Victory of the escorts

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Three men in naval uniform

Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

Teamwork is vitally important in human endeavours but teamwork is nothing without leadership – and I think this is especially so in wartime.

Arguably the most important theatre of the Second World War was the convoy system that brought vital supplies to besieged Britain standing alone against Hitler’s legions. There were many examples of great leadership on different levels as the Allies battled with the U-boat submarine menace. I believe leadership at sea can be one of the most testing because of isolation and lack of back-up.

The dominance of Germany’s U-boats was broken in the spring of 1943 with a decisive victory during the Battle of the Atlantic. In late April and early May, the escorts of convoy ONS 5 (UK to Halifax, Nova Scotia) scored conclusive success over the Wolf Packs.

For eight days and nights, the British B7 Escort Group led by Commander Peter Gretton on the destroyer HMS Duncan and assisted by two Brirish Support Groups, beat off attacks by 40 U-boats. They sank five and damaged many others for the loss of 12 merchant ships. Two other U-boats were sunk by the Royal Canadian Air Force and RAF aircraft. Even for the largest U-boat packs the cost of attacking convoys had become too high. This defeat marked the end of the U-boats’ ascendancy in the Atlantic.

Displays in the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery include this photo of three heroes of the ONS 5 battles. Commander Gretton is seen between Lt Cdr Raymond Hart (HMS Vidette) (left) and Lt Commander James Plomer, Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (HMS Sunflower). Commander Gretton had a distinguished naval career, later becoming a vice-admiral. Among his many honours was a knighthood in 1963.

A map shows the positions of U-boats in May 1943. A 1944 poster features a painting of a convoy seen from an escort ship.

In 1943 most of the American and Canadian troops and supplies needed for the Allied invasion of Europe were sent across the Atlantic. Victory in the Atlantic was essential if the Allies were to win the war in Europe.

While most of the naval escort work during the Battle of the Atlantic was done by the Royal Navy, the ships of many other navies were also involved.

A photo shows the Free French corvette Aconit on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. In March 1943 she and the British destroyer HMS Harvester sank the U 444.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).