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Chapter4 -The Atlantic

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WWZed

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It was time to move on from Gibraltar. No long range aircraft being available and being unwilling to fly across Germany to  get to Britain, the sea route was the only thing left.  A small convoy was leaving and Zeus and I hitched a ride on the HMCS Sackville, a flower class corvette. image.png.5400ca4f1662d61be439210fafbbe7c7.png

 

Being slightly larger than a coastal fishing boat and housing 85 men along with supplies and weapons, it was a cramped affair.  Once we reached the rolling Atlantic it became a wet cramped environment.  We met with sister ship the HMCS Snowberry and proceeded to run across the Atlantic riding mother hen over the cargo ships.image.png.2e7ad303a6b9d5c0d31cbc91f32af88c.png 

The crew was in great spirits and Zeus enjoyed the extra rations that he received under the table as the food was barely palatable to us.  A few weeks out of port, Zeus kicked up a holy racket barking at what looked like a broomstick moving through the water, the crew reacted swiftly and began to drop all sorts of high explosives off the aft end of the ship causing great boils of water to expand

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After 4 hours of this we turned back towards the convoy and pumped it up to full speed.  It took us over 12 hours of chase to catch the convoy, these ships could only do 15 knots.  The Captain decided I would be more comfortable on one of the cargo ships but didn't want Zeus to leave as he was now listed as the ships "good luck charm".  Once I got on the cargo ship, I  was escorted to a dingy room in the bowls of the ship.  It smelled like bunker fuel.  I later found out the ship was a tanker with a full load of crude heading for processing into aviation gas. image.png.a8147bec3cbd9bc908f502b8fb87ff39.png

Halfway across the ocean we joined Convoy L112 a much larger convoy escorted by several destroyers and the HMS Warspite.  When the Captain of the Warspite heard there was an ace in the convoy, he invited Zeus over for dinner and cocktails...  No I never did get invited.  After interminable days we finally got to Halifax, back finally in Canada and ready for the next leg.

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The complete voyage was done in Virtual Sailor in the appropriate ships.  Time compression was used and I actually got queasy in the VR when driving the Sackville in 16 foot waves.  The Warspite was chosen as my grandfather in 1891 was taken on the Warspite (the previous sailing one, there is always a Warspite in the Royal Navy) at the age of 7 in Portsmouth.  At 15 he jumped ship in San Fransisco and made his way to Toronto.  He was too short by 1" to become an enlisted seaman in the RN.  The Hmcs Sackville is now a floating museum in Halifax where I boarded it during Tall Ships festival

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The Flower Class

The RN ordered 145 Flower-class corvettes in 1939, the first 26 on 25 July with a further batch of 30 on 31 August, all under the 1939 Pre-War Programme. Following the outbreak of World War II, the British Admiralty ordered another 20 on 19 September (all from Harland & Wolff) under the 1939 War Programme. This was followed by an order for a further ten Flower-class corvettes from other British shipbuilders two days later. Another 18 were ordered on 12 December and an additional two on 15 December, again from British shipbuilders. The RN ordered the last ten vessels (under the 1939 War Programme) from Canadian shipbuilders in January 1940.

Thus, by the end of January 1940, a total of 116 ships were building or on order to this initial design. The 10 vessels ordered from Canadian shipbuilders were transferred to the RCN upon completion. Another four vessels were ordered at Smiths Dock Company for the French Navy, the first ship being completed for the Free French Naval Forces in mid-1940 and the other three being taken over by the RN. Another 31 Flowers were ordered by the RN under the 1940 War Programme, but six of these (ordered from Harland & Wolff) were cancelled on 23 January 1941.

The RN ordered 27 modified Flower-class corvettes under the 1941 and 1942 War Programmes. British shipbuilders were contracted to build seven of these vessels under the 1941 Programme and 5 vessels under the 1942 Programme; however, two vessels (one from each year's Programme) were later cancelled. Additionally the RN ordered 15 modified Flowers from Canadian shipyards under the 1941 programme; eight of these were transferred to the USN under the Lend-Lease Programme.

