Letters

Tony Slevin : Convoy RB 1 and Southland

Hello Mac

I understand that my E mail to Terry Kearns has been forwarded to you.  Of the original 11 ships, two never got away, one turned back, three were lost and the remaining five, including SOUTHLAND made it home.

I have a copy of Convoy MANIAC RB1 by James Reed which covers the action very well and in my view, had it not been for this book, RB 1 would never have been told. Publishing details are as follows:  Convoy Maniac RB1 The Book Club, 25 High Street, Lewea, Sussex ISBN   1  85776 471  4

Early 1942 my ship accidentally picked up a telephone cable in  the  Manchester Ship Canal delaying our departure. " It bodes ill for us all " said an "old Salt . "We will never make it to South America" he added. Wrecked in a  storm a few days after departure, the ship was abandoned. Posted to the Officers Pool , I made one uneventful voyage followed by a posting to the Montreal Pool.

"What is your next ship?" enquired a seaman [ex shipwreck] "Montreal Pool" I replied feeling pleased with my luck. "Who are the  agents" he asked. "Coast Lines Ltd. " I replied. " My God, you had  better get off that one, its a bloody suicide trip." He outlined the details obtained from goodness knows where. "They are all bloody suicide trips these days " I replied sourly as dreams of Montreal faded. I did not exercise my option and duly reported to entrain for Gourock and Queen Mary for New York.

The only action that I did see was the sinking of S.S. BOSTON and the gunners on SOUTHLAND in action - only briefly. We almost collided with  one of the destoyers at nightfall. Alarmed she switched on Navigation and other lights, What was left of the convoy split apart and we  arrived in the Clyde alone. We ran aground at our next stop Loch Ewe but were pulled off by tugs.

We ran out of food before reaching London and where we arrived in  dense fog. Next morning, we travelled by taxi to Euston Station to get  a meal. Signed off, Went home. Next trip ONS154 returning SC118.

I had a motto - Get Lucky.

I have a fair amount of detail relative to this operation from entrainment at Liverpool to discharge in London [ Poplar] but it is mostly  related to the overall operation or specifically to SOUTHLAND. Should anyone be interested. I can provide more detail

Best Regards
Tony Slevin


Dear Tony.
 
Thank you for your message.
 
You certainly had some hair raising experiences at sea in WW2.
 
We have a number of people, including myself, who would be interested in anything you may care to share about Convoy RB 1, and Southland in particular. 

Kindest regards, 
Mac. Gregory.


My attention was drawn to a front page spread in the Daily Express while on leave.The headline referred to a claim by Germany that U boats had attacked a troopship convoy in the N. Atlantic causing the loss of 20,000 lives. This was RB1. Naturally the Govt. simply said." It is not true."

Post war records asserted that Admiral Donitz, believing  reports from the U boats, ordered that the current attack on another convoy escorted by 6 destroyers and/or corvettes which had already lost five ships be broken off and the U boats together with another group should proceed  to RB 1. In all 17 U boats were so directed. Three never arrived.

Mr. Churchill himself admitted, in relation to the specific use of a decoy and two other sources confirmed the use of decays. In the case of RB1 was this justified. I have no idea. However, the reasons given ultimately were. They were to be used as accommodation ships, they were to be used in connection with the projected D day operations .

Of the 13 [ not 11] ships earmarked, only 10 reached St. John's NFL one was withdrawn and after leaving St John's VIRGINIA LEE turned back leaving 8 of which 3 were lost. Five only, made it all the way.

Some years after the war, asked by a person in a position to know, "what ships did you serve on? When I  replied, SOUTHLAND,  he said  " were you on that? It was disgraceful, I would have nothing to do with it."

 I think the original operation was as stated BUT the decoy idea developed in someones mind. I believe a Hunter/Killer group might have been involved but failed to arrive.

 

LIVERPOOL JULY 1942
--------------------------------

On reporting to the officers pool, I was handed a chit with the caption Montreal Pool. I signed articles as senior radio officer S.S.Southland, though I cannot recall exactly where or when. Crews gathered on the appointed date at Exchange Station for the train journey to Gourock on the river Clyde where R.M.S. Queen Mary lay at anchor. 

