CONVOY WILLIAM SAIL 12X
This is a true account of the little known convoy that sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia before the United States entry into World War Two. The convoy was loaded with British troops on U.S. troopships and escorted by American men-of-war. Designated 'WILLIAM SAIL', it was nicknamed 'WINSTON'S SPECIAL'.
The Army of the Third Reich had occupied most of Europe, and Great Britain was virtually under a state of siege. German raiders and submarines ruled the Atlantic Ocean. Hitler asked Great Britain to sign a peace treaty so that he could concentrate his forces on the Soviet Union. England refused but Hitler was confident that the U.K. was contained, and on June 22nd 1941 the German army invaded the Soviet Union. By July they had pushed to the heart of the country. Japan, Italy and Germany had signed a Tripartite Pact.
The free world was under a cloud of gloom and at the brink of extinction. A meeting between the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom was imperative. An Atlantic Conference was planned and on August 9th 1941, the pride of the British fleet, 'HMS Prince of Wales' (Churchill's yacht) anchored in Placential Bay, Newfoundland, just a few hundred yards from President Roosevelt's flagship the heavy cruiser 'Augusta'. The two leaders met for the first time during a dinner hosted by the American President aboard his flagship. On the following day, Roosevelt and his political advisors were transported to the British battleship, and within an hour the two leaders were deep in conversation.
The British leader had hoped to obtain considerable assistance and concessions, but the American President had to contend with a persistent core of isolationists and to an extent his political hands were tied. Excellent rapport was achieved between Churchill and Roosevelt however, and the Atlantic Charter came into being. The accord spelt out Anglo Saxon United and pledged the two countries to defend the rights of freedom, speech and thought, and to establish an international organisation that would protect the security of all nations. The Prime Minister had hoped for more, but a strong feeling of camaraderie flowed between the two men and the seeds for the birth of the convoy were sown.
The President's dilemma was alleviated when on September 4th 1941 the U.S. destroyer 'Greer' came under an unsuccessful U-boat attack. Roosevelt gave authority to the U.S. Navy to implement 'Shoot to kill' orders, and charged Hitler with piracy. Roosevelt had received an urgent 'most secret' message on September 1 from Churchill asking for the U.S. Navy troopships, manned by Navy crews, and escorted by U.S. Navy fighting ships, to carry British troops for the purpose of reinforcing the Middle East. On September 5th the President assured the British leader that six vessels would be provided to carry 20,000 troops, and would be escorted by the American Navy.
The Chief of Naval Operations ordered Troopship Division 17 & 19 on September 26th 1941 to prepare their vessels for six months at sea. These transports were to load to capacity with food, ammunition, medical supplies, fuel and water, and were to arrive at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on or about November 6th, and after the arrival of a British convoy from the U.S. were to load 20,000 troops. The Prime Minister mentioned in his letter that it would be for the President to say what would be required in replacement if any of these ships were to be sunk by enemy action. Agreement was worked out for the troops to be carried as supernumeraries and rations to be paid for out of Lease Lend funds, and Officers laundry bills to be paid for in cash. All replacements of provisions, general stores, fuel and water would be provided by the U.K. For the escorts to the U.K., charges for fuel and water would only be made in Trinidad and Capetown. The troops would conform to the U.S. Navy and Ships' regulations. Intoxicating liquors were prohibited. It was further agreed that the troops were to rig and man their own anti-aircraft guns, to augment the ships' batteries.
The group was designated 'Convoy William Sail 12X' (2) with Captain Donald B. Beary named Commodore (also the C.O. of the 'Mount Vernon'). The transports sailed for Halifax. 'Mount Vernon' departing from Boston, 'Wakefield' out of New York, 'Westpoint', 'Orizabe' and 'Dickman' from Norfolk, and 'Leonard Wood' from Newport, Rhode Island.
The Canadian authorities had ordered the ships to enter the channel at 30-minute intervals. Upon arrival on November 5th 1941 the ships encountered a dense fog, and were forced to anchor off the harbour entrance in a dangerous, unswept anchorage. As 'Mount Vernon' was nearing her mooring she narrowly missed colliding with the British Patrol Boat K-126. Captain Beary ordered "Left full rudder, all engines back full!" The vessels cleared without incident, but the crew of the patrol craft, thinking that the lower section of the ship (which was all that they could make out in the fog) resembled a U-boat, loaded their deck guns and were ready to fire. Crewmen on the forecastle of the M.V. heard the orders to the gun crews, and at the last minute a voice was heard yelling, "Hold your fire - she's a Yank!" There were two close calls before the arrival of the convoy at their first destination. At approximately 0730 hours all ships were anchored with fog signals emitting until 1300 hours. When the fog lifted anchors were hove in, and with the assistance of pilots the vessels passed through the submarine nets into their berths. Fresh water was provided from the pier and a segment of the crew were granted liberty.
At 1230 hours on November 8 an advance party of the troops began embarking, and within an hour the main body were boarding en masse, complete with full kit and rifles. The short walk from the English vessels to their new dwellings was a welcome relief for the 18th Division, since they had been at sea for about ten days during some uncomfortable North Atlantic storms. Almost all of the troops were Territorials (3), similar to the U.S. National Guard.
Tug boats began breasting the ships away from the piers at 0800 hours on November 10th, and within half an hour they were on the open sea, with 'HMS Annapolis' escorting. Lookout and gun crew watches were posted. At 1335 hours the U.S. Navy escorts screened the troopships, and the 'Annapolis' was detached with her crew waving and wishing a smooth sailing. We were bound for Basra in the Persian Gulf area, a major port in Iraq, sixty-five miles from the Gulf in the North West sector, and a former British base until the end of World War One.
