The Voyage of the “Defender”



Chris Scott (and reproduced here with his kind permission) – 6th April 1997 (since edited)


Preparation: King George V dock, Glasgow.

It can fall to few Movements Officers to load a ship operationally, sail on it as OC ship, and discharge it at the end of the voyage, but at the time all this happened I was quite unaware that it was anything unusual. Indeed, I cannot really remember whether I knew when the “Defender” started loading that this would be the case.

This ship was certainly no luxury liner. She had, in fact, been hit by a torpedo in the First World War and this was the first time she had been chartered in the second. She was unusual in having seven hatches with a jumbo derrick on no. 5-a “benefit” which became the undoing of our Docks Operating QMS; but I anticipate! She was to load a mixed cargo of ammunition, RE & Ordnance Stores, Supplies, POL and, in the tween deck, MT which had all been duly waterproofed.

For maintenance en voyage and for driving at destination, unit details were to sail with the ship, some fifty men in all, and a small troop-deck had been constructed for them over the deep tanks. It was ventilated by a large fan, not an extractor, but one which was supposed to pump fresh air into the deck. The only trouble was that some bright spark of a designer had placed the intake for this fan right outside the companion way which led to the engine room, so that when the fan was in operation it drew heat and fumes from that quarter and distributed them below deck.

The full significance of this was not apparent at first since most of the troops embarked at Gourock, some days after we sailed out of KGV dock. Indeed, there are a number of things in this account which I only came to know at a later date, including convoy details and the fact that this ship was one of the Harrison Line, hailing from Liverpool, and that they were known throughout the shipping world as the “Hungry Harrisons”. Since the provisioning of ships on charter to the War Office was the responsibility of the owners, this had some relevance before the voyage came to an end.

I have no record of the loading time but am sure it was not less than a fortnight. During most of that time, while I was still residing ashore, my chief contact with the ship was with the First Officer. As completion came within sight, however, I made the acquaintance of the ship’s Master, one Captain Thomas Lacey, who looked exactly the hard-bitten old sea salt which he was, and proved to be a most taciturn character. Looking back, I suppose one can hardly blame him. He was already finding that this voyage might prove a frustrating experience.

Not the least of his worries was the last-minute arrival of four DUKWs which were to be loaded as deck cargo and, concerning which, he had had less than 24 hours’ notice. Even so it was longer than we had had. They were discharged from the Canadian ship on which they had arrived at another berth in the same dock, driven straight round to our ship and hoisted on board, under the jaundiced eye of the Master and with long drawn-out discussion between the First Officer and the stevedore foreman over their securing on deck.

Part of my own preparations was perhaps a little unusual and certainly in no manual of Movement. On learning, not unsurprisingly in the circumstances, that there would be no chaplain or padre on board, and being myself a keen Christian, with some small experience of leading youth groups at church, I supplemented my personal Bible with half a dozen copies of the Church of Scotland Church Hymnary. I must confess that this was something of an afterthought and all I could get at short notice near to the docks, were tiny paper-backs printed in minuscule type. (I still have them). I assumed that they would probably suffice for a small select Sunday gathering somewhere on board. However, in the immortal words of Mrs. Ramsbottom (Albert’s mother), “things ‘appen so strange”-as will appear.

Doon the wa’er.

We sailed from Glasgow about midday on Saturday 19th June 1943. On board were 16 army personnel, all ranks. These included myself as the only officer so far, my clerk who was a Movement Control L/Cpl., the Docks Operating QMS, who was to be the ship’s sergeant-major, and the four drivers of the hastily loaded DUKWs. We also had a medical orderly from the RAF.

We spent the best part of five days off Gourock forming the convoy with which we were to sail. More hassle of the nautical kind for the Master who, according to the steward, my chief source of information, was most unhappy about the speed laid down for the convoy. This was only 8 knots, but this was an old ship and no doubt his owners were as parsimonious over fuel as they were said to be over food.

