Post Arkansan History

Bauer would go on to sink three more ships on this patrol (the Norwegian Motor tanker Leiv Eiriksson, the Canadian Sailing ship Mona Marie and the American merchant ship Warrior), and damage the American tanker Gulfbelle, before finally arriving back in U-126's home port of Lorient France on July 25th, 1942.

Bauer commanded U-126 for one more patrol, this time mostly off the West coast of Africa, sinking three more ships in the process; the American steam merchant George Thatcher, the British steam merchants Oued Grou and New Toronto.

The U-126 had returned to Lorient on January 7th, 1943 battered and bruised after her 5th war patrol and spent about two months being overhauled. 

There is quite a bit of information on the internet about the U-126, her patrols, and her victims if you are interested in learning more of her history beyond the context of this site. The site I recommend most for information on U-126 as well as other U-boat related data is uboat.net. Much of the information they have on U-126 and Bauer was originally provided by fellow researcher Ken Dunn.

Ernst Bauer

Ernst Bauer

On February 28th, 1943, seven weeks after returning from his 5th war patrol on U-126, commander Bauer was assigned as Tactical Training Officer of the 27th Flotilla (Training) in Gotenhafen (present day Gdynia, Poland) under ace Korvettenkapitän Erich Topp. Intriguingly, U-Boat Command notes 29-year-old Bauer had to give up his proven command of U-126For health reasons”. 

After the war he was invited to join the German post war navy, the Bundesmarine, on December 1st, 1955 and held several staff positions, including a NATO assignment. Bauer retired March 31st, 1972 at the age of 58 as 'Kapitän zur See' (Captain). 

He passed away on March 12, 1988 at the age of 74 while living on the island of Sylt on Germany's North Sea coast.

For a summary of his career, see here.

Hans-Adolf Schweichel

I spent a lot of time researching Schweichel since he was the acting torpedo officer during the attack on Arkansan and Ken had already researched Bauer. I gathered quite a bit of information and created a written report that I shared with family. 

After this patrol he left U-126 at the beginning of August for Commanders School and at completion was given command of his own U-boat, the U-105 the 1st of October 1942. The U-105 was undergoing repairs, having been seriously damaged on her previous patrol. 

An event that still puzzles me to this day is that, according to most sources, on October 30th he is abruptly given command of another Type IXC U-boat, the U-173 that had also undergone serious repairs, and sets out on patrol the very next day, November 1st, 1942. 

The norm was for a commander to have time (weeks or even months) to get used to his crew, and they him by going out for sea trials. I originally thought that the quick change was required due to the impending Allied invasion of North Africa, but later discovered that the invasion took the Germans completely by surprise and his original patrol area was to be the Caribbean.

While the boat was heading for the Caribbean they received a message to turn around while passing the Azores and head for the North African coast at top speed to respond to the Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch). During a daring attack on the heavily protected invasion fleet anchored off Casablanca, Morocco on the evening of November 11th, U-173 sank a troop ship, heavily damaged a destroyer, and damaged a tanker. Schweichel escaped a counterattack and made his way back out to deeper water. Just before dawn on the 15th they damaged an attack cargo ship, which had to be abandoned, but is later saved and put back into service. 

The following day, November 16th, Schweichel and the crew of the U-173's luck runs out and they were picked up on sonar as they made a submerged run in relatively shallow water (150 - 180 feet deep) towards Casablanca. Assuming they were at periscope depth, that would have left 104 -134 feet under her keel. Keep in mind the Type IXC was about 252 feet long. Three U.S. Destroyers converged and start dropping dozens of depth charges and K-gun rounds, their explosive force magnified by the close proximity of the seafloor. The U-173 is never seen or heard from again. 57 men were lost, including Schweichel, who was only 27 years old. The average age of the crew was 21 years old.

The Loss of U-126


Siegfried Kietz

After Bauer was promoted off, U-126's new Commander was 26-year-old Oberleutnant zur See Siegfried Kietz (Crew 37a) born in Kassel, Hesse, Germany on January 14th, 1917. 

Kietz joined the Kriegsmarine in the spring of 1937. He was a cadet aboard the sail training ship Gorch Fock* and later the old battleship SMS Schlesien, which had been converted to a school ship. 

Upon his graduation from the German Naval Academy in 1939, his early naval career was in minesweepers. 

He first served as a Watch Officer in the 2nd Minesweeper Flotilla from April 2nd, 1939 until December of 1940. He became a Boat Commander in the 5th Minesweeper Flotilla in December of 1940 until September 28th, 1941. 

After he volunteered for the U-Boat service he spent the next eight months in various training courses in the Baltic to prepare for U-Boat service. 

As was often done, to prepare him for frontline service, he was assigned as Second Watch Officer (IIWO) on a front boat, in this case, the Type IXC U-Boat U-130 in June of 1942 under the command of the experienced Korvettenkapitän Ernst Kals. He took part in their very successful 4th and 5th war patrols.

*A sister ship of Gorch Fock was Horst Wessel, which after the war was taken by the U.S. as war reparations and renamed the USCGC Eagle (WIX-327), the current training vessel of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, based in New London, CT.

Their 4th patrol off the west coast of Africa from July 4th, 1942 to September 12th, 1942 netted an impressive seven ships sunk.

They departed for their 5th patrol on October 29th, 1942, which was intended to be further west, but they were diverted to respond to the Allied Operation Torch landings in North Africa. Per U-boat.net: 

At 18.28 hours on 12 Nov 1942, U-130 fired five torpedoes on three transports (USS Edward Rutledge (AP 52), USS Hugh L. Scott (AP 43) and USS Tasker H. Bliss (AP 42)) at anchor in the heavily guarded Fedhala Roads. All torpedoes hit their targets, causing the first and the second ship to sink quickly. USS Tasker H. Bliss (AP 42) burned until 02.30 hours the next morning and finally sank. The U-boat reported its victims by their former civilian names.” 

U-130 returned safely on December 30th, 1942.

As noted above, another U-boat, U-173, was also diverted to North Africa and had some success. U-173 was commanded by U-126’s former First Watch Officer (IWO) Hans-Adolph Schweichel, the man who acted as Torpedo Officer in the sinking of the Arkansan

Kietz spent January and February of 1943 in his final Commander courses in the Baltic before being assigned on March 1st, 1943 as U-126’s new commander in Lorient.

Much of his crew was very young (average age was 22) based on her casualty list below, and it is believed that many of the more experienced men, crew that may have taken part in U-126’s 4th patrol when Arkansan was sunk, had by this time been promoted off to other assignments and probably other U-Boats. As crew lists for all patrols were not saved it is nearly impossible to tell.

The only two men I can say with any certainty that had been with U-126 for at least one patrol prior to Kietz joining were Oberleutnant zur See der Reserve Johannes Graf von Ballestrem as Second Watch Officer (IIWO)  and Oberleutnantingenieur Hans “Asi” Schaumlöffel as Chief Engineer. Neither of these men, however, were aboard U-126 when Arkansan was sunk.

Ballestrem’s full name was Johannes Wolfgang Heinrich Gabriel Hyacinth Graf von Ballestrem. As the name suggests he was part of the German aristocracy, a real-life Count. Records show he was the IIWO on U-126’s 5th war patrol and Torpedo Officer of the surface attack on New Toronto. There is some disagreement in sources as to whether he was promoted to IWO on this sixth and last patrol or if it was Leutnant zur See Emil Stefan Bacher.

It had been Chief Engineer Schaumlöffel that had saved U-126 on its last patrol with Bauer after a very accurate depth charge attack by HMS Wivern and HMS Southern Gem caused the U-126 to lose control, stopping the dive at 240 meters (787.40 Feet), just shy of crush depth in one last ditch effort with their remaining air. Schaumlöffel had replaced U-126’s original Chief Engineer Oberleutnantingenieur Friedrick "Fritz" Ruhland who survived the war and passed in 1971.

On March 11th, dockyard testing on U-126 was commenced to verify all the repairs were completed satisfactorily. On the 14th they conducted sea trials off Lorient, and after their successful completion the U-126 was declared ready for front line service again on the 15th. The next few days would have been busy loading supplies.

Leutnant zur See Emil Stefan Bacher

U-126 Casualties

As noted in the table above, they came from all over Germany, including several places that are no longer part of the war-time country:

U-126 & U-154 - Outbound Transit

Finally, on March 20th, 1943, around 4:45PM, U-126 let go her mooring lines and put to sea along with U-154 and their Sperrbrecher (Minesweeper) surface escort. U-154 noted the wind was blowing from the southeast at force 2 (light breeze), the sea state 1-2 (calm-smooth), 60% cloudy (Cirrus) and a light haze, visibility 10 nautical miles. At 7:15PM their escort turned back for Lorient.

