The 7,197-ton U.S. merchant freighter SS William C. Gorgas was steaming in the lead of the 13th column of the convoy when disaster struck without warning just after midnight.
It was Thursday, 11 March 1943. Convoy HX-228 was halfway through its 3,000-nautical-mile transatlantic trek from New York to Liverpool. The formation of 60 Allied merchant ships was carrying over a half-million tons of vital war supplies to England, ranging from military supplies, petroleum, and explosives, to bulk grain, sugar, and refrigerated foodstuffs. Based out of Mobile, Alabama, the William C. Gorgas herself was laden with 8,000 tons of general cargo, including bulk metals, food, and 900 tons of TNT. Several aircraft, a 291-ton LCT landing craft, and two PT boats were lashed to the main deck.
Without warning, a G7e electric torpedo fired by the Type VIIC U-757 struck on the ship’s starboard side amidships, sending a fiery plume skyward as it ripped a 15-foot-wide hole in the hull. Three crewmen in the engine room perished instantly, but Master James C. Ellis was able to get the remaining 43 crewmen and 27 U.S. Navy gunners into lifeboats. The U-boat’s 25-year-old skipper, Oberleutnant zur See Friedrich Deetz, ordered U-757 to surface near the lifeboats and he briefly queried several survivors. Two hours after the initial strike, Deetz fired a coup de grâce that sent the merchantman and her 8,000 tons of cargo plunging to the Atlantic seabed.
U-757 nearly joined her target. In an ironic twist, the 900 tons of TNT on board the Liberty ship detonated a minute after she sank. The blast seriously injured several U-boat crewmen, knocked out the U-boat’s starboard diesel engine and batteries, and rendered her unable to dive. Deetz had to abort his patrol and return to base at St. Nazaire, France.
What none of the 70 survivors huddling in the three lifeboats could imagine was that their ordeal had only just begun. By sunset that day, only 12 of them would still be alive. The next 12 hours would prove to be a microcosm of the Battle of the Atlantic in its full fury—and the harbinger of a major crisis unfolding for the Allies.
For the 1,700-nautical-mile transit from Newfoundland to the British Isles, Convoy HX-228 was in good hands. British Escort Group B-3, led by the Havant-class destroyer HMS Harvester under Royal Navy Commander A. A. Tait, was a seasoned convoy defense force. The other warships in B-3 included the destroyer HMS Escapade, the Polish-crewed destroyers Burza and Garland, and five Flower-class corvettes, including three manned by the Free French Navy. Yet it would be no walkover; the German U-boat Force was also at the top of its deadly game.
The attack on HX-228 was not a solitary skirmish. Five days earlier on 6 March, slow convoy SC-121 had been targeted by two wolf packs totaling 28 U-boats, including many that subsequently joined in the hunt for HX-228. In that earlier fight, the Germans scored heavily. (By 1943, the Allies had structured the convoy system into “slow” eastbound SC and westbound ONS formations for ships unable to exceed 9 knots, and “fast” eastbound HX and westbound ON groups for those capable of steaming at above 10 knots.)
Upon receiving a warning from German naval intelligence indicating the presence of the two eastbound convoys steaming close together about 400 nautical miles southwest of Iceland, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the U-boat Force, scrambled 28 U-boats to the area, where they first found SC-121. The convoy’s 59 merchant ships were guarded by the under-strength American escort group A-3, led by the Coast Guard Treasury-class cutter USCGC Spencer (WPG-36). Also in the group were the World War I–era destroyer USS Greer (DD-145) and three corvettes. A lull in the winter storm conditions helped the Germans. During a three-day running battle, seven U-boats managed to evade the defenders and sink 12 merchantmen and a pair of landing craft for a total loss of 56,243 gross tons of shipping and 480 seamen killed. Then they went for HX-228.
Throughout the night that the William C. Gorgas went down, the Harvester and the other B-3 escorts were engaged in a desperate struggle against 13 U-boats assigned to the newly formed wolf pack Neuland for the strike on HX-228. Prior to the sinking of the Liberty ship, eight of the U-boats were able to slip past the escorts encircling the formation and launch torpedoes. However, only two of them found their targets. U-221 sank two ships totaling 11,977 gross tons and damaged a third, while U-590 damaged one vessel. HX-228’s relatively good luck was the result of a severe storm that made it extremely difficult for torpedo accuracy.
