The RAF had established a Coastal Command to support the Royal Navy. Its primary mission was to provide the Navy reconnaissance on German capital ship movements in the North Sea and elsewhere. Although land-based aircraft had positively sunk only one U-boat in all of World War I, it was believed that Coastal Command could serve effectively in an ASW role. But Coastal Command pilots had not drilled in submarine spotting, and the hardware had also been neglected. In September 1939, Coastal Command had 300 aircraft in its inventory, most of them obsolete, and only about half the pilots were fully trained. Only three squadrons were equipped with modern aircraft: two with long-range four-engine flying boats (Sunderlands); one with medium-range twin-engine American-designed, British-built wheeled aircraft (Hudsons). The Hudsons (replacing obsolete Ansons) were not yet fully operational.
The brand-new U-55, a Type VIIB, commanded by Werner Heidel, age thirty, who had done well in the duck U-7, also went directly into action. Rounding the British Isles, Heidel sank two small neutrals (a Dane and a Swede), then proceeded to the Western Approaches. On the tenth day of the patrol, January 29, 1940 Dönitz alerted Heidel to a convoy, which had been detected by B-dienst. Heidel responded by sinking the 5,000-ton British tanker Vaclite and a 5,000-ton Greek freighter.
One of the convoy escorts, the sloop Fowey, left the convoy and pursued U-55 in foggy seas. Fixing the boat on sonar, Fowey attacked with depth charges, driving Heidel to 328 feet. Fowey dropped five charges, three set for 500 feet by mistake, two for 350 feet. The two set at 350 feet exploded very close to U-55, causing severe flooding and panic. Heidel temporarily contained the damage and panic and slipped away, but Fowey continued to hunt aggressively through the fog and called for help. Two British destroyers, Whitshed and Ardent, and a French destroyer, Valmy, responded, as did a four-engine Sunderland flying boat of Coastal Command Squadron 228, piloted by Edward J. Brooks.
The four ships and the aircraft hunted the damaged U-55 relentlessly. Whitshed got sonar contact and attacked with depth charges. By that time the U-55 crew could no longer contain the flooding. Believing he might escape in the fog, Heidel gave orders to surface and man the deck gun. Fowey sighted U-55 making off in the fog and opened fire. Valmy and the Sunderland joined. The Sunderland dropped a bomb and, helpfully, a smoke float and then made a strafing run. Heidel returned the fire—until the breechblock of the gun jammed.
Gunless, unable to dive, Heidel was left no choice but to scuttle. The first watch officer and chief engineer volunteered to help Heidel open the vents. When the boat started under for the last time, there was no sign of Heidel. The survivors believed he chose to go down with the boat. The other forty-one men of the crew launched a rubber life raft, jumped into the icy water, and were picked up by Fowey and Whitshed.
The loss of U-55 was known immediately to Dönitz. Eager to give a lift to the Coastal Command aviators who had patrolled the seas endlessly for months with no confirmed success, the RAF publicly claimed credit for the kill on January 31. The surface forces grudgingly conceded that the Sunderland may have helped—but not all that much. However, a British assessment committee gave Coastal Command partial credit for the kill along with Fowey and Whitshed. Doubtless some fault for the loss lay in Dönitz’s decision to send U-55 against an escorted convoy before she was adequately trained.
The U-26, commanded by Heinz Scheringer, reached the Western Approaches in late June with serious engine problems. Despite the deficiencies, Scheringer patrolled aggressively, sinking three freighters and damaging another, the British Zarian, in convoy. One of the convoy escorts, the new Flower-class corvette Gladiolus, pounced on U-26 in favorable sonar conditions, dropping thirty-six of her forty-one depth charges set at 350 to 500 feet.
The charges badly pounded U-26, causing leaks but not fatal damage. In the early hours of July 1, Scheringer surfaced to charge his depleted batteries and to escape in the fog. By that time, the British sloop Rochester and a Sunderland of Coastal Command’s Australian Squadron 10, piloted by W. M. (“Hoot”) Gibson, had come on the scene in response to Gladiolus’s alert. Seeing U-26 surface, Rochester commenced a high-speed run to ram. Had the U-26’s diesels and motors been working properly and had Scheringer been able to charge batteries, the boat might have escaped. But with Rochester (believed to be a “destroyer”) bearing down firing her forward gun and the Sunderland overhead, he was forced under again.
