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The War Years:
British Merchant Navy 1941-1945
George S Roberts

The War Years: British Merchant Navy 1941-1945 George S Roberts

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George Stanley Roberts — Profile

Liverpool born, George Stanley Roberts was to join the Merchant Navy at the tender age of 17 and go to sea at a time of great peril to aid the British war effort. This website is a remembrance of him and his adventures. With Love his youngest son, John.

G S Roberts ID card photo

In the Autumn of 1942, George Stanley Roberts joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 17, following immediately in his brother’s footsteps and following the family tradition of being linked with the sea.

Identified in his Seaman’s identity card as 5ft 5, blue eyed, black haired and fresh complexion, George cut a fine figure of a man in uniform

The first post he was to hold was with the Elder Dempster line, taken on as a boy deck hand, although he later was promoted to Efficient Deck hand (EFH).

The following document reveals some extraordinary moments of George Stanley Roberts’ time serving in the Merchant Navy. Included are maps of a few voyages undertaken, based on the details supplied by Stan’s accounts. Officially the directions and purpose of the ships’ journeys were not identified in the Seaman’s record book, to ensure that the enemy would not be able to gain any military advantage should they obtain such information.

Stan’s very first ship was torpedoed and sunk 400 miles of the Madeira coast in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in January 1943. Surviving that ordeal, Stan joined up with another line only to be torpedoed a second time. This time however the ship was crippled but not sunk and managed to be refitted. This was after having saved a number of Swedish sailors who had also tasted the wrath of the German U-boats that operated in the Atlantic ocean. Ship and crew were later to receive thanks from Winston Churchill on a job well done. His third ship was shipwrecked of the English coast in bad weather with the loss of 4 lives, on 2nd September 1944.

average age of British
merchant seamen in 1939
seafarers employed on
British merchant ships in 1938
£3 per month
war risk bonus
in Sept 1939
Ships log

Ships log

Here are Ships log

The War Years: The British Merchant Navy 1941-1945

The War Years: The British Merchant Navy 1941-1945

" The Battle of the Atlantic was the determining factor all through the war, never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land at sea or in the air depended on its outcome. Many gallant actions and incredible feats of endurance are recorded, but the deeds of those who perished will never be known. Our Merchant Seamen displayed their highest qualities, and the brotherhood of the sea was never more strikingly shown than in their determination to defeat the U-boat."
The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said of the Battle of the Atlantic

Liverpool Port’s role in WW2
Liverpool’s role in the Second World War (1939-1945) was crucial.  Her importance as a convoy centre was second to none in that she maintained a lifeline, with the USA and Canada in particular, which was vital to Britain’s survival, and eventual victory.  Much of the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ against the U-boats was indeed, fought and won from Liverpool.  From 1941 the headquarters of Britain’s Western Approaches Command was established in the fortified basement of Derby House, Exchange Flags, Liverpool.  From there the anti-submarine war was planned.  Pivotal to the campaign against the U-boats was the work of the Special Support Groups, composed of escort vessels such as corvettes, frigates and destroyers.  One of the most famous and successful of these groups was that based in Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock (where a plaque still hangs in its honour) and commanded by the legendary Captain ‘Johnny’ Walker.

Liverpool’s importance to the allied war effort was clear to Hitler, who ordered his Luftwaffe to ‘destroy’ the port.  During the war, Liverpool was subjected to more bombing raids (68) than any British city outside London, the worst being the terrible 8-night ‘May Blitz’ of 1941.  Between 1940 and 1942, nearly 4,000 Merseysiders were killed and 4,000 seriously injured in these raids, which did immense damage to the port and city.  But despite this devastation, the work of the port continued.  As well as food and war supplies, from 1942 thousands of American and Canadian troops were transported to Britain via Liverpool in readiness for the Allied landings in Normandy, which led to the German defeat in Western Europe.

