By CHARLIE SIMPSON
FOR fully more than half of last century, the name of Christian Salvesen & Co of Leith was known in just about every Shetland household as an employer of seafaring men. From the 1920s into the 1980s, a significant proportion of the company’s merchant ships were commanded, officered and manned by scores of Shetlanders from all over the isles, while for nearly two post-war decades hundreds more went south with Salvesen’s whaling enterprises both ashore and afloat in the Antarctic.
Local interest in the company and its doings lasted long after whaling ceased, so when in 1984 a history of the Christian Salvesen fleet, From 70 North to 70 South, by Graeme Somner, was published it sold readily in Shetland. It wasn’t long, though, before some old Salvesen hands were heard muttering “He’s missed out a ship!” My father was one of these; he was employed by Salvesens from 1943 to 1950, and had been as second mate for four months of 1944 in this very vessel, named Montmorency Park, managed by the company on the government’s behalf.
Nobody to my knowledge did anything about this omission until 1993, when Mr Somner published a supplement to his original book to update the careers and fates of all the company’s ships since its demise as a ship-owner in 1990.
I wrote to the author about the Montmorency Park, and received a fairly negative reply to the effect that he’d never come across the ship – and suggesting my father couldn’t therefore have been employed by Salvesens. At the time I had other researches to pursue so I let the matter rest. It wasn’t until early this year, when I met by chance Captain David Polson and learnt that his father Magnus had been master of the Montmorency Park, that I decided to dig out the full story of the ship and her time under Salvesen’s management, and put it belatedly into the public domain. Although 64 years is a long time to go back, there were still memories to be tapped and archives to be trawled for documents and photographs. The task took most of the year to complete, but an interesting tale it turned out to be.
To set the scene, though, we should begin at the outbreak of war in 1939, when all merchant shipping came under government control. At this time Salvesens owned a fleet of 26 ships including three pelagic whaling factories, their support transports and tankers; six ocean-going cargo ships and a number of smaller ships trading around the British coast and across to the continent and Norway. In addition there was a fleet of over 60 whalecatchers, almost all of which were requisitioned for naval service. The floating factories were deployed as oil tankers when pelagic whaling came to a stop in the spring of 1941. The entire British Merchant Marine was under threat of attack from day one of the conflict, and despite defensive measures the casualties and losses mounted. In Salvesen’s case, by the end of 1943 all their big cargo ships save one, and all three of the floating factories, had been sunk.
Throughout the war, as their own vessels were lost by enemy action, British shipping companies were allocated government-owned merchant ships to manage and operate, either ships captured from the enemy or others specifically bought or built to standard specifications. On behalf of the Ministry of Shipping or the Ministry of War Transport, Salvesens managed more than 25 of these vessels altogether, of which seven were sunk before the end of hostilities.
To replace the lost Allied tonnage, there was a huge wartime upsurge in merchant shipbuilding effort on both sides of the Atlantic. The best known element of this effort, even today, is the fleet of 2,710 “Liberty” ships, a standard design built in America to carry 10,000 tons of cargo. Hundreds more of the same carrying capacity were built in British and Canadian shipyards. Less well known perhaps were 81 smaller ships of British design, 38 of which were built in the UK and 43 in Canada.
Montmorency Park was one of these; undistinguished little ships, utilitarian, verging on ugly to behold, meeting a desperate need nevertheless. She was 328 feet long, 46 feet in beam, and drew 21 feet of water when fully loaded with 4,700 tons of cargo. Two coal-fired boilers provided steam for a three-cylinder engine to propel her at the fairly leisurely speed of 10 knots. She and her Canadian sisters were built to carry bulk cargoes of coal or timber along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States, as far perhaps as ports in the Caribbean. By the standards of today, where even the largest container ship’s crew rarely exceeds 20, wartime merchant ships – especially steamers – were heavily manned.
Montmorency Park sailed with a crew of 34, five of whom were gunners – serving soldiers of special seagoing military units who signed on as deckhands at a shilling a month. On deck were Master, two mates, radio officer, bosun and seven seamen; manning the engine and boiler room were three engineers, three greasers and six firemen, while to cater for all of them were a chief steward, a cook and three boys.
