By mid-October 1940 even Hitler had come to accept that the time for a successful invasion of the British Isles was past. To a visiting Italian Minister he said: ‘If I cannot invade them, at least I can destroy the whole of their industry’. He was referring to the continuing raids on British cities by bombers of the Luftwaffe, which on the night of 15 October reached a ferocious crescendo with an attack on London lasting nine hours. In this, the most intense bombing raid of the war thus far, thousands of high-explosive and incendiary bombs rained down, laying waste a vast area of the densely populated city. More than 400 Londoners died in the raid, bringing the total killed in Britain by German bombs, in that one week alone, to 1,567. There was no evident crumbling of morale in the cities, but it was felt that, if the raids continued to exact such a fearful toll, cracks would soon begin to appear. To some extent the RAF was returning the bombs, but always striving to hit only specified military targets. If bad weather or other causes made it impossible to bomb accurately, pilots were ordered to jettison their bombs over the sea. After the October raids on London the RAF was given leave to use its bombs with less discrimination, targeting cities rather than specific installations. The war in the air was moving into a new and more barbaric phase.
At sea it had been that way for some time. Although the threat of invasion had receded, releasing more destroyers for convoy escort duty, there seemed to be no answer to the savage assaults of Dönitz’s ‘wolf packs’. The German admiral’s stated ambition that not one day should pass without the sinking somewhere or other of a ship by one of the boats at sea’ had been more than realised. On average, 55 Allied merchant ships, totalling nearly 280,000 tons gross, were being sunk by the U-boats every month, the majority of them in the Atlantic. But every achievement has its price. In the case of the U-boat men it was a high one, up to three boats being lost each month out of the 27 or so that were operational. As the Allied convoys became better organised and the expertise of the growing number of escort vessels improved, these losses would inevitably mount.
When Karl Dönitz took command of the U-boat arm, Hitler promised that the German shipyards would turn out about twenty new boats every month, but his promise was not being kept. Demands on Germany’s resources by the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe, on which Hitler now based his hopes for victory, were so great that new U-boats were being launched at the rate of only six a month; barely enough to keep pace with the rising losses. While the lost submarines could be replaced, their highly-trained and experienced crews could not. It was rare for any survivors of a sunken boat to return to Germany. This led Dönitz to push his men to their utmost limits, curtailing desperately needed rest periods and slashing the time that boats spent in port after each patrol. Inevitably, this resulted in a discernable lowering of morale in the service.
There is a long-held superstition among seamen, probably associated with the Crucifixion, that to leave port on a Friday is to tempt providence. To sail on Friday the 13th is an open invitation to disaster. So reasoned the crew of U99 when she was ordered to leave Lorient on her fourth Atlantic patrol on Friday 13 October 1940. Although U99 was a new boat, less than a year old, she developed a mysterious engine fault that held her in port until after midnight that night. She finally sailed at 0130 on the 14th. In command was Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, at 28 years old already one of Dönitz’s top aces, with 23 ships of almost 100,000 tons to his credit.
The first 48 hours of U99’s outward passage across the Western Approaches to the British Isles were uneventful, except for two occasions when patrolling enemy aircraft forced her to dive. Then, on the afternoon of the 16th, when she was 320 miles west of Ireland, a signal was picked up from U93 (Kapitänleutnant Klaus Korth), reporting the sighting of a large Allied convoy. Anticipating orders, Kretschmer altered course to intercept the convoy and increased to full speed.
