Great Waters: 70 Years After

 

Photo: HMCS LA HULLOISE. On March 7, 1945, with Strathadam and Thetford Mines, she took part in sinking U1302 in St. George's Channel.
Photo: HMCS LA HULLOISE. On March 7, 1945, with Strathadam and Thetford Mines, she took part in sinking U1302 in St. George’s Channel.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest, largest, and most complex naval battle in history that started with Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on September 3, 1939 and ended with Germany’s defeat in early May 1945 which the world knows as Victory in Europe.

There were dozens of campaigns during the Battle of the Atlantic and some of them touched Canadian shores. Thomas Joseph Simpson who is Canada’s last living Distinguished Service Medal holder participated in many of them including the Battle of the St. Lawrence, the Arctic campaign, the Italian campaign, and the British Isles Inshore Campaign of 1944-1945.

In addition Thomas Simpson while a radar operator on HMCS LA HULLOISE (K668) participated on KMF Mediterranean–United Kingdom convoys, MKS Gibraltar-United Kingdom convoys including troop convoys for military operations in Italy and the Mediterranean, ONS, ON and HX North Atlantic convoys mostly originating from Halifax, Nova Scotia and Sydney, Nova Scotia, and other convoys sometimes called the ‘Great Northern Patrol’ where convoys passed both through the Denmark Straits or south of Iceland to as far as the Arctic Circle where convoys were handled over to the Russian Navy.  Protection of these convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic was vital to winning the war.

The Battle of the Atlantic pitted U-boats and other warships of the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) against the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Navy, and Allied merchant shipping. The convoys (ON, ONS, HX), coming mainly from North America and predominantly going to the United Kingdom but also to the then Soviet Union, were protected for the most part by escort groups from the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy.

During World War Two, German U-boat warfare was the major component of the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted the duration of the war. Germany had the largest submarine fleet in the world. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said that “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

In the words of Sir Winston Churchill “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome”.  The Battle of the Atlantic was indeed the single most important battle of the Second World War and was 5 years, 8 months and 5 days long making it the longest continuous military campaign in World War II in which the German Navy had used over 800 submarines in combat.

In the early stages of the war, German U-boats were extremely effective in destroying Allied shipping from Canada to the United Kingdom. There was an extensive trade in war supplies and food across the Atlantic, which was critical for Britain’s survival. Canada played a great role in supplying the United Kingdom with supplies during the darkest days of the war while under constant threat of the Nazi jackboot and right until Victory in Europe.

Thomas Simpson joined the Royal Canadian Navy at HMCS HUNTER in 1942 and was trained as a radar operator initially in Esquimalt, British Columbia and later Halifax, Nova Scotia before serving on HMCS SHAWINIGAN (K136), HMCS TORONTO (K538) and HMCS LA HULLOISE (K668).

As a 20 year old, Thomas Simpson was one of the first and youngest Canadians to be trained in radar technology. Simpson was one of the very first sailors to complete a radar course in Royal Canadian Navy history. By the time he was drafted to HMCS LA HULLOISE (K668) Simpson had developed enough experience at sea to command a high level of pride in his duties, confidence in his skills and expertise with the radar set that would command great trust from his Commanding Officer.

ASDIC technology was the main detection device developed during the early part of World War Two and used to locate German submarines. ASDIC interestingly originated from research conducted by Canadian physicist Robert Boyle who volunteered his expertise to the Royal Navy.

GERMAN U-BOAT TACTICS AND STRATEGY

The German U-boat of World War Two was designed to operate mostly on the surface and submerge only for evasion or for rare daylight attacks. In 1940, the surfaced U-boat was even more secure near a convoy than submerged as the development of ASDIC technology could detect him underwater but was useless against a surface vessel. It was only with continued Allied inventions that the U-boat was forced to spend more and more time underwater and then it was only running on limited electric motors which only managed a few knots and had very limited endurance.

The advances and continued development of ASDIC/SONAR technology and rapidly improved radar sets allowed Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Navy escort groups to force the Germans from their success on the High Seas of the North Atlantic closer to shore. The German Navy’s change of naval strategy was to pull back from the North Atlantic and focus on coastal waters around the United Kingdom and fight in naval combat in what has known as the British Isles Inshore Campaign.