Ownership of Canada’s wartime shipping fleet was vested in a Crown Agency, the Park Steamship Co Ltd, whose prime object was to “assist and expedite on behalf of the Canadian Government the movement of war materials to the world’s battle fronts”. At its peak it controlled 176 ships, each named after a well-known national, provincial or municipal park in Canada. Montmorency Park was built and launched at the shipyard of Foundation Maritime Ltd, at the little port of Pictou in Nova Scotia, and completed in August 1943.
For the next 10 months her movements and whereabouts are unrecorded on this side of the Atlantic, but in early 1944 the fortunes of war took her and 14 of her identical sister ships to European waters. They were loaned to Britain to help with the impending invasion of Europe that would begin with the campaign in Normandy.
In his book A Great Fleet of Ships, outlining the history of Canada’s war-built merchant ships, S C Heal wrote: “There was a role for ships such as these, for with their relatively shallow draft they could be beached at high water, and discharged directly into vehicles at low tide. They also helped to reduce congestion at major British ports as they could be handled in smaller docks and harbours. Even though the ships were manned by British crews, they were not transferred to British registry. The chartering arrangements appear to have been conventional time charters, but with the British undertaking manning. Who actually undertook the manning is not recorded as it was not the practice of the registered owner, the Park Steamship Company or the time charterer, the British MOWT to undertake direct management of the ships owned by them or under their control. It seems logical to suppose that actual management was handled by British companies prominent in the European coastal trades.”
Here, in fact, lies the reason why Graeme Somner missed the Montmorency Park from his fleet history. One can imagine the enormous pressures on the government, from top to bottom, in the military and logistic planning for the invasion of Europe. It was a case of “get the job done” first, with bureaucracy and administration following on behind, and the minimum of paperwork. In managing the ship, all Salvesens had to do was put together the crew, feed it, pay it and other immediate running expenses, which were reclaimed from the Ministry of Shipping plus a management or agency fee.
In Salvesen’s office in Bernard Street, Leith, the ship probably represented little more than a page or two in one of the MOWT letterbooks and a ledger column or two somewhere in the crew department. More than one managed vessel flitted like a ghost through Salvesen’s wartime annals leaving almost too faint a trail for most historians to pick up. Graeme Somner was simply unlucky in that when he did his researches long after the events, the ship’s paperwork was obviously gone and there was nobody left among his contacts in Salvesens’ office who could remember all the ships involved.
David Polson and I had the benefit of family connection and oral history, so tracking down the Montmorency Park was straightforward but time-consuming. Finding and reading relevant books on the wider subject of wartime Canadian ships was easy and quick thanks to Shetland Library, but the next stage took longer. To establish a definite link to Salvesens, it was necessary to seek documentary evidence about the ship from the National Archives at Kew in London. This took nearly six months, but by mid-August I had received a complete set of copies of the ship’s official log books and crew lists, covering her time in European waters. Most importantly, they provided immediate confirmation that her managers throughout were Christian Salvesen & Company on behalf of the Ministry of War Transport.
These documents, renewed at suitable intervals, aren’t necessarily a complete record of the ship and her business. The official log book records little more than that required by the relevant Acts of Parliament – the crew’s behaviour and punishable misdemeanours, dates and times of leaving and arriving in port, confirmation of boat drills, and particulars of injuries to crew or damage to the ship. The crew list is essentially a contract of employment, the signing of which bound the employee to serve the employer for a period under terms and conditions binding on both. It records such things as the place and time of a man signing on and off the ship’s crew, along with his position in the crew, his next of kin, and his monthly wage. Nevertheless, from these sparse log entries and the more detailed crew lists, much can be gleaned to provide a reasonable narrative.
Captain Magnus Polson, born in Whalsay but living in Leith, took command of the ship on 12th May 1944 in dock in London, recording “I have this day taken over from Captain Russell, and received from him all official papers etc., including receipt of confidential books”. Next day, a complete new crew signed on the ship. Of the 34 men, only the master, the first mate Laurence Anderson from Voe and the second mate Laurence Simpson from Whalsay were Salvesen’s men, in the sense that they were permanent employees of the company. Most of the others were from the London area. My father had been ashore for seven weeks to sit for his mate’s certificate, which he gained on 20th April 1944. He was no sooner signed on the Montmorency Park than he was rushed off on a three-day course on gyro-compasses – a standard fitting on American ships, but an innovation for many European merchant mariners. The ship’s next voyage began on 20th May.
