During the Second World War, designated convoy rescue ships accompanied some Atlantic convoys to rescue survivors from ships that had been attacked. Rescue ships were typically small freighters with passenger accommodation converted to rescue service. This involved enlarging galley and food storage areas and providing berthing and sanitary facilities for approximately 150 men. Preparation for service included the installation of scrambling nets along the sides, and the substitution of boats suitable for open sea work for normal lifeboats. Rescue ships normally included a small operating room for an embarked naval doctor and sick bay staff.[1]


The first specially equipped rescue ship went into service in January 1941. When rescue ships were unavailable, large, ocean-going tugboats or converted trawlers were sometimes designated to perform rescue duty.[2]

By the end of the war 30 rescue ships had been built or converted. They participated in 797 convoys and rescued 4,194 survivors from 119 ships. Seven rescue ships were lost, six to enemy action (three to U-boats and three to aircraft).[3]


In 1940 Admiral Sir Max Horton (later Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches Command) broached the idea of rescue ships with the Admiralty. The concept was to have merchant vessels that would accompany convoys but not carry cargo; they would instead have the role of saving the lives of seamen from ships sunk by enemy action. The rescue ship would take its position at the rear of one of the central columns of ships.[1] From this position it could observe damaged ships falling astern of the convoy and quickly rendezvous to transfer survivors. The rescue ships would also be able to provide surgical or other treatment as required. This would free the cargo vessels of the convoy to continue on their way and escorts to focus on countering the attacking U-boats or aircraft.[4]

The convoy rescue ship was a response to early experience. Each merchant ship in a convoy was assigned a station so that the convoy formation would consist of several columns of three to five ships. The lead ships of the columns were spaced at intervals of 1,000 yards (910 m) along a line perpendicular to the convoy course. Each ship in the column followed the ship ahead at a distance of 800 yards (730 m).[5] The typical convoy would be approximately 8 to 10 kilometers (5.0 to 6.2 mi) wide and 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) long. The rescue plan for early convoys was to have the last ship of each column rescue survivors of other ships in that column.[6] If the last ship in column was hit, the rescue task fell to the escorting warships. In practice, the escorting warships performed rescue tasks more often than the 25% suggested by random hits on a four-ship column because some merchant ships refused to leave the protection of the convoy formation to fall back and remain a stationary target while rescuing survivors. Furthermore, merchant ships were not well suited to manoeuvre to pick up survivors, and those attempting rescue were hampered by lack of suitable rescue equipment.[4]

For the role the Admiralty sought out small, quick, manoeuvrable vessels; it drew many from among the Clyde Shipping Company's coastal passenger transports. The requisitioned passenger ships had a speed of 11 to 12 knots, which enabled them, after completing their rescue operations, to catch up with the convoys travelling at 10 knots. Although these vessels had not been built for the Atlantic or the Arctic, none was lost to Atlantic storms; one did ice-up and founder off the coast of Newfoundland.[3]

The rescue ships were not hospital ships and so were legitimate targets as far as German submarines or bombers were concerned. Consequently, the Admiralty armed them with AA guns for protection when they were separated from the convoy and vulnerable to enemy attack. In addition to equipment for rescuing and treating survivors, rescue ships carried High Frequency radio Direction Finding equipment (abbreviated to HF/DF and known as "Huff-Duff") to assist in the location of U-boats.[1] The rescue ship's position at the rear of the convoy provided good triangulation in combination with the HF/DF installed on the escort leader typically patrolling in front of the convoy.[1]

The Rescue Ship Service was organised by Lieutenant-Commander L. F. Martyn RNVR, who later co-authored a book highlighting the successes and challenges of the rescue ships.[7]

List of convoy rescue ships


The rescue ships were:[3]


  1. ^ a b c d Hague 2000 p.90
  2. ^ Hague 2000 p.92
  3. ^ a b c Hague 2000 p.91
  4. ^ a b Hague 2000 pp.89 & 90
  5. ^ Seth 1962 p.78
  6. ^ Hague 2000 p.89
  7. ^ a b c Schofield, B (1968). The Rescue Ships. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons Ltd. p. 165.
  8. ^ "Convoy OB.119". Convoyweb. Archived from the original on 24 September 2012. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
  9. ^ Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.196
  10. ^ a b c Irving 1968 p.182
  11. ^ Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.194
  12. ^ Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.191
  13. ^ Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.86