Appointment with Destiny in the North Atlantic

By Gannon McHale

Master Meinhard Scherf was in command. The son of a German merchant marine captain, Scherf had been born at sea. At age 13 he’d run away from his home in Germany to sign on as a cabin boy on board a freighter. Sometime before World War I, his ship docked in Portland, Oregon, where he went ashore to visit a friend. But the ship sailed without him, and Scherf, stranded in America, became a U.S. citizen. He later joined the Merchant Marine, and by the time he assumed command of the William Pierce Frye in February 1943, Captain Scherf had been at sea for 37 years.

U-610 was on her third patrol of the war. The boat had been built in the Hamburg shipyard of Blohm & Voss in 1941 and had become fully operational in October 1942 under the command of First Lieutenant Walter von Freyberg-Eisenberg-Allmendingen. His father, Albrecht Freiherr von Freyberg-Eisenberg-Allmendingen, had been an imperial naval officer who served as a naval attaché at the German embassy in Vienna during World War I and later commanded the battleship Hanover . When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he was attached to the naval command in Berlin and promoted to vice admiral, then retired the following year.

Walter, born in 1915, entered the navy in 1935 as an officer cadet. Reporting aboard the heavy cruiser Blücher in September 1939 as first lieutenant, he survived her sinking off Oslo during the April 1940 Norwegian invasion. Freyberg-Eisenberg-Allmendingen then joined Admiral Karl Dönitz’s “Gray Wolves” and briefly commanded U-52 before taking charge of the newly commissioned U-610 in February 1942. Promoted to lieutenant commander in June, his decorations included the Iron Cross 2nd Class, U-boat War Badge, Fleet War Badge, and Iron Cross 1st Class. A submariner who served with him on board U-52 described the aristocratic Freyberg as “tall and very strict.”

As a member of the 6th Submarine Flotilla, U-610 was a slightly modified version of the successful Type VII sub, the workhorse of the U-boat force, with more than 568 commissioned. On her first war patrol, U-610 had managed to sink the British ship Lifland in convoy SC 101 and the American ship Steel Navigator , a member of convoy ON 137. During her second patrol she sank the Norwegian ship Bello and damaged the British Regent Lion , both part of convoy ON 153. For her third patrol she was assigned to wolf pack Dränger from 14 to 20 March, then transferred to wolf pack Seeteufel (Sea Devil) from 23 to 30 March 1943. These packs of submarines were engaged in a war of attrition. The plan was to destroy Allied transports, which included Liberty ships, at a rate greater than that of their production, and one of the east-bound targets that March was Convoy HX 230. This period in the spring of 1943 was the most critical phase in what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

A Bridge of Ships

As an integral part of the overall strategy to win the war in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for a “bridge of ships across the ocean.” To accomplish this task he turned to industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, under whose leadership the United States increased its shipbuilding capacity by more than 1,200 percent between 1941 and 1945.

Shipyards were laid out as assembly plants for more than 30,000 components produced by factories located in 32 states. The modular approach to construction used in this process would forever change the face of shipbuilding. “Built by the mile and chopped off by the yard,” more than 2,700 Liberty ships, all of the same design, were delivered at the rate of one a day, along with 800 faster Victory ships, 320 T-2 tankers, and various other commercial and naval auxiliary craft, for a total of 5,200 ships constructed during the period. However, the sheer haste of the construction process guaranteed shortcomings.

Early Liberty ships often suffered hull and deck cracks and other structural defects. Some broke in half without warning, due to a grade of steel that became brittle when exposed to the extreme temperatures of the North Atlantic. Engineering issues with shaft alignment, reduction gears, and propellers also caused problems while under way.

Indeed, it was mechanical failure during a hurricane-force gale that caused the William Pierce Frye to stop her engines on 28 March 1943 at 1123 Greenwich Civil Time. The ship was now a lame duck in a storm with U-boats in the area. The engineering division struggled to make the necessary repairs. At 1840, two torpedoes fired from a U-boat in wolf pack Seewolf just missed in the heavy seas. In a desperate attempt to rejoin the convoy, Captain Scherf hastily re-engaged his engines and got under way in a zigzag evasive pattern at the maximum achievable speed.

Fight for Life

Late in the following evening, 29 March, U-610 was lying in wait when the William Pierce Frye came into view. Under cover of darkness, Freyberg mounted a surface attack. His first torpedo hit on the starboard side in the No. 1 hold, where the explosion was muffled by the wheat. Four minutes later, at 2340, the kill shot hit forward of amidships and caused the Liberty ship to sink by the bow within five minutes at a position about 500 miles south of Iceland.

Three lifeboats had been damaged by the heavy weather, and two more by the torpedo explosions. Only one boat was launched, and the rough seas immediately swamped it. Four rafts and two floats were carried away before anyone could board them. Forced to jump overboard as the ship sank, only seven men managed to swim in high seas to the one landing craft that miraculously floated free. The remainder of the crew, including Captain Scherf, went down with the ship. My uncle was probably trapped in the engine room by the water rushing in. Even if he had managed to get topside and dive overboard, an almost impossible scenario given how quickly the William Pierce Frye sank, he would have had little chance in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic at night.

The surviving two officers, three crewmen, and two Armed Guards rode that landing craft for five days and six nights with only seven carrots for food and no fresh water. Picked up by the British destroyer Shikari , they were landed safely in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and then shipped home to America.

The Allies Strike Back

The William Pierce Frye would be the last ship sunk by U-610 . Early in 1943 the Allies introduced a whole range of improved antisubmarine equipment and techniques, including undetectable and aircraft-mounted radar, high-frequency direction finders, and improved weapons that helped to turn the tide against the German wolf packs in the battle of the North Atlantic. Seven months after the Frye went down, at 1930 on 8 October, a Canadian Sunderland Mark III bomber attached to British Coastal Command, stationed at Castle Archdale on Lower Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, was patrolling in the rear of convoy SC 143. A blip on the radar screen revealed a submarine, U-610 , below the plane in the distance, running on the surface south-southwest of a remote, extremely small, uninhabited rocky islet called Rackall.

It was Freyberg, on a return course to St. Nazaire. Despite being near the end of his fuel limit, British First Officer Alfred H. Russell closed the Sunderland in on the U-boat, strafed her deck, and dropped four depth charges. Lifted from the water by two charges that straddled her, U-610 sank at a position about 300 miles west of the Scottish mainland, leaving debris and oil scattered on the surface. Although some survivors were seen afterward in the water, no rescue was attempted. All 51 men on board were later listed among the dead.

After the war, Mary Gannon did indeed marry Billy’s older brother John. Nine months later, on 28 March 1947, the eve of the fourth anniversary of my uncle’s death, I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and christened William Joseph McHale in his memory (I later changed the name as an actor). For many years the family never spoke much about Billy, even in response to my questions and those of the other children. My mother later explained how difficult it had been for my father, who had been so close with his brother. As young boys they’d gone everywhere and done everything together, she said. When Billy died it must have seemed as if half his childhood had been torn away.

Twenty years later, also in March, I reported aboard the USS Sturgeon (SSN-637), the newest fast-attack submarine in the Atlantic Fleet. I recall my father’s initial response to that bit of news being less than enthusiastic. I now understand why.

 

 
 

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