Submerged submarines have sunk many of their kind on the surface; but, in aU history, there has only been a single instance of one submarine sinking another when both boats were dived – and that was towards the end of World War .
The victim was U-864 and the attacker, HMS VENTURER. Neither boat had sophisticated sensors by today’s standards, except for excellent periscopes. VENTURER’S instruments were, as usual, made by Barr and Stroud with brass tubes which vibrated abominably at speed. But, to avoid a tell-tale feather, no British commanding officer worth his salt would use the stick at more than three or four knots unless the sea was rough – and then only sparingly. On 9 February 1945 at midday, when the attack took place, the wind was Force Two from the southwest, Sea State 3, visibility 7 with broken clouds. Thus, the captain of VENTURER, Lieutenant James (Jimmy) S. Launders, used his periscope with due caution; but not so Korvettenkapitan Rolf Reimar Wolfram of U -864, who evidently had scant regard for proper periscope drill.
Wolfram commissioned U-864, a Type IX D2 oversea cruiser displacing 1,084/1,616 tons, on 9 December 1943. His previous command was U-108, a smaller Type IX Atlantic boat. He had plenty of experience, but no luck. His claim to have sunk a Liberty ship loaded with munitions is not supported by the records.
year passed with continual problems before U-864 was pronounced ready for sea; twice the normal delay common to Schnorchel-fitted boats. She sailed from Kiel for Horten, near Oslo, on 5 December 1944 to test the schnorchel there, and two days after Christmas went on to Kristiansund before moving up to Farsund, always cautiously hugging the Norwegian coastline, for yet more On New Year’s Day 1945 the recalcitrant U-cruiser sailed for the operational base at Bergen. If she had been ready soon after commissioning, she would doubtless have joined her sisters in the Indian Ocean; but the Normandy landings denied the long-range deployment which her range of 13,000 n. miles at 10 knots allowed.
Wolfram, Class of ’30, was 32 years old when his new command finally sailed for its first war patrol on 6 February after a month in harbor, with the 11th Flotilla, endeavoring to make remaining defects good.
Unfortunately, the machinery was still not right. One has to wonder whether the crew’s heart was really in the game. Two hundred and fifty U-boats had been lost in the past twelve months for half that number of merchant ships destroyed. When only three days out, Wolfram decided that be must return to harbor. What exactly went wrong is not known but we can suppose that the schnorchel failed and at least one item of machinery was dangerously noisy. Unknown to Wolfram, HMS VENTURER’s patrol area lay athwart the big U-boat’s course back to Bergen.
Launders was seven years younger than the German captain but much more aggressive and professional despite a mere four years in submarines. He learned his trade as First Lieutenant of HMS P35 in 1942 under the renowned Lynch Maydon in the Mediterranean where he won his first Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Maydon recommended him for Perisher (com-mand course) which he joined in January 1943. Judging by the remarks of Teacher (the formidable, supremely expert, Teddy Woodward), it is clear that he found it hard going. Maydon, whom he had watched sink a number of ships, might have created the impression that attacking was easy; Jimmy found it anything but. Some of Woodward’s written comments in the Attack Teacher were scathing: “turned in too late and missed D A (Director Angle)”, “poor estimation”, “missed last zig (of target)”, “bad ranging”, “said wrong bow for first estimation”, “badly lost at end”. Nevertheless, errors cancelled out more often than not, and fourteen out of twenty-four dummy attacks scored. Woodward appended ‘very lucky hit’ for a couple. In real life Launders would have been rammed twice by targets – the deadliest of sins for a Perisher. But Jimmy Launders’ luck held. Woodward believed, in the end, that he would make a good CO and passed him after observing his performance in the Perisher boat at sea.
Woodward’s faith was justified. Appointed to command the small but handy 545n40 ton, first-of-class VENTURER in May 1943, just after launch at Vickers, Launders took her to Holy Loch where she joined the Third Submarine Flotilla, supported by the depot ship HMS FORTH, in August In July 1944 he received a bar to his DSC for sinking two German supply ships off Norway. He was awarded his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for dispatching U-771, a Type Vll C making a surface transit off northern Norway, on 11 November 1944. He was also engaged on Special Operations: a euphemistic term for landing agents on an enemy-controlled coast. A bar would be added to the DSO for his next attack on a U-boat.
