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The steamer Canonesa (pictured below) was owned by Furness Houlder Argentine Lines, an associate company of Houlder Brothers & Co, and was a Type 'G' oil burning refrigerator ship. Her gross tonnage was 8,286 tons and she had a designed speed of 13 knots. She was built by Workman, Clark & Co. Ltd of Belfast and completed in November 1920. These standard ships were planned to replace the heavy losses sustained through enemy action during the First World War; in particular losses of refrigerated meat-carrying ships employed on the Australian, New Zealand and River Plate routes. Only one was completed before the signing of the Armistice. The remaining 21, including the Canonesa (which was being built as War Minerva) were sold to private operators.1

S.S. Canonesa

The Canonesa, together with the other ships of Houlder Brothers and Furness-Houlder Argentine Lines, operated on the River Plate run, with a seasonal trip on the Patagonian lamb run. During the first year of the war she had completed three return transatlantic passage ; from Liverpool to Buenos Aires to Southampton (September-December 1939); Southampton to River Plate to Victoria Docks, London (January-March 1940); and Victoria Docks to River Plate to Victoria Docks (April-July 1940).2

On the last of these, her penultimate voyage, she sailed to the Falkland Isles then across the Straits of Magellan, loading lamb from a series of small ports along the Patagonian coast. Dennis Johnzon, a member of the Canonesa's crew at the time, remembers that on approaching the Thames estuary the 59-ship convoy, with Canonesa taking up the rear, was dive-bombed and machine-gunned by enemy aircraft. As the rear ship she was singled out for special attention, but no bombs found their target, partly thanks to Spitfires eventually driving off the enemy. Machine-gun bullet holes were, however, very evident.3 Peter Tingey, an apprentice on board, also recalls this incident :

"I was on deck as we approached the Thames estuary when intense anti-aircraft fire broke out all around both on shore and from ships as I looked up and actually saw the bombs leaving the high level German dive bombers. Like lightning I made my way to the midship saloon and dived under a dining table. Bombs exploded near but without a direct hit and I also heard a sustained rattle which could have been from the German machine-gun fire. The immediate danger passed as our Spitfires had ploughed a swathe of doom among the air raiders."4

Eleven ships owned by Houlder Brothers & Co., and a further four managed by the company, were lost during the war. The Canonesa was the fourth casualty. Ten ships were torpedoed, two mined, one sunk by a surface raider, one captured and later sunk by a surface raider, and one bombed. Just five ships in service when the war began were still afloat when hostilities ceased. In all 114 men died whilst in the company's service.5

[The Canonesa's last voyage and her sinking are described on the next page.]

You can view more pictures of the Canonesa at the Gallery.

  1. from Johnzon (1989) pp24-5.
  2. from the Continuous Certificate of Discharge of the Canonesa's 4th Engineer, Tom Purnell.
  3. from correspondence with Dennis H. Johnzon who served on the Canonesa's penultimate voyage.
  4. from correspondence with Peter Tingey, November 1997.
  5. Middlemiss (1991) p82.

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