Sunday 14 December 2014

Walker and The Gallant Starling

Capt. F J Walker CB DSO*** (IWM collection)

One battle of the Second World War that lasted from the first day of hostilities on September 3rd 1930, when the Donaldson liner s.s. Athenia was torpedoed and sunk by U-30, commanded by Fritz Julius Lemp, to almost the last day when U-881 and U-683 were sunk in American waters, was the Battle of The Atlantic.

Churchill described it as the only thing during the entire war that ever truly frightened him and whilst there may be an element of exaggeration in that statement, the prospect of Britain's supply lifeline being cut was a truly appalling one. Whilst the British public suffered the hardships brought about by the Blitz and rationing, the men of the Merchant Navy and their escorts of the Royal Navy along with their Canadian and American allies suffered hardships as well as the prospect of a lonely and freezing death in hostile waters.

At the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy, despite it's pre-eminent position as the World's largest and most powerful navy, suffered from a great shortage of vessels suitable for convoy escort work and the men who had chosen to specialize in anti-submarine warfare, as opposed to what was seen as the more glamorous and important gunnery branch, were derisively known as 'Pingers' from the sound made by the then top secret British invention of ASDIC, what we now know as Sonar but then acronymically named after the Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee.

The shortage of both ships and men took time to rectify; apart from the existing hard-pressed destroyers and escort sloops, the first escorts to appear were the Flower Class corvettes. Adapted from a commercial design of whale catcher, these little ships were not really suited to the rough waters of the North Atlantic but armed with a four inch gun and heavy depth-charge armament, these vessels formed the backbone of the escort force during the first half of the war and indeed many of them served throughout the conflict. Nicholas Monserrat, the author of 'The Cruel Sea', the classic novel of the Battle of The Atlantic, served in one of these ships and wrote that 'a corvette could roll on wet grass' such was their lack of sea-keeping qualities.

A more thoroughbred design of escort was the Black Swan class sloop, of which HMS Starling was a member. Turbine powered, with a heavy gun and depth charge armament, because of their more sophisticated layout, these ships took longer to construct. Some of these vessels had appeared just before the outbreak of war but being an evolving design, the majority of them did not begin to appear until 1943 when the Battle of the Atlantic was approaching it's height.

HMS Starling (IWM Collection)

HMS Starling was built at Fairfield's Shipyard on the Clyde and took about 18 months to build, being completed on April 1st 1943. Her first commanding office was to be the Royal Navy's leading U-Boat killer, Captain Frederic John Walker CB DSO***, who was already becoming a legendary figure at the time of his appointment. 

Walker had been one of the Navy's 'Pingers' and was in peacetime parlance, a 'passed over' Commander, meaning that he had not been selected for promotion to Captain and in normal circumstances, could have expected his naval career to end in a relatively dead end position and never achieving promotion beyond his present rank. Pre-war, he had been Second in Command on the battleship HMS Valiant, but had frequently clashed with her captain, who sent damning reports on Walker to the Admiralty. Walker loathed being on big ships but it looked as if he would never get the chance to prove himself as a leader of men on smaller vessels.

The War changed all of this and Walker was given another chance. He had already made his name commanding another sloop, the peacetime built HMS Stork and had won a notable victory escorting convoy HG76 in which two U-Boats had been sunk. Now after a rest from sea-going duties, Walker was back and in command of the Starling.

Walker's appointment ensure that Starling would be at the very centre of all the action involving the Second Support Group, of whom Walker was Senior Officer, for he was one of those officers who led from the front at all time. Indeed, it was this quality that would lead to Walker's premature death, from overwork, some fifteen months later. Due to Walker's insistence on being involved at all times, as well as the undoubtedly high level of training of her officers and crew, HMS Starling was to become the most successful anti-submarine vessel of any navy, with a staggering fifteen 'kills' to her credit, as well as the involvement of her group in a good many more.

There is not really the space in a blog of this nature to fully describe every action that resulted in the sinking of a U-Boat by HMS Starling but the following brief summary will give readers a good idea of what was involved.

Her first kill came on June 1st 1943 when U-202 was the victim; there were 30 survivors from her 48 man crew. Next to go was U-119 on June 24th, caught on the surface and sunk with a combination of gunfire, ramming and depth-charges at shallow settings. There were no survivors. Starling herself had been damaged in ramming the U-Boat; it was a practice soon to be discouraged by the Admiralty, because sinking submarines in this manner also usually put the escort out of action at a time when the Navy was still desperately short of ships. Ever keen to continue the fight, Walker transferred to HMS Wild Goose, signalling to Starling from his new, temporary command "GOODBYE MY GALLANT STARLING. GOD BE WITH YOU." Walker then promptly sank another U-Boat, this time U-449 being the victim, in an attack in which Walker described the submarine as "not knowing what had hit her." Again, there were no survivors.

