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The Story Of The British Lady Oil Tanker by JJ Keavney

by BBC Radio Foyle

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
BBC Radio Foyle
Location of story: 
Moville Co Donegal, North West Ireland
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A5627027
Contributed on: 
08 September 2005

(JJ Keavney lived in Moville as a boy and remembers the British Lady tanker and the lively atmosphere in the town during the war years or as it was called in Eire ' The Emergency' as the 26 counties were neutral. The poem about the tanker written by one of the crew was given to him and based on this and his memories and research he has written the following)

British Lady at Moville
by JJ KEAVNEY 1

Contrasting experiences in time of war

Early in March 2000 Hubert Wilson, Postmaster on Inch Island, Co. Donegal, gave me some crumpled pages from an exercise book. ‘Type this up’, said he; ‘it’s important.’ The hand-written document had been folded so often that some lines were hard to decipher; it was a poem 27 stanzas long and it was unsigned. It was all of four years before I realized just how important this WW II document was. On Radio Foyle I heard of the celebrations scheduled for May 6, 7 and 8 this year to mark the 60th anniversary of VE Day, with special local emphasis on the importance of the port of Londonderry in the Battle of the North Atlantic. Vital in this long, horrendous struggle were the tankers that fuelled the RN warships protecting the convoys; those supplies from the US had to be delivered to their beleaguered allies whatever the cost. British Lady was one of these oilers; this document was written on that ship.

I’m not going to quote every stanza of this anonymous poem, which the officer presented to Anna Wilson, Hubert’s sister, in 1944. It is a great pity he didn’t append his name; however it’s very noticeable that not even one member of the crew is named — wartime security? The author paints his fellow sailors with a keen eye — living in the same ship year after year you aren’t long noticing everyone’s foibles. I’d imagine they’d laugh heartily at themselves were they to read his words today. Here’s how it opens:

In the month of April forty-three
Fresh and just come back from sea,
There came a tanker trim and clean
With crew so fit and bronze and lean.
‘Twas the British Lady fine and neat
The pride of the British tanker fleet.

There stood one man upon the bridge
And eyed the town upon the ridge.
He forgot the subs and planes and mines
And thought instead of ‘logs’ and fines —
This was the skipper spick and span
And every inch he was a man.

The second Sparks, complete with coat,
Stood ready waiting the Moville boat,
And then he saw and tore his hair
For Sheila was not waiting there,
Dear Sheila, so small and nice and neat
The pride of any town’s main street.

This is the prelude. ‘At last the Mate said, with a roar, / “All hands can have one night ashore.”’ The oil and grime are speedily washed off, they don their uniforms — ‘shirts bleached white’ — and the hours that follow are described with great gusto. It’s patently obvious that many such nights had already been spent ashore: the author names local people, hotels and bars and, naturally, delights in narrating the hectic
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drinking before — and after — the 10 o’clock closing : ‘the back doors open to the knock…’

The beers are downed, the spirits too,
The sober men are very few.
And just as jerky as electric static
There went the Fiver paralytic.
“Who wants water?” — a cry above the din
“Water’s for sailing tankers in.”

On and on goes the party. He pictures the Fourth memorably. ‘He sang us of Prince Charles’s woes / And all about how Afton flows.’ The entire poem is quotable, but the last four stanzas are special:

In all the digs it was the same.
We one and all kept up the name
Of British Lady, so well known
Wherever the Union Jack is flown.
There was no misbehaving lad —
No one so tight as to be too bad.

The cry among us all was “Worth it!
More days ashore I think I’ll work it.”
We’d visited many a place with oil
But give us Moville on the Foyle.
The people there are still our friends —
I’d like to stay till this war ends.

Remember those we met so recently
The folks who treated us so decently:
There’s Susie, Sheila, Mary and Mina,
Mrs Wilson, the Anchor and young Anna
With Evelyn and Mrs Mc Kinney too —
Those names of friends are just a few.

