The longest lasting campaign of the war, the U-boat war, was still gathering pace. Although the Royal Navy had quickly instituted the convoy system, based on its experiences in the First World War, they were facing a determined enemy. The threat to Britain’s capacity to continue the war was potentially even more serious than that of the Blitz.
Thirty-five merchant ships had set out from Nova Scotia on the 5th October for Liverpool. The original escort of the convoy HMS Scarborough had fallen behind whilst attacking another U-Boat, so HMS Leith was sent with the Corvettes HMS Heartsease and Bluebell to see the convoy through the final stages. They were later joined by HMS Fowey.
Unfortunately the Germans had now formed up a Wolfpack of five U-boats, including the experienced Otto Kretschmer in U-99. They now made a co-ordinated attack on the convoy, sinking 16 ships over the 18th and 19th October. The post action report of HMS Leith’s commander shows how busy these ships were and how hard their task was:
Friday 18th October
01:15 – In company with Heartsease. Course 129° Speed 14. Sighted S.C. 7 ahead in position 58 50N 14 12W. Wind SE, Force 2, moon behind cloud, visibility good, sea calm.
01:26 – Ordered Heartsease to position [?] intending to take station myself.
01:34 – Red Very’s light observed in direction of convoy.
01:38 – An unknown ship astern of convoy signalled he was hit port side.
01:45 – Heard explosion to port of convoy. Altered 90° to port to search across convoy’s wake. From the above it would appear that two ships had been torpedoed and two ships were certainly seen at this stage. Later however only one ship Carsbreck could be found and other ships of escort stated next day that only one ship was missing. The discrepancy cannot be explained.
01:55 – Sighted Bluebell and stationed her one mile port beam. Searched 3000 yards up port side of convoy wake. When estimated position was abeam convoy searched back.
02:45 – Sighted Fowey and Heartsease who had also searched port side.
03:50 – Ordered Fowey back to convoy. Stationed Heartsease.
04:15 – Turned back towards convoy.
05:20 – Reported attack on convoy. Sighted ship and closed.
05:50 – Sighted lifeboat near ship.
06:10 – Spoke ship Carsbreck who stated she could steam 6 knots and would probably stay afloat. Ordered Hearstease to pick up survivors from boat and escort Carsbreck.
06:25 – Stationed Bluebell one mile port beam and set course for convoy at 14 knots.
08:15 – Sighted convoy.
09:48 – Stationed escort
09:58 – Spoke Commodore.
13:05 – Sighted two rafts ahead, searched in vicinity with Bluebell then picked up Master and crew (18) of Nora (Estonian) torpedoed on 13th October about 50′ (30′?) west of Rockall.
17:15 – Commodore signalled his intention to alter 40° to starboard at 20:00 and 40° to port at 23:30.
18:00 – Ordered Fowey to search 5′ astern of convoy at dusk.
19:25 – Observed very distant glare on horizon bearing 180°.
20:00 – Convoy altered course 40° to starboard.
20:20 – A ship torpedoed on port side of convoy in position 57 22N 11 11W. Altered course 120° to port, and increased to full speed firing star shell. Proceeded 10′ and then turned towards convoy.
21:30 – Sighted Fowey who had been 5′ astern of convoy when attack took place. Stationed Fowey abeam 3000 yards and searched up wake of convoy at 14 knots (Fowey’s maximum).
22:05 – Sighted two horizontal red lights then some miles ahead. They burnt for about 15 seconds. Heard explosion ahead.
22:10 – Heard explosion ahead.
22:20 – Heard explosion ahead. Increased to 15 knots and sighted several ships.
22:37 – Heard two explosions ahead.
22:40 – Sighted a “U” boat on surface straight ahead steaming fast on the same course. Distance 3000-4000 yards. Opened fire with star shell. The “U” boat and her wake were clearly visible but not sufficiently for the Gunlayer of “A” gun to get his sights on before she submerged a few minutes later. Contact by echo was obtained at about 3000 yards range and was held on the run in up to 800 yards.
22:55 – Contact was then lost. Meantime Bluebell who was in the vicinity had been ordered to join the hunt which continued until
23:55. About the time “U” boat was sighted a sheet of flame was seen on the starboard bow. It was assumed to be a tanker exploding.
23:55 – Detached Bluebell to pick up survivors and stand by four torpedoed ships which were afloat in the immediate vicinity. These four ships were Empire Miniver, Gunborg, Niritos, Beatus. Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots. Made two signals to Admiralty and C-in-C W.A. (Signals 3 and 4 timed 23:26 and 23:58).
Saturday 19th October
00:09 – Sighted Fowey and ordered her to join me stationing her 1′ on port beam, speed 14. She stated she had picked up survivors of Convallaria, Hurunui, Shekatika and Boekelo. [The British Hurunui was from the westbound Convoy OB 227, sunk by U-93 Oct. 15]
00:28 – Saw flashes on starboard bow on horizon. Turned towards to investigate.
00:50 – Sighted ship which proved to be Blairspey.
01:00 – Master stated that ship had ben torpedoed but that he considered she would keep afloat and that he could steam 6 knots. Detailed Fowey to escort her and reported to C-in-C W.A. (Signal 5 timed 01:26/19).
01:16 – Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots.
01:45 – Sighted and closed ship on port bow in position 57 10N 10 38W. Found the Commodore’s ship Assyrian slowly sinking, having been torpedoed at 00:30, with the wreckage and survivors of two other ships in her immediate neighbourhood.
02:15 – Picked up survivors from Assyrian, Empire Brigade, Soesterberg amongst whom was the Commodore (Vice Admiral L.D. I. Mackinnan).
04:00 – Proceeded on course of convoy route (130°), speed 16 knots, searching for ships.
The Royal Navy was still developing its tactics for responding to U-Boat attacks. Not realising that the attacks were being made by U Boats on the surface between the ships within the convoy, much time was spent looking for submerged U-Boats outside the the area of the convoy.
Warsailors.com has full details of all the ships in the convoy, the casualties and much more.