This is the story of four British Royal Navy submariners who volunteered to patrol the Atlantic Ocean in the early days of the Second World War, keeping their homeland safe from German U-Boats. Over the course of two tours and a year and a half, they narrowly avoided attack from dozens of German subs, rescued scores of men from the sea, and actually discovered a new German battlecruiser. ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

The Royal Navy’s Submarine Service was the largest and most diverse of the services in the Royal Navy. With over 50 different types of submarine, there was enough variety in the fleet, and enough responsibility, for them to have their own squadrons. During World War One, these were the Submarine Commanding Officers (SCCOs) who were responsible for the day to day running of the service, and their remit was to maintain ‘readiness and despatch’ of their respective squadrons, and maintain the battlecruiser fleet in being.

On June 4th, 1939, the British Royal Navy launched the submarine HMSBS-1. Commanded by Captain Harry “Abe” Abraham, this brand new submarine was never intended to patrol the North Atlantic. Deployed to the Western Approaches Command in order to carry out training exercises, this new fleet submarine was ultimately destined to patrol the waters of the North Atlantic, as the Battle of the Atlantic raged on above it.

A close-by hunting field didn’t bode well for Submarine Squadron 50.

There are nine million square miles in this country. During World War II, it was the size of the patrol zone allocated to American submarines in the Pacific Ocean. The journey begins in Perth and ends in the Kurile Islands. From the Gulf of Tonkin to the Atoll of Tarawa It was a large region that included coastal littorals, small passageways, and open water. Within that enormous area, a force of less than 230 submarines managed to sink 55 percent of all Japanese ships destroyed during the war: 1,200 merchantmen, 214 men-of-war, and a total of 5,600,000 tons—more than double the total number of vessels sunk by all other services combined. The submarines contributed to Japan’s lack of incoming raw supplies and delayed the outward resupply of bases and garrisons across the empire. The US Navy’s underwater accomplishments in the Pacific were a tremendous triumph by any measure. 

It was a different situation on the opposite side of the globe, in the more restricted seas of the European Theater. Submarines from the United States played a little role in the defeat of Germany, but not for a lack of effort on the part of their crews. The force never surpassed the six boats of the sole unit stationed there, Submarine Squadron 50, and barely stayed on post for eight months, patrolling the seas between Western and Northern Europe. By any measure, the outcomes were pitiful. 

The objective of “Subron 50” was predicated on a personal request by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Second Washington Conference in June 1942, rather than on any larger plan. German U-boats were still wreaking havoc on Allied ships at that stage in the conflict. With their greater endurance and firepower, Churchill reasoned that American submarines would help level the playing field in the North Atlantic by taking on the U-boats, freeing up the smaller British submarines for duty in the North Sea and Mediterranean. Roosevelt was game, but Admiral Ernest J. King, Roosevelt’s commander in head of the United States Fleet, was not. King argued that every submarine the US could construct should be deployed to the Pacific to assist relieve a lack of boats in that area.

President Roosevelt, predictably, won the election. Submarine Squadron 50 was formed on September 3, 1942, at New London, Connecticut, under the leadership of experienced submariner Captain Norman S. Ives, 45. Ives had to piece his submarine together as best he could since American shipyards were just just becoming ready to mass-produce fleet-type submarines. He was able to locate six Gato-class vessels that had previously been sent to Pacific deployment. Each was 312 feet long, with 24 torpedoes, a maximum speed of 21 knots, and a range of 11,000 miles. The USS Beaver, an old submarine tender, would provide logistical assistance. The first three, Blackfish, Gunnel, and Shad, set off for the Atlantic on October 19. Herring and Barb arrived the following day; Gurnard was two weeks behind them due to engine problems. Meanwhile, Beaver had arrived at US Naval Base II in Rosneath, Scotland, 24 miles northwest of Glasgow, to set up shop. 

