18th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

History: End of an empire

John Peterson tells the story of the Empire Heritage, a former whaling ship lost off the coast of Northern Ireland towards the end of the Second World War.

The memorial plaque recently erected on the Esplanade in Lerwick is a fitting and much deserved tribute to the many Shetland men who left from there each year to work on the other side of the world so that they could support their families at home in a time when money was scarce and employment in the islands was hard to find. The whaling season in the South Atlantic ran through the British winter and each year these men left from Victoria Pier on a journey that would eventually take them all the way down through the Atlantic to Leith Harbour in South Georgia, the base of operations for Christian Salvesen & Co. Ltd. The whaling station at Leith Harbour operated from the early 1900s until the early 1960s when Salvesen’s decided to end their whaling operations and move into the transport and logistics industry. But during their time as a whaling company they provided much needed employment to Shetland, bringing money to men who were desperate to find work.

The whaling industry did not go unaffected by the dark years of conflict that occurred during the 20th century, and the ships and crews of Salvesen’s could not avoid becoming embroiled in the two wars that ignited across Europe and spread around the world. In October 1914 for example, a Salvesen’s ship called the Glitra became the first British merchant ship to be lost to a German U-boat during the First World War. However, they continued whaling throughout the conflict because of the high demand for whale oil back in the UK. But the Second World War proved to be a much more protracted and devastating experience for the company.

Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, Allied shipping began travelling in convoy in an attempt to circumvent the threat from the German U-boats, and this included the various ships heading to the whaling grounds of the South Atlantic. While whaling continued as normal during the 1939/40 season the increasing risk of U-boat attacks meant there were limited expeditions the following year, and after the 1941 season all whaling ceased until the end of the war. With no whaling expeditions the ships and their crews were drafted into service to help fill the gaps caused by the massive losses in the merchant navy. The smaller ships such as the whale-catchers were used as minesweepers and convoy escort vessels while the large floating factory ships were put into service as tankers. Their enormous oil tanks normally used for storing whale oil were used for carrying fuel oil, while their large factory decks used for processing the whales as they were towed aboard were filled up with cargo, including tanks, trucks or even aircraft. With the endless need for goods and materials to keep the population fed and the war effort supplied, these ships were invaluable. Unfortunately, the same attributes that made them so useful to the Allies also made them an obvious target for the U-boats prowling around the Atlantic.

At the outbreak of World War Two Salvesen’s had 63 whale catchers and 57 of them were requisitioned for war service along with all of their floating factory ships. The Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) took control of the ships, though they were still under the management of Salvesen’s and were still operated by their officers and men. Therefore the very same men who had gone to South Georgia year after year to catch whales now became part of the merchant navy, sailing all over the world to move supplies and materials from country to country. It was a dangerous job, and by the end of the war Salvesen’s had lost nine of their whale catchers, and those that survived were battered and broken after years of relentless service. But the much larger factory ships fared much worse.

During the war Salvesen’s operated seven floating factories for the MOWT – three of their own ships along with the Southern Empress and Southern Princess, which they acquired from Unilever, the British-owned Svend Foyn and an ex-South African whaling ship called Tafelberg, which had been rebuilt and renamed Empire Heritage.

Before the whaling ceased Salvesen’s had already lost the New Sevilla, which was torpedoed as she made her way to South Georgia for the 1940/41 season, and they went on to lose every single one of their factory ships during the conflict. Of their own three ships, Salvestria hit a mine in July 1940, Strombus hit a mine the following October and Sourabaya was sunk by a torpedo in October 1942. The Southern Empress was also lost to a torpedo in October 1942, as was the Southern Princess in March 1943. The Svend Foyn foundered in March 1943 after a collision with an iceberg off Greenland, though she had already been torpedoed in October 1941 but managed to escape to Reykjavik with a damaged hull. Finally the Empire Heritage was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in September 1944.

It is worth noting that as well as losing many of their ships during the war, Salvesen’s lost 418 of their men, including several Shetlanders. It is also worth mentioning that during the war 23 of their men were awarded decorations for gallantry or meritorious service and another 13 were given commendations.

It was not uncommon for seamen who had survived the loss of one ship to go on and join another shortly afterwards, so many served on more than one of the ill-fated factory ships during the war. The 2nd mate on Empire Heritage for example had also served on the Salvestria, Strombus and Southern Empress; the chief engineer and the doctor on the New Sevilla were later lost on the Southern Empress and Empire Heritage respectively; and the captain of the Salvestria was later lost on the Empire Heritage, to mention just a few examples. The captain of Empire Heritage was a long serving employee of Salvesen’s, and shortly before his loss on that ship he had been awarded the OBE at St James’s Palace in London. He was Captain James Campbell Jamieson from Whistlebere in Sandness and he was one of ten Shetlanders aboard Empire Heritage when she was lost in September 1944 off the coast of County Donegal.

