Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Winter Convoy in Battle of Atlantic: Schooner Days DXXV (525)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 14 Feb 1942
Full Text
Winter Convoy in Battle of Atlantic
Schooner Days DXXV (525)

by C. H. J. Snider


Only reason for hooking this on to Schooner Days is this personal one — each year the compiler of that perennial series has taken a trip to the head of the lakes to give pictures of the close of the navigation season. Circumstances here described prevented the 1941 trip and interrupted the Schooner Days series. This has run over 500, numbers already and may make 1,000—who knows? We'll get back to sail as soon as we have finished with this latest excursion into steam.

At the Bar

December 13 1941

SO quietly do we weigh anchor that even on board the grinding of the chain cable coming home is unheard. We were lying tideridden like all the other ships, and the white gulls and the grey gulls were complaining about us in circles as they had been all morning. Next they were not circling us but following us, and ships were following us, and planes were following us, but the sunken wrecks and bombed buildings and forests of barrage balloons were flowing away from us, with all the other background of the Battle of Britain, for we had begun to move—-when, no one knew, but out into the Battle of the Atlantic. There were no flags to tell, no brave Blue Peter flying, no bands playing, no whistles, no salutes, no miles of many-colored ribbons streaming from the promenade deck rails. (No promenade deck, either). We are off to sea as unobtrusively as the O'Connor Dick backing out her half mile or whatever it is to dump her dredgings of the perennial shoal at the mouth of Toronto Eastern Gap.

Are we a convoy or a running-ship? Nobody knows. At the moment a dozen vessels are all headed the same way, the way all vessels have to head to get away from the land—-out to sea.

WE have all of us—-two European refugees, an international banker, four American army flyers, who still don't know the worst about Pearl Harbor, the English first officer of a tanker, an English navy sub, an ensign in the U.S. navy, and this Canadian — embarked without knowing our ship's name, where she is going, or when she was sailing.

It is like one of those "mystery cruises" bus and boat lines used to advertise long ago, when gas was plentiful and newspapers used to be denounced for headlines that upset the stock markets. We all hope to be home for Christmas. We would, with a week to spare, were these normal times. But they're not. We know we'll be lucky if we see Christmas anywhere topside of Davy Jones' locker. The bumping off of two mighty battleships, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, like a pair of toy balloons, does not exhilarate the seafarer.

I had booked for the Clipper but that passage was cancelled when the Japs assassinated Pearl Harbor. The C.P. R. told me they had space in a ship sailing from some of the west country ports, they didn't know, which, for some Canadian port which couldn't be Montreal, because the St. Lawrence was icebound, and on these terms sold me a ticket to Toronto. They would let me know in a day or so when and where to go on board. In a day or so they let me know that this ship had been cancelled, but they very civilly exchanged my ticket for one on another line sailing from somewhere for somewhere sometime which would get me away a day earlier, and so much the better.

So, after showing six times our passports, visas, exit permits and exchange export permits, submitting everything written or printed we had about us to the censorship, and surrendering our ration cards, coupons, points, and passes, showing our tickets and making out another manifest, (my third) we are all shepherded on to a tender.

The grey-haired Viennese lady with the mascaraed eyelashes was perturbed because her wardrobe trunk, as tall as she was, and all her belongings, were not carried at once to her "cabine." She expected the tender, about the size of the Wm. Inglis, monarch of Toronto Bay, to carry her across to "mine brother in New York." She was a charming woman, well connected, and awaited eagerly by relatives of importance in America. None of us know much more than she about what was ahead of us.

The tender fumbles among steamers sunken or floating in the harbor and picks on a small one. We can make out her name although it is painted over. A "foreign" name, something like Tarantula. Reminds one of the little old Caraquet, in which I used to go to the West Indies in the last war, but not quite as big. Manifestly a banana boat, from her deadlights and ventilators, though we have no bananas in Britain to-day. It is two years since the last stem came up from Jamaica.

