A Memory of War
March 10 – 11, 1943, somewhere between Greenland and Iceland
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In observance of Veterans Day this month, we present you with a remarkable story written by a remarkable man.
John Briggs, an officer in the British navy during World War II, didn’t like to talk about the war much during his lifetime; but since his death last spring, his family has generously allowed us to share this memoir with you. — Donna Moffly
This episode in the Battle of the Atlantic was written in March 1943. It was a recollection that I had jotted down after the Free French ship Aconit had picked up us few survivors after a U-boat battle and had headed for home and England.
I scribbled it on some sheets of paper, so it is not a polished bit of prose but a straight-from-the-gut piece of reporting. I had been relatively lucky. I was the only officer to survive and one of some thirty men in all who were left alive from HMS Harvester.
Harvester was a regular destroyer adapted to anti-U-boat duty with depth charges and a mortar on the foredeck that shot a pattern of small depth charges ahead of the ship. She was the flotilla leader of the escort group that had a real international character — two British destroyers, two Free French corvettes including the Aconit, two Polish destroyers and two British corvettes. Those eight ships had to convoy maybe fifty merchant ships back and forth across the Atlantic, each trip with U-boats our constant companions, winning some and losing some. The route was roughly 2,600 miles each way from Scotland to Newfoundland and back, two weeks westwards against the prevailing weather and ten days eastwards back to Scotland. No matter which way, the U-boats were our much-respected enemies as we were theirs. The only survivor of U 444 that we rammed in the night of March 10 was rescued by Harvester and then survived the sinking of Harvester when she was torpedoed. He and I spent some uncomfortable hours afloat in very cold water until Aconit sank U 432 and rescued both of us.
I am afraid the wording may be a bit hard to understand at times because it is sprinkled with navalese. But “Harry” was Commander Tait, DSO, a renowned U-boat fighter, a formidable drinker on land but never at sea. He was the unmarried son of the Canon of Ely Cathedral, and I can still see and hear him on many a cold Atlantic Sunday morning leading the ship’s company in church service, bellowing out the hymns. I suspect he preferred to die at sea rather than on land as a retired naval officer to be forgotten in the postwar world. Jean Levasseur, commander of the Aconit, was a fine man who survived the war but died when a gun exploded and killed him.
March 10, 1943, mid-Atlantic 0800
Planes from the carrier USS Bogue have sighted a U-boat ten miles ahead of the convoy, but the depth charges failed to drop when the planes attacked. Clearly we are being shadowed. We have altered course twice to throw them off. The attack, if it comes, should come within the next twenty-four hours.
The carrier has decided to leave, as she is short of fuel. She is rolling badly as we go alongside to pass her some papers. We can’t see what use these pocket carriers will be on this job, for this is not bad Atlantic weather, yet it is too rough for her to fly her planes.
Just sitting down to fried fish when the alarm gongs ring and there are a couple of thumps of torpedoes hitting home somewhere in the convoy. On deck with a rush to find it twilight. The sky is lit with a cloud of sparks. To port is the convoy just visible as a cluster of dim shapes. One ship is showing two red lights and has obviously been hit. The sparks are from an ammunition ship that is exploding like an enormous firework. On the bridge, I gather the attack was out of the blue. Harry is cursing: the yeoman is just giving codeword “Artichoke” over the RT [radio transmitter]. Harry thinks the attack came from within the columns. We are increasing speed and turning to run down the center of the convoy from the head to stern.
No pings, no sign of anything. The ammunition ship, still spluttering flames and sparks, is sliding under fast, rumbling with explosions and gear breaking loose. Then she goes — a frightening sight when you think of the 2,000 fathoms to the bottom. It is dark as we pass her swirl. Ahead is a little cluster of red lights in the water. Faintly we can hear men shouting — frantic shouts in unison, blown away by the wind. Poor devils. Who wouldn’t be frightened? We tell one of the corvettes to pick them up and shout to them through the loud hailer that a ship is coming for them.
A doubtful ping and we attack with depth charges but with no results and the contact fades. Harry plans to run out astern of the convoy for an hour and then double back, hoping any U-boat may have surfaced and be too intent on following the convoy to notice us come up from astern.
Have run out and are now about four miles astern of the convoy heading to take up station on the starboard side. Handed over the watch and just turning into my bunk when the gongs go again. Rush to the bridge to find all in a furor. A submarine is right ahead. I look over the windshields and there at the end of a long streak of foam that stretches ahead into the darkness is the dark blob of a U-boat. She is going flat out and so are we. As we watch, the spray spurts up around her and she begins to submerge. We cover the few hundred yards in seconds, and into the swirl of her dive we let go the charges. We can’t have missed her. Everyone is watching to see if she comes up. Then from the radar: “Echo, green 80 — 1,000 yards.” We turn and run down toward it. Then we see her, still moving fast and weaving. She crosses our bow and is lost in the darkness, but the radar holds her, and we swing round to find her again. I keep on shouting, “Shall I open fire?” But Harry is doing a lot of shouting, too, and can’t hear. She is like an eel and we turn and twist after her. She comes out of the darkness ahead and we open fire with everything — quarters firing, free-for-all. She slips down our starboard side fifty yards away and the Oerlikon [guns] are hitting her. She is lost again but radar keeps her, and we turn after her. Then we see her right ahead. We are doing revs for twenty-seven knots. She is broadside on about 500 yards away. Harry orders the ten-inch signal light to be switched on. The beam waves about in the darkness and then falls on her. She is lolling in the swell — greenish brown and slippery looking like a wet fish. Germans are scrambling out of her conning tower and jumping into the sea. Harry shouts, “Stand by to ram.” I shout down the phones to the guns, “We’ve got the bugger.” Clewes on the other end of the phone repeats it in gunnery fashion to the guns. A few seconds more and we hit. There is a jar and a crunch and we rear up. She scrapes under us and rolling and rocking we stop. Somehow she is tangled up in our stern. As we roll with the swell, she thumps our quarter. Harry is moving the engines to try and clear her, but she is stuck and tearing our stern to pieces. In the water Germans are shouting. Their voices sound like tiny cries of children lost in the wind. No. 1 tells me to go for’ard and see what the damage is.
I find the A/S compartment flooded and the mess deck a bit torn but not too bad. Pumps are got working.