Birth of SLINGER: By JOHN LAWSON
Things were looking bleak for Britain in early 1942 when the American Lease Lend arrangement saw the construction of a new kind of ship in the yards of the USA to augment the British Fleet. Basically, this new ship, the Escort Carrier, was simply a converted C3 type freighter with a flight deck put on top to turn it into a small Aircraft Carrier. Many of these carriers were built in the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington and the first was launched in April, 1942, by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. In some cases, the hulls of the ships were taken from Vancouver and other Pacific shipyards down to Portland for conversion to aircraft carriers.
In Portland, Oregon, two yards, the Williamette Iron & Steel Co., and the Commercial Ironworks Ltd carried out the conversions. Each hull was built up to enable a flight deck the size of a small football field to be fitted and below this the ship had a huge hanger deck capable of housing a squadron of 24 planes. There were two hydraulic lifts forward and aft on which the planes could be taken from the hangar deck to the flight deck. Set forward on the port side was a catapult mechanism which enabled fast take off for the aircraft, the full length of the flight deck being only 500 ft, which was hardly sufficient distance for modern aircraft to get airborne. Around the outside of the ship were, blisters or sponsons which housed Oerlikon AA guns and lifeboats and rafts.
The first carrier off the stocks was TRACKER at a cost of $11,000,000. Later carriers to be completed at either Portland or Vancouver were : RAVAGER, SEARCHER, SLINGER, TRUMPETER, PREMIER, SPEAKER and RAJAH.
An interesting event was the bet struck by Austin Flegel and Winston Casey, the Presidents of the Williamette Yard and the Commercial Ironworks Yard, as to whether Slinger (Williamette) or Trumpeter (Commercial) would be the first to commission. 26,000 shipyard workers raced neck and neck, before Casey collected on his bet when Trumpeter came from behind to win.
Ship's Company joins the Ship:
Jack Hill was amongst those matelots who entrained at Devonport Naval Barracks in June 1943 with absolutely no idea of where they were going. They eventually arrived at Gourock at the mouth of the Clyde and boarded the Queen Mary at which point they discovered their destination was to be the U.S.A. The ship was also carrying German P.O.W’s to Canada for internment. The guns crews on the ship were all Americans, but the British sailors made up the relief gun crews during the passage. It took the liner 5 days to cross the Atlantic at an average speed of 32 knots. The speed was not surprising in view of the fact that the ship had no escort, so was clearly not going to hang about.
Wallace Hill, no relation to Jack, recalls that at meal times they were waited on by some of the German P.O.W’s who had been members of Rommel’s crack Panzer Division in North Africa. He remembers commenting to an ‘oppo’ that it was the nearest he had ever been to a German, just as he was being served by a prisoner. The German looked at him and said in perfect English "Is that so ?" That broke the ice and from then on it was double rations for the matelots and chocolate and cigarettes for the Germans.
On arrival in New York, the British contingent were transferred to a pleasant spot in New Jersey known as Asbury Park. Jack Hill was billeted at a small hotel on the seafront which reminded him of Blackpool. He spent a pleasant three weeks before being transferred to Staten Island to do a 40 mm Bofors and 20 mm Oerlikon Gunnery course. During their stay in Asbury Park, the British sailors lived on US Navy rations, which were marvellous after their experiences with rationing in Britain.
At the end of the various courses, the British matelots entrained at Grand Central Station for the long journey across America to Portland, Oregon on the west coast. Jack recalls it was quite an exciting journey for many of them as they passed through the various states and saw the very varied scenery. There were four to a compartment which converted to sleeping accommodation and they were looked after by coloured porters. At every stop, the train took on fresh ice in order to provide drinking water. The porters were extremely courteous and friendly and could not do enough for the sailors.
