French Submarine La Perle, who wants friends that sink you?

The west bound Covoy ONM - 243,  on the morning of the 8th. of July 1944 was about 800 kilometers south-east of Greenland. It was originally made up of 94 vessels, four of which missed the sailing date, and a further three had been detached, two for repairs, and the third being too slow to keep up with the convoy set speed.

Amongst the remaining ships were the MAC  Merchant Aircraft Carriers Empire MacCallum and Empire MacColl, a Swordfish aircraft from the former Carrier was on a routine  sweep ahead of the convoy formation. The pilot, Lieutenant Francoix Otterveanger of the Royal Netherlands Navy, sighted a submarine on the surface sailing on a north easterly course and immediately assumed his sighting was a German U-Boat. In fact, it was the Free French Submarine La Perle .

The senior officer leading the Canadian Escort Group C5, Acting Commander George Stephen, who had wide experience in his job, on receiving the Swordfish report was reputed to exclaim "Sink the bastard." ordering further aircraft from his two Merchant ship Carriers to join in the attack.

The one on the ship's bridge showing Commander George Stephen with other Officers of the Dunver

Bridge showing Commander George Stephen with other Officers

In all, six more Swordfish joined Otterveanger, all flying clockwise around the submarine before carrying out a series of attacks. It was now one hour and five minutes, since the first sighting report, and the Escort Commander sent off a voice message to the MAC ships, Have aircraft been informed that submarine La Perle might be in our vicinity?"

In Empire MacCallum, the poor air staff officer had no knowledge of La Perle, or what he was supposed to do about this latest message from the Escort Commander. Trying to play it safe, he attempted to reach the aircraft with a rather late warning "Look out for recognition signals in case the sub is friendly. If not, attack."

With all the radio telephone traffic cluttering up the air waves, only one aircraft got this message, and he desperately asked for it to be repeated, just as the Netherlands pilot was making his first attacking run, one hour and fifteen minutes from the first sighting.

From the conning tower of La Perle a series of L's were being flashed, this was the correct letter of identification for that day, Otterveager, not having heard the warning message about the possibility of a friendly boat being in the area concluded it was simply a ruse de guerre, and pressed on with his attack firing four pairs of rockets at his target. The other aircraft followed up with rocket attacks, the submarine now trying to defend itsself by light machine gun fire ( this of course seemed to the attacking planes merely to confirm the target was a German U-boat. )

Now Otterveager ordered an attack with two depth charges, and the friendly submarine was sunk in four minutes. only one Chief Petty Officer from a crew of 60 survived.

Submarine hulls of a boat similar to La Perle

 Submarine hulls of a boat similar to La Perle

Why did the Escort Commander take so long to issue a belated warning?
Commander George Stephen was a very experienced Naval Officer, he had been escorting convoys since 1941, and had afine record to date. He had been awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross and an Order of the British Empire. He was certainly aware of the passage of La Perle after a refit in the US to Holy Loch in UK, from the 4th. of July various authorities had broadcast the departure of the French submarine from St John's in Newfoundland, the positions through which she would sail, and the stringent restrictions on bombing that were in force fifty miles ahead and astern of her, plus twenty miles on both her beams.

There seems little doubt that HMCS Dunver, the ship in which SOE was embarked, would have received signals with information about La Perle and her Atlantic crossing. At the subsequent Board of Inquiry, Stephen's gave evidence that he had not seen the sailing orders of La Perle from St John's, and was unaware of the bombing restrictions in force until after the fatal attack. He however did acknowledge that the most recent signal received from Western Approaches did place La Perle close to the Swordfish sighting. He should have been more careful with his use of attacking aircraft.

HMCS Dunver

HMCS Dunver

Stephen's pleaded he was worried about a U-Boat that the Admiralty's situation reports had placed to the north of his convoy, that had been sailing in a SW direction over the three previous days. The findings of the Board of Inquiry indicated this contention had all the hallmarks of special pleading. From evidence at the Board of Inquiry it seems that Stephen's impulsive order to sink the submarine was met with stunned silence. The leading signalman in Dunver, John Seale, had developed appendicitus before the ship returned to harbor, he was sent to hospital, did not give evidence to the Inquiry, or the subsequent investigation into
Dunver's communication department.

He  reports saying to the Escort Commander at the time " Sir, that may be the La Perle " this recollection was received by Stephens with a non-commital grunt. None of the other bridge personnel according to Searle said a word. It is reported that George Stephen had a very dominating presence, the ship's officers stood in awe of him, his men would do anything for him, but over the voyage he refused to formally acknowledge any signals shown to him by a
signalman. By contrast the Ship's Captain and his First Lieutenant had signed to indicate
they had seen reports brought to the bridge. Stephen not only refused to sign, but was
disinterested to the point of being downright rude.

