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US Navy PBY Catalina and HMCS Oakville vs U-94

US Navy PBY Catalina and HMCS Oakville vs U-94

World War 2

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HMCS Oakville on passage from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as an escort to convoy FH-70 on 7 August 1943 (near Yarmouth, N.S.)

U-94, under the command of Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant Junior Grade) Otto Ites, departed the German submarine base at St. Nazaire, France, on 2 August 1942, on her tenth war patrol. The U-boat was under orders to proceed to the Caribbean to attack Allied shipping. Despite his youth—24 years old—Ites was already an experienced and effective U-boat commander. He made nine war patrols on U-48, before assuming command of U-146 and then U-94. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross after his third war patrol in command, by which time he had sunk 11 ships. The U-boat commander would finish with 15 ships in seven war patrols. He was the second commanding officer of U-94, assuming command on 29 August 1941. He had already made four war patrols on U-94; this would be his fifth.

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More details PBY Catalina in flight

U-94 was a Type VIIC U-boat commissioned on 10 August 1940. It was the most widely produced U-boat by far, with 568 built during the war. Type VIIC U-boats were about 769 tons surfaced (871 submerged) and 210 feet long. They had twin shafts with two diesel engines and two electric motors, capable of a maximum surface speed of 17.7 knots and submerged speed of 7.6 knots. Endurance was 8,500 nautical miles on the surface at 10 knots and 80 nautical miles at 5 knots submerged. Test depth was 750 feet, with crush depth between 820–968 feet. Type VIICs were armed with four bow torpedo tubes and one stern tube, with a total of 14 21-inch torpedoes.

A Type VII and a Type IX submarine alongside each other outside the submarine pens at Trondheim after the war. May 1945.
A Type VII and a Type IX submarine alongside each other outside the submarine pens at Trondheim after the war. May 1945.

For surface action, U-94 had one 88mm (3.4-inch) deck gun (with 220 rounds) and one 20mm C/30 anti-aircraft gun. On her 10th war patrol, U-94 had a crew of 45, including the commanding officer, two other officers (executive officer and engineer), and a senior midshipman. In her nine previous war patrols, U-94 had sunk 26 merchant ships for a total of 141,852 gross registered tons.

After an unusually uneventful transit, U-94 arrived in the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba on 20 August 1942 and awaited a convoy. Between May and July 1942, U-boats had sunk 48 merchant ships in the Caribbean and 21 more on the Gulf of Mexico. Greatly increased patrol activity by aircraft on 27 August indicated to Ites that a convoy transit of the Windward Passage was imminent. U-94 spent most of the day successfully dodging U.S. aircraft and was not sighted.

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Jesse Rhodes Waller, a World War II Aviation Ordnanceman stationed at the Naval Air Station in Corpus ChristiTexas, installing a M1919 Browning machine gun in a United States Navy PBY plane.

On 27 August, convoy TAW-1 was approaching the Windward Passage, bound from Trinidad and Aruba to Key West. Commander J. F. Walsh, USN, embarked on destroyer USS Lea (DD-118), was in the command of TAW-15. The convoy included 15 ships (mostly tankers) in seven columns. Besides the Lea, an elderly Wickes-class destroyer, the convoy’s escorts included the Royal Dutch Navy’s armed minelayer, HNMS Jan van Brakel, three Canadian corvettes, HMCS Oakville (K178), HMCS Halifax (K237), and HMCS Snowberry (K166). TAW-15 also included U.S. patrol boat PC-38, and three U.S. sub-chasers of the U.S. “Donald Duck Navy.”

The tankers in TAW-15 included several Canadian ships. The safe passage of the tankers was critical as fuel stocks in Canada were down to a 15-day supply—which was why Canada had sent four corvettes and two British destroyers (under Canadian control) to the Caribbean. Ships joining up with TAW-15 had already been attacked by U-558 on 25 August in the Jamaica Channel and one British cargo ship sunk. The same day U-164 sank a Dutch merchant ship. Neither U-boat was aware of the close proximity of the much larger TAW-15 convoy. In both cases, the U.S. Navy’s PBY Catalina flying boats prevented greater losses.

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A U.S. Navy Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina of Patrol Bomber Squadron VPB-6 pictured in flight over Narssarsuak Fjord, Greenland, in 1945. VPB-6(CG) was a U.S. Coast Guard squadron mobilized during the Second World War from 5 October 1943 to 12 July 1945. Note the depth charges under the wings.

