British and Allied Submarine
Operations in World War II
Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet KBE CB DSO* DSC

 

 

     
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CHAPTER VIII

Home Waters and the Atlantic: first half of 1941

References
Appendix IX Submarine Organisation 10 March 1941
Patrolgram 6 S/M War Patrols Home waters & Atlantic - first half 1941
Map 15 S/Ms in the Atlantic - positions on 20 Mar 1941
Map 16 The First and Second Iron Rings - March 1941

WITH THE DECISION TO SEND all new construction submarines to the Mediterranean, the number of boats in Home waters began to decline. On 1st January 1941, there were a total of twenty-two submarines available for operations. Of these, seventeen were British; three were from the Netherlands, one Free French and one Polish. In addition there were twelve old British submarines with two Netherlands and one Norwegian used for training. The main British operational flotilla was the Second, of seven T-class and one minelayer, stationed in the Holy Loch in the Clyde. On the North Sea coast were the Ninth Flotilla at Dundee composed of three Netherlands, one Free French and one Polish submarines. Also in the North Sea was the Sixth Flotilla at Blyth consisting of four S-class boats. Abroad but operating in the Atlantic, were three British submarines withdrawn from the Mediterranean and stationed at Gibraltar, and two from Home waters at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The threat of invasion during the winter had declined to the extent that it was realized that there was a possibility that it might re-occur during the next summer but that was all. Anti-invasion measures were therefore no longer the principal duty of our submarines, and they were employed mostly in general offensive patrols off the south west coast of Norway and in the Bay of Biscay. In these two areas they were used to dispute the command of the sea by sinking anything they could find, attention being directed, as the situation demanded, against German heavy warships, U-boats, blockade runners, raider supply ships or simply against their coastal traffic. The most important part of the coastal traffic was the iron ore trade from Bilbao in Spain and, with the Baltic frozen, from Narvik down the west coast of Norway. Occasionally special anti U-boat patrols were made. The two submarines in Canada were put there to escort Atlantic convoys against raiders and the three submarines at Gibraltar to guard the Azores against any German attempt to seize the islands.

On 1st January 1941, there were four submarines on patrol off Norway; Sunfish off Fejeosen, Sealion in Fro Havet, Sturgeon off Stattlandet and O21 off Kors Fjord. There were two in the Bay of Biscay; Talisman off the Gironde and Tigris further to the north. Finally Trident was off Punta Delgada in the Azores. There was not very much activity anywhere. In the Bay of Biscay during January, Thunderbolt was positioned to intercept the iron ore trade between Bilbao and Bayonne but the weather was so stormy that she achieved nothing and she did no better when she was moved north to the Gironde. Taku had a blank patrol in the northern part of the Bay in the second part of January, as did Tribune who relieved Thunderbolt in the southern part. Intelligence then indicated that Hipper might leave Brest on the 26th January and Thunderbolt was ordered to an intercepting position off the port. She was recalled home, however, before Hipper made a move. The normal cycle of reliefs on patrol was followed but by some mischance, Wilk, on her final patrol before being placed in reserve, was left by herself off the Norwegian coast during the middle of January and when she went home on 20th, there were no submarines left in this area until O23 arrived off Utvaer on 24th. In this gap of a few days, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, repaired after the weather damage received during their abortive sortie at the end of December, sailed from Kiel and steamed unchallenged up the Norwegian coast and broke out into the Atlantic. The Admiralty knew nothing definite of this move until after the German squadron was past our normal submarine patrol positions when strenuous efforts were made by the Home Fleet to intercept south of Iceland. Although the cruiser Naiad made a brief sighting, the Germans broke contact and were not heard of again until one of the two battle cruisers was sighted by the battleship Ramillies escorting convoy HX106 in mid Atlantic. The sighting, however, was at long range and the enemy's identity was not certain. A week earlier, on 1st February, Hipper had sailed from Brest. At the time Snapper had just arrived on patrol in the northern part of the Bay of Biscay, Tribune was also on patrol in the Bay but she was off the Gironde. The only other submarine anywhere near was Otus off Punta Delgada in the Azores. Snapper saw nothing and on the night of 10th/11th February attacked the German minesweepers M13, M2 and M25 of the Second Flotilla south west of Ushant. She fired at least three torpedoes all of which missed and she was counter attacked while diving being caught in the sweep gear of one of the enemy ships. The Second Flotilla counter attacked with 56 depth charges and Snapper was sunk. She was lost with all hands including her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant GV Prowse RN, four other officers and 37 men.

