Empress of Britain bombed at sea

At 9.20am on the 26th October a German FW 200 Condor emerged from the clouds and dropped two bombs on the liner Empress of Britain. She was north west of ireland, en route to Liverpool. The liner was now a troop transport and had been requisitioned in 1939. She was then subjected to a series of machine gun attacks from the aircraft. Her crew fought back with machine guns mounted on deck and there were relatively few casualties at this stage. However the bombs started large fires which soon crippled the ship. Many crew were trapped below deck by the fires, some forced to escape through portholes into the sea.

The liner Empress of Britain
A pre war image of the 42,000 ton Canadian Pacific luxury cruise liner Empress of Britain, the fastest ship of her class at the time. She became the largest civilian ship lost in the war when she was bombed on 26th October

At 9.20am on the 26th October a German FW 200 Condor emerged from the clouds and dropped two bombs on the liner Empress of Britain. The liner had been requisitioned in 1939 and was now a troop transport.

As well as the bombing the Empress was subjected to a series of machine gun attacks from the aircraft. Her crew fought back with machine guns mounted on deck and there were relatively few casualties at this stage. However the bombs started large fires which soon crippled the ship. Many crew were trapped below deck by the fires, some forced to escape through portholes into the sea.

George Larkin, a crew member later recalled:

The first I heard was machine gun fire, a moment later a bomb hit the ship. We were trapped and had to go right forward again through black choking smoke and fumes. Two men collapsed through suffocation before we reached safety by climbing to the upper deck

The Liverpool Daily Post carried a full report of the attack on 29th October:

A graphic description of the bombing was given by one of the seamen. It was overcast in the morning, he said, and the German plane came out of low cloud without warning.

It shot down in a deep dive dropping its bombs and raking the deck with machine-gun fire, very soon the vessel was an inferno.

James DEAN of St Andrews St, Edge Hill, Liverpool, said he was below when the bombing started and rushed on deck to see the bomber flying low over the ship. Despite the ruthless machine-gun fire and the raging flames along the whole of the deck, there was no panic. An anti-aircraft gun was put out of action so the ship was unable to reply effectively.

He feared some were trapped below deck, he got away in a lifeboat and was picked up by a rescue vessel. A steward, said, a single enemy plane suddenly came out of the clouds, machine-gunning the decks and the crew as it went. Some bombs dropped wide of the mark and the plane continued to circle the ship before dropping bombs which set the deck ablaze.

“It was like an inferno, although I have been on the ship for a long time and know every exit from the kitchen, I could not find my way out. All the staircases were ablaze, my only means of escape was through a porthole which I scrambled through and flung myself into the sea.”

“The water was icy cold and I kept swimming to prevent myself from becoming frozen. There was a heavy sea and it was impossible to reach the boats against the swell, while, those in the boats were unable to pull to members of the crew any distance away in the water. I and a colleague who followed me through the porthole, were in the water nearly an hour before we were picked up.”

Among the rescue vessels were two warships and three trawlers, who quickly answered the vessels SOS. Another survivor, said, there was no panic, the bombing was over in less than half an hour, occurring at 9.30am and many of the crew were unable to escape for some hours, but, conducted themselves with exemplary coolness and obeyed orders despite the rapid extension of the flames and the bursting of ammunition.

Read the whole of the original Liverpool Daily Post story at Old Mersey Times.

Almost all of the crew and passengers were rescued and the liner, still ablaze, taken in tow by Royal Navy destroyers. She was making slow progress so it was relatively easy for the U-Boat U-32 to reach the position and track her for 24 hours before torpedoing her on the 28th October. U-32 was on her ninth and last patrol, two days later she was herself sunk by depth charges by the destroyers HMS Harvester and HMS Highlander.

Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope (centre). At around 9:20am on 26 October 1940, travelling about 70 miles northwest of Ireland along the west coast, Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf C 200 Condor long-range bomber, commanded by Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope. Jope’s bomber strafed Empress of Britain three times and hit her twice with 250 kg bombs.
Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope (centre).
At around 9:20am on 26 October 1940, travelling about 70 miles northwest of Ireland along the west coast, Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf C 200 Condor long-range bomber, commanded by Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope. Jope’s bomber strafed Empress of Britain three times and hit her twice with 250 kg bombs.
Attack on the transport Empress of Britain 42,000 Gross Register Tons. Front Line Intelligence Newssheet of the Luftwaffe No. 26, Sheet 213
Attack on the transport Empress of Britain 42,000 Gross Register Tons. Front Line Intelligence Newssheet of the Luftwaffe No. 26, Sheet 213

U-Boats now operate from France

It is thought that, in view of the better repair facilities available in French than in Norwegian ports, this policy will be increasingly pursued in the future, and that Norwegian ports will largely be used as stopping places for submarines homeward bound for Germany after 2 or 3 cruises, to give leave. There is no reason to believe that any. of the submarines in Lorient came there by way of the English Channel, and it is possible that fear of air attack, has made them take the long sea route from Germany.