HMCS Oakville, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Clarence Aubrey King, RCNR, was a Flower-class corvette, commissioned on 18 November 1941. Oakville was 205-feet long and 940-tons, not much bigger than U-94, with a single shaft, and a crew of 85. Oakville was armed with one BL 4-inch Mk IX naval gun, two .50 caliber machine guns, one twin Lewis .303 caliber machine gun, two Mk II depth charge throwers, and two depth charge stern rails with 40 depth charges. The account of one of the officers on Oakville referenced an “Oerlikon” suggesting an Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft gun had been added to Oakville’s armament. King had earned a Distinguished Service Cross in World War I for sinking a U-boat while in command of a British Q-ship. He was also credited for two more “probables.” He came out of retirement as a fruit farmer when World War II broke out.

U-94 first sighted TAW-15 about noon on 27 August 1942. The submarine radioed the position, course, and speed to headquarters, which was passed to other U-boats in the vicinity. The Type IXC U-511 reacted to the report and closed with the convoy. This report was intercepted by Allied intelligence personnel and relayed to Commander Walsh on Lea, who took action to array his escorts for most effective defense in anticipation of attack.

After sunset on 27 August, on a clear night with bright full moonlight, U-94 carefully worked her way through the outer convoy screen between Oakville and Snowberry without being seen. U-511 was approaching from a different direction. At 2200, just as U-94 was about to fire a torpedo at one of the convoy escorts, a U.S. PBY-5 Catalina flying boat of Patrol Squadron 92 (VP-92) from Guantanamo Bay sighted the submarine running on the surface and attacked from behind, catching U-94 by surprise. The U-boat attempted to crash dive, but was too late.

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A Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina of Patrol Squadron VP-61 in the Aleutians in March 1943. VP-61 was based at Umnak Island, Alaska (USA), at that time.

The PBY, piloted by Lieutenant Gordon R. Fiss, dropped four 650-pound depth charges from 50-feet, which straddled the U-boat and detonated when the submarine was about 30–60 feet below the surface. This action forced the U-boat’s bow back to the surface. The PBY also dropped a flare on the datum. Oakville, the closest escort, observed the explosions and the PBY’s signal lamp flashing “S.” Oakville was the first escort to commence an attack.

After sunset on 27 August, on a clear night with bright full moonlight, U-94 carefully worked her way through the outer convoy screen between Oakville and Snowberry without being seen. U-511 was approaching from a different direction. At 2200, just as U-94 was about to fire a torpedo at one of the convoy escorts, a U.S. PBY-5 Catalina flying boat of Patrol Squadron 92 (VP-92) from Guantanamo Bay sighted the submarine running on the surface and attacked from behind, catching U-94 by surprise. The U-boat attempted to crash dive, but was too late.

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Anti-Submarine Weapons: A Mk VII depth charge being loaded onto a Mk IV depth charge thrower on board Flower class corvette HMS Dianthus.

The PBY, piloted by Lieutenant Gordon R. Fiss, dropped four 650-pound depth charges from 50-feet, which straddled the U-boat and detonated when the submarine was about 30–60 feet below the surface. This action forced the U-boat’s bow back to the surface. The PBY also dropped a flare on the datum. Oakville, the closest escort, observed the explosions and the PBY’s signal lamp flashing “S.” Oakville was the first escort to commence an attack.

U-94 tried again to fully submerge but couldn’t because the PBY’s depth charges had blown off her bow hydroplanes. At full speed Oakville reached the flare and dropped five depth charges set for 100 feet, with no apparent result. Oakville then gained an asdic (sonar) contact. About 30 seconds later, a lookout sighted the bow of a submarine only 100 yards distant—too close for gunfire, so Oakville changed course to ram.

In the first ram attempt, the U-boat passed under Oakville’s bow and scraped along the corvette’s port side. Oakville came about and attempted to ram again. With more room, her 4-inch gun hit U-94’s conning tower and another round blew U-94’s deck gun overboard. U-94 tried to speed out of the way, but was unable to make more than 12 knots, possibly due to a damaged coupling or propellers, as the diesels were still functioning normally for emergency speed.

On her second attempt to ram, Oakville struck another glancing blow on the U-boat’s starboard side. At the point where Oakville’s guns could not depress enough to hit the U-boat, German crew members attempted to come on the sub’s conning tower. Six stokers were on Oakville’s deck with the job of loading the depth charge throwers. As the throwers were already loaded, they showered U-94’s conning tower with Coca Cola bottles from a range of 20 feet. More effectively, as Oakville opened the range, she threw depth charges, one of which exploded directly under the submarine.

