Under the "Red Duster" in World War Two

The “Red Duster”
The USS Kentuckian was a troop transport converted from being a commercial tramp steamer. Notice the thick smoke.
A British tramp steamer with camouflage painted on the side to break up the ship’s silhouette. Notice again the thick smoke.
The Norwegian tramp steamer Berganger transported both goods and passengers until its sinking at the hands of U-Boat U-578 on 2 June 1942. Here she is in Le Havre in 1937.
Passengers on the Norwegian tramp steamer Berganger en route to Le Havre in 1937. They are standing on the ship’s cargo – lumber from the US pacific coast headed for Europe.
The Norwegian tramp steamer Berganger passing through the Pedro Miguel Lock of the Panama Canal in 1937.

The “Red Duster” is the flag used by British merchant ships. Prior to World War Two, the British had the largest merchant fleet in the world but many of the ships were old and not well maintained. Crew accommodations and sanitation facilities were primitive. The mess decks where the crew slept and spent their off-duty time were poorly furnished, badly ventilated, and dirty. Wages were low. The men did their laundry in tubs on the deck. And many ship owners kept a tight grip on their shillings by strictly rationing food so the men were always hungry.

The officers were called mates: first mate, second mater, third mate, forth mate, etc along with the Chief Engineer and the Assistant engineer. The Captain was referred to as the Master of the vessel. (The same usage is still followed in most merchant ships today including US.)

The mates lived better than the men. Usually each mate had a private cabin, perhaps their own toilet and a bath tube whose spigots typically discharged only cold seawater. The officers bathed in buckets of fresh water which they set in their bath tubs. They shared several stewards who cleaned their cabins and served the table and their food was better but they usually paid for it themselves through deductions from their wages. Ship owners didn’t want to pay extra men so on a small ship, usually referred to as tramp steamer, there were often no more than three mates aboard and oft times an officer cadet who was paid almost nothing and could double as fourth mate. Additionally there was the Master, the radio officer, and the two engineering officers. By regulation, more officers were supposed to be aboard but this was often ignored.

A “tramp steamer” wasn’t necessarily an old and decrepit ship. There were new tramp steamers. In this case the word “tramp” is a description of the activity of the ships which did not sail on a set schedule from one specific port to another specific port but “tramped” from port to port, looking for cargo to transport. With only three mates and a Master, the officers usually worked four hours on watch, four hours off, which is hard duty. But in the 1920s and 1930s times were hard and professional mariners felt lucky to even have a job, or a ‘berth’ as it was known.

Tramp steamers could make about 6 to 8 knots if they were old or 8 to 10 knots if they were newer. This was done because a larger and more expensive engine was needed if they were to go any faster and owners had no reason to pay for that. Going faster also used more fuel. So they tramped along day after day throughout the British empire. It must have been deadly dull. They were built to haul non-perishable bulk cargo and most were coal burning because coal was cheaper than oil. Often most of the crew were Lascars, which was a word typically used for “native” that is men of color, from various colonies. Lascars, which isn’t a derogatory term, were mainly recruited in what was then British India and they worked very cheaply.

These ships comprised the majority of the British merchant marine when the war broke out and these men and these ships persevered through horrendous U-Boat attacks and North Atlantic weather to bring urgent war related cargo to the UK. It wasn’t the kind of job you would want to have nor were the ships built to take the brutal weather of the North Atlantic. Ship owners who had “laid up” older ships, that is removed them from service because of the lack of business and because they were too old to run economically, hurriedly took these rust buckets from the back waters and harbors where they were anchored and put them into service.

While all merchant ships sailing under British command were chartered and insured by the British government, the ship owners still retained control of such things as food, coal, amenities, and other critical items which affected the lives of the men such as survival suits and lifejackets. The absolute worst and most heinous action many British ship owners took was to buy very cheap coal which had a high sulfur content and when burned generated a large amount of smoke. Cleaner burning coal was more expensive. This was a heinous crime as far as I am concerned because smoke can be seen for great distances at sea and if a ship was making a lot of smoke it endangered the entire convoy since the heavy smoke made it easier for a U-Boat to locate a convoy. It really is outrageous.

Royal Navy escorts were constantly signaling various merchant ships to make less smoke. One Royal Navy escort commander became very annoyed at a ship that constantly made too much smoke. When dawn broke one day, there the ship was, making clouds of smoke. The escort commander ordered the ship to make less smoke and the ship’s master replied his engineers were doing their very best to make less smoke. The SOE (Senior Officer Escort) ordered his signalman to send the following: “Hebrews 13:8.” Presumably the merchant ship in question had a Bible aboard. In the King James Version this verse reads: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.”

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia, Life, and Lance & Cromwell’s Flickr Account. More can be read on M/S Berganger’s fate at WarSailors.com.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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