THE CUNARD LINER 'ASCANIA' OF 1925

 

The ASCANIA entered service in 1925 for Cunard Line's Canadian service.

 

 

By the end of the First World War, the Cunard Line had lost all of its 'A' class of liners operating on the Canadian service; the ALBANIA, AUSONIA, ANDANIA, AURANIA and ASCANIA. The Canadian trade was of ever-growing importance, and in the company's vast replacement building programme of the early post-war years, six new 'A' class liners were constructed for the Canadian routes.

 

The new ASCANIA was launched on 20th December 1923, but her building was then stopped for several months due to ever increasing costs and spiralling wage demands. It was not until 2nd May 1925 that she was ready for her sea trials off the Tyne. These were successfully completed and the new ship left for Southampton

 

ASCANIA  Built by Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. Ltd., Newcastle. Yard No: 971

Official Number: 147307        Signal Letters:  G K N J

Gross Tonnage: 14,440   Nett: 8,143     Length: 520ft    Breadth: 65.3ft

Owned by the Cunard Steamship Co. Ltd.;  registered at Liverpool

Twin screws,  4 steam turbines, double-reduction gearing.  Speed: 15 knots

 

The original passenger numbers were for 500 in cabin class, and 1,200 in third class, with a crew of 280. The ASCANIA left London on her maiden voyage on 22nd May 1925 for Southampton, Quebec and Montreal. In 1927 the passenger accommodation was rearranged with 520 in cabin class and third class reduced to 928.

 

The ASCANIA alongside Princes Landing Stage, Liverpool

 

In 1928 the ASCANIA took one Anchor Line sailing from Glasgow to Canada, and made one voyage from Liverpool. The depression of the 1930s made very little difference to the ASCANIA and she carried on with her work on the Canadian routes, with an occasional voyage on the New York run.

 

The year 1934 proved to be a memorable one for the ASCANIA. In October she was one of the ships which went to the assistance of the MILLPOOL which was sinking in a violent storm in mid-Atlantic. After searching the area for twenty-one hours, no trace of the ship was found.

 

A few weeks later, on 14th December, the ASCANIA was diverted to assist the steamer USWORTH, whose grain cargo had shifted in severe weather. The USWORTH had been taken in tow by the Belgian ship JEAN JADOT, but the towline had carried away. One of the JEAN JADOT's lifeboats had managed to take off fourteen men, but it was overturned by the mountainous seas and twelve of the rescued men were lost.

 

The USWORTH and one of the ASCANIA's lifeboats, photographed

from the ASCANIA by an unknown passenger.

 

Captain James Bisset, master of the ASCANIA

at the time of the USWORTH rescue.

 

The sea state was really unfit for boat work, but on the ASCANIA's arrival her master, Captain James Bisset, RNR, decided to make an attempt. After pumping out some fuel to leeward, he took the ASCANIA to within 100 feet of the USWORTH's stern and sent away a thirty-foot lifeboat, manned by one officer and ten A.B.s. The boat managed to reach the USWORTH and take off the remaining nine crew members.

 

The ASCANIA was making twice the leeway of the swamped USWORTH and had to make a wide circle of the sinking vessel to get into a position suitable for recovering the lifeboat. The boat made it back alongside the ASCANIA  but was rising and falling twenty feet in the heavy seas, and getting the men back on board was an extremely hazardous operation, but eventually they made it without loss.

 

This was one of the epic rescues of the North Atlantic, and on the ASCANIA's return to the UK there were civic receptions. The boat's crew and Captain Bisset were all presented with Lloyd's Silver Medal for gallantry at sea, and for the remarkable handling of the ship.

 

An artist's impression of the ASCANIA passing the Liverpool Bar Lightship ALARM 

 

In November 1935 the ASCANIA was struck amidships by the steamer NORWEGIAN and had a hole torn in her side, and in 1938 she ran aground near Bic Harbour in the St Lawrence, some 150 miles from Quebec, but was refloated without much difficulty. At the time, the ASCANIA was carrying $3 million worth of gold bullion to Canada.

 

The ASCANIA arrived at Liverpool on 3rd September 1939, the day on which the Second World War was declared. She was immediately converted into an armed merchant cruiser by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead, and was commissioned on 16th October. For the next three years she patrolled the North Atlantic, covering 147,000 miles in the process.

 

In October 1942 the ASCANIA was converted into a troopship and the following year she was further altered to become a L.S.I. (L) - Landing Ship Infantry (Large). With landing craft replacing her lifeboats, she was present at the Sicilian and Anzio landings. In 1945 the ship was converted back to a troopship and operated as such until she was released in December 1947.