As U-126’s War Diary would be lost with her sinking, we need to rely on her reconstructed war diary from U-Boat Headquarters and from the war diaries of the other U-Boat’s she operated with, like U-154.

U-154 was commanded by another rookie commander, 24-year-old Oberleutnant zur See Oskar-Heinz Kusch, who had recently taken command on February 8th. 

Kusch was a Naval Academy classmate of Kietz, although with hundreds of cadets, it is not known how well they actually knew each other. 

The U-Boats had orders to head to location BD 76. (Center = 44°15'00"N, 034°45'00"W, about 500 miles northwest of the Azores). 

Before they could reach the Azores, of course, they had to run the RAF Coastal Command gauntlet through the Bay of Biscay. 

The next several days were fairly intense with multiple aircraft sightings and attempted attacks as detailed by U-154’s Kriegstagebuch or KTB (War Diary);

Oskar-Heinz Kusch

U-154 March 21st through 24th

As noted their escort turned back 2 ½ hours after leaving port. After that it’s unclear how long or how close U-126 and U-154 stayed together, but they would have taken more or less the same route.

After passing the continental shelf U-154 did a deep dive test (standard operating procedure and something U-126 did on her previous patrols) and stayed submerged for 18 hours and 6 minutes. 30 minutes after surfacing to charge their batteries they detected a radar signal on their Metox radar receiver and dived, hearing explosions 5 minutes later. An hour later they surfaced and pick up a radar signal again. Amusingly, they attempt to evade by zig-zagging (ineffectual), but eventually had to dive again 1 ½ hours later, which was again soon followed by explosions astern. A half hour later they attempted to surface again, but had to dive once more just minutes later. And so it went, day after day.

I’ve included an interactive map below showing the location milestones as noted in U-154’s KTB. As you can see, with all the diving and traveling submerged necessitated by the round-the-clock air coverage by RAF Coastal Command, it took much longer to transit the Bay. About 80 hours or 3 ½ days to reach the relative safety of the open Atlantic. Their speed averaged out to a painfully slow 4.92 miles per hour, or 4.3 knots.

U-126 Operations Off West Africa

Once into the open Atlantic, both U-126 and U-154 would have turned south to head for their operational assignments off the west coast of Africa. Now without the constant threat of air attack they were able to make serious progress on the surface. We know from U-154’s war diary that a week later they were 300 nautical miles west of the Canary Islands. Later that day U-154 rendezvoused with U-172 (Emmermann) to transfer their Chief Engineer Reinicke in a rubber dinghy to help U-172 make repairs so they could get home. 

By April 5th U-154 was west of the Cape Verde islands. On April 8th they were 300 nautical miles west-southwest of Portuguese Guinea (present day Guinea-Bissau) nearing their operational area. U-126, U-154 and two other boats, U-123 (von Schroeter) and U-105 (Nissen) were radioed their operational grid locations on this date as well. U-126 was assigned EU 80 and FF 20 off the southern tip of Liberia.

Confirmation that U-126 and U-154 traveled independently from the Bay of Biscay to their operational area off West Africa is that at 11:08AM on April 10th, U-154’s war diary noted they sighted U-126 bearing 90° True in Kriegsmarine Grid ET 8193 (centered on 04°27'00"N, 016°21'00"W) 350 miles southwest of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and maneuvered alongside. 

They likely compared their patrols so far and their hopes for success. About an hour later, U-154 noted their position as Grid ET8272 and that in the last 24 hours U-154 had travelled 182 nautical miles surfaced and only 1 nautical mile submerged. They also noted the weather; wind was from the south-southeast force 1 (light), sea state was 0-1 (calm), it was only 10% cloudy (Cumulus), visibility 12 nautical miles, with a light southeast swell. They parted ways and by 1:54 U-126 was out of sight.

It is assumed that after this meeting with U-154, U-126 headed for their operational area off the southern tip of Liberia. It’s known that U-154 was headed for an area just west of U-126 and crossed the equator on April 13th. They held a 40-man ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony that same day. As U-126 was in the same latitude, it is reasonable to assume that they too held a ceremony. The naval tradition is observed by many navies, and amazingly there are photographs of U-126 conducting a crossing the line ceremony earlier in her career while Bauer was commander, which you can view on uboat.net here .

It is also interesting that U-154’s ceremony included 40 men. Out of a crew of around 55, it shows how many of the crew were new, or at least had not made it that far south yet. The same could likely be said for U-126.

Other interesting clues from U-154’s war diary that may have also applied to U-126 is that once they reached their operational area they stayed mainly on the surface searching for targets on the horizon and made very little headway (about 80 nautical miles a day), stopping the engines to save fuel and allowing the boat to drift in the current.

After a week of very little activity, On April 19th Headquarters instructed U-126 to head for grid location FD 15 (Center = 01°03'00"N, 026°39'00"W), which was about half-way between Freetown, Sierra Leone and Natal, Brazil. This was roughly 1,300 miles west of where they had been operating, so it would have taken several days to get there. I assume headquarters had a piece of intelligence that indicated something was going to pass through that area as the other U-Boats were vectored to that vicinity as well, not as an official wolfpack, but as a widespread patrol line.    

A week later, on April 29th, at 1:54pm (CET), Headquarters instructed U-126 to head back towards Africa for location ET 60 (Center = 06°27'00"N, 013°09'00"W, about 140 miles south of Freetown, Sierra Leone). Later that day, at 9:57pm (CET) U-126 reported to headquarters that in position FD1169 (Center = 01°51'00"N, 027°09'00"W) at 2:27pm (CET) they had sighted a freighter, 4-5,000 Tons (neutral Spanish) 8-9 miles range, bearing 40°. 

Interestingly, U-126 also noted their torpedo inventory. They had 8 air powered torpedoes (G7a), 8 electric torpedoes (G7e), 8 acoustic homing torpedoes (G7es T5 Zaunkönig). This would have been the complete stock of torpedoes they had departed Lorient with. They also noted they had 120 cubic meters of fuel remaining, and were proceeding to the location ordered by headquarters.

See the interactive map below for key locations connected to U-126 while she operated off the west coast of Africa:

On May 2nd there were a series of communications back and forth between headquarters and U-126 telling Kietz what sectors within Grid ET they had freedom to attack, with Kietz questioning the area and headquarters confirming.

On May 9th U-126 sighted the neutral Portuguese Gunboat "Oxvelho", course 130°, 8 knots in position ET 6278 (Center = 06°57'00"N, 013°27'00"W) about 100 miles south-southwest of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

On May 13th Headquarters sent instructions for U-126 to re-fuel to extend their patrol:

Rendezvous with U 460 on May 17th in Quadrant 8889 for further operation U-126 is to take on 70 cubic meters of fuel. After discontinuation from refueling operation, report arrival back in operational area.

U-460 was a Type XIV supply U-Boat known as a “Milkcow”, commanded by 47-year-old Kapitänleutnant Ebe Schnoor. He was one of the oldest U-Boat commanders of the war. 

On May 15th, U-126 was operating in position ET 8723 (Center = 03°15'00"N, 016°39'00"W) about 430 miles Southwest of Freetown, Sierra Leone. They reported the conditions in their area for the previous two weeks, such as convoy traffic, allied air and sea patrols, torpedo inventory and fuel;

1) May 3rd in sector northern part within 200 meter line only strong, neutral south-east and north-west shipping traffic. Days spent submerged. Light air and sea patrols by the enemy.

2) At the sector boundary alarm in front of aircraft on May 3rd Quadrant 5883 and May 11th Quadrant 5633. Accept south-west large air reconnaissance from Freetown.

3) From May 12th over quadrants 6150, 6180, 6410, 5660, 5865, 8343, 8293, 8657, 8835, 8733 wanted. At night light air and sea patrols.

4) Previous aircraft sightings in ET 5198 and 5467 on April 9th and on April 10th, respectively. Sea patrols in 9931, 2 destroyers at night. In EU 7867 and 7895 on April 12th air patrols.

5) All torpedoes. 85 cubic meters. I'm at the re-supplier's [U-460] on the 17th at 4:00 p.m.” 

On May 30th Headquarters radioed U-126 at 2245 Hours that they had permission to operate freely within their entire patrol area.

Soon after, at 2357 hours in grid ET 6243 on that same day, U-126 reported they had attacked and sunk a large three-masted Type C3 protected by a destroyer with a T3 (G7e) electric torpedo at a depth of 7 meters, target speed 9 knots. Course 310°.

