The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.Ulysses S. Grant
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The Atlantic Hunter Killer Task Groups
At the Allied Atlantic Convoy Conference in early 1943 it was agreed that a new offensive tactic against the German U-Boat campaign should be employed. Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Task Groups were to be formed and sent into the Atlantic to hunt the U-Boats. Comprised of an Escort Carrier supported by three or four Destroyers Escorts (sometimes more, rarely less), this aggressive new approach in hunting down U-Boats instead of simply trying to defend against them, was to play a major role in the battle.
One hundred and twenty two Escort Carriers were launched during the war of which the vast majority were either of the Casablanca or Bogue class. Sometimes known as “Jeep Carriers”, they were capable of carrying up to 28 aircraft, most commonly Grumman FM-1 and later FM-2 Wildcats and Grumman TBF/M Avengers in what were classified as Composite Squadrons. There were usually more Avengers than Wildcats in the composite squadron. The aircraft were the eyes of the group, ranging ahead and around the group searching for U-Boats on the surface, as well as its offensive strike capability.
When an enemy submarine was spotted, the Wildcats’ primary role was to suppress the enemy’s anti-aircraft fire with repeated staffing runs while the Avengers attacked with depth charges and/or bombs. Later, the Wildcats were equipped with rockets too, which further enhanced their strike capability. It was an extremely effective tactic and few U-Boats caught on the surface escaped. The Wildcats were also used as VHF radio relays to patrolling Avenger, effectively increasing the radio contact range between the carrier and its aircraft.
Composite Squadron VC-55
Composite Squadron VC-55 was formed in late 1943 and assigned to the Bogue class carrier USS Card‘s (CV-11) Group for a mid-Atlantic cruise in early 1944. Initially comprised of FM-1’s it was later equipped with FM-2’s alongside its TBM-1 Avengers.
USS Card had enjoyed success prior to VC-55’s embarkation. Commissioned in November 1942 and subsequently completing a ferry cruise to Casablanca with aircraft and troops for the invasion of North Africa, it was made flagship of ASW TG 21.14 and set sail on 27th July 1943. The Card and its composite squadron VC-1 proved very good at its job, sinking four submarines (U-Boats 117, 664, 525, and 847) in August before returning on the 10th September. Its next voyage, this time with VC-9 was equally successful with another four U-Boats (460, 422, 402 and 584) sunk in October.
VC-55 joined the Card in November 1943 as it began its third Atlantic cruise on the 24th of that month. Late on the 23rd December, either too late or with weather too poor to launch its aircraft, the group ran into a wolf-pack and soon found itself very much on the defensive when one of its escorting destroyers, USS Leary (DD-158) was sunk by three U-Boats working together. Another of its escorts USS Schenk (DD-159) was sent to rescue the Leary’s survivors while the Card and its remaining escort USS Decatur (DD-341) evaded the U-Boats for the remainder of the engagement.
The Task Group returned to its Norfolk home base on 2 January 1944 without having scored any victories. They were soon at sea again; VC-55 remained with the Card on another North African ferry cruise before the carrier went into into refit in early June, 1944. By then though, Composite Squadron VC-55 was embarked on a new carrier, USS Block Island (CVE-21).
USS Block Island (CVE-21) May 1944
“Task Group 21.11 was formed by Cinclant’s secret dispatch 160543 of April 1944 and was composed of U.S.S. BLOCK ISLAND with four 24-knot “black oil” destroyer escorts, U.S.S. AHRENS (ComCortDiv60), U.S.S. BARR, U.S.S. BUCKLEY and U.S.S. EUGENE E. ELMORE, and with Squadron VC-55 embarked in BLOCK ISLAND. The task group departed Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, at 1700, 22 April 1944 with orders to relieve the CROATAN group west of the Cape Verde Islands and to operate offensively against enemy submarines in that area. Enemy submarine action in this locality indicated the presence of a refueler and accordingly the main object of the task group was to locate and destroy this refueler.”Captain F.M. Hughs, Commander Task Group 21.11 (CO USS BLOCK ISLAND)
So begins the report on TG21.11’s cruise into the mid-Atlantic as prepared by Captain F.M. Hughs. TG21.11 was comprised of the Escort Carrier USS Block Island and four Destroyer Escorts. Its air group, VC-55 comprised 24 aircraft of which fourteen were TBM-1 Avengers and ten were FM-2 Wildcats.
