In the Battle of the Atlantic the Allies had proved to be the dominant force ever since May 1943. Yet still the Germans sent U-boats to sea in a desperate attempt to halt the flow men and munitions to Britain. The life expectancy of a U-Boat was now very limited and more and more boats were being sent to the bottom with all their crew.
This battle still relied on the dedicated pursuit of the U-boats by the convoy escort ships and their commanders. No one single man had made more of a contribution to this battle than Captain Frederick ‘Johny’ Walker’. He had first earned a Distinguished Service Order in January 1942 for his ‘daring and determination’ in the hunt for the U-boats. His determination was undiminished two years later when his Second Escort Group set out on its most successful hunting trip.
On the 9th February HMS Starling and the other ships in the group were to surpass themselves with three successful attacks on U-boats. This time they had to contend with the GNAT (German Navy Acoustic Torpedo) but they were able to counter with the ‘Hedgehog’.
Lieutenant Alan Burn was the Gunnery officer on HMS Starling:
After a night at action stations, with a brief rest on the way from one job to the next, Starling’s ship’s company was in no mood to appreciate a grey Atlantic morning with the visibility down to half a mile, but the chase was not over yet.
Walker reported that: ‘This Boche went slow downwind and sea, at considerable depth, making it difficult in the prevailing weather conditions to hold the directing ship long enough in position to direct the creeping attacks.’ There were only seventeen depth charges left on board Kite and she went to join Wild Goose in the patrol round the scene of action while Starling and Magpie took over the attacks.
Walker was perplexed; a very large number of charges had been expended on this target without any results. Stocks were getting low. On the other hand, Magpie was the only ship in the Group fitted with Hedgehog, and Walker had thought up a new way of using this more modern weapon.
He directed Magpie at slow speed until she was just short of the U-boat’s position and pointing in the right direction, whereupon she was ordered to fire her Hedgehog at a range calculated by Starling’s navigator. This caused a lot of laughter on the bridge — imagine any one of twenty-four bombs dropping seven hundred feet through the water and getting a direct hit on the twenty-foot diameter hull of an invisible U-boat!
The laughter was cut short by two sharp underwater explosions as two bombs found their target twenty-one seconds after the Hedgehog fired. Not content with this result, he directed Magpie to carry on without interruption with a creeper, firing old-fashioned charges, followed up by Starling four minutes later. To everyone’s surprise and to the amazement of Walker and his specialist anti-submarine team, this makeshift attack produced all the usual evidence of destruction as oil-soaked wreckage came to the surface in quantities.
Walker wrote: ‘I was highly tickled by this hedge-hoggery. Complicated instruments are normally deemed essential to score even occasional hits with this weapon; to get two bull’s eyes first shot with someone else’s Hedgehog 1000 yards away was of course a ghastly fluke.’
This as Walker at his most ruthless. The chase had gone on for eight hours with fteen depth-charge attacks (252 charges) and ‘two Hedgehog attacks (48 bombs). Starling had expended all her depth charges.
If this last attack had not succeeded, there was no doubt that he would have continued to stalk the U-boat until it surfaced for air, when it would have been destroyed by gunfire, or rammed as a last resort.
The Second Support Group had sunk three U-boats in the past 15 hours. But nerves were ragged; there were too many of these Gnats and maybe other devices exploding too close. In a signal timed 092030A to C-in-C Western Approaches, Walker reported, among other events: ‘Several “Gnats” fired during operations but all avoided by use of low speed.’
The convoy of fifty-seven ships and twenty-four landing craft proceeded unharmed on its way, guided neatly between these two battles without casualties. It had been shadowed by aircraft all night but was not attacked.
On the evening of 9 February, the two aircraft carriers were ordered to return home while the Group continued the patrol. They went off in ones and twos to refuel from an oiler in the nearest convoy and to replenish with depth charges. Starling had none left out of her usual armoury of 160 charges, Magpie seventeen and the remainder about sixty-six each.
See Alan Burn: The Fighting Captain, less a personal memoir than a tribute to Captain Walker, with details of all his U-boat battles.
Captain Walker died in July 1944, aged 48, his death attributed to exhaustion and battle fatigue.