BACKGROUND to the WS CONVOYS
After 25 June 1940, when France surrendered to Germany, Britain and the
Dominions became the only Allied nations free to prosecute the war with Germany
and Italy, a condition that persisted until Italy decided to provoke conflict
with Greece in the autumn of 1940.
In those traumatic days, with the
invasion of Britain anticipated, and
indeed tentatively planned for mid September 1940, it was an act of
considerable faith to despatch from Britain such forces as were then available.
The reason for this decision was that Egypt and East Africa had only garrisons
which were much reduced from even the pre‑war scale, while Libya and
Italian East Africa contained considerable enemy forces; indeed British
Somaliland was, perforce, evacuated due to lack of British and Indian troops in
sufficient numbers to oppose the Italian advance.
As the potential attacks from Libya and East Africa were such as to
threaten not only the Suez Canal but also, eventually, the oil resources of
Iraq and Persia, it became necessary to reinforce the Egyptian garrison.
Despite the possible events at home therefore, troops, as well equipped as
could be from the depleted arsenals in Britain, were sent via the Cape of Good Hope to Egypt
to form what became known as the Desert Army under General Wavell. This force
acquitted itself very well indeed, and stabilised the situation in Egypt and
Libya in Britain's favour.
Thereafter, as the fortunes of war swung like a pendulum in the vacuum
of the North African desert, greater and greater resources had to be committed,
whatever the position at home. Also, war was looming further East with the
increasing menace of Japan, and the position in India, Malaya and the Indies
generally was of major concern.
Faced with such an obvious threat, and with the possibility of the
invasion of Britain rapidly receding (it was apparent as early as 10.1940 that
the original plans had been abandoned) reinforcement of Egypt and India became
of prime importance. The early ad hoc convoys (designated as AP 1, 2, 3 and 3½ )
were therefore replaced by a series known as WS. Legend has it that these
initials, which oddly bear no relation to origin or destinations as convoy
codes usually do, were derived from "Winston's Special" as the first
convoy was organised on the explicit orders of the Prime Minister.
The first WS convoy set the scene dramatically both in content and
conduct. The sight of three major Cunard liners, QUEEN MARY, AQUITANIA and
MAURETANIA steaming at maximum speed in line ahead in the peaceful seas of the
Indian Ocean escorted by HMS KENT must have been magnificent. It certainly
appeared so to a young Midshipman onboard, known to the Gunroom as "Phil
the Greek", more properly Midshipman Prince Philip of the Hellenes, now
HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
The initial convoy ‑ to Ceylon as such large ships could not be
risked in the Red Sea with the Italian Regia Marina still based in East Africa ‑
was followed by successive convoys routed through to Suez. After the Italian
forces had been eliminated from East Africa, convoy was no longer required in
the Red Sea and the WS convoys thereafter dispersed off Perim, proceeding as
independent ships to Suez.
With the rising menace in the Far East, which became war in December
1941, troop convoys to sustain India were also required. This need was
satisfied by extending the WS series, an arrangement that continued until mid
1943. After that date the opening of the Mediterranean to major vessels
following the defeat of the Axis in North Africa shortened the route with the
Suez Canal once again accessible from the west. This resulted in the demise of
the WS series and its replacement by the KMF convoys which were extended to
Port Said from the North African ports, and by the AB convoys from Aden to
The most startling fact regarding all troop convoys in World War II is
the non‑event they were. They proceeded, and almost nothing untoward
happened! Given the very large numbers of personnel transported over long
distances at a time of extreme danger at sea, it is amazing that not only were
losses, in this and other series, minimal, but that even unsuccessful attack
was uncommon. Indeed, the most successful strike at a WS convoy occurred as a
result of minelaying some time prior to its arrival by an undetected raider!
Both the participants personally, and the nation as a whole should be supremely
grateful that such large, high risk, ventures with so many young men on board
were able "to pass upon the seas on their lawful occasions" without
undue hazard or loss.
Total figures for troops lifted in troop convoys are not easily
calculable, but the ships involved normally carried between 2,000 and 4,000
troops apiece, which will give some idea of the effort involved. Furthermore,
the convoys were not simply a transport of soldiers; each WS convoy conveyed a
complete military formation of many thousands of troops plus their personal
baggage and equipment, stores, MT, artillery, armour etc so that the entire
force, on arrival, formed a complete fighting unit at Divisional level. Royal
Air Force personnel, in large numbers, were also lifted both to Egypt and to
India; Royal Navy drafts were, at the time of WS convoys, in the minority. The
later KMF convoys, which were to supplement existing formations, tended not to
be accompanied by the MT ships. Overall, it is probable that well in excess of
2,000,000 Servicemen took passage in the WS and KMF convoy sequences between
1940 and 1945.
The following pages are a chronological listing of the convoys,
(including for the sake of completeness the preceding AP convoys) showing their
constituent ships and destinations and their escorts.
It is hoped that this work will, to some extent, satisfy the increasing
enquiries from former Merchant Navy personnel and Servicemen that can be summed
up by the question "I went to India in .........., I remember sailing from
X in the liner Y on Z, can you tell me which convoy I was in and what
happened?" This text should answer all such enquiries providing the memory
extends to the date of sailing, not always easy after a lapse of some fifty
The point has been made earlier that WS convoys were routed via the Cape
of Good Hope to Egypt and, later, India. This set a pattern of Clyde, Freetown,
Capetown/Durban and onwards; but, while this was the normal route, it was
subject to inevitable alterations.