U Boat U-37
The Germans were now able to make use of the French port of Lorient as a base for their U-Boats. U-37, one of the most successful U-Boats of the war, was in Lorient for a month from 22nd October.

Enemy Attack on Seaborne Trade.

During the [the week up 24th October] 36 ships (150,091 tons) have been reported sunk. Of these, 17 British (89,199 tons), 3 Norwegian (14,080 tons), 3 Swedish (13,533 tons), 3 Dutch (10,878 tons), 2 Greek (7,408 tons), 1 Estonian (1,186 tons), 1 Belgian (5,186 tons) and 1 Yugo-Slav (5,135 tons) were sunk by submarine. Three British vessels (1,722 tons) were sunk by mine, 1 British (1,595 tons) was sunk by E-Boat and a British trawler (169 tons) was sunk by aircraft.

The U-Boats were particularly successful during this period, U-37 had continued to be active since April. They had ready access to the Atlantic and well co-ordinated tactics were now being used to hunt in Wolfpacks, often in response to sightings by Condor aircraft.

British Naval Intelligence worked hard to follow developments in the U-Boat fleet and now established that Lorient was being used as a U-Boat Base:

U-Boats.

The main German U-boat dispositions remain as in the last few weeks. Four or possibly five have been at work in the North-West Approaches and further out, one or two well to the Northward between 580 N. and 600 N. There have been indications of submarines on passage both to and from Lorient, and of one homeward bound via the Norwegian Coast which, after being damaged by air attack, entered the Skagerrak. Since the beginning of October it has been noticeable that there have been few reports of submarines on passage through the North Sea; on the other hand, the use of Lorient as a base has steadily increased.

For some time after the 22nd July, when the first U-Boat arrived in Lorient, the port was only used for short visits, but latterly there has been evidence from photographic reconnaissances of as many as 8 or 9 U-boats in the port, and that these are docked and repaired there. It is thought that, in view of the better repair facilities available in French than in Norwegian ports, this policy will be increasingly pursued in the future, and that Norwegian ports will largely be used as stopping places for submarines homeward bound for Germany after 2 or 3 cruises, to give leave. There is no reason to believe that any. of the submarines in Lorient came there by way of the English Channel, and it is possible that fear of air attack, has made them take the long sea route from Germany.

See TNA CAB /66/13/9

French leader Petain meets Hitler

The First World War French hero Petain had taken over the French Presidency at the age of 84 and it was his administration that signed an Armistice with Germany. Petain believed that he had to come to some accommodation with Germany, in order to preserve some independence of action for what remained of the French state. In his negotiations with Hitler at the Montoire meeting Petain sought to obstruct German access to French North Africa. Unfortunately the image of him shaking hands with Hitler came to represent a view that he was engaged in collaboration with the Nazi’s, rather than a more pragmatic co-operation. It became evidence to portray him as a traitor to France.

Petain meets Hitler
The French President Marshal Petain meets Adolf Hitler at Montoire in front of Hitler\’s interpreter Paul Schmidt with Foreign Minister Ribbentrop at the side.

The First World War French hero Petain had taken over the French Presidency at the age of 84 and it was his administration that signed an Armistice with Germany. Petain believed that he had to come to some accommodation with Germany, in order to preserve some independence of action for what remained of the French state. In his negotiations with Hitler at the Montoire meeting Petain sought to obstruct German access to French North Africa.

Unfortunately the image of him shaking hands with Hitler came to represent a view that he was engaged in collaboration with the Nazi’s, rather than a more pragmatic co-operation. It became evidence to portray him as a traitor to France.

For more details on the meeting and the position that Petain found himself in see the comment by Huntziger below, helpfully translated by Andrew Shakespeare.

Meanwhile in Britain the Blitz continued, the weekly Naval Military and Air Situation Report for the week up to 24th October recorded:

Great Britain.

46. The number of enemy aircraft operating during daylight against this, country was less than half that of the previous week and again consisted chiefly of fighter aircraft, some of which carried bombs.

47. Attacks by night were, however, only slightly lower in the aggregate than during the last period though on no night were so many raiding aircraft plotted as on the 15th-16th October. On the nights of the 20th-21st and the 22nd-23rd the major strength of attack was directed against industrial centres in the Provinces instead of London : Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool being the chief cities involved.

48. In London, communications and public utility services appeared to be the main targets though, as before, many bombs fell some distance from any apparent objective. In contrast to the incessant attacks previously maintained at night, considerable periods of inactivity occurred during the week under review. Twenty Royal Air Force Stations were attacked, but with insignificant results, and the only serious damage sustained by the aircraft industry was to the Armstrong-Siddeley works at Coventry.

49. During the week Fighter Command flew an average of twelve sorties each night and a total of 501 patrols involving 2,142 sorties by day. … Our fighters destroyed one enemy aircraft at night and another was shot down by anti-aircraft fire.

Morale.

80. Londoners are feeling the strain owing to lack of sleep and interruption of normal life, but morale remains sound. The spirit of the people as a whole remains high and there is little evidence of defeatist talk, but there is a certain amount of Communist activity.