German submarine tactics included moving very slowly at speeds of less than 3 knots thereby reducing their effectiveness greatly. The Germans also had adopted technology in the form of the snorkel to allow U-boats to cruise submerged for longer periods of time.  These factors made it possible for German naval strategy to focus on the British Isles Inshore Campaign which would shorten the routes to closer patrol zones around England and intend to give newly snorkel-fitted U-boats a fresh advantage.

In early 1944, Germany began to mount ‘schnorkel’ breathing tubes on their submarines, which allowed them to cruise about eight metres under the surface while showing only a narrow air intake above water, which was all but invisible to only the most skilled radar operators. Germany had at least 35 Schnorchel- equipped U- boats before the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.  However roughly half of the operational boats in France did not have this vital equipment at the time. The advancement of the Schnorchel breathing device on German U-Boats earlier in the war would have had an impact on the Battle of the Atlantic since German submarines could run their powerful diesel engines while submerged, and never rise to the surface for weeks on end. Although the submerged speed of the submarines was still too slow to catch most ships, the submarines could once again push close to the mouths of British – and Canadian and American –harbours or coastlines and fire torpedoes at ships as they left or entered ports. This was exactly what German U-Boat 1302 did and how it managed to stay for weeks in and around the St. George’s Channel so close to the Welsh and English coastline.

In addition to the Schnorchel breathing device to allow U-boat diesel engines to run underwater, a rare and sophisticated floating valve type of snorkel was used to detect radar was fitted on the mast on some new German U-boats. Another advantage German U-boats had in the British Isles Inshore Campaign was that the rocks and old shipwrecks littering the ocean floor near the coasts, the complex currents and temperature layers in coastal waters all combined to make it very difficult for radar operators to detect their underwater enemy. At times even advanced ASDIC/SONAR technology was incapable of finding the submarines. The human skill of the radar operator was necessary for survival at sea.

The change in German tactics and strategy although desperate was never ending and continued to be as serious threat to the Allied convoys and shipping just as it was in the North Atlantic. This continued threat combined with an overextended Royal Navy would mean that the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches, Admiral Max Horton would assign Royal Canadian Navy escort groups and other naval assets to respond to the very specific German threat at Britain’s shores and coastline. This included stationing some of the RCN’s best anti-submarine destroyers and frigates to combat an ever present undersea enemy.  Of these Escort Groups was EG 25 which included HMCS LA HULLOISE (K668), HMCS STRATHADAM and HMCS THETFORD MINES. Their work required nearly constant alertness at sea for days on end, for at any moment a German torpedo could – and did- often come at times racing silently from the depths.

GERMAN U-BOAT 1302

German U-Boat 1302 was ordered on April 2, 1942. The U-Boat was laid down on March 6, 1943 at Flensburger Schiffsbau-Ges in Flensburg, Germany. Flensburger Schiffsbau-Ges was a major shipyard that commissioned 28 U-Boats into the Kriegsmarine and laid down many more U-boats during the Second World War. U-Boat 1302 was later launched on April 4, 1944. The U-Boat was commissioned into the Kriegsmarine of the Imperial German Navy on May 25, 1944.

Interestingly Flensburg was also the seat of the last government of Nazi Germany when it moved from Berlin. Also, the Flensburg government was led by a German Navy officer, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who was in power from May 1, 1945 (Hitler’s death) until its dissolution on May 23, 1945.

On January 22, 1945, U-Boat 1302 left Kiel, Germany under the command of Wolfgang Herwartz.  Its first sailing was from January 22, 1945 – January 25, 1945. It arrived in Horten, Norway on January 25, 1945. U-Boat 1302 stayed in Horten, Norway until February 3, 1945 when it departed on its first war patrol. This was its second sailing.

U-Boat 1302 had general armament that most German submarines had. It had five torpedo tubes (four at the bow and one at the stern). It was armed with 14 torpedoes. The U-Boat had a stronger pressure hull than previous submarines giving it more depth to evade attack. The U-Boat could reach operational depths of 120 metres and had a crush depth at 250 metres. The U-Boat used lighter machinery to compensate for the added steel in the hull making them actually slightly lighter than previous German submarines.

