Hard-Fought Destroyer Battles – Post D-Day Part II


German Human Torpedo Neger

Human Torpedoes and the Trout Line

Towards the end of June 1944 the western end of the Normandy beachhead was largely secured against enemy intervention by sea from the west, save for the remnants of their surface fleet at Brest. To the east the threat still loomed large and by this time the enemy had recovered enough to launch a series of assaults by new weapons: special attack weapons like the so-called ‘human torpedoes’, the explosive motor boats and midget submarines. They were met by the newly formed ‘Support Squadron, Eastern Flank’, which was formed under the command of Commander K. A. Sellar, with the dual role of protecting their flank and bombarding the German forces ashore east of the River Orne. Under the control of the gunboat-turned-HQ ship, Locust, were some seventy-six landing craft of the LCG, LCF and LCS type, well armed with light weapons, and several motor launches. They formed two lines of defence at night, six miles north of Ouistreham; the landing ships were anchored in the outer line some 700 yards apart with motor launches patrolling up and down inside this outer defence. The whole area was thick with mines; no other types of warship could operate with safety. The whole system was named the ‘Trout Line’. It could only be set up at dusk, otherwise the German batteries would have speedily sunk the whole lot; it had to be abandoned before daylight for the same reason. Despite this, the motley collection of craft operated well and repulsed major attempts by the enemy to breach their line.

Commander Sellar was later to report that:

The Squadron lived and had its being and operated in a heavily mined area, and were ultimately the only inhabitants of this area, as all the other ships were removed as a result of enemy shelling and mining. Four major attacks were made by night by the enemy, using new weapons. Although losses were suffered, these attacks were decisively beaten.

These attacks can be briefly summarized as follows. On the night of 5-6 July some twenty-seven of the ‘human torpedoes’, or Negers as the German naval command called them, attacked from Villers-sur-Mer. At the time it was thought that only four had been destroyed, but in fact the Germans lost nine. In return they sank two big Fleet minesweepers, Cato and Magic of the 40th Flotilla with the loss of four officers and twenty-seven men. As a result of this tragedy the minesweepers were ordered no longer to anchor, but to keep under way between the hours of 2200 and 0400. This resulted in extra strain on the crews, while constant explosions kept them awake as small charges were dropped at intervals throughout the dark hours.

On the night of 7-8 July a second wave of twenty-one Negers came in; no less than twelve were sunk for certain and many others were damaged beyond repair or salvation. In return the Polish-manned light cruiser Dragon was so severely damaged that she was not considered worthy of repair, and she was scuttled as an additional breakwater. The other major victim was the minesweeper Pylades. A sister minesweeper, the Orestes, gave a good account of herself in this attack, her log reading thus:

0652 – engaged human torpedo. Pilot seen to be hit.

0707 – engaged human torpedo. Pilot seen to be killed or severely wounded.

0718 – engaged human torpedo. Pilot seen to be killed or severely wounded.

0737 – engaged human torpedo. Pilot seen in water and picked up.

Finally, on 3 August the Hunt class destroyer Quorn (Lieutenant I. Hall) was hit at 0250 while on patrol at the northern end of the ‘Trout Line’ and subsequently sank, as did the minesweeping trawler Gairsay.

But in the event these novel weapons were powerless to affect the landings and were so severely repulsed in their attempts that the attacks soon died away in failure.

Further Bombardments off Normandy

Bombarding continued during the army advance from the beachhead. To the fore were the British battleships Nelson, Rodney, Warspite and Malaya, as well as the old French battleship Courbert, which had lain idle in harbour at Portsmouth since 1940. Now she finally rejoined the war with indirect bombardments of German batteries. One noteworthy contribution to the naval participation was in fact made by the army. This was the old light cruiser Despatch which was utilized by Captain C. H. Petrie as an HQ ship. She was rescued from ‘…the entrance to the scrap-heap devoid of all guns and stores…’and towed round to Portsmouth. Her main armament for Normandy consisted of sixteen single Mk. III Bofors guns and two single 20mm Oerlikons.


