David Chadwick  

High Seas to Home: Grim realities of the U-boat war

Cliff Greenwood’s article Goodbye to the Sea .gives some stark insights into realities of fighting the U-boatsIt was published in the Blackpool Gazette and Herald a few months after he’d witnessed the surrender of U-1009 to HMS Byron (pictured left):

“I shall be coming home soon. They will never again come below and shake me a few minutes before the middle watch – that old familiar hissing whisper “Ten to twelve, Lofty ... Are you awake?” …

"I shall never again answer “Righto” or “OK” for I never learned to say “Aye, aye”, and uncurl myself in the bunk, which was always too small, and slide onto the steel deck over the table, praying that nobody had left the bread knife loafing or a couple of empty condensed milk tins, and so often they had!

"The mess deck was always dark as the pit, except for the red satanic glow of the two pilot lamps on the fore and aft bulkheads.

"I can hear now the sighing and rustling of 16 men sleeping restlessly as the ship lurches and tilts and creaks and talks to itself in those long night watches. And the hiss and gurgle of the sea washing the half inch steel plates which were the mess deck’s walls. That has happened for the last time.

"I shall never again go hunting in the darkness, crawling on the cold deck under the table for the socks which always came adrift from under the pillow; or lean against the table like a drunken stork as I pulled on a pair of frayed bell-bottoms.

"I shall never again wear the open necked shirt and the tattered gold jacket, or strap the blue life-belt into position. I shall not grope for the book which I always hid under my bunk and tuck it under my arm and climb through the hatch to the narrow gangway which I have walked a thousand times with the eight wash basins on the port side and the three open showers on the starboard side which were considered adequate to ensure the cleanliness of, if not the godliness, of 140 men.

"I shall never again pass the artificer’s workshop and the silent lathes, the galley where the night cocoa was always simmering and bubbling in a huge cauldron, and the chaste grey curtains which screened and preserved the sanctity of the officers’ wardroom – that little Ritz with the panelled walls and the opulent chrome and leather chairs, the cool cabins and the closed showers, where they serve gin and whisky at Boer War prices and God (according to the wardroom inhabitants) is in his Heaven and all’s right with the world.

"For the last time I have climbed the stairway, and on its first landing opened the door with a panel over it, on which are the words ‘Radio Room’, and passed into the harsh white brilliance of its lights and heard the muted chatter of Morse from the sets where the telegraphists sit, four hours at a time, some of them – alas, nearly all of them for the first two or three days out – flanked by buckets about whose purpose I will leave you to speculate.

"I have sat myself down for the last time on the bench clamped to the deck and, at the narrow desk, waited for the signals and translated the hundreds of groups of letters and figures into the King’s English – or something like it – and in the quiet intervals, gone below to the galley for jugs of cocoa hot and thick and sweet as molasses.

"Happy Days? Yes, they were happy days. I know that now in retrospect. Even the grim days and the grimmer nights are gilded by the sort of spurious glamour which alone makes war at sea endurable.

"I can think now without any particular emotional disturbance of the night on the first of the two Russian convoys when the bell began to toll for ‘Action Stations’ and, above its sinister pealing, the Skipper announced in a voice empty of all expression, that a front-line destroyer, close to our position, had been torpedoed and was at standstill in the Arctic seas which were death to men and doom to a ship adrift.

"There was no panic, no stampede. Into the W/T office – the ‘Radio Room’ as the American builders of the ship had called it – the telegraphists and the coders packed.

"As soon as I opened the door I heard the voice in the R/T loud-speaker high in the starboard bulkhead; the voice, clear and firm above the crackling atmosphere, of the young telegraphist, whose name I will never know, whose grave is in those Northern waters – where so many of his companions sleep with him…"

Cliff was right. There were few, if any, survivors from ships sunk by U-boats or Luftwaffe bombers in the Arctic seas on those perilous voyages to Murmansk and Archangel. Death came quickly to anyone immersed in the icy ocean in those latitudes. The sudden drop in body temperature could prove fatal in less than 10 minutes. And everyone was vulnerable. Whether you were an admiral on the bridge of a heavy cruiser, or a stoker in the engine room of a rusty old freighter – the threat was relentless, day and night.

It may seem inconceivable to us now that people could endure the mental and physical stress of situations like this without, as Cliff says, any particular emotional disturbance. Yet endure they did. And what’s even more remarkable is that only a few years earlier, these citizen sailors had been factory workers, shop assistants, office clerks and, in Cliff’s case, a journalist. As he points out, he wasn’t even in the navy long enough to say ‘aye aye’. It was just ‘righto’ or ‘OK’.

All the same, it’s no overstatement to say these non-professional, or ‘hostilities only’ sailors did as much to ensure Britain’s survival – and ultimate victory – as the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain and the soldiers who pushed the Wehrmacht back from the Normandy beaches to the heart of Germany.

The conflict between Allied ships and German U-boats was dubbed the Battle of the Atlantic by Winston Churchill on 6 March 1941.

In those grim days it was a brutal and merciless fight for Britain’s survival. Churchill said that the ‘U-boat peril’ was the only thing that ever really frightened him during the Second World War. Official figures underline why – more than 2,500 ships were sunk by U-boat action during the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain’s low point came in 1942 when shipping losses were running at 650,000 tons per month – dangerously close to the 800,000 ton target that the Germans believed would starve Britain to submission.

More than any other weapon at Hitler’s disposal – including the panzer divisions of the Blitzkrieg and the heavy bombers Luftwaffe – the U-boat came closest to defeating Britain. It was a remarkably unsophisticated vessel, not far removed from the early U-boats of the First World War. And yet it proved a lethal and elusive adversary, capable of inflicting immense destruction – especially when Admiral Donitz’s wolfpacks closed in on slow-moving and poorly protected convoys.

