The growing effectiveness of the Allies in the battle against the U Boats had led to them being withdrawn from the Atlantic in May 1943. Yet Admiral Donitz was never ready to completely give up. The risk to his boats was great but they represented the only possible means of combatting the ever growing power of the Allied forces.
In September 1943 he tried again. Around twenty U boats were gathered in the mid Atlantic, as far from air cover as possible, strung out in a long line waiting to sight a convoy and then converge for a ‘wolfpack’ attack. For once Enigma had failed to intercept the German messages and it was not possible to route the convoys out of harms way.
The attacks on convoys ONS 202 and ONS 18, heading west from Britain with a combined group 65 merchantmen, began in the early hours of the 20th. On the same day a support group of Canadian ships arrived from the west to assist with the Convoy escort. Amongst them was HMCS St Croix, onboard was signalman William Fisher:
After supper we came up on deck; there was a cold wind blowing and a few green ones coming over the side. As we were standing there we heard charges going off in the distance and the roar of a plane. One of the lads finally spotted it. As it came in flying low, it signalled to us that it had dropped charges and disabled a sub. We answered and signalled the Itchen, our senior ship, for permission to go back.
The stoker went down and flashed the two boilers. Black smoke was rising out of three and four funnels as they were forcing the other two boilers. We were laying a perfect smoke screen which we did not want. Some of the seamen remarked “That’s stokers for you.”
We revved up to twenty-four knots and proceeded to follow the plane. Finally the stokers got the smoke stopped in one and two funnels but number four was still smoking a little. Then as we started to cut speed a little I came up on deck sweating and very hot. We proceeded on and saw the plane flying low and circling.
As we neared the place where the plane was circling and started to cut speed the first torpedo hit us. There was a violent explosion and another soon followed. Two torpedoes had hit us in the stern. The ship listed and stopped. Just before we had been hit some of the boys had been standing on the aft deck. Some were killed and others were blown into the air and landed on deck or in the water. At the time our watch had just been getting ready to go on duty. We all ran to the well deck. Some of the boys were very frightened while others didn’t realize what had really happened. The Captain [Commander A.H. Dobson, RCNR] was on the bridge looking aft and was very worried.
Some of the boys started loosening the Carley float beside the bridge. The First Lieutenant said not to let any of the Carley Floats drop. Some of the injured boys came up to the well deck. The doctor and SBA [Sick Berth Attendent] were bandaging them as best they could. Some other lads brought two chaps up who had been killed; they had been blown into the air and had landed on the upper deck by the engine room.
The 1st Lieutenant gave orders to get the whaler and motor boat ready and take the injured off, then abandon ship. I went and got into the motor boat and made it ready. The injured were brought up beside the motor boat. The doctor passed them on to me. Some of the boys were in very bad condition. I was talking to a chap who had been shaving in the washroom when we were hit. He had a cut from his razor; he said he hadn’t realized what had happened, his head was also split open. The other chap who had been in the washroom at the time didn’t have a scratch except for a bump on the top of his head. After we had all the injured in the motor boat we were lowered into the water. By this time I had the motor going and moved away from the side of the ship.
After circling around we were called back to the ship’s side. A signalman got into the motor boat and passed us some papers and a signal lamp. As we were leaving the ship we were called back again to hook onto two Carley floats that were filled with men, we took them from the ship’s side and around to the stern. As we came around the other side there was a man in the water. One of the boys from the motor boat dove over the side, swam to him and brought him back to the motor boat. When we got them both back in the boat the lad was almost gone.
We then went to the ship’s side and hooked onto two more Carley floats, we took them to where the other two floats were and had them tied together. Then we started to pick up the boys that were in the water. We had quite a few of the boys in the boat when we saw smoke rising from one and two funnels. No one could understand why smoke should be rising from them as they had both been shut off before we had been hit. I was later told that the Captain had given orders to get up steam and see if they could make way.
The smoke had been rising for about three minutes when the Itchen came over the horizon. A few minutes later there was a terrific explosion and flames leaped into the air. The third torpedo had struck the ship. The stern of the ship disappeared quickly, but from amidship forward stayed up from 3 to 5 minutes, then she turned her bow into the air and went down.
When we had been struck a white ensign had been run up, and as the ship disappeared the white ensign seemed to quiver before going under. The Captain, several officers and ratings were still with the ship when she was hit the third time and some of them managed to get off before she went down. As we kept picking survivors out of the water, the oil was so thick that we could hardly recognize some of the boys.
Over eighty men had been saved from the St Croix from its complement of 147 men.
To be continued, see Canadian Military History, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1999, pp.63-69. for full account.