In Lorient, Admiral Dönitz acted on the signalled sighting immediately, ordering Korth to continue shadowing and report at regular intervals while a wolf pack was assembled. Within reasonable range of the convoy were U100 (Kapitänleutnant Joachim Schepke), U123 (Kapitänleutnant Karl-Heinz Moehle), U101 (Kapitänleutnant Fritz Frauenheim), U46 (Kapitänleutnant Engelbert Endrass), U48 (Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt) and Kretschmer’s U99. As Kretschmer had foreseen, Dönitz’s radioed instructions to these vessels were for them to close on the Allied convoy at all speed. As the day wore on, the reports from U93 became less frequent and finally ceased altogether, indicating to Dönitz that she had lost contact with the enemy. He then ordered the gathering pack to set up a line of ambush ahead of, and across the track of the convoy, all boats to be in position by 2000 on the 18th. Kretschmer called for more speed, for he feared U99 might arrive too late to join in the attack.
Convoy SC 7, consisting of 35 ships, fourteen British, six Norwegian, four Greek, three Canadian, three Swedish, two Dutch, one French, one Panamanian and one Danish, left the Canadian port of Sydney, Cape Breton, at noon on 5 October. It was a slow convoy with a designated speed of 8 knots, and would break no records on its Atlantic crossing. In fact, many of the old and sometimes pitifully small ships had never achieved such a speed. Certainly the two Cardiff tramps Beatus and Fiscus, sister ships staggering under great loads of timber and steel, would be hard pushed to keep up. The same could be said for the two Greek vessels Niritos and Aenos, built in 1907 and 1910 respectively, whose ancient engines functioned only by faith and a great deal of innovation. As for the tiny Great Lakes steamers Eaglescliffe Hall, Winona and Trevisa, also of a great age, it seemed to be the height of folly that they should challenge this turbulent Western Ocean at all. But perhaps the most revealing indication of the pressing needs of Britain in these dark days was the inclusion in SC 7 of the Norwegian steamer Snefield. At 1,643 tons gross, this 39-year-old ship, her decks piled so high with timber that only her masts and funnels were visible, presented a ludicrous sight as she struggled valiantly to keep pace with her larger sisters.
Recalled from retirement and charged with the unenviable task of holding this ragged fleet of merchantmen together for the 2,500-mile transatlantic voyage was Vice-Admiral Lachlan Mackinnon, RN. Mackinnon was a man of great experience in the fighting ships, but he had only a limited understanding of the shortcomings and eccentricities of the run-of-the-mill ocean tramp. His talents were to be sorely tested over the coming weeks.
The ship in which Mackinnon flew his flag, as commodore of the convoy, was the 2,962-ton, twin-screw steamer Assyrian, owned by the Ellerman & Papayanni Line of Liverpool and commanded by 35-year-old Captain R. S. Kearon. Launched at the beginning of the First World War, the Assyrian was a long way from her habitual cruising waters. In the balmy days between the wars she carried general cargoes from Liverpool, Glasgow and south Wales to Spain, Portugal and Mediterranean ports, returning with the produce of these sun-kissed shores. She had accommodation for twelve passengers, and at £1 a day for the 40-day round voyage, the Assyrian had been a popular ship with those seeking a long, lazy holiday.
On her current voyage the Assyrian’s adequate but not luxurious passenger cabins were occupied by Vice-Admiral Mackinnon, his staff of five signallers and three civilian passengers, making, with her crew of 39, a total complement on board of 48. In her holds were 3,700 tons of food and war supplies loaded in the USA for Liverpool. Her armament consisted of one ancient 4in gun, mounted on her poop deck and manned by a crew drawn from the ship’s company, untrained, but nonetheless determined.
The weather was fine and clear, and the sea unusually calm when, ship by ship, Convoy SC 7 cleared Sydney harbour and felt the lift of the long Atlantic swell. An hour of somewhat untidy manoeuvring followed, but finally the ships were formed up in nine columns abreast and set off to cross the ocean, the Assyrian leading at the head of column five. Mackinnon had wisely adjusted the convoy speed to 7 knots; even so it was obvious from the amount of black smoke issuing from some funnels that there were those who would be hard pressed to keep up. The Winona, in fact, turned back on the first night, when a fault developed in her generator.
