The Barry Merchant Navy Seamen In World War 2
Can you imagine?
Shovelling coal into red-hot furnaces 25 feet below the waterline, with ship rolling up to 45° either way. The ship is torpedoed - he is faced with a 40 ft climb even to get out of the stokehold, then he is met by the freezing conditions of the North Atlantic in winter time. He is lucky to have grabbed a life-jacket... and even that is completely unsuited to the conditions.
Now look at him again...
The town of Barry is unique: that it exists at all is entirely due to congestion in the Cardiff docks in the late 1870's. When it became apparent that the Cardiff and Penarth docks could no longer handle the increasing coal production from the Rhondda Valley mines, the frustrated coal-owners, led by David Davies, decided to build their own railway - and their own docks. Despite opposition in Parliament from the Bute Trustees the 'Barry Dock and Railway Company' was granted permission to go ahead and work on the new dock at Barry began in 1884. Some of the Mine owners had considered that the Ogmore Estuary was the most promising site for a new port. David Davies, however, had other ideas and eventually had his way. The people of Barry should bow their heads when they pass his statue... those could have been plans of Ogmore Harbour he is studying!
The railway was completed in 1888 and the Barry Dock opened in 1889. By 1900 it was handling over 3,000 ships and 7 million tons of coal every year. By 1913 Barry had overtaken the combined efforts of Cardiff and Penarth and had become the largest coal-exporting port in the world. For the next 50 years and throughout two World Wars, coal from the South Wales mines was carried on the railways of South Wales to the ports of South Wales. The ships of South Wales and the seamen of South Wales took that coal to ports all over the world.
In peace-time, many of South Wales' ships were owned by small groups of business-men. The ships they bought were mostly small - and cheap; they were old, relatively small and under-powered. They were equipped - and run - to the lowest permitted standards and the food and accommodation were dreadful. They made their living by carrying a deadweight cargo of coal out and, usually, a deadweight cargo of iron-ore back. Even in peace-time, in bad weather, many of them were lost or wrecked.
In both World Wars the U-boat menace was added to the dangers already facing these small, deeply loaded vessels. Most ships when hit by a torpedo will sink, but a ship carrying a deadweight cargo will sink like a stone - often in seconds. On deck, the sailors, dressed for the weather conditions would be on look-out or at the wheel; they had some chance of survival. Down-below, in the bowels of the ship, the firemen, shovelling coal into the boiler fires, had next to no chance. They were 20 feet below the water-line, if they were not killed in the explosion they had the problem of getting out. If they were able to scramble up 30 feet of steel ladders and stumble out into the freezing cold of the North Atlantic... well - they were dressed in dungarees and a singlet! Remember too, that the predominance of coal, referred to above, meant that 75% of Barry seamen would be 'down-below' - as Firemen, Trimmers, Greasers or Donkeymen. The crew of such ships would pray for a cargo of pit-props homeward-bound. The mines needed a steady supply of pit-props and, for the lucky few with a pit-prop cargo, the timber in the holds meant that, torpedoed, bombed or mined, the men on such a ship had a slightly better chance of survival.
In the Second World War, together with the other South Wales ports, Barry was to play a vital role and its proportion of fatalities per head of population would become the highest in Britain.
From September 1939 to May 1940, the first nine moths of WW2, there was so little happening on the battlefields that it became known as the 'Phoney War'; the Germans referred to it as the 'Sitzkrieg' - the 'Sitting war'. For the men in the Merchant Navy however, there was no 'Phoney War'. On the very first day - September 3rd, 1939, the U-boat U-30 sank the unarmed passenger liner 'Athenia', killing 112 of her passengers and crew, including 28 Americans. There may have been nine months of 'Phoney War' on the land but, at sea, ships were being lost at an average of 25 a month.
And then; quite simply, it got worse.
In June, 1940, Europe came to life as the Germans swept through France and Norway. U-boats could now sail directly into the Atlantic from Lorient in the Bay of Biscay and from Bergen in Norway. By July, the U-boats had developed their 'wolf-pack' techniques and losses rose to over 60 per month. On every single day, two or more ships were being lost; from mines, bombs and E-boat and U-boat torpedoes. Ships and convoys could no longer use the southern waters of Britain to get to or from the Atlantic, they had to be routed round the North of Ireland. Forming up in convoys that had too few escorts to protect them, they were sitting ducks for the packs of U-boats. By August 1940, Hitler was proclaiming a total Blockade of British shipping and Goebells was boasting - 'In the U-boat war we have England by the throat'. And how did the ships of South Wales fare in all this? Perhaps it will help if we look at 2 months in the life of the 'Jeanne M.' (The photo shows her in an earlier life as the 'Baron Helibank'.)
'Jeanne M.' was a typical small Welsh cargo-ship and I have chosen her because her owner was a local man, W.F. Moorsom and she was named after his wife. If you are an older resident of Barry, and don't know the name of Moorsom, just think back a few years to the garage at Weycock Cross...Moorwell Motors. You probably bought petrol from his son... Bruce Moorsom - there was a ship named after him as well - the 'Bruce M.'
The 'Jeanne M' was not new and, typically, she had had six previous owners! The Pennant Shipping, Cardiff, The Kelvin Shipping Line (H. Hogarth), The Good Hope Shipping Co., Cardiff, The Veronica SS Co., Cardiff, The Alf. J. Pope Co. of Cardiff and finally, in 1939, she was bought by the Mooringwell SS Co., Cardiff... Then there was a little 'backing and filling' (in business terms) and the Mooringwell SS Co. became W. F. Moorsom Ltd.
