The name Vidette was first
used by the Navy for a French prize vessel in 1800 and derives from old
French for a horse mounted sentry or scout / sentinel. The ship’s crest
was a gold mounted sentry on a black ground. She was ordered under the
1916-17 War Emergency Programme from Alexander Stephens & Sons
Limited in Linthouse, Govan on the River Clyde and laid down on 1
February 1917, launched on 28 February 1918 and completed on 27 April.
After a short period with the Grand Fleet she was in Reserve from 1923
until 1936 when she was commissioned at Devonport for service with the
First Anti-Submarine Flotilla at Portland.
On the outbreak of war in September 1939 Vidette was
assigned to Gibraltar as part of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla (13DF) and
her pennant number changed from D48 to I48 for visual signalling
purposes. She escorted HG and OG convoys on the UK - Gibraltar – UK
route and worked alongside other V&W’s and French warships.
In July 1940 she was detached from 13DF and sailed to Oran as part of
Force H and provided a screen for the Battleships of Operation Catapult – the attempt to neutralise the French Fleet which concluded with the destruction of much of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.
In August Vidette resumed
escorting convoys from Gibraltar to UK but in early November took part
in Operation Collar running aircraft reinforcements to Malta. On 27
November she was in the destroyer screen for Force H at the
inconclusive Battle of Cape Spartivento.
In January 1941 she joined the West Africa station local escort at Freetown for convoy defence of military convoy WS5A, one of the “Winston's [Churchill] Specials”
which escorted military convoys round the Cape to Suez. She remained
with the Freetown Escort Force until early summer. By September she was
back at Gibraltar escorting convoys to Britain. She assisted in the
abortive attempt to rescue HMS Cossack torpedoed by U563 off Portugal. Cossack sank while under tow on 27th October with the loss of 159 of her crew.
After a successful Warships Week National Savings campaign in March 1942 HMS Vidette
was adopted by Todmorden, a mill town in West Yorkshire on the
Lancashire border. The ship's crest mounted on a wooden shield
presented to Todmorden by the Admiralty, is on display in the Council
Chamber of the Town Hall.
In May she joined Force H for air reinforcement missions for Malta code named Bowery and Operation LB. In June she was part of Force W covering the passage of Malta relief convoy with Operation Harpoon. A further detachment to Operation Pedestal in August.
In September 1942 she made passage to Sheerness in Kent, England for
conversion to a Long Range Escort (LRE) by the removal of a boiler to
create space for extra fuel tankage. Twenty-one V&W’s were
converted to LREs. The ship lost its thin ‘tickler‘ funnel and top
speed was reduced to a still respectable 24.5 knots and there was an
increase in crew accommodation.
After conversion Vidette, captained by Lt.Cdr. Raymond Hart was assigned to B-7 Escort Group (B7 EG) based
at Liverpool led by Cdr. Peter Gretton at a crucial point in the Battle
of the Atlantic. After a number of uneventful crossings in late March -
early April she saw fighting around eastbound convoy HX 231 with the
loss of six ships sunk and three U-boats destroyed.
In the third week of April outbound convoy ONS.5 consisting of forty
merchant vessels rendezvoused off Oversay before heading slowly West
accompanied by B7 EG. Vidette
was detached to Iceland on 22 April to collect three merchant ships and
re-joined the convoy with them on 26th. Up ahead lay the largest
gathering of U-Boats assembled against a single convoy during the War –
forty in all. The U Boats patrol line comprised Gruppe Meise, Gruppe Specht, Gruppe Amsel and Gruppe Star. Amsel and Specht were later reorganised into the seventeen boats of Gruppe Fink on 3 May.
The passage West encountered unusually heavy weather making it
difficult to keep the convoy as a cohesive unit. The running battle
started on the night of 28 April and continued for seven days and
nights with air coverage from Iceland and Gander in Newfoundland plus
the surface escorts. Six U-boats were sunk or damaged with the loss of
thirteen merchant ships. Vidette
is credited with the destruction of U-513 and also attacked U-125 with
Hedgehog mortars forcing it to dive with Corvette Snowflake and sinking
her with depth charges. Joe Whittaker introducesa more detailed account by Captain Raymond Hart below.
Vidette took part in the
defence of convoy SC130 and further convoys ON206, ON208 and
HX263 and shared the credit for the destruction of U-274 and U-282. She
remained with B-7 Escort Group into 1944.
May 1944 saw Vidette
operating in the English Channel as part of Operation Neptune, the
naval component of the Normandy landings. This included deployment to
Milford Haven for the escort of Build-Up Phase convoys to the Western
Task Force area. On 20 August she took part with HMS Forester and Wensleydale in the destruction of U-413 SSE of Brighton. Six months earlier on 20 February, U-413 had sunk HMS Warwick, a sister ship of Vidette, off Padstow, Cornwall.
