USS BARB (55-220) AND SUBRON 50
USS BARB (55-220) AND SUBRON 50
By Captain Everett H. Steinmetz USN (Ret)
Published in POLARIS June 1998
When necessity mothered Submarine Squadron Fifty (SubRon 50), she invented a weird one. Six submarines were assigned. They were constructed at two different yards with three different manufacturers providing the main engines. To complete this logistical mishmash, the venerable USS Beaver (AS-5) was assigned as tender. The squadron was not subdivided into divisions. No relief crews were available. Refit and normal in-port maintenance was accomplished by ship's force with tender shop personnel help. Replacement personnel were scarce. The end results were that crews became closely knit very quickly, with morale sky high.
Five of the six boats of SubRon 50 made their initial war patrols as a participant in operation torch. Torch was an ambitious undertaking. It called for night landings by inexperienced troops launched from transports with insufficient training on a coast about which our forces had little intelligence. Add to this the political factor that it was uncertain how the local French forces would react. Would they abide by the dictates from German controlled Vichy officials, or would they embrace the opportunity to reassert their independence? Consequently to assuage French pride, the assault forces were ordered to fire only when meeting opposition and then only to the degree necessary. We wanted to neutralize French military assets while retaining existing French governmental relationships.
To counterbalance the lack of detailed navigational information, submarines were employed as beacon ships. Equipped with infrared signal Iights the subs were to coach incoming attack groups to the transport areas. Royal Navy units, including submarines, supported the Mediterranean landings at Algiers and Oran. SubRon 50 probably was created primarily to assist in the Atlantic landings at Fedhala, Mehedia and Safi.
The beacon submarine concept fell short of expectations. At Algiers, and there only, it worked as planned. At Oran contact was made but was off position by over two miles. SubRon 50's experience was also mixed. At Fedhala, the landing site closest to Casablanca, USS Gunnel (SS-253) patrolled for two days in advance and lay into the proper spot. The destroyer sent in ahead located Gunnel, but for various reasons, Commander Attack Group Transports neither got the word nor saw Gunnel. This omission contributed to confusion in the transport area and subsequent ship-to-shore movement. USS Herring (SS-233) although listed as a beacon for the Center Attack Group at Casablanca is not mentioned in further detail, although she is credited with sinking the 5700-ton French cargo ship Ville du Havre off Casablanca on the morning of D-Day. Fedhala, where the landings actually took place, lay fourteen miles to the north.
At Mehedia, the landing area for Port Lyautey, USS Shad (SS-235) spent 5-7 November reconnoitering and photographing the beach area. On D-Day the lead destroyer from the Northern Attack Group searched for Shad without immediate success. Shad was finally spotted, but again, navigational differences and communications difficulties confused the overall picture, delaying debarkation.
At Safi, one hundred forty miles south of Casablanca, and chosen for the pier in the man-made harbor which was capable of handling deep draft ships, an additional task was assigned to beacon sub USS Barb (SS-220). LSTs, then in their embryo stage, were not available for TORCH. Major General Patton's tanks had to be off-loaded dockside. Casablanca was too chancy, so Safi solved the problem. After patrolling the area, Barb launched five amphibiously trained Army scouts in a rubber raft. They were to proceed to the bell buoy off the breakwater and flash their infrared light. Two WWI four pipers, with striped down superstructures and loaded with commando type units, left the Southern Attack Group and headed first for Barb and then the Army scout raft. These additional reference points were intended to enable the assault destroyers to make a fast entry and moor at the pier. Troops could be discouraged quickly to overcome the inner harbor defenses. Again navigational problems intervened. The scouts had to paddle much farther than intended, reaching their goal as the destroyers approached the breakwater. They were caught in a crossfire and were forced to vacate the raft and hang on. Fortunately the harbor was secured quickly and the scouts were unharmed.
In all but one of the landing areas, navigational errors were experienced and could be expected. Suspect charts and scarce topographical intelligence contributed. It must be remembered as well that surface radar navigation with attendant profiles, etc. was still in its infancy.