Hipper sank an independent merchant ship on 11th February and next day attacked convoy SLS64 east of the Azores, which had no escort, and she sank seven ships. Hipper returned to Brest arriving on 14th February. She approached from the south in very bad weather passing between Talisman who was in the western part of the Bay and Tigris off the Gironde. The situation, however, was far from clear to the Admiralty and steps had been taken to intercept any German units returning north about to Germany. On 8th February, Urge, under orders for the Mediterranean, had been despatched to intercept two large fish carriers in the Vestfjord and she was diverted to patrol off Stattlandet. Cachalot, Sturgeon and Minerve, already on patrol were ordered to take up positions ten miles off the coast. Targets were at once restricted to warships and transports in order not to reveal the positions of our submarines unnecessarily. Normal patrols were resumed when Hipper attacked the convoy east of the Azores on 12th. Cachalot then laid a minefield in the Vestfjord on 15th February.

Analysis of the breakout of the German battle cruisers revealed that they had sailed at the exact point when no British or Allied submarines were on patrol. This led to a suspicion that the enemy wireless intelligence was responsible and was revealing a great deal about our submarine movements. Consultation with our own experts, who were beginning to obtain much information about U-boat movements by listening to their wireless signals, led to further restrictions on signals made by our submarines especially those made when returning to base.

The reason for our failure to intercept the breakout of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on to the trade routes is now clear. It was because our intelligence at the time was poor. Our cryptographers were still baffled by the German naval cipher and its Enigma machine; our Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft were few in numbers and of short range and our network of spies in Nazi Germany was weak. Furthermore Coastal Command with the long nights and bad weather was far from reliable. We had two intelligence tools. The first was wireless traffic analysis and the second was the British Naval Attaché in Stockholm with his agents watching the Baltic exits. Both of these sources did report the departure of the enemy but were not very positive and gave very little notice. Nevertheless it was sufficient for the Home Fleet to sail cruisers to watch the Iceland-Faeroes gap but not enough to get any submarines to the Norwegian coast. If submarines were to have been any use in this situation, however, they should have provided a constant patrol off the Norwegian coast to help the poor intelligence with their reconnaissance. At the time of the breakout, of the twenty-two Allied operational submarines in the Atlantic, three were at Gibraltar and two in Canada leaving seventeen in the United Kingdom. Of these only four were at sea, O23 had just left Dundee to relieve Wilk, who was nearing the same base; Taku and Thunderbolt were on patrol in the Bay of Biscay. The remaining thirteen boats were in harbour. The two submarines in the Bay were there for a good reason and that was the presence of Hipper in Brest. No doubt some of the thirteen boats had defects but Tribune, Tuna, Sealion, Sunfish, Cachalot, Snapper and O21 all made patrols at some time during January. It would be easy to blame it all on the dispersion of submarines for the Azores patrol and for escort of Atlantic convoys, but even without these boats it seems strange that it could not be arranged to keep at least two submarines on patrol off Norway.

The Admiralty were, of course, very worried about the foray of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which constituted the most powerful force yet to attack the trade routes. Although the presence of Ramillies with HX106 had saved this convoy, few other convoys were so heavily escorted. Generally they had only an armed merchant cruiser that was likely to be destroyed by the raiders in the same way as the Jervis Bay. It was not only Scharnhorst and Gneisenau that were at large. Scheer was ranging the South Atlantic and Hipper, as we have seen, was making raids from Brest. In addition there were no less than six armed merchant raiders on the oceans of the world. The future seemed more menacing with the completion of the new battleship Bismarck before long, and Tirpitz building too. On 14th February the Admiralty decided that, although VA(S) was not in favour of such a move, submarines must be used to escort convoys which had not got a battleship escort. The whole Second Submarine Flotilla consisting of the depot ship Forth (Captain GCP Menzies RN) with Tribune, Talisman, Taku, Thunderbolt, Cachalot and the large French Surcouf were to be sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join Porpoise and Severn in escorting Atlantic convoys to the United Kingdom. At the same time they decided that the Azores patrol was now relatively of less importance and that the Eighth Submarine Flotilla forming at Gibraltar should be reinforced with the depot ship Maidstone (Captain GAW Voelcker RN)1 and the Netherlands submarines O21, O23 and O24, bringing it up to a strength of six boats and that its function should be changed to the escort of convoys to and from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom. In February 1941, therefore, the principal duty of our submarines in the Atlantic became the direct protection of trade against the attack of German heavy ships.

With the withdrawal of the Second Flotilla and the reinforcing of the Eighth for convoy escort work, the strength of the operational submarine force for use in the North Sea and Bay of Biscay fell to ten boats. The old depot ship Titania (Captain HMC Ionides RN) with the Third Submarine Flotilla was brought round to the Holy Loch from Rosyth to replace Forth when she sailed for Canada. The Third Flotilla then took over the submarines operating in the Bay of Biscay and also the new function of supervising the trials and working up of all new construction submarines before they left for the Mediterranean: On occasion it was possible to use these boats for operations in the form of a working up patrol on their way to the Mediterranean. Patrols off the Norwegian coast and in the Bay were continued from Dundee and Blyth as well as the Holy Loch while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were at large. Furthermore it was not known when Hipper or Scheer might return and whether they would make for Germany or one of the Biscay bases.

