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Torpedo attack on a convoy in mid-Atlantic

The north Atlantic was a forbidding place in winter even without the threat of U-boat attack.

John Di Phillip, an American merchant seaman, finds his oil-tanker attacked by U-boats in mid-Atlantic:

February 6th – 13th day at sea – U-boat attack

This night at 2200 we were attacked by submarines, and a minute later the general alarm went off as the first depth charge was released. As we gathered on the 4.5 gun platform where our gun was ready for firing, we noticed the destroyers and corvettes all moving to the port side at the head of the convoy. Apparently they had picked up the sub, and were now making the move to pounce upon it.

The stern remained open. Three minutes later the troop transport was hit, we heard the explosion and saw two red flares released into the sky. Training our gun in that direction, We remained silent as we watched.

Within a minute the tanker, second ship back of us, was hit. By the time the destroyers had assembled in their former position, they released depth charge after depth charge. Also releasing White flares which lit the water up and by this means it was possible to tell whether the subs had been hit, by the wreckage and floating oil that might be on the surface.

Another explosion and the tanker on the starboard stern received hers. The Lieutenant had remained on the stern gun to personally take charge in the event the sub might appear. Among the faces of the crew were some puzzling looks as we all watched with eagerness to fight if we had to. Five minutes later all was quiet, until another ship – which happened to be a Liberty – was hit as the flares pierced the sky once more.

We began to wonder if any of the survivors had been picked up. The way the escort ships were releasing depth charges, not a soul could stand the concussion in the water, in the event they were able to escape from the sinking afloat.

Up to 2300 all but four ships remained afloat.

Finally the Lieutenant, sensing the sub’s approach, dismissed half the crew for coffee, which came in handy at this time. Drinking our coffee in the mess hall, we sensed the danger closing in on us, and being allowed five minutes to ourselves, we took advantage of it, then the alarm sounded once more.

Rushing up to our guns we noticed the destroyer on the starboard side maneuvering with considerable force in the water as the depth charges went off. The ships had spread out and it seemed as if every ship was on its own.

The date 6th February appears in John Di Phillip: Gunner’s Diary but does not match convoy records for the period.

The oil tanker sunk during this attack was just one of hundreds sunk in the Atlantic during the course of the war. The human cost was appalling but the environmental cost is very rarely considered. One rare study published in 2016 suggested that some seabird populations in the west of Britain fell by as much as 95% as a consequence of the oil pollution released from sunken ships – the Guardian newspaper has the report.

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