Cyril Hill in British ship Harperly sunk from Convoy ONS 5
I have just come across your web-site account of the convoy ONS5 action. (The Battle For Convoy ONS 5. 26th.April - 6th. May 1943) It is much the most detailed account that I have seen. I have a particular interest because I was on Harperley. I was the Leading Hand DEMS Gunner on Harperley.
We left Avonmouth and went to Newport, South Wales, to load Best Welsh Steam Coal. The story that I was told was that the Argentine hasd to import all of its coal and the War had played havoc with its supplies. The railways were in danger of shutting down and so the Argentinos had said "no more meat for you unless you supply coal". So, we were bound for Buenos Ayres.
We went up the Irish Sea and at the Tail o' the Bank, at the mouth of the Clyde,.began forming convoy. I remember an Escort Vessel cruising up and down the lines and, over a loud-hailer, saying, "If you can guarantee 7 1/2 knots turn back and join a faster convoy". That was my first inkling that we were due for a slow crossing.
We were sunk early in the night which, fortunately, was not a dark night. It is said that we were hit portside by two torpedoes, one in the engine-room and another in a forward hold. Oddly, I have no memory of any noise; but it was true that neither of the portside lifeboats was usable.
With the 4" gun crew I went to the starboard boatdeck. There some clown had freed the after fall from the staghorn; the seaman on the forward fall had kept 'turns for lowering' with the consequence that the boat was dangling vertically from the forward davit and one or two men who had rushed into the boat were thrown into the sea. I grabbed the fall, took in as much slack as I could and took turns around the staghorn. The man on the forward fall lowered until the boat was horizontal and we then lowered it together.
In your narrative you say that Harperley was listing. Not so. She maintained an even keel and just settled down. I think that may well be why I am writing today. The crew used a scrambling net to pour down into the boat until somehow, and who knows how?, the boat was freed and it drifted away from the ship.
The left six or seven of us on the net. As the ship settled, the sea swept the lowest man off and he was lost. Then another man. I was at the top of the net and below me were two other gunners. The situation looked hopeless to me and I called the other two back on deck. We sat down, lit cigarettes and waited for the end.
Then a miracle happened. Against the thrust of the sea, the boat drifted close to the stern of the ship. I shouted to
The boat had no control at all. It was a wooden lifeboat and every rowlock was lodged down between the end of a thwart and the side of the boat. I was the only person with a knife. My Navy issue knife was clipped to my belt. I cut away the end of my thwart and released a rowlock; we had one oar. I passed the knife to my neighbour who released his rowlock. He passed the knife to someone on the next thwart who released his rowlock and lost the knife overboard. We had three oars.
The boat was overladen with men and was constantly flooded as it drifted beam on to the sea. Three of us pulled our oars, it seemed forever, as we tried to turn the boat bows-on to the weather. At last, the Second Mate, whose boat it was, remembered that there was a sea-anchor stowed away in the forward locker. Once that was streamed life became easier.
I have a memory of looking back at the convoy which was, by then, some way off. The sky was lit by star-shell. the flashes of gun-fire, occasional dots of tracer-fire and the ominous glow of fires. And a U-boat passed us, perhaps fifty yards away. I could see two figures in the conning tower, one of them using binoculars.
At some time during the next day, the Northern Spray appeared. I(t) dropped a scrambling net and our crew disappeared aloft until only the Second Mate and I were left. I swept him a low, flamboyant bow and said, "After you, Cecil." He replied in kind, saying, "No. After you, Claude." ( A catch-phrase from a popular Radio-show of the time ). From above came an impatient " Stop f...... about and get aboard " We did.
The Northern Spray was, in peace-time, a MacFisheries deep-sea trawler. The spacious hold was used to hold the survivors but it was crowded. I was impressed by a Naval Sick Berth Attendant who was doing what he could to help men who were injured. Apparently it was his first trip to sea and he went about his duty with in his left hand a bucket in which he was being sea-sick.
