Monday, 6 June 2011

Sunderland vs U-boat

On 10 March 1944, Short Sunderland MK. III, EK591/U of No. 422 Sqn (Canadian) took off from Castle Archdale in Northern Ireland to cover convoy SC 154. The convoy's destination was Liverpool: it consisted of 28 merchantmen plus nine LSTs (Landing Ship Tank), and had departed Halifax on 28 February.
The Sunderland was flown by WO W. F. Morton: he and his crew were on their first operational patrol over the North Atlantic, and were assisted by two experienced officers. Flight Lieutenat A. Omerod acted as Second Navigator, with the task of judging the crewmen's navigation skills, while Flight Lieutenant Sid Butler was aboard with the task of judging the general performance of the novice team. He was, in effect, in command of the flying boat.
The Sunderland took off at 11.25 (circa) and was on its way to its assigned area three and-a-half hours later when a U-boat was spotted off the port side. Flt Lt Butler took over in command and approached the enemy vessel turning to port and reducing eight. The U-boat choose not to submerge but to stay and fight with its anti-aircraft guns. That's were the new orders for all U-boat commanders caught on the surface by enemy aircrafts: it was considered that submarines were more likely to be lost while submerging and unable to defend themselves rather than fight with 20mm and 37mm AA guns.
The wactics had succesfully worked out earlier that same day, when U-625 together with U-741 had shot down Vickers Wellington HF 311, No. 407 Sq (Canadian).

The Sunderland was approaching when the Germans opened fire from about five miles and started to zig-zag. Flt Lt Butler took the aircraft to within one mile from the U-boat, descended to 400 feet and tried to get into position for an attack. The Sunderland opened fire too, the flying boat and the submarine furiously shooting at each other. As Butler moved around the vessel the Germans also circled around and for about ten minutes the EK591/U was unable to attack.
Given the spirited defense mounted by the Germans, Butler realised that it was impossible to positionate perfectly for an attack, so decided to take his chance and dived, levelling the Sunderland at 50 feet above the water. Approaching at 400 yard the flying boat was welcomed by intense Flak fire and the hull was damaged below the waterline. A description of this dramatic moments is given by aircraft gunner Joe Nespor, and  pilot Sid Butler:
Once in full view of the sub, two .5-inch in the nose opened fire. All guns on the U-boat were immediately silenced. Just as the aircraft was approaching the U-boat, a German gunner ran towards the gun, pulled the trigger on a 20mm cannon and the aircraft was hit on the nose. His timing was perfect as we could not depress our guns enough to reach him".
I have a distinct memory of a tall figure in a grey sweater - who was probably the gunner responsible for the damage our aircraft sustained in the last stages of the attack - leaving his guns at the last possible moment and diving for the conning tower as we passed overhead. A brave man indeed .  [Britain at War, April 2010, p. 29] 
Passing over the U-boat, the Sunderland released six 250lb depth-charges, set for detonation at twenty-five feet: they hit the U-boat, one on entering the water on the starboard side and three on the port side, exploding slightly astern of the conning tower.

Flt Lt Butler circled the submarine to check the damage inflicted: for almost three minutes nothing happened, but then the U-boat appeared in difficulty, slowly submerging. The vessel re-surfaced another three minutes later, even more in trouble.
Butler continued to circle over the scene while the crewmen transmitted over the R/T calling for the attention of any Allied aircraft of warship in position to respond and reach the area. The signal was received by another Sunderland of 423 Squadron who headed towards Butler's position.
While Butler and his men were waiting for their comrades to arrive, they took a quick check at the damage inflicted by the U-boat guns. A two-and-a-half inches wide hole had been opened on the keel together with  dozens of smaller holes. The crew carried out temporary repairs, with cover material for the bigger holes, and chewing gum for the smaller ones!

For nearly a hour and a half EK591/U circled over the vessel, then the U-boat crew flashed a visual sign to Sunderland: "FINE BOMBISH"[sic].  At this point the Germans began to abandon ship in dinghies.
U-625 sank at 17.40, in position 52° 35′20° 19′ W. The entire crew get safely into the dighies and life boats, but unfortunately no one survived.  They were all lost in a storm the next night.

Minutes later the U-boat disappeared, Sunderland C of 423 RCAF Sqn reach Butler's position, allowing him and his crew to head form home. They finally landed at Castle Archdale at 23.31.

Flight Lieutenant Butler received the DFC for his succesfull attack on U-boat U-625. 

Sunderland EK591/U photographed the day following the attack on U-625

Britain at War, April 2010,


  1. A very interesting post I quite enjoyed reading it

  2. Thank you for posting this story. The aircraft was EK591 "2U" (not "U"), and the novice crew's navigator was Frank Cauley (my father).

  3. Thank you. My father was Ted Higgins the Flight Engineer. He died of a heart attack in 1972. I have just started writing up my his RAF career and found this posting.