Warship Wednesday, March 1, 2023: Six in One Trip!
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, March 1, 2023: Six in One Trip!
Above we see the modified Black Swan-class sloop HMS Kite (U87), of “Johnnie” Walker’s famed 2nd Support Group, dwarfed by a column of water that rises six times her height during an early 1944 depth charge attack on a suspected German U-boat in the North Atlantic, possibly while sending Oblt. Horst Hepp’s U-238 to the bottom southwest of Ireland on 9 February.
About the Swans
Originally classed as well-armed multi-purpose minesweepers but redesignated almost immediately after WWII started as convoy escorts, the Swans were an improvement of the preceding Bittern-class sloop. Hardy 1,250-ton ships of 299 feet overall and, armed with half-dozen high angle 4-inch guns and some light quad Vickers .50 cal AAA pieces, they carried more than enough depth charges (as many as 110 in late-war refits) to scratch the paint on German U-boats and Japanese I-boats. They weren’t very fast (19 knots) but had long legs (7,000nm@12kts) and proved well-suited to the work.
The Brits only produced 37 of these useful warships, a number that was far outpaced by the 294-strong Flower (Gladiolus)-class corvette, an even smaller (925-ton, 205-foot) and slower (16ish knots) ASW vessel on a hull derived from a commercial whaler that was equipped with a single 4-incher but could nearly the same quantity of depth charges.
But don’t let the fact that for every 5 Flowers built, there was just a single Swan fool you, as the Swans more than proved their worth, as we shall see.
Meet HMS Kite
Named after the small and agile bird of prey rather than the tethered flying vehicle, our vessel was the seventh– and so far last– HMS Kite in the Royal Navy, with the previous six vessels typically being small cutters, sloops, and gunboats stretching back as far as 1764.
Laid down at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead as Job No 3467 (Yard No 1102), on 25 September 1941, a fortnight after Allied convoy SC 42 had 16 ships sent to the bottom by a German Wolfpack, our Kite was commissioned 17 months, 5 days later on 1 March 1943– some 80 years ago today.
Ironically, HMS Kite’s career would last just 17 months, and 21 days, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
After the completion of her abbreviated workups, the brand-new sloop joined the newly formed 2nd Support Group at Liverpool, the home of the Western Approaches Command, in early April and was supporting Atlantic convoys by mid-month. As a bit of background on 2SG– under the command of Captain Frederic John Walker, DSO with Bar, a hard-charging career officer who served on destroyers in the Great War and had already led the 36th Group in dispatching no less than five U-boats in 1942– the ASW force initially consisted of Kite and five sisterships: HMS Starling, HMS Wren, HMS Woodpecker, HMS Cygnet, and HMS Wild Goose.
With the addition of the group to the Western Approaches and the addition of more tin cans and escort carriers from the U.S. Navy to ride close escort on convoys themselves, 2SG was given the role of a fire brigade, standing just over the horizon for convoys then rushing in with a “Tally Ho” spirit to bust up a spotted wolfpack.
Walker and 2SG perfected several tactics to counter interloping U-boats including the “Creeping Attack,” a sort of rolling barrage method, similar to that used by artillery supporting an infantry attack only substituting a line of sloops and depth charges, and being able to orchestrate an alternating chase handed off between several escorts that would tire out a German boat or force it to the surface while keeping the ‘hounds comparatively rested. For example, in one eight-hour Creeping Attack, at least 266 depth charges were used by Starling, Wild Goose, and Kite to chase down U-238. Such huge expenditures of ASW weapons required depth charge stocks to be replenished from specially-outfitted merchant ships while underway.
Walker was always “maximum effort” when it came to pursuing the attack, and Starling, with him on the bridge, even famously rammed one German, U-119, upon resurfacing after one such pursuit.
True to form, Walker played “A Hunting We Will Go” over Starling’s Tannoy (1MC) when returning to Liverpool, a move that would become a tradition for 2SG, and indeed to other hunter-killer teams.
In late June 1943, 2SG was ordered, as part of Operation Musketry and Operation Seaslug, to, with top cover provided by the RAF and some comparatively big guns from the AAA cruiser HMS Scylla, shut down the Bay of Biscay to U-boat traffic– or at least make it hazardous for Doenitz’s boys to travel there. Over the next three months, the ASW group would prove exceptionally good at their job indeed.
Kite would be credited, with her sisters, for participating in the sinking of U-449 and U-504 near Spain’s Cape Ortegal, as well as U-462-– a vitally important Type XIV milch cow, in the Bay of Biscay proper. Notably, the latter two subs were sunk in gun actions after being forced to break for the surface. Kite would also pluck some waterlogged survivors of U-545, sent to Poseidon by a RAAF Sunderland, from the drink.
Between 2SG, other ASW groups, and shore-based patrol aircraft, Musketry/Seaslug operation would account for no less than 20 U-boats in a nine-week campaign.
By September, Kite and 2SG were back on convoy duty and she would chalk up two more assisted kills, on U-226 east of Newfoundland in November, and U-238 south-west of Ireland the following February, bringing her count to five boats– an ace. U-238 would be sunk during a sweep that saw 2SG bag no less than a half-dozen U-boats on a single patrol between 26 January and 25 February.
This “Six in one trip” exploit by the group earned a star-studded reception when the flock of Swans returned to Liverpool, with thousands of locals including A. V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty, waiting to greet Walker and his sloops on their return. Old Johnnie would receive a second Bar for his DSO for that one.
