Captain Frederic John Walker and the Battle of the Atlantic
Captain Frederic John Walker CB, DSO and three Bars, was a Royal Navy officer noted for his exploits during the Second World War and was the most successful anti-submarine warfare commander who sank 20 German U-boats under his command, which is more than any other British or Allied Commander during the Battle of the Atlantic, which was one of the most important campaigns of the war. He was an unorthodox and inspirational officer who won great respect and affection from his men and was known more popularly as Johnnie Walker, after the whisky.
Captain Walker held the command of the 36th Escort Group and the 2nd Support Group during the Second World War, which were both based in Gladstone Dock, Bootle, which is within the Borough of Sefton. Sefton Council is immensely proud of its close association with the late Captain F. J. Walker, the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force.
Early Life & Career
Captain Walker was born in Plymouth on 3 June 1896 and joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1909 and was educated at the Royal Naval Colleges at Osborne and Dartmouth. He passed out top of his class and received the King’s Medal. He first served in HMS Ajax as a midshipman in 1914 and then as a sub-lieutenant, he went on to join HMS Mermaid and HMS Sarpendon respectively and following the end of the First World War, he joined the battleship HMS Valiant. In 1919, Walker married Jessica Eilleen Ryder Stobart with whom he had three sons (Timothy, Nicholas and Andrew) and a daughter (Gillian).
Walker was one of the first volunteers for specialist courses at the newly formed anti-submarine school, HMS Osprey at Portland in Dorset and by 1926 he was a Fleet Anti-Submarine Officer in HMS Revenge in the Atlantic Fleet. Similar postings followed to HMS Nelson and HMS Queen Elizabeth and in May 1933, he was promoted to Commander and took command of the destroyer HMS Shikari and then in December 1933, command of HMS Falmouth before becoming the Experimental Commander at HMS Osprey in April 1937. This was a posting he enjoyed, and he stayed there until 1939.
When the Second World War began in 1939, Walker's career seemed at an end. Still a commander, he had been passed over for promotion to captain and indeed had been scheduled for early retirement. He gained a reprieve in January 1940, when he was appointed as Staff Officer (Operations) to Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, shore-based at Dover Castle and during his time in that role, the successful Dunkirk evacuations (Operation Dynamo) took place between 26 May and 4 June 1940 with over 338,000 British and French troops being taken back to the United Kingdom and Walker was Mentioned in Despatches for his work during that operation.
In late 1940, the protection of the North Atlantic convoys carrying essential fuel and food supplies to the United Kingdom and the destruction of German U-boats became a priority for the Admiralty and one of the crucial decisions made during the Battle of the Atlantic was to relocate the Western Approaches Combined Operations headquarters at Plymouth to Liverpool, where much closer contact with and control of the Atlantic convoys was possible. The headquarters were established beneath Derby House, Exchange Flags, Liverpool on 7 February 1941 under the command of the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Percy Noble, in a bomb-proof area with a large operations centre linked to the Admiralty in London.
Following the Dunkirk Evacuations, Walker tried every way to get a sea command and in March 1941, he made a journey to the Admiralty to put his case to his old friend and colleague, Captain George Creasy, the Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare, who knew best of all how badly the battle against the U-boats needed senior officers with Walker’s deep technical knowledge of this specialised type of anti-submarine warfare. He listened to Walker’s arguments for a sea command and wrote a personal letter to the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Percy Noble outlining Walker’s qualifications and recommending a command.
36th Escort Group & 2nd Support Group - Gladstone Dock, Bootle
Walker took command of the 36th Escort Group in October 1941 based at Gladstone Dock, Bootle. The Group was led by HMS Stork under his command and comprised the two sloops, Stork and Deptford and seven corvettes, Convolvulus, Gardenia, Marigold, Penstemon, Rhodedendron, Samphire and Vetch. The Group operated mainly on the Gibraltar and South Atlantic convoy routes and sank 5 German U-boats under Walker’s Command.
Walker’s first chance to test his innovative methods against the U-boats came in December 1941 when his group escorted a convoy of 32 ships (Convoy HG 76) homeward from Gibraltar and during that journey, five U-boats were sunk, four by Walker’s Escort Group, including U-boat 574 which was depth-charged and rammed by Walker’s own ship, HMS Stork. This is described as the first true Allied convoy victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. The 36th Escort Group sank one more U-boat on 14 April 1942.