HMS VENTURER set off from Lerwick for her eleventh war patrol at 1500 on 2 February 1945, four days before U-864. She had only 190 miles to go from this most northerly port in the British Isles to her assigned patrol area off Bergen, a mere 15 hours at 12 knots. With a full 12 hours of darkness at that time of year and foul weather at the start, Launders felt it was safe to stay on the surface. Although radar detected an aircraft 22 miles away at about midnight (not bad for the crude little dipole Airguard set), VENTURER arrived without enemy interference. Launders dived at dawn in a position some 50 miles west of Fedje (then Fejeosen) Island marking the northern, and most frequently used, entrance to Bergen Fjord. During the day he ran slowly towards the Norwegian coast and thereafter patrolled the route leading to and from the fjord, recharging batteries by night on the surface, and diving by day. Apart from sundry aircraft (which were no threat), a few fishing vessels and some unexplained underwater Morse transmission, nothing disturbed the patrol pattern. In fact, the first five days were thoroughly boring.
However, at 0932 on Friday, 9 February, Type 129 ASDIC, a small rotating active/passive set located at the forward end of the keel and tuned to 19kHz, reported very faint Hydrophone Effect (HE) bearing 340 degrees. The Leading Seaman HSD (Higher Submarine Detector) operator had, of course, no analysis equipment but he thought it sounded like a diesel engine. This contact may well have been a fisherman; but at 1010 HE was again reported, now bearing 295, increasing in strength and drawing right. By 1035 the bearing was 320 but nothing was in sight. That was strange because, throughout the patrol so far, ASDIC had not detected anything over the horizon. Vessels heard were invariably in view through the periscope. Launders’ suspicions were aroused. Only six miles off Fedje he was right on track for any U-boat that might be snorkeling, or perhaps running trimmed right down, towards the fjord. VENTURER kept very quiet.
The periscope drill was standard for British boats. A quick look all-round in low power (x 1.5 magnification) on the search periscope for aircraft or any immediate dangers, taking only a few seconds, and then a very careful look in high power (x 6) all around the horizon taking the best part of five minutes. The periscope was then lowered for five minutes and the process repeated. (Some commanding officers preferred to dip the periscope more frequently; that is, after the all-round look and between searching each half of the horizon, but Launders differed.)
At 1050 Lieutenant Andy Chalmers, First Lieutenant and Officer of the Watch at the time, concentrated on the bearing indicated by ASDIC and sighted a thin mast It quickly disappeared but Launders altered course northwards to inter-cept
At 1115 Launders briefly sighted a definite periscope and prepared to attack. The crew was by now at diving stations (i.e., action stations) and the Attack Team was closed up. The target was north of the expected route but seemed to be heading for the fjord. Launders was puzzled. Although he and Percival Head, the ASDIC operator, reckoned the noise was like a diesel, there was certainly no Schnorchel with its accom-panying exhaust gefufJle, to be seen. He concluded that the submarine was running some exceptionally loud machinery, perhaps an air compressor. Launders looked at the chart and surmised that the north-north-westerly tidal stream, which he himself was contending against, had set the U-boat northwards and that its course would have to lie between 120 and 170 degrees if it was indeed intending to make harbor.
Some indication of range was given by the periscope sighting but not enough for a good fire-control solution: exact target speed, albeit undoubtedly slow, was unknown, and a zig-zag was suspected. Launders therefore decided not to fire hastily but to take station on the target for a while and catch up to fire when better estimations were available from the plot
At 1122 two periscopes were visible for quite a long time, one showing about eight feet above the surface and another three feet. This was unforgivably careless in Launders’ view. In a Type IX D2, like most U-boats, the so called sky (or navigation) periscope was in the control room while the attack instrument was in the kiosk in the conning tower above. Thus it was not impossible for the captain in the kiosk to have a look while not appreciating that the other instrument was raised as weD. However, there is another conceivable explanation which would excuse the German captain. Perhaps Launders did not see two periscopes but mistook the periscopic radio mast, emerging from a well at one side of the bridge, for one of them.
