The War at Sea

At least 32,000 Merchant Navy personnel were killed or died during the war at sea between 1939 and 1945. One of those who survived was James Hamilton-Smith who, having served in the Merchant Navy in the 1920s, re-joined in July 1940. A series of notebooks and diaries he maintained, presented here by his grandson David Mitchell, reveal a little of the rudimentary training that British seamen were given, as well as a small part of the battle to beat the German U-boats.

James Hamilton-Smith was born in Wolsingham, County Durham on 21 February 1907. He joined the Merchant Marine in the early 1920s and served his apprenticeship as a 16-year-old aboard SS Eastmoor in 1923.

By the time he was 19-years-old, James had passed a variety of seafaring and navigation exams and was appointed as Third Officer aboard the 2,733 ton freighter SS Bloomfield. He subsequently served as Third Officer aboard a number of different merchant vessels until he left SS Lumina at North Shields on 28 September 1930, to remain ashore in his native North-East.

Ten years would pass before, in July 1940, James Hamilton-Smith decided to go to sea once again. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain’s Merchant Fleet had been the largest in the world. Even so, by the summer of 1940 the pressure of maintaining the vital supply of raw materials and foodstuffs in the face of German aggression, particularly from the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats, was taking its toll. One of the solutions was the creation of a Merchant Navy Reserve Pool of Labour, the primary intention of which was to reduce delays in ships sailing. As this offered seamen continuous, instead of casual, employment, it may have been this that tempted James to volunteer for the Merchant Navy Reserve.

To aid in anti-submarine operations, officers and crew were given rudimentary information or training regarding the appearance and operational characteristics of German and Italian submarines, together with basic drills to be carried out when the enemy was spotted, either on the surface, or at periscope depth. As part of this, James kept a pocket notebook and drew ink silhouettes of the various German and Italian submarine classes known to the Allies at that time, and made notes of the aforementioned drills. The U-boats were broken down by tonnage, size and the roles they were thought to be designed for. «Types of German submarines,» he wrote, were: «a. Coastal and Training type, 250 tons; b. Home Operational type, 500 + 517 tons, c. Overseas ocean type, 712 + 740 tons, d. Large minelaying type, 1060 tons.»

The notebook contains information regarding appearance and means of disguise, radius of action, cruising speeds, running submerged, dive depths, and maximum range when submerged. It also details methods employed by U-boats when attacking shipping, both day and night, and covers surface and submerged attacks, torpedoes (range and speed), turning circles (submerged), periscope profiles and behaviour after attacking.

In one two-page section, James detailed an anti-U-boat drill — or, more specifically, the «action to be taken when U-boat is sighted; steamer not in convoy». It illustrates just how ordinary merchant crews were prepared to deal with a U-boat if they found themselves isolated and attacked’ by one.

Initially, the seamen were told to alter course and increase to full speed, man the ship’s gun and any available machine-guns, send «the special signal», and, lastly, see that the smoke floats are ready for use.

«If periscope is at close range and before the beam, steer to ram,» the advice continued. «The U-boat will probably increase speed to 5 or 6 knots and attempt to dive deep. Your action will at least have the affect [s/c] of spoiling her attack.

«Rouse the gun’s crew and pass down the bearing of the periscope. A few shots from a Lewis gun at the last sighted position would assist. Point of aim should be ahead of the periscope; a near miss might damage the glass and would ‘fluster’ the attacker. If at close range, fire the Lewis gun.

«Pass the word at once to the wireless operator to send the special signal. If this is received it may save your own and other ships.

«Prepare your smoke floats. If the U-boat fails with her torpedoes she may surface and attack with her gun. If she can outrange your ship and has a higher speed the smoke may prove a valuable protection, particularly in a head wind or light stern breeze.

«If a U-boat is sighted on surface at long range or well abaft the beam, turn stern on and proceed at full speed. Should you suddenly meet a surfaced U-boat at close range and before the beam, for instance at night or in a fog, turn to ram at full speed steering well ahead to allow for her advance. Fire with your Lewis gun at her bridge and gun position if within 1000 yds. If it is obvious that you cannot ram, turn to bring your gun to bear.»

Suitably trained, James Hamilton-Smith soon found himself back at sea. His first ship was SS Anglo Afr/can which he joined as Third Officer on 30 July 1940.

He remained part of Anglo African’s crew until 1 September 1941, during which time it had sailed in a variety of convoys to and from Bermuda, Halifax, Aden, Suez, and Sydney.

On 2 October 1941, James joined the 1,530 ton SS Sherwood, though this time as Second Officer. He remained with this ship, which plied the Home Trade, for three weeks, leaving on 23 October 1941. The following day James signed on with the crew of SS Chatwood, returning to the rank of Third Officer, as the ship undertook Coastal Trade until 12 November 1941 when he left her at Blyth.

On 11 December 1941, he joined the 3,548 ton MS Rosewood at Leith and served under the ship’s master, Captain Robert Taylor, as Third Officer until 5 May 1942.

