Another slow moving convoy
Donald J. L. Coombes
the second week of December 1942 the destroyer, H.M.S. Firedrake
(1300 tons) left Londonderry to escort yet another slow moving
convoy of merchant ships across the north Atlantic Ocean. The
bad weather became steadily worse, building up to the worst storm
in that area for some thirty years.
the afternoon of the 16th the sea was a heaving boiling mass as
far as the eye could see. Watching the convoy from Firedrakeís bridge
someone remarked of one of the smaller ships "Iím glad Iím not on
her" as the sea tossed both escort and merchant ships through fantastic
The Firedrake was in no better straits, battling into a head sea
and taking the gigantic waves in threes, riding the top of the first
to plunge down to the base of the second, when the shipís buoyancy
struggled against the massive weight of the water covering the foícísle
to bring the bow half way up the third, whence it was carried to
to plunge down and begin the whole process again. Men moving from
one part of the ship to another would phone when leaving and again
on arrival, such was the risk of being swept over board.
the convoy was a pack of German U-boats bent on destroying as much
of the convoy as it could. Indeed a merchantship was lost every
night during the first four nights at sea. Apart from continuing
to battle with the elements and trying to keep clear of the seas
which were continually flooding the quarter deck knee high, the
first watch of the 16th (8pm till midnight) was passing uneventfully,
until at about 10pm there was a dull muffled thump.
A quick look forward showed debris flying about in all directions
from mid-ships on the starboard side, a torpedo having struck just
aft of the break of the foícísle below the forward funnel, virtually
the same spot that an Italian bomb had hit whilst in the Mediterranean
watched as the bridge structure leant over to starboard and fell
into the sea, the whole fore part subsequently sinking in about
twenty or thirty minutes, but not before a signalman had attempted
to flash a message to the after part sitting astride the highest
point on the sinking part of the ship.
We were powerless to help. Peering through binoculars into the darkness
I saw, as a dark shadow, what appeared to be the U-boats conning
tower, which gave rise to the hope that some of our chaps might
have been picked up by the enemy, In the event only one man from
the forepart survived.
the submarine U211 had surfaced for routine ventilation and battery
charging and was surprised that her presence was not detected
by our Asdic or radar. It is equally surprising that the sound
of our propellers had not been heard, the fury of the weather
obviously blotted out all other sounds.
order to lighten the ship our four torpedoes were fired and all
depth-charges were made safe and dropped, and to attract the attention
of the other escort vessels, we fired star shells. The first reaction
from the escort group was to train the radar onto the position
of the star shells, and picking up Firedrakeís after part on their
screens, assumed that we were on station and in good order. After
more star shells had been fired HMS Sunflower came over to investigate
and sent up star shells of her own. The sound of those shells
whistling over head caused us to fear that we were to be finished
off by the U-boatís gun - not a happy moment!
"Sunflower" came as near alongside as she could get, it was decided
to take survivors off by bosonís chair, but with the corvette
at one point towering some sixty feet above us and the next sixty
feet below in that mighty sea no such action was possible. It
was decided therefor to wait for daybreak before transferring
to the rescue ship.
however began to settle lower in the water and was finally abandoned
at about midnight, survivors taking to the rafts to make their way
over to the Sunflower. Several men perished in the cold, some being
in the water for two hours, during which time Sunflower continually
sought out survivors with great skill and determination and courage,
one of her crew actually going over the side to help men inboard.
was one of the last to leave Firedrake and a group of us floated
across in a raft, most of whom were picked up quite quickly. I was
at the bottom of the scrambling net when a wave swept over us, followed
by a second and then a third, which washed me away. Perhaps one
of the more frightening moments came when the sea lifted the Sunflowers
bows clear of the water and we were drawn directly under the peak
which then began to descend on us. The lowering ship however displaced
the water and we were swept clear. The second time it was not so
twenty seven out of the crew of 194 were rescued, one of whom died
before day break and was buried at sea. Whilst at one point swimming
alone in the sea it occurred to me that I might shortly be face
to face with my Maker and in that moment I seemed to have an assurance
that I would survive. I well remember stepping bare foot onto Sunflowers
deck, the little ship being flung about by wind and sea, and feeling
as if I had stepped onto solid rock.
recently how I felt at the time losing so many people with whom
I had served I had to say that it hurts more now than it did then.
It all happened nearly sixty years ago now but there are moments
when it could have been only last night. Karl-Heinz Schmidt-Rosemann,
possibly the only survivor of U211, which was sunk by the RAF some
eighteen months later wrote recently about this event "I hope never
again". So do we all. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of
the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me".
Donald J.L. Coombes.
Survivor HMS Firedrake 17.12.42
on survivors leave in January 1943, Donald learnt that the convoy
had been shadowed by a wolf pack of 13 U-boats.
According to the book "Chronology of the War at Sea" 15-21 December
1942 North Atlantic The ĎRaufboldí group is formed West of Ireland
on 15th Dec from the U-boats coming from HX217 and new arrivals.
It consists of U623, U609, U610, U600, U211, U135, U439, U410,
U203, U664, U356, U409 and U621.
On 15th December U609 (Lt-Cdr Rudloff) sights the convoy ON153
(E.G. B7) with 43 ships.
U609 maintains contact until the evening of the 16th December
and brings up U610 (Lt-Cdr Freyberg-Eisenberg-Allmendigen), U356
(Lt Ruppelt) and U621 (Lt Kruschka) which each sink a ship , of
9551, 6125 and 5936 tons respectively, and also U664 (Lt Graef).
During the night U211 (Lt-Cdr Hause) torpedoes the leading destroyer
another report Firedrake, had picked up a U-boat contact and had
been tracking it since about 5pm thatís why Firedrake was 5 mile
south of the convoy.
The official report stated that since all the bridge had perished
no one knew why we were in this position or what were the Captains
association is very proud to announce that Donald Coombes has been
made a Fellow of the Academy of " St Cecilia " which is
devoted to the study and performance of music, in recognition of
his excellent contribution to choral and church music.