See TNA CAB /66/13/5

The ‘London Cage’ opens for selected German POWs


23 October 1940; The ‘London Cage’ opens for selected German POWs

It is estimated that around 3,000 German prisoners passed through the doors of the London Cage throughout the war. What is clear is that the Cage was never declared by the British authorities as an official PoW camp to the Red Cross until 1946. After the War ended, the Cage became an interrogation base for the investigation of German war crimes. What remains unclear is whether the interrogation carried out there both during and after the War was authorised as part of the overall CSDIC operation. Some believe it wasn’t and that it was largely a rogue operation pursued in defiance of official policy by its maverick boss, Alexander Scotland.

No 8 and 8a Kensington Palace Gardens in central London, home to the ‘London Cage’.

In October 1940 Britain stood alone, with London under daily assault from German bombers, while the threat of invasion appeared only to have been delayed by the coming winter. The prospects of overcoming Nazi Germany looked remote. However many remained convinced that that day would eventually come, and there would be a reckoning.

Even if that day lay far off the important business of interrogating prisoners had to be prepared for. There were few significant individuals in custody to date, but that was expected to change in time.

The street at the heart of questions about Britain’s wartime interrogation techniques sits in one of the most exclusive and fashionable parts of London. Numbers 6 and 7 Kensington Palace Gardens now form part of the Russian Embassy. Numbers 8 and 8a were demolished in the 1960s and replaced by billionaire apartments. Several other foreign embassies and consulates are situated on the street, as well as very expensive private houses. The street is guarded at both ends by police but there is nothing remaining to indicate what happened here in the 1940s.

The requisitioning of houses in Kensington Palace Gardens started in October 1940 and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland started setting up an interrogation centre there. The first prisoners arrived on 23 October 1940. Eventually there were twenty-eight rooms and the centre could accommodate sixty prisoners at any one time. In 1941 part of the paddock of the neighbouring Kensington Palace itself was also taken over to provide supplementary, tented accommodation.

Kensington Palace Gardens was conceived as one of a network of ‘cages’ around the country (see below). Their role was to question captured enemy prisoners of war and determine their usefulness for further questioning. The vast majority of Italian and German PoWs stayed only brifley in these holding camps as they were deemed not to have any information useful to the Allied war effort. They were then sent on to regular PoW camps. However, some, generally high—ranking officers, were deemed worthy of further interrogation.

This type of interrogation was carried out by yet another clandestine operation of the British wartime machine, (CSDIC). This organisation had started work in the Tower of London at the beginning of the war. However, the need for more space and a base safe from the bombing risk of central London led CSDIC to establish three bases outside the capital (see below) but the London Cage also acquired a role as a formidable, and later a controversial, interrogation centre.

It is estimated that around 3,000 German prisoners passed through the doors of the London Cage throughout the war. What is clear is that the Cage was never declared by the British authorities as an official PoW camp to the Red Cross until 1946. After the War ended, the Cage became an interrogation base for the investigation of German war crimes. What remains unclear is whether the interrogation carried out there both during and after the War was authorised as part of the overall CSDIC operation. Some believe it wasn’t and that it was largely a rogue operation pursued in defiance of official policy by its maverick boss, Alexander Scotland.

Lt Colonel Alexander Scotland, the commander of the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre.

Scotland was an unusual man. Curiously, he had served in the German Army in the early twentieth century in Southern Africa and also spent time as a German PoW during the First World War. Later in that War, he served in British intelligence. He met Hitler in Munich in 1937 and at the beginning of 1940 he signed up with British intelligence again.

The evidence about the methods employed at the London Cage comes principally from Scotland’s own post-war memoirs, but also from the claims of captured Germans when they appeared in war crimes trials in the late 194Os. A number of official files about the existence and operation of the London Cage remain classified; others were apparently lost.

In summary, the allegations concerning the London Cage include claims that undoubtedly involve breaches of the Geneva Convention, even though they are clearly not of the same severity as the treatment meted out by the Japanese, Germans and indeed Russians.

Many people might question whether Germans on trial for war crimes can be regarded as entirely reliable witnesses about what happened during their interrogation. However, they alleged that they were doused with cold water, forced to clean rooms with a toothbrush, denied food for long periods, deprived of sleep for several days and made to stand to attention for hours without a break. There were a variety of claims of the use of so-called truth drugs and of extreme psychological pressure put on detainees. Lieutenant Colonel Scotland was himself accused of hitting a number of PoWs.

There were also claims that prisoners at the London Cage were repeatedly threatened with a range of worse treatments including deportation to Russia and even execution. Those official files about the London Cage which have been released into the National Archives make reference to ‘secret control gear’ and to electric shock treatment. There were at least four suicides reported at the London Cage in the immediate post-war period.

Fritz Knoechlein, interrogated at the London Cage for the massacre of members of the Norfolk Regiment in France 1940.

