|Captain Johnnie Walker|
The Battle of the Atlantic was an international effort, straining the sinews of sailors, airmen, shipbuilders, dockyard workers, scientists and the armaments industry. But if any individual could claim to have turned the tide against the U-boat, then it would be Captain Frederic John ‘Johnnie’ Walker, a man who destroyed more U-boats than any other – at least 14, perhaps 20. Walker was a naval hero in the mould of Drake or Nelson and Winston Churchill himself admitted that without triumph in the Battle of the Atlantic, Britain was in danger of losing the war, Walkers name is today associated with two British sloop ships, Starling and Stork. Based in Liverpool and sailing from Gladstone Dock, Johnnie Walker is quoted as saying, “They have given me a free hand and I’m going to show them what I can do”.
Walker received a command in October 1941, taking control of the 36th Escort Group, commanding from the Bittern-class sloop Stork. The escort group comprised two sloops (including Stork) and six corvettes and was based in Liverpool, home of Western Approaches Command. Initially his Group was primarily used to escort convoys to and from Gibraltar.
His first chance to test his innovative methods against the U-boat menace came in December when his group escorted Convoy HG 76 (32 ships). During the journey five U-boats were sunk, four by Walker's group, including U-574 which was depth-charged and rammed by Walker's own ship on 19 December..
|Convoy HG 76 ©Trinity Mirror|
It was the formation of the 2nd Support Group (2SG) in the summer of 1943 which cemented Walker’s reputation, however. Two factors were key: the creation of dedicated hunting groups, rather than U-boat escorts, and what Walker called the ‘creeping’ attack. One ship would direct another in for the kill, dropping a succession of depth charges at nine-second intervals. The method gave the foe no warning – and no escape.
|German U Boat August 1943|
photograph ©Royal Navy (IWM)
On 6 November 1943 Walker's group sank U-226 and U-842. In early 1944 Walker's group displayed their efficiency against U-boats by sinking six in one patrol. On 31 January 1944 Walker's group gained their first kill of the year when they sank U-592. On 9 February his group sank U-762, U-238, and U-734 in one action, and then sank U-424 on 11 February, and U-264 on 19 February. On 20 February 1944 one of Walker's group, HMS Woodpecker, was torpedoed and sank seven days later while being towed home; all of her crew were saved.
Captain Walker and his men, returned to their base at Liverpool to the thrilled jubilation of the city's inhabitants and the Admiralty. The First Lord of the Admiralty was present to greet Walker and his ships. Walker was awarded a second bar to his DSO. First Lord of the Admiralty, A V Alexander, is quoted as saying, “one of the greatest cruises, the greatest cruise perhaps, ever undertaken in this war by an escort group”.
|Liverpool greet the Starling, her sister sloops and Captain Johnnie Walker on their return to Liverpool.February 1944|
|Captain FJ Walkers funeral aboard the Hesparus|
© Mike Kemble
It was to Walker that the Allies turned to safeguard the Normandy invasion fleet from U-boat attack a few months later. The German submarines did not penetrate his shield. The one victim of Normandy, however, was Walker. He died from a stroke on July 7 1944 caused by months of overwork and exhaustion. A very public funeral in Liverpool and burial at sea followed, although Walker would probably have baulked at the former. He hated the press accolades, the tag of hero. “Please don’t call me the ‘ace U-boat killer’,” he pleaded during one public engagement.
“That formidable character is a thousand British Jack Tars.”
|A statue in his honour now stands at the Pier Head in Liverpool.|
Imperial War Museum
Liverpool Central Library
(IWM) indicates, images courtesy of the Imperial War Museum