Tuesday, February 22, 2011

HMS Harvester (H19)

Figure 1: HMS Harvester (H19), date and place unknown. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: HMS Harvester (H19), date and place unknown. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Painting by M. F. Médard of the Free French Naval Forces ship Aconit. She was one of the nine Flower class corvettes lent by the Royal Navy to the Free French Navy during World War II. During the war, Aconit escorted 116 convoys and spent 728 days at sea. Aconit and HMS Harvester (H19) played key roles in sinking two German U-boats on 11 March 1943. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Free French corvette Aconit attacking German submarine U-432, World War II, 11 March 1943. Aconit sank the U-boat in the North Atlantic with a combination of depth charges, gunfire, and ramming. Courtesy the National Archives/Heritage Images. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: “HMCS Ville de Québec Gets a Sub.” War artist Harold Beament's painting depicts the destruction by the Canadian corvette HMCS Ville de Québec of German U-Boat (submarine) U-224 on 13 January 1943. While helping to escort a convoy in the Mediterranean, Ville de Québec detected a submerged U-Boat on its ASDIC (sonar), and promptly delivered an attack with depth charges that drove U-224 to the surface. Ville de Québec's gunners opened fire on the submarine, and the corvette then rammed it, knocking the U-Boat's one survivor (center) from the conning tower into the water. U-224 sank rapidly, and an underwater explosion a minute later marked its end. HMCS Ville de Québec was a Flower class corvette similar to Aconit (the ship that rammed and sank U-444 and U-432) and shows how extremely dangerous ramming a submarine can be. Fortunately, Aconit and Ville de Québec survived their ramming incidents. HMS Harvester wasn’t so lucky. “HMCS Ville de Québec Gets a Sub” was painted by Harold Beament around 1945. From the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, CWM 19710261-1031. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: Captured survivors from German submarine U-432, 11 March 1943. The Free French corvette Aconit sank the U-boat in the North Atlantic with a combination of depth charges, gunfire, and ramming. Twenty of the submarine's crew of 46 survived and were taken aboard the French vessel. Courtesy the National Archives / Heritage Images. Click on photograph for larger image.

Originally laid down as the Jurua for the Brazilian Navy, the ship was requisitioned by the British Royal Navy on 4 September 1939 and renamed HMS Handy (F07), but was renamed once again and commissioned into the Royal Navy on 23 May 1940 as HMS Harvester (H19). Harvester was a 1,340-ton “H” class destroyer that was built by Vickers-Armstrongs at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England. The ship was approximately 323 feet long and 33 feet wide, had a top speed of 36 knots, and had a crew of 145 officers and men. Harvester was armed with three 4.7-inch guns, eight 0.5-inch machine guns, and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes, and could carry up to 110 depth charges.

After a shakedown “cruise” that lasted a mere four days, from 24 May to 28 May 1940, Harvester was immediately thrown into battle. These were the desperate days of May 1940, with a large portion of the British Army stranded on the beaches of France. The German Army had pushed the British so far back in France that they now had their backs to the sea, and the situation looked almost hopeless. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British people were not about to abandon their troops. On 28 May 1940, HMS Harvester joined hundreds of other ships, small and large, at Dover, England, for Operation Dynamo, which was the rescue of the British Army in France. These ships braved almost constant German air attacks to rescue British, French, Belgian, and even some Polish troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. After making several trips back and forth to France, Harvester was damaged in an air attack on 1 June. After some quick repairs were made at the Chatham Dockyard, Harvester rejoined rescue operations on 10 June, even though by then most of the troops had already been evacuated from Dunkirk. She pulled British troops off the beaches of St. Valery and Le Havre, and from St. Jean de Luz and Bayonne in the Bay of Biscay, France. Approximately 338,226 British and French troops were rescued by the end of Operation Dynamo, an incredible number and a major achievement by the Royal Navy.

For the rest of her career, Harvester played an important role in the hard-fought Battle of the Atlantic, escorting vulnerable merchant ships and hunting down marauding German U-boats. On 9 July 1940, Harvester and the destroyer HMS Havelock rescued 35 survivors from the British merchant ship Aylesbury that was torpedoed by a German U-boat, U-43, roughly 200 miles southeast of Ireland. But on 30 October, Harvester struck back. While escorting convoy WS3A in the Atlantic, Harvester and the destroyer HMS Highlander sank U-32 using depth charges and gunfire after the submarine tried to surface. The German submarine sank northwest of Ireland, but 33 crewmen from U-32 managed to survive and were rescued by the British warships.

On 7 November 1940, Harvester and the Canadian destroyer HMCS Ottawa sank the Italian submarine Faa di Bruno while escorting Convoy HX64 in the Atlantic. There were no survivors and this was the first Italian submarine to be sunk in the Atlantic. On 3 February 1941, Harvester rescued 121 survivors from the transport Crispin that was sunk in the Atlantic by a U-boat. The destroyer entered the shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, on 18 March for a brief overhaul but was back in service on 26 April. On 4 May, Harvester joined Britain’s famous “Force H” at Gibraltar. At that time, Force H was made up of the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, the cruiser HMS Sheffield, and several destroyers. After escorting some convoys in the Mediterranean with Force H, Harvester was transferred to St. Johns, Newfoundland, in June 1941 to escort convoys in the mid-Atlantic. On 8 August, Harvester joined the destroyers HMS Havelock and HMS Hesperus in escorting the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, which was carrying Prime Minister Winston Churchill to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Newfoundland for the Atlantic Charter Conference.

