“Depth charges – captured – Heil Hitler – Kretschmer.”

The German U Boat 'ace' Otto Kretschmer, pictured in U-99 during January 1941.

During the night of 16th-17th March 1941 the U-Boats U-99 and U-100 were involved in a combined attack on convoy HX-112. A series of ships were torpedoed before U-100 was detected on ASDIC and subject to depth charge attack by HMS Walker and HMS Vanoc. Then in the early hours of the morning HMS Vanoc spotted U-100 on her recently installed Type 286M radar. This was the first confirmed British surface ship radar sighting of a U-boat. HMS Vanoc rammed U-100 – her commander Joachim Schepke was crushed against the periscope mast and was not one of the six survivors.

Nazi hero Joachim Schecke, recipient of the  Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves - the highest award then available. Died when U-100 was rammed by HMS Vanoc.
Nazi hero Joachim Schecke, recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves – the highest award then available. Died when U-100 was rammed by HMS Vanoc.

U-99 was commanded by Otto Kretschmer with a long list of sinkings to his name, among them the [permalink id=8537 text=”attack on convoy SC7″] and the [permalink id=9358 text=”torpedoing of HMS Forfar”]. U-99 had used up all her torpedoes and was about to leave for her home port, creeping away on the surface. She spotted a destroyer, crash dived and then came within HMS Walker’s ASDIC. Naval Intelligence was able to compile the following sequence of events from interviews with the survivors:

As “U 99” was leaving the scene the Chief Quartermaster sighted a destroyer and gave the alarm. “U 99” crash dived. At about 0330 H.M.S. “Walker,” in approximate position 61° 16′ N., 12° 56′ W., was circling H.M.S. “Vanoc” to give her A/S protection while the latter picked up survivors from “U 100,” which she had rammed at about 0318.

At 0337 “Walker” obtained contact quite close to where “Vanoc” was stopped’ this was thought to be non-sub at first, but as the asdic operator insisted that contact was firm and the echo rapidly improved, the Captain decided to attack.

The crew of “U 99” heard the destroyer passing overhead, and then came the explosions of six depth charges, thought by the Germans to have exploded beneath the U-Boat which was then at depth of 120 metres (393.7 ft.).

“U 99” then went to about 140 metres (459 ft.), or deeper, and water entered the boat; according to the Captain she sank to about 185 metres (607 ft.) or more; but she suddenly started to rise quickly and surfaced; the conning tower hatch was thrown open and the Captain climbed out.

It was then about 0350. The German Captain’s intention was to try and get away on the surface but the Quartermaster reported that the steering gear was out of action; the electric motors were also out of action. The First Lieutenant connected the hand steering gear. But everything, including the fuel tanks, had been smashed. The crew had put on their lifebelts and hurried out of the U-Boat.

At 0352 “Walker” sighted “U 99” on the surface. “Vanoc” and “Walker” opened fire on “U 99” at 0354, but ceased firing two minutes later. At this juncture yet another U-Boat was reported astern by reliable witnesses in “Walker.” The Captain of “U 99” called out to his men that their U-Boat was sinking. The First Lieutenant and the Engineering Officer, estimating that their ship would remain afloat for another ten or fifteen minutes, started to open valves to make certain of sinking “U 99.”

As the First Lieutenant went forward, he suddenly heard splashing in the Control Room, and saw a stream of water coming in through the conning tower hatch. He therefore climbed out at once, and found the whole crew gathered together on the bridge.

As the U-Boat did not seem to be sinking fast enough, and it was feared that the British might try to board her, the Engineer Officer again went below to open wide the galley hatch which had previously been only partly opened. He never got out again, and the crew heard him shouting as the U-Boat sank.

The Captain said that a W/T message was sent in clear, just before “U 99” sank; but he did not know whether it was transmitted on full strength or not, or whether it had been received at his base. The signal read: “Depth charges – captured – Heil Hitler – Kretschmer.”

