- Watts Shipping Register
- Watts Shipping Register
AWATEA at War
"She fought the fight of a battleship" by G Huston
My service in AWATEA as a junior engineer began in Vancouver on 25th October 1941. The ship was there ready to sail for Britain, having been requisitioned by the British Ministry of War Transport for service as a troop carrier. Her Chief Engineer had reached retirement age and was leaving her, and in order to fill the gap all engineers were shifted up a notch; Mr. Harold Simmonds, until then the Second Engineer, became Chief, and so on down the list. I was a junior day worker in the HAURAKI and was transferred to the AWATEA as her most junior (eleventh) engineer. Actually she had made one attempt approximately six weeks earlier to leave for Britain, but had the misfortune to suffer considerable damage when in collision in thick fog with the tanker LOMBARDER.
Damage to the port side of AWATEA as a result of the collision with the tanker LOMBARDI off Victoria, British Columbia.
My first sight of the AWATEA in Vancouver was when the HAURAKI tied up alongside her and a spare propeller which we had carried from Sydney was transferred to the AWATEA and stowed in her after hold. These circumstances made it very easy for me to make my shift. During her enforced stay at Vancouver some work -was done to convert her to a trooping mode — the installation of armaments such as Oerlikon guns, gun nests for the same, and protection around the bridge. A four-inch naval gun was already on her stem, it having been mounted some time before in either Auckland or Sydney; it was manned by D.E.M.S. gunners. Some adjustments to her accommodation were made to enable her to carry greater numbers, though the big alteration in that respect came when we reached Liverpool; she was really gutted there.
We sailed from Vancouver with a contingent of Canadians aboard — just young chaps, many of whom had not even seen the sea until then, let alone travelled in a ship. The voyage across the Pacific to Hong Kong, where these troops were to be stationed, with a call on the way at Honolulu for water and stores, was uneventful. It was reported that a ship had shadowed us for several days, and it was presumed to be a Japanese warship, but of course, that was before Pearl Harbour. I have wondered at the fate of the Canadians for they would have borne the brunt of the Japanese assault on Hong Kong, both in the fighting and as P.O.W.'s, but I've never seen any mention of them in accounts I have since read. Several days were spent in Hong Kong, we then steamed on to Singapore, where I was fortunate enough to encounter a friend from my school days in Stratford. He was then in the Air Force and by some subterfuge I managed to wangle a pass and have him aboard AWATEA. The wharf we were alongside was piled with many large cases and my friend told us they all contained aeroplane parts but from all those cases not a single plane could be assembled. This was because a ship loaded with the other necessary components had been lost en route. That was a lesson in loading techniques that was rectified as the war progressed, I believe.
Next port was Colombo. We were escorted through the Strait of Malacca by a British cruiser of the County class. She requested full speed and we made over 22 knots. The cruiser made a magnificent sight steaming at close quarters parallel with us with the sea a sparkling blue. It was a Sunday and in the afternoon the ship's band was out on deck and treated us to a concert which could be clearly heard on AWATEA.
At anchor at Colombo, we were treated to the sight of two magnificent warships, the battleship PRINCE OF WALES and battle cruiser REPULSE, coming in and anchoring only a short distance from us Later that day I was ashore with some other mates and met a group off one of these warships, which one I can't remember. The upshot was we were invited over, this to take place the following day. Bum boat was the method of transport and we were well on the way towards our naval objective when it became obvious she was leaving as the anchor was coming up and she was already moving. The departure of those two ships was, it became obvious, quite hurried for it later transpired that some of the crews had been left behind Just as well for us we were not aboard, for I could not imagine departure being delayed to suit four young engineers from another ship.
En route to Cape Town which was to be our next port, news of the attack on Pearl Harbour burst on the world. We were diverted into Mombasa and sat at anchor there for some time until the situation clarified, and then received orders to carry on to Cape Town, which was reached without incident.
Next port was Port of Spain in Trinidad, but en route we experienced engine trouble in the form of contaminated boiler feed due to leaking condenser tubes. This necessitated reducing boiler pressure and hence our speed, and meant a week's toil down below putting matters right. Thinking of it in retrospect, I consider we were lucky to get to Trinidad, considering that the area was such a happy hunting ground for the enemy. We embarked there the survivors of a cruiser that had been torpedoed and sunk. It was a vessel that had in earlier years been on the New Zealand station and was either the DUNEDIN or DIOMEDE. I now can't remember which, but it brought back memories, for I well remember those ships when stationed out here.
