An Extract from MS of White Ensign, Black Pit -
By Gary McGregor, LL.B.
222 - 4845 53rd Street
Delta, B.C. V4K 2Z3
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Full text at: http://www.angelfire.com/trek/rcn/prat01.html
On 24 February 1944, HMCS Waskesiu was 17 days out on her run from Londonderry, and only 19 days under her new captain. The night was dark, the seas running under a moderate swell.
Shortly after 0200, Waskesiu’s asdic operator reported a sub contact. LCdr. Fraser ordered a Hedgehog attack on the target. The projectiles having missed the submerged U-boat, there was no detonation. A flare was dropped off her stern as the frigate steamed ‘over the plot’. By now, asdic contact had been lost. Turning about, Waskesiu increased speed to 15 knots and dropped a depth charge to rattle the unseen U-boat.
U-257, under Kapitänleutnant Heinz Rahe, had been submerged since 2300, when her radar picked up the presence of Waskesiu. The first charge, albeit close, caused no damage. Rahe ordered his boat to descend.
A few minutes later, Waskesiu regained contact. At 0226, Fraser ordered a full pattern depth charge attack. It rocked the unseen quarry.
Patiently, methodically, Waskesiu prowled the area, ears in the asdic hut awaiting contact echoes, eyes on the bridge and decks trained on the sea, still eerily illuminated by the flare.
Bruce Menzies and Andy Kaija were on the asdic. “Blood and fear was running through your body at the same time,” wrote Menzies. Then you got down to working out the route. Orders were coming fast.”
Waskesiu’s Chief Engineer was Lt. Fred “Popeye” Rennie. The 48-year-old had bolted from his bunk at the first sound of Action Stations. Upon ascertaining that the engine room was in good order, Rennie made his way to the wardroom. As the deadly cat-and-mouse game proceeded over the following hours, Rennie settled into his own game of solitaire.
Hurrying to join the hunt was HMS Nene. Cdr. John O. Bush, RNR, SO, ordered Fraser to delay further attacks until Nene had contact.
At 0410, while cruising at 5 knots, Waskesiu regained contact. The sub was running deep. Shortly after, Nene had contact as well, but classified it as “non-sub”. Cdr. Bush, deciding to abandon the apparently fruitless chase, ordered Waskesiu to rejoin the convoy.
Fraser, reluctant to concede Waskesiu’s efforts wasted, requested permission for one more attack. It was granted. His intuition trusted his asdic team, which was convinced it had a good contact. Running at 10 knots, the frigate took her last shot: a ten-charge pattern.
To George Devonshire, “it must have been pure hell down there.” To U-257’s 3rd watch officer, Ltz.S. Waldemar Nickel, it very nearly was. “A lot of water entered through several leaks and the rudders were blocked.” The game was up. Rahe surfaced his crippled boat.
At 0550, the frigate’s surface radar made a contact. AB William Booth was on the No. 1 Oerlikon gun. “Someone hollered there was an object on the surface, off the port bow.”
“It surfaced at a good rate of speed about 1800 yards away,” reported Fraser. “We illuminated it with star shells and searchlights.”
To Nene, Fraser signalled: “HEARSE PARKED”.
“Then we opened up on it with everything we had. Our 4-inch guns made four hits on the conning tower.”
Inside U-257, the sounds of impacting rounds nearly drowned out the shouts of command. Nickel was in the control room “to arrange the order ‘all people out of the boat’. Even there I could smell the powder-smoke of detonations. Fortunately, there was no panic among the crew when they climbed out of the boat.”
“It was wonderful gunnery,” the soft-spoken Fraser observed. “Our No. 1 Oerlikon never wasted a cartridge.”
Stephenson downplayed his marksmanship: “I couldn’t miss at that range. She was a sitting duck, really.”
For AB Clifford Adams, “the action period seemed long, but otherwise routine. Then, when the sub surfaced and Stevenson was shooting at the Germans as they exited the tower, I knew it was for real.”
The blasts from the No. 1 gun also jolted Rennie from the routine. “Depth charges were being dropped, but they didn’t bother me. Then I heard the forward gun firing and I knew we were in for trouble. I made for the deck as fast as I could go.”
U-257 slowly crossed the frigate’s bow to her port side. Only 100 yards away, Fraser couldn’t alter course in time to ram her. But he could hammer her with the No. 2 Oerlikon: “It, too, banged right on the conning tower. The Germans couldn’t reach their guns to answer back.”
AB William Knox was on the No. 2 gun crew: “The Germans were coming out the conning tower, and we knocked about four right into the water.”
“During the action, the starboard searchlight failed,” remembered AB Walter Ritchie. “Gerry Leahy and Gord Taylor were repairing it when ricochet bullets from some ship passed over their heads. They ducked down behind the canvas dodger. When it was over, we all had a great laugh, thinking what protection they would get from a piece of canvas.”
AB Arthur Wall, a Gunlayer on No. 2 gun aft, remembers vividly the battle’s close: “The instant I pulled the trigger on the last shell we fired, the searchlight on the bridge illuminated the conning tower of U-257. A figure I assume was her CO became the cross in the crosswire of my gunsight. He was waving his arms and I’m sure was trying to signal their surrender.”
The gesture was foregone. Fifteen minutes after surfacing, still under withering fire, her crewmen tumbling into the sea, U-257 had had enough. Her bow sank down, her stern reared up to nearly vertical, and she slipped under the roiling black waters.
Survivors of the sub later stated that KL Rahe, deciding to go down with his boat, threw his lifejacket and one-man dinghy to men in the water.
The Waskesiu had become the first Canadian frigate to sink a U-boat. From HMS Nene came the signal: “A grand effort and all alone you did it. My warmest congratulations to all on board for your fine achievement.”
“Sunk the damn thing,” wrote Gordon Arnold. “We’re
as happy as hell and twice as excited."
From the black night came cries of “Hello, Kamerad! Hello, Kamerad!” Lifejacket whistles shrilled. Whalers from the Waskesiu and the Nene were lowered into the heaving swells.
Arthur Wall would reflect: “You had to feel sympathy for men in those
cold, stormy conditions.”
On “a pitch dark new-moon-night”, Nickel was in the water three-quarters of an hour before Nene picked him up. By 0852, Nene had rescued 15 U-boatmen. Only four Germans managed to make it to Waskesiu.
Devonshire later wrote: “Presumably, the survivors were the ones who stayed below until after we checked fire, and those who were lucky enough to leave the submarine just before she sank.”
The frigates pulled away to rejoin their convoy. “We did not stay long in the area,” remembered Devonshire. “Some were still alive as we pulled away. We could not see them in the dark, but I could hear them calling out as we got underway.”
“After helping them aboard,” Menzies recalled, “we put them in the shower and gave them dry clothing. Seeing them later that day, having a smoke and talking with their mates, they seemed to be like us.”
Fraser observed that the German survivors were “young men with fantastic beliefs” about the destruction their Luftwaffe had inflicted on Britain and her air force. One survivor, an ardent Nazi, kept repeating “England kaput!”
Over the next few days the crew sized up the four prisoners. A couple of the
ratings collected their signatures. The sailors showed them the guns and charges
that had destroyed their U-boat. The Germans were later permitted to join some
of the sailors in their mess deck, to listen to the radio.
They arrived in Londonderry on the 28th. “The army lads were there to take prisoners,” wrote AB Gordon Arnold. “They didn’t want to leave us. We said goodbye to them all. We had grown to like them and we believe they liked us. However, we haven’t forgotten the Tweed, or that it may have been us.”