Merchant Navy Sparks – Part 1

ernie-brown-merchant-marinerIntroduction

On Board the Maasdam

Convoy HX 119

Convoy HX 133

Battle of Atlantic Veterans Honoured

Introduction

This is the story of one radio operator, who for a limited time, was in the midst of The Battle of the Atlantic. My purpose is to remind us all of the dedication of our Naval crews, our Merchant Navy crews, and the crews of the Allied Merchant Ships, which carried the necessary supplies and equipment to the places where they were needed, in the face of the enemy efforts to cut off all supplies.

Wireless Operator, or Radio Operator, usually known as ‘Sparks’ in the Merchant Navy, was one of many occupations serving in every Branch of the Armed Services – Army, Navy and Air Force, the Ferry Command, and the Merchant Navy. This year of 2005, the 60th Anniversary of the end of WWII, we remember all Veterans, of all Services, whose lives were changed forever through their experiences. We remember especially all those who gave their lives in the long struggle.

The Annual Memorial Service for RCN and MN Veterans is held on the first Sunday of May, at the Cenotaph, at Elgin and Wellington Streets in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. This account is dedicated to the memory of the sailors lost at sea, during the war years.

On Board the Maasdam

After graduating from High School in 1939, I had begun training as a Radio Operator with Canadian Electronics Institute, in Toronto. With some time out for my share of farm work, I was ready to try the Department of Transport exam for my 2nd Class Radio Operator Certificate in March 1941. We had studied the theory of radio, and the typical receiver and transmitter circuits of the time. Operating procedures based upon the British Postmaster General’s Handbook had to be memorized, including commercial message counting and charging; and learned to copy, and to send, morse code at 20 wpm [if memory is reliable].

We were told that Merchant ships were in need of many radio operators to enable continuous watch-keeping in the radio rooms of ships sailing in convoy. We were asked if we would volunteer to go ‘deep sea’. Five of us in the group of about 20, volunteered. Following the test, we learned that five of us had passed! Do you suppose there was a message there?

I was given a train ticket to New York, and told to report to the offices of Holland America Line in Hoboken, NJ. I reported there March 31, 1941, and was assigned to the Steam Ship MAASDAM, a 10,000 ton freighter, with 16 cabins for passengers. My Radio Operator Certificate was mailed directly to the shipping company, and delivered to me aboard the SS MAASDAM. I was signed on the ship’s payroll April 1st. Loading of cargo was just being completed, and 32 passengers came aboard. We sailed April 2nd.

maasdam

Sailing up to Halifax in good weather, the motion of the ship was getting to me, but not to the point of being seasick. We reached Halifax April 4th and anchored in Bedford Basin. Convoy HX 119 formed up on April 6th and headed Northeast. Now in the open sea, the motion was more pronounced, and this landlubber had to gain his ‘sea legs’. I was to find that seasickness would prevail about the first three days out, then I would be okay, except in the very roughest weather. One very important lesson that this landlubber learned, was that when you are seasick, do not head for the windward rail!A description of the layout of the freighter will clarify some events to be described. My cabin was with the Deck Officers on the second level of the forward deck house, where the Captain occupied the third level, and the Bridge was the top deck. The main deck level was the dining saloon. There were two cargo hatches forward of the Bridge, hatch number 3 between the bridge and the mid-ships deck house, where the passenger cabins were on the second deck level, the galley and the crew quarters being on the main deck level. The engine room was below decks, and the radio room was on the second level in the after end of this deck house, with the Chief Operator’s cabin beside it. Hatches four and five were on the after deck of the ship. When fully loaded, there were two army trucks tied down on each of the hatch covers one and two, and on four and five. Whenever I went on duty to the Radio Room, or returned to my cabin or to the dining saloon, it was necessary to cross the open deck by hatch number three. When the ship is pitching and rolling in rough seas, wave crests would splash over the rail of the forward deck, as well as into the space of hatch number three.

Another lesson was emphasized with a very cold and unexpected shower, when I was crossing the deck by hatch number three, on my way to go on watch. I did not wait to check the wave action! After that, I always paused to check the waves, and if necessary, wait for a wave to splash inboard, before proceeding.

