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Maritime tales – a-hunting we will go!

21 January 2008 by stepheng

man in a museum standing next to a long torpedo, text panels and cases

Stephen Guy with a British Mark VIII torpedo. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

I think this is one of the greatest stories of sacrifice in the Second World War – a commander who literally worked himself to death in his devotion to duty.

Captain FJ (Johnny) Walker was the Royal Navy’s top U-boat submarine killer during the war. He was the most famous escort commander to be based in Liverpool when the port played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain’s lifelines were the convoys that brought vital supplies from north America and the ships were prime targets for German U-boats.

Walker, a brilliant specialist in anti-submarine warfare, was an unorthodox and inspirational officer who won great respect and affection from his men. There is a display at Merseyside Maritime Museum devoted to his incredible career.

In early 1943, following his many successes in command of the sloop HMS Stork and the 36th Escort Group, Walker was put in command of HMS Starling and five other sloops of the Second Support Group. His brief was to attack and sink U-boats at every opportunity along the northern convoy routes.

At Walker’s insistence, the jaunty popular tune ‘A-hunting we will go!’ was played over a loud-hailer on Starling’s bridge whenever she left harbour. Between 1 June 1943 and 1 July 1944 the ships of Walker’s Second Support Group sank 15 U-boats in an astonishing run of successes.

He was a great exponent of team work, making very successful use of Asdic, HF/DF (high frequency direction finding). One of Walker’s famous “creeping attacks” lasted more than 30 hours before the U-boat prey was sunk.

Walker – whose awards included the DSO (three bars) – died of a stroke, undoubtedly caused by the demands of war, in July 1944. He was buried at sea in Liverpool Bay. After the war Admiral Max Horton, commander-in-chief Western Approaches, considered that victory in the Atlantic was due more to Walker than to any other individual.

The display includes an exhibition model of HMS Starling, the Royal Navy’s most successful anti-U-boat ship of the war. Under Walker’s command, she was directly involved in sinking 11 U-boats. HMS Starling sank four more after his death. Her ship’s wheel is among the exhibits.

A dramatic photograph shows Walker using an inter-ship radio on Starling’s bridge to urge HMS Woodpecker to attack a U-boat. There is archive film of Walker’s funeral with full naval honours in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.

A 22-ft long British Mark VIII torpedo (shown here) gives a sense of precision and power. These were the Royal Navy’s standard torpedoes of the Second World War.

There’s more on this website about Cpt Walker, written by a man who knew him. A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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