The defence of SC 7, apart from the few ill-manned, stern-mounted guns of the merchantmen, was in the hands of the sloop HMS Scarborough and the Canadian armed yacht Elk. The 1,050-ton Scarborough (Commander N. V. Dickinson) was an ex-survey vessel converted for escort duties, armed with two 4in guns and having a top speed of only 14 knots. HMCS Elk, as would be expected of a commandeered yacht, was of even lighter calibre. If SC 7 was to reach British waters intact, it would need more than good luck on its side.
Mackinnon was authorised to vary the convoy’s course according to prevailing circumstances, but the Admiralty had advised him to steer to the north-east until about 250 miles south of Iceland, before altering down for the North Channel. It was hoped that this northerly route would keep the convoy away from patrolling U-boats until the ocean escort was reinforced by ships of Western Approaches Command. Unknown to Mackinnon and the Admiralty, this was a forlorn hope. Admiral Dönitz, through the B-Dienst, the German naval intelligence service, was already aware of the movements of SC 7.
On 28 June 1940 the 7,506-ton British cargo liner City of Baghdad, under the command of Captain Armstrong White, sailed from Lourenço Marques, Mozambique, bound for Penang, Malaya. German agents in the Portuguese port notified Berlin of her sailing. Thirteen days later, when City of Baghdad was 450 miles off the western coast of Sumatra and nearing the equator, she fell in with the German armed merchant cruiser Atlantis, commanded by Kapitän-zur-See Bernhard Rogge. The British ship attempted to escape, but was pounded to a standstill by Rogge’s guns. Two of City of Baghdad’s crew already lay dead and another was seriously injured, and to avoid further casualties Captain White surrendered. Unfortunately, White omitted to dump his lead-weighted code books overboard before handing over his ship. Within a week or two the entire contents of the Broadcasting for Allied Merchant Ships (BAMS) code was in the hands of the B-Dienst. The Admiralty remained ignorant of this catastrophic loss for many months. Meanwhile, B-Dienst was busy reading its signals to the convoys and passing them on to Dönitz within a day or so of transmission.
So Dönitz, alerted by radio intelligence, was aware of the sailing of SC 7 from Cape Breton; he also knew the convoy’s projected course and speed. This did not bode well for the ships under Vice-Admiral Mackinnon’s command, but, ignorant of their betrayal, they sailed on.
Some 48 hours out of Sydney, when clear of Newfoundland, HMCS Elk reached the limit of her fuel tanks and, signalling her goodbyes by lamp, turned back for home. With its lone escort, the 1,000-ton sloop Scarborough, putting on a brave face as she scouted ahead, SC 7 carried on into the open Atlantic. The weather held fine and clear, which was a mixed blessing, for the billows of black smoke pouring from the tall funnels of the labouring tramps climbed high in the sky, and must have been visible for many miles.
But the ocean would not remain quiescent for much longer. Off Cape Hatteras warm air was rising to form an area of low pressure which would expand and deepen as it tracked north-eastwards around the perimeter of the Azores High. By the morning of the 11th, when SC 7 was 300 miles south of Greenland’s Cape Farewell, a full gale was blowing from the north-west. Steaming beam-on to a heavy swell and rough, breaking seas, many of the smaller ships were soon in difficulty. The two remaining Great Lakes steamers, Trevisa and Eaglescliffe Hall, neither of which had ever experienced such unbridled wrath from the elements, gave up the struggle early on and dropped astern, soon to be lost to sight. Bigger ships began to go as the day wore on and the weather worsened. Two Greeks, the 3,554-ton Aenos and the 5,875-ton Thalia, their old and poorly maintained engines strained beyond all endurance by the violent rolling and pitching, suffered breakdowns and fell back, wallowing helplessly in the swell. There was no spare escort vessel to stand by these stragglers, and from then on they would have to see to their own defence.
