The Ship's Officers all agreed. Their ship was a sitting duck just waiting to be sunk by any German U Boat that might cross their path.
The ship was the Royal Dutch/Shell Oil Tanker "Cliona" and she had been travelling "light" in convoy with other vessels and their Royal Navy escorts westward bound from Britain to Nova Scotia when a message was received ordering her to leave the convoy and sail alone, unescorted down the length of the Eastern coast of the United States to Guantanamo in Cuba, on to Curacao and Trinidad to take on a full cargo of fuel oil and then to await further orders.
It was December 1942 at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic and 21 year old Spen Cooke was on his third trans-atlantic convoy, shortly to start his fourth as 3rd Radio Officer (Third Sparks) on board the "Cliona". Having been rerouted they had been at sea for a month, instead of the expected 10 days or so and by the time they arrived in the Caribbean they were seriously short of food which made landfall all the more welcome.
Operation Torch had taken place in November 1942, when the Allies had invaded North West Africa hoping to eliminate the German Afrika Corps and prepare for the planned invasion of Sicily. Fuel for the on-going battle was a vital necessity so it was decided that instead of loaded tankers sailing back up to Nova Scotia, then travelling in convoy to the UK before sailing on to Gibraltar, convoys would be formed at Trinidad and go directly to Gibraltar and thence to the battlefields of North Africa. Convoy TM-1 was to be the first of these and "Cliona" was to be part of it.
Eight other tankers had been similarly redirected to make up this first convoy. Along with "Cliona" were the British vessels "British Dominion", "British Vigilance", "Empire Lytton" and "Oltenia II" and the Norwegian tankers "Albert L Ellsworth", "Minister Wedel", and "Vanja" plus the Panamanian registered "Norvik" with a mostly Norwegian crew. This vital convoy made up entirely of oil tankers was to be escorted by Group B 5 which consisted of the Royal Navy destroyer "Havelock" as senior escort vessel, and the corvettes "Godetia", "Pimpernel" and "Saxifrage". During their last refit these warships had been completely repainted, the Western Approaches camouflage covered over by a light grey. This was done on the orders of the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, New York who wanted all his escorts to be the same colour. This repainting was to dramatically effect the fate of the convoy.
On 28 December 1942 the convoy was assembled and the nine tankers plus four escorts (making a total of thirteen vessels which should have rung alarm bells among the superstitious) set out. It has been a matter of speculation as to why such an important convoy should have had such a light escort.
On board "Cliona" the Chief Sparks Ray Eastland, 2nd Sparks Dennis Evans and 3rd Sparks Spen Cooke settled into a familiar routine. Living in their day clothes, with lifejackets always on they spent nearly all their time either in the Radio Hut wearing headphones listening, listening for hours on end, usually to hiss and crackle or on the bridge where one of them was always needed to receive or send inter-ship messages by Aldis Lamp.
On the 3rd January 1943 German U Boat U514 was making her way across the Atlantic towards her patrol station off Trinidad. Capt. Aufferman and his crew were enjoying the relaxation of sun, blue seas and being all alone in the vastness of the ocean when lookouts reported smoke on the horizon. U514 was soon able to identify and report to German High Command that they had located a convoy of 9 fully laden tankers and 4 escorts sailing eastwards. Aufferman was ordered to attack after dark.
Commander Boyle, Senior Officer Escorts on HMS Havelock had received a message from the Admiralty Submarine Tracking Room advising him there was a sub in the vicinity and he was ordered to change course from 055 degrees to a more southerly route of 085 degrees.
When Aufferman's report came in to U Boat Command in Paris, Admiral Doenitz had taken personal charge of coordinating the attack on what he considered was a vitally important convoy. He rightly judged that the convoy was sailing a Great Circle Route direct from Trinidad to Gibraltar with desparately needed oil supplies to sustain Operation Torch, and Doenitz was determined to stop those supplies from getting through.