We thank you, Moville, one and all.
We hope to pay another call;
And pray that you return our thoughts
That all your troubles come to noughts;
May all your joys be never-ending,
Seeing the British Lady spending.
Moville had a thriving smuggling industry throughout the war. This was known locally as ‘bum-boating’. I consulted one or two practitioners; they couldn’t recall British Lady. They rattled off these names — the Empire Dolphin, the Asphodel, the Petra Volta and the President Sergeant. The Master of this last was the famous Captain Dove fresh from his sojourn aboard the Admiral Graf Spee. (I was watching The Battle of the River Plate yet again.
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on the Monday before Christmas just as the carol singers arrived!) It seemed as if British Lady was an invisible ship. I chanced to encounter Freddie Woods in Sonny Fiorentini’s famous ice cream parlour on Derry’s Strand Road. Freddie, a retired Kelly Boats captain, urged me to write to Ships Monthly in Burton-on-Trent, and there I struck oil! My request for information was published and one week later, on Easter Saturday, a fat envelope arrived from the Isle of Harris. Donald’s father Jim Hodgson worked on the Ulster Monarch immediately after leaving British Lady; he had joined the crew of the oiler in 1940. Jim was 20 years old then. Donald, like me, had felt for some time that the ship was non-existent; the facts about her were sparse and difficult to suss out as he worked on a personal project focused on his late father’s war years.

Remember the 3rd line about the skipper up there in the second stanza — ‘He forgot the subs and planes and mines’. Well, British Lady had a bellyful of all three - and survived to enjoy a blessed respite at the Admiralty Moorings in Lough Foyle. She was fitted out with degaussing cables, and then proceeded to fuel vessels at Scapa Flow, the northern fleet base in the Orkneys. Scapa Flow’s security had been breached spectacularly a few months earlier, in October 1939, when Guenther Prien, commander of U47, sank the battleship Royal Oak. British Lady herself soon experienced the harsh reality of war: at Lyness she was strafed by German aircraft; Donald’s Dad, on duty onboard that day, spent some time removing spent bullets embedded in the ship’s deck after the attack. He was to have further close brushes with death.

In April 1940 escorted by two armed trawlers the oiler sailed northwards to replace a Royal Fleet Auxiliary that had been sunk on her way to Norway. (British Lady never operated as an RFA; although she was purchased by the Admiralty in October 1939, manning and management remained with the British Tanker Company, which in later years would re-emerge as BP, the British Petroleum Company.) At Skjelfjord she fuelled the Eskimo, the Bedouin and then the Punjabi; each of these Tribal Class Destroyers had taken part in the first Battle of Narvik; there wasn’t much left in her tanks after that. She was escorted back to Scapa Flow by the Jupiter, the Hotspur and the Punjabi, and made further journeys to Narvik in the later stages of the Norwegian Campaign. British Lady had played a very important but unsung part in this vital sector of the conflict; the exploits of warships naturally catch the eye, evince the glamour, but those ships don’t run on adrenalin alone: they guzzle tons and tons of oil and feeding them can be frighteningly difficult and dangerous. The role of the minesweeper — another neglected but vital piece in the jigsaw of naval warfare — was acknowledged and celebrated in the 1950s in The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Montserrat.

The late Mark Arnold-Forster, who himself served in the Royal Navy, famously so in command of MTBs, wrote of the deeper significance of the Norwegian Campaign in The World at War, the book that accompanied the classic Thames TV series. He states that the casualties inflicted in the fjord at

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Narvik and elsewhere in Norway helped reduce the strength of the German surface fleet. Because of these losses the German navy could no longer be
confident of protecting an amphibious landing in Britain in the months after Dunkirk when she stood alone against Nazi Germany.

HMS Hood was one of the many well-known warships that British Lady fuelled. This operation took 7 hours; in stormy conditions refuelling could take all day — frequently, as we will see, it had to be aborted. The date of this operation is intriguing, poignant — Sunday March 23 1941. This most likely was one of the last refuellings of the Hood; almost exactly two months later, May 24, a shell from the Bismarck exploded in her after-magazine. The Hood blew up and sank in three minutes. Virtually all her crew went down with the ship. Losing this old but fast battle-cruiser was a dreadful shock to the men on British Lady; nevertheless, the resolve to fuel the escort warships guarding the slow-moving, zigzagging convoys had to be maintained in this desperate phase of the Battle of the Atlantic. (The Bismarck didn’t bask in glory for long: three days later she was torpedoed and sunk.)