Walker devised the “creeping attack” as a means of dealing with U-boats which evaded attack by going to the depths of more than 600 feet. By this method, the U-boat was stalked at slow speed by a directing ship on the flank keeping Asdic contact from about 1500 yards and at the same time guiding an attacking ship slowly over the U-boats position in order not to alert the U-boat of its approach and to release its depth- charges on a signal from the directing ship. Asdic, named after the Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee and later known as sonar, was a secret device for locating submerged submarines by using sound waves and it consisted of an electronic sound transmitter and receiver housed in a metal dome beneath the ship’s hull,
In June 1942, Walker was promoted to Captain dating from 30 June 1942 and his Admiralty citation read “For leadership and skill in action against enemy submarines.” On 1 July 1942, Captain Walker presented the ensign of HMS Stork which had been flown on the ship during the above-mentioned operation to the Former Bootle County Borough Council at a ceremony held in Bootle Town Hall and in October 1942, Walker was brought ashore to take up a new appointment as Captain (D) Liverpool to enable him to take some much-needed rest for about six months.
The 2nd Support Group was formed in April 1943, based at Gladstone Dock, Bootle and was one of five support groups formed to act as reinforcement to convoys under attack, with the capacity to actively hunt and destroy U-boats, rather than be restricted to escort duties. HMS Starling was the flagship of the group under the command of Captain Walker and the other ships of the group were Cygnet, Kite, Wild Goose, Woodpecker, and Wren. Captain Walker took command of other ships within the Group when HMS Starling was in dock. The Group sank 15 German U-boats under the command of Captain Walker.
In June 1943, the 2nd Group sank three U-boats in the Bay of Biscay and then on 30 July 1943, the 2nd Support Group saw further success when they encountered a group of three U-boats on the surface while in the Bay of Biscay and Captain Walker signalled "General Chase" to his group and fired at the U-boats, causing damage that prevented them from diving. One of the U-boats was sunk by the Support Group, the second was scuttled after damage and the third sunk by an Australian flying boat. “General Chase” is signalled to release ships from a line of battle, or other formation, in order to pursue a retreating or beaten foe. The signal is appropriate to the end of an action, when victory is certain, and it allows all ships to break formation and act independently in order to pursue at best speed to capture or destroy enemy vessels. The ‘General Chase’ signal had only been used twice before in the Royal Navy – once by Sir Francis Drake, when he chased the Spanish Armada from the Channel in 1588, and again by Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson when he defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
The 2nd Support Group returned to Gladstone Dock in high spirits after the successful operation and Captain Walker was met by his wife, Eilleen upon arrival, to receive the sad news from a staff officer that his son, Sub-Lieutenant Philip Walker was believed to have been killed in action on 10 August 1943 while serving in the submarine HMS Parthian in the Mediterranean Sea.
On 6 November 1943, the 2nd Support sank two U-boats. In between missions, Captain Walker used the Mayoral Parlour at Bootle Town Hall as a personal retreat and would often be found there asleep.
Soon after the 2nd Support Group was formed in 1943, HMS Starling was adopted by the Former Bootle County Borough Council because Gladstone Dock was within its boundaries and the then Captain (D) Liverpool made arrangements for the “General Chase” signal flags hoisted on HMS Kite in the Bay of Biscay together with the battle flag of HMS Kite to be handed over to the Council at a ceremony held in Bootle Town Hall on 5 January 1944 which was attended by Captain Walker and his wife, Eilleen.
On 29 January 1944, the 2nd Support Group sailed on its most famous exploit, accounting for the sinking of six U-boats in one patrol, three of them in one 15-hour period during 8 and 9 February 1944. The Group returned to Gladstone Dock, Bootle on 25 February 1944, two days before Captain Walker’s silver wedding anniversary, to the thrilled jubilation of the local inhabitants, service personnel, the Admiralty, and two military bands who combined to play HMS Stirling’s signature tune “A Hunting We Will Go.” The First Lord of the Admiralty, the Right Honourable Albert Victor Alexander MP, and the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Max Horton were present to greet Captain Walker and his ships, and Walker’s seniority as Captain was backdated from 30 June 1942 to 30 June 1940.
On 15 March 1944, the 2nd Support Group sank one U-boat and then on 28 March 1944, the Group provided part of the 32-ship escort force for an Arctic convoy of 49 merchant ships which included the US Navy cruiser USS Milwaukee which was on its way to Murmansk, Russia as a gift under the US lend-Lease Programme. The whole force was commanded by Rear-Admiral Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton on HMS Diadem who initially tried to direct the entire force, but he soon allowed Captain Walker to independently command the 2nd Support Group ships who sank one U-boat on the outward journey and assisted in the arrival of the convoy at Murmansk without loss.