U-126 also reported they had 107 cubic meters of fuel remaining.

The Dutch tug ZWARTE ZEE tows back to harbour a blazing American freighter, the SS FLORA MACDONALD which had been torpedoed by a U-boat [U-126] in the Atlantic during a convoy from Marshall, Liberia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 May 1943. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. Catalogue number AX 44A.

The vessel they attacked, but failed to immediately sink,  was the armed and escorted Liberty ship Flora MacDonald, operated by Calmar Steamship Company. They were carrying 6,270 tons of cocoa, mahogany and rubber, and had departed Marshall, Liberia on the 29th.

Per Uboat.net:

At 21.57 hours (local) on 30 May 1943 the Flora MacDonald (Master Ernest Wright Jones), escorted by HMS Fandango (T 107), was hit by one torpedo from U-126. The torpedo struck on the port side in the engine room, killing the third assistant engineer and a fireman. The explosion opened a large hole that immediately flooded the engine room, stopped the engines and caused the ship to settle by the stern. A fire started in the #3 hold and flames, shooting 40 feet in the air, quickly trapped some of the men in their quarters. The surviving crewmembers of the eight officers, 36 men, 24 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 5in and nine 20mm guns) and two passengers abandoned ship in six lifeboats and two rafts. Five of these men suffered severe burns. The fire raged out of control and spread to the #2 and #4 holds and the entire midships house. The armed trawler picked up the survivors and decided to head to Freetown, so the badly burned men could be treated. Three of them died on board and the other two died in the hospital in Freetown from their burns. 20 men were hospitalized.

At 14.30 hours the next day, HMS Zwarte Zee (W 163), escorted by HMS Milford (L 51), HMS Woodruff (K 53) and HMS Tamarisk (K 216), took the still burning vessel in tow for Freetown at 5.5 knots. At 18.00 hours on 1 June, they beached the ship in Freetown Harbor where the cargo of rubber was salvaged. The Liberty ship burned for 16 days and was later declared a total loss.” 

A personal account from one of the merchant mariner survivors, fireman and water tender Clifton Trahan, indicated many of the men were sleeping on deck due to the heat and that a tarpaulin was hoisted over them to shelter them from the sun and rain. As the force of the explosion came up, it caught the tarpaulin on fire which subsequently fell on the men, which caused the majority of the burns. You can listen to Clifton’s account here: .

Three days later, on June 2nd, 1943 U-126 reported: 

07.34 [0534 local] in ET 6246 from convoy 120 degrees 8 knots with 2 hits 11,000 ton tanker sunk. Good [accurate] artillery fire from destroyer. Depth Charges. ASDIC. 3 plus 8. 100 cbm Go re-load.


Kietz had next attempted to sink the British Motor Tanker Standella operated by Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co Ltd. M/T Standella (Master John William Balchin) was a straggler from a small convoy TS-42 enroute from Takoradi, Ghana to Freetown, Sierra Leonne, and was being escorted by the Flower class corvette HMS Snowdrop (K-67) commanded by T/Lt. William Alexander Burnett, RNVR.

Around dawn Kietz fired two torpedoes (likely G7e Electric). Fortunately, Standella was in ballast and not full of fuel, so the damage was contained and did not result in a fire or any loss of life. HMS Snowdrop sighted the surfaced U-126 in position 007° 25’N, 013° 26’ W, raised her black pennant and swung in to attack firing her 4” main gun, forcing Kietz to dive. Snowdrop then picked up the U-126 on sonar (ASDIC) and made several depth charge attacks, which badly damaged her.

HMS Snowdrop (K-67)

HMS Rapid was sent to assist Standella and HMS Antelope was sent to assist Snowdrop in her hunt for U-126. Kietz appears to have made good their escape, despite U-126's damage, and radioed headquarters later that day to inform them of the attack. Standella was towed to Freetown later the same day and left the harbor after temporary repairs on June 15th for Dakar where permanent repairs were made.

U-126 & U-154 Return Transit

On June 7th Headquarters radioed U-126 to inform Kietz that no further extension of their patrol was planned. The same message was sent to U-105, U-154, and U-515 (Henke), the latter an experienced boat that had considerable success back on April 30th and May 1st. Around June 12th it is assumed U-126 radioed Headquarters an update as later in the day Headquarters sent a message to U-126 asking her to report their position as what they sent previously was not recognized.

On June 18th Headquarters instructed U-126 to head north for a rendezvous with U-154, which had suggested they travel back to Lorient together. Neither boat was in great shape. U-154 had also been fighting a number of mechanical issues (some from quality issues, some from damage incurred while they operated off Brazil) and to make matters worse, their Metox radar warning receiver had stopped working.

By June 23rd U-126 was about 600 miles west of the Canary Islands in grid DG 8965 (centered on 27°09’00”N, 027°18’00”W). At this time they finally reported some of the damage they had incurred during Snowdrop’s counterattack: 

Water ingress through 2 pressure hull cracks of 35 cm (13.78”) each between frame 39 and diesel bulkhead starboard. Welded bilge. After 2 dives clear for 120 meters (393.7 feet). Both negative buoyancy tanks failed.

They also noted: 

June 15th highflying aircraft in EDG (must be called ET for sure) 6338, 26, 23. On June 17th in ES 1383. 45 cubic meters of fuel.

I believe some historians misinterpreted the report of a highflying aircraft as connected to the damage they described instead of to HMS Snowdrop. On June 25th Headquarters radioed communications instructions:

"Kusch", "Kietz" on 26 June 08.00 switch to "Ireland" circuit.  Radio silence except tactically important messages.   No bearing signals for the meeting.

On June 26th, U-Boat Headquarters radioed revised rendezvous instructions:

1)  Meeting point for "Kusch" and "Kietz" rescheduled for 28 June 16.00 hours in square CF 7237.

2)  "Metz" deliver Metox at the time and place mentioned for Kusch.  Afterwards per previous arrival order.

3)  For boats mentioned absolute radio silence, no bearing signals.  If by 29 June 1200 hours meeting not successful, continue inbound or outbound transit.

“Metz” referred to 36-year-old Oberleutnant zur See der Reserve Helmut Metz, the commander of the Type XIV supply U-Boat U-487. They had departed Bordeaux on their second patrol on April 1st and were outbound to their operational area south of the Azores. The intention was that U-154 would pick up her replacement Metox radar warning receiver from U-487, but U-154’s course put her too far west, so U-126 rendezvoused with U-487 instead, likely early on the 28th. 

U-487 and commander Metz would be lost two weeks later. See here for more information.

Later in the day at 1615 U-154 reached the meeting point. At 1720 they sighted U-126 bearing 220°, which came alongside. At this time they don’t appear to have held a face to face meeting (perhaps due to the time of day) and started their transit together to the northeast. At midnight they stopped 115 nautical miles northeast of Santa Maria Island, Azores. Conditions were described as wind from the northwest - force 2, sea - force 2 (smooth), 50% cloudy (cumulus), visibility 6-8 nautical miles, slight northeast swell.

U-154’s replacement Metox and cables were taken over, and Kusch took a raft over to U-126 where he met with Kietz to discuss their plans for the transit home. According to later testimony, Kusch states that the two commanders agree to stay surfaced if aircraft are encountered and cover each other with their anti-aircraft guns. Kusch returned to the U-154 three hours and ten minutes later. 

Later, early in the afternoon of June 29th, about 94 miles north of their midnight rendezvous, the boats sighted a fast passenger ship bearing 156° True. U-126 dived without warning then U-154 dived as well and headed northwest to put a little space between himself and the U-126 (U-boats operating submerged in close proximity is an accident waiting to happen). 

Kusch went on the offensive and at 1330 fired a double fan shot from tubes I and IV, target angle right 85°, G7e torpedo depth 6 meters, target speed 19 knots, distance 3500 meters.  Fortunately, both torpedoes missed. Kusch contemplated other firing options but then ruled them out. He attempted to contact U-126 via underwater telegraph to no avail.

At 1432 Kusch surfaced and headed back to where he last saw U-126 dive. 20 minutes later U-126 was sighted, surfaced, bearing 70°True. U-126 did not hear his underwater telegraph signals, so Kusch added that to the long list of equipment failures and they continued their voyage home.

Forty minutes after midnight on June 30th Kusch radioed U-Boat headquarters informing them of his failed attempt on the liner, confirming he was in transit with Kietz and had his new Metox.

At noon on Wednesday, June 30th Kusch noted that in the last 24 hours they had traveled 262 nautical miles surfaced and only four nautical miles submerged. Weather continued to be mild: wind from the west – force 2, sea – force 2 (smooth), 30% cloudy (stratus), visibility 11 nautical miles, medium westerly-swell.