When the German battle cruisers were evading the Home Fleet and breaking out into the Atlantic, Porpoise was already at Halifax. She was sent post haste after convoy HX105 on 26th January, which had sailed twenty-four hours earlier. The weather was so bad that she never made contact with it and ended up in the United Kingdom independently. On the Norwegian coast patrols continued. Sunfish (Lieutenant GR Colvin RN) landed an agent near Lindesnes on the 27th and went on into the Skagerrak. Off Kristiansand on 30th she missed a tanker with four torpedoes at a range of 4500 yards near the ice edge. The ice then forced her to withdraw to the Lister area. Here on 2nd February she fired a mixed salvo of four Mark IV and Mark VIII torpedoes at a small merchant vessel at a range of 1200 yards. The first torpedo ran on the surface and was seen by the target, which then avoided the others, and Sunfish was subjected to a counter attack of 13 depth charges. In the northern area off Stattlandet there was less ice and Sealion (Commander B Bryant DSC RN) on the 1st February fired six torpedoes in two attacks on a convoy of two medium sized merchant ships escorted by R-boats. The targets evaded the first attack and although a hit was claimed in the second, the convoy went on undamaged. On 5th February, however, Sealion had better luck. She hit and stopped the 1150-ton Ryfylke off Stattlandet with a torpedo at a range of 600 yards that failed to explode. She then surfaced and sank her by gunfire. Both O21 and Minerve patrolled off Bergen in the first half of February without success.

In the Bay, Talisman had an uneventful patrol in the middle of February but Tigris (Lieutenant Commander HF Bone DSO DSC RN) lost a merchant ship in fog on 11th off Bayonne but sank a 504-ton coaster next day. She then on 19th sank the French Gulvenec of 3200 tons in a night attack about ninety miles west of Cape Ferret2.

While Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were busy off Newfoundland in the middle of February, the submarines of the Second and Eighth Flotillas had hardly begun their escort duties. On 19th February the first two, Thunderbolt and Surcouf, sailed from the United Kingdom for Halifax followed a week later by Taku and Tribune. On 20th, Tuna, withdrawn from the Azores, escorted HG54 home from Gibraltar. This was not a minute too soon for already the raiders were planning to cross to the coast of Africa. Pandora arrived at Gibraltar from the Clyde on 27th and sailed home again with HG55 on 3rd March. Olympus reached Gibraltar on 7th March from the United Kingdom, and next day Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were repulsed by the battleship Malaya escorting convoy SL67 between the Canary Islands and the Azores. O23 arrived at Gibraltar from the United Kingdom on 10th and O21 arrived escorting convoy OG54 on 14th March. Pandora left HG55 on 14th March too and transferred as escort to the southbound OG55. On this same day, Olympus left Gibraltar northbound with HG56 transferring to OG56 for the return journey. The Gibraltar convoys were therefore well covered during this threat by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau although there were no submarines on patrol in the Bay. It was however felt that cover was needed further south and on 11th March, Severn was sailed from Halifax for Freetown. The raiders, however, had already doubled back to refuel and return to the area south east of Newfoundland.

Of the Second Flotilla forming at Halifax, Surcouf (Capitaine de Fregate Ortoli) arrived with many defects, while Thunderbolt (Lieutenant Commander CB Crouch DSO RN) had an encounter and was fired upon by the armed merchant cruiser Canton but survived. Taku (Lieutenant JFB Brown RN) never arrived at all. She had a serious defect in her after hydroplanes early in her transatlantic passage and had to be towed back to Londonderry by two corvettes, arriving on 18th March. Cachalot (Lieutenant HRB Newton RN), originally under orders for Halifax was, in the end, kept in United Kingdom waters and the arrival of Talisman (Lieutenant Commander PS Francis RN) completed the flotilla. Thunderbolt left for the United Kingdom as escort with the armed merchant cruiser Laconia to convoy SO25 on 10th March. The Forth had by now arrived at Halifax and thereafter the Second Flotilla got into its stride. Porpoise (Lieutenant Commander JG Hopkins RN) sailed on 20th March with the armed merchant cruiser Worcestershire and SC26; Tribune (Lieutenant Commander RG Norfolk RN) on 27th March with Rajputana and HX117 and Surcouf with SC27 and HX118 on 1st April. Returning across the Atlantic, Porpoise had encountered a U-boat at night on 7th March. The range was 2500 yards and she was only able to get two torpedoes away at the enemy who had already submerged and she escaped.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, after refuelling, raided dispersed shipping off Newfoundland in the middle of the month sinking a number of ships but did not attempt to attack any of the convoys. The three submarines Thunderbolt, after leaving SC25, Talisman on passage from the United Kingdom and Severn (Lieutenant Commander ANG Campbell RN) on her way to Freetown, all searched for the raiders. Only Thunderbolt was anywhere near the track of the German ships, and she was ordered to rejoin the escort of HX115 for as long as she could and then to go to Iceland to fuel. Severn, nine hundred miles to the south, was then ordered to resume her passage to Freetown and Talisman to Halifax.

