HMS Tweed – mystery solved? – Part 2


HMS Tweed's possible victim

We now know that HMS Tweed definitely launched an attack on a mystery submarine. While that mystery has been cleared up, questions remain as to the identity and fate of its victim.

Fortunately, it seems that the submarine in question was not a friendly-fire casualty. The only British submarines lost around the period in question were three X-craft (midget submarines) carrying out an audacious attack against the German battleship Tirpitz as she laid moored in Norway. The three were sunk on 22 September 1943; although, sadly, they weren't the only X-craft lost in that raid.

During WWII, American submarines were mainly deployed in the Pacific, and only two – USS Dorado and USS R-12 – are listed as being lost in the Atlantic. USS Dorado to 'friendly fire' by US aircraft and USS R-12 in an apparent diving accident.


There are three possible u-boats that could fit the bill (although none are a perfect match):


U229 – credited to Shakespeare class destroyer HMS Keppel (D84). U229, a Type VIIC, was sunk at position 54 degrees 36 minutes north, 36 degrees, 25 minutes west; after being gunned, rammed and depth charged. Action happened in the early hours of 22 September 1943. Submarine is reported to have upended and sank with no survivors from the 50-strong crew. HMS Keppel is reported as having had to make port at Newfoundland for repairs after the ramming. While the circumstances are near identical to the action by HMS Tweed, the date does not match and nothing has been found to support the possibility of an incorrect attribution. HMS Keppel went on to attack and sank the U713, on 24 February 1945 – again there were no survivors.


U338 – this Type VIIC set off on her third and final war patrol on 25 August 1943 under the command of 28 year-old Kapitanleutnant Manfred Kinzel. She was one of 20 u-boats that formed Group Leuthen (named after the town where the heavily outnumbered Prussian king Frederick the Great defeated an Austrian attack) in the north Atlantic. Among the other boats in the group were U377 and HMS Tweed's future nemesis U305, commanded by Rudolph Bohr. Last known report was received at 17:13 on 20 September 1943, which indicated she was remaining surfaced for anti-aircraft defence ( gives her last position as approx. 57 degrees north, 30 degrees west; BdU war diary indicates u-boat grid AK 36). Initial credit for sinking U338 was given to John K Moffat, pilot of a 120 Squadron B-24 Liberator, which attacked a submarine with depth charges and Fido (a homing torpedo). However, post-war analysis indicates his target was U386, which survived. None of the 51 crew survived and the circumstances surrounding the loss of the U338 remains unresolved to this day. It may well be HMS Tweed's unknown victim of 25 September 1943.


U377 – by mid-1943 the tide had well and truly turned against the fortunes of Germany's u-boat arm. By the end of the war they suffered the highest casualties of any branch of the armed forces on the Western front with around 70 per cent of the force captured or killed. Jak P Mallmann Showell, who started out researching the fate of U-377 – the boat on which his father had been lost – published U-Boat Command, a detailed view from the German side of the Battle of the Atlantic. By a curious coincidence it was also one of the books used to research this account. U377 was another Type VIIC u-boat (Type VII was the commonest used by the Kriegsmarine during WWII). Like the U869, the cause of its fate has undergone several rewrites. It was lost in January 1944 (like HMS Tweed) although its fate was worse in that all 52 men on board perished. Clay Blair suggests it was lost on 14 January due to an encounter with a hunter-killer group (unlike convoy escorts that were required to stay with their charges, these formations would stay with the contact and try and hunt it down until it was either destroyed or forced to the surface), or that its own torpedoes circled back and destroyed it. The authoritative lists its fate as being sunk on 17 January after depth charge attacks by the destroyer HMS Wanderer and the frigate HMS Glenarm. However, it is not the vessel's ultimate fate that involves HMS Tweed. As previously mentioned, U377 was part of the Leuthen Group around the time of the HMS Tweed action. Mallmann Showell mentions that U377's commander, Oberleutnant Gerhard Kluth, only just managed to dive before being rammed (which doesn't appear to fit in with the Tweed account as there was a definite contact between the vessels. A photo in the book shows a massive gash running along the side of the u-boat – which just missed the main ballast tank – consistent with a collision but its not clear how or when this damage came about). U377 later suffered an aerial attack (on 22 September 1943) – attributed to a F/Lt J R Martin operating from Gander, Newfoundland – which injured a number of personnel including Kluth and the plane's navigator. After the damaged U377 returned to Brest in October 1943, the First Watch Officer, Jumbo Gerke, was accused of having poor lookouts 'who did not spot a destroyer on a ramming course'. He apparently denied the accusation but someone looking at photos of the damaged u-boat spotted marks on top of the conning tower, which were interpreted as being the result of an aircraft crashing on top of the diving u-boat. However, Mallmann Showell states that fog kept all allied aircraft on the ground that day. U-boat crews tended to be a tight-knit group, so this explanation avoided potential court-martials and allowed a face-saving way out, which may be why it was accepted. It could be the marks on the conning tower were the result of contact with HMS Tweed's bow or the result of her gun action (gunfire was reported as hitting the base of the conning tower). Although there is no apparent mention of the depth charge attack that followed.


Royal Navy ship captains were advised that they needed a speed of 20 knots or more when ramming a u-boat to ensure they ruptured the sub's pressure hull in order to make sure it sank. However, they were warned about the possibility of damage to their own vessels. U-boat crews naturally tried their best to avoid a ramming vessel so rarely offered a stationary target. If a ship tried to ram a diving boat there was the possibility of running over the top of it and damaging its own screws, with serious consequences for themselves.

Dr Fairrie's account states that HMS Tweed was following the submarine from astern, while Leading Seaman Robert Stobart recalls that they struck the sub 'a glancy blow', which seems to match the damage to the hull of U377. Also, it increases the possibility of it not having been a lethal contact.

U338 and U377 appear to be the most promising candidates for HMS Tweed's mystery sub. If it is U338, then it provides answers, and hopefully some closure to the families of her crew. If it is U377, then it helps clear up a mystery and completes the record. But, as the case of the U869 shows, it is hard to be certain. Perhaps someone else out there knows the answer. Or may be this is the information they need to complete the picture.



Thanks and acknowledgements

Lieut Cmdr (Retd) Margaret Morris, Secretary of the Crow's Nest Club in Canada

Heather Johnson of the National Museum of the Royal Navy

Former Leading Seaman Robert William Stobart, JX 149790, HMS Tweed

Johanna Gillott, Recreational Activity Co-ordinator, BCS

Channel 4, To the Ends of the Earth: Mystery of the Missing U-Boat

Hitler's U-Boat War by Clair Blair

U-Boat Command by Jak P Mallmann Showell website website

Canadian Virtual Museum website 

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