On this day, September 20, in 1943, the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, St. Croix, was escorting a convoy and protecting its ships from U-boats, during WWII. The ship was between Greenland and Iceland at 57.30N, 31.10W. It carried almost 150 crew, including a young man named William (Billie) Sydney David Pudney, aged 22, listed as a signalman (V 27871 (RCNVR)).
The St. Croix was a bit past her prime; the 1,190-ton destroyer had been built for the US Navy in 1919 (then called the USS McCook), but given to Britain for the Royal Canadian Navy in September, 1940. In September, 1943, she was under the command of A/Lt.Cdr. Andrew Hedley Dobson, RCNR, her third commander since the ship was assigned to the Canadian Navy.
Billie’s picture is on the wall of my mother’s nursing home room; a young man in a sailor’s cap looking bright eyed and jaunty. He must have been feeling pretty confident on that day in 1943: in July, 1942, his destroyer, the St. Croix, had sunk the German submarine, U-90, and then again in March, 1943, while escorting convoy KMS-10, St Croix and the corvette, HMCS Shediac, depth charged and sank U-87.
By mid-1943, the tide of war had turned to the Allies’ favour: Germans were being pushed out of North Africa and out of Russia. The massive tank battle at Kursk, in the summer of 1943 broke the German armoured might, and was followed by the Soviets retaking Kiev and Smolensk, in September. Allied troops took Sicily, invaded Italy and even briefly captured its leader, Benito Mussolini, forcing Italy to surrender, also in September. Allied bombers were pounding German cities.
Air support for convoys in 1943 had greatly reduced U-boat tolls in the North Atlantic. Allied command felt confident it had overcome the threat, so during the summer it decided to withdraw many of the escorting ships for other duties.
Billie probably felt the Allies were close to winning the war. We know now that it was far from over: two more years of fighting was still to come. The Germans, although under stress and losing ground, were not beaten yet.
The German Navy launched a new U-boat offensive in the fall of 1943. A patrol group of 21 U-boats, code-named Leuthen, was dispatched by Admiral Donitz’s U-boat Control (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU) to renew the attack on the North Atlantic convoy route. The Wolf Pack formed a patrol line south of Greenland in the “Greenland Air Gap,” where Allied aircraft had been unable to operate previously, due to the extreme range from their bases.
The fall offensive began with an attack on convoys ONS-18 and ON-202. Wikipedia notes:
On 12 September 1943 convoy ONS 18 left Liverpool bound for Halifax. Composed of 27 ships it was protected by B-3 Escort Group, comprising 2 destroyers, Escapade and Keppel, ( Cdr MB Evans RN, the Senior Officer:Escort); the frigate Towey, and 5 corvettes; Narcissus, Orchis, Roselys, Lobelia and Renoncule. ONS-18 was also accompanied by the MAC carrier Empire MacAlpine. When Western Approaches Command became aware of Leuthen, it was decided to reinforce ONS 18; the following convoy, ON 202 was ordered to close up, and a support group, SG 9, sent to join.
ON 202 had left Liverpool on 15 September, composed of 38 ships and escorted by Canadian escort group C-2, comprising 2 destroyers, Gatineau (commanded by Lt.Cdr PW Burnett RN, SOE) and Icarus; the frigate Lagan, and 3 corvettes; Drumheller, Kamloops and Polyanthus.
Support Group 9 comprised destroyer St Croix, frigate Itchen (Cdr CE Bridgman RN, SOE) and 3 corvettes, Chambly, Morden and Sackville.
Altogether the 65 ships were escorted by 19 warships, to face an attack from 21 U-boats.
Beside her record of hits on U-boats, the St. Croix had picked up many survivors of other attacks on convoys she was assigned to protect: 34 in 1941, 18 in 1942 and 28 in 1943. In the three years she had protected convoys, the St. Croix had avoided being hit herself. That would soon change. As Wikipedia notes:
On 16 September, St. Croix, then on her first patrol with an offensive striking group in the Bay of Biscay, went to the aid of convoy ONS 18, followed by ON 202, both heavily beset by a wolfpack. The defense of these convoys resulted in a long-running battle with losses to both sides. The convoys lost three escorts and six merchantmen, with two escorts damaged. The wolfpack lost three U-boats.
ONS-18 was the first target. A transport, the Lagan, was hit by a torpedo on Sept. 19, but the attacking U-boats were chased away, and one damaged. To the Germans’ surprise and distress, Allies did have air support in the Gap: Very Long Range (VLR) Liberators (bombers) had been developed and put into action earlier that summer to provide much-needed air support. U-341 was attacked and sunk by a Liberator from 10 Squadron RCAF. But the other U-boats continued to close in, regardless. By the 20/21, a dozen U-boats were in visual range, and eight were able to attack the Allied ships of the combined convoys (ONS-18 and ON-202).