By midnight on Thursday, July 1st Kusch noted they are 350 nautical miles west of Cape Finisterre, Spain. Soon after both boats received instructions to switch to the ‘Coastal’ radio frequency.

Below is an interactive map of U-126 and U-154's attempted transit home:

RAF No. 172 Squadron Attack on U-126

Meanwhile, the evening of Friday, July 2nd, 1943 RAF No. 172 Squadron based at RAF Chivenor in Devon, England was preparing to send four Wellington bombers on anti-submarine patrol. This was not their typical fan out into the Bay of Biscay, but all in a somewhat concentrated area at the western approaches to the Bay in support of Operation Musketry/Sea Slug, a joint Royal Navy and Coastal Command effort to hunt and kill U-Boats traveling in groups. Group transits were a recent change in tactics by the Germans to try and counter the night-time threat pioneered and perfected by No. 172 Squadron.

These were the latest Mk.XII Wellingtons the Squadron began flying at the beginning of March, 1943. They were equipped with the more powerful Hercules engines, more armament and the latest ASV Mk. III radar mounted in a fairing under the chin.

A brand-new GR Mk.XII Wellington (MP.684) awaiting delivery from the factory at Brooklands around April 13th, 1943. Note ASV Mk.III chin mounted radar fairing, bottom of retracted Leigh Light "dustbin" barely visible between trailing edge of wing and the new waist gun position, and upgraded Tail Gun turret. Courtesy of the Brooklands Museum. Note also this Wellington never served with No. 172, and was instead sent to West Africa in June/July of 1943, possibly 26 Squadron SAAF based in Takoradi, Ghana.

A word about Airborne Radar, Leigh Lights and German Submarines:

The Coastal Command crews didn’t refer to it as radar initially. Their reports at this time typically used ‘S/E’ for ‘Special Equipment’. Occasionally they would refer to it ‘ASV’ for Anti-Surface Vessel, which seems counter-intuitive to be searching for U-Boat’s this way, but the fact of the matter is U-Boats spent most of their time on the surface. Their time submerged was limited by their battery capacity and the air quality on board for their crews. Being submerged also greatly limited their performance (maximum of 7 knots submerged, but most typically 3-4 knots as the faster they went under water, the quicker they drained their batteries. Compare this to 18 knots surfaced, typically 10-15 knots for fuel efficiency). U-Boats hunted primarily by sight at this time, occasionally by sound and not by radar (except for a handful late in the war), so being submerged also greatly limited their ability to find targets. Under perfect circumstances, fresh batteries, fully charged, a U-Boat could stay submerged for around 24 hours. But things are seldom perfect, batteries degrade, and frequent air attacks forced them to dive preventing full charge. The only way to recharge at this time was to surface (snorkels started to be added later this year). Rather than deal in hypotheticals, however, let’s look at what U-126's travelling companion,  U-154, actually achieved on this patrol.

U-126 and U-154 were both Type IXC U-Boats about the same age and condition (old and worn), commanded by new, inexperienced officers and both left Lorient, occupied France together on March 20th and had a similar patrol profile until U-126’s destruction. 

In 108 days at sea U-154 traveled 15,565 nautical miles surfaced and 686.40 nautical miles submerged (95.87% surfaced and 4.22% submerged in nautical miles traveled). U-154’s longest distance run on the surface was 262 nautical miles in a 24 hour period. Coincidentally, this occurred on June 30th, two days after she rendezvoused with U-126 so we know U-126 did this as well (plus another 4 nautical miles submerged for a total of 266 nautical miles). Compare this to 35 nautical miles for the longest distance submerged, which occurred March 22nd and 24th as the two boats ran the outbound gauntlet across the Bay of Biscay, and again on July 4th, by U-154 the day after U-126’s loss.

U-154’s longest duration dive on this patrol was 21 hours and 20 minutes, not surprisingly on her final push back to France after U-126’s loss.

As a percentage of time, U-154 spent 412 hours and 6 minutes submerged out of the total of 2,640 hours and 25 minutes of the patrol, which translates to 15.61%.

British airborne search radar had its limitations as well, however. Range was quite limited, typically U-Boat contacts were picked up no more than a 15 miles radius from the aircraft. Then as the aircraft got close to the target, the contact would be lost in ‘back-scatter’, or many random returns from the waves. Typically, this occurred as they closed to within a half mile. Not good enough to bomb a target with any accuracy. They actually tried earlier in the war with dismal results. They had to be spot on and overfly the target and this is where the Leigh Light came in to play. By turning on a powerful searchlight at ¾ to ½ of a mile from the target right at the point the radar became ineffective, they essentially turned night into day for a brief few moments. This provided the possibility to visually sight, confirm and navigate right over the target. In other words, radar helped them find the needle in the haystack, and the Leigh Light helped them thread the needle once they found it.

I say possibility because so many variables were at play; aircraft speed, target speed, the variable courses of each, aircraft height and distance when first detected and whether this orientation allowed them to get into position in time for a beam attack, whether the element of surprise was attained or did the U-Boat welcome the aircraft with cannon fire, or begin their crash dive, aircraft dive angle which affected whether depth charges dropped in a well-spaced “stick” (good) or clustered together (bad). 

The goal was not to hit the U-Boat. Let me repeat that, the goal was not to hit the U-Boat. They were dropping depth charges pre-set to explode once they sank to 25 feet, not bombs which exploded on contact. In fact, there were instances where the depth charges did hit the U-Boat and then broke apart more or less harmlessly, only causing superficial damage. Therefore, it was critical to straddle the surfaced U-Boat with their depth charges. It was the intersection of the two closest shock waves that did all the damage. Whether it be 4 depth charges earlier on, or 6 at this time, the extra depth charges simply helped increase the odds that at least one pair would straddle.

Unfortunately for the Germans, as noted earlier, their U-boats were still equipped with the FuMB 1 (Funkmessbeobachtungsgerät) radar detector known as Metox. When first introduced, Metox was fairly successful at picking up the previous generation British ASV Mk.I and II radar at sufficient range to give the U-boat time to dive and reach a safe depth. Metox, however, was deaf to the newer ASV Mk. III, which transmitted on a different frequency. 

After the Squadron’s successes early in the spring and summer of 1942, there were many entries in the No. 172 Squadron logs the latter half of 1942 and early 1943 of picking up a radar contact, only to have it disappear before they could get close enough to attack. As the earlier British Mk. VIII and current Mk. XI 250 Lb. Torpex Airborne Depth Charges were preset to explode when they reached a depth of 25 feet, it was critical that they were dropped while the U-Boat was on the surface or at the very beginning stages of their dive. Even attempting to drop on the swirl or disturbance on the surface of the water the U-boat would leave behind was deemed to be ineffectual. It took a well drilled U-Boat crew about 30 seconds to crash dive and reach periscope depth.

Alexander Coumbis

After their briefing, the RAF Coastal Command crews went to their assigned aircraft. 

24-year-old Flight Sergeant Alexander Coumbis from Luanshya, North Rhodesia (present day Zambia) was assigned the Pilot/Commander of “R” for Robert (MP.624), with which he had good luck with previously. It was the same Wellington he happened to be flying when he found and badly damaged the U-566 the evening of April 26th, 1943.

Alex was very experienced at this stage. He had joined No. 172 Squadron back on June 10th, 1942, fresh upon his arrival in the U.K. after his flight training in Rhodesia and South Africa. So desperate was the demand for pilots, they skipped the intermediate step of assigning him to an Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.) to get familiar with the Vickers Wellington, which he had not flown up to this point. Another factor was likely No. 172 Squadron’s secret nature at this early stage, and the very unique low-level night flying they were doing at this time. 

His first combat sortie was the evening of July 23rd/24th, 1942 as Second Pilot/Leigh Light Operator for Frank C. Blackmore, replacing Donald Fraser when he became a commander. 

Coumbis and Blackmore flew 34 sorties together in the original Mk. VIII Wellingtons, averaging nearly 10 hours per sortie for a total of 337 hours and 43 minutes. After Blackmore left the squadron at the beginning of 1943, Alex joined Douglas Eldon Dixon’s crew. They flew another 11 sorties together in the new Mk. XII Wellingtons, averaging nearly 7 hours per sortie for another 76 hours and 45 minutes.

After Dixon’s departure in Mid-April, Alex became First Pilot/Aircraft Commander and flew his first sortie as such on the evening of April 20th/21st, 1943. He had completed another 12 sorties in this role up to this point.

