Convoy SL36 left the busy anchorage of Freetown harbour at 13.00 on 16th June 1940. The convoy was in two sections, ships bound for the west coast of the UK being on the port (left) wing, while those in the starboard (right) wing were heading for east coast ports. Of all the ships in Convoy SL36 there was at least one most unsuited to be in its company. The 5,218-ton Beignon, owned by Morel Ltd. of Mountstuart Square, Cardiff, built in 1939, was outwardly a conventional 5-hatch cargo ship of her day. However her engine room housed a powerful diesel engine built by William Doxford of Sunderland, Britain’s experts in the marine diesel field. This engine gave the Beignon a top speed of 12 knots, a good 3 knots faster than most of the coal-fired steamers making up the convoy, which was to make the passage to the UK at the dignified, but highly vulnerable speed of 7-1/2 knots. In hindsight, it seems clear that, had the Beignon used her superior speed to sail independently, she might well have lived to meet a quiet, if ignominious, end in a ship-breaker’s yard some thirty years later. As it turned out, her presence in Convoy SL36 drew her into a tangled web of coincidence and destruction, which ended in tragedy on a fine summer’s morning in July 1940. The Naval commodore controlling the convoy was in the 13,376-ton Blue Star ship Avelona Star. Protection was provided by HMS Dunvegan Castle, an Armed Merchant Cruiser of 15,007 tons. The Beignon, at the time of sailing uncertain of port of discharge, was in the port wing of the convoy at position No. 13 (third from the front in the leftmost column), a position which must have given rise to some sour faces on board the Welsh ship. The convoy’s northward route brought it towards the western approaches to the British Isles. Although deep laden under 8,816 tons of wheat, the Beignon had no difficulty in keeping station as the convoy zig-zagged northwards through the tropics. Her master, Captain W. J. Croome had confidence in his ship, her crew and the l2-pounder and 4-inch guns she was armed with. The weather was fine and was expected to remain so. In the early hours of the morning of 28 June, when Convoy SL36 was roughly abeam of Lisbon, 550 miles to the north the steamship Llanarth was on fire and sinking after being torpedoed by U-30. No word of this attack reached the convoy, which was now unwittingly sailing into a trap being carefully set up by Admiral Donitz, (Cin C Submarines). Kapitan Lemp, with the stench of the burning Llanarth still in his nostrils, was to be joined by Korvetten-Kapitin Hans-Gerritt von Stockhausen in U-65, Kapitan-Leutnant Heinz Scheringer in U-26 and Kapitan-Leutnant Wilhelm Ambrosius in U-43. For Convoy SL36, the greater part of their 3000 mile trek northwards was accomplished without incident and by the 30th June they were crossing the Bay of Biscay with a growing air of confidence. Their sole escort, HMS Dunvegan Castle, had been joined by destroyers and corvettes of Western Command, while Sunderland aircraft of Coastal Command kept a watchful eye on the convoy from time to time. That morning, as breakfast was being passed up from the galleys, those on deck were witness to the rescue of the Llanarth’s survivors by HMS Gladiolus. It was a heartening sight but had a bad omen for the coming day.
At three minutes past noon, von Stockhausen in U-65 opened up the score for the wolf-pack by torpedoing the 5,802-ton cargo liner Clan Ogilvy. The fragile peace of the day was abruptly shattered by the thunder of exploding depth charges as the escorts raced into action. Their prompt retaliation prevented von Stockhausen from administering the coup de grace to the Clan Ogilvy, which although damaged forward, was still afloat. The other U-boats also held back and the convoy, now fully alerted, proceeded warily on its way. Late the same afternoon, when about 200 miles to the northwest of Cape Finisterre, Captain Croome received orders to take the Beignon to Newcastle to discharge her cargo of wheat. As a result of these orders, the convoy commodore directed the Beignon to change her position to the starboard wing of the convoy joining those ships already bound for the East Coast. This manoeuvre, which involved pulling out of the column and steaming around astern of the convoy to take up a position at the rear of the outer column of the starboard wing, was completed by 18.00. When the night began to close in, the commodore in the Avelona Star, ordered the Beignon to act as rescue ship in the event of a night attack by the U-boats. As a ‘tail-ender’ capable of a good turn of speed, the Beignon was eminently suited for this work. The Welsh ship was called upon to act out her new role far sooner than expected and, ironically, her first customer was the commodore’s own ship.
