Specially built and fully equipped rescue ships were not available in the early days of the war. Instead, ocean-going tugboats, trawlers and coastal passenger transports were modified to serve in that role.
Dedicated rescue vessels permitted the naval escorts to focus on countering any attacks. They also took the burden off merchant ships to stop and pick up survivors, a role for which they were not well-suited since they had neither rescue equipment nor medical aid. Eventually, 30 rescue ships were built or converted for rescue operations. They took part in almost 800 convoys and rescued over 4,000 survivors from more than 100 ships.
Five rescue ships were lost to enemy action while a sixth, St. Sunniva, is considered to have capsized off Newfoundland after icing up. Because they were not hospital ships, rescue vessels were considered a legitimate target by German forces. As a result, they were armed with anti-aircraft guns and high frequency/direction finding equipment (HF/DF also known as “huff duff”).
SS Bury was a passenger and cargo ship built for the Great Central Railway in 1911. It was in Hamburg, Germany at the outbreak of WWI and seized as a war prize. The stewardesses were released a short time later when the American Consul intervened. The remainder of the crew were interned for the duration of hostilities. Bury was used for accommodation of the civilian river pilots working for the Imperial German Navy. In early 1919, it was returned to its British owners. (1) Bury was requisitioned for rescue service in August, 1941. The necessary modifications were made and Bury sailed with Convoy, ON 52, on December 31 st , 1941. It was the first of many convoys for the former coastal trader.
On her fourth convoy in May 1942, Bury was assigned to ONS 92 from the UK to North America. The convoy was attacked by the wolfpack Hecht and her first rescue was 45 survivors from the coal carrier Llanover. Bury then picked up 21 of Empire Dell’s 61 survivors. By the time she rescued all 34 crew members from the merchant ship Tolken, Bury was well above her available accommodation. She was detached from the convoy to land the survivors in St. John’s. She returned to the UK with Convoy SC 85.
By war’s end, Bury had sailed with 48 convoys and had rescued 237 survivors from sunken vessels. In June 1945, Bury was once again returned to her owners. The ship sailed for the last time from Hull in 1958 to Rotterdam for demolition.
Bury is the only rescue ship to be represented n the Crow’s Nest and one of the smallest gun shields in the Club’s collection. It depicts a stickman-style sailor swinging Popeye in a net over to a U-boat with a clear image of a grumpy Hitler on the bow.
Notes: 1. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Historical Society website ( www.historicalrfa.org )