At the cessation of hostilities HMS Vidette was paid off in June 1945 and
placed on the Disposal List. She was sold to BISCO on 3 April 1947 for
scrapping and arrived at the breakers yard of G.W. Brunton at
Avonmouth, Bristol, under tow at the end of 1947.
Former Full Members of the V & W Destroyer Assoociation E.J. Bradley (Kidderminster, Worcestershire), D. Warner (Wednesbury, West Midlands) Please get in touch if you knew this man or have a family member who served in HMS Vidette
HMS VIdette and the B7 Escort Group ONS.5 - the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic 26 April - 5 May 1943
by Joe Whittaker
Group B7 was one of seven British naval groups which served with the
Mid-Ocean Escort Force (MOEF). It provided convoy protection in the
most dangerous mid-section of the North Atlantic route. The MOEF was
originally to be five American, five British and four Canadian groups.
B7 was formed in the spring of 1942, following the inability of the USN
to form groups A-4 and A-5 due to other commitments. To replace them,
two new escort groups, B6 and B7, were formed." Wikipedia
account was written by Joe Whittaker (on right) whose father, Edward William James
Whittaker (on left) known by his shipmates as "Lofty", was an ERA in HMS Vidette. "Lofty" Whittaker began an apprenticeship at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport before the war but left to join HMS Caledonia
at Rosyth where he trained at the "College on the Hill" to become an
Engine Room Artificer (ERA) or "Tiffy". For an amusing accouunt of what
it was like to be a "Tiffy" read Bill Riseborough's story.
"Lofty" Whittaker is the 19 year old drum-major on the right practicing with the Band of HMS Caledonia for the Parade at Ibrox in front of the King:
father often recounted the day at Ibrox, in front of the King , when he
threw the mace up in the air and failed to catch it. I believe that
this was the day captured in the film ' The King's Speech ' albeit that
the event did not feature in the film. All part of the Empire
Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938." - click on this link to enlarge
Having completed his training his first ship was the Radnor Castle a trawler converted for minesweeping duties in the SW Approaches. He then joined the Royal Sovereign Class Battleship HMS Ramillies
including tours East of Suez, South Africa and the Med. He was on her
at Tarranto and when she was torpedoed at Diego Suarez in
Madagascar on the 30th May 1942. It took Ramillies until late in 1942 to get back to Devonport for a full repair after partial repairs at Durban.
Early in 1943, with Ramillies in dock, Dad was posted to HMS Vidette which was being converted to a long range escort at Sheerness Dockyard by removing of one of her boilers to allow extra fuel to be stored.
was a member of Peter Gretton's B7 Escort Group working out of
Liverpool and Londonderry escorting convoys to Halifax, St
Johns and the US base at Argentia in those critical months of Spring
1943. Vidette was involved in
the defence of west bound Convoy ONS 5, now recognised as the convoy
battle which turned the U-Boat War in the Allies favour (see Black May by Michael Gannon). Its 5th May core date is celebrated as Battle of the Atlantic Day.
I was privileged to accompany my father and mother (a WREN on HMS Paris) to a number of HMS Vidette Crew Association Reunions and my interest in the experience of those men led to my publication of Vidette Vignettes in April 1997. The account that follows was extracted from that publication to make it more widely available.
The years leading up to the
outbreak of war had seen virtually no preparation for the coming
struggles at sea. In particular by 1939 there had been no new
escort vessels commissioned with sufficient range to be effective ocean
escorts across the Atlantic. Whilst many at the Admiralty
continued to believe that the big guns of the battleships would be
decisive, the loss of the Hood, Prince of Wales and Repulse soon tragically showed the vulnerability and weakness of the big gun theorists.
As merchant shipping losses escalated during 1942 it was decided that
long-range escort vessels were needed urgently and more quickly than
shipyards could build them. HMS Vidette
was one of the V & Ws converted, losing its “Woodbine and Tickler”
image as one of its funnels was removed and extra fuel capacity added
by the removal of a boiler. This conversion work was carried out
at Sheerness Dockyard on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary and
was completed towards the end of January 1943.
Vidette and Escort Group B7
Lt Raymond Hart, Cdr Peter W Gretton and Lt Cdr James Plomer RCNVR Photographed aboard HMS Sunflower at Londonderry on 7 November 1943 Courtesy of the IWM A 20147
In early February Vidette
sailed from Sheerness for Londonderry with a new Devonport Ships
Company who had made the journey by train via Queenborough to
Sheerness. Her new Captain, Lieutenant Raymond Hart (on left) had joined
her the previous month, having spent the early war years on HMS Hasty. Vidette was his first command and he was still under 30 years of age. Many of his crew were in their twenties.