At 21.15, Croome saw the Avelona Star, which was about one mile ahead of the Beignon, erupt in a cloud of smoke and steam. Wilhelm Ambrosius in U-43 had fired the first shot of the night. When the smoke from the explosion cleared away, the 13,376-ton meat carrier could be seen listing to starboard and settling slowly in the water. While the rest of the convoy dispersed and the escorts went into their defensive routine, Croome brought the Beignon round and raced for the crippled ship. For the next two hours, although under constant threat of being torpedoed, he kept his ship close in to the sinking Avelona Star, picking up 83 of her 85-man crew. The remaining men were rescued by the Dunvegan Castle. As passengers in HMS Gladiolus, Captain john James Parry and his men were reluctant witnesses to the attack on Convoy SL36. They were to see three merchant ships sunk before Gladiolus left the convoy with the object of landing the Llanarth’s survivors at Plymouth. The corvette had not pulled ahead of the other ships more than two miles when U-26 put a torpedo into the United Africa Company’s 4,871-ton Zarian. The Gladiolus immediately reversed course and joined in the search for the U-boat. the Zarian remained afloat and the full fury of the escorts was let loose on U-26. She was eventually sunk by HMS Rochester, Scheringer and his crew being taken prisoner. After playing her part in the attack on U-26, Gladiolus was detailed to stand by the damaged Zarian for the night and the next morning was given the task of escorting Clan Ogilvy which, with her bow blown off, was attempting to make port stern first. Parry and his men were to spend another forty-eight hours on the crowded corvette before being landed at Plymouth on the morning of 3 July. There Parry received the good news that the rest of his men, in the Llanarth's second lifeboat, had been rescued. The Beignon had been left far behind the convoy as she worked assiduously to rescue the crew of the Avelona Star. As soon as this was complete, at 22.15 on the 30th Croome, acutely conscious of the vunerability of his ship, made all speed in an effort to catch up with SL36. As a precaution against surprise attack, he used an unorthodox zig-zag pattern and kept his guns continuously manned with the help of spare gunners from the Avelona Star’s crew. Thus prepared, he pushed on through the night, hopeful of rejoining the convoy soon after daylight on the 1st. He was unaware that U-30 was shadowing the convoy.
Dawn came early on the lst day of July, the sky to the eastwards beginning to lighten shortly after 03.30. The promise of a warm sun rising on a fine day breathed new life into the 4-inch gun’s crew standing-to on the Beignon’s poop. The unspoken fears of the night slipped quickly away and the men looked forward with confidence to reaching the safety of the convoy's escort screen within a few hours. Daylight brought no such comfort to Kapitan-Leutnant Lemp who, in U-30, had spent the night on the suface shadowing SL36. Mindful of the threat posed by patrolling aircraft, Lemp was forced to take his boat below the waves as soon as the sky began to pale. With her speed reduced to a crawl and her battery power draining away with every hour that passed, U-30 was unlikely to increase her score that day. Lemp could scarcely believe his good fortune when he saw the merchant ship coming up astern with a bone in her teeth. At 03.45, a torpedo tracked across the Beignon’s stem from port to starboard, rudely jerking the 4-inch gun’s crew out of their early morning reverie. The gunlayer dived for the bridge telephone. Twenty minutes later, Croome, who had reached the bridge shortly after the telephoned warning from the poop, saw a second torpedo narrowly miss his ship. The short hairs on the back of his neck began to rise, for he knew it was only a matter of time before his unseen attacker found the correct deflection.
