One of the last surviving Wren officers who served in the Second World War has recalled the crucial role she played during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Christian Lamb – who is now 102 years old – was involved in plotting the course of ONS-5, a slow trade convoy from Britain to North America that saw off a vicious attack from the Kriegsmarine in early May 1943.
The famous battle that surrounded it 80 years ago proved to be a huge setback for German naval operations in the Atlantic, but had added significance for Lamb as her fiancé was among the convoy at the time.
Now a widow living in Battersea, south-west London, Lamb told MHM about her experiences shortly before the anniversary.
Herself the daughter of an admiral, Lamb (born Christian Oldham) was staying in France when war broke out in 1939. She was soon among the first to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, more commonly known as the Wrens.
After her training, Lamb rose quickly through the ranks, and was promoted to Third Officer WRNS, working as a Plotting Officer at stations in Plymouth, Liverpool, and later Belfast.
It was from a port outside the Northern Irish capital that many Allied convoys would gather to make the perilous journey across the Atlantic – facing the twin threats of the Kriegsmarine and often atrocious weather.
Fleet destroyer HMS Oribi arrived at Belfast in April 1943. While based there, Christian met Lieutenant John Lamb DSC, Oribi’s First Lieutenant, and they were engaged after just ten days. However, Oribi was recalled on 29 April to escort a slow convoy – the now famous ONS-5.
A week after leaving Belfast, the convoy hit a severe storm – one that ‘blowed like the bells of hell’, as one account described, reducing its speed to just one knot.
Over the course of that week, several U-boats had been encircling the convoy, and by 5 May some 40 enemy submarines were directed against ONS-5.
From the vantage point of the plotting room in Belfast, Lamb was fearful for the ships and her fiancé. ‘My most vivid memory of that time was the acute anxiety which overwhelmed me at the thought of the many U-boats gathering to damage our fleet of escorts,’ she told MHM, ‘not to mention the appalling Atlantic weather which we were informed was now at its very worst.’
She added: ‘I knew I was experiencing just a fraction of the fear that John and his crew must be facing. But having just secured this man, I was truly worried that I might now lose him.’
Despite the dangers, however, the convoy of 42 ships and its 16 escorts managed to beat off the U-boat attack and make it to North America. Twelve ships were lost; John survived.
The implications for the Atlantic War were even greater. Eight U-boats were destroyed and another 12 damaged, including one alleged to be carrying a ‘new secret weapon’ devised by the Nazi powers. The period subsequently became known as ‘Black May’ for the Kriegsmarine.
Because of the losses, the German ability to attack Atlantic convoys was severely hampered. This in turn helped speed up the transfer of men and matériel ahead of the opening of a second front in Europe planned for the following year.
Lamb played a part in the opening of that front too, working to prepare for D-Day by plotting landing craft maps at Combined Operations HQ in Whitehall under the command of Rear Admiral Henry Horan.
By that point, though, she had married John, and they lived together until his death in 1991.
In her later years, Lamb has published several books about her passion for gardening. She wrote of her wartime experiences in a memoir entitled Beyond the Sea.
Described as ‘intrepid, impetuous, adventurous’, Lamb has nevertheless remained modest about her wartime experiences.
‘I was recently advised I had played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic. I can’t say that I did,’ she said. ‘But if being aware of and passing on the news and signals to everyone involved was considered valuable work, I certainly did do that.’