Convoy Battles Along the Algerian Coast, April–May 1944

Convoy Battles Along the Algerian Coast, April–May 1944

World War 2
The severely damaged USS Menges under tow.

Just before midnight on 11 April 1944, while laying smoke ahead of convoy UGS 37 transiting easterly along the coast of Algeria, the destroyer escort USS Holder (DE-401) was struck portside amidships by an aerial torpedo from a German bomber.

This resulted in two heavy secondary explosions and extensive fire and flooding. Despite the severe damage, Holder’s gunners continued to defend the convoy, driving off other attackers without any additional damage to the convoy. Lieutenant Commander G. Cook’s crew got the fire and flooding under control and the ship was towed into Oran, Algeria, and then to New York, where the damage was considered to be too severe to repair.

The U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS Holder (DE-401) mothballed, prior to being sold for scrap in 1947.

On the evening of 20 April 1944, following an unsuccessful attack by German submarine U-969, Allied convoy UGS 38 (87 ships), carrying ground personnel and supplies to Italy, was attacked by about three waves of German Ju-88 and Heinkel He-111 twin-engine bombers (18–24 total according to U.S. reports) north of Algiers, Algeria. Flying low to avoid radar detection, the Germans attacked simultaneously from multiple axes after dark. The U.S. Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton was struck by a torpedo from one of the bombers, and suffered a catastrophic explosion that killed all 580 personnel aboard; the ship sank in less than 30 seconds and only one body was recovered.

SS Paul Hamilton

The dead included eight officers and 39 crew of the ship, 29 U.S. Navy Armed Guards, 154 personnel of the USAAF 831st Bombardment Squadron (a B-24 heavy bomber squadron) and 317 personnel of the 32nd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. It is possible that gunners on Paul Hamilton violated procedure, opening fire too soon and drawing attention to the ship among the many in the convoy. The explosion of Paul Hamilton was one of the most famous photographs of the war.

The explosion of SS Paul Hamilton on 20 April 1944.

The flames from Paul Hamilton silhouetted the destroyer USS Lansdale (DD-426), which had been acting as “jam ship” against German radio-controlled bombs. The jamming gear was of no use against German aerial torpedoes, and Lansdale was attacked from port and starboard at the same time. Lansdale maneuvered to avoid two torpedoes launched by Heinkels on the port side, both of which missed. Then, Lansdale then maneuvered to counter five Heinkels coming in from starboard. Lansdale shot one down which crashed astern.

USS Lansdale (DD-426) off New York in October 1943

Another Heinkel launched its torpedo before being hit by Lansdale, passing over the forecastle before crashing on the opposite side. However, the torpedo struck Lansdale on the starboard side in the forward fireroom at 2106, blowing large holes in both sides of the ship and almost splitting her in two.

Production of the Heinkel He 111 in 1939

With a 12-degree list and her rudder jammed hard to starboard, Lansdale continued to fight, knocking down one of two more torpedo planes that attacked, and both torpedoes missed. The crew fought hard to save the ship, correcting the steering casualty, but, by 2122, the list reached 45 degrees, and her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander D. M. Swift, ordered abandon ship.

At 2130, Lansdale rolled on her side and then broke in two.

The stern section immediately sank. Forty-seven officers and crewmen were lost with the ship. During the course of the attack, another merchant in the convoy was torpedoed and abandoned, but later re-boarded and saved, and two more merchant ships were hit by torpedoes and one was sunk.

During the night, the destroyer escort USS Menges rescued 137 survivors of Lansdale, plus two downed German aircrew, and the destroyer escort USS Newell rescued 119, including Lieutenant Commander Swift.
Rescued survivor from USS Lansdale

One of the survivors of Lansdale was the executive officer, Robert M. Morganthau. Morganthau was born into great wealth and privilege (his father was President Roosevelt’s treasury secretary, his grandfather was President Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and Robert raced sailboats with future President John F. Kennedy). Nevertheless, Morganthau was imbued with the spirit of public service, and he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve V-12 Program while still in college before the war. He was activated and served for four and half years aboard four destroyers and a destroyer-minelayer. He passed his physical exam for the Navy by concealing his near-deafness in one ear, which had been caused by a childhood infection.

