Captain Mervyn Robert George Wingfield (16 January 1911-15 March 2005) Submariner was on active service for the entire Second World War and brought 25 U-boats back from Norway was awarded the DSO and two DSCs commanding submarines in all the Royal Navy’s main operational areas of the Second World War. He was continuously at sea from the outbreak of war until 1945, in an occupation that suffered 38 per cent casualties — a proportion exceeded only by Bomber Command.
It was the nine-year-old’s visit to the battleship Queen Elizabeth in Dublin Bay in 1920, and the delicious cakes and tea in the wardroom, that decided his future. His extensive memoirs record a rather sad childhood. An elder brother was killed in the Mesopotamia campaign. As the youngest of the family he was often being put upon and seeing himself as failing in most pursuits — including entry to Dartmouth naval college. However, his father engineered a naval reservist cadetship at Pangbourne Nautical College. From there he was able to squeak into Dartmouth in January 1925.
Wingfield’s first sea duty was as a midshipman in the coal-fired battleship Benbow. Although he describes the culture as “institutional bullying”, this tour and one in the battleship Warspite in the Mediterranean were intensely enjoyable. But, seeking adventure rather than big-ship routine, he volunteered for submarines and early in 1934 arrived in Hong Kong as the fourth officer of the submarine Odin.
With a year’s break at home as second-in-command of the submarine H50, during which time he got married to Sheila Mary, he was to serve in Odin for six years in the Far East, being appointed second-in-command on return. In this heyday of British influence, Odin enjoyably toured half the globe until on September 3, 1939, the Admiralty telegram “Total Germany” was received, announcing the commencement of hostilities. After patrols in the Indian Ocean against commerce raiders, Odin was dispatched to the famous “Fighting Tenth” submarine squadron based at Malta, arriving in June 1940. Wingfield was selected for the commanding officer’s “perisher” course, and travelled back to England by train through a collapsing France under the protection of the highly organized Scots Guards whose motto, “Any bloody fool can be uncomfortable”, certainly obtained.
Odin, surprised on the surface at night by Italian destroyers, did not return from her first patrol. Wingfield’s first command was the obsolescent H43 which, although designated a training submarine, undertook operational North Sea patrols. In early 1941 he was appointed captain of the newly built Umpire. On July 19, 1941, Umpire was sunk in collision with an armed trawler off Great Yarmouth with the loss of two officers and 14 men, Wingfield recalling that he was on the bridge at the time and that his life was saved by the large kapok-filled coat given to him by his wife. About half the crew escaped from the bottomed submarine using the Davis escape apparatus, including the second-in-command, the celebrated submariner, Lieutenant (later Commander, DSO, DSC and Bar) Edward Young, RNVR.
Exonerated from blame, Wingfield was given command of the Sturgeon and was based at Polyarnoe near Murmansk, where he conducted several patrols off the Norwegian coast, guarding convoys to Russia, including the ill-fated PQ17, against German warships. Targets were few, but Sturgeon was able to sink supply ships, on one occasion passing through a minefield: “The scraping of the mooring wires along our hull concentrated our minds a bit.” In the spring of 1942 Sturgeon was employed as the navigational beacon for the intrepid raid on St Nazaire, when the destroyer Campbeltown was used to blow up the lock gates.
He was awarded the DSO in November 1942. After commissioning and work-up, Wingfield took the new submarine Taurus to Algiers, arriving in February 1943. An early success was the sinking of the Spanish merchant ship Barolo which, because it was a neutral, caused some anxiety. However, the British Ambassador to Spain signaled: “Since your sinking, all trade to Occupied France has ceased. Well Done.” Other sinkings were followed by a move to Beirut and participation in the interdiction of coastal traffic, involving many attacks on caiques — “picturesque vessels used for shipping stores to the enemy garrisons on the different islands, and were legitimate targets, but it was disagreeable work”.
On one occasion Taurus entered the port of Neo Playa near the Bulgarian border and while engaged in sinking minor shipping by gunfire, was attacked by a Bulgarian cavalry regiment using machineguns, probably the only occasion in history between such disparate opponents. Other employments included the landing of clandestine forces on Rhodes in aid of the mistaken Aegean campaign. Wingfield was awarded the DSC “for the sinking of much valuable enemy shipping and the carrying out of four bombardments”. After the collapse of Italy and a stabilized situation in the Mediterranean, Taurus, with other submarines, was sent to the Indian Ocean to reinforce the Eastern Fleet where things were at a low ebb. After a period of ill-luck and missed targets which threatened Wingfield’s tenure in command, he sank the Japanese submarine I34 bound for Penang and later had a dramatic gun battle with a submarine chaser, disabling her. He was awarded a Bar to his DSC for these actions, being the only CO to be decorated in this theatre during the latter months of 1943, when submarines were the first units of the Eastern Fleet to take the offensive. In January 1944 Taurus landed a large clandestine team on the Andaman islands and sank several small vessels by gunfire, also laying, in a minefield off Penang, a new type of half-ton mine which had some successes. Targets were becoming fewer in late 1944, and after a couple of patrols during which Wingfield “sank some small stuff around Sumatra” and was awarded a mention in dispatches, Taurus was ordered home for refit, arriving “battered but intact”.
The end of the war in Europe was followed by the surrender of the German U-boat force, and Wingfield was placed in charge of the 25 based in Norway. He chose to command one of the new and formidable Type XXI boats on the voyage back to Scapa Flow, reckoning that the Allies had won the antisubmarine war just in time. A tour in the operations division of the Admiralty was followed by promotion to commander, and appointment to the cruiser Euryalus as second-in-command. An interesting and amusing Mediterranean commission was followed by appointment to the British naval staff in Washington, as ADC to the French admiral who was deputy NATO supreme commander in Brussels, and finally a staff job with the American navy in Norfolk, Virginia.
His appointments as a captain included command of the reserve fleet in the Clyde and naval attaché at Athens and Tel Aviv. Finally, he commanded the naval air station at Abbotsinch in Scotland, retiring from the Navy in 1962. His second career was in business. He worked in a charitable organization and was chairman of an oil supply company until it folded. Chairmanship of an insurance agency which had to go into liquidation due to embezzlement by the managing director damaged his personal finances. Nine years as marine manager, United Dominions Trust, came to an end when mortgage relief was removed from yacht purchases. He put his ship master’s certificate to good use, working as second mate in several merchant vessels, finally hanging up his seaboots in 1976.