MV William Wilberforce: remembered by GSR

MV William Wilberforce: remembered by GSR

I joined the ship at Liverpool signing on as a deck boy. We left the ‘Pool’ and joined a convoy travelling to Freetown in Africa. There we spent a month or so sailing up and down the West coast dropping off cargo and picking up ground nuts, palm oil and teak for home. When fully laden, we headed back home from Sekondi-Takoradi on the West coast of Africa [near Lagos]. Our next port of call was said to be Trinidad [news article – convoy to England].

About three days out we saw what seemed to be a ship on fire, a column of smoke rising to the sky, from the sea. It appeared that a ship must have been on fire, so a lookout was kept for any signs of wreckage, although none was found.

Later that day after tea I went to the galley as one of the cooks had offered me a loan of a book. They were preparing the dinner for the salon. The cook said I would find the book in his cabin and sat down to read it. The cabin was on the starboard side amidships where I sat reading when suddenly there was a large explosion followed by a second one. The ship listed to the starboard side, the lights went out.

I ran out of the cabin in to the alley way falling and running over towards the galley. I went through the now empty galley over the dinner which was on the floor I tried a door leading to the deck but it was jammed so I moved to the portside alleyway falling on pots and pans, through another door and up on to the boat deck. The boats were full except for the seaman on the falls (ropes). I jumped into one. My job was to see that the bung was put into the hole in the bottom of the lifeboat. I shouted but I was told it was already in. The boats were put down and we rowed away from the ship which was going down very quickly bows first then the stern lifted out of the water vanished and she was gone.

The submarine surfaced and came towards us when it got close it started to go astern which was a relief, I thought that we were going to be ‘names’. The captain was on the cone tower. There was other men running about and manning what looked like a lewis gun placed in a socket on the tower. A search light was pointed at us. Holding a hailer the captain asked us if there were any officers on the boat to which our reply was “no, they had gone down with the ship”. He then asked the name of the ship, cargo and were we where bound. Some of the lads shouted “peanuts”. On which he replied that he did not understand so we all shouted “ground nuts”. He seemed happy with the information and then shouted we were the fifth ship he had sunk and wished us all a bon voyage. He gave an order, the gun was lifted out of the socket and the men disappeared. Then the U boat went astern and disappeared into the dark.

We bailed the boat out all night before the planks sealed themselves. Next morning a count was made of crew and passengers. Of the 62 people on board, only one was missing of the crew (the purser). The boat I was in was the motor launch which took in tow the other boat. We had one lady on board who transferred to the other boat who already had the two other ladies aboard. A course was decided on and we headed toward the Canary Isles. The petrol soon ran out and we separated the boats.

In our boat we started rationing water and food consisting of biscuits, horlicks tablets and chewing gum was all we had. The water biscuits horlick tablets was rationed 1 tube o measure 1 biscuit and 2-3 horlicks 3 times a day. We then set off rowing taking turns with the oars 2 hours on and two off . There were times when the boat hardly moved with the currents that seemed to be running. By the next day we were out of sight of the other boats.

I remember one day to break the monotony my mate and I went for a swim. During my swim I was surprised at the number of shoals of fish around the boat. I did feel better but it was probably not worth the effort. The coloured firemen and the chippy in our boat were very quiet in their way, they never seemed to speak much. One or two were thought to have drunk salt water. The weather was not too bad but for the change between night and day, very hot during the day and cold during the night – blankets were few, but keeping close together during the night helped.

The day we were picked up, rowing had almost been given up. I found the toilet function stopped about the third day. I was told the other boat had not bothered rowing and the rationing was not so severe. Water had not been rationed

We were finally picked up by a Spanish ship [Monte Arnabal] after about a week [400 miles west of Tenerife]. It made a further search for the other boats which were found 4 hours later. Two more days later she dropped us off at Tenerife/Lanzarote in the Canary Isles.

We were interned on the island about 3 or 4 weeks. I left on a Spanish passenger liner [motor ship Domine] for Gibraltar [Cadiz] and finally aboard the Lettia, a troop carrier serving as hospital ship, for home.

