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Captain Frederic John Walker: Splice The Mainbrace

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.

Ashore in Plymouth, Walker telephoned his wife and arranged to meet her in London. He held a series of conferences with his First Lieutenant and the Dockyard Superintendent to facilitate the effective and speedy repair of Stork; sent his Report of Proceedings of the last voyage to the Admiralty; and eventually vanished from Plymouth for a week’s rest. In the days that followed, the Admiralty issued a statement announcing the award of the DSO but to Walker the Press publicity was not only unexpected, but unwanted. He cringed from the thought of his name being published in anything more widely read than the Navy List. When a staff officer phoned to say the naval reporters wished to interview him, he instructed that his whereabouts be kept secret. For the remainder of his leave he was nervous if the telephone rang or anyone other than a tradesman called at his house. According to his elder sister, now Mrs. Georgina Forbes, he had once appeared as a child ballet dancer before a huge audience at the Albert Hall which had led to a fit of uncontrollable sobbing and a hatred of ever again making a spectacle of himself. It may be that his passionate dislike of publicity stemmed from this experience. Now, as an active service commander, although still sub consciously frightened of making a spectacle of himself, he resented any invasion of his privacy and was forever indignant at any individual should be singled out for public acclaim when the work had been done by a team. At 3 p.m. on January 6th, he entered the office of the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare at the Admiralty to find Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Captain George Creasy and other senior officers already in conference and waiting for him. Despite his commanding height and lean, tanned appearance, he shrank from talking too freely in front of superiors and subsided into his chair in the hope that his presence might be forgotten. But he had been invited specially to give the conference a chance to discuss the strategic and tactical policy of the U-boat war in the light of his experience with HG 76. He answered questions briefly, saying much in few words. His impact on the Atlantic battle had been sudden and successful and, through the reports of Sir Percy Noble and Captain Creasy, more swiftly recognised by the Admiralty than was usual in that citadel of conservatism. When question time was over, he was asked to make recommendations for future operations. This was unexpected, but he gave his reply without pulling punches.
“(1) Aircraft are absolutely invaluable for anti-submarine work. There should be shore-based patrol planes for hunting down U-boats and carrier-borne fighters for destroying the Focke-Wulf bombers on ‘homing’ patrols. Audacity, her staff and pilots, put up a matchless performance.
(2) Every effort should be made to provide convoys with two protective screens—an outer and an inner. By day the outer screen sights U-boats on the surface farther away from the convoy and can attack in offensive striking forces well clear of the merchantmen. By night, U-boats are forced to attack from between the screens or at least to penetrate both.

(3) By day, ALL escorts should be used as striking forces for offensive lunges away from the convoy, attacking U-boats detected as far away as thirty miles.
(4) The 36th Escort Group ‘OPERATION BUTTERCUP’ is a sound plan despite my putting it into operation on the wrong side on one occasion. But snowflake illuminant rockets are a menace in the convoy. I am well aware that merchant ships are fitted with tins to ‘turn night into day’. But I feel strongly that there should be no guarantee that snowflakes will not be fired at exactly the wrong moment. Neither can we legislate for the regrettable tendency of some ships in an emergency, real or imaginary, to fire everything, drop everything and abandon ship.”
