In September 1940, Convoy HX72, travelling from Nova Scotia, Canada to the UK, was attacked by U-boats. Eleven ships were sunk, including the steamer Canonesa. All but one of the Canonesa's crew were rescued - my grandfather, Fourth Engineer Tom Purnell from Hartlepool in England, was on duty in the engine room and was killed when the ship was torpedoed. In all 116 men lost their lives in the attack. This site describes the events surrounding the loss of the Canonesa, the attack on Convoy HX72, and the exploits of the U-boat which sank seven ships in just over three hours; U-100, captained by Joachim Schepke. As well as describing the attack on the Convoy the site also acts as a tribute to the contribution of the allied merchant seamen during the Second World War. Despite being civilians they suffered greater proportionate losses than their armed forces counterparts. In a special memorial section the 116 men of Convoy HX72 are commemorated.
Background information on the Canonesa and on the shipping company who she was owned by, Furness-Houlder Argentine Lines.
The steamer Canonesa (pictured below) was owned by Furness Houlder Argentine Lines, an associate company of Houlder Brothers & Co, and was a Type 'G' oil burning refrigerator ship. Her gross tonnage was 8,286 tons and she had a designed speed of 13 knots. She was built by Workman, Clark & Co. Ltd of Belfast and completed in November 1920. These standard ships were planned to replace the heavy losses sustained through enemy action during the First World War; in particular losses of refrigerated meat-carrying ships employed on the Australian, New Zealand and River Plate routes. Only one was completed before the signing of the Armistice. The remaining 21, including the Canonesa (which was being built as War Minerva) were sold to private operators.1 S.S. Canonesa
The Canonesa, together with the other ships of Houlder Brothers and Furness-Houlder Argentine Lines, operated on the River Plate run, with a seasonal trip on the Patagonian lamb run. During the first year of the war she had completed three return transatlantic passage ; from Liverpool to Buenos Aires to Southampton (September-December 1939); Southampton to River Plate to Victoria Docks, London (January-March 1940); and Victoria Docks to River Plate to Victoria Docks (April-July 1940).2 On the last of these, her penultimate voyage, she sailed to the Falkland Isles then across the Straits of Magellan, loading lamb from a series of small regions & departements ports along the Patagonian coast. Dennis Johnzon, a member of the Canonesa's crew at the time, remembers that on approaching the Thames estuary the 59-ship convoy, with Canonesa taking up the rear, was dive-bombed and machine-gunned by enemy aircraft. As the rear ship she was singled out for special attention, but no bombs found their target, partly thanks to Spitfires eventually driving off the enemy. Machine-gun bullet holes were, however, very evident.3 Peter Tingey, an apprentice on board, also recalls this incident :
"I was on deck as we approached the Thames estuary when intense anti-aircraft fire broke out all around both on shore and from ships as I looked up and actually saw the bombs leaving the high level German dive bombers. Like lightning I made my way to the midship saloon and dived under a dining table. Bombs exploded near but without a direct hit and I also heard a sustained rattle which could have been from the German machine-gun fire. The immediate danger passed as our Spitfires had ploughed a swathe of doom among the air raiders."4 Eleven ships owned by Houlder Brothers & Co., and a further four managed by the company, were lost during the war. The Canonesa was the fourth casualty. Ten ships were torpedoed, two mined, one sunk by a surface raider, one captured and later sunk by a surface raider, and one bombed. Just five ships in service when the war began were still afloat when hostilities ceased. In all 114 men died whilst in the company's service
Spread over 5 main pages this section includes a description of the attack by U-boats on Convoy HX72, drawing wherever possible on witness accounts, and focussing on the sinking of the Canonesa. A Convoy HX72 ships page, which includes a table of those ships lost and damaged, and information about the eventual fates of the surviving ships, is also provided. The U-100 war diary entry for the sinking of the Canonesa is reproduced, together with the official report of the Canonesa's captain.
The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a broadcast on 27th April 1941, made clear that the most important theatre of the war for Britain lay in the Atlantic:
"In order to win this war Hitler must either conquer this island by invasion or he must cut the ocean lifeline which joins us to the United States.... Wonderful exertions have been made by our Navy and our Air Force......by the men who build and repair our immense fleet of merchant ships, by the men who load and unload them, and, need I say, by the officers and men of the Merchant Navy, who go out in all weathers and in the teeth of all dangers to fight for love of their native land and for a cause they comprehend and serve.
