The Saga Of American Freighter City of Flint

On September 1, 1939, the liner TSS Athenia having loaded her passengers and cargo, departed from Glasgow. She needed to sail both to Belfast and Liverpool to embark further passengers at both ports, plus pick up more cargo at Liverpool.

Her Captain James Cook had anchored in the Mersey River rather than going alongside in the port, he was anxious to clear the Mersey, and sail on out into the Atlantic and be on his way to Canada and the United States.

On Saturday September 2, he weighed anchor to proceed on his way, he already had made 15 round trips in his ship, each taking 24 days. The ship was ready to burst with passengers and crew totalling 1,418. By sunset on Sunday September 3,1939, Athenia was close to 250 miles west of Ireland.

Germany had invaded Poland on September 1, and both Britain and France had declared war on Germany, but little help could be offered to stricken Poland, who had fought with courage and tenacity but was completely overcome by her invader.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain earlier that day had warned Germany that if they Had not agreed to withdraw their troops from Poland by 11AM ( British time ) a state of war would be declared. With no response from Hitler, it was at 11.15 AM on Sunday, September 3, 1939 that the British Prime Minister that a state of war now existed between Britain and the German Reich.

In Australia, our Prime Minister Robert Menzies without even consulting the Australian Parliament, declared that Australia would stand by the Mother Country and Australia was also at war with Germany. Canada was somewhat more tardy, and it took until September 10 to cover the administrative niceities for that Dominion to declare war on  Germany.

This declaration of war by the Australian PM now dictated the next 6 years of my life, I was  a 17 year old Cadet Midshipman at the Royal Australian Naval College and was suddenly bundled off to sea in August 1939 as war was considered imminent. I joined the 8 inch gunned heavy cruiser HMAS Australia.( a heavy cruiser mounts 8 inch guns that throw a 256 pound shell, whilst a light cruiser has 6 inch guns using a 112 pound shell. )

But now back to Athenia, she had learned that war had been declared earlier that day via her radio. She now steamed without lights, and Zig Zagged to make it more difficult for any U-Boat Captain to get his boat into a position to fire Torpedoes.

Oberlutenant Fritz-Julius Lemp in command of U-30 was cruising in the vicinity of Athenia, he was aware that war had been declared between Germany and Britain.

Then just hours into WW2, and close to sunset he sighted a darkened ship which was Zig Zagging, and was he believed an Armed Merchant Cruiser.

He lined her up and squirted off two Torpedoes, one of which ran true and struck home on the portside of Athenia, she listed to port and was somewhat down by her stern.

The lifeboats were launched successfully and passengers and crew in an orderly way Abandoned ship. Some 93 passengers and 19 crew died from the blast of this Torpedo hit.

An SOS had been read by an empty Norwegian Tanker, Knute Nelson, a luxury steam yacht Southern Cross from Norway, three British Destroyers Escort, Electra, Fame, who were escorting HMS Renown, and finally a United States freighter SS City of Flint.

These ships arrived to pick up survivors in the order listed above. The rescue vessels picked up survivors in these numbers: Knute Nelson-430, Southern Cross-376, Escort-402, Electra-238, and City of Flint-236.

Southern Cross was in no position to cope with her load of 376 survivors and they were transferred by life boat, 236 to City of Flint, and 140 to the British Destroyers.

Knute Nelson sailed off to Galway in Ireland to unload her survivors there, the Captain of City of Flint decided that as his survivors had been on their way to Canada, he set course for his destination Halifax. Escort and Electra made for the Clyde.

As four ships all made for three destinations, Ireland, Scotland and Halifax it was a tough task for the authorities to finalise a consolidated list of survivors, and the 93 passengers and 19 crew who had died in this tragedy.

Families had been separated, and a number of children were bereft of their parents. Anxious relatives bombarded the authorities in Scotland, Ireland and Canada about who had died and who had survived.

A 10 year old girl, Margaret Hayworth died before City of Flint arrived at Halifax, the cause a head injury from the Torpedo hit on Athenia.

A huge funeral took place at Andrews Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ontario on September16, attended by family and a host of dignitaries.

Start of Battle of the Atlantic.
Athenia and her sinking by Lemp in U-30 set off the Battle of the Atlantic on September 3, 1939, it raged until Germany surrendered in May of 1945.

