WW2 Weather Ships

The following has been reproduced with permission from The Booker Line Website (No longer on the internet)

I have come to re-tell the tragic fate of Booker’s SS Arakaka because of correspondence I’ve received through my website bookerline.com from relatives of some of those aboard. One of the distressing issues is that the records relating to this vessel and the SS Toronto City were considered classified and only released after 30 years. For this reason, some close relations never knew the fate of their loved ones or why merchant vessels had been requisitioned to carry out manoeuvres previously only thought suitable for armed, naval vessels.De-classified files.

In 1940, following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ministry Of Defence chartered the SS Arakaka, owned by Booker Bros, McConnell & Co Ltd Liverpool , and the SS Toronto City, owned by the Bristol City Line, to operate as weather ships in the North Atlantic. This was a highly classified operation and the ships were referred to as 'The Panthers'.

‘Weather ships’ were ships stationed in the ocean as a platform for surface and upper-air meteorological observations for use in weather forecasting - critical in war-time. Whilst the Arakaka and Toronto City were requisitioned ostensibly for this purpose, these particular ships may have been highly significant in naval and military intelligence. The reasons which determined why they should be chosen as mid-Atlantic weather ships and which led to their fate, remain a mystery.

The following information is taken from R J Ogden’s article in the Meteorological Office’s journal: ‘Weather’. It details the circumstances which led to the Admiralty’s use of the Arakaka and the Toronto City and its inexplicable use of these merchant vessels when its stated position was that only particular naval vessels were suitable for the task.

In July 1940 the Admiralty’s recorded view was that the use of merchant ships for weather observing was impracticable because the need to break wireless telegraphy (WT) silence would add significantly to the already considerable hazards they had to encounter. It was therefore decided that the weather ships should be able to achieve at least 10 knots, have a range of 3,000 miles or more, and be equipped not only with wireless telegraphy, but also with armament including active sound detection apparatus (ASDIC) and depth charges. These criteria meant in effect that they would have to be naval vessels, having a dual role both as weather ships and U-boat hunters.

The Director of the Met. Office (DMO) at the time said that qualified Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) officers in his Marine Branch had volunteered to act as Captains aboard the proposed weather ships; he would also provide a highly qualified and experienced meteorologist for each of the vessels.

The Director for Naval Meteorological Service (DNMS) then matched this by undertaking to post Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Met. Officers to work alongside the Met. Office scientists.

Inexplicably, what was an excellent and considered plan was flatly rejected by the Admiralty and it refused permission for weather ships to sail under the white ensign and thus be armed. In a complete about face the Admiralty said merchant ships would instead be chartered on a contract basis. This switch in the choice of required vessel meant that the owners of these merchant ships would be responsible for captains, crews, stores etc., and not the Admiralty. By the beginning of September the Admiralty had indeed chartered the merchant vessels, SS Arakaka and SS Toronto City.

The two scientists chosen by the Director of the Met. Office for this extremely dangerous operation in mid-Atlantic were Flt. Lt. Portass and Stanley Proud, a civilian Technical Officer.

Events then moved fast, but the Director of the Met. Office had clearly begun to have misgivings both about the abrupt change of plan and about the particular vessels chosen.[i]

SS Arakaka

SS Arakaka

Booker Bros, McConnell & Co Ltd, Liverpool SS Arakaka (2,379GRT) was built by Lithgow’s Limited, Port Glasgow, and launched on Saturday 29th July 1933. She was a single screw vessel with a triple expansion steam engine giving her a service speed of 10.5 knots.For her first 7 years she conveyed general cargo outbound from the United Kingdom to (the former) British Guyana, and homeward bound with a cargo of bagged sugar. As with other Booker Line vessels it is possible she also had accommodation for passengers.In September 1940 now chartered by the Admiralty, the Arakaka sailed as a weather ship on the first of what were intended to be 3 week voyages. In his report on this first voyage Squadron Leader Portass (newly promoted), was scathing in his remarks on the unsuitability of the Arakaka for the duties she had been assigned. He claimed that she was a bad sailor due to her shallow draught for the sandbar of (British) Guyana, and that the violent motion made it difficult to pilot balloon weather operations. He further commented that the vessel was in no position to deal with a submarine attack, either by torpedo or gunfire, nor was she fast enough to retreat in safety. He recommended that she should be fitted with active sound detection apparatus, (ASDIC), a depth charge thrower and a 6 inch naval gun.Providing still more evidence of the unsuitability of the ship for the task assigned, he expressed his concerns about the difficulty in making radio contact, resulting in far too much time on the air and the consequent risk of detection through direction finding (DF) by the enemy.[i]However, despite the strong reservations of the Captain, when DMO and DNMS met on 18th October 1940 to discuss this first voyage report, DNMS announced that the Admiralty had decided that the next voyage would terminate in Newfoundland, and that thereafter the ships would use St John’s as base port, returning to the UK only after three months. This revised plan meant longer spells in the danger area mid-Atlantic. When Portass and Proud had volunteered for these dangerous duties, they did so on the understanding that each voyage would last for three weeks with one week at home in the UK with their families. In fact, after their initial voyages, these two ships never again reached port in the UK.To add to the consternation of the captains and crews, the Admiralty then informed the DMO that it was withdrawing the RNVR officers after their first voyages. The two officers were replaced by RAF-VR Corporals Dick Wrighton (Arakaka) and Edwin Hedley Smith (Toronto City). Some months later, the strain of making surface and upper-air observations round the clock was eased a little when the DMO managed to allocate two additional corporals, and Short and Thom reported to Sqn. Ldr. Portass in St John’s during May 1941. It is believed that Hedley-Smith was at that time promoted to Sergeant.

