One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 5

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Rayner writes about his war with classic British understatement about combat with the Germans. His various ships were often under sustained air attack by the Germans while trying to prevent freighters from being torpedoed. At one point, Rayner’s own warship was torpedoed, the after third of the ship was blown off and the ship turned turtle shortly thereafter. Less than 1/4 of the crew survived.

Rayner himself almost died. After swimming away from the sinking ship (he was the last to leave) in the very cold water for thirty minutes or more, he wrote:

I was not as interested in going places as I had been. I could only see waves and more waves and I wished that they would stop coming. I did not really care anymore. Then I felt hands grasp my shoulders and a voice say, “Christ, it’s the skipper.”

His men pulled him aboard a raft and he survived.

Of all the books written by those who participated in the Battle of the North Atlantic, this is by far the best. It’s a little known gem and hard to find because the publisher, the US Naval Institute Press, constantly lets it go out of print. But if you can find a copy, you will do yourself a favor by reading it.

HMS Warwick, the Royal Navy destroyer under the command of D.A. Rayner, sunk by a U-Boat on 20 January 1944.

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

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 3

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Over two-hundred Flower class corvettes were built in 1939 and 1940 in the UK. Their length at the waterline was just less than two-hundred feet because that was the longest ship which could be built by the majority of civilian shipyards in the UK. These ships were hurriedly constructed by indifferent British laborers. They did not have the redundant heavy steel framing and structural supports common to other Royal Navy warships.

But there was a war on and this was the best the British could do. If the ship was seaworthy, the engine worked, the guns worked, and the depth charge apparatus functioned, then everything else was excused. Consequently, deck seams leaked, portholes weren’t properly sealed, and ventilators were badly designed and badly installed and had to shut down in storms depriving the interior of the ship with fresh air.

The mess decks, where the sailors lived, were often awash with six inches of sea water washing from side to side as the ships rolled from side to side, often in an arc of ninety degrees. The interior hulls of these ships were not insulated and condensation formed and dripped onto the decks.

Officers didn’t have it much better. They usually had two or three inches of water in their cabins and unlike the sailors, who slept in hammocks which swayed to the movements of the ships, the officers had bunks and staying in their bunks and trying to sleep in heavy weather was difficult, almost impossible.

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A Flower Class Corvette on patrol in the North Atlantic. The distorting camouflage pattern can be seen here although it is much faded.

 

[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Image courtesy of World War II Today.]

One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 2

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One can’t read this book or any other on the North Atlantic escort force without being astounded at the endurance demanded of these men. Their primary enemy, after the Germans of course, was the weather. Gale after gale. Waves often towering above their small ships. And not only towering but then crashing onto the decks with tremendous force which often swept away equipment of every sort – all of which was bolted down — including the ship’s boats, life rafts, deck railings, tool boxes et al.

During his command of the destroyer, HMS Warwick, he describes green water, meaning it isn’t just spray from wave tops but ocean water itself, three feet deep sweeping across the decks. In that storm, the weather was so violent it tore from the deck a 3 inch high angle anti-aircraft battery and washed it overboard. And this gun was bolted and welded to the deck.

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HMS Oakham Castle. While actually a “Castle Class Frigate” and not a “Flower Class Corvette” you can easily see the open navigating bridge.

What is even more astounding is this: on every Royal Navy warship of the era, the navigating bridge, where the officers stood watch, was open to the elements. Only a chest high wall of steel plating surrounded the bridge topped by glass panels to cut the wind. That was it. Photographs which accompany this post will show you what I mean. Snow, sleet, ice, gale or hurricane did not matter. The watch officers, bridge ratings, and captain stuck to their posts.

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Officers on the bridge of Canadian Flower class corvette HMCS Trillium circa 1940-1942.

Writing in Escort, D.A. Rayner on the Battle of the North Atlantic:

It was a long, cold, hard death-grapple, fought against the most cunning of enemies, under an almost continuous waterfall of salt-spray.

[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Images courtesy of HMS Oakham Castle – Weather Reporter and Wikipedia.]