The passage northabout was a testing one for all onboard, especially
the young hostilities only ratings many of whom were very sick.
On arrival at Londonderry Vidette joined B7 Escort Group under Commander P. W. Gretton in HMS Tay (centre) as his ship, HMS Duncan, had not completed her refit.
The other members of the Group were five corvettes, Snowflake (Lt. Harold Geeves Chesterman RNR), Sunflower (Lt. Cdr. James Plomer RCNVR), Alisma, Pink (Lt. Robert Atkinson DSC, RNR), and Loosestrife; two rescue trawlers, HMT Northern Spray and Northern Gem and the Escort Oiler, British Lady - immortalised by a poem!
On 14th March the Group sailed from Londonderry and joined
Convoy ON173 bound for Halifax. The uneventful passage gave the
ship’s company a chance to shake down and get used to the somewhat
hazardous business of moving about the ship and handling the armament
in bad weather.
Convoy HX.231, 4 - 7 April 1943
After a short layover in Argentia, Newfoundland, the Group joined a
homeward bound convoy, HX.231 off St. Johns. On 4th April, Vidette had her first opportunity to attack a U-boat since joining the Group, as Captain Hart recalls:
were stationed astern of the convoy when at about 16.30 a radar contact
was obtained at 6,000 yards. We immediately gave chase, the
U-boat dived, but we managed to deliver a fairly accurate attack with
depth charges. We could not, however, continue with the action as
we were ordered to rejoin the convoy at best speed. This was my
first attack on a U-boat since taking command and it made me realise
how naked one was without a chum to assist in the hunt and also with
the convoy some fifteen miles ahead. At a time like this when it
becomes a personal duel it brings home to one the vital importance of
having a highly trained team.”
In Appendix (I) a copy of the actual report signed by then Lieutenant Hart is reproduced.
The battle around Convoy HX.231 lasted from 4 - 7 April; two U-boats were destroyed, one by HMS Tay and the other by a Liberator R186. Vidette damaged U-594
and, according to German records, put her out of the
battle. Only three ships in the convoy were lost, although three
others, one a straggler and two which broke away from the convoy (Dutch
and Swedish flagged) when first attacked, paid the inevitable penalty.
HX.231 was the first opportunity for B7 Escort Group, led by Cdr P. W.
Gretton, to put to the test their training and teamwork and as Captain
Hart subsequently commented “it brought home to all of us the appalling
inhumanity of war and the desperate decisions which at times had to be
made to leave survivors in their boats or in the water.”
Captain Hart cites the particular example of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamer Shillong which was torpedoed and sunk on the night of 4 April:
had a crew of 78 but sadly, owing to weather damage before joining the
convoy, two of her lifeboats had been badly damaged and could not be
launched. The motor boat capsized when being launched and this
left only one lifeboat to take the entire crew. Some rafts had
been constructed and were launched, but all but five of those who got
away on the rafts perished. The lifeboat, however, survived and
eventually ended up with thirty eight on board, eleven British and
twenty seven Asiatics. A cadet Coleman was in command but died
the following night; his place being taken by Cadet Clowe. On
12th April a U.S. Navy Catalina Flying Boat sighted the lifeboat and
dropped a parcel which could not be reached owing to bad weather.
However, at 5pm that evening the Norwegian destroyer St. Albans from Convoy ON177 hove in sight and stood by the lifeboat until the rescue ship Zamalek
arrived. By a feat of fine seamanship the remaining seven
survivors were carefully hoisted on board. Only three of them
retained all their limbs, three of them lost both legs and one both
feet from frostbite. Words cannot possibly express one’s feelings
and admiration for the courage and conduct of these men. The two
Cadets who survived, Moore and Clowe, were only nineteen years of
age. Clowe had already survived the loss of two ships, one by
bombing and one by torpedo attack.”
On 9 April the B7 Escort Group left the Convoy and proceeded to Londonderry but soon after arrival Vidette
was sent to Liverpool for a quick docking as the pounding she took in
the Atlantic weather caused cracks to appear in the shellplating
covering the fuel tanks. As a result when leaving the berth in
Argentia stern first it became obvious, to Capt Hart's embarrassment,
that “we were trying without success to fire the boilers with water”.