On arrival at Portland, the Ships Company had their first glimpse of Slinger and although a small ship by comparison with the large Fleet Carriers, was nevertheless an imposing sight. During runs ashore, the matelots found the people of Portland to be very friendly. In particular, some of the members of the Portland Federation of Women’s Clubs, under the Chairmanship of Ann Grace Chapple, formed the White Ensign Club at 721 SW park Avenue, Portland, within the building of the George White Servicemen’s Centre. Here, the British lads could get a beer in a pub named the ‘Pig and Whistle’. They could have a meal, play games and dance with the many hostesses who had volunteered their services to the club.
Sea trials took place up and down the Columbia River and in the Pacific up to the end of August, 1943. This was a bad time for Jack Hill, who suffered a serious injury as a plane landing on snapped an Arrester Wire, which whipped back into Jack’s face and head. An eye witness to the incident, recalls that the Avenger plane had been waved round again by the DLCO (Batsman), but the pilot was so low that the plane engaged the Arrester Wire which then snapped and whipped back across the starboard sponsons where Jack was at his Gunnery post. The plane leapfrogged over the bow and passed under the ship, reappearing astern. It is thought that the pilot survived but Jack was put in hospital and knew little of what happened for the next couple of months. See photos of the landing incident
Eventually, Slinger left the Pacific and passed through the Panama Canal into the Atlantic. Soon after leaving the Canal, a wire hawser became entangled around the propeller shaft. The ship put into Colon, where divers went down to remove the hawser. After leaving Colon, the ship made passage up the Atlantic coast and docked at Norfolk, Virginia. This allowed the ships company a few days liberty in New York before setting sail for the U.K, where a refit was scheduled. On the lower deck there was much speculation on where the refit would take place. It turned out to be Chatham, where the ships company got home leave for two watches.
To the UK -modified & mined:
Eventually, the ship was pronounced ready for sea and she sailed out of Chatham. However, after only a few hours, while still in the Thames Estuary, there was a massive explosion as the ship passed over a mine. It appears that one of the escorting destroyers ahead of Slinger had sailed over the mine which was of the type which was aimed at convoys, so that the first ship activated the mine, but it was the second ship which detonated it. Remarkably, apart from a few broken limbs, no one was hurt, but the ship was a ‘sitting duck’ with no engines and no lights - just a deadly silence. A destroyer tried without success to take Slinger in tow, but eventually, tugs arrived and towed her back to the Silvertown docks at Woolwich. Here the entire crew were lined up on the starboard side of the hanger deck. As names were called out, men moved to the port side until only a few remained. These men were to comprise the care and maintenance party, while the rest of the ships company were returned to their respective depots. Soon the dockyard "matey’s" swarmed aboard. The first thing they did was build a house in the hangar, complete with cloakrooms, mess rooms and reportedly, a betting shop (As Britain did not yet have legal betting shops, presumably this was just a room for an illegal bookies runner - JPL). It was during this period that Wallace Hill took on the duties of Bosuns Mate and was stationed on the gangway, portside sponson, under Officer of the Watch, Sub. Lt. Singleton. On one afternoon watch, one dockyard worker was found asleep at the head of the gangway. Sub. Lt. Singleton sent to his cabin for some drawing paper and proceeded to draw the man, who was still fast asleep after two hours. He pinned the drawing to the mans lapel, so that anyone coming aboard would see it and its caption "One of Britain's War Workers". It almost caused a strike amongst the dockyard workers.
Another member of the watch aboard fancied himself as a songwriter and penned the following (to the tune of ‘An Old Fashioned Lady’)
There’s a broken down Carrier in old Silvertown
She was struck by a mine but refused to go down
There’s a dock waiting there
Where she’ll get lots of care
That Carrier in old Silvertown.
This was sung by the matelots as they came out of the Workings Men’s Club just down the road, where they had all been made honorary members.