The Sunderland saw the “swirl,” or disturbed water, where U-26 had submerged and ran in for an attack. Hoot Gibson dropped four 250-pound antisubmarine bombs, which exploded very close and rocked the boat. The bombs did no real damage, but Scheringer had no battery charge left and the boat was still leaking in the stern as a result of the depth-charge attack from Gladiolus. Fearing U-26 would be fatally damaged by the apporaching “destroyer,” Scheringer surfaced, intending to scuttle. When the boat appeared, the Sunderland dropped four more bombs, but by then U-26’s chief engineer had set in motion scuttling procedures and the crew was leaping into the water.
The U-26 went down quickly with all hatches open. Rochester came up with guns trained. After allowing the survivors to swim a while in order to scare them into talking more freely, Rochester fished all forty-eight men from the water. There were no casualties, but the scare tactic did not work. The U-26 crew was one of the most reticent to be captured, British intelligence reported.
Three of the five boats engaged in the attack on Halifax 79 returned to Lorient: U-38 (Liebe), U-47 (Prien), merely eight days out, and U-100 (Schepke), merely eleven days out. The other two, U-46 (Endrass) and U-48 (Bleichrodt), proceeded to Germany for scheduled yard overhauls and modifications. While passing near the coast of Norway on October 25, 1940, Endrass in U-46 was caught on the surface by three Hudson aircraft of Coastal Command Squadron 233. One aircraft, piloted by Arthur T. Maudsley and a Canadian, Everett Baudoux, was riddled by U-46 gunners but dropped ten 100-pound bombs; another, flown by Pilot Officer Winnicott, dropped two 250-pound bombs; the bombs of the third plane, commanded by Pilot Officer Walsh, failed to release. The bombs fell close, inflicting severe damage on U-46 and fatally injuring one crewman. Unable to dive, Endrass limped into Kristiansand, Norway, escorted by the German minesweeper M-18. From there he went on to Germany with an air and surface escort. The high-scoring U-46 and U-48 were to remain in German shipyards for the next three months.
Coastal Command, led by Frederick Bowhill, had matured considerably since the beginning of the war, but it was still a poor stepchild of the RAF. Its daylight aircraft patrols with Sunderlands and Hudsons had been useful in forcing down U-boats, but no aircraft of Coastal Command had yet sunk a German U-boat unassisted by a surface craft. From July 1940, when the U-boats shifted to night surface attacks, these Coastal Command air patrols had been virtually useless inasmuch as it was almost impossible to spot a U-boat at night by eye.
What was needed was ASW radar. At the beginning of 1940, the Air Ministry had provided a few 1.5-meter-wavelength ASV (airborne radar sets) for a handful of Coastal Command and Navy aircraft types (Hudson, Swordfish, Walrus) to be used to track big enemy surface ships. However, since these sets were not capable of detecting U-boats, Coastal Command and the Royal Navy had requested the “crash” production of 4,000 improved 1.5-meter-wavelength sets (ASV-II). “Unfortunately,” Admiralty historian J. David Brown wrote recently, “the Air Ministry bureaucracy failed to recognize the importance of the program” and pigeonholed the request, giving priority to Fighter Command for Air Interception (A-I) radar to help find enemy bombers. The upshot was that by the end of 1940, only forty-nine Coastal Command aircraft and a few experimental Navy Swordfish biplanes had the improved ASV-II radar sets, an appalling lapse second only to the British failure to prevent the building of U-boat pens in French Atlantic ports.
Even when properly calibrated and working at peak efficiency, the improved 1.5-meter-wavelength Mark II ASV radar in these Coastal Command aircraft was almost useless for killing a U-boat at night. For complicated electronic reasons apart from ground or sea “clutter,” the radar went “blind” when the aircraft got within a mile of the U-boat. An alert U-boat watch thus had time to maneuver left or right off the flight path of the “blind” aircraft, avoiding its bombs or depth charges.
What the aircrews needed was some means of “seeing” during that last mile to the U-boat. In late October 1940, an officer in Coastal Command headquarters, Humphrey de Verde Leigh, proposed one possible solution: a very powerful, steerable searchlight, mounted on a retractable bed in the underside of the fuselage. Bowhill enthusiastically endorsed the proposal and detached Leigh to work on it full time. But owing to technical problems, bureaucratic inertia, and indifference, it was to take Leigh a full eighteen months to work out the bugs, to gain full approval from the Air Ministry, and to get the searchlight into combat, yet another serious British lapse.