Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationHMS VIDETTE

HMNS Vidette (Naval History)
                   photograph from Naval

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 introduces a 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.

Some of the personal memories of the men who served on the lower deck of HMS Vidette were assembled by Joe Whittaker, the son of Engine Room Artificer (ERA) "Lofty" Whittaker, and published in a spiral bound booklet. Many of these stories are republished here on this website and I hope to receive photographs of the authors from their families.

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.

Commanding Officers

A/Cdr James Godfrey Wood Deneys RN (July 1932 - June 1933)
Lt Cdr Gerard Broadmead Roope RN (Dec 1936 - Feb 1937)
Cdr. (retired) Denys Royds Brocklebank, RN (15 June 1939 - June 1940)
Lt Eric Norman Walmsley RN (June 1940 - Aug 1942)
Lt Raymond Hart RN (21 Dec 1942 - 6 Nov 1943)
Cdr. Sir Peter William Gretton RN (6 Nov 1943 - 1 Dec 1943)
Lt Raymond Hart RN (1 Dec 1943 - March 1944)
Lt. Percival John Stoner, RN (March - 14 April 1944)
A/Lt.Cdr. George Stephen Woolley, RNVR (14 April 1944 - mid 1945)


Cd Gnr Thomas Allen RN (May 1936 - Feb 1937)
Lt Roger Caton Beckett RN (Aug 1927 - June 1928)   
Gunner E.H. Brown (18 Dec 1942 -            
Lt William Godfrey Crawford RN (March - April 1930)
Sub Lt John Crellin (1944)
Sub Lt E.F. Dyson RNVR (10 Jan 1943 -
Surg Lt E. Millar RNVR (24 Feb 1943 -
S.Lt Robert Ian Pearse RN (Feb - June 1944)
Sub Lt A.G. Park RNVR (10 Jan 1943 -
Lt John R. Pritchard (Jan 1943 - Jan 1944)
Sub Lt N. G. Tyler (17 Dec 1942 -
Lt W.E. Wade RNVR (5 Jan 1943 -
Lt John Montagu Granville Waldegrave RN (Jan - Aug 1929)
Lt John Dudley Watson RN (Sept 1936 - Feb 1937)
Wt Eng L.A. Wynn (8 May 1941 -

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

Drum Major EJW Whittaker tossing the Mace at HMS Caledonia, Rosyth, 1937Edward William James Whittaker. known as "Lofty".an ERA in HMS VidetteJoe Whittaker"Escort 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

This 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:

"My 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.

HMS Vidette 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.

These reunions were also the inspiration to create a lasting memorial to honour the men who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic; the men who served in the Merchant Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, US Navy and indeed those of the U Boat arm of the Kriegsmarine - a specific request of veterans I met who recognised the individual bravery and suffering of the men they fought against.

The account which follows includes numerous quotations from a talk delivered by
Captain Raymond Hart
to the King George V Fund For Sailors

HMS Vidette was his first command and Convoy ONS.5 his most formidable challenge.
 Should you wish to read Raymond Harts account in full it is attached here as a PDF.


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 (HMS Vidette), Cdr Peter W Gretton (Duncan) and Lr Cdr James Plomer RCNVR (HMS Sunflower)
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 HastyVidette 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:

“We 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:

“She 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 Pritchard decribed his service in HMS Vidette elsewhere on this website.

Officers in HMS Videtter April 1943 (Naval List) 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 reached ONS.5.

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:

“I 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:

“Movement 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 acrobatics.”

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:

“While 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 a lifetime."

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.

For 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.

Pink 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 that afternoon.

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 destroyed.”

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 Snowflake reported ‘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 still on.

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 scuttling charges.

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 voyage.

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 damage done. 

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 again."

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 without incident.

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 off 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 lesser damage.

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 would be 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.”

All the reports relevant to the battle for Convoy ONS.5 researched by Tony Cooper have been made available on by his friend Jerry MasonC
There is a recorded interview with Capt Raymond Hart RN about Convoy ONS.5 in the Sound Collection of the IWM in London - but unfortunately not online

Captain Hart continues the story of Vidette and Escort Group B7
 from convoy escort to scrapyard

The men on the lower decks of HMS Vidette tell their personal stories of life aboard a wartime V & W

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