The First WW2 Weather Ships
I have come to re-tell the tragic fate of Booker’s SS Arakaka because of correspondence I’ve received through my website bookerline.com from relatives of some of those aboard. One of the distressing issues is that the records relating to this vessel and the SS Toronto City were considered classified and only released after 30 years. For this reason, some close relations never knew the fate of their loved ones or why merchant vessels had been requisitioned to carry out manoeuvres previously only thought suitable for armed, naval vessels.De-classified files.
In 1940, following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ministry Of Defence chartered the SS Arakaka, owned by Booker Bros, McConnell & Co Ltd Liverpool , and the SS Toronto City, owned by the Bristol City Line, to operate as weather ships in the North Atlantic. This was a highly classified operation and the ships were referred to as 'The Panthers'.
‘Weather ships’ were ships stationed in the ocean as a platform for surface and upper-air meteorological observations for use in weather forecasting - critical in war-time. Whilst the Arakaka and Toronto City were requisitioned ostensibly for this purpose, these particular ships may have been highly significant in naval and military intelligence. The reasons which determined why they should be chosen as mid-Atlantic weather ships and which led to their fate, remain a mystery.
The following information is taken from R J Ogden’s article in the Meteorological Office’s journal: ‘Weather’. It details the circumstances which led to the Admiralty’s use of the Arakaka and the Toronto City and its inexplicable use of these merchant vessels when its stated position was that only particular naval vessels were suitable for the task.
In July 1940 the Admiralty’s recorded view was that the use of merchant ships for weather observing was impracticable because the need to break wireless telegraphy (WT) silence would add significantly to the already considerable hazards they had to encounter. It was therefore decided that the weather ships should be able to achieve at least 10 knots, have a range of 3,000 miles or more, and be equipped not only with wireless telegraphy, but also with armament including active sound detection apparatus (ASDIC) and depth charges. These criteria meant in effect that they would have to be naval vessels, having a dual role both as weather ships and U-boat hunters.
The Director of the Met. Office (DMO) at the time said that qualified Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) officers in his Marine Branch had volunteered to act as Captains aboard the proposed weather ships; he would also provide a highly qualified and experienced meteorologist for each of the vessels.
The Director for Naval Meteorological Service (DNMS) then matched this by undertaking to post Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Met. Officers to work alongside the Met. Office scientists.
Inexplicably, what was an excellent and considered plan was flatly rejected by the Admiralty and it refused permission for weather ships to sail under the white ensign and thus be armed. In a complete about face the Admiralty said merchant ships would instead be chartered on a contract basis. This switch in the choice of required vessel meant that the owners of these merchant ships would be responsible for captains, crews, stores etc., and not the Admiralty. By the beginning of September the Admiralty had indeed chartered the merchant vessels, SS Arakaka and SS Toronto City.
The two scientists chosen by the Director of the Met. Office for this extremely dangerous operation in mid-Atlantic were Flt. Lt. Portass and Stanley Proud, a civilian Technical Officer.
Events then moved fast, but the Director of the Met. Office had clearly begun to have misgivings both about the abrupt change of plan and about the particular vessels chosen.[i]
Events then moved fast, but the Director of the Met. Office had clearly begun to have misgivings both about the abrupt change of plan and about the particular vessels chosen.[i]
Booker Bros, McConnell & Co Ltd, Liverpool SS Arakaka (2,379GRT) was built by Lithgow’s Limited, Port Glasgow, and launched on Saturday 29th July 1933. She was a single screw vessel with a triple expansion steam engine giving her a service speed of 10.5 knots.
For her first 7 years she conveyed general cargo outbound from the United Kingdom to (the former) British Guyana, and homeward bound with a cargo of bagged sugar. As with other Booker Line vessels it is possible she also had accommodation for passengers.
In September 1940 now chartered by the Admiralty, the Arakaka sailed as a weather ship on the first of what were intended to be 3 week voyages.