The Task Group didn’t have long to wait before getting into action. Soon after relieving the USS Croatan (CVE-25), contact was made with a U-Boat. During the night of 1st May one of Block Island’s patrolling Avengers made radar contact with a submarine and then immediately attacked it with depth charges. No results were observed and contact was temporarily lost. However, having dropped sonar detection buoys the Avenger soon picked up the U-Boat again and for the next five days it was tracked relentlessly on an easterly course. No further attacks were made however.
On the fifth day the Task Group changed its tactics and directed two of the Destroyer Escorts ahead of the submarine’s expected position while the remaining two stayed with the carrier in order to surround the U-Boat. Suddenly, that night;
“…at 2122, in position 16° 55′ North, 32° 06 West, BLOCK ISLAND, with BUCKLEY and BARR as escorts, picked up a strong surface radar contact five thousand yards on the starboard quarter and contact was held for four minutes. The first plot indicated target closing at 18-1/2 knots. Evasive action was immediately taken and BUCKLEY ordered to attack contact. Search planes were vectored to the area where BUCKLEY was unable to pick up radar or sound contact. Later on that night, at 0220, one of the search planes picked up a definite radar contact bearing 330°, eighteen miles from BUCKLEY and sixty-six miles north of BLOCK ISLAND. The plane closed and sighted the submarine on the surface manoeuvring violently.”Captain F.M. Hughs, Commander Task Group 21.11 (CO USS BLOCK ISLAND)
However, as the aircraft was in this case an unarmed patrol Avenger, the USS Buckley (DE-51) was sent in to the attack and it was successful in sinking the U-Boat, in the event even ramming the submarine during the engagement.
[Editors Note; This engagement is worthy of its own piece and such a short description above does no justice at all to the events of that night. For further reading on this action click HERE.]
The sunk enemy submarine, U-66 was on its tenth patrol (coincidently, U-66 had been attacked by USS Card and its Composite Squadron not long before VC-55 embarked upon the Card) and during the interrogation of its thirty-six survivors it became clear that had the Block Island not made its evasive manoeuvre immediately upon detecting the submarine, it may have been sunk by the torpedoes the U-Boat was about to launch.
What was also clear from the interrogation was that the U-66 was on its way to rendezvous with a refueler submarine and Block Island immediately began to search for it. As the Buckley was damaged in the earlier engagement it was held back. Meanwhile though, the Destroyer Escort USS Elmore (DE-686) made sonar contact with a submarine and immediately engaged with depth charges and hedgehog attacks. Aircraft assisting the search reported soon afterwards that an oil slick appeared on the surface in the same area. For the next five days the task group remained on station but made no further contact with the submarine; in all likelihood they had sunk that one too (though there is no corresponding loss record for a U-Boat on the same date).
On 13 May the Block Island was relieved on station by the USS Bogue (CVE-09), and received a much need refuelling too. Two of its Destroyer Escorts had only two days’ fuel remaining. Not only did the carrier and its destroyers require fuel, but its aircraft did too, having flown a total of 1,800 hours and consumed 91,000 gallons of aviation gasoline in thirteen days of action.
The only loss during this first stage of the cruise was one Wildcat which was lost when it spiralled in a failed landing attempt. The crew was successfully recovered.
On the 15th May the Task Group was next sent to Casablanca and it arrived on the 18th after an uneventful trip. It remained five days to complete its refuelling, take some rest and prepare for the next part of its cruise.