Kiapara: remembered by GSR

Kiapara: remembered by GSR

I joined the ship at Liverpool. Her name was the MV Kiapare. She was a refrigerated ship owned by the New Zealand shipping Company. This was my second ship and I signed on as an ordinary seaman.

We sailed out from the Pool and joined a convoy going to West Africa, our first port of call was Freetown Sierra Leone on the west coast. The anchor was dropped and lifted all in one day as our next port of call was to be B.A. Beunos Aires Argentina where we would pick up a cargo of Beef then on to Fray Bentos for some corn beef and tongue. We set sail on the next leg alone heading in the direction of South America. Three days out from Rio de Janeiro, the lookout spotted to life boats. This caused a bit of panic. Submarines were known to hang around them waiting for ships to stop to pick up survivors then sink them. It was decided we would stop. So life jackets were the order of the day. The life boats of course were all swung out. The DEMS on board they were RN blokes put on board to man the 4” gun that we carried on the stern. The olikin guns and lewis machine were manned. Derricks were broken clear ready for lifting the boats. The survivors were Swedish. All were well. They climbed up the rope ladders to get on board. The boats were lifted aboard.

A submarine was seen to be surfacing in the distance so we made a run for it. No guns were fired just in case she had not seen us. We were lucky as we found out later. The ship made a run for Rio Janeiro where we unloaded both the boats and the survivors. We anchored out in the harbour for two days in which time another ship entered the harbour, American tanker with half her stern blown away. It seems she also must have seen the boats but made contact with the submarine had run out of Torpedoes

We arrived at the River Plata and visited B.A calling at Montineo [Montevideo] and Fray Bentos picking up a large cargo of beef carcass, tins of tongue and corn beef.

We left there for Freetown to join a convoy for home. Joining the convoy we sailed for home, 2 days out from Freetown the ship was torpedoed. I was off watch at the time and in my bunk. It was early morning about 6 o’clock and the convoy scattered

The ship went lower into the water at the bow the torpedo hitting no. 3 hatch. The boats were lowered and we rowed away from her. Two hours past, the ship was still floating. The first mates lifeboat came across to our boat and he said “he was going back to the ship”.

It was agreed that all the crew would go back also. The pilot ladders were hanging over the side of the ship. So we were soon back on board. First job was to fasten the lifeboats astern and move the pilot ladders there for a quick departure. The ship was well down at the bows at this time but not sinking. The fridge motors and engine were checked and restarted and we were on are way to Dakar French West Africa. A destroyer appeared along side of us. He had returned to pick us up. Instead it gave us an escort to just off Dakar where the first thing that happened was the bows of the ship stuck on a sand bank, with the bows being deep in the water. That night we tried to get some sleep, some men slept on deck in case of her back breaking wedged as she was.

Next day arrangements were made for a tug. The kedge anchor which was on the deck at the stern was lifted overboard to the tug who dropped it quite away from the ship. The lines fastened to the anchor were put around the winches. The tug past us her towing lines. It was high tide. She never moved for quite a while but finally she floated clear.

By this time the meat on the hold had thawed and was beginning to smell so we could not dock. I gang and crew boys from the shore were hired to clear the rotting meat, which was tipped into the sea. The sharks had a birthday. They had been seen following us since the attack. The hatch was cleared, we went into dry dock. There was a large hole in number 3 hatch. It was a wonder how the front end had stayed on.

We were in Dakar for quite a number of weeks. During that time our food ran out and we had to get supplies from the Americans who were based there.

Two of the crew never returned one night and were found drowned in the harbour, and are buried in the cemetery there.

We were repaired and joined a convoy for Liverpool where on our arrival the ship received two notices from the Government. The first, thanks from the Swedish Government for a help in saving their seamen and the other congratulating us on a job well done in saving the ship and most of the cargo, signed by the Prime Minister Mr Winston Churchill as he was then.

