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Crisis Convoy: The Story of HX 231, A Turning Point in the Battle of the Atlantic

19 Mar 24

222 pages

David Collins

We are once again indebted to Sapere Books for reissuing another of Peter Gretton’s books of his Second World War time experience as the escort commander of convoys in the North Atlantic. Crisis Convoy was previously reviewed, reasonably favourably, in the NR, Volume LXII – 1974- Issue 3.

The story of HX.231 is well known. It was a Halifax to Liverpool convoy which left New York on 25 March 1943. On 31 March she was joined by Mid-Ocean Escort Force B-7 (of six ships) commanded by then Commander Peter Gretton. The convoy contained over 60 ships which were attacked by the wolf pack (Lowenherz = Lion Heart) comprising 11 U-Boats. By the time contact between the convoy and the attacking submarines was lost on 7 April, six merchant ships had been sunk (three that remained in the convoy and three that broke off and were sunk as stragglers), with two U-Boats also sunk. On balance one might conclude that the convoy got off lightly given the number of submarines engaged. It was a critical convoy carrying much needed supplies to resupply the UK. Shortly after the action, Adm Doenitz, mastermind of the U-Boat force called off offensive operations in the North Atlantic. By the end of 1942, the UK was down to three weeks of supplies but by April 1943, the tide turned and the Allies were defending convoys better and sinking more U-Boats. Why?

In the introduction to this book, Gretton sets out why he wanted to write it. After all, there were many convoys operating in the war and some with perhaps more gripping action than HX.231. For those interested in the blow-by-blow operations of a convoy under enemy attack, this book will satisfy you. As escort commander, Gretton had a personal interest in setting out what transpired and why. And he waited until full British and German records were available.  He is frank about what went well, about areas that may have been improved, and he is not shy about admitting mistakes that he made.  There were good lessons learned.

Gretton wanted to flag the contribution of merchant seaman throughout the war and not just in HX.231. The men in merchant ships suffered great hardship, huge discomfort, and high risk. Their contribution to the war effort was not fully recognised until relatively recently. The rate of loss at sea for British merchant seamen was at a rate of 17% to numbers borne compared to a 9.3% loss of sailors in the Royal Navy.

The author also wanted to flag the role of airpower in combatting the U-Boat menace at sea. The RAF’s Coastal Command provided yeoman service in providing air cover to convoys, and aircraft sank a lot of U-Boats in the process. Once Support Groups, as well, were inaugurated and deployed, some with aircraft carriers, an additional level of ability to fight submarines became available to augment the always too small escort groups.

Gretton also flags that three weeks after the arrival of HX.231 in Liverpool, Doenitz called off most of the U-Boat activity in the North Atlantic. There were a number of reasons for this, not least because he realised that Germany was losing/had lost the Battle of the Atlantic. He was not helped by a capricious Chancellor who insisted on siphoning off U-Boats to patrol other areas such as the Mediterranean, and West Africa. So, the critical mass was weakened. Also, one of the reasons that the sunk rate of HX.231 was relatively low was the result of inexperienced captains. This, combined with training defects, and wonky torpedoes helped to persuade Doenitz that he had lost the battle. Of course, from a wobbly start on the part of the Allies during the first two years of the war, Allied escort groups trained to become efficient fighters and managers of convoys. As a Canadian, I was pleased that Gretton gave full credit to the Royal Canadian Navy for its role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Success had been a long time in coming. All in all, the Allies did win the Battle of the Atlantic, albeit at enormous cost.

So, what is the interest in rereading this book 40 years after it was first published? Certainly, as an action piece for those interested in hard operations at sea, it is still rewarding. Gretton writes easily and can be understood by both professionals and laypeople. He tells a good tale. Whether the events of HX.231 provided the principal contributing factor for the Allies to declare victory in the Battle of the Atlantic in mid1943, I leave to others. But certainly, as part of the canon of work about the war at sea, 1939-45, Crisis Convoy continues to hold its place.