The fifth SubRon 50 boat, USS Blackfish (SS-221) went directly to Dakar where its task was to interdict French naval forces based there, should they sortie to reinforce the Casablanca units. When the beacon submarines completed their initial assignments, they were withdrawn to form a scouting line to deter reinforcement. Despite more than token resistance in some locales, the landings were successful and the French agreed to an armistice by noon of 10 November. The Tricolor still flew in Morocco but American troops and armor were in place to prepare for the next phase. U.S. submarines were turned over to the operational control of the British and directed to Land's End for escort to the Firth of Clyde.
My personal recollection of these times was surprise. TORCH was a well-guarded secret. There were a few indications that something unusual might be afoot. During post commissioning training, Barb scored a main engine crankshaft. The final fix for this fairly common occurrence to Winton diesels was to replace all cylinder liners with chrome plated ones. Having accomplished this alteration we needed to build up engine hours for break-in. We did this by remaining underway at night after concluding daily training operations in Long Island Sound. One week we were joined by an Army Lieutenant and four enlisted men that were in the midst of Ranger training. They professed to need practice inflating, manning and paddling a rubber raft at night from a submarine to complete their syllabus. We were out there anyway, why not be chosen for this sideshow? Again after a Captain's Personnel Inspection, two officers unknown to me came aboard and read a set of orders creating SubRon 50 with Barb as flagship. Nothing startling in that, just an administrative necessity. Also at the last moment and because I had a fair amount of experience in communications where our Ensign communicator had none, the Skipper included me in a communications briefing on the use of Royal Navy codes and ciphers. This raised an eyebrow but I was too busy to indulge in speculation. By the morning we knew we were leaving New London for good, I really smelled a rat! With engines ready and lines singled up, our erstwhile Ranger trainees popped out from behind the nearest building and double-timed to the gangway. Below decks were a Sub-lieutenant RNVR and a Chief Signalman RN who had just reported aboard. The feeling that this was not a routine departure for the Pacific persisted as we cleared Montauk Point and headed more easterly than south. The Skipper announced we were now on our first patrol. Details were not forthcoming for several days.
Our passengers were a welcome diversion. Sub-lieutenant Bradley served tea of his own brew in each afternoon to the wardroom. He further insisted only the uncivilized took their tea without milk. His concoction was awful. After many tries we found the solution. In reconstituting the powdered milk, liberal use of vanilla extract was standard procedure.
It worked wonders for the milk, but a no-no for tea. One army scout stood out; he was exuberant and into everything - cleaning the head, mess cooking, and he was willing to spell anybody on watch, qualified or not. He loved to sit in for the bow planesman. When I let him make a routine dive as a planesman, he was absolutely ecstatic.
Near Land's End we rendezvoused with H.M.S. LaCapricieuse, a former French corvette. She became a familiar sight as she escorted us during all our passages into and out of the Firth of Clyde. With tongue in cheek, LaCapricieuse notified us that in honor of the occasion, we would be provided air cover. All morning RAF planes flew past. They were engaged in an exercise of identifying U.S. submarines. Obviously, we offered no objection. We reached the upper limits of the Firth of Clyde well after dark and anchored for the night. In the morning we moored alongside Beaver, and began our first refit. USS Gurnard (SS-254) was also present. Gunnel did not reach Rosneath until two weeks later. With main engines practically useless, she was forced to put in at another port for emergency repairs. Gunnel finished her patrol mostly using her batteries and recharging them with auxiliary generators. After being reduced to that condition, the story goes that the Skipper, LtCdr John S. McCain, Jr., would proceed to the engine room each morning to polish a Buddha mounted on the auxiliary diesel. He took no chances!
