Western Approaches; Convoy SC-104

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Western Approaches, Convoy SC104

This photo was taken at the Western Approaches museum. This place was the command base of operations in the Atlantic during WWII and is housed in a bomb proof building in Liverpool. It has been left pretty much as it was during the war.

Below; Convoys of merchant ships crossed the Atlantic bringing supplies, troops and equipment to Britain.

Destroyers and corvettes defended the convoys against the U-boat wolf packs which would move in to pick off merchant ships as the escorts tried to chase off or sink the prowling U-Boats using what technology they had to locate them.

This is the story of one such convoy, SC 104 and my Dad’s recollections of the battle. He was a sailor on board the Senior Officer’s destroyer HMS Fame. It was the first time Fame was escorting an Atlantic convoy.

SC 104 began life in New York on October 3rd 1942. It comprised 48 ships in ten columns, forming a broad rectangle, and supported by one rescue ship with the escorting warships several kilometres outside the convoy. It was a slow convoy, travelling at a maximum speed of 7 knots (about 8 mph) and was under the command of the Senior Officer, Commander Ralph Heathcote on HMS Fame. The escort was made up of two Royal Navy destroyers (HMS Fame and HMS Viscount) and 4 Norwegian corvettes.

Heavy seas and snow showers beset the convoy as it set out for Liverpool. The northern lights illuminated the scene in between breaks in the cloud as the U-boat wolf pack gathered, but the poor weather prevented the escort from using its U-boat finding technology. On the night of 12/13th October 1942, Cdr Heathcote, aware of the gathering U-boats, sent the warships out from the convoy to chase them off.

U-221 under the command of 26 year old Kapitänleutnant Trojer, slipped in as the escort was engaged in pushing away his comrades, and sank 3 ships. The Norwegian vessel SS Fagerstern was first at 04.25, followed by another Norwegian ship, SS Senta and the British ship SS Ashworth, both of which were lost with all hands. (Trojer was killed a year later on 27 September 1943 when U-221 was bombed and sunk with all hands by an RAF Halifax off the south coast of Ireland)

By dawn of the 13th, 4 warships were sent on sweeps to find U-boats and to search for survivors as the convoy ploughed on. This left just 3 warships to guard the merchant ships; HMS Fame covering the stern and corvettes Montbretia on the starboard side and Acanthus at port. By this time 8 U-boats had gathered and that night resumed their attack. Again the escorting warships did what they could to keep the U-boats at bay, but another 5 ships were sunk.

On October 14th the storm abated allowing the escorts to use their radar, ASDIC and HF/DF which homed in on radio signals from the U-boats. Cdr Heathcote this time kept the escort in a tight screen preventing any further attacks, the destroyers and corvettes continually repelling the raiders.

On the 15th, HMS Viscount located and rammed U-661 and dropped a large depth charge over the side, sinking the U-boat with all hands. Viscount was damaged in the attack and had to withdraw. That night Cdr Heathcote managed to further shake off the Grey Wolves by making course changes to the convoy.

The day after, HMS Fame located a U-boat waiting for the convoy at a depth of 20 metres. Heathcote hoisted the black pennant* to signal he was attacking. A pattern of depth charges was dropped, knocking out the lights and depth gauges of U-353 and forcing Oberleutnant Römer to surface. Fame turned on the U-boat and rammed it. The destroyer pushed the stricken U-boat back under the water, Fame’s stern pressing the boat down. The U-boat crew were lucky to be able to abandon their vessel. 6 sailors lost their lives, while 39 were picked up by HMS Fame and the Norwegian corvette Acanthus. A boarding party from Fame briefly explored U-353 before she sank.

Fame had rammed the U-boat with such force that the bow of the destroyer was split open and like Viscount she had to withdraw, making her way back to Liverpool in reverse all the way. But the remaining corvettes, together with air support from RAF Coastal Command B-24 Liberators drove off any further attacks, and Admiral Dönitz in Berlin eventually called off the wolf pack. Convoy SC 104 finally arrived at Liverpool on 21st October 1942. The battle had cost the lives of 216 merchant sailors and 50 German sailors. 40 of the 48 ships which had left New York eighteen days earlier, survived the journey.

My Dad recalled Oberleutnant Römer making two requests of Commander Heathcote after being taken prisoner; one was that the submariners be given some work to do during the long journey back to port. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war could not undertake work which might further the war effort, so they were asked to make a provisions net. He said it was the finest bit of ropework he ever saw, beautifully spliced throughout.

The other request was regarding a crewman who refused to wash, much to the disgust of the other prisoners. Oblt Römer ordered his men to strip the offending sailor on the deck of the destroyer, who then hosed him down with sea water and scrubbed him clean with deck brushes.

*Black PT (Pennant). Used singly and at the dip: I am investigating a sonar contact. Close up (all the way up to the yard arm) : “Contact established, am attacking”. Hauled down: have lost sonar contact . The “Dip” means the flag or pennant is only half way up to the yardarm. This pennant is no longer used. source

Below; Painting of a burning tanker in the North Atlantic, 1943 by Lt Cdr Fischer, U.S.C.G.R.
Image from wikipedia commons.

