Cruel seas

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Photo of a model of a grey ship at sea. It has a red hull and the number K63 on its side

The corvette, HMS Picotee. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I spend a lot of time at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, in the course of my work but only recently discovered the dock’s role in the Second World War as a corvette base.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, at the outbreak of war ordered the building of corvettes – lightly armed warships to escort vital supply convoys crossing the Atlantic. These corvettes – named after flowers – were based on whale catchers and were small and cheap to build.  First coming into service in April 1940, they bore the brunt of British and Canadian naval escort work in the Battle of the Atlantic. Nearly 300 corvettes were built and they sank 38 U-boat submarines with the loss of just 25 of their own number.

Liverpool-born Nicholas Monsarrat, author of best-selling 1951 novel The Cruel Sea, served as a young Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) on the Liverpool-based corvette HMS Campanula. He used his memories from this period as material for The Cruel Sea and his wartime book HM Corvette (1942). In The Cruel Sea he described how the crew of a corvette “looked as if they had been through a tidal wave, emerging in tatters at the end of it” after 22 days at sea.

The RNVR - 6,000-strong in 1939 – was the Royal Navy’s second line of reserves. Unlike the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR), it consisted of volunteers with no professional sea experience or training who learnt their new roles remarkably quickly.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a display featuring Nicholas Monsarrat’s wartime medals, both full-sized and miniature groups. A photograph shows Monsarrat, wearing a duffle coat and holding binoculars, on the bridge of the Campanula based at the Albert Dock.

In command of Campanula at this time was Lt Commander Richard Case RNR. Born and educated in Liverpool, Case was a professional sea officer with Coast Lines before the war. After serving on Campanula, he took charge of the Londonderry-based frigate Rother which he guided safely through some of the fiercest convoy battles of the war. On display are his steel helmet and woollen mittens which evoke those critical days on Atlantic and Arctic escort duties.

There is a 1:96 scale waterline model of one of the corvettes which did not come back. HMS Picotee (shown here), based in Greenock, was torpedoed and sunk by the U-568 while escorting a convoy off southern Ireland. More than 60 crew were lost.

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