 

By this time she was the only one of the six 'A'-class liners left to the Cunard Line. All six had started the war as armed merchant cruisers, and the ANDANIA had been torpedoed and sunk in 1940. The other four were all purchased by the Admiralty and converted into repair ships.

 

The ASCANIA at the Cunard berth in Huskisson Dock, Liverpool

 

Following a very quick partial refit, and still with austerity accommodation, the ASCANIA re-opened the Liverpool - Halifax service on 20th December 1947. She had accommodation for 257 first-class and 522 tourist-class passengers. At the end of 1949 the ASCANIA was sent to Alexander Stephen & Sons' yard at Linthouse for complete reconditioning. The ASCANIA returned to service on the Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal service on 21st April 1950 carrying a full complement of 198 first-class passengers and 498 in tourist class, plus a crew of 367.

 

The tourist-class lounge on the ASCANIA after her refit

 

A first-class cabin on the ASCANIA. Somewhat less luxorious

than the 'Queens'!

 

The ASCANIA remained very much a Liverpool-based ship. In 1952 she made a special call at Douglas, Isle of Man, with a party of Manx people from Canada on a homecoming visit.

 

The Manx 'Homecoming' party, photographed on board the Isle of Man

steamer SNAEFELL, which acted as tender to the ASCANIA in Douglas Bay.

 

Two years later the new SAXONIA, followed shortly by the IVERNIA, made their appearance on the Canadian route from Liverpool, and at the end of 1955 the ASCANIA was transferred to Southampton. She lasted a year at the southern port and completed her last Cunard voyage on 16th November 1956.

 

 

The ASCANIA made two trooping voyages to Cyprus, sailing on 23rd November 1956, finally returning to Southampton on 20th December. Ten days later she sailed to Newport, Mon., where she was broken up by John Cashmore. Thirty-two years old, the ASCANIA was still a smart, sturdy-looking ship, but of course she was quite outclassed by the new quartet. She had spent almost her entire working life on the North Atlantic, and had come through it with flying colours.

 

 

<<<<   >>>>

 

H.M. ARMED MERCHANT CRUISER 'ASCANIA'

 

by Guy Stafford

 

This is the story of a Cunard liner that went to war as an armed merchant cruiser in 1939. HMS ASCANIA, flying the White Ensign, played an important, if unspectacular, part in the early years of the war at sea.

 

It was 8.am on a Saturday morning in late September 1939. The war was in its third week and the twenty naval ratings waiting outside the drafting office at HMS EXCELLENT on Whale Island were wondering what the future had in store for them. Each had received a draft chit for AMC (Armed Merchant Cruiser) C5. They knew they were due to join her that day, but as to the name of the ship and where she was berthed, they had yet to learn.

 

Thirteen-and-a-half weary hours later they arrived at a blacked-out Woodside Station at Birkenhead.There was a lorry to meet them and after a short trip through the darkened streets it entered Cammell Laird's yard and pulled up alongside a steamer in the dry dock.

 

That she was a Cunarder was obvious from her colours, but it was not until after the white-coated stewards had shown them to their accommodation that they knew her as the ASCANIA. The chief and petty officers were accommodated on 'B' deck, the remainder on 'C' deck; cabins being an unheard-of luxury to the naval men.

 

Three hectic weeks followed. Eight six-inch guns arrived on the quayside to be hoisted on board and bolted down to the gun supports built in when the ASCANIA was constructed; four to port and four to starboard. A small director and range finder were fitted to the upper bridge, and a height finder on a specially constructed platform abaft the single funnel. Two three-inch high-angle guns and twin Lewis guns on the wings of the bridge formed the anti-aircraft armament.

 

The ASCANIA in her cruising white paint in the 1930s

 

The magazines were constructed in the holds fore and aft. Small davits with electric winches served as shell and cordite hoists to each magazine. A coat of battleship grey was applied and the once-proud ASCANIA had become a warship.

 

During the busy three weeks at Cammell Lairds, a relationship had sprung up between the small naval party and those members of the merchant navy crew who were to remain with the ship on T124 Articles of Agreement. The initial prejudices quickly gave way to curiosity and interest in each others' jobs. Many lasting friendships were formed in those early days.

 

At the end of the three weeks, the main body of the naval crew arrived. It was a motley collection comprising of recalled pensioners, RNR, and RNVR ratings. The only active service ratings were the chief gunner's mate and the young ordnance artificer joining his first ship.