For the next four days the gale blew without let-up, but SC 7, its ranks thinned and ragged, continued to fight its way north-eastwards, the gallant little Scarborough zig-zagging ahead in a welter of foam as she rolled her bulwark rails under. Then, on the afternoon of the 15th, the barometer began to rise and the wind eased, allowing the battered ships to re-form and, where possible, repair the damage meted out by the storm. SC 7 was now less than 24 hours, steaming from the rendezvous point at which she would expect to meet her local escort heading out from the North Channel. It was too early to say the race had been won, but an unmistakeable mood of optimism hovered over the convoy.
Then, just before 0100 in the dark of the morning of 16 October, Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Schulz, patrolling in U124, sighted the Trevisa straggling some 20 miles astern of SC 7. Wireless operators on watch in the convoy listened helplessly to the pitiful distress calls of the little Canadian steamer as she went down. The wolves were at hand.
There followed a harrowing twelve hours, with every ship in the convoy on full alert, with guns manned and extra lookouts posted. A great weight was lifted from Commander Dickinson’s shoulders when at last, just before dusk, Scarborough was joined by the sloop HMS Fowey and the corvette HMS Bluebell, the first ships of the local escort to arrive. Between them, the three small warships, however comforting their presence was to the merchantmen, were only a token show of force. None of them had worked together before, ship-to-ship radio communication was poor, and they had no preconceived plan of action in case of attack. However, Dickinson, now Senior Officer Escort (SOE), disposed his forces as best he could, with Scarborough on the port bow, Fowey on the starboard bow and Bluebell astern of the convoy.
As SC 7 braced itself to meet the dangers of the night, the atmosphere on the bridge of the Commodore’s ship, Assyrian, was electric. Vice-Admiral Mackinnon and Captain Kearon stood side by side, both acutely aware that, if an attack was to be made on the convoy, it must come soon. Many times during the crossing they had roundly cursed the foul Atlantic weather; now, with the wind only a gentle breeze, the sea calm, and a bright moon breaking through the clouds from time to time, they fervently wished they could turn back the clock. For the U-boats conditions could not have been better.
The net Dönitz had strung across the path of SC 7 served its purpose well, and just before midnight on the 16/17th, Heinrich Bleichrodt in U48 sighted the convoy 250 miles south of Iceland. He reported his find to Lorient, and then, with U48 trimmed down, took up station astern of the convoy. Admiral Dönitz’s orders were not open to interpretation; Bleichrodt’s duty was to shadow and report, attacking only when joined by the rest of the pack.
The sight of this great fleet of heavily-laden and highly vulnerable ships crawling eastwards across the moonlit sea would have taxed the resolve of the most resolute U-boat man. For Bleichrodt the temptation to attack was overwhelming. Following his limited success against HX 72, he had then been involved in an attack on HX 77, sinking another three ships and bringing his score for the current patrol to eleven ships, totalling over 58,000 tons. Now just four torpedoes remained and, when they were gone, the probability was that U48 would be free to go home. Bleichrodt curbed his impatience for almost three hours, then, with dawn less than an hour away with no sign of the other boats, he decided to act alone. Keeping a wary eye on the enemy corvette zig-zagging in the wake of the rear ships of the convoy, he moved in, penetrating the ranks of the merchantmen with ease.
The 9,512-ton French tanker Languedoc, sailing under the Red Ensign and her distinctive silhouette clear in the light of the moon, exploded in a sheet of flame when Bleichrodt’s torpedo struck. Seconds later the North-East Coast tramp Scoresby, SC 7’s Vice-Commodore ship, staggered as she was hit amidships, and began to sink. Bleichrodt’s third torpedo hit the 4,678-ton Haspendon, which developed a heavy list but remained afloat.