The reality for merchant seamen in a lifeboat having survived the initial attack was that, unless they were picked up by an escort or rescue ship soon afterwards, they would probably not be seen again.
Burning_tanker_of_the_North_Atlantic_08Feb1943

One of the ships of SC 104 to fall to a U-boat torpedo was the Southern Empress. Merchant sailor Joe Wharton on the Empire Mersey later told his son “She was like a huge molten furnace ablaze from truck to keel with flames and oil pouring into the wild sea. It lit up the convoy for miles around…The screams and cries for help as we passed by her were soon drowned by the thunder of exploding depth charges as contact with the enemy was made.”

Exceptional first hand account by the Third Officer of a merchantman of SC 104, quoted above.

Some sources

The most comprehensive account of SC 104

“Batle of the Atlantic” by Marc Milner, 2005. This book was a great source and cost just 1p (plus P+P of course) from Amazon
www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/0752433326/ref=dp_olp_n…

“Death In The Afternoon Watch” by Lt Cdr Bain who, I believe, was on the Norwegian corvette Acanthus. Publication details unknown.

Interrogation report of survivors from U-353

32 comments on “Western Approaches; Convoy SC-104
  1. amyrey says:

    absolutely fascinating stuff. Must have been terrifying to endure such sustained attacks. Equally terrifying to be under attack in a sub.

  2. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/amybigkiss/]
    Thanks Amy.
    Was watching a programme on submarine movies last night. Das Boot, one of my favourite movies (and one of my dad’s too) really got that across. You end up really feeling for the U-boat crew, and wanting them to get away safe.

  3. *Psycho Delia* says:

    That is so fascinating. Das Boot is one of my favourite films too 🙂

  4. Keartona says:

    Makes for fascinating reading but what a horrendous experience for many on both sides.

    …oh and those poor ladies in your pic….hasn’t anyone told them the war is over ;D

  5. bill_fawcett says:

    Superb narrative Ian.

  6. IANLAYZELLUK says:

    Terrific Capture. Excellent read too. Fantastic shot to add to your already superb collection.

  7. Reflective Kiwi %-) says:

    Fantastic shot Ian and I always enjoy reading your stories. You put so much time and effort into them and it’s just wonderful. Love the photo with your Dad in it to. What a great momento! %-)
    My Dad ended up in the Merchant Marines toward the end of the war, which is what brought him down to the Pacific and New Zealand where he met my Mum. I’m always fascinated by stories of the war.
    Thanks for your latest email… will write you over the weekend! Take care!!! %-)

  8. cgullz says:

    it is always heartwarming to see that places of such signifcance to history and life have been kept, maintained and respected. that is more so admirable in modern times where just about anything is sold and traded for a quick buck. so, you had me in awe at the first pic. the story [and part of your family history too] really hits home, for a few reasons: i) my feelings of deep gratitude and sorrow to all that had to partake in a world war; ii) my fear of deep water and the anxiety that comes just considering what it must have been like to be at war on the sea; and iii) being on a ship that has to reverse-travel just to stay afloat must have been terrifying and is an awe-inspiring story; and, iv) the loss of life in each recorded event never ceases to impress on me the intense nature of life/work/duty during those times. books have probably been written on all of this, so i’ll stop myself right there lol.

  9. Tech Owl says:

    Great work and info as usual Ian. The control room looks like a larger version of the one in the tunnels below Dover Castle.
    The personalisation of the story adds that bit extra too

  10. mick cooke says:

    brilliant ian very interesting ,great photo

  11. Ian D B says:

    Thank you for taking the time to read through it – I am always surprised when people do.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/27955898@N07]

    The dummies at the museum need a make over. They really are crap and their wigs are all skew-whiff and while I say the place hasn’t been changed since the war, I don’t think it has been cleaned since the war either, there’s a thick layer of dust over everything.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/29551624@N03]

    Cheers Ang, thanks for your thoughts. In spite of the place needing a good clean, that was the only criticism (and the entry fee was a bit steep, I suppose). I was pleased to see there is very litle that has been added. The health and safety requirements are discreet (emergency lighting) though I was slightly pissed off that they had replaced the old lightbulbs with new politically correct lightbulbs which will save the planet for us. But I agree, it does inspire awe, that these men went through all this. It is often asked how we would react now. It is a different world of course, but I can;t help but compare how we are now with how people were then.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/32955908@N04]

    Hi Cindy, I recall your stories about your Dad – he was awarded the Pacific Star, wasn’t he? As mentioned above, the sacrifice these guys made was enormous. And they were civilians, the men of the Merchant Navy, what sacrifices they made!

  12. Pleasureprinciple2012 says:

    Another shot to complement a well researched story on a branch of maritime history that does often seem to be overlooked by the public although there are now an increasing amount of books and coverage given to the exploits of the Merchant Navy.
    The U-Boat fleet, I believe, gave Winston Churchill many sleepless nights and confessed that it was the U-Boats that scared him most during the early war years.
    I also watched the telly programme about our fascination of Submarine films and agree with you that Das Boot is the best war/antiwar film depicting the hell that went with being a submariner. A special breed indeed regardless of which "side" you were fighting for, I take my hat off to them all and to those who had to take their chances against them. Could I have done it? Doubt it.