We next headed for Britain and our course took us right up into the higher latitudes before striking out across the Atlantic. We then encountered the most ferocious storm it has been my experience to meet. With our speed cut back to five or six knots and steering a course that took her at a 45-degree angle across the tremendous seas we survived several days of maximum discomfort. To get an appreciation of the magnitude of the storm, I went on to the bridge out to the starboard wing, and I'll never forget as she rolled over one crest looking up a considerable distance to the crest of the oncoming wave. When we surmounted that one and the ship rolled to port, I could see the trough of the receding wave across the top of our funnels. All this of course to the banshee scream of the wind and the air almost solid with wind-blown water. The AWATEA was rolling 47 degrees to port and 45 degrees to starboard and doing a complete cycle in nine seconds. The devastation aboard was quite dramatic. Trestle tables that had been erected in Vancouver as dining tables for troops became just a heap of splintered timber that slid from side to side and intermingled with that lot was the remains of a piano. Preparation of meals was impossible and for the duration we managed on sandwiches and the odd cup of coffee. Though the order of the day then was radio silence, we were told afterwards that this was broken by several ships needing assistance because of the fury of the storm. We rode it out O.K., but later in calmer waters near Britain a U-boat did try for us, but because of our speed and diligence of our bridge watchkeepers we dodged it.
Liverpool was our first British port and there they really set to work on the AWATEA. The lower decks were gutted and provision made for slinging myriads of hammocks. The hull was degaussed and more guns and protection added. From memory I think radar too was installed. We caught up on work in the engine room and all refrigerating machinery was overhauled in readiness for long voyages with many mouths to feed. We finally moved to Pier Head and embarked our first really big load of troops, approximately three thousand of them, and set sail in convoy for Cape Town.
It is worthy to note in these days, when South Africa is treated as an outcast, how much we depended on them in those days. I well remember that when nearing South Africa the troops would be lectured on the conditions, politically, then ruling in that county. There was a pro-German element and we were all warned not to talk about ships, where we came from or where destined for. More significant in the light of international attitudes today, we were also told that South Africa had a policy of racial segregation and it was to be strictly observed, the term "apartheid" having not then been dreamed up. I found the South African people kindness itself and have many happy memories of my associations there, and can not help wondering now where we would have been in our necessary efforts to build up the desert armies if South Africa had turned its face against us as the world is doing to it now.
That was as far as we went that trip. We returned to Britain alone but at maximum speed and this time our port was Glasgow. Our berth was Shield Hall and that is some distance up the Clyde. One could not help but be impressed with the shipbuilding activity going on for the whole length of the Clyde — ships both naval and merchant in all stages of construction and a great example of how Britain was straining every nerve in the war effort. The King and Queen visited Glasgow while we were there and sailed down the Clyde on the bridge of a naval tender. The AWATEA attracted their attention and received a wave when our whistle gave the "V for Victory" signal.
Loaded again with troops, we sailed once more for South Africa, this time Durban but only a stop en route to Bombay. However, in Durban we had a change of skipper. Captain G.B. Morgan taking over. We spent about a week at anchor off Bombay, presumably because of difficulties ashore, before sailing and heading yet again for South Africa, this time Cape Town. Leaving Cape Town, travelling alone and with a seventeen-day voyage ahead, sickness started to break out on board. This proved to be very serious, for it turned out to be a virulent form of smallpox. By the time we arrived at Glasgow quite a number of the crew and passengers were suffering. All hell was let loose by the health authorities, the ship was fumigated, we were vaccinated, but that did not stop the bug getting ashore and creating great trouble and strife for the authorities. Several members of our crew died, which cast a pall over all of us. Even though the ship was hardly to blame, I understand we were not too popular over it, and in fact our next time back up the Clyde the general comment was "Here's that bloody pox ship again; what will she have this time?"
Again we loaded with troops and set sail, once more in convoy. Several days out with the convoy steering an evasive zig-zag course, a routine signal was received from the commodore ship to change our heading. For some reason the AWATEA continued on without altering course, and though an effort was made to swing her using the engines this came too late and we came into collision with a ship called the EMPIRE PRIDE. Her side and ours got scored as a result and another ship just missed our stern by a whisker but the contact was only glancing and no serious damage was sustained that affected seaworthiness.
We put into Freetown and lay there for a couple of days before continuing our voyage to Durban. Leaving there again we headed back on our own, but this time not direct. We called at Bermuda and anchored but only for a short time off Hamilton, and there embarked civilian and military personnel who were returning to Britain. Our next port was Halifax, which was a main staging port for convoys heading across the Atlantic. There we filled right up, mainly with Air Force personnel who had completed their training stint in Canada.
We left Halifax at 4 pm on a grey day, one ship of a large convoy consisting of troopships and tankers. A strong naval force was also present, consisting of mainly American units. At 10 pm that same night in thick fog and with the convoy already under attack and myself on watch below, there was a double ring on the engine room telegraphs for full astern both engines. We were doing a convoy speed of approximately fifteen knots at the time, but before our efforts down below could have any tangible effect, a terrific shock and shudder went right through the ship, followed shortly after by an awful screeching and grinding noise down our starboard side which sounded particularly loud in the engine room. All this was the result of an American naval ship, the USS BUCK, appearing suddenly out of the fog crossing our bow. We sliced into its stern; that was the initial shock mentioned. She swung and wrenched clear of our bow but slid down our starboard side, which was the source of the screeching, grinding noise. However, more was to come when depth charges she had arranged on her fantail and primed at a depth setting tumbled overboard, and three of them reached that depth as AWATEA passed right above.
