OB-249 To Newfoundland

The Fourth Voyage

After repairs in Glasgow the Dorelian with Alister sailed on 24th November 1940 joining 53 other ships in convoy OB-249. The Dorelian had a new Captain James Cook.

Out in the Atlantic the convoy dispersed on 28th. After dispersal, that evening (at 20:24) the St Elwyn was hit and sunk by U-103 with the loss of 24 lives, 16 were rescued.

U-103 had left Lorient on 9th November and returned on 12th December having sunk 7 merchant ships killing 509 sailors. When she sank Calibra inbound for Liverpool on 8th December she killed 128 crew and 230 Indian sailors travelling as passengers; crew intended for other ships. In her career U-103 sunk 45 ships and damaged three. The last success was on 13th December 1942. Though she carried on patrolling through 1943 she had no more hits and became a training boat.

During the Battle of the Atlantic around 25% of the crew on UK vessels were from India and China. More than 6,000 Indians (known as Lascars) and 2,000 Chinese sailors were killed.

The Dorelian arrived in St John’s Newfoundland on 9th December, leaving 9 days later for Halifax arriving on 20th December 1940. It is notable that she did not go on to Montreal as on previous voyages.  In 2009 Montreal is open all year but it seems that in 1940 it was closed by ice during the winter.

View Convoy OB-249 in a larger map


Home At Princes Dock, Glasgow

The Donaldson Line's home base was Prince's Dock, Govan Glasgow. Prince's Dock was the largest dock in the upper Clyde. When Alister came to Glasgow this is where his ship berthed.

Prince's Dock closed in the 1970s. In 1988 the area was used for the Glasgow Garden festival. The docks have largely been filled in and the area has been renamed 'Pacific Quay'. I do not know why, maybe it is after one of the quays in the dock; the Donaldson Line certainly ran a route into the Pacific and up the West Coast to Vancouver through the Pananma Canal so maybe there is some historic basis for the name. Or maybe quay sounds more upmarket than dock.

In 2010 the Prince's Dock, sorry Pacific Quay site contains the Glasgow Science Centre, BBC Scotland and the Festival Park from 1988. Further rather nice office blocks are being added but there are an awful lot of cars.

The only old dock building that has survived is the hydraulic power station that provided power to the dockyard cranes.

View Prince's Dock in a larger map
I have overlaid the docs onto today's map, I positioned and traced an old aerial photo so I think it is pretty close.


HX-82 To Glasgow

The Dorelian did not hang around in Montreal leaving after four days on 16th October and arriving at Syndey on 20th. On 21st June it joined convoy HX-82 home.

Convoy HX-82 comprised around 40 merchant ships, four ships had to abandon their voyage due to weather damage, steering failure or lack of speed. Another four ships straggled from the convoy and two of these were found by U-124.

On 31st October the Rutland was hit by torpedo and sank within 30 seconds with the loss of all 24 crew. It was carrying bananas! 24 men risked and lost their lives trying to get the bananas through! On 1st November the Empire Bison was sunk with the loss of 31 or the 36 crew. (U-124 was itself sunk on 2nd April 1943 with the loss of all 53 crew.)

The Dorelian with Alister was held at Kames Bay from 4th to 7th November finally arriving in Glasgow on 7th to complete the voyage.

View Convoy HX-82 in a larger map


OB-221 To Montreal

Alister's Third Voyage

The Dorelian needed some repairs which started on 12th September. She was ready to go again on 26th and left the Clyde on the 29th September 1940 joining convoy OB-221.

OB-221 dispersed on 3rd October, on 6th October one of its ships the Benlawers, on route to Durban was sunk, about half the crew, 24 men died. Alister by then was maybe 400 nautical miles away and would not know.

The Dorelian arrived in Montreal two weeks later on 12th October.

View OB-221 in a larger map


HX-68 To Glasgow, The U-Boats Step It Up

The Dorelean reached Montreal on 14th August and turned round quickly. Leaving on 18th it waited at Sydney from 23rd to join convoy HX-68 which left Halifax on 24th August. By 8th September she arrived safely in Glasgow. Seemingly a smooth passage but she had been lucky.

As Alister was sailing on 25th and 26th with HX-68 convoy HX-65 was being attacked by U-boat and aircraft with 8 ships sunk and one damaged, most of the crew of these ships did not survive. On 28th and 30th August convoy HX-66 lost 4 ships. So 15 ships had been sunk in front of Alister but his convoy got through.  In HX-72 less than two weeks behind him 11 ships were sunk and three damaged: U-100 sank seven of those ships. (U-100 was itself sunk on 17th March 1941).

