Essays

HMS Crispin, 'Q' Ship

George Woodley, RN, 1940

An account of the action of HMS Crispin, a British cargo vessel redesigned to become convoy 'bait' for U-boats. — By George Woodley, RN

“Muster at the heavy gun battery with your kit bags and hammock, you are on draft to Glasgow, there you will be met by the Rail Transport Officer who will transport you to your destination.” So spoke the Drafting Master-at-Arms, Victory Barracks, in October 1940. The draft consisted of six Oerlikon gun crews who had just qualified on a special course for a 20mm anti-aircraft gun that had recently been introduced into the Royal Navy. We spent the journey speculating on our destination and hoped it would be one of the many new destroyers being built on the Clyde shipyards at that time. Imagine our disappointment when the lorry transporting us arrived alongside a cargo ship being fitted out at Dalmuir West, an hour's tram ride from Glasgow.

HMS Crispin was a merchant ship of some 5000-tone displacement, with a cargo of ballast and empty oil drums to give, in theory, buoyancy in times of emergency. The ship was painted brown, with black sides and buff coloured upper works. A most distressing sight compared to HMS Glengyle, which was being fitted out in the next dock basin. The Captain was Cmdr Maloney, RNR. The officers were all RNVR with the exception of the Commissioned Gunner, who was a retired officer recalled for the War.

The armament consisted of one 6" BL gun mounted on a platform on the poop deck, manned by Merchant Navy men, and used for protection against submarines. Merchantmen and RN gun layers also manned the 4" anti-aircraft gun. The anti-aircraft guns were distributed around the ship, and on the wings of the bridge were placed .303 Lewis guns.

The refit completed, we proceeded down the Clyde to Greenock where we were drilled and prepared to meet the enemy. The Captain cleared the lower deck and gave a lecture. He was an Irishman, and it was no secret that he was out for “honour and glory”. He explained that the object was to attract the German Focke-Wulf raiders, which were very large, six-engined, transport aircraft converted to bombers. They came in very low over defenceless merchant ships, especially large ones lagging behind the remainder of the convoy, which was our intention.

At sea we were to fly the Red Ensign and we were not to wear any item of RN clothing (i.e. caps, collars, etc.) on the upper deck. The Captain warned us that, should we have the misfortune to be taken as a PoW, we could not expect to be treated as such under the Geneva Convention. In other words, HMS Crispin was a “Q” Ship. He told us we were to be alert, and to remain closed up at the guns from dawn to dusk.

We left Greenock and proceeded to the practice ranges to try the guns and to sharpen up the drills. The guns were concealed in large metal boxes, camouflaged to look like upper deck cargo. (Mine was disguised as an aircraft crate.)

HMS Crispin, 'Q' Ship (Reg. Liverpool)

A convoy was assembled and put to sea, destination—Halifax, Nova Scotia. A destroyer escort came close by and signaled, “What is your cargo?” It was embarrassing to say the least, but the Captain replied with some Irish “blarney”. Once out into the Atlantic it was very cold on the northern route, and the seas were very rough. It was extremely unpleasant to be on a cold steel platform with only a duffle coat for warmth.

We were expected to be alert at all times, keeping the guns clean and ready for action. We could not read to pass the time, were extremely bored and always thankful when dusk came, although we still had to maintain a minimum night watch. After five or six days we would leave the convoy and rendezvous with another en route to the UK. This next convoy took us to Liverpool.

We sailed down the Mersey and anchored. For the next ten days we gave AA protection to assembling ships for the next convoy. We then put to sea and this was where we were to spend Christmas. We had our Christmas dinner in the evening because we were at “action stations” all day. The voyage passed uneventfully except for a couple of U-Boat alarms that came to nothing. The Atlantic remained true to form with cold winds, rough seas and the constant rolling of the ship. As usual we were trailing astern of the convoy. We returned to the Clyde to wait for another convoy to assemble off Greenock. The escort of corvettes, destroyers and trawlers arrived and we left once again for the North Atlantic.

The first three days were uneventful. We watched the usual escorts of Sunderland flying boats and other long-range aircraft of coastal command. The fourth day a submarine was reported on the surface, and at night you could see “Starshell” illuminating the sky over the convoy. It came to nothing, but a lot of sleep was lost through being at “action stations”.

