ALAN SHARD - WARTIME MN REMINISCENCES

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ALAN SHARD - WARTIME MN REMINISCENCES
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ALAN SHARD CURRENTLY LIVES IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA AND HAS PROVIDED THE FOLLOWING FASCINATING HISTORY OF HIS ACTIVITIES DATING BACK TO THE WAR YEARS WHEN HE FIRST WENT TO SEA AS A LOWLY APPRENTICE..............

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How fresh faced and naive we all were at the outset.   From boy to man virtually overnight.........Alan's studio picture  (for mum, of course !)  taken 2 days before joining his first ship "PUTNEY HILL" in his uniform.... never to be worn again onboard.

CHRONOLOGY
 
1940-1944 Apprenticed to Counties Ship Management Co. London.
1940 In Convoy HX72 when 11 ships were sunk in the first wolf pack 
attack Sept 21st.   2nd trip in Convoy OB244, 7 ships sunk.
1942 June. Torpedoed by U-203.  9 days in lifeboat before being 
rescued by HMS Saxifrage.
1942 Operation Torch to North Africa.
1943  Italian Campaign.
1944 2nd Mate Certificate, Liverpool.
1944 Joined the Canadian Manning Pool as 2nd Mate with no bridge 
experience. Seconded to Elder Dempster (Canada) for 2 years.
1951 Master Certificate, Liverpool.
Sailed on Canadian ships for 10 years with exception of a 9 month 
sojourn on the Empress of France.
1954 Came ashore in Montreal to join Kelvin Hughes as Compass 
Adjuster. Followed by Port Captain with Interocean Marine, Montreal.
1959-1964  Shipping Agent with Federal Intercoastal Line, Quebec City.
1964-1967  Operations Manager with a Montreal Shipping Agency.
1967  Moved to Vancouver, BC. as Owners Rep, followed by a stint as 
marine surveyor at which time I became Liberian Inspector in 1972, 
then Panamanian Inspector in 1978 with the flags of Marshall Islands 
and Vanuatu close behind.

SOME PICTURES BELOW REFERENCING ALAN'S TEXT..............

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"PRINCE ALBERT PARK" - Courtesy Alan Shard.

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H.M.T. "GEORGIC" - Courtesy Alan Shard

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"PINNACLES" - Courtesy Alan Shard

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ALAN SHARD "2nd. mate"

 Above, 2nd Mate of the Tanker "Pinnacles"  off Cape Hatteras, Winter 
1947 with 400 tons of ice on deck putting her several inches below 
her marks.

My Apprenticeship.  1940-1944
 
I was the only one of my family who became a sailor, being indentured as an Apprentice to Counties Ship Management Co of London on 18th June 1940. My father did not have to pay anything for this privilege. The Company promised to pay me for 4 years the sum of 60 pounds in the following manner:
Ten pounds for the first year. Twelve pounds for the second year.Eighteen pounds for the third year Twenty pounds for the last year. Furthermore, it was agreed that I would provide wearing apparel & necessities. The word bedding was crossed out on my Indentures. With this generous stipend the Company promised to teach this Apprentice, the business of Seaman as practiced in Steamships. There were several conditions to this. I had to faithfully serve my masters, keep their secrets, not damage their property, not to embezzle, not to absent myself  nor frequent taverns, alehouses or houses of ill repute
. (I wonder where we Apprentices would ever get the money if we had such aspirations as suggested in our Indentures).
About 1942 the Admiralty elected to pay a 5 pound per month War Bonus, but only for 18 years and over. All others which included Apprentices, Galley Boys and Deck Boys, half rate. Go figure how they arrived at one life being different than another !!
 
Tramp ships are a thing of the past and yet they were the backbone of the largest fleet in the world. They had no regular run and used to tramp all over the world hunting cargoes. Just a few years before my time they either loaded coal or sailed ‘light ship’ for foreign ports at the Master’s discretion. Sometimes the tramps were at anchor in the River Plate off Buenos Aires, or at Port Said, for long periods of time whilst Masters tried to sell the cargo or would solicit cargoes, with orders from owners to get as much as they could and keep away from the United Kingdom as long as possible.The only difference between those days of ‘Tramps’ and the days of  Dana’s “Two Years before the Mast”, was that one was steam and the other sail, but the conditions were the same.
 
I left Radcliffe for Manchester on 16th June 1940 in a blackout  and boarded a train for Sunderland. It was full of soldiers and matelots and I had to stand in the corridor, my sea trunk & seabag in the luggage van.
Arrived at the Seaman’s Mission next morning.There was no-one to meet me like there is today when crews are shepherded by the Agent until they board. On my second night, there was an air raid and four Apprentices spent an hour underneath a snooker table. We joined the mv.”Putney Hill” a new Doxford job the next day.
Introduced ourselves to the Chief Mate and were told  to get into working gear and report to the Bosun. From then on it was all downhill and for the next two years I never saw the workings of the bridge. Uniform was only worn ashore to differentiate yourself from a conscientious objector and prevent getting abuse from passers by.  It has been said that the Chief Mate and Master prayed to the Owner first and God second.
 
We sailed from Sunderland 18th  June  1940 one of the last convoys through the Channel after Dunkirk. I see bodies floating past.
(On the 17th the liner “Lancastria”  was bombed and sunk off St. Nazaire with the loss of 4000 lives). At Southampton we anchored to take off the naval gunner and our solitary Lewis gun which had been lashed to the boat-deck rails with spun yarn. It was there I had a disagreement with Apprentice Drakley who was five inches taller than me which came to blows and we had to be separated by the 3rd Mate. Lucky he was not my Cabin mate. The Apprentices cabins were forward in the midship house starboard side. They were at the end of a dead end alleyway, but one could scramble out of the porthole in an emergency. It was also the working alleyway for the engine-room ratings going below and the heavy steel door clanged at regular intervals waking up the occupants of the starboard accomodation including the cooks. A wash-basin was installed , but without running water. That had to be brought each time in a bucket from the galley. We had our own dining space in the area  and the food had to be brought from the galley individually. We took turns to wash our metal dishes and mugs etc and one day the Apprentice on duty inadvertantly threw his set of utensils over the side when he was emptying the dish water. The Steward would not issue him a new set, so I lent him mine until he was able to steal some the next day. What a life.
The odd cockroach appeared occasionally and I had one that I named Albert. I had the top bunk and when the light was switched on Albert would be there on the deck-head and scurry off to a hole in the corner.  The first day we hit heavy weather in the Atlantic we were on our hands and knees scraping smooth with an iron tool the excessive pitch from the poop deck planks. (Normally this would already have been done by the shipyard, but in wartime they were in a hurry to get the ships out). The ship was prancing about like a racehorse and we were feeling the results. Hancock threw in the sponge and  took to his bunk followed minutes later by an irate Bosun. After threatening to make him eat some greasy bacon on a string (a favourite tactic for first trippers feeling seasick) he gave him an hour to get back to work. Strangely enough on practically every trip I made until I quit, I was slightly seasick for a couple of hours. (Even many years later on the “Empress of France” ex “Duchess of Bedford” known as the drunken Duchess).
I tried my first cigarette and immediately got queasy and could not turn to for work. The Bosun was irate and gave me a severe bollicking that put me off smoking for ever, for which I am truthfully thankful.
 
My Action Station position was ‘shell passer’ for the 4” stern gun which thrilled me to bits until I heard it fired and it nearly blasted me off the gundeck. (No earplugs were given out so excuse me today if I keep asking you to repeat yourself). When not in action I spent many a watch below on the gundeck listening to the yarns of the RN men and no doubt embellished for my benefit.
 
Once away from the submarine threat the Lookout was in the ‘Crows Nest’ high up on the foremast. It was a steel tub entered through a trapdoor in the bottom. (We were supplied with binoculars to report everything that floats). It had no top and therefore exposed to the weather and if fine, was a peaceful relaxing time. However, if the ship was rolling it was easy to be seasick and once I fired off a trail of vomit which floated past the bridge wing narrowly missing the 3rd Mate, who voiced his opinion in no uncertain terms. I must confess I read a book up there on occasion figuring that any enemy raider with twice the masthead height would see us long before she appeared on our horizon. I think the books were by Mickey Spillane such as “Lady don’t turn over” & “You only die twice”. Great stuff.
 
After clearing the Panama Canal on our way to British Columbia we Apprentices were given our first crack at steering by Magnetic Compass and this was great. A bit tricky at first , but soon mastered.
Each of us were on Watches with 2 AB’s. We did 2 hours at the wheel, one on Lookout and one on Standby. The Standby man called the next watch. On two days a week we had a ‘Field Day’ and that was a misnomer if ever there was one. It amounted to 2 extra 4 hour watches twice a week as in a 12 hour day, totalling 64 hours per week. However, there was also ‘in between work’ which I smarted under for months.  On Saturday’s even though watch below, we were required to polish the brass and there was lots of it. The Standard Compass binnacle and its surround of rails, but worst the steam whistle on the funnel. One would have thought they would have switched off the steam and many a polisher almost jumped off the ladder when a hot water drip fell on his neck. In subsequent ships all exposed brass was painted grey to prevent the sun’s reflection being seen for miles and attracting unwanted attention. We were now sailing with full navigation lights and no blackout as Japan was not yet in the war. It was warm and beautiful, marred only by an incident the night before arrival New Westminster,BC.on 30th.July 1940.
I was on the 12-4 Middle Watch with the last hour Standby and therefore  my job to call the next watch at 0345.. Unbeknown to me, I was also supposed to call the Chief Mate.I was under the illusion that only an Officer’s Steward  called the Mates in that hallowed territory. I turned in at 0410 and 5 minutes later I was called to the Bridge to see the Captain. Thinking this was only a question and quick answer I jumped into my sea-boots and slipped on my bridge-coat over my pyjamas. I barely made the top rung of the ladder when an irate Old Man nailed me, with the fact I had ‘forgotten’ to call the Chief Mate!  The truth was not good enough and I was banished to Monkey Island lookout and to stay there until I reported the first BC Light House. It was pretty fresh up on top of the wheelhouse, but I did not dare comment on my state of undress. At 0630 I spotted the light and was released from my punishment to sleep.  At 0720 I was called for breakfast before going on the 8-12 Watch. From that day on for the next two years I never failed to get on the wrong side of ‘Capt Bligh’.
We loaded lead ingots on the bottom in New Westminster and topped off with lumber in Cowichan Bay, Englewood and Port Alberni for deck cargo. In those days lumber was not packaged and each piece had to be stowed by hand, giving us a nice stay in port. Trouble was the outports were void of entertainment, but I tasted my first hamburger with all the trimmings for 15 cents. I swore to become a Canadian and finally after 5 years residency did so in 1951.
 
The trip home via Bermuda was uneventful onboard workwise, but outboard it was a different story as we encountered the first wolf pack in Convoy HX72 when 11 ships were  sunk. Three were in our column and one on either side.
 The AMC Jervis Bay was escort for the first few days. (Eye Witness account to this massacre is another article). In a later convoy “Jervis Bay”  was sunk by the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in an uneven contest with 6” guns against 14”.
 
We went through Pentland Firth bound for the East Coast port of South Shields.  The tide runs through at 10 knots and if one is unfortunate to have to stem it, you find yourself only 400 yards ahead of the position that had been abeam 4 hours earlier. Arrived South Shields 4th Oct. 1940.
 
That trip earned the Apprentices 3 days leave and in 1940 it was more than a half days safari to get from one UK coast to the other. It was a relief to sleep in pyjamas again after being in our clothes from one port to the next.
 
 9th Nov. outward bound again for BC in Convoy OB 244 and 7 ships are sunk this time. Strangely enough I saw none of the action and it was 30 years after the war that I learned of the casualties. The convoy was so spread out abeam that nothing was heard on the main deck, but the bridge must have been aware and in keeping with the times we were kept in the dark.
The Panama Canal was interesting  They said it rains there in some form 360 days a year, but it is hot and you are dry in 10 minutes. I took a picture through a porthole of the mechanised ‘mules’ that pulled us through the locks,  although cameras were forbidden, but a Brownie box camera with a pinhole lense was’nt much use for spying.
 