There is delay in taking our line, and more delay in taking us aboard. Like all ships she is completely blacked out day and night, and the electric light below is on the blink, a chilly deckhand explains. Eventually we stumble across decks grimy with bunker coal, and down stairways, guided by a coal oil lamp held high, and wait in a passageway until the dynamo purrs and abundant light reveals accommodation small, neat, clean and pleasant.

THE SHIP? A banana boat, as guessed, but British as the Union Jack. She is in her twenties, a coal burner, warty with round-headed rivets and square lap-plating, as they used to build them in the shipping boom following the Great War. She was a beauty once, when she was all glittering white and green, going out to the West Indies loaded only with fuel for the round trip and coming back quickly with thousands of stems of green bananas. Her lines are hot bad, but she looks the tramp she is, in her dull grey paint relieved only by rust-blisters; a sort of cross between the Northumberland and any of those "-doc" boats, familiar on the Toronto waterfront. She had thirty-seven sisters, but the family has been scattered from Spitzbergen to Singapore and much of its mail is now addressed care of D. Jones. This one takes snatch cargoes of what little there is to export away from Britain and comes back a month later laden to the plimsol-mark with the necessities of life for a beleaguered nation. She is not half loaded with the export whisky which is her cargo for the outward passage, and so rides high.


(a) Plain.

(b) About what I have paid in happier times in the Normandie, Empress of Australia or C.P.R. Duchess boats, for room-with-bath. This baby has only two bath tubs, and only two single rooms and four doubles. The single I have is quite good; electric heating and running water. The steward runs in with hot water and drinking water and the one-basin tap does the rest.

Luxury travel has ceased since war made all travel a luxury, but luxury prices luxuriate in this brave new world. Anybody who gets a ship at all, even after months of waiting, is glad to pay for it. The banker across the alley tells me Mr. Cook and his travel-minded sons used to take his clerks twice a year from London to Switzerland and back for £6 or $30 to allow for tips. He had to make the journey himself last year. Flew to Lisbon and squirmed for weeks through Spain and occupied France, living on peanuts and dry bread, and so got to Switzerland for an outlay of £400, or $2,000, and lucky to be alive and clear of the gestapo.

There is a small brightly-chintzed and very cosy lounge at the head of the cabin stairs, with a piano and library (twelve books), radio, and two radiators (highly important) in it. Used to be a smoke-room opposite, but that is filled with six gunners, four army, two navy, for our high-angle and horizontal guns mounted aft. All these artillerists sleep and mess here. The dining saloon is another pleasant well-furnished room below, with twenty seats, where all the passengers and officers—captain, first, second and third, ditto wireless men, ditto engineers—have our meals together. Also the chief steward, for the ship has two. His assistant is chambermaid, lady's maid, valet, boots and barkeep.


Britons all. Well paid, as war work goes overseas, and worth it. A.B.'s and firemen get about $90 a month, with two bottles of beer at cost price for the thirsty, and a tot of rum once a week for the faint, raised to one a day in hard weather.

Britons all. Not a greasy dago or pale-eyed quisling neutral or questionable ally in the lot.

All white. Though in fifty years seagoing—as a passenger—I have never yet seen a black sailor who wasn't a good one.

Even the ship's cat is white. And British. She is Mrs. Blitz. Came aboard after one of the blitzes which had knocked the dingbats out of Liverpool. (Yes, the Royal Liver building is still standing, and the Adelphi Hotel and the Princes landing stage. Liverpool has taken a pasting like the rest of Britain, but like the rest of Britain is carrying on with chins up and thumbs up and V for Victory.)

Mrs. Blitz brought her name with her. She was born white, with a black dab on her nose and another over one eye and a few more exclamation marks as though she had been splashed with an exploding inkpot. When she came aboard she was much the worse for wear, but she was signed on promptly because a big rat obligingly jumped out of one of the lifeboats, and Blitzy killed him before he reached the deck.

