Wartime Merchant Navy, a site by Gordon Mumford concerning World War II Merchant Marine Experiences

Battle of the Atlantic

Convoy ONS 154

"If it was a nightmare for the young naval sailors at action stations in an escort, it was 10 times worse for the merchant seamen. For the most part, all the captain could do was keep his station and hold steady against all his instincts. These men knew they were sitting ducks in a doomed formation. And when the U-boats attacked, all they could do was watch the blazing death of stricken ships, listen to the cries of help and wait for the next torpedo." ("Preserving the Atlantic Lifeline," by Commander Tony German, Legion Magazine, May/June 1998.) 

Role of the Escorts

     Up to early 1943, all convoy escorts played a defensive role. Thinly spread, the Canadian Atlantic convoy escort groups lacked sufficient naval ships and crews, and their training, particularly in the operation of the newly developed radar equipment, Type 271, was poor. The men in the escort ships, however, performed their tasks beyond reproach in defending the convoys against superior enemy forces.
     During the war, any ship that fell out of a convoy through enemy action or engine trouble was left behind to make its own way to port. There were barely enough escort vessels to defend the convoys, let alone leave the convoy to search for stragglers and/or survivors. All merchant seamen understood the need for this policy and accepted the necessity for it. The escort would pick up survivors whenever possible, but limited their searches to the immediate vicinity of the convoy.

Convoy ONS 154:  The "O" signified that this convoy was outward bound from Great Britain, the "N" showed the destination was North America, while the "S" indicated that this was a slow convoy, not capable of maintaining a speed above 10 knots. For information about the convoy numbering system, please refer to u-boat. net.

Note: The "ONS" designation was not used until January 1943, so this convoy is officially is listed as ON 154. However, most published sources refer to this convoy as ONS 154, and it was an 8-knot convoy.

The Convoy and the RCN Escort

     On December 19, 1942, convoy ONS 154, comprised of 45 merchant ships escorted by the Royal Canadian Navy escort group C1, sailed from England, encountering heavy seas in the Western Approaches. Spread over an area five miles wide and 1.5 miles deep, the convoy consisted of forty-five vessels escorted by five RCN corvettes (HMCS Battleford, Chilliwack, Kenogami, Napanee, and Shediac). The convoy included a rescue ship, Toward, and the SS Scottish Heather, a tanker assigned to refuel the escort vessels at sea, a relatively new procedure. The tanker was officially designated an oiler, and was not classified as a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel. The destroyer, HMCS St. Laurent, joined the convoy at sea on December 20 just west of Ireland. (For more information, see Escort Ships in Convoy)

The winter of 1942/43 was the "most ferocious winter in living memory." (Loc. cit.)

     Convoy ONS 154 was sighted in the morning of December 26, and shadowed by the  U-664, commanded by Oberleutnant Graef. The U-boat sent a signal to Admiral U-boat Headquarters by HF radio. That afternoon, the convoy entered the "black pit" (an area of the Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and the Azores beyond the protection of aircraft). Despite heavy seas, the Scottish Heather managed to pump one hundred tons of fuel oil into the destroyer St. Laurent.

Convoy Formation: Position of escorts and ships prior to first attack (Number indicates column and row: #111 is column 11 row 1).

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Chart based on The Convoy That Nearly Died (Revely)

Escort & Naval Ships      |      Other Ships in the Convoy      |      U-boats

See above links for information about the escort, ships and U-boats

First Attack:
December 27, 1942

     The convoy was attacked in the early hours of Sunday, December 27, and four ships were torpedoed by U-356, under the command of Oberleutnant Günther Ruppelt. The SS Empire Union (#121) was torpedoed at 0140 hours, sinking at 0230 hours. The SS Melrose Abbey (#101) was torpedoed at 0150 hours, sinking about 45 minutes later. The rescue ship, RS Toward, rescued 63 survivors from the Union and 27 from the Abbey. The captain and chief steward of the Union stayed aboard, and went down with the ship.
     The U-356 torpedoed two more ships, the Soekaboemi (#114) at 0410 and the SS King Edward (#81) at 0415 hours. The King Edward sank within three minutes. About 0730, the Toward and Napanee picked up survivors from the Soekaboemi. Shortly afterwards, the Toward picked up a lifeboat with 23 men from the King Edward. When the Napanee went to investigate what appeared to be a floating wreck, they rescued two semi-conscious survivors from the King Edward clinging to an up-turned boat. Near the wreck, they rescued a man in the water who was from the Soekaboemi. As there was no sign of life aboard the wreck, the Napanee fired a depth charge, but it had no effect.
     During the night, the Norse King (#112) had experienced engine difficulties, and around 0050 hours dropped several miles behind the convoy, attended by Shediac. The problem was resolved around 0250 hours, and by 0400 hours, the two ships had regained their positions in the convoy.