Many of the claims about the London Cage appear to relate to the period after 1945 when interrogation of alleged war criminals was the principal activity there. This might explain, though perhaps not justify, the harsh treatment apparently inicted upon people interrogated there who ranked among some of the most despicable of men in twentieth- century history. Fritz Knochlein was an SS lieutenant colonel who faced trial as the alleged leader of the so called Le Paradis massacre in France in 1940. More than 100 British soldiers, who were in the process of surrendering during the retreat to Dunkirk, were gunned down by an SS division on 27 May 1940.

Knochlein was held at the London Cage for sixty-four days from October 1946. When his trial took place in Germany in October 1948, he alleged that he had been tortured there. He claimed that he had been given virtually no food for three days and that he had been unable to sleep for a similar period because he had been placed in a room where his guards were singing and playing cards.

He said that he was forced to do 100 trunk bends without a break and that he was made to walk round in a narrow circle in the same direction for four hours. When he complained of feeling giddy, he was kicked by the guards. He said he was made to do unnecessary cleaning tasks, that he was refused use of the toilet, forced to stay in cold showers for long periods and made to clean floors kneeling down with a guard sitting on his back.

These claims by Knochlein led to the remarkable sight of his interrogator, Alexander Scotland, ending up in the dock defending himself against war crimes. Scotland fiercely denied Knochlein’s testimony and the court came to no firm conclusion about the truth of the allegations. It ruled instead that the claims were irrelevant to the question of the SS officer’s guilt.

Fritz Knochlein was convicted for his part in the Le Paradis massacre and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 21 January 1949.

Although the allegations against Scotland were left unproven, his court appearance left an air of controversy around the London Cage which had finally closed in autumn 1948. Scotland tried to get permission to publish his memoirs in 1954 but was refused on the grounds that their publication would breach the Ofcial Secrets Act.

His book came out in 1957 but was heavily redacted. Scotland maintained until his death in 1965 that he had not used torture at the London Cage although he admitted to creating a harsh environment, believing that to be justiable and necessary to deal with hardened Nazis and, in many cases, war criminals.

This account comes from Secret Wartime Britain, published in 2018, a survey of a variety of locations around Britain that were used for secret wartime purposes. “They include underground factories, storage sites and headquarters; spy and communication centres; interrogation and POW camps; dummy sites; research facilities such as sinister Porton Down; treasure stores in stately homes and even royal retreats in the event of invasion such as Madresfield Court”

Hitler meets Franco at Hendaye

Francisco Franco owed much to Adolf Hitler, German forces had been of particular value to him during the Spanish civil war. Yet he was in no rush to automatically line up with another Fascist dictator. Whether he demanded too much from Hitler, wanted to play a waiting game to see which way the war turned, or really wished to avoid involvement in the war, given the shattered state of Spain following the civil war is subject to much debate. He was a difficult man to pin down. Famously Hitler is alleged to have said that he would “rather have three or four teeth pulled” than go through another meeting with him.

Hitler meets Franco
Adolf Hitler met the Spanish leader Francisco Franco for 12 hours of talks at the railway station of Hendaye.

The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco owed much to Adolf Hitler, German forces had been of particular value to him during the Spanish civil war. Yet he was in no rush to automatically line up with another Fascist dictator. Whether he demanded too much from Hitler, wanted to play a waiting game to see which way the war turned, or really wished to avoid involvement in the war – given the shattered state of Spain following the civil war, is subject to much debate.

He was a difficult man to pin down. Famously Hitler is alleged to have said that he would “rather have three or four teeth pulled” than go through another meeting with him. During the early part of the war Spain offered some practical support to Germany but as the tide turned Franco shifted his allegiances.

 Heinrich Himmler with Franco
Heinrich Himmler was also conducting talks with the Spanish and it is alleged that lists of Spanish Jews were handed over to the Germans.

The Jewish ghetto is established in Warsaw

When it came time to carry out the ghetto order, everything became chaotic. The Polish side began to haggle—in this suburb they have a church; another is mainly inhabited by Aryans; here is a beautiful school building; there is a factory employing thousands of Aryan workers. How can the rightful owners be driven from all these places? Thus they excised piece after piece, street after street, of the Jewish area, and the boundaries of the ghetto grew more and more constricted.

Transport only for Jews
‘Only for Jews’ : the segregation and persecution of the Jews in Poland had continued incrementally since the beginning of the German occupation. Now there was a step change, with the establishment of a separate Jewish ghetto.

A separate ghetto for Jews in Warsaw was formally announced on the 12th October. The second largest Jewish community in the world (after New York), comprising over a third of the population of Warsaw were to be crammed into a tiny area in the poorest part of the city.

Chaim Kaplan describes the process of establishing the ghetto. Separate living areas for Jews were created at different times at different locations around Poland. Usually the Germans required the local Jewish council or ‘Judenrat’ to undertake the arrangements. In Warsaw substantial numbers of ordinary Poles had to move out of the area designated for the Jews:

October 22, 1940

The creation of the ghetto is accompanied by such severe birth pangs that they are beyond description.