After surviving the sinking of Lansdale, Morganthau went on to be the executive officer of the new destroyer-minelayer, USS Harry F. Bauer (DM-26).  Harry F. Bauer shot down 13 Japanese aircraft during nearly two months of near-continuous kamikaze attacks in early 1945 and was hit by several bombs and a torpedo, all of which failed to explode, before suffering a glancing blow from a kamikaze. An unexploded bomb from the kamikaze lodged in the fuel tank, unbeknownst to any of the crew, for 17 days before it was found and disarmed (barely).

Morganthau battled institutional anti-Semitism in the Navy and as executive officer stood his ground with the commanding officer in insisting that black sailors be allowed to man anti-aircraft guns. He also prevailed in having several of them awarded Bronze Stars when they stood by their gun near the kamikaze flames while others sought shelter (Harry F. Bauer would be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation).

Years later, Morganthau reflected on his time in the water off Lansdale:

“I was swimming around without a life jacket. I made a number of promises to the Almighty, at a time when I didn’t have much bargaining power.” His deal? “That I would try to do something useful with my life.”
Morgenthau with President John F. Kennedy in 1962

After the war, he went to Yale Law School and went on to serve for more than four decades as the chief federal prosecutor for southern New York State (nine years) and as Manhattan’s longest-serving district attorney (35 years), putting thousands of criminals behind bars. He passed away on 21 July 2019 at age 99.

Just after midnight on 3 May 1944, the destroyer escort USS Menges (DE-320), which had rescued many of the survivors of Lansdale on the night of 20–21 April, detected and attacked German submarine U-371, but was hit by a G7es acoustic homing torpedo counter-fired by the U-boat.

USS Menges (DE-320) in an undated, Official USCG photo, location unknown.
The aft third of Menges was virtually destroyed.
The severely damaged USS Menges under tow.

31 crewmen were killed, and 25 wounded. Despite the grievous damage, Menges’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Frank M. McCabe, USCG, refused to order abandon ship, and his almost entirely U.S. Coast Guard crew managed to keep her from sinking. Including several who heroically jumped astride torpedoes that had come loose to prevent them from exploding. Menges was towed to Bougie (Béjaïa), Algeria, while other convoy escorts USS Joseph E. Campbell (DE-70), USS Pride (DE-323), and British and French escorts pursued U-371.

On 4 May, they finally forced the U-boat to scuttle herself. However, not before she put a torpedo into French destroyer escort Senegalais (a U.S. Canon-class destroyer escort seconded to the Free French Navy), which survived. Menges was towed to New York, where her mangled stern was removed and replaced. The Navy managed to find to another in the damaged USS Holder (DE-401) with repairs complete in October 1944. 

Menges then joined a four-ship hunter-killer group in the Atlantic, the only such group composed entirely of Coast Guard–manned U.S. Navy ships. McCabe was awarded a Legion of Merit for the rescue of Lansdale’s crew. And for saving his ship from the torpedo hit.

On 5 May 1944, while escorting westbound convoy GUS 38 off Oran, Algeria. The destroyer escort USS Fechteler (DE-157) was hit by a torpedo from German submarine U-967, broke in two and sank, suffering 29 killed and 26 wounded. USS Laning (DE-159) rescued 186 survivors. 

Commissioning ceremony. U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS Fechteler (DE-157). At the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia (USA). On 1 July 1943.

Fechteler had previously survived a heavy German air attack on 20 April 1944. U-967 was one of the last surviving German submarines in the Mediterranean. During her three patrols, she only sank FechtelerU-967 was scuttled in Toulon, France, in August 1944 during the Allied invasion of southern France.

The U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS Laning (DE-159) off the New York Naval Shipyard (USA) on 10 March 1944.
Convoy Battles Along the Algerian Coast, April–May 1944

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

World War 2