The aircraft carrier 'Ranger' (4) (the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier) took station in the lead in one of the two formations during the eighteen days she was with the convoy, with the exception of the times she had to head into the wind in order to launch or land her planes. On each of these occasions a destroyer was with her for plane guards duties. With this arrangement it is believed that no ship came within six miles of the convoy's van. In many instances the formation was manoeuvred to keep clear of approaching ships by using Radar plot information, and the lack of Radar on the other vessels to cover the rear was keenly felt.
It was soon apparent that the 'Leonard Wood' would be unable to maintain fifteen knots, due to the lack of sufficient draft to supply necessary boiler power. Format speed varied between 12-14.5 knots in order to accommodate her prudent safe speed. Assorted zigzag plans were employed during daylight hours, and ships were darkened between one half hour before sunset and one half hour after sunrise, at which times battle stations (general quarters) were manned in the event of submarine attack. The three large transports were equipped with World War One surface guns (five-inch fifty-one bag), and three-inch twenty-three dual-purpose weapons. These antiquated pieces of ordinance were never tested in combat. The crews were well trained after hours of drill, but both gun types were manually loaded, trained and pointed. Ranges were also adjusted manually, and to hit a moving target would be bordering on luck. These vessels were not made for combat so our best defence was to take evasive action and count on the escorts. At this point the 'Ranger' launched between ten and twelve aircraft and provided continuous air cover for ASW and search duties during daylight hours, which included a half-hour before sunrise and a half-hour after sunset. She launched fresh aircraft at approximately two hourly intervals. The cruisers' seaplanes were also in the air at various times while at sea from November 15th, until the departure of 'Ranger', (5) and from that time until the convoy encountered the S.E. gale on December 6th-7th. The bombers from the carrier were loaded with the new depth charge bomb, and the fighters with 100lb bombs.
Destroyer 'Winslow' joined the group on November 11th, her storm damage repaired. She had suffered damages while escorting the convoy from Great Britain.
The convoy entered the gulf stream on November 12th with temperatures reaching the eighties, and the troop spaces became increasingly uncomfortable after the ships entered the Caribbean, via the Mona Passage (the straits between the island of Hispanola and Puerto Rico). Conditions were very crowded for a long voyage, and the lack of proper ventilation was the most serious deficiency, as most of the transports had been built for the North Atlantic trade and were not fitted for the tropics. These conditions were accentuated at night when the ships were darkened and hatches secured because of the strict 'darken ship' regulations. The combat vessels faired better from this point of view but it is doubtful if those on the troopships would change places, considering the hours and days of mild ground swells when the destroyers would go 'under two and over one'. Lifeboat drills were conducted daily, and when ships' Captains were confident that all hands were well acquainted with the procedures, it became a weekly exercise.
Just before sunrise this day, 'Orizaba' and 'Dickman' nearly collided. This would be the first of many near collisions as the ships took up positions at 1800-2000 yards (6) apart, and almost all ships suffered steering casualties.
At 1200 hours cruiser 'Vincennes' left the convoy temporarily and headed into sea, to provide a more stable attitude in order for her surgeon to perform an emergency appendectomy on a crewman.
The troops exercised on deck in groups of 300-500, thus affording them much needed air, sun, and an opportunity to enhance their physical fitness. Log entry for Thursday November 13th 1941, 'Air temperature 80 degrees'.
Destroyers 'Maryant' and 'Rowan' collided at 0505 hours on November 14, while 'Maryant' was proceeding to the plane guard station on the quarter of the 'Ranger'. 'Rowan' suffered minor damage, but 'Marinate' began taking on a considerable amount of water and was forced to rig collision mats. Emergency pumps were employed, while both vessels headed for San Juan for repairs. At about this time the troops began conducting 'sing-songs' on the weather decks after the evening meal. This was a much needed tonic to ease the boredom, since the soldiers were now well acquainted with shipboard routines.
At dawn on November 15th ten patrol planes from the Patrol Squadron 31 out of Borinquen Field, PR, augmented the carrier patrol. This provided the convoy with an almost total anti-submarine surveillance.
After completion of the patrol on the 16th, the land-based planes flew to Trinidad in order to provide maximum cover during the entrance of the ships into port (a period when convoys were most vulnerable). The coast of Venezuela was sighted at 1600 hours on November 17th , and by 0800 hours Port of Spain was also visible. The ships entered Trinidad and anchored at about 1020 hours without the assistance of harbour pilots, since no advance information had been received regarding the anchorage assignments, fuelling, etc. (Strange, since the patrol planes had landed the previous evening.) After arrival it was learned that full details had been mailed, but were not received due to delay in decoding and transit. In addition, the information had been sent via a destroyer which was to rendezvous on the day prior to the arrival of the convoy, but missed contact during the night whilst the ships were darkened. This spoke well for the darkened ship procedures, but the U.S. Navy was in dire need of additional radar. However, British and U.S. Naval authorities completed arrangements in record time, since the logistic supply of the convoy and all required supplies were accomplished in an efficient and expeditious manner. Liberty was granted to some of the Navy men and a small party of the troops. It had been determined that because of the limited range of 'Orizaba' and the need to refuel the destroyers every several days, the fleet oiler 'Cimarron' would join the group in the Port of Spain. Originally the destroyers were to refuel in a Brazilian port, but because of the secret nature of the convoy the oiler was assigned. The 'Cimarron's' services would eventually proved invaluable and she was handled admirably.
Destroyers 'Maryant' and 'Rowan' arrived in Trinidad, collision repairs having been completed in San Juan. The speedy repairs reflected the excellence of the organisation and expertise of the Naval facilities at that Island base.
On November 18th at 0025 hours, 'Dickman' dragged anchor, with British tanker 'Miralda' made fast to her starboard and with an unmade water barge to port. She collided with 'Leonard Wood', and after getting up steam regained her place in the anchorage, and with only a scraping of paint to report to the authorities.
