The Attack on Convoy HX72 - Evening of 21st September and Morning of 22nd September, 1940.
A Royal Canadian Navy Flower-Class Corvette
escorts a convoy early in the war.
The U-boats kept contact with the convoy during the daylight hours, U-65, U-46, U-43 and U-32 joining the developing ‘pack’. They pulled back a little, however, when ahead of schedule the convoy was joined on the afternoon of the 21st by the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command. Led by Commander A.M. Knapp in H.M.S. Lowestoft, this escort group also comprised the destroyer H.M.S. Shikari and three others, the corvettes Heartsease, La Malouine and Calendula, the latter joining the convoy at 2100 in the evening.1 The Shikari was detailed to pick up survivors from the three ships torpedoed earlier in the day. Two other ships, H.M.S. Skate and H.M.S. Scimitar, were due to join the escort group on the morning of September 22nd. Knapp disposed his escorts ahead of and to the sides of the tightened-up convoy, now down to 37 ships, and attempted to increase speed to 10.5 knots to take advantage of the darkness before the moon rose.2
Joachim Schepke in U-100 had been the last to reach the convoy on the evening of the 21st but quickly grasped his opportunity and in "one of the most astonishing and fruitful U-boat attacks of the war"3 proceeded to claim 7 victims in the space of just over three hours. The events of the evening are recorded in the Kriegstagesbuch (KTB or war diary) of U-100. Shortly after sighting the first shadows of the convoy and then making out approximately 20 shadows sailing in several rows, Schepke moved into action. He penetrated inside the convoy picking off the ships as they passed him. U-100’s KTB shows that three torpedoes were fired at 23.10 with one more at 23.15, and states that all four found their targets, the first three fired from the bow torpedo tubes hitting "the three largest ships in the middle of the third row" . In fact it was three ships in the second row (in the fourth, fifth and sixth columns) which had been hit almost instantaneously, the times recorded in the Admiralty files as 22.11 (Dalcairn), 22.17 (Canonesa) and 22.26 (Torinia). Given a one-hour time difference between the clocks kept by the German and British crews the times are very close. Knapp’s times probably record when he became aware of each ship being hit - indeed at 23.17 U-100 picked up a radio message ‘repeated 5 to 6 times’ which was misheard as "Canoner a torpedo", possibly the same message from the Canonesa picked up by Knapp.4
U-100’s KTB indicates that the furthest target was 3,300 metres away, that "explosions were clearly seen and explosions heard from the first three targets" (Von den ersten 3 treffern wurden deutlich die Spreng gesehen und die Detonationen gehört) and that "later many lights were seen at the target locations." The Torinia was immediately recognised from an intercepted Morse signal. The messages from the Canonesa and Dalcairn could not be accurately deciphered, and their tonnages were estimated at 5000 grt each, a significant (and for Schepke uncharacteristic) underestimate for the 8286 grt Canonesa.
Writing 56 years after the event Morris Beckman, who was serving at the time on the Venetia, has graphically described the attack. He recalls the scenes when the first four ships were struck on the evening of September 21st. (Beckman refers to the four ships as "a Dutchman, cargo unknown", the Turinco, the Broompark and the Collegian. Comparing his account with the records suggests that these could have in fact been the Canonesa, Torinia, Broompark and Dalcairn respectively.) When the attack commenced the Venetia "slewed violently to starboard" and Beckman heard "a dull prolonged booming as if huge empty petrol cans were falling onto a corrugated tin roof." Referring to the ‘Dutchman’ he writes that :
"The torpedo strike started a conflagration which took hold slowly and then picked up a remorseless momentum which engulfed the entire ship. The survivors managed to get two boats away. The next victim was the Turinco, followed by the Broompark and the Collegian. The darkening evening presented an astonishingly beautiful picture. It was akin to walking into an art gallery and seeing an enormous painting by a seascape painter entitled ‘Convoy under attack.’ Torpedoes struck home. Ships were burning. Guns barked. At what? What could they see? Were surfaced U-boats shelling ships? The destroyers were racing pell-mell to the scenes of action and dropping their depth-charges. Had they made asdic contacts? The occasional ship’s siren sounded. Here and there distress rockets showered red balls of fire which all-too quickly dissolved into nothing. White parachute flares hovered gently between the low cloud and the gently swelling ocean. U-boats kept on firing to illuminate the area, and they did. There were burning ships and phantom ships steaming flat out. A destroyer tore past us perilously close like a police car after getaway villains. As we watched another ship burst into flames about two and a half miles on our starboard quarter."5
All of the Torinia's crew were saved, most of the survivors joining the 42 crew of the Dalcairn, who were also all saved. It was initially reported that five men on the Torinia had died but these had been picked up by a different ship. Rogers ordered the convoy to scatter. Shortly afterwards U-48 hit and damaged the Broompark (killing one crew member) and then in the early hours of September 22nd Schepke torpedoed the iron-ore carrying Empire Airman (32 of whose crew of 37 were lost), the Scholar (crew of 42 all saved - the ship sank 48 hours later), the tanker Frederick S. Fales (with the loss of 20 of the crew of 48), and the Norwegian ship Simla (five of the 31 crew lost). Schepke describes sinking both ships in the war diary.6 For the Frederick S. Fales he wrote :
"0053. Double shot at tanker. After 65 seconds first hit for'ard, second aft. Two very violent explosions, massive tongues of flame and the deck completely splits open. I personally have never seen such a violent and imposing direct hit. The ship sinks stern first very quickly."
The Simla's loss was noted as follows :
"0114. Torpedo at freighter. Explosion after seconds. Direct hit for'ard. Despite its great size the ship slides under bow first and soon disappears".
Later still the Collegian was torpedoed and damaged by Hans Jenisch's U-32. One merchantman, the British ship Harlingen, reported that it had retaliated against a U-boat scoring a hit on the conning-tower.7 Evidently this was U-100 as Schepke recorded the incident in the following words in U-100’s war diary, although in this account all shots missed the U-boat:
"0157. Torpedo fired from Tube 1. (Last torpedo) - Missed. Ship turned away. Torpedo wake passes about 30 metres in front. Suddenly the steamer begins to shoot. We are lying stationary behind him in the moonlight at 600 metres range. The shot passes over conning tower. I turn away with full power and rudder. The ship fires very slowly. The next shot falls short and the third goes over and wide. After this he stops firing."8
For those who had survived the danger continued - for later when nearing the west of Scotland, convoy HX72 experienced heavy weather and bombing by the Luftwaffe. R.S. Thomas, on the Pacific Grove, remembers being bombed and machine-gunned by an aircraft near Tory Island, just off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland. One bomb actually landed on the ship crashing through the deck but failing to explode.9 On 29th September some of the Invershannon's crew were rescued, in poor condition, 30 miles from Tory Island, having spent 8 days in an open lifeboat in atrocious weather conditions.10
The impact of the attack on the merchant seamen whose ships avoided torpedoing has been captured by Beckman :
"On that wet cold miserable boat deck we stood, leaned and squatted, all eyes and ears, senses sharpened by fear. Now, our benighted cargo was very much on our minds. Cigarettes would have relaxed taut nerves but smoking was out of the question. Attempts at laboured humour only irritated. A ship was torpedoed and her crew were lost. Her neighbour got away and her crew lived. A U-boat captain’s whim could give life or death. Bravado dared not raise its hypocritical head. We were all afraid and were unashamed about showing it. Many had been shipwrecked before and knew what they were coming back to face. At this moment they vowed to themselves that they would never sign up again. But, they would, all of them. Talk died away as each man hunched into himself, keeping his own thoughts to himself."11
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