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Thread: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

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    Default Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    The Baltrover was an old tub that had been saved from the scrap yard when war broke out and refitted to make her (more or less) seaworthy. She was an old coal burner with plenty of accommodation and cargo space and had been in use in the Baltic Sea for many years pre-war.
    She was my second ship and, in March 1942, at the tender age of 15, I signed on as Officers Steward. My job was to clean the cabins of the Chief, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Engineers, the Chief Radio Officer, the two Assistant Sparkies and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Mates. I also scrubbed the alleyways and toilets. My immediate boss was another Officers Steward, a much older man, and between us we looked after the Officers Mess, served their meals and did the washing up. I was kept very busy!!
    The Officers Mess was situated directly over the boiler room and the iron deck used to get very hot. My feet got so badly blistered that I could barely walk on them so I went to see the ships doctor for treatment. I shouldn’t have bothered. The doctor was a hopeless alcoholic and existed in a permanently drunken state .I told him that my feet were blistered but he didn’t bother to look at them.
    Instead he gave me a bottle of aspirin and told me to take two every four hours! It’s just as well that nobody got appendicitis or something similarly serious!
    The crew were mostly Scousers, the usual mixture of good and bad, but I got on well with them. I had access to good supplies of sugar, tea and jam and was able to surreptitiously slip some extra rations to the engine room firemen and trimmers. They were on strict Board of Trade rations as set out in the Articles of Engagement that we were all bound by when we signed on. The Articles constitute the written law aboard ship and govern just about your every move. The scale of rations hadn’t changed since pre-war days. Although food rationing had only been introduced for the civilian population after war was declared, it had been in existence for seafarers since the days of sail. Seamen in those far off days were fed very poorly so a benevolent government decreed that a minimum scale of provisioning be written into the Articles to give the crew some rights. However, that minimum scale, over the years, became the allotted scale. No more and no less, There was one shipping company in Liverpool called the Harrison Shipping Co. which was noted for its poor provisioning. ‘Hungry Harrison’s’! The funnels on their ships were painted black with two bands of white sandwiching a band of red at the top. They were referred to by Scousers’ as “two of fat and one of lean!”
    We sailed first to Halifax in Nova Scotia with a mixture of passengers and cargo. The cargo included munitions which were unloaded at the munitions depot in St John’s, Newfoundland.our second port of call. There we loaded up with more munitions to bring back to the U.K. Why? I’ll never know. We reckoned we carried it over there just to get it painted!
    We also loaded up with bulk grain, absolutely vital to Britain’s food supply. It was poured into the hold from a hopper until the hold was chock full. It was a dangerous cargo because if any sea got into the hold it would spell disaster. The wet grain would swell and burst the ship open. The crew made sure that the hatches were well battened down.
    On most of the Atlantic crossings we were the commodore ship which meant that the Royal Navy officer in charge of the convoy was aboard. That was due to us having plenty of accommodation for him and his staff. We sailed in five knot convoys because five knots was the best speed our clapped out engine could manage and convoy speed was always limited to that of the slowest boat. It once took us twenty-one days to do the crossing from Liverpool to Halifax, although we were never able to sail the direct route because of warnings of U-boat packs ahead. That didn’t always work and we did lose some ships, but the Baltrover seemed to bear a charmed life and always came through safely. Our theory was that because we were so slow and held the convoy back, the U-boats thought we were on their side! I shared a cabin with three other stewards and it was on a deck way down below the waterline. That meant having to climb up several companionways to get on deck. If we had been torpedoed, it would have been a real death trap and some nights, when we were on full alert, I slept on a settee in the main dining room, fully dressed, with my lifejacket and panic bag beside me.
    On one trip from Halifax to St John’s, our skipper, (known as Albert behind his back), got ambitious and tried to join a ten knot convoy. (We weren’t the commodore ship). By the next morning, we were on our own. Albert decided to press on but shortly after, a corvette that had been sent back to look for us (or perhaps to look for survivors!) ordered us to turn back to Halifax because there were U-boats ahead. We turned and were not far from port when we met a slow convoy coming towards us. Again we turned around and tagged on, and this time made it safely to St John’s. There we found that we had been listed as overdue and presumed sunk. Strict radio silence at sea prevented any communication except in dire emergency.
    I did three or four round trips across the Atlantic in the Baltrover and enjoyed my time in her.
    Halifax was a fun port and it was there that I was introduced to Coca-Cola and jukeboxes and had my first dance at the local dance hall, the Silver Slipper. Our bosun was a very hard case character who had a long standing grudge against the Halifax constabulary, (R.C.M.P.) Always, on his first night ashore he would get fighting drunk and take on a couple of Mounties in a brawl. The next day he would appear before the magistrate and be fined but it never deterred him.
    Our 4th engineer was a young man not long out of his apprenticeship and he decided, on one fine morning, to go swimming in the harbour. He wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer and ventured a bit too close to the ships side just as the pumps opened up and discharged a ton of debris and water from the bilges. He was knocked unconscious and would have drowned except for one of the A.Bs who saw it happen and dived in from the top deck, fully dressed, and saved him.
    Canada gets bitterly cold in winter and a couple of inches of ice on the pavements made walking treacherous. The local kids all wore ice skates and were expert at using them.
    St John’s is quite a small fishing port with limited docking facilities, so we would lay at anchor in the harbour and go ashore in the local ferry launches that would ply for hire round all the ships at anchor. The last launch left the wharf at about 10 pm and one night I was one of a crowd of about 80 seamen, most of them the worse for drink, waiting to get on the last launch, which could only hold about 30. It filled up quickly and my mate, Bill Elston, the galley boy, jumped in ahead of me. The launch was drifting away from the wharf by this time because the boatman thought he was going to get swamped. “Jump” shouted Bill. Instead I took a big stride and got one foot on the gunwale. Unfortunately it was too big a distance for the second step and I slowly did the splits and submerged into the freezing water. They pulled me aboard the launch which then proceeded to drop the men off at their various ships. The Baltrover was the last one we came to. I had to climb up the Jacobs ladder, which is just a rope ladder hanging over the side from the deck to the waterline. I was so frozen by this time that I could barely make it. However, once aboard I went down to the galley and stripped off. The coal fires soon thawed me out and I finished up none the worse for my late swim”.
    The North Atlantic seas were the biggest I’ve ever sailed on. On one trip from St John’s bound for home, we sailed through the narrow harbour channel and out into the worst Atlantic storm I ever experienced. The waves must have been 60ft high from trough to crest and were rolling in broadside on. We only occasionally got a glimpse of the ship in the column next to us, and we would be heeled far over as a wave rolled underneath us, and then flung over the other way as we fell off the crest. We were corkscrewing and pitching and rolling like a crazy fairground ride and it was a miracle that we didn’t capsize completely. It was scary!
    On one crossing from Liverpool, we carried a hundred or so Royal Navy sailors as passengers to New York. They were sent to bring back to the U.K. the 50 old, obsolete U.S. Navy destroyers that the Yanks had sold to Britain in return for shore bases in the Caribbean and elsewhere. I had been assigned an action station as an ammunition loader for one of the Oerliken guns which was mounted in a steel turret on the boat deck. In the event of an attack I had to run to my station and be in a chain gang passing ammunition from the magazine up the turret ladder to the gun crew. To keep them occupied, the R.N. sailors had also been put into round the clock watches on all the guns. That was four R.N. crews to each gun plus the regular crew of DEMS gunners (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships). One day the alarm went off and I dropped everything and sprinted to my station. I couldn’t get near the blasted gun. There were already about a dozen matelots there, all arguing with each other as to who was in charge. What a shambles! It was freezing cold so I thought “To hell with this”, and left them to it. I went back down below into the warmth and got on with my work.

