Tuesday, March 18, 2014

HMS Crispin

Figure 1:  S.S. Crispin before being converted into an ocean boarding vessel for the Royal Navy. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Contemporary History, Stuttgart, Germany. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after St. Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers, the 5,051-ton S.S. Crispin was a cargo ship that was built in 1935 by Cammell Laird & Company at Birkenhead, England. The ship was built for the Booth Steamship Company (also known as the Booth Line) and was based at Liverpool, England. Crispin was approximately 410 feet long and 55 feet wide and had a top speed of 13 knots. For roughly five years, Crispin was used by the Booth Line primarily on its route between England and Brazil, although the ship did make stops in the United States as well.

In August 1940, Crispin was acquired by the Royal Navy for use as an “ocean boarding vessel” during World War II. Ocean boarding vessels (OBVs) were merchant ships which had guns added to them for the purpose of enforcing wartime naval blockades. Theoretically, they were to be used to board foreign vessels. In a secondary role, they would also be used as anti-aircraft ships to help protect convoys against German long-range bombers, such as the dreaded four-engine Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor. Crispin was armed with one 6-inch gun, one 4-inch gun, six 20-mm guns, and two .303-caliber Lewis machine guns. Fully equipped as an OBV, Crispin carried a rather large crew of 141 officers and men. The ship also was loaded with empty oil drums which were to give it, in theory at least, added buoyancy in case she was torpedoed. Commissioned as HMS Crispin, the ship was assigned to escort merchant convoys that were headed across the Atlantic to Canada.

Once Crispin was commissioned, though, her real mission was disclosed to her crew by the ship’s captain, Commander B. Moloney, Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), and a member of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). He told his crew that Crispin would act as a “Q-ship,” or a decoy, which would trail a convoy looking like a helpless cargo ship in hopes of attracting German aircraft and surfaced submarines, thereby drawing the enemy away from the convoy. According to the captain, while at sea the Red Ensign of the British Merchant Navy would be flown, all guns would be hidden until needed, and then Crispin would open fire as soon as the enemy was sighted. In addition, the crew would not wear Royal Navy clothing while on the upper deck. Because of this, the captain warned the crew that if they were taken as prisoners of war, they would not be treated as such under the Geneva Convention, since they were not in uniform. Crispin would trail a convoy sailing from England to Canada, and then as soon as the ship neared its destination it would join an east-bound convoy headed back to England. Once reaching England, Crispin was to return to her base at Liverpool.

Q-ships showed just how desperate the Royal Navy was in trying to deal with the dangers posed by U-boats and long-range bombers, which were taking a heavy toll of British merchant ships. Yet HMS Crispin went out and tried to do her duty, even though at the time it was almost considered to be a suicide mission to use cargo ships as anti-aircraft and anti-submarine vessels.

For several months, Crispin escorted convoys that were sailing between England and Canada, and made no contact with the enemy. Then, shortly before midnight on 3 February 1941, Crispin was hit in the engine room by a single torpedo fired from the German submarine U-107. Crispin had just been detached from convoy OB-280 and was going to join convoy SC-20 the next day. The ship was sinking slowly and a total of 121 crewmen managed to abandon ship and were picked up by two other British escorts that were in the area. But 20 men were lost (including Commander Moloney) when Crispin was hit and when the ship suddenly sank several hours after being torpedoed.

Crispin and her crew did the best they could with what they had. But cargo ships were never meant to be warships and the entire Q-ship program was abandoned by the Royal Navy a few months later. The Royal Navy eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to sink an enemy warship was with another warship, not a cargo ship or a converted civilian ocean liner (also known as “auxiliary cruisers”). Unfortunately, that lesson was learned the hard way after the loss of a large number of good ships and fine, brave men.