WW2 Convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic: A Tribute
A Tribute to the Merchant Navy Crews
The story of the Allied Merchant Navy serving in the various theaters during WW2 can be told and retold many times, but this would still not be enough to allow us to really visualize that terrible reality. The merchant sailors were civilians who faced awful conditions with a high loss of life. They deserve our deep respect and to be remembered with profound gratitude. In writing this article, my main purpose is to provide a picture of the conditions under which Merchant Navy crews served in the Atlantic theater and the sacrifices they made.
The Merchant Navy: A Demanding Vocation
My interest stems from the fact that most of my father’s relatives in Liverpool were connected one way or another with the Merchant Service, be it on the docks or on the ships themselves.
The Merchant Navy is a demanding service that provides hard living conditions and a heavy workload, with very little glamour. What moves these persons to become a part of a service of this nature? This is a mystery I can’t answer, except to say that there seems to be a “family vocation” which runs through generations, with the result that whole families enlist and serve with dedication. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Britain is an island nation; these people seem to have salt water in their veins!
My Family's History in Liverpool
My information is sketchy—these merchantmen don’t leave records of themselves—but I can categorically state that my grandfather, Thomas Robertson from Liverpool, spent most of his working years either on the sea or on shore organizing seagoing ships from various ports, some of which were in Chile. He worked for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, a British concern that traded from Great Britain to the Pacific and back, and also along the Pacific coast of the Americas, both North and South. This Company had important offices in Chilean ports such as Puerto Montt and Valparaiso.
From Chile to Liverpool
Thomas met and married his wife, Carmen, here in Chile; in fact, his first four children were born in Valparaiso. My father, a fifth child, was actually the first to be born in Liverpool. My grandmother Carmen is reputed to have had sixteen children, of which ten reached an adult age: five sons and five daughters.
The Family's Involvement With the Sea and the War
At some period in their lives, all five sons continued to be connected to the sea—in fact, to the same company, known as the P.S.N.C. The tradition continued amongst my cousins, although the male offspring were not numerous. I have no information of their fortunes or misfortunes; we have no contact with each other now.
The fact that the whole family lived in Liverpool involved them very closely with the various stages of WW2, as the dock installations and the reception and unloading of mercantile cargo became vital elements to the survival of Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic, especially in the crucial period from 1940 to 1942.
How Did the Convoy System Work?
This system can be described as a number of merchant ships sailing together that, in the best of cases, are accompanied by a naval escort; however, they can also be found sailing without this protection. The system itself is many centuries old and was used with some success during WW1.
The Convoy System During the War
During the first months of WW2, most of the losses in merchant shipping were due to surface raiders like the Graf Spee, which contrived to sink at least nine merchant ships in the few months between September, when war was declared, and December, when this battleship became involved in the Battle of the River Plate. These results were not considered satisfactory to the German High Command, especially as their U-boats (submarines) faced some difficulties in reaching the Atlantic due to the Royal Navy presence in the waters surrounding Britain, especially on the East coast and in the Channel.
New Tactics: Bombing and Starvation
This state of affairs changed drastically after the fall of France in June 1940. However, the immediate threat to Britain was the sustained bombing by the German Luftwaffe in an attempt to “eliminate the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the skies”. This was the well-known Battle of Britain.
After this assault failed, the Axis leaders then decided to submit Britain through starvation. To this purpose, the German Navy escalated the use of submarine warfare, principally in the Atlantic. The fall of France became an important factor in this activity, as the U-boats now had direct access to the Atlantic from bases on the Western coast of France. There were submarine pens installed at Brest, La Rochelle, La Pallice, St.Nazaire, Lorient and Bordeaux so the U-boats no longer had to run the gauntlet of the heavily defended Channel waters.
The Convoy System Becomes Crucial
This situation made the Allied convoy system even more important for the survival of Britain, at that moment the only European nation left that was opposing the Nazi war machine. This was also the start of the most dangerous period for the Allies in all the long years of the Battle of the Atlantic, which did not conclude until the surrender of Germany in 1945.
The Wolf Packs Hunt the Convoys
The Wolf Pack strategy was masterminded by Admiral Karl Dönitz, an experienced submariner and an excellent tactician. The U-boats hunted in groups connected by radio. When one member caught sight of a convoy, the rest of the group received the information by radio and converged on the scene to carry out a concentrated assault on the merchant ships in the convoy and their naval escorts.
The U-boats were so low in the water when navigating on the surface that their capacity to identify a convoy was severely reduced, but they had help from an unexpected quarter: The Nazis had broken the Admiralty codes, and they could follow the exchanges between the British mainland and the convoy, which gave them the necessary information for closing in on their targets.