While in Trinidad, Rear Admiral A.B. Cook (OTC-SOPA) made an inspection of the 'Wakefield' accompanied by Major General Beckworth-Smith, as it had been mentioned to the Admiral that conditions on all transports were considered very crowded, and accommodation was inferior to that on British vessels which had crossed from the U.K. to Halifax. These statements were not in the nature of a complaint, but rather in answer to a question from the Admiral. He agreed, and noticed that there was no storeroom space available for the troops' winter kit, with a result that helmets, rifles and other impedimenta were stored in the bunks during the day and on the deck by night. This would have caused serious problems in the event of fire or torpedoing at night, but the troops were laudatory in their praise of the food. The opposite was expressed by the British Officers. At some point between Halifax and Trinidad, after several days at sea the Brigadier on one of the troopships told the Commanding Officer that he was going to feed his troops on British Army rations. He asked the C.O. to plan cooking accordingly. The C.O. told the Army Officer that the soldiers were guests of the U.S. Navy, and instructed the Boatswains Mate of the watch to pass the word to that effect.
All ships were fully replenished and at 1400 hours on November 19th anchors were hove in, and the convoy was under way from Trinidad. Because of the unexpected slow speed of the 'Leonard Wood', she was directed to proceed independently with the destroyer 'Moffat' as escort. Water rations were imposed and fresh water available only during chow time. That is three hours a day, and only when food was being served. Salt water could be used at all other times during the day and night, twenty-four hours a day. Because of the recent conversion, the large vessels had a particularly hard time supplying fresh water, since their evaporators were geared for supplying far less during luxury cruises, and the troop overload taxed the supply.
At 1045 hours 'Dickman' reported the death of a young seaman by hanging. This was the first fatality in the convoy since leaving Halifax. On November 20th all ships received a 'Proclamation' from the Flagship concerning Thanksgiving Day. Holiday routine was observed by the crews, and all hands indulged in the traditional turkey dinner with all the 'Fixins'. This was a special delight to the troops who already thought every meal was a treat, and they were happy to have the opportunity to celebrate the American custom.
On Friday morning at 0845 hours carrier planes reported the presence of an unidentified man-of-war, forty-five miles dead ahead. The crews were alerted for surface engagement, and the convoy veered well off base course to avoid detection. Aerial photographs were taken, and because of the distinctiveness of her nomenclature she was identified as the Argentine cruiser 'Belgrano'. All hands returned to normal until at 1425 hours a plane from the 'Ranger' dropped a smoke bomb, indicating the location of a floating mine. This area was investigated by the destroyer 'Maryant' and low-flying aircraft, but the mine could not be located. That evening 'Dickman' suffered a steering failure and sheared off to the right of the column, narrowly avoiding a collision, and the crew were commended for their action with the traditional U.S. Navy "Well done".
Good news reached the group the following day. 'Leonard Wood' had managed to rig additional blowers which provided the necessary forced draught, and she was maintaining between 14.5-15 knots. She was instructed to rejoin the formation with her escort. All went well until 1626 hours, when 'Ranger' hoisted the emergency turn signal when 'Wainright' reported a submarine contact. 'Winslow' made a depth charge attack, and after an unsuccessful search with 'Rhind' the convoy returned again to normal. A torpedo wake had been sighted during this incident.
The fleet oiler 'Cimarron' began fuelling the first of five destroyers, starting on Sunday November 23rd, and proceeded without incident, though fuelling time was relatively slow. This day was marked as distinctive because most ships hoisted the 'Jolly Roger' at the fore, and were boarded by 'Davy Jones'. He and his party were welcomed by the Commanding Officers. Specifications and charges were delivered to the "lowly, slimy and venemous polywogs" who were tried and duly initiated into the 'Royal Order of the Deep'(7). During the research for this chronicle, it was made known that several of the troops were confused as to the co-ordinates at the time and date of the crossing. The flagship 'Mount Vernon' logged Sunday November 23rd 1941, 2000 hours Lat 000. Long 4041 . Not all the ships participated in this old mariners' ritual since they were busy refuelling. At the end of the day all hands on the convoy were now 'Shellbacks' after the merry-making, regardless of the slight differences in ships positions. During these initiations there were a few minor injuries, as will occur when a large group of men are venting frustration. On 'Mount Vernon' there was a near tragedy, when Jack Caplan of the Royal Signals 53rd Brigade narrowly missed going over the side. He was the last man in a group being tossed in a blanket, and as he came down for the last time he missed the handrail on the boat deck by inches. This dangerous frolic was cancelled.
On Monday the 24th at 1120 hours 'Maryant' picked up an underwater contact. The group took up evasive action, made a pre-arranged turn, but after a search the investigating ships could not locate or identify the reason for the distinct sonar 'ping'.
The sea was unfavourable for fuelling on the 25th, so the 'Orizaba' and remaining destroyers were put on a standby basis and re-fuelled the next day. Admiral Cook received dispatch orders on November 26th from the Chief of Naval Operations, changing the routine of the convoy and directed the ships to split. OPNAV also directed 'Ranger', 'Cimarron' and two destroyers to return to American waters. The remainder of the group were to proceed on a new heading, but it was apparent that the additional mileage would cause the destroyers to run dangerously low in fuel, if a high speed run was required. It was further felt that loss of security by the splitting of the group more than off-set the small savings in time of transit by the faster units . Recommendations were made that the convoy remain together, and that 'Cimarron' also remain. This idea was approved by Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet.
The 27th was a very active day. At 0745 hours, 'Leonard Wood' and 'Moffet' rejoined the formation and at 0750 hours 'Leonard Wood' reported seeing a sub periscope, but this could not be confirmed after search. The 'Ranger' sent a plane to drop a message on the deck of the Flagship, which gave new orders to the convoy. At 1034 hours three soldiers on the 'Mount Vernon' witnessed a seaman on that vessel jump overboard. Edward Hemly, AS, U.S. Navy, was waiting to go before the Executive Officer for a minor breach in naval regulation, when he bolted and cleared the boat deck railing port side.