The simultaneous attack on three ships at once appeared to leave the convoy stunned, and several minutes elapsed before the first rocket soared into the sky. This was followed by a flurry of other rockets and flares fired by the startled merchantmen. The escorts joined in the illuminations with starshell fired at random, and night was turned into day, but no one really knew from which quarter the attack had come, for U48 had already dived. In the midst of the ensuing panic, Vice-Admiral Mackinnon ordered a 45° emergency turn to starboard, which caused further confusion and allowed Bleichrodt to slip clear of the convoy. But he was not to get clean away. The corvette Bluebell was fully occupied, having dropped back to pick up survivors from the torpedoed ships, but Scarborough came racing back with her asdics pinging.
Bleichrodt twisted and turned to avoid the probing asdic beam, then came back to the surface and made off into the dark at full speed, and at 17½ knots she soon shook off the 14 knots British sloop. Now should have been the time for Scarborough to return to the convoy, but Commander Dickinson stubbornly persisted in his search for the U-boat, ranging so far afield that the sloop lost all contact with the convoy and would never rejoin. For a while, SC 7 was defended only by HMS Fowey, Bluebell being still engaged in the search for survivors.
When daylight came, U48 was out of sight of the convoy, and had altered course to make contact again, when a Sunderland of RAF Coastal Command came roaring out of the sun. Bleichrodt made a record-breaking crash dive, but the Sunderland’s depth charges exploded all around the boat as she went down. The lights failed, gauge glasses shattered, and water spurted through strained hatch seals. Bleichrodt went deep and stayed there until the danger from the air was past. Although U48 was unable to regain contact with SC 7, 24 hours later Bleichrodt put his last remaining torpedo to good use, sinking the 3,612-ton British steamer Sandsend, a straggler from a west-bound convoy.
By sunrise on the 17th Mackinnon had succeeded in restoring order within the depleted ranks of SC 7, and was delighted when, at 0700, the sloop HMS Leith hove in sight, closely followed by the corvette Heartsease. Commander Roland Allen in Leith then took over as SOE. The appearance of Sunderlands overhead became more frequent, and the odds on SC 7 surviving appeared to be shortening. Then the unseen enemy struck again. From 60 miles ahead was heard the frantic SOS calls of the Aenos, torpedoed by U38 (Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Liebe). Having fallen out of the convoy on the 11th, the Greek ship had made a lone dash for the UK, only to run into the arms of Liebe, who was patrolling to the north of Rockall.
Throughout the day the weather continued to improve and the convoy made good speed. During the afternoon, being ahead of the schedule advised to the Admiralty, Mackinnon ordered an alteration of course to the northward to lose some time. As no U-boat was then shadowing the convoy, this was a diversion which, but for a cruel twist of fate, might have saved SC 7.
When darkness fell there remained just 220 miles to cover to the shelter of the North Channel, but with only scattered cloud and the moon near full, the slow-moving ships were dangerously exposed. Allen had placed his meagre force, two sloops and two corvettes, to best advantage, ahead, astern and on the wings of the convoy. Asdics pinged monotonously and lookouts scanned the horizon; it promised to be a long night.
On receipt of the report of the sinking of the Aenos by U38, Dönitz, who by now was concerned at the lack of reports from Bleichrodt, ordered Liebe to search westwards. Basing his calculations on the position and course of Aenos, Liebe reversed his own course and proceeded cautiously with extra lookouts posted. His patience was rewarded when he sighted SC 7 late that night. The convoy was on course to pass well to the north of the ambush set up by Lorient.
Shortly after 0100 on the 18th, Liebe slipped easily past the thin defensive screen of SC 7 and torpedoed the 3,670-ton Glasgow ship Carsbreck. The attack was not fully successful, for the Carsbreck did not sink, but retaliation was swift and Liebe was forced to retire before inflicting more damage. However, his attack succeeded in weakening SC 7’s escort even further. The corvette Bluebell, already carrying more than 100 survivors from other ships, was ordered by Allen to stand by the Carsbreck, and so once again ceased to play a significant part in the protection of SC 7.
