Captain Joe Baker-Cresswell DSO (2 February 1901 – 4 March 1997) was a Royal Navy officer, aide-de-camp to King George VI and High Sheriff of Northumberland. He lived at Budle Hall, Bamburgh. This account was written by his grandson Ralph Baker-Cresswell also of Budle Hall, Bamburgh.
In 1941 Britain and her Commonwealth was losing the war. She had no fighting allies left and Germany, prevented from invading by the Battle of Britain, had instigated a siege using U-boats and long-range bombers to isolate and starve her last enemy. Britain responded by drawing her shipping into convoys, where the Royal Navy could attempt to protect them, as they ferried trade goods, supplies and weapons.
The Royal Navy tasked 400 vessels with this role, ranging from modern destroyers to armed trawlers. A new class of vessel was being built from the design of a whaling ship, as these could be constructed quickly and cheaply by small civilian boatyards. They were barely adequate for the task, being slower than a surfaced U-boat, wallowy in the Atlantic swell, with an open bridge and a gun no bigger than the submarines they were hunting.
Many vessels had no radar to detect surfaced U-boats, although they had ASDIC/Sonar which allowed a skilled team to pinpoint a submerged one. Their main weapon against submerged U-boats was the depth charge, which was set to explode at a specific depth and then rolled from the back of the escort vessel.
Strategic planning was as patchy as the equipment. No provision had been made for commerce protection prior to the outbreak of war, with anti-submarine duties very much the Cinderella of navy specialists. Shipping losses far exceeded replacement at 300,000 tonnes per month, not to mention the killing of experienced seamen and destruction of cargo.
In May 1941 convoy 318 set out from Liverpool and other British ports, 38 ships carrying all types of cargo from vehicles to binder twine to scotch whisky. At a mid-Atlantic rendezvous on the 7th May they met the 3rd Escort Group whose job it was to protect them from attack until the convoy was considered a safe distance from the U-boat bases in Bordeaux.
On the bridge of his destroyer HMS Bulldog was Captain Joe Baker-Cresswell, from where he commanded his little fleet which he disposed around the convoy;
Captain Joe was the son of a wealthy Northumbrian family, born in London, on the day most of his family were watching the funeral procession of Queen Victoria. He had been at sea since his teens and was a consummate professional who, in time for his date with destiny was at the top of his game, as was 3rd Escort Group whose level of training and efficiency was described as first class. Product of a notably bad marriage and with his brother having probably committed suicide in 1920, he was a man of few words and not a man to betray much emotion. However, he ran a happy ship.
Underneath Joe and his ships plodding westward at 8 knots was a patrol line of half a dozen U-boats intent on the destruction of the convoy. U110, a new type IXB boat was commanded by 28 year old Kapitan Leutnant Fritz Julius Lemp, a good humoured man and competent commander who nonetheless had achieved notoriety in 1939 by torpedoing the passenger liner Athenia with the loss of 112 passengers and crew.
20 year old sub lieutenant David Balme was on the bridge of HMS Bulldog, as navigator and gunnery officer. This is his account:
Suddenly at noon on the 9th of May two ships were hit by torpedoes and we went to action stations. We turned the convoy 45 degrees away from the attack and Bulldog went full speed to the likely position of the U-Boat. The corvette Aubretia on the side of the attack gained contact with the U-Boat and attacked with depth-charges. The U-Boat surfaced 400 yards from us and we opened fire with every gun. The noise was deafening, especially from our Lewis machine guns which were being fired from the bridge over our heads by anyone who could pick them up. However, it was undoubtedly the noise of all the shells and bullets hitting the U-Boat which caused the German crew to panic, all jumping overboard as fast as they could without successfully scuttling the U-Boat.
Broadway was called off its ramming mission but dropped a single depth charge under the U-Boat and caught it a glancing blow which caused the submarine’s hydroplane to rip open the destroyer’s forward oil tank, covering the surface of the water with oil.
