Warship Wednesday, April 3, 2019: She’s was a lucky and lovely Flower
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, April 3, 2019: She’s was a lucky and lovely Flower
Here we see the former Royal Navy HMS Bellwort (K 114), a Flower-class corvette, in her later life in 1947 at Dun Laoghaire Pier as the Irish Naval Service’s Long Éireannach (LÉ) Cliona (03)— named after the Irish goddess of love. Both before and after, she lived a very lucky life, which is remarkable as many of her class did not.
Ordered 12 December 1939 from George Brown & Co. in Greenock, Scotland, Kincaid, Bellwort was one of the nearly 300 Flowers completed during the conflict. Compact vessels at just 1,000-tons with a length of only 205-feet, they used a simple engineering suite and a single screw to make 16 knots, a speed high enough to combat WWII-era diesel-electric subs. Mounting a single low-angle 4-inch gun forward and a series of ASW weapons, they were designed to take the fight to Donitz’s unterseeboots and did it admirably.
In all, the humble but effective corvettes served the RN, their Canadian, Indian and South African Commonwealth fleets, and a myriad of “Free” allied nations in exile such as the Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, and Greeks.
Bellwort, named for the lily of the same moniker, commissioned 20 November 1941 during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic while the British stood alone in Western Europe against the Italians and Germans.
By 12 December, she was on her first convoy escort, tagging along with ON 049 for a week on the UK to North America run. Over the course of the war in Europe, Bellwort would be a part of well over 40 convoys in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean as well as off the West African coast including the Freetown-to-Takoradi run, bringing over 800 ships safely to port.
She was not always successful.
On one of these South Atlantic convoys, TS 37, in which Bellwort and three armed trawlers were charged with 19 merchants, German submarine ace Werner Henke and U-519 stalked the slow running group, ultimately sinking seven ships in a series of quick actions. The sub was later smoked by the USS Guadalcanal hunter-killer group and Henke died while trying to escape from an interrogation center in Virginia in 1944.
During the war, Bellwort also had to fight Poseidon. She was almost lost off South Africa in June 1942 while being towed by HMS Barrymore around the Cape of Good Hope. Poor sea boats, these hoggish craft had a reputation of being able to “roll on wet grass.” Arnold Whitehead, a rating on Barrymore, recalled the event for the BBC.
We, the crew, soon began to realize that the Cape of Good Hope in the southern hemisphere in wintertime could be rather an unpleasant place. A really tremendous storm was brewing up. The seas were becoming mountainous walls of water, and during the night the Bellwort slid down one side of one of the wave mountains and we slid down the opposite side, away from the Bellwort, which was helpless, of course, without rudder and no engines running. The six-inch steel hawser snapped like a violin string, the end attached to us striking our stern a frightening blow. We were left with the almost impossible task of trying to get the hawser reconnected to the corvette while looking to our own survival in what was now a raging hurricane. The wind in the ship’s rigging was making a fearful wailing noise, which was quite spirit-numbing.
During the night the skipper told us that the Barrymore was designed to withstand a roll of up to 45 degrees each way, and we had been rolling 50 degrees. The skipper’s detailed information was hardly likely to inspire confidence!
The situation aboard the Bellwort was grave in the extreme, with her crew all wearing inflated lifebelts on deck and ready to jump. The Barrymore turned on her searchlight to illuminate the scene while the end of the hawser attached to us was winched aboard.
It was at this point in the rescue attempt that I witnessed the most astonishing event I have ever seen. The seas were estimated to be 60 feet high. Torrential rain was also a major hazard, and we wondered if we would survive. The ship’s logbook recorded the conditions of the sea as ‘precipitous’, which was the worst of all on our graduated scale. In the midst of all this, a seaman was washed overboard. Within moments, by some miracle, the next giant wave brought him back on board, apparently none the worse for his ordeal!
Bellwort left her last charge, as part of the screen for Convoy MKS 103G from the Med to Portsmouth, on 27 May 1945.
With VJ Day, the peacetime Royal Navy didn’t need Bellwort and her sisters anymore. An amazing 33 Flowers were lost during the conflict, with most of those torpedoed and sunk by U-boats during convoy operations. As something like half of the convoy vessels in the North Atlantic were Flowers, it is no surprise. Most of the remaining ships were rapidly laid up and soon either sold for scrap or transferred aboard.
Out of service by October 1945, Bellwort along with sisters HMS Borage (K 120) and HMS Oxlip (K123) was sold to the Irish “for a bargain price” in September 1946 as the LÉ Cliona (03), LÉ Macha (01), and LÉ Maev (02), respectively. As with Cliona‘s goddess name, Macha is from an Irish goddess of war while Maev is named after Medb, queen of Connacht in Irish mythology.