The RCN ordered 70 original and 34 modified Flower-class vessels from Canadian shipbuilders. The Canadian shipbuilders also built seven original Flowers ordered by the USN; however, these vessels were transferred to the RN under the Lend-Lease Programme upon completion as wartime shipbuilding production in the United States had reached the level where the USN could dispense with vessels it had ordered in Canada. The RCN vessels had several design variations from their RN counterparts: the "bandstand," where the aft pom-pom gun was mounted, was moved to the rear of the superstructure; the galley was also moved forward, immediately abaft the engine room.

Shortly after the outbreak of war the French Navy ordered 18 Flower-class vessels;[10] 12 from UK yards, two from Ateliers et Chantiers de France at Dunkirk and four from Chantiers de Penhoët at Saint-Nazaire.[11] The two At. & Ch. de France ships are listed as "cancelled"[12] but the four Penhoët ships were under construction at the time of the Fall of France and were seized by Nazi Germany. Three were completed for Kriegsmarine service and commissioned in 1943–44 as the PA-class patrol ships.[11][13]

Armament[edit]

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Typical BL 4 inch Mk IX gun mounting, here seen on HMS Vervain
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Loading a depth charge thrower on HMS Dianthus
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QF2 Mk. VIII pom-pom gun, from HMCS Kamloops, on display in the Lebreton Gallery of the Canadian War Museum

The original Flower class were fitted with a 4-inch (102 mm) gun on the bow, depth charge racks carrying 40 charges on the stern, a minesweeping winch, and a 2-pounder (40 mm) pom-pom gun on a "bandstand" over the engine room.

Due to initial shortages, a pair of Lewis guns was sometimes substituted for the pom-pom, which would have left the ship very vulnerable to aircraft attack in its envisaged role of coastal convoy escort and patrol in the North Sea. The long-range endurance of the vessels, coupled with early war-time shortages of larger escort warships, saw Flowers assigned to trans-Atlantic convoy escort where Luftwaffe fighter-bombers were rarely encountered. Vessels assigned to the Mediterranean Sea usually had their anti-aircraft capability significantly upgraded.

Underwater detection capability was provided by a fixed ASDIC dome; this was later modified to be retractable. Subsequent inventions such as the High Frequency Radio Detection Finder (Huff-Duff) were later added, along with various radar systems (such as the Type 271), which proved particularly effective in low-visibility conditions in the North Atlantic.

The Flower class had been designed for inshore patrol and harbour anti-submarine defence; therefore, many required minor modifications when the Allied navies began deploying these vessels as trans-Atlantic convoy escorts. These small warships could be supported by any small dockyard or naval station, so many ships came to have a variety of different weapons systems and design modifications depending upon when and where they were refitted; there is really no such thing as a 'standard Flower-class corvette'

Several of the major changes that vessels in the class underwent are indicated below, in a typical chronological order:

  • Original twin mast configuration changed to single mast in front of the bridge, then moved behind the bridge for improved visibility.
  • Heavy minesweeping gear removed for deep-sea escort work and to improve range.
  • Galley relocated from the stern to midships.
  • Extra depth charge storage racks were fitted at the stern. Later, more depth charges stowed along walkways.
  • Hedgehog fitted to enable remote attacks while keeping ASDIC contact.
  • Surface radar fitted in a "lantern" housing on the bridge.
  • Forecastle lengthened to midships to provide more accommodation and better seaworthiness. Several vessels were given a "three-quarters length" extension.
  • Increased flare at the bow. This and the above modification created the modified Flower design for subsequent orders.
  • Various changes to the bridge, typically lowering and lengthening it. Enclosed compass house removed.
  • Extra twin Lewis guns mounted on the bridge or engine room roof.
  • Oerlikon 20 mm cannons fitted, usually two on the bridge wings but sometimes as many as six spread out along the engine-room roof, depending on the theatre of operations.

Any particular ship could have any mix of these, or other specialist one-off modifications. Ships allocated to other navies such as the RCN or USN usually had different armament and deck layouts.

A major difference between the RN vessels and the RCN, USN, and other navies' vessels was the provision of upgraded ASDIC and radar. The RN was a world leader in developing these technologies, and thus RN Flowers were somewhat better-equipped for remote detection of enemy submarines. A good example of this is the difficulty that RCN Flowers had in intercepting U-boats with their Canadian-designed SW1C metric radar, while the RN vessels were equipped with the technologically advanced Type 271 centimetric sets. In addition, RCN vessels were incapable of operating gyrocompasses, making ASDIC attacks more difficult.

