Source: Extract from The Royal Naval Medical Service Vol II, JLS Coulter
Rescue Ship Rathlin
detailed account of these rescue ships and their mode of operation
is given in the records of the Medical Officer of the Rescue Ship
Rathlin, who served in this ship from the Autumn of 1941 until
the Spring of 1943, seeing action on both the Atlantic and
Arctic Convoy routes. He describes a rescue ship as:
'A small converted merchant
ship of some 1,500 tons fitted with lifesaving apparatus,
accommodation for survivors and a small hospital. In peace‑time,
the Rathlin was employed on the carriage of cattle from the
Clyde to Northern Ireland.
'Our duties were to pick up and
resuscitate survivors, and our most important role was that of
maintaining the morale in merchant ships of a convoy in the
knowledge that there was a ship in company whose specific duty was
to pick them up at all costs. Our cattle deck had been converted
into survivor accommodation which consisted of a large compartment
amidships fitted with about forty bunks, benches and mess tables.
There were a further fifty bunks fore and aft on the same deck
around the sides of the engine room. The total bunk accommodation
was augmented by large numbers of mattresses and bedding which could
accommodate additional survivors on the deck.
'We were actually fitted and
provisioned to carry 150 survivors in all. But we could carry more,
as indeed we did when necessity arose.
'Under my charge was a large store of
clothing and comforts provided by the British Red Cross Society, the
Women's Voluntary Services and the National Sailors' Society. This
store included complete outfits of shoes, underclothing, trousers,
sweaters, caps and coats, knitted comforts, toothbrushes, shaving
gear., towels, etc. There was also a very adequate supply of
cigarettes and naval rum. There were two cranes forward in the well
deck from which could be swung large baskets capable of lifting two
men at a time. Rescue nets were fitted along the ship's sides over
which survivors could scramble on board the sea. We also had other
rescue nets fitted to booms near the bows of the ship. These could
be swung out well clear of the ship's side so that the nets were at
right angles to the ship itself. These proved most successful as,
before they were fitted, men or boats in the water ahead of the ship
were washed out away from the ship's side by the bow wave, which is
very powerful when steaming even dead slow ahead. I am sure that
quite a number of survivors was lost in this way.
'We also had large numbers of
lifebelts, heaving lines and ropes which could be thrown to men in
'An adequate number of lifeboats and
rafts was carried to accommodate 150 survivors as well as our own
ship's company should we in turn be unlucky enough to be sunk
ourselves. We also had a 22 ft. motor lifeboat which could be sent
away to pick up men in the sea. Occasionally we had to let go a raft
as we passed a group of survivors in the sea so that they could hang
on to it before we returned later to pick them up. But this practice
was not encouraged as it meant depleting our total life‑saving
'The ship was manned by Merchant Navy
seamen and officers, numbering about 50. These were mostly expert
seamen from the Hebrides. In addition there were 20 naval and army
gunners under the command of a naval Gunnery Officer. There was one
sick berth attendant and myself.
'The hospital compartment had six fixed cots and was situated
just beneath the bridge and was originally the passengers' lounge.
It was quite adequate and well equipped. The operating theatre
consisted of a small cabin built alongside the hospital on the boat
deck. It was fitted with a wooden fixed operating table to which
straps were attached, so that the operator and assistant could strap
themselves and so avoid being thrown about by the ship's roll.
'At sea the rescue ship took up a
strategic position at the stern of the convoy. There was nothing to
distinguish her from the other merchant ships in convoy. No Red
Cross signs were displayed. For protection she relied upon her own
'When a ship was torpedoed or bombed
in daylight, we steamed out of line, hoisting a special signal so
that other ships steered clear of us, and we closed with the sinking
ship as fast as possible. This usually took only a few minutes.
Meanwhile the convoy and escort steamed on ahead leaving, if
possible, one escort vessel to afford protection for the rescue
'When the rescue ship had closed the
sinking ship as near as possible, it stopped with its scrambling
nets down and picked up survivors from lifeboats and rafts. There
was an electric microphone and loud hailer on the bridge through
which instructions could be given to men in the sea to get alongside
as soon as possible.
'Naturally, while stopped, the rescue
ship itself presented a tempting target. But in our case enemy
U‑boats did not attempt to molest us, though we sometimes saw them
for a brief moment on the surface, especially at night time in
moonlight. But enemy aircraft behaved very differently and commonly
continued their attacks while rescue work was in progress.
'If there were many survivors in the
sea who had not managed to get into lifeboats or on to rafts, we had
to lower our own motor lifeboat in order to pick them up. We did
this on numerous occasions and sometimes in terrible weather, a feat
which will be appreciated by all who know the North Atlantic and the
Arctic in winter time.
'Once having received men from rafts
and boats, our custom was to steam very slowly among the wreckage,
making a thorough search for any remaining survivors. One of our
chief difficulties now was attempting to get on board from the sea
men who were covered with oil fuel. It was necessary for some of us
to climb down the rescue netting with heaving lines and to try to
pass the line round their chests. But even so, the line was inclined
to slip and allow them to be precipitated back into the water.
'At night time our rescue work was
much more difficult. Most merchant seamen carried a small electric
torch with a red bulb which clipped on to the shoulder of their
life‑jackets and helped to show where they were on a dark night. But
often this bulb became obscured by oil fuel and could not be seen,
and I am afraid that many men succumbed to exposure in the icy seas
before we managed to reach them. It was obviously asking for trouble
to turn on a searchlight but occasionally this risk had to be
'We estimated that our rescue work
usually took about two hours in the case of each ship, and once we
were satisfied that no more survivors were in the sea, we steamed at
full speed to rejoin the convoy which by this time would be a
considerable distance ahead of us.