However, before the submarines had reached the Atlantic, the squadron’s initial mission of battling U-boats was temporarily shelved in favor of a more pressing mission: assisting the European Theater’s first large-scale amphibious landings. The Allied invasion of French North Africa, dubbed Operation Torch, was set to begin on November 8. Barb’s Brooklyn-born engineering officer, Lieutenant Everett H. Steinmetz, was there to see it all. “Steiny,” who stood at a medium height, had a slender frame, and a balding pate, was renowned for his caustic sense of humour. Torch, he described as “an ambitious effort,” requiring “night landings by inexperienced soldiers launched from ships with inadequate training on a shoreline about which our forces had little information.” 

The Surprising Submarine Squad That Patrolled the North Atlantic From the seas near Morocco to those off Hokkaido, Japan, Everett H. Steinmetz served aboard the USS Barb. (Navy of the United States of America)

The Barb was carrying five US Army Rangers when it left New London. The crew was perplexed by their appearance until their captain, Lieutenant Commander John R. Waterman, informed them of the Allied invasion and the sub’s mission to deliver the GIs to a tiny port south of Casablanca in Morocco, which was then under Vichy French authority. Barb, along with three other submarines in the squad, helped with reconnaissance and patrol throughout the attack. It was a risky business. Gunnel, piloted by Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain Jr., father of late senator John S. McCain III, was strafed and destroyed by an Allied aircraft during the chaos of the landings. Thankfully, the damage was minimal. (A fifth submarine, Blackfish, had been sent 1,600 miles south to Dakar, French West Africa, to intercept any Vichy warships on route to help their Moroccan sisters.) 

On November 8, Herring recorded the first verified sinking of the Subron 50. Lieutenant Commander Ray Johnson was looking through his periscope that morning as an unaccompanied cargo rounded Cape Mazagan off Morocco’s northwest coast. The ship, the Ville du Havre, a 5,700-ton Vichy French warship, sailed south, hugging the shore and blending in with the hills beyond to escape discovery. “Battle stations!” yelled the captain at 10:03 a.m. As he turned the submarine around to a new course, reducing the gap to his objective, his crew reacted quickly. The sub was tense since it was their first assault. Johnson launched two torpedoes at 10:52 a.m., knocking a piece off the freighter’s bow and bringing the ship to a halt in the sea. A third fish struck close to the stern. The ship began to sink as it settled. Johnson maneuvered his boat back to its patrol line off the coast of Casablanca, having completed his morning’s job.

THE SQUADRON’S FIVE BOATS LEFT NORTH AFRICA TO COMPLETE THEIR NORTH AFRICA TASKS and headed north to Base II in Scotland, where they would meet up with the late-arriving Gurnard. Unfortunately, Gunnel’s poor luck continued on the journey, when all four of the ship’s German-designed diesel engines failed. Only a tiny auxiliary engine was left to charge the batteries that powered the submarine’s motors. Gunnel arrived in Rosneath on December 7th, 10 days after its companions, chugging along at 3.5 knots. 

“Rosneath was as gloomy as the weather and provided little in the way of diversions,” Steiny bemoaned. The enormous Ferry Inn, constructed in the 1890s for Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise and seized by the US Navy as a billet for officers in 1942, was about the only bright spot in the area. The food selection at the base was restricted, to say the least. “They came onboard by the ton,” the lieutenant bemoaned the daily allotment of Brussels sprouts, which were plentiful at the time. He remembered 55 years later, “I still cringe when I see one.”

Gunnel only stayed at Base II for a few days for temporary repairs before returning to New London for a full refurbishment. The operational command of Subron 50 transferred to the British Admiralty while the other boats were being refitted by Beaver’s maintenance personnel in readiness for the next series of patrols. After all, it was they who had sought the American submarines’ assistance.