Kretschmer expressed the opinion that “Walker” had not located their U-boat by any detector gear, but had sighted “U 99” on the surface and had dropped depth charges which were effective more by luck than anything else. Five officers and 35 men were picked up by H.M.S. “Walker.” One officer and two ratings were drowned.

Read the whole report at the U-Boat Archive.

The loss of [permalink id=10537 text=”U-47″], U-99 and U-100, during March was a substantial blow against the U-Boat arm. Their three highly experienced and successful U-Boat commanders, Prien, Kretschmer and Schepke could not be replaced. But the Battle of the Atlantic had a long time still to run.

The Nazis eventually revealed the fate of U-99 and U-100 on the 25th April:

The submarines under the command of Lieutenant Commander Kretschmer and Lieutenant Schepke have not returned from patrol. Both boats were recently instrumental in destroying enemy convoys under the toughest conditions and have increased their overall successes considerably.

Lieutenant Commander Kretschmer now has in addition to the destruction of three enemy destroyers – including two on his last undertaking – sunk a total of 313,611 GRT, including the auxiliary cruiser “Laurentic”, “Patroclus” and “Forfar”. Lieutenant Schepke sunk 233,971 GRT of enemy shipping.

The two commanders, awarded with the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of their outstanding services in the freedom struggle of the German people, have won imperishable laurels with their brave crews. Part of the crew, among them Lieutenant Commander Kretschmer, was taken prisoner.

The crew of U-99 celebrate return from a successful patrol in the summer of 1940.

HMS Thunderbolt sinks Italian submarine

HMS Thunderbolt started out as HMS Thetis which had sunk during sea trials in 1939. The salvaged boat had been renamed and was now very much operational.

HMS Thetis had suffered one of the worst peacetime submarine accidents ever. She had sunk during sea trials in 1939 with the loss of 99 lives. The salvaged ship had been renamed HMS Thunderbolt.

HMS Thunderbolt made her first successful attack when she spotted the Italian submarine Tarantini in the Bay of Biscay. The Naval Intelligence summary gives the full details:


H.M.S. Thunderbolt patrolling the Bay of Biscay on 15th December, attacked a U-Boat which was in close company with three trawlers.

At 0835 when diving 12 miles south-west of the mouth of the Gironde, an object resembling the conning tower of a U-Boat was sighted. Thunderbolt altered course to close, and later observed two trawlers on the same bearing. Smoke appeared to be coming from the vessel originally sighted. Assuming that these were the three armed trawlers which had been seen on previous occasions, Thunderbolt reset course for patrol position.

At 0909, however, when the range of the enemy vessels had decreased considerably, a U-Boat, in company with three trawlers was clearly visible 5,000 yards away, bearing Red 110°. Course was altered directly towards the target and all tubes were brought to the ready.

Whilst approaching the firing course, another sight was taken, which showed that the target was now stern on.

Thunderbolt continued to close at half speed grouped-down.

When 130 degrees on the U-Boat’s starboard quarter, periscope range estimated to be 4,000 yards, the disposition of the trawlers was thought to be reminiscent of the start of an A/S exercise.

Thunderbolt therefore allowed the enemy a low nominal speed of 6 knots, and altered a few degrees to reach the firing course. Commencing at 0920, six torpedoes were fired at 12 second intervals, an alteration of three degrees to port being made after the third torpedo.

After what seemed an interminable delay, a tall column of water was seen to rise into the air, followed by an explosion four minutes nine seconds after firing the first torpedo.

Part of the U-Boat, either bow or stern was seen to protrude out of the water, and subsequently no trace of her could be seen.

Five minutes nine seconds after the first, fifteen further explosions were heard, and Thunderbolt could not determine whether these were all depth charges, or if some were torpedoes striking the sea bed, the depth of water being 18 fathoms.

The enemy trawlers could not have known from which direction the torpedoes came, as all the depth charges sounded fairly distant.

The Italians’ very early admission that one of their U-Boats had not returned from the Atlantic is explained by the fact that their patrol craft witnessed the sinking, and our public announcement of the incident has produced no comment.

