Sunday, 4 December 2016

Two events to commemorate Captain Johnny Walker UK's leading wartime submariner

The memory of Captain Johnny Walker is cherished in these parts. He was a real war leader whose innovative approach to hunting down U-boats in the Battle of The Atlantic made a real difference to saving allied lives and providing a much safer passage for the all important arctic convoys.

The day began with a service in Bootle Town Hall. Capt Walker was based in Bootle's Gladstone dock and when he laid up the flags from his boats including HMS Wildgoose, Starling and Stork along with other items he chose to do so in Bootle Town Hall. Generations of local school children have learned about his exploits. His grandson Patrick was among the naval personnel past and present who attended the service which was led by the naval chaplain Fether David Gamble.
Father Gamble, IBB, Patrick Walker an the RM Officer commanding HMS Eaglet

Most prized of all the memorabilia is the General Chase Flag. We tell those undertaking the tour of the Town Hall that it has only been flown three times in history, once by Sir Francis Drake, when he chased the Spanish Armada from the Channel in 1588, and again by Nelson when he defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. In our version of history, the third time ever that the flag was flown was On 30 July 1943,when Walker's  2nd Support Group encountered a group of three U-boats on the surface while in the Bay of Biscay. Captain Walker signalled "General Chase" to his group and fired at the U-boats, causing damage that prevented them from diving. Two of the U-boats were then sunk by the Support Group and the third by an Australian flying boat. “General Chase” is signalled to release ships from a line of battle, or other formation, in order to pursue a retreating or beaten foe.  I have subsequently discovered that is not strictly true because, at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, Sturdee hoisted General Chase at the beginning of the action. I have to say as the day went on and I attended the Captain Walker Dinner on HMS Eaglet I discovered that quite a few of the 'facts' we impart on these tours are not strictly true.

The commemoration of  Captain Walker moved on to a mess dinner in the evening. Instead of celebrating Trafalgar Day the University Royal Navy Unit (URNU) Liverpool holds a Johnny Walker Dinner. The senior student this year who presided over the meal was Chris Vroom. Between each courses, he called on one of his colleagues to tell the story of Captain Walker's exploits. In many ways it felt like a scene out of Beowulf. You could easily imagine sitting around the fire in the Mead Hall in Heorot listening to how Beowulf defeated the monster Grendel.

First up Chris Vroom set the scene

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Liverpool University Royal Naval Unit’s Captain Johnnie Walker Night Dinner. This evening we will share with you the story of the Battle of the Atlantics most successful anti-submarine warfare commander.

Convoy HG76 sailed from Gibraltar on December 14th 1941, 7 days after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Its 32 ships were arranged in the standard column formation, with the 36th Escort Group providing protection through HMS Stork, HMS Depthford and 7 flower class corvettes, with the then Commander F J Walker in command. Three destroyers and escort carrier HMS Audacity would join this force later. Against established routine, Walker arranged his ships in two screens, one close to the convoy and one much further out. This meant that for the first time, U boats would encounter the escorting warships before being able to close and attack the convoy. It was risky, but Walker was confident.

After the first course we moved on to the second installment of the story-which is where I discovered we were handing out 'duff' information to the visitors to Bootle Town Hall.This part was retold by Chris C

At 0900 hrs on the 17th December, an aircraft reported the U-131, 22 miles astern of HG76 and forced it to dive. The U-Boat was seen on the Stork's radar and Walker decided to test his so far unproven theory of offensive escorts. Taking HMS Stork and his 3 additional destroyers, he raced back along the convoy track towards U-131. Faulty hydrophones failed to inform the submarine of the approaching danger and the destroyers damaged the U-Boat with depth charges, but it remained submerged. 

Walker then formed a search line and began to hunt. About two hours later, the submarine surfaced and was immediately spotted. Walker ordered the attack. Sub Lt Fletcher in his Martlet aircraft dived on the U-Boat but was shot down and killed. His body was later recovered by Walker. After 20 minutes of shellfire U-131 abandoned ship. After collecting survivors, Walker had his first kill. That same afternoon a second submarine was sunk by the outer screen. Two U-Boats sunk and thus far, no losses.

Before part three I should pause to say that the food was excellent and the wine plentiful-but I was holding myself for the port.. Aoife Richardson told us of the night he sank four U-boats.

At 0400 hrs on December 19th; U-574 spotted and torpedoed HMS Stanley. Walker ordered his team to use a pre-arranged plan known as "Buttercup". As one they turned away from the convoy firing starshell, forcing the U-Boat to dive, hence allowing HMS Stork to pinpoint her on ASDIC and launch a combined ramming and depth charge attack, crippling the submarine.

That night HMS Audacity took up her night position away from the convoy and was torpedoed by U-751. Despite a desperate search the U-Boat was not found. However, HMS Deptford sighted a U-Boat on the surface and together with HMS Stork successfully attacked it with depth charges. A second submarine was also damaged.

By now the escorts were running low on ammunition and damage was mounting. HQ Western Approaches sent two destroyers and coordinated air cover to finally see the convoy home. In London the Admiralty was delighted; 4 U-Boats sunk and one badly damaged for the loss of 2 merchantmen, an escort carrier and a destroyer. 

Thanks to Walker's tactics, they now admitted a major rethink was needed in the Atlantic.

We now move to the more escoteric naval customs. A glass of port was poured and placed on the table next to the painting and bust of Johnny Walker. We then had the l

oyal toast-in these parts 'the Queen, the Duke of Lancaster.

No 1
Things then got very strange. Chris Vroom stood and declared: 'Can all those who have created vessels in honour of this evening please parade. Ladies and gents can you all please make note of the one you believe would be the biggest adversary to the U-Boats'
No 2
No 3

We were then asked the cheer for the vessel we favoured. It will come as no surprise to those who remember Boaty Macboatface that the small chaocolate swiss roll representing a torpedo (I presume) won.

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