The two battle cruisers were not the only threat to our Atlantic convoys in the middle of March. There were plans for both Hipper and Scheer to break back to Germany at this time. In mid March we had run out of submarines to relieve those on patrol in the Bay of Biscay. Hipper was in Brest where she had been since 15th February, and was ready for sea, so on 12th March L27 (Lieutenant HN Edmonds RN), who was carrying out anti-submarine exercises off Dartmouth, was sent to patrol off the port. Hipper slipped out without being seen on 15th March and got away into the Atlantic and back to Germany. Next day air reconnaissance found that she had sailed and on 18th, L27 was recalled to base. The attention of the Admiralty and C-in-C Home Fleet was concentrated on the northern areas as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were expected to try to break back to Germany before long. Scheer, unknown to our intelligence had in fact crossed the equator on the day Hipper left Brest, and was also on her way north. At this time we still had a few operational submarines for the Norwegian coast. Sunfish had acted as a navigational beacon early in March for an amphibious attack on the fish industry in the Lofotens but was back in Blyth by 11th March. Sealion (Commander B Bryant DSC RN), Undaunted (Lieutenant JL Livesey RN) and Sturgeon (Lieutenant Commander D St Clair-Ford RN), patrolled off Holmengra, Utvaer and Stattlandet respectively in the middle of March. On the 20th after transferring to the Obrestadt area, Sturgeon sank the tanker Drafn with two torpedoes at the long range of 4800 yards. During this period the Germans had been busy laying mines in northern waters. A defensive field was laid from Stavanger at the end of January, and in mid February and early March a field was laid between Kors Fjord and the Shetlands. In mid March they reinforced the Westwall minefield in the middle of the North Sea.

On 15th/16th March the battleship Rodney successfully defended the convoy HX114 against an attack by either Scharnhorst or Gneisenau. On 20th March an aircraft from the Ark Royalwhich, with Force H from Gibraltar, was searching for the German battle cruisers, sighted them six hundred miles west-north-west of Finisterre. Coastal Command and the Home Fleet were expecting them to break back north of the British Isles to Germany but it soon became apparent that they were steering for the French coast. Tigris had left the Holy Loch on 18th March bound for the Gironde area and her destination was altered to St Nazaire to intercept. The new submarine Union (Lieutenant RM Galloway RN), under orders for the Mediterranean and on passage to Portsmouth from the Clyde, was ordered to patrol off Brest on 20th and Unbeaten (Lieutenant EA Woodward RN), also under orders for the Mediterranean was sent to the Brest area too. The patrol positions of these two were well out at sea, some sixty miles west and southwest of the port. The German battle cruisers then virtually disappeared. Bad weather made air reconnaissance impossible, and no further sightings were made. In fact Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, unknown to us arrived in Brest in the early morning of 22nd March passing close to Union's patrol position before she had arrived on station. Believing the enemy to be still at sea and in a desperate attempt to intercept, the Admiralty and VA(S) ordered the concentration in the Bay of Biscay of every submarine they could lay their hands on. Trident was already in the Bay near Les Sables d'Olonne. L27 was sent to sea from Portsmouth and Torbay, Tuna, Taku and L26 from the Clyde. All submarine and anti-submarine training was stopped and Oberon, H31, H32, H33, H44 and H50 left Rothesay for Falmouth. Undaunted and Sokol from Dundee, and Sealion with Sunfish from Blyth were also sent post haste down the east coast. Sturgeon was even withdrawn from patrol off Obrestadt to join the concentration. Cachalot had left the Clyde on 21st March to lay mines off Cape Ferret and her orders were allowed to stand while O24 on her way to Gibraltar was also diverted to patrol. Finally the old Netherlands training submarines O9 and O10 joined the others at Falmouth and were there by 26th March.

It was still expected that the enemy would make for St Nazaire and the plan was for Tigris, Union, Unbeaten and Cachalot to patrol some sixty miles out while another nine submarines (Sokol, Sunfish, Oberon, L26, L27, O24, Torbay, Taku and Tuna) patrolled a double line 240 miles out so as to catch the enemy in daylight the day before. The other submarines would be held in harbour at readiness as reliefs. No sooner were the submarines in position on 27th March than air reconnaissance located Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest not St Nazaire. The failure to intercept the enemy in time in spite of a vigorous strategic concentration is now seen to have failed doubly. The Norwegian coast was as a result denuded of submarine patrols and Scheer and Hipper returned to Germany safely and unopposed.

