Changing The Guard

By 16:00 GMT on the 20/05/1941 six ships had been sunk from convoy HX-126. Five of the ships during daylight in good weather conditions (Force 3, slight swell, clear visibility). U-boats were being sighted on the surface. The ships were travelling at 9, 10 or even 12 knotts so the U-boats must be on the surface to chase them.

The first five ships were sunk when the convoy was together and only one (so far) after scattering. I have to conclude that the Ocean escort was insufficient protection for the convoy.

The escort submarine Tribune was not involved. It reported engine trouble around 06:40 GMT on 20/5 and was left behind by the convoy going out of sight by 11:40, just before the second attacks started. I cannot see that a submarine escort could do anything other than force a U-boat to dive assuming it carries no depth charges to carry through an attack. Maybe it could sneak up on and torpedoe a U-boat on the surface. Of the 89 U-boats destroyed up until 20/5/41 two U-36 and U-51 had been sunk by a submarine. U-63 was attacked and sunk by three destroyers and a submarine.

The escort Aurania was an armed merchant cruiser which in this case means a passener ship that has had some guns added. With a speed of 15 knots it was not going to chase any U-boat but it did have the range to come across from Canada with the convoy.

The convoy needed the protection of the Icelandic escort. This escort had been caught out by the westward progress of the U-boat pack operations and they did not join the convoy early enough.

As soon as they received news of the attack on the British Security two of the 8th Escort Group came rushing down to help. The Burnham and the Burwell were able to work up to 26 knots which gave them some advantage.

The Icelandic escort were not to reach the HX-126 until after 17:00. Strangely the Ocean escort Aurania left the area for Reykjavick at full speed at 16:00, before they Icelandic escort arrived. Aurania felt it could be of no further use. Of course HX-126 has scattered so could not be protected and the Aurania did not want to further endanger itself, particularly as it was carrying qualified pilots as passengers. The Convoy Orders acknowledge the importance of the passengers but does not give them priority over the safety of the convoy, only over other Ocean escort surface forces of which there were none.

Their first ship the Icelandic escort met (at 17:03 GMT) was the Harpagus (with the rescued Norman Monarch's on board). She was able to direct them to the bulk of the scattered convoy to the W. N. W. The strategy for the new escort was to reform the convoy so that they could protect them. Burwell went to round up the majority and Burnham went further South. At 18:50 GMT Burwell met the Convoy Commodore and ships in sight were ordered onto the same course.

Extract From Convoy Orders

27. Conveyance of Personnel To Iceland
H.M.S. Aurania will be carrying 40 Officers and 190 other ranks of the Royal Canadian Air Force, for onward passage to the United Kingdom from Iceland. Notwithstanding this, the object of the Armed Merchant Cruiser remains the safety of the convoy. If however, other SURFACE FORCES form part of the Ocean Escort, the actual employment of the Armed Merchant Cruiser in defence of the convoy must be at the discretion of the Senior Officer of the Escort. Personnel and stores are to be disembarked at REYKJAVICK.

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