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CONVOY ONS 18 / ON 202
Page 4

Identifying the vessel that rescued 3 survivors from HMS ITCHEN
Doug McLean's Analysis
See also Peter Coy's and Douch McLean's notes on Page 1

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Three vessels have been identified as rescuing the three sailors that survived the sinking of HMS ITCHEN on the night of 22/23 September 1943 in various historical accounts. The three possible ships are the SS JAMES SMITH, pennant 31 in ON 202; SS WISLA, pennant 54 in ONS 18, and the WAHELA, unknown as to whether it was in either ON 202 and/or ONS 18, or, indeed, was actually present at all.

The case for SS JAMES SMITH appears to trace back to the account prepared by the ASW Section of the Admiralty for the RN’s Monthly Antisubmarine Review for October 1943, published on 15 November 1943. This detailed summary of the Allied account of the battle quite specifically identifies SS JAMES SMITH as the vessel that stops and plucks three sailors – Petty Officer Clark and Able Seaman Flood from HMS ITCHEN, and Able Seaman W.A. Fisher, a survivor of ST CROIX that was now twice lucky.

The case for SS WISLA is based on messages and documents sent or prepared by Cdr M.J. Evans, RN, the Senior Officer of Escort Group B3 and the overall Senior Officer for all escorts once ON 202 and ONS 18 were ordered to merge on 20 September 1943. The first reference to SS WISLA is in a message late on 23 September 1943.[1] The relevant section of this message reads: “…two ratings ex-HMS ITCHEN and one EX HMCS ST CROIX in WIHLA (sic)”. The spelling of WISLA in this message suggests that there was some confusion as to the correct rendering of the name, an issue which gains importance when the next document referring to the survivors is considered. This is the Record of the Escort Commanders Conference held in St John’s Newfoundland, 28 September 1943.[2] During the conference Commander Evans discussed the incident in the following paragraph:

It was very confusing from my position in the rear and from all the fireworks going on in front I thought it was highly probable that a ship had been torpedoed. An hour later [FFS – corvette] RENONCULE was in touch with a stopped ship about four miles off. [RENONCULE was stationed astern of the convoys on the port side that night – position STLR – while KEPPEL, in which Cdr Evans was embarked, was on the starboard quarter of the convoys in position G] Then she reported that the ship had rejoined the convoy slightly damaged. That was quite untrue, what it was, was the WAHELA (sic) who stopped and picked up three survivors, probably the three men who were reported from 31. [SS JAMES SMITH was pennant 31]  It was all very confusing at the time, it was reported as 24 and it was actually 54.

This document, which appears to have been a transcription of the discussion during the conference, makes it clear that Cdr Evans believed that SS JAMES SMITH only reported that survivors were in the water, but did not actually pick up any survivors. His identification of the vessel that rescued the three survivors is given as WAHELA in the document, but this is an easy transcription error if Cdr Evans did not pronounce the word very carefully.

Cdr Evans referred to the ship responsible for the rescue of the three survivors in the next document, his Report of Proceedings on Convoy ONS 18 and ON 202 dated 29 September 1943[3], the day after the St John’s conference. A ship is referred to twice, the first time in para 37 of the main body of the report – the name unfortunately cannot be made out in the document I reviewed – and then again in para 3 of section 4 of his report “Remarks on Combined Convoys ONS 18 and ON 202”. This para, one sentence in length, reads: “3 -. I consider that SS WILHA (sic) showed a fine spirit in stopping to pick up 3 survivors from HMS ITCHEN during the night of the heaviest attacks.”

The name WAHELA only appears once in all the documents I have reviewed, and that is the Record of the Convoy Escort Commanders conference in St John’s. Nonetheless, this ship is named by Marc Milner in his book The U-boat Hunters (p 70), and will be found in the forthcoming official history of the RCN, to be published in the near future. It is my assessment that the most likely explanation for WAHELA is a mistaken transcription of Cdr Evans discussion of the incident, where he meant WISLA but probably said WILHA and was heard as WAHELA.

The identification of  SS JAMES SMITH probably arises from the fact that apparently this ship reported survivors in the water, as noted by Cdr Evans in his St John’s discussion.

Reality check.

On the night of 23 September, SS JAMES SMITH would have been directly behind the location of where HMS ITCHEN was sunk, as its position at the head of the third column in ON 202 was very close to the engagement. For her to have stopped and rescued the survivors and then be seen by HMS KEPPEL over an hour later would have meant that she would have been stopped in the water for about an hour, and would have meant that she risked collision with all the merchants coming up astern. This would have been a very long time in those circumstances. SS WISLA was in convoy ONS 18, astern of ON 202 that night, and probably in position 54, which would have placed her at the end of the convoys and near the middle.  Stopping when in an end position would have been easier to accomplish – less likely to be run into – and a brief stop to rescue the three men would not have placed her far astern of her station, and would be consistent with SS WISLA being sighted by KEPPEL, with RENONCULE standing by.  

Based on the documents, it seems that the most likely scenario is as follows. SS JAMES SMITH, close astern of the sinking of HMS ITCHEN, sighted survivors as she passed through the wreckage. Her report, only referenced in the Escort Commanders Conference in St John’s, Nfld, must have been heard by other ships in the convoys. However, the ship that actually stopped, about an hour later, was the SS WISLA, repeatedly referred to as the SS WILHA by Cdr Evans. This ship was at the back of the convoy, and did not risk collision if she stopped. FFS RENONCULE would have been very surprised to sight a lead ship from ON 202, but was probably not too surprised to encounter an end ship from ONS 18. So the rescuing ship most likely was SS WISLA.

However, see this Guestbook message.


[1] SO B3 231800Z September 1943, taken from p525 of ADM 199/353, a copy of which is held at the Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence, Ottawa, Canada.

[2] DHH 81/520/8280

[3] ADM 199/353 pages

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To the next ON convoy in my list ON 203
will be added, as will ON 204 through ON 211
In the meantime, see Ships sailing in all ON convoys
The next available ON convoy is ON 212


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