'It was at this stage that the
medical officer's real work began. The survivors were all mustered
in the saloon, and the injured were kept there until they had been
sorted out and dealt with. The remainder were taken below and issued
with full sets of clothing and comforts, and allocated a sleeping
'For the good of their morale these
survivors were organised into working parties under the charge of
one of their own officers. Among some of them a great tendency was
found to rush up on deck at the least explosion, and this had to be
discouraged as much as possible as they were likely to impede the
ship's company in the performance of their own action duties. But
some survivors emphatically refused to go below at any cost, and in
one particular homeward bound convoy, some 50 survivors never used
their bunks at all and, even on the coldest nights, were to be found
huddled together on the boat deck where they remained until arriving
back in the United Kingdom.
'On one occasion we had on board 220
survivors whose morale was very low indeed. They included some 30
stretcher cases and my fear was that should we ourselves be hit, the
survivors on the boat deck would panic and rush the boats before I
was able to get MY patients into them.
'The commonest injuries treated on board the Rathlin were
compound fractures, head injuries, burns and scalds. Plasma
transfusions were given when necessary, but frequently with some
difficulty as the ship might well be rolling 20 or 30 degrees.
'Surgical operations required rather
a complicated co‑operative procedure between my sick berth attendant
and myself. After inducing the patient with his anaesthetic, I
handed over to my assistant and scrubbed up to undertake my other
role of surgeon.
'Fracture work was the easiest with
which I had to deal on board as there was a plentiful supply of
plaster‑of‑paris. I was not as greatly hampered by lack of an X‑ray
apparatus as I had expected. The Winnett Orr or Trueta method was
used for treating compound fractures. We were fortunate too in
having adequate supplies of sulphonamide powder. In my fracture work
I was greatly assisted by the co‑operation of various members of the
Merchant Navy crew. In one case the engineers welded a piece of iron
into the sole of a man's boot for purposes of extension. In another
case the chief engineer fashioned an excellent Steinman's pin from a
length of steel packing metal.
'Burns and scalds were always troublesome as it was very
difficult to maintain asepsis. I treated second degree burns by
cleaning them thoroughly with soap and water and applying triofax
jelly. Third degree burns I treated with sulphanilamide powder and
tulle gras dressings, soaking them off daily in saline baths. These
methods seemed to give good results.
'One of my casualties was a petty
officer from one of H.M. ships which was torpedoed in the engine
room. He had second degree scalds to his face, trunk, arms and third
degree scalds of his hands. The explosion had blown him into the
sea, at a temperature of 29°F., and he swam one mile to a trawler.
He was naturally severely shocked but responded on board my ship to
large plasma transfusions.
'Our second duty as a rescue ship, namely the routine medical
care of ships in convoy, provided some interest. Naturally, with 30
or 40 ships in convoy, there was usually some sickness to be dealt
with. On an average there was an acute abdominal emergency on every
'On receiving a signal that a ship
had a sick man on board, we used to steam up alongside as near as
possible and then, using the loud hailer, I would attempt to get
some kind of a verbal history of the case. Should the clinical
details not appear serious, merely requiring medicine of some kind,
this would be fired across to the ship with a rocket and line
apparatus. But if the case did not sound straightforward, I would be
transferred to the ship by our motor lifeboat, weather permitting,
and would go on board and examine the patient.
'The cases were varied. For example,
there was the Master of a Greek ship suffering from bacterial
endocarditis, for whom I could do little and who died. On another
occasion assistance was required by a merchant ship with a madman on
board. He was armed and was attempting to set fire to his ship.
Fortunately I was assisted in controlling him by an armed guard
provided by one of our escorting destroyers.
'I frequently had to undertake dental
emergencies, and here again our chief engineer made for me a most
effective pair of elevators which I found most useful in extracting
the buried carious molars of Merchant Navy seamen.'
This general picture of the Medical
Officer of H.M.S. Rathlin may be supplemented by one of his
more detailed reports covering his activities over forty‑eight hours
at the height of the battle which occurred during the course of the
passage of Convoy P.Q.18. Not only was it the duty of the Rathlin
to be readily available in the course of enemy attacks, but she
was faced with periods of rescue work when she herself was quite
unprotected. She soon became overloaded with apprehensive survivors,
many of them seriously wounded, on whom major operations had to be
carried out whatever the ultimate outcome of the voyage. Recording
these events this Medical Officer wrote:
on September 20 H.M.S. Leda was torpedoed and quickly sank. We went
to pick up her survivors, but were forestalled by H.M.Ships Northern
Gem and Seagull. At noon we were instructed to remove some of the
survivors from the Northern Gem after she had buried her dead, and
at the same time we received a signal that the Captain of the S.S.
Samuel Chase had acute appendicitis.
'We lowered the motor boat which removed 33 survivors from the
Northern Gem in three trips. There was a heavy swell running at the
time. One case was very badly burned, and a Neil‑Robertson stretcher
could not be used as it caused him too much pain.
'We then proceeded to the Samuel Chase and took off the Captain.
Incidentally, we also obtained some flour from her, as we were very
short and down to a ration of one slice of bread twice a day.
'No sooner had we hoisted the motor boat back on board when the
S.S. Silver Sword was torpedoed fore and aft. We went about and
picked up 56 survivors from boats and rafts. One man was very
seriously injured with multiple lacerations of his scalp and face
and obviously an intra‑cranial haemorrhage.
'On September 22, at dawn, the S.Ss. Grey Ranger,
and Ocean Voice
were torpedoed and sunk. We dropped astern and picked up 59
survivors from open boats and out of the sea. Altogether, after 48
hours, we had 281 survivors on board.'