Balloon Repair Station

HMS Starwort and the U-boat – the sinking of U-660

Monday morning bright and gay and dear old Trev popped round for a coffee. “’Ere boy found this in me dad’s house. Its HMS Starwort, a Flower Class Corvette.” “How do you know that matey?” I asked. “Its on the back. Kettle on?” No change there then. Thing is neither of us had ever heard of HMS Starwort but we knew that the Royal Naval ones were named after flowers. The Starwort is a generic name for quite a few plants but mostly commonly applied to the aster, however, it is also the name given to semi-submerged dense leaved plants that take over ponds and line the sides of slow moving streams which, as we discovered later, may have been more appropriate!

We trawled Jane’s Fighting Ships, books various and the wibblywobblyweb but, to be frank (or Robert) there was little there apart from basic details and a bit of loose history. The Corvette was based on a whaling ship design built in Middlesbrough, the idea being that they could be built quickly in the smaller shipyards whilst the larger, faster and better equipped destroyers came on line. HMS Starwort was assigned K.20, specifically built for Convoy duty, on Clydeside by A & J Inglis Ltd of Glasgow (for Harland and Wolff), launched on 12th February 1941 and commissioned on 26th May 1941. She displaced 1,060 tons, was 205 feet long and fitted with oil-fired boilers giving a maximum speed of 16 knots. Built as a submarine hunter she was armed with depth charges, one 4 inch gun, one 2 pounder gun and fitted with Asdic (a submarine detector). In later refits, she was fitted with a hedge-hog (multiple mortar launcher), 6 single 20mm guns and an F.D.F. (radar). She carried a crew of 70-80 men including 6 officers. Apart from the Sloops, Corvettes were one of the smallest naval vessels and were initially designed for inshore patrol and escort duty not really for open ocean sailing but they proved extremely hardy, had a good range and were quickly put to use in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, escorting and protecting the Convoys. They manoeuvred well but were limited by their speed. A surfaced U-boat could outrun them. Being short in relation to their beam and with a shallow hull, although they could withstand the heaviest seas, they pitched and rolled badly making prolonged bad weather extremely tiring for the crew. The saying went that, ‘they rolled on wet grass!’ On the whole they were manned by reservists, their captains being ex-Merchant Navy. Having very few bulkheads, if hit by a torpedo, or mine, they sunk within seconds, usually with loss of the whole crew. Between them they did a heroic job, not only attacking and sinking U-boats but also in the rescue of countless sailors from both merchant ships, naval vessels and U-boats, often acting as tenders taking them to larger vessels. 219 of the Class were built, 145 in Britain. Over 20 Corvettes were lost to U-boats and mines. Then bingo, we came across a rather wonderful article that was put together by BBC Radio Suffolk and featured Archibold Mayes, the ships’ medical assistant who served on Starwort for four and a half years and where we discovered that, after the war, she became a whaler and that Trev’s picture was her departing Tilbury after her refit. Archibold’s story is pretty typical and, although short it really gives an idea of life onboard, convoys and the hardships and the hazards they endured.

‘On September 1st 1939 I was called up as a reservist to RN Barracks Chatham. After a month in barracks I was drafted to RN Hospital Chatham for medical training. Six months later I was sent to HMS Wildfire, a boys training ship at Sheerness, and from there I took part in bringing the troops home from Dunkirk, and many other duties during the Battle of Britain. In July 1941, I got a draft to join HMS Starwort. I was given 48 hours leave to get married, and was married at Seaton Road Methodist Church, Felixstowe. Then was off on a convoy to West Africa to join HMS Starwort, a Flower Class Corvette, where I served four and a halve years as a Medical Assistant.

There were no home comforts onboard. We had no laundry, fridges or freezers, all crew members shared an open shower, and the Heads (toilets) had no doors! Clothes washing was done in buckets (if you were lucky, the chef would let you boil some on the cooking range) then dried in the engine room. There was no ships Doctor, so they had to put up with me! I was known as Doc, and called many other things as well! "Messing" arrangements were 'self-catering'. A caterer was nominated each week in the mess, and he purchased and prepared the food in the Mess, then he took it to the galley to be cooked. Many weeks we had 'Corn dog', corned beef and tinned food. An allowance was paid to each man to cover this food, and if any mess had what was called 'Big Eats', it was deducted from their pay! Pay days were few and far between, maybe two to six months. Fresh food ran out after a few days at sea. Often in rough weather, the mess decks were awash with sea water and garbage. Most of the crew slept in hammocks. You must remember we were young lads in those days and life on board was not always bad, we had our good times and the comradeship of the mess-mates was outstanding.