Mind you...even before the War, the 'Jeanne M' had been doing her bit against the Nazis! In May, 1937, in the Spanish Civil War, she had run the Nationalist gauntlet to take supplies to the beleaguered Republicans in Bilbao. Her Master - W. H. Roberts - was one of several Welsh supporters of the Socialist regime in Spain. His daughter 'Fifi' sailed with him... "I'll carry on going there", he said, "just as long as I've got a sturdy British Ship, a good crew and my daughter Fifi. . . . She has no intention of marrying and prefers to remain with me. She doesn't know what fear is, and during our trip from Saint-Jean-de-Luz she was right there on the bridge, wearing trousers."
Ah, well! People like him won the war for us!
Anyway, the 'Jeanne M.' renewed her fight against the Nazis in September, 1939 and, a year later, we find her sailing from Barry in September, 1940, in a convoy to the Mediterranean. She discharged her coal in Cyprus and loaded Aleppo Pine pit-props and, by October 9th, 1940, she was leaving Gibraltar for home in convoy HG 45. I mentioned earlier the vital part played by the South Wales ports and their critical imports in WW2...well, there were 49 ships in Convoy HG 45 - and 41 of them had carried coal out and were bringing back iron-ore to keep the steel production going, and pit-props to keep the coal mines going!
We join Convoy HG 45 as the ships round St. Vincent on Oct. 11th. 1940. As they turned north, they were met by the full force of a North Westerly gale. The speed of the 7 knot convoy dropped to 6 knots, then to 5 and then 4 knots. As the weather worsened further the convoy was hove to. In the end, when 'Jeanne M.' docked in Barry on the 26th of October, she had sailed 1,276 miles in 18 days - averaging slightly less than 3 knots! In convoy HG45 was a little Dutch ship of only 379 Gross Tons. Determined to do her duty for the Allies war effort, she gamely picked up 480 tons of sleepers from Oporto, and joined the convoy as it passed going northwards. She had a posh name for such a small ship - the 'Santa Lucia' - and her destination was Belfast. She very nearly made it too, but as she turned into the Lough she was sunk just off the No. 5 Briggs buoy. 4 of her crew of 11 were lost.
And the 'Jeanne M.'? Well: she discharged her pit-props in Cardiff and set off back to the Mediterranean in Convoy OG 46. She was bound for Lisbon with coal but at 04:46 hours on 2 Dec, 1940, with the 'Jeanne M.' about 230 miles west-north-west of Cape Roca, she was torpedoed and sunk by U.37 - just a day and a half from Lisbon. Seven of her crew of 28 were lost. The master and 18 crew members were picked up by HMS Erin.
Elsewhere, shipping losses had just been getting worse and, while convoy HG 45 was struggling home from Gibraltar, wolf-pack attacks on two convoys homeward-bound from Canada had almost brought an early end to the Battle of the Atlantic. Between the 17th and 19th October, 1940, German U-boats torpedoed 37 out of 78 ships in the poorly defended convoys SC7 and HX79. The German U-boat commanders referred to the night of the 18th as 'The night of the long knives'. Since June, it had been obvious to Winston Churchill that, if Merchant ship losses carried on as they were, Britain would be brought to her knees. Churchill and the Admiralty put into operation a series of last-ditch measures. The headquarters of the Western Approaches Command was moved from London to Liverpool. Every available warship was made available and Escort Groups were set up; co-operation and communication between them and Coastal Command was improved. This allowed Sunderland flying boats to detect submarines; and enabled escorts to track them down.
Although these measures ensured that our convoy system was working to the best of its ability, it was not enough. We were still desperately short of escort vessels and, in August 1940, Churchill had sent a delegation to the United States with an appeal for help. The U.S. responded at once; they had recommissioned 40 old 4-funnelled destroyers in September 1939 - and a further 35 early in 1940. These ships were ready for sea and fifty were transferred to Britain in September and were pressed into service as quickly as possible. Our biggest problem however, was how to replace the Merchant ships being sunk at the rate of 3 or more a day. The delegation had taken with it a modern design for a medium sized cargo-ship - we called it the 'Ocean Class' - and asked the U.S. if 60 could be built. The Americans modified the design, re-named them 'Liberty' ships and set in motion the greatest ship-building programme the world has ever seen. The 60 ships became a hundred, then a thousand, and by the end of the war the Americans had built 2,751 of them, together with hundreds of larger 'Victory' ships and 'T-2' tankers. Although shipping losses continued to rise - reaching 128 ships in the month of June, 1942 - by that time the numbers being built exceeded the losses. You may think that these ships were well named - the 'Liberty' ships defended our liberty and the 'Victory' ships helped win our victory. You may also think that America did not let us down in World War 2.
While all this was going on, news of the losses in Convoys SC7 and HX79 came in on October 20th. 1940 and Churchill nearly despaired. This is a speech he made: -
"The Merchant Navy, with its Allied comrades, night and day, in weather fair or foul, faces not only the ordinary perils on the sea, but the sudden assaults of war from beneath the waters or from the sky. Your first task is to bring to port the cargoes vital for us at home or for our Armies abroad, and we trust your tenacity and resolve to see this stern task through. We are a seafaring race, and we understand the call of the sea. We account you, in these hard days, worthy successors to a tradition of steadfast courage and high adventure. We feel confident that the proud tradition of our Island will be upheld today - wherever the Ensign of a British Merchantman is flown."
What a wonderful recognition, by a great man, of the part played by all our merchant seamen in the darkest days of the War. In contrast; let us consider the language used by today's British government as it decides how it recognises the efforts of the Merchant Navy in that conflict.
"Merchant Navy men will be granted a 'Veterans Medal' if they can prove that the ships that they sailed in facilitated Military Operations".
Without the Merchant Marine and the food and raw materials they brought, there would not have been any 'military operations'.
The people of Barry should never forget the sacrifices that were made in WW2 in order that they might live in freedom today.
© 2007 David Simpson