On the brink

When the United States entered the war in December 1941 the U-boat offensive moved to their largely unprotected east coast.   Within weeks the huge losses of ships and supplies which they suffered were threatening the whole Allied war effort.

It was six months later before the Americans, under strong British pressure, finally introduced their own coastal convoy system.  This quickly ended the U-boats’ ‘American Turkey Shoot’, which had cost 149 ships, including many vital oil tankers totalling well over 2 million tons.

'Ships for victory!'

In early 1942 President Roosevelt set in motion ‘the greatest shipbuilding programme in world history’.  The aim of this huge government-sponsored scheme was to produce 750 new ships by the end of 1942 and a further 1500 in 1943.  This amounted to three new ships every day.

To meet these targets, many new shipyards were opened and thousands of extra workers, male and female were recruited.  Ships were built in sections of then assembled, like cars, on production lines.  The first of 2,700 American-built ‘Liberty ships’, based on a British tramp steamer design, was produced in mid-1942.  By the end of the year the Americans were building ships faster than the U-boats could sink them.  The astounding success of the Liberty ship programme was to be a major reason for Allied victory in the Atlantic.

The US Merchant Marine

At least 290,000 civilian seafarers served in the U.S. Merchant Marine and Army Transportation Service during the war.  Of these, over 114,000 received the Merchant Marine Combat Ribbon, indicating that they had been engaged in ‘combat action’.  Over 6,000 were killed while serving in merchant ships.  The United States lost about 278 ships on North Atlantic and Arctic routes, almost one half of the total U.S. merchant ship losses during the war.

The ‘Samarina’ ‘Liberty Ship’

The ‘Samarina’, built by the Bethlehem-Fairfield Company of Baltimore, USA was one of a number of ‘Liberty ships’ transferred to British control by the US Government.  Launched in September 1943, she carried valuable war cargoes throughout the rest of the war.   Like all Liberty ships, she was of basic design, and rather an ‘ugly duckling’.  She had good anti-aircraft armament and her bridge was shielded by plastic armour (a British invention)

‘Samarina’ survived the war and was renamed ‘City of Ely’ after being bought by Ellermans Lines Ltd of Liverpool in 1947.  She was sold by Ellermans in 1961 and scrapped in 1966.

'By the throat'

From late 1942 the main U-boat attacks reverted to the North Atlantic convoys, especially in the dreaded ‘Air Gap’ to the south-east of Iceland.   Despite the growing strength of the escorts and the steady rise in U-boat losses, the ‘Wolf Packs’ were becoming larger and more effective.  By early 1943 the Germans were determined to achieve a decisive victory.  The pressure of the convoys reached a peak in March 1943, when 98 ships were sunk.  Once again, the Allies appeared to be on the brink of defeat in the Atlantic.

"In the U-boat war we have England by the throat..." Dr Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, April 1943.

'Just doing our job'

In 1942, some 8,400 British and Commonwealth merchant seafarers lost their lives in the Atlantic.  Nearly a third of the crews of all ships sunk were killed.   Government reports, however, revealed that morale was still remarkably high.

The spirit and courage displayed by Allied merchant seafarers of all nations and races was truly remarkable and was admired even by their German adversaries.   Many of the people involved, however, felt that they were just doing their jobs, like millions of others.

"War didn’t really come into it. We just thought we had a job to do." Ronald Woods, Cunard Line chef

'All in a day’s work'

Once at sea on the Atlantic, merchant seamen were always involved in the daily routine of watches (two and four hour working shifts).  Off-duty time was mostly spent sleeping, playing cards or on other similar pastimes.  Few dwelt much on the risks they were facing.

Whenever a convoy was under attack, however, it took great discipline and nerve to remain at your post.  Engine room staff lived closer to death than those on deck.  Their chances of survival were slight in the steam-filled engine room of a torpedoed ship.  The crews of oil tankers knew that they were likely to be burned alive if their ship was attacked.

"No amount of publicity, no colourful write-ups, no guff about 'the little silver badge', above all no medals can do honour to men like these."  Nicolas Monsarrat, HM Corvette (1942)

"The first torpedo struck amidships..."

Larry Clarke, from Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, was purser on board ‘SS Norman Prince’, which was torpedoed and sunk in the Caribbean by U-156 on 28 May 1942.  17 out of 49 crew members lost their lives in the sinking.  The ship was on a voyage from Colon in the Panama Canal Zone to St Lucia in the West Indies.   After 25 hours in a lifeboat, the 32 survivors were picked up by the Vichy-French steamer ‘Anglouméme’.  They were then kept in a prison camp (the Vichy government in Southern France having made terms with Germany) on the Island of Martinique for four months before being allowed to return to Britain.

Herbert Holliday’s War

Mr HJ Holliday of Birkenhead was a purser with the Liverpool-based Canadian Pacific Line when the war began.   He served on ships managed by Canadian Pacific throughout the war, mainly in the Atlantic but also in the Mediterranean and the Far East.  In late October 1942 his ship, the 3,000 ton ‘Winnipeg II’, in convoy from Liverpool to North America was sunk in mid-Atlantic by U-443.   Holliday, along with nearly 200 other passengers and crew, spent many days in an open lifeboat before being rescued.  He was later awarded the British Empire Medal for his conduct during this incident.   Later in the war, Holiday was a crew member on a munitions ship torpedoed in shark-infested waters off Florida.

Captain George Marion Duff

Captain George Duff, of Mossley Hill, Liverpool, was masterof the ‘SS Empire Glade’, managed by the Blue Star Line, which was sailing alone about 840 miles north-east of Trinidad when attacked by a U-boat (U-67) shortly before dawn on the 28 November 1942.  Although the ship was badly damaged, with one crew member killed and several injured by shell fire, the enemy’s fire was returned and the ship eventually made her escape.  For his great courage and skill in conducting the defence of his ship, Captain Duff was later awarded the George Medal and the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea.  Other medals for gallantry were awarded to six of his crew.