By the 25th the Task Group was back at sea, and at 0050hrs by the 28th had reached the general area of 35 to 45 degrees northwest of the Azores. As was routine, search patrols were launched and…
“…a search plane made initial radar contact approximately sixty-four miles north of the task group. The pilot evaluated the target to be a surfaced submarine, indicated distance four miles. The submarine submerged before an attack could be delivered. The task group proceeded to the area and commenced immediate hold-down tactics.”Captain F.M. Hughs, Commander Task Group 21.11 (CO USS BLOCK ISLAND)
The patrol plane, a TBM-1 Avenger had turned to make an approach to attack but the submarine had by then submerged and contact was lost. At more or less the same time, two of the task groups Destroyer Escorts, the USS Athrens (DE-575) and USS Paine (DE-578), which had replaced the damaged Buckley, rushed to the contact area to engage the submarine. Early the next morning at 0615 the Athrens made contact and attacked with Hedgehog but no results were observed.
The destroyers and aircraft maintained the search for the submarine throughout the 28th but without success. That evening, six TBM’s and one fighter, an FM-2 Wildcat were launched to continue the search. Three of the TBM’s were unarmed and three carried depth charges. In this instance the Wildcat’s role was to remain in an orbit around the carrier and act as a VHF radio relay for the search aircraft.
At 0230 preparations were made to relieve the patrolling aircraft with a further three TBM’s readied for launch. At 0245
“A TBM unarmed night search plane in the forward port sector picked up a strong radar contact bearing 200°, a distance of seventy-eight miles from the task group. As launching was now in progress, two fully-armed TBM were vectored out at once to point of contact. Without difficulty they joined up on top of the overcast, the first contact plane maintaining contact on the submarine. Due to poor radar reception, one of the newly arrived planes was unable to pick up contact and accordingly cleared the area. A coordinated attack was decided upon with plane one (the plane making radar contact) dropping flare and plane two (newly arrived armed plane) going in for the attack. Both planes entered the overcast at 6000 feet and let down together, plane one keeping in contact. At 2500 feet they broke clear, plane two continuing down to 1000 feet. They maneuvered until plane two was as close as possible over the submarine. Then plane one dropped a Mark VIII flare which gave reasonably good illumination of area. Plane two scouted two minutes before he saw wake of submarine showing quite clearly against black water, turned to course of wake and let down to 100 feet, opened bomb bay door and started in for depth charge attack. He then sighted dim bulk of submerging U-boat ahead of wake not more than 800 yards distant when all of a sudden flare went out. Blinded by sudden darkness and dangerously close to the water, the pilot had to go on instruments at once to pull out. Number one plane lost radar contact at that time. Both pilots believed U-boat, alerted by the flare, submerged. Nevertheless, plane one illuminated the area once more with negative results. Several more planes were vectored out in the meanwhile and established a five-mile and a twenty-five mile square, respectively, around the contact area. After daylight, the squares were expended to thirty miles and fifty miles, respectively. No further contacts were obtained. At this time, the task group was sixty miles north of the contact point and all of the DEs needed oil. This prevented sending the surface ships to assist the aircraft during the night. Accordingly, between 0800 and 1200 BLOCK ISLAND refueled the ELMORE and BARR, the two ships having the lowest quantity of oil remaining. The task group was then headed 215°, which was the estimated course of the submarine from the two plotted previous contacts, with the idea of running a sonar sound search along this track during the afternoon. (We felt positive the submarine would continue to make good his previous course.)”Captain F.M. Hughs, Commander Task Group 21.11 (CO USS BLOCK ISLAND)
Despite an intense search throughout the day, no further contact was made with the submarine. At 1700 six Wildcats were launched to fly sector searches at 100NM range to ensure the submarine wasn’t racing away on the surface. Almost three hours later at 1955, and without any contact with the submarine, the Wildcats were recalled and told that they would land immediately after two night patrol TBM’s were launched. On deck were eight TBM’s and one FM-2 in readiness for night operations.
Suddenly, at 2013 the Block Island was rocked by a powerful explosion forward. Three seconds later a second torpedo struck the carrier. The port side was heavily damaged and there was oil in the water almost immediately. The USS Block Island was severely damaged, holed in two places and taking on water at an alarming rate.
