Engagement Between British Destroyers and U-568
May 27th & 28th, 1942
Written by
LCDR W.F.N Gregory-Smith, Royal Navy
Commanding Officer, HMS ERIDGE
Recipient of
Distinguished Service Order (x2)
Distinguished Service Cross

The British and Axis armies in Cyrenaica were both preparing for a summer offensive in 1942. To accelerate the build-up of British supplies, an unusually large convoy, with a powerful escort including the destroyers HMS ERIDGE, HMS HURWORTH, and HMS HERO sailed from Alexandria towards the end of May. At daylight on the 27th, the convoy was in the Gulf of Sollum. Tobruk radio was then broadcasting a continuous stream of air-raid warnings. As the convoy was such an obbious target for attack, all ships were reconciled to a day at action stations.

In the early forenoon an aircraft reported sighting a U-Boat to the North-East. The U-boat was no longer a threat to the convoy; consequently some surprise was felt when the senior officer weakenedthe air defense by detaching HURWORTH and HERO to investigate. In fact he knew that the Axis offensive had commenced and that the aerial activity was in support of the land battle but had omitted to inform his command.

Some hours later, ERIDGE was ordered to reinforce the other destroyers which had gained contact with the U-Boat but had expended most of their depth charges. We were not sorry to exchange a slow convoy for the possibility of ofensive action but, on sighting our sonsorts, were disappointed to find that they had lost contact. We waited until they had completed an unsuccessful search; then, being the senior officer, I assumed command. I guessed that the U-Boat's Captain would try to get as far as possible from a hostile shore so I ordered a search commencing in a northerly direction from the U-Boat's last known position. This was successful, HERO first regaining contact, followed a few minutes later by HURWORTH. Both ships then carried out an attack at the end of which neither had any depth charges. ERIDGE, Now the only ship with any charges, had not made contact but the others kept signalling their ranges and bearings of the target which were plotted on a large scale chart. These placed the U-Boat to the south and enabled it's course and speed to be estimated. ERIDGE steered an intercepting course until the submarine detector picked up an echo. Conditions in the Mediterranean were notoriously poor for submarine detection but, as the range decreased on this occasion, the echoes cracked in the receiver like pistol shots.

ERIDGE then carried out two attacks with her charges set to detonate at 250 feet. A few dead fish floated to the surface but the U-Boat maintained her course and spedd so I concluded she was much deeper, possibly at 5 or 600 feet. The next attacks were carried out while the sun was setting and daylight slowly fading. The charges were now set to detonate at maximum depth and so deep were the explosions that the surface of the sea merely vibrated. At these depths, attacks were unlikely to be accurate so many charges would be needed to ensure significant damage. These were no longer available so, conditions still being good enough for two ships to maintain contact, I ordered HERO to proceed at full speed to Tobruk and replenish. She was capable of more than thirty knots; nevertheless, she would be absent for several hours.

The attacks continued while a full moon rose serenely out of the sea, forming a perfect background for the U-Boat to make a torpedo attack from the darker northern sector if we should lose contact. Eventually, ERIDGE had only one salvo of five charges left and I decided to retain these in case the U-Boat decreased her depth. But our best chance of a "kill" depended on maintaining contact until exhausted batteries forced the U-Boat to surface. Echoes from her hull were still loud and clear; nevertheless we waited with increasing impatience, willing HERO to return. In fact, she never did. On approaching Tobruk she had been diverted to the west to investigate a report, which subsequently proved false, of a seaborne assault in the British rear.

About midnight, a new noise began to impinge on the high pitched transmissions of the detector. It was repeated at intervals and sounded like the sigh of air escaping from a pair of bellows. We needed a few minutes to realize it's significance. The U-Boat was blowing her tanks in the process of surfacing ! !

All guns were trained along the bearing on which she was expected to appear. This lay in the darker sector so the destroyers would be clearly silhouetted against the moon in the southern sky. As we were expecting her to try to escape on the surface while fighting with gun and torpedoes, it would be imperitive to open fire before her own weapons could be used. Everyone was very conscious of this during the exciting, anxious wait before a dark smudge gradually materialized against the darker background. The searchlight was immediately illuminated showing the U-Boat wallowing gently in the slight swell which was pouring off her hulland sparkling in the moonlight. Speed was increased to fifteen knots to counter a surface escape and the guns ordered to open fire. But use of the main armament was an error because the vivid flash of the four-inch guns temporarily blinded everyone on the upper deck. "Cease-fire" was promptly ordered but by the time vision was restored, the U-Boat had vanished. Searches ahead by radar and submarine detector proved negative; neithe could propeller noises noises be heard although a look-out thought he had seen the U-Boat ahead. So speed had to be maintained while the instruments tried to verify his report. The results being negative again, the engines were stopped; at the same time HURWORTH reported she had lost contact. The initiative had now passed to the U-Boat which might even exchange the role of hunted for hunter. She also had a choice from several additional courses of action, eitherr submerged or on the surface, and her prospects of escape would be greatly improved unless we guessed what she was doing. If she had moved ahead, she would hardly risk turning close across the bows of either destroyer so our speed would have been sufficient to keep her in sight. She was not. But if she had remained where she had surfaced, ERIDGE would have passed her while those on the upper deck were blinded. She would then have an opportunity to move in any direction between East and West on a southerly semi-circle and that, being astern, could not be covered by our primitive fixed radar. On the other hand the moon was now in our favour and propeller noises should be audible. But she was neither seen nor heard. So had she dived into our wake where the turbulence caused by the propellers would be making the detectors transmissions? This seemed a reasonable conclusion so I ordered both destroyers to reverse course and carry out a southerly search. How invaluable HERO would have been at that moment !

Then followed an endless, anxious thirty minutes. The detector's transmissions flowed monotonously without any corresponding echo. Each lack of response seemed to emphasize with increasing insistence that the wrong action had been selected. If so, the U-Boat would be getting further away with every passing minute and any alternative search would be futile. So we pressed on doggedly until, just as we were beginning to despair, the detector received the whisper of an echo at an extreme range. It could have come from a wreck or a shoal of fish but as ERIDGE drew closer, the echoes became so clear that doubt no longer existed. It was the U-Boat ! Soon afterwards, HURWORTH reported that she too had gained contact.

The U-Boat steered south for about an hour. Then she suddenly doubled back on her track and started to zig-zag in a northerly direction. But conditions were still so good that the submarine detector had no difficulty in holding her. Our main concern was still the lack of charges.

At 0400 U-568 surfaced for the last time. She came up gently and silently without any fuss. One moment the sea ahead was empty; the next she was rolling sluggishly in the slight swell. A second later she was gripped in the beam of our seaaarchlight which revealed several seamen tumbling out of the conning tower. They could have been her gun's crew, so fire was opened to deter them. This time we did not repeat our mistakes. ERIDGE maintained her slow speed while only her close range weapons raked the U-Boat's hull from which riccochetting tracers described curious patterns in the air. As ERIDGE surged alongside, the final pattern of five charges was released. These were set shallow and detonated with a mighty crash, drenching the U-Boat under a great gush of water. Men were now leaping into the sea so fire was checked and the whaler sent away with a boarding party with a slight hope of getting onboard to prevent her being scuttled. But the U-Boat was so obviously foundering that the whaler soon turned to the more humanitarian role of saving life. To the best of my recollection ERIDGE alone picked up the U-Boat's entire company which, upon reaching Tobruk, was divided between ERIDGE, HURWORTH, and HERO for the passage to Alexandria.