Churchill seeks support from Roosevelt

The lookout maintains a constant vigil from a Destroyer escorting a convoy.

On 8th December 1940, in a wide ranging letter to President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill reviewed the state of the war. Now isolated from continental Europe, Britain’s main source of supply, for food as well as all manner of war munitions, lay across the Atlantic. The Germans had recently had a series of successes, as their [permalink id=8950 text=”Surface raiders”] and [permalink id=8537 text=”U-Boat wolfpack”] tactics paid off. British countermeasures were constantly being developed but convoy escorts were not yet well co-ordinated, and there was still no answer to the long range [permalink id=9212 text=”Condor planes”] being used to spot shipping for the U-Boats.

This letter was copied to the War Cabinet and might well have been intended for a wider audience given the characteristic language employed:

The danger of Great Britain being destroyed by a swift, overwhelming blow, has for the time being very greatly receded. In its place, there is a long, gradually-maturing danger, less sudden and less spectacular, but equally deadly. This mortal danger is the steady and increasing diminution of sea tonnage.

We can endure the shattering of our dwellings, and the slaughter of our civil population by indiscriminate air attacks, and we hope to parry these increasingly as our science develops, and to repay them upon military objectives in Germany as our Air Force more nearly approaches the strength of the enemy.

The decision for 1941 lies upon the seas. Unless we can establish our ability to feed this Island, to import the munitions of all kinds which we need, unless we can move our armies to the various theatres where Hitler and his confederate, Mussolini, must be met, and maintain them there, and do all this with the asurance of being able to carry it on till the spirit of the Continental Dictators is broken, we may fall by the way, and the time needed by the United States to complete her defensive preparations may not be forthcoming.

It is therefore in shipping and in the power to transport across the oceans, particularly the Atlantic Ocean, that in 1941 the crunch of the whole war will be found. If, on the other hand, we are able to move the necessary tonnage to and fro across salt water indefinitely, it may well be that the application of superior air power to the German homeland and the rising anger of the German and other Nazi-gripped populations, will bring the agony of civilization to a merciful and glorious end.

But do not let us underrate the task.

However, there was one crucial factor that he had to spell out.

The moment approaches [he said] when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies. While we will do our utmost, and shrink from no proper sacrifice to make payments across the Exchange, I believe you will agree that it would be wrong in principle and mutually disadvantageous in effect, if at the height of this struggle, Great Britain were to be divested of all salable assets, so that after the victory was won with our blood, civilisation saved, and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed against all eventualities, we should stand stripped to the bone. Such a course would not be in the moral or the economic interests of either of our countries.

See TNA CAB/66/13/46

The number of ships sunk and the rate of supplies entering Britain was given close attention at the highest level. The weekly Naval Situation report to the War Cabinet would give a broad overview, as well as listing all the individual ships sunk. The general summary for this week gives an indication of the scale of the resources involved:

25. 19 ships totalling 78,234 tons have been reported lost by enemy action, and of these 16 ships (52,668 tons) were British. Nine British ships (44,042 tons) were sunk by U-Boats and one large Norwegian ship (18,673 tons), 3 British ships (2,392 tons) and a Belgian Trawler were sunk by mine. One British ship and a Trawler were sunk by aircraft. Thirteen ships are reported damaged by enemy action.

Protection of Seaborne Trade.

26. During the week ending noon Wednesday, the 11th December, 795 ships, including 130 allied and 12 neutral, were convoyed, and of these three are reported lost by enemy action. One battleship, one cruiser, eleven armed merchant cruisers, 43 destroyers and 30 sloops and corvettes were employed on escort duty. Since the commencement of hostilities 46,610 ships have been convoyed, of which 200 have been lost.

See TNA CAB/66/14/8

The second sinking of U-boat U-31

U-31 sinking
The U-boat U-31 as seen from HMS Antelope after the attack had forced her to the surface. Unsuccessful attempts were made to board her shortly before she sank.