According to James’ diary, on 28 December 1941, Rosewood sailed from Leith en route to Methil Roads. Here she was formed up into an escorted convoy for the onward journey to Loch Ewe, where she arrived on 1 January 1942. There the crew anchored to await the sailing time for the next stage of their journey.

Five days later, on 6 January 1942, Rosewood sailed for the Dutch dependency of Curasao in the Caribbean. The crossing of the Atlantic was to be made as part of Convoy ON.54, comprising thirty-eight merchant ships including vessels that had sailed from Liverpool. The «ON» code letters indicated a UK to North America bound convoy that sailed between 1941 and

1945 on the North Atlantic route; this series ran alternately fast and slow but fast only from 1943.

James Hamilton-Smith’s diary entries suggest that for the first three days the convoy proceeded relatively peacefully. Then, on the 9th, he wrote that there was «bad weather in the offing». The following day he noted that his prediction had been correct: «Fierce squalls and mountainous seas. Whole gale.»

For nearly two days the convoy battled on, the various ships and their escorts desperately trying to maintain station. However, the weather was so bad that by Monday, 12 January, James was forced to note that the convoy had been broken up by the gale.

The only positive effect of the bad weather was that it was seemingly keeping the German U-boats at bay — at least for Convoy ON.54. Other vessels at sea elsewhere were not so lucky, as James’ notes of radio messages received by Rosewood’s radio room testify.

On the 13th, for example, it was noted that an «unknown British steamer [was] foundering in gale».

The next day the 4,113 ton British steamer SS Dayrose, which was en route to Halifax, reported that it had been torpedoed. The offending U-boat was U-552, the cargo ship being sunk near Cape Race. Also on the 14th James recorded that two US Revenue Cutters had been torpedoed off Rhode Island near Nantucket Light.

For its part, the gale that had hit ON.54 continued to rage.

Hamilton-Smith’s entries for 15 January inform us that during the day Rosewood located three vessels, all tankers, from the convoy, along with a single escorting corvette. Having been «appointed guide of convoy,» Rosewood hove to, to ride out the storm. Also on this day James wrote that a «US oil tanker [had been] torpedoed off Nantucket» — this is believed to have been Coimbra which, en route from New York to the UK, was sunk by U-123.

Overnight the gale increased in strength, so much so that during the 16th the small group of ships of which Rosewood was part «became separated again». The coded instruction «Proceed Independently» was then issued to the ships of ON.54. Rosewood duly steamed on for her destination alone.

As Captain Robert Taylor sought to put as much distance between his ship and the U-boat’s traditional hunting grounds as possible, news of other disasters on the high seas continued to be received by his crew — many of which continued to be recorded by Hamilton-Smith in his diary.

On the 19th, SS Malay reported that it was being shelled by a submarine off the North Carolina coast (near the Wimble Shoal Buoy); Milo had suffered such serious damage in the gale that it was sinking; Mobelsa had run aground and required assistance; an un-named oil-tanker had been torpedoed and declared itself helpless; another oil-tanker was storm-damaged; and Laristan had run aground.

Over the next two days, the storm continued and the distress calls kept being made. On 22 January 1942, Hamilton-Smith noted that SS Athelcrown had been torpedoed. En route from Cardiff to the Caribbean, the 11,999 ton tanker had strayed into the path of U-82 south-east of Newfoundland. Of note here is the fact that some of the survivors spent the period from 30 January to 7 February 1942 on the wreck of the tanker Diala before being rescued.

Meanwhile, wrote James, the «weather [was] slowly moderating». This improvement may also have given the U-boats the opportunity they needed to locate at least one vessel from ON.54 — in this case the unlucky victim was the Belgian Gandia.

At 22.21 hours on the evening of the 22nd, Gandia was hit on the stern by one of two torpedoes fired by U-135, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Frederich-Hermann Praetorious, about 420 miles east of Cape Race. The Captain, Master Maurice Potie, sixty-eight crew members (of whom sixty-two were Belgian) and ten gunners tried to abandon ship in four lifeboats, but two of them were destroyed by rough seas while the remaining boats were only partially filled. Most of the crew drowned when their ship sank, including Potie.

Ten survivors in one of the boats were picked up by USS Bernadou on 5 February and eventually landed at Reykjavik. Four survivors in a second boat were found by the Portuguese motor trawler Joao Corte Real and landed at Oporto on 26 February.

Gandia was the only loss from ON.54. At about the same time that U-135 returned to its base at Saint-Nazaire at the beginning of February 1942, Rosewood had also docked at Curagao.

The return journey back to the UK was safely achieved, and appears to have been James Hamilton-Smith’s last voyage as a member of the Merchant Navy. On 27 May 1942, he was discharged from the Merchant Navy Reserve as being «physically unfit for further service», the result, it is thought, of deteriorating eyesight. The notebooks and diaries he had maintained during the previous two years have survived to provide a small but fascinating insight into the Battle of the Atlantic between 1939 and 1945.

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