During the Second World War designated convoy rescue ships accompanied some Atlantic convoys to rescue survivors from ships which had been attacked. Rescue ships were typically small freighters with passenger accommodations converted to rescue service. This involved enlarging galley and food storage areas and providing berthing and sanitary facilities for approximately 150 men. Scrambling nets were rigged along the sides, and boats suitable for open sea work were substituted for normal lifeboats. Rescue ships normally included a small operating room for an embarked naval doctor and sick bay staff.
Each merchant ship in convoy was typically assigned a station so the convoy formation consisted of several columns of three to five ships. The lead ships of the columns were spaced at intervals of 1,000 yards (910 m) along a line perpendicular to the convoy course. Each ship in the column followed the ship ahead at a distance of 800 yards (730 m). The typical convoy would be approximately 8 to 10 kilometers (5.0 to 6.2 mi) wide and 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) long. The rescue plan for early convoys was to have the last ship of each column rescue survivors of other ships in that column. If the last ship in column was hit, the rescue task fell to the escorting warships. In practice, the escorting warships performed rescue tasks more often than the 25% suggested by random hits on a four-ship column; because some merchant ships refused to leave the protection of the convoy formation to fall back and remain a stationary target while rescuing survivors. Merchant ships were not well suited to maneuver to pick up survivors, and those attempting rescue were hampered by lack of suitable rescue equipment.
Warships attempting rescue were diverted from the task of defending the rest of the convoy from the attacking U-boats or aircraft. The first specially equipped rescue vessel went into service in January 1941. When rescue ships were unavailable, large, ocean-going tugboats or converted trawlers were sometimes designated to perform rescue duty.
The rescue ship was normally assigned a convoy position at the rear of one of the central columns of ships. From this position it could observe damaged ships falling astern of the convoy and quickly rendezvous to transfer survivors.
In addition to equipment for rescuing and treating survivors, rescue ships carried High Frequency radio Direction Finding equipment (abbreviated to HF/DF and known as "Huff-Duff") to assist in the location of U-boats. The rescue ship position at the rear of the convoy provided good triangulation with the HF/DF installation on the escort leader typically patrolling in front of the convoy.
By the end of the war 30 rescue ships had been built or converted, taking part in 797 convoys and had rescued 4,194 survivors from 119 ships. Six rescue ships were sunk.
List of convoy rescue ships
The rescue ships were:
- Aboyne 1020 tons, built 1937, in rescue service from 11 June 1943, sailed with 26 convoys, rescued 20 survivors.
- Accrington 1678 tons, built 1910, in rescue service from 26 July 1942, sailed with 36 convoys, rescued 141 survivors.
- Beachy 1600 tons, built 1936, in rescue service from January 1941, sailed with 5 convoys, sunk by aircraft 11 January 1941 while assigned to convoy HG-49.
- Bury 1686 tons, built 1911, in rescue service from 27 December 1941, sailed with 48 convoys, rescued 237 survivors.
- Copeland 1526 tons, built 1923, in rescue service from 29 January 1941, sailed with 71 convoys, rescued 433 survivors.
- Dewsbury 1686 tons, built 1910, in rescue service from 29 September 1941, sailed with 43 convoys, rescued 5 survivors.
- Dundee 1541 tons, built 1934, in rescue service from 8 August 1943, sailed with 24 convoys, rescued 11 survivors.
- Eddystone 1500 tons, built 1927, in rescue service from 11 June 1943, sailed with 24 convoys, rescued 64 survivors.
- Empire Carpenter
- Empire Comfort 1333 tons, converted Castle class corvette built 1945, in rescue service from 25 February 1945, sailed with 8 convoys.
- Empire Lifeguard 1333 tons, converted Castle class corvette built 1944, in rescue service from 7 March 1945, sailed with 6 convoys.
- Empire Peacemaker 1333 tons, Castle class corvette built 1945, in rescue service from 10 February 1945, sailed with 8 convoys, rescued 3 survivors.
- Empire Rest 1327 tons, Castle class corvette built 1944, in rescue service from 12 November 1944, sailed with 11 convoys.
