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HMCS Oakville: baptism by fire.

HMCS Oakville fought in WWII's Battle of the Atlantic, and was one of the few Canadian corvettes to sink a U-boat The book Oakville's Flower sets the scene of naval warfare in the Atlantic--from the battles between convoys to dealing with stealthy German submarines.

CALM SEAS AND full moons were a U-boat's worst enemy. The moonlight made it easier to spot the U-boat's silhouette on the surface, and with the addition of still waters, lookouts and aircraft were better able to discern darker patches that could be enemy vessels. However, on the night of August 27, a cloudy sky kept the full moon largely hidden. Though brilliant when it shone, the drifting clouds seldom exposed the luminous sphere. In addition, the swells were heavy, Force 4 with whitecaps, which further decreased the escorts' ability to spot enemy vessels. Along with the humid heat that accompanied a typical Caribbean night, the ships were undoubtedly uncomfortable for the men trying to keep alert.

Oakville was zigzagging on course 351 true, moving steady at 8 knots. Trailing behind the convoy, Ites and Steinhoff took advantage of the hazy moon and moved to attack the convoys from the flanks, though they assumed different tactics. While Steinhoff had already encountered difficulties with Allied aircraft, Ites had never faced opposition from the sky and thus was planning a more aggressive attack. U-511 headed for the starboard side of the convoy, U-94 the portside. Their approach was slow, diving continually to avoid attention from PBYs (American amphibious patrol aircraft) above, but by midnight they had reached their desired destinations before the convoy.

Ites brought his boat almost to a stop and directed his bow back to the east, facing the merchant ships. The escorts were a good distance from their charges and he would have to slip past unnoticed to attack the freighters. Fortune was changing for Ites, however: by 0110 GCT the sky had cleared and the light of the full moon now glinted off the water's turbulent, glassy surface. Though the swells made it difficult for the surface escorts to spot him, he would be fully vulnerable to the air. Unaware of the danger, Ites pushed forward.

U-94 first passed HMCS Snowberry, positioned at the head of the port line. The U-boat moved slowly past the first guard, a U.S. coastal patrol ship now before him. Ites was not concerned about the 80-foot craft, as it carried little firepower and posed little threat to his boat. His attention was instead focused on the barely visible bow wave to the patrol ship's stern, which he knew was from another corvette--a vessel he had good reason to respect. Unlike the patrol ship, this class of ship packed enough firepower to sink his craft.

HMCS Oakville was the last obstacle in Ites's path. Once he had passed the ship, he would have a clear run at the merchant vessels. His attention was likely focused solely on the corvette, and he therefore probably neglected to keep an eye on the clear skies above. Naval plane 92-P-6, a PBY-5A, was flying around convoy TAW-15 in a continuous circuit. The pilot had actually not been scheduled to fly in the Windward Passage, but had received permission from his squadron commander to make an additional flight earlier in the evening. Searching for U-boats that were rumoured to be refuelling in the area, he came across one of the planes escorting TAW-15, approaching the Passage from the south. It had sustained a mechanical failure and was heading back to base. Naval plane 92-P-6 was immediately ordered to replace him, and headed for the convoy to perform escort duty.

At 0257 GCT, from an altitude of 500 feet, 92-P-6 spotted the darker shape of the fully surfaced U-94 in the moon path, three miles astern the main convoy. The pilot did not hesitate, and dove for what he knew was an enemy U-boat. Ites's lookouts spotted the approaching PBY and alerted their commander. Ites immediately ordered the boat to make an emergency dive. Although he managed to submerge before the aircraft was overhead, the swirl and still-exposed conning tower proved sufficient targets for the pilot, who released four MK XXIX depth bombs, each with a 50-foot depth setting, from his racks. From an altitude of 50 to 75 feet they crashed into the water. U-94 was on course 295 when the bombs exploded with enough force to launch four tall columns of water into the sky, which, combined with the thunderous echo, alerted Oakville to the U-boat's presence.

Just prior to the explosion, Sub-Lieutenant E.G. Scott was on watch, the sole officer manning the corvette's bridge. With him was the usual compliment of deck lookouts, signalman, and a sailor in the wheelhouse. At this point, Oakville was zigzagging at 12 knots, steering 300 degrees true. The captain, Lieutenant-Commander Clarence Aubrey King, and the XO, Lieutenant Culley, were above the bridge, asleep under the awning above the compass shelter. The ship's remaining two officers, Sub-Lieutenant K. D. Fenwick and Sub-Lieutenant Harold "Hal" Ernest Thomas Lawrence, a 22-year-old English-born Canadian, were asleep below.

Oakville's captain had replaced Jones as the ship's CO on May 16, 1941. Jones had developed chronic seasickness and was drafted off, becoming a liaison officer for the West Indies. He would actually visit Oakville the same year in the Caribbean. King, a fruit farmer from Oliver, British Columbia, was an experienced naval officer who had served with distinction aboard "Q-ships" during the First World War. These were wolves in sheep's clothing --heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry --meant to lure unsuspecting submarines into making surface attacks. Once the enemy vessel had revealed itself, the Q-ships had the chance to fire and sink them first.