The St. Croix’s luck didn’t hold out for very long. She was hit in the stern by a torpedo fired by the German submarine, U-305, on 20 September, 1943, at 9:51 p.m. It was one of five ships hit by torpedoes that night.
The Wolf Pack hunting the convoy would sink ten of the convoy’s ships, and damage two others, over three days of attacks. This would be the second worst loss of any single convoy since 1941.
Forty five minutes after the first torpedo hit, the St. Croix was still limping along. The U-305 returned and fired a second torpedo, this time a T-3, at the St. Croix. It hit. The St. Croix sank in six minutes.
Eighty one of the crew – five officers and 76 men – survived. They spent the night on two rafts and a half sunken whaler. The British frigate, the HMS Itchen tried to rescue them after the St. Croix sank, but U-boats drove her off. HMS Polyanthus tried to screen the Itchen during rescue operations, but she too was sunk (by U-952 on 21 September).
The cold, wet survivors were picked up by the Itchen, on the following morning. The Itchen also had been attacked by U-305 that same night, but the torpedo missed its mark. But this wasn’t the worst of it.
Three days later, the Itchen too was sunk by a German submarine (U-666). A single torpedo hit the frigate and she exploded. She had a complement of 230 officers and men, plus 81 survivors of the St. Croix, and one from HMS Polyanthus. Only two men survived that hit: one from the Itchen, and a stoker from the St. Croix.
One hundred and forty six men who had sailed aboard the St. Croix lost their lives in September, 1943. Some surely must have been counting their blessings aboard the Itchen after they had been lifted from the rough North Atlantic waters.
Allied losses were 3 escorts and 6 ships sunken, plus one escort and one ship damaged. Three U-boats were destroyed and a further three damaged and forced to return to base. Wiipedia tells us:
On 23 September the convoys reached the Grand Banks area, where fog hindered visibility both of the air patrols and the attacking Leuthen boats. U-238 was able to penetrate the escort screen and sank 3 ships; Skjelbred, Oregon Express, and Fort Jemseg. U-666 torpedoed Itchen; she sank, leaving just 3 survivors from her own crew and those of Polyanthus and St Croix she was carrying. U-952 sank Steel Voyager and damaged James Gordon Bennett. U-758 attacked, but had no hits confirmed and was herself damaged by a depth-charge attack.
Poor visibility, fuel shortages, and fatigue now beset both U-boats and escorts, but BdU, believing the attack to have been a great success, ordered Leuthen to break off the attack.
Claims by the various boat amounted to 12 escorts and 9 ships sunk, and a further 2 ships damaged.
Safe from further attacks, both convoys continued to their destinations. ONS-18 reached Halifax on 29 September, where my mother was based as a WREN. ON 202 carried on and arrived at New York on 1 October.
Billie, the uncle I never met, died in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, 69 years year ago, one of the first victims of the newly developed German acoustic torpedo, the GNAT, designed to home in on and disable the escorts so the U-boats could reach the merchantmen. I’ve never been able to find out if he was among the survivors picked up by the Itchen or if he died after the St. Croix sank.
U-305 would continue to hunt Allied ships until January 16, 1944, when it sank, probably a victim of one of its own torpedoes, and all hands were lost. In its career, it sank two transport ships and two warships. After the September battle, the Leuthen Wolfpack was disbanded; 12 of its U-boats formed a new patrol line with 9 other U-boats to attack the next set of east-bound convoys.
World War II would rage on for almost two full years more, ending in May 1945 in Europe, but not until August, 1945 in Japan. Many, many more lives would be lost in the fighting. Although the battle for the Atlantic would not end until 1945, the German command called off its 1943 U-boat offensive after four months. During that time, eight ships of 56,000 tons and six warships had been sunk, but Allies had sunk 39 U-boats. It was a catastrophic loss for the Germans.
But Billie would never live to see the end. He was 22 when his ship sank; a young man, full of hope, full of ambition, whose life was interrupted and ended by the war. On this day, every year, my mother, 93, and her family, still remembers him and the life he gave or his country.
The RCNA prayer:
As we stand here safe and free,
We wonder why ’twas meant to be
That men should die for you and me.
On all the oceans, white caps flow.
They don’t have crosses row on row.
But they who sleep beneath the sea,
Rest in peace, ’cause we are free.