When he received Liebe’s sighting report, Dönitz at once realised that his boats were too far to the south and radioed them to regroup, forming a line across the convoy’s track by 0700 on the 18th. His signal was answered by U100, U28, U123, U101, U46 and U99. U99 was then some 100 miles to the south-west of the new patrol line position. Kretschmer put on all speed, but was not in position until 1030. There he established contact with U46 and U101; other boats were nearby.
Half an hour later Liebe reported in again. From the position he gave it was obvious that the convoy had once more altered course, and would pass even further to the north. At 1430 Dönitz abandoned his ambush line and ordered all boats to home in on U38, attacking independently when in contact.
With just over an hour to go to sunset, Kretschmer again sighted U101 and exchanged signals with Fritz Frauenheim by lamp. A few minutes later Frauenheim signalled ‘Enemy in sight to port’. Kretschmer swept the horizon with his binoculars and sighted a lone warship on an easterly course. Minutes later the masts and funnels of a large convoy were seen. He altered course to intercept after dark.
Dusk was closing in when SC 7, then 25 miles north-east of the tiny island of Rockall, received orders from the Admiralty to head directly for the North Channel. Mackinnon brought the ships round on to a course of 130°, commencing the final leg of the long ocean passage. The weather remained dangerously fair, with a gentle breeze from the south-east, a slight sea and broken cloud. The moon would soon be up. The sloop Fowey (Lieutenant-Commander Robert Aubrey) was ordered to take up station five miles astern of the convoy to search for shadowing U-boats. No doubt Commander Allen’s intentions were in the best interests of SC 7, but in detaching Fowey he seriously weakened his arm.
Kretschmer was now shadowing a ship which for some reason was romping ahead of the convoy. She was the 5,458-ton British steamer Shekatika, loaded with timber. At 1828 Kretschmer submerged to attack, and in doing so allowed the ship to draw ahead. He resurfaced and gave chase, only to find that Moehle’s U123 was already attacking. Her torpedo caught the unsuspecting Shekatika squarely amidships but, buoyed up by her timber cargo, she did not sink.
The attack on the Shekatika was the signal for the wolves to close in, and a few minutes later Engelbert Endrass, in U46, fired a spread of three. The first torpedo missed, but the second and third sank the British ship Beatus and the 1,996-ton Swede Convallaria, the first and second ships in the port outer column. This sudden onslaught sent Leith, Bluebell and Heartsease racing in all directions, hurling depth charges and illuminating the already moonlit night with starshell, but to no good effect. Not surprisingly, Allen had no clear idea of the whereabouts of the enemy, but he felt obliged to take some action, however ineffectual. The presence of the other sloop would have been of some help, but Fowey was still five miles astern. As soon as he saw the starshell bursting, Lieutenant-Commander Aubrey attempted to make radio contact with Leith, but failed. He then called for full speed, but at 14 knots Fowey would take a full hour to rejoin SC 7. It is said that one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain, and so it was on this night. As she strained to overtake the convoy, Fowey found herself assuming the role of rescue ship, picking up survivors from the Convallaria and Shekatika. This delayed her even further.
Meanwhile, Frauenheim had torpedoed and sunk the 3,971-ton Creekirk, and Kretschmer, while manoeuvring to attack, had been surprised by one of the escorts and obliged to run to the south. It would take U99 nearly two hours to regain contact. She was back in time to join the rest of the pack in a concerted attack, but whereas the other six boats were content to fire their torpedoes from a distance, Kretschmer slipped through the escort screen and approached the starboard outer column of SC 7. As he did so the moon broke through the clouds, bathing the massed ranks of the merchantmen in a brilliant yellow light. All the ships were zig-zagging independently, but the leading ship of the outer column loomed large in Kretschmer’s sights. Using the director to aim off, he fired one bow torpedo, and to his amazement missed. He swung the boat round and fired the stern tube. There was a flash, and the 6,055-ton Empire Miniver reared up like a frightened horse. The 22-year-old ship seemed to fall apart before Kretschmer’s eyes, and in twenty seconds she was gone. Kretschmer took U99 deeper into the convoy.