The immediate reaction of the Admiralty and VA(S) was to keep the submarine concentration in being and to use it to ensure that the enemy did not get out of Brest again. The patrol positions were redrawn centred on Brest and some of the submarines were relieved. By 31st March, O9, H50, Sokol, Sealion, Sunfish, H32, H34, H31, O10 and H44 were disposed on an arc 240 miles out to catch the enemy in daylight the day after he sailed. Appreciations were made by VA(S) and it was now clear that the patrol, nicknamed facetiously by its participants as the 'Iron Ring', was going to be needed for some time. VA(S) was by no means happy to wear out the elderly training submarines in this arduous task. On 1st April, H32 had to return with her fore hydroplanes out of action, H31 had similar trouble. H50 ran short of fuel, O10 ran short of lubricating oil and O9 had other defects. O24 had to be released to go on to Gibraltar before her fuel ran short too. It was calculated that by 9th April if the foul weather continued that there would be no submarines left on patrol at all. On 4th April, the Admiralty approved the dispersion of the concentration. The training submarines resumed training, reinforcements went on their way to the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and operational boats resumed their normal patrol cycles.

On 6th April, the Royal Air Force severely damaged Gneisenau in Brest and she had to be dry-docked. She was further damaged a week later and many aerial mines were laid in the port and its approaches. Tigris meanwhile from the Bay got back to base on 14th April after completing two special intelligence operations and sinking the German tanker Thorn of 5500 tons on the night of 2nd/ 3rd April. This was in a position seventy miles south west of St Nazaire. She first missed in a night attack with four torpedoes at a range of 2500 yards and again with two more torpedoes at 1500 yards. She then opened fire with her gun and in an opposed action with the tanker's gun, stopped and silenced her and finally finished her off with another torpedo3. On 14th April Urge (Lieutenant EP Tomkinson RN) left Portsmouth for the Mediterranean and when 270 miles west of Bordeaux on 18th April, she sighted the 10,800-ton tanker Franco Martelli inward bound from Pernambuco. She fired three torpedoes and sank her. The available operational submarines in home waters then settled down to keep two or sometimes only one on patrol in the Bay of Biscay. The main aim of these patrols was still to intercept the German battle cruisers should they put to sea but minor incidents continued to occur on patrol. Tigris failed to meet a fishing vessel at sea carrying agents due to navigational problems and Pandora when on passage from Gibraltar had an encounter with an Italian U-boat leading to a gun duel but the enemy escaped by diving. Trident, on patrol in the southern part of the Bay, had on board a Special Operations Executive agent who was to be landed near Les Sables d'Olonne to bring off other agents but this mission was foiled by rough weather.

Most of the submarines on patrol in the Bay were from the Third Flotilla in the Clyde but two, Sealion and Seawolf, were from the Sixth Flotilla at Blyth. Both were transferred to the Fifth Flotilla at Fort Blockhouse for the summer. Their patrols tended to be monotonous except for a number of attempts to land agents, some of which were to try to improve intelligence about the German heavy ships in Brest. In April, Sealion (Commander B Bryant DSC RN) sailed with money, fuel and sealed orders and met a fishing vessel off Concarneau. She brought back four refugees including a French and a Polish aviator. Sealion found an Admiralty Fleet Order that encouraged the destruction of fishing vessels in enemy hands, and in July sank a French tunny fisher and picked up the crew. She sank another and then a steam trawler and had twenty-six survivors on board. Some of these she transferred to another trawler. VA(S) did not agree with these attacks as they compromised the positions of the submarines and no more took place although supplies continued to be sent to the French Resistance.

On the Norwegian coast only the Free French Minerve (Lieutenant de Vaisseau PM Sonneville) was left. She patrolled the south west coast in the middle of April and on 18th off Skudenes she fired two torpedoes at a range of 1200 yards at a small merchant vessel escorted by a trawler but missed ahead. Next day off Jaederens she fired two more torpedoes at a range of 3000 yards at a large tanker escorted by a destroyer, an aircraft and two trawlers. She broke surface on firing and was machine-gunned by the aircraft and depth charged by the escort but claimed a hit and to have damaged the enemy.