At sunrise on 11 March, Commander Tait in the Harvester came upon the debris field from the William C. Gorgas. But before he could launch his boats to rescue survivors, his lookouts spotted a U-boat on the surface several miles away. It was the Type VIIC U-444 from wolf pack Neuland, which crash-dived upon spotting the destroyer.
Armed with three 4.7-inch deck guns, eight .5-inch antiaircraft guns, eight torpedo tubes, and depth charges, the Harvester could easily take on any U-boat. Ordering his gunners to open fire, Tait ordered the Harvester to flank speed and dropped a spread of depth charges against U-444.
The blasts drove the U-boat back up to the surface, and Tait decided to use another weapon: his destroyer’s speed. He ordered flank speed and a course to ram her, intending to split the pressure hull open and sink her. The plan went tragically awry.
On impact, the Harvester’s 1,340-ton hull rode up over U-444’s hull, and one of her propeller shafts became entangled with the U-boat superstructure. Both crews abandoned their fight and worked frantically to disentangle themselves. After an hour, Tait finally got his ship free but found one propeller shaft destroyed and the other seriously damaged. He could barely make headway on the damaged shaft.
After picking up a German crewman who had fallen overboard from U-444 during the collision, the Harvester limped back to the Liberty ship lifeboats and rescued a diminished group of 51 U.S. merchant seamen. Tait next radioed for the French corvette FFL Aconit to detach from HX-228 and rendezvous as an escort, while ordering his helmsman to steer a course back to the convoy. But after several hours, the destroyer’s second propeller shaft failed, and the Harvester came to a full stop, helpless. Minutes later, the Type VIIC U-432 fired a pair of torpedoes that slammed into the destroyer, which exploded, broke in two, and sank. The blasts killed Tait, 143 Harvester crewmen, and 39 of the survivors from the William C. Gorgas.
When the Aconit arrived on scene, Commander Jean Levasseur found a similar tragic sight as Tait himself had seen just hours earlier: debris and dead bodies floating in a massive oil slick, with dozens of stunned survivors clinging to the wreckage. Before he could begin rescuing them, his lookouts spotted a surfaced U-boat motionless on the surface several miles distant. It was U-444, apparently unable to submerge or move. Like Tait, Levasseur went to flank speed and rammed U-444. This time, the U-boat split in half and sank immediately. The corvette crew fished three stunned Germans from the water and reversed course back to the Harvester survivors. Then came another stunning development.
The Aconit’s Asdic (sonar) operator suddenly got a firm underwater contact just below the surface at periscope depth. The corvette raced to the spot and dropped two salvos of ten depth charges apiece, which straddled the U-boat. As Levasseur and his crew would learn, after sinking the Harvester, U-432 skipper Kapitänleutnant Hermann Eckhardt decided to celebrate, cracking open a bottle of champagne for his fellow officers and sending the crew to lunch. Amid the merriment, the 25-year-old Aachen native apparently forgot there was still a war on. Instead of listening for sounds of an approaching enemy warship, U-432’s hydrophone operator was busy washing the champagne glasses when the Aconit’s depth charges detonated close aboard. The blasts extensively damaged the Type VIIC U-boat and drove her down to 1,000 feet, well below her design “crush depth.” In desperation, Eckhardt ordered an emergency blow of his ballast tanks, and U-432 rocketed to the surface—only to find the Aconit ready and waiting for her.
The instant U-432 broached the waves, Levasseur opened fire with the Aconit’s solitary 4-inch deck gun and four machine guns, killing a number of crewmen who had emerged onto the U-boat’s tiny bridge. The French captain slowly approached U-432 with the intent of deploying a boarding party to capture it, but a freak wave threw the 925-ton corvette into the U-boat. For the second time in less than an hour, the corvette sank a U-boat by ramming. The Aconit was able to rescue 20 of the 46-man crew, including the first officer (Eckhardt went down with the rest). They were joined on the corvette by 47 Harvester crewmen, 12 William C. Gorgas survivors, and the four survivors of U-444.
The fight against SC-121 and HX-228 had been a bloody one. Combined, the Allies lost 20 merchant ships totaling 82,069 gross tons and 236 souls, including the 143 Harvester crewmen.
In the end, the seven-hour skirmish 700 miles of the west coast of Ireland that claimed a U.S. liberty ship, a Royal Navy destroyer, two U-boats, and 249 lives, made scant headlines. While the Aconit’s feat won strong praise for its Free French crew, the incident would be quickly overshadowed by a decisive German U-boat victory in that same swath of the Atlantic.