Escort Commander Book Review


Escort Commander, originally published as Walker R.N.

By Terence Robertson

Hardcover in dustjacket, 200 pages, appendices, notes, and index

Published by Nelson Doubleday 1979, Book Club Edition

Language: English

Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches

This is the biography of Captain Frederic “Johnnie” Walker, Royal Navy, who gained fame as the most successful submarine hunter of the Second World War.  He held simultaneous command of HMS Stork and was in overall command of the 36th Escort Group during 1941-42, and later was Captain of HMS Starling and the 2nd Support Group during 1943-44.  Ships under his command destroyed nineteen German U-boats during the war, and HMS Starling was the ship credited with the highest number of U-boat kills with fifteen, the majority of which were scored during her time with Walker in command.

Walker was an innovator in anti-submarine tactics and was very aggressive.  He determined that the best way to ensure the safety of the convoys under his protection was not to provide close escort, but to pursue and destroy any enemy submarine that was detected.  He often sent his warships several miles from the convoys after reported submarines; captains under his command were under standing orders to immediately attack any U-boats detected without awaiting further orders.  Three of his enemy submarine kills were sunk by ramming after they were forced to the surface.

A favored tactic was the “creeping attack” where sonar contact was maintained by one ship while another approached at low speed to deliver a depth charge pattern.  This was generally employed against a deep-diving submarine which could not detect the screw noise of the slow ship and thus was not expecting an attack.  Another tactic was known as “operation plaster” where two or preferably three ships steaming abreast would drop large patterns of depth charges simultaneously over a target.

While at sea Captain Walker lived on the open bridge of his ship, taking meals there and only retiring briefly for cat naps when the situation permitted.  The stress of combat and exposure to the North Atlantic elements eventually took its toll, he died of a cerebral thrombosis in July 1944.  His honors included the Distinguished Service Order with three bars and was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

The only nit I would pick with this book is the author credits the promulgation of Walker’s tactics and innovative leadership style as the cause of the Battle of the Atlantic turning against the U-boats in 1943.  While certainly a factor, the introduction of centimetric radar in patrol aircraft (which the German submarines could not detect) and the use of escort carriers certainly played a major role. Never the less this is a well-written biography, and Walker is worthy of study as an example of inspiring leadership under difficult circumstances.