Captain F J Walker and the Battle of the Atlantic

Captain Frederic John WalkerCaptain Frederic John Walker CB, DSO and three Bars, was a Royal Navy officer noted for his exploits during World War II and was the most successful anti-submarine warfare commander who sank more German U-boats 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 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 World War I, he joined the battleship HMS Valiant. In 1919, Walker married Jessica Eilleen Ryder Stobart with whom he had three sons and a daughter.

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.

In January 1940, Walker was appointed as Staff Officer (Operations) to Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay at Dover and during his time in that role, the successful Dunkirk evacuations took place with over 330,000 British and French troops being taken back to the United Kingdom.

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.

In June 1942, Walker was promoted to Captain and left the group to take up the appointment ashore of Captain (D) Liverpool and he presented the ensign of HMS Stork to the Former Bootle County Borough Council at a ceremony held in Bootle Town Hall on 1 July 1942.

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. The group sank 15 German U-boats under the command of Captain Walker.

On 30 July 1943, the 2nd Support Group encountered a group of three U-boats on the surface while in the Bay of Biscay. Captain Walker signalled "General Chase" to his group and fired at the U-boats, causing damage that prevented them from diving. Two of the U-boats were then sunk by the Support Group and the third 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.

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 Captain (D) Liverpool made arrangements for the “General Chase” signal flags which Walker had used in the Bay of Biscay 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.

Captain Walker suffered a cerebral thrombosis and died on 9 July 1944 at the Naval Hospital at Seaforth aged 48 and his death was attributed to overwork and exhaustion. His funeral service took place at the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral with full naval honours and attended by about 1,000 people. The naval procession took place through the streets of Liverpool to the docks, where his body was embarked aboard the destroyer HMS Hesperus for his final journey to be buried at sea in Liverpool Bay.

After the war, Admiral Sir Max Horton, Commander - in - Chief Western Approaches, considered that victory in the Atlantic was due more to Captain Walker than to any other individual and commented that “Victory has been won, and should be won, by such as he.”

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 took passage in Starling’s final sailing from Bootle to Portsmouth in 1956.

Captain Walker’s honours and awards include:

  • 16 August 1940 - Mentioned in Despatches

  • 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 - Bar to 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

Captain Walker lived at Flotilla House, 35 Pembroke Road, Bootle with his family 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.

In 1998 a statue of Captain Walker 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 the Liverpool Anglican 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 paintings of Captain Walker, battle ensigns, the “General Chase” signal and many other items of memorabilia of Captain Walker’s ships. The bell of HMS Starling was presented by the Royal Navy to the Council in October 1964 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.

Members of the Public are welcome to visit Bootle Town Hall on Monday to Friday from 9.00am to 5.00pm to see the items of memorabilia associated with Captain Walker. Please telephone 0151 934 2062 to ensure that the Council Chamber is available for viewing in advance of your visit.

Captain Walker’s grandson, Captain Patrick Walker CBE Royal Navy, maintains the Walker family link with Bootle and Liverpool. The last President of Captain Walker’s Old Boys Association, he is now, in retirement, the Patron of the Sea Urchins, the Royal Naval Reserve Officers Club which meets at HMS Eaglet.

Further information on Captain Frederic John Walker and the Battle of the Atlantic can be seen at the Merseyside Maritime Museum Albert Dock, Liverpool and at the Western Approaches Museum, 1-3 Rumford Street, Exchange Flags, Liverpool.

Hugh Baird College and its supporting partners launched the Port Academy Liverpool Balliol Road, Bootle on 23 June 2016 and the training academy will provide 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 will promote 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.” 

Last Updated on 13 December 2017