We boarded via a tender and I was allocated first class trooping` accommodation in a peacetime first class cabin on A deck which had been converted to hold eight bunks. I shared this accommodation with three Chief engineers. The cabin boasted a bathroom but only sea water was available. She had about 3,000 persons on board plus crew.

During the night, or very early next morning, we departed for New York. By the time I awoke at breakfast time, we were at sea and out of sight of land. The ship was bristling with anti-airctraft guns and we were escorted by an anti aircraft cruiser. The zig zag track caused her to roll quite heavily but slowly. Apparently on a later voyage,, New York to U.K. loaded with troops, the cruiser** crossed her track and was cut in two.
 
** This was HMS Curacao. See our URL: http://www.ahoy.tk-jk.net/macslog/WhobuiltRoyalCharter.html

There were three sittings for meals, served in what had been, in peacetime, the Tourist dining saloon. I believe I have a copy of  the menu for one day. Very impressive I thought. This was luxury. The voyage lasted five days, each day being the same as the previous one. However, there was one evening of entertainment as our uneventful voyage was drawing to a close, when some of the passengers, amateur and profssional , put on a show. It was quite good.

R.M.S. Queen Mary berthed at the Curnad pier [ 52 or 54] and all officers and men allocated to RB 1 disembarked and travelled by taxi to the various accommodations provided, in my case, The Hotel Great Northern on 57th Street.

Best regards,
Tony Slevin


Mac
 
Thanks for yours re Q.M. As it happens, I decided that air paid better than sea. At Air Service Training Ltd. I obtained a Licence to operate on board aircraft. At A.S.T. my instructor was Frank Bossard, mentioned in `Spycatcher` written by the Australian author Peter Wright.

New York - Baltimore - New York - Boston - Halifax- St. Johns will follow shortly.

Regards
Tony


Mac, 

New York - Baltimore-New York - Boston - Halifax- St John,s
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

With two weeks to spend with food and accommodation provided plus a small spending allowance, I teamed up with one of the deck officers, either from SOUTHLAND or NORTHLAND. Amazing how some important things drop out of memory. I cannot remember his name. We set out  to explore New York on foot or via the subway.

One day we were approached by two matronly ladies who invited us to visit their homes in Long Island City. We accepted and were soon surroundeed by hordes of college girls with or without boy friends. Keeping up the pace needed bags of energy. One of the families took us to see Mike Todd's Vaudeville which included the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. Another outing provided was to see New York Internationa Airport which then was La Guardia Field.

All good things end too soon and at Grand Central Station we entrained for Baltimore. Arriving at the docks I viewed SOUTHLAND with some dismay. With her whaleback bows and high supertructure I would not have been surprised to see a paddle wheel at the stern. Coal was dumped on deck as the bunkers were too small. Ah well, acommodations were good as was the food, until it ran out that is. So after a day or two we sailed down the Delaware and into the open ocean. After two years at sea, I was seasick. SOUTHLAND , nearly 40 years old and used to the Delaware didn't like it either I suspect.

Arriving in New York, we dropped anchor in the bay along with the other forlorn would be ocean liners and waited instructions. There was no shore leave. Two of the ships had engine trouble I was told and this may have accounted for the delay. In due course we moved up the East River, Long Island Sound  and the Cape Cod Canal to Boston where we docked. A day or so later, we departed for Halifax, about which I remember almost nothing and eventually to St. John's.

During the coastal voyage we had a Blimp or two watching over us but somehow I do not recall the naval escort. Memory again I think. Arriving at St John's we lay at anchor possibly awaiting departure orders. The buzz at that time was that if we did not get away soon the operation would be cancelled as the Equinoctal gales were due to start soon. Visions of New York or Montreal formed in my mind but it was not to be.

Tony

I have a lot of non personal data relating to the crossing but this has come from sources protected by copyright. . What is the position ?


Tony,

Thank you, I am enjoying your account of your times, now, so long ago.