Still, when you think how easy it is to sink ships at sea and how hard it is to build and protect them, when you remember we never have less than 2,000 ships afloat and 300 to 400 in the danger areas, when you think of the great armies we maintain...and the world-wide traffic we have to carry, can you wonder that it is the Battle of the Atlantic which holds the first place in the thoughts of those upon whom rests the responsibility for procuring the victory?"1
Learning from the lessons of the First World War a convoy system had been put in place by the Admiralty from the outset of the war. Indeed the Admiralty assumed control of all British merchant shipping eight days before the outbreak of war.2 The rapid introduction of a convoy system marked a clear acknowledgement of the importance of imports to the British economy and to the war effort. In 1939 Britain had needed to import 55 million tons of goods, and as a consequence maintained the world’s largest merchant fleet made up of 3,000 ocean-going vessels and 1,000 large coastal ships. Over two-fifths of imports came from British Empire ports, imposing very long hauls on the merchant fleet.3 These long hauls were lengthened further in the early years of the war by the effective closure of both the English Channel and the Suez route to the east. Bombay voyages, for instance, increased from 6,000 to 11,000 miles.4 Protecting this lifeline was of utmost priority and each convoy could make a massive contribution, for:
"if all the supplies carried by just one average sized Atlantic convoy (35 ships) were gathered together they would fill a line of ten ton trucks spaced 50 yards apart which would stretch from Inverness to Southampton via Carlisle"5 A convoy of 45-60 ships would steam in nine to twelve columns, with 1,000 yards between columns and 600 yards between ships. A nine column convoy would therefore be four nautical miles wide and one and a half miles deep.
When accompanied by both air and surface escorts the convoy system was very effective, with "only a tiny percentage of Allied Merchant ships actually [falling] victims to U-boats. Ninety-nine percent of all Allied Merchant ships in the transatlantic convoys reached assigned destinations."6 The benefits to the merchantmen of sailing in convoy could be seen almost immediately. From the start of the war till the end of 1941 12,057 ships arrived at British ports in 900 convoys. Only 291 ships in those convoys had been lost to enemy action, just under 2% of the total. Of the 900 convoys only 19 experienced the loss of six or more ships.7 One Convoy Commodore stated that:
"Atlantic convoys were drab, monotonous and unending. Some commodores and a good many merchant seamen trundled backwards and forwards for over five years without seeing a ship sunk or hearing a shot fired in anger."8 Typical was the experience of R.S. Thomas on the Pacific Grove. Between April 1940 and July 1942 he served on eleven consecutive round trips between the UK and New York. The attack on Convoy HX72 in September 1940 was the only action he saw.9
For those, however, who were detected by the small number of U-boats operating in the Atlantic in the summer and autumn of 1940, including those in the then weakly escorted convoys, the consequences were often catastrophic. And whilst convoying did undoubtedly reduce sinkings and save lives the introduction of the convoy system led to a temporary but critical one-third reduction in the quantity of imports reaching Britain, a fact which caused Churchill much concern.
THE 'HAPPY TIME'
This section considers why the U-boats were particularly successful in their actions against convoys between June and October 1940, a time which became known to the U-boat crews as 'Die Glückliche Zeit', the Happy Time.
In charge of the Kriegsmarines U-boat arm was Admiral Karl Dönitz (pictured right) who, in September 1939, had 57 U-boats at his disposal, of which 27 were ocean-going. Until the fall of France the range of the U-boats had been constrained geographically; access to the Atlantic convoy routes necessitating long and risky journeys from the northern German ports around the north of Scotland. With the acquisition in June 1940, however, of the French Atlantic ports of Brest, Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, La Pallice and La Rochelle Dönitz could take advantage of increased dockyard capacity and proximity to the convoy lanes, which enabled him to extend operations into the central and western Atlantic. Previously arbitrary and sporadic U-boat actions were transformed into more regular and consistent attacks on convoys.
