Alfred Harold Webb
OF ATLANTIC CONVOYS VITAL TO EVENTUAL VICTORY" by Mike
Transatlantic cruise was a very personal experience for Mike
Webb of The Dover War Memorial Project. His father, Alfred,
endured a seemingly endless nightmare on the same waters during
the Second World War ...
father was a junior Merchant Navy officer on transatlantic
convoy duties. His was was one of attrition that needed both
flight and fight to prevent the Germans sinking sufficient
vessels to overwhelm Britain's ship-building capacity,
nullifying her merchant-marine strength.
packs came close to winning the Battle of the Atlantic, edging
Britain towards the brink of starvation. However, despite the
carnage, the Axis powers failed. Germany achieved its monthly
target of destroying 300,000 gross tons of Allied shipping in
only four of the first 27 months of war. Nevertheless, victory
demanded a towering price. More than 72,000 Allied navy and
merchant seamen perished as 3,500 merchant ships (14.5 million
gross tons) and 17 warships were sunk. Convoy HX72 provides a
chilling example. On September 21, 1940, 42 merchantmen,
attacked by a pack of four U-boats, lost 11 ships with two
damaged. On some convoys a third of Allied mariners perished.
In such carnage
my father was helpless before fate - just another brave man
doing his duty for his country. there was nothing he could do
but his job. His safety relied on the escorting naval vessels.
His convoys plodded towards destination in ever-present danger,
limpoing at the speed of the slowest ship while the Royal Navy
chivvied them like sheepdogs.
deck, aboard an Atlantic cruise ship, is magnificent - infinite
raw nature in all its glory. The nothingness is huge - just
endless empty sea. I imagined that same scene on board a tensed
convoy ship - either total emptiness or death, and "Please God,
not this time", until the comparative safety of landfall at St
John', Nova Scotia, hove into view over 2,000 harrowing miles
from home. -I imagined how anguished, exhausted, and
buffeted those men were. I imagined how taut their nerves. I
envisioned winter convoys, the cold, the wet, the ice, the fog,
the gales, the storms. Then, temporary reprieve - but too little
time for sleep as ships were unloaded, loaded again, bunkered,
repaired, and maintained before the while nightmare began again
in the opposite direction. No respite, no relief, no comfort,
month after month, year after year.
recognised that men were tested beyond human limits, suffering
from insufficient and inadequate equipment, deficient training,
and no recovery time from frequently witnessed horrors as ships
were sunk and survivors froze to death in the frigid, unyielding
north Atlantic. Yet dog-tired seamen got no respite - only
exhausted mariners, St John's provided the "Crow's Nest" - an
ever-open welcoming refuge for Allied officers. There, even
today, "Weepers" remains the name for convivial get-togethers,
originally based on the need to "weep" over the week's
So, some 70
years after my father, I visited his regular Newfoundland
bolt-hole, where I was welcomed by many friendly Canadians. It
was a privilege, both humbling and emotional.
John's slipped astern, in the wake of our cruise ship, as we
enjoyed cocktails at our sail-away party. As the ship's
orchestra played, my mind played out my father's war-time
departures. Not for him the relaxation, the bonhomie, the
blazing lights, the music and the laughter. For him, a parallel
universe, comprising closed-up ships, "action-stations",
readiness, darkness, and silence. His only reassurance was the
close support of the Royal Canadian Navy.
I remembered how
my father - normally a stoic man - once revealed that he had
shed tears in the "Crow's Nest" on hearing Vera Lynn's "White
Cliffs of Dover". Enjoying the sea breeze I then recalled that
many years later I bought tickets for my parents to see Vera
Lynn in concert and arranged for them to meet her backstage. I
mused. Who would have thought that two decades on, Dame Vera
(herself a war heroine who entertained troops in Egypt, India,
and Japanese-occupied Burma, for which she was awarded the Burma
Star) would, like Admiral of the Fleet the Lord Boyce, honour
The Dover War Memorial Proejct by becoming a Patron? My parents
would have been so proud.
thoughts, however, occupied Churchill's war-time Admiralty.
Mathematics showed that the area of a convoy increased by the
square of its perimeter. This meant that, theoretically, the
same number of ships and escorts was better protected in one
convoy than in two. Convoys grew bigger. Demands on crews grew
having adopted the wolf pack as his primary tactic, had U-boats
spread out in patrol lines, bisecting the path of the Allied
convoy routes. Once in position, U-boats shadowed convoys as the
pack gathered. Quiet and inaction on convoys, therefore, did not
mean safety. Mariners knew this. They recognised that safety was
an illusion, whilst mortal danger was reality.
Thanks to men
like them, Germany failed to stop the flow of strategic supplies
to Britain. The convoys allowed the Allies finally to prevail.
Lest we forget.
This article and photo first appeared in the Dover
Express, 23 October 2014
Reproduced with permission
Alfred Webb at the age of 20, taken in Plymouth
sign outside the "Crow's Nest" and interior of "Crow's
Nest", courtesy Mr and Mrs Webb