"We’d all take our turn trying artificial respiration but normally we couldn’t bring them back and of course, then you’d have some burials at sea."
Being a wireless operator, we’d be copying the messages and a lot of these messages came from headquarters informing us of the submarine activity and wolf packs [groups of German submarines that operated together] that might be in our way. So efforts would be made to alter course of the convoy, which is pretty difficult, alter course, so we would miss them. But invariably, we’d never miss them and practically every crossing we had, we met some action from submarines.
Most of the crossings, we lost one ship anyway. Later on during the war, it wasn’t so hectic but to begin with, with the wolf packs and in 1942, it was the peak of the U-boat [German submarine] warfare, we lost a lot of ships. On one crossing, we lost I think it was 18 ships. But of the 18, there is 13 submarines in this wolf pack. And so they were situated in together under and they waited for the convoy to pass over and then they would come up and start popping them off. And with six escorts, it was impossible to keep them out. So they took their toll. But the majority of our ships, we had convoys 80 ships and so we lost 18.
Of course, that was bad because there would always be survivors and of course, we were always detailed, our ships were always detailed to pick up survivors if there were any. And we, first time we picked up in bitterly cold weather and stuffed with ice and we spotted one boat with one person in it and that turned out to be a 15 year old Scottish lad. And we picked him up and he was pretty happy to be picked up but he was almost frozen. And he had a whistle in his mouth and he couldn’t even blow it.
Other times, when we lost the 18 ships, we had about 80 survivors on our ship, which had been picked up, we’d haul them overboard. Some living, some dead but we’d bring them aboard and try and survive them. We’d all take our turn trying artificial respiration but normally we couldn’t bring them back and of course, then you’d have some burials at sea.
[Convoy] One sixty-six, yeah, that was a really bad one. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer was one of our senior ships and he had found a submarine. And we were all involved in picking up survivors and carrying out attacks on the submarines. It wasn’t easy to get an attack but it’s pretty hard to bring them up and you have to be right on top of it. But you’d see any straggler merchant ships and you’d know for sure that they wouldn’t be there the next day. But the German submarines, they just pulverized us and ship after ship was sunk. And naturally, we had to pick up survivors. And we carried them back on one submarine. We thought we had them but we were in the area just to pick up, or give some evidence that it was sunk and a lot of evidence came up, including some German sailors.
And of course, we were just there in the vicinity and we got another ping [the acoustic detection system called ‘Sonar’ made an audible “ping” noise when it detected a submersed object], so that’s a ping from another submarine. So naturally, we couldn’t stay, so we just took off and didn’t pick up any German survivors. That was something. It’s not nice but it had to do because we were a sitting duck at that time.
It was so grim in the middle of the Atlantic in stormy weather, it’s hard to describe how the ship can stay afloat. You’d be battering into waves and rolling, sometimes you’d roll almost to the point of rolling over and you’d keep on going and the up and down, it was just impossible. And of course, the mess decks aren’t waterproof, they would come in somewhere, so we were a lot of times just walking in water. And of course, it’s tiring too and you’d have to do your watch, you’d have to get up and go on action stations, whenever that happened, you’d still had to do your own watch, so it was pretty difficult. And the cook has a hell of a time, you know, it was, I don’t know how he ever did it but he was such a great guy and he would do his best to make us comfortable and bake bread in the middle of the Atlantic. And I’m telling you, the smell of fresh bread in the middle of this is pretty, pretty nice.