Part 1 here.
Postwar image of Four Lakes, from the Old Ship Picture Gallery.
The Four Lakes sailed in ballast from Liverpool on May 28, 1944, as part of unescorted convoy UC 024. The following morning, in the North Channel, the Liverpool group was joined by additional escorted vessels from Belfast and Glasgow, making a combined westbound convoy of 50 merchantmen and six escorts. Early that evening, as the convoy entered the Atlantic, the lookouts reported hearing depth charges. The lookouts reported more gunfire and depth charges over the next half hour.
The next several days passed without incident. On June 4, the convoy was joined by a smaller escort carrier group. Three days later, just before 1:00 p.m., the lookout reported depth charges and one of the escorts ahead was seen to be flying a black signal pennant. The suspected submarine contact must have been very close ahead of the convoy, for only four minutes after the first depth charges exploded, the convoy commodore ordered a 45° emergency turn to starboard, followed by another 45° turn to starboard two minutes later. The convoy turned back to its original course a few minutes later and stood down from General Quarters, but throughout the rest of the afternoon there were more alerts, depth charge attacks and emergency course changes. The escorts’ attacks were inconclusive.
A track chart of Four Lakes‘ World War II voyages, reconstructed from reports of the Naval Armed Guard on board. Between early 1944 and late 1945, Four Lakes circumnavigated the globe from west to east. Some routes (e.g., Liverpool-New York) represent multiple voyages. Tracks shown are approximate, and may not reflect the ship’s actual course. Full size version on Flickr, here.
The Four Lakes passed the Ambrose Lightship off New York just after midnight on June 9, 1944. She later dropped down the coast to Norfolk, Virginia, where she took on a cargo of gasoline, diesel fuel and aircraft. She sailed on July 1 in a convoy of 24 merchantmen and 10 escorts. The convoy steamed eastward for the Mediterranean without incident until the evening of July 9, when lookouts reported seeing two white flares ahead of the convoy. This was the signal that a ship had been torpedoed, and the Armed Guard of the Four Lakes went to General Quarters. There were no depth charges heard, though, and when no report of the supposed torpedoing came from the commodore, the Armed Guard dismissed after several tense minutes of waiting (both literally and figuratively) “in the dark.”
The Four Lakes was routed to Casablanca, on the Moroccan coast, and with three other merchantmen departed the convoy late in the afternoon of July 11. The ships were escorted by three Free French warships. The tanker anchored at Casablanca early on July 12 and began discharging her part of her cargo. Two days later she was moved to a dock, where cranes were used to offload the aircraft she had carried as deck cargo. That evening, July 14, she sailed with one British and one Free French escort for Gibraltar. She arrived there shortly after noon the following day, and was tied up at the coaling wharf, where she discharged the remaining fuel cargo in her tanks. Port officials came aboard at 2:00 and immediately placed the ship under a 10- day quarantine, keeping the crew from going ashore because their last port of call, Casablanca, was suspected to have active cases of bubonic plague.
The Four Lakes sailed alone on the evening of July 24, with water ballast in her tanks. In the Straits of Gibraltar she sighted her assigned westbound convoy. She joined up with the convoy shortly before midnight, bringing the strength of the convoy up to 16 merchantmen and eight escorts. The passage across the Atlantic was without incident, and on August 2 the convoy split into two sections bound for different ports. The Four Lakes was assigned to the New York section, and anchored in the harbor there on August 3, 1944.
The Four Lakes sailed again on August 11 for Great Britain. She was part of Convoy CU 035 of 52 merchantmen and 14 escorts. She again carried diesel oil in her tanks and military aircraft on deck. The convoy was routed close to the Azores, and so was under Allied air protection for most of the way across the Atlantic. The escorts depth-charged several suspected submarine contacts, but without clear results. The convoy arrived at Swansea, in Wales, on August 22, 1944.
The Four Lakes returned to New York with Convoy UC 035, and sailed again for Britain on September 12 in Convoy CU039. She carried gasoline and miscellaneous deck cargo. The convoy of 44 merchantmen and 16 escorts steamed east at an average speed of 14 knots. On the afternoon of September 21, as the convoy neared the entrance to the Irish Sea, about a third of the merchantmen and half the escorts detached themselves from the convoy, reformed, and continued eastward for Cherbourg. The remaining vessels turned northward and continued on to Avonmouth, England, a small seaport near Bristol, arriving on September 22, 1944.
On September 26, she sailed in ballast to Milford Haven, where the routine briefing for the upcoming eastbound convoy, UC 039A, was held the following day. The briefing customarily included both the masters and Armed Guard Officers of the merchantmen in the convoy. The notice for this particular conference, however, had been delivered with the line instructing Armed Guard Officers to attend marked through in red pencil. The officer commanding the Armed Guard aboard the Four Lakes, Lieutenant Joseph H. Elcock, Jr., USNR, went to the meeting anyway. Elcock was told that while Armed Guard officers were always welcome, they had not been asked to come since the conference dealt primarily with navigation, not gunnery, and also because the additional officers attending would put too much strain on the transportation available to take them from their ships to the conference and back. In his report of the incident, Elcock noted dryly that it was “rather late for an Armed Guard officer to have to establish his right to attend the masters’ sailing conference.”
The convoy passed without incident, and the Four Lakes arrived at New York on October 8. With the U-boat threat in the Atlantic decreasing steadily, an increasing amount of the Armed Guards’ time was taken up in drills and training. But neither the Navy nor the shipping companies chartering the vessels provided the necessary resources to made this training effective. Lt. Elcock, for example, found that aboard the Four Lakes there was no quiet compartment available where he could conduct classes or give his men a place to study for examinations required for promotion to the next rate. He had to share his own cabin with another officer, and recommended that in the future Armed Guard officers be assigned their own cabins, which could double as classrooms for the gunners. Later Elcock complained about the lack of live-firing practice available for his men. On several Atlantic crossings in a row, the Four Lakes was assigned a position near the center of the convoy (standard practice with tankers and munitions vessels), and as a result her gunners were not allowed to fire their weapons for fear of striking another ship. Even when the Armed Guard could safely discharge its weapons, the Navy’s ammunition allowance did not provide enough ammunition for regular, realistic practice. A full year’s ammunition allowance for a 20-mm antiaircraft gun, Elcock pointed out, would be fired away in just 48 seconds.
At New York the Four Lakes took on a load of gasoline and deck cargo, and sailed in convoy for Naples, Italy, on October 14. The 16 merchantmen from New York were joined the next day by four from Norfolk and one from Bermuda. The combined convoy, escorted by six warships, continued on the Straits of Gibraltar, after which it began shrinking steadily as merchantmen and escorts broke off to proceed to various ports. Four merchantmen continued on to Naples, arriving there on October 28. While in Naples, Armed Guard gunners received mail forwarded from the United States, the first time the ship had a “mail call” while in a foreign port.
To be continued. . . .