Compiled by Ron Tovey
Swansea had suffered as badly as anywhere in the U.K. as a result of the severe air raids the German war machine had thrown at it since the outbreak of the war. Many families had suffered the loss of loved ones, either through air raids, or relatives killed on active service, but an occurrence took place on the night of December 28th, 1942, over 1200 miles from Swansea, that was to have a devastating effect on many families in Swansea, especially on the east side of the River Tawe. This followed closely after the loss of many local men, many of them in their twenties, on the S.S. Ocean Crusader just four weeks earlier.
The Empire Wagtail was a vessel of 4892 G.R.T. 380 ft x 53 ft which had been built in 1919, at Tacoma , Washington as the Ossining. In 1932 she became the Point Lobos of the Gulf Pacific Mail Line Inc., and 1942 the Empire Wagtail, M.O.W.T.
The Empire Wagtail seen as the Ossining.
The vessel left Cardiff, laden with coal, to join up with Convoy
ONS 154,(OUTWARD-NORTH ATLANTIC-SLOW) bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Convoy ONS 154 had left the U.K. on December 19th and comprised of 45 Merchant ships. The Escort Group comprised of 5 corvettes of the Royal Canadian Navy, a rescue ship, and the tanker Scottish Heather, which was assigned to refuel the escorts at sea. The convoy was spread over an area 5 miles wide and 1.5 miles deep.
A typical convoy assembled in Halifax Nova Scotia prior to departure.
The year of 1942 was, in maritime terms, probably the most disastrous in World War 2, with the allied Merchant Navies suffering losses of 7,790,697 tons, 1664 ships. Of these, 1,006 ships, totalling 5,471,222tons, were lost in the Atlantic alone.
The winter of 1942/43 was one of the most vicious in living memory and the convoy experienced severe weather in the Western Approaches.
A Liberty Ship in heavy weather.
The destroyer H.M.C.S. St.Laurent joined the convoy to the west
of Ireland on 20th December.
A DIAGRAM OF CONVOY ONS 154 WITH EMPIRE WAGTAIL #111
The convoy was first sighted on the Boxing Day morning and was
shadowed by U-664. By that afternoon, the convoy had entered what
was known as the “Black Pit”, an area of the Atlantic between
Iceland and the Azores , which was beyond the protection of allied
The convoy was first attacked in the early hours of Sunday December 27th by U-356. The ‘ Empire Union’, #121, was torpedoed at 0150 hrs and sank at 0230 hrs. The next vessel to be torpedoed was the ‘Melrose Abbey’, #101 at 0150 hrs and she sank about 45mins later. Both these vessels had flanked the Empire Wagtail and she was now severely exposed to attack.
The rescue ship R.S. ‘Toward’ picked up 63 survivors from the ‘Empire Union’ and 27 from the ‘ Melrose Abbey’. The Master and Chief Steward of the ‘ Empire Union’ remained on board and went down with the ship.
Two more ships were torpedoed by U-365, the ‘Soekaboemi’ #114 at 0410hrs and the ‘King Edward’, #81 at 0415 hrs, this vessel sinking within three minutes. At about 0730hrs the rescue ship ‘Toward’ and the corvette ‘Napanee’ picked up survivors from the ‘Soekaboemi’ and shortly afterwards the ‘Toward’ picked up a lifeboat with 23 men from the King Edward.
destroyer ‘St. Laurent’ and the corvettes ‘Chilliwack’, ‘Battleford’
and ‘Napanee’ all fired depth charges at the U-356 and after 3
attacks the submarine was sunk at 0431hrs. The entire crew of 46
perished, including the commander Oblt. Ruppelt. The rest of the
wolf pack was driven off and lost contact with the convoy.
Later, on the afternoon of the 27th, the ‘Chilliwack’ picked up a sonar contact and this turned out to be U-225, which had been shadowing the fleet oiler ‘Scottish Heather’. After many hours of chase and counter chase, the U-225 finally had an opportunity to aim his torpedoes at the ‘Scottish Heather’ and at 2040hrs. the tanker was hit on her starboard side. The order was given to abandon ship and the crew took to the lifeboats.
On the morning of December 28th, U-262 made contact with the convoy and called up more U- boats. The Admiralty were now aware of the gathering danger and ordered H.M.S Milne And H.M.S Meteor, which were some distance away from the convoy, to proceed at all speed to provide reinforcements.
night of December 28th turned out to be a night of
unparalleled carnage with 19 U-boats in 2 wolf packs attacking the
convoy. A total of 9 merchant ships were torpedoed in two and a
half hours. Some survivors were picked up by other vessels, only
to be torpedoed again .After the main battle, the U-boats searched
for and sank disabled or abandoned vessels and vessels trying to
make for the Azores. The ultimate nightmare.