Alden Gifford: remembered by GSR

Alden Gifford: remembered by GSR

I joined the ship at Liverpool to voyage around the coast of Britain, stopping and visiting ports at Cardiff, Bristol, Birkenhead and Barry and Devonport carrying tobacco, general cargo and coal.

During our voyages, a number of faults with regard to winches not holding, and Blokes jamming occurred. It led me to thinking that the ship required docking and a comprehensive overhaul. However, it was after our last port of call, Barry, where we had picked up a load of coal destined for Devonport, that the ‘Alden Gifford’ was to begin its final journey.

We departed south from Barry in very rough weather. The wind was strong and getting stronger. I was on the 4pm to 8pm watch, when the gale force winds loosened the hatch covers and the tarpaulin started to blow off. The crew were all turned out to make them fast. Ropes were placed across the canvas over the hatch boards to hold them down, which seemed to do the trick.

My watch finished without further incident and my mate Jock and I returned to our cabin to change into dry clothes. Just as we were climbing into our bunks a large wave came over the stern right down the vent washing us out of our cabin. As the water dissipated, we grabbed as much dry gear as we could and moved into the warmth and dryness of the mess room. But next minute we heard a voice shouting ‘she’s going!’. The voice belonged to the cook, a mate of Jock’s. Jock and I both rushed onto deck as we were on the falls (i.e. responsible for) of the life boat on the star board side.

On the way to the boat deck we tried in vain to release a raft. Although the lever moved, the raft remained where it was, so we carried onto the boat station

Arriving at the boat station, we noticed the boats were still in , no one had swung them out. The men that were there explained through the wind that they had tried to remove the davits but could not move them. Suddenly the ship listed over onto her portside. I slid across the deck catching hold of the davit which was holding the port lifeboat. It was right angles to the deck. The lifeboat was there under water, I balanced myself on the davit post which was across the lifeboat and made my way as far as could go and decided to dive off over the sunken lifeboat into the tempestuous sea. There were hatch boards floating about so I swam and grabbed one using it like a surf board I paddled until I was safely away from the ship. The ship went down very quickly. After the ship disappeared a raft floated to the surface so I left the hatch cover and swam to the life raft which I climbed onto. I could not see any one else as the waves were still high. But after a while I saw a figure in the water swimming towards me, he made it to the raft and I pulled him aboard. We sat huddled together. He was out of the engine room and he really felt the cold. The next thing was a fishing smack came in to sight he circled around us and shouted for us to jump aboard when he got close enough. Round he came again I leapt as ordered and managed to grab the ships side and was pulled aboard then the same routine for the other man.

The seamanship of the little fishing boat was marvellous as he went round picking people of the wreckage and hatchboards. Evidently he had radioed ashore for the life boat as he had seen the ship going down on returning from a nights fishing and was on his way home to Penzance. The lifeboat arrived not long after and took some of the men. Then we sailed into Penzance. There we received a pleasant cup of tea on landing from the WVS who were on the quay. Only dressed in a vest and dungarees, I was taken with others in the waiting ambulance to the nearest hospital for a hot bath a warm bed and a meal. The captain of the fishing vessel was a Frenchman who had come over from France during the war and had made his home in Penzance.

World War II Medals

World War II Medals

"The object of giving medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them. At the same time a distinction is something which everybody does not possess. If all have it, it is of less value. There must therefore, be heartburnings and disappointments on the border line. A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow. The task of drawing up regulations for such awards is one which does not admit a perfect solution. It is not possible to satisfy everybody without the risk of satisfying nobody. All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest." (Speech by Winston Churchill 22nd March 1944)

Medals are worn on the left hand side, left of the centre across to the left shoulder in order of the campaign date. Medals can be worn by next of kin on certain occasions, such as Remembrance Day, and must be worn on the right hand side.

