Convoy HX-229

Convoys HX-229/SC-122

The battle around convoys HX-229 and SC-122 occurred during March 1943 in the Battle of the Atlantic, and was the largest convoy battle of World War II.

Prelude

In March 1943 the Battle of the Atlantic was reaching its crescendo; the German Navy had renewed its U-boat offensive on the North Atlantic convoy routes and was meeting with increased success. March saw a series of fierce convoy battles and was, for the Allies, the crisis point of the whole campaign; a Royal Navy report later concluded “ The Germans never came so near to disrupting communications between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March 1943”. The largest of these battles developed around convoys HX-229 and SC-122, which were both attacked in mid-Atlantic, and which coalesced into a single sprawling action involving over 100 ships and escorts, and nearly 40 submarines.

Convoy SC-122

SC-122 was a slow eastbound convoy of 60 ships, routed from New York to Liverpool. (This was during the period when SC convoys were switched from Sydney, Cape Breton, to New York; this was reversed later due to congestion problems there.) It sailed on 5th March 1943, protected at first by the Western Local Escort (1 destroyer and 5 corvettes). On 6th March, off Cape Cod, 2 ships put back to New York, due to heavy weather, and on the 8th, another 6 abandoned the crossing, and put in to Halifax. The convoy pressed on, changing escorts on the 13th off Cape Race; the western local group left, after the Mid-Ocean Escort Force B5 Escort Group, joined from St John's. B5 Escort group consisted of 8 warships, led by Cdr RC Boyle in the destroyer HMS Havelock. It also comprised the destroyer USS Upshur, frigate Swale, corvettes Buttercup, Godetia, Lavender, Saxifrage and Pimpernel, and a trawler as rescue vessel.

Convoy HX-229

HX-229 was also eastbound, and sailed from New York on 8th March, with 40 ships and the local escort. A further 34 ships which should have been included were delayed due to congestion at New York; they sailed the following day as HX-229A. The first few days of the convoy were uneventful; HX-229 met its Mid-Ocean Escort Force on the 14th and the local escort departed. The ocean escort was B4 Escort group from St Johns, of 4 destroyers and a corvette. It was led on this occasion by Cdr GJ Luther of HMS Volunteer, as its regular leader was in dock for repairs; Luther had recently joined the group and this was only his second crossing. The other ships of B4 were destroyers Beverley, Mansfield and Witherington, and corvette Anemone, although Witherington had to detach on the 15th, to be replaced by the corvette Pennywort for the crossing.

Wolfpacks

Arrayed against them were three patrol lines (rakes) of U-boats. Raubgraf, (Robber Baron), of 8 boats was already formed, having just been involved in a battle with HX-228; it was sent to patrol off east of Newfoundland, at the western edge of the Air Gap.

Sturmer (Daredevil), a new group of 18 boats, was to form up in the middle of the Air Gap. It was formed from boats from patrol group Westmark, which had previously engaged SC-121.

A further group, Dranger (Harrier), of 11 boats formed to the east of Sturmer. Some of these boats were from Neuland, which had also been in the battle with HX-228; the rest were newcomers.

The Battle

B-Dienst had given notice of an east-bound convoy and by 8pm on the 13th had a location for SC122; Donitz directed Raubgraf to intercept, forming a new rake to the west. However a westerly gale gave speed to SC122, which passed through Raubgrafs patrol area on the morning of the 15th just 24 hours before the patrol line was formed. As luck would have it, HX229 was following a similar course; it passed through Raubgrafs rake in the night of 15th/16th without being sighted due to bad weather.. However on the morning of 16th U-653,which had detached from Raubgraf to return to base with mechanical problems, sighted HX 229 heading east, and sent a sighting report. Donitz immediately ordered Raubgraf to pursue and intercept, while Sturmer and Dranger were ordered west to form a line ahead of the convoy. He saw in this an opportunity to attack an east-bound convoy, full of war materials bound for Europe, with the full width of the Air Gap to cross. Raubgraf caught up with HX 229 on the evening of the 16th and mounted an attack that night. Three ships were sunk that night and another five on the morning of the 17th, a total of 8 in just 8 hours. The escort was reported to be weak, as 2 ships had dropped out to pick up survivors The escorts chased 3 contacts during the night but with no result. During the rest of the day, boats from Sturmer began to arrive; one of these was attacked by a destroyer, but again without success.

Meanwhile, at the north-eastern end of Sturmer's rake, U-338 had sighted SC 122 heading east, about 120 miles from HX 229s position. After sending a sighting report she attacked, sinking 4 ships in quick succession; a fifth ,Fort Cedar Lake, was damaged, to be sunk later in the day. Two more ships from HX 229 were lost during the day; two boats from Sturmer were able to penetrate the defences about midday on the 17th, But the escorts were able to fend off any further attacks, assisted by brief visits from VLR aircraft flying at extreme range. SC 122 was also able to resist further attacks until evening.

During the night of 17th/18th the attack on both convoys, now just 70 miles apart, continued. U-338 sank the freighter Granville, of SC122 in the evening, surviving a fierce counter-attack by escorts, and after midnight U-305 sank 2 more ships (Port Auckland and Zouave); however, HX229 escaped further losses that night.