In his report on this first voyage Squadron Leader Portass (newly promoted), was scathing in his remarks on the unsuitability of the Arakaka for the duties she had been assigned. He claimed that she was a bad sailor due to her shallow draught for the sandbar of (British) Guyana, and that the violent motion made it difficult to pilot balloon weather operations.
He further commented that the vessel was in no position to deal with a submarine attack, either by torpedo or gunfire, nor was she fast enough to retreat in safety. He recommended that she should be fitted with active sound detection apparatus, (ASDIC), a depth charge thrower and a 6 inch naval gun. Providing still more evidence of the unsuitability of the ship for the task assigned, he expressed his concerns about the difficulty in making radio contact, resulting in far too much time on the air and the consequent risk of detection through direction finding (DF) by the enemy.[i]
He further commented that the vessel was in no position to deal with a submarine attack, either by torpedo or gunfire, nor was she fast enough to retreat in safety. He recommended that she should be fitted with active sound detection apparatus, (ASDIC), a depth charge thrower and a 6 inch naval gun.
Providing still more evidence of the unsuitability of the ship for the task assigned, he expressed his concerns about the difficulty in making radio contact, resulting in far too much time on the air and the consequent risk of detection through direction finding (DF) by the enemy.[i]
However, despite the strong reservations of the Captain, when DMO and DNMS met on 18th October 1940 to discuss this first voyage report, DNMS announced that the Admiralty had decided that the next voyage would terminate in Newfoundland, and that thereafter the ships would use St John’s as base port, returning to the UK only after three months. This revised plan meant longer spells in the danger area mid-Atlantic.
When Portass and Proud had volunteered for these dangerous duties, they did so on the understanding that each voyage would last for three weeks with one week at home in the UK with their families. In fact, after their initial voyages, these two ships never again reached port in the UK.
To add to the consternation of the captains and crews, the Admiralty then informed the DMO that it was withdrawing the RNVR officers after their first voyages. The two officers were replaced by RAF-VR Corporals Dick Wrighton (Arakaka) and Edwin Hedley Smith (Toronto City).
Some months later, the strain of making surface and upper-air observations round the clock was eased a little when the DMO managed to allocate two additional corporals, and Short and Thom reported to Sqn. Ldr. Portass in St John’s during May 1941. It is believed that Hedley-Smith was at that time promoted to Sergeant. --------------------------------------------------------------------
Some months later, the strain of making surface and upper-air observations round the clock was eased a little when the DMO managed to allocate two additional corporals, and Short and Thom reported to Sqn. Ldr. Portass in St John’s during May 1941. It is believed that Hedley-Smith was at that time promoted to Sergeant.
The following was sent to me by Harold Smith, the son of the Chief Steward on the SS Arakaka:
The fate of the SS Arakaka began on the 20th June 1941. On that day, the German U-Boat U77 , was practicing crash dives and other routine exercises in position 47N, 40W under the command of Korvettenkapitan Heinrich Schonder . A wireless message was received by the U-Boat to go further north.
The weather had become foggy and Schonder records in the submarine’s log[iii] that his progress was slow as he had to stay on the surface to charge the batteries. Schonder decided to change direction to 70 degrees east, where the visibility is much better, and continues on this North West course.
The further North the U Boat sailed, the fog returned and the sea state is rough.
The following entries are taken from the U-Boats log book of that night, the translation is supplied by Brian Booth:
1100Z - Wind SW force 4; Sea state 4; Thick Fog
1500Z - Wind SW force 4; Sea state 5; Thick Fog
1900Z - Wind WSW force 5; Sea state 5; Visibility 300-1000m
2034Z - Shape appears through the mist, bearing 90 degrees. As we turn towards it appears to be a steamer
2038Z - Heading changed to a reciprocal course moving slowly in front of target. Visibility is very poor; and the steamer is hardly visible, even with binnoculars. By keeping company with the steamer and constantly varying the speed it is clear that th ship is moving very slowly. Steamer lost from view as the visibility rapidly deteriorated. U77 stopped visibility reduced to 600m. Steamer reappears dead ahead, course 270 degrees, speedis very slow as ship is heading into high sea and swell, but it is not calculated.