The bum-boats at Cristobal were plentiful, mostly selling bananas. Fifty for a shilling. They always threw up a sample to us on deck. The sailors in turn always asked for ‘one for Queen Victoria’ and the reply always the same ,but unprintable.
 
(Three years later in Port Said, Egypt, the bumboat attending our ship had a large sign that read “Ali McGregor the only Egyptian Scotsman” and he was good. His specialty was suitcases ostensibly made of camel hide and they looked it. Dozens were bought by the crew, being their first time in that port. When we got to the UK for 3 days leave the cases were proudly packed ready to be shown off to all and sundry. Unfortunately, it was heavy rain and before we reached the railway station the handles had come apart. The suitcases  were made of compressed cardboard that looked realistic).
 
To resume. On the way North to BC we passed an island and I enquired of the 3rd Mate its name and  was told Formosa (now Taiwan). It was many years later that I got to see a chart that showed Formosa several thousand miles to the West. So much for our navigation lessons.
 
In BC for Christmas 1940 which was a nice occasion for Apprentices without two halfpennies in their pockets to rub together. I had never seen coloured lights on a Christmas Tree before.
The cargo of lumber and lead  for the UK was the last commercial shipment for us before we went under the Ministry of War Transport  with military cargoes. This Convoy was HX 108 and it was an uneventful crossing altho HX106,HX107 & HX109 lost 2,6 & 4 ships respectively).
Things changed on March 20th 1941 whilst anchored in Plymouth and I experienced a Blitz. I had just returned from 4 days leave and as I stepped out of North Road Station at 2300 an incendiary bomb landed across the street. I beat a retreat and went in the tunnel under Platform 6 along with about 50 others. Shortly thereafter a HE bomb landed at the entrance of Platform 8 and filled the tunnel with blue acrid smoke. Fortunately no-one was hurt . The All Clear went at 0130 and I went up to the street. It was devastation with fire hoses strewn all over. There were no taxis and I had to hump a seabag over my shoulder and with an attache case in one hand headed for the dock a mile away. It could have been worse, it  might have been raining. At the dock I had to wait for the ship’s boat to pick me up at 0700. Once onboard I found a piece of shrapnel which had landed onboard. Friendly fire no doubt.

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In the every day rig,  blue dungarees,  which I wore for the rest of my apprenticeship !

The Official Report established that:-

 

Quote

Night of Thurs 20/21 March 1941.

Major attack carried out by 125 aircraft of Airfleet 3 against Plymouth between 7.00p.m. & 11.30 p.m.  During this raid 159 tons of bombs were dropped on the city plus some 30,000 incendiary bombs.  The central area of this attack was situated between the Hamoaze and the docks at the eastern end of the Great Western Docks.

Night of Friday 21/22

Second major attack by some 160+ aircraft from Airfleet 3 against Plymouth between 8.45p.m. & 11.45p.m.  187 tons of bombs were dropped plus another 30,000+ incendiaries.  The central focus of the attack was between the Hamoaze & Sutton Pool with much damage also done to Devonport dockyard.

In these two raids more than 300 people were killed.  The trawler HMS Asama was also sunk at Devonport.

 Putney Hill damaged by enemy action in Blitz.

Unquote.

 

Our ship then went alongside O.H.M.S and loaded military supplies for the British Army in Egypt. We resumed loading in Swansea & Newport and sailed Barry Roads April 16th We anchored at Simonstown (RN Base) near  Capetown  May 23rd.1941 to await instructions. Table Mountain was wearing its tablecloth (a low white cloud). The Australian troops were in town and got up to their usual pranks. In a park two nannies had left their charges in their perambulators for a few minutes and the soldiers swapped the babies. In another escapade several of them picked up a baby Austin car and carried it into a bank.

 

On to Aden  June  15th 1941 where a half-cut Sparks stood on a bar stool and almost got scalped by a rotating ceiling fan. In Suez Roads for the 20th. We anchored approx 400 metres abeam of the White Star liner “Georgic” disembarking troops. After completion she was bombed by aircraft and settled on the bottom. Later she was salvaged and towed to India for a temporary refit before sailng to the UK under reduced power and eventually resuming a peace time passenger service. (See separate article).

 

Back in Port Said  May 5th 1942 three of us were inadvertently steered into a dubious dive just in time to witness a riveting demonstration performed by two young ladies. We skinned out smartly  with images of Cancellation of Indentures, but not before sighting the likes of what I had never heard of nor seen since. There was also supposed to have been a performance with a donkey, but it was off that night, probably with a ‘headache’. Our innocence was still intact

 

Work was never ending, chipping rust and red leading, holy-stoning wooden decks and renewing standing and running gear. One job came with a thrill, tallow and oiling of shrouds from a bosun’s chair high above the deck.

The Chief Steward was a Geordie and in cahoots with the Old Man. Our ration of jam in a very large tin which had to be opened by can opener was always Greengage and Ginger and after about a year we got fed up with this and I was fingered as senior boy to request the Steward to allow us similar to the Officers, namely Strawberry for a change. Much to my surprise he acquiesced.  He had turned me in to the Old man previously for snitching an orange from his cabin, a fruit we never saw on our table). I rushed back to our mess anxious to sample the jam (the label read Strawberry) on a ‘butty’ of doorstep proportions. The other 3 gathered around whilst I attacked the can and lo and behold it was revealed as, you guessed it, Greengage and Ginger !!! Off back to see the Steward and the s.o.b. said ‘you can’t return it, you have opened it. Such was our status as the lowest of the low.

 

A real lousy job, fortunately only done once, was the lime washing of Fresh Water Tanks located in the Tween Decks. Apprentices job again. When the manhole plates were removed and clusters placed inside the temperature was up in the 120’s, but worse in retrospect was the complete lack of concern by the Mate for sufficient oxygen. A second one, but more frequent was the exhausting chore of pumping fresh water to the Officers Tank on Monkey Island. Done by hand from a well-type pump outside the galley and it took 45 minutes and one was slipping and sliding if she was rolling.

 

Aug. 4th 1941 On to India with first call Bombay, the port with brightly painted gates (red, blue, yellow, green) which easily identified the ships dock. Three Apprentices wandered the town carefully avoiding Grant Rd., and sacred cows littering the sidewalks. Sighted a tattoo parlour and boldly went in. After flipping a coin Jimmy Pearce went under the needle for a heart with a dagger through it. He did not look very comfortable and Drakley and myself looked at our watches and decided we had better not miss the evening meal, much to the disgust of our shipmate. He was the only one that got a tattoo the whole time we were together.  On the way to the dock which was a fair distance, we hailed a ‘gharry’ an open carriage drawn by horses. About a hundred yards from the gate we suddenly decided to drop off whilst the gharry was underway and the driver got to the gate before realizing that he had lost his fares. We thought it was a great until he saw us and turned on a dime and chased us up a dead end street whilst cracking a 14 ft horsewhip. We capitulated and forked out more than we would normally have paid.

 

Next port was Cochin where I become embarrassed beyond belief. We had taken a small ferry to one of the sightseeing islands and were returning about 1600hrs. The ferry was ready to leave and we were being urged by the locals to hurry. We marched proudly down the ramp in our No.10 whites in true Brit style. I made to step on to the bulwark when the ferry suddenly cast off and I stepped into thin air and landed in the drink. My uniform cap floated away and was rescued with a boathook and amidst great laughter I was pulled aboard to stand dripping wet amongst the locals. A real set back for the British Raj!

 

On to the neutral port of Mormugoa, Portuguese India  August 10th. 1941 for a fascinating encounter. We were alongside loading concentrates, but at anchor were 3 ships in peacetime colours, in loaded condition. An Italian and two German ships of the Hansa Deutch Line with Iron Cross on the funnel. They had been blockaded by the Royal Navy since WWII started and had the wireless equipment removed by the neutral Portuguese Government. Un-beknownst to anyone, the “Ehrenfels” had another wireless transmitter in the strong-room of the tween-deck.  The story is that quite a few ships leaving Bombay were being torpedoed by a U-Boat lying off and the British were perplexed until a fix of the transmissions placed the source in Goa.

 

Being as they were neutral the RN was unable to make a  frontal assault and plans were made for volunteers from Calcutta to commandeer an old dredge and make a surprise boarding and sink all three. You must read “The Sea Wolves” or see the movie with Gregory Peck and all star cast for what happened. That scenario took place shortly after we had sailed, but back to our exploits ashore. A half dozen  of us called in at the only ‘pub’ in the port area and spent a really nice evening. About 2000hrs our group started to sing sea shanties and to our surprise at a table at the far end with a bunch of white men also started their own sing-song, but this time in German. Consternation reigned as we weighed our chances, but the 2nd Mate stood up and waved them over to our table. I was completely flabbergasted, but they all came over except one man (the Nazi 3rd. Eng. they said) and he raised his arm in a salute said “Heil Hitler” and marched out. Whereupon his shipmates all waved their hands at his back as if to say good riddance. What a night singing alternately and by throwing out time we were all good buddies. The only time the war was mentioned is when they said they should not be fighting the British, but all should be fighting the Russians. Quite an experience.

 

Alexandria was a fascinating place full of crooks.  Lots of pimps tugging at your arm at every turn. Every nationality practiced the ancient trade. The street was named Sister Street. Those who were’nt pimps were trying to sell you something else. Stepping outside the dock gates in our whites we were besieged by urchins in the 7-9 age bracket asking if you wanted a shoe shine in spite of the fact that they were already shining to see ones face. Did’nt matter, they persisted and were told in no uncertain terms “What do you think this is.Scotch Mist’ and they received a kick up their backside. This resulted often as not in razor blades being produced and your arms being slashed before they melted into an alley.  Another time walking through the casbah with a R/O and 4th. Eng., we were accosted by two teen-agers walking parallel in step. One was foaming at the mouth and holding a small open pen-knife menacingly in a clenched fist. His mate said that he was crazy and to give him money, which my two companions did. Even in those days my poor upbringing revolted at handing over any of my hard earned gains and I signalled that I had nothing. The knife was pointed at my trouser pocket where-upon (thinking quick on my feet) I took out a bunch of keys and rattled them to indicate his mistake. It worked!  Another favourite of the scallywags was to walk up behind you and spraying liquid camel dung on the back of your khaki pants and then bringing to your attention an offer to clean it off. Finally a trick that caught a lot of British Army boys was the Johnny Walker whisky for an unbelievable low price. Not until they got back to barracks did they find out that it was cold tea. A small hole had been drilled under the bottom and then replugged with wax. What could you expect for five shillings.

 

Another nasty job for two Apprentices was down in the chain locker for the ‘Chain Locker Dance’when weighing anchor. The chain had to be coiled carefully to prevent a cock-up in the hawse pipe when letting go. It was slippery with mud and water dripped down our necks, but that heavy chain never stopped its relentless advance.

Hatches were covered by hatch boards in two lengths, large in the centre and half size at each end which could be easily lifted for ventilation at sea. My later ship had steel hatch lids all the same size which had to be lifted by handheld hooks. When working cargo during the night in foreign ports, they made a hell of a racket opening and closing.

 

Food was generally never complained about, in wartime it was better than shoreside. Freshly baked bread usually had a few weevils so it meant holding a slice up to light to check it out before eating. We knew the day of the week by the repetition of the meals. Egg and bacon and red lead, or so called tomatoes for Sunday breakfast

Curry and rice for Mondays and Wednesdays (a good way of getting rid of tainted meat) Apple Daddy for Monday and Thursday’s dessert and hash on Saturdays. (Coffee for the night watches consisted of throwing a few handfuls of grind into a converted 5 lb jam tin with a wire handle and letting it stew on the galley stove).