During April and May, submarines of the Eighth Flotilla at Gibraltar continued to escort convoys in case Scharnhorst and Gneisenau should break out. On 2nd April, however, intelligence was received that the French battle cruiser Dunkerque was about to leave Oran and next day Otus and Olympus were sailed from Gibraltar to take up patrol positions off the port. Further intelligence received on 5th indicated that her sailing had been postponed and the submarines were withdrawn. Otus (Lieutenant JFB Brown RN) returned to Gibraltar but Olympus (Lieutenant Commander HG Dymott RN) was sent on to Malta. In discussions with the C-in-C Mediterranean about reinforcements, he indicated his preference for the large submarines to form a division of the Eighth Flotilla at Gibraltar to operate in the western Mediterranean rather than to be transferred to Alexandria. After a patrol off Naples, therefore, Olympus returned to Gibraltar. Another duty for the Eighth Flotilla was the escort of Force H's tanker, Cairndale, which was positioned in the Atlantic to refuel the force during its operations there. Pandora (Lieutenant Commander JW Linton RN) carried out this duty in the early part of April until she too, was required for a Mediterranean patrol. On 8th April Severn (Lieutenant Commander ANG Campbell RN) operating from Freetown, fired two torpedoes at an Italian U-boat but they probably ran under, as the range was only 250 yards. Two days later she had another chance and fired four torpedoes at a range of 3000 yards followed by two more at 2000 yards but missed with all of them. Trident (Lieutenant Commander GM Sladen DSC RN) in the southern part of the Bay, was sent to a place called Mimizan to retrieve personnel of the Special Operations Executive parachuted into the Bordeaux area on 11th/12th May, but was not able to make any contact with them.

On the other side of the Atlantic, submarines of the Second Flotilla at Halifax continued to escort convoys. On 1st April, Surcouf left Halifax with SC27 and HX118 and went on to Devonport. On 9th, Talisman sailed with SC28 and on 19th Porpoise escorted SC29 with the armed merchant cruiser Ranpura and she too continued to the United Kingdom to refit. On 29th, Thunderbolt left with SC30 and Salopian and by this time there were only three submarines left in the Second Flotilla. On 10th May, one of these, Tribune with Aurania left Halifax with HX126 and on 19th this convoy suffered a heavy night attack by U-boats in which Tribune (Lieutenant Commander RG Norfolk RN) lost contact. The anti-submarine escort joined next day and Tribune did not attempt to rejoin the convoy and went on independently in accordance with her orders to the United Kingdom. We now know that there were no enemy surface raiders in the North Atlantic during all this escorting. However we also know that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were completing their trials and were nearly ready. There had been a false alarm on 19th April but in general our intelligence was correct in indicating that a sortie was imminent. In fact, submarine escort of convoys was, to those who supported them, more important than ever. An old battleship was strong enough to protect a convoy against Scharnhorst and Gneisenau but would lose a battle against the more powerful Bismarck.

By May, when Bismarck and Prinz Eugen broke out, intelligence had greatly improved. In March the cryptographers began to read the German naval cipher although it took them nearly a month to do so. Nevertheless even the stale messages showed that Bismarck was preparing to raid the Atlantic trade routes. By May the delay in deciphering the messages was a matter of days. We had also been reading the Luftwaffe's ciphers and noted that their reconnaissance aircraft were paying a great deal of attention to the position of the ice edge. On 20th May, our Naval Attaché in Stockholm reported that an aircraft from the Swedish cruiser Gotland had sighted Bismarck in the Kattegat. Next day she was found by an RAF photo-reconnaissance Spitfire in Kors Fjord near Bergen. There was therefore plenty of information if we had wished to use it, on which to deploy submarines to intercept Bismarck off the Norwegian coast. P31 (Lieutenant JBdeB Kershaw RN) was sailed for the Norwegian coast but she was too late. The two enemy warships were not the only ships to break out at this time. Two supporting tankers sailed from Norway for the Arctic without being detected and four tankers and supply ships left France to take up their positions in the Atlantic.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had sailed from Gdynia on 18th May and passing out of the Skagerrak fuelled in Kors Fjord south of Bergen. At the time, submarine patrols close to the Norwegian coast had already been discontinued due to lack of darkness in which to re-charge their batteries. Only Minerve was on patrol and she was some thirty miles from the coast just south of the latitude of Stattlandet. Here she was quite well placed to intercept but she saw nothing. The two ships left Bergen by Fejoesen late on 21st where we often had a submarine on close patrol in winter but at this time of year the billet was empty. The German ships probably passed inshore of Minerve in the prevailing bad visibility. Fortunately the Home Fleet was ready but the weather prevented any contact until the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk sighted the two German ships in the Denmark Strait. All available submarines were then somewhat tardily brought to short notice and on 25th May, Sealion, Seawolf, Sturgeon, Tigris, Pandora and H44 were dispatched to patrol off Brest. It is not the purpose of this history to follow the details of the pursuit and destruction of Bismarck except to draw attention to the part played by our submarines in the action. She threatened five convoys in the Atlantic. One of these, HX127 had the battleship Ramillies as escort but this was scarcely sufficient. Of the three submarines of the Second Flotilla at Halifax when Bismarck broke out, Tribune was nearing the United Kingdom after escorting HX126; Talisman had left Halifax on 19th May escorting SC32 with the armed merchant cruiser Laconia and remained with the convoy during the action between Bismarck and the Home Fleet. Thunderbolt on 25th when Bismarck was reported north west of Iceland was ordered to sea from Halifax to patrol the Newfoundland Banks to give general cover to the Atlantic convoy routes. Far to the south, Severn from Gibraltar escorted the fleet tanker Cairndale as Force H came north to hunt for Bismarck. On 26th May she was ordered to guard the Straits of Gibraltar in case Bismarck made for the Mediterranean. After the sinking of Bismarck on 27th May, the hunt continued for Prinz Eugen. She finally entered Brest from the south while the two submarines still on patrol in the Bay, Sealion and Sturgeon were off La Pallice. On 30th May, Sealion (Commander B Bryant DSC RN) sighted a U-boat on the surface by day. She was in a good position and hoped to fire at about a thousand yards range. Unfortunately she lost trim and the periscope was dipped before the sights came on. She turned to catch up and fired six torpedoes from the quarter at a range of 1500 yards but the U-boat saw the tracks and avoided them.

