Gradually the boffins and engineers had improved the lot of the air crews by developing ASV radar, more reliable depth charges, anti-sub bombs and acoustic torpedoes, while they now had better aircraft. The fact that Dönitz had now effectively withdrawn from engaging in the mighty convoy battles of the North Atlantic, was as much due to the losses inflicted on his boats, as the losses, also in 1943, of boats traversing the Bay of Biscay.
As 1943 got underway for 19 Group, so the actions increased week after week. Space does not provide as much detail of these actions as described in previous chapters, but in my book Conflict over the Bay (Grub Street, 1999) full coverage is given in a blow-by-blow account.
In the early months of 1943, German tactics had not yet changed. The Leigh Light had prevented U-boat commanders crossing the Bay at night, and they were forced to travel for the most part on the surface, especially if their batteries need to be recharged and the boat’s fresh air supply replenished. This made them vulnerable as ASV could pick them up more easily.
By May U-boat captains had been ordered to remain on the surface and fight back, their chances, Dönitz believed, would be better if they deflected an aircraft’s approach in the face of gunfire at low level – and the big Sunderlands and Liberators particularly, offered a huge target for gunners who held their nerve. As mentioned earlier, Coastal Command’s counter to this was to circle some way off, and either call up other aircraft in the vicinity in order to make a co-ordinated attack from different angles, thereby dividing the defensive fire, or, if in luck, one of the Navy’s anti-sub escort groups might not be too far away and could be homed in.
The 2nd Escort (or Support) Group in particular seemed to be able to roam the outer Bay areas with impunity, and was constantly on the alert for U-boats, coming or going. Captain F. J. Walker CB DSO*** RN, with five sloops, would be responsible for a number of U-boats attacked, sunk and damaged. Sadly he died in July 1944, aged forty-eight, from cerebral thrombosis, brought on by overwork and exhaustion. He lost a son serving aboard a submarine in the Mediterranean in August 1943.
By this time too, the USAAF had joined the fray, sending Liberator squadrons to England where they, like the Iceland-based USN units, came under Coastal Command control, joining the Battle of the Bay. Their first success came on 20 February, First Lieutenant Wayne Johnson of 1 Squadron USAAF damaging U-211.
Six days later one of Coastal’s best pilots, Squadron Leader P. J. Cundy, flying with 224 Squadron (Liberators), damaged U-508. He had already flown many sorties with 53 and 120 Squadrons and his experience was about to pay dividends. Wellingtons were still being used by 19 Group, and so too were Whitleys of No.10 OTU, released by Bomber Command in order to help support the group. On 22 March one 10 OTU crew damaged U-665. Quite a few boats were damaged in these early months, but some were also sunk. Pilot Officer J. B. Stark of 58 Squadron put his Halifax over U-528 on 11 May and his depth charges sent it to the bottom. Four days later, Wing Commander W. E. Oulton DFC, CO of the same squadron, sank U- 266. The next day, the 16th, Flying Officer A. J. W. Birch made it three for 58 by sinking U-463 – a tanker supply boat.
Another new innovation by the Germans, now that they were beginning to stay up and fight, was the introduction of flak boats, carrying extra defensive armament. They were intended to be ‘flak traps’ to surprise and destroy attacking aircraft. One was U-441. Most U-boats encountered were the Type VIIC and it was a few of this type that were converted (others being U-211, 256, 263, 271, 621 and 953). Sailing for her first mission in her new role on 22 May, U-441 was found by a Sunderland of 228 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer H. J. H. Debnam. He attacked in the face of extreme anti-aircraft fire and, although he placed his depth charges around the sub, the boat’s gunners were on target and the flying boat dived into the sea with the loss of all on board. However, U-441 had been damaged sufficiently, and sustained crew casualties, for it to be forced to return to base for repair.
On the last day of May, Wilfred Oulton again encountered a U-boat, and began stalking it during an approach through cloud. Finally diving, he made a good straddle, leaving the boat in obvious difficulty and a second attack was made, after which the boat was seen to be trailing oil. Oulton kept the sub under observation while calling up another 58 Squadron aircraft, flown by Pilot Officer E. L. Hartley, but his charges fell short. A Sunderland of 10 RAAF Squadron was next on the scene and after two attacks the boat stopped and began to sink, with men appearing on deck in life-jackets. Another Sunderland arrived, from 228 Squadron, and made an immediate attack, bodies being seen thrown into the air as its charges exploded about the vessel. Oulton later received the DSO, and the two Sunderland captains received DFCs. There were no survivors from U-563.
In March 1942, 236 Squadron RAF received the Bristol Beaufighter MkI.At first the squadron was used for shipping reconnaissance and escort duties, before in July it began operations against enemy shipping off the Dutch coast. At the same time detachments operated over the Bay of Biscay to protect anti-submarine aircraft against German attack. David Pentland Art
These large four-engined aircraft were not the only aircraft operating over the Bay in 1943. The Germans had Junkers 88C fighters on the French coast and often made forays into the Bay to attack the RAF aircraft. It is amazing that the Germans did not make more of this, but fortunately they did not, although a number of running air battles between them did take place, and Coastal aircraft were lost. As a counter, the RAF sent Beaufighters out, hopefully to engage these Ju88s, but they also searched for U-boats. No. 236 Squadron also carried rockets and, on 1 June, Flying Officer M. C. Bateman found U-418 which he attacked and sank with his RPs. As these were still on Coastal’s secret list, Mark Bateman had to report sinking the sub with depth charges. He was awarded the DFC, although no mention of this attack was mentioned in his citation.