The attack began at 1958hrs, when 2 U-boats entered the convoy from the starboard side. Their torpedoes missed and the submarines were driven off.
Very soon after this first attack, 3 vessels were torpedoed in quick succession. The ‘Norse King’, #112, was hit at 2000hrs by U-591 followed by the ‘Melmore Head’ at 2002hrs, (U-225) sinking in about 2 minutes. At 2005 the ‘Ville de Rouen’#102, was hit (U-225) .
At 2045 the ‘Empire Wagtail’,#111, was torpedoed by U-260 ( Lt. Cdr. Puckhold) and was blown to bits. There was no sign of the vessel after the initial explosion apart from some flotsam and oil slicks, the obligatory remnants of war at sea.
official position of the sinking is 43 degrees, 17 minutes North,
27 degrees 22 minutes west.
Some of the vessels lost in Convoy ONS 154
S.S. NORSE KING
Vessel sailed from Swansea on December 14th, laden with 5,453 tons of coal, bound for Boston, Mass.
The vessel arrived in Milford Haven on December 15th, where she stayed until December 17th, then sailing for Belfast Lough, arriving the following day, meeting up with other vessels forming the convoy, finally sailing pm on the 17th.
The Norse King had a compliment of 35, 28 being Norwegian, the other 7 British. The galley boy and the mess-room boy, both of whom were British, were 16 years of age. All hands lost
S.S. LYNTON GRANGE.
Vessel sailed from Swansea carrying 5,997tons of general cargo, including government stores and explosives, bound for Saldanah Bay, Table Bay and the Middle East. She proceeded to Belfast Lough, sailing on the 17th December. The crew of 55 were all saved.
M.T. PRESIDENT FRANQUI.
A Belgian Motor Tanker, she sailed from Swansea in ballast, bound for New York, via Belfast Lough.
The vessel carried a crew of 49, the Master was captured as a prisoner of war and 5 crewmembers were lost.
S.S. EMPIRE SHACKLETON
Catapult Armed Merchant Ship (CAM)
The Empire Shackleton sailed from Liverpool on December 18th to join the convoy. The vessel was bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia with 2,000t of general cargo and 1,000t of aircraft and ammunition. She carried a compliment of 69, including the convoy Commodore. She was attacked first of all at approx. 2355h on the 28th, surviving another 2 attacks in the small hours of the 29th, before being sunk at 0543h.
The master, the commodore (Vice-Admiral Wion de Malpas Egerton DSO RN), four naval staff members, 32 crew members and seven gunners were picked up by the special service vessel HMS Fidelity (D 57) (Cdr Langlais) on 30 December, which was torpedoed and sunk the same day by U-435. Four crewmembers, two gunners and a wireless mechanic were picked up by the HMCS Shediac (K 110) (Lt J.E. Clayton) and landed at Ponta Delgada, Azores. 13 crewmembers, two naval staff members and two gunners were picked up by the British merchant vessel Calgary and landed at Freetown.
Sailed from London(?) via Loch Ewe bound for Boston Mass., & Trinidad with 3,403t of coal and 7 bags of mail.
The vessel had a complement of 34, 7 of whom were lost.
A Dutch freighter, she sailed from Gourock on December 18th, bound for Bahia and Bombay, carrying 5,000t of general cargo. The vessel had a complement of 70 of which one person was lost.
The Soekaboemi (Master H.A. van der Schoor de Boer) was hit on the
starboard side in the fore part of the ship and settled immediately by
the bow. After the 54 crew members, 12 gunners and four passengers
abandoned ship in four lifeboats, they observed the propellers were
visible over the water and that at least one man was still on board,
signalling with his torch. Shortly afterwards, the British rescue ship
Toward (Master Gordon K. Hudson) picked up the occupants of three lifeboats
and landed them at Halifax on 9 January. The master first intended to
return to his ship to assess the damage, but soon realized that his attempt
would be futile. The man still on board left the ship by a raft and was
later rescued by HMCS Napanee (K 118) (Lt S. Henderson) near wreckage of
the King Edward.
The U-boats out-numbered the convoy by three to one and during the following 3 days another 11 ships were torpedoed and altogether 510 men perished. Three of the torpedoed ships were still afloat and attempted to make the Azores, but they were detected by the U-boats and sunk.
This convoy battle had a major effect on the allies strategy regarding Atlantic Convoys and as a result naval escort duties were radically altered along with the introduction of submarine hunter/killer groups.
The Empire Wagtail was the only ship to be sunk by U-260 in the U- Boats career.
youngest person to perish in this convoy was the Empire Wagtail’s
3rd Radio Officer, Arthur Andrew Heard, of Hockley, nr.
Birmingham who was 15 yrs of age.
The Officers and Crew of the Empire Wagtail.
Gabriel Almond……Master, aged 52, Husband of Florence C. Almond of
South Shields, County Durham.
