So, to continue the ongoing review of “Build the Ships” which tells the story of the conversion of the “Hannover” into the “Audacity”.
Our author ponders the domination of the submarine in making the running in naval warfare during WWI and concludes that the successful counter to the U-boat was the aircraft carrier.. Consequently there was a huge demand amongst the United Nations for their shipyards to produce more and more of them. He describes aircraft as the eyes of submarines and ”The aircraft of the Fleet carriers as the eyes of the Fleet, the convoys and their escorts”.
The lack of such vessels early in the war meant that merchant seamen had to make long journeys to avoid U-boats rather than following the usual trade routes and consequently trips which used to take days were taking several weeks. German based aircraft on the coast of France could pick off ships at will. Merchant ships were not designed to carry aircraft, and even if a single aircraft was carried and catapulted into the air, the pilot could not land again, although the men of the Fleet Air Arm took on this duty bravely.
The longer term solution was to convert merchant ships by putting flight decks on them, and to train pilots to land on these short, narrow decks which would also be rising and falling with the swell. Thus would the threat from the Focke-Wulfs be contained.
With mounting losses, the ship chosen for the experiment was a German ship captured in the Florida Strait in June 1940, the Hannover (built 1939 by Brenner Vulkan at Vegesack) had been carrying bananas on the Mexican run. The Germans had tried to set fire to her and the original plan was to repair her and use her as a trader interceptor for ocean boarding. However, in January 1941 she was taken to “a little town on the north-east coast (where) there is a small shipyard, one of those yards which turn out small steamers, sloops and corvettes, nothing much larger than 300 feet” which was Blyth in Northumberland. Interesting use of the term north-east, but I guess all things are relative!
The workers knew they were working on something of an important official secret, locals fearers the huge ship may attract German bombers, above all, the people were determined to prove that the job was not too large for the yard. It also seemed strange to those observing that in a time when Britain was short of ships the workers were stripping off the bridge and superstructure of this perfectly serviceable vessel. The work proceeded apace, with 120,000 rivets a week being driven compared to a previous best of 80,000. Once the bridge and funnel were removed, a flight deck, which was mainly riveted, was put on her. No hangar, no lift to bring aircraft up and down, there was no time. Even the German notices were still inside, and those who sailed in her reported that she had wonderful passenger cabins and was a delightfully manageable ship. Her name was changed to the “Empire Audacity” but the double name gave the Navy the grue, so they shortened it to Audacity. She was escorted from the yard by the “Stork” which would later be there to pick up some of her crew when the Germans finally put an end to her.
She made two four week voyages on the Gibraltar run. Her aircraft brought down Focke-Wulfs, sank submarines and protected the convoy. Each time an aircraft was to fly off her, the others had to be trundled out of the way, a process her crew dubbed “musical chairs” only with an expletive on the beginning! Working machinery caked with salt from spray on the Atlantic in winter on a ship with no shelter, was hard work. However, humour prevailed and many tales are told including the following:
A small ship was out of station in the convoy and the Audacity loud hailed her to hurry up. Nobody could be seen on deck, but presently two men appeared holding a blackboard on which was written “Don’t leave us behind, we’ve got the beer.”
Of course, she was a prime target for the Germans as they wanted her more than even the convoy. At night, a carrier would leave the convoy at night to make her less of a target among the little ships and also to avoid giving away the convoy. So it was, two days before Christmas in 1941, when a ring of submarines took a chance and closed in on the Audacity. The first torpedo struck her in the engine room, she was helpless, but did not sink. The U-boats awaited their change and an hour later they put two more torpedoes into her and that was the end. She did not catch fire, but floated on 10 000 gallons of petrol which had been stored in specially built cylindrical tanks, each surrounded by sea water, then she simply broke up and sank.
The men of the Audacity and those who had restructured her knew they had made history and orders went out to British and American shipyards for more, but with hangars and deck islands. Blyth shipyard proved that changing ships into aircraft carriers was a successful strategy.
Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010