- Contributed by
- Vic Chanter
- People in story:
- Vic Chanter
- Location of story:
- Eastern Mediterranean
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 January 2004
THE THREE CONVOYS
It was now January 1943 and time, I thought, to catch up with my last three months pay, as I returned to the shore base at Alexandria.
With the possibility of the termination of my service in the Mediterranean, I considered my options and, recalling my experiences with the Home Fleet, I requested to serve for a further 12 months in the Med., or transfer to the Pacific.
On February 5th, my former request was granted, and on the same day my ‘terms of reference’ changed.
Daniel H Lownsdale was a United States Liberty ship, just over 441 feet long and just less than 57 feet wide; she also sat high in the water — hardly miss-able in a convoy. This was to be my next assignment: RN liaison signalman aboard this supply ship in convoy to Tripoli. I just hoped that the escorting vessels, with all their expertise, had more luck going for them than I had experienced.
The ship was built by Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in Portland, Oregon, so it wasn’t surprising to find many of the crew were from the West and South: Olester Crane from Texas, R.L.Cross from Portland, Chester Earl Maxey from Texas, James Virgil Young from Texas, were just a few of the (tongue-in-cheek) self-confessed ‘rebels’. They joked light-heartedly about ‘The Damn Yankees’ and proud to be from the south.
With the full knowledge of what was expected of me, once we were under way, I stepped ashore with two of the crew and introduced them to the sights of Alexandria.
On the next day, 6th February at 0900, we left harbour. What a difference it was to walk around a bridge with so little gold braid and other humanity going about their — and my - business. Here, the only person who required information from me was the Captain. Mind you, he needed it constantly for signals about change of tactics — mostly during the night — for station keeping during zigzagging.
On the day before my 22nd birthday a floating mine exploded ahead of us, clocks were put back one hour and I spent that extra hour on duty. My birthday was just as uneventful but with added wind and rain and, to close the day, at 2350, low flying enemy aircraft attacked the convoy. Later, I took over my obligatory middle watch (0000 to 0400 hours).
When we arrived at Tripoli, I went ashore with some of the crew. There was a certain amount of souvenir hunting. I was content to take possession of an Italian bronze medal that had been struck by Mussolini, to commemorate the Italian desert campaign for the Italian troops.
Unfortunately, Quayle, a young cadet from the ship was killed by a booby trap, and I experienced again the tears and emotions of grown men new to the horrors of war.
In harbour, as at sea, supply ships were very vulnerable to attack, so speed was essential in the unloading of stores. With speed comes also, at times, carelessness. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that a crate or two would become damaged in handling, and put to one side. Sometimes, these crates, containing broken glass, were (un)fortunately forgotten by the delivery trucks and had to be removed from the dockside - for safety reasons -, taken back onboard and disposed of.
It had been such a long time since I had tasted Haig’s Whiskey and Gilbey’s Gin together, with such good company. Come to think of it, I’d never before tasted Haig’s Whiskey and Gilbey’s Gin together!
I had expected to disembark at Tripoli for further duties. Throughout the unloading and the journey back, I enjoyed the good company of the crew, the excellent accommodation and the food of this ‘luxury liner’, despite the familiar enemy action.
Because of her size, D H Lownsdale, as I previously hinted, was very vulnerable to attack, but her very size gave her a certain feeling of life-saving protection.
Eventually, from seaward I viewed the outline of Alexandria as we sailed past and on to Port Said.
As the ship prepared to take aboard a pilot for the journey through the Suez Canal, the friends that I had made urged me to remain aboard with them on the journey back to the States.
Once I had made contact with Navy House at Port Said, however, all stops were pulled out to get me off the D H Lownsdale and en route back to Alexandria.
With what little kit I had, I was given the authority to travel by train from Port Said. At 1800, with the ubiquitous commuters, I arrived at Alexandria at 0530. It was now the 3rd March.
Apart from duties in the shore base, I once more made acquaintance with the watering holes of Alexandria during the occasional shore leave of the next four days.
On the 8th March I was assigned to a tanker, Fu Kwang, but the sailing was delayed until 10th.
Under way, the superstructure of this vessel between the bows and the bridge seemed to be always awash, which gave her the appearance of a submarine. We passed Tobruk on the 12th and arrived at Benghazi on the 15th, quickly discharging the cargo to sail away on the 16th. As was the usual procedure, the escort vessels had remained offshore. We had received no trouble from the air and, although the weather and the turbulent sea caused havoc with our now empty ‘tin can’, we were pleased to see our escort waiting to shepherd us back to Alexandria.
The conditions continued throughout St. Patrick’s Day. The sea must have abated somewhat on the 18th March as U-boats managed to operate successfully; at 1030, two supply ships went up — empty tankers went that way.
The next day, the speed of the convoy was reduced to allow for one ship with defects: little headway was made. Strangely, apart from alarms, we sustained no attacks. No doubt due to the rain, storm and squalls.
This procedure continued, with the escort vessels dropping depth charges at each alarm, until we reached Alex on 22nd March. The weather there was no better and, because of the conditions, I had to remain onboard.
When I did get ashore, I called at the Fleet Censor Office to collect my films and prints previously left there, to be told that, because of the flap of the Germans getting so close to Alex., my photographs, along with others, had to be destroyed!
Back To Benghazi
It wasn’t until the 4th April that I got my next assignment, another tanker by the name of Bassethound. She was slightly smaller than Fu Kwang, with less fuel storage space, but again, at sea, there was far more superstructure below water than above.
It never took long to get acquainted with the ship’s company: there were so few members. Apart from the few officers, my other contacts were the members of the DEMS. These were gunners specially trained at shore bases: HMS President III, HMS Wellesley or HMS Glendower, for defence onboard merchant vessels. The abbreviation stood for Defence Equipped Merchant Ships. My information is, if they were lucky, they would have a 12-pounder anti-aircraft gun with which to work. Their vessels usually had a 3” or 6” gun, and maybe a couple of WW1 Lewis guns for them to man. This was only the second time that I’d come across any of them. They were there to man whatever guns were installed aboard the supply ships and, because of the hazardous conditions, DEMS ratings were re-imbursed with ‘danger-money’, and rightly so. (I often thought that we liaison signalmen should be entitled to the same).
During our trip to Benghazi, we experienced the usual U-boat scares and were sighted by enemy aircraft — always a worrying sign. We met a larger convoy, no doubt bigger pickings for the enemy, but didn’t join it.
Getting a bit blasé now, two of us rowed ashore at Benghazi on several occasions. Discharging seemed to take forever, but each day in harbour with the diminished fear of attack was a bonus. I even went over the side for a dip; the water was freezing, but the sun was hot.
Like all these runs, the journey back to base was hazardous. The supply ships were always the targets; their vulnerability was lack of both speed and manoeuvrability.
It was in fog that we sailed at last into the harbour at Alexandria.
Since February, I’d been engaged in a different aspect of the war and now, with my liaison ventures with convoy merchant vessels at an end, in April I started a course for further advancement, and whatever lay ahead — with the Royal Navy.
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