On the bridge of Assyrian Captain Kearon witnessed the sudden end of the Empire Miniver and immediately put his ship through a series of violent emergency turns before coming back on course and increasing speed. The night had gone quiet again when he sighted a long, low shadow on the water 200 yards on the port bow. As the moon broke through the clouds again, the shadow hardened into the silhouette of a Type VIIC U-boat – Kretschmer’s U99. Kearon’s nerves were bar tight, and without thinking of the consequences he rang for emergency full speed and turned to ram. But Kretschmer took fast evasive action, running ahead of the Assyrian and then diving. Kearon gave chase, for he could plainly see the wake of the U-boat’s periscope.
The Assyrian’s engines were 26 years old, but they gave of their best, working up to 10 knots, and she began to gain on the periscope. Then, after about seven minutes, the U-boat resurfaced, now only 400 yards off, and Kearon caught the waft of exhaust fumes as her diesels roared into life. From then on there was no contest, the U-boat drawing rapidly away, altering course to starboard as she went. Kearon followed her round, breaking radio silence to warn the escorts. Pursuer and pursued, now heading to the west, raced down the starboard side of the convoy until Kearon, realising the futility of his action (he had no gun forward) abandoned the chase. He swung the Assyrian round under full helm, with her stern to the enemy, and fired one shot from the poop 4in, more as a pointer to the escorts than in the hope of hitting the U-boat. Kretschmer had escaped again.
Over the next hour, with Fowey still occupied astern picking up the evergrowing number of survivors, the rest of the wolf pack moved in to savage SC 7. Endrass sank the small Swedish steamer Gunborg, Frauenheim and Schepke each put two torpedoes into the Glasgow timber carrier Blairspey but she stayed stubbornly afloat, and Schepke again torpedoed the abandoned Shekatika.
Kretschmer, who had regained contact with the convoy, joined in the fray. An extract from his war diary best illustrates the heat of the action:
2330 [2130 Convoy Time]: Fire bow torpedo at large freighter. As the ship turns towards us the torpedo passes ahead of her and hits an even larger ship after a run of 1,740m. This ship [Niritos, 3,854 tons] of some 7,000 tons, is hit abreast the foremast and the bow quickly sinks below the surface as two holds are apparently flooded.
2355 : Fire a bow torpedo at a large freighter of some 6,000 tons [Fiscus, 4,815 tons], at a range of 750m. Hit abreast foremast. Immediately after the torpedo explosion there is another explosion with a high column of flame from the bow to the bridge. The smoke rises to some 200m. Bow apparently shattered. Ship continues to burn with a green flame.
0015 : Three destroyers approach the ship and search the area in line abreast. I make off at full speed to the south-west and again make contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from the other boats are constantly heard exploding. The destroyers do not know how to help and occupy themselves by constantly firing starshells, which are of little effect in the bright moonlight. I now start to attack the convoy from astern.
0138 : Fire bow torpedoes at large heavily laden freighter of about 6,000 tons [Empire Brigade, 5,154 tons], range 945m. Hit abreast foremast. The explosion sinks the ship. This ship broke in two and both halves sank in a little more than a minute.
0155 : Fire bow torpedo at the next large vessel of some 7,000 tons [Thalia, 5,875 tons]. Range 975m. Hit abreast foremast. Ship sinks within 40 seconds.
0240 : Miss through aiming error with torpedo fired at one of the largest vessels in the convoy, a ship of the Glenapp class 9,500 tons.
0255 : Again miss the same target from a range of about 800m. No explanation as the fire control data were absolutely correct. Presume it to be a gyro failure, as we hear an explosion on the other side of the convoy some seven minutes later.
0302 : Third attempt at same target from range of 720m. Hit forward of the bridge [Snefield, 1,643 tons]. Bow sinks rapidly level with the water.
