History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

William Grier

William Grier

Written and photos provided by by Bill Grier (son)

Sources: Arctic Destroyers. G.G. Connell, first lieutenant, HMS Obedient; Mr Eric Timms, Telegraphist, HMS Onslow, Now resident in Port Perry, Ontario, Canada; Mr Don Kindell, Naval Historian, Norfolk, Virginia; William (Bill) Grier JX651322 (pictured on HMS Onslow, front with kitten).

Our father, Bill Grier, worked in a reserved occupation with ICI in Stevenston, Ayrshire. He had no pressure on him to go to war but volunteered on 27th October 1943. His first posting was to HMS Raleigh; a land based training facility. In February 1944, he was posted to another land based facility at HMS Drake where he remained until 10th May 1944. On 11th May he took up his first sea posting with HMS Onslow.

On that same day, the ship had the honour, for a third time, to transport King George VI from Scrabster to visit the Home Fleet in its northern base. On this occasion, Captain McCoy and Onslow escorted by Opportune. On passage, to the delight of the sailor King, the two destroyers exercised submarine attacks, then, in the afternoon, he witnessed an aircraft flying demonstration from Fleet Carrier Victorious while destroyers, including 17th DF, manoeuvred at high speed.



In July 1944, during patrol off Pointe de la Coubre, Bay of Biscay, Onslow, in company with the Black Prince class cruiser, Diadem and the Polish ORP Piorun interrogated two French trawlers. She was so close inshore that every detail of the coast was visible including a signal station which kept flashing a challenge. Although the challenge was ignored, the shore batteries did not open fire until a very uncomplimentary signal was flashed to them (in German) by Onslow. That provoked a response and Onslow was heading out to sea at about thirty knots and making smoke as the shore batteries opened accurate fire on her. No damage was done but a few splinters landed on the quarter deck.

The story told to me was that when she was challenged, Captain (D), Bess McCoy sent back the message in German, “arschloch” (arseholes). On seeing the German gunners running to their posts Bess McCoy gave the order; “make revolutions for 15 knots”. Just then shells fell where Onslow had just been. Bess then gave the order to make revolutions for 20 knots and again accurate fire fell where she had just passed. At that Bess McCoy ordered that Onslow make smoke and 30 knots and our father is reputed to have said “By this time I was over the stern pushing!”


A Tragic Misunderstanding

In August 1944, a Dornier 217 attacked Diadem with a glider bomb. The attack was unsuccessful, with the bomb falling into the sea well away from any of the ships but the incident would however, have tragic consequences early next morning.

At 0407 on 12th August an aircraft was detected by RDF approaching on a glide from astern and not transmitting IFF. At the last moment, the aircraft’s engines opened up, and Onslow’s port after Oerlikon opened fire, shooting down the machine. As Onslow fired the aircraft dropped either bombs or depth charges and then exploded as it hit the water. The crew were rescued.

Onslow had identified the aircraft as a Dornier 217; excusable perhaps given the manner of the approach and the fact the force had been glider bombed the night before. Diadem and Piorun however, had identified the aircraft, EV878, as an RAF Liberator and this unfortunately proved to be the case.

A subsequent board of enquiry, held on Onslow, on 17th and continued later in the Royal Naval Gunnery School the following day, was presided over by Captain D Orr-Ewing and established that IFF procedures had not been correctly followed by either Onslow or the aircraft and that there were ambiguities in the procedures laid down by both the Admiralty and the Air Ministry. The only good, if any, to come out of the incident was a general tightening up of procedures to try to prevent a recurrence.


The above account is based on the evidence given at the Board of Inquiry but, as a matter of interest, various people who witnessed the incident from Onslow recall matters somewhat differently, stating that the ship had, at some considerable risk, clearly identified herself by light to the aircraft. Despite this, the aircraft had carried out its bombing attack on a second run over the ship. Stanley Maxted recorded an interview with the gunner who shot down the machine, and this was broadcast in the first edition of ‘War Report’ on Wednesday 16th August. However, it was dropped from the subsequent repeat.

Near La Rochelle on 12th August, Onslow, leading Piorun, and with Diadem screening, came across and sank a 7,000 ton Sperrbrecher 7, mine clearance ship.


Chased out to sea again

On 9th September, Captain H.W.S. Browning, OBE RN, became Captain D, 17th Flotilla, replacing Bess McCoy.

