On 24th March 1942 the 42 ships in Convoy ONS-45 left Liverpool for South Africa with many ships destined for the further journey to India. This was an unexceptional event, almost all concerned had become familiar with the dangers at sea during this period. By the end of the 43rd month of the war, March 1943, 4,486 merchant ships had been sunk – including 82 in the North Atlantic in that month alone. As the men on these ships headed out into the North Atlantic they were not alone in wondering how much longer this could go on.
Nicholas Monserrat, himself serving on a Royal Navy corvette, was to describe his continued admiration for the men of the Merchant Navy:
I had seen hundreds of convoys in this war; and if they did not always impress me with the same pride and the same admiration as at the beginning, that was simply because of the human inability to hold an impression, however strong or vivid, indefinitely….
There were ships that had seen scores of long-drawn out actions, and still came back cheerfully for more; there were men – British and Allied sailors – who dared all, not as a job for money but simply as a chosen habit, who returned to the same task and the same run after two or even three hideous ordeals as survivors, who stuck to oil-tankers as other people stick to one brand of bottled beer.
Even apart from action with the enemy, the men in these ships – some of them, old friends, were waving as I passed them now – had seen their job transformed by war into something a hundred times more difficult and hazardous: they had accepted loyally the irksome compulsion of convoys, of never moving except in crowded company – a discipline quite alien to sailors, whose foremost instinct is to beat it in the opposite direction when another ship comes over the horizon: they had accepted the necessity of wallowing along for hundreds of miles at the speed of the slowest, and of keeping close station in weather like a dirty blanket hanging all around them ….
One could only feel proud to share a job with such men. Nominally we were in charge of them, on all their undertakings: but it was really a more complex relationship, in which admiration had its full share and a brotherly regard seasoned all the discipline we had to enforce.
Waiting for ONS 45 off the coast of Portugal was U-124 commanded by Korvettenkapitän Johann Mohr who had spent his entire career on this boat, first as an officer then as commander from November 1941. He had sunk 25 ships himself including HMS Dunedin on 24th November 1941. A year earlier, in March 1942, he had sunk ten ships off the East coast of the USA.
Mohr had radioed a report of his success in rhyme:
The moon night is as black as ink
Off Hatteras the tankers sink
While sadly Roosevelt counts the score
some fifty thousand tons. Mohr.
Mohr had been awarded the Knights Cross for that period of success and had recently been awarded the Oak Leaves to go with it, joining a very exclusive group of Nazi heroes. Now he struck again.
However these sinkings were to be swiftly avenged. The sloop HMS Black Swan and the corvette HMS Stonecrop were quickly on the hunt and U-124 was depth charged later that evening. There were no survivors amongst the 53 crew. It was the end of the third most successful U-boat, which had sunk 48 ships totally nearly a quarter of a million tons. It was a sign of the shifting fortunes in the Battle of the Atlantic.