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My uncle Frank

Frank Gibson was my mother’s elder brother, and this photo was one that I discovered amongst the many albums and photos that my Mom had with her at the assisted living facility where she spent the last few years of her life. I scanned the small snapshott, enlarged it, and put it in a frame on her dresser, on the belief that it might prompt some good memories of her youth. I never knew Frank, as he had died in WWII seven years before I was born.  I’m not sure his name came up a lot when I was a child (and it certainly did not later, as the years passed) but I do recall several times my Mom mentioning him with the phrase “you would have liked Frank”.  In any event, I was certainly aware that Frank was a big part of my mother’s early life, and I believe he became pretty close to my father as well.

Frank had graduated from a RCAF Air Observers school (No. 7, Portage La Prairie) on March 20, 1943, and was on his way to England when the ship he was on was torpedoed. I seem to remember my Dad (I think) offering up a disparaging comment to the effect that the ship that he was on was a “banana boat”.

That was about the extent of my knowledge of Frank, other than the fact my older brother (born in 1944) was given Frank as a middle name, until I went through my mother’s personal items and photos (from which I had taken the photo above).  In that material there was a letter that Frank had written to his parents just prior to his embarkation from Halifax, dated April 11.

In his letter he tried to downplay the danger he was going into, remarking that his tour of duty would be over swiftly, in a year or so, and he would be back home. He alluded to sitting for a portrait, but that the proofs were not yet ready. I’m pretty sure that picture was this one, as I remember it being displayed prominently by my grandparents.

I recalled that one of the old photos I had looked at was an obvious blow-up

from another….

which suggested to me that this photo may have been the last time that my grandparents had seen Frank, on a train taking him back to his RCAF unit prior to his deployment.

Looking at the other photos of Frank and his family as he grew up, and of a wife that became a widow in 1943, together with his letters, made Frank’s death less academic and much more personal.

At the very least, I wanted to get some better understanding of the details of what had happened to him, and of course the first resource was simply to search on Google.

After trying a number of searches ( Atlantic / WWII / troopships / convoys, etc)  I discovered this site. Listed by date of departure, the site’s intent is to identify all allied ships that carried troops (anywhere in the world) during 1943, and reading down the page it lists a ship named the Amerika that left Halifax on April 13, carrying 52 RCAF aircrew officers, and that it was  “torpedoed and sunk 120 miles SSE of Cape Farewell, Greenland”.  The entry also has an ‘arrival date” of April 21, which I took as the date it was lost. With the name of the ship in hand, further searching gave me this page, giving details of the ship, and identifying the U-Boat (U-306) that sank the Amerika, including mapping the location of the sinking and that the corvette HMS Asphodel picked up survivors. This corvette has a website devoted to it, and within those pages there is a newspaper clipping describing the sinking of the Amerika, which figured prominently in the ship’s history.  (See also a similar clipping from the May 3, 1943 edition of the the Winnipeg Evening Tribune here).

On that site there is also a letter from a survivor transcribed here, and tells of how he was on the last lifeboat to be leave the ship (the ship sank out from under the boat), and how a number of those in boat were lost to the high seas.  I also found one other survivor’s story (part of a book Fragments of war: stories from survivors of World War II), an RCAF pilot who recalls being in a poker game with other RCAF flight officers when the ship was struck. He managed to get to a lifeboat, but of the six in the poker game, he was the only survivor. Only 16 of the 52 officers were picked up by the Asphodel.

Investigating this tragic episode is like peeling layers from an onion, as one piece of information leads to another, and would require much more than a single post. For now, however, I want to mention a few things.

My Dad’s assertion that the ship Frank was on was a ‘banana boat’….

The Amerika was capable of 14.5 knots, and was built to carry passengers (as well as freight). During the war it had one prior crossing of the Atlantic with RCAF aircrew. There were several other similar ships that were used by the RCAF throughout the war, crossing as part of a convoy (speeds of 9+ knots). Many, if not the majority of aircrew, however, crossed on single ships, with speeds in excess of 20 knots. Fate plays a hand, as such a ship left the same dock a couple of days prior to the Amerika.

Was Frank at more risk on the Amerika?  Yes.

Was the risk excessive?  On that I am less sure. Losses to U-Boats in the preceding month (March 1943) were one of the largest in the war, so I would think decisions made to transport troops/aircrew in April had to be taken with this in mind. The March losses stemmed partly from a week long breakdown in the British decodes of the U-Boat radio traffic (‘Enigma’), so the convoys could not be diverted from known U-Boat patrol lines. There was no similar problem in April, and efforts were made to run the convoy (HX-234) north of the patrol lines in place. (One report mentions that pack ice was visible on the horizon).

Allied defensive capability had recently improved, with land based air cover (American PBY Catalinas) finally becoming operational south of Greenland (referred to as ‘the Gap’). For convoy HX-234, however, this cover did not become continual until two days after the Amerika was hit, but was credited with driving off the following U-boats.

The chances of an individual ship in a convoy being sunk was fairly low, but the fact that the Amerika was the last ship in one of the convoy’s columns surely did not help, and I wonder at the decision to place her there, given her human cargo.

Reports of the sinking note that the Amerika was a couple of miles behind her station (i.e.was a ‘straggler’). The convoy had altered course that evening in an attempt to shake the U-boats that had been detected earlier in the day by the escorts.  That change, taking place in the very heavy weather, probably contributed to the Amerika becoming separated.

A few final notes.

By the end of May (little more than a month after the Amerika was lost), the U-Boat war (Battle of the Atlantic) appears to be regarded as having been been ‘won’. The Germans suffered such high losses that they withdrew most of their boats from active patrols for six months.

The HMS Asphodel, which rescued the survivors, was torpedoed on March 16, 1944, with the loss of 92 of the its 97 crew.

The U-boat that sunk the ship (U-306) was depth charged and sunk on October 31, 1943. The Amerika was the only ship she had sunk. All 51 crew were lost.

So all three ships involved that April night were sunk within a single year, with most on board lost.  What a waste, all around…

On a side note, it is fascinating that individuals become passionately immersed in the minutia of battles and campaigns (aka Civil War fanatics). The websites I visited in researching this point to many more, and the amount of information on some of these sites and the work implied to support them is huge. Where this passion meets German attention to record keeping, the result is the amazing breadth of the information on the uboat.net site.  For instance, this page gives daily tracking information for every U-Boat patrol .  (There is probably some evolutionary biological foundation for this obsession/interest, but that is for another time, I digress.)

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