The third torpedo followed close on the heels of the second and was not seen from the bridge. There was a violent explosion that seemed to Croome to lift the Beignon bodily into the air and stop her dead in her tracks. She appeared to have been hit on the starboard side about 150 feet from the bow. The ship began to settle quickly by the head and it was at once obvious to Croome that she had little time left. It was unnecessary for him to give the order to abandon ship, for his crew and the survivors of the Avelona Star, alerted following the opening of the attack thirty minutes earlier, were already lowering the boats and launching the liferafts. With a total of 116 men to evacuate, time was of the essence. Croome stayed on the bridge until all the boats and rafts were clear, then went below to search the accommodation. Having satisfied himself that no one else remained on board, he slipped on his life jacket and returned to the bridge, determined not to leave his ship until all hope of saving her was gone. Croome did not have long to wait. At 04.23, eight minutes after U-30’s torpedo had struck, the Beignon sank. Croome, still on the bridge, was taken down with her. After what seemed an eternity, Croome was able to break free of the suction created by his dying ship and kicked his way to the surface. Fortunately the sea was calm and, within minutes, he found himself clinging to a floating spar, in company with one of his young apprentices. With his head only a few inches above the water, he was unable to sight any of the Beignon’s lifeboats or rafts and he realized at once that the hopes of rescue for himself and his young companion were very slim. The Beignon had been some thirteen miles astern of the convoy and out of sight when she was hit and unlikely the explosion would have been heard by the ships. Worse still, her wireless transmitter had been damaged and no SOS had been sent. The likelihood of a search being organized for survivors of a ship which was probably known to be sunk was very remote indeed. The two men were saved by the impetuousity of Korvetten-Kapitan Hans-Gerrit von Stockhausen who, in U-65 had made the mistake of torpedoing the Clan Ogilvy in daylight on the previous day. Almost two hours after the Beignon went down, the escorts HMS Vesper and HMS Gladiolus, who had been standing by the damaged Clan liner during the night, came up at full speed, anxious to rejoin the convoy. Keen-eyed lookouts spotted Croome and the apprentice in the water and they were soon safe on board HMS Vesper. Thirty-six hours later, they were landed at Plymouth to join company with the Llanarth’s survivors, brought in by the Gladiolus. Of the rest of the Beignon’s crew, two were lost and one died after rescue. Five men of the Avelona Star also lost their lives in the torpedoing of the Welsh ship. To U-30, the reckoning for the sinking of the Llanarth and the Beignon came later that year, when she was damaged and abandoned by her crew. Swift action by a Royal Naval boarding party secured the U-boat before she could sink. Fritz-Julius Lemp was not in command at the time. he was to die in U-110, while attacking Convoy OB 318 in the North Atlantic on 9 May 1941. Forced to the surface by depth charges dropped by the corvette HMS Aubrietia, U-110 was then fired on by destroyers HMS Broadway and HMS Bulldog and eventually boarded and captured, only to sink eleven hours later. Aubretia picked up survivors from U-110. Fritz-Julius Lemp was not among them.
The above extracted from "They sank the Red Dragon" by Ben Edwards.
If you have not already guessed, Captain William John Croome was the late father of one of our club members, Peter Croome. Peter provided the following postscript to this story. Peter's sister still has a letter from the father of the apprentice that Captain Croome saved. The letter thanks him for saving the life of his son. Captain Croome became master of another ship although he was still suffering from internal injuries sustained during the sinking of the Beignon. He was taken ashore in Fiji for medical treatment, and then returned to the UK. Sadly, he died during an operation back at his home town of Newport. Peter emigrated to Canada aboard the "Empress of Australia". On that crossing he met, and later married, a young lady by the name of Edna Britnor. She was the younger sister of Acting Petty Officer Frederick Britnor who was serving aboard HMS Gladiolus when she rescued the crew of the MV Beignon. Sadly, HMS Gladiolus was lost with all hands in October 1941.
No pictures of the Beignon have been located but the Catrine, shown here, is believed to be an almost-identical sister ship. Both were built at the same shipyard and launched within months of each other.
The loss of the Beignon - and its Canadian connection.