Simmons jumps aboard sinking U-boat in search of code books
In September 1941 at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, a convoy of 64 merchant ships fell prey to a deadly attack by a German U-boat off Greenland’s coast.
Some 18 ships were sunk in the running battle that followed.
Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Moose Jaw and Chambly, Flower-class corvettes, rushed to the convoy’s assistance.
As that disastrous night of September 10 unfolded, Chambly finally picked up an underwater contact and laid a pattern of depth charges that forced submarine U-501 to the surface.
After Moose Jaw rammed U-501 to slow its speed, Chambly’s captain ordered a boat away and a boarding party led by Lieutenant Ted Simmons jumped aboard the U-boat despite perilous heavy seas.
They were in search of code books or one of the elusive German cipher machines; such a prize would allow the Allies to break the secret of enemy communications.
Once the party was on the U-boat’s heaving deck, Simmons yelled “Hands up!”, seized a German crewman who spoke English, and ordered him below.
When his captive refused, protesting that “No good, boat alles kaputt!”, Simmons brandished his 45-calibre pistol and propelled two other Germans towards the conning tower. They too refused to go below; the sub was now sinking stern first and time was running out.
Simmons jumped onto the ladder down the hatch with a flashlight. Descending, he discovered that the captured U-boat was flooding fast. He abandoned hope of retrieving code books and scrambled back up the conning tower. He quickly ordered everyone over the side, boarding party and prisoners alike.
For his bravery and enterprise in the sinking of U-501, Simmons received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).
Simmons was born in Vernon, B.C., in 1910, eventually moving to Victoria where he attended school and later worked as a salesman for Standard Furniture. In 1939, with war in Europe looming, he registered for service with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, leaving civilian life and a promising career behind.
After completing his initial training, Simmons was appointed in the spring of 1940 to HMCS Stone Frigate, a naval training facility in Kingston, Ont. When Chambly was commissioned in December 1940, Simmons became its second-in-command.
The corvette soon joined a Newfoundland-based escort force assigned to accompany vessels across the North Atlantic and train other escorts.
Following his heroics of September 10, 1941, he went on a year later to once again demonstrate courage and resourcefulness when, as commander of the corvette HMCS Port Arthur, he became involved in another showdown with a submarine.
On convoy duty in the Mediterranean, Port Arthur detected the lurking presence of an Italian submarine off Algeria. In what was described as a classic engagement, Simmons laid a ring of depth charges around the sub, forcing it to the surface to be finished off by Port Arthur’s guns and another escort vessel.
For this encounter, Simmons was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for “courage, gallantry and skill in action with submarines.”
In 1944, Simmons returned to his hometown to commission the River-class frigate HMCS Beacon Hill. The ship was soon engaged in patrol and convoy duties in the Irish Sea and English Channel with Simmons – now an acting commander – as Senior Officer of Escort Group 26, an all-Canadian striking force.
By war’s end, Beacon Hill had supported a total of 79 convoys under the command of its renowned “sub-chaser” captain.
Following war service, Simmons worked for Distillers Corporation Canada and later became its president. He retired to England in 1965, and died on September 12, 1988.
In 1989, a service commemorating his distinguished career was conducted aboard HMCS Huron, from which his ashes were committed to the deep.
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