The Northern Spray was desperately short of supplies for so many men. Drinks were very severely limited and there was positively no washing. Not that I heard anyone complain.
We were landed in St. John's, Newfoundland and after a few days, the Naval ratings were taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Canadian Navy barracks.
I must add a note about the North Britain. Harperley was on the port side of the convoy; you show her as being the third ship in the first column i.e. no 13. North Britain is shown as being the lead ship in column 9, i.e. away off to starboard of us. But I remember her as no 24.
Immediately before we were sunk, North Britain crept up between us and our neighbour in column 2. We thought she was pulling the old trick of seeking a bit more shelter. If so, she was unlucky. She was hit and I saw her immediately lie over flat on her port side. When eventually I reached Halifax, I got talking to another rating and, as one does, asked, "What ship were you on?" " The North Britain" I said that I could not believe that anyone survived. He told me that a week later he had been picked up alone in a lifeboat. He had no memory at all from the time the ship was hit until after he was picked up.
I hope all this may be of some interest to you.
220108 Temp. Acting Petty Officer (DEMS) Cyril N Hill
I wonder why you can always remember your Service number but you can't remember why you have just come into the sitting room.
Thank you for your wonderful message.
It is not often we receive an eye witness account of an event crucial in the Battle of the Atlantic, and Convoy ONS 5 was one such event.
I tried to cover that Convoy in some detail, as I believe it was the defining one in the defeat of the U-Boats in May 1943.
I know how frustrating it can be when you have been there for a specific Battle and it is wrongly reported, I was sunk in HMAS Canberra at the Battle of Savo Island, and I read a report that eg. states we were hit by two torpedoes, and I know that it is incorrect.
I will change the statement about Harparley listing to port which I would have read in a specific report about Convoy ONS 5, I did read widely when trying to put together my version of that fight against the U-Boats.
With regard to the Convoy formation for ONS 5, I had some difficulty in tracking that down, and I was beholden to Billy McGee, who runs a fine Site about British Merchant Shipping in WW2 for that information, but the responsibilty for what appears on AHOY is mine alone Cyril.
The positioning of the North Britain within the convoy that I have used may well be in question, anyone who was present for those fateful, and important days would have searing memories of the events that happenened.
I am indebted to you Cyril for your comments, as also will be, I have no doubt, our many AHOY readers.
Terry, my Web Master in Atlanta Georgia, joins me in saying thank you, for your time and trouble in writing, we salute you.
Sincerely, and with the kindest regards.
DEMS personnel were Naval, trained to man a Merchant Ship's guns, DEMS means Defence of Merchant Shipping, our Navy equivalent to the US Armed Guard Service.
I will correct my statement about her listing in due course, I would have that from a report I had studied. The Convoy Formation I had from Billy McGee who runs a fine site about the Merchant Navy, and that put the North Britain as lead ship of Column No 9. and give her the number 91, but Cyril clearly remembers her in Column 2 and the 4th. ship in that Column making her No 24. I will see if I can confirm ONS 5's Convoy Formation, but my past experience is that they are difficult to track down.
His own ship as shown by Billy, was the third ship in the first column ( which is on the port side of the Convoy ) giving it No 13.
All Convoy Formations were numbered by Columns starting from the left, 01, 02, 03, 04 etc.
The first ship in the L:H Column would be numbered 11, the one behind her 12, the third 13 etc, and so on for each column.
I will respond to Cyril tomorrow, its 12.20 AM on my Monday here, I should be in bed.
All the best,
My goodness! You are quick off the mark in responding.
It has been well said that confusion reigns once the first shot is fired. I must accept what you say about North Britain.
In that case, which ship was it that I saw and which turned on her side? From your narrative it looks as if it might have been the West Maximus. But I would never have thought that all but four of the crew would have been saved. And launching four lifeboats! Could I have seen the Lorient?
We'll never know.