HX 229s escort suffered a blow as HMS Mansfield was forced to detach during the night of 17th/18th; however help was on its way in the form of destroyer HMS Highlander, under Cdr ECL Day RN. Arriving on the 18th, Day, as a senior and more experienced officer, would take command of B4 group for the rest of the engagement. Also en route from Hvalfjord, in Iceland, were HMS Vimy and USS Babitt, for HX 229, and USCG Ingham for SC 122. These were dispatched on the morning of the 18th, and arrived the following day.

On the afternoon of the 18th U-221 succeeded in sinking 2 ships of HX 229, but further losses were avoided. HMS Highlander joined that afternoon, a welcome addition as B4 was by this time reduced to 5 ships.

During the night of 18th/19th the two convoys were running in tandem, though sailing independently. All attacks on both convoys were repelled this night, and 6 firm contacts were attacked, but little damage was inflicted. One ship from HX 229 was lost, a romper which broke away to proceed independently; this ship Matthew Luckenbach ran into the melee around SC 122 and was torpedoed, to be sunk later on the 19th. A straggler from SC 122, Clarissa Radcliffe was also lost; she disappeared without trace.

On 19th the escorts were reinforced by the arrival of Vimy and Babitt, for HX 229, and Ingham for SC 122. HX 229 was also joined by HMS Abelia, detached from another convoy. Also on the 19th U-384 was attacked by air patrol to the north of SC 122 and sunk There were no further losses on the 19th; faced with stiffening resistance,and sensing nothing further r would be achieved without disproportionate losses, Donitz called off the assault.

The convoys continued east; further changes to the escort occurred on the 20th as reinforcement arrived in the form of HMS Sherbrooke, while Upshur and Ingham were detached.

The local escort groups met on the 23rd,and HX 229, with 27 ships surviving, arrived at Liverpool on 23rd March; SC 122 ,with 42 ships, arrived later the same day.

Summary

The double battle had involved 90 ships, and 16 escort ships (though not all were present at the same time) 22 merchant ships were sunk, 13 from HX229 and 9 from SC122; a total of 146,000 tons. Over 300 merchant seaman lost their lives.

38 U-boats had been involved (though again, not all had been in contact throughout); one had been lost with its entire crew.

This was the largest convoy battle of the Atlantic campaign, and was, for the allies, the crisis point of the whole campaign. A Royal Navy report later concluded “ The Germans never came so near to disrupting communications between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March 1943”; and "It appeared possible that we should not be able to regard convoy as an effective system of defence.

Tables

Allied ships lost

HX 229

Date Name Nationality Casualties Tonnage Sunk by…
16 March 1943 Elin K. Brit nil 5214 GRT U-603
16/17 Zaanland Du nil 6513 GRT U-758
16/17 Southern Princess Brit 4 12156 GRT U-600
16/17 Harry Luckenbach US 80 6366 GRT U-91
16/17 Coracero British 5 7252 GRT U-384
16/17 Terkoeli Du 36 5158. GRT U-631, ?U-384
17 James Oglethorpe US 44 7176 GRT U-758, U-91
17 William Eustis US nil 7196 GRT U-435, U-91
17 Nariva British nil 8714 GRT U-600, U-91
17 Irenee du Pont US 24 6125 GRT U-600, U-91
18 William Q Gresham US 27 7191 GRT U-221
18 Canadian Star British 29 8293 GRT U-221
19 Matthew Luckenbach ? ? 5848 GRT U-523, U-527

SC 122

Date Name Nationality Casualties Tonnage Sunk by…
16/17 Mar 1943 Kingsbury British 4 4898 GRT U-338
16/17 King Gruffydd British 22 5072 GRT U-338
16/17 Alderamin Du nil 7886 GRT U-338
17 Fort Cedar Lake British nil 7134 GRT U-338, U-665
17 Port Auckland British 8 8789 GRT U-305
18 Zouave British 13 4256 GRT U-305
18 Granville Pan 12 4071 GRT U-338
18/19 Carras Gk nil 5234 GRT U-333, U-666
19 Clarissa Radcliffe ? ? 5754 GRT U-663

U-boats lost

Date Number Type Captain Casualties Sunk by…
19 March 1943 U-384 VIIC v Rosenberg-Gruszcynski 49 Fort “B” 206 sqdn

Ships involved

The double battle had involved 90 ships, and 16 escort ships (though not all were present at the same time). 22 merchant ships were sunk, 13 from HX-229 and 9 from SC-122.

38 U-boats from three wolfpacks had been involved (though again, not all had been in contact throughout); one had been lost with its entire crew.

Notes

External links

Bibliography

  • Stephen Roskill : The War at Sea 1939-1945 Vol II (1956). ISBN (none)
  • Dan van der Vat : The Atlantic Campaign (1988). ISBN 0 340 37751 8
  • Arnold Hague : The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945 (2000). ISBN (Canada) 1 55125 033 0 .ISBN(UK) 1 86176 147 3
  • Axel Neistle : German U-Boat Losses during World War II (1998). ISBN 1 85367 352 8
  • Paul Kemp : U-Boats Destroyed (1997) ISBN 1 85409 515 3
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