Watchkeeping was shared with the Chief Operator in 6 hour shifts. So we were either on watch, or eating or sleeping at any given time, though there was time to stand in the lee of the deck house to marvel at the waves. In rough weather one would see only water for a moment, then only sky, as the ship rolled and pitched through the large waves. On watch, we listened on 500 Kcs [Hz] and copied all messages heard. All signals were in CW, Continuous Wave signals keyed in Morse code, and the messages in code groups. Messages we were looking for came from British Admiralty, and we would decode the preamble to see if it was intended for our ship, such as ‘All Eastbound Convoys’. If so, we passed the message on to the bridge where the Deck Officers decoded the text. The receiver was a three tube regenerative set, with the regeneration backed off to zero. Any advance of the regeneration could emit a signal that could be detected by the enemy. The emergency receiver was a crystal detector built into the receiver and using the same tuning coils.

The transmitter was sealed, so I did not learn anything about it. There was also an emergency spark-gap transmitter, which was not to be used. There was a Telefunken Auto Alarm receiver, which was not used since we kept continuous watch. The hand key was a heavy brass key, bolted to the desk with the knob at the edge of the desk. Keying was done with arm floating – of course we did not send any messages, but I did practice my code sending just with the key, until the Chief told me how many mistakes I had made – he was supposed to be asleep in the cabin beside the radio room.

Convoy HX 119

Convoy HX 119 sailed eastward with only minor problems, such as heavy fog that made station-keeping rather difficult. Each ship in the columns trailed a keg on a long rope astern, which the lookout on the following ship tried to keep in view. Sometimes it would get lost in the waves and collisions would happen. We had one very close encounter, but missed the tanker ahead by a very small margin. It looked as if one could have stepped from our rail to their deck. Other ships were not so lucky and some had to turn back to Halifax to repair the damage to their bows. Later we had heavy weather with very large waves. One Corvette came in between the columns to ease the pitch and roll, but the motion of that little ship was still very rough. I could not imagine what it must have been like for that crew!

After 21 days from New York, we docked in Liverpool in the Huskisson Docks. Offloading proceeded with everyone busy, but I had no assigned duties. I explored downtown Liverpool and saw some shows, until the air raids started in early May. As the air raids continued I learned what it is to be afraid – shaking like a scared pup, listening to the whistle of the bombs, and wondering if there was a big one among them. We would hear the small incendiaries clattering on the deck, and the Officers rushed out with shovels to scoop them over the side before the next wave fell on us. Fortunately they were able to get rid of all that fell on our ship – if one had lodged in an inaccessible spot, our ship would have been toast. A warehouse across the roadway ahead of our dock burned fiercely all one night. The ship in the next dock on the far side of a warehouse, was also burning, along with the cargo already piled in the warehouse across the water from us. A stack of sides of beef slowly roasted and burned, the fat running out to the dockside and burning all the way down the face of the dock, and in a pool on the water!

In 1992 I obtained a copy of our Captain’s report “IN THE HELLFIRE OF LIVERPOOL” , published in “SHIPPING IN WARTIME” [in the Dutch language] by S. J. Van Limburg Stirum. This was translated for me by W. G. Bruyn, VE3JBW. The following excerpts are from the Captain’s report:

During these nocturnal raids it seemed as if all hell had broken loose. Exploding bombs caused an earsplitting roar, and in between one could hear the whistling shriek of falling bombs and the crack of anti-aircraft guns. The MAASDAM would then shake and tug at its hawsers and mooring cables while all sorts of debris were falling on deck, such as bricks, rocks, roof tiles, shards etc. Therefore if there were no incendiaries on deck to take care of, the crew would shelter underdecks. In the city itself conditions were dreadful during these bombardments, and the crew with shore leave preferred to stay on board instead. Immense fires were burning every night in the city as well as in the docks. Operations of the A.F.S. (volunteer firefighters) were much admired by the crew of the MAASDAM. From the ship they could see how these firemen, disregarding the bombs whistling down everywhere, set up their pumps at quayside and calmly started to extinguish fires in a blazing warehouse. When finally the ‘all clear’ had been given, these firemen were invited to come on board of the MAASDAM, to at least refresh themselves….

