“This is the only time I have been congratulated for losing ships. . . .”
– Cdre. Cecil Reyne, commander of convoy SL-125
On Oct. 22, 1942, the convoy carrying troops for Operation Torch embarked from harbors in Chesapeake Bay for the landing beaches of French Northwest Africa. So great was the need for escort vessels to protect this convoy that Soviet and South Atlantic supply convoys, totaling some 352 ships monthly, were stripped of their escorts in order to assist Torch, causing their temporary suspension. Others were rerouted so they would avoid as much as possible U-boat attacks. But one convoy was neither suspended nor rerouted: SL-125. Though many of its ships were filled with assorted cargo, some were in ballast, essentially carrying nothing. These and other aspects of the convoy have since aroused suspicions that Convoy SL-125 was a decoy – a target designed to lure U-boats out of the path of the Torch convoy.
SL-125 was the one hundred and twenty-fifth convoy to transit the Sierra Leone–Liverpool route. It embarked from the port of Freetown on Oct. 16 with forty-two cargo ships and an escort. Overall command was exercised by Cdre. (later vice admiral) Cecil Reyne whose flagship was the merchantman Nagpore. While initially an armed merchant cruiser/troopship (HMS Esperance Bay) the antisubmarine sloop HMS Bridgewater, Isles-class trawler HMS Copinsay and the Free French corvette Commandant Drogou sailed with the convoy, all had been detached by the time the real battle began. The remaining escorts were under the command of Lt. Cmdr. John M. Rayner. To protect this convoy, Rayner had only four Flower class corvettes: HMS Petunia (flagship), HMS Cowslip, HMS Crocus, and HMS Woodruff. Though designed for anti-submarine warfare, the reduced number of escorts assigned to protect the convoy had to have been an ominous sign for the sailors in the merchantmen. There was another ominous sign. Cdre. Reyne had chosen as his flagship the Nagpore. With a top speed of just seven knots, Nagpore was the slowest ship in the convoy. Since the speed of a convoy was dictated by the slowest ship, Reyne’s action guaranteed that the convoy was tied to a pace that made the cargo ships virtual sitting ducks.
In response to agents’ reports from Spain of a growing concentration of ships in Gibraltar, U-boat command in France organized Wolfpack Streitaxt (Battleax) containing eight submarines (U-134, U-203, U-409, U-509, U-510, U-572, U-604, and U-659) and sent it south to take up an intercept position near Gibraltar. Streitaxt was later reinforced with U-103 and U-440.
On Oct. 25, U-203 spotted SL-125, which because of mechanical failures and other reasons had been reduced to 37 ships. Two days later, about 140 miles off the coast of Madeira, the wolfpack struck. The first cargo ship torpedoed was the Anglo Maersk. When the attack ended five days later twelve ships totaling 80,005 tons were at the bottom of the Atlantic and another seven ships totaling 46,750 tons were damaged. Four hundred and seven lives were lost. One of the ships sunk was the Nagpore.
Cdre. Reyes narrowly avoided being among the dead. As he was leaving the sinking ship, some wreckage hit him on the head and knocked him unconscious. Fortunately he was seen by some nearby sailors and dragged into one of the lifeboats. Though the cost was heavy, the convoy’s mission – if its role was indeed to act as a decoy – proved a success. The Torch convoy was able to reach its destination on Nov. 8 untouched. U-boats did not stage an attack until Nov. 11.
Though Convoy SL-125’s decoy role has yet to be definitively proved, the Allies did have a naval deception plan in place for Torch. During the landing itself some escorts, including the light cruiser HMS Argonaut, were dispatched to act as decoys, sending false radio signals in order to confuse the defenders. And there was an even earlier decoy convoy, RB-1. Steaming under the code name Operation Maniac, convoy RB-1 left Newfoundland on September 21 for England. Composed of eight packet steamers modified to look like cargo ships and filled with ballast, the convoy had an escort of four World War I-era destroyers. RB-1 successfully lured 17 U-boats well north of the Torch convoy’s route. Attacked within a week of departure, four of the packet steamers and one destroyer were torpedoed and sunk.
One of the ships that survived the voyage was the packet steamer SS President Warfield. Sold for scrap in 1945, instead of being dismantled it received a new name and a new mission, one that would make the vessel a part of history. Renamed the SS Exodus, in 1947 the packet steamer transported Holocaust survivors from France to Palestine, thus assisting in the founding of Israel.