Published in 1996
The Pentland Press, Ltd.
1 Hutton Close
South Church, Bishop Aukland, Durham
The Fuhrer Led is an account of a British Royal Navyman’s charming memories of the Second World War. It is not a run-ofthe-mill submarine book. But amongst his many adventures on surface ships as well as submarines, including the U boat GRAPH, there are sprinkled the wartime activities of submarines of many different countries. These are doubly interesting because his observations compare them to the British and German submarines he served in. For example: when this tiny British submarine STOIC arrived in Freemantle, West Australia, “the U.S. submarines there were four times our size and half as fast again, contained cabins for officers’ showers, and they even held cinema shows in their fore-ends, at sea. Their most junior rating received a higher rate of pay than our most senior CO, a commander.”
His subtle humor delightfully pervades much of this book. When his Commodore advised the officers of the battleship BARHAM, in which he was an 18 year old junior midshipman (a “snottie”), to take regular exercise, Durham writes: “by which he did not refer to weight lifting, glass by glass.”
His poetic descriptions of the environment in which he was serving are gems. When he spent the winter of ’39-’40 in the cruiser NORFOLK operating close to the Arctic Circle, he reflects that: “My lasting memory of the first winter of the War was of greyness; grey paint, grey seas, grey skies, grey clouds, grey dawns and grey dusks-a monochromatic world with variations of shade and tone but never of colour.”
Durham also has piercing insights. When operating with the Battle Fleet he reflects: “Yet the days of these great, old battleships, vast armoured gunforts, pachyderms of the ocean, unmanoeverable, wet at sea and capable of just over 20 knots when all 24 boilers were at full steam, were drawing to a close.”
This is a book of colorful adventures which show that the naval profession can be about the most exciting job a young man can enjoy. But let’s get on with Phil Durham’s doings and let the reader of this book review decide what position on his bookshelf he’ll assign this book to.
From the battleship BARHAM he was transferred to HMA/S trawler BERYL as her second: “Coal burning and slow. it was commanded by an Asdic bosun, a warrant officer specialized in what is now called Sonar.” Later, the trawler MOONSTONE captured intact an Italian submarine in the Red Sea and BERYLE sank a U-boat while patrolling the entrance to Grand Harbour in the Malta siege. “This was much better than life in an overcrowded battleship gunroom. It was clear that discipline did not depend on shining white uniforms and salutes.”
Shortly he went to the 10,000 ton cruiser NORFOLK where while sleeping in a hammock slung in a passageway he “heard a loud explosion 200 yards on the port beam, followed by a second in our wake. No source of the explosions was evident. But later, Lord Haw Haw, the German propagandist, incorrectly reported that a U boat near Orkney had sunk a County Class cruiser. Premature firing of magnetic torpedo heads was a familiar problem to both Germany and Britain then and later.”
Durham also describes his surroundings at the edge of the icepack near Iceland: “Lit by a few minutes of the recently risen and already setting sun, two pink ethereal snowy Icelandic mountains floated, only to fade again as though they had never been.” And, (near Greenland) “the wind blew up from gale to hurricane, with jagged roaring foam-streaked white topped breakers, superimposed, and often combining with the swell, riding down and crashing about the ship.”
You can see why I like this man’s writing. It’s full of the drama that is found while serving on or under the sea.
In early 1940 he was in the destroyer ECHO in the middle of the battle for the Norwegian port of Narvik. Because of the continuous air raids “ships ceased anchoring in harbour, but instead kept slowly steaming up and down, often just drifting, but always ready to give a burst ahead on the engines if necessary (to avoid the bombs dropped from high altitudes). Most bridge watchkeepers suffered Narvik-neck from too much looking up and sky scanning. A Norwegian youth in idiomatic English said he’d seen a black painted submarine flying a Norwegian flag steaming south that morning. But there’d been no radio message about this friendly sub’s movements. The airwaves were too cluttered by fighting in Holland and the North Sea to justify transmitting the signal on the air.”
Before leaving ECHO she was ordered to search for survivors of the ARANDA STAR, torpedoed by Gunter Prien whose U-boat had earlier sunk ROY AL OAK in Scapa Flow. “On reaching her lifeboats we steamed into clarts of floating, black, viscous oil, with small pieces of cork, wooden barrels and spars and numerous life jackets, many of them supporting lifeless bodies.”
Then he reported to the 32,000 ton battle cruiser RENOWN, with “torpedo duties”. And from there he, as a sub lieutenant was ordered to shore schooling in HMS VERNON where he suffered through German bombings night after night. On one raid “two incendiary bombs of molten magnesium set the roofs of houses, a church and a cinema ablaze.” But Durham and a pal contained the blazes and had the movie theater crowd evacuated. Then, “we reached another burning house from which a tearful woman dashed out, who screamed: ‘Get Grarnma out. She’s in the shelter and won’t come out.'” But my pal dashed into the corrugated iron shelter “and emerged from the blazing house with a spluttering, screaming, kicking indignant old lady over his shoulder. The sight was unforgettable.”