This refit took place at the time of the doodle-bug attacks on London. On one occasion, when the onboard toilets were out of commission, one of the ships company was sitting, at peace with the world, when a doodle-bug came down in the vicinity blowing off the roof of the toilet. He commented that, if he did not want to go beforehand, he certainly did after that experience. John Lawson (Coder) recalls a PT session on the flight deck. Commander Roberts was watching the matelots efforts at aerobics and their nervous looks over their shoulders at the droning doodle-bugs. "Never mind what’s happening astern" he barked, "I’ll tell you when you need to take cover" just a few moments later he was the first to hit the deck when a doodle-bug appeared to be trying to land on the flight deck. Fortunately, it fell into the dock about 100 yards astern of the ship.
Off to War - The Pacific:
At the conclusion of the refit and with a virtually new ships company, SLINGER left Woolwich and steamed up to Scotland, mooring at the Tail o Bank at Greenock. From here she sailed daily and down the Kyles of Bute and around Ailsa Craig on trials for the ships company and the new squadrons we had taken on. We got to know this area really well and on some nights we tied up at Rothesay for the night, rather than steam back to Greenock. On one occasion, John was doing his ‘Dhobying’ (washing) on the quarter deck when a new pilot clearly misjudged the pitch and roll of the ship when landing on and smashed into the round down. The wreckage fell across the quarter deck, but john fortunately managed to duck behind the cable locker while the debris crashed around him. The pilot managed to get out of the plane before it fell from the deck to the sea. Most nights there were Liberty runs ashore at either Greenock or Rothesay, with lighters taking the matelots ashore and bringing them back usually worse for wear. Apart from the pubs and cinemas, there did not seem to be much to do when ashore so many of the ships company stayed aboard for canteen beer, nutty (chocolate) and a game of Tombola. This game was the forerunner of Bingo and it originated in the Navy. Very large sums of money could be won on a big ship.
Eventually the trails were completed and Slinger left Greenock on 11th January 1945 on route for Gibraltar. The very next day there was a U-Boat scare but nothing was sighted. The ship sailed through the traditionally stormy Bay of Biscay on 13th/14th and the seas were huge causing many matelots to pass their grub onto others or into the sea.
The next day was much calmer and the Rock was sighted. It is a strange experience when one reaches Gibraltar for the first time. The ship appears to be steaming straight for the coastline and the Rock appears to be behind the land. It is only as the ship gets nearer that one can see the entrance to the Straits as they are less than a mile wide at the entrance to the Mediterranean. We had one run ashore in Gib and we collected our first mail.
We left Gibraltar en route for Malta on 16th January and the sea was much calmer and bluer. During the passage through the Med, the ship flew Corsairs off on anti-submarine patrols on most days. We arrived at Malta on the 19th January and as we sailed into Valetta Harbour we saw the remains of the Italian Fleet which had recently surrendered at Salerno. One huge battleship we passed had such a long name that it was impossible to read without seeing both sides of the ships stern, but we eventually made it out to be the "Emmanuele Filliberto - Duc D’Aosta".
We left Malta for Alexandria on 20th January and we tied up there alongside the massive Fleet Carrier, Formidable and the cruiser, Newfoundland. Since leaving Clyde we had been sailing in company with other escort carriers, Khedive and Speaker, together with our destroyer escort of Volage, Venus, Eskimo, Wolverine and Whitehall, so we presented an imposing sight. Mail arrived just before we sailed through the Suez Canal for Port Said. We picked up a pilot and other Arabs selling trinkets and leather goods as we sailed through the canal. This was quite an experience for some of us as even a comparatively small escort carrier appeared to be a tight fit, so goodness knows what some of the bigger vessels made of it. We reached Port Said and sailed into the Red Sea the next day, the 24th and that night the film show was Abbot & Costello in "Lost in a Harem", which seemed fitting for the area we were in. During the passage through the Red Sea, Speaker lost an aircraft and regrettably the pilot was not recovered.