The resultant explosions were quite frightening and my first thought was that a salvo of torpedoes had got us, but amazingly, apart from some pumps stopping, nothing of consequence happened in the engine room. By this time also the alarm bells had brought all engine room personnel below, so order was soon restored, but our bow was well mangled, mainly above the waterline, and we were taking water, thought this was being contained by the collision bulkhead. We just sat motionless while the rest of the convoy went its way; lame ducks just have to look after themselves.
What happened to the BUCK is open to conjecture. Nothing was ever officially released that I am aware of, but others who were on deck at the time said she must have sunk, which would surely have meant a big loss of life. Our crew under the direction of Mr Dave Mason, our carpenter, shored up the collision bulkhead as it was showing signs of strain. We sat dead in the water until next morning when a destroyer came out and escorted us back to Halifax. How we survived the night without a torpedo attack remains a mystery to me, for the enemy usually had a sub or two following the main pack to finish off stragglers. We proceeded at dead slow ahead till we were safe back at Halifax, going straight into drvdock where we stayed for three weeks. The repair job was a magnificent effort. All the crumpled twisted steel that was once our bow was cut away. A complete new section was formed in the workshops and fitted in place, and we were once more back to our original graceful shape.
Deryck Thomson, who was a Canadian serviceman on board AWATEA, has written an account of this incident. It is appended at the end of this article.
At the end of our subsequent trans-Atlantic passage, which took us to Glasgow, we anchored with Ailsa Craig in the distance, awaiting orders to proceed. The QUEEN MARY came in sight and also anchored a couple of miles away. What caught our attention was that she had a crumpled bow identical with our recently repaired damage, though of a far greater magnitude. Wartime secrecy prevailed, and it was not until after the end of hostilities that we found out what had happened to her.
While in Halifax, I spent many an enjoyable evening at the Anzac Club. As its name denotes, it catered for Australians and New Zealanders awaiting embarkation for Britain. Came an evening when I said farewell to those I had met there as they were due to leave next day; we knew a convoy was being assembled. However, next evening who should troop in to the club but the same chaps. It transpired that they had been sent to a ship called the PASTEUR, but once aboard they complained bitterly about her condition. Apparently she was alive with cockroaches and other bugs. A deaf ear was turned to their complaints so they walked off en masse, to the accompaniment of dire threats from commanding officers. But as one Aussie said, "There were just too many of us to shoot and it had cost the earth to train us", so nothing was done. The PASTEUR did not sail in that convoy but she was in the convoy that left some ten days later and included the AWATEA. Presumably by this time she had been cleaned up. The crossing of the Atlantic passed without any untoward incident, at least as far as the AWATEA was concerned, though I remember feeling and hearing explosions but whether they were depth charges or torpedoes hitting their mark it was not possible to tell, but the subs must have been around.
This time in Glasgow they really set to on the ship. More armaments in the form of two Bofors quick-firing guns were mounted on the after deck, and batteries of rockets mounted on the top deck between the funnels. The lifeboats were lowered and taken away, never to be seen again. In their place were hoisted invasion barges, which were too large to be stowed inboard so were left hanging on the davits over the side, but at boat deck level. Also a communication system was installed so that when the time came the loading of troops into the barges could be controlled from a central station. With all these changes the AWATEA became an L.S.I. (Landing Ship, Infantry). We duly embarked our troops, a mixture of British Commandos and American Rangers, and set sail for Loch Fyne, where we anchored with several other ships. The time there was spent rehearsing — lowering the barges, embarking the troops and landing on the beach. After several days of this, a very distinguished visitor came aboard in the form of Lord Mountbatten, who at that time was Commander of Combined Operations. The troops were assembled and he addressed them, and it was plain to see they would have faced the fires of hell for him. I was fortunate that the window of my cabin faced out on to the deck where he stood, so I had a grandstand view with Lord Mountbatten only feet away. When I think of how he was so cowardly murdered, I am still filled with rage, for we all owed so much to his powers of leadership, the Irish included.