U-356 Sunk
     The St. Laurent and the corvettes Chilliwack, Battleford and Napanee all fired depth charges at the U-356. They made three attacks on the U-boat, and sank it at 0431. The entire crew of 46, including Oblt. Ruppelt, perished. The remaining U-boats were driven off and lost contact with the convoy.

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HMCS Chilliwack (Wartime Photo: ©W.R. McMurdo)


Scottish Heather
Attacked:
December 27

     Later that afternoon the U-225, commanded by Oberleutnant Leimkühler, began shadowing the Scottish Heather (#51), after interpreting the slow propeller beats in the hydrophone equipment as a refueling operation, or a straggler with engine trouble.
     Shortly after the refueling was completed, the HMCS Chilliwack picked up a contact on her sonar equipment. Swinging around, she sighted the surfaced U-boat trailing the tanker, and opened fire. The U-boat's superior speed on the surface left the  Chilliwack behind. The tanker, now roughly fifteen miles behind the convoy, was ordered to take evasive action, and adopted a zigzag course for the next hour.
     The U-225 resumed shadowing the Scottish Heather and the escorting corvette. The U-boat started to attack, but was again driven off by gunfire. Watching from the conning tower, Leimkühler saw the dim flashing white light of the Chilliwack  visually signaling Heather about three kilometers away on his port bow. The tanker stopped zigzagging and set a direct course for the distant convoy. Increasing speed, the Chilliwack drew level with the tanker on a parallel course.

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SS Scottish Heather (postwar photograph courtesy of Capt. S. Waldron)


Scottish Heather Torpedoed

     Leimkühler's opportunity to attack came when the Chilliwack circled to the port side of the Scottish Heather. The U-boat swung around and headed directly for the ship. The target-bearing transmitter picked up the silhouette of the tanker, and, when the bridge moved into the cross hair, Leimkühler gave the order to fire.
     The torpedo shot from the forward bow tube and the countdown began. The U-boat swung round with its stern to the tanker. The torpedo exploded in a vivid flash lighting up the tanker's starboard side. It was 2040 hours. The vessel heeled over, shuddering under the impact of the explosion. The torpedo struck slightly for'ard of the bridge tearing a great gash in the ship's side. With a roar of seawater pouring into the breached tanks, the Scottish Heather began recovering from the roll and listed heavily to starboard.
     The Chilliwack spun round, firing star shells as snowflakes erupted from the tanker's bridge. The corvette cut through the seas at maximum speed to the starboard side of the listing tanker, and gave chase, firing at the surfaced U-boat, which then dived deep in an effort to get away. The depth charge patterns fired by the Chilliwack were too far off to damage the U-225.

Scottish Heather Crew Abandon Ship

     The order was given to abandon ship on the Scottish Heather, and the crew took to the lifeboats. An hour later the U-225 surfaced and headed for the convoy. In the conning tower, the watching men could see a red flare burning from a boatload of survivors about four kilometers to the southeast, but there was no sign of the ship. Leimkühler signalled U-boat Headquarters that he had sunk one tanker of seven thousand tons.

Monday, December 28

U-260 (KptLt Purkhold) made contact with the convoy on the morning of December 28th and called up more U-boats. Throughout the day, the Admiralty flashed warning signals of gathering U-boats to the convoy. They also ordered HMS Milne and HMS Meteor, who were some distance away, to join the convoy as reinforcements. As Toward now had 164 survivors aboard, supplies would soon be a problem. The SOE (Senior Officer Escort) on the St. Laurent ordered the rear ships of columns to act as rescue ships, and ordered Shediac to refuel from the reserve tanker SS E.G. Suebert (#73) about 1645 hours. At the SOE's request, the Fidelity (#54) attempted to launch a seaplane about 1915 hours, but the Kingfisher plane capsized and sank. The St. Laurent rescued the pilot, but the observer was swept away, and it was over an hour before the St. Laurent rescued him.