The destruction of Bismarck and the arrival of Prinz Eugen at Brest, in fact, although we did not know it at the time, marked the end of the German Navy's attack with heavy warships on trade in the Atlantic. The counter measures to this campaign had been the main pre-occupation of our submarines in Home waters for the first five months of 1941. In this period they had not sighted, let alone attacked, any of the German main units. In attempting to analyse the causes of this failure, we must, of course, first note the decision to concentrate our main submarine strength in the Mediterranean. This reduced the number of operational submarines at home to cope with the German heavy ships whether working from their bases in Germany, Norway or the Bay of Biscay. At the beginning of 1941, however, there were twenty-three operational submarines on the Home Station while there were only sixteen in the Mediterranean, two of which were refitting in Malta dockyard. By the end of May, the strength in the Mediterranean was only fifteen boats while the number on the Home Station, including those in Canada, was seventeen. It cannot therefore really be claimed that the reinforcement of the Mediterranean was to blame and we must look again into how the submarines at home were used. The withdrawal of nine of our best and most powerful submarines in February and March from offensive patrols for use as convoy escorts is obviously one for discussion.

There is no doubt at the time that VA(S) and indeed practically all submarine officers were opposed to the use of submarines to escort convoys as a protection against attack by heavy German warships. They gave way to the wishes of the Admiralty as a contribution to the defence of trade, which was the Navy's main strategic purpose. The principal objection by submarine officers was the danger of being mistaken for a U-boat and being attacked by our own forces or rammed by a ship of the convoy. This objection was mirrored by the escort in whose minds the presence of a British submarine caused doubt when counter attacking U-boats. In addition to the feeling by submarine officers that convoy escort was a misuse of their vessels, which were essentially, in their view, for offence, was the heavy wear and tear of machinery in long ocean passages. These views are supported by the Official Naval Historian4 who concludes that submarines would have been better employed on offensive patrols. He points out that no convoys escorted by submarines were attacked and deduces from this fact that this was therefore a misuse of submarines. The French Navy had always been a protagonist for submarine escort of convoys and they believed that what they called the 'scarecrow' or deterrent effect was of great importance. It is now known that, at this time, the Germans were obtaining a great deal of information about our convoys, their sailing times and their composition, from wireless intelligence. It seems highly likely that they knew which convoys had submarine escorts. The fact that no convoys with submarine escorts were attacked should therefore be taken as a victory rather than a defeat. This, however, does not alter the dislike of submarine officers for escort work and they did not fancy a role as 'scarecrows'. It must be admitted, however, that submarine offensive patrols against the German main units were no more successful. The sortie of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in January happened when no submarine was on patrol off the coast of Norway at all which seems strange when the Home Fleet had sufficient intelligence of the move to be ready and for Naiad to have sighted the enemy. The subsequent strenuous efforts to form the 'iron ring' to intercept the German battle cruisers returning to Brest and in which no less than twenty three boats were mustered, shows that there were plenty of submarines available. The suggestion in the 'War at Sea' however, that a submarine escort was likely to be ineffective even if the convoy was attacked by a surface raider, is not supported. If the convoy was properly handled and not dispersed too soon, the presence of a powerful submarine such as one of the T-class in ambush was a very serious threat. Only one hit out of ten torpedoes was needed to save the convoy and probably lead to the ultimate destruction of the raider by other forces.

