|Continued from Part One|
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.
In comparison to their gallant predecesors which
"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
In addition, ships like
Sapperton Park did not have
radar or the type of
equipment available today.
position was found by skilful observations of the sun, moon and
stars with a sextant.
As Sapperton Park steamed away from the Panama Canal
towards the American naval base at
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.
Around the time that Sapperton Park
reached Guantanamo Bay, where she was to spend a couple of days,
the German surrender of
officially announced. The German U-boats were under orders
to give themselves up, but, just in case
some of them fought on the
continued with the
Bay was an assembly port
for convoys where ships like the Sapperton
Park which had been travelling on their own as
for the next stage of their
journey up to New York.
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 instuctions from the
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
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.
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
Mexico and the
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.
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
Before late 1942,
when at-sea fuelling was first introduced to the Atlantic
smaller naval escorts like the
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.
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.)
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
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.
leased to Britain were given a new name
beginning with the
prefix Sam. Gordon Sollors, author
Stories of a Merchant Sailor,
served aboard a Sam ship which had the
unusual distinction of having retained its American name, Frank
Former British merchant sailor, Gordon Sollors, recalls 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.
The Canadian-built Victory tankers
were unusual in that they looked like a 10,000-ton
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,
also produced a great variety of smaller merchant vessels
which were suitable for service in coastal areas.
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.
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.
Sapperton Park arrived safely at London.
As soon as he was allowed ashore, Chuck immediately
contacted his father,
Betsworth who was
Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps at
Aldershot Barracks in
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
Chuck's pages are maintained by Maureen Venzi and are part of The Allied Merchant Navy of WWII Website.