The Rescue of the Scottish Heather's Crew

       It was night when the Scottish Heather was torpedoed fifteen miles behind the convoy. When dawn came, there was no ship in sight. Believing the ship had gone down, the men in the lifeboats set a course for Ireland, rather than making for the Azores. Unbeknown to them, the Second Mate had re-boarded the ship and sailed it out of the danger zone. He and a small group of ten men manned the tanker and pattern-searched for the lifeboats. Late that afternoon, he rescued all the crew and officers. The ship then sailed for England. (See also Scottish Heather Gallery).

December 28/29
The Main Attack
    On the night of December 28/29, the real carnage began when nineteen U-boats in two wolf packs attacked the convoy. A total of nine merchant ships were torpedoed in two-and-a-half hours. Some survivors were picked up by other ships, which, in turn, were torpedoed. Later, the U-boats searched for and sank ships that were disabled and abandoned or attempting to reach the Azores.
    The attack began when two U-boats entered the convoy from the starboard side about 1958 hours. The first torpedoes missed and the U-boats were driven off. This attack was followed up with three ships being torpedoed in quick succession. The U-591 (KptLt. Zetzsche) torpedoed the MV Norse King (#112) at 2000 hours, followed by U-225 (Leimkühler) who torpedoed two ships. The SS Melmore Head (#113), torpedoed at 2002, sank in about two minutes; and the Ville de Rouen (#102) was torpedoed at 2005. Forty minutes later U-260 (Purkhold) torpedoed the Empire Wagtail (#111), which was blown apart  at 2045 hours.

    About this time the Fidelity signalled the SOE from two miles astern to report that her main engine had broken down, and Shediac was ordered to cover her.

The Main Attack
(continued)

     After the sinking of the Wagtail, the U-203 raced across the head of the convoy to attack the convoy from the port side, but missed with her first two torpedoes. About a mile away, U-406 (KptLt. Dieterichs) had also begun attacking the port side, torpedoing the SS Lynton Grange (#22) at 2120, the SS Zarian (#13) at 2123, and the SS Baron Cochrane (#12) at 2124 hours. Well aware of their cargo of explosives, the crew of the Grange quickly abandoned ship. Zarian was on fire, and her crew also took to the boats. The Cochrane's crew also abandoned the ship.
     At 2210, the Ville de Rouen was torpedoed by U-662 (Cdr. Hermann). About 2215 hours, U-225 (Leimkühler) came upon the Commodore's ship, SS Empire Shackleton (#61), and torpedoed her. Someone cut adrift one lifeboat, and sometime later those men were rescued by the SS Calgary.
     By this time the U-boats were already withdrawing, and breaking off the attack. As they pulled back, they also searched for floating derelicts and sank them. The wreck of the Cochrane was sunk at 2150 hours by U-123 (Oblt. von Schroeter), and a few minutes later, U-628 (Oblt. Hasenschar) sank the empty Grange. Just before midnight the U-591 (Zetzsche) found the Zarian adrift and sank her.

    When a ship was torpedoed, it was a common practice for the crew to abandon ship, and wait nearby. If the ship appeared to be stabilizing, they would re-board. If the ship could be saved, they often tried to make for the nearest port. At this time, that was Punta Delgarda in the Azores.