In May 1944, during the build-up for the Overlord Landings on Normandy, 2SG was detailed to a search and destroy operation during D-Day in the South Western Approaches while Kite was carved away to join the 115th Escort Group for the landings themselves. Teamed up with the destroyers HMS Forester, and HMS Quorn, along with frigates HMS Tyler and HMS Seymour, Kite staged at Portsmouth with the invasion armada and worked off the British beachheads from June 6th through the 27th, and would remain in the Channel in further taskings through July.
Victual & Goodwood
In early August, Kite was assigned to take a small part in the sprawling Operation Victual– the passage of convoys JW 59 and RA 59A between Britain and Murmansk– and the simultaneous Operation Goodwood, with the latter being a series of five carrier air raids on the German battleship Tirpitz in Kaafjord.
Sailing as part of the 34-ship JW 59 from Loch Ewe on 15 August, five days later Kite came across Oblt. Ulrich Pietsch’s U-344, on the sub’s third patrol.
As detailed by Uboat.net:
At 20.45 hours on 20 Aug 1944, HMS Keppel (D 84) got a contact on her starboard quarter, while escorting convoy JW-59. Together with HMS Kite (U 87) and a Swordfish aircraft from HMS Vindex (D 15) the U-boat was attacked with hedgehogs and depth charges. They hunted the U-boat throughout the night with their foxers (Anti Gnat devices) streamed, but the hunt was fruitless.
At 06.04 hours on 21 August, HMS Kite (U 87) (LtCdr A.N.G. Campbell, RN) had slowed down to 6 knots to clear her foxers, which had become twisted around one another. At this vulnerable moment, U-344 fired a spread of three FAT torpedoes [German G7e with a Federapparat zig zag device] at the sloop, misidentified as Dido-class light cruiser by Pietsch. The ship was struck by two torpedoes on the starboard side and heeled over to that side immediately. The stern broke off, floated for a few seconds, then sank. The bow remained afloat for a minute and then sank at a steep angle.
At 07.30 hours, HMS Keppel (D 84) stopped to pick up survivors, while HMS Peacock (U 96) and HMS Mermaid (U 30) screened the rescue operation. Only 14 of the about 60 survivors in the water could be rescued from the ice-cold water, five of them died on board and were later buried at sea.
Kite was U-344‘s only claim during the war and she was sent to the bottom the next day off Bear Island, splashed by depth charges from an 825 Sqn FAA/X Swordfish from the escort carrier HMS Vindex, lost with all hands. Immediate retribution at the hands of the Royal Navy.
In all, Kite had participated in no less than 17 convoys in her brief career, one for every month, and she earned four battle honors: “Biscay 1943,” “Atlantic 1943-44,” “Normandy 1944,” and “Arctic 1944.”
A memorial to her 258 perished crew was eventually established in the Braintree and Bocking Public Gardens— the community that adopted the ship in March 1942.
Sadly, Johnnie Walker had preceded her, having passed of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage on 9 July 1944 at age 48, a death attributed to exhaustion. He was just worn out. Somewhat poetically, the men of 2SG could not pay their respects at his well-attended public funeral, as they were out on patrol, which is something he probably would have preferred anyway.
With 17 German boats to the credit of his ships, Walker is often considered the most successful ASW commander of the war, if not in all of naval history. It would have been interesting to see what his tally would have been had he lived to VE-Day.
Likewise, 2SG was credited with the confirmed destruction of 22 U-boats during the war, earning it a distinction as the most successful ASW unit of the entire conflict.
Besides Kite’s loss, her sisters HMS Ibis, HMS Woodpecker, and HMS Lapwing were likewise lost during the war, the first to Italian bombers off Algiers during the Torch Landings, and the latter to U-boats. Two further sisters, HMS Chanticleer and HMS Lark, were so badly damaged by German torpedoes that they were beyond economical repair. This balance sheet was traded for a minimum of 31 German U-boats accounted for by the class in exchange.
Post-war, most of these economical warships would continue to serve the Admiralty into the 1950s and a few even into the early 1960s, while others would be given away as military aid.
The last of these sloops in Commonwealth service, the Indian Navy’s Sutlej (U95), would remain on New Delhi’s naval list as a survey ship until 1983, and was likely the last ship in any fleet that had sunk Japanese I-boats. Only one of the 37 Black Swans, HMS Mermaid (U30)/FGS Scharnhorst, lasted longer than Sutlej, finally going to the scrappers in 1990 after a decade as a damage control training hulk with the West German Bundesmarine. A bit of irony there.
As for Kite, Walker, and the sloops of 2SG, their triumphant return in February 1944 from their “One in Six” patrol was depicted in 1958 by maritime artist Stephen Bone in “Arrival of Second Escort Group of Sloops at Liverpool,” now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.
In 1998, an oversized statue of Captain Frederic John Walker, CB, DSO & Three Bars, crafted by sculptor Tom Murphy, was installed at Liverpool’s Pier Head, looking out to sea with his binos and seemingly waiting for his sloops to come home.
Displacement: 1,250 tons
Length: 299 ft 6 in
Beam: 37 ft 6 in
Draught: 11 ft
Geared turbines, 2 shafts:
Speed: 19 knots
Range: 7,500 nmi at 12 kn
6 × QF 4″/45 (10.2 cm) QF Mark XVI AA guns (3 × 2)
4 × 2-pounder AA pom-pom
4 × 50 cal Vickers AAA machine guns
40 depth charges
Ships are more than steel
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
That some ships have a
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