The Battle for Convoy ONS.5, 26 April - 5 May 1943 As a member of the B7 Escort Group under Cdr P. W. Gretton HMS Vidette
was deeply involved in the battle for Convoy ONS 5. Convoy ONS.5 was a
westbound slow convoy of 39 ships with a nominal speed of 7˝ knots
(which it never reached). The merchant ships were in ballast and
with heavy weather anticipated the officers and crews of B7 Escort
Group knew that the passage to Halifax was likely to be long and
rough. The officers serving in HMS Vidette during this turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic are listed in the April 1943 issue of the Naval List. First Lieutenant John Rowland Pritcharddecribed his service in HMS Vidette elsewhere on this website.
Due to minor damage caused by heavy weather on her previous eastbound passage, HMS Vidette, under Lt Raymond Hart, was
unable to sail from Londonderry with the other ships of B7 Escort
Group. She was being patched up in Liverpool and sailed for
Reykjavik on 21 April to pick up a small contingent of three ships, Bosworth, Gudvor and Sapelo.
The B7 Escort Group joined the Convoy off Oversay,
Scotland, early in the afternoon of 22 April and spent some time
getting the mixed bag of ships into convoy formation in deteriorating
weather. The first four days were uneventful but with station keeping
increasingly difficult two of the merchant ships collided forcing one
to leave the convoy and make for Iceland – where she arrived safely.
HMS Vidette, with her three merchant vessels, had some difficulty in meeting up with the convoy but on 26 April, with the help of HMS Duncan’s HFDF (Huff Duff in naval parlance), Vidette and her charges joined up with the convoy.
On 27 April the weather improved allowing the convoy to get back into formation. During the late afternoon Duncan, Vidette and Loosestrife were able to top up with fuel from British Lady which was fortunate as Duncan
was particularly short of fuel, and would have had to divert to
Greenland. In the light of future events it would have been
unfortunate for the convoy and its escort to have been without its
Commander and his ship. The improvement in the weather also
allowed Hudson aircraft based in Iceland to provide air cover for the
convoy that day. The importance of this was emphasized when news
of an eastbound convoy being attacked to the south of ONS.5’s track
The night of 27-28 April passed quietly but during the morning of 28
April there was considerable U-boat radio activity quite close and dead
ahead of the convoy. It had been hoped that with visibility
dropping and a more attractive laden convoy nearby that ONS.5 would be
missed by the U-boats but this was not to be.
Although the convoy Commander was by now aware that there were a number
of U-boats in the vicinity there were no definite intelligence reports
other than that Amsel Group (11 U-boats), Specht Group (17 U-boats) had
been patrolling to the east of Newfoundland since 21st April and Star
Group (14 U-boats) was further to the east and north.
Unknown to the Escort vessels, U-650 had sighted the convoy that
morning and had continued to shadow it all day, allowing fourteen other
U-boats to close on the convoy in preparation for a night attack. HMS Duncan
sighted a U-boat near the convoy in the late afternoon, which dived
before being attacked and contact was lost. With the weather now
so bad that no flying from Iceland was possible there was little that
could be done to prevent the wolf packs assembling.
All on board Vidette prepared
for the attack with considerable apprehension. Attacks were
expected to be made by surfaced U-boats unaware that they could be
detected by the Escort’s 10 centimetre radar. If the convoy was
to be attacked at the same time by several surfaced U-boats the plan
was to approach them at best speed, force them to dive and then fire a
pattern of depth charges. The Escort vessel would then dart back
into station to preserve the radar integrity of the screen.
As darkness fell the expected attack came. Captain Hart recounts:
think we all felt somewhat relieved as once the adrenaline started to
flow there was no time to think of being frightened. Between 8pm
and 1am on 29th April five attempts to break through the screen and
attack were foiled by Duncan and Sunflower and the sixth attempt, half
an hour later, was frustrated by Snowflake.”
With a heavy swell conditions on deck were grim, especially for the crews handling the heavy and cumbersome depth charges.
The convoy was unscathed at dawn on 29 April but at 5.30 am the American merchantship McKeesport was torpedoed and sunk at the rear of the convoy. All the crew except one were taken off by the rescue trawler Northern Gem. There was no more action that day and the good news was received that the 3rd Support Group, consisting of Offa, Oribi,Penn, Panther and Impulsive, were to join the convoy. Oribi,
sailing from Iceland, joined the convoy that evening but the four Home
Fleet destroyers out of Halifax did not reach the convoy until 2nd May.
The next morning there was a brief spell of calm which allowed Oribi to start taking on fuel but the weather worsened during this operation and Oribi
made such a mess of the oiler's gear that no other ship could fuel that
day. This was to have serious consequences for the escort leader
HMS Duncan. The gales
continued to vent their fury on the ships of ONS.5 and prevented any
aircraft from flying over the convoy that day.