To counter the protection provided by travelling in convoy Dönitz had, in the inter-war period, developed 'wolfpack' tactics, whereby packs of submarines co-ordinated and guided by radio would be deployed on the surface at night. Operating on the surface enabled the U-boats to match and exceed the speeds of the merchant ships and overwhelm their escorts. Dönitz deliberately concentrated his attacks on the merchant ships. He could see the strategic benefits of starving Britain of essential food and supplies. He was also astute enough to realise that the U-boat would not have been able to win a fight against the Royal Navy.2
The Asdic submarine detecting device was useless against vessels on the surface and the low silhouettes of the U-boats were virtually invisible under the cover of darkness. These tactics were based on those used successfully in the latter months of 1918, and it was publicly stated by the Germans before the Second World War that it would be their intention to operate the U-boats in surfaced night attacks.3 Indeed Dönitz himself had in 1939 published a monograph 'Die U-bootswaffe' (The U-boat arm) which advocated a trade war by U-boats and extolled the tactical virtues of surprise surface attacks at night. British intelligence apparently missed its publication and by the time the Admiralty came by a copy, in 1942, it was too late.4
Dönitz had refined the tactics following problems implementing pack-type attacks in the first few months of the war. Pack attacks against convoys sailing to the UK were best carried out, he concluded, as far out in the Atlantic as possible to give the U-boats several days to press home repeated attacks. Secondly, U-boats making contact with convoys should not attack immediately but shadow the convoy and call up other boats. When the pack had assembled they should attack simultaneously in one massive blow, overwhelming escorts and scattering the convoy.5
However, it was not just the acquisition of the new bases on the French Atlantic coast and Dönitz's tactics which explained the success of the U-boats between May and December, 1940, a period which became known to the U-boat arm as 'Die Glückliche Zeit' (the 'Happy Time'). According to Blair :
"Numerous factors had contributed to the slaughter : intelligent and intuitive deployment of the few U-boats available, leading to the pack attacks on seven different convoys; boldness, skill and confidence on the part of the two dozen skippers; excellent torpedo performance in night surface attacks; inadequate and inept convoy-escort and ASW measures; and, lastly, not a little luck"6 In the autumn of 1940 the U-boat arm had begun to overcome problems with faulty torpedoes which had seriously undermined earlier operations against merchant and naval shipping.7 Dönitz had been so exasperated by the problem that in May 1940 he wrote in his war diary: "I do not believe that ever in the history of war have men been sent against the enemy with such useless weapons."8 The problem was partly solved by copying the impact pistols from captured British torpedoes.
Furthermore, the British authorities were compelled to re-route all ingoing and outgoing shipping through the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland in order to avoid attacks from the air. As a consequence shipping bottlenecks developed in this area offering tempting concentrations of vessels for the U-boats.9 On August 17th 1940, in response to convoy rerouting Hitler sanctioned unrestricted submarine warfare out to 20 degrees west longitude, giving the U-boats more space and time to attack convoys. The attack area was extended well beyond British home waters.
At the start of the war there had been an acute shortage of escort vessels, a shortage compounded in the Atlantic theatre by the withdrawal of ships to assist in the Dunkirk evacuations, during which many were lost and damaged. Many others had been lost or damaged in the Norway campaign, had been sent to the Mediterranean or retained as protection against the threatened invasion of Britain. This large-scale withdrawal of the convoy surface and air escorts had, as a consequence, "denuded merchant shipping of any effective scale of defence and given the U-boats almost a free hand."10 The attack on HX72 also came as Churchill was negotiating with President Roosevelt for 50 American destroyers as part of the lend-lease arrangements - the first would not become operational until October 1940, with most others not available until 1941 - and before the resources of the rapidly expanding Royal Canadian Navy could be drawn on.11
To compound the problem many of those escort ships which were available were often deployed on fruitless hunter-killer missions against U-boats, leaving few available for convoy protection purposes. There was disagreement within the Admiralty on this. The deployment of ships in hunting groups at the expense of convoy protection duties was a policy supported by the First Sea Lord and by Churchill. It was an approach which did not produce the desired results but was persisted with for some years, proving disastrous for convoys in the early part of the war.12
When wolfpack offensives began the British found themselves unable to respond effectively. According to Churchill "when the full fury of the storm broke, we lacked the scientific equipment equal to our needs."13 The parlous state of the Royal Navy's convoy escort skills and capabilities at the outbreak of the war are well described in the following passage :
"when war broke out...no properly designed and equipped aircraft were available for convoy escort. No effective depth-charge had been developed. No major oceanic exercise was held between the wars....Convoy-passage exercises, when they were held, were designed more to give destroyers practice in operating their Asdic, which was generally thought to have made the submarine impotent.......No policy for tactical convoy formation Ws laid down, no evasive measures devised, no moves to distract or sink attacking submarines rehearsed.14 Radar was not to prove a valuable weapon in the fight against surfaced U-boats until 1941, although technical production problems had been overcome by March 1940 and by the end of 1940 both aircraft and ships were being equipped with radar units.15 This came, of course, too late to benefit the ships and crews of convoy HX72. Their main assailant, Joachim Schepke, was destined, however, to become the first victim of this new technology.
