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World War 2 at Sea

 

ROUTE TO THE EAST - the WS (Winstonís Special) CONVOYS

by the late Arnold Hague, Lieutenant Commander, RNR (Rtd) (c) 2007

 

WS CONVOY BACKGROUND - THE ROUTE - THE SHIPS - THE OFFICIAL REFERENCES

Full Map repeated in following pages  (click to enlarge)

on to 1940 Sailings

 

 

Background to the WS Convoys

The Route

The Ships

Listing of Public Record Office references for WS convoys

 

 

 

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 3Ĺ ) 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 Bombay.

 

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 years.

 

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THE ROUTE

 

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 details:

 

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 Military).

 

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 America.

 

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.

 

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THE SHIPS

 

 

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

 

 

Convoy               ADM 199 ref                

Number

1                      1136

2                      1136

2B                    1136

3                      1136, 75

3A                    710

4A                    1136

4B                    1136

4C                    1136, 11

5                      11

5A                    1136, 42

5B                    1136

5BX                  708

6B                    1136

7                      1138

8A                    1138

8B                    1138

8C                    1138

8X                     1138

9A                    1138, 1211

9B                    1138

9C                    1138, 830

10                     1138

10B                  1138

10X                   1136

11                     1138

11X                   1138, 831

12                     1138

12J                   1138

12Z                   1138

14                     1138

14B                  1138

15                     1211

15B                  1211

16                     1211

17                     1211, 1887

 

Convoy             ADM 199 ref      

number

17BZ                 1211

18                     1211

19                     1211

19W                 1214

19L                   1211

19P                  1211

19PB                1211

19W                 1214

20                     1211

21                     1211

21A                  1211

21P                  1211

22                     1211

23                     1211, 1887

24                     1211

25                     1211

26                     975, 978, 1026, 1423

27                     975, 978, 1026, 1423

28                     975, 978, 1026, 1423

29                     975, 978, 1026, 1423

30                     975, 978, 1026, 1423

31                     1026

32                     1026

 

Convoy              ADM 237 files

number

8A                    267

15                     268

17                     269

19P                  269

20                     227

21                     270

21P                  270

21S                  270

 

 

 

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revised 4/12/10