This section is split into five pages :
A convoy getting ready to sail for Britain from Bedford Basin, Halifax, Nova Scotia on 1st April 1942.
The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a broadcast on 27th April 1941, made clear that the most important theatre of the war for Britain lay in the Atlantic:
"In order to win this war Hitler must either conquer this island by invasion or he must cut the ocean lifeline which joins us to the United States....
Learning from the lessons of the First World War a convoy system had been put in place by the Admiralty from the outset of the war. Indeed the Admiralty assumed control of all British merchant shipping eight days before the outbreak of war.2 The rapid introduction of a convoy system marked a clear acknowledgement of the importance of imports to the British economy and to the war effort. In 1939 Britain had needed to import 55 million tons of goods, and as a consequence maintained the world’s largest merchant fleet made up of 3,000 ocean-going vessels and 1,000 large coastal ships. Over two-fifths of imports came from British Empire ports, imposing very long hauls on the merchant fleet.3 These long hauls were lengthened further in the early years of the war by the effective closure of both the English Channel and the Suez route to the east. Bombay voyages, for instance, increased from 6,000 to 11,000 miles.4 Protecting this lifeline was of utmost priority and each convoy could make a massive contribution, for:
"if all the supplies carried by just one average sized Atlantic convoy (35 ships) were gathered together they would fill a line of ten ton trucks spaced 50 yards apart which would stretch from Inverness to Southampton via Carlisle"5
A convoy of 45-60 ships would steam in nine to twelve columns, with 1,000 yards between columns and 600 yards between ships. A nine column convoy would therefore be four nautical miles wide and one and a half miles deep.
When accompanied by both air and surface escorts the convoy system was very effective, with "only a tiny percentage of Allied Merchant ships actually [falling] victims to U-boats. Ninety-nine percent of all Allied Merchant ships in the transatlantic convoys reached assigned destinations."6 The benefits to the merchantmen of sailing in convoy could be seen almost immediately. From the start of the war till the end of 1941 12,057 ships arrived at British ports in 900 convoys. Only 291 ships in those convoys had been lost to enemy action, just under 2% of the total. Of the 900 convoys only 19 experienced the loss of six or more ships.7 One Convoy Commodore stated that:
"Atlantic convoys were drab, monotonous and unending. Some commodores and a good many merchant seamen trundled backwards and forwards for over five years without seeing a ship sunk or hearing a shot fired in anger."8
Typical was the experience of R.S. Thomas on the Pacific Grove. Between April 1940 and July 1942 he served on eleven consecutive round trips between the UK and New York. The attack on Convoy HX72 in September 1940 was the only action he saw.9
For those, however, who were detected by the small number of U-boats operating in the Atlantic in the summer and autumn of 1940, including those in the then weakly escorted convoys, the consequences were often catastrophic. And whilst convoying did undoubtedly reduce sinkings and save lives the introduction of the convoy system led to a temporary but critical one-third reduction in the quantity of imports reaching Britain, a fact which caused Churchill much concern.
The image shown at the top of this page comes from A Nation Forged in Fire: Canadians and the Second World War 1939-1949 by J.L.Granatstein and Desmond Morton. (Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1989). This image was provided to me by Maureen Venzi of the 'A Tribute to the Merchant Seamen of World War II' web-page. The original is held in the National Archives of Canada.
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