Troopships That Never Fail the Battle-Lines
Behind official totals of Allied troops successfully carried over the seas are many half-divulged stories of brilliant achievements of troopships by the hundred. All types and sizes of vessels are these, from the 80,000-ton peacetime luxury liner turned war-worker to the humdrum little steamer of the trippers' holiday. Something of the superb romance of these adventurous ships is outlined below by MARK PRIESTLEY.
Up to the end of September 1944, 10,600,000 British Army personnel had been moved by sea – with the loss of 2,978 lives, or only .0028 per cent of the total. In just over three months from D-Day (June 6) more than 2,200,000 men were landed in France and the Low Countries; and even the loss of stores due to enemy action totalled a mere three-fifths of one per cent of all stores landed!
Anyone who saw the Canadian assault troops streaming from the Canterbury into the landing craft off the Normandy beaches will never forget the spectacle. Since then, under the command of Capt. G. D. Walker, D.S.O., this famous peacetime steamship of the Dover-Calais luxury run has been foremost in the shuttle service between Britain and the forward European ports. Down in the engine-room, the Chief Engineer, Mr. Stanley Belchamber, has an amazing record. He was with the first ship to land troops in France in 1914, and with the first ship to land troops in 1939. "I had hoped to repeat it in 1944", he said, "but we lost by four seconds".
That is typical of the magnificent seamanship that has conducted the transport of our men with such safety and success. The first Allied landing on European soil, the operation against Sicily, was headed by Captain M. H. Williams, a ship's master with a record of 44 years at sea. He had trained for weeks beforehand, off a remote stretch of British coastline, to make sure that the high-spot of his voyage would be perfect.
One famous troopship, the Royal Ulsterman, has scarcely paused for four years in her specialized work of carrying troops to and from Iceland, to the Gold Coast and South Africa, to Madagascar, Italy and France. Her sister ship, the Royal Scotsman, which has steamed 50,000 miles since the evacuation of Narvik in 1940, once sailed from Malta to Bombay and back, a remarkable operation for a vessel primarily intended for a peacetime coastal run.
Then there is the Ben-My-Chree (Girl o' My Heart), once on the Liverpool-Douglas "tripper line", and now with a record of 100,000 miles safely behind her. Her skipper, Capt. Radcliffe Duggan, has been 53 years at sea, and was the Dunkirk hero who deliberately steamed four miles through a minefield as the lesser risk to his passengers than sailing past a line of enemy batteries which had plastered his ship on the way in. Since then he has undertaken round trips of 2,700 miles through Atlantic winter gales to serve the Iceland garrison, and he finds the present-day routine service to Europe "almost monotonous".
Her best voyage was undoubtedly the recent occasion when she re-entered Cherbourg harbour, for she had been the first ship to enter that port, carrying 1,400 French reservists, on September 4, 1939. Her worst voyage was, strangely enough, one she made without a soldier on board. It occurred en route to her refitting as a first-wave assault ship, when during a storm she was caught in the millrace off the Pentland Firth, off the north tip of Scotland. Waves twenty feet high crashed over her stern, and hundreds of tons of water swept through the lower decks, sweeping away everything movable in their path. None on board thought she could survive, but she came through.
The Royal Scotsman once ran into a sandstorm at sea; it whipped the paint off the weather-side of the ship, and in 48 hours worked its way so throughly into the guns that they had to be completely stripped and cleaned. The Prins Albert, formerly a passenger ship on the Ostend run, has had many narrow escapes, but has never been hit and has never missed a landing. At Salerno she was singled out for attack by seven E-boats, and a torpedo missed her by two feet. "Aircraft were overhead, we were firing, our destroyer escort was firing, the Erebus was smacking 15-in salvos into the shore batteries which were firing as well – it was some party!" one of her officers said.
A troopship, with the reputation of being Britain's luckiest, was actually landing troops in Italy when the enemy reported her as sunk in the South Atlantic; and when she recently put into Gibraltar it was with a trail of four doomed U-boats bagged by the destroyers in her wake. She once reached Gibraltar without a rudder, and the officers decided to run her without passengers and with a volunteer crew back to England. She hugged the occupied coast safely across the Bay of Biscay, but was sighted by a U-boat when 30 miles from Brest. The fog that suddenly swept down and saved her was typical of her luck. Twice raided when in port, every bomb fell wide and the rudder was repaired. When she sailed again, a 12-in. shell amidships damaged her only slightly. Subsequently involved in a collision, she was sailing again within a few weeks, and now carries troops to within 60 miles of Germany.
Four Invasions in Five Months
The Manxmaid, brought back into active service a couple of years ago after running thousands of aliens to the Isle of Man, for some months acted as the German battleship Tirpitz while our planes were training for the real attack!
No record of the "troopers" would be complete without mention of the Canadian landing ship Prince David, which possesses the proud distinction of having been in four invasions in five months. She lost every assault craft sent to the beaches of Normandy. She was in time, however, to land the French Commandos seven hours before the main assault on Southern France. For nearly two miles on the way in they travelled on a parallel course to some light German craft, but the Prince David was not seen. Then, on the way out, she found herself the centre of a mêlée between Allied warships and a batch of Nazi corvettes; once again she escaped. Three weeks later came her support to the landings on Kithera, an island off the tip of Greece. That was followed by her arrival at Piraeus, the port of Athens. The Greeks came out to meet the David's flotilla, in everything that would float – from schooners to tin bath-tubs.
The goliaths of the British troopships are the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, luxury liners converted to war-work. The 80,000-ton Queen Mary, with a good turn of speed on two occasions ploughed unharmed through a pack of 20 U-boats. In the first three years of this war she made six voyages to Australia, and took thousands of Australian troops to the Middle East and Singapore – and, by way of a change, she has carried large numbers of Italian and German prisoners to captivity.