On Thursday 24th the remainder of our passengers came out by tender. A Gunner Lieutenant and an officer of similar rank from the RASC had a couple of NCOs and 25 drivers between them, while the RAF contingent was made up of a Flight Lieutenant, a Flight Sergeant and ten drivers. We were now 58 souls in all and took our place in convoy KMS 19G as we sailed south past Ailsa Craig.

The first week or so of the voyage was taken up with “getting to know you” among the officers and, assumedly among the men also. Although I was OC ship it was pretty clear that at least one, if not two of my messmates were senior to me in service. I played safe and most decisions were made on a consensus basis. A daily parade of decidedly short duration – more for the look of the thing than for anything else – was established, and each of the MT officers worked out a maintenance roster for his vehicles. I arranged with the Mate, access to the appropriate holds at set times.

It soon became clear that we were not sailing directly to Gibraltar. We steamed well out into the Atlantic before turning for the Mediterranean, virtually missing Biscay altogether as far as I could tell. All this was at the behest of the Navy and our escort vessels who were (we hoped) well apprised of the security situation, whereabouts of enemy submarines, range of shore-based aircraft and so forth.

The further south we went the more oppressive the atmosphere became in the troop-deck as the hot air from the engine room was pumped in. The men complained that it was quite impossible to sleep below and brought out their palliasses and “biscuits” and spread them on the hatch covers, on the deck, anywhere where they could find space enough to lie down. Having checked conditions for myself I had to agree that it was out of the question to insist on their sleeping below deck. The ship’s officers and crew were quite co-operative, having been provided with yet another proof of the foolishness of the Service mentality, but we had a very real problem over smoking. This had to be absolutely forbidden except under cover, the more so after we entered the Mediterranean and were within bombing range of enemy aircraft. We ended up with a routine of Officers and NCOs prowling the deck after dark until all the men were asleep and then praying that no wakeful one would take the opportunity for a sly drag in the middle of the night. Luckily most of the deck-space was visible from the bridge so that the ship’s officer on watch would keep an eye open for this; after all it was his skin as much at risk as ours!

Mediterranean blues.

We almost slunk into the Mediterranean Sea. It was night; Gibraltar was in darkness, but on the other shore we saw the lights of Ceuta, in Spanish Morocco, and felt a touch of nostalgia for the days when we had known streets that were lit at night. “Lucky b—–s”, was the general reaction, until second thoughts suggested that life under Franco would hardly be a bed of roses either.

We ploughed on through the Meddy at 8 knots, the speed of the slowest vessel (us!) and put in at Algiers. We could see folk and traffic moving about ashore but were not allowed off the ship. Fortunately we had been free of any enemy action within sight during the whole voyage so far and this good fortune continued as, after two or three days we sailed again and duly arrived at Malta. Again the order was, “no-one to go ashore”, but by now the “Defender” was in a sorry plight, or, more accurately, those on board were. The owners had been instructed to provision the ship for a three week voyage and we were already past that time. In spite of all the efforts of the ship’s steward, a likeable rascal who seemed capable of turning any eventuality to his personal advantage, we were living on salt pork and rice-not a potato nor a piece of bread on the ship. Some of us recalled tales of sailing ship days and had started looking for weevils long before. We were spared that, but some of the potatoes, toward the end of the supply, should certainly have gone to seed long since.

Representations were made and resulted in a boat being sent into the harbour so that supplies could be ordered from Harrison’s agent. I took the opportunity of going and, while the steward was about his business, I was shunted off into the Naval Officers’ Club, where I was introduced to their most popular drink, Pimm’s number something or other, in a tall glass containing half a vegetable garden as part of the drink.

“‘Twas on a Sunday morning”.