 

In Freetown  Dec., 21st 1941 in 130F in the shade it was OK for us to be sent over the side on a stage to paint the hull. When doing the flare of the bow the stage had to be bowsed in close by a heaving line led around the stem. If the occasional paint brush was lost overside you would be in for a bollicking from the Bosun. Painting over the side was one of the main occupations for sailors in port. Once, in Khoramshah, Persia, we were discharging coal at No. 2 Hatch, in wicker baskets. I had started painting at No. 1, but when I moved aft I skipped No. 2 and proceeded at No. 3. The Mate went ballistic and directed me to go to No.2 which I refused, with the most reasonable excuse that I was not working under a load of coal apart from the fact the basket was trailing coal dust on its journey to the dock. The Mate stormed off and I expected serious repercussions, but the Old Man never sent for me. Maybe the Mate got an earful. The next evening we tried to climb a flagpole and swipe the Iranian flag, but could’nt make it which was just as well. Oh foolish youth! We would probably have been given the lash had we been caught.

 

On to Basra, Iraq with military cargo for the Russians

It was in Basra March 17th.1942 that I saw how the pitted dates were packaged and swore never to eat them unless with the pit. The Arabs used to squat on the floor alongside a pile of dates and were supposed to use a small tool to pit them. However that was too slow so they placed them in their mouth and sucked the pit out and spat it in a separate pile. It’s true so help me God. I never ate a pitless date since.

Port Sudan in the Red Sea. The stevedores were something to behold...Fuzzy Wuzzies. They first made a seat on the cargo winches out of bits odd dunnage and then believe it or not worked the handles of the steam winches with their bare FEET!! all the time passing through their shock of hair a 12 inch comb with only two 8 inch teeth in line. Camel dung was utilized to keep their curls in position.

I am standing at the rail at No.4 one day with a few others staring out at the sunset with my hands behind my back. Suddenly to my complete and utter surprise an Engineer came up from behind and placed his private member into my hand hoping no doubt to get a good laugh out of the audience, but I turned the tables in a flash, kept a grip and towed him along the deck with the crowd laughing at him. He ran in step screaming blue murder and it reminded me of the tail of the tiger and how to let go. How was I going to get free without being thumped. As I neared the after masthouse I let go and ran swiftly to the ladder with him in hot pursuit. Without much thought I shinnied up the vertical ladder abaft the mainmast still I stood on the table praying to God he would not follow me. Discretion proved to be the better part of valour and he did not. When his temper cooled he realized his foolishness and nothing further was said.

 

We went to Haifa, Palestine via Suez April 18th. 1942 and our hopes for seeing some of the Holy land were dashed by an unfortunate occurence. The Apprentice’s cabins were being painted and we lodged temporarily in the ship’s hospital which opened on to the deck at Hatch No. 4. We heard a knock on the door at 0600 Saturday morning and the person started to open it. His identity was unclear and Drakley rose up in his bunk in a sleepy mode and hurled an expletive to “Off” and low and behold it was none other than the Chief Mate. Consternation reigned and at 0730 all four of us were called to the Old Man’s cabin.

 

After a general bollicking we were dispatched to the Tween Deck of Hold No. 4 to collect the large palm fronds used for cargo separation, but now covered in coal dust. We were ordered to bundle them ready for discharge. At about 1100 we (the innocent ones) had a small parley and figured our Indentures would not be in danger of cancelling as we believed we had been caught in the net unjustly, therefore decided to hell with it and had a game of makeshift cricket.

Shortly thereafter the Mate’s head came over the coaming and called us up to learn that three of us could go ashore, but Drakley was to oil the winches through the weekend.

(That was a typical ploy for Apprentices to have to work the weekends and save the overtime of the crew. This time was always in addition to a full week and then some). The reprieve did not help the shore excursion as the last liberty boat was 1800.

 

However, all else pales on June 25th. 1942 when “Putney Hill” is torpedoed (Separate article “The Second Happy Time). We are picked up by HMS Saxifrage on July 4th and landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico where I experience my first earthquake. Then transported to New York by United Fruit’s  s.s.Veragua. There I meet Jack Dempsey ex world heavy weight champion in his bar.

After 3 weeks in NY homeward bound from Boston as DBS on a whale factory ship “N.T.Nielson Alonso” with Landing Craft on deck and fuel oil cargo.  My bad luck to be with the old skipper and another Apprentice. One day as we gathered for tea & tabnabs I asked Drakley to pass me the cheese & marmalade for a cracker whereupon Capt. Hughson said “ You are not going to eat that” Of course I replied, its an old Lancashire dish. He stalked out of the saloon and I carried on, but when I left he was waiting for me and took me by the lapels forcing me against a ventilator saying if he had any more trouble with me it was the ‘ropes end’. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing in the middle of the North Atlantic in 1942. When I protested that he was no longer my skipper, he said that he was responsible for me whilst under Indentures. There was no way I was going to ship out with Hughson again.

Upon arriving home in August for a month’s survivors leave I became engaged to my girlfriend of 2 years.The ring cost 21 pounds.

I was appointed to mv.”Coombe Hill” in Sunderland on September 30th, 1942, along with one other Apprentice Duncan Lambros..

Only 2 of us this time. Are they getting wiser that the North Atlantic is not a bed of roses! The ship became  O.H.M.S. and commenced loading military supplies for whence we did not know. Churchill tanks, trucks, ammunition, supplies and most dangerous of all, gasoline in what were known as flimsy non-returnable cans. No spouts, they had to be cut open. The Deep Tanks at No. 3 were filled to the hatch coaming with these cans. Steam extractors were fitted and these operated at intervals to remove any gases which may have formed from leaky cans. This Hatch was between our accommodation and the bridge and we all used to run past at speed to lessen the chance of being in the area in case of a torpedo attack. The No. 3 starboard cargo winch barrel was fitted with a drum with several hundred feet of wire cable for the barrage balloon we had been supplied with. A novel arrangement to be sure which was used effectively twice. The ship also had an ‘A’ Frame at the bow for sweeping anti-mine paravanes, an apparatus called a ‘pig trough’ on the lower bridge which could fire a battery of rockets, a rig called ‘AND’ for Admiralty Net Defence. This consisted of additional 75 foot long booms being fitted to the fore & main mast joined at the head by a strong cable. At the after booms the wire net was suspended with a several hundred pound weight attached to try and maintain its stretch when streamed with the booms swung outboard horizontal It was streamed by the forward cargo winches heaving on the net cable. It could only be streamed on the orders of the Senior Escort and we used it twice. If the ship was rolling it was very tricky to retrieve the booms which had to be secured in an upright position to the ends of the mast table. If the booms were almost home on the wrong side of the roll it would come crashing into the end of the table and the clamp had to be wrestled into position. Not a happy situation.

 

We sailed on  November 8th 1942 and when secret orders were opened we found ourselves bound for Algiers, North Africa where the ‘Torch’landings were taking place that very  day.

 

The journey down to Gibralter was uneventful, but after getting through the Straits it became interesting. My Station was in the 20mm Oerlikan gun-tub on the starboard bridge wing. Italian torpedo planes made best efforts flying low between the line of ships, but were unsuccessful and we got alongside in Algiers on November 21st, 1942. Curfew was at 1800 so we did not get ashore for more than an hour which precluded any ideas about the ‘Black Cat’ cafe (and dive). I did however taste the flavour of Muscatel.

After discharge by British soldiers we loaded some captured equipment including a self propelled 88mm, the most feared gun in the German armoury. It could be used both as an antitank and anti-aircrsft gun. Enroute North we had to contend with Focke-Wulfe Condors abreast of Biscay. I had made a deal for a German helmet, a French sailors hat with red pompom and a Spandau machine gun which I hid in the attic of my home. (Just after the war I was very upset to learn that my parents had turned the gun in when they saw an announcement in the local cinema for requirement to turn in any weapon souvenirs to the Chief Constable within 30 days or else).

In Liverpool for Christmas for more military cargoes for Bone, Algeria. We arrived February18th,1943.

The front line was reportedly only 30 miles to the East and our Churchill tanks were desperately needed.

Bizerte 100mls East in Tunisia was occupied by the Afrika Corp.

Once again curfew was 1800 in Bone.  However this time we got a weekend in port and Apprentice Lambros and I took a stroll ashore, but not before stuffing our haversacks with Ardath cigarettes which fell out on deck as broken cases were being discharged We had only gone about 200 yards beyond the dock gates when we were accosted by a French civilian asking if we had any cigarettes to sell. We thought our ship had come in until he tried to bargain us down to an unprofitable amount. We told him where to go and he suddenly produced identity that he was plain clothes ‘Surete’ and bid us to accompany him to the police station. We thought it was a great joke and casually followed him figuring he was a crook who was trying to be funny. We entered a corner building and with a big shock we heard the steel barred door clang behind us. We were in the British Army Military Police HQ. Consternation reigned how we were to account for this little escapade. After two hours the Sergeant MP told us we were being taken back to the ship and I am thrilled at my first ride in an army jeep in wartime, which was almost worth the price of admission. We were taken directly up to the Master’s cabin and arraigned before him. The MP‘s were dismissed and Capt. Roberts a kindly old Welshman floored us by asking if we had been dropping our ‘hook in muddy waters’. I leave the reader to figure that one out as it took us innocents some time to twig. We protested and confessed to having collected the packages of cigarettes as they spilled out from the cargo sling as it was going over the side. It was no excuse really as the cargo still belonged to the Army. We were let off with a mild rebuke with no reference to our Indentures being endangered.

 

Practically every evening in Bone we were subjected to air raids by Stuka 87DB’s dive bombers which inflicted a lot of damage in the harbour which was defended by the anti-aircraft ship HMS Aurora. They came over the hill overlooking the harbour just as the sun was setting and therefore on top of us before we realized it and away just as quick. Their screaming whistles fitted to the fixed landing gear was spine tingling. One afternoon they came earlier than usual and we were caught ashore unable to get back. The Army directed us to an old match factory and whilst there the curfew started and we had to remain there all night. The Tommies gave us tea and blankets and we slept on the concrete floor. When daylight came we hotfooted  back to the ship before the Bosun found out we were missing.

 

Next we head for Gibraltar  March 3rd 1943 enroute to Cardiff. A trip to Saint John NB  May 1st 1943 for grain was a nice change.The stevedores paid the Apprentices to trim.  Only old shellbacks will remember the limber boards over the bilges that had to be burlapped to try and keep the grain from seeping through. They never worked 100% and ’bilge diving’ was a given for all Apprentices. And what a stinking job it was after discharging, digging out the mouldy grain.

 A quick trip from Hull June 20th to New York July 8th was uneventful and off to Alexandria this time through the Med.,arriving August  23rd.1943.  The Axis still held Italy and Sicily.

 

It was in Alexandria that I almost met my Waterloo. A young Egyptian tally clerk befriended me one day whilst I was watching Hold No.4 for pilfering by longshoremen. He invited me next day for a visit to his seafront bungalow about a mile  from  the ship. We arrived about 1400 and he offered me a whisky and I got a little apprehensive being a non-drinker of hard liquor at the time and especially when the only furniture was a mattress on the floor!!! but I was’nt prepared for what happened next. He went into the other room and I tossed my whisky into a potted palm (ala Secret Service style) and he returned showing full frontal. I freaked out for a split second ,but immediately recovered as I put Plan B in operation. I proferred my empty glass and asked for a refill. As soon as he went into the kitchen I was out of the front door like greased lightening and did not stop running until I was halfway back to the ship and I observed he was not following me. I was sweating like a pig whether from the heat or a fate worse than death. Needless to say the tally clerk never showed up for work for the rest of our stay  

In Alex.  I celebrated something which to this day I do not remember and quaffed so many beers I never recalled how I got back to the ship at anchor, waking up sat on the ‘throne’ at 0230. That was the first and last time that I was ever in that shape and luckily I was amongst shipmates.