When it came time to carry out the ghetto order, everything became chaotic. The Polish side began to haggle—in this suburb they have a church; another is mainly inhabited by Aryans; here is a beautiful school building; there is a factory employing thousands of Aryan workers. How can the rightful owners be driven from all these places? Thus they excised piece after piece, street after street, of the Jewish area, and the boundaries of the ghetto grew more and more constricted.

Several days ago the Judenrat furnished a questionnaire to all the courtyard committees in which they were asked to give detailed replies to questions about the number of apartments, the number of rooms in each apartment, the number of tenants, and the prices of apartments. On the basis of this information they will confiscate vacant rooms and settle homeless people in them.

How many people will be assigned to each room? Some say four, some say six. And so the people are hurriedly renting out rooms to tenants of their own choice. Incidentally, they are raising the rents sky-high. They are afraid that the Judenrat will match them up with the wrong people and make them stick to the prescribed rents, so they are hurrying to beat the Judenrat to the draw.

See The Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan.

Unexploded Bombs cause widespread disruption


On arrival at the Church Hall, we had to sign in, giving name, address and number in family. We each got 2 blankets and a palliasse, found a space in the hall and made up our beds. We were all there for 4 days. The WVS were wonderful and provided us with breakfast of porridge, toast and marmalade at another church for anyone who wanted to go. We couldn’t cook anything as the gas ring only had 2 burners, but we made endless tea and lived off fish and chips. We didn’t get much sleep as people were coming and going day and night, working different shifts. We were also very conscious that we were in a wooden building with a tin roof-not much protection.

Examining the Fuze of a Bomb, Edward Ardizzone, 1940. Ardizzone described his experiences with the Bomb Disposal Squad: 'Ah, that was an unexploded bomb and I went to have a look at them, I must say I thought I was rather brave and I looked over the edge whilst they were doing it. That was in England.'
Examining the Fuze of a Bomb, Edward Ardizzone, 1940. Ardizzone described his experiences with the Bomb Disposal Squad: ‘Ah, that was an unexploded bomb and I went to have a look at them, I must say I thought I was rather brave and I looked over the edge whilst they were doing it. That was in England.’

The Blitz was now hitting cities across Britain on a daily basis.

It was a constant running battle to deal with the huge numbers of unexploded bombs. The Home Security Situation report for this week records that:

The total of unexploded bombs in the country remains at about 3,000. Of these, about 850 are in the London region, 1,000 in Sussex and Kent and 900 in East Anglia. During the week 1,392 unexploded bombs have been reported.

In Coventry on the night of the 22nd/23rd October of 60 H.E. dropped 30 failed to explode.

"Keep Clear Unexploded Bomb"
A familiar sight during the war, unexploded bombs caused massive disruption, often taking days to dig out.

Doris Anderson was living in Southall, west London during the Blitz. She recalls how by October 1940 her family no longer waited to hear the siren but every evening went straight to the Andersen Shelter that they had built in their garden and slept there. Until an unexploded bomb killed their neighbour:

October 21st: We awakened about 4 a.m. hearing a terrible bang. The whole shelter shuddered. We realised that a bomb had been dropped close by. We couldn’t see anything because it was too dark, so went back to sleep. Shortly afterwards, there was a banging on the shelter door and an air raid warden flashed his torch inside. He told us a large bomb had landed on a house opposite ours, bringing the house down and killing the old gentleman who lived there alone. It had not exploded and the whole area had to be evacuated. We were given 5 minutes to collect a case full of things and leave. The assembly point was the Mission Hall opposite the laundry where I worked.

My brother and sister were so frightened. My father was making arrangements to get my grandfather moved;he was bedridden and slept in a downstairs room reinforced with iron girders. He was whisked away by ambulance and never returned home again. We were a sorry lot trailing down the road with our neighbours, some with coats over nightclothes, carrying young children, some with dogs and cats and birdcages. Old and young, we were a dejected lot until someone started to sing: “There’s a long, long trail a-winding”.

On arrival at the Church Hall, we had to sign in, giving name, address and number in family. We each got 2 blankets and a palliasse, found a space in the hall and made up our beds. We were all there for 4 days. The WVS were wonderful and provided us with breakfast of porridge, toast and marmalade at another church for anyone who wanted to go. We couldn’t cook anything as the gas ring only had 2 burners, but we made endless tea and lived off fish and chips. We didn’t get much sleep as people were coming and going day and night, working different shifts. We were also very conscious that we were in a wooden building with a tin roof – not much protection.

We weren’t allowed back into the house for anything but my father managed to sneak over the back fence, feed the chickens and bring us clean clothing. Eventually we were told that it was safe to return: the bomb was not set on a time fuse, so would not now explode. It was left till after the war when a huge crane lifted it out. Had it gone off, we were told, the whole street would have gone up as well.

Doris Anderson’s full account can be read at BBC People’s War.

