CORVETTES AND SPECIAL SHIPS
Wartime Record of – Messrs Ferguson Brothers
Like all British shipbuilding yards and marine engineering works, Messrs Ferguson Brothers – Port-Glasgow – were taxed to capacity during the War years.
Throughout the whole period the firms were under Admiralty control and the first vessel completed was the Tree Class escort trawler Juniper. Being the first of a new class, she was made flagship of her group. She met a gallant end when, under the command of Lieut.-Commander Grenfell RN, she encountered the German battleship Scharnhorst. Having turned and engaged this formidable enemy with her single gun she was sunk with colours flying. Commander Grenfell and most of the ship's company were lost, but there were a few survivors who have since visited old friends at the Yard.
Ferguson Brothers were early instructed by the Admiralty to proceed with three Flower Class Corvettes .-Honeysuckle, Hydrangea and Jasmine.
ON RUSSIAN CONVOY
The first vessel was well-known in many waters and particularly in the North Russian convoys. In December 1943 Messrs Ferguson Brothers received a complimentary letter from the Admiralty in connection with her. At that time she had steamed over 100.000 miles and picked up 400 survivors from torpedoed ships.
In her first Russian convoy she survived unhurt five days and six nights of dive-bombing. She also took part in the Allied landings at Algiers and Sicily, and whilst on escort duty was attacked by 20 torpedo bombers, five of which were shot down by the convoy. In this engagement she only received slight damage from a bomb fragment. The Admiralty letter concluded by thanking the firm for the evidence of fine workmanship put into the building of the Honeysuckle.
The corvette Hydrangea was not many weeks away from her builders, when she successfully engaged and sank an enemy submarine. For this encounter, her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Woolfenden RNR, was awarded the DSC. The Hydrangea while fitting out at her builders, just escaped an untimely end when, on the night of the 16th October, 1940. a lone German raider dropped an oil bomb, through. the wooden fitting-out quay, within twenty feet of her. But the bomb fell into the water and the lighted flares attached failed to ignite the oil,
YEOMAN RESCUE WORK
The Jasmine spent most of her time in distant spheres, but on a voyage home from the Mediterranean she performed yeoman rescue work from a stricken vessel in the height of a gale. For this, several members of her sick bay were decorated.
These corvettes were all completed by early 1941, as was. also the smaller Tree Class escort trawler Mangrove, and two Dance Class escort trawlers. Mazurka and Minuet.
Under British Government directions the firm was ordered to construct in 1941 four special horse, troop and tank-carrying vessels for the Turkish Government. At that time it was expected that Turkey would join the Allies. Only one other firm in Britain was ordered to build similar vessels Messrs Swan. Hunter & Wigham Richardson.
Messrs Ferguson Brothers' vessels named Cardak, Silivri, Darica, and Derence, were expeditiously built. They were elaborately fitted up for their special work, the lower hold having a system of portable horse stalls which could be removed to carry troops. There was also a heavy lowering ramp, or gangway at the bow for discharge of tanks on to landing stages. These vessels all made a safe passage to Turkey, in spite of enemy-infested waters.
In 1942 to add to variety, two Scottish Isles Class escort trawlers were completed for !he Admiralty, - the Hunda and Unst - and four tugs, three to Admiralty orders named Empire Lawn, Empire Mead, and Empire Warlock. The Empire Warlock performed her Herculean work, some of which is described In "Merchantmen at War"; some of this is included in a letter from the Captain:-
“The Empire Warlock behaved splendidly throughout. She was a sturdy little tug, and made the 13,525 miles by which she was routed without one stop for engine trouble.”
“Leaving Milford Haven we towed two Free French submarine chasers on separate lines; we towed them 970 miles towards Gibraltar at a speed of 6.7 miles per hour and consideration must be given to the- fact that bad weather was experienced for the first 36 hours; the chasers then escorted us to Gibraltar. Leaving this port we again took them in tow and towed them 1,458 miles towards Bathurst in the Gambia at a speed of 7.00 knots.”
“We remained in Bathurst three weeks doing all sorts of jobs, and on arrival at Freetown we were kept back to tow – in company with another tug – a crane barge of 95 ft. long and 80 ft. beam with a top hamper of approximately 85 ft. We towed this barge to Takoradi - a distance of 933 miles at an average speed of 5.7 knots.”