From school he reported aboard the destroyer LAFOREY in mid ’41 as GuMery Control Officer. His ship, with much submarine ping time joined a huge force at Gibraltar going to the rescue of a beleaguered Malta. “We were part of the 18 destroyer escort round the battleships PRINCE OF WALES, NELSON, and RODNEY and the carriers ARK ROY AL and ARGUS, plus several cruisers and nine merchant ships.” Suffering the sole loss of a merchantman after countless bombing attacks, Durham’s destroyer entered Malta’s Grand Harbour where “The shores were lined by a waving cheering mob,” while, “There were deep gashes of bomb damage in the familiar skyline.” On the way back to Gibraltar “someone clambered down the ladder and shouted “ARK’s been torpedoed.” The carrier ARK ROY AL was sunk off the rock on 13 November 1941.
There were more epic stories of heavily escorted convoys punching their way to Malta, with the carrier EAGLE sunk by two sub-fired torpedoes on one operation. Additionally there were several ASW actions by LAFOREY acting as an escort. “Early in December, while with a convoy, the first Woolworth ( a dime store escort) carrier, HMS AUDACITY was sunk by a U-boat west of Gibraltar. But the escorting destroyers succeeded in sinking no less than five of the U-boats against which her aircraft were offering protection.
Later, half asleep, Durham heard “Alarm starboard, all guns load with SAP.” Then a searchlight pierced the gloom to reveal a U-boat rolling heavily, beam on to the swell. Men were climbing over the submarine’s conning tower onto the deck where they clung unhappily. HESPERUS, whose depth charges had blown U-93, a large Type IX U-boat to the surface, tried to board her. Alas, before reaching her prize, its bow sank and it slid below the waves, tipping a struggling mass of humanity into the water. With heaving lines and rescue nets LAFOREY and HESPERUS saved 16 men. Of the remaining 30 of her crew there was no more to be seen.”
Towards the end of LAFOREY’s commission, a monkey was brought aboard when LAFOREY helped to take Diego Suarez in Madagascar. Then, on a final convoy operation to Malta, Minnie the monkey who was given the usuai tot of rum to soothe her nerves during a bombing of the ship, “was discovered cowering in a dark comer, her teeth chattering and on the verge of hysteria. The shots of rum took their ultimate toll with Minnie suffering from alcohol addiction, eventual DTs and a drunken death.”
With the approval of Durham’s request for submarine duty, he was first granted leave “to await the metamorphosis from hunter to hunted” then, having missed a three month submarine officer’s training class, he was assigned to L-26, a First World War boat, until the next class convened. But those plans were shortly canceled along with his basic schooling and he was assigned to GRAPH, the captured German Type 7C, U-570. It was of the same size, 750 tons as the S class British boat in which he’d first served for a few months. However, the U-boat while making the same speed submerged (8 knots), could make 19 knots on the surface with her MAN supercharged diesels. Her 7 /8 inch hull gave her twice the diving depth (600 feet), she carried twice as much fuel oil with some outside the hull and had far greater range than the coastal S-boats. She had only 1/3 the water supplies and “her seamen and stokers slept in any comer of the deck they could find. ” GRAPH had six torpedo tubes (one was aft with a reload) and carried 14 torpedoes. Her main ballast tank vents were operated from the control room by 90 foot long shafts. Her 88 mm deck gun had watertight binocular sights and she housed two periscopes, a patrol scope in a well and an attack scope at which the skipper sat, high above the control room deck. With a quarter of the reserve buoyancy of British boats, GRAPH on the surface “bucketed about so violently that it was not possible to stand or move without holding on.” Thus. “when running in a pooping sea. the sea gurgled over and swirled us up till we (the bridge watch) were hanging face down, moored by our harness lifelines, high above the deck of the bridge. As we swung to and for. I looked up at the surface of the water. green and sparkling several feet above.” And, “Controlling depth in rough weather left little margin between the Scylla of breaking surface and the Charybdis of dipping the captain (on the periscope)… Scylla in Greek mythology was a nymph turned sea monster while Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon who when thrown into the sea spewed destructive whirlpools-both being grave threats to Odysseus.
GRAPH was planned to infiltrate a German wolfpack and torpedo a few German U-boats before the deception was recognized by Admiral Doenitz. But her one northern patrol proved to be her last since she was forced to go into refit because of the fragility of her aluminum MAN diesels (that were remarkable for being reversible). Durham was hence transferred in July ’43 to STOIC, a newly commissioned S class submarine.
While dry docking STOIC, preparatory to joining an operating flotilla of submarines, Durham tells of a British Navy yard experience somewhat similar to one I had in 1943 (with U.S. shipyard workers when with SEADRAGON). Durham’s experience, I feel, justifies his version. “Waiting on the jetty to position the large timber supports of the narrow-keeled circular-hulled boat, were about 80 dockyard maties. They were not an impressive sight, lolling against bollards, some playing cards, others reeling about drunk and only about a dozen showing any signs of helping to tow the floating supports into position. On the fore casing our crew watched in frustration and requested permission to help. But they were told that any move to assist and the whole squad (being paid double for overtime) would down tools and walk off on strike. With over twice as many available as were needed to do the job, it took twice as long as it should. So much for working hard for Victory in November 1943, as the posters urged. ”