So many remembrances of WW2 will soon be lost if not recorded.

About your copyright material, please just add it to the next text, and we can acknowledge the source if you know it,  or leave it out of the AHOY post. By now the copyright might have run out anyway.

Hear from you when you are ready.

Best regards, 
Mac.

 

Here is the final bit of Tony's report.
 
Nothing like a first hand account of a Convoy most likely set up by the authorities to attract Donitz's attention. and allow an important troop or other convoy to get through unscathed. Fine, unless you happen to be in the decoy!!
 

We spent two weeks at the anchorage taking only one or two trips ashore. There was nothing to see or to do. There was not a single bar, pub, or as far as I could see, even a restaurant or cafe. There was however a cinema of sorts, rather like a shed if I recall correctly. To obtain refreshments, suitable for seafarers it was necessary to obtain a licence. However, we did manage to overcome this little problem.

I could not guess what the delay was all about . Nobody talked about it, there was nothing to do but await orders.

Sailing orders arrived and RB1 comprising BOSTON, NEW YORK, YORKTOWN, NEW BEDFORD, PRESIDENT WARFIELD, NAUSHON, NORTHLAND, SOUTHLAND and VIRGINIA LEE sailed on September 21st. destination Londonderry.

There was no action known to me on 22nd and 23rd. but VIRGINIA LEE turned back to St. John's and on 24th. we were made aware of trouble to come.

On the afternoon of the 24th. while enjoying a drink with other off-duty officers I was called to the bridge.The Commodore in BOSTON was signalling. I picked up the Aldis lamp and acknowledged.The following signal was received: WE ARE BEING FOLLOWED EXPECT ATTACK TONIGHT.

I returned to the party and picked up my drink. someone said "What was the signal?" I related it verbatim. The party began to break up. Feeling slightly irritated, I said "What's the panic, nothing is going to happen till tonight. The party broke up anyway.

I decided to check my special life saving kit and concluded that it was a good idea as long as one had all day to put it on. I decided that the 3rd radio officer, a boy of 18 should not cover the night watch and arranged that midnight to 8 a.m. be covered by the 2nd radio officer, in peacetime a farmer from Madeley Cheshire, and myself.He agreed. In the event, the night passed,as far as we were concerned,without incident.

Around midday on the 25th I was below decks when when I heard a dull but loud explosion. As there was no message from the bridge, I decided to take a look. I observed that one of the two twin funnel ships was going down by the stern. There were already two lifeboats in the water and the ship, now known to be BOSTON was listing to starboard. About one minute later, the stays supporting one of the funnels, snapped and it fell overboard, close to, if not on top of the boats already there.

There was a great deal of gunfire from SOUTHLAND but as my view was obscured by the ship's superstructure, I could not see what we or the other ships were firing at. I returned to the radio office from where it was not possible to observe the action.

Late that evening I went up onto the bridge. As I arrived, I could see a destroyer moving slowly and crossing our track. Quite alarming, not least for the destroyer crew. Notwithstanding the fact that the sea was crawling with U boats, she switched on so many lights, I thought it was Christmas.A collision was narrowly avoided.

As dawn broke there was not another ship in sight, we appeared to have outrun the U- boats. One assumes that, when surfaced, it would be no problem to jeep up but they would have been exposed to heavy gunfire. Arriving in the Clyde estuary, I observed that one ship possibly NEW BEDFORD was already there. I later learned that NAUSHON, PRESIDENT WARFIELD and NORTHLAND has made it into Londonderry.

Unable to continue the voyage as normal food supplies had run out, the crew waived their rights to minimum rations. So, weighing anchor, we departed for the convoy anchorage at Loch Ewe on the West coast of Scotland which we reached without incident.

Now living on bully beef and hard tack, the objective was HOME. Sometime after arrival, the 2nd radio officer and I heard that potatoes had been found on the galley floor under the ovens. We soon had a plateful of chips apiece, the aroma of which drifted into the Captain's cabin. "Anymore where those came from he enquired? pouring two glasses of Scotch. Thus fortified,we returned to the task, delivered the chips and got two more glasses.