 

 

Haifa, Palestine  Sept. 22nd. 1943 to load military equipment and troops for Italy. British 8th Army, 5th Indian Division, Ghurkas, Sikhs amongst others. What a picnic on deck where they slept and cooked. Some did’nt eat pig, some did’nt cut their hair and others faced East several times a day.  The ship sailed for an unknown destination in Italy as it depended on how far the Allies had advanced  Meanwhile we drop the anchor in Augusta Sicily before berthing in Taranto on 10th October 1943. The convoy is attacked by Italian naval units and a bizarre situation developed. The very next voyage again from Haifa but this time to Bari, Italy we are escorted by the same Italian naval units ,as they had surrendered in the interim.

We arrive 10 days after the ‘Disaster at Bari’ (Dec. 3rd 1943) where 17 ships were sunk and hundreds of civilians and troops died from mustard gas released from the cargo of an American Liberty Ship “John Harvey”. (Kept secret for 30 years in the Public Records Office). (Separate article).

 

Pretty exciting times. The ship got back to England in April 1944 and because it was close enough to 4 years since I signed my Indentures I was discharged in order to go to Liverpool Tech for 2nd Mates Certificate which I was fortunate to pass first time around. On June 6th.”D” Day Invasion arrived and we were all put on 24 hours Standby for command of a landing craft.

 

Having got my foot on the first rung of the ladder I decided not to quit the sea when the war ended. My girlfriend apparently thought differently and I cannot blame her, so I was given the old heave-ho, but I asked for and got my ring back.

That was it for my Apprenticeship and I sailed for Halifax NS to join the Canadian Manning Pool onboard r.m.s’Aquitania” in August 1944 meeting up with Gerald Morgan from the days at Liverpool Tech and who I still see to this day. Joined the s.s. ”Prince Albert Park in Saint John NB as 2nd Mate. I was 21 years old.

putneyhill.jpg

THE SECOND HAPPY TIME

The date was June 25th, 1942.  The 5216 gross reg. ton motor vessel "Putney Hill" of London, D.W. Hughson, Master, was enroute from Capetown to New York to pick up a cargo of military equipment for Russia.  She was approximately 500 miles North of San Juan, Puerto Rico, proceeding independently on a zigzag course at 10 knots.  Lying in wait for just such an opportunity (convoys had not yet been established by the Americans on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard due to Admiral King's aversion to British tactics) was Kapitanlieutenant Rolf Mutzelberg, Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, in U-203 a Type VllC U-Boat of 761-tons displacement, surface speed 17 knots, submerged speed 7 knots.

 

The time was 2325.  It was a brilliant moonlit night, warm, with little breeze and slight sea and swell.  The lookout in the port wing of the bridge was a young Apprentice from Radcliffe, Lancashire, who was scanning an area from right ahead to right astern on his side.  The Third Mate was keeping a similar lookout on the starboard side and an Able Bodied Seaman at the wheel.  The fourth member of the watch, on Standby, had just made the coffee for the Middle Watch coming on at midnight.  (Coffee on a British Ship in wartime consisted of throwing a few handfuls of grind into a converted 5 lb jam tin with a wire handle and letting it stew on the galley stove).

 

The Standby man came up on the bridge to check the time before he called the 12 - 4 watch at 2330.  As he left the wheelhouse to go below, the Apprentice enquired of the time.  With a slap on the back, the Standby man replied 2325 and simultaneously both of them were blown into the air from the blast of a tremendous explosion at the waterline in Hold No. 3, slightly aft of the bridge structure.  The reverberations echoed through the empty holds like a giant hammer blow from Thor and "Putney Hill" went dead in the water.  Neither of the two were hurt and they donned life jackets immediately. 

 

Acrid blue smoke from the explosion hung over the decks.  The Captain came running out of his cabin on the Lower Bridge Deck and as the ship had now taken a heavy starboard list, he ordered 'Abandon Ship'.  The Apprentice wondered why he had not seen anything out there on the port side and figured the torpedo must have come down a moonbeam reflection in the tropical waters.  It was later discovered from the U-Boat War Log that the first torpedo (also unsighted) missed.

 

            The two lifeboats on the portside of the ship were useless, having been blown inboard against the funnel, so everyone ran to the starboard side which was almost at sea level.  The Apprentice was carrying an old army gas mask case made of canvas known as the 'grab bag' in which he kept his Merchant Navy Identity Card, a Mars Bar, extra pair of socks, some private papers and his camera.  He threw them in his designated Lifeboat No.3 which was already in the water and swarmed down the falls to join 15 others. 

 

The lifeboat was a clinker built wooden craft that had not been in the water since the Apprentice had joined "Putney Hill" two years earlier in June 1940.  Consequently, the seams were open to the sea and she soon settled to the 'gunnels'.  Everyone baled furiously, the Apprentice even using his shoes as a container.  Several men from the smaller Lifeboat No.1, which had capsized, now endeavoured to climb into the waterlogged boat with the result that this one also capsized throwing all hands into the 'drink'.  The 'grab bag' was lost in the exodus. 

 

The ship was now down by the head but without the heavy starboard list.  The answer dawned that the torpedo must have struck in the port deep tank midships which held several hundred tons of ballast.  This ballast was released in the explosion causing the ship to list immediately, but now due to the fact that the starboard deep tank ballast was flowing through to the port side and in effect equalising the situation, the ship eventually became upright.  This new state of affairs was not lost on Kaptlt. Mutzelberg who surfaced in order to execute his next move.  No shots had been fired from "Putney Hill”’s 4-inch stern gun as the acute angle of list had rendered it useless and all hands had already left by the time she righted.

 

The Apprentice had never swam more than 50 yards in his life but, wearing his life jacket, struck out for a life raft floating a short distance astern.  Several others had the same intention and eight clambered onboard.  During this short swim, he was stung by a 'Portuguese Man-O-War' but felt nothing at the time.  It later developed into a rotting hole about the size of a Canadian quarter which necessitated hospital attention in New York. 

 

The life raft was about 8 feet square and consisted of wooden planks enclosing metal air tanks with a depression across the centre for survivors to set their feet whilst facing each other.  Someone pointed to a man hanging on to the propeller which was clear of the water.  It was the Asst. Cook who was not seen again.

 

            The "Putney Hill" was lying like a ghost ship on the gentle sea, the silence punctuated by occasional loud bangs as various bits of the structure gave way under the increasing pressure.

Without warning an incendiary shell hit the funnel and started a fire.  It was followed by a further sixty-four shells into the hull, counted by those on the life raft from their grandstand position.  Well at least Mutzelberg had allowed the crew to leave the stricken vessel before opening up with his deck gun.  At approximately 0130 hours of June 26th, 1942, "Putney Hill" became almost vertical and still burning slid beneath the sea, bow first.

 

            The men on the raft were left alone with their own unspoken thoughts.  The Apprentice was thinking probably the same as the others.  What next!!  They were not left in doubt very long.  U-203 eased out of the gloom and approached the life raft.  A voice from the conning tower, in perfect English, enquired of the whereabouts of the Master.  No-one knew, but if they had, the Apprentice was sure that he would have had great difficulty in not pointing him out, such was the miserable time that he and the other three apprentices had suffered at the hands of a regular Captain Bligh, but that was another story to be told at a later date.

 

The U-Boat picked up a lifebuoy and moved off into the darkness after establishing where the ship was from and the nature of her cargo, which of course was nil, being in ballast.  Again they were left with their thoughts when suddenly the U-Boat re-appeared and to everyone's amazement they saw on the foredeck one of the apprentices.  "What the hell is Hancock doing onboard the sub", said the Second Mate who was senior officer on the raft.  By now the wind had risen and the sea was a little choppy, so the U-Boat could not get too close to the raft.  The Commander called from the conning tower and requested that someone from the raft should come for the man and assist him back to the raft, as he could not swim. Without hesitation John McKenzie, the Second Mate, dived in, swam to the submarine and escorted the youth back to his fellow crewmen.

Hancock was besieged with questions and basked in the 'limelight' in the middle of the night as he told his story.  When the lifeboat capsized he was able to grab and hang on to an oar.  He was apparently joined by a young Royal Navy DEMS gunner but the oar would not support both and in the ensuing squabble the gunner was lost.  After some time in the warm waters of Latitude 24. 20 North, he found himself in the direct path of the U-Boat as it searched for the Master.  As it cruised by him at a couple of knots, he had grabbed the ballast intakes, was sighted by sailors on the deck and hauled onboard.

 

The Commander quizzed him at some length, but as a mere apprentice he knew nothing of the codes and naval orders etc., so arrangements were made to return him to his shipmates. Before he let him go, the Commander stated that if he was eventually rescued that he should not return to the Merchant Navy, for if he was caught again the ending would not be as pleasant.  Needless to say, all four Apprentices were back at sea again within fourteen weeks of the loss of the "Putney Hill". 

 

The most startling thing that Hancock recounted was the fact that Mutzelberg knew his hometown of Chelmsford (prior to the war) as well as he (Hancock) did. Another item, which got him into a spot of bother with the Naval Officer who interrogated him on his return to London, was the fact that he could not name the brand of cigarettes given to him by a member of the U-Boat crew.  You see, he returned them to the sailor when it became obvious that he would have to get back into the water and ruin them.  Of course the Admiralty were interested in the brand, to see if they could possibly learn what country in Central America the U-Boats were being supplied. 

 

Before saying Auf Wiedersehen, the Commander gave us a rough position as 485 nautical miles North West of San Juan Puerto Rico and wished us luck, to which some wag of a Liverpool fireman shouted "how about a tow to the nearest island".  We all ducked at this effrontery but no retribution was forthcoming.  Mutzelberg and U-203 went on to sink the Brasilian “Pedrinhas” 17 hours later and on the 28th the American “Sam Houston”.  On July 9th it was the British “Cape Verde” followed by the Panamanian “Stanvac Palembang” on the 10th.

 

            When dawn broke, the men on the raft saw at some distance the two lifeboats which had been righted and sails rigged.  After some arm waving the raft was sighted and the larger of the two lifeboats came alongside in charge of the Master.  Before leaving the raft, the men unscrewed the lids of the metal tanks marked 'Biscuits' and found them empty.  Seems they had been rifled by persons unknown at the last port of call, Suez.  However, the water tanks were still intact and the contents were transferred to the lifeboat.  Heads were counted and Asst. Cook James Campbell and DEMS naval gunner Jeffrey Banks (aged 18 and 20 respectively) were amongst the missing. 

 

The Master then set sail for the West Indies with the smaller boat in tow on the end of a 15-fathom gantline because its rudder pintle had been damaged and she would not steer.  The time was spent keeping a lookout, sleeping and discussing what they would do if they made a deserted island.  Strangely enough the young apprentices appeared to accept the situation with a spirit of high adventure, little doubting that they would eventually make it, but the older (38yrs), more sober members of the engine department were very morose.   Rations consisted of an ounce of water, three times a day, a spoonful of pemmican (dried meat pounded into a paste and melted fat), two Horlicks Malted Milk Tablets and a spoonful of condensed milk.  One day it rained a tropical downpour and water was collected in the sail and funneled into the tanks.  It was pink from the red sail and the lads made believe it was a strawberry drink. Another day a flying fish landed in the boat to be quickly scoffed by the Bosun, wings and all.

 

            The Apprentice was dressed only in a singlet and a pair of naval bell bottom trousers, but the nights were bearable in contrast to the broiling daytime temperatures.  A piece of the boat tarpaulin was being used to cover two of the apprentices and it was taken away from them by a bullying Danish Third mate and kept for himself. On the seventh day the Fourth Engineer  Kenneth Thomas Cowling aged 28 died in the Master's boat.  His brother, Herbert, Third Engineer, was also in the same boat.  The Fourth Engineer had been on watch in the engine-room when the torpedo struck and he was burned over two thirds of his body by hot oil from a burst pipeline.  With whatever prayers the shocked group could recall, his body was put over the side after his brother removed his gold wedding ring.  Someone said they saw a shark.  An event took place in this boat which was disgusting and could have had serious consequences.  The condensed milk can was circulated from the Master along the portside and back down the starboard side where the Apprentice was sitting third last from the stern. He took his spoonful and passed it to the Danish Third Mate , When the Master received it back in was empty and in a loud voice accused the Apprentice of emptying the can. This was strongly denied and the awkward moment passed, but not before it had put the fear of death in him thinking what the crew’s reaction might have been.            On the morning of the ninth day a puff of smoke was sighted on the horizon as HMS "Saxifrage", a corvette heading for her West Indies Station, revved up to full speed and bore down on the boats at first mistaking their sails for a U-Boat on the surface.  All hands clambered up the scrambling nets to wild shouts of joy.  Again another co-incidence, one of the corvette's sailors Ralph Posner came from the next town to the lad from Radcliffe and he gave him his own bunk for the night.  Next day "Saxifrage" arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico where the survivors were taken ashore and rigged out in a motley selection of donated clothing.  The Apprentice's luck was a pair of white chalk striped green pants and a pink shirt.  He was more concerned with what he would look like going back home in an outfit like that than he had been on the previous 10 days.