So far the voyage had been more or less uneventful, almost boring in fact. One thing which probably distinguished us from similar ships in the convoy, was our Sunday morning service. I didn’t jump in with the idea, but discussed it with my fellow officers on the first Sunday out. It turned out that the Flight Lieutenant was a Roman Catholic, as was my own clerk. The other two officers were amiably disposed toward the Church of England, a Baptist Sergeant was unearthed and one of the crew said he would be quite willing to take part. So it was arranged, and every Sunday in July we had an open air service round one of the hatch covers at 11 in the morning.

One of the officers, the sergeant or the crew member read the lesson while I looked after the prayers and a short “sermon” usually based on something which had happened during the week, or relevant to Service life. Movements had provided the OC ship (me) with an ancient Oliver typewriter, the sort where the levers are arranged in two semi-circular banks above the keyboard and descend like the tentacles of an octopus when the keys are pressed. It does not do for the typist to have too much skill in the way of speed, or there is a danger of a lever from the left bank and one from the right becoming entangled. In spite of their several faults, however, these machines were almost indestructible. It was said that in the Western Desert battles they had been the only ones which could withstand the constant movement of sand through the air and continue to function. It was on this machine that hymns were typed out each week in sufficient quantity for all to share between two, and we soon had almost a hundred per cent attendance by the service personnel and often two or three of the off-duty crew. As I have said, the voyage hitherto had been hardly exciting and no doubt many came to the service as a way of passing an otherwise idle hour, but many seemed grateful for the opportunity and I was soon being called “the Rev” by the two army officers.

Into battle.

As explained, we had arrived at Malta almost ration-less. Having duly stocked up we were off again and the next day we dropped anchor, along with a dozen or so other freight carrying vessels, in a large harbour. We learned that this was Augusta, in Sicily. What we did not know until much later was that this had been an Italian Naval Base, that their Officers’ Mess had been swiftly occupied by our own units, and just as swiftly bombed by the Germans who killed a number of our officers, including two from Movement Control. What we also did not know, but found out much sooner rather than later, was that the Germans were still operating from an airfield only half an hour or less flying time from where we lay at anchor.

By now it was 19th July, a full calendar month since we had cast off from the dockside in Glasgow and here we were, at anchor, within sight of our third Mediterranean port, no prospect of getting ashore, and wondering what would happen next. We didn’t have long to wonder and what happened was certainly not what we were expecting. With no warning whatsoever a couple of German fighter bombers appeared from the shore side and began to drop bombs around the nearest ships on that side. We all looked in amazement as the white water shot skyward where the bombs fell. Fortunately no ship was hit, in spite of being sitting targets, and the capacity of the aircraft was no more than a couple of bombs apiece. With hindsight it rather looks as if this foray, from the German point of view, was merely an appreciation of the situation and a trial of the defences.

The latter were virtually non-existent. Not a shot seemed to have been fired from either the land or the water. Our erstwhile naval escort had departed as soon as they had seen us “safely” anchored and, although there were LAA units on shore, they were as much taken by surprise as were we. Over the rest of Monday, followed by Tuesday and Wednesday, it became apparent that the Germans were not able to increase the number of their aircraft, which possibly meant that on some intelligence chart away in some distant HQ, they did not rate us as a serious threat! If that were so, the deduction soon proved to be an exceedingly false one, for although the number of planes was few, they were based near enough to work a four-hour turn round covering take-off, flight time, action, flight return and bombing up etc., for next take-off.

We knew this by the fact that, with, I believe, one exception during those days, they came three times by day and three by night. Once this pattern became clear, their pilots discovered that it was not going to be as easy as the first time. They not only encountered AA fire on shore, but at least some response from the merchantmen. Each ship had an effective weapon of some kind. Some of the ships which had been on convoy trips many times before may have had slightly heavier armament but most, including ourselves, had an Oerlikon, a rapid-firing light ack ack gun. Ours was mounted aft of the bridge, from which it was reached, and a member of the crew had been trained in its use. Next time the two planes were greeted by hostile fire from all sources. This certainly made them more circumspect, and again no ship was hit.

Take that!