2100Z - Diesels started
2108Z - Dive to start attack, crossing in front of steamer to prepare tubes and get into position. No sight of steamer because of high sea and fog.
2120Z - Not possible to hold boat steady in beam wind and sea, so head into wind; nothing heard on hydrophones.
2124Z - Turn towards steamer.
2133Z - Ship's engines heard clearly, bearing 118 degrees (hydrophones had been unserviceable). U-boat moves north to keep clear of steamer. Only fog seen through periscope.
2135Z - Tube 5 ready to shoot. Steamer in sight, very faint but appears to be a mid-sized freight; carries no flag; gun assembly at stern. Ship's outlines blurred by mist so position can only be estimated - steam fills 2/3 of periscope.
2136Z - Torpedo hits the engine room after 41 seconds. Steamer sinks quickly by the stern, disappearing in one minute. (Three explosions - two heard after torpedo hit).
2139Z - Surface and head towards sinking position, found large oil slick and extensive wreckage, also a few surviviors on an upturned lifeboat. These say the steamer was the 'Alexandra' a Greek vessel.
Note: It has been recorded in various publications and websites that there were 12 Admiralty personnel onboard the SS Arakaka, however there is no evidence of this. The service personnel at the time of her sinking were 3 RAFVR and 1 Royal Navy DEMS gunner.
SS Toronto City
The SS Toronto City completed 6 voyages between Oct 1940 and June 1941. Setting out on her final voyage later that month; her last message dispatched July 1st. Both vessels disappeared suddenly within 10 days of each other; neither was able to send a distress signal of any kind.
The SS Toronto City was sunk at 18.25 hours on the 1st July 1941 in position 47.03N, 30W by U-Boat U108 under the command of Fregattenkapitän Klaus Scholtz with the loss of all 43 hands. She was hit in the bow by one G7e torpedo from U-108 North of the Azores and sank by the bow within 3 minutes.
Among those who perished aboard Booker’s Lines SS Arakaka were:
Corporal Richard (Dick) Wrighton was a meteorologist in civilian life and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserves in 1939. He was reported missing, presumed dead on 22nd June, 1941, aged 23. Richard was due to marry the following Saturday. His father is thought to have worked in the War Office, but despite numerous enquiries he could never find out what happened to Richard, or indeed what ship he was on, as at that time the information was considered classified.
Ronald Gordon Whale was the 2nd Wireless Operator on the SS Arakaka. His father, Gordon Scott Whale, was the owner & Principal of the wireless colleges in Colwyn Bay North Wales, and Calmore, Southampton, where wireless operators were trained for the Merchant Navy. His sister, Betty recalls the following about her brother: My brother Ronald Gordon Whale (we always called him John and some called him Ron ) at the beginning of the war was a Radio Officer on an oil tanker, I can not remember the name of the oil tanker but I do remember him telling us how terrible it was as they were in a convoy & when they were getting attacked by the enemy they were not allowed to stop and pick up survivors from the ships that were in trouble because if they did they were a target for the enemy
Ronald Gordon Whale was the 2nd Wireless Operator on the SS Arakaka. His father, Gordon Scott Whale, was the owner & Principal of the wireless colleges in Colwyn Bay North Wales, and Calmore, Southampton, where wireless operators were trained for the Merchant Navy.