“The engine room informed the bridge that the low pressure turbine had blown up, that all motive power was gone and that the engine room was taking considerable water through the break in the low pressure turbine. Also, water was leaking through the shaft gland from the shaft alley. Steering engine room reported the steering engine wrecked and the rudder jammed.”Captain F.M. Hughs, Commander Task Group 21.11 (CO USS BLOCK ISLAND)
Less than five minutes after the second torpedo strike, a third struck the carrier a midships, destroying the hanger deck. Fortunately it had already been evacuated by the Executive Officer and there were few casualties. The damage to its structure was now fatal though, the stricken carrier could not be saved. Among other damage (see the illustration below for a full description of the full scope damage sustained) the flight deck was literally cracked all the way across the ship at roughly midships, an eighteen inch gap preventing any option of launching the remaining aircraft. Or, for that matter, recovering the six Wildcats still aloft.
By 2140hrs it was clear the Block Island was only minutes away from sinking and the order to abandon ship was given. On the flight deck frantic efforts were still underway to free a crew member who had become trapped between a collapsed catwalk and the superstructure. Eventually rescuers had to amputate the man’s leg with a “sheave knife” in a last ditch effort to free him before the ship sank. Despite extraordinary and courageous efforts to release the trapped man, and in particular by Chief Carpenter Bailey who was mentioned in the Captain’s report, the unfortunate crew member did not survive his ordeal and his body was left aboard when the the last of the crew left the ship. At 2155 the carrier slipped under the surface and was lost.
Later reports indicated suggested that the carrier was scuttled by its escort destroyers but if this was indeed the case, it was not recorded in the Captain’s full report.
Remarkably only six Block Island crew members died in the action, a testament to the efficiency with which it was both handled after the first torpedo strike, and how the crew conducted themselves afterwards. A total 951 men were rescued by the Task Group’s destroyers.
But what of the six FM-2 Wildcats still aloft? Having been launched at 1700 they had been airborne for a little under four hours when the first torpedo struck their carrier. Without the option to recover on board the Block Island, but curiously electing not to ditch near the remaining Task Group ships, they had little choice but to set a course to the Canary Islands which was the nearest land, and hope to arrive safely. They were desperately short of fuel for such a trip however, tired from what was already a four hour patrol and likely ill prepared for the navigational demands of finding the Canaries, over water, and in the gathering darkness. Only two reached safe landfall. The remaining four were lost, presumably when they were forced to ditch in the darkness for lack of fuel. Their bodies were never recovered.
U-Boat Type IX/C40, U-549 had no time to celebrate what was, in fact, its first victory. Even before the Block Island disappeared from view on that early spring evening, its crew doggedly continued its attack on the Task Group, succeeding in putting a torpedo into the destroyer USS Barr (DE-576). However, while the U-Boat was focused on the Barr, the Elmore and the Athrens made a determined and successful attack with depth charges; the latter, it should be noted, while simultaneously continuing to pick up survivors from the Block Island. When the Block Island‘s Captain, Cpt. Frank Hughs was taken aboard the USS Athrens he was informed that the submarine which had taken his ship had itself been sunk soon thereafter.
When U-549 was hunted down and sunk that evening it was, like a growing number of its contemporaries, on only its first combat cruise. There were no survivors from its 57 man crew.
While there were yet more swings of advantage and disadvantage still to come in the Battle of the Atlantic, a trend began with the establishment of the ASW Task Groups that never really altered, a trend of an increasing futility in the submarine warfare conducted by the Germans. It became so futile in fact, that in the latter part of 1944 and into 1945, the life expectancy of an operational U-Boat dropped to little more than one patrol. It was a long way from the heady days of 1941/42 when the Wolf-Packs ranged the Atlantic almost at will and largely unmolested; instead, they were now the hunted.
Hobby Boss 1/48 Scale Grumman FM-2 Wildcat
Paint and Markings
References and Credits
- Dana Bell
- Steven “Modeldad” Eisenman; Hyperscale “Plane Talking” Legend
- http://www.navsource.org and in particular Fabio Peña for permission to use several photos from this excellent site
- The full after-action report of the Block Island sinking