There was also the weather, which was extremely favourable to the U-boats, and crucially an element of chance - the small number of U-boats available at the time meant that it was "largely a matter of luck if a U-boat sighted a convoy early enough for it to summon the other U-boats by sending out shadowing reports and homing signals."16 This was acknowledged by Dönitz who noted that "in all cases first contact (with the convoys) was a matter of chance. The convoy approached a U-boat."17
Dönitz believed that with a force of 300 U-boats he would have been able to isolate and strangle Britain. By September 1940 he still had just 61 boats. The target level of 300 was not achieved until July 1942, but by this time Britain had been able to requisition and charter 7 million tons of foreign ships, could call on American shipyard capacity, and long-range aircraft were progressively reducing the 'air-gap' in the Atlantic within which U-boats could operate safely on the surface.18 Of course had the Germans actually built 300 U-boats in the late 1930's this would have created a completely different geopolitical climate and almost certainly would have provoked other nations into putting into place countermeasures, including the construction of more destroyers and anti-submarine aircraft.19 Nevertheless considering the havoc caused by the few boats available during the 'Happy Time' it is not difficult to imagine that a substantially larger U-boat force at the outbreak of the conflict might have dramatically changed the balance of advantage in the war.
SCHEPKE & U-100
One of the three most famous U-boat aces in the early years of the war, Kapitänleutnant Joachim Schepke in U-100 wreaked havoc on Convoy HX72. Schepke's personality, death and wartime legacy are described.
Kapitänleutnant Joachim Schepke - Career and Personality.
Joachim SchepkeBorn the son of a naval officer on March 8th, 1912, Gustav Wilhelm Joachim Schepke joined the German Navy as a Seekadett on April 1st, 1930. As a cadet/midshipman he went on a training cruise around the world on the cruiser Emden. Promoted to Leutnant zur See in June 1934, he was the following year transferred to the U-boat training school in his town of birth, Flensburg on the North Sea coast. In June 1936 he was promoted to Oberleutnant zur See and in January 1938 was appointed commander of U-3. In June 1939, just prior to the commencement of the Second World War Schepke was promoted to Kapitänleutnant. With U-3 he sank two ships (2,348 tons) before, in January 1940, being given command of U-19, which he claimed nine sinkings for 15,715 tons.1
In early January 1940, whilst with U-19, Schepke narrowly avoided death when his boat was depth-charged off the Humber estuary. U-19 was damaged and hit the bottom, and only responded to attempts to return her to the surface after patient and skilful work by the crew.2
After a brief period on the staff of the U-Flotilla Schepke was appointed commander of U-100, and in August 1940 Schepke first sailed to the Atlantic with his new boat. In all he took U-100 out on six patrols, the second of which included the attack on Convoy HX72. The attached U-100 page details the patrol record of U-100, and shows a photograph of the boat.