On 5 May 1944, the 2nd Support Group sunk the last U-boat under the command of Captain Walker and then on 6 June 1944, the infamous D-Day landings in Normandy, France (Operation Neptune) took place, and this was to be Captain Walker’s last contribution to the war. For two weeks, he helped to protect all ships heading to France and not one U-boat made it past his vessels in the 2nd Support Group. His work was constant and the strain never ending, and he took no rest or respite from his duties, which ultimately contributed to his death.
Shortly after returning home from that mission, Captain Walker received two letters from the Admiralty on 7 July 2044, the first letter confirming the news he had been expecting, that his eldest son, Sub-Lieutenant Timothy Walker had died in the Royal Navy submarine HMS Parthian which had been sunk by a mine in the Mediterranean Sea on a passage from Malta to Alexandria during August 1943, a year before and the second letter ordering the 2nd Support Group to set sail the next day. Later that day Captain Walker felt unwell and was admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital at Seaforth. The Doctors said he had suffered a cerebral thrombosis and he died on 9 July 1944 at the Hospital aged forty-eight and his death was attributed to overwork and exhaustion. The message informing the Admiralty said formally: “Captain Walker’s death is considered to be aggravated by and attributable to the conditions of his Naval Service.”
The 2nd Support Group had set sail for its next combat duty, when an Admiralty signal was simultaneously received in all the ships which read: “The Admiralty regrets to inform you of the death of your Senior Officer, Captain F. J. Walker, which took place at 2.00am today.” The company of the 2nd Support Group were stunned by the shock news, and they grieved over the loss of not only a leader but a friend and sadly they were unable to attend the funeral of Captain Walker.
Captain Walker’s funeral service took place on 11 July 1944 at Liverpool Cathedral with full naval honours and was attended by about 1,000 people, including representatives from all the Armed Forces. The naval gun-carriage procession took place through the streets of Liverpool to the Princes Landing Stage at the Pier Head on the River Mersey, where the coffin containing his body, draped in a Union Jack flag was embarked aboard the destroyer HMS Hesperus for his final journey to be committed at sea in Liverpool Bay.
At the funeral service, Admiral Sir Max Horton, Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, delivered an epitaph to Captain Walker and acknowledged that:
“Victory has been won, and should be won, by such as he. All praise be to the most high for such perfection of skill and rare knowledge added to determination and daring leadership. May there never be wanting in this realm a succession of men of like spirit in discipline, imagination and valour, humble and unafraid. No dust nor the light weight of stone, but all the sea of the Western Approaches shall be his tomb.”
Captain Walker was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches following his death and the Admiralty in a statement issued after the Second World War said that “Captain Walker more than any other, won the Battle of the Atlantic. His methods had amazing success, and more than any other factor gave the Royal Navy supremacy.”
If Captain Walker had survived the war, he would undoubtably have received greater public recognition with promotion to a Flag Officer rank and other honours and awards. It is stated in Robertson (1956) p206, that Captain Walker was due to be appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) but sadly that did not happen due to his death.
The final voyage of HMS Starling was a call to Bootle to attend a farewell celebration provided by the Council and Captain Walker’s widow, Eilleen took passage in Starling’s final sailing from Bootle to Portsmouth in 1956, where the ship was decommissioned.
Honours and Awards
Captain Walker’s honours and awards include:
- 16 August 1940 - Mentioned in Despatches
For staff service during Operation Dynamo (the Dunkirk Evacuation)
- 6 January 1942 - Companion of the Distinguished Service Order– Commander HMS Stork
For daring, skill and determination while escorting to this country a valuable Convoy in the face of relentless attacks from the enemy, during which three of their Submarines were sunk and two aircraft destroyed by our forces.
- 30 July 1942 - Barto the Distinguished Service Order:
For leadership and skill in action against enemy submarines while serving in H.M. Ships Stork and Vetch. Second DSO awarded as a bar on the ribbon of the first DSO.
- 14 September 1943 - Companion of the Order of the Bath
For leadership and daring in command of H.M.S. Starling in successful actions against enemy submarines in the Atlantic.