One Saturday night the Germans seemed to have targeted the port area in particular. — That night all piers in the area of the MAASDAM were set on fire including a neighbouring refrigeration plant. When finally at 0400AM the ‘all clear’ signal had been given, the crew of the MAASDAM went to their bunks for some rest after the terrible night. Captain J. Boshoff, who furnished the details for this report, recounted that he then woke up at seven o’clock from a heavy shock, being thrown out of his bunk. Dressing quickly, he ran on deck where a large-scale destruction had occurred. All mooring lines had snapped, and the MAASDAM was lying in mid-dock with the forecastle against a British ship where a fire was blazing on deck. All cargo hold covers had blown up into the air, and fallen back on deck. The same had happened to covers and caps of ventilator shafts. In the cabins all portholes had been blown out, and everything was ripped off the walls. The 5 cargo derricks on hold no. 5 had been broken in half and the remaining pieces could not be found. All the loose railings had disappeared, and the ladder up the funnel had been twisted all over. On deck was found a red hot deeptank cover, and many other glowing pieces of steel, 15 to 20 feet long. —- it appeared that a ship carrying munitions, moored two piers further down, had blown up entirely. The Anchors of this ship were retrieved later on at a distance of 5 miles. While working on securing the MAASDAM again at its moorings, another explosion occurred, which caused additional damage and injured one of the deck-hands. The next morning the harbour was evacuated as much as possible, and all ships able to navigate had to leave port. The MAASDAM, however had sustained damage on such an extensive scale, that putting out to sea was utterly impossible.

… One morning after the ‘all clear’ had been sounded, a police constable came on board with the message that everybody would have to leave the ship, the reason being that close to the MAASDAM a large unexploded bomb was reported to be lying at the bottom of the dock. Having left their ship the crew — were cordially received on board a Belgian ship which was moored at a location away from the danger zone. All day long they waited for the explosion of that bomb, but nothing happened, so that night they all went back to their ship. The MAASDAM then underwent a series of repairs, and finally departed Liverpool for New York on 12 May 1941.”

Not mentioned in the Captain’s report was the fact that our Direction Finding antenna was destroyed. It was a crossed loop antenna, with open windings on wooden frames. It was beyond repair.

We joined a west-bound convoy and proceeded without incident to about mid-ocean where the convoy scattered on the 19th, each ship proceeding independently. The old MAASDAM cranked up to 16 knots! Our heading was due west. On the 20th, the Chief Operator and myself copied a series of ‘SSSS’ signals from ships that may have been in our convoy. [ The wartime ‘SSSS’ signal was used to report a submarine sighting or being torpedoed. The ‘RRRR’ signal indicated a surface raider. The message would include only the ship’s name and position.] Four of the signals reported being torpedoed, two more signals reported sighting a submarine, or a suspicious object. Each signal report was a little closer behind us! No further signals were heard. On May 24th we were in heavy fog, proceeding at dead slow until the fog lifted about 0800. [Historical note: HMS HOOD and the BISMARK met on this date somewhere to the north and east of our position.] On May 25th we suddenly found the air warm and humid – we had entered the Gulf Stream! We docked in New York May 29th, and the following day I went home on shore leave.

Convoy HX 133

Thinking back to the air raids on Liverpool, certain images remain clear in my mind. First is the massive fires burning in the harbour area. I can still see the cold storage plant blazing red, and the flames from the burning ship on the other side of a warehouse. After one raid I was riding a bus into Liverpool when we passed an area where houses had been standing the day before. That morning the area was flattened. Nothing was standing, and a few people were searching among the rubble. On the curb by the road a couple sat together – her head on his shoulder, his head was bowed, and he held on his knees a mantel radio……the very picture of despair.

I returned to the ship in New York on June 8th, with my brand-new uniform. Loading was still in progress, so I had a couple of days as a tourist in the city. I watched the final loading as hatch covers were secured in place, and twin engined bombers were secured on three of the hatches. Their outer wings had already been loaded into the holds. We sailed June 11th in fine weather. We had a new Chief Operator this trip – I enjoyed working with him. The passengers included a group of American Red Cross Nurses, going to serve in England, and a group of US Marines, bound for guard duty at the US Embassy in London.

We arrived in Halifax harbour the evening of June 13th. We sailed in Convoy HX133 on June 16th. We had four days of heavy fog, and one very narrow miss as our bows passed the stern of the tanker ahead of us with only about two feet of space between our rails. We could see only the stern of that ship, its bridge was lost in the fog. Station-keeping in fog depends on each ship trailing a length of line astern with a keg attached. The length of the line being the required spacing in the column. A lookout on the bows of the following ship would watch that keg, but sometimes in the waves he would lose sight of it. There were a number of collisions in those four days, and some ships returned to Halifax for repairs. [No Merchant Ship had radar in those days.]

The fog lifted on the 20th, and we could see 22 ships. The weather became rough in the next couple of days, and one had to wedge pillows front and back to try to sleep. We sleep in our clothes and life jackets when in dangerous waters. U Boat attacks began on the 23rd, with one ship lost. Another ship on the 24th.