We sailed from Loch Fyne and became a unit in what was a very large convoy. Wherever one looked, there were ships. I suppose our Captain knew where we were heading, but that wasn't information that was freely given out, so as far as the lower ranks knew we were just at sea in a large convoy. However, we were finally told we were going into the Mediterranean Sea, and in the pitch blackness of the night of 5th November, we slipped through the Strait of Gibraltar. Next morning dawned a beautiful calm sunny day and in the distance on our port side could be seen a range of snow-capped mountains which could only be in Spain. There were still a lot of ships in our convoy, though reduced in numbers from when out in the Atlantic, also a strong naval escort. There was an enemy reconnaissance plane circling at a safe distance, though I did not see it myself. We steamed throughout the day, then after dark course was altered, and shortly before midnight we anchored at a point we were to later learn was off Algiers. All was a hive of activity then. I had just come off watch and was on deck. The boats were lowered and the troops embarked. The sea was flat calm, so no great difficulty was encountered here. Some went down rope ladders and scramble nets; other boats were drawn up to the gun port doors, where no doubt extra equipment was loaded, as long bamboo ladders and grappling hooks were in evidence. The men themselves really looked the part — all visible skin blackened, all weapons automatic and grenades hanging in great clusters. I couldn't help thinking that if one missed his step and fell in the water, nothing could save him.
The invasion convoy of Operation Torch in the Mediterranean approaching the North African coast. AWATEA is the second ship in the second colum from the bottom.
We learned later the assault ashore had been successful and though opposition was encountered, it was soon overcome. Later that day we proceeded much closer in and anchored again just off the port of Algiers in the company of a number of other ships. Here we were subjected to the attention of enemy bombers, several attacks being made on this shipping concentration. Though no ships were hit, I remember one plane being brought down. I happened to be one of a group on deck watching the proceedings when this plane, trailing smoke and just skimming the surface, flew between the AWATEA and another ship lying parallel about a quarter of a mile distant. All our guns were blazing away following the track of the plane, and the other ship was doing the same. We quickly realised that their fire at one stage of the plane's progress was coming directly at us, just as ours was heading their way. Anyway, we all beat a hasty retreat. Our naval gunners weren't going to be left out of the act either, for they sent a shell after it. Whether or not they scored a hit I do not know, but the plane certainly did not survive, for a great pall of smoke billowed into the air behind some rising country along the shore line.
Next day we went alongside and learned we were to take over an operation from the P. & 0. ship STRATHNAVER, which had developed some engine trouble. There, as well as personnel, we loaded vehicles, guns, and a tremendous stack of petrol in jerrycans on the after deck, only feet away from my cabin. We pulled away from there and headed East. I was told the men we had embarked were mainly Air Force and our job was to proceed to Bone, where there was an airfield they were to prepare for our planes to fly in to. However hallway through my four to eight watch, while we were at full speed doing over 21 knots, the AWATEA heeled over sharply and one engine slowed noticeably. The bridge informed us that we had done a full rudder 180-degree turn and were heading back, because information had just been received that Bone was still in enemy hands By 8 am we came to anchor in Bougie Bay, some distance from the port but with quite a number of ships around.
This was the morning of the 11th November 1942. All day while we were under very constant enemy attack unloading into lighters took place. I must admit I was quite pleased to see all the petrol go The AWATEA could put up quite a concentrated field of fire and with the other ships doing the same, I don't remember the enemy scoring. There was also a naval anti-aircraft ship and when it opened up it certainly had the desired effect. I well remember at the height of one attack the STRATHNAVER coming in. The planes concentrated on her and constantly huge fountains of water would practically obscure her from sight; we feared for her, but each time she sailed majestically from behind her watery curtain and remained unscathed.
At 4 pm. all our unloading was complete and we were under orders to proceed to Gibraltar. By 4.30 we were starting to move away and the engine room was prepared for maximum speed. All turbine nozzles were opened, the six boilers coupled and both turbo feed pumps linked. We were just getting up to speed when more bombers appeared and obviously concentrated on the AWATEA and in spite of the fire of our gunners scored hits. She was soon badly damaged up forward when a stick of bombs penetrated No 2 hatch and really created havoc. Those on the bridge were fortunate as the steel hatch lid was blown off and sailed up over the bridge and crashed down just feet away from the men there. The engine room was as yet untouched, but the AWATEA was in a sinking condition and I understand it was Captain Morgan's intention to try and beach her. However this was thwarted when a couple of aerial torpedoes slammed into her port side and exploded just aft of the engine room. The resultant hole blown in her side extended right into the engine room.
I happened to be at the after end of the engine room on the port side paying attention to the evaporators located there when the torpedoes hit. The shock knocked me down, and I remember vividly this great wall of water under tremendous pressure shooting straight into the engine room and splashing with great force off everything it hit. I was unhurt so wasted no time on the view, but got on my feet and raced for the ladder. I can rightly claim to be the last person to tread the AWATEA'S engine room plates, not because I chose to be but solely because I was further away from the exit ladder than the others. The men in the boiler room knew nothing of what had happened in the engine room, for a watertight bulkhead separated the two compartments. However, when power failed with only emergency lighting, no demand for steam and no answer from the interconnecting telephone, Frank Walsh, who was later to become a Chief Engineer in the Union Company, decided to investigate. He started to open the bulkhead watertight door by manual operation, to be greeted as soon as it was cracked off its seal by a jet of water. He re-closed it hurriedly and went back to the others, with the comment "Those poor b......s in there have bought it." They then proceeded to get out themselves by going up the fiddley and were fortunate they hadn't delayed, as fire was already taking hold on their route out.