I served in HMAS Australia in the North Atlantic for over a year, the threat of U-Boats at sea, and when in Scotland or at Liverpool, the nightly threat of intense air raids.

I believe I preferred to be at sea rather than in port. I earned the Atlantic Star with 6 months service in the Atlantic, after first qualifying for the 1939-1945 Star also with 6 months Atlantic service, the Arctic Star Emblem, and just recently the Arctic Star Medal for my service in the Arctic circle in September of 1940, now all worn as appropriate with great pride.

The Bridge of Steel.
All the Liberty Ships formed the Bridge of Steel, scurrying back and forth across the North Atlantic ( the nastiest stretch of water world wide) ferrying the 70% of food stuffs, oil and petrol required to sustain the people of Great Britain over WW2.

Return to City of Flint.
Let us now return to the fortunes of the City of Flint, this United States freighter had played a major role in the Athenia affair.

Her Captain, Joseph A Gainard, after landing his passengers at Halifax and New York, proceeded to Baltimore to discharge cargo and sign on a new crew. Fresh cargo was loaded at Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York consisting of tractors, machinery, lumber, asphalt, grease, lubricating oil, wax, cereal, flour, apples, lard, canned goods and tobacco.

Come October 3, City of Flint was once again at sea, her destination Liverpool.

On October 9 the ship was unfortunate to run into the German pocket battleship Duetscheland south of Greenland. Leutnant Hans Pushback led the German Boarding Party to inspect both cargo and the Ship's Papers. The tractors, lubricating oil and flour were all declared to be contraband. In my view but a flimsy excuse for a German Prize Crew to take over City of Flint.

A northern course was set to traverse the Denmark Strait, around Iceland, to Norway. Whilst at sea the German crew changed the ship's markings renaming her Alf, and painting a Danish flag on her side, On the pretense of running out of water, Alf on October 21 put into Tromso.

The British prisoners were all put ashore, but the ship was not released back to her Captain. The Norwegian authorities ordered the ship's proper name and marking be restored and that the City of Flint sail from Tromso within 24 hours.

The German prize crew now sailed the ship to the Russian port of Murmansk to arrive on October 23.

The Russians removed the German prize crew and informed Captain Gainard he was free to sail just as soon as the ship's papers were processed, but at that stage his papers were not returned.

The German prize crew were now returned to the ship and ordered to depart from Murmansk on October 27. She departed and now sailed along the coast of Northern Norway, and destroyers from Norway's Navy escorted City of Flint into Tromso, more checking of cargo and papers.

The ship now sailed south to put into Haugesund and anchored on November 3. The following day Norwegian sailors took the German prize crew into custody, and the ship restored to her rightful Captain.

On November 11 he sailed for Bergen, where he had talks with the US Consul Maurice P Dunlap, and the US Minister to Norway, Mrs J Borden Harrison.

Meantime the US Neutrality Legislation was changed to prohibit US ships from entering war zones. The cargo destinations now no longer available, so Captain Gainard now sold off his cargo in Norway, sailed off to Narvik on November 22 to load iron ore for the United States.

On January 7, 1940, City of Flint left Narvik bound for home and Baltimore.

In late August 1940, Captain Gainard published one of the first memoirs of WW2, Yankee Skipper : The Life Story of Joseph A Gainard, Captain of the City of Flint.

Gainard was now awarded the Navy Cross, the first in WW2, and returned to active duty with the United States Navy in 1940.

The USS Big Horn was his first command, it was a Q ship, an armed ship designed to lure enemy submarines to attack, who in turn would be attacked by the hidden guns aboard the Q ship.

Gainard later commanded the Attack Transport USS Bolivar.

He died of natural causes in 1943. The Sumner Class Destroyer USS Gainard was named in his honour, being laid down in September of 1944.

The now old City of Flint ( built in 1920) was one of three ships sunk by a Wolf Pack on January 27, 1943, with 17 of her crew lost from a total of 65.

WW2 was finally over with the surrender of Japan aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sunday September 2, 1945. I was there in Tokyo Bay aboard HMAS Shropshire, serving as a Lieutenant RAN.

Six years of war finally at an end, now once more ships could sail in all the World's Oceans going about their Lawful Occasions with complete safety.

Thank you.
Mackenzie Gregory


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