Tuesday, June 10, 2014

S.S. Avoceta

Figure 1:  S.S. Avoceta, date and place unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2:  S.S. Avoceta, date and place unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3:  S.S. Avoceta, date and place unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4:  Color illustration of S.S. Avoceta by Laurence Dunn, from his magnificent book Merchant Ships of the World in Color: 1910-1929, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, 1973, page 184. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after a bird found along coastlines, the 3,442-ton S.S. Avoceta was a passenger-cargo ship that was built for the Yeoward Line in 1923 by the Caledon Shipbuilding and Engineering Company at Dundee, Scotland. The ship was approximately 319 feet long and 44 feet wide, had a top speed of 13 knots, and carried roughly 3,000 tons of cargo. Avoceta could also carry up to 150 passengers, all of them staying in first-class outside cabins spread over three decks. All of the Yeoward Line ships were known for having three masts and a large “Y” painted on their funnels.

Yeoward Brothers owned the Yeoward Line which was based at Liverpool, England. Their ships specialized in the fruit trade between Great Britain and the Canary Islands and eventually their standard trade route went from Liverpool to Lisbon, Portugal; Casablanca, Morocco; the Canary Islands; and then back to Liverpool. The Yeoward Line was established in 1894 and by the time World War II started in Europe it owned six steamers, one of which was Avoceta.

After Avoceta was completed in 1923, she served on the Yeoward Line’s primary trade route for the next 18 years. After the start of World War II in Europe, Avoceta made numerous trips to neutral Portugal, Spain, and the Canary Islands. She made her final trip to the Canary Islands in March of 1941. After that, the ship sailed only from Liverpool to Lisbon and the island of Gibraltar.

During the war, Avoceta usually joined a convoy leaving Great Britain and would continue either unescorted or with an OG-series convoy bound for Gibraltar. She made her return voyages either unescorted or as part of an HG-series convoy that was headed back to Liverpool.

On 13 August 1941, Avoceta’s sister ship, S.S. Aguila, left Liverpool with convoy OG-71. On 19 August, Avoceta followed, departing Liverpool with convoy OG-72. From 18 to 23 August, convoy OG-71 had the dubious distinction of being the first Allied convoy to be attacked by a German U-boat wolf pack. Avoceta’s convoy, OG-72, made it safely to Gibraltar, arriving there on 4 September. But once she arrived, her captain received the news that convoy OG-71 had been attacked and that ten ships were sunk, one of which was Aguila. When the ship went down, she took with her 152 people. There were only 16 survivors.

Avoceta left Gibraltar and made her usual round trip to Lisbon and back from 2 to 15 September 1941. While docked at Lisbon, Avoceta embarked dozens of refugees from German-occupied Europe. Many were British citizens who had escaped the fall of France and had been denied permission to stay in neutral Spain and Portugal. Most were women and children, some of them of French or Spanish origin, who were following their husbands back to England. Once she returned to Gibraltar, Avoceta also embarked some survivors that were picked up from the sea after her sister ship, Aguila, was sunk. Along with these passengers, Avoceta carried a cargo of cork to be transported to England, along with 573 sacks of mail and some diplomatic bags.

Avoceta then joined 24 other merchant ships as part of convoy HG-73, which left Gibraltar on 17 September 1941 and was bound for Liverpool. HG-73’s convoy commodore, Rear Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton, was also on board Avoceta, along with his staff. The convoy was almost immediately sighted by a German patrol bomber, which radioed the convoy’s position to German and Italian submarines which were lurking in the area. On the night of 21 September, the convoy’s escorts did manage to damage and drive off an Italian submarine, but the location and direction of the convoy was now apparent and further U-boat attacks could be expected.

Like sharks circling their prey, the U-boat attacks began in earnest on 25 September. That morning, German submarine U-124 attacked the convoy and sank the cargo ship Empire Stream. Then during the very late evening of 25 September (going into the early morning hours of 26 September), U-203 fired a spread of four torpedoes at the convoy. One of them hit Avoceta close to her engine room and two hit the cargo ship Varangberg, which was steaming just astern of Avoceta. Admiral Creighton was on Avoceta’s bridge at the time and later recalled that, when hit, the ship “staggered like a stumbling horse.”

Both ships sank quickly and Varangberg had no time to launch her lifeboats. Avoceta sank by the stern, with her bow quickly rising to an angle that also made it impossible to launch any lifeboats. But Avoceta had three life rafts which floated clear of the sinking ship and this enabled some people to survive. One of her radio officers also managed to cling to a large piece of her cork cargo which floated free from deep inside her hold.

Two British escort ships rescued 40 survivors from Avoceta. The merchant ship Cervantes saved another three of Avoceta’s crew. Among the survivors were Admiral Creighton and five of his Royal Navy staff, along with the captain of the ship, Master Harold Martin, 24 crewmen, and only 12 passengers. Most of the survivors were either on deck or on the bridge at the time, which gave them a few brief moments to abandon ship before Avoceta sank.

Those who were below deck or asleep in their cabins were not so lucky. A total of 123 people died on board Avoceta that night. Avoceta’s dead included 43 crewmen, nine members of Admiral Creighton’s staff, four Royal Navy gunners, and 67 passengers, including 32 women and 20 children.  The youngest victims were four one-year-old babies. The Barker family, which had six children under 16, along with their mother, Ida, all died together. Three victims were in their early 70s and the Reverend Edward Stanley, along with his sister Elizabeth, both in their 60s, were killed too. They were returning from missionary work in German-occupied Vichy France. A Jewish couple in their 60s, Semtov Jacob Yahiel and his wife Luna, had been living in Paris, but Semtov was a British citizen, so they were trying to reach the relative safety of Great Britain. Two other victims were from British India who were returning to England as well.

The loss of Avoceta represented only a small part of the immense slaughter that took place in the North Atlantic during the early stages of World War II. It also was an example of the complete ruthlessness used by German U-boats throughout the war, not caring what defenseless ships they sank or how many people they killed. All of it was done to simply break the spirit of Allies in general and the British people in particular. It is a tribute to England and its people that they did not succumb to the despair these tragic losses must have caused. It only served to strengthen their resolve, a resolve that eventually led them to victory.