We arrived at Aden on 28th January. This was a barren looking spot, with just hills and rocks and a large distillery. We only stayed 5 hours before departing for Colombo. The heat was stifling. Both aircraft lifts were down in an effort to let cooler air blow through the ship. Salt water was sprayed on the flight deck to cool down the wood and metal. The Communications Mess (27C) was situated just below the quarter deck right above the screws so there was an incessant din, particularly when the stern lifted out of the water in deep troughs. However, with the hatches open there was plenty of cool air for those fortunate enough to be at the stern.
January 29th was Australia Day and found us at sea in the Indian Ocean. On 4th February, AB Cambridge fell overboard and was picked up by Eskimo. On the same day we arrived at Colombo. This was another stop of only a day and we were at sea again on the 6th bound for Australia, the longest leg of our voyage. At 21:00 on the 7th February we crossed the Equator and of course King Neptune and his party came aboard and the festivities took up all the next day. A pool has been set up on the foc’sle and the Bears (those who had crossed the line twice) and the Shellbacks (those who had crossed the line more than three times) made up the ducking party. All first-timers had to endure the ritual shaving and the tablet of soap in the mouth, before the final ducking. This included Commander Roberts and some of the photographs taken by the ships photographer show him enduring the ordeal with much amusement.
On 11th February, we headed into a cyclone as we were just on the edge of the "Roaring Forties", the 40 degree latitude renowned amongst mariners for gales and rough weather. A few days later we searched for survivors of the SS Peter Silvester, without success. We were now getting near the coast of Southern Australia and there was a ‘buzz’ going around the ship that we would be putting into Perth. This was not to be however, and we sailed through the Bass Straits for Sydney on 23rd February. Some of the lads were hoping we would call in at Hobart, known to sailors world wide as ABC (Apples, Beer and Crumpet). The film onboard that night and the next three nights was "Bathing Beauty" with Esther Williams.
Our arrival at Sydney Heads was impressive. As we cruised down the Harbour we saw the world famous bridge, which at that time was quite exciting. We tied up at Circular Quay right in the heart of the city. This is quite near where the Sydney Opera House has since been built.
The British Pacific Fleet:
Our time in Sydney was brilliant. The People could not do enough for us and many opened their homes to us matelots. There was an excellent British Centre in Hyde Park which was dedicated to looking after British Servicemen’s interests. The Restaurants were wonderful for many of us who had endured British rationing before joining up. It was here that John Lawson discovered that Apple Pie could be served with ice cream rather than the traditional custard. Through the British Centre many matelots obtained ‘Up Homers’, which were residents who opened their home to visiting sailors. These people became known as ‘up homers’ to the matelots. John Lawson had the good fortune to find an elderly couple named Cameron, who originated from Ullapool in Scotland. They had a grown up family with a son fighting in the Islands with the Australian Army and a school-teacher daughter. They lived at Harris Park, near Paramatta, a half hour train ride from Sydney. Mr. Cameron had been the headmaster of the Kings School, Paramatta, which was the equivalent of Eton in England. John spent many pleasant week-ends with them and, when he eventually left SLINGER for a Sydney shore base, he lived the life of a virtual civilian for nearly a year. Although, billeted at HMS Cairo, a shore establishment at Woolloomooloo, the system of 48 watches operating with C-in-C’s offices, meant that John could spend 2 days every week at the Camerons.
On 1st March, the ships company set about painting the ship and loading stores. On the next day we were visited by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, the C-in-C, who gave us a pep talk on our importance as a member of the newly formed B.P.F. Fleet Train. These were the Oilers and Supply ships to support the main fleet.
On the 11th, we left Sydney with great reluctance and headed north for the island of Manus in the Admiralty group, north of New Guinea. We did not put into Brisbane but during the voyage we were all given inoculations and issued with Mepachrine Anti-Malarial tablets. We passed the Great Barrier Reef which is over 2000 miles long, but we were too far out to see it properly. On the 14th, there was a tropical storm and the ships motor boat was washed away from its housing on the weather deck. The next day brought torrential rain and unbearable heat.