The air staff in the MAC ships were kept ignorant of La Perle's movements as Dunver did not keep them appraised of the situation reports.


It was certainly the responsibility of SOE to keep the convoy Commodore and his Vice Commodore up to date with all relevant naval signals, as the Merchant ships did not have the capabiltity to do this for themselves. Stephen at the Board of Inquiry said that these signals had been passed on, but they had not received any acknowledgements, nor were any transmissions logged, it seems a very slap dash approach by the ship's communication department, and of the overseeing of their methods by Stephen himself. Of course, all very convenient at any subsequent Inquiry, no way of checking up with what had reportedly been going on signalwise between the SOE's ship Dunver, the MAC ships or the convoy leaders ships.

Rear Admiral Murray, C in C Canadian North West Atlantic, in his report to the Naval Secretary observed:

"from the evidence of laxity in handling communications on board HMCS Dunver, it is very reasonable to believe that any errors or omissions occured in that ship."

The Chief of Staff to Murray quickly acted to put in force the handling of allied submarines on independent passage to stop a similar accident happening again. A bit like "Closing the stable door after the horse has escaped." A new  procedure for handling like situations in the future was approved just after midnight on the day the Inquiry had sat.

Immediate Findings of Board of Inquiry.
The findings in the main focussed on Dunver's communication Department which: "appears to be run in a most irregular manner."

Commander Stephen was granted the benefit of the doubt, if not in a pursuasive way:

"The fact that in the latest Admiralty U-Boat situation report had indicated that a U-Boat might be in the vicinity of the convoy, possibly explains the failure of the Senior Officer Escort to realize the true position."

Some blame was cast on C in C Western Approaches:

"The original routes combined with the sailing times of La Perle and ONM 243 indicated that a diversion might be necessary. The diversion of La Perle, when made, was not sufficiently drastic to increse her separation from the convoy to a sufficient extent."

Lieutenant Ottervaenger was totally exonerated for his part in the sinking of La Perle.

Carrying the SOE aboard one of the Escort Ships.
It was always difficult carrying the Escort Commander in a ship that had its own Captain, who was junior to the Escort Commander. It posed risks of divided command, when the system appoints an officer to command an Escort or Support Group rather than a ship. As it was once observed: " It would be like having a high powered elderly relative living with you. It is confusing to the crew."

Investigation of Dunver's Communication Department.
No blame was attached to the ratings of the Communications Staff since "their supervision had been inadequate and unsatisfactory." On the 15th. Of August the Naval Secretary in Ottowa informed C in C Canadian Northwest Atlantic:

"Both the Captain of Dunver and the Group Signals Officer had incurred the severe displeasure of the Department for not exercising closer supervision over the signals of the group."

Admiral Murray passed this on to Commodore Taylor, Flag Officer Newfoundland, requiring him to pass this reprimand to the two officers concerned.

Staff Officers at St John's were appalled at this decision.
It seemed to them, that the Commanding Officer of Dunver, only a Lieutenant, as was the Group Signals Officer, were carrying the can for the inefficiency and lack of any effort by Commander George Stephen to sort out his role with respect of the Communications Department in Dunver. It was recommended that Naval Service Headquarters revise their decision.

In due course, Naval Headquarters took this advice and ordered two separate actions:

  1. C in C CNA was to inform Acting Commander George Stephen "He had incurred the severe displeasure of the Department for failure to to exercise complete control over the escorts in his Command."
  2. The order to inform both the Commanding Officer of Dunver, and the Group Signals Officer they had incurred the severe displeasure of the Department was cancelled, and these officers were to be so informed.

It was a remarkable and almost unique reversal of a Naval Board disciplinary measure, at last some justice appears to have been achieved.

George Stephen was only confirmed in his Acting Commander rank after his demobiliization in July 1946. There is little doubt that the unfortunate La Perle episode put paid to further promotion, employment in the RCN, or indeed to an offer for a commission in the Permanent Naval Forces of his country.

La Perle should never have become a victim to friendly fire. Acting Commander George Stephen can count himself very lucky that the sudden and inopertune appendectomy on Leading Signalman John Seale, prevented him from giving evidence at both the Board of Inquiry and the Dunver's Communication's Department investigation. If he had been available, there is a strong possiblity that George Stephen would have been called to face a Court Martial, as I believe he should have done.

The charge: "Sheer incompetence, leading to the unfortunate sinking of the Free French Submarine La Perle."


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