The advantage of the access from the French coast is now coming into play, most of the successful U-boats in August had come from or would go to the new base at Lorient. The convoys were now forced further North, coming in to the UK to the North of Ireland. The U-boats were now massing before attacking at night as a group and the poor merchant sailors were often lost with their ships.

Whether a convoy was attacked or lucky it must have been terrifying during the voyage knowing you could be hit at any time. You only knew you were safe when you go into port. Then you turned round and did it again! Alister had two weeks back in Glasgow before it was time to go again. He was still not even sixteen and a half years old.

The map below shows the U boat attacks in the North Atlantic starting from 24th August 1940, you will have to zoom to differentiate all the markers; 64 ships were attacked, sadly 59 were sunk. Details of the attacks are easily accessible on www.uboat.net.

It is notable that SC convoys started in this period. "S" is for Slow I guess, these convoys consisted of ships inbound to the UK from North America that were not fast enough to keep up the 8 knots that the HX convoys wished to achieve.

View HX-068 24/08/1940 in a larger map

The map shows the attacks between 24-Aug-40 and 23-Sep-40 in the N Atlantic and approaches, the convoys are, HX-65, HX-66, HX-70, HX-71, HX-72, OB-201, OB-203, OB-205, OB-206, OB213, OB-215, SC-1, SC-3, OA-200, OA-204, OA-210 and SL-43.


OB-192 To Montreal

Alister's Second Voyage

After six days in Swansea the Dorelian sailed with Alister joining OB-192 to take her out on the way back to Montreal.

As before she joined ships out of Liverpool and it is interesting to note that they continued out into the Atlantic travelling to the South of Ireland. The U-boat threat from bases on the French coast had not yet forced the convoy routes north.
 Alister in 1940 aged 16

The Dorelean reached Montreal on 14th August and turned round quickly, leaving on 18th.

View OB-192.kmz in a larger map


HX-52 Back To Avonmouth

HX Convoys

On 14th June the Dorelian left Montreal to return to Avonmouth in the UK. 

It arrived off Halifax, Nova Scotia on the 17th. This was the assembly point for the convoys returning to the UK from, or routed by North America. These convoys were the HX series. The Dorelean joined HX-52 as one of 18 merchant ships.

The HX convoys started in September 1939, three ships were hit in the four months to the end of 1939 and another six ships in the first two months of 1940, but in March, April and May the U-boats had no successes.

Unfortunately the U-boat form improved in June 1940. The first June convoy, HX-47 left on 2nd June from which a straggler was hit on 14th June. The convoy itself was attacked on the 15th and two ships hit.

As Alister sailed with HX-52 on 21st June HX-49 which had left on 9th June was being attacked by U-boats losing four ships on the 20th, 21st and 22nd June.

HX-52 Voyage Home

HX-52 started initially with four escorts, almost immediately one ship, the Canadian Magog became a straggler and the British Holystone also left the convoy as a straggler on 23rd. Neither ship could maintain the required speed of 9 knots.

After two days three of the escorts broke away. These would be local escort ships that protect the convoy out of costal waters and then return for another convoy.

On 25th June HX-2 was joined by 11 more ships from Bermuda. The remaining escort vessel HMS Aurania protected the convoy until 2nd July when about 230 nautical miles out from Ireland she handed over to the destroyers HMS Hurricane and HMS Wolverine and sloop HMS Scarborough, corvette HMS Gardinia for the run in to the UK. They were entering a much narrower area where U boats were likely to lurk so a heavy escort was necessary.

The straggler Magog was now two days behind the convoy and on the 5th of July only 90 nautical miles from Ireland she was attacked and eventually sunk by U-99, thankfully all 23 crew were safe. The poor old Magog at 7.5 knots was 1 ½ knots too slow to stay in the convoy but she had to carry on and hope to get through without protection. The first casualty of Alister’s personal war on his first voyage though probably he knew nothing of it. By 5th July he and the Dorelian had arrived in Avonmouth.

The Dorelian spent two weeks in Avonmouth then four days in Cardiff before returning to Swansea to complete the voyage.

View HX-52 21/06/1940 in a larger map


Canada Helps Us A Lot

So why did Alister sail to Canada?

As we know Britain needed the Merchant Navy to bring in the food and other supplies. Of course they needed to get it from somewhere and we must be grateful to the countries that supplied us. I wondered how important Canada was here, there is much about the contribution on the RCN but I cannot find anything on the Internet that credits Canada for supplying us so I have done a quick count myself.

Over the summer of 1940 as a ball park I think 31% of our imports came from Canada and 15% from each of Africa, South America, the West Indies and the USA. Of course Canada is 'nearest' so maybe you would expect this, but they clearly kept us going, thanks guys!

