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Charles rescued from freezing Atlantic after German torpedo sank his ship

By dan shaw  |  Posted: July 04, 2013

Alan Haynes (left) and his uncle Charles P. Gonsalves on their visit to The Bugle offices

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A RECENT feature about a Black Country boys school took the Bugle readers to the icy waters of the north Atlantic and one of the blackest days in British naval history - and then two interesting follow-up stories.

In our May 23 edition Ken Allen told our readers how his school, Halesowen County Senior Boys School, had adopted the warship HMS Guardian in the Second World War. That tale led to Barry Crutchley of Pelsall telling us in our June 6 edition how his father Bill had served aboard HMS Guardian.

Prior to joining the Guardian Bill Crutchley served with HMS Leith, in particular on the illfated convoy SC7. That fact was picked up by Alan Haynes, of West Bromwich, because it was HMS Leith that had rescued his uncle from the freezing Atlantic in the early hours of October 19, 1940.

Pistol Charles P. Gonsalves, aged 94, now lives in St Asaph, north Wales, and last week Alan brought him to the Bugle office in Cradley Heath so he could tell us his story. He is thought to be the last survivor of convoy SC7.

Charles was born in Georgetown, capital of British Guiana, now Guyana, in South America.

His great-grandfather was a slaver and Charles describes his own father as “an adventurer; he believed you carried a Bible in one hand and a pistol in the other.” His father died when he was four and Charles was sent to England to be educated. He first went to sea when he was 15, aboard his brother’s schooners, sailing in the Caribbean.

Charles served many years in the Merchant Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and became a senior engineer officer. In October 1940 he was serving with SS Assyrian, the commodore ship of convoy SC7, led by Vice Admiral L.D.I. Mackinnon. The ship had been built in Germany in 1914 but had been handed to Britain in 1919 as part of war reparations, its name changed from Fritz to Assyrian.

Convoy SC7 sailed from Sydney, Nova Scotia, on October 5, 1940. Made up of mainly British ships, with Greek, Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch vessels, and carrying various cargoes, for the first three-quarters of the crossing HMS Scarborough was the only escort. The convoy ships were sitting ducks for the German Uboats, using their new ‘wolf pack’ tactics.

On October 17 the convoy entered the Western Approaches and was joined by HMS Fowey and HMS Bluebell but these offered little extra protection. That day U-48 sank two ships and HMS Scarborough broke off in pursuit only to become separated from the convoy. HMS Leith joined SC7 on October 18, along with HMS Heartsease. On the night of October 18/19 a pack of five U-boats attacked, one of them, U- 99, captained by the famous U-boat ace Otto Kretschmer.

SS Assyrian attempted to ram a submarine, chasing it for 40 minutes, but was unable to bring its guns to bear. She was sighted by U-101 at 01.22 and shortly afterwards she was struck by a torpedo.

Waterlogged Charles, along with the other surviving crewmen, took to the lifeboats. As they were in the water another sinking merchantman drifted by, she was loaded with pitprops and as she passed they fell from the ship and on to the men, killing some. Charles’ lifeboat became waterlogged and sank but he was able to get on a liferaft.

Of the total compliment of 51, 17 were lost.

Three naval staff members, 20 crew members and nine passengers were picked up by HMS Leith.

Out of the 35 ships of SC7 that left Nova Scotia, 20 were lost, seven sunk by Kretschmer’s U- 99, with the loss of 141 lives and more than 79,000 gross tons of precious cargo, including iron ore, fuel and trucks. It was the arrival of the following convoy, HX79, that drew off the attackers; the German U-boats went on to sink 12 of its ships that night too.

In all, over the 48 hours, 28 ships were lost, the worst two days of shipping losses in the whole Atlantic campaign.

“We were not ready for a sea war,” said Charles. “The High Lords of the Admiralty were still fighting the 1914-18 war, thinking in terms of the big 14-inch guns. The Germans were cleverer.

When the U-boats got back to Brest and their other bases, Admiral Donitz named it the ‘Night of the Long Knives’; it’s also known as the ‘Blackest Day’.

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