Descriptions of Schepke tend to emphasise two characteristics of his personality. On the one hand he is frequently stated to have been "full of confidence and aggression"3, "confident, daring to the point of casual recklessness in his command"4, and "not a natural worrier about future problems."5 On the other hand his charm and physical attractiveness is stressed. He is described as a "matinee idol"6 and as "tall and cheerful..the fortunate possessor of great charm and fair good looks that attracted the admiration in which he revelled."7 He was nicknamed 'His Majesty's best-looking officer' and enjoyed his fame as one of the three most celebrated aces, along with Günther Prien and Otto Kretschmer, wearing his cap at a rakish tilt and adopting a breezy manner to superiors and sailors alike. This casual, dashing, debonair attitude was encouraged by Dönitz, who recognised that morale might soar if this fashion became the distinctive stamp of a U-boat officer.8
Schepke is credited with having developed a more relaxed approach to the previously rigid divisions in the U-boat arm between officers, petty officers and seamen. He introduced the 'work squad' to the U-boat base at Lorient, whereby on returning to base from patrol his crew were immediately rewarded with shore leave whilst the cleaning and repairing of the boat would be carried out by a special work squad. Such leave was often spent at new rest centres in nearby Quiberon, La Baule or Carnac. Before leaving port again he would :
"hold a party on board, at which officers and men would get gloriously drunk and fall on each others' necks, and reach a degree of camaraderie that would have made Dönitz shudder had he seen it. But Schepke knew his crew. He provided them with English jazz records, which were just then the rage in Berlin, and all the schnapps they could drink on those special party nights."9 Schepke's slightly carefree attitude and popularity with his crew is perhaps best summed up by an incident from just before the war. On patrol in 1938 in the southern North Sea he :
"delighted his crew with caustic comments as he carried out dummy attacks on passenger liners and large freighters ploughing to and from the channel."10 As their fame grew, so did a friendly rivalry between Schepke, Prien and Kretschmer. On September 1st, 1940, just before they left on the patrol which would include their assault on convoy HX72, Schepke returned to harbour and the three commanders "drove to a tiny village near Lorient and drank wine until the early hours of the next day."11 Later in November 1940 to celebrate Kretschmer receiving the award of Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross the three again went to a restaurant in a village near Lorient. Based on Kretschmer's recollections Robertson has described that :
"Schepke was still boisterous, but there was a nervous note in the gaiety. His laughter came too loud and too often, and although his success ranked with Kretschmer's and Prien's, he was given to reporting actions in which every ship sunk was more than 10,000 tons. He was curiously unable to identify his claims by name. The Headquarters staff were saying that in his efforts to keep up with his fellow 'aces' he was 'cooking the books a bit', which, in turn, bolstered his own pride. Each of the three had reached the 200,000 tons region of sinkings. Over coffee and brandy, Schepke put on a show of bravado. 'Let us wager on which of us reaches 250,000 tons first. I offer to provide champagne for the three of us if either of you beats me to it. If I win, then you will see to it that I am wined and dined with suitable trimmings. Is it a bet?'
Prien and Kretschmer readily assented. Kretschmer had long ago decided that Schepke was a likeable and brave officer who could be forgiven his weaknesses providing only half of what he claimed were true ; for even that would be formidable enough."12
The bet was settled in January 1941, with Kretschmer, who ended the war with the most tonnage sunk of all U-boat commanders, the winner.
Knight's CrossSchepke received the Knight's Cross on September 24th,1940, three days after the attack on Convoy HX72. He was awarded the Oak Leaves to go with the Cross on 1st December, following the sinking of 7 ships during an attack on another convoy the previous month. The award of the latter had been delayed, possibly because of Schepke's notoriety for exaggerating his claims of tonnage sunk. Regardless of this by the end of 1940 he ranked first in terms of the number of ships sunk, including an impressive 23 ships in 90 days with U-100.13
Shortly after his successes in the Autumn of 1940 Schepke had a book about his exploits published. Titled U-Bootfahrer von heute : Erzählt und gezeichnet von einem U-Boot-Kommandanten (U-boat men of today: Narrated by a U-boat Commander), it was illustrated with his own paintings and took its German readers on a tour of U-100. Schepke appealed for personal sacrifice and for more recruits, noting that :
"Germany needs many submariners. The more U-boats there are to sail against England, and the more German men who resolve to face their vilest enemy on the high seas, then all the worse it is for him. And all the better for Germany!" Introducing his readers to 'Moses', the traditional name in the German Navy for the youngest crew member, Schepke reassured them that :
"Now, quite contrary to what you, a conscientious Aryan, might think, [the term] Moses doesn't mean that we have a Jew on board. No, my dear friend. In the first place you don't find any Jews at sea at all; and secondly, the seamen would hardly share their space with such an aberration of nature."14 It is difficult to know how much of this "blatant piece of recruiting pamphleteering ......noteworthy for its exploitative style and for the often mindless commitment to political ideology"15 reflected Schepke's own views. Vause counsels caution in condemning Schepke for the contents of his book noting that :
"no U-Bootwaffe officer, not even Schepke, could release a book in Germany without the 'assistance' of ghostwriters and editors from the Ministry of Propaganda, and to condemn a man for having done so would be premature. There are better examples than Schepke of officers whose public utterances, edited or not, have betrayed them."16 Unlike Prien and Kretschmer, however, Schepke was a Nazi Party supporter. Given this fact, his revelling in the glory and acclaim bestowed on him, and his appearance as a speaker at official rallies (including a schoolchildren's rally in a packed Berlin Sports Hall, the Sportpalast, in early February 1941), it seems likely that he was not just a committed and skilful U-boat commander but also a keen supporter of the Hitler regime.