Doreen, Susie and Hugh Buckner play a game of 'Wardens' at their London home. Doreen, Susie and their dolls sit under an up-turned armchair covered in blankets, as 'Warden' Hugh checks to see that they are safely inside their make-believe air raid shelter.
Doreen, Susie and Hugh Buckner play a game of ‘Wardens’ at their London home. Doreen, Susie and their dolls sit under an up-turned armchair covered in blankets, as ‘Warden’ Hugh checks to see that they are safely inside their make-believe air raid shelter.

Bomber Command attacks Germany and Italy

138 medium and heavy bombers were despatched. A considerable weight of bombs were released within the various target areas, but results were difficult to assess except at Berlin, where a military objective and important marshalling yards were hit and at Grevenbroich and Cologne, where aluminium works were set on fire and several large fires were started in the vicinity of the Hohenzollern Bridge. At Bonn and Munster many explosions were caused when goods yards were bombed.

Bomb damage in Berlin October 1940
Clearing up the bomb damage in Berlin, October 1940. The RAF were a long way from matching the devastation being visited upon London.

Our heaviest attack [of the week] took place on the night of the 20th-21st October when 138 medium and heavy bombers were despatched. A considerable weight of bombs were released within the various target areas, but results were difficult to assess except at Berlin, where a military objective and important marshalling yards were hit and at Grevenbroich and Cologne, where aluminium works were set on fire and several large fires were started in the vicinity of the Hohenzollern Bridge. At Bonn and Munster many explosions were caused when goods yards were bombed.

This night also marked the resumption of our attacks on Northern Italy after an interval of some six weeks. Targets in Turin, Milan, Aosta, Bergamo and Savona were attacked; at Aosta a large sheet of flame followed a direct hit on the steel works.

TNA CAB 66/13/5

The Wolfpack moves on to Convoy HX79

0015. Three destroyers, line abreast, approach the ship, searching the vicinity. I went off at full speed on a south-westerly course and very soon regained contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from other boats exploding all the time. The destroyers are at their wits’ end, shooting off star shells the whole time to comfort themselves and each other. Not that that makes much odds in the bright moonlight. I am now beginning to pick them off from astern of the convoy.

Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, also known as Otto der Schweigsame (Silent Otto), November 1940.
Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, also known as Otto der Schweigsame (Silent Otto), November 1940.

The attack on SC7 continued into the 19th October. This time the record of action is from the German perspective.

This was the war diary of Otto Kretschmer, commanding U-99, for the period around midnight 18th/19th October:

18.10

2330. Now attacking right wing of the last line but one. Bow shot at a large freighter. The vessel zig-zagged, with the result that the torpedo passed in front of her and hit instead her even bigger neighbour after a run of 1,740 yards. The ship, about 7,000 tons, was hit below the foremast and sank quickly by the bows with, I presume, two holds flooded.

2358. Bow shot at large freighter approx. 6,000 tons. Range 750 yards. Hit below foremast. The explosion of the torpedo was immediately followed by a high sheet of flame and an explosion which ripped the ship open as far as the bridge and left a cloud of smoke 600 feet high. Ship’s forepart apparently shattered. Ship still burning fiercely, with green flames.

19.10

0015. Three destroyers, line abreast, approach the ship, searching the vicinity. I went off at full speed on a south-westerly course and very soon regained contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from other boats exploding all the time. The destroyers are at their wits’ end, shooting off star shells the whole time to comfort themselves and each other. Not that that makes much odds in the bright moonlight. I am now beginning to pick them off from astern of the convoy.

0138. Bow shot on a large, heavily laden freighter of some 6,000 tons. Range 945 yards. Hit below foremast. Ship sank at once.

0155. Bow shot on the next ship, a large vessel of approx. 7,000 tons. Range 975 yards. Hit below foremast. Ship sank in forty seconds.

Those U-boats that still had torpedoes following the attack on Convoy SC7 were now ordered to join up with U-47, commanded by Gunther Prien. He had spotted another Liverpool bound convoy, this time unescorted. Although the Royal Navy, alarmed at the losses to SC7 and aware of the probable danger to HX79 sent ships to the scene, they were no deterrent to the night time attack by the Wolfpack.

A further 12 ships were now sunk, with no loss to U-Boats.

The casualties from HX79 were:

Wandby – 8900 tons lead, zinc and lumber for Middlesbrough, sunk by U-47 Oct. 19, no casualties.
Loch Lomond steel/lumber for Methil, straggled, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20.
Shirak – Kerosene for London, damaged by U-47 Oct. 19, sunk by U-48 Oct. 20, no casualties.
Sitala – 8444 tons crude oil for Manchester, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20, 1 died.
Caprella – 11 300 tons fuel oil for Mersey, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20, 1 died.
Whitford Point – 7840 tons steel for Liverpool, sunk by U-47 Oct. 20, 37 died.
Bilderdijk – 8640 tons grain/general, sunk by U-47 [Uboat.net says U-38] Oct. 19, no casualties.
Janus – fuel oil for Clyde, straggled, sunk by U-46 Oct. 20.
Ruperra – steel/scrap iron/aircraft for Glasgow, sunk by U-46 Oct. 19, 30 died.
Athelmonarch – Molasses for Liverpool, damaged by U-47 Oct. 20.
Matheran -3000 tons iron/1200 tons zinc/general for Liverpool, sunk by U-38 Oct. 19, 9 died.
Uganda – 2006 tons steel/6200 tons lumber for Milford Haven, sunk by U-38? Oct. 19 [Arnold Hague says U-47], no casualties.
La Estancia – 8333 tons sugar for Belfast, sunk by U-47 Oct. 20, 1 died.