Back aboard Starling following repairs, November 6th 1943, saw two more victims fall to the gallant sloop; U226 was detected and sunk on passage from Brest. This time, there were 51 men aboard the U-Boat and once again, there were no survivors. Later the same day, U-842 was sunk after a concerted, hour long, depth charge attack Starling and Wild Goose and yet again, as was often the case in these sinkings, the submarine was destroyed with all hands.

After a short lull in sinkings, Starling and the Second Support Group sailed from Liverpool at the end of January 1944 and were to sink an incredible six U-Boats in one trip.The first victim on this trip was U-592, another victim of a group attack with Magpie and Wild Goose in company. Conditions aboard the submarine, under perpetual depth charge attack do not bear thinking about and once again, the entire ship's company of the U-Boat was to meet an horrific death. Starling was not directly involved in the demise of the next victim, U-762, which was despatched by sister vessel HMS Woodpecker on February 8th but returned to form the following day, when U-734 met her end, sunk by the old team of Starling and Wild Goose, followed by U-238, sunk in conjunction with Kite and Magpie. The fact that nobody escaped the imploding submarines, sunk by depth charges at a depth of 300 plus feet, is a given. The next of the six-in-one-trip was U-424 sunk on February 11th by Woodpecker and Wild Goose, with no involvement this time from Starling. The final sinking of this extraordinary sequence came on February 19th, when U-264 was caught by Woodpecker and Starling. After a lengthy series of attacks, the submarine commander, Oberleutnant Hartwig Looks, could no longer stop the water pouring into his boat and managed to bring his crippled vessel to the surface, where he and his entire crew were able to abandon ship and be picked up by the victorious British. 

The party was somewhat dampened by the loss of HMS Woodpecker to torpedo attack the following day, although all of her crew were rescued. Despite this loss, the Second Support Group returned to a rapturous welcome at Liverpool and Walker's reputation as the Allies' leading U-Boat killer was secure. 

Back at sea, on March 15th, U-653 was sunk by the old team of Starling and Wild Goose, whilst on the 29th of the same month, U-961 was destroyed by Walker's ship alone. This U-Boat was described by Walker as 'a genuine mug' as she took no avoiding action and probably never knew what had hit her. With both of these sinkings, there were no survivors from the two submarines. The final sinking by Starling under Walker's command came on May 5th 1944 when U-473 was sunk by Starling, Wild Goose and Wren after a depth charge attack and a rare gun battle on the surface. Thirty of the U-Boat's crew survived to be picked up and taken prisoner.

Capt Walker's memorial at Liverpool Pier Head (Rept0n1x)

After a short period on patrol guarding the D-Day invasion fleet from submarine attack, Walker and the rest of the Second Support Group were in Liverpool. On July 7th 1944, after watching a film with his wife, Walker complained of giddiness and a violent headache. Walker hardly ever complained of any sort of illness, so to see him admitted to hospital was a shock. Two days later, on Sunday July 9th 1944, 'Johnnie' Walker had died, throwing his own ship and the entire group into a state of shock. They had come to see Walker as simply indestructible and now he was gone.

Walker's second in command, Commander Wemyss from the Wild Goose, whose own ship was in refit, took over the Starling on a temporary basis and in partnership with HMS Loch Killin, sank two more U-Boats on this patrol, U-333 on July 31st and U-736 on August 6th; the spirit of Captain Walker was still very much alive. A further victim followed on August 11th when U-385 was sunk by Starling in conjunction with a Sunderland flying boat of RAF Coastal Command.

HMS Starling remained in commission until the end of the war, when she was converted into a training ship and "Gallant Starling" finally paid off. She was scrapped in 1965.
re-commissioned into the peacetime navy, engaged in the navigational training of young officers, an activity that Walker would have thoroughly approved. On her final voyage in 1959, her very last courtesy visit was, most appropriately made to Liverpool, where she embarked Captain Walker's widow who took passage in her husband's old ship back to Portsmouth, where the

Today, Captain 'Johnnie' Walker is commemorated by a statue on the Liverpool Pier Head. Of the sloops, there are vague 'on and off' hopes that the former HMS Whimbrel, another member of the Second Support Group, sold post-war to the Egyptian Navy may be brought home and preserved in Liverpool but these plans have been continually dashed by political changes in Egypt and continued haggling over the price. It is to be hoped that something can be worked out with the Egyptians as Whimbrel preserved in the former home of the Second Support Group, would make a fitting memorial to all those who perished in the greatest and longest sea battle of them all.

Published Sources:

Sloops 1926-1946 - Arnold Hague, World Ship Society - 1993
Walker RN - Terence Robertson, Evans Brothers - 1956
The War at Sea - ed. John Winton, Hutchinson 1974