war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Alfred Harold Webb


A recent 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 ...

My 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.

U-boat wolf 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.

Standing on 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.

The Admiralty 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 increased pressure.

For such 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 disasters.

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.

Eventually, St 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.

No such 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 greater.

Admiral Dönitz, 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


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