THE SHORT HEROIC CRUISE THAT SAVED HALIFAX
A Maclean's flashback
When fire broke out in the munitions carrier Volunteer on November 3, 1943, it threatened to blow up the ship and everybody aboard — and half of Halifax as well. This is the record of the hair-raising nine hours during which Commander Owen Robertson and his fire fighters battled flames, poisonous fumes, ricocheting ammunition, and the reluctant tugboat crew they needed to tow Volunteer to a sandbar where they could beach her before she killed them
THE COMMANDER OF THE DOCKYARD turned lazily in his bunk, groped for the receiver of the telephone ringing so insistently and muttered sleepily, “Yes, what is it?”
A clipped report from the duty Port Defense Officer snapped him awake: “The Volunteer's on fire in Bedford Basin, sir. She's carrying enough ammunition to sink the city.”
Commander Owen Connor Struan Robertson, RCNR, six-feet-seven and known throughout the service as “Long Robbie,” scrambled hurriedly into his uniform and raced out to the Halifax docks. A six-man naval fire party under Lieutenant Charles Spinney, RCNVR, and Stoker Petty Officer Bill Carson stood by in a waiting launch. The naval fire marshal had sent fire-fighting tugs into the basin and the
city fire chief had been warned. It was 7.20 a.m., November 3, 1943.
Twenty-six years earlier — in 1917 — an ammunition ship carrying about the same tonnage as the Volunteer had blown up, killing more than 1,600 Haligonians and causing one of the worst disasters that had ever struck a city in a single blow.
As the launch sped toward the elderly U. S. freighter, riding at anchor under a pall of smoke, Robertson realized with stomach-sickening suddenness that the first Halifax tragedy might be repeated at any second, that he and the handful of men converging on the burning ship would have to prevent an explosion which might blow most of Halifax off the face of Nova Scotia. The thirty-six-year-old Robertson was as scared as he had ever been and it was probably just as well that he had no inkling that
ahead lay the most bizarre and dangerous nine hours of his life.
The 12,000-ton Volunteer had arrived the night before, anchoring in the basin to await orders to join a convoy bound for the Middle East. No accurate account of her cargo has survived, but it is estimated that she carried more than 500 tons of light ammunition, some 2,000 drums of highly combustible magnesium, about 1,800 tons of heavy howitzer ammunition, an unknown number of depth charges and several cases of dynamite.
At 5.15 a.m. a stoker in the engine room attempted to raise steam in her two boilers. Working carelessly, he switched on the oil burners, let the temperature in the firebox go up to flash point, and then applied the lighting torch. The burners detonated, causing a flashback of such power
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Bottles were everywhere. The ship was burning but her captain was too drunk to know it
that the fuel pipes ruptured. Flaming oil spewed out into the stokehold, burning rapidly while the stoker ran screaming from the engine room.
Other members of the crew rushed to his assistance and the Second Officer climbed to the Master’s quarters to report
the fire. An all-night poker session was entering the stage of early morning tension and, getting no help there, the Second Officer ordered the radio operator to contact the naval signal station at Turple Head while he tried to attract attention ashore with a signal lamp.
It was 5.45 a.m. The Master, the Chief Officer, Chief Engineer and Second Engineer were playing poker in the captain’s cabin — and the fire in the stokehold was spreading forward to Number Three hold.
Because they were in a strange port, the radio officer sent out signals on a
wrong wave length and the Second Officer aimed his lamp in the wrong direction, blinking it vainly through the darkness at some deserted warehouses.
Another thirty minutes passed before the radio officer began switching wave lengths and made contact with Turple Head. But his messages were so garbled that the RCN signalman on duty couldn't decipher them. Twenty more valuable minutes were lost in a futile exchange of signals.
At 6.50 a.m. the American crew, by now aware that their senior officers were incapable of any effective action, took to the lifeboats and abandoned ship. To the puzzled watchers ashore it seemed that they might be holding a lifeboat drill — except that dawn was a strange time of
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day for any ship in harbor to begin exercises.
Then Turple Head reported that Volunteer was sending out a series of SOS signals and Naval Control immediately dispatched an armed launch to find out what was wrong. Fifteen minutes later — two hours after the fire had started — a radio-telephone message from the launch informed Naval Control and the Port Defense Office that the ammunition ship was ablaze.
The fireboat Rouille was the first to arrive and began pumping Foamite into the stokehold. Robertson’s naval launch and the tug, James Battle, with William Cody of the National Harbor Board’s fire department aboard, drew alongside simultaneously and the two parties met on deck. They made their way to the Master’s cabin and found an unexpected scene.