By this time the AWATEA was dead in the water with a heavy list to port The only sound coming from her, apart from the roar and crackle of flames which were now intense, was the exhaust noise of the Petters emergency diesel still running, with some lights still shining The order to abandon ship had been given and, together with many others, I clambered down a scramble net which had been let down our starboard quarter on to the deck of a corvette which had come alongside. The planes by this time had finished with us and the sea was flat calm, so abandoning the ship was not difficult.
Strangely though, the realisation that our ship was doomed had not penetrated and we all thought we would be back to clean up the mess and sail our AWATEA again. When all ship's crew were safely off and Captain Morgan and Mr McGarry were satisfied on that score, they also joined us on the corvette, which went forward to attempt to fight the fire that was now engulfing the bridge. It was a futile effort The hull plates from the bow to the bridge were red hot with the sea boiling where it came in contact with them. Holes were everywhere where the force of bomb blasts had blown rivets clean out of the seams. She was indeed a sorry sight. Our corvette did not stay long and sheered off and soon the burning AWATEA was just a glow in the distance. That was the last I saw of her.
The next thing I knew we hove alongside a ship and in the darkness I heard the following exchange from the bridge of the corvette a voice said, "I've got a load of people here, can you take them?" Back came the reply from the blackness above, "I'am full up, try the Dutchman". So the corvette sheered away and shortly after we were alongside another ship. This proved to be the Dutch vessel MARNIX an ST ALDEGONDE and we were taken aboard. We were allocated bunks and I was still awake when about midnight I heard the anchor come up and the engines start. She was a diesel, and I thought we were on our way again from Bougie. However after about three-quarters of an hour the engine stopped, the anchor went down again and all was still once more. Morning dawned and up on deck it was plain to see the strategy of last night's shift. We were now anchored right across Bougie Bay from the port end where the other ships were and close up to the cliffs, which rose sheer out of the water so that it almost seemed possible to spit on to the rocks at their base. Soon the planes were attacking again. We were left alone and had a grandstand view. The ship we were turned away from, a B.I. ship, was soon hit and became a blazing inferno from end to end. She finally heeled over and sank, but did not completely disappear. The flak ship was also sunk, so the enemy really scored that time. We were spectators to all that, but the planes returning to base must have told their mates about the big ship anchored on its own further around the bay, because it was not long before the MARNIX was receiving their undivided attention.
However, the advantage of being close to the high cliffs soon became apparent, for the only way they could attack at a height that gave reasonable accuracy was parallel with the cliff. That meant our gunners had only one line of approach to guard and were able to concentrate their fire accordingly, with the result that even though the enemy attacked with considerable force and determination and came very close with their bombs, none actually hit the MARNIX. This strategy had been decided on in consultation between Captain Morgan and Chief Officer McGarry and Captain Hettema of the MARNIX, and it worked, but that attack almost completely exhausted our supply of ammunition. The MARNIX had already landed her cargo supplies before all this happened and later that day orders were received for her to proceed to Gibraltar. As we rounded Cape Carbon at the western end of Bougie Bay, all AWATEA hands crowded the rails in the hope of seeing our ship, but the sea was empty and we then knew for sure she had gone.
Captain G B Morgan, surrounded by crew members from AWATEA, thanks Captain H W Hettema of the MARNIX van ST ALDEGONDA for the rescue and safe delivery to Liverpool.
From Gibraltar we went on to Liverpool, arriving there at the end of November. Early in January 1943 we embarked on the NORTHUMBERLAND for repatriation to New Zealand, arriving at Wellington early March and being met by Mr. Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of the day, who welcomed us back and thanked us all for services rendered. I recently met a seaman who was serving in a ship heading for Bougie at about midnight on 11th November, which saw the AWATEA still afloat but on fire from end to end. When it was obvious she was abandoned they went on their way, but he said she was nearly going under then and they did not stop to see the end.
I suppose it is easy to be wise after the event but I do feel a mistake was made leaving the Bougie anchorage while it was still daylight. There we had the concentrated anti-aircraft fire from all the other ships and also our rocket batteries could be used to good effect. All this benefit was lost when we moved off and became the sole target for many planes. Twelve hours at full speed in darkness would have put Bougie at least 240 miles astern.
I feel reference must be made to the efforts her crew put in to achieve a well-run ship. The providore department had to cater for a vast increase in numbers and this monumental task was efficiently carried out. The strain on deck officers navigating in convoy, with no lights and in all weathers, was terrific. The seamen, too, had the extra duty of manning guns when no service personnel were aboard, a job they carried out against overwhelming odds at Bougie, to such effect that Captain Morgan was moved to say, in reporting on the loss of his ship, that "she fought the fight of a battleship". For engine room staff it was a matter of keeping all things mechanical in order, which we achieved until the bombs blew everything apart.