  13. Stezzer says:

    A story of great tragedy and bravery. God bless all our troops that sacrificed their freedom for ours and paid the ultimate price. A great shot and even better with the original photo of your Dad.

  14. pasujoba says:

    Excellent Ian , a fine read and a superb shot .

  15. 5DII says:

    Don’t be surprised Ian: Your histories and pictures are always worth a visit.

    Bill

  16. andyholmfirth says:

    Heroic efforts on both sides but the sea is such a hard unforgiving environment to be fighting amongst fighting in.

  17. cgullz says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/maycontaintracesofnuts] i agree with the wonderment of then vs. now as far as humanity stands, and i have a deep HATE of those lightbulbs … perhaps a co-vert op. to rearrange dummies wigs, make up, dusty layers and bulbs lol ?

  18. Billy Currie says:

    such interesting places, bet there is loads to explore in there

  19. Ian D B says:

    Thanks again everyone.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/25405934@N07]

    When reading about the Battle of the Atlantic, Churchill is often quoted – that it was the only thing that really scared him during the war. I had to give Das Boot another viewing after this. It really is an excellent film, possibly the best war / anti-war film ever made.

  20. P_H_I_L_L says:

    Brilliant once again Ian. Thanks very much for taking the time and effort to do all this research and providing a part of history that many of us will know little about.

  21. Lee Cannon says:

    Great photo. My older relatives most now all gonne use to talk about what it was like in WWII. Two of my uncles served in the UK and then on to Europe and 1 aunt volunteered as a Red Cross nurse served in London doing the blitz. She said she felt like it was her duty to the "english speaking peoples" and felt must have had a relative from the past somewhere in the UK. She developed such a love of the British people and respect to never give up and stiff upper lip. She stayed in touch with many until her death.

  22. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/47353940@N04]
    Thanks Phill. I enjoy finding out this stuff. Keeps me off the streets.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/9763931@N04]
    Thanks Lee, good to hear from you. Your ancestors have my respect. Your Aunt was brave, to be in London during the Blitz. She must’ve seen some things I’m glad I don’t have to.

    This is a photo by the father of a contact in America, who was in London as V1 bombs were falling on the city. They had it tough.

    V1

  23. gaco79 says:

    incredible account of the convoy. today we don’t know how lucky we are…

  24. cgullz says:

    i want a map like that on my wall ..

    keeping history alive

    in: Traces of War

  25. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/angwickham]
    Not that one. A Wren was killed here when she fell off the ladder. You want to find your old map of Britain with the red ink on it.

  26. PeaceLoveScoobie says:

    Began 70 years ago today for your Dad Ian! Amazing story, don’t know how I missed this one. I also don’t know which would be worse, running a fast frantic bombing mission getting shot at or sitting on a slow sitting target of a boat for weeks watching and hearing the story you describe. I’m also afraid of deep water, especially cold deep water, and with all that time to think about would drive me crazy. It’s that question, would you want to go down in a quick fiery crash or slowly drown? My Dad’s youngest brother was in the Merchant Marines during the war. I think he joined that service because the other 3 brothers were Air Corp and Infantry. I’ve asked him about his time during the war several times but he doesn’t say much. I do know they made runs to Russia and it was cold. He’s the last brother left and I hope to get his history some day.

  27. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/peacelovescoobie]
    Hi Keith, well spotted! It is very good that you do your searches every day and come up with things like this. I would never have noticed.

    I hope you get some detail from your Uncle. Interesting to hear he was on the Arctic Convoys.

    As for my Dad, as I have said before, he had a good war, best days of his life probably. Had he joined the RAF in 1938 instead of the RN, I probably wouldn’t be here today because he would almost certainly have ended up as part of a bomber crew and therefore would probably have been shot down and killed in a Wellington or Hampden bomber.

    RAF Bomber crew members had a casualty rate similar to those of WWI soldiers in the trenches… But being on a merchantman was even more dangerous than that.

    Thanks again Keith, always a pleasure to see your comments reminding us of these anniversaries, it is a great service you do!

  28. PeaceLoveScoobie says:

    The convoy arrived in Liverpool 70 years ago today. By coincidence I found this Oct. 21, 1942 German newsreel about their U-boats you might find interesting.
    youtu.be/MsbSRfUbFGU

  29. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/peacelovescoobie]
    Thanks Keith, good that you keep an eye out for what was happening. Interesting link too – and you can set it to display English subtitles.

  30. Mike Bryant says:

    My grandfather, James Williamson, was Chief Engineer on the Ashworth. This ship was the merchantman that sailed from Montivideo thus causing Graf Spee to have to delay sailing under international law, a ploy enabling British reinforcements to arrive, although in the event they were not needed

    • Ian D B says:

      Thanks for that Mike. I just looked it up, never knew about SS Ashworth’s part in the history of the Graf Spee or about the Hague Convention ruling.

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