 

That night in the hotel, the survivors experienced their first earthquake!!  What a welcome for shattered nerves.  Later, the survivors were issued a more conventional suit albeit a tropical one and sent passenger on the "Veragua" a United Fruit Co., vessel to Norfolk ,Virginia, thence to New York by train for a glorious three weeks being entertained by Gotham's high society.  The Officers and Apprentices were billeted in the Hotel Woodstock near Times Square and it was wonderful to wander amongst the bright lights and observe the flashing neon signs. The large Camel Cigarette advert blowing smoke rings over Times Square was fascinating. The British Apprentice Club run by the famous Mrs. Spalding was an oasis never to be forgotten.

 

The sting in my leg was successfully treated in New York.  Then back at sea again out of Boston as DBS  (Distressed British Seaman) on the Norwegian whale factory "N.T. Neilsen Alonzo" (carrying invasion barges on deck) where the Apprentice and Denis Drakley had the total misfortune to be the only survivors of the "Putney Hill" to be with the old Skipper for the voyage to Greenock and home.  That trip is another story of ropes end threats etc.  A few days out  whilst having afternoon tea the Apprentice requested another passenger to pass the marmalade to add to his cheese and crackers. The old Skipper  was affronted by this and said “You are not going to eat that”!  “Why not “ was the reply “ It is an old Lancashire dish”, whereupon the Skipper stormed out on deck.  The Apprentice followed shortly after and was immediately grabbed by the lapels and forced up against a ventilator.

 

He was threatened with the ropes end if there was a re-occurance and the Apprentice tried to get from under by saying that he was no longer under the Skippers command.  Came back the retort that he (Capt. Hughson) was responsible for him until he reached the United Kingdom.  The Apprentice swore that he would never sail with this Master again and 2 months later joined the mv. “Coombe Hill” for the North African landings under a gentlemanly Welsh Master.

I know, because I was that Apprentice. 

I am Alan Shard.

 

 

Kap.Lt. Mutzelburg was killed in a freak accident when he dived off the connng tower whilst the crew were having a bit of R&R southwest of the Azores. He struck the side tank when the boat lurched suddenly in a swell. The date was September 11th, 1942.

  

The First Happy Time was the last six months of 1940 in the North Atlantic.  The Second Happy Time, also known as "the American Turkey Shoot", was the first six months of 1942 off the United States Eastern Seaboard when unrestricted U-Boat warfare sank 368 ships.

  

(Printed for MNN Sept, 2007.)

 

I subsequently found out that the sub that sunk the PUTNEY HILL was the U 203  (see below).
The U 203 was in turn sunk on 25 April 1943 south of Greenland by depth charges dropped by Swordfish aircraft from HMS BITER and from the destroyer HMS PATHFINDER. Thirty eight of her crew survived and  ten died. The U 203 sank a total of 21 ships of 94,296  grt and damaged 3 others of 17,052 grt. The commander of the submarine when the PUTNEY HILL was sunk, Mulzelburger, had an odd death. In September 1942 he allowed his crew to swim in the ocean. He was about to dive from the conning tower when the boat rolled and he landed on the saddle tank and died of his injuries the next day. 
Re. the comments below.........HMS SAXIFRAGE was a Flower Class Corvette, built in 1941 in Bristol, England. She was sold to Norway in 1947 and was renamed POLAR FRONT.    

 

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Whilst rummaging through my dear mother's effects I found this letter that I wrote 3 days after being picked up by a British corvette, HMS Saxifrage.

This is a transcript of original flimsy airmail paper regarding the loss of my ship 

 

“Putney Hill”.

Hotel Capitol              July 7th, 1942 Tuesday

Stop 12,

Santurce.

Puerto Rico.                                                                        

West Indies.

 

Dear Mother and Dad

I am writing this in a hotel writing room with a scratchy old pen so you must allow for it. I suppose you have heard all about it from the Company or Red Cross or Auntie Annie whom I wrote Sunday asking to cable you. It has been quite an experience and I can still hardly credit that I am safe and sound in good hands. It seems all a dream after 9 days in a crowded lifeboat living on 1 oz of water, 2 Horlick's malted milk tablets a piece of Cadbury chocolate biscuit 2” square and one teaspoonful of Pemmican which is a kind of Bovril extract that was for breakfast and tea. Just had

water for dinner. These stores were only put on at Liverpool. Twice we had a tot of rum or brandy and spoonful of Condensed milk. One night it rained very hard for half an hour and we caught nearly 4 gallons in the sail.

We got ours on June 25th at 11-30pm on a bright moonlight night, about 400 mils East of nearest land and only one week from New York. Still in the Tropics

mind.  I was lucky enough to be on watch at the time so I was dressed :- that is trousers, singlet, socks and shoes which is all one required even at that time of the night.

When the impact came I put on my life-jacket as the old tub heeled over at an alarming angle. I found that both port boats were useless the small one smashed against the funnel. I jumped into the starboard big boat with a small gas mask haversack which had my camera, woolens, chewing gum, wallet & silver souvenirs in it. As the lifeboat filled up with partly clothed men it became apparent that the seams were leaking badly. We bailed out furiously with the pump, buckets, my hat & anything available. Meanwhile the small boat had been lowered and into it we loaded the portable wireless, sextants and charts. To our dismay it sank almost immediately to the rollocks throwing the skipper & several men in the water.

We pushed off from the ship whose rails were nearly in the water and had got about 100 yds away when our boat decide to slowly turn over. Did’nt we curse the B.O.T.  I spotted a raft which I swam for just before we capsized. We were thankful for the moon. I was second aboard it and helped to pull on board 8 more.

We watched the others hanging on to the overturned lifeboat as we slowly drifted away. Somehow I did’nt feel scared at all, it seemed like a cinema show except I was wet thru’ and had lost my pack. We were all suddenly jerked to our senses by a four inch shell bursting against the ship’s side and to our great consternation the sub had appeared on the surface and he had target practice from about 400 yds. He did’nt put her under till nearly 12-30am.

Wednesday.

I’ve got hold of a better pen now and have just reread my letter. I find that I could write a book on it if I  carried on so as this has to go airmail at 40 cents (2/-) a half ounce I will condense it to a minimum. We spent the night on the raft in company with one or two sharks after being interrogated by the U-boat commander who mercifully did’nt shoot us and handed out some fags and matches. He said there was’nt much hope tho’ the cheerful blighter . In the morning we had the good luck to find that the boats had been righted by the rest of the crew and we transferred. Most of the gear was lost. For 9 days and 9 nights we sailed a steady course fixed by the Captain.  Only 2 boys had been lost. A week later the 4th Eng. died of oil burns in our boat. We buried him right away. On July 4th Independence Day we were in the direct path of one of His Majesty’s Corvettes by pure luck. Taken onboard hardly able to stand we were given baths, food and clothes. I met a lad from 31 Heys Rd., Prestwich called Ralph Posner. We both knew the same people. He gave me a singlet and lent me shaving tackle and also his bunk for the night. We could hardly believe our luck.  Arrived here next morning. The American Red Cross has fitted us up with tropical clothes & we get some more tomorrow. You would have laughed to seeus dressed up. I am wearing a white shirt, green trousers & white stripes, coloured socks , brown & white buckskin shoes. Others have pink shirts & blue trousers. We are having fun tho’ the best we can on what bit of money we can get. My war bonus has stopped now so will only be getting about 1 dollar 25c a week so I won’t be able to write very often as you can see. You would be very surprised to see the grub. I am eating Chicken Noodle & Tomato soups my favourite so far. Have had spinach which is a miracle for me. I guess I would eat anything that did’nt bite me first. At present I am just resting here and waiting for a ship back to the States and then home for a month or so.Let Auntie Annie know address immediately it will save postage.

Please explain the position to Joyce and give her my love.

Your Loving Son

Alan

xxxx

 

captwarwickalanchard.jpg

Alan Shard and  Ron Warwick,  designated Captain of QM2, taken at the 
Merchant Navy Memorial Service at Tower Hill, London September 2003.

Eye witness to the Attack on Convoy HX72 September 21st, 1940.

 

The mv.”PUTNEY HILL” on which I was serving as a first trip Apprentice had sailed from Port Alberni, BC. on August 10th 1940 with holds  full of lumber over lead ingots and with a lumber deck cargo, traversing the Panama Canal on the 29th. Discharge port in UK unkown.

 On September 4th we arrived at Bermuda to join the 11 ship Convoy BHX72 which sailed on the 8th to rendezvous with HX72  on the 11th. Our escort is the armed merchant cruiser HMS “VOLTAIRE”. We joined with a 21-ship convoy which had left Halifax, Nova Scotia on September 9th, followed by 11 in the Cape Breton Section on the 10th.“VOLTAIRE” then departed and returned to Bermuda. (VOLTAIRE was to be sunk later by the raider “THOR” in April 1941).

 

Extract of Secret Orders dated Sept,7th,1940.

for Ocean and Local Escort - Convoy HX72.

Leaving Halifax Harbour.

The leading ship of the convoy will pass Turple Head at zero hour (1400 September 9th)

The local escort will proceed at zero minus 1 1/2 hours so as to patrol to a depth of 16 miles on an arc 090-150 degrees from the inner automatic buoy while the convoy is leaving harbour.

The ocean escort is to leave harbour about half hour after the rear ship of the convoy.

Disposition of escorts after convoy has formed.

Local Escort HMCS”SAGUENAY” will take station to port and HMCS “FRENCH” to starboard. After dark or in low visability Local Escort will maintain relative bearings from the convoy and will remain within visibility distance of it. In thick fog they will open out to a safe distance and proceed on the mean course at the speed of the convoy until the fog clears. In clear weather by day and in bright moonlight, destroyer will zig-zag and proceed at not less than 16 knots.  The object of the local escort being the A/S protection of the convoy they should not normally be detached to round up stragglers. They will however, be of assistance in this direction after leaving the convoy.

Ocean Escort. The normal disposition of the Ocean Escort will be between the two centre columns of the convoy and about one cable astern of the line of leading ships, zig-zagging with and at the speed of the convoy. By night the Ocean Escort is free to drop to the rear of the convoy and to close one flank if conditions of light or the position of the moon enhance the possibility of attack from a particular direction. On dark nights or in low visibility, the Ocean Escort should be in line with the leading ships to assist station keeping in the convoy.

Air Escort.

Arrangements have been made for aircraft of the RCAF to maintain an outer A/S patrol on Sept, 9th from the time the convoy forms up until dark. A/S air patrol will be carried out on the 10th for as long as is practical. Aircraft sighting a submarine near the convoy will indicate the fact as laid down in the Merchant Navy Code

Junction with the Sydney Section.

The Sydney Section will sail September 10th and proceed so as to rendezvous with the Halifax Section in position 44-25N, 57-05W at 1200GMT September 11th, 1940.

As there will be no Ocean Escort with the Sydney Section, normal D/D procedure will not be available, but the Commodore may be instructed by HMS “Jervis Bay” to make his call sign on 500kc/s.