The flight this night was likely special and perhaps emotional for Alex. It was his 13th as Commander (they tended to be a superstitious lot). Based on his average sortie time at this stage of over 7 hours, and considering he had accumulated 499 hours to date, he and his crew would have also known this would be his last with No. 172 Squadron, good, bad or ugly. If they survived 500 hours of Operational Flying they were were given their choice of assignments.

It had been an eerily quiet and frustrating last two months for the squadron with no successes since Alex’s attack on U-566 on April 26th and Stembridge’s on U-437 on April 29th, both damaging the U-boats badly, but not sinking them.

Alex and his 2nd Pilot/ Leigh Light Operator Flying Officer, 23-year-old Churton Stewart Rowland, walked around their aircraft, checking the movement of flaps and ailerons, searching for any obvious fuel or hydraulic leaks, looking over their engines, tires/landing gear and giving the auxiliary fuel tanks in the bomb bay a knock to make sure they were full. According to squadron mate Donald Fraser, the auxiliary tanks were used first so that in the event of a ditching into the ocean, the empty tanks might provide a few extra seconds of buoyancy, which could be crucial in getting everyone out in time. A chilling thought.

Fuel management was another critical task they had to perform during flight; starting with their auxiliary tanks in the bomb-bay, then switching to their main wing tanks once the auxiliaries ran dry, and finally switching to their engine nacelle tanks for landing. This was not just a flip of the switch, but had to be done manually, turning various valves on or off as needed.

After completing their inspection of the aircraft, the crew entered through the hatch under the nose via a ladder. The Coastal Command Wellingtons typically carried a crew of six on an operational sortie. 


2nd Pilot/Leigh Light Operator  


ASV Operator

Wireless Operator

Rear Gunner

The last three were multi-role Wireless Operator/Air Gunners (WO/AG) typically with the rank of Sergeant: 22-year-old George Walter Young from Saskatchewan, Canada, 28-year-old John Francis Wilmer from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and 21-year-old Hubert Peter Hever from Glasgow, Scotland. These three men would switch positions every 30-60 minutes throughout the long flights.

This was primarily due to the soporific effects of staring into the small radar display in the dark.

It must have been interesting with the various accents (even the two Canadian's wouldn't have sounded alike), but it was typical to have a mix of U.K. and Commonwealth personnel. 

They had been flying as a complete crew only since mid-June when WO/AG Wilmer joined. Rowland had become Coumbis’ 2nd Pilot in May, replacing Sgt. N.P. Walker. Navigator 22-year-old Donald James Ashworth, along WO/AG Young joined Coumbis back in February when he was 2nd Pilot under Dixon. Coumbis and Hever had flown together the longest, both being part of Blackmore’s crew going back to late November, 1942.

Coumbis would have been first in, climbing up and into the pilot’s seat on the left side of the aircraft. He would have used the lever sticking up by his right thigh to adjust the seat height to see over the high cowl/instrument panel and then spun the wheel between his feet to adjust the distance of the rudder pedals to a comfortable reach. Alex was only 5 feet, 7 inches tall.

As he was getting situated, running through his pre-flight checks, the remainder of the crew entered, starting with the rear gunner, and each position going forward so they would not have to crawl over each other in the narrow fuselage. 

Hubert Peter Hever courtesy of his grandson, Steve Hever

Nash and Thompson F-N.20 turret with quad Browning .303 machine guns rotated 90 degrees to port. In this case boys from the Luton Air Training Corps (ATC) were treated to a day at No 12 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Chipping Warden, Northamptonshire, on 17 September 1944. Here, 15-year-old Cadet Tommy McMordie trying the rear turret of one of the unit's Wellingtons for size. Catalogue number CH 13880. Courtesy IWM.

The rear gunner was the most remote location and they would climb up onto the main deck above the bomb bay where most of the crew locations were, then down around the Leigh Light (retracted up into the fuselage), past the new waist guns/observation windows, past the ammunition boxes and long chutes that fed his weapons, the four Browning .303 machine guns in his upgraded Nash and Thompson F-N.20 turret installed in these new Mk. XII Wellingtons.

The turret was so compact the gunner could not wear his parachute, so it had to be clipped to quick release hooks inside the fuselage adjacent to the turret, then the double sliding doors unhooked and slid left and right out of the way. Taller gunners would reportedly take off their insulated boots and place them in the footwells first, then scootch in socks first, sliding into their boots until they were seated and could slide the doors closed behind them. As you can imagine, evacuating the aircraft inflight or upon ditching was an ordeal few survived, especially if already injured. 

According to this source: “Seated in his position at the extreme end of the Fuselage, the Gunner felt completely isolated in mid-air: he could not see any other part of the Aircraft unless he traversed to one side, and several Gunners have mentioned the feeling of hurtling across the sky completely alone.” His only connection with the rest of the crew was via his intercom.

The role of the rear gunner on No. 172 Squadron Wellington’s was primarily two-fold; First was to protect the aircraft from any threat approaching from behind them at this time, such as the German Junkers Ju-88C-6 long range heavy fighters operated by V Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 40 out of Bordeaux-Merignac. Second was to observe the depth charge pattern as they pulled away to verify a good straddle of explosions and provide suppressive fire against the U-Boat’s anti-aircraft gun crews.

Posed photograph of a No 220 Squadron Fortress radar operator at his set, peering through a light guard at the CRT indicator screen for the 'tell-tale return from a surfaced U-boat', Benbecula, May 1943. Catalogue number CH 18481. Courtesy of IWM.

An intercom failure, which sometimes occurred, would be enough to abort a mission. It was absolutely crucial the crew performed as a team and communicated effectively.

The next three crew were positioned on the port (left) side of the aircraft on the main deck above the bomb bay. The right side of the aircraft was the passageway, but also had numerous pieces of equipment attached to it.

Next was the ASV Mk. III radar operator. He sat on the rearmost position on the main deck, facing forward, immediately in front of the chemical toilet (these were long flights, after all) and behind the main wing spar. 

He sat in front of a large rack of electronics that comprised the ‘special equipment’, and stared at the small screen looking for the blips that would indicate a radar contact.

ASV Mk. III Rack in a Wellington, no light guard.

Forward of the ASV position was the Navigator, Flying Officer Donald James Ashworth. His was arguably the most spacious position, with a flat table for his navigation maps and charts mounted along the port side of the fuselage. 

He faced port and not forward. There was a large compass mounted just above the center of the map table. 

Above and behind him along the center-line of the cabin roof was the Astrodome observation hatch, a clear plexiglass bubble where he could use his sextant to get navigation fixes from the stars, which also doubled as an emergency exit.

Forward of the Navigator's station, and immediately behind the pilot was the Wireless Operator’s station. He also faced forward with a tower of radio equipment between he and the bulkhead behind the Pilot’s seat.

Above, A Royal Air Force navigator working at his chart table in a Vickers Wellington bomber. Note binoculars. 1940s vintage exhibition print of Cecil Beaton photograph D 4738. Courtesy IWM.

To Left, view looking aft from under the starboard instrument panel of a Wellington. Edge of pilot's seat immediately to the right, Wireless Operator leaning to his right around bulkhead, and behind him the Navigator with his chair pushed back into the aisle. You can just make out the astrodome further back in the ceiling over the Navigator's left shoulder. This particular photo was of a No 75 (New Zealand) Squadron Wellington, Feltwell, 29 June 1940. Catalogue number CH 473. Courtesy IWM.

The last crewmember, 2nd Pilot/Leigh Light Operator C.S Rowland, actually had two positions. There was a jump seat that folded down from the starboard side of the fuselage, in roughly the position a co-pilot would be if these operational Wellington’s had dual controls (they did not, only the training aircraft did). His other position was of course in the nose of the aircraft, where the controls for the Leigh Light were positioned in front of the clear plexiglass nose, offering the best view of their potential target. 

This is where a twin-gun nose turret would normally be mounted in a Bomber Command version of the Wellington. In the cramped nose of a Coastal Command Wellington there was not room for both the Leigh Light controls and the gun turret and so there was a serious lack of forward firepower to counter the U-boat’s anti-aircraft defenses if they were spotted on their approach. 

As a compromise, a single .303 machine gun was mounted in the center of the upper nose in a flexible ball mount, similar to the waist guns on these Mk. XII Wellingtons.

In practical terms, if the approach was textbook and the element of surprise was achieved, the enemy had little time to react as the Wellington had overflown in a matter of seconds, followed closely by the depth charges exploding. The Leigh Light operator had his hands full keeping the light on target and could not fire a weapon at the same time anyway. The Operational Record Books indicate that in some circumstances, the Navigator acted as the forward gunner while the Leigh Light Operator focused on his tasks. The greater firepower offered by the rear turret was a more effective countermeasure after they passed over.

