In February 2018 David was again published in the excellent Britain at War magazine. Here's the full article, in its un-edited version: The British population, in late 1938, was living under the shadow of a possible war with Germany. If war came to Britain’s door, a high percentage of essential supplies would need to be imported and an equal number of arms, ammunition and men would likely be exported. The British Admiralty quickly realised Great Britain needed to keep its sea lanes open and protect valuable commerce and trade convoys at all costs. In June 1939, as the threat of war loomed ever closer, an ambitious Admiralty Trade Division programme was established. The Admiralty echoed the World War One Defensively Armed Merchant Ship (DAMS) policy and sought to arm around 5,500 merchant vessels – mostly with an anti-aircraft defence capability.
The retrofitting of weapons to both small and large merchant platforms required a ship’s superstructure to be strengthened in preparation for the arrival of the big guns. By February 1940, approximately 1,900 merchant vessels had been strengthened and fitted with a plethora of anti-aircraft weapons. At the end of 1940, a total of 3,400 vessels had been defensively equipped. In June of that year, the Admiralty established the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship (DEMS) organisation. The personnel required to man these weapons would be known as DEMS gunners.
More often than not, DEMS personnel were Royal Navy HO (Hostilities Only) ratings. Once drafted to a DEMS, a rating would be known as either an Acting Gunlayer or Acting Seaman Gunner. Royal Marine ranks were also employed as DEMS gunners and were designated as Acting Gunlayers.
HMS Glendower in North Wales and HMS Wellesley at Liverpool were just two of several DEMS training establishments preparing sailors destined for war service in merchant ships. By 1944, some 33,000 DEMS gunners had been trained at Glendower and Wellesley alone. The training comprised five weeks’ basic naval training. This prepared them for two-and-a-half weeks of gunnery and two-and-a-half weeks of advanced seamanship instruction. The final part would be their specialised DEMS training. This lasted three weeks but was increased to four to cover the whole variety of weapons which could be fitted to merchant vessels. Contrary to popular belief, not all DEMS gunners were actually Royal Navy or merchant seamen. Army personnel were also drafted to augment Royal Navy DEMS gunners on board merchant ships. The drafting of Army personnel on board merchant vessels allowed more Royal Navy servicemen to be released for service in the operational fleet.
Servicemen from the Royal Artillery (RA) were initially embarked on board merchant vessels as port defence. The two-man RA teams would operate light machine guns, like the Marlin or Lewis gun, usually mounted on a ship’s bridge wings. In 1941, owing to the success of this initiative, the Maritime Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery was created. Eventually, the regiment would be renamed the Maritime Royal Artillery (MRA). By 1943, 14,000 servicemen from the MRA were positioned in twenty-four ports around Great Britain.
The Holman Projector
Many merchant vessels were fitted with large breech-loading or quick-firing guns, ranging from three to six inches in calibre. These heavy weapons were retrofitted to the decks of merchant vessels specially reinforced for this purpose. Typically, the larger calibre gun was fitted aft and a smaller 12-pounder or similar gun, was fitted forward. These guns could be mounted as either high-angled weapons for anti-aircraft defence or low-angled for use against enemy shipping and surfaced U-boats. Depending on the size of gun fitted, the number of personnel in a DEMS crew ranged from between seven to nine men. The successful operation of a large gun required a gunlayer, breech worker, rammer number, trainer, loader, sight setter and two or more ammunition suppliers. Unlike the DAMS gunners of World War One, the World War Two DEMS gunners also had to combat an enemy threat from the air.
Most merchant vessels were additionally complemented with a variety of anti-aircraft weapons like the Oerlikon 20mm cannon, and a selection of light machine guns, including the Hispano, Marlin, Lewis and Hotchkiss machine guns. Occasionally, a merchant ship was also complemented with a grenade-throwing Holman Projector.
Maritime Royal Artillery DEMS gunner Fred Dent describes the effectiveness of the weapon types employed on board Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships during World War Two. Fred suggests that on occasion some vessels were supplied with stripped Lewis guns. These weapons differed from the original Lewis gun because their air-cooled barrel covering was removed and an insulated hand grip was added in its place. This made the weapon lighter so it could be fired directly from the shoulder. Merchant coasters were only lightly armed. These vessels were more often than not only complemented with a single 12-pounder anti-aircraft gun aft and one Marlin machine gun positioned on each bridge wing. Fred Dent said the .303 Marlin gun was a very poor weapon and not popular among DEMS gunners; it required a very delicate touch to keep working.
