SS Empire Mersey
Name: Empire Mersey
Type: Steam Merchant
Completed: 1920 by R Duncan & Co 5791 tons as RAMON DE LARRINAGA
Owner: Larrinaga & Co Ltd, Liverpool
Date of Attack: 14 October 1942
Sunk by U Boat: Torpedoed and sunk by U.618
Route: New York to Manchester Convoy SC 104
Cargo: 8400 tons of government stores
Position: 54.00N 40.15W
Complement: 55 (16 dead and 39 survivors).
In July 1942, Joe Wharton was appointed as the Third Officer of the SS Empire Mersey and joined her in Southampton. Later that year the Empire Mersey was loading a typical war time cargo in New York of Lease Lend goods consisting of flour, cheese, dried eggs and various other wartime materials.
"Before loading was completed, we had stowed aboard on top of No's 1, 2 & 4 hatches two LST's in sections. Having done this, we enjoyed our last runs ashore in New York visiting all the usual haunts, such as Greenwich Village, Coney Island, Jack Dempsey's Bar, the Silver Dollar and the Stork Club. All good things come to an end however, and we sailed from New York to meet up with other vessels from Boston and our ocean escorts. We became part of convoy No S.C.104 consisting of 48 ships.
Our escorts for the trip consisted of two destroyers: H.M.S. Fame (H.78) and Viscount (D.92) also three corvettes fo the Flower class: Potentilia, Eglantine and Acanthus. Also allocated to the group was a convoy rescue vessel SS Gothland.
Heading across the Gulf of Maine out into the Atlantic, we made our way off the Nova Scotian coast. Abeam of Halifax, we picked up a distress signal from a merchant ship anchored in the harbour on fire with a full cargo of explosives aboard. Thinking back in terms of the disaster which happened there in the First World War, we could imagine the predicament of all concerned. However, our convoy plodded on its weary way at a speed of five knots, weather permitting.
As fortune would have it, we ran into the tail end of a West Indian hurricane which had wound its way north east on reaching more temperate latitudes. With gale force winds reaching force 10 and a confused and dangerous sea with white spume being blown across the crests of the waves, we had reached a dnger area called the 'Pit' which at this particular time of the war could not be covered by shore based aircraft.
Beng a merchant ship, information regarding enemy movements did not come our way, barring the usual laconic reports to 'close up' with the convoy and to keep station - enemy submarines are known to be in the vicinity'.
With the publication of facts after the war, it was possible to trace the chain of events from the enemies viewpoint. The Wolfpack 'Leopard' was directed from the convoy ONS 136, this group comprised: U221, U258, U410, U536, U599 and U615.
On October 11th, U615 sighted and san a 4,219 ton ship sailing independently. On the same day, U258 sighted one of the Corvettes which was part of our escort. However, with the persistent heavy weather and atmospherics, radio communications was not established until October 12th. Deployment of this wolfpack against convoy S.C.104 was further delayed when another convoy (O.N.135) was sighted by another submarine. U221 however, kept in contact with our convoy and also attacked and sank three of our ships. During daylight on the 13th, U221 called up U216, U258, U559 and 7607. They were however, driven off by HMS Viscount. During the night of the 13th/14th, U221 attached the convoy again, sinking one ship 5,929 tons. She also torpedoed the whale factory ship Southern Empress. A little later, U607 attacked almost simultaneously and each sank one ship of 4,826 and 3,673 tons respectively. U607 was attacked by HMS Viscount and was damaged with depth charges.
The next day, the weather had abated a little, but there was still a heavy sea running. Night came with the certain prospect of further attacks although the escorts had been busy during the day driving off the wolfpack. The corvette Montbretia had located U661 and rammed her, The Potentilla forced U254 to submerge and the Eglantine damaged the boat with depth charges. Our position was on the starboard side of the convoy, one of the last ships brining up the rear of the outer column, we all agreed - just a matter of time. Whilst on the first watch that night, the weather conditions were not good. The situation was not helped by our slow rate of speed. When the first ship went, it was over the side of the convoy and we secretly blessed our luck. However this was short lived.
When the Southern Empress went up, it was all hell let loose. She was a whale
factory ship normally employed in the Antarctic, but on this occasion was
returning to the U.K. with a cargo of case oil - a highly dangerous commodity.
Also on board the Southern Empress by fate of circumstances were a party of 75
D.B.S. (Distressed British Seamen) survivors from other British ships sunk in
previous convoys who were returning to the U.K. having been landed in the
States. She was like a huge molten furnace ablaze from truck to keel with flames
and oil pouring into the wild sea. It lit up the convoy for miles around, from a
distance, the furthest ships seemed so small against the gale torn sea, heaving
and pitching in the heavy seas. The screams and cries for help as we passed by
her were soon drowned by the thunder of exploding depth charges as contact with
the enemy was made
My watch was over, but who could rest below, it seemed so pointless, as we
know we would get the hammer. So with the second and third Sparks, we discussed
life and the events in the radio room abaft the bridge. At about 0230 - a most
demoralising time, on the morning of October 14th, in a position Lat. 54 degrees
North, Long 40 degrees, 15 minutes west, some 400 miles south of Greenland, the
SS Empire Mersey met her fate.
With an unholy crash, the ship shuddered and lurched over to port, giving the deck an incline. It was if she had been struck by a giant hand, slowly she recovered but started to go down by the head. On being given the confidential books in their weighted bags, I dumped them over the starboard side, while the second mate's watch let off the distress rockets and the order was given to abandon ship.
