One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 4

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The comfort of the crew aboard escorts vessels wasn’t a priority because it couldn’t be. Comfort was impossible. There was barely enough space to even house the crew since the ships were manned way beyond their design limits with dozens of extra ratings assigned to work the sonar, communications equipment, and later radar. Finding a space to sling one’s hammock was catch as catch can. During heavy weather, which was often, hot food wasn’t available because the galley had to shut down. It wasn’t possible to cook anything when the ship was being bounced around like a rubber ball. Constipation was rampant.

Heavy wool garments worn by the sailors got soaked when they were on watch above decks and there was no place to dry them so they gave off a damp odor. Because the weather was usually so terrible, the portholes were bolted down and the ventilators closed off because water would come through them. Therefore the atmosphere on the mess decks was stale breathe, combined with the odor of sweat, unwashed men, wet woolen clothing, puke, and stale food.

Bathing facilities were primitive so the men were usually unwashed. Royal Navy medical officers made constant reports to senior officers about the unhealthy conditions aboard the escort ships but there wasn’t much to be done.

HMCS Sackville, the only “Flower Class” corvette still in existence. She is a s museum ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was built under license in Canada and named for the town of Sackville in New Brunswick. The Canadian Navy did not follow the naming convention of the Royal Navy so these ships are “Flower Class corvettes” but not named after flowers. HMCS stands for “His Majesty’s Canadian Ship”.

[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 1

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I’ve been re-reading, Escort, by D.A. Rayner who served on, and later commanded, Royal Navy convoy escort ships in the North Atlantic in World War Two. Rayner reported to Admiral Sir Max Horton, Commander-in-Chief of Western Approaches, a ferocious tyrant who controlled all Royal Navy escort ships in the North Atlantic. Western Approaches was the largest operational command in the Royal Navy in World War Two with over three hundred warships at its peak strength.

I have read Escort six or seven times because D.A. Rayner is a both a brilliant and very witty author who experienced the entire convoy war. He expresses the fear, the absurd, the amusing, and the terror of being aboard a British man o’ war during the absolute darkest times of the Battle of the North Atlantic. Just as poignant, are Rayner’s breezy depictions of the weight of responsibility he had as young man commanding a warship.

He mentions how the ratings and the officers constantly looked to him for assurance in the first years of the war when everyone was new to their jobs yet never knew “how totally inadequate he himself frequently felt.” In a terrible storm a man is swept overboard yet it would endanger the ship by trying to turn around. So he doesn’t. He has to put the sailor who went overboard out of his thoughts because he has to focus on keeping the ship from capsizing in the storm.

Rayner was clearly a great leader of men and became the only RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve) officer to command an escort group in the North Atlantic. This put regular Royal Navy officers under his command and they weren’t keen on that. Sir Max Horton, CINCWA, could have cared less. The wounded pride of regular RN officers, of whom he was one, was of no interest to him. There was a war on and the best men had to be brought to the fore be they from the reserve or the regulars. (In a previous post I explained the difference between RN, RNR, & RNVR.)

[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner.]

Two Minutes To Live

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjörður in May 1942 before the sailing of Convoy PQ-17 (which was decimated by German forces after the Admiralty on 4 July 1942 ordered the escort to ‘scatter’). Behind the destroyer HMS Icarus (front left) is the Russian tanker SS Azerbaijan.
Aboard HMS Sheffield during an Arctic Convoy Escort Patrol in December 1941 during the short time each day that the sun is seen during winter. In the background are merchant ships of the convoy.
Ice forming on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield whilst she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia.

Convoys to the USSR formed up in Iceland and proceeded north in waters so cold you had only two minutes to live if your ship was torpedoed and you ended up in the water instead of a lifeboat. Two minutes. That’s why the letters “PQ” put the fear of God into mariners during the Second World War. Why? Because this two letter prefix was the code used to designate an outbound convoy to the Soviet Union.