U-boat U-31 had first been been sunk on 11 March 1940 whilst on sea trials off Germany. A Blenheim bomber had caught her on the surface and attacked her with four semi-armour piercing bombs. Two of these had hit the U-Boat, damaging the compressed air tanks. Uncontrolled compressed air flooded into the U-Boat as it crash dived and killed the entire crew, apart from two in the conning tower who were washed overboard and drowned during the attack. 58 men died in total.

Uboat U-31 on surface
U-31 as seen from the Bristol Blenheim bomber which attacked her on 11th March 1940, just before the bombs hit.

The U-Boat was recovered and re-commissioned. She was at sea on another war patrol on 16th September from Wilhemshaven to [permalink id=8793 text=”Lorient”]. For full details see U-Boat.net.

U Boat U-31 in dry dock at Lorient
U-Boat U-31 at the new U Boat base in Lorient, France, before she left on her last patrol on October 19th 1940.

U-31 was spotted on the surface at 10.15am on Saturday 2nd November by HMS Antelope, a destroyer escorting convoy OB237. Her commander Willfried Prellburg was below having breakfast. Although U-31 dived HMS Antelope put in an immediate depth charge attack which damaged her slightly. The hunt was on and HMS Antelope searched for her on Asdic and again damaged her with an attack at 1113.

British Naval Intelligence was able to piece together the following sequence of events using interviews of the survivors alongside the report from HMS Antelope.

After searching in vain for nearly an hour, the Captain of Antelope decided to close the position of the last known contact.

At 1320 contact was regained right ahead at a range of 2,500 yards. The position was closed. The U-Boat proceeding at a depth of 50 metres (164 ft.) had heard the movements of Antelope and the Germans were alarmed at the destroyer’s sudden return. A full pattern of six charges set to 250, 350 and 500 ft. was fired at 1330.

This attack caused considerable damage to U 31, who, in the opinion of her engineer officer, had gone deeper, probably to about 70 metres: she went down by the stern and “full ahead” on both motors was ordered; the crew went forward and squeezed together as much as possible, but the U-Boat remained 15° down by the stern. The depth pressure gauge was still functioning, but all other instruments were out of action.

The German Captain wanted to surface but after some argument was dissuaded by the Engineer Officer.

A large bubble of air and oil rose to the surface. Range was opened and Antelope regained contact immediatelv with no doppler but marked hydrophone effect. The target appeared to be moving slowly and bubbling noises were heard, as though tanks were being blown.

A fourth attack was carried out at 1341, but only three charges with deep settings were ready. This was again an accurate attack.

The U-Boat, becoming rapidly heavier and sinking with her stern down, was at a depth of about 95 metres (312 ft.). The after torpedo tube and the Diesel air shaft filled with water, a compressed air bottle broke and the air escaped with a bubbling noise, the valves leaked, and the Captain knew that the U-Boat was making an oil track. At 1344 large bubbles came to the surface.

At 1350 U31 surfaced right astern of Antelope. The Destroyer’s after group opened fire, until the crew were seen to be abandoning ship. The U-Boat’s motors were left running ahead with port wheel on, speed about 4 knots. Antelope’s whaler tried to board, but the U-Boat’s speed was too great, and as it was not quite certain whether all the crew had left U 31, fire was opened again at 1405. Twenty-three rounds were fired but owing to the large swell no hits were obtained.

At 1420, as the U-Boat appeared to be stopping and not turning so fast to port, the Commanding Officer decided to try to lay the ship alongside and board, in an endeavour to capture some papers at least before she sank. This was rendered impossible by the U-Boat turning sharply to port and ramming Antelope, who was then going full speed astem.

U 31 who had little positive buoyancy, was pushed under and, as the conning tower was open, sank immediately.

Forty-three of the forty-five members of the complement were rescued, two Petty Officers being the only casualties.

See TNA ADM 199/257

U-Boats now operate from France

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, [permalink id=4233 text=”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 [permalink id=8537 text=”Wolfpacks”], often in response to sightings by [permalink id=7020 text=”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:


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

The Wolfpack moves on to Convoy HX79

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:


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.


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


U-Boat Wolfpack savages Convoy SC7

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.

