a towel round his waist and rushed to the quarter deck. Twelve minutes later, Starling raced over the attacking position and ten depth charges exploded in a series of crashing roars in her wake. Subsequent events startled the Group so much that Walker wrote in his Battle Report: “The wretched U-boat surfaced astern with dramatic suddenness as the last roar of the detonating charges died away. For the enemy to surface in the exact spot where the eyes of the whole Group were concentrated, at the first conceivable moment after the pattern was fired, produced such a copybook result that one felt momentarily a sense of disbelief that this was happening.” Their astonishment did not prevent the Group opening up on the enemy with a broadside and loud, rending crashes punctuated the roar of guns as shell after shell exploded redly against the U-boat’s hull. She was still capable of full surface speed, however, and tried to make a run for it. Walker called out to the Yeoman: “Tell the Group to cease firing. I’m going to ram.” He ordered full speed and warned the engine room staff to stand by for the impact. At this moment a stray shot from one of the ships exploded against Starling’s bows, blowing off the bull-ring, a large circular steel ring through which ropes and wires are fed when tying up in harbour. Walker blinked in some amazement but was concentrating on the enemy. As they drew near, smoke could be seen pouring from the U-boat’s conning tower and she was already seeming to settle in the water. She was still battened down and no attempt was being made to abandon her. For some reason, her captain thought he could still escape. Starling struck the enemy just abreast the conning tower. Her bows had risen on a swell and she came down on the U-boat rather than hitting it square. The sloop shuddered under the impact and her crew yelled their cheers as she started to crawl over her victim which could be seen rolling slowly under the keel like some gigantic grey slug.
After the collision, Filleul, the towel flapping about his bare legs, watched the U-boat, upside down with her keel scraping Starling’s side, approach the propellers. He ordered a pattern of charges to be set at their shallowest depths and gave the order: “Fire.” They rumbled over the stern and shot from throwers as Starling drew clear of the writhing enemy and began to gather speed again. But she was still not quite clear when the charges exploded to give the U-boat her death blow and shatter every light in Starling. To make quite sure, Woodpecker raced over the same spot still close to Starling and gave the U-boat “one for luck”, a pattern of charges which, had it still been floating, would have smashed it into pieces. There was no hope that anyone could have survived that attack. Walker wrote later: “I sent Starling’s whaler away to collect wreckage and the boat soon produced ample evidence that this particular U-boat had been gathered to his fathers. Locker doors and other floating wreckage marked in German, a burst tin of coffee and some walnuts were soon gathered. My Starling had not come through the rough house unscathed. The friendly crack on the nose from somebody’s gunnery team was taken in good part, but in addition, her beak was bent 30 degrees to starboard, the asdic gone and the for’ard magazines flooded.” One of the Group, taking the blame for knocking off Starling’s bull-ring, sent a signal of apology. Walker replied: “No harm done. Just a clout on the snout.” Wild Goose and Wren had meanwhile stumbled across the U-boat’s mate and were already pounding him with depth charges to prevent any attack on the stopped and defenceless Starling. It was by then nearly 10 am and Walker ordered the Group in to attack in turn. Wren carried out two attacks, Woodpecker followed, then Wild Goose and Kite finished up. There was no result, and the ships formed up for their next attacks. Wild Goose led off and the roar and rumble of crashing depth charges split the summer’s morning as Kite, Woodpecker and Wren followed. Nothing happened and, despite repeated signalled assertions that they were still in contact, Walker was nearly dancing with rage on the bridge of Starling. At one point he astonished his crew by throwing his cap to the deck and stamping on it with impotent fury, mostly pretended, but soon he was grinning again as a new thought struck him. He had absolute confidence in his commanding officers but his love of a good fight was stronger. He ordered the Yeoman: “Tell the Group to hold the contact and to cease attacking. Then tell Wild Goose to stop near me and prepare to exchange commanding officers.” His excuse was that “the position was getting out of hand. Ships were getting in each other’s way and it appeared they were attacking two separate contacts due, I think, to the presence of SBTs.”
When Wild Goose had steered nearly alongside he chatted to Commander Wemyss as though they were at a tea party. “Want you to take over Starling, Dickie, and take her home to Plymouth; she will just about make it. I’ll come aboard Wild Goose and take command during your absence. Probably meet you in Plymouth. Incidentally, I’m damn sure you chaps have been attacking SBTs” The reply was non-committal, as one might expect from a commanding officer who had been interrupted in the middle of a battle and was now being sent home with a ship which might easily sink under him. With one U-boat already making her last plunge to the bottom, another less than a mile away being given a temporary respite in the middle of the Bay of Biscay known to be alive with U-boats and within range of the enemy’s fighter aircraft, Captain Walker was ceremoniously piped over Starling’s side as he climbed down a rope ladder into the whaler. The crews of Wild Goose and Starling lined their decks and cheered wildly as the tiny boat was pulled across the gap to Wild Goose with Walker sitting calmly in the stern. After a few minutes, he was piped aboard Wild Goose and Commander Wemyss was being pulled back to Starling. On Wild Goose’s bridge Walker muttered “Good morning” to the officers and men and said: “Signal the Group: Let the battle resume. I will pick up contact and direct your attacks.” He waved across to Starling and, as she moved off slowly, signalled: “To Starling from Captain Walker: Good-bye my gallant Starling. God be with you.” He found the situation not as out of hand as he had thought. Wren was in contact, and Walker reformed the Group for an attack method he had devised while watching the earlier manoeuvres from Starling. He now gained contact in Wild Goose and ordered the Group to stand by for a “creeping attack”. On their hydrophones U-boats could hear the fast revving propellers of an attacker and might take avoiding action. Also, they could hear the asdic impulses on the hulls of their boats and, as these became more rapid, might safely assume that a ship was approaching for an attack. If, however, the asdic impulses were regular the U-boat was likely to believe she was not yet coming under depth-charge attack. Therefore, Walker’s plan was to hold contact himself at a range of about 2,000 yards and direct other ships of the Group on to the target at a speed of not more than five knots. This would mean that the U-boat would know nothing about an attack until depth charges, set to 500 feet and deeper, exploded suddenly around her. However, should a faulty depth charge detonate too soon the slow-moving ships would be in danger of having their sterns blown off.

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