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.

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]

The Battle of the North Atlantic: Allied Convoys

There are many battles in World War Two which historians claim to be the “most important battle of the war.” But the Battle of the North Atlantic really was the most important battle of the war. Had we lost, then Great Britain would have been forced to surrender.

U-Boats, Allied escorts ships, and aircraft from both sides played the major role in this battle and beginning with this post I am going to post once or twice a week on the Battle of the North Atlantic. I can do this for years probably because the Battle lasted all of World War Two. While the German U-Boats were decisively beaten by May of 1943, they continued to launch attacks from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean to the Irish Sea to the Southern Atlantic to the North Atlantic to the Bering Sea and all along Norway and the route to Murmansk. They even had a U-Boat base close to Singapore.

All Allied merchant shipping worldwide moved in specific convoys, on specific dates, all welded together in something known as the Allied Interlocking Convoy System. After 1942, the first year the US was in the war, the system was largely in place. Absolutely nothing about Allied convoys was random. Ships were scheduled months in advance to bring specific cargo to a specific port at a specific time.

An Allied Convoy

When you look at a picture of an Allied convoy in the North Atlantic in World War Two, you can be sure that very little has been left to chance. Each ship has been allotted a specific place in the convoy depending on type of ship, cargo, final destination, etc. It wasn’t haphazard. Unlike the German merchant marine in World War Two, which maintained its independence from the Kriegsmarine to the detriment of the German war effort, all Allied merchant shipping was subordinated to the US Navy or Royal Navy or some combination.

Each convoy in the North Atlantic had a commodore who was in charge of all merchant ships and was located with a staff of signalmen in the center front of the convoy. All of these men were retired British admirals who had been recalled to the colors and given the temporary rank of commodore. But the man in charge of the entire operation was the SOE, Senior Officer Escort, the commander of the escort ships. He had the final word although he might be a very young man.

An Allied Convoy is gathering together in Nova Scotia’s Bedford Basin

In the first months of the war it was catch as catch can when assembling escorts for a convoy. When a U-Boat attacked, there wasn’t even a standard response. Different escort commanders ordered different things. There had to be standard methods. The British and the Americans excelled at something the Germans paid very little attention to and given the German interest in detail, it is a surprising oversight. And what the Americans and the British did far better than the Germans was operational research.

It will sound strange, I know, but outside consultants, yes, consultants, would analyze the records from every single Allied convoy. They would study these with great intensity and would run various scenarios using mathematical models. Based on this on-going research, standards were developed for every aspect of a convoy to maximize their chances of success.

Convoy WS-12: A Vought SB2U Vindicator scout bomber from USS Ranger (CV-4) flies anti-submarine patrol over the convoy, while it was en route to Capetown, South Africa, 27 November 1941. The convoy appears to be making a formation turn from column to line abreast. Two-stack transports in the first row are USS West Point (AP-23) – left – ; USS Mount Vernon (AP-22) and USS Wakefield (AP-21). Heavy cruisers, on the right side of the first row and middle of the second, are USS Vincennes (CA-44) and USS Quincy (CA-39). Single-stack transports in the second row are USS Leonard Wood (AP-25) and USS Joseph T. Dickman (AP-26).

The Battle of the North Atlantic

Incredible as it may seem, the British Royal Navy had a tradition that all navigating bridges should be open to the elements, a holdover from sailing ship days. In this picture, the man on the far left is wearing an officer’s cap, so he is most likely the officer of the watch, that is the deck officer who is actually “driving the ship”. The man to right, wearing the knit watch cap, is a lookout although being on the bridge he is probably an experienced sailor. You can see how bundled up both men are and both of them seem to be wearing rubberized waterproof suits, under which they would usually be wearing two shirts, two heavy wool sweaters, a duffel coat, in addition to heavy gloves, double socks, and sea boots. Even so, water trickled into their clothes.

HMS Columbine was a Flower Class corvette launched in 1940. These ships were miserable to serve in and would “roll on wet grass,” wrote author Nicholas Montserrat who served on one. They were constantly damp. One never got dry. They had no refrigeration. Food was terrible. Crew quarters totally were totally inadequate and unhealthy as reported time and again by Royal Navy medical officers. Ventilation was appallingly bad with little fresh air getting into the ship. Water alternately condensed on the inside hull of the ship or froze to it. Officers usually had an inch or two or water in their staterooms.

This is a “short forecastle” or “fo’c’sle” corvette, meaning the distance from the bow to the navigating bridge is quite short. This ensured that in any kind of weather, the bridge watch would be under a constant deluge of water. The Flower Class corvettes were based on the design of a whaling ship. They were not built to Royal Navy standards in terms of water tight compartments, thickness of armor plate, etc. Instead, they were built in civilian shipyards all over the UK. Some were built in Canada.

This is a photo of the open bridge of the Canadian Flower Class Corvette, HMCS Trillium. The Canadian Navy compiled a record of breathtaking incompetence during World War Two. Nearly all of their effort went into providing escorts for convoys in the North Atlantic for which they eventually had over 75 Flower Class Corvettes. Unlike the other self governing Dominions (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, et al), Canada refused to integrate its men into the overall Royal Navy. Her Majesty’s Canadian Navy was so poorly trained that in the middle of the most desperate phase of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Royal Navy requested the Canadian Navy be withdrawn entirely from convoy escort duties and never used for anything. This wasn’t possible politically and Churchill told the RN to deal with the Canadian Navy as best they could. During the war in the Atlantic, the Canadians didn’t sink more than one U-Boat by themselves.

Lookout duty was harsh in the North Atlantic where it is cold almost all of the time and very cold most of the time.

[Image courtesy of Life.]