Troopship SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir torpedoed

The SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir had previously operated out of Alexandria before being requisitioned as a troopship in 1940.

From the War Diary of Captain Lieutenant Liebe, Commandant of ‘U–38’ :


Surfaced. After surfacing, again surprised by 1 passenger steamer (10,000t) escorted by two destroyers forward to port, distance 8–9000m. Owing to swell and heavy sea, full view not possible before surfacing, an unpleasant situation, which has twice already led to surprise situations.


Torpedo spread within escort. Distance 1000m. Two clicks, then detonation. 1 torpedo definite hit. According to acoustic surveillance, steamer immediately stopped. Further observation not possible owing to immediate pursuit, depth–charges, s–equipment. Heavy damage definitely to be assumed. More exact details on steamer could not be established. In course of pursuit, 3 more depth–charges further away. At one point s–equipment precisely overhead. Impression of steel wire dragging over boat, heavy knocking and noise, as if glass being crunched. However, no depth–charges dropped at this point.

The Chief Officer of the SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir , Mr L.C. Hill was interviewed by the Shipping Casualties Section, Trade Division, Admiralty, on the 12th August 1940 and provided a full account of the sinking:

‘We were bound from Avonmouth to Gibraltar with a cargo of military stores. The colour of our hull was black, superstructure buff and funnel buff. Wireless was fitted and we were armed with a 4″ HE gun and 6 Lewis guns belonging to the military. We were flying a Red Ensign at the time of the attack. The crew including the Captain numbered 164 of whom 2 are slightly injured, 4 Europeans (Captain, Chief W/T Operator, Doctor and a quartermaster) and 6 natives are missing. We also had on board 26 officers and 706 other ranks. I believe some 40 or 50 of these are missing, and I know that 36 are injured and in hospital. The confidential books were all thrown overboard in the weighted bag. The ship had just been degaussed at Liverpool and the apparatus was switched on.

We left Avonmouth at 20.00 BST on 5 August bound for Gibraltar, sailing independently with one destroyer as escort. We continued without incident at a speed of 15 knots, zig-zagging on No. 15 (a predetermined sequence of course changes), until the 7 August. On this day there was a big swell, but not much sea, a moderate breeze, good visibility but overcast. The destroyer kept ahead of us most of the time, but also on a zig-zag course.

At 20.45 BST on 7 August when in position 550 North 150 West about 250 miles from land, there was an explosion aft. I was amidships on the promenade deck, I felt the ship vibrate, as if a gun had been fired. I could not see aft from where I was, but as far as I know there was no flash or smoke, but a column of water was thrown up which I saw descending on the port side. There was no smell. The ship immediately settled aft, but did not list. When the explosion occurred, the destroyer was on our port quarter. A few hours earlier she had been listening, but I do not think she was doing so then, as there was no sign of the U-boat, nor of the wake of the torpedo.

I immediately went to the bridge to report to the Captain, then I saw that the watertight doors were properly closed (they were operated electrically from the bridge) and went aft to see what damage had been done. I think we were hit slightly on the starboard quarter, very near the stern, at the after end of the gun platform. The gun had fallen forward, against the davits of a boat, jamming the falls. At the point of the explosion was a house, then the poopdeck with the dynamo house, the gun and 4 boats. The magazine was between the dynamo house and the hospital on the after side of the gun with the steel house intervening. We had two bulkheads in the engine room, the after peak bulkhead which presumably went right away, and another bulkhead between nos. 4 and 5 holds.

The 2nd. Officer who was aft heard the second bulkhead go. The deck at the after end was sloping into the water, there was no fire, and amidships everything was intact. I went back to the bridge and reported the damage to the captain. He had already given orders to man the boats; I superintended the lowering of them and launching of rafts. The outboard boats were perfectly alright, as they were ready for lowering, but the inner boats (we had two rows) were more difficult. One of these inner boats was smashed by the explosion, another had the davits buckled, all the after boats were put out of action. None of the boats capsized.