The only comfort that the sailors and seamen could take was that the
atrocious weather made it virtually impossible for the U-boats to
attack. The convoy was barely making any headway and the U-boats
were able to keep in touch with the convoy as they were submerged and
protected from the worst of the atrocious conditions. The U-boat
commanders held on tight to the convoy and waited better conditions to
enable them to attack. Apart from an attempt by one U-boat to
close the convoy and penetrate the escort screen, which was driven off
by Sunflower and Snowflake, the lull in enemy activity continued
through the night and the 1st May.
The weather however got worse and the convoy had virtually come to a
standstill. All ships were hove to as best they could and ship
handling became a full time job. There was always the risk of
disaster in such conditions if a ship got beam on to the sea and this
risk was increased with shortage of fuel and a lowered stability.
Captain Hart recalls that:
on the upper deck was severely restricted. We had now suffered
this weather for several days and the ship’s company were living under
very grim conditions. Mess decks were running with water, clothes
wet through, sleep almost impossible with the ship performing
Not surprisingly, accurate station keeping was impossible, and the
ships of the convoy were by now spread over a large area. Two
ships had to turn and run before the wind, returning to Iceland safely.
Despite the shocking flying conditions some aircraft did manage to give
the convoy some very valuable assistance. A Flying Fortress of
200 Squadron had attacked and sunk U-710 on 24th April – the
U-boat was lying in the track some way ahead of the convoy. At
noon on 1st May a Liberator from 120 squadron reached the convoy from
its Icelandic airfield. It could however do little but confirm
the wide dispersal of the convoy and passed on the unwelcome news that
there were icebergs thirty miles ahead and that, if the convoy
continued on its present heading for fifty miles, it would be well
inside the main Greenland ice pack. In the past twenty four hours
the convoy had progressed barely twenty miles.
After a tense night the weather eased somewhat on the 2 May and as some
of the ships were over thirty miles from the convoy Commodore’s ship it
was essential to get the ships back into formation so that the escorts
could give them the protection that was obviously going to be
needed. The process was slow and difficult but once again a
Liberator arrived from Iceland, flying over 1,000 miles to reach the
convoy, and gave valuable assistance to Commander Gretton in rounding
up stragglers. By the end of the day thirty two ships were back
in some sort of formation, although the corvette Pink
had to follow behind with a small group of stragglers still unable to
rejoin the main body of the convoy. The convoy was thus in
reasonable shape before it hit the main ice-pack, though many smaller
growlers and isolated flows passed down the convoy columns.
That afternoon the Support Group, consisting of four modern destroyers
of the Home Fleet, joined the convoy and carried out wide-ranging
sweeps around the convoy to keep the U-boats submerged. The 3rd
Support Group Offa (Senior Officer Commander McCoy), Impulsive, Penn and Panther were a very welcome addition to the convoy’s defence.
With the convoy still in ice hazard waters and with visibility
decreasing it was impossible for any vessel to take on fuel as the
tanker needed to weave her way through the floes and growlers.
The fuel situation of Duncan was now becoming critical and at 6am on
3rd May Commander Gretton informed the Admiralty that Duncan had only 40 per cent and Vidette 51 per cent of fuel remaining and if the weather did
not improve sufficiently to make fuelling possible by dusk on 3rd May
Duncan must proceed to St. Johns direct, followed by Vidette on 5th
May. He confirmed that the tanker British Lady had only 100 tons
of fuel left for the escorts.
There was no improvement in the weather and since conditions prevented
Commander Gretton transferring to another vessel he was reluctantly
forced to hand over command of B7 Escort Group to Lt Cdr Sherwood RNR
in the frigate Tay. After the war Commander Gretton reflected:
I am very proud that ships of my Group should have taken such a
prominent part, I shall never cease to regret that I didn’t risk the
weather and stay with them to the end. This decision has haunted
me ever since, although it was entirely correct and based on
common-sense – I had missed the ‘golden moment’ which comes but once in
Duncan left the convoy that night and arrived at St. Johns with only 4 per cent of her fuel remaining.
The night of 3rd May passed without any U-boat activity but the weather
continued to make life a misery for those onboard the escorts. On 4
May three of the Support Group destroyers, Penn, Panther and Impulsive had to return to St Johns to fuel, which left the escort very weak indeed.
As fate would have it ONS.5 was sighted by the middle U-boat of a big
pack and throughout the day of 4th May there was much U-boat activity
as no less than thirty U-boats found themselves in a most favourable
position for attack. At this stage the total protection for the
convoy consisted of Tay, a River Class Frigate, Vidette, three corvettes; Sunflower, Snowflake and Lossestrife and the destroyers Offa and Oribi. The corvette Pink was still some miles astern with her stragglers.
Spirits lifted somewhat when information was received that the 1st Support Group, consisting of the sloop Pelican (Captain G. N. Brewer) with the frigates Wear, Jed and Spey and the former US Coastguard cutter Sennen had left St. Johns on the morning of 4th May to join ONS.5.
