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Voyage of a Merchant Sailor, Part Two

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Continued from Part One


THE VOYAGE


SS Queens Park at Balboa

This is the steamship Queens Park , a sister ship to Sapperton Park. Queen's Park was built in mid-1944 by West Coast Shipbuilders Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C. She is shown arriving at Balboa in the Canal Zone (Click for Map. Due to wartime congestion it will take the two ships about 3 days to traverse the Canal.

Although Canada had only 37 deep-sea merchant ships at the start of WWII, her remarkable wartime shipyards produced so many merchant ships -- 402 -- that by war's end, Canada had the 4th largest Merchant Navy in the world.

This stern view of Queens Park shows her 12 foot high deck load of lumber which has been painted with gray paint. Both Queens Park and Sapperton Park were equipped with a variety of weapons for defense and were classed as Defensively- Equipped Merchant Ships or DEMS. Each vessel also carried naval volunteer gunners who were known as DEMS Gunners.

SS Queens Park at Balboa - Stern View

The DEMS gunners were assisted by the merchant seamen, who also took gunnery courses. The armament on the two ships was not identical. For example, although both Sapperton Park and Queens Park were equipped with torpedo net gear, only Sapperton Park was equipped with an after rocket launcher.

In comparison to their gallant predecessors which maintained the "fragile lifeline" in the first desperate years of the war, these newly-built, defensively-armed replacement ships were well-armed. But, no matter what weapons they carried, they were not warships, and they were still vulnerable to U-boat attacks. In addition, ships like Sapperton Park did not have radar or the type of sophisticated navigation equipment available today. A ship's position was found by skillful observations of the sun, moon and stars with a sextant.

Catwalk

This photo shows Sapperton Park's quick-release raft and the hard-won catwalk which was built over the deck cargo. Before catwalks like this became standard, the sailors had to to clamber over chains and timber to get from their messroom located aft (at the rear), in order to reach the galley which was located midship (in the middle) -- an undertaking which could be hazardous!

Before catwalks were standard, traversing the foreward deck load at the front of the vessel was an even more hair-raising experience, especially in a rolling, blacked-out ship at night, and the catwalks saved many a sailor from being washed overboard.



Both Sapperton Park and Queens Park were fueled by oil and this view of Queens Park shows black oil stains on the side of her hull. Such stains, which were quite common, were the result of an oil fuelling accident in which the overflow ran along the deck and out through the scupper drains.

SS Queens Park - fuel Stains

The fellow in the far upper right is standing on the cross-tree of the mainmast, the same spot where Chuck stood on Sapperton Park to take some of these photos. The large jumbo derrick, which can be seen to the left of the man, was used to lift heavy loads of up to 30 tons. There was another derrick on the foremast which was used to lift even heavier loads of up to 50 tons.

As Sapperton Park steamed away from the Panama Canal towards the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the final days of the war against Germany were drawing to a close, but, the ship's crew still remained on guard against German U-boat attacks.

Torpedo Nets

This photo, taken in early May 1945, shows Sapperton Park on her way to Guantanamo Bay. At this point, she is alone, travelling at a very respectable 11 knots, and probably zigzagging as a precaution against U-boats. As can be seen in the bottom right corner, her lifeboats are swung out over her sides to make them easier to launch in case of attack.

The tall booms and wire gear are part of Sapperton Park's torpedo net defence. When lowered, the torpedo nets were supposed to protect the ship from torpedoes, but in reality, they slowed the vessel down so much that they were rarely used.

Around the time that Sapperton Park reached Guantanamo Bay, where she was to spend a couple of days, the German surrender of May 8th, 1945, was officially announced. The German U-boats were under orders to give themselves up, but, just in case some of them fought on the British Admiralty continued with the convoy system. Guantanamo Bay was an assembly port for convoys where ships like the Sapperton Park which had been travelling on their own as independents were assembled for the next stage of their journey up to New York.

This photo shows the merchant vessels after they have left Guantanamo Bay and arranged themselves into a convoy. Naval escort ships equipped with weapons such as asdic (sonar), radar and depth charges, protected the convoy from U-boat attack.

Convoy

A convoy formation would consist of short columns of merchant ships with each vessel assigned to a specific position. The formation would be more wide than it was deep, so that as little as possible of its vulnerable flank would be exposed. The naval escorts would be made up most often of a combination of destroyers, corvettes, sloops, perhaps a Bangor minesweeper, and by mid-war, frigates, all of which patrolled the edges of the convoy. Aircraft also played an important role in protecting convoys.

Crossing the ocean in a convoy's crowded confines required a wide variety of skills on the part of the masters and their crews. Each merchant ship had to follow precise instructions from the Convoy Commodore, a high-ranking naval officer who travelled aboard a merchant vessel in the middle of the front row. Any ship which fell behind and became a "straggler", was in the most danger from U-boats. During the day, each vessel had to be careful to not make dark clouds of smoke which would give their position away to the enemy. At night, all the ships in the convoy had to navigate in total blackout conditions. At all times, each ship had to refrain from throwing garbage overboard as its trail could also give away the convoy's position. Except in an emergency, when a ship's radio operator, or "Sparks" would, if possible, signal a distress call by radio, the ships in a convoy could only communicate by means of flags or flashing lamps.