"Bottles, some empty, some half-filled were everywhere,” Robertson told me when we discussed the incident recently at his Montreal home. "Poker chips were scattered about the deck and the Master, Chief Officer and Chief Engineer were pretty drunk. I’d say they’d had a good party.
“When we went back to the upper deck I noticed all the lifeboats had gone and there were only two or three of the crew in sight. The rest had obviously played it safe and left the ship.
“Smoke was pouring out of the engine room and while the Rouille’s crew had connected up the Foamite system they re-
fused to go below to see what effect it was having or to what extent the fire had spread.”
Robertson pulled on an oxygen mask and asbestos hood and climbed down the engine-room ladder through hot steam and blinding smoke into the stokehold where Foamite, oil and scalding water covered the deck.
There, at least, the fire was out, but the extreme heat of the after bulkheads indicated it might have broken out in Number Three Hold. There was also the danger that with so much heat and fumes in the stokehold another fire would start at any moment.
He returned to the upper deck and gave orders for the Rouille to continue pumping in Foamite while he checked the cargo distribution to find some way of sealing off the ammunition from the rest of the ship.
He went to the Master’s cabin and demanded a copy of the cargo plan. The Master denied such a plan existed. Robertson then insisted that the officers who had supervised the loading be summoned. The Master replied that none of his officers had been present during the loading.
Robertson knew that freighters never sailed without a stowage plan. He glared at the drunken officers and said:
“I’m going to search your cabins until I find it. My men are armed and if any of you try to interfere they’ll shoot.”
At that moment a series of sharp explosions broke out below decks. The five had not only reached Number Three Hold, it had set off the first few cases of light ammunition. Robertson looked at the Master contemptuously. “It's about time you pulled yourself together." he said. “This is your ship and there's a good chance that at any minute we'll all be blown to kingdom come.”
He stalked away to the officers’ quarters and found what he was looking for in the Chief Officer’s desk. It was a cargo sheet showing the contents of each hold and, as he read, the real extent of the danger became shockingly apparent.
In the ’tween decks of Number Three, forward of the engine room, were drums of magnesium, crates of light ammunition, some explosives and bales of tobacco. This deck led forward on either side of the engine-room well to Number Two Hold where the bulk of the magnesium and light ammunition was stowed. Below it, in the lower hold, was the heavy ammunition.
If the .303 ammunition, already ricocheting around Number Three, exploded the magnesium, nothing could prevent the fire from spreading through the ’tween decks to Number Two and blowing up the ship, the docks and at least the north end of Halifax.
By the time Robertson returned to the bridge. Cody, Spinney, and Carson had persuaded the Master and his fellow poker players to leave the cabin in the hope that fresh air might help sober them.
“We have to Hood Number Three," Robertson announced. "The fire's already got at the ammunition there and if we douse that there’s a good chance we can prevent further outbreaks.”
The Master lurched forward, retorting angrily: “No you don't. This is my ship and what 1 say goes. I say there'll be no flooding anywhere.”
Robertson tried to reason with the bleary-eyed group, keeping his temper under strict control. His position was delicate because he had no authority to take action aboard a foreign ship without the consent of her Master. This almost-stupefied individual was still the supreme authority.
Robertson gave up the futile argument and turned to Carson.
“Get on the R/T and ask Naval Control
to send out the U. S. Naval Liaison Officer in a hurry. Then send the launch ashore to pick up some oxyacetylene cutting gear. We may need to blow a vent in these decks.”
While Robertson and his men began rigging hoses to begin the flooding of Number Three, Cody directed the Rouille’s men in connecting more hoses and the Volunteer’s officers followed the Master down to the saloon for a conference — with bottles of Scotch to help along the discussion. It was 9 a.m. The explosions in Number Three had become a steady, crackling roar.
Robertson was becoming increasingly worried at the slow rate of flooding. Fumes and heat were building to a critical explosive level but to open up the hold to release the pressure would also give the fire oxygen with which to burn even more furiously.
His concern was abruptly interrupted by the appearance of the Master and Chief Engineer on deck, both wearing gas masks. They announced their intention of going below to inspect the engine room and stokehold. Robertson, even though he had been wearing waders, oxygen mask and asbestos hood, had been burned, nearly overcome by steam and fumes and half-blinded during his brief visit below. He knew that if these two were allowed to go down wearing only gas masks, the handful of urgently needed fire fighters would only have to leave the fire to rescue them.