 

 

With the ship's company complete and under the commane of Captain C.H. Ringrose-Wharton, RN, HMS ASCANIA went to sea for the first time - just for the day. Two days later, stored and fully armoured, she sailed for an unknown destination. Rumour was rife, the best bet being Scapa Flow for duties on the Northern Patrol, but once clear of Anglesey the ASCANIA turned on a southerly course and eventually steamed into Spithead. After some hours the ship entered Portsmouth Harbour and an unexpected weekend leave was granted to some of the crew. On Monday morning she sailed for Portland.

 

During the week that followed, most days were spent at sea on gun trials. The six-inch Mk VII guns dated from between 1898 and 1904 and some problems were experienced with these elderly pieces and a great deal of glass was shattered during the firing, paticularly on the promenade deck. The three-inch guns were 1917 vintage and cause no problems other than the lack of training for the crews.

 

The ASCANIA alongside the north side of Pier 90, New York

 

On the Thursday evening of the ASCANIA's week at Portland, two members of the ship's company were in a pub discussing the possibility of weekend leave again, only to be told by the barmaid that: "if you're off that liner, you'll be on your way to Canada with a load of bullion come Saturday!" The men laughed, but, strangely enough, a small coaster came alongside and some strange-looking boxes were loaded under armed guard and stowed down below.

 

Saturday morning dawned bleak, grey and very wet. HMS ASCANIA left harbour with a two destroyer escort, and for several hours steamed up Channel until well out of sight of land, then she turned, left her escort, and headed out into the Atlantic.

 

The passage was rough and the weather still very wet when six days later Chebucto Head loomed out of the mist and the ASCANIA steamed into Halifax harbour and berthed at Pier 22. The first ship of the 3rd Battle Squadron had arrived! Later she was joined by her sister Cunarders ALAUNIA and AUSONIA, and later still by the JERVIS BAY, MONTCLARE and other Armed Merchant Cruisers.

 

After a few days in port the ASCANIA sailed as escort for one of the first convoys to leave Halifax. The weather was calm but foggy, and with the ships unused to sailing in company, the inevitable happened. The OROPESA and the MANCHESTER REGIMENT collided, and the latter was reported sunk. This was the first of many such convoys, some fast but most desperately slow.

 

The MANCHESTER REGIMENT was sunk when she was in collision with the

OROPESA in one of the first Halifax,NS, convoys of the war.

 

The OROPESA inflicted severe damage on the MANCHESTER REGIMENT

after a collision in fog on an early Halifax convoy. The ASCANIA picked up

the crew from the MANCHESTER REGIMENT.

 

In January 1940 the pattern was altered. Up to then all the convoys had been handed over to the Local Escort Force off the coast of Ireland, but on this occasion the ASCANIA  went all the way, right up the Clyde to refit in Glasgow. This gave the ship's company seven days' leave for each watch. It was during this period that the ship was fitted with depth charge throwers, but unfortunately no asdic, so the depth charges were of doubtful value - they were certainly never used in anger. An early type of radar was fitted with the enclosed aerial mounted on a small tower forward of the funnel.

 

With the refit completed, the ASCANIA went back on station to Halifax, on the way forming part of a chain of ships covering the first 'secret' voyage of the QUEEN ELIZABETH to New York. There were changes in the routine for the AMCs, with convoys to Bermuda and the West Indies, where at least the weather was more kindly.

 

The ASCANIA was one of a number of Armed Merchant

Cruisers watching over the 'secret' maiden voyage of the

QUEEN ELIZABETH from the Clyde to New York in 1940.

 

There was a not-so-welcome change in the routine for the Atlantic convoys. Where previously the handover to the local escort had meant a swift trip back to Halifax, the new idea was for the AMCs to put into Reykjavik to refuel, and then to carry out a twelve-day patrol of the Denmark Strait.

 

It was during this period that the ASCANIA was to demonstrate that she bore a charmed life. She had just returned to Halifax from a convoy and had secured alongside Pier 36, ahead of the JERVIS BAY, when word went round that the stay in port was going to be very brief. The ASCANIA was quickly stored and fuelled to sail with another convoy the following morning. The JERVIS BAY remained alongside with engine trouble. The convoy was an 'over and back' job so it was not so bad after all. The local escort appeared right on time and the ASCANIA headed back to Halifax.

 

The Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line steamer JERVIS BAY

 

The Officers of the JERVIS BAY photographed in 1940 for the

'Telegraph-Journal', a local newspaper in St John, New Brunswick.

 

On the evening of 5th November 1940, hands went to 'night action stations' as usual, checked all the equipment, and then reverted to 'cruising stations'. Half-an-hour later it was 'action stations' again and it was obvious that the ASCANIA had increased speed and was turning back. The word was quickly passed to all positions that the JERVIS BAY  was in action with a German pocket battleship and the ASCANIA was going to her assistance.

