That time the U.S. Navy sent a wolfpack to hunt a wolfpack
Here we see the painting “SubRon50: The Jerry Hunters” by Dwight Clark Shepler.
Painted in 1943, it shows three of seven “boats” of the U.S. Submarine Squadron 50 alongside the elderly USS Beaver (AS-5), their tender at their Rosneath, Scotland, base.
From the NHHC concerning the above:
“From November 1942 to July 1943 SubRon 50 prowled the approaches to Europe and scored several successes against both Axis shipping and submarines. Their skippers were veterans of Pacific actions and, as the Atlantic is not as fruitful a hunting ground as the Pacific, the boats were returned to combat against the Japanese. These were the only US submarines to operate in European waters during World War II.”
The force comprised seven brand new Gato-class fleet subs: USS Barb (SS-220), USS Blackfish (SS-221), USS Herring (SS-233), USS Shad (SS-235), USS Gunnel (SS-253), USS Gurnard (SS-254) and USS Haddo (SS-255) along with their tender as a self-contained operation with no replacement crew or supplemental personnel. Though it should be noted the last of the pack, Haddo, only arrived in Scotland 30 April 1943, fresh from shakedown, and served with the squadron for just 10 weeks before it was disestablished.
Dispatched on the eve of Operation Torch– the landings in North Africa against the Vichy French, five of the subs helped recon landing beaches and approaches to the coast, providing vital service.
During the campaign, Blackfish attacked a French convoy of three cargo ships escorted by one escort, scaring but not doing significant damage to the sloop Commandant Bory. Meanwhile, Herring sank the Vichy-French merchant Ville du Havre (5083 GRT) east of Casablanca, Morocco on 8 November, a victory that would prove the largest prize for the squadron.
Once the Casablanca affair was done, the subs retired to Scotland from whence they were tasked with war patrols in the Bay of Biscay, then ordered to interdict blockade runners out of neutral Spanish ports, and finally patrolling off Norway, Iceland, and the mid-Atlantic, searching for Donitz’s U-boats.
Besides the initial success during Torch, overall, victories were few:
-Barb conducted five war patrols and “sighted hundreds of contacts, but none were legitimate prey.”
-On 19 February 1943, Blackfish attacked a section of a German vorpostenboote (auxiliary patrol craft) north of Bilbao, Spain, where she torpedoed and sank V 408 / Haltenbank (432 GRT).
-DANFS relates that “On her third patrol Herring attacked and sank a marauding’ Nazi submarine, U-163 21 March 1943,” though other records state the German was sunk by depth charges from HMCS Prescott northwest of Cape Finisterre, Spain.
-Shad sank the German auxiliary minesweeper M 4242 (212 GRT, former French trawler Odett II) and a barge with gunfire in the Bay of Biscay about 55 nautical miles west-north-west of Biarritz, France; damaged the German blockade merchant (ore transport) Nordfels (1214 GRT) in the Bay of Biscay; and torpedoed and damaged the Italian blockade runner Pietro Orseolo (6338 GRT).
Finally, on 15 July 1943, the squadron was dispatched back to the U.S., after nine rather uneventful months.
As noted by Edward C. Whitman, RADM C.B. Barry, Royal Navy, said to SubRon50 on the occasion of their departure from the British Isles:
“. . . The targets that have come your way in European waters have been disappointingly few, but your submarines have invariably seized their opportunity and exploited themselves to the utmost. Their actual contribution has been very great and personal, far beyond the number of ships sunk or damaged.”
Shifting to the Pacific, the war heated up for our hardy Battle of the Atlantic vets.
-Barb on her 12th patrol in July 1945, landed a small team from her crew on the shore of Patience Bay on Karafuto. They placed charges under a railroad track and blew up a passing train. No other submarine can boast a train on its battle flag. She ended the war with 17 enemy vessels totaling 96,628 tons, including the Japanese aircraft carrier Un’yō on her tally sheet. For more information on Barb in SubRon50, please go here.
-Shad completed 11 patrols, scratched off a number of minor Japanese vessels, and lived to be stricken 1 April 1960.
-Blackfish sank two Japanese transports, rescued downed flyers, bombarded the Satsunan Islands, and spent her golden years as a reserve training sub in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida before being sold for scrap in 1959.
-Gunnel was credited with six Japanese ships sunk for 24,624 tons over the course of seven patrols and notably evacuated 11 downed naval aviators at Palawan in late 1944. She retired to New London to serve as a training ship.
-Gurnard accounted for at least 11 Japanese ships including the big 10,000-ton tanker Tatekawa Maru and the Japanese army cargo ships Aden Maru (5823 GRT), Amatsuzan Maru (6886 GRT) and Tajima Maru (6995 GRT). A reserve boat at Tacoma in the 1950s, she went to the breakers in 1961.
-Haddo, under command of Nimitz’s son, received six battle stars for World War II service in addition to a Navy Unit Commendation and sank a number of vessels including the Japanese destroyer Asakaze.
-Herring, sadly, was lost to enemy action 1 June 1944, two kilometers south of Point Tagan on Matsuwa Island in the Kuriles, though she accounted for the Japanese cargo ships Ishigaki and Hokuyo Maru, on the night of May 30-31. On eternal patrol with 84 souls aboard, her grave site was recently reported located by a Russian expedition.
Most of the above subs had their names recycled for Permit– and Sturgeon-class hunter killers in the Cold War.
As for Beaver, the circa 1910 passenger ship with more than two decades under her belt as a sub tender when WWII started, she shifted to SubRon45 at Dutch Harbor, Alaska then later served as a submarine training school at San Diego and was disposed of in 1950. Her skipper in SubRon50, CDR Marion Netherly Little, (USNA 1922), finished the war as Chief of Staff Amphibious Group Twelve and went on to retire as a rear-admiral.