His sister, Betty recalls the following about her brother:
My brother Ronald Gordon Whale (we always called him John and some called him Ron ) at the beginning of the war was a Radio Officer on an oil tanker, I can not remember the name of the oil tanker but I do remember him telling us how terrible it was as they were in a convoy & when they were getting attacked by the enemy they were not allowed to stop and pick up survivors from the ships that were in trouble because if they did they were a target for the enemy
John Roberts (AB) aged 24, Stanley Roberts (AB) aged 26 and Leslie Roberts (Sailor) aged 21 were brothers, the three sons of John and Lucy Roberts. Unmarried, the brothers had attended Haygreen School, Wavertree in Liverpool and had all been seafarers virtually from the time they left.
Their father before them had also been lost at sea in the North Atlantic. John Roberts was reported missing at sea. The ship on which he perished was the ‘Derville’, last response, ‘Leaving St. Anthony, Newfoundland, 15th October 1925 heading for Malaga’.
This was a tragic twist of fate as the SS Arakaka was also torpedoed off the coast of Newfoundland.
The great niece of the Roberts’ brothers, Sharon, told me that there was a fourth brother called George; this was her grandfather who spoke about his brothers all the time. Sadly he passed away some years go without seeing the de-classified records about the disappearance of the Arakaka and the circumstances under which she was lost.
Harold Smith was Chief Steward aboard the Arakaka. He started his career with Booker’s as second steward on the SS Amakura. He proceeded to First Steward and changed to the Arakaka as a result of a promotion following the retirement of the ship’s Chief Steward.
His son, also called Harold provided more information about the secrecy of the PANTHERS:
“At the time, the loss of the Arakaka was shrouded in mystery. There was no information about what had happened to her other than that she had just disappeared. It was suggested that she could have been attacked by an enemy surface raider and the crew taken prisoner. This is what my mother chose to believe, and convinced herself that my father was a prisoner of war and would one day return. In fact, when my brothers and I misbehaved, we were chastised with "just you wait ‘til your father comes home".
During the war, the Liverpool Echo published group photographs of local men held in P.O.W. camps in Germany and it was a ritual in our house to use a magnifying glass to scan the faces in the photos in the hope of seeing someone even remotely like my father. If my mother thought someone did look like my father, the she would go to see the person who sent the photo to the paper and look at the original photo.
She never accepted that my father had been killed because nobody ever told her so for sure and when she died in 1991, aged 84, she had the most beautiful smile on her face, as though she was seeing somebody again after a long absence.”
Was this a revenge attack?
It is doubtful that the reason for the acquisition and subsequent sinking of the SS Arakaka and SS Toronto City will ever be known and one can only now speculate, although a communication H.M148/41 signed by DSD/DNI on 15/7/1941 initially thought that "special efforts" had been made to sink the two vessels.
In an article by Andrew Lycett entitled ‘Breaking Germany’s Enigma Code’ he reports the following:
“Dr Arthur Scherbius had developed his 'Enigma' machine, capable of transcribing coded information, in the hope of interesting commercial companies in secure communications. In 1923 he set up his Chiffriermaschinen Aktiengesellschaft (Cipher Machines Corporation) in Berlin to manufacture this product, and within three years the German navy was producing its own version, followed in 1928 by the army and in 1933 by the air force.
Enigma allowed an operator to type in a message, then scramble it by means of three to five notched wheels, or rotors, which displayed different letters of the alphabet. The receiver needed to know the exact settings of these rotors in order to reconstitute the coded text. Over the years the basic machine became more complicated, as German code experts added plugs with electronic circuits.
Britain and her allies first understood the problems posed by this machine in 1931, when a German spy, Hans Thilo Schmidt, allowed his French spymasters to photograph stolen Enigma operating manuals, although neither French nor British cryptanalysts could at first make headway in breaking the Enigma cipher.
It was only after they had handed over details to the Polish Cipher Bureau that progress was made. Helped by its closer links to the German engineering industry, the Poles managed to reconstruct an Enigma machine, complete with internal wiring, and to read the Wehrmacht's messages between 1933 and 1938.