King had been credited with one kill and two probable submarine sinkings. Before the end of the war he had reached the rank of lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and had been awarded a Distinguished Service Cross. Years later, in his book Tales of the North Atlantic, Lawrence would reflect upon his CO as "A real fighter-eater."

Able Seaman Reg Adams noted: "Captain King was only aboard a short time when we heard the pipe 'Man overboard!' and everyone ran to the side to see who the silly bugger was who had fallen over the side. It had been a drill and, of course, we got hell from the captain for being stupid. The next drill was 'Fire in the galley!', but we were ready."

"The depth bombs dropped by the PBY had damaged the U-boat's diving planes, surface lights, and had forced the vessel to reduce its speed to 11 knots."

Clearly, this old sea dog was no stranger to naval combat, especially against submarines. It is no surprise, then, that King immediately rose, alert, and headed without delay to the bridge when the PBY's bombs exploded.

Scott and the lookouts spotted a column of water on the port bow, about a one-mile distance, and altered course towards it. He called for the CO, but the "old man" was already climbing the ladder to the bridge with Culley. King took command from Scott and ordered full speed ahead. He then had the boatswain's mate call in the gun crew, depth charge party, and officers. Shortly thereafter, the remaining officers appeared and took over their various stations--Scott on the gun, Fenwick on navigation in the wheelhouse, and Lawrence on the ASDIC (Sonar). When the latter made it to his station, dressed only in his tropical shorts, he noted that Leading Seaman Hartman, Oakville's senior anti-submarine rating, was already on set and sweeping. Culley was sent to roam between the various stations and stay off the bridge, perhaps a precautionary move by King to avoid having all his officers too centralized. Action stations were rung, and the engine room was informed that depth charges would soon be dropped.

The depth bombs dropped by the PBY had damaged the U-boat's diving planes, surface lights, and had forced the vessel to reduce its speed to 11 knots. The pilot spotted Oakville about a mile from the initial attack and started flashing "SSS" by Aldis lamp--the signal that a submarine was present. King and his crew could not yet see the enemy and a flare was released by the plane to illuminate the area, though it extinguished on contact with the water. Meanwhile, Lawrence had donned his headphones and, for the first time since his training at ASDIC school, heard the distinct sound of a submarine blowing its tanks. However, the PBY's attack had caused turbulence in the water, which prevented Lawrence from acquiring a good echo and reporting when to drop their own depth charges. He could only say that the U-boat was moving left. Annoyed but undeterred, King aimed his ship for the approximate spot of the flare. Once Oakville passed over the white foam left by the PBY's bombs, a five-charge pattern "B," set to a depth of 100 feet, was ordered released. Two depth charges left the corvette's throwers and three others rolled off the stern rails, splashing into the dark, glassy water and sinking. A moment after, a deafening explosion erupted behind the corvette, shaking the vessel and launching water high into the moonlit night.

Despite the damage it had sustained from the first explosion, Ites was still trying to submerge and hide his vessel when Oakville attacked. Various sources seem to argue about which blast actually damaged the U-boat's diving planes and tanks. Kelshall claims it was the blast from Oakville's depth charges (which was why the U-boat was still, or at least partially, submerged) while other reports claim it was the PBY. Suffice it to say that after the corvette launched its 300-pound explosives, U-94 had been damaged enough that it could not fully submerge. By this time, its equipment was shattered and the vessel had sustained cracks and leaks in its pressure hull. Ites knew that he had no other recourse but to fight. The PBY had continued circling above the area like a vulture, dropping flares to help Oakville spot the enemy and filling the night with the sound of its engines.

Caption: Sailors aboard HMCS Oakville pose for a photo. The corvettes were the backbone of the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, performing escort duty during dangerous Atlantic crossings, (EDWARD STEWART)

Caption: HMCS Oakville steaming in the Caribbean Sea. Corvettes were built quickly and did not offer crewmembers much in the way of creature comforts. Interiors were spartan, and could be sweltering when in operating in warmer climates, (EDWARD STEWART)

Caption: Depth charges on corvettes were often launched (above) at 90 degrees to the ship's heading, and were set at various depths to increase the likelihood of hitting their targets. The charges could be set to detonate at various depths (opposite page) depending on the target. As was the case with U-94, German U-boats were sturdy vessels with the capability of surviving more than one indirect hit. (PHOTOS BY EDWARD STEWART)

NEXT MONTH: HMCS Oakville goes in for the kill. The corvette's captain, LCdr Clarence Aubrey King, resorts to unorthodox measures in order to finish off a determined, yet severely wounded U-94. Sinking the German U-boat would not be easy.

This excerpt is from the book Oakville's Flower: The History of HMCS Oakville [C]2014, by Sean E. Livingston. All rights reserved. Published throughout North America by Dundurn Press ( Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


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Author:Livingston, Sean E.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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