1939-45 Star
1939-45 War Star medal
Awarded for service between 3rd September 1939 and 2nd September 1945 and if the service period was terminated by death or disability due to service. A Merchant Seaman could qualify after 6 months' service with at least one voyage in an operational area. Ribbon Denotes Dark Blue represents the Royal & Merchant Navies, Red the Army, and Light Blue for the RAF.
Atlantic Star
Atlantic Star war medal
Awarded after the Battle of the Atlantic for service between 3rd September 1939 and 8th May 1945 and if the service period was terminated by their death or disability due to service. The qualifying service period for the Atlantic Star could only begin after the 1939-1945 Star had been earned by 6 months' service. A Merchant Seaman had to serve in the Atlantic, home waters, North Russia Convoys or South Atlantic waters. Ribbon Denotes The colours are watered and shaded to represent the Atlantic Ocean.
War medal 1939-45
1939-45 War medal
Awarded to all who's service included at least 28 days at sea, or whose service was terminated by death, injury, or capture. Ribbon Denotes The colours of the Union Flag. Bronze Oak Leaf This emblem is for a mention in dispatches, or the King's Commendation for brave conduct and is attached to the War Medal ribbon. Only one emblem is worn no matter how many times a person may have been mentioned.


Elder Dempster & Company, Limited, was formed in 1852 as the African Steam Ship Company, Limited, with a contract to carry mails from London via Plymouth to Madeira, Tenerife and the West Coast of Africa. In 1856, the home port became Liverpool. A rival firm, the British & African Steam Navigation Company was formed in 1868 with John Dempster and Alexander Elder (eminent Glasgow shipbuilder) among it's founders.

In 1894, the African Steam Ship Company entered the Canadian trade by taking over the Avonmouth service of the Dominion Line and in 1898 the Beaver Line was purchased together with their Liverpool - Canada service. Elder Dempster Shipping Limited was formed in 1899 and in 1901 the Imperial Direct West India Mail Service Company was set up to operate services to the West Indies. In 1903 their Canadian interests were sold to Canadian Pacific together with 14 ships.

Elder, Dempster & Company, Limited, was formed in 1910 after the death of the managing director, and sale of the company to Lords Kylsant and Pirrie. After the collapse of the Kylsant shipping group in 1931, the company was run by a board of trustees until, with government help, the company could be re-organised and refinanced. The ships of both companies then came under the control and colours of the new company. In 1951 Paddy Henderson's British & Burmese Steam Navigation Company was purchased in 1965 John Holt's Guinea Gulf Line was taken over. After this date, there were many in-group transfers between Elder Dempster, Guinea Gulf, Blue Funnel and the British & Burmese Steam Navigation Company. For the purpose of this list, these have largely been ignored.

In 1965 the ownership of Elder Dempster passed to the Ocean Steamship Company (Blue Funnel Line). The passenger service to West Africa was terminated in 1974 and in 1989 Elder Dempster was sold to French owners and Ocean Shipping withdrew from deep sea ship owning.

Map of voyages

Map of voyages

Facts about serving in the Merchant Navy during 1941-1945

Facts about serving in the Merchant Navy during 1941-1945

Facts about serving in the Merchant Nav during 1941-1945

Ships Data sheets

Ships Data sheets

MV William Wilberforce

1943 9 January, (Captain J W Andrew) torpedoed and sunk by U511 (KapitanLeutnant Fritz Schneewind) in position 29.20N 26.53W while on voyage Lagos to Liverpool, general cargo. Schneewind saw William Wilberforce’s mastheads at 1725 (Central European time). She was steering a mean course of 325 degrees at 11 knots, while zigzagging by 30 degrees to 40 degrees. U511 hauled a head until 2045, at which time the ship executed a large zig for nightfall, before returning to her original course 15 minutes later. U511 then ran in on the surface from down moon, firing at 2142 a salvo of two bow torpedoes, which ran for 55 seconds before striking the target, one amidships, the other forward. The ship took a list to port and within five minutes had capsized, sinking by the head at 2154. U511 closed the lifeboats, of which there were four, and found out the name of the vessel and her port of departure and destination. Three crew members lost their lives.