Personally I have been proud to say I served on the Awatea, for she acquitted herself well in a time of our country's need, and I feel that is a sentiment all others would express.
Deryck Thomson's Account of his experiences during the Battle of the Atlantic called CHAOS ON THE HIGH SEAS: The Saga of Convoy AT-20.
At half past six o'clock on the morning of August 22nd, 1942, in five minute intervals, a procession of twenty-one ships steamed out of Halifax harbour bound for Greenock, Scotland.
Seventeen hours later one vessel had been sunk with the loss of 238 crew members, another had its stern sheared off with 7 crewmen trapped inside, a 25000 ton tanker was on fire with 7 severely injured crew aboard and a 13482 ton ship carrying 5000 Canadian troops had lost its entire bow section, leaving a yawning gap just inches above her waterline and in immediate peril of sinking.
These actions occurred within a confirmed time of 6 minutes.
What follows is an account of the chaos and confusion amongst ships in Atlantic Convoy AT-20 during a fog infested night, and how thousands of lives were saved through the valiant efforts of a few Canadian soldiers and some crewmen aboard their crippled ship....
At the head of the Convoy was the huge American battleship USS NEW YORK, followed by the cruiser USS PHILADELPHIA and nine destroyers of the United States Navy, including the USS BUCK, USS INGRAHAM, USS BRISTOL and USS EDISON. In line astern were nine former trans-Atlantic passenger liners converted into troopships, including the New Zealand- registered turbine steamship tss AWATEA and the aging British liner ss LETITIA ; with the oil tanker USS CHEMUNG being the last vessel to pass through the gate, a narrow gap in the submerged anti-submarine cable net strung across the harbour mouth.
Once in open water the ships took up their assigned stations. Five of the destroyers were deployed at strategic points around the circumference of an oceanic circle with a radius of seven nautical miles, inside of which in a rectangular shape were arrayed four parallel columns, each consisting of three ships line astern , flanked some 3000 yards off each corner by a destroyer escort.
This modern armada was identified as Atlantic Convoy AT-20 whose commander aboard the Philadelphia had the responsibility for ensuring its safe passage across a hostile ocean.
And what a heavy responsibility it was.
Already during that month, wolf packs of German U. boats had been harassing Atlantic shipping, threatening the Allied war effort by torpedoing twenty-four merchant ships laden with vital food supplies, masses of military equipment and in many instances taking their crews down with them.
The seas were relatively calm for that time of year and the Convoy was able to proceed in a zig zag pattern at 14.5 knots, the speed being determined by its slowest vessel, the British passenger ship LETITICA, holding the lead position in Column Two, with STRATHMORE and the DUCHESS OF BEDFORD in line astern. To its left, the cruiser PHILADELPHIA headed up Column One, with the 13482 ton AWATEA line astern, and 600 yards behind her, the 25000 ton bunker oil tanker CHEMUNG. The American destroyer BUCK was stationed some distance ahead of the first two Columns, with the INGRAHAM several thousand yards off the cruiser PHILADELPHIA'S port (left) side.
Like the other troopships, the New Zealand-registered passenger vessel was on loan to the British Admiralty for the duration of the war. She was carrying five thousand Canadian service men and women, including units of the Army's Fourth Division, along with the bridge- building Forestry Corps and a brave little band of recently graduated RCAF radar 'mechs' sworn to utmost secrecy against divulging any information whatsoever about this new sophisticated addition to the Allies' electronic weaponry.
The AWATEA was under command of Captain G.B.Morgan who had survived an earlier attack on his vessel by Japanese 'Zero' aircraft while returning from Hong Kong after disembarking battalions of the ill-fated Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles in October, 1941; many of whom were killed or captured within weeks of arrival.
The first boat drill was held shortly after the Convoy was properly formed up and underway. Apart from some initial confusion, all passengers were directed to their assigned stations, encumbered by unaccustomed and awkward fitting kapok life jackets, a piece of mandatory equipment which was to accompany its wearer at all times on pain of severe reprisal for any lapses.
After having suffered the rigours of RAF training schools' notorious cuisine over the past three months, our first ANZAC meal aboard passed gastronomical muster. A calm sea assisted digestion, with only a few prairie lads who had never seen a body of water larger and deeper than a spring-flooded prairie slough, rushing to deck rail before committing ingredients to the deep.
As darkness descended, thousands of hammocks were being slung below decks where the atmosphere soon became fetid as sweaty bodies vied for a share of tightly rationed space. Some of us lingered topside to savour fresh sea breezes created as the ship plowed steadily ahead. The vast ocean expanse lay under a full moon, its diffused brilliance interrupted by drifting irregular patches of dense surface fog .