If, on the other hand, the element of surprise was lost and the U-boat was able to bring their anti-aircraft weapon(s) to bear, the Coastal Command Wellington’s lack of forward firepower put them at a distinct disadvantage. The earlier Mk. VIII’s had no gun in the nose, The Mk. XII’s had a single, and the later Mk. XIV’s the squadron would start getting in September had a twin .303 mount.

Squadron mate Donald Fraser recounts in his book ‘Live to Look Again’ (Mika Publishing Co., 1984, ISBN 0-919303-80-3) an amusing question & answer session before the first sortie in their original Mk. VIII’s. Fraser wrote: 

The briefing ended with the usual, ‘Any questions?’

‘Won’t we be sitting ducks when the searchlight is turned on?’ queried one gunner.

There was a momentary, but deep silence before the Operations Officer answered brightly. ‘Open up with all your forward guns. That will make the U-boat’s crew keep their heads down.’

The gunner was not satisfied. ‘Please, Sir, we don’t have any front guns.’

The embarrassed Operations Officer paused for just a few seconds, then rose to the occasion and replied resourcefully, ‘Keep the light in their eyes; that will blind them.’

A ripple of laughter ran through the room, and the tension was broken, to be replaced with an atmosphere of high excitement.

After completing their pre-flight checks, Alex and crew taxied across the grass to the main 2,000 yard long concrete runway, running east/west. 

Around this time, about 550 miles southwest of Chivenor U-126 and U-154 had re-surfaced at 10:01pm to continue charging their batteries. They had dived an hour and forty-two minutes earlier after picking up a false alarm from the Metox only seventeen minutes after they had previously tried to run surfaced.

The wind was blowing from the east-northeast, force 5 (fresh breeze, 17-21 knots), sea rough (8-13 foot waves), sky was overcast, lower level Stratocumulus, visibility noted as 7 to 8 nautical miles. The temperature during the day had been in the mid-sixties Fahrenheit, but had likely cooled to the low fifties, perhaps cooler. 

The U-boats would have been rolling and pitching quite a bit, making it an uncomfortable ride for their crews, but they had to get their batteries charged up and even the newer members of the crew should have gotten their sea legs by now.

Back at Chivenor, Flying Officer Peter Stuart Kyd and crew was the first to take off in “B” for Beer at 10:26PM. 

Alex awaited his turn, running through his checklist:

Brake pressure: 120 lbs/in2

Trimming Tabs: All neutral

Mixture Controls: NORMAL

Propeller controls: Levers fully forward, Master switches on, Selector switches AUTO

Fuel pressure balance cock: OFF (down)

Superchargers: MEDIUM

Carburettor air intakes: COLD

Flaps: 20° down

Auto-pilot: Cock - OUT, Clutch – IN, Main switch – OFF

Gills: 1/3 OPEN

Throttle lever friction device: Pulled back

Alex increased engine power and released his brakes. The Wellington (affectionally nicknamed Wimpys), heavily loaded with 1,080 gallons of 100 octane aviation fuel, six depth charges, ammunition and batteries for the Leigh Light, trundled down the runway with their Hercules Mk. VI radial engines roaring, first getting the tail well up, adding in some rudder to counter the tendency to swing right, as they passed 75 knots until the main landing gear of ‘R’ for Robert broke free of the tarmac at 10:39pm and they ever so slowly crawled into the night sky heading west.

During take-off, his 2nd Pilot/Leigh Light Operator C.S Rowland would have been crouched next to Alex as it was too dangerous to occupy his position in the nose in case the take-off failed and the aircraft crashed, crushing the nose. None of the crew had safety harnesses, and braced themselves as best they could during take-off and landings. Fellow Squadron mate Donald Fraser described the take-offs as “breathtaking”.

Next was Flight Sergeant M. Williamson and crew in “D” for Dog at 10:47PM and finally Pilot Officer P.W. Phillips and crew in “Z” for Zebra at 10:54PM. It was a somewhat tight sequence on this night. They varied between taking off minutes apart like this to an hour or more apart.

As each Wimpy cleared Saunton Sands beach they headed out towards Lundy Island, then turned Southwest after clearing Hartland Point, now at their operational height of roughly 1250 to 1500 feet. They cruised along at an efficient 130 knots, roughly paralleling the Cornish coast towards Land’s End. 

Before they got that far, Kyd’s Wimpy “B” developed engine trouble about 45 minutes after take-off and their intercom system failed, so Kyd was forced to return to base, touching down safely just before midnight.

The remaining three aircraft continued individually, heading out over the Isles of Scilly and their last way-point, Bishop Rock Lighthouse, before navigating to their pre-assigned patrol areas.

Once things settled down, Alex likely set the automatic pilot, affectionately nicknamed “George” for the long, tedious outbound slog. Every 2 hours or so he would switch positions with Rowland. Although they were heading far out to the limits of their range, the radar operator would be monitoring for any surface contacts along the way, as well as any potential threats from German night fighters.

At midnight Kusch aboard U-154 noted the weather had worsened slightly. The wind was blowing from the East, force had increased to 5-6 (fresh to strong breeze, 17-27 knots), sea still rough (8-13 foot waves), sky was still overcast, but had changed to higher elevation wispier altostratus, visibility was reduced by haze and was now cut if half to only 4 nautical miles. They also noticed some marine phosphorescence, which they didn’t care for as the glowing wake could make them easier to spot. Temperature likely remained the same, but likely felt much colder with the ocean spray and the wind.

As they neared the four hour mark into their flight, Alex would have swapped places with Rowland at the controls and would have been preparing to turn back. They were very far out, near what the British called P.L.E. or Prudent Limit of Endurance. However just before that, at 2:37AM this early Saturday morning, while cruising at only 1,250 feet, the ASV Operator picked up a “large, distinct” blip, range 13 miles, 45° to port. Alex noted the weather as “nil cloud, sea moderate to rough, visibility 2 miles, wind 050 degrees 20 mph.

Alex called out “ACTION STATIONS!” over the intercom, and the crew readied themselves. Until the target was illuminated, they never knew if it would be an enemy submarine or simply another fishing vessel, which the vast majority of blips turned out to be.

Based on regular input from the ASV Operator over the intercom, Alex flew the aircraft towards the mystery blip, steadily losing altitude in the process, regularly verifying his course with the large compass at the center of the instrument panel by his right knee. The wind was from the north, northeast, so Alex deftly maneuvered his Wimpy to approach downwind from the southwest to lessen the chance of the enemy hearing his engines over the hammering of their own U-Boat marine diesels. The element of surprise was critical in executing a successful attack.

Navigator Ashworth got up from his station and walked aft past the ASV Operator to reach down and pull the release for the Leigh Light which lowered mostly under its own weight, giving a few extra cranks on the handle to make sure it was down all the way, confirming it down over the intercom. The Wimpy shuddered slightly due to the extra drag from the ‘dustbin’ as they called it, now protruding several feet into the slipstream below the aircraft. Rowland in the nose position grabbed the handles of the Leigh Light’s controls and tested elevation and pan adjustments to make sure the hydraulic system was functioning properly.

Navigator Ashworth then came up beside Alex and stared through the windscreen into the inky blackness with high powered binoculars in the hopes of spotting their quarry.

The ASV Operator counted off the distance, ten miles, seven miles, five miles…At this point they noticed the radar contact started to fade. ‘Oh no’, they must have thought, ‘we’ve been spotted and they will submerge before we get there’. What was likely happening was probably a combination of the back scatter from the rough seas and that the reason the initial blip was so large and distinct at first was because they were seeing the U-126 and U-154 moving together as one and as they got closer they became two separate, divergent signals.

The ASV Operator continued his countdown; three miles, two and a half miles, two miles,... Rowland requested “bomb doors open” and Alex grabbed the lever in front of his left knee, pushed the inter-lock with his thumb and gave it a twist to open the bomb bay doors, confirming “Bomb doors open” over the intercom. 

On the surface, Kusch, as senior commander was leading in U-154, with Kietz in U-126 between 300-500m away on U-154’s aft port quarter. The waves and the spray the wind kicked up would have made it difficult for the watch to keep their binoculars clear, but apparently someone on U-126’s watch spotted the Wellington at the last moment and they cleared the bridge and began to dive, despite their earlier agreement with Kusch on the U-154. The wind had come back around from the East-Northeast again, same force and same sea, but the sky had just cleared and was described by Kusch as blue sky, starry, dark night, visibility 3 nautical miles. July 2nd at been the start of a new moon period.