She has recently presented the Tarantula with three replicas of herself, a boy and two girls. All white with black spots. They are not yet weaned, they have never had anything under foot but the heaving deck, and they all lurch like sailors, their little legs bowed into hoops to take the ship's roll. Mrs. Blitz rules them with a rod of iron, and keeps them as clean and fluffy as three big powder puffs. They have a cubicle in the galley, and have regular hours for exercise. They yell for their meals like air raid sirens. Mrs. Blitz feeds them on the chief steward's settee. When her maternal duties are fulfilled she adjourns to the cushion of the chief steward's swing chair. If she catches the youngsters there she cuffs them soundly and carries them back by the scruffs of their black and white necks to the settee. The family have priorities in the chief steward's lifeboat, No. 2, port side.

The Tarantula burns coal, which means three times as many firemen. With gunners, passengers and all hands counted we number seventy-one or seventy-five with the Blitz family. A big company for so small a ship, but for one thing she takes eighteen firemen and for another she must have six lookouts, in addition to the gunners. In war time the sea has to be scanned continuously day and night. Not only for subs. There are bombers and spotters above to be watched and reported — and shot. And of all the thousands of ships at sea, not one glows a light now by night. Collision risks are as great as those from torpedoes. We have four lifeboats, each capable of taking thirty persons, and two life rafts are lashed to skids in our fore rigging, easy to launch—on one side—if the ship is badly listed, and easy to cut adrift and float off if she goes down. The lifeboats are carefully stocked with flares, biscuits, chocolate, raisins, and breakers of water. Each has a sea anchor, wave oil, and a good mast and sail in addition to six or eight long oars.

THE pilot cutter is lurching drunkenly in the tide-swing outside the Bar, her burning red and white flag the only spot of color in a world peopled by grey ships under grey skies on a sea shading from army khaki to air force grey as the soundings deepen. A stubby boat puts off from the cutter to pick up our pilot as we forge ahead, dead slow.

When we get at last beyond the Bar the pilot scrambles down the rope ladder and leaves us with a quick handshake and the air of a man who feels he has done all he can for us and the rest is up to Providence. Evidently we are going to be in convoy part of the way at any rate, for a battered looking trawler rather like one of our new Canadian corvettes bobs up from nowhere and the flock of ships which have come out with us follow us and the corvette as they gather way after putting their pilots overside.

So out to the darkening west in mid-December, on a leaden grey sea.

Impressively, too, as the convoy builds up with other veterans of the two-year battle of the Atlantic, with guns mounted against aircraft and subs, paravane booms rigged to brush off mines, and scout planes on their forecastle heads, to shoot off by catapult or rocket gear and spot submarines or to fight off bombers.

Two more corvettes join us, and a pair of old lease-lend destroyers, camouflaged like lizards. Signal flags snap out as the war craft circle around. One of the signals reads "Set kites," and such ships as have them toss into the air small combinations of box kites and toy balloons. They look like signal flags gone adrift and lash about wildly as the wires feed out from the kite winches, but when they gain a height of a few hundred feet they steady down to the hard thrust of the papa ship's propeller. They make the convoy look more than ever like a floating town, for every place of importance ashore in Britain has its protective balloon barrage of fat wide-eared Dumbos now.

The convoy's kite barrage is protection against having the decks machine-gunned by diving raiders. These Hun war-gulls will brush the mastheads to drop their bombs down the funnels, but they won't face entanglement wjth the invisible peril of the steel kite wires.

Continued in our next. A week later I shall tell you were we were a week later, if I can.


FAIRMILE PATROL hitting the high spots on Lake Ontario on passage to the seaboat -- a spirited souvenir of a late trip form Rowley Murphy, who was there.

SUBCHASING AS IS - R.S. McLaughlin's Christmas card waiting Schooner Days.

CONVOY OFF GIBRALTAR—A milder-seeming aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic beautifully done in line by Alan Howard, Toronto Island lover of Schooner Days. But the smoothest sea makes the best shooting for the submarines!

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
14 Feb 1942
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Winter Convoy in Battle of Atlantic: Schooner Days DXXV (525)