My boat was being lowered into the water with heavy seas running, it made things difficult and inadvertently the forward fall was let go and the boat crashed down into the water with the after fall still secured. Needless to say, we were all flung into the water and it was then every man for himself. Being cold weather I had dressed for the occasion, but certainly not for swimming, wearing a pair of long johns, a sweater and a uniform together with a duffle coat and life jacket. To complete the top hamper, I had my panic bag and a pair of leather half boots. My thoughts were dreamy ones of homoe - my mother and sister, asleep in their beds, and here I was with some 5,000 fathoms beneath my feet and on the point of drowning in the North Atlantic.
To hell with that for a game of soldiers I thought, and kicking off my boots and ditching my panic bag I paddled about desperately until I came upon the canvas cover containing the boat mast and sail which I clung grimly on to. Around me in the water were some other crew members crying for help and some just floating in the water dead, with the red lights on their life jackets still burning.
After what seemed an age, together with another sailor, we were carried alongside the second mate's boat, the sailor clad only in trousers and a vest was hauled aboard. Attempts were made to haul me over the gunwhale into the boat, but I was too heavily waterlogged and rather than risk overturning the boat, I was pushed back into the water.
Then fate again took a hand in the form of an A.B. whom I had remonstrated with earlier in the voyage regarding some misdemeanour. He said "No, you can't let the poor bastard drown, pull him in". They heaved and with the boat lurching over at the top of a wave, I fell in a heap in the scuppers, promptly passing out from the cold. It was then the clothing, sodden as it was, helped me to retain a certain amount of body heat.
In the meantime, the Empire Mersey had gone down with, I believe her master, Captain Bastarrechia, who had been overheard to say he intended to go with his ship if she went. Having lost a previous ship, he said he could not face the prospect of a winters night in an open boat in the North Atlantic once more. The sections of the LST's broke adrift and were boarded by some of the survivors, only to discover that the inspection plates in their bilge sections had been removed for transit - they sank as well.
After a time I came to to hear the boats crew blowing whistles to attract the attention of the convoy rescue vessel Gothland which was near to hand. She eventually dropped down on us from upwind. After some terrifying moments with her stern rising above our boat and crashing down, narrowly missing ourselves with its whirling propeller, they managed to create some kind of lee on her port side. With the scrambling nets out, we were finally heaved aboard the vessel, but not before one poor soul was crushed to death between the Gothland and the lifeboat.
For myself, due to exposure and cold, having been in the icy water, I was unable to stand, let alone climb the scrambling net. A rope was passed under my armpits and I was hauled aboard, seized by two able seamen and carried blow to the sick bay. After being stripped of my sodden clothes, I was rubbed down with a rough turkish towel and given a half tumbler of neat rum to put some warmth back into me. But as fast as I drank it, it came back up.
Meanwhile, on the deck of the rescue ship, survivors continued to be helped aboard, many were in a bad way. The sailor who had been with me in the water when we were pulled into the ships lifeboat had not recovered consciousness, and in the heat of the moment was left for dead in the boat heaving and pitching alongside the Gothland, and was cast adrift.
The next 24 hours were spent in the area searching for further survivors. During this time, a light from a boat was observed being waved in our direction. On closing, it was found to be the sailor left for dead the previous day, who by the grace of God, had recovered consciousness. In attempting to rescue him, Gothland tried to manoeuvre alongside the frail craft. In doing so, the anchor in the hawse pipe struck the boat a glancing blow shattering the gunwhale. A rope was quickly passed to the sailor who wound it round his arm and made it fast. He was quickly hauled aboard dislocating his shoulder in the process, but at least he was safe.
The still burning wreck of the Southern Empress lay wallowing in the heavy seas belching columns of black greasy smoke. Gothland then rejoined the convoy, the gale having by this time blown itself out, following this, the fog descended. With some 80 survivors aboard, plus her own complement, it made one think hard of what would result if she herself was torpedoed. Two days later the convoy was attacked once more. Hearing the sounds of gunfire, Gothland steered towards it fearing further casualties, a sharp lookout being kept for damaged ships. Suddenly out of the fog was the grey silhouette of a U-boat. An attempt was made to ram it, but the submarine dived and made good her escape.
Eventually, we reached the Firth of Clyde without further incident, coming alongside at Gourock. After dealing with the preliminaries of survivors lists and immigration, we found ourselves being marched up the quay, many of us still wearing the dried out gear in which we had been rescued, plus additions from survivors kits. To add insult to injury, a watching crowd of dear ladies, on hearing a rumour that we were U boat prisoners, gave vent to their feelings by fist shaking and some not very pleasant personal remarks. All we could do was laugh and think how little they knew what we had been through".
I have many other documents that my father put down on paper and I one day intend to put them all together into some sort of document.
In addition to the Empire Mersey, he suffered further loss onboard, previous to the Empire Mersey onboard the SS Clan Stuart and later on SS Empire Belgrave
In the end, he'd had enough of being sunk and took the option to transfer over to the Royal Navy (RNVR), finishing his time on rescues tugs out in the Indian Ocean. He passed away in August 2001 - never realising his wish to publish his story.
From: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/46/a9033446.shtml with permission
The U-boat sank the 5,791-ton SS Empire Mersey at 0230Z with a spread of four torpedoes. The escort performed Operation Raspberry and at 0318Z Fame made an asdic contact four miles astern of the convoy. Heathcote dropped a pattern of five depth charges which caused moderate damage and flooding in U-618.
official number 143616 built in 1920 as RAMON DE LARRINAGA
for Larrinaga & Co - 1942 renamed EMPIRE MERSEY
http://www.uboat.net/boats/u618.htm - sank 1944
http://www.39-35war.com/ancestortraces.html -tracing ancestors