The ASV operator continued his countdown; one and one half miles, one mile, and at three quarters of a mile, Alex shouted “LIGHT ON!” and Rowland flipped the switch on his controls. No need to confirm the order as the carbon arc searchlight ignited and the sea lit up in front of them with the intensity of 20 million candles. It must have been exhilarating going from plodding along in the darkness to an instant sensation of speed as they traveled along at 180 knots only 150 feet now above the crashing waves. Rowland panned the beam slightly to starboard. There, off to their right was a German U-Boat, the U-126, with decks awash! Travelling at 180 knots, they had about 13 seconds from the time they flipped on the Leigh Light to verify it was a U-Boat, adjust course, and drop their depth charges before they overflew.

Above is a fascinating painting by renowned British aviation artist Mark Postlethwaite titled "Hunting the Hunters". It depicts a Wellington Leigh Light attack on a smaller Type VII U-Boat, but I think it captures the essence of the attack very well.

At the same time Kusch in U-154 noted: 

Illuminated searchlight of an attacking aircraft in sight bearing 210°T!  Range 1000 meters, 15-20 meters above the water surface.  At the same time the searchlight was seen a detection was made on 130 cm [Metox].  No tone, only short, medium-high scratching volume 2-3.  Detection first made by magic eye then acoustically.  Aircraft flies from starboard astern of the boat [U-154] to approximately 500 meters distance, then notices U-126 in the searchlight beam and turns towards U-126, apparently because U-126 is located more favorably for the aircraft” 

Alex completed his shallow diving turn, and at 2:44AM pressed the button to release his six 250lb. Mk. XI torpex depth charges at a height of only 50 feet, spaced 60 feet apart, 60° to the U-126’s track. A flame float was also dropped from the chute in the fuselage aft of the starboard wing by the ASV Operator to mark the position. The blunt nose of the Mk. XI depth charges bit into the sea and began their decent, two on the starboard side and four to port.  Alex immediately reached down by his left thigh and push the throttle levers forward to increase power and eased back on the steering yoke to climb higher. 

Depth Charge, Aircraft, 250lb, Mk XI. Catalogue number MUN 3508. Courtesy of IWM.

Alex's sketch of the attack from the RAF Costal Command U-Boat Attack Assessment Form held at the U.K. National Archives.

Alex gave the command “LIGHT OFF!” and Rowland complied. As the Wimpy strained to climb the Rear Gunner saw all six depth charges explode, the geysers shooting into the air! The Rear Gunner then fired 500 rounds from his quad .303’s into the center of the explosive columns engulfing the U-126 to suppress any potential return fire from the U-Boat. The spent shell casings raining into the sea from the exit chutes under the guns. 

Kusch noted: 

“[the aircraft] dropping 4 bombs in train, flying over U-126 approximately 10 meters over the water's surface and then in a long curve to the right between both boats, firing at U-126 from the tail turret.  The bombs are approximately at the position of the ballast tank 7 to starboard of U-126 30-40 meters short, U-126 does not fire.  In the bright searchlight beam during the crossover it appeared as if U-126 dove.  The forecastle can not be seen, the stern is raised high. No one is seen on the bridge.

Own machine gun does not fire, despite the order to do so at the moment of illumination of the searchlight.  The cause of the failure could not be determined afterwards.  The machine gun was cocked and on safety.  At the next check fire 5 hours later the weapon functioned perfectly.  Whether an operating error was present, could not be determined.  According to the gunner, he could not fire the unsafed weapon despite repeated strong pulling of the trigger.

Luckily for Alex and his crew, oblivious to the close proximity of U-154 due to her position just outside the sharp searchlight beam cutoff 10 degrees to either side, their single-minded focus on the U-126, and their radar blind due to the backscatter of the sea at this distance, the U-154’s single 20mm anti-aircraft gun jammed. Even with the relatively slow 120 rounds per minute practical rate of fire of the original MG C/30 - L 30/37 mount, had the weapon worked, Alex and his crew likely would not have survived having their starboard side raked with 20mm canon fire at such close range. It had an effective range of 1500 meters, so the Wellington was well within that. 

Alex banked the Wellington to port, it’s wings flexing and groaning, to come around for another look. He strained to look over his left shoulder as the Wellington rotated around and kept an eye on the flame float to guide them back quickly. This took about one and one-half minutes, the Leigh Light was switched back on but nothing further was seen.

By this point Kusch had ordered the U-154 to dive as well rather than face an air attack by themselves with a jammed weapon. The Wellington’s only carried 6 depth charges, so each attack was a one-shot affair, but the German’s apparently did not realize this. With their 20mm anti-aircraft gun out of commission they were still vulnerable to strafing, however. Kusch incorrectly believed only 4 depth charges were dropped on U-126 and as he only saw the four nearest splashes and assumed they were dropped too soon and were ineffectual. As he noted: 

Since bombs were all too short, U-126 apparently dove and is intact, the Kommandant (Kusch) decided to crash dive when the aircraft turned away on the long curve between the boats.  Before closing the tower hatch a flickering light and smoke is noticed at the attack position, apparently a flare and smoke-bomb.  Nothing is seen of U-126 in the darkness.

In reality, the explosions of the depth charges must have obscured the furthest ones on the far side, resulting in the sought after straddle. In this case, the amplified force of the primary and secondary shock waves from depth charges 2 and 3 collided together to impact the already damaged pressure hull of U-126 and causing a fatal rupture just aft of the conning tower and control room, where her diesel engine room was. 

Meanwhile, Kusch noted: 

After crash dive to 40 meters immediately attempt contact by underwater telegraph, however receive no reply.  In the boat 6-8 short dull bangs are heard, similar in tone to distant 3.7 cm cannon fire.  Otherwise nothing heard.  G.H.G. [Gruppenhorchgerät – Passive Sonar] inoperable, no sound bearings.

It’s odd that Kusch reports he tried the underwater telegraph as they had already determined it was not functional a couple days earlier.

The bangs Kusch heard were no doubt the remaining water tight bulkheads and pressure hull of the U-126 imploding as she slid uncontrolled past her crush depth of 250-305 meters (820-1,000 feet) and the debris that once was the formidable U-126 sank to its final resting place on the abyssal plain some 4500 meters (14,764 feet) below the surface of the Atlantic.

Alex and his crew remained in the vicinity for nine minutes in case the U-Boat tried to re-surface. 

From initial radar contact to dropping the depth charges had only been seven minutes. From Leigh Light on to drop was likely only seconds.

Navigator Ashworth then walked aft and began the arduous task of cranking up the Leigh Light into it’s up and locked position. Weighing 1,100 lbs., it was like jacking up a small car. He returned to his desk to calculate their current position and plot the course home for Chivenor.

About 10 minutes after they left the scene at 3:05am U-154’s commander Kusch struggled to comprehend what had just occurred: 

Went to periscope depth.  Nothing seen.  All underwater telegraph signals remain unanswered.  The situation is unclear.  If U-126 also dived, and is listening on the underwater telegraph there should be an answer [Stone: again, it had already proven faulty].  If the boat remained surfaced, contrary to our impression, contact is now lost.  It was agreed between the two Kommandanten that in the case of detection by the enemy to continue submerged.  Hence the assumption of the Kommandant, that after the unsuccessful bomb attack U-126 dove at the next opportunity, it may be that the distance is so large that underwater telegraph communication is no longer possible.  Therefore the decision was made not to surface.  Crucial for this determination are the observation of the Kommandant and the entire bridge watch, that the bomb attack was unsuccessful, and that U-126 remained undamaged and dived even earlier than own boat.

At 4:00am, after still not able to contact the U-126, Kusch decided to continue their return voyage home submerged, still convinced the attack on U-126 had been unsuccessful, and hoping to regain contact after dawn.


Alex and his crew were also left to wonder how successful their attack had been. As with so many of these attacks, there was seldom any confirmation, no secondary explosions, and no debris field or oil slick visible at night.

As the British Admiralty had noted two months earlier on May 5th, 1943: 

It must be disappointing for 172 Squadron crews scarcely ever to be able to see bits and pieces afterwards, but with rare exceptions. They must rest as content as may be with the knowledge that the searchlight night attack is the thing most feared and dreaded by the U Boat service. This has only come about from the heavy casualties inflicted on them by this form of attack, but it is generally impossible to credit individual attacks with a precise and accurate assessment of result.

Alex and his crew were not recognized for their success during the war (only a handful of pilots received medals), and acknowledgment of their success was only confirmed years after the war, when naval intelligence compared Allied records with their German foes.

