The wartime role of rivers and castles

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MORPETH and the U-Boats was the thought-provoking title of a talk given by Chris Hudson after Morpeth Antiquarian Society’s AGM in April.

Inspired by 1950s novels and films, Chris had researched the small uncomfortable vessels that protected supply convoys in the Second World War from German submarines (U-Boats).

Produced between 1939 and 1942, corvettes were cheap, small and quickly built as escort ships in the anti-submarine war. Similar to a whaling ship of the period, they were little more than a platform to drop depth charges. The first fleet were named poetically after flowers — Blyth Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. Ltd built HMS Anemone and HMS Arbutus.

The corvettes were manned by men from the Royal Naval Reserves or Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves. With a crew of 85 crammed in to a space designed for half that number, sleeping, when possible, was in any space that could be found and it would be wet with the waves breaking over the open hatches. The ships rolled, cooking was almost impossible and the crew were constantly seasick. Even the toilet drained out in a straight pipe where the icy Atlantic would rush in.

The war in the Atlantic was as ferocious as any on land. In March 1942, 94 ships were sunk by U-Boats; in May, 125, by June, 144. The success of the Flower Class ships can only be measured in the vessels that came through the blockade.

By 1943 River class frigates and improved Castle class corvettes were built. Blyth Shipbuilding and Drydock Co built five Rivers and seven Castles. They were fast and built to work in the Atlantic winter storms.

HMS Morpeth Castle, a corvette, pennant K 693, was built by William Pickersgill & Sons Ltd. of Sunderland. She was laid down on June 23, 1943, launched on November 26, and finally commissioned on July 13, 1944. She operated out of Liverpool as a convoy escort and must have scared off all the U-boats as she has no action reports.

She had only one wartime commander, Temporary Acting Lieutenant-Commander Eric Robert Pate, DSC, RNR. He was commanding officer from March 1944 to June 1945.

Other local ‘Castles’ were HMS Alnwick Castle, HMS Bamburgh Castle and HMS Norham Castle.

Morpeth Castle was scrapped at Llanelly on August 9, 1960.

Her bell was presented in 1965 by the Admiralty Board to what was then the Morpeth Rural District Council. It still stands, proudly polished, in the Mayor’s Parlour at the Town Hall and records the Battle Honour of HMS Morpeth Castle – Atlantic 1944-5. It was incorporated into the ceremony for the awarding of British Citizenship, a fitting reminder that our ship still escorts travellers safely into our nation.

Mr Hudson takes over as Chairman of the Society on September 28 at the start of our autumn programme when there will be a talk on The Anglo-Scottish Wars by Dr J Sadler.

There are places on the summer outings to Temple Newsam House, Leeds, on June 8, an evening in Leazes Park, Newcastle, on June 26, and a day trip starting at Chain Bridge Honey Farm with lunch in Bamburgh and a visit to St Aiden’s Church and Grace Darling Museum on July 26. Contact Miss C Houlton for details on 01670 513039.