Junction with the Bermuda Section. The Bermuda Section escorted by HMS “Voltaire” will sail from Bermuda on Sunday September 8th, 1940 and proceed so as to rendezvous with the Halifax section in position 42-20N, 48-50W at 1200 GMT on Friday September 13th, 1940.  After junction HMS “Voltaire” will return to Bermuda.

Action if surface forces are reported.

The convoy and escort will turn if evasion appears possible. If contact with the enemy cannot be avoided, the convoy will turn away or ordered to scatter as circumstances may require and the Ocean Escort will disengage from the convoy so as to deal with the enemy.

The tactical advantage of a position in the rear of a raider should not be overlooked.

Action if submarine is reported.

The Commodore will turn the convoy through the appropriate safety angle.  Destroyers, if present, will proceed to the reported position and are to hunt and attack relentlessly. If the presence of a submarine has been substantiated without doubt, the hunt should continue for at least 24 hours. If doubt exists as to whether the report is well founded, the escort should rejoin the convoy when the area has been searched.

Action if a ship of the convoy is torpedoed.

Attention is called to Mercantile Convoy Instructions, Articles 127, 144 and 145. The first duty of the local escort, if present, is the destruction of the submarine.  When there is a local escort, a ship of the convoy may be detailed to stand by to save life if necessary and circumstances at the time permit. If no local escort is present, the risk of presenting another target to the submarine is unacceptable and the action taken must normally be confined to the immediate transmission by the Ocean Escort of commercial distress messages on 500kc/s HF and 143kc/s in accordance with the Defence of Merchant Shipping, Appendix B, paragraph 16, employing maximum power, as if made by the casualty herself. It is important that W/T silence should be then resumed

Procedure for assisting stragglers.

The Ocean escort is not normally to leave the convoy unprotected in order to round up stragglers who are lost to sight. In the event of the ships becoming separated from the convoy due to bad weather, low visibility, etc, the Ocean Escort may break W/T silence and transmit certain specified signals on low power to enable stragglers to obtain bearing by D/F..

Oscillation of receivers.

In the event of receiver oscillations being heard on 500kc/s of a strength considered dangerous to the safety of the convoy, the Ocean Escort is to endeavour to locate the offending ship by D/F and change of bearing and the names of such ships are to be reported subsequently by letter to the Rear Admiral, Third battle Squadron and the Naval Control Service Officer, Halifax.

Period of Ocean Escort.

HMS “Jervis Bay” is to remain in company with the convoy until after dark on the night before the rendezvous with the Inward Local Escort is reached, unless necessary to part company earlier in order to return to Halifax with a reasonable margin of fuel remaining not later than a.m. Sunday September 29th 1940. On leaving the convoy, HMS “Jervis Bay” is to return to Halifax at the maximum speed which weather conditions and fuel remaining will allow.

.Orders for steam.

HMS “Jervis Bay” is to have steam for not less than 14 knots and for full speed at dawn and at 30 minutes notice at other times.

Destroyers are to have steam for 26 knots and for maximum speed available at 30 minutes notice.

Information of own forces which may be met.

 The following ships on passage to Halifax should pass the convoy on or about the

“Rajputana        Sept. 10th/11th “Aurania”            Sept. 10th/11th “Alaunia”            Sept. 13th/14th “Ranpura” Sept. 12th

Information of enemy forces.

Information has been received that Armed Raiders are operating in the Atlantic. Italy possesses some submarines of large endurance which might be met in the West Atlantic. There is also the possibility that HMS ‘Seal” now in German hands, may be operating in these waters.

U-boats have recently been operating as far West as 27.00 W. 

 

The 43 ships of Convoy HX72 formed into nine columns, led by the steamer “TREGARTHEN”, under Commodore H.H. Rogers. Local escorts were the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS “Saguenay” and patrol vessel HMCS “French”, with the ocean escort being the only escort ship that could be spared for the American leg of the crossing, the armed merchant cruiser H.M.S. “Jervis Bay”. My ship “Putney Hill” was flying Pennant 44, fourth column, fourth ship. Not until they were 400 miles west of Ireland would the merchantmen be chaperoned by destroyers of Western Approaches Command.  With the “Jervis Bay” unable to provide escort cover until the destroyers met the convoy, there would, therefore, be a critical gap in mid-Atlantic when the convoy would be unescorted. (It was not until the summer of 1941 that inward convoys from Canada were escorted for the entire duration of the passage - AJS).

 

THE PICTURES BELOW ARE REFERENCED IN THE TEXT THAT FOLLOWS.

shardprien.jpg

shardpacificgrove.jpg
"PACIFIC GROVE"

shardnyanza.jpg
"NYANZA"

shardleighton.jpg
"LEIGHTON"

shardinvershannon.jpg
"INVERSHANNON"

shardharrison.jpg
Harrison Line's "SCHOLAR" - Courtesy Alan Shard

shardelmbank.jpg
"ELMBANK"

On September 18th the convoy ran into a fresh north-westerly gale. Havoc was caused within the convoy; "as the ungainly merchantmen rolled and yawed wildly, the more heavily-laden ships  with seas breaking clean over their exposed decks. Station keeping was impossible, and gradually the orderly ranks of the convoy drifted into chaos. Lifeboats, swung out in readiness for a quick evacuation if a torpedo struck, were smashed, cargo shifted, and a number of ships fell astern."(Atlantic Roulette - Becker)

 

With one ship losing touch the convoy was down to 41 ships when it was sighted late on 20th September 1940 by the German submarine U-47, commanded by KaptLt. Günther Prien.

 Prien had become a national hero following his audacious sinking of the battleship H.M.S. Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in October 1939. U-47 had expended all but one of its torpedoes in attacking Convoy SC2 on September 10th, 1940 following which it had been detailed for meteorological duties, twice daily sending in vital weather reports to aid German air raids on Britain. It was whilst carrying out these duties that HX72 was sighted. It has been noted that "although the British D/F service could presumably plot the position of this U-boat twice daily, convoy HX72 did not avoid Prien on 20th September" and that "it is therefore hard to understand why HX72 was not warned of the danger into which it was steaming." German Admiral Dönitz has conjectured that "at the long distance involved, direction finding did not give a result sufficiently accurate to enable the convoy to take evasive action".

 The sighting took place shortly after HMS “Jervis Bay” had been ordered to leave to escort a Westbound convoy, leaving HX72 500 miles West of Ireland, undefended by either air or surface escorts. (“Jervis Bay” is sunk in a running battle with the pocket battlehip “Admiral Scheer” whilst escorting Convoy HX84 on November 5th, 1940 -AJS). There was expected to be a 20-hour gap between the departure of the “Jervis Bay” at sunset on the 20th and the rendezvous with Western Approaches Command in the afternoon of the 21st. The vulnerability of HX72 was increased by the onset of uncharacteristically mild Atlantic weather - the wind was a moderate south-westerly with isolated showers giving occasional cover and excellent visibility was provided by a full moon. They were ideal conditions for lurking U-boats, but bad news for the convoy. As one corvette seaman later recalled, for those on the merchant ships during the war - "when the sea was calm the enemy was active: when it was rough the elements were full of their own hazards."

 

 Prien was instructed by Admiral Dönitz to sail ahead of the ships, reporting their movements, and to await reinforcements. U-43, U-46, U-48, U-65, and U-99 were instructed to take up positions through which the convoy might pass early the following day. During the night the convoy changed course to the southward and adopted a zig-zag pattern, in accordance with Admiralty orders. The convoy, traveling at 7 1/2 knots, was slowed down further by this, but managed to pass south of the thirty mile wide patrol line which Dönitz had instructed his boats to form. Dönitz then ordered all the U-boats to close in on the convoy and attack. It was the largest number of U-boats concentrated against a convoy to date in the war. In the early hours of September 21st the first torpedo was fired, the start of a concerted action lasting more than 24 hours.

 

 U-99, under Kretschmer  commenced the attack at 03.12 hours (C.E.T.) 21st  torpedoing the motor tanker INVERSHANNON, Pennant No. 15.   Fifteen of her crew perished. The U-99 war diary recorded the following :

 

            "0212 (U-Boat time) Single torpedo from 1350 metres.  Direct hit for’ard.             Tanker veers away from the convoy and stops, sinking for’ard with fo’c’sle down to waterline. Crew leaving. A coup de grace will probably be required. It emerges that she is the INVERSHANNON (9154 tons).

 

Despite Commodore Rogers’ attempts to escape the danger by changing direction to port, abandoning the zig-zag and increasing speed to 10 knots the U-boats were able to press home their advantage. At 04.19 (C.E.T) Kretschmer placed a torpedo amidships on BARON BLYTHSWOOD, Pennant  No. 95, which, carrying iron ore, sank like a stone. According to U-99’s war diary :-

 

       "0319 G.M.T. Single torpedo at heavily-laden freighter from 580  metres. Direct hit amidships. Ship breaks in two and sinks in 40 seconds. It is the BARON BLYTHSWOOD Pennant No. 95 (3668 tons), with a cargo of iron ore."

 

 34 men aboard the BARON BLYTHSWOOD perished. Half an hour after the Baron Blythswood was sunk, the ELMBANK, Pennant No. 93, was torpedoed. (this vessel was PUTNEY HILL’s companion during the loading in BC ports - AJS).

0347 Single torpedo at the largest freighter from 1,000 metres. Direct hit amidships. Ship veers away and stops with heavy list to starboard. She transmits her name and position by radio. She is the ELMBANK (5156 tons)"

One crew member out of 56 was lost. Kretschmer and U-99 then tried to sink the crippled ELMBANK with gunfire, Prien in U-47 also joining in. They were unsuccessful. Kretschmer then put his last two torpedoes into the INVERSHANNON and ELMBANK sending both to the ocean floor. Kretschmer then left for home. The attack was not over though, as other U-boats arrived at the scene. During daylight on the 21st the BLAIRANGUS, Pennant No. 45 straggling well-astern of the convoy, was sunk by a torpedo from Heinrich Bleichrodt’s U-48 (set to become the war’s most successful U-boat accounting for 54 merchant vessels) with the loss of 7 of the crew of 34.

 

 The U-boats kept contact with the convoy during the daylight hours, U-65, U-46, U-43 and U-32 joining the developing ‘pack’. They pulled back a little, however, when ahead of schedule the convoy was joined on the afternoon of the 21st by the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command. Led by Commander A.M.Knapp in H.M.S. LOWESTOFT, this escort group also comprised the destroyer H.M.S. SHIKARI and three others, the corvettes HEARTSEASE, LA MALOUINE and CALENDULA, the latter joining the convoy at 2100 in the evening. The SHIKARI was detailed to pick up survivors from the three ships torpedoed earlier in the day. Two other ships, H.M.S. SKATE and H.M.S. SCIMITAR, were due to join the escort group on the morning of September 22nd. Knapp disposed his escorts ahead of and to the sides of the tightened-up convoy, now down to 37 ships, and attempted to increase speed to 10.5 knots to take advantage of the darkness before the moon rose.

 

 Joachim Schepke in U-100 had been the last to reach the convoy on the evening of the 21st but quickly grasped his opportunity and in "one of the most astonishing and fruitful U-boat attacks of the war" proceeded to claim 7 victims in the space of just over three hours. The events of the evening are recorded in the KTB war diary of U-100.

            Shortly after sighting the first shadows of the convoy and then making out approximately 20 shadows sailing in several rows, Schepke moved into action. He penetrated inside the convoy picking off the ships as they passed him.

 

The Attack on Convoy HX72, evening of September 21st-22nd, 1940.

 

U-100’s KTB shows that three torpedoes were fired at 23.10 with one more at 23.15, and states that all four found their targets, the first three fired from the bow torpedo tubes hitting "the three largest ships in the middle of the third row"  which had been hit almost instantaneously. At 23.17 U-100 picked up a radio message ‘repeated 5 to 6 times’ the same message from the CANONESA Pennant No. 52  picked up by Knapp. U-100’s KTB indicates that the furthest target was 3,300 metres away, that"explosions were clearly seen and explosions heard from the first three targets" that "later many lights were seen at the target locations." The TORINIA was immediately recognised from an intercepted Morse signal. The messages from the CANONESA and DALCAIRN could not be accurately deciphered, and their tonnages were estimated at 5000 grt each, a significant (and for Schepke uncharacteristic) underestimate for the 8286 grt CANONESA.

