FIVE SISTER SHIPS LOST TO U-BOATS

BY JOHN YOUNG (ENGLAND)

FEATURED IMAGE: BRITISH STEAM PASSENGER SHIP ALMEDA STAR.

In 1925, the Blue Star Line, of London, ordered nine new ships from UK shipyards, comprising four cargo liners and five 12,800grt passenger-cargo liners for their service between London and the River Plate.

The line had been founded in 1911 by Vestey Brothers, of London, to carry frozen meat from the River Plate to London and the company developed a fleet of cargo liners. The five new sister ships marked the line’s entry into the South American passenger trade and were designed to carry a large meat cargo as well as 162 passengers in First class luxury.

They were virtually identical sister ships, being 530ft long overall with a 68ft beam, and were completed without the word ‘Star’ in their names but the word was added in 1929.

The ships were:

Almeda: Cammell Laird & Co, Birkenhead, 1926. 12,848grt; renamed Almeda Star;

Andalucia: Cammell Laird & Co, Birkenhead, 1926. 12,848grt; renamed Andalucia Star;

Arandora: Cammell Laird & Co, Birkenhead, 1927; 13,838grt; renamed Arandora Star;

Avelona: John Brown & Co, Clydebank, 1927; 12,858grt; renamed Avelona Star;

Avila: John Brown & Co, Clydebank. 1927; 12,858grt; renamed Avila Star.

The propulsion machinery consisted of two sets of Parsons combined impulse and reaction turbines developing together 13,880shp and driving twin screws through single-reduction gearing. The ships had a speed of 16 knots. Steam for the turbines was through three double-ended and two single-ended cylindrical boilers.

The Upper and Main Decks were continuous for the full length of each ship. Below these decks were the Lower and Orlop Decks and above was the Bridge Deck, a plated-in Lower Promenade Deck and the Upper Promenade Deck.

The Almeda sailed from London on 16 February 1927, on her maiden voyage, beginning the line’s express passenger service. From London, the ports of call became Boulogne, Lisbon, Madeira, Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The passage time from London to Buenos Aires was between 18 and 19 days.

According to the line, the passenger accommodation was designed “to give an impression of spaciousness, style, lightness and quality.” The interior design featured “soft fabrics, pastel shades and delicately fashioned enamelled furniture in the elegant style of 18th Century France.”

There were six holds and associated ’tween decks, of which 49 compartments were fully insulated for the carriage of chilled beef. The hatches were served by 27 derricks on eight derrick posts and on both masts. The derrick capacities ranged from three- to five-tons but the derrick on the after side of the foremast was of 10-tons capacity.

In 1929, the five ships had the word ‘Star’ added to their name during major refits. This was done because the line’s main rival, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co, of London, was experiencing financial problems and its large passenger ships operating between London and the River Plate all had names beginning with the letter ‘A’ so the Vesty group changed the names of its ‘A’ class ships to avoid any confusion between the ships of the two lines among their would-be passengers.

In 1929, the Arandora underwent a major refit into a cruise ship. The line described the refit in detail: “The Lower Promenade Deck was extended forward to the aft end of No 2 hatchway and aft to the mainmast. The Upper Promenade Deck was also extended aft and the mainmast and the after derrick posts were moved up onto this deck while a large launch was now carried on each side.

“The emergency boat abreast the bridge was removed, and a short boat deck fitted instead on each side, with a lifeboat. The poop house was extended to the sides of the ship and the two well-decks were plated in. Her hull was now painted white with a red band around it and the derrick posts at No 4 hatch were removed”

“THE ARANDORA STAR WAS HIT IN THE ENGINE ROOM BY A TORPEDO FROM THE GERMAN SUBMARINE U-47”

The ship was now of 14,694grt, and was renamed Arandora Star. In 1936, she was now of 15,501grt.

Her annual programme usually began with a Christmas cruise to Madeira and West Africa followed by a series of West Indies cruises, then Easter would see the start of Mediterranean and northern capitals cruises, with a return to the Mediterranean in the autumn.

By the mid-1930s, the five ships were no longer sister ships. The Arandora Star had been converted to a cruise ship; in 1934, the Avelona Star was rebuilt as a cargo ship of 13,379grt, with just one funnel and the upper passenger decks removed; in 1935-36, the Almeda Star, Avila Star and Andalusia Star were returned to their builders for a major refit and were lengthened to 569ft 2in overall, given a new Maierform bow, had the welldecks plated in, and the passenger accommodation was cut to 150 berths, providing more space for cargo. The Almeda Star becoming 14,935grt, the Avila Star now of 14,936grt; and the Andalusia Star of 14,943grt.

POSTCARD OF ANDALUCIA PRE 1929.

During the Second World War, the large cargo capacity of these ships proved most valuable and they saw a great deal of service on the UK-River Plate route, returning home with vital chilled cargoes.

At the start of the war in September 1939, the Arandora Star was on her way to New York and after disembarking her passengers, she sailed for Falmouth, where she was laid up for a short while.

In December 1939, the Arandora Star was sent round to Avonmouth to be equipped for tests of the Admiralty’s new anti-torpedo gear. This consisted of large wire nets slung from outriggers on each side, the outriggers being almost the same size as large derricks.

The nets protected about three-quarters of the ship’s length against torpedo attack. The trials were reported to be a great success and many merchant ships were fitted with this net system.

The Arandora Star then took part in the evacuation of British troops from Norway in early June, embarking about 1,600 RAF personnel and Polish and French troops and took them to Glasgow. Following, she took part in the evacuation of Allied troops from Brest, St Nazaire, Bayonne and Bordeaux. On her fourth trip to Saint Jean du Luz, she evacuated about 1,700 troops and refugees which she took to Liverpool, arriving on 29 June.