“After calling at Point Noire and Walvis Bay we went into Luderitz Bay, picked up a barge and towed it to Suldahna Bay, a distance of 422 miles at 6.5 knots. It was on this passage that we met the Cape rollers, but the little ship rode them like a duck.”
“From Cape Town onwards we did no more towing, but called in at Durban, Lorenco Marques, Beira, Mombassa, and Aden, just in case we were required, the final distance being 13,525 miles, steaming time 74.4 days, average speed 7.6 knots,”
In this year also the powerful salvage tug St George, for the Government of Trinidad, was completed. This was a pre-war contract which had been suspended.
The St George made a splendid voyage to Trinidad, mostly unescorted.
With the North African landings in view and the need for many boom defences, the Admiralty ordered four such vessels of the latest design, the Barwind, Barbill, Barberry and Barspear.
With their powerful winch and cathead at bow these vessels were used for all kinds of purposes apart from boom defence work. One of them actually had the distinction of accepting the surrender of an Italian submarine. Some of them were used to extract "teeth" in the form of long concrete spikes embeded by the Germans in the bottom of Italian harbours so that as the tide fell they would pierce our vessels, Several Allied vessels were pierced and sunk in this manner. This work of the boom vessels was extremely valuable.
Three more Flower Class corvettes followed of the improved water tube boiler type - Burnet, Charlock and Forest Hill, the latter losing her Flower name when she was allocated to the Royal Canadian Navy. These vessels played an important part in escort and anti-submarine warfare.
0RDERS FOR CASTLE CLASS
Following these the Admiralty placed an order with Messrs Ferguson for four of the larger Castle Class Corvettes to be named:-
York Castle. And
Shortly after placing the order the Thornby Castle was cancelled to assist the firm to speed up the other three.
Oddly enough, none of these vessels bore the pre-arranged names;
The Pembroke Castle became the Tillsonburg – on being handed over to the Canadian Navy:
The Rayleigh Castle and York Castle were converted into a new type of rescue vessel and renamed Empire Rest and Empire Comfort respectively. The Empire Rest was the first of this new type to be completed by any firm and before sailing and on trials had many distinguished Naval, Medical and Merchant Service visitors. These ships were elaborately fitted out with Operating Theater, stretcher lifts, sick bays, scrambling nets and every known type of rescue appliance. This conversion entailed a large amount of work as these vessels were well advanced as Corvettes when the decision was taken.
In the last months of hostilities a further Isles Class escort trawler, Biggal. was handed over to the Amiralty and the boom defence vessel Barkis. The propelling machinery for all of the vessels mentioned was made by the builders in their Engineering Works at Port-Glasgow.
In addition, Messrs Ferguson Bros., were appointed the leading machinery firm for one class of vessel and as such supplied the machinery drawings to several firms in England and Scotland.
In their Engineering Works also, many spare parts for existing vessels were turned out and they made well over 1,500 "Newark '' patent sterntube oil glands. The firm are the proprietors of this patent and the glands have been fitted to many Admiralty vessels from H.M. Monitor, ‘Lord Roberts’ down to fast motor launches. Many merchant ships were also fitted with the glands. Drawings for this specially were sent to Canadian Yards so that the glands could be manufactured there for Admiralty vessels building in that Dominion.
PART IN LANDINGS
Ferguson-built corvettes, Escort vessels and Boom Defence vessels took part in the Landings at North Africa, Sicily, Italy and on D-DAY.
No damage of note was done to the works by enemy action, although on one occasion dozens of incendiaries were dropped on and around the Shipyard and Engine Works. Fortunately only one landed on a roof and this was the flat concrete roof of the office tower where it could do no harm. The others were expeditiously tackled by the yard firewatchers.
In addition to the vessels mentioned, Messrs Fergison Brothers completed the following pre-war contracts during the War building period: -
Barima: a passenger and cargo vessel for the Crown Agents for the Colonies;
Dragon: a dredger for the Scottish Fisheries Board;
Petro: an oil tanker for the Union Lighterage Co.
Courtesy of Craig Osborne
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