The failure to intercept Bismarck with offensive patrols was even less understandable. As has been pointed out, intelligence of her impending sortie was enough for the Home Fleet to be ready to intercept yet only one weak submarine was on patrol off the Norwegian coast. Seven submarines were sent to patrol off Brest a few days later and undoubtedly more could have been found for Norway. Furthermore Bismarck put in to Bergen, the northern and southern approaches to which were frequent patrol billets for our submarines and it is strange that they were not occupied. It is true that inshore patrols off Norway had been discontinued for the summer but surely such an important target justified the sending of submarines close in to the coast. If several of the ten torpedo salvo T-class had been there instead of in the western Atlantic with convoys the chances of success against Bismarck would have been very greatly increased. In the various movements in and out of Brest by Hipper and Prinz Eugen, bad intelligence seems to have indicated that they were going to La Pallice or St Nazaire instead of Brest and this was the main reason that they were not intercepted.

There is no doubt that if the Mediterranean had not been reinforced or if submarines had not been diverted to escort convoys, there would have been a greater chance to intercept the German ships as they broke out, but there is also no doubt that the submarines we had seemed often to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and that their strategic handling must be open to question. It would be nice to be able to blame it all on the enemy being able to read our wireless traffic and although this may have helped on occasion, such a theory does not stand up as a full explanation of our failure. There is little doubt that if we had concentrated all our operational submarines in Home waters on sustained patrols off Brest and the south west coast of Norway with the aim of intercepting German heavy units, and had ignored the coastal traffic and anti U-boat patrols, we would have done better.

With so few targets, submarine activity on patrol over the period of this chapter, was low. During the first half of 1941, submarines in home waters made only fifteen torpedo attacks expending 49 torpedoes. Four of these attacks were on U-boats using 16 torpedoes and all missed. The rest were on merchant vessels and sank six ships of 24,643 tons and damaged another of 4500 tons. Two of these were tankers, a type of which the Germans were short and which caused them anxiety. Submarine casualties were also low, and only one of our submarines, Snapper, was lost in home waters during this period5.With so few results, only one decoration was awarded and that was a Distinguished Service Cross in the Birthday Honours of 1941, for Lieutenant Commander JFB Brown RN, who had commanded Taku up until April.

During the first six months of 1941, eight new submarines entered service and so total strength rose. These were Torbay, the last of the pre-war boats and Thrasher, Union, Sokol, Umpire, P31, P32 and P33. Sokol (ex-Urchin) was manned by the Polish Navy in place of Wilk, which, because of her poor mechanical condition, had been placed in reserve. The Mediterranean was now becoming the largest operational theatre in numbers of operational submarines as well as in importance. Although operations continued on the Home station, its main function was fast becoming that of supporting the Mediterranean with new and refitted submarines. This included the training of new submarine crews and supervising the building, trials and working up of new construction submarines as well as the overseeing of refits. The administration of the crews standing by new submarines was the responsibility of Captain(S) Fifth Submarine Flotilla at Fort Blockhouse in Gosport. He was also responsible for the shore training of Commanding Officers, Officers and Men. Sea training of individual officers and men was the responsibility of Captain(S) Seventh Submarine Flotilla at Rothesay in the Clyde, a duty he combined with the provision of submarines for the anti-submarine training of asdic operators and the escorts of the Western Approaches. With the gradual reduction in the number of operational submarines in home waters, Commander(S) Sixth Submarine Flotilla at Blyth was able to help with training duties. Captain(S) Third Submarine Flotilla in the Holy Loch, was responsible for some of the operational submarines but also supervised the trials and working up of all new and refitted submarines.

We have already noted that twelve T-class submarines ordered before the war had been laid down at the outbreak6.All of these except Torbay were completed during 1940. Of the seven T-class and twelve U-class ordered in the Emergency War Programme, eight U- class had been completed before the end of 19407.

Up to the middle of 1941, another fifty-seven submarines had been ordered and were in various stages of construction. These consisted of nine T-class, twenty-one S-class, twenty-two U-class and five new minelayers of the Cachalot class. The building yards were the same as those used before the war. By far the largest was at Vickers Armstrongs of Barrow where thirty-eight submarines of the T, S and U-classes were under construction. Fourteen boats of the T and S-classes were building at Cammell Lairds of Birkenhead and twelve of the T and S-classes and five minelayers8 at Scotts of Greenock. Finally Chatham Dockyard had two U- class and two S-class in hand.

It had been decided, after the first nineteen boats of the Emergency War Programme, not to name submarines in future. They would be known by their pennant numbers which all began with the letter P. The first boat of the U-class of the second batch building at Vickers was originally to have been named Ullswater and this was changed to P31 and succeeding boats followed in sequence omitting numbers with a zero in them. The first of the new S-class building was numbered at first P61 but this was later changed to P2119. The first of the next batch of the T-class was numbered P311 and the first of the new minelayers P411.

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