HMS Isis (D87) I-class destroyer of the British Royal Navy

Mining of HMS Isis; 20 July 1944

Mines of all types continued to take a toll among the mass of shipping off the beachhead. Particularly poignant was the loss of the destroyer Isis (Lieutenant H. D. Durrell) that was mined with heavy loss of life. Her passing resembled in many ways the loss of the Acheron off Ventnor all those years earlier, for nobody saw her go, very few survived the sinking and even fewer a night adrift before help belatedly arrived. Even today, sixty-two years later, no positive origin for her loss has ever been ascertained. The official report on her loss, read:

The Isis was one of the few ships remaining to the 8th Flotilla since the wrecking of the Fury and had been on anti-submarine patrol in the Western Area, ten miles off the beaches, close to ‘O’ buoy on 20th July. She had been ordered to anchor for the night near to ‘O’ buoy. She was still underway and had not yet anchored when, at 1802, one survivor, on deck at the time, felt a bump and heard a scraping noise, followed, a fraction of a second later, by a big explosion, followed, almost immediately, by two other explosions. The destroyer took on a big list to starboard, almost at once, and the deck became awash. The Isis then sank, bows first, in ten to thirty minutes after the explosion, the stern being well out of the water from beginning to end. With the exception of one rating, who was on the mess deck and thinks the explosions were due to depth charges, all survivors seemed certain, although they had no reason for so saying, that the explosions were due to mines. The fact that she was still moving when hit, seems to rule out an attack by Marder’s and suchlike craft.

It appeared that the first explosion was abreast No. 1 boiler room on the starboard side; the damage could not be seen, however, as it was under water. A large hole in the port side was visible; opinions varied as to whether it was just before or just abaft the bridge. A difference of opinion also existed as to whether the bows were cut off or badly damaged.

Except for the Engineering Officer and one sub-lieutenant, no officers appear to have been seen after the explosions. One survivor, who was on the mess deck, and at least two other ratings got on deck, the remainder of the survivors questioned seem to think that no one could have escaped from forward of No. 2 boiler room. There were two wireless ratings on watch. No orders were received in the office so, as the transmitter had blown up, both left; a signal was not sent on the emergency set and this had fateful repercussions on the survivors. Attempts to launch the Carley float were hampered because none of the four seamen present possessed a knife to cut the retainers. None of the four ratings had their lifebelts either, and one was drowned in consequence. The sea was not rough, but there was sufficient wind to kick up a sea. In all, five Carley floats and rafts got away and two Denton rafts, but there were so few survivors that there was ample room. Two aircraft passed overhead soon after the ship started sinking, and two destroyers were seen about two or three miles distant but none of these apparently noticed anything amiss! Many of those that did get away, died of exposure during the night. Some twenty survivors were rescued by the minesweeper HMS Hound around 0209, others remained and were not picked up by an American cutter until about 0615 the following morning.

Bombardment of Cherbourg, 25 June 1944

To subdue the many heavy guns known to be manned by picked naval gunners at Cherbourg, in order to facilitate the American capture of that vital port, a squadron under the command of American Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo was sailed. It consisted of the battleships Arkansas, Nevada and Texas; cruisers Quincy and Tuscaloosa, and several destroyers, to which were added a flotilla of British minesweepers to clear the path and the cruisers Glasgow and Enterprise (Captain H. Grant, RCN).

Arkansas and Texas were kept to seaward in reserve, but the remainder of the force took up station nine miles from the coast and parallel to it, with the two experienced British cruisers leading the line. Their initial run drew no response so they closed to within seven miles. Still there was no response. Just before midday, with the range down to five miles, a third run commenced and the German guns finally allowed themselves to be drawn. A heavy and rapid firing battle now commenced. As usual the enemy fire was very accurate and the warships had to zigzag to avoid being hit; most were frequently straddled by shells.

The first casualties were the destroyers. The American ships O’Brien, Barton and Laffey were all hit and damaged but in each case the shells were ‘duds’. The Texas was also hit, but again the shell failed to explode. The whole bombardment was timed to last a mere ninety minutes, but the German guns were far from done and the American admiral was forced to continue the action. Glasgow was firing full twelve-gun salvoes with great accuracy and thus drew upon herself the heaviest of the counter-fire. The inevitable happened at 1342 when she was hit by a German salvo. Two heavy shells struck her and the third was a close miss alongside. This time the shells were good ones. One smashed through the after bridge structure into the useless hangar deck where it started a large fire. The other shells did little damage, save for considerable splinter damage. Nevertheless Glasgow stayed in line and came back again shortly afterwards with heavy fire. By the time the squadron left, much damage had been done to the defences and shortly afterwards the port fell. It is appropriate that Glasgow and Enterprise should have helped achieve by bombardment the good work commenced as long before as 1940 by Revenge.

