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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 Fagersten 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.
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.
The most comprehensive account of SC 104
“Death In The Afternoon Watch” by Lt Cdr Bain who, I believe, was on the Norwegian corvette Acanthus. Publication details unknown.
UPDATE 19 FEBRUARY 2021
John Jones, whose father Lt P M Jones was the Navigating Officer on HMS Fame at the time, has provided the photo below which shows the boarding party, commanded by Lt Jones, alongside the conning tower of U-353 before it sank. Lt Jones and other crew members were decorated for their bravery in boarding the sinking vessel to search for information.
Mr Jones also provided two other images, one a copy of the obituary to Captain Heathcote from the Telegraph (he died in 1990) and the other is from the London Gazette and references the men decorated for gallantry, including Lt Jones. Mr Jones also provided a copy of the report of the interrogation of the crew of U-353. I have created a seperate page for this document, please see here.
These images are used with John Jones’ kind permission.