From the Times newspaper May 3rd 2003
Triumph in the 'black pit'
Chris Hulme salutes the North Atlantic convoy that changed the face of the Second World War
APRIL 28, 1943. The convoy of 43 merchant steamers, their names painted out, had slogged through a week of appalling weather in the North Atlantic en route from Britain to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
German U-boats had been mauling such convoys since the start of the Second World War in what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic, exacting a terrible price in human lives for the food, raw materials and military supplies that Britain needed if it was to keep fighting.
As Andrew Williams writes in his book The Battle of the Atlantic: “By mid-December of 1942, there was only 300,000 tons of commercial fuel in the country and yet consumption was running at about 130,000 tons a month.” Some figures in the Admiralty were considering abandoning the convoy system — tantamount to an admission of naval defeat.
Despite the heavy weather, Robert Atkinson, the 26-year-old captain of HMS Pink, one of five Royal Navy warships protecting the freighters, regarded the crossing as routine.
He was already an Atlantic veteran, credited with the first night-time sinking of a U-boat. Six days into the North Atlantic, a coded signal from the Admiralty made it clear that convoy ONS-5 faced a greater peril than heavy weather. The largest-known fleet of U-boats was massing ahead and they were beyond air support.
The fighting lasted a week, but instead of the slaughter the Germans had come to expect, the Royal Navy fought back, changing the course of the war.
ON APRIL 28, Atkinson and the other captains in ONS-5 received a one-word signal from Commander Peter Gretton, aboard the destroyer HMS Duncan, the largest warship. It said: “Anticipate”.
Atkinson, now 87, has vivid memories of what happened next. It was 5pm, already dark, cold winds buffeting the ship. He gathered his men on a lower deck. “There’s going to be a hell of a battle tonight,” he told them. “I’m not sure how many of us will see daylight. I intend to see it if I can. It’s up to us.”
By midnight five U-boats were harassing the convoy. This moonlit engagement spilt over into the next day, and the next. “The weather got worse and worse,” Graham Bence, Commander Gretton’s operations officer, recalls.
“The convoy had to heave to. You put the ship’s head into the wind and kept the screw turning. You were all but stationary.”
On May 4 the skies cleared. Ahead of ONS-5 at least 53 U-boats — the largest pack ever massed in one patrol area — were waiting in the “black pit” between Iceland and Greenland. In the afternoon, the first of the U-boats made contact, sinking two freighters.
By midnight, another ship had gone. Five more merchant vessels were to follow in the night. Atkinson had been given the task of protecting four stragglers, struggling to keep up 80 miles behind the main convoy. They stayed clear of trouble until the following morning, May 5. Then HMS Pink picked up what Atkinson calls “a first-class asdic (sonar) contact — the clearest and sharpest I ever heard”.
Briefly, he agonised over whether to chase the U-boat or stay with his ships. “It’s a very human thing,” he says. “You wanted to fight back, to get at them.” He opted to attack. “The asdic operator was the key man,” he says. “He called continuously, ‘Ship approaching, 1,500 yards. Sharp echo, ship turning to starboard. Ship stopped, sir. Ship turned away from us, got his wake.’ We were persistent — we never let the submarine go.
“After about the fifth depth-charge attack, huge quantities of oil came to the surface and we could hear him trying to blow his ballast tanks.” HMS Pink launched one more assault. “A most powerful explosion shook the ship, low in note, like a deep grunt.” It was not the hoped-for kill, but Pink was later credited with putting U-358 out of service.
Their victory was not without cost, however. Just before they caught up with the stragglers, a huge column of smoke began to rise. One of the merchant ships, West Madaket, had been hit. “My worst fears had been realised,” Atkinson says. “But any officer would have done the same faced with my choice.”
Ahead, in the main part of the convoy, another four freighters had been picked off during the day and one submarine, U-638, destroyed. In thick fog, the unprecedented battle raged on into darkness. One Navy commander noted succinctly in his report: “23 ships in 10 columns . . . calm sea, heavy mist . . . at 00.41 the first of about 24 attempted attacks from every direction except ahead was detected and the battle continued without stopping until 06.20.”
While this barrage of torpedoes, depth charges, attempted rammings and drastic manoeuvring raged, the convoy ploughed on. Four more U-boats were sunk and several others seriously damaged before May 6 dawned. As more Royal Navy ships joined the fight, the mass of U-boats disbanded and slipped away. The battle had been won.
HMS PINK at full ahead (note-the Bow Horn's attached to take the anti-mine acoustic hammer) thanks to Bob for pointing out that the "A" frame on the bow in fact held the anti-mine acoustic hammer box.
(Photo credit unknown)
Acoustic Hammer info:-
known use of an acoustic mine occurred in 1940. However work on an acoustic countermeasure
had already been initiated by HMS Vernon and the Sweeping Division of its Mine
Design Department. This resulted in the SA acoustic hammer box in the bow
compartment of a vessel (usually a converted trawler) but later bow-mounted
about 12 feet below the water. By 1942, the bow
mounted hammer box was one of the most common acoustic countermeasures and was
being streamed abeam, usually in combination with the LL magnetic sweep. The
hammer boxes contained a pneumatic or electric driven riveting hammer mounted
to strike against a 7/16 inch thick 19 inch diameter steel diaphragm. The
pneumatic hammers proved more reliable than the electric type and were
incorporated into the standard hammer box designated 'A Mark 1' which was
either suspended over the bow of a minesweeper or towed in combination with the
Each Royal Navy commander received a congratulatory signal from Winston Churchill. “While 13 merchant ships were lost,” says Williams, “nine U-boats were sunk and several others badly damaged. For the Germans it was an unsustainable rate of loss — one U-boat sunk for every two Allied merchant ships.”
For several months, the Germans withdrew almost entirely from the Atlantic. When they did return, they were no match for the British ships.
ON MONDAY, a last public acknowledgement will be made of the immense contribution made by seafarers in the Second World War when the Admiralty commemorates the Battle of the Atlantic for the 60th and final time. (A 60th, as opposed to 75th, anniversary was chosen because of the advanced age of the dwindling band of veterans.)
About 100,000 people are expected to attend the event in Liverpool, the Allied base during the campaign. Nine visiting warships from six navies will be open to visitors.
As for Atkinson, he came to understand the cost of war most devastatingly. He was one of four brothers from a Northumberland family who went to sea — two in the Royal Navy and two in the Merchant Navy. All his siblings were killed in action.
A former chairman of British Shipbuilders, he was knighted in 1982. He says that harrowing memories of the war remain — picking up some survivors of torpedoed ships, but having to abandon others, for example. “Dreadful,” he says simply. “Fire on the water, people struggling. I can still see them in my eyes.”