Donald’s researches establish that his father’s ship sailed with many convoys; perhaps the most notable of these was convoy ONS 5, April 21 1943. It numbered 43 ships of nine nationalities; most of these ships left from Liverpool outward bound for New York. A rendezvous was made in the Irish Sea with ships coming from the Bristol Channel, and around 1400 on the 22nd the convoy passed south of the Island of Islay. Most likely British Lady sailed east from Lough Foyle to join the convoy there — the anonymous poet assures us in the opening stanza that they first anchored off Moville in ‘April forty-three’; it was probably a month or two before the happy familiarity with the town, its characters and its hostelries became part of their life.

British Lady was now skilled at refuelling at sea, as was her American opposite number, the Argon; together they carried ample oil to keep the tanks of all the destroyer escorts topped-up throughout the passage. On the 24th in worsening weather the destroyer HMS Duncan attempted to top-up her tanks, but the pitching of the two ships in the heavy seas made this a hair-raising experience; the transfer hose broke and the operation was abandoned for the meantime. Side loading — the preferred option — was risky and dangerous in rough weather; stern loading, as the photos show, enabled both vessels keep up with the convoy.

On the 27th there was a noticeable improvement in the weather and HMS Duncan and HMS Vidette were able to refuel from British Lady whilst the convoy was some 300 miles south-west of Reykjavik. Despite many U-Boat attacks the convoy progressed across the Atlantic Ocean, and on the 30th the British Lady during a break in the weather refuelled HMS Oribi; this however proved to be a lengthy operation which took all day and prevented other escorts from topping-up; by evening it was blowing a full gale again. On the 5th of May the destroyer escorts topped-up their tanks hurriedly from British Lady during a lull in the U-Boat attacks. The convoy’s seven day running battle with Doenitz’s submarines had raged over 600 miles of ocean in the most appalling weather conditions; thirteen ships totalling 62,000 tons had been lost, but the cost to the U-Boats was catastrophic, with seven boats sunk, five severely damaged, and twelve others slightly damaged. Centimetric radar sited on the escort ships was now proving a decisive device; April and May 1943 were the worst months for Doenitz — never again was he able to prevail.

The tide had turned in the Battle of the Atlantic. The crew of the British Lady had earned a long overdue rest; they surely must have been glad to sight Inistrahull Light to starboard, the Fairway Buoy to port, and Inishowen Light to starboard as they swung into the estuary of the Foyle; then on up between the Tuns and the Warren Watch, into the quieter waters of the Lough, with McKinney’s Light to port and the Admiralty Moorings up ahead in the Old Channel off Carrickarory Pier. Moville extended her friendship to the men from the oiler, but few in the town could fully appreciate what British Lady had been through — the only hint in the poem itself is the writer’s low-key reference to ‘subs and planes and mines’. ‘The pride of the British tanker fleet’ was no idle boast. What position did this talented, urbane man go on to hold once back on Civvy Street? We may never know — it’s only one of the many questions this tanker poses, but we do know that British Lady herself survived the war only to share the fate of many other redundant tankers: she was scrapped and broken up at Dunston in 1947.

It is probable that in spite of their perilous wartime experiences — and their sorties ashore — several of British Lady’s personnel are still alive. How wonderful were some of them to turn up next month in Derry; a visit to Moville might inflict too nostalgic a strain on the heart! Meanwhile, Donald Macleod Hodgson at 4 East Tarbert, Isle of Harris HS3 3DB and myself here in Ward 2, Waterside Hospital, Derry BT47 1WH, welcome more information from and about the brave crew of British Lady.

Footnotes: A letter by Donald in Ships Monthly brought him the two photographs. A rating aboard a Canadian Escort snapped the oiler during refuelling. In the portrait shot the fuel pipe hasn’t been connected yet. The pictures of course tell only part of the story. A colleague of mine wonders is that Churchill manning the ropes — the posture is familiar!

And what about Anna, the Irish Lady? She warrants a stanza in this unique testament, which, thank God, she treasured for years —

In Mrs Wilson’s up the street
Jimmy danced on stocking feet.
He tried to make a date with Anna
But she, of course, was far too canny.
She left him for her maiden’s bed —
He went to sleep with dreams instead.

J.J. Keaveny April 2005

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