Two days later Onslow closed on Alderney, probing shore batteries and confident because intelligence had reported that the main 18” gun battery had no ammunition for the great guns.

Veracity of the report was revealed when the battery opened accurate fire and chased Browning out to 36,000 yards. A few days later the 17th DF returned to Scapa Flow.


Bluebell is Lost

Captain D17 was in charge of the task of driving off the Ramus Pack in what became a short, but bloody battle when convoy RA64 left Kola Inlet. First sloop Lark and corvette Alnwick Castle found and sank U425, but there were others waiting. Lark, at the head of the first merchant ship to emerge through the boom defences, had her stern blown off by a Gnat fired by U968 and had to be towed back into Kola. Commander of U711, Lange, had a second and bloodier success when he torpedoed and blew corvette Bluebell apart. She sank in less than 30 seconds after depth charges detonated when the torpedo hit her stern.

Bill Grier witnessed the death of Bluebell. He said she was there then gone and the only evidence left was a shower of falling, burning paper.


Harassing Norway

“On the night of 11th/12th January 1945, Captain D17 Browning in Onslow with Orwell and Onslaught formed part of a successful harassment operation Spellbinder. Commanded by Rear Admiral McGrigor, his flag in Norfolk, a cruiser/destroyer force attacked enemy convoys off Ergusund on the Norwegian coast. Sir Bruce Fraser sent the following signal to his fleet:

Home Fleet at Scapa ® ACOS From C in C Home Fleet.

During the night 11th – 12th January a force comprising NorfolkBellonaOnslow (17), Onslaught and Orwell under command of the Rear Admiral first cruiser squadron wearing his flag in Norfolk encountered a north-bound convoy of seven or eight ships attempting to enter the port of Egersund. The convoy was engaged by gunfire and three or four ships including a large tanker and an ‘M’ class minesweeper were sunk while the remainder with the possible exception of one who may have escaped, were left stopped and burning on or near the shore. Enemy defences were alert and opposition was encountered from coastal batteries, smoke and searchlights, but we suffered neither damage or nor casualties to personnel. A U-boat which was detected on the surface on the disengaged side of the force was forced to dive by gunfire and did not interfere with the action.

2. During the withdrawal Wildcat fighters from Premier and Trumpeter shot down one enemy shadower and broke up an impending attack by torpedo bombers. The escort carriers under the command of Dido were screened by OpportuneCavendishZest and Zodiac. Two Wildcats had to ditch but both pilots were saved.

3. While the convoy was being engaged the Apollo screened by Zealous and Carron laid mines across the shipping routes. Although operating at one time within seven cables of the enemy shore this force encountered no opposition and returned to Scapa with no damage or casualties.

4. On no account must the information contained in para 3 be communicated to anyone outside Scapa and the remainder only released by the press or BBC.”

Captain Browning later reported that Admiral McGrigor would not allow the destroyers to get in close to the convoy sheltering under coastal battery guns because the destroyers were illuminated by Bellona’s star shells. “It was a nasty place continued Captain D17. Onslaught vanished twice into solid spray put up by accurate and concentrated shore battery salvos, until the enemy guns were silenced by Bellona’s broadsides. We were successful; the shore line seemed to be on fire with beached enemy ships. It was a highly satisfying action as well as being successful.”

Onslow arrived, with the Norwegian monarch embarked, and from that afternoon after the King had landed and been received by a delirious population the 17th DF ships shared a week of massive and exhausting celebrations. Captain D17, Captain Browning, commanding officers of the escort and the cruiser Norfolk during the week were dined by King Haakon in a mansion that had been used by the notorious traitor, Vidkun Quisling.


Tragedy in Rotterdam

In July, Onslow visited Rotterdam and became involved with celebrations which came to a tragic end. Captain Browning with some of his staff and ship’s officers had gone ashore for a civic reception leaving the flotilla leader the centre of attraction to a large crowd celebrating victory and their liberation from the Germans. The crowd, containing many children, waited for a modest firework display using rockets brought specially from Rosyth. After dark the display started with Roman Candles and rockets fired from B Gun deck. Within a few minutes a rogue rocket dived back an exploded on the deck where the Gunner ‘T’ and his party released the fireworks. The rocket ignited the entire stock of pyrotechnics sending rockets into the excited, happy crowd on the quay. Four people were killed and many were injured in a horrifying nightmare accident.