As they made their starboard turn off the coast to approach Chivenor, Alex ran through his landing checklist:

Auto Pilot: OFF

Brake pressure: 100 pounds per square inch (minimum)

Carburettor air intakes: COLD


Elevator trimming tabs: Neutral

Superchargers: MEDIUM

Reduce speed: 140mph (120 knots) Indicated Air Speed

Undercarriage: DOWN (indicator light illuminates and horn sounds)

Mixture controls: NORMAL

Propeller controls: Levers fully forward

Selector switches – AUTO

Fuel: Engine Nacelle tanks on

Flaps: 20° down at 140mph (120 knots) Indicated Air Speed

Fully down at 120mph (105 knots) Indicated Air Speed

Landing speed was between 85 and 105mph (75 and 90 knots) Indicated Air Speed, based on a number of variables.

They touched down successfully at Chivenor at 6:39am, just as the sun was rising, 17 minutes after Phillips in Z/172 and 13 minutes before Williamson in D/172, which suggests they found the U-126 about the time they would have turned around anyway.

Upon touch down, Alex would have raised flaps and opened the engine cowling gills to help dissipate the heat as he taxied onto the grass and turned into the wind to start the multi-step process of properly exercising and slowly powering down the engines which took several minutes.

Back at sea, at 7:07am, Kusch surfaced the U-154 at dawn as planned. They were now four nautical miles east from where the attack occurred. The sea was still rough but there was clear blue sky with visibility at twelve nautical miles. Still, they could find no sign of U-126.

Kusch radioed headquarters: 

02.44 hours unsuccessful bombing attack on Kietz.  After which lost contact.  Position BE 4775.  Continued on alone.                - Kusch –“ 

Later sending a  follow-up to correct his location as BF 4775.

Both messages were acknowledged by headquarters, and after noting the weather conditions, U-154 dived at 8:33am to proceed submerged during daylight.

Back at Chivenor, the exhausted Wellington crew collected their equipment and climbed out of the Wimpy, did a post flight walk around and then climbed into a van that took them to the control room to be de-briefed. As they had a rather eventful patrol, this likely took a while as each crewmember told his part/version of the events. Finally, they were released, probably grabbing some breakfast. The single men then went back to their barracks to sleep, the married men like Alex and Hubert Hever off to their houses in Braunton and Barnstaple, respectively. 

Even though the attack on U-126 was inconclusive (most were), U-boat attacks were relatively rare, and the crew seems to have been given four weeks of leave.

Meanwhile, U-154 still had over 300 miles to travel before they reached the relative safety of the U-Boat bunkers in Lorient. Progress was slowed by having to travel about a third of this time submerged during daylight and having to crash dive multiple times due to either visual aircraft sightings or false alarms from the Metox as they were hunted day and night. 

At 2:30 pm on July 6th U-154 rendezvoused with their minesweeper escort. Kusch still hoped that U-126 would join them at the meeting point, but of course this was not to be. After 3-1/2 nerve wracking days, they finally made fast to the pier in Lorient at 5:00 pm on Tuesday, July 6th.

Alexander Coumbis, having surpassed the required 500 operational flight hours on this patrol at 507 hours, 54 minutes, was posted to No. 3 Operational Training unit as an instructor, where he would train other Leigh Light Wellington pilots.

As noted earlier, Alex had flown 58 operational sorties with No. 172 Squadron, 34 as Second Pilot under Blackmore, 11 as Second Pilot under Dixon, and 13 as Commander. Of those 58 sorties, U-boats were engaged only three times, 43 sorties were deemed uneventful, 6 were aborted due to mechanical issues (mainly Pegasus engines failures on the early Mk. VIII’s) and the balance were odds and ends.

A testament to the high value RAF Coastal Command placed on hunting and destroying U-boats.

On July 9th U-Boat Headquarters sent a message to U-126 requesting they provide a location report. Nothing is received. On July 14th they are officially declared missing, presumed lost.

On July 16th, D.V. Peyton Ward, Captain Royal Naval Staff provided the following assessment of Alex’s attack: 

A model night attack with searchlight. On the visual evidence the U/B was straddled and should have sustained serious damage at the least. As in the past it is impossible to get precise evidence of after results. The U/B seems to have detected the aircraft from about 5 miles range.

An A. Durston A.V.M. with Headquarters Coastal Command Air Staff concurred, noting: “Agree above. Very good attack.”

It should be noted that all the Wellingtons flying that night were using an early form of I.F.F., or Identification Friend or Foe, as they were operating in conjunction with and close proximity to Royal Navy surface assets. The usefulness of the system was somewhat limited. Despite it, one of the other Wellington’s that night, P/O P.W. Phillips in Z/172 picked up a radar contact and homed in. Despite some haze (and the I.F.F.) they illuminated the British cruiser HMS Bermuda (Capt. Terence Hugh Back, RN) with their Leigh Light in position 4643N, 1441W (about 160 miles northwest of where Coumbis attacked the U-126). HMS Bermuda opened fire when Z/172 was within ¼ of a mile but luckily no hits were registered. Z/172 then accidently released her Depth Charges 40 yards from the cruiser! Again, fortunately no damage was sustained.

The third Wellington that night also had a bit of excitement. Flight Sargent M. Williamson and crew in D/172 encountered what they assumed was enemy aircraft at 3:45 AM (about 70 miles north and approx. 1 hour after U-126 was attacked) and corkscrewed to evade.

As far as Alex's crew after he left; RCAF Sergeant John Francis Wilmer (R106600) from Vancouver, British Columbia married a Welsh girl name Doris Mary Evans in Chester, England on July 19th, 1943. Hopefully his crew, including Alex and his wife Margaret were able to celebrate with them.

His Second Pilot C.S. Rowland was advanced to aircraft Commander and flew his first sortie as such with the same crew on the evening of July 31st, with a new man, L.H. McCutcheon, as his 2nd pilot/Leigh Light Operator. 

In August Rowland and the crew flew only three operational sorties together; a daytime patrol on the 17th in MP.575, a night patrol the evening of the 20th/21st in HF.113 (both with P/O A. Mason as 2nd Pilot), and a night patrol the evening of the 25th/26th in MP.513 (Sgt. A. Hunt as 2nd Pilot). All were uneventful, although the last they illuminated a tunneyman with red and yellow sails and rods out. They turned back early due to a severe thunderstorm. They also flew a number of training flights for the month. Radar calibration on the 2nd, Air Tests on the 7th and 9th, another radar calibration on the 22nd, and a test on the 29th.

This same month, the Wellington Alex's crew used to sink the U-126 was lost. Just weeks after U-126 was sunk, on August 24th, 1943. MP.624 took off on an operational patrol at 11:35PM and crashed 13 minutes later about 1 mile inland beyond Clovelly. 

According to an investigation by historian Rob Palmer; 

The aircraft came in low, struck telephone wires and some low tension cable, carried on another 100-plus yards before striking the ground again and then skidding along for 200 yards, breaking through two hedges. The main wreckage caught fire and a depth-charge exploded.  There was no evidence of mechanical failure and it is assumed the pilot had thought he was actually over the sea at Hartland.” 

All six crew perished including the pilot, 172’s Wing Commander, Rowland Gascoigne Musson, Second Pilot Flying Officer Francis Edward Rodda, Navigator Flight Lieutenant Edmund Carr, and Wireless Operators/Air Gunners Flight Lieutenant Leslie Herbert Burden, Sergeant Brian Todd and Flight Sergeant James Scott Walker. A roadside memorial marks the spot today.

Ashworth, Yung and Hever left the crew in November after hitting their 500 hour marks. The Squadron’s Summary of Events notes "F/O Ashworth was posted to A. and E.E. wef. 24.11.43" (Armament Experimental Establishment). It is not known where Yung or Hever were posted to next.

Rowland continued to fly with No. 172 and eventually attacked U-763 on February 5th, 1944; 0215hrs, Bay of Biscay, NNE of Cape Ferrol: the inbound boat was attacked by British Wellington HF282 (172 Sqn RAF/M, pilot F/O C.S. Rowland). Both wings, the fuselage and the tail were hit by flak, and the aircraft was forced to return to base after its depth charges exploded astern of U-763 without effect. (Sources: Franks/Zimmerman).

Of all the crew members Alex flew with, all appear to have survived the war. Sadly, that was not be the case for Alex. I’ve compiled a separate biography for Alex which I will add soon.

Though U-154 and Kusch survived this patrol, they would not remain unscathed for long either. For now, this too will be a story for another day.

U-126 was formally declared lost by U-Boat command on April 21st, 1944. 

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