Convoy

This is another view of the convoy as it makes its way from Guantanamo Bay to New York, sometime in the second week of May 1945.

During the first half of 1942, before the United States Navy began using the convoy system, the waters along the Eastern Seaboard and down into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea were extremely hazardous to merchant ships. A few German U-boats moved into the undefended area and sunk many vessels, often within sight of the American shore.

Missile Launcher

This photo, looking backwards from the crosstrees on the mainmast towards the stern, shows the rocket projectile launcher which was mounted above and behind the ship's 4-inch gun. The round drums to the side, on what is called the after docking bridge, are smoke floats. They were designed to ignite and release smoke when they were dropped overboard, to hide the ship from the enemy.

The oblong-shaped lockers in the center of the picture, hold ready ammo for the 4-inch gun. The magazine where the rest of the ammunition is stored, is located two decks below, right underneath the crew's accommodations!



In this view from the mainmast the Number 5 hatch can be seen directly underneath the 12 foot high deck load of timber. The crew members are off watch and just relaxing. The chain lashings which held the timber in place had to be checked often to ensure that they were holding the deck load securely -- a shifting cargo could cause disaster at sea.

Chain Lashings

When the deck load was stowed in Port Alberni in April it was quite wet, but it dried out by time Sapperton Park reached the Panama Canal. At that point, the crew had to take up the slack in the chain lashings. Then, once the ship journeyed into the Atlantic Ocean, the waves came over the deck and caused the timber to swell and the chain lashings had to be adjusted again.

When the convoy reached New York in mid-May (Click for map), Sapperton Park's crew were given shore leave. Throughout the war the hospitable city had been a favourite destination of merchant seaman and on this visit Chuck and his mates had the good fortune to receive tickets to a Frank Sinatra concert. The concert was put on by the United Services Organization or USO which during the war provided great entertainment for the troops. For Chuck the concert was the highlight of his visit to New York.

On May 19th Sapperton Park got under way again. She was one of the 59 ships which left New York harbour and formed into a new convoy, HX-357, the second-to-last convoy to leave New York. On May 22nd, two other feeder convoys, one of 15 ships from Halifax, and a second of 11 ships from Sydney, Nova Scotia, joined up with HX-357, making a total of 85 ships, plus the veteran Rescue Ship Zamalek. Zamalek was one of the earliest and best-known of the gallant little Rescue Ships which travelled with the convoys. She had begun her war service in February 1941 and since that time she had sailed with 64 convoys and saved over 600 lives.

After the three convoys met each other at their ocean rendezvous point, the merchantmen formed into 16 columns of 5 or 6 ships each. Sapperton Park was given the last place in Column 16, a position which, like the last place in Column 1, was known as "Coffin Corner" because of its vulnerability to attack. HX-357 then set off for the United Kingdom at a speed of 9.2 knots which by the standards set for convoys was considered fast.

SS Sapperton Park - Quick-Release Raft

This photo shows another view of Sapperton Park's quick-release raft and her torpedo nets. The vessel visible in the next column of the convoy, is the American Liberty Ship, Ponce de Leon. Her place in the convoy was actually directly ahead of the Sapperton Park, but, at this point she had dropped out of line.



This is the Motor Tanker Longwood. She is carrying fuel oil for re-fuelling the naval escorts while they are at sea and and in that role she was described as "Designated Escort Oiler #6" . When Chuck took this photo, Longwood had temporarily dropped out of her position as the third ship in column 14.

Longwood

Longwood was owned by the British firm John I. Jacobs and she had an unusual history. She had been torpedoed and nearly broken in half on January 31, 1941 off Colombo, Ceylon, but, her crew of 41 managed to keep her afloat and bring her safely to Colombo where temporary repairs were made. After many months she arrived at Baltimore, Maryland, where in August 1943 she was fitted with a new bow.

Before late 1942, when at-sea fuelling was first introduced to the Atlantic convoys, smaller naval escorts like the corvettes, sloops, minesweepers and older destroyers, were hampered by their small fuel capacity. Tankers or oilers like Longwood, which could re-fuel the escorts at sea, were a great advantage.

Liberty Ship SS Ponce de Leon

These next three photos show the American Liberty Ship, Ponce de Leon which was carrying general cargo and military trucks. When Chuck took these photos, there were no other ships visible -- the big convoy stretched away to the North and over the horizon.

The American-built 10,000-DWT Liberty Ships and their Ocean predecessors were based on the same British "North Sands" design as the Canadian-built Fort and Park steamships. The Oceans and the Forts were ordered by Britain, and since Britain had plentiful supplies of coal, they were built as coal-burners. The earlier Parks were also coal-fired, but the later versions were oil-fired or built so they could be adapted to either fuel. The Liberty Ships which were destined for North American use were fuelled by oil. (For detailed information on all the Canadian-built "Forts”, “Parks" and "Oceans", visit Fort Ships of WWII.)