After all, Wolfram must have been anxious to communicate with shore at this juncture in order to establish his identity and avoid friendly aircraft scoring an own goal.
Either way, the two masts were well separated, telling Launders that he was broad on his target’s starboard bow. They also enabled him to align the inevitably inaccurate ASDIC bearing with the visual bearing; a very necessary check if it turned out that he had to fire by ASDIC. The tactic of keeping station at 3.5 knots was very different from today’s practice of changing own speed and course to determine differing bearing rates and thereby establish Target Motion Analysis (TMA) with the help of a computer. VENTURER boasted no computer, just a rudimentary analog Fruit Machine calculator. But Launders had a keen mathematical brain. He must have realized that, although he had no choice of tactics in this instance, the stationing method of calculating enemy range, course and speed was plainly untrustworthy. Nevertheless, it was obvious that the U-boat was making about 3 knots; it was losing bearing marginally while VENTURER was on a more or less parallel course at 3.5 knots; and that obviated gross errors.
Launders was convinced, after a while, that the target was zig-zagging; but the author agrees with a distinguished ex-Perisher Teacher (Vice Admiral Sir Ian Mcintosh) that U-864 was probably on a steady south-easterly course. The zigs plotted by Launders’ navigator were too fine and too frequent to give the U-boat adequate protection, yet they would have reduced still further the speed of advance in an area where it seems that Wolfram did not expect to be torpedoed.
Launders was sufficiently confident to fire a salvo of four Mark vm straight-running, non-homing torpedoes on an ASDIC bearing at 1212. The tubes had no angling gear and he employed the normal British hosepipe. This meant that the fish were fired at calculated intervals, along the same path, such that the enemy’s own movement in effect created a spread. It had been impossible to overtake the target (without risking noisy speed and counter-detection) so the salvo was fired from the target’s starboard quarter on an estimated Track Angle of 140 degrees and with a Deflection Angle of three degrees by ASDIC. The range on firing was reckoned to be 2000 yards but, judging by the time which elapsed before one torpedo hit (probably the first in the salvo), it was actually about 3000 yards.
The first torpedo was aimed at the stem (adding aim-off to the ASDIC bearing) and the remaining three fish were spread by firing interval in half-target lengths to one half-length astern. This unusual decision was made because, with the long firing interval of 17.5 seconds (necessitated by the hosepipe method), the enemy was very likely to hear the fish coming and tum away. The spread would cover that eventuality, and alternate torpedoes were set to run at thirty and thirty-six feet to explode on impact Few COs in the Royal Navy trusted magnetic-influence pistols.
Explosions were heard at 2 minutes 12.5 seconds, 5 minutes, 5 minutes 16 seconds, and 5 minutes 33 seconds after the first torpedo left its tube. One fish undeniably hit; the remainder detonated on the seabed. ASDIC reported prolonged reverber-ations on the target bearing followed by breaking-up noises. The HE had ceased. Two minutes after the first explosion, a smaller one followed, conjectured to be internal, and the ominous sound of rushing water could be heard. U-864’s stout bulkheads with equally strong circular doors were designed to help a boat survive a surface catastrophe. They could not withstand pressure at depth.
Launders took his boat, still dived, to inspect the scene through the periscope. There was an extensive and spreading oil film over the spot; and, amongst scattered wreckage (mostly wood from the U-boat’s spacious decking), a torpedo-size canister was floating. U-cruisers carried several pressure-tight containers externally for various stores. This one may well have been intended for the dismantled autogyro frequently provided for long-range submarines as a tethered reconnaissance device. No bodies were seen.
There is no doubt about it, another German submarine had gone to the bottom where 781 U-boats would lie by the war’s end. HMS VENTURER’s kill was unique; a one-off with torpedoes that were certainly not smart. But the fact that no other submerged submarine versus submarine engagements have been successful in war seems worth noting. As Jimmy Launders might have said (he died a few years ago), the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Nobody has sampled a real dessert in the past 45 years.
[Ed.note: CDR Compton-Hall has published several notable submarine books. Among them are:
The Underwater War 1939-1945: Blandford, Poole, 1982
Submarine Warfare: Monsters &: Midgets: Blandford, Poole, 1985
Submarine versus Submarine: Orion Books, New York 1988]