He ordered two ratings to guard the engine-room hatch and to use force if necessary to prevent any of the ship's officers using it.
It was a brittle moment. The men were sweating and dirt-covered and could barely see one another through the smoke and cordite fumes; the oil-soaked decks were becoming red hot and a sense of mounting danger gripped everyone—with the seeming exception of the drunken officers.
The Master glared balefully at Robertson as if trying to decide whether to spring at the Canadian's throat. But the return of the launch, followed by a Naval Boarding Service cutter with Lieutenant-Commander Stanley, USN, aboard, eased the
tension. He was accompanied by Lieutenant-Commander E. F. B. Watts, senior boarding officer in Halifax, who was responsible for discipline among the merchant ships using the port.
After a brief exchange with the Master, Stanley beckoned to Robertson and the group followed him into the saloon, where a curiously unhurried and formal ceremony was enacted.
Robertson explained quickly what had happened. The Master protested, his words so slurred they could hardly be understood, and then Stanley recited the U. S. Navy regulations that stripped an incapable captain of his authority. He ended with an announcement that he was taking formal command himself and would delegate full control of all fire-fighting operations to Robertson.
“The delicacy of the situation was made even more apparent by this scene of high drama,” said Ted Watts, now living in Ottawa. “There were the grim-faced opponents in the saloon and in the background the music of exploding ammunition. The hold was burning merrily and a heavy cloud of cordite fumes wreathed the ship.” Nobody knew for sure just how close they were to being disintegrated.
Stanley had just closed the proceedings in the saloon when a dull boom sounded forward of the bridge. The fire had licked along the 'tween decks from Number Three Hold, ignited a pocket of trapped fumes in Number Two and was now burning along the entire length of the midships superstructure below the main deck.
Robertson, Spinney, Cody, Carson and four naval fire fighters plunged out on deck, rushed to the side hatches of Number Three, ripped off their covers and all but fell into the blazing hold as they ducked to keep under the ricocheting ammunition.
While the others crawled to shelter behind bales of tobacco, Robertson prowled about the hold using his flashlight to see how the cargo had been stowed. He decided that the bulk of the magnesium drums could be protected from the flying bullets by a barricade of tobacco bales. It took the seven men more than an hour to build
a wall of bales and Robertson climbed back to the upper deck to instruct Watts to signal for tugs and a harbor pilot.
“I had seen enough,” he says, “to convince me the only solution was to move the ship out of the basin to McNab Island where I knew that the sea bed off Manger’s Beach dipped into a trough. We could scuttle the ship there and let her rest in the trough with her decks awash as though in a cradle.
“The flooding would eventually extinguish the fire — providing the ship didn't blow up before we got there. But I figured we had a fifty-fifty chance. Had the odds been any heavier I’d have sunk her where she was.
"My main worry was the spreading of the fire to Number Two Hold and what might happen if it got down into the lower hold where the heavy howitzer ammunition was stowed.”
When he returned to Number Three he was met by the smoke-blackened Carson. "You'd better come down quick, sir,” said the petty officer. "There’s a whole pile of magnesium you didn’t see.”
They tumbled down to the 'tween decks again and Carson led the way to where Spinney and the rest of the team were trying to drag tobacco bales around drums of magnesium stacked to the deckhead. It was an impossible task for so few men working in darkness, blinded by smoke, choked by fumes and having to keep below the level of the whizzing .303 ammunition.
If the bullets penetrated the drums, the magnesium would explode, ignite the building pressure of cordite fumes and set off a reaction that would blow up the ship. By then, the immense pockets of heat and fumes were as dangerously explosive as the ammunition.
There was only one thing to do—cut holes in the deck and cause a deliberate explosion which would disperse the pockets of fumes.
Robertson returned to the upper deck, gave instructions for the oxyacetylene crew to cut holes in the main deck above the magnesium and then consulted Watts and Stanley on the bridge. While they were talking, two tugs arrived with the harbor pilot. Captain John Brackett. He came aboard, listened to Robertson’s plan and briefed his tug skippers. As there was no steam to drive the windlass, a naval party went forward with another cutting torch and began severing the anchor cable.
Shortly after noon, the holes in the deck above Number Three Hold had been cut and, armed with a borrowed rifle. Robertson went below to join the waiting fire fighters. T hey had formed ft screen of bales facing the eight magnesium drums and, using this as cover, Robertson took aim at the drums and began firing.