At 1135 hours 'Ranger', 'Rhind' and 'Tripp' were detached and headed for Trinidad. Captain Donald Beary, C.O. of the 'Mount Vernon' and convoy C.O. became SOPA and OTC. The 'Ranger' completed 1,526 plane hours without accident.
Air cover was now being provided by float planes from the cruisers. This was not the best in air cover, since the seaplanes were forced to land in the open sea in order to haul their planes aboard. These sea landings would not allow for the aircraft to carry bombs or depth charges, and ruled out their attacks on a belligerent before returning to the mother ship.
On the 28th at 1000 hours the Flagship received a message concerning the loss of an aircraft while attempting to land on 'Ranger'. The crewmen were rescued from the sea by 'Rhind'. At 1356 hours 'Vincennes' sighted a periscope 800 yards ahead crossing starboard to port. The CO increased speed to 22 knots while sounding 'general quarters' and attempted to ram. After clearing the target area and without evidence of physical contact nor vibration, it was thought that the sub was in a diving attitude when sighted, and cleared the keel of the onrushing cruiser safely.
The convoy altered course to port and 'Wainright' dropped three depth charges at 1405 hours, but again no evidence of a submarine was found. After the depth charge run there was much concern, since only one of the three 600lb charges detonated. The CO ordered an official investigation. There was a sad day aboard the cruiser 'Quincy' when the news went through the ship that Chief Water Tender Anthony F. Rudolph had died of a heat stroke. He had lost consciousness whilst on duty on the 15th in the engineering spaces, and could not be revived. The Chief had been retired and was on the Fleet Reserve list, but was recalled when the President declared the U.S. in a state of National Emergency. The Chief's remains were committed to the deep with full military honours on the 29th.
On the 30th 'HMS Dorset', approximately 260 miles (8) out to our south west, reported the sinking of the German supply ship 'Python' (9). She had come upon her whilst on patrol, and it was believed that at the time the cruiser was sighted on the horizon two U-boats dived, and UA and U68 remained alongside replenishing to the last minute (10). On December 2, 'Cimarron' fuelled 'Orizaba' and topped off all the destroyers.
At around 0600 hours on the 3rd, 'Quincy' catapulted two scout planes, and by 0830 hours visibility was reduced to eight miles. At 0935 hours, when the planes were not in sight, 'Vincennes' was ordered to make smoke in order to give planes a bearing. At 1045 hours one plane was sighted in the water with a damaged pontoon, and the other was circling. Both aircraft were recovered without further trouble.
On the 4th at 0235 hours the 'McDougal' reported by blinker that they had a sub contact, and the convoy took more evasive turns, but again this could not be confirmed, and the convoy returned to base at 0326 hours.
On Friday the 5th the visibility varied from 800 yards to 20 miles, and the wind shifted erratically. Seaplanes were catapulted in the late afternoon and retrieved after sunset. 'Vincennes' experienced considerable difficulty in securing her planes to the cat and sustained damage to one aircraft. Cirrus clouds covered the sky by 1900 hours, and the wind increased with the sea growing more furious by the hour.
Not a single submarine that was reported by the lookout in the convoy was factual, because there were no German undersea craft near or in the track of the group. The four subs which were replenishing from 'Python' were the closest and the only submarines in the South Atlantic at the time (11). Their orders were to re-supply from the supply ship and proceed to the harbour entrance of Capetown and sink Allied ships. 'Dorsetshire's' discovery was not by chance but rather that the cruiser was sent to the co-ordinates that the British Admiralty had picked up by radio, coded, yes.
On May 9th 1941, 'HMS Aubretia', 'Bulldog' and 'Broadway' attacked and forced U110 to the surface after heavy depth charging. The vessel was abandoned with the Captain thinking she would sink after setting off charges. The British boarding party was astonished to not only capture the U-boat, but also the ultra secret German deciphering machines used to vector U-boats to Allied convoys, and instruct Nazi supply ships. This capture was one of the biggest of the entire war and was kept secret for the next thirty years. The Admiralty now knew where every sub and raider was operating. The secret was not known by the U.S. Navy at the time of the William Sail's voyage, and President Roosevelt was not told by Churchill until January 1942. The British advised Captain Beary as to the safe courses throughout the entire cruise. The only U-boat threat was from the UA (12),U68,U69 and U124, but after scuttling the 'Python' these craft were busy picking up and caring for survivors. The capture of the 'Ultra' and 'Enigma' guided the William Sail safely to all ports, a fact unknown to anyone in the convoy or the United States.
The 'Quincy' launched a patrol on the afternoon of the 6th and was fortunate enough to have them back aboard by late afternoon (13). At 1125 hours 'HMS Derbyshire' was sighted and 'Maryant' checked this armed merchant close aboard. The convoy was now in a south east gale, with the destroyers and cruisers taking a heavy beating. Damage was reported on most of the escorting vessels, and two of the destroyers rolled to a critical 63 degrees (14).
The convoy was not only at war with the sea on the 7th, at 2002 hours we received radio notification that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour.
The following evening at 2157 hours 'Wainright' picked up two sound contacts, and again we made several quick zigzags, and 'Rowan' prepared to depth charge. After contact was lost the ships steadied up on base course.
At 0327 hours 'Mount Vernon' lost steering control and left the convoy, but was back in formation twenty minutes later. The loom of the Cape of Good Hope light was sighted at 0505 hours, and by 1610 hours the light itself could be seen. Preparations were made for entering port and the transports began anchoring at 1103 hours, with the exception of the 'Wakefield'. There was no apparent reason why she docked first, other than the fact that the Commanding General of the troops Major General Beckworth-Smith was embarked in that vessel. This situation was overlooked at the beginning of the voyage, and it made for numerous communication problems, since the Senior Army Officer was not in the Flagship with the Commodore. During the time of anchoring and waiting for pilots the destroyers made high speed runs to seaward, which was a routine anti-submarine procedure for entering port. Pilots boarded the ships a little after noon, and the transports were docked by 1400 hours. We had travelled 14,000 miles (15).