As night fell the U-boats moved in to the attack and the first to
suffer was a straggler six miles astern of the convoy. This was
the beginning of what turned out to be the main battle. Captain Hart
takes up the story:
“First blood was to our supporting
aircraft a Canso (the Canadian Air Force variant of the Catalina flying
boat) which had taken off from Newfoundland in low visibility and in
the early evening had sighted U-438 and then U-630 about 2 miles astern
of the convoy. U-438 was damaged and U-630 was sunk by depth charges
dropped by Canso 9747 captained by Squadron Leader B. H. Moffit.
Vidette that night's battle started at 2200 when a radar contact was
obtained at 3,600 yards. We closed at best speed and when, within
a few hundred yards the U-boat dived, we gave him a pattern of 14 depth
charges and then returned to our station on the convoy. Half an
hour later another radar contact was obtained and we gave chase again
and when, within a few hundred yards and in the excitement of the
moment, I gave the order to standby to ram. I almost immediately
regretted it as the U-boat began diving so I tried to avoid running
over the top of him and delivered him instead, 14 depth charges.
If I had succeeded in ramming, I would probably have severely damaged
Vidette and been useless as an effective escort and become a liability
to the convoy instead. I made a positive decision there and then,
not to ram if the opportunity was offered again. This U-boat may
have been U-270 which Vidette was credited with damaging.”
During the night of 4 - 5 May five
more ships were sunk, bringing the total to seven, with two U-boats
sunk by aircraft but none, so far, by escorts. By 0400 on 5th May
it was broad daylight and there was still HFDF and radar activity
warning the escorts that the U-boats were still in contact.
Survivors from the torpedoed ships were still being picked up and
Northern Spray, one of the rescue trawlers, was sent off to St. Johns
with one hundred and forty three survivors onboard.
In the morning of the 5th May the weather moderated allowing Tay, Offa and Oribi to fuel, thus ensuring they could remain with the convoy. Vidette’s
fuel state was sufficient to see her through for another twenty-four
hours, even at action speeds. There was still plenty of U-boat
radar activity and Oribi was
sent off to investigate, on a bearing obtained by HFDF and sighted a
U-boat; after steaming another mile a second U-boat was sighted and
minutes later a third. The three U-boats were steaming in line
abreast at high speed, obviously getting into position for an attack on
the convoy. Oribi
attacked the first U-boat several times and was then told to rejoin the
convoy, but before she got back into station, another ship in convoy
was torpedoed – Offa and Sunflower carried out a promising attack on the U-boat involved.
At the same time the Pink,
Lt Cdr R. Atkinson, still shepherding his little group of stragglers,
gained asdic contact with a U-boat, which he pounded to destruction; it
was later identified as U-192. While this was going on one of Pink’s stragglers was torpedoed but Pink managed to pick up survivors.
carried out a further attack on another U-boat only 1000 yards ahead of
her little convoy. Having put the U-boat’s head down, Pink
wisely returned to her position ahead of her mini convoy.
Lieutenant Commander Atkinson at this point requested assistance and Sennen was despatched but could not meet up with him until the evening of 6th May. Sennen did however run across a U-boat a few miles astern of Pink’s
party on the surface, and attacked. This had the effect of
preventing this U-boat and another, which had been shadowing, reaching
Pink’s little party.
The main body of the convoy
in the meantime was steaming in reasonable formation in low visibility,
in a moderate sea. It later transpired that on 5th May Dönitz had
ordered that the U-boats were to make full use of daylight hours for
submerged attacks and to be as far ahead as possible by
nightfall. Dönitz was well aware that it would not be long before
the convoy entered waters where aircraft cover could be used against
his U-boats with great effect. His exhortation read:
'Immediately after onset of night the drum roll must be timed to
begin. Make haste, as there are 40 of you, there will be nothing
of the convoy left. The battle can’t last long as the sea space
left is short, so use every chance to the full, with all your might.'
Chilling words indeed.
Dönitz’s orders were followed and that afternoon (5th May) submerged
attacks on the convoy succeeded in sinking three more ships in the
space of half an hour. During this period Vidette gained contact
with a U-boat and attacked, but was then ordered to return to station
to maintain the protective screen around the convoy. Offa
detected and attacked U-266, causing damage and this U-boat was later
discovered to have been the one which had torpedoed the three ships
Providentially the convoy entered a bank of fog at dusk. Captain Hart recalls that:
“We prepared ourselves for the inevitable onslaught with a
determination to match our skills against a wily enemy. The
U-boat radio activity at this time was such that Captain McCoy in Offa
made the remark that ONS.5 seemed threatened with complete
annihilation. Little did he know of B7 Group’s fighting spirit
and high standard of training.
