Taku's attempted trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1941
On Monday 14th February 1941, HM Submarine Taku sailed quietly from Holy Loch in Scotland bound for Nova Scotia. She was under escort and commanded by Lieutenant Brown. No-one could possibly have imagined or foreseen what would happen in the days following this departure. At that time I was an LTO taking my first wartime trip on a submarine. My duties included operating Main Motors, under the GPO LTO (or POLTO as he was commonly called).
On Tuesday 25th February at 1900h our escort left us and we were on our own, so to speak. The barometer was falling steeply and the sea was calm with a light wind. We proceeded onwards diving by day and surfacing by night.
On Thursday 27th February at midnight, as I proceeded to take over the watch, the wind was blowing quite fresh from the North and the sea and swell were estimated at 24. As I passed through the Control Room I noticed one or two crosses on the chart. I learned afterwards from the other LTO, who I was relieving in the Motor Room, that the crosses were U boats just waiting for suitable weather to attack us.
At 0400h, when I was coming off the watch, the wind was force 4 from the Northwest and the sea and swell were still estimated at 24. Once again as I passed through the Control room I glanced at the chart and found that one or two more crosses had been added. At 0500h when I was just getting off to sleep, I realised that the weather had deteriorated. I discovered that the wind was force 4 from the North, the sea and swell was estimated at 63. It was almost impossible to move around the submarine. The heavy seas were breaking over the Conning Tower and flooding the Control Room. We were all certain that we were doomed. In fact, one Officer (who shall remain nameless) was heard to say, "Well boys, this is the journey's end. All is lost.
Nearly everyone agreed with him and we were sure he was right. All except the First Lieutenant who said, 'All is not lost until it is lost.' Whatever that meant. Nothing could be done except 'Heave To.' That order was given and we tried to ride out the storm. The wind by this time was force 10, sea and swell estimated at 83.
The Submarine's head fell away from the wind and when we were beam on to the weather, the engines were stopped and the Conning Tower hatch shut. Manoeuvres were carried out on Main Motors to endeavour to bring the Submarine back 'head to wind.' This manoeuvre took about 15 minutes. The Conning Tower hatch was opened again and the engines started. This performance was repeated approximately three times. We could not understand why we couldn't keep the Submarine head on with the engines or motors. This was attributed at the time to an initial error of bad steering, combined with very strong winds blowing the Submarine's head to Leeward each time she was thrown to the crest of a wave.
The defect was suspected but not confirmed until about 1500h when the tips of the After Hydroplanes were seen from the bridge in the vertical position. From 1500h onwards all attempts to control the Submarine were temporarily abandoned. The Conning Tower hatch was shut; the Officer and the lookouts of the watch were lashed to the periscope standards to prevent them from being washed overboard. The Submarine lay quarter to sea. A signal was sent at 2333h giving our position and requesting assistance. At this time the wind was force 10.
Almost immediately after the signal was sent the wind backed and blew mainly from the Northwest, which of course would be misleading to any rescue attempt as the drift would be difficult to calculate. The Submarine was drifting helplessly and at 0400h the wind eased to force 8, then to force 6 at 2000h, though the sea and swell remained very heavy.
The weather improved slowly over the next three days. We took advantage of this to repair the gun platform, which had been damaged by the rough weather. In its present state, the gun could not be trained. We expected at any moment an attempt from the U boats who were still around us to fire torpedoes. I suspect quite a few others shared my view that this was the end.
As I took over the watch in the Motor Room I could see into the stokers mess and I noticed one or two stokers praying. One leading stoker (whose name I cannot recall) started quietly sing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and I can say now that this was the turning point for me. I had less fear after this encounter, when previously I had been petrified.
At 040Gb on 3rd March, HMS Enchantress was sighted. She had been sent to look for us. She passed on a 90-degree track at a range of about 600 yards. Gladiolus and Slavonia, two salvage vessels, joined company at 1 130h. At 1430h a rocket line was passed from windward. While endeavouring to get the wire across, Slavonia drifted down to Leeward and the hemp line parted. The wind was again freshening and the sea and swell were estimated at 57. At 1530h all attempts were abandoned for the night.
At 0703h on 4th March more attempts were made to get the tow across. These were unsuccessful and at one point it was suggested that the Taku's crew should be taken off and the Submarine scuttled.
This, however, did not suit the First Lieutenant and he said, "Okay, if they're not going to tow us back, I will sail the Submarine back," (taking advantage of the West wind). Suitable gear was prepared for sailing, such as hammocks and blankets. On 7th March a further attempt was made to tow using Taku's starboard pendant. This was successful and at 1045h we were again proceeding in tow. It was decided to enter Loch Foyle for repairs.
We arrived in Londonderry on the afternoon of Monday 10th March. Here a towing line was made for the port side and the After Hydroplanes were lashed as horizontal as possible. Taku and Slavonia then proceeded to Holy Loch, Taku securing to the depot ship Titania exactly 24 hours after leaving Londonderry and exactly 15 days after breaking down.
We had made it because of the magnificent work of Enchantress, Gladioli and Slavonia, but above all to the tenacity, zeal and determination of our First Lieutenant who refused to admit defeat.
Taku was refitted at Ardrossan in time to take part in the 'Iron Ring' around Brest, where two German pocket battleships were holed up and expected to sail. After this Taku was sent directly to Gibraltar and Lieutenant Commander Nickelay took command from Lieutenant Brown.
We then spent some time in the Mediterranean doing patrols etc, and although we had some hair-raising escapades, nothing stands out in my mind like the breakdown in the Atlantic. The Mediterranean exploits are a different story. I had many rough times in the Mediterranean and the Far East, but when the going was tough and the depth charges shattering, my mind went back to the Taku days and the leading stoker singing quietly: "When I survey the Wondrous Cross, On which the Prince of Glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride."
With those words ringing in my ears, things did not seem so bad after all.