At Bletchley Park after many hundred hours of work and many thousands of experiments they had just succeeded in cracking the Enigma coded messages sent between U Boats and their HQ. Those decoded messages revealed the location of 15 U Boats out in the Atlantic.
Senior Officer Escorts on board Havelock foresaw the need to refuel the escorts if they were to encounter the enemy and as refuelling at sea required calm seas and weather which he wouldn't get on his new southerly course, he ordered refuelling to take place on the afternoon of the 3rd January. They tried out the oiling equipment on the tanker Norvik but found it to be unsuitable so had to abandon plans for that day.
During the evening just as the convoy was changing to it's new course Havelock got an ASDIC contact some 5000 yards ahead of the convoy bearing 050 degrees which was then lost, picked up again at 065 degrees and identified as "non sub" on the run in to investigate. Ten minutes later the tanker British Vigilance was hit by a torpedo on her starboard side forward. As her cargo was aviation spirit she was immediately engulfed in flames from end to end. The tanker was abandoned but did not sink. A U Boat was seen in full view on the surface passing down the port side of the blazing vessel and rounding her stern before vanishing in the darkness Empire Lytton following behind British Vigilance tried to ram the U Boat but missed it by about 20 yards, whilst other tankers opened fire with their Oerlikon guns peppering the sub's superstructure. The escorts immediately put plan Raspberry into operation. This plan was designed to combat U Boats that had sneaked past the escort screen and got in amongst the convoy. It was anticipated that once they had launched their attack the submarines would dive deep and lie silent, allowing the convoy to pass overhead then resurface behind the ships. Plan Raspberry called for the escorts to double back leaving the convoy to sail on. The escorts would then move behind the U Boat's estimated position, turn and in sailing back to rejoin the convoy, cross over where the sub was supposed to be dropping several patterns of depth-charges. This they did without success resuming their stations; Havelock off the port bow, Pimpernel on the port quarter and Godetia on the starboard bow whilst Saxifrage stayed behind to pick up survivors from the stricken tanker. They rescued the Master and 26 crew from a complement of 54.
At U Boat Command Doenitz had ordered the Delphin Wolf Pack, which consisted of U134 (KptLt Schendel), U181 (KorvKpt Luth), U381 (KptLt Von Puckler und Limburg), U436 (KptLt Seibicke), U442 (KorvKpt Hesse), U511 (KptLt Scheenwind), U522 (KptLt Schneider), U571 (KptLt Moehlmann), U575 (KptLt Heydemann) and U620 (KptLt Stein) to make their way south east when a report came in of a new convoy sighting. This convoy was travelling westwards, was fast and well escorted and although only 600 miles from the wolf pack and sailing directly towards it, was in Doentiz's opinion in ballast. He therefore decided to stick with his original plan to set up a patrol line west of the Canary Islands some 1000 miles away in the hope of intercepting TM-1. His staff reminded him that he always said " a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", but he considered the tanker convoy to be of such importance he had to take the chance.
Early on the morning of the 4th Havelock got a High Frequency (H/F) Direction Finding (D/F) bearing which appeared to indicate a U Boat and although Godetia was sent to investigate nothing was found. (This was the first U Boat transmission D/F'd by Havelock since 29th December and a shore based D/F fix showed this U Boat was not within 100 miles of the convoy). This was probably U514 which had been ordered to shadow the convoy but had lost contact due to a defective engine. As oiling the escorts was paramount Senior Officer Escorts decided to ignore the rerouteing instruction and revert to the original course of 055 degrees and calmer water, advising the Admiralty of his move. It was apparent that Cliona had the necessary refuelling equipment and so the 5th January was spent oiling. First a light line was fired across the gap between the two ships then the heavy oil pipes hoisted on derricks, dragged across and made secure whilst the fuel was transferred, both ships still moving parallel to each other. Once this operation had been completed the convoy continued along its original course and did not resume the southerly diversion.