On visit number three, our RA officer could not abide observing the performance of the young lad from the crew on the Oerlikon. He charged up to the bridge and, with little more than a nod to the Captain, seized the gun and began blazing away at either aircraft whether in or out of range. The previous marksman was more than content to make sure that he had a constant supply of ammunition of which, indeed, there was plenty.

It seemed incredible then-it seems incredible now-that this state of affairs could be allowed to continue for a further two days. With no opportunity to manoeuvre and, in truth, a far from adequate defence, some ship was bound to get hit, and so it proved soon after daylight on the Tuesday. Most, if not all of them, were, like ourselves, carrying a mixed cargo which included cans of petrol and boxes of ammunition in addition to a number of motor vehicles.

The first ship to go down made a spectacular sight, starting with thick black smoke, later interlaced with flames which became larger and darker orange in colour, especially following more than one explosion (boilers?; ammunition?; or both?). Those with telescopes or binoculars said that some boats had got away from the ship, but its position made it difficult to see how many or how full they were. Our thoughts were entirely: “it could be us next”.

“And so it continued by day and by night”..

…but we were in no Christmas mood. From our attackers’ viewpoint the night sorties were more or less pointless and were, thank God, not very productive. They had very few flares, though the ghastly light which these shed on the harbour was very eerie and frightening in itself. No ship, unless it was being directly attacked, opened fire, thus to some extent concealing its position and conserving ammunition for more effective use. By day, however, the position was very different, and on both the Tuesday and Wednesday at least one ship was claimed each time. By Thursday five ships out of the thirteen had been sunk and we could easily work out by when we would all have gone down if nothing was done.

Meantime, on the Wednesday, (21st July) we had had the frustrating sight of a small convoy of passenger ships sailing in, including the “Franconia”, obviously tying up somewhere out of our sight, discharging their passengers and departing within a couple of hours. During that time, needless to say, there was no sign of our enemy. Whether by accident or design it all took place during one of their four-hour absences. Surely, we thought, it wasn’t worked out that way, for if so that would mean that the powers-that-be somewhere knew exactly what was going on and were quite prepared to leave us here as sitting ducks. If that were so, then they certainly had second thoughts, for at first light on Thursday we had a signal to get up steam ready to sail back to Malta at 11.00 hrs. (see Note)

At that time there was quite a little knot of spectators in the bow to see steam turn the capstan, which raised the anchor, terribly slowly, clank, clank, clank, until we were able to look over the side and see it come dripping out of the water. By then the welcome sound of the ship’s telegraph had been heard, the engines had begun to rumble and we began to head back for comparative safety. No-one, service or crew, of any rank, had the least idea, of course, what all this was about, why we were where we were, where we really ought to have been, nor anything else of the kind, but as we headed out to sea a cheer was raised and there was an immediately perceptible relaxation of tension. Within minutes a small “delegation” from the men appeared, seeking me out on the bow where I still lingered with the spectators.

The Sunday services I have mentioned earlier had clearly had some effect. “Do you think, sir,” I was asked, “that we could have a little service of thanks?”. I was taken aback, but hope I didn’t show it. My immediate reaction was one of guilt for not having thought of it myself but, after all, it was Thursday and I would certainly have mentioned it in my prayers next Sunday! At that moment I deserved my nickname of “the Rev” even less than usual. “When?”, I asked, to gain time to think as much as anything else. “Why not now?”, was the reply. I hurriedly looked at my watch and said, “12 noon here in the bow then”, and hurried away to seek out my clerk to choose a hymn and put together a short act of worship. The hymn virtually chose itself, No. 29, “Now thank we all our God”. With my six hymn books and a Herculean effort by my clerk on the Oliver, we were all able to sing it lustily. I do not think that any of us were aware of the irony that both words and music were originally German!

All good (and bad) things come to an end.

