Fighting the U-boats

Allied Naval officers

The Convoy Commodores

A Convoy Conference

The Masters.
The scene below was enacted several hundred times during the Second World War in Liverpool, Halifax Nova Scotia, New York, and the many other places, where the Allied convoys assembled before setting out on their Transatlantic crossings.

A group of men, most of them dressed in sober dark-blue suits and drab overcoats, would greet each other outside a rather nondescript building in the harbour area. Some of the men were old friends from the same Shipping Company, some were total strangers.

But a common factor united them, the were the Masters from the many merchant ships now closely packed in the road-stead, and now they all, rather impatiently, were waiting for the vital Convoy Conference to begin. The majority were British together with a large American group, and frequently with a generous sprinkling of men from many other sea-faring nations, some from neutral countries and others from countries occupied by Germany.

The Staff.

Seated in a large, rather bleak, room inside the building they were welcomed by the Senior Naval Control of Shipping Officer (S.N.C.S.O.), who usually began his briefing by immediately revealing the convoy's destination, which naturally was a matter of great interest to the Masters and their crews. The destination and many other details about the coming operation had hitherto been kept strictly secret to all, but a few staff officers, but inevitably, many of the hard-bitten sailors had all-ready guessed their next port of call.

The Senior Officer Escort.

After the detailed briefing by the different specialist staff officers, and the handing over of a number of sealed envelopes containing the many details of Convoy Organisation, etc., the Senior Officer of the Escort Group(S.O. Escort) introduced himself. He was, nearly allways, a regular Naval Officer of Captain's or Commander's rank. In short clipped sentences he briefed the Masters on the composition of his Ocean Escort Group, the expected air-support, if any, and all the other operational details pertaining to escorting a large and valuable convoy across a vast, submarine-infested Atlantic, and he usually concluded his briefing by wishing them all 'Bon Voyage'.

After that the Masters, often in an atmosphere of friendly informality, were encouraged to ask questions and also to discuss any particular problem they might have, and the S.O. Escort did his best to assure them, that the Royal Navy Escorts would take all possible measures to protect their vessels and their valuable cargoes.

The Convoy Commodore.

After a brief interval the Convoy Commodore introduced himself to the Masters. He was, in most cases, a retired R.N. or R.N.R. officer of Captains or Flag rank. Many of them well advanced in years, these men had eagerly come forward to serve their Country at sea again, lending their inherent authority and great seagoing experience to the very great and demanding task of achieving the time-honoured goal of the entire enterprise:

'The safe and timely arrival of the convoy'.

Departure

Embarking with a small signals staff, the Commodore usually took up quarters in the merchantman leading the convoy's centre column, and from her bridge he gave orders for the convoy to form up. This was, for everybody concerned, an anxious time, with possibly more than forty ships milling around in narrow and sometimes shallow waters, each Master trying as efficiently as possible to find his allocated place in the convoy columns.

For hours on end, signal lamps would be clattering tirelessly on the bridge of the Commodore's ship, transmitting, receiving and relaying messages to and from the ships of convoy and the ships of the Local Escort Force.

Under Local Escort.

But eventually, now in deeper water and well clear of land, the convoy would be formed up in a compact formation with the escorting vessels in their screening positions. With the convoy still under shore-based air-cover, the first days of the Ocean Passage were normally a relatively quiet period, which the Commodore eagerly used to exercise his charges in the standard convoy drill. Using a combination of steam whistle, signal flags by day and coloured lights at night, he ordered a, seemingly endless, series of emergency turns, zigzaggings, simultaneous changes of course and speed, etc., until satisfied with the convoy's ability to promptly react to any possible emergency.

In Mid-Atlantic.

Before the convoy approached the infamous 'Black Hole', the 'Air Gap' in Mid-Atlantic, the Local Escort was relieved by the Ocean Escort Group, which now became responsible for the defence against U-boat attack. Here battle was joined, and many fierce actions were fought against the U-boats trying to penetrate the screen in order to torpedo the merchant ships at close range. Most battles were fought at night, often in wild weather, demanding the utmost efforts from the escorts and the ships Masters and crews.

The Convoy Commodore, who, in conditions of great confusion and strain, with several torpedoed ships in the convoy firing distress rockets at the same time, with the continuous thud and thunder of exploding depth-charges, and the blinding flash of gunfire from the escorts, he had to keep the convoy together at all cost.

Even in the absence of U-boat attacks, the Convoy Commodore's task was a formidable one. His was the responsibility of the convoy's safe navigation, frequently in appalling weather with conditions of low visibility and mountainous seas battering the ships for days, even weeks, on end.

Arrival.

Eventually the convoy again would reach friendly air-cover, the U-boat attacks would cease, and with heart-felt relief the S.O. Escort could hand the convoy over to the Local Escort. One more convoy had arrived. The S.O. Escort would thankfully head for his base for a brief rest for his weary ship's companies and the hard-worked, salt-encrusted, and often, damaged escort vessels.

Epilogue.

Many officers of the escort forces have recorded both the thrill and the pride they felt, when, at dawn, after a ferocious night battle with a U-boat wolf-pack, they saw their convoy steaming in perfect formation, with the gaps in the columns left by torpedoed and lost ships closed up, several score deeply-laden merchantmen carrying badly needed war planes, tanks, ammunition, oil and food supplies to a Britain fighting for her life.

Such stirring sights were, in great measure, due to the selfless service and sacrifice of the Convoy Commodores, many of whom lost their lives in the service of their Country.


Article compiled by Mogens Byrler
Lieutenant-Commander(ret.) Royal Danish Navy


Fighting Commodores, The

Burn, Alan


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Books dealing with this subject include

Arctic Convoy PQ8. Michael Wadsworth, 2010.
The Fighting Commodores. Burn, Alan, 1999.


Allied Naval Officers