The ship was badly down by the stern but upright during the launching of the boats, and all serviceable lifeboats and rafts were got away before she went down. Everyone had a Board of Trade lifebelt.

The last I personally saw of the Captain we were both on the bridge together, he gave the order to jump, so I went onto the deck and thought he followed me. I jumped into the water and was picked up by the destroyer about half an hour later.

The destroyer immediately after she saw the explosion, dropped depth charges one side, swept straight across our quarter and dropped more charges on the other side. After about 1hr 50 minutes, the ship which had been going down by the stern all the time, rose absolutely vertical, with the bow out of the water, then plunged straight down. After that the destroyer dropped no more depth charges, but began picking up the various boats and rafts. She lowered two whalers in the position where the ship sank, then returned and took the whalers back on board, after steaming round in all directions.

She brought us back to Greenock where we arrived at 5 am on Friday 9th August. A number of men had their legs broken by the explosion. Everybody of every rank was exceedingly helpful. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the naval ratings on board, they were magnificent. Some of the military personnel spoke very highly of Quartermaster Anderson, particularly the way he kept up morale of the boat’s crew and got them away from the ship.’

TNA ADM 199/ 2133

Surgeon Lieutenant G J Walley was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Griffin, which effected the rescue, later recorded the treatment of the casualties:

Late in the evening this ship was called on to rescue the survivors of the troopship Mahomet el Ali Kebir. For various reasons rescue work proceeded throughout the night. A variety of injuries were encountered – the majority being fractures of the leg and arm – splints were entirely inadequate for such a large number and a large amount had to be contrived.

Open fractures were reduced under local anaesthesia (2% novatex) roughly splinted and debridement followed by instillation of powdered sulphonamide. Debridement was assisted by staining the wound with an alcoholic solution of 1/1000 Gentian Violet – all stained and dead tissue being removed. Only one death occurred – a naval rating, name unknown (body transferred to Naval Authorities, Greenock) from multiple fractures of tibia, femur, pelvis and humerus.

It was reported in the Times that many deaths occurred on board from exposure. In view of the facts, this was felt to be a gross error and was much resented by my willing helpers in the ship’s company and myself.

In all, 766 survivors were landed at Greenock comprising 704 uninjured or mildly injured, and 62 discharged to Hospital (59 to the Military Hospital and 3 to Naval Hospital).

I should like to mention the superb assistance given by members of the ship’s company during a trying 36 hours, special reference being made to RNASBR Dix and Chief Stoker Kent RN.

TNA ADM 101 /564

For much more on the ship and the sinking see Mohamed Ali el-Kebir

Donitz greets the crew of U-37

19th April 1940: Donitz greets the crew of U-37
Admiral Donitz greets the crew of U-37 on their return to Wilhelmshaven, 1st Officer Clausen is most probably the officer being presented to him.

U-37 had patrolled for 20 days and had sunk three ships, one Swedish, one Norwegian and one British. The commander, Werner Hartmann was soon to receive the Knights Cross (on the 9th May). This was his last patrol before he became a training commander and later a Flotilla commander. He would undertake only one further war patrol and would survive the war. Continue reading “Donitz greets the crew of U-37”

U-50 returns after a successful patrol

U-boat crew of U-50 return after a patrol
The crew of U-50 return after their first patrol

Typical of many U boat patrols at the time, U-50’s first patrol had taken her through the North Sea, around the north coast of Scotland and then down to the Atlantic Coast off Portugal. She had sunk four ships during February; one Swedish, one Danish, one Dutch and one British – the steamer British Endeavour, sunk 100 miles off Portugal on the 22 February 1940. Five men died in that attack, the 33 survivors were picked up by another ship in convoy OGF-19.

U Boat captain and crew member
U-50 Kapitanleutnant Bauer and another crew member, awarded medals on return from their first patrol.

U-50 sailed again on the 5th April 1940 but was sunk the very next day in the North Sea, after hitting a British mine. Details courtesy of u-boat.net. See contemporary Newsreel of [permalink id=3101 text=’British Minelaying Operations’].