For the next few days TM-1 sailed on peacefully but things were coming to a head as the escorts were dogged by equipment failure. Havelock's H/F D/F (Known as Huff-Duff) was unreliable as were the RDFs on two of the corvettes. The Admiralty couldn't tell Havelock that why they had ordered the diversion was because they had cracked the Enigma codes and knew what was laying in wait; it was enough to expect the Senior Officer to take notice of advice.
Admiral Doenitz was on tenterhooks as he awaited the hoped for sighting of the convoy and on the 7th January ordered Delphin group to establish their patrol line which covered a front of about 120 miles. That night he instructed them to sail towards the anticipated convoy along the line of TM-1's expected course and at first light on the 8th January the U Boat U381 sighted the tankers which were steaming straight into the middle of the patrol line. The trap had been set and was now about to snap shut. KptLt Von Puckler und Limburg Commander of U381 summoned those nearest which were U571, U575 and U436 to join him at the feast.
At this most crucial of times Bletchley Park suffered a glitch because the Germans changed the code settings and it was 48 hours before the boffins could get back to reading the U Boat messages, hours during which a host of messages were being sent and received as Delphin and TM-1 closed on one another.
On the evening of the 8th January with the convoy making 9 knots, the sea was calm, the wind light and although the weather was cloudy the visibility was excellent, the light coloured paintwork of the escorts made them stand out like beacons making it easy for the U Boats to pinpoint their positions. At 2135 hours Havelock was 4750 yards off the port bow of the convoy steering 030 when she got an RDF contact 3200 yards off her port quarter. Swinging round to investigate Havelock sighted a U Boat 2000 yards ahead and speed was increased to ram. The U Boat dived but Havelock had it on Asdic and attacked with a five charge pattern. As the depth charges exploded the tanker Albert L Ellsworth was torpedoed on the port side aft and burst into flames and a few seconds later the Oltenia II, the Commodore vessel, was also torpedoed port side aft, broke in two and sank in about two minutes. Both these hits were made by U436 which was damaged but not fatally.
When the Albert L Ellsworth was hit those crewmen amidships, including the Captain and First Mate, got away in the gig and those aft also managed to lower the boats and row away from the blazing tanker. The 2nd Engineer even dashed back into the engine room to stop the engine - he had to jump into the sea but was picked up by one of the lifeboats. All 42 crewmen were saved. Those on the Oltenia II however weren't so lucky inspite of the efforts of the men in the Ellsworth's lifeboats. Rowing through the spreading glutinous mass of oil erupting from beneath the waves the Norwegians managed to rescue about 20 men from the British ship, some of whom died from their injuries and some of whom were already dead when pulled from the water.
As soon as the two tankers were hit plan Raspberry was ordered and Pimpernel, racing at full speed on the first leg, had to take evading action to starboard to prevent a collision with Cliona and as the corvette continued on her way she was fired on by the tanker Vanja whose lookouts had mistaken her for a U Boat. Meanwhile Havelock had made another RDF contact. She fired a starshell which lit up the night sky and Havelock spotted a U Boat at about 1000yards distance about to dive. The sub was picked up on Asdic and the destroyer attacked with a 14 charge pattern. Once the deafening noise had stopped and the Asdic operators were able to get back to work they made contact again astern, but lost it. However after further searching it was picked up again and another depth charge attack launched. Contact was lost yet again but an underwater explosion was heard shortly afterwards. After an unsuccessful search Havelock went to assist the crews of the torpedoed ships, and screened by Saxifrage picked up the survivors who had been in the boats for over an hour. The two escorts then set course to rejoin the convoy.