An ear-splitting explosion reverberated through the ship, lifting the nearly insensible men off their feet and sending them sprawling on the deck. Flames spurted through the vent holes and shot forty feet in the air, while one stream of gases caught Carson’s limp body and blew him through the open sitie hatch to the upper deck where he collapsed unconscious.
"It must have been a good ten minutes before the rest of us could pull ourselves together sufficiently to stumble up out of there,” said Robertson. “We were just about knocked out and when we did manage to reach the upper deck we looked as if we'd just been through a rough-andtumble brawl—black, blue and bruised all over.
“Carson was just coming round. He didn't remember a thing. We all suffered some internal injuries after that blast; and one of us. Stoker George Shatford of Lunenburg. N.S., subsequently died of them.”
The explosion had lessened the immedi-
ate danger in Number Three Hold. The major threat now was from a build-up of heat in Number Two.
Robertson went up to the bridge to see how the towing was proceeding. The ship was moving slowly toward the harbor entrance with a tug on either bow and the Rouille still made fast to the Volunteer’s starboard side. But the Rouille’s men. ignorant of the reason for the explosion and frightened by it, had decided to cast off and head for shore. Robertson ran to one side of the bridge and yelled: “Leave those ropes alone. We need you to keep the tem-
perature in the stokehold under control. Keep pumping.”
The fireboat’s crew pretended they had not heard. Robertson beckoned to one of Watts’s boarding guards, grabbed his rifle and aimed it down at Rouille’s deck. “The first man to touch one of those ropes gets shot,” he said. “And 1 bloody well mean it.”
Robertson’s blackened, sweat - streaked appearance was enough to scare anyone. The crew backed up, gazing at him sullenly. He handed the rifle to the guard with orders to watch the fireboat and shoot to
kill if any of the crew touched a rope.
Then he clambered down to the upper deck, summoned his team and said: “We’ll have to go down into Number Two to see what’s happening there. If there’s no danger to the heavy ammunition we can pull more bales of tobacco round the light stuff in the ’tween decks and that should keep things under control until we reach McNab.”
Using side hatches as they had done in Number Three, they vanished below again and found small fires had already taken a firm hold on cases of light ammunition.
Again they experienced the roar of exploding ammunition, the racket of bullets clanging off the deckhead and thumping into other cases or tobacco bales. There was the added danger, however, of the heat once again building up to flash point in the lower hold. This could prove fatal and Robertson decided to go down into the lower hold to test the pressure. Carson went back on deck and returned with a length of rope and a piece of rubber air hose. Robertson tied the rope around his waist, wrapped rags around the end of the hose and stuffed the end in his mouth. The other end led out of the hold and dangled over the ship’s side away from the smoke.
While Carson held an end of the rope, Robertson lifted clear a hatch cover and dropped nine feet into the blackness of the lower hold. He crawled across the tops of the ammunition crates, feeling his way and remembering the stowage plan. To his surprise and relief there was plenty of smoke but little evidence of overheating or of cordite fumes. He was satisfied that all that could be done now was pray that the ship could be beached and flooded before pockets of overheated fumes could accumulate.
“I reckoned we had a margin of about
two hours before there was any real danger of the heavy stuff going up,” he told me. “And even at our slow rate of towing we would reach McNab within half an hour. So the odds were all in our favor.”
He made his way to the bridge to check their progress with the pilot, just in time to see the Master lurch from his cabin, climb up the bridge ladder on the far side and shout to the Second Officer to hand him a megaphone.
Robertson’s official report of the incident said: "This officer was one of the few in the ship who were sober and in full possession of their faculties ... In order to humor the Master he did as he was told. The Master then placed himself on the forward end of the flying bridge and ordered a nonexistent crew on the fo’c’stle to ‘heave away when ready.’ He stayed on the bridge for some ten more minutes without taking further action and then returned to his cabin.”
At 3.45 p.m. the Volunteer was nudged into position off Manger’s Beach on the south end of McNab Island. Robertson sent his men down to the engine room to open the sea cocks and the freighter began to subside.
Shortly after 4 p.m. she was beached. Robertson and his men had done their job and they were taken off in a launch which brought Harbor Department fire fighters to look after the flooding and to deal with any unexpected emergency.
Watts remained aboard to help Stanley maintain discipline. It was just as well. The Master, who was still drinking, suddenly burst out on deck and screamed to all in sight that if their lives, the ship and the city were to be saved, the Volunteer must be beached. She had been aground an hour, -fa