 

 Writing 56 years after the event Morris Beckman, who was serving at the time as Radio Officer on the VENETIA, Pennant No. 43, next one ahead of my ship PUTNEY HILL, has graphically described the attack in his book “Atlantic Roulette”.  He recalls the scenes when the first four ships were struck on the evening of September 21st..  When the attack commenced the Venetia "slewed violently to starboard" and Beckman heard "a dull prolonged booming as if huge empty petrol cans were falling onto a corrugated tin roof."     Referring to the ‘Dutchman’ he writes that :

 

  Quote The torpedo strike started a conflagration which took hold slowly and then picked up a remorseless momentum which engulfed the entire ship. The survivors managed to get two boats away. The next victim was the TORINIA Pennant No. 42) followed by the BROOMPARK Pennant No. 14 and  COLLEGIAN  Pennant No. 54 (300yds on my ship’s starboard beam). Torpedoes struck home. Ships were burning. Were surfaced U-boats shelling ships? The destroyers were racing pell-mell to the scenes of action and dropping their depth-charges. Had they made asdic contacts? The occasional ship’s siren sounded. Here and there distress rockets showered red balls of fire which all too quickly dissolved into nothing.

    White parachute flares hovered gently between the low cloud and the gentle  ocean swell. U-boats kept on firing to illuminate the area.(The Escort did the illuminating-AJS) As we watched another ship burst into flames about two and a half miles on our starboard quarter. Unquote.

 

            All of the TORINIA's crew were saved, most of the survivors joining the 42 crew of the DALCAIRN Pennant No. 62 who  were also all saved. It was initially reported that five men on the TORINIA had died but these had been picked up by a different ship. Rogers ordered the convoy to scatter. Shortly afterwards U-48 hit and damaged the BROOMPARK (killing one crew member) and then in the early hours of September 22nd Schepke torpedoed the iron-ore carrying EMPIRE AIRMAN, No. 91 (32 of whose crew of 37 were lost), the SCHOLAR Pennant No. 63 (crew of 42 all saved - the ship sank 48 hours later), the tanker FREDERICK S.FALES, Pennant No. 41 (with the loss of 20 of the crew of 48), and the Norwegian ship SIMLA, Pennant No. 31 (five of the 31 crew lost). Schepke describes sinking both ships in the war diary. For the FREDERICK S.FALES he wrote :

 

        "0053. Double shot at tanker. After 65 seconds first hit for'ard, second aft. Two very violent explosions, massive tongues of flame and the deck completely splits open. I personally have never seen such a violent and imposing direct hit. The ship sinks stern first very quickly."

 

     

            The SIMLA's loss was noted as follows :

            "0114. Torpedo at freighter. Explosion after seconds.     Direct hit for'ard. Despite its great size the ship slides under bow first and soon disappears".

 

            Later still the COLLEGIAN was torpedoed and damaged by Hans Jenisch's U-32. The British ship HARLINGEN, reported that it had retaliated against a U-boat scoring a hit on the conning-tower. Evidently this was U-100 as Schepke recorded the incident in the following words in U-100’s war diary, although in this account all shots missed the U-boat:

 

        "0157. Torpedo fired from Tube 1. (Last torpedo) - Missed. Ship turned away. Torpedo wake passes about 30 metres in front. Suddenly the steamer begins to shoot. We are lying stationary behind him in the moonlight at 600 metres range. The shot passes over conning tower. I turn away with full power and rudder. The ship fires very slowly. The next shot falls short and the third goes over and wide. After this he stops firing."

 

            For those who had survived, the danger continued - for later when nearing the west of Scotland, convoy HX72 experienced heavy weather and bombing by the Luftwaffe. R.S. Thomas, on the PACIFIC GROVE, No.33, recalls being bombed and machine-gunned by an aircraft near Tory Island, just off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland. One bomb actually landed on the ship crashing through the deck but failing to explode. On 29th September some of the INVERSHANNON's crew were rescued, in poor condition, 30 miles from Tory Island, having spent 8 days in an open lifeboat in atrocious weather conditions.

 

 The impact of the attack on the merchant seamen whose ships avoided torpedoing has been captured by Beckman in the “VENETIAN”.

 

            Quote On that wet cold miserable boat deck we stood, leaned and squatted, all eyes and ears, senses sharpened by fear Cigarettes would have relaxed taut nerves, but smoking was out of the question. Attempts at laboured humour only irritated. A ship was torpedoed and her crew were lost. Her neighbour got away and her crew lived. A U-boat captain’s whim could give life or death. Bravado dared not raise its hypocritical head. We were all afraid and were unashamed about showing it. Many had been shipwrecked before and knew what they were coming back to face. At this moment they vowed to themselves that they would never sign up again. But, they would, all of them. Talk died away as each man hunched into himself, keeping his own thoughts to himself Unquote.The scale of the destruction was the result of a combination of Schepke’s daring tactics; that is, attacking the ships from within the convoy, and the weakness of the inexperienced and tactically outmanoeuvred convoy escort. Schepke’s methods were so unexpected that it was initially suspected that the convoy contained a ‘spy traitor’ ship, fitted with submerged torpedo tubes. But Schepke had brilliantly executed 'wolfpack' tactics devised before the war by Dönitz. In fact the devastation could have been worse. In his war diary for 22nd September 1940, Dönitz  noted that "results were prejudiced by the fact that Prien had already expended his torpedoes and that some of the others had few left."

 

            The attack on HX72 was one of the first attempts to use the "wolfpack" technique, and the first effective or 'true' pack attack. Two relatively unsuccessful attempts had been made against convoys in August and early September before the successful action against HX72 two weeks later. In his war diaries Dönitz asserted that the action against HX72 provided confirmation that his "wolfpack" tactics  were right. In the entry for September 22nd, 1940 he wrote that :

 

            "Five boats, which lay up to 380 miles away at the time of the first sighting, were able to attack this homeward-bound convoy as a result of the accurate shadowing reports : 13 ships were sunk. (Actually only 11 ships as BROOMPARK, No. 14,  which was torpedoed by Bleichrodt in U-48 did not sink and arrived Rothesay Bay at 1730hrs Sept,25th.    COLLEGIAN, No.54 abeam of us, was gunned by Jenisch in U-32, but did not sink and arrived Belfast safely - AJS).

 

This success was due to early interception far to the west of the weakly escorted convoy, correct tactical procedure of the boats in shadowing and operating over wide areas and favourable weather. The action of the past two days has shown the soundness of details, worked out before the war, concerning attacks on convoys and the use of radio when in contact with the enemy."

 

            Commander Knapp was astonished to conclude that Schepke in U-100 had kept station within the convoy taking deliberate aim at the ships on her beam. He described the attack in terms which clearly demonstrated the strengths of surface attacks at night ;

 "Submarines are now operating amongst convoys at night as surface vessels, with the advantage of a minute silhouette and therefore extremely difficult to see in the dark, and have the advantage of being able to dive quickly to avoid collision or make their getaway when sighted by merchant ships. Against this type of attack our Asdic is of little use."

 

            Convoy HX72 had displayed a number of weaknesses common to the early convoys. The merchant seamen felt that they were receiving inadequate protection from the Royal Navy, whilst they in turn complained about navigational inaccuracies and careless showing of lights by the merchantmen.

            Furthermore, Knapp complained that the Master of the CANONESA walked off the bridge without checking that everybody was in the boats, and that he failed to ditch secret and confidential documents, leaving some open on the bridge.

 

            Eleven ships, totalling 72,727 grosstons and carrying over 100,000 tons of American supplies and some 45,000 tons of fuel, had been sunk. HX72 was the first allied convoy of the war to lose more than six ships.  Kretschmer sank three ships of 17,978 tons and Schepke alone accounted for seven, totalling 50,340 tons. On the torpedoed ships 116 men lost their lives.

 

REPORT FROM 2ND. OFFICER OF M/V "INVERSHANNON”       SECRET.

In convoy escorted by A.M.C.

 M/V "INVERSHANNON" tanker with fuel oil for Scapa, of special construction having one hold forward for dry cargo,  This hold was empty and it appears is where torpedo struck. Ship sunk rapidly by head, and it was thought she was about to founder. Ship was abandoned, three boats getting away with complete crew.(1)  Charge oŁ Master.  (2) Charge Chief  Officer and (3) Charge 3rd Officer. Nobody  was injured.   Boats pulled away from ship and made fast to each other during remainder of night .

 

     2nd. Officer states the possibility of returning to ship to try and pump out cargo from fore end of vessel was discussed, but valves which had to be opened were situated on fore deck and probably under water.   In view of this, and the  possibility of the submarine being in the vicinity the master agreed that it was best to await daylight.

 

     By daylight boats had drifted about 5 miles easterly from ship, and they then proceeded to close their ship again.  A short time after this, submarine was sighted about 4 or 5 miles to Westward of “INVERSHANNON” steering towards.    Passing  along port side of  “INVERSHANNON” she subsequently  contacted  Chief Officer's  boat.  Submarine then disappeared from view of boats to port side of M/V “INVERSHANNON” . Submarine was about half an hour out of sight of boats which had hoisted sail and proceeded in direction away from ship.

            During the latter part of this half hour a most violent explosion occurred in after part of vessel. The  stern which had previously  been high in the water, now began to sink until ship was on even keel, but very low in water. She remained like this, settling down bodily.

            Shortly after the explosion submarine was sighted steering away from ship, she submerged for a short period, then broke surface and to contact  Chief Officer’s  boat for the second time.

            A man, who was  found to be sole survivor of SS. Baron Blythwood" and had been rescued from a  raft by submarine, was placed in Chief Officer's boat. The man had been given dry  clothing while on board submarine, also a packet of American cigarettes.  The 2nd. Officer states that the cigarettes were the same as  the stock on board M/V “INVERSHANNON. If this was transferred from submarine on second contact it seems very definite that enemy boarded ship and made search. I find it impossible  to establish whether this man was transferred to Chief Officer’s  boat on first or second contact with enemy submarine. 2nd.Officer further states boats became separated three days later when,during night,weather deteriorated.

Signed:- E.Ford, Commander RNR, N.C.S.O., Londonderry.  October 1st. 1940

The above info gathered from my research at the Public Records Office, London.

 

From the book Night Raider of the Atlantic by Terence Robertson re Otto Kretchmer in U-99.

Whilst a boy of no more than seventeen, Kretchmer’s father had sent him to Britain, France, Italy and Austria to perfect his knowledge of languages and science. In England he had studied under Prof. Schopp at Exeter College where he stayed eight months, sufficient for him two years later to pass the Naval Interpreters examination in English. In 1930 he had thrown aside his studies to join the Navy as a cadet.  This was not surprising, as it had been a consistent boyhood desire. It was a move that Great Britain was to regret more than his father.  

The Attack on Convoy HX72.