On the other hand, the Allies were using an initial version of the ASDIC (sonar), a technology that enabled the escort ships to detect a submerged submarine by the sound echoes as the ASDIC was directed towards them. The technology was not very precise, but it did represent an advantage for the Allies.
This technology was made known to the US in the early years of the War, and US scientists were able to perfect it by investing more resources than Britain had available at that time. ASDIC is now known as SONAR, which is the modern version of this breakthrough technology.
The Losses of the Allied Merchant Navy
Regardless of the advances in warfare technology, the statistics of lost shipping from the initial months in 1939 through the peak year of 1942 to the end of the War in Europe in 1945 are appalling.
- 1939: 222 ships sunk
- 1940: 1,059 ships sunk
- 1941: 1,328 ships sunk
- 1942: 1,661 ships sunk
- 1943: 597 ships sunk
- 1944: 247 ships sunk
- 1945: 105 ships sunk
The Picking Up Ships: A Response to the Escalating Attacks
As the attacks on Merchant Navy vessels and the subsequent losses started to escalate, another element entered the picture: The Navy escort ships could not chase the U-boats, protect the convoy and also pick up survivors from the lifeboats and rafts. The escorts’ primary task was to safeguard the convoy, and the survivors in open lifeboats faced a slow death by cold, starvation and the rough weather. The survivors in the water didn't have a chance; they perished in less than five minutes due to the intense cold.
The drain on experienced merchant crews would soon become a major problem. With this reality in mind, at the end of September 1940, the Commander in Chief of Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Smith, VC, presented his views to the Admiralty, stating that it was essential to provide the convoys with “Picking Up Ships” to follow astern of the convoys, with an important role in the rescuing of survivors from the hungry waters of the North Atlantic and other hazardous routes followed by the convoys.
Corvettes (Rescue Ships)
The Admiralty was quick to act, initially by enrolling a motley collection of existing coastal ships and similar vessels, most of them past their prime but seaworthy (barely!). By all reports, they rolled very unpleasantly in the fierce Atlantic seas. In addition, a new design for small Navy vessels was created, introducing the “corvette”.
Officially known as Rescue Ships, the corvettes had sides designed to facilitate the hauling of survivors to safety and a speed of about 12 knots. They were equipped with a Sick Bay, an Operating Theater, a Medical Officer and an Attendant. They were also prepared with various equipment designed to pick up survivors from the waters, including the following:
- rescue boats
- float nets
- grab hooks
- scrambling nets
Some statistics that can be found relative to these Rescue Ships indicate that they sailed with more than 750 convoys and rescued over 5,000 survivors, a very impressive record for small vessels of about 1,500 tons. (I have personal reasons to be grateful for the commissioning of these Rescue Ships, as I will relate further on in this article.)
Canadian Participation in the Battle of the Atlantic
When Britain stood alone after the fall of France, joint cooperation with Canada, Britain’s best geographically positioned ally in the struggle to come, was of paramount importance to the free world.
Canada rose to this challenge in the most magnificent way, especially considering that the Canadian Navy (RCN) was not highly developed at that time, nor did Canada have a particularly strong air force. Canada joined the War with 13 war ships and about 3,500 sailors, but by 1945 the RCN had become the world’s third-largest navy with over 370 ships and more than 110,000 members.
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Convoys and Escorts: From Nova Scotia to Liverpool
The convoys that were fundamental in providing Britain with food, fuel and armaments set off from Halifax or from Sidney, both of these ports on Nova Scotia. The escort ships from the RCN accompanied the convoys to a point in the mid Atlantic, and from then on the Royal Navy took over. Both groups of escorts then turned round and took each other’s place, returning to their home ports while accompanying another convoy going that way.
This is a very simplified version of what was actually happening, but it’s a good overall description of how the convoys worked during the 1940–1941 period. The main port of departure on Britain’s west coast was Liverpool, a situation which continued during all the years of the war, and which caused the Liverpudlians to suffer severe hardships due to this fact.
The Wide Expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean
The Importance of Air Cover
Another important element was air cover, an essential factor in the detection of submarines and in the defense of the convoys. Initially, neither Britain nor Canada had many long-distance planes available, and this caused a gap in the defense facilities for the convoys, as there was no air cover for the entire mid Atlantic area, known as the “Black Pit”.
Losses in the Black Pit
There are maps available that pinpoint the more numerous losses suffered by the convoys, and they are all concentrated in that one area, the 300-mile gap in the middle of the Atlantic. The study of these details leaves a really horrible feeling in one’s mind. And still the merchant crews did not fail but continued to suffer the brunt of this famous and lengthy battle.
New Developments and Support Help Turn the Tide
The statistics for 1942 are the worst ever, with more than 1,600 ships sunk, but this trend shortly began to turn due to several factors:
- The development of long-range airplanes.