With German invasion imminent in 1939, the Poles opted to share their secrets with the British, and Britain's Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, became the centre for Allied efforts to keep up with dramatic war-induced changes in Enigma output.
A host of top mathematicians and general problem-solvers was recruited, and a bank of early computers, known as 'bombes', was built - to work out the vast number of permutations in Enigma settings.
The Germans were convinced that Enigma output could not be broken, so they used the machine for all sorts of communications - on the battlefield, at sea, in the sky and, significantly, within its secret services. The British described any intelligence gained from Enigma as 'Ultra', and considered it top secret.
Only a select few commanders were made aware of the full significance of Ultra, and it was used only sparingly, to prevent the Germans thinking their ciphers had been broken.
In Spring 1941, the greatest threat to the Allied war effort came from attacks on their ship convoys in the North Atlantic. As a result, Bletchley's resources were concentrated on breaking Enigma codes used by German U-boats in this sphere of war. If the Allies could find out in advance where U-boats were hunting, they could direct their ships, carrying crucial supplies from North America, away from these danger zones.
So began one of the most exciting periods of Enigma code-breaking. Even in 1940 Bletchley had had some success in breaking Enigma keys used by the German navy.
It soon became clear that the best way of keeping up with rapid changes in ciphers and related technology was to capture Enigma machines and code-books on board German vessels.”
“Around this time, Harry Hinsley, a Bletchley codebreaker, suggested that German weather and supply ships, as well as war ships, probably carried Naval Enigma details. This idea was proved correct when, in May 1941, the German weather ship München was attacked and found with Enigma code-books for June on board.
The capture of the supply ship Gedania and weather ship Lauenburg in June yielded codebooks for the following month, and opened the way to the reading of Naval Enigma almost concurrently with events.” [i]
“In early May 1941 the Navy dispatched a not insignificant fleet to intercept the München which was operating north west of Iceland. Halfway through June it was necessary to obtain further information in order to complete the construction of decrypt tables.
On 28 June theLauenburg, operating north of Iceland was captured, its vital contents removed and then sunk.
One can then conjecture whether these events were in any related to the destruction of the British weather ships, Arakaka and Toronto City .
In his book Adrian Gordon [vi] provides the key details.
Arakaka was sunk on 22 June 1941 by U77 in position 47º 00' N, 41º40' W. Toronto City was sunk by U108 on 1 July 1941 in approximate position 46ºN, 30º26' W. Gordon continues -
"Rumours and office gossip after the event, some of it perhaps after the war was over,circulated to the effect that we (the British) had sunk a German weather ship, that there had been some tacit understanding that these ships on both sides would be left unmolested. The PANTHERS were then sunk almost simultaneously in retaliation. This explanation is not so unreasonable".
Note: It is assumed that the author is refering to the München as the Lauenburg was sunk on 28/06/41 and the Arakaka on 22/06/41.
[i] RJ Ogden. Weather, 50, pp.381-384 – The ill-fated first UK weather ships
[iv]Andrew Lycett http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/enigma_01.shtml
[v] D. de Cogan, Panthers, Gardening and Enigma, School of Information Systems, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ
[vi] A. Gordon, "Skywonkie" Minerva Press, London 1966
Denise Lillya - My sister, profesional author and researcher - For putting my words in the right order!
Lesli Gallivan - Photographs and story of Richard (Dick) Wrighton
Brian Booth - Advice and information through his own personal research and for the U-Boat log translation
Harold Smith - U-Boat log and photograph of his Fathers discharge book
Dorothy Elizabeth Miles (nee Whale) - Information about her brother Ronald (Ron) Whale 2nd Radio Officer on SS Arakaka
Sharon McCaffry - The Great Niece of the 3 Roberts brothers
http://www.mercantilemarine.org/ : A big thank you to all those at this site who provided me with photographs, information and advice
http://uboat.net:8080/boats/ - Schonder Scholtz
http://www.warcovers.dk/ - Munchen Lauenburg
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