Congratulations on the impressive quality of your research.
Lorient was sunk on the 4th. of May, she sailed in Column 3 in position 34, had a crew of 46, and was in ballast. It was U-125 who I believe accounted for this ship which just disappeared with all of her crew. She did not loose off the two mandatory white rockets, not did she transmit a radio SOS on the 600 meter band. Nothing, just gone. So I would doubt it was this ship you could have seen.
Within another 30 hours U-125 was no more.
Now to West Maximus, she was torpedoed on the 5th. of May, only perhaps 30 seconds before your ship copped it. She was in Column 2 at position 22, thus would be on your starboard side ( there were no ships on your port side as you were part of the port Convoy column ) Your position was 13, so West Maximus was just one ship ahead of you, and in the next column ). She is reported as sinking at about 0135.
My money is on West Maximus as the ship you saw.
Its after midnight here in OZ, Tuesday is upon me, you have some 11 hours to go, as we are still on summertime.
Take care of yourself, good men with exciting stories to
You defined DEMS as Defensively Equipped Merchant Shipping. But there was a big notice at the entrance to one of our shore bases, ' Don't Expect Much Sympathy'.
More widely known, however, was ' Dirty Minded Evil Seamen'. After basic training at HMS Collingwood, a shore establishment near Portsmouth, I was sent to Chatham for a gunnery course. From there, knowing so little about gunnery or,indeed, about anything else connected with the sea, I went with sixteen others to the DEMS base at Avonmouth, near Bristol. We went to seventeen different ships. I went to the Regent Panther, an average sized tanker and in February, 1941, we sailed for New York. Panther already had a gunner.
John Bull, how appropriate a name, had been recalled to the Colours in 1939 being an ex-12 years service man. He was about 35 years old, a jovial, happy-go-lucky man and, in the best sense of the word, a tough man. It was my fortune to be with him to learn about the sea. I did hear that he got a DSM serving on a ship that limped in in the convoy that relieved Malta.
Panther had a 4" Breech-loading gun and a 12 pounder high-angle gun mounted aft, of course, to comply with International rules which laid down that Merchantmen could only be defensively armed. But because of the increased threat from aircraft the Navy decided that additional armament was needed and supplied two Marlin machine-guns, the mountings for them being on either wing of the bridge.
A shore party dumped the guns and ammunition on the deck and departed. Johnny and I looked at the strange weapons. We had no instruction book. The first thing was to find out how they worked. Three screws on one side of the body of the gun appeared the right approach to dismantling the gun. As the third screw came away there was an echoing 'Boinggg' as the gun fell apart and springs and many odd-shaped bits flew in all directions. It took us a day and a half to reassemble the gun. The Marlin, a left-over from World-War 1, had a webbing-belt feed which soaked up water, shrank and refused to let go of the .30" bullets; it was useless. The Navy must have had a store of remaindered weapons which they put on Merchant ships - but that is a story in itself.
On Regent Panther we gunners dined in the Engineer Officers' mess - the sort of honour which never came my way again. About two days out, in convoy, I was at breakfast when a solid double-thump shook the ship. The Chief Engineer, at the head of the table, said casually that it was probably mines going off. I said that I would like to see this and walked to the door of the mess-room. Once outside, I fled along the alleyway and arrived on deck in time to see a Heinkel 111 passing astern and two bombs gracefully falling. They burst just astern of the Norwegian tanker behind us which seemed to be partially lifted from the water. However, it settled back and continued with us, presumably without serious damage.
I rushed to the gun-deck and found Johnny laying the 12 pdr and a merchant seaman training it. Johnny, as Captain of the gun, was calling "Left, left,left" to the trainer. The gun was protected by a 3 1/2 foot high 'zareba' of 3" thick mastic. I climbed over and as I dropped down Johnny shouted "Fire". Automatically, I slammed down the firing plate and the 12 pdr yelped - that is the only way I can describe it. It did not have the deeper boom of bigger guns.
