Western Approaches War Room
The Royal Navy fought its battle against the German U-boats from the War Room of C. in C Western Approaches. Admiral Sir Max. Horton succeeded Admiral Sir Percy Noble in November, 1942. This nerve centre for the Battle of the Atlantic, was situated well below street level underneath Derby House, in Liverpool.
The huge wall chart plotted the position of all Allied convoys, their Escorts, and the estimated or known position of German U-Boats at sea.
In mid 1993, the celebrations to mark the 50th. Anniversary of winning The Battle of the Atlantic, included the reopening by Her Majesty the Queen, of this War Room after extensive rebuilding.
As a Midshipman in H.M.A.S. "Australia," during 1940/1941, I had been involved in this arena. I was thus delighted to return to Liverpool in 1993, and be able to spend time at this historic site, again set up once more, as it had operated during those dark days, when Britain's survival depended on the skill of the sailors manning the Naval Escorts, and the courage of the Merchant crews, as they fought against the unrelenting waters of the North Atlantic, and the dedicated and determined U-Boat crews.
Western Approaches Tactical Units
The W.A.T.U. housed in Derby House at Liverpool.
The large plotting floor could accommodate 24 players, and the Directing Staff could simulate a convoy escorted at sea, and its defence when both threatened and attacked by U-Boats.The unit was directed by Captain Gilbert Roberts, R.N. and his staff. They devised tactics such as those code named Raspberry/Pineapple, Beta search, Step aside, etc all designed to combat and outwit specific U-Boat moves and tactics.
Roberts would sum up a session with these words, "It is the war of the little ships and the lonely aircraft, long patient, and unpublicised, our two great enemies --- the U-Boats, and the Cruel Sea."
A young Lieutenant, Nicholas Monsarrat, did not forget this summing up. He remembered the tactical course, and wrote about it in his classic story "The Cruel Sea." Escort Commanders, and Coastal Command staff jointly met for W.A.T.U. courses.
During my Specialist Torpedo Anti-Submarine Long Course, conducted in Royal Naval Schools, over 1947, we spent a week at a similar establishment at Londonderry, in Northern Ireland. W.R.E.N. plotters kept track on the plotting floor, of all moves made over the entire period of the exercise. Finally, at the wash up by Directing Staff, one was faced with all the decisions you made as Escort Group Leader, Convoy Commodore etc. All these decisions were made quickly in the heat of battle, indeed as they would have been made during the recent fight against the U-Boats, and the North Atlantic ocean itself.
On the plotting floor we were pitting our skills against the wiles and tricks of very experienced Submariners, who had Commanded British Submarines during the recent war. Now driving the U-Boats in this exercise, doing their utmost to penetrate the screen provided by the Escort, and Torpedo our precious Merchant Ships in the convoy. The ultimate humiliation was to have a smiling W.R E.N. deliver a signal, which read, "Your ship has just been sunk, you have no further part in this exercise."
Pack Attacks by U-Boats
Donitz gained the advantage of French Bases such as Brest, Lorient, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux, and La Pallice, which shortened the time taken for his U-Boats to get on station, or return home from a patrol.
He decided to try the "Rudel," or "Pack," attack, by homing multiple Submarines on to a Convoy, which initially had been sighted by a single U-Boat. Some spectacular results were achieved, in one incident, Convoy H X. 72. ex Halifax, lost 11 ships in only 7 hours.
30 ships from slow Convoy S C 7, with but 2 Sloops and a single Corvette as escort, was sighted by U 48, which was forced to dive by a patrolling Sunderland Flying Boat, and she lost the convoy completely. Donitz was able to place 5 U-Boats to the East across the expected track of this convoy. When a fuIl scale attack was launched, the German Boats sank I5 ships in the next 6 hours, and stragglers were subsequently picked off, in all, 21 ships were sent to the bottom.
Another Convoy, H. X.79, with 49 ships, had the German ace Prien, with 3 other U-Boats attack it, and sink 12 ships, and badly damage another. This was guarded by 11 Escorts, including a Dutch submarine, which was mistaken for the enemy on at least two occasions, and attacked by friendly forces.
These debacles left the Navy pondering "What could be done to stem the tide?" In an endeavour to counter "Pack attacks," the concept of "The Escort Group." was born.
Eight Escort Groups were formed to train together at bases established off the Clyde, on the West coast of Scotland, the Mersey, at Liverpool, and at Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Each group was to include 2 Destroyers, and Coastal Command's operational control had been moved to the Admiralty in April, 1941. This decision would materially assist in coordinating sea and air defence of convoys, as they approached or departed from the Western Approaches. Reinforcing convoys with these Escort Groups, did assist in stemming the appaling loss of ships to the "Pack," tactics of the U-Boats
Catapult-Aircraft Merchant Ships
As the gap in mid Atlantic could not be covered by land based Allied Aircraft, C.A.M. ships came into being. A ramp or catapult track was fitted over the bow section of a Merchant Ship, which was still able to carry cargo. A single Hurricane fighter was launched by a rocket propelled cradle to get the aircraft airborne, its task to shoot down the long range German Kondor reconnaissance aircraft. When the battle was over, or he ran out of fuel, the pilot ditched, trusting to be picked up after abandoning his aircraft.
Merchant Aircraft Carrier (M.A.C.)
The British captured "Hannover," a modern German grain carrier, was converted into the world's first M A C and renamed H M S "Audacity." She displaced 5537 tons, had a strengthened deck and carried 6 Anti Submarine Warfare aircraft. These aircraft could land on deck, to be stopped by arrester wires. Some 10 ships were purpose built as M A.C.'s and 9 Tankers were converted, two of which went to the Dutch Navy.
Under "Lend Lease," Britain ordered Escort Carriers from the U.S. Five were converted Merchantmen, and 38 were purpose built to a standard design. They displaced 11420 tons and carried 24 A.S.W. aircraft. However, the Battle of the Atlantic was essentially past its peak before they became available, but the U.S. Navy adopted this useful ship, and it played its part in the Pacific against Japan.
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