As the U-boat lost forward momentum, Oakville came about again and rammed U-94 a third time, a solid hit just aft of the conning tower. Oakville’s bow rode up and over the U-boat, shearing off the asdic dome, and the single propeller dragged over the submarine’s hull. (The British would later discourage ramming submarines as the steel in the submarine’s pressure hull was stronger than the steel in a corvette’s bow).

At this point, Ites gave the order to abandon ship. He was hit in the leg by machine gun fire as soon as he reached the deck and was brought back below. Another crewman was also hit and wounded in the stomach. The senior midshipman was pinned down in shattered Coke glass on the conning tower by machine gun fire. By this time, Oakville was right alongside the still-surfaced U-94. With no sign of further resistance, King ordered a 12-man boarding team away in an attempt to capture the submarine.

Led by Oakville’s gunnery/asdic officer, Sub-Lieutenant Harold “Hal” Lawrence, RCNVR, the boarding team was forming up 15-feet from the 4-inch gun when the gun crew fired a round after clearing a misfire. The untimely gun blast blew Lawrence and the team off the forecastle onto the deck below. Stoker Petty Officer Art J. Powell, RCN, slapped Lawrence back to consciousness, and the two made the leap onto U-94’s foredeck 8–10 feet below.

Oakville lost power as a result of damage to bottom plates from the ramming, which flooded the aft boiler room and asdic compartment. The corvette drifted away from U-94 before the rest of the boarding team could get over the side, leaving Lawrence and Powell alone on the U-boat. Lawrence had gone to battle stations while in his skivvies. The landing on the submarine snapped the band and he lost them, leaving him naked except for a pistol, two hand-grenades, gas mask, flashlight hanging from lanyards on his neck, a length of chain, and a lifebelt. The purpose of the chain was to throw a length down a hatch to keep the Germans from closing the hatch and submerging the boat. Lawrence’s nose and ears were also bleeding from the concussion of the gun.

As the two Canadians rushed for the conning tower, Lawrence was swept overboard by a wave, but Powell dragged him back aboard, minus the chain. Oakville fired more machine gun rounds into the conning tower to cover their approach. Lawrence found a German near the mangled remains of the deck gun and pushed him over the side. The first two Germans coming out of the conning tower were possibly Ites and another officer. Lawrence ordered the two to proceed aft, whereupon both jumped over the side. Powell encountered another German and pushed him overboard. Two more Germans came out the conning tower hatch. One was engineering officer Muller. This time Lawrence ordered them to stop and return inside, but they kept coming and Lawrence shot and killed one (probably Muller). The other then lunged at Powell and was shot too. Both Germans fell into the sea.

The rest of the Germans remained below at Powell’s gunpoint, while Lawrence went aft, opened another hatch, and saw the compartment flooded. By forcing the Germans to remain below, Lawrence hoped that would prevent them from scuttling the boat. Assured that they would not be surprised by Germans coming out of the aft hatch, Lawrence finally ordered Powell to allow the Germans to come up through the conning tower. After what happened to the engineering officer and other crewman, the Germans initially refused to come up. Lawrence then came to the hatch, aimed the flashlight at his own smiling face, and coaxed them up. At this point the German crew essentially stampeded out the hatch and proceeded aft under Powell’s guard.

After the Germans had been brought on deck, Lawrence went below to search for the Enigma coding machine or other valuable publications. The lights were out and he saw nothing of value in the conning tower—code books, signal books, and logs had apparently already been thrown over the side earlier in the action. He then went down into the control room, which already had four feet of water on the deck and rising. He attempted to find valves to close in order to prevent the submarine from sinking. Lawrence actually knew what he was looking for based on intelligence reports derived from a previously captured German submarine (U-570). There appeared to be gas in the air as the batteries flooded. Lawrence’s flashlight grew dim and he heard the sound of collapsing bulkheads. The U-boat lurched and began to settle by the stern. Powell shouted down the hatch that the submarine was going under. Lawrence shouted back for everyone to go into the water; Powell and the Germans expeditiously complied. Lawrence had to swim to the ladder to the conning tower to get out.

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The U.S. Navy Wickes-class destroyer USS Lea (DD-118) pictured laying a smoke screen, circa 1921.

