Destroyer HMS Laforey sunk as she closes for the kill

The destroyer HMS Laforey, a veteran of the war in the Mediterranean.
The destroyer HMS Laforey, a veteran of the war in the Mediterranean.

The Battle of the Atlantic may have been effectively won in 1943 but this did not lessen the danger of individual U-boats. Their chances of surviving a patrol had now been much reduced but the Germans were doing everything possible to fight back. Improved anti-aircraft guns played a part. Even more innovative were torpedoes guided by sonar. In the right situation a targeted ship might be able to cut her engines to avoid such missiles. It was not always possible.

On 29 March a submarine was detected by HMS Ulster during a routine sweep north of Palermo. Soon HMS Laforey was leading the hunt in company with the destroyers HMS Tumult, HMS Tuscan, HMS Urchin, HMS Hambledon and HMS Blencathra. They did not know it at the time but their quarry was the U-223, which had been responsible for sinking the US Troop Ship Dorchester. Like many U-boat hunts it was a waiting game. The latest sonar might not be able to give a precise position of a submarine, good enough for a kill but it would be difficult for a submarine to sneak away undetected:

At noon, just before we arrived in the area where the U-boat had been sighted, we were joined by Tumult, Blencathra. Quantock and Lammerton. And soon the metallic clang of the Asdic indicated we had located our quarry.

Attack after attack failed to bring the U-boat to the surface but as darkness fell, our Asdic team was confident that during the night, lack of air would bring her to the surface and my gun-teams have the chance of delivering the coup-de-grace.

Shortly before 0100 hrs the next day, the message was passed to the transmitting station from the bridge, that the U-boat was blowing her tanks and we were to prepare for ‘starshell’ firing to illuminate her.

Captain Armstrong, for reasons best known to himself decided not to sound off full action stations. The crew were therefore at defence stations, only half the armament manned and many men were asleep in the mess-decks. With hindsight, one can say that many of the 179 men who lost their lives, would have been saved, had they been closed up at action stations. The order came suddenly to open fire and within moments, night became day, as the starshell illuminated the area where the U-boat would break surface.

“ Gunner’s mate to the bridge.” Sub/Lt Ticehurst, the youngest officer in the ship – for reasons that I was never to discover – made the call that was to save my life. When I got there, I found the U-boat was clearly visible on the port bow. Our 4.7 armament was soon straddling the target and when the Gunnery Officer arrived on the bridge. I jumped down over the bridge screen to the Oerlikon, determined to ensure that the U-boat’s deck was raked with fire in case resistance was offered.

Then came the order to switch on the searchlight. It proved to be the opportunity the U-boat skipper needed. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion and I found myself hurtling upwards and then landing with a thud on the Oerlikon’s safety rails.

The U-boat had torpedoed us and I was conscious between bouts of blackness and pain, that Laforey was breaking up in her death throws. I tried to stand but had no movement in my legs. Using my elbows, I managed to propel my body to the ship’s side. Laforey was sinking and I clung to the rigging as she started her final plunge. Frantically, I tore myself free and with arms working like pistons, propelled myself as far from the inevitable whirlpool of suction as possible.

Suddenly, like a cork, I was whirled round and round and drawn towards the vortex where our beloved ship had finally disappeared beneath the waves. Fortunately, my half inflated life belt kept me on the surface.

Gradually, the black silence was broken with the cries of shipmates, dotted around the ocean. With the whistle always carried by a gunner’s mate for turret drill, I began to signal in the hope of collecting the survivors in a more compact group. Unconsciousness intervened and when I came round again, it was to hear the groans of a young London AB clinging to driftwood and obviously in a bad way.

At odd intervals, shipmates would swim to us to offer words of comfort and encouragement and them swim off to assist others. Two such gallant friends, Dave Barton the PO. Cook and Knocker White, the Yeoman of Signals both uninjured but sadly not to survive, continued to help their more unfortunate shipmates.

After what appeared to be an eternity, I spotted the darker shape of an approaching vessel. Suddenly there were cries of, “ Swim you German bastards, swim!” Our would be rescuers, were convinced that we were German survivors from the U-boat, which Tumult and Blencathra had eventually sunk. They were unaware of the fact that Laforey had gone too.

Within moments, I was carefully and gently lifted from the sea and into the boat. Oil fuel fouled my mouth and eyes and hid the tears of relief and gratitude for my rescuers.

I was hoisted aboard Tumult, encased in a Neil Robertson stretcher, injected with a liberal dose of morphia and despatched to the gunners mate’s holy of holy’s, the Transmitting Station. From the usual illegal matelot’s hidden resources, a full tumbler full of Nelson’s Blood was added to the pain relieving morphia and I sank into peaceful oblivion.

Vaguely, I remember being shipped from Tumult to a waiting ambulance in Naples harbour and arriving at the 65th General Hospital. There, the doctors found I had three spinal fractures. To begin with, I was paralysed from the waist down but my self pity soon disappeared when I looked around the overcrowded wards at our terribly wounded soldiers, being shipped in from their personal hell holes of Anzio or Cassino.

Read the whole of Bob Burns account on BBC People’s War. There is a thorough review of all the sources relating to the sinking of U-223 and HMS Laforey at World War II Quarterly.

There are suggestions that the torpedo struck the stern of HMS Laforey causing her own depth charges to explode, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that caused the sudden loss of the ship.

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