Rosneath was a staging area overrun with Quonset huts. It was as dreary as the weather and offered nothing in the way of diversion. Glasgow was not too far away but rather difficult to reach. I lucked out and was officer courier to deliver our patrol report to the Admiralty in London. A round trip on the Royal Scotsman, one of Britain's crack trains, was most interesting as was the two days of sightseeing I was permitted. I might have missed the shock of Pearl Harbor but the sight of all the ruins in the vicinity of Saint Paul's Cathedral compensated. I still retain the impression that there were so many different types of uniforms representing so many countries that I believed I could have worn the garb of a U-boat officer without detection. In that connection, shortly after our arriving at Rosneath, it was reported that Lord Haw Haw, on one of his nightly broadcasts from Germany, had welcomed all six SubRon 50 boats by name.
Gurnard was the first SubRon 50 boat to patrol in the Bay of Biscay. The British maintained coverage, particularly off the northwest coast of Spain, in order to intercept Nazi blockade-runners. Also U-boats transited this area in availing themselves of the submarine pens located on the French coast. The British subs we replaced there then augmented their Mediterranean patrols.
Gurnard experienced identical main engine breakdowns as Gunnel. After a fruitless patrol, both were returned to CONUS or extensive repairs before heading for the Pacific. The remaining boats each made two Bay of Biscay runs of thirty-plus day's duration. Blackfish was credited with sinking German Patrol Boat 408. Herring sank U-163. Shad sank a trawler and damaged a destroyer escort on her second patrol. On her third she damaged blockade-runner Pietro Orseolo.
Barb left Rosneath on 16 December 1942 for a point off Vigo on the northwest coast of Spain where the Bay of Biscay and Atlantic abut. Either on this or the next transit down the Irish Sea, we encountered the closest I can remember to running into a "killer wave." The weather was wet and windy but we appeared to be riding fairly comfortably. Suddenly a huge wave much larger than the others loomed ahead of us. The bow instead of rising, plunged right into it. It swept the Bridge soaking everyone and pouring seawater down on a startled Control Room watch. One lookout was badly bruised and almost washed overboard. LaCapricieuse apologized for not having time to warn us.
Patrol instructions were simple. Remain submerged during daylight, identify contacts and attack if hostile. In the meantime, respect neutral waters and avoid detection. We couldn't believe the number of contacts we held; dozens a day. The varied in size, all hugged the coast and invariably flew Spanish colors. I couldn't believe the Spaniards had that many merchant ships, let alone at sea in that area. The typical winter storms impeded our efforts to identify all contacts. When submerged both engine rooms were cluttered with foul weather gear hanging to dry. Fishermen were present in abundance when the weather eased from time to time. Night identification was made easier as all shipping was lighted and special flood lights illuminating colors.
The routine was broken one evening as we believed we had spotted a German tanker. A night surface attack was conducted and two hits were observed. Johnny Waterman, the Skipper swore he saw our victim's turbines bIow clear of the superstructure. Spirits soared with many references to chastity or lack thereof, being bandied about. However, immediately upon return to Rosneath, the Skipper was ordered to report to the Admiralty. After interrogation, he was informed the tanker was Spanish, not German. Likewise the subject was closed (a British term for classified) and no one was to discuss this nonevent. I shift to fast forward, London 1978 and a digression. Near the end of a wedding anniversary vacation, I decided to visit the Admiralty in order to seek access to a document cited in Clay Blair's "Silent Victory." It included operations of SubRon 50. Eventually I wound up at the Royal Navy Library and after establishing credentials, was introduced to a very pleasant gentleman quite knowledgeable of U.S. Navy operations in WWll. I told him I was interested in details of Barb's incident with the nonexistent tanker. He explained the document in question was still "closed" and he alone could not authorize me to see it. If I could return when another colleague was present authorization could be given. I told him my schedule prevented that and we lapsed into a bit of small talk. He asked me if I knew a British submariner who had been their liaison officer to ComSubpac. My reply was: "Only by reputation. However, his successor was crazy enough to make a patrol with me." He excused himself and returned shortly with an official looking volume. He said, "I can't find anything that says I can't read out loud the information you are interested in." Where upon he did so. The tanker involved was Spanish. It was not sunk but reached port safely. The Spanish protested strongly to the British concerning this obvious breach of neutrality. According to my reader friend, the British reply was that after an investigation it had been determined that if a submarine had been involved as claimed by Spain, it was "Not one of ours." Very true, very evasive and very British!