After the ships were moored and the shore patrol was ashore, liberty was granted. The Black members of the crew were taken by bus to a selected area for recreation. Shore, power, and telephone services were connected during the night.
Aside from the above mentioned celebrity, the navigator on 'Mount Vernon' was Henry Manning, who had been the ship's master when she'd been called the 'SS Washington'. Manning was a world renowned mariner and flier, and had been Amelia Erhart's navigator and advisor before her last fateful flight.
The many reports of submarines were made in earnest, but after the U.S. was made privy to the Enigma machine secret, we knew that the reports were unfounded. The sperm whale lives in the Atlantic from the equator South. They have been known to grow to a hundred feet, and a record catch was forty-eight feet and weighed 68,000 pounds! Could the look-outs have been seeing whales?
We were in 'little New York' for a much needed rest , but after hearing of the sinking of the 'Prince of Wales' (16) and 'Repulse' off the coast of Malaya on the 10th, those in authority knew our stay would be short. On December 11th a message to the Commodore urged an expedient replenishing and departure from Capetown. The cruisers were to escort a new forming convoy and 'Cimarron' to North Atlantic waters. The destroyers were to escort the troopships for twenty-four hours up the East Coast of Africa. At about 0800 hours on December 13th the troopships began to get underway, and by 1600 hours were headed for Bombay. Orders for the new destination had been received just before casting off. We were now being escorted by 'HMS Dorsetshire', the cruiser that had delivered the final blow to the German battleship 'Bismark'. This vessel manoeuvred well with the six American destroyers until their departure on December 14th at 1600 hours.
The destroyers headed back to Capetown to rejoin the cruisers and 'Cimarron', who were waiting the formation of a convoy destined for North Atlantic waters.
Captain Beary protested vigorously to OPNAV and British authorities, since the transports did not have air search capability or an anti-submarine screen. 'Dorsetshire' was one of the proven best in the British fleet for surface combat, and an excellent escort in the event of any enemy raider attack, but the British Navy was spread thin and the U.S. Navy was in no better position, after the loss of the Hawiian Squadron. The U.S. fleet was trying unsuccessfully to slow the Nippon Progress - with British, Australian and Dutch units.
The group rounded the Cape of Good Hope and steamed through the Mozambique Channel, leaving Madagascar to starboard. 'Dorsetshire' left the formation on several occasions to investigate unescorted merchant vessels heading for Capetown, but this was the extent of anything unusual. Watch stations were alert, and aside from the many changes of course by the helmsman in order to comply with zigzag plans the bridge watch was uninteresting.
On December 19th 'Westpoint' reported a strange aircraft, and all ships set condition 1 in their anti-aircraft batteries, but the craft did not close and was last seen heading back to the African coast.
At 0650 hours on December 21st, 'HMS Ceres' rendezvoused with the group and at 0721 hours that vessel left the convoy with 'Orizaba' and headed for Mombassa, Kenya. The convoy increased speed to 15 knots, until at 0954 hours all ships slowed to allow transfer of two Royal Navy liaison personnel from 'Mount Vernon' to 'Dorsetshire'. 'Mount Vernon' then proceeded at 21 knots to Mombassa. 'HMS Colombia' was to have escorted the troopship but missed the rendezvous. The remainder of the convoy continued on to Bombay with Captain Kelly in 'Westpoint' SOPA and OTC.
'Mount Vernon' arrived at the mouth of the Durma River a little after noon on December 25th , and a pilot assisted the Captain in docking the vessel starboardside to the Deep Water Quay, Mombassa. Liberty was granted as soon as the vessels had docked, and arrangements were made with the military and police concerning the defined limits for the service men. Crewmen and troops streamed ashore, and despite the heat on this Christmas Day most enjoyed this tiny city, which was void of formality.
Sailors and soldiers could be found in almost every shop, restaurant and drinking establishment. Some interesting and humorous stories filtered back to the ship. There was an incident where several of the troops entered a restaurant, and found the owner-cook a bit under the weather from the ingestion of spirits! This inebriated proprietor was co-operative however, and allowed the soldiers to cook what they found. When they were well nourished they paid the owner and thanked him for a delightful time. Many sexual inhibitions were released and fantasies liberated for a reasonable price, if one could make a deal with the lady's husband, who in most cases was the procurer. Fresh fruit was in abundance, and personnel returning to the ship delivered a healthy supply to their comrades.
Each midnight as liberty terminated (Cinderella), those on deck would witness some of the most unusual sights taking place on the dock. In one instance an old time sailor was seen pulling a rickshaw down the main road and to the ship, with the rickshaw owner in the passenger seat. After arriving at the afterbow the sailor shook hands with the owner, paid him and staggered aboard. Contrary to popular belief rickshaws are not exclusive to the Orient.
British military police warned the Senior Shore Patrol Officer about the danger in the bush, if any of the visitors were to stray out of town. Most of the natives in the area were members of the feared Mau Mau society (17), who had been organised to terrorise the whites. This warning only stimulated curiosity among a group of deck sailors from the 'Mount Vernon', who wasted no time in taxiing into the jungle. This information caused panic amongst British authorities, who despatched several vehicles with well armed police to rescue the incorrigible blue-jackets. The rescue team was only out of town for a few moments when they noticed a huge fire. Sirens howled and red lights glared as the Police approached the area, to find the Americans doing native dances, drinking the Mau Mau beer, and loving their women. The sailors objected to their 'rescue', and several punches were thrown at the British Patrol who were relieved and puzzled as to how the Yanks had survived.
