The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

Captain 'Johnnie' Walker

Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
Using a Sextant

Few Plymothians can have done as much as Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker did during World War Two to help Britain to ultimate victory. This driven sailor transformed the war against the German submarine peril. No less a person that Churchill himself stated about the Battle of the Atlantic: "The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril". Johnnie Walker would become the most successful U-boat hunter of the Second World War. And not only did his ships sink so many U-boats, his aggressive techniques would be used as a template which allowed the Allies to turn the tide against the German U-boat campaign.

He had been born in Plymouth in 1896 and was trained at Dartmouth. He served as a midshipman on the battleship HMS Ajax when war broke out. He was later promoted and served on the destroyers Mermaid and Sarpedon where he gained his first experience dealing with German submarines and escorting convoys. When the war finished, he pursued his interest in anti-submarine warfare at HMS Osprey in Portland. Indisputably brave he developed firm convictions on how best to prosecute offensive action against submarines. His abrupt methods served him well in war time conditions but less so during the peaceful Interwar years where his willingness to speak forthrightly to senior officers hampered his promotion prospects. Nevertheless, he persevered with his anti-submarine interests and in 1937 returned to HMS Osprey as experimental commander responsible for development in anti-submarine material and methods.

Shortly after the Second World War broke out, Walker was appointed as Staff Officer to Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay who was the Commander-in-Chief of Dover Command. In this role, he would find himself subsumed into the superbly executed Operation Dynamo whereby Royal Navy destroyers and small ships helped evacuate so many British and French troops from under the noses of the victorious German Forces who were otherwise sweeping all before them. For his role in the execution of this operation Walker was Mentioned in Despatches.

Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
HMS Stork
In the early war the Royal Navy was more concerned with dealing with the threat of the surface fleet of the Kriegsmarine lest they be used to escort an invasion fleet over to England or to support German forces advancing through Europe or North Africa. Slowly, though they realised that their U-boats were proving an even more existential threat to Britain's ability to continue to wage war and indeed for its population to survive. This was especially so after the Germans took control of French ports such as Brest, Lorient and St. Nazaire allowing them to build submarine pens on the Atlantic Coast. These allowed the submarines to travel much further out to sea to sink the merchant ships bringing vital food, equipment and fuel to Britain. It did not help that the German U-boats also improved their hunting techniques through the use of Wolf Packs and also had far better success protecting their secret codes from Britain's prying eyes than their army and Luftwaffe managed and indeed, they had their own success in cracking the Merchant Fleet's codes and so frequently had the advantage on intelligence over the British.

Walker was itching to get back to his true speciality as it became clear that merchant shipping was being sunk at an ever alarming rate and that Britain was in danger of losing the Battle of the Atlantic. He was finally given command of a sloop, HMS Stork, and the 36th Escort Group in October 1941. This was possibly the single most important Royal Naval posting of World War Two. Western Approaches Command who were responsible for the convoys of merchant shippings coming to and from Britain had originally been based in Plymouth under Mount Wise. However, with the advent of the Blitz in 1940 it was moved to the relatively safer Liverpool. Walker had two sloops and seven corvettes in the 36th Escort Group but rather than just passively escort convoys, Walker was determined to take the fight to the U-boats themselves and use his small flotilla's speed and their expertise to turn themselves from the hunted to the hunters!

Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
HMS Stork Ram Damage
The first big test came in December 1941 with a 32 ship convoy headed from Gibraltar to Britain. On this occasion he was supported by 3 more destroyers and a small escort carrier HMS Audacity. The convoy was initially attacked by a wolfpack of nine submarines which would later be joined by three more U-boats and also by German long range Condor planes. In fact, the operation got off to a bad start when one of the extra destroyers, HMS Stanley, was sunk astern of the convoy. However. Walker mounted a vigorous defence of the convoy which raged for four long days and four long nights.
Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
HMS Starling
He seemed to be able to second guess the U-boats tactics, he launched fake attacks to throw off the U-boat commanders and ordered wildly unpredictable course changes to his ships. The planes from Audacity gave him extra intelligence and options, so much so, the Germans decided that it had to be their top priority and it was eventually sunk 300 miles off Cape Finisterre. Notwithstanding this setback, Walker's ships sunk no less than four of the attacking U-boats and downed two Condor aircraft. Walker's own ship, HMS Stork rammed one of them head-on doing considerable damage to the bow of his ship but consigning the U-boat to a watery grave. Even more importantly though, the convoy got to the safety of harbour having lost only two merchant ships. The U-boat commanders were shaken as they understood the implications that they were as much prey as hunters now.

By June of 1942 Walker's flotilla had escorted 16 convoys of more than 400 ships with just nine merchant ships lost. Admiral Horton appreciated that his tactics were working and created a new formation for him to command, the 2nd Support Group, from the bridge of HMS Starling. This time the flotilla was made up of a uniform group of six specialist submarine hunter sloops and was filled with battle-hardened and experienced crews. This new formation came on stream after a particularly tough time for the Battle of the Atlantic as the Germans added a new wheel to their enigma machines plunging the British back into intelligence darkness about U-boat movements. Captain Walker explained the philosophy to his new command:
Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
HMS Starling and U-202

Our object is to kill, and all officers must fully develop the spirit of vicious offensive. No matter how many convoys we may shepherd through in safety, we shall have failed unless we slaughter U-boats. All energies must be bent to this end.