     After being torpedoed at 2215 hours, the Shackleton assessed the damage, and had decided to make for the Azores. She was about two miles behind the convoy when she was sighted by the U-123  (von Schroeter) and the U-435 (KptLt. S. Strelow). They torpedoed her about 2255 hours. The Shackleton's crew took to the remaining lifeboats.
     Two miles further astern, the President Franqui (#62) had been torpedoed by the U-225 (Leimkühler) at 2230 hours. Two of Franqui's lifeboats pulled away without awaiting orders, but Captain Bayet, finding that his engines were in good condition, decided to head for the Azores with his depleted crew.
     At 0630 hours the next day (December 29), U-225 (Leimkühler) saw the President Franqui, and the ship was torpedoed again. The Franqui, however, was still afloat. But some three hours later, at 0930 hours, the President Franqui was sunk by U-336 (Oblt. Hunger). The U-336 came up alongside the lifeboat, and asked the ship's name. Captain Bayet was taken on board the U-boat as a prisoner of war, leaving behind the lifeboat and rafts with survivors.
     By now, the Norse King was some ten miles from where she had been torpedoed the previous night. The crew had initially abandoned ship the previous night, and had been picked up by the escort. Although damaged, the ship was still afloat, although low in the water. The crew then returned to their ship, re-boarded, and were attempting to reach the Azores. About 0645 on December 29, the Norse King was sighted by the DS Veni. She was evidently doing about six knots and had her lifeboats ready. (J.R. Hegland, Nortraships Flåte, vol. II). According to German reports, the Norse King was torpedoed and sunk by U-435 (KptLt. S. Strelow) at 1507 hours on December 29. There were no known survivors. (See Siri Lawson's website for information on the Norwegian Merchant Fleet).

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HMCS Shediac (Wartime photograph, Canada Dept. of National Defence and Maritime Forces Pacific)


December 29: Shediac Rejoins Convoy

     The St. Laurent and Kenogami had made an A/S (anti-submarine) sweep about midnight (December 28/29) that extended ten miles astern of the convoy. Some time after that, the SOE signalled the Shediac and the Fidelity, some twenty miles further astern. Equipped with nets and well-armed, Fidelity was better equipped than most merchant ships for survival. Shediac was ordered to rejoin the convoy and search for survivors on her way back. The Admiralty then dispatched their tug Eminent from Gibraltar, but Fidelity later signalled that she no longer required the tug's assistance.
     About 0300 Shediac sighted an empty raft. Ten minutes later, they found a boat with survivors from the Ville de Rouen. At 0330, they sighted four more boats with survivors from the Melmore Head and the Ville de Rouen. They now had 35 survivors from Melmore Head and 71 from Ville de Rouen. About 0530 a raft was picked up with seven men from the Shackleton. Sometime later, they found another lifeboat containing another seventeen men.
     Shediac was already short of fuel and was now about thirty-five to forty miles behind the convoy. With the large number of survivors aboard, provisions would soon be a problem. After contacting the St. Laurent at 0600, Shediac was ordered to stop searching and return. She regained the convoy at 1300 hours.
     When Milne and Meteor were steaming toward the convoy, they picked up a radar contact about 0530 hours on December 29. It proved to be the Fidelity. About 0650, the two destroyers reached the estimated search area, and, reducing their speed, commenced the search for survivors. At 0700 they picked up 42 survivors from a raft and lifeboat belonging to the Baron Cochrane. At 0720 hours, they found 52 survivors from the Grange, while at 0815 hours, they found 49 survivors from Zarian.
     A great number of signals relating to ONS 154 were now being received in London (Admiralty Operational Intelligence Centre), in Liverpool (Western Approaches Tracking Room), and at Gibraltar. Reports also suggested that more attacks on the convoy were imminent. At 0520 hours, Gibraltar ordered the destroyers HMS Viceroy and St. Francis to leave convoy KMS-4, and proceed some 450 miles to aid in the search for survivors, refuelling at Azores if necessary.


December 29: Fidelity
     Fidelity had fallen behind the convoy on December 28 because her main engine had broken down. She was now between the convoy and the Azores. The small ship was cramped, and overcrowded with both men and equipment. At first, she was accompanied by Shediac, but now that ship had been recalled.
     While they were working on the engine, the torpedo nets were lowered to protect the ship. Fidelity got underway again about 0500 hours on December 29, and made radio contact with the Meteor and Milne. Despite repairs, they could only do two knots because they were hindered by the torpedo nets. About 1015 hours, the main engine broke down again, and Fidelity signalled her position to the SOE on the St Laurent. At 1100 hours, she signalled again to report that she was sailing for the Azores. It was about this time that Fidelity was observed by the U-615, but Kapitzky suspected a trap because the ship looked suspiciously like a Q-ship.
     Aboard the Fidelity, it was decided to launch the MTB and use it to do an anti-submarine patrol at night. The remaining Kingfisher made a reconnaissance flight and reported that two submarines, one on fire, were sixteen miles to the southwest, as well as two crowded lifeboats. Fidelity again signalled St. Laurent and the Western Approaches. She launched two landing craft which made contact with the lifeboats, which proved to be from the Shackleton, and towed them back to the Fidelity. The landing craft and the Kingfisher aircraft were lifted back into place, while the MTB followed behind the ship. Both the MTB and the ship were still experiencing engine problems. At 1950 hours, Fidelity signalled the SOE to report that they had picked up the survivors, including the Commodore, from the Empire Shackleton. This was the last recorded signal received from the Fidelity.
    After observing all the unusual activities on the Fidelity, U-615 decided to attack at night. Although Kapitzky fired four torpedoes, there were no explosions because the nets were in place, and the torpedoes had no effect.   About 2010 hours, Fidelity became aware of the U-boat, but lost contact. The night was very dark and overcast. The men on the MTB were also experiencing engine problems, and lost sight of the Fidelity about 2300 hours.