The following was sent to me by Harold Smith, the son of the Chief Steward on the SS Arakaka:

The fate of the SS Arakaka began on the 20th June 1941. On that day, the German U-Boat U77 , was practicing crash dives and other routine exercises in position 47N, 40W under the command of Korvettenkapitan Heinrich Schonder . A wireless message was received by the U-Boat to go further north.The weather had become foggy and Schonder records in the submarine’s log[iii] that his progress was slow as he had to stay on the surface to charge the batteries. Schonder decided to change direction to 70 degrees east, where the visibility is much better, and continues on this North West course.The further North the U Boat sailed, the fog returned and the sea state is rough.

The following entries are taken from the U-Boats log book of that night, the translation is supplied by Brian Booth:

1100Z - Wind SW force 4; Sea state 4; Thick Fog

1500Z - Wind SW force 4; Sea state 5; Thick Fog

1900Z - Wind WSW force 5; Sea state 5; Visibility 300-1000m

2034Z - Shape appears through the mist, bearing 90 degrees. As we turn towards it appears to be a steamer

2038Z - Heading changed to a reciprocal course moving slowly in front of target. Visibility is very poor; and the steamer is hardly visible, even with binnoculars. By keeping company with the steamer and constantly varying the speed it is clear that the ship is moving very slowly. Steamer lost from view as the visibility rapidly deteriorated. U77 stopped visibility reduced to 600m. Steamer reappears dead ahead, course 270 degrees, speedis very slow as ship is heading into high sea and swell, but it is not calculated.

2100Z - Diesels started

2108Z - Dive to start attack, crossing in front of steamer to prepare tubes and get into position. No sight of steamer because of high sea and fog.

2120Z - Not possible to hold boat steady in beam wind and sea, so head into wind; nothing heard on hydrophones.

2124Z - Turn towards steamer.

2133Z - Ship's engines heard clearly, bearing 118 degrees (hydrophones had been unserviceable). U-boat moves north to keep clear of steamer. Only fog seen through periscope.

2135Z - Tube 5 ready to shoot. Steamer in sight, very faint but appears to be a mid-sized freight; carries no flag; gun assembly at stern. Ship's outlines blurred by mist so position can only be estimated - steam fills 2/3 of periscope.

2136Z - Torpedo hits the engine room after 41 seconds. Steamer sinks quickly by the stern, disappearing in one minute. (Three explosions - two heard after torpedo hit).

2139Z - Surface and head towards sinking position, found large oil slick and extensive wreckage, also a few surviviors on an upturned lifeboat. These say the steamer was the 'Alexandra' a Greek vessel.

The SS Arakaka was sunk at 21.38Z hours on 22nd June, 1941 with all hands lost.

Note: It has been recorded in various publications and websites that there were 12 Admiralty personnel onboard the SS Arakaka, however there is no evidence of this. The service personnel at the time of her sinking were 3 RAFVR and 1 Royal Navy DEMS gunner.

SS Toronto City

SS Toronto City

Bristol City' Lines SS Toronto City

The SS Toronto City completed 6 voyages between Oct 1940 and June 1941. Setting out on her final voyage later that month; her last message dispatched July 1st. Both vessels disappeared suddenly within 10 days of each other; neither was able to send a distress signal of any kind.

The SS Toronto City was sunk at 18.25 hours on the 1st July 1941 in position 47.03N, 30W by U-Boat U108 under the command of Fregattenkapitän Klaus Scholtz with the loss of all 35 hands. She was hit in the bow by one G7e torpedo from U-108 North of the Azores and sank by the bow within 3 minutes.

The Germans questioned 23 survivors on rafts and debris, but the master and crew were never seen again.

In an article by Andrew Lycett entitled ‘Breaking Germany’s Enigma Code’ he reports the following:

“Around this time (spring 1941), Harry Hinsley, a Bletchley codebreaker, suggested that German weather and supply ships, as well as war ships, probably carried Naval Enigma details. This idea was proved correct when, in May 1941, the German weather ship München was attacked and found with Enigma code-books for June on board.