Loosestrife was the first ship to draw ‘blood’, stationed on the
starboard side of the convoy; a radar contact was obtained at
2126. The contact was a U-boat and was chased, fired on, forced
to dive and counter-attacked. No sooner had Loosestrife returned
to station when another radar contact was obtained at 500 yards.
Loosestrife closed the U-boat at speed and was intending to ram, but
the U-boat, after firing two torpedoes at Loosestrife, which passed
clear down the ship’s side, dived and was immediately attacked by eye
as he slid beneath the surface; this attack was enough, U-638 had been
On the other side of the convoy there was considerable activity. In the early evening Tay had seven U-boats in sight
at the same time. Two of these had been seen by Sunflower and a
third by Snowflake. Between 2050 and 2350 Sunflower and Snowflake
were in the thick of it. U-boat after U-boat kept appearing and
did their utmost to sink the corvettes – torpedoes were
everywhere. The asdic operator in Snowflakereported ‘torpedoes approaching’ and Chesterman, the CO, said that
his stomach went down to the next deck. His fear was short-lived
for up the voice pipe came a whisper which tickled Chesterman’s sense
of humour, it said ‘inflate lifebelts, puff, puff’, almost immediately
the starboard and port lookouts reported ‘Torpedo passing down the
ship’s side’. The deathly silence was broken by the asdic
operator reporting ‘torpedoes passed’. Again the ghostly voice
came up the voice pipe to bridge, ‘Deflate lifebelts, hiss,
hiss’. This touch of humour broke the tension, but the fight was
The U-boat in question dived when Snowflake was within 400 yards.
Having only two depth charges left, he dropped one on this attack and
the other on the second attack. While this was going on, Oribi was ordered to join them. As he
approached, he got a radar contact on a U-boat which emerged out of the
fog crossing his bows on a collision course. The Oribi hit the
U-boat just abaft the conning tower with some force. Concerned
about underwater damage to his screws and asdic dome the Captain
managed to manoeuvre clear. The U-boat was unable to dive and tried
to escape on the surface but ran straight into the arms of Snowflake; she was surprised the U-boat was still on the surface although
only 200 yards away. Having no depth charges left, Snowflake had
intended to ram, but noticed that the U-boat was in a sinking
condition and had no intention of letting her go. The U-boat’s
gun was manned, but the crew was soon dissuaded from using it when
Snowflake opened fire. The crew then baled out, having set the
After this extraordinary incident, the two ships were rejoining the
convoy when Sunflower got a radar contact at 1,000 yards. Plomer
ordered ‘Emergency full ahead and double emergency full ahead’ and
almost before he realised it Sunflower was mounting the U-boat’s hull like an
icebreaker. Sunflower’s engines were still running and she
ploughed on, fortunately without any serious underwater damage.
The U-boat, surprisingly, escaped and lived to fight another day!
This was the last contact Sunflower made during the
While the battle had been raging on the port side of the convoy Vidette had
been fully engaged on the starboard side. Between 2109/5 and 0240/6 May Vidette
was in action against six U-boats and at one
time had three of them on the radar screen at the same time. Capt
Raymond Hart RN described the action in a paper he wrote for the King
George's Fund For Sailors, now renamed Seafarers UK:
"We opened fire with the 4”
gun on the first one but in the excitement the gun
crew failed to load the next shell and when it was
fired a sheet of flame from the cordite charge appeared in front of
the bridge. This gave us quite a fright as we thought the ship
had been hit but all was well, no-one was injured and no
With so many U-boats waiting to find a gap in
the screen it was only possible for the escorts to counter-attack
contacts with depth charges and then return to station. I
did this with the first five U-boats which Vidette
attacked that night but
the sixth was played a little differently. We were returning to
station after the previous attack when an asdic contact was
obtained, classified as a submarine at shallow depth and moving rather
slowly – ideal for a hedgehog attack – what a reward that would be
for my splendid ship’s company and Vidette. At 0210/6 we
moved in to attack and delivered a pattern of 24 hedgehog bombs; three
seconds after they hit the water there were two heavy explosions and
two vivid flashes clearly seen from the bridge. Over
the loudspeaker came the Asdic Officer’s voice ‘U-boat is blowing
tanks, the noise is very loud’, a pause and then ‘I can hear banging
noises, like lots of metal being bashed together.’ The 1st
Lieutenant peered over the side and said ‘He appears to be coming to
the surface’, but he didn’t, U-125 would never surface again.
