Tuesday, December 17, 2013

S.S. Melrose Abbey

Figure 1:  The Associated Humber Lines’ ship S.S. Melrose Abbey, exact date and place unknown. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Figure 2:  The Associated Humber Lines’ ship S.S. Melrose Abbey, exact date and place unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: The Associated Humber Lines’ ship S.S. Melrose Abbey, exact date and place unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4:  The Associated Humber Lines’ ship S.S. Melrose Abbey, exact date and place unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5:  Painting by marine artist Adrian Thompson showing some of the steamers of the Associated Humber Lines at Humber Dock, Hull, England. The ships were loaded with manufacturing goods and sailed to the continent of Europe and returned with fresh produce for the nearby local markets in Humber. This painting depicts a scene from the 1950s showing the Associated Humber Line vessels (from left to right) S.S. Melrose Abbey, S.S. Bury, and S.S. Harrogate. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6:  Illustration from the excellent book Merchant Ships of the World in Color: 1910-1929, written and illustrated by Laurence Dunn, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1973, plate 20, page 116. The illustration shows two ships from the Associated Humber Lines, S.S. Melrose Abbey (left, built in 1929) and S.S. Macclesfield (right, built in 1914). Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after the ruins of a monastic abbey in Melrose, Scotland, the 1,908-ton S.S. Melrose Abbey was a passenger freighter that was originally built for the Hull & Netherlands Steamship Company by Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Hull, England. The ship was completed in 1929 and was approximately 281 feet long and 38 feet wide, had a top speed of 14 knots, and could carry 1,091 tons of cargo. Melrose Abbey also carried 84 first-class passengers and 38 steerage-class passengers.

After being completed in 1929, Melrose Abbey’s primary trade route was from Hull, England, to Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In 1935, the ship became part of the Associated Humber Lines, but remained on the Hull to Rotterdam route.

Shortly after the start of World War II in Europe, Great Britain began losing a large number of merchant ships to the dreaded German U-boats. Although a convoy system was eventually instituted to help reduce the number of casualties, the Royal Navy had no efficient means of rescuing merchant seamen from torpedoed cargo ships. At the start of the war, there were only a small and inadequate number of warships that could escort the valuable merchant convoys sailing between England and Canada and the United States. It was hard enough for the British destroyers and corvettes to locate and sink the attacking U-boats, but stopping to pick up survivors from sunken merchant ships was not only time consuming but also incredibly dangerous, because stopping to pick up men in the water during a U-boat attack made the stationary warship a prime target for the German submarines. Literally thousands of British and Allied seamen from torpedoed merchant ships were drowning or dying from exposure in the frigid north Atlantic, and there were not nearly enough ships to save them.
The Royal Navy, therefore, decided to take up several ships from commercial service and convert them into “Rescue Ships.” The sole purpose of the rescue ships was to be attached to a major convoy for the explicit purpose of rescuing people from torpedoed or damaged merchant ships. They were equipped with full medical facilities, including an operating room and sick bay, as well as a doctor, one or two medical attendants, and emergency equipment (such as derricks with nets attached to them) that was specifically designed to pull injured or incapacitated (usually frozen) people out of the water. Rescue ships carried only light defensive armament, such as machine guns and anti-aircraft cannons, and had special high-frequency radio direction-finding sets (HF/DF), which would enable the ships to locate enemy submarines that were stalking a convoy. Once the rescue ships located a U-boat, they would warn the other ships in the convoy of the submarine’s location. Rescue ships also carried motor lifeboats and life rafts to pick up survivors. 
Unfortunately, when the rescue ships stopped to pick up people from the water, it made them prime targets for German submarines. The rescue ships often carried out their mission in the horrendous weather that was common in the north Atlantic, with high winds, snow, rain, and huge waves making the rescue efforts incredibly dangerous for the crews on board the rescue ships. Yet most of the crews on the rescue ships were volunteers and there was never a lack of volunteers who were willing to literally jump into the icy waters of the north Atlantic to save other mariners in distress. In many ways, the crews on the rescue ships were in greater danger than the men on the escorting warships, simply because the rescue ships had to stop in the middle of a running battle and in terrible weather to do their jobs. Escorting warships also picked up stranded sailors from the water, but that was their secondary duty. Their first duty was to hunt down and sink enemy submarines. By the time they got around to rescuing people in the water, they were usually dead from exposure. When men were on life rafts or lifeboats in the middle of the North Atlantic during the winter, every minute counted. The sooner they were rescued, the greater their odds of survival. This put added pressure on the captain and crews of the rescue ships, because they knew that if they lost too much time rescuing people from one ship, the crews from another torpedoed merchant vessel could be freezing to death in the sea. It was a terrible choice to have to make under brutal conditions. Yet the mere presence of a rescue ship in a convoy boosted the morale of everyone in it, since all the merchant seamen knew there was at least one ship available to assist them if their ship was torpedoed.

