The Royal Navy submarine HMS Sturgeon was patrolling between Denmark and Norway when she spotted a military transport being escorted by smaller craft. It was the 3624 tonne troopship Pionier taking troops to Norway.
The light was going, and we were in about the worst possible position to attack. The enemy ships were just ahead of us on our beam, and steaming a parallel course, but in the opposite direction. We had to alter course quickly and travel unseen to a position from which, on a converging track, our torpedoes would have the maximum chance of striking home.
I remember the captain taking his eye away from the lens for a moment and seeing the No. 1 and the men in the control room watching him eagerly, “A big one,” he said to them briefly, “with a destroyer escort.”
Another look at the swiftly oncoming ships, a glance at the bearing figures on the periscope, a last summing up of our position, and he issued the order, “Blow all torpedo tubes.” [Drive water out of tubes and insert torpedoes ready For firing.]
He stayed at the lens for another moment, getting a last “fix” and giving the information and orders which would bring us to our next position: “Bearing red seven 0; I am 20 degrees starboard; Port wheel five knots! . . . steer 350 degrees. . . . DOWN PERISCOPE.”
The next few minutes, as the boat slowly turned under water to get on to the new course, we worried ourselves sick. Had we estimated the enemy course and speed aright? How long were we going to be getting round? Where would they be when we put the periscope up again?
Impatiently, the captain watched the torpedo tubes signal lights. I heard him snap out to our No. 1 , “When the hell are Nos. 2 and 4 going to be ready?” But before he had even finished the sentence the “readiness” signals flashed up.
I watched the silent men at the depth control valves. The electric driving motors whined louder, flooding into the silence in the control room. Then again he called “Up Periscope!”
There they were — much nearer, but at a new angle. The Germans had altered course slightly. “We might miss them yet,” I thought. So the captain yelled another series of hurried orders…
The rest was a matter of seconds. We were closing rapidly, and even at our distance of about 2 1/2 miles and in the last of the light the white water could be seen breaking away from the speeding transport’s bow. She was dead on our line of sight. “Stand by!”, ordered the “up periscope” captain without taking his eye away from the lens.
He pressed the button of his stop watch and counted as the angle was closing. “One . . . two . . . three.” Then: “FIRE!” The rating who had been standing by the firing panel, head cocked expectantly towards him, pushed home the switches.
I felt the boat shudder as the torpedoes left her and sped on their way. I had a last look. The transport, curiously it seemed to me, was steaming serenely on against that patch of light to the north-west. Then the captain bellowed, “Down Periscope … Down 60 feet.”
We waited in dead silence, our eyes fixed on the minute hand of the control-room clock. It seemed to creep round the dial. One minute went by, then two, and my doubts and uncertainties began to grow agonizing. I strained my ears for a distant sound, but heard only the hum and tick-tock of the gyro near the helmsman, the faint noises of the sea outside the hull, and the glug- glug of the ballast tanks as we kept our depth.
“We’ve missed,” I thought gloomily. “We’ve missed her.” We would not have another chance. We could not attack again at the altered angle.
In that instant, when I had given up all hope, I heard a distant muffled bang. Then another and another. All the light bulbs flickered for a moment or two. A gentle tremor shook the deck plates beneath me.
The captain from his swivel seat near the instrument panels sprang up and ordered the submarine to periscope depth. He had a quick look and then silently handed the glass to me. I thought first that the coating of sea-spume would never clear from the glass, but then in a flash the whole terrific picture leapt into view.
An enormous column of black smoke reared high above the transport. To the left and right of it giant fireballs, which must have been exploding ammunition, arched outwards against the background of darkening sky.
The captain turned to the men in the control room who were staring at him questioningly. “She’s gone,” he said. Their faces broke into broad grins.
This account by an unknown officer on Sturgeon first appeared in THEIR FINEST HOUR, published in 1941.
The log of the Sturgeon records:
At 19.39 a large transport could be seen escorted by a “T”-class torpedo boat on either bow. There were some smaller vessels astern. Two torpedoes were fired at 19.53 from a range of 6000 yards. The target was silhouetted against the sun. One explosion was heard at 19.58 and when the periscope was raised a dense column of black smoke was seen rising from the target to a height of about 2000 feet. The small vessels astern of “Pionier” scattered and no attack on them was possible. “Sturgeon” went deep to reload her torpedo tubes at 21.15 and at that time “Pionier” was burning furiously and settling low in the water.
When HMS Sturgeon surfaced at 22.30 the ‘Pionier’ had disappeared.