Monday, 8 June 2009

A Ship Called Oswestry - Part 2

While the second ship to bear the name of Oswestry Grange may have been an adopted member of the family, it met with a similar end to its predecessor, falling foul of one of the most devastating convoy attacks of the Second World War... Convoy SLS 64.

Part Two: The Rhodesian Prince

AS THE first World War ended, the Houlder Brothers shipping company looked to replace the first Oswestry Grange, sunk in a U-boat attack. A new ship, The Rhodesian Prince, was bought and renamed to replace her, but less than four years after Oswestry’s name had been painted across her side, it would face an even more devastating attack than its predecessor.

It was 1937, some 20 years after the demise of the first Oswestry Grange that it’s replacement took to the Houlder supply routes, enjoying just four years of plain sailing. By late January in 1941, enough ships had assembled at Freetown in Sierra Leone, to make up a convoy, but from the outset things looked bleak.

Nineteen of the merchant ships were in such a poor state that they could not maintain the minimum convoy speed of nine knots, but worse still, the navy then announced they could not spare enough ships to escort them.

Convoy SL64 set sail for Liverpool, passing by the navy gunships in port as they headed out to sea, where the 19 slower vessels were soon left behind, leaving the remaining 28 ships to plough on with just a single ocean escort for defence.

A few days in, news reached the crew of Oswestry that convoy HG63, who had started out just a few days earlier, had been attacked. The German submarine U-37 and a squadron of Condor aircraft had sunk six of the ships and damaged a seventh, which had also later sunk, but just when the surviving vessels had thought the worst was over, a large unidentified destroyer had loomed onto the scene, sinking the defenceless Iceland.

The days that followed would have been agonising onboard Oswestry, whose 42 men knew they were being hunted and must have holding their breath as their convoy attempted to slip by unnoticed. Finally there was relief, when two days later on February 19, it seemed the navy had had a change of heart and come to their aid.

The convoy’s log entry read: “06:05 - The Margot sights strange Man o’ War” but it was then that the large unfamiliar ship on the horizon hoisted its battle ensign. It was the Admiral Hipper.

A steely 200m long metal giant, the Admiral Hipper was the first of it’s kind. A new class of German heavy cruiser, designed for the sole purpose of smashing allied supply lines. It was hailed as a new breed of merchant raider, but it’s first outing had not gone well, inflicting only minor damage before engine problems forced the metal monster to limp embarrassingly back to port for repairs. It had remained there for more than a month. Now, finally returned to sea, the Admiral Hipper was out to prove a point.

For Oswestry and the convoy, there was no chance of escape. More than 18,000 tons of German military might was bearing down on the convoy at 30knots. The Hipper carried a crew of 830 and was heavily armed with eight-inch guns as well as 21inch torpedoes, and it was just a few minutes before she was within range and brought her guns to bear.

The Hipper opened fire on the convoy from 3,000 yards. The convoy’s commodore immediately signalled for all ships to alter course, but in their haste the Margot and Blairatholl altered early. It was just what the Hipper had been waiting for and it attacked, destroying first the Warlaby, then the Derrynane, the Westbury, Perseus, Borgestad, Lornaston and finally the Oswestry Grange.

Three ships Derrynane, Borgestad and Lornaston attempted to fight back opening fire on the Hipper, the Borgestad even appearing to hit its control tower, but in return for their display of defiance, the official report describes the three ships as receiving “very heavy punishment.”

The Derrynane and Borgestad were sunk with all hands lost and the Lornaston left badly damaged as the Hipper turned it’s attention back to the merchant vessels, opening fire on the Margot, before the worsening weather came to the convoy’s salvation, forcing the cruiser to break off it’s attack.

Oswestry had been hit in the engine room on her port side, damaging her bridge and shelter deck.

The crew managed to launch the lifeboats and 37 survivors were picked up five hours later, but one boat had been damaged and capsised, drowning five crew. These men are commemorated at the Canadian Halifax Memorial, while George Medals were awarded to the ship’s British, Greek, and Norwegian captains.

It was a desperately sad end for the second Oswestry Grange, while the Hipper would go on to become known as a potent but temperamental killer, deadly at sea, but spending more and more time under repair.

Hitler would eventually become disillusioned with the Kriegsmarine surface fleet and after the Admiral Hipper was used, partly-repaired, to evacuate troops from the Eastern Front, it was scuttled in dock at the Kiel Deutsche Werke yards in 1945, before being broken for scrap in 1948.

CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE - The Oswestry Grange


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