December 30: The MTB
      About 0900 on December 30, the men in the MTB heard a faint routine signal from the Fidelity, but they were unable to make contact because their batteries were extremely weak. They had to repeatedly stop their engine to let it cool off. About 1130 hours they started the engine and proceeded south-west as previously instructed by the Fidelity, but, with the wind against them, they shut down the engine at 1330 hours.
     The possibility of the MTB making contact with anyone was now very unlikely. Their batteries were flat, and they had little fuel left. The Azores were about 250 miles away, but, because of the wind direction, they decided to try to sail to the UK, about 900 miles away. Through the day and into the night, they stitched blankets and canvas together for sails, and improvised a mast.


December 29 & 30
The Convoy

     At 0900 hours on December, the SS Fort Lamy took over as Commodore because Empire Shackleton was no longer in the convoy, Admiralty messages were arriving constantly with warnings of enemy concentrations in the area. About 1400 hours, the escort observed the HMS Milne and HMS Meteor approaching from the east. When they were within four miles of the convoy, however, the two destroyers diverged to pursue an asdic contact. After driving off several U-boats, they joined the convoy at 1700 hours. Shortly after that, Napanee was ordered to refuel from the E.G. Suebert.
     Just after midnight on December 30, Battleford and Shediac, both short of fuel, left the convoy for the Azores. Because Milne and Meteor were also short of fuel, they had to depart noon. The escort was now reduced to four ships. Fearful of another U-boat attack, the SOE advised two of the faster ships, the SS Calgary and the SS Advastun, to proceed alone if they had the opportunity. In late afternoon, however, the escort was reinforced when two destroyers, HMS Viceroy and HMCS St. Francis, arrived.
      The escort received various signals regarding reinforcements. HMS Fame had been ordered to leave convoy ON 155, and proceed to ONS 154. The USS Dallas and USS Cole were on the way, while a message from Newfoundland indicated that HMCS Arrowhead, Chicoutini and Digby would also join the convoy. The U-boats had also received reports that more ships were being deployed to assist ONS 154, and on December 30, they received orders to withdraw.


December 30: Fidelity
     About noon on December 30, U-615 (Kapitzky) again saw the ship that he had been unable to sink the previous night, but, still fearing a trap, he took no action. About 25 miles to the east, U-435 (Strelow) noticed smoke on the horizon about 1300 hours. Increasing speed, he came within four miles of the Fidelity about 1400 hours. The ship was very slow, and he crept up to within 300 metres by 1630 hours, when he torpedoed her. The velocity of the explosion surprised him, and he dove. When he surfaced some distance away, he was amazed to see literally hundreds of survivors in the sea. Unaware of the identity of the ship, he noted the circumstances in his log. He returned at daylight the following day and surveyed the horrific scene.

     It was not until after the war ended that the connection was made between the entries in the U-boat logs and the Fidelity. The Fidelity was carrying two landing craft, HMS LCV-752 and HMS LCV-754, which sank with her.
     In December 1956 there was a newspaper story written by Ted Fisher, one of the men aboard the MTB, purporting to be an eye-witness account of the sinking, but others on that same MTB have denied its authenticity. The story of the Fidelity is still shrouded in mystery, and speculation continues to circulate.