news article on 61 survivors

William Wilberforce GRT5004 built 1930 9.1.43: Torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-511 (Schneewind), in the Atlantic W of the Canary islands, in position 29.20N 26,53W while sailing independently on a voyage from Lagos and Takoradi to Liverpool, with 12 passengers and a cargo of 5054 tons of West African produce including palm kernels, palm oil and rubber. The Master, Capt John William Andrew, 42 crew, 6 gunners and passengers were rescued by Spanish ship Monte Arnabal 2955/29 and landed at Las Palmas. 3 crew were lost. U-511 was transferred to the Japanese navy in July 1943, was commissioned as RO-500, surrendered at Maizuru, Japan in August 1945 and was scuttled by the US Navy during April 1946.

William Wilberforce ship

Port Sydney 136600

The Port Sydney ship

St Silio

The St Silio Ship

The St Silio at Amlwch on 5th August 1936. (Captain J McNamee) She was a screw propelled diesel engine ship brought by the Liverpool and North Wales Steam Ship company in 1936. She replaced a number of steam engine ships such as "The Snowdon" which where used as a pleasure  cruisers from  Llandudno.

She was 314 gross tons and 150 feet in length built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company and started work on 27th May 1936. She was licensed to carry 568 passengers and was specially designed to cater for short sea excursions from Liverpool to Amlwch and the Menai straits. A first class fare from Liverpool was 8/-. In 1939 she became a troop carrier and on her return to pleasure cruising in 1946 she was renamed St Trillo(II). When the North Wales Steam Ship company folded in 1962 she was brought by P&A Cambell who kept her in service until 1969.

Builders: Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd 1936 Propulsion type: 12 cylinder, twin screw motor vessel Owners: Liverpool & North Wales Steamship Co, P & A Campbell Ltd (Townsend Ferries) Service dates: 1936 - 75 Tonnage: Gross 314

This motor vessel was small by North Wales standards at 314 grt and was originally to be named St Tysilio. She was launched as St Silio and renamed St Trillo in 1945 and it is in this guise that she is probably best remembered. She was engined by Crossleys of Stockport with 600 bhp and 13 knots at her disposal. Built with twin funnels for appearance, the forward one was a dummy and in my humble opinion she would have looked better with a single, slightly larger funnel. Her accommodation was adequate for 568 passengers. She initially sailed from Llandudno but also made excursion cruises along the Manchester Ship Canal. When the Liverpool company was dissolved in 1962 she was sold to Campbells for continued service from North Wales and occasionally on the Bristol Channel. She was withdrawn in 1969 and plans to use her in a static role did not materialise and she was broken up in 1975 in Dublin

Alden Gifford

"ALDEN GIFFORD-- a cargo boat, built by LEATHEM D. SMITH SHIPBUILDING CO., STURGEON BAY, WIS.  E-88". One of the earliest ships built by them (earliest hull number 269), it was delivered to Britain in November 1942. Currie Line; weighing 1793 tons, with dimensions 250.4 by 42.1 by 18.4, and powered by 242nhp compound engines.

Sadly the British ship Alden Gifford foundered during a gale on September 2nd, 1944 four miles NNW of Longships. Four lives were lost.

The company mentioned later became the Bay Shipbuilding Company, which is now the last active builder of large ships on the Great Lakes in Canada.

The Alden Gifford ship

Kiapara M V

Built 1938, Ship Yard: Wm Doxford & Sons, Sunderland, Gross Tonnage: 5882 Net Tonnage: 3454. No. 165876 Registered; Plymouth NEW ZEALAND SHIPPING Co & FEDERAL STEAM NAVIGATING Co. Broken up: January 1968. Class: Refrigerated cargo

The Kiapara ship