Once back topside on the conning tower, Lawrence could hear the sound of torpedo explosions.  U-511 had not been sighted and was making her attack on the convoy, sinking two ships—a British and a Dutch tanker—and badly damaging a U.S. tanker. Before going overboard, Lawrence noted the broken glass from the Coca Cola bottles on the conning tower deck. Lawrence swam on his back, cupping his privates, out of fear of shark or barracuda attack. He later stated that he “longed for the confidence—if not the protection—a pair of shorts would have given me.”

By this time U.S. destroyer Lea arrived to render assistance. Although Oakville stated no assistance was needed, Lea put a boat in the water with a boarding team. By the time Lea’s team reached the U-boat only the conning tower was still above the surface. There was no attempt to board. The boat hustled back to Lea as it became apparent that the convoy was still under attack from another U-boat. Lea’s boat did rescue Lawrence, Powell, and 21 German crew members. All but five others (including Ites) picked up by Oakville were lost. U-94 finally went down about midnight on 27–28 August 1942. Initially mistaken for a German, Lawrence’s effective use of English cuss words convinced the Americans on Lea that he was Canadian.

Of U-94’s crew of 45, 19 were lost and 26 survived. All but the two dead crew members made it into the water, but the rescue effort was curtailed due to the ongoing U-boat attack. Of the crew, Ites and the senior midshipman survived, but the executive officer and engineer were lost. Nine petty officers and 15 enlisted men survived. Ites and a machinist were wounded and several others were burned when bullets hit their escape lungs, causing a chemical reaction. The survivors believed that the engineering officer was attempting to surrender when he was shot and may have misunderstood Lawrence’s English commands. Lawrence later stated that a pistol pointed at someone’s face from three feet away should suffice as an international order to stop. The German survivors were taken to Guantanamo for interrogation. Treated decently, they provided a wealth of valuable intelligence.

Oakville regained power but was too badly damaged to continue with the convoy, and proceeded independently to Guantanamo for repair.

Sub-Lieutenant Harold Ernest Thomas Lawrence and Stoker Petty Officer Arthur Powell became national heroes in Canada as a result of their action, which was made into a famous propaganda/recruiting poster. Lawrence was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, a 3rd level decoration. At the time, the second-level required higher rank, which made him ineligible for the Distinguished Service Order. This was remedied by the Canadians in the 1970s when awards for valor were made independent of rank. Powell was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. Commander Clarence Aubrey King was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and a U.S. Legion of Merit—the first Canadian recognized with a Legion of Merit during the war. The pilot of the PBY, Lieutenant Gordon R. Fiss, was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Oakville continued to escort convoys during the war. After the war, Oakville was sold to the Venezuelan navy and served as Patria until 1962. King was given command of a frigate in 1943 and assisted in sinking two more U-boats. He retired at the rank of captain after the war. One of his three sons was killed in action in the Sicily Campaign. Destroyer Lea later was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for actions as part of the USS Bogue (CVE-9), Hunter-Killer Group in 1943. Otto Ites remained a prisoner of war in Tennessee until 1 May 1946. He went on to serve in the Bundesmarine (West German navy). From 1960–62, Ites commanded the destroyer Zerstorer 2 (D171), former USS Ringgold (DD-500), and achieved the rank of Kontreadmiral (two star) in 1975. Otto Ites’s twin brother Rudolf was lost in command of U-709, sunk by three U.S. destroyer escorts near the Azores on 1 March 1944. U-511, on her 4th war patrol, transited all the way to Japan and was sold to Japan in September 1943. The U-boat served in the Imperial Japanese Navy as RO-500 until surrendered in August 1945. The submarine was scuttled in May 1946.

US Navy PBY Catalina and HMCS Oakville vs U-94

Sources include: History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, Vol I, The Battle of the Atlantic: September 1939–May 1943, by Samuel Eliot Morison: Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1959. “Over-the-Side: The Courageous Boarding of U-94” by Marc Milner, Legion, 15 Jan 2015. “U-94 Sunk by USN PBY Plane and HMCS Oakville 8-27-42—Post Mortems on Enemy Submarines”—Serial No. 5, Division of Naval Intelligence, ONI 250 series, 25 Oct 42. “The Storming of U-94—How Two Allied Sailors Took on the Crew of a U-boat in the Caribbean,” by James Brun at militaryhistorynow.com, 14 October 2020. “The Craziest Kill of the U-boat War” by Harold Lawrence, at archive.macleans.cas, originally 19 October 1963. U-boat.net for information on German submarines and NHHC’s online Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS) for information on U.S. ships.

US Navy PBY Catalina and HMCS Oakville vs U-94