We arrived at Manus on 17th March. It was a desolate place with only a Fleet Canteen and some American Servicemen’s Bars. Many of us did not bother to go ashore, preferring the pleasures on board such as Tombola and the Cinema.
Manus was an important place in the Pacific War. It was here that the entire Pacific Fleet assembled over the next few days ready to commence "Operation Iceberg", the final attack on the Japanese in the home islands. It transpired that the main target of attack was to be Sakishima in the Ryuku group near Okinawa. The next day, Sunday, there was the traditional service on the flight deck, and most of the ships of the fleet were ranged as far as the eye could see. It was a tremendous sight and must have been one of the last big gatherings of ships in the war.
The main Ships of Task Force 57 included the Battleships HOWE & KING GEORGE V, Fleet Carriers IMPLACABLE, INDOMITABLE & ILLUSTRIOUS, the Maintenance carrier UNICORN and Cruisers EURYALUS & GAMBIA; in addition there were many Escort Carriers, Oilers, and Store Ships which formed the Fleet Train. SLINGER was in charge of Task Group 112.2, mostly Oilers of the Maersk Fleet.
SLINGER and TG 112.2 left Manus on 19th March bound for Leyte in the Philippines. Again the heat was intense and a canvas bathing pool was rigged up on the Foc’sle. We had our second cholera jabs and in the evening we watched the film ‘Private Hargreaves’.
On Sunday, 25th, the Captain addressed the ships company at Church service and told us to expect trouble from the Japs as we neared the scene of operations. We arrived at Leyte Gulf on the 26th. This is another God-forsaken spot on the globe. Not worth going ashore. A small amount of mail caught up with us here. We left Leyte on 29th March heading for action at Sakishima Gunto, an island off Okinawa. Next day the Captain cleared lower deck and gave us the news that the main fleet was already under attack from the Kamikaze’s.
The 1st of April 1945 was the worst day for the fleet. By this time SLINGER was within a few miles and had a grandstand view of the action. The Fleet Carriers really took a pounding and even though we were not attacked, we were at Action Stations all day. The Japs were intent on knocking out the carriers and their planes in order to delay the attack on Okinawa and Japan. The Jap pilots simply pointed their planes at the target ship and attempted to crash onto the flight deck with a full bomb load. Kamikaze means ‘Divine Wind’ and the Kamikaze pilots were not expected to return from their missions. For them it was an honour to die for the Emperor. Many of them were shot down by the gunners of the fleet, but quite a few did get through and rendered appalling damage on the targets.
Between the 2nd and the 5th of April, the Fleet Train re-supplied the fleet and took off damaged aircraft and casualties. On the way back to Leyte SLINGER was involved in a burial at sea of an airman from Indefatigable, who had died of wounds aboard SLINGER the day before. It was a sobering moment for us all. An interesting sequel to this event occurred 40 years later, in 1985, when I was advertising for former shipmates in Navy News. Alan Mitchell, from Nottingham wrote to me to ask if I could tell him how his Father had died. Despite many requests to the Admiralty, after 40 years, Alan’s family could not discover how his Father died. The only thing he had been told was that the death occurred on SLINGER and that he had been buried at sea. Our ships photographer had taken photographs of the funeral, so I was able to send the family my copies. Some years later, I visited the Public Records Office at Kew where I was able to study the ships logs and thus confirm to the family the exact position where the burial took place. It seems strange that although many of the ships company have copies of these photographs, the Admiralty and MOD could not apparently let PO Mitchell’s family have copies.
We reached Leyte again on 8th April and transferred the wounded ashore. The next day we left again for Manus and Brisbane. Also taking passage was a nurse, the only woman among 800 men. The weather was very calm and hot. We used to lay on the foc’sle peering over the bow at the host of flying fish under the bow wave. We have to be careful to keep in the shadow as it was an offence to fall asleep in the sun, which could prove to be a killer!
