Convoy SC 7
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (April 2009)|
|Part of World War II|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Karl Dönitz||L. D. I. Mackinnon|
|7 U-boats||35 ships
|Casualties and losses|
|None||20 merchant ships sunk, 141 dead
total 79,592 gross register tons (GRT)
SC-7 was the code name for a large Allied World War II convoy of 35 merchant ships and six escorts which sailed eastbound from Sydney, Nova Scotia for Liverpool and other United Kingdom ports on 5 October 1940. While crossing the Atlantic, the convoy was intercepted by one of the German Navy's submarine wolfpacks. During the ensuing battle, the escort was completely overwhelmed and 20 of the 35 cargo vessels were sunk and 2 more damaged, with 141 lives lost.
The disastrous outcome of the convoy demonstrated the German submarines' potential of being able to work more efficiently using wolf pack tactics and the inadequacy of British anti-submarine tactics at the time.
Ships of the convoy
The slow convoy SC-7 left Sydney, Nova Scotia on 5 October 1940 bound for Liverpool and other British ports. The convoy was supposed to make 8 knots, but a number of its 35 merchant ships were much slower than this. The convoy consisted of older, smaller ships, mostly with essential cargoes of bulk goods. Much of the freight on these ships originated on Canada's east coast, especially from points to the north and east of Sydney. Typical cargoes included pit props from eastern New Brunswick for the British coal mines, lumber, pulpwood, grain from the Great Lakes ports, steel and steel ingots from the Sydney plant, and iron ore from Newfoundland bound for the huge steel plants of Wales. The largest ship in the convoy was the 9,512-ton oil tanker MV Languedoc, belonging to the British Admiralty, which was bound for the Clyde with fuel for the Royal Navy. Another ship, the British SS Empire Brigade, carried a valuable cargo of trucks.
Many of the ships were British, but the convoy also included Greek, Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch vessels. The convoy commodore, Vice Admiral Lachlan Donald Ian Mackinnon, a retired naval officer who volunteered for this civilian duty, sailed in SS Assyrian, a British ship of 2,962 GRT. As convoy commodore, Mackinnon was in charge of the good order of the merchant ships, but did not command the escort.
The Hastings-class sloop HMS Scarborough was sole naval escort for the first three quarters of the journey. There was no aircraft protection in 1940 for Allied ships in the Atlantic Ocean after leaving coastal regions. Scarborough would have had little chance against a surface attack by a German raider.
Many of the merchant ship captains were resentful at having to sail in convoy, and would have preferred to take their chances on their own rather than risk such a slow crossing with a weak escort. They were often uncooperative; at one point early in the voyage Scarborough's captain was shocked to find a Greek merchant ship in the convoy travelling at night with her lights on.
The first attacks
The convoy sailed on Saturday 5 October 1940. On the first day, one ship, the SS Winona dropped out with mechanical trouble, and had to return.
As bad weather set in on the 11th, several ships became separated, and were forced to sail independently. One of these, the SS Trevisa, was a small Canadian Laker of 1,813 tons with a cargo of lumber destined for Scotland. She was sighted by U-124 on the 16th and sunk. Another, the Greek freighter SS Aenos was seen by U-38, and sunk on 17th; but SS Eaglescliffe Hall, another Laker, avoided this fate, and was able to rescue survivors from Aenos, before arriving safely at Rothesay on the 19th. A fourth straggler regained the convoy on the 15th.
On the 17th as the convoy entered the Western Approaches Scarborough was joined by the sloop Fowey and the new corvette Bluebell. Later that day they were sighted by U-48, which attacked, sinking two ships including the tanker Languedoc. Scarborough counter-attacked, driving U-48 deep so she was unable to shadow or report. However the attack was prolonged unwisely, and the convoy moved so far ahead Scarborough was unable to rejoin.
On the 18th SC 7 was joined by the sloop Leith, and the corvette Heartsease, and Leith assumed command. Later that day U-38, sighted the convoy and attacked, damaging SS Carsbreck. Leith and Heartsease attacked without success, though U-38 was driven off, and Heartsease was detailed to escort Carsbreck home, weakening the escort further.
The night of the U-boats
On the night of 18th/19th five boats made a concerted attack. They were U-46, U-99, U-100, U-101 and U-123. U-99 was captained by the famous ace Korvettenkapitän Otto Kretschmer. The attack was coordinated from Lorient by Admiral Karl Dönitz and his staff.
An early casualty was the iron ore ship, SS Creekirk, bound for Cardiff, Wales. With her heavy cargo, she sank like a stone, taking all 36 crew members with her. Later that night, SC 7 lost many of its members, including the SS Empire Brigade with her cargo of trucks and six of her crew and the SS Fiscus with her cargo of steel ingots from Sydney. She sank like a stone as well, taking with her 38 of her 39 man crew. Also among the casualties was the commodore's ship, SS Assyrian, down with 17 crew (though Commodore Mackinnon was rescued after a long immersion in the chilly waters). In all, 16 ships were lost in this six hour period.
The escorts were unable to prevent any of these losses; their responses were uncoordinated and ineffective. They never realised that the attacking submarines did not attack submerged or from outside the convoy, but were actually running surfaced between the ships inside the convoy. Therefore the escorts were unable to mount any serious attacks on the U-boats, and had to spend much of their time rescuing survivors.
During the daytime of the 19th the escorts, loaded with survivors, gathered together those ships that remained. Fowey collected eight ships and made for the Clyde, arriving there a few days later. Scarborough passed through the scene of the battle later on the 19th; she found wreckage, but no survivors. Later that afternoon Leith met Heartsease, still escorting the damaged Carsbreck; together they headed for the Gourock, collecting two more stragglers on the way. Bluebell with over 200 survivors on board, headed directly for the Clyde, arriving on the 20th.
The blackest days
The loss of 28 ships in 48 hours made 18th and 19 October the worst two days for shipping losses in the entire Atlantic campaign.
The attack on SC 7 was a vindication of the U-boat Arm's wolf-pack tactic, and was the most successful U-boat attack of the Atlantic campaign. By contrast the convoy escort was ineffective in guarding against the attack. Convoy tactics were rudimentary at this early stage of the war. The escorts' responses were uncoordinated, as the ships were unused to working together with a common battle-plan. Command fell to the senior officer present, and could change as each new ship arrived. The escorts were torn between staying with the convoy, abandoning survivors in the water, as DEMS regulations demanded, and picking them up, leaving the convoy unprotected and risking being torpedoed themselves.
- Paul Lund, Harry Ludlam : The Night of the U-Boats ( 1973) ISBN 0-572-00828-7
- Stephen Roskill : The War at Sea 1939-1945 Vol I (1954) ISBN (none)
- Dan van der Vat : The Atlantic Campaign (1988) ISBN 0-340-37751-8
- Arnold Hague : The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945 (2000) . ISBN 1-55125-033-0 (Canada). ISBN 1-86176-147-3 (UK)