Back we went to Malta where we lay all day just inside the harbour-still no-one allowed ashore. It was put to me that I should do something about this; dark mutterings from other members of the “Mess” that I should justify my status and report discontent among the troops. My only contact with shore was through the ship’s radio connection with the Harbourmaster and that eventually did wring a concession for half the men to go ashore one day and half the next. That was welcome, especially as sterling could be spent and most of them returned in, shall we say, merry mood, but nothing worse.

It happened just once during a week spent there. It was clear that whoever was responsible was now, after Augusta, taking no chances. Unlike that anchorage, the danger here was at night. The enemy was more numerous, but no longer able to mount daylight attacks, so we lay idle in the harbour each day and every night we chugged right round the coastline of Malta. Our speed was such that it was possible to complete the circuit nicely before it became light again and this we did for seven nights. On the 30th July we sailed over to Sicily once again and ended up off a long beach. Until we had completely discharged all our cargo I remained on board and never found out exactly where we were. The “Port of Discharge” on my Voyage Report, “T 211 – Secret”, was shown as “Sicily (Beaches)” — actually it was at Cassibile, south of Siracusa.

The Master could undoubtedly have narrowed that down a bit, but he and I had exchanged but few words during the whole voyage. He seemed to resent having been chartered in this way and clearly saw no reason why he should indulge in small talk with a young cub officer whom he regarded as in no way superior to his own Third. Understandable, I suppose, when he was old enough to be my grandfather and would have retired by then if it had not been for the war. The aforesaid report was produced by him as he was in duty bound to do. It was a document which the OC ship was supposed to complete. By the time it reached me, however, he had filled in the first page with exemplary answers to all questions, including “Yes” to number 6 which read: “Have the cooking arrangements for third-class passengers been satisfactory and has fresh bread, of good quality, been baked and issued daily?”.

What could I do? It was hardly his fault that this, together with some similar questions, should not have received an unequivocal positive reply. The next page was for “General remarks (if any) of the Officer Commanding”. He was quite put out when I insisted on taking the form away and typing in complaints about the troop-deck, the quality of the potatoes and the inadequacy of the firefighting equipment.

Meantime the discharge of the cargo had been by no means uneventful. Before anything else the four DUKWs had to be got off the deck and into the water. For the benefit of readers who had no wartime experience and/or are not familiar with these initials, they were truly amphibious load carriers which could come alongside a ship, load up and then drive ashore, up a beach or hard ground and on along roads to dumps, depots or wherever what they were carrying was needed. These were just what was required for the job now in hand and we soon saw that there was a small flotilla of them. Besides the ones which we and other ships had carried on deck, others had arrived in landing ships and cargo vessels from UK or directly from the USA or Canada, both countries being engaged in their manufacture. (It occurs to me as I write that the reason we were held “messing about” for so long was the necessity to await the arrival of DUKWs in quantity. It would have been almost impossible to offload across beaches by any other means. Incidentally, too, the initial letters, although as usually pronounced perfectly suited to their task, were not even an acronym, but simply a catalogue code used by the manufacturers.)

So we had to get ours off. Two were within reach of the “jumbo” derrick and were soon over the side. The other two had first to be un-chocked and pushed along the deck — and of course there were obstructions of one kind and another which had to be removed before this could be done, and put back afterward. Then followed the motor transport in the tween deck. This was offloaded into landing craft along with the relevant drivers. Because of the initial delay in getting clear decks we did not clear all this until midday on the second day, though we were able to start work on the lower parts of the holds where the M.T. had gone.

To offload the cargo we had the services of some Docks Operating RE personnel who were also waiting for Catania to fall, supplemented by some Pioneer Corps. All came directly under the control of our Ship Sergeant Major, now wearing his Docks Op. QMS hat. I cannot remember if he was of the same company as those who had come from on shore; I rather think not, but as they shared a professional esprit de corps it would have made no difference either way. All personnel from ashore had to bring their own rations. In the eyes of the Harrison Line they were the equivalent of civilian stevedores for whom they had no obligation to provide so much as a mug of tea-and to be fair, they had no resources to feed them. In fact, rations on shore were more plentiful than they were on board and there was a certain traffic shore to ship arising from the good relations which swiftly developed between the Steward and the QMS when the former saw how things were-and that took him approximately one hour!