Charles Bates……Mess Room Boy, aged 18. Son of William George and Sarah Bates.
John Sutton Bathgate……Second Engineer, aged 40. Son of Archibald and Isabella Bathgate; husband of Catherine M.S. Bathgate, of Huyton, Lancashire.
Albert Edward Bidder……Storekeeper, aged 32. Son of David John and Hannah Jane Bidder, of Swansea.
Henry Bradford……Donkeyman, aged 33. Son of John William and
Elizabeth Ann Fant Bradford.
Archibald Berry Brown……Second Officer, aged 51. Son of James and Helen Brown; Husband of Emily Brown, of Severn Bridge, Gloucestershire.
Kenneth Charles Bull……Fifth Engineer, aged 22. Son of Mr. And Mrs. Henry William Bull.
Douglas Sydney Davies……Fireman, aged 20. Son of William and Phyllis Annie Davies, of Tottenham, Middlesex.
Evan Basil Davies……Able Seaman, aged 25. Son of Evan Beynon Davies and Eileen Davies.
Percival Richard Llewellyn Davies……Fireman, aged 23.
Reginald John Dow……Second Radio Officer, aged 29. Son of Alexandra and Alice Dow; husband of Sylvia M. Dow, of Splott, Cardiff.
Francis George Evans……Sailor, aged 19. Son of William and Mabel
Evans of Swansea.
Arthur John Griffiths……Able Seaman, aged 23.
Owen Griffiths……Third Engineer, aged 31.
Arthur Andrew Heard……Third radio Officer, aged 15. Son of Andrew and Ada Heard, of Hockley, Birmingham.
Benjamin Hosford……Third Officer, aged 22. Son of Benjamin Hosford, of Hastings, Hawke’s Bay, N.Z.
David Graham Isaac……Able Seaman, aged 33. Son of David John and Gwenllian Isaac; husband of Elizabeth Anne Isaac, of Fforestfach, Swansea.
John James……Donkeyman, aged 50. Son of William John and Sarah
James; husband of Amy Ivy James, of Ammanford, Carmarthenshire.
Bernard Francis Jones……Cabin Boy, aged 16. Son of Frederick Francis and Catherine Jones, of Cardiff.
James Henry Jones……Galley Boy, aged 18. Son of John James and Emily Jones, of Gosport, Hampshire.
James Henry Lack……Donkeyman, aged 40.
Charles Macdonald……Fourth Engineer, aged 23. Son of Archibald and Emily Macdonald, of Liverpool.
Thomas William Morrow……Senior Ordinary Seaman, aged 38.
Thomas Owens……Stewart, aged 26. Son of Thomas and Elizabeth Owens;
husband of Gladys Ellen Eileen Owen, of Camel’s Head, Plymouth.
Sem Samuel……Cook, aged 39. Son of Samuel and Aurelia.
Raymond George Stone……Able Seaman, aged 24, husband of Phyllis, of St. Thomas, Swansea.
Ieuan Thomas……Fireman, aged 22. Son of Mr. And Mrs. William Thomas of Ammanford, Carmarthenshire.
Sydney Charles Ward……Senior Ordinary Seaman, aged 21. Son of Charles Edwin and Florence Kate Ward.
Ivor William Watchman……Able Seaman, aged 23. Son of John and Esther Watchman, of Port Tennant, Swansea.
Rees John Williams……Carpenter, aged 29. Son of Rees and Mary H. Williams; husband of Winifred Williams, of Morriston, Swansea.
Eight D.E.M.S. gunners were also lost, and they were,
George Harold Haines, aged 34,
Ernest Hutchinson, aged 34, Arthur Jenkins, aged 27, Maurice Richard
Allington, aged 19, William Edward Mason, aged 34,
Kenneth William Sweet, aged 21, The other two D.E.M.S.*
gunners were unknown.
A V11C Class U-Boat.
Typical Torpedo Damage.
The Fidelity had rescued 2 boatloads of survivors, containing about 50 men from the Empire Shackleton, which had been hit by a torpedo.
The Fidelity had developed engine problems during the assault on ONS 154 and started to lag behind the main body of the convoy.
She was torpedoed by U – 615 ON December 29th and torpedoed and sunk by U – 435 on December 30th.
280 crew members, 51 Royal Marine Commandos, a W.R.N.S. Officer,
plus four civilians were lost. This figure does not include the
50 or so survivors from the Empire Shackleton. There were 10
I would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this booklet, for without their assistance it would have not been possible.
J. Gordon Mumford author of ‘the Black Pit and Beyond’ and his
brilliant website about O.N.S. 154.
Mr. Nigel Hogg of Smith – Hogg Ltd., for his photograph of the Empire Wagtail as the Ossining, and also copies of his grandfathers notebook entries concerning the brief life of the Empire Wagtail under the Red Ensign.