One convoy duty out of Freetown when a troop ship was torpedoed and the Starwort picked up 240 survivors. We spent 9 months working out of Freetown on convoy duties. In March 1942 we were called home for a refit at Tilbury. Our next mission was on the dreaded Russian Convoy. We joined the convoy PQ16 at Siedisford, the West coast of Iceland, with 35 merchant ships. For me, this was the worst experience of the war. We were threatened by U-Boats, some 500 JU 88 dive bombers, with no air cover ourselves and also the German battleships. We lost many ships and picked up 71 survivors, whose life expectancy in the icy waters was very limited. We arrived at Murmansk battered and out of ammunition, then went further north to Archangel before being able to make our way home. We next had to escort a huge convoy for the invasion of North Africa, during which HMS Starwort sank U-Boat 660, and picked up 45 members of her crew. We then spent several months escorting convoys across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, taking up to three weeks at a time.

After that we did a further Russian convoy known as the Kola run, but with a very heavy escort which reduced the air and U-Boat attacks. We spent four weeks at the Kola inlet. On the way home we experienced very heavy gales, the worst ever experienced, and the convoy PQ 17 had to scatter. However, we arrived safely back at our base at Londonderry. This was the time of the Battle of the Atlantic, and at its peak, 17 ships on one convoy were lost! We escorted many more convoys around European waters until finally returning home to Harwich to take part in the D-Day invasion of French beaches. By May 1945 the war in Europe was over, and the tired Starwort was laid up in Londonderry before being sold, in 1946, to become the Southern Broom, a whaler operating in Northern waters. In 1967, 20 years later and after such strenuous service, she was broken up in Bruges’.

Now we had a sort of timeline we could look up some of the incidents referred to by Archibold and maybe discover a bit more about the ship. HMS Starwort along with other Flower Class corvettes turns up in countless reports often in name only. She was captained by Lt. Cdr.Norman Duck from 22nd March 1941 until 6th August 1942, then Lt. Arthur Kent from 6th August 1942 until 10 August 1944 and finally by T/A/Lt.Cdr. Michael Villiers-Stuart from 10th August until she was laid up in mid 1945. The troopship referred to was the Anselm, a converted cargo vessel carrying 1,200 Army, Air Force and Royal Marines and heading for Freetown, reportedly twice her designed capacity. Despite being escorted by the corvettes Starwort, Petunia and Lavender and the converted survey ship HMS Challenger, the group was attacked by U-96, 300miles north of the Azores, with one torpedo hitting Anselm amidships and ‘lifting her out of the water’. Despite the damage they managed to get all but one lifeboat away but many were trapped below decks, including many RAF airmen. The ship went down in 22 minutes with the loss of over 250 lives. Starworts Asdic had gone u/s so whilst she rescued survivors the other two Corvettes located the U-boat and dropped depth charges which caused it extensive damage but broke off the attack when they got too close to the lifeboats and survivors from Anselm. Amazingly 1,061 survivors were picked up including the master of the Anselm. Heroics came out of this tragedy the Rev. Sqdn. Ldr. Herbert Cecil Pugh, the Royal Air Force chaplain accompanying the airmen, was posthumously awarded the George Cross, in 1947, for helping many of the injured and trapped. He finally demanded to be lowered into the hold where many of the airman were trapped and went down with them. In his citation, published in The London Gazette of 1st April 1947, it was written, ‘Coming up on deck he seemed to be everywhere at once, doing his best to comfort the injured, helping with the boats, rafts and visiting different lower sections where men were quartered, When he learned that a number of injured airmen were trapped in the hold which had been damaged by the torpedo, which destroyed the normal means of escape, he insisted on being lowered in by a rope. Everyone demurred, as the hold was below the water-line, the decks were already awash, and to go down was to go to certain death. He simply explained that he must be where his men were. The hold now was so full of water that when he knelt to pray, the water reached his shoulders. Within a few minutes the ship plunged and sank and Mr Pugh was never seen again. He had every opportunity of saving his own life but, without regard for his own safety and in the best tradition of the Service and of a Christian minister, he gave up his life for others’.