Our second patrol off Vigo was a clone of the first minus the attack. Refits were still accomplished mainly by ship's force. However the availability of Buchanan Arms a small hotel located at Drymen on Loch Lomond was a boon to many. The more adventuresome preferred Glasgow. But Buchanan Arms provided pleasant living in a quaint setting. Staying at the hotel was not mandatory. Beaver furnished the food and the civilian staff was retained. Not too far away was a small golf course to which we had access. It certainly beat living aboard ship and provided an insight to rural Scotland.
Mid March saw the end of the Bay of Biscay Patrols. Longer daylight hours and Clearing weather permitted the British Sunderland flying boats to take over. Having fleeted up to Exec and Navigator before the previous patrol, I was included in a discussion concerning the next assignment for Barb and Blackfish.
The area assigned was off the North Cape where the Germans were believed to be readying their supper BB Von Tirpitz, plus escorts, to attempt a breakout into the Atlantic. A suggestion that we proceed surfaced ahead of a Murmansk bound convoy, and I quote: "Pick off the way laying U-boats" was hooted down decisively. Fortunately patrol orders deleted this fantasy.
Barb departed 1 April 1 9A3 with our usual escort up past Scotland. We then headed for Lat 700 North. To me, this was the most interesting of Barb's Atlantic patrols. It was not productive target wise but it was one challenge after another articulately from a navigation standpoint. At least three of the regular commanding officers were relieved temporarily for one patrol. They were replaced by Squadron staff officers. This was rather unusual but considered necessary to provide a rest break. After all this was SubRon 50! This was our turn to have a relief commanding officer. A bit of "undigested beef" or some similar malady just about wiped us out for twenty-four hours. Three quarters of the crew were affected. Healthy watch keepers doubled up and by the time the ordeal was over, they were just as exhausted as those that were afflicted. It was scary but fortunately did not Iast too Iong. Occasionally we ran into patches filled with debris. It was unnecessary to exhort lookouts to be sharp at all times. Weather was pleasant with excellent visibility. Invariably lookouts spotted the huge German B&V patrol planes before air search radar made contact. With night reduced to two or three hours of dusk, celestial navigation degenerated into the old traditional "shaving the whiskers off the moon" and running fixes the norm. To confuse any possible intruder we ran radically varying courses and tried not to set a pattern as to when we were surfaced or submerged. One afternoon we surfaced to clear out the stale air and for me to grab sun line. While doing so, the port lookout reported a periscope close aboard. He was right on both accounts. It was a miracle we didn't collide. We dove, went to silent running, tried to establish sonar contact but heard nothing. The periscope head was the distinctively bulbous type used by the Germans. Apparently when we cut in the low-pressure blowers after surfacing, we disturbed his reverie. His periscope observation probably consisted of a lensful of black paint. Who was most startled will never be known! It didn't bother us, we just concentrated on trying to tie knots in our wake while surfaced.
After two weeks in this area Barb was ordered to the north coast of Iceland to patrol the entry to Denmark Strait. Presumably if Von Tirpitz cleared Norway he would endeavor to use this passage between Greenland and Iceland. Although farther south this region was vastly different. Continual overcast, cold weather and injection temperatures between 35 degrees to 40 degrees F became routine. The only plus was that batteries could be charged in no time flat. With all portable heaters in use, the boat was still cold. Celestial navigation was out. Surface search radar enabled us to identify a prominent cape, which we used as a base point. From this we would conduct a surfaced run after which we would return to tile familiar radar profile. Lookouts had to be relieved more often and our coffee consumption escalated. For the two weeks, nothing was sighed. Why would anyone in their right mind be there anyway? At long last we received orders to terminate the patrol and proceed to Lerwick, Shetland Islands for escort to base. There was a catch! First we were to head north to determine the outer limit of the ice Fields. With my navigation and with Iceland sinking from the weight of all the aircraft based there on, I was convinced the "powers that be" had lost their sense.