Whilst all this was going on Pimpernel had also made an Asdic contact on the convoy's starboard quarter. She dashed off to investigate and a couple of minutes later got an RDF contact at 2200yards bearing 120 degrees. A U Boat was sighted closing on the convoy, so a starshell was fired followed by one round from the corvette's 4 inch gun and the U Boat dived at a range of 1500 yards. It was immediately picked up on Asdic and a 10 charge pattern was dropped. Contact was then lost and a box search carried out for about half an hour when asdic contact was re-established. Two more depth charge attacks went in and a loud underwater explosion was heard soon after the last charges had been dropped. Pimpernel held the contact for several more minutes but it gradually faded so the escort left to rejoin her station as Godetia was the only escort still with the convoy. It was at this time that Pimpernel's RDF equipment broke down becoming almost useless. British Dominion was appointed Commodore after Oltenia II was sunk. Havelock and Saxifrage had rejoined the convoy by about 2 o'clock in the morning. An hour later Pimpernel made another Asidc contact at 1400yards off the starboard bow of the convoy but this faded as she turned to investigate. Another contact was made by Pimpernel at 5 o'clock in the morning and the alarm sounded. Ten minutes later the Norwegian tanker Minister Wedel was torpedoed on the starboard side, followed shortly afterwards by the Norvik also hit on the starboard side. Both ships caught fire but remained afloat. U575 which had inflicted the death blows, then brazenly sailed on the surface down the port side of Cliona before diving and was fired at by British Dominion, Cliona and Vanja in turn. The escorts started operation Raspberry once again and Saxifrage left her station on the starboard quarter steering for the centre of the convoy when she sighted a U Boat on the surface to the rear of the port wing of the ships. She fired a starshell and moved in to attack as the submarine dived. Asdic contact was made immediately and Saxifrage dropped a five charge pattern when contact was held to less than 100 yards and had to take violent evasive action to avoid colliding with Havelock crossing close ahead having also seen the U Boat. Due to the numerous wakes and disturbed water contact was lost so Saxifrage abandoned the attack and rejoined the convoy whilst Havelock remained in the area, carried out another attack and then made for the damaged tankers in the hope that the U Boat would return to finish them off.
Off the starboard column Pimpernel carried out her own Raspberry search without result and after investigating a contact which turned out to be non-sub the corvette set course to rejoin at about 0542 hours. Soon afterwards a number of underwater explosions were heard but could not be identified. Twenty minutes later Pimpernel saw tracer being fired off the port side of the convoy and presumed that it was Godetia engaging the enemy as Godetia had interrupted her operation Raspberry to carry out an Asdic sweep in the area of Havelock's attack but on firing a starshell and investigating Pimpernel found nothing. She had only just regained her escort position off the port bow of what remained of the convoy when yet another contact was made up ahead, however the defective RDF meant she could not get and accurate fix on the U Boat and two minutes later the Empire Lytton was hit by a torpedo 7 feet from her bow on the starboard side by U442. At the time she was hit all the tankers had been ordered to zig-zag independently and the other three British Dominion, Vanja and Cliona were taking similar evasive action. Pimpernel carried out a starshell search astern of the convoy but found nothing although a number of underwater explosions were heard yet again but could not be identified. When Empire Lytton was hit Godetia was about 4000 yards off the port quarter and altered course towards the stricken vessel and she too carried out a sweep astern and back to the port side. Being unable to pinpoint any contact she resumed station at 0700.
Havelock was still hovering around the other two damaged tankers Minister Wedel and Norvik and at 0700 her patience was rewarded when she obtained RDF contact at 5000 yards. Havelock raced forward at 19 knots and gradually gained on the target but after a few minutes the contact faded but was picked up almost immediately by Asdic on the same bearing at a range of 2500 yards. An attack was launched with a 14 charge shallow pattern and once the turbulent seas had calmed contact was re-established astern. Murphy's Law reared its ugly head once again compounding the trouble the escorts were having with their equipment - the recorder had run out of paper and by the time a new roll had been inserted Havelock was too close to attack so she had to circle round to make another approach whereupon a 14 charge pattern was dropped. Contact was then lost and further searches failed to make any contact. Havelock then returned to the crippled ships. Norvik had broken her back but Minister Wedel was thought to be still salvable, so Havelock came alongside and put the Captain, the First Engineer, three mechanics and the Radio Officer back on board to assess the damage. Whilst they were on board Havelock obtained a further weak contact but after attacking with a five charge pattern, it was lost. It was decided that nothing could be done at the time for the Minister Wedel so the Norwegian crewmen were taken off again.