The waters north of County Donegal are littered with shipwrecks from throughout history, and the Second World War was responsible for many of them. From the merchant ships attacked on their way to the North Channel to the empty U-boats that were unceremoniously dumped there after their capture at the end of the war during Operation Deadlight, this dark labyrinth of rusting wrecks has made the north of Ireland an important site for wreck divers, who flock there from all over the world. Among them lies the wreck of the Empire Heritage, the last of Salvesen’s floating factories to be sunk, and since it was discovered in 1995 the torpedoed ship has become famous among the diving community as one of the greatest wreck dives in the world. It is not only the sheer size of the wreck that is impressive, but also the striking deck cargo of Sherman tanks and military trucks which spilled out from the factory deck as the ship settled and now lie strewn over the seabed like matchbox toys. Professional diver Leigh Bishop who took the stunning wreck photographs that accompany this article considers the Empire Heritage to be one of the most interesting wrecks in the world. It was one of the biggest merchant ship losses of the war and yet for many years the full story has gone untold.

Empire Heritage was originally built as the Tafelberg, a 13,640 ton steamship built by Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. in Newcastle for the Kerguelen Sealing and Whaling Co. Ltd in South Africa. She was launched on the 29th April 1930, and was at the time the largest floating factory ship in the world and the largest ship ever to have flown under the South African flag.

Despite the outbreak of war in September 1939, Tafelberg left the Bristol Channel in October 1939 and headed to South Georgia via Aruba as part of outbound convoy OB-26, returning to the UK at the end of the whaling season in July 1940. The following year in January 1941 she struck a mine as she sailed through the Bristol Channel and a hole was torn in her hull, which forced the crew to beach her until she could be taken in tow. However, after several weeks of lying damaged, the constant exposure to the elements eventually broke her hull in two, and the two halves of the massive ship had to be fitted with watertight bulkheads so they could be towed around to Cardiff to be rebuilt.

The Tafelberg was virtually a total loss, but she was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport and eventually rebuilt for war service; with the damage repaired she would be a useful tanker and transport ship for the Allies. The two halves of the damaged ship were rejoined and other alterations were made to prepare her for her new role. She was rebuilt, repainted and eventually relaunched as an even bigger ship than before at 15,702 tons. She was also renamed Empire Heritage and put under the management of Christian Salvesen and Co. Ltd. The “Empire” prefix was given to the many ships built, purchased or otherwise requisitioned by the Ministry of War Service during the Second World War specifically for war service.

It was early in 1943 that the Empire Heritage returned to sea for her first voyage across the Atlantic under the command of Captain James Campbell Jamieson. They spent several months sailing in the ON (UK to North America) and HX (Halifax, Nova Scotia and later New York to the UK) convoys back and forth across the Atlantic. She continued on this route until November 1943 when she sailed from New York to Hampton Roads in Virginia and then across the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean to Port Said in Egypt, where she remained for a couple of months, moving between ports in Egypt, Turkey, Iran and India. Then in March the ship returned to Hampton Roads and then back to New York to commence her service on the Atlantic convoys. She eventually returned to the UK in May 1944, and it was during this time that Captain Jamieson was awarded the OBE at St James Palace in June 1944. Then, on the 25th July 1944, Empire Heritage joined convoy ON-246 across the Atlantic, arriving in New York on the 9th of August where they were loaded up with 16,000 tons of fuel oil and 1942 tons of deck cargo including several brand new Sherman tanks that were destined for the war in Europe; the D-Day landings had taken place two months before and the Allies were gradually pushing their way through France. Finally on the 25th August, Empire Heritage left New York and set off back across the Atlantic with convoy HX-305, a large convoy of 98 merchant ships that arrived in the UK two weeks later on the 10th September. But two days before that the convoy had been attacked as it passed east along the coast of County Donegal and headed towards the North Channel on the way into Britain.