In a desperate attempt to prevent air attacks on merchant vessels, the Admiralty investigated the possible use of unconventional weapons. Air Ministry scientists working at HMS Birnbeck for the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD), near Weston-super-Mare, designed, among other clandestine items, vertical launch rocket mountings. One of the rocket defences devised by the scientists was called the Parachute Aerial Cable (PAC) rocket system. Fred Dent described its operation: “The officer of the watch pulled a lanyard which fired the rocket up to around 400 feet in the air. The rocket took up a length of wire. Attached to the middle of the wire was a canister containing a hand grenade. Another length of wire was attached to a parachute and the canister. The drag on the parachute and the weight of the spent rocket suspended the grenade canister in mid-air. The idea was that if an enemy aircraft flew into the wire – the explosive charge would be dragged up to the wing and detonate”. Fred says he never saw or heard of an aircraft being brought down by a PAC. By all accounts it was a totally ineffectual air defence weapon and rather a Heath Robinson affair.
Fred Dent initially joined the East Yorkshire Regiment in August 1940. As the war progressed and the threat to merchant shipping from German U-boats increased, Army servicemen were asked to volunteer for the Maritime DEMS. Fred says that in December 1940, eighty per cent of his regiment volunteered to join the Maritime Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery. Many were keen to transfer because they had originally wanted to join the Senior Service but were conscripted into the Army. After two weeks of naval gunnery training on board HMS Satellite at South Shields, Fred Dent was placed into one of the twenty-four holding batteries dotted around the country. Initially, Fred manned guns on board vessels alongside, designated as port defence. Over the course of the war, Fred was drafted to a number of Allied merchant ships as DEMS crew destined for perilous convoy duties.
Typical of many DEMS gunners is the story of Benjamin Smith. Lance Bombardier Smith was attached to the 1st Maritime Regiment Royal Artillery and served on board several Allied merchant vessels between 1941 and 1944 as a DEMS gunner. After completing his DEMS gunnery training, Smith would have a baptism of fire while serving on board a Dutch cargo ship. The Montferland was seconded to work in the North Sea, transferring cargo around the British Isles. On the evening of 27 June 1941, the 780-ton vessel was part of a convoy transiting the North Sea. She was the largest ship in that convoy and a prime target for German E-boats and aircraft. Lance Bombardier Smith was manning a Lewis gun on the bridge roof, which afforded an all-round arch of fire.
The Master of the Montferland was warned there could be E-boats in the vicinity. All DEMS gunners were on high alert. Benjamin Smith was first to hear a distant noise approaching fast out of the black night. It did not sound like an E-boat. Smith was familiar with the throbbing sound of a German aircraft and recognised it immediately. Seconds later a Heinkel 111 hurtled out of the pitch black. The aircraft was flying extremely low, just above the height of the ship’s lifeboat davits. Smith said it was so low you could hit it with a stone. He could see the glow of instrument lights in the aircraft cockpit – it was that close.
The pilot lined up and initiated his first attack. Swooping low over Montferland, the Heinkel strafed the entire length of the vessel with its 20mm cannon. Unbeknownst to the crew of the merchant ship, the aircraft had also dropped a delayed bomb which exploded seconds after the aircraft had cleared the vessel. The pilot turned the aircraft back towards the ship for a second attack. All the time, the Heinkel’s air gunner was firing at the vessel. Red-hot tracers were zipping through the cold night air. Smith was squeezing the trigger hard as he spun around, engaging his post-mounted Lewis gun with the shape of the approaching German aircraft. Sustained fire from Smith’s Lewis gun appeared to have taken out the Luftwaffe machine gunner. No more gun fire came from the aircraft; however, another bomb was dropped, which hit the Montferland and exploded. The Dutch-registered merchant ship started to heel over very quickly. The tenacious Luftwaffe pilot then attempted a third and final attack.
The DEMS gunner again engaged his steaming hot Lewis gun with the incoming aircraft, firing directly at the unmistakable glass cockpit of the He 111. Smith thinks he must have hit the pilot because the aircraft lurched over the merchant ship, slowly rotated onto its back, and unceremoniously ditched into the sea. The Montferland started to take on water and rapidly sank. Luckily for her crew, one of the Royal Navy convoy escort vessels contravened standing orders and stopped to rescue the stricken merchant vessel’s crew. The Hunt-class destroyer HMS Meynell started to recover the crew of Montferland while also risking being sunk herself. Despite the melee surrounding the incident, Lance Bombardier Smith only had one thing on his mind – he feared he would be fined for leaving his Lewis gun on the sinking vessel. Without thinking, he returned to Montferland’s now sloping bridge roof and recovered his gun before embarking back on board Meynell. Once back on dry land and still armed with his Lewis gun, Smith was given the standard fourteen days’ survivors’ leave granted to any shipwrecked Allied serviceman. It was rumoured that the Montferland’s DEMS gunners would be recommended for the Netherlands Bronze Cross. However, in the fog of war this award was never given.
