July 26, U-17, Course 345 Speed Four knots, Periscope depth 0945 hours
Ten kilometers NNW of North Entrance to Horns Reef Minefields
KL Walther had just submerged the boat and abruptly changed his heading in case an Englisch submarine was lurking. The Horn’s Reef minefields had just been reinforced and a night transit was becoming difficult, so he transitted in morning daylight.
After a week’s repair and resting the crew, this was going to be a long mission for this old paraffin boat. Even running three-quarters of the way on the surface, it would take three days at full speed just to get on station. His boat was crammed with food to support the long mission.
Something was up. There were almost no U-boats at Kiel, Wilhelmshaven or Helgoland.
Walther did not know it, but the U-16 was about twenty hours behind him.
July 26, Flandernflotille Headquarters Bunker, 1230 hours
Korvettenkapitan Bartenbach finished the delicious peach cobbler (See Note 1) that Rikarda had made from the flour and canned peaches he had taken her.
It was going to be a busy afternoon. Three minelayer boats were due in and the Löwe wanted them back to sea by dark.
July 26, U-39 Course 030, Speed Five knots, Surfaced 1700 hours
150 kilometers NW of Derry
The crew of the U-39 was fighting one mechanical or electrical problem after another. The problems could be reduced to a single cause: the U-39 had simply been out too long (See Note 1). One engine could not be trusted and the other had a series of small breakdowns that – while easily fixed so far – led the chief to think something big was coming. So Forstmann had slowed down to five knots to reduce the strain on the surviving engine and other systems. This had indeed cut down the breakdowns but the U-39 was only covering 220 kilometers per day. It was going to be a long trip home.
Beginning at dawn today the U-39 was crossing the known shipping lane into the North Channel. While Forstmann would like to expend his torpedoes on some kisten, he simply couldn’t run fast enough, long enough to catch one unless they ran right up on him.
“Plume off the port quarter”
“Kommandant to the bridge.” Eins was on watch.
Forstmann relieved his second-in-command.
“What do we have?”
“Sir. plume off the port bow quarter. Big and getting bigger, but it doesn’t appear to be moving very fast.”
Forstmann watched the plume for at least fifteen minutes. It isn’t moving any faster than we are.
“Chief! Give me turns for seven knots.”
Forstmann needed to get ahead of this ship. Any time wasted now would not let him catch them.
Over the next hour or so, the U-39 began to put the plume more on her beam and even a little to the stern. At 1815 hours Forstmann reduced speed. The bearing did not seem to change, so he was indeed in front of them.
“Come left to 300”
“Sir. Plume is becoming multiple plumes.”
Indeed so. Over the next hour the plume resolved into at least twenty plumes. By 1900 there were plumes spread over thirty degrees either side of his bow.
“Reduce speed to 3 knots.”
“Sir. Hulls are starting to show and they are big.”
“At least 15,000 meters”
Fifteen minutes later even more hulls resolved themselves. Despite the hour, there was plenty of visibility (summer at high latitudes) and the sea was only moderate – enough to make a periscope hard to see but a U-boat might stand out.
“Sir. I think that liner off the starboard bow is showing some guns.”
“That’s enough. Lookouts below. Dive the boat.”
Forstmann had that feeling all submariners get in a surface contact – that if you could see them, they could see you. (See note 3). Forstmann was going to take no unnecessary chances.
After going below, as the boat settled to periscope depth, Forstmann double-checked his charts. Yes. The U-39 was squarely in the approach to the North Channel for a ship transitting from North America.
But this was no single ship, this was an escorted convoy. No cruiser rules apply here. In a way, Forstmann had been lucky. He had only used one of his torpedoes on this cruise. He could load his bow tubes and still had one reload. His stern tubes were already loaded, but had no reloads.
Now for a problem he had not considered since he was a kadet: What was it they said about how to set up a convoy?
July 26, HMS Orcoma Course 120, Speed Five knots, 1925 hours
89 nautical miles NW of Derry
Commodore Quentin Cavendish had done a binocular sweep of the horizon. If was a foible of all senior officers of all nations to think subconsciously that they might see something that sharper young eyes with a higher vantage point had somehow missed. Mostly he had eyed the convoy. Eighty-four ships and a lot of them were big ones (See Note 4). When the convoy had left Halifax, it had been as loose as a gaggle of schoolchildren, but over the course of the trip, the masters had gotten the knack of more or less holding station.
To Cavendish’s relief, he had not seen anything of the Hun battlecruisers. (See Note 5) The entire crossing so far had been as uneventful as a merchant master could possibly ask.
At Halifax, Cavendish had been told this convoy was of paramount importance to the war effort. Of his eighty-four ships, twenty nine carried ammunition, sixteen carried armaments, twelve carried needed chemicals and most of the rest carried food.
Cavendish’s convoy was important, but in a way it was bait. Admiral Burney hovered just to the north with two modern dreadnoughts and armored cruisers. They were to intercede if the battlecruisers showed themselves. Of course, Cavendish, his one armed merchant cruiser, four armed trawlers, eighty-two merchant ships had to survive being found.
Cavendish had been recalled out of retirement to command this flock. All his adult life he’d served the King at sea and on shore and this was the first time he’d put to sea when there was a legitimate enemy about.
“I’ll be in my cabin for a bit. Send for me at 2230 and we’ll set night cruising formation.”
At least a merchant cruiser had comfortable cabins.
July 26, HMS Larrimore, Course 160 Speed 15 knots, 1940 hours
15 Nautical Miles SSE of Portsmouth
Lieutenant Terrence Price was taking his “L”-class destroyer to Le Havre. He expected to get there by morning and to dock and ask the whereabouts of three British-flagged merchant ships. Once he collected them he was to escort them to Calais and thence back as far as Eastbourne. Then he would have to return to Portsmouth for fuel.
July 26, UB-13, Course 090, Speed Three knots (decreasing) 1950 hours
10 kilometers WNW of Zeebrugge
Uh-oh! That did it. The UB-13’s engine sputtered to a halt. It had been chugging intermittently for a couple of hours. She was simply out of fuel. Becker had been running her partially on batteries for a while to extend her range, but the length of the mission, and the fact she had to run fast to get across the Dover barrier unseen had done in her fuel.
Well, nothing to do but call for help.
“Funkenpuster to the control room”
1.The author does not know the German name for this dish, so used the American name.
2.Because of the incessant wandering about, looking for prey the U-39 had about reached the practical limit of endurance. She had plenty of fuel but the mechanical systems were getting tired, not to mention the crew.
3.As discussed in an earlier episode, this is a common but erroneous assumption.
4.”Big” merchant ships in 1915 meant bigger than 3,000 GRT
5.The BCs he refers to are the battlecruisers of EG.