Convoy PQ16 originally comprised 36 ships when it left Iceland for Murmansk on the 21st May 1942, the last leg of its journey taking munitions to Russia. With clear skies, calm seas and almost 24 hours of daylight, for a week it was attacked by air and sea. Eight ships in total were lost during the 245 air attacks, one to a U-boat and one struck a mine shortly after arrival in Murmansk.

Convoy PQ17 suffered the worst losses of all the Russian convoys. 35 ships departed Iceland on 27th June 1942 with a heavy escort. Reports were coming into the Admiralty that Tirpitz had slipped its mooring and with its battle fleet was heading for them. The order to scatter was given and the cruisers and escorts ordered to leave the convoy. Figures vary but, following heavy prolonged air attacks and U-boat action, in total only 11 of the original 35 ships got through. The Tirpitz had been moving berths and although the order to make ready to sail once it was learnt that the convoy had scattered was given, it was later rescinded. Controversy still surrounds the decision and much has been written on the subject.

As you would expect Starwort was also involved in attacking a number of submarines during her career and following the details about the sinking of U660 we changed course and some rather splendid photos turned up taken by one of the ships’ crew and made available by his grandson Matt Bennett to uboat.net. When it comes to the history of German U-boats there is loads of it. Through records kept of the interrogation of captured crews, and the work of the code-breakers in tracking the patrols, there is a wealth of information out there. We discovered that U660 was built in Hamburg and launched on 17th November 1941. She was commissioned on 8th January, 1942, the occasion being celebrated by a banquet onboard the "General Artigas" attended by the whole ships’ company and a number of distinguished visitors. U-660 was then attached to the 5th U-Boat Flotilla at Kiel. Her captain was Gotz Baur. He joined the newly commissioned U-660 on 8th January 1942 at the age of 25 and remained in command until 12th November 1942 when it was sunk following a depth charge attack by HMS Starwort and HMS Lotus. During this period they carried out 3 patrols lasting a total of 77 days at sea. The first operational patrol left Kiel on 25th July 1942 arriving in Brest on 6th September 1942 then departing on 3rd October and arriving in La Spezia on 15th October. Her final patrol departed La Spezia on 24th October and 20 days later on 12th November she was sunk in the Mediterranean north of Oran, Algeria with the loss of two crew. During her brief career the U-660 crew sunk two ships, Cape Race and Empire Reindeer, the crews of both being rescued by Royal Naval vessels, and damaged two others, Condylis and Oregon all on 10th August 1942. This is only remarkable because it occurred on one attack, with a spread of four torpedoes, on her first patrol. She herself was attacked twice. On 25th August 1942 by HMS Viscount which U-660 had attempted to torpedo but failed when the cap jammed on the rear torpedo tube. She was detected and, along with a Flower Class corvette, HMS Potentilla, was heavily depth charged sustaining damage to one of her hydroplane motors. On 3rd September 1942 she was attacked by an RAF Whitley from 77 Sqn.

As for U660’s commander Gotz Baur there was just as much. After three months' new entry training, he was drafted to the sailing training ship "Gorch Fock," transferring after three months to the cruiser "Emden," in which he served as an officer cadet during a nine-months' world cruise. In 1936 he returned to the Naval College at Flensburg-Murwik, where he remained until 1937, when he was promoted to midshipman. In October 1937 he was again appointed to the "Emden," in which he made another long cruise, this time to the Mediterranean and onto India. This lasted for six months, after which he was commissioned as a Leutnant zur See on 20th April, 1938. He was then appointed to the newly-built destroyer "Hans Lody," in which he remained, latterly as First Lieutenant, until mid-1940, when he transferred to the U-Boat arm. He was promoted Oberleutnant zur See on 1st October, 1939. Baur trained in "U 57," a school boat commanded by Kapitänleutnant Klaus Korth, for whom ‘he conceived a great admiration’, and was later appointed First Lieutenant in U-552 commanded by the well-known Kapitänleutnant Erich Topp, remaining with this boat until shortly before being given the command of U-660 in the late autumn of 1941. During the interrogation of the crew after their capture he was described as ‘an extremely popular and efficient captain’. His men said of him that he was "like a father with his sons," and all spoke enthusiastically of his keenness and initiative. They thought that he would certainly have been decorated with the Ritterkreuz eventually, and were of the opinion that, in sinking U-660, the British had destroyed one of the most important of the younger U-Boat commands.