On the fifth day we left the convoy to rendezvous with another coming from Halifax to the UK. We were then at our most vulnerable, without escort. We were out of range of the Focke-Wulfs and we were making a steady 10 knots in rough seas with gale force winds imminent. I was watch on the first deck for the first watch (8p.m.–midnight), and sheltering from the storm in the passageway by the steering motor room, when suddenly there was a terrific explosion which lifted me off my feet, followed by the smell of burning explosive. It was 2200 hours. We had been hit by a torpedo, which had struck the bulkhead separating the engine room and the for’ard hold beneath the bridge. One “greaser” (stoker) was killed by the explosion and the NAAFI canteen manager had a lucky escape. He was blown out of his bunk and his cabin was wrecked. His young assistant was not so lucky and died as a result of his wounds.

The ship stopped and wallowed helplessly, the light went out, and all was silent except for the wind. The water rushed into the engine room and the hold. The ship took on a list to port, and as she rolled, the empty barrels in the hold sounded like thunder in the distance as they moved around. Instead of keeping the ship afloat, the barrels floated out into the Atlantic, so much for the theory of buoyancy! We mustered in the Wardroom, below the bridge, for roll call. We then prepared to abandon ship. My station was the starboard lifeboat, a sturdy Royal Navy cutter.

This was a 32' boat with twelve oars, which had been disguised with a false stern to look like a Merchant Navy boat. The order to “Abandon Ship” was given. My Divisional Officer came along to say “Goodbye and good luck.” I was told later that the raft was launched, the Divisional Officer jumped into the sea to get to the raft, but he disappeared and was never seen again.

Able Seaman “Jumper” Cross and myself were experienced with cutters and we lowered the boat, which was overloaded with about 50 men, to just above the crest of the swell, which was not easy in the darkness. We then went down the lifelines and met the boat as it rose. The pins holding the safety catches were removed and the boat launched on a wave with a big splash.

We pushed and struggled to get the boat clear of the ship, and when clear we manned the oars, three men to each oar, and pulled for dear life to keep the boat bows to the wind. The waves were breaking and flooding the boat and there was a grave danger of overturning. We had to pull hard on the oars with the Officer Coxswain calling the stroke, and the crew calling out in unison—but they were the cries of desperate men. I was wet, cold, and very frightened. The Officer-in-Charge gave us encouragement when he said, “Every ship in the Atlantic knows that the Crispin is in distress and help is imminent”, but it was a dark moonless night as the gale continued. One moment we would be on the crest of a wave and the next moment 30' to 50' down in the trough. We were tired, but continued to row, it kept us warm.

We were 700-mile northwest of Ireland. Just before 0600 hours a destroyer appeared and circled to give us a “lee” and we came alongside. There were many willing hands to help us on board. Our saviour was HMS Harvester, a fairly new destroyer that had been built for the Brazilian Navy and commandeered by the Royal Navy. I well remember the relief I felt as I stepped on board. We were welcome to share their crowded mess deck, which was to be our home for the next four days. Regrettably, HMS Harvester was sunk, with a great loss of life, four months later.

It was the 2nd of February 1941 and HMS Crispin had been sunk by U107. Altogether there were 119 survivors picked up by a corvette and other escort ships. Eight officers and twelve ratings were lost, among them the Captain and the young Yeoman of Signals, who had remained on the bridge to signal for assistance. An unnecessary loss of life in my opinion.

— George Woodley

THe discharge book of HMS Crispin survivor Peter Jackson of Liverpool, showing the official stamp indicating the sinking of the 'Q' ship: "Vessel lost by enemy action". (Peter Jackson was the Grandfather of Selina Dykes, wife of Tom Dykes, Battle of the Atlantic Project Designer.)

NameHMS Crispin
TypeOcean boarding vessel
Tonnage5.051 tons
Completed1935 - Cammell Laird & Co Ltd, Birkenhead
OwnerThe Admiralty
HomeportLiverpool
NationalityBritish
Date of attack3 Feb 1941
FateSunk by U-107 (Günter Hessler)
Position56.38N, 20.05W - Grid AL 0249
Complement141 men (20 dead and 121 survivors)
ConvoyOB-279 (dispersed)

History: In August 1940, the steam merchant Crispin of Booth Steamship Co Ltd (Booth Line), Liverpool was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and converted to the ocean boarding vessel HMS Crispin, armed with two 6in guns and some light AA-guns.

Notes on loss: At 23.33 hours on 3 Feb, 1941, the HMS Crispin (Cdr B. Maloney DSO DSC RNR), dispersed from convoy OB-279, was torpedoed and damaged by U-107 north-northwest of Rockall. The vessel foundered the following day in 5652N/2022W. The commander and 120 officers and ratings were picked up by the HMS Harvester (H 19) (Lt C.M. Thornton DSC), the sole escort of the ship, and landed at Liverpool.