For more details on this and other wartime convoys see Warsailors

After leaving the remains of HX79, the U Boats went on to attack an outward bound convoy from Britain – HX79A – and sank a further seven ships on the night of the 20th/21st.

It was a terrible period for the Royal Navy, despite having the escort ships on the scene of the action, they had been unable to prevent a determined night attacks by U-boats on the surface in the middle of convoys.

Gunther Prien
Gunther Prien, the German U-boat ‘ace’.

The star of the German show was once again Gunther Prien who provided another great propaganda boost for the the Nazis. His tonnage sunk may well have been exaggerated to push him along. He was now awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross.

The entire crew of 40 were saved from the merchant steam ship Uganda when it was sunk on the 19th October 1940, possibly by U-47 commanded by Gunther Prien.
The entire crew of 40 were saved from the merchant steam ship Uganda when it was sunk on the 19th October 1940, possibly by U-47 commanded by Gunther Prien.

Meanwhile Admiral Karl Doenitz, directing the U-Boat war, felt that his tactics had been vindicated. As he afterwards recorded in his memoirs:

In three days, then, and almost exclusively in night attacks delivered together, eight boats had sunk thirty-eight ships belonging to three different convoys. In these operations no U-boat was lost.

The conclusions to which I came and which I entered in my War Diary were:

1. These operations have demonstrated the correctness of the principle which since 1935 has governed the development of U-boat tactics and been the basis of all U-boat training, namely, that the concentration which a convoy represents must be attacked by a like concentration of U-boats acting together. This has become possible thanks to the advances made in means of communication.

2. It is only possible to carry out attacks of this kind when captains and crews have been thoroughly trained for the purpose.

3. They are only possible when the requisite number of U-boats are present in the area in question.

4. The greater the number of U-boats in any given area of operations, the more likely it becomes that with more eyes (i.e. more U-boats) more convoys will be spotted – and the more numerous will become the opportunities for these concerted attacks.

5. Again, the presence of a greater number of U-boats means that, after an attack of this kind, the sea lanes of approach to Britain will not be free of danger for the time being. At the moment, nearly all the operational U-boats, after having exhausted their load of torpedoes, are forced to return to their base.

6. Success such as was achieved in the operations under review cannot always be expected. Fog, bad weather and other factors can sometimes completely ruin all prospects of success.

The decisive factor, however, is, and always will be, the ability of the captains and their crews.

Karl Doenitz: Memoirs: Ten Years And Twenty Days

US FLAG

 

U-Boat Wolfpack savages Convoy SC7

22:40 – Sighted a “U” boat on surface straight ahead steaming fast on the same course. Distance 3000-4000 yards. Opened fire with star shell. The “U” boat and her wake were clearly visible but not sufficiently for the Gunlayer of “A” gun to get his sights on before she submerged a few minutes later. Contact by echo was obtained at about 3000 yards range and was held on the run in up to 800 yards.

October 1940, On board the escorting destroyer HMS Vanity on an east coast convoy. Views of the Convoy going north up the East coast.
October 1940, On board the escorting destroyer HMS Vanity on an east coast convoy. Views of the Convoy going north up the East coast.
The leading ship of the convoy as seen from the bridge. The Captain, Lieut Cdr Ouvry, is on the left.
The leading ship of the convoy as seen from the bridge. The Captain, Lieut Cdr Ouvry, is on the left.

The longest lasting campaign of the war, the U-boat war, was still gathering pace. Although the Royal Navy had quickly instituted the convoy system, based on its experiences in the First World War, they were facing a determined enemy. The threat to Britain’s capacity to continue the war was potentially even more serious than that of the Blitz.

Thirty-five merchant ships had set out from Nova Scotia on the 5th October for Liverpool. The original escort of the convoy HMS Scarborough had fallen behind whilst attacking another U-Boat, so HMS Leith was sent with the Corvettes HMS Heartsease and Bluebell to see the convoy through the final stages. They were later joined by HMS Fowey.

Unfortunately the Germans had now formed up a Wolfpack of five U-boats, including the experienced Otto Kretschmer in U-99. They now made a co-ordinated attack on the convoy, sinking 16 ships over the 18th and 19th October. The post action report of HMS Leith’s commander shows how busy these ships were and how hard their task was:

Friday 18th October

01:15 – In company with Heartsease. Course 129° Speed 14. Sighted S.C. 7 ahead in position 58 50N 14 12W. Wind SE, Force 2, moon behind cloud, visibility good, sea calm.

01:26 – Ordered Heartsease to position [?] intending to take station myself.

01:34 – Red Very’s light observed in direction of convoy.