While ships loaded and sailed from such ports as Avonmouth, Liverpool
and the Clyde, only the latter provided an anchorage large enough to sustain a
major convoy. Hence the major body assembled at Tail o'the Bank and sortied
from the Clyde to assemble off Oversay with the Bristol Channel and Liverpool
ships. Where the initial port of departure is known positively, the appropriate
initial appears after the convoy position number in the initial sailing
A - Avonmouth
C - Clyde
L - Liverpool
S - Swansea
From Britain, the first pause was at Freetown, where the shorter legged
Atlantic liners and the coal burners required fuel and the whole convoy water,
both boiler feed and potable. In fact, this enormous demand on the limited
resources of Freetown was always a major problem leading both to delays in the
troop convoys caused by the heavy demands upon labour in coaling ship, and in
the homeward bound SL trade convoys by the depletion of coal stocks, which
were, of course, shipped out from Britain. Water supplies were also a problem
in that Freetown, while certainly not bereft of rainfall, possessed only
minimal reservoir capacity which was very easily overwhelmed by large demands.
Finally, Freetown was, basically, an anchorage where all supplies had to be
loaded by hand from lighters (in the case of coal), or by water boats which
were also in short supply.
From Freetown the next call was South Africa; here again the size of
these convoys caused problems as neither Capetown nor Durban could accommodate
the whole convoy, hence the ships had to be divided between the two ports, duly
sailing and re‑assembling off Durban for the onward passage.
From Durban the normal pattern was for ships to proceed northward to the
latitude of Mombasa, there dividing, with the Bombay ships steaming East, and
the Suez contingent going North to Perim where the convoy dispersed and
proceeded to Suez independently.
Troops destined for Singapore (and therefore a dreadful fate at the
hands of the Japanese) were in ships detached after Durban from the main body
and sent direct to Singapore in a series of three convoys designated DM (Durban
As always, there were variants. Two convoys contained ships destined for
Malta, which were detached when West of Gibraltar as a separate body; one
convoy passaged from the Clyde to Brazil and thence to the Cape as its route
lay athwart the invasion convoys proceeding to North Africa in late October
1942. A further oddity was the convoy that consisted entirely of American
troopships ‑ and commissioned ships of the USN at that ‑ prior to 7
December 1941. That convoy carried troops that had gone from Britain to Canada,
were transported and escorted by the USN to Capetown, and there became a WS
convoy under British control and escort.
A final variant was one convoy composed entirely of ships loaded and
destined to seize the Azores if the political decision to attack were taken.
This convoy made the lengthy passage from the Clyde assembly anchorage to Scapa
Flow, duly returning to unload and disperse when it was decided that the
political hazard was too great!
After the successful invasion of North Africa, the troop convoys for
that theatre, designated KMF (United Kingdom to Mediterranean Fast) were, when
sailing dates coincided, amalgamated with the WS convoys to the latitude of
Gibraltar, where they divided for Freetown and the Mediterranean respectively.
Once the North African coast and
Sicily has been cleared of the enemy,
the passage of loaded troopships to Port Said became possible, and the WS
convoys were accordingly cancelled, all personnel for India thereafter
proceeding via the KMF series to Port Said, thence to Aden where the convoy was
re‑formed as one of the AB (Aden to Bombay) series.
As the initial convoys comprised a large part of the personnel ships
then available, all such shipping had to return to Britain to prepare for
further employment. Usually, this return was effected by unescorted passage
from Suez or Bombay (as appropriate) via South Africa and Freetown. However,
enemy submarine activity often imposed variations so that passage to Trinidad
either direct from the Cape or via Freetown was quite usual. Some ships even
made the passage via Cape Horn and Panama, while the home run from the West
Indies could either be direct and unescorted, or via New York or Halifax to
embark troops for Britain.
Some ships, usually those with refrigerated capacity, made their way
from Suez or Bombay to Australia and New Zealand (after December 1941 via South
Africa to avoid Japanese activity), thence to Britain via Panama and North
The smaller MT ships were not infrequently retained in the Middle East,
where their (relatively) high speed made them a desirable component for the
heavily contested convoys required to supply Malta from the east.
Ships used in the WS convoys, other than the aborted Azores enterprise,
were either liners employed as personnel ships ("troopships") or fast
freighters requisitioned as MT ships. This latter category often included
refrigerator ships from the Australasian and South American trade, despite the
fact that the multiple sub‑division of their holds made cargo handling a
complex and time consuming matter, the ability to make a high constant speed
was the overriding consideration.
The personnel ships were drawn from the North Atlantic, South American,
Cape and the long distance Eastern routes, and included coal and oil burning
steamships and motor vessels. As the war progressed foreign liners became
common in these convoys.
The inclusion of the North Atlantic steamers posed a problem as, in the
main, these ships were not self sufficient in water production (both feed and
drinking water) nor was their fuel capacity adequate for the lengthy passages
involved as they were designed to load water and to fuel at each end of the
trans‑Atlantic passage. Coal burners also caused difficulties as, again,
fuel (and sometimes ballast) limitations became apparent. In all cases
therefore, Freetown and South Africa were essential ports of call for both
water and fuel.
In the earlier convoys, some of the liners were still engaged on
something approximating to their peacetime routines. For example, the HIGHLAND
class liners with large refrigerated capacity, often took passage with the WS
convoys to either Freetown or South Africa prior to proceeding to the Plate to
load meat for the UK. In a similar fashion, the few remaining Union Castle
liners that maintained a basic service to the Cape in late 1940 and early 1941,
were also included in the convoys.
Where troop capacities are known, and by no means all of the records
have survived, the figure is shown in the Index (identified by an asterisk*).
Individuals seeking more positive data are referred to the P&O and Orient
Line records held at the National Maritime Museum, where figures for individual
voyages 1940‑45 can be extracted for a number of vessels.
Listing of Public Record Office references for WS convoys
ADM 199 ref
ADM 199 ref
978, 1026, 1423
978, 1026, 1423
978, 1026, 1423
978, 1026, 1423
978, 1026, 1423
ADM 237 files