A glimpse of life aboard an AMC

At the outbreak of war in 1939, I had just enrolled in my second year at United College in Winnipeg (now the University of Winnipeg) but having always been fascinated by ships and the sea, I decided to see if I could get into the Navy.

As luck would have it, there was a vacancy in the Winnipeg Division of the RCNVR for a Naval Cadet and, as a university student, I guess I was considered eligible for appointment. I was gazetted as such on September 25, 1939, one of only two RCNVR cadets in the Navy at that time, the other being Sandy Pearson in Edmonton. 

Our Navy at first had a surfeit of recruits but very few ships, so I was not called up immediately but spent the next ten months drilling three nights a week and occasionally pulling whalers up and down the Red River. I was also able to complete my year at United College and on my 18th birthday, April 10, 1940, I was promoted to the exalted rank of Midshipman. Finally the order arrived to report to HMCSStadacona in Halifax on August 12, 1940 for immediate appointment to the Royal Navy AMC, HMS Laconia.

In this, the first year of the war, Britain was desperately short of convoy escorts and had hasti converted a number of old passenger liners into armed merchant cruisers (AMCs) armed with little more than a few ancient guns, no asdic, no radar. Laconia was a former 19,695 ton Cunard Lines vessel built on the Tyne in 1922, with a maximum speed of 18 knots. She and others like her, were the early-war ocean escorts of convoys from Halifax to the United Kingdom, usually accompanied by Canadian destroyers for the first three days out. From that point they were on their own in the centre of the convoy as protection against surface attack, until met by British destroyers about 400 miles from the UK. One such AMC, HMS Rawalpindi, had been sunk following a valiant fight, by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau the previous November 23 while on northern patrol. There were only 38 survivors from her crew of 308.

On joining Laconia, I immediately reported to the Commanding Officer, Captain G. G. P. Hewitt, RN– to me a very formidable figure. The rest of the ship’s company were nearly all RNR or seconded from the merchant service. In the gun room, I was the only VR, and the only Canadian among the dozen or so Midshipmen and junior Subs. Three days later we sailed on our first convoy from Halifax to the UK.

Returning from a convoy in October, we were diverted to the area where HMCS Margaree had been sunk (after colliding with the SS PortFairy, 450 miles west of Ireland on October 22, 1940 1). We arrived the day after the sinking but could locate no wreckage or additional survivors. (140 of her crew of 171 were lost 2.)

In November we went to Bermuda to pick up a convoy and while there, met some of the survivors of the Jervis Bay, another AMC like ourselves. Three weeks earlier, while escorting convoy HS.84, she had been sunk by the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer with the loss of 190 of her crew of 255. Their story of the battle was pretty scary, but they were able to gain enough time during their heroic action against Admiral Scheer’s 11-inch guns, to allow the convoy to scatter. As a result, only four of the convoy’s 37 ships were lost.

In March 1941 we were to have our most frightening experience. We were escorting convoy HX.114, and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were again raiding in the Atlantic. On March 16, a radio message was received to the effect that SS Chilean Reefer was “being attacked and shelled by a surface raider” in a position just ahead of us. The Convoy Commodore called for an emergency turn to the northward, and Laconia, at full speed, altered course to intercept. Visibility was less than a mile. We were sent to action stations (mine being the forward magazine). Within half an hour, gunfire could be heard at an estimated distance of eight miles. I have never been so scared. Suddenly a grey shape loomed out of the mist–it was HMS Rodney. She ordered us back to our convoy while she investigated. The raider, Gneisenau, got away from Rodney, but the latter was able to pick up 24 survivors. Rodney then joined our convoy the next day and stayed with us until we were through the danger zone.

In April, together with several other AMCs, we were employed as a trooper to carry air force personnel to Iceland for onward passage to the UK. They were landed by lighter at Reykjavik and we proceeded to Hvalfjord where we anchored next to HMS Hood. From there we were sent to patrol the Denmark Strait between Iceland, Greenland and the Arctic ice edge, which at that time of the year extends to within 50 miles of Iceland. Fortunately for
us, the patrol was without incident; three weeks later we would have encountered the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.
On April 13, 1941, another AMC, HMS Rajputana, was torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic with the loss of 42 lives including one Canadian Midshipman.

In May we had sailed with convoy HX.128 when a signal was received that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had sailed from Bergen and were passing through the Denmark Strait. Our convoy was ordered back to Sydney. As is now well known, Hood was sunk on May 24, and after a long chase, Bismarck on May 27. Our convoy was then allowed to proceed.

In June we had another convoy from Bermuda after which we were ordered to Saint John, NB for a refit which was completed in July. I was very interested to see one of our new corvettes under construction in Saint John at that time–HMCS Sackville. It was about time; the U-boats were now operating right across the Atlantic and it was no place for a “sitting duck” AMC.

On August 2, 1941, I was back in Halifax and drafted ashore, so bid goodbye to Laconia. I also received news of my promotion to Sub-Lieutenant, retroactive to my 19th birthday on April 10.

Laconia returned to the UK and was paid off, being converted to a troop ship. A year later on September 12, 1942, she was torpedoed in the South Atlantic with enormous loss of life.3  When the U-boat commander attempted to
rescue survivors, he was attacked by a US Liberator. Admiral Döenitz subsequently issued his famous “Laconia order” which forbade U-boats rendering assistance to survivors of torpedoed ships. As a consequence, he was sentenced to a ten year prison term at the Nuremberg trials.

Footnotes

1 Warship Losses of World War Two (Revised edition) David Brown, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis (1995), p.39. Back

2 Ibid., p.39. Back

3 The author advises that according to The Sinking of the Laconia – A Tragedy of the Battle of the Atlantic by Frederick Grossmith, Paul Watkins Publishing, UK (1994), the liner was carrying 463 officers and crew, 386 military personnel, 80 civilians, 1,793 Italian POWs, and 103 Polish guards. Only about 1,100 of the total of just over 2,700 aboard Laconia, survived. A US, B24 Liberator bomber attacked on September 16 forcing U156, U506, U507 and the Italian submarine Cappellini down (the latter three submarines having arrived after the torpedoing to assist U156). The “Laconia order” prohibited U-boats from taking part in any rescue operations, and from that date on, survivors were to be left in the sea. Döenitz admonished his U-boat commanders to “Stay hard.”

Additional information on the “Laconia Incident” can be found on the Internet “U-boat Net,” at the link listed below, from which some of the preceding was obtained.