Another fight-it-out duel on the night of 13/14 June had U-564 shooting down a 228 Squadron Sunderland, from which nobody survived. The boat was damaged, however, and limped away, only to be located the next day by a Whitley of 10 OTU, piloted by Sergeant A. J. Benson RAAF. Buzz Benson shadowed the sub, and another boat (U-185) that had suddenly appeared to help, while carrying out homing procedure but was then given permission to make an attack. Benson selected U- 564 and also met gunfire, but his depth charges went down and finished her off. Benson’s Whitley was badly hit, with his hydraulics knocked out and one engine giving problems. He radioed base saying he was heading home but did not make it. He and his crew survived a ditching and were fortunate enough to be rescued by a French fishing boat, but when they suggested to the skipper that he take them to England, he had to refuse, as his family would suffer if the Germans discovered what he had done. Thus Benson and his crew were taken to a French port and ended up as prisoners, although he later heard he had been awarded the DFM and promoted to warrant officer. Survivors from U-564 were taken aboard U-185 although twenty-nine of them had been lost. U-564 had been a successful boat, having been credited with sinking at least nineteen ships and damaging others.
A Wellington of 172 Squadron sank U-126 on 3 July (Flight Sergeant A. Coumbis, who had damaged U-566 in April), while Peter Cundy of 224 sank U-628 on the same day. On board his Liberator was Lieutenant Colonel Farrant, an army officer helping to promote the use of a new anti-submarine bomb. These were called Hedgehog bombs, a 35lb device with a hollow charge. With enormous luck they found a surfaced U-boat and Cundy went in dropping depth charges and eighteen of these small bombs, that needed a direct hit to be effective. The boat engaged the approaching Liberator and did score some hits while the Lib’s gunners also hit the boat, knocking one man into the sea. In the first attack one depth charge actually bounced off the conning tower and in the second run more charges straddled the vessel. As the water cleared, several men could be seen in the water, and the Colonel was seen taking off his Mae West prior to throwing it down to the ‘poor devils’. He was, however, persuaded not to, as there might be a chance it might be needed for ‘the poor devils up here’. Cundy, who got home on three engines, received the DSO.
Despite the Germans staying up to fight, July was proving a successful month as far as kills were concerned. On the 7th one pilot, Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank of 210 Squadron, damaged U-267. It would not be his last contact with a U-boat.
Terry Bulloch was now in 19 Group, flying with 224 Squadron. He had lost none of his skill and on 8 July sank U-514. He had been given something of a roving commission to fly where and when he wanted, so now flew a Liberator equipped with rocket projectiles which he was testing. On board he had Flight Lieutenant C. V. T. Campbell, an armament specialist, who just happened to spot the U-boat in amongst a group of Spanish fishing boats. Turning towards it, Bulloch could see half a dozen men on the conning tower and fired a pair of RPs at 800 feet distance, two more at 600 and then four from 500 feet, from a height of 500 feet. The boat disappeared, but came up again stern first at about a 20-degree angle. Not in the official report was that Bulloch also carried an acoustic torpedo, which he dropped as well, plus a couple of depth charges for good measure. Whatever got the sub, it was fatal and U-504, set for South African waters, was destroyed.
U-441, the converted flak boat, was back out after being damaged on 24 May, but it did not fare any better this time. She was found by Beaufighters of 248 Squadron on the 12th, and not some large Coastal aircraft that she could trap. The Beaus worked her over with their 20mm cannon, felling some of the crew who were on deck. After several strafing runs the boat went down, badly damaged, to return to home port once more. Ten of her crew had been killed and thirteen more wounded, including her captain. The flak-trap did not seem to be working.
Junkers Ju-88C-6 F8+BX, 13.KG40 Battle over the Biscay
No. 19 Group were still using their patrol areas; Musketry was mentioned previously. The areas did alter slightly from time to time, and other areas, named Derange, Seaslug and Percussion were also being used. Between 14 and 27 June patrols in Musketry had sunk one sub and damaged another, while outside them one had been sunk and five damaged. In July Musketry was extended, and within it Coastal sank seven and damaged two; outside it, four more were sunk and another damaged.
Another case where U-boat and aircraft were lost together came on 24 July. Flying Officer W. H. T. Jennings, 172 Squadron, was guided to a surfaced U-boat by his radar man and went in for an attack. The boat’s gunners opened up, hitting the Wellington and presumably killed or wounded the two pilots, for although the depth charges were released, the Wimpy ploughed right into the sub and blew up. Only the rear gunner, Sergeant A. A. Turner, survived. One charge had landed on the boat’s deck and exploded when the crew pushed it overboard. A Wellington of 547 Squadron arrived and attacked the crippled boat, its crew abandoning it. A RN destroyer later picked up thirty-seven Germans, but not, however, its captain, and, hearing shouts from the rear gunner some way off, found him too. Turner had been involved in two other damaging attacks earlier in the year, with other pilots.