December 31
& January 2
The Azores

     When the Battleford and the Shediac were about 40 miles from Punta Delgarda, Shediac ran out of fuel, and was towed the rest of the way by the Battleford. When they reached the Azores, the survivors were disembarked. After taking on fuel and supplies, the two corvettes left at 0910 on January 1 for a designated area to search for ships or survivors.
     HMS Milne reached Punta Delgarda in the afternoon of January 1st, while HMS Meteor had to be towed for the last five miles. Somehow room was found in the small town to billet approximately 300 survivors. The troopship, Llangibby Castle, arrived on January 6 to take them all back to Britain.
     HMCS Woodstock and HMCS Prescott had already reached the designated search area at 1600 hours on December 31, while HMCS Battleford and HMCS Shediac sailed for it on January 1. HMS Milne and HMS Meteor left Punta Delgarda for the search area on January 2 to join the other four ships.

January 1, Convoy

     On January 1, the SOE on the St. Laurent ordered two of the faster merchant ships, SS Umgeni and SS Fanan, to proceed on their own. The Jasper Park had already slipped away, giving rise to rumours that she had been torpedoed, but she reached St. John's safely. Later that morning, the destroyer HMS Fame arrived to join the escort. When the USS Cole arrived, she became SOE (Senior Officer of the Escort), and St. Laurent left the convoy to proceed to St. John's (Nfld.).

January 1 to 11
Search for Survivors

     The Fidelity's MTB had steering problems, and could not keep to her proposed course. Fortunately for her, she strayed into the search area, and were picked up by the Woodstock at 1145 hours on January 1st. Woodstock and Prescott continued their search, and found an empty lifeboat from the Lynton Grange some fifteen miles away.
     On January 2, Prescott found a lifeboat with survivors from the President Franqui, including the chief officer, who then directed them to an area where they found the ship's raft. A total of 26 survivors from the Franqui were rescued. Milne and Meteor arrived on January 4 at 1020 hours, and joined the search.
     After searching for U-boats, Battleford and Shediac were instructed to return to St. John's, Nfld., and arrived there on January 7. The other four ships continued searching, but no further survivors were found. The search was called off on January 11, and Woodstock and Prescott returned  to Londonderry.


     Rescue Ships were Royal Navy Auxiliary ships and sailed under the blue ensign. (Royal Navy ships flew the white ensign, while Merchant Navy ships used the red ensign.). There were two ships named Melrose Abbey. The ship named SS Melrose Abbey sunk in this convoy was a Merchant Navy cargo ship, not an auxiliary vessel. The smaller rescue ship RS Melrose Abbey survived the war, having escorted 42 convoys and picked up 86 survivors. The rescue ship RS Toward was sunk on her return voyage.
     Thanks to Mark "Robbie" Roberts, a Radio Officer who served on several rescue ships during WW II, and Kenneth Franklin, whose father was the last survivor rescued from the RS Toward by HMS Mignonette.
Total Survivors
     The RS Toward was the rescue ship assigned to the convoy, and rescued 63 survivors from the Empire Union, 27 from the Melrose Abbey, 51 from the Soekaboemi, and 23 from the King Edward. Other ships were then assigned to help. The HMCS Napanee picked up 18 survivors from the Soekaboemi, and 2 from the King Edward. The HMCS Shediac picked up 35 survivors from the Melmore Head, 71 from the Ville de Rouen, 7 from the Empire Shackleton, and 17 from the President Franqui. The SS Calgary picked up 17 from the Shackleton. The Fidelity had picked up the remaining survivors from the Empire Shackleton, including the Commodore.
     Other ships joined the convoy to help search for survivors. HMS Milne picked up 42 survivors from the Baron Cochrane, 52 from the Lynton Grange, and 49 from Zarian. HMCS Prescott rescued 26 from the President Franqui, while the eight men from the Fidelity's MTB were rescued by HMCS Woodstock. Earlier, the St. Laurent had rescued two men from Fidelity's seaplane.
     The Empire Wagtail (44) and the Norse King (35) were lost with all hands. Casualties were very high on other ships. Fidelity alone lost 325, while the King Edward lost 23. The casualty figures for the Empire Shackleton, however, are still contradictory. In his 1979 book, Revely says that 36 crew members were lost, but the Tower Hill memorial lists only 32 merchant seamen. There were no casualties on the Scottish Heather, the Lynton Grange, or the Ville de Rouen.
     The battle scene was continually moving westward, and it covered a vast expanse of ocean. Most of the attacks occurred at night. It was very confusing and often difficult to know who had been torpedoed, and who had not. At one time or another, Fanan, Dundrum Castle, J.M. Bartelmi, Empire Geraint, and Jasper Park were all reported as casualties, although they were not.
     The fifteen torpedoed ships carried at least 1,077 men. Of these, at 512 men died. There were 564 survivors were picked up by the escort, and one survivor (Franqui's Captain Bayet) was captured.
     The number of survivors includes 54 aboard the Scottish Heather, but we do not know how many of these were DEMS gunners. We do know that there were three DEMS gunners amongst those who volunteered to stay aboard.
     Although all the other merchant ships carried Army or Navy DEMS gunners aboard, Revely does not mention any DEMS gunners as being lost on the Norse King. Thanks to David Deacon who tracked down his father's records, we know that there was at least one DEMS gunner on the Norse King (see Memorial 3).