The capture of the supply ship Gedania and weather ship Lauenburg in June yielded codebooks for the following month, and opened the way to the reading of Naval Enigma almost concurrently with events.” [i]

In his article, Panthers, Gardening and Enigma [v] P De Cougan states:

“In early May 1941 the Navy dispatched a not insignificant fleet to intercept the München which was operating north west of Iceland. Halfway through June it was necessary to obtain further information in order to complete the construction of decrypt tables.

On 28 June the German weather ship Lauenburg, operating north of Iceland was captured, its vital contents removed and then sunk.

One can then conjecture whether these events were in any related to the destruction of the British weather ships, Arakaka and Toronto City .

In his book Adrian Gordon [vi] provides the key details.

Arakaka was sunk on 22 June 1941 by U77 in position 47º 00' N, 41º40' W. Toronto City was sunk by U108 on 1 July 1941 in approximate position 46ºN, 30º26' W. Gordon continues -

"Rumours and office gossip after the event, some of it perhaps after the war was over,circulated to the effect that we (the British) had sunk a German weather ship, that there had been some tacit understanding that these ships on both sides would be left unmolested. The PANTHERS were then sunk almost simultaneously in retaliation. This explanation is not so unreasonable".

Note: It is assumed that the author is refering to the München as the Lauenburg was sunk on 28/06/41 and the Arakaka on 22/06/41.

© The Booker Line

HMS Grindall

HMS Grindall

HMS Hoste

HMS Hoste

The following text is by Brian Booth (posted elsewhere on the web) and is about the role of HMS Grindall and HMS Hoste as weatherships

I've previously initiated two threads on "D-day meteorology" (http://www.navy-net.co.uk/Forums/viewtopic/t=24081.html) and " HMS Grindall" (http://www.navy-net.co.uk/Forums/viewtopic/t=25118.html), both of which were seeking advice about two ships that were deployed on weather reporting duties in the East Atlantic during the D-day episode.

Unfortunately no-one was able to provide exactly the detail I needed, but having recently visited the National Archives I thought the following description on one of the Royal Navy's unsung roles during WW2 might be of interest.

The background of the story is the almost complete lack of weather observations between the UK and about 30W, and 30N to 60N, that were so vital to forecasters for all aspects of the war. Charts encompassing this area were plotted eight times a day, but at most just 12 observations were received - on average just over one observation a chart. It was the need to plug this large dataless area, and the approach of D-day, that saw the conception of "Operation CZ"

Operation "CZ" was instigated on 14 April 1944 ordering two frigates, HMS Hoste and HMS Grindall, to embark a Meteorological Officer and two meteorological ratings, before sailing from Londonderry on 21 April. The ships were to assume weather reporting duties within areas bounded by 47N to 57N, and 25W to 35W (Hoste) and 40N to 47N and 17W to 25W (Grindall).

Weather observations were initially required every six hours (00, 06, 12 and 18 GMT), in other words messages were being broadcast every six hours which made it relatively easy for the Germans to fix the ships' positions by DF.

Both ships remained at sea to cover operations "Tiger" and "Fabius" (the test landings on Slapton Sands), before returning to Londonderry about 4 May.

The follow-up operation, Operation CZII, was promulgated on 15 May; this ordered Hoste to a patrol area bounded by 52N to 59N and 20W to 25W, and Grindall to an area bounded by 42N to 49N and 20W to 25W. A third frigate, HMS Inman, was to act as a reserve, patrolling between 49N and 52N, and 20W to 25W.

The ships were ordered to be on station by 25 May, with Hoste and Grindall operating as before whilst Inman remained silent; once in their patrol areas they were to sail at economical speed to the maximum limit of endurance and, unless otherwise ordered, were to avoid contact with all other vessels. (ADM1/16313)

(Although the operation order required observations every 6 hours, the plotted meteorological charts show they were actually reporting every three hours.)

In the event Grindall was recalled to base on 14 June where, after a brief respite she joined 5th Escort Group. However, Hoste remained at sea for 37 days until 28 June, although this included a brief return to Londonderry early in the voyage to land two ratings who had been seriously injured by boarding seas.

By frequently breaking radio silence Hoste was in constant danger throughout her long period at sea, and in recognition of her contribution to the success of the D-day landings she was awarded the Battle Honour for Normandy, 6th June 1944. (ADM217/501)

HMCS Port Arthur assumed Hoste's role after she returned to Londonderry.

Not an 'exciting' tale but, as was written in another file, the weather reporting role was a soul-destroying occupation for a normal ship's company, and one that was not without its constant danger. Henry Curry, the Met Officer on the Grindall, remembers German radio broadcasts claiming that the ship's message had been intercepted and her position was known.

© Brian Booth