0356 : Fire and miss at a rather small unladen ship which had lost contact with the convoy. We had fired just as the ship turned towards us.
0358 : Turn off and fire a stern torpedo from a range of 690m. Hit aft of amidships. Ship drops astern, somewhat lower in the water. As torpedoes have been expended I wait to see if she will sink further before I settle her by gunfire.
0504 : Ship is sunk by another vessel by gunfire. I suppose it to be a British destroyer, but it later transpires it was U123. Some of her shells land very close, so I have to leave the area quickly. The ship was Clintonia, 3,106 tons.
Captain Kearon of the Assyrian saw the massacre from the wrong end of the torpedo tube:
There was a period of about an hour when we were free from attack and I had worked up to a position with the Empire Brigade on my port side. She had moved up and was ahead of her position. There were some other ships on my starboard quarter. The next thing I saw was a torpedo crossing my bow and I remarked “There goes my next door neighbour”, which proved to be correct as the Empire Brigade was struck. A few seconds later, at 2323 on 18 October, in position 57° 12’N, 10° 43’W, 170 miles from land, I saw another torpedo coming towards us which hit us in the stokehold on the starboard side, 166ft from the bow. There was only one explosion, which was a dull report, the ship was lifted but no water was thrown up as far as I know; the Chief Engineer said the water came up through his cabin floor, his room being over the after end of the engine room, 40-50ft further aft than where we were hit. There was no flame or smell, but a good deal of smoke. The top sides of the ship on the starboard side were opened up right to the boat deck, there was quite a large hole, and the decks were broken so that we could not use the starboard side of the deck at all. We were actually hit a quarter of a minute before the Empire Brigade although I saw the track of the torpedo which struck her before ours.
Up to this time, including the ones I have already mentioned, I had had four torpedoes fired at me, three missed their mark. Altogether I saw the tracks of six torpedoes, ours being the sixth; one hit the Empire Miniver and one the Empire Brigade. Of the six torpedoes I think four came from the port side and two from starboard. In my opinion there must have been not less than two submarines operating at that time and I think they were definitely picking their marks. After we were struck a Dutch ship blew up and I believe another ship ahead of us, and later, when I was in the water, another three ships, also ahead of me, were torpedoed. I believe seventeen ships were torpedoed that night, and 21 altogether out of the whole convoy.
When the final reckoning was made, it was found that SC 7 had lost a total of twenty ships of 79,646 tons, while two other ships were damaged but reached port. Of these, Otto Kretschmer sank seven ships of 30,502 tons, and Heinrich Bleichrodt, Karl-Heinz Moehle, Fritz Frauenheim and Engelbert Endrass all added another three ships to their scores. The night of 18/19 October 1940 was aptly named by the U-boat men ‘The Night of the Long Knives’.
Kretschmer, Frauenheim and Moehle, their torpedoes expended, returned to the Biscay ports and heroes’ welcomes, but Endrass in U46, Bleichrodt in U48, Schepke in U100 and Liebe in U38 remained on station. They were joined by Günter Kuhnke in U28, and late on the 19th the fast convoy HX 79, which sailed from Nova Scotia a few days after SC 7, sailed straight into their arms. HX 79 was comparatively well escorted, having with it two destroyers, four corvettes, three trawlers and a minesweeper, but, as was only too common in those early days, the warships lacked experienced crews and had no co-ordinated plan of defence. The result was another massacre to match that of SC7. In the space of nine hours on the night of 19/20 October, HX 79 lost twelve ships totalling another 75,069 tons.
The virtual annihilation by the U-boats of two major convoys in four days, resulting in the loss of 32 merchant ships of 154,715 tons without loss to the attackers, was unprecedented in sea warfare. For Admiral Karl Dönitz it was a complete vindication of his decision to use the U-boats in packs; for Britain and her allies it was another staggering defeat in the long catalogue of defeats that was to become known as the Battle of the Atlantic.