The events leading up to U-660’s sinking started at 0800 on 12th November 1942 when convoy T.E.3. was sighted about five miles away. They remained on the surface for 30 minutes by which time the mastheads of the approaching ships were clearly visible. In the interrogation notes it is reported that Baur was ‘anxious to repeat his feat of 10th August when he sank four ships with four torpedos’. At periscope depth he judged the moment to attack favourable but as he was about to fire he spotted one of the escort vessels turn towards him and ordered absolute silence in the boat. The escort passed to port, appeared to stop, and launched a pattern of depth charges which exploded below, to port and slightly ahead of her. Up top, according to naval records, soon after 0930 GMT, HMS. Starwort, one of the corvettes escorting T.E.3, was hunting and Asdic contact was made on the port quarter of the convoy. Destroyers HMS Wescott, HMS Verify and HMS Wyvern were also carrying out an Asdic sweep in the neighbourhood and, having passed around the convoy, closed with HMS Starwort which launched a hedgehog attack resulting in no explosions. Starwort then carried out a stern attack with the depth charges set so shallow that observers in HMS Wescott thought that ‘Starwort must inflict damage on herself’.

The attack caused water entry on the starboard side of the motor compartment and put the torpedo-angling gear out of order. The ship's company were standing by to dive deeper, in accordance with routine, but Baur ordered her to remain at periscope depth and fire the salvo as arranged, however, this was found to be impossible owing to the damage to the angling gear so Baur ordered her to dive immediately. He did consider the possibility of firing his torpedoes by hydrophone but all the compasses and other control room gear had, by now, been put out of order. The water entry aft then put the starboard electric motor out of action and the crew rigged up a screen over the other motor to prevent it being similarly affected. Further inspection soon showed that the damage aft was found to be more serious than at first suspected and water was entering at a steady rate. To maintain her trim Baur ordered all available men, ammunition and provisions forward. It was reported by some that they dived to over 200m but other crew members declared that the gauges were defective by then and it was more likely to have been around 160m. Despite the pumps working at full capacity the water ingress became serious with the main lighting failing and the batteries starting to give off chlorine. As the bow started down, weight was shifted back and Baur ordered two charges of sand ballast to be ejected then attempted, unsuccessfully, to eject a third. On the surface HMS Westcott had stopped, obtained two echoes on her radar and, choosing the nearer, dropped depth charges ‘to great effect’ Realising the hopelessness of their situation Baur ordered the engineering officer to blow the tanks but discovered that in the confusion the vents of No.1 diving tank had not been closed so that bubbles may have appeared on the surface, possibly betraying their position in advance. U-660 surfaced at about midday. Topside, shortly after contact and following the depth charge attack, both HMS Wescott's echoes faded, but almost immediately a disturbance on the surface produced by escaping air was noticed and U-660's bow broke surface at an angle of about 70°.

As soon as U-660 broke surface Baur gave the order to abandon ship, remaining with the engineering officer (they are probably those still on the U-boat) and scuttled the boat by opening the vents and removing the cover of the sea inlet to the main bilge pump. That the ship's company abandoned U-660 in the most orderly manner is most clearly shown in Matt Bennett’s photographs, however, survivors complained that two of their number had been killed by gunfire while in the water. The Naval record noted that ‘U-660 righted herself on the surface and her men lined up on the upper deck as if on parade. All ships present fired 12-pdrs, pom-poms, Oerlikon and Lewis guns. HMS Starwort appeared to be about to ram, but instead passed close ahead of the U-Boat, turned quickly and stopped astern. The destroyer's fire was therefore masked and capture of the U-Boat rendered impossible. When a last burst of fire from a ship which was very close looked like killing the whole crew, they dived overboard and were followed very shortly by the scuttling party. U-660 then sank stern first. H.M.S. Starwort picked up 29 survivors, HMS Verify seven and HMS Wyvern nine. For U-660 and her survivors the war was over.