S-65 02

E-Boats: The Final Battles off Normandy, June-August 1944

All German light craft were thrown into the battle of the beachhead, and to no avail. Despite the mass of light craft available to them and the enormous size and quantity of the targets, they achieved little. As we have seen, the special attack units were slaughtered for the loss of a few destroyers and minesweepers. Army casualties at sea were minimal. The old enemy, E-boats, also emerged for a death-or-glory series of battles, finding mainly the former and gaining little of the latter.

These attacks can be summarized as follows:

7-8 June: Eight boats from 4th Flotilla attacked a convoy with the destroyer Beagle as solitary escort. LST-376 and LST-314 sunk, enemy driven off by the arrival of destroyers Saumarez, Virago, Isis and Norwegian Stord. Five boats of the 5th Flotilla from Cherbourg were intercepted by the frigates Retalick and Stayner, which damaged S-84, S-138 and S-142.

8-9 June: Eight boats of 5th and 9th Flotillas intercepted by the destroyer Hambledon and American ships Frankford and Baldwin and drive back to port. Eleven boats of the 2nd and 4th Flotillas aborted their missions.

9-10 June: Ten boats of the 5th and 9th Flotillas were driven off with no results by the American destroyers. Ten boats of the 2nd and 4th Flotillas attacked small ships and claimed many hits. Despite this, postwar records show quite clearly that no British ships were sunk. The S-180 and S-190 were both mined.

10-11 June: Eleven boats of the 5th and 9th Flotillas re-intercepted by British patrols. In the fighting that followed Halstead was damaged by a torpedo and the S-136 and the British MTB-448 were sunk.

The boats of the 9th Flotilla were more successful and sank the American tug Partridge and LST-496.

Six boats of the 4th Flotilla were intercepted and driven back to port by the destroyers Sioux and Krakowiak, the frigate Duff and MTBs.

Four boats of the 2nd Flotilla were similarly attacked and chased by the destroyers Kelvin, Scorpion, Scourge, and Stord after they had sunk Ashanti (534 tons), Brackenfield (657 tons) and Dungrange. They eventually reached Boulogne.

11-12 June: Four boats of the 5th and 9th Flotillas attacked a force of American destroyers, Kommandeur von Mlirback putting a torpedo into the U.S. destroyer Nelson.

Six boats of the 4th Flotilla were very roughly handled by the destroyers Onslow, Onslaught, Offa and Oribi.

12-13 June: Four boats from Cherbourg tried to break through but were intercepted by the destroyers Isis, Stevenstone and Glaisdale which damaged the S-84, S-100, S-138 and S-143 in a fierce action.

23-24 June: Six boats of the 2nd Flotilla were engaged by the destroyer patrol Stord and Venus; S-175 and S-181 were damaged.

3-4 July: Six boats of the 2nd and 8th Flotillas were intercepted off Cap d’Antifer by the frigates Stayner and Thornborough.

5-6 July: Six boats of the 2nd Flotilla intercepted by destroyers off Le Havre and returned to port.

7-8 July: Nine boats of the 2nd and 9th Flotillas in running battles with the destroyers Cattistock and La Combattante and frigate Thornborough. Despite claims of torpedo hits, no British ships were touched and the E-boats retreated.

26-27 July: Four boats from the 6th Flotilla attacked a convoy off Dungeness and claimed to have sunk two ships. Again no ships were lost that night but the Empire Beatrice (7,046 tons) and Fort Perrot (7,171 tons) were both damaged. The E-boats were chased away on the arrival of the destroyers Obedient, Opportune and Savage.

29-30 July: One of the biggest successes was scored when three boats of the 6th Flotilla attacked a convoy off Eastbourne. The Samwake (7,219 tons), Fort Dearborn (7,160 tons), Fort Kaskaskia (7,187 tons) and Ocean Courier (7,178 tons) were all hit and damaged. Thornborough arrived too late to prevent history from being made in the old manner. It was a tragedy that by this stage of the war should have been avoidable.

The furious battles against the E-boats were to continue for the rest of the war at the same intensity. They were one enemy force, which the British never mastered.

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