The Heinkel was by now half-a-mile away but our shell-burst appeared to be in the angle between the fuselage and the wing. The plane gave off a cloud of black smoke and lost height to sea-level. We lost sight of it and whether we had in fact damaged it we do not know.
That was the only shot from the convoy even though we had a destroyer ahead and one on either wing. Johnny must have been fast off the mark to get the shell, set the fuse, load the gun and get the shot away in so short a time.
The escorts did not stay long. At that time, U-boat activity did not reach too far into the Western Ocean. We made our way to New York and dry-dock for major overhaul. From New York we went to Trinidad. We stopped briefly at Port of Spain, the capital, then on to San Fernando to load.
We were a 'company ship' Bowrings, the company that owned the Panther also owned or had a large interest in the oil installation on the island. This meant that the crew could use the company's store in the little town. Rum cost the equivalent of a pound for six bottles; everyone bought rum.
We went out through the Dragon's Mouth - the narrow passage between Trinidad and the mainland of South America - and so via the Mona passage between Puerto Rica and Dominica to run up off the east coast of America to Halifax in Nova Scotia. It took ten days and was a quiet holiday cruise. No U-boats were out there at that time.
A routine began. After breakfast we gathered in the cabin of one of the off-duty officers and talked and drank - rum, of course. The watches changed at midday so the afternoon was spent with a slightly different crowd in someone else's cabin. At four o'clock, another change of watch and another venue.
The most junior of the Engineer Officers was a man for whom I had very mixed feelings. I think he was a fitter from a Mersey-side shipyard and, despite his age which I would think was about 50, had come to sea to 'do his bit'; for that I gave him some respect. Nevertheless, he was a thoroughly obnoxious man with deplorable manners. His watch-mate was the Third Engineer who had to put up with him but found it very hard to do so.
One day. a week or so after we left Trinidad , we were in the Third's cabin. I was on the settee seated next to the Junior Engineer. Suddenly, he stood up, stiff and with his chin lifted as high as it would go. Like that he toppled to the deck. The Third cursed and lifted across his shoulder this rigid body which stuck out fore and aft as would a board. The Third carried him out to the open deck and in turning corners cracked the man's head against a (p)ipe, opening a large gash on his forehead. He did not wake until many hours later when he came to me saying," Who done this? Who done this to me? Tell me. I'll kill him".
Of course I had no idea. One hears the expression 'paralytic drunk' but that is the only time that I have in fact seen it.
We sailed from Halifax in a convoy of 29 ships. Our escort was the Armed merchant Cruiser 'Ascania' ( an ex-Cunard liner ) and a submarine which, I was told, was the Free French 'Surcouf'. To start with, we gunners did not keep watch; there was no danger west of 40 degrees West.
Well, someone had to be first. A few days later I was roused in the night and got on deck to see our next astern, the Norman Monarch, ablaze. She dropped behind and I saw no more of her.
Next day came much worse trouble. Ascania and the submarine left us; after all, they were no use against U-boat attack. In the next column, on our port beam, was the Darlington Court, a modern-looking fair-sized cargo ship. Her deck cargo was Hudson aircraft. I happened to be looking at her as she was hit; she seemed to shiver, went down slightly by the head and appeared simply to steam under water. I saw no sign of debris or survivors. One of the sixteen men that I went to Avonmouth with was on that ship.
Soon after that, on the far side of the convoy, a tanker was hit and went up in flames. A second tanker pulled around the fire and was hit as it came clear. A third tanker followed and was hit.The three made one huge fire and there came a most extraordinary sight. A sphere of moving fire and smoke, red and swirling black, rose. And out of this formed a second sphere, balanced on top of the first. Then a third, a fourth, and a fifth formed above, all to become a column of fire and smoke. Using the length of the tankers as a guide, I estimated the height of the column as getting near to a mile. And the sea for hundreds of yards around was on fire.
