Fight Back Order

by Gudmundur Helgason

On 1 May, 1943 an order was put into effect for the U-boats traversing the Bay of Biscay. It was decided on April 27 by Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz and Kapitän zur See Eberhard Godt. This order affected U-boats that had already been fitted with the dismountable single or twin 20 mm cannons on the wintergarten.

"Standing War Order 483" (Ständiger Kriegsbefehl) was to be known as the "Fight Back" order afterwards and it simply meant than when faced with an aircraft (and the time needed to reach safe diving depth was not available) the boats would stay on the surface and fight back instead of the normal tactic of emergency diving. But is also mean to use maximum possible submerged time during night.

The reason for this order is that during March and April RAF Coastal Command had launched operations Enclose, Enclose II and Derange (see below) with many Leigh Light and 10 cm radar equipped aircraft (the Germans could not detect this radar until the following October). These aircraft had harassed a number of U-boats who complained they were attacked without warning during the night.

It was also inspired by the success of U-333 and U-338 in shooting down a Wellington and a Halifax aircraft in the Bay in March and U-191's machine gun defence that drove of a Liberator in April. Three other Wellington aircraft went missing in the Bay in April.

The man who most welcomed this order was seemingly Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, Commander of RAF Coastal Command. He wanted to kill U-boats and if the U-boats stayed on the surface to fight it out it was fine with him. He was willing to loose an aircraft if that attack also sank the U-boat. He reasoned he had more aircraft than Dönitz had U-boats. He could hardly loose this war of attrition.

The RAF did not always attack a surfaced U-boat if there was another way, if there were surface escorts near by they were called in. That's how U-753 was sunk for example, a circling RAF aircraft brought in the surface ships.

US National Archives - 68715
U-758 under attack by 8 Avengers from USS Bogue on 8 June, 1943
The boat's new quadruple 20 mm AA armament managed to drive off the attackers.

This order stayed in effect for 97 days and during that time no less than 26 boats (over 20 in the Bay of Biscay) were lost and 17 damaged.

In return the U-boats shot down at least 28 aircraft (with many more severely damaged). This is important since many works on the subject give the impression that the RAF victory over the bay in 1943 had been almost free.

In retrospect this order has to be considered a serious mistake by BdU. However there were not many other options as the tables had turned decisively in the favour of the Allies.

Even after the order had been revoked in early August many U-boat commanders still felt that staying up and fighting it out was a feasible alternative. Thus the battles between aircraft and U-boats did not cease with over 80 aircraft shot down for the rest of the war.

Losses during "Fight Back" order in the Bay,
including losses to Enclose I & II and Derange patrols

Operation Enclose

No 19. Group conserved its resources and strength for a week before the operation began on March 20 and lasting until dawn on the 28th. 115 aircraft (10cm Sqdn 224 Liberators, 10cm L/L Wellingtons, other Wellingtons, Halifaxes, Fortresses, Sunderlands, Whitleys and one Catalina) flew 1300 hours in the ribbon between 7 and 10 ½ degrees west. 26 sightings took place and 15 attacks resulting in the loss of U-665 and damage to the U-332. 41 U-boats crossed the patrol ribbon in the period.

Operation Enclose II

5 - 13 April using 86 aircraft. 25 U-boats ran through the same patrol ribbon during the period, the RAF had estimated them to be 28. In 980 flying hours 11 U-boats were detected, for the first time the majority during the night, and 4 boats were attacked. U-376 was sunk and U-465 was damaged. Even with fewer aircraft and less hours the results were almost the same as in the previous operation.

Losses to the Enclose I and Enclose II patrols

Operation Derange

Operation Derange was a larger-scale version of Enclose II with a larger patrol area between 8 ½ and 12 degrees west. It began on 13 April and was to continue until decided otherwise. Coastal Command used 131 aircraft, its entire available fleet in the operations, only some of which equipped with Leigh Light and 10cm radar.

To the end of April 81 U-boats crossed the Derange ribbon, either outbound or inbound. The RAF aircraft flew 2,593 day and night flying hours. 36 U-boats were located and 22 of them were attacked. One U-boat was sunk (U-332) and two outward bound boats (U-566 and U-437) so badly damaged that they had to abort their patrol.

Losses to the Derange patrols

This article was published on 22 Apr 1999.

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