Rescue tugs

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archive photo of a tug

HM Rescue Tug Storm King in March 1943, from the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

I was surprised to discover that tugs sailed with convoys of merchant ships bringing vital supplies to Britain during the Second World War.

The role of the tugs was to assist stricken vessels after they were damaged by enemy attacks. Their vital work boosted the war effort by saving hundreds of warships and their crews,

The Royal Navy’s Rescue Tug Section was set up at the beginning of the war to provide suitable ocean-going tugs to save torpedoed ships. This was dangerous work requiring the greatest skills to ensure that ships were brought to safe havens despite bad weather, the presence of U-boat submarines and enemy aircraft.

At the start there were only four Royal Navy tugs and eight civilian requisitions available for deep-sea work. However, these inadequacies were remedied by concerted action. By the end of the war, due to newly-built additions from British and US shipyards, this number had grown to more than 80.

The rescue tugs were largely manned by Merchant Navy crews serving under Royal Navy orders. From 1941 they were based at Campbeltown, Scotland, and from 1943 a rescue tug was attached to every transatlantic convoy.

By the end of the war the 'Campbeltown Navy' had helped to save more than three million tons of Allied shipping, over 250 warships and hundreds of Allied seamen, mostly in the North Atlantic. Twenty rescue tugs were lost on active service.

A photograph in the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery shows HM Rescue Tug Storm King in March 1943 (pictured).

When the war started, the Royal Navy with the help of Canadian, French and other Allied navies took on the job of defending British and Allied merchant ships from German attacks.

As in the later stages of the First World War (the years 1917 – 18) the main method of defence against such attacks was the convoy system. This involved groups of merchant ships sailing in close formation under the protection of one or more escort warships.

On display is a silver salver presented to Pay Lieutenant Commander Richard Rankin RNR by the commodores of the North Atlantic convoys about 1942. The square salver is engraved with about 50 facsimile signatures. Rankin, an officer of the Naval Control Service, was based throughout the war in Liverpool’s Royal Liver Building. His main job was liaising with convoy commodores – a key role which he fulfilled with great success.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).