There was great jubilation in the ship; we had helped to avenge the
losses in our convoy and removed a U-boat from threatening our ships
This was the last attack carried out by Vidette in defence of ONS 5,
The action continued and between 0056 and
0432/6th May Loosestrife attacked three more U-boats, without positive results but the U-boats did not return to menace the convoy. At
0300, Offa had a radar contact at a distance of 4,400 yards, gave chase and was within a hundred yards when the U-boat started to dive. Offa made an unsuccessful attempt to
ram, dropped a pattern of depth charges and re-joined
the convoy which was still under attack.
By daybreak all was quiet and in very low visibility I was told to
refuel from the faithful British Lady (Captain Henney O.B.E.). As
I approached, I received a signal to say that ‘all available fuel for
escorts had gone’, so I said I had orders to escort British Lady
to St Johns but since this would not be possible without fuel I
requested a tow. Like a flash, the reply came back ‘you can have
some of my bunker’s' and, in spite of low visibility, we managed to fuel
Vidette remained with the convoy that night and in the afternoon of 7th
May we were detached with Loosestrife and ordered to escort the British
Lady, Berkel and Argon to St. Johns. During the night of 7-8 May, while still in fog, our little party ran into icebergs and became
scattered but we collected them up in the morning and proceeded
without any more problems, arriving at St. Johns at 08.30 on 9th May.
The enemy had made twenty four attacks that night, all were driven
and the U-boats were heavily defeated. U-boat casualties were
four sunk and three heavily damaged. In his report of
proceedings Lt Cdr Sherwood wrote: “All ships of the escort
showed dash and initiative. No ship
required to be told what to do and signals were distinguished both by
their brevity and their wit.”
Next morning, 6th May, the 1st Support Group on its way to the convoy
came upon some unsuspecting submarines and shook them severely, sinking
one; a Canso (Catalina) of the Royal Canadian Air Force destroyed
another submarine while on patrol in the vicinity of ONS5. At
09.15 on 6 May Dönitz called off the U-boat wolf packs and ordered
all boats to proceed to the eastward for replenishment.
A Great Victory
The battle of ONS.5 had been a great victory;
although thirteen ships of the convoy had been torpedoed seven U-boats
had been sunk. Aircraft covering the convoy had sunk two; the 1st
Support Group on their way to join the convoy had sunk one; the 3rd
Support Group had sunk one and B7 Group, the close escort, had sunk
three. Two U-boats in the attacking force collided
and both perished. Operational
Intelligence reports released after the war revealed that five other U-boats
reported severe damage and twelve varying degrees of
This success must be viewed in the context of the severe losses to
allied shipping in previous months. In
March 1943 nearly two thirds of the ships sunk were
sailing in convoys showing the U-boat services’ tactics
against the convoys were devastatingly effective. On 3rd March
the Paymaster General warned that “we are consuming three quarters of a
million tons more than we are importing. In two months we could
not meet our requirements if this were to continue.”
The battle of ONS.5 was a major breakthrough which severely dented the confidence of the U-boat commanders and naval
high command. Before the end of May Dönitz withdrw the
U-boats from the North Atlantic and they never again posed
the same threat to the passage of men and materials from North America
to the UK.
Praise and recognition came sometime after the end of the war, with
Professor Morison describing ONS.5 as “the fiercest battle.”
Captain Roskill, the Official Naval Historian, wrote “This seven-day
battle fought against thirty U-boats is marked only by latitude and
longitude and has no name by which it will be remembered; but it was,
in its own way, as decisive as Quiberon Bay or the Battle of the Nile.”
Ronald Set, author of The Firecest Battle, wrote: “The battle which B7 fought for six long days and nights against what
ought to have been overwhelming odds must go down in the annals of
British naval history as an epic battle. By winning just at this
time B7 made a major contribution to final victory.”
Vice Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald K.B.E., speaking after the war,
said: “Had this been a land battle, or a sea fight of old, its name
in the history books like Salamis or Trafalgar. This was no
skirmish. The fight to defend convoy ONS.5 was of more
significance than Alamein.”
He went on to extol the part played by the ships’ companies in
these words: “Without the tremendous support and heart-warming humour
of the ships’
companies that manned an incredible assortment of old and unsuitable
iron in appalling conditions, we would have been utterly lost.”
To summarise the achievement we return to Captain Roskill’s words:
“The Battle of the Atlantic never again reached the same pitch of
intensity, nor hung so delicately in the balance, as during the spring
of 1943. It is therefore fair to claim that the victory (of ONS5)
marked one of the decisive stages of the war; for the enemy had made
his greatest effort against our Atlantic life-line and failed. After four to five years of unceasing battle, of a more exacting and
arduous nature than posterity may easily realize, our convoy escorts
and aircraft had won the triumph they so richly merited.”