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Chart with information about 14 ships torpedoed and sunk in Convoy ONS 154


Aftermath of the Battle
     The U-boats out-numbered the convoy escort three to one, and infiltrated the convoy at will, inflicting horrendous losses. A total of fifteen merchant ships were torpedoed, and at least 512 men died. Only one U-boat was sunk, the U-356 under the command of Oberleutnant Ruppelt. Three ships torpedoed and still afloat tried to make the Azores but were sunk.
     The escort was undermanned, and was on the verge of dispersing the convoy, with each vessel sailing independently, when they were saved by timely arrival of the destroyers HMS Milne and HMS Meteor on December 30. Some faster ships did leave the convoy and sailed independently.

On January 2, the Scottish Heather arrived safely in the Clyde in Scotland. Despite a gaping hole in her side, the tanker had made her way safely one thousand miles east. The Heather was the only torpedoed ship to survive the battle. The other torpedoed ships, including those that attempted to make for the Azores, were sunk.

Political Consequences  that Convoy ONS 154 had on the Battle of the Atlantic
     The Battle for Convoy ONS 154 was a pivotal point in the Battle of the Atlantic. Following a series of heavy convoy losses, the near destruction of this convoy proved decisive for the Royal Canadian Navy and the British Admiralty. As a result, naval escort duties were drastically altered and submarine hunter/killer groups were introduced, thus changing the course of the war at sea.
     Throughout 1942, shipping losses had been steadily mounting. Britain was facing starvation, and convoy fatalities had now reached an unacceptable level. For the Admiralty, the losses inflicted on ONS 154, in conjunction with heavy losses suffered by other convoys, were the final straw, and drastic action had to be taken.

"Then came the notorious Christmas convoy of 1942. ONS-154 was made up of 45 ships. It was south of the Azores with the destroyer St. Laurent and five corvettes. There was no air cover and it ran into 20 U-boats. The result was an inferno. Four ships the first night and more than double the second night. The SOE, Lt.-Cmdr. Guy Windeyer was experienced; however, he broke in mid-battle. The 1st lieutenant took command and pulled the remaining two-thirds through the hell-fire."
("Preserving the Atlantic Lifeline,' by Commander Tony German, Legion Magazine, May/June 1998.)

Continued

     London requested Ottawa to withdraw the Canadian Escort Groups from the Atlantic convoys, and reassigned them to the UK/Gibraltar route, where air cover could be provided. Elements of the RCN Group were integrated into the formation of the new hunter/killer naval units. This decision changed the face of the Atlantic convoy system and the course of the war at sea, but it had come at a heavy cost of men and ships.
     The year 1942 proved to be the darkest period in the war at sea, with 1,664 merchant ships sunk, and shipping tonnage losses of 7,790,697 tons. Of these, the U-boats sank 5,471,222 tons of allied shipping (1,006 ships) in the Atlantic alone.
     According to an article by Robert Fisher ("The Impact of German Technology on the Royal Canadian Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1942-43" in The Northern Mariner, October 1997) the atrocious weather experienced in the fall and winter of 1942 often rendered the RCN's radar useless and adversely affected asdic conditions. In addition, the German Metox radar detector gave the German U-boats an advantage over the Canadian escort. As a result, the German U-boats could detect the presence of the convoy, while the escort vessels were often unable to detect the U-boats. The sinking of the U-356 by the St. Laurent in Convoy ONS154 marked a turning point in the number of U-boat sinkings by the RCN.

