Atlantic Convoys

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Black and white photo of men in uniform sitting around a board table.

July 1941 convoy pre-sailing conference in the Liver Building. Courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I have been up the towers of Liverpool’s Liver Building several times to witness the breathtaking views across land and sea. Recently I learnt that this world-famous edifice once housed offices and personnel vital to the convoy system in the Second World War.

Liverpool was the most important convoy port in Britain during the war when groups of merchant ships, escorted by the Royal Navy, maintained a lifeline of supplies across the Atlantic. The Royal Navy was desperately short of ships suitable for convoy escort work at the outbreak of war. All it had were 24 old destroyers, a handful of sloops and a few anti-submarine trawlers.

In September 1940, 50 old American destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy in return for the use of British naval and air bases in the western Atlantic. Despite this, that winter there were only enough escorts to provide two for each convoy. The Admiralty had to draft in 70 trawlers from the fishing fleets. The original convoys consisted of between 30 and 40 merchant ships sailing in lines or columns. In the later war years, the convoys became much larger, often exceeding 70 ships.

Most ocean-going ships travelled to and from Britain via her western coastal waters. From October 1939, defence of these waters came under the naval operational control of Western Approaches Command based in Plymouth. This HQ was moved to Liverpool, the most central west coast port, in February 1941. It developed into a vast organisation responsible for the day-to-day direction of Britain’s entire north Atlantic campaign.

In Liverpool the Naval Control Service Officer (NCSO) was based on the first floor of the Royal Liver Building at the Pier Head. This officer was responsible for the routing of ships individually or in convoy.

Displays at the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery include a photo of a July 1941 convoy pre-sailing conference in the Liver Building (shown here). These meetings were also attended by ships’ masters and their chief engineers, the convoy commodore and representatives of the sea and air escorts.

Also on display are remarkably-detailed coloured sketches showing some of the ships which made up convoys.These drawings are believed to have been begun during the convoys themselves by the commodore, Rear Admiral Hugh Hext Rogers. He probably completed them soon afterwards. They show side views of the ships with each one named.

Next week we look at life on board the U-boats which hounded the convoys.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.