One day a howling gale sprang up accompanied by lashing rain. Four of us were enjoying a midday drink when I remarked "I think she is dragging her anchor." One of the deck officers stood up and looked through the porthole. It was an amazing sight. We were hard up alongside the rocky shoreline and there were three sheep in line abreast looking back from a few feet away. Everybody was now on deck, regardless. The ship had begun to lift and bang down on the rocks beneath her keel. One or two crew suggested that she might break her back and sink. Hardly likely.

Anyone athletic enough could have jumped ashore. As my services were not likely to be required, I withdrew to my cabin where it was warm and dry, and put my feet up. A few hours later after being pulled off by tugs, so I was informed, we settled down with, I think, two anchors down.

On or around the 8th. of October 1942, we departed Lock Ewe for the Port of London. Proceeding round the North of Scotland and via the North Sea. The voyage took about four days about which there is nothing to tell, that is until we arrived off theThames Estuary.

It was late afternoon and quite misty. As we continued, it rapidly turned into fog. By the time we approached the dock area, it had become a real pea souper.

By about 9 PM we had docked, and thegangway was down. It seemed unwise to leave the ship as visibility was only a yard or two, and the possibility of falling into the dock, real. However, about 9.30 PM it was reported that there was a pub just around the corner.

Feeling our way along the dock wall, three of us headed off in the direction indicated and found it. There was no food except for a bun and a curled up sandwich. All was  not lost. There was plenty of beer but only a few minutes to closing time. It was good beer, not usually available in wartime.

Next morning a fleet of taxis took officers and men to Euston rail station to breakfast on bacon, eggs, beans, toast and tea. Returning to the ship via a Shipping Office we were paid off, I picked up my already packed kit, and sharing a taxi, returned to Euston, presented my travel warrant, and arrived about six hours later at my home in Birkenhead.

Presumably pleased to see me, I was greeted with the unforgettable words " Have a good trip? When are you going back?" The then unknown answer to that was "In five days time to join Convoy ONS 154."

One more page will conclude this basic document. The Convoy Code word MANIAC was appropriate, the book by James Reed is a concise collection of facts. Was MANAIC a decoy? In my view YES! There were others. Whereas I am not aware of any concrete evidence that Convoy RB 1 was a decoy, unsubstantiated evidence, in my view is very strong. If not a decoy, the risk involved in using coastal and river vessels on tne North Atlantic in wartime for the purposes stated needs some explanation.

Bearing in mind the forseeable risks and the proposed use of the ships, can one really accept that the operation was likely to be worthwhile? What is the evidence then?

( a ) If the ships were to be used for the purposes stated. In my view, NO.

( b ) If the convoy was a decoy, are we expendable? In my view, YES.

Were ships often so used? Again, in my view, YES.

1. Mr Winston Churchill himself acknowledged that SL125 ( in ballast ) was so used.

2. Post war, an official said to me " Were you in that RB 1? It was disgraceful, I would have nothing to do with it."

3. A retired Canadian Naval Officer remarked to me "Oh yes, they were doing it all the time."

4. I recently lent the book Convoy Maniac RB 1, to the brother of a neighbour, he said:

" Yes they did that to us."

It is a matter of historical fact that Admiral Donitz was completely fooled, so much so, that he

ordered one ongoing successful U-Boat attack on another convoy to be broken off, and ordered another group, 17 U-Boats in all to go after RB 1.

14 boats moved in, 3 never made it.

The convoy ceased to exist, and the following ships and personnel were lost.

SS Boston, Captain Young, 60 lost, 2 survivors.

SS New York, Captain Mayers, 62 lost, 20 survivors.

SS Yorktown, Captain Boylan, 16 lost, 44 survivors.

HMS Veteran, Lieutenant Commander Garwood, 210 lost, no survivors.

There were some casualities in Veteran, who were Merchant Seamen that had been

rescued by the destroyer before she too was sunk.

Thats it.

Best wishes,

Tony.

 

 


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