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The Convoy – HG-76: Taking the Fight to Hitler’s U-Boats

24 Oct 23


(Osprey – £25)

ISBN 978 1 4728 5768 2

320 pages

Capt Andrew Welch (Retd.)

Angus Konstam is a prolific author[1] described by Wikipedia as a ‘popular historian’.  Popular historian is a somewhat double-edged description as it could well mean his writing is not to be taken too seriously. Far from it. This book is full of insight and thoughtful comment and clearly, extensively researched – from German as well as British sources.

­His main theme is that Convoy HG-76 from Gibraltar to Liverpool marked the “turn in the tide of war”[2] and the proof that Commander Johnny Walker’s tactics would work. Walker started his career well – he won the King’s Medal at Dartmouth, but disliked the pomp and circumstance of the ‘big ship’ navy and he made this very clear, with regular requests to be appointed to smaller ships. Inevitably, these requests did him no favours in the promotion stakes, nor did the fact that he specialised in ASW. Gunnery and navigation were the tribes for high-flyers.

Walker was promoted to commander very late in the zone and soon found himself commanding HMS Falmouth, the ‘Admiral’s Yacht’ in Hong Kong, followed by a job as XO of a battleship, HMS Valiant. His reports were not good from either appointment. Fortunately for all concerned, he was then appointed to HMS Osprey, the ASW school’s newly created Experimental Department, where he was able to refine his ideas on convoy protection. His first wartime job was as the ASW adviser to Admiral Ramsey in Dover. This period included the Dunkirk evacuations. Still, he continued to request a transfer to sea & finally, with support from Admiral Ramsey & Captain Creasy,[3] the Director of the Admiralty ASW Division, Walker was appointed in command of HMS Stork & the newly formed 36th Support Group of eight other small escorts.

The author uses the first half of this book to set the scene, covering the organisation of Wolf Packs and convoys, Hitler’s order to Admiral Dȍnitz to send U-boats into the Med in support of Mussolini and the consequences thereof,[4] the rapid growth, in numbers and expertise, of the Allied escort forces and the evolution of the auxiliary carriers, in due course to become the escort carrier. HMS Audacious, with Sub-Lieutenant ‘Winkle’ Brown[5] onboard was the first auxiliary carrier and was to be a vital part of Walker’s escort group.

As Konstam starts to tell the detailed day-to-day story of HG-76, the thoroughness of his research in the German archives shines through – nearly every U-boat’s CO has a short biography, noting their experience & that of their crew. In addition, the decisions made by Dȍnitz personally from his HQ in Lorient are fully covered.  The convoy’s battle is well told and illustrated with clear maps.  If only all history books could do the same.  Unfortunately, HMS Audacious’s CO was senior to Walker, so Walker could suggest her stationing, but not order it.  She was not where Walker wanted her when she was sunk seven days into the battle.

Walker was well aware that he only had one chance to prove that his tactics worked.  His Operational Instructions, stating “The object …is to destroy U-boats, particularly those which menace our convoys” were not fully aligned with the Admiralty’s Atlantic Convoy Instructions, which stated that the role of the escorts was to ensure the “safe and timely arrival of the convoy”. Walker sent his escorts up to 30 miles away in pursuit of his aim; escorts that could mostly only do 15 or 16 knots,[6] so catching up with the convoy could take several hours. The end result was a triumph for Walker & his tactics – the loss of two merchant ships out of 32 for the loss of a destroyer and an escort carrier. Five U-boats were sunk. The tide had certainly turned.

This book is very well written – the text flows easily – and thoroughly researched.   The maps are excellent, as is the index. As the RN ‘rediscovers’ ASW, there are several good historical lessons here. The weapons and sensors may have improved out of all recognition in the last 70 years, but the environment and the need for close teamwork are still the same. Strongly recommended.

[1] Over 120 titles in print.

[2] Interestingly, VAdm Sir Peter Gretton’s book Crisis Convoy (published 1974) makes an identical claim for New York to Liverpool Convoy HX-231 18 months later in 1943. I would certainly side with Angus Konstam’s view.

[3] After whom Creasey Block in SMOPS, HMS Dryad was named.

[4] 62 U-boats were sent into the Med during the war. Not one made it back out to the Atlantic.

[5] His time in HMS Audacious was, surprisingly considering his reputation, the only operational tour that Winkle Brown had.

[6] He had one ex-USN four stacker capable of 35 knots.