I must admit that, sitting as we were on several thousand tons of aviation and motor spirit, my attention was absorbed by the fire on the other side of the convoy. But I think I could not have failed to see if more ships had been lost before we had orders to scatter. It was remarkable how quickly all other ships were out of sight - all save the Morganen, a Norwegian tanker that followed us exactly, every zig and every zag. Regent Panther was diesel-engined and designed for 12 1/2 knots. We did 15 1/2 knots for half an hour then 14 knots for about 12 hours.
Morgenen, one of the survivors from Convoy HX -126
During that first half-hour we had a severe shock; severe enough to have thrown me to the deck if I had not grabbed a stanchion. My first thought was that we had been hit and I looked forward expecting to see a fire; there was no sign. We wondered if by chance we had rammed a U-boat. Morganen must have had the same experience for at Avonmouth she had her hull examined - with no result.
We made our way to the re-assembly point where we joined fourteen of the original convoy plus three 'strangers' With dawn we saw great grey shapes approaching at high speed. It was King George V, Victorious and Repulse with three cruisers and a number of destroyers. So this convoy of 18 ships was the convoy HX 126 " whose bows Tovey" ( the Admiral with the fleet ) "crossed on the morning of 24 May " ( Ludovic Kennedy's book 'Pursuit' ) The fleet's port screen of destroyers had to zig-zag diagonally through the covoy in order to maintain station. We lined the rails and cheered them on. The battleships made a brave sight as they forced their ways through the considerable swell and green seas broke over them. Of course, later we learned that they were looking for the Bismarck and that Hood had been lost. Was the shock that we had felt caused by Hood's explosion?
We made our way back to Avonmouth. The Chief Petty Officer of the DEMS base was there to greet us as we came ashore, He was a fatherly figure and obviously sincerely affected when he shook my hand and said, "
There are six of your crowd left."
My thanks, a few notes about HX126 follow:
Convoy HX 126. Halifax/New York- UK. Attacked by a pack of U-Boats over 19 May - 22 May 1941.
This convoy made up of 28 ships was only escorted by the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Aurania, with such a paltry escort it was only asking for trouble, and that is exactly what it received.
Nine U-Boats have a picnic.
HMS Aurania was given a hopeless task, with no escorting destroyers, or corvettes, the attackers were not going to be harassed by a close escort, they went in for the kill, and accounted for the following 9 ships:
Barnaby, a romper, meaning she had rushed ahead of the main body making her very vulnerable. Carrying 7,250 tons of flour she was accounted for by U-111, but fortunately only 2 sailors died.
Northern Monarch with a cargo of 8,300 tons of wheat, 26 crew were killed, and U-94 sank her.
Darlington Court also with wheat, 8,116 tons, lost 25 crew in the attack by U-556.
British Security went in a blaze, her 11,200 tons of benzine and paraffin killing 53, with U-556 again the successful German boat.
Cockaponset had 6,250 tons of steel in her hold, it helped her sink after being torpedoed by U-556, her triple victim, but her crew were all saved.
Rothermere, a romper, another too anxious to steam ahead of her convoy, and she paid the price, being nailed by U-98, to lose 22 crew members.
John P, Pederson, also romped off ahead, to be easily picked off by U-94, her second ship sunk, and 22 died.
Harpagus joined those ships to be sunk, this time by U-109, losing 32 crew.
Elusa was the final ship to be sunk from HX 126, claimed by U-93, luckily, only 3 crew members were killed.
Too many sailors die.
So, nine ships to total 51,862 tons were sunk, in the main from a lack of escorts, it was a tough time on the North Atlantic run. The U-boats, and their astute commander, Gross Admiral Karl Donitz were at the zenith of their power, the gap in the middle of the Atlantic devoid of Allied air cover. It was during this period, I spent time as a young Midshipman in the Australian heavy cruiser Australia, convoying in the Atlantic. It was always cold and cheerless, and when one returned home to base, air raids and bombs raining down were often the welcome awaiting.