In Copenhagen in June 1945, Captain Browning ordered regular shore patrols. On one such patrol they came across a gentleman riding his horse through a park. The gentleman stopped his horse, raised his cap and said “good morning gentlemen”. The horseman was in fact Christian Xth, King of Denmark.


A Horrible Place

A Few days later Onslow closed on the Norwegian coast with four other destroyers; only Onslow representing 17th DF. Captain Browning approached an area near Sire Grunda hoping to trap an enemy convoy which had been reported by coastal command. He later reported that it was “A horrible place. The convoy was there alright but right beneath the guns of a protecting shore battery”. Onslow led her destroyers in line ahead to within 4,000 yards of the steep shoreline. Star shell did not reveal the destroyers fall of shot; Onslow fired her complete outfit of torpedoes and failed to obtain a hit. The force retired without accomplishing any observed damage on the enemy ships.

Captain D17 and his Onslow ship’s company could only have a few hours’ rest as he was to command seventeen escorts, including OnslaughtOrwellOpportune and ships from the 8th and 20th escort groups deployed from the Western Approaches command to form part of the ocean escort for the next pair of Kola bound and return convoys.


Onslow Returns Haakon VII to Oslo

OnslowObdurate and Orwell with Norwegian destroyer Stord were deployed as escort for cruisers Norfolk and Devonshire for operation Indestructible and, in June 1945, were involved in taking King Haakon VII of Norway back to Oslo.

On another occasion, our father, having been given leave, travelled by train to Glasgow to be met by our mother. At the time our mother was accompanied by our cousin who had just been given leave from HMS Ajax, dressed in his best uniform and looking every inch the model sailor. When our father stepped off the train in a very dishevelled state and with a considerable beard our mother was most embarrassed at how untidy he was. It was only later she came to realise that there was no time during convoy for such niceties as washing, shaving or pressing your uniform.


H . M . S . O N S L O W ( G 1 7 )


Laid down 1 July 1940

Launched 31 March 1941

Completed, 8 October 1941

Builder John Brown, Clydebank (hull and machinery)

Displacement 1,610 tons (standard), 2,220 tons (deep 1000)

Dimensions 345′ (oa) x 35′ x 13′ 6″

Guns 4 x 4.7.inch (4×1) 1 x 4-inch A.A.

4 x 2-pdr. A.A. (lx4) 4 x 20.mm. Oerlikon A.A. (4xl) 2 x .303.inch MGs

Torpedo-tubes 4 x 21.inch (1×4)

Machinery 2-shaft Parsons single-reduction geared turbines, 40,000 s.h.p. = 36* knots; 2 Admiralty 3-drum boilers.

HMS Onslow was an “ORIBI” Class Fleet Destroyer ordered from John Brown at Clydebank, Glasgow on 3rd September 1939. She was leader of the 17th Destroyer Flotilla (1st Emergency Flotilla).

She was laid down on 1 July 1940 and launched on 31st March 1941 as the second ship to carry this name and completed as a Flotilla Leader on 8th October 1941 at a cost of £416,942.

She was ‘adopted’ in February 1942 by the civil community of Oldham, Lancashire, after a successful WARSHIP WEEK National Savings campaign.


B a t t l e H o n o u r s

NORWAY 1941-45

ARCTIC 1941-45








Heraldic Data

Badge: On a Field, White an eagle Black preying on an anchor gold.

Ship’s Motto: Festina Lente (Make haste slowly)

HMS Onslow’s was Capt. D of 17th Destroyer Flotilla and her company held many decorations.

These ‘O’ (Oribi) class destroyers were ‘The ‘O’ Boats’ and they were commanded and manned by a remarkable collection of officers and ratings, regulars and reserves. In the flotilla, there were:

Victoria Cross – 2

Distinguished Service Cross – 10

Distinguished Service Order – 11

Commander of the British Empire – 2

Order of the British Empire – 1



Captain H.T. Armstrong


6th August 1941


Captain R. St V. Sherbrooke


28th November 1942


Lieutenant Commander T.J.C. Marchant


1st January 1943


Captain J.A. McCoy


3rd June 1943


Captain H.W.S. Browning


9th September 1944


Captain St J. A. Micklethwait


6th September 1945


Click to expand photos