To continue with David Balme’s account:
Thus, the order went out: ‘AWAY ARMED BOARDING PARTY’. The Captain ordered me to take the boarding-party and get what I could out of the U-Boat. A submarine in a calm sea is a difficult ship to board as it is so bulbous. But in rough seas it is even more difficult. My bowman jumped onto the U-Boat with the painter and I walked up to the bow over the oarsmen, and so aboard and then got my revolver out of its holder. The worst moment of the boarding of the U110 was going down the last vertical ladder from the lower conning tower to the control room. Going down bottom first, I felt a very vulnerable target to any German still down below. I needed both hands, so my revolvers was back in its holster, but on arrival in the control room, I got it out. The most eerie feeling was the complete silence expect for an ominous hissing sound which either from the batteries or a leak in the hull. The secondary lighting gave a rather dim ghostly effect. Speed in searching the U-Boat was now essential, as I felt sure that the scuttling-charges would go off sooner or later, especially as there were continuous explosions around us from depth-charge attacks on other U-Boats. This was a most unpleasant and frightening noise.
We formed a human chain up the two ladders and began passing up books, charts and wireless equipment. The great thing was for all the boarding-party to be kept busy, passing out the treasures including the Enigma cypher machine which was found in the wireless office. It was unscrewed from the table and so began its fateful journey up the conning tower, into the motor-boat to the Bulldog. Thence to Iceland, then to Scapa Flow and from there to Bletchley. Meanwhile, on deck, Bulldog came in close, and we tried to secure a towing wire. The first one parted and then Bulldog had to leave to investigate and attack a reported U-Boat contact. This was indeed a desolate and awful moment. There was I, with my boarding-party, aboard U110, in the middle of the Atlantic, alone with no ships in sight with the wind and sea gradually increasing. This must have been about 16.00. there were no more books or moveable gear we could collect, so I battened down the watertight hatches and we waited. Happily, the Bulldog returned and we set about securing a tow. The boat which had been left with us, went over to Bulldog and brought back our Chief Bosun’s mate, who was a great help.
We eventually managed to secure a tow across. The tow held and thus at about 18.30 we evacuated the U-Boat and returned to the Bulldog after having spent 6 hours in U110. Aubretia had taken on board the survivors of Esmond and now rescued U-Boat crew. One German petty officer spat in the face of British sailor as he was helped up the side of Aubretia and was pushed back into the Atlantic until he remembered his manners. The survivors were hustled below by the crew of Aubretia to join crew from Esmond, and none saw their boat boarded. Captain Lemp was last seen attempting to swim back to U110, having appreciated that the scuttling charges had not been set. He was one of 14 German sailors who lost their lives.
Triumphal entry into port towing his prize was not meant to be for Joe. In a strengthening swell at 11.00 the next morning the U-Boat sank, and with her bowing standing vertically out of the water, the tow wire was cut. Refuelling at Rekyavik and still presumably mourning the loss of his prize, Bulldog refuelled on the night of the 10th and set off for Scapa Flow loaded with prisoners and the precious cargo of documents and equipment, filling two packing cases. This included the enigma coding machine with its plugboard connected up and its rotors set, Lemp’s Rittercreuz (later returned to his sister by my grandfather), 6 sextants, a signed photo from Grossadmiral Donitz now in my father’s downstairs loo: the keys for the German Dolphin (this is naval) code for April and June, a book containing short signal code, Kriegsmarine grid charts, charts showing safe passage through German minefields in the north sea and much else.
Joe Baker-Cresswell received a DSO, the king commenting that the operation was perhaps the single most important event in the whole war at sea. In basic terms it meant that we could decrypt the German Naval codes in a critical period in real time and plot the U-Boat patrol lines using the captured grid charts. Shipping losses dropped from 325,000 to 94,000 in July. Joe’s pocketbook records read; ‘9th May 12.45 captured U100. 16th May fishing with Aitken. 3lb sea trout.’. Joe lived the last 30 years of his life at Budle Hall, one mile west of Bamburgh.
The final words to the redoubtable David Balme who said with admirable economy: ‘an unforgettable day which had far-reaching consequences.’.
by Ralph Baker-Cresswell