THE MERCHANT SEAMEN - UNREWARDED BRAVERY
The invaluable role played by the Merchant Navy during the Second World War has gone largely unappreciated. Without the supplies they ferried across the dangerous waters of the Atlantic, the victories of the RAF's fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain and the D-Day invasion would not have been possible. Over 30,000 allied merchant sailors lost their lives.
At least 35,000 merchant seaman died as a direct or indirect consequence of the war. In total 2,426 British registered ships were lost, with a tonnage of 11,331,933 grt. (27,491 men lost their lives serving on German U-boats. Together with 5,000 taken prisoner this was a casualty rate of 85%.)1 British merchant ships employed seamen from all over the world. Of the seamen engaged on foreign-going ships in 1938, 27% were Chinese or from British India with a further 5% being Arabs, Indians, Chinese, West Africans or West Indians living in UK ports such as South Shields, Liverpool and Cardiff.2
Many tributes have been paid to the crucial role played by the Merchant Navy in winning the war. The historian John Keegan notes that :
"The 30,000 men of the British Merchant Navy who fell victim to the U-boats between 1939 and 1945, the majority drowned or killed by exposure on the cruel North Atlantic sea, were quite as certainly front-line warriors as the guardsmen and fighter pilots to whom they ferried the necessities of combat. Neither they nor their American, Dutch, Norwegian or Greek fellow mariners wore uniform and few have any memorial. The stood nevertheless between the Wehrmacht and the domination of the world".3 One seaman who served on one of the many Corvettes which escorted convoys throughout the war recalled that :
"We had great respect for the Merchant seamen. I think they were underestimated, especially now by the British public today, because they talk about the Battle of Britain. Granted the pilots did a marvellous, marvellous job, but when you stop and think, how did they get the fuel across to fly those planes, it was the Merchant seamen.....And, honestly, I think they're the bravest men out, the Merchant Navy."4 Admiral Lord Mountevans, writing after the war, captured the atmosphere and danger of the convoys:
"Those of us who have escorted convoys in either of the great Wars can never forget the days and especially the nights spent in company with those slow-moving squadron of iron tramps - the wisps of smoke from their funnels, the phosphorescent wakes, the metallic clang of iron doors at the end of the night watches which told us that the Merchant Service firemen were coming up after four hours in the heated engine rooms, or boiler rooms, where they had run the gauntlet of torpedo or mine for perhaps half the years of the war. I remember so often thinking that those in the engine rooms, if they were torpedoed, would probably be drowned before they reached the engine room steps..."5 In August 1941, when the outcome of the U-boat challenge to the convoy system was far from decided, Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches wrote that : "For two hundred years, and more, these brave men, lacking the training and organisation that adapts their brothers in the Royal Navy so readily to the rigours of war, have, nevertheless, fashioned their own magnificent tradition. Day in, day out, night in, night out, they face to-day unflinchingly the dangers of the deep - the prowling U-boats. They know, these men, that the Battle of the Atlantic means wind and weather, cold and strain and fatigue, all in the face of a host of enemy craft above and below, awaiting the specific moment to send them to death. They have not even the mental relief of hoping for an enemy humane enough to rescue ; nor the certainty of finding safe and sound those people and those things they love when they return to homes, which may have been bombed in their absence.