Nevertheless, Cliff Greenwood and his comrades – the men of the little ships, as they were known – made sure the U-boats did not have it all their own way. The U-boat arm deployed 860 operational vessels, of which 750 were lost – an appalling attrition rate of 87 per cent. And when a U-boat went down, few survived. Some 39,000 men served in the U-bootwaffe, of whom nearly 29,000 died in action – that’s three out of four of all German submariners.

An authentic insight into the tactics used on both sides is the 1957 movie The Enemy Below, starring Robert Mitchum as the skipper of an American escort and Curt Jurgens as the U-boat commander he must defeat.

The film is interesting for two reasons. First, Mitchum’s ship, USS Haynes, is absolutely identical to Cliff’s ship, HMS Byron, because Byron and scores of her sister ships were were mass-produced in American yards. The US Navy classified these ships as destroyer escorts (DEs), but as far as the Royal Navy was concerned, they were frigates because they were not fitted with torpedo tubes – a standard requirement for British destroyers of the period.

The second reason why The Enemy Below is especially illuminating is that it was the first movie that portrayed a U-boat crew in a sympathetic light – as brave and resourceful individuals fighting honourably, rather than the familiar stereotype of ruthless Nazi fanatics. As a result, you get a compelling insight into what it must have been like for the combatants – both above and below the waves.

But the undoubted courage and daring of German submariners was never going to be enough. The U-boat campaign was defeated by an almost limitless supply of merchant ships from American yards, combined with an increasingly effective anti-submarine warfare capability, delivered in large part by Captain class frigates such as HMS Byron.

Byron had a crew of around 140 and a displacement of less than 2,000 tons. To give you some context, HMS Belfast, a large cruiser now a museum ship in London (which some of you may have visited), displaced 10,000 tons, while battleships such as the Prince of Wales displaced 35,000 tons and more.

I got some direct personal insight into what conditions would have been like aboard Byron when I spent three days as a Bolton Evening News reporter aboard HMS Beaver, a Type 22 frigate that served in the Royal Navy during the 1980s and 90s. These type 22 ships displaced more than 5,000 tons – which made them nearly three times the size of Byron, and they featured many more home comforts. Even so, there was a cloying claustrophobia as you moved along the narrow passageways and descended through watertight hatches to the lower decks. And when you were down there and the ship rolled in a heavy swell, you had an unnerving sense that she was going to go right over and capsize.

Of course, there was no danger of this happening in the relatively benign conditions of the Irish Sea, but smaller Second World War vessels could and did founder and sink in the mountainous storms of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

I went down on the Beaver, from Liverpool to Portsmouth, because she was the adopted ship of Bolton. The town’s strong naval tradition goes back to a single week during the Second World War when local people raised one million pounds for the Royal Navy – a staggering amount of money for the period. As a result, the light cruiser HMS Dido was officially adopted by the town to mark the achievement.

Dido herself provides some fascinating insights into Cliff Greenwood’s story because she too sailed on convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic and Arctic, and a Dido class cruiser featured as HMS Ulysses in Alastair MacLean’s bestselling 1955 novel of the same name. Although it was written nearly 60 years ago, HMS Ulysses remains a compelling and masterful piece of writing about the dangers and hardships of escorting convoys to northern Russia. This is not least because MacLean himself served on a similar ship on the same convoys. Like The Enemy Below and other movies and books such as The Cruel Sea and In Which We Serve, it’s well worth a look.

For the final few months of the war, Byron was part of the 21st Escort Group, which was based in Belfast and comprised six ships of the Captain class: HMS Conn, Deane, Fitzroy, Redmill, Rupert and, of course, Byron, all named after captains who served under Nelson.

By October 1944 when the 21st Escort Group was formed, Germany’s defeat was inevitable – yet this did nothing to lessen the intensity of the U-boat campaign.

When action was joined, no quarter was given or expected. The ships of the 21st Escort Group operated in twos, threes and fours against single U-boats and in one 12 day period between late March and early April 1945, the group sank four U-boats off the British coast. This was a spectacular success which was highlighted in the national press when the 21st Escort Group returned to Belfast.

Nonetheless, it’s sobering to reflect that each of these U-boats went down with all hands, so with a typical crew of about, 48, this meant nearly 200 men died horribly in those cold steel coffins.

Nor was the loss of life one-sided. Less than three weeks later, the U-boats struck back. Twenty-four crewmen were killed, but only three bodies recovered, when an acoustic torpedo from U-1105 hit HMS Redmill, one of Byron’s escort group on 27th of April.

So was it worth the price? Inevitably, Cliff would have had low moments – and not surprisingly, he didn’t reveal them in his letters home to his wife, Vi, because he didn’t want to add to her already considerable worries.

Yet the overall feel from the letters is that Cliff and his comrades felt a justified sense of reward and fulfilment as a result of their accomplishments.

I’ll wrap up with some comments from Cliff in a letter to Vi, dated the 28th of October 1944:

“There are times when you feel good in this little game,” he wrote. “This morning at 6 o'clock was one of them. I stood alone on the upper deck and against a red and angry dawn, over a new land, watched a line of merchant ships steam into sanctuary.

“Not one had been lost. Heaven knows I'd had little to do with it – except that I worked harder and for longer hours than I've ever worked since I came into the Navy. And yet when I saw those ships I was proud. It had meant hours and hours on watch – I was on for about 18 of the last 24 – and I was so dog tired that I was nearly asleep standing up.

“But when it's all over, it does seem worth it.”