In February 1941, Melrose Abbey was selected by the Royal Navy for conversion into a rescue ship. But while on her way to the Clyde shipyards in Scotland, the ship ran aground in bad weather off the Scottish coast on 31 March. At first, it seemed doubtful that Melrose Abbey could be saved, since the waves were pounding the grounded ship to pieces. Then a drifting sea mine exploded next to the ship, blowing a large hole in her side. But thanks to a determined salvage effort, the ship was eventually patched up well enough to be re-floated and on 26 July she was towed to Aberdeen, Scotland, for temporary repairs. After those repairs were made, Melrose Abbey was able to steam to the Clyde shipyards for final conversion into a rescue ship.

The substantial damage caused by the grounding and the mine meant that a large amount of repair work had to be completed on Melrose Abbey before she could begin her new career as a rescue ship. As a result of this damage, Melrose Abbey was not able to sail on her first voyage until 12 May 1942. Over the next two years, Melrose Abbey escorted 46 convoys and rescued a total of 86 survivors from sunken ships. Melrose Abbey also provided medical assistance to a large number of crewmembers on merchant ships sailing in these convoys. Because the vast majority of the merchant ships did not carry a doctor, the presence of a surgeon and a well-equipped medical facility on board Melrose Abbey was of enormous importance to many Allied seamen in the convoy. Many men were transferred at sea to Melrose Abbey for medical attention and many lives were saved because of the assistance this ship provided.

Perhaps the greatest rescue mission ever performed by Melrose Abbey occurred at the end of January 1943. The ship, under the command of Captain R. Good, O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire), was on an outbound convoy from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to England. The weather was stormy and bitterly cold. During a lull in the storm, a sick man from the cargo ship S.S. Bruce was transferred to Melrose Abbey via the ship’s motor lifeboat, but the winds and the sea were so bad that it nearly killed the men in the lifeboat. However, they made it back to Melrose Abbey and the ship arrived in England without further incident.

But when Melrose Abbey sailed back to Halifax on 25 February 1943, the real problems began. At 1725 hours on 9 March, Captain Good spotted white rockets being fired off his starboard bow, a sign that a ship was in distress. Shortly after that, he received a radio report that the American cargo ship Malantic had been torpedoed. A fierce wind was blowing from the west, with occasional snow squalls increasing the violence of the already heavy seas. After reaching Malantic’s last reported position, Captain Good and the crew spotted a man in the water. While he was being picked up, a lifeboat was sighted not far away. The lifeboat contained 11 men, including the captain of the torpedoed cargo ship. Melrose Abbey approached the lifeboat, drew near to it, and was able to rescue nine of its occupants. Unfortunately, the other men were too exhausted to grab the lifelines thrown to them and fell into the ocean. Both men disappeared and drowned.

The survivors in the lifeboat informed Captain Good that there was another lifeboat in the area with the balance of Malantic’s crew. While Melrose Abbey began a search for the missing lifeboat, the weather deteriorated even more, with sleet, snow, and hurricane-force winds making the sea even more dangerous than it was before. But Captain Good and his ship and crew would not give up the hunt for the lifeboat. Remarkably, they found it not far away. The lifeboat was completely waterlogged and the men it it were wet, frozen, and exhausted. Sadly, when Melrose Abbey drew near the lifeboat, one of its occupants made a grab for a rescue net that was thrown over the side of the rescue ship. In making a grab for the net, the survivor capsized the lifeboat, trapping several men underneath and causing them to drown. The balance of the survivors grabbed onto the net, but the movement of the ship was so great that the survivors were unable to climb on board Melrose Abbey. Captain Good then made the brilliant yet dangerous decision to open the “cattle doors” abreast the forward well deck, which was directly above the men holding onto the nets. It was a huge risk because the massive waves could easily pour thousands of gallons of water into the open cargo doors. But it was the only way to grab the men holding on for dear life on the nets.