For HMS Starwort the war was far from over and she went on to serve until mid 1945. After the D-Day landings the Flower Class Corvettes were soon being replaced by Frigates and the updated Castle-class Corvettes and in the naval register of July 1945 she is shown as ‘Not in Action’. Many of the surviving corvettes went on to serve in other navies, often in the role of coastal patrol craft. In 1948 Starwort was sold to Christian Salvesen in Norway and refitted as whaler by James Jamont & Co. Ltd of Greenock. She was commissioned in February 1949 and renamed Southern Broom and headed for South Georgia in the Antarctic becoming a successful whaler. She spent the 1949/50 to 1960/61 seasons catching for the Factory Ship Southern Venturer but in April 1960 she suffered severe engine damage and was towed from Enderby Land to Smith's Dock, in Middlesbrough, quite a tow, by the Southern Main for repairs. Her last season was 1962/63. Eventually she was laid up Melsomvik, Norway, in May 1963 then in 1966 she was sold to ship breakers Van Heyghes Freres in Bruges, Belgium, arriving under tow on 9 January 1967. Artist George Cummings painted a marvellous picture of her delivering the very first whale of the season to the factory ship in 1961. He reckoned that she had just been refurbished over the winter at Leith Harbour whaling station, South Georgia, ‘which is why she looks so neat’. An ex-whaler himself he explained that as she was converted from a corvette she had an extended gun platform which was good in heavy weather.

As always when researching stuff interesting coincidences, or asides if you like, often crop up. Gotz Baur would already have taken charge of U-660 when U-552’s captain, Erich Topp, under who he had served, on 31 October 1941 whilst hunting an eastbound convoy, HX 156, at roughly 0525hrs, torpedoed one of the escorts causing the ship’s magazine to explode and sink very rapidly taking two thirds of the crew with it. This turned out to be the destroyer USS Reuben James. The sinking, six weeks before the United States declared war on Germany, made it the first US ship lost in hostile action during WW2. U-552 remained active throughout the war being de-commissioned in February 1945. Erich Topp became one of the foremost U-boat commanders and surrendered U-2513 on 9th May 1945 at Horten, in Norway. He died on 26th December 2005. U-96, the U-boat that sunk the Anselm, was the U-boat that the novel, and later television series, Das Boot (The Boat) was based on. The writer Lothar-Günther Buchheim joined her for one patrol as a war correspondent and official artist to provide ‘impressions of the German Navy in action’ for propaganda purposes. Over 5,000 of his photos survived the war, and 205 of these form the epic photo-essay U-Boat War. U-96 did survive until it was de-commissioned in Wilhelmshaven in February 1945 but was sunk during an Allied air raid on 30th March 1945. Then at the last minute we discovered that HMS Lotus, who had taken part in the sinking of U-660 alongside Starwort, also became a Christian Salvesen whaler, was re-named Southern Lotus and ended up whaling with Southern Broom!

Thanks to Trevor, uboat.net and the BBC’s WW2 People’s war archive. The pictures of U-660 on the surface were generously provided to uboat.net by Matt Bennett whose Grandfather served on HMS Starwort during from April 1943 to August 1945.

Anselm picture courtesy of Library of Contemporary History, Stuttgart and U Boat net. Picture of Reverend Herbert Cecil Pugh is courtesy of his family.
http://uboat.net/index.html everything you need to know about U-boats and their commanders including many RN ships that countered them.
http://uboat.net/boats/patrols/patrol_2010.html route of the first patrol.
http://www.uboatarchive.net/U-660A/U-660BennettPhotos.htm photos of U-660 under fire from Starwort from the Bennett collection.
http://www.uboatarchive.net/U-660A/U-660INT.htm report of the crew’s interrogation. Quite astonishing stuff.
http://www.uboatarchive.net/U-660A/U-660BennettPhotos.htm These photographs were generously provided by Matt Bennett whose Grandfather served on HMS Starwort during from April 1943 to August 1945.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/92/a5031992.shtml Archibold Mayes story. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The full archive can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.
http://www.lardex.net/TONSBERG/salvesen/skipstekst/1948southernbroom.htm pictures of Southern Broom
http://www.marinescenes.co.uk/ George Cummings website

Comments are closed.