Sources
(1)     The above information is based primarily on the book written by Henry Revely (The Convoy That Nearly Died. London: Wm. Kimber, 1979). Although out-of-print, Revely's book is available in libraries and second-hand bookstores. Apart from Revely's book, convoy ONS 154 has received little recognition until recently, despite the questions that it raised in the efficiency of naval escort operations, planning, and administration.
(2)     More information on this battle can be found on the uboat.net).
(3)     Information on the Norse King was provided by Siri Lawson, Britt Pittman, and Jan Furst. Britt has kindly translated information from Jon Rusting Hegland (Nortraships Flåte, vol II, 1942-1945)
(4)     The role of the escort and the political consequences and fallout of the battle are based on the book by D. J. Bercuson and H. H. Herwig (Deadly Seas. Toronto: Random House, 1997).
(5)     Quotations are given from "Preserving the Atlantic Lifeline," an article by Commander Tony German, which appeared in the Legion Magazine, May/June 1998.
(6)     Robert Fisher has published several interesting articles on World War II, including "The Impact of German Technology on the Royal Canadian Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1942-43". Originally published in October 1997 issue of The Northern Mariner, this article is now available on his website.
(7)     In The Black Pit . . . and Beyond, Gordon Mumford, the author, tells his story of the Scottish Heather, and how she managed to survive the battle. The book also describes his experiences in operations in North Africa (Operation Torch) and Italy, as well as on the European front. The book concludes with the Battle of the Scheldt in southern Holland, and the sinking of the Empire Path.

See also Links and Sources

Tribute to Douglas Crook (1912-1995)
Second Mate of the Scottish Heather in 1942

      In December 1942, the second mate of the Scottish Heather was Douglas Crook. When I joined the ship, I was seventeen, and my own father had died at the age of forty-five just four months earlier. Although the second mate was more than likely completely unaware of it, he became my role model, and I came to look upon him as a father figure.
     Douglas Crook had been awarded the Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.) earlier in the war for showing exceptional bravery and leadership. When his ship, the Athelknight, was torpedoed in the Caribbean, northeast of the Virgin Islands, he navigated his lifeboat more than 1,000 miles to an island near Antigua after twenty-eight days at sea, and saved the lives of his crew. The U-boat that torpedoed his ship had come alongside their lifeboat and gave him a bucket and some supplies. I remember him telling us about this episode in his life. To me, it illustrated the comradeship existing between men on both sides in the war who sailed the sea.
     For his leading role in saving the Scottish Heather and her crew, Douglas Crook was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyd's Medal. His memory has lived with me throughout these long years for I, among others, owe him my life.
     See also Survival at sea / Merchant Navy Awards / Merchant Navy Ships / ONS 154 Escort & Naval:Ships / Other Ships in ONS154 / U-boats, and the Scottish Heather Gallery.

Memorials to Convoy ONS 154

     The youngest casualty of the battle was Third Radio Officer Arthur Andrew Heard, age fifteen, of the Empire Wagtail, while the oldest was Thomas Langan, Boatswain on the Empire Shackleton, age sixty-six. See also the youngest and oldest merchant navy casualties. Two ships--the Empire Wagtail and the Norse King--were lost with all hands, while the King Edward, the Empire Shackleton and the Fidelity suffered heavy losses, losing nearly their entire crew. The memorials give the names of the seamen and DEMS gunners lost in the convoy, please see Memorials.


60th Anniversary, Battle of Convoy ONS-154, December 27-30, 1942 - 2002

I am the daughter of Stanley Eggleton, Greaser/Fireman, lost off the King Edward [one of the 14 ships sunk in Convoy ONS-154] and I was awake at 4.00 a.m. today to remember my father and also all the brave men who went down with this ship at 4.18 a.m. 60 years ago today.   May they never be forgotten. They gave their lives keeping the supplies to their Country going. Many left wives and families and, in my case, a daughter he never saw. - Kathleen

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For information about ships and U-boats in this convoy, please see

Escort & Naval Ships in ONS 154      |    Merchant Ships in ONS 154

Attacking U-boats      |     Memorials     |    Photo Galleries

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Updated on August 23, 2009