The Surprising Submarine Squad That Patrolled the North Atlantic The USS Gunnel during a trial run off the coast of Connecticut; her captain, John McCain Jr. (far right at right in the picture below), was a member of a renowned military family that included his admiral father, John “Slew” McCain (second from left), and his son, future senator John McCain III (center). (Naval History and Heritage Command) (Naval History and Heritage Command) (Naval History and Heritage Command

The Surprising Submarine Squad That Patrolled the North Atlantic (Getty Images/Terry Ashe/The Life Images Collection)

The operation to combat U-boats in the North Atlantic was put on hold once again. In the Bay of Biscay, the squadron was tasked with intercepting blockade runners transferring supplies from neutral Spain to Vichy France. The bay, which is formed like a reversed “C,” is 320 miles broad from east to west and north to south, splashing up on the western and northern French coasts. The Admiralty thought that the Spanish coastal waters would be teeming with tasty targets, and that the American submarines would strike cargo ships flying French and German colors that were suspected of transporting war material.

Gurnard, which having missed the North African ruckus, was the first boat to travel down to the harbor on November 28, 1942. But, like Gunnel, it experienced catastrophic engine problems and was forced to return to the United States. Subron 50 had been reduced to four ships.

Steiny subsequently remembered, “Our instructions were straightforward.” “Stay underwater throughout the day, detect contacts, and attack if they are hostile. However, keep your distance from neutral seas to avoid being discovered.” It was especially difficult to respect neutral seas. Barb and the other submarines couldn’t undertake raids within the 12-mile boundary recognized internationally as “territorial seas” since Spain was neutral. Before digging in, they were also required to definitely identify their quarry. These stringent engagement requirements hindered operations and failed to avoid a costly error.

Barb saw a tanker that the captain thought was German while sailing off the coast of Vigo, Spain, on December 26, 1942. Commander Waterman launched a night surface assault, fired four torpedoes, and saw two of them strike before returning to his patrol. The crew’s “spirits rose,” according to Steiny. When the submarine returned to port in mid-January 1943, however, the Admiralty summoned the captain to London to justify his conduct. They informed him that his intended target was the 6,700-ton SS Campomanes, a Spanish ship. Waterman was instructed by the Admiralty to deny that the event ever occurred. After the war, Steinmetz discovered that the Spaniards had denounced the flagrant violation of neutrality to the British. The British naval attaché in Madrid helped to smooth things up by informing the Spanish Foreign Ministry—truthfully—that the attacking submarine was not British. The Germans, he said, were to blame.

Subron 50’s submarines each conducted four patrols in the Bay of Biscay during the first three months of 1943, with nothing to show for their efforts. A barge carrying iron ore destined for the Germans was sunk by Shad. When the Blackfish came upon a pair of highly equipped German antisubmarine ships, the captain decided to attack both and sink one. However, the other launched a counter-offensive, causing damage to Blackfish’s conning tower and primary air intake. Herring also saw a German coastal U-boat around 2,500 yards distant cruising on the surface. Herring launched two torpedoes in a couple of seconds. Two minutes later, there was a tremendous explosion, the victim’s screws stopped turning, and the soundman on Herring heard “loud cracking sounds,” as though the target was breaking apart. Unfortunately, British intercepts of encrypted German radio communications revealed that no U-boat had been sunk at that location and time. It was a Spanish trawler, according to reports.

This Atlantic patrol thing was becoming more unsatisfactory. The issue wasn’t a lack of appetizing targets, but rather that almost all of them were flying under a neutral flag. On Barb’s second patrol, the sub’s log reported 485 fishing boats and 127 big ships, all of which were nonbelligerents, according to Steiny.

The Surprising Submarine Squad That Patrolled the North Atlantic According to Steinmetz, the US Navy station in Rosneath was “as gloomy as the weather and provided little in the way of diversions.” (The Naval Institute of the United States of America)

The Admiralty revised its Subron 50 plan in April 1943, redeploying the American submarines to Norwegian seas 300 miles above the Arctic Circle to supplement an existing British anti-U-boat patrol. The first to set sail were Barb and Blackfish. The two were also supposed to keep an eye on the German battleship Tirpitz, which was moored in Altafjord at Norway’s northern point at the time. It would have been a spectacular victory if one of the American submarines had successfully struck the monster. Lady Luck, as usual, turned her back on the squadron, and Tirpitz remained hidden deep inside the fjords.  