Like many things in life, the two letters were chosen on the fly. Commander Russell of His Majesty’s Royal Navy was the Admiralty planner charged with organizing the first supply convoy to the Soviet Union. A convoy code prefix was needed and needed quickly. So the initials of Commander Russell’s first (Peter) and middle (Quellyn) names were used and these convoys were designated as “PQ.” When the ships came back from the Soviet Union the convoy prefix was changed to “QP.” (Source: Convoy: Merchant Sailors At War 1939-1945 by Philip Kaplan and Jack Currie.)

The PQ convoys steamed from Hvalfjörður, a fjord in northwest Iceland. The fjord is 30km in length and 5km in width. What is unusual about this anchorage is that the weather was so appalling that even in this protected fjord, anchored ships would keep steam up. The wind could blow so strongly that ships would often have to steam ahead at one or two knots. This action did not move forward, the wind was too strong, but it kept them from dragging their anchors. And this was just the beginning of the journey. It went downhill from there.

After leaving Hvalfjörður, convoys would steam northeast into the Norwegian Sea. Norway had been seized by Germany in April of 1940 so once the convoys had steamed for a day or two they were in range of German airfields in Norway. The Luftwaffe mounted sustained attacks against these Allied convoys and sank dozens of merchant ships over the course of the war. (A total of one hundred five Allied merchant ships were sent to the bottom by a combination of attacks by U-Boats and aircraft.)

Arctic convoys steamed all the war around Norway, gradually turning east into the Barents Sea and then steaming southeast to Murmansk, the only Russian port which remained ice free year round. The destination was no safer than the journey since Murmansk was less than twenty minutes flying time from German lines. The Luftwaffe pounded the anchorage in Murmansk constantly. Merchant crewmen and military armed guard detachments had to man their anti-aircraft guns twenty-four hours a day.

It was a brutal campaign and everyone who participated in the Arctic convoys has said either in writing or verbal interviews that the Germans were not the worst enemy – if that’s possible – the worst enemy was the cold.

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

Catapult Armed Merchant ships (CAM ships)

The Hawker Sea Hurricane W9182 on the catapult of a CAM Ship.
An amazing wartime photograph of the cordite rocket catapult on a CAM ship being fired, propelling the Hurricane Mk I ‘Hurricat’ into the air at flying speed.

In the beginning years of the war, German aircraft caused so much damage to Allied convoys that the very unusual expedient of arming merchant ships with fighter planes was put into practice. They were designated CAM ships and this was exclusively a British initiative with only British ships used. This is how it worked: a merchant ship was fitted with a steam catapult and a fighter, usually a Hawker Hurricane, was mounted on the catapult. Two pilots were assigned to the ship. If German planes were creating havoc on a convoy, then the Senior Officer Escort would order the plane catapulted into the air to deal with the Germans.

Problem: the plane could not land anywhere since CAM ships were not aircraft carriers. Once out of fuel, the pilot either ditched into the sea close to one of the escorts or bailed out over the convoy with the hope one of the ships would pick him up. As you can tell, this was a desperate measure but this was a desperate time. While there were plans for many more, only 35 CAM ships were created. Theoretically, just knowing a convoy had a fighter they could launch scared off German bombers but this is hardly credible. One fighter could hardly stop an attack by several dozen German aircraft.

Having a CAM ship in a convoy probably helped lift the morale of the merchant crews but not much else. CAM ships were an expensive folly but show both the desperation and inventiveness of the Royal Navy in protecting merchant convoys. According to The Allied Convoy System in 1939-1945: It’s Organization, Defence and Operation by Arnold Hague (3 stars), only 8 operational launches of aircraft were ever made in the 170 round trips made by the 35 CAM ships and only 7 enemy planes were shot down. During the 8 operational launches, only one pilot died and that was due to his parachute getting tangled up when he bailed out.

CAM ships were phased out in July of 1943.

Cam Ship with Hurricane Fighter on the Catapult…Atlantic Convoy 1942.