- The installation of a midway base on Iceland.
- The high-speed construction of more destroyers and corvettes by both Britain and Canada with the participation of hundreds of dedicated workers.
- The development of better ASDIC/Sonar equipment.
- The development and introduction of the Huff-Duff, i.e. the High Frequency Direction Finder.
- The use of an improved radar system on both escort ships and planes from which the U-boats could no longer hide.
- The use of a new and more destructive type of depth charge called Hedgehog.
- The breaking of the Nazi Enigma coding device, perhaps the most important development of all.
- The unofficial support of the US even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
- The provision by the US of an important quantity of not-so-modern destroyers through a lend-lease system.
- The escort of ships in transit provided by the US from the Caribbean area right to Halifax and often further.
- The contribution by the US of a really enormous output of Liberty Ships produced by American shipyards after the US entered the war in 1941.
Another Factor: The Incredible Participation of the Allied Merchant Navy
This was a factor of such fundamental importance that it merits a paragraph of its own. The Allied Merchant Navy was manned by representatives of many nations: Great Britain and the countries of the Commonwealth, the United States, Russia, China, Poland, Greece, Norway, the Philippines and France, just to mention a sample. These merchant seamen were civilians who faced the same dangers of war as the regular armed forces personnel but who have rarely received the recognition they deserve.
As to the amount of casualties suffered by the Allied Merchant Navy, the statistics vary according to the source, but a fair average sum would be about 40,000 lives lost on the convoys themselves and at the various docks while unloading their precious cargoes.
My Personal Family Memories of the Convoys
As I've stated, many members of my family on my father’s side were either Merchant Navy volunteers or worked on the Mersey-side docks (Liverpool, UK).
My Uncle Sydney
Sydney was one of my father’s younger brothers; I have calculated that he was about 20 years old when WW2 started. He was either recently married or about to be married, but that did not stop him from signing on in the Merchant Navy to sail out of Liverpool, the family’s hometown.
He was fortunate in that his ship was not sunk until after the introduction of the Rescue Ships. I've estimated that he must have been torpedoed during the summer of 1942, at the ripe age of 23!
One of the Few Survivors
He was one of the few that survived after his ship went down. Nobody really knows what happened, but he was found by a passing Rescue Ship, floating on a raft, alone and just barely alive. He was picked up, and as this particular ship was on convoy duty on its way to Canada, that’s where he was eventually disembarked and taken to hospital, still unconscious. He didn't have any identification on him, so he was registered as an “unidentified casualty”.
Missing, Believed Dead
In the meantime, his wife received the famous telegram: “missing, believed dead”
When Sydney finally came out of his coma, he was suffering from loss of memory and therefore could not give any particulars that would help identify him. Six months or more would go by before Sydney was able to give an account of himself to the hospital authorities, and during all that time his wife, Claire, grieved for his death.
The Second Telegram
Then, out of the blue, she received another telegram to inform her that Sydney had been located, was alive and was recuperating in Canada. The shocks caused by these two telegrams, coming in relatively close succession, must have been horrific. Family legend has it that the color of Claire’s hair went from light brown to white within a couple of days after receiving the second telegram. I can’t answer to that as the one time that I met her, many years later, her hair was brown and beginning to show signs of grey like any middle-aged person.
Still, she was one of the lucky ones. When I visited Liverpool, she and Sydney were a normal married couple, both of them alive and in good health. (They had no children).
Many Memories Are Still Alive in Liverpool
There are numerous web pages and blogs dedicated to Merchant Navy stories and family remembrances related to the Battle of the Atlantic. I have read many of them while searching for some clues about my father’s relatives and their activities during this period of the War, which was especially hard on the city of Liverpool and its adjacent dock installations. Many of the stories are sad, but one in particular has caught in my mind.
A Bit of Rest
An elderly lady posts her story on one of these blogs, telling how her husband was a merchant seaman out of Liverpool, home for a few days’ leave. His leisure was rudely interrupted by the Luftwaffe, who decided to bomb Liverpool quite heavily just at that time. Her husband spent his leave helping to put out fires, clearing rubble from the streets and digging people out of broken houses.
At the end of his home leave, he announced that he would be quite glad to get back to his ship “to get a bit of rest”. Well, this lady continues to write that he got his wish: Not far along the convoy route, his ship was torpedoed, and her husband "went to his eternal rest”.
My Final Tribute to These Brave "Civilian Servicemen"
The thousands of merchantmen who gave their lives to keeping the vital sea lanes open during WW2 are not buried in cemeteries with their tidy rows of white crosses, where wreaths of “red poppies” can be placed on Remembrance Day. Their only grave is the sea.
The following is a heartfelt tribute to all of them.
"Eternal Father Strong To Save"
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Joan Veronica Robertson