Veteran Stories:
Ernest Brown

Merchant Navy

  • A convoy of Allied merchant ships in the North Atlantic, 1944.

    Bernie MacArthur
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"He called it the “hell fire of Liverpool.”"


The first crossing was, I couldn’t say uneventful, but apart from weather, we knew that there was submarine activity around before you would hear explosions, you might see smoke on the horizon, but that convoy went through as far as I can recall, without losses.  We docked in Liverpool.  We were in Liverpool in the early part of May of 1941 and living through a Blitz* in Liverpool. I learned what fear was.  To listen to the incendiary bombs coming down with their whistle, you could hear them landing on the deck of the ship and fortunately, our deck officers were out there with shovels and were able to tip them overboard.  None of them lodged anywhere where they could do damage.

However, we were in the Huskisson Dock in Liverpool.  I think we were in Huskisson No. 3.  In Huskisson No. 4, a ship, whose name I never did learn – an incendiary bomb lodged somewhere that they couldn’t get at it and that ship was on fire. Very early the next morning, that ship blew up.  It broke our mooring lines fore and aft and fortunately there were still some dock workers there.  They were able to heave the line and secure us again.  But there was damage with falling debris and so on.  During the day – it was mid-morning, actually, there was another explosion.  The first explosion was in the upper levels of the cargo hold.  Second explosion was deep in the bowels of the ship, because I was told later that the boilers of that ship landed three miles away.  There was a story about the anchor too, but I forgot the details.  But again, that shook our ship.  I happened to be standing on deck talking with a Dutch officer visiting from another ship when the whole thing erupted in front of us, and of course everything seemed to fly straight up.  I guess we were protected by the fact that the dock warehouse was between us and that ship, so we saw the fire jet up the other side of this warehouse and nothing came across through it.

But that second explosion tore things off the wall.  In my cabin, for example, the commode that stands against the wall with a foldout basin, a mirror, and a cabinet and so on, that was torn off the wall in my cabin, and the door had to be forced, and the porthole glass, which is inch-thick glass, was just pulverized.  It was crazed, with cracks all through it.  It didn’t fall apart when you took the blackout shield off, but, that glass had been pulverized.  And that was true of virtually all the portholes on the cabin deck.

There was structural damage to the rigging, the radio direction finder on that ship had been a very early version of a crossed-looped type of direction-finding antenna, which you could describe as a wooden frame wrapped with wire on about a six-foot cube.  That was smashed up, so that we were without a direction finder on leaving Liverpool.  It’s interesting that, in comparatively recent years, through Dutch friends, I corresponded with the Dutch government and obtained a copy of the captain’s report, to his “owners,” on the events of that stay in Liverpool.  He called it the “hell fire of Liverpool.”

*Nazi Germany’s sustained bombing of the United Kingdom, 1940-1941


Interview with Ernest Brown - FCWM Oral History Project

Accession Number CWM 20020121-010

George Metcalf Archival Collection

© Canadian War Museum


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