Welcome to the homepage of former British Royal Navy sailor, John Garside. During World War Two, John served on merchant ships as a Royal Navy DEMS (Defensively-Equipped-Merchant-Ships) Gunner. In this engrossing tale, he recounts his many adventures aboard the Canadian-built 10,000-ton cargo ship, SS Fort Crevier. John served aboard Fort Crevier all her life and on April 14th, 1944, at the young age of nineteen, he witnessed a horror that would haunt him the rest of his days -- the catastrophic explosion of the Fort Stikine at Bombay, India.
by John Garside
As we entered the Bay of Gaspé we ran into my first full blown gale. Just as I was getting over my fear, the fire bars in the boilers melted and we lost the fire and of course steam. We were wallowing around badly when the call "all hands on deck" was made. Now it's one thing reading about that call in a novel, when you are reading at home by the fireside, and something else again when you are in the middle of a raging storm at sea. We rolled so hard that our life boats, which were swung out on their davits as was the custom in war time, filled with water causing the davits to curl like pretzels and we were ordered to cut them loose. I was hanging onto a line which was tied to a merchant seaman, while he hung over the side cutting at the rope falls holding up the boats. Another seaman secured a line to me and there we were with the seas breaking over the top of us. As I write this, I can feel these many years later how scared I really was. Eventually a deep sea tug got a line on us and we were towed safely into Halifax.
A month later the storm damage was repaired, but we still needed lifeboats before we'd be ready to join a convoy for home. Finally, one day in late October of 1943 we had another call for "All Hands". This time our Captain had a proposition to put to the crew. In as much as our cargo was badly needed in England, he was prepared to install extra life rafts and join a convoy that would get us to England for Christmas IF we would agree to sail without life boats. It was a crew decision, we could not be forced to sail without boats. After surprisingly little discussion, a secret ballot was taken. The outcome was that we joined the next convoy to U.K. which left around the middle of November 1943 and I was about to start doing the job for which I was being paid.
My job as a DEMS gunner was to take care of the ships armament, to man the guns and teach merchant seaman to assist in operating the guns. The Fort Crevier had a modern high angle low angle four inch gun on the stern, on the monkey island she had two 1914 vintage Lewis guns that fired 303 ammunition and we also had two gun tubs containing Hotchkiss machine guns, also 1914 vintage. Our total ammunition supply consisted of ten four inch shells and about fifty thousand rounds of 303 ammunition. The Lewis guns had magazines that held 150 rounds. Our training indicated that if attacked by a dive bomber, we'd have about ten seconds from the time the plane started to dive before it was within our range, and that it would be in range for six seconds. Given the rate of fire of a Lewis gun, a burst of six seconds would empty the gun. Many gunners developed the system of wait for the dive then, squeeze and duck. No one wanted to be fighting to change magazines with a plane still firing at them.
The Hotchkiss gun fired a strip holding fifty rounds of ammunition. That also took about five seconds. There was so much flash from the gun that if fired at night it blinded any one within fifty feet and lit up the ship like a floodlight.
Usually on the first day out to sea the gunners would have a "shoot" to test the guns. On this trip because of our lack of ammunition we decided that the guns would probably be OK and we had better save the ammo.
The convoy consisted of about sixty ships of all shapes, sizes, and speeds. We of course were limited to the speed of the slowest ship. In this case six knots. As I recall, our escorts consisted of an old U.S. navy four stacker (part of Roosevelt's Lend Lease), a tribal class destroyer, two corvettes and a deep sea tug whose only purpose was to pick up survivors.
The storm lasted four days and it took another four before the seas got back to normal. The destroyers did a lot of running around looking for lost sheep and eventually we were back together and in about the same position we were in when the storm started. We now had another kind of company however. High above us and well out of range of our guns circled a German Focke-Wulf Condor passing on our position to any subs in the area. That night we lost four ships.
The crossing, that normally would have taken ten days, stretched to thirty, most of it through pretty foul weather The only attacks we had were in good weather so we prayed for bad. The surviving members of the convoy finally arrived in Liverpool and after a fun trip up the Manchester ship canal we arrived in Manchester ten days before Christmas.
The young recuperate quickly, I was eighteen at that time, and so after having seven days Christmas leave, strutting around with a western ocean roll, I was ready for sea again.
This time with the same deck and engineering officers but with
new deck crew and black hand gang, we sailed on January 5th, 1944.
We were in a much smaller convoy and after a day at sea we discovered
that we were bound for New York.
On arrival in New York we were immediately assigned to a dry dock and when the dry dock was eventually pumped dry, a walk beneath the ship showed a gash that ran from just forward of the bridge the entire length of No. 2 hold. This is about the length of a Grey Coach Bus. We were very lucky we got in!
The month that the ship spent in dry dock, I spent in Hillside, New Jersey with my aunt and uncle and a cousin who was a bit younger than I was. I had a wonderful time! I had just turned nineteen, and thus was a kind of trophy for my cousin who was perhaps seventeen at the time. He showed me around with pride and obviously I loved it. Every week I went to Brooklyn to check on the ship and was surprised to find all kinds of activity on board. We were being converted into a mule carrier with stalls for six hundred mules and accommodation for forty horse soldiers.
While all the repair work and modifications were in progress the powers that be decided to improve our armament. A twelve pounder gun was added in the bow, the Hotchkiss guns were replaced by two modern twin fifty caliber machine guns , the Lewis guns were replaced with four twenty millimeter Oerlikons. And the piece de resistance was a Pill Box that carried two banks of rockets, ten to a bank. Paravanes were added so that we could sweep in front of the bow for mines. Degaussing gear to help against magnetic mines was also installed.
Eventually the repairs and conversion were complete, and I said good bye to my new found friends in New York and New Jersey. The ship sailed two days later and soon we learned that our destination was Norfolk, Virginia where we would load mules. Click Here for Map
Arriving in Norfolk, I was surprised to see that we did not go along side, instead we laid off in the bay and the mules were brought out to us in barges.
Once aboard, she was taken over to the head of the gangway and her handler rang her bell. It was like magic. The stalled mules, hearing the bell and seeing the white mule mare, charged up the gangway and went meekly down into the holds. A couple of times the mules stalled again but as soon as the white mule appeared the line moved on. It took most of the day to load them all but once they were all aboard the white mule was taken ashore and we started to get acquainted with our passengers, both soldiers and mules.
|The First and Last Voyage of the Fort Crevier is continued in Part Two|