Captain Good’s crew stood attached to secured lifelines in the doorway as the big cargo doors were opened. As the men gradually fell off the nets and into the water, the waves lifted them and literally hurled them through the ship’s open doors. Melrose Abbey’s crewmen then grabbed the survivors before they could be washed out to sea again as the water poured out of the ship. Ten men were rescued in this manner, often while many of Melrose Abbey’s crewmen were up to their necks in frigid water which crashed through the open doors.

While all this was going on, Captain Good received a radio report that four more ships had been torpedoed. Melrose Abbey began a search for survivors as her speed was reduced to only five knots because of the terrible weather and sea conditions. The rescue ship located four men clinging to an upturned lifeboat and rescued them. After that, a second boat was sighted containing one man and four dead seamen. Both of these boats were from the Norwegian ship Bonnieville, in which the commodore of the convoy had been embarked. He was lost, along with his entire staff.

Melrose Abbey then found a raft carrying two survivors from the British cargo ship Nailsea. One man was rescued, but the other fell off the raft and drowned. Although Melrose Abbey continued searching the area for more survivors from the four ships, none were found. It took the rescue ship 22 hours to rejoin the convoy. During these search and rescue missions, Melrose Abbey also recorded 167 HF/DF radio bearings of U-boats, 77 of which were strong and positive. This vital information was relayed to the armed convoy escorts which were searching for the U-boats.

Perhaps the best tribute to Captain Good’s amazing seamanship during this convoy can be summed up in a letter written by his Chief Engineer, Mr. A.B. Low:

“From 7:30 PM till 8:00 AM with mountainous seas running, Captain Good handled his ship in a manner which won the admiration of the entire ship’s company…For hours he steamed round, the ship swept at times by huge seas, and when a raft or lifeboat was found, by superb seamanship he brought his ship round to form a lee side, right alongside both lifeboats and rafts. By doing this many lives were saved which otherwise would certainly have been lost…It is one of the wonders of the world when a Master gets praise from a Chief Engineer, but I, like the rest of the crew, feel his deeds should not pass unrecorded.”

During World War II, the British merchant marine lost approximately 32,952 men. This does not include all of the other men lost in the merchant marines of the United States and its allies. There were only 29 British rescue ships during the war, and several of these were rejected because they proved to be unable, for various reasons, to be used as rescue ships. Six rescue ships were sunk due to enemy action, either by U-boats or enemy aircraft. The few that remained managed to save roughly 4,194 individuals, people who otherwise would have been lost. This also does not include the hundreds of merchant seamen who received vital medical attention from the rescue ships while at sea. Many of these men would undoubtedly have died had they not received the prompt medical help that was available on board the rescue ships.

As for Melrose Abbey, she was released from the Royal Navy in May 1945 and returned to her former owners, the Associated Humber Lines. She was converted back into a cargo passenger liner and resumed her Hull to Rotterdam route in March 1946. Shortly after the war, the ship was overhauled and heavily modified to increase passenger capacity. Once the modifications were completed, Melrose Abbey could accommodate 92 first-class passengers and 24 second-class passengers. In early 1958, the cargo liner was re-named Melrose Abbey II to release her old name for a new passenger ship that was then under construction for the Associated Humber Lines.

The ship continued on the Hull to Rotterdam route until January 1959, when she was sold to the Typaldos Lines in Piraeus, Greece. Once there, Melrose Abbey was converted into the 2,069-ton cruise ship Kriti, with cabins built into her former holds and a much enlarged and altered superstructure. Kriti was now able to accommodate 180 first-class and 130 tourist passengers. The cruise ship sailed on various routes around the Aegean Sea, but was laid up in Piraeus in 1966 for financial reasons. Kriti was eventually scrapped around 1980.
Few people today even know the existence of the British convoy rescue ships during World War II. They had an incredibly dangerous job and always managed to complete their missions, usually under terrible weather conditions. The men on those ships were mostly volunteers and they risked everything just so their fellow merchant seamen could have another chance at life. Much praise should be heaped on these ships and the men who sailed on them, because they gave hope to the people on board the vulnerable cargo ships that had to brave both German U-boats as well as the harsh weather in the north Atlantic.

Author’s Note:  The extraordinary book entitled Rescue Ships (by Vice-Admiral B.B. Schofield and Lieutenant Commander L.F. Martyn, William Blackwood & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh and London, 1968) is the best and most authoritative account of the rescue ships that served in the Royal Navy during World War II. The book tells an amazing story, one that should never be forgotten.