Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Battle of The Atlantic: A survivor in London

HQS Wellington today (author's photo)

Last weekend saw the seventy fifth anniversary of the launch of a ship that in more recent years has become something of a London landmark, or rivermark to be more accurate. That ship is the cruiser HMS Belfast which has been a familiar sight in the Upper Pool of London for some 42 years now since her opening as a museum ship in October 1971; in fact she has now been a museum ship for a longer period than she saw active Royal Navy service. We shall look at her career in a future edition of this blog as HMS Belfast has another significant anniversary coming up later in the year.

There is another former Second World War Royal Navy vessel moored a short distance upstream from the Pool of London that is passed by thousands of people every day, without more than a fraction of them realising that the smart little white ship that they see today, is in fact a veteran of the Battle of The Atlantic.

That ship is HQS Wellington, a Grimsby class sloop and the only survivor, at least in UK waters, of the Battle of The Atlantic. Originally one of a class of eight ships for Royal Navy service, HMS Wellington as she was christened, was built by HM Dockyard, Devonport and completed on 24th January 1935. As built, she was armed with two 4.7 inch guns, one 3 inch anti-aircraft and was capable of 16.5 knots. The raison d'etre of these sloops was primarily as patrol and escort vessels, with some vessels being capable of minesweeping duties. In keeping with other Royal Navy sloops of the time, the Grimsby class were all named after British coastal towns and seaports. However, an exception was made for Wellington, the final ship of the class. Destined for service on the New Zealand Station, she was named after the capital city of that country and following her commissioning and working up exercises, she sailed for New Zealand and arrived at her namesake city on 13th May 1935.

HMS Wellington in 1943 (Convoyweb)

The remaining years of peacetime service saw Wellington settling into a routine of patrols around the New Zealand coast and the South Pacific, with occasional visits to Sydney for her annual docking and refit. On the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939, she sailed from Auckland for her wartime station of Singapore, where she arrived on the 19th of that month. She was then based at Penang until 2nd November, when she sailed for the United Kingdom. En route home, Wellington was diverted to Freetown where she collected convoy SL13 bound for Liverpool. Following safe delivery of the convoy on 6th January 1940, Wellington sailed to Cardiff, where she arrived on 9th January.

On completion of this refit, Wellington joined Western Approaches Command based at Devonport and later at Liverpool, from where she escorted many Atlantic and Gibraltar convoys. In May and June 1940, her escort duties were interrupted whilst she was involved in the evacuation of British troops from Le Havre and St Valery. She then resumed her Atlantic and Gibraltar escort duties until the middle of 1941, when she joined the long distance escorts on the Freetown route. She remained on this route until November 1942, when she became involved in the escorting of the fast troop convoys to and from North Africa following Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, after which she returned to Freetown to escort convoys from there to ports on the Nigerian coast. During this period, one of her commanding officers was John Treasure-Jones, who would become famous as the final captain of the Cunard liner Queen Mary, but then serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve.

Lt.Cdr John Treasure-Jones in 1943
What must have been a welcome respite for the men of HMS Wellington came in May 1944, when she was sent to Bermuda for a two month refit, after which the ship was sent to the Clyde for further work. On completion of the refit, Wellington returned to Freetown in September 1944 and transferred to Gibraltar in January 1945 to serve out the remainder of the war. A satisfying moment for HMS Wellington came right at the end of the war, when the German U-Boat U-541 surrendered to the elderly sloop. Her war over, HMS Wellington returned to the UK in June 1946 and following de-storing, paid off into reserve at Milford Haven on 6th August 1945.

Normally, this would have been the end of the line for Wellington and it could reasonably have been expected that she would join the long line of tired fighting ships heading for the scrapyard but after nearly two years of languishing in reserve, this proud vessel earned an unexpected reprieve when she was purchased by the Honourable Company of Master Mariners to serve as their floating Livery Hall in King's Reach on the River Thames. During a major refit at Chatham Dockyard, her engines and boilers were removed and the large space vacated became the Livery Hall with fine wood panelling and a sweeping staircase, all salvaged from passenger vessels being scrapped. Re-christened HQS Wellington (for Headquarters Ship) this remarkable survivor arrived at her new berth in December 1948 and apart from a drydocking at Sheerness in 1991, has been a permanent feature of the London scene ever since.

On July 1st 2005, the ship's ownership was transferred to The Wellington Trust, a charitable body established to ensure the continued survival of this historic vessel.

As a working ship, HQS Wellington is not normally open to the public but is available to hire for weddings, conferences and parties and is usually a participant in the London Open House Weekend, which this year is taking place over the weekend of 21st/22nd September 2013. An excellent chance to visit the ship outside of this weekend is a special exhibition being held this year to mark the seventieth anniversary of the climax of the Battle of The Atlantic. This free exhibition, entitled 'CONVOY: The Battle of The Atlantic' runs from 12th May to 16th December 2013 and is open from 11:00 to 17:00 on Sundays and Mondays only during this time.

Next time you are walking or driving along Victoria Embankment past this trim white ship, remember the part played in keeping open our sea lanes not only by the Wellington but by all of the ships and men of the Allied navies and merchant fleets.

Published Sources:

BEF Ships before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Sloops - Arnold Hague, World Ship Society 1993
Warships of World War II - HT Lenton and JJ Colledge, Ian Allan 1973

Web Resources:

Arnold Hague Convoy Database
The Wellington Trust Official Website

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