At around midnight on the last night in port two of the crewmen returned with a monkey. These sailors know better than to try and carry this animal across the quarter deck, so a plan was devised. One of the crewmen went aboard and waited on the forecastle (deck forward) and the one with the primate, seeing his shipmate on deck, put the animal on the ten-inch manila mooring line, and 'shooed' the beast up the line. When the monkey arrived at deck level he jumped clear over the bewildered sailor's head into the rigging. The two crewmen tried in vain to snag their pet, who seemed to be enjoying swinging from cargo booms to support guy wires, etc. This information elicited both rage and fear from this Officer, who thought about the possibility of the animal carrying any number of diseases. The ship could not leave port with the monkey aboard, and the vessel had urgent war orders. There would be no charges if the monkey were brought to the office and put ashore. Not long after the plea over the intercom a crewman arrived on deck with the beast and was told to put it on the dock.
At 0954 hours December 29th , 'Mount Vernon' let go all lines and put to sea, with 'HMS Emerald' escorting. Prior to the vessels departure from the main body of the convoy, it was learned that General Percival, commanding forces in Malaya from the 'impregnable' fortress Singapore, had sent an appeal for all possible reinforcements. 'Mount Vernon' was chosen and was now underway to join convoy DM1, and en route to the besieged area.
Convoy William Sail ceased to be the organised group which initially put to sea on November 10th, and the ships were now under partial British control. The vessels that continued on to Bombay were addressed in messages as 'task force 14.2'. That convoy escorted by the 'Dorsetshire' progressed uneventfully towards Bombay until 0700 hours on the 27th, when 'Westpoint' and 'Wakefield', on orders from the British port authorities, increased speed to 20 knots and left the pack to arrive at Bombay at 1600 hours, December 27th. At 1900 hours the 'Wakefield' moored at Ballard pier and commenced discharging troops and equipment. The 'Westpoint', 'Leonard Wood' and 'Dickman' anchored in the harbour until 'Wakefield' completed unloading on the 28th. This completed she anchored out and 'Westpoint' went to Ballard pier at 1615 hours the 29th. 'Dickman' then moored at Alexander Dock to unload, and 'Leonard Wood' replaced 'Westpoint' when she was finished.
'Mount Vernon' and 'Emerald' proceeded at 18 knots until their rendezvous at 1010 hours on December 30th with convoy DM1, consisting of merchant vessels 'Aurangi', 'Narkunda', 'Sussex' (British), and 'Abbekirk' (Dutch). 'Sussex' was carrying fifty-one fighter planes (dismantled).
(BOMBAY) Upon completion of off-loading on January 2nd, all four ships anchored and commenced fuelling and loading stores from barges. By early afternoon Captain Kelly reported that his ships were ready for sea. British authorities informed him to remain at anchor until the decoding of a dispatch from the U.S. OPNAV. This message had been received in Bombay at 0450 hours, but was not delivered to the Naval observer until 1045 hours that day. After the decoding Captain Kelly rushed ashore and was informed by the British Commodore that another despatch had been received from the Commander in Chief East Indies, ordering that the ships be held in Bombay until an escort could be arranged. The following day the Captain was told that the vessels were delayed by the direction of the British Admiralty.
(DM1) At 1000 hours on January 4, 'Mount Vernon' and convoy DM1 anchored at Addu Atool in the Maldive Islands. Fresh water was taken aboard and mail sent ashore. The ships maintained sea watches and the engine room was on two-hour notice.
The following morning at 0900 hours the vessels hove in their anchors and set course for Sundra Straits. The convoy was now being escorted by 'HMS Emerald', 'Exeter' and 'Juma'.
(BOMBAY) On January 6 at 1100 hours, 'Orizaba' joined our Navy troopships in Bombay and unloaded her troops. Captain Kelly was then told that arrangements were being made to release the three small transports for their return to U.S. via Capetown. The Captain asked about escorts for these vessels and was told that British ships were not escorted in the area, and the possibility of raiders was remote.
(DM1) 'HMS Durban' and the Dutch battle cruiser 'DeRuyter' joined the growing convoy on January 9th as the group neared the precarious shoal waters of the Sundra Straits.
The next day at 0938 hours Captain Beary ordered paravanes (mine sweeping devices) prepared as numerous changes of course and speed were required to reach the Java sea. At 1156 hours the formation was in deep water and was joined by 'HMS Jupiter', 'Encounter', Australian destroyer 'Vampire' and HMS H-10, G-85 and I-68.
(BOMBAY) In Bombay, Captain Kelly was told that all troops that were disembarked would be reloaded and both troops and supplies would have to be brought to the anchored vessels by barges and lighters, since unusual tide conditions had brought about a rise and fall of some thirty feet.
During the stay in Bombay the situation in Malaya was changing by the hour. British authorities were uncertain as to just what reinforcements were required. 'Westpoint' and 'Wakefield' were loaded and at 1300 hours on the 29th, these ships sailed for Singapore in a 15 knot convoy with Captain Kelly named Commodore. Aside from the two American transports, the troopships 'Duchess of Bedford', 'Empress of India' and 'Empire State' made up a sizeable armada with 'HMS Caledon' and 'Glasgow' escorting.
(DM1) Convoy DM1 was beefed up on January 11th with the addition of 'HNMS Van Tromp' and three more unnamed Dutch destroyers. Various changes of course were required again in order to negotiate the Karimata Straits as the convoy passed into the South China Sea.
On the 12th 'Emerald' was designated SOPA with that vessel's CO also designated 'Officer in Tactical Command'. All defending forces were now under the joint ABDA command whilst in the Dutch East Indies area under General Wavell. At 0404 hours the convoy was ordered into single column formation and full air defence was set at 0630 hours. Japanese combat planes were reported flying at will over Singapore. At 0907 hours, 'Emerald' reported the Japanese formation was clear of the convoy at 1043 hours.