For all that the 15 Canadian ships had been sent over to help with the invasion of Europe, theirs was very much a secondary role, without heroics of any kind, and probably not a lot of excitement. The Montmorency Park was used in the east coast coal trade, supplying London from the northern ports, in convoys escorted by minor warships from the Forth down to the Thames. By this stage of the war, mines were probably the main threat, for the efforts of enemy submarines, aircraft and E-boats were being countered with a fair measure of success. For three months of the summer, masses of ships put huge numbers of men and huge tonnages of war material ashore in Normandy while the Montmorency Park and her ilk plodded up and down the east coast, delivering loads of coal to London from such places as Methil, Sunderland, South Shields or Blyth then returning north empty for the next load. On 22nd June, first mate Anderson was relieved by Alex Goodlad from Westsandwick – another Salvesen’s man.
Captain Polson’s log entries for the period were mostly regarding crew misdemeanors. “8.00pm 28/6/44 South Shields: This is to certify that E A Biggs EDH failed to report for duty at 7.00am 27/6/44 to open up hatches as ordered by the Chief Officer. A copy of this entry has been handed to the above named man. I hereby fine him 10/- for this offence”. On 12th July though, in dock in London, there was action of a different kind – a narrow escape. “Vessel was severely shaken by the terrific blast from a flying bomb which exploded abreast of the ship lying at discharge berth. Three doors were broken in pieces on accommodation and three others were burst open. Hatches were thrown about, and three bunker hatches missing. One head rope was cut. So far no other damage has been found. F Crossley, messroom boy, was knocked out for about 10 minutes by the blast, but shows no signs of injury, and is none the worse of his experience.”
That, as it turned out, was the only perilous episode of the ship’s wartime career. Her next adventure, into potentially more dangerous waters, was relatively uneventful.
A new set of articles was opened on 4th August 1944 in Grangemouth, where the ship was loading a cargo – destined for the invasion beaches of Normandy.
Neither I nor David Polson learnt much from our fathers about this voyage. David remembers being told the cargo was of a military nature – possibly naval stores – rather than the customary coal. There’s no record of their destination, merely noted as France. From the ship’s movements, we find she left Grangemouth on the 15th August, arriving at Southend on the 18th – obviously in a fairly slow convoy. There must have been something of a conveyor belt of cargoes to the Normandy beaches with ships convoyed there from British ports, and arrivals and departures conforming to the rate at which the cargoes were required ashore. This seems to explain why the ship lay at anchor at Southend, an important assembly point for convoys, for a week, leaving for France on the 25th.
Once there, the ship lay at anchor off the beaches for a fortnight. The only official record of this time, other than noting when crew members were issued with “1/8 pint spirits” mentions on 2nd September “Strong gale; vessel steaming to anchors”. Curiously, the log book records of the ship’s draught on entering and leaving port show that she left France on 11th September drawing almost the same depth of water as she did on arrival. My guess is that the ship took her cargo back to Britain with her.
In only two months after D-day, the Allies had landed over 1.5 million men, 1.6 million tons of stores and 330,000 vehicles in Normandy.
The Allied breakout across France in July and August was far swifter than had been anticipated, with Paris liberated on 20th August, and Brussels and Antwerp by 4th September. By this stage of the proceedings, there were ample stocks of all kinds ashore in Normandy, but the problem was to move them forward. Wheeled transport was in short supply, French railways were in ruins, and so there was a hiatus. A history of the campaign records that “by the start of September all the transport reserves of the British and Canadian (Continued on page 20) (Continued from previous page) armies were on the road. Imports were cut from 1,600 tons a day to 700 tons so that transport companies could be diverted from unloading ships to forward supply”.
Only one anecdote survives from this voyage. My father recalled watching a shore boat coming alongside, and told of his astonishment at recognising its Cox to be a well-known Whalsay character, John Irvine from Hamister, renowned for his thirst and his nickname “Plug”. David’s account, from his father, began when Captain Polson went ashore for orders. To get back to his ship he was told to wait on a certain jetty from where launches operated a transport service. Sure enough, a boat approached, skippered by none other than “Plug”, whose greeting to the Captain was “Magnus! Have you got a bottle?”