01:38 – An unknown ship astern of convoy signalled he was hit port side.

01:45 – Heard explosion to port of convoy. Altered 90° to port to search across convoy’s wake. From the above it would appear that two ships had been torpedoed and two ships were certainly seen at this stage. Later however only one ship Carsbreck could be found and other ships of escort stated next day that only one ship was missing. The discrepancy cannot be explained.

01:55 – Sighted Bluebell and stationed her one mile port beam. Searched 3000 yards up port side of convoy wake. When estimated position was abeam convoy searched back.

02:45 – Sighted Fowey and Heartsease who had also searched port side.

03:50 – Ordered Fowey back to convoy. Stationed Heartsease.

04:15 – Turned back towards convoy.

05:20 – Reported attack on convoy. Sighted ship and closed.

05:50 – Sighted lifeboat near ship.

06:10 – Spoke ship Carsbreck who stated she could steam 6 knots and would probably stay afloat. Ordered Hearstease to pick up survivors from boat and escort Carsbreck.

06:25 – Stationed Bluebell one mile port beam and set course for convoy at 14 knots.

08:15 – Sighted convoy.

09:48 – Stationed escort

09:58 – Spoke Commodore.

13:05 – Sighted two rafts ahead, searched in vicinity with Bluebell then picked up Master and crew (18) of Nora (Estonian) torpedoed on 13th October about 50′ (30′?) west of Rockall.

17:15 – Commodore signalled his intention to alter 40° to starboard at 20:00 and 40° to port at 23:30.

18:00 – Ordered Fowey to search 5′ astern of convoy at dusk.

19:25 – Observed very distant glare on horizon bearing 180°.

20:00 – Convoy altered course 40° to starboard.

20:20 – A ship torpedoed on port side of convoy in position 57 22N 11 11W. Altered course 120° to port, and increased to full speed firing star shell. Proceeded 10′ and then turned towards convoy.

21:30 – Sighted Fowey who had been 5′ astern of convoy when attack took place. Stationed Fowey abeam 3000 yards and searched up wake of convoy at 14 knots (Fowey’s maximum).

22:05 – Sighted two horizontal red lights then some miles ahead. They burnt for about 15 seconds. Heard explosion ahead.

22:10 – Heard explosion ahead.

22:20 – Heard explosion ahead. Increased to 15 knots and sighted several ships.

22:37 – Heard two explosions ahead.

22:40 – Sighted a “U” boat on surface straight ahead steaming fast on the same course. Distance 3000-4000 yards. Opened fire with star shell. The “U” boat and her wake were clearly visible but not sufficiently for the Gunlayer of “A” gun to get his sights on before she submerged a few minutes later. Contact by echo was obtained at about 3000 yards range and was held on the run in up to 800 yards.

22:55 – Contact was then lost. Meantime Bluebell who was in the vicinity had been ordered to join the hunt which continued until

23:55. About the time “U” boat was sighted a sheet of flame was seen on the starboard bow. It was assumed to be a tanker exploding.

23:55 – Detached Bluebell to pick up survivors and stand by four torpedoed ships which were afloat in the immediate vicinity. These four ships were Empire Miniver, Gunborg, Niritos, Beatus. Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots. Made two signals to Admiralty and C-in-C W.A. (Signals 3 and 4 timed 23:26 and 23:58).

Saturday 19th October

00:09 – Sighted Fowey and ordered her to join me stationing her 1′ on port beam, speed 14. She stated she had picked up survivors of Convallaria, Hurunui, Shekatika and Boekelo. [The British Hurunui was from the westbound Convoy OB 227, sunk by U-93 Oct. 15]

00:28 – Saw flashes on starboard bow on horizon. Turned towards to investigate.

00:50 – Sighted ship which proved to be Blairspey.

01:00 – Master stated that ship had ben torpedoed but that he considered she would keep afloat and that he could steam 6 knots. Detailed Fowey to escort her and reported to C-in-C W.A. (Signal 5 timed 01:26/19).

01:16 – Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots.

01:45 – Sighted and closed ship on port bow in position 57 10N 10 38W. Found the Commodore’s ship Assyrian slowly sinking, having been torpedoed at 00:30, with the wreckage and survivors of two other ships in her immediate neighbourhood.

02:15 – Picked up survivors from Assyrian, Empire Brigade, Soesterberg amongst whom was the Commodore (Vice Admiral L.D. I. Mackinnan).

04:00 – Proceeded on course of convoy route (130°), speed 16 knots, searching for ships.

The Royal Navy was still developing its tactics for responding to U-Boat attacks. Not realising that the attacks were being made by U Boats on the surface between the ships within the convoy, much time was spent looking for submerged U-Boats outside the the area of the convoy.

Warsailors.com has full details of all the ships in the convoy, the casualties and much more.

The Royal Navy Sloop HMS Leith
The Royal Navy Sloop HMS Leith was sent out to escort Convoy SC7 into Liverpool . Shortly after she arrived the convoy was subjected to sustained attack by U-Boats.