O N.S. 154
This is a story of one convoy that crossed the Atlantic Ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic which started in 1939 and ended on V.E. Day.
O.N.S. identifies the convoy as a "slow, westbound convoy". The speed of the convoy was dictated by the speed of the slowest ships, which in those times would vary from 6 knots to 10 knots.
The date, December 19th, 1942.
The escorts for this convoy were H.M.C.S. St. Laurent, a destroyer and convoy commander. Canadian Corvettes Shediac, Napanee, Battleford, Chilliwack, Kenogame, plus a special service Royal Naval Light Cruiser, H.M.S. Fidelity.
45 merchant ships, most in ballast, plus two passenger ships, were mainly heading for Boston and New York.
The convoy left Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland and ran into a hurricane. Because it was known that a large U-boat pack was in their path the convoy was routed towards the Azores. The convoy was now 600 miles west of Ireland and being pounded by heavy seas; the escorts had already been battered by a winter hurricane on its eastern convoy, just five days before joining O.N.S. 154.
On Christmas Day the convoy changed direction from southwest to due south in order to avoid another U‑boat concentration which lay across its path. The new course carried the convoy into the mid-Atlantic gap, infamously referred to as the Black Pit, because it was an area that was out of range of land based air power.
Two searching U‑boats located the convoy on Boxing Day and in the early morning on December 27 the first torpedoes struck. Over the next four days, two wolf packs totalling 20 U-boats attacked the convoy. The U‑boats circled the convoy on the surface and attacked on the surface. The five corvettes and the destroyer could not leave the convoy exposed and could not attack. U‑boats can run at 22 knots on the surface, a corvette can only go 16 knots and only for a short time. Fuel was running low which also curtailed attacking. U356 attacked and sank ‘Empire Union’, ‘Melrose Abbey’ and ‘King Edward’. ‘Soekaboemi’ was crippled with a gaping hole in her stern and fell behind the convoy. She was later torpedoed once more and finally sank. St. Laurent attacked sinking U356. On the morning of December 27, U225 torpedoed the tanker ‘Scottish Heather’ which was there to fuel the escorts, she remained afloat and was able to return to England. This left the escorts with no chance to refuel.
On December 28 the convoy was attacked from all directions; U597 sank ‘Norse King’, U225 sank ‘Melmore Head’ and ‘Ville de Rouen’, U260 sank ‘Empire Wagtail’, U406 sank ‘Baron Cochrane’, ‘Lynton Grace’ and ‘Zarian’. U225, on its second pass, sank ‘President Francqui’ and the convoy commodore's ship, ‘Empire Shackleton’.
In a two hour period nine ships were sunk, producing a scene of chaos; men in the water, some lifeboats and debris, rafts with men hanging to the sides. All corvettes were attacking as best they could. Shediac dropped 90 depth charge and the others did the same. Gunfire was constant. Action continued until midnight when suddenly all was quiet. Picking up survivors was consistent during the early morning of the 29th. HMS Fidelity was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 334 sailors. In mid‑afternoon, on the 29th, two British destroyers, HMS Milne and Meteor arrived from Gibraltar. There were still many U‑boats in contact but several had been damaged and were anxious to leave. Two U.S. Coast Guard ships joined on the 30th. and the remaining ships made their way to America.
Shediac and Battleford ran out of fuel and were towed into Ponta del Grada, in the Azores, by Milne and Meteor.
O.N.S. 154 was a total disaster of the first order. This battle was watched closely by the Admiralty and Ottawa naval staff. O.N.S. 154 was described as the hardest hit convoy of the Battle of Atlantic at that time.
14 ships were sunk, 486 sailors and merchant crew died. One U‑boat was sunk and some U‑boats received minor damage. Very little damage compared to the Allies loss. The Germans used this victory to lift the spirits of its people. Both Admiralty and Canada's naval staff spent hundreds of hours making changes with the hope that this could not happen again.
In Ponta del Grada the Shediac tied up astern of a U‑boat. It was December 31st, New Year's Eve. In a neutral port you are not allowed to go ashore. However, the native people were swarming on the jetty and handing bottles of wine to the Germans. When Shediac and Battleford tied up they did the same for the Canadians. Some of the U‑boat crew went ashore and the Shediac crew followed:
By this time, most of both crews were under the influence. We got into a pub type restaurant with Germans and Canadians at adjoining tables, approximately 30 German sailors and 40 Canadians. The German sailors sent over a round of beer and wine; we did the same and soon we were sitting at each others tables. There was not a nasty word said. The place closed at 1:00 am and we walked back to our vessels together. Shediac and Battleford left at 8:00 am on New Year's Day but the U‑boat was not allowed to leave until eight hours later. Shediac and Battleford both arrived at St. John’s, Newfoundland on January 8th, 1943.
Ted Paxton was then a Leading Seaman on Shediac in charge of depth charges and all explosives (except gunnery) aboard ship. He had been on North Atlantic runs for nineteen months, all of it during what the German's called "The Happy Hunting Grounds".
Ted left Shediac on January 9th, 1942. He received his commission, taking Officer Training at King's College in Halifax. He graduated May 5, 1943 at 12 noon and by 5:00 pm was onboard the ‘Queen of Bermuda’, a troop ship bound for England. On arrival there he joined the Royal Navy, finally heading for the Burma and Far East theatre and did not return to Canada until February, 1946.
Ted relates that these ships were fashioned after 'Whale Catchers' which had been used in British waters for many years. They were originally intended to be used as auxiliary vessels for inshore duties.
They were 225 feet long, 750 tons, single screw, magnetic compass; no RDF (Range Direction Finding) on board, until 1943.
They carried ASDIC (Anti-submarine detection); one 4" gun, WWl vintage; 110 depth charges; four 50 caliber machine guns; and top speed of 16 knots.
The ship was designed to hold 56 to 60 crew, but normally 70 to 80 crew were on board. A total of 122 were built.