The First and Last Voyage

of the Fort Crevier, Part One



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

John Garside, age 17

John Garside at the age of 17 years, 3months during Basic Seamanship Training
My destiny with the SS Fort Crevier was set in motion in 1942, when, as a 17 year old, I joined the Royal Navy. After graduating from the gunnery school H.M.S. Wellesley in the Spring of 1943, I was assigned to the DEMS pool in Hull. A week later I was drafted to the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth as a working gunner for the five day trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On arrival I was paid off and assigned to the DEMS pool in that city. I had been in Halifax about a month when I was assigned to a ship in Montreal. There were five of us drafted to the SS Fort Crevier, a brand new 10,000 ton merchant ship built in Montreal. The journey to Montreal was by train and, as I recall, took about two and a half days. We had a great time and were treated like royalty by the other travelers. On arrival in Montreal we were told that the ship was not ready for us and we were housed in a downtown hotel, given a week's supply of food vouchers, and told to report back to the office in a week. The Fort Crevier, although brand new, was a coal fired steam ship. Our quarters were roomy, clean, and quite comfortable. We had our own showers and head as well as a separate mess deck. After taking on bunkers, we headed down river to Quebec where we were loaded with ammunition, tanks and other war material. Finally we topped up with grain and set out for Halifax to join a convoy for the United Kingdom.

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.

SS Bowness Park This photo is of one of Fort Crevier's sister-ships, SS Bowness Park.
Although Bowness Park was an oil-fired "Victory" model and Ft. Crevier was a coal-burning "North Sands" type, the two ships looked nearly identical and carried the same armament.
This photo is from The Unknown Navy: Canada's World War II Merchant Navy Robert G. Halford, Vanwell Publishing, 1995.

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 Voyage to Manchester

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.
A Four Stacker destroyer
Although desperately needed and appreciated, the old "four stacker" destroyers were so unseaworthy that naval author James B. Lamb described them as "the most dubious gift since the Greeks left that wooden horse for the Trojans". This photo of a camouflaged four stacker is from Canadians and the Second World War, 1939-45 published by Reader's Digest in 1986.
We were happy to have the tug along because we knew that no one else would stop to pick up survivors. The first night out we lost two ships on the outer edge of the convoy; both of them were tankers. I will never forget that sight. In any event, we knew we were in for it. At six knots, there was no way of running from the attacking subs. Then we got a break -- the weather picked up, and before you could shake a stick, the winds were up to gale force making the Bay of Gaspé look like a pond. Below decks it was very uncomfortable to say the least and on deck it was downright dangerous. The good news was knowing the submarines could not operate in that weather. The convoy of course went to hell in a hand basket and scattered all over the ocean, and the lookouts, mostly gunners, had a terrible time trying to stay dry and move about the ship to their look-out stations. The waves were somewhere between fifty and sixty feet tall and we were literally tossed around like a cork. During the daylight hours we would occasionally get a glimpse of another ship which was all we wanted, we sure didn't want to get too close.

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.

The Voyage to New York

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.

Once again the North Atlantic winter showed off its stuff and, because we were light ship, that is in ballast, the ride was even worse than anything I had experienced thus far. Fortunately the wind was behind us so we were making good time west.

A Liberty Ship
The Liberty Ship which split apart in front of Ft. Crevier, was SS Joseph Smith. Fortunately, all 67 men aboard her were rescued by the corvette HMS Kingcup. This photo of an unnamed Liberty Ship is from The National Watercraft Collection by Howard I. Chapelle, United States National Museum, 1960.
On our seventh day out in unbelievably bad weather, a Liberty Ship that had drifted off station, broke in half almost directly in front of us. She went down almost immediately. There was nothing that we could do except hang on. Although the Liberty went down fast we had no chance and we ran over the top of her wreckage to a horrible scraping and tearing sound. No one had to ask Chippy to sound the bilges, he was doing that even as we scraped over the sinking ship and he found lots of water. However the water was not getting deeper with time so the pumps were taking care of things. After a full assessment of our damage, our skipper asked permission of the Commodore of the convoy to leave and head for New York independently. This request was granted and we were on our own, heading for Brooklyn and dry dock.

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.

SS Mount Maxwell Park This photo is of another of Fort Crevier's' sister-ships, SS Mount Maxwell Park. Like Bowness Park she was an oil-fired "Victory" model.
Mount Maxwell Park's armaments were identical to those of Fort Crevier's. In this photo she is deploying her torpedo nets. The A-frame attached to her bow is for towing the paravanes used in minesweeping. Although she looked like Fort Crevier and the other Park/ Fort dry cargo vessels, the Mount Maxwell Park was actually a tanker -- her freighter-profile was an advantage as U-boats went after ships with traditional tanker-profiles first.
This photo is also from The Unknown Navy: Canada's World War II Merchant Navy by Robert G. Halford.

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. Please 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.
Mules in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps

Mules, which are a cross between horses and donkeys, were a vital part of the Allied war effort in places like Burma. This photo is from the from the website of The British Mule Society
The first to board were the Cavalry. Forty horse soldiers came aboard with their kit and tools. After stowing their gear, they quickly went about the job of preparing to receive the mules. Gangways were put in place to guide the mules into the stalls that had been built 'tween decks, and by the time the first barge load of mules arrived every thing was ready. The first twenty mules moved up the steep gangway (rigged on our starboard side) without a problem, but when they saw their buddies disappearing into the bowels of the ship, they got scared or suspicious or something and the line bogged down. Nothing would move them, either up or down. After great discussions between officers and men, a small boat dashed ashore and an hour later a boat came around to our port side and in the boat was a small pure white mule with a big shiny bell around her neck. A boom was rigged and the mule came aboard in a cargo net.

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


This page is maintained by Maureen Venzi and it is part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.