German U-Boat 1302 served with the 4th U-boat flotilla for training and later with 11th U-boat flotilla from January 1, 1945 to 7 March 1945.  It was the front boat in the 11th flotilla. It was part of Kriegsmarine. The positioning of U-Boat 1302 is confirmed and there is a record of its daily position. On February 20, 1945 it was position 500 km well to the west of Ireland slowing making its way to the Irish Sea.

Commander Wolfgang Herwartz was waiting for convoy SC-167 from Canada. Captain Wolfgang Herwartz struck first on February 28, 1945 with the sinking of the British merchant vessel Norfolk Coast (646 tons).  On March 2, 1945 he sank the Norwegian vessel Novasli (3,204 tons), also sailing with convoy SC-167 and shortly after on the same day sank the British ship King Edgar (4,536 ton), as well a member of convoy SC-167.

In only three days U-1302 had sunk three ships totalling 8,386 gross register tons (GRT) but it was not finished. U-Boat 1302 armed with 14 torpedoes had its sights set on the Royal Canadian Navy which was operating in the area defending the United Kingdom and Allied shipping as well as protecting troop movements into Italy.

THE NIGHT OF MARCH 7, 1945

With the increase in missing ships in the Irish Sea and particularly St. George’s Channel in late February and early March 1945 the Royal Canadian Navy was focused on increasing patrols in the Irish Sea which included sweeping for German submarines. Several German submarines were thought to be in the vicinity because, at that time, there were vessels coming out of England that were taking Canadian and British troops into Italy.

Even at this time the three ships that were sunk by German U-Boat 1302 had been unknown. However it was reported that German submarine U-775 torpedoed the British seaboat [SS] Empire Geraint with an emergency call frequency made to Allied headquarters in Liverpool. A message from the damaged ship went out and a response from the Commander-In-Chief of the Western Approaches was made.

The order was for Royal Canadian Navy frigates, HMCS LA HULOISE, HMCS STRATHADAM and HMCS THETFORD MINES to be dispatched with specific orders to hunt German U-Boat 775.

The three Royal Canadian Navy ships took up formation with HMCS STRATHADAM as the command vessel. HMCS LA HULLOISE (which Thomas Simpson was on) took up the port side position with HMCS THETFORD MINES on the starboard side.

It was approximately 2200, when Thomas Simpson was on watch in the radar cabin on board HMCS LA HULLOISE. Able Seaman Simpson was closed up and well-prepared for radar sweeping. The weather was good and the sea was calm.

At approximately 0300, just off the St. George’s Channel, Thomas Simpson had a contact, checked and rechecked again and then made his initial contact report.

GERMAN U-BOAT 1302 AND HER EVASIVE TACTICS

German submarines with the development of more advanced ‘schnorkel’ breathing tubes was to attach an apparatus that was attached to the ‘schnorkel’ to release carbon monoxide which was a great danger on board the submarines since it had no color nor smell. It had to be strictly kept under a certain level and therefore was tested few times a day. The ‘schnorkel’ also supplied air to the diesel engines while it submerged at periscope depth, allowing the U-boats to cruise and recharge their batteries while maintaining a degree of stealth.

An evasive technique for German U-Boat 1302 was to come as close as possible to the coast as and rise its ‘schnorkel’ with the attached apparatus extremely close to a “BUOY” so that any radar contact would only indicate a single contact and therefore be presumed to be a known navigational marker.

THOMAS SIMPSON’S REPORT

The Officer of the Watch (OOW) acknowledged that Thomas Simpson had picked up a radar contact however dismissed it as a possible threat and called it “ a buoy sitting out” there just at the tip of land’s end very near the British coast. Thomas Simpson was ordered to continue his radar sweep.

Thomas Simpson obeyed however once again he upon a second confirmation picked the same contact which was “two pips off the port beam”. Thomas Simpson again made his same radar report a second time informing the Officer of the Watch.