If the pennant numbers sound low, that’s because the Irish Naval Service was only founded that year. Previously, the only armed vessels owned by Dublin was the old RN yacht HMY Helga, a 300-ton craft that picked up a pair of 12-pounders in 1936 to patrol as Muirchú for the Fisheries Service. During WWII, the armed neutral had to rely on Helga/Muirchú as well as a six-pack of small 60-foot Vosper MTBs (without berthing) for coast watching. The post-war Irish Naval Service was the Republic’s first foray into a blue water force.
For the next 25 years, these three surplus British corvettes were the sum total of the Irish navy until Dublin coughed up a naval program in 1969 for the purchase of three aging Ton-class coastal minesweepers (HMS Oulston, HMS Alverton, and HMS Blaxton) while the 184-foot LÉ Deirdre, the first vessel ever built specifically for the Naval Service, was constructed in Verlome Cork Dockyard as a replacement for the minesweepers.
All was not roses for the Irish corvettes. Used for grueling fisheries patrol work as well as in customs duties stopping potential gun running to the IRA, they saw their share of interesting encounters. In 1962, Cliona‘s luck almost ran out.
On 29 May, while participating in an annual live-fire exercise south of Roches Point, Cliona suffered damage after the explosion of a Hedgehog charge which had been dropped during the exercise. Leaking oil ignited which resulted in a serious boiler room fire onboard the vessel. The fire was eventually extinguished without any fatalities but the deeds of her crew who saved the ship largely forgotten for decades.
Taken out of service July 1969, Cliona was decommissioned on 2 November 1970 and the same day sold to Haulbowline Industries. She was later scrapped at Passage West in Cork. Her two Irish sisters, Borage/Macha, and Oxlip/Maev, were likewise sold to HI at about the same time and met similar fates. By then, except for a sister in Canada and a few others in the Dominican Republic and Angola, they were the last of the nearly 300 ship class.
Today, only the HMCS Sackville (K181), which the Canadians preserved in 1982 at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is the only Flower left in the world. Notably, Bellwort/Clinoa escorted more convoys that she did.
However, Cliona‘s crewmembers who saved her on that fateful day in 1962 were eventually remembered.
On 1 September 2016, the Minister with Responsibility for Defence, Mr. Paul Kehoe, T.D., presented Scrolls of Commendation to Lieutenant Pat O’Mahony, Able Stoker Bill Mynes, Chief E.R.A. Maurice Egan and Chief Stoker Gerry O’Callaghan, (the last posthumously) at a ceremony held on board L.É. Niamh in Dublin.
Before presenting the scrolls, Minister Kehoe praised the former Naval Service members “…each one of these four men fearlessly faced difficulty, danger, and pain while successfully extinguishing the fire that had taken hold on board the LÉ Cliona. The swift and selfless endeavors of each one of these four men ensured that tragedy was avoided and not a single life was lost.”
Minister Kehoe also paid tribute to “…the tremendous team effort that was made by the ship’s company. They ensured the safe return of the ship to port, once the fire had been brought under control. Even with the passage of time, their endeavors are not forgotten. I am delighted that I will have the opportunity of unveiling a plaque in recognition of their sterling work, in Haulbowline Naval Base, at the end of this month”.
As for her stint as Bellwort, David Willcock, the grandson of a former RN tar who sailed aboard her during WWII, has a tribute page.
Today, the Irish Naval Service, which began in 1946 with those three high-mileage Flower-class corvettes, is 72-years-old and still rocks a pair of vintage ex-RN corvettes of the 1980s Peacock-class, formerly used to patrol Hong Kong. But in addition, they also have six-purpose built OPVs that were built from the keel up for Ireland. The newest of these include four of the very capable Samuel Beckett-class vessels, which go 300-feet and tip the scales at 2,250-tons, each larger than the Cliona and her sisters. Appropriately, they are named for poets.
Besides protecting Ireland’s EEZ and territorial waters, the force has been involved in Mediterranean search and rescue operations with the EU for the past two years. In short, it’s a proper force now.
Displacement: 1020 tonnes
Length: 205 ft.
Beam: 33 ft.
Draft: 14 ft.
Powerplant: Single reciprocating vertical 4-cylinder triple expansion by John Kincaid Greenock, 2 fire tube Scotch boilers
Maximum Speed (designed) 16 Knots
Sensors: SW1C radar, Type 123A sonar
85 designed, up to 100 in wartime RN service
5 officers, 74 ratings (Irish Service)
1 X 4″/45cal (102mm) BL Mk.IX gun
1 X Mk.VIII 2-pounder pom-pom AAA gun
2 X 20mm Oerlikon AA guns
1 X Mk 3 Hedgehog mortar,
4 X depth-charge throwers,
2 X depth charge rails with 40 depth charges
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