Coastal Command HQ still had a fair idea where the U-boats were from the code breakers, but they needed to be on the surface if they were to be located by aircraft. One of the most dramatic events during this period occurred on 30 July. By this time the month had seen five sinkings, one by Flying Officer R. V. Sweeny, an American with 224 Squadron, flying with Pete Cundy’s crew. In company with another Liberator, from 4 Squadron USAAF, U-404 had been sunk on the 28th. The American B-24 had been damaged by the boat’s fire. Bobby Sweeney had been adjutant of the first American Eagle Squadron, his brother Charles having been the inspiration behind the Eagle Squadrons.
On the 30th, U-461, a type IV supply boat, was seen by Flight Lieutenant D. Marrows and his 461 Sunderland crew. By a strange coincidence, the aircraft letter was ‘U’, so it was U-461 meeting 461/U. U-boats were still making crossings of the Bay in groups for mutual protection, and the Marrows’ crew spotted three of them shortly before noon. Other aircraft had found them already, a Halifax from 502 Squadron coming over, and an American B-24, both of which were circling. As the B-24 made a move towards the boats – U-461, U-462 (another supply boat, a Type XI, and U-504, a Type IXC) – the B-24 met the full force of the boats’ gunners. This gave Marrows an opportunity to nip in, managing to straddle U-461 to good effect. Meantime, his gunners blazed away at the other two boats. As the water cleared, survivors could be seen in the water, and a dinghy was dropped, some sailors being seen to get into it. With one remaining charge on board Marrows went for another sub but gunfire made him break away after hits caught the Sunderland.
In the Halifax, Flying Officer August van Rossum, a Dutch pilot in the RAF, had seen the sloops of the 2nd Escort Group heading for the U-boats, and when he arrived, all three aircraft began making attacks, and even another Liberator, from 53 Squadron, joined in, but was hit by flak and headed off. By now the gunfire from the U-boats was making it necessary to bomb them from height, Van Rossum putting a bomb close to the stern of U-462, but he could also see that the U-boat attacked by the Sunderland was being abandoned. Just then shells from the approaching sloops began to explode near the subs. U-504, attacked by Rossum, limped away and began to dive, but the sloops harried her and depth charges finished her off.
On the first day of August, two Sunderlands, one from 10 RAAF, the other from 228 Squadron, sank two U-boats, U-454 and U-383, while on Musketry patrol but the Australian crew were shot down, just six of them being rescued by a sloop, and 228’s machine had also to limp back home, damaged ailerons making it impossible to turn. Everything was being thrown into the Bay battles, even a twin-engined Hampden of 405 RCAF Squadron, that, on the 2nd, assisted a US Liberator of 1 Squadron to sink U-706 in Musketry. This same day U-106 was destroyed by a 228 Sunderland flown by Flying Officer R. D. Hanbury, shared with a 461 Sunderland. Gunners on the boat continued to fight back even as their comrades were taking to dinghies, but then the sub blew up. Thirty-seven of its crew were picked up by a sloop.
A further U-boat group of three was spotted by the crew of a Wellington of 547 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer J. W. Hermiston RCAF, on the 2nd. They were on their return to base when the airman manning the front gun saw the wake of the first boat. Informing his skipper, he was instructed to take photographs and then open fire when in range. Knowing they would meet the combined fire of the boats, Hermiston decided to drop an anti-sub bomb from 2,000 feet. Sergeant W. Owens, manning the gun, opened accurate fire at the boat, as the others began to close up. Hermiston then decided to drop depth charges, lowering to fifty feet to do so, but they overshot. Bill Owens opened up on other runs, but then all three boats went under. U-218 had been their main target and, while undamaged, Owen had caused so many casualties that she had to abort her mission to Trinidad and return to Brest.
The Germans now countermanded the order to remain on the surface and fight, for this had obviously caused considerable losses. A few still did stay up, but these were generally cases where the boat was surprised and it was too late to dive safely. Those encounters on 2 August were the last for the month, and there were only two in September, a Wellington of 407 Squadron RCAF sinking U-669 on the 7th and a Halifax of 58 Squadron destroying U-221 on the 27th. However, in this attack Flying Officer E. L. Hartley and crew, which included their Station Commander, Group Captain R. C. Mead, was hit by flak as he went in, forcing Hartley to ditch. Two men did not survive the crash, and the others were not rescued for eleven days by the Royal Navy. They had not been searching for them and it was pure luck that they saw their signal flares.
November saw just three successful attacks with two boats sunk and one damaged and just one sunk in December. It had been a momentous year and desperate summer but, with the losses in the North Atlantic, the U-boat arm was all but smashed. However, with the coming invasion, the U-boats and 19 Group, would have one last encounter.