By the autumn of 1944, the U-boats had been largely defeated in the Atlantic. The liberation of France meant that they had lost their bases along the Bay of Biscay and had been forced to operate from bases in Germany and occupied Norway, which made the Atlantic convoys much less accessible. Also, advances in anti-submarine technologies such as radar, radio direction finding, the introduction of long-distance aircraft and successes in code-breaking had made it almost impossible for the once dominating U-boats to penetrate the convoys. And yet after months of ships passing in and out of the UK without incident there had been a sudden spate of attacks around the Irish coast by an unidentified U-boat. In the week prior to convoy HX-305 passing through there had been three ships sunk including a Royal Navy corvette that had been sent out specifically to hunt down the attacker, which had already sunk a large US tanker and a Norwegian merchant ship. Then, in the early hours of the 8th September 1944, Empire Heritage was hit by a single torpedo from the same U-boat and she sank in a matter of minutes. The Pinto, a rescue ship that had been accompanying the convoy rushed to help the survivors floating in the water and was hit herself shortly afterwards by a second torpedo having taken just two of the survivors aboard.  Pinto became the fifth and final victim of the U-boat U-482, which then escaped back to her base in Bergen having evaded all of the Allied escort ships and aircraft sent to hunt her down. This remarkable patrol by U-482 was one of the last highly successful U-boat patrols of the war and was a massive shock to the Allies who had begun to grow complacent, believing their own coastal waters were now safe from the U-boat threat.

The loss of the Empire Heritage right on their own doorstep was a devastating blow to the British Admiralty. She was one of their largest ships, carrying a valuable and much needed cargo (Empire Heritage was the 18th biggest merchant ship to be lost in the whole of World War Two). And her loss in the approach to the North Channel, the route used by all shipping entering the UK, also showed a potential weakness that could be further exploited. Before this the admiralty felt confident that the U-boat threat had totally diminished. In fact since May 1943 technological improvements and massive shipbuilding programmes had gradually given the Allies the upper hand against the U-boats and the convoys were largely sailing without danger; there had not been a single ship lost in an HX convoy since 1943.

In total there were 158 men aboard Empire Heritage when she was attacked, because alongside the normal crew there were a large number of passengers as well as signalmen and gunners. The passengers were DBS or Distressed British Seamen, who were survivors from other ships that had been lost and were travelling as passengers on their way back to Britain to be assigned to new ships. In total 110 men were lost from Empire Heritage – the majority of the crew and passengers. Twenty one of the crew from the Pinto were also lost along with the two survivors of Empire Heritage who had just been taken aboard.

There were ten Shetlanders among the crew of Empire Heritage and four of them were among those killed in the attack. Those lost were Captain James Campbell Jamieson OBE from Sandness, who was 49 years old, storekeeper John Duncan Smith from Greenmow in Cunningsburgh, who was 42, able seaman George Fraser Jamieson Robertson from Gossabrough in East Yell, who was 25, and ordinary seaman Peter Fraser Johnson from Gluss in Ollaberry, who was just 18.

The survivors included chief mate (and later captain) John Robert Reid of Garderhouse in Sandsting, bosun James Peterson from Braewick, able seaman William Hughson Coutts from Houbie in Fetlar, able seaman James Adam Duncan from Ollaberry, able seaman John Sinclair from Maywick and able seaman George Irvine from Whalsay.

The survivors from both ships were eventually picked up by the armed trawler Northern Wave, which was one of the ships escorting the convoy, and they were later landed in Londonderry before gradually making their way back home. Despite losing their ships the majority of the men would return to sea within the next few months after being assigned new ships, though fortunately the war did not have many months left to run.

When the war finally ended and whaling operations recommenced in South Georgia, the old crews, along with the remnants of the fleet, returned to South Georgia for the 1945/46 season, accompanied by the brand new factory ship Southern Venturer and the following year the Southern Harvester.

Many more U-boats were sent out to the coastal regions of the UK to try and emulate the success of U-482, in an inshore campaign that ultimately did not succeed. Even the crew of U-482 failed to make the same impact on their second patrol after they were detected by a Sunderland Flying Boat based at Sullom Voe as they sailed west of Shetland on their way back to their old hunting ground. A group of frigates from the 17th Escort Group which were in the area were directed to intercept the contact and a U-boat hunt began that ensured the crew of U-482 would not get the chance to repeat the success of their first patrol.

Winston Churchill acknowledged that “the Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war”, and the contribution and sacrifice made by the men of the British merchant navy played an enormous part in the Allied victory. The whaling men of Christian Salvesen & Co. Ltd, with many Shetlanders among them, were a significant part of that contribution.

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Darkest before dawn: U-482 and the Sinking of Empire Heritage by John Peterson is out now published by The History Press.