You can see that through 1940 and 41 Canada consistently provided around 30% of our supplies. The significant change is that the USA took an increased share. Of course it may well be that goods shipped out of Canadian ports such as Montreal originated in the USA.

The actual volume of shipping from 1940 to 1941 does not appear to have increased. Comparing June 40 and Aug 41 (just because that is the data I have) there were almost the same number of ships (14 less overall) but many of the ships were able to make shorter journeys to the USA. It looks like Canada was running at capacity as it hardly changes.

My estimate is quick and does not take ship capacity into account. I looked at the destination of the ships on OB, On and OS convoys, discarded those clearly delivering, say to the Mediterranean, and just counted the ships. The data come from the fantastic Convoyweb site.

In Summer 1941 the OB (outbound) series were replaced by ON (outbound North) and OS (outbound South) series.

The Royal Canadian Navy

Britain could not have continued without the support of its friends and Canada was a very very important friend. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) made a huge contribution. In 1939 at the start of the war they had six destroyers and five minesweepers, it was tiny. Canada embarked on a major building program, it was a painful expansion as they needed their experience out in the Atlantic and so it was so difficult to provide the manpower to train the huge numbers of new men that were needed. I do not want to get ahead of our time line and the magnificent contribution is very well documented else where. Have a look at:
When the USA did enter the war in 1941 it is significant that this increased the work of the RCN in the Atlantic as many US ships were moved over to the Pacific.

The Port Of Montreal

Before WW2 and for years afterwards it was common for major ports to be in-land and ships started and finished their voyages by snaking up rivers to places such as Montreal and London.

From the neck of the estuary Montreal is about 180 miles up river, it is actually 1,000 miles from the Atlantic. After 2,500 miles across the Atlantic the 1,000 mile journey up to Montreal must have been relaxed as there was no threat of attack and no discomfort from Atlantic weather.

The last 80 miles are not tidal and it is fresh water. These days most major ports are on the coast as ships are too big and in too much hurry to snake up river.

The Dorelian was a general cargo ship of 6,431 gt. The modern equivalent is a container ship. The captain of the container ship Edith Maersk launched in 2007 would probably use the Dorelian in his bath. The Edith Maersk has gross tonnage of 170,794 but only requires a crew of 13, the Dorelian was certified to carry 73 crew.

The Edith Maersk is too big for Montreal however Montreal with its unique access into North America remains a thriving facility: ships of up to 55,000gt are using it, and it handled 12.4m tones of container merchandise in 2007.

OB-156 Outbound To Montreal

On the 26th May Alister left South Wales on the Dorelian, Captained by Duncan Macqueen, his first voyage. The Dorelian sailed from Swansea to join convoy OB-156 just off Pembrokeshire.

A ship such as the Dorelian may travel at 8 or 9 knots. It takes just over two weeks to cross the Atlantic to Canada, maybe two weeks to load up with cargo and of course two weeks to come back.

So that they could enjoy naval protection ships convoyed together with one or more escort ships.  The convoy system had been introduced successfully in the Great (First World) War. To many it was counter-intuitive to put all the eggs in one basket but it was found to work and is statistically sound. However the U-boats adaption to hunt in packs improves the odds in their favour when they do find a convoy.

Convoy OB-156 comprised 11 merchant ships protected by HMS Folkstone. At this time Britain was only able to protect the ships at the start of their voyage out into the Atlantic so the convoy dispersed after three days about 800 nautical miles out from the UK.

Convoys were designated by a route code (OB in this case) and then an incremental serial number (156). The OB series of convoys took ships out of Liverpool heading for North or South America, ships from other UK ports would join up at designated meeting points in home waters.

This series of convoys started when OB-1 sailed on 7th September 1939. On 13th October the first OB convoy, OB-17 was attacked and two ships hit. By the time convoy OB-156 sailed with Alister on 27th May seven ships on OB convoys had been hit by U boats, the last one OB-74 on 17th January 1940.

So when OB-156 set out four months had passed and 56 OB convoys had sailed without loss. Maybe it did not seem too dangerous. Those on the convoys may think it cheeky of me to think that and suggest I might like to try it and see: but if you consider it dangerous in May 1940 then you will struggle for vocabulary soon after.

The Germans had already reached the coast of Norway and as Alister sailed they were becoming masters of France and a very big Atlantic coast. Now it really would become dangerous: in the next three months over 270 allied ships were to be sunk. By 1945 around 3,500 vessels were lost and more than 30,000 merchant sailors had died. Despite censorship I have no doubt every sailor would be aware of the threat.

In May 1940 OB convoys sailed South of Ireland because the U-boats came from Norway and Germany. Soon with the U-boat bases in France this was too dangerous and they would head out North of Ireland. 