- Empire Shelter 1336 tons, Castle class corvette built 1945, in rescue service from 16 April 1945, sailed with 6 convoys.
- Fastnet 1415 tons, built 1928, in rescue service from 7 October 1943, sailed with 25 convoys, rescued 35 survivors.
- Goodwin 1569 tons, built 1917, in rescue service from 28 April 1943, sailed with 25 convoys, rescued 133 survivors.
- Gothland 1286 tons, built 1932, in rescue service from 5 February 1942, sailed with 41 convoys, rescued 149 survivors.
- Hontestroom 1875 tons, built 1921, in rescue service from 11 January 1941, sailed with 11 convoys, rescued 69 survivors, withdrawn from rescue service May 1941.
- Inanda,5985 tons, built 1925, one voyage as part of Convoy OB 119.
- Melrose Abbey 1908 tons, built 1929, in rescue service from 11 February 1942, sailed with 46 convoys (including Convoy SC-121), rescued 85 survivors.
- Perth 2258 tons, built 1915, in rescue service from 5 May 1941, sailed with 60 convoys, rescued 455 survivors.
- Pinto 1346 tons, built 1928, in rescue service from 12 May 1942, sailed with 10 convoys, rescued 2 survivors, sunk with loss of 16 crewmen by U-482 8 September 1944 while assigned to convoy HX-305.
- Rathlin 1599 tons, built 1936, in rescue service from 2 October 1941, sailed with 47 convoys, including Convoy PQ-17, rescued 634 survivors.
- St Clair 1636 tons, built 1937, in rescue service from 1 July 1944, sailed with 14 convoys.
- St Sunniva 1368 tons, built 1931, in rescue service from 7 December 1942, sailed with convoy ON-158 and probably capsized from topside ice 23 January 1943. There were no survivors from the crew of 64.
- Stockport 1683 tons, built 1911, in rescue service from 22 October 1941, sailed with 16 convoys (including Convoy SC-107), rescued 413 survivors, sunk by U-604 23 February 1943 while assigned to Convoy ON-166. There were no survivors from the crew of 63 and survivors previously rescued from other ships.
- Syrian Prince 1989 tons, built 1936, in rescue service from 18 November 1943, sailed with 19 convoys.
- Tjaldur 1130 tons, built 1916, in rescue service from 26 October 1941, sailed with 3 convoys, withdrawn from rescue service December 1941.
- Toward 1571 tons, built 1923, in rescue service from 24 October 1941, sailed with 45 convoys, rescued 337 survivors, sunk by U-402 7 February 1943 while assigned to Convoy SC-118. Two survivors and 54 crewmen were lost.
- Walmer Castle 906 tons, built 1936, in rescue service from 12 September 1941, sailed with convoy OG-74 and rescued 81 survivors before being sunk by Focke-Wulf Fw 200 aircraft of I/KG 40 on 21 September 1941. Eleven crewmen and 20 of the survivors were lost.
- Zaafaran 1567 tons, built 1921, in rescue service from 23 March 1941, sailed with 26 convoys, rescued 220 survivors, sunk by aircraft with loss of one crewman during the battle of Convoy PQ-17 on 5 July 1942.
- Zamalek 1565 tons, built 1921, in rescue service from 26 February 1941, sailed with 68 convoys, including Convoy PQ-17 and Convoy SC-130, rescued 665 survivors.
- Hague 2000 p.90
- Seth 1962 p.78
- Hague 2000 p.89
- Hague 2000 p.92
- Hague 2000 p.91
- "Convoy OB.119". Convoyweb. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
- Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.196
- Irving 1968 p.182
- Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.194
- Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.191
- Rohwer & Hummelchen 1992 p.86
- Hague, Arnold (1998). Convoy Rescue Ships 1940-45. World Ship Society. ISBN 0-905617-88-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Hague, Arnold (2000). The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-019-3 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Irving, David (1968). The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17. Simon and Schuster.
- Rohwer, J. and Hummelchen, G. (1992). Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-105-X [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Seth, Ronald (1962). The Fiercest Battle. W. W. Norton and Company.