On Tuesday January 13th at 0003 hours the convoy slowed to 9 knots in order to stream paravanes. Three Dutch mine sweepers were at work ahead of the column, and at approximately 0900 hours a mine was seen floating down the side of 'Mount Vernon'. The weapon missed the ship by some ten feet. Ships astern were warned and a destroyer was assigned to detonate this potentially dangerous device. At 0920 hours paravanes were rigged in and pilots boarded all ships and preparations for docking were made.
'Mount Vernon' moored at 1315 hours at the Navy yard, Singapore, Malaya. Cargo holds were opened and at 1400 hours the deck force commenced discharging equipment and supplies. The deck force was augmented by working parties from divisions throughout the ship.
The 53rd was rushed ashore, since Japanese forces had continued their advance on Fortress Singapore, and General Percival was advised by General Wavell to retreat to the Johore line. Originally, when Percival heard that the 18th Division was on the way, he planned on keeping them in the rear as reserves. Now the General ordered the 53rd to prepare to go to the front and sent them into combat three days later. Very few of their numbers had been abroad before, and almost none had been in the tropics. Absolutely none had been trained in jungle fighting. They had arrived without transport or guns, which were in the vessels in Bombay! There were a variety of speciality regiments amongst them, and a small detachment of engineers, but at this time all were issued rifles and artillery groups were formed to try to stem the tide.
Air raid sirens wailed intermittently as deck crews manned the guns and worked the holds. Unloading had to be discontinued at sunset since the entire island was darkened.
Battle stations was sounded at about 1130 hours on the 14th when a large formation of high flying bombers was reported heading for the area. Within minutes a large bomb hit on the dock within 15 feet of the starboard quarter of 'Mount Vernon' as this vessel was preparing to get under way. At 1240 hours a leading seaman, formerly of the 'Prince of Wales', was found as a stowaway. He was turned over to a Master at Arms from 'HMS Sultan'.
Pilot W. Hopper reported aboard 'Mount Vernon' at 1446 hours. The ship was clear of the dock and fair in the Channel by 1500 hours and commenced a high speed run for the Sundra Straits, with 'HMS Juma' and 'Jupiter' escorting. Before reaching the Straits the ship had to slow twice to stream paravanes, since mine-laying Japanese submarines were reported. 'Mount Vernon' was in the Indian Ocean at 0800 hours on January 17th 1942.
The 'Westpoint' and 'Wakefield' zigzagged towards the Straits as the convoy swelled to three more cruisers and four destroyers. Led by the cruiser 'Exeter' the ships slowed to ten knots to stream paravanes and continued their voyage in much the same manner as 'Mount Vernon'.
On the 29th the escort commander suggested that the 'Westpoint', 'Wakefield' and 'Empress of India' leave the convoy, increase speed and proceed to Singapore via Berthala Straits, Durian Strait and Philips channel. Captain Kelly approved these moves and the ships steamed through these waters in a bright moonlit night that made navigational aids unnecessary. Upon arrival off Singapore, the ships 'lie-to' in an exposed position, beyond the range of shore based anti-aircraft guns until pilots could bring the ships to Keppel Harbour. The Naval base where 'Mount Vernon' had docked was now receiving a pounding from the air. Since the vessels were at commercial docks, coolie labour was obtained. But this proved unsatisfactory, since due to the ever increasing air attacks on the entire island the labourers would run off and hide. Eventually the ships' crews and troops finished the work.
On January 30th at about 0935 hours seven Japanese bombers were sighted over the city, and were immediately attacked by British 'Buffalo' fighters. These were the same fighters that sat on the runways while 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse' were mauled and sunk off the Malaya coast. While the fighters were trying to stop the enemy bombers a large formation was reported headed for the transports. Bombs straddled the 'Westpoint' and 'Wakefield' until finally 'Wakefield' took a bomb hit which exploded in one of her holds, and killed five men. A small tanker alongside 'Wakefield' also took a direct hit and sank. 'Westpoint' sent fire aid parties to help in the treatment of nine crewmen who were injured on 'Wakefield'. All troops and gear ashore by 1800 hours, the two American transports cleared Singapore expeditiously bound for Batavia, where more refugees (1300 were on board) were waiting to be rescued.
General Percival surrendered all defending forces on Black Friday, February 15th 1942 to Lt. General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The British General had far more land forces, but the all-important element was the lack of air power.
Eventually most of the prisoners were marched and transported to Thailand to construct the 'Death Railway', which included the bridges over the Kwae Noi River - 'The bridge over the River Kwai'.
Singapore was lost for numerous reasons. The jungles of Malaya were considered impassable, and the major defences of Singapore were focused seaward. There were serious inadequacies in the leadership of the Army. After the loss of the 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse' the Japanese had complete command of the sea. The enemy assigned the crack Third Flying Division with 343 combat planes. The British had fewer than 90 operational and not a single dive bomber. The Zero shot down the Buffalo fighter with ease. The enemy troops were veterans from the fierce fighting in North China. The only defending troops with jungle combat training were an Australian unit, and they had not been under fire. If there was anyone at fault for the loss of the 'Impregnable Citadel' it was at the highest level of the British Military and Government. They had been warned for years, as the U.S. had concerning Hawaii and the Philippines.
1.The officers and men of the combat ships 'Cimarron' and the three small transports were awarded the American Defense Medal with Bronze 'A', and the American theatre medal for their participation in this operation. In addition to the above medals, the three large transports were recipients of the Asiatic-Pacific Medal with one Battle star and the Philippines Defense Medal for serving in defined Philippine waters (South China Sea).
2.The Argentine cruiser 'Belgrano' which we encountered was the former Italian cruiser 'Varese'. The 'Belgrano' sunk in the Falklands was the former 'USS Phoenix'.