Luckily for OB-156 the U boats did not catch them. In fact they did not get an OB convoy for another five weeks, till 2nd July 1940, when they sunk the Athellaird in OB-176. Their first hit since January, but for the remaining six months of 1940 they attacked every second or third OB convoy hitting 32 ships.

That was to come, the Dorelian with Alister starting in OB-156 reached Montreal safely on 6th June 1940.

View OB-156 26/05/1940 in a larger map


Joining The Dorelian at Swansea

On 17th May 1940 Alister's indentures to the Donaldson Brothers & Black Limited were agreed and signed.  He travelled down to Swansea to join his first ship, the Dorelian which was under repair at Swansea. On 20th May he signed on.

The Dorelian was a general cargo steel steam ship, built in 1923 of 6,431g. It was powered by coal fired boilers driving a 4 cylinder steam engine. It was certified to carry 73 crew, there were three apprentices, but Alister was 5 years younger than the other two and was the only person under 18.

I do not own a picture of the Dorelian but you can see it on this Clyde Built Ships page.

This is Alister's own memory of joining the ship.

The ship was berthed at the coal tips loading bunkers, so it was not a shinning start. We were a coal burner with about 14 firemen on board feeding the boilers about 30 T/day. They worked 3 shifts of 8 and came out the stoke hole in need of a bath. Coal was loaded down coal shoots up to 1,000 tons.

I sailed on my first voyage on the SS Dorelian on 25th May 1940 bound to Montreal. The war was already 9 months old so we carried a 4” gun on the poop, I was made sight setter because of my height 6’ 2 ½ “ and told to hold both sights tightly when we fired and keep my mouth open.

We mainly kept bridge watches as part of the time we were in convoy and had to watch the Commodore’s ship for signals. 

The trade was Montreal to Avonmouth and Swansea. In port we kept gangway watch for security. The air raid sirens went off sometimes twice a day but seldom did we see a plane.  In Avonmouth one night a large piece of shrapnel fell alongside the gangway but caused no damage.

On the 26th May Britain started to evacuate its remaining forces from mainland Europe. Now Britain depended on the few men of the RAF to defend the country and the Merchant Navy to bring essential food and supplies. The Merchant Navy was protected as best they could by the Royal Navy and Air Force.

The capture of the French Atlantic coast line enabled the Germans to greatly increase the pressure on British shipping in the Atlantic. Almost immediately the Germans would have U boat bases along the Atlantic coast in France as well as the North Sea. And now it was summer with better weather and long days.
On the 26th May at 7am, as the Dunkirk evacuation started the Dorelian, captained by Duncan Macqueen, sailed from Swansea to join convoy OB-156 bound for Montreal.


Getting Involved

On the 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on the 13th September. Immediately, Britain was critically dependant on the umbilical cord provided by its Merchant Navy and they were instantly under attack.

In three months the German Battleship Admiral Graf Spee, sank nine ships in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean but was then trapped by the Royal Navy and scuttled by its crew.

Near to home the German surface war ships in Europe dared not leave port. Initially U-boats attacked the Royal Navy but they were not winning. The Royal Navy sank the first U-boat the day after war was declared. The lack of access to the Atlantic and foul weather over the winter limited the German U-boat threat to the new convoys across the Atlantic, but Britain could now see what was coming and struggled to get the equipment to counter it.

It is incredible that Statesmen with full personal knowledge of the horrors of the Great War were prepared to start the same thing again. People start wars because they believe that they have the upper hand and will win, but technology catches them out. In the Great War the machine gun was a surprise, and the battles did not go as expected because of it. Now the Germans though they had the upper hand. They had set the timetable and were ready, their tanks and blitzkrieg tactics quickly overran the Western defences.

In April 1940 the Germans gained Norway and direct access to the Atlantic ready to apply their U-boat technology to strangle Britain. Fortunately for Britain it appears that Hitler did not see this as his winning hand from the start and the U-boats were not fully resourced. The human cost of the Battle of the Atlantic was immense but the pendulum would be swung by the technology.

Though he had just started his fifth year Alister decided he was going to join the Merchant Navy because he had good knowledge of the sea and little was happening at school; they spent their time filing sandbags.  He left Glasgow High School to do a course at the School of Navigation at the Royal Technical College, now amalgamated into the University of Strathclyde.

Alister and his classmates encouraging people to help the war effort. Even in 2010 you can still see where railings were removed for their metal and never replaced.

In April 1940 Alister was sixteen.  On 8th May 1940 the Donaldson Line Limited wrote to Alister at the school house in Furnace placing him on a weeks notice to go to sea, his Indentures were being prepared ready for signature by his parents.

As an apprentice Alister was not just going to the Sea, it was the start of a professional career leading to a Master’s Certificate so maybe he saw it as a good option in the circumstances.