We found the ice floes and duly noted like Shinto shrines, that when you have seen one you have seen them all. On the run to Lerwick we ran through a storm. SubRon 50 boats had not had their superstructures modified to reduce silhouette. To avoid heavy spray, OODs were known to bob down into the protected part of the bridge when it looked like a drenching was in order. This night in doing so, the OOD inadvertently hit the collision alarm. Realizing his goof he quickly rang "secure" on it. The result was a premature reveille. I hit the Control Room as the vents were being closed. The Hydraulic Manifold man had opened the vents as if the diving alarm had been sounded. There was confusion but fortunately corrected action was initiated promptly, thus avoiding what could have been a serious casualty. Checking this incident, I determined that the man involved, one of the few recalled Fleet Reservists aboard, was beginning to demonstrate signs of stress. It was a young man's game and he was one of the oldest aboard. So I told the Chief of the Boat to break in a replacement. Within a day or two while barreling along on four main engines, a periscope was spotted and "Dive" ordered. Normally high-speed dives were avoided unless necessary. They left little room for error. The Chief of the Boat and I hit the Control Room from a opposite directions. He had the Manifold Watch and had stepped into the After Battery for coffee. The trainee had executed his portion of the dive flawlessly. I qualified him then and there! I mention this because every man that made a patrol in Barb had the trainee as a shipmate. He was "Swish" Saunders who was GM2 on commissioning Barb and GMCSS as well as Chief of the Boot at war's end. He made all twelve war patrols. A record possibly unequaled.
Barb arrived Lerwick the day before Blackfish. We anchored in this cozy harbor, met fellow submariners of the Royal Navy and had a quick look shore-side. Our faithful escort LaCapricieuse was nearby. At last we met the officers who had piloted us through the treacherous coastal waters of western Britain.
Herring replaced Barb off Iceland while Shad did likewise for Blackfish off the North Cape and with the same lack of contacts. Meanwhile USS Haddo (SS-255) and USS Hake (SS-256) had replaced Gunnel and Gurnard conducting anti-submarine patrols enroute Rosneath. After brief refits Haddo made a patrol in Icelandic Norwegian waters and Hake conducted another anti-submarine patrol off the Azores.
For their final Atlantic duty Barb, Blackfish, Herring and Shad were assigned anti-submarine operations in the Western approaches to Great Britain. Barb's experience was frustrating and probably indicative of all these final ventures. Each night we would receive orders to proceed to a point where German "milch cow" submarines were expected to refuel an attack boat. No visual or radar contacts were made. It also appeared we were going between these points out of sync. If we had been permitted to stay put one night we might have made contact. In July someone threw in the towel and all six boats terminated their patrols and returned to New London. SubRon 50's Atlantic operations in retrospect were neither earth shattering nor minimal. Twenty-six patrols were conducted. Subsequent to TORCH, SubRon 50 provided the British with 500 to 550 days of on station coverage which otherwise might have been lost. We were self sufficient in most respects. Gunnel might have required British technical assistance and our logistical demands were probably drawn from our own sources. For fresh produce we apparently created a Brussels sprouts shortage. They came aboard by the ton and on every patrol. I still wince when I see one! The Brits were undoubtedly repaying Yank generosity keeping them so well supplied in Spam and powdered eggs.
Historians agree, mid 1943 marked the turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic. Hunter Killer groups were making life miserable for the U-boats. We had overstayed our visit. In short we were now in the way. But as SubRon 50 sailors tell their great grandchildren, having taken care of the Atlantic, we were now ready for the challenges of the Pacific.