Veteran Stories:
Vince Thomas McDonnell

Merchant Navy

  • Photo of Vince McDonnell at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2010.

    Historica Canada
  • Photo of the Empire MacRae in 1943.

    Courtesy of Vince McDonnell
  • Photo of Vince McDonnell and his wife, Eileen McDonnell nee English on August 27th 1945 in Dublin, Ireland.

    Courtesy of Vince McDonnell
  • Photo of the Empire MacRae in 1943.

    Courtesy of Vince McDonnell
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"We blew up there, but fortunately the hole in which the saboteurs had placed their bomb was empty when it went up, otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking to you today."


The first trip was a bit of a disaster. I was the third radio officer on the whole ship called the [SS] Miguel de Larrinaga and on the submission, I sent in a photograph of that. It was a beat up ship that was given to the Brits after the First World War as reparations by the Germans. And then it was bought by a Spanish company and then the British took it over during the war. Our first trip for Liverpool, we were in the Mersey going out to join the convoy, and we broke down, so they brought us back to the shipyard and got us going in about 10 days; and again, we joined a convoy, which was five knots, which is about six and a half miles an hour, and we broke down in a storm and it took us 22 days more. It took us 27 days in total to cross the Atlantic. We got the ship going at two knots and we had a hard time.

It was a baptism of fire. Now, I was on what they called a MAC ship, also I included a photograph of that with my manuscript. It was what they called a merchant aircraft carrier. I was on the Empire MacRae, MAC, MAC ships, merchant aircraft carrier; and we were an escort carrier with a full flight deck and five aircraft. The only difference was, when we came into Halifax, we’d load grain, about 10,000 tonnes of grain down under the flight deck. We had merchant navy officers and we had New Zealand pilots, and then we had a mishmash of all sorts of other people from Great Britain and some from Australia. And I was the fifth radio officer on that. We had five radio officers. I was called up to the bridge and I had qualified both for air and marine; and they had a job. Someone didn’t turn up, and they needed a liaison between the pilots and all the other departments. I was the only one with air qualifications, so I was seconded into the RNVR, Royal Navy volunteer reserve. I spent two trips doing that and then I had to go home for surgery; and I lost the best ship I ever had and I had to go back to the merchant navy.

I would have spent the rest of my life in the Empire MacRae [MAC] , we had such a good time. We used to play hockey every day on the way across on the deck, with a rope gromit. And then we’d get into Halifax and I’d go flying with the New Zealanders because I played on their hockey team. It was six-a-side hockey and they only had five pilots. So I became a New Zealander. And I really, I kind of thought I’d get back onto it again when I came back from Ireland, but there was no way they were going to save the ship for me. So I went on several other ships until I was pretty well shanghaied onto an ammunition ship; and it was carrying ammunition, bombs and all sorts of other stuff including gas in cans for the Battle of the Bulge. We were supporting the 101st Airborne [Division] from the States. So we had a real bunch of bad times on that ship and particularly at Ghent, we blew up there, but fortunately the hole in which the saboteurs had placed their bomb was empty when it went up, otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.

You see, we, listening out on radio, we knew what was going on. The escort was, if there was a submarine around, we assumed that they knew where we were. So the escorts would then break radio silence and communicate with one another. We’d listen into that, so we knew what was happening.

When I was on the MAC ship, we’d be in the middle of the convoy, and if there was a flat bottom, well, we’d just slow up and, you know, a convoy of maybe 60 ships, you can’t go dashing around, so you just slow up and let them go on; and then you’d go back and turn into the wind and take off. That’d be kind of a dusk and dawn thing anyway, but if there was action during the day, we’d get the heck out of there.

The think that stands out in my mind was my trip on the Empire Duchess [MAC], that was the ammunition ship that blew up. We had a really hard time. We had an escort and we sunk the escort in a collision on Christmas Eve. We were down in the Scheldt Estuary, we should have been, or not in the Scheldt Estuary, in the Thames Estuary, and we should have been in the Scheldt Estuary; and we had a big hole in the bow and they filled it with concrete and said, well, let that set and off you go. Off we had to go again over to the Scheldt and then up the Ghent Canal, which is about 25 miles inland to Ghent.

And the first night there, we tied up because we couldn’t have lights and we unloaded some deck cargo. The next day, they started to unload because the whole advance in the Battle of the Bulge was held up because the Yanks had run out of gas and ammo, and we had it. So we pulled into Ghent; and I was up in my room and there was a tremendous explosion. A bomb had been placed in the forward hold and that had been fully gassed, and they finished unloading it. Trucks were waiting when we came in, the American trucks, they finished unloading; and if we had been half an hour later, we’d have blown up. The whole shebang would have gone.

Anyway, we just got it under control and there was a big investigation, American services, British services and God knows who else. And they decided it just was sabotage right before we pulled up. So that was probably the highlight of my war.

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