The late Vice Admiral Donald Beary was especially chosen for the awesome duty of Commodore of Convoy William Sail 12X, with the additional duty in command of the 'USS Mount Vernon'. The Admiral graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1910 and for his distinguished service as commanding officer of the 'USS Remlik' and 'Lamson' during World War I he was awarded the Navy Cross. The U.S. Navy's highest decoration was bestowed on the young Naval Officer after only eight years of duty, because of his daring and professionalism whilst patrolling waters infested with mines and enemy submarines. His expertise in the formation and escorting of convoys became apparent at this time and after vigorously prosecuting offensive and defensive action, his name became known throughout the entire Navy.
In November 1944 the Admiral devised the system which enables the fast carrier task forces to remain on station and in forward areas whilst refuelling and replenishing. As commander of Senior Service Six, he revolutionised the Fleet supply system so that the combat vessels did not have to travel thousands of miles to re-provision. It was the Fleet's 'Ace in the hole'.
For his services as Commodore of Convoy William Sail, he was awarded the Bronze Star, with Combat 'V', "For meritorious achievement . . . in connection with operations against the enemy in the Pacific and Indian Ocean Areas, from the beginning of hostilities to June 11th 1942 . . ." . The citation further states in part: " . . displaying conspicuous professional ability and leadership as Commanding Officer of a large troop transport in hazardous waters, he successfully negotiated the difficult passage through the heavily mined Sundra and Banka Straits to land desperately needed reinforcements for the beleaguered British garrison at Singapore, despite repeated air raids in the area." The Admiral retired on October 1 1950 and died at the U.S. Naval Hospital, San Diego, California, on March 7 1966.
(1) Atlantic Conference Meeting: The American President was host to the Prime minister on August 9th 1941 and because of the spacious compartments aboard the 'Prince of Wales', and the President's infirmity, it was decided to transport all the American contingent via destroyer to the British Battleship. 'McDougal' was underway from the 'Augusta' at 1015 hours, August 10th and approached the man-of-war for a 'Chinese landing'. That is to have the bow of the destroyer secured to the stern of the battleship. (After they were alongside, the vessels were on reciprocal compass headings.) That Sunday at about 1100 hours while 'McDougal' was near her landing, a CPO on the Destroyer noticed a sailor dressed in pea jacket and blue rain hat standing by idly. The Chief yelled "Ahoy you on the deck of the 'Prince of Wales', bear a hand and secure this line!" The Chief then ordered his men to throw a line to the deck of the Battleship. Seeing this, the idler hurried to the line and made it fast. This idler was WINSTON CHURCHILL.
(2) There were other William Sail Convoys.
(3) Some sources claim that they were mostly conscripts.
(4) 'Ranger' carried one squadron each of F3F (fighter biplanes), F4F-3 (Monoplanes), SBD dive bombers and TBO torpedo planes.
(5) After 'Ranger' was detached our air cover was considered inadequate.
(6) In regard to the distance ships maintained, this was incorrect and should have read 800-2000 yards. 'Ranger' tried to maintain her distance 800 yards ahead of the two columns. The ASW screen flanked the transports at 2000 yards.
(7) Neptunus Rex presided.
(8) The 'Python' occurred at 860 miles not 260 miles.
(9) When 'Dorset' found 'Python' the UA, U68, U129, and U124 scattered. UA fired five torpedoes but missed.
(10) The official ships' history just received states that the 'Dorset' sank the 'Python' and undoubtedly if she had not seen her exact location and found her the cruiser would have sunk her. However she had all her guns trained broadside and was ready to open fire when the supply ship's Captain ordered the sea-cocks opened and charges primed. At 1904 hours December 1st (NOT November 30) 'Python' went to the bottom stern first.
(11) .Admiral Donetz had 34 U-boats operating between October 1st and December 10th.
(12) The UA was a 4,000 ton underwater cruiser with twin 5.9 inch guns and two 88 mms.
(13) Seaplanes have been replaced by helicopters in the fleet and are a vital part of operation at sea. Planes carried by cruisers escorting convoys, were launched by catapults located on the quarters (stern) of those vessels. Explosive charges propelled them into the air for scouting, directing gunfire and on rare occasions attack. Before the craft was airborne the name rank and serial number of the Pilot were logged. The enlisted crewman's name, service number and rate was also logged with the notation 'passenger' - why not 'Crewman'?
(14) The South East gale on 6th and 7th December was logged as Beaufort 7 with the sea running 28-33 knots. A seaman's description would have identified it as a moderate gale. The sea heaped up in white foam from the breaking waves as the foam was blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind. The transports and oiler had little trouble but the escorts took a violent battering. Aboard 'Vincennes' a Curtis seaplane broke loose and was smashed to pieces by the raging sea. All ships rolled and pitched heavily, and the two destroyers recorded rolls of 63 degrees (considered critical on any DD). Almost all lost life rafts and sustained damage to lifeboats. There were injuries to crewmen on several destroyers. It may have been a comfort to the sailors on the pummelled ships if they had known that Ens Franklyn D. Roosevelt junior was the OOD during the 0800-1200 hour watch in 'Maryant' on December 7th !
(15) Fuelling the destroyers on December 2nd could have been critical. On December 18th 1945, three U.S. destroyers capsized in the Pacific due to lack of ballast. Approximately 1,000 men went to their graves.
(16) The news of the sinking of the 'Prince of Wales' was the most shocking news in the life of Winston Churchill.
(17) Kenya won their independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, after years of bloody fighting that took 13,500 lives through warfare waged by the militant Mau Mau Society.
THE FOLLOWING VESSELS MADE UP CONVOY WILLIAM SAIL 12X
Rear Admiral Arthur B. Cook, Commander in 'Ranger' SOAP-OTC-COM AIR LANT(a)
SCREEN: Screen Commander - Captain T C Kinaid (c) in 'Wainwright'
The late BRIAN DENSON