Operation Pfeil (ii)

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This was a U-boat wolfpack operation in the Atlantic against the SC.118 convoy (2/9 February 1943).

The wolfpack comprised U-89, U-135, U-187, U-262, U-266, U-267, U-402, U-413, U-454, U-465, U-594, U-608 and U-609, and for the loss of Kapitänleutnant Ralph Münnich’s U-187 and Kapitänleutnant Klaus Rudloff’s U-609 sank 11 ships (54,326 tons) and damaged one 9,272-ton ship. Several of the U-boats were damaged and probably left the pack before its formal disbandment.

Involved in a major battle with a German wolfpack between 4 and 9 February, the SC.118 slow convoy totalled 61 ships from Sydney, Cape Breton island to Liverpool, and these left New York on 24 January 1943 to be met by Lieutenant Commander F. B. Proudfoot’s British Escort Group B2 (destroyers Beverley, Vanessa and Vimy, US Coast Guard cutter Bibb, corvettes Abelia, Campanula, Mignonette and Free French Lobélia, and rescue ship Toward).

On 2 February Kapitänleutnant Max-Martin Teichert’s U-456 sank three ships of the HX.224 convoy, and survivor of one of the sunken ships was picked up by Korvettenkapitän Hans Karpf’s U-632 and told his rescuers that a slower convoy was following HX.224.

A careless seaman of the SC.118 convoy accidentally fired a pyrotechnic 'snowflake' projector aboard the merchant vessel Annik in the pre-dawn darkness of 4 February, and this was seen by Münnich’s U-187, which was in the middle of the patrol line as planned, reported its sighting but was then sunk by Beverley and Vimy after Bibb and Toward had used their HF/DF direction-finding equipments to triangulate the location of the sighting report. The destroyers rescued 44 of the U-boat’s crew.

Apart from the boats of the ‘Pfeil’ (ii) wolfpack, U-438, U-613, U-624, U-704 and U-752 of the ‘Haudegen’ wolfpack and U-456 and U-614 of the operation against the HX.224 convoy were also ordered to the scene. Two ships were torpedoed by Kapitänleutnant Heinz Franke’s U-262 and Kapitänleutnant Gustav Poel’s U-413: these were the 2,864-ton Polish Zagloba and 5,376-ton US West Portal. U-267, U-402, U-608 (twice) and U-609 were also located on 4 February and during the following night, and were driven off by Vimy, Beverley, Bibb, Campanula, Lobélia and Mignonette.

On 5 February the convoy escort was reinforced by the US Coast Guard cutter Ingham and the US destroyers Babbitt and Schenck arriving from Iceland. The reinforced escort damaged Franke’s U-262 and Kapitänleutnant Otto Tinschert’s U-267. After the convoy had changed course, U-609 re-established contact with a detached group but was depth-charged by Lobélia, while U-262 sank Zagloba on the convoy’s unprotected side but soon after this was heavily depth-charged by Vimy and Beverley.

During the evening of 5 February U-609, which had come up once more as the contact-keeper, was forced to dive by Vimy and Beverley, and in the morning of 6 February U-465 radioed a contact report but was heavily bombed by a Consolidated Liberator long-range patrol bomber of the RAF’s No. 120 Squadron, which has been directed to the D/F beam; the other boats were driven off.

By the evening of 6 February U-609 had again brought up U-262, U-267, U-438 and U-456, but Vimy severely damaged the last. Attack attempts by U-135, U-438 and U-454 were frustrated by Abelia, Lobélia and Babbitt: only U-262 was able to fire, but its torpedoes failed and the boat was depth-charged and damaged by Lobélia. In the pre-dawn hours of 7 February, U-402 of the ‘ace’ Kapitänleutnant Siegfried Freiherr von Forstner managed to get inside the escorts and, in two attacks, torpedoed the 8,597-ton British Afrika, 9,272-ton Norwegian tanker Daghild, 6,500-ton Greek Kalliopi, 6,625-ton US tanker Robert E. Hopkins, 6,063-ton US Henry R. Mallory and 1,571-ton rescue ship Toward.

Henry R. Mallory was capable of 14 kt but had been straggling well astern of the convoy for several days and was not zigzagging as she tried to regain touch with the convoy. The ship would normally have been assigned to one of the faster HX convoys, but there had been no Iceland section of the preceding HX.224 convoy. No commands came from the bridge after the ship had been torpedoed, no flares were sent up, no radio distress message was sent out, and no orders were given to abandon ship: 272 men were lost of the ship’s 77-man crew, 34 US Navy gunners and 136 US soldiers, 172 US sailors and 72 US Marines she was transporting to Iceland. Some 27 merchant seamen were lost from the other ships, together with 8,500 tons of fuel oil, 13,000 tons of Diesel fuel, 7,000 tons of general cargo, and 10,500 tons of steel and lumber.

Kapitänleutnant Wolfgang Sträter’s U-614 sank the straggling 5,730-ton British Harmala with 8,500 tons of iron ore and 53 crewmen, while Lobélia sank Rudloff’s U-609. On 7 February most of the boats were forced to dive, and therefore lose distance on the convoy, by the defence. Only U-402 maintained contact, but was driven off at mid-day by Bibb before returning with U-456. Shortly after this both boats are forced to submerge by the arrival of Bibb and a Boeing Fortress long-range patrol bomber of the RAF’s No. 220 Squadron, which also sank U-624. Another attack effort by U-456 was frustrated by Beverley as a result of HF/DF discovery and location of the boat. Only U-402 had any further success, sinking the 4,265-ton Newton Ash, which was carrying 6,500 tons of grain, stores and mail, during the night 7/8 February. An attack by U-608 on a disabled ship and the destroyer Schenck failed.

In the morning, aircraft drove off the last boats, and U-135 was damaged by a Liberator of No. 120 Squadron. On 9 February, while seeking to attack Vimy, which had the damaged Lobélia in tow, U-614 was bombed and badly damaged by a Fortress of the RAF’s No. 206 Squadron. U-456 sank the 700-ton Irish Kyleclare on 23 February during the return journey at a location to the west of the Bay of Biscay.