Halcyon Class Minesweepers

Halcyon Class Ships
Medical Matters - Rescue Ships



 Source: Extract from The Royal Naval Medical Service Vol II, JLS Coulter

Rescue Ship Rathlin 

ss Rathlin - Arctic ConvoyRescue Ship

A 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 the sea. 

'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 equipment. 

'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 armament. 

'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 craft. 

'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 taken. 

'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 billet. 

'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 29F., 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 other trip. 

'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: 

'Early 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, Bellingham 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.'


Source: Extract from The Royal Naval Medical Service Vol II, JLS Coulter


Rescue Ship Zaafaran in PQ17 

ss Zaafaran - Arctic Convoy Rescue Ship

A further account of the survival problem in the Arctic is given by the Medical Officer of the Rescue Ship Zaafaran who joined her for service on the Arctic Convoy route in April 1942. The personnel of this ship were all Merchant Navy with the exception of her medical officer and sick berth staff and her seamen gunners. The youngest member of the crew was 14 years of age and the eldest 62. The medical officer recorded: 

'In spite of our destination being supposedly secret, it was well known to all hands. This early produced a state of tension which had a noticeable effect on some members of the crew. No actual case of sickness resulted, but note was made of those likely to require medical aid for psychological weakness.'

The recorded action history of the Zaafaran is that of Convoy P. Q. 17, which began to be heavily attacked from the air on July 4, 1942. On this day survivors totalling 49 were picked up. Eight of these were suffering from immersion, but none was seriously injured. Three were very shocked and cold. The sea temperature on this day was 38F. 

It is of interest that the Zaafaran's Medical Officer instituted a reception system whereby the natural inclination to resuscitate survivors with rum was prohibited until the men had been dried, warmed and reclothed. This decision was made in the light of experience, in order to deprive survivors of the temptation to dawdle and sleep in the same state as when removed from the sea. 

Zaafaran's Medical Officer was on deck dealing with 8 Russian survivors when the signal from the Admiralty was received which ordered Convoy P.Q.17 to scatter owing to the imminent arrival of German heavy surface craft. He recorded: 

'As our ship was 4 miles astern after picking up survivors, we had an excellent view of the situation. The signal to scatter had been received about half an hour previously. To port and ahead, the merchant ships were spreading out fan‑wise, full steam ahead and belching smoke. To starboard, the destroyers were in line ahead and disappearing at top speed. On either beam was a sinking ship, and astern could be seen the wreckage of two enemy aircraft. The smoke of the battle was drifting away over the quarter. 

'The prospect of early surface action with the enemy meant great mental strain for our crew, which was borne well by everyone. 

'In view of the possibility of sinking, emergency medical stores were split up between the boats. A secondary temporary dressing station was established aft, and my S.B.A. and the first mate were each given some tubunic ampoules of omnopon with instructions for their use. 

'In spite of the constant presence of hostile aircraft a meal was served. To any man showing loss of appetite, infusion of gentian and a stiff dose of bromide were issued. Though less acceptable than rum, this was found to be more efficacious to those whose morale was wearing thin.

'During the next 24 hours, the difference between the few British survivors on board and the remainder was most noticeable. The former were well disciplined and maintained a higher standard of morale as a body of men, whereas the latter degenerated according to their own character and that of their leaders. The majority of these survivors were Russian and Arab firemen all of whom were mentally exhausted and on the verge of hysteria. 

'On the evening of July 5 a bomb struck the ship and she sank in eight minutes. No one was killed, but the personnel of the after guns' crew were shaken severely and they were all quickly questioned and examined to see if they were fit to proceed to the boats unaided. All were sent to the boat deck. An attempt was made to see if there were any injured in the engine room, but it was impossible to be certain owing to steam, darkness and damage to ladders. However, no response could be obtained to our shouting and as the bed‑plates were seen to be awash, no further investigation could be contemplated. 

'Meanwhile, my S.B.A. went round with the boatswain and helped to launch rafts, leaving in the last one himself when the lee rail was awash. He carried his first‑aid bag throughout, and it was still dry with its contents complete when we were picked up. 

'Only two lifeboats survived the action and when the ship sank they were well away from her, filled chiefly with the original survivors whom we had picked up. I had heard no orders at all since the explosion and now, since I could find no injured and nobody but two ratings left on board, I abandoned ship with them. 

'Once in the sea, I was interested to note that although the water temperature was 32 F. by the last recording, the shock of immersion was not very great. Presumably this was because I was fully clothed and because the temperature of the air which I had left was much lower than that of the sea. 

'I was fifteen minutes in the water before being able to get on board a raft which had floated up from the wreck. I regret having to refer to my own condition at this time but, as I was the only one swimming, I had no other cases on which to make observations. When I boarded the raft my skin was completely anaesthetic to the neck. My joint sense was very impaired and there was a well marked ischaemia of my hands and feet. Massage and exercise pulling an oar restored sensation rapidly and painlessly except in the case of my fingers. 

'A ship was sighted and once she was seen to alter course towards us, a bottle of gin and a box of cigarettes were passed round. Chocolates and biscuits from containers were eaten and clothing was shared. The mental and physical effects were immediate and what could only be described as a holiday spirit prevailed with much singing. After fifty minutes we were picked up by the Rescue Ship Zamalek and were all in fairly good condition after being warmed, dried and reclothed.'


This site was last updated 17 Januar 2012