When the Battle of the Atlantic is won, as won it will be, it will be these men and those who have escorted them whom we shall have to thank."6
And indeed when the victory was won and the enemy vanquished the thanks of the nation were forthcoming. On 30 October 1945 the Houses of Parliament unanimously carried the following resolution expressing gratitude to the Merchant Navy on the victorious end of the war :
"That the thanks of this House be accorded to the officers and men of the Merchant Navy for the steadfastness with which they maintained our stocks of food and materials ; for their services in transporting men and munitions to all battles over all the seas, and for the gallantry with which, through a civilian service, they met and fought the constant attacks of the enemy."7 The Right Honourable Alfred Barnes, Minister of War Transport said :
"The Merchant Seaman never faltered. To him we owe our preservation and our very lives." And yet for many of those in the merchant fleet who had served their nation before and during the war, and perhaps even more so for those who had lost loved ones, these thanks may have rung a little hollow. Despite their sacrifices in the first war the merchant seamen were far from well-rewarded for their efforts in the inter-war period and during the second world war. There had been little improvement in working and living conditions on ships between the wars, despite the large profits of many shipping companies. Unemployment amongst British merchant mariners fell below 20% in just two of the years between 1920 and 1939. The basic working week, at 64 hours before overtime, was much longer than in other trades. Pay was low (usually the minimum allowed under British law), conditions often unhygienic and always uncomfortable, and food of very poor quality. Indeed "the men who sailed in these ships - the men who created the wealth - were those who benefited least."8
In 1938 the death rate for merchant seamen was, according to the Registrar General, 47% higher than the national average, the main killers being tuberculosis, cerebral haemorrhage, and gastric or duodenal ulcers. In 1932 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had shown that the mortality rate below the age of 55 was twice the rate for seamen as for the rest of the male population. In the 1930's there were in Britain more than 150 charities devoted to the care of merchant seamen.
Morris Beckman has vividly described conditions on the Venetia. On joining the ship in the Autumn of 1940 Beckman was appalled by his living quarters :
"The bulkheads and deckhead had once been cream. They badly needed repainting and were patterned by the dried out remains of hundreds of cockroaches and other seafaring insects. A limp cobweb dangled from a corner over my pillow. Brass fittings were pitted and rusting. The small sink was a network of grease-filled cracks held together by veined porcelain. Overall hung the odour of resident filth...........Insect droppings lay everywhere like the residue of a city smog. I ran my fingers along the edge of the bunkboard. They came away black. I opened the door covering the pipes under the washbasin. The place swarmed with cockroaches, bugs and slugs, and it stank."9 Fragments of insects featured regularly in the ship's water and food and bugs and slugs were found in the mattress. At least Beckman, as a radio officer, had his own quarters. The seamen, oilers and greasers, all 33 of them,
"lived in the fo'c'sle in the most arduous conditions and without chance of any moment of privacy within it......space was set at a premium and encroachments could lead to anger between exhausted, cold, soaked men. In the tropics it became an oven plagued with flies and cockroaches....In gales with portholes closed and ventilators canvassed over it reeked of rubberised clothing, wet wool and body odours."10 In an earlier section it was noted that many convoys completed their journeys unscathed, and that some merchant seamen went the whole five years of the war without witnessing enemy action. This was far from being the experience of most, however, and each and every one of the serving merchant seamen had to bear the strain of knowing that a torpedo attack could come at any moment. As one who served in a wartime merchant ship has put it :
"the men in the engine-room suffered the tortures of the damned, never knowing when a torpedo might tear through the thin plates of the hull, sending their ship plunging to the bottom before they had a chance to reach the first rung of the ladder to the deck"11 This tension and worry was not lightened by the general discomfort of merchant vessels in the fierce North Atlantic weather, nor by the knowledge that "little consideration appears .. to have been given to efficient means of life-saving, either for the crews of escort vessels or for the merchant seamen."12 Despite these dangers