In June 1943, Walker demonstrated this with a 15 hour duel with U-202 not allowing it the luxury of retreating back into the wide expanse of The Atlantic. His Second Support Group constantly harried the U-boat as the rest of the convoy steamed on and waited on the limited endurance of the U-boat to remain underwater. Using sonar and radio direction finding required constant mathematical recalculations and huge amounts of intuition. The poor submarine was eventually forced to the surface where it was finished off. After this, Walker decided to coordinate with RAF Coastal Command and to take the battle to the Bay of Biscay from where the U-boats started and finished their sorties into The Atlantic.
Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
HMS Starling Depth Charging
The flotilla sank U-449 with depth charges and later Walker rammed U-119 head on with Starling. His ship started to list and had to return to port, so Walker transferred to HMS Wild Goose and continued to hunt the hunters. He hit the jackpot when he came across no less than three surfaced U-boats in the process of being resupplied. They were fired upon immediately causing enough damage to prevent them diving. All three were then promptly sunk. Sadly for Walker though, when he returned back to port, he learned that his own son (who somewhat ironically was a submariner) had been killed aboard HMS Parthian in the Mediterranean when it hit a mine.

Walker's most celebrated action was to come in January and February of 1944. The Germans were concentrating their firepower off Ireland when his flotilla sank no less than six U-boats although not without a scare to Walker's own Starling when a new German acoustic torpedo was launched at him. These were designed to chase the sound of the ship's propellors. Much to their consternation the torpedo was spotted turning towards their props. At the very last moment, Walker ordered a hard turn and launched a shallow set depth charge to be launched as he did so. The sound of the blasting depth charge confused the acoustic torpedo and the entire ship's crew could breathe a huge sigh of relief. There was to be worse news for the flotilla when a torpedo did hit one of their sloops, HMS Woodpecker. It did not sink immediately and attempts were made to tow her back home. Unfortunately a gail blew up around the Scilly Isles and she slipped below the waves. Luckily, all the crew had been safely removed from her. In fact HMS Woodpecker would be the only ship of the 2nd Support Group ever to be lost in action. The important fact was that the Kriegsmarine had lost no less than half a dozen of their submarines and crews. News of the magnitude of this success was relayed back to Western Approaches Command and a delighted Admiral Horton arranged for a huge celebration to welcome the exhausted 2nd Support Group back in to port. Newspapers and newsreels recorded the triumphant return of the battle scarred but victorious flotilla safely into Liverpool.

Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
HMS Starling Triumphant Return
Walker's last U-boat duel was probably the most epic of his career too. On May 3rd USS Donnell reported sighting of a U-boat off the coast of Northern Ireland. Alas, U-473 was able to fire a torpedo that not only hit USS Donnell but it also ignited her depth charges on the stern. This double explosion killed 29 sailors and left the ship seriously limping. Walker and his 2nd Support Group raced the 300 miles and began to search for the successful U-boat. It took three days to patiently track it down after Walker successfully anticipated its likely evasion tactics. There then began an epic 18 hour duel. Between them, the 2nd Support Group launched over 350 depth charges. Eventually the U-boat was forced to the surface but the battle did not end there with shell fire raining down all around. The U-boat then attempted to ram Starling which stood its ground firing repeatedly at the submarine heading its way. Eventually U-473 slowed and then slipped below the waves. Soon after its scuttling charges exploded. It had been a deadly fight but it would be Walker's last successful sinking of a U-boat.

Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
HMS Towy
An exhuasted Walker still had one more vital role to play with the 2nd Support Group and that was to help screen the D-Day invasion fleet steaming over the English Channel. It is a measure of his previous victories over the Kriegsmarine that they did not make any serious attempt to intercept the invasion fleet.

In July Walker took some much needed leave and was due to receive a knighthood for his services to anti-submarine warfare. Unfortunately on the night of July 8th he took ill in company with his wife. He suffered a stroke during the night, almost certainly due to the stresses and strains of his job. For his exploits, he was honoured with a full Military funeral in Liverpool Cathedral before his body was taken through the streets to HMS Hesperus for burial at sea. The ship carrying his body sailed through two lines of merchant ships who lowered their ensigns as a salute to the man. Nobody benefitted more from his exploits than these merchant sailors many of whom were alive thanks to him and the ships of his 2nd Support Group. 

Frederick 'Johnnie' Walker
Burial At Sea

Indeed, the 2nd Support Group continued its aggressive tactics and sank at least 22 more U-boats before the war's end. Other flotilla commanders emulated his aggressive tactics. His insight had been to see that the escort ships had to change from being passive defenders of their convoys and become aggressive hunters in their own right. By the time of his death, the Allies had cracked the back of the U-boat threat and a lot of that was down to Captain Frederick 'Johnny' Walker.

Liverpool honoured the man with a statue to him close to the Western Approaches Headquarters. Given that he was originally a Plymouth boy and that the Western Approaches Command had originally been in Plymouth, it might seem similarly fitting to honour the man with a statue here also. In an era when people are too keen to take statues down, I would argue that this is one worth erecting. As I said at the beginning, I can think of nobody else from Plymouth who did more to help Britain win World War Two than Captain ’Johnny' Walker.

Suggested Reading
The Fighting Captain
by Alan Burn

Walker, RN
by Terrence Robertson

Relentless Pursuit: The Story of Capt F J Walker CB DSO, RN U-Boat Hunter & Destroyer
by D.E.G. Wemyss

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe