SPRINGBANK – the last of the 18 ship order of 1925
HMS Springbank was one of a new type of Fighter Catapult Ship developed to counter the threat from land based aircraft. Originally constructed for merchant service in 1926, she was taken up into RN service in 1940 and converted into an anti-aircraft ship with a formidable armament including 8-4 inch (100 mm) guns in four twin HA turrets and two sets of quadruple 2 pounder pom-poms. In March 1941 she was fitted with a cordite powered catapult amidships mounted with a Fulmar two seater naval fighter. In the course of her duties with HG 73 her Fulmar aircraft was launched on 18 September and the enemy aircraft was attacked but escaped; when the aircraft arrived at Gibraltar it was discovered that faulty ammunition had caused all but one of the guns to jam. HMS Springbank was torpedoed at 0208 on 27 September by U-201. HMS Jasmine went alongside to take off survivors and after unsuccessfully attempting to sink her with depth charges did so by shelling.
Convoy HG 73 saw the heaviest losses of all. A total of 25 merchant ships formed the convoy from Gibraltar on 17 September, together with an unusually strong escort including a destroyer and Fighter Catapult ship, although as usual most escorts were Flower class corvettes. Hastily brought together for the task, the escorts’ lack of training as a team was subsequently blamed by C-in-C Western Approaches, Admiral Noble, for their lack of success. In retrospect, though, the convoy was unlucky to have been subject to concerted attack from three of the most able U-boat commanders of the war. The convoy seems to have been spotted by a FW 200 off Cape St Vincent and shadowed by U-371 and a group of three Italian submarines for several days whilst a U-boat pack was assembled. On 24 September a FW 200 established contact and guided U-124 and U-203 to the location. U-201 and U-205 joined later although U-205 was attacked on 27 September and damaged, and was unable to press home any effective attack. The other U-boats withdrew after expending all their torpedoes.
The route of the HG series of convoys from Gibraltar to Liverpool took them within range of Luftwaffe FW 200 (‘Condor’) aircraft acting both in a reconnaissance role, able to guide U-boats operating out of the French Atlantic ports onto the convoys, and as effective bombers against shipping. Despite the difficulties most convoys completed successfully, but of the 570 merchant ships which took part in the 28 separate convoys in 1941 on this homebound route 25 were lost, together with a further 5 stragglers. Experience in the other direction (designated OG) could be a little different because Germany was denied the intelligence information on sailings available from agents in Spain for the homebound stretch – 1004 ships took part in 30 OG convoys in 1941, with 21 lost in convoy, though a further 34 losses were classified as stragglers. 1941 was by far the most dangerous year for convoys on this route in either direction.
U-201 was a type VIIC ocean-going submarine built by Germania shipyard, Kiel. Launched 7 December 1940 and commissioned 25 January 1941. Another U-boat with an outstandingly successful record, at the time of the action against HG 73 she was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Adalbert Schnee, and had been summoned to assist U-124 on the attack on OG 74 but was driven off by attack from fighters from the escort carrier HMS Audacity. On the night of 21/22 September, however, she caught up with and sank three stragglers from that convoy. U-201 was sunk with all 49 hands on 17 February 1943 east of Newfoundland by depth charges from HMS Viscount, though by this time Schnee was directing operations against the convoys for Admiral Dönitz.