On 7 December 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Harvester and HMS Hesperus were on patrol in the Atlantic west of Gibraltar. They managed to get a solid sonar contact on a German U-boat and attacked. After making several depth-charge runs, they were able to sink U-208. After that success, Harvester returned to convoy escort duty. From February to March 1942, Harvester underwent a badly needed overhaul at Dundee, Scotland, and in April was given new radar equipment. In May 1942, she returned to convoy escort duty in the Atlantic. Harvester escorted a large number of convoys, mostly between England and Newfoundland, until 23 December, when she steamed to Liverpool for yet another overhaul.

On 11 February 1943, Harvester returned to convoy escort duty. After escorting two convoys in February, Harvester, along with three other destroyers and five corvettes, was attached to convoy HX228 in the Atlantic. Harvester was the flagship of the convoy’s escort group and the skipper of the ship was Commander Arthur Andre Tait, Royal Navy. The escort group was protecting a convoy of 60 merchant ships. On 11 March 1943, the convoy was attacked by several German U-boats in what was called a “wolf pack.” They attacked from several different directions and Tait and his escorts immediately lunged into action. One of the first casualties in this battle was the merchant ship William C. Gorgas, sunk by U-757. Harvester managed to rescue 51 survivors from the ship and then rejoined the hunt for enemy submarines. They didn’t have to wait long. Commander Tait and the crew of Harvester spotted U-444 slithering along the surface. Although Harvester started shooting at the U-boat, Tait didn’t want the enemy to submerge and get away. He pointed his ship at the U-boat, ordered “Full Speed Ahead,” and then gave his next fateful order, “Prepare to ram!” Harvester came closer and closer to the surprised U-boat. Unable to get away in time from the oncoming destroyer, Harvester slammed into the side of the submarine. The forward momentum of the destroyer drove her up and over the U-boat. For a few moments, the submarine became wedged in the destroyer’s propellers and the two ships were locked together. When Harvester finally managed to break free in the heavy seas, the destroyer’s propellers and shafts were badly damaged and were barely working. The Free French Flower class corvette Aconit (K58) arrived on the scene and discovered, much to everyone’s amazement, that U-444 was still afloat. Aconit attacked immediately. She came in, guns blazing, and also rammed the now stationary U-444. The German submarine couldn’t take any more punishment and sank. Fortunately, aside from a crumpled bow, Aconit was still able to function.

This was not the case with Harvester. The collision with the U-boat had severely damaged the ship’s propellers and shafts, although she was able to crawl along for a little while on one shaft. But this cracked shaft soon gave out and the ship came to a halt, unable to move at all. Commander Tait ordered Aconit to rejoin the convoy, which he felt was in greater danger than his own ship. Aconit reluctantly did as ordered and left the now immobile destroyer. A few hours later, though, the commanding officer of Aconit, Lieutenant de Vaisseau Levasseur, received orders to return to Harvester to assist her. But while heading for the destroyer, Levasseur saw a column of smoke on the horizon and intercepted Harvester’s last radio signal, reporting that she was under attack and had just been torpedoed. Aconit raced to the scene and, along the way, made sonar contact with yet another submarine. The corvette started dropping depth charges and soon U-432 was forced to surface. The enraged French crew on board Aconit immediately fired their guns at the German submarine and, for the second time that day, Aconit turned to ram the enemy U-boat. She hit U-432 at full speed and sliced right into the submarine, with her bow receiving yet another punishing blow. It’s a wonder the corvette, a very small ocean escort, was able to endure such punishment and remain afloat. But she did and U-432 sank a few minutes later.

But the loss of life on all sides was heavy that day. After U-432 went down, Aconit picked up survivors. She managed to pull out of the icy waters four survivors from U-444, 20 survivors from U-432, and only 60 survivors from HMS Harvester, which included 12 survivors from the merchant ship William C. Gorgas that were on board Harvester at the start of the battle. One of the men from William C. Gorgas who did not make it was its skipper, Captain J.C. Ellis. After Harvester went down, he was in the icy water holding onto a life raft filled with other men. When a seaman asked Ellis to take his place in the life raft, he replied, “No, son, keep your place.” Shortly after that, Ellis slipped away from the life raft and was never seen again. Commander Tait also did not survive. A total of four merchant ships and one destroyer were sunk, for the loss of two German U-boats. After this battle, Allied commanding officers of all escorts were forbidden to ram enemy submarines. It was determined that, although ramming could sink an enemy submarine, it posed too much of a risk to the Allied warship that did the ramming. Ramming, even if successful, also caused too much damage to the escort and required substantial dockyard repairs at a time when every escort was needed for convoy duty.

The battle for Convoy HX228 is one of many examples of just how bitter the Battle of the Atlantic was. Commander Arthur Andre Tait was willing to sacrifice his life, the life of his crew, and HMS Harvester to sink a German U-boat. The Free French corvette Aconit and her crew were willing to sacrifice themselves, twice, by ramming both U-444 and U-432. It was by sheer luck that Aconit wasn’t lost as well. And the German wolf packs attacked relentlessly, sinking a stunning amount of Allied tonnage and nearly winning the war for Germany. This was a war with no mercy and the pure viciousness of it was on full display in the Atlantic on 11 March 1943.