It was his third point that brought immediate opposition. His remarks on air co-operation were to be passed to Coastal Command; the question of ships for outer and inner screen, although desirable for the future, was dismissed as impracticable at the present moment due to lack of available ships; and his comment on snowflakes in merchant ships was brushed aside as being based on an isolated and unfortunate experience. The question of whether escorts should be used as striking forces for forays against the enemy well away from the convoy aroused instant opposition. Privately, Walker determined to go his own way and rely on success to keep him out of trouble. By the time he left the room he had no doubts that he would be a watched man. When his leave was up, he returned to Plymouth while Eileen stayed on in London. With her husband and two sons in uniform—Timmy was serving in a destroyer and Nicholas a sub-lieutenant in Ajax—she had decided to take a war job herself and was about to start in the Naval Section of Censorship. Walker found in Plymouth that Stork would not be ready until March, but on January 10th he was ordered to take temporary command of a sloop, Pelican, and lead his Group to sea for another trip to Gibraltar. Before sailing he called onboard Stork and found waiting for him the official signals concerning his decoration. To his officers, who would stay with Stork while she was being repaired and Walker went to sea in Pelican, he seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the honour which had come his way so unexpectedly; and to their affectionate amusement was obviously very shy about the whole thing. The Group, consisting of Samphire, Rhododendron, Penstemon, F Marigold and Gardenia, met Pelican off the Irish coast and rendezvoused with the convoy, CG 78, in the approaches, northwest of Ireland. Deptford and Convolvulus remained behind in Liverpool for minor repairs. For the next three days they battled southwards against a fierce southerly gale, sheets of rain blotting out the horizon, wind shrieking through the rigging and angry seas buffeting their bows. Penstemon reported all her lifeboats smashed and as of the Group had suffered damage to vital equipment. By the 16th the convoy had been scattered and only thirteen of the original twenty-six ships were in sight. Three more sleepless nights were spent in rounding up the lost ones and, at dawn on the 19th, it looked as though most of the flock had been returned to the fold. But a rapid count showed eight still missing and the Group steamed off again into the boiling seas for another search. Eventually, on the 21st, the weather abated and the risk of attack returned with calmer days. The Group took up their screen with four ships still unaccounted. No attack developed and, on the 24th, the convoy was delivered to Gibraltar intact except for the errant quartet who luckily survived all hazards and reached the Rock next day.
Three days later, they sailed again with a homeward-bound convoy, a trip remembered by the Group only for the exercises Walker ordered to increase “team” efficiency. At any time of day he might order a variety of dummy attacks; at night he would instruct all ships to carry out depth-charge drill and it was not considered safe for a commander to report progress until he could say his charges were ready within thirty seconds. By the time they reached the Western Approaches, most of the ships’ companies were praying earnestly for a U-boat “pack” to arrive and spare them all these fake alarms and scares. On landing at Liverpool, Walker learned that Stork was to be ready for sea ahead of schedule and, after turning over Pelican to a new commanding officer, he entrained for Plymouth to take his own ship to sea again. The next day, slim dapper young Sub-Lieutenant John Filleul, RN, arrived in Plymouth to join Stork. After nine years in Canada, he had followed his father into the Navy; but for a number of reasons, probably caused by recent Canadian influence on his outlook, he had felt rather a misfit in his last ship, a cruiser in which pomp was expected and frequent parades. As he boarded Stork he was filled with misgivings about the future. Perhaps this was another ship in which all he did would bring down the wrath of both captain and first lieutenant. He was standing on the quarter deck idly watching an officer cross the gangway and vanish below when a voice shouted: “Who was that who just came aboard, Sub ?“ Filleul turned to face the First Lieutenant and muttered that he did not know. Secretly he wondered how he, a newcomer, could reasonably be expected to know. Later, a tall, athletic looking commander came aboard, glanced at Filleul and said, “Come down to my cabin, Sub.” Filleul groaned inwardly. What had he done wrong already? From experience he knew that interviews with commanders could be unpleasant milestones in a young officer’s life. Instead, the senior officer introduced himself as Commander Walker and invited him to have a gin.From that moment, the young Sub-Lieutenant viewed senior officers in a different light; his bias against the Service fell away and, like all other officers who served under Walker in the years ahead, it was the beginning of a discipleship, almost a dedication, to a captain he admired and respected above all others. Walker spent the next trip working up his own ship’s company after their long spell in harbour and resumed exercising the Group, often to the amusement of the convoy Commodore who interrupted intricate manoeuvres with a stream of rude signals. Walker retaliated by “requesting” the Commodore to exercise his convoy in a variety of evasive turns, so that “I can keep my escort up to scratch and assist in the working out of new escort stations”. It was a flimsy enough excuse but served to give the by now thoroughly irate Commodore some anxious moments as the lumbering merchantmen either failed to see his altering course signals or merely decided to ignore them. This flock also arrived at the Rock without incident and, almost immediately, the Group about-turned to bring HG 80 home to England, a convoy the enemy refused to attack.