DEMS gunners were not employed on any other duties when serving on board a vessel other than those roles connected with armament and look-out. However, they were still required to assist in the general welfare of the ship and look after the cleanliness of their berths. The DEMS gunner was not always from the Royal Navy or Army. Some merchant vessels were augmented by civilian merchant DEMS qualified gunners. To incentivise the Merchant Marine, the Admiralty deemed that a mercantile rating could earn an additional 9d a day when embarked as a gunnery rating. The inspector of Merchant Navy Gunnery, Admiral Sir Frederick Dreyer, was responsible for overseeing DEMS. In 1941, Dreyer initiated a two-day course especially for merchant seamen. By the end of the war, some 100,000 merchant seamen had completed the two-day instruction. This course mainly comprised lectures and demonstrations. The second day involved live fire at clay pigeons and aircraft-towed targets. A converted double decker bus was used as a classroom. This mobile instruction unit would travel to ports country-wide, providing merchant seamen with the two-day course without taking them away from their parent vessel.
Both Fred Dent and Benjamin Smith said that the most feared convoys to be employed on as a DEMS gunner were the perilous Arctic convoys. Towards the latter part of World War Two, Benjamin Smith served on board the SS Ocean Strength as part of the dangerous Russian supply line. These convoys are well known for being extremely cold. Solid ice had to be constantly hacked off the ship’s superstructure and discarded overboard. The additional weight made vessels highly unstable and at risk of capsize. Merchant vessel crew did not get much sleep owing to the constant use of depth charges by the convoy escorts. The fear of a U-boat attack was ever present owing to the proximity of German U-boat bases in Norway. The merchant vessels would always sail with their lifeboats outboard to save time should the ship be hit. If a ship sank, the convoy would continue on its way without stopping to rescue any survivors, such was the threat of the U-boat menace. The extreme cold weather was totally debilitating. The sea state was unpredictable and waves could be mountainous. It was not unheard of for vessels to steam headlong into 60-foot waves and not come out the other side. Often, they simply disappeared forever – taking their entire crew with them.
The majority of Allied Arctic convoys were monitored at a distance by Luftwaffe spotter aircraft. These Condor aircraft patrolled the horizon, playing a cat-and-mouse game while passing back convoy locations and headings to German U-boat command. The spotter planes would continually fly round and round, clockwise or anticlockwise. Benjamin Smith said his vessel once flashed a German spotter plane with an Aldis lamp and asked the pilot to reverse his course – just for a change. The German aircrew duly replied in the affirmative and flew in the opposite direction.
One morning the SS Ocean Strength was approaching the Kola inlet off the top of Norway, when Smith again heard the ever-distinguishable sound of an aircraft approaching at a very low altitude. Sea fog clung to the top of the mainmast and visibility was extremely poor. Suddenly out of the fog appeared an aircraft. Smith ran towards the nearest mounted Lewis gun, but it all happened so fast, and by the time he reached his gun the aircraft was gone. Smith said the spotter plane was only 300 feet above him and looked like a massive grey building flying past. Had his machine gun not been 20 feet away, he was sure he could have hit it. Smith said a large black cross was clearly visible on the side of the fuselage. It transpired that the Luftwaffe Condor reconnaissance aircraft was searching for the British convoy in the fog and stumbled on the SS Ocean Strength. It proved to be a fatal error of judgement by the Luftwaffe pilot. Soon after its low pass on the convoy, it was shot down by anti-aircraft fire from an accompanying Royal Navy aircraft carrier.
The life of a DEMS gunner was varied, although the destination was always the same – the sea. Veteran of the Arctic convoys Fred Dent was drafted to the SS Holmpark. This ship was used as a convoy vessel which transported supplies to the British Army from Liverpool to Cape Town in South Africa. Fred witnessed many vessels in his convoy being hit and sunk by German torpedoes. It quickly became apparent that the vessels to be avoided were the ones carrying iron ore. When a vessel with this heavy cargo was hit, it went down in minutes. Not long after leaving the Holmpark, Fred Dent heard she had been sunk by U-boat U516 off Barbados. Notwithstanding the threat of U-boat attack, DEMS gunners were also concerned about how they would be treated if captured. Although serving DEMS gunners wore military uniforms, many always took and wore civilian clothing at sea. This was in case they were sunk, then rescued and returned to an Axis-sympathetic country.
The life of a DEMS gunner was not all doom and gloom. In early 1944, while taking part in a convoy from Liverpool to Uruguay on board the SS Australia Star, Fred Dent went ashore in neutral Montevideo. He recounts a fantastic and very believable story about how he met several very nice German chaps in a bar. After an evening of much drinking and merriment, the German men revealed to Dent and his pals that they were in fact ex-crewmen from the scuttled German battleship Graf Spee. Fred said “They [the German sailors] were still sure they were going to win the war.”