   He watched the zig zag of the stern destroyer escort, and when it launched out on a wide leg, he crammed on speed and passed the escort to get near the convoy, planning to get within 500 yards before firing. But when he was still more than a mile away, the moon came out from behind a cloud to shine brilliantly on the scene.   Kretschmer was still uncomfortably close to the destroyer, so he fired one torpedo before turning away. From this distance they could see their target—the largest ship in the convoy—and for a moment it seemed that the torpedo had missed. But suddenly there was a tremendous flash from the bows of the tanker. U-99 intercepted the radio signal giving the ship's name as INVERSHANNON (9I54 tons). They stayed long enough to see the crew take to the boats, and then the INVERSHANNON settled down by the nose.   As soon as the torpedo exploded, the destroyer nearest to U-99 turned at right angles to the convoy course and began firing starshells astern of the convoy, lighting up the area behind.   He headed U-99 to the starboard and dark side of the convoy and sighted a deeply laden freighter. He fired one torpedo at 800 yards, and it hit amidships. There was a huge sheet of flame and a splintering crack as the freighter broke in two and sank in forty seconds.   The crew of U-99 were startled. No ship in their experience had sunk that fast after being torpedoed.This sinking left open a gap through which Kretschmer could see another large freighter. The range was just over half a mile. He fired another torpedo and scored a direct hit amidships and the freighter stopped. It sent out a distress signal picked up by U-99 which read:”ELMBANK torpedoed. Am stopped in position 55°-20'N 22°30'W.” Kretschmer hove to and let the convoy draw away from him, not attempting to retreat himself. They stayed like that for an hour, watching the escort fire starshell and illuminating rockets out to sea on either side of the convoy.   Kretschmer wondered vaguely why no other U-boat from the 'stripe' had attacked. The only explosions of the night were from his own torpedoes. Suddenly he realised that they would be carrying out orthodox attacks from outside the escort screen and would have had to retire hurriedly when the starshell started coming their way from escorts hunting outwards from the convoy. To him, it spelled the final evidence supporting his theory that U-boats should penetrate escort screens and attack alongside or in the convoy itself. When the convoy had drawn far enough away, he turned his attention to the stopped ELMBANK, which had failed to sink. U-99 pumped shells into her on the water-line at point blank range without result. The ELMBANK's crew had taken to their boats and stood off at a safe distance, watching. They saw the cargo drifting from the holes torn in her side. It was timber, and it struck Kretschmer immediately that she was floating on her timber cargo. He decided to use another precious torpedo, but this one hit some of the floating cargo before reaching the ship and exploded uselessly. He was worried about the time it was taking to send this ship to the bottom. It was a bright night, and he expected to see at least one of the convoy escorts come racing back to hunt him or to pick up the survivors of the ELMBANK. He decided to take a chance and reloaded his tubes with deck torpedoes, a long and difficult operation on the surface and have another try. It meant sacrificing any hope of diving in the event of a counter-attack. All this time the ELMBANK’s crew made no effort to pull away into the night, but stayed where they were, watching the proceedings with detached interest quite close to U-99.   The gun's crew expended eighty-eight rounds of ammunition on the ELMBANK without success before Kretschmer decided to return to the IINVERSHANNON, which still floated with a list to port. He tried to sink her by riddling her water-line with bursts from the machine gun, but the bullets bounced off. Kretschmer did not want to waste more torpedoes on ships already half-way to the bottom, so he decided to send a dinghy with a petty officer and some charges to blow more holes in her side below the water-line. They put out the tiny dinghy and were half-way to the INVERSHANNON when a wave caught them broadside on, capsizing the frail boat.  The two men swam back to U-99 and were hauled on board.   Dawn was approaching, when from  500 yards he fired another torpedo at the INVERSHANNON, which suddenly broke in half and for a few minutes the crew of U-99 were the sole witnesses of a sight reserved only for sailors in wartime. The two separate parts of the oil tanker sank gently inwards and the two masts locked together at their tops, forming a great gothic archway, under which black smoke and flames were thrust upwards from the bowels of a ship in its death-throes,a magnificent and terrifying scene bathed in pale moonlight. Around them the flurrying sea heaved and subsided, while over in the West a huge bank of black cloud gathered to emphasise the loneliness and vastness of the watery desert around them. Five minutes later the INVERSHANNON was swallowed up by the waves   Kretschmer returned to the ELMBANK. On the way he saw an astonishing sight. 'It was like a Punch cartoon,' he wrote in his Diary later. 'A tiny raft was wallowing in the swell with an oar erected as a mast with a white shirt flying from it stiffly in the wind. Balancing himself by holding on to the makeshift mast was a lone man in his underwear.' They passed him and approached the ELMBANK, now lower in the water. Kretschmer was about to order the deck gun to fire a few more shots into her, when a look-out saw a submarine approaching. Kretschmer recognised it as German, and a few minutes later was welcoming Prien to the scene.     Together the two U-boats poured shells in the ELMBANK without any noticeable effect. Eventually, Prien gave up. "No more ammunition left. Am going home now. See you at the Beau Sejour." And with a wave, he took U-47 away into the darkness to the South.   Kretschmer ordered phosphorous shells and the first few shots set alight the deck-cargo of timber. Within some minutes she was a blazing hulk. They stayed long enough to see her go down with the water boiling over her, and then Kretschmer decided to find the man on the raft. He steamed slowly back in the direction of the IINVERSHANNON lifeboats and soon sighted the stiff white shirt. They went alongside the raft and carried the half-unconscious survivor aboard. When he was helped up to the conning tower, Kretschmer greeted him in English and told him to go below and get his clothes dried and something warm to drink. Still speaking in English, he called down to his No. 2  to do every thing he could for the survivor. Kassel replied in English and put the man in the captain's bunk. Describing the incident later, Kassel said:   "I stripped off his clothes, wrapped him in blankets and put him to bed. Then I gave him a tumbler full of brandy, which he swallowed in a gulp, and some colour came back to his face. He kept complaining about his head, and when the captain came down and we both talked to him in English it was obvious he had some sort of concussion. He swallowed some coffee, and the captain tried to get him to tell us the name of his ship. He could remember the cargo, which was iron ore, but no matter how hard he tried he could not recall the name of the ship. At first we were inclined to think he was being difficult, but in fact he could not remember. He kept moaning with the pain in his head and eventually dropped off to sleep.   "About an hour later he wakened and saw me sitting at my radio set a few feet away and called across. He was hungry. I remembered we had some tinned pineapples on board, part of the stores of the British Army which had been left behind at Dunkirk and on the Fuehrer's orders distributed to U-boat crews. I gave him a tin of these and called the captain down from the conning tower. We questioned him again about his ship, and he muttered something like Baronisetoood. The captain glanced through Lloyd's Register and found a merchant ship called the BARON BLYTHSWOOD. He asked the sailor if he was trying to say BARON BLYTHSWOOD and he nodded. The captain said that explains why, with a cargo of iron ore, she had gone down in forty seconds. He asked for more coffee, and through the conning tower hatch he could hear the captain and the Italian officer talking in English. When I brought the coffee to him, he gave me a shock by saying:   "Thanks, mate. A bloody U-boat torpedoed the ship, but those blasted Nazi swine didn't get me.' Then he gave me a wink and grinned as he said: 'I foxed the buggers and got myself rescued by a British submarine, eh? That fixed the bastards.”   "I didn't know what to say. I heard the English conversation on the bridge and looked at the can of pineapples lying by his bunk. It was stamped 'California'. I realised that the survivor had not heard a word of German spoken and only the superficial things such as the pineapple and the English language had registered with him.

 

            Besides, in our seagoing overalls there was nothing to identify us as Germans.   Meanwhile, on the conning tower, Kretschmer had decided he could not take a survivor with concussion back to Lorient with him, there was no room and there were no facilities on board for looking after him and determined to find the INVERSHANNON lifeboats and hand him over to them. It was daylight now, and they saw the sails of the lifeboats to the Eastwards. It took Kretschmer thirty minutes to reach them, and he called down to Kassel:   "Have that man dressed, bandage his head and bring him up here. I am transferring him to a lifeboat."   When he heard this, the British sailor grew panicky."Why can't I stay here?" he asked Kassel belligerently. "I don't want to get into no lifeboat. This is comfortable enough for me."   Kassel explained that they were out on patrol and would not be returning to harbour for some days, possibly weeks, and he would get home sooner by going in the lifeboat. He was careful not to say to which harbour they were going back. He was afraid that by letting the man know he was on board a German U-boat he might suffer a relapse. He wracked his brains trying to think of some way to break the news gently.   "When you go up to the bridge you will see our captain. He is dressed like me, but he has the stripes of his rank on his shoulder-straps. Take a good look at them. You will find that on his forage cap is a naval badge with a swastika. We are a German U-boat."   He did not have the heart to say it was the one that had sunk his ship. But the survivor just laughed and thought it a good joke. Kassel heaved him up through the hatch on to the conning tower, and the captive was about to plead with Kretschmer to let him stay aboard when he saw the cap badge. He went pale and stared fixedly at the swastika. Kretschmer held out his hand and said:   "I'm sorry you have been hurt and I hope you feel better. We will see you have enough water, food and bandages to last until you get home."   Alongside, the lifeboat from the INVERSHANNON bumped against the U-boat while its crew, two white men and nearly a dozen Lascar seamen, looked up in astonishment. The survivor clambered down into the boat without saying a word, probably speechless with shock. He had spent two hours being nursed on board a German U-boat and he had called them 'swine' and 'bastards'. And he was still alive to remember it.   The man at the tiller of the lifeboat, a young blond giant who said he had been the boatswain of the INVERSHANNON took the bread and water handed down to him and stored the rolls of bandages under his seat. Then he made a note of the course Kretschmer gave him to steer for the coast of Ireland, and pushed his boat away from U-99. Kretschmer waved and shouted, "Good luck". 

            To Kretschmer, it was always odd that survivors should live in terror of  being mowed down by U-boats.   It had taken all of one night and most of a morning to sink these ships, and now, with no attacking power left, Kretschmer headed for home. Three days later, on the 25th, cleaned, shaved and in their best uniforms, U-99s crew lined the decks and she slid into her berth alongside the mole in Lorient with seven white pennants carrying the insignia of the Golden Horseshoe flying from the raised periscope.

   According to the Admiralty there was only one proved case of Allied survivors being machine-gunned by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. There may have been other cases in such areas as the South Atlantic, Mediterranean or Indian Ocean. In many instances U-boats tried to sink ships by gunfire at night. If their shots were 'short' or 'over' and fell among lifeboats the survivors tended to believe that they were being gunned.

 

Extract from report of LA MALOUINE on Convoy HX72

      

During the time on passage, the survivors of the EMPIRE AIRMAN,

CANONESA, DALCAIRN, TORINIA, BROOMPARK and FREDERICK S.FALES were asked to complete a questionnaire. All original written reports have been retained and can be produced if necessary, but an analysis of the chief points of possible interest and value show;-

1) DALCAIRN No 62 was hit at 2211 BST, by one torpedo on the starb. side amidships.

 

2) CANONESA No 52 was hit at 2217 BST by two torpedoes, starb.side amidships and aft

 

3) TORINIA No 42 was h1t at 2226 BST by two torpedoes, one certainly starb side amidships, the other either port or starb side aft

      All maintained course and speed of the convoy until their turn for torpedoing came.

 

4) BRO0MPARK No l4 was hit on the port side for’ard at 2310 BST after continuing on course of convoy until 2240 when she altered to 010°. At         least one torpedo was seen approaching the Ship on a 60° track and there is an unconfirmed report at Greenock that she  has a second and unexploded torpedo in her hold..

            

5) FREDERICK S.FALES No.41 was torpedoed at 2330,

            Approximately by two torpedoes port side aft ,after continuing course of convoy 2240 when she altered to 060°.         

 

            No details are available in LA MALOUINE as to the details of the torpedoing of SCHOLAR No.63, EMPIRE AIRMAN No.91, or BARON BLYTHSWOOD No.95, but from the relative positions of the wrecks of the first two mentioned, they would appear to be victims of the same attack as Nos.42,52,62; but should this information be available elsewhere, this together with the number of hits sustained,a large scale plot of the relative positions of damaged  ships allowing speed of advance 8 knots and Convoy course 080 with  2 cables between ships and three cables between columns, should clearly reveal the method of attack used and the number of U boats taking part. It would appear that the position of BROOMPARK and FREDERICK S.FALES  when hit and the time interval after the original attack would permit them to be victims of the same U boat or boats after reloading torpedoes and proceeding on the surface.

 

6) That SIMLA No.31 (Norwegian) was more than once asked by F.S.FALES to douse a light showing aft in her poop ,without effect.

             (Note;-This was the ship that escorts were told to watch.

 

7) That CANONESA was abandoned in unnecessary haste in poor order, her Captain not only leaving his papers on the bridge, but also men trapped in the stokehold and failing to take any sort of charge in the ship or subsequently in the boat.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

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