Apart from the muted repetitious thump of the ship's pistons, there wasn't another sound or ship in sight. Smokers were careful to cup glowing butts within the palms of their hands, well aware of the penalties awaiting if any light was detected.
The whole scene was surrealistic indeed. We were reluctant to return below decks sooner than absolutely necessary.
Shortly before midnight the flagship PHILADELPHIA leading Column One had noticed that LETICIA, the lead vessel in Column Two was not responding to proper instructions and was veering off course. The BUCK was ordered to drop astern of the first column before coming back up the second and alongside the ship to correct its course, communicating by means of a bullhorn in order to maintain radio silence.
Instead of dropping back as ordered, the BUCK reversed direction, passing alongside the Philadelphia's port hull with the apparent intention of crossing under the battle cruiser's stern and on through the column in order to bring the LETITIA within hailing distance.
Suddenly out of a fog bank the sharp prow of the AWATEA emerged within a hundred feet of BUCK'S starboard (right) side as she attempted to cross in front of her. The big troopship swung violently to starboard as she tore into the BUCK'S starboard aft quarter section, almost cutting her keel in half.
The AWATEA gave several mighty shudders accompanied by the tortured screech of grinding metal followed by a series of explosions. Those of us on the deck's port side remained transfixed as several huge pieces of debris from the stricken ship's stern drifted alongside, banging and clattering against the troopship's hull, punctured by screams and cries for help from crewmen trapped inside while shipmates scrambled over the injured in attempts to free them. The BUCK had detached herself from the wreckage of AWATEA'S prow and was drifting off her stern when a depth charge rolled off the destroyer's deck primed to explode one hundred feet below, disabling her remaining propeller and rendering the engines useless.
Immediately following the collision, the INGRAHAM, some700 yards distant on the convoy's port side, was directed "at speed" to assist the badly damaged destroyer. She quickly reversed course, passing through several dense fog patches en route. While attempting a wide pass under the stern of the damaged AWATEA in order to reach what remained of the BUCK, the tanker CHEMUNG suddenly emerged from a fog bank, ramming the INGRAHAM amidships and flipping her on to her side. Seconds later, her munitions magazine exploded with a thunderous roar and a huge fireball lit up the night sky for miles around as the destroyer blew up and sank immediately, taking 238 souls with her. The force of the explosion tossed 11 severely injured survivors clear of the hull and into the ocean .
The collision had set fire to the forward deck of the fully loaded tanker and was in danger of spreading aft. Her captain reversed engines so that she was moving stern into the wind. This kept the flames at bay while the BRISTOL, which had arrived to pluck INGRAHAM'S 11 survivors from the water, broke out her hoses and assisted in getting the fire sufficiently under control for a tow rope to be secured between them.
Logged entries by eye witnesses on accompanying ships placed the time of the first collision at 1100.27 ; the second at 1100.33.
Within a space of 6 minutes, one US destroyer had been sunk with the loss of 238 lives, another had almost been cut in half with the loss of 7 crew members; a 25000 ton tanker fully loaded with bunker oil had been set on fire, severely injuring another7 crew members including her captain; and a troopship carrying 5000 Canadians had a gaping hole where her bow used to be, which extended some forty feet back to the forepeak bulkhead and down to the wateline, leaving the ship in perilous danger of sinking.
All of this action had taken place while the passengers below decks were still clambering over upturned hammocks, scattered kitbags and shards of broken glass in efforts to reach the AWATEA'S companion way ladders leading up to the decks; life jackets over protruding khaki shirttails, some without boots and all with but one thought in mind: Was the ship sinking?
The force of the collision had knocked out the AWATEA'S electrical communication system and direction finder. She continued to develop a distinct list to port. In between the fog patches the night sky was moonlit and we were sitting ducks waiting for the next torpedo, believing that one had already found its mark.
Very quickly we were assembled at our designated muster stations. Lifeboats were swung out of their davits and lowered over the ship's sides to the embarkation deck. The box-shaped life rafts were hauled to the deck rails, ready to be flung overboard. As lifejackets were cinched tighter, those who had been below decks assumed the ship had been torpedoed. There was no panic (after all, we're Canadians!) as we waited with pounding hearts for another torpedo or the captain's order to abandon ship.
Nothing happened. We remained at our deck stations for further orders, which had to be transmitted verbally through loud hailers from the ship's bridge to officers standing by on each of her decks.
As the night wore on, those who had stripped down to their skivvies before climbing into the hammocks below, shivered violently in the chill Atlantic air. Between drifting patches of fog, a full moon provided any predator with the ship's silhouette; the rest of the convoy having disappeared into the ocean darkness.
There was an eerie silence on deck as the waiting continued. Initial waves of fear and apprehension gave way to stoicism and even some black-humoured banter. In a dry-mouthed rasp one half -clothed shivering soldier plaintively asked : "Anyone wanna buy a watch - cheap?"