- 22 February 1944 - Second Bar to the Distinguished Service Order
For gallant and distinguished services in the destruction of two U-boats while serving in H.M. ships Starling, Kite, Wild Goose and Woodcock, patrolling in the North Atlantic.
- 13 June 1944 - Third Bar to the Distinguished Service Order
For outstanding leadership, skill and determination in H.M. ships Starling, Wild Goose, Kite, Woodpecker and Magpie in the destruction of six U-boats in the course of operations covering the passage of convoys in the North Atlantic.
- 20 June 1944 - Mentioned in Despatches
For outstanding leadership, skill and devotion to duty in H.M. ships Starling, Wild Goose and Wanderer on convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic.
- 1 August 1944 - Mentioned in Despatches
For bravery, skill and determination in H.M. ships Starling, Wild Goose and Wren in anti-U-boat operations.
The Legacy of Captain Walker
Captain Walker lived at Flotilla House, 35 Pembroke Road, Bootle when he took command of the 36th Escort Group in October 1941, which was based at Gladstone Dock, Bootle. The house is on the corner of Trinity Road, near Bootle Town Hall.
On 16 October 1998, a statue of Captain Walker, created by Liverpool sculptor Tom Murphy was unveiled at the Pier Head, Liverpool by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. The campaign for the statue had been led by Captain Walker's Old Boys Association. The Association had been formed in 1964 to honour their Captain and remember their comrades, meeting annually in Liverpool during the Battle of the Atlantic weekend for a dinner in Bootle Town Hall and to attend the service in Liverpool Cathedral.
With numbers dwindling and very few able to attend the annual reunion, Captain Walker's Old Boys Association was disbanded in 2004. The Standard is now on display in Bootle Town Hall along with battle ensigns, the “General Chase” signal and many other items of memorabilia of Captain Walker’s ships and other Royal Navy ships.
Two paintings by the Bootle artist Miss Leslie Humphreys in 1969 entitled “Captain Frederic John Walker (1896-1944) CB, DSO, RN” and “Captain ‘Johnny’ Walker RN, on the Bridge of the Starling” are also on display in Bootle Town Hall.
The bell of HMS Starling was presented by Admiral Sir Nigel Henderson, Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth on behalf of the Royal Navy to the Former Bootle County Borough Council on 21 October 1964, in view of the close association between HMS Starling and her Commanding Officer, the late Captain F. J. Walker and the people of Bootle during the Second World War and it is rung in the Council Chamber to commence each Council Meeting. The gates from Flotilla House are also on display in the Council Chamber at Bootle Town Hall.
The Battle Honours Board of HMS Starling was presented by the Plymouth Command of the Royal Navy to the Former Bootle County Borough Council on being granted the Honorary Freedom of the County Borough of Bootle on 5 May 1973, which is on display in Bootle Town Hall.
All of the Captain Walker Memorabilia can be viewed by the public at Bootle Town Hall. Tours of this must be booked via the Mayor of Sefton's Office either via telephone 0151 934 2062 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also work closely with our partners at Liverpool Museums to ensure that the history surrounding Captain Walker is never forgotten. We also have close links with the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool which has some items on display from Captain Walker.
Captain Walker’s grandson, Captain Patrick Walker CBE, Royal Navy, (the son of Nicholas) maintains the Walker family link with Bootle and Liverpool. The last President of Captain Walker’s Old Boys Association, he is now, in retirement, a former Patron and now an honorary member of the Sea Urchins, the Royal Naval Reserve Officers Club which meets at HMS Eaglet.
Hugh Baird College and its supporting partners launched the Port Academy Liverpool Balliol Road, Bootle on 23 June 2016 and the training academy provides first class academic, technical training and enrichment courses for students aged from 14 years looking to pursue a career in all areas of port operations and the maritime sector.
The Academy promotes the story of Captain Frederic John Walker, the hero of the Battle of the Atlantic as a role model for all that it is trying to achieve. Captain Patrick Walker attended the opening of the Port Academy and commented that “Bootle has long had very profound associations with my family, of course. It is very exciting to think that my grandfather’s heroic exploits are now being used as an inspiration for future generations of seafarers, rather than just being confined to our maritime history.”
Captain Patrick Walker CBE, Royal Navy (Retd)
Sefton Council Library Service
Burn, Alan (1993) The Fighting Captain – Frederic John Walker RN and The Battle of the Atlantic
Robertson, Terence (1956) Walker RN - The story of Captain Frederic John Walker