Remaining ships in HX-126.
British Riberia, Crnegic, ( sunk June 1941 )
Baron Elgin, Empire Kudu, ( Sunk September 1941 )
British Splendour ( sunk April 1942 )
Tongariro, Dorelian, Nicoya ( Sunk May 1942 )
Gretavale ( sunk November 1941 )
Bente Maersk, British Freedom ( sunk January 1945 )
Regent Panther, Rarabagh, Rowewood, Eemland, Havsten ( sunk August 1942 )
Hade County ( sunk December 1941 ) and Morgenen.
Thus from a total of 28 vessels that started out as Convoy HX126, only 10 of them were to see out the remainder of WW2, such was the attrition due to the operation of the German U-Boat arm.
On this convoy, the British DEMS gunner, Cyril Hill sailed in Regent Panther, both fortuituosly to go the distance with Convoy HX126, and then to survive until the end of the 1939/1945 conflict. And Cyril now 89, is still going strong, sharing his memories with me, and our AHOY readers.
Thanks to Cyril Hill.
Regarding your remembrances of your convoy battles.
I have found enormous differences in both official and eye witness reports.
Regarding my personal experiences in being sunk in Canberra, the American Naval Historian Samuel Morrison got a number of details about Savo, the search for the Japanese surface force and reports after finding them by an Australian Hudson aircraft, so wrong. Then as he was the USN official Historian, so many authors writing about Savo, just slavishly followed him to perpetuate the myths.
I used the reports of HX126 from a Norwegian site about Convoys and the Battle of the Atlantic. It is run by a lady Siri Lawson living in the US, her Dad was a Norwegian sailor in WW2, in general Siri runs a wonderful site that is a great reference facility, we correspond from time to time, and she has links to AHOY on this site. But, although she carries just about all the Atlantic Convoy steaming formations and names the ships, there is no such information for HX126, nor can I track one down anywhere.
I used 28 ships in convoy, it was probably 29.
I will attach some other reports to illustrate how numbers vary, there is one report saying an armed merchant ship and a submarine were escorting your ships.
Two others say it was unescorted, another that 2 armed merchant ships were there.
One reports 39? ships in convoy, another 31.
It was in May of 1941, that HMS Bulldog captured the Enigma coding machine from U-110, and later that month they cracked the Dolphin U-Boat codes at Bletchley Park, and thereafter were able to read the U-Boat codes, know where the packs of them were gathering, could slip aside, and also give the convoys far more escorts.
The enormous fire that spread across the ocean with the torpedoing of a tanker was I would think, just as you remember it Cyril.
January 14, 2010
It's been a while since we've been in touch, I hope you're well and happy.
Today, I happened upon a page on your site where you say: I used the reports of HX126 from a Norwegian site about Convoys and the Battle of the Atlantic http://www.warsailors.com/. It is run by a lady Siri Lawson living in the US, her Dad was a Norwegian sailor in WW2, in general Siri runs a wonderful site that is a great reference facility, we correspond from time to time, and she has links to AHOY on this site. But, although she carries just about all the Atlantic Convoy steaming formations and names the ships, there is no such information for HX126, nor can I track one down anywhere. The page in question is here
I know the messages on that page are probably fairly old now, and I don't know if Cyril is still alive, but I just wanted to mention that I do indeed have the information for Convoy HX 126, you'll find it here
There's also some details on ONS 5, mentioned on your page
How nice to hear from you, yes I am fine thank you, although I had surgery on my left shoulder just proir to Christmas.
The rehabilitation is going well.
You are of course quite right about the cruising order for
convoy HX 126, its now 5 years ago since I said I could
I will ask my web master Terry Kearns to remove that statement on AHOY.
I will be 88 in February next, the time just skates along.
Only a few days ago I was telling my wife Denise what a
great site you run, and that I had not heard from you for
Tke care of yourself, my very best wishes and regards,