At 0912 Havelock received a signal from Admiralty that six or seven U Boats were in the vicinity of the convoy, a message that would not have come as any surprise to all those involved in the on-going mayhem. It was evident that the three remaining tankers required the full attention of the escorts so Havelock used her guns on the damaged tankers. Norvik was left burning furiously but Minister Wedel was still in one piece. On the evening of the 9th January, the day of the attack, U522 closed on the abandoned tankers, sinking them with torpedoes. Saxifrage had been ordered to help Havelock sink the vessels and was then instructed to close on Empire Lytton. Soon afterwards Havelock joined Saxifrage and the tanker. The Senior Officer was advised that inspite of the damage the tanker might be able to resume under her own power after about two hours, steaming at a maximum of six knots. Because the convoy was still under threat of heavy attack the Senior Officer decided he was unable to spare any escorts to stay with Empire Lytton, her cargo was aviation spirit and thought to be of little value to the U Boats so it was agreed that the crew would be taken off by Saxifrage and the deserted ship would be left afloat in the hope that later on the crew could return and salvage the vessel. Saxifrage and Havelock then set course at full speed to rejoin the remaining ships. Shortly after losing sight of Empire Lytton below the horizon thick columns of dense smoke were seen coming from the area and it was assumed she had been attacked again and sunk which indeed she had by U442.
At 1415 hours Pimpernel on the starboard beam picked up an Asdic contact 2000 yards on her starboard bow. She set off to attack but no depth charges were dropped owing to bad drill and a sweep astern was unsuccessful. Soon after this, whilst Havelock and Saxifrage were still racing to catch up a daylight U Boat attack was launched on the convoy now travelling at 10 knots on a bearing of 071 degrees but proved unsuccessful although it was estimated there were seven or eight U Boats in the vicinity. Some ten minutes after Pimpernel's contact Godetia on the opposite side of the convoy obtained a firm Asdic contact bearing 100 degrees at a distance of 1800 yards. Godetia altered course to engage and increased her speed to 15 knots. A few minutes later the look-outs clearly spotted the bubble of a torpedo being fired and a periscope was identified. The torpedo was fired from a distance of 1500 yards and sharp eyed look-outs on the Vanja spotted the track of the missile which was heading straight for their port bow. The Officer of the Watch screamed "Hard a-port full rudder," Vanja reported that the ocean around them was an inferno of flames so it was difficult to manoeuvre and debris was raining all around as flames reached the ammunition on the torpedoed ships. As the vessel slowly turned it was touch and go whether they would be hit, those who were on the bridge watched in fascinated horror until the torpedo shot past down the length of the ship before disappearing into the distance. Vanja sighted the U Boat about 500 yards away and fired at it. British Dominion meanwhile had opened fire at a periscope on her starboard side which was U134. The sub then passed down between the tanker and Godetia which had also seen the periscope and attacked the U Boat with seven charges. U134 reported she had been damaged and traces of diesel were seen on the surface however the escorts lost contact astern, then Pimpernel also spotted a periscope about 3000 yards astern of British Dominion and dropped two charges on a doubtful contact which became confused in the wakes of the convoy. Contact was regained and both corvettes made further attacks without apparent success, they then swept the area before abandoning the hunt as the three surviving tankers had no escort cover.