In Britain, the prefix Empire was given to most of the country's newly constructed merchant ships, including the "10,000-tonners". However, in the case where a merchantman was privately ordered by a shipping company, it could be given any name which the company chose. In addition to new construction, Britain also used the prefix Empire for ships which she acquired by other means, for example: captured or seized vessels and the laid up ships of WWI vintage which she purchased from the USA. Liberty Ships leased to Britain were given a new name beginning with the prefix Sam. Gordon Sollors, author of Stories of a Merchant Sailor, served aboard a Sam ship which had the unusual distinction of having retained its American name, Frank A. Vanderlip.

Liberty Ship hulls were welded rather than riveted, enabling them to be be produced very quickly. Over 2,700 Liberty Ships were built during the war. On average it took 42 days to complete a Liberty Ship, but, Robert E. Peary, built at the Kaiser shipyard in Oakland, California, was completed in a record 8 days.

Ponce de Leon

Former British merchant sailor, Gordon Sollors, recalled that the Liberty Ships first became "noticeable" in 1942, "were everywhere" by 1943, and that by 1944 "one saw whole convoys consisting of practically all Liberty Ships." In Convoy HX-357 there were 43 American merchant ships, and of those, 38 were Liberty Ships.

Liberty Ships had US Navy Armed Guard gunners who were similar to the British and Canadian DEMS gunners. As well as dry cargo vessels, Allied shipyards also built tankers which were so vital to the war effort. The tankers ranged in size from British-built 400-tonners to the 13,500-ton T2 tankers built in the United States and the 14,500-ton Norwegian -type built in Britain.

The Canadian-built Victory tankers were unusual in that they looked like a 10,000-ton dry cargo vessel. This feature turned out to be an advantage as these ships were not as choice a target for the U-boats which went after traditional tanker silhouettes first. American shipyards also built a class of cargo steamers known as Victory Ships. They looked similar to the Liberty Ships, but were capable of a much faster 16.5 knots. In addition, Allied shipyards also produced a great variety of smaller merchant vessels which were suitable for service in coastal areas. The tremendous output of all these replacement merchant ships was a crucial factor in helping to turn the outcome of the "Battle of the Atlantic" in the Allies' favour.

"WHEN THE LIGHTS GO ON AGAIN"

During its crossing, HX-357 ran into thick fog, a deadly hazard at any time, but even more dangerous for vessels confined in a convoy formation. During the few days that the fog lasted, each ship had to regularly sound its fog horn and stream a fog buoy astern so that the the ship following behind would not over run the one in front. Sometime after passing through the fog, the Convoy Commodore received notice that another hazard loomed ahead -- a westbound convoy which was heading straight for HX-357. Since the threat of collision was now more dangerous than the threat of rogue U-boats, the Commodore signalled to the convoy to turn on their navigation lights. One by one, each ship complied, and for sailors who for so many years had sailed only in darkness, the scene was truly memorable. In Chuck's own words:

"When the whole sea lit up, it was a site to behold. But, unfortunately, the Coney Island light display did not last long. Before the night was over, the Convoy Commodore firmly ordered lights out again."
During its crossing, HX-357 ran into thick fog, a deadly hazard at any time, but even more dangerous for vessels confined in a convoy formation. During the few days that the fog lasted, each ship had to regularly sound its fog horn and stream a fog buoy astern so that the the ship following behind would not over run the one in front. Sometime after passing through the fog, the Convoy Commodore received notice that another hazard loomed ahead -- a westbound convoy which was heading straight for HX-357. Since the threat of collision was now more dangerous than the threat of rogue U-boats, the Commodore signalled to the convoy to turn on their navigation lights. One by one, each ship complied, and for sailors who for so many years had sailed only in darkness, the scene was truly memorable. In Chuck's own words:
"When the whole sea lit up, it was a site to behold. But, unfortunately, the Coney Island light display did not last long. Before the night was over, the Convoy Commodore firmly ordered lights out again."

HX-357 had to continue putting up with blackout until the convoy arrived off Fastnet, Ireland on May 29th. On that day the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches finally gave the order for 'lights on'. With their lights ablaze, Sapperton Park and six other ships, detached themselves from HX-357 and proceeded on their own to London.

For one of the London-bound Liberty Ships, the war was not yet over. On June 4th, Colin P. Kelly Jr. was continuing on to Antwerp, when she hit a mine off Ostend, Belgium. Fortunately, no one on board her was killed, although the ship was damaged beyond repair. On the same day that Colin P. Kelly Jr. was mined, Sapperton Park arrived safely at London. As soon as he was allowed ashore, Chuck immediately contacted his father, Charles L. Betsworth who was with the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps at Aldershot Barracks in Hampshire. Chuck and his father hadn't seen each other since 1941, and Charles didn't even know that his son was at sea, so they had a wonderful reunion.




Voyage of a Merchant Sailor is continued in Part 3: Epilogue




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Chuck's pages are maintained by Maureen Venzi and are part of The Allied Merchant Navy of WWII Website.