 

The German pocket battleship ADMIRAL SCHEER

 

The ship's company prepared for the worst. The ASCANIA's six-inch guns were no match for the eleven-inch guns of the ADMIRAL SCHEER. Two hours later the ASCANIA was ordered to resume her passage to Halifax, and it was with very mixed feelings that this order was obeyed.

 

A painting of the Armed Merchant Cruiser JERVIS BAY,  by Charles Pears, engaging the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL SCHEER, and thus giving Convoy HX72 two hours to disperse.

 

Captain Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, VC,

Master of the JERVIS BAY

 

Meanwhile across the Western Ocean the drama was being played out. Against hopeless odds Captain Fogarty Fegen of the JERVIS BAY turned his ship towards the enemy, her ancient guns blazing defiantly. For two hours the JERVIS BAY fought on, giving valuable time for te convoy to scatter before she succumbed to her mighty opponent.

 

Much has been said about the ineffectualness of armed merchant cruisers, particularly by those who saved in them. Too big, too slow, poorly armed, all of which was true; but in those two short hours the JERVIS BAY justified the existence of them all.

 

Some of the 63 survivors of the JERVIS BAY on board the Swedish

ship STUREHOLM which picked them up.

 

The crew of the ASCANIA learnt the full story of the JERVIS BAY when they arrived back in Halifax, and the unanimous feeling was that they should have gone on to assist their squadron mates. But orders, given by someone in a position to know the whole picture, are made to be obeyed, and so the ASCANIA survived to carry on her work

 

The SAN DEMETRIO was part of Convoy HX72, in which

the JERVIS BAY attacked the ADMIRAL SCHEER

 

The month of April 1941 found the ASCANIA patrolling wearily in the Denmark Strait. On the twenty-second of the month her twelve days were up and she handed over the area to HMS RAJPUTANA. As the ASCANIA steamed into Reykjavik a signal was received to say that the RAJPUTANA had been sunk after being torpedoed by the SCHARNHORST.

 

The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company's RAJPUTANA

 

The end of the RAJPUTANA in the Denmark Strait

 

A month later the ASCANIA was back patrolling the Strait. The weather had, for several days, been sparklingly clear with the mountains of Iceland and Greenland standing out on the horizon. On the twelfth day, down came the fog. That afternoon, as the ASCANIA clawed her way through the murk, there was a sudden alarm - 'Hands to action stations'.

 

A dark shape loomed out of the fog. An aldis lamp flashed - it was HMS NORFOLK shadowing the enemy. The ASCANIA was to remain on station while the scene was set for the coming battle. She might be needed, perhaps in a shadowing role if the enemy doubled-back, or perhaps even to sacrifice herself while the capital ships came up.

 

The following morning the ASCANIA's captain broke the news to his ship's company: the mighty HOOD had blown up, the PRINCE OF WALES was damaged and the BISMARCK was on the loose somewhere in the Atlantic. It was a frightening prospect. The ASCANIA remained on patrol until the BISMARCK was found and destroyed.

 

In September 1941 the ASCANIA returned to the Clyde, and a few days later was despatched to Southampton for 'tropicalisation'. This involved stripping out the cabins on 'C' deck and the construction of proper messdecks. An addition was made to the armament with two rocket projectors situated abaft the bridge. These were considered more dangerous to the ship than to the enemy!

 

Leaving Southampton for the Clyde, the ASCANIA joined a large convoy heading south for Freetown. From there she sailed alone to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. In the aftermath of the fall of Singapore she sailed for Melbourne and a week later left for Auckland to be attached to the Royal New Zealand Navy. She made many trips as a troopship until June 1942 when she sailed for the UK.

 

The ASCANIA passed through the Panama Canal and joined a convoy bound for Key West. This suffered numerous U-boat attacks, but because of the ASCANIA's lack of asdic equipment, her depth charges were not used. From Key West, the ASCANIA sailed north to New York, and a week later proceeded to Halifax to join an eastbound convoy to the Clyde.

 

 

The ASCANIA's final voyage under the White Ensign was to Southampton to pay off and become a troop transport. During her three years' commission the ASCANIA rendered sterling service with very little glory. The combination of Royal Navy and Merchant Navy worked very well, given the circumstances. The Merchant Navy might not like the Navy 'bull', and the Royal Navy might not have approved of the easy-going way of the Merchant Navy, but in the ASCANIA and other armed merchant cruisers, they proved that together they made a wonderful team.

 

<<<<<    >>>>>