The Officer of the Watch at this time dismissed Able Seaman Simpson’s report by clearly stating that it was not possible for a German submarine to be so close to the coast and it was clearly a marked ‘buoy’ in that location and he told Thomas Simpson that he was “seeing gremlins” and to continue with his sweep.

At this time Thomas Simpson decided to take his report directly to the bridge since he believed the contact to be a threat to all three Royal Canadian Navy ships. The radar operators on both HMCS STRATHADAM and HMCS THETFORD MINES has only picked ‘one pip’ leaving only Thomas Simpson voice being a junior rank insisting that his radar report was correct and that a German submarine was at the reported location of his initial contact.

THE CAPTAIN OF HMCS LA HULLOISE

The Commanding Officer of HMCS LA HULLOISE upon hearing the verbal confrontation from his cabin below the bridge came to the bridge to find out what the problem was.

Thomas Simpson told him the Captain of his first and second contact reports and how the officer ignored them to which “the skipper” ordered the ship to be brought around and headed in the direction of the buoy which was Able Seaman Simpson’s contact location.

GERMAN SUBMARINE DISCOVERED

At approximately a hundred yards from the buoy, the Captain ordered two signal lights to pinpoint the buoy in the darkness of the night. Upon closer inspection a snorkel came into view. Now the submarine which was hiding alongside the buoy in an attempt to avoid being detected was confirmed to be a German U-Boat. It was expelling carbon dioxide from its battery.

At that moment HMCS LA HULLOISE fired off star shells to illuminate the night sky and the ship went to combat stations. The U-Boat’s snorkel was visible, and at that point, the submarine realized that they were being attacked and started to dive.

HMCS LA HULLOISE and the U-Boat were so close that there was slight contact between them which sent the submarine to the bottom where she stayed.

HMCS STRATHADAM and HMCS THETFORD MINES joined in on the attack and launched depth charges that continued over some time until an oil slick and debris was observed floating on the water.

By dawn items from the submarine came to the surface and boats were launched to recover some of the debris and which among other things were very personal letters as well as journals from the engine room. Crew members of HMCS LA HULOISE picked these materials up which were later handed over to the Royal Navy.  It was later determined it was not U-Boat 775 but rather unknown U-Boat 1302.

German U-Boat 1302 never reported the sinking of the three ships to German naval command as the U-boat was too close to British land.

The fate of German U-Boat #1302:

German U-1302 was sunk with all hands on March 7, 1945 in St. George’s Channel in position 52.19N, 05.23W, by depth charges from Royal Canadian Navy HMCS LA HULLOISE, HMCS STRATHADAM and HMCS THETFORD MINES.  48 dead (all hands lost).

Upon returning to Liverpool, England, Thomas Simpson was called before the Admiralty Board and questioned in detail about the events and specifically his actions that occurred during his watch that night.

Thomas Simpson was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his actions and he is the only living Canadian D.S.M holder today. Thomas Simpson is one of only 116 people in Canadian Military history to receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

Hundreds of sailors’ lives were potentially saved that night 70 years ago today as we remember the significant events and actions of March 7, 1945 which were of naval significance during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Biography of Thomas Simpson

Thomas Simpson served mostly on the High Seas in the North Atlantic when the hostilities during the Battle of the Atlantic and the Second World War were at their worst. As a Radar Operator he performed his duties with outstanding seamanship setting a new standard at the time with a wholehearted devotion to duty, worthy of the high traditions of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy.

Thomas Simpson is a holder of the Distinguished Service Medal (D.S.M) which was awarded gallantry, bravery, resolution and skill during battle at sea whilst serving on HMCS LA HULLOISE in successful anti U-Boat Warfare. He is a holder of the Italy Star, France Star and Germany Star with Atlantic Star bar, the 1939-1945 Star, 1939-1945 War Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with CVSM Clasp, General Service Badge, Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Written by Ron Simpson
(Ron Simpson grew up in Essex County near Windsor. He is a graduate of the University of Ottawa and the University of Western Ontario where he holds degrees in geography. Today he lives in Korea where he works as an Educational Consultant.  His only living grandparent is Canada’s last living Distinguished Service Medal holder.)

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