A lookout aboard the Barb saw a U-boat periscope poking out of the water a few hundred feet away on April 28. Steinmetz remembered, “It was a wonder we didn’t collide.” “We dived and started sprinting in silence.” When he added that the enemy sub was so near, “his periscope observation [of us] presumably comprised of a lens filled with black paint,” he laughed.

Barb’s commander, on the other hand, was not in the mood to engage in a full-fledged subsea fight that afternoon. Aside than it, sightings were scarce—far fewer than off the coast of Spain. “Why would anybody in their right mind be there anyway?” Steiny wondered. Barb’s sole options for assault were hundreds upon dozens of floating mines. “I used the rifle, machine gun, submachine gun, and 20mm to fire at them. The mines did not detonate or sink, according to captain John Waterman. However, “it helped break up the monotony of patrol.”  

At the end of April 1943, two new subs, Hake and Haddo, joined Subron 50 to replace the departing Gurnard and Gunnel, although they had nothing to do. The Admiralty and the Americans both decided in late April that the US submarines were simply obstructing the Allies’ increasingly effective campaign against the U-boats, which was based on a mix of new technology and tried-and-true tactics. Admiral Harold Stark, commander of the United States Naval Forces in Europe, ordered Subron 50’s six boats to be moved to more pleasant hunting grounds on the other side of the globe in June 1943.

“We were now ready for the difficulties of the Pacific,” Steinmetz cynically reflected, “having taken care of the Atlantic.”

The Surprising Submarine Squad That Patrolled the North Atlantic The Barb’s battle flag attests to the Pacific’s abundance of targets over the Atlantic. The lone Nazi flag represents a ship that was subsequently discovered to be Spanish. Shipwrecks and sinkings are included, as well as “kills” from shore bombardments. (Navy of the United States of America)

IN THAT THEATER the former constituents of Submarine Squadron 50 shined. Barb sank 17 Japanese ships, ending its war in fourth place for most tonnage sunk by a single sub. Gurnard and Gunnel sank a total of 18 ships; replacements Hake and Haddo racked up the same score, and Herring got seven. But the enemy got Herring: the boat was lost to gunfire off northern Japan’s Kurile Islands on June 1, 1944. 

The success of American submariners in the Pacific may be attributed to operating under a command environment that carefully learnt from its errors and changed its doctrine and tactics on a regular basis. Subron’s experience in Europe in the 1950s, on the other hand, provided little lessons. And the concrete results of Churchill’s 1942 request were minimal at best. Subron 50 had two ships sunk and four ships damaged during the course of 27 missions.

Nonetheless, there were significant intangible advantages from an effort that the British regarded as a minor success. The Royal Navy’s commander of submarines, Rear Admiral Claud B. Barry, wrote to squadron commander Ives, saying, “Your submarines’ real contribution had been extremely significant, well above the figures of ships destroyed.” Subron 50’s presence helped ease Britain’s troubled submarine service, according to Barry. And it demonstrated American support for Britain in its hour of need—support that bolstered the two friends’ long-standing “special relationship.”

This article first appeared in World War II magazine’s October 2019 edition. Subscribe here. 

Written in September 1945, the narrative of “The Surprising Submarine Squad That Patrolled the North Atlantic” was a secret history of the World War II era, which was prepared by the American historian W.W. Bartlett and which was read by the author to his colleagues in the US Military Intelligence Service. His intention was to create a history that would be known only to those in the know, and thus he chose to write about a mysterious submarine patrol that was conducted in the North Atlantic in 1942, entitled “Operation Pastorius”.. Read more about uss grayback found and let us know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic?

The Allies were the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France.

Who sank the most U-boats in ww2?

The United States sank the most U-boats in ww2.

How did U.S. defeat German U-boats?

The United States Navy used a tactic called wolf pack in which they would send several ships to attack the U-boat at once.

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • submarine
  • submarine films
  • submarine movies
  • how did the allies defend against u-boats
  • submarine entertainment jobs
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