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

Saturday 9 March 2013

More from The Hamburg Bunker

The Heiligengeistfeld Flakturm (All images author's photos)
Following the last edition of the blog which covered the Hamburg Air Raid Shelter Museum, this week's edition is mainly a pictorial effort in order to share some more photographs taken during my recent visit to the Hanseatic port on the River Elbe.

The first picture shows one of the remaining Flakturm or Flak Towers, of which numerous examples survive across Germany, mainly by dint of the their sound concrete construction. This particular tower is a Flakturm IV, dating from 1942 and can be found on the Heiligengeistfeld, adjacent to St Pauli FC's Millerntor Stadion. The concrete walls are 3.5 metres thick and were designed to be able to withstand anything that the RAF and USAAF had in their arsenal at the time. The RAF's 22,000 lb Grand Slam bomb, introduced in 1944, could undoubtedly have penetrated the bunkers but these bombs were never used in area bombing and instead were used on precision military targets such as railway viaducts and U-Boats pens; indeed Hamburg was the target for some of these massive bombs, when right at the end of the war, on 9th April 1945, they were used to successfully destroy the U-Boat Pens at the Blohm & Voss Shipyard.

The Light gun platform on the Flakturm
Going back to the Flakturm, they were designed to carry four heavy anti aircraft guns - usually 88mm or 128mm pieces on each corner, with smaller guns, usually 37mm or 20mm - on the surrounding gallery. Inside, each tower was designed as an air raid shelter, with space for upto 10,000 civilians in reasonable comfort, also including a hospital. During the Operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in the summer of 1943, space in these towers would have been much sought after. The similar towers in Berlin became extremely overcrowded during the final days of Nazi rule over that city in April and May 1945, when some 30,000 civilians crowded into each shelter as the Red Army encroached upon the city. Needless to say, with those number crammed into the towers, conditions rapidly deteriorated and soon the towers soon became scenes of unimaginable squalor.

Today, the Hamburg Flakturm sees a much more peaceful usage, being used as a nightclub, music school and a music store, as well as benignly overlooking the Hamburger Dom funfair three times a year as well as numerous exhibitions and circuses and the fortnightly football crowds visiting St Pauli FC's Millerntor Stadion. There is also a second Flakturm in Hamburg, on the southern side of the River Elbe, in the Wilhelmsburg district which I have yet to visit but will hopefully do so on my next trip to the city. Due to their immensely strong construction, these towers have often proved difficult to demolish; indeed, one local informed me that if explosives were used to destroy the Heiligengeistfeld tower, half of neighbouring St Pauli would be taken out with it!

The Baumwall Shelter
Nazi Eagle over entrance
The other bunker that I photographed in Hamburg was an example of a Rundturm or Round Tower, of which there are several surviving examples, usually located adjacent to a convenient S-Bahn station. The example shown here is located at Baumwall, close to the Landungsbrucken Station as well as the Baumwall U-Bahn Station. These shelters were somewhat more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, being brick clad and having a conical shape roof. This roof, despite it's pleasing shape, actually had a practical use, being reinforced to allow incendiary bombs to bounce off harmlessly onto the ground. Inside, these shelters were of smaller capacity than the Flakturm, being normally able to accommodate 600, although during the 1943 raids, no doubt a much larger number managed to squeeze inside. These towers were completed very quickly during the early months of 1940, but despite the rapidity of their construction, they proved very sturdy and in Hamburg alone, some twelve of these Rundturn survive to this day, their modern day usage varying from a Portuguese restaurant in the Baumwall shelter, to that of a bar and also for industrial storage. One detail that has survived almost intact on all of these shelters, is the large Nazi Eagle over the entrance. Almost intact except for one detail; the Swastika has been chiselled off or cemented over in every instance.

So, to return to the Air Raid Shelter Museum in Hamm. In the previous edition of this blog, we described the Museum in some detail as well as some background information concerning the Operation Gomorrah raids of July and August 1943 but space precluded the inclusion of all of my photographs, so in answer to various requests to see some more, here goes.

An Air-Raid Siren on display in the museum
Luftschutz helmets
Some of our group examining the artefacts on display
Warped bottle and head of British 4lb incendiary bomb
The first shot shows an air raid siren on display - obviously, in wartime, these were located all across the city in various locations, usually on top of public buildings where the sound could be easily projected across the city. The second shot shows steel helmets used by the Luftschutz - the German equivalent of the ARP or Civil Defence Wardens. Like their British equivalents, these wardens were largely volunteers and could be male or female. The next shot shows some of the members of our group examining some of the various artefacts on display within one of the shelter tunnels, whilst finally in this series of four images, we see another of the bottles discovered outside warped into an odd shape by the incredible temperatures generated in the firestorm of 27th July 1943, whilst alongside it we see the remnants of one of the approximately 350,000 British 4lb incendiary bombs dropped on Hamburg and which were largely responsible for the conflagration.

'Public Air Raid Shelter This Way'

Child's Gas Mask

No Smoking!
The next series of three photographs show a sign that would have been prominent across all towns and cities across Germany and basically is a direction sign that say 'For Public Air Raid Shelter' with a large arrow pointing in the direction of safety. Next we see an example of a child's gas mask. In the Second World War, both sides feared a repetition of the horror of the First World War's use of poison gas and equipped their civilian populations and armed forces with gas masks. Indeed both Allied and Axis powers did have stockpiles of Mustard Gas as well as other gasses but mercifully, neither side ever used them. Finally, in this series, we see a 'No Smoking' sign still extant on one of the tunnel walls.

Luftschutz members at work

Cutlery twisted by the Firestorm

Diagram of a British 500lb High Explosive Bomb

Our final set of three photos show female Luftschutz wardens disposing of British incendiary bombs in an article taken from a contemporary publication. The second image is another view of some cutlery twisted into fantastic shapes by the intense heat of the Firestorm - these items were found buried in the ground surrounding the bunker, whilst the final shot is a diagram of a British 500 lb High Explosive bomb, from one of which the large piece of shrapnel on display inside the museum is taken.

On my next visit to Hamburg, I will visit the Museum again in order to purchase some more archive images so as to produce some 'then and now' comparisons from the neighbourhood to show just how the area was altered almost beyond recognition by the Firestorm.

In the meantime, thanks again to Gunnar Wulf for guiding our group around this excellent museum and for ensuring that the people of Hamburg remain aware of this terrible page in their past history.

Published Sources:

Inferno: The Destruction of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Penguin Viking 2007