Operations[edit]

Flower-class corvettes were used extensively by both the RN and RCN in the war-long Battle of the Atlantic. They also saw limited service elsewhere with the RN, as well as the USN and several Allied navies such as the Royal Netherlands Navy, the Royal Norwegian Navy, the Royal Hellenic Navy, the Free French Naval Forces, the Royal Indian Navy, and the Royal New Zealand Navy. The Belgian Navy manned some of these vessels during World War II, and have continued to use Flower names for their minehunters to this day.

Most Royal Navy Flower-class ships drew their officers and crew from the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). Many RN Flowers had captains drawn from the Merchant Navy.

Service on Flowers in the North Atlantic was typically cold, wet, monotonous and uncomfortable. Every dip of the forecastle into an oncoming wave was followed by a cascade of water into the well deck amidships.[14] Men at action stations were drenched with spray, and water entered living spaces through hatches opened to access ammunition magazines.[14] Interior decks were constantly wet and condensation dripped from the overheads.[14] The head (or sanitary toilet) was drained by a straight pipe to the ocean; and a reverse flow of the icy North Atlantic would cleanse the backside of those using it during rough weather.[14] By 1941 corvettes carried twice as many crewmen as anticipated in the original design.[14] Men slept on lockers or tabletops or in any dark place that offered a little warmth.[14] The inability to store perishable food meant a reliance on preserved food such as corned-beef and powdered potato for all meals.[15]

The Flowers were nicknamed "the pekingese of the ocean". They had a reputation of having poor sea-handling characteristics, most often rolling in heavy seas, with 80-degree rolls, 40 degrees each side of upright, being fairly common; it was said they "would roll on wet grass".[16] Many crewmen suffered severe motion sickness for a few weeks until they acclimatised to shipboard life.[14] Although poor in their sea-handling characteristics, the Flowers were extremely seaworthy; no Allied sailor was ever lost overboard from a Flower during World War II, outside combat.

A typical action by a Flower encountering a surfaced U-boat during convoy escort duties was to run directly at the submarine, forcing it to dive and thus limiting its speed and manoeuvrability. The corvette would then keep the submarine down and pre-occupied with avoiding depth charge attacks long enough to allow the convoy to pass safely. The 16-knot (30 km/h) top speed of the Flower-class ships made effective pursuit of a surfaced U-boat (about 17 knots) impossible, though it was adequate to manoeuvre around submerged U-boats or convoys, both of which ran at a typical maximum of 8 knots, and sometimes much less in poor weather. The low speed also made it difficult for Flowers to catch up with the convoy after action.[9]

This technique was hampered when the Kriegsmarine began deploying its U-boats in "wolf-pack" attacks, which were intended to overwhelm the escort warships of a convoy and allow at least one of the submarines to attack the merchant vessels. Upgrades in sensors and armament for the Flowers, such as radar, HF/DF, depth charge projectors, and ASDIC, meant these small warships were well equipped to detect and defend against such attacks, but the tactical advantage often lay with the attackers, who could operate a cat-and-mouse series of attacks intended to draw the defending Flower off-station.

Success for the Flowers, therefore, should be measured in terms of tonnage protected, rather than U-boats sunk. Typical reports of convoy actions by these craft include numerous instances of U-boat detection near a convoy, followed by brief engagements using guns or depth charges and a rapid return to station as another U-boat took advantage of the initial skirmish to attack the unguarded convoy. Continuous actions of this kind against a numerically superior U-boat pack demanded considerable seamanship skills from all concerned, and were very wearing on the crews.

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The Free French Memorial on Lyle Hill in Greenock, looking out to the west of the Tail of the Bank anchorage, has a plaque commemorating the loss of the corvettes Alyssa and Mimosa.[17]

Thirty-six ships in the class were lost during World War II, many due to enemy action, some to collision with Allied warships and merchant ships. One, sunk in shallow water, was raised and repaired. Of the vessels lost to enemy action, 22 were torpedoed by U-boats, five were mined, and four were sunk by enemy aircraft. The Flower-class corvettes are credited with participating in the sinking of 47 German and four Italian submarines.

Construction of the Flower-class was superseded toward the end of the war as larger shipyards concentrated on River-class frigates, and smaller yards on the improved Castle-class corvette design.

The Flower class represented fully half of all Allied convoy escort vessels in the North Atlantic during World War II.

 

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