All went well for at least another day. Supplies (boxes of rations) were next out. (I may say that in the days of our most acute food shortage we discussed quite seriously whether we could get into this part of the cargo and we even made an attempt. Unfortunately in every hold where it was loaded there were motor vehicles on the deck above and no amount of ingenuity enabled us to move them sufficiently to lift the intermediate hatch boards.) After supplies came the petrol, fortunately now packed in jerricans instead of the “flimsies” with which we had trained. Finally came the ammunition; hundreds of boxes of it down at the bottom of several of the holds.

Oops!

One of these was that which was served by the jumbo derrick. Its s.w.l. was five tons and our QMS was anxious, as we all were, to get finished and to sample the fleshpots ashore of which we had been hearing so much. The fact that these were largely of an alcoholic variety enhanced the enthusiasm. So a fine circular board was duly loaded with what must have been near the 5 ton limit. Now the QMS was quite unfamiliar with DUKWs and their capacity on land or sea. This was hardly surprising since, until they arrived on our deck, not one of us on board had seen one and the drivers who brought them said they had had only a week’s course. This probably applied to quite a few drivers who were now forming a queue alongside our ship and, although their course would have included some information on what load they could take, they had no idea of what was coming over the rail of the ship until it was almost on their vehicle-and even then had no training as to what a cargo board of any particular commodity could be expected to weigh. Furthermore, with all the other derricks restricted to 2.5 tons, there was no prior hint of a problem.

So it was that 5 tons of ammunition came speeding down, stopped for a moment so that those above could be sure it would land centrally on to the vehicle, then down. The unsuspecting driver unhooked the board and —– gurgle!; gurgle!; gurgle! — down went the DUKW and the ammunition and the driver. The two former elements in the situation stayed at the bottom of the sea; the latter swiftly grasped one of the climbing nets, which were festooned around the ship, and eventually reached the deck, giving a good demonstration of the well-known words from Acts, “breathing threatening and slaughter”. The QMS, however, was unperturbed-or in modern parlance, unfazed. After a moment or two of taking in what had happened, he simply looked at the next vehicle in the queue and in a voice which belied his small stature, yelled, “Next!”.

And so to ….??

We arrived off the beach at Cassibile on Friday, 30th July. On Wednesday, 4th August, the last of us made our farewells to the Master and his crew and left the “Defender” for good. What followed in Sicily, all the way up the “leg” of Italy and into Austria, in the next three years and a bit, is another story — or rather a volume of stories. It is perhaps worth recording here, however, that almost the first person to greet me when I stepped ashore was my own brother-a sapper in a Field Company RE — of whom the last I had heard was that he was somewhere in Egypt. I have pointed out elsewhere what a great piece of planning the invasion of Sicily was, bringing troops and their support from the Middle East, North Africa and the UK to meet and function in one co-ordinated operation. Here was a tiny proof-and also proof of initiative shown by Ron, my brother, and the efficiency of Movement Control. He, knowing from home that I had left the country, put two and two together and sought information of me from Movements covering the offloading of ships in that area. They were able to tell him which ship I was on and when I could be expected to arrive on shore; so when I did, there he was. And we have a photograph taken in a studio at Syracuse to prove it!

Notes (March 2014)

i) Convoy number quoted applied only from Clyde to Algiers / Algiers-Malta KMS.19Y / Malta-Augusta KMS.19M / Augusta-Malta KMS.19A /Malta-Cassibile
ii) Composition of each convoy varied. data from http://www.convoyweb.org.uk
iii) Data for KMS 19A gives date as Wednesday, 21st July, but my diary quite specifically gives actual sailing date as Thurs. 22nd.

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