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Atlantic Adventures 1943

By Albert Owings

The usual telegram came a couple of weeks before Christmas 1942 and I duly arrived at Siemens Bros depot in Newcastle whereupon I was sent to Dunston where my new assignment as 2nd R/O was loading coal for Recife in Brazil.

I was to learn that whoever named her FAIRWATER had a wicked sense of humour, 4108 gross tons, counter stern, triple expansion “straight up and down job! An old tramp if ever there was one, complete with paraffin dynamos and those “orible brown steam flies”.

Eventually I met the 1st R/O whose name escapes me, but I remember the first tripper 3rd R/O very well indeed. How could I forget Andrew Douglas Burton Maries? A handsome young man of six feet two with a Cambridge voice to complete the presentation; we got on very well. Two events stick in my mind; we had a jolly time at the Siemens depot Christmas party and I saw the film “Dangerous Moonlight” with Richard Adinsell’s excellent music. So off we went on my umpteenth Atlantic crossing. The voyage from Loch Ewe was normal until the convoy reached a point about 500 miles Southeast of Newfoundland in mid January 1943.

The wind got up early in the day and continued to increase. Before nightfall the Commodore put up the “heave-to” or “every ship look after itself” flags as station keeping was becoming impossible. I saw a ship running before the sea wearing a red light on the masthead indicating “out of command”. It was uncomfortably close as it passed our stern.
Conditions seemed to meet all the criteria of a Force 12 as set out in the Beaufort scale which if I remember correctly, tells us that waves are not less than 45 feet in height, wind not less than 75 mph (because the sea is whipped white). The experienced people were using the term hurricane force and declared it to be worse than the normal severe storms encountered frequently on the North Atlantic. Within a few hours we were in trouble!

The FAIRWATER had a counter stern so the rudder was turned by a mechanism on the poop, a horizontal quadrant, driven by a steam winch. We lost our steering because a pintel (hinge) parted company with the rudder and the ship could not be steered and she fell away broadside to the sea. The severe hammering then, especially as we were fully loaded, soon stripped away lifeboats and rafts but the hatch covers held. Then the next, more serious, event happened; the main discharge pipe carried away the bulkhead in the engine room and it was on the weather side.

With water pouring into the engine room, no steering, and a real danger of the ship breaking up, the Old Man wisely ordered an SOS transmission while we still had auxillary power. Any ship receiving the distress signal was obliged to maintain radio silence for obvious reasons. I drew some comfort from the fact that the ship had been built on the TYNE with lovely rivets!

At 0400 I heard a weak SOS from the Commodore’s ship “Ville de?” which stated that they were foundering but no more. Came the dawn and we were very much alone in an awesome ocean but fortunately the same conditions made things hard for the enemy. Down below the chippy and engineers were battling to reduce the influx of water with tarpaulins and timber but any work on the poop had to stay on hold until the sea had abated. The second mate had been torpedoed in these waters just 12 months earlier and had got off the ship with fifteen others.

He was picked up with three others twenty four hours later, the other twelve men had simply slipped away, frozen to death. Needless to say, he was like a cat on hot bricks and never took off his clothing or lifejacket for the rest of our ordeal.

The wind eased a little during the day and we got on as well as we could. A slight inconvenience was the water slopping around in the toilet pan which called for alternate arrangements in the form of a bucket on the lee side in spite of getting somewhat wet in the process. By nightfall nothing had been sited by the two lookouts.

The Old Man called me to the bridge at about 2000. He was out on the starboard wing, behind the canvas dodger. Looking into the dark to starboard, the only illumination was the phosphorecent waves. He asked my opinion concerning a tiny blue light which winked on and off, nothing else could be seen. I told him someone was calling us up using the usual AA AA...

The Old Man had to make a difficult decision, nothing in siight when darkness fell, “it” could apparently see us, but we could see nothing, quite a problem. If we answered would we receive a torpedo? He told me to answer. I should mention that night time signalling was carried out with a modified three cell torch having a morse key mounted on the back end. The lens was blue and was shrouded to restrict the arc of visibility. I always wondered if such a tiny light would be of use by pointing the torch at the winking light at “it” I sent a K.

Back came “What ship” FAIRWATER, I have never forfotten the “Thank god we have found you”, “It” was HMS MAYFLOWER.

Then i was asked if any news of the Commodore and I told him of the 0400SOS. I still have no idea what happened to him. With daylight we saw this wonderful Flower class corvette about a quarter of a mile away on our starboard side and we wondered what “large cheese” was above her bridge. We did go on wondering until the end of the watch if RADAR was top secret?

The MAYFLOWER was after us for five days holding a virtual position to conserve fuel. All communications between us were by Aldis Lamp, at one time a message said that all the Navy lads thought we were “great”. We thought they were pretty good too, bobbing about in that sea in a wee craft.

After five days HMS MAYFLOWER  was short of fuel and was relieved by another Flower class corvette and I am ashamed I cannot remember her name. Another five tedious days passed which the corvette had problems of her own for some hours, engine trouble, so we were sitting ducks. We had NO main engine but there was an attempted jury-rig on the steering gear. That was our sad plight when a tug arrived to get us to Newfoundland, although the opinions were that we were now nearer to the Azores after drifting many hundreds of miles. The first tow line soon parted  but the second one held until we eventually reached St. John’s where we remained for three months.

The place was “heaving”. The ships were packed three abreast waiting for repairs. Ashore the town was packed with Seamen, airmen and soldiers. Groups of survivors appeared frequently, testament to the increased success of the U-boats and we realised just how lucky we had been.

HMS MAYFLOWER made port and we were asked aboard for drinks. We never did find out from them how they found us on that eventful night.

HMS MAYFLOWER (K191) 925 tons displacement, built by Vickers Montreal, launched 03/07/40 and scrapped at Inverkeithing September 1949.