Montmorency Park arrived back in Tilbury on 13th September and my father’s service in the ship came to an end, for he signed off the following day to go on leave. Alex Goodlad also left the ship in November, but for Captain Magnus there was little respite from the east coast coal run on which he spent much of the war years. Through the winter and into 1945 he took 10 cargoes of coal to London plus one to Belfast and one to Liverpool. More Shetlanders came aboard: bosun George McGuire from Scalloway, with ABs James Stove and James Anderson from Lerwick and Peter Goodlad from Yell. On the day the ship left Liverpool her sister ship Taber Park was torpedoed and sunk off Yarmouth. When German forces capitulated on the morning of 7th May 1945, Montmorency Park was at sea bound from Blyth to Sheerness with yet another cargo of coal. Ironically it was another of her sisters – Avondale Park – that later the same day became the very last Allied vessel to be sunk in European waters, after she was hit by torpedo from an enemy submarine unaware that hostilities had ceased, a couple of miles from Isle of May in the Forth.
With the war in Europe ended everything changed – even aboard the Montmorency Park – where the remaining three gunners shipped as deckhands were quickly paid off, navigation lights could be shown again, and there was no more sailing in convoys. Her first two post-war voyages were to be to German ports, of all places; Kiel at the north end and Brunsbuttel at the south end of the Kiel Canal. At the same time, the log book shows Captain Polson had his hands full with a breakdown of discipline among the sailors and firemen. On May 15th, all the ABs and firemen were absent without leave; on the 26th, with the ship loaded and about to sail for Germany, four firemen were late coming aboard. At sailing time, with the ship about to cast off and move out to an anchorage to wait for the last man to be sent aboard by tug, seven men walked ashore. They were rounded up by the police, but the ship was delayed.
The most likely cargo for a ship like the Montmorency Park to take to Germany so soon after the war’s end was coal – needed for both the occupation forces and the civilian population. With the country’s mines and transport systems in ruins, the easiest option was to ship it across the North Sea. In actual fact the Kiel Canal was hardly damaged at all during the war, and so Montmorency Park was the very first Allied merchant ship to pass through it after the war’s end, arriving in Kiel on 30th May. It took a week to discharge her cargo, and then she was off to Hull for another load, delivered to Brunsbuttel on 18th June. To mark the canal transit Captain Polson was presented with a souvenir – a German naval dirk.
For the rest of 1945 life aboard ship reverted to the patterns of peacetime, as commercial trade slowly got going again. James Clark from Burravoe took over as chief officer, and Laurence Anderson returned, this time as second mate. A third mate joined, for foreign trade voyages. Montmorency Park was sent successively to Archangel in Russia and the Finnish ports of Uleaborg and Kasko for timber cargoes, before a final coal cargo carried from Hull to Rouen in France. After arrival at South Shields on 27th December 1945, the whole crew was paid off and left the ship the following day.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, this completes Christian Salvesen & Company’s management of the Montmorency Park. It’s recorded elsewhere that the 13 surviving Canadian “Parks” were sold by the Park Steamship Company to French owners in early 1946. The ship was renamed August Pavic and sent to trade in far eastern waters, serving French interests in Indo-China. Her name was changed again in 1948 to Docteur Angier, and finally in October 1949 she went aground on Yoronshima Island north-east of Okinawa and was wrecked. Captain Polson long out-served his ship, for he retired from Salvesen’s only in 1963 after serving the company since 1930, and died in 1968.
Today, the only surviving relic of all these events is the little German dagger, with a story all of its own. When Captain Magnus Polson’s son Captain David Polson left Salvesens in 1971 to become Lerwick’s Harbourmaster, Norman Salvesen of the ship owning family wrote to him: “I knew your father very well and in particular saw him during the early part of the war when he was on the Norwegian run and coasting. He used to have a chat with me often, when he called at the office when his ship was in the Forth, and I remember one occasion when he told me of the bombing of the coasting convoys and his frustration at not being able to hit back. He implored me to provide him with even one rifle. Later the ship was defensively armed with a 12-pounder. Though physically not outstanding, your father had a great heart. When he was in command of Montmorency Park he made the first post-war passage of the Kiel Canal and he was presented with a dirk. As your father had no use for the Germans and did not want a souvenir, he gave it to me and I have it hanging in my library here. It occurs to me that you might like to have this souvenir of your father, and I would gladly arrange to have it sent to you.”