"No British merchant ship was ever held in port by its crew, even at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, when to cross that ocean in a slow-moving merchant ship was to walk hand in hand with death for every minute of the day and night."13 The Battle of the Atlantic was in Churchill's words the Battle for Britain. Yet the front-line soldiers in this battle, those who were the targets of the German torpedoes, received no paid leave on returning to port and "if a man wished to spend time with his family, he had no alternative but to quit the ship and go off pay."14 In the recession-hit 1930's few officers would take this option fearing that in their absence they would be replaced.15 Even more astonishingly, under British law when a ship was sunk the obligations of the shipowner to pay the crew's wages went with it. Those fortunate to complete their Atlantic passages received their pay in full. Those whose ships went down, including the relatives of those killed, would, unless they were fortunate to work for one of the more philanthropic lines, only receive wages due up to the day of the sinking.16 The resentment caused by this is well expressed by Sidney Graham a London Eastender who served on several Atlantic and Arctic convoys and once spent 10 days in a lifeboat :
"...as soon as you got torpedoed on them ships your money was stopped right away. That's the truth. Everybody kicked up a bit 'cos you couldn't walk about with nothing in your pockets, could you, let's be fair - and all the rum shops were open! Only thing they give us was our clothes....we couldn't walk about naked, could we? Well, we felt devastated because you didn't think they'd ever treat you like that. Because they treated you like you were an underrated citizen, although you were doing your bit for your country, know what I mean? It's hard to think what you been through and what you were doing...and they treat you like that. What did we get? Didn't get no life, did we. I even had to fight for me pension, me state pension. "17 Despite protests by the seamen and their trade unions nothing was done to rectify this state of affairs until May 1941 when the Essential Work Order came into force (largely in response to growing shortages of seamen).18 Fourth Engineer Tom Purnell on the Canonesa was paid £15 10/- per month plus a war risk payment of £5 per month. For his last journey which began on 26th July and ended with his death late in the evening of the 21st September he was paid £38 19/- before deductions. His account of wages, signed by the ship's captain, gives the 'date wages began' as 26th Jul. 1940 and 'date wages ceased' as '21 Sep. 1940'. Not a penny more was paid than was strictly necessary. As one writer has put it :
"These were the men... upon whom Great Britain called for a life-line during the years of war, and these were the men whose contract ended when the torpedo struck. For the owners had protected their profits to the very end ; a seaman's wages ended when his ship went down, no matter where, how, or in what horror."19
Good additional descriptions of the perils faced during North Atlantic convoys are provided in the attached accounts of Convoy SC107, written by a chaplain who was aboard the Royal Canadian Navy escort ship, HMCS Restigouche, the sinking of the 'Putney Hill', written by Alan Shard who was aboard that ship both during the attack on Convoy HX72 and when she was subsequently torpedoed herself in a later convoy, and the sinking of HMS 'Patroclus' and HMS 'Laurentic', by Chris Paddock whose grandfather was aboard the 'Patroclus' when she was torpedoed by U-99. The arming of merchant ships as DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) was an important tactic employed by the allies. Attached is an interesting article on DEMS by Cliff McMullen.
In tribute to the role of the Merchantmen I have also reproduced several poems written by merchant seamen about the Second World War.
MEMORIAL PAGE - THE MEN WHO DIED
The names of the 116 allied merchant seamen killed in the attack are listed. In many ways this is the most important part of this site and I hope that you will be able to spare some time to read the names of those who gave their lives.
TOM PURNELL - 4TH ENGINEER
Please also take the opportunity to look at this brief biography of, and tribute to, my grandfather and his widow Anne.
A collection of images, including photos of the Canonesa, my grandfather, the Tower Hill Memorial, U-100 and Joachim Schepke.
Battle of the Atlantic BOOKSTORE
Books and articles found useful in the preparation of this site, over 240 of which with the assistance of Amazon.com and its UK-based partner Amazon.co.uk you can buy online. Each time you buy a book, video or other item donations will be made to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Oxfam.
Take a look at the Guestbook. Please add your own comments. You can also view what Yahoo UK & Ireland said when they chose the site as a Pick of the Week in April 1998. An acknowledgments page sets out my thanks to those who have helped me put this page together.
If you are trying to find out more about a relative who served during the Battle of the Atlantic, or are looking for general information on the Atlantic Campaign, you might wish to take a look at the Resources & Contacts section.
On five ancillary pages are interesting articles about the sinking of HMS 'Patroclus' and HMS 'Laurentic', an attack on Convoy SC107, the sinking of the 'Putney Hill', the role of Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships, and the Wartime Memoirs of Fred and Iris Chilton, which include a description of the sinking of U-100.
"Let who will speak against Sailors; they are the Glory and Safeguard of the Land. And what would have become of Old England long ago but for them?" (>Samuel Richardson)