After dark when all the escorts were back on station a number of HuffDuff bearings were made ahead and on the port quarter. These signals were maximum strength and Havelock swept the area without result however these bearings were confirmed by shore fixes and were in the immediate vicinity of the convoy. It was estimated that during the night one U Boat was shadowing whilst four others were within 90 miles and a further four or five within 150 miles. During the next 24 hours there was a lull in U Boat activity but at dusk on the 10th January, with the three remaining tankers and four escorts vividly outlined against the setting sun, Saxifrage 4000 yards on the convoy's starboard quarter heard explosions thought to be from depth charges dropped by the port escorts, however as neither Havelock which also heard the detonations nor Godetia had made any attacks it remained an unsolved mystery. Three minutes later at 1923 Saxifrage got Asdic contact bearing 160 degrees at 2500 yards and dashed off to investigate, dropping a 10 charge pattern but contact was lost and she was back on station half an hour later. Soon after dark Havelock sighted a small flashing white light ahead of the convoy and thinking it to be a U Boat signalling carried out a sweep at high speed but no contacts were made. The convoy changed course to 110 degrees and altered to 060 degrees shortly before midnight. Just after midnight and into the start of the 11th January, having changed course British Dominion was hit by three torpedoes on her port side from U522 and burst into flames. Illuminated by the flames Vanja saw a U Boat about 300 yards away on her starboard side between the two tankers. In a further report by the Vanja's captain he says when the U Boat was 400 yards away astern his gunners fired over 200 machine gun bullets hitting the U Boat's conning tower and the 4 inch gun aft fired 4 shots, the first missed, the second hit just below the conning tower causing an eruption of grey smoke and a whistling sound, the third missed the bow and the fourth hit the water right where the sub had just submerged. It was hoped that the U Boat had been sunk but there was no evidence of this. Operation Raspberry was ordered and no less than three U Boats were seen and attacked by the escorts in the course of the next few minutes. Having made a 14 charge shallow pattern attack Havelock heard a U Boat blowing her tanks and within two minutes a heavy underwater explosion was detected however after a sweep of the area there were no more contacts. Leaving Godetia to pick up survivors from the British Dominion, 38 of whose crew died in the attack, the other escorts rejoined their stations. Later on the 11th U620 moved in on the British Dominion and finished her off. Both U 511 and U571 were unsuccessful in attempted attacks on the 2 remaining tankers although KptLt Moehlmann captain of U571 was certain he had hit Cliona with 2 torpedoes as he heard 2 loud explosions after firing his missiles but it turned out he had missed and the detonations were depth charges being dropped.
Soon after daylight on the 11th the destroyer HMAS Quiberon joined the escorts and a Catalina flying boat was sighted much to the relief and delight of the men on Cliona and Vanja. Later in the day further escorts arrived HMS Pathfinder and HMS Penn. There were now 7 escorts and air cover for the two surviving tankers whose cargo was so desperately needed for Operation Torch. The remnants of the decimated convoy finally arrived in Gibraltar on 14th January. Admiral Doenitz, in his Memoirs states that no U Boats were lost during this operation but several U Boat Commanders reported torpedo failures.
Approximately seventy thousand tons of badly needed fuel oil and aviation spirit had been destroyed by the U Boats and General von Arnim, Commander of the German Afrika Corps sent a personal message of congratulation to Admiral Doentiz thanking him for the substantial contribution the U Boats had made to the battle on the Africa front. The Allied fuel supplies had reached crisis level as there were only seven thousand tons of fuel along the whole of the north west African coast between Gibraltar and Malta, this being on board the tanker Cardium based at Oran.
Cliona and Vanja were not scheduled to continue beyond Gibraltar but the devastating attacks on convoy TM-1 coupled with the urgent need for fuel in North Africa meant that delay in delivery could not be countenanced, so the two tankers were ordered to sail forthwith into the Mediterranean. After enduring further submarine attacks as well as constant bombing by wave after wave of aircraft Cliona finally arrived at Algiers and Vanja at Oran. Spen Cooke who was on Cliona throughout this horrendous voyage recounts that the tanker had sprung over two thousand rivets due to all the depth charges exploding between the columns of ships as TM-1 fought for survival.
Content copyright © Anthony Sweeting, 2004.
Published with permission.
This account is dedicated to my Brother in Law, Spen Cooke, who at the time of writing is in his 84th year and to the other unsung heroes of the Merchant Navy.
My thanks for details of TM-1 go to the members of the Marine History Information Exchange Group for their help and expert knowledge. Any factual errors are mine and mine alone.
Contact the author.