Those ships were in outer columns of the convoy, and not visible to us. On the 26th the Tanker TIBIA was torpedoed in the bow tanks. There was no fire in her cargo of diesel fuel, and she rejoined the convoy after assessing the damage. Then the SS MAASDAM was hit. There was no mistaking that shuddering, crashing, explosion. My job then was to dispose of the code books, using a sack already weighted with a chunk of scrap iron. The Chief took over the watch and as I tied the sack and was heading out to toss it overboard, another explosion rocked the ship. We thought it was another torpedo, but when I got out on deck there was a patch of smooth water, with no waves, where a ship had been in the next column. There were splashes everywhere as pieces of the ship fell back into the water. My next task was to get the emergency radio kit from its storage on the boat deck above, and take it to my assigned lifeboat. Batteries for the radio were already in the boat. Two of our six lifeboats had been damaged and made useless, so all passengers and crew came to the remaining four boats, and three of them were soon launched and away. The Captain came to our boat when he was satisfied that no one else remained on the ship, and our boat was launched. Very soon we noticed our feet getting wet – our boat had been damaged too!

As the water rose to our ankles, I was told to get rid of the radio and batteries, so tossed them overboard. Very soon the boat filled with water and I thought it would sink, but it remained floating due to flotation tanks under the seats. Chief Sparks just stood on the seat and steadied himself with the metal arches that would have supported a sheltering tarpaulin, if we had remained afloat and on our own. All swimmers took off toward a tanker stopped near by. It turned out that the Motor Tanker HAVPRINS was on station just behind the ship that blew up. The blast broke all glass in her enclosed bridge, and she had stopped to assess damage and clear the decks. Seeing our survivors in the water she stayed to pick us up, despite the standing order that ships in convoy should not stop to pick up survivors. That task would be handled by designated ships at the end of the columns, or by escort vessels after they had carried out attacks on any U Boat detected. One of our boats reached the HAVPRINS and all were taken aboard.

A crew from the ship manned the boat to pick up the swimmers, though the stronger swimmers had already reached the chip and climbed aboard. They came on toward us, but were making very slow progress. A motor launch was sent out to their aid, and also took us in tow, back to the HAVPRINS. Those remaining in our swamped boat were the Captain, First Mate, Chief Engineer, three nurses, Chief Sparks and myself. Aboard HAVPRINS we were given dry clothing loaned by the crew, and accommodation was arranged. Officers were accommodated among the ship’s officers’ cabins, the crew members with the ship crew, and the passengers in the Captain’s large dining salon, and the nurses in the Captain’s bedroom suite. Nine nurses were with us, two had drowned swimming to the ship. Our two other lifeboats had been picked up by a British ship. Chief Sparks and myself were offered the hospitality of the Ship’s Radio Officer’s cabin, and the Chief claimed the bunk, while I got a five foot bench! After one night there I joined the passengers sleeping on the thick rug of the Captain’s Salon, with my life-jacket as a pillow. Our clothing had been dried over railings in the engine-room, so we had our own clothing after the second day –except that my white shirt and black tie were not to be found. I had also lost my cap when the lifeboat sank under us.

Some readers may wonder how we survived a prolonged dip in the North Atlantic – we were fortunate that this was in June in the Gulf Stream, so while the water was cold, it was not perishing cold. The swimmers would lose much more of their body heat than those of us remaining in the swamped boat with upper bodies out of the water.

Comment; In a Convoy the standing rule is DO NOT STOP TO PICK UP SURVIVORS. The last ship in a column may be a designated rescue ship, or one of the escort vessels may be so designated. However, as in this convoy, Ship’s Masters used their own discretion and carried out rescues when the occasion demanded. In reading the history of the convoys, there were many cases where even the designated rescue vessels did NOT stop for survivors, and escort vessels would look for survivors when they had lost contact with the U Boats. A ship sailing alone, or a straggler behind the convoy, would have no rescue vessel at all, and the lifeboats, with a Deck Officer in each, would set sail for the nearest land of their choice. One straggler from Convoy HX 133 was hit with two torpedoes, all onboard got away safely in four boats. Two headed for Iceland, two for the UK. More than two weeks later one boat was picked up by a passing ship near Iceland, and one near Ireland. No trace of the other two boats.

Our survivors were landed at Bristol July 4th, and we were given advances on our pay to buy needed clothing and toiletries. We went by train to London to await further assignment.

Please continue to Merchant Navy Sparks – Part 2