While lying in Gladstone Dock waiting to be ammunitioned and stored for the next voyage, Stork was inspected by Admiral Sir Percy Noble. Walker laid on a special display of action drills and afterwards the ship’s company were mustered on the quarter deck to be addressed by their Commander-in- Chief. “I am very much impressed,” said Sir Percy, “with the efficiency of this ship. We can win this battle against the U boats only by constant drilling and training—and you are all well-drilled and well-trained. You have been successful in your actions against the enemy and it would take a blind man to fail to see your keenness and eagerness to come to grips with him again. I am proud of you all.”
Later, in the privacy of his office, Sir Percy told his Chief of Staff: “That crowd in Stork are an amazingly efficient team. They can run and fight their ship blindfold. And everyone of them adores Walker. I could see they would follow him without question anywhere he chose to lead. If we can get all our ships trained and keyed up to that pitch we will make the U-boat crews wish they had never been born.” When the 36th Group sailed again from Liverpool on April 12th, Walker was becoming a little concerned about his ships. So many trips with only drills and exercises to relieve the strain and tension of guarding against attacks which never materialised, made him suspect that his commanding officers were getting stale. He hoped sincerely that the enemy would soon make some sort of an appearance. As if the enemy were reading his mind, he received on the 14th a warning from the Admiralty that a U-boat was in the vicinity of his convoy, HG 82, probably about thirty miles away. That evening Walker had taken Stork to the stern of the convoy, the most dangerous position, as U-boats were known to be fond of night attacks from the stern, and Vetch was in station about two miles ahead of the convoy’s port column. At 9.30 Vetch’s radar operator reported an object about four miles on the port quarter; this would put it about three miles on the port bow of the column’s leading ship. Vetch turned hurriedly to investigate and approached what at first sight appeared to be a corvette end-on, which she took to be her sister ship, Penstemon. Her commanding officer, however, had thoroughly absorbed the teachings, drills and exercises of his Group leader, and. leaving nothing to chance, fired a round of starshell to make sure. In the pale glare of the shell, they saw a U-boat, U-252 less than a mile away, and heading fast into the convoy. At once, they saw it wheel round; then the bridge watch heard the unmistakable sounds of torpedoes approaching on the asdic loudspeaker. Fetch took drastic evasive action while breaking R/T silence to tell Walker: “Submarine one mile away from us.” The torpedoes missed Vetch by about twenty feet and she opened fire just as the U-boat decided to dive. Her next report to Walker—”Submarine has dived”—caused some agitation in Stork, for again it gave no position or indication that Vetch had left her station ahead of the port column. However, Walker saw Vetch’s machine-gun tracer bullets and, heading towards them at full speed, ordered the corvette to indicate her position by firing a snowflake rocket. As soon as this had been done and the area of the attack pinpointed to the port side of the convoy, he altered course to join Vetch and instructed the remainder of the Group to stay close to the convoy. By the time he arrived, the convoy had drawn ahead and Vetch was searching for asdic contact.
Just as Stork was coming abreast of Vetch, the U-boat surfaced ahead of them about a mile away, and both ships gave chase. The enemy proved an elusive target and Stork herself fired more than a hundred rounds without any hits being observed. This was no reflection on the gunnery, but rather a measure of what a small target is presented to the firing ship by a 500-ton U-boat trimmed down on the surface on a dark night and at a fine, slanting inclination to the hunter. Vetch, a little overwhelmed at the drama of the chase and the presence of Walker, excitedly broke R/T silence to claim four hits. Walker remained unimpressed and his doubts were justified at 10.30 p.m. when the U-boat suddenly crash-dived, an unlikely procedure had it been hit and holed. Vetch was nearest the diving point and, anticipating orders, ran in to drop a ten-charge pattern in the still swirling water. As she drew clear, Walker took Stork in for a second attack with ten more charges set to explode rather deeper. Between them the two ships carried out five attacks, dropping fifty depth charges in the next twenty minutes and, at 11 pm, Walker called off Vetch and waited for something to appear. He wrote in his Diary: “I was tolerably certain that the Boche had been poleaxed, as indeed he had. Wreckage boiled to the surface and in high delight I had a boat lowered to investigate.” As they steamed back to the convoy Vetch signalled Walker requesting permission to splice the mainbrace. In his reply, Walker said: “Approved and heartiest congratulations on your a work.” To which the elated little corvette commented: ‘Very many thanks. Let’s have another one.”

'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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