Six hours later in dawn's early light we were stood down from muster stations and allowed below decks to sort out the mess.( one man was caught while rifling through his mates' kit. He spent the rest of the voyage in irons until handed over to the military police) The crippled AWATEA again was underway at a severely reduced speed of 5 knots, listing to port minus forty feet of her bow but still afloat. Using battery-aided power, the cooks did their best to rustle up some food and hot drinks after retrieving their pots and pans which were scattered all over the galley's deck
In a 360 degree scan, not another ship could be seen. We weren't comforted by the fact we had been left all alone in that vast expanse of fog- shrouded water and whatever might be lurking under, or on its surface, waiting for the kill.
Several destroyers had been detached from the Convoy to find us and when they couldn't, it was assumed that the AWATEA might have gone down. Because of the damage to her electrical system, she had no means of radio communication. Captain Morgan knew that the Convoy's commander would have signalled Naval Headquarters in Halifax with the ship's last known location and requesting immediate assistance.
Early on the morning of the 23rd, the RCN Corvette KAMSACK appeared on the horizon but still too far away to have heard the shouts of greeting from thousands of Canadian and New Zealand throats. She was soon joined by a small flotilla of Canadian destroyers which skillfully guided the stricken troopship back to port through a dense fog - a real 'pea-souper' as sailors would call it
Less than two days after her departure, the AWATEA was safely back in harbour.
It was only as her weary passengers filed down the gangplank on to dockside that the extent of the damage became apparent. The AWATEA'S imposing bow section had been reduced to a tangle of twisted steel plates and beams piled up against the forepeak bulkhead, leaving a yawning space extending back some forty feet at the waterline. Had her crew not emptied all of the fresh water tanks allowing the ship to ride higher and the Forestry Corps' quick action in shoring up the inside of that bulkhead with their wooden timbers, it is quite possible that the ship could have sunk before being located.
It had been a very close call.
Army units were marched back to the barracks which had been left only the day before, where they were granted survivors leave while alternate transport was arranged. Our brave little band of (radio detection and ranging) radar personnel wasn't so fortunate. To ensure that we couldn't betray any of our secrets to the enemy, we were confined to squat wooden huts enclosed by a barbed wire fence which we managed to penetrate soon enough to allow its inmates access to what passed for wartime delights in that port city. All of us had been careful not to bridge the Secrecy Act and were astonished to be greeted by a restaurant waitress who having noted the Zeus-like twin thunderbolts patches attached to the sleeves of our tunics greeted us with "Oh, you must be the boys off the AWATEA" then in hushed tones proceeded to tell us about the submarine which only last week had penetrated the submerged chain link net across the harbour's mouth.
Two weeks later we clambered aboard the venerable British passenger liner WARWICK CASTLE for another "go". It was a rough eleven day passage, not made any more bearable by the galley slaves serving up slimy-looking tripe and soggy onions on more than one occasion, most of which was spasmodically released over the side to the fish below.
Years later we learned that the American Navy had concluded an official inquiry into these incidents in September, 1942. Its contents were declassified some years later. References to naval particulars in this narrative were mainly extracted from that source.
Until quite recently many of AWATEA'S passengers aboard that night believed the ship had rammed the INGRAHAM while she was attempting to cross the troopship's bow in order to intercept an approaching torpedo; sacrificing ship and crew in an effort to save her. At war's end, detailed accounts of this valiant sacrificial action appeared in several Canadian newspapers!
In fact the entire episode wasn't the result of enemy action, but a string of incidents which began with LETITIA'S failure to respond to signals ordering her back into formation; the BUCKS navigation error attempting to cross through, rather than around the stern of the last ship in the column, a manoeuvre repeated by the INGRAHAM when ordered to proceed to the aid of crippled BUCK "at speed" , and the patches of surface fog which interfered with visual night sightings despite being intermittently penetrated by light from a full moon .
Additional information was secured during a recent telephone conversation with a retired U.S. Navy leading signalman living in California who was serving on BUCK the night she was rammed. With some emotion he recalled the grisly details of his shipmates' injuries and death. Fifty-nine years after the event he was surprised to learn that it was the AWATEA which had struck his ship. Through several reunions with shipmates over the years it was believed to have been the giant Cunard liner EMPRESS OF BRITIAN !
Shortly after the incident there was a rumour going about that Captain Morgan had suffered a nervous breakdown after his ship's second disaster at sea. If so, he must have made a rapid recovery as he was in command of the AWATEA on November 11th when she was strafed and bombed off the coast of Algeria after successfully disembarking a contingent of troops. This time he lost his ship, but miraculously everyone aboard managed to escape with their lives. Following this action Morgan was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by a grateful British government.
The USS BUCK wasn't so fortunate. After being towed under destroyer escort back to Halifax, she was delivered to the Boston Navy Yard, where her stern was rebuilt and she went back to sea. Six months later she was sunk off the North African coast with heavy loss of life.
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