In June 1940, the Avelona Star sailed from Buenos Aires for London with a cargo of 5,630 tons of refrigerated meat and 1,000 tons of oranges. At Freetown, the ship had joined the 34-ship convoy SL-36 bound for Britain.

On 30 June, in the South-West Approaches, the Avelona Star was torpedoed by the German submarine U-43 and sank the following day with the loss of three of her 81 crew. Survivors were picked up by the cargo ship Beignon, 5,218grt, of the Noilesment SS Co managed POSTCARD OF ANDALUCIA PRE 1929. by Morel Ltd, London, which was bound from Fremantle to the Tyne with a cargo of wheat, but a few hours later, on 1 July, as she tried to catch up with the convoy, the Beignon was torpedoed by the U-30 and sank within 10 minutes with the loss of all her crew and three of the crew of the Avelona Star. Survivors were picked up by the Royal Navy destroyers Vesper and Windsor.

Almost four hours after the Beignon was torpedoed, the U-30 sank the cargo ship Clearton, 5,219grt, of R Chapman & Son, Newcastle, carrying grain from Rosario to Manchester, and eight of her crew died.

At Liverpool, at the end of June and the beginning of July 1940, the Arandora Star, with 176 crew, embarked some 1,179 German and Italian prisoners, mainly civilian internees and all male, and a military guard of 254 and then sailed for Canada where the prisoners were to be held in detention camps for the duration of the war. The ship was to disembark the prisoners at St John’s, Newfoundland.

The Arandora Star left Liverpool at about 0400 on 2 July and around 26 hours later, she was some 75 miles from Bloody Foreland when, at 0615, she was hit in the engine room by a torpedo from the German submarine U-47.

On board, the Germans and Italians rushed on deck, causing problems for the crew trying to launch the lifeboats, but, eventually, 10 of the 12 lifeboats and all the rafts were launched but at about 0720, the Arandora Star rolled over and sank stern first.

A RAF Coastal Command Sunderland aircraft was despatched to find survivors and the lifeboats were located soon after 1100. In the water near them, scattered over a wide area, were survivors clinging to rafts, pieces of wood and other debris. “Of these there were many score,” reported the Sunderland crew, and the aircraft dropped Mae West lifejackets and packets of food.

Two hours later, the Sunderland located the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer St Laurent on passage to Britain and some 85 miles away, guided her to the position and, that afternoon, the destroyer began to pick up survivors. The Sunderland then flew round for more than three hours, guiding the destroyer’s boats to where survivors were still in the water. The sailors often had to go over the side to rescue them.

The destroyer landed the 868 survivors she had picked up at Greenock on 3 July. This was one of the largest rescues from a sunken merchant ship in the war and, eventually, the Italian Government expressed its appreciation, through the Brazilian Embassy, of the role of the St Laurent in rescuing so many Italians.

The death toll was high: 57 of the crew, 91 soldiers and 593 prisoners. The survivors comprised 119 crew, 163 soldiers, and 586 prisoners. The internees who survived were housed in barracks, still under guard, and were then shipped to Canada and Australia.

The Avila Star remained on the UK-River Plate service. On 26 November 1940, the Royal Navy armed merchant cruiser Queen of Bermuda, the requisitioned Furness Withy passenger liner, had been ordered to head for the Santos area where, on 28 November, she rendezvoused with the Avila Star carrying Lord Willingdon, and escorted her southwards for almost a day until she was relieved by the cruiser Emerald.

AVILA STAR

Lord Willingdon was heading a British Mission to South America. According to Foreign Office Minister R A Butler, the purpose of the Mission was “to study at first hand the maintenance and improvement of mutual exchanges of trade under the difficult conditions of war. The Mission has been instructed to explain British economic and contraband control policy in the countries which she visits.

“In order to counteract the unscrupulous efforts of Axis propaganda, it will show that we have been able to maintain our export trade under war conditions, and it will explain the fundamental necessities underlying our treatment of purchases and payments.” Lord Willingdon, a diplomat and politician, had been the Governor-General of Canada between August 1926, and 4 April 1931, and the Viceroy and Governor-General of India between 18 April 1931, and April 1936. He died in August 1941.

On 5 January 1941, the Almeda Star had sailed from Liverpool for the River Plate with 194 passengers, 137 crew, and 29 gunners. As she had a continuous speed of 16 knots, the ship sailed independently. On the morning of 17 January, the ship was about 350 miles west of the Outer Hebrides in bad weather when she was attacked at about 0745 by the German submarine U-96, and only one of the four torpedoes that were fired hit her, amidships. The Almeda Star transmitted a distress signal, and was then hit by two more torpedoes, another amidships and one in the stern but the ship did not sink.

Around 0925, the U-96 surfaced, and her crew manned the deck gun. Four lifeboats were observed, and people were seen on deck and at 0932, the U-boat opened fire and in just over 15 minutes, 15 of 28 incendiary shells hit the ship, starting fires which spread. At 0955, the U-boat fired another torpedo which hit her forward and the Almeda Star sank by the bow within three minutes. Royal Navy destroyers and other merchant ships searched the area, but no survivors were found. All 360 people on board died.

In July, 1942, the Avila Star was on her way from the River Plate to Liverpool and was north-east of the Azores on 5 July when she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-201 and sank with the loss of 45 of the 171 crew and 17 of the 25 passengers.

The fifth of the class carrying meat from the River Plate to Britain was sunk by a German submarine as she neared Freetown. The Andalucia Star, 14,943grt, had loaded at Buenos Aires and sailed with a crew of 154, 14 gunners, and 76 passengers. The ship was about 180 miles from Freetown when, late on the evening of 6 October, she was sunk by the U-107 with the loss of three crew and one passenger. The ship had been due to unload at Liverpool.

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