While en route for Brisbane, drama struck when the ship developed engine trouble. We were completely without power and as it was too dangerous for the whole convoy to stop, SLINGER was left on her own to solve the problem. We were like sitting ducks in the middle of the Pacific. We were warned by the Captain that there were to be no metallic sounds aboard which could betray our presence to enemy submarines. John Lawson was the Coder of the first watch when the incident occurred and was responsible for encrypting the signal to SACSEA, C-in-C and Admiralty. We were using the American CCM machine, rather like a typewriter to encrypt the messages. It was standard practice to decode all the messages again before sending them out, but as this was an emergency, the Lt. Cdr. Signals would not allow this to be done. Sure enough, although the message was all correct, it did not bear the name of the originator. One can imagine Lord Louis, Bruce Fraser and Winston Churchill all peering at their maps and saying "What bloody ship is it then ?". As a result of this error, John was put in Commanders Report for the following day. Fortunately, Lt. Cdr. Signals took some of the blame for not allowing John to check the signal before it went out, with the result that John was awarded 3 days No.11’s (rifle drill and extra duties). In the circumstances, this was not too bad, and the incident did not appear on his service record.
We were underway again next day following temporary repairs to the main gear wheel and we arrived at Brisbane on 19th April. However, we were unable to enter the dry dock until the 28th when we underwent four weeks of repairs, during which time VE Day was celebrated. The Mainbrace was spliced and we got a pint of beer with our supper. The ships company were given 7 days shore leave, provided they had somewhere to go. Some took the train to Sydney, 600 miles away, after being issued with travel warrants, but the majority stayed in Brisbane and took up invitations from local residents. There was a Union Jack Club, 12 cinemas and theatres, eight dance halls and racing at Albion Park.
On 27th May we set sail for Sydney were we took on stores and prepared for sea again. On 3rd June we received mail from the UK and left for Brisbane, arriving on the 5th. We had to anchor in the Roads as there was too much mist to sail up the Brisbane River. Next day we moored at Brisbane and unloaded. The same day we were on our way back to Sydney yet again and by now it was beginning to get a bit monotonous. On this journey we experienced very high seas and squalls.
On 8th June, we sailed into Sydney once more and moored at Pyrmont after passing under the great bridge. It was at that time that SLINGER was relegated from being classed as an Escort Carrier to being a Ferry Carrier. This was mainly due to the damage to the engine drive shaft, which prevented the ship from reaching speeds required to operate aircraft. This was also possibly the time when the Captaincy changed hands with Commander Hopkins taking over from Captain Moore. As only a small crew was now required, many men were drafted to other ships. On 17th June 1945, John Lawson left SLINGER on draft to Golden Hind, a shore depot on the Warwick Farm Racecourse. After 12 days he was drafted to the staff of the C-in-C BPF and worked from July to October, 1946 at HQ in William Street, Sydney and later as the war was entering the final stages, at Tamar, Hong Kong where the C-in-C established his HQ in a large building halfway up the ‘peak’ close to the Funicula Terminus. While they were in Hong Kong, the Japanese had carved out tunnels under the hills and so it was handy for HQ staff to reach Tamar, about half a mile away, without getting wet. On the way up to Hong Kong, the C-in-C flew his flag in Duke of York, so for a short time John was a ‘big ships’ man.
John was demobbed on 28th February, 1947 after taking passage home on Armada, a Battle Class destroyer.
After John’s departure from the ship, SLINGER continued the Sydney/Brisbane/Hong Kong runs, carrying up to 120 aircraft on each voyage. On some of these runs, aircraft were ditched in the sea. Some were beyond repair, but in 1996, a diver off Queensland found many aircraft on the seabed and reported that many of them appeared to be in excellent condition. It is thought that there was some reason for not returning these aircraft to the USA under the Lend Lease scheme. The ship also transported POW’s from Hong Kong to Sydney before making the voyage home. She finally docked at Devonport on Christmas Day, 1945 and was later taken back to the USA where she was renamed Robin Mowbray and continued for some years as a Merchantman.
©2005-2010 John Lawson & Tony Drury
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