Built in 1917, the ex-USS Laub was transferred to the RN and commissioned as HMS Burwell in Halifax on October 9 th , 1940. It then sailed for the UK to undergo modifications to suit RN purposes. Following convoy work in the Northwest Approaches, it was transferred to the newly formed Newfoundland Escort Force in June 1941 and served in the North Atlantic until the spring of 1943.
A former signalman with Burwell, Albert E. Owen, joined the ship in November 1942 and remembers her as “a rusty, obsolete and practically useless” vessel that took nine months to get out of Liverpool where “she rested at one time or another in nearly every drydock in the place.” Once out of drydock, she was “assailed by a Navigating Officer whose mishaps would have ruined the insurance company for which he worked in peace time.”
In March 1943, Burwell departed the UK with a convoy destined for Algiers. Mr. Owen recalls the ship being more of a liability than an asset. After offering assistance to a corvette in a U-boat hunt, the corvette responded to Burwell with the message “Can the blind lead the blind?” Burwell limped into Gibraltar after being detached from the convoy due to engineering problems. Her orders were revised and, instead of Algiers, the destination was the Azores. The Portuguese navy was busy picking up survivors from the U-boat activities in the area and, on arrival at the island of Sao Miguel, the ship was met with “a ragged army of survivors” who were keen to see their first British ship in months. The ship’s supply of cigarettes quickly disappeared.
Portugal was officially neutral in WWII and all survivors were to be interned for the duration of hostilities. Unbeknownst to all on board, the ship had 37 stowaways when it sailed from Sao Miguel.
Since they had a second stop in the Azores, at the island of Fayal, to deliver compass equipment to the British merchant ship SS Horarata, the captain was extremely anxious about the situation. To have 37 stowaways on board indicated one of two things: he had no respect for international law regarding internment or he was too inept to maintain proper security in his ship. Neither scenario was good.
While at anchor and delivering parts to Horarata, Burwell was approached by a barge with a Portuguese commodore and his staff on board. Fearing the embarrassment of being caught with stowaways, the captain quickly came up with a plan.
According to Mr. Owen, There was only one remedy available to the skipper in such an emergency – gin and angostura bitters! With due naval dignity, the Portuguese Commodore was piped aboard and wheeled straight down into Burwell’s Wardroom. When he and his Flag Lieutenant re-appeared two hours later, they both had the glazed and happy look all customers wear when leaving the pub at closing time. Supporting each other unsteadily, they fell into their barge and made their way contentedly back to shore for a late dinner.
As soon as the barge departed, both Burwell and Horarata immediately weighed anchor and headed for home. Consistent to the end, Burwell broke down three times during the transit forcing the merchant ship to circle around her while repairs were being made. On arrival in the UK, Horarata sent a signal to Burwell thanking them for their protection. Mr. Owen, being a signalman, was on the bridge and broke out in laughter with that message. The captain did not share his sense of humour and he was given seven days stoppage of leave.
Burwell survived the war and Mr. Owen says it qualified as the “luckiest ship afloat.” He recalls that they only fired its ancient 4” gun once. This was fortunate since, on that one occasion, “every light in the ship went out, the cockroaches went raving mad and we sprang leaks all over the place.” Burwell was reduced to reserve status in the fall of 1943 and later nominated for service as an air target ship. In early 1945, it was reduced again to unmaintained reserve status and laid up at Milford Haven.
Burwell’s gun shield presents an optimistic, perhaps dreamy, image of its prowess on the high seas. The reason for an RN ship to use a large maple leaf on its gun shield is not known. Since RCN pay was higher than RN pay, it may represent the ship’s company’s wishful thinking for enhanced pay along with an enhanced service record.
Notes: 1. “Thank God We Have a Navy”, Albert Edward Owen, contribution to WW2 People’s War, An archive of World War Two memories – written by the public, gathered by the BBC.