    My Ships -001.001 3-21-2008 4-36-059.jpg

  2. #2
    Keith at Tregenna's Avatar
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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    Thanks so much Charles, we recall, record, remember, commemorate, tribute and thank
    those that were lost and the heroes that survived.

    A different breed of men.

    Keith.

    .
    Last edited by Keith at Tregenna; 31st August 2020 at 11:48 PM.

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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    A very interesting Thread Charles and so well written as well, at your age still very good indeed! Seems that the mind is still as active as ever! Great!
    Thank you for this ,it will hopefully be preserved for many many Years as are so many other good Stories that have been told on here!

    Stories like these are very very Welcome ,and i hope that you can add even more as time goes by!

    With Respect
    Cheers
    Senior Site Moderator-Member and Friend of this Website

    R697530

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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic


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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    Echo Doc with Stories like these are very very Welcome.

    Keith.

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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    Many thanks for your service ...I have great admiration for the lads who went before us "Lest we forget "

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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    had a look on the wet and found this for Chris Webb cooper Baltrover-09.jpg

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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    Fascinating story!! My father Carsten Andersen was Chief Officer on an old Norwegian tanker called Thoray. Turn of the century coal burner. Did a couple of Atlantic convoys but mainly sailed around the UK coast. Other than a fire when berthed in Bristol docks Thoray survived the war. The crew's theory was that she was to old and battered to be worth a torpedo!

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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    I have a casualty in my database from the Baltrover from the time you served on her. He is commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial, but is actually buried in New Orleans. I have never been able to discover as yet the cause of his death as he is not recorded in the 1939-45 Deaths at Sea Register.

    WELLS, Master, FREDERICK, S.S. Baltrover (London). Merchant Navy. 14th May 1942. Age 42. Buried New Orleans (Greenwood) Cemetery.
    "Across the seas where the great waves grow, there are no fields for the poppies to grow, but its a place where Seamen sleep, died for their country, for you and for peace" (Billy McGee 2011)

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    Default Re: Five knot convoys in the North Atlantic

    Thank you so much for this marvellous post! It paints such a vivid picture of life on board the Baltrover and ashore. It's extra special for me because my uncle, Ralph Smith, was a fireman and trimmer on the Baltrover as it crossed the Atlantic in Convoy HX 76, setting out from Halifax on September 26 1940. Not the same time as you Charles but I do hope that there was someone on board as kind as you to slip Ralph some extra supplies. As you said, the Commodore, Vice Admiral Raymond Fitzmaurice on this crossing, was on board the Baltrover, in command of 38 ships in all. One, the Confeld, was torpedoed on October 8 and the others sailed through severe gales but arrived safely in Liverpool on October 10.

    My uncle went on to cross the Atlantic on several other ships, the West Amargosa, the SS Donovania, the British Harmony, and the SS Laristan which ran aground off the Isle of Tiree where the crew were rescued by breeches buoy over the rocks in a wild storm.

    His final ship was the Empire Dryden which he joined in February 1942, sailing the Liverpool - Halifax route. I love your descriptions of Halifax and St Johns, Charles, and can now imagine something of what my uncle would have experienced there. A lot of fun! They sailed on to New York where they were loaded with artillery and tanks to carry to Alexandria and set sail on April 17, unescorted. The ship was armed with one 4inch, one 20mm and four machine guns, hardly adequate defence against attacks by U-boats or warships. Two days later they were torpedoed by U-572. The Empire Dryden sank quickly but all the 51 sailors made it safely into lifeboats. Sadly my uncle's lifeboat disappeared. The men in the other lifeboat endured days of hardship but were eventually rescued.

    So, my uncle didn't live to tell us of his adventures at sea - I was born two years after his death - but Charles, your post has brought it all to life for me. Thank you so much!

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