History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

William Joseph Hartley

William Joseph Hartley

Written by Brenda Shackleton (daughter).

The Rescue Ships – Arctic & Atlantic Convoys

My Father – Bill Hartley (1905-1999)

My Dad served in the Merchant Navy and during the War he was Captain of 2 Rescue Ships- the COPELAND and GOODWIN. They were deployed to the Arctic and Atlantic Convoys.

The concept of a Rescue ship came about in 1940 when Sir Max Horton (Commander-in-Chief – Western Approaches) first suggested it to the Admiralty. The principal task of a Rescue Ship was to save the lives of Seamen whose ships were sunk by enemy action. Also to provide succour, care and comfort and any Surgical, medical or other treatment that might be necessary. Ships are soon replaced but not the lives of skilled seamen. The Admiralty looked for vessels that were small and easily manoeuvrable with a good speed. They were to sail at the rear of a Convoy and to pick up survivors from the sea. These ships were used in peacetime for coast-wise passenger traffic and many were drawn from the Clyde Shipping Company. They were not built to serve in the Atlantic nor the Arctic but were required to be sound and seaworthy. No Rescue Ship was lost in an Atlantic storm, although one was “iced-up” and foundered off the coast of Newfoundland.

The ships were manned by Merchant Navy Masters, Officers and Seamen for the duration of the War. This was important because the Rescue Ship could work independently during an attack and move immediately to the rescue of the ship-wrecked without prompting or orders from the Admiralty.

The first Rescue Ship was the BEACHY and my father, BILL HARTLEY, was the Chief Officer. In January 1941 the BEACHY was attacked by a German Foche-Wulf bomber west of Ireland, and sunk. Dad then joined the RATHLIN and then COPELAND in July 1942 .He was promoted Master of this vessel in August 1942.

On his first command he was ordered to North Russia in Convoy PQ18; one of the most heavily attacked Convoys of the war. During almost continuous attacks over 5 days, COPELAND was officially credited with shooting down one enemy bomber and damaging several others. In circumstances of great difficulty and danger, his vessel picked up 205 survivors sunk by enemy action. Namely the crew of the burning tanker Atheltemplar and the ammunition ship, Oliver Ellsworth. For his courage and service in PQ18, CAPTAIN HARTLEY was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Lloyds Medal for bravery at Sea. ( Ministry of War report )

On the night of 16th May 1943 sailing with Convoy ONS7, the British ship AYMERIC was torpedoed by a U-boat and COPELAND at once went to her assistance. While she was approaching, a second torpedo struck the AYMERIC, showing that the U-boat was still in the vicinity. Not only did Dad have to contend with this hazard, but one of the Allied ships in the convoy opened fire in his direction; fortunately the shots fell short!

The survivors of the AYMERIC were widely scattered. Some were in rafts, some in water-logged boats; but from the number of red lights showing he could see that the majority of them were in the sea, the surface of which was burning with oil. As the temperature of the sea was only 36ºF the crew of the COPELAND set to with a will to save the men, jumping on to the rafts as they came alongside and bending on lines to haul the survivors on board. There were 53 dead and 25 survivors. 4 died from exposure on COPELAND and were buried later at sea. During this operation a rescued seaman was hanging over the rail shouting and pointing to a man still in the water. Dad turned COPELAND in the dark and went back for him. A few days later the survivors were landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and two young men came to say, “Thank you”. The first said, “This is my brother whom you went back for. I could not have faced my mother without him.”

After this rescue Dad went several times to the Mediterranean and back to Russia. In February 1944 he took command of another Rescue Ship; the GOODWIN.

In April 1944 the crew of the Norwegian tanker, SOUTH AMERICA were rescued by GOODWIN. This tanker was torpedoed and immediately burst into flames masthead high. Dad decided that the only way to save the crew was to go alongside the burning vessel. When GOODWIN was 70 yards astern the tanker was hit by a second torpedo, which had the effect of quenching the fire. GOODWIN stopped about 40 feet astern and all 42 crew were rescued in 37 minutes.

The sequel to this story is that I made contact with a Radio Officer – Robbie Roberts – from the GOODWIN via a Merchant Navy web site. 16 years previously he had met up with one of the rescued Radio Officers from the SOUTH AMERICA, Bob Cobb. In May 2005 the Captain’s daughter (me) and the 2 Radio Officers met and I made recordings of their memories. Robbie Roberts said, “Captain Hartley was a brilliant seaman – there was no two ways about it. I also remember that he was always smiling – always smiling.”

Dad never mentioned any of the horrors of the war. When he referred to his War Service he always said, “I thank God that I was in the business of saving lives and not taking them”. 362 survivors have reason to be thankful to him. In 1992 I was watching the Memorial Service for the Battle of the Atlantic with Dad. He turned to me and said, “It was a terrible day (rescue of SS Aymeric) I just wanted to cry”. I was quite horrified as I had never heard him say anything like this and had certainly never seen him cry. He then wept bitterly.

I know, now, that it was not his medals – D.S.C.( Distinguished Service Cross) and the Lloyds Medal for Bravery at Sea – awarded for the rescue of men in the Arctic and Atlantic that marked him as a brave man. It was the fact that he encouraged his crew by smiling; when all the time he wanted to cry.

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